Greetings! Welcome to my journal of our exploration into building a dome cluster
superadobe, earth bag or other similar "green" materials and technology.

Pages...we got pages!

Friday, April 16, 2010

People are catching on, one by one.

Here's a post with several comments that will give you an idea what people are thinking about earthbag building out there...this one's from the Boston area.  It would be great to have like-minded local people join in on the journey.
I also heard from a reader (see comments below) with a couple links to other earthbag projects.  I'll post them in the links section at left.
I'm away on a work trip so nothing for time, I'm shooting, flying and writing about airplanes at the Sun 'n Fun airshow in Florida.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Next Step

This inch looks more like a mile: I weighed all the schedule challenges and signed up for the Cal-Earth May 17-22 workshop!  Can't wait: and I'll be able to combine it with a family reunion and see some friends so that's a plus.
Cal-Earth requires you to write a two-page essay explaining your background and goals for the workshop.  I assume I made the grade as they wrote back to tell me they were holding a slot.
The workshop, which is summarized on their website (link at left), takes you through all the basic steps of building a superadobe dome.  While it doesn't promise to teach you everything you need to know, it does promise to give you a solid grounding from which you can launch your own project, maybe a small garden tools dome or studio, to go hands on and learn what you need to learn from there.

I opened Photoshop, stitched together a couple shots of my impromptu backyard dome layout, (Files>Automate>Automerge, works great), whipped on the Photoshop paintbrush, and sketched an impression of what those three domes I staked out (living, kitchen, office for Tomma) might look like.
Missing are several more domes, as we want to have two more bedrooms, a two-story office dome with loft for me, one or two bathroom "cloverlets" a la eco-dome. A garage dome.  At least those.  Man, I'm getting tired already.

Sitting in the space the other day was dreamy and mystical.  Just the thought of creating our own living space seems at times overwhelming, exciting, eminently doable, often all at the same time.
I tried to envision:
* how the light would play in the rooms at different times of day
* where we'd want to put windows
* how furniture would fit best (I put a table, a bench - couch substitute -  and some chairs out there to help)
* where doors should go
* what the optimum size was for each room
* whether we'd want a loft over the living or kitchen dome

And lots more.  I'll put more time into the sketch and make some decent renderings down the road, once we get a floorplan that seems workable.  That will probably be best done after the workshop, as I expect it will answer a lot of questions about truncating domes together as Cal-Earth has done with the eco-dome.

I was originally planning for Tomma to go with me, but we couldn't justify paying for two workshops (Cal-Earth gives a discount for a 2nd person but I still would have been out near $5,000 for the regrettably, she'll have to learn about it second hand from me.  I wish she could go though, I'd envisioned sharing that first big step together.

So be it.  I'll shoot stills and video while I'm there and post the most interesting and valuable here when I get home.

Meanwhile, I'm going to the Sun 'n Fun airshow for Plane & Pilot magazine, one of three airshows I cover with pen and camera.  I've been doing that gig in one form or another for 30 years!  Wow!  I'll be 65 on Friday.  Wow times 2!  Time sure has a way of sneaking up on you.

Please let me know what earthbuilding dreams you have and we'll start a Domebook of email links for those who want to share their building journeys with each other.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Heavy Info Surfing

In the intervening week or so since last post, a flu bug knocked me down, so here I am at my laptop in bed...what a life.

Deeper inquiries have brought some insights, as well as digging up new resources, some of which I've begun to link to the left of this post. 

One thing is clear: earthbag building seems most ideal for hot, dry climates -but is certainly doable even for a place with hard winters like we get in the northeast.  Plus it'll sure be strong enough for heavy snow loads.  And we don't get earthquakes or major floods up here...though the earth dome building concept is certified, at Cal-Earth in California for instance, to handle hurricanes, earthquakes to category 4, floods...pretty sturdy structures, but then they're based on an egg or sphere, nature's strongest shape.

These photos are of ancient Turkish structures built at Harran.

Some basic factors I've learned: thermal mass (such as bags filled with stabilized earth) isn't enough: an architect friend of mine, while not poo-pooing the idea completely, said insulation, outside and inside too if possible, would be essential.  I don't remember exactly why he felt this to be true - we were a couple drinks south by then and I wasn't absorbing info so well - but it has something to do with heat radiating out of the dome.  Others I've researched say the same thing: you need insulation.  I just don't know exactly why yet, but I will in time.

I thought earthen domes are supposed to be good at keeping interiors cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather, so why would you need insulation if your wall is a foot or 18" thick?  Then I thought about the big, cold brick house we live in and what an energy pig it is.  Brick is essentially processed earth so it must be a matter of amount of thermal's mighty cold up here and maybe even a foot-thick earthen structure is going to radiate too much heat in winter, or so I'm guessing at this point.

I also wonder about condensation on interior walls, so maybe insulation helps with that too.  

And I'm concerned about water, groundwater specifically.  How to keep it from seeping under the dome walls?  And what about freezing soil?  Won't it expand and crack the structure?

Some suggestions I've picked up googling my brains out include digging a trench and filling with gravel a couple or three feet deep.  Then laying the first course of earthbag tubes on top of that.

I'm thinking, for the building site we'll eventually pick, (we'll look for a slope with a great view), that we'll build a split level structure, and surround the entire thing with a French drain system.  Basically that's another trench, that follows the slope and carries excess groundwater around and below the building/s and prevents it from pooling and otherwise challenging the structures.

Our architect friend also doesn't like straw bale building.  "Why," he asked with his trademark calm logic, "would you use something in your house that's going to attract habitat for rodents and insects?"

Good point.  Once you get a crack in that stuff, won't the critters come calling?  No worries of infestation with stabilized earthbag construction, unless there are bugs that can drill stone, especially once it has set up and hardened into rock-like rigidity, which is what we're thinking mixed with cement or some other binder - still researching that because I don't like the idea of a cold, sweaty concrete shell between me and the outside.

Besides, concrete is a very unhealthy medium to wrap yourselves in...many studies confirm this, as related to me just today by my future son-in-law, who is a Turkish citizen and grew up in a cement apartment building in the middle of the city.

Cement is cold, dead, and lacking in any spirituality, IMHO.  Earth is where we all come from, and where we return.  Perfect.

Radon gas, as posted on a site I visited today, is something to be concerned about.  More research needed.

Kaki Hunter and her partner Doni's site, linked at left with a picture of the excellent book they wrote, is a great place to get a sense of how aesthetically pleasing an earthbag structure can be.  I think they plastered with cob, (first time I heard the term I thought it referred to insulating...with corn cobs - which seemed strange), then finished with a smooth layer or two of earth/lime plaster, which they colored to their tastes.

Here's a couple pics from their website: 

Looking at the other photos on their website, I had that sense of "Yes!  That's the kind of building quality we want."

Many of these dome and other earthen building projects are pretty crude by comparison.  Many of course were always intended as quick, even emergency, structures, and aesthetics aren't as important.

But my wife and I, if we're going to do this, have to prepare ourselves for the amount of work, both planning and actual building, it's going to take to do it right.  Because we want a beautiful structure that lifts our spirits.

One last thought.  I followed some comments on a YouTube video of someone's earthbag home building project, which opined how you shouldn't expect it to sell, or easily sell, because these houses aren't conventional. 

That's always the mentality, isn't it, that you run up against when you're pioneering something?  Before I've even broken ground, I have to worry that I won't get my money out of it?

It's a home.  It's meant to shelter, warm, comfort, protect.

My grandpa, rest his resourceful soul, taught himself to build his own home, and then a second one, and a two-car garage to boot, on a small lot in south-central LA.  He did that back in the early 1940s, I think, with the express purpose of sheltering our family, which included my grandma, both his children (my mother and uncle) and all the kids in our families too (7 in total). 

That house was built with love and sweat and lots of sore muscles I'm sure.  And it's still standing, 70+ years later.  And who's to say the love that went into it and that it nurtured all those years ago, before we all went out into the world on our own, isn't a big part of the reason it's still there?

We've gone way too far down profitability road in this country.  Maybe that's why we all feel it's perfectly normal to mortgage our entire working lives to pay off the mortgage on a house.  And trade them like baseball cards with other similarly afflicted, and hope to make money on the transactions.  Kinda strange when you think about it.

I'm not talking about the super rich of course.  They live on a different planet, and buy and sell houses, boats, airplanes and other things like, well, baseball cards.

When you really take a hard look at the "conventions" of our lives, and the recent economic disaster we and the banks walked ourselves right into, frankly, well it all kind of falls apart.

I've lived, since my divorce in 1983, in one apt. after another because I could no longer afford a house.  I figure if I'd known back then that I could have bought a piece of land and built an earthen dome on it for a small fraction of what a typical crapola commercial house goes for, I would have at least looked into it.  I calculated that I've spent more than $225,000 on rent that went into someone else's pockets over the years.  That's cash.  Almost a quarter million dollars to live in something I didn't own or have any soul connection with.  How many millions and millions of people share that story?  Through no fault of their own other than to be born in a time of vulnerability to the greed and avarice of financial markets that cater to the baser acquisitive and gluttonous instincts of human beings?

We need to find a better way to live our lives than feel we owe our souls to the company store.

There is always resistance to change, until, like a flood, a new idea reaches ignition in the global consciousness.  (Aren't you proud of me that I didn't use nuclear terminology (critical mass) in that analogy?)

Off the rant and back to building: we expect to encounter at least some resistance from building codes.  We expect in fact all kinds of challenges along the way.

We'll deal with them, one by one.

Or as a photo workshop teacher once told me, and I've never forgotten it:

"By the inch, it's a cinch.  By the yard it's hard."

Because nobody in his right mind would undertake a huge project on their own like this, especially at my age (65), if they fully understood all that's involved in successfully completing it.

I know: I built a couple geodesic domes when I was younger, and a few ultralight airplanes after that, and an experimental airplane most recently...which nearly put me under, not from flying, but from the sheer amount of hours it took.

All those will pale compared to this project.

That's why dreams, and the selective and incomplete visions that come with them, are so important.

So we'll just keep dreamin', larnin', and taking one little step at a time.  And it'll come out the way it's meant to come out.

See you next "inch".

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Starting Out

-----It all starts with a circle, and the idea to live inside one.

Two nights ago my wife Tomma showed me a story about a man who builds tiny, tiny houses that can be transported on wheels (necessary because of a California law).  By tiny, we're talking as small as 65 sq. ft.!

We live in a quaint little hamlet half an hour south of Albany, NY. Our home is a big brick colonial that guzzles heating oil all winter.  It's still cold many days, though we also have a wood burning stove, which we keep stoked night and day throughout the cold season.

In the next 18 mos. Tomma's daughter will graduate from high school and we will hope to sell our house and move to the Great Barrington area.  We had planned all along to buy a used house, figuring that's all we could afford.

But then a friend showed Tomma the tiny house website, she showed me, and while I thought it was cute, it didn't seem really right for us.

Thinking of other things, watching tv at the same time, I started surfing around on my laptop and stumbled across this.   Tomma had fallen asleep next to me on the couch as I read several pages.

The more I read, the more excited I got.

Here, maybe, was a way to build something other than a tiny 65 sq. ft. home, and not have it cost $100-$200 per sq. ft. - the current rate for custom built homes.

I looked at videos of people filling elongated bags with dirt, tamping them down, seeing walls rise, earth-filled tube by tube.

Here, I thought, was a way to educate young people and others, through teaching onsite, in the potential for affordable, sustainable housing.

The world is only getting smaller.  We can't keep building our way out of every housing crisis with wood, metal, stone.  And one thing we've got plenty of?  Dirt.

I thought about my dormant dream, hatched three decades ago, to live in a cluster of round structures.  I'd built a couple geodesic bedroom domes in the 1970s in Oregon and had loved the space.

But a few months ago, revisiting the geodesic concept, I felt it hadn't progressed over the years.

When I read that one of its principal proponents in the 60s and 70s had abandoned geodesics, feeling they were unworkable, I
remembered my own experience.  Our geodesic structures had gone together well, after I'd prefabbed all the struts and hubs, in a flash: we'd erected both frames in one day.  Super fun.

Covering the shell with plywood triangles and attempting to caulk and shingle them took months - and the dome always leaked.  Not fun.

I didn't think I wanted to go through that experience again.  Also didn't really want to deal with triangular windows, or figuring ways to get around the inevitably of having to deal with the restrictive triangular framework.
And when I thought about it, the geodesic shape wasn't that aesthetically pleasing.  I had other qualms as well, like the expense of building materials, construction waste and so I dropped the idea as, well, unworkable for us.

What remained became a latency: the desire to live in a cluster of circular, organic structures - without any expectation I would ever be able to do so.

Until I stumbled upon the Cal-Earth site.  And my mind opened up.  And I realized I had this dream in my heart that I'd abandoned, but had not died.

When Tomma woke up, I had already decided I was going to build with this method.  I didn't think, frankly, that she would be that interested.  But I would build something this way regardless: a sauna, a workshop, my own office, something.  That was how powerfully the idea had taken hold of me as she slept.

She woke up from her nap.  I showed her what I'd discovered, telling myself even if she found it only mildly interesting, I would still find a way to explore the technology with my own hands and imagination.  But hoping deep down that she would be excited about it too.

And indeed, she became so interested herself that after we went to bed, she couldn't sleep for another two hours as visions of large community domes danced through her head.

Now comes the education process:  Asking each other questions.  Making lists like the one below, talking things over, imagining ourselves sitting in the home we build ourselves, eating there, working, meditating, enjoying the view, continually refining our goal of a sustainable, magical, affordable home that will remove us from this cultural misstep where we labor under the mistaken belief that it is normal to sign your working life away on a 30-year mortgage just to live in your own home...or rent all your life and have nothing to show for it when you retire.
In a few weeks, I may fly out to California and take a 6 day workshop in this type of building at Cal-Earth.

That's enough for now.  The sketches by Tomma (and me - hers are the good ones) and the list of pros and cons for building vs. buying used, are the first steps.

I'll post with each development as we explore this exciting new world we've stumbled upon.

Meanwhile, Google, don't fail me now.