Archive for January, 2012

Bridging the Gap

Although my days have been filled with building my nights have been free for me to fill as I please. I saw a great talk tonight by Thor Hanson, the author of the book, Feathers; the Evolution of a Natural Miracle.  I’ve also been going out contra dancing and playing my fiddle, which has been great fun and led to an unlikely friendship with a man named Alan Boyne, a trained biochemist and neurobiologist with a book about to be published by the name of Headwaters of the River of Bullshit. The talk on feathers and my conversations with Alan have got me thinking about how information, particularly that of a scientific nature is conveyed. Hanson did a great job of weaving his information into engaging, anecdotal stories that required no scientific background to enjoy. Contrary to this experience, so often there seems to be an impenetrable wall between the world of science and the general public that does nobody good. It leaves the public easily hoodwinked into believing ridiculous things such as climate change being a myth, and scientists frustrated when ineffective policies are passed without public outcry that seem to disregard all science, whether they be lousy conservation laws, or shrewd political tricks to make natural gas from shale seem like a good idea (yes that is a stab at Obama’s recent State of the Union that spoke positively of natural gas extraction from shale).

Alan is also not just a neurobiologist. He has a passion for stories and believes strongly in the importance of context. Hence, when I first met him I learned about his whole family history going back to the Irish Potato famine before hearing about his own life. And apparently much of these fantastic stories are woven into his book about the importance of the right side of the brain, which is much under utilized in todays society. Writing a book for the public took some work on Alan’s part, who was used to writing for research journals. To give you an idea of the differences, if you haven’t had to read a research journal yourself in recent memory (count yourself lucky, if this be the case), in scientific writing almost all sentences are in the passive voice. Yup, thats right, no “I poured chemical A into chemical B.” Instead “Chemical A was poured into chemical B.” And every claim or statement must have half a dozen qualifiers (within 0.05 percent margin of error, with 95% accuracy, under X, Y, and Z conditions blah blah blah). No wonder no one wants to read that stuff!

At Cornell one of my favorite classes that I took was called Science Writing for the Mass Media. Here we learned to write about science in short, succinct, action packed sentences. I think it was this class that finally got me to decide I might not be half bad at writing and that I might even actually enjoy it. Perhaps it is even part of the reason why I now have this blog. The last week has reminded me that this realization was quite a gift it that it allowed me to recognize and further develop an important skill; writing in a way that bridges gaps and and brings people in to expand their minds and learn about things outside their daily routine. Isn’t that the original reason for reading books? To expand our imagination and knowledge? Isn’t that what TV, radio, newspapers, and other media can do at their best? It seems we have lost sight of this in recent times and media is instead seen purely as entertainment, too often used unconsciously to do nothing more than support what we already think we know. What happened to media that makes us think, question and imagine beyond what we “know” to be true?

I am setting an intention right now to do my very best to write each post on this blog in an engaging and thought provoking way, no matter what the subject matter. I don’t expect to succeed every time but I think it is a worthy goal to work towards. Well, those are my reflections for tonight!


On January 22nd, 2012 we christened the wood stove and lit our first fire! This is huge. The space is starting to feel like a true, cozy home. And amazingly spacious, despite only being about 300 square feet. I think that is due to the rounded walls with no unusable corners. We sat in front of the fire, warming our toes and imagining how the space might feel with a few couches, a book shelf, and a little table.

Fire lit for the first time in the Cob House!

On a different note, thank you to those who have bought some of my Photography and Paintings from my store! And thanks for the feedback I have been getting too, I appreciate it! My very first customer, my mom, received her Calendar of Bolivian Faces and said it looks great. Thanks mom!

The finish line for being done with the cob house is starting to feel in reach. We have been working away on the floor and ceiling insulation and progress is visible. It is not all easy work; you already know my opinion on laying stone and stuffing straw into ceiling panels is probably equally frustrating in a different way. Imagine itchy, dusty straw down your shirt, in your hair, up your nose and in your mouth.  Like many things in a house, only those actually involved in building it will probably ever appreciate the amount of work that goes into something as simple as stuffing a single ceiling panel with insulation.

The ceiling panel before being stuffed with straw: A piece of lathe fixed on one side with screws or nails. We would fix both sides before beginning to stuff it with straw. To make sure the lathe hangs evenly its best to use a taught string as a line on which to put all the screws.

Our homemade tamping tool for stuffing the straw. The key was making something sturdy but light. But beware, even with the best tool tamping something above your head sucks.

The ceiling panel completed after a day and a half of arduous stuffing and tamping of the straw. Switching off frequently was key to not totally burning out. The straw has to be nice and compact to create a firm enough surface on which to plaster later.

We are done (!) now with putting straw in the ceiling panels and the rest of the ceiling will have rigid foam (basically styrofoam) insulation which will be much easier to handle. You might ask what is styrofoam insulation doing in a natural cob home? Well, there are many perspectives on so called “green” building and many would argue that if you are taking anything out of the waste stream and getting it back into circulation even just a little bit longer then you are doing the world a huge service. All the styrofoam insulation we will be using in Ryan’s house was on it’s way to the dump so we both feel that we are doing a good thing by using it.

Styrofoam that was about to be shipped to an off island landfill (out of site out of mind), dumped instead in the cob house living room.

Half way through sorting through and cleaning up the styrofoam.

And finally, a tidy pile of usable styrofoam. We should have enough to do the rest of the ceiling in the kitchen and bedroom! Thats a lot of free styrofoam diverted from the landfill.

The living room all clean again, thanks to our wonderful Shop Vac.

Using salvaged materials is not always easy. For example, much of the styrofoam we have is in odd shapes and sizes that we have to patchwork together to create an insulated ceiling. But once the ceiling plaster is up it should look as good as any ceiling. This is what some would call taking Trash and turning into Treasure; a worthy cause. For more on this concept I suggest checking out Garbage Warrior, a film about the Earthship Architect, Michael Reynolds.

Some of the foam insulation being utilized in the ceiling. This will have lathe and plaster over it so it won't be visible.

Well thats it for now on the building front!

A Snowy Week

This week has been a week full of wintery weather. Work days have been a bit shorter as the temperatures dropped to below freezing and there is only so much you can do when the cob is frozen and so are your toes. But the snow has been beautiful and we have definitely enjoyed it. The birds seem to be out in greater numbers, the air is crisp, and each step you take gives a snowy whoosh. All seems quiet and what sounds there are have a clarity unique to winter days.

The pump house in the snow.

Shoveling snow off the roof of the cob house.

Some of the more exciting birds we have seen include the Varied Thrush and the Harlequin Duck and what we think was a juvenile Bald Eagle. Although winter means less plants to identify Ryan and I have been quizzing each other on the Latin names of plants and have now started to expand our knowledge of birds as well, something neither of us are too familiar with. The audubon society makes great field guides for birds if you are looking for one!

A Varied Thrush. Beautiful bird that at first glance looks a bit like a Robin, but look a bit closer and it has much more intricate markings.

Beautiful large bird seemed to watching the sunset. We think it was a juvenile Bald Eagle.

Here is another inspiring story for you. Simon Dale built an adorable house (that also happens to be the one that inspired the roof fascia/trim on Ryan’s cob house) in Wales. This little earth bermed house has a few interesting aspects. First of all it has a reciprocal, living roof insulated with straw! And they have some good info on how to build a reciprocal roofs that even includes some formula’s for calculating gradient, height, and other features. I am finding that these roofs also don’t have to be perfect circles or even symmetrical shapes, just roughly conical it seems. And the more I look the more I am convinced that the reciprocal roof structure may indeed be the way to go for simplicity, strength, and beauty. Secondly, this structure uses straw bale insulation in the walls and floor as well- something I have not come across in an earth bermed  structure. The finished product is quite beautiful and appeals to my tastes. I would definitely recommend visiting their site and looking at some of the pictures. Also, their family story is quite cute and fun to read. Dale built this house in just four months with help from his father while his wife camped out and looked after their two kids! As the wife reminds us, this may sound crazy to some but kids love playing in the dirt and exploring the outdoors. Here is one quote from their family story that I particularly liked:

“Feeling impotent in the face of environmental and social problems is overcome more easily than we imagine by forming clear intentions of our ideals. Realising them is not always simple, but in our experience more fulfilling than business as usual.”

Definitely worth checking out if you ask me. Below is a picture of the family and their home from the outside, taken from their website. There are many more cool pictures on their site of both the inside and outside, the plans, and the construction process!

I am becoming more and more enamored with the idea of a reciprocal roof for my own round cob/straw bale home. But I am also hungry to learn more about the physics, strengths, and weaknesses of these beautiful, elegant, yet simple roofs.

Here are some pictures of a beautiful double reciprocal roof I found. These are of a double reciprocal roof built somewhere in Europe I believe in partnership with the Lincoln School of Architecture. The pictures are taken from the Lincoln School of architecture blog and  the Hill Holt Wood community blog.

The frame for the double reciprocal roof. So cool!

A view from the inside, when finished.

A detail shot of the interior. Notice the little supports added.

Image of the hall from the outside.

After seeing these I had to try designing my own roof. Tracing my own, to scale drawing of my round house I drew up a potential roof structure. It started as a simple reciprocal roof but then I started playing with a double reciprocal roof to make the spans shorter. The secondary rafters in my drawing bisect the major rafters and the squares with an X in them are where I was thinking of having posts.

My roof design, drawn to scale. It actually works with my footprint! The posts are all 10 feet from each other on the perimeter of the circle and somehow, magically, they don't interfere with any of the doors or windows! I wouldn't have to change anything!

My roof design, drawn to scale. It actually works with my footprint! The posts are all 10 feet from each other on the perimeter of the circle and somehow, magically, they don't interfere with any of the doors or windows! I wouldn't have to change anything!

There doesn’t seem to be much literature out there though on these roofs and I have many unanswered questions. I would love to talk to someone who could tell me if making it a double reciprocal roof makes it stronger or not and how much more complex it would be to build a double reciprocal roof. Another unanswered question is how much it matters if all angles are exactly uniform. Would the integrity of the structure be greatly compromised if slightly different diameter, rough sawn beams were used? Or different kinds of wood? Also, it seems that some of the genius of these structures are that they are totally self supporting, so I wonder if adding a few supporting posts somewhat randomly would actually compromise the strength of these structures by making the load less uniform. Or would adding a few supporting posts give more strength to these roofs? What is an ideal pitch for these roofs and how big can your spans be? I would also love to do a living roof but those are known to be quite heavy and in a Northeast climate you have to worry about snow load as well. How much weight can these reciprocal roofs actually take? If anyone knows someone who could answer some of these questions or help me figure out the answers please get me in contact!

My own research has turned up a few promising leads, but not much. The fact that the Lincoln School of Architecture built one of these is hopeful. Perhaps if I contact them I can get in contact with someone who better understands these roofs.

I also found a book called Reciprocal Frame Architecture by Olga Popovic Larsen that could be helpful but looks more like a coffee table book of pretty pictures than a How To book.

Then there is Brian Liloia from the Year of Mud Blog who definitely wins with the most google hits for reciprocal roofs. He built a living roof on a small cob structure, similar to what I hope to build, but I think his may be even smaller.

There is also a book called Building a Low Impact Roundhouse by Tony Wrench that seems to be recommended by some who have built their own reciprocal roofs and have a few good reviews on Amazon. Based on pictures their structure looks like it could be a similar size to what I want to build and is holding a lot of weight: a straw bale insulation layer, then a vapor barrier, and then a living roof. So that is also hopeful!

Thats a lot of straw and a lot of people standing on that roof! I think that plus a living roof would be sufficient insulation for me through a New England winter.

Now they have put the membrane over the straw and are beginning to put sod to build their living roof.

Lastly, I found a bit of info on the Lama Foundation website that looks promising. Here it looks like they were just playing around with a few small scale models, something I definitely want to do, but one picture in particular caught my eye:

Original caption taken from Lama Foundation website: "Is it strong? Yikes. You tell me. This is presenter Steve Swidler standing on the model."

Well, reciprocal roofs are definitely something I will continue to play with and explore. I am captivated by their simple elegance and would love to have one of my own… Like I said, if you find any more resources on these, whether people or print resources, please pass them on to me! Thanks.

At the Cob house our priority has been getting the hearth in so we have a wood stove we can fire up on the coldest days and have hot lunches and keep ourselves warm! And once the hearth is in we will be that much closer to having a completed floor, another huge milestone.

The hearth is going to be mostly bluestone masonry floor with cast iron wood stove on top. Ryan obtained his cast iron wood stove for free from a friend who was replacing his. The stove is larger then necessary; perfect for cooking on but perhaps less efficient then a smaller stove would be as a source of heat. But it can easily be swapped out for another stove when Ryan is able to obtain another one more suited to the space.

In order to get to the point where we can install the wood stove we must first get the floor installed and ready. To do this we first created a basically level and smooth surface by taking out any rocks and rubble that had been temporarily filling the floor cavity, and laying down a layer of tamped gravel and then a thin layer of sand on top of that. Once there was nothing sharp sticking up that could poke a hole in our vapor barrier we lay down a sheet of heavy duty polyethylene plastic, a cheaper alternative to EPDM. EPDM stands for ethylene propylene diene monomer and is a type of rubber often used as pond liners or for living roofs. EPDM would probably be a bit overkill for a floor liner but Polyethylene is much more fragile and vulnerable to puncture. If you are doing a living roof and can afford it EPDM is definitely worth the extra money and will last longer and cause you less headaches. But for our floor we decided to go with the cheaper polyethylene. Once our polyethylene vapor barrier was down we covered it with another layer of sand to protect it from puncture from above. With vapor barrier sandwiched in a protective layer of sand we poured and tamped gravel to fill the rest of the space and bring it up almost to the level of the floor. Then it was time for some masonry work: stone laying time!

To be honest, I don’t like working with stone. I find it tedious and frustrating; It’s really hard to cut and manipulate stone the way you can with wood without it looking fake so you have to painstakingly find the stones that have a pretty good natural fit. But that is just me. Ryan, on the other hand, loves working with stone. After an afternoon of playing with stone configurations we may have our layout for the border of the hearth. Maybe… But we do at least have our first stone in!

First stone in place!



The finish line for the pump house is in sight! Ryan and I made a list of everything that has to be done for that structure to be completely, 100% done and the list fit on one small notebook page! AND, since making that list we have already checked off like 5 things!

The pump house is going to have an arched doorway. Cobbing an arch is something that should be done with some care. Before I even arrived Ryan had built a form for the arch using masonite and fastened it in place with screws going into the cob. Contrary to what I have heard some people say, Ryan has found that you can screw into cob using a drill and, ideally, ceramic coated wood screws. To keep the screw heads from going right through the masonite Ryan has invented a ingeniously simple method of putting the screws through bottle caps and using the bottle cap as a big, temporary washer. When building forms it is also important to realize that it is usually easier to take cob away then to add it once something is built, so our archway form is fastened a bit lower than the door will actually be. Once the cob is all dry we can easily shape the arch to the exact shape and and height we need using chisels, grinders, and lathe to basically sand away what we don’t want.

Archway before mudding but with the form in.

In addition to having a form we also created what Ryan calls “porcupine blocks” which are attached to the frame of building but stick out into the cob. These are just blocks of scrap wood with a handful of nails or screws sticking out of them, sometimes with bottle cap washers on them as well that help to give something for the cob to grab onto and provide extra strength. It is the same idea as putting rebar in cement, and it will all be covered up so it doesn’t matter what it looks like, just that it performs it’s function structurally.

Once you start mudding an archway it is important to make sure to not let any one lift dry out too much as it will be much stronger if each lift is fulling keyed into the previous layer. It’s like working with clay; things can’t be too wet because then they will slump, but if they are too dray it is hard to create a strong bond. So once we started mudding the archway we threw up an inch or so every day until it was done. Now, the exterior archway is DONE. That is one thing checked off the list!

Window header in, not yet cobbed. Notice the porcupine nails sticking up from the top of the header, and the barbed wire which will also reinforce the cob. (note: this picture taken from the inside)

Next focus for the pump house was getting in window headers above both windows. You don’t want cob to be bearing down directly on a glass window as that is a lot of weight for the window to handle so you usually install a header, which is usually just a piece of wood. This sounds simple enough but, as with everything in the building world things generally take at least twice as long as you think they will. The first step was making the walls plumb around the windows. It is easy to carve away cob, but once the wooden headers are in those can’t be moved or shaped easily so we wanted the walls to be plumb before we installed these headers. Our choice tool for plumbing the walls is a long plastic level with paint scrapers screwed along one side. This tool allows us to make plumb line channels every six inches or so in the wall and then we chisel or sand away the excess cob between the plumb channels.

Interior of the window with the first layer of cob above the header in.

Once the walls are vertically plumb we had to create a level surface on top of the windows for the headers to sit on. This also required some carving away of cob, checking every so often to see if the header would lie flat on the window top. Once this was accomplished we porcupined the top of the headers with scrap nails and screwed the headers in, using some shims to give them a bit of a reveal for both aesthetic effect and to allow more light in.

Then, finally, we were ready to cob again! Except, our walls had started to dry out quite a bit…. So, for a few days we stopped at the pump house morning and night to give the area we would be cobbing a good misting with the hose (use the mist setting on a spray nozzle so as not to erode your work!), slowly rehydrating the cob.

Then, finally, it was time to cob! With the headers in, it is just a matter of putting up a few inches of cob every day or two until we meet the roof. This is the last area on the pump house that needs to be mudded. It will then be time for shaping, hanging the door, plastering and other finish work! So exciting!

Exterior of Pump house with the archway fully mudded and window headers in! Note that the archway form stays in until the end of the drying process if at all possible.

I Love making watercolor cards! Here is the set I made for this holiday season:


Oops... I forgot to take a picture of this one before I wrote on it...


There they are! Homemade cards are a wonderful and inexpensive but a personalized way to show you care. All my gifts this year were homemade, including a pair of chopsticks I carved from a piece of bamboo and an illustrated story I surprised Ryan with:

This is my version of Ryan's favorite children's book: Mushroom in the Rain by Mirra Ginsburg with original illustrations by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey. I like telling stories through my pictures so this was a fun project for me!

Ok, thats it for now!

Happy New Year!

We have made it to the year 2012! A year surrounded with much lore, conjecture, and speculation. December 21st, 2012 is a day considered to be the close of a major cycle of time on the Aztec, Mayan, Incan, and Hopi calendars. It is also the day when scientists have determined that the earth’s magnetic axis will be exactly aligned with the center of our own milky way, a powerful source of magnetic energy (this info is taken from articles read here, on the “official 2012 site”). There are many doomsday hypothesis out there for Dec. 21st, 2012, the day before my 24th birthday, but there are also many people talking of a shift in consciousness, perhaps towards greater global coherence. Theories of 2012 being an opportunity for change towards better are the ones that I prefer to prescribe to. And perhaps it is just me being young and naive, but I do feel like things are shifting. In the last year and a half I have had more and more conversations with young and old people about a shift that they either feel needs to happen or that they feel is happening. Perhaps it is just the hype around 2012 that is sparking all these conversations, but even if so, if the hype around 2012 does nothing more than pushes people to make more conscious decisions then I am all for it.

My New Year’s goals are to continue moving towards creating a spiritually, environmentally, emotionally, and economically sustainable life for myself and opportunity for others to do the same by continuing to gain skills in natural building, learning more about growing my own food and living in community, and continuing to explore my spirituality. Come Dec. 21st, 2012 I hope to have graduated from Cornell and be ready to dive full time into sculpting my dream; a sustainable, wholesome community that is working towards greater global change and that I can call home. My sense about this year is that all seeds planted, whether good or bad, will blossom with force, so I intend to plant as many good seeds a possible! I hope you will join me in doing this.

Happy New Years to the World.

With Love, Light, and Warmth, Miwa

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