Tag Archive: Natural & Sustainable Building

More on Electrical and plumbing

Guess what? I am just about done doing the rough in of electrical! Which means I am almost ready to start insulating and closing in my walls. It turns out running wire is not too difficult, just time consuming and a little tedious. And who would have thought how much wire you can go through, even for a tiny house. It is possible I went a little overboard with outlets, but every tiny house blog I have read says put more outlets then you think you will need. And I have to say, I don’t like the idea of ever having to run an extension chord in my tiny house! So there are a lot of outlets. And given that going back and running more wire later would be pretty difficult I tried to cover everything; I have three standard 15 amp circuits (one for each side of my house and one for the bathroom), one 20 amp circuit for my conduction stove top and Breville toaster oven, and one 30 amp circuit in case I ever want to install a full sized electric stove. Yup, that is 5 circuits total in my tiny house. All of which will be hooked up to my off grid solar system, which thankfully, Rebecca is very familiar with because she installed it in its original home at ecovillage.

I also ran speaker wire so if I ever want I can basically have surround sound coming from 4 hard wired speakers. Probably never would have thought to do this except that Parker, the guy I am seeing right now suggested it and I though why not? And I also ran an internet wire so I can have an ethernet/phone jack depending on what my internet situation ends up being.

Here are a few pictures of the wires being run:


Some of my electrical tools…


A view showing some of the wires run (white = 15 amp circuits, yellow = 20amp, orange = 30 amp). And oh, yeah, my loft floor is done now too!!

Now that all the wires are run (finally) Rebecca will be coming back this Tuesday and hopefully with both of us working on it we can have everything live and hot by the end of the day so we can test it all!

With my plumbing I went back and forth for a while, initially wanting to figure out a way to have off grid hot water using just my wood stove and the sun to heat it all. Although I still love this idea and may down the line build an outdoor solar shower for summer to move in this direction, I decided to go with an ecotemp propane on demand hot water heater. Why, you may ask did I end up going with this? It is a good question. First of all, the system I began to design to heat my water with the wood stove in the winter and the sun in the summer felt like it would require a very involved and knowledgeable occupant to be able to operate safely. Now, I may have qualified as such an occupant, given that I would have basically designed it, with help, but my fear was that what if I ever wanted to air bnb my house or have a friend house sit, or even just have guests, that the system would just not be user friendly enough. So, when it came down to it it was user friendliness that made me decide to go with an on demand hot water heater.

Now, when you are looking at on demand and there is propane and electric. Initially I didn’t want any propane in my house. It is a fossil fuel and means another system to basically plumb for, and is potentially a hazard, especially when I am also burning wood.

But creating heat from electricity is just not very efficient. And I am going to be off grid, at least for the immediate future. So after doing some research it seemed that heating water with propane requires very little propane and many people do it even with a wood stove, so if done correctly it should be safe. For these reasons I ended up going with a propane on demand hot water heater, the Ecotemp FVI-12-LP. It isn’t installed yet, but I am hoping I will be happy with its performance.

Another plumbing decision I made after having two plumber friends come out and look things over with me is that I am going to do all exposed copper piping. By doing this the pipes will be fully inside my thermal envelope and less likely to freeze. And if somehow they do freeze they will be more easily accessible for any needed repair.

Let me tell you, trying to figure out the world of plumbing and electrical has not been easy. There have been many points where I feel like I am spinning my wheels. And boy am I grateful for the help of skilled professionals in both of these fields. As I have been fumbling along with these two areas with their guidance I have found myself needing to take take a break at points and do some carpentry- something I feel relatively competent at. So now both my bathroom and sleeping loft floors are in and I built my little trap door that will be at the top of my yet to be built stairs! Take a look: I think they all came out quite nicely:


the beginning of my sleeping loft floor.


Sleeping loft floor almost complete! I decided I didn’t want a straight line for the front edge of my loft so it actually follows a gentle sin wave curve. Can you tell?


It feels quite spacious up there!


And then the final touch to my loft was this trap door made out of some beautiful old cherry wood that Otto was nice enough to gift me. This will be at the top of my stairs and provide access to a little cubbyhole that will serve as my bedside table “drawer,” so to speak.


Oh, and lastly, I also put down my bathroom loft floor:


This little cozy nook will be where my water tank is stored and also just serve as a general storage area

So that is where my house is at now! My hope is that on my next post I will be moving along with insulation and closing in the walls!


This post is way overdue, but better late then never, right? So When I moved into my current home here in Ithaca I moved in with a wonderful woman name Marsha. She is an art teacher and artist herself who is particularly talented at clay work. When I started telling her about natural building she got really excited and we decided we had to do some kind of cob project this past fall. We didn’t have much time to plan so we kept it super small and experimental. But it was a lot of fun, and I can proudly say that this is my first natural building project where I was the “expert” on the scene and played the role of teacher rather then student.

So here is what we we decided to do. Marsha works at the Ithaca Youth bureau doing clay work with children and adults. They have some outside space there right next to stewart park so we decided that was the perfect spot for our experiment. Following we our totally experimental approach we decided to try a cob bird bath (yes, we knew that cob doesn’t generally do well in direct constant contact with water.) We came up with a design where the base would be cob on top of a mini stone foundation and then the top, which would hold the water, would be an actual ceramic piece that would be water proof and act as a mini roof over the base. Of course, the plan evolved as we built (and is still evolving) but here are slideshow of pictures from along the way:

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Our goal was to have the children involved as much as possible and to just experiment and have fun. It was a big success! The children loved it. How could they not? Its a child’s dream to play in the mud. And they were fascinated since any of them were working in clay with Marsha but had never seen this application of clay.

The cob we made used clay from six mile creek river bed, straw from a friend of Marsha’s and gravel from a pile we found in a dump yard. For the plaster we used sand from a nearby golf course (because it was such a small project they let me take a 5 gallon bucket of from them, and mixed in some horse manure for fiber and extra stickiness along with the creek slay.

The kids had fun experimenting with pigments too, crushing up berries and seeing what effect that had on the color. I tried remember to take pictures but it seemed I would always be too involved when the action was happening to remember. So most of the pictures are taken at the end of the day once the kids left. But the were involved in a good portion of the work.

It was a lot of fun and cost us nothing to make. And it is still holding up well, even after rain storms, heavy winds, snow, and below freezing temperatures! We hope to continue the tradition in future years and build other cob projects with the youth bureau children. Some ideas we have are a cob dragon that also serves as a bench and perhaps a play house/gazebo.

Here we go! Pictures are worth a thousand words….

Now that the timber frame is up we are starting to attach purlins. We used round poles of 2 to 3 inch diameter. Photo taken by Ed Trager

A little bit of stick framing around the doors and windows. Here are some window buck frames. These are for the loft so they will be hung from the rafter rather than attached to the toe ups. Window details are perhaps some of the most complex and crucial parts of a building as they are weak spots for potential water leaks and air drafts. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Bundles of phragmite reeds being stored until we are ready to put them on the roof! Photo taken by Ed Trager

Bundles of phragmite reeds being stored until we are ready to put them on the roof. Also, you can see slip straw put out on tarps to dry a little before being stuffed into the cracks between bales and gables. This will shorten the overall drying time which can be as slow as an inch a week. This means if you have a 14 inch thick bale wall and are using slip straw to fill in odd shaped gaps it could take 14 weeks for the wall to be dry all the way through in these spots! Letting the slip covered straw dry a bit before putting in the wall will shorten this time period. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Unloading the bales! Photo taken by Ed Trager

Before the bales are put on the toe ups drainage gravel was laid to create a level surface between the wooden ladders and nails were hammered into the toe ups to give the bales something to grab onto and help hold them in place. Photo taken by Ed Trager

And the first bales go in! Sarah shows us how it is best to start from the corners and work in, tying, staking and pinning your bales together as you go. Photo taken by Ed Trager

A bale stake about to be put in. These wooden (not metal!) bale stakes pin one row to the next. The stakes used to pin the second row to the first are particularly long (~24 inches) but the stakes used for the the rows above the 2nd row are generally just a little longer than the bale is tall, so about 18 or 20 inches. Stakes are only really necessary in the corners but can be used along the whole length of the wall. Sarah told us to think about the stakes and other bale fasteners as temporary bracing until the plaster goes on. Once the plaser is on the bales this is what will really be doing the structural work of keeping the bale wall in place. Photo taken by Ed Trager

A bale pin, which acts like a toe nail, pinning the bale to the adjacent post, or in this case a window buck. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Notice the air fins attached to the posts, beams, and braces before bales goes up. The material used for these is called screened hardboard. The use of these air fins are particularly crucial around the windows. They will keep air from being able to enter where the bales meet the wood and will also allow for a smooth plaster transition and prevent any cracking in the plaster that could occur as the wood shrinks and expands. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Baling needles are about 19 inches long and are used for retying bales to custom sizes, which is particularly handy around windows and doors. Photo taken by Ed Trager

A shave horse came in handy for making bale stakes as well as for pins and needles for thatching. Photo taken by Ed Trager

A beautiful diagram of thatching drawn by Deanne Bednar. Photo taken by Ed Trager

And Deanne helps up put the first bundle of reeds on the roof! Photo taken by Ed Trager

Tying down the reed bundles with a wire threaded under the purlin and around the sway. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Me! feeling good, hanging out on the roof, and happy to be a part of this fantastic project. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Deanne inspecting the drip edge of the thatch roof. Photo taken by Ed Trager

The gable “hat” in the kids cottage gave us some ideas for the retreat cabin. Photo taken by Ed Trager

The cob garden wall is coming along great! Notice the wooden form in the archway that will later be removed and the anchors along the wall that the mini living roof will attach to. Photo taken by Ed Trager

Some details on the cob wall. Cob is great because of its sculptural nature; you can carve niches out and sculpt just about any design you can imagine! Photo taken by Ed Trager

Heather working inside in the loft, passing thatch needles back to those on the outside. Soon the whole structure will be enclosed! Photo taken by Ed Trager

The second coat of plaster is beginning to go up! Photo taken by Ed Trager

Here is the house, with the north side just about completed. There is still work to be done but not bad for a two week workshop! Deanne will continue to work on the structure with whomever is able to stick around. Photo taken by Ed Trager

I can’t wait to see a picture of the cottage completely finished!

The last three weeks I have had the honor of being a work trader for the Natural Cottage Project that took place at the Straw Bale Studio in Oxford, Michigan. Being a work trader meant that I got a discount for the workshop by coming a week before the course began to help with setup. And it meant that I got to more intimately see what it takes to put on a natural building workshop as well as getting to know the instructors and my fellow work traders quite well.

Personally, these last three weeks have been life changing and have cemented (with cob, of course) my own desire and passion to do everything I can to keep my hands in this stuff and continue to pursue natural building as a career. You might ask, what will that look like? And the truth is I don’t yet know, and there are a lot of possibilities in this still emerging field. But I know I want to do it.

The day that really made it all come together for me was the day that the timber frame literally came together and my hands were in it from the first bent that went up to the very last rafter. The whole experience put me on a natural high and I just knew inside that I had to keep doing this. It was around this point in the workshop that I started getting people saying things to me like, “So are you going to keep building? Because you’re good at it and you should,” and “I want to build with you again,” and “How long have you been doing this?”

After two months in Boston feeling like a fish out of water I finally felt back in my element; I was learning, I was teaching, I was creating and inventing, and I was sleeping under the stars. This is the way I am meant to live my life.

And I was so immersed in it and reluctant to pull myself away from the action that I neglected to write any blog posts while there! Not to mention that my camera broke so I will be using the pictures of other very generous people to retroactively try and share my experience with you all.

For now, here are some pictures from the first week as a teaser. I will do my best to give you more details on the project and my experience in the next couple of weeks!

Photo taken by Eva Wimmer. The beginning of the Foundation.

Foundation trenches go to frost depth which is almost 4 feet in Michigan. They are filled with gravel, then perforated drainage pipe, which can be padded and given extra filtration by wrapping in straw. Then more drainage gravel is put on top of the pipe and then larger rocks and rumble fill the trench to almost grade. The last few inches on the trench should again be filled with gravel to give the first course of the stemwall a level surface in which stones can be embedded. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

Timbers have arrived! Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

And now Sarah has arrived! Here we are putting up batter boards which serve the same purpose as dayton stakes- marking a level plane that we can use for reference to make the foundation and the building level. These boards were set up using a water level. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer,

Visually checking that the batter boards are level. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

Foundation wall beginning to be built and cement piers poured in Sonotubes which will be used as footers underneath timber frame posts. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

Our four wonderful instructors. From left to right: Deanne Bednar of Strawbale Studio
Sarah Highland of Highland Artisan
Christina Ott of Barefoot Builder
Chris Mcclellan of IndustrialRustic. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

Covering up a mornings worth of cob that will be put on the wall tomorrow. A layer of wet straw and then a tarp covering that will keep our cob from drying out in the summer heat. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

Timber framing 101: Tool care and maintenance. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

After an exhilarating cob toss our cob bond beam in in place! Yup, that is right, we are using cob rather than cement as our bond beam on top of our stem wall. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

On top of the cob bond beam we places our toe ups, which the straw bales will rest on. Also notice the oak footer that has been bolted to our asana tubes. The timber frame posts will sit on top of these. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

Our superhero cooks, Emily and Noah, kept all 70 of us well fed during this two week workshop. We couldn’t have done it without them. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

Working through the rain, some of us get to see just a little bit of what it means to do round wood timber framing as we prep our two round floor joists for the loft. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

The layers of the subfloor are going in. First there is 6 or so inches of drain gravel. Then 4 inches of the red pimice stone pictures above will serve as an insulative layer. Pumice is a very porous rock that, if available locally, is a great natural insulator for earthen floors. On top of this pumice with be another 4 inches of pressures fines (crushed rock) that are highly compact-able. Each layer is well tamped and leveled  Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

Here is the final layer of the subloor, the crusher fines or crushed rock, being spread evenly across the floor surface. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

And now it is time for the timber frame raising! A process that will require all hands on deck. Here is the first Bent put together and just about ready to be raised. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

One of our youngest workshop participants helps hammer in a wood peg. These pegs are octagon shaped and put into round holes. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer.

The first Bent being lifted into place. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

Lowering a rafter plate into place. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

Checking to see if the last peg is fully hammered in. Photo taken by Eva Wimmer

The completed timber frame. Photo taken by Laura Luttrell.

I will leave you with that for now, but promise to post more pictures soon!

Mark left today for a short overnight trip to Vancouver to pick up some tongue and groove wood to complete the dance floor, so it is just me holding down the fort until tomorrow evening. I start my day by reading a bit more of Celestine Prophecy.

The Third Insight describes a new understanding of the physical world. It says we humans will learn to perceive what was formerly an invisible type of energy. In other words, the basic stuff of the universe, at its core, is a kind of pure energy that is malleable to human intention and expectation in a way that defies old mechanistic models of the universe. It’s as though our expectation itself causes our energy to flow out into the world and affect other energy systems.

I flash back to the healing work my grandmother does and the little bit about auras and energy work that I was reading and learning while staying with her six or so months ago.

So yes, much of this stuff isn’t new, but the idea that enough of us might be having these insights at the same time to actually cause a global shift now, in the early part of the 21st century… That is exciting.

The sun is starting to feel warm and I am ready to leave this wind sheltered structure. I decide to take a walk down the road and try to find Dave’s place. He is a cob builder on the island. I am not quite sure how to get there, especially since the directions I received from Dave, who I met briefly yesterday, and those I received from Mark seem to be a bit different. But I decide I will try my luck, as I want to go for a walk anyway.

As I walk briskly, I realize that all of Lasqueti’s roads seem to be dirt roads. I don’t think I have seen a single paved one yet. I recall yesterday, backing down one particularly bumpy dirt road with Mark to pick up some logs and him saying jokingly, “I think you would have to go to Northern Pakistan to find a lifestyle like this.” His comment may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but a lot about this island feels more like places I have been in rural Bolivia then anywhere in the industrialized world. And the amazing thing is most of the people living here left an urban, more modern lifestyle and chose this one. Mark has made very clear that it is, indeed, a lifestyle choice, and that it takes work to live here, but for him and the others on this island the rewards are well worth it.

With no watch and no cell service on this island I am not sure how long I have been walking, but it has been a pleasant, quiet walk on these dirt roads. I have come across piles of sand and clay, which must mean cob is nearby. Indeed, there is a little footpath, which I follow to a cluster of cob structures.

Dave is at work in a cob greenhouse, hanging some laundry out to dry. But he welcomes me and says he was about to take a break for lunch and asks if I will join him. Over a simple, but yummy meal of soup and crackers we begin to talk. Dave is a gentle man of probably mid forties who is in the process of moving from Vancouver to the island with his 7 year old daughter.

Soon we are talking about Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, and Taker and Leaver Societies. I share a bit about Celestine Prophecy, which alludes to a similar need for a shift in worldview but attacks it from a more spiritual angle. Dave shares of another book called the Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff that looks at two tribes basically living untouched by modern civilization. He tells me how the author, after living a few years with these tribes, concluded that there was something different about these people. It took her a while to put her finger on it but eventually she realized it was that they were happy. And so she spent the rest of her life figuring out and synthesizing what allowed them to be happy in a way that she rarely saw in modern society. The book explains her conclusions.

These books and other experiences have led Dave to make a conscious, political decision to try and not feed or support the current system, which he has judged as dysfunctional, and instead look to an alternative. This island and cob building seem to be part of his solution.

I ask him if he ever lived in any intentional communities and how he finds living on the island similar or different to living in these communities. He thinks for a bit. Then responds that that he appreciates the question and that yes, he has lived in a few intentional communities and in his experience they didn’t work because there was still a power structure and those in power would end up wanting to keep that power. After a pause, he added, “It’s ironic, the people on this island seem to come seeking independence, but they end up inadvertently creating community.” Perhaps it is that once their own needs for independence, self-sufficiency, and happiness are met, they have more to give others?

The Fourth Insight exposes a human tendency to steal energy from other humans by controlling them because we so often feel depleted of energy due to being disconnected from the larger source of energy. We are stuck in a kind of competition for each other’s energy, which we gain by controlling and manipulating each other.

The next morning I awaken to the sunlight and wander into the bowels of the beast. At about 8am Mark shows up and we sit for an hour of Vipassana Meditation. A morning and early evening sit will be our routine here.

Before we get started with work that day I have an opportunity to walk around a bit and find some of the other structures lurking in these woods. As I wander through the forest my eyes, recently well trained by Ryan, see that this is a young, transitioning forest that was probably heavily logged in the last hundred years. The trees are dense and mostly about the same age, and the undergrowth is also dense. There seems to be a lot of blow down in this forest as well, typical for a young forest where many of these trees won’t make it past the hundred year mark. The pines are often the first to go, a pioneer species, they have just about served their purpose. Then probably the grand firs, leaving a forest of mostly Douglas firs and some Madrona. Even the Douglass firs here are way denser then one would see in an old growth forest. Mark tells me later that this island was indeed heavily logged a few times, and that the last logging boom was in the 1950’s. Apparently some of the actual first settlers to come to the west coast found forests where huge, nearly thousand year old trees grew on average 60 or so feet from each other.  How different this is from what most of us know as a forest today!

Now it is time to build. Mark’s style of building is somewhat on the opposite end of the spectrum to Ryan’s. He is a utilitarian, it seems, and he keeps things simple. Walls are left un-plastered and floors are rarely level. He builds quick, barely even stopping to measure. Posts are placed on top of rock so the bottoms won’t rot, but there is no real foundation to most of these structures. A spike is put at each intersection where two pieces of wood meet and each right angle is stabilized with a diagonal to make a triangle, and its as simple as that. Or at least that is how it seems. But given the huge structure he created for the dance floor and his attempts to explain how it stands I know that he is obviously quite skilled to a level beyond my comprehension. By the end of the day the structure for an entrance gate to his property is up. Tomorrow we will put up the walls as he wants to have a little enclosed area where groceries and other items can be left. It’s simple, rustic, and functional.

It’s funny how often when someone is doing something right they make it look easy and effortless and its only if you see someone attempt the same feat without the same know how that you realize how skilled they were. I am sure as I begin to build my own structures I will appreciate the skills of my teachers even more as I will flounder at times where they made things look simple.

Now it is time for meditation, dinner, and bed. Mark likes to retire to his cabin for the evening just as dusk begins and he is up long before the sun in the morning.

I decide to take an evening walk before returning to my cabin. Tonight my cabin is so warm that I am tempted to sleep naked, even though it is only March and the outside air is chilly.


I am not sure how much time has passed when I awaken, but the boat is rocking quite a bit and I am thankful I was able to sleep away at least some of the ride. Soon we are approaching shore and I do my best to shake off the sleep and get ready to meet Mark.

Mark spots me right away as he knows pretty much everyone else on the ferry and introduces himself to me with a warm hug. He helps another lady with some of her boxes and then we get into his little car, every inch of which is painted with bright colors and images that I assume represent snapshots of island life.

After a short uphill ride on bumpy dirt roads we arrive. He tells me to keep my pack on, as we will take my things right to my little cabin, that he has preheated for me.

My cabin, a small ten by ten room with two large windows, is indeed toasty. The walls are simple; unfinished wood scraps from the mill with cob in between them. He explains to me that between the inner and outer walls are hundreds of plastic bags, which have amazing insulation value. The sub floor is also bags of bags compressed before and earthen cob floor was applied on top. And the roof too is about 2 feet thick and apparently filled with bags under a top sod layer in which plants are growing. This little structure will easily stay warm overnight from one good fire lit in the firebox that is fed from the outside. He explains that by having the entrance to the firebox fed from the outside it keeps the fire from pulling warm air out of the structure and creating a cold draft.

As we go back into the main structure on Mark’s land he says somewhat apologetically that he forgets to tell people that he lives basically outside. I already feel at home.

This structure is hard to put to words. Composed of many, huge wooden arches, crisscrossing one another, it feels like I am in the bowels of a many-legged spider. Mark has created spans of close to one hundred feet that encase a beautiful, open, hard wood dance floor. The space is sheltered from the wind and rain but exposed bedrock on all sides and spaces between the boards and windows give it a feeling of being part of the natural world. It feels somewhat like a cave but sunlight shines in, with only parts of the roof covered in sod, and so the space is quite bright. My mind is trying to figure out the engineering of this place and doesn’t even know where to begin. Indeed, an ancient bridge called the rainbow bridge that still baffles modern day engineers was the inspiration for this structure.

Food here seems to either come in bulk from off island or directly from the land. After a hot meal of rice and chicken, with a health y dose of Turmeric on it (good for the joints and inflammation) and a Cesar salad of cabbage from the garden with lots and lots of garlic in the dressing, Mark makes sure I know how to find the bathroom (a simple wooden outhouse) and how to get myself water and excuses himself for the night.

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.

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