Tag Archive: The natural Cottage project

This weekend I had the great pleasure of going to the Pennsylvania Mother Earth News Fair. It was a blast! It inspired and energized me, reminding me why I do what I do, and how many other awesome people there are out there doing equally awesome and amazing things. What an amazing an educational event, full of everything from seed saving workshops, to mushroom medicine, to super efficient wood stoves, and yummy organic food.

While down there I got to reconnect with an old friend from the natural building world, Chris, also known as uncle mud, and squish my hands in some mud as we shared a booth. Over the course of the weekend I watched as kids helped him build a little rocket mass heater and a mini cob oven that they then cooked garlic bread in. I witnessed kids and adults light up as they talked about their dreams of building their own hand sculpted house and I remembered the magic that happens as people squish their toes and fingers in mud. A little boy looked up at his parents, all covered in mud, and said “I’m allowed!” and his parents smiled. Indeed, our culture needs more environments where we are allowed to be dirty and messy and happy.

Chris told stories to me and others of how he would teach mud workshops to prisoners and how suddenly these tough criminals would be telling their stories of vulnerability while squishing in the mud. And I watched as a young couple that reminded me of Peter and I when we were just discovering the world of natural building spent almost the whole weekend at our booth, totally entranced by this new world that was opening up to them. “This is the dream I never knew I had!” said the woman.

Although I enjoyed sharing about my tiny house and the work I do at hammerstone, I think what was most inspiring about being at this mother earth news fair was seeing everyone else’s excitement; the excitement of other vendors as they talked about what they were most passionate about, and the excitement of fair goers as they eagerly gobbled up all this new and juicy information.

Indeed, it is weekends and events like this one that make me feel hopeful about the future of our world. So many people doing so many good things!


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!

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Creating "new" from old has been a preoccupation of mine for a long time, but turned into a full-time adventure in building and living in a tiny "reclaimed" house. Beginning in 2012, I will live in this 120 square foot space for the length of my PhD studies in Literature and the Environment, and perhaps beyond. In this way, I hope to live a little smaller, leave a little lighter, and learn in what ways formal study can be acted in the every day.

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