Floors, Walls, and a Baby!

Well, once again we haven’t posted anything in forever! Rest assured that we have been busy nonetheless. We finished up some major steps in the finishing of our home and we also welcomed a new addition to our family on December 19th, 2016 – our daughter Everlee! It was a lot of work bringing her into the world but it has been so worth it! She was born at home, in our hand-built house, surrounded by friends and family. It was amazing, emotional, and truly life changing.

We tackled both the second layer of earthen floor and the final layer of plaster pretty much at the same time. We did one room/area at a time, starting with the floor then plastering the walls with lime plaster as soon as the floor was able to be stood on. The second layer of floor was poured using the same method as the first layer, only with smaller gravel and only 1 1/2 inches thick. We used a 2X4 laid flat as our screed guide. The lime plaster is a mixture of lime putty and mason sand and it was applied to the wall and troweled flat. At first, Mike slowly but surely applied every bit of plaster with a trowel, but eventually we switched to Holden applying it with gloved hands then Mike going behind him with the trowel. This proved to be very effective as well as much faster! It turned out really great and everyone who sees it has commented on it.

We also managed to coerce Tom into coming out and helping finish the cedar siding on the other gable end, which really made everything look more finished on the exterior.The cedar really looks good with the green roof and we think it’s going to look perfect with what will eventually be lime plastered walls. This summer we’re going to finish up the floors (finally!) and cover the exterior walls with lime plaster like we did the interior. We’re really getting close to actually being finished!

 

 

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A Living Roof For the Cellar

Although a lot of DIY construction takes longer than intended, this project has been truly long-term! We began building this cellar/storm shelter while we still lived in a camper, way back in 2011. It was our first summer on the land and one of our first major projects. Well, time goes on, we get busy and some things fall by the wayside, to be finished at an undetermined time. That’s what happened with our cellar. Once we began construction on the house the cellar became very low priority. It has been four roofless block walls for almost five years – but no more! We enlisted our awesome work party crew to help us finish it up and make it functional and it’s turned out to be really cool! We originally planned on burying the entire building but our dirt pile shrank over time and we didn’t have enough to cover it. This gave us the idea of giving the building a living roof to help it blend in to the surroundings and it has turned out great!

Summer of 2011 was a really crazy time for us. We were learning so much and doing so many new, and sometimes difficult, things. We were definitely not afraid to work, but our lack of knowledge or equipment sometimes led to us doing a bit more work than necessary. We contemplated digging out the spot for the cellar by hand with shovels, but thankfully our friends Ben and Carrie offered to help us dig our giant hole with their awesome tractor and its back-hoe attachment. This sounded like a better idea! We quickly realized the ground is so rocky that we would never have been able to dig such a deep hole by ourselves anyway! Even the tractor had to stop a little shallower than we had planned because it hit solid rock! The kids got to operate the machine and it was a lot of fun. After the pit was dug, it rained a few days in a row and it filled with water and mud quickly, but the kids took advantage of this and had fun wallowing in the mud pit!

Next we dug a small, 8X12 foot trench to act as the form for the concrete foundation. This was not easy and was done mostly with a rock bar. We started this building with help from our work party friends and this was actually our first work party! We were fortunate to have the help as we had no clue what we were doing. After a bunch more digging (rock busting) and concrete wrangling, we had a good base for the block walls to stand on.

We found some blocks for sale which had come from an old service station on the highway that had been torn down – only a quarter apiece! The only bad thing was all the old mortar we had to chip off, which took several days. The next phase of building really shows how little experience we had. We mixed up the mortar and began stacking the walls but soon realized we are not good mortar mixers. We couldn’t figure it out and our mortar crumbled away after drying! After sadly crashing down the walls we had so far and being really frustrated, we learned about a product which allows for building a block wall without mortar. It’s called surface bonding cement and it’s basically concrete with little fiberglass fibers in it for shear strength. It holds the walls together and is also waterproof. We dry stacked the blocks, which was like a Jenga nightmare at times, and then troweled on the SBC. It set nicely and we all breathed a sigh of relief that the mortar debacle hadn’t been repeated. After pouring some concrete in the tops of the blocks and setting pieces of threaded rebar in some of them so we could attach a roof plate, we were ready to add a roof and bury it!

Not so fast! We got busy and focused on other, more pressing things (like building a house!) and before we knew it, it was five years later and we still had an ugly, roofless half-building sitting there. Work party to the rescue! Tom helped us figure out a plan and the guys got together and built a much-improvised living roof for it. The block walls were far from plumb (surprise!) so it was an adventure in carpentry, as many of our work party projects tend to be! We framed the roof with big 2X12 boards to hold the weight of soil, water, and any people who walk on it. Our friend PJ came and pushed the dirt up against the walls with his skid steer after we put in some drainage pipes along the bottom of the walls, which saved us a ton of work digging. Next we put down the decking and then built a box around the top out of some nice cedar we had previously milled. A layer of cardboard went down first to avoid tearing the fragile waterproof layer, which is made from four sheets of simple 4 mil black plastic. We checked into fancy waterproof membranes, but they were all more money than we wished to spend. We used some old carpet remnants as a drainage layer then filled the box with compost. On the front of the building, there are holes drilled in the cedar box which drain into a gutter to allow excess rain to escape. Even with the front draining, it holds moisture really well. It still feels wet several days after it has rained. It’s not quite finished, as we need to add some flashing around the boards at the top and a door, but we’ll get to it soon – hopefully not five years from now! We’re thinking of growing strawberries and some flowers with a few little paths in between. There are no leaks yet and a bunch of volunteer tomatoes came up from the compost, so we consider it a success! It just took a while!

 

Major Loft Progress!

We recently completed some long-awaited projects in the top half of the house and they have totally changed the feel of the interior! We covered the ceiling with pine car siding during a work party and the work went really smoothly, as we are some experienced car siding installers by this point. Tom did a ton of prep work beforehand, so the majority of the boards were cut and ready to install. With him staying on the floor most of the time cutting, we then handed the boards up to the rest of the crew and nailed them up. Most of the boards were good and straight and the nail gun made quick work of attachment, as usual. It felt really good to get the entire ceiling covered and a little more trim work later made it look even more finished.

The second major project completed upstairs is the railing. This turned out amazingly and Holden, with Tom’s guidance, really outdid himself! He cut, sanded, stained and varnished 129 uprights and the top and bottom pieces of the rail. He used five different colors of stain and it looks really cool! They assembled each section of railing at Tom’s so they would install super easy at the house.

Installing the railing went really smoothly! We had to cut off the floor joist ends flush so the facing board will attach evenly, so Tom sliced them off while Holden held a tub under the ends to catch them. We handed up the pieces and attached them to the posts and the spiral staircase railing. It all came together really nicely and we have been constantly admiring it since then! It is by far better, and sturdier, than the 2X4’s we’ve had as “temporary” rails for a couple years now! A little miscellaneous trim work is left to do, and our someday-in-the-future plan is to put wood flooring over the existing sub-floor and add cabinets to the back of the loft area. But for now, it’s looking pretty darn good up there!

It feels really good to build parts of our house with the help of friends. The memories of good times are always there, built right in.We’re also incredibly proud to have our son’s craftsmanship displayed throughout the house. It obviously adds a special dimension to the value of our home (to us). Every time a project is finished, our house becomes even more hand-built!

Finally an Update!

We are obviously totally blog slackers, therefore we haven’t posted about our progress in several months! Busy, busy! It has been a tough year for us, and we’re proud to have still finished so many big projects! Here’s a bunch of photos of what we’ve been doing. It’s been mostly inside stuff getting the house to look more finished. We got all the walls covered with drywall and painted and also completed the first layer of the earthen floor throughout the house. It’s really a challenge to do the floor since we have to empty an entire room, find a place to stuff everything we moved, and live without the room while waiting for the floor to dry! The next two layers are much thinner though, and will take far less time to be ready. We also just had another work party to finish up the car siding which covers the big open ceiling, but we’ll post those pictures separately soon!

Spiral Staircase Finally Installed!

For the past two years and four months, we have used a ladder/stairs that Cara and I built from simple 2X6 lumber and drywall screws. The kids have both become so acclimated to them that they fly up and down them, but they have always been a little intimidating to visitors, especially those of the short and young variety (and a few of the fully grown visitors as well!). We found a cool steel spiral staircase for sale on a local want-ads type website and we had to get them, knowing that is what we had envisioned being in the house from very early on.  We got a great deal and were all ready to install them right away. Well they turned out to be a little more difficult to assemble than expected and we needed to have the floors more done to figure out where to put the base of the pole. Well, we finally got to the point where we can put them up!

First, we got out the hand sander and Cara, Holden, and Riley sanded every piece of the staircase to roughen the painted steel so it would better take our coat of black paint. It’s a bit ironic to be painting them black since they were originally black until the folks we bought them from painted them beige. Cara, Holden, and Riley all helped paint too. It all looked as good as new when finished!

After the paint dried, our incredibly handy friend Tom came over and again was indispensable to the project (thanks again Tom!). We spent a whole day thinking about how we wanted them situated. We had a too-close wood stove to consider since the varnished treads and painted metal could be effected by the heat, so we made the steps go up to the left instead of right. If the treads went right, they were right on top of the stove and looked wrong and wouldn’t have been functional at all. We had to build a temporary platform to put the pole on and figure out where the final height of the one-square-foot concrete pad needed to be poured. When we got all the treads on the pole and set into place, we realized we didn’t quite have room for all the treads! Back to the drawing board! We figured it out for the final assembly but it was a little weird having a little concrete square to show for our entire day’s work! We built a simple wood form and poured just under a bag of concrete mix to make the pad. Tom returned the next day and we got to work on the final assembly!

We started by sawing the ends of the floor joists even and attaching a face board to them which would have the landing tread attached to it. Next we stood the base and pole on the concrete base and slid each tread down the pole, heavily scratching the pole and it’s nice fresh paint job! We’ll definitely have some touch-up painting in our near future! The landing went on last and then the placement of the base could be determined. We attached the landing to the face board with lag bolts and some hefty screws firmly attached the other side to a 6X6 cross-beam. Starting at the top, we slid one tread at a time up the pole and hooked it to an upright piece. The holes in the uprights helped us know where the treads went, but we had to make sure they were in the right place in the adjustable bolt-slots so all the treads would fit this time. Luckily Tom did the math the night before and all went according to plan. We used a level to get each tread as flat as possible and tightened everything down.

We finished up by hooking on the hand rail, which was one of the trickiest parts of the whole thing! We ended up having to drill a few new holes at the top and bottom because the stairs had twisted the opposite direction in the previous house they were installed in and the rail wouldn’t twist the way we needed it to. We wrangled it into place and Holden screwed in the cherry wood treads he custom-built for the staircase a few months ago with Tom in their woodworking class. Tom had some gorgeous seasoned cherry he had milled from an old tree which he knew would be perfect for the stairs. Holden planed, jointed, assembled, sanded, and varnished them, bringing out a nice reddish-brown luster. You couldn’t find a more made-from-scratch piece of woodworking! They are truly incredible and he couldn’t have made a more beautiful and sentimental, yet functional, addition to the project. They really make the whole staircase look so elegant but, frankly, a little out-of-place in our still-unfinished home. When we get to a certain point though, they will match everything perfectly!

We’re proud and excited to have this big addition to our home finally (almost) completed with the help of the whole family and our amazing friend Tom. Barbara came over and helped Riley with a difficult crochet project too, so thanks to her as well! We just have to add a few bits of railing at the top and do a bunch of touch-up painting and they’re complete! We’ll post some pics of the final result when it’s all done! This is going to be a big year for the house building, as we intend to finish several long-time ongoing projects before the end of the fall, including the floors and all the plastering that remains! On top of that the railing for the loft and the car siding on that side of the house will be completed and that will really make it all blend nicely. Wish us luck!

Don’t forget to click on the pics to make them bigger!

A New Year’s Look at the End of 2014

Today is the first day of the year 2015! We spent the tail-end of 2014 doing various fun things mixed in with a lot of hurried mud work! We tried really hard to get the earthen floor’s first layer done throughout the house, but we did not get to a small area around the wood stove and we still have a gravel floor covered with carpet in the kitchen. We did get more done than we thought we would because we had some really nice, warm days after it had turned super cold early in the fall. We had given up since it was so cold and resigned ourselves to waiting for the spring, but we got a week or so of much warmer weather and got to do more floor mixing and pouring. It is awesome to have this much of the floor done! We also wanted to get the second coat of plaster done throughout the house, and we finally accomplished it in the past few days! In the spring, we’ll finish up the first layer of floor and start the second layer in other areas and then we’ll do a little plastering on the outside walls and finally be ready for the final coat, a lime plaster.

In late October we had a fun time with some friends (and strangers) during a local get-together at which Mike was invited to share his knowledge of the local fungal flora by leading a group on a mushroom walk/hunt! It ended up being pretty popular and a ton of fun! There were at least twenty hunters, many kids included. We were transported to the hunting area by a tractor pulling us on a big trailer, through a field, and to the trees on the other side! Great fun was had by all, although some stuck it out in the woods longer than others. It was discovered that little kids are awesome mushroom hunters, as they are low to the ground and they get really excited when they find a big, fat mushroom and are therefore motivated to find more fungus! We ended up finding a big pile of puffball mushrooms which were a brown variety about the size of a grapefruit! We made it back to the hosts’ house eventually and Mike, along with PJ, his awesome helper both in the woods and in the kitchen, got the bounty ready for cooking. They peeled the puffballs, revealing the spongy, marshmallow-like interior, and sliced them into pieces. They were then dipped in egg wash, rolled in flour, and fried in hot oil. Mmmm….. Delicious! Seriously, everyone got to try some and they were all impressed! Even self-proclaimed mushroom haters who were convinced to try some were amazed at how tasty these crunchy-on-the-outside and soft-on-the-inside fried fungus were! A few of the kids were hard to keep away from the finished product and might have eaten every single chunk if we had let them! Puffballs are definitely a little-known local treat, and sharing this gourmet fungus with so many friends was a great experience!

Every year, a goal of ours is to have a fresh salad from our garden at Christmas time. We’ve made our goal the last several years thanks to a simple hoop tunnel we build over one of our raised beds. This is an easy and effective way to extend the growing season and have fresh home grown food for a longer time. You just need some irrigation tubing, some big pieces of plastic (we used house-wrap), and some duct tape (of course!). We used the tubing to make half-circle hoops and stuck them into the soil, making a skeleton to hold the plastic covering. We used leftover house wrap, which worked great since it’s the perfect width and it can be cut to length, which was also good since our beds are about twenty-five feet long! We planted radishes, spinach, kale, chard, and tons of lettuce back in September, but it was a few weeks too late in hindsight. The plants never did get very big as we had some really cold weather before they had a chance to grow very much. Next year we’ll get the seeds in the ground a few weeks earlier, when it’s still hot. That will be easier since we also got a water spigot ran down to the edge of the garden! Now watering the garden will not be a dreaded battle with the hoses! We plan to set up a soaker hose on a timer so our veggies can survive the hot, dry stretches in the summer even when we can’t get out there to water often enough! Well, the pictures prove that it’s worth the effort! The last greens from the hoop tunnel were picked the day after Christmas! It feels (and tastes!) good to extend the season of fresh veggies straight from our garden. Now a couple months of no gardening will give Mike a break from tending it and we will cherish that first salad in the spring even more!

Most of the past couple months have been spent playing in the mud though! We (mostly Holden and Mike!) got a LOT of earthen floor mixed and poured! We came really close to our goal of finishing the first layer everywhere in the house, but didn’t quite make it! We are about to begin work on installing our spiral staircase and that has made it necessary to plan a little more for how the floor in that area will be done. We are really glad to have as much as we do though! It’s great to have a solid floor rather than gravel with carpet on it, that’s for sure! We’ll finish the first layer in early spring and then we’ll do the second layer throughout the whole house. It will take much less time and materials than the first layer, as it is much thinner and will dry much faster.

We did finally finish the second coat of plaster inside the house, which was a major goal we were glad to reach before winter! Holden has become the main plaster mixer, and he’s getting really good at it! He pumps out buckets of consistent mud while the rest of us put it on the wall! Mike does the higher-up areas and the hard-to-do spots like window sides and sills. He always has to go back over everyone else’s work and make it all smooth and pretty – so picky! Now after a few more finishing touches, the interior is ready for lime plaster, which we will be putting on in the spring. It goes on with a trowel and will definitely be an adventure in itself!

Well, we’re chugging right along and it feels like we’ll never be “done” with our house, but when we look back at what we have done in the last few years, we realize we’ve really accomplished a lot, and nothing can stop us when we set our minds and hearts to something. We hope others will be motivated by what we’ve done and see that if we can do it, they can too! So many folks we’ve met want to live differently, freely, but they are unable to make the leap! We advise doing it NOW! Take the plunge and free yourself to live the life you want!

Don’t forget to click on the pictures to make them bigger! 😉

Many Hands Make Light Work

We had yet another fun and productive day recently, as it was our turn to host our group of friends for the latest work party! We all spent the day getting dirtier than most people are comfortable with getting. One of the great things about earth plaster is that it requires no prior experience to participate. Although most of the members of our group had done plastering before, some had not but they caught on quickly. It’s fun to watch how “newbies” look when they get that first blob of mud in their hands and they smear it on the wall carefully and wonder if they’re doing it right. All the uncertainty fades as they soon realize how hard it would be to do anything wrong! If it sticks and you’re putting it in the right place, you’re doing it right!

We got an entire exterior wall covered with the second coat, the north wall. We had hoped to get TWO walls covered that day, but unforeseen obstacles thwarted those plans, as they so often do. The first layer, which we applied two years ago, was one of the first times we did earth plaster and we had not found our source of good clay soil yet. We dug the dirt from our land and it turns out it had very little clay in it! The resulting coat of plaster dried into a dusty, crumbly, and somewhat fragile base for our current layer. Usually the base coat provides a sturdy foundation upon which to apply the next coat, which should be easier to apply onto than the straw had been. In this case, the base layer tended to crumble and even fall off in some places when we applied the fresh plaster. Luckily, we have had a lot of experience with different materials and have become pretty good at mixing a customized batch with properties that are specific to the situation. We made a nice and wet mix, with more clay than usual to make it extra sticky and bind to the base coat more effectively. We also had to continuously soak the wall as we worked our way down it because the plaster really wouldn’t stick to the base coat when dry at all!

Our work party friends are awesome though, and everyone pushed on even though it was slow-going. It was also really frustrating when the spot you just finished came peeling off a few minutes later and you had to do it all over again! All in all, it looked better than we thought it would look by the end of the day and we were grateful to have had the help.

We must mention the great work Holden did supervising the mixing of every batch of plaster! He helps Mike a lot with plastering (and the floors) and he is getting quite good at producing a good, consistent mix that goes on easily and looks good after drying. He did good at showing the guys how to get a good mix and how to prepare the ingredients too, and soon we were all humming along like an assembly line.

While the rest of us were playing in the mud, Tom was busy building two small sets of steps on our deck, which were long-overdue. They ended up being a really nice addition and we are enjoying the new stairs and their safe and sturdy awesomeness. We’re very thankful for Tom taking on that project alone.

As always, the work party was productive and everyone had a good time. We’re really cutting it close, but we think we’re going to meet our goals of getting the second coat of the exterior done, finish a few walls inside that need their second coat, and pouring one more small area of earthen floor before the cold weather hits and drives us inside for a few months. Also, it’s tough to work with dirt when it’s frozen!

Wish us luck in getting where we need to be!

Don’t forget to click the pictures to make them bigger!