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East and North Walls

Earthen block cutter or guillotine

It was February 2013. With Mud Daubers Fred and Art working full-time, the east and north walls of our earthen home rose amazingly fast! Rachel and I helped at first, then left all the sifting and lifting, mixing and mudding to Fred, Art, and the rest of Callon’s crew.

They had little patience for the guillotine or block-cutter we had used since the Summer of 2010. It was slow, difficult to use, inaccurate, and it broke lots of bricks in half the wrong way. A circular saw, fitted with a masonry blade, was much faster. It cut through most of the brick’s thickness, and we could break through the rest of the brick by hand. Unfortunately the circular saw created a huge cloud of sandy dust. We either wore a dust mask, held our breath, or, if possible, stood upwind of the saw.

First row of earthen bricks on arch

So goodbye, dear guillotine! You weren’t a great block-cutter, but you were perfect for builders like me, who like quiet tools.

When it came time to build the last and biggest (5 feet wide) earthen arch in the house, Rachel and I were back on the job. We laid the first row with such speed and confidence, Fred remarked, “Looks like y’all have done that before.” Yep, we had a lot of practice rebuilding fallen arches.

Earthen brick arch

We finished the arch. Fred and Art finished the east wall. Jerry and Van answered my call to work on the bond beam as the daffodils burst into bloom.

Jerry and Van working on bond beam

Northeast corner of our earthen home

Morning daffodils

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House Graffiti

Once the rooms of our earthen house were defined by walls, I labeled the girls’ rooms, hoping to make more real to them the possibility of having their own spaces.

Eva's room

Ella's room

the artist at work

Inspired by my work, Eva added her artistry to the master bedroom floor. There’s something about spray paint…

I hope my daughters remember these symbols of love under their feet when they walk around in their rooms. And I will think often about the happy home hidden within my happy home.

Eva's happy home

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Inside Walls and Over Heads


Slabs are tricky. Because you don’t have the usual points of reference, it’s difficult to tell how big (or small) the rooms are.

But by the time the daffodils peeked out of the ground at the end of January 2013, our builder Callon provided those points of reference by framing most of the interior walls of the house.

I wandered around the place, gazing up at the tall walls and feeling that we might someday be able to live in this house.

Wood frame inside walls of the earthen house

We moved our breakroom (meaning we moved the lawn chairs) into the library, one of the most eagerly anticipated rooms in the house. You can just make out the chairs between the wooden studs in the foreground. Those are part of the exterior wall that joins the library corner (see previous House Building post) with the front door corner, which had yet to be finished. Our house has only two short lengths of wood-framed exterior wall.

Loblolly pine ceiling

Ceilings appeared over our heads, like this one in the master bedroom. The loblolly pine beams and planks were rough-sawn at a sawmill nearby. We were happy to find out that a 1 x 6″ plank is really one inch by six inches, which is apparently a very nice bonus you get when dealing with a small sawmill.

The beams really appeal to the German half of my soul—the part populated with thick forests, mountain Gasthauses, and Grimms’ legends and fairy tales. I love how the curved edge of the tree shows on the lower side of each beam.

With Callon on the job, events moved quickly. Rachel and I realized we wouldn’t be able to finish building the northeastern walls in time to keep Callon and his crew busy. Did Callon know anyone who could help us? He did, and soon “mud daubers” Fred and Art started working. Rachel and I stayed busy sifting dirt and sand, mixing slurry, and ferrying bricks to the two men. We only worked part time, but Fred and Art worked full time. Those walls got tall in a hurry. Callon even built some earthen wall himself.

Mud daubers Callon, Fred, and Art, working on the earthen house

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Windows at Last!

The library corner and arch of our earthen home

I love this picture of the library arch, shot from high up on a scaffold in January 2013. The frame for the bond beam was still in place over the arch, but our builder had already closed in the gable and part of the north and south walls. We were still working on the east and north walls of the house, so we had lots of bricks stockpiled.

Window sills for our earthen home

While all the bond-beam pouring and drying-in were going on, Charles and I waited long and anxiously for a phone call from a limestone quarry in Leuters, Texas, where our window sills were sawn and hewn. The call finally came and we drove to Leuters. The forklift driver loaded our first shipment directly into Charles’s pickup. It only groaned a little under the weight.

Not long after that, Charles and I visited the house site and experienced another wonderful moment in our house-building adventure. We saw our house with real windows for the first time.

Windows in our earthen  house

The gray stuff underneath the windows is lead. It will protect the earthen wall from any water that might seep in under or around the windows. Our first experience with lead was when we lived in England. People used lead sheeting to cover the tops of bay windows. They used mallets to bang it into shape.

Library windows in our earthen house

When the lead was delivered, my dad unloaded the heavy pallet with his tractor and brought it to the building site. The next day, I looked all around for it. I knew it weighed hundreds of pounds, so I imagined a large roll of metal. It was nowhere to be found!

Rachel, who was building walls with me, said, “There’s a new pallet over by the trees.” It was the one. The lead rolls were no more than 8″ in diameter. I later lifted the leftover lead (by that time about 4″ in diameter and 24″ wide). It was very heavy. You knew that. I knew it too, intellectually, but the physical reality was a shock.

Earthen house windows from the inside

You can see the limestone window sills in this picture taken from the inside. The sills are on top of the lead, and the window frame is on top of the inside sill. Callon and crew added outside sills later.

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Drying In the Earthen House

Jerry and Van working on the earthen house

Last year about this time, the extremely efficient, thorough, and excellent builder, Callon Ratliff, agreed to finish the inside of our earthen house.

Before Callon could start installing windows and framing inside walls, my efficient, thorough, and excellent family team had prepare the house for drying-in. This is why, as related in the previous post, we worked in the cold and rain to finish the bond beam. Callon would soon be free to work on the house, so we had to hurry, hurry, hurry!

Van cuts angle steel to prepare for drying-in

The finished bond-beam covered the south, west, and about two-thirds of the north walls of the house. Once it was cured, Jerry and Van attached angled sheet metal to the bond beam and the eaves.

In the photo above, they are working in the eastern half of the house, where we were still working on the walls. At the top right of the picture, you can just make out the concrete bond beam on top of the wall. The form for our final arch is on the left of the photo.

Callon and his crew attached M-panel sheet metal to the angles to span the area between the eaves and bond beam. My favorite part was when they closed in the gable on the western end of the house.

Now the gable end is open.

Earthen house gable end open

Now the gable end is closed!

Earthen house gable end closed

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Bond Beams

Jerry and Van build frame and reinforcement so we can pour bond beam

The southern wall is the longest earthen wall in our house, so my friend Rachel and I were happy to lay its last brick in September 2012. My brother Van and our cousin Jerry came as quickly as they could, to begin work on the bond beam.

They set up frame boards and ran re-bar along the top of the walls. Our bricks were so sandy and dry that drilling holes for the metal stakes was an exercise in frustration. Van drilled the hole, the sand filled it back up. Finally we hit upon a solution: just add water! Drill, pour water in sandy hole, drill again, wet sand doesn’t fall back in. Yay!

It wasn’t until December that we finished pouring the bond beam for the great majority of the earthen walls. My sister-in-law Kathy joined us on a cold and miserable day to pour the north and west library walls and the bond beam for the infamous arch of a previous post.

The next day, in order to finish the southern wall, we worked in the rain until after dark. Jerry mixed concrete, I carried buckets of concrete and lifted them up to Van, and Van poured and smoothed the concrete.

We captured rain water to  mix our concrete on that cold, miserable day.

We had around 40 bags of concrete for the southern wall and we knew we would probably use most of them. We were cold, tired, and sore. I don’t know how Van and Jerry managed. This is the trick I played on myself. I didn’t look at the pile of concrete bags. I didn’t look at the pile of empty bags. If Jerry poured me a bucket of concrete, I carried it; if there were no more buckets, I would know that we were done.

It wasn’t quite that simple—but that strategy kept me going almost to the end, when Van said, “I think we’ll need about two more bags.” At that point, pure relief kept me going, and the anticipation of a long hot bath.

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Third Time is the Charm OR Fallen Arches

Earthen well house window and its creators.

After Charles and the kids built the arched window for our well-house , they pulled the wooden arch form out of the opening. We had ourselves a window! Here they are, posing in a totally (or should I say “toats?”) teenager fashion for the photo.

So with this good memory glowing in my mind, when Rachel and I finished this interior arch on the house, I said, “Let’s pull out the form and see the arch!”

The form caught a little on the earthen brick, so I tapped it gently with the hammer. Slowly it moved out from under the arch. Finally it came free from the arch and…

…the arch tumbled down!

Suzann and Rachel fill in around earthen arch

Okay, okay. That was bad. I think the problem was that we tapped the arch form out instead of lowering it and then pulling it out. Well, we did lower it as much as we could, but it was catching on a little lip of earthen block at the bottom, so it wouldn’t lower enough.

Stoically, we vowed to rebuild it and do it right next time. A couple of days later, we finished the new arch just as Charles brought a couple of colleagues over to look at the house. “Charles, will you help us get this form out?” we asked. Having more than two people is best for that job.

We removed the shims, we unscrewed the frame from the uprights and removed them. Charles gently lowered the arch form. He quickly realized he had better step out of the way, because…

…the arch tumbled down!

Earthen arch in progress

Charles’s colleague, Alex, has read widely about early Mexican and Native American building techniques. The literature of the time describes how people would glance up and scuttle hurriedly under freshly-built arches.

“I can see now why they might have done that,” he commented.

Next time we built the arch, we left the form in for a couple of weeks. The arch is fine. The mud we used as mortar to hold the arch bricks together just needed time to cure. And here it is, sometime later, finished and ready for us to pour the bond beam on top of the wall.

Earthen arch success.

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Kitchen Lintel

CEB house kitchen window, ready for lintel

Building a house can play games with your mind. It’s about space and defining space. It’s about seeing the trees over the wall one week, and barely seeing the tops of the trees over the much taller wall a couple of weeks later.

I like the game of opening up a space in the wall for a window. Suddenly you can see through the wall. As you build the wall higher, it becomes a frame around the outside scene. It’s an open-ended frame with unlimited potential. It could grow tall enough to frame the heavens.

CEB house kitchen window with lintel

The sensible lintel puts an end to all that romantic thinking. It caps the potential, it closes the frame. This is not a sad thing, though. It just focuses your attention on a certain view.

The lintel seems dominant when you install it. As you build the wall over the lintel, its visual impact gets smaller and smaller. Once the windows are in, you hardly notice the lintel.

This is our kitchen window, pre- and post-lintel. In the top photo, you can see the pipes for the sink coming up through the slab. The open space at the left of the earthen wall will be filled with French doors and bookcases.

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House Building Update

Three friends working on our house walls

In Summer 2012, my daughter Eva and her friends Beth and Tim worked with me to build walls for our Compressed Earth Block house. We finished the bedroom section of the southern wall. It had four windows in it: two windows for each daughter’s bedroom.

Charles and the teenagers and I installed the lintels ourselves. We rigged up a pulley, but still needed to guide and lift the heavy pieces with our own muscles.

Then we moved on to the kitchen wall. We built it to about 5 feet tall, before school started and took away my helpers.

Here’s how the house looked in September 2012:

South side of our compressed earth block house

The southern wall is the longest wall in the house, measuring 80 feet. About 68 of those feet are made with earthen block.

CEB house from the inside

Here’s that 4-window wall from the inside. Looking at this photo fills me with nostalgia! The place looks so different now. I’m glad we have photos to remind us of how the house developed.

Northwest corner of our CEB house

Moving around to the northwest corner, you can see wooden frames around the top of the wall, with two-by-sixes holding them in place from the ground up. These days, people who build with earth recommend adding a reinforced concrete bond beam on top of the walls. Our bond beam is about 4″ tall, but since the walls are 2 feet thick, we used a lot of concrete.

Charles, our friend Brittney, and I poured this part of the bond beam one autumn day in 2011, using thirty-two 80-pound bags of concrete. A motorized conveyor brought buckets of concrete up to scaffold level. Our muscles got a workout, carrying buckets from the mixer to the conveyor and lifting the buckets from the conveyor to the top of the walls.

Still waiting to start the northeast corner

Finally, here’s the northeast corner, an L-shaped section of wall around 75 feet long. Once we finished the rest of the house, building this little section would seem like a breeze.

To the right of the corner post, you can see our stacks of bricks, sorted by thickness, which varies with the moisture content of the soil. We usually made bricks for half a day, which kept us supplied for two or three weeks of building.

The blue thing at the far right of the photo above is our brick machine, made by Advanced Earthen Construction Technologies (AECT) of San Antonio. Here’s a better photo of the machine:

Our AECT compressed earth block machine

Updated 2016 to correct a link.

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Happy Valentine’s Day and Excuses, Excuses!

crocheted hearts

The good news is that, by summer, we may be able to move into the house we’ve been building for the last three years. The other good news is that I’m writing another crochet book.

The bad news is that house-building and designing are consuming my life and taking time away from my blogs. I think that I’ll be back posting frequently and regularly by the beginning of this summer. I hope so, because it’s fun to blog, and I owe tutorials to a couple of readers.

Would you like to see our house? Here’s a photo album showing our progress:

These crocheted hearts are a sneak peek at my new book, which will be published in Spring 2014. Have a Happy Valentine’s Day!

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