Tag Archives | earth

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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Lentils vs. Lintels

lentils, not lintels

These are lentils. Find the recipe here, but only if you approve of eating pork.

You can buy these lentils at the grocery store. Unfortunately, they won’t hold up a wall over windows and doors. For that, you need lintels.

Dad is transporting a lintel

Our lintels are heavy and strong enough to hold up a two-foot wide earthen wall over the window openings. They are so heavy that my Dad lifted them over our windows with the tractor. He had to do some pretty fancy maneuvering to put the last one in place, over the window on the back-porch side of the house. He managed.

Eva and Jerry lift the lintel into place

Eva and Jerry lifted the lintels off the tractor forks and rested them on blocks above the windows. There were seven of them, so you can imagine how happy they were when they unloaded the last one.

Jerry and Eva celebrating having placed the last lintel for the day

Later, Jerry and I leveled the walls on either side of the window by scraping them with trowels. Then we poured lots of mud slurry onto the walls and replaced the lintels.

I think next time we’ll have the walls all leveled first. Then we’ll pour slurry and permanently place the lintel straight from the tractor.

Live and learn!

The lintels in place!

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Making Faces at the House Site

Ella’s sand faces

Our friends Gail and Beau visited in June. We talked, took care of goats and chickens for a neighbor, ate, talked a lot more, worked on the house, discussed science and social studies, and took a side trip to Austin. It was a great visit!

While we finished building the walls between the window openings, Ella played in the sand pile. We use one part sand to three parts dirt for our slurry that holds the bricks together. She found another use for it: making faces.

“Mom, I bet we could sell these!” she said. But sadly, time proved them to be too brittle.

Eva and Gail study the wall situation

Our goal was to build the walls up to the point where we could install lintels. Lintels support the wall above window and door openings. Eva and Gail worked on a corner that included the support wall for an arch on the inside. Beau worked on a wall section just beyond the last window.

Eva and Beau, at the end of the day

Gail and Beau know a lady who is building a cob house (mix mud and straw, form into walls by hand). She hosts classes, where people learn about cob and practice the technique. “You could have a hands-on workshop where people would pay to come and build your walls!” Gail suggested.

Hmmmm. That sounds pretty good. I’ll have to look into that.

almost ready to top the windows

We rewarded our own hard work with a trip to Austin for fun. We talked, we ate, we visited interesting shops on South Congress. At St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, I had to take a photo of this button-covered shoe rack, the ultimate eye-candy for two button makers and enthusiasts like me and Gail.

button covered shoe rack at St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store

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Holiday House Building 2

Marshall, Alanna, Ella working at the house site

Around Christmas 2010, my brother Eric and family visited. We put them to work on the house right away! They wanted to. Really.

Marshall and Eva take a break from house building

Alanna, Ella, and Marshall worked hard in the mud department. They quality-checked our slurry by submerging their arms up to the elbow. You know the slurry is right if it looks like you have chocolate-colored gloves on.

They made mud sculpture and they even planted themselves in our sand pile. Kids need a chance to play in mud from time to time, and this was the best chance ever.

Eric works on a wall

Carolyn levels the rascally corner

Eric, Carolyn, Eva, and I continued building the walls up between the windows. Carolyn wrestled with the northwest corner, which tries to defy our efforts to keep it level.

The walls rose, making the house look more like a house than ever.

That was the last time we worked on the house for several months, because I had to write my book. Charles said “The house will still be there when you’re done with the book.” Yes it was.
The walls keep rising!

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Holiday House Building

CEB (compressed earth block) house building, before Thanksgiving

This was the northwest corner of our earthen house before we started to work on the chilly Thanksgiving weekend of 2010. Our goal was to build up the walls between window openings on the north side of the house.

Van and Kathy fitting blocks

The short wall spans between windows were just the right size to make brick-laying fussy and difficult. A word of advice to others who want to build a compressed earth block house: plan the wall segments so you can lay the bricks in whole, instead of having to cut and piece.

Eva sawing a CEB

We also contended with electrical conduit running through the walls. Eva is sawing a notch in this block, to fit around the conduit. Unfortunately, the sandy blocks wear away the saw’s teeth in a hurry. Sometime later, we switched to a bow saw with replaceable blades.

keeping wall segments level

As the new walls rose, we tried to keep them level with the previous walls. Even when we used the same size bricks, the new walls weren’t always level with the old ones. Van and Kathy discovered a new, efficient way to reduce the height of a brick to level up walls: brush water on it and scrape it with a shovel. Works well for large areas!

good progress on the earthen house

It’s amazing how quickly the walls rise when they have big spaces in them. And it’s also amazing how the window openings make the place look so much more like a house.

We had a good weekend’s work. Thank you Van and Kathy and Eva!

At the end of the day, the sun lit up these hawthorn berries in a little grove close to where we were working. I can hardly wait to live there!

sunlit hawthorn berries

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Preparing for Windows

window walls

Windows. So many to choose from. And each manufacturer has a different name for the same feature, which makes comparison more difficult than it should be. But in the end, we chose windows for our earthen house.

window walls

Once we knew the rough opening sizes, we could start blocking out spaces for the windows. The picture above shows how we left one bedroom’s walls. At the time, we weren’t sure about the windows, so we didn’t build right up to the window opening. That’s why the blocks are stepped back each row.

After a morning’s work, here’s the edge of Ella’s bedroom window. And look! She’s sitting in the middle of her bedroom wall! Silly girl.

window walls

A few more hours’ work and here’s the window edge brought up to the height of the bathroom window further down the wall.

window walls

And a little further on, the orange arrow points to Ella’s window edge, and the yellow arrow points to the edge of the bathroom window. It’s very satisfying to see these walls take shape.

It’s also satisfying to drive home after working on the house, because I get to see this beauty: prickly pear and bright yellow flowers along the driveway.

prickly pear and yellow flowers

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Earthen Bricks Don’t Like Rain

clouds left over from Hermine

These stunning clouds are remnants of the tropical storm Hermine, whose tentacles reached far inland and gave us driving rains in September.

We had plenty of plastic to cover our walls, but our stacks of earthen blocks were unprotected. The rains, blowing hard from the east, moistened blocks as far as 15 feet from the open eastern end of the house.

rain-damaged earthen block

Luckily, most of them are fine and still usable. These didn’t fare so well. They were much closer to the eastern edge of the house. But, luckily again, they were unusually thick blocks. We tend to make those at the beginning of a brick run, before the machine is adjusted to the moisture of the soil we load into it.

I wondered what we would do with those large blocks, and the rain gave me the answer—recycle them!

Wasp moves in to earthen house

So we lost a few blocks to the rain, but look what we gained!

Gorgeous autumn wildflowers!

This one is eryngo. Prickly, but beautiful.

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Moving In to the Earthen House

Wasp moves in to earthen house

We were still putting away tools and straightening the building site after our Labor Day work session, when someone moved in to our new house. She made herself right at home, making a home in our new home!

It’s fun to watch these bluish black wasps dig in the ground. The dirt just flies out behind them. They work diligently and they can move a lot of dirt in a hurry. We can’t tell if they’re looking for food or making homes for their little ones. I think ours was making a nest. She bored herself a nice little cave in a spot where the mud was still soft.

Hmm. I wonder if our little wasp is eligible for a new homeowner tax rebate? She did move in before September 30. But wasps can’t write, so she probably didn’t have a contract in place before May 1st. She may not even have been born before May 1st. Oh well. What use would a wasp have for $8,000 anyway?

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