Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fighting for Sustainable Living


Living sustainable lives is becoming an increasingly popular decision. Others would argue that “green” living is faddish, but either way the planet is benefiting and that is great. Whether you are a millionaire putting a solar array on your roof or the humble hermit stomping your own cob, the planet is at least benefiting from your decision.

Fruit trees hungry for water
However, it is becoming increasingly evident that living sustainable, environmentally conscious lives is not the easy thing many--myself included--believed it to be. After all, how difficult should it be to make a compost pile? Or build your own house from local materials? Or use the excess gallons of water from your shower to water a tree? Turns out it’s very difficult.

On a daily basis I am reminded of how the bureaucratic system is constantly getting in the way of simple and sustainable practices, demanding over engineered schematics, and cutting our money purses for ridiculous permit fees.

Of course, we need these government bodies, correct? Without them we will fall into disorder, people will dump their toxic waste into our drinking water, and chaos will reign with squabbles over water rights, building plans, and property access. Many of you will agree with these obviously sarcastic remarks, but I have faith in humanity still. There is a reason that the current monocropping system of agriculture is still being utilized, the same reason that the United States doesn’t allow the growth of hemp vs cotton or synthetic materials, and the same reason I can’t set up a simple greywater system. Capital gain is the ruler here and no mention of another way is tolerated.

Readers of previous posts will know the difficulty we received from the use of a sawdust toilet. It took over a year to get an approval for this lowly five gallon bucket compost receptacle. A year for the State of Montana to decide if laws allowed human excrement in a backyard compost pile. Permies rejoice, you can poop once again now that we’ve been given approval!

Next on our list is to obtain permission for a greywater permit. A septic system, while highly effective in many cases, are one of those expensive and over engineered practices I mentioned before. Sure, when a homeowner decides to dump a bottle of drain-o or other unpleasant chemical down the drain, you definitely want something engineered. However, the environmentally conscious individual will probably not be utilizing such products and a simple Branched Drain Greywater System created by Oasis Design will deal with all natural products, water your garden, and resupply your aquifer for a fraction of the cost and labor. Alas, such simple designs are not approved in many States and the ability to have them approved takes much more time than anyone really has to offer.



It is tempting to ignore permits and rules and carry on with the obvious choice, but our goal is to demonstrate living practices that not only live peaceably with the Earth, but also with our community. I guess that includes the bureaucrats.

Remember to check out the forums on Permies to see what your permaculture brothers and sisters are doing around the globe.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  -- Leonardo da Vinci



Thursday, December 22, 2016

Straw bales for building

Cob, strawbale, or balecob buildings all require straw for wall construction. The type and size of bales all vary from region to region and project to project. All require clean, dry and preferably long stranded straw. 
Straw is considered a waste product and is still burned in large quantities rather than baled and used in other ways. Many farmers in Montana grow wheat as a rotation crop for their hay fields and sell straw at a low cost, perfect for us natural builders. If building with cob only, we prefer to purchase the large 4ft x 4ft x 8ft bales that weigh in at around 1/2 ton. Two of these monstrous bales will supply enough straw for a small cob building.

For our new balecob house we will be using the much smaller 2 string bales only weighing 40-50lbs and measuring 14"x18"x36".

Every Strawbale building book will tell you to over-purchase the number of bales you need by 20-30%. This should account for broken bales, bales you need to resize, and others that get ruined during construction. We purchased 326 small bales (we estimate we will need around 260) at $3.50 each.

It is important to mention the difference between hay and straw, this question seems to come up quite often and is addressed in length here at Permies. The photo below shows the clear difference between the lush high moisture alfalfa (hay) and clean crisp golden straw. Hay is used for feed while straw is the leftover, dry stalks from grains.


Choosing your bales for construction is also extremely important. You bales should be locally sourced (save money on transportation as well as pollution), dense (bales can be picked up by one string or tossed from truck without breaking), and dry (up to 20% moisture content). Moisture meters can be very expensive, but you can typically tell if bales are dry from the outside condition of the straw. Randomly select a bale to break open and check how dry the middle of the bales are too--just make sure you buy it first.

Since straw is a by-product of growing grains, the availability of straw is limited to the second half of the year. You may be hard pressed to find good quality bales come spring and the start of your building season. We were lucky enough to find a farmer that is keeping our straw dry and stacked inside of his barn for free! Just remember to keep those bales of the ground with pallets or the ground will wick moisture up into the straw.

I've added a few great links and resources below that I have found the most helpful during this process. Most of all I am beyond excited to begin our new home next spring and so grateful for our Earth that provides such amazing building materials!

Books on bale building:
"Building with Straw Bales"  by Barbara Jones
"The Straw Bale House" by Athena and Bill Steen and David Bainbridge
"The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes" by Athena and Bill Steen

Web Links:

Friday, December 9, 2016

Rubble trench foundation

Rubble trench foundations provide a secure foundation for heavy houses, deter moisture and frost upheaval issues, save huge amounts of money, and best of all can recycle waste material.
It is estimated that 3.8% of global carbon emissions are from manufacturing cement (NRMCA fact sheet). 3.8 doesn't seem like much, but in fact represents 298 million metric tons of carbon produced each year and growing.




Almost any loose rubble can be used for rubble trench foundations. Urbanite (broken up concrete usually thrown in the landfill) is a great resource, but very time and energy consuming. We chose to use gravel from a quarry 5 minutes away. This was a huge time saver, but definitely wasn't free.




Rubble trench foundations can be much shallower than traditional cement foundations that typically must reach below frost level. Why? When properly built, a rubble trench will allow water to harmlessly flow out and away from the house, while any moisture that does freeze will expand into the many air gaps contained between gravel, thus preventing frost upheaval.



The best tool utilized for natural building is your family and friends. This rigid board insulation will help prevent freezing from occurring below and in our foundation. This job would have taken the two of us several days rather than the several hours when having free help.


Rubble trench foundation use buried pipe to flow water out of the house's foundation. We typically use 4" diameter corrugated and perforated drain pipe. Such pipe is very reasonably priced and can be found at re-use stores like Habitat for Humanity for fractions of the cost of a new pipe. This pipe needs a place to take any water, so it needs to "run to light" and exit somewhere downhill from your building site. If building on a level plane, this pipe can end in a deep trench with adequate draining soil. Since Montana has such little precipitation, we don't expect to see too much runoff from our foundation.


Permaculture practice usually makes the most of a single system. Rubble trench foundations not only function to keep your house solid, but is useful for collecting water that would otherwise be lost to the ground. Put that water to use and make it flow to a fruit tree or two!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Cold Climate Cob

Cob isn't known for its insulative properties which casts it into the shadows of cold climate natural building. While we would recommend straw bale or hybrid cob buildings for extreme cold conditions, cob can be more than suitable for staying comfortable during the winter months..
Modern forced air heaters have delivered an unprecedented comfort of heat to most Americans, but the price of this luxury is more than just financial. For those interested in improving your circulation, mood, muscle recovery, as well as boosting your immune system, check out Wim Hof who is making amazing strides in science and health with his method.











Hot food goes a long way to keep you warm. Not only does eating a hot bowl of soup in the winter take the chill out of your body, but the heat from cooking on the stove can easily raise the temperature of smaller homes!


Don't forget that dressing warm is okay inside as well as outside. You don't need it to be 70 degrees to be comfortable, just put on your woolies and drink some hot tea!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

What Local Government has to say about Crap...Literally

We have been meaning to make a post dedicated to the difficulties we had with local government officials during our first build with cob and after a question from our last post decided the time was ripe to address regulations for natural building.

Our disagreement with the local government began after our house appeared in the local newspaper, a featured story titled "Building a New Way to Live" on our house, why we had built naturally, and how we live. Little did I know that our way of building and living would be disapproved of by none other than--get ready to laugh at the irony--the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). We were shocked by the abrupt letter we received in the mail telling us that our compost was not an approved system for disposing human waste. In essence, this was a cease and desist letter for our backyard compost pile, We were to call the DEQ and comply with the county/state regulations or else.

We must admit that the DEQ was not something we considered before building or using the bathroom. We were completely unaware that composting organic matter was so complicated. We also point blank refuse to pay hundreds of dollars so that someone can pump and chemically sanitize a perfectly good source of compost, not to mention the thousands of dollars to install a septic system.

Our first step in dealing with this issue was to re-read the "Humanure Handbook" by Joseph Jenkins. Long story short, Montana has no regulations on what you can or cannot put into a backyard compost pile. The DEQ had no legal basis for telling us to stop using our own waste for compost as long as we are not taking it off the premises. Our "toilet" is not a toilet, but a compost reciprocal for all organic matter in our house. It does not contain blackwater, graywater, or any liquids other than the obvious and the occasional dregs of tea. This is what we told the DEQ and despite the emails we have written the last eight months, have literally not heard from them since.

                          (our compost)
Our advice is to know the rules and regulations before you build, and apparently before you go to the bathroom too. Our next advice is to challenge the systems in place when it doesn't make sense and when it is not benefiting the Earth.

For those who still think that using composted human waste for food production is quite disgusting, take a good look at those great growies you've purchased. Here is a link on commercial growing regulations and how biosolids (sludge left over at your local sewage treatment plant) is used in commercial growing facilities. Those beautiful strawberries, potatoes, and tomatoes you just ate were most likely grown using your, your neighbors, and everyone in your county's recycled and chemically treated crap! We know what is going into our bodies, our toilet, our food, and our bodies; do you? Happy eating!

                                                                                      (biosolids from Hamilton, MT residents)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Spiritwood cottage



As per request I will begin posting about the second part of our foray into the world of natural building. This second house will be the permanent home for Katherine and I, and hopefully become the staging ground for natural building instruction for others. It is impossible to know everything about natural building, as both old and new information is becoming discovered.



As we predicted, and one of the many reasons we decided to build our first cob home, there are many things we would like to improve upon in our permanent house. I will comment on each of these things as they are addressed during the next build and hopefully give satisfactory answers to any questions. The main improvement will be in insulation. Rather than an entirely cob built home, we will be adopting a bale/cob hybrid that will greatly improve the building speed and the insulation of our house. The other great change will be in our selection of material for a stem wall. A rubble trench foundation is currently being installed--check for a follow up post dedicated to the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright's greatest innovation--on top of which, rather than urbanite, an earthbag stem wall will be built.

A quick comment on the goals of Spiritwood Cottage. Spiritwood will hopefully become the central location from which we are able to build a company around natural building. We are responsible not only to ourselves, our families, our communities, but also to our planet. Instructing in natural building will hopefully be our way of maintaining all of these responsibilities.










Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Living with Earthen Floors

Like many of the things we live with in a cob house Earthen floors are a commonly misunderstood feature. I think that the common picture people construct when they hear Earthen Floor is much like a horse stall. Dusty, dirty, maybe not covered in horse manure, but not something particularly pleasant for where you get ready in the  morning.

This was our first earthen floor and the available resources on making one from scratch is a bit limited. Still, we were able to find a number of physical and electronic resources that could guide us on our design and mixture.

Our floors consist of  a very thick mass of cob (sand, clay, and straw) packed and smoothed over a drainage layer of pea gravel.  This was followed up by a thinner (2-3 inch) layer of smooth floor mix. We recommend making numerous test batches for your final floor. Many examples online will show people putting in floors that crack terribly when drying, sometimes this is desired and then the cracks are filled with a separate colored material. We were going for a recipe that would not crack and we landed on using very fine silica sand (70 grit), sifted horse manure (so I guess there is manure on the floor), wheat paste, borax, and powdered red art clay from a local pottery manufacturer. These materials can be found very cheap when local, or possibly free if you do some searching. Again, I would stress making multiple tests until you get what you want.

Once this thinner layer had dried we decided to follow up with a red aliz painted onto the floor. We decided to do this because our final floor layer had not come out as smooth as we had really wanted. I think perhaps if we had spent more time troweling this wouldn't have been needed. However, for the aliz we used very finely sifted straw that added a really beautiful finish to our floors. The small pieces of straw are flecked throughout the dark red floor.

There are many different oils you can use to finish your floor, but the most important thing is to give your floor an adequate amount of time to dry before oiling. I've seen and read about others' floors performing very terribly because they didn't let the moisture leave their floor before oiling. On our floors we chose to put down multiple layers of boiled linseed oil (something I would have definitely preferred not to do), but the cost of better oils like Tung oil made us stoop to oil with a chemical drying agent. On the plus side, the drying times for boiled linseed oil are much quicker than pure oils like Tung. Wanting to finish our floors with something nice we did follow up with one layer of Tung oil and then also waxed with Heritage Natural Finishes Liquid Wax End Sealer. This company is wonderful and will help answer any question you might have, I highly recommend purchasing all of your oil from them if you have the money to spare.

So how are they holding up almost a year later. Great!

We have had little issues with our floor, it will definitely dent if you drop something with an edge on it. I gouged it nicely with a piece of firewood that slipped out of my hand. Also, be wary of earthen floors near a fireplace or rmh. We have found that the floors will heat up and soften when we burn our rmh for a longer period of time. Consequently the oils continue to penetrate into the floor and leave the surface a bit dry. I don't foresee this as a real problem as a new coat of oil is beneficial for the whole floor every few years. However, the softened floor is more of an issue as it is the favorite place for our doggies to jump off of the bench. It took a little bit of time for us to realize it was the dogs' nails that was causing little indentations in the floor. I think a few coats of oil and another finish of wax will help harden up the surface and fill in the small imprints, but the next house will be getting a brick or stone floor around the rmh.

Cleaning is also a breeze, sweeping is a daily process with two hulking and fuzzy malamutes, but I think the sweeping process has actually smoothed the floors even more. Periodically we will mop the floor with hot water and some essential oils. This works quite well to remove any outside dirt brought in and leave them smelling nicely.

As always I'll finish this post with some helpful resources. I suggest the book "Earthen Floors: A Modern Approach to an Ancient Practice" by Sukita Crimmel and James Thomson. Also Becky Bee's book "The Cob Builder's Handbook" has a small section devoted to floors. As always, Cob Cottage Company and Permies are the best places to find any information you are looking for. As a general rule of thumb, cob builders are a friendly and sharing group, so ask away for information from the experienced.