Saturday, November 14, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009


All four walls are framed now! We picked up our recycled paper insulation. The lumber store said we had to rent a machine that blows in the insulation. I did not rent the machine. I broke off chunks into a plastic barrel and churned it up with a mixer blade on a half inch drill. This made the insulation expand to about four times its size. We filled the box beam and then capped it off with 3/4 inch plywood on top. This meant the house was ready for the roof, which was good timing because the next day the roof trusses were delivered. The following day some local builders volunteered their Sunday to help me put up the roof. We have a great community of people here that are interested in what I am doing and are willing to help out. To my amazement we got the roof trusses up in one day! What a difference one day can make. It is really starting to look like a house now and things are moving along pretty fast now. I have quite a bit more work to do on the roof, but the hard part is done. Putting up roof trusses by yourself would be next to impossible.

Friday, October 23, 2009


We have four walls, two of which are finished! The door and window frames are in place and we built the box beam in place. Carrie's sister Regan and her boyfriend Trevor came down from Canada and helped us build for a ten days. I found building the box beam in place advantageous because I can do it myself when I have too instead of building it on the ground and having a team of people trying to lift it in place while standing on ladders. The plywood is nailed straight down into the bucks this way instead of toe nailed in afterwards. Then the 2x8's are screwed vertically into the plywood from below and from the top. Inside the box beam I put spacers every three feet. I will fill the box beam with cellulose, which is recycled paper insulation, then cap it with more plywood. Felt paper on top will finish it off for a bit more water protection. Fifteen inches of cellulose is well over R50 insulation which will match my bale walls nicely. The roof will then rest on top of the box beam. While two of the walls were still down, I moved dirt into the house with the tractor and spread by hand for the next floor layer. Once I compact this layer I lay the radiant floor tubes directly on top. With this layer in place I was able to put the bucks in for the other two walls. The other earth floor layers will not require the tractor. Now I can frame the rest of the windows and doors and tie the walls together with the last two box beams. When I finish those walls I am ready for the roof which should arrive any day now. I find the stick frame building goes very fast. Moving lots of dirt is very slow:) There are still several floor layers to go, but things should move along a little quicker now.

I used screws to frame the walls because I happened to have a ton of them recycled from the forms I built. Using screws was a Good thing it turns out since this is my first time building a house. For instance the first window I framed I had to take apart and move three times before I got it right. All I had to do was unscrew everything and move it instead of trying to bang and pry out nails. The next thing I framed was the door ( twice ). After that I got the hang of it and started getting them done in one go. Using recycled wood, you find odd lumbar sizes. I learned to measure everything no matter what you thought the wood sizes were supposed to be. I am framing everything with 2x8''s because I scored a very large stack of them for a very good price. I now have used lumbar, windows, and door sources that seem to be endless. If you ever try this, get to know some builders. They generally stockpile building materials that they pull out of old and even new houses. It can literally cut your materials costs in half or better.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

More pictures....

Here are the pictures!

A lot has happened since the last post. After the concrete dried I took all the forms apart to use the wood once again for something else. With the footer done I could then bolt on the bottom plate. This is the only wood I have had to buy from a lumber yard so far because this piece needed to be treated wood. A layer of felt paper was placed on the footer first to form a vapor barrier between the concrete and the straw even though the straw will sit an inch and a half above the concrete anyway. My daughter Bethen helped me bolt on the bottom plate. She put the washers on, then started the nuts on the bolts and tightened them with a wrench. She really got into it. (Daddy went back and tightened them a little more later ) With the bottom plate on I could then measure out exactly where the bathroom walls would be. Then the digging started. I dug out all the trenches where I needed to place plumbing for drainage. This took a while with the rocky ground. Once the trenches were done, I put in all the plumbing and capped of the pipes coming out of the ground. Next I put in a layer of gravel, then a vapor barrier, then a layer of 2" rigid foam insulation on the ground and up the sides of the foundation. The foam is not very green and is very expensive. I think next time I build one of these I will find a cheaper more eco friendly solution for ground insulation. There are several layers of flooring to go before the walls go up. All of the groundwork is time consuming and I was dying to start building with wood. I have to keep the site clear so I can dump loads of dirt in with the tractor for the next floor layer. One night Carrie mention that since I can't get the tractor around the South facing wall, why not go ahead and put up that wall. I ran to the building site with a big grin on my face and had the south wall up in two hours! I am frantically trying to get the floor layers in so I can continue the other walls. When I begin, it will take me less than one day to finish the walls minus the window framing. It will go from a square on the ground to something that resembles a house very quickly. Getting that one wall up was very motivating. The next floor layer is 6" of compacted earth. (dirt) on top of my foam. I am installing an earthen floor. Yesterday I put in the first section of that earth layer. At first I thought, what am I doing putting dirt all over my nice looking insulation. Then as I leveled and compacted it, I thought what a great feeling having earth in the house. It fells great to stand on and I instantly fell in love with the idea. With the radiant heat under it, it will be very cozy. Any kind of wood flooring would someday eventually rot. The dirt I used for my floor has been around forever, and will continue to be around forever. It will take me at least seven more days to complete this floor layer. Tonight I am excited to put up the east wall. I will not need to access that side with the tractor anymore. I will post some new pictures of the earth going in and the walls so far. The next floor layers are the radiant tubing followed by two more inches of compacted earth. I have purchases all of my radiant tubing parts. Now I just have to figure out how to install it! After that I will put the last two walls up and the roof. I have ordered the roof trusses and the metal, which are coming soon! Once the roof is up protecting the floor I will then put in the adobe layer. 1 1/2" of adobe floor. This will dry out while the walls are open. Once dry I can stack bales! Then once the house is done I will put a half inch finish coat of adobe on the floor followed by seven coats of linseed oil. It should make for a nice floor finish.
Today I picked up three huge loads of recycled wood for a very good price. I am very excited about. That should about be all the wood I will need for the house and then some. All of my wood so far has been well under half price except for the bottom plate.
Stay tuned for more pictures...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

concrete pouring...

The foundation is in!

We had a concrete inspector come in and (luckily) he said the forms looked great.  So, two cement trucks later, and lots of shoveling, smoothing and trowelling with the help of my friend John and Carrie, the footer is complete.  In total 14 yards of concrete was used.  This is the only concrete we will be using in the house.  Photos to come soon.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Above Ground

Here is a short progress report on the straw house. I have run city water and the septic system up to the house under the rubble trench. I am pretty pleased, because the plumbing was one thing I thought I would have to hire a professional to do. One of our local plumbing companies here was nice enough to talk my plan over with me at their shop. I bought the pieces I needed then went home and installed it all myself. The water line was easy enough as well. With that done, I filled in the last wall of the foundation with rocks. A friend loaned me a tamper to pack all the rock down. Now for the last two days I've been building above ground! I started building the forms to pour my footer. Once the footer is done, I can start building the walls and it will start taking the shape of a house. Originally I was going to lay down earth bags of rock with a six inch concrete slab on top of them for my footer. After having a play with the rock bags I don't fully trust them to hold up my house. I know they have been used before, but I think I will go with a concrete footer. I still won't be using much concrete as I am not pouring a slab, I am going with earth floors on the inside of the house. Also to save on concrete in my footer, I am thinking of laying a ground layer of football sized rocks for the length of the walls, then pour the concrete over them. If anybody has a better idea on this please contact me soon. I am trying to minimize the use of concrete, but still have the house stand up. It's all coming along now. I am very excited to move away from shoveling earth and rocks to working with wood. We now have all the doors and windows needed for the house. I found a building recycle center close by, and got some sweet deals - happened to catch the center on a day they were offering 50% off their usual low prices. Four large double paned windows (that will go across the front of the house facing south) were $17.00 each. I can't see anything wrong with them. I got beautiful heavy french doors for $60.00. We also bought several pieces of furniture right across the lake from my Mothers antique shop. Needless to say, she gave us some good deals. I look forward to seeing the final cost for this house.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Here's a look at the footer forms (perfectly square and level, yay!). This is looking down on the house from the north. Just some small additions/supports in a few joins this weekend, and we will see the concrete poured on Monday. Pray it doesn't rain!

We have broken ground!

I (Cory) have finally started building the house. It has been a productive couple of weeks. I was starting to feel a little disheartened that nothing construction-wise had happened in 2 months of being here. Then it all seemed to happen at once... I rented a backhoe to dig site drainage and house foundation, received 90 tons of gravel, put together a storage shed for straw, and stacked 300 bales of wheat straw that were baled specifically (dry and very tight) by an Amish farmer for our purposes. Carrie found some beautiful brand new kitchen cabinetry, kitchen and bathroom faucets, granite vanity top, toilet, sink, fixtures, a multitude of electrical plates and switches, as well as plumbing bits and bobs - all at a random warehouse sale of a kitchen and bath showroom that had gone out of business. And all of that happened in just one day!! Needless to say it's been all go since then, and we are very excited, and finally feel like we are actually doing it! To start with, I experimented with an idea I had to square the house. I simply drew the house perimeter (a rectangle) to scale on some plywood, then drew the diagonals out to the corners and pinned the board to the ground with a pin marking the center. Then I took a 26.5 foot tape and held it at the center pin. My brother walked to each corner until the tape lined up with my line and staked it down. We had it perfectly square in half an hour! The backhoe work, which took four days all up, was heaps of fun! I (with the help of a good family friend with 30 years experience on a backhoe) dug a 250 foot drainage ditch to keep the building site dry. As we are making a rubble trench foundation, I dug an 18 inch wide two foot deep trench around the perimeter of the house. I laid a few inches of gravel, then a 4 inch perforated pipe/french drain. Then I filled the trench in with gravel to ground level. So far, three walls have been filled. The fourth wall will need the water line, power, and drainage run under it before it can be filled. Once that's done I can start building up! In the pictures the foundation is actually straight, but dirt has gotten knocked around the edges and makes it look squiggly. I spent two days last week pulling nails out of my recycled 2x4's. I spent the next day cutting all the boards to length that I would need for building my bucks. Bucks are basically 2x4 ladders that create the walls for the house. I stacked my bales up and measured how tall and wide the bucks need to be. I decided to bolt the saw down and put blocks up to the correct measurement. That way I didn't have to measure each individual board. I just slid it up to the block and cut - 80 long boards and 200 short boards in one day. Yesterday, I built all the bucks needed for the exterior (and 2 interior) walls of the house. I was expecting this to take up to two weeks, but I made a template by building one buck and getting it square. Then I laid that down and screwed 2x4's along the edges to make a template. This way, as with the cutting, I didn't have to measure each board. Each buck fit together tightly like a puzzle. I borrowed my brothers nail gun and left over nails, and built all the bucks in six hours. I'm pleased to say they are all exactly the same. Pretty sweet. I really look forward to finishing off the foundation now so I can get all the walls up. Next step then... laying out the plumbing, and filling in the last side of the foundation.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

June News...

Well, we are getting closer... construction of the strawbale house is in sight.  Today's great score - a barn full of used wood, enough for all the framing and, we think, decking too... for USD $550.  This is exactly what we were hoping for, and Cory is very excited.  

We also bought a vehicle, thanks to Susan (Cory's sister in law) who happened to see it sitting in a farmer's field.  It's a 1999 chevy blazer SUV, and though perhaps not the most eco or expense friendly vehicle, I am very glad we went for a 4 wheel drive.  If you've seen our driveway and site, you'll understand.  It's not exactly level or mud-free yet.  

I (Carrie) accidentally adopted a new family member.  I had set out to buy plants (seedlings) for the garden, and came back with no plants, but one little dog.  Whoops.  I was strongly against having anything more than chickens to look after this year, knowing I would be running after two little kids - keeping them out of the lake, the poison ivy, poison oak, chigger (invisible itchy mite) and tick infested forest, etc.  But after going to the Amish greenhouse to get my plants without cash or cheques (a ridiculous oversight I realise now - they don't use electricity, why would they have ATM or credit card facilities??!!), I stopped at a garage sale, and though not interested in anything they had for sale, saw this sweet wee thing who seemed to have been dumped on the highway near there, 2 weeks before.  She instantly captured my heart and I brought her home with me.  Though we have attempted calling her various names, ('Dingo' being my favorite), 'Goldie' is what she responds to.  Our daughter Bethen also keeps saying, "No mommy, her name is just Goldie" whenever I try something else.  Perhaps a miniature pincher/chiwawa cross, she is adorable and has instantly become a part of our family and community.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Apologies to those who have been waiting to hear from us...  It's been a long time (3 months!) since our last blog entry - yes we are still alive!  Actually, I haven't felt this alive in a long time.  Upon leaving New Zealand, we spent a few days in Los Angeles catching up with friends, then headed straight to Indiana, and that is where we are now, for the year.  We spent a little over 2 weeks living with my (Cory's) parents, and catching up, while we searched for a home.  As it turned out, the trailer we had planned to live in was trash (pun intended).  Cosmetically it looked fine, but it gave me asthma instantly when we started cleaning it out.  So I began to investigate, peeling back flooring and wall panels, only to find that the wooden frame and entire structure was rotten and covered in black mold.  Time to go trailer shopping!  We found one we love, and that will serve our family much better than our original trailer.  We are now living in a 33 foot, all weather trailer that has 3 large slide outs, which nearly double it's width.  It is actually comfortable and roomy enough for the four of us.  So for the past two weeks we have been trying to set up our daily living.  This has included laying a gravel road to our site, digging drainage trenches, setting up sewage drainage, connecting water and electricity, plotting where gardens, and chicken coops and sheds should go...  Throw in my brother's wedding, my Grandmother visiting from Florida, and Carrie's parents visiting from Canada - we have been incredibly busy, and needless to say, we haven't even thought about the straw bale house yet.  I predict it will be another month before we get a start on it.  For those of you who are waiting to see some straw bale action, sorry for the delay!  

Turns out that hard labour is, well, laborious... and hard.  I am slowly getting used to it, but as I've been sitting on my ass for the last 14 years, I am very sore.  Also, there have been lots of things to set up for basic living in the woods.  As I mentioned, I have had to put in a gravel road.  It still needs some drainage and leveling work, which I'll complete once it dries out a bit.  My father owns a tractor that I have been using for almost every task, it seems.  I had no idea tractors could be so much fun!  As far as site prep, I cut down 7 trees that were a potential danger to the house because they were dying, or leaning too far over the site.  I had some quick instruction (from my Dad and brother) on how to use a chainsaw, and I pretty much use it every day.  We are currently building a chicken coop for our pullets (young hens), that were gifted to Bethen from Grandpa, so eventually we will have fresh eggs coming in.  Since I had to clear the trees anyway, I decided to build a log cabin chicken coop with the felled trees.  What a blast!  I cut them to length, cut notches with the chainsaw and chiseled them out, then put them into place with the tractor.  I will use earth plaster in between the cracks.  A great way to test our site's soil for the eventual walls of the straw bale house.  Today I made a bunch of test samples for earth plaster with soil from our site.  I was very pleased with the clay content, and am excited to see how they turn out after drying.  Testing the adobe on the chicken coop is a great experiment, and will give us a good indication of how it will hold up.  The coop's roof is a free truck top we acquired from my parents.  I reused some old fencing from a dog pen to create an outside chicken run.  Since there has been little need for nails, the entire coop has been built for free.  We are also using the felled trees to build garden boxes which we are rushing to complete, as it is time to plant.  The last tree, a sycamore, I am saving to build a front deck for the trailer. The steps will be varied sizes of huge cotton wood stumps my brother has laying around.  We have to buy some nice top soil for the garden, and seed/plants, but otherwise, the cost for garden, deck, and chicken coop (so far) is nothing.   

On a personal note, last week we were helping set up and take down for my brother's wedding.  It all went very well and they had a beautiful wedding.  It was wonderful to see so many old friends, and family.  Carrie is doing very well, and is settling in after the initial culture shock of moving to small town USA.  She is on a continual search for organic and wheat-free food options...  which is somewhat of a challenge here.  She is also trying to fit about 4 cubic meters worth of stuff we brought from New Zealand into our trailer, with only mild success.  Nuala is always happy, playing more and more, and always exploring herself and what's around her.   Today it was the sandbox.  She got a mouthful.  First thing other than breast milk she's eaten!  I really don't think it will be that long before she's crawling.  She can scoot around with her legs, and is now mastering the push up.  When she connects the two, we're in trouble!  Bethen took some time to adjust to all the changes.  She was asking to go home frequently in the first days after leaving New Zealand, but is now settling in nicely.  She's had a lot to deal with in the past few months - an aupair, then grandparents, then aunty and uncle coming and going from overseas, a new baby sister, traveling across the globe and staying in unfamiliar places.  For a girl who's just 2 years and 5 months old, she's adjusted really well, and continues to take it all in stride.  She even impressed us as the flower girl in last weekend's wedding, throwing rose petals down the isle before the bride entered behind her.  I introduced her to fishing last week, and she loves it.  She caught 17 fish in her first two days of fishing.  She has a little "barbie" fishing pole for kids which she managed to hook a 5 pound bass on.  Incredible!  She was calm and reeling it in nicely while I was excitedly shouting out instructions and waving my hands wildly.  Unbelievably, the "kiddie" pole was handling it fine even though the fish was as long as the pole.  She reeled it in close to us, but the bass spat out the hook...  oh well.  She's been catching (some might say tormenting) frogs, and swimming in the lake, and generally having a good time being a kid.  We catch all of our own worms for fishing, and she even enjoys that. 

On the hunting and gathering front, I tried my hand at turkey hunting.  During the 3 week season (when we first arrived), I had four turkeys walk right by me, two of them almost right on top of me!  Guess I managed to set up pretty good camouflage and am quiet enough for the sport, but as they were females, they were off limits.  On the last day of turkey hunting season, after rising at 5 am several days in a row - only to be eaten alive by mosquitos, I packed up my gear, went straight to the grocery store, and brought home a frozen turkey.  Carrie thought it was pretty funny, and I dare say there was more meat on it than the wild variety I had been hunting!  The fishing is going pretty good, and I will try my hand at hunting again when deer season comes along.  I wonder if they sell whole frozen deer at the grocery store?

I've already come to realize that building may take a long time with two little kids to chase after, but then again, I am here to enjoy them too.  As far as the house goes, we have been continuing to collect things.  My grandfather, who is now in a nursing home, has given away all his no longer needed belongings, and I have acquired all the tools I could ever need to build a house, and tons of building materials such as nails, metal, wood, ceramic tiles, copper pipes, as well as furniture, and more.  There is no shortage of auctions and yard sales in this neck of the woods either, and we have found a local farmer who will be baling wheat straw in July... here's hoping the bales will be dry and tight enough to construct our walls with!  

Hopefully this entry has caught you all up with our news.  Apologies once again for the lack of correspondence, life just got a bit too busy/frantic in the weeks before leaving New Zealand, and subsequently, since settling in Indiana.  No matter how organized you think you are, it is always that way when moving house.  Let alone, moving house from one hemisphere to another, with 2 youngsters in tow.  We do not have an internet connection at our trailer in the woods either, so that makes it harder to keep in touch and update frequently.  Please let us know if there is anything in particular we have forgotten to mention that you are interested in knowing about.  We have been met with a real mixture of interest, and blank stares, when we tell people here about our plans to build with straw bales and earth.  So thanks for your continued interest and support!

Cory and Carrie

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Strawbale Workshop

I just got back from a week long strawbale workshop in Geraldine, New Zealand put on by Sol Design, Ltd. A solid week of nothing but strawbale. It was a fantastic group of people, including strawbale experts, builders, plasterers, eco designers, and architectural designers. Twelve of us built a small strawbale structure in a week. I had so many questions after building my virtual house, and they were all answered by the end of the workshop. I highly recommend a workshop before you build. There are things you learn in a workshop that you just can't get from a book. Actually seeing and touching the earth and lime plaster mixes to get a feel for the proper consistencies. getting to build and see all of the fine details, and asking questions while your doing it can't be beat. What a great experience! I am completely confident now that I can build a house myself, except for plumbing and wiring. Its only a matter of endurance at this point. Although the work is very fun, I think it will take a very long time to complete. I am rebuilding my virtual house at the moment with all my new knowledge, and counting the days until I get to Indiana.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

We have ten weeks left until we go home and start building. On Feb 14th I start a week long straw bale workshop in Geraldine, NZ, which I am very excited about. I've been spending time building a computer generated model of the house, board by board. Its a great way to visualize exactly what needs to go where. Every step of the way has been a bit of a research project. I started with a flat piece of ground and dug down, laying out all the drain pipes, with the proper slope and so forth working my way up to the roof. I think spending this time now might save me a lot of time standing on my lot scratching my head, wondering what to do next. I'm going to show the plans to a builder here in NZ next week to talk about what I've built so far in the computer. I hope to refine it even more during the week of the straw bale workshop. I want to have a good idea of how I am going to do things before I get home so I can hit the ground running. We have been sketching house plans for a few years now. Some of the earlier ones are funny to look back on. We knew you could build curved walls and build cheap, so the plans were elaborate and huge. After reading four straw bale books, and watching two straw bale videos, the house plan is now a small rectangle (one story). It appears to be a lot of work. We aren't even calling it a house anymore, now its called our straw bale cottage! I've tried to do an accurate estimate of the cost. I counted up all the materials in my virtual house and priced it out with a local lumber yards website. It came out around 30,000.00, not as cheap as I had hoped, but that is with all new building materials. I will see how much I can cut that cost using recycled materials wherever I can. The computer model gets more detailed every day. I have actual sun positions for any hour/day/month/year which makes designing for passive solar really fun. I can put in winter and summer sun positions and adjust my windows and roof overhangs accordingly. You can render out images that are hopefully fairly accurate for sun and shadow. I also had my Brother who lives next door stand on the house site and take a panoramic picture of the lot. I stitched this together, so that the view you see out of the windows in the computer model is pretty much what you would actually see. I'm thinking the virtual house might end up looking much nicer than the real house. :) Don't worry, Ill stop playing with computers once I finally get outside. Here are some virtual house pictures comped into real pictures of the site, with sun positions matching the time of day of the photographs... in theory.