Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Clearing the way to a Homestead. New projects, Suggestions wanted!

Back in december we had to put the Earthbag construction to sleep for the winter. It was a little depressing that we didnt get the roof on, but its my own fault for starting the project so late in the season. None-the-less Im very proud and happy with how much work we were able to do and Im very excited about taking the tarps off in a couple months , get a roof on it, and really finish it up nice. 

The earthbag walls, covered with tarps to weather the cold and rain...an awning and another tarp shields the generator and other machinery

In the mean time, there is no shortage of work to be done and we are gathering no moss! Read on to see what's in the works and maybe you can offer some suggestions we may want to consider in the coming phases of development

So, 20 years ago the property was logged and a few clearings opened up. The edge of one of these clearings is the proposed building site for our house.

The terrain was very uneven and needed a good deal of leveling to make a solid base to lay a stable foundation.  We also wanted to open up enough room to make space for abundant food production as well as areas where I can mine the heavy clay soil for the dirt needed to fill the earthbags I will be using for construction of the house.

 When enough space was cleared and leveled to make a good start on these efforts the very thin topsoil was lost and quickly the rocky subsoil was exposed. This causes me some discomfort as there is nothing worse for the soil than to be bare and exposed but Im working to keep it protected and begin its rehabilitation. More on that shortly.

This is the east side of the clearing, looking west. When you are standing at the top of the slope and looking east you have a very nice view of Mt. Rainier so this will make a nice location for our wedding in September. This side of the cleared area is also where I will begin cutting into the slope to create some terracing. Along with developing the landscape for food production digging out the dirt to create the terraces will give me a lot of material for filling the earthbags when it comes time to start the house construction. Starting this process so far in advance of the actual construction will allow the dirt I remove from the slope to dry and more easily be screened and separated from large rocks.

To heal the damage of exposure as quickly as possible and to create a pleasant space to hold a wedding I immediately began the effort of rebuilding the soil. I started an ongoing collection of large amounts of cardboard from various sources in the neighborhood where I work with the intent of covering the entire area with variations of the sheet mulching technique

I began separating the branches and logs in the brush piles so I could save the pieces that were large enough to make firewood. Then I started chipping the smaller branches and spreading the chip mulch across a layer of cardboard. With this process I was able to make paths from the driveway to the brush piles making it possible to walk across the very muddy soil, while dragging a 200 lb wood chipper.
I also got permission from a local coffee shop to collect their used coffee grounds. They have a small garbage bin dedicated to used grounds and I can easily fill as many buckets as I desire with this very nutritious soil additive. I am also collecting the the kitchen scraps from our own house and plan to ask around at other local businesses to see if they might want to let me take theirs a well.
As I lay down cardboard and wood chips I have been incorporating these collected materials into the layers making a sort of large spread out compost pile. I also plan on bringing in a lot of straw as well.

This is one of the two ENORMOUS brush piles. This is what still remains after at least 7 hours of work to reduce its size!
So, by now you may be thinking "My god that looks like a lot of work".

Well....You have no idea.

I was amazed to learn how hard it is on your body to feed brush into a wood chipper for hours on end. Your hands vibrate so badly you feel pins and needles for a day afterward and you ache from hours of bending and lifting and shoving. Im not exaggerating to say that it is just as hard as filling and stacking 60 pound bags of dirt into a wall. Maybe even harder considering the distress you feel after working for hours and hours feeding branch after branch into a chipper only to look back at a pile that doesn't seem to have gotten any smaller. On top of this, wood chips take up a LOT less space than the branches they come from so after 7 hours of grinding a huge pile of branches you have a seemingly TINY pile of wood chips.

These are all very hard lessons for this out of shape city boy

This has lead me to a few alterations in the plan.

1. Hire an operator with a very large, industrial chipper to speed up the grinding work. It may have been a little foolish to think I would be able to tackle the entire job with a small consumer model chipper. 

2. pile the chips, coffee grounds, kitchen scraps and all other collected organic material into large areas fenced in with chicken wire to create massive composting piles which will develop rich, dense material that can be added to the soil over time.

3. Bring in the worms! Adding worms to the piles of organic material will enrich and speed the decomposition into healthy nutrient dense compost. I may also bring in some worm bins and make some worm tea for further boosting  soil health.

4. A more immediate and practical solution to the problem of protecting the exposed soil will be spreading the seeds of various plants that will help condition the heavy clay soil. Plants like burdock, comfrey and chickory that have large tap roots which will dig deep into the clay, braking it up, aerating and drawing up nutrients. Also plants like clovers and lupines that can bind nitrogen into the soil. Later as I add mulch and compost these pioneer plants will add their mass and nutrients to the ongoing process of constructing a healthy soil.

5. I am playing with the idea of taking some of the branches and twigs from the brush piles and laying them out over the ground as a type of very bulky mulch then covering them with dirt, smaller mulching materials and seeding them with the pioneer plants mentioned previously. This idea borrows from the technique of hugelkultur which covers very large mounds of bulky material with mulch and soil for making planting beds with many productive advantages. My idea is to make a lot of little mini hugulkultur beds.

Questions for the future:
What to do with all these godd**n rocks?? There are SO MANY. I have even uncovered the top of a very large boulder. My hope is that the rocky areas of the soil do not extend across the entire area we plan on using for food production. It seems that the really bad patches are localized in one area of the clearing but in the future we have to clear a lot more to open up enough growing area and sun spaces to support our food production.

I console myself with the areas of dirt that are relatively rock free and by collecting many of the larger rocks which can be used in the future for various projects like small garden walls but I will be spending some serious time considering the worst case scenarios and planning for ways to build up soil that is this rocky.
If you have any suggestions I would love to hear them!

Thanks for reading!

This post was shared with Raising homemakers    the Homestead Blog Hop   Savvysouthernstyle.net

Monday, December 22, 2014

Earth to sky, The Powerful Combination of Cedar and Oregon Grape

Western Red cedar and Oregon Grape are two massive powerhouses of medicinal virtue. Combined together they offer a harmonious balance of immune system supports. Each has a long and rich history of medicinal use, while modern medicine is just catching up!

Western Red cedar
Thuja plicata

Native to the Pacific northwest coastal regions of the United States and canada, cedar has spread to various regions, world wide as well, even being "naturalized" in Great Brittan.  Cedar was referred to as the tree of life by the Native first peoples of the Pacific northwest area because of the incredible number of ways that it supported their existence. The tree would carry the individual virtually in every way, literally from the cradle to the grave. Small beds for children and infants would be made from cedar wood, Clothing was made from its bark and burial rites involved cedar as well.

A close up of Cedar sprigs showing the leaf growth patterns which make it easily identifiable
Cedar is actually not a true cedar being in the genus Thuja and is distinctly identifiable by its leaf pattern. The scale-like leaves grow in opposite pairs along the branching stems which spread out in a flat spray from a central branch.

Cedar is perhaps best known for its incredible rot resistant properties, the fallen logs of older trees taking many decades to decompose.  It is now known these attributes are due to the presence of a compound in the tree called as thujaplicin an antifungul of unequaled power which also happens to carry strong antibacterial and antioxidant properties as well. Red cedars are also rich in flavonols, procyanidins, quercitin, kaempferol, volatile oils, and catechins (the same compound of great fame found in green tea).  

Native healers exploited the many powerful compounds in Cedar to treat fevers, sore throats, coughs, colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculous infections, diarrhea, boils, heart and kidney problems, menstrual disorders, ringworm and other fungal skin infections, toothaches, arthritis, sore muscles, vaginitis, and bladder irritation. Naturopaths, herbalists and adventurous physicians in North America and Europe have utilized Wester Red AND Nothern White Cedar for these same ailments as well as prostate problems, incontinence, syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Modern science is just now  catching up to the old ways, and now confirms the antibatcerial, antiviral and antifungul powers of thujaplicin as well as the antioxidant,  and immune system enhancing properties of various other compounds found in the native Cedars of North America.

Caution: The compounds in Red Cedar which stimulate the smooth muscle tissue make it a risk to women who are pregnant as it may induce contractions. Do not use Red Cedar if you are pregnant. 
Also, there are some products which contain the extracted essential oil of Cedar. These products should not be taken internally as the concentrated oil poses serious health risks if ingested. 

Oregon Grape
Mahonia aquifolium, nervosa

  Oregon grape can be found sporadically throughout the Northern US but its highest concentrations are found it its native woodlands of the Northwest in the foothills to lower elevations. At first glance it bears strong resemblance to Holly with its spiny, tear drop leaves, grouped in leaflets emanating from a central stem.

The medicinal value of Oregon grape starts with its very bitter taste due to a high content of tannins as well as strong alkaloids. These constituents stimulate the flow of bile and enhancing liver function and detoxifying digestive organs. Its benefits to the digestive system continues with a sedative effect on the smooth muscle tissue, easing cramps, aiding constipation, and soothing inflammation.The cooling soothing qualities of the plant tannins also eases the inflammation and irritation associated with  psoriasis and other dermatitis related conditions

One of the more potent alkaloids in Oregon Grape is a substance called berberine. Berberine is known to have strong antimicrobial qualities as well as being a multidrug resistance pump inhibitor (MDR inhibitor). This means it is effective at diminishing the resistance bacteria have to antibiotics. With these properties Oregon grape has long been used by herbalists ancient and modern to fight infections of many types both topical as well as internal.  

Caution: Because of its stimulating effects on the digestive system and other smooth muscle tissues Oregon Grape should not be ingested if suffering from chronic diarrhea or during pregnancy.

Because of its own strong antimicrobial properties, its diminishing of bacterias resistance to antibiotic treatments as well as its benefits to the digestive system Oregon Grape becomes the perfect compliment to Western Red cedar as a treatment for seasonal ailments especially when the digestive system is affected as in the case of a bad flu.

For long term storage I like to prepare cedar and Oregon Grape as a tincture. This is also an efficient way to administer doses in a more palatable way if extremely bitter tea is not your thing! 

Harvesting Cedar and Oregon Grape

The fresh tender tips of a cedar bough
The ideal time for collecting Cedar is in the summer or the fall when the oils are at their highest and the tree has been collecting its nutrients. However any time of year is fine for good medicine.

Best harvesting for Cedar is done at the ends of the low hanging boughs. With pruning sheers you can snip a large amount of the delicate ends without causing any significant damage to the tree. This also ensures the freshest growth with the highest levels of the beneficial compounds. Collect all your trimming in a bag and keep in mind that a little bit will go a long way. You can collect enough Cedar to make tinctures for your whole family and probably some friends with just a few well placed snips. Often after powerful wind storms you can find blow downs of Cedar twigs with good medicine in them. 

Oregon Grape is just a little more tricky but not much.

An exposed Oregon grape root showing the characteristic, intense yellow color of its potent medicinal alkaloids.

Best time for harvesting Oregon grape is in the fall to early winter. This is when the plant has entered its dormant phase and has concentrated all its nutrients and energy in its root system which is where you want to go for the highest concentrations of the effective ingredients.

When you find a good plant, follow the leaf stems to the central stalk and give it a gentle tug to start  loosening it from the soil. With your hand or a trowel begin clearing the soil from over the root stem. Most often the roots of Oregon Grape will run under the soil, parallel to the surface, making it easy to find a long length of it without having to dig out great quantities of dirt. Keep scraping and clearing away dirt until the root goes too deep or the soil becomes too dense. At this point you can clip off the root where it disappears into the ground. The remaining root system will quickly recover and begin producing more plant off-shoots. It is a VERY hardy plant and quick to propagate from root stocks as long as some remains in the ground. 

Keep your collection secure in a reusable grocery bag.

Preparing the plant material for tincture

 Rinse the Oregon Grape roots very well under cold water to remove excess dirt. With pruning shears or a strong kitchen knife trim the roots into short sections 

With a sharp pocket knife gently scrape off the outer layer of root bark. A soft touch is key here. It does not take hardly any pressure at all to start exposing the yellow inner bark.

This is more or less what the root should look like when you have taken off the outer bark. Its ok to have some remnants of outer bark and you could even forgo this entire step in the process but I like to get as much of the material I need with as little excess as possible. 

With a bit more pressure begin shaving the inner bark away from the core of the root. The inner bark layer will easily lift away and this scraping can be done quickly but be careful with sharp knives!

When you have scraped the root down to the creamy white color of the inner core you have gone far enough. Continue this process along the entire length of the root until all the yellow inner bark has been removed. 

Collect all the shavings on a baking pan or other wide flat surface. Fluff the material and spread it out so that it can air dry for a day or so. 

When the inner root has had a chance to dry a bit you can add the cedar. This is easily done simply by snipping the cedar twigs into tiny pieces using a good pair of kitchen sheers. 

 When the Cedar is well chopped into small pieces toss both ingredients together so they are evenly blended

Carefully pour the entire blend into a jar large enough to hold the plant material while leaving about half the jar empty after very gently pressing down the chopped plants. Then fill the rest of of the jar with a strong clear alcohol. 80 proof vodka or Everclear is a good option but if you are not a fan of alcohol then you can also use Apple cider vinegar but then you should leave it soaking for a couple extra weeks. Remember to shake it daily if possible!

After the tincture has soaked for about 4 weeks pour the entire contents into a strainer and catch all the liquid in a new jar. Firmly press the plant material into the strainer in order to squeeze out as much liquid as you can.

You can leave the brew in a large bottle or separate the contents into smaller bottles with dropper tops. This is what I like to do as it provides an easy method for applying doses and if you use the amber tinted bottlees, the solution wwill be safe from UV exposure. This is a powerful medicine and a little bit will go a long way. Store in a cool dark place for up to 1 year.

If I am using it for treating colds and flus I mix 1-2 droppers full into a cup of tea with honey and lemon 3-4 times a day.

If you are new to the world of wild plants I strongly recommend finding and talking to an experienced wild herbalist. It is very likely that there is one offering classes or instructional day hikes near you and as always please consult your physician for any medical advice.

Thanks for reading!

This post was shared with the    Homestead Bloghop, Homemaker LinkupWow us wednesday, From the Farm Hop   Wildcrafting wednesday

 If you would like to review the medical literature which demonstrates the effectiveness of these plants as a medicinal treatment please see the following references:

for Cedar (specifically the thujaplicin constituent)



For Oregon Grape (specifically the alkaloid berberine)

Mama Kautz

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The medicinal usefulness of Usnea

Also known as Old man's Beard or Beard Lichen, Usnea is the name for a group of various species of lichens in the genus Usnea. A lichen is a composite organism formed by an algae living within the structure of a fungal growth in a symbiotic relationship.

Usnea resembles a small branched shrub. Most commonly found on dead or dying trees. usnea prefers this location because of the greater access to light from pre-existing canopy loss of leaves. This has lead to the mistaken idea that Usnea is a cause of sickness and death within the trees it clings to.

The best way to identify Usnea is to gently hold a strand between two fingers and give a light tug. The strand will easily stretch and split, revealing a thin white filament within the core of the larger strand.

Usnea grows best in damp climates and its tufts will be much smaller in dryer climates.
The best time to harvest is after a wind storm when gusts have blown down the higher branches often carrying the larger tufts. This practice will also ensure that the plant will be safe from over harvesting, an important consideration because Usnea is slow growing.

There is much anecdotal evidence that Usnea is an immune system tonic good for acute conditions as well as a long term enhancement though the scientific study has not considered its effectiveness as a preventative, only as a treatment for active pathogens.

The main active chemical component in Usnea is usnic acid. There are claims that usnic acid can be dangerous in high doses, although the only cases of issues associated with usnic acid involved a pure, refined extract consumed in high does as an ingredient in diet pills.  No connection to any health risk has ever been associated with any uses involving preparation of the entire plant as a whole.

Usnic acid is primarily effective as a powerful inhibitor of gram positive bacteria including tuberculosis, staphylococcus, streptococcus, and pneumococcus making it an ideal herb for treating strep throat, staph infections, colds and flus. It is also effective against urinary tract infections, bladder and kidney infections and even chlamydia. Its antibiotic qualities are effective against fungal infections as well. This makes it good as a treatment for athletes foot yeast infections and vaginosis. These qualities also make it a good ingredient in skin washes as a decoction or when finely powdered, as an ingredient in natural deoderants
In addition to its known characteristics as an antibiotic, Usnea has also been the focus of extensive study into  its properties as an anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and potential anti-cancer effects

Traditionally it has been used mainly as a topical application to treat skin wounds, inflammation and fungal infections. In a survival situation Usnea can be applied as an emergency compress, by placing it directly onto the affect area after gently kneading it between fingers in order to stimulate the extraction of its active ingredients and then pressing it down into a mat before applyication. it can also be soaked for a short time in warm water to make a hot compress.

If you have a little more time to prepare it as an herbal remedy a great way of doing so is by extracting its healing substances into an alcohol or vinegar tincture. For usnea I like to use apple cider vinegar.

To prepare Usnea for a tincture I like to let it dry for a while after harvesting. There is not much water content in the lichen but it may be damp from its environment.

 After it has dried out I chop the strands into very fine pieces using a pair of good scissors. 

 The recommended ration of herb to solution is about 1:5. This means adding 5 times the amount of chosen liquid extractor to the amount of herbs. It is generally recommended that if you are using a grain alcohol as an extractor to dilute it 50% with water.  I am not as technical as all that and usually simply fill the container part way with herb and the rest of the way with liquids, going by how Im feeling that day for specific amounts. You cant really do it wrong!

Let the mixture sit for at least 2 weeks, 6 is best. Shaking helps as does a kind word or two every now and then. When it is ready, strain the Usnea out of the liquid using a fine mesh strainer and return the liquid to its container. Store in a cool, dry location. 

Dosages will vary according to application, weight of the person, sensitivity to herbs and other factors. Usually amounts will range from 60 drops 3-4 times daily up to 1 tsp, 6 times a day. There is much information online regarding dosages for specific applications.

I have also heard that Usnea can be extracted into hot oil. This would be a very careful process since olive oil would be the best candidate and you dont want to heat it beyond 140 degress F. The herb should be heated for at least an hour and then stored in a warm place for several more weeks. This method of extracting into oil could also provide a good medium for incorporating into your homemade deodorant recipe.

Those who may be concerned about its potential risk as  an internal treatment may want to restrict its use to topical applications where it has no contraindications and is safe for pets and children. 

Personally I have not seen any real evidence to suggest that usnea is responsible for any physical damage when used as whole plant and I  have used it for many years as a natural supplement. Of course, as always, please consult a physician for any official medical advice. 

Thanks for reading!

This post was shared on the Homestead Blog Hop

Saturday, November 15, 2014

7 foot, 3 inches. The Earthbag walls are done!

The walls are done! Really basking in the glory here. Feeling an enormous sense of pride as well as gratitude for all those who helped accomplish this goal. I feel very lucky that so many people were ready to come lend a hand in getting this done.   I have a whole new appreciation for how much work is involved in putting up walls made of earth yet it still seems like a small effort when compared to how long this building should stand. If I have done my job right these walls will live much much longer than I will. No small sense of wonder in that. I know it is a very humble structure and anyone reading this who has ever built anything of truly significant size is probably rolling their eyes but have patience with me. This is the first thing like this I have ever done and it gives me awe and admiration for those whose job it is to create buildings that others live and work in. I wonder if we give those folks enough credit and gratitude.

 So, the hard part is done! And just in time. Here the northwest of the US the weather is turning very wet. The tarps we hung over the project site are doing a good job of keeping the area relatively dry (the humidity is slowing the bags from curing faster than they would in the summer) but they have greatly limited the head space during construction. The way they hang over the area causes them to angle low over some sections of the wall so you have to duck under and then lift the tarp with your head while you are tamping the bags down. This is literally a huge pain in the neck!

Still, there is still a LOT of work to do. A LOT. Filling the gaps between bags with mud and straw, hanging a plaster mesh, plastering, back filling with gravel, pour the bond beam and cement floor OH! and lets not forget the roof! 

3d rendering of the rafter design.

The plan for the roof is to make it a Living roof, also called a Green roof. There are many great advantages to making a living roof.A few of them are:

Storm water management- this is an important landscape feature in my area where rain fall is almost constant 9 months out of the year. This roof will slow a good bit of rain fall and divert run off into a drainage channel away from the building site of the main house. 

Longer roof life span- when built correctly green roofs will actually last longer since the decking material is protected from the elements and unless they are very poorly constructed they tend not to leak at all. 

Temperature control- soil on the living roof acts as insulation. 

Habitat- the vegetation will attract small birds, beneficial insects and small mammals, increasing bio-diversity rather than stamping it out for the sake of a metal roof.
Aesthetics- They just look cool, 'nuff said!

Since I wont be planting anything that needs more than a few inches of soil I wont have to build the roof with anything much heavier than a normal roof. This type of living roof is known as "extensive". In this style, the soil depth is generally no more the 4-5 inches which allows for enough soil depth to support sebums, herbs and small drought hardy perennials. this type really doesn't require much in the way of specific design considerations as the end product is in the same weight class as a standard, well built roof design meant to carry snow loads.
The other type of living roof is known as "Intensive". Soil depth on Intensive type green roofs are 6 inches up to 2 feet! These roof designs will require serious planning and engineering and is well beyond the scope of small structures like this.

If you have followed the process on the blog this far I want to express gratitude to you as well. This has been enormous fun and its very rewarding to be able to share the experience with other people. 

Building an entire house is still a long way away and the magnitude of that project dwarfs this by a large margin but now I feel like I have a new perspective on what I am capable of and that this isnt just a wild, hair-brained scheme in my head anymore. 
Seeing this project develop, starting with reading a book about earthbags and then manifesting  strong, secure walls into physical reality creates a deep confidence which lends strength to the belief that all the goals we have for this land and our lives is possible.

Thanks for reading! 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Earthbags- How to and how not to create a window arch

Last weekend was a milestone of progress for many reasons. The process of raising the walls of this earthbag building took on an entirely new dimension as we came to the point of placing the bags over the window form to create arches.

An arch directs the weight of a structure out and around an opening which prevents the opening from collapsing under massive downward forces
The arch is an ancient building technique dating back to the 2nd millennium BC! Its amazing that as technologically advanced as we may be today the most fundamental principles of our modern life have roots in the most distant past. We still rely on methods of building developed by ancestors many many thousands of years ago. Our most important knowledge is some of our oldest.

In that light I feel both great shame and great pride in my first attempts at grasping the  technique of forming an arch.

To make the openings for the windows I am using salvaged tires as braces which keep the shape of the window opening and gives the bags a form to rest on as they are put in place. As the bags cure and solidify the forms can be removed. To get the tire out I just need to let the air out!

Since the tire is narrower than the width of the bags, my idea was to bend a piece of plywood over the tread so the base of support for the bags gets wider and flat. To my chagrin I learned the hard way that at that short a length plywood does not like to bend much at all. 

To rescue the plan from total failure I cut the playwood into seperate sections, planning on having each section correspond to a layer of bags as they took shape up and over the tire.

1st attempt: Mixed results/how NOT to do it
As I started laying bags I soon found that  the sides facing in toward the tire were not lining up with the plywood sections as well as I would like and I had to use a few extra slices of wood. The inner surfaces of the bags did not come out as flush as I would like but that isnt the real issue. The most important part of an arch is the placement of the keystone. The keystone locks all the other sections into place and gives the arch its load bearing abilities. It must be placed relative to the other "stones" so that it drives the force away and to the sides. If it is too low the compressive forces will drive the keystone below the support of the stones which brace against it and the arch may collapse. You can see in the picture above my placement of the keystone is exactly what you dont want. I plan to remove the center bag and replace it with three narrower and taller bags so that the force is distributed more evenly and so that the bags sit higher than those to the sides.

2nd attempt: Jackpot!
With the hard lessons of the first attempt under my belt I took the task of the second window with a bit more confidence. The results were far more satisfying both in a structural sense as well as psychologically. My only regret here is that I did not tuck in the open ends of the bags more neatly. Its not important for structural integrity but it drives me crazy to look at. Fortunately for you there are many examples of what earthbag arches look like when the builder takes the time to keep them pretty!

The bags which go over the shape of an arch are often called "fan bags" for their shape. The best option is to tamp the bags into their fan-like shape before lifting them into place. This gives them the form they need as well as makes it easier to tamp them into position. I did this in a sort of freestyle on the ground BUT if I were a smarter man I would have built a bag form which molds the bags into the perfect fan shape for making arches.

The bag form for making fan bags has sides that slant inward toward the bottom. this allows you to pack the bag filling into shape and creates a bag in the proper fan shape. If you plan on making arches over windows or doors I can not stress enough how nice it will be to have a form for molding the bags into just the right shape. Work smarter not harder!!
Information on making these types of box forms as well as many other tips tricks and techniques can be found all in one place in a book called Earthbag Building written by Donald Kiffmeyer and Kaki Hunter. This is the bible of earthbag building and no one should be without it. You can also read the whole thing as a series of slides at THIS LINK. Instructions for cunstructing box forms can be found in the appendices.
Lessons for the future
1. It was recommended to me later that soaking the plywood for 48 hours would have made it soft enough to form over the tires. 
2. I could have use 2 tires or wider tires to make the solid base for the bags. 
3. If I ever build another arch with earthbags Im definitely going to make a fanbag form! It can be done without but Im convinced now that the extra effort in building a box form is well worth it.

Some of the most important advice I received during this experience as well as throughout this process has come from the members of a facebook group dedicated to earthbag building. If you are just coming to earthbags as a construction option I strongly recommend joining the group and asking as many questions as you can. All the members are very friendly and eager to help, they have been as much a part of the group effort as anyone helping me on the ground and any information I share in this blog is greatly supplemented by the wisdom there. I added a link to the FB page in the menu bar section called "what is earthbag?" right below this blogs header. You can find the link toward the bottom in the section called "more information".

Thanks Everyone!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

3D printing a house and why Earthbags are important

 The EHB
 In my previous post I mentioned  the news of an emerging technology that has important implications  for bringing  Earthbag building into the mainstream. If you have never heard of "Earthbags" please take a quick moment to read the article behind the previous link or click the tab in the menu above that is labeled "What is Earthbag?". You just might find the information interesting and valuable!
Back to the topic at hand,
I am incredibly, PROFOUNDLY excited about this new innovation not only because of what it has to offer by way of drastically decreased building times but because of the potential for it to launch Earthbag building into the mainstream without sacrificing the low tech accessibility which makes Earthbags so appealing.

This new technology is called the Earth Home Builder and it is more or less a 3D printer for earthbags. 
The Earth Home builder laying bags.
Photo curtesy United Earth Builders

The machinery was designed by a company called Progressive Innovations who has been working in the field of flood and erosion control. All their equipment is designed to fit universal mounts on a skidsteer, an already invaluable piece of earth moving equipment.

When building by hand a good crew working at top efficiency can lay down about 40ft of bags in an hour. The earth home builder can lay down about 400 ft per hour. That is a 1000% increase in efficiency!!!

the value of that difference is best seen in the contrast between the two videos below. The first is of the EHB in action, laying feet by the second. The next video is of me and some friends laying about 1 bag every 3 minutes

As a new technology its applications and limits are still being discovered but the possibilities are expanding. Currently the only company I am aware of that has taken up this innovation is a non-profit group called United Earth Builders. They are incorporating the EHB into various projects to work with some of the lowest income groups in the 3rd world and disenfranchised minorities here in the states. 

I am excited about this development on many levels. Not just as a potential labor saving device for building my own home but as a means to help close the gap between earthbag building methods and mainstream acceptance.

Usually when the efficiency of labor drastically increases there is a great sacrifice in the human element. The history of industrialization is filled with masses of marginalized people who find themselves as obsolete parts in the great industrial machine. The EHB and earthbags are examples of technology which can empower people without the risk of disenfranchising entire classes. In fact the scenario is reversed. This is technology which has the potential to bring empowerment not just to the lowest classes but to ALL people, bringing everyone closer to the means of providing for one of the most important necessities without having to grovel at the door of cold, uncaring lending institutions.

Why Should I Build with Earthbags?

There many many reasons to utilize the Earthbag construction method but I think there are 4 key aspects to the  process which really set it apart as uniquely advantageous.
1. plentiful local materials. When Building with Earthbags the majority of the building materials needed happens to be the most plentiful, easily accessible material on the planet: DIRT! Thats why the practice of building with mixtures of earthen materials is as old as human history and as much as it is a physical practicality it is also psychologically healthy. Building with the earth brings a deep satisfaction in feeling connected to the place that gives you life. 
2. sustainability.  Earthbags also play a role in environmental health by taking plastic out of the waste stream. Bags can be found as misprints or salvage from local businesses but even buying them new has environmental benefit. This is because the Polypropylene used in making the bags is a byproduct of oil refineries and needs to be utilized in some way whether it is disposed of or turned into something useable. Turning them into bags for building walls with indefinite life spans is a great way to not only negate their environmental impact but also creates a new market which can open the door to even more sustainably derived resin products like those made from hemp oils. If you really can not bring yourself to love the plastic then consider burlap bags or canvas! anything that will hold the dirt can work. Ultimately, earthbags can do a lot for moving construction methods a lot further down the sustainability spectrum.

3. Low Tech! Of all the great features that Earthbag  building has to offer the one that resonates the most with me is that anyone can quickly and easily learn how to do it with only the most minimal training. In a few hours you can learn all the basic steps which will allow you to build nearly limitless shapes and forms. Because this skill can so readily be put within reach of any person it can be a tool to offer strength and empowerment to those who can not qualify for entry into the debt financing system.

4. affordability. Because the materials are so cheap and easy to access nothing can compare to the cost effectiveness of building with earthbags. Depending on how much DIY you are willing to invest into your project its not unheard of for cost per square foot to be as low as 10$. Of course that is building at its most basic and simplistic but as a starting point you can see how much room there is to expand and embellish your projects before you get close to what traditional methods will cost you.
 I am not a rich person and odds are you aren't either. Building a durable, strong, safe home in an environmentally conscious way using any of the more traditional methods will be beyond the reach of most people. The modern way of obtaining shelter in the west is to rent or to enter into the convoluted and dangerous systems of debt created by governments and financial institutions.  I believe that earthbag building offers a way out of the debt trap while providing strong, earth-friendly, beautiful shelter.

These four essential aspects of earthbag building lay the foundation for a nurturing environment, bringing people together to help friends and family build homes and strengthen communities. This gathering and bonding of people calls back to our ancient, pre-industrial roots and brings attention to the alienating strangeness of our abstract modern methods of providing shelter. Today we travel vast distances and work for long hours to pay for a home we dont spend hardly any time in because we are always traveling and working to pay for it. This scenario seems to isolate and alienate us more than offer closer relationships and tighter community bonds.

Earthbags for the Future!

Even so, I wont pretend that there is an immediate transition from the modern workings of our convoluted consumer culture to one where the time and effort needed to construct a house with a labor intensive method is a practical option for the everyday person. Building with earthbags is hard work and does require a good bit of time to construct a building of any significant size. This fact could be a big drawback, even a deal breaker for those who are constrained not just by money but by time as well. 

However, the EHB offers the potential to help bridge the gulf which now exists between the desire for sane systems of living and the practicality of  alternative construction methods. It can answer the call for new solutions and I want to be a part of this mission! I am developing plans for what role I might play and I hope you may want to help. Lets start by spreading the word of this new innovation, the work being done by United Earth Builders, the benefits of building with earthbags and the potential it offers for adding new vitality to the process of making homes and communities.

Thanks for reading!

This post was shared with the Homestead blog hop