Tuesday, March 18, 2014

the house

To my knowledge this house will be the first legally permitted earthbag house in washington state.

Wait, why do i want to build a wierd dirt house?

Three main reasons: earthbag buildings are 1. incredibly strong and 2. incredibly affordable to build. 3. ecologically responsible

Earthbag construction is similar to that of the adobe buildings you see in the southwest desert, originally pioneered by the native americans who occupied that region. Just as in the adobe method earthbag uses a clay rich mixture of dirt and water to fill woven sand bags. The full bags are laid like bricks to build the wall with layers of barbwire placed between the layers to bind one section to the other. When the dirt mixture in the bags have dried and cured the whole structure is insulated if needed then covered in a stucco or lime plaster.
Earthbag homes are similar to adobe-style brick structures Native Americans built in desert areas. Just as Native Americans used clay and water to make bricks to build their homes, earthbag homes use dirt and clay mixed with a little water to fill sand bags, which function as the bricks. Once the bags are filled with the dirt-clay mixture, they are laid like bricks with barbed wire between each layer of bags. The barbed wire helps hold the bags in place as they dry—kind of like mortar used with bricks. Once the bags harden on the barbed wire, people often cover the interior and exterior walls with plaster or stucco to re-enforce the structure and help weatherproof the exterior
Read more at http://www.quickenloans.com/blog/earthbag-home-build#PzUyUMsedJYhYsye.99
Earthbag homes are similar to adobe-style brick structures Native Americans built in desert areas. Just as Native Americans used clay and water to make bricks to build their homes, earthbag homes use dirt and clay mixed with a little water to fill sand bags, which function as the bricks. Once the bags are filled with the dirt-clay mixture, they are laid like bricks with barbed wire between each layer of bags. The barbed wire helps hold the bags in place as they dry—kind of like mortar used with bricks. Once the bags harden on the barbed wire, people often cover the interior and exterior walls with plaster or stucco to re-enforce the structure and help weatherproof the exterior
Read more at http://www.quickenloans.com/blog/earthbag-home-build#PzUyUMsedJYhYsye.99
The final product is an incredibly strong structure able to withstand high degrees of stress under compression and sheering torque. In other words its bomb proof. The internet is rich with anecdotes of firing high powered weapons into earthbag walls and driving cars into them but what I was most impressed with was their performance in earthquake testing. With the exception of some types of masonry construction, nothing else comes close.

Materials necessary to build the shell of the house (walls and the roof) will come out to be a few grand at most. In relative terms that is ridiculously cheap and a good portion of that is to cover extra materials prescribed by the universal building code. Added materials such as lengths of re-bar placed vertically through the bags are redundancies, not integral to the strength or performance of the structure but needed so the permit office can see familiar design features which conform to the building code. I'm tempted here to rant about how the building code is written by the major development firms and material suppliers to keep their exclusive contracts safe from the threat of superior building methods but that is also for another time.

The big drawback is its obscurity. The fact that very few people are familiar with the the methods and techniques means it is very hard to find people qualified to create housing designs which will meet code restrictions. Initially I was tempted to build under the radar, dodging the county permit process but the pragmatic side of me insisted that something this important was worth confronting the leviathan of government regulation. The last thing I want is to have one of the most important projects of my life shut down just for the thrill from giving the feds the finger.

In searching for an architect familiar with the method, I found one person who fit the qualifications, Dr. Owen Geiger. He is also very familiar with the passive solar style I envision for this house and I was very close to having him draft the design but for various time related reasons he was unable to do the work within the time period i was hoping shooting for

Complicating this was the fact that to qualify the house for legal permits, I would need to have the design approved by an engineering firm qualified to stamp  plans for this incredibly obscure building method. Luckily there is one, and as far as im aware ONLY one such firm: precision structural engineering.
But they dont do architectural work.
So, without a decent option for an architect and feeling the overwhelming press of the self imposed demand that this all had to get done yesterday there was only one option: teach myself how to use 3D modeling software.

Fortunately,  There is such a thing as sketchup. Sketchup is a 3D modeling program that a person with a bit of effort can teach themselves how to use and in the finest of 'meant to be' fashion, sketchup models can be transfered directly into autoCAD, the program used by engineers to render structural diagrams. BAM. signed sealed, delivered.

Few things can match the thrill of having complete control over the process of designing my own house, being able to construct everything just the way I wanted it.

but before I got to sketchup, the evolution of the design went through a few iterations before I  was able to settle on the current design. Im about as happy as can be expected with the model I have set upon as the final draft and i figure from here any modifications will be minor enough to make on the fly.

so, I say "as happy as can be expected" because, as anyone who knows me knows,  I am burdened with a none too small neurotic tendency to become hyper obsessive over the smallest details of a project. This fixation on detail has its benefits but definitely some drawbacks as well. It pays off when i am able to teach myself a relatively complex 3D modeling software and then design a house from the ground up.....buuuut its not so great for my girlfriend when, in the early days of us dating, a week or more goes by and she thinks im blowing her off because I have completely disappeared into the world of 3D rendering. she has the patience of a saint.
Thankfully I had narrowed the floor plan down to a decent working prototype right about the time we met because that was a whole other drawn out affair she might not have stuck around for.
here is a very small sampling of the rough drafts:

Looking back it seems too bold for someone who has zero experience designing houses to take on a project like this. but to be honest I took a lot of hints from a few places where a lot of great work is being done designing houses with the types of self sustaining features I am drawn to.
the place I probably took the most inspiration was the work done by micheal reynolds and his development of the earthship technology

In fact, my first inclination was to build an earthship but the process of building an earthship is governed by a very important decision: You can either spend a lot of incredibly labor intensive time doing most of the work yourself which saves a lot of money or you can spend a lot of money hiring the work out which saves a lot of time. Refusing to accept that I cant have it both ways I continued the search for cost effective, ecologically sound building methods which could easily incorporate a lot of the systems I found so appealing about the earthship model

these options presented themselves in the technique called earthbag building and at last the final draft of the house took shape, incorporating all the design features necessary for a self heating, self cooling house.
  • all the windows are south facing and all rooms are open to the window glazing allowing for direct sun penetration into each room of the house.
  • the roof is split to incorporate a clerestory for added solar gain and ventilation. 
  • the earthbag walls are super massive, acting as thermal batteries, storing energy transmitted through the windows and buffered from heat loss by a shallow earth berm.  
  • the earth mound enveloping the house, while not as massive as that found in an earthship design adds some degree of buffering while cutting the risk of becoming a heat sink and a leakage risk during the long months of cold water saturation common to this region.
The only thing I have not yet incorporated into the design is an attached greenhouse, another earthship inspired feature; once the main building is finished I plan to add a greenhouse along the entire front face of the house. This will act as a solar heat collector, heating the house in the winter and through shaded ventilation, cool it in the summer. 

This is the view from the southeast corner. the curved wall at the further end of the house will not be a design feature in the actual building. That part of the design was done just as an experiment and I never got around to taking it out. The curved wall closer to the viewer is a retaining wall which acts as a brace against the earth berm which envelops part of the building. This earth berm acts as an insulator, regulating temperature across the seasons making the house easier to warm in the winter and easier to cool in the summer.  The gravel footing in the foundation allows for free flow of water to the french drain system shown in the drawing as the dark pipes extending in front of the house. Water management in this climate is crucial. I may actually dig a secondary drainage system out around the perimeter of the earth berm to further ensure adequate drainage.

View from the northwest corner. This shows how the earth berm will come up to envelop a portion of the north, east and west walls. in reality the berm will extend back, away from the house about 20 feet but designing that shape was incredibly hard at my skill level in the sketchup program so i made it a smaller version for illustration purposes.

View from the south west corner. this shot also shows the cross section of the wall layers. these details were included to illustrate the wall design so a consultant can create sectional drawings to submit to the county permit office. Something which is also beyond my skill level
 
from the east looking toward the main entrance
View from the doorway to the utility closet, looking into the kitchen and the living/bedroom area. you can see there is a gap between the lower ceiling covering the kitchen and the roof. This space will be finished for storage space and extra insulation. The roof itself will be super insulated with 12+ inches of high rating solid foam.


View from the living/bedroom area, looking into the kitchen/dining area, the south entrance and the west entrance. the room behind the fridge is the bathroom. The bathroom walls do not rise to meet the vaulted ceiling, this will allow for a storage space to be finished above the bathroom and may extend over the utility closet as well which is across from the bathroom. I hope to one day modify the water system to be solar heated and the gravity fed solar tank will be stored in the space above the bathroom as well.

As this process unfolds I have been fortunate enough to encounter a couple of people who have been integral to making this process much much smoother. The first is scott howard at earthen hand. If you ever plan on using any sort of alternative building method within the scope of ecologically friendly and self sufficient, I can not recommend his services highly enough. An all round great guy.
second is Chris hHrman at wintersun design. Chris has been an invaluable asset to the process. As well as being another expert on self sustaining, passive solar structures he also guides me on all the minute details that the uninitiated will overlook which will derail the whole project. the government does not make this process easy IN ANY WAY and having access to someone who understands the labyrinthine process is a must.  also, a super great guy.

final thought,
It occurs to me that I cant quite remember the moment I decided I was going ahead with all this. As I write this I'm half chuckling, thinking this could all be some drunken delirium and im going to come out of  it at any moment. But I hope not...

3 comments:

  1. It all sounds pretty good. I would pass on foam insulation, For me there is something about straw that seems more in tune with the earth.

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    1. hi ron, thanks for reading and i appreciate your input. i struggle with the use of plastics as well but i take some comfort in knowing that using it in this method provides a return on the footprint indefinitely as opposed to most plastic usage as a disposable. im incorporating the footprint into my shelter rather than externalizing it as a waste product for someone to clean up.
      i also feel that the cost benefit ratio favors foam insulation when it comes to efficiency. the small impact of the foam allows for a degree of efficiency which, in my particular climate. would be very hard to meet if using "natural" materials exclusively.
      maybe this all sounds like im trying to hard to justify my decisions :) haha
      but i hope you can see my reasoning.
      i feel like technology is a valuable tool and there are man made methods which, though they may be some steps removed from the wild earth, they can still offer positive advantages in the effort to tread more lightly.

      thanks again for reading, hope to hear more from you!
      these are the great conversation which help everyone move forward..
      be well

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  2. Joby! This post is invaluable to me. Thank You! How much did it cost you to draw up your plans and get them through all the red tape?

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