Could we design and build a house in three months?
12.12.2012 - 11.03.2013 25 °C
It all started out at the end of 2012 in Rhiannon Permaculture Commune, with a concrete pit that was designed to be used as a biogas tank. Sam, John, and I were the initial trusty trio asked by owners Nicky and Helen to design and build a house (of our design) around this pit. The pit measures about 4m length by 1.5m width. Bodge it, wedge it, and feck it we entitled ourselves, me being the latter. We set about it in earnest. We were on a pretty strict low budget, which made it more enjoyable really. The idea of building on a low budget, using locally sourced materials greatly appealed to me. Besides Rhiannon is a permaculture farm, in keeping with some of its fundamental principles was important.
So planning began in earnest for an earthbag construction around the `pit of despair` as it affectionately became known over the days of heat, sunburn, mosquitos and stolen breaktime eggs. We decided to build up four to five layers of sandbags with a wooden construct house on top of these. The sandags were to form a basement area that included the concrete pit as a sub-basement, within the basement. Onto the wooden house we decided on what someone called a 'sloping chinese style roof'. I was not sure how authentically 'chinese' looking it would end up being, I was pretty sure none of us could build one without a Chinese carpenter on hand. It would certainly have a style all of its own, that´s for sure. With a sum total of much enthusiasm and almost zero construction experience between the three of us we set about our work in the rough order it needed to be done. Unfortunately, John and Sam had to leave to continue their travels relatively shortly after the project started. I was there running the project almost to its completion, with the able assistance and enthusiasm of many a volunteer at Rhiannon - a big thank you to all involved, you know who you are! In particular a big thanks to Sebastian and Tyler who helped the project daily through some of its toughest stages.
The rough task list bodge it, wedge it and I started out with was a a bit irrelevant. Some of it went to plan, much didn´t. When I was asked at a couple of stages where the plan was for the house (feeling an Office moment come on), I would point to my head and let them know where it was. This seemed to reassure people immensely. Ha haaaa. The list as it happened:
1. Flattened and levelled the ground about the pit for the house foundation.
2. Repaired the pit concrete, especially at the top. It was in need of filling and levelling. We also had to make a mould for this.
3. Laid the foundations of the house, including vapor barrier.
4. Waterproofed some of the concrete pit interior with limewash.
5. Getting all the wood, making all the window frames, paint-protecting all the wood, and laying the floor of the basement.
6. Design Change!
7. Increased the wall heights, slow row after slow row. Interlocked walls and straight wall 'feet'. Basically built the house.
8. Ah for f%$k sake: stuff goes a bit wrong.
9. Roofed the house...almost.
The house generally proceeded well, with a major change during the course of the project. Needless to say I learned many lessons about sandbag construction, but also perseverance and commitment, and who knows these may be useful if I am lucky enough to build something of my own someday.
1. Flattening Out and Levelling (conjugatin' the verb 'tamp') the Ground.
We took our garden hoe and set to work, churning the soil about the pit, tossing out weeds and roots as much as possible. It was tough work and much of the soil was semi-cemented together by the assortment of roots and growth holding it together. Sam in particular took some pretty determined swings with a pick axe, intent on turning some sod, oblivious of anyone foolish enough to get in the way of his killer arcs.
He could have been an Uruk-Hai.
After about two days of determined action, we had prepared a space into which we could lay the foundations for the house. Tamp that s$%t boy!
2. Repairing the Pit Concrete.
This was a tricky enough job. It needed to be done because the concrete was very poorly finished on the top of the house. It was uneven along its length, narrowed in finish towards the top, and was not level from end to end. Not a good basis to proceed. We therefore built a mould into which we could put the concrete and fixed it all around the top of the pit for pouring, hand-mixed. We did this over the course of three or four days, hand mixing the cement and filling some of the worst holes in the concrete walls.
Getting caught down wind of John during these three days was not a good idea. Someone apparently robbed a few of John´s carefully numbered breaktime eggs (imagine an egg lent calendar - John it was hilarious), perhaps it was for the best.
When we took the moulds off, the finish was not perfact but it was much better than what was there before. We now had a reasonably rectangle, level, and mostly smooth pit top to work with that provided a solid base around which we could begin construction of the basement. We ordered a truckload of gravel which was delivered to us the next day.
3. Laying the Foundations of the House
We carted in the gravel and poured it to about six inches height as the first layer for the foundation.
We laid bags filled with gravel for the first part of the foundation. The rest of the house was to be built on these.
We put this in both the bottom of the pit and around the sides of the pit. We then put in the vapour layers, to prevent moisture and gases from seeping up from the earth below. We mainly re-used stuff lying about Rhiannon, scavenged from a slow death on the ground.
Then we poured in some more gravel to finish the foundation. We tried to level it all out as best we could, tamp, tamp, tamp. The whole site was a bit of an optical illusion, with the land running in slopes east to west and north to south. When something was levelled out using a spirit level it looked like it wasn´t level, relative to other stuff that in fact wasn´t level, but looked it.
4. Waterproofing the Concrete Pit With Limewash
We used limewash paint (water plus lime - very inexpensive) to waterproof the inside of the concrete pit, up to the point at which we expected the wooden floor in the concrete pit to begin. Ashkan, our friendly Iranian painter on the day, painted a big "A" for his name on the wall which we mistook for an anarchist symbol. Ha ha. He is currently peddling through Peru somewhere on a $50 bike - best of luck sir!
From the wooden floor up would be the inhabitable space of the pit and using a limewash paint on the inside would not have been good idea because it comes off quite easily with contact. Perhaps a lime plaster or something would be better as it was rough concrete on the walls of the pit and the lime plaster would apply quite nicely. Anyway, that was not for doing now, more for when the house was built.
5. Wooden floor Foundations
Man's Best Friend
We next laid the floor foundations for putting down the wooden floor. We decided to put in the floor of the house before it was built. A floor could just as easily be put down once the house was built. We put it in beforehand because we decided that the walls of the outside of the house would be perfect for anchoring the wooden floor. For anchoring it on the inside we decided that the floorboard would be screwed into a frame we had built around the top inside of the pit.
We had to do lots of work on the wood, including sanding, cutting edge to allow it fit together, and painting with Maderol protector. I was definitely high from that stuff for one day. We laid all the wood down over the space of two days. It was a long process, but our finished floor looked pretty decent at the end of it!
We made lots of window and door frames
We used thick Eucalyptus wooden beams, coated in Asphaltico blackness on the bottom to protect them for the longer term against any dampness. Asphaltico is nasty stuff.
6. Design Change!
Nicky and Helen pulled me aside shortly after the floor was laid to discuss a design change. Seeing as I didn´t have much time left in South America, they wanted me to change the plans from a sandbag basement/house on top to simply a sandbag house built around the pit. The whole area of the pit and around was originally intended to be a basement, now it would all simply be the house area. That was fine by me, the more ´complete´ a project I could do before I left the better. The last thing I wanted to do was to leave a half completed house behind. At this stage I also extended my stay, putting off my flights by a month to mid March in order to do all I could to finish the house (or as much as I could) before I left.
7. Interlocking the walls and support bags.
We began the pattern of laying the walls and interlocking each wall into ´footsteps´. These are necessary when putting down a foundation wall. Without these the wall cannot support itself sufficiently. A circular or dome earthbag structure is self-supporting. A straight wall earthbag structure is not. We also put barbed wire (two parallel strips) on each layer of sandbags. The barbed wire provides the walls and structure with high tensile and shear strength and largely prevents the bags from moving once they are down.
Once a pretty efficient system of digging, bag making and laying was set up, the walls began to go up pretty quickly. On average we had three people (including myself) working on the house. One person digging, another filling bags, and another making an positioning bags on the wall. As the walls got higher it was not possible to lift the bags onto the house, the person filling the bags was confined to filling them on the wall, with others passing up buckets of earth. The ideal number of people working was five; two on the walls filling bags, two digging and filling buckets, the last passing buckets to people on the walls. Unfortunately we didn´t always have the optimum number of people and work moved a bit slower than hoped. We were also excavating all the earth from a spot about two meters below and fifteen feet from the house, increasing the workload.
It was pretty satisfying to see the progress day on day though. Doors and window frames were added into the structure as we went along.
8. Ah for f%$k sake: stuff goes a bit wrong
It was all going so smoothly. As we got up through the layers, I noticed a pretty unnerving wobble in one of the walls. We looked and put it down to one of the joins over a window as being the culprit where some of the bags were not very well joined together. However, while that was part of the problem there were also one or two other factors. Some of the earlier bags we had made were not closed/filled well enough. This resulted in them sagging somewhat and not providing the support as they should have. A sagging sandbag is a pretty miserably looking sight, especially in the middle of a multi-tonne wall you have just built. In addition we had not paid enough attention to keeping some of the walls plumb enough. We were more focused on keeping them level, which really is not as important. As a result of the above, a wobble had developed in this wall and in another. The fact that we had used three different type of earthbags (long story) in the house also made it more difficult to judge the ´plumbness´ of the walls because some were shorter and fatter.
There was only one thing for it; take the offending walls apart and rebuild. No one, myself included, was happy with having to do this. Thanks to Marian and Zoe in particular for helping me in this fun task.
It was not a huge deal but it mean much heavy lifting and battling with barbed wire, which is nasty shit that aims for you as it springs back from being pinned down. We kept joking that the site was like something conceived for the next in the "Final Destination" series of films. Barbed wire, metal twine, metal sheeting, concrete pits, hammers, heights, 150kg bags, cocky and inexperienced people....I can see the plot already. Lesson learned, fill bags properly and keep the wall plum, it makes life easier.
9. Almost getting the roof on
Not getting the roof on was a disappointment. I gunned for it as best I could, my March 11th departure date looming over me like a joint Iberian/Copa Airlines albatross. I went out in the afternoons to hammer, bolt, screw, and tie stuff into place, but it wasn't enough. There was only three of us working on the house (with me going a little OTT some afternoons), it wasn't enough to get the work done. It takes quite a long time to chisel wood, especially with chisels well beyond their best before date. Soviet pre-WW2 possibly.
A combination of straight squared CSA beams and round ones were used to build the roof frame, of different lengths and varying, but reasonably similar thicknesses. Three upright beams went across the centre of the house, cemented into the pit, to support the centre of the roof frame structure. It didn't seem possible to get truly straight wood where we lived.
I actually drew a plan for the roof, and we proceeded according to that. Unfortunately I took the plan back to Ireland with me where I have it right now, of no use to the two lads building the roof. Everything effectively still in my head then.
Here's the last photo I took
I did up to that point in three months, with the able assistance of many volunteers like myself at different times. Everyone who worked on it contributed and I am grateful to all for their toil, help, and ideas along the way.
Plenty of next steps remain. I said I didn't want to leave with the house half finished. I left when it was three quarters finished. Victory! If we could have avoided some of the mistakes made almost entirely by inexperience, the roof could have been put on, and perhaps a bit more while I was there. My only disappointment is in not getting that finished before I left as it would have really felt more finished. It was better to do a good job than a rushed one, however, and we can all be proud of what we made there. Good luck to Kelly, Guillaume, and possibly others who are currently finishing the roof. There are next steps, but most are to do with the furnishing and finalisation of the house:
Put on the roof
Put a floor in the basement.
Finish the floor in the main house part.
Put glass in some windows and glass bottles in others (for local carpenter).
Put in a door (local carpenter).
Adobe and limewash the outside of the house.
Some things I would not do again:
- Sit on barbed wire.
- Put gravel in the foundation bags. The bags deteriorate with exposure to sunshine. As there is no clay or soil in gravel, there is nothing to bind the gravel together except pressure from above and the bag´s compression strength. I will research it but I think using solely earthbags filled with soil is the best approach. Perhaps adequately covering the gravel bags from UV rays would also work.
- Have half and one third bags that are not fattened properly or closed really tightly. The rain leached soil out of some of these and and this resulted in saggy asses on some of the bags. Not desirable as it looks quite shitty and is not good for the structure, particularly where it results in bags placed on top beginning to sag.
- Wear sandals too often.
- Leave the earthbags exposed to the sun and rain. Rain leeches out the soil and UV rays deteriorate the bags.
- Keep a closer eye on how plumb the walls are. As a result of not doing this we had to rebuild small parts of two walls, costing us about three days. Still, I am very glad we decided to do that rather than rushing ahead. Oh and don´t use different sized bags, it is a pain in the arse when trying to get the walls plumb. I knew this but due to availability of bags we proceeded with different ones anyway.
- Be without a buff for prolonged periods.
All in all it was great fun, immensely satisfying, and something I would like to do again in the future. I think I got a bit fitter over the months working on it also. I will add pictures of the house when it is completed and standing proud. All in all it should mot come to more than $500 or so when completed I think.