Today is the day I'm finally beginning a written and visual account of the past four years of learning, labor, and personal growth I've undertaken through the construction of a home for my family on the former (and someday restored!) prairie and oak savanna of rural south-central Minnesota. Placing the photos and thoughts into an understandable and somewhat organized format will be a wonderful and challenging experience for me and I hope that I can be helpful to anyone else who is considering or already working on a similar project. Also, along the way I'm sure that many of you will offer lots of great tips and advice that will help bring this project to a successful conclusion, so thanks in advance!
Some very quick background information and then on to the pictures!
After college and a couple seasons of running a packing line at an apple orchard I decided that the quickest way to get back on the land and doing something that I truly cared about was to join up with my family's farming operation and begin transforming a small acreage using permaculture principles. The farmhouse on site was moved here in the 1960's, rather hastily judging from how some things were done. It's pretty inefficient, facing the wrong direction for solar gain, and just poorly arranged. My wife and I also suspect that mold growth in it is contributing to health problems for some of us. So after the first winter here we began the planning process for the construction of a new house.
I had been to a couple of talks put on by Roald Gunderson of Whole Trees and was impressed by his techniques and progress of designs. I decided to ask for his help with the house design and he accepted. After a couple of face to face visits and probably hours of phone conferences we finally had design everyone was happy with. I'll get into more details later but for now I'll simply list a few of the major goals and considerations:
- It needed to be highly energy efficient to minimize heating requirements during the cold winters here while staying cool through summer heat waves as well.
- The overall plan needed to be accepted by the main occupants. (my wife and myself, as well as our two boys) Also large enough to accommodate possible extended family, visitors, and future home-based business.
- While this isn't the greenest house ever I wanted to avoid as much plastic as possible and eliminate any toxic or off-gassing products. Natural materials were always preferred, but since I'm doing most of the work myself, time saving alternatives were considered.
- The house should be a showplace for what's possible without a lot of extra work or expense in terms of aesthetics, energy savings, and living-in quality.
The last consideration was very important to me since my aim is to improve the quality of life for those living here through building up the community in terms of self-reliance and co-dependance while preserving and improving the natural resources that are literally being slowly eroded away. Folks tend to be very conservative here so I didn't want to build anything too "weird" or small, since "normal" homes around here tend to be fairly large. I've realized that I'll get a lot more done towards my goals and vision if I can somehow persuade others to find better solutions to problems on a local level.
One of the first steps to building the house was to begin to close in on exactly where it would be even though I didn't have exact dimensions at the time. The land we live on is along the Blue Earth river and because of its path meandering through the landscape it's rather hilly here compared to the surrounding area. Good for lots of varying microclimates! Probably 4-5 acres of the 10 acre plot floods usually every other year or so and because of the setbacks required as well as the desire to build as far away from the dusty road as I could it wasn't hard to approximate where the house should be. The spot had good solar exposure potential and is sheltered by woodlands and hillsides to the north and northwest.
The first photos show me digging out tree stumps with the backhoe I borrowed from the farm. Since the new house would restrict the area formerly used for turning vehicles around we decide to clear of a large circular/ spiral-ish area to serve the purpose. The soil here is very heavy clay loam so gravel was hauled in and shaped up in a crowned, low dome, shape after compacting and shaping the ground beneath it.
The design phase of the house with the architect was still ongoing but we had the outside dimensions finalized so I could start digging in for the first floor which is partially earth-sheltered. Soon after that, the drain pipes could go in. There is a separate system for greywater.
I made a comment above about the soil here. It makes building here more challenging because of its ability to hold lots of water (and keep it!) along with additional expansion and contraction due to freezing. Our design uses a shallow frost protected footing but underneath it gravel and drainage tile was added to ensure that the soil around the walls wouldn't become saturated. Houses with basement in this locality generally leak and require a sump pump. I don't want to have a flooded basement, in my case the main living space, when the power goes out. I forgot to mention it in the design requirements but one more should have been; Essential functions do not require electricity!
I have time for a few more pictures quick. I should mention that much of the design for the house was based on 12 inch wide concrete blocks because I came across a great deal at an auction. Some one had about 2500 of them piled out in a pasture, never used. The man had bought them at an auction himself so I was a little worried that they might be cursed! I think I'm in the clear now but still keeping my fingers crossed!
To facilitate the massive block walls I needed a very strong and well-drained foundation. The plans called for 12" thick steel reinforced concrete footings with 4" thick floors to be finished and sealed as a finished floor surface.
The entire monolithic slab is encased on the bottom and sides by high density extruded polystyrene except for the north section where the pantry and cold cellar will be which is thermally connected to the earth.
Photos from top to bottom:
The forms being filled with sand in the areas that don't need to be thickened for structural purposes.
I set up a little covered patio of sorts with fun lighting and a mini-fridge full of refreshments in hope of attracting willing helpers or at least someone to sit there and drink beer while heckling me as I toiled away day and night!
Driving in stakes to the proper elevation for holding pipes for the screed board.
After more work than I ever imagined it was finally the day to pour the concrete, it rained the night before so I almost postponed it before deciding the sand in the form wasn't too wet. On the farm I'd been involved with many smaller or simpler projects but never with so much stuff (drainage, insulation, plumbing, pex tubing...) to do ahead of time in addition to forms. The pump truck and cement trucks were on their way and I rounded up as many friends and family members as I could. Good thing there was a competent GC in charge, oh wait... Yikes! it's me!
So yeah, this posting is supposed to be about passive solar and round timber. For much of the early spring through mid-summer of 2010 I spent as much time out in the woods peeling, cutting, and gathering timber as I could. Unfortunately I didn't really get any pictures of it! In the bottom photo showing Dave, a friend of the family, floating the concrete smooth you can see some of the trees I had been collecting.
You'll notice in the next batch of photos that the leaves are off the trees. Many years I'm very busy for about a month getting ready for harvest and then another month actually harvesting. Part of the trade-off I guess. My job frustrates me at times but I just have to keep telling myself I'm not joining industrial mono-crop ag, I'm infiltrating it! You can read my rant on day here: https://permies.com/t/25067/md/GMO-Chemical-Conventional-Farmer-Day#201507
In the spring of 2010 my goal was to get the whole structure up and covered for the winter. By fall I was just trying to get the first floor mostly framed up and covered. Luckily it was a long, mild fall!
I was concerned about the concrete freezing, thawing and cracking up so I covered everything up the best I could leaving an "attic" space to help insulate the house over the winter. Not much got done over the off-season just a couple arched doors cut through the north interior wall but I got some time to do more planning and working out some of the details not addressed in the architect's plans.
Once spring arrived and work became a little less hectic I got to it again! I decided to see if I could lay blocks myself and I can, just a lot slower and not quite as nicely as the professionals. I've been told that an inexperienced mason will carry a hammer and that's definitely what we were. Trevor, a friend's brother-in-law has one in the picture below. I tried the best I could to get by without one, using only the trowel to help set each block into place. My work didn't look too shabby but it took lots of effort. I'm confident that I could get up to par with the professionals with enough practice and some training. Still I decided to get the same guys back to finish the second level. The first summer didn't scare them away from this project!
top to bottom:
Trevor setting block for an interior wall. Extra thermal mass!
The second bent is up after lots of slow careful work using cables, chains, and a tractor and jib pole. I got tired of being ignored for too long by the guy with the crane!
Shows the second level of the 2x6 stick framed wall up.
You can also find a few pictures of the house I'm building in the 'residential' category of their on-line portfolio.
I was thinking that some explanation of some construction details was in order (that helped me to remember the link!). In the photos above the rafters were slightly notched out to sit flat on the stick framed wall and fastened with a large pole barn nail. Timber screw, the torx head type, were used on the beam end of the rafters. The bottom end of the north rafters were fastened with threaded rods imbedded into the concrete bond beam on top of the north wall.
Once installed the rafters were covered with six mil plastic (that will later be removed) followed by expanded steel lathe to be coated with a 3/4 inch layer of a special concrete mix.
It seemed to take forever to get the roof ready for its thin coat of concrete in the spring and early summer of 2012. Dumping a coat of concrete onto the south corners of the roof that stick probably 6 feet or more 20 feet off the ground was a very nerve wracking experience and I was very relieved when it was over. These corners will be held up by the open web truss structure of the roof assembly in addition to a column on the west and a knee brace on the east. There is a temporary utility pole supporting the east corner.
Since the north section of the roof is low enough I was able order a small load of the ceiling mix to test it out.
I've missed a few days due to long hours at work but I'll continue with a few more pics now and probably more in the morning.
Also due to time limitations because of work in the fall of 2012 I found a crew to build up the roof structure to the architect's specifications in order to get it weatherproof by winter. I was getting weary of squeegeeing (wow that's how you spell that!?) up puddles after every rain. Apparently tarps and used vinyl billboards just aren't enough to keep a house dry, or I'm doing it wrong!
Originally I had wanted a green living roof but due to some other circumstances decided to go with steel instead. In this situation that may be best anyway since grass on the roof might weird out the good people of this town and end up being counter-productive toward my goals. And steel's good for collecting rainwater! Because of this decision it became important to shape the roof in order to accommodate the steel. Lot's of extra work so I'd recommend a green roof to anyone who's comfortable with the idea. Having a nearly two years to think about it, I had some good ideas for attaining the right geometry for the roof and the carpenters agreed.
Thanks Julia Winter! If anyone else has comments or questions don't hesitate to get them in here!
I feel very fortunate to find a contractor in my area willing to work on something "not typical" like this house. However, I ended up using plywood to extend the facia around the edge of the roof just for the sake of getting it done. It created lots of plywood waste which I was trying to avoid. Just didn't have time to obtain the right timber and run to the sawmill. Here's a nicer way of doing it:
check out the facia on this one! (third photo, the link doesn't go directly to it)
Mine will get covered with an ice and water barrier and the roofer came up with a really cool way to finish it off that you'll see in later photos.
My wife Anna and boys Gannon and August peer down from the top edge of the roof.
A view from the north of the roof covered with a weatherproof underlayment. The insulation is already inside and about 2 feet thick in most places. With the added benefit of the rest of the roof and ceiling elements including a "tech-foil" type radiant barrier it really holds in the heat during the winter and keeps out the heat from the sun in the summer.
Another view from the northwest. Installing doors and windows is the next step. The design includes a total of seven doors from the main structure! There is a good escape route from each bedroom in case of a fire but maybe not so great when the boys become teenagers! The architect also brought up the point that doors are much more effective for ventilation than most windows because of the large opening and no resistance from a screen.
Here's a picture from the inside, it may have been from earlier in the summer of 2012
Finally a view through an actual window! And none too soon as you can notice the dusting of snow outside.
I was excited to begin to see how the house would perform over the winter. The 2012-13 winter was not the best test since the mass of the house was already cold by the time it was closed in. Also at that point the insulation was incomplete and there was none in the south wall except for the radiant barrier. A big silver maple tree also blocked a fair amount of sunshine too.
Here are a couple more of the same and one I thought would be good for a Friday night! I'm continuously exploring ways to get more people to be exposed to whole tree timber construction, passive solar, permaculture concepts, and my own "evil plan" for rural domination! Free Beer grabs attention once in while and I could really use the help if anyone wants to work for it.
Over the rest of the 2012-13 winter and through the summer it didn't seem like I got a lot done but some progress was made. With the help of a roofer, most of steel was put on except for the front (south) facia which is still underway. All of the XPS went up on the outside of the block walls. I'm not crazy about the stuff but for now it's working really good as an insulator and at least it's on the outside of the block and not inside the living area. Because of the nature of the cement block I couldn't come up with any other more natural or less toxic material. Maybe someone here knows what I could do next time (as in the next house I build! )
Also over this period I got some window casing finished up and attached some cement board product along the area of the walls that connects with the earth to cover and protect the XPS. It's not designed contact with the ground but local builders have told me it will last a "long time" if primed on all sides. Guess I'll find out. I just know that running stucco into the ground is considered a no no.
Top to bottom:
This covered area with be the back entry way into the house that will probably be used the most. I've been busy brainstorming and sketching what I'd all like to have growing in this area.
The finished roof surface looks pretty! Just need to figure out a good collection and catchment scheme. The goal is to get the household wanter from here by the time the well needs replacement. Guess it would help if I knew when that was going to be!
The flock was rotated through! It will eventually be a pond here and the foliage of the big maple that should come down is visible. I waited until fall because the shade is really nice in the summer.
While working on the house in the summer, or any other time of year for that matter, I like to stroll around the farm when I take a break. It's a good time to take my mind off of whatever I'm puzzling over for a few minutes but usually not as relaxing as it should be since I tend to think about all the other things I'd like to do. I'll throw in a few photos I took one evening when the sun was low and casting a beautiful orange glow over everything.
I built a hugelkulture mound in front of the barn but it's sparsely planted (a few raspberries, asparagus, bulbs, and whatever else I could dig up around the farm, and white clover seed). Needs more vegetation and unfortunately now will have to outcompete what nature decided to put there since I screwed up and forgot to plant enough! The mulch has kept it from getting completely overgrown. Suggestions appropriate for this climate welcome!
A grassy area down the hill on the low ground will make for great grazing! This is now fenced in and just needs to be paddocked off and set up with livestock watering arrangements. This particular spot almost always stays above water when the river floods, sometimes the water gets to about the same elevation but only about twice in the six years I've been here.
I cut a terrace along a north facing slope to make way for fencing and to give better access to the lowlands. There are a couple places along this run that could make for great Sepp-type cellar/shelters. In clearing the way I had to take down some trees and I'm hoping that the additional light along with the disturbance will enhance the biodiversity. Spring ephemerals are already starting to fill in this year and I'm hoping to load up my planter drill with a mixture of seeds to plant along here if I get a chance to when the ground is dry enough.
This is a small seeping spring that has great opportunities but I'm being very slow and careful with the changes I make as not to ruin the natural beauty of this special feature. I've been told that years ago former inhabitants dug out a place to store their filled milk cans here.
Below is a picture of the river that borders the property. I've heard reports that the Blue Earth river is one of the most polluted in the country by some measures and it's very saddening to imagine what it once looked like compared to today. Too much soil erosion along with all of the chemicals and fertilizers it contains. The good news is that if I were a billionaire I could probably buy up almost all of the watershed upstream since it's not super huge! I really hope I can see it improve over my lifetime but many alarming trends will have to be overcome. It doesn't look too bad in this picture, it's probably in August long after any heavy rains, annual crops are full grown to help filter the water that does run off the land and most of the spraying of chemicals is over for the season. Too bad I can't say this is the river at it's worst.
Farther down this post are pictures taken after the removal of a large maple tree. This will open up the south side of the house to full winter solar gain and make way for a pond surrounded by shorter perennials. To take it down, since it was so big, I dug around the trunk with a backhoe and then pulled it over with a tractor after soaking the soil around it like a 'tree moat'.
My brother gave me some copies of pictures he's taken of the house over the past few years. The first two are throwbacks from earlier in the process and the last one is from earlier this spring. Because of my work there hasn't been much progress for about the last month but that should change now that it's settling down a little.
We began setting the steel panels during the winter of 2012-2013. Generally I think that working on a roof in freezing weather is a very bad idea but in this case, as long as we stayed away from the east and west sides anyone who might go for a slide wouldn't have a very high fall. Still we only worked in ice-free conditions. The roof took a long time and the facia still isn't complete because I worked out a deal with a roofer to work on it with me during his free time. I guess he doesn't have much free time! (or care to spend it here at least!) It's a trade-off; less expensive and I get professional expertise, but it just takes a long time.
Whenever anyone walks into the house for the first time they usually comment on this uniquely shaped boxelder tree trunk. It has two nearly 90 degree bends in it. I cut it from right here on the property and put a lot of thought into where I could use it and show off its beauty.
The last major change before spring field work in 2014 began after getting the floor joists finished was to roll out and attach coir matting and cover it with salvaged galvanized steel.
A rainy weekend is forecasted here so look for some more pictures and descriptions soon!
The septic tank went in the ground yesterday and although I'm very much less than thrilled about the whole set-up being practically forced upon me, it's exciting to be that much closer to moving in.
Other than that I've been busy with work and received 5 little pigs so I had to get them situated and trained to an electric fence wire so they can be rotated through new paddocks weekly or possibly more often.
In the next month I hope to install cedar siding, finish up some roof details, and get the upstairs floor ready to pour. There should be some more round wood (or at least 1/2 round) elements in the works soon too!
Finally I took a few more pics! I feel like I've hardly done anything and summer over, Oh No!
I shouldn't be too hard on myself though, in addition to a small pond and a few other improvements around the farm there is now a floor with most of the electrical conduit and plumbing in place almost ready for a layer of concrete, a septic tank, a sub-panel and electrical outlet upstairs(!), downstairs walls framed up, a 2 inch thick oak door buck, corners and starter strip for the siding, and lots of holes through concrete to run utilities! There are probably many other smaller details finished that I'm forgetting. I even managed to get away for a few days to attend the North American Permaculture Convergence, an amazing event, and only 50 miles from home!
Pipes! Soon I'll be setting up the valving to the future greywater system. I've got a good idea from R Scott in this thread: diverter valve
The walk in cooler will be running soon! Or not... It's just the door to one formerly installed in the grainery from before I moved here. I thought it would make a nice doorway to the cold cellar.
Hey S, this is off topic (nice digs) but wanted to touch base with a fellow dirt farmer. I do organic row crop in nw MO and the driftless of WI. There are some simple and financially equitable rotations for the 3 yr transition, and your probably close to Albert Lee giving access to the right seeds, soil amendments and market. Love to hear from you regardless! PEACE
Justin Rhodes 45 minute video tour of wheaton labs basecamp