Sunday, November 8, 2009


In early fall, I had a plastering party. The straw walls were stacked and pinned, the lathe around the windows stapled in and clay was in order.
When you build a straw-bale structure, the wall gains its strength from the combination of the straw and the plaster, creating a stressed skin panel that is incredibly fire resistant and well insulated. After the wall is stacked, metal lathe is stapled around the window frames (areas around windows and doors are the most likely to crack the plaster so you want to reinforce these areas). The plaster was a mix of masonry sand and red Missouri clay, dug up during the excavation of the septic system. We mixed it in a little pit made from four straw bales and a tarp. We would put water in the pit, throw in the sand and clay and, wearing wading boots, do the stompin’ boogie! After fifteen minutes or so of jigging on the plaster it was the right consistency and we carried it in buckets to the wall and hand applied it. If you have never worked with clay plaster I can tell you it is positively therapeutic. Aside from the few times when, in a fit of exuberance, I pressed a wet glob of plaster into the wall and impaled the end of my finger on the loose end of the wire lathe. That is one of those experiences that drills itself into ones memory. You are leaning into the plaster, enjoying the feel as it sensuously smooshes between the fingers and curls between the knuckles, moist and cool, and then BAM! A sliver of galvanized steel eases into the end of the finger. You feel the slight pressure as it curiously probes the skin, then the slight pop as it breaks through and explores places it has no business being, like a galvanized raping of the finger tip. Right about then the profanities begin to flow like a mighty river and one looks around to be sure the youngsters aren’t within earshot, though they invariably are.
We only got one wall plastered that day. It was a good job we did, and I am happy to say the plaster is holding up surprisingly well after four years, though the final lime coat never managed to get onto it.
The plumbing for the drain side was next on the agenda. I installed schedule 40 PVC throughout the house under the slab and roughed in a bathroom, a utility room with a washing machine hookup and a small kitchen drain. Once the pipe was in I began the process of bringing in the ½ minus gravel to bring the floor up to a level appropriate to pour the slab. I brought some in by Bobcat but most was brought in via wheelbarrow. I shoveled it in and wheeled it down to the cabin (the truck could only dump it some fifty feet from the building site) and, in eight inch lifts, brought it up to level. At each eight inches I tamped it by hand to eliminate settling. It took some two weeks of solid nights and weekends to get it ready to pour the slab. The home was built on a slope so the rear corner had to be brought up nearly four feet. After much sweat, blood and tedium, it was ready to pour.

We Pour The Slab

Let me preface this by saying that I fully understand that anyone with half a brain would have roughed in the plumbing first and poured the slab before anything else. I, it would seem, was working with 43.5% cranial activity and failed to do so. If bought sense is better than borrowed, I have a seriously large stock of high octane good advice, let me tell you. I calculated at 4 ½ yards of concrete for the small slab, a pretty accurate figure, if I say so myself. The truck arrived and my Dad and father-in-law were there to help. Pop-in-law brought along a four foot float (he can pull obscure tools from anywhere, it’s quite amazing), and my Dad, well, he had good intentions. We began the fun and, right off the bat, a wheelbarrow load of concrete bound for the back of the slab overturned. My Father-in-law, Bill, lost control of it. He is diabetic and had helped me more often than I care to remember and felt terrible about the incident. I rallied the troops and kept it moving, after all, we’d need concrete there eventually anyways. I had instructed the redi-mix company to include an additive to make it set up faster, a precaution against the cold temperatures. As it would happen, the temperatures were unseasonably warm that day and the concrete was taking the express train to Set-Ups-Ville. We got it all in there and I began trying to float it off. We got it pretty smooth in the back and I was working the float and trying to outrun the laws of physics and chemistry when I turned around and saw my Dad. He was standing there with a pool trowel, bent over and kinda pawing at the concrete with it, all the while screwing up everything he was doing with his boots as he stomped around. It looked like a muddy cow pasture in a monochromatic gray. At this point I shooed him out and went to work with a mag. The concrete was setting up like a cat at a mouse carnival and I now had to just get it as smooth as I could before it was a permanent lava field. Working on two foam pads, I crawled around and smoothed the slab as best I could. In the end, it looked alright, but a marble rolled across it would look like an Irishman on a bender. The day at an end, I toasted the progress, hoped to God it wasn’t as unlevel as I suspected (It was worse) and called it a success!

Next up, I frame up the innerds and we unexpectedly move in

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Straw and clay

An eighteen foot equipment trailer will hold 350 strawbales quite well, provided you drive carefully and stack them in a manner that is worthy of an engineering degree from MIT. I had neither degree nor inclination to calculate the proper stacking method, but driving slow enough to make the farm tractors flash their lights and wish their horns still worked sufficed to get the bales to the house.
The septic system, properly permitted for a three bedroom abode, had been installed and the drain system for the interior was all in place and covered in ½ minus (read-tiny slivers of gravel with lots of dust so it would compact to the consistency of ornery concrete). The septic install was my first experience with a mini excavator. A good time was had by all. These little buggers, for those unfamiliar with them, are an absolute blast to operate. The initial learning curve is steep, to say the least, however the sheer joy of manipulating the sticks and making this smooth running, diesel powered device dig these glorious holes was indescribable. The greatest part is that they are incredibly difficult to get stuck. I had the experience of operating a Cat 941 High-Lift (owned by a generous neighbor) to do some clearing and tree removal, and riding atop 20,000 lbs. of rumbling digging machine was a rush, no doubt, but that little Japanese excavator was an experience all its own. The only trouble was the foot throttle controls, which, being designed (apparently) for Asian fellows of a stature somewhat less than mine, were something like riding a child’s Big Wheel. This little rubber tracked monster walked all over everything I drove it towards and then some, often scaring the holy crap out of me, but never hesitating and always coming out on top. The first trench to be dug managed to bulls-eye a rock the size of a fully dressed 454 Chevy and the process of figuring out how damn big this stone actually was (only a small bit protruded above the surface, had I been the Titanic I would have…. well… done what the Titanic did.) discouraging to say the least. This proved to be the only large meteor in my path and the septic was in within a few long days and some diesel fuel. My Brother-in-law joined the fun and used the Bobcat to clear the path for me and even ventured onto the excavator on occasion. I being a man and understanding the primal need to utilize mechanized equipment to dig holes and move rocks and dirt and such, was quick to promote such activity. We must all strive to be well rounded, after all.
Thus we found ourselves dropping three hundred and fifty bales of straw at the job site. Three fifty was the number because I needed at least a hundred and fifty and, while ordinarily a fairly good hand with numbers, I seemed to have forgot to carry the one or something and purchased nearly twice the amount of strawbales I needed. I have yet to figure out how in the world I could have miscalculated the amount by so much. Fortunately, my folks needed to seed a yard at the same time and purchased the excess off of me.
Over the next weeks I was busy installing the straw walls and building and installing window bucks, chicken wire and various pins and bale staples devised on the fly to prepare the whole thing for the application of the clay plaster made from a mixture of masonry sand and red clay, dug from the back yard of the cabin itself.