Monday, March 26, 2012

Tip number 9

Today I apprenticed to our friendly concreter, Bill, and learned, from an experienced local and excellent teacher (he also teaches martial arts, knot-tying, and horsemanship!) the finer details of pegging out, levelling, marking lines, successfully supervising the excavator who didn't do the job properly the first time, and tying the steel reinforcements with nifty gadgets with names like "ligs" and "trench chairs". It was pretty great, in an overwhelming, slightly terrifying, "Thank god Bill's here to help me with this massive task", "Now I understand why everyone says that owner building isn't actually super-fun" kind of way. The photo below shows some of our outcomes today - profile hurdle, trench-mesh all ready to be "dropped" (lingo for putting it in the hole) a lovely batter wall and a drain to steer any errant water away from our precious building site. To the uninitiated, it probably doesn't look like much, but I can assure you - it was quite a day.
The learning curve I took a ride on today was akin to one of those big ski-jumps they use in the winter Olympics, and probably about as scary. I'm not going to attempt to impart all the things I learned today but, in the interests of keeping this blog as a helpful place for other would-be self-builders of strawbale and other earthy-type homes, I thought I'd put a few of the biggies out there so that others may learn from our mistakes.

1. If, like me, you have to work and so cannot supervise your excavator, get someone who knows what they're doing - and what you want - to be on site to ensure your digging-guy does a good job. We spent some time this morning having the cut re-done and tidied up, because I wasn't there on the day to make sure it was done right the first time.

2. If you're having any kinds of earthworks done, be flexible with your design: you don't know what you're going to find under that topsoil. Our friend the big rock (who I'm actually growing kind of fond of, despite the changes it has forced has meant that a) the studio is no longer going to be able to fit on the cut only, thereby requiring the front corner to be on fill, which requires piers, which require a crapload of concrete, and b) we cannot angle it enough (without raising the north eastern corner to a ridiculous height) to get it truly on the east-west axis, which means that our 'perfect' passive solar house isn't going to be so perfect after all. After we pegged it out in a few different configurations and positions, it became apparent that facing it true solar north, as we had originally intended, just wasn't going to happen.
We ended up pegging it as best we could facing north-east (the photo above is taken facing east-south-east, straight down the valley towards the town of Bega, with profile hurdles and pre-tied steel in the middle-ground), minimising the amount of fill underneath us, but the pier holes, as Olive can attest, are still pretty deep (much deeper than we would have liked).
3. You can make your profile hurdles out of star pickets and timber, and they'll actually be better than if you make them out of just wood! I've been reading tons of building books over the last year or so, and they all told me to make my profile hurdles out of 2x4 timber, so I thought this was the only way to go. But when we came to peg out, Bill whipped out a couple of very short star pickets instead.
According to Bill, these are superior because they go into the ground easier, creating less disturbance in your soil profile, and can be reused indefinitely. I'm a fan.

4. Normal garden lime is fine for marking lines. No need for fancy spray paint markers.

5. Our soil, under the (quite lovely and black) topsoil, is pretty much just clay. This, like most things, has plusses and minuses. On the minus side, clay, due to its water-holding capacity, tends to expand and contract a bit in response to shifts in temperature. As Bill helpfully pointed out "It's pretty much the worst thing you can build on". Gee, thanks for those words of encouragement. On the plus side though, Bill also commented that our clay is about the best he's ever seen, and "people pay a lot of money for clay like that - you should be building pise". We are not building pise, on account of our strict adherence to Frank Thomas' motto that "if it isn't strawbale it's not worth building", but the clay-i-ness of our subsoil does bode well for our earth floor, which is probably going to be built with the clay we get out of the "big hole" Moonie has planned. I'm choosing to think of it as our top dam.

6. Reinforcing steel that has just been cut with an angle grinder cuts like a knife. Wear gloves.

7. Frilly polka-dot swimmers and gumboots are excellent attire for helping your mumma get all the stray rocks out of the pier holes and footings.
8. Doing physical work outside is good for the body, mind and soul, and I hadn't realised how much I miss it since getting this office job of mine! I spent the drive home devising ways I could incorporate more outdoorsy stuff into my job and/or getting a job with landcare.

Tomorrow we form up. More learning, I suppose. I am very very thankful to have Bill showing me the way, because even though I'm a pretty resourceful kinda lady who, as my father-in-law likes to say "would be in a shit sandwich" (I believe this is affectionate code for "will try anything once") I reckon that without some guidance I may have been out of my depth today. Turns out you can't learn everything from books. I reckon a day spent with an experienced, patient, skilled person would be better than all the reading in the world. And that's my tip number 9.


  1. Wow! You're on the way ladies!!! How exciting! x

  2. I'm excited for you, no stopping you now.

  3. Peps always has very meaningful advice ;-)
    BTW love the little Rosie pics. What a funny thing.
    Looking v. great. Can't wait to see it all in a few weeks time .

  4. quite a sandwich you are biting off...remember to chew slowly! xx