Thursday, February 24, 2011

Beginner's Mind and Virginal Pep

Let it be known right now that I am a complete research junkie. So as you can imagine, my recent foray into this housebuilding project is utterly fulfilling. Sunrise Sister, a blogging friend of mine, posted this morning about life sometimes being like a Star Trek adventure, and this particular research and planning project definitely has Star Trek-like elements to it. I feel like I'm on a whole new planet. Or to be more precise, I'm more fully on this planet, exploring some of the most fundamental aspects of it for the first time.

I'm no slave to astrology, but there are a couple of weekly horoscopes that I like to read, and one of them is astrobarry, who wrote the following for my last week's horoscope:
You oughtn't buy into the false notion that you need any particular bit of training or experience beyond what you already possess, in order to start making a whole new mound of progress. Instead, consider your relative amateurishness as an asset; lacking the wearisome jaded quality of those who have 'been around the block a hundred times before', you'll bring a virginal pep to activities you try for the first time.
Indeed. I am most definitely feeling full of "virginal pep" these days, and while I'm "making a whole new mound of progress" by filling my brain with all kinds of new information, I'm doing so from the place of what is known in Zen Buddhism as Beginner's Mind.

One of the reasons I've chosen earthbags as my building method is because it's simple for beginning builders to learn, as was demonstrated in full over the past weekend's barn raising.  It was a really a beautiful thing to see around a dozen people who had never built this way before, including the hosts themselves, quickly put together a structure which has the potential to last long beyond our own individual lives.  In fact, earthbag-building is growing like crazy in many parts of the world because it provides structures that are hurricane- and fireproof. And it's an extremely inexpensive building method; that's no small thing these days.

Earthbags lend themselves nicely to round structures, which is what Richard and Kerry are building for their llamas.

The first thing we did is turn all the bags inside out so there would be no corners sticking out:

Then the bags are filled with dirt (other fillers can be used too; more about that another day).  You take a 5-gallon bucket, cut the bottom out, and use it as a chute, or funnel:

To the left you can see Richard and Elisa setting up the chute-in-bag.
Then one person holds it in place, while the other pours bucketfuls of earth.
The foundation is made by digging a trench and filling it with rubble, after which the first course of bags is laid, like so:

Richard and Graeme.
And a whole lot of dirt to fill the bags with.

Richard and Elisa "sewing" the bag closed with a piece of wire.
This was my least favorite part of the process; tedious.
You can just fold the ends of the bag under instead, but it means less full bags, i.e, more bags.

Graeme holding a tamper.
This is used to compact the earthbags after a course is laid, making them into "bricks."
Tamping also allows the courses to be made level.  And it's a whole lot of fun.

After the first course is laid and tamped, two rows of barbed wire go on top to hold the next course in place.
This is sometimes humorously referred to as "Velcro mortar."

Bricks are used to hold the barbed wire in place until the next course is laid.
It's also possible to staple them in place. I think that's how I'll do it; the bricks are inelegant.


I am so grateful to Richard and Kerry for opening up their home to Eliana, Graeme, and me and giving us this opportunity to learn and practice.  You can see lots more photos (some with me actually in them; I'm the one with the blue bandanna) at Kerry's blog:  One Little Farm.    

Friday, February 18, 2011

Off to a Barn Raising

I've decided to build my house out of earthbags, for a variety of reasons which I will post about in-depth soon, but the reason I want to mention today is that there is a wealth of information and support on the Internet for this method. Here's just one example:

Downloadable earthbag manual:

Through the vast and extremely helpful website,, I discovered that Green Desert Eco-Farm, near Canon City, Colorado, is having an earthbag "barn raising" this weekend, to build a shelter for their llamas. Since they're less than a four-hour drive from here, it was a no-brainer for me to participate in this. (It also works out nicely that this is my pre-birthday weekend and I get to take a little road trip.)

This is just one of many examples of how serendipitously things are happening around my decision to build a house.

Not only will I be able to get hands-on experience with this way, but also connect with others who are interested in earthbag building.  I've been emailing back and forth with Kerry, who owns Green Desert Eco-Farm with her husband, Richard, and she's a blogger too!  Check her out at One Little Farm.  I'm very excited to meet these folks. I'll be bringing my three-year-old, which works out nicely because they have kids that are two and four.  My 13-year-old son is also coming with me, as he will be one of my main building partners this summer.

Time to hit the road!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Place I Find Myself

First of all, I have to say I live in probably the best place in the U.S. for cheaply building a house with green and alternative methods.  Taos, New Mexico is home to KTAO, the world's most powerful solar radio station,  as well as a branch of the University of New Mexico which was the first U.S. college campus entirely powered by solar.  In fact, I teach English at UNM-Taos, and also write grants for them to fund a LEED-certified library complex which will utilize a water catchment system for the native plants outside the building UNM-Taos also boasts a Green Technology program which offers classes around green design, building, and business.

U.S. Route 64 Rio Grande Gorge Bridge near Tao...Image via Wikipedia
Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

And then there's the Mesa, one of the last true frontiers in this country.  Across the famous Rio Grande Gorge bridge, there is a desert-y expanse of off-the-grid land which is inhabited by few humans.  The ones who do live there are a truly odd mix, which I won't go into too much at this point, but suffice it to say that it takes a certain amount of eccentricity to go into a desert and build a house.  And there are more varieties of eccentricity than there are of normalcy, of course, so what you see out there is a cornucopia of unusual folks and dwellings.

This is also the area where Earthships originated, and the home of the Greater World Earthship Community.  Earthships, however, are for the wealthy eccentric, which I am not.  The Earthship community is on the one side of the highway; the ragamuffin scattering that is the Mesa, is on other.

I'm about to buy land on the Mesa and build a home.

It all came about during a recent conversation with my oldest daughter, June Amber, and my 13-year-old son, Graeme.  June Amber spent the entirety of last summer out on the Mesa and loves it.  She made an assortment of friends, and Graeme went out there with her a few times, and he loved it too.  It turns out he really wants to live there, which is something I didn't know until the conversation in question happened.

I've wanted to build an off-grid house for a long time, and started researching straw bale construction several years ago.  For various reasons, the building dream got shelved, but when Graeme said he wanted to live on the Mesa, something clicked loudly into place for me, and I just immediately knew:  It's time.

The thing is, I don't have a lot of money.  I'm a single mother with four kids and I'm a freelance writer and teacher.  So buying land has seemed a dream beyond my means.  However, Mesa land is dirt cheap, I guess because it's TOTALLY off the grid, and because of its association with an eccentric population.

I had never really thought about moving out there for a couple of reasons:  1)  It's not my ideal landscape; I like trees, and 2) I'm not really the pot-smoking-dreadlocked-hippie type (which is what I thought was the only kind of person out there but have since found out otherwise).  However, during this conversation with my kids, something shifted in me.  The lease at my rental house is up in June, and I had been trying to figure out what to do next, as I know I don't want to stay in this house.  Rent is expensive in Taos, and I've been daunted at the lack of affordable options.  I've thought more and more about buying a house, but my credit's not good enough to get a mortgage (and I simply don't have ENOUGH credit as I've avoided credit cards).  And so what I've realized is that I can deal with the sagebrush and the hippies if it means I can actually own my own land and build a house with my own hands.

I've been doing oodles of research about house-building, off-grid considerations, and life on the Mesa, and have come up with a plan.  Step One is to buy the land, of course, and that's what I'm currently looking into.

So that's where I am, right at the beginning.  I invite you to follow along with me as I move through what is certain to be the adventure of a lifetime.
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