Monday, August 24, 2015


I love touring people through the bioshelter!  Every Thursday this summer folks come out and I get to tell them about how we live lightly on the planet.  This last Thursday a gentleman toured and at the end, even though his eyes were glassing over with so much input, he summarized, "So really it's all about design."  He nailed it on the head.

To live permanently on the planet humans need to design systems that work with nature so that we aren't harming the planet.  In our bioshelter home that means that we use the rain water for all of our needs and then return the surplus back to the environment as clean or cleaner than when we captured it.  That means we feed worms all of our waste products (anything that's not plastic), so that we can return that surplus back to the environment.  That means we used all biodegradable materials (except for the roof) to build our greenhouse.  The walls are made of clay we dug from the ground, straw we got from Palmer, and sand we got from Alaska Sand and Gravel with windows destined for the dump from Craig's list.  For insulation, we packed the clay covered straw in between two walls 12 inches apart and plastered the outsides of the walls with natural clay plaster .  We also built a rocket stove  with some firebricks, which is covered with an Alaska clay and sand plaster to warm the greenhouse.

Designing for sustainability is easy to talk about, but actually doing it is much more difficult.  Stores that sell building materials shipped up here from thousands of miles away, make building much easier.  The immense amount of carbon that is spent to get those building materials here is also a huge concern. The materials being shipped are highly toxic and many will never disintegrate, even though the homes they are placed in will only last 50 years.  The immense amount of carbon that is spent to get those building materials here is also a huge concern.  It is not sustainable.

It's time to change the way we live.  We need to design and plan for a future that stops harming our fragile ecosystem.  

So the question is:  how can you design this change?  An easy way to begin is to start growing your own food or buying from local farmers, and then composting the excess waste.  Growing your own food means you are not spending carbon for your food to be sent to you from the Lower 48!  Usually food is flown over 1,500 miles to get to your plate.  Some people are growing food, but are still importing fertilizer made from chemicals to fertilize their food.  Without going into the health concerns of adding chemicals to our food system, we can design a system that utilizes a natural fertilizer source:  animal manure. And it's local!  Designing a local food system that includes animals, especially when they have other benefits like meat and eggs, is extremely environmentally friendly.

This is only the beginning of the design process.  Designing systems for fodder or for watering those animals and plants, or for gathering produce from the wild, or for feeding the microorganisms in your soil, or for better ways to share food with each other, or share the work load....these are all things that you learn in a permaculture design course.  

It seems to me that more and more people are feeling the need to become more and more self-sufficient, localized, and healthy.  It's time.  You can get a kick start by taking a permaculture design course this winter.  It's all about designing your sustainable future and our planet's future simultaneously.

Friday, August 14, 2015

1st Rammed Earth Home Being Built in Butte

I was lucky enough to attend a tour of the first rammed earth house being built in Butte!  It’s an amazing, albeit expensive way to build a house!  According to the architect on the project, if you were to simply build a stick-built house with 12 inches of insulation, you would pay 15% of what this house costs to build.  Here’s why.

There are 10 people working for 10 weeks.  The material has to be made on site.  There is a lot of equipment that needs to be rented. 

But what you end up with is a semi-natural built home, and I'm betting it will last a lot longer than the 50 years a standard home is built to last.

First you measure out the materials.  

The sand went into the bobcat bucket first and was leveled off.  Then they added 2 5 gallon buckets of D-1 rock.

Next, they dumped it into a giant round mixer.

Only one bag of Portland Cement, which makes up about 8% of the walls.  That’s important because Portland Cement is extremely dirty to make and is responsible for atleast 5% of greenhouse gases each year!  The cement is what holds it all together. 

I asked why they couldn’t use clay and one of the answers was that it is hard to find a big quantity in nature and to buy it is cost prohibitive.  I’m also not sure it would work because of the way they are building the walls.

Next they added the dyes.  The 5 gallon buckets behind the woman were all filled with pre-measured dyes.  She collected 3 different bags out of 3 different buckets and handed them up to be mixed in.
They had done 2 test benches to decide which colors to use.   Here is one of them.

Each layer is another batch with a different color in it.  They ended up not liking these colors, but went with a warmer version of these. 

Then they added water.  It looked like they didn’t measure, but were able to go by what it looked like. 
I noted that this is a cake recipe since they were mixing all of the dry ingredients first before they added water.  I’m sure it’s easier that way. 

Next they delivered the material up to the guys on the scaffold.   You can see that it does not look like a glob of mud, it’s just moist enough to RAM into place. 

The ramming process was the biggest part of the production.  All of these forms had to be shipped up from Washington State.  The builder has experimented with all sorts of forms and found these metal ones to be able to withstand the mechanical ramming process. 
Note that there is wood on one side, the inside, to produce a smoother wall. 

It’s a lot thicker than it really is.  In total the wall is 2 feet thick, but what they are doing is ramming an 8” wall on the outside, placing 8” of insulation in the middle, and then ramming another 8” on the inside of the wall.  They are staggering all of the seams so there is never a straight through passage where air can flow in.

This is actually an outside corner.  The outside wall, inside insulation and then the wall continues at a 90degree corner to make the wall of the bedroom. 

You can see the batches of material they rammed by looking at the layers.  When they get close to the top, they pour a wet batch to seal the top of the wall.  When they pull off the forms, it looks like this.

Each place that needed an input like electric, or gas, or TV cable had to be planned for, so they could do the wiring later.  So this signifies that something will come into the room there and then once it’s in the house, it will be wired or piped in the floor to other rooms in the house.

So this is what the footings look like.

The outside wall is the taller poured concrete---it’s 8 inches and the materials will be rammed all the way up the wall of the one story home.  They do one wall at a time.  The middle white strip is for the insulation so it doesn’t have rebar.  The inner wall is 8 more inches of the rammed earth material.  They will put the plumbing under the poured concrete floor.  (yikes)  There will be 6 inches of foam on top of the slab. So the floor will come up to the inner 2x6 that’s laying flat.  The electricity and piping will go above the insulation, but under the floor. 

They are adding a vapor barrier between the inside 8” of material and the insulation, but the architect said that was overkill since any moisture can get in the walls and nothing that’s in there can rot.  So it doesn’t really matter.  There will be an HRV unit in the home to bring in fresh air every hour since it is so tight.  If all goes as planned, the home will be a 6 star energy efficient home.   15,000 btus per hour

Of course I couldn’t take pictures of the roof yet!  But the plan is to have a regular standard roof.  There will be beams on top of the rammed earthen walls to attach trusses to.  There will be 18” of foam blown in the ceiling and then an impermeable membrane covering the ceiling of the whole house. 

The reason that they didn’t just do a poured concrete home, was that they are looking for ways to build cheaper in the Aluetians.  The folks doing this are from the Aluetian Housing Athority.  If all goes well, they could bring this type of home to that bioregion of Alaska in the future.  There will be sensors built into the walls and they will take measurements for 2 years before they decide if they should build more of these homes. 
Check out the boxes that they have to build for the windows!  It’s too bad they can’t bevel the windows like we can with our clay windows. 

That’s 1.5” plywood around there!  It looks like it should be able to hold up to the ramming.  This is the bathroom window form.  I believe the form will be pulled when it dries and that outside plywood frame will stay to put in the window.

They are planning a lot of glazing on the south side of the house, of course and not any on the north side.  There is a chance that it will be too hot in the summer, but the hope is that all the walls and floors will collect the heat in the day and give it back at night.  The question remains how much will you have to heat it.  I forgot to ask if they will have a standard boiler.  I imagine they will. 

I talked to the Exec. Director of the Aleutian Housing Authority and he would be happy to let the Permaculture Design Course tour again this winter!  :-)  Sign up for the course here:

Friday, January 2, 2015

Homemade Earth Box

Homemade Earth Box Tutorial! 

Last summer I had great success with greenbeans in the greenhouse, which were planted in my homemade, self-watering Earth Boxes and I only had to water them twice a month.

This is how I did it.  I had a 14 gallon tub left over from some storage that I got rid of.  I decided to use it.  It's always better to find something to use rather than to buy something new.

Next, I cut the lid at the top ridge, leaving an edge. That piece would eventually fit into the bottom of the tub.   I used my husband's moose knife and it worked well.
Next, I drilled 3/4" holes all over the piece of lid for drainage.  So you can also water the plants from above if you want to.

Then I made a place for the wick, so that water could be wicked up into the dirt from below.  I used two plastic cups.  I placed a cup in each corner and traced the bottom of the cup, flipped the cup and then traced the top of the cup as well.  I cut between the two lines so that the cup would stand up approximately half way above the lid.  I drilled a hole in the middle and then sliced tabs from the center hole to the edge of the circle and bent the tabs down.  

Before I place the cups in the holes, I used a soldering iron to melt holes in the cup about every inch around the cup.  You could use a drill or maybe a knife.  Whatever works best for you.

The idea is that when you place soil inside the cup, the water that sits in the bottom of the tub will get wicked into the soil and from there the soil in the tub wicks the water from the cup keeping the entire tub of soil moist all of the time.

In order for the lid to rest above the water reservoir with all the soil in it, I needed to have something sturdy to hold it up.  I used PVC pipe.  I used the hack saw to cut several 2 1/2" pieces of pipe.

I have also used plastic frozen juice containers, or some plastic Stevia containers.  That also works well.  

Then I placed the lid and the wicks down into the tub on top of the short pvc pipes.

Before I put the soil in, I needed to add a spout to pour the water into the tub's reservior.  I made the pour spout really tall and I'm glad I did.  The green bean vines hid it really well.  I cut the pipe off at a 45 degree angle, so that the water could enter the tub.  If it were cut at a 90 degree angle,  the water would simply stand in the pour spout and not make it into the water reservoir.  

I cut another hole for the pour spout in the corner of the lid and then slid the pour spout in.  

The last step was to put an overflow valve in.  I wanted the overflow right under the height of the lid, so that if I watered it too much, it would overflow outside of the tub rather than drown the plants.   

I bought a little drain piece, drilled the hole and pushed it into the tub.  So that it wouldn't fall out, I bought a small rubber ring to hold it in place.

Lastly, I filled the tub with soil to the top of the bin.   I chose not to put the weed blocker on it.

I could have taken black fabric weed blocker and covered the bin.  The rim of the lid could fit tightly over the tub to keep the weed blocker on.  To plant seedlings, I would simply cut a slit in the fabric for the seedling to fit in.

I simply planted the seeds.

I added water into the pour spout until the excess came out of the overflow drain.

Beans grew without much attention from me at all.

Saturday, June 7, 2014


At the end of  June we are hosting an Introduction to Natural Plaster Workshop here at the Bioshelter. I realize that I really know almost nothing about Natural Plasters. But Sasha, our instructor, is so enthusiastic, she assured me that she could teach 20 people how to become really good natural plasterers in a weekend. I took her offer.

She tells me there are so many benefits to earthen plasters. The first and obvious one is paint. Our paints are so toxic and off-gas like crazy.

Make shelves
Add texture
"Indoors, products that contain volatile organic compounds release emissions when you use them, and to a smaller degree, when they are stored. You can be exposed to volatile organic compounds at home if you use cleaning, painting, or hobby supplies that contain them. You can also be exposed if you dry clean your clothes with home dry-cleaning products; if you dry-clean your clothes at a professional dry-cleaners; or if you use graphics and crafts materials such as glues, permanent markers, and photographic solutions."   
"Long-term exposure to volatile organic compounds can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Short-term exposure to volatile organic compounds can cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, fatigue, loss of coordination, allergic skin reactions, nausea, and memory impairment." 

What I especially like is the benefits clay has for my allergies. The natural finishes help people with chemical sensitivities and respiratory issues too. For health reasons alone, you should bring these natural plasters into your current home and retrofit it into a healthier place to live.

I really like that I can dig clay out of the ground and use it. It's a local resource (if you can find it) and so fun to play with! It brings be right back to my play dough days. Remember those days? Full of fun, no pressure, no need to hurry to finish. It feels like that when you are working with clay.

If you find a local source, it is so much more sustainable than shipping paint up from the Lower 48. It has a much cleaner carbon footprint than paint does and the look is so much more earthy than having just paint or wall paper. And the clean up? So easy. Toss it out the back door! It doesn't harm the environment at all! It turns back into earth. How great is that?

Clay plasters are natural, environmentally friendly, and life-enhancing, adding character and warmth to any space. What is almost magical is that clay allows a building to "breathe." High moisture content moves in and out of clay depending on what the room needs. A good use of a clay wall might be in a bathroom, where moisture from baths and showers are always present. This helps the durability of the walls, roof and foundation.

The only question left is: why didn't I know this sooner? 

You can join us for this weekend workshop/retreat:  June 28th and 29th.  We'll gather on Saturday morning around 9am.  Saturday we will focus on base plasters.  A healthy organic lunch and dinner will be included. Saturday night there will be a lecture/slide show by Sasha to see other possibilities.  It's strongly encouraged to bring a sleeping bag and use some floor space in the bioshelter or the greenhouse to sleep instead of driving home at night.  It saves energy and allows us to get a good start on Sunday morning learning finished plasters.  Breakfast and lunch will be included that day and we will finish at 5pm.  

This is a great opportunity to work with Sasha Rabin, who has been practicing and teaching natural building since 2002. She has dedicated her work to encouraging people to engage with our built environment, and through that process reconnect with world around us.  She currently lives and works at Quail Springs Permaculture Farm in California.

To save your spot for this awesome workshop, click HERE.  Enroll before June 15th for the early bird special discount.

"A Fine Finish: Natural Wall Finishes, Nontoxic Paints and Clay Plasters."Mother Earth Living. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2014. .
"Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) En EspaƱol Volatile Organic Compounds Change Easily from Liquid Form to Vapor." U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Apr. 2014. Web. 7 June 2014.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Learning how to build with Clay/Straw

Why clay/straw, you ask?   Good question.  Regular cob adobe type buildings like they have in the desert don't work in the subarctic.  1.  the clay walls conduct the cold (which is good in the desert, not so good in the cold) and 2. the freezing of the walls in the winter turns the cob mushy and it can't hold a roof or any structure.  So insulating with clay/straw in a timber frame structure is what works best for Alaska.  There are problems however.  Alaska's short summer means that anything thicker than a 12 inch wall can't get dry before winter.  If it's not dry, mold starts to appear and then rot.

So to make a house with clay/straw you have to start by making clay/straw bricks.  With a form, you can stuff the form with clay/straw and make an 8 inch brick.  The bricks are added to the clay/straw walls on each side.  So as soon as summer's over, or the next spring, the bricks are added and the wall becomes a very warm 28 inches thick.  That works---well, at least below the Alaska Range.

All homes in Alaska are made extremely air tight.  We have fancy air-exchangers to move the air out of the house and back in again to stay healthy.  With clay/straw, the walls breathe.  Moisture is wicked in and out of the house as the humidity inside and outside of the house fluctuates.  It's natural.  There's no off-gassing from the sheet rock, paint, or other man-made building materials.  And when you go into a clay/straw structure, you can just feel the difference.

These are only a few things we learned in the Clay/Straw Workshop taught by Lasse. All of us gathered Saturday morning in the bioshelter for an introduction to building with straw and clay.  We took notes, learned theory and learned about building with clay/straw bricks.   And then we went to work.                                            

The first task was to break up the clay.  We dug the clay out of the mountain in chunks and it needed to be turned into powder----an arduous task!

 Next, Lasse had us doing it the ancient way----mixing clay and water with a hoe in a bucket.  That, too, was arduous.  It's important to understand how much we take electricity for granted.  

Then Lasse got out the drill with a big paddle on the end and started mixing the clay with water in various thicknesses to teach us about different slips for different projects.  

Look at his fingers---they are just coated.
That's a cream consistency, so it's #2 slip---
just want we wanted for our clay/straw.

Look at how thick that is---like a milk-
shake.  That is a #3 slip

Next came the straw..... local straw from Palmer.
Out came the pitchforks and we went to town tossing the straw in the air while another person poured clay like dressing over a salad. We tossed and tossed and added more clay and tossed and tossed. 

More tossing!

Bridget tests the straw to see if it is
completely coated, but not too much.

Auri tests it too!

Finally the time came to start on the wall.  The lathe should have been 1x strips cut from any lumber using a table saw, but since I had no clue---I bought lathe.  Don't do that.  It's way too expensive.

First we had to "water proof" the bottom of the wall.  It would have been much easier to do this BEFORE we built the wall, but again---we didn't know.  So we snaked some EDPM rubberized membrane between the rocks in the trench and the 2x4s.  We needed to make sure that no water came up from the ground into the clay/straw walls.    
The trick is to get any water to go under the rubberized membrane, not on top of it.                                                                                                                                                                                                         We mixed perlite with #1.5 slip until it had the consistency of a rice crispy bar.  We tamped down the clay/perlite between the 2x4s.
OKAY!  We were finally ready for the clay/straw.  One of the other cool reasons to use clay/straw is that mice don't come in.  They don't like the clay.  The other reason is that you can take a lighter to clay/straw and it will not burn.  That is a huge advantage.   
Lasse explains what to do with the clay/straw and how to stuff it.

A very interested class

Avoid the voids---stuff the corners well,
but don't stuff the rest of it---
The more stuffed in it is,
the less it insulates.
Liz starts stuffing/placing

Notice how we put the lathe up the back side of the wall before we starting putting straw in.  The walls have to be ready before               clay/straw can go in.

These are the CHASES.  The rocket stove pipes
will come in and leave the greenhouse
through these holes.  
And now you can watch the wall go up.

Curt's checking the loftiness of it to make sure folks aren't getting carried away in their stuffing.

 The stuffers continued stuffing while the rest of us kept tossing straw or churning clay slip, or breaking up the clay chunks.  We had a great assembly line.

The sun came out that afternoon and we couldn't help but sit down and soak it in.  Most of us still sun-deprived from the dark winter.
Good Conversation.
Tea Time---reflecting on the process.
Poor Liz is tuckered out!

And we finally called it a day!  Everyone was tired and sore and inspired.

What 10 people finished in a weekend.  A great start!