Hang In There!

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hang in there poster

One of my teachers in high school had this ridiculous poster, which I’m sure you’ve all seen in some form or another, on her wall in her classroom. As much as I always worried that this poster and others like it led to the horrible falling deaths of many kittens, it is a pretty apt rendition of my mood for the past week or two. (It’s apt, I tell you, APT! Sorry. Sometimes these Simpson quotes just burst forth from nowhere.)

Between the rain and the more rain, we’ve been slowly slogging (sometimes literally) through the foundation site of our house, currently about 2/3 of the way scraped off. I had hoped by this point, we would be well on our way to getting the stem wall in place, but no such luck.

On top of that, the blog hasn’t exactly caught on as fast as I wanted, and when your top readers are your mom, your husband, and your best friend, it makes you wonder if they’re just being a little biased. Then I found out it actually takes a blog on average two years to gain a following. That was both uplifting and depressing.

So by the time Sunday rolled around, I was feeling pretty down. I felt like I hadn’t accomplished what I wanted. I was starting to wonder if this was ever really going to happen. And I wondered if anyone really cared enough to read about this journey. I didn’t feel like going to church. I just wanted to crawl back in bed and pout.

But I also know those are exactly the times when I need my faith the most. I’m not going to get all preachy with this. When people are down, they have different ways of getting uplifted again. My way is through church. An hour or two of time where I can learn about my spirituality, how God works in my life, and be infused with strength again.

So I headed to church with Casey and Lili. During the singing, I began feeling much better. We have a very upbeat church that focuses on the positive things God is doing in this world and in our lives as individuals. Our staff values the members, and the members value our staff. In other words, #altdurant rocks!

After the singing, we have a minute or two to greet the people around us. Casey and I have severe social anxiety and don’t often feel brave enough to turn to anyone and say hi. But our congregation is warm and open, and that’s never been an issue because so many people say hi or give a quick wave to us.

During that time, a friend who sits a row in front of us usually turned to say hi. I was brooding about my blog and the house still and kind of lost in thought on that, so I just smiled and went back to my internal dialogue (which happens a lot in my brain). Then she asked me, “Hey,how’s your house going? I read your blog every week. I really like it!”

All of a sudden, I was out of my funk. With just a few words, our friend NiCole had changed the entire outlook of my day. Someone reads my blog regularly? And they’re not required to by the code of momhood, husbandhood, or bestfriendhood?

As we chatted for a few minutes, I realized that we had actually made some good accomplishments even on a slow couple weeks. We sourced clayey subsoil from a swimming pool that was put in on the north side of Durant. We found a great deal on a tiller, which once this rain stops again, should in theory help us dig up the site more quickly. We’ve already gotten two loads of dirt to our site. And we sourced some straw to start making test batches to get our mix right.

I know we’re still at the beginning of our cob house journey, and there will be many more discouragements, obstacles, and setbacks along the way, for the house and the blog. But I know that if I just take that time to recharge, if I refocus, and if I fish for compliments from friends and family, I can hang in there. Hopefully better than that poor kitten does. It really looks terrified.

Spending Update:

  • Tent Pegs $11
  • Work Gloves (we got holes in the cheapies we already had) $31
  • Tiller $65

Total as of 5/7/15 $107

Yeah, $107. I had to check again on the calculator. I was an English and history teacher, not a math teacher, for good reason.

Resource Review – ThisCobHouse.com

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We’ve been looking into several resources on cob building and learning to build with cob, and one of the best resources we’ve found so far is Alex Sumerall’s ThisCobHouse.com. We’ve read his book, signed up for his online cob building workshop, subscribed to his blog, and most recently, attended his free webinar, “Introduction to Cob Building”.

Alex has also been incredibly helpful in providing specific answers to questions we had on cob building. He’s responded to every email promptly and with great detail. It’s definitely a bonus having quick access to the author and teacher of the course!

Some of the free resources Alex offers are webinars, blog posts, and articles, as well as links to more information from other cob experts. However, if you’re ready to dig into (pun intended) more detail, he offers an intensive and in depth course on cob building that’s as close to a workshop as you can get without actually having to invest the time and money required to go to one (although he offers the workshops as well).

The course is presented in video format, a combination of footage from his build sites and PowerPoint presentations on more of the “classroom” type knowledge, and includes printable notes and a Q&A comment section for each lesson. It’s a 12-month course, although I believe only 5 months are up on the website right now, but that could be because we don’t have access to the later lessons yet. Each month is broken down into basically what you would be doing for that month on your own dig site, at least that’s how the first month has been for us. Alex includes case studies, monthly Q&A reviews, and instructions for different design options, including round and square foundations and walls.

He has two books, Build a Cob House: A Step-by-Step Guide, and Cob to Code, which covers building codes and their impact on cob housing. The first book breaks everything down, truly step by step, with instructions and photos of each part of the building process. The second book I have yet to read, mostly because building codes don’t apply in our area.

Casey and I both attended the free webinar today, and I really hope Alex plans on hosting more of these! It was informative and included a Q&A at the end. Unfortunately, Alex received so many questions that he wasn’t able to answer the several I submitted before the end of the webinar. I sent him a quick email, and once I’ve received the answers, I’ll update this post to include them.

UPDATE: Just seconds after I finished this, I received a response from Alex. Thanks for the quick reply!

Q: I’ve read in your book and Becky Bee’s book that you shouldn’t use hay, but instead use straw. However, Bee also mentioned that many local grasses and reeds can be used. Isn’t hay a type of grass? And if used and it does sprout, can you just let it sprout and pluck it before plastering? We don’t have good sources of straw in SE Oklahoma, but we have tons of hay!
A:  Yes, you could let the hay sprout and then just go from there. Straw is always best if you can get some though. It has stronger tensile strength.

Hay is a pre-harvest crop. Straw is post harvest, and doesn’t have the living organic parts left that can easily decay.

Q:  Can you use cob for roofs?

A:  Cob can’t be used for roofs since it’s too heavy. The only way to use earth materials for a roof is to do a dome or vault using either adobe blocks or superadobe, but these are quite technical to construct.

Q:  Can you use cob for tubs or sinks?

A:  You can sculpt cob sinks, tubs, showers and then plaster them with a lime render called tadelakt. It is waterproof.

Q:  [Regarding a special Alex ran during the webinar] Can we get the cob plans even though we’ve already registered for your course?

A:  And yes, I’ll attach the plans for you too!

So if you’re looking for more information on building with cob, check out ThisCobHouse.com. And the special Alex is running includes both of his books and two sets of cob building plans, one for a house and one for a garden wall. It’s a great value, all included in the current subscription price for the online course.

Have you found any great resources you’d like us to mention or review in upcoming posts? Add them in the comments below, and we’ll be sure to check them out!

Rain, Rain, Go Away…Three Geeks Want to Play…In the Dirt

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It has rained and rained and rained some more here in Southeastern Oklahoma for the past week, so we haven’t exactly gotten much done on our little cob house. Not much to update, but here’s what’s happened in between downpours.

1) Gravel

We were able to get about a 1/2 ton of gravel from the construction site, which is still sitting in the back of the truck. If it’s not pouring down tomorrow, we’ll empty it out and head back for more. Here’s a pic of the bigger urbanite that we obtained the week before, along with Lili taking a tailgate ride with our Chihuahua, Jenny.

Our growing urbanite pile
Our growing urbanite pile

2) Digging

We were able to get another 10 or so wheelbarrow loads cleared off the foundation site and restring our layout to be more rounded with the new tent pegs and twine. Here’s a “before” photo from last Monday.

We really should have put those rocks somewhere else.
We really should have put those rocks somewhere else.

And an “after” photo from today of Lili attempting to dig in the mud. Some progress, but not a lot!

Because now they're in the middle of the pond foundation.
Because now they’re in the middle of the pond foundation.
  1. Reading and Learning

This part was actually during downpours, not in between. We have purchased some books (this comes out of our monthly “book budget” and spending money, usually just lumped together for a bigger book budget in our house) on building with cob. We’ve read or are reading The Hand Sculpted House by Ianto Evans and Michael Smith, The Cob Builders Handbook by Becky Bee (which she also has available online for free), and Building with Cob by Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce.

We have also enrolled in an online course on cob building through ThisCobHouse, taught by Alex Sumerall. We’ve also purchased one of his books on cob houses. I have to say, both the course as well as the book have been extremely helpful in figuring out how to plan out the foundation, test the soil, and pretty much any other questions we have about cob. He also writes a blog and teaches how to build to code, not an issue in our rural area, but definitely something to check on if you’re building your own cob house.

Great Resource for Cob Builders

We’ll give more in-depth reviews of all these resources in upcoming blogs. If you’re researching cob building, these are great places to start!

I realize this post is shorter than my last posts, and this is on purpose in an attempt to see which method our readers prefer. My first two posts were over 800 words, and I posted once a week. However, I recently read a book on blogging that suggested readers tend to prefer shorter posts (around 300 words) a few times a week. Leave your thoughts in the comments section! And, yes, I realize that this post is still over 400 words, but I just can’t seem to cut my ideas any shorter!

 

Casey Goes Dumpster Diving…Yes, Casey.

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So my family is known for “finding” things that other people don’t want. Sometimes said things are in or near a waste receptacle. But no one in my family has ever physically crawled into a dumpster to retrieve an item for repurposing. Well, at least no one’s admitting to it.

Just the other day, I “found” several buckets on the side of the road that we can use for mixing cob. And lo and behold, the pipe we needed to run our electrical wires through the wall was just sitting there a few feet away. I don’t consider this dumpster diving. No dumpster was nearby.

Casey has always poked fun at me and my mother for this responsible way of reusing what others no longer want, calling us dumpster divers. We have withstood years of smart alecky comments ranging from, “Do you want to go shopping behind Dollar Tree? There’s some good pickin’s there!” to, “We need to find a new couch. Want to drive through the rich neighborhood on trash day?”

Now just because members of my family who will remained unnamed did their Christmas shopping behind Dollar Tree and that couch looked stunning in my living room through all my college years (the duct tape really matched the carpet quite well) does not mean that we are dumpster divers. Or hoarders. We are collectors, environmentalists, and mixed media artists.

However, what Casey did last week with that dumpster goes beyond any Copeland ever (Copeland being my maiden name). You could say he’s gone where no Copeland has gone before. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the cheesy Star Trek reference…props to my trekkers!)

I will explain the details of what he did in a moment (or you can just scroll down and skip the valuable information on collecting materials for your cob house…only you and GOD will know. No pressure.)

But for now, let me just explain how we’ve obtained the materials that we’ve obtained so that you can obtain some materials as well. (Obtain is apparently on my word of the day calendar for today.)

1) Mooch off you friends and family.

We’ve gotten a lot of support from friends and family lately for items they are willing to let us borrow, have, or just please take out of their burn pile that’s been there for 10 years. This includes, but is not limited to (legalize for sorry if I forgot to add you):

  • LAND! Yes, Casey’s parents are letting us build on the family farm. A good way to get land is by checking around to see if your family members have some they are willing to give or sell you cheap to keep it in the family name.
  • Trucks. We’ve borrowed both of Casey’s dad’s trucks to haul materials.
  • Tools. Wheelbarrows, shovels, tractor, tiller attachment for the tractor (as soon as we pick it up from the neighbor who borrowed it last), and all kinds of stuff.
  • Wood. A friend from church is letting us check out his stretch of property to see if there’s any fallen wood or trees he wants removed or rocks or anything that he wants to get rid of.

2. Check with construction sites. Have your friends and family check at construction sites.

  • Urbanite. This is a fancy word for broken concrete, which can be used for your stem wall. We have friends calling construction sites and keeping an eye out for us, and we’ve also got a local site that’s letting us haul off the big pile of gravel and urbanite they’ve dug up from the previous building.
  • Dirt. Same as the urbanite.

3. Check with local business for pallets and other unneeded materials. If you see something near the dumpster or sitting in a pile of trash that you can use, stop and ask the owner if you can haul it off for them. They may even pay you!

  • More wood (this time smaller pieces for cantilevers to build cob shelves, beds, sofas, and other furniture. There is a nearby sports vehicle store that is letting us haul off as many pallets as we want.
  • Plastic drop cloths, tarps, etc.

Now comes the part about Casey and the dumpster. So while getting the aforementioned pallets, one of the stipulations was we picked up any trash lying around them and clean it up. We had just finished loading the pallets and were starting the cleanup. Casey spotted the dumpster and went to throw away the trash. The next thing I know he is reaching inside the dumpster and pulling out trash…excuse me, large sheets of plastic, which we can use for sealing the roof when we build it.

No one in our family has ever gotten anything from a dumpster. Yeah, now I can be all high and mighty about it! No way will he ever live this down!

Now before you go pulling anything out of a dumpster or, worse, climbing into one, please check your local laws to make sure you can do this legally. Casey didn’t. He could be a wanted criminal now. Does anyone know Bryan County’s dumpster diving laws?

So when do you consider dumpster diving “dumpster diving”? What’s your or your family’s (yes, my family has one) definition of dumpster diving? When have you crossed that line from repurposing artist or environmentalist to scavenging survivalist? Take our poll and leave a comment below!

 

Deciding to Build with Cob, or Explaining to My Mother* Why I Want to Live in a Mud Hut

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We are not outdoorsy people. We are geeks. By we, I mean me, my husband Casey, and our 12-year-old daughter Lili. We like LOTR, Game of Thrones, D&D, Big Bang Theory, Legos, dragons, reading Star Trek novels on our Kindle (unlimited membership, of course), and debating on the best OS (Linux and Android, duh).

We are not outdoorsy people. We have allergies to pollen, cedar, hay, and numerous other things. We think 68 degrees is a “smidge chilly” and 74 degrees is “way too freakin’ hot” to go outside. We are out of shape, easily fatigued, and drink too much caffeine.

So why on earth would we want to build our own home? Out of dirt? With nothing fancier than a shovel and a level? Out of dirt? Outside? By ourselves? Outside? With no knowledge of construction or engineering beyond the scope of the aforementioned Legos? Out of dirt?

For every reason mentioned above, and so much more. We are out of shape geeks who need a lifestyle change. We need simplification, a route to common sense financial independence, and a return to good health and living in tune with the land. We need an extreme nerd makeover.

Casey and I (and to a lesser enthusiastic sense, Lili) have been exploring the idea of “alternative” housing and energy for a couple of years now. We decided last year we wanted to build tiny. We also saw that even in tiny housing, the costs and impact on the environment  can be large if you outsource materials that are not local and have others do your building.

So then our thoughts turned to, “Could we really do this ourselves? And how inexpensive (cheap) could we make it?”

And then a few months ago while reading before bedtime, something we normally try to do to wind down, Casey came across a chapter in a tiny house book on cob houses. Now given, Casey had just taken his back pain medicine and was a little loopy. He started rambling about wanting to live in a mud hut, and spent the next 2 hours boring me with this idea of cob housing, until finally I told him to just go to sleep, and not very politely.

Then I spent the next 2 hours thinking about this idea of cob housing and did a little research on my phone and thinking and not getting my brain to shut up. The next day I told Casey I thought the idea of cob housing was brilliant, to which he replied with a bewildered look, “Cob housing? What’s that?”

After I explained to him what he had oh-so-eloquently slurred to me the night before (those are some good pain meds), he thought it was a great idea too. Leave it to Casey to come up with a good housing option while doped up on medication.

Here’s the rundown on why we chose cob:

1) Much of the building material comes right out of the ground you are building on (can’t get much more local than that). The rest of it is either free or nearly free, and can usually be found locally.

2) Although pretty labor intensive, it is relatively easy to build, requiring no special skills or equipment.

3) It’s labor intensive, so it’ll get us into shape.

4) Did I mention how cheap it is?

5) Two-thirds of the world live in earthen housing of some type, and have for centuries.

6) Cob housing can last hundreds, if not thousands of years.

7) It brings us back to our roots, both Choctaw, who lived in wattle and daub housing, which is like cob with sticks, and European, who built with traditional cob and thatched roofs.

8) Cob housing can be beautiful. There is no mistaking the finished product for a mud hut.

9) The materials are all natural, and less likely to cause health issues, in comparison to the chemical laden commercially available materials.

10) We get to build and design and literally shape our house with our own hands, being as creative and geeky as we want. (Can we say cob dragon pizza oven?) And since cob lends itself so well to natural curves and out-of-the-box shapes, I’ve already picked out my hobbit door.

So, no, Mama, I will not be living in a mud hut. I will have electricity (wind-powered, most likely), running water (but not to the toilet, as there are much better options than wasting fresh drinking water on doing your business), and all the comforts of a modern home, without the need for central heat and air thanks to passive solar design.

Progress Update:  We broke ground last Sunday on our new home site. We’ve almost cleared the site of grass. We’ve designed the floor plan and are working on a miniature clay model of the house to get an idea of wall and furniture dimensions. We’ve done some testing of soil samples and hauled in some urbanite and gravel from a local construction site (all for free). See pics below. Top: Casey staking out our floor plan to get an idea of the space. Middle: Jenny (our dog, the perfect size for a tiny house) checking out the first day of digging. Bottom:  Our jar of soil sample using the shake test. It’s hard to tell, but there are 3 separate layers: a chunky river sand, roughly 60%; silt, 20%; clay, 20%. This is probably an okay ratio, but we’ll do a lot more testing to make sure we don’t need to add more sand (easy to get in this area) or more clay (not sure yet on a source for this, so we may need to harvest clay from another part of the land by doing large-scale shake tests and scraping off the clay). Once we get more subsoil dug out, we’ll be able to run more tests with straw to make sure.

Casey staking out foundation First day of digging Shake Soil Test in Jar

Money Spent:  $4 for twine and $11 for tent stakes to map out the footprint on the ground

Total Cost to Date: $15

*Once I explained the idea to her, my mother is actually very supportive of this plan. She’s all about living green and values the artistic but low environmental impact that cob housing can have on the land. Props to my Mama for teaching me how to save money, reuse, reduce, and recycle!