The front door is in…finally

This weekend my partner suddenly burst into action and installed the long awaited front door (we are talking years here). This door marks the last piece of the puzzle for our humpy; we are now officially able to lock the entire building up.

The geese were very surprised to see us coming and going through this new door and honked around it every time it moved.

Having a door there at the front of the humpy (well…the side that faces the front of the block, about 1km to the North of the humpy) is a very useful addition in terms of efficiency of movement. Originally I planned to have the door there so I could reach the conveniently placed washing line and chook pen quickly. Then, as the building activity slowed, the hole that would become a door became blocked off by tin and a thick curtain (to block Winter breezes) and we resorted to carrying washing and chook food around the humpy from the Western door.

The washing machine sat in front of where the door would be for the last year or so as the temporarily tacked on tin was a good place to run the water drain through. Now I am trying to reconcile having the washing machine right beside the front door because the drain is attached to the outside of the humpy and it is a fairly large job to move it.

This was a fairly quick and simple job; we simply removed everything in front of the space and raked the area clear. Then we found some of the ever-useful pavers lying around and made a fairly level base for the door frame.

The door and frame were screwed to the existing wall frame and the the open side was framed.

The door and frame was picked up from a garage sale for about $10 at some point in the last two years, it has been leaning against the wall in the humpy since then. I had ceased to notice it sitting there. My ingenious partner found some aluminum framing in the useful pile out the back and made a frame for the door frame (if that makes sense?). Some scraps of corrugated iron screwed to the frames means that we now have a wall with a door in it.

My daughter is aiming to paint the door and it’s frame to protect it from the weather as we think it is an internal door (not complaining for $10).

It is amazing how much difference it makes to the feel and look of that end of the humpy; it sort of feels finished. I love being able to step out into the front yard and walk straight to the washing line or chook pen and I am even thinking about how to arrange a little table with two chairs so I can sit out there for breakfast in Summer.

From the outside
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House update- an exciting visit

With everything that has been going on for the last few months we haven’t done much on the house building for a while. Things have started to move again though…slowly. This week several things came together to get things moving again.

Firstly the loggers are at our place. I have very mixed feelings about this; we need the money this will bring in to build our house, we can’t do it without this big input of cash…but, I hate ripping our ecosystem apart and creating so much destruction (especially in the face of news about our current mass extinction). I drive through the chaos every morning on the way to work and apologise to the land in my head. The loggers are very good and are sticking to the rules, they are good people who do care about the animals and plants sharing our space; my mixed feelings come from my own guilt about making that decision.

Secondly, and on a more positive note, Hayden from Curvatecture (the company we are working with to get the building off and racing) happened to be in our area when I emailed to let him know we would soon be making moves towards building again. He decided to pop in and see our site and get a feel for our lifestyle on his way through.

We introduced him to all the animals and he was very good about patting Freida when she demanded it. He shared a cup of tea with us (coffee for me) and we got to know each other a little. Hayden is a very interesting person who has some great ideas for our house, and I think we were able to sort out some general understandings. He has been a source of great information and advice so far.

As soon as the loggers have finished we will be finalising our house plans and hopefully starting to build. The first stage will be the house foundation, we are hoping that the funds from logging will get us through the council approval stage and (with luck) build the foundation. After that we will have to get creative to fund the next stage of building; the walls.

Home Biogas system – a BIG step forward (part one)

We have been trying very hard to move away from using gas to sustain our daily life. We have historically used gas for running the fridge and for cooking and heating water on the gas stove. Recently we have upgraded our gas fridge to an electric fridge (solar powered) and now we are adding a biogas unit to the mix. This means that we will no longer have to buy gas bottles (yay!!), this is the final step away from using bottled gas.

Bottled gas or LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) is produced during oil refining and given the temporary nature of our supply of oil on this planet, we need to be looking at ways to move away from our reliance on it (not to mention the huge environmental cost of using it). LPG contains propane in Australia, in other countries LPG can be a mix of propane and butane.

Biogas captures methane and carbon dioxide (methane mostly) as a result of decomposition of organic matter. That is why the discovery of methane on Mars was such an exciting thing; where there are dead things there were once live things (usually, although not always and probably not in this case). I became interested in biogas many years ago (after watching an episode of The Good Life) and decided to work towards setting it up in our humpy. The idea that we could use our waste (of all descriptions) to generate some of our energy needs was very exciting.

The idea has been sitting on a dusty shelf at the back of my mind for years. Other, more attainable, goals have been on the work table of my mind. Six months ago (approximately) I stumbled upon a post advertising a biogas system designed for home use and the idea suddenly moved to the front of my mind again.

We eventually decided to go with a Home Biogas unit from Quality Solar and Plumbing

They are the only company selling these units in Australia and they are relatively close to us (only about three hours drive way). We saved up (in tiny increments) and finally, with a windfall of back pay, we ordered the unit. We also managed to add a toilet unit to the order. As soon as this unit is set up we can start to generate our own cooking gas (although the Year three student who lives in my head can’t help making jokes about cooking with farts).

As soon as the order was placed we realised we needed a site for the future toilet/gas generation unit. Then we need a shed or some kind of building to house the toilet and a pad for the gas unit to sit on.

A gratuitous ocean shot from our long journey to Mullumbimby to pick up our biogas system.

The first part of our biogas adventure was picking it up and touring a working unit while we were there. The very helpful Brian at Quality Solar and Plumbing gave us a tour of the biogas unit he has set up at his house.

This is the working unit. It was really exciting to see one working.
You put the food scraps or animal manure into the black pipe at this end…
and gas and fertiliser come out this end. How amazing is that?
This is the stove unit that comes with the kit. There is no smell at all to the gas and this burner obviously gets a lot of use.

We have our unit home. It is sitting in it’s two little boxes, waiting for us to make it a home and set up the toilet. I can’t wait to get it going.

The two boxes in the car constitute the entire kit. I was amazed at the small size of the whole thing and how light it was to haul around. It will be much heavier once the bottom of the digester is full of water.

The kit is supposed to include everything we need to put it all together. We will see…

A new fridge

The time has come to bite the bullet and get a new fridge. At the moment we have an aged gas fridge gifted to us by my partner’s uncle. It is at least 30 years old and doesn’t really keep anything cool any more. It is capricious about keeping things frozen and seems to find amusement in allowing greens to turn to slime overnight.

The decision

We need to do something about the fridge; which leaves us with two options. We can buy a new gas fridge at the cost of around $2000 plus ongoing gas costs…or we can spend around $15000 on an upgraded solar system and get an electric fridge. Our current solar system can not produce enough power to run a fridge.

The gas stove seems to be the cheaper option, but the solar system upgrade also has other advantages. We have needed new storage batteries for a very long time as the old batteries are over 15 years of age and like to give the fridge a run for it’s money in the capriciousness grand finals. The extra electricity can be used to run our various pumps and filters on the ever increasing fish tank collection and means we can literally turn on the fan whenever we want to…without checking the battery charge levels first (an almost mythical luxury here).

We decided, eventually, after much argument and discussion (in which fan use figured heavily), to go for the solar upgrade option. This involves getting a personal loan (something we have been trying to avoid) and many hours of work putting the new system in place.

The project

After securing a personal loan (groan) and shopping around for the best deal, we picked up our new solar system.

The solar panels, batteries and other associated bits have been stored in the shed waiting for time to put them together. Several jobs need to be completed before the new fridge can be installed.

First; the generator needs to be moved closer to the shed so the batteries can be attached to it for charging when there is no sun (they will need to be charged on the generator until the solar panels are connected too).

Not pretty, but the tires and gravel keep the generator up above water level

Second; the batteries need to be arranged in their box in the shed and wired to the regulator and other bits of technology that keep them balanced and operational.

The magical battery box in the shed.
Inside the battery box. I don’t know what it means but it works.
The regulator and other unknowable bits that get the electricity from the panels to the batteries.

Third; the solar panels need to be connected to each other and then to the batteries (via the regulator).

The front row of panels is on the shed roof. That part gets more sun in the winter.

Fourth; the fridge can be put in the kitchen and turned on. This step involves putting down a cement pad to make sure the fridge is level (our kitchen floor is NOT level).

You can just see the cement pad under the fridge.

My partner has done the majority of the work on this project, between working and fixing things I break. He has done a great job getting it all going and is now able to enjoy turning on the fan any time he likes…just in time for winter. Having a fridge that seems to enjoy keeping things cool and having a LOT more freezer space has allowed us to cut our shopping down considerably and we no longer have much food waste. The chooks don’t like this turn of events, but there is a downside to everything.

House update; soil test time

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As part of our house planning adventure we have had to have a soil test done on the house site. This is quite an expensive exercise, but it is essential for council approval. As well as ticking off another box for council, this test will give us information about how reactive our soil is (this just means how much it swells or moves during rain or extra dry conditions) and will help us plan the foundation design. We are hoping for class A soil (which is of course the most stable classification) because this will make our foundation designs simpler and less expensive.

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The soil test guy came out to the humpy a little late (even with Google Maps we can be a bit hard to find) but happy and friendly. He was met by four dogs, a sheep and various screeches from inside, which he took in his stride. I showed him the site and he paced it all out, marking the drilling spots with a neat little orange cone.

The drill rig on his ute was fascinating to watch and he was very professional. He even made some piles of soil at different depths for me to see the difference in soil types.

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He also made mud balls for me to see if we had enough clay for cob mixes.

 

Eventually the test came back, and guess what? We have a P rating. Yes; that is P for problem site. The most expensive rating when it comes to building, because now we will have to have a beefed up foundation. Oh well, on with the plan, slowly but surely.

House update – figuring out the slope

I do not enjoy maths, I have a lot of trouble holding numbers in my head and I get lost in the operations needed to manipulate them. However, I came close to having to do some maths today in order to figure out what degree of slope the house site has, luckily, I was saved by the internet. Why did I need this measurement? Well… apparently, having the degree of slope of the house site will make our house plans a whole lot more accurate and allow the plans to actually work on our site when we come to building. I just hope we did it right.

First I looked for what measurements I would need. Vague memories of Pythagorean theorem and hypotenuse floated through my brain along with the phrase ‘rise over run’ but with no real understanding of any of it; I didn’t know where to start. Enter the first clue; an explanation of triangle calculations on To-calculate.com.

I visualised a right angle triangle and used the handy little calculator on the site to do the hard work for me. The only measurements I needed were the length from the bottom point of the slope to the top point and the height needed to make a right angle triangle above that. The post at the corner of the chook pen was exactly at the bottom of the slope and a convenient large grey gum tree provided a marker at the top of the slope.

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An ‘on the fly’ sketch of how we did the measurement

With some help from my partner (reluctant, but biddable enough) we strung a chalk line string between the grey gum and the chook pen post (my partner did the vast majority of the work while I provided constructive criticism) and hung a little level thingy off it. The end on the grey gum was weighted to the ground while the end on the post was pushed higher and higher up the post until the level told us it was now forming a right angle with the chook pen post as the short leg (rise).

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After that confusing explanation, I hope the diagram helps you visualise

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The little level thingy

After I had measured from the ground to the pink chalk line on the chook pen post and the distance between the chook pen post and the handy grey gum, I took these measurements in to my trusty computer. I entered the measurements into the calculator on the web site above and it gave me the degree and percentage of slope.

I dutifully (and hopefully) emailed these details off to Curvatecture (our partners in building) and waited to see what else there is to do.

I am also in the process of filling out a fire safety assessment and have the BASIX ready to roll when I get a copy of the plans. The DA is about halfway done and the On Site Sewage Management application is being filled out as we speak. Such a lot of paperwork to build a little mud hut in the bush.

Earthbag building experiment- The new bathroom- We have a door frame

After a gentle day of work on our bathroom (about three hours work in total) we have put up the door frame and completed another layer of bags, thanks to the help of one of of our neighbors. We began the day with my partner and daughter putting up the door frame and securing it in place while our neighbor and I filled earthbags with the conveniently damp soil (it was a showery day).

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Finished for now. We have to keep the bags covered so they don’t get wet or UV effected

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Filling pots with damp soil, each bag has four and a half pots of soil in it, except the half bags which have two and a bit pots.

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Figuring out how to hold the door frame level with rope and tent pegs…you have to sit down to think at this depth.

This may seem like a very small gain, but it has left me feeling ridiculously satisfied with life. I feel as if things are progressing even though there is very little time to work on any projects which aren’t work related and even basic maintenance is taking a hit. I love the feeling of working on my own home, of building something I will use and appreciate (or curse) for years to come.

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I did do some of the work…I swear. Tamping down the bags to get that firm and stable feeling.

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Taking the form work off the step so the door frame can be bolted down.

This is just a quick update. Next time I hope to have bagged right up to window height. Wish me luck.

Earthbag building experiment- the new bathroom- a door step is born

We have a door step! It will one day be our back door. My partner decided one Saturday morning that this is the day we cement the step, so off I sped to get six bags of cement while he built some formwork, because when your partner gets enthusiastic about building it doesn’t pay to let him get distracted by something else before the job is done.

When I got home he had the formwork all done and a daughter lined up to help mix cement in the wheelbarrow. The local Rural Agent (hardware and feed shop) only had rapid set concrete, so that is what I got. In hindsight it may have beenĀ  a mistake because rapid set concrete is a bit crumbly. The step seems to be holding together though, I guess it’s just another experiment.

My daughter and husband got to work mixing cement and had the job done by the time I had half the weekly wash done.

The step is a trapezoidal sort of shape that conforms to the gap in the wall. It sits on top of the gravel filled tires and has two little legs that extend to the ground on either side of where the tires meet. You can see the form work at the bottom of the step in the photo. These little legs are there to (hopefully) prevent the step from moving off the foundation tires.

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The level of the step is at the height of the future floor, to allow for plumbing and some gravity assistance in removing waste water from the shower and washing machine.

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Since the day this step was built no work has been done due to a combination of much needed rain, work and overwhelming urges to knit. The next step is to put the door frame up on our step and brace it ready to build the walls higher around it. We also need to build a step down to ground level on the outside of the new door step.

Getting anything done around the humpy is agonizingly slow, but it is gradually getting there.

Earthbag building experiment- the new bathroom- starting on the walls

School holidays are here again, so it’s time to attack some of those projects that go on hold while I try to master (or better yet…mistress) the delicate art of teaching. I have managed to become very busy this holidays; taking loads of junk to the dump and working on projects at school, so have not had any time to work on my earthbag walls. This morning I managed to finish half a round (with the reluctant help of my daughter) in an hour.

My mostly mythical partner was home for a day last weekend and knocked together some ‘velcro plates’ or cleats, which hold little pieces of wood in the walls to facilitate attachment of door and window frames (or shelves later on). Velcro plates are made by attaching a piece of wood (3 x 1 1/2 inch is good) to a piece of sturdy ply wood about 30 x 30 cm in size and putting nails through the ply plate in both directions. When these are embedded in the wall between earth bags they provide a solid piece of wood in the wall to which frames and stuff can be screwed at a later date.

A velcro plate. You can’t see it but there are nails going down into the bag below too.

A velcro plate for the door frame between two layers of bags.

I have discovered that placing the barbed wire between the layers of bags is a two person job (after flicking myself near the eye with barbed wire) and requires a lot of weights to hold it down while bags are filled for the next layer. The actual bag filling and placing goes very quickly though, and it is not hard work at all. The heat at the moment means that we can only do a few hours of work on the project in the morning and/or afternoon, so it will not be a quick build (damn it).

The barbed wire on the first round of bags, weighed down by whatever was at hand.

A round of bags all tamped down.

While I am trying to build, life goes on around us. Two days ago one of the chooks hatched some babies. She took one look at them and decided they must be daemon spawn because there was nothing chook about them. Luckily my daughter heard them squeaking and rescued them. We are now the proud foster parents of three ducklings. I must say I am a little disappointed in the narrow-minded attitude of the hen to mixed species families.

New babies.

Earthbag building experiment- the new bathroom- finishing the foundation

The foundations are VERY close to being finished. My partner called into Tabulam Sand and Gravel on the way home from work and loaded up another tonne of gravel (smaller pieces this time) by torch light and bought it home. I unloaded this lot into the trench, tamped it down and put the tires on top. I filled the tires one at a time with the gravel and leveled them up (they are leveled so that the walls can be built straight up, but I will have to build a few extra layers to level in the other direction).

The larger gravel in the trench.

Waiting for the next load of gravel.

A trailer full of smaller gravel.

A badly exposed photo of the trench…I just thought it looked pretty.

Starting to fill the tires with small gravel.

The tires are leveled in one direction, so the walls won’t tilt.

Of course we are three wheelbarrows short of finishing the foundation. That’s just the way it works.

The doggy building inspectors appear to approve.

We went to Bunnings and got a door and frame, some materials for making ‘velcro plates’ to attach doors and windows to (more on these next post) and some plastic to cover the walls until we can render them. Now all I need to do is find the last three wheelbarrows required for the foundation.

Next time….on to the walls.