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 been  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.

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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.

Earthbag building experiment- the new bathroom- foundations

School holidays are here. Sixteen days of restful bliss…excepting the planning of teaching for next term (probably three days), a working bee or two to finish projects at school (two days should do it), visits to various schools to water and maintain my garden (four half days, so two days altogether) and visiting friends and family (two days). In the seven days of restful bliss left after that lot I have decided to build myself a bathroom. I’m not planning on killing myself though…there is a plan  in place. I have recently taken to wearing a fitbit (one of those wrist band things that tells you how many steps you’ve taken today, how many sets of stairs you climbed and how many times you got your heart rate up, for whatever reason), and the recommended number of steps per day is 10,000. So I plan to build each day (that I have to myself) until my fitbit announces that I have done 10,000 steps (which it does by buzzing in a satisfied way while showing star bursts on the screen), then I will relax and do some everyday house work stuff until the next day. That way I can be sure I’m doing the recommended number of steps per day and get a good amount of work done on the bathroom as well.

Since the brown snake incident (about 18 months ago), we have been showering outside with a bucket of warm water and a jug. Two winters of outside showering is enough for me, I want a bathroom.

Our outdoor showering area.

 After much discussion and research I decided to have a go at earthbag building. This method involves filling polypropylene feed bags with soil and stacking them into walls with barbed wire between each layer. These walls are then rendered with a mix of clay soil, sand and cow manure to protect them from the sun. In the videos and books this method looks quick and fairly easy, I guess we will see.

The first step was to find a site. My barely present partner put his foot down and refused to walk up the yard in the dark to shower each night (even though we have been doing just that for 18 months now). Building the bathroom and laundry up hill from the humpy would allow me to gravity feed the water from showering and clothes washing back down to the garden beds, meaning that I don’t have to cart buckets of water around the yard every wash day. Building right outside the back door means that we don’t have to go outside to shower and we don’t have to carry our washing baskets up the yard to the laundry for the once a week washing day. So it was decided to put the bathroom directly outside the back door, conveniently placed for access, but inconvenient for gravity fed watering of the garden.

The ‘right outside the back door’ area.

The foundations will be a shallow rubble trench filled with gravel and a layer of tires on top of that (also filled with gravel). I am considering a row of bags filled with gravel on top of the tires just to provide the drainage and protection from wicking moisture that earthbag buildings require (apparently).

My first, second and third days of holidays were spent digging out the trench, a not-too-arduous job considering the usual digging requirements of foundations.

As you can see, I had the doggy building inspectors around once or twice.

Now to source some gravel for the trench and tires…

On the next available day we (my partner and I) drove down to the conveniently placed Tabulam Sand and Gravel (our local cement depot) and picked up a load of river rocks for the bottom of the foundation trench.

I couldn’t believe this was a tonne of rocks.

I believed it was a tonne of rocks once my partner, daughter and I wheelbarrow-ed and shoveled it into the trench.

 You may notice that my foundation trench is very shallow. At its deepest it is only 25cm deep. Most earthbag sites say that the foundation rubble trench doesn’t have to be deep, so I went with that. Also I hate digging so the shallower I could get away with the better. I plan to get another load of smaller gravel to put on top of this load and to fill the tires. That should give a fairly stable base for the wall to be built on.

This is the foundation option we have chosen Its from the book ‘Earthbag building’ that I conveniently have in my library.

 Hopefully I can arrange another trip with the trailer to pick up some more gravel within the next day or two. I am looking forward to the next stage; filling the bags with soil and tamping them down.

Cleaning out the shed…oh my

It is the end of the school holidays and I have returned to work. As a teacher this time (!!!) instead of a teacher’s aide. I’m terrified at the prospect, but that’s another story.
As I only have a few days left of ‘at home time’ I decided not to waste them. I’m going to clean the shed (gasp).

Some background here; when we moved to our humpy in 2008 we had built a roof to park our caravan under which included an enclosed space in which to store all the stuff not currently in use. We moved our gear in the space of two days as we both had work to go to, so everything was just sort of dumped on the ground in the shed. It’s still there.

The entrance to the shed, all choked up with stuff that just wouldn’t fit into the mess any more.

Inside this mess. I know it looks like a hoarder’s hideout.

Anything we needed from the shed was dug out and moved into the humpy proper over the years, but there is a LOT of stuff that I obviously haven’t missed or needed in there…somewhere. Also, my long suffering (and annoying) partner has stored his tools in the front part of the shed during that time.

Now I am embarking on a whole new phase of my working life (and getting a car licence as part of that), I decided that it’s time to symbolically and literally clean out the clutter. I’m not sure what is in there, but it’s time to find out. Most of the contents of the shed will probably go to either the dump or (preferably) to other people’s sheds. I have friends who can probably use some of it.

Day one;
We (my daughter and I) moved everything from in front of the doors and cleared the first little part of the tool section. Of course it decided to rain intermittently so we had to cover everything with tarps and the black snake (I call him Brian) was disturbed by all the deconstruction happening in his winter abode and decided to emerge from the mess, sending my daughter back to the house for a few hours.

It looks much bigger without the junk
One section all ready for organising

Day 2; We continued to dig out archeological finds from the mess; two drills that haven’t been used in years, ten complete door locks still in their wrapping, my six crates of Fowlers bottles for preserving food. We put together some of the metal shelves we bought from Bunnings an age ago for just this purpose and began putting things away. The work is frustratingly slow as every box in there is falling to pieces, meaning that I have to pick up things (sometimes tiny things) from the ground and find new containers for them. I am enjoying getting rid of a lot of stuff though. The work continues.

You can see some order happening

Day 3; My daughter used old coffee jars (the big glass ones) to re-home countless bolts, screws, nails and mysterious bits of metal. Now all we need are some more shelves to put them on. I am returning to work this week so work on the shed will be a lot slower for a while, it will  get done though.

Things are starting to go back into the shed.

We put up some brackets to hang things on the wall. That pile of stuff behind my partner is all his to put away.

Day 5: We continue to work on the shed project…very slowly. We found a couple of old (very dead) fridges that we are using to house my partner’s tool collection which keeps all his electrical stuff out of the dust, moisture and marauding rodents. I also found a series of old hurricane lamps that I had been keeping ‘just in case’. I decided to put them in the humpy as decoration, and as a backup for lighting (they are still fully functional).

All lined up

I just love old stuff

I was hoping to delay this post until the shed was a shining example of organisation and cleanliness, but it now seems that that vision is a fair way in the future so this will become a two part post. It may not seem to be any neater from my photos, but I assure you it is much better. I look forward to the day when the shed is done.

Making papercrete – Yet another way to use rubbish

Over this winter I have noticed a breeze blowing through the gap in our lounge room floor; the difference in height between the tyre floor and the pavers. This sneaky little breeze makes my feet cold while I spin (and I’m obviously metamorphosing into a cranky old lady) so I decided to try to block off this gap.
Enter the idea of papercrete; I have newspaper in abundance so it seemed a natural progression to mix up some papercrete and plug the gap with it. Papercrete is made by mixing newspaper soaked in water with concrete. The similarity between the recommended procedure and what I did ends there.
This is the gap I hope to fill. In addition to a sneaky breeze this gap also lets in antechinus, snakes and allows dropped cutlery to escape into the wild.
The recommended procedure says to soak the paper in a tow mixer designed to shred the softened paper and mix in the cement.

I shredded my paper…well ripped it up small, and soaked it in water in a bucket

 I was only doing a small test patch to see if it will work so I began by tearing up a bucket full of newspaper. The paper soaked for a week so it was good and soft.

I used a half bag of cement mix I had in the shed.

I added the whole half bag of cement…forgetting to pour off the extra water.

I mixed the lot into a sloppy slurry and began to pack it into the gap. The bucket full of goop went further than I thought it would, but it is still very rough and I think it will crack when it dries.

The filled up gap

As you can see it’s rough.

While this was a very quick and dirty experiment I can see a lot of potential for this building material. If the papercrete holds in this gap I am thinking of using it to fill the gaps and cracks around doors and windows. I might even go as far as building a tow mixer to make HUGE batches as I am lucky enough to have access to almost unlimited newspaper.

 In other news…I went on a little field trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Brisbane last weekend and found this amazing piece there. It reminds me of the tumors that grow on really old gum trees.

Finished my degree- now on with life

Well…not quite. I still have the matter of a ten week intern-ship to complete (trying not to stress too much), but the academic part of the degree is finished. It has been a long four years of study, most of it enjoyable, some of it torturous (maths units spring to mind) but all of it educational.

By the end of 2016 I will be a fully qualified, card carrying Primary School Teacher.

The last four years have been spent largely either working or studying, with little snippets of craft or building squeezed in around them. Now I plan to spend some time….

Building the garden;

Building a new cover over the trailer bed and replanting.

Refurnishing the Hugelkultur beds and planting.

Crafting with fibre;

Making fulled bags

Spinning cotton and wool

Knitting

And more knitting

Dyeing homespun yarn

A lot of homespun yarn

Building my business;

Trying to attract more customers

Adding new products…both hand made and….

Naturally harvested.

Learning new skills

Increasing my stock

Building a house;

Well…maybe I’m dreaming.

Spending time with my animals (and family and friends);

Also…enjoying the finer things in life;

Like unravelling old jumpers by the fire…with wine

And watching sunsets…with wine.

It has been a long, life changing journey so far, I wonder what will happen next?

A kitchen floor – or The brown snake story

Several months ago now I had an exciting adventure with a HUGE Eastern brown snake. Anyone who knows me, or reads my blog knows that I am very tolerant of all manner of creatures who share my space. However this encounter scared the pants off me. The entire story goes like this;
I was studying away at my desk when I decided I needed to stretch my legs a little. I took a clothes basket with me out the door to do some useful housework while I enjoyed the yard. Sitting in the sun enjoying a peaceful moment was the biggest Eastern brown snake I have ever seen, she saw me an promptly shot off into the chook pen. As they don’t commonly eat chooks I wasn’t too worried about them, but it did suddenly occur to me that there are gaps all around the base of our walls. I dropped the clothes basket and hurried inside to rectify this problem.
I stuffed towels into cracks and sheets into holes all around the walls and went back to studying (not too effectively) jumping up to peer out widows every time a chook squawked. I had the dogs in the house with me as even though they do not commonly chase snakes I was not taking chances with this girl. My daughter had spotted this snake around the house a month previously and even managed to get a few shots of her, but until I was face to face with her I didn’t really understand how BIG she was.
This is her front half…this doesn’t actually give you the full picture of how BIG she is.
About 2.00 pm I got up to make myself a coffee and noticed the snake playing under the bathtub (yes, I had forgotten that our bathroom wall behind the bath is only a tarp) and immediately put the dogs on leads tied to the bed to keep them away from her. At that point a really loud and low plane went over our house and either the vibrations or the surprised squeal from me frightened her out into the kitchen area. I of course retreated to the bed holding the dogs on short leads so they couldn’t get off the bed. 
SHE (yes, she deserves the capitalisation) cruised around the humpy looking for a way out (which I had inconveniently blocked) and seemed not to remember where the bathroom was. I watched her as best I could while frantically dialling numbers on my phone (which was conveniently beside the bed). My mother and father’s phone was not answering (and later proved to be out), my partner was at work and had his phone turned off, my neighbours were all either out or not answering, so I resorted to ringing the WIRES hotline. After explaining to the woman who answered, where I live; in a tin shed in the Northern NSW bush, how the snake got in; there are a lot of holes and what that awful noise was; Barry alerting me and the person on the other end of the phone to a snake in the vicinity, she informed me that my closest snake carer was in Tweed Heads and probably would not make it. 
Barry, the snake alarm; checking his look in the mirror
After hanging up from that very unsatisfying call I rang my partner again (and had lost sight of the snake completely) he was on lunch and answered the phone. I explained the situation to him (stuck on the bed with the dogs, big snake in the house) and he said (and I quote..) “I will just finish mowing this block and come home”. So I hung up the phone and settled down to wait, I cruised Facebook and posted an update about my situation, I joined Pinterest and put up some boards, I talked to the dogs, I bargained with the by now invisible snake and I planned the snake-proofing of my humpy. I rang our local Rural Agents and ordered snake repellents and cement, they were very helpful and slightly amused at my predicament. I made repeated attempts to call my partner and see how much longer he would be, but he had turned his phone off.
When my about-to-be-in-a-lot-of-trouble partner walked in the door it was 6.30 pm the dogs and I were desperate to go to the toilet. I put the dogs in the car (after we had all had a supervised wee) and we searched the humpy from top to bottom (mostly bottom, brown snakes don’t climb much) until 1.30 am. We didn’t find her, so we bought the dogs in, tied them to the bed and went to sleep amid chaos.
The next day we both had the day off work and removed the entire bathroom, down to the dirt, so we could put in a floor and a wall to keep the snakes out (at least the ground based ones). We still hadn’t spotted the snake and assumed she must have left during the siege the day before.
Where the bathroom used to be and a very confused Spot (the old dog)
We dug out and sort of levelled (by eye) the floor, began laying pavers for the new floor, put a new section of raised floor on the adjacent lounge room floor and cleared the area to put in the wall panel. When we stopped for lunch and sat down in the lounge room, we spotted the snake sneaking out from under the lounge room floor and heading out the gap (obviously relieved to have escaped from the mad house) she slithered off down the yard and into the gully, while we resumed putting up the wall with renewed vigour and no lunch.
The beginnings of the new kitchen floor.

We eventually called up some younger backs to give us a hand as we were getting very tired by that time (thanks Jesse and Meeka). In three days we got the wall frame in (prefab aluminium) and cladded with corrugated iron (buried at the base to stop snakes), paved and cemented the kitchen floor (quick set cement in the gaps we had no pavers for) and a new section of tire supported floor. We also went around and blocked off a lot of holes in the lower wall.

The new section of lounge room floor, yes she came out from under there.

Kev and Jesse beginning to cement the floor

The floor almost done

I love quick set cement

The floor almost done (and Meeka having a break)

The new floor, sink moved and most importantly the wall clad.

A more agreeable visitor in the pumpkins; a carpet python.

Now back to study.

What an exciting way to get a new kitchen. We are back to bathing with a bucket outside for a while until the new laundry/bath house is built, but the encroaching winter chill will make that happen I’m sure. It’s amazing what we can afford and find time to do in the face of a crisis isn’t it?

Shade cloth everywhere

A few weeks ago we managed to pick up 10 metres of industrial grade shade cloth. It’s the stuff they use in shopping centre car parks, so it’s pretty tough. The plan was to put it up as a shade sail on the northern side of the humpy to shade and hopefully cool the interior and to provide shade for all the animals that live in the yard. This weekend we got to the job.

First my hen pecked partner zoomed off into the bush and cut some poles from a tree which blew down in a storm recently. We then debarked the bottoms of the poles so that they would not get loose in their cemented holes (due to the bark drying out and falling off). While this was happening I was dutifully digging 60 cm deep holes in the assigned places. I hate digging, but as it was for a good cause I persevered.

Debarking in progress

My daughter helping with the digging

Moving the poles into their assigned holes was an awkward job, but with the help of some old tire rims we managed it.

The posts were cemented in with quick set cement to hold them firmly.

We then tied wire from the posts to the roof in a sort of zigzag pattern to hold the shade cloth up.

Almost done, just clipping the shade cloth to the wire.

Now the galah aviary is fully shaded and I can remove the old feather quilts from the roof ( they have provided insulation for two summers now).

One more job down, I plan to put some benches under there so I can sit in the shade with a coffee sometimes.

A new yarn swift – home made

What is a yarn swift?
Well…you know when you are watching a movie in the evening and decide to ball up some yarn for a new project you are just dying to knit? The inevitable problem is to get someone (partner, visitor, small child, family dog) to hold the skein while you ball up the yarn. Nobody wants to do it so you end up trying to ball from a skein hung over two chair legs or over your own feet (which is a bit like yoga) leading to knots and snarls (knots in the yarn, snarls on your face). A yarn swift is a mechanical helper who will hold the yarn steady for you whenever you like while you make cute little balls of knitting materials.

I guess my mostly absent partner got very tired of being met at the door by arm loads of skeins because he made me a swift.

First we did a bit of internet research to find the right design;

Then the building began…

He built pretty much to the instructions in the clip (the difference between us… I can’t follow instructions).

The base is a piece of spare ply

Finding the centre to drill the hole

Drilling the hole

The bolt thingy in the base for the arms to swing around.

A spacer so the arms aren’t too close to the base.

Sawing the arms to the right length

The arms are notched so they sit level with each other

See

Drilling the hole right through the middle

A bit of copper pipe in the middle holds it all together

Yes…it spins

The finished unit. Thanks Hon