Sustainable building and alternative technologies are passions of mine. I finished the first major building project in the summer of 2003: I built myself a home in the high desert of northern New Mexico. I used a combination of straw bales and adobe bricks, local vigas, and pre-used or scrap building materials.
Now, in 2009, I have my own adobe home, a straw bale studio and my converted school bus to call home, in the Ortiz Mountains. Once again I focus on creating a sustainable low impact home for me and Harold the border collie.
The water I use comes from rain catchment. With a 400 square foot roof I am able to catch about 267 gallons of water for every inch of rainfall. Using a single 1600 gallon cistern I store enough water for one person for over six months of conscious use.
Because we have over 300 days of sunshine, I am able to get all my energy needs met from a small solar electrical system. I am using 2 panels with 75 watts of power. With an inverter I can use lights, television, and my computer fairly freely. I just made a solar oven, and today come home from work to a curry soup that tastes great! Followed by brownies and a cup of tea, I’m so amazed at what’s possible.
My intention is to help others realize their many choices. There are so many options out there that I never had any inkling of when I was growing up.
If I can build a house, brick by brick, then why can't you?
I can help teach the process as well as some of the actual hands-on skills needed. I'd love to visit different land projects and the individuals interested in sustainable, do-it-yourself building and help in whatever way I can.
Well it never really ends, building your own home is an ongoing project of love and creativity, changing as you change, growing as you grow.
ENJOY MY NOTES FROM THE BUILDING BLOCKS!
It’s 9 AM and Ed joins us for coffee in the living room. The sun is shining. Trenlin is in her shorts. The dogs are hyper. Ed isn’t. I’m a little worried since we’d arranged for him to work with me on the house. The plan was to build some bricks for a few hours. After the coffee he’s ready if not quite keen.
We walk up to little hill to the building site. I carry buckets of water. Ed carries nothing. As I start to explain we need to do, he realizes he wants his gloves. They’re down the hill in his car. Whilst he’s gone, I set up. Two shovels. Two buckets. Cement. Water. There on the wall to the east corner is where we’re building, I hope. There’s a post we need to brick around it so it can’t move in any direction. The beam across its top is going to be bearing the weight of the roof.
It’s windy. May usually isn’t windy, but to be honest, I don’t mind as it keeps it cooler than normal. No shorts for me today. Ed is back and we’re ready. “45 shovels of dirt, 3 shovels of cement and add water until it holds itself together,” I explain. He knows this already as he’s helped my neighbors, but I figure a little reminder is good for all. We dig. It’s hard work making the mix as it just gets heavier and heavier. When it looks goods and moist I fill a bucket and climb up to the side of the east wall. It’s hard to explain, but the house is built into the hill and the walls at the east, west and north sides are being built upon the rock. To complete the semi-circle is a straight stretch of the south- facing wall. This wall will be built of straw-bales.
Anyway I climb up the hill to the back of the house and prepare to make my first brick of the week. The grain bag is open and in place. I empty the mix in to it. Ed brings me another bucket of mix, and that’s enough for the one brick. I fold the top of the bag and tip it horizontally. Then with my hands I shape it into a rough semblance of a brick. Last summer when I started this process Dave lent me his metal tamper until Flip welded this one for me. It’s the perfect size and weight to stand above and drops onto the horizontal surface until I feel the mud-cement compact. It has this ‘thud’ sound that tells me it is solid. I thump, thump, thump till I thud. Ed takes the empty buckets to refill for me. I balance on the wall (we build the bricks in place) and kneel down so I can spend some minutes with a fired-brick in my hand that compacts the sides and edges. I test it with my hand. It feels solid. Resting back on my haunches I look around. This is my house. The second thought is, “I’m tired now.”
As Ed passes me more mix I set about the next brick.
“How many bricks do you think you’ll have made by the time the house is built? Two thousand? More?”
We both stop and look for any excuse to rest.
“Less I think. Trenlin said she counted the bricks in her studio last winter and it was over two thousand even before it was enclosed…”
“You could work it out,” he suggests as he passes the full bucket up to me with a grunt.
“I could…but I probably won’t,” I grunt back. My God that man fills his buckets…
Soon the first batch is used up, three bricks are made…time for a break. This is definitely a labor-intensive building method. Yet somehow it suits me. “Good honest work” I had explained to Alberto last year. His response was; “It’s a long time since I heard that phrase, but I know what you mean.”
I look at Ed and grin. “Good honest work.”
My mother is right. I am a “stubborn young woman.” Why else would I decide, at 7 PM on a Sunday night to lift and move a 20 foot viga (beam), 8” diameter up and onto the roof of the house I’m building?
God knows how much it weighs. More than I can lift, that’s for sure. But I was determined. I succeeded, and now I’m smiling as I sit here with a cup of tea looking over at the lone viga. It’s the first. It’s monumental. I did it, all by myself. Daisy, my dog, didn’t even come over to cheer me on. Instead she sat by her empty food bowl and gave me the look. (She’s happy now by the way, after raising my roof, or rather one of many vigas, I fed her well.) I’m stubborn, I admit. The trouble is I have been planning a viga-raising party here soon. Ed was helping me one day when I asked him to help me out on that Saturday as the supervisor. “That way, I can explain to those friends who’ve not been here before what we’re all doing…” He’s happy to help; in fact thrilled I think to be asked to really be a part of the process. Fedor also came over today to talk about the viga-raising and how was I planning to do it? “Nick has a boom truck, a crane that can lift these 26’ vigas up, over, and into place for you.”
All day I’ve been talking to different visitors about the bricks, the landscape, the mountains, the roof-raising. All day I’ve been talking. By late afternoon everyone had left. I took Daisy for a walk. Standing on the cliff top above my building site, I felt the urge creeping up on me. I wanted to put one viga up. Just one. By myself. Running back down the hill I was thinking of rope, and tying one end and simply pulling the beast.
Back at the site I found a long rope and took it to the two 20’ vigas sitting there, all ready to go. I pushed one out of the way. I tied the other and gave it a pull. Very little happened. I pulled again and it moved an inch or two. I was not discouraged. I was instead even more determined. I swivelled it in place and then it was facing up the flagstone steps. I needed to pull it up 20’ of steps to the area level with the back wall. Luckily the house is built into the clay and rock hill. That’s not so bad, I thought, it could be worse. I pulled. I pushed. I pulled. I pushed. I was chipping the steps but I didn’t mind. Until today they were my babies. The viga was now the baby, deserving all of my attention. I pulled. I pushed. As I tried to catch my breath once we, the viga and I, were half way there, I saw a 2-foot length of a round piece of another viga. An idea came to mind, and I got it, then put it under the uphill end. I pushed from below and it rolled along. I was impressed. It flew uphill, or so it felt. In no time at all, I had it in position, with one end on the back wall, the other on the front beam. I cranked the generator and found the drill and ½ drill bit. I drilled two holes, each through the viga and its beam underneath. With great glee I hammered in 12” of rebars into each end. The viga was now pinned in place. Turning off the generator, I look up at my roof -line. I sip my tea and admire the viga. It’s a beauty from this perspective. Suddenly I can sense how this home will feel when it’s enclosed. I’m excited. I’m proud of myself. I’m glad I can be stubborn…
A YEAR LATER
I started this building process a year ago. I remember how I canceled some jobs, shuffled some others, and was able to get away for a week. I drove up here with Daisy and set up camp as soon as I could. The sun was intense. It was in the 80’s, the late 80’s, a hot dry heat, with mosquitoes and flies. I set my tent in what is now becoming the orchard, next to the parking lot. There was one Juniper tree near by. It gave only a little shade. I baked. I’d got up as soon as the tent felt the sun. I’d build a few bricks along the back wall. I have a photo, a self-portrait of myself, red-faced with a row of about 10 brick behind me. “The First Week.” It was a perfect reminder; I need to take another such photo, to show what I have achieved within that first year.
What have I achieved? Two irrigation systems. Threes, shrubs, vines. A ‘palapa’; giving shade for my friends and family. In fact, I’ve built a whole outdoor living room up where I originally camped.
And the house itself? Well, let me put it this way; tomorrow we are having a roof-raising party. A viga-raising. Nick and Ed are being paid to help me install the 26’ x 8” diameter vigas (beams) up on the front post and beam structure with the other ends lying across the back wall. I’m so excited. I can taste it. I can imagine standing inside this 20 x 40’ structure that I am building with my own hands. It’s the most amazing feeling to see the house take form. No longer do I have to explain the vision,. I can see it happen. My visitors can see the shapes, the texture, the energy of the place.
This is a dream come true!
What a wonderful birthday gift to myself!
DECKING THE ROOF
It’s only 65° outside – cloudy, overcast making it cool and moist. The table I am working at is even wet --- hmm, perhaps I should cover it up in the rains? You see, it’s sitting in what will be the kitchen. The roof is only half finished. When Ed came up today to see the progress over the last month, I made a comment about it being a house at last. “Not quite. It’s a haybarn, but soon to be a home I think.”
Daisy is sitting in the corner that will be in the living room. John the puppy is at my feet. We are in the kitchen. The roof. Yes, the roof.
Since I last sat down to write about the house, I have had help putting up 9 vigas, varying in length from 22’ – 26’. Long and heavy. Since that weekend I have been putting up the decking, using 1 x 6” rough sawn lumber spanning across the beams/vigas. The first time with the decking was the scariest as I had to stand on the 8’ ladder, reaching up hopefully place the planks in line with the front of the beams. A clean line I wanted. Once in place, I had to screw these 10’ lengths of wood in the beams they were sitting on. Once I had about 6 planks up there, it meant I could climb up onto them and start working with more placements and screwing them above.
I couldn’t stop! I stood on my roof, looked around and grinned to widely it hurt…I positively beamed at the world.
Pam drove up to hers, saw me up there, saw my expression and laughed with me.
What progress! Of course, I didn’t get it all done that day. I used up what wood I had that weekend. Since then I have had to return to making bricks. I decided to finish the bricks and windows on ht East Side. This way I can finish the decking part of the roof as soon as I can buy some more 1 x 6’s. After last weekend, I am ready. You see, once I had finished the bricks, the decking I can actually insulate and put up the tin roof. Even if one side of the house is unfinished, I can start enclosing the space. I can’t imagine how it will feel to start collecting rain off my roof. Since I plan to use straw bales on the south wall, I’m waiting for the roof to be done as much as possible before I build with bales. I want them to be protected from the rainy season.
Today was spent making some bricks on the west wall. I also spent time on the roof, working with 2 x 4’s, placing them every 4 feet (the same spacing as the vigas) and screwing them into place. These 2 x 4’s are going to be the framework for holding the rigid insulation in place. They’ll also serve as the frame for the tin to be attached to.
I’m sitting here at the kitchen table, drinking my beer. Time to relax after a full days work. As I have said before “Good Honest Work.”