Neal and Elisha Homestead Update #6: December 2016 to March 2017

The locals declared this winter a ‘mild experience.’ To our Texas bones, though, -5˚F is uncomfortably cold! Though we mostly stayed indoors we still managed to make lots of progress and have some fun.

One of our indoor activities has been to earn a PDC. (Permaculture Design Certificate) We’ve been taking Geoff Lawton’s online class while progressing on our own 5 acre design. Permaculture is an agricultural school of thought that aims to emulate natural forest ecosystems. Once mature, this ecosystem is totally self-replicating and self-sustaining. That means no external inputs are needed including pesticides, fertilizers, mulches, supplements, etc. Even labor itself is eventually reduced to a few hours per week.

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Our initial roof education revolved around domes for circular structures. To accommodate the current floorplan, we had to switch gears to a more traditional roof. While planning is still underway, at least we have a path forward now.

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On warmer days (by that I mean 30+ F) Neal was out on the land finishing the rubble trench foundation. We didn’t have a tractor for the second pile of rocks and had to manually move them all using rakes, shovels, buckets, and the wheelbarrow. It took what felt like forever before the trenches were completely filled.

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Our second priority was figuring out the super adobe mix – our dirt, clay, and sand combination that goes into the earthbags to form the walls of our home. We had several iterations and filled test bags with various blends to find the perfect brick-like mix. It took lots of experimentation until we landed on the winning recipe. Unfortunately, we didn’t get our first attempt perfect and had to order in extra masonry sand. The final recipe is 4 parts dirt (the dirt we ordered has high clay content), 1 part creek sand, and 1 part masonry sand. A little bit of water is added before blending. The final mixture dries as hard as a brick!

earthbag-tests

In March we were blessed with several visitors! First, Neal’s dad came into town to help us finish the rubble trench, pour cement thresholds for the doors, and get ready to start laying earthbags.
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Soon after, our cousin Dan and his wife Kyle arrived!

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Dan, Kyle, Dad, Neal and I did some prep work before starting the earthbags. The guys finished putting together the interior and exterior door frames. Center poles were temporarily cemented into the center of each room, providing our radius indicator to ensure our rooms stay perfectly round as we build. Other tools were also put together before we finally started.

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door-frames

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We then split off into teams. Some folks were shoveling earth into the cement mixer and wheelbarrow, prepping it, then delivering it to wherever earthbags were being laid. The other group was filling the earthbags, setting them, and compacting them into place.

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Our sustainable home building journey has been filled with obstacles – and we made our most expensive mistake to date. The earthbags we initially bought were 25 inches in width. That’s HUGE compared to most earthbag advocates who suggest the standard 18-inch bags. Our thought process at the time was “the more thermal mass, the better!” but we failed to consider the weight of these 25-inch bags. Once filled and compacted with earth, these bags were massive and heavy. It was a struggle for the five of us working together – and since Neal is primarily building the home solo, it became apparent that these bags were not going to be practical.

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Luckily, we had 18″ bags on standby – individual bags, as well as long rolls of tubing. These were much easier to manage and our progress was notably quicker. (even with less people after Dad headed home) The only downside was that we have a few thousand dollars worth of 25″ bags we can’t use… and we are going to have to purchase a couple thousand more yards worth of 18″ bags. Our suggestion to future earthbag builders: keep the bag size small enough to manage!

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At the end of each day we laid barbed wire on top of the earthbags, held down by some rocks. This layer acts as the mortar, allowing each row to harden together into one monolithic structure. (We’ll remove the rocks when placing the next layer of earthbags)

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On the homefront, we started our garden seedlings inside with a handful of herbs and annuals. We’ll be assembling a herb spiral in spring. Unfortunately, we lost most of the seedlings to our cat, Aslan, who attempted a graceful swan dive into the center of our potted seedlings. LOL. Others were lost due to neglect when we were out of town. We just started another batch but will probably end up purchasing some small seedlings from a local nursery.

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We’ve also continued exploring more of the Lake of the Ozarks area. Our friends showed us some awesome Mennonite shops just north of our property. Our favorites are the bulk stores where we can stock up on fresh spices, grains, and sweets for absurdly low prices.

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One of the most common questions we hear is “Once your house is built and your food production is established, how are you going to pay for ____?” Fill the blank in with health insurance, car insurance, phone bills, internet bill, entertainment, gas, supplemental food, etc. No matter how sustainable we get, there are some things that will always require cash.

We have a lot of ideas to bridge the gap. This winter, Neal focused most of his time and effort developing a video game. It’s not quite finished; his target release date is sometime this summer, 2017. It’s called “Tinknof Dungeon Crawl” (pronounced tinknoff) and will be available on iPhones, Androids, and PCs. It’s a puzzle game where you play the protagonist, a goblin named Tinknof, who is charged with setting traps and monsters to protect his village from the plundering “heroes”. So fun!

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Spring is here and we’re so excited to get back at it full-time! We expect our updates to return to their normal monthly pace, please check back soon. For now, here is some awesome drone footage of our property, courtesy of our friend Bobby. Thank you, Bobby!

 

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