Wednesday, December 23, 2009

7 Reasons to Choose a Blue Roof

The blue steel roof is one of the visually distinctive features of our home. Although beautiful, it was initially chosen for function. Here are seven reasons to invest in a steel roof.

Steel panels are...

1. Long Lasting
Galvalume* panels boast a 25-year warranty, with a 30-year warranty against chalk and fade of the color of your choice. Panels are available in 18 different colors.

2. Fireproof
Steel panels are noncombustible.

3. Waterproof
Steel is impervious to water. Snow and ice are shed in the winter.

4. Recyclable
The panels are made of 25% recycled steel and are recyclable.

5. Quiet
Contrary to popular belief, steel panels provide a quiet roof. The mental image of rain drumming on a metal roof comes from barn roofing, where the noise originates from open framing and no insulation.

6. Affordable
Although a steel roof may initially cost more, costs are lower over the life cycle of the roof.

7. Ideal for Rainwater Collection
Haven was designed around a system of cistern tanks that serve as our sole water supply. According to Suzy Banks and Richard Heinichen, the best roofs for rainwater collection are metal (16).

We chose to purchase the Galvalume* steel panels and construction supplies from American Building Components. (*Galvalume is the trademark name of the coating applied to their bare sheet steel products.)

Readers who have been with me from day one know why our roof is blue. Fred and I traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii in July, 2005. Many of the homes there have metal roofing in a variety of colors. The color that I identify most with Hawaii is a tranquil blue. While I knew it would be an impossibility to transplant my life to Hawaii, choosing a blue metal roof for my new home was my way of acknowledging my inner wish to live the rest of my life out at South Point on the Big Island.

Are you curious as to what the runner-up color choices were? I thought so!
Life Under an Ivy Green Roof
Life Under a Burnished Slate Roof
Life Under a Burgundy Roof
Life Under a Koko Brown Roof

Koko Brown? Yeah... I've put up with too much brown in my life. For me, I'm happy to write from under my blue roof.


American Building Components

Banks, Susan and Richard Heinichen. Rainwater Collection For the Mechanically Challenged. Texas: Tank Town, 2004.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Seriously, Why Straw Bale?

When I began working on my radiant floor post the other day, I realized that there are so many other posts I need to write for the sustainable part of this blog---top of the list being reasons why a person would try to build a house out of straw. Living in our particular part of the northeastern United States, straw bale construction isn't something you see often. The only exposure most people in this region have to green building is what they may have caught on HGTV. That makes teaching with homes like Terra Dei and Haven Homestead a special joy. To take a visitor from the mindset of "Why on earth would you want to build with straw?" to "Boy, that's pretty cool," is a gift we're blessed to give. Our aim is to share open-mindedness, possibility and vision, not to convince visitors that they could or should build a straw bale house.

Here's the thing, the answer to "Why build with bales?" has already been published many times by experts in the field. Not being one to reinvent the wheel, what I'd like to do is give you a rundown of a list compiled by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron, from their book, Serious Straw Bale. In their first chapter they list eight excellent reasons why building with bales is a viable alternative to conventional construction, as listed here.

1. Beauty
I love that this is the first benefit they give for building with straw, because beauty itself attracts me most to straw bale construction. The combination of straw walls and earth plaster could perhaps be considered the antithesis of conventional home construction---both in types of material and in aesthetics. There is a subtle beauty to a bale wall, seen in the gentle curves and in the way the light falls on the plaster throughout the day.

The above photo is from one of my favorite spots in Haven. Note the rounded windowsills, the deep ledge where one can curl up with a blanket and a book. Above the chair, a truth window bears witness to the origin of the wall.

2. Insulation Value
According to Lacinski and Bergeron, "Plastered bales provide a highly insulative wall at a price that is competitive with quality conventional construction" (p. 5). In layman's terms, bale walls can provide more insulation than conventional walls for around the same cost.

3. Nontoxic
In a world that we have increasingly filled with pollutants, this is a fundamental reason to choose straw bale construction. Straw is a natural material. "Unlike many manufactured building products, they [straw walls] contain no toxic ingredients and are chemically stable. They will release no unhealthy chemicals into your home, and will not emit poisonous fumes in case of a fire" (p. 9). At Haven, we did our best to choose nontoxic building/furnishing materials within our budget at every step. Straw and plastered walls were an early part of this continual process.

4. Use of Resources
When you choose to build a home, you are choosing to use resources. Your choice is to reuse material from previous construction or to use new material. We did some of each. Straw is a new material, but it is one that is readily available in our area. It can be grown in one season. In some locations straw is actually burned in the field as a waste product of agriculture. By using straw, "we might also reduce the pressure on forests (the most important carbon sinks and oxygen producers on the planet) and the demand for relatively energy- and pollution-intensive industrial insulation materials" (p. 10).

5. Economical
In these tight economic times, cost is a factor in everything we do. (Had we known what the last four years would bring financially, I don't know that we would have chosen to build when we did, if at all.) Our family was rapidly outgrowing our two bedroom Cape Cod house at the time. We were faced with buying a larger existing home, building a conventional home or building a straw bale home. We chose to build a straw bale home because we have experience in this area. We knew that if we did most of the construction ourselves we would save money in the process. Building our own straw bale home would allow us to obtain "much more home for our money", as the popular saying goes. According to Lacinski and Bergeron, "Bale construction is getting to be cost-competitive with good-quality stick-framed construction, assuming a tight design that doesn't drive labor costs through the roof" (p. 10).

6. Owner-Builder Friendly
Aptly written, these authors describe straw bale as "well suited to a 'gang of friends' method of construction" (p. 12). Especially for raising the walls, many hands make light work. We were able to place the bales for the first floor using two work weekends. Along the entire journey we have been fortunate to have good friends and family members who took our venture as their own and have been intricately involved in the construction and finishing details of our home. Working with friends saves time and money. More than that, it allows you to build more satisfying relationships with people you thought you knew well prior to building.

7. Fun
Different people have varying ideas as to what constitutes "fun". I wouldn't say that I particularly enjoy many of the jobs in construction, until you get to mudding and plastering the walls. For me, those jobs contain a great deal of creative fun! That is one of the fabulous parts of building your own home: people are free to try out a vast number of different jobs and see what they enjoy the most. There's also something to be said for the "synergy of group effort" (p. 12), stepping back and saying, "Can you believe we accomplished all this together?"

The above photo is an example of my idea of fun. This is the inside of my front door, which leads into a mudroom. Note the rounded walls next to the door, the curve of the interior corner! We were near the end of the interior plastering, and the bare wall was begging for some variation. My inspiration for cutting a niche into the bale wall was taken from Athena and Bill Steen's book, The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes. Todd used a chainsaw to carve into the bale. I used earth plaster to shape a triangular shelf, and the Trinity niche was born. The small mudroom was also the perfect place to apply a darker color of plaster---just for fun.

8. Durable
Bale buildings have been created for almost as long as the baling machine has been in existence. Much of the durability of bale walls comes from proper finishing with some type of plaster. When detailed correctly they are actually fire resistant; "plastered bale-wall systems have outperformed wood-framed walls in fire tests" (p. 13). Rodents and insects have a hard time finding a home in a wall that has been plastered and sealed off. Though we don't worry about it in our area, bale walls have even been tested and considered a viable option for earthquake-prone areas (p. 15).

Many thanks to Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron for sharing their collective experience with us in Serious Straw Bale. It is well known in straw bale circles and a book we trusted throughout the building process.

I will say this: the experiences I have had building two different straw bale structures has changed my life for the better. Not only have we created beautiful, safe, warm homes, I have personally learned many different construction skills along the way. An exerpt from the Christmas letter I typed last night: "Words cannot express how we’ve grown closer as a family simply because we endured the building process. The house becomes an excellent metaphor for building our life together, of taking separate agendas and meshing them into one structure that can hold us all."

That's not to say that everything along the building journey has been easy. On another day, I'll be sure to compile a post of "Boy, I wish we had known xyz about building," or "Yeah, that wasn't our best idea." But for today, from the office where I sit, I have a pretty optimistic view of our Life Under a Blue Roof. Thanks for sharing our journey!

Have you ever visited or built a structure of straw bales? Post a comment and let us know!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Living the Radiant Life

Living in a straw bale house, we get a lot of questions. These range from the comical "Three Pigs" type allusions, to the more serious, "Isn't it a fire hazard to have straw in your walls?" Once people realize that the straw serves as insulation, they want to know how warm the house is. As in all the homes we've lived we keep the temperature around 68 degrees Fahrenheit. We could certainly keep it warmer, but we try to treat heat as the valuable resource it is. Hence my ever-growing collection of wool cardigans.

When people ask how warm our house is, I think what they really want to know is how much energy we are saving. Until we've lived here a year we won't have a definitive answer to that. According to Chris Magwood in his book Straw Bale Building, "Insulation values (commonly referred to as R-values) for conventional residential wall systems typically range between R-12 and R-20, depending on climactic conditions. Straw bale walls have R-values between R-35-R-50, depending on their width." In that way, using straw bales for insulation has allowed us to significantly reduce the amount of energy required to heat and cool a house this size.

Haven Homestead is designed to operate on two heating sources. The first is a radiant floor system, fueled by propane. The second is a woodburning Finnish masonry heater. These two heat sources will work together in the future; the masonry heater is not yet online. We look forward to firing it up next winter, fueling it with wood split from our homestead. This will allow us to dramatically reduce our reliance on propane.

There are many positive aspects of living with a radiant floor. Extremely quiet systems, we don't hear the rush of the furnace turning on, the drone of air whooshing through a register. Gone are the days of itchy skin and nosebleeds from air that is overdried from a forced air system. Radiant systems are also hidden from sight in the subfloor; not only visually pleasing, this also makes them extremely childproof. They aren't prone to large fluctuations in temperature and distribute heat evenly.

For those of you who may have never experienced a radiant floor, ours is an open direct system designed with components from the Radiantec company based in Vermont. "The system uses one very efficient water heater to make domestic hot water for the home and warm water for radiant heating. Radiant heating systems warm the building by locating heating tubes within a large surface area of the building and then circulating warm water through the tubes." (Radiantec Open Direct System Installation, pg. 1) When the construction of the masonry heater is complete the two systems will work in concert, with heating coils for the floor running through the fireplace. This will preheat the water before it arrives at the hot water tank, reducing the amount of heat needed (and the amount of propane used) to bring the water in the hot water tank up to the desired temperature.

Two of the largest advantages for us in choosing a radiant floor heating system were ease of installation and system cost. According to the brochure we obtained from Radiantec, "Installation of radiant heat does not have to be hard, and it does not have to be expensive." They go on to say, "Radiantec Company thinks that the task of installing underfloor radiant heat is the task of a reasonably competent handyman...and that the work can be done with common, readily available tools." I would consider their opinion correct on both counts. Though we did have a licensed plumber help install the hot water manifold, Todd and my father were able to complete the actual installation of the floor elements. Radiantec designed the layout; we placed strapping across the entire subfloor and laid the Pex tubing between the strapping members. We filled the cavities next to the Pex tubing with sand. (Sand was chosen for its excellent heat retention and relatively low cost, as well as the fact that it requires no additional manufacturing, as is the case with cement.) We covered the entire first floor with cement backer board and laid ceramic tile wall-to-wall.

Regarding system cost, our expense for purchasing the components of the system (Pex tubing, manifold, reflective barrier, couplings, pump, all valves, digital temperature display, pressure gauges, etc.) ran around $2,400. An additional $1,696 was needed to purchase the hot water tank, bringing the total component cost to $4,096. (Note, in an effort to save in construction costs, we opted for a less expensive water heater than the extremely efficient Polaris recommended by Radiantec, with the intent to replace it with a Polaris in the future.) At the time we purchased the materials for our system a comparable conventional baseboard hot water system would have cost us approximately $6,500 (Radiantec Heating Systems, pg. 3).

Although it was not my intent to turn this post into an advertisement for Radiantec, we've been very pleased with our team effort to design and install Haven's radiant floor. Radiantec is a member of the International Code Council. They offer assistance designing systems, help with materials specification, and provide detailed installation manuals. They also provide unlimited toll-free technical support for as long as you own your system. Our house is warm and draft-free. As our son is often wont to do, you can walk across the ceramic tile in your bare feet in winter with a level of comfort.

Taken just this morning, featuring Batman pajamas and bare feet.


Magwood, Chris and Peter Mack. Straw Bale Building: How to Plan, Design and Build With Straw. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2002.

Radiantec Incorporated
Box 1111, Lyndonville, Vt 05851
(800) 451-7593
FAX (802) 626-8045

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Straw Bale Coop (Part Seven): Raising the Roof!

Many thanks to Granddad and Fred, who donated a few hours on Saturday to place the roof on the straw bale coop!

Leftover metal roofing from Haven, cut to size & slid into place.

A view from under the roof. You can see the large overhang, which will help keep the bales dry.

Chicken wire is stapled into the top plate (the two-by-four that rests on top of the bales) and will be pinned into place before mudding.

This is the southern wall of the coop, which Jewel and I plastered while listening to the Steeler game on Sunday afternoon.

Today I was able to plaster the lower two courses of bales on the north and east sides. We are running low on chopped straw (an element of the plaster), and I wanted to "chicken-proof" the wall in case we aren't able to finish the upper plastering anytime soon. (From the way the girls will tear into flakes of straw in their bedding, I was afraid to leave unplastered bales within beak range.)

So today, I'm feeling thankful to my family, who has been so supportive during this project. We are at a good place to stop with the holiday weekend approaching.

God's blessings to you and your family, at Thanksgiving and always!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Plaster Pals...

At three and a half, getting to help run the cement mixer is a pretty exciting job...
Tuba Boy with Uncle T. (T practices law during the week, but for two years came every weekend to help us with Haven. He very kindly offered to come mix plaster for my coop.)

Jewel applies slip to the wall before plastering.

Rafters for the roof of the coop.

Jewel was a tremendous help with the plaster on the inside wall of the coop. At six and a half years old, she kept saying, "I'm good at this!" Which is how I often feel working with earth plaster. I never expected that I could be good at plastering, or that I would enjoy it so much!

Straw Bale Coop (Part Five): Pinning, cont.

When last we spoke, I had talked about pinning in terms of pinning the bales together vertically as you stack them in courses.

Once you have your bales stacked, it's very tempting to think that it's time to plaster the bales. However, at this point it is very important to "tie" your bales into the top and bottom of whatever structure you have built. This is one more way to add strength to your wall.

(For those readers who do not know me well, I have to reiterate at this point that I am not an expert in straw bale building. I lean on the experience of those who have gone before me as well as personal building experience. My husband and I have built two homes and a garage out of bales. If there is something I emphasize, it is usually because we have made a mistake and learned the hard way.)

Let's talk for a minute about holes.

Holes are not your friend. They result when bales are not exactly rectangular; when you have two slightly curved corners come together. You need to fill them, and you need to fill them well.

This is what a hole looks like. (I know, sounds pretty obvious.)

This is that same wall, a minute later, after I stuffed loose straw into the hole. I can't overstate how important it is to fill holes. If you don't fill them with straw, you'll be filling them later with handful after handful of valuable earth plaster. (If you're not planning to plaster your wall, perhaps opting to cover your wall with T-111 or a similar product, holes in your wall will greatly reduce the energy efficiency and warmth of your wall.)

To tie the bottom of our wall into our foundation, we used two-foot tall chicken wire. Pretty straightforward, we cut the wire to the length of your wall. We've used two methods in past construction for attaching the wire to the bale wall. First, you could "sew" the wire on using baling twine and a bale needle. Second, you could create a number of long pins to hold the wire securely in place. For this project, we chose to use pins.

At this point, it was important to assemble a large number of pins. (The ones in this photo were made out of coat hangers, snipped with pliers. Myhrman and MacDonald refer to these as "Robert or Roberta pins, to emphasize their size and status relative to "bobby pins", pg.92.)

Though it's hard to see in the photo, this is the same length of wall, with the chicken wire securely attached. A wall that is ready to plaster will have the chicken wire attached tightly; wire with gaps will be difficult to plaster.

When I attached the chicken wire at the bottom and at the framing around the door, I used poultry staples. (A staple gun can also be used. I find that the poulty staples are easy to use and provide a stronger hold. This is a photo of the poultry staple before it is pounded in.)

For my purposes, I was ready at this point to start plastering the inside of the coop. I still needed to "tie in" the top bale to the top plate of the roof, but that wasn't on yet.

Next post: earth plaster!

Straw Bale Coop (Part Six): Earth Plaster!

(This will be my somewhat-technical post on earth plaster. If you are a friend or relative looking for muddy pictures of the kids, you want the next post!)

Earth plaster is by far my favorite part of working with straw bale construction. Although I am a pretty good gopher in terms of stacking, pinning, sewing, etc., earth plaster is where my talent comes through. (Which is pretty funny, since I had no idea I would be any good at it!)

For those of you familiar with Terra Dei (, it is plastered with two layers of cement stucco, followed by two layers of Thoro stucco. It worked well, but it was very heavy to trowel onto the bales. For Haven Homestead, we tried our hand at mixing our own earth plaster. I'll run through our basic recipe and technique for mixing earth plaster here at the homestead.

Without at doubt, this was one of our best investments:

(If you were working on a small project, such as a shed or a coop, you could probably get away with renting a small cement mixer. However, it only made sense for us to purchase our own when we were building Haven.)

Fred learned our basic recipe for earth plaster from a workshop led by Sasha Rabin at Yestermorrow in Vermont. As with all good recipes, we did a little tweaking to find the perfect mixture.

Haven Homestead Earth Plaster
We use a 1:1:1 mixture of brown clay, mason sand, and chopped straw. Using 5 gallon buckets, we usually place two buckets of clay and two buckets of sand into the cement mixer. Once those are combined, we start adding water in small amounts. (I don't measure water when I mix. Today Fred did, and he estimates that he uses 1/2 of a 5-gallon bucket in this recipe.)
Once the water is in and the mixture is really soupy, start adding two buckets of chopped straw, a few handfuls at a time. Once all the straw is added, it will be heavy enough that it will start to peel off the side of the mixer in sheets and thump into the bottom as it turns. That's how I know it's done. We use a small child's wading pool at the base of the mixer to collect the earth plaster as it's made. If you line the pool with a large sheet of plastic, you can make many batches at once and wrap the plaster up at the end of the day. It will keep for weeks stored this way.

This is a picture of the straw, chopped into 1/2" to 1" pieces. Fred accomplished this by using a chipper shredder attached to a lawn tractor. (At this point, I should note that it can be a good idea to wear a mask when chopping straw or mixing the straw into the sand/clay mixture. The straw is very dry and dusty from being chopped. If you don't wear a mask and breathe in the dust, you can end up feeling like you're coming down with bronchitis.)

This is a bucket of slip, clay mixed with water. (I make mine my putting two shovels of clay in a five gallon bucket & adding four to six inches of water. Using a mixing attachment on the drill, it's quick & easy to make.) Before you try to apply earth plaster to your bales, it is very helpful to "paint" the bales with clay slip. It helps the plaster adhere.

In the left of this photo is a pool trowel. (Masons use them when spreading the sand out in the foundation for swimming pools.) The rounded corners make a pool trowel much easier to use than a traditional trowel. Having said that, I don't usually use a trowel at all when I work with earth plaster. I use my hands.

Because the clay is so drying to your skin (and because the straw and wire can poke your fingers), I find gloves to be essential to a happy day of plastering. My favorite pairs of gloves are from Home Depot. I don't remember the brand. They were sold as ladies' gardening gloves, so they fit my hands really well. More importantly, the palms are coated with neoprene. This is very important, because if you use uncoated gloves, the plaster tends to stick to the glove instead of the wall.

My first day of plastering the chicken coop, one hour in:

Update on chicken coop cost: We are still holding tight at $252, again, only because the materials shown are left over from building our house.

Thanks again for joining me on this journey! As always, feel free to comment or ask questions if you would like more technical straw bale details.

Friday, November 20, 2009


It ocurred to me (while mudding the coop interior) that I would really like to take a step back and acknowledge the resources Fred and I used to learn about straw bale construction. If not for the willingness of these authors and teachers to pass on what they have learned along the way, Terra Dei and Haven Homestead would not exist. Many, many thanks!!!

So without further delay...

Lacinski, Paul and Michel Bergeron. Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000.

Magwood, Chris and Peter Mack. Straw Bale Building: How to Plan, Design and Build With Straw. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2002.

Magwood, Chris and Chris Walker. Straw Bale Details: A Manual for Designers and Builders. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2001.

Myhrman, Matts and S. O. MacDonald. Build It With Bales: A Step-by-Step Guide to Straw-Bale Construction. Tucson: West Press, 1999.

Steen, Athena and Bill. The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000.

The Last Straw Journal
HC66, Box 119
Hillsboro, New Mexico 88042
(505) 895-3326

Hands-On Learning:
Yestermorrow Design/Build School
189 Route 100
Warren, VT 05674
(802) 496-5545

Straw Bale Coop (Part 4): Pinning

If you're visiting my documentary of building a straw bale chicken coop because you have an interest in poultry or in straw bale construction, then we have something in common! Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below.

(If you stopped by because you are a friend or family member, thanks for the support. I appreciate you so much!)

One of the important aspects of straw bale construction is weaving a wall that is tight and strong. There are many ways to lend strength to a wall, one of which is pinning as you go.

After we finished laying the second course of bales, we drove bamboo stakes down through to lock them into the first course. (I usually use two stakes per corner bale; sometimes you can get away with one stake if the bales are on a short wall.)

This picture was taken from the inside of the coop. I used a level and a soil rake to roughly even out the ground. Next, a layer of small to medium gravel was laid. Finally, I placed a rough floor out of red brick (reused from the chimney in my parents' previous house.) Once the coop is finished we will add a layer of hardwood shavings and start a deep-litter floor for the girls.

Fred and Granddad place the frame for the door:

No matter how confidently the weather forecaster predicts "No rain in sight," it's always a good idea to cover your project. (The day after this photo was taken, we were predicted to have a clear day, yet a small shower took place around 3:00 p.m. It always pays to cover your work.)

In keeping with previous coop posts, I should note that there were no additional expenses in this stage of building. Most materials and supplies were reused from the construction of our straw bale home.

Next post---how we tied the walls into the foundation.

Happy building! Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Straw Bale Coop (Part Three): Buying Local

One of the challenges we set for ourselves is to "buy local" if possible. According to research by The Food Institute and The Hartman Group in 2008, people tend to classify products as "local" if they are made/grown within 100 miles. Sometimes this is easy to achieve, as in the case of locally grown produce. Other items can be harder to come by.

Consider in this context two items I needed for my chicken coop: an exterior door and straw bales.

I was really hoping to find someone who wanted to sell me a used door. (Because really, it's for a chicken coop...) I checked Craigslist and Construction Junction (a nonprofit warehouse located in Pittsburgh specializing in reclaimed construction items.) Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain a used door. Before making a purchase at a big box home store, Graddad encouraged me to check with 84 Lumber. (Although a chain, 84 Lumber originated in Eighty Four, PA, approximately two hours from here.) When I spoke with Jon, the manager, and described what I wanted, he led me to a door that hadn't sold due to minor cosmetic flaws. He very kindly gave me the door for $102 (including tax), instead of the regular selling price of $150.

Would I define this as a local purchase? Not really. Even though I was able to patronize a smaller store with more of a local origin, I still don't know where the door was constructed and how far it had traveled to get to there. I'd bet my eye teeth it wasn't within 100 miles!

Contrast this with my straw purchase.

I had twelve bales left from Haven's construction and needed to purchase approximately 30 additional bales for the coop.

Shortly after we purchased our property, we were befriended by a dairy farmer named Mr. B. Though I believe we amuse the neighbors with our straw house and the desire to feed our chickens organic pellets, he and his family have always been very welcoming, ready to include us in neighborhood gatherings and willing to help us figure out the finer points of living in the country.

When I called Mr. B. and M. (his daughter, my friend) to see if they had any square bales, Mr. B.'s response was, "Come on over. We'll get you what you need, load it in the back of my pickup, and get it to your house." We offered the local going price for straw, $3.00 a bale, and also gave an additional $10 for gas and time.

(To keep us up to date with the cost of the coop:
$50 for cement; $102 for the door; $100 for straw. Total = $252.00)

Here's a picture of my straw acquisition:

And here's a photo of me with my friend Mr. B. It was great to obtain the straw I needed, but that pales in comparison to the friendship I value with Mr. B. and his family.

And that, I believe, is the twofold payoff of buying local. You get the measurable benefit of supporting families in your area and stimulating your local economy. More importantly, there is the intangible benefit of depending on each other, of growing together as a community.

And that's an idea in which I can believe.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Straw Bale Coop (Part Two), An Essay in Photos

Our progress as of October 24th, 2009:

Hardware cloth serves two purposes: built-in varmint control and a way to tie the concrete block to the straw bales. Here, Granddad actually tucks the hardware cloth between the first and second courses of block.

Strips of roofing paper will act as a barrier between the bales and the foundation.

Pins will be used to hold the hardware cloth tight against the bales. These were made from wire hangers.

The bales in these photos are actually just holding the hardware cloth in place while we apply surface bonding cement to the foundation.

Misting the wall before troweling on cement...

We used QuikWall (from the Quikrete family), which is a surface bonding cement. This is the same type of product we used on the foundation for the duck house at Terra Dei.

Of all the jobs in straw bale construction, troweling is one of my favorites because it has a high payoff value. You can really see your progress!

These photos cover approximately one day's worth of work for two people. My dad tackled the job of retrieving, measuring, cutting, bending and placing the hardware cloth. (I helped a tiny bit holding it in place while he replaced the block.) The placing of the bales and cement troweling was a team effort with Fred.

In my last post regarding the coop I mentioned that we are trying to keep our coop cost as low as possible. Here's where we stand...

Straw bale structural consultation: Free, from my wonderful husband!
Aforementioned brown block: Free, thanks to Lutherlyn
Labor to dig the trench: Free
Hardware cloth: Free, scavenged from my old chicken tractor
Pins: Free, from old hangers
Roofing paper and straw bales: Free, left over from Haven's construction.
Surface bonding cement: Purchased from DuBrook at a cost of approximately $50.

We are currently searching for a pre-hung exterior door, which may prove to be the most costly part of the project. Having checked Craigslist to no avail, I currently have a call in to Construction Junction in Pittsburgh, a supplier of previously used building materials. Here's hoping!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

New Life...Old Materials

Five points to the first reader who correctly determines the origin of the concrete block pictured below:

Ding ding ding! You're right---that block with the brown paint originally belonged to one of the brown cabins at Camp Lutherlyn.

One of the many benefits of Fred's job at Lutherlyn is the permission he is given to scavenge for materials. The grounds crew does not waste anything---even during demolition. Sometimes whole pieces of buildings can be reused, such at the two cabin roofs that were used to make the original roof at Terra Dei. At other times, materials are taken apart and set aside for unknown future use. Sometimes items are stored for years and years...

In this case, I needed concrete block for my girls' new strawbale coop. There were a number of options I had considered for the foundation: rubble trench, a poured concrete footer, or dry-laid concrete block. Anyone who knows us knows that reusing (as in, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) is near and dear to our hearts. But, following a close second is a sincere desire not to pay for things that can be acquired for free! I really didn't want to put much money into this project, having just finished building our house. With taking down so many of the original block cabins in the last few years, we immediately thought of checking with P to see if any were available. P quickly gave Fred the go-ahead, and we set about hauling block.

(Actually, there was no "we" in the hauling of the block. Thanks to my dad and his Durango, we had all the block we could ask for in two days.)

Thanks to our friends at Lutherlyn, the foundation for our new coop is just about complete. We were pleased to be able to reuse block that still had a lot of life left in them. (As an added bonus, that spot behind the shop is just a little less crowded...)

Another side benefit of reusing block, I learned a new skill. Fred showed me how to use a small sledge and a chisel to remove old mortar. Let me tell you, I thought a lot about the phrase, "A chip off the old block!"

Now, to find a free door...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I'll huff, and I'll puff...

When you build a strawbale house, you get a lot of Three Little Pig jokes.
There's just no way around it.

In spite of that, we've tackled our next strawbale project. Want a hint?

My hens (a.k.a. "the girls") currently reside in a henhouse at the rear of my grandmother's garage.

Some of you might remember that we lived in a brick house---the Gatehouse---on my parents' property during construction. Anyway, shortly after we moved into the Gatehouse (January 2008), I was struck with homesteading fever. My house was due to be ready in July, 2008. If I wanted a laying flock of hens at my new house, I needed to order them in May.

(At this point, some readers might be doing the mental math and feeling confused. "2008? But they didn't move into the straw house until 2009..." Right...)

May, 2008: I was living in a house that I didn't own, with 14 Australorp chickens in my bedroom. The summer solution was to house the girls in a chicken tractor in the field out back. My prayers were answered late in the fall when my parents very nicely agreed that the small room at the back of garage could easily be transformed into a winter residence for the girls.

May, 2009: We moved! Enter Great-Grandma.

Great-Grandma is my maternal grandmother. As soon as we moved to Haven she took up residence in the Gatehouse. Although initially disdainful of the girls, she seems to have come around to appreciating their finer points (i.e., free eggs) and has even been observed talking to them on occasion. Though she might not admit it, I think she likes their company.

Chickens are fairly easy to care for in the summer. A little food, a little water, room outside to stretch their legs, and they're pretty happy. Contrast that with caring for them in the winter, when the challenges of keeping poultry increase exponentially.

Maybe I'm exaggerating when I say exponentially. The largest challenge is that we live in Pennsylvania, where the winters can get cold. Drinking water becomes compromised when the temperature in the coop gets below freezing---which can happen for weeks at a time. As clean water is imperative to keeping poultry, last winter found me filling the waterers with hot water from my basement twice a day. It's one thing to traipse down to your own basement in boots encrusted with mud and chicken droppings. It's quite another thing to ask the same of your grandma and her clean floor...

Hence the need to move the girls to a permanent residence. Plus, I can't wait to have them foraging in the woods around our home! Goodbye, ticks!!!

The coop will be strawbale construction, sharing a wall with the back of our garage.

We started digging the trench and laying the block for the footer earlier this week. The weather here has been beautiful, perfect for working outside!

More details and photos to come as construction progresses. In the meantime, I think I'll pass my back issues of Backyard Poultry along to Great-Grandma.

Just in case she misses the girls.