Moving forward

After much discussion Chris and I have come up with a plan to get the house jump-started again.

As many know, we have been consulting in Kamloops for several months. I’ve been almost full-time and Chris 2-3 times a week. It’s been lucrative work.  We didn’t NEED to earn this money to finish the house, but while we were taking a “break” from the house it felt right to earn some money.  It’s been great.  This week, though, I will begin training somebody to take over most of my duties at one of my clients’ place of business and Chris’ hours are also beginning to stabilize.  We hope to work no more than two days a week in Kamloops and we hope to make them the same day to maximize fuel costs.

Having EXTRA cash has given us some options.  And we’ve been throwing around ideas for several weeks.  We’ve watched our friends, the Robinsons, finish their cob home on Vancouver Island in exactly a year.  They did it by hiring some of the work out.  The downside to this, is that they have a small mortgage. The upside is…they are now living in their house!

We have always stuck to our guns and did all the work ourselves to avoid taking on debt. Downside?  We are still not in the house.  Upside?  No debt. 

So we have been thinking about what work we would be prepared to hire out, if we were to do it.  How much could we spend on outside labour without taking on debt?  It came down not to which jobs we were prepared to hire out, but who would we be prepared to employ to move a few of those jobs along.

To that end, James Hornett, is going to become our paid employee for the three weeks leading up to August, when he flies to Japan, to hopefully bring back his wife, Asami, who has been waiting out the immigration process there since February.  (Fortunately, she was 400 kms away from the tsunami.)

James was one of our very first volunteers in 2009, when he stayed nearly two weeks to help us.  He’s since come back several times to help out and we’ve found him thoughtful, helpful and a great worker.  Since coming to BC from Newfoundland in 2009, James has been working in conventional construction in Vancouver.  With his interest in sustainable building he is continually questioning conventional construction practices.  James has also become a great friend of ours, and of my brother Tom and sister-in-law Stephanie, who have been luring him into Vancouver poker games and divesting him of small change.  Check out our FB page, The Darfield Earthship, for James, who we recently added as an administrator (so that he could upload pics).

We’re looking forward to having him back again starting next week.  He was only just here last week getting us started on skylights and it was this that prompted us to think our plan just might work.

It’s meant Chris and I have been scrambling to figure out the order of events, prepare for each job and accumulate materials.  We have some cleaning to do, both in the shop (to organize tools) and the earthship (so that we can move around better in it).  Not to mention (but I will) cleaning the house as we will all share one tiny bathroom, eating facilities and a tiny living room. 

Jobs that we will start/finish include the rough-in of electrical.  We will also start thinking about plumbing, including the planters.  We have lists started and questions to answer before we move forward.

These include setting the floor height.  We need to figure out how much space radiant floor heating will take up so that we can set finished floor height so we can set the electrical outlet heights and the planter heights. This will allow us to set the plumbing heights.  We are madly researching in floor heating and perusing all new information on building planters on the many excellent earthship blogs out there.  We expect to spend a whack of money in the next two weeks to accomplish all of this.

Anybody with any knowledge of these areas is welcome to wade into the discussion ASAP!  Chris plans on posting a sketch of what we think the radiant floor heating might look like, so that we can set height.  We will send an email out to a few of our friends who have recently installed such a floor (and covered it with an earthen floor).

Our plan coincided with the arrival of summer weather.  As most of our work will be in the nice, cool earthship, I think this is pretty GOOD planning!

Electrical a go!

We are ready to begin our electrical!  After receiving directions from the electrical inspector (via the electrician) that we needed to use ENT (non metallic conduit) and plastic boxes, Chris and I have spent many hours talking to suppliers.  This option was expensive and cumbersome. 

We spoke to several of our new “green” friends on the Island-the Robinsons ( and the Bairds ( -who have recently built cob homes.  Cob is the material that is used between our tires and the material upon which our electrical wire will sit and be buried in.  After pulling together photos and anecdotal evidence and sharing  information from their jurisdictions, our electrical inspector gave us the go ahead to wire “normally”, that is using the regular  wire and metal boxes, without conduit.  In essence because cob is not considered a corrosive material in other jurisdictions our electrical inspector has agreed to follow precedent, as long as he is provided with photos and copies of our research. 

Yay.  I am heartened that our mission to prove that we can build an alternative home affordably and under current regulations is possible.  THIS is why it is important to build within the rules.  Now, a precedent has been set in our jurisdiction and paves the way for others to build alternative homes with fewer challenges.

More in the coming weeks.

End Walls Mostly Complete!

On Friday we finished the last of the pop can/concrete work on the west wall.

These walls are approximately 15″ thick; a double layer of rigid insulation (R24 total) sandwiched between an exterior and interior concrete/pop can wall.   The concrete/pop can walls are simply  concrete walls honeycombed with pop cans.  The cans serve to reduce the amount of concrete used in the wall,  reducing the cost and environmental impact of portland cement.

Back in the spring we poured concrete foundations for each of these walls.  We dug the foundations 18″ below grade.  They are 16″ wide and a total of 24″ deep (6″ above grade).  We reinforced the foundation with a double run of 10mm rebar, and placed anchor bolts in the top of the pour so that we could bolt the door framing to the concrete.  Our frost line here is closer to three feet deep.  In order to prevent frost heaving of these foundations we insulated the exterior face of the foundations (R12 rigid insulation suitable for wet locations).  The exterior insulation creates an FPSF (frost protected shallow foundation).  Despite the fact that the footing is not below the frost line the insulation effectively raises the frost line at the perimeter of the building.

When we started the east wall back in the summer these side walls seemed fairly simple … they are only seven feet wide after all.  We worked on the east wall in bits and pieces, using it as fill-in work when we were between other construction tasks so we did not really get an idea of how much time we spent on it.

We started the west wall right after we ordered the windows and have been working on it since then … so we have a better idea of how much time and effort we spent.  We built both walls essentially as described in Earthship Volume I.  We started by framing the door opening.  We (once again) glue-laminated 2×6 T&G decking to make 2×12 planks for this job.  The door framing is a double layer of 2×12 laminated together, making for a pretty hefty door frame … I know where I will be standing in the unlikely event of an earthquake in the Kamloops region!  The 2×12 width is required to support the 15″ thick concrete walls.  We covered the framing on the exterior and concrete wall faces with 15# roofing felt as a moisture barrier.   We then nailed stucco mesh on the concrete wall faces to give the concrete a rough surface to adhere to.  Finally, we cut and placed a double layer of rigid insulation in the middle of the wall.

The concrete used for this job is a 3:1 mix of sand and portland cement.  We tried to make a very stiff mix of concrete so that we could  form the wall without the concrete mix simply slumping out of the wall cavity.  We got better at this with practice … regardless of how stiff the concrete mix you can only place about 1-2′ of wall height before you have to stop and let the concrete set up.  Note that the concrete will need longer to set up as the temperature drops … we pushed this in the last couple of days with temperatures close to freezing (that is to say I said lets keep going), and I found myself covered in concrete and pop cans.  The concrete beneath my work area had not set, and all of it slid out of the wall.  Kind of disconcerting … you do not expect an apparently solid wall to fall apart.

Once we got above the doorways we roughed in electrical wiring for interior and exterior lights at the doors, and we framed in a window above the door.  The window frame is shaped and placed so that it will be above the small roof we plan to place over the door to protect the entry from rain and snow.

The concrete work is labour and time intensive; you spend a lot of time mixing and placing concrete, and waiting for things to dry so you can keep going.  We filled in the waiting time with other small jobs.   I would guess that the concrete work took us the better part of a week.

Eventually, we plan to add an entryway ‘air lock’ on the west side of the building as we see this door being used a lot in the winter.  This means that there will be a double door here to minimize loss of heat when entering and exiting the building.