Monday, September 28, 2009
Monday, September 21, 2009
Plaster day finally arrived at Niagara Escarpment Organics this last Saturday. Farmer Ryan had chopped up some straw with the chain saw, we had sufficient clay screened, and we now understood that organic spelt flour does not a good wheat paste make.
The day dawned bright and sunny, with a dead battery. Once Alan showed me the intricacies of boosting a car, I was on my way, a bag of Five Roses flour under my arm. Several interested volunteers showed up and we got going on the plastering and the roof decking. My big old drill didn't enjoy mixing such a thick and straw-rich mix, quitting several times. We pulled out the wheel barrow and mixed by hand too, which turned out to be just as quick, and probably more efficient.
By the end of the day, the interior of the cabin was almost completely plastered! We'll be back over the fall to finish off the interior and exterior basecoat plaster, and then we'll scheme over the winter about finishing plaster options. I'm already excited to get on that.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
I got out my old whole hog drill and made up some quality clay slip using some of the clay I'd screened earlier. It mixed up very nicely and quickly, so I think the screened clay subsoil is going to work just fine, in spite of my wish that I had screened the clay a little finer.
I tossed the slip with some straw, and spent the afternoon chinking. In some places, the straw/clay had shrunk away from the tops of the roof rafter, and in others there were gaps where the material hadn't been completely tamped down as intended. It was cold in the shade, so every once and a while, I'd pop out into the sunshine and and screen some clay. I'm kinda getting to like that job.
Meanwhile, Ryan continued on the stone work, while Farmer Ryan prepared wood for decking the roof. I expect we'll be ready to plaster by the time Saturday comes!
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Yesterday and today we got lots of work done on the bunkhouse at Niagara Escarpment Organics, in preparation for Plaster Saturday this weekend. I spent a chunk of the day putting tar paper and onion bag strips on the wall to bridge the wood and straw/clay so that the plaster has a consistent and toothy surface to grab onto. Then I got a chance to build my first screen ever; how I've mostly managed to avoid screening materials in the five years that I've been involved in natural building is a mystery to be sure. Nonetheless, I think this screen works pretty well at separating the finer clay (and attendant aggregate) from the big clumps and chunks. It's got a 1/8" screen on it, which is still pretty course, but I think the clay will be plenty useable.
Ryan and friends worked hard on the stone stemwall, making substantial progress today. All the stones came from the farm, and were handpicked by farmers and interns over the last couple of weeks. I am amazed by the beauty of the rockwork; I would say that it is well worth the effort.
Our test patches are crackier than I'd expected, so we will amend our mix to include a more diverse range of sand particles, and we'll also plan to include wheat paste.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
I left the New York colloquium a couple days after it finished (I stuck around to get some more plastering in), but others stayed on for the next week and finished off the walls of the retreat cabin. The plaster work looks absolutely stunning, as you can see in the pictures. Thanks, Eric, for sharing your photos with me.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Ryan Horning and I are co-leading the plastering of a lovely little timberframe and straw/clay bunk house at my local CSA. Niagara Escarpment Organics is farmed by Ryan and Laura and a whole pile of hard-working interns. Earlier this summer, the straw/clay portion of the building was completed, and it's now dry enough to plaster.
We started by pulling together a list of possible materials we might need, and then crossing them off as we found them, or their analogue, somewhere around the farm. Note to self: do a walk around the site before sending people to the store, in order to avoid sending them back to return stuff that you already had but didn't know about.
Today we assessed clay and straw and began processing, and we also got some test patches done. Next we'll prepare for door and window detailing, and get the roof on, as well as the stone veneer around the foundation. I'm looking forward to learning more about these aspects of building!
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
I was invited (or I may have invited myself, I can't quite remember) to visit Eric Hempstead, where he is working at building a strawbale studio in a family's backyard. He was just about at the stage of putting on the finish plaster, and I decided to go down to help him with it.
That idea was enticing enough, but when I heard that I'd also get a chance to experience the Eco-House, I couldn't resist. The Eco-House was a project of Builders Without Borders, whose members organized, designed and created a tiny, perfect strawbale structure on the grounds of the Botanic Gardens in Washington, DC, last summer. It stood right through the fall and winter, and was present for the inauguration of President Barak Obama earlier this year. It was then picked up by crane (another story, see more about that here) and delivered by flatbed to Sam and Kappy's place, outside of DC and south of Bowie, Maryland. Eric was building a companion structure to the Eco-House, and the Eco-House had become his pied à terre while he was there working. You can watch a video about the Eco-House here, which tells the story about the building and who built it, including an exciting sub-plot involving emergency preparedness and torrential downpours.
So, back to the strawbale studio. Eric began working on it last winter, and I breezed in after all the heavy lifting had been done. The studio was ready for its interior finish plaster, and Eric had almost all the materials needed already on site, including processed native clays and screened sand. We made an expedition to the countryside where we harvested some prickly pear cactus (emphasis on "prickly"), then brought them back, chopped them up and let them sit in water overnight to create an incredibly viscous liquid that would help with binding. The next day, we made up a batch of wheat paste, burning it in an attempt to make it "slightly translucent". That didn't seem to bother the dog, who ate the rest of the paste while we weren't looking. I also pounded up chunks of mica – Eric and our mutual friend Sarah Halley had found them during a walk in Philadelphia – into little sparkly flecks that would give the finish plaster sheen and depth.
For fibre, Eric has been experimenting with using blow-in cellulose. It's recycled, natural-ish, treated with natural fire and bug retardants, and very easy to procure. We soaked some in water, but for later batches used a pear juice/wheat paste combo to keep the liquid to a manageable level. The plaster whipped up smooth and creamy, and was a pleasure to apply. We spent the rest of the week applying plaster, hard troweling it, fixing mistakes, and watching the colour change from a deep browny red to a very light pink. Unlike some of the other plasters I've done, this one does not seem to be dusting at all, thanks probably to the pear juice and wheat paste. The nichos took a tremendous amount of time to get looking smooth and integrated with the rest of the wall, but they look so cool that it was well worth it to do. Tools included flexible trowels, both plastic and metal; sponges; and plastic container lids.
I learned tons about possible mix ingredients, and got lots more practice in applying and finessing plaster. And I got almost as much practice driving, as the trip entailed fourteen hours in the car on the way down, and sixteen on the way back. Next time, if I time it right, I may be able to make it in ten. As long as Samantha the GPS and I stop squabbling.
Clarification: I named this post "Invading Washington", because originally the whole fam damily was going to come on the trip, and the kids were excited to encounter all the extraterrestrial aliens that, as we know, populate Washington, since that is where they always seem to land in the movies. And movies don't lie.