Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Invading Washington, DC
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.