We want to get started this Spring and need to get some serious planning done. Some earth sheltered homes have a concrete monolithic wall poured for the North side (sometimes the East and West sides too). Concrete has a high embodied energy just to get it to the site so that was a big turn off, but it does provide thermal mass to hold the heat. We have mounds and mounds of rock which will work just as well for thermal mass. The slipform walls built of stone really interest me because it's something that I'm physically capable of doing. We have to get "permission" from the code enforcement officer first though. To have the walls poured would mean hiring someone with big equipment to come in but it would be done very fast. To build the wall of concrete blocks would mean picking up those heavy beasts and that doesn't seem appealing. If we are allowed to do a slipform rock wall, we'll just do the East, West and North walls. The South wall will be a typical framed wall since it will be mostly windows. I might mortar in some cosmetic stones on the south side in between the windows one day.
The slipform method is so appealing because you setup a form that is only a few feet high, place the stone in the form along with rebar or whatever else you need that row, and fill in the rest with concrete by coffee can full. The forms are just moved up the wall when the prior row has sufficiently setup. Of course there is a little more to it than that, but that's the gist of it. I may not have brute strength, but I do have stamina and believe we can do this. We'd still be using concrete, but not nearly as much and would also be using all that wonderful building material we have laying around. The slip form stone method also creates a beautiful looking wall. Since we are required to have insulation, we'd have to sandwich foam board insulation in between rocks and concrete. So there will be a layer of rocks on the exterior, then concrete, then foam board, more concrete and rocks on the interior wall. It will probably take a long time, but we have more time than money. There are at least 7 months of the year we'll probably be able to build so even if it takes a month or two to do the walls, we'll still have time to get the roof on. We rented a video by Thomas J. Elpel on slipform stone masonry from Smartflix.com and watched it several times which helped visualize the project. You can also get the video here:
Here is a website with his work: http://www.hollowtop.com/cls_html/masonry.htm After putting each stone into place by hand, we'll really get to know the house well and will have a lot of mental down time for daydreaming.
After two years of playing around with a floor plan, we finally came up with one that I think will work. Most of the house is an open rectangle. There is a good-sized kitchen and storage room for processing food and the bedroom is open to the main part of the house and has only 3 walls. There aren't any doors in the house except to the bathroom and outside. There will be glass transoms up towards the ceiling of the interior walls that will allow light and heat to flow. The area between the bedroom and the living room will be closed off with an expandable wall or curtain if we need to close it off for some reason. The back of the bedroom wall that is shared with the bathroom will be an extra thick thermal mass wall that runs East/West to soak up heat on sunny days and radiate it back out into the room at night. The walls will be covered with earthen plaster and I hope the dirt on the build site has what I need for that. I love working with earthen plaster, it is so beautiful, feels wonderful in your hands and was easy to make. The floor is going to be earthen and will also act as thermal mass. The poured adobe method for the floors looks like it will be easiest for me (I'm in charge of the floors). I've been trying to think of a design to put into the floor before it's finished, but can't make up my mind. There is still plenty of time for that. The "Earthen Floors" book by Athena and Bill Steen is a very small almost booklet and is a great summary of how it's done. This is my favorite earthen floor photo, but I'm going to make mine much smoother than this. You can make it all sorts of textures, colors and designs. We never made it to one of the Steen's Canelo project classes because they were just too far and expensive. They said they'd work with us on the cost, but the distance is still too great.
In Earthship vol. II, there are instructions on building an earthen bathtub! It's so warm and inviting. You can of course make it any shape and height. I'd like one with high sides that my arms would rest on and in a comfortable shape for the back. I hope I'm not being too ambitious, but I think a hand formed tub would be much more satisfying than a pre-formed one, I'll need to see which way is cheaper though. The Earthship book also showed a built in solar cooker into the south wall. One side of the solar cooker is just outside the South side wall and is glass, it goes through the wall and it's door is inside the kitchen. I love my solar cooker and as soon as I saw that design, I knew I had to include it. When you aren't using it to bake, you can make distilled water with it and it's a very simple design! How cool is that?!
We just picked up 4 more used solar panels and added to the other 4 used panels we bought, that should be plenty. Jeffrey did the analysis on all the electric powered items we use and if 8 panels aren't enough, then we'll just get rid of something. Our current power bill is around $45 a month now and that is with an electric tank hot water heater so I'm pretty sure we'll have enough juice. The batteries and inverter are going to be our big expense. Plus I think we shouldn't be so focused on recreating the same amount of power we use here, but work on using less power.
So the plan is to put together a package for the code enforcement officer on each non-traditional method for him to consider. There is a ton of information available on all these methods, so it has been relatively easy to find what we are looking for. I have a lot of drawings to do and need to turn my chicken scratch into something a little more presentable. Well that's all the house news.
A few weeks ago, I made liquid soap from some soap scraps using online instructions that said to put hot boiling water and soap scraps in the blender. What a mess!! My left hand was on the lid and with my right hand I turned on the blender. The lid literally exploded off the blender sending hot boiling soap water all over the place. Somehow I managed not to get burned. Left in the blender was a thick mass of foam that was still there the next day. Thankfully some online friends told me to take the foam blob and heat it on the stove which worked like a charm. So from now on, I'll just melt the soap scraps down on the stove with water. There are a lot of recipes online for making liquid hand soap from bar soap scraps, I'd just suggest making it on the stove and watching it. I also added some honey and glycerin that I happened to have, but those aren't necessary. After wasting a good bit of the soap on the counter, I was still able to fill a 4 pound peanut butter jar with liquid soap made with only about 2 palm fulls of bar soap scraps. I keep the scraps in an old jelly jar in the bathroom. When I decided to stop using liquid soap, I kept the last pump container so I could use the soap scraps. To refill the pump bottle, I reheat a little bit of liquid soap from the 4 lb refill jar first since it gets a little thick from just sitting there.
Bar soap is a wonderful thing though. It comes in very little packaging and most have very few ingredients. After the house is built, I plan on making my own and have the oils and ideas ready to go. Liquid soap and liquid body wash is mostly water. It comes in plastic packaging that you then have to recycle, find a use for, or throw away and it's more expensive. It just seems like you get a lot more for your money from bar soap. When I switched to only bar soap (except for the liquid that I make from the scraps), I wasn't' sure what to do about the dogs. All the dog shampoo I had seen was liquid and in plastic containers. Then I found "Earthbath" oatmeal shampoo bar by "Earthwhile Endeavors". It's in minimal packaging and the bar lasted for an extremely long time, at least two years and I have 4 dogs (3 of whom aren't bathed often though). It dries well and clean without cracking or curling up at the sides. I just keep it in a zip lock bag after it's dry, but I could easily store it in a cloth (actually I think I'll do that). I found it pretty cheap online and the bars are really thick, almost an 1-1/2". Then after I started using it, I found out it was actually easier to wash the dogs with bar soap instead of liquid shampoo. You can drop the bar in the water and it's no big deal, you don't have to balance the open, wet shampoo bottle on the edge of the tub and you don't have to clean up a sticky plastic bottle when you're done. Plus it's only an inch and half thick so it's easy to store. The dog shampoo bottles are tall and harder to store in the bathroom. It's great for little mamma Lucille since she can't groom herself and has to get bathed more than the other dogs. The oatmeal, aloe vera and oils in the soap is easy on her skin.
I know it sounds silly, but doing something as simple as washing with a bar of soap can be a connection to tradition and a simpler way of life. Things like bathing and drinking tea used to have more meaning. Holding a simple bar of soap in your hands is an ancient tactile and fragrant experience, unlike the farting plastic bottles that squeeze a gob of goo into your hands. Then I did away with the plastic mesh shower scrubby and switched to a bar of natural soap with scrubbing flecks. Ahhh no water being slung into my eye by the shower scrubby rope when I wash my arms, no lost soap down into the interior of the scrubby, no more thinking of the "ickyness" that must be left in the fibers and no more feeling plastic mesh on my skin. Just a plain 'ole bar of soap, so simple, so wonderful.