The 57 acres that comprise Cedar Ridge Farm are located in the beautiful rolling hills of South Central Kentucky. My wife, our four children, and I are on a homesteading adventure as we work toward increased self-sufficiency. We grow much of our own food and enjoy being in touch with the agrarian roots of our lives.

One of the major projects we have undertaken is the building of our own home. The house we're building has three major distinguishing features: 1. we're building it without incurring any debt; 2. it is a timber frame structure; and 3. the exterior walls will be plastered straw bales. We live debt and mortgage free, and building our house with that approach makes perfect sense. Large timbers in a home possess a beauty and project a sense of strength, stability, and warmth that we want in our home. Straw bale walls provide insulation and make ecological sense. This blog is a record of our home-building project.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Digging it!

I've had a new experience this week: operating a backhoe. You see those big machines at different places and think it would be cool to run one. It can't be that hard, right? Well, I got my chance.

Contemplating digging a 10 feet by 20 feet (roughly) hole five or six feet deep with a shovel moved me to seek an alternate approach to the digging, preferably one that was mechanical and high-powered. I thought about renting a small backhoe. In hindsight, that would not have been a good idea -- the rental charge is $160 a day, and I would've needed it for several days, if it could even have done the job (too small). I thought about hiring someone to do it. I even called a guy about doing so, but he's a busy man. I called another friend who owns a backhoe to ask if his brother would be interested in my hiring him. That didn't work out, but the next best thing did: he agreed to let me borrow and use his backhoe.

So, last weekend, I drove 18 miles to his weekend home where he keeps the backhoe to get the keys. I was making arrangements to have another guy haul it here. Those arrangements were taking too long (I didn't want to waste the good weather early in the week). So, Monday morning my dad and I drove to the backhoe, and I drove it the 18 miles home with dad following. Even with stopping for fuel in town, it only took about an hour.

With the machine here, I started on the work that needed done Monday. The first thing was to figure out the controls. I dug up a couple old concrete culverts which I intend to reuse elsewhere (they are crammed full of dirt at the moment). Then, I began to move some of the top soil which had been pushed off of the house site nearly five years ago. This gave me opportunity to become familiar with operating this big machine. I used the hoe to loosen the dirt in part of the pile so that I could drive the backhoe around to the back of the house where I needed to cut back the hillside and dig the planned root cellar. With it loosened, I could scoop it up with the bucket and move it out of the way. It took a little bit to not only learn the controls but to also figure out how to manipulate them efficiently to obtain the ends I desired.

Once I moved some of this topsoil out of the way, I began on the hillside at the back of the house. It was actually quite easy to break up and move as it was basically just topsoil also. I tried to cut it back and taper the slope so there will be plenty of room for the porch at the back of the house plus a bit extra. I don't want a steep slope there, but on one end it will be because of how the slope lies -- it's higher at one end of the house than the other. This work would've been done earlier if I had anticipated changing the plan to include a rear porch. Change has been an integral part of our project, and that's actually been a good thing, because we are happy with our plans and the changes we've made.

Digging the root cellar took more than two days. It would've gone faster but for two things: hydraulic leaks and the need to keep moving the dirt. An older backhoe like this one (a Ford 555) will invariably have its issues and leaks. That's okay. However, one of the flex lines feeding the main cylinder for lifting the boom ruptured and drained out most of the hydraulic fluid. So, I took it off and had a new one made.

The next significant leak occurred on a hard line running to the cylinder which moves the shovel on the hoe. I tried tightening it and polishing the compression fitting, but it gradually got worse. It was still usable, but I stopped using it yesterday when a steady stream was spraying out of the connection. I took it to Glasgow (Kentucky, not Scotland) and had a replacement made today. I'll put it on and continue working this weekend. I wouldn't feel right about returning the machine not working as it should, and since he's lent it to me, I want to return it in better condition than I got it. it's still a whole lot cheaper than renting one or hiring the work done.

The other aspect that's slowed down progress on the root cellar is the need to stop digging and move the dirt every little while. There isn't room near the hole being dug to put it all. I also won't need it all for backfill. So, I've used the excess to fill a ditch that had washed out and which has been here on the property since before we bought the place. I've also put a lot of it in front of the house. This will be used to make the slope in front of the house more gradual. I also had to make sure access for pouring the concrete for the block wall footers and the root cellar floor wasn't blocked. After I build the block wall, I'll hire someone with a bulldozer to come for a day to backfill, fix the front slope, and move the topsoil over it all. Then, I'll be able to proceed on the next part of the housebuilding: the porch.

The whole for the cellar is eleven feet wide and about 23 feet long. I dug it approximately six feet deep so that the ceiling will be at least seven feet high after the floor is poured. It looks deeper because the hill slopes upward to the back. The back of the hole is closer to nine feet deep. I still need to clean it out a little more and then dig a drain line. I'll put a drain in the floor and run the line to daylight. Digging the trench for that will be interesting since I need to maintain a proper slope so it'll drain properly. I'll do that next week.

In the photo above, you can see the hole (I'm standing in it, in case it's hard to tell). You can also see the slope I adjusted behind the house. I need to work on the edges and clean out some of the loose dirt in the bottom. One of the amazing things is that I didn't dig into a rock ledge. There are ledges all over around here. In fact, just above this location on the hill, there is rock at the surface. I dug out a few rocks floating in the dirt, one the size of a desk.

Hopefully, I'll have some more photos later after I finish things up a bit more. The photos in this post are compliments of my dad. I've been otherwise occupied so that I haven't taken pictures this week.

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