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.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Featured write-up on

Imagine my surprise when I went to the homepage and saw our house at the top of the page! We were written up for one of their Featured Stories entitled Building a Debt Free House. It's a nice write-up, and I am excited to see it there! Thanks,!

Friday, March 14, 2008

The digging continues . . .

Yesterday was a beautiful day with temperatures in the mid-70s. So, I had some more shovel work to do.

Before I began on digging for the block wall footer, I had six fruit trees to put in the ground. We ordered several fruit trees from Adams County Nursery along with four other families, because, if you order 25 or more trees, the price per tree is basically cut in half. As it ended up, the price for each tree averaged right at $12. And, these are nice trees, too. We ordered several from them two years ago and will order some more this fall for next spring.

I used the post hole digger to help dig the holes for the fruit trees. While I had the tractor running, I went ahead and dug a series of holes along the east side of the house to help with digging for the footer on that side, as it was to be the next side to be completed. After getting the trees all set, I started digging. In the photo you can see my older son helping out. He and his younger brother have helped with the digging and moving dirt from the trench. The concept of digging is one that they seem to love, but when it comes to it being a form of work, they have a much more difficult time. I had already dug out the trench around the corner at the time I took the picture.

I had several sore muscles from my digging the day before, but I figured the soreness would work itself out as I continued with what needed to be done. So, I dug for several hours. It's a slow process when you have to move tons of dirt a shovel-full at a time, but it does get the job done. By the end of the day, I had completed the east side and along the front of the house. I still have sore muscles today, but that just goes along with such work.

About ten feet from the front of the house, I stepped the depth of trench down eight inches. The house is on a slightly sloping site, and I dug the trench along the back as deep as I reasonably could (about 30 inches or so). I want to keep the footer deep enough along the sides and front, and that requires that I make them at least one block deeper there.

As I've been digging, I've decided against a rubble trench with a drain. The ground here drains very well -- there was no moisture below the first few inches, and we've had enough rain recently that if there was a problem with drainage it should've been apparent. So, I'll just pour a footer along the bottom of the trench to lay the concrete blocks on.

As I contemplate digging the root cellar and terracing the hill behind the house, I'm wishing for a backhoe. I may see about hiring some of this work done. Although it will cost money, it will also save some time and a lot of work.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Using a "misery spoon"

I finished the trim on the front of the cupola this morning. That didn't take long. So, I started on the next part of the project: digging a trench around the frame.

It was afternoon before I started digging. I drove to my friend Gill's house this morning to borrow his pto-powered post hole digger. I used it when digging for the pier footings two years ago. With the 12" auger, it helps to loosen the soil, making the digging easier. So, I borrowed it to use it for this part of the foundation.

I started on the back of the house. This will be the deepest trench because there is a slope toward the front. The only problem was that I couldn't get the tractor behind the house to use the auger except on the ends. The hill that rises just behind the house was too steep for me to comfortably maneuver the tractor and auger into position. I had to accept being able to drill three holes on each end.

I worked for about 3 hours with the shovel, a tool that someone once called a "misery spoon" for good reason. I'm sure I'll be sore tomorrow. I expect I'll work out some of the soreness while digging. The trench for the footer that will be under the concrete block wall I'm putting there must go all the way around the house.

The foundation for this will will employ a rubble trench. I'm going to put rock and a perforated pipe for a drain in the bottom of the trench, and then more rock. On top of the rock I will pour a rebar reinforced concrete bond beam six or eight inches thick. Upon this I will lay concrete blocks to the desired height. This concrete wall will help support the straw bale walls and the inner side of the wrap around porch.

In addition to the trench, I'm going to dig for a root cellar. This will be located under the pantry and mudroom. Then, I need to terrace the hill behind the house before I can frame the porch because the hill is in the way. Originally, there wasn't going to be a porch on the back, but there is now, and I've got to move some of that hill. It can be done with a shovel, one scoop at a time.

More digging to do tomorrow, and the next nice day, and the next, and . . .

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Siding the cupola

My goal for today was to get the siding on the cupola. It took a full day, but I got it done.

The siding I used is wood shingles. I cut them to length from "slab wood" I bought from a pallet company. I bought several pallets of what are basically their culls from making pallets. I worked with two widths (3.75" and 5.75") because that's how they came, and I didn't want to rip them all to other widths.

If I didn't have to work around windows and the slope of the roof, the process would've gone more quickly. The basic idea is to cut the shingles 18" long. Then, staple them on the side leaving 8" showing. This provides a double layer coverage.

This idea worked on the sides of the windows, but not over or above them. There, I had to cut pieces to length so they would fit. On the sides, as you can see, I had to cut the angle of the roof pitch, too.

On the corners, I nailed one inch thick boards for trim. The shingles butt up against these boards on the corners, giving a finished look. I still have to finish the front corners of the cupola with this trim.

The rope tied around the cupola which can be seen in the photo is so I don't slip off the roof while working on the front. I put it around my backside and can lean against it. It allows me to have my hands free to work and provides a level of comfort and safety which I don't want to work without.

Roof Metal

On Thursday, March 6, we started putting the metal on the roof. Again, my dad helped. Without his assistance, I would've been hard put to get the job done. We had a nice, warm day with no wind (handling pieces of roofing metal on top of a house when it's windy isn't a very good idea).

We started on the front roof. Based upon our measurements, the roof was square, meaning if we started out with the first piece lined up correctly, we ought to finish in the correct location also. All in all, it came out pretty well.

The metal I'm using is some that I bought for nearly half the regular price because it's "rainbow." As I understand it, these are the sheets upon which the factory cleans out the paint nozzles, making them different shades and colors. Most of mine are some shade of green. Part of the deal is that the sheets I bought were in ten foot lengths, rather than them being cut to the length of my roof. I wasn't concerned about having a seem on my roof, and the color won't matter once I have the roof coated as planned.

I bought 15 sheets of 11' long "rainbow" metal two weeks ago, because I needed a little more length for the front. I also needed more metal than I originally purchased for roofing the porch along the back of the house which wasn't in our original plans. We started by putting the 11' sheets on the lower edge of the roof on the front. I left a four inch overhang for the porch roof to slide under later.

Above the 11' sheets we put down a row of 10' sheets. These overlap the lower row by nearly eight inches. I also added a bead of silicone caulk on each seem and overlap. I don't want water to find its way through, over, or under the metal. The two sets of metal apparently came from different factories, because, although they are all "classic rib" design, there were some slight variations between the two lots. Not enough variation to matter, though, just how the ribs fitted over or under one another. With the overlap and caulk, there isn't any problem.

I took pictures when we came back to work after lunch. We had almost finished the front at that point in time. We were able to finish the front and put nine ten foot pieces on the back before the day was over. To install the last two pieces on the front, we tied a ladder onto the strapping on the back so that I wouldn't slip off while screwing them on. Working on the back was much easier and quicker than the front because of the roof pitch.

It rained on Friday and then snowed on Saturday. It cleared up on Sunday, but it took all day to melt the snow off of the roof. So, dad and I had to wait until Monday to finish putting the metal on. We had to cut seven sheets in half for the back for the top row (the back is almost 15'). There's only two inches of overlap between the rows of metal, but we caulked them well. So, it should be a sufficient overlap.

We finished the back, flashed around the base of the cupola, and installed the ridge cap before we quit. We did get a little wet because it sprinkled for a while before we were finished. The pieces of ridge cap that I bought are different colors because they were cover sheets for other orders. But, at $2.00 each instead of $10.00 each, I wasn't going to complain, especially since they'll be painted white later anyway. So, my current ridge cap has two colors: red and black.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Roof: vertical and horizontal strapping

Since my last post, I've continued to work on the house as the weather has permitted. On Sunday, my dad and I sheeted the back of the roof and put the felt paper on it. I also added some braces under the eaves on the ends of the house. There was two feet of 7/16" OSB with a 2x3 hanging out past the end of the frame there. Adding some 2x braces from the edge of the overhang to the house frame helps to stiffen up that part of the roof. Eventually, there will be some framing to help support the overhang of the OSB. This framing will be on the outside of the bale walls and will support the wood siding. I'll add this when I frame the porch -- framing the porch comes after the roof is finished.

Monday was a nice day with a temperature of more than 70 degrees. It was quite breezy, though. With the sheeting completed, I was able to begin installing the vertical and horizontal strapping. The vertical strapping employs 1x2s which I ripped from 1x6s. The 1x4 which I also yielded by ripping these boards serves as the horizontal strapping. The vertical strapping is on 2 foot centers, directly over the rafters I added for the insulation space.

I attached the vertical strapping on the back of the house before moving on to the front of the roof. Actually, I was going to install the horizontal strapping on the back before beginning on the front, but the combination of warm temperatures, warm sunshine, and windy conditions led to portions of the felt paper on the front of the roof tearing loose from the staples that were meant to hold it on the OSB. Rather than leave it flapping in the breeze, I stapled it some more, finished the vertical strapping on the back, and then began installing vertical strapping on the front. I figured that with 1x2s nailed onto the front every two feet the felt paper wouldn't tear loose very easily. (I know that stapling tar paper on a roof isn't the ideal method of applying it, but it was the quickest way at the time.)

After installing the first 8' 4" of strapping on the front, my dad joined me and assisted in putting the first five rows of horizontal strapping on the front. He handed the 1x4s to me, and I nailed them on.

It rained Tuesday, but today was a nice day in the mid 40s. So, with dad's help, I added more strapping. We finished the front of the roof by lunch time. After lunch we completed the installation of the horizontal strapping on the back of the roof. Since it is a less steep pitch (3:12), it went quite quickly.

We measured to make sure that everything was as it is supposed to be so that that metal roofing will end up square and that it is the right length. Things checked out like they were supposed to, so we'll start installing the metal on the front in the morning (the forecast isn't calling for rain).

The reason for the strapping is to provide a ventilation space under the metal roofing. The vertical strapping allows any condensation on the underside of the metal to drain out to the bottom by holding the horizontal strapping up off of the sheeting. The metal will be screwed onto the horizontal strapping. With the sheeting and the strapping, I shouldn't have any problems with condensation. I also expect that it will help keep the heat of the summer sun from warming the inside of the house (along with the ten inches of dense pack cellulose between the roof sheeting and the cathedral ceiling, of course).

The sheeting and the strapping aren't perfectly flat like I would prefer. There are some high and low spots (you can see some in the photos). I've tried to avoid these, but I haven't been perfectly successful. The 1xs I used for the cathedral ceiling contributed to some of the unevenness because of how they have moved because of moisture. Tar paper keeps most of the rain off but not all. Some water gets under the paper. Sometimes, it seems that it is better at keeping moisture under it from getting out than it is at keeping it from getting under it. This created some issues for the ceiling boards and will require me to sand out some water marks later.

Also contributing to some of the unevenness of the roof is the bow to some of the 2xs I used for rafters. I put the crown up and held them as consistently at ten inches from the ceiling boards as I could, but they were not even at all points along their lengths. Once the metal is installed, I'm hoping that most of the unevenness will not be noticeable. My consolation, though, is that it will be a solid, well-insulated roof that has cost me less than half what it would have if I purchased more "perfect" materials. I could only guess at how much it's saved me from paying someone else to install this roof. In my case, I have more time than money, and I won't be able to see the roof when I'm inside the house anyway!

I say all this, but it really isn't that bad. It's just a small irritant to me that it isn't perfectly even, however unrealistic that is.

I'm looking forward to finally having the roof finished -- only six months later than I anticipated!