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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Perimeter wall footer forms started

I set out this morning to get the concrete forms for the footer that will support the perimeter block wall completed today. The first task was to get the bottom of the trench leveled off at the right depth. Because the house is on a slope, I’m not putting all of the footers on the same level. In fact, thleveling the bottom of the trenchere will be four different levels. The front of the house is about 2 feet higher above the ground than the back of the house.

Using a shovel, a grub hoe, and a grape hoe (the latter two are wonderful tools I bought from, I removed some dirt from the bottom of the trench where needed and added some in other places where needed. I had my boys tamp the loose dirt firmly into place. By lunch time I had made it all the way around the house.

After lunch, I started putting wooden forms in place. I drove stakes I cut into the bottom of the trench, measuring from the string I had previously strung to get the tops of them to the proper level. Then, I screwed some 2x3s onto the stakes, mforms at back of houseaking sure they were level and the proper distance below the string. The string gives me the final height for the block wall.

I was able to get the forms in the back of the house and along one side mostly completed. Along the side, I had to step down almost 8 inches in two places because of the slope. Malchiah forms on side of housejoined me after I had started working, and I put him to work tamping dirt on the outside of the forms.

Across the front of the house, there will be six courses of blocks. There are footer levels for five courses and four courses on the side while there will be only three courses on the back. I’m trying to make all of the different levels match up so that blocks could be laid continuously around the house. However, I may treat each level separately, laying blocks for each one independent of the others. They will all be surface bonded later and won’t be visible. As far as structural integrity, there should be no problem considering their purpose.

We’ll continue work tomorrow and Friday. It’ll be next week before we have the concrete delivered for the footers.  

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Perimeter block wall footer excavation

Last evening I moved some of the top soil piled near the end of the house (it’s been piled there for six years already). I didn’t move it far – just a few feet. This was so that I would have enough room to maneuver the backhoe to the rear corner of the house and start excavating the trenches for the footer upon which I’ll build a short block wall to enclose the crawlspace. The wall will also help support the porch floor and straw bale wall.

I continued the excavation from the other corners this morning, trying to dig the bottom of the trench level. That’s easier said that done. However, it came out within a few inches over any given length.

After finishing what I could with the backhoe, I threw some dirt out of the trench with a shovel and knocked down a few high spots. After that, I stretched and leveled a string from one corner of the root cellar walls all the way around the house to another corner of the root cellar. This allowed me to get an accurate measure of my depth in order to figure how much more excavation or filling in is needed.

I plan on working on constructing forms for the footer tomorrow. It will be 14 inches wide and 8 inches in depth. After the forms are in place, I will raise or lower the bottom of the trench to ensure the thickness of the footer will be as intended. If I get this done tomorrow, I hope to have the concrete delivered Friday (I’ve got to bale hay on Thursday).

The blocks around the perimeter of the house will be dry stacked like the cellar walls. I may only surface bond the outside because there won’t be any real lateral forces on this wall. I’ll decide for sure later.

Here are some photos taken this evening of the work that’s been accomplished so far:


back corner  back corner toward cellar  front of houseunder mudroom

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Backfilling around the root cellar

I worked on the interior walls earlier in the week, getting three of them coated with the surface bonding cement – all but the long wall on the house side. So, yesterday, I began the process of backfilling against the walls of the cellar. It was nice to have the backhoe to use; it would’ve been overwhelming to do this job with a shovel.

I situated the backhoe behind the house near the corner of the root cellar and began moving dirt from the pile on the hill. This went fairly well. I could reach about 16 or so across the back edge. There was one problem: a few jerks with the hoe caused the bucket to slide over against one house post. I didn’t like that, of course. Initially, it wasn’t clear to me how to get it away from the house. I couldn’t back up because one rear tire was on the edge of the hole. I was able to move it without causing any damage to the house.

I was able to position the backhoe at a few different locations on either end of the cellar and put fill dirt in around almost all of the walls. I took it easy, knowing I didn’t want to knock into and mess up the walls.

On the house side of the cellar, there was about 14 feet of wall which the backhoe couldn’t reach because of the house frame. I had to use a shovel. Thankfully, the area to be filled here wasn’t to wide and didn’t need to be filled to the top of the blocks.

Here are a few photos taken after I finished today (the pvc on either end is for air vents):

house side root cellar root cellar looking down the back wall

Monday, May 11, 2009

Root cellar: surface bonding cement

We’ve had more than five inches of rain during the last nine days. In between some of the showers and storm, I’ve been able to work some on the root cellar. The frequent rain has been frustrating in that it’s kept me from getting things done like I want to, but that’s the way it goes.

The blocks are all stacked for the walls. I was able to fill 12 cores in the walls last week when we had a mostly rain-free day. I filled six more cores yesterday, all that will be filled. Last Thursday I was able to apply the surface bonding cement to the outside wall toward the hill on the back of the root cellar. That night we received some very heavy rain (over an inch and a half of it) which caused some mud to break free on the back wall of the excavation. Not too much, but I was glad to have the wall done on that side.

Today, I installed the PVC through the end walls to which I will connect the fresh-air vents for the cellar. I used concrete and mortar tooutside walls are done fix them in the wall and cover the holes around the edges.

Then, I finished parging the rest of the outside walls. It was muddy down in the hole around the outside of the cellar walls. The dirt is mostly clay and sticks to my boots like crazy. I wore my muck boots since they can be cleaned off fairly easily.

After finishing the outside walls, I changed shoes and began on the inside. I was able to parge one inside wall, an end one. I hope to finish the other three walls tomorrow.

first inside wall pargedI mixed the surface bonding cement in a wheel barrow today, using a garden hoe. It worked fairly well. Previously, I mixed it half a bag at a time in a five-gallon bucket using a paddle mixer with an electric drill. That method actually worked better, but my mixer needs repaired. So, I didn’t use it today.

The key is getting the right amount of water in the mix. If it’s too wet, it’ll slump off of the wall. If it’s too dry, it takes a lot more effort to trowel it on the wall. When it’s mixed just right, it trowels on smoothly and stays where it’s supposed to. It’s been a trial-and-error process getting the mix figured out.

Surface bonded concrete block walls look nice, I think. Better than regular, mortared block walls. It’ll be nice to see them all complete. At that point, I’ll start backfilling.   muddy boots

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mixing concrete & filling voids

It’s been raining a fair bit since last Thursday, making work on the house more difficult. I was able to finish stacking all of the blocks (490 of them) before the rains settled in.

Today, we had a break from the rain, but more is forecast for tomorrow along with the possibility of rain every day for the rest of the week. So, I took the opportunity to continue working on the root cellar. The project for today was to fill some of the voids in the block walls with concrete.

In all I mixed 22 bags of concrete mix (80# each) and filled 12 cavities. Each one has a length of 5/8” rebar embedded in it the full height of the wall. At the bottoms of most of the filled cavities, there is 18” of rebar that is embedded in the footer. At the top of each fill, I’m placing a 1/2” j-bolt/concrete anchor with which to bolt on a wood sill. I will mill the sill out of cedar, and it will be 4-1/2” thick – this brings the height of the wall even with the bottom of the first floor girts.

Today’s work went well. The biggest problem is the mud. This is some sticky mud because of all the clay in the soil where I’m working. I wore muck boots and didn’t worry about the mud mess.

With more rain forecast for tomorrow, I don’t know if I’ll be able to get back to the project for a couple of days. I still have the surface bonding cement to trowel on to the walls which I’ll start as soon as I can.