Saturday, November 26, 2011

Another Burlap Solution?

This morning in Torrey it is 27 degrees outside. The sun is clawing its way above the Henry Mountains to the southeast and a stiff breeze keeps us indoors. The operative word here is “indoors.” That’s because we really have an indoors to call our own - airtight, quiet, and warm, warm, warm. That’s why Scott and I have been able to work on the house this Thanksgiving weekend.

Our first project was a problem solving experiment, the result of which would determine how we prepare the interior walls for plaster next spring. This involves the eleven windows in our house that are set into the bale walls. The challenge here is to determine some method by which we can create the sensuous curved edges that attract us and so many others to this alternative building material.

Straw bales are, by definition, rectangular. That’s the way a baler makes them. It’s one of the things that makes them easy to stack, which is important when using them to build a wall. But this rectangular shape also means they have square edges, 12 of them to be exact. Each of our eleven windows are surrounded  by eleven bales, and each of those bales presents one sharp edge that must be coerced into that lovely, much desired curve.

Some strawbale resources suggest using a chainsaw to cut the bale edges into a curve (or bullnose). We had already used a chainsaw when notching and shaping bales during the wall-building phase. Each bale bounding a window had one edge somewhat rounded before being stacked. On the experimental window we tried using the chainsaw again to even up the curve, but it was extremely messy and made an already soft bale edge even softer. Not such a good surface to hold plaster.

A sudden ah-ha moment reminded us of our earlier success with burlap as a patching agent. We decided to use burlap again, this time as a material we could tack in place at the window buck, then stretch around the corner of the bale and staple in place with 8-inch long staples we manufactured out of barbless fencing wire. There were places we needed to stuff with straw in order to fill holes, but we did eventually achieve the curve we wanted. The final questions were: would that large expanse of burlap support plaster? Could it maintain its shape?  Would the wall be strong?

Following the same process we used with the exterior plaster, we sprayed the wall with clay slip, then applied a 1-inch, more or less, scratch coat.

We have to wait for the plaster to dry to know for sure, but I think we’ve found our solution.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Let There Be (Some) Light

Nearly one year ago, in preparation for putting the roof on our house, Scott and I had to make decisions about exterior and interior light fixtures. It seemed like an odd time in the building schedule to be choosing finishing details, but there was a good reason.

You see, in traditional construction, plumbing and wiring run through the stud walls. Not so with our straw bale house. We wanted no penetrations of any kind through our exterior bale walls. This meant that our electrician needed to run the wiring from the inside floor where they arrived by underground conduit up a post and above the ceiling before we could add roof or walls. (See more in post entitled Roof, Rain and a Looming Deadline.) Hence the unusual timing.

I had no idea choosing lights would be such a time-consuming task. The location of each light was plainly marked on the plans.How difficult could it possibly be? I began collecting piles of timber frame design books. Pouring over every photograph I searched for light fixtures that would illuminate our beautiful tongue-and-groove ceiling and, at the same time, shed plenty of light on activities below. Track lighting appeared to be the principal choice, but it looked too industrial for our tastes. Eventually I put the timber frame books aside and just started turning the pages of Susan Susanka’s Not So Big House books. Every time I saw an appealing fixture, I put a post-it note on it. Soon Scott and I narrowed out options then headed to Thomson Premier Lighting and Appliance Center here in Logan. There, Jeff Thomson helped us find exactly what we wanted.

When Scott was in Torrey in October, he and Trent (our electrician) installed lights and fans in the main living area. This will make it much easier to work inside when we head south again next week.