Plaster on an Exterior Lath Wall

The Oxford Dictionary defines garage as a building for housing a motor vehicle or vehicles. That is, indeed, the purpose to which most folks put theirs. So do we. Our garage houses our car and truck, our camping gear, our tools, our ski equipment, our bicycles. In fact, anything we don’t need on a daily basis or doesn’t have a place in the house lives in the garage.

Seven years ago, as we sat out on our strawbale home building sage, we began with the garage, which was not straw. We started with the garage because, before it was a home for car, truck and other miscellany, it was to be a construction shop. But even back then, we knew we wanted its exterior to eventually match the future earthen plaster exterior of our house. Therefore, we employed a technique that was common prior to the introduction of drywall and siding- lath and plaster.

This process begins with lath: narrow strips of wood nailed horizontally across wall studs.  The lath is about two inches wide by four feet long by 1/4 inch thick. Each horizontal course of lath is spaced about a quarter of an inch away from its neighboring courses. Once the walls are covered with lath, plaster is applied. The plaster is pushed through the quarter-inch gaps between each lath. This “keys” the plaster to the lath.

We thought it would be a simple undertaking to locate lath, but it turned into something of a quest. After calling many possible sources, we finally found enough lath for the project, seventy miles away, at the Home Depot in Richfield. As the clerks loaded the bundles of lath onto our flatbed trailer, they asked what we planned to do with it all. After they heard the explanation, one fellow laughed and said, “They invented drywall to get away from this.” I don’t think he shared our vision.

One of the last projects of that first building season was covering the exterior of our garage with lath. And that’s how it sat, for seven years – under a temporary wrap of Grip Rite House Wrap, waiting its future handsome coat of plaster.

That future finally arrived in July of this year. After discussing the scope of the project, we agreed to plaster one wall – the one we see from the kitchen window. It was a lively conversation since, as usual, I wanted to bite off more than we could likely chew at one sitting – plastering the entire structure. Scott, being the member of our team who more accurately understands the time it takes to complete projects, successfully argued for a one-wall goal. With the parameters of the project agreed upon, and our nephew from Seattle on site to provide experienced assistance, we set to work.

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The first step involved removing the old and beginning-to-fray Grip Rite from the east wall. It was actually pretty amazing to see how well that membrane had held up in the seven-year blast of wind and weather of Wayne County. But off it came.

Then came the first coat of plaster, over wooden lath and expanded metal lath, which covered solid wood surfaces like the header of the garage door.

A few places offered unique challenges where there were gaps in the wood lath caused by wiring and conduit. Scott said these spots must be what it might be like to plaster the surface of a waterbed.

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Next came the second and final coat of plaster made with a lower straw to clay ration and the addition of sand. Two or three people working these expanses made for rapid progress.

Soon enough it was time to apply decoration that continued themes inside our house – trees, dragonflies, and a spiral sun. Several complete coats of linseed oil (rain and snow repellent) followed this.

A turquoise door and trim tied the garage to the same colors used on the greenhouse on the east side of our house.

Scott installed the lights, which had been living above the garage rafters for seven years. Our blank canvas was complete. Only three more walls to go.

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2016 Workshop – Building a Green Room

There are many different definitions of “green building” out there. But it is widely agreed that “green building” includes the design, construction, and operation of a building with deliberate attention to energy use, water use, indoor environmental quality, choice of materials, and the building’s effects on its site.

The subject of this year’s strawbale workshop, once again co-sponsored by the Entrada Institute of Torrey, Utah, is just such a building. Straw is a renewable, low-cost product, plus, it is readily available, naturally fire-retardant, and has a high insulation value.

Dave Swinger, of Swinger Straw near Grand Junction, Colorado provided 200 of the most beautiful construction bales we’ve ever worked with. They were light-weight (under fifty pounds each), compact, dry, bright, uniform in dimension, and affordable. Not only did Dave deliver the bales at a time convenient to our workshop date, he also provided pallets and tarps to protect them from the elements.

Prior to straw delivery, pouring the foundation – the first step of the process – proved to be problematic due to a high water table. This is a common, but ephemeral problem in our area, which appears during irrigation season. Perforated pipe and loads of gravels solved that. The next steps included the actual cement pour and roughed-in electrical and plumbing systems.

Water, whether from the ground or as precipitation, is an enemy of straw, so, before bales can be stacked, the framing and roof must be in place. This was completed in the nick of time, and the workshop began on June 22 with seven enthusiastic participants, four instructors, and one assistant. During that evening’s first meeting, we toured the building site and discussed the project – a green room for the future Entrada Performance Center. The space will serve as a practice and waiting room before and after shows when performers are not engaged on the stage.

During days one and two, workshop participants stacked bales in walls, working together to solve unique challenges presented in this building, one being the wiring. In residential construction, flexible Romex can be channeled between the courses of bales. Not so in this commercial structure, which required wiring to be placed inside conduit. Called in at the last minute, Charlie Harvey and crew from Harvey’s Electric in Lyman, Utah, understood our needs and installed the wiring in a manner that we could work around without much struggle.

Because the building was tall – almost 13 feet on the east side – it was necessary to work from scaffolding on the exterior. Bales arranged in a series of “stairs” made it possible to reach the highest sections inside.

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Beautiful, 50-pound bales

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Trimming bales

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Making custom-sized bales with bale needle and baling twine

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Bale needle

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Stacking the north wall from scaffolding

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Fitting custom bale between wall bucks

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Persuading a bale into position with Big O

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There’s more than one way to persuade a bale.

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A lovely building site

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East wall

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Interior of building

Once the bales were stacked, we moved on to plaster – mixing clay straw to fill the gaps between the bales, applying the slip coat, and, finally, applying the brown (first) coat of plaster to the exterior. Because the project was large, the instructors didn’t want to spend the majority of the workshop time making plaster. Therefore, prior to the start of the class, they created a plaster pit using tarps and old bales. They spent two long days loading clay, sand, straw, and water into a mortar mixer to make approximately 5 cubic yards of plaster. That’s about four tons of mud, enough to cover the exterior of the building with one coat plus some. Still, students learned the fundamentals of making plaster – its components and the characteristics of a good mix. They made clay straw by hand and got their hands dirty while getting the feel of brown coat.

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Mixing table

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Making straw clay by hand

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Straw clay ready for use

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Kim, who built the first strawbale house in Wayne County, was here to help.

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We got our hands dirty.

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We got more than our hands dirty.

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Filling gaps with straw clay

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Applying slip with stucco sprayer

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The first coat

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Almost finished with the brown coat

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The crew

After four days of hard work and camaraderie, the green room is on its way to completion. But that is for the future. For now, after a successful workshop, participants have developed new skills and are formulating plans for future strawbale projects of their own. We’ll all be there to help.

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Photovoltaic Panels

Due to the high insulative characteristics of straw, strawbale homes are reputed to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Air conditioning is generally unnecessary in the summer. In the winter, heat is easily retained within the high R-value walls. During the summer, we open the windows at night to allow the cool western breezes in. Closing the windows during the day keeps the house between 65 and 72 degrees all day long. In the winter, the masonry heater and radiant heat in the floor (powered by a drain-back solar system, which heats water), coupled with the passive design of the house, maintains the same temperatures as in the summer. Naturally this leads to great savings in energy costs.

When we lived here only part-time, our electricity bills never exceeded the basic fees assessed by Garkane Energy, our local cooperative. Even though we have only a few of the typical items that use electricity – refrigerator, washing machine, lights and computers – now that we live here full-time, our power usage has increased. We anticipated that. We do, however, own one huge electricity hog. That’s the hot tub. And boy does it eat kilowatts. We receive regular reminders of that fact in the form of monthly power bills.

When we built our house, we discussed the possibility of installing photovoltaic (PV) panels to produce electricity. At the time, the cost was prohibitive. In addition, Garkane Energy had fairly archaic net metering practices. Both of those situations have now improved. Plus, last year, Congress extended federal and state tax credits for PV systems for five more years. These things, in conjunction with one very high power bill in February, prompted us to call the local expert, Biggi Blondal of Thousand Lakes Solar, to assess our situation and give us a bid.

After discussing various options, he designed a system based on our average yearly electricity use. We’ll be able to add more panels in the future, and, when Tesla’s Powerwall battery becomes readily and affordably available in the United States, we can add that to our system as well. All of these features are important since it appears the price of coal-powered electricity will do nothing but increase.

We now have twenty solar panels on our roof. They are essentially invisible since they hug the roofline. Last month was the first full month Mr. Sol generated kilowatts for us. Our power bill was $16.06. And, when we file our 2016 taxes, we’ll receive tax credits that will pay for approximately 30% of the total cost of our PV system. Every sunny day makes us smile, not only for the beautiful day before us, but also for the electricity the PV panels are feeding into the power grid to offset the power we use every day.

Solar panel installation. Torrey.

Twenty PV panels waiting for installation

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Getting the panels to the roof

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The last panel goes up.

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Roof before PV panels – drain back system already in place

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Roof with PV panels and drain back system

 

 

Success!

Scott in greenhouse. Torrey. Family.

Scott in greenhouse.

From February’s winter chill to July’s 90-degree days, our tomatoes have made a grand transition. It’s hard to believe that, what began as a quarter-inch seed and then became a viable transplant, is now this jolly green giant.

Greenhouse plants. Torrey.

Stupice tomatoes

But we see that metamorphosis with our own eyes and taste these lovely gems that adorn our almost-nightly salads. With their robust growing habit and tangy flavor, stupice tomatoes remain our long-time favorites. Sungold cherries are a close second and should be coming on soon.

Greenhouse plants. Torrey.

Last September, as we began building our strawbale greenhouse, we hoped for a bountiful harvest but didn’t really know what the results of our efforts would be. Our crops grew in March and April, and, until two weeks ago, there was enough spinach to feed our friends and ourselves, plus sell to farmers’ market patrons. The spinach bolted as temperatures increased, but the kale and chard are still going gangbusters. Mooribor hybrid kale and bright lights chard seem to be a good fit in the greenhouse setting.

We’ve just replanted carrots, lettuce, and spinach and have added cucumbers, leaf celery, and hot peppers. These compliment the plants in our outdoor garden.

Greenhouse plants. Torrey.

The greenhouse provides protection to our new apple grafts and jade plant starts.

Scott in greenhouse. Torrey. Family.

The two things we worried about – bugs and excessive heat – have proven to be inconsequential. As planned, we opened the doors on the east and west to create a moderating breeze. Inside temperatures have been no hotter than outside. And, once the doors were opened, the small aphid problem we experienced in April disappeared.

So far, the greenhouse has been a satisfying success. The next tests will be the seeds we just planted and then our fall crops, which will be planted in mid-August.

Greenhouse veggies. Torrey.

Jolly green giant tomato in its infancy

Greenhouse veggies. Torrey.

The first zucchini of 2016 – in April!

Greenhouse veggies. Torrey.

What will become the first cantaloupe of 2016

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Bright Lights chard sold at the farmers’ market

New Family Member

Vincent cat

Meet Vincent Van Gato

Over the holidays, Scott and I visited all of the animal shelters in the Salt Lake area. We were looking for a male, feline companion for 14-year-old Stentor. All of the facilities seemed to be fresh out of kittens, probably because it’s winter and kittens don’t typically arrive at this time of the year.

At the Salt Lake County Animal Shelter, we met who we have now named Vincent Van Gato. Upon arriving at home, the introduction to Stentor went amazingly well – no hissing, scratching, kicking, hiding, or other miscellaneous hullabaloo.

Vinny has made himself comfortable and, we , he secretly counts himself lucky to be here where he has a new kingdom, co-ruled with Sten.

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Vinny makes himself at home.

Sowing Seeds Soon

Finally, we’ve set the last paver and filled the planting bed with plenty of llama manure and topsoil. Scott attached the weather vane to the northwest eave. For the last several days we’ve been monitoring the low exterior temperatures, which have been in the twenties. Inside the greenhouse, temperatures have ranged from eighty during the day to just above freezing at night. We can almost taste the tomatoes, cucumbers, and greens we’ll soon be harvesting.

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The windows on the south side of the greenhouse face our vegetable garden. The four panels are polycarbonate, just like the “glass” on the roof. Two awning windows open with Univent Window openers, temperature-sensitive devices that work automatically. These windows work in conjunction with the solar-powered Snap Fan to regulate the greenhouse environment. Current temperature data seem to indicate, that using heat provided only by the sun, we may be able to grow plants all year long.

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Because we failed to think far enough ahead when the cement foundation was poured, we spent too many hours digging dirt out of the greenhouse and hauling it away in a wheelbarrow. We could have saved ourselves this labor if we had asked Tyler, our cement contractor, to spend ten additional minutes on the backhoe doing this for us. Ten minutes versus three days? Ouch.

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To simplify construction and because greenhouse work will most likely be done during daylight hours, our structure has no electricity. There is also no plumbing. Some water will come from precipitation collected from the roof via a rain chain and water barrel. The majority of the water will be drip irrigation from the spigot just outside the building plumbed through a hose fitting penetrating the south wall.

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Our weather vane adds personality. Pavers provide a space for a planting table and equipment storage. Amended top soil should yield fresh, homegrown produce. We’ve finished the construction phase and will soon be sewing seeds.

Almost Done

While our strawbale greenhouse workshop ended on October 4, work on the greenhouse has continued almost non-stop. Scott, Bob (one of the workshop participants) and I have doggedly crossed one task after another off the to-do list.

Final coats of plaster including design elements on the north wall, linseed oil on the outer walls, lime wash on interior east and west walls, paint on doors, interior and exterior wood trim, fan cover, fixed windows on south side—all of these have been completed.

Torrey. Sun on greenhouse.

Sun on greenhouse.

Torrey. Moon on greenhouse.

Moon on greenhouse.

Torrey. Linseed oil on outside of greenhouse.

Linseed oil on outside of greenhouse.

Torrey. Linseed oil on outside of greenhouse.

Linseed oil on outside of greenhouse.

Torrey. Greenhouse exterior finished.

Greenhouse exterior finished.

Torrey. Greenhouse door before trim.

Greenhouse door before trim.

Torrey. Greenhuse beams before trim.

Greenhouse beams before trim.

Torrey. Greenhouse exterior finished.

Greenhouse exterior finished.

Torrey. Final coat plaster inside greenhouse.

Final coat plaster, north wall, inside greenhouse.

Torrey. Final coat plaster inside greenhouse.

Final coat plaster, north wall, inside greenhouse.

Torrey. Clay-lime plaster goes on interior of greenhouse.

Clay-lime plaster on east and west interior walls of greenhouse.

Torrey. Putting tile in wet plaster in greenhouse.

Putting tile in wet plaster in greenhouse.

Torrey. Putting tile in wet plaster in greenhouse.

Putting tile in wet plaster in greenhouse.

Torrey. Putting tile in wet plaster in greenhouse.

Putting tile in wet plaster in greenhouse.

Torrey. Putting tile in wet plaster in greenhouse.

Putting tile in wet plaster in greenhouse.

I like to say we are almost finished. Scott, the better judge of project timelines, says the yet-to-be-completed awning windows, interior pavers and planting beds and solar fan will take more time to finish than I think. I’m sure he’s right, but, to me, that means we’re almost done!

Workshop Weekend

When the big bad wolf came huffing and puffing into Torrey last weekend, his first stop might have been the greenhouse under construction at our house. Despite his previous success with certain pigs of note, this straw structure was impervious to his attempts at blowhard demolition. His efforts were in vain.

Not so the efforts of the folks building that greenhouse. They were learning the principles of building with straw bales and earthen plaster at our workshop sponsored by the Entrada Institute. Eight participants learned about building with bales from Bill and Athena Steen, leading experts in strawbale construction and natural plasters from Canelo, Arizona. The Steens drew from decades of experience, teaching everything from foundation and framing, wiring and plumbing, to stacking bale walls and finishing with plaster made from local earth.

Beginning with a presentation on the history of and possible designs for strawbale structures, and a tour of our strawbale home, the group then got hands-on experience by stacking 56 bales of barley straw within the previously constructed post and beam frame to create walls for the greenhouse. Bamboo poles and baling twine were used to stabilize the entire affair. Workshop participants spent the last days making plaster from clay, straw and sand, and then applying it as an inch-thick coat to the interior and exterior walls. While the final coats of plaster and finish work must still be completed, the builders left Torrey feeling successful, informed and maybe even inspired to raise strawbale structures of their own someday—all big-bad-wolf-proof.

Our teachers…

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Bill Steen

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Athena Steen

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Preparing bales by smoothing ends by hand

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and by more aggressive methods.

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Measuring the gap requiring a custom bale

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Inserting a bale needle then

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Tying knots

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to make smaller bales

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Fitting a notched bale around a post

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Examining progress

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Checking alignment

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Making adjustments

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And more adjustments

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Rasping notches in bales for bamboo support poles

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Using bale needle to pass baling twine through bale courses in order to

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tie bamboo poles on either side of walls together

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Learning about plaster

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Getting our hands dirty

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Filling large gaps between bales prior to first coal of plaster

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Applying the slip coat

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Screening dirt for plaster

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Making plaster with Mort, the mortar mixer

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Learning the proper technique

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Applying the first coat around a niche

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Teamwork

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The beginnings of a shelf

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A few moments to observe

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to listen

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and to rest

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The first coat of plaster is completed on the interior and exterior

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Merry and Mom – our support

Almost Ready for the Workshop

2015092137837In a frenzy of activity, Scott and I find ourselves nearly ready for the workshop to begin. Yesterday we hung the doors. They will eventually be painted robin’s egg blue. However, for the time being, we’ll remove the doors (leaving the frames in place) in order to provide easy access to the walls during the workshop.

2015092137838Because our greenhouse has a shed roof,  it will not meet the walls at a 90-degree angle. So we do not have to re-tie bales in custom sizes with angles to fit the roof, Scott built these boxes beneath all the eaves on the north, east and west walls. Our stacked bales will reach the bottom of these boxes. Then we’ll pack these boxes with light clay straw, which we will create using our own soil, water, and straw. Once each box is filled, we’ll attach diamond lath to the front to hold the straw clay in place and to act as the tooth for the first coat of plaster.

2015092137841Our Snap-Fan and solar panel arrived last week. When the greenhouse becomes too hot, the fan will automatically turn on and vent the space. Once the greenhouse is complete, the fan will be installed in the square box on the north wall. You can see space for the Snap-Fan in the photo above