Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Six Months of Construction

Man, it's been a while since I posted, but that's not because nothing has happened!  Finding enough time to sit and work out a post, on the other hand, has been a real problem.

I found some good pictures of the rocket mass heater (RMH) build to post, as promised, and have plenty to share for the house build as well.  And since heaven knows when I'll have another couple of hours to myself, let's just dive right in, shall we?

Starting last November when we high-tailed it out of Psycho-ville and parked ourselves comfortably back in the woods at our place, we'll begin with the RMH construction (any relevant advice will be included in the caption area of individual photos):

We used 3 thick 24x16 pavers raised on bricks for the base plate of this unit.  Make sure to seal up any cracks in the masonry before proceeding.  The two pavers to the right are under the steel barrel heat riser, and caused the RMH to leak, smoking out of the bottom, and seriously affected the initial performance of the heater.  This would have been much easier and more effective to seal up tight at this stage than it was to troubleshoot down the road.

Building a mock-up of your J-tube before mixing mortar is always a good idea.

You can use cheaper bricks, often lying around any homestead, in areas that aren't directly exposed to the thermal stress of a stove like this.  But remember to lay bricks in a running bond pattern.  We probably cost ourselves some structural integrity by not paying more attention to this detail.

Had we poured the concrete completely around all parts of the J-tube, and not left the inside of the aluminum feed chamber open for mineral insulant, the lack of a running bond in our brickwork probably wouldn't have been an issue, but I wanted a faster heat up, something that I had seen recommended by other builders.  And after a hard winter of burning, the bricks of the feed tube have come somewhat loose.  Any thoughts from experienced RMH operators regarding the wisdom of removing the insulant surrounding the feed tube and filling it with masonry (concrete or cob?), or perhaps just cleaning it out and re-mortaring, would be appreciated!

You can see the previously mentioned issue with the crack between the pavers from this angle, down below the burn chamber.  A good coating of clay-rich mud in the bottom of the barrel took care of it, thought it was a bit more challenging to fix on the manifold side.

An active burn helps speed the drying of your masonry, whether it's concrete, cob, clay-perlite, or whatever.

Winter squashes bake nicely in a hot feed barrel!

We also built a little "bath house," which is actually an outhouse permitted by the county under the fancy name of "pit privy."

And added a new chicken tractor to the arsenal.  This one is now at the kids' Montessori school with a dozen new pullets in it.  In a couple of weeks we'll build them a new and easier-to-use model, leave half of the chickens at school, and bring this one and my new birds home.  In January, a pair of unsavory pit bulls broke into this tractor through the roof (which has now been upgraded - the sides have always been stout rabbit wire) and killed my 5 actively laying hens:(  The photo below the new tractor shows the downgrade in egg quality these dogs cost my family.  And the egg on the right is supposed to be a GOOD ORGANIC egg from the supermarket!  Ugh.  The dogs' owner actually challenged the animal control department about it before the magistrate, where I had to show up to testify, and not only didn't offer to make amends, she never even apologized to me!  Just kept making excuses...

The last of the good eggs, and the first sorry excuse for an egg...sigh.

A few shots of the family and homestead in winter:  (The only thing coming out of the flue stack behind the tent is CO2 and water vapor - virtually complete combustion from the RMH!  When the weather was dry you could barely tell it was burning, even when the rocket was roaring inside.)

April rolls around and it's time to build a little house:

Neighbors start showing up to see what's afoot:

My poor market chair...

Some of them are even helpful;o) (See below)
Quick word of warning: trees built into decks are cute, and sometimes even useful in a small space (we hung a mirror and solar shower bag on the oak pictured here early on), but they sure do present a logistical issue if you ever decide to convert the deck into indoor space...

This was a mighty loblolly pine, and had nothing resembling a promising lean to it.  My neighbor, Leroy, (with me  above) brought his heavy-duty come-alongs and helped me make a perfect drop, right down the slot:

The old tent is coming down, after two years of "trusty" service:

At least the internal metal framework is still useful!  I'll rebuild it soon and strap the rainfly back over it for a tool shed and semi-dry work space.  I'm going to try to grow oyster mushrooms on the old ratty tent to sequester and breakdown the primer I painted the inside with.  Any resulting mushrooms will likely be discarded.

Nothing but floor and rocket mass, which, ahem, really got in the [expletive deleted] way during the build...
Couple of thoughts about tent living before we move on:

1) If you can avoid it, don't do it.
2) If you can't, it's really not that bad, but just don't expect a canvas structure to hold up for very long, especially in a damp and/or humid climate.  Tents probably perform a lot better in the desert.  Ours was shredded by rain, wind, and mildew within two years.  "Inside" and "outside" were very relative terms by April of this year.
3) At all costs avoid puncturing the roof.  A wood stove is almost a necessity for tent life, but run the flue horizontally - figure out a way.  That's where the RMH really shined.  Don't order a stove jack with your tent; buy a solid, continuous rainfly, and make sure you get the overhang for a dry porch area outside.
4) If you're going to build a RMH in a tent (or tipi), you'll need all the thermal mass you can muster, and make sure any and all beds are lying on thermal mass as well, preferably with a mattress made for absorbing heat, for example, a tick stuffed with buckwheat hulls.
5) Probably best to have a gas heater backup.  In a small structure like this, a gas/propane stove is enough to do the trick, but simple wall or floor heater systems aren't terribly expensive or complicated, and of course gas is always cheaper in bulk.
6) Gas light was the highest quality light we tried - far superior to oil lamps or candles - but if you can manage some electric light, even better.  Battery-powered lamps never really seemed to cut it.  Experiment with and diversify your lighting options.  And have a few flashlights handy, including a powerful Mag-light, or other spotlight.
7) It's a lot cheaper to set up your tent on grade, even including bulldozer rental, than it is to build a big deck platform, and setting up a tent on grade keeps the local building department out of your business.  In our county, decks over 120 s.f. fall under regulatory jurisdiction, but tents aren't regulated at all.  We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble by calling a bulldozer out to flatten a spot for us, and then built a raised wood floor inside the tent.  A wooden platform on level ground could also be built with smaller dimensional lumber, saving more money while getting the same look, and the concrete could be avoided altogether.

Just my .02.  Moving on!

The build begins...after a little squaring up...

Atlanta friend, Lisa, spent all day Friday cutting gables.

Yours truly, still sporting the winter scruff.

My "brother" Andrew (he's really my uncle, but he's 6 years younger than me so more like a brother - it's a complicated family tree...) really did the bulk of the planning, organizing, tooling, and project management duties.  We can't thank you enough, Andrew.

Mrs. Small Batch Garden's expression, seeing everything that happened while she was at work, says it all...

Our first bed in the kitchen garden by the house.  Not enough sunlight available before this season.

Lunch!  Even the littlies helped out wherever they could.

It's a pretty conventional build, but we recycled a lot of the components, bought lumber from a small local lumber yard, and hey, it's only 480 square feet.  And this wasn't really my cobbing crew.  These were weekend warriors, many driving a fair distance to be there, camping out in the yard, and wanting to knock this thing out quickly and get us out of that rotting tent.  Now that we have a roof that keeps the rain out, we can slow down again and get back to our normal ways.

My sister's boyfriend, Adam, thankfully volunteered for roof duty.  I sure didn't want to get up there.

My best bud, Aaron, being the asset he always is.

Even Andrew's old pal Liz came up to help out!

And Andrew's wife, Lisa (in the middle).

This is about as high as I like to go.  This was a free, last-minute window donated by a neighbor when we found out we were one window short.  Community love!

My grandparents bought the materials for this project, and couldn't wait to check out the progress!  Thanks again!

Welcome home, us!

If you look carefully, you can just make out our PV "array" at the top corner of the roof!  All 11.8 watts of it.  We have no plans to add any significant amount of electrical power on the drawing board.

Next will be a little finish trim, caulk, and paint, a new porch out over the water tank, and some gutters to fill said tank.

Thank you neighbor Mary for loaning us your little cabin for a month while we shuffled, built, and shuffled again!

Thank you neighbor Cathy for lending me your sunny patch for my growies the last two years!

And your well to keep us hydrated until we could get a water-harvesting roof built!

Such a wonderful little place.  Thank you everyone for all your love and support, tools and hard labor, and camaraderie!  Thanks Aaron, Will, Lisa C., Lisa T., Liz, Jodi, Chris, Julie and Adam, Abby, the crew of admirers from Pleasant Hills Montessori School in Ellijay, GA, and neighbors Leroy and Helen, Randy, Richard, Jason, Cathy, and Mary.

A special thank you to Andrew, for all the countless ways you've helped us pull this adventure together!

And a double thank you to my mom, Carole, and grandparents, G.W. and Christine, for their generous financial support.  We love you all.

I promise my next post won't be so long in the making.  There's still a spring garden tour - of home and school - to attend to, and some pretty incredible projects on the short list, including cobbing the dragon, finishing the interior of this cottage, a Mike Oehler-style earth-sheltered greenhouse at school and new chicken tractor, hugelkultur, mushroom project expansion, bug hotel, and lots more gardening season to go.

Till next time, cheers!
Tripp out.


  1. I thought TBH you had given up blogging. Glad to see that's not so. Even better to see the fantastic progress you have made. I am curious though as to why you refer to the other place as psychoville lol.

  2. He lives! I don't remember now where I saw your mentioning that things did not work out down the hill, but I figured there was some mad scrambling going on to explain the silence.

  3. There was some mad scrambling! That deal hurt us in a lot of ways. Cost us time, money, comfort, opportunity, peace of mind, and faith in humanity. In my first 40 years I'd never had a run-in with a genuine sociopath, but I don't have that luxury anymore, and it has changed me. At first for the worse, but I'm finding my stride again, and reclaiming my peace. I'm sure he's reading this, and will be devising new ways to get in my head (which hopefully also helps explain my recent online absence), so this is the last time I'll acknowledge his existence on a public forum. He can go back to being no one now.

    So, glad to be back, and looking forward to a renewed sense of purpose!

  4. I was getting worried about you. So glad that you and your family are thriving in your new home and that you're back to blogging.

  5. Wow Now thats a cabin and so cute! Nothing like the smell of wood and woods.You guys did a fantastic job and the area looks so pretty.

  6. Wow! You have been productive. Everything looks so nice and also so functional. Lew

  7. Good to see your comment about a "water-harvesting roof." That was one of my thoughts looking at the pictures. Nice looking place.