Straw Bale Building Course

I was hoping to post this sooner, but I’ve been incredibly busy!! Things are getting mad now that the summer is approaching, but I can’t complain, I enjoy having plenty to do!

Anyway, with a fortunate windfall from my mortgage last month, I managed to book a place on a straw bale building course last weekend. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had thought that I have a chance of building with the bales late this year, so I wanted to ensure that I was capable of building with the bales, rather than just going off what I had read in books!

We all met in Redfield on Friday night, 11 people on the course in total. Everyone was friendly, from various backgrounds and very easy going. Everyone had a unique reason for being there, and it was refreshing to hear peoples ideas and understand how much variety you can get from building with such a simple material. We settled into the night with a brilliant meal cooked up by the people at Redfields and a straw bale DVD and presentation from our weekend tutor, Chug Tugby.

I should tell you about our accommodation. Redfield is a community in North Buckinghamshire which is a large mansion situated on 17 acres of beautiful grounds. If you are not familiar with the concept of a community, the idea is that families of people all live together, sharing the work of the land, and living communally. There is more information on their website –  http://www.redfieldcommunity.org.uk/. We stayed in a building off from the mansion, and it was a lovely building with a large social area, giving us plenty of space to get to know each other on the course.

On the Saturday, we all headed out to a nearby farm where we would be building our work. We spent the morning learning about tying bales, and cutting them to shape to lay into a wall. With the short tutorial out of the way, we quickly set about constructing the side of a barn wall. For the weekend, we worked on a straw bale infill wall, though straw can be used in load-bearing structures too. By the end of the day, we had completed the wall, and also some of the team had repaired a damp patch of a previously completed wall too.

Come Sunday, we were raring to go, and had a short lime tutorial. With gloves and aprons on, we set about covering the back of the barn with lime plaster. The first coat of plaster is often the hardest to put on, but with 11 of us working hard, we were more than able to get the entire back wall done in a matter of hours. Not too mean a task when you see the size of the barn wall!

All in all, I enjoyed the weekend. I felt like I became a lot more confident handling the bales and I don’t feel so scared of buying and building with straw bales anymore! I’m looking forward to taking delivery of them!! One of the biggest surprises of the weekend was discovering quite how weather-proof straw bale can be. I always had the impression that on building with bales, you would need to get the bales up, and the walls plastered as soon as possible, before any rain hit. While this is true if you have the bales uncovered, with a good roof, you don’t need to rush it quite as much!

As you will see in the photos, the barn we were building had a number of straw bale walls built before our arrival – these walls were put up in September 2011 and were (generally) still OK!* To back up this evidence of hardiness, we were shown around Redfield whilst staying there, and they had a number of straw bale buildings, which were mostly unflustered, and had been standing for up to 12 years! It taught me that as long as the roof I am planning has a decent overhang, there is absolutely no rush in getting the plaster sorted (though I will build and plaster it within a week hopefully!). Certainly means the building work will be a lot less stressful with regards to weather preparation!

If you are interested in booking yourself on a Straw Bale building course or something related, visit http://www.lowimpact.org

An update

Thought I should post a quick update here to show all is well. I got back this weekend from a Straw Bale building course – learning how to build and render straw bale to create the perfect eco-friendly insulated building. I had a great time, and I’ll post up here with some information I learnt and photos from the weekend. That might take some time though, as I am currently on overdrive with things I need to do this week!

I have lessons to plan, an inspection at the end of April to prepare for, a trip to Ecuador, two websites to work on and my garden to crack on with in this fantastic weather! Until I get around to it, enjoy the extra hour of evening light, and the fantastic weather we are having!

OOOh, I also received my registration confirmation for the Bristol 10K this week. I’ll be running it on the 20th May in aid of Life Cycle UK. PLEASE DONATE IF YOU CAN!! Find my fundraising page here: http://www.justgiving.co.uk/alunking

Using Android as a running tool

Recently, I’ve been training up for the Bristol 10K in May, and been playing with different apps on my phone to help me measure my average pace and times as I improve.

There are many different ways of tracking your running. Most of the popular ways are by getting a GPS watch. This device will lock on very quickly and track your run, delivering you a host of stats once you connect it to the computer. However, if you have a phone with GPS, you could save yourself the £100+ and use your phone as a running aid.

The only problem I found with my Motorola Defy is that the GPS takes about 15 minutes to start tracking me. The GPS is really slow in warming up. When my run lasts 25 minutes, I don’t find hanging around for 15 minutes (and it really does take that long) whilst my phone figures out where I am.

I thought about leaving the GPS on overnight, so when I wake up, I can grab my phone and it knows where I am, but this doesn’t work. I need the app to be on, so it can get my location. Ideally, I need my app to launch 15 minutes before I wake up, so that when I do wake up, it has located me, and is ready to go for a run. This is where AppAlarm comes in.

AppAlarm is a brilliant (free!!) app which launches apps like an alarm clock. I set my alarm for before I wake up and leave my phone on the windowsill. When I am ready to run, my phone is ready too. Bloomin’ brilliant.

If you are wondering which app I use to track my progress, I currently use Google’s MyTracks. A great free app from Google, which allows me to save track information to .GPX format and upload it to a service like Garmin Connect, so I can monitor my performance and use their tools online to share and compete with others!

Earth Rammed Tyres Links & Thoughts

Over the last few days, having seen so many useful websites on how to build using the methods I am using, I’ve been thinking about how I can make this website more informative for people who are looking to learn more about eco-building.

I’m trying to collate all the information I have gathered into simple posts, so people can hopefully find this one post, and all the links I have, and save themselves a fair bit of time.

I’ve tried to put useful comments by each link so you can get an overview of whats on the page. If you find this page and use it, It would be good to know if you find this useful, please leave a comment!

Please also see my Pinterest page for links to interesting articles.

Earthship Wiki on Tyre Ramming
This page is a pretty filled out resource which details everything you need to know, like selecting tyres, and techniques to follow when laying the courses.
http://www.sustainablebuildingresource.co.uk/wiki/index.php/New_build:earthship:_tyre_ramming

Bristol Green House
I linked to this website on another page, but there is this section, which links to the specific page on tyre ramming. It it a pretty good account of a real tyre ramming project, where the wiki page above documents methods in a more theory based way.
http://bristolgreenhouse.co.uk/tyrewalls.html

My Experience
As I work on my walls, I’ll document more on my experience and post it here.

Ideal Tyre Size Selection:
Currently, I am using 175s (width of the tyre) to build my walls. While the wiki linked to above recommends 195s, am finding that once filled, the tyres bulk out to much wider than their normal width, and the 175s tend to be reliably high profile, so I can get plenty of earth into the rim. For building work, I would heartily agree with the website – 195 is nice and big for holding a lot of weight and take a reassuring amount of ramming to get solid.

My main lesson I have learnt when completing my largest wall – make sure all tyre sizes are the same.

I have collected from a number of garages for this building, and in their eagerness to get rid of their tyres, they have all tried to give me sizes that are close to what I am looking for. E.g. I’m collecting 195/65/15 and they want to give me 195/60/15 or 195/65/16. Initially, I accepted these sizes, but if I were to do the building again, I would refuse. It causes you headaches if your tyres creep out of alignment, which will happen if you do not stick to the same sizes!

Tyre Settlement:
In the process of completing a course of tyres, I have noticed that given a few days of warm or wet weather, the rims of the tyres might settle a little. This could be down to me not ramming enough, or perhaps the type of soil I’m using. Either way, once I have finished a line of tyres, I find it useful to go along the completed row, checking the rims and doing a little bit of extra ramming where needed. Bear this in mind if you have the spare time, as it might help out in the long run.

Cardboard Base:
I only tried this later on in my build, but after seeing a few people use a cardboard insert as a base for the tyre, I think it is the best way of ramming. If you don’t, then as you ram, you get earth falling out the bottom into crevices. This is both difficult to tidy up, and also can cause the tyre to get earth underneath it, upsetting its level. By using cardboard, you get a flat bottom which will be easier to level with other tyres, and tidier to plaster later!

Weather:
While a rammed tyre stands up to rain quite well, and lets it wash off the top, I have found that if you are halfway through a tyre, you will have real problems finishing it, if it has been rained on. The water gets in, and has trouble getting out, and a few whacks with the sledgehammer brings out the muddy mess that has soaked into the earth inside. Try and avoid this by either covering half finished tyres, or by not leaving any tyres unfinished overnight!!

When you build a wall for a building, you need to ensure that it is waterproof, so you should look into installing a membrane behind the wall. This way, you can plaster the interior when you are done and have no issues with water seeping through and getting damp on your lovely walls! This is not so common with the original earthships in Texas, because the ground is so dry, but in wetter climates, it is essential.

In the long run, if you are building a wall which will be exposed, you should make sure that there is something covering the top, to stop any water getting into the tyre, or rain hitting the tyres and wearing away the earth inside over time. I’ve got no evidence myself to prove that this will be a problem, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. Putting a membrane behind the wall and under the first course of tyres also allows you to plaster the wall without any worry that the plaster will get wet from behind.

My First Gig (in a long while)

Last night was a good day, though with a long 9am to 8pm in college to kick things off, I didn’t expect it to be!

I started the day in college, as usual and we had to stay behind after work for open day, which is the opportunity for all prospective pupils  and parents to come along and find out more about the courses we teach. Its not a bad thing to do, its usually fairly relaxed, but I did have to get into Cardiff afterwards for the first gig with my band, so I was looking forward to heading off!

I managed to make Cardiff for 8.30, and we were on stage for 9.30 so I was pretty happy to get out and make it on time!

We have been practicing for this gig for some time, and were pretty hyped about it, so I’m very glad to say it went pretty well! We played tight, didn’t make any major mistakes, and got an encore! (even though we didn’t have any other songs to play, so we had to play one twice!) People were pretty complimentary towards the gig, so we all left on a high. The only thing that left me down was the fact that I only had 5 hours sleep before getting up for work the next day!

We should be into the recording studio in April, so we will be able to put more time into getting some CDs out and spreading the word on what we are doing. I’m looking forward to it, and I’ll post more up here when I have something for you to listen to.

How to Ram a Tyre Wall

Do you often find yourself looking for something different to do?
Do you find that the gym offers no real challenge?
Are you often longing for a way of quickly tiring yourself out?
Do you long for a way of combining money saving with exercise and environmentally-friendly construction?
Yes? They tyre ramming is for you!

I took to the tyre wall today, with the plan of learning how easy/hard it is to ram a tyre with earth, and build a wall. I learnt quickly that it is not something for the faint hearted to take on. If you are thinking of building something from tyres, get this fact straight – it is hard work!

My dad and I tackled digging out the slope enough to foot the first few tyres down. Once we had them in place, filling them with earth was easy, and you then jump, hammer and sledge-hammer them for a good half hour before you find the tyre looks finished. A few more whacks with a sledge tells you that you probably are about halfway! Honestly, its amazing how much earth and stone you can cram into one tyre.

They are sitting fairly level now, and I think this first wall is going to be five tyres high, maybe 6. Tomorrow, I’ll have to get out of there and measure up how wide the wall will be, so I can get an idea of how many tyres I’m going to need. With one morning spent, we have four tyres in place, and four ready to be hammered. On early estimates, I would say that the wall is going to take around 100 tyres, so plenty of mornings left to work!

With that in mind, I sent out a volunteer newsletter yesterday. I am planning to get everyone involved in volunteering near the end of April. From the 16th to the 22nd, I’ll be in the garden (weather permitting) so if you fancy an escape from the gym, and fancy building some muscles, or if you want to help out in other ways, like planting some vegetables, and digging out some vegetable patches, you are more than welcome to come on down. Give me an email, tweet me, or leave a comment here, and I’ll be happy to sort out arrangements for a visit down.

March & April Plans

Over the last month, the weather has slowly started to improve. I’ve seen dry, but bitterly cold weather give way to wet and windy days and more recently, the glorious sunshine has started to creep back into the days. It was an excellent weekend just gone, and I managed to get back from my trip to Twickenham (for England v Wales) on the Sunday to get some digging done before the sun went down.

The days are getting longer too. I’m now cycling to work in the light, and coming back to an hour of light after work. I might start making the most of this and get working on flattening the first tier of the garden. Half an hour to an hour each day should make a decent dent in the work before I realise!

I have re-thought volunteering dates too, which I need to send out a newsletter about. Fortunately, I stumbled into some extra funds this month, which allowed me to book myself onto a straw bale building course for the end of March. This clashed with a volunteering weekend I was planning, but obviously, learning how to build straw bale is pretty important for this project!

My other dates in April are tentative. I will definitely be able to do one, but the other might have to be cancelled due to a possible visit from a number of friends. It would be too much to host volunteering on weekends with everyone about! Either way, I can certainly look at cracking onto the tyre retaining walls throughout May to get foundations in and done by the end of the month. Thinking about the scale of the work required to get the land flattened scares me, but since I’ve not spent a full day working on it yet, I don’t think I quite know how much I can get done in one day. Once I have, I will have a much clearer idea of when I will get this done, and how long it might take. I’m excited about it.

I’ll send out a newsletter this Sunday to inform people about the vounteering. If you are reading this, and you haven’t signed up to the newsletter, get involved!