Our neighbor brought up his backhoe to carve a building site out of the hill.
We spliced scraps of lumber together to build forms for the foundation.
We built the footing formwork on the patio.
The inner and outer forms were moved into place, then secured with diagonal bracing.
The castle is sized to fit the satellite dish that will be used as a form to pour the roof.
Stubby retaining walls will keep the backfill away from the door.
The rebar was suspended off the bottom before the concrete pour.
The footing was small enough to allow us to mix and pour the whole thing ourselves.
We removed the wooden slats used to support the rebar so that we could screed the top.
I decided to place the first layer of cinderblocks while the concrete footing was still fresh.
We hid junk blocks with random colors and textures on the back side of the castle, to be buried below ground level.
Blocks with more natural colors were blended together in the exposed walls.
Starting the window openings.
The castle took shape in only a few days... significantly faster than the stone masonry I usually do.
I disposed of old latex and acrylic paints as concrete additives to pour the cinderblock cores.
We added rebar and concrete to every core to insure that the castle will be around for a long, long time.
Empty paint cans, ready for recycling.
Blocks over the windows and doors are notched to allow placement of horizontal rebar and concrete.
The satellite dish was barely big enough to reach the four walls.
We added a layer of four-inch wide blocks to accomodate an eight-inch sandwich of concrete, insulation, and concrete around the satellite dish.
We used scrap wood for formwork to pour concrete in the four corners.
Blocks of insulation in the mortar will later be cut out to leave passage for the chimney up through one of the turrets.
Insulating the corner, on top of the first layer of concrete.
Pouring concrete over the insulation brought the roof up level with the cinderblocks.
We painted foundation coating over any part of the castle that was clearly underground, then backfilled the site.
The ridges on the satelite dish required cutting and fitting a lot of little pieces of insulation.
We offset the turrets by an inch to get more of that castle-look.
We added teeth or "merlons" to the four corners of the turrets.
We filled the blocks in the turrets with rebar and concrete. The cavity in the middle was filled with scraps of insulation before being capped with concrete.
Blocks were added to the wall between the turrets as additional merlons. We cemented over the dome and sculpted the roof to direct water around the blocks and off the roof.
The outside is largely done. Time to work on the inside!
We filled the floor up level with the footings with dirt, mixed in a little cement and water and tamped it down with a cinderblock to make an earthen slab.
We blocked out a section in the middle for the chessboard, and then poured terra tiles around it.
The chessboard complete, now we need bigger chess pieces!
We framed in the rough openings around the windows and door with plastic lumber scavenged from a dumpster.
Then we installed a secondhand door and new vinyl windows.
We invited Edwin's classmates up for "Medieval Day," playing war games with bows and foam-tipped arrows.
Larry Campbell wrote about the castle in his book Rollin' Down the River.
My friend Yost lived in the castle most of one winter.
Eight years after building the castle I returned to the project and plastered the interior walls.
Building our Little Castle Guest House
by Thomas J. Elpel, Author of Living Homes
It all started with the satellite dish. It was one of those big, old clunky dishes from the hey-day of satellite television. It was handed off to me when it's owners upgraded to a new dish. They apparently thought they were doing me a favor, that my life would be better if I installed the ugly thing in the yard and had access to five hundred channels of nothing. But we had three channels of nothing via the antenna already, and that seemed quite enough. On the other hand, I didn't want to throw the satellite dish away. I don't like throwing anything away. I thought maybe I could make something interesting out of it someday, such as a solar cooker or maybe even the roof of a playhouse. So the satellite dish sat behind the house for fifteen years. Then we had this idea to turn it into a castle.
M eleven-year-old, Edwin, had been practically begging me for a year to build some kind of playhouse or fort. Given that my other kids were already out of the nest, or headed that way, it was realistically now or never.
A satellite dish is bigger than it looks. Initially, it measured out to 11 1/2 feet in diameter when it was sitting in two halves behind the house. Bolting those halves together tightened the arc and reduced the diameter to 10 1/2 feet. My initial thought was to build a round building with a domed roof. We could wrap wire mesh over the satellite dish and trowel mortar over it to make a permanent dome.
I also had a pile of cinderblocks culled from the reject pile at the local cinderblock plant, so it seemed logical to use those for the walls. Then I had the idea to add teeth around the top, like the "merlons" on a castle, so we started calling it a castle. But my initial tests suggested I would have at least three-inch wide joints between the cinderblocks on the outside of the round walls. I didn't like that idea. However, my brother suggested building a square castle with a round dome roof, and soon the castle project took on a life of its own! I added turrets to the drawings, and Edwin suggested off-setting them from the walls for emphasis.
The kid would obviously be grown up in just a few years, but the castle could double as a small guest house as needed. I decided to insulate it and add a wood stove, with a chimney rising up through one of the turrets.
The other challenge was figuring out where to put the castle. There is plenty of space on this five-acre property, but it is all on the side of a hill, and there are really only two semi-flat areas. Building it near the house, shop, and chicken coop would add clutter to the existing compound. Building it on the other flat site could conflict with anything we might want to build there later. I thought about building it in the gully, at the head of the unfinished pond, but there wasn't enough room. Finally, I decided to carve a small building pad into the hill beside the gully up above the pond and next to the road. In retrospect, it worked out better than anticipated. Looking down from the miniature castle, the gully seems more like a miniature valley, and the unfinished pond seems more like a miniature lake. Being at the castle, it feels as if we are looking down upon the kingdom below.
Building the Foundation
As Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." I've always loved this quote for the inspirational affirmation to follow one's dreams in life. This is the first time, however, that I'd had the opportunity to reference the quote in a more literal sense. We committed to transforming our castle from dream to reality when I hired my neighbor to excavate a site for the structure with his backhoe. There was no turning back once we had this hole in the side of the hill!
This was definitely not a high-budget project. For environmental and economic reasons, we would use as many recycled materials as possible in the construction, starting with the lumber used to build formwork for the footings. Unfortunately, my scrap wood pile -- all of it previously hauled home from the dump -- was disappointingly lean. Nevertheless, the castle was small enough that we were able to improvise suitable footing formwork with what we had. We spliced together scraps of 2 x 6s to make the outer form, then added 1/4" OSB (oriented strand board) to some 2 x 4s to make a matching 6-inch tall inner form. We built the forms on the patio, then hauled them into place, squared them up, and secured them together with diagonal cross-bracing. Then we leveled the two sets of forms and drove stakes in around the inside and outside to hold everything steady.
Being built into the hill, the footing would naturally be backfilled below grade most of the way around the castle when we finished the project. In order to bury the front as well, I added formwork for a stubby wall on each side of the door. That way we could push earth up around the front without it spilling over in front of the door. Formwork was added to the larger square before we cut out the 2 x 6s to connect everything as a single footing. With the formwork built, we added two runs of half-inch rebar throughout the footings, suspended by tie wire hanging from wooden slats. The project was small enough that we were able to mix and pour all the concrete ourselves.
In addition to myself and occasional help from my sons, Edwin and Donny, the main helpers were my friend Kris and our Green University® LLC students, Grant and Logan. Logan helped pour the footing before heading off to a summer cooking job in Washington D.C. Kris, Grant, and I tackled the bulk of the castle construction.
I already had ten yards each of sand and gravel on hand, which I'd ordered the previous year to finish up some raised garden beds. We shoveled sand and gravel into the back of the truck and hauled it to the mixer, parked right by the castle. We mixed and poured the concrete, removing the wooden slats as we went. We also removed the diagonal cross bracing while the concrete was still fresh, so that we could screed the entire footing nice and smooth.
Up the Walls
Unconventionally, I decided to place the cinderblocks at the outside edge of the footing, instead of the middle. That way, there would be no shelf outside the wall to collect moisture, which might migrate through the wall. I also decided to place the first layer of cinderblocks while the concrete was still fresh.
The dimensions of the building were determined first by the diameter of the satellite dish, and secondly by the size of the cinderblocks. The dish needed to rest at least partially on all four walls, and we wanted to use full sixteen-inch cinderblocks all the way around, without having to make a lot of custom cuts. Thus, the footings were built exactly the right size to fit eight and a half cinderblocks (plus mortar joints) on each side. The "half" block is actually a full block that merely starts the next side, so there are technically only eight blocks per side. We placed the first layer of blocks all the way around, then gently hammered short lengths of reinforcing bar down into the footing in each cavity of every cinderblock.
The next day we started laying up the cinderblock walls. Most cinderblocks are really ugly, but these split-face blocks resemble split-faced stones, giving the structure a legitimate, castle-like look. The blocks were rejected by the factory for a variety of reasons. Some had broken corners on the backside, where it would never be seen anyway. Most were rejected for purely cosmetic reasons, typically due to an irregular lump of aggregate, such as a large chunk of gravel embedded in the surface. These concrete blocks were poured in a mold with dyed concrete, then cleaved with a big power chisel to get the split-face look. In many cases the chisel split off too much or too little of the face, or otherwise produced an irregular block. The blocks had also been tumbled a bit, being scooped up by a loader and dumped on the junk pile. Some had chipped edges, which made the mortar joints slightly irregular, rather than perfectly straight. All of these irregularities contributed to producing more of the real stone look that I wanted in the castle.
As a long-time customer at the block plant, the company graciously allowed me free access to their scrap pile. Apparently, they do not want anyone else back there. These junk blocks are normally ground up and reused as aggregate to make new blocks. I hauled a small truckload of blocks home each time I drove past the block plant, and after a year, had enough blocks to build the castle. And although the blocks came in many different colors and textures, I seemed to have enough of the right colors to make the project feasible. Any blocks we didn't like we mortared into the two back sides that would later be backfilled with earth. The good blocks we mortared into the front side and above ground all the way around. We mixed four different colors of semi-natural looking colored blocks to build the castle. By order of quantity, these colors were buff, gold, grey, and something slightly greenish. I think the mixed colors help make the structure look more authentically castle-like.
In addition to the doorway, we left openings for three windows, two narrow ones in the southeast-facing front, and a wider one on the southwest facing side, all of which are placed for optimal passive solar gain in winter. Mortaring up the blocks was slower than anticipated, but a lot faster than doing actual stonework. We did not use any strings to guide our work. We just used a four foot level to plumb the corners then eye-balled the walls to create straight lines in between.
My background is in slipform stone masonry, so I have no actual training in laying up cinderblocks, but the process seemed relatively straight-forward. We started with a mortar bed on top of each existing row of blocks, then placed the new row of blocks and stuffed mortar in between them. I think block masons would normally "butter-up" the side of a block with mortar before putting it in place against another block, but I preferred to place the whole row of blocks and shift them back and forth to straighten the line and adjust the width of the mortar joints. Sometimes we poked the mortar down between the blocks with a trowel, but I found it much faster and easier (although messier) to mush it in from the top and the inside with my gloves. The outside required more careful, tedious work to fill and smooth the joints with a butter knife. It took about three days to get up to the to the top of the windows.
At this point, we stopped and filled the cores all the way around with concrete and rebar. Most people would consider this overkill, and most cinderblock buildings only have a few cores filled with concrete and rebar. But I have also seen older block buildings with big cracks running down the walls. Having come this far already, it seemed sensible to reinforce the castle to last for eternity. We put rebar in every cavity and filled them all with concrete.
I am not, however, inclined to waste a lot of resources, either. As it turned out, my neighbor had a bunch of really old cement leftover from building his home twenty years earlier. I was amazed that it was still useable at all! Each bag of cement was different. Some were still mostly powdery, while others had hardened considerably around the sides and corners. We used anything we could shovel into the mixer, then added a bunch of junk latex and acrylic paints as an additive to strengthen the concrete. These were old paints that would have gone in the dumpster anyway, so this was a good, safe means to dispose of the waste. The cans were later recycled along with regular tin cans. With the cores poured all the way up, we were ready to bridge over the window openings.
Looking around my place, I didn't find any angle iron big enough to support the blocks. What I found was only about an inch wide on each side, and 1/8-inch thick, but that would have to do. I cut some thin paneling to hold the concrete, then bridged over the windows with concrete, rebar, and block. In this case, neither the angle iron nor the wood paneling were structural. The structural part comes from the horizontal rebar and concrete filling. Throughout the building process we had set aside any blocks that were notched along the bottom side. These notches allow horizontal rebar to pass through, so we laid the rebar and blocks in place, then poured in concrete and lifted the rebar up off the wood paneling. When the mortar hardened, this concrete and rebar combination formed a structural bridge over the windows. We mortared in one more row of blocks above this layer, this time bridging over the door. Then we laid the satellite dish in place.
Bridging the windows with angle iron and wood paneling.
Building the Dome and Turrets
The satellite dish was almost too small. I expected to have an inch or two overlap of the dish on top of each wall, but the dish barely reached the four walls, overlapping by only 1/8 to 1/4-inch on each of the four sides. We put wooden braces up underneath to keep it from shifting and falling in. Then we filled in the four corners around the dish with formwork to pour concrete to connect the dish to the walls. By the time we finished, there were sixteen separate stilts propping up the formwork inside the castle.
Back on top, we added one more layer of blocks, this time using four-inch wide blocks around the perimeter. An eight-inch wide block was used in each corner to keep the spacing right, so that from the ground it looks like full-sized blocks all the way around. The four-inch blocks made it possible to pour the concrete corners around the dome, tying the concrete and rebar into and on top of the block walls.
On the back, left corner, I added insulation as a spacer to later build a chimney up through the turret. Otherwise, we made a sandwich with two inches of concrete and rebar, plus four inches of blueboard foam insulation, plus two more inches of concrete and wire mesh, thus bringing the mortar up even with the 8-inch height of the perimeter blocks. We previously drilled a bunch of screws into the rim of the satellite dish to better bind it into the surrounding concrete.
Each corner had rebar running across it to better support the turrets that would be added later, but it seemed like a good idea to back off and let the concrete harden up before adding weight. So we painted the underground walls with a heavy layer of foundation coating. I'm not sure, but I think that bucket came out of the town dumpster at some point. Then we backfilled around the building. With Kris, Grant, Donny, Edwin, and myself with shovels, we made short work of the big dirt piles. At this point we had a little over a week of actual labor into the project, most of it done by Grant, Kris and me in June. That was spread out over a few weeks between rainstorms, snowstorms, camping trips, and other distractions. Then we took a break from the project.
Kris and Donny took off on a 350-mile canoe trip down the Clark Fork River from Warm Springs, Montana to Sandpoint, Idaho. Grant dropped them off on his way to visit friends.
I had some other projects to catch up on, but tinkered with the castle for an hour or two each day. I had to cut insulation to fit into each of the odd cavities on the backside of the satellite dish. I bought damaged blueboard insulation ("Fomular®") at a discount from the lumber yard. I also bolted chickenwire to the dish, so that it would come up through the insulation and connect the dish to the concrete dome. I used eight cans of Great Stuff® expanding foam sealant to fill all the gaps. I did this partly to seal any gaps in the insulation, and also to keep all the pieces from blowing away until we could mortar over the dome.
In July, Edwin and I built the turrets in the four corners. We were short on blocks, so I bought sixteen cinderblocks to have enough to finish the job. I had hoped to buy seconds at a discount, but they were all out, so I bought new blocks, plus a little more cement. We were only home long enough to build the turrets. Summer is a busy time of year. The rest would have to wait.
Returning home in August, we made the final push to finish up the dome. I didn't feel like two inches of blueboard insulation was enough on the dome, so I filleted a bunch of couch cushions that were laying around into two-inch thick pads to cover the dome. My place really isn't a junkyard; I just happened to have these cushions from a couple couches we previously dismantled, and I could never bring myself to throw them in the dump. We primarily used them as cushions for dogs or passengers in the back of the truck. We used all of those, plus some random camping pads, until we had the dome nicely insulated. Maybe that's why my place isn't a junkyard. I actually use all that stuff in projects!
With the insulation complete, we wrapped the dome with wire mesh, tying it into the mesh previously cemented into the corners. Then it was time to mix concrete. We trowelled it a couple inches thick over the entire dome. I had hoped to make it deeper and do it all in one shot, but backed off due to my limited faith in the strength of the dome to support all that weight, and also because we still had to mortar merlons on top of the walls between each of the turrets. The cinderblocks from the previous row were only four inches wide, so we needed enough concrete to make an eight-inch wide mortar bed for the merlons. We decided to tackle that project first, then come back and finish the dome and sculpt concrete around the merlons to help shed water properly.
We mortared in the merlons around the perimeter, then filled the cinderblock cores there and in the turrets with concrete and rebar to make everything good and solid. There was an 8-inch by 8-inch square hole in the middle of each turret, which we stuffed full of insulation scraps then mortared over with a cap of concrete, sloping the tops to shed water. We left the back left turret unfilled, since that would later become the chimney.
Returning to the dome, I'm sure that two inches of concrete and the wire mesh was adequate to make it full-strength, but I wanted to thicken it up to get a smoother, rounder finish and cover any bits of wire mesh that showed up through the first layer. But first we had a big war one day, with Edwin and Donny, neighborhood kids, our Green University, LLC students, and myself. We had primitive bows and foam-tipped arrows and played storm the castle with a crew attacking and a crew defending. It was loads of fun!
Finally, we mixed a bunch of concrete one morning and finished the dome, sculpting the mortar to direct water around the merlons and off the building. I was somewhat concerned about this layer adhering properly with the first layer on the dome, and so added old latex paint, acrylic bonding agent, and polypropylene fibers to the mix to improve the quality of the concrete. Logan returned from his cooking job and other adventures, so he helped out with the troweling. The final product looked pretty dang good and is no doubt mostly waterproof with all the paint mixed into the mortar. Nevertheless, I later trowelled a final waterproofing layer over the dome for extra protection.
Next, we removed the supporting framework from inside the castle and cleaned up the workspace. I hired my neighbor to help out with some final landscaping. I had a big pile of woodchips, previously delivered for free by the folks who trim utility lines in the area. My neighbor distributed the big pile into little piles around the pasture and added some around the castle to start building soil. Then he brought over a few buckets of soil from the other side of the lot to fill in on both sides of the front door. With a little shoveling and raking, we landscaped very nicely around the building. We also shoveled a pile of dirt inside the building to bring the floor up even with the top of the footings.
Pouring the Terra Tile Floor
Inside the castle, we raked out the big sticks and rocks and raked our remaining bucket of cement into the dirt to help solidify it as an earthen slab. More cement would have been better, but that was all we had. Edwin helped out with the raking and then hosed down the inside until he was sinking into the mud. After the water soaked in, we sprinkled sand and gravel over the floor and tamped the whole thing with the aid of cinderblocks. Logan and I each used a cinderblock, picking it up a few inches off the ground, then dropping it over and over and over again to tamp the floor. Bending over was hard on the back, but the job was too small to bother making a better tamper.
I thought it would be easy to pour a regular terra tile floor in there, but Edwin suggested that it would be cool to have an oversize chess board built into the floor, so we took time to consider a variety of options to achieve that. Ultimately, we decided to go with terra tiles after all, but we blocked out a 4' x 4' square in the middle of the room for the chessboard and started by pouring terra tiles around the perimeter. I had a bunch of concrete dye, which I had salvaged from a dumpster years earlier, so we added brown die to the mortar. But instead of chopping out the usual 8" x 8" square tiles, Logan and I used a scrap piece of baseboard trim molding as a cutting tool and cut angular lines emanating like rays out from the chessboard. After finishing this first step, we removed the 4' x 4' block from the middle and let the floor cure for a couple of days.
Next, Kris and I mixed up more terra tile mix and added black dye, then poured the chessboard in the middle of the floor. We used the baseboard molding as a cutting tool again, and chopped out 6" x 6" square tiles for the chessboard. I had a half-baked idea about removing every other tile and then pouring white cement later, but quickly realized that would be a disaster, so instead, we mixed up a slurry of white cement and merely painted the surface of every other tile on the board. As the white cement covered the tiles and dripped into the grout lines, we had the funny feeling that we were making a large batch of frosting-covered brownies!
We gave the whole floor a few days to cure, and then I brushed a coat of clear Pox Seal from the thrift store over the whole thing. Then we went to Rabbitstick Rendezvous in Idaho to teach a class on quickie bows and arrows. Afterwards, Kris and Logan filled in the grout lines with a mix of sand, cement, and lime. Then they took off on a week-long, 160-mile canoe trip down the Beaverhead and Jefferson Rivers. I let the grout cure for a few days and then went over the whole floor with another coat of sealer, another product I had picked up at the secondhand store.
Edwin was quite satisfied with the final project and quite pleased to have his minions carry out his vision for the castle. He and I played a few games of chess with our regular plastic chess pieces, but they were way too small on the big board. I later bough a secondhand set of carved stone chess pieces for the castle floor.
As far as castles go, we don't have a huge amount of labor into this one. But then again, it measures only ten feet by ten feet square. We worked on the project intermittently all summer long. In the fall we installed windows and a door to keep the cold out and the heat in, starting with the skylight in the top of the dome.
I shopped all the thrift stores looking for the right-size salad bowl to use for the skylight. I finally settled on a glass plate for the top of the skylight, with a crystal-cut salad bowl inserted from below to make a double-glazed window between them. Both are caulked tightly into place.
I also found a nice castle-like door for $30 at Home Resource in Missoula, Montana. It looks more-or-less like an old, weathered wood door, but it is actually a fiberglass door filled with foam insulation. That's exactly what I wanted, since the door isn't sheltered from the weather.
But before we could install the door or windows, we first had to frame in the rough openings. Fortunately, I pulled a pile of plastic lumber out of the community dumpster earlier in the year. I had no idea what I would use it for, but it seemed like it would be useful for something. Plastic lumber is typically made primarily from recycled pop bottles, and it can be very expensive. But my stash was free, and I was glad to have it for the high exposure parts of the castle around the windows and the door.
Kris and I cut window and door frames and shot nails through the lumber into the concrete with a Remington Nailer. That is always fun. You put a nail in the barrel and a special bullet shell in the chamber, set it up, and whack the end with a hammer to fire the shot and send the nail into the wood and concrete. Afterwards, we filled any gaps behind the lumber with Great Stuff® expanding foam sealant. On my brother's suggestion, I used a hammerdrill to drill through the door frame into the concrete blocks, then epoxied big bolts in place for additional reinforcement before we hung the door. Then we installed the door, and it looked really, really good!
I would have liked to use secondhand windows on this project, but it wasn't a practical choice. The window openings were based on the size of the half and whole cinderblocks. We framed the openings in with the plastic lumber, then measured the width and height of these rough openings to order custom windows.
Edwin went to the glass shop with me, and we picked out the window style together. We chose vinyl windows to withstand the weather, with decorative cross bars between the glass panes to get more of that castle-like look. The skinny windows in front are non-opening, while the larger window on the side is a slider, divided vertically to help match it with the front windows. I ordered tempered glass for additional resistance to weapons fire from our foam-tipped arrows, as well as to reduce the danger from glass shrapnel if a window should get broken some day. The custom windows added $350 to the cost of this little project, but it seemed like the best way to go.
Kris moved into the castle for the cooler fall weather. The windows arrived from the factory two weeks later, and were easily installed with a level, a drill, and some screws to drive through the prefabbed holes. Adding trim around the windows was a slightly bigger job. We ripped some plastic lumber 2 x 4s in half with the table saw to make 1 x 4s, then cut and screwed them around the windows. Some pieces had to be trimmed with a knife on the backside to accommodate bumps on the cinderbocks. But soon enough, we had all the windows nicely trimmed. At the same time, we added weather-stripping and trim around the door, along with an aluminum threshold below. Kris replaced the old door knob with a more castle-like one, which I bought secondhand for a still-pricey $35. But what a transformation. This is one cute little castle!
I was given a nice little pot-bellied woodstove by a friend, which we installed in for heat. We ran the metal chimney up through the middle of the back left turret and cemented it in place. The stove, however, proved to be inadequate for heating. It may have been intended for burning coal, rather than wood, since it had a roundish belly that narrowed down to about a three-inch diameter neck. We could only put a few pieces of kindling into the stove at a time, so the fire burned out in a matter of minutes. A couple years later, we replaced the pot-belly stove with a more functional, horizontal stove that could hold more wood.
Otherwise, we basically quit work on the castle and went into testing mode. Our primary concern was keeping the interior dry, given that cement work is highly porous, and this structure was made of cement and cement block without any protective overhanging eves. We sealed the dome with Dryvit obtained from a secondhand store, then waited for the rains to come.
Unfortunately, it practically rained inside, although not due to any failure of the Dryvit. The problem was that the concrete blocks and joints were porous, so water wicked its way in around the turrets or through the walls, wetting the ceiling, walls, and floor. We went back and coated the entire castle with clear acrylic waterproofing sealer, substantially reducing water infiltration, but not eliminating it.
Rather than buy new waterproofing compounds, I kept an eye out at The Restore, buying anything that would dry clear, gradually adding layer upon layer of sealant to the castle. Every new coating reduced water infiltration, but never fully stopped it. Real castles had a reputation for being damp, so I guess ours was authentic. The castle was fully functional, I just left the door open in warm weather to help dry the walls, or lit the fire in winter to dry it out.
I never insulated the walls, and I was concerned about using up valuable floor space to add any insulation. But with the small space and high mass walls, the castle is super easy to heat. At 100 square feet, the castle is far more energy efficient than my well-insulated 2,300 square foot passive solar stone and log home, only because it doesn't take much firewood to heat such a small space.
I've enjoyed the castle as a nice retreat from the house, a place to get away from the electricity and wifi. Montana winters can linger for nearly seven months, so sometimes it helps to get out of the house for a change of scenery.
Author Larry Campbell stayed in the castle for two nights at the start of an exploratory road trip following the Missouri River. He featured the guest castle in his subsequent book, Rollin; Down the River: Discovering People and Places Along the Mighty Missouri. As Larry noted, "We met one afternoon for dinner and drove to his home in Pony. I was formally introduced to his guest castle, a 10 x 10 structure with no electricity, no bathroom (there is an outhouse), and an incredible view of the Milky Way!"
My friend Yost stayed in the castle for most of one winter. He greatly preferred warmer climates, but stayed north that year. I'd walk out from the house to check on him when the temperature dropped below zero, only to find him bare-chested and the heat cranked up to 100°F from the woodstove.
In 2020, eight years after building the castle, I finally returned to the project and plastered the interior walls. First, I cleaned the terratile floor and applied a polyurethane floor finish I found in the community dumpster. With the floor protected, I painted the cinderblocks with acrylic concrete bonding agent to improve adhesion and plastered the walls with bags of secondhand tile grout from The Restore. Afterwards, I painted the interior for consistent color. The light-colored walls and hand-trowelled plaster-like texture brightened the castle and gave the interior more of a southwestern feel.
No project is ever truly finished, and there is more that could be done to improve the castle, but it is already wholly functional and elegant. It may be small, but it is still a castle!
Western Imperial Expansion and the Dominion Impulse
The castle project gave us the opportunity to explore alternative construction methods (notably the dome roof formed over a satellite dish), while working with mostly salvaged and otherwise secondhand building materials. It is a fun fort to play in (and on), and it serves as a useful guest house for students or instructors in our Green University® LLC program, although it lacks any wiring or plumbing. Oddly and humorously, our little castle project was cited as a figurative example of "western imperial expansion" among the tiny house movement in a scholarly work, titled From Sustainable to Resilient Cities: Global Concerns and Urban Efforts:
"The tiny house movement's dangerous reliance on tropes of western imperial expansion can be found in such tiny house company names as "Frontier Fortress" or in individual models like Thomas Elpel's "Little Castle." Elpel, the author of Living Homes, a guide to stone, log, and straw bale construction has built a very, very small castle, a tiny architectural tribute to the dominion impulse. In what seems an ironic misquote, Elpel's blog cites Henry David Thoreau's Walden 'If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.' Though Thoreau was not speaking of building kingdoms on earth, but a more radical divestment from material dependence, somehow his words offer the right romantic lens for Elpel to envision his home as, quite literally, his castle. While this critique is not meant as an indictment of these individuals, the rhetorical dependence on tropes of wilderness escapism and territorial appropriation threaten to undercut the tiny house movement's more revolutionary aims... As strikingly misfounded as Elpel's Thoreauvian-inspired castle is, references to Thoreau are almost ubiquitous in tiny house rhetoric."
The chapter, titled The World is my Backyard: Romanticization, Thoreauvian Rhetoric, and Constructive Confrontation in the Tiny House Movement includes twenty-six pages of such philosophizing, and the entire book could be purchased for a mere $125 at the time of this writing. The author of this chapter, who built her own tiny house, makes a good point that the tiny house movement uses the romantic idea of living simply as a marketing tool to promote more consumerism. Ironically, I have considered writing an article addressing similar concerns. I just never considered our recycled castle project to be a "tiny house," nor did I imagine that it would become a poster-child for western imperial expansion, territorial appropriation, and the dominion impulse. It is a good example of academic institutions cultivating verbosity over substance.
For reference, the full quote from Thoreau's Walden reads as follows, "I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."
There are many possible interpretations of the above quote. Personally, I am still thrilled to have had the opportunity to put a literal foundation under a literal castle, even if it is only 10 feet by 10 feet and barely big enough for a bed, a table, and the wood stove!
Interesting Stuff? Check out:
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction.