Part IV: 2007
Building a Passive Solar Slipform Stone House
An Ongoing Journal of the Adventure with Builder and Author Thomas J. Elpel
Photos by Thomas J. Elpel
Be sure to read Part I: April, May, and June 2005
Part II: September, October, and November 2005
and Part III: March through October 2006.
Over the winter I framed in the stairs and some of the interior walls.
The stair treads were recycled from some shelving in the basement of our store. Most of the other framing lumber came from the dump.
Kris and Sholei and I worked on the wiring and plumbing.
In April we excavated a hole on the south side to add on the greenhouse.
We laid in a new pipe from the well to the house and added a new hydrant.
Free cinderblocks from the scrap pile at the factory were used to build the underground stemwall for the front porch.
Using scrap lumber, we built forms for a 30-inch wide, nine-inch deep footing for the greenhouse.
There are two rows of rebar to connect to two stone walls with insulation sandwiched between them.
The windows near ground level were framed with plastic lumber. Stonework on the inside will make a nice window sill to set plants on.
We built door frames from 4" beadboard panels, and started slipforming up the sides.
The beadboard insulation shows the outline of the future stone wall.
My daughters helped stucco the walls inside the house. Here we are using a basecoat of paint and plaster to adhere to the oriented strand board (OSB).
Large gaps were covered with plastic mesh before plastering to help prevent cracking.
With an over-size cookie cutter to cut the tiles, we tiled the floor with "terra tiles" made from sand, cement, fly ash, dirt, and dye.
It took three days to make about 700 square feet of tile.
We installed secondhand kitchen cabinetry and built forms for concrete countertops.
Pouring the countertops.
Troweled smooth and ready to cure.
In the cooler days of fall we finished the stonework for the greenhouse.
Soldering pipes for the solar water heater.
Kris returned in late January. I continued to work on my writing, and we both read stacks and stacks of books. We worked on the house just about everyday, but sometimes we didn't start until 1:00 in the afternoon, and we usually quit a few hours later, shortly after the kids came home on the bus. Still in the midst of winter, it was dark by 5:00 every day, and I never bothered to set up enough lights to do any useful work after sunset.
It was chilly in the house, though not bad, considering it had no heat source. At the beginning of the winter there were gaps around every door and window and along the logs at the ceiling. Now and then I would take a can of foam insulation and wander around the house sealing the gaps, but there were still gaps to fill when Kris arrived. Most of the time he came in the store to read and hang out where it was warm.
Kris finished building the remaining frame walls. We eventually ran out of lumber, and there was none at the dump, so we bought some warped 2 x 8's from the discard pile at the lumber yard, split them down the middle with the table saw, and built with those. More good lumber was dropped off at the dump shortly afterwards, which we hauled home for other projects.
With the frame walls complete, we turned our attention to the wiring and plumbing. We installed the drain system first, using mostly secondhand pipes salvaged from the trailerhouse we tore down at the beginning of this project, plus fittings acquired from the Habitat for Humanity Restore. We bought new fittings to fill in for anything we were missing.
Next we installed the meter box on the front of the building and ran electrical wires through conduit to the breaker box inside the house. The electrical work was over-sized and over-protected for a house that is intended to run on a lean energy budget, but I generally prefer to exceed code, especially with electricity.
Sholei joined us from St. Ignatius, Montana in early March. Kris and Sholei and I, and my son Donny and sister Jeanne, plus my friend Jeff, all drove to Nevada for a week of canoeing the Virgin River and Lake Mead. It was great to go south and get warm, though it was a bit like jumping out of the freezer into the frying pan. On two days the temperature was in the nineties!
Here you can see the ceiling, which we painted before framing the interior walls.
Back in Montana, we returned to the wiring and plumbing, with Sholei and Kris doing most of the work, while I tried to catch up in the office and continued to work on my writing. Running the PEX and the wires was challenging at times, especially given the open ceilings under the wooden floors. Normally the lines can be hidden inside the floor or in the wall framing above the doors, but we had exposed wood and log ceilings without much framing across the middle of the house. Most of the wiring and plumbing was routed across at two different points. Also challenging was the fact that many of the holes had to be drilled through logs as well as frame walls. The drill bits quickly dulled upon hitting hidden nails, and sometimes we ran into the rebar used to pin the logs together. Vertical logs at the corners look nice in the house, but require drilling a hole from one wall at an angle through the log to hopefully hit the center of the next wall.
We laid out the circuits one at a time as we wired the house. With all the other projects going on, I couldn't think any farther ahead than that anyway. I made many trips to the hardware store to pick up parts and pieces as we needed them.
In early April, with most of the plumbing complete and about half the wiring done, I hired an excavator to haul away the dirt pile left over from excavating the basement. He also excavated a site on the south side of the house to add on the greenhouse, and on the west to add on the front porch. Plus, he dug a trench over to the well, so we could run a new water line straight to the house. We installed a new hydrant right by the well to make it easier to water the front of the property.
As we assembled scrap lumber into forms to pour footings for the greenhouse and the front porch, it felt a bit like we were starting all over. But the details were a bit different. We poured a massive 30-inch wide, 9-inch deep footing for the greenhouse to support the 20-inch wide stone walls. Actually, the walls consist of two 7-inch stone walls with 6-inches of beadboard insulation sandwiched between them. That way we will have stone walls inside the greenhouse, and we can water with the hose without damaging anything.
The red PEX plumbing was leftover from the floor heating system. The black drainpipe was salvaged from the trailerhouse.
After buying new or second-quality cinderblocks at the local cinderblock factory for the last fifteen years, I finally discovered that I could get their rejects for free. So, we picked up a load of those to build the underground stemwall for the front porch. That saved some time and expense.
We had to slipform the stemwall for the greenhouse since the walls were wider and had insulation in the core. Then we started the stonework. On the south face we brought the stonework up only about 8 inches, then framed in a series of windows with plastic lumber, which will allow us to hose down the windows without damaging the framing. We used Trex brand recycled plastic lumber for this project. It seems like the right product for the application, although I was shocked by the $390 sticker price for seven boards, especially after getting most of the rest of our regular lumber for free from the dump.
I also used the plastic lumber to frame in the bottom of the doorways through the greenhouse, again to be impervious to abuse from water. The sides and top are framed with 4-inch beadboard panels with OSB on both sides, and will later be trimmed with lumber. We made the door frames big enough to install sliding glass doors on both ends of the greenhouse. It should be easy to run a wheelbarrow through from either side.
With the door frames in place, we started slipforming up the side walls. Kyle, my daughter Felicia's friend from Rabbitstick Rendezvous, stayed with us for a week and helped with the project. We installed a log across the top of the front windows to provide the necessary structural support to eventually frame in the upper windows. Next, we copied the two roof angles from the main part of the house to determine the slope of the greenhouse windows and roof. We welded scraps of beadboard insulation together with expanding foam sealant, then cut the angles, so we can use the insulation to guide the stonework as we go up.
The greenhouse is built with double stone walls with beadboard insulation sandwiched in the middle.
That was as far as we got on the greenhouse before being distracted by other activities. In mid-May we brought the Harrison School seventh and eighth graders out camping for two days each, the fifth year in a row of this tradition. Including planning and prep time, the camping trip consumed most of a week. We connected with another school and did an additional junior high camping trip a few weeks later. In between we took Edwin's kindergarten class out on a short field trip, and Felicia graduated from high school. I am still astonished at how quickly she grew up!
We quit work on the greenhouse and decided to finish some interior projects instead. We completed the rough-in wiring, and the electrical inspector signed off on our work. I found nine sheets of new sheetrock in the dumpster, so that kicked off the drywall. I bought twenty-some additional sheets new, as well as a stack of parts and pieces from the secondhand store. We only sheetrocked the frame walls. I decided to plaster over the OSB walls without sheetrocking them. It would have been about impossible to sheetrock over them anyway, since the scrap panels did not always match up cleanly on the inside.
Last time I worked with scrap panels I used a plastic mesh to cover the entire walls, but this time I plastered a test wall in the loft without any mesh and it seemed to work okay. I bought nineteen new boxes of pre-mixed joint compound at the Habitat for Humanity Restore and mixed them with a blend of latex paint, tile grout, and plaster, also from the Restore. There was some cracking on the base coat, but subsequent coats covered everything nicely. I decided to plaster the entire house the same way, using the mesh only over the larger joints, such as where the drain pipes were cut in the wall.
We plastered all of the walls on the main level and painted them with an earthy light brown color. I never before could have imagined painting with brown of any shade inside a house, but it seemed to be the perfect color for this project. It was lucky too, because I just mixed together five gallons of each white and brown latex paint from the thrift store to see what I could get.
Unfortunately, as the weather turned hot and dried out, there was some cracking in the plaster along some of the joints between the OSB panels. I patched the cracks with some caulk and paint, which seemed to work just fine, at least for now. I've concluded that it would be sensible to tape all the joints just like drywall work. It doesn't seem necessary to cover the entire wall with mesh.
Kris left in mid-June. Renee and the kids and I went on vacation, bicycling in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Sholei left at the beginning of July. Thanks to both of you for all your help on this project!
Lisa and Bonnie, and Bonnie's baby Vidalhia arrived here at the beginning of July to stay with us for awhile. Although far from finished, the house is livable enough for an almost two-year old baby, so it is coming along. Lisa and Bonnie and I tackled miscellaneous projects, wiring outlets and switches, painting the eves, and plumbing projects.
The temperature soared to 95 to 100 F for most of July. Lisa and Bonnie seemed to handle it well, coming from the south, but I wilt at about 70 F. Growing up in Montana, it was always a big deal if the temperature reached 90 F. The temperature seldom went much higher or stayed that hot for very long. I felt like a slug in the heat the rest of the summer, but frequently swam in the irrigation ditch behind the house.
Bonnie and Lisa sifted a large pile of dirt, and then we terra tiled the entire main level with a mix of sand, cement, fly ash, dirt, and dye. I ran the cement mixer and wheel-barrowed the mortar into the house. Renee and Bonnie and Lisa troweled the mortar out on the floor and used the stamping tools to cut out the tiles. Bonnie and Lisa also added an artistic touch, embedding a mosaic of small stones in the tiles to round out the corners of the rooms and to accent the support logs. It took three days to tile the entire main level.
We could safely walk on the tiles after just a couple days of curing. I bought a bunch of kitchen cabinets from the thrift store and we scooted those about the kitchen to see how they might fit. Then we repaired the broken pieces. The cabinets are nothing fancy, just some recycled oak-grain units from the sixties or seventies, but with our repairs and a fresh coat of stain, we thought we could make them look pretty good.
After allowing the floor some time to cure and dry, we hauled the cabinetry back out and mopped a protective coat of epoxy over the tiles. Then we grouted the floor and started installing the cabinetry. We never did achieve a finished we liked with the cabinets, but went ahead and installed them anyway, presuming that we could figure it out eventually. We have no choice but to figure it out at this point, since our next project was to pour concrete countertops. We built forms on top of the cabinetry out of junk wood, then wire-tied our rebar in place and poured a mix of white cement, sand, gravel, fly ash, acrylic bonding agent, and dye. I mixed the mortar in the cement mixer, and somehow made every batch a bit on the dry side. That made it more challenging to trowel smooth, but eventually Renee and the gals had it looking pretty good.
We took the forms off the counters a week later. Lisa and Bonnie patched a few holes and ground off the edges and rough spots. They worked over the sides a bit with the sander. Soon after that we wiped a coat of sealer over the counters and they were ready to use. I picked up a kitchen sink and electric range at the Habitat for Humanity Restore. We already had a fridge in the garage. It is not an efficient one, but will do for awhile. Although the sink only has cold water to it, at least they had their own kitchen to cook in.
We resumed work on the greenhouse and front porch as soon as the kids went back to school in September. I've done enough stone masonry over the last few years that I really wanted nothing to do with it at all, but fortunately Bonnie and Lisa were eager to set forms and get everything set up. I worked on my book as much as I could, then joined them for mixing concrete and laying rock. Kris returned in October, just as we were finishing the stonework.
Next, we put the roof on the greenhouse and the front porch. These roof sections were small, but required running some electrical wires and plumbing between and around the insulation panels. That added some extra labor. I continued working on my book, while we drifted from project to project on the house. We alternately worked on the greenhouse, the front porch, installing doors, finishing the bathroom in the loft, or sheetrocking, taping, and painting walls inside. Kris and Bonnie and Lisa also designed a greywater filter system for the greenhouse and completed most of the installation. Kris stayed until November, and we still weren't quite done with the greenhouse roof, but it was close, thanks especially to his labors.
I liked the quality of Bonnie's artwork and signed a contract with her to illustrate my new book. I continued to work on my writing as much as I could, while she started drawing full-time. I ordered new windows for the greenhouse and porch, which Lisa and I installed. We never did finish the roof on the greenhouse before winter, but it is sufficiently functional for awhile. We lost most of the heat out of the house, but closing in the greenhouse stabilized temperatures so it didn't get any colder.
We bought some copper pipe and built our own solar water heaters, which are installed in the face of the greenhouse with the intention of allowing the solar heated water to thermosiphon up to storage tanks in the loft.
Sholei came back right after Thanksgiving, and stayed for a few weeks. Renee and I took a week-long vacation to camp and hike in the Grand Canyon. It was the longest we had ever been together without our children. Lisa and Bonnie and Vidahlia headed home to Alabama. Back in Montana, I continued to focus on my writing. After working on my new book for two years, I am seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and eager to finish it. Sholei and I intermittently worked on the house, starting more projects than we finished.
I bought some more plastic lumber to do trim around the greenhouse windows. I couldn't believe the price. It cost $600 for a small pile of fake wood for trim. It will work good to resist weathering, but I'll have to come up with another approach for future projects. Sholei and I installed half the trim before the weather turned cold and we moved on to other projects. At this point there are half-done projects all over the house, but it is otherwise reasonably functional. My daughter Felicia returned home from college for the Christmas vacation and claimed the loft for her pad. We installed bamboo tongue-and-groove flooring for the finishing touch. With the holidays coming and me still working on my book, I decided to quit working on the house for wawhile.
Continue with Part V: 2008
Check out Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction.