(and where to go for recycled and natural materials)
by Johanna Parry Cougar
Okay, are you ready to build yourself a home that could last say, 1,000 years? The first thing you need is a stable place to put it. It should not be in a flood plane. Then you could build a little one to work out the details of your big one. If you let one inch represent one foot, you can build a little clay house with little flat rocks that represent the foundation stones. You can add clay-formed furniture and stairs, anything you want in your big house. Then use sticks and squares of cardboard sized like plywood to work out your roof system. The earth out here in South Dakota, on Pine Ridge reservation, seems to have plenty of clay in it. Folks out here call it “gumbo.”
Now you can just get dirt and then add a little water for this part. Mix it like making bread dough, adding enough water to shape it like clay. Usually a bit more firm and less sticky than a good fry bread dough. It is good to add some sand, as it makes the wall stronger. Then add straw. Lots of straw, sprinkling it from a big arm-full as you dance and twist around with your feet and heels on top of this dirt piled two 5-gallon-bucket loads high on a plastic tarp. Linda Smiley, Ianto Evans’ wife says you can’t put too much straw into a wall mix. It adds insulation and protection from cracking.
In Wales an old earthen wall was pulled apart and the carbon dating showed the dry, intact internal straw was 1,000 years old.
Next you will need a few tools. A shovel will be needed to dig the foundation trench, especially if you have no access to a back hoe or something more practical. In this nasty cold winter, the frost level is deep, so make the trench about three feet wide by three feet deep. Fill it with rubble, then start the foundation on top of the rubble trench. Also make a “French drain” (another water run-off trench filled with gravel over perforated pipe) follow the over-hang line of the two-foot extension of the roof over-hang awning protecting the house walls.
Some of you read the article about Leola One Feather’s earth house before. Our project taught us many things about where to get all the materials we needed. We didn’t have anything bigger than a shovel at Leola’s. While Leola’s boys, Shcope and Nupa completed about half the trench, digging by hand in a day, the ladies worked steadily in the heat and rain, especially Dawn and sure enough we completed the rest of the digging and rock hauling in about two weeks.
The team of ladies came from London, California, and Colorado. Then more friends arrived from Michigan, a friend from New York and a couple from Ohio. These folks helped haul rocks, fill the trench with rubble, transport big cement chunks and gravel to smooth the surface in preparation for the foundation wall. We made many journeys to get broken cement chunks. Cement chunks work the best for a foundation. Since earthquakes aren’t common out here, nice flat cement chunks dry stack into a foundation wall incredibly well. The sheer weight of massive three foot thick walls one or two stories high, that are dry and heavy like rock really do make it next to impossible for a sound foundation to move under this weight. It will settle some in the first year.
Cement chunks are found in any reconstruction site. Often the construction company has to pay someone to haul them to the dump. A person with a truck and a phone could make a deal with a reconstruction group and find out where locally any of the cement projects are being torn out. Maybe you can get paid for hauling them away to your house site. If not, I have seen amazing square rocks out near the Brainerd Indian School. Your foundation rocks need to be very flat on at least two sides. Square shaped rocks are ideal because they fit together in a very stable, beautiful way. It is your house—experiment until you feel satisfied. Your eyes and senses wont lie about how safe and beautiful your foundation or wall is or isn’t.
Last summer a foundation expert named Ram Sharan came out from the Mt. Madonna village community. He showed me carefully how to align the rocks so the face of the inside and outside looks even and nice. Then, like a jigsaw puzzle we filled in the center with rocks, carefully keeping the wall shape while filling in between the gaps with rubble and littler rocks. The foundation went up almost two feet high in order to make sure the earth wall didn’t get water and snow splashing up on the base of it. It is three feet wide, so the walls are nice and thick against the intense winter winds and sleet. Some people also say a tornado would read this house like it was a hill, especially if it has an earth roof on it. The square shaped cement houses seem to just pop when hit by those things.
We were really, really grateful for the friends who showed up to work. We were grateful for their sweat in the sun and strained rock-hauling backs. Folks trickled out from different places and helped along with Percy, Leola’s boys Dad, who was lending support with loaning trailers, tools, and helping locate gravel piles. Elmer Bear Eagle, Leola’s cousin, was definitely our hero out there. He knew not only where to borrow a truck or find good sand, he was a genius at keeping the campsite tarps from blowing away in the storms.
Elmer and I really talked through the roof system several times to be sure we could design one that didn’t cost more than we had. We realized that every abandoned trailer out there has a floor full of ¾ inch plywood sheets that are perfect for roofing. And that in a pinch, if we had to, we could pull sheets of aluminum off those old trailers and use them as roof sheeting.(Be sure you get permission before cleaning up an old trailer site for someone).
I learned that how you lay the roof tiles makes all the difference.
Be sure to lay them so they overlap from the top of the roof-slant down, in order to shed any water that lands on them. When you design your roof you really need to think carefully about all the different ways water can trickle under it. Earth walls don’t want to get too wet, so your roof overhang has to be two feet long to keep driving rain off them.
In this climate the trench needs to go just deeper than frost level. Like I mentioned, we dug ours three feet down, and almost three feet across. Then, we used the dirt to make the mix for the walls.
Freda Yellow Hair was our cheerleader. She faithfully supported us by fielding phone calls and helping track down lost friends trying to find the camp. She hung out with us and chatted while we all worked away on the house model and foundation. It might have been my deep love for Freda that got me back out here. I want her to have a house, too but she can’t get her land traded in a way that gives her a home here, in Wounded Knee, where she belongs.
So mixing where we worked meant a good load was made from three five gallon plastic buckets filled with earth, to one bucket of sand, to one big stack of dried prairie grass and water added as needed. Then, mixing this on a tarp with your feet, you get it to fold over like bread dough or a full tortilla. I like to thank my mother the earth, when I am doing this. And when I hold the earth in my hands while making the wall, I like to pray for happiness within the walls and the love of creator to permeate the hearts of the family within them. We pray for them to know no suffering. We pray for them to be protected from all weather, harm and troubles. We also make a point to laugh often while working the walls so this joyfulness becomes an inherent part of the life within the house.
What folks don’t always know is you don’t need to buy straw for your earth wall mix. If you rake the grass and use really dry long and short grasses, stuffing as much as possible into every single batch you will help create more insulation for the walls.
Out here, it is a great idea to have straw bales on your coldest north wall. You can mortar them in place with your earth mix, being careful to stab the bales with sharp sticks sticking out all over in order to hold the inside of the earth mix against the bale by sticking to the sticks which help hold the bale stable inside the wall. This would be one cost to the house. Bales for about five bucks apiece, needing, maybe 24 to 30 for the whole north wall…about $150 at the most.
Now windows; the best I’ve seen out there are the windshields front and back of the old cars. Thick and nicely curved makes a big broad view and the three foot thick walls give a window sill to sit in. When you place them long, tall ends up and down, they are really gorgeous.
You just plaster them in place with the earth mix that dries like rock around it. If it breaks, you get a hatchet and clean out the broken glass, carve away the dry dirt around the window, make a new batch of earth, add what crumbled off and then place a new one in. It takes less time than a traditional house window and if the window is free, so is putting it in.
It’s a good idea to put a lintel, board or a length wise log above every window and door, to spread the mass of the earth weight and wall above it, especially if your house is two stories.
If you make your doorway frames from hand-stripped and sawed poles or logs, you can nail them into your doorways by placing a small stump, with a short root system embedded into the earth wall, with the stump-end carefully placed with the flat side of the exposed wood– right where you want to nail or screw your doorframe to the earth wall. Don’t forget to adequately season your lumber if you cut it on your own land, so shrinking doesn’t cause problems later. But if it does, just go caulk the cracks in with more mix and plaster.
Use the earth mix to fill in any cracks between the wood and the earth. Don’t worry, everything can be fixed up to look better no matter how bad you screw up. Remember, the interior walls can all be painted with a natural gypsum white plaster. It looks clean and beautiful. Other colors can be used, too. The outside can be painted if you don’t like the earth-finish look. But only with natural (and sometimes free if you already have some around) paints and plasters made of things like flour, egg whites, lime, gypsum, chalk, charcoal, etc…the traditional chemical paints make the walls sweat and not breathe and they will grow molds and corrode them. A healthy earth home smells like you are outside whether it is warm or cool inside.
So the stump is embedded so only the wood of the stump is seen, the rest holds it inside the wall. There is no way you can pull this out after the wall is dry. So use this root method, or build a wood box and leave the smooth wood exposed on one side and embed the rest of the box into the earth wall. This makes it with lumber if you don’t have stumps to use. Do this at the very top of your wall to fasten the roof system on to the walls, too. Leola wants an earth or sod roof for her house.
My friend Nancy Chase gave me the simplest recipe for this: Build up the walls to slant the roof down in the back. Fasten stripped poles lengthwise from front wall to the back wall, nailing them down on the wood exposed in the upper walls. Be sure you flatten your poles with a chainsaw, or have them milled to flat on both sides of the poles.
Then nail the ¾ inch plywood sheets you harvested down onto the poles for a very flat roof that slants down in back. This style is called a shed roof. Now, here is where money and trust come in…the tar and roof sealants are really toxic and expensive, especially the best quality roof sealants and glues. If you can seal with a safe, cheap glue, provided it stays dry under the plastic, it costs only $20 a gallon and can be used in all the edges, cracks, and seams where all the plywood is nailed and fitted together. Then put the heaviest mil plastic you can get over the glue, gluing it down to the plywood, careful to seal plastic edges with the upper lip going down over the top of the piece under it, on the downhill slant for water repelling with no leaks. Then place plastic and/or pond liner on top of the plywood, (Hopefully you already built a four inch lip around the edge of the roof making it appear boat-like) and after the liner goes in, then you can throw a layer of old cardboard, a layer of old carpets (try looking at the dump for these), then throw three inches or more of soil up there and grow something drought resistant and useful, like red clover. So it’s like making a pond of your roof but filling it with dirt and carpets and cardboard, not water.
Make good drains and downspouts on this roof. Especially off the back. Again, dig a French drain around the underside of your roof overhang to draw the water away from your foundation.
To make fire and rodent-proof insulation to stuff tight under this roof, between your ceiling of the house and the under-of-the roof try stuffing old or donated clothes that have been first soaked in heavy clay/earth solution, then dried to hard in the sun. Rodents can’t eat clay, and fire can’t burn it. Stuff lots of it in there…as you need really good insulation in your roof. Some people use clay-soaked straw or dry grass, but this is riskier if not well coated, it can burn. Some people take sheets, soak them in heavy clay, dry them to stiff, and paint them with natural colors for wall dividers and ceiling materials.
I know folks that have built a 400 square foot, one and a half story home that will last their family hundreds of years for about five hundred dollars. It took about three to four people maybe three or four months from start to finish. This method above would cost less and take less time, depending on how big the house footage is because you spent nothing on windows, walls or lumber.
You can plan for wiring and plumbing using common sense. Remember to put your woodstove pipe through the earth wall, you can coil the clay earth into stovepipe going up or inside a wall, too. Earth-sculpted fireplaces and stoves can be awesome.
If you go to any public or college library, you can go a computer, and go to:
This will take you to other earth builders, houses, communities and villages.
So there you have it. One more thing. I really wanted to thank Elmer and the gang for all the laughing, working, sweating and caring.