Winter Buildingland

Astonishingly, the fall building practicum is already drawing to a close. Final presentations are tomorrow! Time trots right along sometimes. Most of the work this autumn was devoted to the Boathouse, where more walls, the roof, and cob columns were added, and plasters were slapped up all over the place.

I got caught up in a plastering job in the new community kitchen at Apro and then took off for a few weeks, so I lost track of what the Boathouse was looking like. This morning I got a chance to check out the progress (complete with a picturesque dusting of snow) and I was so delighted with what I found that I felt the need to show it off straight away.

The Boathouse, as of Dec 18th 2012:

Coyly peeking through the trees (note the recycled billboards that drape the roof!)

The northwest wall coyly peeking through the trees (note the recycled billboards that drape the roof!)

Southeast wall (slip n' chip beneath that plaster)

Southwest wall (slip n’ chip beneath that plaster)

The always impressive south wall (awaiting it's French doors)

The always impressive south wall (awaiting it’s French doors)

East wall (light straw clay) and northeast wall (strawbales and reed matting)

East wall (light straw clay) and northeast wall (strawbales and reed matting)

A recycled yurt dome becomes the roof for the loft

A recycled yurt dome becomes the roof for the loft

The ascending spiraling roof line looping up above the bamboo

The ascending spiraling roof line looping up above the bamboo

She’s shaping up to be a beaut – and something that everyone who helped create it can be proud of. Thanks for all the hard work and love, folks! Let’s keep building together next year.


Memory Lane: the Spring Natural Building Practicum

The Fall Natural Building Practicum will start tomorrow! I am looking forward to participating in it and working on bringing the Boathouse and the yurts and whatever else closer to completion. I am also eager to see all of the independent projects that the students will complete. During the Spring NBP I was delighted by the variety and creativity of the projects and can only assume that the same enthusiasm will be displayed this autumn. It was a pleasure to be introduced to such a catalog of skills as well – from cob to dry stone walling to timber framing to plastering to working with light straw clay to pouring earthen floors…so much valuable information. Tomorrow for some a whole new world will be opened up to them, and for others the joy of playing with mud and building forts will continue. I’ll be sure to report here on what we all get up to!

For the moment, how about a quick tour through the spring practicum, to get the cob balls rolling?

Putting fresh cob on the wall, March

The dry stacked stone retaining wall that is the foundation for the next part of the cob garden wall, March

A little “Pride Rock” reenactment…! (All of the stone for the retaining wall came from the site of the Playhouse)

Interior base plaster in the Playhouse, April

Light straw clay “bricks” to be used as ceiling insulation in the Playhouse, April

Working on the yurt (which was started during the 2011 Shelter Series), May

Adding bamboo weaving to the reciprocal roof of the yurt, April/May

Fun and games during the exterior finish plaster at the Playhouse, May

Cob detail around the window, April/May

Laying the earthen floor in the Playhouse, finish pour, May

The yurt, looking like a cupcake, with the daub applied to it’s wattle and it’s canvas roof, April/May

Lime plaster detail on the Playhouse, May

The cob, frosted with earthen plaster and looking tasty!

The timber frame for the new loft in the workshop, April/May

Nurya working on her independent project, a cantilevered deck for the yurt

My independent project was a “waterfall” foot stool

The Playhouse (mostly finished by the end of the spring NBP, and more or less completed later in the summer)

I hope that wets your whistle. There will be plenty more to learn and build at Apro before 2012 bows out. It’s a good year for playing with mud!

Mud on the wall, mud on the floor – mud, mud everywhere!

Even though building the natural way can sometimes seem to take quite awhile, time still flies in many senses. The last two weeks of the Shelter Series certainly flew by!

We spent week 6 learning about natural plasters and finishes with Eva Edleson of Firespeaking. I fell in love with plastering when I first came to Aprovecho in the spring, and welcomed the chance to learn some new techniques and add to my muscle memory. Our first project was putting a skin onto the strawbale walls of the Boathouse.

These walls will receive several layers of base plaster, to flesh them out and make them smooth(er) and flat(ish) and more plumb.

Our second project was putting a (closer to) finish plaster on the cob wall, which was especially satisfying to me as it has been a project I have worked on here and there as long as I’ve been at Apro.


Pretty, isn’t it? It still awaits its bit of roof and its twin wall across the path, and then the new garden wall (rampart?) will be complete.

We then moved inside and repainted a wall in the meeting hall with a lovely aliz. This wall has been an ongoing experiment with using a natural paint over drywall. The first time round there were a couple of spots where the paint didn’t stick. After prepping those areas by sanding and then coating them with a glue mix, we went at it with the aliz and this time had fantastic results.



We also painted some sconces and window frames, playing with pigments in the aliz and generally having a fun time. It is so nice to work with natural paints, knowing that there are no nasty fumes to inhale or that if you drip it on yourself (as I inevitably do) it will wash off with more than relative ease!

Our last project that week were some repairs and a fresh coat of lime plaster on the interior of the yurt that was built last year during the Shelter Series. Lime plasters are a bit less natural than the plasters made out of simple clay and sand and straw, but the historical significance and practical applications of it pleases me, and I was really excited to learn how to use it.

Although your hands are really the only tools you need for plaster jobs, something about the floats and trowels and hawks and other tools that you can use delights me.

I’m looking forward to many more plastering and aliz projects – and there will be plenty more as we bring the Boathouse closer to completion!

During the 7th and final week of the Shelter Series we learned all about earthen floors. Led by Sukita Reay Crimmel of From These Hands, we put a floor in the Boathouse. We were working with a slab on grade, so we had a bit of work to do before we could pour the floor. First we filled the space with crushed gravel, then laid down a vapor barrier, then added insulative volcanic rock. Our base floor pour was more crushed gravel mixed with a clay slip. We compacted everything thoroughly.


Finally, we mixed up our finish floor mix, and bit by bit we smoothed and leveled and fussed with it until it was a thing of beauty.


After burnishing it, we left it to dry and moved to the finished and year old floor of the library, which was in need of a little love. We swept and mopped it, then went to work rubbing in a new coat of beeswax. The result was a lovely, shinny, like-new floor which will compliment the promised new bookshelves and make the library an even more enjoyable space.

After a final presentation on Friday followed by a tea party, the Shelter Series took it’s bows and left the Apro stage for this year. It was an excellent learning experience, and left me feeling confident and empowered, and even more excited about natural building than I had been before.

After all, who wouldn’t want to spend their time building forts and playing in the mud?

Playing With Fire

We learned about home heating during week 5 of the Shelter Series, which meant that we got to play with fire 5 days in a row! This equaled a very happy Sarah.

On Monday Max Edleson built and dismantled and rebuilt a dozen different systems for containing and controlling fire – from a circle of stones to an oven to a rocket mass heater.










The J shape of the rocket mass heater – this brick formation is inside of the barrels

We then proceeded to build a rocket mass heater inside the Boathouse. We needed two barrels for our heater, so on Tuesday morning while most of the group built up the floor where the heater would go, myself and two others burned the paint off of the recycled barrels. Perhaps this was not the healthiest thing I’ve done since I began my adventure as a natural builder, but it was certainly fun!

This beautiful image of a tree magically appeared in the bottom of the barrel…!

Over the next few days we got all of our stove pipe organized and laid out, built the brick innards of the heater, cut the barrels to fit, made batches of cob, and formed the bench. By Thursday we were able to fire the heater, and after a bit of tinkering, it worked!

It will be so nice to have the rocket mass heater in the Boathouse as we head into autumn. There will be plastering and many other finishing details to work on, and having the heater there to keep things cozy will be brilliant. (FYI, here is more information on rocket mass heater construction.)

In addition, busy little bees that we are, on Friday we whipped up a Justa griddle, just for kicks.

All together it was a splendid week, full of fire and fun!




The Boathouse takes shape

On Monday morning of week 4 of the Shelter Series, faithful Brownie pulled up to our building site and let out a small polite groan. She was half buried in strawbales, which we were very happy to relieve her of.

Erica Ann Bush, natural builder extraordinaire and owner of Day One Design, also pulled up on Monday morning, and she quickly set to work teaching us about wall systems.

First we flung up a strawbale wall on the north and northeast sides of our hexagonal structure. There were some tricky cuts and custom bales to make, but overall the walls went up quickly. We then spent quite a bit of time and energy chinking the cracks with a heavy straw clay mix and getting the walls a little more flat and even so that they will be easier to plaster.

We then set to work on the southeast side. Batches of clay slip were wizzed up and many “salads” of slip and straw were “tossed”. Forms were attached to ladder trusses and we climbed inside them and tamped batch after batch of light straw clay down into them. Seemingly endless amount of the mixture disappeared inside, but slowly something rose up until late one afternoon I found myself standing on top of a rather splendid bit of wall.

This wall, like the strawbale walls, awaits several layers of plaster (and unlike the strawbale wall, this one will be a breeze to do!)

Moving right along, we turned our attention to some cob details around the front door of the Boathouse and on the south wall beside the timber frame where the french doors will go. On the french door side Erica Ann used wire to provide more framework for the cob, so we were able to build higher with it than the usual 18 inches per day.

Note the dry stacked stone beneath this cob detail that Erica Ann just threw together in about 3 minutes…!

We also started working on the southwest wall, which is composed of slip ‘n’ chip, or in our case slip ‘n’ plainer shavings. We tacked bamboo matting to ladder trusses and then tossed the fluffy clay slip and plainer shavings mix into the cavity, gave it a quick stir and called it good. We will of course eventually plaster over the bamboo matting, etc.

The remaining wall will hopefully be made of hempcrete in some form or other, and somewhere in the Boathouse we will incorporate a single adobe brick that we made, just for the symmetry of having 6 wall systems in a 6 sided building…!

It was a highly productive week, and one that generated a lot of discussion as we explored the various types of insulative and thermal mass systems. I think we all gained a lot of new confidence and got, if it is possible, even more excited about what we’re doing and why.

And as an added bonus, the Boathouse looks a lot more like a house that a…boat could live in!










Circling the Yurt

We spent week 3 of the Shelter Series with Kiko Denzer making circles – forming them, tying them, raising them, and telling their stories.

Compression ring made from bamboo and baling twine

Kiko explored his yurt design with us, improving on a few elements and discovering new things over the course of the week. Top tip: long rafters become somewhat cantilevered due to their weight and make raising the reciprocal roof far easier. We experimented with attaching the bamboo lattice to the cob bond beam and foundation without using any hardware – and the bamboo compression ring we used worked brilliantly. We tied a copious number of clove hitch knots (you can see them above in the picture of the small compression ring that holds the roof together – and that’s a tiny circle in comparison to the 13 ft diameter tension ring we made!)

Our yurt as it looked at the end of the week

The bamboo for the yurt came from various nooks and crannies of Aprovecho’s land and the rafter poles came from the nearby forest. The baling twine came from local farmers. Aside from a lot of sweat (it was scorcher of a week…) and tears (of joy, of course!) that’s about all the materials that went into its construction. It awaits it’s wattle and daub and plaster finish for the walls, and it’s roof of bender boards or recycled billboard.

My favorite afternoon of the week was spent sitting in the shade beneath a plum tree in the garden, with the whole group tying clove hitch knots round and round that 13 ft diameter tension ring, while stories were told, jokes were cracked, and music was played.


Circles are a great tool for bringing people together, and making circles together is one of the most satisfying acts I know of. Although the maths and head-scratching aspects of building a yurt with walls that lean outward seemed hard at times, overall it was playful and fun week. At the end more than one of us said we had found our way back to the kid inside of us. I hope to keep that playful, singing, storytelling, circle-making spirit close by for the rest of this course – and the rest of everything too.

Phases…experimenting with how the rafters would join to the compression ring

Reciprocal roof on the ground

Reciprocal roof raised high above Kiko’s head

A friendly eye in the sky

Making music, making yurts – the act of creation draws us together





Shelter Series 2012 is a GO!

It’s the height of summer (or thereabouts) here in the Pacific Northwest, and that means that once again a group of mudslingers and straw-tossers, stone-layers and timber framers, students and teachers have gathered at Aprovecho for the Sustainable Shelter Series.

Last year at this time The Playhouse was constructed by a similar group of natural builders, and I (Hello, I’m Sarah!) was fortunate enough to be around this spring and early summer to help finish that building.

The Playhouse

I consider myself even more lucky to be here participating in the current Shelter Series and getting to help build The Boathouse. It’s an exciting time to be at Apro. We are entering the 3rd week in this 7 week program, and already the foundations for The Boathouse and the new yurt have been built, and the timber frame for The Boathouse has been raised.

Max Edleson of Firespeaking led us during the first week of the Shelter Series. We dug a rubble trench and installed a French drain for the yurt on a lovely rise in the woods. The dry stacked urbanite stem wall with it’s cob bond beam looks pretty cool just the way it is, but of course by the end of this coming week, with the guidance of Kiko Denzer, it will be transformed into a delightful little circular building with a sweet zen view into the forest!

Making the “burrito”

Urbanite sourced from an old concrete pad on Apro’s land

Cob for the bond beam was mostly made from soil taken directly from the building site

During the first week we also worked on the stem wall of The Boathouse, pouring a concrete footing, laying Faswall blocks, filling the blocks with minimal concrete and quite a lot of rock from the building site, and pouring the footings for the timber posts.


The Boathouse foundation with The Playhouse behind it, and a few of Oregon’s finest natural builders hanging around

This past week we were joined by Bill Sturm of Oregon Timberworks. He taught us how to lay out timbers and cut mortise and tenons, and guided us through the process of raising a timber frame. We had a spectacular week playing with chisels and chain mortisers, hand drills and electric ones, snapping lines and yarding logs, and finally on Friday raising the frame of The Boathouse.

Finding the center reference line on a round pole


Cutting a tenon the speedy/spooky way!

Fitting pieces



We’ll focus on the yurt this week and return to The Boathouse next week to begin work on the strawbale and light straw clay wall systems. Like I said before, it’s an exciting time to be at Apro!

That brings you up to date on what we’ve been working on as far as the Shelter Series 2012 goes. There will be more updates and info from myself and others as we progress, and hopefully I’ll find some time to also post a bit about the spring building practicum and all the other projects that have gone on around Apro this year.

Until then, please don’t hesitate to ask us questions and happy building!