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!




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!