Fort Hejl

IMG_3219Home. We have a home. We have a roof over our heads, functional bathroom, and a warm wood stove. Most importantly though, through all the stresses of our home’s construction, we still have each other to enjoy what we built together. And that is my home, Josh, Moose and I.

It took me a long time to gain the motivation to write this post. Though the house is by no means finished, writing this post almost felt like an end to an exciting ride, and part of me wasn’t ready to get off that ride. It was an intense and exciting summer as we built our home together. We couldn’t have done it without the immense help and support we received from family and friends. Thank you all! And finally in early January we moved into the place we had poured everything into, literally. It was amazing and unbelievable at the same time.

We began this process with the goal to build our house and move in by this winter. Many times it looked like it would not happen, and with good reason. We had never built a home before, much less an earth bag home. But somehow, we did it. We actually did it. It was an exciting process and somehow writing this post would mean it was over. But now we can move onto our next adventure, building a life in Alaska. We can play outside, build businesses and have time for friends and family again. And that is what we’ve been trying do to the past few months since we’ve moved in. I just finished a gorgeous sunrise skate ski and Josh is in the sunny mountains skiing in fresh snow with a few friends.

When I last wrote we had just finished framing the interior walls. Over the next month we installed our plumbing and hired a friend to do all the electrical work. Water we could handle (Pex is awesome for those that don’t know) but electricity, no thanks. A professional can have that one. Then in December we took a break from the work and flew to Mexico to spend some time with my family, the beach and warm weather. Apparently mosquitos, Black Poisonwood trees, food poisoning, and a nasty cold decided to tag along on our “relaxing” vacation. Oh well.

While in Mexico we hired someone to do our sheet rock work on the interior framed walls. We came back to a fort transforming into a home. We had rooms. We spent the next few weeks painting. Finally in this gray winter we could add some color! Guacamole green for the bedroom, sunrise orange for the living and utility rooms, turquoise and sky blue for the bathroom and mint green for the kitchen cabinets.

Shortly after we got home from Mexico the well guys came and installed our well pump. Finally we could turn on our water and test all that plumbing that Josh and I did ourselves but never tested. Probably not the smartest idea but hey, it worked out. I almost cried the day we turned on the water and wanted to hug anything and everything. Our house was coming together. We had electricity, natural gas on the way, but water, good clean water we had payed a pretty penny for but had yet to see, that was a big deal. We’d be able to flush a toilet (HUGE when you’ve been squatting outside all Summer and Fall), take a warm bath, do dishes, etc. We were beginning to have a functional home!

Next we got to have some fun. We built a bathtub surround from cedar and sheet metal, our own personal spa!

And kitchen counters from 2 x 6 tongue and groove pine covered with Epoxy. They look great but man that was by far the stickiest, messiest thing I have ever done and I’m glad it is over.IMG_2994

Then we put together our bathroom and kitchen, connected our hot water heater (hot water!!!) and in early January we moved in.IMG_2991

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Since then we have been getting settled in, doing small house projects here and there, but mostly just trying to enjoy what we built and live a little. There is still a lot of work to do but there is time for that. The big push to move in is over. We have a home.

 

Once a fort, now a home.

For days it rained and rained and rained, soaking our roof decking to the core. Before winter came in full force we had a list of tasks to due, each depending on the completion of the the one prior to it. We needed to spray foam our roof to insulate it. It had to be above freezing to do this and winter was quickly approaching. In order to spray foam the roof the roof decking had to be dry and we’d have to have our concrete floor poured so our spray foam guy could have a smooth surface to roll scaffolding on. In order to pour the concrete floor we needed to weather proof the roof. In order to weatherproof the roof, with shingles and tar paper, we had to dry out the drenched decking. To start we needed to dry the roof decking.

Finally the rain stopped and it was predicted we’d have a handful of dry days. We rented a 90,000 BTU diesel heater to run inside to help dry the decking. Unfortunately after many attempts the heater didn’t work. Since it was Sunday we couldn’t exchange it for a working heater, and as we only had a few days to dry the roof decking it was crucial we began the drying process that day. On to Plan B.

We came up with what we thought was a brilliant idea! We would have a campfire inside! We used a fire pit, started a fire, opened windows and the doorways to vent, and immediately smoked ourselves out. From all the rain our wood was incredibly wet and created an immense amount of smoke in our small house. On to plan C- installing the wood stove.

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Once the wood stove was going, at around 5pm, we realized we’d need to stay there all night to keep it going if we wanted it to do any good that night. So we spent our first night at the house and it just so happened to be our 2nd anniversary. With a bottle of wine, breakfast burritos and coffee for the morning, we camped out in front of the wood stove and our 12 living room windows- it was a bit like being in a fish bowl with our construction lights shinning bright. Our neighbors no longer need to wonder what it looks like inside. We’ll have to get some blinds soon.

Warming breakfast on the wood stove while Moose waits, sure we will drop something:

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Th following morning we traded the broken heater for a working one, got it nice and warm inside and began laying tar paper on the roof. We soon realized, once again, we chose to do build a roundhouse which made for laying rectangular tar paper quite a task. After two full days we got it properly covered though it looked a bit like a patch work quilt. But it would do!

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Now that the roof was weatherproofed, we could begin prep work to have our concrete floor poured. We spent the next day till 11:30pm laying a vapor barrier and the 3.5″ rigid foam insulation blocks we had collected off Craigslist earlier in the year. When we originally purchased them we thought to ourselves how great it would feel when the day came when we could use them. And here it was, progress feels good. It was a puzzle yet again fitting square pieces in a circle but in the end our concrete guy said it looked like a professional had done it. One point team Josh and Maggie!

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Bright and early the next morning they were pouring concrete and by 5pm we had a polished concrete floor. The next project was shingling. And of course we learned the difficulty of a round roof extends even to the shingles! Our roof is made of twenty triangles. We decided the best method was to shingle each triangle and then shingles the hips (ridges) between them. With lots of help from Jeff, Natalie and Greg as well as the two 18 year old wrestlers we hired to carry the 60 packs of shingles onto the roof, we had it done by the end of the week. Just in time to have the underside pf the roof sprayed with spray foam insulation. Following the spray foam we installed our two exterior doors. The house is now all sealed up and finally looks like a home.

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All that is left to finish the roof is a topper for the small circle at the peak above the metal ring. We are still working on that one…

We then began framing the interior walls. Finally we could build something square! Here is the first wall to go up, the one between the bedroom and living room. IMG_2859

Next the closet.

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Bedroom:

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Bathroom:IMG_2877 IMG_2878

Utility room:

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Kitchen:

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We then spent two full days splitting and stacking firewood. Stacks on stacks on stacks:

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And over the past three days we built the loft. It is made of 4 x 4 beams followed by 2″ x 6″ tongue and groove pine as the floor for the loft and ceiling for the bedroom and bath below. We have a small section left to finish tomorrow. Though the loft doesn’t provide a lot of stand-able room, it greatly increased our space offering enough room for a small bedroom or office, and a lot of storage.

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View from the loft:

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Moose is not amused with house building. He’d wishes we were doing more runs and ski tours:

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And who says it isn’t beautiful in the winter in Alaska. We were treated with a beautiful sunset yesterday and fresh snow on the ground today:

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Up next electricity!… we hope

It’s a “custom” house

We finally got the call, the ring was ready, and it was BIG! “Big Ass” as my uncle says. Much bigger than we had anticipated, but a work of art. When we went to collect the ring from the welder they loaded it into the car with a fork lift. At that moment Josh and I wondered if our plan to hoist the ring 16 feet in the air and place it on top of our center post with the pulley system we had set up would work.

Though we no longer had access to our carpenter friend, we had two friends who had been patiently waiting with us for the ring to be finished so we could roof our house. Once we got the call we all met at our house to attempt to set the ring in place. We carefully removed it from the car, rolled it into the house with the four of us bracing, rolling and shuffling pallets to act as its runway. Finally we got it into position, roped it up, hoisted, and got it lifted only a few inches. It wasn’t worth hurting ourselves to attempt it on our own any further. I called our local building store to see if we could hire a crane to come lift it for us. The next morning at 10:30am  a crane arrived and within 30 minutes the ring was sitting on our post. We all still had our fingers and no head injuries- success!

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The four of us then set to work placing our wooden I beam rafters in the ring. The brackets on the ring to hold the rafters were so tight we had to hammer the rafters in to set them. And after only a few hours we had 20 rafters set and ready to be braced. IMG_2788 IMG_2789 IMG_2790 IMG_2791 IMG_2792 IMG_2794 IMG_2796 IMG_2797

I have always been a bit scared of power tools, mainly the saw ones. In my head I would not be able to control them. However, if I wanted to help build my roof I had to learn how to use them. Well I can now say I know how to use a chop saw, Skil saw and nail gun. It is very empowering and surprisingly fun!

The next day we began the installation of the braces between the rafters to support the decking. Since this is a VERY “custom” house, the spacing between each rafter was not the same, close but not exact. Each brace had to be measured and cut to order. It took awhile but with a little patience and time we got a system down. I cut the braces and Natalie, Jeff and Josh nailed them in place and measured the next ones. Of course with power tools we were all wearing ear protection, so there was a lot of yelling of measurements back and forth. While we were quite quiet during the bagging part of the house, we well made up for it during the roof building. IMG_2800 IMG_2804 IMG_2806IMG_2814

Since we waited a few additional weeks to receive our ring than we had hoped, we were in a time crunch to build our roof as fast as could before the next Fall rain/snow storm hit. Josh and I would wake at 5:30am, make a quick trip to Lowe’s to collect any additional supplies we might need and then begin working by 8am and finish at sunset. During one of those early morning we were treated to a beautiful sunrise over the mountains on our drive home from Lowe’s.

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At the end of the third day we began decking the roof. We got three sections decked before dark. On this day we also got the exterior of the house spray foamed. The bags disappeared and our house turned into a huge marshmallow.

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Again, the decking was a “custom” process. We’d throw a sheet of plywood up, measure it, drop it back down, cut it, throw it back up, and nail it into place. Then onto the next. But again, we got a system down and were able to do a few sections per hour. We attempted to finish the decking on Friday, the fourth day of roofing, but got halted by rain on a 40 degree day- not warm. We only had five sections left at the end of that day- so close. Here is Jeff and Natalie, standing out of the rain under an almost complete roof!

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The rain continued for the next few days. Natalie and Jeff were to leave for work on Monday, and on Sunday morning asked it we wanted to try and finish the roof before they left. We all bundled up, put on our rain gear and set out. After a few hours, we had it finished minus a small section at the very top, which Josh and I covered with a tarp to finish when the rain stopped.

Over the next few days, Josh and I began closing the gaps in the walls to seal the house. It was cold and rainy but at least we had a semi dry place to work under the roof and were well equipped with Patagonia gear. That’s what all our expensive technical clothes from Patagonia are for right- building an Earthbag house at 38 degrees in the rain? We even got our first snow fall last Wednesday.

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We are loving how the house is turning out and are extremely grateful to Natalie and Jeff for their incredible help. There is no way we could have done it without them or without the design input from my Uncle Bill. Now we are waiting for the rain to stop so we can dry the roof decking, finish the roof covering, pour a concrete floor and install doors. And finally the house will be sealed so we can begin work inside, where it is warm!

Still Waiting…

Well not much has happened over the past few weeks since I last wrote. We had hoped to have our roof on by the end of August, but then time came and past with still no roof in sight. To begin the roof we ordered a steel ring be fabricated for us by a local welder. This ring will sit atop a center post and have an attachment site for each of our twenty rafters. It is the key piece of the roof. Five weeks ago we found a welder we really liked. He spent two hours with us designing the ring and was excited about building it for us. He estimated it would take a few weeks to make. In my head a few means three… I should have clarified. At the beginning of the fourth week we were told we would have it by the end of the week. We were pumped! We ordered our wood supplies for the roof so they would be delivered a few days prior and arranged for our carpenter to meet us the following Monday to start building. Our wood supplies were delivered that Wednesday. We erected our center post and installed braces to hold it. We were ready. And then Friday evening the call came that the ring was still not ready. In fact they hadn’t begun it. Turns out hunting season takes quite a few folks away this time of year and they people they had to outsource the first part of the project to were gone hunting. This coming week our welder will be gone hunting. They estimated it would be done by the end of the following week, the fifth week. Unfortunately by that point our carpenter would no longer be available to help us and winter is quickly approaching (there is a good amount of snow high in the mountains and we are surrounded by gorgeous yellow trees and red bushes). Our time working time outside is quickly diminishing as winter gets closer. It then rained for the next week, which to be honest would not have been the most pleasant to work in. So we waited, cut wood, waited, cut more wood, went on a few amazing fall runs, waited, got a chimney, scaffolding, erected scaffolding, and are still waiting. But now we are READY! And Josh got to see the ring yesterday! It is no longer imaginary, just not complete. The welder was going to come in today to hopefully finish the ring, we had hoped it would be done yesterday… But man once we get this ring it is going to be awesome! And thanks to our many kind friends who have agreed to assist us, some with carpentry skills (yea!), we will have a roof one day!!

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A few things we did this month for the house:

Wood bond beam installed to attach roof to wall.

LOTS of wood cut up by Josh with chainsaw. We have a massive pile waiting to be split so we can be warm this winter.

Plumbing and gas line roughed in.  and sand sifted and spread to level floor. Once we have a roof we can pour a cement floor!

Stay tuned for our roof!!

Rocks, Salmon and Blueberries

We finished bagging! We completed the last row on Aug. 8th at 7:30pm. It was a beautiful day and with wonderful friends that came over to help us. We celebrated at lunch with moose burgers and beer and then had king salmon for dinner.

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And the final bag!IMG_2668IMG_2672

After we finished bagging we decided it was time to take a couple days away from the house. We headed down to Seward, AK to fish with Josh’s dad in hopes of bringing home a lot of Silver Salmon for the freezer for the winter.  The ocean out of Seward is beautiful! This time around we did not see any whales but we saw many eagles, puffins a few porpoises and hundreds of Pollock but not much salmon. We had possibly the best camping spot I’ve ever experienced. We camped inside a shallow cave on a beach on an island about 20 feet from the high tide water line. The cave gave us just enough protection to keep our tent dry from the drizzly weather. And the beach was covered in perfect skipping stones. It was the best night sleep I’ve had camping in a long time.

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We returned from camping and began working on the next project- the roof. In my last post I mentioned the loft we were going to install for the second floor. Well were decided to scratch that plan. It was getting too complicated and expensive for us to feel it was achievable with our lack of carpentry skills. We needed something simpler even though it meant for the time being our house would be smaller. We can always add on later right?!

After much discussion we settled on a cone roof with a less steep pitch than we would have had if we had gone forward with the second story. Aka a safer and simpler roof for us to build. We worked with a welder to design a steel ring that will sit on a post in the center of the house. This ring will have twenty hangers to attach our twenty rafters to. We are still waiting for the ring to be completed by the welder so in the mean time we completed the bond beam along the top of the walls to tie all the sections of wall together into one continuous structure and to attach the roof to.

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Since the ring still was not completed we roughed in our plumbing and leveled our floor to prep it for the concrete floor we will have poured. Roughing the plumbing required us to dig trenches 12″ deep to bury the pipes beneath the floor. When my mom came to visit in May she was thrilled with how many amazing river rocks we have on our property and wanted us to save them for future use. Well over the past few weeks I feel we have done little but sort and save rocks into enormous piles. Ones that we know we will have to move again because landscaping plans are something we just haven’t figured out yet. While digging the plumbing trenches we bent our pulaski attempting to dig through hundreds of rocks, raked and shoveled them to smooth our floor for leveling and sifted them out of the sand we’d use for leveling the floor. I think they are beautiful as well but I am so tired of sorting rocks! But finally we have a level floor (mostly) and plumbing installed.

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We are now just waiting for the ring to be completed so we can begin the roof. What better to do while waiting than to pick wild blueberries!

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Moose likes to eat blueberries too- IMG_2728

Lot’s of blueberries stored for winter!IMG_2735

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Day by Day, Bag by Bag

It has been quite awhile since I’ve last posted and in that time we have accomplished a bunch! Day after day, typically 6 days a week for 6-8 hours a day, we’ve been bagging for the past two months. We’ve gone through 5.5 truck loads of dirt, hundreds of gallons of water, and 2.5 rolls of barbed wire. We began this process having completed hours of research on Earthbag building and techniques and now two months later feel we could write our own book with tips and what not to do’s. It has been an evolving process, but so far successful and exhausting. Though I must be getting stronger as I am not quite as tired at the end of the day as I was in the beginning. It must be all the coconut ice cream I’ve been guilt-free consuming each night!

We started out with Josh and I, then added a friend or two a few days a week. Now that the walls are above our heads we have a minimum of three people working everyday- two people filling one bag and another mixing dirt. One of us stands on the wall or a ladder and the other hands that person mixed dirt scoop by scoop. We’ve got a system down now and it moves impressively quickly when we have five of us as we’ve had for the past couple of weeks.

Early in the month beams went in on the south-side to support our wall of windows. A few rows later additional window frames in the bedroom and bathroom were installed. We now get to skip every space for a door and window. That cut the distance we’d have to lay bags immensely.

In the beginning we set a goal- finish bagging within the first week of August. I felt it was a lofty goal but one that had to be set. The bags need at least one month to dry (cure) before any chance of freezing. Yes… I now live in a place where there is a good chance of it freezing by early September. It is crazy to think that Fall is almost upon us now that August is so close, where in Austin, TX August is the epitome of HOT. But I sure do love it here and am constantly overwhelmed with excitement that I get to live here.

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Back to the house, we only have a few more rows to go! And within a few days we hope to install the floor joists for the 2nd floor/loft. In the beginning when I realized how physically demanding filling the bags would be I wasn’t sure if we’d make it and I was dreaming of the day we’d be done. Though we aren’t done yet, it became a routine I got used to. Start at 10, bag till 6, shower, eat, eat ice cream, and sleep. Repeat. Day by day, bag by bag. Then we took a few days off from bagging (while our foundation was being backfilled) and I found myself almost missing the progress and how tired I was at the end of the day. Now that it is within sight I’m already thinking of the next thing we can build with Earthbags.

Window beams and bedroom window:

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Tamping!

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Mooseman and his log:

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Pounding re-bar for extra strength:

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Spray foam and insulation skirting on the foundation- keepin’ the frost out!:

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Backfilled foundation!

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We found a ducky in the driveway, well Moose found it but we got to it first. There is no water near us so we had no idea where it came from.

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Thank you to all of our helpers!

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Electric line getting dug and laid. Hopefully it and natural gas will be connected soon so we can see and be warm this winter!

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“Don’t move the bag”

The last few weeks have been a blur. Each morning we fill our four 5 gallon water tanks, since we still don’t have power to run a pump (yay power company!), load up in the Astro Van and for 8 hours fill bag after bag with moist soil. 8 hours later we’d come home exhausted, take a shower, eat and crash. It is rewarding building, knowing we are literally building our home one shovel full at a time, but it is tiring.

We are happy about our progress though. In about 1.5 weeks we laid our first three rows and installed two door forms. Then Josh left for Reno to shoot a few weddings and events, and a few friends and I set another 2.25 rows in another week.

To give you a picture of our day, for 8 hours, one person shovels about 25 scoops of dirt into a wheelbarrow. Then mixes water with that dirt to make a consistency like that of packing a snow ball (Josh’s terms, the Texan in me never would have put that together). To this day he and the other Alaskan helping us have made the best mixed dirt- they have the snow ball making skills. While that person mixes, another person scoops dirt (using a coffee can sized pail)  from a wheelbarrow and drops it into a polypropylene woven bag that sits on the wall where we want to lay the bag and is held open by a metal bag stand we built. Every few scoops we compact the dirt in the bag by hand so that when we remove the bag stand, all 100 or so pounds of dirt don’t slump to the bottom of the bag. Instead it stands tall while you try to quickly but methodically fold and roll the top and remove the bag stand. Once this is done we drop the bag and butt it up tight against the bag previous laid so that the open sides seals against the previous bag. Ideally it falls perfectly. Ideally. For awhile I was really good at it. I guess there is a time when you have too much practice because it almost never lines up perfect for me anymore. Now it is a thrill when it does! Because as the title of this post states, don’t move the bag. Inevitably we have to move it a bit to make sure it is inline with our circle and flush against the previous bag but the less moving you can do the better because they are insanely heavy! Once it is in place we pull out a piece of sheet metal like a table cloth. The sheet metal was used so we could slide the bag around a bit before it was locked in place by the barbed wire we laid on top of the row below. As it also turns out, barbed wire is slightly scary to work with. And it means no sitting on the wall to rest.

After about 300 or so bags we ran out of dirt and had to order our second delivery- two more dump loads! With what is turning into a real wall (about hip height on me) and Josh coming home on Monday, we are ready to do the same thing we do everyday- mix and fill more bags with soil. Yay! I think you may be getting the point of house this house will be built.Thank you to everyone who has come out and help us so far. We greatly appreciate it!!

As with any project you have to take some days off to refocus and recuperate. I’ve included a few pictures of some mountain time I snuck in over the last few days.

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