Have you already thought of building a small ecological construction, either for a calm retreat or for a simpler and more sustainable lifestyle? Could you imagine yourself in a nice hobbit house hooked up by the side of a mountain, at the border of a field, or just in the back of your garden? If those images have lit a sparkle in your mind, then this article might be for you. I wanted to share the experience I got from the Swedish ecological farm of Hästekasen, and lead you through the different steps of the construction of a round houses, and who knows, maybe inspire some of you to get started with this not so crazy project.
Methods I am going to present here are just a way of doing, there are obviously thousand of different techniques as our friend internet can witness. Here we made the choice to have a pretty basic design in order to build it faster, with less trouble. If you want a finer result it is definitely possible but will require more woodwork and more skills. We also wanted to use as much as possible our own resources, since Hästekasen owns forest we had a lot of wood, and the soil itself is basically pure clay.
But don’t worry, even if you don’t have a lot of logs available in your garden, such a building has the big advantage, if you live in the country side, to require mainly local materials, easy and rather cheap to get. We also need a few oil-processed things such as geotextile, pond liner, a draining pipe and maybe some concrete but, you can as well give a second life to recuperation materials if you want to go full ecologic. Anyway it is usual nice to enjoy a bit of modernity when it prevents you efficiently from moisture.
A roundhouse is then very economic and ecological to build in terms of materials and also of tools, maybe not the best time wise, but honestly this occupation is way more rewarding than staying in front of a screen.
The amount and dimensions of materials will obviously depend on the size and the design of your dreamt house. Anyway here is a list of necessary stuff you need to get started. By the way, do not hesitate to spend time to drawing, to design your future house, to redesigning it and rere… well you got the point! Indeed, the more time you think about it, the faster the construction, and the more confident you will be about it. It is also a nice experience to see how lines on a paper can look like in reality.
The draining method you see here is quite basic, and if you are planning to build over a rather wet place, you might want to have the ditch deeper, and to put a 10 cm layer of gravels under the whole surface of the roundhouse. I would actually advice to create this layer when the building is done and you just have the floor left to do, if not you might contaminate your drainage and it would not be efficient anymore.
If not you might end up with a real hobbit house, which might not be very comfortable, ask Gandalf about it do not forget that almost one-third of the pole’s total height will be dig down. It is nice to use draining gravels around the poles because it will keep them drier. Wood is rotting when there is water and air, well; oxygen, and if it stays only in one of these elements it would take it forever to decompose. Some people burn the end that will be in the soil to prevent them from rotting, but if you managed to drain properly this step is not really necessary.
Now that all poles are standing, you should set temporary all beams in their future position in order to mark all intersections that will be cut. This step makes the wood work really easy and fast, so if you don’t have specific expectations here, I would advise you to follow this method.
The nail (arming steal) technique happens to be very efficient and fast to fix logs together. If you want an even stronger structure, it is possible to put more nails per intersections.Now comes the funnier part of the building to me: raising the reciprocal roof structure. It is actually a lot easier than it seems at first sight, as long as you are not so afraid of heights, and if you feel at ease while moving on this areal structure, it will be a child game. I would advice to be at least three persons for this step for more comfort and safety. We usually grind a bit the beams in order to have a better grip, and we nail them with the same method as before. This step can be done with many different techniques, with various outputs according to how skilled you are.
Once the structure is raised, spend time to make it even, centred, and balanced: small problems are quite visible from the inside and it can be a bit frustrating. Make sure that the central hole is smaller than your glass.
For the covering, the two methods are taking approximately the same time, but I would say using planks is quite easier. If you have another idea for covering, go for it, just make sure it would be strong enough to hold earth on top. About flexible branches technique, I advise to rotate the swirl in the opposite direction of the beam structure. In other words, do the contrary of the top picture.
Earth and straw will isolate your roof very well and become very nice when the grass will grow. You could even plant some strawberries on the side. This kind of roof is quite strong, but the danger with stepping on it would be to damage the rubber layer.
You now have your structure ready and protected from water, we created such a structure around our camp fire to create a social space, and it happens to be a really nice place to be and hang around, especially in summer, but also longer in the autumn since we are protected from rain and dew. If you want to create a house you “just” have to raise the walls.
For that purpose, clay is a magical cheap and ecological material that will help you creating a warm cosy home. If you want to be efficient, follow the technique illustrated here! It can also work with one single worker, if he or she is strong enough and if the tarp is a bit longer, just keep on the one-two step until you rich the end of the tarp, then turn around and start over from the other end. But it is a lot more fun to get dirty with friends. Ah, yes, you will get dirty. As I have heard it somewhere, if you do not get dirty, you are probably doing it wrong!
Take care of the quantities, a big batch becomes quickly very physical to work. Since it is a demanding physical and repetitive activity, listen to your body while working and adapt your posture. Your back will be quite happy if you keep it as straight as possible while lifting the tarp with your leg instead of your arms that should stay tight. I will repeat it here the important motion in the method is to fold the clay mix before stepping. Stepping alone really is less efficient and takes also energy.
Now you know the magical method that will provide all the clay you will use for your walls, and believe me you are going to need a lot. If you have never experience clay work before, I would advise to create a small frame somewhere and do all your tests in here, with different fluidity (with more or less water and saw dust). Try to incorporate what you want such as logs, glass, stones, bottles, and examinate how it works, try to stick some clay to straw, try different angles at the side… after a few days of drying, adapt from your conclusions and get started with a real wall.
There should be foundations under the walls, after compacting the soil, create a mineral base out of bricks or stones, that can linked with concrete. We tried with earth-bags, it is very fast but I am not personally satisfied by the results, it does not feel good to me; it retains way too much moisture, and is not really easy to cover with clay.
If you want quick walls, go for the straw bale solution, it will be very thick walls and hard to customize, but easy and fast to make. After a first layer of only wet clay-sand mix, just through roughly the usual clay mix on the wall, make sure you get at the very least 5 cm thick clay layer, and then smoothen everything out. To make the wall more even, use water and your hands first, then with a trowel and maybe more water. You can also do a thinner finish layer mix with some chalk, but I have not experienced this yet.
The other technique for the wall enables all kind of creative or crazy idea, but will require more work. A few tips for your design ideas:
- Bottles and jars give really good effect at the condition that there are really close to each other so that you pattern can appear. You do not have to clean the glass right away, it is still quite easy to do when the clay is dry, but take care of the edges when clay is fresh.
- Logs that have been cut at the same length can be oiled on both extremities. It is advised to use dry wood, if not mushrooms will develop in them the drying process of the clay. The more logs you use, the less clay you have to prepare, the smaller the logs, the less clay you use.
- Home made windows with fancy shape are easy to create, but keep in mind that if you use simple glass, there will be a lot of condensation dripping from it, so make sure this water can flow away with a little slope. Creating home made double glass windows is quite harder.
I advise to aim for simple geometrical shapes for a better effect on your walls, if you put too many things in your walls it become confusing and we can lose the effect of the attended shape. We can do anything out of clay, your walls can become real sculptures, so let your imagination and creativity go on.
It is quite important to spend a lot of time on finishing while the clay is still fresh, even though you might be bored or tired. It is actually harder to do it the next day, and impossible once it dried. You will not be disappointed to spend this extra working time.
There you are now ready to start your own little house if you wish to try the adventure. I personally took part in the building of three round houses. Every single time, it was a wonderful opportunity to discover and share skills with international volunteers of the farm. I am very thankful that Hästekasen, among many other projects, offered me this chance. If you liked building tree houses when you were a child, you will love this experience which leaves a lot of technical and aesthetic freedom. Furthermore, being able to build a liveable small house on our own, with local materials, empowers us with a considerable material independence.
I wish you nice moments in your little hobbit cottage,
Bye! And see you for the next article =)
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