Foundations

I am currently working with a non-profit organization called Community Rebuilds in Crested Butte, Colorado. We are building two, three-story duplex straw bale homes for lower income families as a solution to affordable housing. The foundation was supposed to get poured last fall, however the concrete company in the area was behind and instead we have gotten to be a part of it so I thought I would blog about the process.

1. Concrete Form

Our first job was to build the form for the concrete.This was a very tedious process because you have to get the whole thing level and in the correct position. The way you do that is by using survey points. Survey points are legal points that are put in by surveyors and we are not allowed to move them. This is because if the house ended up being over the property line then we wouldn’t be liable.

So initially we set up all of the walls that created the form using long pieces of wood. We would find the survey points and create our corners then drive stakes in behind the wood so that they would stay in place. Then once the shape of the house was created, we would move it to get it exactly where it needed to be according to the blueprints. Once the form was in the correct place, we then had to level it. This required a laser level. We had to walk around the form and add or take away dirt to get it all the exact height. Once that was completed, we had to again fix the position of the form and get it where it needed to be. This took us several days to accomplish.

Once that was complete the plumber came in to lay in the piping, only a few of us got to go up and help him with that. 

The completed form with some interns helping install plumbing

The completed form with some interns helping install plumbing

2. Radon Pipe

Finally once the forms were set we had to lay our radon pipe. The radon pipe was a black perforated tube that is laid into the ground and surrounded the entire foundation area.

Note: Radon comes from the uranium that is in the ground. You usually have to deal with radon in mountainous areas. Radon is atomic so it can come through the smallest of spaces. You have lay several layers and special tubing in the foundation to redirect it out of the house. The legal limit of radon is 4 and it is the 2nd most common cause of lung cancer with smoking being the first. Because the tube is obviously hollow, the radon will go into it because it will take the path of least resistance. The pipe will lead out of the house with a fan at the end of it to suck out any radon that has entered. Therefore preventing radon from entering the home.

3. Gravel

Once our radon tube is laid we added gravel.The purpose of the gravel is for drainage and it should cover the radon tubing. The gravel also had to be leveled evenly.

4. Plastic

Next was a layer of plastic.The purpose of the plastic is to create an extra barrier for the radon to have to travel through.

5. Insulation

After that we laid a layer of blue board foam for insulation. It’s important in places with climates like Crested Butte to have lots of insulation in your foundation to hold heat energy.

Note: Looking at the blueprints there were certain spots that we had to leave open with no gravel or blue board. That is where there will be main support for the roof and to create the strongest structure possible it needs to be directly on concrete and compacted earth with no gravel or blue board underneath.

You'll notice how hard we work...

6. Rebar Grid

After the insulation was added we created a rebar grid. Concrete isn’t strong enough on it’s own to withstand pressure so you have to add rebar to create stability and structure. Our rebar grid was 16”x16” squares. This was another tedious process of getting the rebar laid correctly. We had to cut the pieces to the correct length with an angle grinder and a rebar bender.

Then we had to lay them out and pull out our tape measures and tie them with rebar ties. The north and east walls had to have “L” shaped rebar connecting to them that stood vertical so that we would have something to connect to retaining wall to. We have to build a retaining wall because of the height of the dirt behind the house. However you can’t build the retaining wall until the bottom slab is finished and since concrete dries chemically and not mechanically, you have to have a way to connect the two masses. (Something that dries chemically can never go back to it’s original state, something that dries mechanically, like cob, once dried can have moisture added to it to become soft and shapeable again)

You can see the "L" shape rebar in the back that form a teepee shape. The blue is the blue board and the white piping is the radiant heating. You can even see the open space where we didn't fill in.

You can see the "L" shape rebar in the back that form a teepee shape. The blue is the blue board and the white piping is the radiant heating. You can even see the open space where we didn't fill in.

7. Radiant Heating

Once the grid was created the plumber came in and laid radiant heating that will heat the concrete and floor of the house. Radiant heating is amore efficient way of heating because it heats the mass rather than trying to heat the air.

 

8. Pour concrete, add anchor bolts, smooth

Once all of that is completed then the concrete is ready to be poured. They brought in one concrete truck at a time and began the pour. The process was to pour, smooth/level, clean the tube, change trucks and repeat.  They began by filling the outside first. Once the outside was filled up level with the form they used that to scree off of and fill into the middle. They then smooth it out with magnesium trowels and a really long float called a bull float. After the bull float has been used they place anchor bolts where they need to go. Anchor bolts are how you connect the house to the foundation. They stick a few inches out of the concrete and when you go to frame, you drill holes into the bottom of boards and connect them to the anchor bolts. The blueprints mark where they should be placed. You want to make sure they don’t get put in doorways and you want them to be within 12” of corners and buried 7” into the concrete spaced 48” on center. Once the anchor bolts are in place and everything has been smoothed they use a power trowel or finishing machine that almost looks like a push lawn mower with a big fan that spins on the bottom, with each fan blade being a trowel. After that someone will put on trowel skis so that they can crawl out and smooth out any bumps that were left from the power trowel.

Note: The wood that connects to the anchor bolts has to be pressure treated or it would rot being on the concrete.

Here is the power trowel or finishing machine

Here is the power trowel or finishing machine

9. WAIT!

Now all you have to do is wait for the slab to set!

10. Control Joints

The very last thing that gets done once the concrete sets is someone has to come in with a concrete saw and add control joints. Control joints are lines that are put into the slab so that if the slab was to move due to movement in the earth then it would crack at the joint and not spider web throughout the slab.

Here are some pictures of the process of the grid and form for the retaining wall going up as well as the entire finished product. 

Now that the process of a foundation is explained, I want to talk a little bit about concrete.

I didn't think concrete was a green product...

Since we are doing natural building I'm sure you are curious about the choice to use concrete.. Obviously as most people know concrete foundations aren’t exactly “green”. A concrete foundation has a pretty high embodied energy. Embodied energy being the amount of energy associated with the mining and processing of materials, manufacturing, transport of product and production.  In our situation we have to follow codes so we didn’t really have many other options, however there are a few to choose from if you are building on a smaller scale. First though, let’s discuss the pro’s of a concrete foundation.

Pro's of Concrete...

So the positive side of a concrete foundation with the insulation we added to it is that because it is a monolithic slab it has a huge amount of mass, and mass holds energy. So although it has high embodied energy to begin with, the amount of heat energy it saves can potentially make it more sustainable in the long run because you won’t have to heat your home nearly as often. Your mass will hold heat rather than letting it get lost. So you are using less fossil fuels long term and in the end is much more efficient. Other benefits are that it has the potential to last longer and is more structurally sound.

Here are some points to be aware of with foundations we learned from our construction supervisor Dusty Sylvanson

You must…

  • -Get below the frost line
  • -Eliminate soil moisture
  • -Look at capillary breaks (a barrier so moisture can’t get into building)

You must consider…

  • -Site conditions
  • -Loads
  • -Drainage
  • -Building design materials
  • -Energy and material efficiency
  • -Long term or short term structure
  • -Code jurisdiction requirements

A good foundation is…

  • -Economical
  • -Low embodied energy
  • -Well insulated
  • -Well drained

Foundations for Straw bale…

  • -Wide platform
  • -Capillary break
  • -Minimum 6” from grade (grade being the ground surrounding the house)
  • -Plaster stops
  • And always remember that bales should never be below grade because they will rot!

Here is a picture of the blueprint model of what we did. At the very bottom the hatches are the compacted soil, then you see the next layer is black diamonds which is the gravel. Then lines which is blue board. Then you see the long black lines with the dots, that represents the rebar. The bottom is obviously the bottom slab and the vertical one is the retaining wall.

So lastly let's discuss the alternatives to concrete foundations. There is another form of conventional concrete foundation that we could have used that includes a crawl space and is less concrete, however it doesn't have as much mass and therefore doesn't hold as much heat energy. 

So... the alternatives

 Here is a picture of a power point Dusty showed us. These are some of the alternatives that include:

  • a shipping pallet on a gravel pad
  • straw bale directly on gravel pad
  • sandbags topped with cob or concrete
  • framed box filled with stone and concrete
  • stabilized adobe, rammed earth or field stone
  • the Earthship approach which is used tires with rammed earth
  • railroad ties and gravel
  • rock-filled gabion 

So while these can all be acceptable foundations in certain situations depending on climate and terrain, there are still several issues you could potentially face. If you are having to deal with codes and regulations you could be very limited on your options. Also, many of these options aren't good for load bearing which means you are limited to the size of your structure. So if you just want something small one of them could be perfect for you. They also may not last quite as long, unfortunately these options aren't guaranteed to last. 

Sadly there isn't another material out there yet that works as well for a foundation as concrete. Some people have mentioned hempcrete but it is not nearly as structurally sound. However, there has recently been a new product that has been found that apparently is stronger than concrete, but they haven't found a way to mass produce it yet. Below is the attached video if you are interested.

CEMENT ALTERNATIVE VIDEO

Hopefully in the future we will have better alternatives to concrete that will be able to be up to code for neighborhood regulations. Until then, this is the foundation we created and we all learned an extensive amount in the process. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, I hope you found it to be informative. 

NAMI.org

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

What started as a small group of families gathered around a kitchen table in 1979 has blossomed into the nation's leading voice on mental health. Today, we are an association of hundreds of local affiliates, state organizations and volunteers who work in your community to raise awareness and provide support and education that was not previously available to those in need.

- See more at: http://www.nami.org/About-NAMI#sthash.Q3sjNDhV.dpuf

NAMI: May is Mental Health Month

Each year millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental health condition.

During the month of May, NAMI and participants across the country are bringing awareness to mental health. Each year we fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for equal care. Each year, the movement grows stronger.

We believe that these issues are important to address all year round, but highlighting these issues during May provides a time for people to come together and display the passion and strength of those working to improve the lives of all Americans whose lives are affected by mental health conditions.

1 in 5 Americans will be affected by a mental health condition in their lifetime and every American is affected or impacted through their friends and family and can do something to help others.

- See more at: http://www.nami.org/mhm#sthash.5RB4HW4K.dpuf

Kombucha

I am currently at Pun Pun Organic Farm outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. They promote self-reliance and provide many workshops for both Thai people and foreigners. They do everything from seed saving to natural building and are a really amazing community of people! Recently I have been getting more interested in fermenting and was very pleased when one of the women here wanted to show me how to make kombucha. So, I thought I’d do a blog so everyone can see how easy the process is to create this healthy and yummy drink!

First off, lets answer the question...

What is kombucha?

Kombucha is essentially just fermented tea that is made using a SCOBY (Symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). You might hear some people also refer to the SCOBY as “the mother”. It is said to have derived from China and the literal translation of the Chinese word for “kombucha” translates to “mushroom tea”. However, the SCOBY in kombucha is not a mushroom, it just resembles one.  So, in making kombucha when you add sugar and tea to the mother it results in B vitamins, probiotics, antioxidants, and wonderful fizzy yumminess!

Note: Many people are very passionate about the positive health benefits that come from consuming kombucha, however, there are some arguments on whether or not kombucha is scientifically proven to improve your health. So always remember it’s important to do your own research and be conscious of where your sources come from! Even with that being said though, I think it’s safe to say if you are a soda lover and crave the fizz that coke provides, kombucha is a much better alternative!

How do I make it?

The first thing you need is to acquire a mother culture or SCOBY. Fortunately, it’s easier to get one than you would think! So don’t fret if you don’t have any kombucha making friends to gift you one. All you have to do is go buy a bottle of kombucha from the store. Drink half of it and then pour the other half into a large sterilized jar. Put cheesecloth over the jar, held down with a rubber band so that no dirt, bacteria or bugs can get into it. Leave it out on your counter for a few days and it will start fermenting all on it’s own. You will notice a thin clear jelly layer forming in your jar, and that’s your mother!

So the thin layer that will show up is your very first mother, you COULD go ahead and make your first batch of kombucha with this, however it’s best to get her matured first. You can do this by just brewing black tea and sugar and adding it to the jar and letting it ferment for a few days. (You will want the tea you brew to be sweeter than anything you would normally drink) Start tasting it every day or two and see what’s happening. As long as it’s still sweet, it still has a ways to go. For your first round you will want to let it get past sour so that you will have a strong culture to work with. You will notice that your mother will get thicker and thicker and eventually turn white.

But aren’t I supposed to be staying away from sugar?

Well, since the mother is a mixture of yeast and bacteria, the yeast eats the sugar and turns it into alcohol. Then the bacteria eat the alcohol and turn it into lactic acid bacteria, which, like yogurt, the bacteria is supposed to boost immunity and overall health. So you are basically being left with little to no traces of sugar. Once you’ve gone from sweet to sour, you’ve got your kombucha! (This process of the yeast and bacteria is fermentation)

Once you have a nice, thick white mother culture you are ready to make the kombucha you will drink. You should pour off about 60-80% of what’s in your jar, leaving behind your mother. The amount you pour out depends on how strong your kombucha is. If it’s SUPER sour you might want to pour off just a little more. Also, if you have a garden, don’t throw it out! Pouring the kombucha on your growing vegetables works as a great fertilizer!

Now you’re left with a little bit of sour kombucha and your mother. You are officially ready to experiment! You can use any kind of tea, herbs, fruit juice etc to your kombucha. Just be aware, not everything you try will end up tasting good.  I recommend using a recipe for your first time so that you end up with something tasty! Here we made a chai kombucha and it turned out very delicious. Or as they say in Thai, “Aroi!”

Here is a chart from Pun Pun of the process. I will also type it out just as an overview!

  1. Boil water
  2. Add tea of any kind with sugar (make it stronger and sweeter than you would normally drink)
  3. Let it cool completely
  4.  Add tea to the mother and some mature kombucha liquid left over from previous batch
  5. Cover with cloth tied with elastic bands so that it is open to air. Leave for 7-15 days depending on local temperature. (I’ve found some sources online say as much as 30 days) If left in a dark place it will become fizzy.

Just make sure to taste it every few days to see how it’s going!

I will attach the recipe we used, but first let me note some things that were stated by the people here at Pun Pun.

  • Any sugar is good to use, however be aware that some sugar is sweeter than others so you may need to adjust your recipe depending on what sugar is available to you. Also, you cannot use honey or stevia as a replacement for the sugar, but they can be added for flavor. If you are interested in using honey check out Jun Tea.
  • After making multiple batches, if the mother gets too big, take the top layer out and give it away or use it for compost.
  • If the mother looks gross or ugly just wash it with kombucha or vinegar to clean it, however don’t use water.
  • Make sure to clean your container very well and sterilize it thoroughly so your kombucha doesn’t get contaminated.
  • If you see any mold on the mother, throw it away along with the kombucha. The mother should always be clean and white in color.

ALSO – some helpful tips

  • If you are adding hard spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves etc you should add those as your water is boiling for your tea. Soft herbs like mint should be added with the tea once the water is already boiled.
  • If you want to add fruit juice, add it to your culture at the same time you add your tea

Now, as I said earlier, there are many said health benefits! Including but not limited to:

  • Improved digestion and bowel health
  • Cleansing and detoxification
  • Increased beneficial bacteria in your digestive system
  • Immune support

Last note!

Please be aware that the sanitary conditions of brewing kombucha are extremely important. Drinking contaminated kombucha can make you sick so only drink kombucha that you know comes from a sterile and safe place.

Also – because kombucha is a fermented drink there are traces of alcohol. The longer it ferments, the higher the alcohol percentage. What you buy in the store has to be regulated so that it is under the legal alcohol limit but just be aware if you make it yourself that you won’t know the accurate levels of alcohol content.

So like anything – drink in moderation and enjoy!

Ingredients for Chai Kombucha

  • 1 Gallon of water
  • Brew tea with:
  • 4 Black tea bags
  • black peppercorns
  • Cloves
  • Star anise
  • Cardamom
  • Cinnamon
  • Ginger
  • 1/2-1 cup of sugar depending on the kind of sugar you use, just make sure it’s extra sweet

I hope that you felt this was informative and helpful and that you take the initiative to try making kombucha on your own! Don't be discouraged if it doesn't turn out well your first time, it can be a lot of trial and error! Have a wonderful day! 

Understanding Soil pH

If you are new to gardening you might not understand the importance of soil pH levels in your soil. While it is still something I am learning about, I thought I would do some research and write a blog on it to also help with my understanding of the subject.

So first off, what is soil pH and why does it matter?

The nutrients that plants need to survive are absorbed through their roots. The way plants receive those nutrients is by absorbing them once they are dissolved in water. If the mixture of the water with the nutrients is either too acidic or too alkaline, the nutrients won’t be able to easily dissolve and the roots will be incapable of absorbing them, making the plant unable to grow.  This is where your pH level comes in. Soil pH is the measurement of the amount acidity or alkalinity that is in a soil.  pH is measured on a scale of 0 to 14, 0 being pure Hydrochloric acid and 14 being pure sodium hydroxide, which is alkaline. No plant can survive in either of the extremes, however some plants do better in soil that is more acidic than alkaline and vice versa.  Neutral pH is 7, and most plants do best when they are in the range of anywhere between 6 and 7.5.  You can find out the pH level of your soil with a test kit that can easily be found in any gardening store, nursery or online. So, soil pH level is important because if it is off, you're plants can't absorb any nutrients and they won't survive. 

That being said, it is important to test your soil to find out if you need to adjust your soil so that your plants have the best possible chance of survival. However, be aware of what you are planting. HERE is a link to see the list of plants that thrive best in certain levels.  If your test shows that the number is more than a .5 difference from what you need, you are going to need amend your soil.

Once you find out what level your soil is at, if it is not what you need it to be, you are going to need to figure out how to adjust it.  Be aware that it can take months to adjust the pH level of your soil.  You should test every 2-3 months and only expect about a .5 unit of difference in that time. Every time you test, you can add more amendments. Also, be conscious about the fact that adding extra amendments can cause more harm than good. If you are adding anything that comes from a bag, make sure to follow the directions exactly. Too much can be damaging.  It is usually best start testing and amending in the fall time so that hopefully by spring you are ready to start planting. You will make it easier for yourself if you choose plants that thrive best in the soil you already have.

Now, to adjust your soil, lets first say your soil is acidic. This means that the pH level is lower than 7.  With acidic soil it means that your soil is lacking in calcium and magnesium. The most common organic fixer for soil with high acidity is Lime.  There are two different lime amendments. Dolomitic limestone is for if your soil has tested low in magnesium, and calcitic limestone for if your soil is low in calcium. Other things that work well for acidic soil are eggshells, oyster shells, clamshells, calcite, or hardwood ashes.  

Next, lets pretend your soil is too alkaline. This means that your pH level is above 7 and that your soil is low in iron, phosphorous, and zinc.  The best way to handle high alkaline soil is to increase the nitrogen. Things that are good to add nitrogen are sulfur, acidifying fertilizers or peat moss. Again, make sure to follow instructions on your bag. However, you can never add too much organic matter such as compost, animal manure, or worm castings. You can add any kind of organic matter on as often as you want to because it will only continue to help your soil. It is also good because it is providing food for the microorganisms that are living in your soil, and you need microorganisms because when they digest the matter, they create nutrients for your plants and help create great soil structure. Click HERE to understand in depth why microorganisms are important.

Note: Peat moss is controversial because the way it is obtained is not very sustainable. Coco coir is a good alternative however it ‘s pH is closer to neutral so for using it to try and lower levels it might not do anything.

So, once you have decided what amendments to add to your soil, all you have to do is follow the instructions on the bag and apply! Or in the case of adding organic matter, just cover your bed completely. Then till it all in and you are good to go until you need to test again. Now, many people believe in no-till farming and that is another subject but I think technically if you leave amendments on top it’s considered mulch.  This will over time amend your soil but it takes much longer to decompose.

  I hope now you have a better understanding on what soil pH is and why it is important. I encourage anyone with a garden who hasn’t tested their soil to do so and maybe it will answer some questions if you are having growing some particular things! Thanks and have a great day!