Read reviews of the first three books in the Sustainable Essential Building Series by New Society Publishers – Hempcrete Construction, Building Science and Prefab Straw Bale Construction.
This article first appeared in The Owner Builder 196 August/September 2016. www.theownerbuilder.com.au
By Hannah Moloney
As we live on a steep slope we’ve had to build a lot of retaining walls in order to create functionality around access, water management and food production. We’ve used a range of techniques to do this including working with old car tires to build a big earthship-style retaining wall near our house.
Earthship construction is a building technique developed by American architect Mike Reynolds. He’s famous for using ‘rubbish’ and earth as building materials. We love his work. We chose to build an earthship-style wall as we had a small budget and a lot of excess subsoil left over from our initial earth works. We also knew we could get car tires for free from the local car yard who have to pay to get rid of them.
Check your soil
We hadn’t built one of these before, so we spent some time on YouTube learning how – there are plenty videos to watch. While it’s pretty easy, it’s also a lot of hard work. It would have been whole lot easier if we had heaps of people to help, one of those cool Wacker Packer tools and dry, gravelly soil instead of the wet and sticky clay subsoil we’ve got at our place.
This last tip is really important: the YouTube video we watched made it look like a walk in the park with dry, sandy soil in New Mexico. The builder just poured it into the tire and patted it down; in contrast we shoveled, packed, wacked and shoveled some more. It was a bit of a mission. But it’s an incredibly strong wall and used up much of our excess subsoil, for which we were grateful.
Plug, pat and pound
Starting out, we cleared the space, tacked some white geofabric to the bank to keep it from dropping crumbs and made a level pad to start laying tires. As we were almost on bedrock, we didn’t have to lay any sand or concrete for footings; we just leveled it off.
As soon as you start building up from your first tire, you have to find a way to plug the holes so the earth doesn’t just fall through. We had a pile of carpet tiles the previous owner had left under our house, which fitted perfectly, so we used them. We backfilled the area directly behind the tires with 20mm blue metal and agricultural pipe to guide excess water out of this area. In addition, drainage holes are also necessary, as you never want any water building up behind a retaining wall.
We went five tires high and angled them all slightly towards the back for structural integrity. An important thing to note is that if you go over one meter high for a retaining wall you need an engineer (in our region at least) to design and approve things, which can get complicated and expensive. Because of this, we didn’t exceed this limit – it might look taller below, but that’s because the earth around the wall had been excavated and the paving hadn’t been put down yet.
Plug the gaps
The next step involved plugging the holes between tires with subsoil. The best approach was to simply form balls of sticky soil, ‘peg it’ (throw it really hard) into the gaps and then pat it in to make sure it’s all bedded down. After that, we wrapped the whole wall in chicken wire. This is what the external renders ‘hang on’ and it helps create a smooth, level surface.
We chose concrete render instead of earth for two reasons: firstly, this wall is in the coldest, dampest area of the whole property so it needs to be able to handle long months of never seeing the sun and being constantly wet. Secondly, we’re not overly experienced with earth building, so we took the conservative approach.
The finishing touches
Recently we (as in, Anton) did the paving around this area using recycled bricks that were pulled up from our local town square. This was the final job to do before we painted the wall bright blue with a colorful patterned border.
Another nifty feature of our new wall is little steps leading up to our food gardens. The only downside to these steps is that our little daughter Frida Maria loves climbing them. When you’re not looking she’ll be up there in two seconds! We’re happy she has a great time there, but it’s just that the potential of falling onto the hard bricks below is a little too stressful for us. A little gate may be in order.
We’d love to see more people using recycled materials to build inside and outside their homes. The amount of ‘rubbish’ in our world is mind-boggling and when we look closer at so-called rubbish, you’ll notice that most of it could actually be re-purposed into a valuable resource. The possibilities are endless – we just have to pull our socks up and get creative!
*Just a quick note: car tires can have some leaching of chemicals, which we wouldn’t personally be comfortable putting near food gardens. So this wall isn’t near our growing beds. Everything downhill from it (the leaching will move with gravity) is all brick paving and house.
Hannah Moloney is the co-founder of Good Life Permaculture offering design and teaching centered around the concept of radical homemaking, placing home and community at the core in order to create a good life. www.goodlifepermaculture.com.au
In the first of a two part series article, Jacob Deva Racusin explains the differences in monitors for your walls. This is “must know” information for every builder and owner.
Alex Sparrow begins a two-part series on hemp lime, or hempcrete. Hemp lime is relatively new but is fast becoming part of the natural building lexicon.
by Tom Woolley
Ed Note: More in-depth information on hemp lime will be in Issue #64 due out in July.
When Rachel Bevan and I did the research that led to the publication of Hemp Lime Construction in 2006-7 (IHS BRE Press ISBN 978-1-84806-033-3) we had a fairly good idea of the location of every building using hempcrete in the UK and Ireland. Seven years or so later it is impossible to keep track of the use of this remarkable composite building material as it has become commonplace in the UK. This is good news because it is evidence of the widespread acceptance of this excellent sustainable way of building. However once such an innovative form of construction becomes so widely used there is also a risk of careless and poorly supervised construction, detailing and specification if it is used by people who expect it to behave like ‘conventional’ materials. Fortunately a new book : The Hempcrete Book: Designing and building with hemp lime will soon be available . By Alex Sparrow and Will Stanwix it will be published by Green Books (ISBN: 978 0 85784 120 9 )*** and will set out guidance for best practice in building construction for hemp lime
Hemp Lime construction is a method for creating a natural “concrete” which provides a solid wall system either cast around or within a timber frame structure. The composite uses small pieces of hemp shiv or hurd, which is the chopped up woody core of the plant and then mixed with water and a special lime binder mix. It is incredibly strong almost as soon as it is cast into formwork or sprayed onto permanent shuttering. The formwork can be removed almost straight away or left on for 12 hours before casting the next lift. It then takes a couple of weeks to dry out and longer to gain its full strength. Sceptics often ask, “why use hemp, and why not use wood chips or straw?” people often say (there is an inbuilt prejudice because of its relationship to Marijuana). The best way to convince such people is for a practical demonstration and it is possible to see straight away the strength of the composite. Hemp is much tougher and can cope with moisture better than other cellulose materials.
The resulting composite provides a solid wall with superb air tightness capabilities and very good insulation. Its density of 300-400 kg/m3 is strong but light and contains air pockets in the tubular hemp plant structure giving a “u”value of about 0.2 for a 300mm thick wall. (Lambda 0.06/mK). In practice the thermal performance of hemp lime, or hempcrete as it is often called, is enhanced by its thermal mass and thus the actual performance of a building is often much better than predicted by the abstract thermal resistance figures. Hemp Lime also has the benefit of being full breathable and hygroscopic so that humidity is controlled. Because of this it has been adopted by major commercial food and wine storage companies* to insulate storage warehouses as the walls provide a stable temperature and indoor climate without the need for heating, cooling or air conditioning. Hemp lime insulating walls have also been used by the British Musuem for storing special artifacts.
Hundreds of social housing schemes and one-off private houses have been built using hemp lime and it has also been used in major public and educational buildings, 5 or 6 storeys high.
Hemp lime is versatile so it can be used as an infill in multi-storey construction, in floors and roofs, as a renovating or insulating plaster and as an external render for straw bale buildings and other eco forms of construction.
Supply of materials has not been fully sorted out yet. Hemp shiv or hurd is readily available but not always in the right place so it has to be transported from processing factories where the hemp fibre is stripped off the plant. The hemp fibre is a valuable crop with a thousand uses, so the shiv used for building is almost just a by-product. Making or sourcing the lime binder is also tricky. There are a range of proprietary products available such as Tradical, Batichanvre and recently Ciment Prompt [French]. These are not always available from local suppliers of building materials. It is possible to mix up your own binder but it is essential to use the right materials with careful quality control. The binder is largely lime based, mainly hydraulic lime but some hydrated lime and or cement is also added. There have been a few “cowboys” who have been supplying hemp and lime materials that are not fit for purpose and this has led to a few building failures. Their main mistake has been to use cheap hydrated lime, often too much water and hemp fibre as well as shiv. One company even says it is more ecological to use the whole of the hemp plant even though this invariably leads to a soggy mess. We are working hard to establish proper standards. Sadly the internet gives people partial information about how to build with hemp lime and makes them into overnight experts.
In some ways hempcrete is easy to use and is even tolerant of misuse, within limits, but this means that there are many dangers and possible pitfalls. On the other hand, once you become aware of its advantages it is hard to find another way of building walls, (and possibly floors and roofs), that can meet so many of today’s demands of sustainable, healthy and energy efficient construction so successfully. As pressure builds to meet ever more strenuous energy efficiency targets, many weird and wonderful building techniques and materials have appeared in the market. While some mainstream architects and clients have embraced hemp lime quite quickly the construction industry is still largely wedded to synthetic petrochemical based methods of construction that contain many risks both to the health of building occupants and the planet. Valuable and non-renewable fossil fuel resources produce significant CO2 emissions even though ironically they are being used to reduce such emissions! Recent research shows that many so-called low or zero energy buildings consume more energy in producing the materials and construction (embodied energy) than is saved in the lifetime of the building. These synthetic quick fix approaches to building also present serious fire hazards, emit toxic chemicals. Leading to poor indoor air quality and pollute the planet when disposed of in landfill. Despite this the devotees of “Passiv Hause” in the UK tend to use synthetic materials, though there are a handful of Passiv Haus projects in Ireland that have been built with hemp.
Hempcrete is not only a low embodied energy material, it locks up CO2 in the building fabric. While land is required to grow it, hemp is also a valuable food crop and is used as an intercrop between wheat and other cereals. Those who are fixated on the ‘techy’ quick fix synthetic solutions, disparage hempcrete as being too slow to construct and dry out and not giving good enough thermal performance. However even the most deeply prejudiced, once they actually experience hempcrete, are soon won over. Despite the obstacles to using hempcrete, its rise has been rapid as it almost sells itself as a solution to producing environmentally friendly buildings. Hemp lime is widely used in France and recent workshops in Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Poland etc. have led to projects in many of these countries.
In many ways hempcrete is a touchstone to the adoption of a sustainable and environmentally responsible approach to building and renovation because it provides a key to solving so many problems that other materials and buildings systems cannot cope with. As hemp can be grown in so many parts of the world, providing it is not too arid, it can be a solution to insulating buildings in poorer developing regions as well as the gas guzzling western countries. Hemp provides food, oil, clothing, paper and many other products as well as building insulation and weather protection. Hempcrete in conjunction with timber, as long as it is used carefully, should last much longer than many of the petrochemical based greenwash materials being used today.
Designing and building with hempcrete is a real demonstration of a total commitment to ‘saving the planet” and protecting the health and wellbeing of building occupants. It’s an easy commitment to make because hempcrete is affordable, great fun to build with and ticks all the boxes that envirocrats can come up with.
*Companies like The Wine Warehouse, Marks and Spencers etc.
Tom Woolley was Professor of Architecture at Queens University Belfast from 1991 to 2007 and now works for Rachel Bevan Architects. He created the first strawbale building, in Crossgar County Down 1997, to receive full planning and building regulations approval in the UK and has gone on to be one of the pioneers of hemp lime construction. He has written a chapter about hemp construction of the new edition of The Art of Natural Building (Chelsea Green) to be published later this year. He will be running a workshop on hemp lime construction at the Endeavour Centre** in Ontario November 1 and 2, 2014 and lecturing at Ryerson University in Toronto on October 30th 2014.
Tom is part of a group of architects and builders that are establishing a hemp lime association in the UK. He is also on the European board of Natureplus, a certification system for ecological materials. www.natureplus.org
An example of a hemp lime building that can be rented as a holiday cottage can be found at http://www.irishcottagesdown.com/cottages/downpatrick/hempcottage.htm. There are links to some technical details and a video showing the construction process.
** Contact Chris Magwood for details
***The Hempcrete Book: Designing and building with hemp lime
by William Stanwix and Alex Sparrow
ISBN: 9780857842244 Full colour Hardback 272 Pages Publication October 2014
Pre-order The Hempcrete Book through www.greenbooks.co.uk and all good high-street and online retailers
To qualify for 20% off the cover price, join the pre-publication mailing list at http://eepurl.com/OMZoT
By Andrew Morrison of strawbale.com
There are many different approaches to framing a straw bale house; however, there is one in particular that I have used on the vast majority of my projects over the years. It is a post and beam frame system with roots in conventional framing techniques. Because I came to straw bale construction many years ago as a general contractor practicing conventional construction, I brought some of that detailing over. I should preface this article by saying that there are right ways of framing and wrong ways of framing. The system I describe in this article lands in the “right way” column, but so do many other styles. As long as you are working with a structurally sound and safe system that brings you the best results possible for your style of building, then go for it.
One of the first details that often surprises people is the spacing of the posts in the system I use. I hear people talk about wanting to reduce the amount of notching in the bales by spreading their posts out as far as possible. I disagree with this approach and instead keep my posts relatively close together: no more than 6’ apart. One reason for this is that when the bales are stacked in between posts that are set far apart, there is no point of attachment for the bales other than the top and bottom of the wall. As such, the wall becomes weak as it is stacked higher. When posts are set closer together, the notches at each location provide a point of connection to the frame and make the wall much stronger both during construction and for the life of the structure.
One way I keep the posts close together is by incorporating them into the window and door frames. By using 4×4 posts as the king studs I end up with wider nailing surfaces on either side of the opening. This allows me to attach the finish trim, plaster channel and/or plaster lath, and welded wire mesh around every opening with positive attachment to the frame. These king studs serve two purposes by providing the nailing surface and by acting as part of the overall structural frame. Because windows and doors are placed in many locations around the home, and because I otherwise limit my post spacing to no more than 6’, I can minimize the wall beam size as a result. This minimal wall beam is important because the bigger the beam, the more expensive it will be. Further, larger beams are made from larger trees (unless an engineered beam is used) and I want to reduce the size of the trees I am using in my projects for environmental reasons.
Okay, let’s take a look at how the system works and why it can save time and money in your building process. I’ll simply lay out the process so you can see, step-by-step, how it comes together.