Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Little Help From My Friends

One of my best friends, Emile ( from Portland, Oregon ) has come to lend new enthusiasm ( and humor ) to the dome. He spent the last few days here in Terlingua familiarizing himself with the project and the surrounding community. We will spend January completing the basic structure, but for the next week, we will be in Central and Eastern Texas visiting our families. Emile and Don hit it off right away... I knew they would. After Don gave Emile a tour of his domes, they were climbing up scaffolding together like old friends do.

By coincidence, Raina Rose ( also from Portland ) arrived here the same day as Emile. She is touring with Trevor Smith ( prodigy banjo and mandolin player ). They played their sweet sounds to a packed Starlight Theater and then drove into the sunset after camping out at Earth Language for a night.

Fortunately, Emile's timing also allowed him to meet Abe and Josie, who made a surprise trip to their old adobe abode...just for a day to take care of some business. It was great to see them again ! Their never waning excitement over natural building has inspired more than a handful of virgin builders to try it for themselves. Their house in Terlingua is still for sale. Unfortunately for them, their house acts as a demonstration and inspiration for people to build their own homes, rather than buy theirs. They don't seem to mind though. Check out their place if you are interested in the best realty deal in the West. Built from scratch over several years, it's an art piece that doubles as a home, and it's only a couple of years into its many century lifespan.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Casa de Cob

Yesterday, I helped out new friends Robin and Jadi with their Cob house in Ocotillo Mesa. It was good to take a break from my own project and get some new ideas. Robin and Jadi have a great house in the works. They are doing things in the right order. The first thing they did was have the roof built. That gave them instant shade and water catchment. IMPORTANT in the desert !

Before the day started, I wondered if my inexperience would slow things down, but towards the end of the day, Robin mentioned how much faster this is going having another person. Robin and Jadi have spent most of the last year building their place on their own, with occasional help from friends. With cob building, one doesn't need any experience to be of help. Just about anyone can help to speed things up by shovelling dirt, stomping mud, and shaping walls. Many other cultures have realized, or have not forgotten, that building one's own house is what makes a house a home. It builds community at the same time. This idea is making a small comeback here in America as more people are realizing an alternative to the enslavement of the housing and mortgage markets. This is a pay as you go system...allowing the home builder to always own what they have and never go in debt. Cob ( sand, clay, and straw ) costs nothing. It is found all over the earth and is there for the taking.

It was a fun day. We ate delicious coconut soup and a salad with home grown beets and radishes.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The mortared brick vs the mortgaged brick

We have finished making the bricks needed for the foundation of the dome. Today I timed myself, while I made the last batch of bricks. On my own, it took an hour to make 16 bricks. This is not factoring in the time taken to gather the materials, but the available materials are a byproduct of the excavation of the foundation ditch, which we had to do anyway. 16 bricks at $2.50 a brick in the store ( for this size and weight ) would have cost me $40. Sixteen mortgaged bricks, paid for over 30 years would have cost me $120 ! The equation I used is a simple one, using a calculator and third grade math. I multiplied by three. In other words, a house paid for over 30 years is about three times the cost of the same house purchased outright. That also means that it's triple the price for each component, down to the brick. So by making my own bricks with free raw materials and my own labor, in real time, technically I am making $40 an hour. However, I am saving $120 an hour, when compared to mortgaged bricks ! Not a bad wage. Today, I made 32 bricks over two hours ( 16 in the morning and 16 in the evening ). Compared to living in and paying for a mortgaged house, two hours of brick making is the same as a $240 payday. And I had many daylight hours left to do other things, such as visit with friends, meet a new neighbor, make a broom out of bunchgrass, play guitar, hound the used car dealership who still hasn’t sent me my title and registration after eight months and two citations, watch the scarlet colored sunset and emerging crescent moon, and write this journal entry. If I wanted to spend a full 8 hours of repetition making bricks, I would have been able to make 128 bricks, more than enough for the entire foundation...$960 saved. Making bricks is fun, especially with friends.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Adventures of Remington and the Prickly Pears

Friends Lindsey, Preston, and Remington paid a visit from Austin ( and Denton ) this last weekend. They win for being the first of my friends to make the treck out here. I'll let the photos tell the story. These are our combined photos from the trip ( still waiting for more to roll in ). See the sidebar for more pictures and albums.

The entrance to Big Bend National Park is just a few miles from town. Ojinaga ( in Mexico ) is about 50 miles.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Big Bend People and Goats

Today, Don and I made a trip to Alpine. We both had things to do in the "big city". Alpine has a couple of large grocery stores, hardware stores, a radio shack, a movie theatre, a credit union, county offices, and a few other things that you can't find in Terlingua. Don also wanted to visit his friend George in Alpine. George is turning 89 today and Don wanted to make sure that George is eating right. Don brought with him an article a friend downloaded for him about nutrition. When trying to find George's place, we got a bit lost, so I pulled out my Garmin GPS. I was explaining to don how my GPS unit worked. He held it in his hand and exclaimed, “It takes a photo of the streets as we pass them by !” I explained that the unit has all the maps of the USA, Canada, and Mexico pre-programmed into it. He said, "Let's take it to Mexico !" George Floro runs the goat club in Alpine called "Big Bend People and Goats" and has a publication that goes with it. He invited us in for dinner. During dinner, George’s wife, gave us fermented goat milk, which is called Kefir. On our way out, they gave us gave us some goat cheese to take home. Their goat cheese is sold in stores around this region. Delicious !

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


I got to name my road this week. I chose to name it after my grandmother, "Ruby" who died earlier this year at the age of 98. Ruby lived almost her entire life in South Africa. When she visited us once here in the United States, she said that one of the things she likes most about America are the street names. Fitting.

We were lucky to have her leave us her life story on tape. We made a website for her, with pictures, soon after she died. You can find it here.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Surveying Property Properly

James Jackson came by today to survey my property. It is muy muy importante to make sure that you are building in the right spot. Since this whole area has been subdivided so many times, there can be errors in the deed and corresponding GPS coordinates given by the companies who sell the land out here. If years down the road, it was found that I were building on a neighbor’s property, they would get to keep my structure and any other fruit of my labor. This has happened before in this area, but most times, neighbors have agreed to redraw the lines. But technically by law, that neighbor could have chosen to keep the free infrastructure and also forbid the builder from stepping foot on that land ever again.

The surveying process is very interesting. And James Jackson has many years of education and experience in this field. He explained it to me, but it was too much technical information for me to absorb all at once. Basically though, there are iron corner markers which are spread out throughout this region, and they are officially recognized by the court if there were to be any discrepancies or arguing over land ownership. They are sometimes spaced out miles apart. So, in figuring out the true coordinates of my five acre tract, we have to bounce a signal from those officially recognized corner markers. Using simple mathematics to measure the angles and distances help to find out the exact corners of the property. The main tool is the total station. This is what measures the reflection of light from the prism pole. I carried the prism pole to the iron corner marker about a half mile from my property and then pointed it back at James, who aimed the total station at it. With the help of walkie talkies, I was able to adjust the prism pole to where James can see it in the view finder. Luckily out here, there aren’t many tall trees to get in our way. If there were, we would have to measure multiple segments of unobstructed path and and then add them together.

James is in high demand in these parts. I am grateful that he took the time to help and explain the surveying process.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

more bricks !

Today , we made more bricks for the dome foundation. Don realized that before we add too much weight to the dome, we need to take care of the foundation and the leveling of the dome before the dome gets too heavy. The bricks that we made today are 3 parts gravel, 2 parts sand, and one part cement. James Jackson was over today to help. He estimated that we need to make about 112 bricks to cover the circumference for the foundation. It doesn't really make it faster to have more people for this job, but it makes it more fun. All the gravel being used is from what was sifted from the excavation of the foundation. We gathered black sand from a spot about two miles from here. The water that we used today for the mix was water caught from the tops of tarps, buckets, and other impervious surfaces from yesterday morning’s dew. James explained what some of the plants on my land were. I’ve got lots of sage, dill, mesquite, iron wood, and a few olive trees. I have a small grove of a plants called the Jesus Christ plant. If you cut a piece off and put it in water, it is supposed to purify the water.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

tying lath

Yesterday, we got back to working on the dome. We finished tracing the dome with rebar and starting tying the metal lath to the rebar. Lath is sort of like a steel netting. Don says that the American lath is much better quality than the Mexican lath. It's one of the few items that we decided to purchase on this side of the border. It usually takes a couple of people to tie lath, but Don demonstrated how one could do it solo. He said, "sometimes you just got to use your head." Tying lath is a bit time consuming, but fairly easy. Once the lath is complete, we will stucco a concrete membrane ( ferrocement ) to make the dome stout enough to last a few centuries. Then we will layer cob ( sand, clay, straw, and water ) over the ferrocement. This is the part that is still up for discussion. I have been advised by a few experts that concrete and cob don't mix. I have received opposite advice from the locals...who have told me that the dome will not be stout enough to hold the heavy cob without a concrete membrane. The ferrocement also seals the rebar to protect it from rust. I have done alot of research online looking for a similar project, but have not found one. The worst that could happen is that the frame could bend a bit over time, but it is virtually impossible for the structure to crumble completely, as many pure adobe structures do during earthquakes. Time will tell.

With the surface area of the dome being 508 square feet, and the sheets of lath being 16 square feet, we will need about 32 sheets of lath. With each sheet of lath costing $6.50 in Alpine, this will be one of the most expensive parts of the project at $208.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bunch Straw for Making Cob

I did a cob test today, using the adobe dirt from my land. Cob is part sand, part clay, and part straw. There is some clay in the adobe dirt here, but not much. Instead of straw, I used bunch grass ( chino gramma ) , which grows all over the place here. The grass tends to be long and dry this time of year, which is ideal. While grain based straw is recommended for cob, the default rule for natural building is to use what is available. There is a bunch of bunch grass available around here, so that decides that. The cob test worked. It didn’t take long for the test cob ball to dry. I dropped it from about 3 feet onto cement to test its durability. It held together great. Pure adobe would have shattered.

The city vs. the country - which is safer ?

Last week my mom was car-jacked outside of a grocery store in Houston as she was caught in the middle of what turned out to be a deadly chain of criminal events. Here is a link to the news article. Thankfully she was physically unharmed. In relevance to this blog, it brings up the question : "Which is safer...the city or the country ?".

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Thanksgiving in Terlingua

My mom and sister graced the area this Thanksgiving weekend. We rented a strawbale house in the Terlingua Ghost Town, went on a river canyon trip in Big Bend, hiked in Mexico, looked at "art" in Marfa, beat the heat and weathered a snow storm...all in the same weekend. We all agreed that it was the best Thanksgiving ever. My mom and sister arrived by Amtrak. It was a 16 hour train ride from Houston, TX. It is an overnight train ride. The comfy seats lend themselves to a good night's sleep and that helps to pass most of the time. The train costs about $74 each way. Driving from Houston would take about ten hours. Here is a link to a photo slideshow of our weekend.


I got stuck in Alpine for the night. I tried to make it over the mountain pass, but it was not working. Alpine received over a half a foot of snow last night. Terlingua only received a few inches or so. From what I've been told, it snows about 3 times a year here. The low temperatures at night have been getting down into the mid 20's. But the days get into the 60's. Later this week, the temperatures will be back into the 70's and 80's again. I have been bundling up at night in a down sleeping bag which I purchased used from the army. I have also tried sleeping with my down jacket on, but that was too warm.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Grasslands

Just north of Terlingua ( Alpine, Marfa, Ft. Davis, etc ), there are a few more inches of rainfall each year. Lots of grass grows there naturally...over 50 kinds. Trees dot the area, and there are groves in parts. Due to the many days of sunshine and mild climate, there is a huge potential when water catchment is used for gardens and tree planting.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

making an egyptian brick mold

Don made me a Hassan Fathy size ( egyptian size ) brick mold. He says it could make a million bricks at least. This is also a good picture of what Don does best. He can bend and shape metal into any which way. He let me saw the metal pieces and he welded the corners together. Looking at the flame is like looking into the sun, which is why protective eye covering is needed. I peeked for a second and I was seeing stars for about ten minutes. I'm OK now. I asked Don how much I owed him. "10 cents" he said. I paid him in full.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sunrise Explosion

The sun made a grand entrance this morning. Maybe it's because my brother got engaged today. This post is dedicated to my brother, Gavin and his fiance Natalie. Now if only they would come visit. Honeymoon ?

Another neighborhood dome

I met another neighbor today who is also building a dome. This one is pre-fabricated...including the windows. What is it with West Texas and domes ? Who'd a thunk ?

Desert Volvo Shop

My neighbor charged me $60 to repair my volvo . The Volvo shop in the city wanted to charge me $260. The Volvo shop here has a much better view. A penny saved is a penny earned....especially if they are Canadian pennies. Now my Volvo is like new again, which is good because it also doubles as my bed and office sometimes.

testing the dirt

When making Adobe or Cob, it is important to know the makeup of the dirt one is using. Today, I tested the soil in three places on my land. One was the excavated material from the foundation ditch. Another was from dirt 3 feet below the ground. And the third sample was taken from a wet weather creek that runs through the property. Mostly, I am searching for the clay content as it is an important ingredient in making cob and mortar. For this test, I followed the instructions from a book called, "The Hand Sculpted House" by Ianto Evans. I filled a glass jar 1/3rd full with the dirt sample, added water to the top and then a teaspoon of soap. I shook up the contents and then let them settle. Whatever settles in the first 5 seconds is coarse sand, also very important. What settles over the next ten minutes is silt, which doesn't have much use. What settles over the next few days, is clay. Clear layers are formed, which makes the result easy to decipher. I'll soon know the clay content.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Ojinaga Dome Project

The Adobe Alliance, which is headed by Simone Swan, is working on a project in Ojinaga, a small Mexican town across the border from Presidio, TX. The dome uses an ancient Egyptian technique, perfected by Hassan Fathy, the author of "Architecture for the Poor'. No cement is used... not even in the mortar. The bricks are adobe. The mortar is clay, sand, and water. A simple compass ( a hinged 2 x 4 ) is used to measure and guide the bricks into a perfect, self supporting dome. The placement of the bricks combined with gravity and mortar require no extra support. The Adobe Alliance is located in Presidio, TX and hosts workshops in the area and beyond. The dome in the picture was built by the Adobe Alliance, however the building on which it rests was already there. Inside the dome, it almost appears as an optical illusion. It seems as if the bricks should fall, but they don't. Perhaps it is because we are not used to seeing this in conventional architecture. Simone Swan and her crew were gracious enough to let me work with them for a day. A completed version can seen at the Adobe Alliance complex.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Terlingua Chili Cookoff

...didn't stay long.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Day of the Dead

Every November 2nd, Mexicans celebrate the "Day of the Dead". This is when they have a festive celebration to remember those who once lived. In the Ghost Town Cemetary in Terlingua, locals gather to follow this same tradition. Being that it coincided with the chili cookoff, the gathering was much bigger than usual. The candles placed on the ground at each gravesite appear as a reflection of the night sky. Locals brought food for all, including deviled eggs, black bean salad, and sweet creamy cornbread.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


The Texas Natural Building Colloquium ( NBCTX ) in Kerrville was an eye opening and brain expanding event. Over 200 people gathered from all over the world for ten days to learn directly from experienced natural builders, many who are also published authors. Days were filled with workshops and presentations. Nights were filled with music. It was appropriate being that this site is also the site of the longest running folk festival in the country. We shaped the natural earth into useful structures. We used sand, clay, straw, rock, Junipers, and reclaimed wood and metal. We refined the recipies for adobe bricks, earth bags, and Cob, in order to make it work for the locale. We ate macrobiotically... compliments of Casa De Luz ( Austin, TX Macrobiotic restaurant ). We had pizza parties and hoe downs. We baked in the sauna. We swam in the river. We left buildings for many people to use for many years to come.

Not a bad way to spend 10 days.

Pictures are at the this link ( various photographers ). The Sand Castle is by "Amazin Walter"

Thursday, October 11, 2007

new structure

Don has a new idea for a building, which he wants to start on right away. This will be a cylindrical building with straight, not sloped, walls. The diameter will be 24 feet ( on the inside ), making the square footage 452 feet. Since the walls will be two feet thick adobe, the diameter from the outside will be 28 feet. We'll come back to the dome, but right now we'll be working on this new project. The past couple of days, we have been digging the foundation ditch, about two feet thick and a foot deep. I proposed making an arm out of C-bars and pitched the idea to Don. He said "what doesn't work is doing nothing", so we did it. The arm is a lo-fi version of one that Don has made for a giant 45 foot diameter structure that he has planned. The arm helps us keep consistent with our circumference. Don questioned whether or not we even need to dig a foundation, being that the ground is very rocky and thus very stout. He looked at the mountains and said, "Look, the mountains sit on the dirt just fine. We'll be putting into the foundation the same stuff we are taking out". We decided to go ahead and finish the foundation, since we had already started it. Don sits and breaks up the soil with his pick axe, and then I shovel the dirt away. Don said "sitting is the best way to work. You don't get tired and backached". Yesterday, while Don was taking a siesta, I sorted our excavation into three piles...Big rocks, gravel, and adobe dirt. I used a lathe screen as a filter, which made it easy. We'll be using the Rock, gravel, and adobe in the structure later on. I made a fourth pile of fossils and gem stones that I found during the sorting. Don mentioned that you can pay someone with a tractor to dig the foundation in a few hours, but they "always get it wrong." We also would be missing out on the free workout and jewels.