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"