A view of the workshop as it appeared last December. In the summer, rainwater from the roof is diverted to the cistern. In the winter, the steeply-pitched roof sheds off excess snow.
Building your own home is no small task. It takes time, money, thought, perseverance, and the management of people. It takes research in multiple areas—aesthetics, green engineering, construction techniques, etc. Before committing a year or more of your time, and a chunk of money (even if you are using your sweat-equity to cut down on the cost), it is best to find out what it is like to be a builder before taking the plunge. This can be done by constructing a small structure first. Even if you know you are ready to build your own green home, building a small structure will give you experience in working with the same materials that you will be using for the larger one. In this column I am going to back up a bit and talk about the construction of a small workshop that we built in lieu of a garage. This compact building was completed before the foundations were poured for the main house. The workshop measures roughly 10x15 feet. The walls are made of adobe and straw/clay (loose straw with just enough mud added to make it stick together). The floor consists of a small concrete slab with a rubble trench foundation. The roof trusses were built onsite and sheeted with OSB (oriented strand board) and corrugated metal.
The completed workshop showing some of the materials that were used. The walls are adobe and straw/clay was used in the gable end above the adobe wall. It was originally intended to cover the exterior walls with earth plaster. I finally opted to allow the natural materials to remain in their naturally state. The materials have held up extremely well. The window was found at a salvage yard.
The practical purpose of this structure was to give us a place to store our tools while building the house and to provide a workshop after the home was completed. In addition, it temporarily housed the entire photovoltaic system. The photovoltaic panels were mounted on the roof, which is oriented towards the south, and the batteries and inverter were housed within the structure. This provided enough power to run all of our power tools for the entire construction of the home. When the house neared completion, the PV system was permanently moved to the home.
Best yet, the materials and construction techniques used for the workshop allowed us to work out ideas for building the home. In other words, it made a great practice structure. This small green building was invaluable in preparing us for the long-term project of building the home. It also made for a great sense of accomplishment in that the structure could be completed in a couple of months while the initial house construction was being accomplished.
The lessons learned from this small structure were invaluable. Not only were our construction techniques refined, but there was much which I learned visually by working with both adobe (a very plyable and forgiving natural material) and wood-frame construction for the roof. Wood, of course, is also a natural material, yet is very rigid. Wood framing demands a certain amount of precision. Making these two contrasting construction methods work in harmony was a lesson that I still think about to this day. Adobe and mud can be formed with the hands and contain subtle curves. Straight walls and curved walls are both natural states with this material, while framing with wood creates forms tend to be straight.
I will talk more about the workshop next week.
[This has been a guest post by Ted Owens, a green designer and filmmaker. More details on green building design and construction can be found on his website and in the Building with Awareness DVD and Guidebook. -Ed.]