Luta, Goddess of Lutherie

Luta, Goddess of Lutherie
Charles F Morrison

In the dawn of our history the world was over run with deities, sprites, spirits, nyads, dryads and other unknown beings that we as humans could only sense, and very seldom see, hear or feel. Humans were then, as they are now, simply reflectors of the actions and passions of these beings. It has been reported by many that if humans did not believe in these beings that they would cease to exist, as if they only existed in our minds, but the evidence is in the other direction. As much as we are disinclined to believe in them, we are still living lives influenced by the fact of their existence. Think long and hard about why you do the things you do and give me a better reason.

It is said that Apollo is the God of music, and that the muses inspire men and women to great creative acts, but there is an as yet unknown agent responsible for an important aspect of our lives. It all began too long ago to remember when humans were aware of Apollo’s daily race across the sky. The glory of his shining face inspired men and women to song and the trees to reach to the sky in hopes of touching his magnificence. And so it went for time unknown until, as the old gods are want to do, Apollo got restless. It was all well and good for humans to worship him with song and dance, but it never changed. Oh the melodies changed sometimes, but things got locked in tradition and the priests in his temples seldom allowed new songs to interfere with their ongoing quest for wealth, power and influence. So Apollo gathered the lesser gods and deities to Mount Olympus and charged them to go and find a way to increase human creativity so as to give him relief from boredom. The prize for this quest was to be the undying favor of Apollo himself. OK, it wasn’t that great a prize to our minds, but lets face it, the sun rising every morning was pretty heady stuff back then.

So the assembled host of minor deities spread around the earth seeking ways to gain Apollo’s favor. One fairly successful strategy was that employed by Dionysus, causing women to discover that spoiled fruit juice was still drinkable and that feeding it to men, who, lets face it will do anything for a woman, was a cause of great amusement. This synergistic approach relied on the new uninhibited state of man to allow the muses freer access to influence human creativity, albeit without a whole lot of sophistication. Apollo granted that this was mildly amusing, but less that completely satisfying. For a gallant effort however, he granted sunny skies over the Mediterranean shores for the growing of grapes that there would always be song, even in despair.

Still unsatisfied, Apollo charged the lesser deities to spread the word to the nyads and dryads and minor sprites in case someone in his realm might find a way to inspire great works of music in his honor. Humans around the world started doing odd and strange things, some even vaguely musical, as a result. Many of these things remain today as minor sprites are rather single minded. Every time a child learns to hold a blade of grass between their thumbs and blow a nasally honk to his/her own amazement another sprite smiles in smug satisfaction. Whistling, yodelling and the melodious passing of bodily gasses, while not equivalent skills, can also be attributed to this request.

But there was one dryad, a goddess of trees who was dreaming of great things and mourning their inevitability. Luta was one of the few dryads who roamed the forests and cared for all trees, not just oaks or ash. She roamed the sub arctic boreal forests of Europe and the Americas. She rode the breezes of the tropics and across the high mountains of every continent caring for all who rose leaf or needle to the sky. It was her roaming that kept her from hearing of Apollo’s challenge until eons later. Apollo was important to her charge, for without the sun the trees would suffer and die. All living things suffer and die anyway, but Luta’s care was such that she abhorred the early death of those in her care. Luta knew nothing of humans however, so how was she to compete for Apollo’s favor ? Against all instinct she decided she must pay attention to people, those ugly ant like beings who cut and burned her loved ones to keep warm. She watched all the peoples of the earth, for unlike other deities, she was not limited to one tree or location. For generations of men she watched patiently looking for something that might be unique until one day she was following a young woman who was wandering in an old forest avoiding her daily chores. She was sitting on a hollow fallen log and idly tapping a rather largish stick against the same log. The stick happened to hit a dry part of the log where the bark had been chewed away by some creature. A low “bonk” reverberated through the forest. The woman, stopped, startled that someone might discover her vagrancy, but Luta had noticed and a seed was planted in her that took root. The next human to stop by the stump felt an overwhelming desire to strike the log with a stick and did so. Others, hearing the noise came to see what it was and soon a dozen men were pounding on the log together. Being human, there is always someone who is out of time and the rhythmic echo of “bonks” was soon heard far and wide. Human’s fixated on the sounds and rhythms of the logs. Soon fallen logs the world over were being hollowed out and beaten on with wild abandon. But Apollo was not pleased for atonal percussion was not really what he’d had in mind.

Luta was furious. She had inspired humans, an intolerable form of life, into a frenzy beating on the bones of her children and Apollo was not pleased. Slowly a determination grew in her and became an obsession. She would beat Apollo and create music that would overwhelm him, dominate him and belittle him, and she would give her very life force to do it. She threw herself into studying the loathed humans with a vengeance, for such it was. Humans seemed an incorrigible race intent on doing things just to do them, regardless of consequence. It has been said that it is perilous to study something too closely for danger of becoming that thing. Luta studied very closely indeed.

Luta gave away the one thing that protected her charges in her quest to dominate her adversary. She gave the humans the idea that anything could be used to make music, including the trees, including the entrails of animals or even themselves. It took very little time for humans to take full advantage of this new inclination. Stings appeared and strings could be attached to anything that was hollow with amazing results. Humans studied the newly found ability to make music and created great works, far surpassing any the temples had allowed. New temples had to be created to hold it all and new, more worthy Gods had to displace Apollo. And so it passed that Apollo was displaced by a human carpenter and Luta was well pleased. The temples were now built around great musical instruments of pipes blasting louder and more complex music to the now empty sky where only a ball of hydrogen fire lit the day.

Music sprang from the very bones of the earth. But so did war. It didn’t take long for the newly created single string harp to evolve into a bow that hurled sharpened sticks at someone you despised. New innovations kept coming and more trees and rocks were sacrificed. The land was drenched in the blood of humans and the destruction of all was close at hand.

It is said that on the 7th day God looked at his work and saw that it was good. The reality is that at the end, Luta looked at what she had wrought and was crushed. Her tears had to find voice and her only expression now was in the hands of the men and women who made instruments from the wood of her beloved trees. A small plaintive sound appeared from a small box of spruce and maple. A bow made of the hair of war horses slid along the entrails of sheep, roughened by the sap of the tundra’s breeze. A shape appeared, like a human torso but cut at the waist with holes slashed in it’s belly. The sound grew more plaintive. More boxes appeared in sizes and shapes unknown and the music springs into being. Luta is dying and breaths her life into the soul of the earth. There will be trees again.

The souls of the dead moan, the oceans roar, the winds howl, and the audience weeps without knowing why.

A soil/cement home built in the 1950s

Thanks to David DeLaurant for sharing the story of his family’s soil cement home, built by his father in the 1950s. The link below is to the pdf file he has graciously provided. I don’t have any pictures to show on this page, but download the pdf file, there are plenty of them there.

Home built in the 1950s of soil cement mixture.

Thanks David !

Solar Heresy 101

Over 30 years ago I took a class in solar heating and cooling. At the time photo-voltaic systems were relegated to space exploration and locations where cost was not an issue. Off grid power was supplied primarily wind and petroleum generators, so solar orientation was relegated to heating concerns. Passive and active solar heating and cooling systems were the rage of the energy crisis of the 1970s. In addition, wood stoves were reinvigorated and to some degree, reinvented. At the time there was little to no awareness of global warming or carbon dioxide as a major contributor.

At any rate, the primary and sacred tenant that was taught and learned well, was that to intercept the most solar heat, a building in the northern hemisphere needed to orient it’s glazing (or panels) towards due south.  In the southern hemisphere, the sacred direction is north. east and west are not options, as they are not the sacred directions. Perhaps we should say equator facing rather than north or south.

So the first solar house I built faced due South. It had huge windows facing South and very little facing any other direction. I learned that for a few hours around noon the sun streamed into the house, warming it nicely. Unfortunately, that was maybe four hours out of eight (winter) or 16 (summer). The rest of the time the windows leaked more heat than they let in. It was a good thing that wood was plentiful in New England, because I had to burn about 10 cords of it to stay warm in the course of a winter. There have been improvements in windows since those days, but little improvement in the doctrine of solar house orientation. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much improvement in wood stove design either.

Since that time I have designed other passive solar homes and installed photo-voltaic and wind electric systems. One thing that opened my eyes wide was a Zomeworks tracker. This delightful invention relies on freon in tubes that warms in the sunlight, boils and moves from one side of the tracker to the other, causing a weight imbalance which turns a rack of PV panels towards the sun. Throughout the day, barring clouds or strong winds, this simple device will track the sun, changing a 2 to 4 hour peak charging window into a 5 to 10 hour window, depending on the season. In Northern Colorado in late December, the tracker is fully turned towards the morning sun by 9:00 AM and follows it until it descends below the horizon around 4:30 PM.  If it was able to operate without the large shock absorbers that keep it stable in inclement weather, I’m sure it would turn towards the morning sun sooner, although too early and there isn’t much energy in the morning sunlight. There are other trackers on the market which use electric motors and LED sensors to track the sun, although I like the simplicity of the Zomeworks model. Http://

Now while it has been done, it really isn’t practical for most of us to build a rotating house that is able to duplicate the actions of the PV tracking devices. If we design with long, straight flat walls, we have the same issue that solid mount PV panels have: a small window of opportunity for peak performance. There is some benefit that east and west windows provide, but the angle is too oblique to be much good in winter and in summer they tend to overheat the house. A perpendicular incidence of the sunlight is best for both producing electricity and for providing heat through a window. If we look at what nature provides, we find that the (Northern Hemisphere) winter sun’s path runs from South East to South West. It will take it’s lowest path on the winter solstice and it’s highest route on the summer solstice. In Winter it will rise and set at it’s furthest south (or north in the southern hemisphere). I’ll call it the equator facing rule. The idea is to give up the less intense morning and afternoon sun for the full blast of the noon sun, and the few hours either side of noon on the shortest day of the year. As a concept it works, mostly.

I decided to abandon the idea of straight walls and a 90 degree angle to solar noon as the best approach. Instead, I design the equator facing walls to gather the sun during all the hours available, not just around noon. Thus my new ideal wall shape is curved, with the convex side facing the equator. A concave surface facing the equator is a viable alternative. Although this seems wasteful of interior space to me, it does have interesting possibilities of allowing additional solar gain during morning and afternoon hours at both extreme ends of the building. In the drawing below, I show the solar incidence angles for several building shapes during morning, noon and afternoon hours. Note that when the angle of incidence is 90 degrees that the maximum solar gain is achieved. The further from 90 degrees, the less the solar gain.

Incidence of maximimum solar gain for different wall shapes

Incidence of maximimum solar gain for different wall shapes

I have not constructed samples for all these shapes with equal sized windows so as to quantify their relative efficiencies. However, to my way of thinking, the best overall shape is #2, the semicircle, followed by #3. the angled bow. #4, the concave structure has some interesting possibilities that I may have to look into. The least interesting to me is #1, the rectangle. I currently live in a round house. I can relate from non-scientific observation that it heats quickly in the morning and maintains a level of heat until late afternoon. If we graphed out the solar gain for the various models, I think we’d see something like the following. This follows my experience of living in both types of buildings for several years each.

Solar gain - flat wall vs curved wall

Solar gain - flat wall vs curved wall

The heat gain for the rectangle and semicircle type of surface is represented by the area under the curves. My assumption is that the surfaces are equal in area and if on a building, that there is equal glazing along the surface of the curve. I believe that the concave and angled bow shapes would be very similar to the semicircle if similarly graphed.

Should you decide to adjust the roundness of the semicircular wall, the curved surface line will come closer to the flat surface line as you flatten out the curve. Another way of looking at it is that you are increasing the radius of the semicircle but keeping the length of the segment the same. The smaller the radius is, the lower and longer it’s line will be since you are reducing the 90 degree surface area, but at the same time increasing the amount of time some surface area will be at 90 degrees to the sun’s rays. In addition, assuming this is a building wall, it is possible to increase or decrease the heat gained during a particular time of day by the addition or subtraction of window area where it aligns with the time of day. My current home has more window area on the morning side of the house. As a result, it gains heat rapidly in the morning and holds it throughout the day, sometimes cooling somewhat in the late afternoon. A house I build with lots of equator facing windows was quite warm between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm, but would take a while to warm up and cool off quickly afterwards.

As a point of reference, let me return to the Zomeworks solar tracker. A similar graph, again based on my experience with the amount of electric power I can get from PV panels on this device vs. panels mounted in a straight equator facing direction would show the following. Again we assume the same amount of surface area for both panel areas.

fixed panels vs solar tracker

fixed panels vs solar tracker

Note that in the flat vs round example the area under both curves was not too different, just arranged differently. The lower solar gain at noon of the curved wall was compensated for by the longer amount of time that solar gain was experienced. In the second case, the tracker maneuvers the entire panel surface into the direct sun early in the morning and tracks the sun throughout the day. This changes the curve from a classic bell curve to a very fat, almost table shape with a large increase in area under the curve (i.e. lots more solar gain). This is because the bell shape is the result of two factors, the angle of incidence of the panels to the sun and the actual available energy in the sunlight, which decreases as the sun approaches the horizon. Since the tracker minimizes the angle of incidence factor, the remaining factor (the proximity of the sun to the horizon) is what is primarily observed.

A solar absorption device, be in a PV panel or a window in a wall, is most effective when it is able to track the sun’s path throughout the day. This is demonstrably true of solar tracking devices like the Zomeworks PV panel trackers. On a fixed object like a building I see great benefit to shaping the equator facing wall so it directly faces the sun for more than just a few hours. There is room for additional research and lots of fun building structures to explore this area.

Actively Passive

It may come as a surprise to some now days, but there was a time when “solar” did not mean electricity. In fact it wasn’t too long ago that if you were talking about solar electricity you had to spell it out for people, explain the technology. Back in the old day is only about 10 years ago.

Solar electricity, aka photo-voltaic power has been around since the 1950s. It powered satellites, watches and calculators, but was considered too expensive for mere mortals to use except in very small quantities. Up until a few years ago, that’s the way it stood. At some point the price came down far enough and the lure of eco consciousness strong enough to make Photo Voltaic electricity a viable business concept. It didn’t hurt for countries like Germany to mandate Renewable energy quotas either.

In the bad old days of the first (mid 1970s) oil crisis, when the price of oil increased 3x, solar electricity was not considered an option. To begin with, oil was the problem and oil was not used that much in making electricity. Coal was (and still is) the main source of electricity. However, oil was used for heating purposes (and still is) in the eastern half of the country. Where electricity was an issue, wind power was looked at as a solution and a lot of now defunct companies sprang up only to die shortly after. For heating homes, a now oddly defunct concept, solar heating, came to the fore. Solar heating came in two flavors, active and passive.

Active meant that panels were installed which heated air or water/antifreeze up in the sun. The air or water was then pumped into some kind of storage tank where the heat it contained was siphoned off as needed into the living/working space. It was called active because it required some kind of pumping mechanism or fan to operate.

In a passive system, there was no additional energy expended to move the heat around. It either happened by “thermo-siphoning” or just sat there, absorbing and expelling heat into into and from a “thermal mass”.

There were many “solar houses” built and many active solar heating systems added to existing homes. Many still sit on roofs on homes across the country, although how many still function is anyone’s guess. I personally have purchased old solar heating panels from people who have just wanted to get rid of the things. They are a good source of Aluminum, Copper and safety glass. Sometimes they are still functional if you are so inclined to install this type of system. Unfortunately, many of the old panels were designed improperly. Oh, they will heat water if you pump it through, but they won’t drain back due to the way they are constructed, requiring using a strong antifreeze instead of just water. This results in added expense and complicates the design, installation and functional aspects of the system. In all systems, simplicity is important to success.

While there are elements of passive solar design that may be added to an existing home, passive solar works best when the building is designed and built using passive solar principles from the beginning. These are a few of the basic principles that define passive solar architecture.

  1. Utilization of windows to admit cold season solar heat gain.
  2. Orientation of the windows to maximize cold season solar heat gain.
    1. And reduction of window space on the other side of the building.
    2. Use of multi-paned windows for insulation purposes.
  3. Use of “thermal mass” structures to store cold season heat gain, or warm season coolness.
    1. Trombe walls, concrete or stone floors, “water walls”, swimming pools etc.
  4. Use of lots of insulation in walls, ceilings and covering windows to reduce heat loss.
  5. Use of vegetation (deciduous trees) to shade the building in summer, admit sunlight in winter.

I have not taken any architecture courses in the last 30 years to know to what extent these principles have infiltrated the academic consciousness, but judging from the architecture of the last 30 years, it’s not a whole lot.

A round building is a building crying out for solar heating and cooling components. The shape itself guarantees that some part of the building will always be facing the sun no matter what time of day (not night of course) or year it is. Simple placement of windows on a curved surface will allow for winter sun all day long. This results in a steady solar heat gain as opposed to the few hours around solar noon during which a flat wall will tend to overheat the interior space. Add a few of the other passive solar principles, and you have a very comfortable home.

Off Grid ?

I never really thought twice about the question: to be or not to be off-grid. I knew we were not going to pay for our electricity on a monthly bill for the rest of our lives, or at least for our stay at the round house on the prairie. At first glance, that appears to be a financial decision and there is an argument to be made in that connotation. To begin with, it’s expensive to get the power company to trench in 600 feet of power line to the house. If we assume $10/ft as an installed cost, this is $6000 just to put in the power line. This is a low estimate as just the wire and conduit to run 150ft (single phase 1/0 wire) from the barn to the house cost me over $900. Add a crew and some equipment costs and it is probably more like $20/ft. At any rate I figure at least $10,000US to get power run to the house. Then there is a $20/month cost just to be connected to the grid and then the actual metered cost of power.

My actual costs (in 2005 mostly) for my power system are these :

1600 watts of PV panels @ $3.00/watt $4800
Zomeworks tracker $1000
Batteries – used telco type $3000
Charge controllers $300
Inverter (Outback) $1700
Misc Breakers & boxes $300
Total cost (parts) $11,100

I was able to get some parts used, some I had to buy new. The purchases included above were made between 2001 and 2008. I made most of the racks myself and installed everything myself. I purchased other equipment and parts, but only those included above are currently installed and functioning.

This is a fairly small solar electric installation. It assumes a maximum use of 3kwh or less per day, which is less than 100kwh per month. In winter this gets difficult as it’s often cloudy, reducing PV yield and the cold makes the batteries less efficient. This double whammy means I occasionally make use of a gas powered generator to bump the batteries up in December and January. I intend to supplement charging with a small wind generator at some point to reduce that non-green activity. In the summer, additional daylight hours give more than enough power and we can run a small air conditioner during the day if we desire without an issue.

In order to keep electrical use down we utilize passive solar, wood and propane for heat, propane for cooking and hot water (soon to be solar hot water) and have invested in a SunFrost refrigerator for efficient food storage. The water well is on a separate solar electric system with 200 watts of dedicated PV. We utilize laptops for computing and use compact florescent lighting.

The initial cash investment is roughly the same for on and off-grid in this particular case. The price of grid power is made more expensive by the distance from available power. This will certainly not be the case for everyone. For some it will be worse. My decision to locate the panels and batteries 150 ft from the house cost me extra, but is not reflected in the above figures. Nor is the eventual cost of replacement batteries.

In summary I’d have to say that the overall cost comparison for our setup is a wash. Cost is not the determinant that it may initially appear to have been. Note that I live in Colorado and there are no state incentives for putting this equipment into place. The incentives that exist currently did not exist when I did the installation. The current incentives also are tied into and administered by the power companies. So even though they would pay a portion of the installation cost, you would by necessity be tied to the grid, and thus the ongoing grid connection charge. Not an either/or thing in that case.

So why be off grid then if it doesn’t cost less ? In spite of what we think, we honestly don’t make most of our decisions on a strictly financial basis. No one would every purchase a new car, any kind of jewelry, a home on the seashore or any number of other things if everything was decided strictly on a financial basis. But the individual reasons are personal. Your reasons may be different from mine, and you may not make the decisions I have at all.

I see great value in being independent of constant payments to someone else for basic necessities. I don’t like having to pay for power that is produced by polluting our air, water and ground and so I choose to live differently. I paid more up front in time and money to have peace of mind and a measure of freedom. I also like to do things myself to provide food, housing and energy. Maybe having parents and grandparents who lived through the great depression has something to do with it. Why put yourself in a vulnerable position if you have the ability to avoid it ? The current economic situation makes it likely that having a consistent income may be rare in the future.

Slippery when windy

If you live in a city it might not occur to you that wind is a big design consideration. In a congested environment the wind can be turbulent and nasty at times, but rarely is it an actual threat to a building unless it is a tornado or hurricane type wind event. If you live on the front range of the Rocky Mountains you can add the Chinook winds that often make winter interesting times.

Wind is a deceptive force. When it is flowing at low speed it cools us and makes life bearable. The faster it flows, the less comfortable it gets until it causes massive destruction. This is because the force of the wind on any object in it’s path increases exponentially to it’s speed. This is to say that if the wind speed doubles, the force it exerts is squared. While this makes it a great energy resource at lower speeds, it is also a recipe for disaster.

Wind generators and water pumping windmills must be designed to withstand huge stresses as it’s impossible to take them in every time a strong weather front passes. I have lost several wind generators to fronts that supplied several days of sustained 40+mph wind. It is a personal challenge that keeps many busy for years, building a system that doesn’t self destruct in strong wind. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of building home after home in the same way. It’s important to design for the worst possible wind event in order for a home to survive, especially in an open environment where it is exposed directly to the wind. Where I live there are no trees, hills or other impediments to wind flow for miles. My house is in the same position a wind generator would be, totally exposed.

Having experienced the power of the wind growing up in Boulder, Colorado, where 80+ mph wind was common in January and February, and seeing homes with windows blown out and roofs blown off, this was at the forefront of my mind as I designed my home. My inclination to build a round home developed into a determination as I studied the effect of wind on various building shapes. The fact is that flat straight walls are a barrier to wind flow, where curved walls allow wind to slip around them. The wind load on curved walls is reduced while at the same time the walls are less likely to collapse due to their shape. It’s not all that simple though as the wind provides multiple types of force on a building including uplift on the roof and a pulling on the downwind walls. While a round shape will reduce several of these forces, it does not eliminate them.

While anecdotal, I believe my experience with the round house on the prairie can be instructive. The house is a 40ft diameter circle. From the north, where the prevailing wind comes from, the roof looks most like an African hut or a squat tipi shape. The only dormer faces South. During strong winds the air flows around the house. While there will always be some pressure build up on the windward side of any structure, there is no impediment to flow around a round building. During blizzards this is especially visible as the snow flows with the stronger wind and settles out of the slower wind.

The winter of 2006-2007 was a very snowy and windy time here. Every weekend for 8 weeks we had blizzards that made keeping the driveway open a never ending job. A snow fence blocking the wind from the trailer we were living in while building our home had over six feet of snow behind it before it began to thaw. The photo below shows about 3 feet of that drift.

Snow piles up behind a snow fence

Snow piles up behind a snow fence

Around the house though, the ground was bare of snow while 10 feet from the house the drifts were 3 feet deep. It was 4 feet deep in parts of the driveway. The photo below is from an early storm when the drifts were not so deep. To the right of the picture is a tall spire of snow reaching to the second story. This spire was left by a vortex that was created on the downwind side of the house. In dryer winds this is where tumbleweeds are deposited.

Wind flow around the round shape scours a clear path

Wind flow around the round shape scours a clear path

A few quick references I found: – an article from 1965, but covers the basics.

Simplified building design for wind and earthquake forces.
by James Ambrose
(Book; English)
Publisher: New York : John Wiley, 1995
Editions: 6 Editions
ISBN: 0471192112 9780471192114
OCLC: 181827298

Can Cement be green ?

For well over 1000 years cement has been a major building material. The builders of ancient Rome made use of this magical building material and it can still be seen in buildings like the Colliseum. It is an amazing thing that a liquid slurry can cure into a solid rock of any shape you might like. Current building codes call for foundations to be built using concrete with iron rods embedded for additional strength. Some of the most promising building technologies are insulated concrete forms that are put into place, filled with concrete and stay in place as insulation for the building. The resulting buildings are stronger than wooden structures and in many cases better insulated.

So it’s a damned shame that the creation of cement (hydrated lime) is a high heat process that, in its current form, consumes huge amounts of energy and results in a huge amount of hydrocarbons being released into the atmosphere. This has given a marvelous building material a black eye among the eco-conscious folk. And honestly, who doesn’t want to be conscious of the environment and a good steward of the earth ? I do. I even have a degree in Environmental Science to prove it. But I also love the ease of use and permanency of concrete when it comes to building. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to get great results with concrete, but if often helps to have a strong back.

So we now have the news that a few Imperial College folks over in England have started a company to market a new type of cement. Instead of using lime as a base, they are using magnesium oxide and a few other undisclosed minerals. I don’t how this compares strengthwise to portland cement, but the claim is that this type of cement absorbs CO2 and in fact absorbs more than is produced in creating or transporting it.

Sounds good so far. This could be a huge boon to those wanting to make homebuilding a more environmentally responsible endeavor. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find anywhere one can purchase this miracle compound. There isn’t anything on their website that indicates it is available for purchase, and you’d think there would be some mention of it. They appear to be hiring, but the mission appears to be to getting some big money and a foot in the door of huge international building projects. As with most “innovative” solar photo-voltaic products, it appears this is only going to be available to the mega-corporations who can bankroll the startup company with instant millions. Maybe if we’re lucky it will eventually be marketed on a more local scale so the real innovators, owner builders, can make use of it. I hope it happens in my lifetime.


Financing the Dream

©2008 by Charles Morrison

It has become apparent over the last few years that the financial industry has killed the golden goose. The proliferation of predatory lending which followed rampant deregulation of the financial markets led to a huge spike in foreclosures, beginning with sub-prime mortgage holders (primarily lower middle class and poor people) and is now moving into the solid middle and upper middle classes. The huge surplus of relatively cheap housing made available by foreclosure added to the already large surplus of newly built but unsold spec houses, has depressed housing prices for the foreseeable future.

It’s a great time to be looking for a home if you have cash in your pocket. A lot of people realize this and you won’t find yourself alone if you decide to cash in on another’s misfortune. One thing that isn’t widely known is that the banks aren’t necessarily loosing money on these deals. Large numbers of people are being saddled with obligations to make up the difference between what the bank sells their old home for and what they owed on it before the foreclosure. I have personally spoken to people who owe tens of thousands of dollars on homes they no longer own or occupy. Some of these people actually work at banks. I’m not crying for the banks, I’m sure they will do just fine. The whole derivatives scam is a different issue, but certainly has contributed mightily to the situation we find ourselves in now.

The building boom of the mid 2000s is over. This is a fact some speculators, especially those new to the market, have yet to figure out. I have seen homes come out of foreclosure, be sold within a few days and go right back on the market at 3 times the sale price within another few days. These houses are often trashed, the new owners having done nothing to earn their 200% profit. Radio infomercials promote this kind of activity as get rich quick schemes predominate the airwaves. As always, it’s the last ones in who will be going broke holding onto worthless properties at high cost. We’ve been through this already so don’t get suckered.

Another aspect of this whole debacle is that Banks are now going to be a bit pickier about who they lend money to. Gone are the days of no money down mortgages. It’s back to the days of 20% down, good credit rating and a lien on the first-born child’s future. If you’ve saved your pennies, then you can buy with cash and forego the whole mess. If not, you may have some issues financing the dream. Owner builders have often had issues financing construction projects anyway and I doubt that the current situation is going to make it any easier.

OK, I’m done with the rant. what we’re really after is how to finance the dream of building your own home.

So here’s the easiest way to get things rolling on building your home. Do it with cash. That doesn’t mean you have to have everything up front. What it means is that you pay as you go with cash you have on hand at the time. Unless you do have it all up front, you will be taking some time to do this, working on the house part time and working for money either part time or full time. Yes, this means it will take much longer to build than if you did it full time. On the other hand, you weren’t so naive as to think that it would just take a year or so to build a lifelong dream, were you ? Of course not. I offer the following simple recipe for financing the dream:

1. Get out of debt. Seriously. You can’t be saving the amounts you are going to need to while paying off a car, house, credit cards etc. You may need to start slowly because some of this will probably mean a lifestyle change. You probably don’t need every new gadget that comes out. You may need to move to a lower cost home, trade in that hot Jag for an old Chevy, stop eating out every night. There are lots of things that may need to change to get on the path towards a credit free environment. There are lots of folks out there who are anxious to sell you a path to good credit. Ignore them and do it yourself.

2. Start saving money in safe places. Think FDIC. It’s going to take some cash to purchase a lot or acreage to put your home on. Unless you have some special connection with a relative with spare land you can acquire cheaply, it will cost at least $10,000 to get a buildable lot. If you want water, sewer, electric or other services, you will be paying a fair amount to get those as well unless the lot comes with those included. If at all possible pay this off before starting construction. Preferably you will pay cash for it, which decreases your cost and risk considerably. Remember, interest adds up. That’s why mortgages and loans have become tradeable assetts. You really don’t want some stranger to come along and demand you pay your loan in total or they’ll take your land. It happens. Don’t let it happen to you.

3. Start construction with a bit of a bumper. The amount of this bumper is going to depend on how much income you have while building. If you have a two earner household, at least one should be earning as much as they can to pay for construction and living costs. If it’s possible to take some time off and still have income, it will help speed up construction. However, make sure you can cover construction and living costs without borrowing.

4. Know what this is going to cost you. It may be impossible to anticipate every cost, I never could. However, you need to have a realistic idea of what this is going to set you back. You may have a time limit imposed by the building department and you want to make sure that you have access to that amount of cash in the time frame allowed. You may want to negotiate time frames with the building department as well if at all possible. As an owner builder, unless you’re hiring a full crew, it’s going to take you a while to get this done and department schedules are figured on professional contractors’ abilities. In the same vein, if you have a $30,000 building budget, make sure you are building a structure that can reasonably be built with those funds. A 4000sq. ft. superinsulated home with 3kw of solar panels is probably not possible for that amount of money. The cost of the outside shell is not even close to the cost of the finished home. If you are going to hire out some of the work, make sure you have that in the budget.

This is the “old” way of doing things. Doing them with cash. Pay as you go. My grandfather was paranoid of borrowing money to run his farm. He eventually did so, but not before he’d built a business based on being fiscally responsible. If ever there was a time to return to those “old time” values, it’s now.

Choosing the right building materials

The best way for me to explain the concept of choosing materials is to run over my own thought process for choosing the materials I made my house out of. Your situation will be different and so your logic will differ, if only in being better suited to your situation.

I spent many years deciding what material to use for the walls of my home. At the same time I was working on the basic structure of the house and with each material I ended up figuring out how to build the design with that particular material. Had the design been a straight sided structure with right angles this would not have been the case, however, curved walls are a different animal and must be treated with some forethought.

My basic house design was round. This ruled out basic frame construction, which by it’s very nature is suited to straight walls. I also wanted a very energy efficient wall, so infiltration was not good but high thermal mass and/or insulation value was preferred. The best of both worlds would be an insulating material that also had considerable thermal mass. Insulated Concrete Forms seemed promising, but only in a form that didn’t lock the pieces together in straight lines and 90 degree angles. I needed to be able to stack these in a circle. I also wanted to make use of recycled materials if possible.

I considered the following options:

  1. Rammed earth
    1. This intrigued me for a long time as it seemed to embody the spirit and soul of thermal mass. Plus, it was plastic in the sense that it could be built to any shape and thickness. You can’t get much greener than sandy loam.
    2. In the long run I decided against this because
      1. I am no longer young enough to abuse my body beating on dirt for months at a time in the hot sun.
      2. Even though I am in a dry climate, I worry about the effect of a driving rain on the walls
      3. Uninsulated thermal mass means you eventually heat/cool the outdoors.
      4. The soil in my area has a high radon content. Any building with thick earthen walls could be a death trap.
  2. Poured earth
    1. This is largely the same as rammed earth except for less pounding.
  3. Straw bale
    1. This is the opposite of rammed earth in that it embodies strong insulation but with little thermal mass. It also usually requires a separate frame for holding up the roof. My main reasons for rejecting this option were:
      1. Lack of real straw bales (as opposed to hay) in my area.
      2. Rodent problems during and after construction
      3. The need to seal the bales as soon as possible after placement.
      4. Mold issues. – My wife has strong allergies, especially to mold
  4. Durisol blocks
    1. These blocks, built of wood chips and fly ash looked promising. They are small enough to be easily moved, stack-able and flexible.
      1. I could not find a local distributor for this product. As it was shipping from eastern Canada, it seemed like too much to deal with, plus it’s not a great green choice when it requires shipping a ton or more of bulky objects 2000 miles.
  5. Corrugated Steel (think Grain Bins)
    1. The only advantage a grain bin has over other options is that it’s already in a round shape and would assemble quickly, including the roof. I had an opportunity to get one at an auction in Wyoming and passed it up. It was the only way to get one cheaply. My reasons against it:
      1. Not cheap, not even close
      2. No insulation, no thermal mass, no green appeal.
      3. Difficulty of insetting doors, windows…
      4. When it rains or hails it’s so noisy you can’t hear yourself scream.
    2. The only place where some wall segments would be worth having is for using as a form for a round foundation. Even so, you’d have to have two different sizes a foot or so different. This ends up being very expensive.
  6. Rastra/PerformWall
    1. The choice I finally went with. I had avoided it because I wasn’t too sure about having polystyrene in the wall, even though it would help with insulation. I finally saw some at an energy fair and liked the material after I saw it. There is a tendency to denigrate cement based products in Green circles due to the amount of energy it takes to produce it. Unfortunately, as long as building codes require concrete foundations and stem walls, there is no getting away from it. In this case it is a strong binder for holding the styrene chips together.
    2. Pros
      1. Available locally at the time
      2. Good thermal mass/insulation combined
      3. Workable by hand to form house shape and install nailers for openings and cabinets
      4. Very strong when filled with concrete with steel reinforcing.
      5. Holds plaster well without wire added.
    3. Cons
      1. Transportation from Old or New Mexico
        1. Not too bad for Colorado
      2. Use of Cement in matrix
      3. requires plaster or other coating for interior and exterior surfaces
      4. Larger pieces require multiple people to carry/maneuver

Homebuilding Flowchart

This is a basic flowchart of the steps involved in building a home. It
is based primarily on the inspection schedule as issued for my house
by the Building and Planning Department of our county. There are many
items on the permit that did not apply to our house and those items are
not shown on this flowchart. This is intended to give you an idea
of the complexity of building a home and is not intended to be accurate
for every building project in every location, or any for that matter.

I have not expanded on every aspect shown. The first element,
“The Plan” is potentially the most involved step, but is represented by
only two words. I hope to address this step in the “Design” section of this
web site. Many people will not actually get beyond this step, but in order
to go further, it is necessary to do at least have a semblance of “The Plan”.
Rest assured that the building officials will need to see it.

I know that the graphic is a little out of kilter with the formatting of this
blogging software. To see it better you should right-click on the picture
and download it to your own graphic viewing software.