Randall Gerard writes back...

Location: Out West

An old-fashioned guy grappling with new-fangled ways.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Insulated, isolated and lonely...

According to yet another poll, this one by the American Sociological Review, Americans are lonelier then ever. The average joe in this country has only two close friends to confide in. This is down from three friends per person in 1985. A friend is defined as someone you hold in high esteem, someone whose advice you would solicit, or someone in whom you would confide something deeply personal. The poll also found that 1 in 4 Americans have NO close friends at all. That's a full 25% of all adults!
The usual suspects are cited as contributors to our social isolation. According to the pollsters, we spend too much time at work, commuting, in front of the T.V., and in front ot the P.C. Quite predictable, wouldn't you say? I'd say the Review may be adept at defining the disease (social isolation) but they're guilty of some very shallow thinking with regard to a cure. They say we work too much, and that is keeping us from connecting with others. This implies we need more leisure time. The fact is, I work far less hours then my father & grand-father did, yet previous generations did not report the level of loneliness and isolation we do. For one thing, families used to be bigger and people used to live closer to extended family members. My childhood was full of cousins, aunts and uncles; not to mention week-end trips to Grandpa's farm. The survey doesn't mention this reduction and scattering of families. My father and grandfather also WORKED with their close friends and family; their work had a social element that our confined and cubicled work environments clearly lack. Could it be that work per se isn't the problem? Maybe it's the way we work?
T.V. watching is a bit more plausible to me. I don't see much value in most of the programs, though occasionally there is a thought-provoking documentary, biography, old movie or good, clean, adventure yarn that I will watch with my family. T.V. can be used to zone out and kill time; or it can be used to provoke and stimulate conversation. The key is controlling it and relegating it to a minor place in your life. For me, by far the most irritating aspects of T.V. are the incessant, brainless pleas to buy, buy, buy. But even this can be a profitable tool for teaching discernment and sales resistance.
The computer.. I must confess I have mixed feelings about this box. I have met many wonderful people through blogging, yet a virtual community doesn't have the flesh and blood heft of real, face-to-face interaction. It is inspiring to know there are others out there who share my quirky views; but I limit my keyboard time, so that the people I see everyday know that I value them. The hear and now is, after all, all we have. Man knows not his time. Everyone will strike a different balance here; but now you know why I don't post very much.
Commuting strikes me as the real culprit; but only superficially so. It's not just driving back and forth to work, each of us in our very own metal cocoon, as wasteful as that is. But generally speaking, the automobile has done more to destroy the social fabric of this nation then any other invention. Easy, fast, cheap travel has made it possible to just leave when the going gets tough. Job troubles? Hey, the whole country's your oyster, go where the wages are highest and the pastures are greenest. Marital troubles? Fire up the ole P.C. and look for the next future ex missus; and then go meet her wherever and whenever, courtesy of Henry Ford. Church troubles? The pastor in the next county might tickle your ears, hop in, let's go. We have used the automobile to avoid commitment, and then we wonder why we have no friends. The auto means we don't need our neighbors. We don't love those we think we can replace. As a result, local business, homey traditions and rootedness to a particular place has gone by the wayside, and with it, life-long friends.
It has taken me awhile, (I'm kinda dense) but I now understand why the amish say cars destroy community.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A strawbale house primer...

Or, 'How NOT to build a strawbale house' by Randall Gerard. ;-)
Actually, my house turned out fairly well, but there are some things I would change if I did it again. Some of you have expressed curiosity about 'bale building, so here goes. The basics are pretty straight forward. Like any other house, a strawbale building needs a good foundation. Some builders have pounded dirt in old tires, laid bales on rail-road ties which are in turn laid on top of a trench filled with rock, and others have used poured concrete or concrete block. If you use a conventional approach to foundations, be sure to center the bales over the narrower concrete walls of the foundation. Bales are very heavy once they are stuccoed or otherwise finished, don't skimp on foundation. In general, it is simpler to build a foundation the width of the bales you are using then it is to tweak a conventional foundation so that the bales are adequately supported. Believe me, I know. My house has essentially two foundations. Initially we were going to stack bales on a wooden floor suspended between 6" round poles placed 10' apart. In other words, a pole building foundation. But the poles were too far apart, and we had to go back and pour a concrete stem-wall between the posts, AFTER the bales were stacked. I don't recommend it.
And that leads me to some design considerations. In general, it's much simpler and easier to build a single story structure then multiple stories. The higher you go with bales, the more unstable they get, and you have to compensate with more wood framing. Some have successfully built with NO framing at all between the bales. This only seems to work well on small single-story projects with solid slab foundations and hip roofs. If the bales are required to support the roof, a hip roof will distribute that load evenly to the tops of all four walls. That way the house should settle evenly. This style of bale building is called 'Nebraska style' after the western Nebraska pioneers who invented bale construction in the 1870's. There are still Nebraska style buildings standing in that state that date back to the 1920's and earlier. Nevertheless, building inspectors don't like them despite a good track record, and ditto for insurance providers and mortgage lenders. Buildings of dirt and straw have only been around for centuries; but just try educating a bureaucrat on the advantages and virtues of straw, cob, earth-bag or other 'unconventional' methods. Your time would be better spent building something.
Fortunately, it is possible to build with bales and still please all the white-collar leaches who will want a piece of your project. Construct a frame to hold up the roof and use the bales as infill between the members. Only, don't do it the way I did. You may recall I used 6" poles spaced 10' apart. The bales I used averaged 14" high x 18" wide x 36" to 42" long. Placing blocks of such varying lengths in a 10' space virtually guaranteed lots of time-consuming shortening, notching and fitting of bales around the posts, window and door frames. If I had to do it over, I would design a frame that was the full width of the bales, and I would base the span between vertical supports upon the average length of my bales. In my case a 9' or 12' span between vertical framing members would have been much easier and faster. And if my frame had been the full width of the bales, I would have had no notching to do. Once your frame is up, you then have the option of roofing the house or stacking bales. Provided you don't live in a windy area, I would roof the house first. That way, the bales can be kept dry and yet close at hand while you fit them around the frame. As an aside, I didn't roof first because it is usually windy and dry where I live. The year I built the house, though, there wasn't much wind, but it rained buckets that spring. We ended up mulching our garden with lots of soggy bales. A word to the wise is sufficient.
I don't know much about earth plasters and such, since mine is finished with fiberglass reinforced cement stucco. In dry areas, I understand that earth or adobe plasters work very well. If I were to use them, I would want generous roof overhangs and no bales within a foot or so of grade. Around here, it's basically dry, but when it does rain and snow, there's likely to be wind as well. That's the main advantage of stucco; it won't erode away in a driving rain. Basically, we pinned chicken wire to our bales and had the 1st coat of stucco blown on at 80 psi, inside and outside. We wanted that first coat to be tightly wed to the bale walls, excluding all air, and it was. The 2nd and 3rd coats we troweled by hand. I say troweled, but we actually used our gloved hands more then we used the trowel. The result was a lumpy, organic, sculptured look. I'll try to figure out how to post pictures sometime.
A few more do's and don'ts. Any electrical switches, fixtures, outlets need to be in conduit. It's easy to flush mount all of this stuff in bales. Just take a claw hammer and gouge a hole for your box and a trench for the conduit, pin in place with big wire staples and hang chicken wire over it. Stucco away. Plumbing is a whole 'nother animal. Don't run plumbing inside bale walls at all, you're only asking for trouble. Design interior plumbing walls and run all your pipes in them.
And now, the icing on the cake. My house cost $35.00 a square foot, in 1995-1997. (Yes, it took nearly 3 years to finish it. I am the world's slowest general contractor.)