Our First Cabin is Done – Completed 2020 We guided the design and construction of the first of several cabins on the CSC’s 8.7 acre design project. The cabins are part of a long-term sustainability plan for this land.
Why is it called an ‘Earth Shelter?’ Because it is made from the earth right beneath our feet here, just 50′ from the cabin.
The goal of the CSC permaculture design is to learn how to build and live more simply so that we might create a more sustainable future. Many people are interested in tiny-homes, as are we, so a small cabin made from mostly natural and locally sourced materials became an obvious early project.
Midwest Permaculture set up many workshops and over 100 people helped build this cabin over a 6-year period learning much about natural building from their work experience.
Here is the basic information on how the cabin was built from the foundation on up.
Why the Cabin and the Size? The creation of this cabin was inspired by Henry David Thoreau. He lived in a hand-built cabin on Walden pond for close to two years where he reflected upon and wrote about his ideas of living simply in his classic book, Walden. Our appreciation for his thoughts on living close to nature encouraged our efforts to build a cabin that had integrity and longevity. The square footage of our cabin is almost exactly that of the one Thoreau built on Walden pond from recycled and hand cut materials for $28.12 in 1845.
Why use clay? The first rule of thumb in permaculture construction is to seek out ways to use the most readily available materials on site. In Stelle, we are sitting on an ocean of clay.
Clay soils are typically slow to drain, hard to dig through, and make a muddy mess during the rainy season. On the upside however, clay shines in its ability to bind loose substrates like sand, stone or straw into a solid mass once it dries. The trick in building with clay in the long run is to be certain to keep it dry.
So for all of the cabins we design and build, clay will be a major component as it comes right from beneath our feet. The most common ways to build with clay are by creating:
To decide which method would work best in our situation, we assessed the overall goals for the structure. It had to:
Last for a very long time
Have a high R value (good insulating qualities)
Have the majority of materials used be locally/sustainably sourced
Withstand our humid climate and slow-draining soils
We compared our options. Solid clay has the tendency to crack, since it expands and contracts according to moisture conditions. If we were to create a structure from clay brick, the humidity present in the air here would likely damage the clay unless the bricks were fired in a kiln.
What about cob? Unfortunately, it has a very low R value. A 1 foot thick wall of cob has an R value of approximately 3. (for comparison, your average house walls are rated R13-23.)
A 1 foot clay-slip wall, however, is rated R18-24 since it is predominantly straw which is a good insulator as it traps air. The low ratio of clay also reduces the likelihood of cracking. Using straw as a primary building material was also advantageous since compared to sand it is very lightweight and relatively easy to work with. Plus, we could source it locally from a farm just 6 miles down the road. So we settled on clay-slip straw, and started to dig the foundation.
As mentioned earlier, clay is very hard to dig through!
Post and Beam Frame
Why such a large overhangs on the roof? Since we are building with biodegradable materials (straw and wood) it is essential that everything be protected from rain and excess moisture. The common phrase used in designing such a building is to always have a “big hat and dry feet.”
Hassan Hall is our builder supreme. Other than the foundation, timber framing and roof, he guided the building of every other aspect of the cabin. It is his experience and skill that made this cabin the high-quality gem that it is. THANK YOU HASSAN!
Earth/Clay Plaster Wall & Floor Finishes
Smoothing and finishing the walls was a slow process, since between coats the plaster needed time to set. Depending on the conditions, it took 1-2 months for a coat to dry enough to be ready for a topcoat.
Then we applied the finish coat.
The Finished Cabin
We are grateful to Hassan Hall of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, for taking on the role of technical designer for this project. Because of his expertise it made this building process a real joy. His talent in understanding not only the technicalities, but the overall aesthetic and feel of natural building design is on full display everywhere you look in this cabin. Thank you again Hassan. His website is here.
Now that it’s finished, The Earth Shelter Cabin is available to book through Hipcamp. We’d love to have you stay here and experience what its like to spend time in an off grid, naturally built shelter. While here, if you’d like to learn more about our larger permaculture project, a short tour can be arranged. See our Hipcamp listing for more info.
We hope you gained some useful and even encouraging information through this post.
Cheers… Bill Wilson – Lead Designer/Teacher at MWP Megan Christian – Key Design/Teaching/Communications Support August 2021