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Here are some helpful hints to keep in mind from a retired Pirate Builder who has also previously spent two decades in legit construction for the gentry.
I have nothing to sell and no axe to grind. I just wish to share, to motivate and to support you to best and right action. Since my view is somewhat different from Mike, the author of the book "The $50 and Up Underground House Book", I feel an obligation to explain why. If you feel moved, you have my consent to email this to others. I feel it is important for people beyond just those whom visit this site to have this opportunity for an informed decision about an area so important to their life.
My back story is that while having a successful practice as a builder, I came to recognize the folly of those methods and the negative impact on the greater good. Thus, I quit and did a number of things differently in life. One such thing was a homestead, no power or running water lifestyle, often with animal motive power instead of machines. I have aesthetic and spiritual reasons for this as well as for recognizing a world that is about to cave in. I have also designed and built wooden sailboats for work and cruising in various nations and have been invited as a consultant to the National Maritime Museum.
I have helped, and continue to help, people in many parts of the world to organize and find their way out of Babylon.
I say all of this so you can get a sense of where I am coming from and my experience in this venue. I also wish to gain your confidence because I will propose a very different solution than the author and also show you how to LEGALLY BUILD what you might consider to be a Pirate Home, below the radar and with less total cost than the author proposes. I propose that many, many people stand by to receive you onto their land, if you are sincere. So, read on.
In considering the author of the book, I appreciate many of his social concerns and some of his building ideas. I appreciate his pioneering into this issue.
Yet I feel that he has gotten caught up in an agenda to put forward a certain design style that creates a lot of other liabilities. I encourage you to buy and read his book and to also consider these issues. I encourage you to plan for them because I would advise you to do differently than he advises.
I feel that someone whom wants to build quickly, inexpensively and live easily for least total effort will benefit from considering a concept I call LTE, for least total expense/effort.
Applied to owner building it looks like this: The main financial costs are the opportunity cost of losing income from the chosen lifestyle and how living this way influences you in an intangible way.
For me and many others, the intangible benefits far outweigh the financial opportunity cost and we actually prefer the benefit of not pooping into the common system of sewage and contaminating ground water, nor using toxic construction methods and carrying the guilt of supporting what is inappropriate to support. Mostly I am glad to be out of Babylon.
If you want Out, it is paramount to consider your Total Effort over the long haul. By example, if scrounged materials appear free and digging a huge pit by hand appears free, compare that to doing a bit of compensated labor prior to the
project. Consider it you can apply this benefit to getting yourself out of the hole, so to speak.
More to the point of the author's book, I suggest you consider the value of alternatives to digging a pit and living in it. I do not mean to degrade his offering. I feel that I am simply saying what it is, as he also agrees what it is. The "up hill patio" is the name for the pit. He spends a lot of time trying to justify and tends to avoid real solutions to the contrary by a pen-stroke, writing them off as mere "first thought" ideas. While his self proclaimed "approved method" has some merits in a very small percentage of applications, I suggest you consider other options.
In most situations, the uphill patio concept is a huge labor drain in both the short term and also in the long term. He goes on to suggest "foyers" and other adaptations, which in his own words are to maintain the purity of the existence of the front patio, while migrating away from it. I suggest you punt on this and put your focus on a different field of discussion.
Keep the principles which are forthcoming in mind so that you, in your creativity, come up with a flavor that is what you can and want to live with.
If you feel the need for a book on construction, then it may suppose that you will benefit from me explaining my position by including some information about building. In this way you can understand the principals and come up with your own conclusions.
So let's proceed: If you are truly underground it means that the house is nominally about 50 degrees. This is an often cited advantage of going below. However it is not even close to being "just" an issue of heating it 20 degrees for comfort at an ambient 70 degrees. You are having to heat up the essentially infinite heat sink of the surrounding earth and it is not particularly good at storing and returning this to you. The earth is also trying to suck the heat out of you, being about twice its nominal temperature at nearly 100 degrees.
So the "savings" of the seemingly 20 degree differential is not what it appears by a long shot. This gets especially significant if a person uses lots of scrounged single pane windows and uses an inefficient stove damp wood.
So let's begin by understanding that the underground/earth berm method has a lot of liabilities along with its benefits in terms of temperature control, the heat sink of the earth being a really big deal that isn't going away.
Going underground for the 50 nominal degree benefit makes a lot of sense IF you are trying to do it the same way that the Vietnamese did for low signature reasons during the French and US occupation. In order to do this you have to live in a true cave and to minimize airflow if on the scale of a house instead of a major cave and cavern system. In the tropics, the outside air temperature is not like in the zone in which you are likely to be contemplating construction. In your case, the cold air comes in on a wintery day and now it adds to the need for your stove to heat that along with the infinity of the earth walls which are sucking heat from you as well. The moisture in the air also condenses on a lot of things like carpet, being on the low and cooler level and in contact with the floor, causing mold and rot.
Yet, if you constrain airflow you don't even have to heat at all; just wear a sweater and live below without supplementary heat. It is not easy, nor healthy, but it can be done with consequences, at least for a while. I say this because in the future, you may need to do this; so keep it in mind.
Since what you are likely to want is to have a home and not just a house, you will want light and heat to grow things, dry out laundry, cook food; for general joy and health, etc.
Since we want windows, heat containment (either in or out) is a matter of high priority. Unfortunately too many people suppose that they ought to make the house "air tight" to do so. This is a losing battle since to bottle one's self up in the house is exactly why lots of people are sick and sick of being so. It is like a fish living in a dirty water fish-bowl with a lid on top.
Don't bite on the hook of trying to make a house air tight. It is at best naive, though possibly well intentioned. However, the main thrust of the publicity and funding therefore is by the man and his accountant who sells toxic building materials, medical intervention and war for energy, etc.
Sometimes it is hard to shake off this indoctrination since most books and folks say you ought to stop air flow. They are wrong. Accept this going in and that in a "underground house" you are not going to get all of the thermal benefits supposed. Moreover, in order to mitigate a lot of potential problems, you want to encourage air flow. I say this early so you can shed that skin as we progress.
I have enjoyed living in partially underground houses myself but I do not confuse this with being an truly underground house, which is is a cave. By my definition, the author of the book does not have an underground house either; he has a pit in the ground with a partially imbedded structure, a lot of windows and has chosen to face it up hill. This requires a very deep and large pit in order to get light into the structure in high latitudes. If you have much slope or trees above, well you can see the compounded problem.
For those whom have not lived with nature, please consider what it implies when he states that he goes several times a day out in the rain to bail out his front patio. This is a patio for which a whole potential mountain is above, and the patio is below natural grade. It takes steps to get down to the bottom of this pit and the structure. Get the picture? The water will flood the house in most soil types, just as it does with his.
His is not draining of its own natural accord. By definition the slope is saturated and both the house and the pit are going to have pressure to slide down hill since the floor of the pit is saturated. There is a lot of water in the ground and there is no practical way to make a drain for this since there is a mountain above it and the pit itself if below grade. Yes, you could engineer a real good storm drain system. But it is not the intent of either the author or myself to put forward an unaffordable, high tech solution and for which you are essentially guaranteed to have interference from the man.
In fact, even with the uphill patio, he has still had significant distortion pressures on his house. The main thrust of his book is how to avoid that from happening. My exception to his presentation is that he adamantly states that his is the only way, by inference, if not directly. I would like you to be fully informed of an other approach and which is has greater merit. I am not in any way competing with him, nor would I even respond to any communication from him or others to joust about the issue. It is plain enough here for you to get it in the main and decide for yourself.
Like many people, I don't want to dig that much dirt or to bail water or shovel the snow that slides down a mountain into my front yard and blocks my very limited view to a pit wall; nor to make this something to work around. Maybe you do not want to either.
Start out with requiring a view and not yielding from this point. Understand that to get a view you must be on top of a peak, or on a slope; or on very flat terrain in an unobstructed position. Set aside the flat ground option, for which going underground has dubious value compared to bringing the "ground" above grade, such as with cob construction. You have a choice of building on a raised platform, or to cut into the slope and have a partially imbedded structure. Ain't other choices, so take your pick. Either is like living in nature instead of insulating from nature. You get a view, and you get to condone your intuition that it really does feel better for most people to live with that. The goal is to make the house a home and this home like nature, to have a sense of flow, just like the best part of you and your life.
A partially imbedded structure has a lot of merits in being grounded and more "natural", regardless of any other benefits. It allows you to have a less air-tight structure and still meet reasonable thermal requirements. This scores well for least use of toxic materials in general. To most of the paints and caulks and carpets and emfs and radon and etc, just say no. And, with due respect, just say no to living without an intuitive sense of place and view.
Doing what feels right is a good reason to build in the dirt, with a sunny view, with wood, more or less, and with lots of air flow. Not sheet rock, concrete, processed this n' that and with your back facing the down slope. I am aware of no animal in nature who intentionally does this. This is every bit as important to your total welfare as any other element; that you chose and took responsibility for sorting out how and why you do what you do.
Be certain to consider that in addition to labor, view, cost and drainage benefits, that the shape of the home also allows for automatic air flow to mitigate mold and rot, very real hazards and concerns.
I would not personally use wall to wall carpet if only for health reasons, not just because living a rural life is mostly contrary to carpet usefulness.
You can much more easily lay down the poly on the earth sub floor and then lay down a wood floor of simple, cheap wood; or any number of other options instead. I talk about wood because it is easy, cheap, natural and smells good. It is also renewable and not made of oil. If you must have a sense of carpet, use non toxic area rugs that you can shake outside just like grandma and most of the world does still today.
In his book the author says he spent a long, long time trying to level out his floor for direct contact carpet. Even then he says it was not satisfactory. And there is going to be mold in it, no doubt. Think this through for yourself and this as well:
Consider that, today in June of 2012 one can go to a local lumber yard in the Pacific Northwest and buy 2x8 inch tongue and groove lumber for 50 cents a linear foot. It makes a great floor and the rest of the house as well. If you are good with numbers applied to this issue, you will realize how incredibly cheap this option is. I actually went there myself to verify this prior to writing this article.
What that means is for a home of 500 square feet, the total floor costs only about $500 for all of the framing and the finish floor as well! If you buy the carpet, you are going to spend a whole lot more and you buy a lot of trouble as well. What IF there is a pin prick in the poly, if only due to an animal that does it or a root that takes to the route of least soil compression? Also to the point, it takes only about a day, maybe two for a couple of people to lay this down. More importantly, this wood floor can conceal a lot of things you want, secret things with frequent access, or to route plumbing. Most importantly it can be used to make the structure much, much more resistant to distortion from the shifting hill side.
As a wooden boat builder, I have to build a house that is required to float and to do so in a constant earthquake of motion from the sea. I feel satisfied that I can recognize strong joints and structure. You want a floor system that keeps the posts from pushing in on the bottom; the recipe below allows for this while a directly laid carpet floor does not. It also allows for a much stronger structure throughout.
This same material can be used for shoring on essentially the whole house and to build the roof as well. Figure about a dollar a square foot for each surface. You can see, that even today, you can build a house cheap, quick and wonderful if you want to. You can finance simply by the joy of camping out instead of renting for a few months. It IS that inexpensive to do. Easy, too.
I want to share something also important that apparently was not covered in the book. This is the issue of posts and the method to keep them from rotting. Do yourself a favor and fore go all of the treatment methods, including charring with fire. Just get a few poles that are not going to rot in the first place and which do not require poison or fire to do so.
For instance, up until a few years ago, it was code approved to use cedar or redwood for direct ground contact in most posts and foundations. Since you only need a few posts for a correctly designed structure, this is an easy bridge to cross, not a mystery to solve.
The smart money does this: Get or cut some yew wood posts or any other type of post that farmers have used for centuries and which are known to last for over 50 years in open exposure, including ground contact. The posts will outlast your life and that of the house more than likely. So, too in most root cellar applications. No poison, concrete and free. If they don't grow on site, make a trip to get some, you will be glad for doing this.
I once built in the South, and I had property owners begging me to cut these pole size trees off of their pasture edges. I went out with my draft horse and skidded them amongst the fondest appreciation you might imagine. You will find that by going on this type of egg hunt, you will make life long relationships with those in the vicinity whom will mutually cover for each other in a myriad of ways important to living as you intend to live. Granny will teach you what you might not know; pa will take you in to the inner circle and you will get immunity from the man, more or less.
In assessing LTE, add that to the mix and keep in mind that it is a much better strategy for most people to not go on grid, nor to use much power at all. This is the key to staying out of the interest of the man. In many places, a small solar panel and a single battery will give you all you need to run your lap top, phone etc, if you use these. You would do well to have the panel inside the greenhouse so you don't leave a signature outside. Don't take the bait and get a fancy windmill or heaven knows what and then have the code enforce take control and sequentially get you to remain in Babylon, in his codes, banks, his schools etc.
He will come running with his latte in hand, a red tag and you will never be able to try again without cause for concern. Many people STILL manage a very healthy life throughout the world without these things. If you have not traveled, even, say to the rural South in this nation, you would not know this because the man paints a different picture to sell you down and sell his wares.
You probably will continue to drive a vehicle; just put a second battery in it and draw power off of it for the house, etc. If you really want some AC ability for construction or to juice up the 12 volt once in a while, many use a small generator that costs about $300. But don't go on grid, and don't use much power at all, that is where the cost and rot sets in.
Save yourself the trauma of doing these two mistakes: One is to "hook up" with the man and the grid; the other is to likewise hook up with the man and try to be a tech nerd in the woods. Don't spend a zillion on trying to keep high tech fridge, etc, afloat so you can play virtual reality instead of the real thing. People are designed to chop wood and carry water. To avoid that is spiritual pollution and you will find out that tech won't make your stay pleasant in the long run; in fact it mitigates against getting the fruit you long for.
I say this because I am preparing you in this article how to LEGALLY build what you consider to be a Pirate Home. To do so takes some lateral thinking for some readers. For the rest, it probably just takes knowing that a lot of us have pulled this off, for real, and how.
It really IS easier to carry water, to chop and carry, and to live beyond the grid not just off of it. Understand the difference. I personally know 80 year old people who do this and they cite this as the REASON why they are able to still do so at this point in life. One of these guys has a handshake that would literally crush the bones of some readers. His wife, is the type of person that all can respect, knowledgeable in ways that matter, tough as nails and smooth as silk. And, I might add, both of immense faith, compared to some.
The design I propose gives most people all of their own water just for, well, being there, instead of needing a well. If you don't already know, it is comfortable to live on something like 5 gallons a person day for cooking, drinking, sanitation and washing. Ten gallons is a luxury. It is much easier to live like this than it is to build, pay for and keep running the alternative. The design below has no well, no "spring" in the normal sense and no contract with the man. It is YOURS and no one can mess with it, nor even know you have it. It is integrated into the alternative presented in the "recipe".
Keep this in mind: The UBC, which is the code to which essentially every state in the nation and much of the rest of the world are expected to comply, allows for certain structures to be build outside of code under local zoning laws. Trust me on this, I used to make a living doing this!
The key is this, these structures must not be "habitable" and not have power, heat or running water. Yet, most counties, even in Oregon where the land use laws in rural zones are draconian, allow for small square footage structures to be built without permits nor inspection nor zoning interference.
In Oregon, by example, you can build an essentially infinite number of 200 square foot or structures with less than 10 foot eave height. You read that right. If you do NOT have an air tight stove, than you are exempt from EPA regulations. You read that right. That should be proof enough that the laws are primarily for the purpose of supporting financial interests for stove makers, not for air quality issues. Since you will use a non-approved, but nonetheless incredibly efficient stove, you are both in the moral right and legal right. You can legally use non-approved stove, believe it or not, under the EPA but not maybe in the man's code approved habitable structure. In order to use such a stove in a green house, well, check the local issues; most of the time this becomes something that the county can not nor will not go after. Gee, people use open burn barrels for their trash.
What about where you live since you do not "live" in the structure. Well, in Oregon, you do not have to have a physical address to be a legal resident. Yes, you read that right. You can be what is known as a "continuous traveler" under their law, and this status must be accepted in every state of the union as it is the legal address on your primary ID, your driver's license.
There is nothing remotely subversive about doing this, lots of snow birds have reasons for this status and use it. The DMV complies simply enough if you just follow the dots. You do not even have to file taxes nor have any property in ownership to do it, in Oregon nor elsewhere. You do not even have to be a US citizen. You read that right. It makes it interesting, to say the least, for people to serve you their ice cream for activities on a piece of land that you do not own nor live on.
In most counties, even now in 2012, you can build a reasonable size structure without UBC compliance on land with any material you want short of an obvious hazard such as toxic waste. So, make the most of it and get going, using sound consideration of LTE while you can.
It is only when you want to do what you ought not do, namely, to live in Babylon, that you set the wheels in motion of owner/builder travails. An early test of this is if you try to live with too large a foot print. Providence does not like that, but has let a way exist for you to live reasonably until for just this little while until that is shut down.
In Oregon, the threshold is 200 square feet under the solid roof as in many places. You can build an essentially infinite number of these without the building code nor planning approval nor zoning restrictions. So, if you can't find peace in that, well, you are not likely to find it. It is easy enough to live well with these parameters.
For instance, since it is really lovely to work in a greenhouse and its shed year round, even sometimes at night. In some places, like in parts of the South, or the Oregon outback, no one comes knocking anyways, unless you invite them to. So there, people are often found late at night in a barn instead of a shed, tending to their chickens, etc. You can even be found washing off from the exertion, incinerating brush in a container, etc. Just not with an EPA stove and well and drain field, OK?
As someone who has lived happily and comfortably on a sailboat in places as various as the tropics and anchored for free off of San Francisco, I can share that 200 square feet is plenty of space with the whole of nature outside of my cabin. Ditto for shore side if you design it so that nature is visible and halfway into the house as well.
So, if you start with the premise of needing air flow then you can see the smarts of going small for heating, cost, time in construction and unwanted conflict. This is the first design criteria. Compliance with the man is your choice; but how you handle this will best work by getting the first one right. It is my premise that it is the only way it will work.
More importantly, it is easier to live in a small space and to find yourself in the vastness of the interior dimensions it opens up. The small exterior dimensions invite you to explore what you are here for.
I have often felt sorry for guys who live in a house so large that his wife is in another room most of the time; perhaps in a kitchen and he might be slugging it out with the man at a thing called a job just to pay for their isolation from each other. And since so busy, the kids are being indoctrinated by the man who is their primary parent and tells them all that God is not allowed in that school, work place and day care.
If you don't like the idea of the level of ethics and intimacy that comes from close living and being responsible for you and your family, then it is exactly why you will benefit from being able to live small; and in reality instead of an imitation thereof. Once you realize that, and that you are meant to chop and carry, the light really goes on and Providence makes the way for those out of Babylon.
Since you are not going underground ala Vietnam, but are doing some sort of berm buffered, "loose" house with lots of windows, you are really needful of having your solar gain and supplementary heat worked out. This is, unless you live in a glorious stilt house over an estuary in the tropics; which takes about a week to build and a single paycheck for most readers of this letter. It takes about one day of your labor to pay for a month's right to reside in that zone. No you don't get to shovel snow, but you do get other benefits of the similar seasons. Indeed it makes you wonder about digging in the dirt, huh?
If you prefer the temperate or frigid zones, then heat is the big issue along with more labor and more cash. And more design study of LTE. Take this one on the nose and get it right from the start. I used to have a stove just like Mike's in a house I lived in. Same model since it came that way, I did not chose it intentionally. Soon found out that many other options are better, like a rocket stove etc. A rocket stove is so efficient, and only costs about a 100 bucks to build that it makes sense to expect that it leaves a very small smoke signature and it is not EPA approved.
Instead of figuring out how to process all of the free bananas around your eternally warm home perched over crystal water, you will instead consider how you will get, process and store the fuel and how it will get into your stove. Instead of considering the bugs in the tropics, you will consider the bugs on your cell phone.
So before you get techno starved, start with the chop and carry. Your are not best served by stairs and a pit and dampness for the supply of wood for which you have little room within and for which you must come in and out to fetch through snow. Makes an attached green solar kiln a good idea, to many.
Here is a "recipe" for building consideration outside of the tropics. Build facing downhill and south (for northern readers). Put a "green house" on the front wall facing down hill with a rock backing or similar to hold solar gain. You could put a log wall of yew poles here, they virtually do not rot and they are really dense for heat storage and transfer. Or use another good idea.
Have this be a low wall, called a "pony wall" in the business, so that the green house is actually part of the front room of the house and it makes a backstop for the kitchen counter and a wonderful view. You don't need a sink per se, toss it out onto next weeks dinner growing within arms reach. Or, put in a sink if you just have to have one. If you do not plumb water into it, it is not "a sink" at law.
Then enjoy the benefits of your co2 exchange with the benefits of the o2 from the plants and the good vibes of having it in house. Enjoy that the glass will mostly always be free of condensation due to the air flow in the house and the heat and the fact that you build small enough to afford some used dual pane patio slider blems for glazing. You might even put a tub here and take a warm soak with the snow blowing outside and enjoy a massage or book.
Aside from the clear call to help readers out of Babylon, what really prompted this article for me, is that there are many good ways to mitigate drainage issues and downslope slide of the structure that the author does not cover in his book. My preferred recipe looks like this:
Build the house as a Hexagon structure, with six sides, just like bees do. Put one "pointy" end to the uphill side. Use the wood and poly type method. Put a French drain near ground level and one at footing level as well. This is as simple as using 4 inch perforated drain pipe, a bit of gravel and some black sun screen fabric like used in nurseries. You can even skip the gravel in many cases. It takes about half a day of labor to do this, including sourcing the materials. And it is your water supply. You have a whole mountain of a watershed for your benefit and this free and invisible well doubles purpose to keep your house from sliding down hill by ground saturation.
The pointy end of the house uphill does several things. You are almost guaranteed not to have a drainage problem because all water runs past the slanted angle of the wall to slope and and down slope, the path of least resistance. You are doing the same thing that the bows of a boat do to part the seas.
This also parts the slope itself, should it try to slide. It does NOT crush the building since the path of least resistance is around it. The pointy end acts like a wedge and the slope moves around it, if it moves at all.
The fact is, when you excavate a triangle in the slope like this, the apex, or point, does not want to slide downhill anyways. This is preferred to excavating a box shape. The "legs" of the triangle shaped excavation tend to hold it in place. Probably someone has published about this, but I am unaware of this applied to this venue.
Once you build the outside structure of the house, frame off a partition on the back wall of the house so that from the interior you do not live with a wedge, but with a flat wall with a window above. Within this back wall, in the secret roof and piece of the "pie" it contains, put your water storage and your root cellar.
Creative minds will put a couple of simple vents to the top using a stove pipe or other appropriate shafts. Thus things will not tend to rot. Also, by use of an evaporative cooler principal of a wick in the vent, you can keep things cooler than even the 50 degrees or so of nominal temperature for a "fridge". Thus you now have refrigeration accessible from the interior of the house. This can be your safe room as well.
Use the front "pointy end" of the Hex house to face the down slope with big windows on the outboard side to take in the sun and your view. Take care to make the roof overhang work with the declination of the sun for your region, so the summer stays out and the winter sun comes in.
Put a pony wall here and the plants in front. Wood stove too if you want. Nice view of wood burning, view for miles, plants within and snow without. Your weekly wood storage can be in this solar oven, drying out and holding gain for your plants.
The "point" is this: Use a hex facing downhill. It is absurdly easy to do and infinitely stronger than the unsecured framing specified in the book. This eliminates the need to excavate a pit and live in one, facing up hill. You get all the benefits that can reasonably be accomplished short of going in