“We characterise this zone as the natural, unmanaged environment used for occasional foraging, recreation, or just let be. This is where we learn the rules that we try to apply elsewhere”. -Bill Mollison, Permacultre, A Designers’ Manual”
In Permaculture Design, Zone 5 represents the “Wilderness reference zone”- the zone furthest from human habitation, with the least degree of human design and intervention. I use it here also as a metaphor, the “edge between nature and culture”- so I wish to explore aspects of permaculture design, theory and practice, but also go beyond into the realms of human ecology, eco-philosophy and eco-psychology. The site has a strong Peak Oil focus, and as such is a portal for exploring the issues we face as we live through a time of imminent system collapse.
Name: Graham Strouts Born: Hampshire, southern England, in 1964. I did my first Permaculture design Course in Shropshire, 1989; after a spell in Scotland cutting my teeth in tree-nursery work and tree-planting, I moved to Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland in 1992. Since then Ive lived in Monaghan and Cork, mainly working in tree planting, woodland management and landscaping; also yurt construction and environmental education in primary schools. In 2001 I purchased a 2 hectare small-holding in the Coomhola valley, 8 miles north of Bantry in West Cork. Since September 2005 I have been the course co-ordinator on the 2-year Practical sustainability Course at Kinsale College of Further Education, teaching Permaculture, Woodland Management and Green Building.
Birth of a Superhut
Note: Much to the dismay of many of my readers, I no longer live in the superhut, but moved into a new timber-framed cabin in early 2008. The Roundhouse still stands and is made good use of as workshop and visitor space.
In September of this year (2003) I moved into the “superhut”: based on Tony Wrenches’ “Build Your Own Low-Impact Roundhouse “, what I now call home is a one-roomed reciprocal- framed roundhouse with cordwood walls. After five years in a 16ft- yurt- and before that five years in a hexagonal hut of about the same size- the superhut feels warm and palatial. When I secured tenure of four acres of land in the townland of Derrydubh (“Black Oak”) two years ago and pitched the yurt here I knew already what I wanted to build, and that it would need to meet the following requirements: -having no money to begun with, it had to be cheap -it had to be low-impact, using local materials where possible, and be energy-efficient; -it needed to be finished by the end of the summer this year- I didnt want to get involved in a project that was going to drag on; and -it had to be technically easy to construct, as although I had good general practical skills, my building skills did not go much beyond yurt construction; In addition, it had to be funky.
The work started in May 2002 when the site was levelled with a mini-digger. The hut. though not earth-sheltered, is set back into a bank. Top soil was barrowed away to make raised beds for a tree nursery, the sandy subsoil piled for later use in the walls. Construction of the frame began soon after. Round poles are structurally stronger for the same dimensions, and loads cheaper and with much less embodied energy than using sawn timbers. Twelve Douglas Fir poles, 10ft in length, were placed upright in the ground in a rough circle about 20 ft in diameter. Each pole was charred at the base in a fire to help preserve the wood where there is contact with the earth, and this end set in holes 2ft deep and packed with stones . Round timbers were used to connect each upright at the top to make a kind of “wood-henge”. I used 10mm lengths of re-bar as pegs to fix the timbers. The poles for the rafters were cut from a neighbour’s Cypress hedge; the rest were the tops of Cedar poles from a nearby wood. About 25ft long and 8″ at the butts, they had to be heavy enough to take the weight of a sod roof. Two of us put the roof up in a day. Having never done it before, we made a rough model first with 12 hazel sticks to get the general idea. This could be done using any sticks- coctail sticks, lollipop sticks- and if you take it in turns to lay the sticks in turn, it has the feel of some kind of ancient oriental puzzle. Now for the real thing. We offered the poles up one at a time, cantilevering them over the henge and tying them at first to make sure they would all fit. The tricky bit is leaving enough room for the last pole to slide in on top of the previous pole and under the first one. At the second attempt we get them all in place and then were ready for the dramatic moment of knocking out the temporary support.
I used only two secondary rafters between each main pair. The next job was to board the whole roof over- about a third of this was done with scrap and salveged timber, the rest was bought from a local saw-mill. It was difficult to do the top bit around the skylight because of the inherent uneaveness of the design. The boards were covered in several layers of plastic- I decided against the expense of longer-lasting buteyl-rubber, but I know of one sod roof in West Cork done only with plastic that is apparently still fine after 15 years- and then covered this with half-rotted hay from a neighbour’s field. Two of us covered the whole roof in a day- we were able to push barrows straight onto the roof from the bank. Much easier than cutting turfs, and can always be added to later. I nailed Douglas Fir fasure boards onto the end of the rafters , an made a simple guttering system by simply running the plastic up and over the fasure boards- an improvment I think over Tony Wrench’s more haphazard system. Each rafter was cut slightly longer than the others, so the water runs to a downpipe to the southwest. I had the dry-stone walls between the uprights built to 18″ high as foundations for the cordwood completed, and the first course of cordwood down while the weather was still warm and sunny at the end of September- thanks to the Indian summers that have been a feature of recent years. I didn’t do much over the winter, but in an uncertain climate there is certainly a lot to be said for completing one’s roof first- while the sun shines! For the cords I used what was available- Sitka Spruce. Softwoods have better insulation value and Sitka has not much radial shrinkage(see tables of comparitive shrinkage rates in Rob Roy). They certainly make cheap bricks, light and easy to work with also. I have little or no clay in my soil, so added in cheap hydrated lime to the sandy soil, along with chopped straw. This sort of mix would not be suitable for load-bearing walls, but is fine for in fill in a frame. At first I did the mixing in wellies on a plastic tarp, but later tried a cement mixer. A bread-mixer would probably be better, but the thing is is that while for a pure cob house you would need w gang of enthusiastic slaves or a big digger to do the mixing, for a small cordwood house like this it is certainly feasible to do all the mixing manually. Good progress was made during the Easter holidays- I had begun to get a lot of work teaching about trees and woodland and building gardens in primary schools- in fact in one school we were able to construct a small reciprocal-framed hut with the children! Second-hand double-glazed windows were sourced and the help of a local carpenter enlisted to build frames for the doors and windows. I worked flat-out through July and August, completing most of the cordwood myself. The ceiling was an awkward job- I used washed sheeps wool as an excellent form of insulation, and finished the ceiling with plaster board. A compromise perhaps but it would have taken forever with wattle and daub and I was determined to be in during September! Only the main rafters were left revealed, showing off the reciprocal spiral around an irregular hexagonal skylight. I chose to have two doors- double glass at the south-east and a split barn door to the north where there may later be an extension. I set large flag stones at the entrances and a raise wooden floor was the last major job. Once the doors were hung and the range and sink fitted I was in!
Two months later and Im still delighted. The sun does a good job of warming the place even when there’s no fire down, the cordwod is great insulation, I still havnt got used to all the extra space. It’s a beautiful space especially with the morning sun streaming through. Have I achieved my original goals? Well it was finished on time. I reckon I did about 80% of the work myself- about 5months working time- but with crucial help from my friends when I needed it, including advice from the local building gurus! And it was within budget- Ive spent about E5000- There’s still a lot of shelving and surfaces to do inside, and I may eventually plaster the walls inside. The cordwod was great fun if hard work and I feel it has great potential as a sustainable building method in Ireland.
The roof has more or less greened over by now and looks very funky. Best of all is the reciprocal frame which is great to lie under gazing up at the stars- a cosmic spiral or just a plug-hole to the Universe?