Thursday, December 16, 2010

PassivHaus Aiming

Holy Smokes, is it really only 15 days  to 2011?!  Madness.  Time has been screaming by down here and we have quite a few new developments for y'all this week.  First up is a brief overview of the simple, French drain that has been installed around the exterior of the footings.  This tried and true system has been in use for over 200 years and has been helping people direct water away from areas vulnerable to degradation over long periods of time from exposure to groundwater.  The three main components to create a French drain are:

(1) A perforated pipe of at least 4"/100mm diameter (the larger the less chance of clogging)
(2) Tightly woven fabric or 'geotextile' to wrap around the pipe.  (In his original systems, Mr.Henry French used narrowly spaced tiles to dual purpose as his fabric envelope and drain pipe)
(3) Tons o' gravel (a bit smaller than fist size to fine pebbles for the varying depths)

After digging the trench adjacent/parallel to the area needing drainage/diversion, create a (for lake of a more technical term/analogy) hot-dog bun out of the geotextile/fabric and then put the perforated drain pipe in the bottom (hot dog), and cover it with a good 3-5"/75-125mm of chunky relish, aka gravel.  This chunky gravel topping lets water pass through quickly as opposed to silty or spongy soils which retain water.  After dousing the pipe in gravel, it then becomes a bit like a burrito as you wrap the fabric around itself and secure it so that no small particles can enter/clog the drain pipe.  With luck and attention to detail, the pipe will remain unclogged for upwards of a decade-after that who knows, maybe you can leave some bits of cheese in there and send some rats in to tunnel it out for you.  After the hot-dog-burrito piping part is completed it is then just a matter of back fillng the trench with more larger sized aggregate on top (enchilada style) and then progressively finer material to the top of the trench (depending on how deep the trench is).  To the right is a photo of the 'topping' stage of our French drain along the back wall-in the bottom right corner you can see the blur of the gravel being dumped on top of the black pipe which is uncovered in the top left corner.

                                                                   Next up on this massive post, we'll cover the process of pouring concrete bond beams on top of the rammed earth walls for roof integration.  On the left here you can see the same trench in the foreground as pictured above with the French drain start (now back filled to height), but let's focus on the wall and its crown of formwork in the distance.  The main force at work here is compression, which is imparted on the shutters/forms via the calipers.   Basically a caliper is composed of to vertical squeezing 2x4's which are connected by a horizontal 2x4 (at the top) which sets the desired width of the compression.  The cinching action comes from a half inch/15mm threaded rod that runs through drilled holes in each of the vertical pieces with nuts and washers on each exterior face.  Once the shutters are in the correct place/height (overlapping the top of the wall by a good 3"/75mm) start cranking.  To place our shutters we affixed mini trapezoidal wooden 'studs'/chucks (for the eventual use of drilling into to put a board to cover the seam of the rammed earth and concrete beam) on the inside face of the shutter at the correct heights, dual purposing as a ledge/lip for the shutters to rest upon the wall with.  Once the calipers are all tightened down, and the vertical 'squeezers' have been checked for  plumb-ness you're set.  Psyche!  Don't forget about sealing the small gaps and irregularities in the connection between the shutters and wall.  If left unchecked, it is possible that the concrete could seep out the bottom and down along the rammed earth walls which wouldn't look too well-done-unless you're into that.  Doug and Trent were all over this and mixed up some clay putty to patch all the  possible escape routes of the concrete.  Following, is a rough sequence of the caliper's job:

Starting in the first photo, you can see Doug on the top of the wall in between the calipered forms that will encase the bond beam's pouring.  The next picture to the right is a detail of the clay putty sealing he was doing.  In the bottom left shot, the compressed forms are filled with setting concrete-the threaded rod just above the shutters.  Also, note the board screwed across the tops of the two shutters for added support. The final picture is merely for visualization purposes: it is a caliper placed over one of the footings for an idea for the thickness of the shutters.  

Lastly, we will talk about the radiant floor slabs under the bathrooms and laundry room along with their related energy saving additions and supplementary systems.  Very similar to the solar energy absorption and re-radiation of the rammed walls; in-floor piping is a way to heat a thermal mass and good option for a slow, balanced, and relatively efficient way of warming a home.  Two crucial criteria will determine the effectiveness of the slabs delivery and appropriateness.  

(1)  There needs to be a well insulated envelope to capture all of the heat being emitted. Able to lose much of its energy to the cold sink of the earth below during the winter, one must heavily insulate between the slab and the ground.  Our engineer, Paula, is a big proponent of Passivhaus principles and has decided to shoot for a level of Passivhaus certification.  For those of you who haven't heard of Passivhaus standards and requirements it is basically a efficiency standard which places a limitation on energy needed to heat and cool a house, the less energy needed the higher level of certification (please go to the wikipedia link here: for a more in depth look).  In our home we are on a bit of a budget and have gone with a 100mm/4" thick, super dense polystyrene board (by the name of Goldfoam with an R-Value of 4 in S.I. (mteric) or 23 in U.S. units) for the buffer between the ground and the slab/floor.  Perlite (an expanded natural ore) is an alternative option for a thermal barrier between the floor and earth, but is more costly and half the R-value.  A R-value represents a material's thermal resistance or it's conductance of heat/energy.  One can look at this resistive property somewhat analogously to electric flow through conductors and resistors.  Metal, for example, is a good conductor of electricity as well as heat, and thus has a low R-value.  The big difference between electricity and thermal flow is that thermal resistance is based on air-pockets/buffer areas within the insulation which plays a minimal role on the electric side of things.  

(2) The second factor to consider when looking into radiant floors is: how will the hot water pumping through the slab will get up to temperature?  In New Zealand natural gas prices are quite expensive, so to run the in-floor heating off of gas alone would/is a costly endeavor.  As seen in the posting about the Pyroclassic (on the site), we will be integrating a wetback system to supplement the gas hot water heater for heating the slab.  Wetbacks are an ingenious water heating system that make full use of a fire's output.  

Here are some pictures of the creation of the whole slab and piping process:

Above left shows an early stage of the slab with the shutters in place and outer trenches dug and Goldfoam placed.  Directly above is a shot after a sifted layer of soil had been leveled/scree for easy laying of the Goldfoam boards.  After the Goldfoam was laid, a metal grid was placed on top to strengthen the concrete slab's integrity.  This grid was then used to tie the piping for the radiant heating system to (shown to left).  
Below is a photo taken during the pouring of the slab and shows a bit better detail of the piping about to be entombed in the concrete.

And one closing photo and piece of info is about the Laser Level which has helped out immeasurably with keeping areas at correct height and levelness.  To the right you can see the 'broadcaster' in the foreground which has a spinning 45 degree angled mirror that sends out a lazer beam which is picked up by a reciever affixed to a staff (held here by J.J. in the white t-shirt) for a consistent measure of height.  Well, I think this posting takes the prize for the longest one yet, and if you've made it this far you deserve some sort of reward.  As always if there are any areas you would like a bit more info or detailing on, please give us a holler @ or in the comment box, and we will get back to you.  Thanks for your endurance and talk to you later!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

How to make your own rammed earth walls.

Welcome to the detailed wrap up of the rammed earth wall sections that have recently sprouted on the AltShiftNZ research and development site.  This post will hopefully clarify and solidify one's understanding of compacted earth walls (if it doesn't please ask questions!).   First, and most necessary for this type of earthen building method, is the formwork.  The formwork is composed of 4 main elements:
(1) the 'shutters' which are approximately 4'X8' 2 in. thick pieces of plywood.
(2) 2"x10" wooden planks (a.k.a. 'whalers' and/or trusses) that compress the shutters together
(3) Bulkhead strips (the pieces of wood to complete  the form on the ends of the wall) which determine the width of the wall.
(4) Pony pipe clamps (heavy duty pipes with screw-on clamping ends) which hold it all together.

These 4 main pieces are assembled to produce a form for a section of wall as depicted below:

Desired width of the wall is the first variable you'll want to consider as the footing/foundation will need to match that dimension.  The illustration above (from a 1982 Popular Science article) has a great side perspective detailing of the form's interaction with the foundation in the 'close up' circle located in the lower left.  Ideally you want to have this lip/ledge so that the formwork can have a base to rest upon and be clamped against.  There are two different ways to achieve such a ledge: 
(1) You can screw lengths of wood on to the shutters when pouring the footing in order to displace the concrete on the upper outside edges, leaving a 'knock-out' for the ledge.

(2) To create a better thermal break from the footing (preventing loss of heat via conduction to the ground and cold concrete footing) one can have the wall section rest on Hebel supercrete blocks.  These blocks are aerated in their setting process, and thus have a much higher insulative value than normal concrete due to the air pockets.  These blocks are then cut with a skill saw for the ledge as pictured to the right.

Also important to factor into the footing pour, is to have rebar tie-ins to obtain a vertical reinforcement.   The rebar you see to the right then had 4m long pieces of rebar welded on to them so it would extend through the entire wall.  During the wall compacting horizontal 'stirrups' of rebar can be placed around these vertical pieces at set increments to increase structural integrity (I believe on the AltShift walls stirrups were added every 800mm).  

After the form has been put together there are a few additional measures that need to be taken.  If you want to adjoin another section, a 'key' cavity must be created in the end of the wall so that the next section can have a mechanical connection to slot into.  This is easily done by screwing a 2"x4" (by the height of your wall) piece of wood in the center of the bulkhead(s).   To the left you can see the 2x4 in the end of the wall to be removed for the reception of the next wall .  Another action to be carried out to ensure ease of dismantling the forms, is to place wedges in between the bulkhead pieces and the pipes of the pipe clamps (as shown in the Popular Science illustration above).  This is so you can knock out the wedges after the wall has been done instead of having a massive pressure buildup of the bulkhead on the pipes.

With the form built and ready to fill, there is a lot of room to get creative and explore the possibilities of the placement of forms, relics, and niches into the wall.  For our walls we chose to keep it relatively simple and put in a few Volume Displacement Boxes (aka V.D.B.s) to create functional spaces in the wall.  A lot of people who have chosen to do rammed earth around this area take antiques and artifacts from the gold mining days of the area, and insert them into the surface of the wall.  When viewing a house in Hawea, we saw a wall that had an old mining pick embedded in it.  This is done by affixing the desired object to the inside wall of the form and carefully tamping around it.  Some people put rocks and stones towards the exterior of their walls and create mosaic like patterns, others place 'emergency' boxes about an inch under the surface of the wall to store supplies such as a bottle of moonshine (no joke! some people actually do this) or a satchel of gold coins that can be broken into if needed.  Also in this same line of thought, is the planning and positioning of electrical outlets or other conduit that you want to run through the wall, as after the wall is rammed it becomes extremely difficult to work with.  Rammed earth walls are a very fun medium to play around with, just make sure to take your time in preparing any inserts as you fill the form with the mix,- the next step in the process.

Content with all of the fun fixtures and V.D.B.s to be placed in your wall, you will now start the mixing and filling process.  As previously discussed in an earlier post, the ideal soil mixture is a 20-30% clay & 70-80% sand/aggregate.   Then mixing in a 10% ratio of cement, add water and thoroughly mix with a tiller, cement mixer, or tarp method, and keep the mix relatively dry (the wetter, the greater chance that the forms will stick to the wall on stripping, creating rough texture, or the longer you will have to keep the forms on).  Using either a bucket or tractor (for larger scale applications) transfer the mix into the form and begin tamping.  Layering the un-tamped earth in 100mm/ 4", tamping can be done by hand with a tamper or by a pneumatic tamper powered by an air compressor (the pneumatic tamper takes about a tenth of the time though).  It is then a marathon to the top of the form in the step and repeat filling and tamping process, placing your items as you get to their desired height.

Having compacted the final layer at the top of the form, the shutters and form can be taken apart immediately!!  Again, if the mix was too wet, it is best to leave it for a while, but with the correct water content it can be stripped right away.  Although it can stand on its own instantly, connecting the adjacent section to it should wait a day or two for the material to harden around the key insert.   Moving on to the next section provides one with two options on clamping the form together.  

(1)  The pipe clamps can run through the new/next wall section with PVC sleeves around them so the pipes can be slipped out later (patching the holes created by this method isn't too hard).

(2)  Employing 'strongbacks'-aka very large pieces of timber (around 4"x10")-, whalers are sandwiched to the shutters/form by putting the strongbacks against the outside edge of the whalers and clamping the strongbacks to each other.  Here is a picture to help clarify---->
Taken at the top of the keystone piece, you can see that the strongbacks are clamped to each other at the top (and are angled away from the viewer to achieve the keystone shape).  By using the strongbacks, one still has to put a pipe or two through the new wall, but it is only a couple patch jobs rather than 10-14.  

Lastly I will briefly touch on how the keystone was achieved.  We could have gone for a more standard lintel rectangular look, but decided that the angles would possibly help share the load on the sides, as well as provide a bit of intrigue.   We started off with the two separate walls with the door way in between and then buile a support for the base in the doorway.  Bolting into this wooden support in the doorway as well as the two existing sections, a ledge for the formwork was made, and the shutters were raised into place.  The two receiving walls already had the angles worked out by screwing the bulkheads in at the correct degree (70) and had the key gaps.  The tricky part with this keystone is that we had to lean the strongbacks at the 70 degree angle so the clamps didn't get in the way of tamping.  The strongbacks weigh approximately 200+ lbs each and are quite awkward to deal with as they are 14-15 ft (4.5-5m) in length.  But it all worked out and we ended up with this:

So, that about wraps it up for that recap.  Rammed earth is such a fantastic building method not only for its plentiful ingredients (earth and a little cement), and its creative oppurtunities, but also because the forms are completely reusable and can be employed hundreds of times if taken care of and treated properly.  Bottom line if building your own home (along with a few others-mountain village?), rammed earth is a very economical and solid way to raise walls.  We'll part with a great example of a sweet striated wall as well as the link to a well written Popular Science article by Richard Day all the way back in 1982.  Please don't hesitate to ask any questions that you may have (either to our email or in the comments area below) -we love to hear from you, and we want to get as many people comprehending all of this as possible.  Peace!

Popular Science Article :

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cages 'n' Crete, Blocks 'n' Bond

This past week has seen the completion of 80% of the foundation for the home and the starts of some CMU (Concrete Masonry Unit, aka cinder blocks) wall stems.  Because of strict seismic codes and being in a residential area, the construction thus far has been pretty traditional with the concrete, rebar, and sealing agents, but it is quite literally impossible to lay a foundation any differently in this time and area.  But this coming week Jimmy Cotter will be coming in with his crew from Down To Earth and raising 2 sections of load bearing rammed earth wall.  But lets not get too ahead of ourselves, first let us quickly wrap the work week.

Because of our wicked pace and need for the rammed earth to go up before continuing, this week was pretty mellow.  Monday we finished up all of the rebar cages for the footings of the upper level.  Tying up cages is pretty easy work, but will definitely toughen up your fingers in starting the tie around the rebar connection joint.  Producing these cages would be much more difficult if we didn't have the help of our friend 'Canada' (a nickname given to the beast of a tool after one worker pointed out that the cost of the apparatus was equal to a flight to Canada from New Zealand).  It looks like this:

       Da Beast (aka Canada)

  After the cages are done, we placed them in the footing trenches with the help of chairs (pictured below) so that they will sit or 'float' properly as the concrete is poured and set.  In the deeper trenches these chairs were also screwed into the shutters/sides to space the cage off the ground and centered within the form/shutters (pictured below & right). 

The 'block-ies' then came in and laid a few courses of the CMU's in a brick and mortar like fashion.  Because the CMU's are hollow, after the final course was laid the interior gap was filled with concrete and bolts were positioned in the un-set mix at the top of the walls to allow for a solid connection to wood to be affixed to for the continuation of the wall later on in the construction process (picutred below).

To prepare a proper base for the rammed earth wall sections, the footings were laid in a special way with more substantial square cages.  Also, instead of using timber shutters along the sides of the footing trench for forms, thick (75 mm/3 in.) insulative and rigid XPS foam was employed to create a 'thermal break' between the ground and the base for the rammed earth.  This is done to prevent conductive heat loss from the thermal mass of the rammed earth (which, with solar gain and proximity to the stove will help keep the home nice and warm) wall into the colder ground.  An additional measure taken to prevent this heat transfer to the ground from the mass, is the placement of Hebel block directly beneath the rammed earth (pictured below ).

This Hebel block is an aerated and specially treated concrete chunk which creates thousands of mini air pockets within the unit and increases its insulation value.  The Hebel and the rebar ties will connect the section to the footing, and with its 450mm/18" thickness the wall should be stable as you like it.  One of the last things to be arranged for the arrival of the rammed earth process, was the laying of a mini (3.5m/12 ft.) concrete slab for the mixing of clay, earth, and cement for the wall pouring

So ended the work week with the final laying of the slab and Hebel blocks.  To finish of the post we will close with an example of a soil test from the site to see if the earth on the lot could be used for a reasonable portion of the rammed earth or other earth based material such as plaster, earthbag fill, or floor.  Unfortunately the test showed that our particular area was very sandy with some deposits of silt, but very lacking in actual clay.  Here is the breakdown of the components.

  Resting on the bottom will always be the bigger particles- in this case sand and very small pebbles.  Above that is the fine sands/silt, and at the top will be the MVP clay.  This photo isn't the greatest as I unsettled it when I moved it to a better location and the lighting isn't mint.  This sample is very silty (approx. 60%) and has almost no clay.  The red mark on the jar was the original/dry height of the sample before water was added.  If you would like to conduct your very own basic soil composition test here are simple steps:

(1)  Obtain a ~ 1 liter glass (or extremely clear plastic) vessel with a tightly secured lid & flat sides to view the results with greater ease.

(2)  Dig a 400mm/1.5 ft. hole to snag a sample without too much organic matter in it, and fill the jar half full.

(3)  Fill the soiled (haha) jar with water until the water level is about 3/4 capacity of the vessel.

(4)  A little trick that seems to help in making the layers settle faster is to add a drop of dish-washing soap and a pinch of salt to the water.

(5)  Close lid and shake violently to your heart's content (if your heart is only content to shake for 20 seconds make sure to triple it up-a.k.a shake for at least a minute)

(6)  Place the container with the suspended sample somewhere out of the way where it won't be disturbed.

(7)  Depending on how much clay your soil has, the settling process will take up to 3 days (the more clay the longer the fine particles will take to drop).

(8)  To find exact proportions of sand/silt/clay, use a measuring stick to determine total sample depth in the jar and then measure each individual layer and make ratios in relation with the total ammount.

Depending on what you would like to do with the soil/earth you will want various ratios of clay to sand, but for more structural elements like earthbags, adobe, rammed earth, the desired mix is usually 75% sand & 25% clay (give or take 5%).  For plastering applications you will start with a similar ratio add more and more sand as you get nearer the finishing layer.

Thanks for reading and get excited for some rammed earth action next week!! Peace!

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Greetings & welcome to the more in-depth (as deep as a simpleton can provide) details on specific processes and aspects of the AltShift NZ home build.  This blog is mostly for personal record/tab keeping on the project's development, but is also for those people who are looking for greater details of the methods employed in the project's different stages.  We will update this blog every Sunday and recap what activities took place during the previous week. 

So closes the first week of construction at 97 Kings Dr. and gee willikers has it had a good clip to it.  Starting Tuesday with digging the trenches out for the exterior wall footings and getting all the profiles properly oriented (a profile is a leveled up and exactly measured guide post which allows for the stretching of strings between two profiles for a true visualization of where walls will be according to the plans), the race was on.  The trenches were dug to various depths depending on the wall type to be placed upon it.  After the digger did most of the heavy work, we then went through-with the help of the guide lines off the profiles and a lazer level-and double checked the widths and depths of the trenches and touched them up as necessary.  To get a specific height & clean exterior face above grade, 'shutters' were employed to corral the cement.  In order to create a thermal break and waterproof membrane, bitumen was then nailed onto the shuddersAfter dropping steel reinforcement 'cages' into the bottoms of the trenches (to provide tensile strength and hold the concrete together), a concrete pump and truck came in to fill it all in.  Within the hour, the mixer/truck had emptied its contents through the pump and laid the foundations.  Again using the lazer level (aka dumpy), heights of the poured crete were taken along the top and adjusted to be perfectly level.  
Along with all the pouring for the master bedroom, we cut and bent hundreds of pieces of rebar sections for the cages to go in the trenches for the main area of the home which will be poured tomorrow Any further questions can be sent to  Til next time,