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Getting Plastered (and then some!) with Family and Friends

Every September without a house, we can't help but feel a bit of panic. We know that our prime building season is drawing to a close, and we scurry to prioritize what we really need to do before winter. Our most critical weather-dependent task this September was to get our bag walls plastered. This has to be done before the freeze which starts in early October (at least without a lot of extra protections on the site, and with our inexperience we didn't want to chance it). The scoria-filled bags in the wall are not UV stable, so they need to be covered before they disintegrate and we lose the whole wall: a disaster we could not stomach! The loss of six tents since we moved here has taught us the severity of the sun.

Luckily we had a couple of week long family visits planned, with my sibs sweeping in to help us build! Perfect timing. The visits had actually been planned for the spring, and both got postponed because of COVID on one side or the other. (Yes, Chip and I both got COVID in May and Chip also had a COVID rebound. That was a bit of a slowdown in itself.)

To prepare for helpers, we made a run into Albuquerque and got lumber for building our porch. Home again, Chip got the scaffolding set up on the east patio and we whipped up a couple of bucket fulls of lime plaster to help us get our heads around that job. We started by filling in the indentations between bags, to start to get the wall closer to level.

Happily it was smooth going, and we used up those buckets of material quickly, so we broke out our mortar mixer for a bigger batch. We got that on the wall. We later made up another mortar mixer batch and stored it in sealed 5-gallon buckets with a layer of water on top so it wouldn't dry out.

My sister Chiyo and brother-in-law Mark arrived from Seattle, flying in to Albuquerque at night. They came out to our place the next day, and settled in to our tipi camp across the arroyo. They were game, tolerating our rustic living conditions and monsoon weather.

We divvied up building tasks. Chiyo and I jumped in to the plaster job using the buckets Chip and I had filled previously. We put a second layer into the indents, using a pretty thick putty-like mix. We mainly used our hands to push and work the plaster into the bags, making sure it got behind the poly surface to connect with the porous scoria lava rock inside. We left our rough fingerprints so the next layer would adhere well. Then we started the critical job of covering the still exposed bulge of the poly bags in the same way.

The undulating tire bale wall doesn't meet up with the scaffolding, so we were always mindful of the gap.

We ran out of material, so the next day started with all four of us mixing up another load of plaster. The recipe we used was 2 parts Type S hydrated lime, 5 parts sharp sand, and 1/2 part chopped straw, with enough water to make a putty. Chiyo finished plastering the part we could reach from the scaffold, troweling it over to make things a bit more uniform, and scratching with the trowel point to prepare for the next layer. Meanwhile, I started filling in the indents in the far back triangle corner which I could reach from a ladder. This is as far as we got, since the wet weather prevented that work from drying enough for another coat. We were pretty pleased with the progress!

While Chiyo and I plugged away at the plaster, Mark and Chip plugged away at the porch. I had drawn a dozen versions of the porch over the months (years?), and Chip and I went back and forth with the parameters to balance all of the competing interests. Ideally the roof top would be low enough to leave a good space below the windows and the outer edge would be high enough to allow a full sized entry door, for some future time when we enclose the porch. We wanted the posts out far enough to give usable space on the porch. At the same time, we wanted the roof pitch optimized for solar panels. The result is something of a compromise between those aims.

Chip and Mark attached a header across the face of the house, just below the windows, and placed the rafter strong ties. Then they started at the west end installing and bracing posts and beams, a section at a time. They measured and cut the rafters and put them in place. Once they had a few sections up they added OSB sheathing panels. Our neighbor Greg stopped by and shared a few kernels of wisdom from his years in construction, which cleared up a few sticky points with strong ties and nailing requirements. They got a great start on the porch -- about 40% done. Again, we were excited to see it taking shape!

OK, to be honest, I was also happy to be relieved of the job of hauling heavy stuff up skinny ladders...

Since the wet weather nixed continuing on the plaster job, Chiyo and I turned to the glamorous task of waterproofing the back wall in preparation for filling in the trench to berm the back wall. We plan to berm the east and west sides, and to build a little shed in the middle around the water tanks and the incoming "utility" infrastructure (solar panel cables, water, and maybe a stubout for LP).

We first had to dig back down where dirt had started to silt in the gravel drainage trench, to get a clean connection to the foundation. Then on the east side we marked the 4-foot berm line and painted tar from the foundation edge to the line. For that dirty job, Chip dug out an old pair of coveralls which amazingly fit Chiyo well enough. You can see that between us sisters, she was always the girly one!

After the tar layer, we put on a layer of 6-mil plastic and braced it in place to dry.

Chiyo and Mark also got to experience a few hours of work stoppage due to monsoon rain, which inspired a siesta. For some reason they found the gravel drainage layer of our future cool pantry to be a comfy place for a nap. Blame it on yoga.

Mark took this fun panoramic pic of our interior, from the west wall to the east. I promise my husband is not really a pear-shaped pinhead!

Even when we were not rained out, we did get a couple breaks from the construction grind. Chiyo put in a lot of work in the greenhouse, trimming our tomato trees and lovingly washing the leaves of our citrus. She also brought some cuttings from her heavenly bay laurel tree -- fingers crossed, we have 6 of them in the greenhouse trying to root! And of course we did find time to take a couple walks on the land.

Three days after Chiyo and Mark took off, my brother Ross tag-teamed in, arriving on the same midnight flight from Seattle that Chiyo and Mark had taken ten days earlier. We continued pushing through on the three jobs we had started.

Ross and Chip tackled the ladder-on-scaffolding sections of plaster, while I finished up the back triangle corner, and the part under the window (unsuccessfully dodging the plaster hailstorm from above). Ross initially misunderstood what we meant about starting with the stripes to fill in the indents, and using later coats to cover the rest of the bags... and we noted how quick that was for getting things covered in one go! In the sections where we had done it in three steps we still weren't level and flat anyway, and covering the bags before the freeze really was our goal, so...

We did did some plaster, did other jobs while the plaster dried, and came back to it the next day. And before Ross left, we got the east wall done! In the picture below you can see that we pulled off the green painter's tape over the bottle "windows" on the right half but hadn't yet taken them off on the west half. You can still see the indentations between the bags, and the slightly protruding rebar verticals. We will eventually add a leveling coat and probably a color coat over that. But our goal for this year was to get the bags covered before the freeze, and we did it!

When not plastering, Ross and Chip turned to the porch, and jumped right in where Chip and Mark had left off. They erected the rest of the beams.

We ran out of rafters, but they measured, cut, and put up the rest that we had. They put up several more OSB sheets.

I was just a third wheel on the porch job, so I did some planning work in the camper (septic application, if I remember correctly), and trudged back on my lonesome to work on the back trench. I ran a bead of construction adhesive along the top of the plastic and wrangled the "sock" onto the drainage tube that would eventually run through the trench.

It rained a bit more while Ross was here. He experienced more monsoon than desert blue. During our down times, we took advantage of his architectural expertise and picked his brain about various aspects of our layout. Our funnest discussion was speculating how we might connect our eventual lofts with an eventual catwalk. We are currently talking with a couple of engineers about that possibility.

One morning Ross and I accidentally went on a hike in PJs. It started when he called and said something had patted the side of the tipi earlier, and I went over to see if we could find any tracks. The day before he had found part of a carcass on a rock, so he went to show it to me, but it was gone (luckily he had taken a picture). From there I suggested I show him our dinosaur bones, and we were off up the ridge. By the time we were coming down Chip was coming up, so I went down to start breakfast and Chip and Ross continued exploring.

Here's a few more photos of us familying, checking out the red rocks on the neighboring BLM land, and Ross bundled up in the tipi the night before heading home.

Another productive and fun trip! Thank goodness for siblings!

Four days after Ross left we also took off for southeast Arizona for a four-day clay and lime workshop at Canelo Project. That will have to be a blog post in itself; suffice it here to say that we returned more comfortable with, and less intimidated by all of the plastering ahead of us.

We got home October 3 with another wall to plaster on the west side, and with freezing temperatures forecasted for October 6! We whipped up buckets of plaster and started in on October 4 with the help of our neighbor, Greg. We used the "Ross Method" and our newfound (relative) confidence to quickly cover as much area as possible, living with the uneven surface. The next day Wisconsin friends Rebecca and Adam joined in, and we finished the side in two days flat!

As with the east side, we will eventually add another layer or two. But the UV is kept at bay, and the wall is well sealed!

Since then, I almost finished the west side back berm. We were thrilled to notice on our engineering plan that the berm specification was to install a 1' thick x 3' high bed of gravel against the wall when berming, or a 3' high drainage mat! We unsurprisingly picked the drainage mat which saved literally tons of rock hauling. So I rolled out the drainage mat. I attached the long stretch of drainage hose with the sock on it to one of the pipes leading from the house. These will not be used for drainage, but will act as micro-geothermal fresh air tubes to cool the house on hot days. (We do also have drain tile below the level of the foundation all around the perimeter of the house.)

Then I laid a length of landscaping fabric over the air tube to further prevent dirt infiltrating. Then I shoveled dirt. And by dirt I mean a pile of boulders with dirt in between. Every shovel load took several tries because my shovel kept hitting rocks. I rolled the big boulders away to use for landscaping and included the smaller rocks in my shovel loads. I compacted each layer of dirt. I calculated that I shoveled in upwards of 7 tons of dirt (not including all of the very heavy rocks I moved away), and I still have about 1/4 of the depth left to go.

Then I used some of the big rocks to build a retaining wall at the end, to separate the berm from our west patio. Chip helped me fit the top rows.

Chip almost finished the porch. He got the rest of the materials, cut the last rafters, pieced in the rest of the sheathing, and went over everything putting in the million required nails and screws into each connection.

We designed the porch for the length of the solar array. We decided to have it a bit shorter than the house face. But while building, Chip kept thinking ahead to the finishing work. We plan to have stucco above the roof to have a very robust weather-resistant finish. Below the roof where the wall is protected we plan to use earthen plaster. So those little strips on either side of the porch (inches on one side; a foot on the other) would require stucco, and it just seemed silly to piece together the stucco and earth plaster on the lower level, especially since we won't be enclosing the porch until after we have our occupancy permit.

So Chip decided to bite the bullet and extend the roof the full width of the house. He designed and planned the changes, and we will pick up the materials the next time we are in town. He will have to rip out a bit of his finished work, since he doesn't want a tiny strip of roof sheathing on the edge!

Sooooo... Thanks to Chiyo and Mark, we got these three long-awaited (did I say "long-avoided?") tasks off the ground. Thanks to Ross, we pushed through to finish the east plastering, got most of the porch in place, and have some new ideas to explore. Thanks to Greg, Rebecca, and Adam, we got the west wall plastered.

Thank you, all -- happily wrapped before the first freeze!

oh, and thanks for sharing your photos, too!

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1 Comment

The house is really taking shape. The amount of work that you and your helpers are putting into the project is immense. I am sure that your pride of ownership will be commensurate.

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