Taming the Bounce House, Part One
Updated: Nov 26, 2022
We've had our tire bale walls in place for a couple of months now.
Chip has fun climbing up on top and wiggling around -- the walls rock and bounce as if they were made of... rubber. When I was a kid, I used to love climbing to high places and dangling over, driving my parents crazy. But somehow along the way over the intervening years, the combination of adulthood, poor vision, worse depth perception, then older adulthood, a few balance challenges, and a sense of mortality has taken away the joy I find in that type of play! I am able to get up on top of the bales gingerly, and can walk out for limited forays to do what I need to do, but often by the time I get out to the end of one of the walls, my queasy belly tickle puts me onto hands and knees to turn around, and I have to concentrate to convince myself to get back up on my feet to walk back. And I usually do not try to wiggle -- it really is a bouncy house!
I've heard Colorado folks refer to their tire bale houses as fortresses, so we put our faith in the concrete bond beam -- our next big job -- as the first major step toward turning our bounce house into a fortress! The bond beam is a 10" deep slab of concrete poured on the top of the walls to stabilize them, and to provide a base for the roof and upper walls.
First we had to find someone to work with in this next phase. Our earlier crew specialized in earth-moving and foundations. Now we needed someone focused more on general construction. We requested bids on the next step, which would include pouring the bond beam, erecting posts, beams, and bearing walls to support the roof, and building the roof itself. We asked a big Albuquerque contractor, a smaller contractor 60 miles away who built a shed for us three years ago before we moved here permanently, and our neighbor/contractor who built his own house (the closest house to ours). During the weeks of back & forth conversations with these three (and with our engineers to figure out some of the details), we also spent our time moving ahead as much as we could before having a contractor on site.
We planned our house solar system (we settled on the online AltE store), tried to figure out the best porch roof angles for passive solar and solar panel mounting, and planned the layout of our front bearing wall.
Back to the bale walls, we brainstormed ways to block gaps so the bond beam concrete wouldn't just drizzle down through the tires, and affixed the required wire mesh to the top of the bales to embed in the concrete. Son Tad came out and visited from Wisconsin, which was also a great treat. (He came during a brief window in which he didn't have to quarantine because he had had a negative COVID test 3 days before arriving. Days after he left, we were locked down again from out-of-state visitors.)
Our neighbor/contractor was away on vacation during the bid time and said to go ahead and do what we need to do, but if we hadn't resolved our situation by the time he got back, he'd give us a bid at that time.
The big contractor in Albuquerque was clearly queasy about this unconventional project, and wanted us to come to Albuquerque to make sure we had all the details in place. We were happy to do that, but were pretty sure that he wouldn't feel comfortable with the project without coming out to our site, which didn't seem to interest him.
By the time Albuquerque got back to us about setting up a meeting in the city, and by the time our neighbor returned from vacation, Marty (the small contractor we had worked with previously) had been out to the build site several times to meet with us to clarify things, had determined a couple of strategies for some of the quirky aspects, and had provided us bids on different portions of the job.
We decided Marty was not too small, not too big, but just right -- professional, knowledgeable, with a crew ready to go, but also flexible enough to work on this unusual project and problem-solve on the fly to meet code and structural requirements. He was also not too close, not too far, but just right -- when told we had a bid in hand, our neighbor confessed that he was kind of relieved because working for friends & neighbors can be such a loaded situation. We could understand that! The folks in Albuquerque, on the other hand, seemed too far away -- we would be charged time & travel, and they didn't want to even come out to discuss the job on site.
So with Marty we settled on a lump sum for all of the labor through roof & exterior framing, except that we would fill the bales to prevent concrete flow into the walls. We will pay for the materials, and Marty will pick them up. It's too hard to estimate materials costs these days -- with the pandemic, lumber prices are all over the place. So this all made sense to us, and we're glad that at least we have one budget item as a fixed cost. And we might have a framed, roofed shell (minus siding and windows) before the end of the year!
After a short snow delay, Marty and his crew came out the last week of October and started building the concrete forms on top of the wired bales.
We knew before starting that it would be a challenge building level forms on the uneven surfaces, and difficult to connect the forms to the tires without hundreds of gaps through which concrete could flow freely, potentially blowing out the forms on the sides -- the biggest challenge of the job, especially since no one around here has done this on a tire bale base! At $150 per yard, we didn't want to waste concrete -- and more importantly, we needed to make a good estimate of concrete, so we knew how many trucks to bring out, and didn't end up with tons left over. And most importantly, we didn't want the forms to blow out! Chip and I also had to figure out how to plug up the many holes in the channel between the forms where concrete could seep, filling up the walls.
I have tried to find info on tire bale houses in years past, and much of the information is outdated or leads to dead ends, partly because a pioneer of tire bale homes, Mike Shealy of Colorado, died some years back. In my panic over concrete busting, I made a renewed effort at reaching some tire bale home owners, and succeeded in finding two!
The first, Jim Gagnepain, had a Michael Shealy home built in Colorado in 2011, and he has a great YouTube video about his process here. He was very generous in answering my questions and sharing his design. He also has a Facebook page called Little Bermed House on the Prairie about his tire bale home. His contractor handled the bond beam completely and they used riprap to fill some of the holes. Here's a photo of his finished home, from his project Facebook page. His wife is a tile artist -- isn't it beautiful?!
The second contact I found is Wendy Broadhead, who has the second-ever tire bale home to be built in Ohio, and a facebook page called Hickory Homestead, They were featured on Homestead Rescue as House of 30,000 Tires (Season 6 Episode 3). She said their concrete bond beam was a nightmare, which was not exactly reassuring! Like Jim, Wendy was very friendly and encouraging. Folks in the same unusual boat are always eager to share, which I love!
Jim, an engineer, put a lot of thought in up front, hired top-notch professionals to do the work, and nailed it. Wendy, a self-described "modern-day hippie," has jumped in to the adventure with her family, rolling along with a positive attitude (getting rescued when needed!), and is living in their house as they finish it bit by bit together. Both inspirational in their own ways! I hope we'll find the "just right" balance for ourselves as we swing back and forth between over-thinking things and jumping in to try; between hyper-planning and "just doing it." One way or another, we'll keep moving ahead!
So we didn't get a "pat" answer on the "right" way to prep for the concrete pour, but even just talking with folks who lived to tell the tale gave us a bit of hope.