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earth • ship - a dwelling designed to bring people into a more intelligent and sustainable relationship with their environment
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01.22.06   Time Warp 2: The Earth Hut Gets a Hood

The following entry is a recap of the progress that was made in the summer of 2005. When not inundated with regular work, I would shoot out to the mesa to try and put this project away by this winter. No such luck! Too bad. I was really hoping be closed in by now.
The Shell:
The recommended technique for applying the initial shell as presented in the Hut Video (available from Earthship Biotecture in VHS and DVD), is to saturate sheets of clothing in a cement slurry and apply them to the mesh dome. This really looked like fun in the video, and I was really looking forward to this step. It looked a lot like a large scale papier maché project. Well, it actually turned out to be one of the more difficult, frustrating, unpleasant, and time-consuming processes of the entire project! Maybe my sourness on this was augmented by my expectations... but nevertheless there are some very important realities I'd like to share with you.
First, you need to gather up lots of fabric. Free clothing of all kinds is available in Taos at the "Free Box" located next to the recycling center on Bertha Street near the Subway food stop. Even if you're not so lucky old clothing should not be tough to come by. Now, not all fabrics are created equal. Some will hold the cement and some will not. Some are just too thin. This took a great deal of trial and error. I found that denim jeans seemed to work the best. They had enough thickness and texture to hold enough cement to dry to a hard shell. Other fabrics that worked reasonably well were loosely woven sweaters (non-fuzzy) and tablecloth-like materials. Forget about cotten t-shirts! Generally, look for thick fabrics with threading that is tight but woven with either textural patterns or gaps for better adhesion.
Next, you have to cut the clothing so that you can spread the pieces out in a sigle layer. This is where the denim became a liability. You'll need a really good pair of sharp scissors for this work. It took me a bit of time to figure out the best places to make the cuts to maximize the area. For the jeans, I would remove some of the thicker sections such as the waist area and the pockets. The legs would open up substantially with a cut down the seam. Fair warning, this work is a bit time consuming, tedious, and you're going to have to give your hand a break periodically.
Next, you'll mix up a batch of cement slurry. The video does not quite mention what this is, but I figured out that it's just a watered down cement mix. I used a plaster sand for added strength, figuring that it would adhere more easily to the clothing, which seemed to work ok. Now, fabric is nothing like tissue paper, of course. You're going to have to really work this slurry into the cloth, and you're going to have to flip it several times to get the fabric saturated. This is NOT fun! Futhermore... the ratios of your slurry ingredients (cement, sand, and water) is going to constantly change and require adjusting, as the fabric will acquire the water, cement, and sand in different quantities.
Next, you're going to lift this piece of cement-saturated fabric and apply it to the mesh dome. This fabric is going to be much heavier than you imagine! In fact, it's so heavy, that it's not going to stay attached to the lower part of the mesh dome. Ugh! I had to start punching holes into the fabric and attach them using baling wire. I started at the bottom, allowing part of the cloth to form the area that would become the water drain. I figured this would be closer to applying shingles, and that it might better deflect water if placed in this order.
Now, as this fabric was laying on this shell, I found it incredibly hard to imagine that it could possibly dry with any strength. Because it is so thin, it won't begin to stiffen up until it is completely dry. Even then, your results will vary by fabric. The reason I point this out is that the wind can and will have it's way with your hard work, sometimes even in spite of precautions you might take. The Taos mesa has no shortage of unexpected wind gusts. Whirling dirvishes can come out of nowhere. They become more and more dangerous as you begin to enclose the structure, because the wind increasingly has less and less of a choice for how to escape the interior space. So it wasn't just a few times that it was me that ended up wearing the cement-saturated clothing; a fashion-designer's nightmare if there ever was one! Once, I spied a wind funnel coming toward me from the west. I had just laid a bunch of pieces and was praying it would change direction. Instead, it plowed right into the hut, blasting out the wet section and leaving me donning a cement turban.
Additionally, after you leave for the day, it is quite possible to have your work erased by a monsoon. The wind can blast your fabric clear off the roof, and the rain can wash the cement right out of the clothing, leaving raw fabric in it's place. This can be quite demoralizing. It wasn't a few times that I had to rework the same sections.
With persistence, the shell was finally closed in to a point where the worst struggle with it was over. It will require a number of additional monolithic plaster shells to really seal it in and give it strength. Had I expected the problems I have described, I would have either developed a better method for coping with the realities of the technique in advance, or opted for an entirely different solution.
One thing I worry about a little with the cloth is the potential for moisture retention which could then lead to rotting and mold. There will be a final waterproof insulated shell applied to the roof, which may make this a non issue, but the potential is still there should moisture find its way into pockets of unprotected fabric. I am considering adding a super plasticizer to the coming coats of plaster for a smoother spread and greater water resistance.
Had I been equipped with these experiences, I think I would have bitten the bullet and opted to cover the dome with the tighter and more expensive metal lathe. This would permit a direct coat of plaster for the initial shell. It would also hold it's shape better, and require less attention to hone a smooth dome shape with subsequent layers. The absence of fabric would eliminate the worry of rotting and mold, and would likely cut days out of the process and make it more enjoyable. The only unknown would be how the cement-covered lath would hold up against unexpected wind gusts. At worst, you'd lose your cement, and simply reapply it. When this happens to the fabric, there is much more to redo.
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related images (click to view photos in full resolution)
Time Warp 2: The earth hut gets a hood.
Time Warp 2: The earth hut gets a hood.
My brother Scott stops by to help finish off the first shell. My brother Scott stops by to help finish off the first shell.
A view of the hut with it's first shell A view of the hut with it's first shell and the powershed.
Another view of the hut with it's shell. Another view of the hut with it's shell. The opening will accommodate a window.
It must be &quote;Put Your Nephew to Work Week&quote;! It must be "Put Your Nephew to Work Week"!
My nephew Justin earning some sweat-equity by sealing up the vigas. My nephew Justin earning some sweat-equity by sealing up the vigas.
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