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(7) Notch in and spike super beams and roof beams. There are several important things to point out here. The first is that you must put the beams in before doing the work on the walls. If you attempt to do the walls first, the pressure of the earth as you tamp the backfill will push the posts in. They will no longer be plumb. It will happen slowly, but it will happen. The end result will be posts and walls which teeter in at unpleasant, almost threatening angles. The only correction for this is to dig out completely behind the walls, pull the posts and begin again.
The girders, beams and super beams transfer the pressure from one wall all the way across the house to the other wall. This is the second thing we are pointing out here. It is one of the secrets of the PSP construction system. All pressure—lateral thrust and hillside creep—is counterbalanced by pressure from the opposite side of the house. This is why we haven't recommended putting in diagonal bracing which is so important to the structural integrity of frame houses. There is no need for it on a properly built PSP underground structure.
It is for this reason that we emphasize notching the posts, girders and beams. Notching vastly increases the strength of these members at the points of union. Nails, spikes and bolts alone will not suffice. With the weight of a whole hillside pushing on them nails and bolts may pull out, bend or shear. They will hold firm when notched.
There is a possibility still that the whole structure may be forced out of plumb when tamping the back fill behind the first wall if that wall is completed before the opposing wall is begun. This could probably only happen if you were using a mechanical tamper. Professional builders take note. To avoid this build up the opposite wall a few feet and tamp behind for counterpressure.
It is difficult to imagine the whole structure going out of plumb when the tamping is done by hand. If this should happen it is indicative of posts not sunk deep enough or tamped well and of girders and beams poorly joined. In that case your whole structure is in trouble.
(8) Put in French drains. These must go in on the outside before the walls go up because they are at the very bottom. If the French drain is to go all the way up a wall towards the surface you will obviously have to do that part in conjunction with placement of the wall itself.
Where the French drain is in contact with the polyethylene on the outside of the wall there is a problem, especially if the fill is crushed gravel. The problem is that the rock may tear the polyethylene. To solve this
Chris on top of structure, as Steve and Marilyn watch. Roof beams have yet to go on. Planks on top are to facilitate work.
dilemma three approaches may be taken. First you may stack the fill in the trench in sacks, such as burlap bags or sand bags. This might be a nice neat way of doing it. It would obviously be an expensive way unless you have access to free bags. A cheaper method is to place cardboard against the polyethylene when you shovel in the fill. Flattened old cardboard boxes will do. Even so, shovel with care.
The combination of crushed gravel and polyethylene makes me nervous. Here the third method should be used. This is to fill the drain trench slowly and try to put four or so inches of sand or other soft earth against the polyethylene itself, the gravel outside.
(9) Rough-in the plumbing lines and electrical conduits. If you are going to utilize these luxuries this is the stage in which the initial work must be done.
In the case of the plumbing it is not crucial at this point. You could tunnel the water and sewer lines out under a door or wall of windows such as at a Royer Foyer later if you choose, though it would be a minor hassle. In the case of the electrical conduits, however, the timing is essential.
The conduits must be placed now before the walls go up. The only alternatives later are to either dig out the walls from behind or string the wiring inside the house. This does not apply to the conduits which are to be laid along the roof. These must obviously be placed after the roof boards are up.
We make a humble suggestion here, one which many homesteaders may choose to ignore. It is this: If you aren't going to electrify, at least consider putting a few conduits up behind your walls in case you should want to electrify later. It is simple to do. Just run a few plastic pipes up your walls and cut in blank outlets when the walls go up during the next two steps. You need not run the conduits under the floors now; that may be done in later years, but the wall conduits could be a tremendous saving in labor if and when you do decide to go electric. Electricity may be unnecessary in your youth but in your senior years it could be important. The conduits could also add to the resale value of your house.
It is beyond the scope of this book to instruct you on plumbing and electrical work. Your local library should have helpful materi
al. If not, check the Whole Earth Catalog. Even Sears has pamphlets which will tell you how.
(10) Nail on roofing boards. While most of the wall boards will not require nails, the roof boards definitely will. They won't have the pressure of the earth immediately on them to hold them in place as do the walls. They could conceivably slip while you walk over the roof during construction. They might pop out of place during an earthquake causing devastation to those below, whereas if the wall boards were to pop out there would not likely be more than a foot or two of earth coming in. The nails should add something to the strength of the structure. A final reason for nailing the boards on the roof, but not the walls, is that you have room to swing a hammer whereas on the walls of a hand dug house you probably won't.
The roofing boards may either be the length of one span between two posts or they may be longer. The advantage of using longer boards is strength. There are several advantages to using shorter boards. One is that you may use bits and pieces that commercial builders and sawmills throw away as too short. The second advantage is that shorter boards may make a snugger roof. If the roof beams vary in diameter as they doubtless will, and if your notching of the beams is uneven as it doubtless will be if you are not a professional carpenter, then the top of your roof beams will show variation in height. This is to say that if you have three beams and the two outside ones are higher than the center one, then trying to span the three with one board might not be entirely successful. From below the board may appear to have pulled away from the center beam. This could be true even with the weight of the earth on the board. It makes a bad looking job. Shorter boards, spanning just from center to center of the beams do away with this difficulty.
The roof beams should be flattened to give a surface of at least several inches to nail the boards upon. The plane of these flattened areas should be at the same angle as the pitch of the roof. If you have an Alaskan Mill you may make this trim before putting the beams in place. Otherwise a broad axe or an adze will do the job after the beams are up. This latter method has the advantage of making the plane more likely to conform with the pitch of the roof since the notching process has already been completed.
When the boards are nailed in place, run your electrical conduits up the roof for any ceiling fixtures you might want. They should be run up the roof rather than across. This facilitates drainage. Anything lying across the roof will bunch the polyethylene above it creating a moisture trap. The principle of never letting water back up anywhere against the house is doubly important on the roof.
You might want to build a casing around the electrical conduit (if you have access to a table saw) to keep the building paper and polyethylene from stretching over it from the weight of the earth and possibly tearing. The sides of the casing should be beveled so that there are no sharp or abrupt edges.
Care should also be taken so that the roof boards are smooth without large gaps or holes that may also allow the building paper and polyethylene to stretch in time and tear. If you build with new lumber (ship-lap preferred) there should not be much problem on this score. Building as I do with imperfect lumber J often have to patch around holes and cracks. Over large gaps I tack window screen which is then pounded flat so that there are no sharp edges. To smooth out irregularities between boards I mix up concrete and trowel it on.
When all of this is completed apply building paper, always remembering to overlap the upper piece over the lower in the manner of shingles so that the rain will run off.
Somewhere in here you must build shoring above the windows and doors to retain the earth. These should be several inches higher than the desired depth of the earth on the roof. You will not need to build shoring above solid walls. There the earth on the roof merges with the earth surrounding the house.
It is not crucial to do this portion of the roof at this time. If you do, however, it will keep the rain or possibly hot sun off you when you work on the walls.
(11) Build the walls, cabinets and closets. You might try to complete the downhill wall first so that the runoff from the roof is conveniently conducted downhill rather than dribbling into the construction area causing mud.
Here are the steps to follow when building a wall:
Begin by digging a trench along the outside of the posts the length of the wall. This trench should be two to four inches deeper than the eventual level of the floor. It must be wider than the width of the boards you will use on the bottom. It should be flush with the outside of the posts. Make sure that the ditch is level from one end to the other.
Now stretch out the polyethylene making sure that there is plenty of surplus. At the bottom you will want eighteen inches or more extra so that the polyethylene may wrap under the lower board and come out to extend a foot or more under the floor poly providing a moisture and dust barrier. There must be enough extra at the top to allow the polyethylene to underlap the polyethylene from the roof. You will want extra there also because the polyethylene tends to pull down during the backfill. You may lose a foot or more this way during the construction of a six foot wall. Give yourself plenty extra to work with until you get the hang of it. The polyethylene should also extend around the corners by at least a foot so that it may overlap that of the other walls.
Measure and cut a board so that it reaches from center to center of the first two posts. Lay it in the ditch with the polyethylene coming up on either side. Make sure the board lies level in the ditch. If it does not, pull it and make corrections beneath the polyethylene. When the board is level stretch the polyethylene up behind it and shovel some dirt in back and tamp. Repeat this process between the other posts, always remembering to use a level on these first boards because if these go in crooked, the rest of the boards up the wall will be crooked.
The polyethylene which is in front of the boards, about a foot of it, will have bunched up around the posts. Take a knife and slit it so that it will come around the posts and lie flat on the floor.
Now begin building up the walls laying one board at a time, backfilling, stretching the polyethylene, tamping and working across the wall so that all sections rise together. When earth begins to spill out the corners it is time to begin another wall if that corner is not to be in windows or doors. If it is, you will have to rig up shoring there.
Where one earth backed wall meets another the polyethylene must overlap. Polyethylene from the upper wall should overlap on the outside of that of the side walls and the polyethylene of the sidewalls should overlap that of the downhill wall. This is done so that there is no edge of poly exposed to the dirt facing uphill to catch the water seeping down. Stop construction when you are a foot or more from the roof so that the roof polyethylene may overlap all the wall poly.
During this stage you should be building in cabinets, closets and shelves. These are built right into the wall and are another of the advantages of underground housing for you may build as many as you wish. With an aboveground house you can't do this or the house would look strange indeed from the outside with various lumps and protrusions.
The closets, cabinets and shelves need not have the structural integrity of the remainder of the house since you are not going to live in them, yet they must be built to withstand the lateral pressure of the earth. This is achieved by overlapping the backboards over the sideboards so that the earth pressure is transferred from the back to the side to the posts against which the whole unit rests. Shelves and cupboards may be built with one inch lumber but the closets being bigger should be built with two inch. It is important when laying out the polyethylene to remember to leave enough to wrap comfortably around these additions to the walls. The only other important thing to know here is that the ceilings of the closets and the tops of the shelves and cabinets must be sloped to allow water to run off. You may find that you have to do additional digging into the earthen wall to make room for these units. If so, the newly excavated earth may be used immediately as backfill for the other sections of the wall.
Plumbing lines and electrical conduits should remain on the inside of the polyethylene. The hot water lines may be insulated to keep the poly from melting but otherwise no other special efforts need be made. You do not need to encase the conduits along the walls as you do on the roof. Remember to cut openings in the wall boards for these lines as you build. Install the switch and outlet boxes and connect them with the conduit. Running the wire can come later.
When using the polyethylene on the walls remember that too much is far better than too little. It matters little if the poly bunches up
Neighbor Ricky Hudson demonstrates first three steps in building a wall. At right he digs a narrow, shallow ditch behind the posts. At lower left he places the board and levels it. Lower right he begins stretching out the polyethylene by first pulling the board then tucking poly under, leaving about a foot of overlap. Before placing any more boards he will again check the first board for level.
along the walls but it matters a great deal if it is under strain, such as around the inner corner of a closet or shelves. Never allow the polyethylene to take the strain of holding back earth by itself.
We will emphasize again that when back filling and tamping behind a wall the polyethylene must be pulled up constantly.
A last item, one which is so obvious we have overlooked it: The polyethylene is a moisture barrier, an absolute one, but it can remain so only if it is not pierced, torn or punctured. This means you must never staple or tack it in place. Sometimes to hold it temporarily in position you may thumbtack it at the top edge, but only if that section is to be overlapped with other poly. If you are joining two pieces as, say, on the roof, they must be overlapped and taped with wide, heavy plastic tape. On the $50 underground house we used 4 mil poly but on the $500 one we used 6 mil. Get it in rolls 20 feet wide.
(12) Finish roof and Uphill Patio excavation. You have already nailed on the roof planks, smoothed abrupt contours, and rolled out building paper. The next step is to spread out the first layer of polyethylene.
Sweep the building paper to remove any foreign matter. Roll out the polyethylene and cut it so that there is at least a foot of overlap on the sides and downhill wall. On the uphill side, you will need additional surplus because the polyethylene will slide down when you begin to apply the earth. How much surplus depends on the pitch of the roof, how long it is, and how much is anchored with earth on the sides where it has overlapped the wall poly (some parts of the roof will be over windows and doors) and how often you pull it up from above. On a twenty foot roof you might be safe with three to four feet extra. If it should happen that you err on the long side, so much the better. If you err on the short side you will have to cut additional and overlap it from the top making a "boot."
Finish off the last foot or so of walls, overlap with the roof poly, back fill and tamp. Now begin gently applying four inches of the cleanest rock-and-stick-free earth you can find. Do this a shovelful at a time working up from the bottom. Use dry earth if you can on this layer. It has far better insulating qualities
Top: Stretching the first layer of polyethylene for the roof. Bottom: Applying the first layer of earth.
than that which is damp. As you apply the earth pull up on the poly from above as frequently as you can stand. Tacking it doesn't work; it just tears. Best if you can have one person constantly pulling as two others apply the earth. You are not only trying to save polyethylene, you are trying to get it to lie as flat and wrinkle free as possible so that there are no creases to catch and retain water.
Top: Stretching the first layer of polyethylene for the roof. Bottom: Applying the first layer of earth.
(13) Put in windows and doors. Do this step after digging out the Uphill Patio or rocks and clods of earth may roll down and crash through your windows.
Don't look to me for advice on finer carpentry. I have a time of it here myself. Either get competent help, or find material in your local library or book store, or the Whole Earth Catalog. Even the U.S. Government Printing Office used to have material which would tell you how. They may still.
(14) Install carpet anchors. Carpet anchors are another of our "inventions." They are 2x4's or 2x6's set into the earth flush with the floor level adjacent to the lowest wall board. This is what you tack your carpet to for a smooth job.
If a professional crew is to lay your carpets check with your dealer to see if there is something more to add to the anchors. Many of the pros have a special way of hooking the rugs.
15. Tamp floor, rough smooth it. Assuming that you don't have access to a gas driven or compressed air tamper you will have to tamp by hand with a 2x4 or something similar.
Not all of the floor will need tamping—just where you have done any digging. When I built my $500 house I built a root cellar into the upper elevation with an entrance from
the lowest elevation. The roof of the cellar is part of the floor of the level above. Though I thought I'd done a competent job of backfilling and tamping around the walls of the cellar, time has shown this to be untrue; during the past several years the earth there has sunk as much as three inches making an annoyingly unlevel floor. Guess I hadn't tamped carefully enough during the backfill. When time and energies allow, I'll have to roll up the carpet and correct matters.
(16) Pour concrete for toilet, bath or shower. All of these must have solid concrete bases on which to stand. For a job this small it is possible to mix the concrete by hand in a trough or wheelbarrow. It's probably not worth your time to try to scrounge material for this little a job. Buy sacks of concrete mix.
(17) Install plumbing and lighting fixtures. See item (13) for advice on this.
(18) Finish floor, lay carpets. Finishing the floor is an art in itself. It is difficult to get it completely smooth, but smooth it must be. It took me three days to lay the carpets in my place and most of that time was spent smoothing out the floors.
Begin by taking off any obvious lumps with a shovel and filling in depressions. Stamp down the new fill with your feet. Run checks to make sure that it is the same level on one side of the room as the other. Lay a straight 2x4 on the earth and look underneath for high and low spots. Correct these with a shovel or garden rake. Next take the rake and rough up the whole surface. Smooth it out with the back side of the rake. Now take an unwarped 2x6 and drive several big nails in deep enough so that they will hold but not so deep that they go through the other side. Use the nails as handles and begin finishing the floor as a cement finisher works concrete. This is slow, painstaking, tedious work but it must be done. Any irregularities in your floor will become apparent shortly after you lay your carpets. They will annoy you for years afterwards.
Laying carpets is an art also and one which I have not mastered. It is difficult to cut the carpets correctly to fit them around the posts along the wall. In the case of posts in the center of the room you have your hands full. You are going to have to lay the carpets in strips in the latter case which means putting in long
When the earth is on, rake it smooth with the back of a garden rake pulling out any sticks, twigs or other sharp objects you spot. Roll out the second layer of poly. Cut it so that there is surplus as before, only this time the surplus is to lie out flat on the ground ! rather than overlapping the wall poly. It is hoped that several feet of polyethylene buried out beyond the walls will escort moisture down the hill rather than letting it soak in near the walls. Not only might this help to prevent leaks, it will also help keep the soil near the walls dry thereby increasing the insulating qualities of the earth.
Incorrect method of finishing upper portion of roof. This was one of the original mistakes on the $50 house. Despite author's most vigorous efforts (grooves, sealers) water continues to run down beam and into house. Rain also runs down retaining board and enters between edges of roof/ceiling planks.
Correct method of designing roof. There is no slanted beam out in the weather to catch the rain. Design also incorporates a drip board, an extension of the shoring which hangs low and allows water to drip off rather than run down between roof/ceiling planks and into house.
The second layer of polyethylene is a safety factor. If somehow the lower layer should tear or perforate you have the layer above as a moisture barrier. If they should both get holes you have that four inches of earth to absorb the moisture and disperse it so that the water hopefully will not congregate around the lower hole. Even a pinprick will allow considerable entry if water has collected above it.
Weight down the edges of the second layer with clumps of earth so that a breeze doesn't play havoc with your work. (Don't try to spread polyethylene on the roof in a high wind. Besides the incredible hassle, you run a risk of perforations.) Shovel on three or four inches of as fine, sharp-object-free earth as you can scrape up. Remember to keep pulling up on the polyethylene as before. Once the protective layer of soft earth is in place you may begin covering the roof in earnest by throwing earth over the top as you dig out the Uphill Patio. Eighteen inches is a good total amount of earth for a roof. Make the last several inches the top soil which you piled along the sides at the beginning of the excavation. Sow some seeds at this point if you wish and cover with mulch. Trim the excess polyethylene from the top (use it behind the shoring on the Uphill Patio). Lay boards over the edge of the polyethylene and nail it to the top of the roof shoring to keep rain from working under.
Your roof is now complete. Stay off it as much as possible for the first month or two until the earth compacts of its own weight. If seeds you may have sown do not grow well, don't fret. It is difficult to get domestic plants to grow on the roof because there is no ground moisture for them to draw upon. Ma Nature will take care of the situation for you. In several years your roof will be lush with vegetation.
Detail of beam and post notching, wall and roof planking and polyethylene layers.
carpet anchors down the center of the floor. Your carpet dealer will custom cut the rugs to your specifications at the store if you can give him the exact dimensions.
Before laying the carpets you should put down a layer of polyethylene and have it overlap the polyethylene coming up from under the walls. This not only acts as a moisture barrier to help preserve the carpet (never lay a wool carpet without it) but it will help keep any dust from working up through the material.
(19) Install stove. When you complete this step your house is a true home.
We can't advise you here as to what type of stove to use. It depends on such factors as your funds, the size of the house, and what kind of fuel you intend to use.
Me, I've just been using the cheapest of wood stoves all of these years, the type which is referred to as an air tight heater. These are made from sheet metal and will burn through in a winter or two of hard use. I would have gone to a quality stove long ago if I could have afforded it. Fisher is one brand which has caught my eye. Wood stoves are a reviving technology. They reached the peak of efficiency around the turn of the century, then began to wane as other fuels became popular. Today they are making a strong comeback.
I laid brick for a special flooring around my stove. I also designed it so that I had about eighteen feet of stove pipe running up near the slant roof. This latter was to allow me to recover every possible calorie of heat before it went up the smoke stack. It worked. Unfortunately, however, we must usually burn soft woods that create a lot of creosote, which is not only a fire hazard, but also clogs up the pipes and—even worse—eats them through like acid in a year's time. A good efficient stove, lots of seasoned hardwood and a shorter stove pipe would make my life easier. Not complaining, mind you. I'd take even my troublesome system over oil, gas, or electrical heat any day. Wood fires have soul.
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