The foundations are strong with this group
It’s been another very busy, hard working and incredibly fun week here at the Suffolk straw bale build. After a fantastic weekend spent at CAT for Clayfest, we arrived back in sunny Suffolk late Sunday night/early Monday morning, ready to hit the ground running for week two and to finish the foundations.
The week started with the carrying and shifting of materials, involving removing the wooden shuttering from the limecrete foundations (which had been poured the previous week and were now set and very much solid), and a whole lot more barrowing of reclaimed crushed concrete to bring the rest of the foundations to the correct level, ready to have their limecrete caps poured on top and left to set. There was more use of the whacker plate (affectionately known as the ‘angry baby’) to compact the rubble foundations, and each of the students had the chance to learn the ropes on the mini digger, which made filling said wheelbarrows significantly easier, a much appreciated feature for tired arms.
Out of the ground
By the start of Wednesday the heavy grunt work involved with filling the foundations was finally completed, much to everyone’s satisfaction – we’re out of the ground! Wooden forms were removed from the limecrete plinths, and this stage marked a shift from the big movements of heavy digging, shovelling and lifting, to more finessed work such as laying brick and block work, and knocking the dust off some hazily remembered mathematics, specifically Pythagoras, used to ensure corners are exactly square and true. After the students had been expertly reminded/taught by Joe and Jeffrey of the maths involved, and lots of the students’ past maths teachers had been scorned, we set about finding the centre point of each of the block foundations, in order to drill and insert threaded bar (complete with their safety-based temporary wooden block on top and orange hazard tape). These threaded bars will later be used to tie in the wooden frame to the foundations, but for now the bases of them will be built around using bricks to form small columns which mark the height of the brick line we will be building. This was a real learning point for all the students, involving learning to mix lime mortar to the correct consistency (3 parts sand, 1 part lime, ‘some’ parts water – a mousse-like consistency is key), how to wield a trowel, and how to combine those two factors through the engagement of bricks in order to begin laying the pillars on the foundation pads. Not forgetting, of course, the obsessive use of bubble levels, and the realisation that once one brick has been laid, it can be, and indeed will be, affected by the movement of the brick being laid next to/on top of it!
Once the brick pillars on each of the foundation pads had been laid, we then set about laying lines of bricks and/or blocks between the pillars. This involved using string lines and the every-trusty laser level in order to ensure heights were consistent and lines were true. It was very interesting to watch everyone, myself very much included, begin this process tentatively, then slowly but surely become more confident in the method and the materials we were using. There’s something extremely satisfying about the consistency, colour and feel on the lime mortar…which is just as well, as we will be laying several hundred bricks each over the following week!
Our week was rounded off by some lovely social events, including head honcho Jeffrey’s birthday, which was very much a tweed, beach and cake-based celebration. On Sunday, we visited Martyn and Lil at a nearby straw bale build near Beccles, following meeting Martyn the previous weekend at Clayfest. There, he and Bee Rowan, straw bale building extraordinaire and head of straw bale teaching at CAT, showed us around the house in progress, which included the use of an innovative product, a pre-fabricated straw bale panel, which allowed the walls of the substantially sized property to be fitted in only two days…quite a feat! The house itself, and the surrounding land in which it is situated was stunning, and made for a very interesting and inspiring Sunday indeed. I should add that the weekend was punctuated by the occasional watering of the limecrete and lime mortar used on the foundations and blockwork. Lime needs to not dry out whilst setting, as the reaction to solidify it requires moisture. If it gets too dry, it goes crumbly and needs to be redone. It has been pretty scorching over the last few days in Suffolk and as such, a few times a day a few of us end up looking pretty eccentric as we carefully walk around site watering the walls and bricks, and draping them in hessian to retain moisture.
All in all, the second week has had it all – hard graft lifting and shifting, accurate and precise line-finding and brick laying, carefully making the correct mixes of mortars, two evening classes going into the finer details of foundations and the ecological choices when it comes to building, and lots of fun and laughter shared during and after the working day. We even had our first Capoeira session after work with student Phillipe, which looks as though it may well develop into a firm favourite amongst the students.
The weather is getting hotter, the friendships are ever tighter, the food is amazing every day, and most importantly – the building is out of the ground now!
Written by 2019 student – Mike Hill