How To Build A Cob Wall
By Kirby Fry
After working with natural building materials for 25 years, the cob or “puddled adobe” wall system has become my favorite of all the adobe wall systems. I define a natural building material as one that is locally available and non-manufactured. This how to do it yourself guide will describe 4 different forms of adobe wall systems, explain why the cob wall system is my top pick, and tell you how to build a cob wall.
Types Of Adobe Wall Systems
Adobe is generally made from sand, clay and straw. Adobe wall systems include handmade adobe blocks, compressed earth blocks (engineered adobe), earth bags (flex form adobe), and cob (puddled adobe).
The handmade adobe block is perhaps the most traditional system for building an adobe wall. It is made from sand, clay and straw. Fresh, clean horse manure is often substituted for the straw component. Adobe blocks are 10” wide by 14” long by 3 ¾” tall. A clay slip is applied between each course of adobes. The adobe block wall system can be either 10” thick or 14” thick.
Compressed earth blocks (CEB’s) do not have to have straw in them, and are made by a machine that compresses moist sand and clay at a pressure of 1,200 to 1,600 pounds per square inch. Often 6% of the mix is portland cement to keep the CEB’s from eroding during the construction process. CEB dimensions are the same as the handmade adobe block, 10” wide by 14” long by 3 ¾” tall.
Earthbag wall systems are also referred to as flex form adobe or superadobe. This method includes mixing sand and clay together, getting it moist, and packing it into continuous bags. Earthbag walls are about 16” thick. When this method was first developed by the Iranian-born architect Nader Khalili he was using a solid nylon or plastic bag, now earthbag builders have gone over to using the Raschel weave continuous onion bag that you commonly see being used to sell onions in at almost every grocery store.
Cob or puddled adobe wall systems are made from sand, clay, and straw that is mixed together and then dumped on top of the wall system. Cob is an old English word that means “lump of dough” and because it is put into the wall system while still wet, the builders can only raise the walls up 4” or 8” per day before it begins to slump. A cob wall may vary in width from 12” to 18” depending on how tall or long the wall is.
Why Cob Is My Favorite Adobe Wall System
After working with all of these adobe wall systems my favorite is now cob, and here’s why:
The cob wall system is monolithic and does not require a concrete bond beam at the top of it – a bond beam is made from concrete, steel, or wood and in adobe block and CEB wall systems a bond beam is necessary to hold the top of the wall system together.
The cob wall system is ready to plaster when it is finished. Earth bag, and CEB wall systems require more preparation for plasters like filling in between the bags, and or chipping up the face of the CEB’s.
The cob wall system is more efficient for smaller job sites. Making 5,000 to 10,000 adobes or CEB’s all at once on a job site is a big logistical chore and requires a lot of space. Making adobes off site and hauling them to the job site is also a huge logistical chore. Making cob on site is slower, but requires less space, and makes less of a mess.
Lastly, cob wall systems are a more ergonomic building material for the builders. The cob is easily dumped out onto the wall system a half bucket at a time. Ladders and scaffolding keep the crew working between their knee and chest heights. By contrast, filling earthbags means that you are standing on top of the wall system, holding a 5 gallon bucket with the continuous earthbag attached to it, walking backwards on top of wet adobe under your feet while 2 or 3 people dump the fresh adobe into your bucket.
How To Build A Cob Wall System
All buildings require a solid foundation, and the immense weight of an adobe wall system is no exception to that rule. Traditionally for a 14” wide cob wall system an 18” wide by 24” deep rubble filled trench with a concrete or mortared-together masonry footer has been used. Today, I wouldn’t hesitate to pour an engineered concrete slab for building a cob wall on top of.
I highly recommend that the roof for any natural building be a hip roof where there are protective eves on all four sides of the building. A single gable roof leaves 2 sides of the walls exposed to catching more weather which can significantly damage lime and clay plasters.
Keep your cob wall system relatively low, somewhere between 8’ and 12’ tall. A second story on top of a cab wall is possible, but above 8’ to 12’ in wall height, I recommend going over to a more conventional 2” x 4” stick frame.
Once the grade beam or concrete slab has been constructed, it’s time to have the materials delivered to the site. Here is what you will need to begin; 10 yards of manufactured sand, 10 yards of clay, 10 yards of decomposed granite, and 12 straw bales. These materials need to be close to the work site, and you need to be ready to have more truckloads of material brought in again and again in the proper order.
On smaller job sites our crews mix cob on a 4’ by 4’ plywood mixing board with a mortar hoe. Initially we were mixing the cob on blue tarps but after just 2 weeks the tarps fell apart and everyone on the crew preferred the mixing boards anyway. On a bigger job site a large gas powered mortar mixer is the only mixer that will turn over the heavy cob. Some crews will also use a skid steer loader with a mixer attachment but I have never used one of those before.
So let’s start our first batch of cob with a ratio of 1 to 1 to 1. That’s 1 half bucket of clay, one half bucket of manufactured sand, and 1 half bucket of decomposed granite. The straw is chopped up into 6” to 10” lengths with a machete on a board and 4 large handfuls will be added into each mix. First dry mix the clay, manufactured sand, and decomposed granite. When all of those ingredients are thoroughly mixed together in dry form, then add about 4” to 6” of water in a 5 gallon bucket to the dry mix. Next, wet mix those ingredients. When all of those ingredients are thoroughly mixed together add 2 large handfuls of chopped up straw. When all of those ingredients are thoroughly mixed together add 2 more large handfuls of chopped straw (total of 4 large handfuls) to get the final batch of finished cob.[Images 10 through 18 show how the cob ingredients are added to and mixed on a 4’ x 4’ mixing board]
Load the cob into 5 gallon buckets filled only half way. Never fill a bucket up all the way as it becomes too heavy. Always try to carry a half filled bucket in each hand so as not to strain one arm by carrying just one bucket at a time. Dump the half full buckets of cob directly on to the wall system and begin to evenly work the cob out onto the wall system. Press the fresh wet cob down onto the foundation or onto the dried cob beneath it by using a cobber’s thumb, which is usually just a 1” diameter by 10” long branch or old tool handle. The aggregate in the cob is deliberately sharp and will quickly tear up your hands and fingers if a cobber’s thumb is not used.
If the cob is dry enough, one should be able to build 4” to 8” in height of cob wall per day. When the cob begins to slump, it’s time to stop adding material to it. The next day, yesterday’s slumped cob will need to be trimmed off and reused. Every morning, without exception, the cob wall will need to be trimmed, and the wall system kept square and plumb.
Wooden door and window frames called “bucks” will need to be framed and set flush to the exterior of the cob wall. A 3’ 0” wide by 6’ 8” tall standard exterior door should have a door buck with dimensions of 3’ 2” wide by 6’ 10” tall by 4 ⅝” deep. A 2’ 6” wide by 5’ 0” tall standard window should have a window buck with dimensions of 2’ 6 ½” wide by 5’ ½” tall by 4 ⅝” deep. The window bucks are typically set at a height of 6’ 8” and down in order to match door heights, and are held in place with wooden cleats or pegs attached to their sides called “dead men.” The doors and windows themselves will be set into the bucks after all of the cobbing has been finished.
A structural header or piece of timber framing is set over the door and window bucks to carry the load of the cob wall above it.
When the cob wall reaches its final height a simple top plate, not a concrete bond beam, is embedded into the wall using more wooden cleats or “dead men.” The roof’s rafters will sit on this top plate.
The electrical wiring is notched into the wall system after the cob wall is built. This cob building was permitted and inspected by the City of Austin and the city required this method of wiring because it did not want the wiring to be buried behind the cob allowing them to visually inspect it.
The exterior walls were plastered with a lime plaster and the interior walls were plastered with a clay plaster.
My advice to anyone building with cob for the first time is to start on a small scale. Building with natural building materials requires just as much, if not more, skill and caution than building with conventional building materials. It will also require more time than building with conventional building materials, and cost about 30% more.
Do not be daunted by these suggestions and warnings though, the rewards of living in a home made from natural building materials and or that you have built yourself are infinite and your life will change for the better because of it!
Featured Woodlot Tree – October 2019
Common Name: Southern Live Oak – Species: Quercus virginiana – Family: Fagaceae
Written by: Kirby Fry – Photo by: Elenore Goode
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Chinese proverb.
Live oak trees are iconic trees here in Central Texas, they are evergreen, extremely strong, and make beautiful and effective shade trees. The first tree house I built was in a live oak tree in our backyard. The tree house was three stories tall with operable doors and windows, carpeting, and electricity. It took three of my friends to wrap our arms around its trunk.
If you could plant a tree and see it thrive, which one (or ones) would it be? I would plant a live oak, a magnolia tree, and a bald cypress. We should continue on with our plans to plant forests and woodlots that we can build houses with, that function as windbreaks and erosion control, and that enrich natural regions.
Which trees and timber products do we need the most? Let’s take a stroll down the lumber aisles of any Home Depot, Lowe’s, or McCoy’s. There we find framing lumber milled from spruce, pine, and fir. The next aisle over we find sheets of plywood made from pine, oak, birch, and maple. The next aisle over we find trim boards made from oak, cedar, pine, and poplar. Visit a specialty lumber store and you find oak, cypress, ash, maple, and mesquite among many others for furniture, cabinetry, and countertop production. Not all of these species of trees can be grown here in Texas but many of them can.
In a sustainable human settlement, one management objective would be to plant enough trees to replace the lumber used to build your home. A 1,000 square foot home requires approximately 6,300 board feet to complete. A mature pine tree at a height of 80 feet and width 2 feet will yield 754 board feet, so 8 or 9 mature pine trees are what we need to build a 1,000 square foot home.
Each tree species grows into a different form and will vary on how many board feet it yields when mature, so a woodlot consists of a variety of different trees – oak, pine, cypress, ash, maple, and hickory, and those trees are used for a variety of different functions in the house – framing, planks, trim, and doors and windows.
The southern live oak tree has historically been used for ship building (because its trunk and mature branches are curved), and tool handles. It can also be milled into posts and beams, and lumber for trim.
The acorns from live oak trees should be collected in late October as they begin to fall from the tree, and then be planted directly into the ground. The best acorns for germinating will still be on the tree. The larger the acorn, the more likely successful germination will be. Remove the acorn caps and any other debris, put the acorns in a bowl of water and discard the ones that float because the shell has been breached and air has gotten inside of it.
Sow the acorns in good, well-drained mineral / sandy soil with a 1 inch layer of compost on top. The acorns will not need cold treatment or stratification. Partial shade on the west side is helpful, and moderate, consistent watering is essential. Squirrel proof caging or exclosure for the seedlings is recommended.
Transplant your live oaks in the early spring. Prune the roots of the tree to make transplanting easier and encourage a flush of new root growth closer to the root ball. A wide shallow hole is best for live oaks. Water moderately and consistently for the first year, and do not add soil amendments or fertilizers. Keep the top of the root crown 1 to 2 inches above the surface of the ground.
Pruning & Maintenance
As your live oak grows, moderate branch pruning is recommended, removing just the lower branches to ensure a knot free trunk up to about 8 or 10 feet in height. Proper wound care is required by minimizing the number of branches pruned back each year – 3 to 9, keeping the pruning cuts to the smallest diameter possible, and spraying a pruning tar on open cuts and wounds to prevent fungal infection.
The live oak tree will be mature in 50 years, however in a woodlot your cultivated trees are harvested at earlier stages in their life cycle for fence posts, tool handles, and smaller posts and beams.
Our PDC Grad Interview Series is back!
Our hope is to convey what a life-changing opportunity the Permaculture Design Course can be, while learning more about what first attracted these former students to sustainable design and how they have applied those principles since taking a PDC.
We’re continuing this series with small-business owner Michael Wolfert of Symbiosis Regenerative Systems – read more below.
1) How did you become interested in sustainable design? Please describe to us any moments in your life that piqued your interest in sustainable, regenerative, and holistic systems.
I had a deep feeling of despair in my late teenage years and early twenties. At the time I was mostly seeking ways to reduce my footprint and be an activist for policy change and reform. One day a friend of mine, Joshua Adair, called me up and said that there was a potential scholarship for a permaculture design course. I said, “what the heck is permaculture.” He said “It’s like gardening, natural building, community building and learning to live more sustainably!” and proceeded to give the details of the event. I said I would have to think about it. We hung up. I thought about it for literally 1 minute, called him back and let him know I was really excited to learn about this and incredibly grateful that there was a scholarship because I would not have been able to afford it at the time. I started to do some research and prepare for the PDC, though I still had no idea the rabbit hole I was about to enter.
2) What were you looking to learn when you signed up for a permaculture design course?
I didn’t have many expectations, having just stumbled upon the concept with very little time to consider the implications and the impact they could have on my outlook and life.
All Images © Symbiosis Regenerative Systems 2019
3) Who taught your permaculture design course and when? What did you appreciate about that course, and what would you have liked to have learned more about?
Kirby Fry, Gary Freeborg, Jenny Nazak and Ted Norris.
This course was a real turning point for me. Kirby led the majority of class time and he did a great job introducing me to the idea that we might actually strive to have a positive footprint instead of just trying to eliminate our negative footprint, and that in this practice we could aim to set up positive feedback loops, modeling our designs after ecosystems.
From that point forward, I knew what my driving focus would be. I would try my best to become a mutually beneficial symbiote with my ecosystem. An agent for making connections between the correlating outputs and needed inputs of the systems around me. Nudging ecological succession forward. Taking more responsibility for my family’s needs, consumption, and outputs. Striving to leave a legacy of regeneration in my wake. It’s a lifelong pursuit that I hope future generations will be able to carry forward.
4) What other courses, if any, have you participated in that have helped you to learn more about and implement sustainable design systems?
Working at Morning Glory Farm with Gracie Brousard and Richard Lindley was my first real-world continuing education. These folks were real eco-pioneers and all-around fantastic mentors. I was very lucky to find them and to be allowed to study farming with them. I worked there for nearly 2 years as a farmhand. During this time I lived primarily in a school bus with no running water or power. The meals Gracey would make from the produce they grew and goods they traded other farmers for really opened my eyes to what eating fresh and seasonal produce would be like. they were both extremely patient and kind. I learned a ton about gardening, farming, community building, and being a mentee.
Cypress Valley Farms was my second continuing education course where I worked as a co-farm manager in an attempt to start a profitable regenerative farm. I learned so much from this experience and the property owners that it’s hard to summarize. Some of the main takeaways were to focus equally on the business and marketing of your farm as you do on the growing of produce. Make clear agreements with all decision-makers – 1 hour of energy input here on the front end could easily save 10 + hours of confusion on the back end. Establish a healthy work-life balance and don’t let being a business owner consume and burn you out.
Hill Country Natives was my third continued education course. Here, I worked with Mitch Mitchamore to cultivate an intensive food forest in Leander, Texas starting with 6 inches of topsoil sitting on hundreds of feet of rock shelf. Mitch runs a fantastic nursery for natives and fruiting adapted plants but often says the main yield of his business is education, conversation, and connection. He takes as much time as needed to work with each client personally. He gave me a lot of freedom and trust to come up with experiments and implement them on the grounds at Hill Country Natives. Some days, we would be working at the potting trailer for many hours having wide-ranging discussions and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I learned a lot about leadership and problem solving from Mitch and a lot about food forests and native plants from the work we did together.
I worked for Paige Hill-Oliverio of Urban Patchwork as I was just getting my business started, doing landscaping installation and maintenance gigs in Austin. I learned about being a contractor, spreadsheets, and integrating art into a functional design. Paige does great work and I still enjoy collaborating with her on projects to this day.
Teaching a food forest workshop with Caroline Riley-Carberry, Food Forests For All, three years in a row was a powerful learning experience. We taught people the basics of food forest design and the underlying principles, lead them through a design process, and implemented the design over the course of three days. Some of the results are on display at the Whole Life Learning Center, where a field has been transformed into a thriving food forest that is managed by Caroline with help from the whole life-learners. Seeing the iterations and receiving critical feedback from the systems this course worked to design and install furthered my understanding of food forestry and permaculture in general. Caroline taught me a lot about facilitation and design. I believe some of the initial collaborators that started the permablitzes and eventually Earth Repair Corps first began putting heads together at FFFA 1. I love seeing a ripple effect of positive actions after good people get together and get inspired by a common goal.
I traveled to Michigan to learn from Mark Shepard with Pete VanDyck. I learned from Mark that the economics of large scale permaculture farming are tricky and that you have to be creative and strategic to make your way in this space. I learned that small farmers can leverage their power as co-ops to compete against big ag and revitalize agricultural communities. I learned about designing systems that can be managed by machines at scale in order to compete against big ag without compromising the regenerative metrics of success we strive to meet. I also hosted Mark to teach a workshop at our homestead when we had just started renovating the place and learned not to host workshops until your infrastructure is in good shape. The workshop was a success and I learned more from Mark about his philosophy, and made wonderful connections with local like-minded folks.
I was a participant in TexRex with Darren Doherty, where we learned the Regrarians method of property design. This was Darren’s adaptation of the Keyline Scale of Permanence, based on years of experience designing large scale regenerative properties. This method has been a huge help in systematizing my design process and presenting information to my clients in a clear, digestible package. I learned a lot about rotational grazing, mapping, keyline design and much much more. This is one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended in that I took home more practical advice and methodology than any other, had a lot of fun between classes, and the food was delicious! I gained a ton of inspiration from Darren, Lisa, and the other participants.
I’ve learned from the Permablitzes, and seeing the updates from those systems installed has helped me to have more iterative feedback to improve the designs that I create.
I’ve been running my own permaculture/regenerative design and installation business for nearly 6 years now. We have worked on over 100 individual projects, and being able to monitor these systems gives me even more data to draw on for improving the design, installation, and maintenance methods we use for all things regenerative.
I’ve been living on my own homestead for nearly 4 years and am constantly learning from observing ecosystem succession in outer zones as well as the inner zone experiments and systems we’re running out here. One standard question I have to ask myself when installing a new system is: will I be able to maintain this with my 3 kids in tow or even better get them to help me with it? How can I make this accessible and fun for our family flow? That’s a pretty fun design lense to look through.
5) Have you been able to apply what you learned from a permaculture design course to your life, and business endeavors? If so, please elaborate.
Yes! As you can probably tell from my list above, I dove in headfirst and never looked back.
I’ve been doing permaculture professionally for nearly 6 years. We have 8 full-time employees including myself and a great network of independent contractors we can call on for collaboration. We’ve continued to gain momentum and improve our methods each year. Although it is a marathon of hard work, I love it. The projects we work on, the team we work with and the clients who have chosen to lead the charge in this effort keep me constantly inspired, learning, and growing.
For the last 4 years, I’ve been living on a 25-acre homestead with my family. Even though I grew up in cities and suburbs, as I got older I never really felt like I could relax when I lived in the city. The frenetic energy, constant background noise, light pollution, air pollution, the heat island effect, it all just got under my skin and made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to raise my kids in a place where we were so reliant on seemingly fragile systems. I wanted them to grow up with the freedom to roam in the woods, get muddy, grow food and see the magic of nature unfold over many years. I don’t know if they’ll thank me for it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way and the turning point was my PDC. Each year we are more self-sufficient as we find our place within this context and ecosystem.
6) Have you had the opportunity to teach, mentor, and/or pass on information about sustainable design to friends, family, or employees?
Yes, I’ve worked with hundreds of clients, taught at least 100 students in workshops, have taught some co-workers, and worn out my mom with my ecovangelism. I’ve also learned a lot from these interactions and continue to meet really cool folks from all walks of life who all agree that sustainable design is a good idea.
Interested in obtaining your certification? Learn more about our upcoming Permaculture Design Course here.
Earth Repair Corps Teaches 2nd PDC at Texastopia Farm in Blanco, Texas
January through June, 2019
Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019
This past winter and spring of 2019 Earth Repair Corps had the privilege and honor to teach its second permaculture design course at Texastopia near the headwaters of the Blanco River. The design course consists of 72 hours of classroom instruction, group activities after lunch, individual and group design projects which are presented to the class, and a talent show on the last evening of class.
The classroom provided to Earth Repair Corps by Texastopia offers a great learning environment for both teachers and students. There’s comfortable seating and tables, a 4’ tall by 16’ wide dry erase board, a “close throw” projector with a pull down movie screen, surround sound, dimmable lights, and a fabulous air conditioning system. ERC couldn’t ask for more.
The course curricula covers the first 9 chapters of Bill Mollison’s book, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, and then goes over specific design systems for the home moving outward from there to the areas closest to the house and then out into the broader landscape.
One distinction of this spring PDC is that we have been making an effort to emphasize the difference between design methodologies and design systems, and so along with methods of permaculture design, Earth Repair Corps has also been teaching Yeomans’ Scale of Permanence 1 and Savory’s Holistic Decision Making Process 2 .
This spring, thanks to the speaking and recruitment efforts of Pete VanDyck, we had 3 members of the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) attend the PDC. Carol Patterson, Mark Hamilton, and Thomas Marsalia all attended representing EAA’s board, upper management, and field technicians. EAA has tens of thousands of acres on the Edwards Plateau in conservation easements that it oversees and is looking to implement soil and water conservation methods that were discussed during class on a model site. Their design project was phenomenal.
Along with many other great students were two of ERC’s partners, Randie Piscitello with Goodwater Montessori Public Charter School, and Jennifer Goode with Texastopia and ERC attended the course and earned their PDC certification.
Class Curriculum & Activities
Our guest teachers included Shelley Belinko who taught about design principles and methods of design, Heather King who taught about annual vegetable gardening, Travis Krause who taught about running a family farm and animal systems, and Peggy Sechrist who taught about Holistic Management and intensive cell grazing.
One of the activities that the class participated in was using the radial laser level to layout two conservation terraces and a level sill spillway above Texastopia’s road leading to the Blanco River. Then, by the time the class resumed the following month, Pete VanDyck and Texastopia had installed the terraces, planted them with native trees, and mulched them with straw. It was a great design process for the class to be a part of.
About a quarter of the way through the course, day 3 or so, the students begin their design projects. This spring PDC we allowed a wide range of projects including group and individual projects, as well as onsite and offsite projects. This gives students the opportunity to work on designs for their own properties, and or work together as a team on site if they do not have land of their own. I was especially impressed with the design project that the EAA team presented for a piece of land that may soon become a lab and working model for soil and water conservation methods on the Edwards Plateau. All students are encouraged to make use of Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence and Google Earth Pro for their presentations.
The evening before the last day of class we held a talent show. Bill Mollison always had a talent show during his PDC’s and joked that if you don’t perform in the talent show you wouldn’t graduate. What I usually experience is students being surprised and a little uncomfortable before the talent show, but really opening up and having a fantastic time during the talent show. Not only did we have several musical performances, but people sharing with us what they are good at, and giving us “how to” demonstrations.
The spring 2019 PDC covered a wide range of topics and hopefully opened doors for its graduates to further pursue those topics. One of the main objectives of the course is that the graduates become better designers and hopefully better teachers of sustainable design. Those of us teaching the class get to make new friends, and support others in their efforts to create abundance through good design.
If you’re interested in learning more about our Permaculture Design Certification and obtaining one yourself, please read more here.
- Using the Scale of Permanence as a Tool for Land Evaluation
- An Overview of Holistic Management and Holistic Decision Making
Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019
A permablitz is an event where a group of volunteers works together to install a permaculture (permanent + agriculture) garden for a friend, a neighbor, a school, and/or a community garden. The garden can be an annual garden made for annual vegetables, or it can be a perennial garden made for fruit trees and other perennial food crops such as asparagus, brambles, and grapes.
A permablitz can also include installing a rainwater collection system, a gray water harvesting system, and/or building a chicken coop, trellis, or espalier.
How did we find out about permablitzes, and when did permablitzes get started here in Central Texas?
The permaculture community in Texas may have first learned about permablitzes from Dilek Wise, a graduate from a Permaculture Design Course that I helped teach with the Austin Permaculture Guild in 2011 or so. Dilek found out about an organization called Permablitz Melbourne, in Australia, that was helping their community to install permaculture gardens. Permablitz Melbourne had by then installed scores of gardens, and did a great job of documenting their work. They’ve also made some very helpful videos about how to run your own permablitz – a few are linked below.
When I learned about Permablitz Melbourne’s community effort working together to conserve soils and grow food locally, it reminded me of the work I had done as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala. In the Highlands of Guatemala, north of Huehuetenango, we built and kept up 5 tree nurseries (each in a different village), implemented soil conservation methods, and planted woodlot trees in those villages, as well as 2 others. After getting out of the Peace Corps, it always seemed to me that we could and should be doing that kind of work here in Central Texas. Permablitz Melbourne demonstrated that indeed such a community effort was possible.
Then, during the winter of 2011, while I was helping to teach a class called Food Forests for All, at The Whole Life Learning Center, I shared with the students of that class what Permablitz Melbourne was up to. The students were enthusiastic and we had our first permablitz at Austin Ecoschool that very next January of 2012. Many of the people in that class have since had multiple permablitzes at their homesteads, and at community gardens that they were associated with.
Photos from our January 2019 Permablitz at the Multicultural Refugee Coalition’s New Leaf Farm
Since 2012 we have had well over 50 permablitzes, averaging about 9 per year, being held from September through May. In 2015 Earth Repair Corps was incorporated, in part, to help promote and run the permablitzes. If we have learned anything over the past 7 years, it is that we are not just building gardens, but communities that garden.
Since I was leading many of these events and heavily invested in them, there were at least six design elements that I tried to include in each and every permablitz.
- Soil and Water Conservation. As I’ve said during many of my talks and classes, soil and water conservation is the cornerstone of permaculture design – that which all else is built upon. Usually, whether we are planting trees or making annual gardens, we build some sort of earthworks on contour such as conservation terraces or raised annual garden beds. These earthworks serve to slow, spread, and sink surface water running off the garden site, make that water available to the plants in the garden, and catch any soil sediments and detritus that might also be running off of the site.
- Perennial Food Crops. Perennial food plants are the key stone of permaculture design – that which holds it up over time. A perennial food crop yields fruit, nuts, and berries year after year, unlike annual food crops that produce for 1 or 2 seasons and then have to be replanted. In Texas we have been planting mulberry, pomegranate, Asian persimmon, fig, apple, peach, plum, pear, pecan, pineapple guava asparagus, artichoke, grape vines, and blackberry brambles.
- Support Species of Plants. Another aspect of permaculture design that distinguishes it from organic farming is that we are creating agriculturally productive ecosystems, so not every plant we establish in a permaculture garden is a food crop. We use cover crops extensively, like clover, winter pea, rye grass, buck wheat, black eye pea, and millet to improve soils, and help vegetate bare soils. Farmers trees like black locust, acacia, golden ball lead tree, Eve’s necklace, and arroyo sweetwood are all native leguminous trees that offer dappled shade, have deep root systems that bring up minerals from subsoils, and many of which fix Nitrogen into soils. Lastly, deep-rooted herbs like comfrey, sorrel, and dock are added to some of our gardens for their soil-enhancing properties.
- Soil Amendments. Many of our soils in Texas have been eroded and do not have the available mineral content nor the organic matter in them available for agricultural crops to flourish. Bill Mollison was an advocate of adding soft rock minerals to soils to provide crops with needed elements, including soft rock phosphate, agricultural lime for calcium, pelletized sulfur, green sand for potassium and magnesium, and trace minerals. We also add a slow release organic fertilizer in the hole of every tree we plant which is inoculated with mycorrhizal fungi, and beneficial to the roots of most plants.
- Drip Irrigation. Fruit trees in Texas need supplemental water if they are going to flourish and be productive, even when they are perched on a berm just below a swale. The most efficient way to deliver this supplemental water is with drip irrigation. I have become a huge fan of Ewing Irrigation here in Central Texas. Each fruit tree needs about 4 gallons of supplemental water delivered to it every other day from May through early October, or for about 5 months.
- Mulch. At the base of each tree a heavy mulch should be applied annually. Wood chips from trees seems to be what is most readily available for us here in Texas, though if you look around to the north of Austin, from late spring through the summer, wheat straw is available. A good mulch cover will help to keep soil temperatures cooler than the ambient air temperature, suppress weeds, and slow down the evaporation of soil moisture which can be significant under the Texas sun and winds.
Photos from our September 2018 Permablitz at Proffitt Ranch in Marble Falls, TX
The costs for a permablitz can range anywhere from $700 to $4,000 and is usually paid for by the host site. A commitment from the host site is also needed to finish up any tasks that were not completed during the permablitz – finishing up the irrigation system seems to commonly be one of these tasks. The host site is also expected to provide volunteers with lunch during the work days.
Participating in a permablitz is a great way to meet like-minded people, learn more about sustainable design, and (after attending 3 permablitzes) have a permablitz at your home.
The permablitz schedule is announced on our calendar.
Earth Repair Corps – Ten Elements of Sustainable Design
Written by: Kirby Fry
2018 09 07
Following is a list of 10 design elements that may be found within sustainable human settlements – organized from the lowest amount of maintenance to the highest amount of maintenance.
MECHANICAL SYSTEMS (Lowest Maintenance Required)
- Sustainable Building
As a builder, I believe that a well-built house should pay you to live in it. So how do we build a home that generates the electricity that it needs for power, the water that it needs for plumbing, and the income that it needs for financing? Three parts of this question are answered below – solar energy, rainwater collection, and graywater harvesting. However, homes need to first be properly oriented to take advantage of passive solar heating and cooling. A house should be oriented broad side to the prevailing summer breeze to allow for air circulation through the home. A house should have evergreen tree cover on the west and north sides to shade it from the hot setting summer sun and shelter it from the cold winter winds. Good insulation, continuous ridge vents, and double hung sash windows are also key design elements for passive solar cooling and heating. A wise home should also orient its occupants to the patterns in nature and the flows of energy through the landscape by having comfortable indoor outdoor living spaces like screened in porches and comfortable patios. If a home is a duplex, or has a garage apartment next to it, then it can also generate income.
- Solar Energy
When a home faces its broadest side to the south in Texas it is not only optimized to receive the prevailing summer breeze, but it is also aligned to receive the maximum amount of solar gain for photovoltaic or solar panels on its roof which generate electricity. A standing seam / hidden fastener metal roof is best for attaching solar panels to because the panels can clamp on to the standing seems of the roof panels and not require that screws be set into and through the roof which might result in leaking. Our friends at Sun Power and Freedom Solar Power have demonstrated that for a very reasonable cost these days, 15 to 20 340 watt solar panels can be attached on to a home’s roof top and yield 100% of a home’s energy requirements.
- Rainwater Collection
Collecting rainwater off of your home’s roof and gutters is some of the lowest hanging fruit that there is for any mechanical system. Rainwater storage systems are quite affordable these days – about 50 cents per gallon of storage, and there is no cleaner source of water, in my opinion, that the rain falling from the sky.
Every 100 square feet of rooftop surface area here in Central Texas, where we get an average of 30” to 36” of rainfall per year, warrants 1,000 gallons of cistern for rainwater storage.
So a 1,000 square foot roof would be justified in having 10,000 gallons of rainwater storage connected to it. To make this water available to us and our family, however, you will also need a pressurization pump and a filtration system that can easily be installed in a garage or mechanical closet.
- Graywater Harvesting
By collecting the rainwater off of our home’s roof, using that water in our house, and then harvesting the resulting graywater in the landscape we can eliminate the possibility of wasting water. The easiest graywater to collect is the water coming out of our laundry machines because a pump lifts that water up and out of the laundry machine and can pass it through a wall and deliver it into the landscape to be used for irrigating trees and bushes. This Old House, and the City of San Francisco made a great video of how to harvest gray water from a laundry machine.
Sinks are the next easiest graywater to harvest because they are up about 2’ 6” from the level of the floor or slab, and can also be brought through a wall. Bathtubs and shower stalls might be the most challenging to harvest because the drain is below the floor and can generally only be retroactively harvested from homes that are on pier and beam.
PLANT BASED SYSTEMS (Moderate Maintenance Required)
- Annual Gardens
I believe that, in Texas, a productive annual garden begins with good fences. Our garden fences need to at least be deer and rabbit proof, if not squirrel and raccoon proof. Cultivating soils on contour, relying on efficient irrigation systems, and using cover crops and sheet mulch are also essential for sustaining productive annual vegetable gardens. Choosing climate specific and plague resistant varieties of non-genetically modified seeds is another important step in the design process.
- Perennial Gardens
Orchards, trellises for grape vines and berry brambles, and edible beneficial perennial gardens make up the heart and soul of permaculture design. How do we weave these plant based systems into our local ecosystems and create agriculturally productive ecosystems? Soil conservation strategies, protective caging, cover crops, mulch, and drip irrigation are some good techniques to help us with this objective. Every homestead should also have culinary herb gardens, medicinal herb gardens, and pollinator gardens. We need to be familiar with what planting zone we are in, how much rainfall our region gets, and what perennial, edible, beneficial plants will do well where we live. Microclimates, as well, should be created to accommodate other plants that might be doing well in areas just beyond our planting zone.
How many acres of land, and how many mature trees does it take to grow your own home? This is a puzzle, that as a forester, I would like us to solve. Some of our native trees like pine, oak, cedar, and cypress are fantastic trees for home construction, fencing, tool making, and fuel woods. A sustainable homestead should include a woodlot where trees are planted from seed and seedling, and cultivated to grow and replace the wood we use in our day to day lives. Improvements on portable wood mills make milling your own lumber for timber framing and natural building more possible and easier than ever.
- Ecological Restoration
In Texas, most of the state was either logged, burned, plowed, developed or overgrazed by 1865. Today, many of us end up inheriting land or buying land that is secondary or tertiary growth, meaning that it has been cleared and has regrown, again and again.
The initial diversity of plants and animals that once existed here in Texas is now gone, or hiding out in remote isolated pockets and islands. As stewards of the land, we need to get to know our local natural regions and ecosystems, and reintroduce the plants and trees that once existed here in abundance.
In our efforts to become better stewards, we often find out that deer populations, more than any other factor, are determining what is allowed to survive in many Texas natural regions. Tree cages and drip irrigation are now necessary tools for reintroducing essential keystone species of flora that have been missing, in some cases for hundreds of years.
ANIMAL BASED SYSTEMS (Highest Maintenance Required)
- Small Animal Systems
Chickens, pigs, and goats can provide food and income for any homestead and farm, and are a great way to make use of thrown away food scraps, to control insect plagues, and to reduce woody vegetation that may pose a fire hazard. Eliminate the need for composting food scraps by feeding them to your small animals. Chickens can be moved through the landscape eating weeds and insects. Many of our friends in Texas, like at TerraPurezza Farm, who are raising pigs have also diverted massive amounts of food being thrown away to feed their livestock. Goats browsing woody brush may also be one of the best ways to feed people and keep woody brush at bay, reducing fuel loads around our homes and infrastructure.
- Rotational Grazing Systems
In Texas, all too often we see improper cattle grazing techniques being used to obtain the 1-d-1 agricultural property tax evaluation. With better cell grazing and rotational grazing techniques, however, land owners can still maintain their 1-d-1 ag evaluation, and actually restore grassland and savanna ecosystems rather than degrade them. Improvements over the past couple of decades on portable electric fencing, and movable water troughs have made intensive cell grazing easier and more efficient than ever. Allan Savory presents a wonderful TED talk on this subject and Jaime Braun, who has taught at our Permaculture Design Course, runs some very successful cell grazing systems right here in Texas and in Mexico.
Building a DIY Power Plant
Written by: Woody Welch
Photo Captions by Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2018
Stacking Functions is a term used in Permaculture to describe the process of getting several functions out of any one structure or project as opposed to only building for one function or use. For example – you could build a roof just for protection from the elements, or you could build a roof that is designed to protect, capture rain water, heat water, grow food, create a space to sunbathe, or a small green space in an otherwise urban void.
Building a stacked functions structure out of repurposed wood, which costs 20 cents on the dollar, that produces more power than one can use is extremely rewarding. By intentionally designing a structure to serve more than one function you can get more out of your time and investment, as well as the opportunity to harness the natural elements and energy that mother nature provides. I wanted to redesign my carport as a structure that was going to protect my vehicle from the elements, create shade and provide a cool space in the summer, collect rain water and look good while producing plenty of power for my 1800 square foot home and 400 square foot shop on a half acre homestead.
I have been designing and building repurposed wood structures for over 20 years. They always pose challenges but I would argue that the rewards are well worth it. I am also a professional photographer and artist by trade working almost exclusively in the sustainability field. I have always dreamed of having my very own power plant. When I looked around my 1950’s era homestead in New Braunfels, Texas and asked “What is the worst thing on my property and how can I turn it in to the best thing?”, I looked to my cheaply built 1970’s era aluminum and styrofoam low hanging carport. At only 7 ft. tall, it swayed in the wind, looked like a sore thumb and provided shade but leaked heavily through the styrofoam seams during storms. Turning this liability into an asset while stacking as many functions as possible was an obvious choice.
Having been in the field and spending many hours in a helicopter, documenting solar power plants around the globe, I knew well that the technology had not only come of age but that the price per kilowatt had become competitive enough to directly compete with even the cheapest of fossil fuels. In 2016, the cost per kilowatt to produce solar power vs. natural gas met parity and solar is only getting cheaper as Moore’s Law and Economies of Scale kick in. After doing some calculations and adding the fact that we are collectively not paying for the pollution of burning fossil fuels (effectively avoiding true cost accounting) I looked to solar power as one solution to these growing challenges and unintended consequences of so-called “cheap fuels”.
Combing through craigslist for materials, I found a listing for “big wood” with many photos of large stacks of dimensional lumber. I set out immediately to Buie Lumber company in Boerne Texas, where to my surprise, I found mounds of returned overstock and weathered (just like I like it) lumber for the picking. After several trips, many photos, and back and forth conversations shared with my architect I made the leap to purchase about $18,000 worth of wood for just $4000, delivery included. And although we had to “field mill” some of the larger timbers in my driveway and wrestle with making sense of non-matching, far from perfect wood, my master carpenter Kirby Fry and I finally started making sense of how we would get this done.
Hiring a carpenter that is flexible, open-minded, and creative is paramount for a project like this and makes working through the challenges fun and even invigorating. Kirby Fry of Southern Exposure was the perfect choice.
When we finished with the structure, or “mount” as it is called in the solar industry, we capped it with a high quality standing seam metal roof installed by the experts at Varni Roofing. The “standing” seams are perfect for mounting solar brackets and the surface is preferred for rainwater collection. The material is known to last for over a hundred years, which is backed up by a recent University of Texas study.
We woke up to three inches of snow on the day scheduled for installation, but Freedom Solar was not deterred! They promptly swept and sprayed the snow off the roof and within 6 hours I had 15/345 watt SunPower panels installed on my Tesla Port and wired into the grid. Working around some upgrades to my old electrical riser, we were still able to get the system installed in what seemed to me like record time.
Six months later the system is producing 127% of my energy needs. That extra 27 percent is going to my neighbors to help with peak use times. I have a $2100 rebate/credit on my utility bill that will pay for my trash/recycle/water/sewage for the next 6 years and I am awaiting the arrival of a Tesla Model 3 so I will literally have sun-powered transportation very soon. We estimated and designed the system to be perfectly tailored for my particular needs and hit the proverbial nail on the head.
After $7500 federal tax credit and an additional “friends and family” cash rebate my total out of pocket for the system is under $4000. The carport itself cost around $10,000 to build but I estimate it added $20,000 of value to my home.
It’s hard to quantify how it feels to be part of the solution to what I consider being some of the larger challenges we face as a species but I can tell you this – I do sleep a little better at night knowing I have invested wisely in a system that is smart, valuable, redundantly capable, durable and more powerful than I ever really imagined.
I highly recommend imagining a solar power plant of your very own.
Earth Repair Corps, Interview with Pete VanDyck – 2018 06 20
By Kirby Fry
K: Pete, it has been my honor and privilege to work with you.
I believe that we first met during a permablitz maintenance event at Kealing Middle School around July 9, 2014. Since then, you have stepped up and filled some very essential roles for the sustainable design movement in Central Texas.
My gratitude goes out to you, and to EVERYONE else implementing best design practices.
Please allow me to ask you six or seven questions.
- How, and or why, were you drawn to regenerative design systems?
Thanks, Kirby. Yes, we did meet at Kealing Middle School and this is actually a photo from that day, good documentation there! Wow, I can’t believe how time flies! At first I was just interested in working outside with the land and plants, but I also had concerns about my own health, the health of society, and the health of our environment which made me want to look deeper into natural systems. It was the same as many other folks who find this path – it usually happens from either a health issue due to poor nutrition, environmental conditions, or being hurt in mainstream society. I was sort of all three. Permaculture Design has opened my eyes to the answers for all of these problems and since then I have been more focused than I had ever been in my life.
2. How did you first learn about permaculture and sustainable design in Central Texas?
After being stationed in San Diego, California for six years I finished my contract with the military and began searching for a new career. During my time there I had developed a skill in finding the right people to help me accomplish my goals. Really all you have to do is find the highest source of knowledge that you can and learn from that person. So I went seeking out Mr. Kirby Fry, who seemed to be that person when I moved to Elgin, Texas. I think I found out about the maintenance blitz at Kealing Middle School through Facebook. I first learned about Permaculture from Ben Falk’s great book “The Resilient Farm and Homestead”.
3. What are some important site selection criteria for a homestead or a farm that we should know about?
It’s very important to find a place with the capacity for redundant sources of water. That includes good wells and room for ponds and rain tanks. Access is also important – why buy land if half of it is inaccessible? Access can often be an afterthought when buying land, many folks figure that they’ll just be able to figure it out and everything will be fine. This can really throw a wrench in the gears when you are building a house and construction trucks cannot get to the building site, or the poor access keeps washing out, or roads are too muddy to cross, etc. I like a short road that’s high and dry, easy to maintain, and reliable.
The best place to put a road is on a ridge, so when you are looking to buy that property with the long easement that crosses multiple gullies my advice is to find a better one. I also like properties that are 20-50 percent forested. Trees make everything so much more comfortable in Texas, but I never advise buying fully forested properties. We ought to stay out of the brush and help reforest the land that needs the help. It’s also important to have a good solar aspect. Western facing hills can be brutally hot in the summer; I often find the biggest trees on the north side of the hill. Hills facing northeast seem to be the most comfortable in Texas for plants, people, and animals. I provide very reasonable pre-purchase assessments for anyone buying property. I can save people years of heartache with this service and I don’t think anyone should close on a property without getting professional eyes on it.
4. What are some important skill sets that we should know about in order to design a sustainable homestead?
It’s so important to find the right community. Getting a Permaculture Design Certificate is a really fantastic place to start. That way you learn how to think, instead of what to think. Then each person finds his or her own niche from there. Not everyone has to be a farmer or designer, we still need builders, teachers, medical professionals, and all the other important services. Equally important as the skill sets themselves is the person’s ability to apply their skills within the new paradigm we are creating through regenerative design. Designing a sustainable homestead really takes a vast amount of knowledge, having that community of like-minded individuals makes everything much smoother.
5. Please share with us some of your “hard knocks,” or what to avoid scenarios, that you may have encountered along your path.
Moving towards a regenerative lifestyle is not easier, it’s just different and can often be more difficult, but the rewards are great. Avoid long narrow properties; these usually cannot be sustainable or regenerative. Although long and narrow properties usually provide great return on investment for real estate investors, the shape of the property makes it awkward to properly place elements of a design in a way that is beneficial to the new landowner or the environment. Avoid long narrow access easements. Flash flooding is probably the most destructive force in Texas, stay out of the lowlands and keep dry. Seek professional advice as often as possible to find the cheapest and most effective solutions that will save money in the long term.
6. What are some of your aspirations for regenerative design in Central Texas?
I would like to see the re-hydration of the entire state of Texas so that our springs and rivers always flow year round. I’d like to achieve 100% ground cover 100% of the time on every project I am involved with. I think this great state we live in could become a beautiful work of natural art that is rich, abundant, and secure for generations to come. This is why I created my website, www.droughtprooftx.com. Other than that I just want to live peacefully and be a good example to others.
K: Thank you, Pete for your love of the land, your love of all life, and your love for wanting to do to help create agriculturally productive ecosystems.
Explosive abundance my brother,
Kirby Fry, Earth Repair Corps
Earth Repair Corps Resumes Natural Building Project in Hotchkiss, Colorado
Last Saturday, Lacey, Carolyn, Tony, Randy, Kimberly, and I converged on our sister site between Crawford and Hotchkiss, Colorado (AKA Crawkiss) to resume work on the Casa de Guadalupe outdoor kitchen.
We managed to put up a 5/8″ OSB roof deck, run 4 courses of earth bags along 2 sides of the building (approximately 16″ tall), and 12″ of cob on top of the earthbags with a wooden 2″ x 4″ frame embedded onto it.
Photo’ 1) Tony and I setting the 5/8″ OSB roof decking.
Photo’ 2) Lacey and Carolyn completing the earthbag counter top / wall.
Photo’ 3) Randy and Kimberly finishing up the 41″ tall earthbag and cob wall. We also installed a 2″ x 4″ wooden frame at the top of this wall system that will help to mount a marble counter top on top of.
Photo’ 4) I have to say that we enjoyed cobbing more than earthbagging, I believe that Tony would agree as well.
Photo’ 5) Our farewell picture with Kirby, Carolyn, Kimberly, and Randy.