Monday, February 22, 2010

planning underway

Now that the farm has been sold we are very busy planning and discussing what we are going to build. There appears to be two different camps that have opposing views of what we are doing with our is saying "hey, that is wonderful go for it!". The other camp is saying "are freaking crazy?". Well, we are choosing to look at it from the first point of view...a chance to have a 'do-over' in life, to build whatever the heck kind of farm that we want from a blank canvass of land here in central Alberta.

The most important thing for us to consider is the house of course. We have had our hearts set on a straw bale house for almost half a decade now. We also want that house to be off-grid. Over the past week we have been focusing on those two aspects more than any other. How do we build our house if we have no place to live? What kind of infrastructure will exist in the house now that we are off-grid? No more electric stove/oven for instance. Another aspect of our house that is extremely important to Mrs. Schneider is the term "Healthy House". What this means is that no aspect of construction can create foams, no particle board, no anything that will make our air sick. We are focusing on all-natural materials for our house or at least as natural as practical for our environment. We won't be able to construct a compacted dirt floor or go with a clay plaster for instance due to code and environmental conditions.

One of the problems we are facing now is how to heat and cook within our new home. We can easily go with propane stove/oven and a propane boiler for the in-floor heating but the fumes from combustion aren't exactly healthy are they? What about a wood cook stove? Actually, Cindy is surprisingly on-board with this solution but we are still a little aprehensive about going back in time that far! The propane fired boiler is alright because we can simply put it in the mechanical room which is sealed off from the living space of the house and it will be vented directly outdoors. But getting back to cooking with wood...we would sure like to hear more from folks who have done this or are currently doing it. What are the drawbacks...obviously it is more effort to start a fire and gather wood etc. but is there anyone out there who wishes they could get rid of their wood cookstove and replace it with something more modern? Here is a good post by Shirley on the subject.

To heat our home, as I mentioned earlier, we will stick with a propane boiler and in-floor heating. This will be only one of three methods used to heat our new home. The other two will be a passive solar design along with a small free-standing wood stove in the living room. Of course, we will forgo that stove if we already have a wood cookstove in the kitchen. The passive solar design along with the woodstove will mean that the in-floor heating doesn't work very hard, if at all. This will be a convenience for us in times when we are away from the house for the day or even on a tropical holiday.

Electrical systems will of course be solar powered and we will look into the practicality of a wind turbine. We will have to adapt our livestyle to follow along with the weather. On cloudy days with no wind, we will be somewhat relegated to what we can achieve electrically. On sunny, windy days we can do what we want. This seems to be the way of off-grid families. Actually it isn't much different than farming is it? You can't perform many farming operations when its raining and what you can achieve is almost always directly related to the weather. We will probably have a small diesel generator somewhere in the yard that can be fired up in times when we absolutely need the power and the weather isn't cooperating.

Well, that's about it for our house discussion today. The one thing I forgot to mention is that we are planning to build rather small and as efficient as possible. We are still struggling somewhat with actual construction design, but I suspect that we are going to focus on a load-bearing straw bale wall and simple hip roof design. I'll post our plans in a few days when we are a little more committed.


  1. If you are 100% off the grid, how will you provide power to areas of the farm like flour milling, machinery barns, water wells, etc.?

    In the '80's, me and my father built a tower and installed a wind generator at the house. It was wired into the 'system' so that when it produced more electricity than the house was using it turned the electric meter backwards. Going completely off the grid isn't a realistic option with a system like this.

    It seems to me (depending on the local excess electricity buy-back regulations) that building an extremely energy-efficient house incorporating either a solar or wind power system and also keeping connected to the grid would be the most cost effective and trouble free setup.

    Why did you decide on a load bearing straw bale wall instead of an in-fill straw bale type of construction? From what I have read, it can actually take less lumber and be quicker to build a modified post and beam structure compared to a load bearing structure.

  2. Hey Rich...thanks for commenting and you have great questions!
    First, the electrical needs of our farm are simple and not necessarily on-going. What I mean by that is that I am not spending 8 hours a day in the shop welding. Typically, that kind of work (such as equipment repairs and welding) are sporadic at best. We will have a diesel generator on-site near the shop. When it is necessary for me to use power tools, I will simply fire up the generator. We do have plans to use bio-diesel for the generator or perhaps even wvo type of fuel. It doesn't make sense to me to spend the huge money necessary for an off-grid system and the money to install grid-tied electricity to the farm. We will opt for more of a pay-per-use type system.

    To answer your question on the house, it is much more economical to construct a load-bearing strawbale house as long as your design is both simple and small enough to do so (which ours is). I can see where wood usage would be similar between the two designs, but the difference is the cost of framing an in-fill or modified design vs. load-bearing. I can, with my modest carpentry skills, go ahead and construct the plates necessary for load-bearing. I would not have the means to go ahead with a timber frame on my own and that would add significant cost to the house. Not to mention the fact that a load-bearing design is just plain easier without any known drawbacks. If you want a large home with perhaps two stories and other design challenges, then perhaps your only option would be a timber frame. We have chosen a simple, small home that we can build ourselves. Keep the questions coming...keeps us thinking!

  3. I forgot to mention in my previous comment that I would be in the "that is wonderful, go for it" camp.

    I've never seen a straw bale house being built, but I was interested in the technique a number of years ago. But, one of the problems I saw with a load bearing structure was getting the top of the wall level. Also, I would be concerned about how a high snow load might impact a load bearing straw bale structure (i.e. unwanted or uneven wall settling).

    One interesting method for building an infill structure I came across when I was researching the technique involved using a modified metal pole barn frame that was infilled with straw bales.

    The posts were set about 4' in from the end of the trusses so that they would be on the inside of the finished wall and there would be about a 2' overhang. Metal purlins were attached to the trusses, metal roofing was used on the roof, and the walls were finished with stucco. In addition, the added overhang from the repositioned truss left enough room for adequate insulation over the wall.

    If you are looking for construction ideas, you might look at:

    for an account of the construction of a small load-bearing straw bale house.

    There is a link on her site to the architect that designed her house that might also give you some ideas:

  4. interesting about the barn frame, but still too much unnecessary work as far as I am concerned. You have to remember that load-bearing strawbale homes are not new. They have been constructed now for more than 100 years in N. America and some of them are still standing and occupied from the early 20th century. In more recent years, engineers have figured out the stable rate of compaction for the bales and compressing the bale walls can be accomplished over the course of several months without any help other than the weight of the roof pior to stuccoing...or you can cinch them down with straps to a uniform level. Also, it is interesting to contemplate that once the stucco plastering has been applied inside and out, it is no longer a straw bale wall really, but a concrete wall that is simply filled with straw. All of our research tells us that as long as we follow the instructions for properly building our walls we will experience no problems in the future. The seismic, fire and wind load testing results on load-bearing straw bale walls are far greater than modern conventional construction. There are quite a number of load-bearing homes here in Alberta that we have problems reported with snow load issues. Everything old is new again! Thanks for the link...I have seen the site before and the youtube video is great. It is wonderful that Carolyn built her house by herself...must be a wonderful feeling!

  5. Our only source of heat is wood, a furnace, and a wood cookstove. While I love my cookstove, sometimes the efficiency of the electric range is welcomed. After a hard day in the hay field when it is 95F, I don't care for heating up the kitchen or ourselves by building a fire just to cook a meal, nor do we want to eat salads all the time to avoid cooking.

    Our land is predominately forest, so we have an abundant supply of wood. Keeping a year ahead with our wood cutting makes sure we have no problems with creosote etc. A dry, well seasoned wood stockpile is a must for cooking.

    If I was building my dream house I would keep an alternative cooking source in mind.

    Looking forward to reading as the plans progress.

  6. Rich, I forgot to address the mill. We have partnered up with my cousin who is also an organic farmer. He has a nice shop that is underutilized so we will be setting the mill up there. We are currently looking for land near their farm as it is an area that we like. So we will only have power needs for the house and shop. Cattle waterer will be solar powered...same with the yard light and fencers. Shop will be generator powered.

  7. I'm so glad you chimed in Matron...we were talking about you last night in our discussions on what to do for cooking in summer. Part of our house plans is to have a covered (and screened) back deck/outdoor kitchen. We have a similar set up in our current house and love it. In this outdoor kitchen will be a wood-fired pizza oven along with a gas range. We can't contemplate electric for heating anything in an off-grid home. In the summer, we can simply cook outside in the back kitchen that will be attached to the main kitchen through a set of french doors. In the winter, do you simply keep the wood cookstove going 24/7 in the kitchen and turn it up for the meals?

  8. My parents used a wood stove on our farm for a few years (eventually replaced with an electic stove). The main issue for them was they could not get approved for house insurance with the wood stove. This was 30 years ago and with a 50+ year old wood stove, not sure if the newer ones can get around this issue.

  9. Yes, the insurance issue isn't really a problem anymore. As long as it is installed according to code and the appliance itself is certified. We are planning a new, efficient wood cookstove and proper venting/chimney installation.

  10. John, your outside kitchen sounds wonderful. My cousins have a similar setup for canning. Although not off-grid.

    As for the fires, it isn't as cold here obviously, so we don't normally keep the fires burning overnight. The cookstove may burn all day, and just a switch of wood type and shape makes cooking a snap or most times whatever is for dinner is cooking on the stove anyway. At night we use a wood furnace and let the cookstove fire go out.

  11. on a trip to nebraska to pick up some equipment I spent some time with the folks I was buying it from, and they had two heat sources that I hadn't ever seen.

    One was a corn stove -- it burned whole kernel (flint) field corn. It had a bin, and an auger, and it would turn on, move a few kernels in, and when those had burned down, do it again. It was a modern unit, and did operate electrically, but only for the auger and lighting.

    The other was an outside wood-fired boiler. The furnace was located 20-30 feet from the house, near the woodpile. Water lines ran into and from the house, and it was used to heat water for a radiant floor system.

    If I were doing this (and I probably will be in the next couple of years) I'd keep a connection to the electrical grid. You don't have to use it, and having it there makes life easier.

  12. On another topic, I'd like to be able to plant and harvest 20-30 acres of wheat, barley or other similar crop, and to plant alfalfa or grass seed. The alfalfa would be animal-harvested; don't plan on baling it at this point. maybe in the future.

    On the planting end, I've been looking at john deere 8200-8300 grain drills, but that's just a stab in the dark.

    If you wanted to go with used equipment for that size plot and those types of crops, and a budget of around $10k, which way would you go?

  13. Hey Bruce...good to hear from you. Yes, we are familiar with both those systems. The corn burners are pretty neat arent they? The wood boiler was the way I was leaning for quite some time and we still may implement that in the future. The problem is encountered when you want to go to Cuba in the winter and the neighbor has to come over everday to stoke the boiler. Far better for us to just make a call to the propane delivery guy before we leave. While we are home, the wood cookstove will be the main source of heat along with a passive solar design and of course a super-efficient home. The propane fired boiler will supplement heat on days when we are busy out of the house or whatever.

    As far as your seeder question is concerned. I guess my first comment would be that I would not consider spending more than 2000 on a seeder to seed 30 acres and a budget of 500 would probably suffice. I have two old a John Deere from the 30's and the other is a 3pt. hitch model from the 50's. Both work as good today as when they were new. I use them for my small seed plots. My big seeder is two IH 6200's in tandem. For 30 acres I would go with any 10-12 foot end-wheel seeder I could find that was tarped or shedded when not in use. They will all come with grass boxes and usually fertilzer boxes if they were built after 1960. But, I suppose it depends how much of a tax write-off you are looking for for your farm return! LOL. The only other thing I will mention is hoe-drill vs. disc-drill. Get yourself the former if you will be seeding into well prepared seed beds because they will be less maintenance. Disc drills are fine though too and that is what I use exclusively...I just have to replace a disc from time to time. Let me know what you end up with...would like to see it in action. Check out my Jan.19 post "when the oil runs out" there is a video of a nice old end-wheel seeder being used.

  14. I use a 1895 wood cookstove from fall thru spring. It is a fine way to cook, esp since i work from home. Not sure if it would be as workable if i had to commute every day. Electric stove for summer cooking.