The Earthen Floor Epic, Part I

In a catch-up post from 2016, I promised you’d get to see Mia laying the base layer for our upstairs earthen floor. Well here it is:


If you’re wondering what these nut bars are up to laying a mud floor in their new house [the building inspector certainly was], rest assured that we are only at the rough base layer stage right now but here’s what we are hoping for when we get to the final, tinted earthen floor layers later this summer:

These fine floors are the work of Sukita Reay Crimmel, author of New Society’s Earthen Floors. I had the pleasure of giving her a lift through the mountains and desert of New Mexico in 2015 and bending her ear about earthen floors. She tried to get out of the car but we were driving at 70 miles per hour.

However, I wish I’d have listen more closely to her words about testing as we had a few problems with our initial ground floor sub-floor mix that we later sorted out once I revisited her book. But rather than me blathering on about it in words, you can watch me blather on about it here and how it went oh so wrong and then oh so right.

When we get to the final floors this coming summer, I’ll give you much more detail about how they are laid, the huge benefits, the challenges and how they are finished.

Until then, here are some fun photos of playing in the mud [and really sore knees].


Karen whacking straw for the cob


Karen, Grandma and Mia mixing cob


The mix that later cracked. Too thick, too much clay and not enough sand and fibre


Concrete pad and make-up air intake for the wood stove


Barley sprouting as the cob dries


Prepping height sticks for the main room base layer


Living room floor prepped and ready for the cob base layer


Bubble material to reduce the probability of cracking around the posts


Wood stove air in-take pipe goes under the floor and out through the wall.


Mia being swallowed by a massive pile of cob


Laying the base layer in the living room


You can’t keep John away from this stuff


Mia checking the elevation of her section of floor


John and Mia in the kitchen


The last bits of a seven hour continuous pour of the living room and kitchen cob sub-floor


Karen mixing a 20 bucket load of cob with the rototiller


Oh my


Moving material with the venerable Ford


Mia’s addition to her bedroom sub-floor


Karen and John laying the sub-floor in our upstairs project room


Oh yeah


Floor eye’s view



Rise over Run


Sitting on my first set of stairs

As the flowers bloomed in April, I was scratching a bald spot thinking through my first-ever set of stairs.

It’s all about rise and run and the permanence of up and down. So, to ensure the up and down didn’t move, I poured a small concrete pad as a support for a 6X12″ Douglas fir stair landing I dowelled together out of a spare ceiling joist. From this rock-solid base and a fixed first step height from what will be the final main level earthen floor, I had an unchangeable rise to the upstairs floor level.

After that it was relatively easy to calculate the rise and run of the steps and layout and cut doubled-up 2X12” stair stringers that support the sides of the stairs and hold the treads.

These I built out of 3” thick Douglas fir slabs from our mill pile, planed by our two WOOFERs, Ben and Ash, who hail from Devon in SW England. I glued and screwed the beefy treads to the stringers, which in turn are supported by notches I chainsawed into the roundwood posts. The stringers are also lag bolted to the 6X12″ floor joists above, just to be sure. It’s all about 5X stronger than required and I’m very happy about it as I don’t like squeaks. If this explanation made no sense whatsoever then just look at the pictures below.

Ash returned to England after a week but Ben, the son of an old friend from the edge of Dartmoor, stayed on for six weeks and helped me frame out much of the upstairs interior walls. I also gave him a chainsaw lesson and set him loose with our neighbour’s excavator. He moved rocks, bucked up a mountain of firewood and weed whacked in the garden. I think he had a blast.



Pouring the landing pad



Nice flat concrete with bolts for the landing


The landing sub structure


Drilling holes to dowel and bolt the landing slab together


Ben lowering the landing


Ash steading from above


We have the rise and we have the run


Planing the stair treads


Starting to flatted


Treads ready to cut


The stringer layout tools


The first 2X12″ stringer laid out and cut


All four identical stringers


Installing the first pair



Looking level


Chainsawed rest for the stringers. I’m pretty happy with that cut done from a ladder


Stringers resting on the ledge at the correct angle


Gluing and screwing the stringers to double them up


One double


Lag bolted to the joist and resting on the ledge




Completed stair edge from the front entrance


Nice Doug fir for the bare feet


No more ladders to the upstairs!


Framing out the upstairs interior walls


Ben bucking up firewood for the winter of 2017-18


Ben and John bucking wood from both ends



Right on Time


Mia up for the challenge

In my last blog post, just the other day six months ago, I spilled some virtual ink catching up on the summer and autumn of 2015 in a post that was like an iPhone 6, instantly obsolete and contributing little of value to your life.

A half a year later and I’m a full twelve months behind on updates so I’m going to make a year at the high-performance house building coalface vanish in a [not so] tight 3,000 words spread over a few posts along with a raft of photos [which is all people really want anyway]. I’ll try to be witty but what can you do when so much of it is just about insulation,  and cross-bracing and high spec sealing tape?

So, casting back to 2015, after we got the metal roof on last October I took off to New Mexico for a Natural Building Colloquium, hanging out in the mountains west of the Trinity A-bomb blast site with people who eat plaster for breakfast and build entire houses from clay, straw and sweat.


Mum cutting vapour barrier in posh shoes

While I was away my amazing 70-something parents spent three days on their hands and knees on fractured drain rock putting down the impermeable sub-floor vapour barrier in our house and meticulously sealing it around every concrete peer with $80 a roll tape. The barrier is twenty times less permeable than the building code requires and is so tough you can drive construction equipment over it. I can’t overstate how vital this job is to the performance and comfort of our house, how much this sort of job isn’t my cup of tea and how brilliant my parents did with the sealing and detailing. They asked for a ‘substantial and important job’ and so they got it. They still have sore knees.

By the end of the year I’d laid down 6 inches / 15 cm of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam insulation over the barrier providing thermal resistance of Imperial R24 / RSI 4.23 / U0.23. I have deep ambivalence about using EPS ‘expanded foam’ – the stuff ‘disposable’ [as in last for 1,000 years] coffee cups in the bottom of landfill sites used to be made of. It’s substantially less bad than the rigid pink or blue extruded polystyrene (XPS) foam, which uses much more potent greenhouse gasses during manufacture. But at the end of the day all foam insulation is basically petroleum-based plastic soaked in fire retardant, as are so many commercial building products. This stuff pains me and buying a truck load of the stuff pained me even more.


The sub-floor EPS cross to bear.

I contemplated using Rockboard, a firm mineral wool board from Roxul, but it is hard to  find and unaffordable at nearly six times the price of EPS, which also had the advantage of being manufactured locally near Vancouver. A better natural option I learned about too late in the game was hempcrete or ‘hemp lime’ [lime mixed with the inner part of hemp plants], which would have been worth considering for the sub-floor and the walls. It may well appear in the next project and I like it so much that I commissioned this book.

On the upside, despite the billions of foamy balls which plugged and burned out our borrowed vacuum, and the child sacrifice screeching sound when I cut it that had Karen in hysterics, substantial EPS sub-floor insulation over an impermeable barrier results in a bone-dry floor with a very slow rate of heat loss to the earth. This is the absolute inverse of the half-subterranean, damp, stone floor-over-bare earth deep freeze that Mia lived in as a baby in Crystal Palace, South London. When we moved from that flat, the carpet under the bed was covered in mould and we had to bin the almost new mattress. Of course that place was a virtual Atacama Desert compared to our Streatham flat. It’s so often these cold, damp blanket recollections of my UK housing experiences that drive my quest for very warm and very dry in our house.

Bizarrely, like Hyde, after I was done the sub-floor insulation I sort of wished I’d used even more EPS and laid down 12 inches / 30 cm of EPS to double the floor insulation, as if I lived in Flin Flon rather than the [imaginary] Canadian Riviera. When is enough, enough?

On top of the EPS, which has an impressive compression rating of about 2300 lbs/sf / 11,300 kg/m2, we framed the internal ground floor walls of the double wall system making 16-inch / 40 cm thick exterior walls downstairs and 12-inch / 30 cm thick walls upstairs.  During this time, my sister dropped in for a few days from Calgary and for an early 50th birthday present I showed her how to use the mitre saw without losing fingers. She chopped studs while I nailed and we managed to frame out the double walls of both the upstairs gable ends over a weekend.

This whole internal double wall framing business involved nearly six weeks of building custom top plates and air baffles and extensive air sealing detailing using roll after roll of [really, really, really expensive] Siga Wigluv sealing tape. The temptation to get lazy was always and ever present and the only antidote was lunch, coffee and judicious eyedroppers of my not-quite-buried childhood perfectionism.

As the foolish Europeans who arrived to colonized this place fewer than two centuries ago never knew, the BC coast is historically a brick-shitting deadly seismic zone. To mitigate [some of] the risk posed by a megathrust earthquake, which builds with every passing hour that the Juan de Fuca plate sticks to the North America plate in the Cascadia subduction zone, my engineer specified heaps and heaps of cross-bracing. So, I spent weeks and weeks cutting and nailing 2X4 ‘X’s into the double walls to a prescribed pattern until the entire house was thoroughly cross-braced.

There are a numerous seismic features in the house. The concrete foundation pinned into bedrock and large, frequently spaced anchor bolts and heavy steel post tie-downs should keep the house from doing the table cloth and dinner plates routine in a big shaker and sliding off the foundation. Hurricane ties between the roof and the walls, galvanized strapping between the gables and the rim joists and many, many dozens of foot long engineered GRK structural screws and heavy bolts should keep the layers of the house from flying apart. Lastly, the cross-bracing should in theory keep the whole thing from buckling. At least that’s what the calcs say, though the upward seismic limit isn’t known. With massive earthquakes it’s all about distance, depth and duration and unknown, unknowns.

About the same time we added the cross-bracing, in went the sub-floor plumbing for the toilet, bath, sinks and water delivery lines. Then we wheel-barrowed in and compacted 11 tonnes of road base [gravel, sand and clay] as a solid base for the eventual earthen floor. Much more on this later when you get to watch a video of Mia laying floor.

For now, here’s some more pics of insulation and cross-bracing and sealing tape.

See, now that contributed value to your life.



Fiddling with the vapour barrier


Pleased as punch


Completion photo


Pier detailing


Water line and power line penetrations


My ‘just in case’ radon gas mitigation pipe



Sub-floor waterlines for the loo and the toilet flange


Laying out the downstairs loo walls



More subfloor plumbing


Sealing the sub-floor vapour barrier to the exterior sill plate


And nailing it for life


Laying out the floor plates for internal walls


X bracing at a window


And more


And more


Shear wall X bracing


and more


Custom double wall top plates and Siga tape air sealing


Gable end double wall


More air sealing


Collar ties I added to create the plane of the upstairs ceiling, and the future chimney location


Dormer air sealing baffles


Upstairs double wall with X bracing on the outside


Pat chopping studs like a high schooler


One sip and she’s blurry


Karen moving road base


And more


And much, much more


Mia spreading the road base


Rob on the plate compactor


And look what happened in the garden. The elderberry tree was blooming


And some early flowers


Cirque du soleil Part Deux


I’m back on that treadmill of pounding nails and publishing books by day and researching hot topics like the counter intuitive best way to air seal a window according to NRCan by night. [Really, no caulking under the window flange, for real, I’m not making this up, it’s all about the Delta P.]

While I luxuriating in my evening hours borrowed from the future, I realize that my blog is still living in the summer of 2015, while my house build lives in the winter of 2016 and my publishing brain lives in the spring of 2017.

So rather than subject you to eight or nine scintillating posts about humping 112 sheets of plywood up on the roof, the depths of my neck tan, the moments of despair as the rain broke through the tarps and saturated our T&G ceiling, or the mad dash to get the metal roof on before the heavens unleashed the autumn gales if it wasn’t for that bleeding Rothenburg 49 degree pitch, I’m going to give you the back-of-a-beer-mat version with a truckload of photos. When you emerge on the other side it will be the spring of 2016  and we’ll all be in a better place.

Then we can get on with talking about thermal mass and swoon to the viscidity of Swiss Siga sealing tapes. Oh, yeah. Be still my beating heart.

Here we go.






The task list [took twice as long)


Nice outriggers


Strapped so the engineer can sleep at night



Chris Sauer volunteers to be monkey man


Half of the sheathing on. Cursed dormers still to come.


Clamps and string. That’s how you build it.



11mm of pain


Definitely water


Framing out a dormer wall


Rolling the barge boards



Two days to hang those before the roofers arrive


Dormer meets the roof peak


All 112 sheets of plywood on the roof


Tammy, Karen’s mum, lends a much needed hand


Dad, remember this from the ’80s? Guess where I learned that trick?


Almost there



Karen thought today was going to be about gardening



Still together after all those fascia boards.


On the so-called ‘chicken strips’


Get it on lads


Metal for the ages


Cirque du soleil Part I


Hours after my last blog post, an email flittered out of the ether from a distant land:


‘I do enjoy you wasting 6 minutes of my comfortable office life with tales of sunshine and screwing.…’


Oh my, the rapture of 2x6s, insulation and plywood decking.


Speaking of which, about 12 hours after finishing the upper floor deck, a couple of lads from Hi-Tec Industries rocked up with our engineered roof trusses and plopped them on the deck with a crane. It took them 20 minutes to set me up with three month’s worth of work.


A few days later my bro Ed showed up with his family and despite a multi-decade interlude since we built anything together, we seamlessly slipped into work mode, anticipating each other’s every move and within two days we had the upper dormer walls framed with plenty of time for beer and the beach. There’s a reason modern houses are stick framed – it’s fast. Very, very fast. Especially with your well-seasoned brother on the chop saw. Sadly Ed had to leave after a couple days and missed the erection of the first roof trusses that catapulted the house from 10 to 27 feet high.


I scratched a spot bald on my head trying to figure out how to lift a 32 foot long truss that weighed in the ‘really heavy’ range onto the dormer wall by myself. In the end I nearly got one up but it was a precarious business best not spoken of. So I defaulted to Plan B: casually waiting for unsuspecting wife / neighbour / old friend to happen by, lure them up to the top deck with the siren call of ‘hey, want to see where the bedrooms will be’ and then pouncing before they could scramble for the ladder.


So within a few days the press-ganged labour had the dormer trusses up. I built Douglas fir posts to carry the double ridge girder for the steep east and west roof sections and Karen and John and me lifted the end trusses into place.


It was weeks and weeks of climbing, shinnying out on a girder and then inevitably dropping or forgetting my tape measure / drill / hammer / plumb bob / whatever-tool-I-needed at a key moment in a really awkward place, necessitating another laborious round trip to the ground.


Oh but it was fun too.


I do like a bit of high angle acrobatics and neck tanning in the relentless sun.



$6000 worth of engineered trusses





The beginning of three months of work


South dormer wall almost framed before lunch


Ed talking to John when he should be working


Not bad for an older brother


Mia gravely concerned that her room has no roof


I got the first truss this far by myself and nobody died


First truss being braced


My confidence is overwhelming


Hey Jen, nice to see you. Wanna put up a truss?


Joe, haven’t seen you since 2002! Fancy putting up a few trusses?


John, come say hello to Jen and help us put up this truss


Mia, can you give me a hand with this truss?


The girder slot in the middle


West end built-up Douglas fir post


Ratcheting the trusses for blocking


East end temporary post and first 13.8 in 12 pitch truss



Installing the West gable ridge extension



Scheisse, is that my nail gun down there?


Nailing the east end ridge girder together


South side lower rafter tails


Hey Darren, I know you’re only here for 24 hours but  want to sand this beam and help me install it?

Six Minutes You’ll Never Get Back


So after banging out the T&G for our main floor ceiling, we had a really epic deck for knocking back cold drinks in the sun. As an upper floor though it was far too flimsy with a mere ¾” of Douglas fir bridging 5 foot spans.

If this was going to support my many thousands of books in an upstairs library then it would need some serious beefing up.

So I humped 130 fourteen foot 2X6s up onto the deck and began building a lattice of joists to carry the load. The engineer specified 16” centres for the joists but since he’s never seen my Earthscan book collection and probably doesn’t own multiple sets of Das Kapital, never mind Janson’s 3.7 kg, 1168 page History of Art, I decided to go with 12” centres in most places to add even more meat.

I also framed overhangs on the east and west ends that rest on the exterior posts and beams to create covered areas below. That sounds easy, but it really wasn’t. On the back of a week of 14 hour days in the sun, it felt right to share the pain and ruin my electrician’s sailing holiday by having him drop everything and wire for the downstairs lights.

Rough wiring in, I filled the joist bays with bats of Roxul Safe’n Sound mineral wool insulation as a fire break and sound dampener for when Mia’s 14 and cranks the Justin Bieber of 2025. On top went 964 square feet of ¾ plywood, with the last screw of 3000 sunk at 9 pm, eleven hours before the roof trusses arrived and were plopped on top with a crane.

Was building the subfloor structure exciting? A life changer really. At least as thrilling as reading this post. There’s six minutes of your life, gone, forever. All to look at some guy put in screws and stuff insulation.

Next up, cranes and high angle antics. Really, I swear on a stack of Kapital, it’ll be exciting.


Beginning the lattice


Through the middle is where the library will go



The 2X12 east overhang


Rough wiring


A downstairs light fixture box


Dirt, manure, mineral wool, what’s the diff?



Insulated and ready to cover





John decides to join the back pain club



Almost ready for the truss delivery!

It’s groovy, man.


Wood. It’s expensive on many levels. As it probably should be when you cut down a venerable living thing and slice it up into boards and sawdust. Vital ecosystem, carbon sink, cubic metres of cash, something to chuck into your woodstove.


It depends on your view point.


So I set off to find some flash but affordable wood for our house ceiling that met a number of environmental, economic and aesthetic objectives.


Rule number one: no old growth.


So I ring up on mill on Vancouver Island near Ladysmith and request a quote on some tongue and groove planks. I’m very specific: ‘Douglas fir or red cedar, no old growth.’ Mill man responds: ‘is there any specific reason why you don’t want old growth?’ as if it’s the most bonkers thing he’s ever heard.


If I have to explain to someone in 2015 why my house cannot possibly justify cutting down a 500 year old Douglas fir tree then is there really a point in going on? Sure it’s British Columbia and we’ve diligently cut down 99% of the old growth Douglas fir over the past 125 years so hell ya, why not go all in and turn those remaining ancient 200 foot tall behemoths into flooring for wankers?


So I move on to mill man two. An FSC certified mill near Parksville. Plenty of wood, all young second growth, all from monitored woodlots. Good start. Mill man appears highly motivated. Even better. So as we’re discussing micro V versus flush milled tongue a groove joints I spot some dust covered lifts of lumber in the back of a vast warehouse.


‘What’s that?’


‘Oh some flooring. I think it been sitting back there for eight or ten years.’


‘Hmm… would it work for a ceiling?’


‘Can’t see why not.’




So I’m back a week later. Mill man is very keen. I suspect the bank is circling overhead, talons glistening.


‘You can have two lifts for $1700, including tax.’


‘Including tax, eh?’




‘For all 1900 square feet?’




So handed the mill man an envelope of freshly extruded plastic $100 bills and the wood is mine.


Over 6,000 lineal feet of mostly clear [knot free] second growth Douglas fir tongue and groove flooring, seasoned after a decade of collecting dust in a saw mill warehouse. Somebody’s long forgotten dream floor that never happened, now destined for our ceiling.


So the recipe for great early summer T&G: cut board to length, pound tongue into groove, nail, repeat 600 times while developing that neck tan.

One lift, still dusty

One lift, still dusty








Looking good from downstairs

Looking good from downstairs


Taking a break from the neck tan to put up Mia's Mother's Day present so mama 'Won't forget my name' Ah bless the logic of 4 year olds.

Taking a break from the neck tan to put up Mia’s Mother’s Day present so mama ‘Won’t forget my name’ Ah bless.