Beam me up….

11 09 2018


After staring at my large 200×200 mm beams drying in the shed for over two years, they were finally raised into position yesterday. It might only be three pieces of timber, but they are critical to the rest of the construction…….

It took me well over a week to establish exactly how I would join the mammoth lumps of wood, even, as you might remember, going to the trouble of going to a workshop on how to make framing joins. The advice I received there was worth its weight in gold, and in truth, it wasn’t that much more effort to make a tapered tenon rather than just a straight one. And I’m stoked with the quality of the join, the gaps being no more than about 3mm…… I even oiled the internal join surfaces with linseed oil to protect the wood from the inevitable water ingress from the next rain event.



First, on a beautiful sunny Tassie day, we had to raise the shortened post complete with fancy mortise back to the vertical… because we had done this before, this time it took us way less time and effort. Once erect, we could then drill the second 12mm hole through the post so it could be fastened to the steel bracket with a pair of threaded rods and two nuts. It’s not coming back down now, ever….!


Then we lifted the eastern beam up, literally one step at a time using step ladders and then the you beaut platform I bought from Bunnings many months ago. Good thing I got this when I did, I don’t believe they are available now….. to go higher than the platform rack, Caleb lifted the beam, while I pulled it up with a trucky’s hitch until the tenon reached the mortise. The beam was then lifted above the blockwork by brute force, and as they say, the rest is history….


We used the same procedure for the western beam, and in under four hours, it was all over bar the shouting….


I left the ropes in position more for peace of mind than anything else, because even un braced in the N/S axis, it’s rock solid, barely moving 10mm at the top when seriously shaken at shoulder height.DSC_2971

I know I’m biased, but it looks awesome, expressing so much strength through sheer size…. it’s the size beam I wanted for the Queensland house, but they are almost impossible to get unless you mill them yourself.

I took the next day off to rest my old back, working out how to install the ridge and fascia beams that will go on top of it all.  It never stops, and hopefully I will have at least some of the roof up by Christmas…..


Switching from concrete to carpentry…….

2 09 2018

Now that the concrete part of the house is as good as over, since returning from my Queensland visit I’ve been concentrating on the carpentry side of things. I’ve put a lot of thought into doing this, more often than not in the middle of the night when I least want to do so! I even put a lot of thought into useless methods…….

IMG_20180823_162417But first, I had to finish cleaning up the mess left behind when I went troppo, and the amount of ‘scrap’ concrete caused by the suppliers completely miscalculating how much was needed to core fill my blocks is truly staggering….  I now have a pile of rubble behind the house 5m long and a metre high that will end up as drainage, but honestly, even considering half the pile might be air, there must be $400 worth of waste there. Not impressed…….

My first big task is erecting the centre column, as it will support the beams that finish theIMG_20180829_100654 backbone of the house at the rear where the retaining wall is. This backbone supports the top of the skillion roof that will eventually slope down towards the stud frame forming the front of the house.

The post will be attached to a custom made 10mm steel bracket I had crafted by a local engineering firm, who did a magnificent job…. I’ve fastened this bracket to the slab with four 12 x 100 mm stainless steel dyna bolts. I opted for stainless because those bolts might be in the wet weather for some time, and the last thing I want is for them to rust and crack my slab……

IMG_20180829_100431Then the post had to be removed from the shed and carted to its final destination on a ute. I called Caleb back to help with the heavy lifting, and after mucking around with various lifting techniques, we got it up vertical with the help of Caleb’s father’s block and tackle, attached to the ute’s frame….. The reason for lifting it up was to mark the position of the side beams that will soon emanate from this post sideways with a string line. The engineering drawings show a steel plate with bolts to join these together, but I’ve opted for mortise and tenon joins. It’s an old traditional way of framing I’ve seen done, and it’s far more elegant, requiring no bolts or steel…..IMG_20180829_142947

Once erect, it was quickly obvious that the post – which is a whole tree with the round edge bits cut off – was far far too long, and upon lowering it back down, I cut some 1200mm off the end, which I used to learn to make my mortise and tenon……..

Now I had never done this before, and the learning curve was steeper than anticipated….. which is always the case in my experience! Having broken, then bent a couple of spade bits in an attempt at boring through 200mm of macrocarpa, I looked online at how experts did this, and saw one woodworker use a large auger bit. So I dropped tools, drove to Kingston (what would we 1 augerdo without fossil fuels…) where Nubco had a range of Milwaukee heavy duty bits suitable for the task. $31 poorer, I went back to the site and then had to learn to master this take no prisoners bit of gear that will screw itself into the wood at the first opportunity if you don’t take your time!IMG_20180831_133828

I eventually mastered the technique, and cut a whole 200×100 mortise that now needed chiseling out to make room for a tenon. Tenons are much easier to make than mortises and soon enough, I had a join I could show off, even if it was bit rough…..  I’ve since learned that even brand new chisels can do with supplementary sharpening, and now I will have to buy myself some proper stones for that job…..  it never ends. But my new 2″ chisel will do a lot more work than this as I intend to make notched joins for every rafter that will hold the roof up, so a good sharpen will not go astray. Watch this space……

Then out of the blue, facebook reminded me that while I was in Queensland, I expressed interest in going to a permaculture workshop near Cygnet that was about making exactly the joins I was teaching myself to make! I’d forgotten all about it, and there was one place left…… so I went.


You can never learn too much stuff, even at my ripe old age……. and I have to say I was amazed when I saw the purpose built Makita mortiser the young carpenter was using. Compared to boring holes with a big auger, this tool made mince meat of large timber, and made nice clean cut mortises, but at $4300, and with only one mortise to make, I don’t think getting one will happen any time soon.

first joinI took my join to the workshop – and I think I impressed them, seeing as I had never made one before – and I was given some good advice that alone made attending worthwhile. Like making a beveled corner at the base of the beam join so that the post will support it there as well as the tenon itself……

When the weather hopefully improves next week, I will make another attempt with my newly learnt skills and you will all soon enough see how I get on…….


All over bar the shouting……

27 06 2018


The last block….

Another milestone has been reached with the construction of Mon Abri MkII…… Mark finished all the block laying last week with the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle laid while he wore his Master Brick Layer bowler hat…..  apparently brick layers deemed to be masters at their craft used to wear bowler hats in the UK, and well before the well to do in Fleet Street did, or so says Mark anyhow…



The next big job was core filling all those walls. Because the large retaining wall at the back has a big job ahead, supporting many many tons of wet clay and soil, it’s engineered with miles of steel and all 1655 blocks had to be full of concrete. The plans called for a 20MegaPascal mix, but I ordered 32, because you can never overengineer something you want to last, and I was concerned that in the event of a morning frost the morning after, I might lose some strength. If within the first 24 hours any water still not finished reacting with the cement freezes, the resulting expansion can crack the concrete permanently, not a good idea….

I had no choice but to use the same crowd who poured my slab – there’s not much choice


Formwork dynabolted to blocks

this far from ‘civilisation’ – and as usual, not everything went according to plan, though this time there were no disaster such as happened at the end of that pour…. though one driver actually managed to veer off my track, getting bogged in the drain… luckily, the previous truck was still there, and they pulled him out. I knew something was up, but even from my perch up the ladder I didn’t find out until it was all over.

Between the last block being laid and the core filling, I had to do quite a few preparatory things, mainly forming up gaps behing the rear wall caused by the 135 degree bend in the wall and the impractibility of closing those gaps with blocks. I was a bit worried that there would be so much pressure at the bottom of the wall my forwork would blow out, but it all went perfectly. Then I suddenly realised – after saying for weeks that once cast in concrete, any forgotten wiring or plumbing could not be fixed – I had forgotten to put an electrical conduit from the yet to be installed switchboard to the ceiling for the installation of lights!  Aaargh….. fortunately, that too went smoothly after drilling a hole in the wall and feeding the conduit down the wall….. the elbow found the ledge of the hole while I was blindly working up top; you honestly could not do this if you tried on purpose….


On the day Robbie Page set up his pump out the front of the house with a much smaller hose than used for the slab. The core filling mix consisted of 7mm aggregate and  was very runny, as it has to be, to flow between all the steel and from block to block.

When I last did this many years ago in Cooran, the operator had his own remote control to stop/start the pump and avoid – as much as possible – overfilling the walls and causing spills. This pump didn’t work like that, Jack had to yell out to Robbie to stop, and of course there were time lapses, and the result was a bit of a mess…..  it was lucky that didn’t happen in Cooran, because I had no water or power at the time, whereas this time IMG_20180626_131140around I actually had a gerni to clean up the mess with……

The result was that I had to climb up and down ladders for the duration, trowel in hand, to scrape off excess concrete and try to get as smooth a result as possible atop the walls.

Then, Caleb whom I’d hired again to help, cleaned the dags off the walls with my pressure cleaner, and later dropped the last of the steel bars from the top to finish off the reinforcing and assure maximum strength.

Disappointingly, there was an excess of maybe three quarters of a cubic metre of concrete, and this time it wasn’t my bad maths because I got Duggans to work out the volume from the number of blocks laid. I got them to pour it all out in a zigzag fashion all over the ground, and I will have another massive job breaking it up later for the rubble drain that still needs to be put behind the wall.


Cleanup required…

Apart from that, I also have a huge cleanup job ahead of me getting rid of all the slops on the floor. Such is life, building is not for the faint hearted….

Next morning we did indeed get a frost, but the air temperature didn’t drop below 4 degrees C and no ground puddles near the house site were frozen. The walls even felt relatively warm, so, fingers crossed, my concrete will still reach its 32MPa maximum strength.


Frosty morning after

Mon Abri MkII update

16 06 2018

It’s been busy here for the past month or so since we started coming out of the ground… As I type, the masonry work is as good as finished, weather permitting will be so next Monday. So on a rainy weekend – and I have to say we’ve been so lucky weather-wise – I’ve decided to update you all on the progress.

I started with 24 pallets of blocks, and it looks like we’ll have almost three left over, even after the numerous broken ones found beneath the plastic wrap around the pallets. Beats me how everything is plastic wrapped now, even concrete blocks…

Mark the Irish block layer has done a wonderful job….. he may be six years younger than me, but us old farts can sure work when the pressure’s on!

Having fitted the electrics on top of the first course, it occurred to me that dropping


Marking blocks for cutting

concrete from a great height onto the plastic conduit spanning almost 400mm between the block webs might not be a good idea, so I filled the bottom course by hand to support all that hard work. Didn’t want to find out after the core filling that my power cables didn’t work anymore! 

Then I had to cut all corner specials with my father in law’s 40 year old 9″ angle grinder that still works as good as new. Lots of dust and noise and concentration to ensure it’s all cut right, but after a couple of days it was all done, ready for Mark’s craftsmanship. Originally, I thought I’d need Caleb’s young muscles to move blocks, but in the end I managed to keep up with Mark, and we worked really well as a team. I’m now an experienced bricky’s labourer…..

It’s amazing just how much weight is in all this stuff. 400kg of cement alone; 2 tonnes of sand; and that’s before you add in the 27 tonnes of blocks, all the steel inside the blocks, and the (guessing, haven’t done the maths yet) ~20 tonnes of concrete we’ll need to core fill the walls. It might all seem unsustainable, but I remind myself that this house contains a mere fraction of the concrete in a wind turbine’s foundation… and it won’t need any energy whatsoever to keep us warm.


We got great quality timber from the last five logs

Then out of the blue, the sawmillers came back to finish cutting the five remaining logs that have been waiting eighteen months for their appointment with the blade… the mill itself was supposed to be gone by now, but sadly Pete’s partner had a cerebral haemorrhage on the very last day they worked here, and last I heard she was still with us but on life support. Between that and my 93 year old mother in law taking a fall and breaking her wrist and cracking her pelvis, I now take every day I wake up in the morning as a bonus. Life sure is full of surprises, and some are not pleasant at all….. hopefully everyone will get better.


I unloaded Pete’s old truck on my own, let me tell you I’m getting fit…..


Only the two eastern internal walls to go…


Electrics ready for the next course of blocks

Now the walls are up, a feeling for the way the house flows is becoming obvious, and as we are virtually at the winter solstice, it’s great to see how my design embraces that solar gain we get when the sun does its trick….. every single room gets bathed in sunlight.


All the electrics from the power station and sundry power cables disappearing below the slab are now ready for the eventual joining together in a switchboard, once the roof is up and they can’t get rained on……

There were two regrets at my last build….. not having enough thermal mass inside, and not cutting the tops of the walls to follow the raked ceilings. Both those things have been corrected with this house….. it means even more block cutting, but years down the road I will have forgotten all about it!


The ‘stink pipe’ for both compost toilets have been fitted, and there’s even a starter threaded bar sticking out of the top of the wall to hold down and fasten the horizontal beams that will one day support the roof above what I call ‘the pointy bit’ that reaches into the hill… lots to think about, can’t afford to forget any details when you cast your design in concrete!  Now all I need is the right weather to pump some concrete in those blocks…….


Tie down bar…..


….in situ, with the whole column core filled



Finally…… out of the ground.

25 04 2018

Since pouring the house slab, almost six weeks ago, quite a bit has happened on the Fanny Farm. To start with, the concrete suppliers came to the party regarding that last load that went off as soon as it was poured….  they knew they’d screwed up, there were no arguments, and the rep asked me what I wanted, and I told him, and he said OK. So I’m not paying for that load, and they supplied self levelling concrete to rectify the wonky end of the house, which I will do once the walls are up……  frustrating all the same.

My daughter and I harvested 400kg of Geeveston Fannies, which were taken next door and turned into almost 200 litres of Cider. I have such a bumper crop this year, I’m afraid that due to other pressures, like building, a lot of my apples will simply go to waste….. I just can’t do everything.

IMG_20180415_090227It even snowed on Hartz. I took my Belgian wwoofer Nelle up the hill to show her Australian Alpine landscape, and she was amazed at how different it looks compared to Europe. When it snows there, it rains down on the farm, and threeIMG_20180414_133644 days went by with virtually nothing happening…. very frustrating….. though Nelle did finish braiding my garlic for me, now hanging decoratively from the shed rafters…. and hopefully keeping vampires away!

With the weather improving, we started moving blocks onto the slab in preparation for Mark the blocklayer’s arrival. He has now laid the first course of every block wall in the house, and it’s my task to install the first fit of wiring and plumbing.


Because an entire pallet of half blocks – conveniently behind the huge stack of blocks – had collapsed towards the dam, I decided to move them all, and the three pallets in front of it…  I started this process with a wheelbarrow, but quickly realised this was the slow way to do things, and ended up using the ute – what would I do without a ute? – which could shift six wheelbarrow loads at a time, with the blocks at a convenient height for unloading….. four down, twenty to go. Caleb will have to come back!

Thanks to the stuff up with the last load of concrete at the end of the big pour which meant I was not there for a full hour to supervise the finishing, the surface where the blocks had to go was less than perfect, and so it took Mark two days to


One of the many cut blocks that will make this wall a reality….

lay the first course. he did a fine job though, and the rest of the work will be a breeze, he tells me, after I’ve cut all the corner ones to fit, a noisy dusty job if ever there was one.

Nelle quickly picked up the skills required to become a bricky’s labourer, mixing mud for Mark and barrowing it onto his mud boards while I was cutting.

Now that all the masonry walls are laid out with only the front stud wall as yet not visible, the entire layout of the house is becoming more obvious, and I like the way it flows….


The next step was for me to lay out the wiring for all the power points in the house, and put in the connections to the power station once the wall is high enough.

A lot of thought prior to the pour went into this, because once done, it’s all cast in concrete, never to be altered! Do it once, do it properly……


Simple power point connection

The connections to the underslab wiring to the bathrooms was a bit tricky, because there wasn’t much room for three bell connectors inside the T shaped junction boxes. It was all tested for continuity, and once it’s all cast in concrete when the blocks are core filled, those wires will never move!

I have to add I don’t recommend ANYONE do their own wiring like this unless they know exactly what they are doing…. not a job for rank amateurs…….


Not a lot of room to maneuvre… nothing a little silicone can’t fix.

Next job is the bathroom plumbing, but that won’t take long, and Mark can come back and lay more courses on top of this one so we can start building the house’s backbone…… it’s actually starting to get quite exciting!

On Electro Magnetic Pulses

6 04 2018

In between visits from my better half and children, wwoofers helping on the Fanny Farm, I tend to spend a lot of time on my own, often working away alone for days and hours. One way I keep myself entertained and fend loneliness, is by listening to podcasts I download onto my smart phone. Last year, I discovered Radio Ecoshock….  I highly recommend it for realists like me interested in keeping up with the latest news on energy, climate change, peak oil, the failing economy, etc etc etc……

I don’t agree with everything some interviewees come up with, but then again, neither does Alex Smith, the owner of the site……. he has interviewed John Michael Greer, Nicole Foss, Raul Illargi, Richard Heinberg, and many other luminary futurists I follow. I highly recomend it.

Dr Peter Pry

A couple of weeks ago, I downloaded a file in which Dr  Peter Pry who is Director of the U.S. Task Force on National and Homeland Security; you’d have to give him the benefit of the doubt that he does know what he’s talking about!

Now I had heard of Electro Magnetic Pulses, but only on the occasional prepper TV show I might have inadvertently come across. Because I had only ever heard about these from preppers, whom I frankly think are nutcases, I dismissed the whole idea as a crank conspiracy theory…… but now, I’m not so sure.

EMPs of the non nuclear types are not things you can do anything about, unlike the list of man made disasters mentioned above; I will therefore not lose any sleep over a sudden solar burst that takes out civilisation, que sera sera.

However having listened to this podcast, I started wondering what would happen to my solar power station. After all, the electronics that keep my batteries going and the inverter that turns the energy into something useful are crammed full of fragile electronics that could potentially be taken out by an EMP.

What I discovered blew me away……. for starters, EMPs will not damage solar panels. Tick. nor the batteries. Tick.  The electronics, however, are highly vulnerable, and would stop working. Untick.

Because Dr Pry mentioned that one way of protecting your electronics is by storing them in a Faraday Cage, I then began investigating how effective a shipping container might be as such a device; and lo and behold, it turns out that if properly grounded, containers are very effective indeed…. I might just add another grounding rod just to make sure.

Putting my power station in a shipping container may well turn out to have been an inadvertent stroke of genius…. I’m just putting this info out there for anyone else to consider. What do you have to lose?


Faraday Cage at the end of the Rainbow


The UFO has landed…….

18 03 2018

Mon Abri Mk II has often been described as, due to its unusual footprint, something that could fly, and then on the slab day my mate Phil called it a UFO, so I think that will sort of stick now…

Pouring the slab has been twelve months in the making, with humungous earthworks and footings that ensure this house will never move even in an earthquake, it’s been a real labour of love. Well, lots of labour anyway. I never thought it would take this long, but here I’m at the mercy of the weather and Tasmanian laid back attitudes….  I now go with the flow, I’m too old to start fights!


My daughter Claire’s been here for well over a week, and we prepared for the epic pour by first cleaning off all the mud and organic matter and other crap that since the footings were done was blown into the area by the frequent windy weather. Lots of pressure cleaning, and then wet vacuuming all the mud out, in some attempt at ensuring the new concrete would stick to the old. Two days work there, and I don’t even know if it was actually necessary, but it made me feel better, and I needed that to destress…. that little job took 1200 litres of water (from the dam) and was entirely powered from the power station that worked like a charm…..  I could not be more pleased with my off grid system.

It might have been an omen, but the pour day didn’t exactly start as planned. Since my first winter here, when the temperature outside my bedroom can often go down to zero or less, I’ve been using a bucket full of sawdust to pee in so that I don’t have to get all dressed up and go outside. This works great, doesn’t smell, and makes great additions to my compost system. Until that is, the handle rusts off the bucket at 4:45AM , and it all gets spilled on the bloody carpet! Fortunately for Claire, she had woken up herself for a toilet break, because I had no other option than to use up the next half hour sucking it all up with the vacuum cleaner luckily still in wet mode. Needless to say, I wasn’t going back to sleep, which was just as well, because the pump turned up half an hour early, in the pitch dark….. Panic station started early.


Pouring at dawn was a new experience

All my helpers weren’t due to arrive until 7AM, and the concrete fifteen minutes later. We started with the pointy bit that sticks into the hillside, because I knew it was the hardest part, and once done we would have the opportunity to screed from edge to edge


That last missing bit……

on the skinny part of the house. The trouble was of course that my crew were completely inexperienced, and as soon as Robbie Page who owned the pump realised what was going on, he expressed his utter dismay that I had not accepted his [unaffordable] quote to do the job…… once the first truckload of 7m³ was disgorged from the pump, his offsider thankfully stepped in and gave the guys a quick lesson on how to screed…. which they fortunately quickly picked up. Screeding this job was easier than any I’d done before (because I didn’t do any!) as it was all pumped and vibrated, something I now really wish we’d done in Qld. Regardless, screeding was still necessary, and the two young guys at the ends of the tool did a sterling job under the circumstances…….

All went basically well, until right at the end when we were just short of finishing. The deal struck with the concrete suppliers was that I ordered 24m³ plus. Which means that after the 24m³ are poured, a quick evaluation is made of how much more is needed, and the last truck is sent from the depot. The missing bit in the photo was guesstimated by Robbie (who is very experienced) and I at roughly 0.4m³, and we thought ‘order 0.6, just in case’, which we IMG_20180317_130227did. While waiting for this last truckload, I began ‘helicoptering’ the slab in an attempt to get it as smooth as possible; and frankly, I’m quite pleased with the result, it’s ‘good enough’.

Except that the missing bit immediately turned into a problem; Duggan’s sent me a load of shit concrete that started going off right in front of our eyes, and there wasn’t enough….. no way did 0.6m³ come out of that truck, and nor was it fresh. When I dropped the vibrator into it, it hardly slumped at all, and while I was still floating water off concrete laid an hour earlier, I was unable to float this at all…….

The boys screeded it as fast as possible before it went rock hard and there were ravines in the surface that looked impossible to fill by moving what should normally have been workable material into them to fill them up……  I was beside myself, and really really pissed off.

With the local hardware store now no longer opening on weekends, I was faced with a desperate and frantic 50km return drive to Huonville to buy premixed-just add water concrete in bags in an attempt to salvage the situation. One hour later, on my return, I was amazed to discover that Claire – who obviously has a vested interest in this project – had whipped the crew into frantic labour to save the surface of our bedroom floor. I honestly don’t know how they managed it. It was bordering on a miracle, and it was just as well they did manage it, because the one bag I mixed in the wheelbarrow could not be pressed into the last bit in the corner, so hard had it already set. The resulting surface is worse than what a total novice would achieve.

All I can say is that it’s lucky that pointy bit will only be turned into a storage cupboard, because I would never live it down had this load of crap ended up in the middle of our bedroom. You can rest assured there will be a very stern complaint call to the supplier first thing tomorrow morning……  you’d think afer spending over $6000 on the day (and a similar amount on past pours) they would look after me…. I’ll probably get over it, but honestly……


All done. Everyone’s left, and all the beer’s been drunk!

We eventually broke the beer open, and celebrated a job well done under difficult circumstances. We did our best, and that’s all you can do. I reckon I’ve saved twenty grand by doing it this way, and that’s money I just don’t have to throw away – especially now I’ve spent most of it!

I can’t thank the crew enough….. Phil, who kept morale up among the youngsters, and Claire tells me, was largely responsible for repairing the bedroom floor while I was gone, Caleb, Martin, and of course my daughter Claire. Jack from Page’s concreting gets a deserved mention for screeding the hard bit for us. I won’t mention Duggan’s……..

Since pouring the concrete, it’s been raining for three days…. which is great for the still curing concrete. It’s a big step getting out of the ground, but really, all the hard work starts now. Watch this space.