Information about design and construction of earth sheltered homes and a journal of my own progress

Erecting more steel studs…


Posted on July 19, 2014 by

My sister, Bonnie, arrived in town mid-day Tuesday (after driving for 4 hours) to give us a week of her vacation time. As a kid, Bonnie was a Lego Maniac, so she was pre-wired to be really into this building project, but I also assume she came to visit me ;^)

Bonnie is competitive and a hard worker, and, as siblings, we work well together.  She was eager to get started right away and things progressed quickly.

With my timelapse camera snapping a pic every 10 seconds and playing them back at 15 frames per second, an hour goes by in 24 seconds and an 8 hour day takes just over 3 minutes…  So this video ended up being over 9 minutes long… (half day, 2 full days and another half day)

For the time-lapse…


For the story.

Bon and I got out there early Tuesday afternoon and started on the steel stud prepwork…  marking stud locations, drilling extra holes and adding extra Tapcons to better secure the track in those locations.

MasonryBitMeanwhile, we hired a young guy, Robert.  This was my first “hired hand”.  He is planning to go into the military soon, but in the meantime, he needed some cash to fix up his car.  He was a friend of a friend and we found him by posting to our Facebook friends that we were looking for young muscles to move all the dirt around last week.  This was before I simply hired the excavator to do it in less than 45 minutes.  By the time we heard from Robert, it was mostly taken care of, but there was still a little dirt to level and I figured I could use him to drill pilot holes for the rebar after that.  These were fairly basic jobs that didn’t require too much skill or supervision and that I wasn’t looking forward to doing myself.  I showed Robert the business end of a masonry bit and told him that he should check it frequently and change the bit when the corners of the “spade” wear out.  I also got him to bring down some extra scaffolding and steel studs.

Bonnie and I quickly got up 5 of the 20ft studs, braced them, strapped them in and added the lath in a relatively short time.  We got a 6th one in and tied it in also, which is pretty good for just a few hours out there.

Sherri and Michael also arrived to help out.  After getting all his chores done, Michael really enjoyed building sand castles on top of each of the hills.  (You can see him in the top of the timelapse footage).

Wednesday morning, Bonnie and I got really aggressive with that outer curved wall on the north west side.  Robert started the day bringing us studs and then got back to drilling the pilot holes with the ¼ inch bit.  I checked his bit at the start of the day and it looked fine, but I handed him 5 more and reminded him to swap it out when it wore down… (Play suspenseful music here.)

I was busy working with my sister to get the studs in, and noticed that Robert was taking lots of breaks to let the drill cool down, but I thought he was handling it.  About an hour in, he wanted to switch to something else because the “drill had shut down”.   I thought maybe it had a thermal switch to prevent damage, so we had him do some other minor things, but after half an hour, the drill was cool and still wouldn’t start up.  I guess it is burnt out.  These things happen, but I also noticed that the drill bit tip was worn to a smooth ball bearing finish.  We sent Robert home with 1.5 hours pay for his second day.  I guess I am not ready to properly manage young help while also trying to break speed records on other tasks.

Bonnie and I continued working on the outer wall.  At one point, we did a check and realized that we had just run 20 ft studs the whole way and had missed a doorway in the second floor that called for us to put a 9 ft stud in that location.  We left the bracing in place and just swapped out the stud.  It just took 3 screws, and we were on our way again.  More studs, more strap, more lath.  It was our most productive day ever.  We got the whole outer wall done (up to the 9 ft mark).

That night, we discussed what to do with the remaining 2 days.  We decided to skip ahead and tackle the 26 ft tower so that we could have time to secure it properly.  We could then go back and do other simpler sections if we had time.

On Thursday morning, I brought a simplified install sheet that showed the angles and orientations for each stud.  But as we laid it out, it seemed like something might not be right.  Rather than proceed in a wrong direction, we switched to the more straight forward 21 ft section.  After that was complete, we decided to apply our improved lath skills and redo all the metal lath on the inner curved wall that I had done the previous week.  Having that smoother internal surface will save us lots of stucco time later.

Friday was going to be a short day because we were going to pick up my older son from camp and then go down to Toledo for a Mud Hens baseball game, so we decided to start early.  We had already rechecked and confirmed that the tower install sheet was actually correct.  On the way in, we bought a new hammer drill (for over 200$).

Dwalt_DHandle_SDS_HammerDrillThis time, I bought a Dwalt D-handle SDS hammer drill and several SDS bits.  These hammer drills don’t use regular bits.  One the one hand, I didn’t like the idea of paying to replace my bits with special SDS bits, but on the other hand, all the new drills are using SDS bits now because everyone prefers being able to click the new bits in without needing to find a drill chuck.

But the best part was actually using the drill.  It went in nice and smoothly (like butta’).  This drill also had much better shock absorption, etc.  Suddenly, I wished the previous drill had died sooner, perhaps I could have got that track in much quicker…

We decided to finish off the top layer of lath for the inner curved wall before starting on the tower.

The track marking and prep work went pretty smoothly (except I ran out of Tapcons again), and we soon got to work on the studs.  We got the first four 9ft studs in and strapped very quickly and then we took a break before tackling the 26ft studs.  I was really concerned about them, but it ended up being not much more difficult than the 20 or 21ft studs.

The studs pick up sand when we set the down, so after I got them up vertical, Bonnie would give them a good tap and let the reverberations dump the dirt on my head while I was struggling to maintain balance.  That is what sisters are for.  I eventually managed to get her back in similar fashion.

We didn’t want to start on another section of the tower with only a couple hours left, so we took down the strap and lath from the first wall.  We redid the strap and added additional straps to the 26 ft studs…

It was a pretty good week.




Bonnie left Saturday morning, my parents are coming out to help this next week…  I am still pushing towards shotcrete before the end of the month…  But I know I have a lot of work between now and then.


Custom Fabrication


Posted on July 8, 2014 by

bracing101_02I want the walls to be nice and plumb.  This is usually managed with diagonal bracing to position and keep the wall where you want it.  To add a bit of finer control over the wall, you will often see builders use a turnbuckle.  These allow the builder to make fine adjustments. Often these are needed both to plumb the formwork and to help brace against concrete blowouts, etc. so they need to be big strong expensive things… Sometimes you see whole systems of bracing…

In the system on the right, the yellow parts are threaded and can be turned to adjust plumb.  They also provide a nice working scaffold for the second half of the wall, brace against the concrete, etc.  These cost hundreds of dollars each, but would be totally worth it if I were an ICF contractor.

In my design, the steel studs are considerably lighter, so they will be much easier to push into plumb.  The walls are curved and the studs will be tied together with the metal lath, so they should be able to resist the shotcrete on their own.  This frees me to go for a much lighter design.

Turnbuckle_2I got some inspiration from this example (on the left).  You can see that the bottom is a piece of angle iron screwed into a 2×4.  They welded a nut to the angle iron with a threaded rod connected to another bracket that they attach to the vertical form work…  The end of the threaded rod is cut to take a screw driver. Adjustments turn the threaded rod and make it move thru the welded nut.  This allows for fine adjustments on the overall lengths of each support.  Adjusting the length provides the fine tuning needed to plumb the wall.  I can buy a turnbuckle like this from an ICF distributor.  The problem is this little piece of hardware costs $16.99, plus shipping, and I would need a bunch of them.

So I made my own.





I used my new welder to weld the nuts to the angle iron (less than a minute).  Then I used my grinder to make a hex end on each threaded bolt so that I can drive them with a socket on my drill (just over a minute).  I ended up making 3 different sizes, 1/4, 5/16ths and 3/8ths, just so I could compare them.

I could get 1/4 inch locknuts from Home Depot, but they don’t carry them in the other two sizes.  I could probably order them for 5/16th and 3/8ths, but I ended up just tightening two regular nuts together for a similar effect.  The rest is just a 6 inch bolt in one direction (for the length adjustment) and a 3 inch bolt in the other (for a pivot), plus washers…  I will screw the second wood block into the steel studs and the angle iron gets attached to an 8 ft piece of 2×2 wood which is staked into the ground.

Total cost is less than 2 dollars each for the big one and almost down to a dollar for the 1/4 inch version.  I would need to make about 40 of these before the savings would pay off my welder and related tools.  The 8′ piece of 2×2 costs and additional $1.50 each.

Here is a close up on the welded nut and ground hex end.



Tomorrow, I will try these out before making any more.


First Week of July


Posted on July 6, 2014 by

Serenity Now

Writing this blog definitely makes me think a bit more about how things are going.  I am a bit disappointed that I don’t have much progress…  But it feels a bit worse because I don’t have a good title for this week (or a timelapse video).  Is that strange?

serenity-nowI guess the actual lack of progress will feel much worse when winter arrives.   I had planned on working all the long weekends; but, like the May Two-Four weekend, the 4th of July weekend didn’t give much progress toward the final construction.  But it did let me recover from my cold and have some good family time.

facebook-like-SmallThese are some over detailed explanations for those who want to understand the struggle.  If you just want the short version of the updates, you can “like” Home in the Earth on Facebook.



No Steel for You

fcs_delayI had planned on getting a delivery of steel studs last Wednesday.  These are not the crappy kind you get in fixed lengths from Home Depot…  These are special MarinoWare 20 gauge studs, specially cut for my order, ranging from 9 ft to 26 ft long.   Previously, my work week had been minimized because the order didn’t go thru properly.  This time, I think the problem was more related to too many people taking advantage of the 4th of July long weekend and too many construction crews not ordering steel.  There wasn’t enough of a shipment coming to my distributor to justify sending a truck long enough to carry my 26 ft studs.  No problem for them, they would just send it after the holiday…  Messed up my plans though, and it would have been a beautiful work weekend too.

No Scaffold for You

But I still planned on getting a scaffold delivery on Wednesday.  This is not your regular home depot scaffold either.  This is a proper 26 ft tall made-in-the-USA scaffold tower with lots of extra stability.  I needed it to erect those 26 ft tall steel studs that form the central tower.  They had shipped it out the previous week and emailed me a link to a tracking website (for some shipping company I had never heard of).  I had checked the link a few times but the website wasn’t working.  By Wednesday morning, after the steel order failed, and the tracking link still wasn’t working, I phoned the shipping company directly (SAIA?)  I gave them my tracking number and they told me they had no record of that shipment.   I called the scaffold company and asked them about it.  The email they had sent me on the day it shipped had all the correct information, what she now read me from her computer had all the wrong information, including my address and a shipping date 3 days later and a different shipping company (with a different tracking number).  She looked up the tracking number for me, but it was also a dud, and so she had no idea where the package was.   After all those mistakes, I asked her to please confirm what she shipped.  But she wouldn’t read me what it said on her version of the Bill of Lading, she just said she was sure they had shipped the right thing and she would call me back (she did about 8 hours later, long after I had figured it out).  The third company involved was some sort of middle-man logistics and customer service company that looks after emailing out that original tracking number.  It seems that the SAIA company couldn’t get their trucks in a row, so after 3 days of sitting on a dock, they switched me to FedEx with a new tracking number.  The guy looked it up while we were on the phone and said, “I am sorry sir, but your package was supposed to be delivered today, but it is in Mississippi instead.  Maybe Tuesday”.   Wow.

I was just about to cancel my brother in law who would soon be headed over to help me when I decided to check the new tracking number myself.   It turns out that the guy on the phone doesn’t know his state codes.  It didn’t say Mississippi, it said “MI”, which is for Michigan.  The package had been in town since first thing that morning and would be delivered that day.  I called FedEx, they confirmed that a driver would call me to confirm what time he would deliver because they wouldn’t leave it unless I was there.

My brother-in-law, John, arrived, and we packed up my car.  My younger son was also going to come with us.   We were less than 5 minutes down the road (of the 55 minute trip) when FedEx called to book a time for the following day…  I guess they didn’t have enough drivers on that week due to the holiday.  So we turned around and went home.


Thursday, I went out to meet the FedEx driver and get my 1200 lbs of scaffold.  He got there early, so I found an 18 wheeler waiting for me in the circle at the bottom of my driveway.  As I guessed, he had no way to unload the truck.  Since I had no heavy equipment on site, I had the fun of unloading the truck piece by piece (the FedEx guy handed the pieces down to me) into my trailer.   I used the trailer to make the trip up my driveway and then unloaded it into my shipping container for use next week.  It was tempting, but wouldn’t be wise to try and assemble something like this by myself.


Instead, I focused on prepping the spot where the tower would go.  I had designed things so that the scaffold tower would sit (nice and firmly) on the circular footing.  Even the 30 inch outriggers will fit on the footing, although I will have to leave openings thru the metal lath.  I confirmed this by putting one of the diagonal braces across, but it was a bit close to the edge.  I thought it would be best to fill in the center of the footing with dirt so that there wouldn’t be any problems if it shifted a few inches.


IMG_20140703_115816_050I had bought a  David White builders transit on Craig’s List Tuesday evening.   I bought it from an old guy (at least in his 60′s) and so I assumed it was his.  I asked about some of the adjustment knobs and he said he didn’t know how to use it because it had been his grandfathers.  I asked how old it was, and he said he didn’t know, but his grandfather retired from being a surveyor for the city of Detroit in the 1940′s.  After I got home, I looked up the serial number and found it was made in 1937.  It clearly still works very well (perhaps it has another 77 years in it).  

using my “new” transit, I confirmed that at least one of the concrete pads is a bit off, but it will still work out. All my other angles (I had been using my marked center stone) were right on.  I had rented a crappy transit from the rental place several times because I didn’t want to buy a new one (too expensive), but this used one will pay its self off in a few uses.  Having the right angle is just too important in a home as unusual as mine.

Skid Steer

Well, now it was still pretty early in the afternoon and there wasn’t much left for me to do on site…  But I had come prepared with a list of Craig’s List skid steers with in an hour of my property, so it was time for a few hours of driving around.    I ended up with a John Deere 260 Skid Steer.

This post is already too long, I put more more details on why I chose a Skid Steer in another post.  (or just like us on Facebook to see the post from last week).

Window bucks and welders…

Saturday, I had a couple friends come over to hang out, which was nice, but too rare.  We ended up seeing a movie, but first, they helped me cut out some window bucks in preparation for next weeks framing.

I didn’t end up finding the welder that I wanted.  I have a couple possible options on Craig’s List to consider, but first I want to chat with my welding-expert uncle.  He was busy all weekend, but I will call him tonight.  Basically, I want the most economical MIG/MAG setup I can get, I don’t want to spend thousands on an industrial scale rig.  That can also be another post.

1 2 3 4 5 25 26