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Design Build Part 5: Stemming Out of the Earth

The truth about building your own home with your bare hands is that you will need help along the way. For me that started with the installation of the CMU block stem walls. Up to this point working on the site was therapeutically lonely. I had done all my own tractor work to sculpt my design into the site. I drove stake after stake into the ground to set the forms for my foundation. When I hired a concrete pump truck I hired a small outfit that let me (needed me?) to help lug the 4 inch hose full of concrete along the foundation to fill the form work. Have you ever hauled around a 4 inch hose full of wet concrete? Well, that was one aspect of construction I had not yet enjoyed until this point in the endeavor. I was to "enjoy" that experience again many more times throughout this construction process. Most days up to this point were spent alone with the sound of nature and my own toiling as the only noise, and I loved it. I can't help but notice how few pictures I have of me actually doing anything on site. It's because I was working by myself all the bloody time and back in 2008 selfies weren't quite the thing that they are now.

However, this stage, the stage where the stem walls began to reach out of the earth from the foundations, this stage was different, more active, more social. I had helpers, workers, people that were following my direction, my instructions. I was in charge and I took to it naturally and eagerly. The crew of block layers I found were efficient and fun to be around. I needed them. Block and brick laying is an art that requires a lot of strength and a lot of practice. I can do it but not the way these seasoned masons could. And just as well. I had plenty of work to do with the ICF walls. Anyone familiar with ICF wall technology knows what a great product it is. If you're not familiar with it then ICF's look like four foot long styrofoam lego blocks that you stack and fill with concrete. They are a durable and well insulated wall choice. Familiar or not what most people don't know is that ICF, like any solid concrete wall, requires a lot of shoring and form work. Fortunately, my experience base is well versed in poured concrete walls. (Perhaps the history of my heavy concrete construction days prior to architecture grad school will be the next post.) Anyway, this part of the job seemed to move quickly. I could work on my strong suit, the heavy concrete walls, all the while directing the work of the masons. This was my first taste of being in charge of more than just my own efforts and it tasted right. What's more is that my design was emerging out of the earth! The term 'stem wall' seemed so metaphorically apropos all the sudden.


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