When planning a natural building project, especially a heater or cob oven, there are some basic questions we like to ask. If you want us to consult on a project or lead a workshop on site, this is good information to gather early in the design process.
These questions may be useful for project owners planning their own projects as well.
These questions may be useful for project owners planning their own projects as well.
- Stage masonry and other materials in sheltered areas close to the build site, for easy access during the workshop.
- Set out the necessary tools (label with name & address), and put away or hide any special tools not intended for workshop use.
- Prepare the necessary footings, foundations, and roof penetration ahead of time (these tasks take a variable amount of time, especially if hidden problems are discovered)
- Mask and ground-sheet any remaining furniture, floors, etc. Cardboard paths or moving blankets can help protect against wheelbarrows or heavy wear.
- Clear away fragile or sensitive items
For an educational workshop that builds a large on-site project, here are some common steps to take well ahead of time.
Earthen Materials Lists
(Rocket Mass Heater, Earthen Oven,
general cob projects)
Promoting an Event
Hosting / Hospitality
The project site itself:
- Seating for participants + host staff and instructors (may double as dining area)
- White board, paper, or chalk board with suitable markers/chalk.
- (Digital projector and wall or screen - if plans include a slide show or movie night.)
On-site dining helps keep participants engaged throughout a busy workshop. See "Hospitality" for meal planning ideas.
- Seating as above
- Tables for food & drink
- Dishes, utensils, and service ware
- Washing-up stations nearby for dishes and hands
Potable Water and First Aid Station:
Clean water is a key element for preventing illness, and in effective first aid.
- Potable water,
- Cups, jars, or personal bottles (write names on them if needed to reduce dish-washing)
- (Hot water, tea or coffee, and basic snacks, if available)
- Basic first-aid kit: Bandages, gauze, antiseptic, tape, gloves, plastic bags for hot/cold paks. Contact info for urgent care. Additional supplies may be carried by those trained to use them, such as a CPR mask or anti-allergy meds.
For our heater and oven workshops, we like to start with a Friday evening bonfire that introduces participants critical information in a fun way.
- Level, sandy or bare-soil fire pit (6 feet in all directions away from fire)
- Fire suppression at hand: hose, shovel and sand, or extinguishers
- Bricks and stovepipe (may be borrowed from workshop supplies - about 50 bricks are useful for demonstration)
- Dry firewood, mainly kindling and a few small logs, about 2 cubic feet
- Paper or other tinder
- Big writing board and markers/chalk
- Light (headlamp or similar)
A large gathering can overwhelm smaller home toilet facilities.
- Consider bringing additional toilet facilities on-line for the workshop (portapotties, latrines, or even a simple privacy-screened outdoor pee area with absorbent straw or sawdust.)
- Hand-washing station near each toileting facility. Hand-sanitizer can be offered where there is no water available.
- Any climate or weather details, such as HDD and prevailing winds.
Where is the site?
What do we know about the region?
- Climate: What is the temperature like, winter and summer? In the USA, heating degree days offer a useful comparison of heating loads.
- When and how much is the rainfall / precipitation? Prevailing winds? These affect roof and chimney design.
- Soil types: is there clay, silt, sand, decaying granite, or other dominant soil types on site? Nearby? This affects suitable building materials.
- Vernacular Building: Is there a strong local building tradition that is time-tested to match regional needs?
What is the character of the site itself?
- Sun, shade, shelter & exposure
- Surroundings: Buildings, windbreaks, drainage
- Neighbors: friendly or hostile? Others involved?
- Any local zoning or health concerns? Building code or insurance requirements?
- A Google Map, topo-map, or surveyor's drawing of the site, with the compass directions.
Mark the map with relevant details like
- Shade trees, ponds / streams, flood plains, driveways, and setbacks.
- Do you own or rent the place? Are the owners on board with the project?
- How is the place occupied? Is it a 24-hour home, a worker's nightly retreat, an office, or an occasional-use space such as a vacation cabin?
- How many people are there regularly? How many for special occasions/emergencies?
- What shape and size is it? How many stories? Square feet or meters? Take interior and exterior measurements when possible: height, length, and width.
- How & when was it made? What materials (wood, masonry, cob, strawbale or straw-clay infill, metal beams, manufactured parts)? Do you know the load limits, or general standard of construction?
- Is it insulated? Where, and what kind of insulation? What kind of windows?
- Other features? (passive solar; other stoves or heaters; nearby buildings: load-bearing walls or foundations?)
- How long have you lived there? Do you know the land's history (flooding, weather, fire, boundaries and other cultural relics)?
- Do you know the history of the building, or have old blueprints/drawings?
- Do you carry insurance, a mortgage, share ownership, or have other legal obligations that affect what you can do with the building?
- Do you know if the local building department is open to considering such projects? Are there any special local laws that might affect wood-burning devices?
- Do you know whether neighbors are likely to support or object to the project? Are the existing neighborhood relations cordial, neutral, or spiteful?
- Are there future changes planned for the site, such as an addition or remodel, or a developer about to build new buildings nearby?
- Talk to friends, neighbors, or local experts and gather any missing information, such as local knowledge about the site history or local regulations that might affect the project.
- Collect your notes about the building and site history- Prepare scale drawings of the building/area, including top views and side views, relevant foundation and roof details.
- If the project requires permits or insurance approval, begin a preliminary conversation to find out what your options are. (You do not need to divulge your plans or identity in order to figure out these options - the local building codes and insurance requirements should be public knowledge and available with your insurance contract, respectively.)
(Each person who lives there might have different priorities. Prioritizing is important, as every project involves compromises between ideal goals and physical limits.)
- Why are you interested in this project? Is it to meet a current need/problem, plan for future needs, or just an interesting learning opportunity?
- What are the most important functions to achieve? Choose the top 1 or 2 priorities, then list others roughly in order of importance.
(for example: heating, cooking, baking, seating, beds or sleeping areas, greenhouse, bathhouse, light, ceremonial fires, entertainment (fire as TV), learning experiment, building community, something to prove, technical experience, etc.)
What's the current project idea? Do you know what you want? (rocket stove or mass heater, oven, fireplace, boat, garden, etc.)
Are you interested in considering other alternatives, if we think something else could meet your needs better? (We don't care if you are reasoning toward a solution or rationalizing a preference. The better we understand what you actually want, the better we can help you achieve it.)
- Who will use the project? Just you, housemates and renters, small children, frequent guests? (Able-bodied adults? Mixed ages and abilities? Any special needs or impediments to safely learning and using the system?)
- How important is easy first-time use, as opposed to maximal efficiency or control by experienced operators? (High-performance systems often take a little more skill or experience to calibrate and run. A robust basic system may be a few percent less efficient, but easier to use and can take more abuse.)
- Do you need the project to be an asset you can sell/rent with the site? Or will its useful life be mostly intended for your own benefit?
How & when:
- Budget and timeline -
- How much are you ready to spend? (Experienced owner/builders allow an extra 10-20% for contingencies.)
- How soon can the project start? Is there a deadline for completion?
- What's the expected benefit? Fuel or utility savings?
- Are you prepared for ancillary costs, such as foundation work, roofing, transporting and storing materials, and dry storage of fuel and tools?
If your budget depends on switching over to wood heat immediately on completion of the project, you should have seasoned, dry wood on hand before you start.
We encourage a gentle transition where possible: keep your old furnace / woodstove for backup until you get familiar with your new heater.
- Are there other, perhaps intangible, goals or dreams wrapped up in this project?
- Did you fall in love with something you saw, felt, or tasted, and this whole project is born out of a passion to reproduce that original experience? Describe the experience.
- Does the project need to live up to a particular vision or values from the start? e.g. all-natural or recycled materials; non-toxic and kid-friendly; skills showcase; community gathering place or legacy.
- Has the project taken on emotional importance, such as building a nest for a sweetheart or baby?
- Is this project intended to save money or serve as a resource/training ground in order for another, more important vision to happen?
Emotional or spiritual needs are often the drivers behind the vision. The project is a success if it returns something more valuable than the energy, money, and time you put into it.
- What are your skills or experience with similar projects?
- Do you have friends or local experts for help?
- What resources are on site?
- Do you have time or money to obtain off-site materials?
- Are there plentiful local waste materials you plan to use? (Ladder fuels, bricks, scrap metal, pole wood, etc)
- Do you have 'social capital', or local support? (Family/friends, a local community center, mailing lists, organizations)
- Other resources that affect the project?
Or there is a local situation with burn bans, grants, or free fuels available.
Or you are building the project to take care of family, including a new arrival who might be earlier than their due date.
Sweat and dreams: each makes the other worthwhile.
Best wishes as you prepare for your creative adventure.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Erica and Ernie