Builder Courses

Projects, Installation Workshops, and Builder Courses:

There is no better way to learn new skills than by doing.  Building a complete project under expert guidance allows participants to practice every skill needed, and remedy any hidden gaps in understanding. 

We emphasize interactive learning in all our classes and presentations.  The most intensive format for this kind of learning are our on-site project workshops, where the class participants build a working, full-scale  installation from start to finish.  Not only do participants accomplish every step needed to complete the project, but in most cases they have the opportunity to test the performance of the project by the end of the course.  If you are looking for an opportunity to attend one of these project workshops, please see this year's upcoming workshops calendar.  Some events are targeted for experienced builders, most are open to owner-builders and novices as well.

Hosting a Project Workshop:

The most successful hosts for these workshops are experienced event hosts: educational organizations and working 'demonstration sites' such as permaculture farms and sustainability centers.  However, we also do a number of installation workshops with private land owners, who may look to a nearby organization for help with advertising and logistics.

If you have never hosted a hands-on educational event, or on-site camping for 20 people, you may be surprised at just how much work is involved.  A student-built project with 30 people's hand-prints on it may be a wonderful memory and conversation piece, but give us 4 dedicated builders and you may see a better job done in 1/3 the time.

General outline for multi-day courses / weekend project workshops:

- Send in your design consulting deposit, and work together with us on a project outline.  Several months to a year ahead.

- Finalize dates, project parameters, and design goals with us.   4 to 6 months ahead.

- Send your event deposit, and start advertising several months ahead.

- Final confirmation, planning, and materials list by 30 days ahead.  (After this point, we don't cancel or postpone a workshop except for medical emergencies.)

- Prep finished: Materials on hand 2 weeks prior; site clean and ready for work one week prior; all logistics in place (food, water, toilets, beds/hotels, etc.). 

- We arrive a day or two ahead, check materials and site layout, and help with any problem-solving that may remain.

- Participants arrive 1 day to 1 hour ahead.  Workshop takes place over the planned day(s); peiople learn, eat, work a little, learn some more, and move the project toward functional completion.

- We remain on site the following day to correct any problems, answer the hosts' questions, and ensure that everyone is comfortable with the remaining work to be done.  We get paid and go home.

    Examples of workshop project time estimates:

Rocket Mass Heaters: a week of prep, one 3-day weekend of instruction and assembly; a day or two for quality-checking.  Allow another weekend (or more) for finish work later on.  We are normally hired for the planning and assembly; many owner-builders do their own finish work.

Earthen Oven: pre-build the supporting plinth and roof; the sand-mold and oven go up together in a 2-3 day weekend workshop; allow another weekend for finish plasters (and removing the sand mold) after the structural layers are dry

Kayak or umiak workshop: 14 days, or a series of 8 to 10 weekends, plus skilled staff time to prepare materials and assist slower students.   

Earthen Art mosaic/fresco (small/medium): 1- to 2-day workshop, 3 days total including materials prep.

What does not happen:

- If you decide not to host the workshop, your design deposit will not be refunded.  You can use this design with another builder if you like, or for future planning.

- We are not able to offer state- or locally-licensed services such as permitting or engineering.  We are happy to work with local building professionals as needed.
We may be at a disadvantage where local knowledge can get you the best rates or scrounge-venues for materials, tools or tool rentals, etc. 

Frequently Asked Questions:  (or questions new hosts should ask...)

How much lead time do we need?

Planning a large installation takes time.  Several months may be needed for site hosts to survey the site, plan the design, gather materials; organize event logistics; promote the event, and take registration.  If your local jurisdiction requires a permitting and review process, that will also take time.

    Advertise early: If you want to sell tickets in order to cover workshop and project costs, allow 6+ months for promotion & registration. Consider seasonal interest and local opportunities such as festivals when planning your advertising schedule.  Fall and early winter are prime time for 'wood heat' curiosity, while gardens and boats get more interest in spring and summer.  Many successful institutions publish their calendars 12 months in advance. 

Will the workshop pay for itself? 

A better question might be, is there any financial benefit to building this project in a workshop, versus just hiring a builder? (Or hosting a fun class without the installation?)

For established education centers with good marketing and mailing lists, ticket sales can sometimes offset fees and costs, or even turn a small profit. 
It is also possible for a workshop to cost far more in time, energy, materials, and logistics than you would spend on a private consultation or even a private contractor.   

In general, if you prefer building to talking, you may not want to host a workshop.  A design consultation or work-party to train your crew may be cheaper and easier. 

If you just want a fun guest event for your education center, non-installation classes have far simpler logistics and better profit margins.  We can run 5 to 8 hands-on class sessions with less effort than one big installation project, and you may be able to advertise them to a wider audience.

If you have a genuine need for the new project that will help your bottom line; AND you love hosting big community events and already have a great mailing list, you may enjoy hosting a workshop. 

What am I saving by doing this workshop?

A typical smaller residential masonry heater installation contract, parts and labor, may run $14,000 to $30,000.
A masonry heater kit, with some additional parts needed and no installation help, may run $3,000 to $8,000.

A outdoor pizza oven kit, not installed, can be purchased for $1400 to $2800.  Installed, with base, they might run $3000 to $5000.

An owner who hires us to supervise a project, and hires some other contractors to do concrete and masonry work, might spend $6000 to $10,000 on a project.
(Rocket mass heaters may out-perform many types of masonry heaters; however, they cannot currently claim UL listing which is a big reason to consider kits. 
The actual market value for RMH installation in most areas is probably somewhere between the outdoor-feature and indoor-heater values.)

If you do not want any of these objects, but just want to have a good time getting muddy with friends, there are cheaper ways to do that.

An owner who cares about deeply about natural and recycled materials, community-based learning and off-grid resilience, and has the connections to advertise to paying customers while sourcing parts from the waste stream or trades wholesalers, might end up with a lovely oven or heater for less than the cost of its parts.

You are saving a living legacy of skills, knowledge, and building techniques, and possibly a great deal on firewood handling and utility bills for years to come.
(Some sites reported saving 6 or more cords of wood their first winter, valued at $800-$1200 plus labor.  Others reported cutting their heating bills by $100/month, or about 80%.  Of course, a heater that's never used will never repay its investment.)

Many hands make light work, but not always careful work: A public workshop may double or triple the amount of our time needed for the installation.  It is not practical to rush novices into working at a seasoned builder's pace; both the project and the participants will suffer.  (More than 6 people on a ducting layout, for example, can take a near-infinite amount of time.) 
From our perspective, a 3-day workshop is about 7 to 10 full days of work.  We spend time directly with hosts to plan, design, and troubleshoot the project, plus we work with the paying participants to build their complete skill set and answer questions pertaining to their own project plans.
  The students are clients, not laborers; they often do great work, but they may also make mistakes that cause project setbacks.

    If you want to invite others to participate primarily as a way to get help with labor on your project, consider a work-party with volunteer helpers/participants, rather than a paying-students workshop.   Work parties allow us to maintain focus on the project itself, usually accomplishing as much more more than a workshop, but without the need to push project timelines to meet promises to paying students.  For example, in a work-party a heater could be left almost-finished to allow access to mount a good heat-shield later.  In a workshop, the students would be promised a working heater, and an improvised heat shield might be needed to allow a test-fire. 
     Work-party fees are based on actual days on site; see above, "consulting and private work-parties".

What gets done? 

For an installation workshop, planning, skills transfer, and substantial functional completion are our goals. 

Our job is to teach all the skills needed to complete such a project.  By 'functional completion' we mean that students can see the results of their work.  E.g. a heater can be test-fired and draft properly; a boat should float; an oven should have all its structural layers in place to where the only thing lacking for bake-readiness is drying time. 
(This not only gives students the satisfaction of proof, it also lets us performance-test the project while we are still on site.  We allow 1 or 2 follow-up days after most workshops, in case we need to fix any student errors or other problems.)

Functional completion generally does not include all finish work.  For earthen projects, as for most types of wet masonry, there is a recommended drying/curing time before final finishing.  We are happy to do finish work, but we are not happy doing a half-bad job and knowing it will be more likely to fail as a result.  And most hosts are not happy paying us to hang around for weeks between visible work, or paying our travel costs twice.  So most hosts send us home, and use local talent for finishing.  We are happy to use our follow-up day to demonstrate a workable plaster recipe and application techniques before we leave, so hosts have all skills needed for a DIY finishing or follow-up work party.

Ongoing Guarantees: After a workshop, we continue to provide guidance as hosts complete the finish work to their satisfaction, or continue working with the prototype.  We very much appreciate finished pictures and performance reports from project hosts, especially with permission to share the images online and in presentations. 

If a project we helped design shows performance problems, we want to hear about it, and we want to figure out a solution.  We are not always able to revisit distant projects (unless hosts can pay travel costs again), but we are almost always able to resolve problems one way or another.

Non-installation workshops do not leave a permanent installation.

What do you need from me as a project owner / workshop host? 
    All projects are ultimately the owner's responsibility.  While we do our best to make good on promises made to students in our name, we can't compensate for a host who cancels at the last minute, or who lies or falls through on site preparation agreements.  We rely on hosts for planning and logistics, local promotions, gathering supplies and preparing the building site, and hospitality.

Hosting a Hands-On Event: 

- Planning and Prep: Design is finalized at least 30 days before workshop, preferably before starting to advertise.  Critical materials on site 2 weeks before the workshop begins.  Don't get stuck missing some simple part that is back-ordered at the hardware store.  Some specialty materials might take 6 weeks if you have to order from a regional wholesaler.
-Local promotions and registration: Timely, repeated publicity is key to filling a workshop.  Most hosts handle registration, but some hire a registrar or ask us to take this on.
- Hospitality: The site will need a functioning kitchen, toilets or outhouses, water, and places for people to gather between work sessions.  On-site meals are recommended, and potable water essential. 

If your institution or community has its own process for hosting hands-on workshops, we are open to counter-offers (provided our needs are met). 

The most critical thing we need is clear, timely communication.  Hosting a workshop with us is a big commitment, on both sides.  When we ask you how it's going with prep a month ahead, it is not small talk.  It may take 4 to 6 weeks to order certain parts out of season, and if you don't have them in hand locally, we need to act now.  Successful completion of any project depends on timely, complete information and materials.  It is not fun to work with people who deceive us (or themselves) about their commitments.

No Free Lunch:  Sometimes people who take a gardening or masonry skills workshop, which may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, notice that they moved a lot of heavy stuff, and it feels suspiciously like they paid to do someone else's work.  This can lead to the same people, once they have land and projects of their own, thinking "Hey, if I have a workshop, people will pay me to build my stuff!" 

Only after hosting several workshops do site owners start to realize where the money goes - months of preparation, planning, buying materials, huge chunks of budget for food and facilities improvements to host that many guests.  And oh, the legacies of disappointment, half-finished projects, student "inspirations" that turned the planned, Japanese-style tea room into a hippy-dippy love cave.  The student may be doing a lot of heavy lifting, but due to inexperience, it doesn't always translate to impressive results.  Quite often the site hosts and instructors have to do nearly the same amount of work later on to get the results they really wanted. 

Paying students expect reasonable facilities and functional site conditions, personal attention from the instructors, and a chance to get their hands dirty and work their least-confident skill sets.  Even skilled trades people usually have a limit to their willingness to do the same job they do at work all day, when they are paying to learn something new.  And inexperienced students will, predictably, goof things up.  Some problems will only appear with time or testing.
Examples: Bad cob mixes that must be soaked, removed, and re-worked; inefficient mixing technique causing students to exert 3x the effort needed while moving at 1/3 the speed; optimistic stonework with round rock that collapses the evening after the workshop; mortaring all but 3 of the bricks in the back corner, which causes a smoke leak the instructors must find by ripping out part of the installation and re-mortaring things properly. Inexperienced site hosts may also goof things up, getting the wrong types of materials or not recognizing a potential problem with the site (such as the potential for flooding, erosion, or weather-related problems).

It's our job, as the experienced instructors, to make sure all of these goof-ups can be fixed, and treated as learning opportunities not show-stoppers.  We help with planning, arrive early to help the hosts double-check their preparations, and stay around afterwards to check the students' work and fix things if needed.   For a 2.5-day weekend workshop, instructors of our calibre spend at least 1 full work week on site, and weeks or months of prior planning.   It's a fair amount of work, but the quality of experience (and the friendships with people who also value these things) makes it worth while.

Right Time and Place?

Given all the problem-solving involved, it is really nice to feel confident the site hosts have a realistic plan to use the installation for years to come.  We've had hosts plan an installation in one place, then due to internal governance or external regulation, change the location to a much less functional spot.  Building masonry in a "temporary" location can still be a good learning experience, but a few months of curiosity value can hardly compare to decades of service.

If your group is really not ready to commit to a masonry heater location, please consider a non-installation workshop.  We can give very similar information and practice mini-projects, where we build temporary mock-ups which are much easier to remove and store.  The process of hosting a non-installation workshop can often help your group move forward with the best decision for your needs, without the legacy of a half-useless first project.

Please note that we are not building contractors - we are educators.  We earn our money by teaching you how to build and maintain your project, and by teaching others who may be interested in similar projects.  Our focus is on providing an excellent learning experience, and enabling you to take over the finishing and maintenance without further assistance.  Local workshop groups often become supportive teams, and may complete several projects together over the following seasons.
We do not offer licensed, bonded, or guaranteed contracting services to build a project for you.  Local building professionals can offer all of these things; or if needed, we can help you find a good contractor willing to travel. 
    Our rates do not include researching your local building codes or requirements, sourcing or pricing materials, or decorative finishing (except by special arrangement). 
    If you need these services, we are happy to work with your chosen local contractor or building professional. We do recommend checking the conditions of your home insurance policy, and local zoning requirements, before planning your installation.  We can help you understand how the physical laws of nature work; but we can't always anticipate how local laws and culture have decided to permit or outlaw these natural processes.

Owner-Builder is ultimately responsible.
If there is a disagreement between us and the owner about how to build something, ultimately it is the owner's decision how to proceed in their own space.  We will make it clear to the class if we feel any part of the project is not best practice.  If we feel it's unacceptably dangerous we may refuse to help, or pull students away to less-risky practice activities.  Practically, we can't force an owner to do things "our way" against their will.  The owner will be living with the results; they are responsible for the consequences.  If the owner really wants to experiment in a direction we feel is inadvisable, we may offer a compromise option that will allow them to experiment, then remedy the experiment later if needed.