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.
Earthen Materials Lists
(Rocket Mass Heater, Earthen Oven,
general cob projects)
Promoting an Event
Hosting / Hospitality
Site Prep for Workshops:
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.
Site Planning Questions:
For most projects, we start with three basic questions:
- Where is the site?
Please include the state and ZIP code, or use the HUD site to look up your climate data including HDD: huduser.org
It is also helpful to consider whether the location may involve legal jurisdictions of cities or other planning authorities.
Owner-builders, contractors, landlords, and renters may have different legal obligations around new construction, and we are not legal experts who can advise you on local laws.
- What is already in place?
A Google satellite view, or a building plan drawing showing orientation, are a good start for most projects.
For heaters, we like to see section/elevation views or enough photos to generally understand the height and layout of things like floors, ceilings, basement space, foundations.
- What are your project goals?
What do you want to build or change? What are the expected outcomes?
We encourage starting with a solid awareness of functional goals, not just looks. Tell us how you imagine using and enjoying the project once it is finished.
Our job is to steer you toward the physical size, placement, and design that will best fulfill those needs and goals.
Other goals might include budget, time frame, a desire to make use of certain materials and resources, aesthetic considerations, or "invisible" goals like building community or gaining skills.
Project Outline Checklist:
___- A plat map or Google satellite view, showing the placement and orientation of your site. Climate notes a plus.
___- A floor plan or sketch drawing with dimensions, showing the size and layout of the space you intend to alter.
___- Owner-builder statement about your goals.
These are the basics to start a project-outline consultation.
We may ask additional questions depending on the nature of your project.
Big, complex projects with multiple goals call for thoughtful planning.
If your project is part of a new community center, permaculture plan, or an educational event where paying students will build the project under our supervision, we may go into a lot of detail before we start the physical design process.
The following questions have turned out to be important on one or two projects in the past. For other projects, they might not matter so much.Where is the site? (see above)
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.
- Natural hazards: is the area considered a flood plain, seismic zone, or prone to tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, flooding? Are you a neighborhood shelter from such disasters?
- Vernacular Building: Is there a strong local building tradition that is time-tested to match regional needs? Is the project compatible with these local skills and maintenance providers, or is it a strange new departure from tradition?
What is the character of the site itself?
- Sun, shade, shelter & exposure
- Surroundings: Buildings, windbreaks, drainage
What is the character of the larger community and jurisdiction around the site?
- Neighbors: friendly or hostile? Others involved?
- Is the land zoned for particular purposes: residential, agricultural, business? Could your project be affected by burn bans, smog exclusion zones, or other community needs?
- 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.
Existing Situation:Describe the existing building(s), if any. Describe your relationship with the site, current needs, and future possibilities.
- 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?)
History and Future:
- 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?
- Are there future changes planned for the site, such as an addition or remodel, a change in zoning, or a developer about to build new buildings nearby?
- Neighbors and friends: will they be affected, for good or ill? Are existing neighborhood relations cordial, neutral, or spiteful?
- Who has legal rights or authority over the property or project? For example, anyone you make payments to: landlord, homeowner's insurance, mortgage lender, tax jurisdiction(s).
- Does the project fall under legal jurisdiction, such as zoning, building office, or urban planning? What local laws may affect your project? (Many areas regulate air pollution, wood-burning devices, fire danger, building construction, water rights, and other activities that may affect the health and safety of others. Some regulate arbitrary special interests like styles of hat.)
- 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.
- Find out whether this type of project requires permits or insurance approval, and research the process(es) and options.
You do not need to divulge your plans or identity in order to figure out these options - the local laws, building codes, and insurance requirements should be public knowledge, and/or spelled out in your insurance contract. For government jurisdictions, you can make a Public Information Request or Freedom of Information Act request if necessary. To save heartache, don't accept a "no" from anyone not authorized to say "yes."
Local knowledge by word of mouth can be entertaining, and often valuable, but not always reliable. Unusual projects can spark all kinds of reactions and unsolicited advice from hobbyists and junior officials. If someone wants to tell you how to build it, ask them for project photos or engineering drawings of the one(s) they've built or approved.
The Project Goals: Why, and What?Describe the project goals.
(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?
(You may be reasoning from goals toward a solution, or you may "just want one" and be rationalizing to justify your preference. The better we all 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.
- "Day in the Life" - Describe how it feels to live and work there after the project is complete, noting how it is different from life before.
Resources / How:Skills:
- 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?
To do: Make a list. If appropriate, check prices or get bids from vendors for items on your list.
- For example, you might know a marvelous builder who you want to involve.
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.
Best wishes as you prepare for your creative adventure.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Erica and Ernie