February 2007 Archives

February 27, 2007

Building with Cob 5: The Wrench in the Works

Today I heard back from the city, and found out that my current project as planned would not be acceptable, and therefore we would not be able to enclose our porch. This was a pretty big blow, particularly since I was looking forward to building a really nice cob enclosure.

But, does this mean that I need to give up all hope? Of course not! It just means that I need to rethink my strategy, and come up with a new plan. You see, it wasn't improvements in total that were denied, just the single project that I was looking to complete.

The New Direction
So, my new direction is this: I'm going to build an independent building that is within code, and is small enough to avoid the need for a permit. How is that, you ask? Let me outline the new plan, or our plan B that my wife and I came up with:

1. We wanted another gathering place that would be quiet, relaxed, and allow for a good movie experience. The ruling didn't change that, it just altered the location.

2. We need to allow at least 6 ft separation from the house or property line, preferably both.

3. The structure only needs a permit if it is larger than 140 square feet, or roughly larger than a 10 by 14 foot structure.

So, we plan to create a separate building that will need roofing, thicker walls, and will need power run out to it from the house or garage. The exact location hasn't yet been identified, but once the winter storms are over we will be out measuring locations and determining the best location. I have a rough idea where I would like it to go, but it will depend on the discussions.

So, while I'm a little disappointed about the porch, it just means a quick restructuring of the plan, and then we are all set! All I can say is it's a good thing I didn't seed the lawn in the back yet. ^_^ More news soon, I hope!

February 26, 2007

Airport Extreme: Maximize The Potential for Apple TV

It's been a while since I have posted on something other than an ancient technology, but today I was browsing around the web trying to find out how I can maximize my use of the Apple TV setup without having to get a new computer. As I did my research, I focused on two Apple devices: The Airport Extreme, and the Apple TV.

The Problem
As it sits right now, the Apple TV can stream video from up to 5 connected computers with iTunes installed, along with having 40 GB of caching space internally. If I were to cache it full of commonly watched videos, it would give me roughly 40 DVDs worth of viewable content. Not bad, but I currently have almost 300 DVDs worth in my collection, and all of which I intend to add to iTunes. That way, they are out of my little son's hands, and more likely to survive. ^_^

So, I need to find a way to store all those videos in such a way as to maximize my viewable content, without spending myself into bankruptcy. I also want to make all that material available across the network, and have it update from multiple sources, if possible.

The Solution
Ultimately I can either have all 5 computers on at once in order to access all the content (which would cost too much in power alone), or I can somehow integrate a Storage Area Network into the home and link all my computers to it. Either one sounds expensive, so let's look at the key pieces of knowledge that is needed in order to accomplish this task:

1. iTunes needs to be able to use another volume other than the install drive.
2. The Storage Area Network would need to have a fast enough connection to be useful.
3. The SAN would need to be accessible by all, yet still provide some security.
4. The Network would need to be secured.

Moving the Location of Your iTunes Library
Because Apple TV doesn't allow an external drive to be hooked up to it's USB port, I needed to find a way to increase the volume of my iTunes library. Yes, my wife has a 250 GB hard drive in her iMac, and I have a 80 GB hard drive in my Power Book, but together we are looking at maxing out the drives without installing any other media. Luckily, I found an answer.

Christopher Breen at PlaylistMag.com came up with this tutorial on how to shift your iTunes play list to an external volume. The examples are very simple, and utilize a setting that I failed to look at in the Preferences. So the quick answer is, Yes, you can move your iTunes play list to another volume to allow for more space on your computer. This would also include a networked volume. Of course, to be useful, it would need to be an auto-mounted volume, but I digress.

So now I know I can move my iTunes off my computer and on to an external volume. That also means that I can move it to a networked volume, providing that the connection to the media is fast enough to perform. So SAN is very possible for using iTunes. This means that my iTunes Library can now be accessed from multiple computers, as long as they all have the most recent iTunes installed. It also means that I only need to have one computer running at a time in order to view that content. But what good is it if I can't afford a SAN?

The SAN Solution: The New Airport Extreme
For those of you who have been following the new Airport Extreme, you may have read that the USB port, while also supporting a printer, can now support an external hard drive. The drive is mountable automatically for Macs (and maybe Windows with the Bonjour Drivers), and it can also support multiple drives through a USB hub. Suddenly, you have a SAN that costs $179.00 plus the cost of the external drives.

I found a 500GB USB drive for $189.99 at Office Depot, and a 1 TB drive for $449.95. Of course, because you can mount multiple drives, you could just mount more than one 500 GB and get your 1 TB capability that way. Either way, it's a really inexpensive SAN that can use 802.11n speeds in a wireless network environment. Now, possibilities have become 1. Cost effective, 2. Secure, and 3. Available to all computers with iTunes.

All totaled, with my Education discount, I can get a 500 GB SAN working for iTunes and Apple TV for $647.99 (plus tax). And the best part about it is the ability to keep the media out of the hands of children.

I hope to have this setup built within a few months depending on funding, so I will report on the project's progress at that point. Currently I know that network media storage is possible for iTunes based on testing I have already conducted. Wish me luck on the rest!

February 23, 2007

Self Sufficient Farming: The Dream

In my last few posts, I mentioned that I want to eventually make replicas of ancient farms, and that building with cob would be essential to that goal. The farm project is something that I have had in mind for years, but in various stages. It has always been a goal of mine to be self-sufficient. This goal started while I was still in school, as my best friend and I started designing estates we would like to own some day. I think I may have been heavily influenced by the show "Good Neighbors", a 70's British Comedy that focuses on a family that decides to become self sufficient with their own home. Yep, Urban Farming.

Well, the idea has slowly evolved into a very complex concept, involving a small farm, series of greenhouses for tropical crops, a small village for various uses, and historical influences that I would not have dreamed of before I started my History degree at the University of Utah.

The Problem Develops
The changes have all been due to events in my life that have required me to think more toward this project as incorporating more than just myself. As I got married, it included my wife and family. As various family members have run into hard times and have moved into my home, it extended to the family members. I quickly realized that the project alone would be too expensive for anyone to complete with modern construction techniques. Without the prospect of becoming rich anytime soon, I found myself getting discouraged.

The Problem-Solving Inspiration
Then I came across the website for the Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire. The concept behind the farm was one that appealed to me: To build a farm that was an exact working replica of an ancient Celtic farm, with an addition of a Roman Villa constructed on the grounds as well. Suddenly, possibilities began to run through my head. They became more possible once I started researching the building materials: Wattle and daub, cob, and thatch.

The Cost-Effective Way
Up until now, I have been making plans half-heartedly by collecting several concepts and technologies that were great, but very expensive. For instance, I had a complex design for power that would be off-grid and compile solar, wind, and water generators. Any one of these technologies would be very expensive, and all three together would be cost prohibitive (unless I find that fabled money tree). Then there was the construction. Logs and stone are both very expensive.

Enter cob. Cob is a basic mixture of clay, sand, earth, and straw. If used on a wooden frame, it can be made into a thin wall that is called "wattle and daub". If built into a single monolithic structure, it is referred to as cob, or monolithic adobe. The building material is perhaps the oldest used, as several prehistoric societies have used cob in their buildings. This is why it's not as popular anymore: it's considered barbaric or uncivilized. Regardless, it's easy to work with, requires no extensive experience, and is more earthquake resistant than traditional adobe bricks.

So now I have found a low-cost building material, as most of the material would be on site. Suddenly, the farm becomes feasible! But there is more to the project than just the buildings. I intend to have a working farm that is low maintenance. This means I need to organize the project into manageable chunks, and focus on what I want to get out of the farm itself.

The Farm Plan
I want to have a farm that will provide the basic requirements for survival (shelter, food, warmth), and provide a source of revenue for continued survival in the existing economy. A single acre can provide shelter and enough food stuffs for a single family, with a small amount of revenue-generating crops that could achieve my goal. But I have more in mind: I want the source of revenue be educational as well.

So I will have the following layout: The main house will be a replica of the Castle of Invernglas, which was the home castle of the MacFarlane clan. I will then have at least two traditional cottages in the continental Celtic style (meaning rectangular). I then will have at least 4 insular Celtic buildings (circular), and I hope to build at least one Roman Villa. This will span the historical architecture for Scotland from the Celtic period to the 16th century.

I then hope to have a small village built with a couple of pedestrian cobbled lanes. This will provide space for a small market, with apartments above the shops. I will also have a large grassy pasture nearby, specifically for various sporting events. I hope the site will become a popular site for renaissance fairs and Scottish festivals. And yes, renting space will be a source of income. ^_^

There will then be pasture for sheep, a couple of goats, and probably only two cows for milk. Also, there will be fields of vegetables, a small fruit orchard, a bee hive, and grain. I also intend to build an artificial cave for ripening cheese. There will also be granaries and storage for root vegetables. And finally, there will be a pond as a small fish farm. This will constitute the ancient working farm, as all the technologies are fairly common and simple.

Now we get to the more modern portion. Solar power is ideal in Utah, as the skies are rarely cloudy (as it is a semi-arid region). Nanosolar has developed a high yield, low-cost solar sheet. While not currently available in a ready supply, it should be by the time I figure the farm will be possible. This will provide a large amount of power with existing roofing areas.

If I am able to locate a site with year-round running water, then I will most likely stick with a hydroelectric generator. Depending on the design and location, I may set up a small station, or build a water mill in a more traditional style.

There is also a possibility that I could use wind power, in which case I would build a traditional wind mill. The mill would then provide both power and a lodging to potential family members.

With the power in good supply, I will then build various greenhouses to start growing tropical crops. This will provide a solution that would become popular with farmers markets, as locally grown tropical plants can be ripened on the tree before picked, and will provide a better flavor. It will also be more cost effective, as shipping costs are not increased. Along with tropical plants, tropical fish crops can also be raised, providing for a source of truly fresh seafood within the area.

Well, that's the plan. It's really comprehensive, and will probably take the rest of my life to accomplish in the end. But this project that I have going on in my back yard is the first of many steps, and eventually should lead to the realization of my goal: To be self-sufficient and provide for the family. It also returns to the roots of civilization, which is the agricultural development of societies. The experiment will be interesting as a living anthropological study. Perhaps I will learn something of the ancestors who lived in these societies.

February 22, 2007

Building with Cob 4: Additional Resources

Apparently I have been getting some notice from the cob building community, as I have been added to the I Love Cob blog links. This is great, as the blog is an excellent source for cob builders in the Southwest. The blog also provides some great references to anyone that would like to build their own cob home, and do so to code.

The great news is the reference to From the Ground Up, which is a documentary that was run in Home Power Magazine regarding the building of a cob home in North Carolina to code, and how they did it. There are a few things that I learned from their article:

1. Roofing needs to be keyed
Keying a roof means that you add additional pieces of wood to your roofing beams, to give the cob something to "grab". This is necessary both for heavy loads (i.e., snow), and updrafts from heavy winds. For those that are familiar with the Utah climate, you will know that we are often blessed with summer micro-bursts of 60+ mph winds.

2. Foundation needs to raise the cob wall at least 10 inches from the ground
I knew that the cob wall needed to be off the ground to keep moisture levels in the wall low, but the exact number was not made clear. Now, I know, and knowing is half the battle. ^_^

3. Non-load bearing walls can be thinner
While this doesn't matter that much for my future projects, for my current project for the back porch, it's great to know! I was worried that I would need to build a 16" thick wall for each side, even though it would not be necessary to hold the roof in place. Now I can make the wall 9" thick, and save some interior space.

4. Insulation and R-factor
I'm not very familiar with construction rules, and insulation is something that I generally take for granted. What I didn't know is that cob as an insulation R factor of R-0.25 per inch thickness. This means that I can either use a vermiculite or perlite mixture with the cob, which gives a R-2 to R-4 per inch thickness, which would make a 9" wall well within the R-factor ratio that most building inspectors would like it to be. Better to know that now than after building! ^_^

5. Code regulations exist for cob in various States
Yes! There are some states that have alternative building material codes that already exist. In fact, Arizona has one for cob under "Monolithic Adobe". Other building codes like the Uniform Building Code and the International Building Code acknowledge non-fired clay masonry, but not a monolithic structure. So, if you can talk your local building inspector to accept the codes from Arizona, then you are in business! I don't see that happening in my situation, but my goal is to get cob accepted within West Valley, though I may need to work at it from the State level. We will see...

So, I just thought I would throw up that update to let you know what is happening. I have another post that I am preparing regarding the farm idea, so stay tuned! ^_^

February 20, 2007

Building with Cob 3: Architect Reply

I know it's been a while since I have posted, but this past week has been rather busy. The good news is that I have heard back from both the City and the local alternative materials architect regarding the project that I have been determined to get approved. So, let me give you a quick breakdown of how the project is moving along.

The City Reply
In our last episode, the city had passed on my initial request to the Planning and Zoning board to see if the project itself could be considered. This is because certain codes were put in place after my covered patio in the back were constructed, and could present a problem.

The final word on this was that the planning and zoning specialist that I had contacted last week needed to consult with some other specialists to determine if this could be possible. In the midst of that conversation, I learned that extending the covered area would be a problem. This means that my covered greenhouse section has become a problem, and I am unable to complete that particular project. No matter, I will come up with another project on that front. It will, in fact, simplify the porch project, and give me more garden area.

Also, the use of cob as a building material was placed on the condition of an engineers report from the State of Utah. As I am unaware of any engineering reports within Utah, I contacted a local alternative materials architect to see if they were aware of any reports of that nature. That is where it was left with the City.

The Architect Reply
Today, I received a reply from the architect, Angela Dean. Here is her reply:

"Hello Jeremy,
It sounds like an interesting project. I know permitting cob can be problematic, and most build without permits. I would wonder though, if you are not using the walls structurally, why the city would have any concerns? I would be happy to chat with you to find out more about the project and input I could give."

So, she pointed out that there shouldn't be an issue with the walls regardless, and that I may not even need a permit. So, there is a way out should I keep running into that particular wall with the city on the particular building material.

So why don't I just keep quiet and build it anyway? Keep in mind my original goal with this project. I wanted to make the process of permitting the constructional use of cob as a building material easier, should anyone else wish to build their own home using cob. Why? Well, the first answer is selfish: I want to eventually build my own home with cob on a future farm that I have been planning for most of my life. The second answer is more altruistic: I want to provide the option to others that may want to build their $200,000 home themselves for about $4,000. And finally, the last answer is also selfish: The farm I want to build is going to house several building styles, all from the Ancient world. But that is a subject for another post.

So, that is the progress so far. I will be talking with the architect again for a quick consultation, and see what we can find out. As I get more information, I will post the progress.

February 12, 2007

Building with Cob 2: The Reply, and the Next Step

As mentioned in my last reply, I was awaiting a reply from the permit division of the West Valley City council. I have been waiting for the reply with quite a bit of apprehension, as it includes a couple of requirements that I need to address, as opposed to just building with cob. Well, I got a reply, of sorts, directly relating to building with cob.

The reply was fairly simple, indicating that a Utah licensed engineer would need to write up an engineering report regarding the properties of cob, as it is not a recognized construction method by the State of Utah's Building Codes. This means, of course, that I would need to find an engineer that has access to those properties. Where would I find that information?

Well, when you don't know what else to do, check with the professionals! There is an environmentally friendly architecture firm in Salt Lake. AMD Architecture is dedicated to using environmentally friendly building techniques, which have a lot of materials that are not officially adopted by the state building commission. I found them because of their materials links, particularly because it is linked to the Cob Cottage Company. This shows at least a knowledge of the building method, and that's something.

In the mean time, the cost of the permit is being evaluated into the cost of the enclosure, and I'm still waiting to hear from the city building code division regarding the other issue that my home would have in enclosing the porch in cob.

I'll have more information regarding the correspondence that I will be receiving when I do, but at least the door hasn't been closed completely. Stay tuned!

February 9, 2007

Building with Cob: The Permit Process

My ambitions for using cob as a building material has been taken to the next phase, as I ave begun the process of trying to get a building permit to enclose my back porch. The permit will in and of itself be difficult, as cob is not a very common building material in the United States, let alone in Utah. The process of getting a building material approved can be complex in most cases, so I thought I would document this process should anyone wish to know what process they may need to go though.

I started by contacting the city building commission responsible for building permits. I have two problems: The first is zoning issues with the way the house was originally built (before the city's incorporation), and second is the use of cob itself. The first has been passed on to the planning and zoning commission, so that I can get more information on whether or not the addition can be made.

The second question was answered rather well, based on the fact that I surprised them with the request to build with cob. They were unaware of what cob is, and then stated that all building needs to be completed with approved building materials. Currently, that includes using masonry, stone, wood framing, and steel. The best answer is that they were willing to review information on using cob as a building system, to determine if it could be used as an approved building material.

So, the first step in planning has been done. The second, being the convincing of my wife, has pretty much been completed (that was the miracle in and of itself!), and now the third step has been begun.

Now, the question that begs to be asked is why I just didn't get on with it without looking for a building permit. Well, first, I like to do things legally, and structures over 140 square feet need a building permit. Secondly, it doesn't do any good to build under the counter for anyone else that may want to build with the same material. So, for the interest of anyone else looking to build within the boundaries of West Valley City, this will be quite the telling process.

I should have more information on Monday.
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This page is an archive of entries from February 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

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