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Mark and Chris Rehl
Build a Stone House at the Center of the Universe
By Mark Rehl with Thomas J. Elpel

      We call our place COTU or Center of the Universe. The story is that there was nothing here until I put in a 4x4 post in the ground for a future electrical box. The phone company ran a temporary line across the ground from the neighbor's property. My wife hung a cheap old wall-hanging phone on the post.
      Barely a few minutes passed when the phone rang. We were surprised, because we didn't think anyone knew the number. We looked at each other and Chris shrugged. She answered the phone "Center of the Universe", which I thought was funny enough that I've been calling it that ever since.

Buck digs the basement, while I help with the laser level.

Forming the footings. The structural engineer required 2' wide, 1' deep.

Neighbors and my brother lend a hand pouring the footings... the first permanent part of the house.

We poured a riser wall below grade. Sewer line pokes through.

Compacting the soil in preparation for pouring the concrete slab.

Chris insulates the floor from the ground for radiant heat purposes.

Insulated floor, footings, sewer lines, new slipforms waiting patiently (56 of them).

My first slipform... oh, the immense pride!

Rebar cage for the basement wall. The concrete will be poured around these, after setting forms.

Chris and I used this piece of OSB as a template for our "cement finger" holes.

After marking with a sharpie, we easily drilled shallow holes into which we will push concrete to hold the panels to the masonry.

The basement walls step down on the sides with the hill. Here you can see that one side of our basement wall forms are the slipforms, and the other side is simply the permanent beadboard insulation. Rebar in the middle for added strength.

Everyone thought we were crazy to try this, but this is what we did to reinforce the beadbord side of the forms. The diagonal braces are screwed into stakes that we pounded through the Styrofoam floor insulation into the ground. We made a grid of 2x 8s screwed to the OSB side of the beadboard panels.

I was under a lot of stress this day when the pump truck started pumping concrete into the wall. I was shocked by how much force was behind the concrete. DJ (to my left) snapped into action by saying "I've done this before, give me the hose, and you start pounding on the forms with a hammer to help the concrete settle." This is the only picture where I am holding the hose.

Wall pour complete! We braced the forms into the hill on the backside. We used the ladders to access the wall during the pour. You might want to but boards on top of them if you aren't comfortable 'walking the rungs'.

The "K" is for "kitchen". This is a visual record of where the radiant heat tubes are located in the concrete floor. The wire mesh adds strength and cohesion to the concrete, plus we were able to attach the tubes to it with wire ties.

Rob has worked in concrete for twenty-plus years. I hired him to lead the crew of amateurs seen here. He was able to screed the whole thing with a 2x4 and no screed-boards as guides. Make sure there is lots of food and drink for the volunteers, concrete is hard work.

Winter was coming by the time we erected the first-floor beadboard walls so we erected a temporary roof. This is actually the next spring when we inserted the window and door boxes to stick out through the masonry. During the winter we built inside walls, window and door boxes, and anything else we could think of.

This is the first stonework. In this picture we are working on the third 2' high level. The second level is holding up the slipforms for the third.

First-floor almost complete. At this point we were cleaning between stones with a hammer and chisel. I decided that a house this size warranted an air-chisel. We didn't want to remove the forms until the next level was complete, which meant that the concrete had time to harden before we could clean off the extra. On a smaller structure we might have made a different choice.

Our cement mixer we bought for $70.00. Wheelborrowing would not have been practical on a building this size, so we bought a new trailer for $100. (now all but destroyed) and pulled it behind my lawn tractor, which we tried to keep cement-free, but eventually we jut gave up. The tractor now seems to be made of concrete.

The tractor couldn't go out onto the scaffolding, so we would pre-fill a bunch of coffee cans and run them out onto the scaffolding next to the work. When Chris was home she would try to maximize my 'wall-making' time by bringing me cans of cement. Eventually, she started making concrete.

Putting up the beadboard walls for the second floor. Tom sent us a volunteer named Susan who helped us for a few weeks. Chris, Susan, Cheryl... the list goes on: in my experience, woman can be really good at construction. I'm sure Danni Gruber would agree.

This is two days after a crane put up the roof trusses. The triangular peaks are laying in a pile on top. Since we had only completed one of the three roof-bearing walls, we constructed temporary stud walls in the center and to the right. In the spring we built the stone walls underneath the trusses and then removed the temporarys... not the ideal way, but it worked.

This is the back (south) side. Some of the slipforms (to the right) fell off during the winter, but it was not a big deal to get them back up.

The roof trusses formed a third floor. Pictured is a second tier of scaffolding made of slipforms sitting on cinder-blocks.

We made a third tier by screwing 'legs' onto the slipforms. I used my special 'shrinking ray' to make myself small enough to fit into this picture.

I hired my long-time friend Jim to help with the inside carpentry. I was running out of time, and he was a HUGE help. He worked as a carpenter for most of the time that he played drums in our band "Einstein" some years ago. I really enjoyed this phase of the project, it was like our reunion tour, without the traveling.

You have no idea...

...just under the middle two bays in the top slipform is a really big rock that I carried up the ladder because I thought it would be cool to have one big rock centered near the peak. I almost killed myself when the weight of the rock caused the two sections of the ladder to come apart as I was climbing. I had to take off my shoe and use it as a lever to reconnect the sections... all while holding the rock. From the ground you can't even see an appreciable difference in the size of that rock.

It was scary being up this high. We pulled the concrete up in this bucket from the previous scaffolding level. It was a pain when working by myself to climb down to refill my bucket. Fortunately the wall is quite small up here.

Almost to the North peak here. Second rock from the right is actually an electrical box for a peak-light. It is connected to a piece of conduit that goes through the beadboard into the attic.

This is the 'finished' backside. In this picture the grouting is done from the peak down to the top of the first floor. I will do the rest as time allows.

This is a recent picture of the North and West sides. To the right you can see the ground is tiered with bolders that were on site. These were moved by friends who insisted on doing a bunch of excavating work for the price of the fuel. I owe a lot of favors!

This is a small section of the inside stone wall. It is 20' tall and 40' wide. Once I get it grouted and cleaned, it will be the crowning jewel of the project. This wall separates what will be the control room and sound-stage of my home recording studio. The left door goes into the control room, the right door leads to a large room Chris is hoping to turn into a commercial kitchen.

Our friend Britton was a drywall finisher until he completed our project. Now he has another job. I feel responsible. Seriously, the contribution of our friends and family cannot be over-stated. We are very lucky!

This is a fairly recent picture of the same room.

Overview: Looking Back
      I write from my roughly 5000 sq ft, three story slipform stone house, which is 30 minutes East of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Before starting on our home in 2003, I had essentially no building experience. I purchased Living Homes after my wife came across an article in Fine Homebuilding magazine by one Thomas J. Elpel, and I wrote the publisher requesting email contact with him. I also purchased the Slipform Stone Masonry Video wherein he demonstrates the technique. Both were very valuable, as was the email advice I received from Tom.
      For the twelve years prior to construction, I worked evenings, nights, and weekends as a recording engineer, part time teacher at a local college, and musician. My wife worked 8 to 4 weekdays and had a bunch of debt when we married. Most of our marriage has been spent passing each other, because it seemed that we had to keep going--just as we were--in order to stick to our aggressive "pay off the debt" plan. Well, one day we did pay off the debt, and my wife, much to her credit, suggested that we had been living on so little while paying off everything, that we could now afford to live on her job alone, and that she thought I should quit my main job, and build her a big stone house. So that's what I did.
      I chose a simple rectangle for my building, since I was not a builder, and it was plenty complicated already. I used the beadboard method that Dani Gruber used in Colorado, and Tom demonstrated in his video. Dani's house, was the realization of what was then Tom's theory. As far as I know, ours was the fourth building of this type.
      I kept teaching and playing on the weekends for the first year (it took 3), but after that we realized that nothing but my full attention would ever complete the monster we had started. During the summers I built the house from sunup to sundown. Chris would come home from work, change her clothes and start scrubbing rocks with a wire brush. After awhile she learned to make concrete, and sometimes she was so efficient there was always a new batch waiting when I needed it. I would just drive my Sears lawn tractor over to the mixer and dump it into my little trailer, and transport it to wherever I was working that day.
      During the day I was mostly by myself, though I did get quite a few people stopping over to help on a regular basis. There actually got to be a kind of 'community spirit' that sprang up on it's own... like an unofficial barn-raising or something. I never counted on it or anything, but I did benefit from it greatly. There were people who would actually apologize for not being there for whatever period of time, and I would always look at them sideways and ask why in the world they would be apologizing... and it baffles me to this day.
      I almost never asked for help, for fear I would not have it on the rare occasion when I DID need it. After about a month of building, the realization that I had spent so much time away from my wife seemed unfathomable to me, and I knew that I would never return to that situation, unless FORCED by pain of starvation.
      In terms of energy efficiency, I think passive solar is a good idea, but my situation didn't apply all that well. Our house is in the woods and built into a hill, which means the biggest side faces north. In retrospect I might have given it more thought. A big stone wall inside the house does act like a big capacitor though, and once it gets heated, it tends to minimize the temperature fluctuations.
      The only 'finished' part of the house at this writing is an approximately 1500 sq ft. area on the second floor, which is essentially an apartment within the house. We have radiant tubing to heat the floors which is run by an electric boiler. We want a wood boiler, but in our area, a second unit would be required as a back-up, so we decided to start with the back-up since it was considerably cheaper than the wood-boiler.
      Luckily I had a friend of a friend helping with the water heat. My wife has been a really big fan of radiant heat for so long that the only thing I knew for sure when we started, was that we would be using it in our house. That said, it is very expensive to install.
      I installed duct for air conditioning, but never installed an actual air conditioning unit. Last summer when we had ninety plus degree weather, it never got over 72 degrees in here, and mostly it stayed around 70. The hotter it was outside, the more likely people were to say something when they walk in about how nice it is to be in the air-conditioning. I attribute this to the big stone wall inside, which again acts as a capacitor, and also sits on a footing which is thermally insulated from the outer walls, and is in the cool ground.
      Looking back, the stonework was the hardest part physically, but it was also my favorite part, and I would do it again on a much smaller scale. Thirty-five feet in the air on home-made scaffolding can be pretty scary, but other than that, I kind of miss "making wall" as we called it. Along the way I e-mailed Tom with a number of questions and updates on the project. The following is a record of most of our correspondence from 2003 through 2007.


Hi,
      I don't plan to bother you at every turn, but I wanted to pass this on to you:
Several 'Nay-sayers' in my life recently said things to me like:
      "They're never going to let you do anything like that around here," and
      "Well, you can probably get away with something like that in Montana".
      So I was a bit nervous about meeting with the building inspector. To my surprise, he was already familiar with your slipform technique, and had absolutely no problem with it. Of course, why should he? He could sense, I think, that I was nervous, and told me of that what I was proposing was in no way 'crazy'. Then he started to describe other projects he has had to deal with that were much more controversial.
      Anyway, I am curious about how Dani Gruber supported her second floor. My carpenter friend suggests that I imbed treated nailers into the outer wall, but I wonder how much that will affect the insulation factor, as you describe that wood framing would. If there is a better way, I am of course open to it.

Warm Wishes,
Mark


Mark,
      Thanks for writing. Yes, you can imbed treated nailers into the outer wall to attach your header joist and joist hangers to support the second floor. The energy loss through the wood shouldn't be too bad since it would be a relatively small area of the total wall space.
      Dani's house is a bit different, since the second floor is supported directly on top of the stone wall. She has a 9-1/4 inch thick stone wall up to the top of the eight foot beadboard panels. The floor takes up about half the width of the stone wall. Then she did a thin veneer of stone up about another three feet on the remaining width of the stone wall.

Sincerely,
Thomas J. Elpel

Dear Mr. Elpel,
      My question today is about the holes you put in the panels to secure them to the masonry. Do you have a recommendation as to the number and spacing of these holes? I would think there would be more stress at the top of the panels, so you would want more holes there, but I'm not sure. Since each hole takes away a little insulation, I want to be smart about it. Also I am thinking that I could make up a pattern to turn the hole drilling into an assembly line process, using a 'spare' piece of OSB with the 'drilling pattern' already drilled into it.

-Mark


Mark,
      I don't know what the best spacing would be, but I think you have the right idea to predrill the holes in an assembly-line process. It is too easy to forget about it later on. The loss in R-value should be minimal, so I wouldn't worry about that part too much. I might put three holes across the panels horizontally, such that two were about six inches from the edges and the third was in the middle (sixteen inches apart from the others). Vertically, I might do a similar pattern, starting about six inches from the edge and spacing the rest sixteen inches apart. This number of holes might be overkill, but you can be certain the panel won't come off the wall. While you are doing some assembly line work, you might also want to predrill the panels for your form wires to go through.

Sincerely,
Thomas J. Elpel

Dear Mr. Elpel,
      I'm still a little iffy on how my windows are going to work. Dani Gruber's article said that your book was very clear on this point. So I went back and re-read that part. I don't claim to be as intelligent as Dani, but I still don't feel that I have a clear picture. It occurs to me that there are pictures of Dani's house in your book 'Living Homes', so she must have read another book by you, or at least a different edition, and maybe there is more info on the window process there. I'm sure I will figure it out eventually, but I'll take any information I can get.
      Building, I have learned, can be an emotional rollercoaster, at least for the beginner, but I'm enjoying it on some level. I really thought I'd be 'slip-forming' by now, and if I had it to do over again, I would start several months earlier. But I'd still be doing it.

-Mark


Mark,
      For the window framing, we've used 2 x lumber in the past, but I really liked the method we used in the video, where we built the frames out of scrap beadboard panels. In fact, you could recycle the scraps cut out from the window and door openings to make the window and door framing.
      The one thing I might do different on a house would be to push the beadboard panels all the way to the outside of the wall and stucco the edge to make a six-inch wide "picture frame" around each window, instead of bringing the stonework all the way in as we did for the workshop in the video. Optionally, the beadboard could be trimmed down to make a more narrow frame.

Sincerely,
Thomas J. Elpel

Dr. Mr. Elpel,
      I'm a little stunned today, because I have been receiving phone calls with prices for the EPS panels. I'm shocked at the prices I'm getting which so far are $1.80 to 2.21 a square foot, which is $58 to $70 a 4x8' panel. This means that I'm up to close to $20,000 dollars in foam panels alone. I wasn't expecting this, and it leaves me wondering if the product you and Dani Gruber used was something else. Of course in your video, the scrap panels were free, so that wasn't figured into the final price of your workshop. I couldn't get anyone to give or sell me scraps. They all said that they reuse their scrap, but who knows. Any information would be appreciated.

Sincerely,
Mark


Mark,
      Yes, I know what you mean about sticker shock. The quotes you received are probably on the mark. Just make sure you are getting quotes for OSB board on one side only. The cost of these beadboard panels (www.r-control.com) should approximate the cost of a framed wall with foam insulation sprayed in place. In other words, it will be more expensive than a framed wall insulated with fiberglass, but better quality too. When I look at the process for making these panels it doesn't look like it should be expensive, so I wonder if the cost reflects the patented monopoly on the panels. I also know that our local factory operates at maximum capacity most of the time, so they are keeping quite busy enough without lowering prices. Anyway, if "Necessity is the mother of invention," then perhaps sticker shock is the father.
      I can see several possible routes around the cost problem. First, you might explore the possibility of getting free panels off the factory scrap piles. I don't know how close you are to a factory, but it would be worthwhile to investigate, especially near the peak of the building season when the factory is at maximum production. Just go directly around back and see what's there and ask the people near the pile which ones you can take, or more appropriately, which ones you cannot take, since the workers may be saving a few scraps for small factory projects or their own personal building projects.
      I think there has been some problems in the past with individuals assembling the scraps into buildings, since the panels are structural, while the scraps are not. But there is no problem using the scraps in a slipform wall, since the stonework is the structural part.
      Second, you might look at a more modular approach to construction, to the greatest extent that the codes and building inspector will allow. In other words, build a small structure that looks mostly complete and move into it while you build the rest. Be sure to design the place so that you can easily add on to it. That way you can pay for the new panels as you go, or build in sections as you accumulate scrap panels.
      Third, you might evaluate a variety of insulation systems that could be incorporated into different parts of your house plans. For example, our house (built before the beadboard method) is bermed into the hill on the north and east sides, with inexpensive beadboard insulation (no OSB board) placed against the concrete walls and backfilled to hold it in place. The south side of our house has a large greenhouse with lots of windows, so there is essentially no insulation there. The west end of the house (the family room addition shown in Living Homes) has double stone walls with rigidboard insulation sandwiched in the core. We used mostly urethane board, working with salvaged sheets found for free or damaged sheets bought at a reduced price from the lumber yard. We "welded" the joints together and filled all the holes with expanding foam sealant to insulate that end of the house for next to nothing. While none of these examples may work in your situation, the point is simply that we used three different insulation systems for the walls in one house, but you would never notice except by my pointing it out.
      In other words, you may need to return to the process of integrated design. Add the element of sticker shock into your criteria at the beginning of the process and design the house with the flexibility for modular step-by-step construction with the possibility of several creative approaches to insulation. That may not be the answer you are hoping for, and I really wish I could give you a magic formula so you could buy the new R-Control panels at 75% off, but that's just the way it is. Let sticker shock become the father of innovation and see what you can come up with.

Sincerely,
Thomas J. Elpel

Hello Mr. Elpel,
      I found some things out about polystyrene panels that I thought might be useful to your readers: After getting a 'best price' of $57.00 per panel, I went into a bit of a depression. That price was going to put me too far over my budget, and I started to question whether or not I would be able to go on as planned. In that mood I called Derrick. I had been given his number by one foam place, but had not been able to reach him, and I had in fact given up on him, since I have discovered that in the field of construction, there are people who just don't call you back, and leave you waiting for nothing. Most of us don't mind waiting for something--as long as we know it will come eventually, but waiting on people who may never call you back is very frustrating.
      Anyway, I did reach him at last, and he was at home and fortunately, in a 'gabby' mood. I explained my situation and my feeling that my plan might be coming to an end soon. His response was "Mark, these people aren't listening to you, they are trying to sell you structural panels. These panels would be the walls. You just need them to be a straight edge and then to be insulation." He went on to describe the various densities of foam for assorted purposes, and said that I could use what is called '1 pound' foam, which they recycle out of what would otherwise be their scrap.
      The bottom line is that I will be buying 130 panels that are 9' x 4' without the OSB for $22.00 ea. This is $71.00 more for the extended length (after you add what it would have been to buy the extra panels instead), but I think it will be worth it not to have to cut 130 1x4 pieces of foam/OSB. The 4x8s will be $19.00 each, plus tax.
      I will have to glue the OSB to the panels myself. The company gave me a sample of the product so that I could experiment with the gluing. They are very secretive about their gluing process, and would not advise me as to what type of glue to use, other than to say that petrochemical substances would eat the EPS. I went to the local Home Depot where they steered me to 'Liquid Nails' for foam. I took a tube (caulk-gun style) home and it worked. The drying time was a whole day, even though it said 4 hours on the tube. After about 6 hours, it was still goopy-wet. I set an old glass 'slider-door' on top for weight, and the next day it was solid. I used 7/16" OSB, because it is only 1/16" thinner than 1/2" and that is what the foam manufacturer was using. Also it's less expensive. When I finished gluing the panel, it seemed to want to stand on end, and it was very sturdy. The R value of the panel is 22.9, so with the OSB it is at least 23.
      I was concerned about the cost of the glue because I paid $2.14 for the tube, and used a good deal of it on one panel. Since then I have found 'construction adhesive' in the paint area of a "Lowes". I have not been able to try it because I have only the one panel, but I'm hopeful, since it says on the can that it can be used for EPS. If this proves to be a good product, I may try to get it in 5 gallon pails.
      The OSB is $6.89 plus tax per 4x8 panel, and I will need more of it for the walls, since I will have to cut the extra 1 foot. This is still expensive, but for me it is at least do-able.

A thousand thanks more,
-Mark


May 22, 2003

Mark,
      Sounds like you found a good solution to the cost problem. Congrats on the thrifty thinking. I do have some minor concerns about the long-term durability of the glue... in other words, is the OSB going to be at risk of peeling away from the beadboard after a number of years? The R-Control panels are glued together in a large press, so there is a lot of weight to firmly press the OSB to the beadboard. Personally, I think you will be fine with your approach, and the panels will also be locked in place by the interior walls that butt against it and the sheetrock that covers it. Just something to think about...

Sincerely,
Thomas J. Elpel

Friday May 23, 2003

Dear Mr. Elpel,
      First a quick update on the gluing: We tried the Construction adhesive, and it seems to work well. We are currently trying to get it in a 5 gallon pail, because we waste quite a bit of it stuck to the inside of the can, which you can barely get your spreader into, let alone your hand.
      We can get at least five 4x9 panels out of a can which is $15.00. We can't 'press glue' them, of course, but we are currently stacking them at least 10 panels high (being careful to stack them directly on top of one another), and then putting a very heavy glass door (slider type) on top of the pile while they dry. I don't think they will come apart any time soon, and as you say, the other elements should help hold them together later.
      Your drilling pattern makes more sense than what I had in mind, so I'm going to go with that. Was there any particular logic to using a 1" paddle bit? Maybe I'd better watch that part again.
      I'm not sure how to pre-drill the holes for wires though, because I planned on pre-drilling the holes at the tops and bottoms of the slipforms (on each side of the vertical 2x4s), and I'm not sure the odds of them all lining up are very high. I will try the grooves in the OSB if the wire I get is heavy enough to warrant it.
      Thank you for all of the good ideas. I can see now that at this stage in slipforming history each person who uses the technique can add a little more to it, as well as drawing a lot from those who have already done it. -cool.
      Dani's article describes using tubing to keep the rebar from moving in the footings. In your video, you seem to be just inserting smaller lengths into the concrete, which I assume you just tied to the longer lengths to once the foundation was hardened. This seems more manageable to me. Is there any disadvantage? I will be doing this part soon (if that excavator ever shows up!!), so I'd really like to know if there is any reason I wouldn't want to do it that way.
      I made a special point to watch the window portion of your video over and over, until I got a better sense of it. One of the things I didn't understand was that the inside of the wood (2x?), NOT the inside of the window box, is the rough opening of your window.
      We are thinking of attaching wood frames to the insulation frames, much as you describe leaving them alone to add stucco. If we push them out to the slipform, we could essentially imbed the frames into the stonework. We'd have to put nails or something all around the frames, and perhaps use some of our construction glue to attach them to the beadboard itself.
      Thanks for your kind words and encouragement -they help. I feel quite happy, but have started taking antacids for the first time. I blame on all of the waiting for other people, which I am told is something one has to get used to in construction.
      I always intend to keep these letters short, but it never works out that way.

Hope you are enjoying your spring.

-Mark Rehl


September 5, 2003

Hi Tom,
      I'm sitting on a bunch of photos, but as you might guess, I'm a bit preoccupied at the moment. I'll get those to you pretty soon.
      Things are moving slowly but steadily. I'm almost ready to pour the floor and the back wall. I used the slipforms to form the front riser wall, which was 32" tall. I used a bit of used OSB to form above the 24" mark, so that I wouldn't have to make a bunch of special 8" slipforms. I wire tied the OSB part with spacers just like you instructed for the slipforms. It worked out well except one small part at the end of the run where someone (a lot of help showed up for that pour) took the spacer out too soon, despite my warning, and the wall is just shy of 9" for about a foot. Oh well, what am I going to do, it's free help, and I'm glad to have it!!!! I think it will be fixable in the first stone run, which may yet come before winter.
      Otherwise I couldn't be happier with the slipforms, they didn't seem to be stressed at all. Of course that was a short wall. The real test will come soon when I attempt to pour an 8' back wall. I have been warned that the forms may 'blow out' about 100 times by all of my many 'advisors'.
      The last to warn me was the building inspector when he stopped by yesterday to see the front riser wall. He suggested that, since the back wall will be 8' tall, I should run the slipforms vertically. This seems like it might be a good idea -any opinion?
      I'm also concerned that I won't be able to get the spacers out, since my arms aren't 8 feet long. One thought is to tie a bunch of color coded (for depth) cords tied to the spacers, or drilled through them and knotted. I'd have to be careful that they were securely attached.
      I'm following your 'what I should have done' section of the video, and also adding some threaded rod through the five supports (the short 2x4's) with nuts and big fender washers, on at least the lowest levels. Some local kids told me that there is considerable doubt among the adults that I will pull off this pour, and the stone work, so now I have something to prove :-)
      The real reason I am writing today, is that I am ready to put in the 'wire fencing' (or whatever it's called) or rebar, or both in the floor for the pour. I'm not sure why I need rebar, but am open to it if there is sufficient reason. The inspector thinks that the fencing should be enough. Remember that I am also installing radiant heat tubing, in case that is a factor.
      Expect another email soon as I will probably have more questions about the back wall, but I want to watch that part of the video again first.
      Thanks again for the advice.

Tired but still excited.

-Mark

      P.S. It may amuse you to know that I had a dream about a month ago, wherein I was standing on the gravel road on which I live, talking to a neighbor. I was telling the neighbor about your slipform technique and about your video. The neighbor responded by saying:
      "Tom Elpel?... Yeah I know who he is... he lives right over there (points behind himself)... That's his silo in the distance."
      "I thought he lived in Montana?", I said.
      "Yeah, he's got a lot of places... but he mostly lives here now."
      I then walked the mile or so to 'your house' to introduce myself.
      "Hey Tom," I said "I'm Mark ++++,... you know, the guy who's been emailing you about the house. Isn't this a coincidence? My building is only a mile or so over there.
      "Yeah, I know," you said casually.
      I was perplexed.
      "Have you driven by to see it?" I asked
      "I've been meaning to," you said, "But I just haven't gotten around to it."
      You know how dreams are: that's all I can remember. :-) -peace.


September 6, 2003

Mark,
      I'm glad to hear you are making some progress.
      I do have some concerns about pouring the 8' back wall. The weight and force of 8' of liquid concrete in the forms is truly awesome and easily underestimated (as I know from personal experience). I had a serious blow-out on the workshop when pouring only a four-foot wall. The pressure on the forms for an eight-foot wall will be much, much greater.
      Normally I do not recommend the slipforms for major concrete pours, although they can be made to work for them. You would probably get a much smoother, easier to finish wall if you rented conventional plywood forms for the pour. Also, there will probably be quite a bit of damage to the slipforms through the process of pouring and later removing the forms. Ideally you would want 3/4" plywood facing on the slipforms for maximum strength, heavily oiled to reduce the damage. New 1/2" OSB board should work okay, though it may be seriously aged when you are done.
      To make the slipforms work properly for this pour, skip the wooden spacers. On the lower levels use some 3/8" all-thread instead, with nuts and large washers inside and outside the wall to serve as a spacer and tie. The all-thread should run through 2 x 4's on the outside, not just the plywood or OSB board. It sounds like you are doing this part already, but by adding the extra nuts and washers inside the forms then you won't need any wooden spacers.
      On the upper levels you can get by with pipe strap ties, but be sure to wrap them around the 2 x 4's, such that you are driving nails through the pipe strapping into the edge of the 2 x 4's (perpendicular to the wall). Adding a few all-thread spacer/ties here and there would keep the upper levels properly spaced without getting into the problem of trying to remove wooden spacers.
      Also be sure to bolt all of the slipforms together. Neither screws nor nails are adequate to hold the forms together under that kind of stress. When we started with slipforming the books we used suggested that we should bolt the forms together for normal stonework, which is unnecessary and adds a lot of work. But for a concrete pour, you will definitely need bolts, nuts, and washers everywhere. You will also need to secure the forms at the bottom so they don't kick out. Drilling holes through the slipform and into the concrete footing would be ideal, so that you can pound bolts right into the concrete.
      I'm not sure what the advantage would be of using the slipforms vertically, rather than horizontally in a pour like that, except that it would allow you to add an extra set of whalers to help tie everything together. The whalers are the horizontal runs of 2 x 4's that hold regular plywood forms together. Whalers are built into the slipforms, so you don't necessarily need additional whalers, but with the forms placed vertically you could run some 2 x 4's horizontally along the wall and screw them across all of the slipforms to help keep everything straight. This might help you to get a straighter, less jagged wall for easier finishing down the road. Either vertical or horizontal, you will still need to wedge a bunch of 2 x 4's against the wall, angled down to the ground to help keep the wall plumb.
      As for rebar versus wire mesh in the floor, the wire mesh is standard and probably cheaper and faster than using rebar. The wire mesh sold for pouring concrete floors is much more stout than the scraps of wire fencing we used with our rebar in the floor. For us it was just easier to use the rebar since it was a small area and it was easier to get it to our site than the normal wire mesh. We added some scraps of fencing wire because we had them here.
      I hope this helps. This is one of the projects that becomes your life. At this point I would say you are "eating it, breathing it, and sleeping it" (that latter for sure). Good luck as you continue your project!

Sincerely,
Thomas J. Elpel

September 9th, 2003

Thanks Tom,
      That was very helpful.
      I just had a 'Slipform Assembly-Line Party': This is where you invite (take advantage of) all of your friends and family over to put slipforms together. Food and drink was enough to get them here. I had all of the boards cut and marked ahead of time, so there was no cutting or measuring needed. We made 36 slipforms to add to the twenty I had already made, for a total of 56. Why so many? Well, I may not have mentioned this before, but the outer dimensions of my building will be 65'x43'. Remember that this is to be a large home and a decent sized recording studio. 56 is the number of forms it will take to pour the 'below grade' portion of the building. I checked into renting forms, and around here, the best price I found was $1000.00, and that was just for the back wall, not including any of the side 'slope-down' area. It cost about $900.00 in materials to make the 56 slipforms, including all of the nuts, bolts, etc. I figure that I'll be glad to have all of those forms available for the rest of the project, and even for other buildings, such as a garage, which is not included in my current plan. Also I have a feeling that I'll be helping a lot of my current helpers and advisors in the future. There has been mention of a couple stone retaining walls, and at least one house. I guess I'll be the local expert for a while by the time this is done.
      The Slipforms had been made already by the time I got your email, and I used 1/2 plywood on the faces. Also I had already ordered the threaded rod, and it is all 1/4''. Fortunately there is a lot of it. Perhaps I will get some additional 3/8'' rod for the lowest level, or maybe just use more of the 1/4'' rod.
      I will take your good advice about the additional inner washers and nuts, so I won't need the spacers... very cool! I will probably do the upper level(s?) with the form wire spacers, (as I am used to doing this already) and some threaded rod to take over some of the job of spacing. Thanks for the rest of the advice as well, I'm sure I'll be using it.

take care.
-Mark


September 10, 2003

Mark,
      Wow, 65' x 43'! Pardon me, but that's crazy!
      I'm glad you have been effective at soliciting volunteer help. I hope you can keep them coming back through the whole process!
      While your project is certainly bigger than anything I've ever built, at least it sounds like you are being very resourceful and you are carefully sorting your options. I'm sure you will do just fine. Keep me posted!

Sincerely,
Thomas J. Elpel

Wednesday September 10, 2003

Tom,
      See what you started, you instigator! I was kind of getting 'the blues' today -- you know... too much or too little of some nutrient or another... no biggie. Upon reading your 'Pardon me, but that's crazy', I burst out laughing and I start laughing every time I think of it.
      Ya know... I KNOW it's crazy. The kind of crazy thing that only someone who didn't know any better would attempt. Everyday I realize a little more just how crazy it is. For example, I now know that I will run out of money before I get the roof trusses. BUT I DON'T CARE!! I know I will finish it, and I doubt very much that I will ever regret having done it. It's just life for crynoutloud. Someday everyone's house will turn back into a pile of dirt (not too soon I hope).
      My insanity does seem to be a bit contagious though, it's getting to the point where I can almost count on someone showing up to see how I'm doing, and of course I don't hesitate to say something like "Could you hand me that board over there?"... Sometimes they just watch... and talk, which is nice at least half of the time :-) I think some people are stopping by just to unload their frustrations on someone. I keep on working though, and everyone seems to understand that I must do this.
      I only intended to write the first couple of sentences so I'd better get back to work before I can't stop typing.
      Thanks for the 'I'm sure you will do just fine', even if you are just being polite. May you have nice weather.

-Mark


September 16, 2003

Hi Tom,
      You mentioned that you used a heavier gauge wire in your forms for the below grade pour. I am planning to use wire in addition to the all thread, but the place where I have been getting the wire carries only the one gauge.
      Can you tell me more specifically the gauge wire you used, or would recommend using, so that I can be asking for something specific as I call around looking for it?
      I'm in the process of putting up the re-bar network. All of the verticals are up, and I'm working on the horizontals... only for the poured section, of course, because everyone knows that the horizontals will just get in the way of stone work. :-)
      Thank you again, your help has been such a valuable resource.
-Mark


September 21, 2003

      I just wanted to tell you that we put up beadboard panels for the first time today. So very cool!!! Just my wife and I, and we got the panels for the back wall, and both sides up. - At last something that looks like progress. Tomorrow I start putting all of those slipforms together... after I locate some heavier wire.
After I sent that last email I thought "Why are you bothering him about wire size?!... Just find some bigger stuff, you idiot. So I will.

-peace
-Mark


October 11, 2003

Hi Tom,
      Just wanted to let you know that the 8' poured wall was a complete success! It took about two weeks to assemble all of the forms - all-thread rod and all. We probably over-braced the whole thing because of all of the warnings, but in the end the wall poured without so much as a 'creeek' (not one that we could hear over the pump truck anyway).
      The head of the research and development department at my wife's job told us about a product called 'Moxie' which could be added to concrete to make it completely vapor proof, and therefore waterproof. Since this is technically a basement wall, we checked into it.
      After finding out how much it would cost for this pour ($600 including shipping), we called the concrete company that we had been dealing with, to make sure they had no problem with it. They said they didn't have any problem with it at all, so I considered the matter settled.
      When the product arrived, I asked my wife to drop it off at the batch plant, along with a copy of the instructions, and a polite paragraph from me asking them to follow the mixing instructions exactly, as this was a major investment to me. When Chris returned, I asked her how it went and she said "not good, the guy wouldn't even take the instructions from me... he said he would just mix it in... he said the mixing instructions were your responsibility." Up until then I had excused this company's gruff way of customer service, but this was the last straw. How could the mixing instructions be my responsibility? I wasn't even going to be there. I called and canceled the pour at 7:30 AM. The pour and the pump truck (separate company) were scheduled for 3:00 PM that afternoon. I went and picked up the product, and took it to another concrete place down the road a couple of miles.
      This company took the time to show me their ingredients, explain to me how to get the best mix, and they also took an interest in the instructions for the product I was adding. They agreed to do the pour the next morning, and I was able to re-schedule the pump truck for that time as well. For good measure, I called the Moxie Company, and had them call the new batch plant, to make sure that they knew how to mix it. This might seem like overkill, but as you know, concrete is a chemical reaction, and if it's not mixed right, I have no way of knowing... except the hard way! The Moxie people called me back and told me that 90% of the concrete people they talk to don't even know the language of concrete. He gave me some examples, which I was not meant to understand, but I got the point. He told me that my new concrete guy was an exception. "He knows how to mix it, he understands why it has to be mixed that way, and he's going to pour you a really good wall", he said. "Don't be worried".
      Everything was supposed to happen at 11:00AM Saturday morning (today as I write this), but the cement trucks were an hour late, because they were so thoroughly cleaning the trucks from the previous pour, as indicated in the Moxie instructions. Even so, the cement company insisted on waving the delivery charges, and on paying for the pump truck for the hour that we were waiting, which was $110.
      The only thing that went wrong is that I forgot to add a yard of concrete to my order for the pump truck. A yard is generally wasted when pumping I guess, so we were a couple of inches short of eight feet in the back. This is no problem at all, since I was over the grade level, and would probably have poured a seven foot wall if I had wanted to go to the trouble of making special 'one foot tall' forms. In any case the stonework will now start at this level so it doesn't matter the slightest bit.
      In my last letter I said that I was going to orient the slipforms vertically. When I began to set the first one up, I realized that this was not a good idea, and went back to setting them horizontally. It was a happy decision.
      I'm just coming down from all of the extra adrenaline, so I thought I'd type your 'ear ' off while I did.
      I am amassing many photos to send to you. It may be easier to send them on a CD by mail, as my internet connection is quite limited out here.

Sincerely,
Mark Rehl


October 12, 2003

Tom,
      I forgot to mention something that might be useful to anyone who tries this in the future. After I got the four rows of slipforms stacked on top of one another, the top edge looked like anything but a straight line. I used spacers and ropes tied to trees with turnbuckles on them, but I couldn't get it to look as straight as I wanted. My friend Jim, who is a carpenter, came over at my request to help me to straighten and plumb everything before the pour. He was only going to stay for an hour, but ended up having such a good time that he stayed all day. When he looked at what I had done so far, he said, "Too bad we don't have any angle iron". I replied that I had a big stack of heavy duty 20' angle iron, I had ordered to take the weight over the doors/windows in the stonework.
      It took three of us to move each piece to the top of the back slipform wall. Luckily, my friend Dan was also there. We bolted the angle iron to the top-most slipform, starting at one end, making sure to line up the edge of the iron flush with the inside edge of the form. We used lag screws for this purpose. Then, we gradually moved down the wall, to each of the five holes we had drilled (the drilling took awhile), forcing the slipform to be flush with the angle iron. When we had finished, it looked perfect, except for a two foot wide section where their was no iron. We put a carriage bolt through the form at that spot and messed around with the ropes and turnbuckles some more, and finally I got a chain and a winch (come-along they seem to call it here) and straightened out the last bit very quickly. After that we were able to use the nine inch spacers without having them pressing into the beadboard panel.

-Mark


March 20, 2004

Mark,
      I received the photo CD. Thanks! Looks like you are really moving along, and you are doing good quality work. I imagine you are about ready to dive into the stonework now that spring is here. Keep up the great work!

Tom.

March 23, 2004

Tom,
      Thank you for your encouragement.
      I'm just taking a little food break from collecting rocks. I had not anticipated how enjoyable that would be (the rocks--not the food). This is the first truly nice day we've had. It's supposed to reach 45 degrees.
      I asked you a question a while back, but that was when I was still entertaining the idea of a tilt-up house (remember that?). I asked you how thick the rocks should be. You said that they should just be a veneer. I am very aware that the more rock I use, the more economical the wall will be, as rocks are free and concrete ingredients are not. In your video it appears that some of the rocks you are using are quite thick. So far I have been aiming at rocks that are flat and no more than half the thickness of the wall or four and a half inches. Most of them are thinner than that. For now I'm just laying them out near the structure for easy choosing when the slipforming begins.
      What do you think?

-Mark


March 25, 2004

Mark,
      Yes, collecting rocks is always lots of fun. Sometimes I want to build something just to have a good excuse to go collect rocks.
      Regarding your question, a tilt-up wall needs to be mostly concrete and rebar for structural purposes--not for standing in its permanent location, but for the moment it is picked up and moved. The forces on a standing stone wall that is not intended to move are very different, and you can put in a lot more stone. Normally, the rocks used in slipform masonry average half the thickness of the wall, but you can include bigger rocks too. Bigger rocks save concrete and fill up the forms faster. Slipform masonry is definitely not veneer work, and there is a risk that thin stones can pop out of the wall, especially stones that are thin but have large exposed faces.
      Try to find a place out of the mud to store the rocks. It will save a lot of trouble when cleaning them as you go.

Sincerely,
Thomas J. Elpel

March 26, 2004

Thanks Tom,
      That's what I was hoping you'd say. I've been reusing sheets of plastic that once protected my OSB inner walls from the elements. Now I have them stretched across the ground as a place to keep the rocks out of the mud.
      Now on to another subject: SLIPFORMERS BEWARE! In a serious blow to my manly ego, I gave myself a slight injury while moving a boulder out of my way in order to get to some more useful stones. I strained a muscle where my right leg meets my pelvis. I really wasn't being careful, and it took something like this to make me realize that I am not indestructible. As a result, I am taking a break from rock collecting, even though the weather is perfect, and working on my door/window boxes instead. Limping away from my rock pile, I realized that an injury that stops me in my tracks also stops my project in it's tracks. I plan to be more careful in the future.

Sincerely,

Mark Rehl


March 26, 2004

Mark,

Yikes! Do take care of yourself. I hope you feel better quickly.

Tom.

March 29, 2004

Tom,
      I come from a family that doesn't dwell on a small illness or injury. It takes a lot to get us to the doctor, and my brother, who was there when it happened, had some good-natured wisecracks that I have come to expect.
      I reported it to you simply because I know that some of this will end up on your website or whatever, and I have personally benefited from your experience and that of Ms. Gruber. So I report some things as an act of ... um... karma, I guess.
      I'm happy to tell you that my leg is almost all better, and I went back to collecting rocks yesterday.
      The state of my leg right after the incident would have made the very physical act of building a large stone house far less possible, and it alarmed me. Funny that my concern was for the project more than for myself.
      I observed yesterday while collecting rocks some of the behaviors that probably led to the injury, as I experienced pain only when I did particular things: moving rocks around with my foot, trying to remove stones from the ground with my foot, planting my foot in one place and pivoting my body around to find my next step, and of course, lifting big boulders.
      The stress of these activities is multiplied many times when you are carrying a rock, because rocks are heavy. Even walking long distances is probably hard on ones joints when carrying a rock. I moved stones from 8:00am until 7:00pm, and I was fine after stopping the practices I mentioned above.
      I know you have a lot of mail to answer, so don't feel that I'm waiting for a reply to all of these ramblings. In a way these letters are a way for me to document as I go along. I'm sure I will have forgotten many details by the time this is over.
      If you should ever find yourself in Michigan, feel free to come and check out my insane project. You're like a celebrity over here. After all you have been on our television.

Best wishes,
Mark


March 29, 2004

Mark,
      I used to have trouble with mild back pain from sitting on the couch and reading for long periods of time. The best therapy for me was always picking up rocks. I would concentrate on good form, and start with the small rocks, then work my way up to the big ones as my body became loosened up to the actions. My back (and the rest of me) has always been totally happy picking up rocks, although I know it would also be really easy to over-extend something. I'm sure I've come close a few times! I've never had significant back pains, and the only pains I've had were from reading on the couch. Fortunately/unfortunately, I no longer have time to read on the couch, so I haven't needed rock therapy in a while.
      Hey, would you like some help on your project? I have people constantly writing and asking where they can get some hands on experience learning slipform masonry.

Sincerely,
Thomas J. Elpel

March 30, 2004

Tom,
      I'll respond more about the help in a day or so, but let me say right away that I am both thrilled and nervous about the prospect. We're talking about complete strangers, and I'm not sure how that would work exactly. I mean, I live in Michigan. How did that work with the help you had in the video? I like to have details worked out in advance so that everything is clear and there are no misunderstandings or whatever... How would you handle such a thing if you were me? I'll give it some thought.

-Mark


March 30, 2004

Mark,
      People with common interests usually don't remain strangers for long. I've had a few stone masonry students over the years, and they were always great to get along with, because they want to learn it and do it. In your case, I wouldn't call them students, but rather you could make an open invitation that you are learning this yourself, and if anyone else wants to come and learn with you then they are welcome to do so. Actually, I've been quite impressed from your photos at how many people you've dragged into the process already. It seems like you are a natural for attracting help!
      I can think of a few issues you would need to come to terms with before putting out an invitation. First, how much of a perfectionist are you? You might not have any more stone masonry experience than those who come to help, but if you tend to be a perfectionist at other things, then your beginning stonework will probably be a lot nicer than their beginning stonework. Second, if you are concerned about liability, then you might want to address that issue, and at least have them sign a waiver. Third, there are the accommodations to consider. Where are they going to sleep and bathe, and what will they eat?
      In the case of Robert in the Slipform Stone Masonry video we already had a house to live in. He lived in a tent, but he ate with us. We only had a couple of complications. One was that we had some difficulty understanding each other's accents. The other was that once we understood each other and communicated a plan, I would turn around and do something completely different than what we just discussed. That's just how I work. I hope this helps!

Tom.

March 31, 2004

Hi Tom,
      The problem for me is that we live in a small mobile home with one bathroom on our building site, and I would have to convert my office back into a bedroom if anyone was going to stay with us. We are fortunate to have many friends and family members who will show up when help is really needed. Having constant help would speed things up potentially, but I'm not sure it would be worth it to us.
      So far I have been accused of being too much of a perfectionist by some of my friends. I'm a really 'project oriented' person, and I can be controlling in that setting. At the same time, as a recording engineer I have had to learn to guide a project that is someone else's without stepping on their toes.
      If anyone in the Grand Rapids area has contacted you, that would be a different matter, as we would not have to put anyone up. After this project we will have a lot of room, but that doesn't help now. I do have plenty of room for tents, and Chris loves to cook for people... and showers would not be a problem...
      I think I'll wait and see the pace of the stonework. Were you able to gauge anything like -how many forms you could do in a day?
      You are right though, people don't remain strangers for long, and I tend to make friends quickly, but I might also feel weird sleeping in my comfortable bed while someone is roughing it and working for nothing, even though that is something I might do myself under other circumstances. I considered paying to go help on a Geodesic dome just for the experience, so....
      I guess it's important to get a feel for people who are going to invade your space. At times my desire to be a good host has interfered with my project, and I have had to tell some people that they cannot come over during daylight hours unless they are going to help, as I tend to just want to get everyone a cold drink, and a comfy chair. My wife is even worse than me. The helpers I like best are the ones who say "C'mon, let's get some work done".
      Well, you get the picture.
      How many people have contacted you about this sort of thing?
      'Tell you what, if you get requests that seem like potential good candidates, you can give them my email address, as well as this letter. That way they will already know where I'm coming from.
      My typing speed has increased to the point that I'm 'thinking in type', which is why this email is as scattered as my thoughts.
      Thank you again,

-Mark


April 1, 2004

Mark,
      On the 12 x 16 workshop shown in the video, it seemed like it took us about 3-4 days to go up two feet all the way around, including setting forms, getting rocks, setting rocks, adding rebar, pouring concrete, and tearing down forms. I wouldn't expect it to go that fast all the time though. It will probably go slower while you are learning the ropes, and slower due to other interruptions. But you will have really fast days too. Hey, maybe you will finish the whole house in two weeks.
      I hear you on the hospitality issue. I've had interns come to help me in the past, but I spent all my time doing fun stuff with them. I'm working on that issue. Our interns come and volunteer to work, so I really need to put them to work! Maybe while they are getting something done, I'll come by for a cold drink and to try out that comfy chair...

Tom.

April 2, 2004

Heck yeah Tom,
      Crack that whip and come on over. What are you running over there, a day care? :-)
      3-4 days, that seems pretty fast, with the rock gathering included. At the rate we're going now, we may have all of our rocks gathered in advance of any assembly.
      Made my first window box yesterday. I think I did it a bit differently. I notched out the front of the boxes and glued a 2x6 box inside so that the face of the OSB in the box is flush with the rough opening of the 2x6s. It takes some more time, but it seems worth it to me. I took some pictures, which I'll send at some point.
      I'm curious about the scope of your 'operation'. On the one hand I see the wide open Montana spaces (beauty!), and a guy hauling rocks with his family, and on the other, I see many books, I hear about tours and interns, and it looks like you have a vast evil empire. Worldly Power broker, or simple tent-dwelling country folk... I'm joking of course, except about the curiosity part.
      That's a big open-ended question, and I fear I'm on the 'pestering' Tom line, so answer that one if and when you choose. Some of that will probably come out as I read more of your books.
      I'm curious about the book thing too... I have writing ambitions buried deep in my brain. I've never written anything professionally except a bunch of local commercial jingles, but a monkey could do that. I did write an entire script for one of the Star Trek series some years ago (laugh now), but I never sent it in because one of the main characters was killed off in the series just as I was wrapping it up. This self publishing thing seems really cool.
      I'll suck the rest of the knowledge out of your brain gradually, I gots a house ta build.

clear skies
-Mark


April 2, 2004

Mark,
      And I thought we were Trekies! I have not written a Star Trek script yet, but hey, it sounds like a fun project. If you get back into writing someday, then please do ask away about self-publishing, and I'll do my best to advise you.
      I enjoy corresponding with you. We've written back and forth enough that you are familiar and fun to "socialize" with.
      We could live a simple life if we wanted to. A year ago it took about 3 hours a day (one person) to run HOPS Press and Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School. We had everything we needed and most of what we wanted. But there is this evil empire thing--the need to assimilate the known universe until every sentient being is building stone houses and starting fires by rubbing sticks together. That part is going to take some work.
      So we bought Granny's Country Store here in Silver Star in September, where we sell our books, other books, pop and beer and groceries, and run the post office. Right now we are working pretty much whenever we are awake. It will take a little while to pay for itself, but we expect to have hired help here by the end of the summer, and we will again live mostly in our house, which is an hour from here.
      Our three interns are showing up for the summer, and they will be assisting with the store, but mostly they will be giving Lewis & Clark themed Living History Demonstrations out here by the highway for the tourists. We'll reach out and share some cool stuff, and hopefully sell a lot of books.
      Over the longer term, I am thinking of starting a "Green University", which would be basically an elaborate internship program. In essence, interns would come and learn primitive skills to nurture a direct connection with the earth. But rather than teach them only how to play in the woods, the internships would also be geared towards starting green businesses to have a positive impact on the world. They could work all different jobs within our businesses to learn different skills, while also developing new green products, services, or all new businesses. I have about fifty products, services or new businesses I would like to start, and our interns might have some ideas of their own. Ideas and resources would be shared between everyone to help support the launch of those new businesses (partly with the sweat of new interns), and an intern would "graduate" from the "university" when their enterprise was operating in the green. Ultimately I want to raise an army of green "ecopreneurs" to assimilate the world. That will keep the scope of the operation well-focused for awhile. (I don't expect to move beyond this solar system any time soon.)
      Resistance is futile. Collect more rocks now.

Sincerely,
Thomas J. Elpel

April 5, 2004

Tom,
      I had to read your last letter to Chris; we both laughed out loud, and then immediately followed the orders of the collective and went to collect rocks, knowing fully the futility of resistance.
      Owners of a place called "Granny's Country Store" are not supposed to know what the Borg are. Who is this "Granny" anyway? You've got her tied up in the back, and are merely posing as store owners! Thank heavens for Mayberry re-runs.
      Is your store in a 'town', or is Silver Star in the middle of nowhere?. An hour is a long commute. It's forty five min. to GR from here, and that's too far.
      I don't mind if you sell beer, as long as you carry Guinness, which is about the only beer you can get me to drink anymore. If you don't carry Guinness, please take the following steps:

      1. Get some Guinness.

      I guess that's about it.

      Actually, I've been turning down alcohol left and right lately, as I am trying to get into tip-top shape for all of the rock moving, etc., But even during less demanding times, three beers is about my limit (Guinness, of course). If you see me drink three consecutive beers, I will be in one friendly (and silly) partying-down mood.
      Wow, you have some impressive goals! Ecopreneurs... cool concept. I look forward to learning more about that, especially the ideas your interns come up with. I'm sure there will be great ideas, but some strictly entertaining ones as well.
      Perhaps one day when my studio is functional (not to mention existent), I can help out in some way... just a thought.
      Cousin John and I attempted to make a rock breaking device yesterday. We took some leftover 3" PVC and attached it vertically to some 2x4s which were screwed to two trees. Then we attached a hardened steel rod (John works with metal) to a rope and pulley (attached up higher), and pulled it up, let it drop through the PVC and on to the rock. We did break one rock eventually, but we will not be defeated. Next time we will add a second length of PVC and attach a better pulley. Do we really need to break rocks? I don't know, but it sure was fun.
      Live long and prosper.

-Mark


April 5, 2004

Mark,
      The Borg Granny is one step above the Borg Queen in the hierarchy. Now you know where the original hive is.
      It is an hour (45 miles) between Pony and Silver Star, but we only run back and forth one or two times per week. There is a house here in the store where we live while we are here, and we will be training help this summer to run the store. Then we will be able to spend just one or two days a week over here, instead of six.
      As far as towns go, Pony is a metropolis of about 125 people. Silver Star is about half that, although most people live on farms nearby. I've been told there are only 34 people in Silver Star. I guess that would make 40 with our family here. The truth is that not too many people are comfortable living this close to the hive.
      As far as beer goes, I just had my first one last weekend. It never interested me before, but I've been "researching" Montana-made products, and this was a 1 quart old-style ale. Best beer I ever had, actually, although I only drank half of it in three days. I might try another one sometime.
      Our three interns are here now. We are taking off on a short camping trip tomorrow morning. It will be good to get out and stretch our legs.
      Okay, live long and haul lots of rocks. Break them if you can. Then you can haul more.

Sincerely,
Thomas J. Elpel

May 11, 2004

Hi Tom,
      I spent the morning trying to get the best price on cement possible. The first 11 bags cost almost seven dollars each. I found someone who sold it for $5.94. I told this to Home Depot, and they said they would match it and beat it by 10%. I opened a commercial account, so they gave me an additional 10% off. This means I can get it all summer and fall for 4.81 a bag, up to 990 bags. This is below their cost. This means that I'm getting it for $103.00 a Ton instead of 140ish a ton. As a point of comparison, a friendly guy at the mix plant told me that they pay 90-something a ton, but they don't get it by the bag. So I think I'm doing pretty well. Mostly I'm glad because everything keeps going up, and now I don't have to wonder if cement will too.
      Hope all is well in Montana land.

-Mark


May 17, 2004

Hi Tom,
      I just wanted to thank you again for all of your help and advice. In retrospect I can see that some of my concerns were unnecessary, but there are some things that only the experience can teach. That said, your book and video really prepared me well for the building experience. Thanks for your patience through all of my worrying.
      The slipforming is going well. We're almost done with the first two foot level, and I took off a couple of forms. Just like you warned, it looked like a mess, but an hour later It looked pretty good. I tried to keep the concrete back from the faces, as you instructed, but one session of chipping away at the excess really drives the point home.
      Hope all is well in Montana.

-Mark


October 1, 2004

Hi Thomas J,
      I just wanted to tell you that Susan came and spent two and a half weeks with us, and it was superb. She couldn't have been more helpful. Thank You for sending her our way despite my indecision.
      The foam is up for the second floor now, the window/door boxes have been constructed, and the holes have been cut out.       Dealing with the Foam panel company has been the worst part of the experience, and I would never use that company again if I could help it.
      I bought the bead board in two installments (1st and 2nd floor) and found out that the second shipment was the wrong size. When I reported this to the company, they turned on me, even though I wasn't making any demands and basically said I would leave their response up to the dictates of their conscience. Then they wouldn't take my check for the reorder, and I even had a hard time getting the product from them. The day I was waiting for the delivery, they didn't show up, and when I called they said they wouldn't deliver it unless I paid them an extra $300.00. At that point, I decided that I would just pay it since I had a house to build, and I would have to let Karma deal with them. Chris and I came up with a pretty good assembly line system for gluing the panels together, and we pre-drilled all the holes for the cement 'fingers'.
      Chris is off for two weeks starting tomorrow, and we are hoping to accomplish much of the second floor stonework during that time. If we can get the whole nine feet done before snow, we can put the roof on, but I don't even know if that is possible.
      My carpenter friend Jim came over for a few days and built me some four foot wide scaffolding that wraps around the house, essentially making it like we are starting over at ground level.
      Back to work!

-Mark C


October 2, 2004

Mark,
      Nice to hear from you. Sounds like you are making some real progress. Can I send some other people your way?

Tom.

November 24, 2004

Hi Tom,
      Sorry it took so long to get back to you. I was having a hard time deciding whether I should get some of that volunteer help, because I wasn't sure what the weather would be like, etc. I think it is best that I wait for spring. Susan said that you were starting a new project in the spring, so perhaps you will want the helpers for your project, which is understandable. If not, feel free to give my email address to anyone who looks like a good prospect.
      I am planning on putting the roof trusses up as soon as possible. The walls are not done. Three walls support the trusses, and I didn't think I'd have any of them finished in time, so I made plans to build temporary walls to support them, instead of another temporary roof.
      Last week the weather reports looked like we might get some extended warm weather, and it occurred to me that I might just get at least one wall completed, and not have to build a temporary wall for that wall.
      We worked long and hard with help from my mother-in-law and our cousins John and Tanya. We worked into the night most of the week, racing the first snow, which was said to becoming Wednesday, which is today as I write.
      We completed the East wall Tuesday night (last night), and I went outside this morning to use my air-chisel to clean up the whole wall, since I had not taken the time to clean any of it in our mad dash to complete it before snow.
      Much to my dismay, The temperature had dropped to the point that the top section did not seem to be curing much at all. I decided to take advantage of the softness, and clean up the top section while I thought about what to do about the cold, which is not supposed to be going away anytime soon.
      I was forced to abandon the clean-up when it began to snow a lot. I quickly built a box around the upper part of my scaffolding, and put a 155,000 BTU kerosene heater inside, and stapled and screwed some tarps over the top. I was all wet when I came in fifteen minutes ago, but with any luck, the wall top will do some curing.
      My sister is an insurance agent, and just for fun, she used her computer program to calculate how much it would cost to get someone else to build my house for me. She asked me a bunch of questions, and afterward the computer program put the number at $734,000.
      So even though the house I'm building is not inexpensive, it will be MUCH MUCH MUCH less than having it done for me, and I'm getting a house which will be appraised for way more than I am spending.
      Still not sorry I started this, but I am very tired, and looking forward to a break from stonework. I plan to work inside after I get the roof on, and then finish the stonework in the spring and summer.
      What are you building in the spring?

-Mark


November 26, 2004

Mark,
      You have made some incredible progress! I'm sure it must seem overwhelming at times, but from here at least, it seems like you are really moving along. It will be nice to put a roof on it this winter so that you can actually use it, even if just for dry storage, while you continue building. I hope you can send a CD with all your photos sometime over the winter.

Sincerely,
Thomas J. Elpel

November 27, 2004

Tom,
      So your spring project must be classified "Top Secret". Don't make me have to send nanobots over there to find out. Sometimes they go berserk, and I know you wouldn't want that.
      I will eventually send you all of my pictures, which is a very large number. You'll be sorry you asked. My digital camera is always set to the lowest resolution, but I will start taking higher rez pics when I'm finished.
It is getting harder to get myself outside. Did you ever experience this feeling just before starting up the mixer? It's like a reluctance, or maybe a gathering of your force of will, because you know that once you start that thing, you have committed to a long series of events and that you won't be turning back for some time. I don't mean to be melodramatic, but I do get this feeling every time. You, on the other hand, probably get a feeling of exhilaration and of well being, something close to a Buddhist reaching Nirvana. :-)
      Be one with the concrete.
      I will go to Grandma's for turkey and such now. Only two feasts this year, oh well.

-Mark


November 27, 2004

Mark,
      Sorry I forgot to describe our project. There was a trailer house included on this property when we bought the store. It is kind of like two properties on one place. So we have our book business in the store, and we are doing our primitive classes and canoe trips from the trailer. But we would like to replace the trailerhouse as quickly as possible with a nice looking passive solar stone building. Basically, it would be another storefront with living space in it, just like this store.
      The obstacle, however, is time. When we built our house we had no money, intermittent jobs, no skills to do anything else, and nothing else to do basically. Now we know how to do lots of things, so we are very busy, raising our family, running the publishing business-bookstore-grocery-post office-canoe rentals-primitive classes and running our non-profit to develop a canoe trail here. I wouldn't think of even starting this project without volunteers or students to help. But even then, I am running short on time just to draw some decent plans to get started with in the spring. So, we may try a modular approach, building just enough to be able to get rid of the trailerhouse next summer. Then we could complete the project as time allows down the road. But at this point, I still don't have the time available to draw some plans, and might not get a chance to deal with it until March or April or maybe next November. We'll see how it goes!
      Yes, I do sometimes feel a reluctance to mix concrete, sometimes because I don't operate well on a routine. Every day is different for me, so I feel ready to move on to something else a week or two into a project. These days my main problem is that I have too many things going on, so if I spend too much time on one thing, then I am getting behind on everything else! But, having help definitely makes a difference, and the more help the better. It is pretty exciting to go to work when there is a good crew helping out. How can you not like that? The project goes so much faster, and it is more fun. In which case, I don't care which job I am doing--setting stones, mixing concrete, it's all good.

Sincerely,
Thomas J. Elpel

January 14, 2005

Hi Tom,
      We just put the main roof trusses on. The trusses are over 65 feet long, with room enough to make a third floor that is 960 sq feet with a 9' ceiling. That space will eventually become the master bedroom/bathroom. It could easily become several bedrooms, though we don't have kids at this point. I was on the verge of a stroke the day the crane lifted them in place! Much work to go, even to button up the building.
      Strange weather around here, it went from forty eight degrees to below freezing in a less than a day.
      When the trusses showed up, I realized that there was no way the truck would be able to turn into the woods, so all of my prep work was in vain. We managed to dump them along the road, and I was able to get ten men to come over in the evening to move them down to the site. After carrying three of them, we were very pooped out, and started dragging them through the snow with a truck, and then lifting them onto the pile, still very hard work. After dragging a few, the snow turned into a nice bed of ice. The next day I got my truck stuck in the mud on the very same spot, and today it's all frozen again.
      Hope all is well in Pony. I will send another CD eventually, probably after the building is enclosed.

-Mark


September 19, 2005

Hi Tom,
      I finished the structural part of the stonework, and I thought I'd send you a few pictures. I will still send a second CD of pics, but getting the house finished may still get in the way of that for awhile.

      I didn't know what a slipform was until you told me. Now I'm trying to forget. :-)

Thank You,
-Mark


September 19, 2005

Hi Tom,
      I'm very happy to be done making wall for awhile, as you might imagine. Good experience though. We toasted the end of wall-making with cousin John's home made Champaign to mark the occasion. Got to find somewhere to stack all of those slipforms.

A couple of questions for you:
      Did you mix your own grout, or is that something you bought pre-mixed in a bag? I have a lot of Portland cement still available to me at a relatively low price, so I thought it might be more cost effective to mix my own. Do you know what the recipe would be? Seems like you said it has lime in it, how much? Is that special masonry lime?
      A few rocks came out here and there when I was cleaning up (chiseling) after the forms were removed -just the ones I shouldn't have used in the first place. Is there any reason why I shouldn't glue the replacement rocks in with the grout mixture when I'm doing that, just for convenience?

-Mark


September 20, 2005

Mark,
      It is definitely less expensive making your own mix. See the grout recipes in the latest edition of Living Homes.
      For replacing missing rocks: You can glue them in with grout mortar when you are grouting, or with construction adhesive now, so they will not move when you are grouting around them later. You may need to hold them in place with a stick until the glue or grout sets up.

Keep me posted!

Tom.

March 22, 2007

Tom,
      I will be spending this summer finishing the grouting on the outside of the building, which is about half-done (I did the upper-half first so I could remove the scaffolding). There is a twenty foot high, forty foot wide stone wall on the inside that needs to be grouted as well; I'm still trying to figure out how I'm going to deal with the mess and water involved in grouting that one.
      I am currently looking for work, and trying to decide what I want to do. I have a couple of options I'm working on, both of which are taking too long to start. While I wait, I am repaying a friend for all his help by helping him with a program he has started--teaching English as a second language. I speak a fair amount of Spanish, so I'm teaching some classes for him as a favor while he works out his funding situation. It's like when you start a band: Hard to get any serious musicians together unless you have some gigs lined up... hard to get some gigs lined up without a band... so in the end you have to have the band first, or in my friend's case, you have to have a working program in order to get funding.

-Mark




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