Underhill House is a hybrid of natural and high-tech green building techniques.  Most of the walls will be made of straw bales, but much of the south and east walls have so many windows in them to collect solar heat gain in winter that it made no sense to try to tuck a straw bale wall around them.  Those walls are being constructed along conventional lines with 2×8 dimensional lumber so they will be well insulated.

The outside of both straw bale and conventional walls are going to be finished in an exterior three-coat lime plaster, and the work began in earnest on Monday.   I’ll talk more about the advantages of lime plaster over Portland Cement in a future post.

We are fortunate to be working with Krome Burke-Scoll and the team at Artisan Exteriors and Plastering.The plywood sheathing over the 2×8 framed walls will be plastered first.  The plan is that by the time the plywood walls have all been plastered, the straw bale walls will be up and ready for their own stucco coating.

Steve helps turn Underhill House into the fanciest tar paper shack in the valley.

The first step is to make a water-resistant barrier or WRB to control the flow of moisture and keep it out of the places where it could do damage.  The entire surface has been covered with tar paper, making sure that the overlapping seams all take potential moisture down and away from the interior of the walls.

How to seal around the rafters was a challenge. Krome, Bryan and Doug put their heads together.

It was a bit of a puzzle how to make the kind of tight seal needed around the top of the wall.  Bryan wanted Krome to plaster up to the wood.  Krome wanted Bryan to add a piece of wood trim that fit tight around each timber.

The compromise is that each timber was taped around and then circled with 66XF Casing Bead, a metal trim familiar to plasterers.  A thin piece of oak trim will eventually be added between each rafter, and for now a right-angle metal gasket will keep the plaster from touching the wood.

The entire wall surface was meticulously covered with a metal lathe.  It creates a honey-comb matrix that the plaster will get a good grip on and strengthen it.

Krome says anytime you can make a matrix within a substrate – that’s good.  Metal is strong enough to bear the weight of the plaster, and it will strengthen the layer the way steel rebar strengthens concrete.  The lathe has self-firring bumps on the back side that hold it slightly out from the surface it is attached to so that it becomes an integral component in the middle of the scratch coat.

While three of the plaster team members were working on surface prep, Eric was mixing up a test batch of lime plaster to see how it will react in these high temperature and medium moisture conditions.

He combined local lime that has been slaking (a process where the dry lime is soaked in water to become a putty) in buckets for a week with PowerPozz    It’s a substance similar to volcanic ash that improves the strength and durability.  It also speeds up the setting time.   Then he added sand and water in a careful ratio.

The next step is to spread it out on a sample board and see how it performs.  (The same board will be used to test the brown coat, the name for the second of three coats, and the final coat as they are added.)

“The crew likes a material that sets up fast,” says Eric. “So I did a second test batch with twice as much pozz – a 10% ratio, which sped it up quite a bit. It has a fairly decent set in an hour.”

Tuesday Eric will mix up big batches of the scratch coat plaster, and the beautiful metal mesh over black tar paper will vanish beneath its first coat of lime plaster.

5 replies

  1. Yes, it is starting to seem more real. Living in this house has been in the planning stages for about six years.
    And as much as I am eager to move in, I am really enjoying the building process – plugging in where I can and being constantly amazed by the process and the great crew coming together to make it happen.
    Right now there are four carpenters and four plasters working on the house. They are all so good at what they do and so nice to work with.
    Yesterday there were 12 people on site, including Doug and me, and it seemed like a party.
    It’s actually going to seem a little strange, when all is said and done, and Doug and I are the only ones there.
    But yes, I am very excited about moving in.

    • Thanks, Joanna.
      Great to hear from you.
      Sometimes I feel like I’m riding a roller coaster. It can be a little scary, and sometimes I ask myself how I got in this position, but it completely rivets my attention.
      It is amazing watching all the pieces come together and even more watching the people involved bring so much skill and creativity and positive energy to this project.

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