Of mud and weeds and lunacy*! – September to December 2014

Well, mud and weeds anyway, the lunacy is general and not directly a result of the house.  Since completion of the sewerage system, things have been moving behind the scenes (not in a sewerage sense), with sorting the various technical drawings and plans for the capping of the foundations ready for the wall raising.  Part of this involved a late, but successful harvest, with the wheat only coming in in September.  However, this has replenished our stock of straw bales, in readiness for walls.  Combining happened exclusively at night, so evenings shovelling grain stopped me and Chris and Thom from getting bored after work!

IMG_1454 IMG_1458

After this, and in consultation with Barbara from Straw works, we started making plans for putting up the walls.  We have now decided not to use lime to render the outside of the bales, but to use a clay plaster instead.  As we now know from lots of soggy digging over last winter, the soil on the farm is very heavy clay, especially the subsoil.  Luckily this turns out to be just what we need for the clay plaster, so with a few experiments involving various ratios of clay to sand and chopped straw, we’ve come up with a really good mix for coating and sealing the bales inside and out.


Clay settlement test – the heaviest particles settle out first, creating bands of different particle sizes – sand first, then silt then clay. So, clay then….


Confirmation of this – the sausage breaks sooner the more sand in the mix – anything below 20cm is mostly clay. Katie’s sausage is over 40cm!!


Render mix tests. various combinations of clay, sand and chopped straw.


This will mean that we have to clad the outside of the building with wooden cladding, which we wouldn’t have had to have done with lime, but it’ll still work out cheaper and easier (I hope).


We also tested the bales for compression, so we know what height each wall section will be once compressed, so we can plan window heights etc.


The weeds part I mentioned is the ongoing battle against the nettles in our proto-garden.  60 years of capped rubbish tip, regularly doused with ash and larch needles means that the site has very nutrient enriched soil, perfect for nettles.  Now, although I’m well aware of the rich fauna supported by nettles (various butterfly larvae, prefer or are almost dependent on them), so I would n’t want them to disappear, I would like them to disappear from my garden!!  However, they’ve seen me coming, and deliberately decided to be pretty resistant to regular cutting and glyphosate, so the battle continues! (mostly involving me getting hot cutting them, and then being stung by the next generation…GRRRR!)


We have just finished the last, surprisingly level, run of tyres to the outer wall foundations which means we are finally building above ground!  This forms the base for the wooden ring-beam that will anchor and compress the bales of the ground floor walls, so it needs to be level.  We have also completed the ‘french drain’ around the outer edge of the foundations – the shallow trench filled with gravel that keeps the foundations and lower walls free of standing water and splash back.  No more tyres and gravel – hoorah!  Thanks to Dave and Kev for their hard work on completing the foundations.


The really complete foundations!





*this title is borrowed from a particularly puerile comment made by a local councillor on a piece of work myself and some colleagues did looking at the economics of land-use and its effect on environmental services in the fens.  He asserted that the British public cannot live “on lunacy and weeds!”  I leave it up to you to decide who is right on this….our article is here, his ‘learned’ response is here .

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About scampifield

I'm a conservation scientist, working in UK, European and African habitat conservation with NGOs and academic institutions. I am interested in the impacts of land use on conservation and ecosystem services. My wife and I are building a new house, paying particular attention to the resources used in both its construction and daily running. Follow our progress on this blog as we attempt to marry up resource protection, conservation and sound construction.....

6 thoughts on “Of mud and weeds and lunacy*! – September to December 2014

  1. Richard Stacy

    I am about to embark on a straw bale project using car tyres as foundations. I have a question for you. Why did you go down so deep and also create a continuous plinth type of foundation, rather than using tyres as pillar foundations with a box beam spanning them? I am also building on heavy clay, but am hoping I will only just have to dig down 12 inches or so to the clay subsoil and then place pillars of just two tyres, spaced around a metre apart.

    Here is the site that charts my progress by the way – https://suffolkstrawbaleholidaycottage.wordpress.com/ (will put a link to your site here)


    1. scampifield Post author

      Hi Richard
      the answer to your questions are a mix:

      We went so deep because the site is an old quarry, used as a village dump, so the good sub-soil is very uneven, covered with old rubbish, as well as more recent soil. So, in the footprint of the house we had some areas with the clay sub-soil was 25cm from the surface, and some where it was over 1m down. So, for ease of excavation, we went to 84cm (four tyres deep).

      We used continuous tyre foundations instead of intermittent piles, partly out of naïvety, and partly due to thorough engineers! We almost certainly could have done it with fewer tyres, but it would have meant more complex excavation, because of the variable sub-soil depth.

      thanks for the link to our site – will put one in our links section to yours also. Hope all this info helps


      1. Richard Stacy

        Thanks for this. Hopefully we won’t have the same issues because we believe the ground is relatively consistent. Will be very interested to see how the wall raising goes – are you going for a loadbearing structure?


      2. scampifield Post author

        Yes, wellcompressed anyway. It’ll be a hybrid, compressed bales supporting floors but not the roof, with some framing from wooden cladding to protect the clay render.

  2. Ian

    Your councillor there is an example of one who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
    Progressing well Rob! very interesting.

  3. Pingback: Straw and clay ….. it looks like a house now! | The House of Lotti

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