Tiny house foundations

You know that we’re working on 3 small buildings simultaneously – one is going to be a paint shed and the other two would have been called ‘sleep outs’ in the 60’s but we now call them tiny houses and it’s much cooler, right?  Because the buildings here at Chestnut Farm don’t contain cooking or bathroom facilities, they’re not fully fledged tiny houses, but the basic challenge of constructing a small building is the first hurdle for prospective builders, so I’m hoping these posts will help you pick up a few things.

I want to show two different ways to build tiny houses; one with post and rail construction to support the walls & roof, and the other featuring pre-fabricated (on site) stud framing fixed to plain concrete slabs.

On Monday, we finished the low formwork (or ‘boxing’) for the paint shed.

The posts were put in last week (see previous post)and some cross timbers added for support and also because we can add them without them getting in  the way of pouring the slab.  Post and beam is much quicker than stud framing, and uses a lot less timber.  You need heavier timbers, but fewer of them.  One disadvantage of round posts is that they get in the way if you want to line the building.  Note that the slab is off-set from the posts, so that the posts will be integrated into the slab.

The offset is the same distance as the beams are thick, so that corrugated iron fixed to the outside of the beams will slide down neatly against the side of the finished slab

After finishing the formwork at the paint shed, we jumped across to the Apple House site.  This will be the same size and shape as the paint shed – 2.4 m x 4 m.  (If you’re thinking of a tiny house, mark this out on the ground and walk around in it: it’s a very human-friendly shape for a multipurpose room)

The Apple House is adjacent to the top dam and will nestle behind the seedling apple which is at its NW corner.  We’d shifted some fill during the dam renovation in December, but were (yesterday!) lucky enough to get another 6 ute-loads from a nearby housing development.  These extend the ‘bench’ around the building – meaning we can build a small level garden around the building, which will be aesthetically pleasing, but also fulfil a key structural function in resisting any movement (under the slab) of the fill from the dam.

Jump ahead a few hours and here’s Clem rechecking that everything is level and that all the distances are right.  Once you’ve checked all your sides are the correct lengths (the short ends are 2.4m and the long sides are 4 m) the key test is to measure the diagonal from corner to corner.  If those two distances are the same, you have created a rectangle.  If not, and your side measurements are correct, your corners aren’t at 90 degrees – you’ve created a parallelogram.  (If that happens, a bit of shuffling of timbers should get it right.  Easier to demonstrate than to write about!)

This big pile of fill – mostly topsoil mix – came from a local earthmover, Paul Mullane, who I highly recommend.  Top operator and great guy to boot.  Paul was doing a job in Wendouree, heard we needed some more fill and dropped this off at about 8.30 am.  It provides a heap of further support for the fill under the slab – we’ll also spread some on top of the clay fill we’ve already spread around the Apple House site.  It’ll help our garden grow – thanks, Paul!

Meantime, with the side timbers in place (note small timber pegs at strategic points), I started shovelling a shallow trench around the inside edge of the future slab.  It’ll be about 350 mm wide and 200 mm deep, whereas the rest of the slab will be only 100 mm deep.  The thicker edge makes the slab stronger and is located near the edge because that’s where the weight of the walls and roof come down.

Lunchtime and Clem & Jackie have already got stuck into Paul’s load of fill.  Some is spread around the base of the apple, and some on the exposed walls of the dam.  We’ll spread more around the South side of the Apple House (where the straw is) tomorrow.  [The straw was there in case it rained – clay subsoil is disgusting to walk on once it gets wet!  It sticks to your boots and you walk it everywhere!]


Up she goes!

We’re putting a little shed up at one end of a long screening fence.  The fence will come later.  We’re getting the shed up now.  It is 2.4 x 4m which means it does not require a building or planning permit.  We’ll build it solid and wonderful, of course, because we want to be good stewards of our resources, hate repeating work and because we want to prove that a patient amateur builds as well as a rushed professional.

Jackie & Clement set up the four corner posts after Clement did a marathon job digging the holes (some of them were pretty nasty!)

Yesterday, Clem and I put up the rest of the posts.  Today, Jackie & Clem took turns digging out shallow trenches for the concrete form work, and painting the posts.

They line up pretty well, too, those posts!

The plan is to erect 3 buildings of about this size (all under the magic 10 sq metres); the other two will be for WWOOFers to stay in.  (Think old school ‘sleep out’ but funky design, solar passive orientation, good insulation and NOT made out of 1960’s asbestos sheeting)

Cubby decking

It’s been a busy couple of weeks and the cubby deck has jumped ahead!  Here’s Clement putting down the planks on the deck

Then we sorted out the stairs, but took our time to build them right.  Big thanks to Kyle for helping with the stringers.  In fact, Kyle was so impressed with his work that he took a photo of it!

Clement finished the planks  on the deck

and then we fitted the treads while Jackie started painting them.

Did I mention that Jackie loves painting?

After the stairs, we fitted rails to the posts, to stop the little people tumbling off the deck…

Pepper stayed over for a visit and gave the stairs a five star rating!

Jackie kept painting anything we put up…

The deck rails are finished – just those beside the steps to do

Do you like or aqua and off-white colour scheme?  It’s what you get when your choices are determined by other people’s mistints!   🙂  Big thanks to Clement, Jackie & Kyle for their work on the deck.



Summer work

A month ago, it was light and bright at 6 am, but no more… the Summer days are starting to wane and it is now decidedly dull when we start work at 7 am each day.  The pattern of working 7 – 9, taking half an hour tea (or breakfast) break, then working 9.30 – 12.30 is working well.  It gives the WWOOFers every afternoon ‘off’ to sleep, research, play games, go for walks, make music or drive into town and run around the lake.

From 7 – 9 every morning, two people water the gardens – vegetable, forest garden, apples in pots, gardens around verandah and now the plantings on the dam wall.  Here’s Clara helping along the apple in the cubby garden.  It was only planted a bit over a year ago.

Louana has been watering the apples and the forest garden every week day for the last three weeks.  The apples have never had a better summer!  The forest garden is looking great, too; we’ve lost a couple of strawberries but everything else is growing well.

Rhubarb, fig, dwarf comfrey, sea kale and a smartering of annual vegetables filling gaps in the groundcover

While the watering is happening, other jobs are also going on… here’s Jackie painting poles to be used in Pepper’s cubby deck

Later on that day, Clara finished the fly screens for the cubby opening windows

It took a day or two, but we eventually put up the first posts and beams for the deck outside the cubby door… heck, I might even build those stairs I’ve been promising her!

Jackie loves building!

Clara loves supervising, but decided she needed something subtle to emphasise her superior position.

I look like I’m smiling, but I’m really singing a song about clamps (“ripping off his turban…”)

and at the end of the day, we got the key beams up so Jackie celebrated with a hammer and clamp gangster pose.  I don’t know what it means, either.


Apple treat

On Saturday I visited my old mate Tony down at Apollo Bay and we went for a walk in the hills behind the town, where his family farm contains an amazing array of heritage apples.  We got very lucky because the Duchess of Oldenburg graced us with a few gifts!

It is an early season spur-bearing cooking apple, but tasted quite fine straight off the tree.  The distinctive stripes of yellow & red make this a very attractive, if small, apple.

Originally from Russia (mid 1700’s), this tree is a parent to the well-known Northern Spy (a prominent rootstock tree for many decades).  The fruit doesn’t keep long (a characteristic of many early apples) but cooks to a puree with a slight orange taste…  think I’d better get some on the stove!

Click for more info on the Duchess of Oldenburg apple

The Retrosuburbia interview

David Holmgren will be interviewed by Jon Faine on The Conversation Hour ABC Radio Melbourne on Thursday 8th Feb, 11.00am – 12.00pm. The interview will focus on David’s new book Retrosuburbia, which is officially released at the Sustainable Living Festival on Saturday Feb 10.  Costa Georgiadis from Gardening Australia will lead the book launch, which is a free event – tickets here.

You can find ABC Radio Melbourne here.

Try again

When Dave Jacke was out here for the Forest Garden Design Intensive in 2016, we planted out a forest garden area and put in a heap of mostly native ground covers… which were swamped by fungi and grass within a few months.

Having now recovered the site from the grass and restored the larger plants to health with daily watering over the last few weeks of Summer, my thoughts turned to the ground covers.  A couple of cooler days after a big storm seemed a perfect time to put just a few new seedlings in.

I visited Matt Pywell at Ballarat Wild Plants and he gave me a great deal on some little fellas .  [Ballarat Wild Plants. 5333 5548/ 0409 388 014 wildplants@ncable.net.au ]

Viola hederacea

Daley’s say that the flowers are edible and can be used in salads, but I’m mainly after it forming a dense mat.  It dies back in Winter, so we’ll have to see how it copes with Ballarat frosts.  I had one from the first planting which did quite well until it was accidentally ‘weeded’ out.

Eutaxia microphylla prostrate

This wasn’t part of my original planting plan, but it’s a member of the Fabacea (pea) family so I’m hoping to gain some Nitrogen as well as an attractive ground cover.  It’s often grown in rockeries and likes dry sunny spots, so I’ve planted it on solar oriented sides of raised beds.

Hardenbergia violacea

Commonly known as “Running Postman”, this is another Fabacea family Nitrogen fixer, which isn’t a ground cover so much as a sprawling rambler or climber.  I’ve planted one either side of a patch of established dwarf comfrey, hoping that it will ramble through them.  Matt tells me this is a local selection which is less vigorous than others so it won’t swamp the comfrey or the fig planted in the middle of the comfrey.

Amaranthus spp

While not part of today’s ground cover planting, I thought you might like to see these Amaranth which we planted to fill a gap – and because Clara cranked out so many seedlings so we had plenty spare.  You might call it taking advantage of a ‘space’ in the succession.  I planted Eutaxia and Viola under the amaranth, so they can start to colonise the ground while we take advantage of the chance to harvest some Amaranth grain.  Stacking layers, stacking functions… sounds like permaculture to me.  🙂

Portulaca oleracea sativa

This Golden Purslane is an annual that we planted to take advantage of the bare ground and frequent watering.  Purslane is lovely in a summer salad,; it is crisp and juicy, with a mixed sweet & sour taste.  This variety is much bigger than the purslane I’ve got growing randomly in the lawn or veggie beds.   (Note the flush of new growth in the black currant behind… don’t plants love frequent watering and no grass competing with them!)

Martin Crawford says the ground cover layer is the most important in a forest garden.   Let’s hope today’s little guys do better than the last and that bare ground is soon green and grey!

Daylesford expedition

Pepper and I went on an expedition to Daylesford and Hepburn yesterday.  After quite a few hot weeks, we’d nearly run out of mineral water so I’d loaded boxes of empties onto the back of the ute before I went to pick Pepper up from Creswick library.  One story book later, we hit the road.

Tipperary Springs is one of many natural mineral springs in the Daylesford Hepburn area, and they all taste slightly different.  Tipperary is probably my favourite.

190 bottles filled by hand pump… a personal best and I was pretty glad I didn’t have any more.  Pepper helped with the pumping for a few dozen bottles, and varied the task by also volunteering to screw on the lids.  We’d taken ‘the friends’ (a varied group of small toys that travel together in an old plastic mushroom container) and a pirate card game so they also came out to play.  A couple of other groups of travellers visited: an older couple towing a caravan who’d also driven across from Creswick and had no idea where they’d end up that night (nice way to wander!) then a young Jewish couple from Melbourne with their five kids.  The Dad had come to Tipperary when he was a kid; some of his kids tasted the water but they all hated it so I’m not sure visiting the Springs is going to become an inter-generational ritual.

[Here’s Pepper having proudly matched all the cards in the pirate game!]

Filling the bottles took so long that when we then went to Melliodora (via the Daylesford tip) for a social catch up with David and Su it was lunchtime.  Luckily, we had sandwiches and our freshly minted mineral water to share.  It was a big table; the usual Melliodora/Holmgren Design Services staff plus three WWOOFers, Beck Lowe (who can’t have been editing Retrosuburbia because it’s at the printers but was doubtless doing some useful task!) and a couple of extras; Osti working on website things and Imogen filming him working on website things.

We had a fleeting visit with Nick & Speedy working on mushroom stuff before Nick headed to Sydney to teach an Intro to Permaculture weekend.

After a lovely chatty lunch and a story on the couch afterwards ( The Tale of Pigling Bland, Beatrix Potter 1913) we swung by 3 Op Shops in Daylesford where we bought some books and a wooden plank with three coat hooks on it (for the back of the door in the composting toilet).

Home by four o’clock and that was yesterday’s big expedition.  A fun, social and productive day with my gorgeous youngest daughter.  We’ve had Thursdays and Fridays together for a couple of years but all that will change next week when she starts Primary School.   I know every age and stage in children’s lives is special… but I shall miss Thursdays and Fridays with Pepper. 🙂


‘Long drop’ loo

Before composting toilets were popular, there was a strong tradition in Australia of long-drop toilets on rural properties.  These are toilets positioned over deep holes; I’ve even heard of them set up over old mine shafts!

You could easily argue that human ‘manure’ is the most expensive fertiliser we produce on the planet, so mixing it with water then running the ‘black’ water through expensive industrial plant seems pretty crazy…  much better to retain it on-site, use natural decomposition to safely process any possible pathogens and retain the nutrients to benefit the local ecosystem.

In preparation for the BPG Permaculture Design Course which started today, we built a new composting toilet, which is positioned over a hole dug by a backhoe fitted  with a 500 mm auger.  The holes are about 1800 mm deep – and I say holes because we dug 6 in a line (more on that later).

We started by building a solid base, working off the foundation of an existing pallet.

Clara and Bri making up the frames

Side walls prefabricated and stacked waiting to be put into place

…and here they are bolted to the base (so the structure can be easily dismantled later if we need to)

Clara and James putting on the roof crossbeams

and then the roof itself.  Notice the heavy pallets on corrugated iron behind the building.  These are covering the other ‘drops’ – as each is filled, the building will move backwards on timber tracks it has been built on.

Here James and Clara are fitting the internal framing that the door will swing on.  Note the insulation paper which is recycled – yes! – from a job at my brother’s place where he wasn’t happy with the install.  Pepper and I rolled up the paper and it was back on a new building within days.  Nearly all of the composting loo is recycled materials.

This old Victorian door was chosen because it is only 710 mm wide (modern doors are 820 mm) and we wanted a narrow door so it wouldn’t ‘stick out’ past the end of the building.  It is also a nice old door which deserves to have a second (or third!) life.

Toilet seat support structures in place – and insulation wrap going around the building

Clara and Bri looking pretty happy about putting the first sheet of iron on!

North side wall iron, with openings for windows ground out

The trim around the windows is Colorbond angle bracing taken off pallets and cut to size.  We used the same angle material around most of the building.

Internal lining sheets started

Clara making lining sections by cutting up chipboard packing sheets from a local furniture factory

Fully clad inside and out so it’s painting time!  Bri paints the inside and Simon paints the outside…

Internal finish – looking gorgeous!  PDC timetable up on the back of the door.

Wouldn’t you like one at your place?

Oh, and the lovely opaque windows are sliding doors from an old kitchen dresser or built-in unit.  1950’s or 60’s I’d guess.  Sanded and repainted by Clara; they let lots of light in while retaining privacy.

Two weeks ago, there was nothing here.  Built almost entirely from salvaged materials, this composting loo is clean, tidy, attractive and smell-free… all important factors in helping people get past the deeply ingrained caution about on-site processing of humanure.

Robert Hart quote

On the train to Melbourne and back yesterday I was re-reading Robert Hart’s 1996 book “Forest Gardening” and here’s a nice reminder from Robert:

“A forest garden is not a static thing, it is a complex living organism which means a developing organism; it changes from year to year, even from day to day.  I would urge anyone who starts a forest garden to adopt a creative attitude towards it; to learn and observe; to study and do research.  Humankind has an enormous amount to learn about plants, above all about their relationships between each other, and the amateur can make as important discoveries by observation and experiment as can the trained scientist with his disciplines and instruments. ”  (p 149)

Observations?  The first forest garden patch here at Chestnut Farm was planted during the Forest Garden Design Intensive with Dave Jacke in 2016.  Within months it was subjected to the wettest Winter in memory, which caused an eruption of fungi to burst out of the cardboard we’d used to sheet mulch – smothering many of the tubestock seedlings.  The expensive Australian native groundcovers hated the enriched soil we used around the fruit trees, but exotic grasses loved it and invaded happily.   One rare plant was repeatedly browsed by possums until it succumbed and returned no more. Whoops!

Some of our hardier plantings, including sea kale, dwarf comfrey, black currants, rhubarb, balm of gilead, lemon balm and various alliums all survived.  Once the grass was removed last month, it was relief to see the bare bones of a forest garden remained!

Experiments?  Keeping in mind Martin Crawford’s entreaty that the ground cover layer is the most important, we wanted to get stuff growing in the gaps between the surviving plants, so have planted different seedlings we have right now: particularly amaranth and Daubenton’s kale.  I confess it might be better to have a little more discipline with our experiments, so we’re chasing some more of the groundcovers and we’re even going to try some of those Nitrogen-fixing Aussie natives again!