I don’t know about you guys, but where I’m at, it’s been a really interesting month for weather. Here in the mountains of central Montana, the weather swung low to -20F for a while, then soared up to 48F. The foot of snow that was settled in for the winter started to melt into a thick, crusty layer, and then something alarming happened - it started to move.
Our driveway is on a slope, and as things started to thaw out, the snow and ice slid down down to the bottom where we turn around, piling into foot-high piles of slush, slow, and ice - it’s been a mess. There’s only so much good that plowing that muck will do, and when things got below freezing again (as they always do), we were left with ragged, rutted out piles of frozen slush.
This whole thing has me really thinking of the importance of earthworks this month. I’m looking at this mess, and just kind of generally throwing my hands up, because we can keep plowing it out, but with the next random thaw, it will fill right back in with that muck.
During my time with Permies, I learned so much about the importance of earthworks. More than anything though, I learned that it’s always the first and most important thing you should do on a property - before you ever consider building anything.How your property manages water and temperature changes is going to dictate everything about the success of your homestead, so you need to get it together as soon as you start planning, and decide what needs to be done to make the plot efficient.
Though local climate can certainly vary from year to year, it’s crucial to recognize the importance of simply observing the patterns of water flow on your property before you begin construction. Knowing what happens when it rains and snows can change everything about your approach, so try to refrain from jumping in before you’re ready.
In addition to knowing the usual facts about where flood plains lie in your area and your average annual snowfall, frequently walk your property with a small notebook and jot down your observations at various points in your property. Get a feel for the ground, how soft it is, where water tends to settle, where things tend to freeze, and which areas drain the fastest.
After a solid year’s worth of observations, review your notes, and start digging into the real fun - planning your earthworks.
Placing the proper earthworks in place before you start building your house or garden isn’t just going to mitigate the usual problems of a washed out driveway or flooded yard - it’s going to direct water where you actually need it.
Swales are a fantastic way to help your property hold onto water, while still getting it out of the way. Unlike a ditch, swales hold onto water, rather than direct it away. Using these in conjunction with areas that drain too quickly is a great way to provide water to areas that need it the most.
Berms are another great way to influence your local micro-climate. They’ll block excess wind and sun, and you can even use hugelkultur to create systems that hold onto water and provide abundant plant growth.
With some forethought and a little heavy equipment use, earthworks can actually save you from having to irrigate, and even allow you to direct excess water in such a way that’s beneficial to your property. In his World Domination Gardening DVD set, Paul Wheaton demonstrates an interesting project, in which nasty road culvert water is directed into a pond, and then cleaned with a completely natural, maintenance-free filtration system.
The concept of where and how to build a structure to accommodate the weather is one that could span an entire book, but there are a couple of basic principles to make sure you have covered if you plan to build a house or structure.
Build somewhere sensible. Choose a well-drained area on a high point of your property for building your home, with firm, well-drained soil.
Use trees to your advantage. Though the risk of having your roof smashed in by a strong wind is a valid concern, there’s a lot to be said for the simple cooling effects of a large, strong tree situated near your home. The shade alone will keep your house much cooler in the summer, so don’t rule it out as an alternative to air conditioning.
Pay close attention to the pitch of your roof. This is where consulting an engineer could be a necessity if you live in a climate with a lot of snow. Snow weighs a lot, and frequently collapses buildings that aren’t designed to help with shedding it. Make sure if you’re in a climate with a lot of annual snowfall that your roof is going to allow for slide.
The bigger your eaves, the better. Large eaves are going to help keep your house and foundation dry in a heavy downpour. Make the overhang as large as you can.
Have a system for redirecting water. Eaves won’t do you any good at all if you’re just letting the water pool around your house. Install a good gutter system, and run some drainage canals strategically through your property to direct the flow of water somewhere more sensible, whether it be a collection tank or pond.
When it all seems like a lot get your head around, just remember this one simple thing: always direct water away from structures. Sometimes that might mean literally building a hill to put your house on, but in many cases it could be just as simple as installing a gutter system and some French drains.
Additionally, remember to factor in the local climate extremes as you plan and build your site, and allocate your time and financial resources according to the most pressing issues. For example, in a dry climate like Texas’, a Dallas gutter system isn’t going to work nearly as hard as one in Washington. If you have a heavy rainfall, invest plenty of time and money into systems that are going to be resilient and effective. Being a cheapskate in these areas is only going to hurt you in the long run.
Other considerations are going to be dependent on the type of structure you build. Underground dwellings will have to account for things like condensation, and above ground homes should be engineered with wind in mind.
All of these concepts are pretty straightforward, but the downfall of the homesteader is always jumping the gun, so make sure you take the time necessary to plan, so that Mother Nature doesn’t, quite literally, wipe your progress off the face of the earth. DIY home building is absolutely possible, but it takes a great deal of forethought to successfully execute, so do your homework.
I know you’re itching to get your hands dirty and start putting together your property, but trust me on this - wait. Watch what happens when weather hits your property, and plan your buildings and earthworks around what Mother Nature has in store for you.
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