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From Horse Barn to Wellness Center, Part 4: Sourcing Structural Lumber

Following the journey to remodel a horse barn into a commercial wellness center on a Midwestern property zoned for agriculture. This multi-part series recounts the considerations, pitfalls and ultimate successes of a green-building project with an ambitious scope to bring a defunct farm building new life as a natural health destination. 

The first page of a set of building plans normally is the site plan. There were several site plans for this project on file with the township already, so I decided to take the site plan that the Township Board had already seen and update it with the new information. I filled out the form that accompanied the site plan and tried to get a hold of the person at the township who was responsible for signing off on the updated site plan.

The person who was responsible for signing our conditions of approval list was a part-time subcontractor for the township who was also the Zoning Administrator for several other townships in the area. This meant that we had to place several phone calls until he answered and then he agreed to receive the paperwork by email. He reviewed the site plan and looked over the list of conditions to see if we had done everything. Knowing that a few of the items on the list were to be completed near the end of the project, he signed off and that got us one step closer to submitting the paperwork for the building permit. 

Sourcing ‘Select Structural’ Lumber

I called the structural engineer one more time to discuss a few specific areas of the project to make sure that I understood everything. One of the callouts that kept catching my eye was that every piece of lumber that I drew from the rafters to the floor joists was a grade of lumber called “select structural”. I had not heard of this grade of lumber before and the engineer explained that the lumber was stronger than conventional framing lumber. He said that we needed that grade of lumber to meet the floor and roof loads required by the commercial building code.

Because I was the builder on this project also, I asked him where he normally got this grade of lumber. “I don’t normally buy lumber, so I am not sure where,” the engineer told me. My immediate thought was that we had hit another snag in this process. I decided to send a message to our lumber representative to see if he knew where we could get this select structural lumber.

“I haven’t heard of that grade lumber in several years; it might be special order,” said our lumber representative. I wondered why the engineer would specify a grade lumber that wasn’t available. Before I gave up hope, I called another person that I knew in the lumber business and he was much more aware of this special grade lumber that we needed.

“Select structural lumber is the grade lumber the roof truss companies use when making roof trusses,” he said. “They normally stock all sorts of sizes and lengths.” I thanked him for the lead and called our lumber representative back up and asked him to check with his roof truss company. He called back with an excited tone in his voice to tell me that we could get whatever select structural lumber that we needed and it could be delivered within a few days. I told him that we did not start construction yet and that I would let him know when we were getting close to starting the project.

Preparing to Meet the Building Inspector

Like many builders, I am busy during the day building, and busy early mornings and late evenings working on drawings, paperwork, and bidding other jobs (all of that, of course, before and after family time). I spent all of my time outside of building working on the building plans for the wellness center so that I could get them finished and ready to submit with the building permit application.

Toward the end of the drawing process, a thought popped into my head about setting up a time with the building inspector and going over the building permit application and the building plans with him. Normally, builders are required to drop off the building permit application and building plans at the township office and then we have to wait for at least a week until we hear if we got the building permit or not. With every line that I darkened on the building plans, my excitement grew to get the building permit.

I left a message for the Building Inspector: “This is Adam, the builder working on the horse barn that will be turned into a Wellness Center. I would like to set up a time to meet in person so that we can go over the building permit application and building plans.” I provided the address and township also so that the building inspector knew who I was and what I was talking about.

Later that day, the building inspector called me back and we set up a time to meet the following Tuesday when he was at the township hall. Thankfully we were meeting outside of his normal hours, so that there were no distractions and he could focus on this one project. By setting the appointment with the building inspector, I was setting my expectations high that I could work full-time on a building project during the day and then go home to draw in the evenings. After many long nights, I finished the building plans and sent them to the printer to be printed.

This entire time throughout the drawing process and discussions with the building inspector and structural engineer, I updated the owners and let them know where we were in the process. I notified the owners that I was meeting with the building inspector on that upcoming Tuesday and I intended on leaving there with the building permit.

The dream of turning the horse barn into their Wellness Center was finally going to come true. I picked up the drawings from the printer and looked over the building permit application one more time to make sure that I had not overlooked anything.

Willing Ones and Naysayers

Tuesday arrived and I was motivated to get to the township hall and get the building permit. While I was driving to the township hall, I was thinking about every detail that I drew on the building plan. I felt very confident that there was nothing about the Wellness Center build that concerned me, except some of the subcontractors who would be working on the project. In the 17 years that I have owned my building business and worked on out of the box projects, I have learned that there are two kinds of people who come out to check out or work on our projects: the Willing Ones and the Naysayers.

The Willing Ones are always willing to work on projects that are out of the box, because they love a challenge and seem to like to work on projects that are unlike others. The Willing Ones are such a breath of fresh air to me and are people who will make me feel good for taking an out of the box project. I do my best when I am surrounded by positive people and the Willing Ones are always so positive.

The Willing Ones are not always my first choice to hire, though, because willingness doesn’t always mean that they have the skill set to do what I am asking them to do. Having people around me that always agree with me is not always good for the team — at least that is what I have discovered over the years.

The Naysayers can be a real drag on my excitement. The Naysayers will say things to try to derail the projects, things like, “You should have just tore this barn down” or, “Why would anyone want to turn an old stinky barn into a Wellness Center? If it were me, I would have stayed in town.”

The Naysayer, for whatever reason, will say something negative no matter how much excitement or passion I have in my voice. Although the Naysayer is a person who grinds my gears, I don’t always rule them out as a hire because the Naysayer may have worked on out-of-the-box projects before and has a skill set that is very useful. Having an antagonist like a Naysayer can sometimes coax out the best in me versus the warm and fuzzy feeling I get with the Willing Ones, because I feel challenged to investigate every possible solution and outcome.

I wasn’t sure who I would hire yet on the project but I was very sure that I had driven past the entrance to the township hall as my mind came back to reality. I turned around and headed back to the township hall.

“There sure are a lot of vehicles here for a Tuesday,” I thought as I found a place to park. I walked into the township hall and immediately saw several people sitting in the waiting area again. I walked up to the receptionist to see what was going on and she said that I could go right in, that the building inspector was waiting for me.

“Come in”, the building inspector said as I walk up to his door. I took a deep breath and went into his office.

Follow the full series as the saga of the horse barn to wellness center transformation unfolds.

Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project Michigan. Adam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

When You Don’t Have Toilet Paper: Lessons from a TP-Free Household


As regular readers of this series know, most my life I've lived off the grid in some form or another. This lifestyle has taught me lots of quirky survival techniques and energy-saving skills.

For example, this morning I realize I never make a cup of tea. Rather, I always make a thermos of tea, and then I don't have to waste the heat or waste the teabag — you get three cups out of one teabag over the course of the day this way. My dad used to do that or he'd make a pot of coffee, put it in a thermos, and never have to worry about heating it up.

A Toilet Paper-Free Childhood

Frugality like this was more commonplace in the early part of the 20th Century, and extended to most rooms of the house, including the bathroom. I looked it up: For the most part, people in the U.S. actually didn't really begin using toilet paper until the 1930s after the Depression. It was available in the 1920s but didn't take off until a decade later.

Most of my youth, we used an outhouse (that way we didn't even waste our waste) and relied on pretty much anything you could possibly think of as toilet paper. I never thought I would write about this as it's kind of embarrassing for me, but due to our "shortage”, I thought it's time to talk about growing up using other options besides toilet paper. I never wanted to talk about this subject, because I thought my family imposed these rules because we were extremely poor, growing up in Tennessee in the poorest county in the state. But now, looking back I realize it was a conscious choice by my parents to figure out how to simplify and not rely on others as much as possible. We would only go to the store or town once a month.

Options for When You Don’t Have Toilet Paper

Newspaper is nice and soft, especially if you crumble it up. But don't use the slick ads, because it's got too waxy a surface on it and a doesn't absorb anything. The same thing applies to most modern catalogs; they now print them glossy so, as the saying goes, they don’t work like they used to.

Corn cobs. I have used the corncob method but we didn't have ready access to those. They can be surprisingly soft if all the kernels were properly removed.

Water body washing. In the summer, there were times that I went feral and just jumped in the creek afterwards to wash up. Or, if I wasn't near an outhouse when I was in the woods and really had to go, a small handful of dirt surprisingly did a good job. I’d then jump in the creek afterward and rinse. I tried to use leaves once or twice but beware of poison ivy — those are definitely leaves you want to stay away from

Cotton fabric scraps. We got given a whole bunch of old T-shirts and we ripped them up, used them and put them in a basket in the outhouse. Only use shirts or other linens that are 100 percent cotton so that they will fully decompose. The most sustainable and best method — familiar to anybody who uses cloth diapers — is to use strips of old T-shirt and after use, drop them into a bucket (with a lid) full of bleach water. When the bucket is full, run a load of laundry.

I look forward everyday to the interactions that I have on my Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page and hope you will join the discussion there. Stay energized.

Aur Beck has lived off-grid for over 35 years. He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page, and read all of Aur's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

From Horse Barn to Wellness Center, Part 3: Seeking Fire Department Approval


Following the journey to remodel a horse barn into a commercial wellness center on a Midwestern property zoned for agriculture. This multi-part series recounts the considerations, pitfalls and ultimate successes of a green-building project with an ambitious scope to bring a defunct farm building new life as a natural health destination.

“I don’t want you to just draw a picture of my sketch, I want you to understand what you will be building and why,” the structural engineer said on the phone. He knew that I was going to be the leader of the team that was building and repurposing the barn. I decided that I could learn a lot about how and why a structural engineer thinks the way he does if I remained level-headed and did everything he said to do with the drawings.

Memories of college popped into my head during the design phase as the structural engineer marked up my drawings with red ink multiple times and sent them back to me. We went over each of the 26 details many times in order for me to get the drawings perfect and for me to understand each detail without a single doubt. The engineer would sign off on each detail only after he was confident that I had grasped the “what’s and why’s” of each. After any individual detail was signed off on as “OK” by the engineer, I would then add that approved detail to the finished set of building plans.

Adapting Design Sketches to Accommodate Building Additions

The original architect had drawn additions on the side and front of the existing barn, and the structural engineer now spent considerable time trying to create a way to make those possible to include in the remodel. For the addition on the side of the barn, we would have to remove a portion of the existing barn roof trusses so that the addition’s roof framing could tie into the upper barn roof. This would create a longer, shed-style roof coming off of the upper pitch of the existing barn roof.

The first sketch that the structural engineer emailed to me didn’t make much sense. The drawing was legible but removing the bottom of the existing barn trusses had me very concerned. We discussed how his sketched design would hold everything up.

The engineer asked me what process I would follow during working on that area of the barn. I told him that we would take everything in steps, one thing at a time, and work our way up to that roof so that we had a floor to work off of on the addition side of the existing barn. This meant that after the concrete slab was poured for the addition, we would build the main floor walls, then set the floor joists and subfloor.

We determined that we needed a detail for how the floor joists would be supported on the existing barn wall. We made sure to call out that the addition second floor had to be the same height as the existing barn second floor. I continued to explain how I wanted to build step-by-step and after we had the second floor walls up and sheathed, then we could safely work on removing the existing roof area piece by piece.

During the building process, this is exactly what we did and we safely achieved our objective, more on the building process later.

Moving from Structural Designs to Hand-Drawn Building Plans

As the engineer and I finished the details for meeting the commercial building code using the existing barn, we both felt very confident that the existing barn would be structurally sound after the additions were attached. The engineer told me that if I had any questions to let him know and he wished me good luck — it was time for me to start drawing the finished building plans.

Early on, I decided to hand draw the drawings, so that I could draw details that my CAD programs did not have. I also have discovered throughout the years, that I become very close with the drawings by hand drawing and being that close to the drawing allows me to see possible issues before we begin building the project. I draw the projects and lead the team on site, and that gives me multiple opportunities to find better ways to do things before we even start building anything.

At the beginning of the design process, I used CAD to conceptualize the owner’s ideas and mine in a medium that I could share by email. We took what the original architect had drawn and adjusted the drawings from there with his blessing. The drawings were really coming together! Soon they’d be done and I could submit for the building permit.

‘All Conditions Must be Met for Approval’

One early morning, as I was working on the final building plans for the Wellness Center, I got a thought in my head and it was about something that I saw on the township paperwork under the conditions section. I searched my email for the file that contained the township paperwork. I opened the file, and started to read the documents again. There was one line in that entire document that I was searching for because, for some reason, I could not get it off of my mind.

Then, I found it: Building permit may be issued only after satisfying all the conditions of approval, this form shall be signed upon completion.

I hadn’t paid as much attention to that line before while reading the township documents originally. I decided that I needed to review the list of conditions again and make sure that each line item was met before I finished the building plans so that I could immediately submit for the building permit.

I began to read the list of conditions of approval (each of which must be met):

  • The parking lot setback shall be no less than 150 feet from the west property line.
  • One parking space shall be accessible and barrier-free.
  • The walkway between the parking area and the facility shall be concrete and meet ADA (American with Disabilities Act of 1990) requirements.
  • Provide additional information on the site plan:
  • The gradient of the driveway serving the development.
  • Parking area drainage flow.
  • Location and design of on-site wells and on-site septic tank and tile field systems.
  • Provide landscaping buffer details on the site plan:
  • Trees shall be planted within six months of site plan approval.
  • Evergreens shall be installed at no less than 5 feet in height.
  • Species types shall be indicated on the site plan.
  • County Health Department approval for well and septic
  • County Drain Commission approval.
  • Fire Department approval. Driveways and drive aisles shall comply with Fire Department requirements for site access.

Seeking Fire Department Approval for a Commercial Remodel

After reviewing the document, I determined that the conditions listed at the top of the list were items that were either to be handled later in the process or for things that I needed to remember to add to the site plan before I sent it in for approval by the township. The bottom three items on the list were things that I felt needed to be addressed immediately. With a little effort, I was able to get the County drain commission approval and the permits for the well and the septic system from the County Health Department.

With both of the easier line items handled, I then tried to contact the local Fire Department. After a few phone calls, I found out that they were a volunteer fire department and the fire chief, whom I needed to sign off on the driveway design, was part-time and was hard to get a hold of. I started to call other fire departments in the area to try to track the Fire Chief down.

Finally, I got a good lead and was able to track down the Fire Chief. He was very helpful, and he told me exactly how the driveway was supposed to be built to meet the Fire Departments needs. I drew the plans for the driveway and emailed the plans to the Fire Chief. He signed the plans and emailed the plans back to me that day. We were getting closer to being able to get our building permit.

Follow the full series as the saga of the horse barn to wellness center transformation unfolds.

Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project MichiganAdam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Marketing Homestead Products: Why You Need to Establish a Brand 101


Photo by Raw Pixel

The Marketing Homestead Products series offers market gardeners and homesteaders tailored advice for selling their goods. Consider the benefits and drawbacks of joining up with a CSA, renting a farmer’s market stall, and the various forms of advertising available to your farm-based business.

When it comes to operating a farm business, your ability to grow product is only half the responsibility. In order to become successful, you must also sell your product. Creating a brand for your farm is essential to your marketing success.

Farm branding is an essential piece of marketing homestead products. When you build a farm business, you are also building a brand. Your brand is how your customer views your business. It informs how you communicate with your customers and the values they associate with your products.

There are several considerations to keep in mind when establishing your farm brand. From your tone to your mission statement, you want your branding to be consistent and easily communicable. Let's examine how to build a brand for your farm or homestead products.

1. Personality

Your brand influences how consumers make purchasing decisions. Your brand should be exciting, engaging and empathetic. It should work for you, making it easy to market your product. The characteristics of your team should be apparent in your branding. For example, if you are light-hearted and funny, you want to share that in your branding.

2. Tone

Like personality, tone informs not only the message you are sharing but how you share it. You want your branding to be consistent and easily recognizable to your target audience.

Developing a consistent tone helps your customers remember your voice. Setting the right tone can also help you with internal operations by providing a set of guidelines to adhere to.

Especially when it comes to fresh produce brands, you want your tone to elicit an emotional response that reminds the buyer why they chose you. Is it because you are especially transparent about your growing practices? Is it because you offer entertaining tidbits of farm knowledge that they find amusing or useful?

3. Clarity

The last thing you want to do is confuse your customers. If your target audience is met with repeated confusion when purchasing your product, they will be less likely to invest in your business in the future. When you establish your brand, ask yourself how you can best communicate your story and values. The clarity of your brand is essential to improving transparency for your target audience.

Clarity goes beyond having a readable logo and a memorable farm name. For prime optimization, your branding should be evident in every corner of your marketing plan. Every environment, campaign and interaction with your customers should serve as an extension of your brand.

One of the best ways you can promote your brand is through investing in nameplates. Nameplates are a great way to improve brand consistency. For example, if you have an on-farm office next to your market stand, adding a customized nameplate to the building adds an extra degree of professionalism.

4. Relatability

People want to feel like they can relate to you.

With the boom of social media and consumers seeking authenticity in the brands they support, it is vital to communicate to your customers that you are a real person. For example, you may think that your best sales strategy is to post picture after picture of your available products. But this approach doesn't give your customers any information on who you are, why you sell this product or why you are passionate about what you do.

The way you communicate with your customers, whether via the written word or otherwise, has a direct impact on your perceived relatability. Small farms and homesteads can often seem more accessible to the public than multi-owner corporations. People want to know the story behind the person who picked their apples and harvested their pumpkins. They want to know they can trust the person who harvests their spinach and cucumbers.

5. Expectations

You want to communicate consistency in every interaction you have with your customers. Developing a brand for your farm business allows you to set goals for yourself and manage expectations for your customers. This can include anything from stellar customer service at your on-farm market to reliably fresh produce every time they buy from you.

You want your brand to serve as an extension of your mission statement. If you emphasize the importance of always going above and beyond for your customers, you are setting the expectation that this characteristic is a part of your farm's brand.

6. Credibility

Marketing is just as important as growing when it comes to running a successful farm business. It can be tempting to forget it and focus only on the ins and outs of running a farm. But at the end of the day, you have to have a market for your products to stay in business.

Branding your business increases the credibility of your farm. Selling a quality product or service is at the heart of any successful business. But unless you have effective branding, your consumers will be skeptical of whether they can trust you.

7. Mission

Establishing a brand allows you to formulate which attitudes and values you want customers to ascribe to your farm. From the homepage of your website to your product labels, you want your passion to shine through every element of your branding.

Your mission can be communicated as a tagline, a list of values or a short sentence. In the end, you want your mission statement to answer three questions for your target audience — what you do, how you do it and why.

8. Differentiation

An essential part of any business is establishing what it is that sets you apart from your competitors. Regardless of your product, you want customers to be able to differentiate between your product and someone else's.

Setting yourself apart from your competitors isn't always easy. You don't want to seem like you are forcing customers to believe you, or making promises you cannot keep.

The best way to differentiate your farm business is to proactively focus on sharing the best parts of your business. Instead of focusing on how you measure up to your competitors, turn your attention towards changes you can make to your brand to better communicate the value that you have to offer.

Farm Branding 101

When the core of your business takes place outside of an office, it can be tricky to figure out how to create a brand. After all, the majority of your time and energy is invested in quality products, which should easily sell themselves, right?

Establishing a brand is an integral part of any business, whether you work in agriculture or finance. Creating a farm brand can be an introspective process that allows you to evaluate what you most care about and how you want to communicate that with your customers.

Building a brand for your small farm or homestead will make it easier to work on your marketing plan in the future. Knowing who you are, what you have to offer and the environment you want to create for your consumers is essential to your success.

Kayla Matthews writes and blogs about healthy living, sustainable consumption, eco-friendly practices and green energy. In the past, her work has also been featured on Grit, Mother Earth Living, Blue And Green Tomorrow, Dwell and Houzz. To read more from Kayla, follow her productivity and lifestyle blog: Productivity Theory. You can read all of Kayla’s Mother Earth News posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

From Horse Barn to Wellness Center, Part 2: Structural Assessment

Following the journey to remodel a horse barn into a commercial wellness center on a Midwestern property zoned for agriculture. This multi-part series recounts the considerations, pitfalls and ultimate successes of a green-building project with an ambitious scope to bring a defunct farm building new life as a natural health destination.

We covered project scoping and initial interactions with the County building inspector in Part 1. The building inspector needed to see drawings of the horse barn in order to make his assessment recommendations, but we had discovered that the architect had only drawn a few pages of the project, which included elevation drawings and basic interior layouts — no wall sections or foundation plans and very few dimensions to review.

I talked to the owners about the drawings that we needed and we all agreed that I would take over the drawings and complete a full set of building plans. I normally draw the building plans for all of our residential projects, so taking on a design job like this was very exciting to me. Before I got too far with the drawings, I wanted to make sure that I knew exactly what the building inspector needed to see.

The building inspector worked only one day a week at the township hall, and that meant that I had to wait a week to get into talk to him. In the meantime, the owners contacted a local structural engineer that they knew and put me in touch with him. I set up a meeting at the barn with this engineer and ended up being relieved that our meeting was before the meeting I had set up with the building inspector.

I wanted to be certain that the barn was going to meet all of the requirements for a commercial project in case the building inspector brought up the residential versus commercial conversation again. The structural engineer had told me on the phone that he had vast experience in re-purposing barns and that he would be able to tell me quite quickly if the barn we wanted to re-purpose was going to work or not.

Assessing the Barn With a Structural Engineer

“Wow, this barn is better than I thought it would be” is the first thing that the structural engineer said as we reached out our hands for a formal handshake. I was happy to hear him say that. He hadn’t gone inside of the barn yet. After the engineer went inside the barn, I could tell that he was more confident with what we wanted to do with the existing barn. When the engineer and I talked on the phone to set up the appointment, I told him what we needed him to look at when he was in the barn. The engineer asked me to send him the building plans so he could review the prints so I sent him what I had and told him that I would be completing the drawings once he sent us his report.

After several hours, the engineer determined what work was needed structurally to meet the commercial code items that the building inspector was concerned about. The engineer had enough information to send me his report as soon as he could. We had a conversation about the two of us working together with the drawings for the barn. We agreed that I would draw specific details of the barn based on his report and that he would critique the drawings of each detail at which point, I would make any changes that he wanted and then I would add the detail drawing to the print. As it would work out, there were 26 specific detailed drawings that I drew and added to the final print set.

Meeting the Building Inspector with Barn Structural Drawings

I was excited to go to the township hall and meet with the building inspector. I walked into the main entrance and noticed several people sitting in the waiting area. I signed in with the front desk and the lady told me to have a seat in the waiting area. The other people were waiting to see the building inspector also. I hadn’t thought about having to wait for over an hour to meet with the building inspector. I wasn’t prepared for that.

My game plan was to go into the building inspector’s office and discuss the residential classification for the project and not even say anything about the possibility of the project being considered commercial. I am always amazed at how I feel before meeting with a building inspector or during an inspection by a building inspector. It seems as if the whole world revolves around this one person, but only for a few moments — as though his decision determines the course of my life. That is how I felt, so I decided to focus of the information that I needed to present. I started to think about the project as we built it and what I could do to pass our inspections.

“OK Adam. Let’s talk”, the building inspector said as he broke me from my trance. “Let’s go into my office.” I followed him into his office and was eager to get him on board with our project.

Residential vs. Commercial Designation of a Home-Based Business

The conversation with the building inspector had mostly to do with what the structural engineer had told me. I did not have the engineer’s report so I used the notes I took with the engineer and discussed very specific areas of the barn with the building inspector. After I told the inspector who the structural engineer was, he immediately became more confident about the team that we had assembled to draw and build the project. He smiled and said, “If he says that the existing barn will meet code, then I am definitely more confident with moving forward.” I immediately got excited and was starting to stand up to leave when the inspector said, “I have been reading the paperwork from the township, and I think that the project is a commercial project.”

My victory dance came to an abrupt halt as I responded, “The paperwork clearly says a home business.” “I saw that,” he said, “but the repurposed barn will not be someone’s home. There are no bedrooms, no kitchen.” I immediately interrupted and said, “There is a break room that is basically a kitchen.” The building inspector didn’t seem amused at my comment and continued: “It is not someone’s residence, and it is clearly a place of business with a parking lot, scheduled appointments, and [after a short pause] a break room.”

He looked at me as if he didn’t care for my comment in favor of the project being considered residential and said, “The project is a commercial project and the codes for commercial construction will apply.” We spent the rest of the meeting covering everything that he expected to see on the building plans and said that he will rely on the structural engineer and the details on the prints for areas where we would do very specific structural upgrades to the existing structure.

I immediately contacted the owners to let them know about the commercial designation for the project. They were not happy with that decision and after a detailed conversation, we all agreed that we would not question the building inspector, because he stood between us and the finished project. Without a building permit, we could not proceed with the project.

Second-Floor Structural Adjustments

That same day, my phone made a noise and when I looked at it, I noticed that I had received an email from the structural engineer. I saw that his report was attached to the email, so I opened the file in the email and began to read his report.

I was excited to read that the second floor would meet the commercial code with a few minor upgrades. I became concerned when I saw his sketches for the area where we would cut away the existing barn roof and tie the addition’s roof into that area. “Wow, how can we do that?” I thought after reading his report.

Another area of his report that baffled me was adding large blocks of concrete to the existing barn to prevent uplift in the event a tornado. I decided that before I became too concerned or too confident about any one detail, that I would discuss the report with the structural engineer. After all, the next step was for me to figure out his sketches and make drawings of each of his details.

Follow the full series as the saga of the horse barn to wellness center transformation unfolds.

All photos by Adam Bearup

Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project MichiganAdam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Make Cozy Happen with Masonry Heaters

Brick Column Masonry Heater Fireplace

So much of any new learning is learning new language. Technical definitions exist that define a masonry heater in terms of physical characteristics, but I want to come at this from a different angle. I want to start with the problem. Finding fuel has always been a challenge for humans. Fuel becoming harder to find is a reality of our times, but that alone is not the real problem.

The real problem is that it gets cold, and I'm too stubborn to move to Florida in the winter. Winter is beautiful in New England. I love when the snow piles on, and I get to walk in the woods in the stillness of a winter day but I have to admit, it hurts if I stay out too long. There are lots of ways you can make a house warm, but a masonry heater solves the problem of cold in a way that also creates what the Danes call hygge, that wonderful coziness that makes us feel warm, safe, secure and, somehow, loved.

A masonry heater burns a charge of wood (though some use coal or even straw) quickly and cleanly and then stores the heat in a thermal mass, typically brick, stone, or tile. You'll burn for an hour or two but warm the space for much longer.

As we consider what a masonry heater is, I want to focus on attributes that all heaters share, so that we encompass all of many worldwide styles with our explanation. And we don't want leave anyone out simply because their heater doesn't look like ours. The principles are simple and elegant. A masonry heater takes advantage of the natural forces at work and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

A good masonry heater does three things:

1. Burns (typically) a day's worth of wood with excellent combustion efficiency
2. Absorbs the heat thus produced into its structure
3. Radiates that heat into the cozified space

Brick And Stone Masonry Heater

Burning wood completely. Wood burns very well at a high temperature and with plenty of oxygen. Well designed masonry heaters burn without producing visible smoke at all. That's due to a number of things that will be discussed later. For now, it suffices to say that a well designed firebox supports combustion at over 1,500 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (although we have seen 2,000-degree probes burn up in our fireboxes). A well designed masonry heater burns the wood and the smoke, so creosote is not a concern. The elements that condense to form dangerous creosote are completely burned and therefore are not present in the exhaust.

Absorbing and storing heat. A masonry heater absorbs heat as the exhaust moves through channels and/or chambers made of firebrick. The hot exhaust warms the inside of the channel walls, and that heat moves through the material, warming the outer surface of the stove.

Making cozy happen. The third part, transferring the warmth to the home is where the cozy happens. Have you ever been near a stone that had been in the direct sun all day on a cool day? By day's end, that stone is warm, and it feels fantastic to touch it. A large enough stone will radiate heat all night, just like our stoves. There are different ways to build masonry heater walls, but because they are masonry, they all serve the purposes both of storing and releasing the energy into the home. The warmth is released primarily as radiant energy, which has many documented health benefits and feels wonderful to be around.

Masonry heaters developed at different places around the world and at different times, and the different peoples dealt with the design challenges provided by high temperatures and heating cycles in different ways. I'll discuss those factors and how they are dealt with in future posts.

Eric Schroeder is a home-heating expert who has been designing masonry heaters since 2006, traveling the world to innovate around stove shape, size, firebox design, and heat exchange layouts. Connect with Eric on Twitter, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Cob Construction Returns to North America with Natural Building Workshops

Barn Raising Workers Outside 

A group of about two dozen people gather on a wooded hillside in Northern California. They are women, men, and children, ranging in age from three to 72. They come from many different backgrounds: students, a professional truck driver, a potter, a couple of architects, a retired bureaucrat, a single dad accompanied by his young son, a woman with severe physical disabilities. They look like a pretty diverse bunch, but they all have at least two things in common: They are here to learn to build their own environmentally friendly homes, and all of them are splattered with mud from head to toe.

Cob Construction Returns to North America

I attended my first natural building workshop in Oregon in1993. After completing a degree in Environmental Engineering, I had spent two years in Costa Rican rainforest, volunteering for a sustainable forest management project. I was searching for ways to use my construction background to make a positive difference to forests everywhere, to help develop building alternatives based on earth that would leave more trees standing. When the workshop was over, I approached the instructor, Ianto Evans of the Cob Cottage Company, and asked if I could join his team.

For the next five years, Ianto and I and other members of the CCC traveled all over North America and beyond, training groups in how to build their own homes from the ground under their feet. Although the constant travel became tiring after a while, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. I learned so much and met so many amazing people – many of whom remain close friends to this day.

How Natural Building Addresses Climate Change

Twenty-seven years later, I still believe in the power of mud to change the world. In fact, the urgency today seems higher than ever before. Worldwide, construction and operation of buildings generate nearly 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). To meet Paris Climate Agreement targets, we must eliminate all GHG emissions from the built environment by 2050. The only way this could be possible is if we trim wasted energy from the building sector in many different ways: increasing the energy-efficiency of our buildings by using passive solar principles and excellent detailing; making smaller homes that are built to last much longer than those produced by the profit-driven construction industry; improved materials technology including recycling and carbon sequestration; and the increased use of local, natural materials.

Building with locally-harvested materials reduces GHG emissions from both the manufacturing and transportation sectors, sometimes nearly to zero. For example, many builders harvest clay soil from the building site during the levelling and excavation process, then use it to build the house. Using simple, low-tech techniques that anyone can learn, clay soil can be turned into walls, floors and plasters with only the addition of sand and straw. You can use machinery to mix clay, sand, and straw into cob — or you can use your feet. Building with local materials also concentrates environmental impacts where the communities using them can take responsibility for sustainable management and mitigation.

Three Guitar Singers Outside

Passive Solar Design and Building Codes

Earthen materials have excellent thermal mass properties which lend themselves to efficient passive solar designs, reducing energy use for heating and cooling over the long run. It’s true that earthen walls have poor insulation value and are not appropriate on their own in cooler climates. But cob can be combined with better-insulating techniques such as straw bale, straw-clay, chip-and-slip, hempcrete, or ricecrete in a hybrid design. The most efficient passive solar designs require a combination of both insulation and thermal mass in the correct relationship to one another. All of these building systems, when properly protected by a thick layer of earthen or other natural plasters, are highly fire-resistant – an increasing concern in our wildfire-ravaged world.

Although it can still be challenging to get official permission to build with natural materials, great strides towards this end have been made in recent years. The International Residential Code, the model code used as the basis for building codes in 49 of the 50 United States, now includes appendices on both straw bale and light straw clay construction. The nonprofit Cob Research Institute recently submitted an appendix on cob construction, which was accepted as part of the 2021 IRC. For the first time ever, states and local jurisdictions will now have a model cob building code approved by the highly respected International Code Council available for adoption as part of their local building regulations. (Find out more at The Cob Research Institute)

While cob, adobe, or rammed earth walls have historically been used to support the weight of roofs and second floors, hybrid designs often include a wooden structural framework. Round poles and locally milled wood from sustainably managed forests will provide the bones of a new climate-resilient architecture, while at the same time generating jobs and increasing fire safety by incentivizing sustainable forest management. We need not only a new framework of regulations and economic incentives to make the use of local building materials more attractive, but also a rapid scaling up of the skills necessary to use these materials safely and effectively.

Can Natural-Building Workshops Save the World?

That’s where hands-on building workshops come in. As I discovered during my years with the Cob Cottage Company, nearly anyone can learn to build a cob wall in just a few days. That includes simple but effective ways to analyze soils and determine recipes for the strongest mix, as well as how to install doors and windows and sculptural techniques such as arch-building.

Nowadays, my workshops also include a foundation in passive solar design and better-insulating wall techniques. Students leave the workshop with both the conceptual and practical tools they will need to contribute to a sustainable reimagining of buildings. Every home built by hand from the earth rather than being assembled of factory-made components reduces the amount of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere. Incorporating wood, straw and other plant materials into long-lasting buildings also helps sequester carbon. We are constructing a living library of alternatives that we and our descendants can learn from in the coming decades of experimentation. If all goes well, we’re helping to develop a new building vernacular where every region will showcase its own sophisticated solutions, based on climate, seismic conditions and locally available materials.

The muddy people on the building site are hard at work. In the flat area south of the rising walls, groups of two dance on tarps, their muddy feet beating the disparate elements of clay, water, sand and straw into a coherent mass. Another group takes the mixed cob and sculpts it around a window and door frame. Two women insert electrical wires and outlet boxes into the nearly complete straw bale wall. In the background, several people are stripping bark from round poles for roof beams and rafters. The atmosphere is concentrated, with little extraneous conversation, but also quietly celebratory. The people here know what they are building: not only a beautiful, low-impact shelter for a couple of people, but also a future full of hope for the rest of us.

Find a natural-building workshop on the Cob Workshops page.

Michael G. Smith is a natural building pioneer, credited as bringing cob construction and other techniques back to North America after a century of disuse. He is co-founder of The Cob Cottage Company and is the author of The Cobber’s Companion, the co-author of The Hand-Sculpted House: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage (Chelsea Green, 2002) and co-editor for The Art of Natural Building: Design, Construction, Resources (New Society, 2nd Edition 2015). He farms with his partner, Cathy, at Spreadwing Farm. Connect with Michael at Straw Clay Wood and Cob Research Institute, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

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