Why We Chose to Dig a Well and Use ICF Construction

Reader Contribution by Ron Melchiore
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In this installment, I wanted to share with you why we chose to have a dug well versus drilled and why we chose an ICF constructed house on our final homestead. Let’s talk about our choice of water well and home construction.

Dug Well Versus Drilled

Back over 40 years ago when I first started homesteading in Maine, I had a well driller come in and bore a hole in the earth for our water. We had an awesome, reliable water source that never ran out on us. For that well, I had a traditional deep well hand pump set atop the casing and I also added piping direct to the kitchen sink in the house with a shallow well hand pump for our “running water.”

In Maine, we had areas of exposed ledge rock so it would have been a poor site to try digging a well either by hand or excavator. When we moved to the wilderness of Saskatchewan, we added an electric shallow well water pump to our experiences and sucked water initially out of the lake. Years later, we hand dug our well closer to the house which was made possible because we were sitting on a sand knoll compliments of the last glacier to sculpted the area.

On our Nova Scotia homestead, we had the choice of a machine dug or drilled well. It was a no-brainer to dig it with an excavator. First off, our land has a thick layer of overburden which is the material which sits on top of the bedrock. So other than large boulders and rock that might be encountered, we were confident we could excavate deep enough to hit a good supply of water.

Add in the fact that we are sitting on a cliff overlooking the ocean 200 feet away and one takes a costly chance of drilling a deep well with the potential for salt water intrusion into the well. And finally, the area we live is known for gold production and elevated levels of arsenic can be found in the ground. No need to bore a deep hole exposing us to higher levels of arsenic if we can help it.

So thus far, we have a dug well supplying us with our daily water needs which has worked out great.

Framed Home or ICF?

My first house in Maine was the typical framed construction. The difference was I had never built a house before, I used 2-by-6 wall studs and all the lumber used to frame the house came from our property and was sawn using a portable sawmill.

That house is still standing and was a great learning experience. It was built rugged with storm corner bracing chiseled and set in each corner which made for sturdy construction. Maine is a cold climate but then when we made the move to the wilderness of northern Saskatchewan, we stepped the cold environment up a few notches, to the tune of -57 degrees Fahrenheit one winter.

We were well aware of that trait of long, cold winters and I wanted to have a warm, efficient house. I had logged for 20 years in Maine and can cut firewood in a hurry but I didn’t want to be spending all my time cutting and lugging firewood. So I pondered how best to build an energy efficient home.

I didn’t like the current construction methods and we had the additional burden of having to fly all building materials in to our remote lake front site. The following excerpt is taken from my book Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness:

“Because of the potential for such extreme cold, when I was engineering the house years ago, I wanted the home to be super insulated, so I searched for appropriate construction methods. After spending time researching the topic in the construction trades section of the library, I was uninspired by what I found. The basic principles for a warm dwelling are insulation, minimal thermal bridges between inside and outside, and eliminating drafts and air exchange as much as possible. The concepts are simple enough, but incorporating those various elements into a building would be more involved than I expected.

We ended up with a house with 10-inch-thick insulated walls, with minimal studs. Even wood conducts heat, albeit poorly, so the fewer studs reaching from the inside of the wall directly to the outside of the wall the better. Our walls have very few studs making direct contact from interior to exterior. The vast majority of the studs in the wall are made up of pairs of studs with an insulating strip of blue board between their narrow face (two 2-by-4s arranged this way to create one 2-by-8 equivalent). That strip of blue board breaks up the direct transfer of heat from the inside to the outside. We inserted fiberglass insulation in all the wall voids and then sheathed the interior wall with a layer of blue board Styrofoam. In my research, I couldn’t find anyone designing or constructing walls the way I did.

Ventilation and Insulation

One of the smartest things we did was to properly install a plastic vapor barrier. This is just heavy gauge plastic that comes on a roll. Extra hands really help to hold the plastic in place during installation, especially when covering the ceilings. We taped all seams of the plastic barrier with a special ultra-sticky tape made for that purpose. In a typical house, a great deal of air infiltrates the dwelling through all the outlets, so we installed plastic inserts into all the outlet and switch openings located on the outside walls. These plastic inserts were manufactured products made for just this purpose.

We also taped and sealed their seams. Windows and doors also have some leakage, and the trick is to minimize all of this air flow. The end result is that we now are basically living in a large plastic bag. With a house so tight, there are no drafts, and interior temperature is constant regardless of room or corner. At -57 degrees F, it was easy to keep the house warm that day.

However, ventilation is necessary. It’s nice to be airtight, but we still need to breathe. We don’t live out here with a permanent tinge of blue on our faces due to a lack of oxygen. To that end, we installed ventilation tubes through the walls, both upstairs and downstairs. Ventilation tubes are a commercial product that allows a homeowner to control the venting of their house very easily. They’re adjustable, so you have a great deal of flexibility with how much outdoor air comes into the house. It’s better to have a tight house and be able to control what air enters than to have a leaky house over which you have no control.

Another key for a warm house is the attic insulation. Normally, the roof rafters come down and rest on the top wall plates, tying into the ceiling joists. The weak link in the attic insulation is down in the area where the roof rafter meets the wall, the space in the attic right over the exterior walls. In order to create more insulating space, we put another plate on top of the ceiling joists and then put the roof rafters on top of that. Doing this allowed us to stuff insulation into the area uncompressed, which gave full insulation value.”

Three years ago, we left the wilderness to build our last homestead on the coast of Nova Scotia and the main concern wasn’t cold winters but exposure to winds.

I am quite confident I could have taken all the knowledge from our first two home building projects and built a safe wood frame home here. But there was a relatively new technique we chose to use. ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) It’s an interesting idea. The form is thick foam insulation that sandwiches a 6 inch core of reinforced concrete. The concrete is the super structure and the foam insulation provides the insulation value as well as the vapor barrier. There are some pros and cons with this. Obviously it produces a very sturdy structure but running electrical wiring and plumbing on the exterior walls is more of an ordeal.

I tend to over engineer things so the roof was framed with purchased trusses in the shape of a hip roof all round. That shape will shed the wind the best. Those trusses had hurricane ties not only on the exterior, but I over killed it by putting hurricane ties on the inside as well. Then I sheathed the roof by first using a premium glue. Then the sheathing was screwed down and for good measure, I nailed it as well.

We aren’t worried about the concrete structure withstanding a CAT 5 hurricane (which is unlikely up here), but the roof is the weak link and I didn’t want to look stupid doing a lousy construction job and then watching the roof as it blows off into the woods in a light breeze. I am quite confident the house and roof will withstand anything the weather cares to throw our way.

Ron Melchioreand his wife Johanna are currently building a new homestead on the coast of Nova Scotia. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published byMoon Willow Pressand is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ron and Johanna are the authors ofThe Self-sufficient Backyard: For the Independent Homesteader. Connect with Ron atIn the Wildernessand onFacebookandPinterest.


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