Building An Earthship In Darfield, B.C.

We are a family of five living in Darfield, BC.
Our house is six hundred square feet in total and we are feeling cramped.

We have decided to build an earthship!

So starts the adventure ...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Gotta Love them Fossils

Since Friday of last week Alvin and I have been excavating for the earthship.

This is not a trivial job. We are leveling an area approximately 45'x100'. At one end of the excavation we are building up the ground where one of the retaining walls will sit, and at the other end we are digging down to a depth of approximately 6 feet. I estimate that we are moving approximately 15,300 cubic feet of soil in the process. A standard wheelbarrow can hold 4 cubic feet so this works out to 3825 trips with a wheelbarrow!

Fortunately, we are not using a wheelbarrow. We have access to a 45 horsepower tractor/backhoe and a small dump truck. Both of these pieces of equipment were new in the early seventies, and have been used on our site for odd jobs related to running a wood processing business. I do not know the building contractor who would consider them adequate for any job today. We initially estimated that this job would take us one week and we have revised our estimate to one to two weeks. Newer equipment available locally could have finished this job in a few days ... sadly I do not own newer equipment!

The two of us have been working steadily from about 9 am each morning to 5:30 pm each day. I have been running the dump truck and shooting levels and Alvin has been operating the backhoe. Alvin has been doing this kind of work (building forestry roads and operating heavy equipment) off and on for decades, and it is truly a joy to work with someone with this kind of experience. He can maintain a straight, level line while working over long distances. Sadly, I struggle to draw straight lines without a ruler on a piece of paper!

I spent Sunday performing a long overdue oil/lube/filter of the backhoe. It always amazes me how much abuse these older diesel engines (this one is four cylinder) will take and continue performing. The engine had been sputtering and racing for a few days, and it turns out the fuel line into the filter was almost completely clogged. We had two hydraulic hoses fail today (Friday), but otherwise the backhoe has run smoothly all week.

I have been spending a few hours each day before or after Alvin is around getting ready for the next day. Initially, Sandra and I had to run around clearing the last of the brush and debris. Lately I have been working on an overhead power line to the existing house. The existing underground power line is in the middle of the excavation and so needs to be replaced. We hooked and broke the water line yesterday, leading to a couple of exciting water filled minutes before we got it shut off. Water is now going above ground to the house via a 100' garden hose!

This excavation has rekindled the awe that I first had when coming upon a logging operation as I looked for timber for our business a decade ago. I could not believe that such a small crew could so quickly and efficiently log an area. The mechanized processing equipment completely blew away my preconceptions of lumberjacks with hand axes out in the woods.

As I have watched this hole grow daily I wonder how many men would have worked on this job in a pre-industrial society, what the conditions would have been like, and what their tools would have been. In our own business we can turn a pile of timbers into a machined log house package in a matter of one to two weeks. Environmental issues aside ... heavy industrial equipment has reduced previously massive tasks requiring huge amounts of labour to fairly trivial jobs needing one to two equipment operators.

Despite its many advantages this reduction of labour has a heavy price tag attached, and again I am not thinking of the environmental consequences. We are losing the skills associated with performing this kind of labour and its associated tasks.

I love studying the old production planer used for our business because it was built with no electical components and was initially driven by a single huge motor ( built around the 1950's with patents from the early 1900's). The mechanical ingenuity used to convert the horsepower from that single motor to drive six independent cutting heads and move the lumber through the machine constantly amazes me. We retrofitted this planer with multiple motors and a hydraulic drive. The old solution was elegant and relied on intimate experience and knowledge with mechanical systems. Today we rely on the brute force of multiple motors and electro-mechanical devices. Our planer is much more efficient, but it is also much more complex, and the operators using it do not have the knowledge and experience of even two to three decades ago.

The same parallel can be drawn in many industrial activities. I am constantly amazed by the stories Alvin and others tell me of the ways things were done in the 'sixties and 'seventies. The hand loading of lumber onto train freight cars due to the lack of available forklifts, mixing concrete for construction projects by hand or with small portable mixers and then delivering it by the wheelbarrow load. This is exhausting work, but it also teaches valuable lessons.

In my own case it wasn't until I was in my early twenties that I really 'got' the application of the lever as a simple tool. Four years of university training as an engineer had given me a great theoretical appreciation for all sorts of tools. It was not until my dad and I were leveling a portable office trailer and he levered up one corner of it that I got it. That simple lever made a massive task for two men suddenly trivial.

Many will argue that increased specialization means that the majority of us do not need to know how to use all these simple tools, and this is correct. However, the increased complexity of our 'tools' means that fewer people know how they work. By losing the societal knowledge underpinning the tools we use, we risk losing our ability to innovate and solve problems. I read recently that the rest of the world puts up with North Americans due to our ability to get the job done. We are coasting on a reputation built over the last hundred years, and I am not sure we 'know' enough to add to it.

Check out the brute force method for pulling a stump. Maybe knowledge isn't everything ...

Edited to add: Sandra tells me that the title of the post does not make sense. When I started this post I was thinking about the 'boost' from fossil fuels that we tend to take for granted. I guess it was a little vague ...

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