New Residents

As you may have noticed in the last post, the barn is already occupied. True, the walls aren’t even done, but friends of our were thinning their herd and offered us a doe and a wether, so I asked for a couple of weeks and quickly built a 20’ x 25’ paddock and partioned the interior of the barn off to separate the goat lounging area, kidding stall, and sleeping platform from the human side that houses the hay crib, the feeder rack, and the access to nest boxes and feed/water station of the attached chicken coop.

Then we got our first three residents: Zeus, the livestock guardian dog; Leia, the Boer/Nubian doe, and Stormy, her 1-year old wether. As you can see from the pictures, they’re going to have a tough life!


My wife and I have been interested in building with cordwood for almost 5 years now. Initially, we planned to use the technique to build our Washington home ourselves but we found great home that was already built that saved us the work.

Cordwood masonry is a centuries-old technique that uses short, debarked logs (like you might use for firewood) set in mortar to form structural walls or else fill in a timber frame structure. It’s a great way to use woods that otherwise would not be structurally useful. I harvested and collected all the wood from our property last winter, debarked the logs, and left them to dry for nearly a year. Here are a few pictures of the walls in progress:

You may notice a few animals photobombing the pics: the dog is Zeus, our 6-moth old Akbash (a Turkish livestock guardian breed). And one of the goats, who’ll I’ll introduce in the next post…

Covering The Roof

If you’ve been following this blog series at all, you’ll know it’s been a lo-o-o-ong time since my last entry. Rest assured, I haven’t been idle—quite the contrary, I’ve been too busy to think about documenting and photographing a lot of the work. But, here’s a catch up of the roof.

Rafters and purlins make a great roof for a gazebo, but a lousy roof for a barn to keep out rain. The covering starts with burlap. While not strictly necessary, the first layer is the one that will be seen from the inside of the barn, so the burlap adds a more rustic look than simply the underside of the EPDM pond liner, which will follow.

We tacked down the ones around the edges and up near the cupola, but most will simply be held down by the weight of the roof atop them:

Once that was accomplished, we hauled up huge sheets of pond liner. Man, is that stuff heavy! I don’t have any pictures of this, because I was too busy overexerting myself…

After that, it was time for dirt. Because this will be a living roof, it needs dirt to grow. I rigged up a simple lever arm to lift 5-gallon buckets of dirt to roof level. and a couple of wonderful neighbors even came over to help. A few of us filled buckets on the ground, a couple of people operated the “crane,” and a roof person spread the dirt around. Eventually, it looked like this and we spread grass seed:

Then covered it with hay to keep the birds off:

After a good watering, the rest was up to nature, so we turned our attention to the walls.

Purlin Madness

After the rafters were raised and secured last Saturday, we moved on to attaching the purlins. These are the radial pieces between the rafters that will hold up the roofing material. In our case, these are fashioned from alder branches or saplings, with the bark left on, nailed to the rafters with about a 4-inch spaced between them so that there is room for the purlins on the adjacent sides to attach.

It was great to have a “ground crew” of people to hand up purlins of the rough size needed, but I learned that non-woodworkers may not have the same level of discernment about whether a purlin had enough girth to support the span or if the wood was unsound. My suggestion is to pre-select all your purlins so there’s not a question, but with everything else going on, I had merely collected a pile of straight branches and thin trunks to use and hadn’t had a chance to “edit” the stack.

With the family helping, we got three of the eight panels purlined, although I may go back and add more here and there where I am feeling more flex than I’d like. After everyone left, I continued the work alone. I quickly realized it’s tough by one’s self to nail both sides of a 9-foot purlin as well as go up and down to get materials. I dragooned—I mean, apprenticed—my oldest daughter to help. She was a little hesitant at first aobut the height, but soon got used to it. She had used a hammer a bit before, but never pounded so many 16d sinkers in her life. After a few dozen purlins, her accuracy and ergonomics got better, although she wore out pretty fast. We’ll work on her endurance…

I noticed as I went along that I gravitated to larger purlins, in the 2-12” – 3” diameter. These sizes required me to half lap them at the ends to allow a 2-1/2” nail to get some purchase. No fine woodworking here: just a quick crosscut to depth and then split the waste away with a hatchet tapped in from the end.

Ultimately, we got the whole roof purlined:

Next task: to add a cupola over the central hole. After all, it does no good to put on a roof but leave a big hole in the middle!

Barn Raising Day!

Well, the long-awaited barn raising day finally arrived this past Saturday, and my family in the area arrived to help. Wrestling eight 14-foot rafters was definitely a portion of the barn build that I could not accomplish alone. Of course, like any good barn raising, the family brought food, we grilled out, and we made a day of it.

The first order of business was to explain to my “crew” what we would be doing. The barn’s roof is supported by reciprocal frame rafters, a term coined in the 80s to describe roofs whose support members interlock with each other to create a self-supporting strucutre, like a kind of arch. It takes a few moments to wrap one’s head around how it all works, so I had a small-scale model to demonstrate the concept:

After that, it was on to portaging the rafter timbers to the barn site. As for seemingly everything related to this project, the motto is: “If it’s heavy, it must go uphill.”

Once all the rafters were staged, we assembled the “charlie,” the support tripod which holds the first and subsequent rafters until they support themselves:

After that, we started the show, laying the first rafter over the beam and onto the charlie. The base of the rafter (the eave side) had a pre-drilled hole about 24” up that slipped over the rebar pin from each post.

As each rafter is laid up, they have to be angled correctly to make the central circle to support the other rafters. This requires that each rafter be offset a standard distance from the central point. I chose an 18” offset. My daughter Eleanor was tasked with the “jumper,” an extendable pole that she lined up with the offset mark to give us a target to aim the rafter. She trued the pole to vertical with a level to make sure the end 12 feet above wasn’t out of line than the mark on the beam.

And here’s my 7-year old, helping as well:

Once each rafter is laid up and “aimed,” I marked where it crossed the rafter beneath it. Then I moved the top rafter aside and chiseled out an angled channel for the rafter to lie in. Once that was accomplished, I moved the rafter back into place, re-aligned it, then drove a six-inch nail beside the top rafter, just “downhill” of it into the rafter below to secure it from slipping down. I also lashed the rafter in place, because I’m a “belt-and-suspenders” kind of guy. Then Eleanor “jumped” her pole to the next offset mark, and the next rafter was passed up.

Finally, all eight rafters were in place and (theoretically) ready to support their own weight. All the Internet tutorials said to expect the rafters to creak and settle several inches as they found their place and took up the weight. So, we cleared everyone out of the area, and my brother-in-law, nephew, and I manned the three legs of the charlie and got ready to pull the legs apart and drop the charlie away from the rafters.

We all held our breath, said a little prayer, and pulled the charlie away.

Nothing happened. No creaks, no movement. Nothing. Just eight rafters blithely supporting themselves 11 feet in the air.

The central circle wasn’t as symmetrical as I would have liked —chalk that up to my inexperience with this kind of roof—but I suspect the goats won’t be bothered by asmymmetry. I climbed up to test with my weight, and I didn’t die:

Next up: Attaching the purlins and starting to put the roof on!

The barn raising is Saturday, so in the meantime, I’m attending to some other related things that need to be done, but that won’t get in the way of the ladders, braces, and people that will need to be in and around the structure in order to get the rafters in the air. So, I’ve been done smaller projects like building out the next boxes for the chicken coop, teaching my wife how to stack the rafters, etc.

Another big project that needs doing is the paddock, the holding and working area for the goats just outside the barn. I was planning on purchasing premade treated posts to hold up the 48” wire fence, but a check with my CFO showed that the reserve expense account was running low, the unfortunate victim of an earlier refrigerator failure and a ruined carpet due to a water leak this past Spring. So, it was back to the woods:

These are some of the fence poles cut to length, peeled at the bottom, and treated with Green Coat wood preserative. While this was more work thatn premade poles (and about three times as heavy), it was also free and follows the from-the-land concept that has guided the rest of the prject. So, it’s all good.

And now, on to the ugly chore of hacked out fence lines through the underbrush:

Is there any wonder why I need goats??

Inspired by Simon Dale’s Low Impact Woodland Home, the roof for the barn will be held up by reciprocal frame rafters rather than a ridge peak or a truss system. This will allow a clear span beneath without support poles. Other web resources about this kind of roof can be found at the Year of Mud blog and at Green Building Elements.

This weekend, I tested out the reciprocal frame concept on the ground ust to make sure the voodoo works before I tried it ten feet in the air. First, I brought the rafters together in my driveway:

For the curious, the poles are 14’ spars of either red alder or bigleaf maple, debarked, with base diameters ranging from 5” to 7”. The next step was to put the first rafter on a “charlie,” or a temporary support, then beginning laying the other rafters one by one. Each rafter pointed 18” to the left of center, to produce a 36” central circle. After all eight rafters were placed, I carefully knocked the charlie out from the under the structure, to find:

It worked! Without fasteners of any kind, the rafters were supporting themselves off the ground by about two feet! I even climbed up on the top and bounced up and down. The more pressure I exerted, the stiffer the frame got. Very cool. Here’s a look down at the central circle:

This Saturday, we put the frame in the air…