Oasis Pod 1 Q and A

Oasis Pod 1

Jon Nunan is writing  a book about alternative homes. He sent me a series of questions that I am answering here…

When did you begin your project?
May 31st,  2007.  For this article I’m speaking about Oasis Pod 1. I’m also working on Oasis Pod 2, a.k.a SolUnit.
Oasis Pod 1 is a low cost alternative / natural building hybrid.  It is off the grid. Meaning it’s power comes from the glorious light bulb in the sky, it’s water is harvested off the roof when it rains, and it’s heat, or some of the heat,  is produced via passive solar design – heat from the sun, with propane backup.  The roof is pretty conventional, though the walls are mostly natural building materials.

What first drew you to this style of building?

I’ve been attracted to organic architecture for a long time.  Initially my fascination began on a cob web site which had a picture of  The Tsui House in Berkley, California. Erroneously placed on a ‘cob’ page, since it’s largely cement; it’s whimsy was that of a cob home and  it’s organic, ergonomic and sculptural nature was to die for! Art you can live in… sign me up.

Since then I’ve been trying to get my hands on all kinds of materials. For building and for sculpture.  Experimenting with everything that interested me… trying my hand at cob, straw bale, papercrete, padobe, earthbag, post and beam, wattle and daub, ferro-cement.  You name it.   I’ve gravitated toward materials that have the potential for high energy efficiency, low cost, low embodied energy, and that usually come with a high labor input.

My latest hybrid combo is a rubble trench foundation with concrete piers for posts,  wood post and beam, straw bale, earthbag… all covered in cob. This model is largely for speed of construction.  After the ground work, The roof goes up first, then fill in the rest with your material of choice.  Straw bales have been used for their insulation value, thickness and speed. Earthbags, for faster thermal mass building and savings on water, which is in short supply around here.  Store bought lumber was used when necessary for structural components, mill-ends ( mill cutt offs),  pallet wood and dumpster lumber was used when available.  Cob or some variation of (clay, sand and straw) for everything else!

Is your house complete? If so, when was it completed?

No, not really. Is it live-able? Yes.  ‘Complete’ is a relative term isn’t it?  Does it provide the amenities of shelter? Yes. Are there a million things that still need doing? Yes.
Do your self a favor – don’t move into your construction project! Those details that need finishing have a lesser chance of being finished when you live in the space.  I hope to ‘move-out’ and have another go at finishing things.  Just means turning it back into a full fledged construction zone.  Dust, mud, messy plasters, saw dust, you know.

Chinese proverb: “Man finish house, man die”.

Where is the house located and what kind of area was it built in? (suburbs, small town, rural area?)

Rural area.  In a remote place, off from a remote town.  A little too far out for my taste!

How much construction experience did you have before you built your alternative house?

I’ve always enjoyed making things. The family home growing up was under construction; I must have got the gene from my Dad.  I had gained cob construction experience from a Cob Cottage Company workshop, then went on to build Project MoonUnit.  That was the bulk of my learning experience.  I feel like that’s where I learn what NOT to do! And gained the full cottage experience sans utilities. The learning continues.

Who helped you construct the house?

Pod 1 was built with my friend Kevin as a shared venture. There’s nothing like having two able-bodied, able-pocket booked, ambitious builders with a little too much time on their hands.  We both brought different backgrounds to the project.  Pod 1 is a shared dwelling where we planned to share a kitchen, shower, utilities etc.  Since 2008, Kevin fell in love and moved to Idaho. So it’s just me again… the solo-builder.

Did you employ any professional contractors during your project? If so, what parts of your home did they help you with?

We did seek professional services for the solar electric part of the equation.  Such expensive components required the respect of professional consulting. Not to mention safety concerns.

Did you have any professional design help for your home’s layout? If not, what was the process of designing your own house like?

No. God, with Pod 1 it was mostly a ‘what was easiest to construct’ design method.  Make a box, create a space.  It turned out ok.  I would have considered the noises that the DC water pump  and the electric inverter fan make if I knew how annoying they were at the design stages.  It’s fun bouncing ideas off some one during the design process. We had many creative ‘what if’ conversations all with in the shell of the space.

If your house is now complete, are you happy with the finished product?

I have mixed feelings about it.  It’s not complete, so maybe I’ll feel differently when it is.  There is quite a satisfaction inhabiting your very own dwelling.  While unfinished, one must cultivate a presence of mind that can dismiss the things that are unfinished, until it is time for action. I find that the little things that are ‘undone’ bug me on a regular basis ( Don’t move into your construction project ) but I’m able to realize it all takes time and money… patience is key.  I’m ok with the wabi-sabi-ness of things for now, but look forward to creating a quality, finished space.

What things do you think could have made the building process go more smoothly in retrospect?

Although flying by the seat of your pants is exhilarating for a while, planning – serious planning would be helpful.  I prefer the design / build method.  Nothing like being in an empty frame to truly get the sense of the space.  Can’t get that on a sheet of paper or google sketchup.

Savings is another large piece of a ‘smooth’ process.  I don’t care if your making a hut out of duct tape and chewing gum, you still have to buy some materials.  I hate to say it… but if you don’t have enough money, don’t build! Or you must have the patience to do with out some of the creature comforts or idealistic notions.

If you had to do it over again, would you choose to build a more conventional house? Why or why not?

I don’t think so.  There maybe some design changes I would make… I’d create larger overhangs, maybe porch spaces where predominant weather comes from.  Mostly with protection of earthen plaster in mind.  Perhaps I’ll try my hand at lime plaster for more durability in the future.  I like the earth ship idea, where the bulk of the external skin of your house is earth… you don’t have to re-plaster or re-paint an earth berm!
If I were to do it again, I’d take a page from the tiny house blog.  Perhaps put it on wheels.  Of course, I probably wouldn’t be using  cob and straw bale then.  It would be cool to be able to move it around with you, if you decide you’d like to spend the winter in San Diego, or summer in Minnesota.

What would you say was the biggest set-back you experienced during the building process?

The fact that when your building, your not making money. And in addition to that, your spending money.  I wish I was financially independent!  But you make your trade offs… One day soon it will all be paid off, and then there will be no debt.  And without money bags laying around you become resourceful, more resourceful than you thought possible.  At every turn, you have a choice to spend, a choice to salvage, to dumpster dive, and a choice to ‘do with out – for now’.

What would you say was the most successful part of the building process?

I feel that the success is what happens with in.  Have you ever been faced with such a large project, that it seems so mind-blowingly huge, that you have no idea how your going to do it?  It’s just a number of small projects, that add up into one big one.  It’s great to see it come to fruition!
It’s a success that I’m typing on my computer in my pod, powered by solar electricity. Sheltered from the weather.  I’ve learned so much through out the process…

Was there any part of the construction that was much easier or much more difficult than you anticipated? Please explain.

Devils in the details, my friend.  While creating a box with a door and some windows maybe pretty straight forward, I can’t believe the time and attention the details require. The mechanical side of things seem pretty tough and fun when you figure it out.

What were the reactions of your friends/family when you first began talking about building your own house? Did their opinions change during or after the construction?

Friends and family have been with me through the highs, and the lows.  I have a propensity to build things and make things with mud… so they under stand my addiction.  I think they may question the location of the project, as do I.  First – Love your building site.  Love it!  Then build.

What is your favorite room/ feature of your house?

Well at 280 sq. feet, the ‘favorite room’ IS the room.  I like that it’s small, and simple. My favorite feature is probably that it’s passive solar. So it never seems to freeze and gains a lot of free energy from the sun in the winter. It’s nice and cool in the summer too.  25º difference naturally.  I’ve always wanted to ‘make my own’ energy, So I’m happy that the power I use is created from the sun.  It’s such a different feeling.

If your house is complete, how close does it look/feel compared to what you imagined it would be before you began construction?

I always seem to draw fantastical spaces, though they never seem to turn out like that due to practical construction realities.  We didn’t really have many preconceived ideas about what it would be like before hand.  That said, it’s a cozy little space that does the trick.

As far as performance, how would you say the house you built compares to more conventional houses? (heating, cooling, energy efficiency, maintenance needs?)

Even though Pod 1 wasn’t created with the utmost of efficiency in design it still performs pretty well.  Any house can be passive solar!  So a conventional house could have the same benefits.  As far as maintenance goes… I’m still trying to get around the earthen plaster maintenance bit.  Like I said before, design decisions could have helped with that.

Did your home cost more or less than you thought it would? More or less than a similarly proportioned conventionally built house in your area? (If you want to share actual dollar amounts, that would be great, but is in no way necessary. Mostly want to know if you feel like you got a bargain, got scammed, or got exactly what you expected).

Much less, than the conventional house. It’s almost what you might consider ’emergency shelter’.  You won’t find many of the usual amenities of a conventional  house either.  We started this project hoping not to invest too much.  The land was cheap for a reason. I like trees, not many grow out here. I like fertile soil, of which there is none…  Just a sea of short forest ( sage brush) here in the high desert mesa.  Sometimes I wish I would have considered other sites, and not jumped at the cheap land.  Love the place first. Love it. Then consider building on it.