oven roof from last weekend...

decided to add a triangular shaped roof over the earth oven work area to protect the plaster from rain, give some shade and have a dry spot for firewood, a table, and accessories. framed with mesquite and cedar branches, two cedar 4x6's from the old house floor and more salvage tin. cost: $0 ( except for nails).


oldham house in progress

We've started building the new house and as of March have finished the foundation. It is a humble affair-to say the least. It will be approximately 1000 sq. ft., energy efficient, with natural ventilation and lots of natural light. It will be conventionally framed in a simple vernacular shape using mostly recycled and salvaged materials for details and finishes. We have set a goal to not use a square inch of drywall, carpet, laminate, or paint but instead will use naturally finished wood, metal, glass, stone or concrete. The galvalume metal roof will slope to the east and drain into a rain water harvesting tank to be used for irrigation of native grasses, cacti, wildflowers, etc. A screened porch on the east side will provide ventilation and a place for utilities, a laundry area and maybe an aviary. We plan to use either milled salvaged wood for the floor or sustainable bamboo. Concrete countertops will be poured in place and possibly a concrete tub/shower or vintage cast iron tub will be in the single bathroom. I have thoughts of using recycled beer and wine bottles for a large window over the tub because I have always loved those bottle houses in "outsider art" environments. CFL, custom task, and indirect fixtures - some with rusted barbed wire shades - will provide what little lighting we will need to complement lots of low-e glass and a continuous clerestory window of polygal or similar twin walled extruded plastic panels under a deep eave for natural lighting. I plan to use solar assisted radiant heated floor and hot water tanks, plus a wood stove for heating and high efficiency 14 or better SEER A/C as backup for natural ventilation. Low water usage fixtures with exposed copper plumbing and a grey water system for gardening. The ceiling will be insulated to R30 or better and be finished with recycled cedar fence wood. Wainscots and wall finishes throughout the house will be recycled wood from Birdie's old house or of salvaged corrugated metal. Vintage pressed tin shingles we have found stockpiled on the place and even some vintage asbestos (Gasp!) shingles will be used for an accent walls or possibly extended bay window elements on the exterior. Salvaged bead board ceilings will finish the bathroom and kitchen ceiling, and I have been working on a "parquet" floor idea using end-grain mesquite cordwood grouted like tile for a bathroom floor.
Lots of details still to work out but we plan to keep it fun, low cost, funky and experimental and most of all mortgage free. Lots of Wabi Sabi, man. Stay tuned.

foundation completed awaiting floor framing.

sketchup view of the interior plan.

sketchup view of the exterior.


A couple more pictures of the cemetery project:

A crypt resident.


In honor of miss birdie: a roosting "trikey" buzzard. 


the oldham claim

Birdie's house taken last June when we bought the place.

We've been searching for a country home to call our own for over twenty years. As we renovated homes around Amarillo we drove in ever larger concentric circles around the panhandle of Texas searching for a few perfect acres but never found a place that wasn't within a stone's throw of someone else's crap. With no trees to hide the junk we never made the leap and stayed in the city through several house remodels and years of too many neighbors. After the kids were almost grown we finally made the hard decision to leave family and friends and head south for a change in climate and culture. The thought of someday finding country property soon resurfaced; apartment living really sucks after so many years of having at least a yard and a garage for building projects. Land around here is outrageously expensive in most all directions from Austin so where we had been looking for 20 acres near Amarillo we were faced with the prospect of hoping for 2 good acres here. At least all the trees and hills rewarded smaller lots with some privacy. It was financially impossible to consider the fantastic hills and spring fed creeks of west Austin, Dripping Springs seemed too barren to us. North and South of Austin suffers from intolerable urban sprawl. Interstate 35 seems to be a natural geological dividing line, west is hilly with great views but solid with allergy-inducing cedar trees and the ground is all but undiggable with limestone. East is flatter farm land and oak trees and is rich in Texas history. We narrowed our search to historic Bastrop and Smithville. We were turned on by the surreal presence of pine forests this far west but turned off by encroaching sprawl. Which led us to this place closer to Lockhart. Good roads, small historic town feel, minimal sprawl, lots of trees to hide the neighbor's junk, and best of all affordable land close to Austin. We discovered 12 acres on a good paved road, with utilities close by, needing lots of work ("handyman's special" is my middle name) and best of all an old house - beyond repair - but with lots of salvageable materials. We staked a claim and were able to get owner financing for 10 years. After 6 months of weekend labor, clearing, and camping we were able to start full time country living.
After research and detective work we have found that our place was farmed by Birdia and Cornelius Muse. He was a long time janitor at Lockhart schools, she was known as Miss Birdie to the neighbors. Their house was a humble affair, pretty common construction to the area for the early 1900's. The walls had no studs and therefore no insulation: they were board and batten or horizontal shiplap over vertical boards and only 1-1/2" thick. The house had no indoor plumbing and only a few light sockets and two plug ins. The floors had up to 7 layers of linoleum laid loose over newspapers spread to stop the drafts. We found newspaper under several layers of wallpaper too, some dating to the 20's or as recent as the 60's. A fine old kitchen cabinet - "hoosier style" was the only worthwhile piece of furniture and destined to be incorporated into the new house somewhere either as a vanity or part of the kitchen.


Earth Oven project

We got the itch to build an earth oven here on the claim after finding the book "Build Your Own Earth Oven" by Kiko Denzer; THE source for DIY mud ovens. Great results and the final cost to build: absolute $0.00. We used only materials we had on hand and recycled from our salvage and then located clay, stone, grass, and sand sources here on the place while on our evening walks. It is built behind the house site and handy to the camp. We've used it several times for bread and pizzas and Jeree has nearly perfected fire building for a nicely browned crust. Here are progress photos and final pix of the project:

The base is built w/ 4 stacked earth-rammed tires ala' Mike Reynold's "Earthship" construction. It takes lots of dirt to ram one full but makes for a very dense and stable base. A single T-post driven in the center kept the tires straight while tamping them full and then was cut off flush.

Next the tires were wrapped in several layers of old wire fencing for cob reinforcing. The fencing was cut off and secured to the tires w/ bent over nails driven into the rubber.

The first layer of cob is built over a stone base to raise the adobe up off the ground. The cob is mostly clay topsoil mixed with sand and dry hay for reinforcing then forced into the wire layers tight to the tires.

Layers of cob were built up to about 6" thick all around. It is looking like the Devil's Tower from Close Encounters.
Wet sand is formed into a dome form for the oven itself. The bottom edge of the dome is near vertical for a few inches than compacted to a smooth dome whose height is half the diameter of the width - a little over 2' will be big enough for pizzas and a couple of bread loaves.

The next layer of mud over the sand dome is heavy with grass for insulation, the layer of newspaper keeps it from sticking to the sand. Another layer of cob brings the final dome thickness out to about 6" and flush with the base below.

From the front a door opening and lip is formed, The height of the door is 63% of the height of the interior of the oven. That proportion comes from the book and was supposedly derived after studying hundreds of successful burning ovens so we didn't stray from the instructions on that detail.

Next the sand dome is removed through the opening and the interior oven surface is left exposed. With a stiff cob mixture it is self supporting now. Joey, our Basenji, has to get in on the project.

We used a broken tile mosaic over the dome to help shed water and add some color. The tile was dug up while doing house demolition and was just stuck into the top layer of mud while it was still wet. A final coat of plaster over the whole thing will finish the oven and "grout" the tile into place.
Done. Cleaned up and burning a small fire to help dry it out from the inside. After a few more fires and a couple of days drying time we cooked for the first time. The oven burns a beautiful slow fire with long licking flames and very little smoke. An hour of mesquite branches will heat it up to about a 450 degree oven temp. We've found that a few coals left around the edges while cooking browns things really nice. A door was made out of heavy wood about 5" thick and shaped to fit the opening, soaking the door in water makes steam inside and keeps the door from scorching.

Hubbard / Hill Cemetery Restoration

Before and after photos of headstone for Louie Hubbard.

We've just completed a 5 week long restoration of the historic Hubbard / Hill private cemetery at Hills Prairie Plantation near Bastrop, TX for David & Libby Sartain. Libby's great-great-grandfather A.W. Hill built the adjacent Greek Revival plantation style home in 1857 that is undergoing an extensive 2 year long restoration now. I first got to know the Sartains doing architectural work (while with another restoration firm) for the old house and a subsequent guesthouse and pool addition for the property. Several other solo projects with David followed including a facade restoration of Maxine's On Main cafe in downtown Bastrop. It was recently named one of Texas' top small town cafes by Texas Monthly magazine and has a killer veggie burger and homemade pie to back that up.
The old cemetery was always one of my favorite spots on their place. There are 39 graves underneath an incredible 400 year old oak tree. The earliest dates from 1848 and the "newest" is from 1914. Three years later I approached them about doing a survey and then restoration of the cemetery knowing that they wanted to do it but probably didn't know who to get to do the work. Lots of digging, heavy lifting, detective work, and nearly 50 sacks of concrete later we are pretty proud of the end result and they seem very pleased too. Plenty of research assured that all the proper methods and materials were used including biocide cleaners, mastic tape to set bases, and epoxy systems with high strength nylon dowels to join broken fragments. The site will be listed with the Texas Historical Commission as a Historic Texas Cemetery. The family plans to have an informal rededication of the cemetery soon and will spread ashes from a recently passed aunt. A new columbarium installation using the same materials as the old cemetery is in the works. Libby Sartain has also done an amazing job of documenting the restoration of Hills Prairie Plantation on her blog called "Quest to Reclaim Hill's Prairie".

Before and after photos of cemetery monuments:

An 1890's cast iron component fence and gates are being rebuilt and will be installed around the entire perimeter of the cemetery and then will be incorporated into the landscape master plan for the property.