Somes Bar Builder Tries Old Methods To Build Houses of the Future
By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer
A small crowd of neighbors and friends jumped in this summer to help on construction of an unusual type of house.
The technique is called timber frame, clay/straw. A frame of massive timbers holds the weight of the roof and the walls are 12 inches thick and stuffed tight with chopped straw that has been drenched in slip, a wet clay solution.
The house was a three-bedroom design in the mid-Klamath area and the builder was Dillon Creasy, an area builder who is specializing in the alternative design.
The thick walls, once packed with the clay-coated straw, are then covered with a smooth clay stucco inside and out. The end product is at least twice the thickness of ordinary frame construction, which provides good insulation in summer and winter.
The massive beams in the timber frame were cut from local trees with a mobile Wood Miser band-saw mill and planed on a gas-powered planer from Les Harling in Forks of Salmon.
Creasy says that homes built with the same methods in Europe 800 years ago are still in use. The straw content of the walls would make them seem vulnerable to rot and fire but the infusion of the clay slurry just before the packing stage adds durability.
There is necessarily meticulous attention to the exclusion of any rain runoff through use of French drains, long roof overhangs and use of novel foundation blocks called Insulated Concrete Forms.
These ICFs, as they are called, are made of 85 percent wood fiber but include insulation and space to install iron rebar reinforcement and a stout layer of concrete.
As importantly, the use of the natural materials spares the reliance on materials that leak toxic gases into the new house. An example, now outlawed, was the glue used in plywood that contained formaldehyde. Creasy said this was particularly important to people who are chemically sensitive.
He said he, personally, was most attracted to the natural materials and said it harkens to a more comfortable era before building materials were so complicated.
Like the trees he used for lumber, Creasy himself is of local origin. He was born in the Happy Camp Clinic 29 years ago with Helen Forbes attending as nurse-midwife. (It is not uncommon for home-birthed river kids to know the name of their midwife.)
His parents are Max Creasy, a retired Forest Service ecologist, and Nena Creasy, a Happy Camp educator who is also a catering cook and chocolatier of wide reputation. They named Dillon after the mountain they can see from the family home.
After finishing Happy Camp High, Creasy attended Lane Community College in Eugene and got an A.A. in construction technology He also started working with local builders including George
Perlingi, an Orleans carpenter in such demand that people line up a year in advance to hire him.
After six years working with Perlingi, he struck off on his own. He also met Analia Martinez, a communications teacher at Chico State. They recently married and Creasy now spends part of his work year in Chico, part on the river.
He was drawn to alternative building and especially the work of Paula Baker-Laporte and Robert Laporte, who operate as an architect-builder combo out of Ashland. They call their business EcoNest.
They have begun training experienced builders in their approach and Creasy signed on for a three-week intensive that included a week each of timber framing, clay/straw walls and roof framing.
When he was done with the training and had built one house in the EcoNest style on his own, they certified him as an affiliate. On their website www.econest.com , they explain that EcoNest not a franchise and that attending training does not guarantee certification.
Affiliates, though, can offer EcoNest building plans at useful discounts and EcoNest is available to make modifications as wanted by the homeowner.
Much of the work on the project is highly skilled, and Creasy is happy to show off the specialized tools he uses for the mortise-and-tendon joints, a craftsman’s alternative to use of a steel device like a hefty Simpson Tie.
Reverently, he displayed his new chain mortiser, a tool that looks like a cross between a chain saw and a drill press. It’s used to carve out the precision channel in a post so it can receive the massive cross piece and be secured in place. “It’s secured with long oak pegs, not steel bolts,” Creasy added, and he pulled a few out of his work apron.
He moved across his row of tools and carefully unrolled a cloth cover to reveal a large finely sharpened chisel that were his mainstay before he got the chain mortiser. “It’s from Japan,” he said.
The chisel, he explained, still got plenty of use to fine tune all the wood connections without the use of metal connectors, something accomplished carpenters call “joinery”
Creasy rifled deeper into the tool box and pulled out a caliper, a measuring tool also used by machinists to get parts exactly right. “You want everything tight, super tight,” he said.
But packing the walls with straw was not in the high skill category. That was when the friends and neighbors were invited to help.
A long rotating drum would bathe the chopped straw in the clay slurry and the dumping and packing of it into temporary frames on the walls was strictly primitive.
Besides the usual throng of neighbors and friends, 15-20 current residents of the Black Bear Ranch commune showed up to help. They had gotten an evacuation advisory as the Whites Fire moved their way so it was a good time for them to go visiting.
Packing the walls, even with so many volunteers, took five days, so cooks worked to prep meals and others looked after children.
Creasy reminded himself that he needed to return to work. He needed to finish the current phase of construction soon to start another job in Chico where his wife had already begun teaching her classes.
“I have to get the French drain in before I go,” he said, and carefully rolled the chisel back into its wrapping.
While he spoke, he, almost unconsciously, fluffed a few sprouts of new green grass that were opportunistically growing out of the nearly dry, densely packed walls of clay-coated wheat straw.