A book of tips for homesteading in the 21st century

Posted: Sunday, May 12, 2002

"Living Homes: Thomas J. Elpel's Field Guide to Integrated Design & Construction" by Thomas Elpel (paperback, 220 pp., Index, fourth edition, $25., Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School, Montana).

If you've ever considered building your own house with an eye to both environment and economy, this is the how-to book for you.

Thomas Elpel has spent years perfecting a five-acre homestead in Montana. The main house is stone and uses a batch solar water heater and wood heat. The south-facing site includes a spring, a pond, an orchard and a strawbale chicken house. Greywater is used on the garden and in the greenhouse. Rainwater is stored in a tank and used for irrigating the orchard.

Elpel and his wife are interested in living well without being swallowed up by the modern rat race and without being completely dependent on others for fuel, water or food. They have taken a low-cost but scientific approach and have ended up with a comfortable, attractive home. They have refined their knowledge and techniques while building houses for others, and in the book Elpel explains the nuts and bolts of everything from excavating footings and mixing concrete to conserving concrete with rubble trenches.

The main subjects of "Living Homes" are building with logs, slipform stone masonry, tilt-up stone walls, strawbale construction and masonry fireplaces. Leading up to and interspersed with these subjects are thoughtful chapters on deciding what inconveniences you can live with and what conveniences you cannot live without, planning your house and managing water and waste. There are also chapters on constructing the roof and finishing the interior.

Because Elpel is a hands-on expert, he delves into all sorts of odd matters that can bedevil the amateur - such as sugar in mortar.

"Sugar blocks the curing process when added to the mortar," he writes. "I remember one story of a junior mason who 'saved the day' when there was not enough water on the job site for a masonry project. He added lemonade to make up the difference and proudly told his boss, who no doubt wanted to strangle him."

He defines hundreds of construction terms that might otherwise be jargon words to the average reader: Pea gravel, washed sand, masonry sand, radiant slab, rebar, slab-on grade, terra tile, U-value, thermosiphon, papercrete, oriented strand board, conduction, convection, half-milled logs, solar water preheater, composting toilet and pipe straps. Drawings and lots of photos help to clarify matters and show how various projects progressed.

Even if you decide against building a whole house after reading this book, you will be better informed about how houses are built and about aspects of ecologically-sensitive residences that you may want to adopt in your own home.

Elpel is also the author of "Direct Pointing to Real Wealth," "Botany in a Day" and "Participating in Nature."

For more about Hollowtop books, call (406) 685-3222 or see the Web site at www.hollowtop.com.



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