why rising earth?

The title of this blog draws from my time as an apprentice at the Cob Cottage Company in costal Oregon. If you spend time with natural building folk, you'll eventually find yourself around a fire, sing silly songs about cob and natural building. Folks usually refer to these oftentimes improvised tunes as "cobsongs". I often sang..."There is a house in old coquille, they call the rising earth, it's been the work of many hands, and you know what that's worth..."

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Cottekill Farmhouse

Our primary project last year was rehabbing an old farmhouse on a former dairy farm in Ulster County. It was a great job, demanding and rewarding. The house dates back to the late 1700's, and was added onto and changed over the years by various owners, farmers, carpenters. It was fun to discover the history of the place, the difference between original building, with ax-hewen chestnut timber frame. The next section, a pine or hemlock timber frame. Still hewn, finer with an adze. Then milled pine timber frame and finally a modern addition  with 2x6 studs.

The last major rehab was about 50 years ago, and the interior finishes were definitely worn out and dated. There were a number of structural problems to solve, like rotten sills, lacking or insufficient headers above windows and doors, and two hundred year old floor joists that were cracked, dry rotted and in desperate need of replacement.

A few before and after shots:

The homeowners hired architect Cassie Spieler to help modernize the layout and design the kitchen. We ended up removing two walls to open the kitchen up to the living areas, added a french entry door, and re-arranged the way a room on the first floor was accessed.

We did the demolition, framing, windows/doors, cabinets, trim, and all the miscellaneous stuff. Miguel and his team from Equinox construction took on the drywall, painting, and tile. I also hired subs for insulation, electric, plumbing, flooring, and mechanical work.

As a natural builder, I considered very carefully over how to best insulate the building. After much deliberation, we settled on a combination of spray foam under the entire roof, and dense-pack cellulose in the walls. I typically avoid foam insulation products because of their enormous greenhouse gas emissions and embodied energy. But the reality is that in a renovation, with existing framework to work within, and needing to provide a high quality product at moderate cost that is guaranteed to function well for a long time, foam was the safe bet. A significant amount of the roof was a cathedral ceiling, which are notoriously difficult to insulate without resulting in water damage from condensation. Foam provides high insulation and a vapor barrier, making sure this wouldn't be a problem.

We foamed this dormer also because there was no sheathing, only siding over the few studs, and it was incredibly air-leaky and problematic. 

The centerpiece of the kitchen is the large kitchen island with a custom concrete countertop. I opted to cast the counter in place and grind and polish the top of it. It was my first concrete counter, and it turned out really great!

There are a few more custom touches, like this door I made from boards found in a barn on the property

Monday, April 9, 2018


Here's a photo of the cord wood arch I built last year at the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC. I just received some recent photos of the arch, and I'm excited to share them.

Cord wood construction is practical in the way it uses a cheap, abundant material, in a simple masonry wall. It's easy to learn to do, doesn't require any high level technical skill or equipment more expensive than a chainsaw. It does have it's drawbacks though, as wood and mortar are not natural partners, as they expand and contract very differently with changes in moisture. There are techniques to learn that help mitigate these challenges. Rob Roy has written a number of excellent books on cord wood building, as well as other topics including post and beam framing, and underground houses. He also hosts workshops at his Earthwood Building School in far northern New York.

Earth Floor

Earth Floors are wonderful. They're beautiful, soft on the feel yet durable, made with abundant natural materials (just clay, sand, sometimes straw, and finishing oils). They are a lot of work to install, but well worth it in certain situations, such as low traffic areas, places you want to sit on the floor. Here are a few photos of the floors I've done in Krista and John's healing sanctuary. This space is perfect for earth floors, because it's used carefully and gently, for massage, yoga, meditation.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Workshop update

We've had to shorten the duration of the September workshop, which may make it possible for more folks to join us! If you're interested in participating email me at Michael@risingearthbuilding.com or call 919 685 0123.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

September workshop - High Falls, NY

I'm looking forward to teaching the upcoming Natural Building Workshop September 15-21 in High Falls, NY. It's sure to be a rich week of natural and community building at Heart Song Sanctuary. They host a lovely workshop on their 45 acres, where a few hand crafted natural buildings sit among the woods, meadow, and creek. 

We're going to be finishing straw-bale and cob walls with cob, earth, and lime plasters. We'll also lay an earthen floor, and explore round wood carpentry.

Get in touch for more details. Call Michael at (919) 685 0123. or Email michael@risingearthbuilding.com

Monday, August 14, 2017

Cordwood Arch

This spring I had the great pleasure of returning to the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC to build another fun, creative, and challenging natural structure.  

This arch functions as an entrance to a section of hideaway woods, a whimsical woodland playground. The museum exhibit developers proposed the cordwood masonry wall with two arches. I had to figure out how to build it and pull it off successfully!

 The detailed and labor intensive project took about 5 week starts to finish. I had help from a rotating cast of museum staff and volunteers, arch advice from master mason The Alvin, and I'm so grateful to all those that helped contribute! I'm very pleased with the result!

It was great to work with the museum staff again. Here are Jose and Christian.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Green/Living Roof

Here are photos from a visit to the community pavilion at Heart Song in Ulster Co. This is the first time I've seen the green roof after installation and I'm thrilled to see it so happy and green! The soil is is about 4" deep and is a mixture of top soil and dry straw. We seeded with lots of wildflowers and were fortunate to have a rainy spring. We built last year but waited until spring to add soil to roof, so plants could grow and stabilize the loose soil to prevent erosion. Worked great!