One course at a time

I added one more course of block to the root cellar today.  Small victories trying in a 5 year project.  It started when we had rented a mini-excavator for a construction job, and, wanting to have a root cellar and storm shelter, it seemed a good idea at the time to dig into the side of the hill behind the house, right outside the kitchen window.  

I have been digging dirt in this area more often than I would have liked to, starting with replacing plumbing drain lines in late 2015 before we first moved in. There is a 3′ wide shallow well that is covered, but may be usable some day.

The dug out hole was there for some time, and other projects needed to be completed first to get to it eventually.  First was the greenhouse off the back of the house, which was only completed in 2021, after being on the property for 5 years.  The greenhouse was a goal since the beginning, as a necessity to starting seedlings for a successful produce operation.  In the interim, starting seeds in the house and in the hoop house (after it was finished in 2017), was a less than ideal situation.  

Of course, with more time and money, things could have happened faster, but a shoestring budget for the farm would be an improvement from where things have been.  Thankfully, in doing remodeling work, I have been able to scrounge and save scrap lumber, old windows and doors, concrete block, mortar and various materials from jobs that I have worked on.  Also, the former owner of our property was a mason, who had saved a small supply of random concrete blocks and bricks, that have also been re-purposed.  

The concrete footing was laid out to align with existing lines of the house and roof, which limits the size, which was good considering the amount of materials I had on hand.  The footing from the attached greenhouse, was then extended away from the house to connect to the future root cellar by means of a block wall, 3 courses high, to make a retaining wall against the hill rising behind the house.  This block retaining wall is the outer wall of the greenhouse, and, after it’s completion, I filled in dirt from the hill to the top of the block, in order to hopefully provide insulation and temperature stabilization inside the greenhouse.  I also embedded some pieces of 4″ PVC pipe through the wall to serve as openings for an earth tube using 100′ of 4″ black drain pipe.  This pipe will eventually be buried in the hill behind the greenhouse and behind the root cellar, another attempt to stabilize the temperature inside.  

The greenhouse is now 95% completed and is usable for starting seeds. The temperature on cold nights is about 10 degrees warmer than ambient, without any additional heating. Finishing up a little bit of flashing and sealing some cracks with caulk may help to improve that a couple more degrees. Ideally, if I could keep it 15° above ambient with only passive means, that would keep it above freezing on all but the coldest nights.

But back to the root cellar. It has gone up only 1 course at a time, or less. Each time, additional things needed to be done (perf pipe with sock behind the wall to drain water from the hill side of the root cellar). Another course allowed me to backfill over the pipe with gravel. The third course brought it up to the level of the retaining wall and tied it all together. This additional course of block is one of those victories in inches that provides more mental energy and motivation to stay the course (no pun intended). My masonry skills aren’t professional or efficient, but they are sufficient, and free. Once the wall is another 2 or 3 courses high, I can start figuring out the roof (arched poured concrete with rebar down into the block cavities to hold it all together. As long as it is about 80″ in the center, that will be high enough to get us all in there and have shelving on the walls for canned goods and such. I’ll add an electrical line from off the back of the house so we can have a light and outlet and maybe apply a stucco finish to the exterior block to fancy it up.

Of course, that’s not the end of the project. The plan is to have the retaining wall attach to the front corner of the house (behind me and to the left in the 2015 picture above), and create an outdoor kitchen area with a brick oven, planter boxes, a pergola, and another entrance to the house through the existing laundry room area.

Big dreams, one course at a time.