Listening to the stones

26 Feb
view of ramada

First completed stone column

Ed is learning to listen to the stones, and the conversations have been constructive. While spending two weeks at El Punto in Big Bend, the goal was to progress on the ramada. The metal roof has been installed and now allows for shade, even shelter from rain…. when it does rain. The the fun part: constructing the stone columns around the corner posts of the west wall.

That begins with collecting stone; lots of it. Working with stone, or rock, requires a mindset of intimacy with the goal, methods and materials. One stone or rock does not fit all. In other words, for the purpose of encasing the metal posts in stone, round rock would not be the best choice. Nor big rock or stone of any shape. Keeping in mind how other components of the walls will be integrated together, a large mass of rock would be unnecessary and uncomplimentary to the adobe blocks that will infill between the corners posts. Small flat stone, however, would be more practical and aesthetically pleasing. With that in mind, the builder looks for stone that will, well, ‘work’ with the goal.

Form for rock columns

Beginning the stone column with steel form guides.

Ed welded a steel collapsible form to serve as a guide for the four corners and four lines of the square. The steel bars are held together by shorter bars that can be screwed and unscrewed to aid simplicity of erecting and disassembling the form. Then he collected stone from the sides of the roads and hauled them to the site where they will be used. In rock and stone work, it is imperative to have more material than you think you might need. Inevitably, you will need more than you think you did, and the more rock or stone you have, the  more choices in pieces that fit into the overall puzzle.

Initinally, Ed intended to use as little mortar as possible so that the stone column would look as if it was dry-stacked (stacked rock or stone with no mortar). However, the small size of the stone and the column necessitated using more mortar to keep the stone in place. Regardless, one can recess the mortar so that the overall appearance is more rustic rather than typical stone walls and mortar forming a flush exterior surface.

As Ed discovered, some days the stones are silent. They don’t ‘speak’ to you, and there’s no smooth zen in finding the right stones to fit the right places. Then it is all well and good to just walk away for the day and start anew the next.

In the desert sun, the mortar can dry quickly, which is undesirable. The ‘sticky’ property of mortar is a function of ratios between sand, water, and a binder, such as cement or lime. When water is added, a chemical reaction occurs and it quickly ‘sets’ (becomes hard). Thus, during hot weather, or in the sun when evaporation rates are high, speed is the essence. A trick we learned from Jerry, a musician by trade that builds stone houses for a hobby, is to brush water onto the rock or stone, or even dunk the rock in a pail of water, before setting it onto a bed of mortar. This helps bind the mortar to the stone much better than if the stone surface was completely dry.

Ed commented after completion of the first column:

Column completed.

Completed column and comfy chair awaits.

“I am pleased with the profile and texture. Not often I am pleased with a first effort on something this intricate. Starting small sounded like a good idea. Lesson one from the stones is that small stones demand exact placement. An eighth inch error on a big rock disappears in the project. An eight inch error on a two inch stone sticks out like a sore thumb.”

One more column to complete and then he can begin constructing the adobe wall that will span between the two columns. We already have about three dozen blocks, some salvaged and some we made. He mentioned on the phone today that he will start making blocks with the new two-block mold he made before heading down to Big Bend this trip. He also reported that the three blocks made from the black volcanic sand and clay obtained from the Cedar Springs area dried to a lighter color than we anticipated. The final wall should be interesting with the hodge podge of blocks made of different sources of clay and sand. But that’s part of the fun of it.

I certainly look forward to my next opportunity to sit in the comfy chairs under the roof of the ramada and watch the sun rise over the Chisos and Christmas Mountains. Also, I miss my old friend Hen Egg Mountain (which was originally named Terlingua Mountain, but that’s for another post). In fact, I might just hang a hammock in there and sleep out in the desert without walls.

Next project on the ramada is adding a gutter to the west side of the roof and placing a small catchment tank nearby. The south side will incorporate an outdoor shower with rock and glass walls. This will replace the black solar bag that hangs from a rafter in the front of the ramada in the photograph. The design is my job, and I have several ideas in mind. First, the exterior wall will be semi-circular. Also, the shower water will be reused to irrigate a few plants next to the ramada. To roof or not to roof, that remains a question.

So El Punto Coyote continues to evolve. Hopefully in a way to allow us to live, but with as little impact on the surrounding terrain and biota as possible. I wish for all of us to be a sustainable community, no matter how small we are.

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One Response to “Listening to the stones”

  1. Holly March 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    Lookin’ mighty nice! You guys have made a lot of progress since I was there in December.

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