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Barn Floor Saga

Yes, its a saga.

I began with ideas and a gorgeous, ideal architectural drawing from Dana Bixby. I sent these to five contractors in New Mexico. Two were swamped, one backed away due to conflict of interest, one is still working on an estimate two months later, and one gave me a detailed, transparent estimate which, though fair, was so far out of range that I was very, very demoralized for a week. $34,000!

Well! $34,000 is double the $17,000 we raised in December which I thought would be adequate based on preliminary calculations sent by a friend who had recently put in a dance floor in a warehouse. The company that sent the estimate is the premier local construction company so I had no qualms that if I went with them the job would be solid and right. I called the second not-so-local company to see if they would weigh in wildly differently but didn’t have much hope. The materials on the list — plywood, OSB, insulation, joists, cement perimeter, etc. cost money. Men with big machines cost money. Mostly, it all felt wrong.

I wandered around wondering how to approach this. I could return to the Dancemeditation Community to try to raise more money. This is the usual approach, but juast at this juncture something about this  felt unengaged and unconsidered. I don’t want a rich project, a spa vibe. Ravenrock is meant as a place where we know nature, we know our bodies which includes finding human-sized solutions to our needs. All of us spend too much time using water we don’t carry, electricity we don’t generate, paying money into systems we have no control over designed to keep us in thrall, making salaries to keep roofs over our heads and the cold winter wind out. I felt completely determined not to start down a track with this barn that was all about that. We had raised a modest amount of money. Now could we get a floor out of that?

I have been guided, since the beginning of this wild and huge venture, by the certainty that a place for spiritual work is achievable, even by me, a no-longer-young dancer/mystic. In my gut I have felt this every day. The solutions to date have been the work of squeezing through narrow apertures rather than just waltzing down the lane. Ingenuity and prudence, rather than lavish gestures. The effort to find workable solutions and the effort involved in seeing what is truly needed and what is gratuitous is a perfect manifestation of spiritual path. The construction of the barn floor is another portrait of how this can and must happen.

I knew I couldn’t go with the local company. I wanted to. I wanted to give local guys business, to be part of the community in that way, but they cost too much. I sat by a huge fountain on 53rd Street in Manhattan on an unseasonably warm early spring day seeing only the barn and the mesa in my mind, thinking, thinking. I phoned Stewart Hoyt who loosened up my mind. He came up with five different floor structure solutions in one conversation. This was perhaps the best first step out of my little gully of worry. “We can do this or that…” Dana’s drawing faded away and now I was looking at unorthodox possibilities. It was a strategic issue. How can we do this modularly to make sure we are never hanging over the edge beyond available funds?

Judith Williams' papercrete subfloor

Cheap solutions — in builder’s parlance ‘cost-effective’ measures. Sure, one could pour a slab of concrete and bing bing the job is done. Everyone had suggested that. But all of us dancers know that even if you put wood over concrete it is cold and hard and miserable. No! No concrete. So with that expedient ruled out, the primary challenge in the plans was keeping animals from roosting under a wood floor. (New Mexico has little in the way of drainage issues.) The need to put a concrete perimeter around the entire floor that dug down into the ground a foot so mice and rats (which means snakes) couldn’t burrow was looking tough. It just was. And then what about that air space under the floating wood floor? And could we blow in insulation later?

Even so, I felt happier. I began to see myself with a couple of other as-yet-unknown volunteers digging around the barn perimeter. Then the cement guy (every town has one, Stewart says) would come up and pour the perimeter. Etc, etc. The floor would go in with a combination of specific hired specialists and a lot of unskilled labor. Well, it felt okay. But just okay.

Then Saturday dinner at ‘Sonny and Tony’s’ upstate with ‘the Family” (Ric’s multitude of siblings, mostly brothers who know how to build things) came around. It can be a noisy sort of dinner and lots of subjects come and go, but in passing the barn floor trotted over the eggplant parmesian heros and pasta fajole and lasgna. “Papercrete, ‘ Ferdinand said.

Well, I had heard about papercrete before and I nodded but didn’t think too hard on it. A possible insulation solution, yes, because everyone agrees insulation is expensive. Papercrete is cheap. The evening came and went, lots of hugs goodbye after dinner and off we went home. I checked papercrete on the iPhone and found a good site. Lots of rah-rah info. Papercrete is great for everything! But no formulas. It was the usual guy site with elaborate calculations and ‘it already feels too big for you, Lil’ Lady” going on. Obfuscation.

Well, let me say this, Ladies, construction that is good enough to live in is not rocket science. Construction that doesn’t need tremendous curb appeal, construction that is shelter is not rocket science. Of course, like anything, it can be good or crappy, but it can be learned.

Finally in the wee hours, a time when good things often happen, I came across a blog by a 60-year-old woman in northern New Mexico who built her entire house by hand, by herself out of papercrete Yes!!!! Her name is Judith Williams and here is the link for her story. Granted it is a small cabin (so cute and cozy and good) but the walls and floor are made from papercrete.

Judith William's Papercrete Floor

Papercrete is lightweight, insulative, as soft underfoot as wood, it is fire and animal resistant, can be done modularly, is cost-effective, is green (made from recycled paper and other fibers and Portland cement). Wow the check list is fantastic!

And she built her house by herself.

This is something that I can do. In fact, anyone who wants to can come give a hand. It won’t break our backs but will make us strong and, more important, help us know we can make our own shelter as well as our own barn floor.

Well, this is the hope. I will call and email and check this out. In my gut, I feel right about it. I think there is now a happy way forward!


Any helpful input on this?


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    1. Scott Duval #

      I looked up the process.. this stuff totally rocks. great concept… would be great to live out west and build a house out of this… pretty cost efficient and you could do it yourself… would be like an eccentric artist building a mega adobe structure… and its light weight…

      totally cool and good luck with it.

      March 27, 2012
    2. Dee #

      My Dear Dunya,
      It TOTALLY feels right to me too. I love the material, the fact that is uses natural and recycled stuff, that “even a girl can do it,” and that it’s relatively cheap. And it looks fantastic! Perfectly suited to harmonize with the NM landscape… and I am still hoping to visit in early August. I will be strong from weekends on our farm, and this will also make me happy to work on! Very happy. I was telling Bruce last night how long we have shared this dream (me secretly for a few years)… and it is utterly thrilling that it’s coming together at last… and in the right way. Nothing hurried will be the best course. The thoughtful approach, balanced with nature and funding and spiritual needs, is always the way to go. Bravo, girl! It’s so happening! Wheee!!! xoxo, Dee

      March 27, 2012
    3. Dee, right, it fits so well with the NM aesthetic. It can mold into adobe curves very easily. And the long gestation is right. When you have limited resources it forces you to be inventive. I remember the key activity in choreography classes was being given limitations (i.e., do a one minute dance with your right hand in the space under a chair); this stimulated creativity and problem solving.

      Scott, the stuff DOES rock. A n excellent reuse of materials. Instead of cutting down more trees, why not take the trees that have already been cut down and made into paper, make a gluey goop that hardens, then make walls out of that. It doesn’t get much smarter.

      March 27, 2012
    4. Dunya,
      This is so exciting! Maybe even if I can’t come to the long retreat I can come for a shorter time to help lay floor. ? I’ll put that out to the Universe and see. Love, Debi (Sarasvati)

      March 27, 2012
    5. David Hammond #

      The floor is the thing. That’s where all the action will be. Needs to be great. Am I stating the obvious ? Still . . . I have complete confidence that it WILL HAPPEN.

      March 27, 2012
    6. What a wonderful story. Papercrete sounds a lot like cob. I wonder what the difference is in the final product?
      You could also easily have a mosaic border on the floor or in the entrance way, since you’ve got the mortar.

      March 28, 2012
    7. David, the floor IS the thing. Thanks for that confidence!

      Lisa, I think tile/mosaic particularly at the doorways will be so beautiful. And useful. I love that combination. 8>)

      Deb, you’re on. I’ll let you know. Thanks!!! (BTW 2012 Summer Monastery will be primarily at Synergia Ranch and will include an overnight visit to Ravenrock for those who are there for the whole two weeks.)

      March 28, 2012
    8. Let the community konw when you might have a floor lowering (as opposed to a barn raising)…….and see who can come… excited for your solution…..

      March 28, 2012
    9. Ha! A floor lowering! 😉

      March 28, 2012
    10. Anastasia Blaisdell #

      Oh, dear Lawd! This sounds exciten’!!!!! WEEE!! I only WISH I had a heap of cash to get me out there to help with that floor and tiling, n such! sounds amazing, and I am so impressed with the way you went about it all, Dunya…just shows how dedicated you are to being a completely good person. Thank You! (BTW, I have been having many dreams with you over the past couple of months…good, close connections in the dreams.)

      May 7, 2012

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