From August-October of 2015 I worked with a team of five people to build a 200 sq ft off the grid earth dome in the forest of Northwest Washington. The structure was designed by Sunray Kelley and built for our client Ranger. The building of the dome was filmed by Sharp Entertainment and the episode, Building off the Grid: Mudmen aired on DIY Network January, 19 2016.
I moved up to Washington early July as soon as Sunray told me about the build. As we waited for the crew from New York to arrive we did a variety of projects on the land. We finished the interior of the The Treehouse, installed solar panels on the new gypsy wagon, and made various repairs. At this point, I had been apprenticing with Sunray for over a year and he had just taken in a very down to earth and amazing new intern, Chantel.
In the weeks leading up to the build, Sunray and I found ourselves on many long conference calls with New York, but finally the day before the build, we all drove to the site to meet our fellow cast and crew. For the first time in person we met Alan our executive producer; sharp-tongued, fast paced, cranky, and hilarious. Brian, our production assistant was chill, focused, and was also a master drone pilot. We also finally met Peaches and Matteo, two cob oven builders from Ithaca, NY who would help us build for the next six weeks. During our build we also had various other crew members such as camera operators and sound technicians, but that varied depending on what building challenges we faced each day.
The first day on site we set our center stake, leveled out our pier blocks and attached them to three girders that would support the weight of the house. We worked with the cameras constantly describing our actions. Matteo would fact check terminology with me and together we’d describe how these first few steps would help us map out the entire structure. I worked alongside Peaches, getting her familiar with the tools, and with Chantel leveling girders and moving lumber.
We worked ten hour days during those first weeks. Building off the grid meant making frequent runs up and down the hill for chainsaw batteries, drill batteries, and even camera batteries. Our next step was putting up joists and laying down decking, once the decking was screwed in we went to work making our compression belt. We used triangles to measure out the circle and place our supports. Everything was set up like a clock, our center stake determined the length of our boards and the circumference of our circle.
On the third day we raised three beams cut at an angle, and put temporary supports along the base of each beam. We added supports at 10ft and 14ft high, and used a pulley to lift our second compression belt up 10ft. It took the weight of Justin the tree cutter, Peaches, and myself as everyone around pushed the belt upward to get it into place. We then added six temporary pillars around the structure; we eyeballed, adjusted, then finally set our smaller hexagon up 14ft high. That same day we began weaving in our first bender boards, but quickly realized they weren’t green enough. Ranger, Sunray, and Justin made the decision to thin our dense forest and cut down a nearby tree. Our wood miller Brie milled the fresh cedar that same day and we were able to pick up where we left off.
I did a lot of chainsaw work during our initial framing, since everything had to be cut on site. As we wove in the bender boards I mostly stayed 14ft up on top of our scaffolding pyramid. I enjoyed the process; bringing the boards under the hexagon as Sunray directed, then trimming them off. As I worked on top of the dome, the camera crew sent the drowns up to film the process. I’d hear this loud humming as the tiny propellers would blow sawdust in my eyes, knowing that it was crucial each movement and each cut had my full attention.
Once we had most of our bender boards all screwed in, Sunray decided to take our three 2×4 braces off that held our hexagon in place. As soon as he let out a few screws the whole structure shifted about two inches! We worked quickly and frantically trying to add braces but we only had so many screws left. With only a few feet of space on top of our scaffolding Alan shoved the camera in our faces as he relentlessly questioned our every move. We worked fast as we explained to him that we were unscrewing everything around us to gather more timberlocks and replace our stolen timberlocks with the 4 inch screws we still had. I knew our plan sounded crazy, but it worked, and we finally set our last timberlock in place after taking it out of the scaffolding that held us atop our pyramid.
Almost every day we had interviews, “OTF’s” as Alan called them “On The Fly’s,” and the more action shots we had, the longer we’d be on set at the end of the day. Explaining our day’s work was tedious, but I excited to share our experience with the world.
However, not every day was easy. During the entire duration of the build and for a year afterward I dealt with constant harassment from an individual on the land suffering from delusions and a violent expression of mental instability, mainly directed towards me. Confusion and frustration were the heaviest emotions I carried. However, not for one moment did I truly consider returning to California, despite those who feared for my safety, I knew I had to stay. I love building, as a passion and as an art, and I knew that any challenge I met I had to accept, and work through with a combination of strength and grace.
Our next phase was moving the stones. Justin helped us gather stones from a nearby river and bring them to the job site. We started by moving them around the base of the structure, despite the constant rain. Matteo’s background in stone masonry work really shined here as he and Sunray moved each giant rock like a puzzle piece. Once we finished the stonework and secured a trap door, we began to cob the exterior of the structure. We placed horizontal lath all away around the dome and wove the cob up, out, and over the curve. We installed and framed our windows, and filled gaps with interior cob work and designs. During this time there was no shortage of cob-alanches and mud fights.
In our down time we visited other local houses that Sunray had built, went to festivals, pressed fresh apple cider, and after a long day’s work sometimes Alan would take us all out for ice cream! One evening we went to a party at Buddha House with the cast and crew. At one point Alan voiced his deepest fears as we were all laughing on the way to the party, and he questioned if he “had crossed the threshold -where his life had indeed become the reality TV show.”
Next, we collected six curved cedar branches from the tree that had been cut down and placed them around the top of the dome as they would become the rafters. After placing the crown along the edge of the dome we set six more curved branches on their sides to create peaks and valleys in our roof. Once the branches were set in place we began layering triangles of bender boards, jutting them out toward the sky.
During this part of the build Sunray and I were constantly flooded by the knowledge that the town where I grew up in Northern California was now encased by wildfire. While my family’s house survived, Sunray’s beloved Harbin Temple did not, and both of us became lost in our work as the extent of the damage would not be relayed to us for weeks.
As we layered each board we filled the gaps with sheep’s wool and alpaca fiber that local farmer’s could not use for textile purposes. We then placed a layer of pond liner over the wooden boards to protect them from our living roof. Over the pond liner we covered the roof in flakes of straw, compost, and netting to hold it all in place. Next, we built the cupola and pulled it up with ropes, we finally screwed it down to our hexagon, and the crown of the dome was complete.
Eventually, we began working on the loft and stairs, using branches of cedar and cuts of madrona and alder. We then installed the door frame and built a cob bench for the inside of the little dome. Matteo added a stone path to the front of the house and worked on the stairs while I worked alongside Sunray. Peaches and Chantel troweled beautiful waves in the cob surrounding the windows and door, and added a coat of lime plaster to the cob. Jimmy the wood carver even chainsaw carved a statue for the special occasion. We spent a whole day planting flowers, ferns, and moss in the netting of our living roof, and finally installed our front door.
Our last few days of building we worked with a full crew, we were always mic’d up and constantly doing interviews and OTF’s. The crew filmed the big reveal to Ranger and we had a photo shoot to advertise the show on DIY Network.
In the evening we had a huge bonfire, roasted foraged mushrooms, and sang and danced in the dome. We felt the space in it’s entirety, released our deepest emotions, and left feeling at peace, fulfilled, and restored.
Ranger intends to use the space for gatherings and guests. He has installed a propane fireplace and has electricity nearby if needed. A creek flows about 20 yards away on the property and an outdoor composting toilet was built for convenience.
After the build I continued to travel the Northwest. I went to Shelton and Olympia to meet family members for the first time. I returned to Lopez to visit the project I had finished only a season before. I spent my days rock climbing, skateboarding, and hiking. I stayed with friends, watched salmon migrate in the peninsula, made delicious vegan dishes, read, and went salsa dancing in the evenings. All together I spent a total of six months in Northwest Washington before returning to California, just in time to watch the show air!
Seeing my parents reaction to the show was priceless, and the flood of emails and comments that ensued was something I couldn’t have anticipated. I loved being able to share that experience with so many people; share the art, the simplicity, and the odd charisma of our little earth dome. Despite the hardships, choosing to be a part of this build and choosing to stay a part of this build was a decision I never regretted. I remember one day in particular when I was feeling most lost a little girl named Jenna walked up to me and handed me a crayon map she drew of the land. She pointed to where I was staying, where she grew up, and where the treehouse was. She gave me a sense of direction in the sweetest possible way, during a point in my life when I needed it most. With this direction I was able to find courage through art, courage that released me from frustration and pushed me onward and upward.
I know now that this whole experience has opened up more doors than I ever would have thought possible, and has also been the root of some amazing conversations. Feeling that I can confidently push myself if I know that something is important and meaningful enough, has shown me value of emotional endurance. So it is with this strength that I continue to look beyond into the unknown, and allow myself to say yes to the next opportunity that awaits.