Introducing the Mysterious Cube

Earlier rendition of the Cottage on the Plateau

At the end of February I made a post titled “Little Cottage on the Plateau.” The title was supposed to remind my readers, with no lack of nostalgia, of the old TV program “Little House on the Prairie.” The little cottage was to be a prototype for the lodging which will one day be available at Wrong Way Farm Stay. The design had evolved over the months. Now it used load-bearing autoclaved aerated concrete blocks. The Japanese-style bath has been moved indoors, and I’d solved the under-floor rice husk insulation problem for the radiant floor (warmed with bathwater) by using wooden joists instead of a concrete slab. It retains the dreaded (by women) composting toilet. The idea was to build the shell and get a roof on it as soon as possible so I’d have somewhere to stay while getting my aquaponic system up and running.

Beginning the bagged gravel foundation. Note the high-tech water level to the right. It can be used alone.

As a first step, I’d smuggled 1 cubic meter of proper gravel into Laos from Thailand (I couldn’t find anywhere that would sell me small quantities in Pakse), along with the materials I needed for making reusable forms for the concrete foundation.  I’d bought a new Bosch circular saw and a cordless drill. I was applying a new policy of self-reliance, not so much in the transcendental sense of “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” as espoused by Emerson, but for the sake of practicality. I’m attempting to do things that people don’t understand, or even try to understand, so I just have to do them myself, from scratch. But I must admit that there are times when his slogan, “trust thyself,” has come in handy, such as when a drunken birthday girl in Vientiane suggested with great vigor that I should just stop, stop everything I’m doing on the Bolaven Plateau.

Anyway, the photo above shows about how far I got before I had to return to Vientiane for a bout of heavy drinking with Ross. I enjoy the two-day trips from my farm to Vientiane, usually via Ubon. Plenty of time to think things through. And, being in a new state of self-reliance, I realized that building the Cottage on the Plateau wasn’t practical. The core principle was okay, I mean, get on and stay on the farm. But it would take weeks to get a shell done with a roof overhead, all the time commuting to and from a guesthouse in Paksong. It would cost a lot, too.

I built "The Cube" using Google Sketchup, first. A few times, actually.

What I needed to build was something small and useful that could also provide temporary shelter. And if I could build it out of wood, a material I’m used to, that would be even better. The type of building that I could do quickly and on my own with a certain amount of confidence is what’s known as platform framing, or “stick building,” common in the US and Australia. And I could build it partially knock-down at my house in Ubon, chuck it in the back of my truck, and smuggle it to my farm on the Plateau where I’d only have to assemble it. I call it “The Cube.”

All voids in the floor, walls, and ceiling will be filled with rice husks, the "super insulator."

There were certain limitations to how “knock down” it could be. I couldn’t, for instance, complete the top of the panels by adding a top plate, because then I wouldn’t be able to pour in the rice husk insulation. I also needed access to the voids in the walls in order to bolt them together. For the two floor panels, I applied the plywood to the bottom of each. After bolting them together on site, I’ll add rice husks and then apply the top sheets of plywood. The entire cube is designed with the least amount of waste possible, so it is 2.44 x 2.44m. Not exactly spacious. The “design” timber was 3 x 7cm rough sawed stuff but I wasn’t worried about some dimensional variations. I would deal with them in place without buying a planer.

My Thai Daughter, Megan, carpenter's apprentice.

My house in Ubon has plenty of flat surfaces around it which are perfect for building panels and not far from a fridge filled with cold beer. I spent nearly two weeks there. It didn’t take much time doing the building once I got the hang of it. I hadn’t handled a circular saw in ages, though, and I was surprised how tiring hammering could be. What was hardest to handle was the heat. Daytime temperatures were over 40C. In just 5 minutes I’d be soaked in sweat. The reason it took nearly 2 weeks was that I had to wait to get paid before I had enough money to deliver it to my farm and then return to Vientiane.

Crappy DIY project in the back of my truck

I trucked the entire building, roof materials and all, to my farm in two loads. It’s just an 8-hour round trip. I delivered the first half when it was finished, and the second half a week later. I could probably have done it all in one load, but I was worried about the Lao customs guys. I wanted each load to look like a crappy do-it-yourself project done by a lunatic foreigner, something you’d have to pay to have thrown away. I achieved this with ease.

The cube, all its bits and pieces, waiting to be assembled.

Now I’m back in Vientiane waiting for the madness of Lao New Year to end. When it’s over, I’ll have the local kids load my truck completely with bags of dry rice husks. I’ll get them here because I’m sure I can get them for free from the neighboring rice mill. My helper has agreed to go with me and help piece together the cube, but she’s probably just looking for an opportunity to sabotage the project. What is this “cube” going to be? What is its ultimate purpose? I think I’ll leave you hanging.


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