Paul’s property certainly has it’s share of beauty and charm. The area where the labs are located is somewhat on the side of a mountain, at least that’s what people from Kansas would call it, maybe in Montana it’s a big hill? A portion of it overlooks a steep slope down to a river and on the mornings I was there the mist and fog as you came out of Cooper Cabin was surreal and quite an experience.
Anyway, the tour continued with a visit to the interior of Cooper Cabin.
The front wall of the cabin has mostly glass so there is a lot of light coming in. The floor is finished in wood, although Paul hopes that eventually that will be converted to a Linseed Oil floor. I need to do more research on that – anyone familiar with that type of floor?
There are actually two experimental Rocket Mass devices in the cabin. The first is a Batch Box style Rocket Cook Stove. Batch Box RMH’s have a door and have a different internal configuration for gas pathways and such. Paul is not a huge fan because they are not as simple as a “J-Tube” type (we’ll get to that in a moment) and typically require more “fiddling” to run well. If you are interested in listening to experts discuss it there is a podcast here.
The second is what would be considered a “normal” J-Tube style Rocket Mass Heater with a Cob Bench providing the “mass”.
They are called “J-Tube” style because the wood feeds in vertically in the front (you can see the fire and wood feed towards the bottom of the picture above) and the burn chamber inside runs horizontally and then connects to an insulated vertical heat riser contained inside the barrel in the picture above. It is really a trip to watch flame burn sideways along the bottom of the burn chamber. The whole burn chamber is encased in cob and there is exhaust pipe that goes all through the bench to heat up the mass. Rocket Mass Heaters if running correctly burn between 1200 and 2300 degrees, burning up all the smoke, creosote and everything else combustible and then releasing some CO2 and water vapor that vents out the chimney.
The heater pictured above is in Erica and Ernie Wisner’s Rocket Mass Heater Builder’s Guide which is probably the most definitive guide on Rocket Mass Heaters currently available.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Paul Wheaton and Wheaton Labs his property is divided into two parts – “Base Camp” where the current home and shop is located and “Wheaton Labs” which is a larger section of property where the Ant Village (we’ll cover that soon, I promise) and a lot of the other experimental structures are located. He calls it the Lab to make sure everyone remembers that the goal here is to experiment and prove concepts, not necessarily to churn out a finished product.
After the Pizza Party there was a bit of a mix-up on Friday night about where I would be bunking and Jocelyn graciously extended an offer to me to sleep the first evening on the couch in the Fisher Price House (they call it that because it’s a double-wide trailer made mostly of plastic) which I happily accepted. I helped her and Chef Ron with the dishes from the party and ended up turning in fairly late. Due to the time zone change and the length of my trip I had no trouble getting to sleep almost instantly.
I found out the next morning that Paul and Jocelyn tend to get up around 5:30 am. Paul was very kind and was being quiet in an attempt to let me sleep in. It turns out that Paul’s version of attempting to “be quiet” is quite adorable for a 6′ 4″ large man although it’s not actually very quiet. I appreciated the effort but the early wake-up was fine because I was excited to be up and start the day. The tour and the chance to see and play with all the Rocket Mass Heaters I had been reading about was why I drove to Montana in the first place.
Chef Ron, one of the tour participants, had come in the day before from Washington and helped Jocelyn prep everything for the pizza party. Chef Ron really outdid himself making a breakfast casserole with the leftovers and making homemade biscuits to boot. He told me he had never been in Jocelyn’s kitchen prior to the day before but he had found everything he needed almost immediately. I figured that was a) because Jocelyn rocks as a cook and a person and b) he’s a chef, and people who cook tend put things they use the most nearest where they use them. After breakfast the group of tour participants gathered together and carpooled in various vehicles up to the Lab area.
The first thing we saw when we arrived at the first Lab location was the Cooper Cabin.
Cooper Cabin is a WOFATI which stands for Woodland Oehler Freaky-Cheap Annual Thermalized Inertia structure. The Oehler stands for Mike Oehler who was a designer of underground earth houses who recently passed away. Mike was the author of the $50 Dollars and up Underground House Book and apparently quite a character based on the stories Paul was telling all weekend.
The WOFATI is designed to store heat in the summer and release it in the winter, maintaining a year round temperature without heating or cooling the structure. The Cooper Cabin is not completely finished but very close and Paul is hoping to have someone or a couple of someones live in the structure for year to document the conditions and prove that it works. If you are interested in helping out with that project let me know or contact Paul at Permies.com and let him know you want to be involved in the Thermal Inertia test.
The next project we looked at was the skiddable Wood Shed.
The wood shed was built as a place to store boards they have milled with their portable saw mill. Recently sawed green lumber needs to dry for a considerable period of time before being used in structures to prevent shrinkage. There is a style of building using green logs, called Round Wood Timber Framing, that actually takes advantage of the shrinking to tighten the joints of a build but that’s a topic for another post. The Wood Shed was built by a novice builder as their first natural timber build and it’s not perfect but it does the job.
We then got a look at Paul’s Solar Leviathan.
The Solar Leviathan is a portable solar charging station that has multiple solar panels mounted on a frame built onto a trailer that Paul’s brother welded together. The wheels look out of whack because the type of suspension they built has both wheels in a kind of floating frame, attached to a axle to allow for being driven over rough terrain. The solar inverter and batteries are contained inside the trailer making it a completely self-contained mobile power station. Very, very, cool, especially if you are off-grid and want to run an electric chainsaw, charge up your cellphone and have lights in a wofati cabin at night.
The next structure we looked at was the Canning Kitchen.
The canning kitchen is a skiddable structure (skiddable means it’s designed to be hooked up with chains to a vehicle of some type and dragged to a new location) built to make canning in the summer more bearable by performing all the heated operations outside. All the blue food grade barrels you see in the picture are for water storage and the kitchen sink on the lower right side of the picture has a manual foot pump that allows for running water.
The structure is designed with an open bay (lower right side) that you can insert a module unit into depending on what you need. When used as a canning kitchen they can put a Rocket Mass Stove for heating water into the bay or they can put the Rocket Mass Oven into the bay and use the shelves for food prep. The structure is about 65-80 percent finished but is certainly usable.
The drive from Billings to Missoula was only about 4 1/2 hours so I slept in a little bit, went down to the continental breakfast, had a nice chat with the lady who was serving (unfortunately I did not get her name) and continued on my way. The event I was attending at Wheaton Labs was a get-together for some of the folks who had supported Paul’s Rocket Stove Kickstarter. Paul was having a natural builder’s event starting the week after so he had some natural building rock stars coming in for the event and since I was coming in from the East I was asked if I could pick up Chris “Uncle Mud” McClellan at the Missoula International Airport. I was happy to do it (basically that was like asking a teenage girl if they would like to meet Taylor Swift).
I got into Missoula, MT quite a bit before the plane was scheduled to arrive so I did some grocery shopping and went to lunch at a place called the Mackenzie River Pizza Company. It’s a great pizza joint and if you are passing through Missoula I highly recommend stopping in for a slice. After lunch and a look around town I went to the airport to pick up Uncle Mud. I had seen him in person the year before at the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, KS putting on a straw bale building demonstration and was looking forward to giving him a ride. Uncle Mud turned out to be just as genuine as he appears when putting on a workshop and his enthusiasm for all things Rocket Stove and Natural Building related is apparent in every conversation he has. The other thing that impressed me was his dedication to family and I was honored to spend the time with him.
By the time we arrived at Wheaton Labs the Rocket Stove Pizza Party of 2018 was in full swing and just like that I was standing in a place I had been reading about for two plus years and meeting people that I been hearing about and reading about for longer than that. Just for the record Paul Wheaton is pretty much a giant. He’s 6’4″ tall and a presence in any room he is in, even if he’s not standing. Jocelyn Campbell might possibly be one of the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet and is an excellent cook as the next few days attested.
The first night of the event was cooking pizza in the Rocket Stove featured in the Kickstarter video, eating good food and getting to meet the people who I would be spending the next couple of days with. It turned out that the people supporting Paul in the Kickstarter and coming together to spend time in the labs and talk Permaculture came from all over and many different walks of life. A chef turned farmer, engineers, architects, IT geeks, retired administrators, homesteaders and many others. A diverse group that actually reflected in so many ways the diversity that Permaculture strives for.
After a few hours of good food and lots of stories and introductions the various participants separated to go to the various campsites and rented structures around the property and turn in for the night.