Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Books, books, books...

I recently picked up "Building Construction Illustrated, 3rd Edition" by Francis D. K. Ching, Cassandra Adams from I'd seen it at a regular bookstore to the tune of the list price, but Amazon had it new for just over half price. The book contains a lot of information about buildings, not just residential. It covers everything in brief with lots of illustrations and descriptions; items such as: footings, wall types, foundations, roofs, steel, concrete, wood, stone, grading, etc... The book covers a LOT of material. If you want to get a better understanding of how buildings are put together, this is a great book to get your hands on. I picked it up to get a better idea of how a building goes together so as to be more informed when planning a build and speaking with sub-contractors. The one complaint I have about the book is that it doesn't cover ICF or SIP techniques! That's really bizarre, considering the book covers rammed earth and adobe construction, which are very uncommon techniques in the construction field.

I also picked up "
The Owner-Builder Book: How You Can Save More than $100,000 in the Construction of your new Home." by Mark A. Smith, Elaine M. Smith. This book I have mixed feelings about. While it contains lots of worthwhile information, it also spends a large amount of page space with little side bars and quotes from previous readers telling you how great the book is and how much money they saved. I don't want to hear how great the book is, I've already bought it. Fill that space with practical how-to information and get rid of the fluff. The book also assumes fortunate turns of events (things that fall into your lap) such as cheap, discontinued products, access to multiple vendors for products to get the best deal, and just generally fortuitous events that happen to help you save money. This overabundance of "can-do" happy go lucky smacks of those "get rich quick" books. The book also makes contractors look like unscrupulous and greedy people. I'm not defending them (nor am I a contractor), but they aren't all bad. In a nutshell for this book: The real information is good, but the book could've contained more of it or been fewer in pages once the junk had been thrown out.

I've also picked up "Build Your Own Stone House: Using the Easy Slipform Method" by Karl and Sue Schwenke. Will post a little more info when I get into it.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Old Cross Castle

Old Cross Castle is located in Missouri.

This castle turned up in a news article while using the search term "build a real castle" in Google. These "weekend warrior" castle builders originally started with a weekend house at the lake and have steadily grown it to the large castle seen in the article, one block at a time, every weekend they could. While modern owner built castles tend to be homes first and defensive last, according to the article this castle began because of security concerns. So far, it's the only castle I've found online that lists defense or security as one of the reasons for being built, even if in this case it's still just for fun. The castle itself appears to be a mish-mash of differing styles and materials. One could draw parallels between this castle and "real" castles; the original castles have been torn down, modified, or added to over time and feature a variety of styles and stonework added to them that were added over hundreds of years. The Old Cross Castle has simply compressed similar actions down to less than 2 decades. Looks like a fun place to hang out.

Castle Anam Cara Revisited: Interview

Castle Anam Cara revisited.

The owners of Castle Anam Cara have been very kind and provided me with this "interview" to share with the rest of the would be castle builders out there. Included is the philosopy and thinking that went into the why and how of this castle's genesis. One of the things that I've run across time and again while searching for owner built castles across the web is the cost involved in construction, many of the "castles" being built are constucted financially by owners who have no hand in the actual labor of creating their home. Castle Anam Cara is owner built on a shoestring budget, proof that even with little money and lots of dedication that one can have a castle of their own. Also, Castle Anam Cara is built with environmental efficiency in mind.

Edit: After trying time and again to "interviewize" the information provided me by Mr. O'Connor of Castle Anam Cara and present it in smaller slices to anyone who might be reading this, I just cannot cut it up and have it say the same thing. I've "cheated" and simply posted the information in its entirety and injected some of my own [thoughts or additional information] along the way. All links are added by myself. Some of the questions I asked when I initially sent an email to Mr. O'Connor were: Why did you build a castle? What was the philosophy or motivation behind building your castle? What difficulties did you encounter (such as with lenders) on the way to building the castle? How is the castle constructed? What concessions were made to modern conveniences in the construction of the castle? What environmental efficiencies were included in the construction of the castle? ...and other questions as well. Mr. O'Connor provided me with this information upon replying:

Perhaps the question most frequently asked of those who choose to build and live in a Castle is - “Why did you build a Castle?” Would that the response were as simple as - “It is so romantic and I’ve wanted to build one all my life!” But alas, the roots and reasons are much more complex.
The process began with a set of philosophical parameters that would form the framework around which the project would develop. These parameters included:
1) Both I and my companion chose early in life to follow life paths which were markedly non-mainstream. Our political, socioeconomic, humanitarian, cultural and global views are generated from within based on substantial life experience and are not mere reflections of the views “the system” cultivates for citizen consumption.
2) Both of us follow paths that frequently lead us inward through meditation, creativity and mind/body activities.
3) Both of us define our “success” through evaluators such as positive impact on others’ lives, giving more than we take, happiness, helping others define their life paths and reaching a point where we know that we need nothing more than our minds and hearts to survive and thrive anywhere.
4) The accumulation of material mass such as modern furniture, televisions, new cars, boats, techno-gadgets, appliances, picket fences etc. etc.. holds no draw over either one of us.
5) Both of us feel very much connected to all people on the planet and consider ourselves citizens of the planet rather than nationalistic units.
6) Both of us stand up for what we believe in.
7) Both of us strongly believe in self responsibility
8) Both of us believe that the attempt to homogenize society is destructive both to the individual and society.

With these existing philosophies, it was apparent immediately that we would not (COULD NOT) build the all American dream home - cape, ranch, saltbox, Colonial - at the end of a cul de sac in a regulated development where we had to ask what color paint we could use. To do so would effect a surrender of principle, a surrender of our vision, a surrender of belief.
BUT, this also created some problems. For this shared philosophy also surrendered any ability to operate in the world of “conventional” financing. But we would deal with that as the project developed.
With this philosophical foundation I started the design process. Our home would be a structure that reflected our shared philosophies. Our home must be a physical manifestation of our individuality, our conviction to cause and our resistance to forced or “suggested” mental and physical conformity. It must also bring joy and knowledge to others, be a gathering place for the sharing of friendship and ideas, cultivate creativity, reject disposable consumerism and strengthen our commitment to our chosen life paths. As medieval Castles had roots in taking a physical stand against the onslaught of aggressors, our Castle would also represent the stand we have taken against the onslaught of control, compliance and conformity.
One need not look any farther than the [lenders] banks to witness the long arm of conformity. Alternative home designs are looked at with the same warmth as was the black plague. So we decided to design the home WE wanted and build it out of pocket. In keeping with our philosophy, we would also do ALL the work ourselves. If a home is to truly be OUR home, it must come from OUR minds, OUR hearts and OUR hands.

[Luckily, the builders of alternative housing tend to be very resourceful and buck the status quo just as Mr. O'Connor has, and can find ways to reach their goal of building alternative housing. As you can see in following information, it has required some sacrifices; but in the end, the castle was built!]

After months of living on the land in a 20 foot trailer through the coldest snowiest winter on record, I developed a primary design that fulfilled the philosophical requirements above.
I could write endlessly on the process of product and materials choice but will try to focus it down a bit. We wanted the house to be as energy efficient as possible, as self sustaining as possible, as “eco-friendly” as possible and as true to our goal as possible. American building options tend towards gadgets, computer feedback, composites, and standard sizes and shapes. I soon ended up researching Swedish techniques and talking with many of their research scientists on the concept and science of home building. Subsequently, I opted for effective, non-technological, passive, nature sensitive, low maintenance building techniques.

[I had no idea what "Swedish Technique" was, I had to do a little looking. One of the things that came up was information about Carl Larsson, a Swedish painter from the late 18- to early 1900s who influenced design, along with others of like mind, to eschew anything that made a room dark, heavy or gloomy and chose instead materials that made a home lighter, brighter and more airy. Oddly enough, he was a proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement which we Americans associate with Stickley-like Craftsman furnishings, which ironically are dark and heavy; but the style covers a much broader area that ranges from incorporating anything from dark, solid furnishings to Art Nouveau stylings and minimalist clean, bright, linear styles. One very fitting pillar of the Arts and Crafts movement one could apply to building a castle is the goal of simplicity and strength of design, and emphasis on good craftsmanship. The arts and crafts movement covers a broad range of styles, here and here are a few good places to get information about it.]

The decision as to what to build with was a major one. Stone was the obvious first reaction by most people. But, I do a lot of masonry and several red flags began waving. First, the time factor. There is no doubt that the best looking material for a Castle would be stone. But doing the exterior walls in structural stone would require literally years of work. We were living in a tent/trailer and could not envision the added years to get the structure even livable. Second, the use of stone requires a GREAT deal of additional structural preparation and materials which translates to much higher cost. Keep in mind that we are now building out of pocket on a limited budget. If money were not a serious problem we would NOT be living in a tent! After much research I settled on a concrete product. Concrete would fulfill the appearance requirements (even the old stone Castles were most often skim coated with a stucco like material), would be cost effective for us, and allow a reasonable time projection. The particular product was Sparfil 2...

[I looked around for Sparfil for see if I could present an example or get more information about it. There is little information about it and no website for the company itself. Mr. O'Connor's description covers it pretty well, but from the information I could find, sparfil sounds like a similar material to Rastra Block, which is cement with recycled polystyrene in the mix]

This is a 12” thick by 8” high by 16” long block product. The body of the block is a mixture of concrete and insulating beads with 5 foam blocks filling 5 offset webs. Head ends are connected by insulating blocks. This gives a true, unbroken r25 wall. The blocks are dry stacked and troweled with surface bond cement. [Rob Roy mentions the use of dry stacking blocks and using a surface bonding cement in his book] . You can get some more structural info off of the Castle web site. The second floor ceiling has a Swedish vapor barrier and perimeter air gaskets. Above that is 16” of Canadian cellulose blown in insulation giving an effective r factor around r 80. The building is so well sealed that I have low volume (1/3 air change per hour) mechanical ventilation and make up air through a passive Swedish diaphragm tube.
Your question as to concessions to “modern” techniques and amenities is indeed a good one. A GREAT deal of time went into this topic. Balancing off our desire to be totally self dependent and not “reliant” on the “system” for anything were some important considerations. We would be using the Castle for education - I am a gold and silversmith - I am a potter - I am a blacksmith - we would be doing shows, weddings, tours and banquets here - we want to live here forever (or however close to that as we can get!) - outhouses are not really good for the sensitive land we are on - there are going to be days when we don’t feel good - total “unplugging” from society was not necessarily our goal. So, we put in a drilled well. This gives us running water and flushing toilets in the house but we also put a hand pump on the well. We use this as much as possible to save energy and it makes us self reliant in the winter when snow and ice storms interrupt electric service. We heat with wood (we own 8 acres of wooded land) but put in an ultra efficient propane furnace as a back-up. If we are doing a wedding or tour and get home late, the two hour wait for the wood stove to heat the house up is not a practical option. The furnace has a sealed combustion chamber which uses outside air so it neither burns internal oxygen nor changes interior positive/negative pressure balances. The wood stove also has an outside air kit. We do have electricity which I need in my metal shops. But, all lights, switches and outlets are hidden in period decorations. Our hot water is electric which we only turn on every second or third day for about 30 minutes. Our monthly electric bill is only about $35.00 per month. We light primarily with beeswax candles in medieval reflector lamps.

[This method of saving electricity is something some may be unwilling to pursue, or some methods may not be an option depending of the location of the site one would hope to build on; but they have done a marvelous job of proving that a castle need not cost a fortune to own and live in, and doesn't have to be a burden on the land around it or your pocketbook. It all depends on personal preference and what one is willing to do to reach their goal. Visiting the Castle's website, there also appear to be solar hot water heaters on the roof, an additional benefit to efficiency and savings.]

The outside appearance is Medieval Castle. In fact, it is becoming even more so as I now add stone accents, more battlements, iron work, a corner tower, palisades, monoliths, fire baskets, banners and stained glass. Inside is completely done in Medieval fashion. Tables, doors, cabinets, window trims, toilet area, bathing area and beams are all made with salvaged 300 year old lumber. The upper floor is one room with a large banquet table (300 year old wood and seats 25 plus) and our canopied bed. This is true to early Medieval custom. Guests sleep on the floor as knights and travelers did. We heat with wood which means the lower level is nice and warm. On cold nights we can feel the coolness in the air upstairs. The bed has great drapes which we close against the cold at night. We step into the cool air in the morning and feel the physical connection with the winter air outside. We usually wear period clothing around the Castle. Even the toilet is enclosed with antique lumber to look like the lieu in a medieval keep.
The Castle has a lot of our intellect, blood, sweat and tears within its walls. It tested my mental , physical and emotional limits. 4 out of every 5 couples who undertake building a “modern” home together break up. [Visiting the owner-builder book website I came across a thread discussing the effects of building your own home on some relationships. For that particular site it wasn't 80%, but owner-builders indicated that it certainly ended some relationships.] It has brought my companion and me even closer than we were. The name of the Castle is Castle Anam Cara which means soul mate. It was the only name which seemed appropriate. The Castle is an island in a sea of oatmeal. It is a time machine transporting one to a time when people were far more connected to each other and to the flow of nature. It is a gate which opens inward. It is the manifestation of the Irish warrior call - Bona na Croin. Neither collar nor crown - We serve no master and bow to no man. It is our beautiful home.

I would like to thank Mr. O'Connor for taking the time out of his very busy summer schedule to provide this blog with information about how and why he built his castle.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Castle Douglas

Castle Douglas located in North Texas.

This castle is a "working castle" as said by the owners. Located in North Texas, it is a venue for weddings and other events. Photos of the interior show large open spaces for events, but I have no idea about the measurements for the building or what exactly it is constructed of. Perusing the press section of the site for information reveals mostly a bit of a story of the place and that it's the largest home by square footage in the county. The price for the construction of the castle was danced around, I don't think this castle fits in the budget for the majority of would-be builders; apparently the cost would only be generalized by the owners as "...less than 10 million." Wow.

New American Castle

The New American Castle appears to be more about fancy or expensive furnishings, food, appliances, and atmosphere than really much anything else to do with a castle. It reminds me of some of the homes built during the late 1800s to early 1900s that have a large turret in front with a stone facade. The castle is somewhat of a showroom, the owners aren't building any of it themselves as far as I can tell (hammer in hand, I mean...), but have solicited donations and manufacturers to donate everything from materials to high-end goods to be shown off at the business/residence. I can't argue with that, I'd do the same if provided with the opportunity; though I think I'd probably try to make a "castle" look more like a castle...

It also appears that some of the search links to the site are not functional anymore... The "museum" link works, but the link that appears to lead to what would be the site about the castle itself no longer works.

Castle Tirion

Castle Tirion is a castle in an unknown stage of development. I've come across this article as well as a discussion group and a few other tidbits of information about it, but nothing current. It looks to be a project being put together by a member of the SCA, but I don't know to what extent it involves the rest of the organization; probably just a resource for volunteers. I'd qualify this as a "wish castle", but the viewable extent of planning done seems to qualify it out of that moniker.

EDIT: I've discovered the origin of the name by chance. Reading J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Silmarillion" reveals that Tirion is the castle in the West, sort of a utopian paradise for the characters in Tolkien's Middle-Earth stories.

Castle Rogue's Manor

Touted as "America's newest castle", Castle Rogue's Manor is the creation of Smith Treuer. After finding this site and looking at the pictures, this castle reminds me more of a Victorian mansion than a castle. Still, it's a very impressive building. The amount of woodwork in the place looks like it cost a fortune, absolutely incredible. The interior has some of the feel of the great western lodges or hotels, similar to Yellowstone's old hotel; stone and wood. There's a news article here that has a little more information on the builder and how the castle came to be.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Castle for sale

Crankinmoor castle is a castle for sale on eBay. I was looking for the castle featured in this article, but it didn't turn up, it has probably sold already or the owner gave up.

Edit: No longer for sale on Ebay, but you can see it here.

Bishop's Castle

Bishop's Castle in Colorado.

This is a very unique take on a castle. Jim Bishop has been working on this architectural oddity for over 30 years, and it's a real eye-catcher. I don't know if this really fits the definition of a castle, but once granted a little leeway for imagination, the name fits. The castle is still being built, tours are offered, and donations keep the work moving. Mr. Bishop apparently has some, shall we say "strong", opinions about the government, but you can't say the man isn't an artist.

For those of us with tight budgets...

You can build your own castle here at this website:

It may not last for the ages, but it'll pass a few minutes in front of the computer screen!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Castle for sale: Drachenburg

Drachenburg Castle

Happened across this while looking for castles that were for sale. Among the ones overseas, there are a few in the states that are available. At first glance I didn't notice that it was a converted home, but after viewing the photos the corner in the picture looks to be done very well, but the farther side needs to be brought up to match the rest. I can't tell if it's incomplete or the way the owner wants it. The interior looks really nice, they've done some good work on the windows, the vaulted ceilings with Gothic-style arches and the rest of the interior. You can have the castle and 43 acres 45 minutes from Nashville for $200K.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Yet another model

This one was loosely based on a few pictures of some Eastern European castles I've seen and/or visited. As with the previous design, there's a gatehouse and the main building. This structure is considerably larger: 10,000+ sq.' of space in the main building. This one doesn't have all of the outlying extra buildings like the previous model, so all of the functions would have to be accommodated inside. Towards the rear of the building would be a formal garden, the front would be event space. Below in the cellar area would be a pub/wine cellar as well as a "dungeon" divvied up into theme rooms for B&B guests. One of the drawbacks with Sketchup is that borders of other objects inside an object can be seen through the object if the border comes too close to the plane, so in this model you can see the edges of staircases, the level of floors, etc... poking through walls. Oh well, can't complain abut a free program. Wonder if this happens in the Pro version? Also, the basement is below grade, but Sketchup placed shadows where the ground plane would be. This hides the stairs and other below grade areas beneath opaque shadows. Solution: Raise model entirely above grade and place your own ground plane in the scene. Kind of a pain and adds another piece of geometry to the scene. Just how it goes.

The rest of it:

Probably won't do much more to this, the fleshing out of the details is very time consuming and I have a lot of designs I'm throwing onto the screen. You can see the gatehouse which has a total of around 900sq.' of living space (includes the area below the loft-like peaked roof), the building to the right of the gate is sort of a standard manor-liked house. Less than 1800sq.' of space for that one. The main large building has 3 floors @ 6500sq.' of space total, not including the tower top. The "pub" attached to the tower base is only an addition of 800sq.' to the base of the tower, and the chapel around 1000sq.'. As you can see, not a massive structure by any means; pretty modest for a full B&B with 10 rooms and space for events seating groups of people. This model I placed on the Sketchup 3d warehouse and is available for download. All I ask is that if any model or texture is used is that it may not be used for commercial purposes and credit is given to me and a link is provided to this site and article.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Had to take a quick break, the folks came out for a visit plus I have to work on the house I have. There's always the mundane details of home maintenance that has to be done, castle or no. I've got a good list to go on this 100+ year old house; grading and leveling the yard in preparation for paving stones, priming and painting woodwork on the dry days before winter sets in, etc... I've been getting better with SketchUp, I've been playing around with it and building a "castle", here's a picture of the gate house mostly complete.

There's a lot more to it; perimeter wall, "chapel", pub, home, and castle proper. All in differing styles to include a slice of historical architecture as real castles would; additions and changes were made throughout a castle's lifetime with different goals, materials, and by different architects.

The structures in the imagined layout I've assembled are roughly Germanic in style, I've not attempted to create a reproduction of any particular structure. In the picture, the figure is provided for reference. The base of the structure is the same height as the wall; 12'. The interior of the building has a 10' ceiling, and the peaked roof is open, no crossbracing, to accommodate a sleeping area. One "leg" of the base would include stairs, HVAC, and possibly storage, the other an "office" area for the B&B venture. The gate house model still needs some texturing and finishing work, but I'd call it about 85% done. Overall, the entire layout is around 50% done.

If this model were to be built, the base would likely be CMU, as it has a very small area and does not provide actual living space. The upper portion would be ICF or SIP. Both would have the appropriate facades applied; stone for the base and a faux half-timber created for the top. Metal or slate shingles would be preferred for the roof to provide fire resistance. The main gate would be double doors and of heavy timber with a pass-through door (not sure what the technical term is, I'm sure there is one) so that the main gate would not always have to be opened. I'll put more parts up as they get done, but it takes a few days to make anything somewhat presentable.