Hay Bale Counter

Another old form of construction using organic materials, we wanted to revisit traditional hay bale construction as a sustainable design method. 

We experimented with creating a little outdoor counter for a garden kitchen. 

To do this, we took hay bales and cut them them to fit a piece marble we’d be using for the countertop. We put two bales on top of rebar stakes set into a concrete foundation. To seal them, we created a plaster with sand and lime and added 3 coats. With each coat, we changed the ratio of sand and lime until we got a smooth surface. For the final coat, we soaked nopales cactus to extract the gel and use it to create a viscous mix, which we added to help make that layer more elastic and water tight.

The end result: a beautiful white pedestal made from all organic material.

The Demonstration Garden

The team created an organic demonstration garden next to the produce stand, designed to connect people to the food they’re buying and show them exactly how it’s grown. 

It’s an education space, a place for showing off best practices, like how we intersperse companion plants to attract beneficial insects and provide natural alternatives to pesticides. 

We rotate crops every few months to reflect what’s grown each season. In the winter months you’ll find leafy greens, winter peas, beets, radishes, bok choy, broccoli, etc. And in the spring we transition to a summer garden, growing things like tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, squash, melons, pumpkins and herbs.

Rammed Earth Bench Making

It used to be more common to find buildings made from earth (think of adobe houses in the southwest). We’ve stepped away from that over time, relying on other resources like metal and wood. 

In an attempt to return to local materials and long-term sustainability, we’ve been experimenting with rammed earth.

I first became interested in rammed earth construction back when I heard about it in a college class. And when I started working in the central valley, I saw the rich soil and wanted to try it out. We experimented with a couple prototypes, collecting soil from various locations to see which samples had the right amount of sand and organic material. It turned out that the native soil worked the best. 

To make the rammed earth bench, we took the earth, added 5% cement and compressed everything in layers. The soil in Escalon is a light gray color, so we added some stucco pigmentation to get varying colors — orange, brown, red — to imitate the soil samples we collected in the Sierra foothills.

We started by adding 7 inches of moist soil, and compressed it in a wooden mold to a 4 inch layer. The pressure creates a tight matrix of soil and sand that bonds with the cement, forming a solid, durable brick.

We made a fun weekend of it, bringing a team of volunteers out from San Francisco to participate. The end result is beautiful, and it’s made from 95% organic material from the site.