Building our Well House

Our property near Nevada City has a water well. We needed a small structure to protect the well head and to hold some electrical equipment for the pump. We could have bought a shed kit or had a TuffShed built, but a TuffShed isn't fire resistant, so we decided building a well house ourselves would be a fun project, as well as an excuse to spend time at our beautiful property. So, from December 2000 through May 2001, we designed, engineered, and built the well house entirely by ourselves. Neither of us has professional experience in construction; we learned everything as we went along.

Design for Vastu

We are interested in Stapatya Veda architecture (see  Maharishi Global Construction   for an introduction).  This dictates that the structure should be oriented with the walls exactly North, South, East, and West, and the entrance should be on the East. We used our surveying equipment to lay out the exact location and orientation of the foundation and walls, and determined true North by sighting Polaris. Polaris is actually about 3/4 of a degree off of true North, so we used an ephemeris to correct to less than one minute of arc.Here is the well as we began laying out the location, and with the foundation dug. (The pipe sticking up on the left is a hydrant that will be outside of the house.) Click on any photo for a larger version.

Besides housing the well and electrical equipment, we wanted a little space in the building to store other things.  We thought it would be nice to have the dimensions of the room in the golden ratio, so we chose 5 feet by 8 feet as the size. (8/5 = 1.6, golden ratio = 1.618)

Design for Fire Resistance

Fires are not unknown in the area, so we wanted a structure that was mostly fire-resistant. We decided to build a concrete block structure with a steel door.

The next step was pouring the concrete foundation and floor. Concrete blocks are heavy, so they need a good foundation. No cement-truck delivery for this remote location, down a 4WD path. We trucked in a couple of loads of cement ourselves.

We looked into steel frames for the door, but they cost hundreds of dollars more than wood frames. For the cost of a steel door in a steel frame, we could buy a steel door in a wood frame, and have enough money left over to replace it if it burns. Here is Charlie laying the first course of concrete blocks.

Design for Simplicity and Strength

Traditional masonry construction uses mortar between blocks. In researching masonry, we discovered an alternative construction method called surface bonding.  In this method, blocks are stacked up without any mortar (much easier!). Then, a coating is applied to both surfaces of the wall, similar to plastering. The surface bonding mixture contains (among other things) cement to bond to the blocks, and fiberglass fibers to strengthen the surface. A wall built this way is actually stronger than one built using traditional mortar, since mortar has little adhesive strength. Easier and stronger - sounded good to us. See USDA Agricultural Research Service Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 374 and this  project description from Quikrete   for more information. You might also check out standard C946, available from ASTM International for a fee. We had to special order the surface bonding mix from a Quikrete dealer. These photos show the building before and after the surface bonding was applied. (That's Charlie's cowboy hat behind the building.)

Stacking the blocks wasn't as simple as building with Lego's, though. Small variations in block size meant we were constantly shimming to keep the walls true and firm. On balance I think it was still easier than conventional mortar construction.

The trickiest thing about surface bonding is the size of the blocks. A concrete block that is nominally 8" high and 16" long actually measures 7 5/8" by 15 5/8". When built with a 3/8" mortar joint, the size comes out even. When using surface bonding, there is no mortar joint and the size comes out odd. For example, two half blocks don't equal one whole block. We went through several designs to get the right size openings for the door and window with a minimum of cutting blocks. Of course, Charlie is a whiz at math, so doing this design wasn't an obstacle.

The blocks above the doorway obviously have nothing under them for support. (The door frame isn't structural.) We built a lintel using bond beam blocks filled with cement and rebar.

Charlie is tall, so we didn't skimp on the height. We could not find any design for the roof structure that didn't use wood framing. We hope the wood frame roof is high enough off the ground to escape low fires. The previous photo shows the roof framing under construction. Here is the roof framing and plywood deck as seen from the inside. You can also see the top plate, the wood piece at the top of the wall. It's secured using bolts embedded in concrete poured into the blocks. Not shown are soffit vents to allow air circulation.

We chose a roof covering of tile to protect from airborne embers. Under the tile is a double layer of felt, and battens, staggered to allow drainage in case water gets under the tiles. Note the holes at the bottom corners of the building. Since this is after all a well house, we thought it important to allow for drainage in the event there is a flood due to some malfunction. The holes are actually gaps due to the mismatch between the 6 inch thickness of the wall and the 8 inch modular measurement of the blocks. We turned the gaps into a virtue. The holes are covered with screen to keep critters out. The holes later proved their worth when the well pump was left on and the building was flooded.

Here is the completed well house. We wanted a window to let in natural light, but again, we wanted to avoid wood. We decided on a glass block window, giving an elegant, if retro, touch.

Total project cost: $1900 and about 26 man-days.

Charlie's home Jim's home

(c) Copyright 2001, 2003 Charles Landau

Last updated 13 February 2003