The Tower

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The Tower

Post  Mr. Tower on Sun Dec 16, 2012 2:19 am

What is The Tower? The tower in short, is my home. Its also a long term experiment, work of art, money pit, what have you.




The tower is located on ten acres of land in a secret location deep in the rocky mountains. It was conceived and started before I really knew what 'Steampunk' was. All I had to go with at the time was a vague, 'Sort of like medieval/post-apocalyptic kinda of Firefly' theme. It wasn't until after I had moved into the first floor that I started to actually think of it as steampunk, although many aspects of already fit that term.

The core design was created by myself while living in a 12x12 cabin near Fairbanks Alaska. This lifestyle led to me to come to several conclusions which become instrumental in the eventual design. I wanted to have my own house. I didn't want to go into debt. I didn't want a house larger than I could easily manage by myself. I wanted the house to be energy efficient and as off the grid as possible.

Fairly early in the process I started leaning towards straw bale construction as it full filled many of my requirements. Because you can build curved walls using strawbale without the same material penalties as stick houses I quickly decided that this building would be round. When I learned that the roof and foundation are the most expensive components of a house I decided that a tower would best serve my interests. Minimal roof and foundation, maximum wall area (the cheapest component of strawbale construction)

It took me about two years to save up about $5K and move back from Alaska. I broke ground in spring of 2006. I hired a local man with a Bobcat and for $200 he carved a couple terraces out of the hillside that was to be my building site.














Last edited by Mr. Tower on Sun Jan 06, 2013 4:15 am; edited 1 time in total

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Re: The Tower

Post  Mr. Tower on Sun Jan 06, 2013 4:13 am

So, now that I had a place to build the real work began.

When I did the calculation for the amount of concrete I would need to pour my foundation I came to the depressing realization that the cost to hire a concrete cement truck and pour the needed yardage would consume most of my funds.

On the other hand, if I was able to replace 50% of the volume needed with rock and mix and pour the concrete myself I could pour the foundation for less than $1K.

The first stage was to dig the ring wall footing. Due to the compact and stony nature of my soil digging below the frost line was not a consideration. What was a consideration was the weight of straw bale walls, which are much heavier than standard stick construction. After a few calculations I determined that my wall footings should be 24" thick and 20" wide. (You want your footings to be slightly narrower than the thickness of your walls.

Because I planned to make up much of the volume with stone I decided that instead of building forms that I would build two stone and mortar walls, 24" high and then fill the space in between with rebar, loose stone and cement. The walls would be 4-6" thick which would cut down substantially on the concrete that I would need. This was a mistake (more on that later)

First stage was to dig a trench for the footings, 18" deep. The trench needed to be perfectly round and more or less level. After much deliberation I choose a spot to be tower dead center and drove in a large steel spike. I used this and a rope to lay out to concentric stake lines and began digging.

Due to the extremely hard and rocky nature of my 'soil' and other considerations this took me a lot longer than you would think that it would. Half the summer was gone before I was done. When I was finished with the trench it was time to face my next challenge. Leveling.

Although the bottom of trench was somewhat level I knew that the top of the ringwall and thus the foundation needed to be completely level. Normally, this would be accomplished with a carpenters transit or a laser level. I had neither and with money extremely tight I felt that I could not afford such tools.

The solution I cam up with is rather clever even if I do say so myself. I first pounded a vertical rebar stake into the center of the foundation trench, leaving a foot or so sticking up past where the foundation would end to secure the straw bales. I next filled the trench with water until it was several inches deep. Since standing water will always be level and at the same level I had a point of reference. I took a can of spray paint and sprayed each rebar stack at the point where it met the water, this left me with a perfect point of reference on every rebar stake that I could use to measure an even height all the way around my wall, regardless of the level of the ground.

Next step was to acquire the rock I would need. Earlier in the summer I had found a rock slide next to a road in a remote valley near to where I lived. As far as I am concerned this is free building materials. The agency that owns the public land may or may not agree with this view. I did not ask them. Over several weeks, working mostly at night I hauled approximately six tons of brick sized rock in the back of my 1/2 ton pickup truck. These where driven to my building site and then transported the last thirty or so feet with a wheelbarrow or just plain thrown depending on my mood. As I said before, this was a mistake

Construction on the twin foundation form walls began. It took a long time. All in all, It was four months between ground breaking and completion of the foundation walls.



In a crazy flurry of activity The Lady Branwyn and I mixed and poured approximately 100 80lb sacks of concrete in a electric cement mixture over the course of two nights. At last, the foundation footings where done.

Unfortunately, so was all my money. Over the four months that I spent working on the wall I managed to spend nearly all the saved money I had on building and living expenses. With fall approaching it seemed as though my project was over for the time being. Yes, this was the first mistake I make, choosing a cheaper but back breakingly time consuming route that took so long that in the end It cost me more money than I saved.

In retrospect, it would have been wiser to build standard forms out of plywood and to hire the services of a cement truck. It would have saved me about two months of effort and probably cost the same in the end.

In order for this project to move forward I would have to do the last thing I wanted.....go into debt.





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Re: The Tower

Post  Mr. Tower on Sun Jan 06, 2013 4:58 am

With much trepidation, I borrowed money. In this case, it was from my parents, another $5k.

Thankfully, the next stage of the operation proceed much more quickly than expected. Once I got away from digging and rock hauling I found I could make progress rather quickly.

Earlier in the year I had borrowed a trailer and bought the bulk of the lumber needed for the tower, approximately $2.5k, purchased mostly from Lowes.

Now came the time to build and in less than two weeks I had the framework, floors and roof constructed. Since this was a hybrid post and beam construct the framework is much much lighter than would be the case for a normal building since the beams would carry only vertical loads with all the shear strength coming from the walls themselves. This requires a lot of ladder work on a shaky structure. Luckily for me, I am not afraid of heights, only of falling from heights which I prevented by extensive use of safety ropes.




All throughout the project something had been bugging me. I had not yet found a source for straw bales. This may or may not seem strange but in my part of the country wheat production is relatively rare do to climate and soil conditions. I had been keeping my eyes open all summer but going into lat september I hadn't found anything.

Its important to note here that its very important to use straw, not hay in this kind of construction. Straw is the dried hollow stems that are left over from wheat, barely rice or rye production. It has no nutritional value and is chemically identical to wood. It is generally considered a waste product.

Hay is the dried leafy part of grass that is used for animal feed, it is full of nutrients and is rots very quickly when wet. It is relatively expensive compared to straw.

Luckily, I happened to see straw bales for sale at a local feed store. They were asking $5 a piece for them and only had about twenty in stock. Thankfully, when I told the manager that I was looking to buy 200 bales she gave me the number of her supplier who lived about fifty miles away. I soon arranged to meet with him and found that he had several thousand high quality wheat straw bales that had been kept under a roof from the previous year and he was willing to sell them at $2.50 a piece if I hauled them myself. I soon borrowed a trailer and in only three trips had all my bales safely stacked in a Costco portable carport that a friend had given me.

I finished the roof, (composed of asphalt shingles) just before christmas of the first year. I building at this point was somewhat slowed do to my enrollment in an EMT program but by the end of the year I had past my final test and my time was again my own. With help The Lady Branwyn I began stacking bales.

The first stage of wall building was to lay down a layer of high density foam board over the foundation to prevent condensation between the cold concrete and the bales. Next the bales where impaled on the rebar spikes that had been left protruding from the foundation for that purpose.

Stacking bales is fun! Its exactly like playing with giant fuzzy legos. In one day the two of us built a wall completely around the first floor. Any time you need a bale cut to size you simple retie it with baling twin at the length you want it and cut the original ties. Where we need to cut out slot to fit around the support beams we used an electric chainsaw to carve out the spaces. Yes...we used a chainsaw on straw bales. Its as fun as it sounds.

And that was where the fun ended. The second stage of wall building is two sew reenforcing wire mesh on both sides of the wall. In this case I used 2x4" 14 gauge welded wire fencing. It was stretched over the walls, inside and out and then sewn from both sides with giant needles. This operation works best with two people, one on each side to grab the twine and push it back through the wall, pulling it as tight as possible. It is time consuming and boring. We passed much of the time by listing to various fantasy and sci-fi audio books.


The black stuff in the picture is tarpaper covering the inner side of the wooden support beams. You do not want to place stucco directly on wood since the wood will eventually shrink or warp and crack the stucco. The tar paper allows the beam to slid and flex behind the stucco.



But sewing the bales is not nearly as boring as stuffing straw. Since bales are somewhat irregular in shape after you cover them in wire you find that there are many voids between the wire and bales that need to bee stuffed with handfuls of loose straw until the wall is solid. This takes forever. Again, audiobooks are your friends.




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Re: The Tower

Post  Herkimer on Sun Jan 06, 2013 7:45 am

That is one very original structure. I would never have thought of straw, but now that you've mentioned it, I'll bet the insulating properties are VERY good.

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Re: The Tower

Post  W. S. Marble on Sun Jan 06, 2013 12:00 pm

Outstanding project! I cannot wait to see the finished project. I have a solitary, remote acre on a mountain in Virginia, that I would love to do something similar with. Hay bales covered with a plaster finish could be the best answer to so many challenges, from cost to ease of construction. Well done (so far), sir!

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Re: The Tower

Post  The Lady Branwyn on Sun Jan 06, 2013 7:34 pm

W. S. Marble wrote:I cannot wait to see the finished project.

I definitely agree, especially since I live in the structure. Wink

It's been really fun reading through this account, remembering all the steps we went through and seeing all the pictures I haven't looked at in years. Those two days of concrete pouring were intense. What Mr. Tower glossed over is the fact that our land is so steep that we couldn't drive those 100 80 lb sacks of concrete where we need them, and our attempts to move them in the wheelbarrow resulted in a lot of dumped sacks. We ended up slinging them over our shoulders and carrying them down the steep hill quite a bit. Toward the end we finally figured out that we could lay out a couple layers of plastic on the hillside and slide the sacks down them like a playground slide.

Oh, memory lane...

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Re: The Tower

Post  W. S. Marble on Mon Jan 07, 2013 5:43 pm

I have the exact same steepness problem....guess that is what "secluded" really means in those ads! What a great home/refuge that will be when you all finish. Congratulations!

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Re: The Tower

Post  Mr. Tower on Tue Jan 08, 2013 1:27 am

On 'Steepness', part of the reason I chose a tower design is that on a steep hill it is much easier to build up than it is to build out. If my house was a single story square it would require an enormous amount of dirt to be moved.

Where was I...oh yes...stuffing straw...

The straw stuffing stage went on for the next 87 years and was completed in march of 2093...

Or at least thats how it felt. Because at the time I had no good way of hauling bales to the second floor construction focused on the finishing the first floor walls and floor. It was now late winter in montana and the cold and my new job as approximately 25% of the local fire and ambulance service delayed things once again. One days when it was too cold to work on the tower I worked in my shop on the woodstove that I was building from an old pressure tank.

But the real struggle was the window frames. For some strange reason I decided that instead of framing the windows for the full thickness of the wall that I would make a simple 2x4 frame that would be mounted flush on the outside of the wall and that the wedge shaped window well, (designed after medieval arrow loop windows) would be formed from wire and stuffed straw. This turned out to be a nightmare of time consumption and the end result was window wells that where rather irregular in shape, or at least more irregular than what I wanted. In retrospect I should have just spent a little extra money and framed them with wood for the full thickness of the wall. In addition, instead of them 'floating' in the straw wall I should have anchored them on one side to the support beams.

But that wasn't what happened. What happened is that I spent several months halfheartedly stuffing straw and procrastinating. When I wasn't at the tower I scoured the local roadsides and hills for large flat rocks that I could used for the floor stones.

Eventually spring came and I the walls on the first floor where ready for stucco. I was almost out of money again, and I really really wanted to move out of my parents house where I had been living ever since returning from Alaska.

I decided that my best course of action was to focus all possible effort on making the first floor livable and finishing the rest of the tower as time and money allowed. With a few dollars now rolling in from my EMT and fire job I was started buying stucco mix.

There are many ways to make stucco and strawbale houses have been plastered with everything from spray on concrete to chicken manure but I chose to go with commercially available concrete based stucco. This was basically mortar mix with a few additives to increase working time and flexibility. It is mixed with sand and for the first coat, finely chopped straw for added strength. The straw fiber was created by filling a garbage can half full of loose straw and blending it with a weed eater until it was chopped into thin, short fibers.

Plaster began, on the inside since I wanted to move inside as quickly as possible. In total, three coats of stucco are recommended with a month or two waiting time between to allow the stucco to fully cure. With time and money running out I decided that one coat would be good enough to start with and that I could always come back and finish the room later once the rest of the tower was completed.

Stuccoing went relatively quickly, as did the pouring of the concrete and stone floor. Window frames where covered in clear plastic for the time being and a thick layer of straw was spread out on the second floor to provide insulation for the first floor room.

All that was needed was to provide heat, water and electricity to the room...

This photo, taken much later in our story, shows an exterior wall section with the first coat of stucco and the adjacent section being prepared to receive its first coat.




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Re: The Tower

Post  Mr. Tower on Tue Jan 08, 2013 3:50 am

Utilities.....

If you are a general contractor or someone who is inordinately fond of building codes you may wish to skip the following chapter. This also the point where you will begin to see how this lifestyle is not always a glamourous one.

I suppose now is a good time to talk about building codes. The short answer is, No, I didn't get an permits, I do not build to code except by accident. I have the good fortune to live in one of the few parts of the country with no building codes.

This doesn't mean that you can't build such a building to code, most places now have codes for straw bale construction,(Even California!) but this was simply not a problem I had to deal with.

So going back to the very beginning, providing power to the work site was my first priority. I accomplished this by putting a plug on a 250' roll of 12 gauge Romex electrical wire, plugging one end into a powered work shed near my parents house and rolling it down to my building site.

'Wiring' the first floor of the tower was fairly easy. Because I knew that this room was far from finished there was no point in putting in permanent wiring so I assembled a basic wiring system out of extension cords, inline switches and power strips, most of which where screwed to the ceiling. Providing power to the building was as simple as plugging in an extension cord.

Water. My parents had a well on the property, about 300' away but it only provided about 5 gallons per minute and digging in a hardline from the well to my house deep enough to be frost safe would have cost thousands of dollars. My solution was simple, I set a 55 gallon food safe plastic water barrel on the second floor and plumbed it in to my sink with flexible tubing (again, this was all supposed to be temporary) The barrel could was filled once or twice a week with a very long garden hose from the well standpipe.

What about a toilet you say? I didn't have one. I still don't. I grew up without one, although sometime in my late teens by parents had one installed. This is not say we didn't have running water or a bathroom, we certainly did, but the bathroom was actual a literal bathroom, no sink, no shower, just a huge spa sized bathtub. When I moved to alaska I found that fully sixty percent of the people living in and around fairbanks did not have running water and that rent prices where roughly doubled for the places that did.

So when I set out to build the tower I had a simple choice, spend roughly $10K to have a toilet but no house, or spend that same amount to have a house with no toilet. For me it was a simple decision and not a hardship and In general I find it amazing how much clean water is wasted to wash away poop, when all you really need is simple, reliable gravity.

But enough about that. Heat. I had managed to build a fairly nice (but untested) wood stove over the winter. Now it came to time to install it. I decided that I would use a metal chimeny and run it straight up through all the floors of the tower so that I could reclaim the vast amounts of heat that are wasted up normal chimney pipes.

And this is where I made an interesting discovery. Single wall, plain black stove pipe is incredibly expensive. For a chimney such as mine I was looking at $300 for a thin tube of steel a mere 30' long. This was outrageous. I worked for two years at a scrapyard, I knew the value of steel. I went to the local scrapyard and asked if they had any used well casing. For those of you don't know, well casing is a thick large diameter pipe that is pounded down into the ground during well drilling to support the walls of the well. Its generally about 6" in diameter and very thick, around 3/8'' of an inch, about twelve times thicker than stovepipe. The price? $2 a foot! Immediately bought thirty feet of it and in spent the next two days cutting, bending and welding it to produce the needed elbows and unions to construct my stovepipe.

Why this is not standard practice I have no idea. Well casing is vertically indestructible, proof against the hottest chimney fire and not prone to rusting out like the standard thin walled chimney pipe.

I won't lie, wrestling hundred pound sections of pipe into place was not fun but it was worth the savings and durability.

Finally, almost exactly a year after I began work, the tower was livable. True, I had one room, composed of roughly 200 square feet but that was much larger than the 144' cabin I had come from and it had the luxury of a 55 gallon water tank, something I never had in alaska.

With money almost gone and no prospect of any more for some time I spent my last $400 on an xbox 360 (I figured if I was going to be broke all summer anyway I may as well be able to play games) Smile And moved into my new 'house'

In this pic, taken I believe on the first day of living in The Tower you can see the corner of my stove, my ad hoc electrical system, TV, old xbox, bed, a few of my possessions and a couple of my medieval weapons. Everything that you need for survival.



Don't worry, things eventually got much much nicer.



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Re: The Tower

Post  Herkimer on Wed Jan 09, 2013 7:45 pm

I look forward to the next installment.
I do understand why building codes were adopted, but I tend to balk against what they have become here locally. Which is to say it is corrupt, and a petty fiefdom for certain people.
For example I can go buy a hot water heater, and install it myself, but then the local inspector will demand that I pay them to come inside my home and approve my installation. They have been known to show up with the police, and demand access without a warrant.
In fact when you buy one around here, the stores are required to make you fill out a form so that the inspector knows whose door to come knocking on. (I just go buy one a couple counties away where they don't ask) I've also seen more than once instance, where an inspector failed a high quality piece of equipment, that was well installed, only to force the builder to replace the equipment with something inferior. I remember my grandpa being forced to rip out an entire street worth of water and sewer pipe, twice, because he refused to pay the bribe the inspector was demanding. I had one inspector insist that a customer of mine remove all the wiring in a portion of a building because it was BIGGER than it needed to be... Suspect I've also seen an inspector insist that a customer needed a sensor and an electric actuator tied into the fire alarm system to unlock a door with a panic bar on it so that nobody could get trapped inside. That is the purpose of a panic bar in the first place. I argued the point, and the inspector held out his book thumping on a section that demanded exactly sort of equipment, for a completely different application and under a very specific set of circumstances that were not present. I finally proved my point by turning to the appropriate section and doing a bit of thumping myself. The inspector finally agreed, but he was sure to let me know he didn't appreciate, and wouldn't forget my interference. I couldn't care less, as I was running the only service call in that county that I've run in 10 years, and I wasn't even working on that equipment. I just happened to overhear and knew something about the subject.
I do want to clarify, most inspectors are good people, but it seems that many people let the least bit of power go to their head.

Mr Tower, I applaud your new abode. I figure that a man ought to have the right to build whatever he wants to build and live in, on his own property.

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Re: The Tower

Post  Mr. Tower on Wed Jan 16, 2013 1:57 am

I figure that a man ought to have the right to build whatever he wants to build and live in, on his own property.

I agree completely. I think building codes mostly exist to provide jobs to inspectors and licensers and to make it easier for banks and insurance to asses the value. Instead of codes I try to think more in terms of 'best practices'

And even though there is nothing that requires inspection agencies to be corrupt it seems that they all are. Its taken for granted that if you actually want to get anything done you have to bribe them.

A friend of mine who lives just a few miles away but just over the county line had to pay 10k$ in license fees before he could even begin building an addition to his house, things like this really make me sick considering that is how much I put into my house before I moved in. It seems like housing in this country is a giant system just designed to make people go into debt.

That and produce an endless stream of boring white boxes.

But I digress.

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Re: The Tower

Post  Mr. Tower on Wed Jan 16, 2013 2:55 am

So, back to the story.

At last, I was actually living in the tower. Kitchen, Bedroom and Living Room where all stuck in one 200 square foot round room but it was a start.

Not very much progress was made that first summer. About a week after I moved in the clutch on my truck blew up and left me without a car for the three weeks it took me to scrape up enough money for parts and then to learn how to fix a clutch and then preform the operation. A month or so after that I broke my foot slipping on wet board and then my parents needed me to house sit for them for three weeks while they helped my sister move up to Alaska.

I spent a lot of time working around the tower, picking up sticks and clearing brush and general homesteading operations. I started a small garden, which is a difficult endeavor here given the dense trees and very poor soil.

It wasn't a bad summer but not much happened and I was a bit apprehensive about the coming montana winter with no real roof insulation and windows that were cover only in plastic sheeting.

Luckily my sisters fiancée worked at a local lumber mill and since he was leaving for alaska that left an opening. I had no experience with lumber but I had several years of general heavy machinery experience and had no problem getting a job as the planer operator at the mill. Inexplicably I was put in charge of men far older and with much more experience than myself, a position that I would eventually come to hate but the job paid relatively well for this area and I got a 10% discount on wood products.

With my first paycheck I was able to afford enough wood to build a bridge from the upper terrace to the second floor. It had been my plan from the beginning for the main entrance to be on that floor but I hadn't been able to afford to build the bridge up until now.

Main beams for the bridge where already in place, constructed from logs that I had harvested and peeled early in the year and so planking over it was an easy task. Until the construction of the bridge my only access to the second and third floor was a 10'' wide plank named Max (science joke)

With the bridge in place I suddenly had easy access to the second floor and with a job I now had money, but as a side effect of having money, I had very little for free time for construction, working nine hours a day with an hour drive on each end. I began to pay back the 5K I owed my parents and started stockpiling materials. I did what I could on the weekends and over the course of the winter I finished stack bales and sewing wire on the second floor. I also began framing the walls on the third floor which would be made from conventional wood construction and covered with rough cut shiplap planks.

By spring I was ready to start stuccoing the second floor and finishing the third. I was literally making money faster than I could spend it but I had become incredibly frustrated with the slow pace of construction. Luckily (for me) for me the housing market was just beginning its crash and there was less and less work to do at my job. By mid summer I was able to convince my boss that I only needed to come to work two days a week and I was able to jump back into tower construction.

For some reason that escapes me at the moment I ended up complete finishing the third floor before the second floor was closed in and to make some much needed room in the tower I moved my bedroom up to its permanent location in the third floor, while leaving the living room and kitchen on the first. As of yet there was no way to actually move from the first floor to the third without walking outside and so for about a month I had the strange experience of a house composed of two rooms only accessible by going outside, climbing a hill, crossing a bridge, entering a door and climbing a ladder.





Late in the first winter



The bridge.


A an old picture of the inside of my rather messy bedroom taken around the same time as the other pictures. All the wood is blue pine that I picked out while working at the mill






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The Terrible color.

Post  Mr. Tower on Wed Jan 16, 2013 3:54 am

So for once I had a job, money, warm weather, and time.

By the end of that second summer I had completely finished the third floor, complete with glass windows!

Interior stuccoing was finished on the second floor and unlike the first floor I actually took the time to apply all three coats of stucco and had a fairly smooth finish. But for some reason I couldn't just leave it at that. Even though there are many ways to add pigment to stucco I had always wanted to paint the interior stucco surfaces go give them a smooth and easy to clean finish and to contain the fine dust that stucco seems to constantly shed.

Painting may seem like a simple task but for me it would cause the most consternation of any part of the operation so far. The thing is that pain and I do not really know each other. The house that I grew up in was entirely wood and so I never really learned how to paint a room or pick colors. It just wasn't a material or a technique that I was very familiar with. The one thing I knew is that it would not be some boring white or beige or an of the colors that its seems 90% of houses are painted.

Another problem that I had is that stucco is not a very common building material in my part of the world so there where few examples for me to look at.

I was also somewhat in a hurry since winter was again approaching and I wanted to put down the flooring in the second floor and move in, something I thought would be easier if I painted first.

For some reason I decided that what I wanted was a nice warm orangish earth tone effect. I picked out two colors that I thought looked good together with the idea of applying one coat and lightly rubbing on a second coat of a different but similar color to achieve some sort of natural weathered effect.

Anyway, I bought the paint and boldly began rolling it onto my walls. I knew immediately that something was wrong but I didn't know exactly what it was. Perhaps it would look better when it dried...wouldn't it?

No....it wouldn't

What I ended up with is an incident that I will forever remember as The Night of the Horrible Color.



Yes, I actually did that to my own wall. And yes, its looked even worse in person.

After I came to senses and realized what I had done I crawled up into the bedroom, fell down on my bed and put The Rolling Stone's 'Paint it black' on endless repeat.

Eventually I did what everyone does when they screw up, I asked my mother for help. My mother is a painter and artist and although she didn't hate the paint as much as I did she gave me a lot of good advice and helped me figure out what it was I really wanted.

Which as it turned out, was paint that didn't really look like paint. I decided that instead of going for any particular color what I wanted was something that looked like normal unpainted stucco but with a deeper, richer color. Once I figured that out I remembered a trick from my old job as a silkscreener. You see, the trick to painting a realistic looking grey is to not use grey paint but to combine other colors that have the net effect of looking grey without actually containing it. With this in mind I sent my mother to the paint store to buy paint, knowing that I cannot be trusted to pick out paint.

What I ended up with was blending three partial coats of Green, Lavender and White to create a color that looks like wet cement, a color that I rather like.




At last, I could finish the room, build interior stairs in the form commonly called ships ladders (despite how cool they look spiral staircases are very expensive and take up an enormous amount of space) I went into my second winter with all three floor livable but unfinished. It felt like I actually had a house.


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Re: The Tower

Post  Dreebus Cole on Fri Jan 25, 2013 1:33 pm

I love the tower and topic so far. I have been laying plans for my own castle of sorts for a very long time, and this may be a viable construction method. My design as it sits is slightly more extensive due to the nature of my profession requiring a bit of space (musician, teacher, composer) and that I want a set of underground food cellars attached to a kitchen.

All in all, I love the choice of location and the tower itself. POST MORE!

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Re: The Tower

Post  Mr. Tower on Tue Jan 29, 2013 4:14 pm

Thanks, expect a new post in the next day or two.

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Re: The Tower

Post  Dr. Hax on Sat Feb 02, 2013 9:55 pm

This reminds me of me and my girlfriend's dream of building a circular house under the ground constructed from brick using arches and such. Originally I had designs for a 100ft diameter circle but that gave us a square footage that surpasses many mansions so its most likely going to be a 50 foot diameter. I've put a lot of thought into this process and have even come up with a basic design for it. Basically the motives for going underground (literally! Laughing) is due to the fact that the temp would be a constant year round so costs of utilities would be lower, we could have more space, also we both like the idea of being underground away from the light and in our own little world.. Heh. I look forward to see what you have done. Taking notes and gathering ideas for we make our own little domain.

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Re: The Tower

Post  Mr. Tower on Sun Feb 03, 2013 8:04 pm

I dreamed of building an underground house for years but in the end it was just too expensive to do right on a large scale. I am currently working on building a sandbagged bunker with a tunnel though.


Last edited by Mr. Tower on Mon Feb 04, 2013 3:52 am; edited 1 time in total

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More Stucco

Post  Mr. Tower on Mon Feb 04, 2013 3:52 am

So now with the interior mostly done and livable I went back to work full time at the lumber mill and work focused on the finishing up the parts that I had skipped through in my rush to move in.

The most obvious of these projects was the exterior stucco. By building the roof first with wide eaves I was able to leave this off for the first couple years but long term all this exposed straw needed to be sealed up.

Work on the lower section was straightforward. Plastered in sections based on how much I could cover with one cement mixer load of stucco, this was about 3'x8' and I worked in strips from the ground up.



Moving higher was going to be a problem however. Working from a ladder was impractical given the large amount of heavy stucco that would have to be hauled up and the frequent ladder moves.

Normally in such a situation you would simple buy, rent or build a scaffolding and move it around the building as needed but in my case there simply was not enough flat ground around the tower to set up one.

What I came up with was a unique scaffolding consisting of a 4x8 platform with a curve cut in one side to fit the outer tower wall and a pair of triangular feet on the wall side and rested directly against the base of the tower. Obviously such an unbalanced arrangement would lead to the whole thing falling over but what made it work was a sixty fool nylon tie down strap that I wrapped completely around the tower which held the platform tight against the wall. I could stucco about a 10' section at a time and then loosen the strap and walk the platform over a few feet and tighten it back down against the wall.

You can see it clearly here above the stepladder:



It took me a while but eventually I got the walls stuccoed all the way up to the top couple of feet,which I am sad to say, I still have not finished as of this date.



Starting to actually look like more than a pile of straw isn't it.

Time moved on, the housing market crashed, and hence the lumber market. Hours where cut back at work and I eventually quite that job. I tried college for a semester and decided that although it was fun it was too expensive in comparison to its value.

Eventually my girlfriend finished school and got a job making about twice as much as I ever had at any of my jobs. With a new source of money and another person living in the tower full time I began drawing up plans for Phase 2 of the project.

But before that could begin another problem emerged, or rather, attacked and pushed construction in a different direction. The clever reader should be able to guess what this was, the clue is in the previous picture.



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Fortress

Post  Mr. Tower on Mon Feb 04, 2013 4:21 am

As part of the whole survivalist/off the grid principal I had tried to have a garden from very first day. In fact, the first garden beds where actually dug on site before the first foundation work was begun.

Unfortunately do to tall trees, a west facing hill and a short growing season my garden attempts never produced more than I put into them, although they did force me to come up with a rather amazing (to me at least) of the grid watering system that I will get to at some point later on.

In short, I decided that I was wasting my time with gardening and that really what I should do is figure out how to harvest all the weeds that grew vigorously around the hill.

This lead me take up beekeeping. I did some honest blacksmithing work (actual forging of an actual plowshare) in trade for some bee hive boxes and bought a box of bees from a local supplier. In case you don't know bees can be bought in three pound increments with a queen per box. I set my bees up next to my garden inside an electric fence for protection against bears and spent all summer lovingly tending them. My bees where extremely tame and I never used smoke or a bee suit when working them and very rarely got stung. I even managed to harvest a jar of honey which is rare for the first year. All seemed well and good until one late fall night when I walked outside and saw my hive laying on the ground in pieces.

It seemed that a bear had ignored the electric fence and walked into my garden and knocked the hive over. I quickly did what I could to reassemble the hive and maintained armer patrols at twenty minute intervals all through night until dawn but the damage had been done and the hive eventually died out over the winter.

In case you don't know, a bear is basically has the mind of a rat that is big enough and stubborn enough to destroy anything that its interested in.

In memory of my fallen bees I decided that I would start again in the spring but this time I would not leave their defense up an electric fence. I would have no Jurassic park like security failures at the tower. What I needed was a passive, impervious defense against a 500 lb stubborn animal.

So even as I worked to draw up plans for Phase 2 of the tower I began to design a bee fortress and as soon as the ground thawed I began construction of a second tower that would double as bee protection and all around defensive structure.















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Re: The Tower

Post  Lady Evelyn Grey on Thu Feb 07, 2013 12:19 am

This is so great to hear the story of your trials and adventures in building. It must have been so heartbreaking to see your hive on the ground that evening though.

Could you show some more pictures of the interior? How are living conditions? The temperature? Light? Etc? Your paint job actually ended up looking very nice in the pictures- a good warm grey.

Keep up the stories!

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Re: The Tower

Post  Mr. Tower on Tue Feb 26, 2013 1:33 am

Could you show some more pictures of the interior? How are living conditions? The temperature? Light? Etc? Your paint job actually ended up looking very nice in the pictures- a good warm grey.


I'll try to come up wit some more interior shots. The truth is I can be self-conscious sometimes and feel like I can't post any interior pictures unless the room is spotless, which is a rare condition for us. Smile

Temperature is whatever I want it to be. I have a wood stove that made from an old pressure tank and with my full length interior metal chimney I get as much heat as I want. The many thousands of pounds of interior stucco soak up heat and re-radiate it so that in the spring and fall I usually only need a fire ever other day to keep it warm inside.

Light is good up stairs and on the second floor. The first floor is relatively dark since much of it is below the slope of the hill and gets no direct sunlight.

In the summer the Tower stays fairly cool as long the nights are cool. I have a blower hooked up to a timer and thermostat arrangement so that when the exterior temperature drops below 75º it turns on and blows cool air inside all night until sunrise. Because of the thermal mass and insulation the house will stay cool all day until the night comes again.

The problem comes when I have a series of hot nights, something that often happens in late July and August. Over time all that stucco sucks up heat until even if the temperature drops outside for a few hours its still too warm inside. Last summer we bought a small window box type air conditioner and installed it upstairs. It is more than enough to cool the whole tower down to 65º if desired.

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Security

Post  Mr. Tower on Tue Feb 26, 2013 4:29 am

Before I move on and start writing about Phase two of The Tower it seems like a good time to catch up on a few details and principles of its design that I've skipped over until now.

Since I've been in a zombie apocalypse mood lately I'll start out with a few observations about security and how I've implemented it with The Tower.

When it comes to home security their are two main types, Passive and Active. An example of passive security is a thick steel door. An example of active security is a man standing next to your door with a gun.

There are pros and cons to each.


Active Security

Pros:

+ Can be very effective and has a high degree of deterrence.

+ Low initial cost

+ Generally does not require unusual architecture or design.

+Easily adaptable to varying threats.

Cons:

-Requires a constant expenditure of effort to be effective.

-Is only as good as its ability to detect threats.

-Susceptible to social engineering.

-Most be carefully matched to the exact threat (an armed guard is useless against a flood)

Passive Security.

+Once put in place generally have very low operating costs

+Can be effective for long periods of time with no additional attention or maintenance.

+Can be used effectively with minimal training.

+Effective against a wider range of threats ( a strong concrete wall can protect against attackers as well as floods)

Cons:

-initial cost can be very high.

-often conspicuous, invites attack.

-vulnerable to attrition, all systems can be defeated with simple tools if given enough time.

-static, cannot adapt to changing conditions.


In an ideal setup you would be able to have the best of both forms, ie, a 24 hour armed guard patrolling a tall concrete wall. But often in real world situations we have to choose one form as a primary system and try and make up its deficits with aspects of another.

This choice depends on a number of factors, threat faced, available manpower, skill, location etc.

An army base with hundreds or thousands of trained soldiers may rely almost entirely on active security and use only a normal strength chain link fence as a barricade. With that many trained soldiers available there is no reason for the perimeter to ever be unguarded. On the other side of things a nuclear missile silo with only a dozen or so operators relies almost entirely on passive defenses, meters of concrete and steel with as little as two armed guards watching over an elevator shaft.

The threats that the tower may face are somewhat different than those of your common suburban house. On account of its location the normal human threats are extremely unlikely. The chances of a break in or home invasion are very very low. The tower appears on no maps and is not visible from any roads other than the one leading directly to it.

So what does this leave? If I was a 'normal' person, not much. I could live in a canvas tent and still be safer than your average city dweller. However since I am fascinated by security and defense I must consider what the threats the tower would be susceptible too, even if they are highly unlikely.

Environmental emergency:

Extreme weather events, local or global environmental disasters. This seem to be increasingly common as humans spread over the planet. It seems as though not a year goes by when there is not a major environmental disasters in the US. Hurricanes, Disastrous forest fires and floods are almost common occurrences in many parts of the country.

Where I live there is no risk of hurricane or tornado. As I live near the top of a hill three hundred feet above the valley floor and a thousand miles from the nearest coast there is no risk of flood. I am in a part of the country that often experiences intense thunder storms in the summer. Power outages lasting six or more hours are fairly common as well as road blockages do to fallen trees.

These storms lead to easily the most probable threat faced by The Tower, firestorm. The nightmare scenario goes as follows: Its late august, the end of yet another of record high temperatures, its been fifty five days without measurable precipitation. The wood in the trees is below 15%, drier than kiln dried lumber. The undergrowth has died and dried out. Its 3Am, a hot dry wind is howling in the canyon. There is a sudden flash of light and nearly simultaneous crack of thunder. Rain spatters the roof for a few minutes and then dies away without even settling the dust. A an hour later you start to smell smoke, you realize that you have been in fact smelling it for some time. The wind is still blowing and when you go outside your flashlight beam is visible in the air as it shines off what looks like light fog. Above the howling of the wind you hear a crackling sound. You look towards the canyon behind the hill and see an orange glow...

Except for the location of the fire, this scenario has played out all too often in my part of the world.

The ways to protect a home from forest fire are well known and too involved to go into here but in short the recommended concept is one of creating defensible space. Its advised to have a clear area around your house that is free of fuels. I'll admit, I have not created this. Due to other considerations, some of them aesthetic, I have several trees that are very close to the tower. I do however have a plan and the capabilities to very rapidly drop a large number of trees. A person armed with a chainsaw can fell a tree in less than a minute. Although the fuel is still present, its hight is decreased which vastly cuts down on the radiative heat that will strike your house. The Tower itself is also very resistant to fire, being almost entirely covered in fire proof stucco cement. Despite this, the main defenses against fire for the Tower are active and rely more on The Towers occupants than the structure itself.

But in all honestly, little can be done to hold out against a true wind driven firestorm. I have been in the aftermath of such events and have seen earth baked into brick and houses so completely burnt that even the metal roofing has melted and nothing is left but a cracked foundation. A nuclear blast could hardly do more damage. Faced with a such a threat evacuation is the best option, even from a stronghold such as the tower.'

Several years ago during one particularly hot and dry summer where it seemed there was a major forest fire in every valley except ours the Lady and I concocted a simple system to prepare for an evacuation. It was comprised of Defense Readiness Conditions, DEFCONs for short based of NORADs nuclear threat system. Since then it has been revised to EVECON for Evacuation readiness conditions for the sake of clarity.

EVECON 5: no threat, no particular actions taken

EVECON 4: Awareness of possible threat. No actions taken but extra vigilance is maintained. An effort is made to pay attention to current news reports and weather conditions.

EVECON 3: Possible threat requiring evacuation within one hour. News checked at every opportunity. Escape vehicles kept fully fueled, cell phones fully charged and kept on hand at all times. One person kept on watch at all times, no unnecessary trips away from home. All pets accounted for and locked inside. Evacuation supplies inventoried and locations noted.

EVECON 2: Ten minute evacuation notice. Evacuation and valuable materials gathered and moved to staging area. Pets ready to be loaded at a moments notice. Out buildings cleared and locked. Escape vehicles moved to loading area. No excursions. Constant news feed maintained. Relocation areas notified of possible evacuation and needs.

EVECON 1: One minute evacuation notice. Pets loaded in carriers and vehicles. Evacuation supplies loaded. Relocation destination informed to expect our arrival. No one allowed to leave the staging area.

During the three weeks of drought and fire we never got below level four and has high as level two at some points.


Luckily, the fire never came closer than ten miles to the Tower, although one afternoon the wind shifted directly towards us it was two ridges away and was slowed when it had to move downhill. It did make for a very apocalyptic skyline:


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BRaaaaIIIIInnnns!!!

Post  Mr. Tower on Tue Feb 26, 2013 7:05 am

Of course, what fun would it be to only prepare for likely threats.

In world with emerging super disease, unstable governments and a sky filled with billions of planets zombie outbreaks, civil war and alien invasion cannot be completely dismissed by an open mind.

For most people such an event would mean evacuation. For every disaster save forest fire and perhaps certain floods a city of any size the worst place to be. Sorry city dwellers, your screwed.

In my case, for many types of disaster the best course of action will be to stay put and prepare The Tower for attack. This scenario is one that was a leading influence in the overall design, furnishings and daily life of the inhabitants.

Although many people feel safe in their houses my research and experiences have lead me to believe that they are essentially death traps if you are up against anything other than a drunken trespasser.

The predominant theory of security in the US relies almost exclusively on detection and concealment. Commonly recommended methods are door and window locks, curtains or blinds and in rare cases an electronic alarm system.

Call me crazy but why bother to lock something that can be easily broken with nothing more than a rock? What security does a door lock offer when a 6" prybar can pop open a door in seconds? What do curtains do except keep you from being able to see whats coming at you? What good does an alarm calling the police do when its the undead remnants of the police force who are breaking through your door?

Conventional security systems assume that the threat trying to break into your house is afraid of the police. Take that away and you are left with almost nothing.

You may or may not know this but standard construction methods and floor plans are virtually useless at protecting you against determined attack. For a long time I knew how bad normal walls are at stopping bullets. A mere 9mm pistol round can penetrate materials that amount to 11 exterior walls or 19 interior ones. A small rifle round can easily break through a cinderblock wall.

What I didn't know was how easy it is to break through a wall with hand tools. As a firefighter we sometimes have to make our own doors in a house as its usually safer to directly access a room from the outside rather than do a full interior search. What I've found is that it takes about three minutes to make a man sized door in a normal sticked framed building with a fire axe, and about fifteen seconds with a chainsaw. An interior wall can be defeated with nothing more than a gloved fist in only a few seconds. With a decent sized hammer and a haligan pry bar we can open even a reenforced commercial grade door in five seconds.

How people feel safe in these houses in the midst of cities where theft and murder is common I have no idea.


Walls

The Tower, of course, Is different. Not perfect, but better. First off, it is not bullet proof. I have tested my walls against handgun rounds and found that the thick stucco and densely packed straw will stop handgun rounds from penetrating all the way through. The first layer of stucco deforms the bullet and the two feet of straw slows it enough that it is stopped by the inner layer of stucco. Rifle rounds however, zip right through.

Most importantly, the tower walls are highly resistant to normal tools. The stucco is impervious to normal chainsaw blades, instantly dulling them to uselessness. Impact tools such as axes or hammers easily shatter the stucco but the thick wire mesh prevents the cracks from spreading and makes it impossible for the tool to cut deeper. The soft but dense straw absorbs the force of the blows and keeps any energy from being transferred deeper into the wall. In theory, it would work the same way against explosives, or ramming attempts with large vehicles. The only effective way to put a large hole in a strawbale wall is to first break up the stucco with an impact tool, cut the wire with wire cutters or a abrasive saw and then cut through the straw with a chainsaw. Not impossible but slow and awkward. I know, I've had to do it in a couple places.

Obviously, there are much tougher ways to make walls but none that are as affordable or easy to construct.

Windows.

Its relatively easy to install shatterproof windows and even possible to install bullet proof ones (but pointless unless your wall is also bulletproof) Although I plan on someday installing metal shutters over all my windows my primary method of window security is simple based on size. No window on the ground floor is more than 9" wide, too narrow for an adult to pass through. I have one large window on the second floor that is 3'x4' but it is thirteen feet off the ground above a smooth unclimbable wall. It also is on the back side of the tower from the road and there is no space below it to place a ladder.

Besides being too large and low conventional windows often suffer from extremely poor placement. Often houses are constructed with large picture windows in the front of the house and smaller windows placed high on the wall in the back. Often their are no windows on the sides of the house at all. This lives you with two huge blind spots at your flanks and a large on in the back since a high window at ground level leaves you unable to see anything creeping along close to your wall. You can try it out yourself, take a look at your house and try to find all the places where someone could be hiding from interior view. I think you will be surprised how little of your own yard you can actually see. If your going to have large windows at least place them so there are no blind spots.


Doors.

Here is perhaps the biggest difference between The Tower and normal residential buildings. A normal door is approximately an 1 1/2" thick. It has a wooden frame and perhaps one or two central supports. It is usually paneled in very thin metal or wood. It is set in a frame approximately 3/4" of an inch thick which is slid into a space between wall studs. Their is usually a 1/2 gap around the the frame between the 2x6 studs and the door frame. This area is usually filled with expandable low density foam specifically designed to stay soft so as not to distort the door as it hardens. The frame is usually held to the wall by six screws.

A normal door latch is hollow pot metal plug that slides approximately 1/2" into a hole in the door frame. This hole is reenforced with a thin metal strike plate which is usually held in place by two wood screws.

The door swings inward and many have a large window installed.

This arrangement has several vulnerabilities. First off, the metal latch is easily broken. I once shattered one one the cabin I was renting in Alaska by banging my shoulder into it out of frustration at locking my keys inside. The 3/4" thick door frame itself may break, allowing the latch bolt to tear through the wood and the door to open.

An easier way to gain forceable entry to simply insert a prybar into the crack between the door and the frame and apply pressure until the door frame bows outward enough to clear the door bolt. Often this can be done without causing damage to anything other than the paint since the soft foam between the frame and the wall studs allows the frame to flex easily. This is how emergency responders usually gain entry to locked houses.

You can try this out yourself in any hardware store that sells pre hung doors (doors mounted in frames with the hardware already installed. Simply pull the frame away from the door on the bolt side. A half inch deflection over a 7' span takes very little effort.

You can simply bash the door itself to pieces. The lightweight construction of most doors means that even if the latch or hinges do not fail you can simply cut your way through with an axe. Even the metal sheathed doors offer little resistance.

Now, lets look at how I build doors.

First, and most importantly, all The Tower doors swing outwards. Instead of the thin piece of molded wood that most doors use for a jamb I have solid 2x4's on all four sides. This means that any force directed against the outside is not being held back by merely the bolt but by 20 linear feet of 2x4 wood. Even if the hinges and latch where completely removed the door could not be forced inwards without destroying the entire wall.

My door frames are made from doubled up 2x12 lumber which is bolted to the floor joists above and into the concrete floor below as well as being held in place by the walls themselves on the sides. The 2x4 door jambs are screwed to the frame every foot which gives you a door framed that is 4 1/2" thick, six times thicker than a standard door frame.

The door hardware is composed of heavy duty gate hinges and steel latch from a walk in freezer. Like all slam latch systems the bolt only engages the strike plate by about 1/2", and suffers from the same weakness of normal latches, the frame can be bent away from the door. Although this is much harder on the my door it is still relatively easy.

Unfortunately for the would be thief or zombie this will do him little good if I have locked the door. My door locks are simple in the extreme, a short length of five ton chain bolted to the frame that can be hooked into the door. It works just like the 'security' chain on a normal door except it holds the door all the way closed and is a hundred times stronger and rather than being attached by 3" screws to a 3/4" thick frame they are bolted to the wall with 8'' lag bolts.

And then their is the door itself, A laminated panel based on a 7/8" sheet of plywood covered with a solid layer of 2" wooden boards on the inside and out, giving me a door that is 4" thick solid wood. To avoid blind spots the doors have small windows in each one which are covered by 3/8 brass grillwork.

Each door (not including the frame) weighs approximately 250 pounds and has over three hundred screws in it. Most likely, the doors are slightly stronger than the walls they are mounted in.

"But how much can I expect to pay for this kind of security?" You may ask. The answer is about 25% less than you would for a normal residential exterior door, unlike the rest of the tower this is an upgrade that anyone could install in their existing home.

One of my doors under construction:



The upstairs door and some active security:







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Re: The Tower

Post  Mr. Tower on Thu Feb 28, 2013 4:36 am

What they want you to think a home invasion looks like :



What it really looks like:


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Re: The Tower

Post  Lady Evelyn Grey on Fri Mar 15, 2013 4:09 am

This is really interesting information about defense. I've never considered how easy it is to break through the walls. As a typical, unschooled mind I assumed that it was the normal entry points, doors and windows, which had to be considered. Makes me glad I live on the third floor of this building. Do you have any idea of how a modern city would look if every house was as defensible as yours?

Your fire evacuation plan sounds solid. My grandparents live in Montana and the last time there was the serious forest fire, it came less than a mile of the house. I took the four wheeler back into the woods and just drove for miles looking at the devastation.

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Re: The Tower

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