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Two Very Different Stone Home Building Guides

By: Everett S
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There is something (a lot of things, actually) very alluring about building your own home out of stone. Perhaps it has to do with the longevity of a stone house, or the sense of security provided by thick stone walls, or maybe it’s just the rugged, natural look of well-done stone masonry. Whatever the reason, this ancient art-form and skill has been largely lost over a few generations of “fake” stone builders who use veneers glued onto wood and metal mesh instead of full-sized stone. But I found two do-it-yourselfers named Tom who are keeping the craft alive in their own modern way using slipforms.

Living HomesThomas J. Elpel has written a book called Living Homes: Integrated Design and Construction (Available for about $20 on Amazon) that includes information on slipform stone home building, but also quite a bit on other alternative building techniques like straw bale and log homes. For the purpose of this book review we’ll be including the optional DVD companion, which you are strongly advised to get if you buy the book. The DVD is called Slipform Stone Masonry: With Builder and Author Thomas J. Elpel – video companion to the book Living Homes and is an additional $25 on the Hops Press website.

Stone HouseTomm Stanley has an invaluable book called Stone House: A Guide to Self-Building with Slipforms (Available from Amazon for about $21), which covers the entire process from beginning to end, including everything from choosing a site to attaching the roof.

When I ordered both of these books I thought they were going to be pretty much the same. After reading them, however, I now know how slipform stone masonry can be approached differently by different people. Furthermore, Thomas and Tomm may have similar names but they have very different writing styles.

The first book I read was Living Homes by Thomas J. Elpel, which I began shortly after watching the companion DVD. I do advise watching the DVD first, as it will crystalize a lot of the concepts you will read about in the book. Once I started getting into the book I was surprised at all of the information it contained on topics other than slipform stone masonry. Eco-conscious, alternative home building concepts of all kinds were discussed, including straw bale, passive solar, gray water, composting toilets and many other tips useful to off grid readers. While I very much enjoyed reading The Nuts and Bolts of Home Building chapter, and the chapters on slipform stone building, much of the book was rehashing information that I had already read about in more general books like the Solar Living Sourcebook and many other books on off-grid and sustainable living. I ordered this book because I was ready to jump into slipform stone building, not composting toilets. With that said, it is my own fault that I misinterpreted the book’s focus, as it clearly describes the contents on the back cover and in most of the promotional material. For those of you wanting to get some general information on eco-friendly, affordable, alternative building concepts – this book is a great place to start. My absolute favorite part of the book had little to do with slipforms. It was a paragraph or two about the future of eco home building, the past concept of homesteading and the present opportunity to combine technology with nature to reach true sustainability in a time when the population explosion is making “old fashioned” self-sustaining lifestyles unsustainable on a global scale. For those of you who have already read countless books on passive solar design, have already decided you want to build with stone – having ruled out straw bale and other green building materials – the book below might be better suited for your needs. However, we would still strongly advise you to get the DVD, as this is 100% dedicated to building with stone and slipforms.

After gnawing my way through the book above, I started right away on Stone House by Tomm Stanley. The book seemed a little dry, but in full disclosure that A: had a lot to do with the fact that I had just read another book on a similar topic and B: technical, DIY guides aren’t necessarily supposed to be page-turning thrillers. I could have done without the chapter on the metric system, although I see why it is there and it would certainly be useful to anyone not familiar with it. The chapters on adding the roof and finishing were pretty much just glossed-over lip service, which made me wonder why there were included in the first place. My main complaint would be the images at the start of each chapter. I’m not sure if the publisher was trying to be artistic with these or what – but they’re really just blobs of ink that are virtually unrecognizable as photographs, and certainly don’t provide any value to the reader. Now that the bad stuff is out of the way, lets get to the good stuff – of which there is quite a bit more: Even though the full page images at the start of each chapter weren’t for me, I really enjoyed the drawings, photos and diagrams on the other pages. They were done in a way that really brings out the ideas behind what you are reading, and help the reader absorb more information. The chapter on designing was great, and I’m going to give the Sheet goods dimension-based model concept a try when we get around to designing our own home. Although I already knew the difference, the chapter on Concrete, Cement and Mortar really solidified (pun intended) the concepts in my mind. The thing I enjoyed most was that Tomm Stanley included his mistakes so we could learn from them. For instance, I’ll certainly be getting a professional to come out and make sure the site is level; I’ll be sure to provide plenty of room for the top soil; and I’ll be sure to start my design from the inside-out so I don’t end up – for instance – with windows that I have to stand up to see out of.

The Verdict
These two books are so different from each other that I hesitate to even compare them. Both are fantastic books in their own right.

Basically, I’d recommend Living Homes to anyone who is interested in building with stone, but might also still consider other building methods. It is also a great primer for people who are just beginning their research on green building techniques. Notice I didn’t mention the DVD (see below).

For those who already know that they want to build with stone, and who already have an idea of how much easier this is made with the use of slipforms, I’d advise buying Thomas J. Elpel’s DVD and Tomm Stanley’s book. Sure, they are two different authors but I think these two items would make a great pair.

Lastly, I just wanted to mention one more important thing that applies to both of these books, and DIY home building in general. While building walls with the slipform stone masonry technique is certainly leaps and bounds easier than old-fashioned stone masonry, and while building straw bale walls is easy and cheap – the wall is only a small part of the building process. When dealing with foundation, plumbing, electrical, the roof, finishing and the myriad details that are sure to jump up during the process of building your own house – it is anything BUT easy. For a novice like myself; someone with no construction or carpentry experience; someone who had to call in a professional to install a doggy door… these two books and the DVD really drove home this point. I may or may not try building my own home with stone using slipforms. These books made me realize that I’m not ready for the complete home building project. But I DO know that I want to live in a stone house. And I DO know what goes into it, which better prepares me to deal with contractors and designers. And I DO know that I can build a stone wall. Maybe the plan for my own personal journey will be to build the walls myself but hire professional sub-contractors to do the rest. Either way – I have benefited greatly be reading these two books and watching Mr. Elpel’s DVD.

– Buy Living Homes: Integrated Design and Construction by Thomas J. Elpel
– Buy Stone House: A Guide to Self-Building with Slipforms by Tomm Stanley

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  1. ken bogart says:

    stumbled across your site, and enjoyed looking aroound a bit. I bought both of these books and then I started building a slipform stone house in 05…and was pretty turned off by all of the chipping and how ugly things looked. then I bought the book “the art of building a house of stone” this guy used sand in the face of the stones between the stones and the forms…no concrete oozing onto the stones and no messy cleanup. this book saved my whole project, up until then i was pretty disappointed with the mess of the concrete, and the amount of clean-up. It took me a few years but I’m done and I’m glad I built it…


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