Sacred Circle Fire Pit: Google Maps View

Hammerhead completed the Sacred Circle Fire Pit in January of 2014 for clients hoping to use the space for ceremonial gatherings. The photo below is of the fire pit after completion from down here on solid ground.

And here is a photo of the completed fire pit from Google Maps from up above.

This is the Google Maps photo from before the project was completed. Note the 7 small squares below the site. Those are pallets of stone we brought down to build with.

And back on the ground.

Montreat Big Wall

 

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall almost 20 years after completion

Montreat Big Wall

I helped build this wall when I worked with Fred Lashley at the Unturned Stone. We built it 18 years ago and it remains the tallest drystone wall I have ever worked on. At its tallest, it is 7 feet high. Made mostly fieldstone from Maggie Valley, we supplemented with Hoopers Creek, which shows up as the rusty colored faces in the pictures.
The wall is in Montreat and I like to visit when I make my way out to Black Mountain. It is an impressive structure. It looks largely the same now as it did then, except for the glorious patina of lichen. I don’t think I will ever build another wall so tall.

Codes? What Codes?!

These days there are building codes that limit the height of a retaining wall. In a residential setting, like this, the max is 48 inches tall. Anything taller, must be signed and sealed by a licensed engineer. In general, engineers don’t love stone walls. They like things that are consistent and predictable and more easily quantified than the crazy ecology of a stacked wall. The human elements– care, intention, and experience – that the builders put into the structure cannot be factored into mathematical formulae.
Drystone walls have fallen out of favor in preference for segmented block, prefabricated panels, and poured concrete structures. They are all the same and more easily analyzed. It’s an apt metaphor for the state of modern society, our blind devotion to conformity and standardization.
When building with prefabricated predictable materials, it matters much less if the people building care at all about what they’re doing. And if you can subtract care from the process, you can subtract cost. It’s always cheaper if you don’t give a shit. Until later…

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall – a close-up

Whether or not the same codes were in effect 18 years ago, I don’t know; I just worked on the wall and was not much involved in the process that brought the project to be. I know it was subcontract work, for a landscape guy in Black Mountain with a stellar reputation and very organized and disciplined approach to his work. If anyone was likely to get the necessary approval, it would have been him. To my eye, the wall has not moved at all and I see no evidence of it having needed repairs for the last 18 years.

What Makes it Stay Up?

I get a version of this question quite frequently, especially when people discover that we usually work without mortar or concrete. The answer is amazingly complex, but I generally begin with a very simple answer: gravity and skill.
I’ve already mentioned how important care is in the creation of a structure like this. Care plus practice equals skill.
The rules that govern the construction of a drystone wall are simple and robust: two over one and one over two, end them in, maximum contact – minimum movement, batter back, the top must sit over the bottom, weather always wins. From the simple rules emerge an infinite number of possibilities. Bird flocking is often used as the epitome of the principles of emergence – simple rules lead to complex (and beautiful) results. A drystone wall is another stunning example.

Two Over One: One Over Two.

This is a very simple principle that you must cross your joints. Tall vertical lines in masonry construction– often called running joints – weaken the structure significantly. Crossing joints – imagine the traditional running bond of the most common brick wall – creates a network. That web of dynamic forces is fundamental to what holds a wall together.

End Them In

Another simple rule, stones should run deep into the wall. Sometimes, in an effort to conserve their rock pile, people will use the long side of a stone as the face. This is called tracing and it makes for a shallow structure and therefore a weak wall. If you have a stone that shaped like a french fry, run it long into the wall.
In the picture below of the wall being constructed, there’s a guy who’s not me or Fred. I think his name was Brian and he wanted to be a stonemason. After a little while he decided he wanted to be a building inspector or maybe a social worker. It was probably a wise choice.

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall under construction

Maximum Contact – Minimum Movement

The next stone you put in should make as much contact as possible with the stones that are already in the wall. And so on and so on.
One of the great attributes of a dry stone wall is its flexibility. It has the capacity to move and therefore respond to environmental factors. The day-to-day expansion and contraction that comes with being heated by sunlight and cooled by frost may cause minuscule movements in a wall but not crack it apart. It is not supposed to be a rigid structure. Inflexibility fails in walls, as in life.
Minimal movement is a great attribute. On the other hand, stones that pivot from side to side on a single point cause trouble. Maximum contact, minimum movement is where practice becomes most important to a wall builder.

Batter Back

A good dry stone wall has a slight backwards slope to its face, called the batter. Imagine the wall leaning into the hillside which it is intended to retain. This strengthens the wall and gives it leverage against the slope behind it.

The Top Must Sit Over The Bottom

Lean back, but not too far. The top of the wall, where your caps rest, must be sitting squarely over the bottom of the wall. It is a common beginners mistake to lean the wall back too steeply. A very steep batter on the face will have the top of the wall sitting over soft soil backfill instead of the hearty structure of the wall. The weight of the cap will compress the soil. The path of least resistance for that soil will be forward; it will blow out the bottom of the wall, collapsing the whole structure. This is where the concept of gravity really comes into play with the construction of the wall. With practice and care, gravity is a great ally.

Montreat Big Wall

Montreat Big Wall almost 20 years after completion

Weather Always Wins

Fundamentally, all construction is an attempt to resist the forces of weather. And while weather is not a singular force, in my experience, water is the prime mover.
Almost all of the structures we build live their lives in the weather. We have to constantly be conscious of what happens when it rains. Where does the water go? Where does it collect? What happens when it freezes? What happens when it builds up or when it moves the earth?

With this particular wall, so tall and at the bottom of such a steep bank, managing water was a primary concern. We lined the cut bank behind the wall with a filter fabric that allows water to pass through, but holds back the soil. In addition to keeping the backfill of the wall from getting silted up, it prevents red clay from washing through the wall and staining the face.
This wall is also very deep or thick, depending on how you want to look at it. Behind the face there is an enormous amount of ugly stone, chips, and gravel. Rain water runs through it and does not linger long enough to build up hydrostatic pressure, the force that pushes over so many rigid, impermeable walls. There are no drain pipes behind the wall, because the whole wall functions as a drain.

Eighteen years and counting.

Drystone Wall Terraces

drystone walls make garden terraces

Terraced drystone walls create planting beds on a steep mountainside.

This spring we did a large drystone wall project on a steep mountainside. The clients were unable to drown anything because the bank was live rock- basically mountain ledges under a couple inches of sliding mulch. In most locations we had to carve away live rock to create a shelf to set the walls. We moved in a lot of soil for the gardeners too. We used Hooper’s Creek, a favorite building stone for walls of this type. The walls are laid dry, with gravel and chips behind and geo-textile fabric wrapping the whole thing.

Using the crane to move pallets of stone up to the work site

Using the crane to move pallets of stone up to the work site


One of the primary challenges of the project was the fact that the work site was behind the house, several feet above the driveway and inaccessible. We ended up using over 50 tons of material. That’s a lot to carry up a narrow set of steps. So we had Jerry and Bodie Rogers help us with their crane. They flew the pallets directly from the delivery truck to the staging area. It was fun to see the huge pallets swinging gracefully through the air.

Pennsylvania Stone Steps & Patio

Pennsylvania Stone Steps & Patio Hammerhead Stoneworks Asheville, NC

Pennsylvania Stone Steps & Patio

We completed this set of steps as well as a patio for a home in North Asheville. Made of Pennsylvania stone, a short stack of steps leads up from the driveway to a stepping stone path. The patio is built over an old concrete slab, which isn’t always possible, but we had the clearances necessary to get our stone and setting bed in place. Leaving the slab in place instead of removing it saved the customer a considerable amount of money.

While the steps and patio were laid dry, the flagstone on the stoop was mortared in place for supplemental support.

 

Big Stone Patio

big stone patio Hammerhead Stoneworks Asheville, NC
Big Stone Patio

The patio is what we call big stone paving, and it is one of Hammerhead’s signature styles. It is made of sandstone slabs (also used here) about two inches thick and also connects to a pair of boulders found on the property.

big stone patio Hammerhead Stoneworks Asheville, NC
As a preventive measure to protect the look of the patio from grease drippings, we ensured that the grill is set in a small gravel area next to the patio.

big stone patio Hammerhead Stoneworks Asheville, NC
The shape of the patio is very free-flowing and truly complements the both the modern design and color scheme of the house.

big stone patio Hammerhead Stoneworks Asheville, NC

Kenilworth Stone Steps

Kenilworth Stone Steps

Kenilworth Stone Steps Hammerhead Stoneworks

The Finished Product

We completed this set of stone steps for a modern home of brand new construction. They are 9 1/2 feet across and made of sandstone slabs from Tennessee. They have a clean, modern look to match the style of the home.

Kenilworth Stone Steps Hammerhead Stoneworks

The wooden decking seen in the images above leads to the entrance of the home. We were contacted by the homeowners when they noticed that every time it rained, there was a serious runoff problem, leaving leaves, mud, and debris to stain the deck. The existing steps in this location were dangerously uneven and ugly and created a waterfall-like effect during rainstorms. Additionally, there were only three of them in space where four are needed in order to walk comfortably.

kenilworth stone steps hammerhead stoneworks

Existing Steps (Before)

In addition to creating a more aesthetically pleasing set of steps and making this a safer space, we also wanted to solve the runoff issue. The flagstone landing at the top of the steps pitches toward the road to divert most of the water away from the entrance and into a drain that we installed.

We enjoyed this project because it was a project of functional beauty, providing both aesthetics as well as problem-solving.

 

Garden Stonework in Mardi’s Yard

Over the last several years Hammerhead Stoneworks has worked closely with garden designer Mardi Letson, owner of Gardens by Mardi. The images below are from garden stonework projects we’ve done in her own yard. Mardi has a wonderful sense of design and can integrate plants into stonework wonderfully. She’s very talented and very easy to work with. She is especially good at working with small spaces as is demonstrated in her own yard. Her yard is not huge by any means, but it has so many little rooms and small special places to hang out.

The Finished Garden Stonework Products

garden stonework

Dry Stone Wall in Mardi’s yard

 

Stone slab steps at Mardi's

Stone slab steps at Mardi’s

 

Dry-laid flagstone path

Dry-laid flagstone path featuring the heart-shaped rock Mardi requested

Dealing With Drainage On A Stone Patio

One way to address drainage concerns in a stone patio

One way to address drainage concerns in a stone patio


Usually it is fairly easy to ensure a stone patio drains properly. Pitch it away from the house- making sure that sub grade drains away from the house as well, and the job is done. But sometimes the patio area is captured by garden beds, sloping yards and other land forms that make it hard to get water away from the home. I have used this drain design a handful of times to provide water with a path away from the patio.
The cobblestone/trench drainage system works off water’s tendency to follow a surface. The cobbles provide rainwater runoff with numerous opportunities to flow down into the pipe below and out into the yard.
A couple of things that help to keep the system working properly.
• Make sure you have a reasonable amount of slope in the pipe. Two percent works well.
• Keep the drainage material (gravel and pipe) free of debris and soil. Water needs to percolate through. That’s why you wrap it in filter fabric and put a sock on the pipe. Use a good grade of filter fabric. The plasticy stuff big box hardware stores sell for under mulch beds is not up to the job.
• Use white PVC pipe, not the thin-wall, cheapo, black corrugated pipe contractors favor. It’s crap.
• Put the holes in the perforated pipe down. The trench fills with water from the bottom up. As soon as it reaches the height of the holes, it starts to drain into the pipe and flow out.
• Keep the daylight exit clear.

A cobblestone detail that covers a trench drain in a dry laid stone patio

A cobblestone detail that covers a trench drain in a dry laid stone patio

Here’s a cobblestone system installed. Done right, it can provide an intriguing visual design element to a patio. This particular system begins and ends with grinding wheels. In this case the patio and cobble stones are sandstone from Tennessee. Cobbles are not necessary, though they do provide increased opportunities for the water to perc into the drain system.

I have installed similar systems at the edge of patios where grass or mulch beds have created puddles or soggy soil. The one pictured is in the center of a patio that is stuck between the house and a steady rising slope.

A grinding wheel starts a cobblestone trench drain.

A grinding wheel starts a cobblestone trench drain.

In the Labyrinth

The Asheville Labyrinth under construction at the Hammerhead Stoneworks shop.

The Asheville Labyrinth under construction at the Hammerhead Stoneworks shop.


Hammerhead Stoneworks is proud to be building a full-sized rendition of the Chartres eleven circuit labyrinth for the First Baptist Church of Asheville. I call it a rendition because it’s not a replica- we are using different stones and spacing. I can’t says ours is “inspired by” either, since it is our goal to very accurately approximate the 800 year old design and dimensions; we are borrowing too much of the original to just be “inspired by.” I like rendition because it suggests to me a musical performance. This is our adaptation of one of the great works, written and performed centuries ago by gifted artists. Our rendition is our earnest attempt to honor their amazing artwork. And like any good musical performance, our rendition should have its own flavor. It will be informed by our talents, our tools and techniques, and the times we live in. I hope that someday our rendition will be considered worthy of its lineage.
The labyrinth will be all natural stone, laid dry in a bed of gravel. We are aiming for a 1/8″ tolerance on the joinery. When completed it will be forty-four feet across.

Stone Path on a Gradual Grade

In the mountains of western North Carolina, where Hammerhead Stoneworks is located, we often deal with awkward slopes. Gradual grades, like the one pictured here, are common. The best solution usually involves striking a balance of steps and landings. This walkway features several small stacks of slab steps with flagstone landings spaced throughout. It’s important to take the rhythm of walking into account. The rise and run of steps are an agreement between the builder and everyone who uses their steps. It should be predictable and within a ratio that we are familiar with. Stuttering steps- those awkward ones that are too short or too close together or weirdly spaced- drive my crazy. (A common thing here is the two inch step at the top of a run of stairs. WHY?!)
Of course, there are other variables as well. You want to steps to fall naturally into place along the slope. If your steps are too far ahead, then you have to do a lot building up with retaining walls to support the steps. Likewise, if you get too far into the slope, there’s a lot of digging needed and you may have to install some sort of edging to keep the soil and mulch off the path. Sometimes this can’t be avoided, but often, by taking the time to pay attention to those details in the design phase, you can have a stone path that has a natural rhythm, is safe and easy to walk and is strong and durable. Like this one in the pictures!

Stone path and steps

Drystone pathway with steps. Balancing bench in the background.

stone pathway and steps

A view of the stone path and the mountains

stone pathway

Tennessee sandstone pathway with steps slabs and site boulders