Butcher Shop Construction Tour


Ben Stapling Release

Ben is stapling sill wrap, a thin foam layer, onto 2×4 boards that will be used to form the bases for setting up wall forms. We used a very similar technique out in our south field shed to make the divider slots. The bases will support the wall forms which will support the ceiling forms for the concrete pour. As such, everything must be perfectly square and plumb as well as being able to be released from the inside out.

A few weeks ago we poured the rough inner slab of the reefer. The final floors will be poured much later from a different kind of concrete and then we’ll epoxy to produce the finished floors. Currently we are working on setting up forms for the walls and ceilings of the refrigerated two thirds of the facility. The time it takes us to get the next form work allows the floating reefer slab to cure before it gets the over 100,000 lbs of load it will soon take. That’s as heavy as our entire cottage although less dense since the reefer is more than two and a half times larger than our cottage.

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The reason Ben is putting sill wrap on is we’re going to get double duty out of those form bases. First they will serve as the bases of the wall forms. Then they will serve as the screed boards for smoothing the final floor pours and getting the drainage to go to the floor drains. The sill wrap will make it easier to pop the screed boards out once the floor pours are done. By popping out the screed boards will have keys where we can pour the curbs around the rooms before doing the final epoxy work on the ceilings, walls and floors. Each step in its time and order. The curbs will have coves between the walls and floor – part of the requirements of USDA facilities construction to prevent damage to the walls and make cleaning easier.

With a project like the on-farm slaughterhouse and butcher shop many times it is prep-prep-prep for long periods while we build the mold we pour the building into. Then one day we pour a lot of concrete and all of a sudden jump forward. At least that is how it feels. The reality is every day we advance a little bit.


Hope Soaking Slab

It is important to keep concrete wet after the pour so the concrete cures properly. Curing is a chemical process with water, not a drying process. If the concrete dries too much it retards the curing and weakens. The easiest way to do this is to pour on a warm day so the concrete sets quickly. Avoid pouring in the winter as I have often done. Then have four weeks of light rain at night so it won’t get in the way of working, midnight to 2 am is ideal – just like in Camelot. Precise weather control can be tricky so if that doesn’t work out then a sprinkler or kid with a hose is a very good second best.


Corner Plate

The steel plate simply helped to hold the precisely cut wooden base plates once they were placed. Long heavy screws (Ledgerlocks) through the base and down into the concrete let us set the heights and pin the bases precisely. We got them to within 3/1000th of an inch per foot which is more than sufficiently close. The rooms will be neat, square and plumb. I’m happy.


Water Sprite

I caught an elusive water sprite dancing in the rain. You can see the wooden bases are beginning to take shape. The visible one is for the cutting room. Hope is dancing in the cooler.


Reefer Slab Bases Forming Up – Click for Larger View

We’re nano-scale – our entire building would fit inside a typical slaughter, cutting or cooler room of most meat facilities. This panorama is looking at the reefer (refrigerated) section of the building which is about 20’x32′. The view is from the south east corner where the commercial kitchen will go.

Holly on the left in the red shirt with the cool sunglasses is sitting at the junction of the carcass chiller, cutting room and freezer. The carcass chiller to her left is about 12′ tall, 20′ long and almost 7′ wide. Theoretically we could hang about 40 pigs, some sheep, goats and a beef in there at once. It would be crowded but doable. Normally we’ll be doing just 10 at a time and then letting them hang for most of a week so the meat dry ages which tenderizes and intensifies the flavor. This is commonly done with beef and sheep. My research has shown that pork also benefits from this and we’ve now been doing it for several years with excellent results.

To Holly’s right is the cutting room. We won’t actually be using that room this year but will instead initially do our cutting in the far end of chiller. This will allow us to get started faster and have the advantage of giving us more experience before we setup the final cutting room. The chiller even filled with ten hanging pigs will be far roomier than the small rooms and cooler’s we’ve been doing commercial meat cutting in for the past year and a half while we were apprenticing with master butcher Cole Ward. This will make moving up to the final 11’x14′ cutting room feel very roomy indeed.

Ben, in the stylish straw hat, is standing in the cooler which will be superchilled. Having a large cooler will allow us to keep fresh roasters on hand for those last minute orders. It will also allow us to superchill our meat before deliveries each week to customers. Lastly, once meat is superchilled we can blast freezer it so that micro-crystals form rather than larger ice crystals. This makes for much better quality frozen meat with less drip.

Will, on the right, is over in the brine room where we’ll make wet and dry cured bacon, hams, corned pork and other delicious processed meats. The brine room is off of the kitchen but part of the sequence of cooler rooms – the warmest of those low temperature rooms. By having small, precisely controlled rooms we can do some interesting things.

The black and red vacuum is sitting in the commercial kitchen which is between the cutting room, triple smokehouse (to my back) and brine room. One of those interesting things I mentioned above is the kitchen will eventually have one or two ‘warm’ rooms for aging Charcuterie, something Will is quite interested in developing.

To get the interior of the rooms perfectly plumb and square in all ways meant we have to be more exacting with our form work than when we were doing the rough structural outer portion of the building. Sometimes one can let the concrete forms vary by half an inch over a 40′ span but for these inner rooms I wanted them exact so that it would be easier to lay in the FRP wall covering, hanging rail track and other things later. This means applied trigonometry and geometry to constantly check the various angles and lengths of triangles formed. Ben and Will double checked my blueprint numbers against reality just to make sure theory and reality mesh. This gave them a good workout with their math skills. Construction work isn’t just pounding nails…

When we had started out with the old hay shed[1, 2, 3] foundation it was very not square and the building that sat on it was very not plumb. Gradually with each step we’ve brought it closer and closer to our goals. In the process we have kept the same footprint on the ground but made the building bigger and bigger. The inside of our facility is actually bigger than the old shed. This is a little bit like Harry Potter’s tents. “How can you have a building that is bigger than its foundation,” you might ask… The clue is in the spark.

Note that the rooms look a bit curved in the panoramic photo above, that has to do with the nature of camera lenses and because that image is a composite of several shots blended together to make a wide angle view. In reality, the lines that should be straight, are straight. Click on it to see a larger view. Click again on the X in the lower right, if it is there on your screen, of the larger image for even more detail. This requires javascript to be turned on and crashes Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 quite nicely – beware.


Wall Forms Rising

Will and Ben, on the other side, working at setting the wall forms. When we went to start using these forms, first we had to evict two good sized paper wasp nests. I felt bad. I like wasps because they hunt and kill insects who eat my gardens. I had left the wasps to forage as long as possible while we prepped but there came a day when we had to do the dirty deed. Unfortunately they had built their nests in the top forms – the forms we needed first, one on each stack. Although they might have objected if I had been taking off forms above them. Perhaps it was fortunate they were in the first forms that had to go. It would have been tempting to leave them in as long as possible.


Reefer Walls Rising

With the form work going up on top of the now squared up bases in the reefer the rooms are beginning to take shape in the butcher shop portion of the building. (Ignore the weird bends in the wall – they are an arberation of the wide angle lens and photo joining process to create the panorama.) There is a layout here incase you’re not familiar with the project.

“Wow, the rooms are a lot bigger than I thought they would be!” -Ben

Close up, the room at my feet is the Abattoir a.k.a. the kill floor or slaughter room. Animals will start out in the breeding fields (story of birds and bees goes here) and rotate around the pastures of our farm on Sugar Mountain as they grow until they are the right age and end up in the finisher fields which adjoin the entrance to the lairage. The livestock that are going to get slaughtered that week will be allowed to move into the lairage itself which is a covered area just south of the abattoir. From there they’ll move into a chute where the USDA/State inspector will check them during their antemortum inspection to make sure the animals are healthy before individually entering the stunning chute.

After humane stunning the carcass is lifted for bleeding on the 20′ hoist stainless steel rail. Next the pigs are scalded and dehaired. Very large sows and boars as well as sheep, goats and cattle get skinned. The carcass is transfered to the intermediate height 11’8″ stainless steel rail for gutting, cleaning, inspection and weighting. Next it moves through the 12′ tall doorway into the chiller where it’s heat will be quickly brought down to refrigeration levels.

The reason for using stainless steel is sanitation and maintenance. Stainless steel does not rust so there are not the pits which can accumulate dirt and bacteria. It is about twice as expensive as regular steel but because our facility is so small I can justify the higher rail cost since we’re using a lot less rail. I worked very hard in the design to make it so we don’t have curves, turns and the layout of the rail track is optimized. Little planning details that saved tens of thousands of dollars even in a very small scale meat processing plant like ours. It is also designed to be extensible so that we can start out with the minimum amount of rail and later add more as we have money.

Costs, especially ongoing costs, brings us to one of the little innovations I have invented for our slaughterhouse. I am going to use the waste body heat from the carcasses to help power the facility. I’ll go into the details of that in some future post. It is quite interesting and a great way of turning two problems into an advantage.

“Igor, quick, bring me more dead bodies.
I must have more power for the machine!”

“Yes, master! Right away, master!”

Mary Shelly would be proud. Note that this won’t work in all climates. By the way, we live on a mountain with a copper ore vein that sucks lighntning in to our castle. Don’t get distracted.

After the carcass has fully chilled and hung to age it goes to the cutting room. Initially cutting will be in the far end of the chiller. Later, we’ll move the butchering to the central cutting room that is just to the right of the large doorway. That future cutting room will be big enough for cutting, deboning, grinding, sausage making, hot dogs, vacuum packaging and more. This is termed raw processing – generally known as the butcher shop. The resulting products will then be vacuumed packaged which improves their storage life by keeping bacteria and oxygen away from the meat to delay spoilage. Because we deliver fresh to local local stores and restaurants it is important to vacuum package since the product is handled by multiple people before getting to the consumer. The packaging protects the meat from contamination. The vacuum packaging also improves storage in the freezer for customers who buy a whole pig for meat for the year. Lastly the meat will be super chilled which keeps it fresher.

Keep it clean,
Keep it cold,
Keep it cloistered.

To the east (right) of the cutting room is the commercial kitchen on the east side of the building. That is where we’ll prepare bacons, hams, cooked products, etc. This is a bit further down the road for us – first we want to get our feet on the ground with slaughter and butchering.

The brine room is just north of the kitchen and then the cooler and freezer loop back towards the chiller. By having everything lined up this, boxes within boxes, way we minimize the loss of ‘coolth’ – that is to say we minimize heat gain which minimizes our electric consumption. Energy consumption is a big cost for slaughter and butchering facilities in a large part due to the refrigeration. By having R-90* walls we will minimize our heat gain from our environment. The major issue then becomes dealing with the weekly 2,000 lbs of pork that comes in at 103°F and must be quickly reduced to 33°F. The rest of the refrigeration job is easy by comparison.

Looking in the middle of the back of the photo you may notice that the heavily insulated walls of the Freezer, Chiller Brine (FCB) are covered with silver. That is Foil-Bubble-Bubble-Foil (FBBF) which is a double radiant heat barrier as well as a vapor barrier. Heat is stransmitted by conduction, convection and radiation – I aim to stop it dead in its tracks as much as I can along all three paths. The FBBF is quite effective as part of the solution, doing it’s job to stop heat transfer as well as stopping vapor that would then freeze in the wall insulation of the FCB. The FBBF goes on the warm side of the insulation and I coat it with a plastic spray on film to make it non-reactive with the concrete.

Off to the left is the section we call Admin – short for administration. Admin contains the USDA/State inspector’s office, smokehouse, mechanical room, clean entry, building entry and the bathroom with shower and changing area. There is also storage areas tucked in here and there within that 16’x16′ section.


Wall Forms Rise Further

The area Will and Ben are forming up in the photo above will be blocked off from the next pour because there is a double wall of insulation separating the very cold freezer and cooler space from the simply cold rest of the reefer. We can’t pour that colder area until the rest of the reefer is solid. Then those forms will get moved back and the next bottle poured. Thermos bottles within thermos bottles.

You might note Remus who is supervising. He is normally in charge of janitorial duties on the job site when he’s not working his main job guarding and herding the livestock. Variety is the spice of life. Once we are licensed to open Remus, and the other dogs, will have to settle for just farm work as they won’t be allowed to come into the facility. You have to be at least 18 years old to work in an inspected meat processing facility, although, limited amount of cleaning duties can be done by workers under age 18. Remus is only about 7 months old. Perhaps a janitorial job is what Remus has his eye on. Still, I think he’s out of luck once we open.


WWM Folder

This simple machine is a welded wire mesh (WWM) folder for bending the structural steel to fit our needs. The reinforcement of the building consists of a fractal of sizes that each do slightly different jobs. #4 rebar, 661010 WWM and fiber. All of these help the concrete do its job of holding compressive forces. This is why buildings stand up while others fall down. Very different than Weebles.[1, 2]

The blue thing is a half barrel protecting our drill press from rain. To make the form bases we needed a lot of precisely perpendicular holes in 2×4’s and that is the right tool for the job. It came outdoors because the 2x’s were too long to easily work with in the workshop.


Holly Wiring Wall

We’ve been having spectacular weather for construction which is why we are taking the next month or two off from deliveries. We skip the heat of the day to avoid the ultraviolet on sunny days and work early and late instead.


PEX Conduit

This is PEX acting as conduit inside the lower slab temperature control box. The screws are there to prevent the conduit from becoming dislodged during the concrete pour. The blue tubes will get sensor probes fed down them so I can monitor the temperature down in the slabs of the various rooms. The red tubes will have 1/2″ PEX tubes slid down them so we can cycle a heat transfer solution to prevent the floors under the freezer and cooler from developing frost heaves. Frost heaves under your reefer are a major no-no. The cold goes down into the slab and ground causing frost heaves that crack the foundation as well as saturating the insulation making it not so insulating. A traditional method of prevention is to put heating elements under those floors. That is a waste of energy both in the act of heating and act of wasting coolth. Instead I’ll simply move the excess coolth out to where I need it in the chiller and cutting room cutting my need to cool those spaces. Waste not, want not.

In addition to the PEX heat transfer loops we also have two layers of lungs in our reefer to provide an air gap below the slabs and to dry the insulation. Double protection.


PEX Control Box

I’m not laying the PEX directly now but instead putting in conduits because if we laid the PEX without pouring the floors we might would damage the tubing by walking on it, dropping stuff on it, etc. Later when those floors get poured the PEX will get laid, brought down from the control box through the concrete walls via the conduits. This is better in the end although a little more work.


PEX Conduits

There were a few places where the PEX will be penetrating between the rooms so conduits are in place. The concrete will flow around them within the wall forms leaving channels for us to pass the PEX through.


Overhead Shot from Uphill Climbing Tree

We continue to make progress building the mold we’ll pour liquid rock into to form our ‘instant jello butcher shop’. It is always fun when we get to that moment when the form takes on a tangible reality after we pour concrete and it hardens. Right now we’re at the stage where the wall forms are going up so rooms are starting to take shape. Concrete is an amazing product that has been around for thousands of years. It’s a green construction material because there is very little of the energy intensive cement in a batch of concrete and because it lasts so long requiring so little maintenance. Most of the concrete’s volume and mass is local rock, granite in our case. Much of what we get comes from right over the mountain in Barre, VT. Scattered around the forms you’ll notice chunks of granite we’re using for spacers – little extra bits that will be bonded in and hidden away. I’m thinking about where I might do some visible granite in the butcher shop. After all, it is a Vermont building.

Outdoors: 75°F/60°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 70°F/65°F

Daily Spark: Cantilever cuz iLover

*Looking at just R-value is a simplistic way of thinking about it as there is also heat flow lines, thermal mass, daily and annual mean temperature cycles and more. Simply tweaking our annual mean envelope temperature makes a big difference on the effect of R-value.

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About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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12 Responses to Butcher Shop Construction Tour

  1. karl says:

    wow, excellent work thanks for sharing.

  2. Susan Lea says:

    This is absolutely mind-boggling! Impressive!

  3. David Ellis says:

    A friend told me about your project. I am very impressed. I am a retired refrigeration engineer and have designed a lot of systems as well as installing a fair number over my career. You are doing the right things. Are you doing your own refrigerant hookup or do you have an technician working with you for that. Actually installing the refrigerant is a bit of a tricky thing requiring special equipment.

    I must say I am amazed at the photos of your family working together. In this modern age where families are so fragmented you all do seem to have it together. Seeing kids building a facility like this is just a tad mind boggling. I also read some of your posts about building your cottage as you call it and am impressed with that too. You have demonstrated skill. Keep up the teamwork and craftmanship. Teaching your kids a trade like this is wonderful. They will always have something to look back on with pride.

    • For the actual refrigerant I will have a technician just like we had the electric guys move the transformer and upgrade it to 200 Amps. We do what we can such as installing the underground electric. I’m also working with a refrigeration engineer on the selection and sizing of the compressor, evaporator and condenser. We are going to do air to fluid so that we can recapture the “waste” heat to pre-warm our incoming water which will save us money on our energy bill. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on refrigeration systems and narrowed down the choice of equipment but this is a case where I don’t have any chance to do test modeling, thus the consulting with a professional engineer who has the experience.

      Our cottage was a practice for building the the butcher shop, a test model. Many of the techniques we’re using now we practiced on the cottage and other previous buildings like the dog house.

      Regarding the kids – and ourselves – being able to do it, the trick is to break things down into small enough tasks. It is like any other adventure. Maybe I’ll have to put together a book “How you and your kids can build a USDA Meat Processing Plant over your Summer Vacation.” Just joking! (“So, what did you do for your summer vacation, Timmy” the teacher asks…)

  4. As always Walter and family…well done. Not only do I enjoy all the butcher shop info I also revel in how the kids are growing up. Hope , so tall and strong, Will and Ben looking like men (A country diddy for sure). But you and Holly never seem to age at all. Maybe you’re using some of that waste heat from pork carcasses for some anti-aging ritual ? Whatever. keep it up. Glad you are taking a break from deliveries. Now you only have to work 20 hrs a day insted of 24.

  5. DennisP says:

    I really enjoy following your project. I’m in absolute awe of the skills and knowledge that you have developed and your ability to plan so precisely. And I echo the comments above about getting your entire family to work together on it. Holly sounds like an absolute gem! I’m eager to see how the whole thing works out for you in a year or two. Best wishes all around.

  6. Jeff Hamons says:

    I am impressed as I am sure anyone reading this would be. As a school teacher and as a parent who chooses to home school his young daughters I can truly appreciate the gifts that you are giving your children — not just the applied academics — but also the project planning – the vision building — the do the impossible mentality.

    These are things I hope to instill in my own children.

    Jeff Hamons
    Synergistic Acres – Kansas City Natural Farm

  7. Robert says:

    Did you consider other construction methods such as Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF)? If so, what led you to your final decision on how to build?

    • I looked at the insulated concrete forms however there are several drawbacks which make them unsuitable.

      1) They are not flexible enough to do the things we’re doing.

      2) They put the insulation in the wrong place for our projects.

      3) ICFs cost more.

      4) The forms that we built ourselves are reusable for other projects. Some of these forms have already been used to build our cottage and our south field shed. Being able to reuse the forms over and over dramatically reduces their cost on the entire project.

      5) Lastly, I’ve handled some of the insulated concrete forms at a local building supply store and I was very unimpressed with their strength. I would not want to pour tons of concrete into them. I strive to not have blowouts that would dump the wet concrete into our buildings – a real nightmare. That would really mess up our day, week, month, year…

  8. Madel says:

    I really love your project. This is the way it should be done. It is a pitty you wont cut for other people but I understand your reasons.

  9. John says:

    Do projects like this ever get built using materials like closed-cell spray foam insulation? Seems like the seamless and structural benefits provided by closed-cell spray foam might be a pretty good fit for these types of projects. Anyways, just curious, and amazing looking project as well!

    • Yes, we are using quite a bit of the spray foam. However most of the foam insulation is the lower cost sheet foam and recycled foam. Unfortunately the spray foam is considerably more expensive than even the pink board foam. If it weren’t for the cost I would love to use more spray foam. In the upcoming coolth attic we’ll be using more of it. The spray on is ideal for irregular and curved surfaces as well as for joining and sealing the other types of insulation.

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