Deforming Reefer

Perfectly Pink Padded Palace

The ice has finally melted out of the butcher shop and we began the process of prepping for our first pours of concrete for 2011 on our Big Project, our on-farm butcher shop. The first step was removing all the walers, studs, rod nuts and headers from the forms. Today we began peeling the actual form work within the butcher shop refrigerated section which makes up about two thirds of the building as well as the administration and smokehouse section. This reveals the pink foam insulation below that keeps the heat out of our reefer.

First Form to Go

Will, on top, and Walter examine the first form to be removed under the supervision of Ben. Getting that first form out is a bit of a trick as there is pressure from the concrete pour pushing the forms together. Sliding past the rods makes the challenge a little more interesting. In most cases it went smoothly but we did have two stubborn spots where long 2×4 levers finally solved the problem.

The apparent bend in the wall is not real – Hope was using a very wide angle lens which gives a bit of a fish eye look to things. The lens does funny things to straight lines. Even odder is when I combine images to get panoramic views.

Will Prying Form

With a bit of pry-bar work Will slids the form outward and off the tension rods. The forms are heavy. Most are 8’x4′ on a frame of 2×4’s.

First Form Decending

Gently, gently… down comes the first form. We got off easy on the first form of the day as it was only a half form, the custom form for that wall. Behind us you can see the tall door going from the Abattoir into the Chiller. The extra height is so it can take a rail high enough to do whole beef.

Unscrewing Form from Frame

The form work was like a giant jello mold made out of repeating pieces, most of which were identical but a few were custom sizes. Windows, doors and other openings were set in as frames between the form faces. Then we pumped concrete into the walls as a liquid. Once it setup – Voila! Instant building! Well, not quite instant but close, about two hours. This work is a lot of prep, prep, prep and then a big pour that makes everything feel like we finally made that advance to the next step.

Easing Downward

Last year our last pour was in November as the weathered turned cold. We had gotten a last minute influx of cash from a most generous private lender that let us top the forms just as snows flew. After that we put the project to bed for the winter.

The entire outside of the building is wrapped in a layer of insulation several inches thick. This makes it so the huge thermal mass of concrete will stabilize toward our annual mean temperature which is close to a refrigerator. By venting the thermal mass to the cold air, something we have at night for over nine months a year, we can further drive down that temperature with the possibility of requiring little to no power temperature control for the reefer – the refrigerated two thirds of the building.

The electricity to run the refrigeration is a major cost for a meat processing facility. Everything we can do to minimize that helps our bottom line, keeps more money in our pocket and reduces our carbon footprint. Green meat. Seriously green, as in the good sense. I’ve calculated that our meat saves about 33 pounds of carbon per pound of pork. This is because our pastures and forests are soaking up carbon but our petroleum usage is so small and we don’t buy commercial hog feed. Instead we recycle dairy and other organics, keeping them out of the waste stream and from slipping down the chaos slope. This means that our pork has a negative carbon footprint. Instead of buying carbon credits you can buy pastured pork to help offset flying on a jet plane, driving a car, etc. Pretty cool! This is based on our current model where we have to take our meat a long distance to be butchered. When we do it here on the farm it will get even better. How much better remains to be seen once we’ve been doing it for a few years.

Embedded Insulation

Inside the reefer section of the building there is an even thicker layer of insulation. As can be seen in the photo above, the concrete wraps around the insulation at the door frame and top edge of the wall to give structural strength. A thin thermal break between that and the next box will stop heat leaks.

The actual reefer box will be another concrete box about 20’x30′ inside of the insulated reefer area. The reefer will sub-divide into the chiller, aging, cutting and other areas each of which can be driven to lower temperatures through progressive stages using Coolth storage and then mechanical refrigeration.

I’ve looked into electronic refrigeration using the Peltier devices but the technology isn’t there yet. There is another method pioneered by Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream which may come down in scale. I’m designing things so we can take advantage of these new technologies when they’re available and cost effective.

The second from inner most box is the 27°F Cooler. Meat, due to the salts in the blood, doesn’t actually freeze at that temperature – it just stays fresher. There are rumors that this room will be called Purgatory. The next box inward is Hell – our freezer which will go down to a chilly -10°F or deeply below under normal conditions. This keeps meat deep frozen to preserve quality and it means the room has enough thermal mass to outlast the longest power outage we have ever had. This is also where we’ll be able to do blast freezing to maximize quality by minimizing freeze transition time which minimizes ice crystal size and thus minimizes cell wall breakage. Hell will require some mechanical assistance. The Coolth from Hell will leak out to the refrigerator which leaks out to the brine room, etc. Boxes within boxes like a Russian doll.

Air pipes in the insulation between the reefer box and main structural building concrete will automatically dry the insulation with a passive thermo-siphon. Wet insulation is a major failure issue in refrigerated systems. This will also chill the system in the winter.

Ladder Support

This ladder is leaning up against the wall. It looks innocent but it is doing a job. It is waiting. It is there, spotting the form. Should the form get kicked outward the top would catch on the ladder and stop. It never happened but I was glad to have a helpful ladder willing to wait around and spot forms. Sometimes an important job is simply being there.

Big Form Lowering

The larger forms are quite the heft. They’re more easily taken down by three people although two can do it in a pinch. When doing many it really helps to have all three of us on the ground plus one up on top of the wall.

Passing Form Out

While we work on setting up for the next pour we need the forms out of our way so they went into the Abattoir. We’ll form up that room last after we bring all those forms back in to the reefer.

Will Lowering Form

We’ve been having some splendid weather for working outside as you can see from the bright blue sky and short sleeves on our model above.

High Seat – Blue Sky

Ben and Will alternated being top man. It’s a little tough on the legs and knees. They came up with an innovative stunt man trick of insulation bags down on the ground incase things (or heaven forbid, people) drop.

Pink, Pink, Pink!

What is it with pink and our house? Lloyd, the previous owner had painted some of the rooms pink. The siding he used was pink. And here we are putting up pink insulation! Hope loves the color. Ah, the things we do for our kid’s…

Middle Header Removal

The reefer had been done with two horizontal rings of forms so that we could easily secure the insulation in place. After removing the top ring of forms Ben began working on removing the middle header boards that tied the next set of forms together. Everything is held together with TimberLok / LedgerLok screws for strength and ease of removal as well as the occasional sheetrock screw that was used to position things.

We’ll continue taking more forms down tomorrow. Then I start doing in-slab plumbing and wiring for drainage, wiring up rebar, resetting forms and prepare for the next pour. If everything goes smoothly and the weather holds we’ll do our next concrete in June.

Granite Spike

The top edges of the walls are purposefully very rough. How rough? That’s a big chunk of Barre, Vermont granite that is embedded in the wall. There is also a key groove along the top and cross gooves.

Rebar Spikes

That, in addition to the rebar that goes all the way down to the foundation, will securely lock in the next pour. Since we’re doing very cold joints I want a secure connection. The last pour will be one continuous over pour capping the roof, isolated from the thermal mass.


I think Ben is doing his Laura Croft gunslinger imitation here with the two screw guns. In any case, this is the administration, entry and smokehouse section of the facility. The forms along the south wall have been peeled revealing the doorway into the old farmhouse kitchen which you can see poking out above the concrete wall. We actually used the old house as the outside of the form. This saved building one sixteen foot long section of forms.

Outdoors: 69°F/31°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 70°F/67°F

Daily Spark: With leftovers, wisdom does not come with age.

Is Coolth real? Some would argue that it is really a negative of heat and thus unreal. This is fine and understood but stand in the wind on a cold Vermont winter night while arguing the point to keep it short and sweet.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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7 Responses to Deforming Reefer

  1. Nick says:

    Do you have a copy of the floor plan that is higher resolution, so I can zoom in and read all your small font notes?

  2. Walter, what a fabulous post ! Just the other night my husband and I were wondering about your butcher shop/locker and its progress. How the four of you do SO much is beyond us. You are the best example of what a family can do when they work together. Thanks for sharing. I know it takes alot of time to write and take pics when you are so busy doing the work you do.

  3. David Lloyd Sutton says:

    In awe of the creativity and productivity of your family team. Best of American behavior I have ever seen. Be careful on those walls!!

  4. Emilie says:

    It amazes me how you fit so much into such a small space. We take our animals to a local butcher and just his kill floor has to be twice the size of you entire building. Same for his cooler and his cutting room come to think of it there each about twice as big as your building. I can see how building small will save money now and later to.Your building your little cottage must have been great practice for thinking small about how to fit lots of things in to little spaces. Ingenuous! Our farm doesnt do enough animals a year and ours are all in the fall so we cant justify doing what your doing but more power to you! I can see how farmers could do it now watching you.

    Say, looking at those photos of you all up on your high walls here and there I wonder if you have any native american in you. Mohawks were famous for their hi walking.

  5. David B says:

    Thanks for posting such great pictures of the progress (I know more progress has been made since this post, but I’m working from about 2007 forward…). I love how much your family works together on these projects. I also slowly glean ideas for my dream house someday. If you ever write a how-to book or blog completely laying out how you built the tiny cottage I’ll be buying it :)

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