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3 - Dry stack concrete block walls use surface bonding cement (SBC)
for additional structural strength - no mortar between cinder blocks
click here for the main chapter of our free HTM Passive Solar Design eBook

Dry stack concrete block (cinder block) technique uses surface bonding cement (SBC) instead of mortar for high thermal mass walls that are actually stronger than conventionally laid block walls. Only the first course is bedded in grout on the footer to establish plumb and level for the wall. The rest of the dry stack block courses are laid without need for any mortar between the cinder blocks. This building method has been around for well over a century, so it is nothing new or really even very unique in commercial buildings. SBC was formulated to build million gallon municipal cisterns for water storage. The original SBC recipe used horse hair for the structural fibers. There is absolutely no need for special 'dry stack blocks', but they are available in some areas of the country. Typical rectangular concrete blocks are fine as long as the quality is good. And the quality is almost always very good these days with computerized forming and automated molding of concrete blocks at most brick yards. Plus, you will likely be buying a locally made product since block manufacturing yards are to be found in nearly every part of the country.

Build cinder block walls without mortar between the block and just a few tools

Blocks need not be of any special design. They don't have to interlock, and best of all you don't have to know how to lay block. You simply stack the concrete blocks in a running bond pattern and then parge coat both sides with a single layer of fiber reinforced, surface bonding cement. Applied 1/8 inch thick minimum to both sides, surface bonding cements have strengths that are superior to conventionally mortared block walls and they look a lot better too without any grout lines. Once your block walls have been surface bonded, hollow vertical cores (minimum every four foot and alongside every opening) are filled with ready-mix concrete grout and a #5 rebar for an exceptionally strong heat storage mass. Mortared block walls are just as effective, but dry stack is easier for the unskilled homeowner builder. You don't need any experience laying block to excel at dry stack with SBC.

First course of cinder block is laid upon a bed of mortar on the concrete footers. Concrete block is then perfectly leveled, as this is the start of building without mortar between courses

Please note that solid, poured in place, concrete walls are just as effective, but forming and pouring is outside the skill level of most people. Hiring contractors to build the forms, pour the walls and then return to strip the forms, is always an option when you have money in the budget. Empty cores in your block walls (those not having structural rebar) should be filled with something for extra thermal mass. There is no advantage to having empty cores in the block walls and absolutely no advantage to filling them with insulation. The more thermal mass in a home, the better. Most clients simply order more concrete grout and fill the empty cores while they fill the structural cores, but some clients opt for using sand or dirt excavated from the job site. The only caveats to using soil to fill the empty block cores is to compact well and cap the top of the core with SBC or mortar to prevent moisture from penetrating.

Very easy to set, dry stack concrete block walls do not need any mortar between blocks and courses

One key to thermal performance and indoor air quality is to have waterproof walls to guard against moisture transference and surface bonding cement was originally designed to line water cistern tanks. You need to prevent water from traveling through the home's walls, sucking away energy and presenting possible indoor air quality problems. The same applies to poured-in-place concrete walls - the wall needs to be waterproofed on both sides to prevent water transfer. Several coats of low VOC non-porous latex paint is a good solution for waterproofing the interior of a concrete wall. The exterior footers and wall need a minimum of two heavy coats mop-on waterproofing treatment or better yet, a roll roofing underlayment sheet bithumin, like Grace® Ice and Water Shield.

Interior partition walls are butted up against rear structural wall for ease of construction Rebar comes out of the concrete footer every third core in this wall design

Layer surface bonding cement onto both blocks and then lower into place for a tight fit Check your plumb (vertical level) often to avoid getting off track with a wall

Surface bonding cement is both the structural coating and interior finish stucco SBC can be applied in stages, just leave off at middle of block for best strength

Dry stack concrete block walls using surface bonding cement instead of mortar are easy to build without special skills.

Water and waste lines are best run through stick-frame partition 'wet walls' in the floorplan layout, but pipe can be run through the block wall cores, if need be. Wiring in concrete block or poured-in-place concrete walls usually involves running conduit pipe down through the cinder block cores or forms before the pour and then pulling wire later to all the outlet and switch boxes. In-floor electrical outlets like you see in commercial buildings are an option for electrical, as are surface mounted Wire-Mold® power strips. One of the more visually pleasing and labor-saving ways to run some wiring is shown here with half-round logs routered out along the back and holes cut for outlet and switch boxes. Nice design touch that does not require that much carpentry skill.

Electrical box installation cut into half-round logs facing block wall and routered for Romex
Electric switch plate and conduit box cut into a half round log presents a nice touch to a log roofed HTM

With any surface bonding cement, conventional mortared block, or poured-in-place cement wall, it is key to note:

  • do not fill block cores with insulation or foam. This is counter to what you are trying to achieve. The empty cores should be filled with concrete, sand or some other solid thermal mass material.
  • vibrate the newly poured wall cores thoroughly to avoid air pockets. These tools are relatively inexpensive from companies like Harbor Freight Tools. Removing air pockets from structural concrete filled cores is very important for ultimate wall strength.
  • interior walls are surface bonded, so there is no need to stucco or drywall. You can do a finish coat of stucco to attain a particular texture, though, or use a synthetic stucco mixture.
  • always coat the exterior and interior of your walls with waterproofing. Water absorption and transference must be stopped to maintain interior air quality. A high quality non-porous latex does wonders.
  • exterior insulation on the walls must be surface bonded with a latex modifier added to allow it to stick to the EPS foam. Reinforce with galvanized chicken wire or expanded lathe for structural integrity.

If you are not familiar with laying block (mortared or surface bonded), after the corners are stacked six to eight rows high, setting the string line is critical. The corners dictate the walls between. Starting from corners, you simply stack block between. You can alternate last blocks, but it is generally the center block and it rarely needs shaved to fit. There are probably as many different ways to knot the line block as there are masons. Xing at the knuckle (full corner end of wooden line block) certainly helps stabilize or you can just wrap the string once or twice around block lengthwise, then anchor back to pin. You can pull in slack a lot easier this way, cinching to line pin, plus it ensures the string line will remain taut and true. While it is possible to simply set the wood line block on corner and tie off with tension alone, having an anchor post pin as shown is a little more elegant and saves the string from being subject to possibly jumping off.

Wood line block and line pins as used with dry stack concrete or cinder block construction to get a straight wall

As with most everything in life, there are at least two opinions on the correct usage of the string line (mason line). Most prefer to keep string line a set distance from block (5/8 inch as pictured above with the Marshalltown® line block). This allows you to use your fingers as a quick spacer - as soon as fingers touch line, you know you are about true for stacking. Classic masonry with grouted courses, forces you to hold the block at center pull / cavity opening (fingers inside block to steady and drop plumb). You can't always be looking down on the block, though, and you really don't need to with dry stack. Some masons like the string line right where the blocks are going. You just have to maintain clearance, even if only 1/16 inch, to keep true. Nothing should ever touch the string line or it is compromised. It is possible to keep the wall plumb (vertical) and level (horizontal) without a string line reference, but the only way to keep it straight (true) is with a string line. Wander 1/16 inch off true every coarse and you will find the wall with a 1/2 inch error before you know it.

The beauty of dry stack SBC versus mortar block is not having to make sure each and every block is plumb, level and true before setting the next block. When you are rolling along with stacking the block, you never stop to check every single block... you lay the course just shy of stringline true and then come back to adjust all the blocks over to the line. A large rubber mallet does a quick and efficient job of trueing the wall until you get two or three courses atop the errant block. This is where you notice the great strength provided by friction with six blocks touching the one you want to move and gravity at play. After the surface bonding cement is applied and structural cores filled, a SBC block wall is actually much stronger than a comparable mortared block wall

A major time saver is to never cut any blocks for the layout so you should always design around using all full and half blocks. The block layout we normally work with is eight inch wide block (8" wide, 15.625" long, and 7.625" tall). Maintaining a running bond stack where the upper block overlaps half of lower block is easy with eight inch wide since the corner turns on 1/2 of the width (15.625 inch long and eight inch wide). When the design requires changing to 12 inch wide block (berming into a hillside) you suddenly need to cut a block every other course. The first course is traditionally all full blocks (12 inch by 15.625 inch long). The second course (as shown below) uses a cut block - one 4 inch and the other what is left over (about 11-1/4" to 11-1/2" long). Half blocks are only used at the end of a wall or doorway opening, never in a corner or on a straight wall run between two corners.

Dry stack concrete or cinder block layout with 12 inch wide CMUs

One key to SBC or any other Portland® cement based stucco, concrete or mortar is to keep the finished material moist for the first few days of curing. Any cement based product needs to cure slow and steady for optimal full-strength and that can take up to a month for a concrete slab. If you want a quality product, get several hand pump sprayers for misting water during construction. Tent and heat the first course with mortar bed and keep it moist for the first few days of set, especially when temperatures are going to dip below 50 degrees. The same applies to any SBC work later. When dry stacking or mortar block laying in a cold climate, you should consider covering the entire structure with string reinforced poly sheeting. The tops of block walls can be spanned with a few beams and clear tarp material draped across all walls. Common roll size is 20' by 100', with 40' by 100' available in some areas. There is also a woven mat material. Commercial projects often leave the plastic tent in place for the entire construction, cutting away with razor knives after the ceiling has been oiled and interior is ready to work. Then the clear tarp just falls to the floor and becomes a drop cloth to keep traffic off concrete.

You can purchase surface bonding material at any building supply center or at wholesale by the pallet from your block yard. We do not sell it and we are not the manufacturer. Our only interest in proposing SBC as a building method is to help our clients save some money while having the ability to construct their own home with their own hands. For an introduction to common dry stack cinder block construction techniques, please take this link: Quikrete® basic SBC Project Guide. This Quikwall manual is helpful for do-it-yourselfers considering a surface bonding cement project. The Quikrete manufacturer website for SBC is Quikrete.com or you can call their help line at 800-282-5828. Please note many other surface bonding cement manufacturers exist - check with your local block yard for details.

We have always delighted when new professionals become familiar with dry stack cinder block techniques. Cinder block has been a popular commercial building material for ages, but wood has always ruled for residential here in the USA. That's what makes an HTM so economical and functionally sensible - this common commercial style of block or poured-in-place concrete construction. HTM design just adds a coat of surface bonding cement to stop water transference and horizontal wing insulation for heating and cooling retention. Concrete and block are very low-tech LOCALLY available products without all the marketing fluff associated with SIPS, ICF pre-packaged insulated forms, special block shapes, and other trick methods. Reinventing the wheel is not necessary... any local commercial contractor should be more than capable of working on the project. Here's hoping more websites, architects, engineers, and building departments get familiar with a worthy method. For a technique that has been around for centuries, it gets entirely too little attention.

Top left going clockwise: darby, pool float, bucket scoop, arch rasper, and mortar hawk are common tools for use with SBC

We do not sell any tools, but darbies, pool floats, magnesium hawks, arch raspers and bucket scoops can be found locally at construction tool suppliers. The same tools used for stucco work are used for surface bonding and parge coating of dry stack cinder block. The pool float is a hockey rink shaped applicator preferred by many to work the stucco or SBC into place. A foam handle is nice, if you keep your tools clean. Otherwise, composite handles are much easier to maintain. Magnesium blades are preferred by many for their ability to 'open pores' in the cement, versus sealing smooth and tight, as with steel blades. Magnesium has a nice feel, being rust proof and lightweight, yet thick and strong, making it preferred for hawks, floats and darbies. Arch rasps and bucket scoops are the other two images above - specialized tools for unique needs can cut labor time dramatically. The darby, for instance, is a two to four foot long two handed leveler that makes it possible to flat-level large surfaces quickly. Some darbies come with teeth for a sawing action as you level across the wall or floor. Others are flat with rounded lips along edge for sawing, smoothing and leveling more gently at the stucco, plaster or SBC.

Dry stacking is addressed on our website as a courtesy to our HTM clients interested in alternative high thermal mass wall construction techniques and not something we specialize in. Legal liability dictates engineering details are site-specific and dependent upon site and soil conditions, local building code, and the floor, wall, and roof construction methods. If the manufacturer of surface bonding cement being used is not able to provide construction advice for their product, it is best practice to hire a local structural engineer. Unfortunately, we are not able to provide such services. There are some businesses on the internet that specialize in dry stacking, for instance from our research links page is the website http://www.drystacked.com/. The information from or through this site and from or through Architerra Enterprises, Inc. (d.b.a. The Natural Home Building Source and TheNaturalHome.com) is provided 'as-is', 'as available', and all warranties, express or implied, are disclaimed (including but not limited to the disclaimer of any implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose). We are not an engineering or architectural design firm. We do not accept any legal liability whatsoever for any 'errors and omissions' perceived or otherwise. Good luck with your project.

dry stack block and monolithic slab details common to nearly any size building
Any information presented on this website is inherently limited in scope and only an outline for quick reference. Site, soil, and
local code requirements are only the first of many unknown variables. We do not accept any liability nor warrant for any errors
or omissions. Plans are not presented as construction ready. Local engineering approval must always be obtained.

Typical construction details common to nearly any size SBC project

Passive Solar textbooks all seem to present a rather confusing 'shotgun effect' with a laundry list of options,
all based upon conventional residential stick-frame architectural models... but some do think outside the box.
Malcolm Wells' The Earth Sheltered House: an artist's sketchbook is rich in drawings and inspiration
Robert L. Roy's Cordwood Series includes SBC construction details and curved wall structures
Michael Reynold's Earthship Series for back-to-basics rammed earth how-to-do buildings
Daniel D. Chiras' The Natural House and The Solar House are both excellent textbooks
and with more focus on HTM construction... our free Passive Solar Design eBook
Unfortunately, we are not taking on any new HTM design consultation clients this year.
Hourly design services are not available currently and architect referrals are not given.
We have our HTM Home Tour DVD to offer... but it does not include any consultation time.

HTM Home Tour DVD

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no international shipments

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HTM Home Tour DVD

First half hour walks you through our healthy, sustainable design, HTM passive solar, greenhouse style earthhome featured throughout this website. While not a How-To video, the second half does include some detailed Infiltrator® chamber leach field septic system installation footage. Plus, there's a segment on Sun-Mar® composting toilets.


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