A Wooden Pie Crust

The other day I had an idea. It fits along the lines of what architects call the “design spiral” and what I see as the way ideas evolve. That is, you have an unfinished, unsettled or ill-defined part of the building project that needs to be figured out. In my experience, light bulbs — a.k.a. ideas — don’t turn on in one click but rather come on slowly, as if someone had control of the dimmer switch. One thought leads to another and in the end there’s a solution, a point of yes-that’s-right-(finally!). All contributing factors – budget, context, history, personality, goals – have been considered and satisfied. You like it, you approve it, you move forward.

Such was the case with the wooden pie crust.

To help explain the situation, here’s a side view of the cottage. See the blue triangle? The blue triangle became a space to fill. Not on the cottage though.

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You see, when Bradley was building the cottage, he made the window frames (made the window frames, that’s cherry you see, made that door too, fyi) and then called the local glass company to come and measure for the glass to go in them. The guy measured for the trapezoids wrong (it’s simple geometry, I remember Brad saying to me) and the glass didn’t fit, so the glass company ate the mistake, remeasured, and produced correct sizes. They didn’t want the first, incorrect windows, so we kept them in storage. When the time came to build my porch, I wanted to borrow some architectural elements from the cottage and decided to use these leftover trapezoids. They will flank the as-yet-undelivered center window over the bench. You see the same blue triangles.

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Since the line across the top of this set of windows is straight instead of steeply pitched like the cottage, the trim/molding around the windows either has to work around the angle of the trapezoid or stay straight. Angling the trim didn’t seem right, but if it stays straight, that would leave blank spaces (the blue triangles) that to me would look weird. What do you fill it with? Siding?

What to do in that space – that was the question.

Sandy suggested a decorative rosette. Here are some examples of rosettes one could consider. I didn’t want a flower or a circle or a tree or a fleur de lis or any of these, plus they are mostly made for square spaces, not triangular, but the ones that look interwoven gave me an idea.

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Years ago I knew a woman who had her own basket-making studio. As a homeschooling activity, several times, my children made baskets of their own under her instruction. These are the ones they didn’t claim (when they left home) and I still use frequently. There is nothing like a good basket.

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Another factor that somehow came into play here is that I love to bake. When you love to bake, it is not hard to think of pie, especially in the fall when the apples are coming in. I have always loved the look of a lattice top on a pie. Yesterday I bought 40 pounds of apples at my favorite orchard, Albemarle Ciderworks, and soon will be enjoying a piece myself (to say nothing of lots of applesauce!). This image of a lattice-topped pie from notjustbaked.com shows you what I mean. King Arthur Flour also has a marvelous video that shows how a lattice crust is made.

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My idea to fill the blank spaces at the tops of the trapezoid windows evolved from “something has to go in that space” to a solution that feels personal. It combines fond reflections of the baskets my children made years ago and my love of a good lattice-top pie, and it satisfies that part of me that wants something a little less pre-fab, a little more unique, not too expensive and not overly challenging.

I thought of getting ash strips, the kind you would get for basket-making, and weaving them like pie dough. Then I remembered the thin ash veneer you can get in one-inch width, and decided to play with that. It worked!

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This stuff even has a kind of glue on the backing that responds to heat, so when the time comes to adhere the triangular webs to the luan (thin) plywood pieces that Sandy cut into the same size, I will try using an iron, and will do it on a test-strip first of course! This will also serve to flatten it.

And then we will find a way – I don’t know how yet – to affix this to the wall in the empty space and trim it out with the molding. I think it can go both inside and outside as a not-too-obtrusive bit of interest. In the living room I will paint it white to match the inside moldings and on the porch use the same stain as the trimwork out there.

A year ago we started this project. I love that there’s pie as we head into the home stretch 😊!

Haints Alive!

Weird morning here. Random, unexpected, connecting dots. Or maybe they don’t connect at all. First, while still in the not-quite-awake stage, I would swear I saw headlights coming down the driveway, heard tires on the gravel, but then there was no car. Then a noisy bird outside started yakking, squawking, hollering, incessantly bird-barking (as only birds can do), clearly upset about something, some other bird stealing his food or intruding on his territory probably. Then Nancy played “HAINT” in our Wordfeud game and I didn’t know what it meant.

Ghost or evil spirit, that’s what it means.

I’m not a big believer in ominous bodings, but the headlights-that-weren’t, the raucous bird and word I looked up all did kinda point in one direction, an odd confluence. Not exactly creepy, just mildly unsettling. The temperature here is so heavenly right now I’ve got windows wide open so I can hear and see a lot of what’s going on outside. The window-that-isn’t (yet), the one in the living room, is covered with some variety of house wrap only, reused from the last time it temporarily covered a gaping hole in my house, stapled to the sheetrock on the inside and sealed off with painter’s tape. And that window (that isn’t) connected back to the haint (that probably isn’t either) because just behind me as I sit on the couch, just past the house wrap that covers the gaping hole, is the only part of the porch that has a ceiling.

Let me start over. I’ve got this nice new set of windows in the foyer that allows a full-on view of what/who is coming down the driveway. There wasn’t this much daylight when I woke up earlier, but you can see it would be pretty impossible to miss headlights coming my way in the semi-dark. Headlights are hard to mistake in the dark. Beyond that Benz on the left, that narrow strip of almost-horizontal gray, that’s the driveway.

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Okay then, no headlights. I made a pot of tea, found my spot on the couch and tried to ignore the angry bird by seeing what word Nancy had played in the wee hours when she is always up playing against the word I played the night before. HAINT got her 48 points because she played it on both the double and the triple word spots. Bravo!

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I know they don’t allow contractions in this game. You can’t play DONT for DON’T so I dismissed my first instinct that HAINT was a contraction for IT AIN’T – and I know it’s not what Elvis was singing, but I heard “Haint nothin’ but a hounddog!” in my head 😊

The hyperlinking you get when you simply put a word in the google search box continues to amaze me, even after all these years when I’ve used it a gazillion times. In no time flat I had a definition and had to share it with Nancy.

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She’s hilarious. We both try anything actually – the game doesn’t limit the number of times you can play with combinations and hopefully find something that works, even if you never heard of it, don’t have to know it or have known it, never have to defend the choice. Hey, we didn’t set that up, just enjoying the game!

Haint is often connected with porch ceilings, as it turns out. “Haint Blue” is a color, according to Apartment Therapy. “Once upon a time in the deep South, many people painted their porch ceilings a specific shade of Haint Blue, a soft glue-green, to ward off evil spirits called ‘haints.’ It’s especially common in the historic homes around Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.”

Photographer Paige Knudsen’s blog post about her house shows this lovely example.

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My own porch is far from finished, nor did I or would I ever consider a ceiling of that color. It’s a bit too cold for me. Some people think its benefit has less to do with warding off haints (but if it did, okay, we’ll accept that too) and more to do with looking like the color of the sky, thereby warding off insects like wasps that might think it’s the sky the same way birds sadly crash into windows because they think it’s a continuation of the open space they are flying through. Those misguided wasps (haints if you ask me) might therefore decide to build their nests in some other place. Let’s hope.

By the way, my computer’s dictionary does not recognize “haint” as a word, keeps underlining it and wanting me to change it to “haunt” – how appropriate, hmmmm.

We just put up the plywood this past weekend on the part of the porch where the oddfellow’s bench sits just on the other side of the living room, and just got the lights in, though it’s still windowless here on account of that mysterious thing called “backorder” – did someone maybe drop the new window when they took it off the truck on the expected delivery date of Sept 9, this past Monday, after saying it was “on the truck” the night before? Out of my hands to be sure. But I hadn’t taken a photo of this ceiling yet because when the light was just right, I hadn’t thought of it. Until now, until this confluence of headlights, hollering and haints led me to Oh, this is the perfect time to take that picture – enough light but not too much.

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I have cedar in mind for the ceiling actually, repurposed old siding. Look what happened to the old siding (vertical piece on left, below) after a few runs through the planer (piece on right). That’s some gorgeous, perfectly usable wood.

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Lovely cedar aside, it IS a weird morning around here! As I heard my guests preparing to leave, I got up to say good-bye, went out the front porch door and heard a crash. A piece of sheetrock, temporarily tucked back into where it was cut from the wall in the foyer to get to the wiring to make the lights on the front porch, had fallen.

Huh.

To say nothing of the box spring that’s standing up in the hallway right now while I do some spackling in the front bedroom (closing in other gaping holes). Right after the piece of sheetrock fell from the wall, the box spring unsettled itself, lost its balance and fell toward the opposite hallway wall.

Haints alive!!?? What’s next?!

 

The Soothing Power of a Dog on a Tractor

I have mistake-on-the-brain because I made a big one this weekend. The maddening part was Shouldn’t I have seen this coming? The worst part was knowing the work I caused for other people, who themselves are doing me a favor and should not have to backtrack because I goofed and then changed my mind. The good part was that in the end it was a fairly-easily-rectifiable, not-the-end-of-the-world mistake. The best part was the dog on the tractor.

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Sandy called her “Farm Girl.” He took a break from hammering, measuring, sawing and fitting to make some amusement and roped Joe into the plan. Coco has a small brain and I expect this adventure was nothing more for her than Sure, whatever you say. I’ll sit here like a doofus, why not? I did not participate in setting this stage, but was called over when she was propped and perky and please-can-I-get-down-now? I was still, at that moment, in the throes of self-flagellation, beating myself up for not seeing the situation clearly enough in my mind to head off the mistake at the pass.

Nothing like a little silly dog to change the subject and bring a smile! Thank you, Sandy!

Come to think of it, a day or so later, the mistake itself doesn’t matter so much. It’s only a window, right? It’s only the window I’d been waiting more than eight years for (and then five weeks after ordering), the window I thought would be perfect, the window marked on my inside wall with painter’s tape and marked on my outside wall with a full-size template – both of which I had been staring at for weeks. We worked all day to get that window in. It was hot! I wanted to LOVE it!

But I didn’t. It just looked wrong. Too small. How can it look so small? But it was too small. I was up half the night trying to figure out how to make it right, but I knew – though I hated to say it – that the new window had to come out.

Out it came first thing next day. Not a super big deal in the end and thank God for the reverse function on the screw gun, but I internally fussed: Whatever made me think a small window there would be the right window there?

A fishbowl. Now I see. It all comes down to a fishbowl. Here is my five-seconds-or-less Pictionary drawing of one.

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The house I live in is out in the country at the far end of a gravel road. The only other house you can see from it is my own cottage. But my living room did not come with a front window at eye level. The funky 70s triangular window way up high, now removed, did let in light and did sometimes blind anyone sitting in the middle of the room, depending on the sun’s angle, but no one is that tall. I have never been able to look out and see from this room. Likewise, no one has ever been able to look in and see.

Hence, I have never had to worry about being the fish in the fishbowl! Eeks! Adding a window to that wall is a gigantic leap. Nothing partial. No middle ground. No gradually-getting-used-to-this-new-situation. I will go from being unseen and unable-to-be-seen to potentially being seen in one fell swoop! (Whether there is anything interesting to see is another conversation.). Dare I? Do people do this?

My mother is to blame on this one and she knows it – at their house in the woods on four acres she always pulled the blinds at night because “a bear might see me.” No kidding. (I wish I had Sarah’s drawing skills and could draw a bear looking into a window! Her Happy Friday and Purple chinchilla drawings are among my favorites.)

But here I was with a new (small) window with real glass at eye level. How did I think the size would make a difference? Maybe I thought that if it were small it wouldn’t matter? That people would say to themselves Here is a woman who clearly does not want to be looked in upon (otherwise she would put in a big honkin’ window!) – cease and desist! How did I not realize that window glass is window glass and see-through-able regardless? To this point Joe said casually at dinner, “You get something to cover the window for when you need that, a curtain or a shutter or something.”

I do know about curtains and shutters, what they do, how they work, why people use them. Why did it take this simple statement to make me realize that if you can cover a small window, you can cover a big one!

Ah, well, funny creatures, we humans. Fickle sometimes. Not overly able to visualize upcoming realities sometimes. Dense, you say? Thick? Fuzzy? Obtuse perhaps? Lackwitted? Slackminded? Featherheaded? Airheaded? Bubbleheaded? Blockheaded? Myopic? Cabbageheaded? Chowderbrained? Hebetudinous? Out to lunch? Three bricks shy of a load? (Gotta love a good thesaurus!)

Guilty as charged! But a new window is coming – a honkin’ big window! – picked it out and framed up the rough opening already. It will be better!

The Truth Window

What if we all had a window that people could look into? I don’t mean a window in our house, I mean in ourselves. What if that window revealed the truth about what’s really inside, the parts we generally don’t want anyone to see – our hearts, our motivations, our secrets, our fears, our housekeeping, our habits. Would we frame that window, call attention to it, put it front and center where everyone could see?

Lincoln’s truth window got me thinking about this. He is building a house with walls of straw – straw bales to be exact…

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…which is very cool.* Only of course you don’t leave it like this. Once you’ve stuffed every last chink as best as you can, you apply a kind of pasty goo that hardens and forms into what you might call plaster on the inside, stucco on the outside. Over that you apply whatever weather-proofing or decorative sealant you want – some kind of paint – and ta-da (!) you have a solid wall filled with straw and no one is the wiser unless you tell them.

Or unless you are Lincoln and you add a truth window.

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For all the world to see, no lie, no cap, even once he’s smoothed it out, cleaned up the errant splotches, added the sills and moldings and painted on whatever color they choose – it’s plain as day there’s straw behind those walls.

Lincoln’s window isn’t “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” because there’s wood inside those walls too, and standard fiberglass insulation in parts of the house where straw bales didn’t make sense. But it’s a window into the truth. I’ve wondered if sometimes, maybe a lot of times, that’s enough.

I had to write a lengthy report recently. In it, twice, I decided to include bits of information that I could have easily left out, that some might have suggested were irrelevant or best left out. One bit possibly cast some light on a person’s motivation and the other balanced out an otherwise damaging image. I decided it was not up to me whether those bits were relevant or not, but I would leave it to the reader to weigh and discern.

I included those two little windows of truth because to me, without them, the picture is not quite as accurate. Nonetheless, they are just two bits, two little bits in a sea of other bits, any of which may or may not also be relevant. Can I know what matters? Can I know what helps? Sometimes yes, but often not.

Everyone knows there are fuzzy distinctions among the alternately appropriate practices of

Same as I decide what food to put in my mouth, what clothes to wear, what dog I like, I decide what to say, what to do, how to say it, how to do it and what to keep quiet about. I can’t know what the interpretation or the reaction will be, but I reveal the straw in my wall with all those things I do or say or don’t. I reveal my worries, my flaws, my junk, my fluff.

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Look at Lincoln’s truth window again. It’s not pretty. The straw they use to make those bales is a waste product, the leftover stalks after they’ve harvested the edible grain, staks that are sometimes a pain for farmers to get rid of. But here it is – real and useful and strong.

Just as I hope I am – at least sometimes.

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*For anyone who’s wondering, properly constructed walls made from straw bales have an insulating value of R-30 to R-35 and are more flame-retardant than wood construction – this is because the bales are dense and tens to smolder when the ignition source is removed.

Bouldering? Really?

The things we do can be divided into four categories:

  1. We did the thing and we’re glad it’s over. High school comes to mind. Potty training. Ill-fated relationships. Recipes that bombed. Escapes from terrible danger. Costly mistakes. Profound embarrassment.
  2. We did the thing and would love to do it again. We maybe even do it again, or do it over and over again. Being on a grand adventure with someone wonderful. Making a new friend. Spending time with an old friend. Listening to favorite music. Reading masterfully written words. Creating something to be proud of in the kitchen or workshop or garden or studio. Reaching a physical or athletic goal. Making someone smile.
  3. We never did it and would like to. We all have a bucket list, even if we don’t call it that. A place to go, a food to try, a goal to reach, a person to meet, a book to read, a concert to attend, a wound to mend, a house to build, a difference to make.
  4. We never did it and we have no interest, desire or compulsion. This is the category that interests me today. For everyone, just as there is a wish-list, there’s also a no-wish-list. Just as there’s a magnetic attraction to some things, there’s a repelling with others. Just as some things call our name, others appeal to us in no way, shape or form.

Like Mom with superhero movies. I say Mom, really, the characters are interesting – some are even well developed. The graphics are amazing, the story lines engaging/ hilarious/ thrilling, the settings larger than life. She says Nope.

Like Samuel with building stuff. I say, Samuel, really, the sense of accomplishment you feel from making this precise cut and watching the board fit perfectly next to the one before it – it’s great! He says I’m going for a run.

Like Lynn with a good movie. She says I’m going to bed.

Like Fred with blogging about golf. He says Writing’s not that fun for me. I’d rather just play.

Like me with climbing, a.k.a. bouldering. Samuel loves it. Lincoln loves it. Julia loves it. Rise loves it. Even Eppie, who’s not quite big enough, loves it.

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I’m happy to watch – I loved watching them! How are they all that strong?!

But I don’t get the thrill. I’m not interested. It doesn’t jazz me. I need to remember this the next time I try to convince Mom to watch the latest Spiderman, or the next time I imagine Samuel is helping because he wants to, or the next time I suggest a movie to Lynn or tout all the blogging benefits to Fred.

Yes, yes, the beat of their own drummer, all that. However, I also need to remember that when I was younger, I didn’t help my mom in the garden. Now I wish I had – I would have learned a lot that would help me in my own garden! This photo is from last year – the strawberries weren’t anywhere near as good as these this year. Help!

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Not very long ago, I didn’t get anywhere near power equipment, which would include any shop tool that was plugged in. Mainly I made food and acted as gopher for those who were building anything involving lumber. Now I use the chop saw and the drills/drivers on a regular basis and I can usually get the nail hammered in with fewer than 20 hits! (And wow! We’ve come so far on the porch since June 4!)

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I didn’t like small dogs. Now I smile big when I look at Coco! Ridiculous dog!

 

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I won’t use names here, but you know who you are — you who didn’t used to eat Mexican food, you who made naan bread recently because of your success making pizza, you who wore a sundress and a big funny hat to a Derby party — y’all did things this year that you’ve never done before. Bravo! Who else braved the newness of a thing? Who else pushed the envelope? You know you feel good about it! 🙂

I can’t imagine being interested in bouldering, but down the road, hey, you never know… And even if I never climb those walls, that’s okay. I’ll do something else!

Sixty-Four and One-Quarter

Sometimes, when we have no clue how to do a thing or no clue how it works, we pass it by.

Eh. There it is.

It’s just a thing. We don’t and can’t appreciate what goes into it or what went into it.

Phones come to mind. The electronic inner workings and technological wonders of smartphones aside, even pre-smartphones were a thing we just used. There was no need to understand them – what components were assembled in what manner to produce a device that allowed me to talk to Claudia on the other side of the big pond. We just talked on the phone when we could – and it was wonderful! (Even if it cost a dollar a minute back then!)

Maybe it’s when you have the tiniest bit of know-how or even curiosity that appreciation begins. Maybe the more you know and the more your knowledge grows over time, the more you look in awe at those who have mastered a craft or a skill. The more I learn about bread (and we have been experimenting with a bread that beats anything I’ve ever made!) the more I marvel at bakers. The more time I spend in the garden, the more I admire those who make plants grow beautifully and productively. And the more I measure, cut, level, plumb, square, hold, hammer and saw, the more I stand in awe of builders.

Lincoln comes to mind. On a recent visit, he gifted me with some of his time and expertise. We are putting a roof over the new front porch and, well, most people are fairly clueless about how to do this, myself included. I caught him staring at it on the first day. Can you see his wheels turning?

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Sandy and Joe and Samuel and I had poured the footers and put the posts up (hopefully placed correctly because there would be no moving them!) and laid enough decking boards to be able to stand on.

This is the front view of what it looked like just before he started.

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And here’s beautiful Willow (and another angle) the day they arrived. The siding is still up, the old, upper, single-pane triangular windows still in, even the gutter and fascia boards still attached.

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First Lincoln pulled down the fascia board that had hung over the old porch and took out the old windows…

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…then he secured the first horizontal 6×6 connecting the house to the new porch. If you look carefully you can see him staring again. All that staring is not for nothing.

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At one point he took a break for a Coco-hug, and Eppie and Sandy looked on, so I snapped a photo showing some siding down, windows out (and just sheetrock on the inside), roof rafters in over the old porch and some upper horizontals secured in their notched places.

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Within a day or so, all of the upper horizontals were secured and plywood covered the old window openings.

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I thought it a lovely (if sun-splotched) image: the framework framing cutie-pie Rise and Eppie dancing/posing on their last day here. Maybe it’s just lovely to me because I love these girls so much!

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But I still didn’t see the thing that made me gasp in awe a couple weeks later. Sandy and I kept going after Lincoln left. I laid the rest of the decking boards with some help from Joe and removed the remaining siding and got myself a shiner in the process! (Damn cat’s paw tool came back at me just a bit too fast…)

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Sandy finished the roof over the old porch, prepped/shored up all the soffit boxes and mounted the ledger board and angled (principle?) rafters for the front roof (they attach to the house). We used house wrap as a moisture barrier (not that it had any under that old cedar siding for the last 45 years, but hey, moving forward in a better way…) and tidied up a bit. I began laying out possibilities for half-round steps to soften all these straight lines everywhere.

Just prior to beginning the forward-pointing front roof rafters, Sandy and I were staring at the house from a ways back. In particular, we were checking to make sure that everything (ignoring the windows that will go away) looked centered and correct. We were doing the every-now-and-then long view, an ostensibly purposeful way to pause when it is hot and you need to do something else.

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My eye caught the place where the two outer horizontal boards meet in the center. It might be hard to see, but trust me, there’s a line there.

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Up a little closer now. See?

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That horizontal “board” (singular) is actually two boards (plural) “married” to each other, double thickness for strength (in case you were wondering how two boards could just meet end-to-end like that). The outer one consists of two boards meeting end-to-end in the middle; the inner one spans the joint.

“Just curious,” I said to Sandy. “Is that the exact middle of that span?” I had to measure.

What do you think? Yup! From where the two outer boards join together, moving left to the next post, is 64 ¼” and from where the two boards join together, moving right to the next post, is 64 ¼”. Both lengths are sixty-four and one-quarter inches. Exactly.

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And NOT ONLY THAT. We took a level, laid it across to the ledger board that’s secured against the house behind the horizontal married board(s) (and it was level of course, which is part of why you can’t see it at all), squared it up to the house, made a mark, squared that up vertically toward the peak of the roof and made a line. See that thin vertical line? Lo and behold, dead on! Perfectly centered. Perfectly vertical. Perfectly square.

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Maybe this is normal. Maybe it’s just what builders do and maybe they are equally astounded when perfect bread comes out of the oven. I allow for that. But I applaud Lincoln! You don’t learn how to do this overnight. You don’t reach this skill level without putting in a lot of hours, making some mistakes, figuring out how to do it right the first time or how to fix it when you mess up. I am sooooo impressed!

On Saturday Lincoln sent me a photo. “One year ago today,” was all the caption said. A year ago he had just started building his pentagonal, straw bale house in Vermont. From the pile of dirt he was standing on, this is what he saw on July 6, 2018.

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On the same date in 2019, from the same angle, a house stands, a house he built almost single-handedly. It’s not finished because of the many unconventionalities they wanted to incorporate – e.g. most people put up regular siding and a composite shingle roof, and Lincoln has yet to “mud” the outside of the bales and skin the roof with diamond-shaped metal shingles, to say nothing of building his own windows – but they are happily living in it.

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I never have been (and never will be) the Queen of Exactitude when it comes to cooking but my, oh my, you don’t build porch roofs or pentagonal houses or anything else without respect for numbers and the knowledge of how to use them.  To Sandy, to Ernie, to Joe, to Bradley, to Billy, to Mark and in this case to Lincoln especially – to all you guys who build things – WOW! You have my eternal admiration!

Something About This Drill Just Didn’t Seem Right

I don’t pretend to know much of anything about building, yet here we are digging holes, mixing concrete, pouring footers, adding flashing, securing ledger boards, affixing joist hangers, checking measurements and making sure everything is square/level/plumb. I’ve been shown certain things like how to make sure an area is square (the two diagonal distances should be exactly the same length) and how to put a new tip on my handy-dandy, battery-powered (and therefore cordless) drill/screwdriver.

It used to be there were two kinds of screwheads/screwdrivers: Philips (like a cross) and regular (straight). Now there are endless varieties of star and polygon shapes, and all different sizes of those, so you need boxes of bits. Maybe they are called bits and not tips, I can’t remember. Maybe bit is for the drill and tip is for the one that fits into the top of a screw?

This is my great, lightweight and powerful drill/screwdriver. Clearly I am not sure if it is called a drill or a screwdriver, or both. It does both. Does it need to be called both? But the bigger question is: Whatever did they do in the old days without these things?! It’s fantastic!

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Some of you are laughing at this picture of the drill already, I can tell.

How we got to this stage in the process is simple: The project that would result in a new front porch, or what you could call an extended front porch (extended off the porch we replaced last year), has been sitting all winter – well, almost all spring too – and I was getting tired of walking through a construction site to get to my front door. The plastic sheeting that has been covering what used to be front lawn was getting to me especially. I was chomping at the bit (not the screwdriver bit!) to make some progress. My son Bradley had had an idea that changed the porch layout design, adding some built-in benches under the soffit (I now know what a soffit is!). Yes, benches under the part where the roof overhangs. This meant more postholes, more footers, more work. But hey, benches!

If there’s one thing I can do, it’s dig. This past weekend I effectively ignored the nagging pain in my right shoulder and by golly, dug holes! You have to dig them right – to the right depth and in the right place. I speak as one who has re-dug holes too many times, including some of these, which comes of not having a very specific plan, but that is another conversation.

Holes. We have holes.

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Into the holes we poured cement (is it cement or concrete? – that point is always confusing). Then we put a box on top, a box made of pressboard which is the wooden equivalent of salami – a whole lot of very small pieces all squished together to form a solid. This is what a box looks like up close, with the cement/concrete inside and a thing on top of it called a saddle, or at least that’s what we call it. A gigantic 6×6” post will fit into each saddle.

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The box is there to contain the wet concrete/cement until it sets, i.e. is dry enough to hold its shape and stand on its own. Here are the rest of the footers still with their boxes.

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Once the concrete/cement is set, you have to remove the box. To build the boxes, Sandy used very thin screws that have a weird star-shaped hole in the top. The morning after we had poured the concrete/cement, I found the weird star-shaped tip to put in the drill to unscrew the boxes, and I got it in. I wanted to free those boxes — we had framing to build!

Once you get the boxes apart to this point they just lift off, easy-peasy. I can dig, and I can take boxes apart!

 

 

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See how nice it looks when all the footers are box-free? By the time Sandy came over, I had the whole lot of them unsheathed like this.

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He was happy and I was happy because now we could move forward with framing. Then he looked at my tool and laughed. Do you see the little tip sticking out?

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“Why didn’t you put the extender in?” he asked. Extender? The tip was sticking out enough for me to unscrew those boxes, but you know, something about it just hadn’t seemed right to me…

A George Bailey Moment (Straw Bale House: Stairs)

When all your ducks are in a row, when you are exactly where you want to be and you feel strong, healthy and content, it’s wonderful. Take away any of those factors – a preferred location, optimal strength, good health or contentment – and the picture changes. For instance, here I am in beautiful Vermont spending precious time with dear family and friends, and oh, I wish I felt better.

Yesterday I woke up to a nasty headache. The first thing in my head was Bother! That’s going to get in the way of helping Lincoln with those stairs. Then I thought, Oh, the stairs, he’s building the stairs today, wonderful!

While Rise and Eppie were with me last week during their school break, Lincoln had walled in the bedrooms upstairs in their straw bale house and moved beds and dressers up there. He did this by way of a ladder, this ladder. Here is Eppie beginning her descent on it.

 

 

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Don’t ask me how he got those heavy things up there. He did. And the girls came home to their new bedroom which, as you might surmise, they could reach by way of said ladder. When I said Be careful to Eppie about it the first day back, she said calmly, “Oma, I’ve done this many times,” as she carefully went down.

I have confidence in their surefootedness when they are paying attention. But perhaps you have experience with children who sometimes get distracted. I do. I’m not sure why those boards are sticking out in front of Eppie like that (they don’t belong there), but there’s a rather large unblocked edge up there too. Need I say more? Also, I am not overly comfortable on ladders myself and guess where the bathroom is in this house. So when I first arrived on Sunday I suggested to Lincoln that stairs, soon, would be a good idea. He was not particularly interested in building them just now, having other aspects of this massive project in mind. I might have suggested it more than once and from several different angles. Lo and behold (thank God!) he decided to make them.

The wood for the hemlock stringers was out in the snow, but he pulled it in, scraped it off and brought it inside. He pulled out his computer and fine-tuned his design and measurements. He began notching the 3x12s, which were my happy job to sand with his marvelous Mirka Deros pad sander. By about lunchtime yesterday they were ready.

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After we prepared the place for the landing and the three bottom stairs (right about where Lincoln‘s standing), he moved the long stringers. These are not lightweight.

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Once he secured them in their rightful places, we (i.e., he with me marginally helping) cut and trimmed the treads. More Mirka Deros sanding – what a fabulous tool – to make the edges un-sharp, and the staircase took shape.

There’s a fine line in woodworking between precision on the one hand and as-good-as-it’s-going-to-get on the other, but sometimes static pressure can nudge a slightly twisted board a little closer to the pencil mark it is supposed to line up with. The right-hand stringer was less than optimally cooperative, and Lincoln couldn’t have it that way, but he was satisfied after the clamp did its work.

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By dinnertime he had all treads in place and screwed down (let’s hope they don’t dry too fast and warp), as well as railings upstairs and the ladder back in the barn. It was impossible to get a good photo, but a person can now get upstairs without having to climb a ladder and can be up there without worrying about falling from that height. And if you are the Oma, you can relax a bit about the little ones playing up there.

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During all of the construction prior to building the stairs, no one had fallen or come close to falling – and the planks were way less stable than the floor up there is now. Chances are very good that if months more had passed with only the ladder in place, all would have been fine. I probably worry too much. I don’t know. That’s where George Bailey comes in.

In the classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is continually frustrated, continually wishing he was doing something else, in his case traveling the world or building big, important things. After he decides that he has wasted his life and the only way to help his family is to absent himself (permanently, by jumping off a bridge), he gets a miraculous look at what his world would look like had he not been in it. His brother would have died, Mr. Gower would have gone to prison, Nick would have become mean, Mary would have stayed alone, Violet would have gone down the wrong path and his uncle would have ended up in the insane asylum.

George had no idea what his presence accomplished, what his everyday actions – bumbling as they were – meant to the people and the community around him, what calamities those actions prevented, what good (and exponential good) they brought.

When I woke up with a headache two days ago, I remembered the stairs but chided myself for perhaps having had too much to say about the need for them. It’s not my house and Lincoln should proceed as he deems necessary and appropriate. But George Bailey reminded me that maybe, just maybe, I am here, right now, this week, for a reason. Something in me said Stairs would be good. Stairs should be next. Maybe that matters for reasons I will never know. Maybe it doesn’t.

Next time you need to push yourself a little to be somewhere when it would be easier to not be there, think about George. Maybe someone needs your smile, or is stronger because you are with them, or makes a choice that is somehow significant (even if you never know how) because of your presence. Maybe you are the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Maybe your vote tips the scales, or your solution solves the problem, or your help allows a thing that couldn’t happen otherwise. 

We can never know what might have been had we not been there. We can never know that because of our being there, X happened instead of Y, or X didn’t happen at all, or Y was more likely to happen. All I know is, stair-making with Lincoln gave me a fresh understanding that where we are makes a difference.

 

 

Straw Bale House: Part 4 (Driveway)

Point A to Point B

One thing in life we must find/have/create is a reasonable way to get from Point A to Point B. We have to get our bodies from sit to stand, our emotions from down to cheerful (☹ to 😊), our brains from first grade to second, our friendships from I-know-you to I-like-you, our careers from entry level to positions of seniority.

No matter where you live, you have to get from public space to private space, from the road to your own front door – a little snippet of your overall journey perhaps, but a vital one. If you live in the country, the thing that comes in handy for this purpose is a driveway. Not a big deal, you say. Simply step or drive off the road and walk or drive toward your house by way of the driveway. Most of the time a house comes with a driveway – a designated, hard-packed (or paved) surface between the road and the house. So simple and straightforward. You just drive on it. Duh.

Unless there isn’t one, as in the case of Lincoln and Julia’s Vermont property that they subsequently built the straw bale house on.

Unless the land immediately bordering the road is heavily wooded and drops off steeply along the entire length of the road-front property line. When I say steeply, I mean steeply, sharply, almost unmanageably. There was no way to walk from the road down to a reasonably level (but still not overly level) part of their property that felt remotely like a path for feet to tread on, let alone vehicles.

I remember it well. The first time I visited in the spring of 2017, we parked up on the road. When I say up, I mean up. Walking down felt like descending nearly vertically into a forest by way of roots, stones and irregular-sized patches of dirt. I found out later that Lincoln and Julia made the patches with a shovel and a good bit of stomping because they knew I was coming and had to create something that vaguely resembled steps. Walking down it while holding four-year-old Rise’s hand as well as a bag or two was not un-doable but still a challenge. How on earth had they hauled lumber, chairs and other bulky/unwieldy items to the yurt site we then carefully navigated our way toward?

Clearly high on the agenda in the development of this property was the construction of a driveway. If you have ever constructed a driveway from scratch, you know that constructing a driveway is different than paving or in any other way surfacing a driveway. Lincoln started that spring making way for it, including countless hours with a chainsaw felling trees, moving trees, setting trees aside for later use, cutting up trees for firewood.

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The property had come with a permit for the driveway, allowing for one to “cut in” off the road at a certain point, but Lincoln and Julia wanted a different entry point, so needed a new permit. Some things go easily (that did), so they ordered the first load of gravel. (Note the mailbox not standing upright in the background. The guy who delivered the gravel worried that he might hit the mailbox, so Lincoln pulled it out of the ground temporarily.)

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This pile included rocks up to 3-5”. The sole purpose of the first load was to fill in the space between the level of the road and the level of the land such that a vehicle could drive on it, the first vehicle being the excavator that would allow him to do the rest of the work — not the thing that might be interpreted as a car in my cross-section drawing that might make all this clearer, though Lincoln says the ground after the drop-off isn’t that flat!

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From below, from the land, that first load looked like this.

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Once this load was smoothed out (by hand) and Lincoln was able to get an excavator down onto the land, he moved copious amounts of dirt from here and there. For eight days straight, he dug, carried and dumped load after load, changing the contour of the land rather dramatically in some places. He had to move not only fill dirt, but also some very large rocks to use for a retaining wall.

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The driveway slowly began to take shape. On six acres there’s plenty of dirt to create an acceptable grade. “Best practices” in driveway construction suggest that 10% is acceptable, meaning a 1-foot change in elevation for every 10 feet that the surface goes laterally. Lincoln got somewhere near that.

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It is hard to describe just how tedious this work was, how stressful and harrowing those eight days of maneuvering of the excavator were, how very many buckets full of dirt and stone had to be moved uphill, how soupy some of the areas became as he took dirt away, how careful he had to be to not get the large machine stuck in mud because you sure don’t want it to sink so deeply into “the soup” that it can’t self-rescue with its own arm. Hours were wasted getting unstuck, and you pay by the hour when the machine is running.

When trying to make a reasonably flat ground, you necessarily aren’t on reasonably flat ground, so not flipping the machine is also a significant concern. Lincoln has flashbacks of ending up 45 degrees over with his feet up on the sides before catching it with its own arm. This happened, for example, while carrying a heavy boulder from one side of the machine to the other; he was not able to swing on the uphill side because of an obstruction (or maybe that tread didn’t have as solid a footing left), and halfway around the whole shebang started to go over. In retrospect he simply says, “Wheee!”

At one point one of the treads fell off, which was its own adventure,

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to say nothing of how the bucket kept losing its teeth!

On the left in the photo below you see the huge rocks forming the retaining wall. Harder to see is the swale on the right, on the upside of the 200-foot driveway, so that any water coming from above the level of the driveway would go into the swale and turn into a stream along the side instead of washing over the driving surface, introducing too much water and/or washing away surface gravel. A swale was as necessary as a wall.

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When Lincoln was done with the machine, he hand-graded for about a week before being satisfied that the driveway was smooth enough and had the right grade. It was still so soupy they could barely walk on it. The earth that became the primary passageway between the town road and their front door took all summer to dry out enough to drive on, but in the meantime, he built the barn (which we will come back to).

By fall it was time to keep going with surfacing the driveway, but reality forced more felling of trees, beautiful trees this time. In September Lincoln rented a truck with a 10-foot bed to bring some items from New Jersey to Vermont – items from his grandmother when she was moving out of her house. He backed the truck from the road to the barn without much trouble, and Rise and Eppie gave us another darling image,

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but once the truck was empty, it was exceedingly difficult to drive it back up on account of there being no weight in wheels where power was trying to be delivered. The front wheels sank into sand, and all manner of spinning and sliding into the swale ensued. To get it up to the road required a winch, that is, hand-winching. During this laborious process, a beautiful maple tree that they had suspected would be seriously in the way was seriously in the way. They knew it would have to go. It’s not an easy thing on your heart to take down a beautiful, healthy tree, even if it just happens to be in the wrong place. Afterwards, visibility was much better, and they knew they had done the right thing, but it’s a pang to this day.

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The three standing trees in this photo all came down. They were leaning heavily toward the road, and naturally you don’t want them to fall into the road. That’s where the car (photo below) helped. The rope you see was longer than the tree was tall, don’t worry.

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Once the grade was correct and those unfortunate trees were down, they could begin creating the driveway’s hard surface. On top of the native soil it is typical to first lay “road fabric” to keep a barrier between your soil and your gravel. Otherwise the earth will just eat the gravel, and in Lincoln’s case, with how wet the soil tended to be, this would happen fast. Lincoln worried about fabric because moisture can go through it and he was unsure how his driveway would behave with so much water. Bottom line: He didn’t want soup again.

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Demonstrating sound problem-solving skills, to say nothing creatively reusing otherwise landfill-worthy materials (wouldn’t Bertie Boyce be proud!), he put down shingles, which later got topped with gravel. Shingles? Yes, instead of just gravel or just road fabric topped with gravel, he created a weather shed using roofing shingles that made a solid surface of the first 100’ of driveway (up to the barn) so water can’t permeate, and soup cannot form. (With the leftover shingles he made a floor for the barn four layers thick).

This came about because Lincoln and Zach were re-roofing someone’s house at about that time, which resulted in a lot of used shingles that, per the contract, needed to go away. Instead of paying to dump them in a landfill, Lincoln took them to use on his driveway. The sticky point was the history of the disposal of shingles. Apparently it has been common enough practice among unscrupulous builders to dig a hole and bury unwanted shingles (causing the homeowner an unexpected sinkhole some years later) that it became illegal to “bury shingles.”

Naturally therefore Lincoln didn’t want to advertise what he was doing, even though his application in no way resembled the outlawed practice. This didn’t stop some people from misconstruing, looking askance and even asking outright, “Isn’t it illegal to bury shingles?” Following an explanation, he got a broad spectrum of responses including “Okay, guess that might work” (tinged with incredulity) and “Oh, brilliant!” (with genuine excitement followed by stories of their own unconventional solutions to similar challenges).

Lincoln’s driveway has been “hard as bones” even during Vermont’s famous mud season. Unconventional works sometimes. May we open our minds to it more often!

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A Bit Brisk

On Friday of last week we arrived at Lincoln and Julia’s straw bale house in Vermont at about 430 in the afternoon. Temperatures were in the single digits, maybe below zero already – at that point, what does it matter? – and lots of snow blanketed the ground. Six-year-old Rise came out to greet me wearing her pajamas, leggings, socks, slippers and a sweater. “It’s a bit brisk,” she said plainly.

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This photo was taken before the 18” or so of fresh snow that fell the next day. Do you see those icicles hanging on the side of the house? They looked like this straight on.

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Yes, that’s plastic on the windows. That’s as far as they have gotten so far. It’s a double layer of 6ml plastic, which is a fairly decent wind block. In case you were wondering, straw bales have great insulatory value, but are much more effective when they have been mudded and sealed, which will happen in warmer weather. As of Friday night there was also no upper floor insulation except for the air trap – the 1/2” green foam insulation sheeting over 2” foam blocks separating the green from the inside surface of the plywood of the roof. On Saturday morning, following Lincoln’s birthday party Friday night, he and Julia posed for me on that upper floor.

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You see lots of green but no pink puffy insulation. That’s because they had barely begun that part. Over the course of three days, the upper floor went from this …

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…to this. The walls (not the ceiling yet, but they’re getting there!) are fully pinked!

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You can imagine that the pink makes quite a difference regarding heat loss and therefore overall warmth.

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I will come back to the specifics of the construction. For now I just want to make it clear that without insulation it wasn’t overly warm in there. At one point I found Eppie standing between the couch and the chair next to it eating ice. Where did she get the ice she is very happily eating?

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Right behind her, where post meets straw bale meets interior 6ml plastic, there’s a bit of ice. But only here and there.

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While the exterior temperatures varied between -11 and 8 (-23 to -13C), the interior temperature maintained a steady mid- to upper-50s (12-14C), which is a tremendous improvement over the 25-30 degree F differential they experienced at first. By Monday evening when all the insulation was in the upper walls, the house was holding at 58F with a good fire going in the wood stove even though there was a fierce wind making the below-zero temps feel much colder outside. Here we are playing Ocean Bingo…

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…and sneaking Samuel’s homemade crackers.

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You can see that neither Rise (who walked outside in her pajamas) nor Eppie (ice-eater) seems to need the hat and multiple layers of wool that I do not feel quite comfortable enough to take off, though toward the end, as the pink upstairs increased, I unzipped the vest a few times. Half the time, the girls forget to wear their slippers and are running around the house barefoot or in just socks.

Oh, the poor socks. Here is what happens when socks meet sawdust. Ah, well, they function just the same!

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During the weekend snowstorm, while the wind blew and the temps outside maxed out at 4F (-15C) — not counting wind chill — we were continually shoveling a path.

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This family continues to amaze me. They take it all in stride and don’t see how extraordinary it all is. They just live there, dressing appropriately, taking one day at a time, gradatim ferociter: step by step with ferocity. It will all get done. They will put the rest of the insulation in; hang, tape and paint the sheetrock; mud and paint the straw bale walls inside and out; install a wood floor on top of the subfloor and (yes!) enjoy hot and cold running water – all in good time. Even when it’s a bit brisk!

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