The Mistakes We Make

When we took off the front porch in early October, we had to go around to the back of the house to get in. No way in the front. Too big a step up. And even if you could step up, too much dirt on your shoes would come with you. To the back we went.

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Replacing the rotted rim joist under the front door and adding new ledger boards took some time, but that got done. Then the framing for the new front porch started.

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In early November, we had this much of the framing done. We cut and laid the boards, and even though they weren’t screwed down until the day before Thanksgiving, we could then at least go in and out of the front door and walk on the new porch. But you couldn’t get on and off it from ground level.

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The old three-step stairway seemed reasonable for a way up, even if it was temporary, so we mounted that too. We needed gravel to build up underneath the base of the unit. I put as much as was necessary, but no more. At that point it looked like this.

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Does it seem reasonable to you yet? Deck boards are down/walkable, stairs are secured to the rim, gravel leads to a sort of pathway that leads to the driveway. What’s missing? What would you like to have if, say, you had pains in your legs or a young child in your arms or you walked with a cane? How easy would it be to get up or down those three steps?

A railing, right. You need a railing. Did I think about a railing before screwing in the steps in that spot? I did not. I thought only about myself and Samuel (and Coco) getting back and forth to the cottage and the chicken coop and the driveway (and the yard/leaves). I did not think about company. But company we have. Company we like. I needed a railing.

“No big deal, Mom,” Bradley said when I called him about it. “Secure a short post to the stringer at the bottom and then attach a railing to the short post and your 6×6.” Not a big deal for him maybe. First of all, the steps are too far to the left for a railing to attach to them and to the 6×6. They couldn’t connect.

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So I moved the steps over. See, in the right hand photo they are way closer to the 6×6 at the front corner of the porch. I also added a lot of gravel to expand the graveled area to make it more solid for walking on. It feels better underfoot now.

I then found some small scrap pieces of wood to help build up the area to the right of the lowest step so that the front face of the short post would be flush with the front face of the 6×6. I put one piece in on my own, then waited for Joe, who kindly came over to help me put in the rest of the build-up pieces and the post and the railing.

The post needed two long bolts all the way through the built-up layering, and that required long drill bits, a socket wrench and enough comfort with the table saw to cut small pieces to fit (one of these days I might feel comfortable with that particular piece of equipment, but I don’t yet!). We had one of the drill bits but not the other, and it was very cold with a biting wind, so decided to resume work the next evening. Thank you, Joe! The next evening we layered the scrap pieces that brought the post out far enough and secured it in with the bolts, which you can see in this photo taken the next day.

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Now all that remained was the railing itself. By this time it was late and dark and cold and I was hungry. I just don’t function that well when I’m hungry, and this situation was no exception. I had found a 2×4 earlier that would work for the railing. We placed it where it seemed reasonable and marked it. Joe cut it on the table saw. We installed it quickly and came inside to waiting, hot chicken pot pie. Good work, yay (!) and I could rest knowing my railing was in place for when Mom and Jerry would come on Thanksgiving.

The next morning I proudly said to Samuel Come see the railing! He followed me out there and immediately said Isn’t it kind of low? Oh dear! It was low! It was where the red line is! What was I thinking!? (Fact is, I hadn’t been thinking much except It’s cold! I’m tired! Let’s be done with it!)

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Thankfully I found another board (the first one was now too short). It served as an even better railing, being rounded on the two upper edges, and I could easily remove the practically horizontal first board (how could I have thought that was a good place for it?!) and replace it with the one you see in a much better place. There are two holes in the 6×6 that I wish weren’t there, but the better railing is solid and good, and both Mom and Jerry loved it and were much more comfortable when they came yesterday compared to when there was no railing.

Mistakes remind us that we are human. When people point out mistakes to us, it’s not necessarily criticism. Sometimes other people see what we didn’t (or can’t or won’t). We mess up sometimes, whether because we are in a hurry or just not focusing as we should be. We do our best to fix it. We make it right. We move on. We (hopefully) learn something that helps us next time.

I still think these steps are temporary, but maybe they stay a long time. We’ll see. However long they stay, every time I see that railing (and the two holes I wish weren’t there!) I’ll remember the dark, cold night I was in a big hurry to get to my chicken pot pie! I’ll remember Samuel’s Isn’t it kind of low? And I’ll remember making it right!

 

 

Building Skills for Building Stuff

For four years now I have been hosting Airbnb guests at the cottage that Bradley and Beth built on my property.

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As a kid Bradley always loved to build things in the shop – I remember when he was a teenager and I prayed he would be careful with dangerous power equipment. He was, and he taught himself many aspects of carpentry that he later incorporated into the cottage, such as the coffered ceilings, cherry tongue-and-groove floors, all the custom-made windows,

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and the beautiful railings in the loft.

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During the building process, he and Beth worked tirelessly at full-time jobs and the work on the cottage.

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I worked too, but mainly many hours at my job at the hotel. I paid the bills, made food and talked through material and design decisions with them.

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Here and there I contributed actual labor, but as anyone in their 50s knows, there is a big difference energy-wise in what you can do in your 50s compared to what you can do in your 20s. I marveled at their energy! I wanted to help! But plain and simple I was too tired, emotionally and physically, by the end of the day. It was their amazing project.

During a few of the cottage-building years, my son Lincoln and his wife Julia lived nearby. Lincoln worked at a woodworking shop in Richmond, honing the skills he himself had been developing. He and Bradley together built not only the original chicken coop, but also skillfully remade the base of my antique dining room table using solid mahogany – they designed and built graceful, perfect legs and gave new life to a family heirloom.

If I had been more present during those years, how much I could have learned from them both! I remember thinking this, remember admiring them, remember longing to work alongside, remember sitting exhausted in a chair…

Lincoln and Julia moved to Vermont in 2013 and Brad and Beth left for Seattle in August of 2014. The decision to try hosting through Airbnb, to “share” this gem of a cottage with others who might appreciate it, seemed reasonable. It took till early October 2014 to get everything ready, but from the get-go, literally within hours of posting the details of my cottage on their site, I had my first guests, and it has been great guns ever since. For two years I managed both the cottage and my job at the hotel (a bit of a juggling act). Then in a good-sized leap of faith in October 2016, hoping that I could get by with just the cottage, I resigned my position at the hotel.

Now I have time and energy for building things! Or unbuilding things, as the case may be. Sandy handed me the drill and up I went on the roof of the old chicken coop run to unscrew the metal panels in order to clean them and put them back on a rebuilt frame.

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Filling holes with concrete? I can do this.

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I can also dig out earth to make a level place for a deck to connect the old and new chicken coops.

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And build the coop deck’s framework with scrap 4x4s and 4x6s in rows to support the decking boards.

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I worked with my Uncle Ernie to make a bench for that deck, getting a little more comfortable with the chop saw. I still don’t like using the table saw.

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And once that all was finished (and huge thanks to Sandy for doing the lion’s share of the work) — oh, how beautiful it looks to me on this rainy November morning —

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we turned our attention to the house foundation

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and front porch project. I’m the grunt labor, I know this. Sandy is the energizer bunny, working for endless hours, bringing skill and ideas, and has way more confidence in my capabilities than I do. And Joe and Samuel have been invaluable in this getting so much of this work done so quickly.

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A few years ago, I assure you I did not envision myself nailing in joist hangers!

What happened? Yes, I now have more time, and yes, I am not so sapped of energy as in the past. But there is something else. Actually two somethings.

  1. I have always admired the things people accomplish when using their hands/bodies together with their brains, but in my world it was the men who were building and fixing things. My hat is off to all of them evermore, but while Bradley and Beth still lived here, my friend Peggy one time gave him some of the tools she didn’t need any more that she herself had used for years for woodworking and for fixing things! She is the first woman I knew who was not intimidated by machines or carpentry. I expect she has no idea how I marveled at her, how I admired that aspect of her great character. She also gave Bradley a SHOP sign that he proudly affixed to the shop door. I think of her every time I see it. Thank you, Peggy!

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2. I was always intrigued by the concept that you are never too old to learn something new. Back in the homeschooling days, I read a lot of John Holt’s work. I paraphrase here a story he told of someone who wanted to learn to play the violin but was 50 years old. “I’ll be 55 by the time I can play it decently,” the person said. “Yes,” he replied, “but in five years you’ll be 55 anyway, so wouldn’t it be better to have learned to play the violin during those years?”

In five years you’ll be 55 anyway.

That phrase stuck with me. I stretched it to not only:

I’m x-years old now. I want to learn [pick a skill]. In five years I’ll be x+5 years old anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to have learned that skill in those five years – even if not to the master level – than to get to x+5 years old and still be wishing I could do that thing?

But also to:

I’m x-years old now. I struggle with [pick a subject]. In five years I’ll be x+5 years old anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to find a way to make some strides in that area in those five years than to get to x+5 years old and still be struggling in the same way with that thing?

So here I am, cutting decking boards on a chop saw, knowing the difference between a rim joist and a sill plate and a ledger board, toenailing deck joists in place to hold them until it’s time to screw in the hangers. In a conversation with my son Lincoln the other day, he said, “It’s very cool to see you learning how accessible and simple all this building stuff is. Not just some magic that you have to ask some pro woodworker to do every time. Measure, mark, cut, secure, repeat!” I told him I have my limitations: I am not very strong and I am scared of some of the equipment. He said, “Well you should be scared of those tools! Every safe woodworker is.”

Today I am grateful for all the people I’ve known who have woodworking skills, all the encouragement I’ve received from people I love (in ways they are probably not aware of) and all the enthusiasm of friends and family who cheer on these projects. All of this has developed in me a greater interest in the craft and a hunger to learn more. One of these days I might do more than the grunt work, but if I don’t, that’s okay. I’m having fun and there’s a wonderful result!

Here we are now, with temporary steps on the side! For the first time in almost a month, we can go in and out through the front door 😊

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Jacking Up the House

My house sits up on a hill. Down below, about a mile away, trains rumble by several times a day. The house rattles a bit every time. It’s not intense. I don’t have to worry about pictures falling off the walls. But the sound and the vibration are enough to remind me of the air spaces between solid objects like dinner plates that seemingly sit squarely one on top of the next. The train moves the earth just enough to upset the plates just a little. If it upsets the plates, you have to think it upsets other things.

Over time, train after train after train, the nails that were pounded into wood 45 years ago during the construction of the house might loosen up just a little, then maybe just a little bit more. Tiny cracks form. Over time, storm after storm after storm, some rain seeps through the cracks but not very much air, so the wood can’t dry out once it gets wet. Insects look for hiding places and nesting places and make a meal of the yummy, wet, softening wood. Over time, bite after bite after bite, the now-rotten wood is not so strong.

That’s about the time when, in the proper order of things, we humans come along and fix it. After we get over our initial disgust at finding spongy wood hidden under the front porch under the front door, we make a plan: Jack up the house, cut out the bad boards, replace them with good, new boards and give it another 45 years.

I’m not saying we liked the plan or felt comfortable with the plan. Jacking up a house is not fun, let us be clear. This is my house we’re talking about and what if something slips and we are under it (worst case scenario) or what if we make the problem worse (second worst case)?! But you can’t get around it. You can’t get the old boards out unless you give yourself a little bit of space to get a saw in there and cut through the nails that hold them in.

A quarter of an inch. Six or seven millimeters. That’s all the space we need. Okay, let’s lift the house a quarter of an inch, sure. How do you do this? How much does this corner of the house weigh?

Wouldn’t you know it – someone thought of this before us and came up with floor-to-ceiling jacks that hold 38,000 lbs (minimum extension) or 20,000 lbs (maximum extension). You can buy these. And Sandy did because, you know, we might need them again someday. Would the information on this box be reassuring to you?

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I notice it says, “Supports the weight of heavy furniture, appliances, or remodels.” It does not say, “Supports the weight of a house.”  Or even, “Supports the weight of a corner of a house.” Perhaps that is implied by “Supports the weight of … remodels.” That seems vague to me, but with two of them we should be fine, right?

Some things you just have to do. You can hem and haw all day but that doesn’t get the thing done. Breathe deep and put the jacks in place.

The daylight you see in the photo below is not the quarter of an inch we raised the house.

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It’s the (partially covered by insulation) hole in the house that we were able to make because of, and only because of, the quarter of an inch gap. From the outside, before we got the board off, you can see the gap. It’s not much, but it’s enough.

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Once the gap happened, once the jacks did (thank heavens!) what they so boldly lay claim to do, the work on the outside started. First, Sandy got a reciprocating saw into that gap on the outside and cut the nails that held the boards together. He also made a vertical plunge cut in the board so we could remove it in two pieces. Then Joe beat at the longer portion with a sledge hammer from the inside. I’m not sure what was worse: the sawing or the beating. This board was integral to the structure of the house, and we were taking it out. Violently. Ruthlessly. In general I am not comfortable with violence and ruthlessness!

When we started to see movement, it was both reassuring and terrifying.

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The board would come out, yes, Would the jacks continue to do their job? Would the vibration caused by the beating upset them or change anything?

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Once the board was out far enough that the hammer could hardly reach it any more, the beast of a crowbar came into play. In this game, we ultimately win. The board loses. C’mon. Out you come.

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It might have been better for me not to be a bystander during this time, but I don’t have the physical strength to do what Sandy and Joe were doing, so all I could do was watch, hope, pray…

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There we go. The house is still standing. Now the other piece.

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Great. Now we have a hole in the house. Between the floor joists and the top plate had been a 2×2 sill plate, which Joe and Sandy found laughable. You can see it where we found it in this photo

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and in this photo where it was still attached to the old (longer) board that we took out.

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They made a new sill plate with a 2×6 ripped to a width that fit perfectly, which was about 2×3½. Then we connected the upright, reinforced, three-boards-wide 2×6 studs through the top plate into the sill plate with 8-inch GRK “rugged structural” a.k.a. ÜberGrade screws.

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Then we could put in the new rim joist using the same screws but in 3-inch size. This I can do.

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Once the new rim joist is in, securely in, you can breathe. You can take down the floor-to-ceiling jacks and breathe. You can add the ledger boards and begin to visualize the porch that will be here soon.

I want to think the worst of this project is over. We had to remove the old front porch, excavate along the entire front perimeter to basement-floor level, shore up the foundation on the outside with liquid asphalt and 6ml plastic, add perforated drain pipe and drainage gravel, add backfill, dig post holes, fill post holes with concrete reinforced with steel cages, build a retaining wall, shore up the foundation on the inside, fix some electrical issues, remove and replace a rotted rim joist and add ledger boards. We have needed an excavator twice (once a big machine and once a mini), a bottle jack, two floor-to-ceiling jacks, a chop saw, table saw, reciprocating saw, plunge cutter, drills, all manner of hammers, screws, wrenches, levels, squares, hoes, rakes, shovels, 21 bags of concrete mix and lots of muscle.

We did all of this in the past 27 days. In between, when the rain made it too wet to dig, we finished siding the coop with the oak clapboards. I feel sooooo proud of this team, of the energy, skills, humor and experience that Sandy and Joe bring with them every time they come and of Samuel adding strength and assistance (to say nothing of Coco, Queen of the Dirt Mound) at just the right times.

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I’m so grateful to them all for keeping a good spirit despite the rain delays, for tolerating my ignorance and many questions, for dealing with mucky mud, icky rot and various other unpleasantries. They are all so amazing.

A new front porch is coming – one step at a time.

What’s Under Your House?

Funny how we can avoid some things for a long time. I can’t see the serious rot in this picture (hiding under the porch as it was) so everything must be fine, right? On October 7, the front porch looked like this.

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The steps are fairly new but the rest of the porch doesn’t look great, I’ll grant. It shows signs of age. It’s not going to win any prizes. But for seven years we could walk on it and use it as people use a porch, as the transition in and out of the house, from earth to indoor space and out again. And for 38 years before that, the previous owners did the same.

Wanting a new thing comes in handy sometimes. I wanted a new front porch. That’s what drives this whole project. I wanted a new one in part, I admit, because the old one looked shabby, but mostly because I knew it was in the way of addressing why we sometimes had water coming into the basement. Water coming into the basement made me nervous. It didn’t happen often, but it happened.

Something was wrong, but what? When you know your foundation is wood, and you’ve got leakage, you suspect the wood has something to do with it. But you can’t get to the problem unless you remove the porch. And once you remove the old porch, you have to build a new porch. See? Wanting a new thing comes in handy sometimes. In the end, I get a new porch!

Reality was unavoidable as deconstruction began.

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The joists that held up the decking boards don’t look terrible from afar. But closer up, their condition is clear.

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Ah, well, those are going away anyway, you say. Nothing even salvageable here. And once the porch was off the house completely, it still didn’t look too terrible.

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Until you got up close.

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There are actually two boards here, one on top of the other, one exterior and one interior. I’ll draw a red line so it’s easier to see what was left of the exterior board after we – easily! – removed the soft, spongy fibers of what used to be solid wood.

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Rot is not as icky as some icky things, but it is nonetheless firmly in that category for me. Rotten wood is soft and dry-spongy and comes apart in shreds and flakes as you scrape at it. When you see rot, you think of the insects and the moisture have been working steadily along for decades (that’s what makes it icky for me), turning a hard, dense, supportive substance into a weak filler. When that weak filler is holding up a portion of your house, you had better do something about it.

It’s not always a pretty world. This rot was under my porch all along. How did it get this way? Time, certainly, will cause wood to rot, but the bigger factor is water.

When you look out of my living room windows, you are facing the Southwest Mountains, foothills of the Blue Ridge, a mountain range that starts in Georgia and ends in Pennsylvania. I love the view but I have to be careful of those windows. When it rains, the rain wants to come in on that side of the house. If I have left windows open in warm seasons and I wake up to the sound of rain in the night, those are the first windows I go check. Guess what else faces those mountains: my front door.

When we first moved into this house, rain came in under the front door so bad that it damaged the oak flooring that the previous owners had installed just before selling the house to me. Bradley had taken up the damaged part. When we saw what was underneath, I remember shuddering and thinking yeah, that’s going to need to be addressed sooner or later. He replaced the damaged boards with new boards, Sandy installed gutters that presumably arrested the further development of the rot under the door and we were able to forget about it for a while. All right, for seven years.

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The day after Sandy took the front porch off, Joe dug out the dirt. Then it looked like this.

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All that weight of all that wet earth for all those years in this part of the foundation made the wall weak. Removing the dirt relieved the pressure, but the blade of the excavator nicked the sheet of plywood in the middle and it was enough to push the soft, compromised wood in just a bit. From the inside it looked like this. You can see that plywood, pushed in, as well as the 2×6 next to it with a large crack.

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We put new plywood over the old on the outside, but had to mend the inside of course. We started with a horizontal bottle jack that forced the upright (cracked) stud to a reasonable vertical again, then added a 2×6 to either side of it (and to the upright to the right) for additional support. We also removed those wires and redid the electrical in that area.

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Upright supports were strong again, so then we could address the horizontal rim joist in such bad shape under the door. That involved jacking up the house, the nerve wracking part of this project that no one wanted to do, but there was no avoiding it. More on that soon.

Old Timbers Well Aged

Don’t get the wrong idea. Don’t read the title of this post and think I’m feeling spry and am going to tell you how a good diet and a consistent and sensible exercise routine have long term health benefits. They do, but “old timbers well aged” does not refer to me!

I’m talking about timbers, the kind that come from trees. In this photo from six years ago when the cottage was being built, you see two tree trunks laying down, about 12 feet long. I’m talking about timbers that come from logs like this.

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In our early days on this property, we had to take down trees. I hated it. Perfectly fine trees they were, but in the wrong place or just plain too many of them. I could hardly watch. After the deed was done though, Bradley used an attachment for his chain saw  called an Alaskan saw mill. With it he milled the logs into usable lumber. In the photo below you see two tents. The one on the right, down the hill a bit, was filled with usable lumber milled right here at Golden Hill. (The one on the left still stands, still houses firewood.)

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Among the stacks of wood were some larger oak timbers, the center sections of felled trees that ended up about 10” x 10” x 12’. Some of these were milled to make the clapboards that sided the original chicken coop that my sons Bradley and Lincoln built.

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The rest sat under the tent, unneeded. Frankly, forgotten. Other things become more important (you know how that goes). But sometimes it’s a good thing to forget something. Sometimes, things need to age. This past spring, when building the new coop, I thought about its siding.

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The T-111 all by itself (already skinning some sections of Coop #2 in progress) might have been ok if Coop #2 was not sitting next to Coop #1 with its rustic, oak clapboard look. We planned to use the same red metal roofing material, so that would coordinate, but the siding was in question. Obviously, rough cut oak clapboards would be best, where was I going to get them? (I completely forgot I had those oak timbers!) I rejected the T-111 because no matter how we might stain it, it would still look inferior and incongruent. I looked into cedar shakes, thinking they might complement the oak of Coop #1 nicely, but oh, no – really expensive.

It was one of those bumps in the road that (in part because of your failing memory) you can’t see to the other side of. All this effort — yes, I know, a considerable bit of effort for chickens! — and no idea how to side the coop. Thankfully, there was enough else to do, and I back-burnered this problem. Clearly there is always enough else to do around here!

That tent that houses the firewood, pictured earlier, also houses other things that don’t fit elsewhere but need to stay reasonably dry. (There is no proper barn or storage building here.) The lawn mower, ladders, straw bales, extra garden fencing, stakes and – OH! What’s that wood under that pile?? God bless my boys!

Large, long, aged oak timbers!

It’s one thing to have the right timbers. It’s quite another to have them cut down to the right size. I went to a local mill to see if they could help me. No, they don’t mill other people’s wood. I guess I can see that. What if there was a nail or something worse stuck in the wood? Much as I wished I could have clapboards made from these timbers, I felt discouraged. If this mill wouldn’t do it, what made me think another one would? I was lamenting this to my neighbor Tracy, who immediately and casually said she knew someone who could do it.

I’m from New Jersey where we have this thing: “I know a guy.” You have a problem with your carburetor, your friend says, “I know a guy.” Your septic backs up, your neighbor says, “I know a guy.” You need someone to move the old, no-longer-running camper out of your driveway, your uncle says, “I know a guy.”

Tracy knew a guy. His name is Chris, and he was very happy to turn those timbers into clapboards just like the ones on Coop #1. He came, took them and milled them into rough pieces about 3” x 1/2“ x however-long-they-ended-up – all for a very good price. Chris said that if the timbers had not sat for six years, the wood would have too much moisture in it and would warp more and shrink more, and you don’t want that. See? It’s good I forgot all about them! It’s good I found them again!

The past two weeks, while waiting for the rain to stop so we could proceed with Big Dig Part Two, it seemed like a good idea to get the rest of those clapboards up. One afternoon I put up long pieces along the back of the coop. Their imperfections are so perfect. You see how some are darker than others. Some have knots. As more went up, as if I didn’t like it a lot in the first place, I liked it better and better. You are welcome to disagree, but I do think the clapboards beat the T-111 by a long shot.

At the bottom, where you see those rope handles, a horizontal, red flap of a door will go.

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One thing at a time here, working our way around. The side with the egg door is special and needed special framing. This is silly Coco a few months ago. Someone (can’t imagine who) put her inside the coop. Hey, do something. I’m stuck.

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Joe showed me how to use the band saw to cut the pieces to frame it out after I’d enlarged a template I found online.

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It framed out the egg door nicely. Do you think anyone else but me cares about this?

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The weather was good, so I kept going. First the cedar upright along the right, then one along the bottom, then the oak clapboards.

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It was tricky working around the netting that forms a ceiling over the run to keep owls and hawks away from my Bridge Club. But with a lot of help from Sandy doing all the trim pieces, it’s (nearly) finished, and I love it! Chickens never had it so good, it’s true.

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It still needs a ramp so the chickens can get up into the coop, which you may be glad to know they are now sleeping in on a regular basis! They are going in on their own at night! With no help! Okay, most of the time. Okay, with some help sometimes still, but mostly they have the idea. A new ramp would make it easier for the silkies. We want to make it easier for them. Who wouldn’t?

Sandy dressed up the front with a fascia board right — that horizontal piece just below where the roof ends. This is without it, earlier this week.

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This is with it. See the difference?

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I’m not a builder. I’ve watched things being built many times, but never — before this chicken coop project — felt comfortable with the chop saw or the few other tools I had to use. There are many mistakes, many places where the cut could be better or the gap between boards a little tighter. And I’m still not comfortable when the piece is too small or the cut anything but straightforward. But it seems to me that a chicken coop is a good way to get your feet wet because when something is not perfect you can say, “It’s a chicken coop!” And not worry about it.

Also remember, next time you think nothing is happening, think again. Something is aging, waiting, getting better with time. The oak timbers needed to sit in a quiet, out of the way place for years. There they were under the tent, truly forgotten, doing their thing, releasing their moisture little by little, waiting for their day. Old timbers well aged turned out to be the icing on the cake!

 

A Dead Man and a Pipe

When you want to make a barrier, you have to make it strong. Sometimes you have to use a dead man to hold it fast, to make it stronger than it would be otherwise. Before today, I did not know how to do this. Before today, “dead man” had only one meaning for me. But now I am confident I understand when it makes good sense to use another kind of dead man.

I was up late last night listening to the rain falling on the newly graded front yard that was not yet finished. Joe had said a little rain wouldn’t hurt anything and would in fact make that loose soil more compact, but I worried anyway. I’d spent $500 to rent the mini-excavator for the weekend and wanted full use of it. No rain allowed! No daytime rain anyway.

I woke up raring to go, thinking we’d get as far as digging post holes for the front porch today. I made a bacon/spinach/swiss cheese quiche to have for lunch while waiting for the guys to get here. Sandy and I then started with moving some liriope and rocks from around the big oak tree. When you move a big rock, there are often lots of bugs underneath it. A feast for a silkie! I went and got one lucky chicken. Oh, how we amuse ourselves!

 

This is One-Eye, the hen we thought we lost when she had an eye infection as a very young chick. She did not like the 4x-daily eye dropper with antibiotic, I can tell you. And she looked quite sickly for a while. But she lives and she hunts and she pecks!

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Our entertainment for today also included a native creature, Mr. Toad.

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We got the brilliant idea that Mr. Toad would like to meet Miss Silkie. This did not work out so well. She took one look at him and

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turned the other way. They weren’t the slightest bit interested in one another. You can tell from her dirty face that she has been enjoying bugs in the dirt though!

This photo gives a better idea of today’s work area. The stick laying down on the dirt between the tree and the house is where the new porch will come to, 6 feet out from the house.

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After Joe came, he got on his Tonka Toy and played with dirt for a while, moving it here and there, compacting it, preparing the place where we would put a retaining wall. There is no way we would have accomplished what we did today without Joe, without this machine and without Joe’s skill on this machine.

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Because of the slope of the land and the driveway going down along the side of the house, a retaining wall is necessary. Five 12’ 6×6 pressure treated pieces of lumber would do the trick; anyway Lowe’s didn’t have any railroad ties. The first piece we put in, perpendicular to the house from the corner, we had to move. The porch is going to come out from the corner, and you can’t dig a post hole and pour concrete into it if you have a retaining wall there. So we moved it a foot or so inward, closer to where Joe is on the machine.

Once the first 6×6 was in, level and squared to the house, it was time for the second layer, including (the moment you’ve been waiting for!) the dead man! Why is it called a dead man? Your guess is as good as mine, but that’s the name for a long, buried object used as an anchor in constructing walls. It will keep it from leaning when the weight of earth, especially wet earth, pushes against it. The dead man goes back twice as far as you see; Joe got busy covering it in dirt before I could snap a photo.

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In our case the dead man is part of the second layer of the wall next to a short length of perforated pipe. We put screening across the back end of the pipe; the whole thing will be covered in gravel tomorrow, then landscape fabric, then dirt, and will help carry water away from this area. The pipe was a little taller than the wood, so Sandy used the heat gun to soften the plastic just enough for it to press down under the weight of the third layer.

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Each layer was secured to the one beneath it by use of timberlocks, which are long, heavy screws that sink into the wood so the next layer can lay flat on top.

By level four we were moving quickly both because we could robotically drill-timberlock-drill-timberlock all the way down the line and because my cottage guests had returned and were building a fire in their fire pit and I was worried our noise would disturb them. Drills are loud. But they kindly said it was all fine and asked a lot of questions later about the project. That was nice!

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We decided that five levels would be enough. It’s way more than was there before, and has a drain, which the old wall didn’t have either.

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Next we will fill in the gravel over the pipe, finish grading and dig post holes!! I know (I know!) it’s not normal to get excited about mixing concrete, but in my mind I can see what each step leads to – a beautiful new front porch! – and this makes it very exciting.

I’m not saying I don’t also get a thrill from seeing the incremental changes one by one, from digging shovelfuls of dirt, checking if the board is level, bearing down on timberlocks to get them through the wood (though I wished I was stronger for that task!) and learning about dead men. I do. I love having stared at this area for a long time, wishing there was a nice porch, and now watching it become a reality. I get to not only see the transformation, but also to work alongside and help make it happen. I am so grateful and happy that I am not just watching. For me the same thing happens when a tennis tournament is on TV. I can watch it for about five minutes and then I want to get out and play!

When A Dig Is Big

When you have been waiting seven years to dig a hole, to expose the foundation, to see what’s really there, to assess the problem and to fix as required, and the day finally comes, you want two things: You want to be there and you want the sun to shine. When what you are doing is a dig so big that you can’t call it anything but The Big Dig, you can’t have rain. Our planned dig-date coincided with Hurricane Florence making landfall. Here in Virginia we didn’t get the worst of the storm, but we got plenty of rain. Bother. We had to cancel the plan to dig the weekend after Labor Day.

I didn’t want to miss all the fun, but I was heading out west on Sept 20. It kept raining in Virginia and was too wet to dig the weekend of Sept 22-23, and the weekend of Sept 29-30. Finally, the forecast for October 6-7 looked rain-free. And I flew home on Oct 6. It begins!

Joe had said he could take the old front porch off with the excavator, but I thought there might be salvageable wood. Sandy took it apart board by board on Friday.

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Except for the steps, which were new a few years ago, he found that the rest was rotted beyond further use.

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So it all went in the burn pile.

With no way to get into the front door, this project was officially underway. Now there’s no turning back! A new front porch there will be. But not until we make sure that the front foundation is in no way damaged, in no way compromised, in no way going to cause problems in the future.

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Weeks ago, when I was frustrated at being unable to find a contractor willing to do this work and we had determined to do it ourselves (because it had to be done, and you know, it can’t be rocket science), we had talked to Joe about this project. God bless him. He said, “You don’t want to do this yourself” in regard to the excavating. Graciously, without flat-out saying People who have never operated an excavator should not do this work, he implied that such things were best left to those with experience. I am so glad he said what he said, however he said it to make me understand, and I am so glad I listened! This man is a master on that machine! It might not be rocket science, but it’s a skill he has perfected over the years. You don’t rent a machine and figure this out in a morning.

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Joe removed a lot of dirt. The piles in front of the house looked like this when he was done.

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Coco had to play Queen of the Hill of course!

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Joe dug the hole down to the level of the basement floor, leaving the entire front foundation wall scraped clean, unmarred by that bucket (imagine the damage an amateur could have done!), exposed for inspection and …. drum roll ….. do … we … need … repair?

You tell me. This is from the one side.

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And this is from the other.

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That’s plywood! Been there 45 years! And it is in very good shape! I was thinking that when the house was constructed, some (probably most) of the people on the job site were saying This is stupid. Who puts plywood in the ground? But I bet there was at least one who said It’ll be all right. This’ll work. It worked!

As you may recall, my interior wall begged to differ. It showed bowing, indicating excessive pressure and possibly serious structural damage.

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This is because of what Joe did not find at basement floor level when he dug out the dirt. There was no gravel or drainpipe. When water flowed downhill (as water will do!) – and my land slopes toward the house – and soaked the earth that pressed against that plywood, it was very heavy! It pushed the plywood in, pushed the 2×6’s that stand between the exterior plywood and the interior drywall, and cracked the drywall. But moisture apparently did not penetrate the one sheet of plastic that they had put between the plywood and the dirt (which of course Joe’s machine shredded when he dug out the dirt). As soon as he removed the dirt and the pressure, that wall straightened right out.

Thus the wall is in such good shape! No repair necessary on the outside. Just need to waterproof it and add a way for water to escape in the future. On the inside we’ll add some 2×6’s for extra support and replace the drywall.

I used a wire brush to get as much of the dirt as possible off the exterior surface.

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With a heat gun I did the best I could to dry the surface where, along the bottom especially, it was still damp from the dirt that had been sticking on it overnight. Then Samuel and I got into our paint suits and rolled liquid asphalt on the wall.

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Onto that we pressed a solid sheet of 6ml plastic. Or maybe he pressed and I watched?

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The 6” perforated pipe came next, followed by gravel. There’s a big black snake under my house!

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Samuel drove Tracy’s tractor to bring gravel to where Joe could pick it up and unload it into the hole.

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Sandy raked and shoveled gravel so that it sat where it should on top of the pipe.

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And then got out of the way for Joe to add more gravel.

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On top of the gravel we put a piece of landscape fabric (so that dirt doesn’t seep through the gravel and get into the perforations of the pipe), and then those big piles of dirt in the front yard disappeared.

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The front yard still needs a final grading, and it’s a mess to walk across for now.

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But as the old Alka Seltzer commercials used to say: Oh, what a relief it is! I don’t have to worry about this foundation any more! When it rains, when water gets into the earth, it will seep down (as water will do!). When it gets to the landscape fabric, it will go through it. When it gets to the gravel, it will go through it. When it gets to the perforated pipe, it will go into it through the perforations, and then this water will flow away from the house, out into woods along the side of the house, to where the end of the pipe exits the ground.

Easily, I’d say, there’s more than 45 more years left for this plywood foundation!

 

Work, Mess and One Terrifying Spider

Expecting the worst sounds so pessimistic, but it has its upside. If and when the thing comes to pass and is not as bad as you expected, you can be pleasantly surprised and a great deal relieved – positive emotions both, and most welcome. The truth of the matter is: Some things are wonderfully and surprisingly simple, uncomplicated, straightforward.

That doesn’t mean they are not work. That doesn’t mean they are not a mess. But work is good because it gives us problems to solve, which in turn makes us stronger in many ways. And messes are good because cleaning them up leaves you feeling like you accomplished so much.

At my house right now is both work and mess. But I expected more work and worse mess. Truly I am grateful. For seven years I have been thinking I had a problem. Here’s why.

In my house is a funky circular staircase that leads to the basement. The wall in that stairwell that faces the front foundation of the house has been, shall we say, compromised. That’s what that crack is, a compromised wall. Clearly something has been pushing at it from the other side.

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You can see that the sheetrock has separated along its seam and is pushing inward. It has been that way for seven years. Part of the reason for this problem, we assumed, is that on the other side of this interior wall is an exterior wall made of plywood. Yes, plywood.

In the late seventies, when this house was constructed, they thought a plywood foundation wall was a good idea. A few years later the company went out of business but that is water over the dam for me. I bought the house with the plywood foundation. Over the years I have had both architects and structural engineers tell me it was sound and solid, and I wanted to believe them, but I see that crack every time I go downstairs. Not good, I tell myself, that cannot be good.

I might have watched it a few more years, hoping it’s not a disgusting mess behind that wall just waiting for the tipping point of enough water pressure + enough rot. The land slopes toward the house, so imagine the pressure of all that earth – especially when it’s soaked with rainwater – against my wood foundation. I envisioned a muddy mess busting through some rainy night when numerous other problems were also on my plate and of course, when this happened, I would be here alone. Can you see the creepy creatures that might accompany the burst? Yick!

The work and the mess that are here now might not be as bad as I expected, and I know there are worse things on earth than giant wolf spiders. But encountering them is still a near-death experience for me. (You do NOT want a picture of these, trust me! You will have to use your own very capable imagination.) I had to deal with one this morning and my heart is still beating too fast. It was on the inside of the screen door of the sliding door, which was inside the house, meaning there was no way to get it outside, and no way to sleep at night without killing it.

The spray that kills hornets was standing nearby. If it kills hornets, it will kill a spider, right? I figured I’d spray through the screen right at it. What part of my brain thought that would kill it immediately, I don’t know, but the thing did not roll over and die. It moved! And they move fast. I kept spraying, making a line of spray on the little red rug that, until this morning, occupied that part of the floor. It got as far as the small wooden cabinet in the corner, and I went to step on it (though you have to know I could hardly look at the thing).

What I saw when I lifted my slippered foot was just a bit of ick. No mashed spider. That’s very bad. Where did it go? If I missed it crawl under the cabinet, I’m in big trouble. I looked. I didn’t want to see it. But I needed to. I didn’t see it. I looked around some more. Oh.

That seems to be a bit of leg sticking out from under the red rug. It took refuge under there, clearly not realizing it was not altogether hidden. Probably it was delirious from the poison, probably would just die, and soon, from all that stuff I sprayed on it. But I couldn’t take the chance. I had to step on it. I had to hear the sound. I did. I had to. When it was done I could know it was done and I would once again be safe.

Didn’t I just write yesterday about your home being a place where you feel safe?!

My heart was beating like mad by this time, but I’m finished. There was no more in me. I sat. I waited for Samuel to wake up. Finally he did. I asked him to please clean up the mashed spider from the underside of the rug. He is a wonderful son who just smiled and got a tissue and did the thing. Then I decided that the rug, with its ribbon of poison spray, is probably trash now because what if Coco’s tongue, the one that doesn’t fit in her mouth, happened to touch the poison? Yup, trash.

See what an exhausting time I had?

One time, when I first moved here, there was one of these creatures on the outside of my bathroom window screen. When I told a colleague that day at work about that near-death experience, she calmly said to me, “You live in the woods. That’s their territory.” She had zero sympathy. Zero. I have never forgotten it.

All right, I confess. It’s not just the image of muddy slime oozing into my basement along with all manner of slitherers and crawlies that forced this repair. (You KNOW there would be an army of those things coming through!) It’s also the money. In the end I care about the money. I want a new front porch. I know this old one doesn’t look that bad.

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But it is. Its rotting boards would probably hold up a little bit yet, but it’s fair to say that wanting a new front porch was turning into needing a new front porch. So if I need to spend money on a new front porch, it makes sense to fix what would be henceforth unreachable under that new porch before building said new porch. Imagine not fixing the problem, ignoring the problem, moving forward in hope that there is no problem, and then finding out that there is in fact a problem after investing a lot of work and money in something that renders that problem unfixable without investing more work and money.

As much as I wish that stairwell wall was flat and perfect, it isn’t. It’s mine. I own it. Buck up. Fix the foundation.

On Saturday the excavator was here. That night at almost 11pm, my plane landed and Samuel picked me up at the airport. We talked till 3am. I woke at 730, went outside, and saw the piles of dirt.

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Like I said, I came home to work and mess. But I love it. Despite the downside.

Tomorrow, when I have truly recovered from my near-death experience, I will explain where the piles went and how we fixed the wall. At the moment I am still exhausted!

Home is Home Because

When you have been away from home for an afternoon, you don’t necessarily think about how wonderful it is to return to your own space. But when it’s been sixteen days, that’s a different story. It’s wonderful! Maybe it’s even more wonderful when you are away much longer than that, but for now I can speak only to the sixteen-day effect.

I have always felt that your own space – the place you call home – should be a place of peace (as much as is in your power to make it so) and a place of sanctuary, where you can be safe and you can be yourself. It should reflect your personality and preferences, and you should be able to move about easily and be (let’s hope) happy there. I want to think that everyone is kind and welcoming to guests.

It’s fun to see other people’s homes. The ones I was in while away have much in common with mine. They have a place for street shoes just inside the door as I do, well-equipped kitchens, comfortable beds and chairs, a large table for eating together, some soft furniture, a good deal of bright lighting, images of family members on the walls or shelves, overlooked smudges and scuffs and selective disorder (or shall we say less-than-optimal order in certain areas? Just like mine!).

Yet they are all different than mine. Most profoundly, my children’s homes all felt like their homes, not mine. This made me think about what it is about your own home that sets it apart from others. Some things are practical, some harder to pin down.

In your own home, you know where things are. We all have our patterns, our routines. We keep certain things front and center and other things in their designated places because our patterns and routines run more smoothly if we know where things are. You know where the outlets are for plugging in your phone charger. You know where extra soap is to replace the empty one that’s perched at the back of the sink. When my children were little, I had a thing about my scissors. If you need scissors, you need scissors, and nothing else serves. If you need to use my scissors, put them back where you found them.

Yesterday I needed a crowbar at one point. (We all need a crowbar sometimes, right??) Naturally I went to the shed to get one. There are a couple of screws for hanging the crowbars in there. See them, under the blue box?

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Do you see crowbars hanging from them? Neither did I. Being deep (sometimes literally) into the Big Dig (my foundation repair project) as we were yesterday, I groaned, thinking I might have to waste time looking. There are only so many hours of daylight in October, so dammit, where’s the crowbar? Thankfully, when I glanced in the other direction, I found one in the five-gallon bucket that holds a dozen or so random tools like the big loppers. It was the second most logical place to put it if you forgot the right place. Whew! I was spared the frustration.

In your own home, your stuff is familiar. You know what to expect. Fewer surprises are more relaxing. In each household I visited they all drink coffee and/or tea and therefore have something for boiling water. I saw two electric kettles, one stovetop kettle and one Keurig. All of them work, though I am not convinced that the water coming from the Keurig is as hot as it should be. That aside, my own kettle is familiar to me. I can be a bit more on auto-pilot with mine. My muscles know when the weight of it indicates enough water for one cup, two cups or a whole pot of tea. My ears know the sound of it as it gets close to the boiling point. My hands remember how hot the handle can get depending on how much water is in it.

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It is NOT the end of the world to use different water-boiling equipment. It just doesn’t feel like home.

When it comes to tea (and presumably coffee), there is also something about the water itself. Your own water in your own home, whether it comes from a municipal system or straight out of the earth from your well, has its own taste, and you get used to that. When my friend Fred stayed here, he drank tea more than he usually does, and decided he would drink more once he got home. The day before he left, he bought some of the same loose black tea as I have in my house. It tasted different at his house, and the only explanation for that is that his water is different. To get closer to the tea he wanted, he decided to use bottled water. That made it better, though still not quite the same.

In your own home, it smells right. I don’t mean to suggest that other homes smell bad. They don’t. They just smell different. Houses take on smells of the foods prepared there recently (or frequently), of the cleaning products applied there, of the people themselves and the shampoo or cologne they use, of the animals that share the spaces.

Not everyone bakes (imagine!). Not everyone even cooks! But there’s a reason they tell you to have just made a batch of cookies when you are trying to sell your house and have potential buyers coming soon. When there are onions sautéing in butter or fresh bread becoming golden in the oven, or whenever the smells that seem warm and homey and yummy to you are wafting from the kitchen, it’s a kind of embrace that you are drawn into, one that’s hard to resist, one that feels like home.

In your own home, you know the paces and the peculiarities. You know how to navigate regardless of the lighting, how far it is to the bathroom, what flooring is under your feet at what point, what obstacles you might possibly encounter (dog? toys? edge of table?). You know the flow of traffic, where the choke points are and how to avoid them and what’s the best way from Point A to Point B.

The top step of Bradley’s basement staircase has a wider tread than the others. Don’t forget that when you go up or down; it’s a slight adjustment of your footing. The lights in Marie’s living room get turned on by way of a small remote; the first morning when I got up early (still on east coast time), for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to turn the lights on! Drew’s kitchen sink is the oddest shape I’ve ever seen, like a pac-man in the corner, and it doesn’t fit a large pot, so you find another way to clean that pot.

In my house the screen door gets out of whack sometimes. You have to lift it gently but firmly into place every time you go in and out until a good friend (thank you, Sandy!) fixes it. My kitchen countertop is old and white and gets stained, and it sags just a bit over near the stove. The condensation caused by a thawing container of anything sends a slow, predictable ribbon of water toward one corner. It’s better to put thawing things in my sink (until I get a new countertop!).

In your own home, you remember the way it used to be. You have a history with the property, inside and out. You know what was there before. You see changes incrementally. Marie just got new windows in several rooms. They are very nice, but I don’t remember the old ones. She does and is so happy they are gone. Bradley gutted his house before they moved in, moved all the rooms around, creating a new floor plan. Beth did all the electrical work. If you knew the house before, you wouldn’t know it’s the same house. They have vivid images in their minds of what it looked like when they bought it. I needed photos to show me. Drew has a fabulous new rug, adding warmth to his place in a way that he says is much better than what he had before, which I never saw. I’ll take his word.

If they came to my house right now and saw this mum (yes, that’s my chrysanthemum!),

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they wouldn’t know, unless I told them, how three weeks ago it looked like this:

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And three months ago, you could barely see it in front of the beets.

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I loved seeing my children in their own homes, seeing them comfortable, making their spaces their own. But it is always good to come home. This time, it was good to find a beautiful plant in the garden because there was a big hole in front of my house! More on the Big Dig soon!

The Rodbusters

Do you ever wonder how parking garages can hold all the weight of the cars? For me it’s one of those things – like open heart surgery or jet engine maintenance – that has science and skill behind it but is in that large set of things I will never understand. I know I just have to trust that the people who do this work do it right.  As you carefully drive from one end to the other of a parking deck, making tight turns at the ends to get to the next level to eventually find your spot, do you wonder how those concrete columns are connected to entire floors of concrete, and how the floors of concrete hold up vehicle after vehicle in neat rows?

I don’t wonder about parking garages every day, but today I watched the ongoing construction of one in Kirkland, Washington, just outside Seattle and I am less foggy about them. I watched with great interest not only because I saw various stages of the process, but also because my son Bradley, who built the cottage on my property six years ago, is managing this project. Here he is with his family at the job site. Beth is holding two-week-old Zoe and Brad has two-year-old Piper, who was not as fascinated with the rodbusting as I was.

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Eventually this site will become a six-story, mixed use building, meaning in this case retail on the ground level and apartments above. Its architectural rendering is posted behind the fence.

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Right now it’s a hardhat area at the beginning stage of construction.

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This was my first view of the job site.

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The white concrete columns – see them? – are standing on the lower level of what will be the underground parking deck of the new building. (The people who will live in the apartments above will need a place to park their cars below.) If you look a little closer at the columns (next photo), you see rods sticking up from them. The rods stick up much taller than the concrete of the column because…

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…once you put the floor of the second level in, the rods from the first level need to stick up through the floor, like this. You’ll see why shortly.

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Those rods are strong steel called rebar that’s caged in by more strong steel. Before the concrete encases it and forms the strong concrete column, the assembled steel looks like this …

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The guys in the photo below, who cage the rebar, assembling the strong innards of each concrete column, are the “rodbusters.” They are using a kind of cable tie to connect the rebar to the steel caging pieces around it.

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When they finish one, the crane comes along, picks it up and brings it to its mate, i.e. to the rebar that’s sticking up from the level below. The workers in the next photo are helping the crane operator to guide the caged rebar to the exact spot, and…

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…Ah, there it goes.

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Each assembled steel column is then surrounded by a wooden concrete form. See the rows of wooden forms below? The height of the form will be the height of the concrete column.

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A gigantic cement truck comes along next with its very long arm and pours concrete into each form. When the concrete is dry, the workers remove the forms and set them aside for the next use. The steel inside adds a lot of strength to the column. Notice again how the rods stick up much taller than the concrete of the column. The part that’s sticking up becomes the base for the next level.

Now for the floor. You know what a concrete floor looks like. But under the concrete are cables, very strong steel cables. They are red in the picture below. Just as the steel rebar in the columns makes the columns much stronger, the steel of the cable makes the floor much stronger – in fact strong enough to support all the weight of the cars.

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After the concrete is poured onto the wooden platform, making the floor, the cables are pulled from all sides and secured (sealed) at a specific tightness. This provides the support so the floor doesn’t collapse. After the concrete dries, the no-longer-necessary wooden platform (now underneath) is removed.

Rebar is great for adding strength to the columns, but cables are preferable to rebar for the floors. To gain the same strength/support using rebar, you would have to make the floors much thicker, which uses more concrete and makes the building overall taller. The curve of the cables plus the tension gained from the pulling means the floor can be thinner (less concrete is used and the building is not as tall overall), which is a more efficient use of materials and space. You have to know your math and your science to make this all work of course, and you have to have the right machinery and good materials and the project manager and the inspectors and all the workers, including the rodbusters. Without the rodbusters, forget it.

If you didn’t know all this before, as I didn’t, don’t you feel better now about parking garages? I do!

I also feel very proud of my son.