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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Straw Bale House: Part 3 (Yurt)

A Shower or a Fridge: Which Would You Choose?

Lincoln and Julia’s one-of-a-kind, pentagonal, straw bale house was first of all a dream. It did not come in a kit. There were no pre-existing plans. This photo, taken with immense joy in late 2018, shows the first time smoke came from their stovepipe. Walls, roof, heat — these must come first.

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Houses like this, especially when you are building them almost single-handedly, do not come together quickly. It took nearly two years on the property for Lincoln and Julia to be able to abide in this abode, even if it is far from finished. Until then, they all had to rest their heads somewhere. The choice seemed perfectly logical: a temporary dwelling just down the hill.

In the late winter of 2017 they bought the land. The first two weeks (thankfully now just a memory) they slept in … a tent. That year at that time was not as snowy (snow might have been less brutal) as it was rainy — a nonstop, 40-degree drizzle that erased the snow but gave them nowhere to warm up. In their memories this qualifies as the worst part of the adventure. But spring came and with it, the beginnings of permanency. You can cook outdoors on a camp stove for a while, but an indoor kitchen, however rudimentary, has advantages.

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The yurt that would be their home for nearly the next two years had been erected twice before – the first time on a hillside overlooking Mt. Mansfield immediately following their wedding in October 2011. (Yes, they lived in it all that winter! A small wood stove inside heats up the entire space to a toasty 65 degrees or so, and 65 feels toasty indeed when it’s 4 outside.) The second time was for a short while in Virginia before Rise was born.

This time they sunk pressure-treated 4x4s down to bedrock and built a non-equilateral hexagonal framework of double-beamed 2x10s. That’s three long double beams laid parallel to each other — one 17-footer (about 5.2m) across the middle, one on each side of it about 8 feet away and four more that closed in the frame, like my imperfect sketch (you get the idea).

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The 2×6 joists that stood on end across the framework then each had at least two points to rest on.

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So far this was more like a freestanding deck than the base for a dwelling. But let’s be real — this is Vermont and it gets mighty cold. So they got underneath, stapled landscape fabric to the undersides of the joists and filled all the in-between spaces with regular loose-fill cellulose insulation that was repurposed from the walls of their good friend Zach’s house. The insulation provided a critical measure of warmth and the landscape fabric gave incidental water a way out.

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After the insulation between the joists came the pine plank flooring. Remember this is the third go-round in a yurt. They chose pine planks “after not enjoying being on osb or dirt.” (OSB, oriented strand board, is, according to Wikipedia, “a type of engineered wood similar to particle board, formed by adding adhesives and then compressing layers of wood strands (flakes) in specific orientations.”) Lincoln says, “It’s not really a great foundation,” but it served them well.

To be able to cut the pine planks where they needed to be cut (see them lying flat but sticking out under the lattice?), they first put up the accordion-like walls, then circularized the bottom by suspending the cone-like framework of the roof on the lowest intersection of the lattice.

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The roof framework was then disassembled and reassembled up in its proper place, as you see in this photo. The opening in front is for the door of course.

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The canvas, having been used twice before and clearly showing wear, tear and rot from four years of storage and getting hauled all over the place, was not in its original very white condition, but it did the job surprisingly well. It wasn’t long before this simple structure began to feel like home. Let’s just take a nice book and sit in the sunshine! That’s Eppie, almost three.

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When I came to visit that spring, all was in order. A workable kitchen area with running water, gravity fed from a nearby stream (the red tube hanging over the sink)…

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…small bunk beds for the girls along one side…

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…and Lincoln and Julia’s bed against the wall during the day when not in use.

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As summer went on, the grass came in, making an idyllic front yard. Their garden, with natural fencing to keep small critters out, included strawberries, tomatoes and squash.

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Probably the most exciting thing that happened that year was on July 25 when power came!

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The very first thing they hooked up was a small, dorm-style fridge, which very much improved upon the previous need to continually refresh the ice in a cooler. Oh, the joy of a cold glass of milk!

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“Refrigeration!” Lincoln said. “This may have been the happiest day of the whole project to have that modernity. Real running hot water/a shower will probably be the only thing to top it.” They put the full-size fridge near the site of the barn initially, next to that glorious fuse box! To put it in the yurt required a proper gauge wire (that would support a full fridge’s amperage draw) long enough to make the 310-foot trek between fuse box and yurt. That didn’t happen until the following spring.

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You will note the absence of (and have perhaps been wondering about) indoor plumbing. When it comes down to it, until such time as water from a well would run indoors, they could take hot showers at Zach’s house, use water being led into the yurt from the on-site stream for general washing of dishes and hands, and fill and refill large dispensers with potable water from Zach’s outdoor spigot.

But on site there must be a toilet of some kind, and indeed there was, built according to the same specifications Vermont uses to build the privies along the Long Trail. They figured if it was good enough for the state, it was good enough for them. Countless generations of humans have constructed similar structures and managed their personal needs adequately, if not warmly or luxuriously. I daresay this one is a far cry nicer than a lot of its predecessors.

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Now think about it: If you had to choose between indoor plumbing and electricity, which would it be? How many of us have to choose? How many of us could (uncomplainingly) manage neither for a while and then one-but-not-the-other until both, in their proper time, were a part of our reality?

How much we take for granted every day! How blessed we are!

Straw Bale House: Part 2 (Site)

(This is the second of a multi-part series that will document the development of Lincoln and Julia’s property, the first having been entitled “Lincoln’s Pentagonal, Straw Bale Insulated House in Vermont.”)

Say you want to live in the country. You have been dreaming about and looking at properties for years. You finally find a piece of land that has privacy from almost every side and a river a stone’s throw away, yet is only a mile from town. You see the view, the potential. You see the price tag, and it’s doable. On this solid piece of earth, you imagine this here, that there, where the sun will rise, how far a walk it will be to that lazy river one fine day when you are all settled in. Images take shape in your mind. With a canvas, an artist can paint.

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There was snow on the ground when Lincoln and Julia first set foot on the land they would come to call home, land that would come to include their yurt, greenhouse, beehives, garden, barn and of course their pièce de résistance: a pentagonal, straw bale insulated house. In their heads and then on paper they drew up a rough schematic plan showing where everything would best be situated before they even closed on the deal. We’ll come back to this.

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Sometime later they calculated many years’ worth of firewood standing/leaning/lying on site (that would not have to be paid for by the cord) – maybe a lifetime’s worth if they were good stewards of the land. Bonus!

Was there any question that this piece of land was the right one, that buying it was a good decision? Any reason not to jump in with both feet? Absolutely. Skepticism was strong. Lincoln worried that his excitement might rose-color-blind them. He knew he’d be a fool not to ask: What’s wrong with it? What are we not seeing?

Snow is not unusual in Vermont in the wintertime, and it does present assessment challenges. For example, why is there a cattail here in what seems to be a clearing? How wet is it underneath?

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The cattail was worrisome. They talked to the neighbors across the street, who described the land as “kinda swampy.” It was, however, a swamp on a slope. Let’s think about that now (and think long and hard they did): A swamp on a slope can be only so bad and should be manageable. They decided to deal with it. So they worried as they dreamed and they dreamed as they worried.

Before making a decision, they walked the land again after a spot of warmer weather. If they had been excited before, they were even more so when they saw plainly in front of them all they wanted: river, rock, field and forest. They loved it in every way above all other pieces of land they had seen. The big piece of exposed rock overlooking the river put one word in Lincoln’s head: Swoon.

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They knew it was just land, land that dropped off at a steep angle from the road, land with no house (no dwelling of any kind), no driveway (barely a spot to pull off on the side of the road to park, so even an RV wasn’t a temporary option), no electricity, no well, no septic. They knew it would require countless hours of labor, more money than they at that moment could lay claim to and years of patience before the word finished became an accurate descriptor. Yet in they plunged!

Then winter weather kicked in again. Their first campfire says Determination loud and clear, but the first two weeks of snow and cold were the worst. In Lincoln’s words, “The first two weeks on the land sucked. Sucked bad. Probably why we take some other stuff in stride: nothing compares to how that was.”

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Nonetheless Julia’s TA-DA says Ours! as she shows off their first campsite.

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That first night inside the tent, with Rise at age four and Eppie at two, they began an adventure that will last for years.

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The yurt would go up first, becoming a temporary place to sleep, cook and plan the next stage of the ongoing, unconventional, ambitious project they set their minds to. My granddaughters will grow up watching their amazing, energetic, creative parents continually researching, learning new things, doing the next thing, discussing options, working, resting, researching more, learning more new things, meeting challenges, staying flexible, correcting mistakes – ever unfazed by inconveniences that many (most?) of us would not so gladly endure and with a measure of patience that comes with a prize. Three prizes really: peace, self-reliance (though they are forever grateful to all the people they have relied on) and debt-free ownership of their dream home.

On the one hand Lincoln would like it to be clear that they do not live on a massive bucolic estate, rather on “a haphazard swamp where everything is half built or falling apart or both!” On the other he holds fast to Gradatim Ferociter*: slowly, step by step, with ferocity.

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*coincidentally the motto of the rocket company Blue Origin

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.