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.

 

 

Eppie on stairs_LI.jpg

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.

stringers ready.jpg

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.

moving stringer.jpg

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.

tweaking

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.

stairs.jpg

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.

 

 

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.

a bit brisk.jpg

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.

icicles.jpg

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.

Lincoln and Julia.jpg

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 …

10.jpg

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

12.jpg

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

11.jpg

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?

Eppie ice.jpg

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

ice inside.jpg

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…

game2.jpeg

…and sneaking Samuel’s homemade crackers.

sneaking crackers cropped.jpg

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!

socks.jpg

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.

snowstorm.jpg

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!

gradatim ferociter.jpg