Friday, June 30, 2006

The timbers have been cut, the tongue & groove flooring is in the kiln, the electrical plan is roughly mapped out and the plans are off to an engineer to be stamped. At last! We can apply for a building permit next week. I will be blushing with shame when I take our application to the building inspector. *FIVE* months ago, I smugly told him, "You'll see it within a few weeks. We won't wait until the height of the building season to apply for our permit." Nooo, not us. ARGH. But, all this research and change will be worth it. Look for floor plans and elevations to be posted next week (We only have AUTOCAD drawings right now).

This weekend, we want to finalize our subcontracting details, get our driveway excavation underway, request new window quotes and clean up some things on the property. Tomorrow is July. Who knew we'd be so far behind? I'm confident we're still going to be able to get in before winter (Dave on the other hand...not so much). Of course, no one tells me I'm a realist these days. It's a coping method - what can I say?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Calling All You Retired Masons Out There

And not the Free Masons, but Masons, as in layers of brick, masters of mortar. We need a used mortar mixer for a good deal. Mortar mixers will mix cob (straw, clay, sand, lime etc.) without seizing up. A new one can easily cost $2500. We're looking for a *used* one. I've heard of people getting them for $200 or less. We've posted in the "wanted" section of the Buyer Flyer (for you non-NBers, this is the bible for buying and selling junk that can be found on newstands every Thursday). The great news of the week is that we've found our source for clay-rich soil and mixing sand - and it's right at the foot of our road!

Storage was also on the to-do list: we've been concerned about finding storage for our straw because our construction schedule is off by two or three months for the straw building part and our farmer wants to unload the straw to make room for hay. argh. We considered renting truck trailers, but we have no place to put trailers of that size. We also considered leasing barn space, but haven't researched that very thoroughly. Now, I think we've resolved to collect enough pallets to keep them off the ground and gigantic tarps to cover them on site. If we stack the piles in pyramid shapes, the water should run off the tarps instead of collecting on top.

Back to the subject of tools we need, my brother-in-law, Jozef, is a master welder, so he has agreed to make us some bale needles (click to see a full picture in a previous posting), which we'll need to tie pins to opposing sides of the straw walls to keep them somewhat flush.

Monday, June 19, 2006

More on Floor Treatments and Heating

I think we have it! Ferrous Sulfate (aka fertilizer for all you farmers out there) is perfect for staining concrete floors. It works much the same as acid staining, only it costs about $10 instead of $1500+, plus the cost of a sealing product such as Seal-Krete.

I've been researching the terrazzo-like glass aggregate idea I mentioned in a previous posting more, and it can be quite problematic. Some concrete mixtures can react negatively with the glass...making the glass easy to chip away. There's an additive that can help prevent it, but it's a risk I'd rather take on a smaller scale project.

The ferrous sulfate idea is often used to paint strawbale homes, but I didn't know it would work on the floors. I've been learning from a number of folks who have tried it on this greenbuilding discussion group I'm subscribed to. Check out Cathy Moore's site where she describes her floor staining in detail. This photo with the dog is from her site.

Heating is truly a hot topic these days given the rising cost of any form of home heating. Dave and I are partial to the atmosphere of wood heating, but the reality is that we hate the maintenance of wood heating (it's dirty, it's hard to get dry wood when you need it and you actually have to keep putting wood in the fire if you expect to keep warm). Masonry stoves are very efficient and relatively environmentally friendly wood-burning heat sources, but finding someone to build it around here is a bit challenging.

After much debate and research, we've settled on in-floor thermal radiant heat (hot water pipes rather than heating cables). It will make the concrete floor delightfully comfortable. We'll also put in a propane fireplace to provide the quick blast of heat we sometimes need to take a chill off and for power outages. I doubt we'll find many fluctuations in temperature with our 22" thick walls, but we've had a number of power outages during winter storms. A New Brunswick-based strawbale owner who has infloor radiant, told us that his house only lost two degrees of heat during a winter power outage that lasted several days.

No matter, we all know that those damp, rainy days in early spring can be uncomfortable in most any home, but I can say with some smugness that I don't think we'll feel it like we do in our current shanty.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Reuse, Recycle...

Ever heard of the Habitat for Humanity's Restore? Restore is a non profit chain that carries used building supplies, household appliances and furniture. The stores are run primarily by volunteers and the profits go back to Habitat. I knew they were in Toronto and many other metropolitan areas, but didn't know that we have some in good ole New Brunswick. I found the Restore in Moncton after a day traveling to other shops in Moncton. My Mom and I were in our glory on such a big treasure hunt... We didn't have a *particular* treasure in mind, but that made it even more exciting. My dear old Dad put up with us for a whole day, but Dave was stuck at home working on a feature for the Sydney Morning Herald. I could almost feel tears of sympathy well up, except I know that Dave was relieved to avoid a day of the junk shopping jungle. The result of our treasure hunting? Two stained glass church windows from an antique shop, one hobbit-ish arched-top door from Happy Harry's (a for-profit used building supply store) and a very cool wooden Frank-Lloyd-Wright-ish lamp from the Farmer's Market. Dave might hate the shopping, but we both love having unique elements in our home.

And you thought plastered strawbale walls and post & beam structures were unique enough? My folks also refinished some stellar antique light fixtures and gave them to us for Christmas (check this one out in the picture below out).

Another great place to find used building supplies is on the freecycle groups. These are online groups where you post items you have to give away for free, and you can post items you need (and receive them for free if someone has what you need). I recently landed some patio blocks on the freecycle Saint John group. Try it out. There are specific groups for most towns and cities.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Floor Fashions

Our design includes passive solar elements: the house faces south, most of the "glazing" (windows) is on the south, and we have a significant overhang on our roof (24"). The overhang blocks the hot, high-in-the-sky summer sun, and lets in the lower-angled winter sun to warm the house when we most need it. In its simplest form, a passive solar home should have enough "thermal mass" to collect the heat from the sun naturally during the day and radiate that heat in the night to save on heating bills. Our "thermal mass" is our slab floor. We had thought about putting in wood floors over the slab because we like wood (aesthetically pleasing and not so hard), but, it means we lose a lot of the passive solar benefits of the slab being heated by the sun *and* our dogs are going to scratch the heck out of wood floors (unless I find the doggie HAZMAT suits I often dream of while I'm sweeping up all the hair and looking at the scratches on our floor now). We're not in love with the basement look, so we're considering options to make the slab floor look better. Acid-staining can be attractive, but it's not cheap (we'd be looking at $1500 or more). Also, it's not permanent. Tinting is ok, but it doesn't make a huge difference in the look. Painting requires too much maintenance. Concrete engraving can look interesting, but it collects dirt (I mentioned we have dogs, right?). Now, my thoughts are leaning toward adding shards of glass to the final layer and polishing the surface to create a terrazzo tile-like finish. Durable, classic and relatively cheap, or so we think.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Rain, Rain Go Away

It has been raining for what seems like months. I wonder if we'll ever get back to working on our building site. Our lake is much higher than Spring thaw levels, and our lawn and perennials ressemble a healthy section of rain forest. David Suzuki would be proud to see this healthy lake environment full of fish (and you can literally see catfish fins coming out of the water in our cove as they continue to spawn) and waterfowl.

Speaking of Suzuki, I had the pleasure of being a part of bringing him to Saint John for his book tour Friday night at the University of New Brunswick Saint John. We enjoyed a full house of ~1600 people of all different walks of life, and the crowd seemed thrilled to hear him tell tales of his seventy years on earth. He wrapped up with a rousing pitch to take action to curb our grotesque over-consumption of resources in Canada. We all know that's top of mind for Prime Minister Harper these days...right?

I continue to carry around an obese manilla file folder of quotes, drawings and notes on our house. We have signed on with Atlantic Post & Beam and are just waiting on the revised house plans. We've made a lot of changes and compromises, but we're still very excited about the design.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Posts. And Beams. Hopefully.

Our designer, Peter Carr, commented recently that contractors are in high demand now, but in a few years the demand won't be so great. He's right. Economies change. Interest rates rise and fall. Those contractors who are providing poor service and low quality products in this economy are going to disappear when the demand decreases. Until then, we're in a market where the demand is incredibly high, so we're dealing with a boatload of companies who simply don't *need* to return our call. Argh. I know I'm repeating myself, but it's a very large, looming issue at the moment. How many times should I call? Will I completely tick the guy off (and they're all guys)? Do I need to start talking tough? (Everyone *knows* I can hold my own in terms of using profanity.) Should I lean on that crutch? Is it like every single time I've tried to buy a car: Should I get a MAN to call? Ah, forget it. Suck it up boys and call me back. Pronto.

On the bright side, we've found people like Peter Carr, who are responsive, professional and very skilled. I've known Peter from my hometown for many years, but didn't know until recently that he has designed thousands of homes of many different types around the world and continues to do so in his "retirement." I'll share the plans he has designed for us in a future post.

These are a few images from the homes we visited with the timber framer this Spring.

Several sub-contractors are still not in place, but we're scheduled to begin right away. The strawbale part of our home won't actually start until September because it takes several months to prepare the timberframe. Patience. Patience. Patience.

I wonder why I keep waking up at 2am?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Maritime Strawbale Building Gathering

The silence hurt my ears when I asked Dave if he was interested in spending the May 24 weekend at a Maritime gathering of strawbale builders near Halifax, NS. He knows saying, "no" could be perilous, but that his work life is a bit too overwhelming right now to think about anything else. "This is perfect," I was thinking. I can get him away from it all and focus on our house plans.

Indeed, our newly corporatized-Dave left his computer and finely-pressed shirts, suspenders & neckties behind, and jumped into our Civic full of sleeping bags, toxin-free bug sprays and a cooler full of gods-know-what-kind-of-organic-veggie-mystery-foods. We all know he's a hippy wanna-be underneath that conventional exteriour.

Kim Thompson, the consultant we've been working with to learn about strawbale building, has completed a research project for CMHC that involves documenting all of the strawbale buildings in the Maritimes. There are at least 55, if you can believe it, and more than a dozen others planned for construction this year. To cap off her research, Kim invited all of the folks who currently own strawbale homes, plus a few industry contacts (architects, designers, builders), and a number of soon-to-be builders like us to a weekend camping at Ship Harbour.

We toured Kim's home and property nearby - check out the cool smurf-like cob house with the thatch roof, her tool shed and the shot of her kitchen window sill.
We learned about yurts (the photo of the white tent-like structure) and how to build them using local greenwood (like fresh cut spruce). These originate in Mongolia and people still live in these in climates where the temperature drops below 40 degrees C.

Food, food and more food kept us fueled through the weekend, with each meal being a potluck adventure of tasty vegetarian salads, pastas and the like.

We made the best of every moment, talking to each homeowner and professional about their experiences, best practices, and our house plans. Decisions that have been up in the air for us for many months were finally made, and a rush of new ideas streamed into our notebooks. Valuable contacts were made, and, I believe some new friendships were created.

The Truck

Every new job brings its ups and downs. Dave's new job means some extraordinarily long hours. Since we carpool together into the city (about 45 mins each way), I've had to endure the "downs" with him. The "downs" sometimes amount to sixteen hour work days. As you can see, we've had to break our environmentally-friendly-economically-astute rules, and take on a second vehicle (We've become an insurance company's dream client). The ultimate truck. We picked this baby up from an old chap around the corner from our new site. It has a dent in the side of it that's approximately the same size as a small country in the former Soviet Union, and it *smells* like an old man who likes to repair vehicles and smokes from time to time. mmmmm. It's all part of the charm. So far it has trucked hundreds of pounds of concrete patio blocks, a new storage shed, and antique stained-glass windows for our new house. Not bad. I just hope you're not the one behind me inhaling the fumes.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Details, details

So, back to the house. We've spent the winter and first days of spring finalizing our plans (they're not yet final, but I'll get to that in future posts) and picking out all the features. Here you can see the shaker-style kitchen cupboard door design we like and the u-shaped kitchen we will use. We're still waiting on quotes from vendors... I feel like all we do is wait sometimes. Contractors are just too busy to care. And then there are those who are just bad at managing customers. That's not to say we haven't encountered some fabulous contractors and sales's about 50-50. Finding the *right* one for us seems to be the key.

Hollywood Fame

In the midst of all of our house building chaos, one of the things we've forgotten to tell everyone is that Jake, our collie, is famous. Well, at least he was featured in a Famous Players movie magazine for kids this Spring in theatres across Canada. Dave has a friend who is currently the editor of this magazine, and she had met Jake previously. It was his lucky break. If only he would cough up the dough and contribute to the down payment for the house. In the spirit of equality, I'm including Molly, our mutt. The cat is excluded, b.c he keeps waking us up at 4am, so I'm not inclined to care if he's left out. grrr..

Driving into the new year

We had an incredibly mild winter, with little snow. It was so mild that our excavation contractor (Mark McKinnon, a family friend) was able to put in a driveway. We were able to spend some time clearing dead trees and the like as well, with the help of Mom & Dad Wiggins. Joe Nyenhuis, my sister's husband, also helped out with cutting trees. We found cutting trees a bit nerve-wracking, given the danger of hurting one's self. It seems testosterone-filled human beings prefer not to use safety ropes and other such precautions, but we all survived. Here you can see how we've carved out our little spot in the lot for the house. This is looking North. We're planning to face our house true South to take advantage of passive solar heat gains in the winter.

Christmas with the Thunder Bay Stonehouses

Over the holidays, we were thankful to have Mom & Dad Stonehouse with us. Carol & Bruce were instrumental in helping us develop our floor plans and elevations - probably because they've lived in so many homes themselves (Dave still seem unsure of where his "hometown" is) and have experience in building an unconventional house. A few years back, they built a log home just outside Thunder Bay. Log homes *seem* straight forward, but it sounds like they had similar problems with conventional builders not wanting to deal with something "different."

Here we are on the property (picture of Bruce, Carol & Dave) in the snow in late December. It was raining that day, so our tour was short, but sweet. Carol generously brought her dowsing tools with her (L-rods, I believe they're called) to check out the water situation on the lot, although we didn't have enough time to really delve into it. We've been unable to find a local dowser to date. Here's hoping the welldriller hits gold before 250 feet.

Forgetfulness has set in

So, the domestic agreements of the Stonehouse household (the Cassidy Lake Stonehouses, that is) include Dave primarily managing financial-related chores(I think he actually enjoys it, bless him) and me taking care of special occasion-related chores (birthdays, Christmas etc.). Both have fallen slightly off track in the midst of all this house-building excitment, plus Dave's new job involves long hours and less flexibility. Well, in my case, things have gone waaaaaay off track, to the extent that I'm not sure what I've missed and what I haven't. Please grant us an extended grace period...things are only going to get worse until this puppy is built. Can we make it up next year?

Here's Dave clowning around last fall after a long afternoon of hauling brush...Wait till you see him with a backhoe!

Our picnics

Planning a good work party is essential. You need good food, lots of water, seating, shade and somewhat frequent breaks to keep the energy level up. Sometimes I feel like we're taking more time for breaks than work, but it's essential. A few photos of our friends and family from last fall. Dave must be taking these photos since he's not in them.

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