Monday, July 31, 2006

House Porn

House Porn n. (houz pôrn) A term borrowed from Glen Hunter to describe books and periodicals on home design and craftsmanship that are, shall we say, exciting. The centrefolds are the best.

(I hope Mom doesn't mind the title)

A year and a half of researching natural and conventional building techniques has added a number of delightful publications to our library. Some can definitely be categorized as pure house porn, others are just useful tools that I feel compelled to mention. Allow me to introduce a few.

1. More Straw Bale Building by Chris Magwood, Peter Mack and Tina Therrien. This trio of Ontario-based professional straw balers has become an icon for the success of straw bale. They build solid, creative homes to suit our wild, four-season climate and they illustrate their techniques rather thoroughly in this second edition. The diversity of photographs is great. We keep it on hand at all times as a quick reference guide.

2. Straw Bale Details by Chris Magwood. Your source for the essential details of straw bale building, all in one place. We borrowed it from the NB Public Libraries system. Your designer, engineer and building inspector will be relieved to see it because it takes away most of the guess work if you're new to the game. You may actually survive the design & approval process if you have it on hand.

3. The Natural Plaster Book by Cedar Rose Guelberth and Dan Chiras. This is the bible of natural plaster. I finally understand it and feel completely comfortable with plasters, even though I haven't had extensive hands on experience yet. It's worth the investment.

4. Building a Straw Bale House : The Red Feather Construction Handbook by Nathaniel Corum. I'm a bit of a design snob, so this book had me hooked at page one. Red Feather is a non-profit organization that builds affordable, energy-efficient homes for American Indians with minimal impact on the environment. This book takes you step-by-step through the process of building a straw bale home, using brilliant illustrations, strong photography and solid typography to keep you engaged. I don't subscribe to all of their methods, but I learned a lot..and I just like to hold it. Even the book's size and paperstock are great.

5. Serious Straw Bale: A Construction Guide for All Climates by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron. I became irritated as I read this book. The authors do not advocate load bearing straw bale buildings in our climate, yet they suggest putting bales under ground in the foundation. I don't get it. I did find it very informative and I was enlightened to see images and read case studies of many gorgeous buildings that have been built by these two, particularly in Quebec.

6. The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes by Athena and Bill Steen. As leaders of The Canelo Project, and authors of The Straw Bale House, these two have become natural building legends for all to learn from. This is a coffee table book to keep you inspired. I carry it along for family and friends, to help fill the void of those awkward conversations full of doubt about our plans. I'd be interested in reading anything this pair produces.

7. A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al. After thirty years on the market, this one still fascinates designers, architects and planners. It is an 1171-page review of design theories for municipalities, street plans, homes and workplaces. We haven't adopted all of the principles of design it suggests, but it makes you think carefully about how your design will affect the way you interact with one another. It's at the NB Public Library, but the waiting list can be frustrating.

8. The Not So Big House Collection by Sarah Susanka. Sarah proves that bigger isn't better. The quality of design and materials matter. Her suggestions are practical and her books are beautiful. You can buy them apart or in a collection.

9. Fine Home Building. True house porn. Great homes, easy to understand techniques. It sucks you in, even if you're not building a house. They also have great annuals.

10. The New Straw Bale Home by Catherine Wanek. We don't own this one, but I thought I'd round it up to ten. I've perused it several times, and haven't bought it because it is so luxurious. It doesn't provide a lot of instruction, but it's an amazing coffee table book.


Friday, July 28, 2006

Breaking News

After six+ months of design and contracting leg work, we have a building permit(!). Dave is so excited, I think he might be considering having it bronzed.

We've had a very positive experience with our building official in Quispamsis, and no issues with obtaining the building permit at all. The only snag that I will mention for anyone in NB who might be considering building, is that you need a septic permit from the Department of Public Health *before* the main building permit can be issued from your municipality. I assumed it came after, simply because all of the others come after the main one is issued (electrical, well etc.).

Another bonus this week: the new design of our home (no garage, no basement) made the permit $1,000 less than we originally expected. Whew! Big savings for small fish like us.

The electrical permit will be filed Monday morning, the power company comes in to put up a new pole, temporary service will be installed, excavation will begin, well drilling, plumbing, septic, etc. will then come in to play...and the race is on.

The photo, above, is of Mom & Dad Wiggins rowing in the new boat that Dad built this year, just off the shore of our current home.

On a final note for the day, our digital SLR camera is still not working, so we may be a little slow to obtain new photos now that we're relying on film. Who has time to get film developed these days? It's *so* last century.

Monday, July 24, 2006

International Strawbale Conference in Ontario

We'll be in the midst of drowning each other in a pit of plaster this September, so Dave & I won't be able to go to the International Strawbale Conference at Camp Kawartha this fall, but for anyone who might be interested in this, check out this conference poster or go to

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Top five reasons to go strawbale

5. Conserve energy and reduce heating bills. Strawbale homes have amazing insulative values (somewhere between R30 and R52 for those who understand those numbers).

4. Hug a tree and help save the environment. Straw is the waste product when you grow wheat, barley, rice, etc. - all annually renewable crops - so you're not cutting down more trees.

3. Create a healthy environment with clean air in your home. Straw does not contain all the nasty toxins that are in other conventional materials.

2. Make it beautiful and unique. Aesthetics matter.

1. Build a bullet-proof shelter. Whoaaaa, Nellie. [Cue western movie theme.]

Of course, that doesn't help you if the guns are on the inside, but that's a different topic I won't delve into. reports that two new police stations are being built in a California city with the benefit of providing "ballistics and blast resistance."

I have a few relatives who may want a test run...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Blogging has put me in touch with people I'd otherwise never know, simply because it tears down borders. A gal under the pseudonym StrawBoss posted comments over the past weeks, and I've since discovered that she is an owner-builder based in Arizona. She and her family have been through some of the same trials (sourcing materials, contractors etc.) and fun (in a good way) that we are experiencing. Check out the images of her desert home in progress to get a quick glimpse of what's ahead for us these next few months.

Alternatively, blogs suck up time, and invite unwanted visitors (spammers) as well. In a perfect world, one shouldn't have to moderate comments, but I keep receiving nasty spam.

Update on construction: The septic permit will be filed tomorrow, and hopefully we'll have our general building permit by Monday...

The lines of credit and mortgage papers are almost wrapped up and we'll begin digging the lot next week(!). This is starting to seem like fun again.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Paying to play

The kicker for the newbie builder is that pay out schedules for construction mortgages provided by banks do not match industry standards for the payments required by contractors.

Not even close.

Many of the books we've read in preparation mentioned owner-builders who used lines-of-credit and credit cards to finance their home construction, but the reality of *why* didn't sink in until recently for me. The only way to get through it (if you're not independently wealthy) is to juggle balances between lines of credit & credit cards, and then pay them off as you reach each stage of pay out with the bank. It sounds frightening, and I'm definitely not looking forward to it. Fortunately, we've set up our accounts and are ready to go.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Fostering relationships with trades

The plans are stamped and the permit app. will be filed Monday am. *Exhale.* Our timber framer, who coaches us along politely and gently, tells me that after the permit is received, things will fly into action. I'm looking forward to that... mostly. The challenge for us is balancing our day jobs, of course. My colleagues have witnessed *way* more of this process than they ever cared to. Heated conversations with potential builders, coaxing phone calls to sub-trades (begging for quotes), and head-in-hands groans. Who needs a lunch break when you can spend your time practicing the delicate art of wrestling with the trades? And, for Dave, his work day starts at 8am and sometimes doesn't end until midnight. This could be quite rough for him.

Contractors/vendors are key to the success of the communications & marketing department I work in, so we spend a lot of time on fostering and managing relationships carefully. We even go so far as baking cookies at Christmas. We give a little and get a lot in return. I would suggest the same philosophy is important in home construction. Give a little breathing room on a few deliverables, remember to show your gratitude (food works for the trades too) and, in return, build a great relationship with a tradesperson who will produce a quality product for you. Don't forget to openly admire work that deserves admiration and spread the word to help build their reputation.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Cross-border shopping deals

A weekend adventure in Maine for a wedding enabled us to do a little cross-border shopping for house supplies. Mardens offers a number of deals i.e. gigantic, heavy duty tarps go for 1/10th of the price. Amazingly, we may return to Home Depot in Bangor, though it's not normally my destination of choice. To give you an example, selections of ceiling fans were very different and much cheaper. We purchased our bathroom faucets there and got the best deal yet. (Check out the sink faucet pic). These suggestions are only good when the Canadian dollar is high, of course, as it was last weekend.

Now back to reality. We'll be tying up our mortgage papers, filing for the building permit, and working on the lot this week. This part is a bit nerve wracking. As soon as we get the permit, we launch into excavation, temporary electrical service installation, well-drilling, setting up our living quarters, assembling our storage shed, a dog kennel (to keep the puppies safe), and putting in the slab with wiring, plumbing, in-floor radiant etc. all roughed in. Full speed ahead. Hopefully.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Almost breaking ground

At last, we can share some images of our plans. You'll notice they don't include all the engineering details. Those are hopefully underway (or better, completed) with an engineer in preparation for a stamp and building permit application. Click on the images if you'd like to take a closer look at them. I'm having some trouble with blogger, so I think the only option is to post them separately.

We began with a one-storey mock cape cod style home with a basement in January. Dave was laughing the other day, because a year ago, we were sitting around a camp fire at our home on Cassidy Lake, sketching out possible layouts, making lists of things we wanted and dreaming big. It seems like a decade ago. We didn't expect this part would take so long, but it's worth it. (Just keep telling yourself that.) All joking aside, we're incredibly happy with the design.

Now, we have a one & 2/3 storey on a slab. During this past year, we've learned a lot about different building materials, methods and costs. When you're building a timber frame, it is very practical to include a loft. The extra space costs about $10 per square foot. A lot cheaper than enlargening house dimensions. The tongue & groove ceiling for the main floor is also the floor of the loft. We scrapped gable dormers for a shed dormer for better usage of space. We've seen some incredibly unattractive shed dormers, so I was concerned, but the idea has really grown on me. The loft space will have an amazing airy feeling with the large windows on each end. We'll keep it open for now, and use it for a movie-watching lounge and office space. In future, we'll build a bath and bedroom. The edges where the roofline meets the loft floor will be made into storage spaces.

The principles of the living space layout have remained the same throughout the year. Concepts like keeping the bedrooms away from the daytime spaces, having an open living/dining room for entertaining and making it family-friendly overall are important to us. On the technical side, centralizing plumbing to run more efficient systems and making sure we maintained good insulative values while still having enough glazing (windows) were a priority. I think we've done it!

Loft Plan

The loft is two-thirds of our house size, leaving only the living room and dining room open to the rafters. Click on the image if you want to see the details on a larger scale.

Main Floor Plan

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