I finally got the chimney up a couple of days ago. After all these months of agonizing over the location and configuration of the chimney, suddenly everything fell into place. Mostly, I found the one right place to put the stove, and the rest followed from there.

Let me go back to my fancy ASCII-art to illustrate the chimney saga. Below, you’ll see the rough floor plan of my hut (imagine looking down from straight above). To the left of the vertical line is the extension (so the 2’s are in the extension), and to the right is the main section. In the main section, the line of l’s indicate where the loft is. As you can see, the loft doesn’t cover the entire main section, and there are gaps on both ends.

+----+----------------+        S
|2   |  l         l  1|        ^
|    |S l         l  L|    E --|-- W
|2   |  l         l \ |        |
+----+---------------\+        N

My original plan was to put the stove where the ‘1’ is. This was mostly a fine plan, the only issue being that the roof overhangs there by several inches, and I didn’t want to cut a hole in that. Also, once I took down the scaffolding there, it became very difficult to do any work high up on that side of the cabin, since much of the work would have to happen higher than my ladder would go. The next plan was to put the stove in the extension, marked by the two 2’s. Since the roof of the extension isn’t completely done yet, I was more willing to open up holes and such there. The problem with 2′ is that it’s close to an oak tree just outside, and to safely clear that, I would’ve needed a lot of chimney sections, which would’ve been expensive. Also, all that chimney above the roof would’ve needed some support pieces, which the store didn’t have in stock. That left 2, in the south-eastern corner as a viable option. The problem with that was that, the stove would take up a large portion of the extension, which seemed like a waste of space. Also, it didn’t seem like an effective place for the stove, since the heat would rise, hit the low extension roof, before making its way to the main section of the cabin.

At the end, I put the stove where the ‘S’ is, in a pretty central location. This turned out to be the optimal solution in all ways. First, it leaves the extension completely open for use (I’m planning on putting the bathroom, sink and kitchen in there). Secondly, it’s a more central location, and the heat would spread more evenly. Since the loft isn’t covering that spot, I could have a nice long stove pipe extending above the loft level, for better heat exchange. Lastly, unlike the other side (where ‘1’ is), the extension roof provided a decent platform from which to do the external work. The last decision was on which chimney support kit to use: a wall-support kit (which goes out the wall and up), or a cathedral kit (which goes straight up through the roof). At the end, I chose the wall-support, which was more expensive, but had all the parts I needed (the cathedral kit didn’t come with the flashing, which seemed like a rather important piece).

All in all, the work took about 3 afternoons, going at my usual leisurely pace. The first day, I got the stove pipe sections together — all 9ft of them. It took a while to figure out how to assemble them, but after the first two, the rest went pretty easily. The next day, I cut a hole in the gables, and attached the outside portion of the thimble. Cutting the hole was the scariest part, since I had to make sure everything lined up properly. While a chimney that goes straight up through the roof only needs to align in 2 dimensions (the height being adjustable later), I had to make sure the hole lined up with the end of the stovepipe elbow in 3 dimensions, the height being particularly important since the stovepipes have a set height, and it’s difficult to adjust (i.e. I’d have to either cut the stovepipe, or move the stove itself up or down). Fortunately, the alignment worked out perfectly (seen above) to my huge relief. The rest of the work happened on the 3rd afternoon, and as you can see in the video below, the last piece went up right around dusk…

As I climbed up onto the ridge of my roof to attach the final piece of my chimney, the rain cap, I couldn’t help but feel as if I’d reached the summit of a mountain, after a long arduous climb. Indeed, protruding 3ft above my ridge, the rain cap is the highest point of my cabin, which also makes it the highest man-made item on my property. But, beyond the mere physical sense of height, this was, in many ways, a crowning achievement, literally as the rain cap closely resembles a crown, but also because completing the chimney represented the final step in my conquest over the last remaining challenge.

Though I bought this property with no particular plan in mind, it wasn’t long before I found myself engulfed in the challenges of making this little patch of wilderness habitable. Food, water, shelter. The basics weren’t too hard, at first. Then came the necessities of a more civilized life: sewage, electricity, and communications. I found solutions for each. The last basic need, heating, had however eluded me. Until today. But now I have that too, and I am ready to declare my part of the woods habitable, through all weathers, and all seasons.

Of course, there’s plenty more work to do on Hut 2.1, and in general, but I feel like most of the more challenging problems are behind me. At the very least, as I head into Project 31, I know that my major needs will be met: food, water, warmth. I’ll come out alive. The rest is a matter of comfort, and that’s a trivial luxury compared to the other challenges.

Quick update: January 22, 2011

Quick update: Finished insulating north-side, mostly covered up the south-side. Installed new window on the east-face (seen above). Wired up the new batteries, for a total capacity of 335Ah (of which probably half is usable). Tried out the new propane refill “kit”, which worked great once I read the directions and realized I was supposed to open the valve after flipping it upside down (duh). Played with fire some more. The idea has promise, but perhaps not this time around. I’ll be using the stove after all, and should have the chimney up by the next time I update.

All in all, life’s been great. The weather continues to be sunny and warm, but that only makes me worried that next month (when I’ll be holed up for Project 31) might end up being extra cold and snowy… But then, Hut 2.1 is coming along, slowly but surely. I’m not terribly worried.

Insulating Hut 2.1

I posted some thoughts on insulation a while back, but now that I’m actually in the process of insulating Hut 2.1, I figured I’d do another post talking about what I’ve ended up doing.

As you can see in the photo above, I’m using R-5 3/4″ thick polyisocyanurate rigid foam insulation boards on the exterior. If you recall, I used that stuff on the roof as well, so basically the whole structure, save for the windows, door, and floor, will be encased in those boards. Normally, insulation goes inside the wall cavities, but I first thought of putting insulation on the outside while working on Hut 1.0, and implemented the idea in Hut 2.0. The reasons for doing so are manyfold:

  1. Putting insulation on the outside leaves the wall cavities available for use. I’ve filled in some of the walls with “shelves”, but I also have the option of filling them in with batt insulation if the rigid boards on the outside prove to be insufficient. The same applies for the space between my rafters, which I may fill with batt insulation later.
  2. Instead of using a traditional air barrier, I’m taping the seams between the insulation panels together so that the insulation panels themselves form an air barrier. The boards on the roof also act as a waterproof layer, in the event that moisture leaks through the roofing panels. This cuts down on building materials, which lowers the financial cost as well as the total environmental footprint.
  3. By wrapping the entire structure in insulation, I am increasing the thermal mass within the thermal envelope. That is, all the posts and beams and OSB sheathing inside the insulation act as a thermal mass, which can absorb heat and release it slowly. Obviously, wood isn’t as effective of a thermal mass as, say, a concrete slab, but I think it counts for something. The downside is that, if I’m heating the structure from a dead cold, it takes longer to warm up, because, for a while, the structure itself is going to be absorbing some of that heat.
  4. Covering every square inch of the exterior in insulation (again, except for windows and doors) prevents thermal bridging. Thermal bridging, in the context of structures, is when heat conducts through structural members, bypassing insulation. For instance, in a traditional 2×4 stud wall construction, only the space between studs typically have insulation, so the studs themselves can conduct heat in or out. While that may not seem like much, if studs are spaced 16″ apart, that’s 1.5″ out of every 16″, or close to 10% of the surface area that’s left uninsulated.

When I first thought of the idea, I thought it was all new and radical, but I’ve since learned that this exterior insulation thing is… well, a thing. For instance, a related and somewhat similar concept is SIP –or Structured Insulated Panel— construction, which is a fancy way to say “insulation boards sandwiched between structural sheathing.” The one interesting thing about SIP is that the insulation boards are glued to the sheathing, thus increasing rigidity and eliminating any gaps. Gaps in insulation are bad, because it could allow for air circulation, which can render insulation moot by carrying heat in or out. For Hut 2.1, I originally tried using a spray-on glue to attach the polyiso boards to the underlying OSB sheathing, but the glue I got didn’t stick too well. So, instead, I’ve been nailing the boards onto the sheathing, and, where possible, through to the 4×4 posts (the gray patches of duct tape in the photo above are where I’ve put in nails). That doesn’t eliminate the gaps, but, in my case, I’m not terribly concerned because those gaps will be inside the thermal envelope, and as I mentioned above, the foam boards should, in theory, form a mostly air-tight enclosure and relatively little of that heat should escape outside.

For the floor, I’m thinking of doing something different as well. Normally, batt insulation would be stuffed in the spaces between the floor joists. But, I don’t like fiberglass, and ever since I saw those cubes of recycled cellulose blow-in insulation at the hardware store (pictured below), I’ve been wanting to use them. The stuff is made of recycled materials, supposedly uses far less energy to manufacture than traditional alternatives, and is pretty cheap ($8 per bag), so it sounds pretty awesome all around. The current plan is to lay down more 2×4 “joists” on top of the existing floor (though running perpendicularly to the existing joists for strength), then put another layer of OSB on top of that, and fill in the 3.5″ tall gaps with the blow-in insulation, which should give me about R-13. Since the insulation will be sandwiched between two layers of OSB, I also won’t have to worry (as much) about critters getting in there or stealing my insulation, which I hear are concerns for the more typical exposed under-the-floor batt insulation.

So, that’s basically the plan so far. I’m considering getting some batt insulation that’s made of recycled materials, similar to the blow-in insulation I got, to stuff in between my rafters. But, I think I’ll hold off on that until I get my stove going, and see how well the existing insulation works (or doesn’t work).

Hut 2.1 video

I felt like making a quick video of Hut 2.1, so here it is. It’s not a terribly exciting video, and I wasn’t feeling particularly perky that day, but I figured it might still be of interest to some of you. You can watch it below, or in HD on YouTube.

Journal: December 9th, 2010

I got all four windows up on the south-facing wall over the past few days, so Hut 2.1 is almost entirely enclosed. Once I put up one more window on the western side, it’ll be completely enclosed. There’s actually still one more window to put up, but where that’s supposed to go (the eastern side) is currently covered up in OSB, and I’ll need to cut out the opening (there was a last minute change in window locations). Few of my windows actually match, but that’s what happens when you go cheap. Of the 7 windows in the lower level, only 2 were bought new. Two more were bought in like-new condition from a salvage shop, but didn’t come with installation instructions, which would’ve been useful seeing how they don’t have tabs, unlike all the other vinyl windows I’ve seen. The remaining 3 windows I got from a friends’ dad, who’d rescued them from the dumper at a construction site. They’re actually really nice Low-E, double-paned argon-filled tempered glass that must cost a lot new, but only cost me a six pack of beer. They’re also unframed panes, but I improvised a frame, so we’ll see how that goes (yes, lots of weather proofing strips, caulk, and foam were involved).

Okay, boys and girls, I gotta get going, so that’s it for today. More in a few days…

Journal: December 7th, 2010

As I’d feared in my previous post, I did indeed get stuck on my dirt road on my way back to my property that day. Actually, I got stuck 3 times, and instead of getting the hint after the first time, or the second time, I barged on, undeterred, like a fool. In my defense, things didn’t get too bad until the 3rd time I got stuck. The first time, I reversed a few feet and gave myself some extra momentum to overcome a slick patch. The second time, I remembered to engage the differential lock, and muscled my way up an icy incline. The 3rd time, though, I got stuck on a particularly rough section of the road, where there’s a tight corner, steep grade, and some big boulders. I kept backing up, but not regaining any ground, until I was up against a bush. Eventually, I walked up to my camp, grabbed a shovel, and started shoveling compacted icy snow out from ahead of the tires. Fortunately, that did the trick. (By the way, if you were following my new Twitter account,@laptopandarifle, you would’ve gotten a real-time blow-by-blow of that incident…).

Other than that, life’s chugging along. Here’s something I wrote in my journal last night:

December 6th, 2010
I may be living a dream, but not every day is exactly rosy. I hit a rough patch today, when, for a while, it seemed like nothing was going right. I was already feeling frustrated with the slow progress, when I slipped and drove my cordless drill into my finger. It’s just a flesh wound, but combined with the crack on my thumb, I felt like I was slowly losing use of my hands, one finger at a time. Then, I screwed up installing a window. My feet are still constantly cold. I realized that I couldn’t put the chimney where I thought I could after all. I noticed that the door wasn’t hung square, and it was too late to fix. I worried about whether I’d be able to get my car back down the dirt road, and if I could, whether I’d be able to come back up. If I had to leave my car farther down the road, I may have to walk a quarter mile in the cold to go to bed. I suddenly wasn’t sure I’d finish Hut 2.1 before conditions forced me off my property. Dark clouds rolled in. A chilly gust blew through the open walls of my cabin, numbing my fingers as I tried to mark my next cut.

I wondered to myself why I couldn’t just be like everybody else, and be content working in a warm office, going home to a wife and kids. I thought about how crazy it is that I’m building my own house, alone, in the middle of nowhere, in the cold, without any training in carpentry, construction, or architecture, on a shoe-string budget, in defiance of god knows how many building codes. I felt like I was doing everything wrong. Imperfections glared back at me. Unfinished tasks loomed in my mind, overwhelmingly. Doubts flashed through my mind — maybe I should let other people do the building, and just pay a mortgage, like everybody else.

But, eventually, I pulled myself together, and had a productive day. Out here, alone, I am the source of all my problems, but I am also the solution to all my problems. At least, I have to be, if I don’t want to get stuck. In the city, things that stress people out are the things they can’t control. Whether it’s their job, the cable company, the plumber or mechanic, or their noisy neighbors, peoples’ lives are so deeply intertwined with –and dependent on– others that they often have little control over the problems they face. Out here, nobody causes any of my problems, but I also can’t expect anyone else to solve my problems for me either. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, but at the end of the day, I overcome those challenges and feel better for it.

Indeed, I found solutions to my problems. I bandaged my fingers, and got back to work. I found a new place to put the chimney. I tore out the window and installed it satisfactorily. I ignored the pain in my toes — actual risks of frostbite are negligible. I devised a workaround for the door problem. I warmed up my fingers with a hot mug of coffee, picked up my saw, and kept cutting. After dark, I walked down the dirt road, shovel in hand, breaking up the ice along the way so that I could get out the next morning. And I got my bedding out of the car, heaved it up the makeshift ladder, into the loft of Hut 2.1. Last night, I slept in my new unfinished cabin for the first time. It was a bit draftier than the car, but if I want to get warmer, I’ll just have to finish the damn walls.

News Flash! Sales of my super amazing calendars have been lackluster. Maybe you guys don’t like me as much as I thought, or the calendar isn’t as awesome as I think, but maybe it was just too damn expensive for these lean times. Well, to see which of these is true, I’ve marked down the price by 15% to a more reasonable $24.79. That’s a whopping $4.38 off the original price! And remember, the more people buy a calendar, the sooner I can afford a warm pair of boots 😉 My toes thank you in advance. (If you’re convinced, here’s the link again.)

Journal: December 4th, 2010

Wow, it’s December already? Crazy. But, hey, it’s December and I’m still here! Last year, I only stayed until late November, so at least I’ve lasted longer this year. We’ll see how much longer I can keep going though…

I continue to make slow but steady progress on Hut 2.1. When I resumed work on Wednesday, the first order of business was to clear up the interior so I have space to work. Then, I spent at least a couple of hours mulling over the Chimney Issue.

Yes, the Chimney Issue. As I read the instructions that came with the chimney mounting kit, I realized that there were significant issues with putting the chimney where I had planned to put it. I was hoping to put it on the gable side exterior wall of the structure, and since the roof overhangs by about 6″ on that side, I assumed the chimney would clear it without a problem. Well, as it turns out, the instructions on the mounting kit explicitly prohibit such offsets, and judging by the big bold letters and the number of exclamation marks, I’m inclined to begrudgingly abide by this one. But, if instead of clearing the overhang by offsetting the chimney, I do as the manual says, and poke a hole in the overhang, that creates a whole other set of issues since now I’ll have a hole in the roof, half way up.

So, I decided that it would be easier to just put the chimney elsewhere. But where? I knew the chimney had to stick out the eaves side, or, I could use a different chimney kit and go through the roof, instead of out the wall and up. If I were to go through the roof, it’d make sense to stick it out the extension, since the roof there isn’t done yet. (Also, the kit doesn’t support steeply sloped roofs such as the one I have over the main section of my cabin, while the extension roof has a much shallower slope.) But the extension was supposed to house the bathroom and the kitchen, and if a stove were to go in there, the bathroom would have to go where the stove originally was supposed to go. On the other hand if the stove went on the Northern eaves side in the main section of the cabin (not the extension), the chimney would be dangerously close to an oak tree, thus creating a fire hazard.

At the end, I found the one logical (and safe) place the chimney (and therefore, the stove) could go: on the Southern side in the main section, with the chimney going up through the eves. I then decided it still made sense to move the bathroom to where the stove would’ve gone, which leaves the entirety of the extension available to be used as a kitchen. I’ve always wanted a nice big kitchen in my house, so I’m quite pleased with that change. Unfortunately, moving the bathroom meant I had to swap a couple of window frames, because the bathroom must have an opening window, and the window frame in the new location had been sized for one of my non-opening windows.

Long story short, I spent the better part of Wednesday evening cutting out window frames and putting up new ones, so that the right windows would be in the right places given the new layout. Overall, though, I’m quite happy with where things will end up being. Thursday night, I put up some horizontal crosspieces in vertical spaces between studs, posts and window frames. These pieces will add considerable strength to the walls, but really, I put them there to use as shelves (and it’s easier to nail those pieces in now, before the walls are covered). Last night, I got some more OSB sheathing up, and I should be done with that in another day or two. Then, the windows will go up, and at that point, the structure should be fully enclosed. Insulation will then go on the outside, and hopefully I’ll have a reasonably comfortable place to live.

My biggest concern is still the weather. This week’s been reasonably warm, with temperatures staying within a narrow range above and below freezing. It snowed about 5 inches a couple of nights ago, but much of it melted away the next day, when the temperatures climbed back up above freezing. The main concern is the dirt road that leads in and out of my property. It was pretty slick coming out today, and I lost control when my car slid down hill a few feet, but fortunately it stopped before hitting any trees. Other than that, I myself am keeping warm, though my feet are almost constantly cold, thanks to my leaky boots that are constantly wet from slushing through melting snow, and my double-layered wool socks have been soaking through. It’s impossible to keep my socks dry, so instead, I’ve just been wearing wet socks whenever I need to go outside, and switching to dry socks when I’m inside. Obviously, this could be a losing strategy for my toes if it gets much colder, but seems to be an ok short term solution. In the long run, I’ll apply a liberal coating of water proofing spray onto my boots the next time I’m in the city and they’ve had a chance to dry. Or maybe Santa will bring me nice winter boots… Overall, though, despite cold feet, my spirits are high, and I am happy to be doing what I’m doing. It’s beautiful up here, and working on my cabin at night, after dark, when all is silent but for the hissing of my propane lamp, engulfed by its warm radiance — it is a divine experience, worthy in and of itself.

News flash! I setup a new Twitter account: @laptopandarifle. This one’s linked to my Verizon phone, which gets coverage up on my property, so I’ll be able to post updates via SMS. So, go ahead and follow that, if you want up-to-the-minute updates from Serenity Valley.