Journal: November 20th, 2010

Work slowed down a bit this week, but we still made solid progress on Hut 2.1. That’s right, we went straight to 2.1 and framed up the extension. The original plan had been to finish 2.0 first so that we could start living in it, but the plan suffered the inevitable fate that most plans face: obsolescence due to fluid circumstances. Specifically, Kelly decided to go home for Thanksgiving, so I decided to prioritize work that required her help, and in that light, it seemed to make sense to get the extension framed while she was around. The extension really only took us a couple of days, including the roof, though I just have the OSB roof sheathing covered in Tyvek and will be putting up proper roofing later. I was also hoping to get the chimney up too, but the chimney mounting kit I bought was missing pieces, so I had to hold off on that until I get a re placement. However, I did manage to get the door up, since that was something I thought I would need help with.

On Thursday, we left the property ahead of a snow storm that was supposed to last several days. Kelly had a train to catch, and we didn’t want to get snowed in, not to mention, predicted lows were in the teens, and Hut 1.0 is woefully under-equipped for that kind of cold.

Before heading out, we went into the nearby town, where I bought an antique cast iron stove. It’s pretty tiny, about 2ft tall, with a combustion chamber measuring maybe 8 inches in diameter and about a foot high. There are two removable burner plates, which I can hopefully use to cook and boil water. Actually, I’m not even entirely sure it’s a “wood” stove, since it’s clearly too small to burn logs, but it doesn’t look like a coal stove either (the store had one of those too). In any case, my plan is to just burn small pieces of wood, and maybe charcoal briquets if I need the extra BTUs. A larger stove would probably get too hot anyway, so we’ll see how things go. It was only $120, so even if it doesn’t work out, I haven’t wasted too much money…

On the way back from town, I met another self-claimed “neighbor.” We’d noticed my adjacent neighbor’s chain was down on our way out to town, but since I didn’t think they were around, I was slightly concerned. Then on the way back from town, we were driving up the dirt road that leads to our properties, when I noticed a dude walking down the road towards us. He was an older guy, with long grayish hair and a similarly colored beard, wrapped in tattered olive drab Vietnam-era field uniforms, with a foot-long hunting knife dangling off his belt. A chocolate colored puppy bounced besides him, as he approached us. I quickly scanned him for weapons, and noticed none other than the knife. I also tried to see if he might be carrying anything he might’ve stolen off my property, but again, he didn’t seem to be carrying anything, other than what I assumed was a can of beer (it was actually Mountain Dew). Seeing no immediate danger, I stopped and lowered my window. He continued to walk until he was next to my car, and we proceeded to chat for a while. He said he recently moved in to property nearby and was out taking a walk. His trespassing irked me, but in his defense, both chains between the road and my property were down, so I decided to let it slide. He complemented me on my cabin, and asked if he could have the designs. We made small talk for a while, and went our separate ways. Other than the fact that he doesn’t look like he’s changed clothes since his second tour of duty in ‘Nam with the USMC in 1968, he seemed like an ok dude, but then, I’m a poor judge of character so who knows. Standards are a little different out in the backwoods, and as far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t mean me or my property any harm is “ok” by my book.

In general, I was somewhat startled to meet a stranger near my property, because Solar Burrito’s recent burglary was still fresh on my mind. When I got property, everybody with any experience with rural land ownership warned me of all the hazards. If all they said were to be believed, my cabin would be broken into, all my possessions stolen, anything that can be destroyed will be destroyed, illegal hunters would crisscross my property shooting at everything in sight, while timber thieves cut down all my trees. Fortunately, none of those things have happened. While neighboring parcels have trash, my property hardly has any, probably thanks to its relative inaccessibility and remoteness. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Since Hut 2.1 has glass windows, as opposed to the stronger plexiglas in Hut 1.0, I’m somewhat concerned of vandals breaking windows for the hell of it, even if there’s nothing to steal. I could board up the windows if I leave for prolong periods, but there’s not much you can’t tear down with a sledge hammer. In any case, I could worry almost infinitely, and if I wanted to do everything I can, I’d have to build a fortress (or a robot army (or a fortress defended by a robot army (mmm… robot armies…))). Maybe I’ll look into getting insurance, but beyond that, I’ll probably have to just accept the risks. After all, living in the city isn’t all that safe either.

Journal: November 14th, 2010

It’s been a productive week here on Serenity Valley. I picked up Kelly in Sacramento on Monday, and we got back to my property on Tuesday. It was raining when we drove through town, but the rain switched to snow just a few hundred yards down the paved road from my turn-off. The snow continued to fall all night, silently and tentatively. We woke up to a silvery glittering morning, the white coat of snow twinkling in the bright morning sun. The scenery melted back to the autumnal hues of brownish-yellow, and the weather remained fairly clear for the rest of the week.

Clear, that is, but also cold. Temperatures at night have dropped down solidly into the 20s. We moved my futon mattress and comforter into the back of the car, and have been sleeping in those cramped but moderately insulated quarters. It still gets cold enough inside for condensation to freeze on the windows and door frames, but the thick comforter has been keeping us quite warm.

Despite the cold, we’ve made good progress on the cabin. Since Kelly came up, we’ve managed to cover up the loft knee-walls and gables with OSB and rigid insulation boards, installed the 3 loft-windows, and have started working on the lower levels. Down below, we’ve got 5 window support frames up, as well as one 4’x8′ OSB sheet. Forecasts for the next week also seem clear, so I think there’s a good chance we’ll have it all enclosed before wet weathers return. The plan is to get it enclosed with OSB, and install the windows and doors as quickly as possible so that we can start living in the structure. Rigid foam insulation boards will go up next, covering the OSB and thereby providing a waterproof layer. I’m planning on leaving the rigid insulation boards exposed for a while, rather than put up siding right away, so that I can add more if one layer proves to be insufficient.

I’m feeling pretty good about Hut 2.0 so far, especially with the planned 2.1 upgrade. Maybe it’s my background as a software engineer, but I’m reluctant to commit to huge projects. I like to start small, and then make incremental improvements if –and only if– the initial efforts seem sound, but otherwise leave open the option of a major “rewrite” (as we call it in the software world). At this point, I’ve gained enough confidence in the structure itself as well as my abilities, that I’m feeling more comfortable investing in various improvements. For instance, I think it makes sense to shell out the cash for a proper chimney, even though the frugal (or just plain poor) part of me is tempted to get by without it. I’m also thinking of putting in another floor on top of the existing one, and filling in the space between with blow-in recycled-cellulose insulation. The 2.1 extension is obviously another “incremental” upgrade that only made sense to me once I saw 2.0 standing. Every now and then, someone will post a comment saying how I didn’t seem to be planning ahead, as if that were a problem, but I think it’s just a different approach to solving problems. You can do a lot of upfront planning and design, and perhaps that’s the norm in architecture. But then, for my own purposes, minimal plans coupled with flexibility and adaptability seems to work just fine.

Other than that, our lives have fallen into a nice routine. We’ve been getting up consistently at around 10:30am SVT (7:30 PST) shortly after sunrise. After warming up with some coffee and toast, we’d start working on the cabin, and continue working until close to dusk with a brief lunch break in between. As the sun sets beyond the hills, we’d utilize what little light was available to enjoy a bit of free time. We’ve gone on walks, sat at the rocky ledge to watch shadows creep up opposing hills, or spent some time alone, Kelly reading in a hammock, and I doing some gunsmithing and shooting. After dark, we’d retreat to Hut 1.0, where our combined body heat, a propane lamp, an oil lamp, and the propane stove keeps temperatures at a balmy 50 to 60 degrees. We’d cook dinner, usually some variation of rice and vegetables, then inhale our food like a couple of starving puppies. With our bellies filled with warm food, we’d then sit contentedly, and read a book or two while nursing a nice warm drink. Most nights, Kelly would take out her violin at some point to practice, the melancholic (or experimental, scratchy) tunes of her strings reverberating out through the thin walls of the hut, and out into the silent starry darkness. After a few too many yawns have been exchanged, we’d brush our teeth, turn off the lamps, close up the hut, and crawl into our frigid bed in the car, wishing we had a nice furry husky to warm up the bed for us.

Anyway, it’s been an interesting experience, sharing this life in the woods with another person, even if temporarily. Kelly probably will be moving on in her travels before too long, but for me, it’s been an interesting preview of what life could be up here, if I were to ever find a partner who’d want to join me more permanently. Who knows if that’ll ever happen, though. Hell, I don’t even know if that’s what I want either. But, well, such are thoughts for another time and place. For now, there’s work to do, and a house to build.

(See the full photoset on Flickr.)

Hut 2.1

When designing Hut 2.0, I went back and forth on the dimensions. Zoning codes allowed for up to 120 square feet without a permit, but I was reluctant to go from Hut 1.0’s 48 square feet, all the way up to the maximum in one leap. After all, that seemed like a case of Biggerism, a pitfall I wanted to avoid since I am trying to strike a delicate balance between minimalism and comfort, according to an aesthetic I might call “Enoughism”. So I settled on a more modest 8ft by 12ft structure, with a total footprint of 96 square feet. While double the size of Hut 1.0, I figured that’s probably be enough.

Of course, the definition of enough, shifts depending on the circumstances. Hut 2.0 was designed for a single primary full-time occupant (me), but was also meant to be large enough to accomodate the occasional guest or two. For instance, the loft is big enough for my full size mattress, and comfortably sleeps two; a considerable upgrade over the 2ft-wide ledge in Hut 1.0. But beyond that, I didn’t give much thought to the possibility of sharing Hut 2.0 with another person beyond a hypothetical eventuality somewhere down the line.

This past week, ever since Kelly decided to come join me out here in the woods, I’ve been eyeing the structure with a new perspective. Also, with the roof done and the exterior structure largely set, I’ve been turning my mental focus more towards the interior, trying to decide how to lay out the different functional aspects of the cabin. Where would the stove go? Where would the kitchen go? Where would the toilet go? Where would we sit and hang out? Suddenly, a structure that seemed big enough a week ago, started to seem a little bit cramped. Yes, I could fit everything in there, but it would be a squeeze.

So I went back to the drawing board (well, SketchUp), and what you see in the picture above is the (preliminary) result. Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to make the “foundation” much larger than the planned structure –the floor beams are 16ft long– , leaving me with room for expansion. So, instead of leaving a 4×8 area exposed for a deck or porch as originally planned, I decided to extend the cabin by 3 feet, to a total of the maximum 120 square feet. The extension will house the toilet (a 3’x4′ enclosure) and most of the kitchen, leaving most of the remainder of the original 8’x12′ structure open. The additional space might also mean I can fill in the wall cavities with insulation, rather than try to eek out every cubic inch of space.

Rough estimates of the material costs for the extension come out to less than $150, and perhaps an additional 3 to 5 days of construction. The latter, actually, presents the bigger issue, since Kelly and I will want to finish the structure as quickly as possible and start living in it before it gets much colder. To mitigate the increased construction time, I’m planning on putting up an uninsulated false wall on the inside of the extension to wrap up the original 8’x12′ first and make it habitable, then work on the extension and take down the temporary wall when it’s done.

On a semi-related note, I recently started looking into chimneys, and was surprised to find out how expensive they are. Maybe the components I was looking at at Lowe’s were overpriced, but $75 for a 3′ section of chimney? And $250 for a chimney mounting kit that doesn’t include the actual chimney? Whoa. If that’s how much it really costs, I’m looking at another $400-500 just for the chimney, and not including the stove. That and the extension will certainly put me over the $2000 budget I started with, but then, that’s still a few orders of magnitude cheaper than most homes…

Journal: November 4, 2010 – Roof Complete

I got that streak of nice weather I’d been hoping for, and I managed to finish the roof! Yay! The Ondura panels turned out to be pretty easy to install. The only annoying part was that I had to cut up a panel to make narrow strips because I’d made the rafters too long, and ended up with a few inches short at the ridge. Fortunately, those panels are pretty easy to cut; I’d imagine tin roofing would be a little harder to slice up. The biggest challenge, actually, was figuring out how to get up onto the ridge to lay down the ridge caps once I’d put down all the panels. I was hoping I’d be able to just climb up the gables, but that turned out to be a bit scary (not so much the climbing, but going from the gables to the ridge, with nothing to grab but loose roofing panels), so I ended up improvising some footholds by bolting on some small scrap 1x4s through the roofing panels down to the purlins. I was a little weary of poking more holes through the roofing, but I can just fill them in with caulk later, so I don’t think it’ll be a big issue.

So, the roof’s all covered up, but I’m trying to decide what else to do while I have relatively easy access to the roof. One thing I’m concerned about is that gap between the corrugated panels and the ridge caps. On the one hand, it provides ventilation, allowing warm air trapped between the roofing panels and insulation boards to escape. On the other hand, moisture may get blown in there by the wind if there’s a storm, and though the moisture shouldn’t penetrate far, it still might be an issue. I’m also trying to decide if I want to put down mounting brackets for my solar panels while I’m up there. The problem is, I haven’t quite decided whether I want to mount my solar panels up there in the first place. The roof does get decent exposure since it rises above the shadows cast by many of the trees, but the panels would be fixed, so I won’t be able to get as much power as I would if the panels were on trackers. But then, my solar panels are currently out in a clearing far away from the hut, and mounting the panels up on the roof will give me power in the hut, which would be nice…

Anyway, for now, I’m simply happy to get the roof done. Sure, it took 2 months, but then, I did manage to do the entire roof all by myself, so that’s something to feel good about. Now I just need to get the rest of the hut wrapped up before it gets too cold.

Journal: October 28th, 2010

It’s gotten cold. I got back from the city on Tuesday night, and was greeted to sub-freezing temperatures for the first time in a while. It was 28F when I went to bed, so it probably got down to the mid-20s later on. I’m still sleeping in a tent, but fortunately, unlike last year, I have a nice thick duvet (and a sleeping bag liner) to keep me warm and comfy. Unfortunately, my tent is starting to leak, so when it’s pouring rain outside, it gets rather damp and miserable inside.

On the plus side, this cold, wet misery makes for great motivation to work on Hut 2.0. Yesterday morning, I finished putting up the remaining purlins on the north-facing half of the roof before menacing clouds rolled in, forcing me to tarp up the roof again. Rain didn’t actually materialize until late last night, but this morning, I woke up to an unexpectedly bright and beautiful day, which I utilized to work on the northern-half of the roof. I got the insulation boards down, secured the purlins, and taped up the gap between the insulation boards up on the ridge. Next, I have some OSB strips I want to put down on the ridge, and after that, all that’ll remain is the Ondura roofing panels and ridge cap. If I could get two or three more days of decent weather, I’ll be done with the roof for good. After that, I’ll cover up the gables and knee walls, install the 3 windows in the loft, and then I can take down the scaffolding. I’m planning on putting up a tarp canopy-skirt all around the structure, so that I can work on the lower level through rain or snow. All told, I need 7 to 10 more days of decent weather, before I can switch to all-weather construction. It’s been raining 5 days a week for the last two weeks, but let’s hope I get a break.

Depending on how long Hut 2.0 takes to finish, I’m also considering taking a few days to upgrade Hut 1.0, so that I can put my mattress in it and sleep in there instead of the tent. I’ll need to take down the existing loft, put in a bigger bed, move the “kitchen” to the opposite corner, then put up a bunch of shelves to stow away all the materiel that I have piled up on the floor. While I’m at it, I might wrap up the hut with insulation boards. Even without insulation (except for on the roof), my body heat and a few candles, and occasionally using the stove to boil water or cook, is enough to keep the temperature about 20F warmer than outside. So, some R-5 polyiso boards wrapping up the exterior might go a long ways. On the other hand, it might be better to endure a few weeks of misery and focus my time, energy and money on Hut 2.0. After all, if Hut 1.1 proves to be too comfy, I might never finish Hut 2.0…

All in all, other than the wet and the cold, life’s not too bad. I’m enjoying the smells and colors that the rain accentuates, at least when it’s not actually raining and I can be outside. The crisp autumnal air reminds me of my childhood days in Germany, when I’d run around in the woods until it got too dark, and my hands went numb from the cold. Of course, back then, I had a warm home to go back to. But, I remind myself that once Hut 2.0 is done, I’ll be able to stretch out in front of a warm stove, and that’s something to look forward to.

Update Nov. 1st – Weather for this coming week looks pretty clear, so I’m pretty optimistic the roof will finally get done. Also, a friend is coming to visit next week, and will be staying for a while. With her help, hopefully the pace of construction will go up…

Hut 2.0 Roof Progress

The weather cooperated this week and gave me a few beautiful warm days, which I took advantage of to continue work on the roof. I got all the sheathing up, the ridge sealed up, and rigid insulation boards laid down on one side. I need a couple more purlins and then Ondura roofing panels will be ready to go up. I kind of screwed up with the measurements, so the gap between the roofing panels at the ridge might be a couple inches too wide for the ridge caps. Annoying, but I think I know how to fix the problem.

Also, I got a little worried about falling off the roof, so I decided to start tying myself in while working up there. I wanted to get my climbing harness out of storage, but never got around to it. So, instead, I improvised a harness out of a length of nylon strapping I bought at WalMart. I learned this trick from my dad when I was a teenager and went rock climbing with him one time. You basically take a loop of nylon tape, wrap it around your butt, then reach down and grab one of the lengths forward from between your legs. Put a carabiner through all 3 loops, and you have yourself a harness. Every time I climb onto the roof, I clip myself into a rope that’s tied off on the other end with enough slack to get me down to the scaffolding, but not all the way to the ground. At least, that’s the theory…

(I have more photos over on Flickr.)

Hut Finishin’ 2.0: Oct 28 – Nov 1

Attention all hut builders! If you missed out on Hut Raising 2.0, this is your last chance to get some hut building action in Serenity Valley before the season ends! Hut Finishing 2.0 will be Oct 28 through Nov 1st.

If you’d like to come, drop me an email, or post a comment below (and be sure to fill in the email address field).

Note: It’s been pretty rainy lately up on Serenity Valley, and with temperatures dropping, conditions can get miserable if the weather is uncooperative. Hut Raising 2.0 may be cancelled if inclement weather is forecasted.