Wednesday, December 31, 2008


December 31st is a time for summation. Listening to NPR, I hear end-of-year thoughts on politics, the economy, movies (Bob Mondelo's Top 20 is our Netflix guide for a year of viewing); and, naturally, I start to think of our own 2008, an outstanding year by any measure. We're comfortably ensconced on the south side of Block Island, the gusts of a winter storm harmlessly howling by, rattling the windows. Chloe and Hazel are thoroughly enjoying their time here; and, despite a shakey start in regard to employment, everything's working out just fine. Our house-to-be is waiting patiently in Sedgwick, and with a little luck my entry for 2009 will be made from Michelle's new office on the second floor. We've had a difficult time balancing the needs of house building, Chloe and Hazel, and Michelle's work. Who doesn't have this juggling act? We tell ourselves that our busy-ness now is a down payment on a more relaxed, slowed down future. Slowing down is now a conscious act, something you've got to have on the back burner of the brain, a constant reminder that hyper-drive is unhealthy. I need this reminder. Otherwise, my gift of being able to focus on nothing but work would blot out the rest. (I realize that what I consider busy is fairly relaxed by today's standards.) I'll abruptly stop there; that's all for 2008.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Germans Take the Lead

Here's a link to an interesting story in the New York Times about a new standard for energy efficient housing.
I could try to incorporate a passive heat exchanger into our house. Maybe a black box next to the wood stove. Fresh air piped in under the slab into the box, warmed with passive solar heat during the day and wood heat at night. The introduction of fresh air into a tight house is a critical piece of the energy efficiency puzzle. Leaky houses spend much of their heating energy warming the cold air filtering in. Without air exchange with the outside, though, the air in a tight house would become unhealthy. I was planning on having fresh air intakes (little circular vents in the walls that can be opened and shut) and your basic exhaust fans in the bathrooms and kitchen. In the middle of January with the house shut tight, the exhaust fans would operate with timed regularity and give us the air exchange we need. But I could, without much trouble, pre-heat the outside air coming in using something like the black box described above. The passive houses described in the NYT story pre-heat the air with the outgoing air and a little help from an electric heating element. A black metal box next to the wood stove work more or less the same way.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Just thought I'd log in for the month of December. I've been firing away for the last few weeks using pneumatic nail guns for shingling and framing, and I think it would be fair to say that I wouldn't be sitting here on Block Island if I had broken down and bought a gun. My reluctance to use the modern tools of the trade certainly slowed the pace. Anachronism has its price. If I'd used a gun, we might be living in our new house right now. But we're enjoying life on the island and looking forward to our return in May.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I'm starting work tomorrow after a few weeks of wondering whether the credit crisis was going to sink our stay on the island. It wasn't looking good. Then, the phone rang. It was the first guy I'd talked to a few weeks ago. That first meeting wasn't encouraging; he had work but he didn't need anyone at the moment. A talk with Richard may have changed his mind. Whatever the reason, it looks like I have as much work as I can handle until we leave in May.

Since I'm in the act of writing, I might as well report that I may be able to order all the stuff for a solar hot water system through Richard's brother at cost. The savings could add up to 2 or 3 thousand dollars.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Solar Hot Water

I had a long conversation with a technician from a company called Houseneeds based in Waitsfield, VT. Using our solar hot water system as a back-up heating system tied into the slab is entirely possible. If we were going to try to do the same thing as a primary heat source, that wouldn't be the way to go about it. But if we only want to use it while we're not there to light the woodstove, it would be a low cost way to get an additional boost from solar instead of falling back on propane to do the job. The whole system, not including installation, would run about $8000. The state renewable energy rebate and addtional federal tax credit might bring that to around $6000.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ready for Winter

Here are some pictures taken with the cell phone just before I left for Block Island. I'm not planning on making this a life-on-the-island blog, but there may be some planning going on between now and May and I'll post that.

The first thing on the agenda when we return will be to pour the floor, and I've been thinking about incorporating the back-up heating system into the floor with the solar hot water system as a heat source. So, for example, if the house is empty in the middle of January, we can convert the solar hot water system to heat the slab instead of water. I've been going back and forth on the merits of heating the slab and had all but decided that it was overkill. My argument goes something like this: The house is designed to be passive solar and the primary source of heat to supplement solar gain is a wood stove. On a stormy day in January we fire up the wood stove. Heating the slab with propane was out of the question, and heating the slab with a solar system didn't make sense because the space would already be heated passively on any day that the sun would be capable of heating the slab. Why spend the money on a system that would over heat the house? The only problem with relying on a wood stove is that it only works when you're there to put wood in it. I had thought that back-up heat would come from one of the standard propane heaters vented to an outside wall. We would need two, one for the main part of the house and a very small one for the utility room. We were looking at spending about $1800 on the heater for the main part of the house. But if we run tubing through the slab and use the solar hot water system to heat the slab when we're not around to use the wood stove, we'd spend about the same amount of money and in the end the back-up system would be less reliant on propane. That's the real issue. I want the house to use as little propane as possible.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Move

I got on the Block Island ferry this afternoon and surprised the family by showing up a day early. The house is Sedgwick is ready for winter. A 15 cubic foot chest freezer is humming away in the utility room waiting to be filled with pork. Everything that needs to be is out of the weather. I'm looking forward to May to get going again.

For those who don't know, our phone number, the same one we've had for seven years, has been transferred to a cell phone, and our address on the island is: PO Box 744, Block Island, RI 02807

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Wrapping Up

I'm sitting in Molly and Eric's kitchen having another beer. The computer I usually write on is on Block Island. I've stayed behind to move all our stuff into our shell of a house. I'm in that awkward in between stage. The rental house is devoid of furniture, empty of everything except a few pots and pans and all the stuff I'm taking to the island. I slept in the utility room with our cat, Ox, last night, (Ox will be spending the winter with Molly, Eric and Cyrus.) and I'll sleep there until I head south. I have to over-winter what's left of my oysters tomorrow. After that there's not much else but to clean the rental. I should out of here by Wednesday or Thursday. I'll try to take some pictures using our new phone and post them when I get to the island.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Crisis Hits Home

One day after I said that the current liquidity crisis would not impact me, I got a phone call from Block Island. My friend Richard does not generally pick up the phone just to say hello. Before I called him back, I wondered to Michelle whether some of his work had fallen through. My hunch was correct. Feeling very bad about it, Richard said that one year of work had shrunk to three months. (Michelle, Chloe and Hazel were scheduled to leave for the island in just a few days.) His clients were having trouble coming up with the money to pay for work already completed; continuation of these projects simply, abruptly stopped. What could be done under the circumstances? Not much. In situations like this I am likely to change course just as abruptly. A canoe pulling a u-turn and heading home when it looks like it's about to storm. Michelle's reaction, on the other hand, is like turning around an aircraft carrier. Though she hadn't left Maine, she was already on Block Island. Turning around was an option of last resort. In other words, get some names, make some phone calls, and see about other work. I gave her my silver lining argument: Way back in May we thought a winter on the island would be a good way to replenish our coffers after spending all our house building funds. We don't want to borrow money to build this house. (Not that we could at this point, anyway.) But, since we're so far behind in the process, we haven't spent nearly as much as we thought we would. With $50,000 still in the bank I could work on the house all winter, and we'd be in a better position come next summer. Of course, the problem with my scenario is that we'd run out of money by the end of winter or shortly after. Working on Block Island would give us a quick infusion of the money we need to finish. So, the aircraft carrier is still headed on a course for Old Harbor. I made some phone calls, and it looks like I can work for someone else. We're not going to worry about it. In the end we're fine. Our rule of living (and building) within our means has put us in an enviable position. In the end our wealth will be wrapped up in a beautiful house we built ourselves. Debt free.

I started insulating the utility room yesterday. When I return from yet another Keyo wedding down south, I'll put up drywall, install a door and move all our stuff into it. This will be a good test of my insulating plan. I bought a couple sheets of 3/4 inch foil faced rigid insulation and ran them through the table saw to create strips 1.5 inches wide. After insulating with the fiberglass and putting up a vapor barrier, I tacked these strips to the studs. This will create a thermal break to the outside. To make that thermal break even more efficient, I'm going to put full sheets of the same insulation on the outside creating a wall with an R-value approaching 30.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Roof on Posts

The posts finally came. Freshly milled spruce 6x6. The 4x4's I'd originally ordered were sent back. Visually, I thought the 4x4's too insubstantial. The 6x6's, on the other hand, seem a little on the bulky side. Maybe I should have given them more space between posts. As it is, the spacing is irregular because we had to work around the buried electrical lines. Well, I wanted the posts to convey strength and they certainly do that.

It's just before 6am and it's dark and raining outside. It's supposed to clear up around noon. I figure that I have 2-3 more days on the shed roof to completion, and the rest of the week looks dry and sunny.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Shed roof, closing up house

Beginning of shed roof addition.

Posts for screened porch

Garden, nicely tilled by Rudy

Friday, September 26, 2008

Long Day

I got to Porcupine Ln at 6:30 this morning, and Jeff Gray was there waiting for me. We left at 5pm after a full day of non-stop work with the excavator. We placed all the concrete piers for the shed roof and the screened-in porch. All thirteen of them had to be carefully set four feet below grade. We ran into some trouble while working around the buried electrical conduit on the north side, but other than that things went well. While I figured out where the porch piers would go, Jeff hauled the topsoil from the side of the road to cover the septic system. This is the same topsoil, roughly 30 yards of it, that Lewis Tapley wanted to cart away so that he could bring in more and charge me for it. (Sorry, I wasn't supposed to mention Tapley again.)

Jeff Gray doesn't stop to eat lunch; he snacks in his excavator or dump truck when he has a few idle moments. I had to steal a few minutes to swallow some lunch while he was busy loading. We worked quickly all day to beat the rain. We might get another dumping of four or more inches this weekend. I'm still waiting for the 6x6 cedar posts from Viking. I have about 30 days to finish up before I'm scheduled to leave for Block Island.

On the garden front, I tracked down the fish compost operation we used 7 years ago when we were first starting our garden on Rob Road. Deurr's Soils in Gouldsboro will deliver 16 cubic yards of compost next week for $560. When one little bag of compost at the local garden store is going for $9, 16 yards at $35 per yard is a ridiculous bargain.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The A Team (Part 2)

Our visitors leave tomorrow after a busy couple of days. Tim and I have almost finished making the concrete form. All the serious work is done. Michelle needs to wire all the electrical boxes in place, and I need to place all the knock-outs which will create little shelves in the wall when the forms are pulled off. Maybe we'll pour this thing before we leave.

A little squirt of starter fluid in the spark plug hole did the trick with the rototiller. Rudy tilled over a few beds of garden space, but the soil needs something that will dig a little deeper. Maybe a plowing under in the spring.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The A Team

Seven years ago when Michelle and I were framing the house on Rob Rd, help came from the south in the form of two veteran armchair builders. Armed with brand-new framing hammers and nail sacks, Tim and Rudy were ready to rumble. In one weekend we framed the second floor. Tim left with a bruised hand and Rudy was banned from power tools for rest of his month-long stay. But it was great fun. Maybe I could get Tim to resurrect the video he shot and post it on this blog.

Well, the A Team is on their way again with the addition of Helene and Anna to deepen the bench. I don't know, exactly, how I will use their vast arsenal of skills during their three day visit. Unfortunately, there are no old windows to scrap this time. (Sorry, Rudy.) We'll either form the concrete L-shaped wall or frame the shed roof. The arrival of Jeff Gray and his excavator could complicate things. I have a feeling that my main task will be to keep them satisfied with the slow pace of things.

Another disappointment for Rudy will be the uncooperative rototiller. On his last visit the old Troy Built wouldn't start. I got it going a couple weeks later, but then it sat idle for the rest of the summer. I tried to start it last week to prepare a bed for garlic. No luck. The internal combustion engine and I do not have the best of relationships, and I don't see it improving unless I check myself into a class on small engine repair. Not a bad idea. We need to make peace after years of animosity. I have your garden variety prejudice against gas powered things, and, as usual, ignorance is at the root of it all. I bought three kinds of garlic at the Common Ground Fair, and it sure would be nice to till in all the soil amendments. If the Troy Built fails to comply, I can always borrow the neighbor's supercharged Italian-made BCS tiller, a beautiful machine that makes the Troy Built look like a crude Stone Age gardening implement.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Home Stretch

With the slab done, (it was easy) it's time to close things in for the winter. The pre-cast concrete piers arrived today. They'll support the cedar posts which will support the shed roof. I've got Jeff Gray and his excavator lined up for setting them in place and finishing the rest of the site work. This should all happen next week. Once the shed roof is framed and sheathed, I'll close in the utility room so it can safely hold our stuff while we're gone. Then all that's left is to cover the window openings with plastic. I've got about a month to do this. Shouldn't be too difficult.

I prepared a row in the garden to receive a fall planting of garlic. Peat, seaweed, compost, green sand and granite dust, the secret ingredient. I've read that pulverized granite is essential to growing killer garlic. Piled around our well head is all the granite that was drilled out of the ground in search of water. I dug out perhaps a hundred pounds of this fine bluish-gray material and worked it into the soil with the rest of the amendents. I'll plant about 200 bulbs- enough to get us through the year and plant next year's crop.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ready to Pour

When I arrived at the house this morning, the plumber was already packing up to go. The plumbing inspector was due to arrive any minute. Then Bobby Gray showed up to say that the inspector had some sort of accident felling a tree (broken collar bone maybe?). No inspection. We all agreed, though, that lack of inspection need not stop me from pouring a slab in the utility room. There's only one small, insignificant bit of waste pipe in the utility room that would be covered by the slab. If the concrete guy isn't available to do it next week, I'll do it myself.

I spent a few hours with a chain saw this afternoon. We've got a group of people showing up to work on Saturday, and one of the tasks will be to make a pig pen. This won't be your typical pig pen. I bought 660' of wire fence to enclose about a half acre of oak trees. Perfect for pigs. When we come back from Block Island, it'll be about time to get us some piglets.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Roof, shrine, plumbing

I cut Michael's hair finally (sorry Helene) and Chloe made this nice shrine in one corner of the house. Michael thought it was frightening and dismantled it. I'm betting Chloe will recreate it when we go over tomorrow.


Plumbers showed up today and installed the well pump and pressure tank. As soon as it was wired into the electrical panel, we had water. It ran brown for a while (agitated rust from the inside of the well casing) but cleared up nicely. I filled a gallon jug and drank it for the rest of the day. Tasted good to me. We'll get it tested to see if it's high in anything harmful. The gas guy showed up as well. He buried the gas line that will run under the slab to the kitchen island cooktop. That's all he needed to do until we get ready to install everything else. The rough plumbing is just about done for the first floor. The plumbing inspector might come next Wednesday. The rest of the plumbing will come when we're back from our six month hiatus.

Tropical Storm Hanna is due to arrive tomorrow evening bringing with her heavy rainfall and some wind. The house should be ready. I spent most of today plastered to the south side roof battling light gusts of wind as I tried to nail down the roof cover. By the end of the day I had almost run out of the 2000 nails I bought to do the job. Working on the north side was less stressful because the shed roof was there in case I made a mistake. I can walk on the shed roof and easily stop myself from accidentally sliding off. The only thing on the south side to arrest a fall is a 2x4 screwed to the edge. Another two sets of 2x4's were screwed to the roof on the way to the peak. To keep myself from falling off, I tried as much as possible to keep my center of gravity against the roof with my feet flat against the 2x4 brace. Working this way, especially for long stretches of time, requires serious concentration. It reminded me of a profile John McPhee wrote about Bill Bradley back when Bradley played basketball for Princeton called A Sense of Where You Are. Bradley had a knack for knowing where he was in relation to everyone else and the basket. Eyes in the back and sides of his head. Working on a roof safely means that you've got know where your feet are at all times. With only one and a half inches between you and a 20' drop, one slight misstep can mean a broken leg at best. Keeping your center of gravity against the roof is easier (gravity more or less sticks you there), but working that way is tiring. At one point my 2x4 braces overlapped at a joint. Working backwards it's easy to forget that there's a small step down (0r up). You get a feeling of where your feet should be, and when you go to step and the next 2x4 is three inches down from where you think it should be, for a split second you suffer a small heart attack.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Winter Roof

I'm just about finished covering the south side of the roof with something to keep the weather out. ( Can't remember the product's name. Rooftop Guard? Something like that.) It rolls on like tar paper and is fastened with little one and a quarter inch nails topped by 1" diameter plastic washers. Lots of little washer-topped nails. There's an X wherever a nail goes. Every 4" on the top and bottom and every 14'' in the field. So let's see. For every 38' length of the 5' roll that's about 215 nails. I'll tap about 2000 of them before I'm finished.

I haven't seen the plumbers in a couple days. They might stretch a few days work into a couple weeks. I mixed up some bags of concrete today and poured a small pad so they could set up the pressure tank and install the pump in the well. We'll have running water! The rest of the floor in the utility room will pour around what I set up today.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Rough Plumbing

The day we left for Rhode Island Gray's Plumbing showed up but not without some confusion. The folks at the office had our old address on file because we'd been gas customers. Bobby Gray had been to our new place but hadn't told anyone about it. One of Bobby's plumbers drove to Rob Rd but knew something was wrong when there was a house at the address. At least he knew that his job was to be new construction. So he showed up a little late; no big deal though. In about three hours we had mapped out the plumbing for the house and installed most of the waste pipe on the first floor. Pex tubing will supply all the water except to the kitchen sink. We're paranoid of the unknown consequences of drinking from plastic and would rather be on the safe side and spend a little more to have our drinking water run through copper. The rough plumbing for the whole house should be done in a few more days at the most.

Tomorrow I'll continue sheathing the roof. The plumber is returning and hopefully bringing a gas guy with him. After tomorrow I should be able to call Andy Gray to schedule a slab pour in the utility room.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

New Sheathing Strategy

Putting up the first row of sheathing on the south facing roof consumed most of my day today. (The rest of it was consumed by harvesting and delivering oysters.) To minimize the odds of falling and breaking a leg, I came up with a new strategy for sheathing the high south side. No pump jacks; they'd be too cumbersome to operate alone. I could have tried to push the sheets 18' up the ladder, but that method, though fine for the shorter haul up to the shed roof, was too sketchy. Then I thought of pulling instead of pushing. I fished a hook out of my tool box, the kind with a screw on the end, and drilled an angled hole in the center of and a few inches down from the top of the sheet of OSB. With a rope through the hook and using the ladder as a ramp of sorts, I could pull the sheet up onto the roof. And I could do all of this from inside the house. This way, if something unexpected happened, I wouldn't be on a ladder underneath an unwieldy sheet of wood; I could just let go of the rope and start over. It worked perfectly. I can use the same method all the way to the top.

There should be a plumber showing up tomorrow. We leave in the afternoon for the long haul to Rhode Island. Block Island on Friday and a wedding on Saturday.

Roof sheathing

Monday, August 25, 2008

Apple Trees, Roof Sheathing, Bruised Knee

Two days ago, in an effort to take it easy, I staked out a small orchard on the west side of our clearing. Ten trees. Seven apples, a peach, a cherry and, maybe a plum. The seven different apple varieties will combine to make fermented apple cider. Some of them will be for fresh eating, but others will be good only for their contribution to the cider press.

Most of today was dedicated to sheathing the north side of the roof. Doing this single-handed is tricky and strenuous. I walk a sheet of OSB up the extension ladder, and at the top it tips onto the shed roof. Then I flip it end over end a few times until it ends up where it needs to go. Once I get up on the more steeply pitched gable roof I have a 2x4 cleat screwed to the first row of sheathing so I have something to stand on. Once today, for reasons unknown, the foot bracing against the cleat slipped off sending the other knee to the deck. I chalked it up to being tired and quit while I was ahead. I have two more rows of sheathing to the peak. I plan to make it to the summit slowly, carefully and without incident.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tapley Finale

I had been calling Lewis Tapley and leaving messages on his cell for a couple weeks pressing him to come fix the disconnected leach field pipe. I was about to call him again when I noticed that the area in question had been dug up and raked. He had come, perhaps under cover of darkness, and made the repair. Somehow, he had managed to avoid me. My anonymous adviser on matters septic suggested I make sure the repair was done properly and check the other connections. This I did yesterday. Everything looks fine; it's ready for topsoil. And that's the last I'll write about Lewis Tapley. Promise.

I've got a plumber scheduled to show on Tuesday. The rough plumbing and gas lines are going in under the slab. I'm ready to sheath the rest of the roof. I'll have to set up the pump jacks on the south side to get the sheathing up there. Pump jacks are unruly contraptions, but they work well enough. We're looking good for our departure at the end of October. It'll be here before we know it.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Step Into My Office

Yesterday, in a frenzy of activity, I nailed the sheathing to the shed roof rafters and, in doing so, created a place out of the weather. So when it started to rain this morning, I moved inside. Under the shed roof on the second floor, I set up shop. All the stuff that was under the tarp outside; chop saw, tool box, power tools; is now in my office along with a chair so I can sit and eat lunch in style.

I still have the rest of the roof rafters to put up. I think Michelle's going give me a hand. The rest of the rainy day today I spent getting the utility room ready for pouring a slab. I spoke to a concrete guy yesterday, and he seems to be free whenever I'm ready. I need the plumbers to come before I pour. Hopefully this will happen in the next couple of weeks.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rafters and Party

View from the top

Putting up the first rafter

From the finger

Celebrating with friends

Friday, August 15, 2008


Yesterday, I managed to suspend an 8' section of ridge beam at what I think (hope) is the correct height. The rafters should meet the beam perfectly in the middle if the height of the beam is exactly 137 inches above the top of the second floor wall. If this doesn't happen, something must be a little wrong with the Pythagorean Theorem. Michelle's going to help set a few rafters this morning. After a few sets hold up each section of ridge beam, the rest should go up quickly.

I got a quote from the icynene insulation guys. About $9,000 to do the whole house. We're still several months away from insulation. Next spring after we get back from Block Island. Plenty of time to make an informed decision.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Wrong Nail

After driving two hundred pounds of framing nails, I hit the wrong one. A 24 ounce waffle head framing hammer is less than kind when it comes in contact with a finger nail. The unlucky finger, right hand next to the pinky, wasn't even near the intended target. As the hammer was just on the return from the back-swing, it grazed the rafter behind me ever so slightly and sent the swing off to the side a few inches away. The finger nail exploded on contact sending a fine spray of blood onto the stud in front of it. Expletives followed. I didn't even have a band-aid. (Yes, I know; I should have a first aid kit on the job.) The coagulated mess shown in the picture is the accumulation of slow bleeding over the course of a couple hours. The last time I smashed one of my fingers with a hammer was about 8 years ago when I was building the shed on our land in Brooklin. I was due.

Despite the finger I managed to put up the rest of the shed rafters and frame in one of the gable ends. Forty 18' 2x10's arrived in the afternoon along with enough tongue-in-groove sheathing for the roof. The rafter material was boomed up to the loft floor so I wouldn't have to lug it all up there. I finished the day cutting a few of the rafters to size.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

2nd floor

More boards on the east wall

North wall shed addition (attic floor joists are in)

South wall

Boards on West wall