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Friday, November 18, 2011

An Alternative Home Builder's Week

So you’re to blame.  Yes, you who responded so enthusiastically to my last blog.  Because of you---and the ‘if some is good, more is better’ principle---I will not only real-time document the coming week’s effort to get the House the Land Built built, but I’m really going to break the blogging rules this time.  I will update the same post each day this week.  Amazing how bad a man can get with a little encouragement. 
Though a window factory delay set the project back 3 weeks, a few non-critical path tasks might happen:
Monday:  Begin installing cedar siding.  Complete root cellar ventilation.
Tuesday: Install cistern for storing harvested rainwater.
Wednesday:  Develop plan to build bathroom counter-top from a ‘local slab of wood’.
Thursday / Friday:   Rack solar panels.  Install local limestone on windows sills and masonry heater.
For sure, I will start small fires in the masonry heater several times a day to help dry the mortar. 

Now I’ll find out what really happens.  Talk to you tonight...

Wow!  For such a buzzing beehive of a day, I personally only had to make a few small decisions. Still, it’s a good thing my little Prius and I arrived before everyone else to light my little drying fire in the masonry heater, because by mid-morning, our driveway looked like a used truck lot.    
In the first truck---a white pickup, so popular in construction---came two guys to install our ‘fat wall’ insulation.  They didn’t need anything from me and I never asked their names.   I did thank them for making the delivered insulation work even though many pieces---huge, 10 inch thick blocks of polystyrene---were factory cut to the wrong size. 
Initially designed to be a low-waste process, I felt bad as sawed remains of polystyrene swirled on the floor like cups outside a McDonald’s.   Thank you, nameless guys, for cleaning up so well.
 In the second truck (actually two trucks:  the big, white boom truck and another white pickup) came Tom the Builder and his crew.  I uttered my polite hello, but all I wanted to do is get a look at the big load of wood on the boom truck:  our cedar siding.  And when I climbed aboard, it didn’t disappoint.  Yes, I nearly got drunk on the smell of fresh-sawn cedar but what really excited me was that it was northern white cedar from True North in Duluth.  Rather than the usual western red cedar, they sustainably harvest the cedar I’m so familiar with, the same that lines the shores of the lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  Yet I really didn’t know what it would look like on our house until I returned at day’s end to find Tom siding up around the garage door.  Probably the most beautiful siding I’d ever seen.

In the third truck (you guessed it, white again) came Curt and Micah, the solar guys.  They tore the forms away from the now solid concrete footing and installed horizontal railings for mounting the panels, like one giant erector set.   Well, two actually:  one for solar electric,  the other for solar hot water. 
By lunch I’d finished my few decisions, so I drove to Winona and shopped.  While not totally successful, I did find jigsaw blades to replace the four I’d broken using Tom’s saw yesterday to cut ventilation holes for the root cellar, a project that, as Linda told Tom, nearly drove me suicidal.    I quietly slipped them (and a few extras) into Tom’s jigsaw box them toured the house with him, admiring the day’s work.  He seemed impressed that his guy, Brent, had managed to put the finishing touch, the ridge cap, on our steel roof. 
So was I!

Last May, white wild indigo, like a miniature acacia tree upon our prairie, bloomed for the first time. 
But the frigid winds of November reduced its once proud form to a tumbleweed, now stumbling south, now tumbling north over corn stubble.  Today I discovered how white wild indigo feels.
The day began so smoothly, save for the mud on my tennies after a quick and much needed rain.   I lit my small fire in the masonry heater, then rolled the tractor generator into place while Tom the Builder’s crew returned to beautifying our home with cedar siding.   
Glad to not be needed, I drove back to our little cabin and finished editing two whole chapters of my novel.   In a break between chapters seven and eight, I called Marty at Root River Hardwoods (future supplier of our indoor paneling and doors) wondering if they could build us a bathroom countertop:  a rustic-looking 2 inch thick slab of wood.  Though I’d fallen in love with the chunk of milled boxelder from our Land (see Making Love With the Enemy ) it came up 7 inches short when cut down to usable size.   Expecting to hear ‘sorry but we don’t do that’ from Marty, I was thrilled to find out that not only could they do it in rustic cherry but at a lower price than I’d feared.  Pretty much the first time that has happened on this entire project.  
That thrill propelled me well into chapter eight, until the phone rang.  Plumber Kirk.  I don’t know how he does it, but somehow, by the end of the conversation, I always feel like he’s the boss and I’m taking orders.  Isn’t the customer boss?  Anyway, now I had a ‘to-do’ list:  pick tub, shower and faucets.  My only relief was knowing that our alternative home stole one big item from Kirk’s list:  a toilet.  Tom the Builder already promised he’d custom craft our sawdust toilet.  No doubt the first cherry toilet in Winona County.  The winds already tugging at my roots, I drove back to the homesite for my after-lunch check-in.  Soon I almost wished I hadn’t. 
Tom the Builder was frowning, not entirely happy with the window order.  Not that I could ever make Tom happy when it comes to these windows.  We chose the supplier, Serious, because they claimed to make 50% more energy efficient windows than their competitors, R5.5 versus R3.5  for top-of-the line triple pane.  But Tom, comfortable with the supplier he’s used for years,  always refers to them as “your windows” rather than “the windows”.    And now “our supplier” is not only delaying the project 3 weeks, but Tom’s not confident the order is right.  Still working that.
While dealing with that Serious problem, the poor insulation installers returned to complete two walls.  The insulation supplier hadn’t sent them enough polystyrene.  I love how Tom takes care of us.  He was caught off guard by when they showed him what they planned to install:  a different product.  After much questioning, he determined I was not only getting more insulation (> R40), I was getting it at the same price. 

At the same time as Serious windows and insulation, Excavator Steve showed up to dump two truckloads of rock onto our lawn for the septic drainfield.  He then informed me that tomorrow he’ll install the cistern for storing our rainwater, the only water supply for our house.  Bad news:  Linda will be out of town.  I told Steve that he’d have to somehow make up to her for never getting to see this critical competent of our new life.  He looked more than a little frightened. 
And while all that was going down, I ignored a phone call from Tom Heim, the 77 year old farmer who’d sawed our boxelder with his amazing home mill. 
I’d called him yesterday, thinking maybe he could saw our bathroom countertop out of his own wood.  Now, after dealing with Kirk and Tom and Steve and insulators, I was pretty much ready to just go with Marty at Root River Hardwoods.  I knew they’d do well by us.   Then---and the only way I can explain this is to say that a power greater than myself intervened---I climbed the stairs to the Yoga porch. 

Gazing out, I thought how I could nearly see Tom Heim’s farm, seven hazy miles distant upon the next ridge.  I got into the car and drove to Tom’s. 
Our home is all about one thing:  the great connection.  The connection to the Land.  To you and all our friends.  To our new community, including Tom Heim. 
So now, after sorting through dusty pallets of old and dry wood, I’ve returned home with another option:  a gorgeous slab of maple, felled and milled by Tom Heim himself.  Of course Linda needs to see it before we go forward.  But I’m already in love.  Again. 
How many times can one man fall in love?
Unlike yesterday, today began horribly, then improved until, at last, even I---the energizer bunny as Tom the Builder call me---ran down my battery.  I hope a couple amps remain, because there’s quite a story to tell.
And that story must begin with the horrible.  As soon as Tom the Builder lumbered out of his truck, I could see the writing on his face.   And I could get the source:  the windows.  “Your windows” as Tom calls the R-value=5.5 Serious Windows.  It’s not like Tom to just blurt out the problem.  So, patiently listening, I pieced together the real problem:  the door.  Serious is making one door for us, possibly the most important door, the  all-glass door at the end of the Corridor leading out onto the porch, welcoming you out onto the Land. 
Problem is we won’t get the door we want for another 6 weeks.  Worse yet, Tom lacks confidence that when it arrives it will be what we need.  So we’re bringing in the magician:  Architect Paul.  We’ll see what spells he can conjure.  Stay tuned.
Having nearly bottomed out, I sprung back up like a rising bungee jumper when Excavator Steve arrived.  After 3 years of studying, designing and biting my nails, we installed the storage tank for our rainwater harvest system, the system that will provide us (and you) with all our water .  The moment Steve finished digging the 12’ deep hole off the northeast corner of the house, the big truck backed down our driveway.  On its bed (two beds actually) lay 3 concrete rectangles to be assembled one on top of another like a layer cake.  Except this cake (14’ long,  7’ wide and 8’ deep) will hold 5400 gallons of water. 

Not only will it hold it but it will accept the water that slides down our steel roof, flows down the gutter and gushes in underground pipes until spilling through 4” holes at each end of the tank. A one inch rain will gift us with over 1000 gallons.  A simple pump then feeds the water from the cistern, through a 1 micron filter, into our basement pressure tank.  Drinking water will pass one more time through our Big Berkey, filtering out everything, even Atrazine if present.
Perhaps Steve excellence was contagious, because by mid-day he not only had the cistern installed (except for the water) but everyone else on the project seemed to cruise.  Inside the shed, Electrician John installed the service that will feed backup power from the tractor-driven generator to the basement batteries if the solar panels cannot keep them full. 

And the siding.  Oh the beautiful siding Tom’s crew installs.  All day long I kept making excuses to pass by the tower (as we call the two-story corner of our house)  and gawk. 
Though all is not perfect, I feel blessed to be part of something so amazing.  I can’t wait until you come.  We’ll drink the cleanest, freshest water.  We’ll marvel at the kitchen lights, connected directly to that great light of our solar system.   And we’ll bask in the scent of Minnesota cedar. 
You're more than welcome.

What a day!  What a surprisingly wonderful day.  For me yes, but even more so for Linda as I succeeded in withholding from her quite a surprise.  You see Linda works in Minneapolis every Tuesday and Wednesday, so Thursday mornings provide her with a fresh view of the house.  My plan was to totally delight her with what she saw.  And goodness we both could use a little more delight sometimes, especially the kind of delight that only a place called home can provide.  To some degree, we’ve been homeless since March when we began tearing apart our Minneapolis home in preparation for sale.  Though I’m grateful for our little 20 x 20 cabin, its not home. Not like the Land.   Not like the house is already beginning to feel.  And for Linda (and myself) I wanted to bring a little more home to the house.
So, before Linda arrived at the house the morning, I swept.  Pretty much the whole house.  Partially to keep our concrete floors from scratching, but mostly just to feel nice.  Homey.  As homey as a construction site can feel.  In addition to the usual mud and blown in dirt, Styrofoam swirls upon our floor like snow on a parking lot.  Though it sweeps up about as well as a tiny bouncing balloons, I bagged what I could and hid it in the tower shed (the storage space below the Yoga porch and above the root cellar). 

Unlike Styrofoam---debatably the least recyclable material in the observable universe---I create value from all the scrap wood generated by Tom the Builder and his crew:  fuel for the masonry heater. 

Still, “operation delight Linda” needed one more thing.  But seeing as that one thing was out of my control, I killed time by helping Excavator Steve install our septic drainfield. 
While we laid 330’ of perforated PVC pipe into a 3’ deep rock-filled trench, Steve warned me of a potential problem unique to our alternative home:  our drainfield might be more apt to freeze causing the septic to back-up.  Yuck!   Since we our Humanure will be composted rather than flushed, the septic bacteria---the real filter that makes it work---won’t have enough of their favorite food to eat (yes, that’s how the world works whether we like it or not).  And it’s the bacteria that generate the heat (70 degrees even in January) that keeps the septic drainfield from freezing.   Just as I was getting worked up about too much clean water, Linda arrived. 
Indeed she was delighted with the progress on the house, especially the achingly beautiful cedar siding.  But the big surprise had not yet arrived, so I killed time by showing off everything that had happened in two days.  Rainwater harvest cistern.  Fat wall insulation.  Only one thing remained for her to see:  the backup generator service in the shed.  Then what was I going to do? 
But the divine works wonders sometimes (all the time actually but only sometimes I pay attention).  For just as I led Linda out the garage, there stood the big delighter, smiling to see her.  It was Paul.  Architect Paul had come just as he’d told me yesterday.  Big hugs.  Laughing for no reason other than we’re all so happy to see other again.
Two years we’ve worked with Paul to design our dream.  Two trying, wonderful creative years.  And now the dream, mere Paul drawings, were now becoming manifest before our eyes.  And so we reveled as we gave him the grand tour of his imagination.  A few quick and wonderful hours.  Me, Tom, Paul and of course Linda. 

And Linda was indeed, delighted.

Perhaps it was but the whiff of Friday in the air, for it seemed everyone had a good day today.   We all just did our work and did it well.  With one exception, my work felt delightfully routine:  light small scrap-wood fires in the masonry heater, keep the place clean (though for most part the workers do a great job already), keep the tractor-powered generator fueled and running. 

There was one thing I was hoping to do today---something I’ve been thinking about for weeks now---and maybe today I’d finally get the chance.  But driving back to the site after a mid-morning break,  my hopes were dashed when I saw invasion of the trucks.  Now, in addition to Tom the Builder’s crew was Solar Curt’s crew and Electrician John’s crew.   Surely, I now faced a host of decisions.
Yet when I drove down the hill and got out of my Prius, no one descended on me.  They all just went about their work.  Electrician John skillfully continued installing the service which will bring in power from our solar panels and backup generator.   Solar Curt completed the installing the mounting brackets for our solar panels.
Thrilled with the quality of their work and even more thrilled they didn’t need me, I snuck off on foot.   Over the prairie I strolled.  Feathery plumes of grass---higher than my head---waved at the wind’s command.  And as a plume bent toward me, I reached out my leather-gloved hand, gently stripped off the seeds and dropped them into a blue basket hanging from my neck.  I love collecting prairie seeds.  Such a joy to walk, sit even, and pluck away with abandon, if just for the intoxicating scents alone.  Prairie sage.  Mountain mint.   And oh when I mixed them all together in my blue basket.  Had heaven and earth conceived a divine potpourri, they could scarcely have done better.   
But what made this set collecting outing so special, was that the seeds were not for me.   I’d intended them as a surprise for Tom the Builder.  Tom is trying to establish a 2 acre prairie (ours is 41).  But only the little bluestem grass is doing well.  His flowers disappeared and what’s a prairie without the ever changing kaleidoscope of color.  Tom is so disappointed.  So today, as Tom was sitting with his crew in our kitchen-to-be, eating his lunch, I presented him the blue basket.  It was the least I could do to thank him in a small way for the amazing work he’s done for us. 
The afternoon floated on.  And at day’s end, Linda and I begged Tom to join us up in the shed and gaze out the hayloft door at what he’d accomplished.  That cedar siding.  I still can’t get over the beauty of that cedar siding.  Even Tom, a bit of a stoic, could hardly get himself to leave. 
I hope you enjoy gazing through the hayloft door of this blog.  It’s hard to describe the connection I feel to you.  For it, and the gift of your time and attention, I remain very grateful.
I must say I was shocked to see how many of you kept up with this week’s daily blog (blogger gives me generic stats you know).   Whether I can continue finding the time and energy to keep that daily cadence, I don’t know.   I guess this is the part where I ask you, not only for your opinion on the cadence, but for continued encouragement as well.  The comments, emails and Facebook likes fuel me more than you can imagine. 
But that decision can wait until Monday.  Until then, and as always…


  1. Ahhh! That fire looks so inviting! :) Heather

    PS - I'm giddy that we will get daily updates for the whole week.

  2. Wow! What progress since we were there! The cedar siding is going to look amazing! I can't wait for the updates and pictures to show all the progress being made.

    PS - I can imagine to cozy fire warming your beautiful home! - Lynn

  3. Just as you feed the fire daily...your blogs continue to feed us. I love the siding and hearing about the updates to The House the Land built. :) Heather

  4. fireplace = awesome! Dan

  5. I love getting the daily info. I am smiling aong with all the ups and a few dips. :) Heather

  6. I love the smiles and pure delight! Thanks for keeping up with the daily blog. I know the saying is "it takes 21 days to make a habit", but I have my fingers crossed that daily bloging for 5+ days will become the new Rahdur blog habit :) Heather

  7. The daily blog was so enjoyable to read and was something I looked forward to! What a great week of fun, big events. WOW! The crew is making great progress. The cedar siding is absolutely beautiful! Have a restful weekend, and I look forward to the update(s) next week :) -- Lynn

  8. Finally catching up on your blogging after several weeks, and oh, what progress you've all made - I can actual hear the lilt in your voice in my head as I read - what's the new move-in deadline? - MFK

  9. Thanks for sharing your post... keep sharing content about builders I'm a frequent reader of your blog..

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