leave old job....leave old home...enter new home...engage new life...maintain what matters

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Alternative Home Builder: Week 21

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.  And indeed, it was today.  All 45 mph of the face slapping, branch snapping, frost lapping wind from last October.  Question:  at 8AM, after starting my first warming fire in the new house, which way should I walk back to the cabin?  Wind’s answer: unless your face enjoys feeling my slap, I’d suggest ducking low into the pasture.  Question:  at 10:30AM, after building a wood storage bin in the garage, I’m wondering from which of the two stacks---the small one below the shed or the large one on top of the ridge---I should haul the kindling?  Wind’s answer:  I made it easy for you by removing the pictured blue tarp from the ridge top stack.   Question: is Winona County ever going to pick up our recyclables?  Wind’s answer:  it’s obvious by looking at your neighbor’s blue recycle bin.  Overflowing with 200 pounds of paper, even I couldn’t blow it over. 

But now, emptied by the county, blowing it over was a breeze.  Get it?  A breeze?  Ha ha, I’m such a witty wind.  Makes you wonder if all of Dylan’s success really wasn’t my…hey!  Just because you have that new garage door, doesn’t mean you can shut me out.  I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll…

Today, for the first time, the inside of our house began to feel like home.  Perhaps it’s the walls.  Tom the Builder’s crew finished screwing on the last of the sheetrock, creating rooms.  Until now, I could walk from one “room” to the next by stepping in between the studs, like some kind of jail-breaker.  Yet many walls remain bare, awaiting their red elm siding.  Perhaps it’s the wood neatly stacked in the garage:  kindling, construction remains, split wood (boxelder, oak, apple). 
I’d always imagined stacking wood on the west porch or east porch but not the garage for fear of creating a mouse hotel.  Only time will tell, as I add yet another experiment to the list.  But I’m loving my garage stack, keeping the wood so warm and dry.  Speaking of warm and dry, I think that’s what is really helping me feel at home.  As the low-angled sun beamed through the south-facing windows, the living room climbed well into the 50’s.  Sure, in the picture you see Dave in his t-shirt, but he wasn’t the only one.  This afternoon, as I drove over to light my second fire of the day, I, too, wore only a t-shirt, long sleeve though it be.  I can’t wait to go over tonight to ignite my third and final fire.   I’m no longer lighting small fires solely to dry the massive masonry heater.  However, I’m also not just stuffing the fire box with wood.  With her outside so cold and inside so hot, she’d crack.  I’ve got to ease her into the new role as our primary source of warmth and comfort.  At 7AM yesterday, I began the heating sequence with a very small fire, only 5 lbs of wood, 4 small pieces.  Carefully following my instruction guide, I’ve increased each load since by 3 pounds.  I'm excited for the day's final fire, just before bed tonight, when I load her with 19 pounds of wood.  And by Saturday morning, she’ll be firing her maximum load of 50 pounds, if I can even stack that much into her fire box, huge as it is.  I can’t wait to discover how warm she feels.   How warm will our new wood-heated house feel?   Yet today, 50F was enough.  More than enough to warm that part of me which says “I’m home.”
Three years ago, Architect Paul asked us the most gripping house design question ever:  “What do you want out of your house?”  After bombarding him with Lord of the Rings analogies (Rivendell, Bag End), Mary Oliver poems (“Making the House Ready for the Lord”) and list after detailed list, we eventually filtered it all down to one dream:  Enable the Connection.  The Divine Connection.  More tangibly, the connection to the Land and the welcoming of you (family, friends and community).  And today, for the first time, I saw and felt the welcoming of our house.  Oh, I’d given plenty of tours, enjoyed the oohs and ahs and even the oh no’s.  But this afternoon, the house welcomed my brother, Gary,

sat him down in front of her warm masonry heater, mug of hot tea in hand, and invited him to gaze dreamily out her bright windows.

“Don’t give another thought to me,” whispered the house.  “Engage!”  And so we did, excitedly crafting a new Star Trek movie.  We were flying.  Perhaps it was us, or Linda’s World Peace cookies or something in the tea, but I’m wondering if it wasn’t the house herself.  Only time will tell.   Perhaps in building our dream house, what we’ve really built is the house of dreams. 

Not quite warm enough.  Not quite cold enough.  We need the house at 70F to tape and mud the sheetrock.  Its up to 60F. 
Quite an accomplishment considering we began Monday with 5 inches of 26F concrete on the floor.  Even an 80F April day won’t melt 5” of lake ice melt 5” of lake ice.    I’m loading 28 pounds of wood (three 5 gallon pails) into the masonry heater three times a day.  I’d load more, but the heater’s oozing a little water from underneath the bench.  Go slow to go fast!   She’s so huge that her extremities are still cold.  Could we place the entire Green Bay Packer team on one side of some giant scale and plop the masonry heater on the other, the scale would tip rapidly toward the heater, flinging the Packers into the Whitewater River (hmmm…).   Yet part of her skin---especially around the bake oven--- finally exceeded 110F at which point she becomes radiant. 
Like a massive star, she transmits her heat, not only by heating the air, but as light.  As I sat 5 feet away, I felt a warm glow on my cheek, like summer sunshine. We need the root cellar at 35F.  See I’m pretty much an apple-holic.  And tomorrow’s the last day to stock up at the nearby orchard.  An apple can retain its crispy sweetness for months if kept just above freezing.   Fortunately Tom the Builder finally installed the root cellar door. 
Unfortunately this is the warmest early winter ever it seems.  I installed pipes to bring in cold air and let out warm air. 
But if the outside temperature is 35F, there’s no way I’ll ever get the room down that temperature.  Once again too much thermal mass in walls.  She’s down to 45F.  What to do?  Stock up at the orchard at hope for the best.   But what is best?  Sunny and warm means warmer house.  Cloudy and cold means cooler root cellar.  So however the wind blows, I’m bound to win.  At least one game.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Alternative Home Builder: Week 20

Today I feel like I’m waiting.  Waiting for House the Land Built to be completely built, when we quit firing the masonry heater and plaster its decorative American Clay exterior.  May?  Really, really waiting to move out of the cabin and into the house, when sheetrock dust settles and floors are covered (acid-etch on the concrete, Marmoleum in the kitchen, cork in the Yoga loft, carpet on the stairs).  March?  Waiting for a cozy house, when everything is buttoned and insulated and I fire the masonry heater and all that cold, cold concrete finally warms .  Early January?    This morning I waited to leave the cabin and walk to the homesite.  I knew the insulators were driving from Shakopee MN, so why rush on over?  And then, arriving at the homesite, I waited for the insulators to arrive.  Which they didn’t until 10:30.    And while I waited for them, I rediscovered the best cure for waiting:  splitting wood.  I love all of it.  Selecting a chunk of wood.  Balancing the chunk on the hefty splitting log.  The smooth feel of the splitting maul’s handle.  Focusing my aim like a laser beam.  The lift, the fall, the whack and (hopefully) the pop! of splitting wood.  The surprise inside:  bursts of red, tightly rolled leaves, the black tracery of fungal spalting.  Picking up the split pieces.  Stacking them.  Starting over and over and over.  And all this is just the wood splitting process.  Better yet, perhaps, is just being out there. 
 The caw of a solitary crow.  The white flash of eagle feathers, high overhead.  The cold brush of wind on my cheeks.  Then, there’s the anticipation of actually stuffing the split wood into the masonry heater, lighting it, and whoosh!  Heat from the Land.  So, it’s a good thing I’m waiting:  for waiting gives me the time to create something else to wait for. 
I may very well be the only person you know who, when the water quits running in their home, gets excited.   After lunch (or dinner as Tom the Builder reminds me to call the noon meal)---a tasty bowl of Linda’s pumpkin chili---I placed my dirty dishes in our cabin’s sink, turned the faucet and…and nothing.   No water.  “All right then,” I smiled and texted landlord Kim.  Soon, with her guiding voice on the other end of the life, I found myself in the secret water supply sanctuary, a concrete bomb-shelter of a place buried in the hill behind their garage.  “Nothing looks terrible,” I reported back to Kim after resurfacing.  “Floor’s dry.  Pump isn’t burning up or anything.”    Ranking in the bottom 2% of handymen, I was pretty much useless after that and told Kim as much.  Chop wood.  Haul water.  Be gorilla.  That’s me.    And now the gorilla in me was excited.  The real gorilla, the one who not only tromps about the fields and woods, but thrives on them, feels invigorated by them.  “Maybe we’ll go a week without water,” I thought.  “Wouldn’t that be great?”   Chopping wood at the homesite, I watched the day-before-solstice sun with anticipation.  Never rising far above my new house, it never really set, rather it just leaned a little into the horizon.   And as it did, with no word from Kim about the water, I felt the exciting urge to prepare.  Ah, camping again!  Soon I’d stuffed the back of the CRV with four blue water containers, a sawdust toilet, bucket of sawdust and even the toilet paper.  Not that we don’t have toilet paper in the cabin.  It just felt poetically correct:  everything else was from the campsite, why not the toilet paper?  I’d just snapped the proud photo when the phone rings.  It was Kim.   Husband Troy found a loose wire on the pump.  I had water again.  While I was certainly grateful for Kim and Troy’s quick response and handy work, I hope I didn’t sound as disappointed as I felt.  I glumly hauled the blue buckets, sawdust toilet and even the toilet paper back into the shed.  Camping would have to wait.  Or maybe I should just crawl under the cabin, turn off the water and beat my gorilla chest.
 It must have been a really, really good day:  an hour since coming inside and my feet are finally beginning to warm.   When I feel this good, my inner imp surfaces.   And what my inner imp feels like doing is giving you a quiz tour.  You know, I present pictures from the day followed by ridiculously hard questions.  Ready?

The frosted structure in the foreground is…
(a)     My failed palm tree experiment
(b)   The ghost of Christmas past
(c)    The dreaded wild parsnip (finally getting what it deserves)

Here, while my neighbors are erecting a new greenhouse, I’m…
(a)    Looking for work since there never seems to be enough on the house project
(b)   Discovering just how much mud the bottom of a boot can collect
(c)    Actually helping, and it’s about time gosh darn it all

My bent over neighbor Lonnie and his on-looking son Matt are…
(a)    Bowing in preparation for their annual Christmas mud-wrestling match
(b)   Desperately trying to catch Lonnie’s wife Sandy who Matt just turned into a horny toad
(c)     Picking spilt bolts out of the muck

At the big, red wheel Dave (one of Tom the Builder’s boys) is…
(a)    Stamping my entire novel onto the ceiling
(b)   Trying to avoid a dangerous iceberg as he steers the house across the Land
(c)    Hoisting sheetrock up onto our dining room ceiling

Dave and Tom the Builder (the two with their arms up) are…
(a)    Wishing they were up in the yoga loft, but they’ll do sun salutation anytime, anywhere
(b)   Holding up the ceiling.   Oh no!  Oh no!  Get out of …
(c)    Aligning sheetrock until Dave (in the background) screws it in place
Just to prove how impish I feel, I’m only going to give you a clue:  all correct answers are the same letter. Please send me your answers, along with your first born and a check payable to me.  On second thought, just the check.

9AM just a little more light…enjoying myself all week, I split the last of the boxelder stack, about ¾ cord total to fuel the masonry heater next year.
10AM just a little more light…Tom the Builder’s crew sheet-rocks final ceiling.
11AM just a little more light…Excavator Steve spreads gravel in front of garage, covering mud holes and allowing our CRV to drive on in.
1PM just a little more light…two feet of insulation sprayed into our attic, completing our home’s thick coat.
2PM just a little more light…after a morning of gray clouds the sun begins to break free.
3PM just a little more light…Tom the Builder’s crew screws second layer of sheet-rock onto yoga loft walls, ready now to resist slamming heels.
3:30PM just a little more light…thanks to all the insulation, basement temperature climbs to 40F, from a low of 28F three weeks ago, creating a no-freeze zone into which we can finally bring water from the cistern.
4:00PM just a little more light…off-grid batteries, fed by the late afternoon solar rally, battle back from a 1PM low of 89% all the way to 97%.
4:25PM just a little more light…driving back to the cabin from the homesite, I snap picture of our rooftop peaking over the sunbathed prairie ridge (can you see it?).
5:15PM just a little more light…our dear organic farmer neighbors, the Dietz’s, turned on their first much needed light in their geo-thermally heated greenhouse
5:45PM just a little more light…Under a starry sky, I return from a successful “shopping” trip into the Dietz’s cooler with 6 pounds of potatoes for Christmas dinner.
6:30PM just a little more light…after last night’s solstice vigil, high on the prairie, I’m still feeling good about just a little more light.


I feel so very, very blessed.  Like our off-grid solar panels try to teach me every day, there is so much more light in this world than I could ever see or imagine.  So know that right now, I’m doing what I can to send you---to each of you my dear blog readers---not only the blessings of that light, but the sigh of peace from knowing it can never ever run out and the soaring ecstasy of its grace.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Alternative Home Builder: Week 19


What a difference a day makes.  Friday, numbing cold, blinding sun, a day that warmed the heart if not the toes.  Today, unseasonably warm, monotonous drizzle, the kind of day Minnesotans love to complain about.  But for me, my off-grid power plant brought a never-before-experienced drama to an otherwise gloomy stage.  On Friday, the sun produced far more power than Electrician John and his crew could consume with their noisy drills, blower and saws.  But today, as mist veiled the sun’s power, I knew the challenge would be completely different;  how would the batteries keep up without the sun recharging them?   By 10 a.m., Electrician John and his crew had already drained 10% of the available juice in the battery, much more than I had hoped: a thrilling call to action for my inner geek.  So I called Solar Curt and let my inner geek do the talking.  “According to the Mate3 display, John’s crew has drained an average of 300 watts per hour for 2 hours.  That’s 600 watt hours.  And if 10% is already gone from the batteries, then the batteries must only hold 6000 watt hours.  I was expecting 30,000 watt hours, including a 25% de-rating for the cold.  Is there a problem with the batteries?” Curt said he’d get back to me.   If I ever talk that way to you, feel free to throw cold water on my face and bring me back to the real world.  My inner geek would only laugh anyway.  He’s having fun.  But at high noon came the day’s biggest thrill;  the solar panels actually produced measurable power.  While it was only 100 watts, nothing compared to Friday’s 2500 watt burst, the rain-glazed solar panels managed to soak up sun that I couldn’t even see for all the gloom.  And in our new LED lit house, 100 watts will illuminate the entire kitchen and dining room.  Today, of all days, I learned anew a Tolkien truth.  “There is a light when all other lights go out.”


In yet another life first, I just completed a week-end long yoga retreat.  And now---having not only survived it, but basked in its energizing pulse---I’m wondering if yoga and my house aren’t really the same journey.  The parallels, too many to describe, keep spiraling in my mind, until aligning and fusing like one great DNA ladder, urging and carrying me star-ward.   Yoga, according to John Friend, the retreat's approachable instructor, isn’t about exercise, or even the famous poses like downward-facing-dog and cobra.  According to John (to whom I apologize profusely for all the misquotes and misunderstandings I’m about to make) the purpose of yoga is to better enable my Dance with the Divine.  To become fully free.  To embrace love---the pulsing breath of life and light---and, by shining it out, make the world a better place.   The poses and principles serve to engage me, both humbly and energetically, in the Dance.   All I can tell you that two days later I’m still dancing.  Just like John struggles to explain why the purpose of yoga is not butt toning, its hard for me to explain why this house is not about green and sustainable.  When it comes to alternative homes, ours included, what often attracts attention is the sexy (photovoltaics, invertors) and the quirky (sawdust toilets, rainwater cisterns).   Yes, they’re energy saving, green, sustainable.  All good!   But now I see them as poses, tools to help me engage the dance.  Through solar panels and invertors, I will dance with the sun.  Through steel roofs and concrete cisterns, I will dance with the rain.  Through sawdust toilets and compost heaps I will dance with the very circle of life and death and life renewed.  The House the Land Built is rising to engage me more fully in the Dance.   Some think I’m crazy.  Chopping wood.  Igniting prairie fires.  Hauling buckets of pooh.  And sometimes I do feel crazy, having devoted so many years toward controlling my life outcome, rigidly leading the march.  And maybe the Dance is supposed to feel crazy.  Lovingly, blissfully crazy.  Like I did Saturday, when John Friend invited me to notice an aligning light, centering me in Warrior II pose.  Like I did Friday, when we invited the solar panels to align with the sun and light our home.  Come to think of it, the feelings were amazingly similar.  Just as John (and yoga grandmother Ali and yoga teacher Monica) invite all of us to join them in the Dance, so do I.  Come!  Come to the Land!  Come to the House the Land Built!  And together---through headstand in the yoga loft or just chopping wood---we’ll Dance with the Divine.


Hah!  And I thought Monday was gloomy.  Even a wooly-skinned Irishman would grouse about today’s slice-it-with-a-knife mist.  But not me!  Tom the Builder is moving the project along, wielding a cattle prod apparently.  On Monday, Electrician John’s rough-in passed the state inspector’s scrutiny.   Yesterday, Mike the Mason finished capping the heater with limestone and Plumber Kirk’s boys flung pipe like ninja’s swinging swords, finishing their rough-in as well.  And today, the insulator’s---clomping about upon stilts---sheathed the ceiling with a plastic vapor barrier, readying the attic for insulation.  Needing little from me, I was left to again ponder the wonders of off-grid solar power.  You have no idea how good it feels to be freed from the tractor-powered generator.  Freed at last by solar power!  Solar power? Doesn’t there have to be sun to generate power?  Apparently not.  For at 11AM today, amidst a drizzly fog-bound gloom, the invertor claimed to be pulling 100 sun produced watts of electricity.  “How could that be?” I thought as I peered at the ghostly solar array (can you even see it in the picture?)  “100 watts could illuminate 10 LED bulbs,” continued the ponderings of my inner geek.  So I pictured 10 LED bulb hanging over the 20 foot long by 10 foot wide array, lit now by the 100 watts.  “Blinding!” I thought.  “I couldn’t even look at it.”  And yet the array itself seemed cloaked in gloom.  “Where’s all the light that the array is turning into light?”  Now my inner geek understands that the sunlight my eyes “see” is only a fraction of the sunlight hitting them.    Perhaps I didn’t really understand.  Perhaps I’d only read about such things.  Yet today, not only my inner geek, but every wonder-struck bone in my body began to understand, sense even, the staggering power of the sun.  And it’s for exactly this---this visceral, put my book down and see for myself, moment of connection---that the House the Land Built rises.   


An extraordinarily ordinary day.  The intrigue of doorknob selection.  The challenge of documenting wire locations.  The sparkle of lights as we save big money at Menard’s.   Even the off-grid electric ho-hummed along, losing a little as Tom the Builder’s boys rocked the garage, gaining much of it back despite yet another cloudy day.  And I’m so lucky that even my most ordinary of days begins in the Corridor, that snaking, razor-wire Fenced place my novel’s characters---Amelan, Elli, Emo, Skye---have called home since June 2004.  The same year we purchased the Land!  Coincidence?  I think not.  But today---this  extraordinarily ordinary day---I’m beginning to accept yet another (and perhaps even freakier) synchronicity:  that my novel and my home will complete at the same time.  One day this spring, when the last wall feels its last paintbrush stroke, I imagine that Skye, my hero Amelan’s daughter, will finally---and for the last time in this the seventh revision---get to narrate my novel’s (hopefully) riveting conclusion.  How weird is that!!!???  What forces of nature are at work in my life?  And a force of nature is the only way I know to describe the origins of my novel.  In 2004, when I felt the call to bring this story to life, I had no idea what I was getting into.  Looking back over each of the seven 350 page revisions, I now understand why it took so long.  I needed to write every day for five years just to become a good enough writer (maybe?) to devote two years to writing the tale as it deserved to be told.  Okay, I’m just going to say what I believe happened.  Like the House the Land Built, I feel called to birth a gift, to myself, to you, and to all who want it.  This I’ve felt for some time and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be granted the opportunity to try.  But, oh you source of divine intervention, do I have to give birth to paternal twins?  What if I deliver the house and THEN the book?   What?  Is that you I hear laughing?    


One problem with my relationship with the Land is that...well…it’s a relationship, and like any relationship, the best of Mike does not always show up.  For instance, I can sometimes take the weather personally.   And this morning was one of those instances.  Shortly after sunrise, as I walked from the cabin to the homesite to meet HVAC Aaron, the sky---which had cleared at sunset and remained clear all night---suddenly began clouding over. 
“Just my luck!” I thought.  “Six cloudy days in a row.  And when the sun finally appears, he pulls up the covers.”  I’m sure my favorite meteorologist, MPR’s Paul Huttner, could present a sound scientific explanation,  but I could feel a lot more miserable choosing to take it personally.  Fortunately for me, two forces conspired, which eventually would raise my spirits above the clouds.  First, the sun didn’t completely leave me.  Instead of thick blankets, he wrapped himself in silky, see-through sheets (how risqué!).  And second, our off-grid electric leaped into action.    All this gloomy week, poor off-grid struggled to produce 100 watts.  And that, according to its Mate3 display, is where he began today.  But soon, the output started climbing.  200 watts.  500 watts.  900 watts.  1500 watts!    And the batteries, depleted down to 79% of capacity, began to fill again.  81%.  84%.  89%.   Suddenly, I was witnessing the most exciting spectator sport of my life.  On this side, the clouds.  On the other---my newest hero, the sun.  And today, his winning attitude began to inspire me.  An hour earlier, before the festivities had begun, I’d torn off the rag-tag tarp I’d strung over the west entry to keep out the snow.   Too ugly for my house!  Now, ignited by the sun’s winning ways, a new snow-fence idea emerged.  I grabbed my hand-saw and strode off over the ridge and down to the pasture, where (as you can see in the picture) literally hundreds of cedars have sprouted.    Linda often worries about so many cedars, but I’ve always felt that they were a resource.  For what, I didn’t know.  Until now.   I felled my first cedar, a lopsided eight-footer.  Side-body long, shoulders on my back, I dragged it up Pheasant Run and down the driveway.  Intoxicated by the scent of cedar, I laid him by the west entry.  By morning’s end, seven more cedars joined him. 
But before each trip to cut the next cedar, I’d rush down the basement and check the score.  91%.  93%. Go sun!  And at 11:59---my halls now decked with boughs of cedar---the sun was knocking on the door of perfection:  95%.  And I---having found the best of Mike in this relationship---felt way over 100%. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Alternative Home Builder: Week 18


Sometimes even the smallest of victories is enough, just enough to anchor an otherwise runaway day.   And today I was a-running.   Or at least my mind was, so many decisions.  Linda and I scurried from room to room with Electrician John deciding the location and type of every light and outlet, oftentimes feeling chased by our self-imposed off-grid power constraint.    And at the same time (or perhaps it was another me?) I toured the rooms with Root River Hardwoods Marty and Tom the Builder precisely determining which walls would be wood(red elm) and which would be sheetrock (painted).  All the while---in addition to painfully cold feet---Linda and I felt the pressure of the clock.  She needed to leave early to visit the Natural Built Home Store in Minneapolis to select the color for our Marmoleum countertops, a laminate type material made of linseed and jute.   And just when we thought we couldn’t balance one more spinning plate on our stick, Electrician John brings up an item, which we’d complete overlooked, by asking what we’re using for internet.  I wonder if HBC, the local provider, heard my scream.   Ahhh!!!!   So now you understand why I felt so happy as I snapped a picture of Solar Curt turning on a light.  It could have been any light.  But this light is powered by our 16 Rolls S530 batteries.  The batteries, however, were not charged by our solar panels, or even our tractor-powered backup generator.  These batteries arrived pre-charged.  So all we did was ask the Outback Flexpower One invertor to draw some DC power out of the batteries, convert it to AC, and pipe it down to the light.  But compared to a making a decision---where nothing actually is made---making light, real light upon my basement walls, feels remarkably satisfying, like a warm water upon cold feet.


Okay, so I’m going to let you in on a little personal secret.   I worry even more than I let on.   My darned murderous mind!  Now, as the deepening December cold easily seeps through the roof and walls of our home---partially unbuttoned and largely un-insulated---my emerging worry is that, after we move in, our home will not relinquish the cold.  What troubles my mind is thermal mass.  While our home will (hopefully one day) be quite insulated (R-60 ceiling, R-40 walls, R-5 windows), its built upon a mountain of thermal mass.  13 truckloads of concrete, and supporting all that, 26 truckloads of sand.   I don’t know how much the (pictured) masonry heater weighs.  Yet I’ve seen Mike the Mason pacing the floor and contemplating how to install its limestone cap, weighing 500 pounds and its only 2 inches thick!.   Heavy things hang on to their heat.  Even my body, filled with perhaps 120 pounds of water (very high thermal mass), is capable of jumping out of a sauna, rolling in the snow, and still sweating.   So all our thermal mass should be great for keeping our home warm in winter (and cool in summer).  Problem is thermal mass works in reverse as well, like the front-yard snowman still lingering as the lawn around him greens.   And if snowman can snub his carrot at spring, what of 500,000 pounds of Minnesota-chilled concrete and sand?  Will my feet freeze upon the icy concrete floor like they did yesterday?   And my worrying mind doesn’t’ stop there.  He imagines pipes bursting within the frozen floor, requiring a jack-hammering demolition of the floor to repair it.    Then my mind delivers its final, nearly lethal stab:  the nag of alternative home betrayal.  All that thermal mass we poured in to keep us warm will serve the opposite this winter.  Though Tom the Builder assures me all will work out---once the house is buttoned, insulated and heated---I still manage to worry, as if the murderous part of mind were sand and concrete, its high-thought mass refusing to let go.  Fortunately, the better part of me knows a thaw always come, not only to the house but---like an old wool hat---to the frozen corners of my mind.   

Goodbye outside!  Tom the Builder’s boys just finished nailing on your last few pieces of trim.  You won’t see us for awhile, excepting as we come and go from your inside.   Don’t feel bad.  In fact, you should be proud.  Look at you!  Your achingly beautiful, Minnesota grown cedar siding.   Your eye-catching Serious 525 windows, both generating heat through passive solar and retaining it with R-5 efficiency.  Your steel roof, capable of matching the hue of sky and capturing rain for our water.  Your gutters, easily catching and transporting the rain to your 5400 gallon underground concrete cistern.  Your 3 solar hot water panels, ready to heat our water and our concrete floor.  Your 12 solar photovoltaic panels, ready to generate 3000KW of electricity when the sun shines.  And supporting it all, your concrete floors, walls and footings:  the mountainous thermal mass.   And beneath that, your 4” of insulation.  And beneath that, your 26 truckloads of firmly packed sand.   And through your sand run your pipes for carrying clean water in from your cistern and “used water” out to your septic.  Don’t forget your outside porches, all three:  west entry, east corridor, and south perch.  What could be more welcoming and land-connecting?    Even if I mention your buried electrical cables (from solar panels and tractor-powered generator) and your root cellar ventilation, I’m sure I’ve overlooked something.  And that’s just it, outside,:  you’ve accomplished so much already it’s time to relax and let inside catch up for two or three months.   Don’t worry.  We won’t forget you.  We know you need a garage door, a corridor door, and of course some limestone you can show off.  Perhaps together, we can work at waiting and revel, for a moment at least, in what we’ve already done. 

A day faced with decisions.  While Cris of Hiller’s Flooring did his best to help us choose floor colors for the kitchen to go with our Natural Built Home counter-tops, we actually made no decisions. We’d already decided, months ago, on Marmoleum, a laminate made from linseed oil, wood flour, pine rosin, jute fibers and finely ground limestone.  We loved its earthy constitution.  Yet had we known then what we know now, I wonder what decision we might have made.  Turns out our house is built all-too mightily upon fossil fuels.   The diesel I burn (7 gallons per day) to power the generator.  The coal burned to create all the steel and cement.  The insulation: under the floors, in the walls, atop the ceiling.   Yet today we felt so good about our insulation decision, regardless of all its fossil fuel, that Linda sent this text to Tom the Builder:  “we could be doing straw bales.”  For a long time, we considered insulating our walls with straw bales.  What could be more sustainable?   We eventually backed away because of the potential for mold.    But now, in the heat of build battle, we’ve learned at least two more reasons not to do straw bales.  First, we can’t imagine the stress of trying to figure out how to stuff straw bales into our walls.  And the second reason we learned today.  The chill in the house (26F) stiffens the wire, making it impossible for Electrician John to snake wire through the walls.  So he fired up his 170,000 btu kerosene heater.  Imagine a spark from that igniting the straw bales.  At least, we wouldn’t have to worry about a cold house.   If I’ve learned one thing about decision making, it’s this:  only after I make a decision will I learn what I needed to know to make that decision.   So maybe I can stop agonizing over decisions and just start laughing at my own ego and the wonderful absurdity of the mystery.


We’re off-grid!!!!  Completely.   100%.  I’m so freakin’ excited, I can barely type.  Electrician John and his team are wiring away, drilling and cutting, and blowing heat into the house and the solar panels are not only keeping up, they’re holding back.  “We could deliver more,” they’re saying.  “But you don’t need it, and the batteries are full, so why bother.”  I can’t describe how good it felt to turn off the tractor-powered generator and park it back in the shed.  Thank you, tractor and generator, for your 4 months of reliable service to House the Land Built.  You’ll still be needed.  But not today, because today, the coldest day yet this winter, the sun is shining.  Brilliantly.   Even now, as I look out the cabin window as the sun nears the horizon, I need not worry about running out.   When she goes down, the batteries will chug on, providing Electrician John all the power they need.  Then tomorrow, when (hopefully) the sun returns, she’ll put back what John took out of the batteries.  For two hours, Solar Curt, Electrician John and I pondered the pictured display--the Mate 3--part of the Outback Flexpower1 Invertor which will eventually hang in the “control center” by the kitchen, a place of honor it certainly deserves.  At the moment I snapped the picture, the Mate 3 was telling me the batteries are 100% charged, the solar panels are delivering 2.5kW, Electrician John and his team were using 0.3kW and the generator is providing no power.  When all the power tools were buzzing at once overhead, I shook my head in disbelief.  According to Mate 3, the 12 panels were generating more sun-driven power than the roaring, power-hungry tools were consuming.  There out the window is you, sun.  And now you are connected, directly, to the tools that are building my home.    I’ll never feel the same about you again.



Sunday, December 4, 2011

Alternative Home Builder: Week 17

While I knew that our alternative home could be a challenge for Tom the Builder, no one told me (and I hadn’t that through) the challenges of basic construction support.   I mean how do you actually construct a home without pipelines to electricity and water?  All contractors, except for the Mike the Mason, show up with electric tools, to which I’ve managed provide electricity via the tractor-powered generator.  All it requires is diesel fuel (lots of it) and a tolerance for an ear-splitting, 747 whine.  Though I’m thrilled that Mike the Mason only uses gas-powered tools, he’s the only one that asks for water.  How else to mix mortar and clean trowels?  Since our rainwater harvest cistern is not yet filled, I’ve been hauling a 30 gallon tank back and forth from our cabin, filled with a hose from the outside faucet.  No more.   With winter knocking on the door, loudly!, we turned off the outside faucet yesterday to avoid freeze-up.  And wouldn’t you know it, Mike the Mason shows up today for the first time in 3 weeks.  I’d even saved containers of water, just in case, but these too I dumped yesterday so they wouldn’t turn into blocks of ice.   But there’s always a way.  And that way involved filling 4 gallon blue containers (pictured) from the kitchen faucet.    Fortunately, today’s project only involved laying limestone caps beneath each of three windows, so he only needed two blue containers of water.  Mercy knows how many blue container trips I’ll make when he caps the masonry heater with limestone.  I once dared tell Mike the Mason that he reminded me somewhat of my dad.  Not only do they look alike but my dad also laid block with those pop-eye arms.  And now they share one more trait:  they both ask me to be their gopher.  “Go-for this.  Go-for that."


Today I went looking for hope.  Though, as they say, hope can be found in the most unlikely of places, I needed a little more intentionality around my search.  It’s those damned windows, the blight on a nearly perfect project.   A month late, they’re holding up the next (and long awaited) stage of project:  buttoning up and moving inside.   And, I must admit, the emotional impact is far worse.  My usually buried doom and gloom side even wonders if they’ll ever arrive, fearing myself a victim of the all-too-common construction con-game.    So I arrived at the homesite before sunrise, looking for...something, anything, a sign.  As I lit the day’s first small fire, I glanced outside the hole of hope, the hole (in the picture) that should already be a window.  And there it was!  Eagle, white tail flashing as he glided away from the harassing crows.  That, and a rooster pheasant swooping by, pretty much got me through the morning.  But by noon my hopes had sunk below my knees.  I was just about ready to call Tom the Builder and ask if it was time to get tough, when he called.  He’d heard that the window truck might arrive tomorrow.  A story I’ve heard too many times. Now desperate, I went seed collecting.  My hand running up the tall stems, the fluffy seed heads of showy goldenrod reminded me why I’m here.  Plastic bag now pregnant with seed collected from our first little test plot prairie, I zigzagged across our newer 41 acre planting, searching not only for hope, but for gopher mounds on which to spread the seed.  When I’d nearly climbed to the homesite, the phone rang.  It was Tom the Builder again.    “Got the window truck driver’s name,” he says.  “Who?” I ask.  “Don, she’s supposed to arrive at noon tomorrow,” says Tom.   “Don?,” I say.  “I don’t know too many women named Don.  Sure its not Dawn.”   So there you have it.  I went looking for hope at dawn.  And tomorrow, at noon, hope arrives with Dawn.  Hopefully!  

Today, at 11:14AM, Dawn finally arrived.  She backed her 18-wheeler down our long gravel driveway, stopped in front of the garage, and bantered with Tom the Builder as she unlatched the trailer doors.  I had no idea what they were saying and could care less.  All I wanted was to peek inside.  Are they there?  Are my windows really there?  I could have timed her with a calendar.  The creaking doors swung wide.  I gazed deep into the bowels of the nearly empty trailer.  Is that them?  Is that my windows way back there?  Now I can’t really say when it happened.  When exactly did I come to believe that the windows were actually here?  Was it when Tom and his crew unloaded the first 180 pound plastic-wrapped rectangle?  Was it when, after they laid it on the garage floor, that I snapped a photo and sent it to Linda?  Was it when we counted them, all nineteen?  Was it when they tried to install the very first window and voila! it fit.  If I had to say when it finally sunk in---like a healing balm rubbed into an ancient wound---I’d say it was when the great gang of windows, seven facing south and two facing east, finally manifested.  Suddenly the room, where you will one day eat and laugh and warm yourself before the fire, became real.  “I’m so happy,” I told Tom.  “I don’t know if I like the windows, or if, like the man constantly whacked by a hammer, I just feel relieved that the ordeal is over.”   Yes, the window label claims an industry-leading R-value of 5.25, 50% better than their nearest competitor, and the reason we opted for Serious windows in the first place, but right now I’m just happy to have any windows at all.  Oh, I almost forgot.  The 16 batteries which will store our solar-generated electricity, arrived right on schedule today.


Ho my gosh!  I have so much to learn.  I should have begun this home when I was four years old.  I mean, look at this picture:  off-grid central, what it takes to NOT be connected to the electric grid.  In the foreground:  16 batteries (Rolls S530 ), which I must not only learn how to keep charged (by either solar panels or tractor-powered generator) but also maintain (keep filled with fluid).  On the floor, just behind the batteries:  the wooden box for safely storing them and venting their exhaust (hydrogen gas).  There’s not much I need to learn about a box except to keep it locked when mischievous children are around and to keep an eye on that vent so our house does not become another exploding Hindenburg.  But all this learning pales compared to what I need to understand about the invertor, the Outback Flexpower One, mounted on the wall.   This off-grid brain (1) charges the batteries (from either the solar panels or the backup generator), (2) drains electricity out of the batteries, converts it from DC to AC, then services the AC electric panel for home usage, (3) monitors the performance of the batteries (are they too low?  do I need to recharge them?), (4) monitors the performance of the solar panels (how much are they putting out?), (5) provides the user with a loving and meaningful relationship (just joking, but you never know).   I’m so lucky to have found Solar Curt.  Not only does he install this stuff, but he’s my teacher, taking time-outs to give me valuable lessons.  Little by little.  For example, today I learned that it’s up to me to decide when to turn on the backup generator and when to turn it off.    Flexpower One could decide for me, says Curt, but it can’t know if tomorrow might be sunny, in which case maybe we should wait and see what the sun can do.  And that’s exactly why I went off-grid:  to connect me to the Land.  I didn’t want systems that “free” me.  I wanted systems that engage me with the Land.  And what could be more central to the Land than the sun?


Your end of the week quiz:  What do lights have to do with an off-grid home?  Answer:  Everything.  While solar panels and batteries and invertors get all the sexy press, what we soon learned is that off-grid is about making do with less, much less, electricity that is.  Very roughly, each daily watt hour (consuming 1 watt of electricity for 1 hour each day) adds $10 to the cost of our off-grid system (cost of the batteries and solar panels and invertors).  Say you want a recessed light above your kitchen sink which you expect to leave on 10 hours each day.    If that’s a standard 65 watt incandescent lamp,  then the off-grid cost = $10 * 65 * 10 = $6500.   For one bulb!  If instead  we use an 11 watt LED lamp then off-grid cost = $10 * 11 * 10 = $1100.  Suddenly, LED, which normally looks very pricey in the store, looks very, very cheap.  But it doesn’t end there.  The next journey is realizing how much money we can save by simply turning off the light when not using it.  Since we’re using the sink 2 hours per day, we can save almost $800 if we plan on turning off the light when we’re not at the sink.   So today, as Linda and I agonized over light fixture selections with Kim at Citilights, one thing we agreed on was LED.  Period.  Still, much stomach churned over all the $ we spent.  So on the 2 hour drive home I had plenty of time to think about why.  Why does off-grid cost so much more than grid-power?  As the sun set behind me, I had an aha!   We’re powering our off-grid house on contemporary sunlight (solar panels), while our old Minneapolis home was powered by fossilized and compressed sunlight (coal, natural gas).   Rather than mining the earth for our electricity, we’re plugging our power cord directly into the Land, like any other creature.  So one day, as I wash dishes under the recessed LED light, my hope is to feel part of the community of Land, sipping on the daily straws of the sun. 

Ahoy Matie!  Storm’s a-breaking on the starboard.  Batten down the hatches.  A thrill was upon me this morning as my heavy sorrel boots carried me to the homesite.   Though only a few flakes were then flying, the radar glowed blue to the southwest.  Snow!  Over 6” possible at the epicenter of the storm, which seemed poised to pass overhead.   Something---a familiar impulse---was driving me to tighten up the house.  Yes, the new windows now held back the rain and snow, but two doorways still remain open to the elements: the garage and the east Corridor.   Two sheets of plywood, secured by rope, soon covered the garage doorway, while a tarp did the same for the east Corridor and also allowed for relatively easy entry.  But I found I couldn’t stop there.  The west porch (pictured next to the garage door), where all the precious cedar trim boards were stacked, was apt to fill with drifting snow.   Not that anything would really suffer, I just couldn’t stop myself from hanging a protective tarp over a rope.   That task accomplished, I walked round and round the house, assuring myself that all now was ready.  All was secure.    Suddenly, I recognized the feeling.    It’s exactly how I feel when we’re camping and a storm approaches.  I love it.  There’s an underlying terror, yes.  But a thrill, stronger yet, rises to meet the challenge.  Visceral.  Primal.    Especially in the remote wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, where the threat is very, very real and no quick help can come.  It is then that I discover the greatest bursts of creative energies I have ever known.  It is, in part, the search for this creative energy---divinely granted it seems---that pulls me to the Land.  Building an alternative home certainly feeds my creative urge.  Yet today, as winter comes a-howling, I’m reminded there is a power greater than myself---dwelling it seems at the very intersection of house and Land---capable of asking the very best of me.
Today, I thought you deserved some of my joy today.  So come, walk with me, from the cabin to the homesite.  We’ll take a leisurely route---which actually means longer---if you don’t mind.
Down Kim and Troy’s “grassy lane”…
…past their pagoda dogwoods…
…across the road, through the gate, we enter the Land and gape at the majesty of the oaks…
…so as not to exhaust you, we magically teleport ½ mile, to the very eastern edge of the Land, where we look across the pond to the cottonwoods and beyond to the homesite…
…walking isn’t too hard as we follow the mowed paths (fire breaks)…
…into the house, we light the fire and gaze out those wonderful new windows…
…good-bye house (and solar electric panels and solar hot water panels and...), time to go back to the cabin…
…the Land greets us, and greets us, and greets us, as we journey home.