Friday, December 31, 2010

Dec. 2010

During this particular visit there was much that I hoped to accomplish. Wife and father-in-law would soon be joining me for Christmas. Sarah's father, Jim Hutto was in for a long trip as he was driving up all the way from South Carolina. He was interested to see my progress in building a house for his daughter. With such an unnecessarily complicated structure, I feared he would suspect the man his daughter had married was a few screws short of having enough screws. On the another hand, I was curious to see how the house would handle multiple guests, which included Jim's dog, Porter and Sarah's two cats, Jerzy and Vincent. There were many interior components to finish for the place to be completely functional, many of which I would not have time to install before their visit during the following week. At the top of the list of interior projects to accomplish was to separate the bathroom from the bedroom with an enclosure of shelving that would serve both rooms. In the bedroom this would create a shelf for a small TV to sit just beyond the foot of the bed with an additional shelf for DVDs and whatever else. On the bathroom side, the shelves would serve as storage and the lower shelf would wrap around to become a sitting bench across from the shower stall. The entire enclosure would hug the chimney pipe. An exhaust fan, electrical outlets and a bathroom door were also in order to create a truly private place to poop.

These would be my "after dark" projects when it was too dark and cold to work outside. There were many other things I hoped to finish, and though I averaged about 12 hrs. of work a day, I was only able to meet a small fraction of my goals. In the general sense of this project I usually find that I set my sights too high and fall short. My pace is frantic and slow. Until I can improve on my approach I will always be disappointed with the results.
Throughout this entire project I continually return to one most important concern: sealing up the walls from the cold outside air. On especially cold evenings I can feel a rush of cold air coming off the landing from the kitchen even when my wood stove is burning hot. The reason for this is obvious as one entire wall of the kitchen is uninsulated and only roughly closed up. The other walls are only lightly insulated with no interior wall board. There are a series of steps that I must take in order to fix this tear in my envelope. First and foremost, it is absolutely essential that the kitchen have a new entryway. My plans include shifting the point of entry to the center of the camper, which I have already cut away, and pushing it out about eight feet to include a small mud room. Doing so will allow me to remove the current door which is warped and leaks like an incontinent old man and put an insulated wall in it's place, thus opening up the kitchen to more room and smoother ergonomics. For the new entryway to serve it's purpose, however, there must first be a roof over it. If you recall from earlier posts the plan for my house sculpture includes a sort of tower to be located next to the kitchen and directly above my proposed entryway. So as I see it, I must frame and sheath the tower and it's roof before I can even begin to construct the entry as it is all one unit sharing one roof. Time to don my snow pants do some work outside!
The weather was cold but sunny for several days as I slowly framed out the tower. I had already built the floor of the second level on my previous visit in November so I began there. My daylight was very limited so close to the Winter solstice. At such a northern latitude, the sun sets at about 3:30pm. At the end of the first day I set up lights to work in the dark but the cold became so uncomfortable after the sun had gone down that I elected to go inside and do interior work instead. Of that there was no shortage. So in the evenings I would start or continue a separate project indoors. To stay on task I began work on a passageway between the kitchen and the tower. There was a large opening that I had blocked temporarily with plywood on the high end of the kitchen wall where the top of the roof began it's downward slope. It was here that the kitchen shared a wall with the tower and I began to build an unusual looking doorway. The opening measured about 8' X 5' and was split into two squares by a vertical support. Roughly, I had two 32" squares to fill. I wanted to install a paned window in each, one of which could open and close from either side like a door. A built-in ladder would provide tree house-like access to the tower. Until the other half of the house was built (with doorway access) this would be the only entrance to the tower.

For more than a year now the kitchen has had an unfinished roof. It was my plan that this roof would connect with the northwestern wall of the tower. The tower however would be about four feet wider than the existing kitchen roof to encompass the extra space of the new entryway which would end up behind the kitchen. That meant that a section of about the size and shape of a dog house would need to be built to extend the roof and fill the remaining space. After that was taken care of, the foot-print of the tower would match the shape of the lower floor and every part of the first floor would be covered, albeit in an odd fashion. After framing and roofing the "dog house" I took a look at it from the ground. The addition thickened the look of the building but it needed a window to give it significance. It would serve no function but as house sculptures go it would be an interesting feature. It would look as though there was a floor between floors and it might be a really cool "secret room" for a kid. I had recently picked up an assortment of old fashioned paned windows at the Truro dump and picked one that would match the windows with which I planned to line the uppermost level of the tower.

I began framing out the walls of the tower in sections. During previous months I had done many drawings of the tower but as of yet had not arrived upon a finished plan. So I began with what I did know. An eight foot section of the southeastern wall would be a divider between the tower and the second floor of the future garage. I wanted there to be access between the two so I framed an opening for a doorway. The remaining four feet of that wall would stretch beyond the garage where a large double paned window would sit. The wall would also have a built-in supportive beam that would extend 16" beyond the frame at a height equal to the overhang of the kitchen's southwestern facing roof. The width between the beams would be about 6' where a large casement window would be the "eye" of the tower. The extensions would support the "brow" and the overhang of the tower's roof. To determine the height of the walls I climbed up onto the other roof (that housed the bedroom and bathroom) and tied a string to the peak. I then ran the string with a line-level attached over to the (future) tower and stood on a step ladder until the little bubble found it's place between the lines. From the string I ran my tape measure down to the floor and found that I would need at least an 8' wall for the top of it to meet the peak of the adjacent roof. When the other half of the house was complete, all of the wall heights would match up and an additional second floor roof could begin it's downward slope from above the peak of the existing one without looking forced into place.
I spent a lot of my time considering the overall look of the house with the tower in three dimensions. There really is a big difference between the drawing board in which the house is viewed dead on and the actual structure as it is seen by the observer from a variety of positions. As I assembled the frame I incorporated ideas from about 6 months worth of sketches. I thought I had fleshed out a good solid plan in my drawings but in the process of construction found that some ideas would not look good in real space or that previously rejected notions made sense when I considered the observer's point of view from all the different elevations of the surrounding property. The approach by car up the driveway was an unforeseen angle, as well as the all encompassing view from the tower's interior. The trees that stood nearby the house also affected my design. So as I built I made adjustments to my original plan.
On the short, south facing end of the tower, there protruded the overhang of the kitchen roof and the corresponding beam I had built into the opposite wall. The space in between was only wide enough to accommodate one full size window. Here is where I wanted to do something special because this section would be the focal point of the buildings exterior. The single elevated window would look out over the treetops like a great eye. This feature would give my house a sort of expression all it's own! It would live!
The eyes of a thing give a glimpse of the personality beyond. As a kid I loved the children's books of Bill Peet. I liked that the inanimate objects in his illustrations had life to them. Houses and buildings, cars and locomotives all had "eyes" that looked out into the world around them. As a kid it made sense to me but now I wonder: must a thing contain flesh and blood to be alive? Must it think and move of it's own accord?
As a lover of cars I have owned many older vehicles, mostly built in the sixties or early seventies before I was born. From each of these vehicles I could discern distinct personalities. The older the car, the more developed it's personality seemed. The mood of the car could be seen visually in the teeth of it's grill or the gaze of it's headlights and it could somehow be felt behind the wheel in the way it rambled down the road. The more time I spent with the vehicle the better I got to know it's idiosyncrasies. Under the circumstances of long cross country drives, when I spent every day for weeks with these cars, I could discern changes in their moods.
I want my House Sculpture to have a life of it's own. When an observer looks at it, I want it to look back at them.. and wink. The infusion of sentience maybe a universal goal in the work of every artist, whatever the medium. A great work of art must have life!
So what does that mean, to have life? Is it a success in creating the illusion of life or does it live on it's own? What constitutes life? Is it possible for a thing to have life but no soul?
They are age old questions that have long been under debate in the realms of philosophy and religion. The answers vary widely and exist only in the deep murky pools of abstraction. There are many systems of belief which claim to answer these questions with absolute confidence (a trait I am loathe to trust). Some religions claim to have every answer. The religion I grew up within taught that plants and animals had life but no soul. The soul was a privilege bestowed upon mankind by God. My parent's religion was a very hard lined Christian faith whose answers to everything was either black or white. Other sects of Christian faith do not have such inclusive ideas and do not claim to have every answer but there is still a general consensus that only humans and perhaps animals have souls. I suppose anyone who has been friends with an animal can come to their own conclusions about whether or not their friend has a soul.
Eastern religions have more open concepts of what is alive around us. Some believe that there is a spark of soul (or God) in all things from the lowliest pebble to the greatest of kings. It is the stage of the soul's development that determines it's stature of position, awareness, thought and movement.
To come to any conclusion or to even embark upon a path of understanding in this realm of thought one must be carefully observant of themselves and how they relate to the world around them. An arborist, for example, might have a few things to say about the souls of trees.
As all of this stuff concerns my House Sculpture, how am I to give this arrangement of lumber and nails a "life"? Honestly, I don't know. In terms of a piece of art, I believe I can give this structure an illusion of life or personality, but it will not have a soul until it is fulfilling it's purpose and housing a family. Hopefully, with a little help from the house, it will be a happy family.
Over the course of the week I was only able to finish the frame of the tower, not including it's roof. I had hoped to at least have a roof over it but that would have to wait. I turned my attention to the interior where much work had to be done to prepare for guests. The biggest job was cleaning and reorganizing. With several jobs going simultaneously, the interior of the house had become a maze of lumber, tools, salvaged parts and debris. After a few weeks of working in this fashion, my "bedroom" becomes smaller and smaller until I am sleeping on a mattress in a corner surrounded by junk that I need to climb over to get into bed. Every so often I must take some time to make an overall sweep of the house to make it a place where I can live and work again. The house was such a mess at this stage it took me two full days to clean and reorganize it.
By the time Sarah and her Dad arrived the place was ready to accommodate them. I had arranged the camper's decrepit old appliances into positions relative to where the appliances of the finished kitchen would sit which made it easier to use. I made the bedroom more comfortable by finishing the shelving unit that separated it from the bathroom and making a platform for the mattress which also created a little more storage space. In the bathroom I created more shelving and put in an exhaust fan. I rearranged the living room which I had been using as a tool shed and wood shop into a relatively uncluttered space where we could all hang out, and at the end of the day Jim could fold out the hid-a-bed.
We had a little trouble keeping the dog and cats separate, but for the most part the house worked out well. We spent Christmas Eve warm and comfortable while we opened presents. On Christmas Day we left the house to return to our home on Cape Cod.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Book Review of A Place Of My Own by Michael Pollan

A Place of my Own by Michael Pollan is told by a guy who wants to build a small house. His reasons for doing so were his own but I found myself identifying very strongly with his thought process. He's good about putting his thoughts into words and his intentions are carefully planned and researched. He certainly put more forethought into his project that I put into my own. My plans have been rather scattered and most of my practical realizations have tended to come up during the building process itself rather than in planning. Pollan's goal was to create a sort of fortress of solitude; a small writing house separate from his regular house but located on the same property. He refers to the remarks of several different writers, scholars and historians to complement his thoughts. Gaston Blanelard sums up his idea of what he deems the chief benefits of a house: "..the house shelters day dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace." To those not inclined towards the arts, "dreaming" may be low on their list concerning the importance of houses. But there is a lot in this notion if you believe that "life is but a dream". Art requires a great deal of dreaming. No work of art could ever be created without the artist dreaming it and making it a tangible thing.
Pollan makes many interesting observations and references concerning the philosophy of pioneers of the designing process. Also included is a rich history of architecture. It was in this area that I found out how little I knew about the art of architecture. It's evolution is fueled by revolution and "out of the box" thinking. The most famous architects seemed more interested in the art of the profession than in the basic functions of the houses they created. Frank Lloyd Wright once made a comment that if a house's roof did not leak, the architect had not been creative enough. Wright's buildings were notorious for their leaky roofs, but he is revered as one of the greatest modern architects. In fact many of the greatest architectural achievements were never even built. The merits of these creations were judged upon their plans and models as art, not their practical use. For many "high minded" architects the arrival of occupants to a newly built structure spoiled their "dream".
Pollan makes it clear that he is a writer and has no business building a house, even a small one by himself. He decides to employ an architect (who lets him sit in on the drawing process) and a contractor with whom he works along side. It was interesting to see the natural animosity between designer and builder and Pollan's relationship to the both of them as client. It makes sense too that there would be some form of contempt especially on the side of the builder. The architect is continually referred to as "sitting in his ivory tower" far away from the practicalities of the construction process. There are almost always going to be aspects of a building plan that will not work in real space. It is up to the builder to make it work in practical terms. In my own designs there have been many variables that I did not know with certainty, so I would simply leave them open to interpretation until the actual building process. Under my own unique circumstances, as architect, client and builder, the conflict is always circular and I work it out however I need to. It's not so easy when these three components are separate entities. Such design discrepancies include measurements, joints and engineering requirements. It could be anything. It is up to the architect to formulate the entire design in which all measurements add up to mathematical truth in a way that looks harmonious. Practical truth is different however, and the job of making the actual structure work within the limits of all the given variables and codes can at times require a compromise. It also seems to be the case that many architects have little "hands-on" experience with building. Hence it is not uncommon to hear contractors refer to the architect's plans with contempt as "cartoons" as it is up to the builder to bridge the divide between theoretical plans and practicality.
In defense of the architect there seems to be little appreciation for the artistry involved in creating a building that looks good both inside and out in it's elemental surroundings. There is a mountain of theory and history that contributes to the aesthetic form and function of a house. In practical terms, the idea itself must be put to parchment so that a common visual reference can be made between the designer, builder and client.
The great amount of information concerning the art of architecture left me feeling quite clueless. I can't help but wonder,"what the hell is the thing that I am building?" Whatever it is and wherever it fits in terms of the art of architecture, will when it's finished, look like no other house. For something of a glorified shack I have done a great amount of drawing and sketching concerning it's development. Practicality plays a major part but is always second fiddle to the overall aesthetic form. I still don't know how my house will look when it's finished or how it will evolve but that is part of the fun and freedom in my own approach as architect, contractor and owner.
I really enjoyed reading A Place of my Own. It is well written and thoughtful. It encompasses a great deal of the building process without reading like a "how-to" manual. Even though it is a very small house lacking many of the modern conveniences of a conventional home, Pollan presents a well rounded account of building that is interesting and entertaining. The house he creates is uniquely his own.

Friday, December 10, 2010

February 2008

I was greeted with lots of snow when I arrived in Monroe in February of 2008. I plowed the driveway again with my John Deere taking care to leave a nice clear wide pathway up to the house.
It was time to begin construction of the roof. I bought several rough cut 2X8s from my neighbor Peter Cormier, some measuring 14 feet to accommodate a long overhang. I used 2X6 rafters for the short south facing side of the roof and the 2X8s for the long spans. In each of the rafters I made dove-tail cuts so that the frame of the walls would meet the rafters with a flush surface for strong support. I made all my cuts with the Stihl chainsaw. I would usually gather and mark several pieces of lumber together to make many cuts at once while the saw was running. I got pretty good at making clean square cuts with the chainsaw by using the bar as a strait-edge.
In order to build supportive overhangs on the sloped sides of the roof, I built the corner sections together each as one piece that when dropped into place locked together with the overhanging 2X8 rafters along the northern edge. I reinforced them with 2X4 frames all the way around.
Meanwhile the snow fell gently around me as I worked. Sometimes the snow fell hard enough to bury my tools as soon as I put them down! I finished framing the roof at the point where I wanted to have a large 3'X3' skylight that opened and closed. This came courtesy of the Truro dump. I was still unsure how I would install it so that it didn't leak.
Another thing I did was install a proper metalbestos chimney. It mounted to the rafters with steel brackets that swiveled so that it could adjust to any roof pitch. Metalbestos is insulated pipe that feels only warm to the touch when exhausting smoke from the stove. This way it can exit the roof without being a fire hazard.

Now I could lay the OSB sheathing on top of the rafters. I was getting close to having a roof but I was running out of time with only one day left of my trip. I was only able to cover roughly three quarters of the rafters with sheathing and waterproof felt paper before my time was up. The snow fell so continuously at this stage that I kept loosing track of where I had stapled or nailed because of the ever present layer of snow that I could not wipe away fast enough. I wanted so badly to finish. I worked up until the last moment on my last day. A big section on the northeast corner where I planned to put the skylight and an opening over the dormer were still left unfinished. This left the house still open to the elements and that's how it would have to stay for now.

Though I was sleeping on a mildewed couch huddled next to a wood stove with no electricity or running water and shitting in an outhouse at 10 degrees F, the greatest struggle has always been with my impatience. I would eat soup from the can because I could not waste the precious little time I had to prepare meals or wash dishes. There is so much to do! At times I feel overwhelmed at the extraordinary amount of work there is to accomplish in such limited amounts of time. If I had the capacity to completely realize just how much work was involved before I started, I may never have begun. I guess in some cases it's good to be short sighted.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

January 2008

Through the course of this project I have been tutored by fate. I try my best to listen and remember advice given by others but for the most part I am on my own out here with little real experience. My situation is also somewhat unique in that I am doing it alone with a very limited budget. The circumstances require a lot of reading, forethought and visualization. I do however have lapses in judgement or wisdom and the universe deems it necessary that I learn the hard way.
When I arrived at the land in January of 2008 there had been considerable snowfall. It was about three feet deep which is a lot more than I am used to seeing. I've not lived anywhere that the climate was so unmistakably "northern". There was no way I was going to make it up to the house without plowing out the driveway, but I wanted to get the truck off the road so I got a running start and ran the pickup into the snow bank at the base of my driveway. I made it maybe 30 or 40 feet before I could go no further. I then got out and trudged the rest of the way in to get the tractor. This was my first experience plowing snow with a front-end loader. I thought I would quickly push all the snow out of the way and my driveway would be clear. I found however that it was much more like moving sand. So much snow had accumulated that I couldn't simply push it out of the way. It had to be displaced, which meant a much more tedious process of putting the snow into piles. After clearing a small parking area it became apparent that to clear the drive completely would be a very time consuming project and I only had three days to work with so I did the bare minimum. I dug a trench along the course of the driveway exactly as wide as the pickup which is only about six feet. Also a unexpected thing had happened during my absence. Apparently there had been a warming trend when the some of the snow melted away. Then the temperature had dropped again creating a sheet of ice. Then it snowed again and very much so. This left a deep layer of snow over a slippery sheet of ice. I noticed it while plowing and when I drove the pickup the rest of the way up to the house. Again I noticed it while moving in that evening. Every time I went outside to take a piss I would skid across the driveway.

The next morning was bright and sunny. After breakfast and setting up for work I went to Buxton's, a nearby building supply to get more OSB sheathing and 2X6s. I had a full load as I made my way up the drive. The steepest part was at the end up near the house and I gunned the engine to make it up but the way was so narrow and slippery that the passenger side wheels left the trench and got bound up in the snow bank about halfway up the hill. I cursed impatiently and decided to unload it right there which in hindsight probably wasn't a great idea. The extra weight would have given me more traction; but I unloaded everything, slipping and falling on the ice several times. I figured I would simply back out in reverse, down the driveway until all four wheels were on plowed ground. Not as easy as I thought. I shifted into reverse and gave it a little gas but it was as stuck going backward down the hill as it was going up. So I tried digging it out by hand becoming acutely aware of the precious time I was wasting. It was already late morning by the time the wheels were free of snow. Still the truck would not budge. I wedged wooden boards under the tires and spit them across the driveway. After several such combinations of digging and spinning the tires I was still stuck. Little by little the truck slid down the hill and into a rut. I tried pulling it out with a chain attached to the tractor which was futile as the tractor spun on the ice as well. I tried dragging it out by attaching the chain to a come-along attached to a tree. No luck. It was a beautiful mid afternoon and I was pretty well heated. The trees rang with cussing and cursing. I got on the tractor and angrily lifted the rear end of the truck out of the rut with the loader, tweaking the bumper in the process. I tried again to move the truck but now the front end was stuck. I pulled the tractor around to the front of the truck and crushed the front valence lifting the front end out of the rut. I didn't give a shit. I got into the truck started it up let the clutch go and slid back into the rut. I jumped out of the truck and did an angry, fitful dance with lots of screaming. Then I slipped and fell on the ice. I lay on my back and noticed the sun dipping low in the sky. "Is this for fucking real?" I wondered. After a moment I regained my wits and decided to employ a combination of maneuvers . First I lifted the back end of the truck with the tractor and set long boards under each tire. I then dug out a small field of snow behind the truck down to where the driveway leveled off and made a track of boards down to it. I got into the truck and carefully backed it down the hill along the boards. At that point it was very tempting to just let loose and try again to ascend the drive but I checked myself. My last tantrum had left me a little more level headed than before. I got the battery from the camper and put it in the old 3/4 ton Chevy yard truck (that had originally held the camper) and brought her to life. I shifted into 4 wheel Low and brought the nose up close to my Toyota and chained them together. I lifted the hood of the Chevy and turned up the idle at the carburetor until the engine emitted a low roar and a steady stream of blue smoke out the tail pipe. I dropped the Chevy's column shifter into reverse and jumped out. The big driver-less truck looked possessed as it bucked and clawed against the chain. I climbed into the Toyota and started it up. I shifted into 4 low, let out the clutch and followed the Chevy up the driveway. When we reached the top of the hill we crossed the small parking area and the Chevy's tail plunged into a snow bank as I braked. Free at last!
I looked to the west and watched the sun set, marking an end to the first day of my trip. Amazing! What an incredible waste of time!
The next morning I widened and cleared the driveway to prevent anymore ridiculousness like the day before. Finally I turned my attention to the house. My next step was to make the second floor walls more rigid by adding sheathing. The second floor was a little trickier than the first. The big 4'x8' sheets are heavy and awkward to lift by one's self. I found the easiest way to accomplish this was set my latter just below the upper lip of the first level of sheathing and slide the next sheet up the latter ahead of me. I could then set it in place above the first, holding it in place with my body while I tacked it to the frame. Some spots were not as strait forward and required using nails as "holders" or simply making smaller more manageable sheets. At the end of day three I had covered the walls on all four sides. The thing was beginning to look like a house!
Unfortunately that was as far as I was going to get on this visit.

Monday, December 6, 2010

First Year of Construction: Nov. & Dec. 2007

When I first began writing this blog I had already been working on the house for about a year and a half. My wife set it up for me and insisted I keep a journal of what I was doing. My account pretty much begins at that point, when the walls and roof were already built and there was electricity flowing into the house. By the time I began writing, the house was relatively comfortable. So there is a big gap up to that point in my story to anyone who wishes to follow my adventure from the beginning. I have added some prequels in between, the last one ending with my trip in October of 2007 (please refer to the entry of Feb.4 2010: First Year of Construction: Oct. 2007) when my parents came to visit and we started building a platform for a somewhat temporary shack which was meant to be an addition to the current tiny living quarters of a slide-on truck camper built in the 1970s. The "addition" was meant to solve some heating and storage issues I had with the little camper, but in retrospect I can't help but wonder "what was I thinking?" Why didn't I simply build a small box off the camper and be done with it? I would still have had a place to store my tools and a shelter for a wood burning stove to solve my heating woes. It could have been done after only a couple of visits. It didn't need to be any more complicated than my outhouse. Instead I have erected a monstrosity from almost no plans that has now eaten the camper and continues to grow and envelope a nearby tree. Most disturbing of all is that this mass of wood, metal and glass has a foundation originally meant for a shack. I've since beefed it up with stone and more "feet" but it is not set deep enough for any kind of permanent structure. It just sort of "floats" on the ground. It's like a ship at sea now resigned to dip and heave in the ocean of soil and rock to be torn apart by the whims of the Earth. There are no signs of damage by frost heave yet but I fear that soon the rocking of the ground will show it's strength. First the doors and windows will get sticky. Little by little the frame will turn from a cube to a trapezoid; only slightly at first but as the years pass the frame's shifting will loosen the sheathing and everything else with it. The corners will open up with triangular holes and the roof will buckle and open up the interior to rain. Water will drip drip drip into all the corners and passageways as water likes to do, bringing with it rot. The house's bones will become brittle and break under it's own weight. The house will implode and eventually be scattered by the wind leaving only two old oil drums that once held up a slide-on truck camper built in the 1970s.
Perhaps it is a fitting end. And perhaps I should save sharing my fear of death for another entry.

For now I just want to close the gap in the history of this project. I did return in November of 2007. At that time I was spending only about 3 days a (winter) month on the project so progress was slow. This was due to a few factors some having to do with my work situation on Cape Cod and partly due to power limitations. I had no electricity yet. I did all my cutting for construction with a Stihl chainsaw. The only other usable tools I had was a cordless drill and jigsaw. Each had a battery that was also interchangeable with a utility light which got a lot of use in the evening. The camper's power source was a couple of old car batteries that I soon replaced with one deep cycle RV battery. The camper's battery could easily power it's small interior lights for days on end but the propane heater was coupled to a fan on a thermostat. Kicking on the heater also meant running the fan. The camper was so flimsy and marginally insulated that even with the thermostat set at 50 degrees (it's lowest setting) the heater was kicking on every few minutes and ran continuously when it was really cold outside. It was so inefficient that after only a few nights the battery was dead and my propane tank dry. I spent some very cold nights in a soggy camper with a heater that barely worked. I could have bought some more batteries and more propane tanks but as has been the case throughout this project I did have (and do have) a very limited budget. To add to the discomfort of the leaky camper it was also home to an extended family of mice who stayed up all night scratching and clawing at the inner walls. I caught dozens in traps but there were always more to take their place. I had reoccurring dreams in which armies of little grey mice clawed and nibbled on my feet and face while I slept. I really wanted a new place to sleep. I figured that as soon as the first floor's sheathing and windows were in place I could erect a make shift roof and heat myself with the wood stove and sleep next it on an old couch or something.

By the end of that November visit I had nailed up all of the OSB sheathing, installed four windows (I had bought used for $20 each locally) framed and covered the second floor with 1" hemlock. There were still some large openings left open to the world: two post and beam framed "doorways" in the eastern and western sides, and the landing between the camper and the "house" which was closed on all sides but open to the sky. There ended my November visit. I threw a tarp over the open landing and put a few sheets of plywood and metal roofing on the second floor to have a sort of roof to keep the interior dry. It didn't work...


More than a foot of snow had fallen since my last visit. I shifted my pickup into four wheel drive and plowed through the snow, wheels spinning until I reached the top of the little plateau where my shack stood. I had with me a load of furniture donated by the Bennett/Tasha family of Truro. The load included a recliner a dresser and a couch that I intended to sleep on that night. It was already late afternoon, sky darkening and the house was full of snow. The tarp I had hung at the close of my previous visit had filled up with snow and now hung like a sack between the back of the camper and the second floor of the house. Casting it loose was not an easy task and as soon as I did the snow ended up piled on the floor of the landing. I would have been better off not hanging the tarp at all. By then it was almost completely dark. I donned my head-light flashlight and lit my propane lantern. I started a fire in the stove and got it going good and hot. I then shoveled out the majority of the snow around the stove.
Now I needed to enclose the stove so I could sleep next to it. The stove already had the make-shift roof of the second floor and on top of that I had laid sheets of metal roofing and plywood to cover the slats. The walls, however still had three gaping holes. I covered the door opening in the eastern wall by nailing a sheet of plywood over it. Then with a couple of tarps I made a wall over the opening to the landing which was still open to the sky and full of snow. It was also my route to the camper and it's kitchen. I hung the tarps in such a way that I could slip in and out. With the last opening in the western wall I was going high tech with an actual door. I had found a pre-hung exterior door in a dumpster months earlier and I had saved it for this very occasion. Being already hung in a frame and with a header already in place in the wall it went up relatively quickly. I closed up the last small gaps around the frame with a few pieces of plywood. Boom! Done! Milestone: a new place to sleep. The enclosure was already beginning to hold heat. I dragged the couch out of the truck and into the shack and set it in the snow next to the stove. It was late in the evening by then and I was going to sleep well tonight! Or so I thought. Sleeping on a couch next to the stove was cold and cramped. I bundled up well but dreaded each time during the night when I had to get up to reload the stove or go pee in my pee-jar. Still, it was better than the camper which in turn was better than a tent. I was moving up in the world.

I awoke the next morning with gusto. It was time to frame out the second floor which meant a roof was soon to come. I started out building on a sunny morning with what 2X6s I had left over from before. I soon ran out but was low on money and could not afford to buy more. I did, however have some pressure treated 2X6's that I had salvaged from a demolition on the Cape. So I used those. In retrospect I should not have done that. It was a waste of good pressure treated wood and it was very difficult to nail together. Every other nail I tried to drive in would bend. Eventually I built graduated walls that could carry the weight of the pitched saltbox roof at several points. I also added a dormer facing south that was not in my original plans but when a clear evening sunset brought to my attention how nice it would be to have a point from which to gaze upon future sunsets I decided to build one. So with pressure treated studs in the upper floor it would last forever. At the same time I noticed that some of the studs in the lower walls were already showing signs of rot. I guess I should have taken a better look at them before pulling them from the discard pile at the lumber yard. As I have done many times before and as I have done many times since, I reproached myself for being so careless. So stupid to have let that go unnoticed. I am blessed with a respectable amount of will-power but am capable of astonishing lapses in judgement. That can be a dangerous combination.. I must remind myself always to be careful and think things through.

So with the second level walls framed, my few days visit to Maine was at an end and I needed to get back to the Cape. Before leaving I stood on the second floor and imagined what it would feel like when the walls were closed up and the roof in place. A far sight warmer, that's for sure! But also I imagined a feeling of protection and sanctuary.
Somewhere in the middle of the framing process during which I was trying to nail together boards that seemed to be made of stone, I had one of those moments that was simply remarkable. The sun setting low in the sky cast a celestial light of Devil's Red across the snow and the trees. The quiet in those woods was so pure and extraordinary that I had to pause and take in all that was around me. My soul felt full of joy and gratitude and I knew that I had found the path I was looking for. In spite of whatever mistakes or lack of patience or stupidity that I had and would display in the process of this undertaking I would be taken care of; I was a part of some sort of Great Spirit or Oneness; and this project and this land was my Way towards it. Nowhere have I ever been able to experience such states of being with any kind of consistency but on this land. No doubt this is a religious experience.
Now it was time to return to the world of the Living with work and rules. I packed the truck, said farewell to the shack and headed south.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Nov.2010 A Vehicle of Salvation

It was a great milestone to have an indoor toilet but I was far from living comfortably. The new entryway to the kitchen was very much unfinished, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the camper which I had only temporarily closed up with a sheet of plywood. There were still many gaps in the side of the house where not only cold air could enter but warm air could escape. Keeping warmth inside the kitchen has been challenging from the beginning. The warm air from the stove tends to go upstairs and only begrudgingly finds it's way into the off shoot of the kitchen. I need it to be closed up for the coming winter cold.
The kitchen has for the last year been a bare bones structure and a major source of air leaks. There is a lot here to do because not only am I creating a new entryway but also another level above it that will be coupled to most of the kitchen. In the distant future it will serve as an indoor greenhouse and part of some sort of tower.. for the near future it will serve the purpose of much needed storage with a temporary roof.
So after christening the septic I turned my attention to constructing the rest of the floor for the second level next to the kitchen. Part of it I had already built but I wanted it to extend all the way to the adjacent (exterior) wall of the upstairs bedroom.
So with two full days remaining in this visit, I started by framing out a couple of walls that would enclose the lower level and one that connected the entryway with the (exterior) living room wall. In the future this will serve as a wall for the garage. For now it would support the stingers for the above floor which will also be a small deck, all of which will eventually create a sort of enclosure around the first ten feet of the trunk of the Pine. After installing the stringers I was able to complete the floor/deck of the second level. I reached this point late in the evening of the last remaining day, a Saturday. I had cut and fitted all the boards for the floor but was too cold and exhausted to continue. I would finish it the next morning before I left.

Last day, time to go. It always comes down to this. I remember this feeling from when I was a kid. It is one of profound disappointment. Summer vacation is over. Must go to back to school. Go back to the world of people who will look at me and judge me and expect me to be and do as I am told; tasks I do not care to do, events that hold little meaning for me, rules to follow and a schedule to keep. I do not care for "life as we know it". My usual routine and my job, as ideal as I've managed to make it, seems drab and ridiculous to me now that the house exists. The house is what matters to me most now. It is the vehicle of my salvation, my Jesus Christ. It's progress is fused with the cells of my blood. It is the refuge I sought as a kid but found only elusive in imagination; left searching always searching as a young adult for something real, eventually drowning myself in alcohol and self pity out of sheer frustration. I was looking for an intangible ideal in a world of illusion; a knowing of some sort that religious people seemed to possess. Over the years I came to believe the thing I was looking for was within and I turned my attention there. I studied religion, astrology and meditation. I tried lots of psychotropic drugs and scrambled my brains and then tried living sober and the world became flat and predictable. Eastern religion held much promise. I knew there was truth there, a common thread in all religions. But how to access it? Sitting in churches and meeting places and study groups did not offer a meaningful answer. The truth was always in front of me and I knew that, but I did not feel it; or rather I was not a part of it. I could never really feel like I was a part of anything. Any social activity would only accent my separateness and continues to this day. Meditation seemed most promising but again I could not resign myself to it. To do it completely was to dismiss all things material and did not explain to me the purpose behind all this that I see and imagine around me. Perhaps I was young and impatient but divorcing myself from the material world did not seem like a path I could follow. Then came the land and the genesis of this weird little house. I felt an awakening and a compelling feeling of "must do". Upon purchasing this land a path had been opened up to me. The more I build the richer I feel. It is a conduit of unadulterated joy and profound anxiety. The further it progresses the deeper I go... this house is me.