this post was written by Martin with some input from Cindy
For quite a while over the Spring and Summer, we experienced an outpouring of help from friends and neighbors as we coped with our house fire. After a couple of mammoth work days that saw the removal of almost all the burned-out structure and the erection of new walls for new rooms in the remaining portion of the house, things quieted down. These days, when we encounter people we haven’t seen for a while, we are often asked, “are you in your new house yet?”
The answer is, “no,” and, depending on how much time and attention our friends have available at the moment, we fill them in on more or less of the details. In an effort to bring everybody (or at least everybody who reads this blog) up to date at once, here is, as my Jewish grandparents would say, “the whole megillah.” This post is long on wonkish details and a bit short in the “philosophy” department, but then, our true philosophy expresses itself in the details of our lives, so this is, in its own way, a “deep green perspective.” “All politics is local,” as they say, Green politics especially, and it doesn’t get any more local than building your own home in accordance with your ideals.
The first reason we haven’t progressed any further is that there are several design considerations yet to be nailed down. One has to do with a codes requirement that we either install a sprinkler system/fire alarm or a twenty-thousand gallon reservoir. The first alternative is distasteful to us because it involves monthly payments for the security system, the second has a certain appeal, but would likely add around $20K to the cost of construction. We are thinking of a third alternative, which is building the walls with highly-fire resistant materials, such as cob or strawbale. The other consideration involves the basement. We can’t proceed until we know how big a hole to dig for it. Further, we can’t just dig the hole for the basement–once it’s dug, we need to quickly do the cement and block work involved, so the hole doesn’t erode and fill back up over the winter. Even if we knew exactly what we want to do, the basement project will cost more than we currently have available.
In an attempt to raise funds, we started working with friends on creating a fund-raising video, with the idea of starting a campaign on Indiegogo or GoFundMe. After all, we’re not just trying to rebuild a house, we’re trying to create a more ecological house than the carelessly built Tennessee shack that burned down, and we’re not just building an energy-efficient home for ourselves, we see ourselves as caretakers of an educational institution/retreat center for the new consciousness that is evolving, and that needs all the help and encouragement it can get to succeed before greed eats the planet. But putting the video together takes skills we don’t have, and our friends who have those skills have to earn a living, so, much as they love us, we are, understandably, not their first priority. The video is out there in the wilderness somewhere, and will emerge and work for us, hopefully sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, winter is coming on, and we have to get ready for that, since we are choosing to remain here on the land rather than find someplace else to live for the cold months.
But the possibly Hail Mary pass of an online fundraiser is not our only hope. We have been conferring with our county forester, a somewhat misplaced mystic tree-lover, and he has pointed out to us that our woods could use some thinning and culling, which would leave the better species to repopulate the forest (white oak and young tulip poplars) and give us enough wood to rebuild the house and enough cash to get the basement built. There’s a guy in the Nashville area who has a portable sawmill and doesn’t mind taking his pay in lumber, and we found the loophole that will allow us to use roughcut, homemade lumber for house construction: we just have to find somebody, with the forester and sawyer’s assistance, who will come “grade” what we cut and certify that it will be adequate for the use to which we will put it.
SInce my sons are both expert carpenters who are happy to help me out, and cob/strawbale infill is a job we can do ourselves, this means we can likely work something out to get the basuc structure up, although we will still need to come up with money up front for plumbing and electrical work. Cutting down some of the trees in our care is a difficult decision to make. We are talking with the trees about it, and will proceed with great caution. We don’t want some yahoo with a log skidder tearing the place up to get the trees down and the logs out. When Cindy had some logging done back in the 80’s, she found a logger who pulled the logs out with mules, which did minimal damage, and when we had a few logs to take to the mill more recently, a friend with a bobcat on tracks ( a motorized bobcat, not a wild feline!) did the job very well, so we know that a careful logging job is possible. As far as the damage to the woods goes, there will have to be some damage to some woods somewhere in order for us to rebuild, and to us there seems to be some integrity in inflicting that damage to the woods we live with, rather than to woods we will likely never see. Meanwhile, we still need to get ready for winter.
What “getting ready for winter” involves is making sure our source of city water, and the carbon filter we have attached to it, won’t freeze, since they are located in a part of the basement that is now open to the weather and, being encased in concrete, would be hard to move. It involves creating a warm place to take a hot shower, creating a kitchen space that is usable in wet, cold weather, and hanging solar panels on the barn/greenhouse, where we sleep, so we don’t have to depend on flashlights to find our way around up there.
Winterproofing our city water source is pretty simple. Some heat tape and a small, insulated box should keep the tap from freezing, and we’ll have to pay attention and drain the hoses when freezing weather is imminenet. We have the heat tape, and the box is half built.
The dry kitchen space is a bit more complicated. We are cooking in our former FEMA trailer on a 3-burner stove, but there is simply no room in the trailer for food preparation or dealing with the level of dishes we generate cooking everything from scratch, so we have been relying on an outdoor counter and sink that originally came from Cindy’s grandmother’s house. It’s been quite pleasant washing dishes and cutting vegetables outdoors all summer, but it’s getting dark earlier and earlier, and cold, rainy, possibly snowy days are likely over the next several months, so it’s time for a change. We have a “gazebo” that we have been using for storage, and we plan to move all the stored boxes out of the gazebo and turn it into a winter kitchen. The storage items can go to the barn, but first we need to stop the barn roof from leaking. Several applications of tar haven’t quite done the trick, so now Cindy is painting the roof with a rust converter and paint, in hopes of getting ten more years out of a 30 year old tin roof and keeping the barn floor from rotting any further. Oh yeah, of course we will replace the floor where it has gone soft, and hope the joists underneath are sound, although we do have the wood to replace a few of them, if necessary. And then there’s the north side of the barn foundation, which was poorly constructed in the first place and has since been undermined by groundhogs. A friend who is a carpenter told us exactly how to fix that, and we have some of the materials on hand, but actually implementing that plan involves moving railroad ties and a 20′ steel I beam, and that’s more than we can handle on our own. It’s not actually necessary to do it before we empty the contents of the gazebo into the barn, (they’re not THAT heavy!), but it needs to be done before the foundation falls out from under the barn.
Once the gazebo is emptied, we can move our sink and counter into it, and install one of the two full-sized propane stoves we have stashed in the barn, hang lights from the ceiling, and have a kind of indoor kitchen that will be big enough to accomodate our needs.
“A warm place to take a hot shower”–several friends who live nearby have told us we can come over any time and use their facilities, but we prefer to go light on those invitations, not just to avoid wearing out our welcome, but because going elsewhere for a shower, even if we don’t end up spending some time hanging out with our friends, takes a lot more time than just taking a shower. We’ve been relying on having a hundred or so feet of hose up on the roof of what remains of the house, and using the flagstones just off the back porch as a shower site, but that, obviously, has its limitations, and we are reaching them. This time of year, our solar shower goes into the shade of our hil and turns cold about 3:30 in the afternoon. I don’t mind the stimulation of taking a bracing shower later in the day from time to time, but hot water is just a better solvent than cold water, and a warm place to take a shower also encourages the monkey to stay clean.
What we can do is run some plumbing from the rainwater collection tank at our barn into some kind of heater in the greenhouse–possibly solar, possibly with a propane assist. For this to work well, we will need to lightly pressurize the water line, which will take a small pump running off the solar panels we have acquired and will soon install on the building. In additon to running lights and a pump, the solar panels should provide enough electricity to run a laptop computer, and, more importantly, the occasional power tool, as we work on finishing the building. I have taken advantage of the dry weather to run a couple of truckloads of firewood up there, which should last us a good part of the winter–the building is earth-sheltered, southern-exposed, and well insulated. The last time the outside temperature got down into single digits, the building, with no fire in its woodstove, only chilled down into the low forties. I think we can make it through the winter OK.
In an effort to keep some kind of momentum going on the reconstruction of the house, I took on “sistering” the floor joists under the new interior walls, which are holding up the roof, which was sagging badly even before the old part of the house burned down. The contractor who built the new part of the house, the only part that survived, underbuilt it, failing to adequately support the roof and using single 2X8 floor joists on a nearly 16-foot span, and so it is necessary to triple them in a couple of places. The first thing I had to do was remove all the old wiring from the basement, which was kind of fun, but inserting a 16 foot 2X8 into an already existing floor all by myself challenged my ingenuity. I managed to jack the floor up enough to create enough clearance to get the sister joist pretty nearly in place, then pushed it the rest of the way with a car jack and the short blocking pieces of 2X8 that ran between the joists, After many hours of effort over several days, I got the first one in, then stepped back and discovered that I had mismeasured and sistered the wrong joist. I was so far off, I have to wonder how I didn’t notice before that I was nowhere near the bearing wall. Chalk it up as a learning experience. Sometime next week, I will start working on the right joist, and I expect it will go a good deal faster since I won’t have to figure out everything as I go along. And the whole floor could use re-inforcement anyway, right?
So, that’s some of what we’ve been up to. We’ve also been planting plenty of garlic. We would be harvesting sweet potatoes, but our sweet potato planting this year was decimated by groundhogs and then smothered by Johnsongrass. We have a healthy assortment of fall/winter greens and roots in the ground or about to go in the ground. Fire or no fire, some semblance of normal life must continue. Cindy has started doing weed walks and teaching gardening again. One of these days, I am going to start writing my autobiography like I promised myself I would do right before the fire hit, return to doing political commentary creating videos for my songs, writing more songs, and learning how to use my new recording software so I can preserve my inspiration. For now, playing into the air will have to do.
music: Cowboy Junkies, “Working on a Building“