One Step at a Time

It’s raining again today – which is always good news here in the high desert – and has limited the amount of work that I can do outdoors.  In all honesty, it limits the amount of time I WANT to spend digging trenches away from the overflowing rain barrels or positioning rocks into the latest gabions.  Even so, I did spend the morning pick-axing out 30 inches of trench on one corner of the garage and filling it in with 2 inch rocks from the front yard.  Then I built the last step into our side garden stairs and leveled the ground between path and gabions.   Rob, on the other hand, is still out there whistling away, bending and connecting re-mesh into gabion baskets and nailing them into place onto the humongous posts he sank into the rock/clay so that I can eventually fill them – in my own good time.

I love it when he whistles while he works.  Especially when we’re out there together sweating and slogging in the muddy piles we’ve dumped everywhere.  It stops any idea I might have of whining and grumbling and quietly transforms even pick-ax work into a sweet moment on a cloudy day.  Where did he learn to do that?!

And now that the rain is falling more seriously and he’s finished his last gabion,  he seems to have moved into the garage to work out a good system to store the kayak, canoe and bikes for the winter.  I’m on the couch (damn, but I love this couch!) after rubbing the last coat of varnish onto our beautiful front door.  Since I had a little bit of our special varnish blend (equal parts turpentine, polyurethane, and linseed oil)  left in the tub I decided to give the sun-bleached looking balusters a touch up too.  This got me to thinking of the couch and the appropriateness of writing a blog entry about the process that eventually got us to where we are now.

The stairs are still not completely finished due to a summer of diverting activities,   all safety issues are resolved – even if the finished project is clearly months away.

One step at a time.

For a very long time our stairwell looked pretty much like this;

stairway

As you can see, there was still snow outside here and the walls hadn’t been primed yet, but this is exactly how it looked long after the winter’s heavy snows melted and the walls were painted in every room.

When it eventually dawned on us that we needed to move things along on this project if we were going to get a certificate of occupancy, Rob put it at the top of his to-do list (abandoning such less necessary projects like starting our bathroom shower) and started laying the click flooring on the 2nd floor so that he could wrap the 2x4s for the finished newel posts.  All of that needed to be done before he could start to build the railings that would keep us from eventually taking that one big step right over to the 1st floor’s concrete floor.

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It looked so much better with this new woodwork that we got very excited about the whole project and the building inspector could see we were addressing it and he kindly gave us the certificate of occupancy with the requirement that we get the full bannister up per our design.

Yeah.  Well.  The weather got nicer and nicer and we needed some outdoor work done so….

Some time in late July Rob spent a couple of days getting the necessary electrical works in place for my exciting (and very time consuming) idea to put LED ribbons into the undersides of the bannisters for subtle and energy efficient stairway lighting.  It required a transformer be installed under the landing and wires wormed up through the stair, along the two landing’s existing 2×4 posts and then wrapping the knotty alder around it all to hide wires and finish off the newel post look.

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Then we thought we should start making a patio out back and move piles around out front to create potential entry ways to our front porch and door.

Even so, at some point I got the oak stair treads stained and sealed and Rob put them in place.  img_7469

 
It wasn’t long after that we realized we had some company coming who would appreciate not feeling the long drop from the top stair over the side to the bottom stair and Rob began the long and difficult process of figuring out how to construct the bannister we had been designing in our heads.

It was not a whistling kind of job for him and it took long weeks of long days to get them good enough to put into place.  Our daughter says that her boss at the publishing house used the expression, “Perfection is the enemy of done” and we were definitely at that point.  Done became more important by the day and so the full – if not perfect – bannisters went up.

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Still, they’re beautiful and we were thrilled to find that the LED ribbons fit right into the strip Rob had routed for that purpose and the lights do an exceptional job of lighting the stairs.

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Maybe you can see the ribbon lights even though it’s daytime in this photo?  It’s more impressive at night but you get the idea.

And speaking of impressive but, as of yet, unfinished projects – here’s the latest on my filling of Rob’s gabion baskets retaining wall.

img_7763                                             It is all going to look SO finished some day.

PS  Our shower is still not started and we have learned to love baths in the guest bathroom.

PPS Our apologies to our wonderful and trusting building inspector for our sloth like ways.

 

Hello Yellow Brick Road

We are presently enjoying what I consider to be the sweet spot of summer.  The 90 degree scorchers are gone and the mornings start out in the high 40s – perfect for starting the day with a hot cup of tea and still time for cool yard work hours.  The temps gently slide into the low 80s in the afternoon for the equally perfect respite of lying on the front porch swing and reading for an hour or two.  Every once in a while I’ll even look up from my book when I notice a cooling breeze blowing by and remind me to enjoy the fluffiness of a passing cloud.  Perfect – at least when there’s no smoke or haze from the westerly wildfires that is.

And, of course, some days we get to do this…

me in kayak

But when all of that fun isn’t happening and the mornings are not too hot, I’ve been working on making a better path from the garage to the backdoor.  The walkway we’ve been dealing with had finally gotten irksome enough to put resolving it to the top of my to-do list.  This is what the walkway looked like –

1 path

There wasn’t really a step you could take without watching your footing carefully.  It was hard to decide whether to tell visitors to come to the back door or the front because they both had pretty equal dangers.  Amazingly, this path was usually the best choice.   No wonder we don’t have more company!

The holdup for me on addressing this problem was that every YouTube and article about making paths/patios – whether crushed rock, bluestone, or pavers – is that you have to prepare the area with a 4-inch bed of tamped gravel before proceeding.  Of course, to do that you have to excavate 4 inches down and then fill it up with the hauled in gravel and then compressing it.  In the best of situations (i.e. like Iowa where the loam goes on for miles under your feet) these all are strenuous steps but, here in the high desert, my biggest trepidation was the dig.

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This is how you dig anything in our river valley.  This is how we have dug to plant our trees, to plant our tomatoes, to put in fence posts, and to prepare for the gabions.  It’s crazy and it’s crazy hard. So, we decided to do something we rarely do.  We hired all the prep work done.  YES!  By OTHER people!  THAT is the joy of being old enough to know better.

It took two hard working guys all day to pick-ax their way down 4 inches, shovel the debris to the side, bring in the many wheelbarrow loads of road mix necessary to fill the long and shallow grave and then use that jackhammer-like-tamper-down-thing to press it all nice and flat.  That’s not even mentioning the mental gymnastics and care they took to make sure that the finished base would be the correct height to allow for the pavers at both the back porch and the garage door – which is one foot lower – with the necessary slight dip in the middle for appropriate run off angling away from both buildings.  Those two were mad geniuses and I feel a bit bad about offering them only pop, water, and store bought donuts.  I should have baked them a cake but, you know, it was a really hot day and the oven and all….

So, they got it done and we bought three partial pallets of leftover pavers from their boss.  He was thrilled to be rid of them I would imagine as the detritus on them would suggest they had been on his site, out in the weather through at least one winter and, much to my chagrin, they were all different depths.  This makes laying them level just a little bit trickier than I had anticipated.

However, here’s the whole sequence of the work that I did do. Of course, the jigsaw puzzling and leveling that I did was almost all fun to do and I only worked until the third or forth drip of sweat dropped on my glasses.  That was generally sign enough for me to stop for the day.

1st pavers

For example, this is me laying the first 15 feet of path while the evening sun was hidden by the garage and I could enjoy the cooling breezes.

2 progress

I fell in love with the process at this point.  I loved the puzzling and I loved the look.  The only problem is that when this bit got finished I stopped for a whole week while my sister and brother-in-law came to visit.  Turns out the pavers moved a little during that time and they all got firmly embedded in their 1-inch bed of loose sand I had laid so…. they don’t quite match up with the run I started after they left.

3 the divide and shadow

Here’s the second day of laying pavers – a week later and the beginning of the diverging path that leads around the garage to the alley.  It became clear here that the partial pallet of the pavers I had predominately been using – the largest, fattest, and most varied in shape pavers – were not going to last much longer.  I started inserting the shallow gray rectangles along with more of the funky topped little squares I had been including since the beginning.  Fingers crossed that the transition was going to work and/or look good.

4 closeup of divide

Another gratuitous glamor shot.  Still in love with the jigsaw work of it all.  It also looked so perfect when the spacer lines still looked so straight and the pavers still appeared to be level.

5 porch

This is me using the trick the YouTubes and the landscaper told me about.  You lay two 1 inch PVCs on the hard packed base, make sure they’re level with each other as well as end to end and then you pour your loose sand over them.  With the PVC pipes still in place, you drag a 1×3 over the sand – scraping the tops of the pipes – so that you get a level and smooth laying bed for your pavers.  Of course, this works really well if your pavers are all the same depth.  You may notice that, even with some tinkering, the large red paver stands a little above the skimpy little gray rectangular ones.  I fussed with that a bit but you also know that I’m not much of a perfectionist so I moved on.  Git ‘er done!  (Also, hopscotching around and having now THREE separate pattern sections that are going to have to meet up and be level… well, it’s just a bit novice comical (i.e. stupid)

6 meeting up

My straight lines are disappearing but this gives you an idea of what the path and garage patio looked like from the city sidewalk.

sunflowers

This is, perhaps, an even better view from the city sidewalk – my very fun gabion pillars we designed to hold up the split rails and the sunflowers that just showed up.  The goldfinches have been gorging on the sunflowers surrounding our whole yard (kindly planted by other birds from our neighbor’s feeder) and these sunflower ‘trees’ have grown to about 8 feet tall with absolutely no water added.  I think I might get back to placing the last few rocks into the gabion pillars now that my mornings are not taken up with path building.

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And, a view of the almost finished gabion pillars from the path.  I’m really quite proud of this innovation in design.  We couldn’t face the pick-ax and shovel necessary to put up another post so, instead of digging up all the rocks in the ground, we decided to use the rocks lying all around our property and just build up.   We have many many more rocks but only a few more gabions calling for them.  Hello dry river bed. (And, yes, we will be planting that barren hill come fall)

brooming sand

Brushing what our landscaping guy called C-pile into the paver joints.  We believe local contractors call this material C-pile because that’s how the sand and gravel company denotes which pile the product came from in their yard.  Not a very fine grade mix, as we found out, but good for my widely gapped pavers.  I may not be an A-pile builder.

sweeping slurry

Sweeping the C-pile into all the grooves while still dry.

hosing down

Wetting it in before dumping and sweeping more C-pile into the remaining gaps.

complete

Ta-daa!  The “finished” product.  I think it looks better in real life and it DEFinitely walks better.  I can actually look up while going from garage to house and not fear for my ankles.

Life just keeps getting better and better.  Oh, and did I mention that we seem to have sold our old house?  Closing in 60 days so we’re keeping our fingers crossed. And, until then,  there’s always more of this…

kayaking

Too Hot to Worry

It’s finally hot enough here that I’m finding myself guilt-free while not working on any of the tasks waiting out there in our rock-pile yard.  We dream this small expanse of rock and clay is just minutes away from becoming the oasis our old yard felt like but the actual list of things that must be done to become anything close to a fully functioning yard is truly daunting.  It’s also clear that the undoneness of our ‘yard’ has not been overlooked by neighbors, friends, and the stream of passers by who have been watching the houses very gradual progress.  My awareness of their awareness has created a paralyzing sense of guilt in me whenever I’m not out there ‘getting something done’.  You can see where this is going.  The cycle begins, the rocks remain and the very weight of the guilt drops me right down on the couch, usually with a good (or even bad) book.  Worse yet, I’ve been known to spend hours following every story on Facebook that doesn’t involve Trump or someone talking about Trump when I could be out there throwing rocks in frustration instead.  Thank goodness for the heat of this first day of summer so I can drop this silly guilt and do something productive…. while sitting on the couch.  Something productive like a blog entry!

First off, I will admit that we HAVE gotten things done.  Anyway Rob’s gotten a lot done and I’ve contributed whenever I’m not on the couch.  For instance, we now have a nearly completed hallway to the laundry!

rogues gallery June

This was no small feat as earlier this month we had what looked like a wet spot creeping out from under the wall adjoining the laundry room and I finally called the contractor.  Three of the involved parties (owner, project manager, and plumber) came out and looked at it with us and said, “Ah. It will just take some wax on the clean out trap and all will be well.”  They did that.  It was not.

So they did the next obvious thing and  took out the entire wall above the little spot and found that the electrician – who shall remain nameless (unless you ask me directly and then I’ll tell you his name, number and all manner of side stories) had drilled a hole right through the drain pipe from the 2nd floor bath while he was bracing the electric box into the wall.  Luckily, the insulation in that wall had kept the spurting water from splashing directly into the electric box but it also slowed the evidence from appearing while we blithely flushed toilets and took wonderful long baths. (I know.  Disgusting.)  The hole has now been patched, the floor has dried completely, insulation and drywall replaced and mudded and someday soon I’ll paint that wall to match the rest.  Really.

But I did get the family pictures (called the rogues’ gallery by my grandmother and all descendants since) hung, the 2nd hand find of a gated mirror up, and our three drawer dresser cleaned and filled with bath towels and soaps.  As this hallway can be seen from most of the ground floor, I’m very pleased to have it be settled looking and still uncluttered with things that seem to pile up in other settled places.

Also, my weaving room is nearly half done and can now be navigated on foot (vs. as the crow flies)

loom room June

There’s nothing on the loom at this point but the yarns are all very neatly sorted and stored in the closet that we’ve been working on building slowly with scraps of melamine shelving as they turn up at the architectural salvage yard. The closet is a small wonder to me.  I should go up and take a photo of it just to show off the organization and the beauty but then I’d have to get off the couch.

And, even though the list of outdoor work is overwhelming, most of our recent progress has been outdoors.  The front porch is already a lovely and shady place to have afternoon iced tea (this is a morning shot) even though we sit there and look out on a wall of rocks and sky from that slightly sunken vantage point in the hill.

front porch

The plants are settling in on the gabion hill and some are even showing signs of growth and bloom.  I’m extremely pleased with the look of our rock pillar innovation (just seen at the top right) but that story will have to keep until the last of the pillars is actually completed.

rain barrel:maple June

In an effort to make us believe it will one day become the dreamed for oasis, we paid to have a larger maple tree brought in and planted in the center of what we like to call our “courtyard”.  Its size and leaf shadow makes us feel just enough progress that we now are able to enjoy sitting in the shade, gazing at the leaves dance in the wind and the junipers growing on the gabions and think about something other than running into the house and collapsing on the couch.

new maple June

Maybe something productive like a tall glass of iced tea in the shade?

Ten Things I Learned

Here are the ten things I’ve learned (and haven’t mentioned yet) about living in our new house.

#10 – There is no place in an open concept home to store a box or two of things that will need to go to the second hand store (or the dump).  When you have something that you don’t want/need anymore you have to get rid of it in short order so that you still have room on the table for all your mail, books, maybe a decorative item and food.

#9 – If you want to say something to someone anywhere else in the house you can just say it in your normal voice and they can hear you.  Even if they wear hearing aids.

#8 – If you want to have a private phone conversation in your open concept house – – forget about it .  Maybe build a phone booth instead of a chicken coop in the yard?

#7 – If you don’t want to eat all night long, don’t put the tv and the kitchen within sight of each other.  Or get some will power. Really.

#6 – Planting a 5 gallon potted shrub makes a BIG difference right away in a small yard.

#5 – Getting a closet rod and shelves up in your bedroom closet is somehow more important than putting a door on the bathroom.

#4 – Getting rid of enough of your collected stuff to shoe-horn yourselves into a house 1,000 sq. feet smaller requires at least 4 BIG yard sales. This is especially true if you’re old enough to know what a shoe-horn is.

#3 – Unlike the hippie collectors of all things old “when WE were kids”, your kids do NOT want ANY of your stuff.

#2 – Eleven inch concrete walls and well planned cross ventilation remove the need for air conditioning and greatly reduces your need for winter heating.

#1 – There is nothing better than iced tea in the shade of your own front porch once the warm breezes of summer blow.  So, forget about that bathroom door at least until your first houseguest is scheduled.

The Sun is Up

The ups and downs of moving out while staging the old house and still working on finishing the new house mount by the hour.  If it weren’t for the surprising beauty of arriving at the new house each day and the wonders of the solar collector, I’d be at my wit’s end. Although I’d love to share the daily highs through this blog but I realize I’ve continually failed to capture with photos or words the wonders of entering and just staring around at the walls, the views, and feeling the quiet warmth of the radiant floor heat and passive solar gain.  This is so disappointing because it stuns me nearly every time I’m there.  No.  EVERY time. I’m thinking maybe a wide angle app for the cell phone? A professional photographer?

But, for now, I’ll share a note or two about our solar collector and its journey to its new dominance in my (also daily) house-joys.

First off I have to mention that getting a solar array on your house if you live anywhere other than maybe the Boulder, Colorado area is a surprisingly difficult fight.  With all the optimistic news talk of the growing solar industry, we found that nobody in during our build verbally supported our idea to put it up there.  Why they are so shy to do so,  I have no idea.

#1   The builder. In our first meeting after his bid he mentioned removing the solar array as the first and only way he could see to reduce the cost of building the house.  And he’s a very strong solar proponent in our area – which is one reason we chose him.  He has solar panels and a windmill on his work trailer after all!

#2    The solar specialist and installer soberly warned us that the payback would be anywhere from 15-20 years due to the smallness of our new house and our obvious conservative use of electricity. (I’m waiting to see if I find I’ve gotten any financial payback on say my fancy kitchen counter tops or beautiful alder handrail in the same time.  What is it with the expectations of immediate payback on something that is a cleaner, better way to produce local electricity?)

#3    The utility company.  Well, the utility company.  I’ve already blocked from my memory a fair number of the roadblocks they put in the way to using our solar panels.  Here’s an edited list;

Surprisingly high initial cost to hook up a solar feeding array to the grid,

Additional cost for a reverse metering meter,

Delay to connect until we pass the full electrical inspection (can’t start the monitor until the system is connected but the monitor has to be checked in the full inspection)

Electrical inspection passed, monitor running, taking on full solar!  Nope.  Need a sign on the meter telling where the shut off is.  14 days till necessary sign is made and affixed.

During this time we had left the array running.  Utilities came out and padlocked off the connection telling us it was for our benefit.

All systems go after 2 more calls from us, 3 from our contractor, and one with our solar installer.

And here’s the result!

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Guess which day they started our net metering?  Nope. Not the day you think.   We were connected and all systems were to be going on March 1 but they waited until the end of last month’s billing cycle before crediting the energy we were sending back into the grid. They didn’t start giving us credit for our energy production until the day after our highest production day yet (11.75kwh!) and a week after all pieces were in place.

But in the world of ‘living for the day’ and ‘looking to the future’ I’m tickled to see what our chart looks like once the electric company, the solar array, and our metering all came together.  We’ve had a string of partly cloudy days and a bit of snow and rain mixed in there but we still seem to be coming in ahead of the game.  And on 4 of the past 6 days, we even supplied some solar electricity for our next door neighbor.

You’re welcome.

 

 

Color swatches

For those of you wondering, here are the colors as of today.  Things MAY change but edging the walls at 13 feet is not something I want to do over and over so, maybe not.

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Avocado green, ginger snap, and the start of the new bannister!

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Bedroom blue – actually called Dolphin Blue by the marketing team at Sherwin Williams.  Worked on me.

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Teal in bathroom looks the same as bedroom but is much deeper in real life.  The pony wall is a peachy color that was a mis-mix at the store.  Inexpensive and just the right amount.

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Honeycomb at the end of the hall is great backdrop for the 2nd hand mirror we found last fall.

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The garden sage color doesn’t really show here but Rob’s favorite 2nd hand sink does.  A local artist painted sinks in all the Idaho native flowers she liked and her husband painted fish.  Someone seems to have had this sink long enough and took it to the salvage yard.  Yay for us.

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Loom room red (next to ginger snap and the leftover blue for the reading loft) with my favorite second hand light fixture.

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Fresh avocado!  It’s a much stronger color than it appears here and the tub is painted in what I consider to be fresh avocado skin.  The feet had to be upped by 4 inches so Rob could get the drain system under the tub.  He fashioned some extensions for furniture bun feet and painted them to match the tub and the linoleum.  Seems to work.

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Sage garden for the guest room.  Not to be confused with garden sage in the downstair’s bath.  This is the second (and final) color for the guest room. Wheat out in the living room and more honeycomb in the entry way.

So there you have it.  Colors of the house.  Missing the ecru in the living room and the copper mountain that is yet to be painted but you get the idea.  This is not a black and white house.

 

 

Fun in the sun

By the start of last week, the need to think of something other than the house was so strong that I spent a good deal of my time thinking about the obsessiveness of thinking about the house as much as I was thinking about the house itself.   Yes indeed, that’s one way to quit thinking about the house but not exactly what I was hoping for.   The good news was that we had a two day trip out of town planned for the end of the week so I could also spend some thinking time looking forward to that. This led me to also spend time wondering if the reason I was so annoyed with our full time house obsession was BECAUSE we had planned a trip away or if the timing was just a lucky coincidence. But, like they say on all those police shows, “I don’t really believe in coincidence.”

The trip out of town was, in part, needing to get some things for the house that we can’t find in our little town but with the added bonus of a fun time in “the big city” to celebrate Rob’s birthday. It turned out to be the perfect blend of those two things. Some good specialty store visits for clever new LED bulbs and ribbon lights, door jamb light kits, a natural edge hunk of walnut to finish off our island and a rolling bed frame to put in the guest room so that the bed can slide back into the corner when Rob uses the room as his office. That was balanced out with a crazy early drinks and dinner at one of Rob’s favorite restaurant/bars that has a huge sculpted Medusa hanging over the middle of the bar (and our heads) and a pink quartz bathroom with displays of high heels made out of nails and nuts and bolts behind plexi-glass in the wall in each of the stalls, a great 6:30 a.m. breakfast of salmon hash with hollandaise sauce in the funky balcony at Goldie’s, and a quick buffet lunch at Whole Foods on our way out of town.   All in all, a great two days. We really go big on birthday celebrations at this point.  Oh, and I got my hair cut by my regular hairdresser who is hugely 7 months pregnant and was overwrought with running late and cut her finger while Edward Scissorhanding my hair. Kind of a funny looking cut but I’m assured it will grow out and it’s still cold enough here that I can wear a hat whenever I go out. And I have.

BUT, all of that aside, we came home to find the concrete floor looking much better after its second coat of sealer AND 48 wh of solar energy collected by our snow covered solar panels and converted into Alternating Current! I didn’t even know you could collect electricity under the 4-6 inches of snow that completely covered our panels, much less that much.Day 1 3:30 pmThis was the readout at the end of our very first day of collecting and converting. I believe the first number (0W) is telling the meter that the panels are no longer collecting.  At one point it said 19W.  The 8.65 Wh is the accumulation collected by the time the snow started melting off the top inches of the array.

ripple of solar panels

This is what the roof looked like.  You can just make out some ripples in the snow near the peak where the panels are working to emerge.  Evidently, the panels or the micro inverters or something up there leaks a little bit of its collected power in the form of heat and so they had started melting the snow from underneath a bit.

By the fourth functioning day, a six-inch line at the top of the panels had melted through and the collection rate doubled. Now, at the end of day 5 we have collected and converted 154 Wh (total) of solar energy into usable electricity for ourselves and our neighbors. I can hardly wait till they’re 100% clear of snow and we can see what our short winter days can produce. It appears that the sun gets to a good enough angle to the panels just a bit before 10 am and then loses the angle around 3 at this time of year.   That will probably start increasing quickly after all the snow has melted off of them and as the sun gets higher and higher.

Mind you, we’re not getting paid for this electricity yet (there’s only one electric company employee for their two state region who can apparently walk up to our meter and turn the key to that magical communication device that rolls our meter backwards so the wait is anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks) but I am agog with the amazement of it. We use less than 300 kWh of electricity in a typical month and we still need to get our first full kilowatt (1,000 watts).  But, we’re under snow! During the short days of February!!  Imagine what we might be collecting on a typical summer day!
Why yes, we DO own Boulder Dam, thank you.

 

 

 

Mostly pics.

It’s been made clear to me that a great number (slightly more than a simple majority from what I can tell) of my fine friends and family who follow this blog on a random or regular basis, check in for the photos and are a little bit tired of the “extra bits”.

In that light,  I give you…PICTURES!  YAY.

winter

winter from Cindy’s spot

A LOT of snow has been falling and it’s hard to even tell how high that first pile of snow is that is blocking the path to our front door.  Completely blocking.

And the kitchen sink is what Rob has been working on the past two days.  It is almost finished at this point and just waiting for the dishwasher to be connected to it.  The counter top is 70% recycled glass bottles from Eco.  I think that’s pretty cool too.
kitchen sinkkitchen ½ done

laundry

The laundry/1/2 bath is half done also.  The washer is hooked up, the dryer half connected, sink and toilet 100%!  This is no small thing.  The sink is an old pedestal that was painted with local wild flowers by a local woman back in the 90s.  Rob found it at the salvage store and fell in love.  Good thing.  It took him 3 days to accommodate the plumbing.

blue walls

Master bedroom blue.  I had to have blue.  It’s quite childhood blue too.  The mattress and box springs got moved here a few weeks ago since it’s possible that we wouldn’t have been able to get them out of the garage until late March or April. We’re still not cleared to live in the house yet until there’s a complete bathroom and safe stairs.

library painting

The ‘library’ and stairs have been painted but you can’t really tell here.  Rob will start putting up bannisters and resurfacing the stairs next week!  That gets us VERY close to being able to occupy this house at night as well as all day long (like we do now).

Taylor's tree 1:30:16

And this is just a picture of yesterday morning when I stepped out the door.  I include it here for Caitlin and Walter because Caitlin said she thought it was a great shot and Walter hates to see photos of snow.  How can you NOT love the fairyland-ness of this kind of snow?!

Whack-a-Mole

It’s winter! Full on. This is the look outside our 11-inch walls and it just keeps coming down. Gorgeous when you’re inside. Stunning when you’re out in it.

snow gabions

I have no idea how many inches we have in accumulation but I can see there’s a reason they build strong roofs out this way. Even with the days of sun we’ve had and the irregular bits of melting (icicles and ice dams), the snow on the roof is almost as high as the snow on these gabions.

roof snow
NEST

 

So, the roof is holding, and yesterday the hydronic heating was softly purring away – very occasionally as it is rarely called for – and Rob had happily installed his much longed for Wi-Fi responsive thermostats to each of the three zones in the house.

 

 

However, as my favorite blogger  refers to the job of opening their latest Seattle restaurant, every day is a new game of Whack-a-Mole. You get one thing fixed and another demand pops its ugly little head right up and taunts you.   The struggle for me is not so much in the actual mole whacking (of course not, since Rob is the one who is most often in charge of the mallet on these things) as in remembering that someday we’ll be past this breaking-in period and the house will be a warm and cozy place that offers protection from the elements rather than demanding care and concern at every turn.

So, in an effort to get a little distance from the combination boiler’s latest digital warning (“System Error”) and to see how far we’ve come to date, I’m needing a little perspective on the whole process.
floor pexBack long ago, the floor had been layered inside the foundation walls with gravel, a plastic radon barrier (which may or may not be sufficient to keep the radon levels low enough without adding a vent fan to the present radon passive venting), 5 inches of blue board insulation, rebar, and then the PEX flexible tubing that is now carrying hot water to heat our concrete and our wood floors. You can see the hydronic’s white tubes winding along the rebar and fastened every once in awhile. The leveling boards that run left to right were there so that the concrete crew could more easily lay the 4 inches of concrete level from front to back and side to side. They were pulled out before they did their daylong floating to smooth the concrete.

A definite upside to the insulated concrete forms that we used on the first floor is that you can feel how tight the house is against the winter winds, cold and barking dogs (and I fanaticize about how cool it will keep us in the summer heat). An amazing factor in tight walls and a 4 inch concrete floor is that, once it’s warmed up to provide a chosen temperature in the house, it stays that way for a long time. The biggest downside so far is that all of the house’s pipes and wires have to go through the minimal number of walls we have. It seemed like a plumbers and electrician’s nightmare to me. I’m hoping the wall cavity congestion will not become our nightmare in the future.

wall congestionThis little section of wall is representative with the red and blue PEX water supply lines to the bathroom sink and the PVC drain above them. The two white PEX lines below are part of the floor’s heating system as it leaves the boiler and heads to Zone #2 in our master bedroom. As seen, wires weave everywhere. EVERY where.   The ceilings and floors are equally crisscrossed with PEX and wire so we’ve taken photos of every wall cavity in the house and will not be hanging a shelf or a painting without first checking our photo series to see how likely it is that we’ll puncture a water line, electrical wire, or vent pipe in the process. Luckily the carpenter put bracing in a lot of places we could imagine that we might like to place a future nail.

Now that everything is under concrete or behind walls, the only evidence of a heating system is hidden under the stairs. This little space is our entire mechanical room. Very compact and just a bit hard to access. It’s completely a hands and knees ordeal if you want a close look like Rob often does.

combi boiler

The white box hanging on the wall is the whole of our home’s combination boiler. It provides all the heating for the water that runs through our two floor’s hydronics as well as the heat on demand for our domestic water needs. The manufacturer’s promise is that we can take one hot shower after another at any time, without worrying about cold bursts of water or loss of hot water. They warn against taking two showers at one time or running the bath while taking a shower. Both are unlikely for us.

The water softener will eventually be stuffed in this closet right before the boiler.

In the corner, behind the combi-boiler is the whole house water filter.water filter

 

And then comes…. The Manifold. Behold the manifold!

manifold

This very complex looking arrangement directs the water from the boiler to the appropriate PEX loop of each of our three heating zones. We’ve chosen to put all of the upstairs on the same zone, our living room master bath and kitchen on a zone and our bedroom and laundry room on another. We’re assuming we will rarely call for heat in the bedroom or laundry but will want to have a warm living room and bathroom most times. The kitchen is so open to the living room that there was really no way to not warm them both to the same temperature.

I understand that, should we ever desire to cut the water to any of the zones, it is an easy process to quickly turn the appropriate yellow lever or red knob (not sure which and I hope I don’t ever have to wield that mallet) perpendicular to the pipe and the water is immediately stopped.  I’m a little disappointed that the plumber and the plumbing inspector wouldn’t let us replace those modern and efficient levers with heavy metal wheels and big metal gauges. We could have put this whole board on the wall in the laundry and created a bit of steam punk while providing easier access to all heating maintenance.

transformerAnd just one more time to see why that might have been worthwhile, here’s Rob folding himself under the stair landing (where our entire mechanical room lives) so that he could connect the transformer for the thermostat’s low voltage line.

 

 

 

You can’t tell it by looking at our dirty floors but this is a lovely warm floor that makes you want to take your shoes off when you enter the door.   When it works again. Which I’m sure it will by the end of today. It’s surely time for a different mole tomorrow.floor heat

The New Year

 

The last of our subcontractors are easing their ways to the end of the last of their necessary electrical, plumbing and concrete jobs. And, as wonderful as most of them are…?… Yay, Yay, Yay,Yay, and Yay!     They are leaving us with a set of rooms that continually amaze us with their angles and wonderful new views of our surrounding snow-covered mountains.   Their leaving also gives us the chance to lock the doors at night, bring little bits of our necessary things into the house (a very important tea kettle here, a set of folding chairs for our first floor-warming pizza party there) and, most satisfyingly, it gives us a chance to return to recognizing our original vision for the house. The seed, the germ of what we wanted to realize in building and living in this house were a new level of environmental sustainability and low maintenance living.

As we were designing the house last winter, we considered these concepts in nearly every decision we made. What would be the most maintenance free siding, what would provide the tightest walls, how could we position our windows to take full advantage of passive solar gain in the winter and not blast us out of the house in the summer? With regular reading of Fine Homebuilding magazine and amazing websites we were narrowing in on our efficient building systems (making the final choice very difficult) and our building designer helped us see how we could build into the narrow little city lot that was at least half hillside with a recognizably modest setback from the neighbor’s house. The great solar access was what drew us to this lot originally and the small lot size helped guarantee we wouldn’t (couldn’t) build too big a home here. After all the research and, ultimately those tough design decisions made, we felt we had ticked off all the necessary boxes and were ready to live easy and environmentally blessed lives. But, of course, that’s not true.

It turns out that sustainability and developing a low maintenance, fuss-free home is a constant job that requires vigilance and strong determination. Each person involved in a new house build or an old house renovation wants to return to the norm of what they have done over the years and that may not (and probably does not) take sustainability and low maintenance into consideration. The ditch digger and the plumber want to put in irrigation (and they did!) even though we’d insisted that we wanted a natural yard that used only as much water as nature drops or that we can sustain with a watering can and hose. The electrician and the builder recommended we forget the solar panels since we don’t use enough electricity to get a great payback. The contractor brought in a hog of a heater to help the mud dry for the sheet rockers and the monster stayed on, was regularly turned way up by one person or another and used as much electricity in 30 days as we have personally used in our old house during the past 5 ½ months. In ONE month!

But now… ahhhhh.       It’s our house and the need to keep track of what the parade of workers slipped into the project isn’t necessary. It’s all on us and, most happily, we’re pretty much of one mind about where we want to draw the lines on most things.

Here are a few of the activities of the week and where the lines got drawn;

mud in kitchen

The appliances and cabinets were delivered and immediately shrank the size of the room.

The appliances were chosen with their energy star rating in mind. It’s not hard to buy fairly efficient appliances anymore since government regulations and the Energy Star rating system have made it economically beneficial for the manufacturers to improve efficiencies. The biggest struggle for the consumer is in not buying more appliance than you really need. Trying to find a refrigerator as small as we wanted was difficult and then we couldn’t find a small one that matched our other appliances. After shopping around we went home and looked on line to find that a smaller fridge was listed that our big box salesperson said didn’t exist. We took the model number into the store and they were able to order exactly the one we wanted (at their after Thanksgiving sale price!).

We gave in a little bit on the stove. We could have gone with an electric stove since we are going to have our very own electric plant on the roof and could use the electricity that rains down on us from the sun rather than the ancient solar energy that is drilled from deep in the earth. However in the end, we got the gas stove because… we like cooking with gas so much. Sometimes even WE disappoint ourselves.

The largest struggle in buying our cabinets was, again, sticking with buying no more than we needed. The salesperson – and every worker who has come into the house since they were delivered – felt we were crazy not to have bought upper cabinets. (Thank you to our friends and family who have not felt the need to correct us on this.)   The fact is that upper cabinets make me feel a bit claustrophobic and I don’t want them covering the wall of what will essentially be part of our living room. Besides that, we don’t seriously need twice as much storage room in our kitchen. We made a list of all the items we need to store in that area and we figured out exactly where we could store them all in the base drawers.  As much as I don’t like the upper wall cabinets, I love drawers in base cabinets and, all but our lazy-Susaned corner unit, has good big- sized drawers that will hold everything).  Why buy more just because it’s the norm?

IMG_6387
And, just like the Energy Star labeling on appliances has helped to make all appliance manufacturers recognize energy effienciecy as a good selling point, labeling and education about appropriately sourced woods makes it easier to find even big box, semi-custom cabinets that are made from certified wood products. The ESP (Environmental Stewardship Program) that certifies these Kraft Maid cabinets awards annual certification based on compliance in five categories: air quality (including low formaldehyde-emitting), product resource management, process resource management, environmental stewardship and community relations. Just look for the label in the cabinet or look up ESP to find their current list of certification recipients, since it can change from year to year.

upstairs bath and stairwall      painting guest room

And the same goes for paints. The last time I painted a room  I had to ask specifically to be shown the low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint options. Now, due in part to education and part government regulation, even the big box store had the paint I wanted with no VOC. So far the paint has been wonderful, not at all stinky and has great coverage – even when painting strong colors over the slightly tinted primer.

All in all, we’re finally feeling that we’ve returned to a place where we can more easily make the decisions that reflect the original seed of an idea that prompted us to spend a year (and counting) working to build our own sustainable and low maintenance house.

And, did I mention that it’s warmer in there?!?!

Next week I’ll do the tour of the hydronic combi-boiler and the steam punk room under our stairs.