Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Spring has finally arrived and things are starting to pick upagain. Not that we ever stopped, but the days are longer and the clocks have changed, allowing us to work in the evenings again. Our framing was approved a few weeks ago meaning we can move on to the next step. It's been nice to not swing a hammer and to give my tennis elbow a bit of a rest. Maybe "hammer elbow" is a better descriptor in this case? Moving to the next step means we are finally ready for the meat and potatoes of the project: straw bales. The timber frame was a huge part, for sure, but the straw will be the next big adventure.

To prep for the straw, we've been sanding our tongue-and-groove ceiling to get rid of the feathers that were created when the wood was milled. This process involved a good deal of upper body stamina since we were lying on our backs on scaffolding, holding a orbital sander above our heads, and applying a decent amount of pressure to make sure everything got reasonably smooth. It didn't take quite as long as we expected, thankfully. Taking turns helped, but there were days when we just couldn't keep our arms up any longer.

Sanding 1

We also bleached the timber frame and are so pleased with the way it came out. Since the timbers sat out in the scorching sun all summer, they got really gray. Not really the kind of look we are going for. The sawyer suggested we use regular old household bleach to bring it back to a bright, freshly cut look. So, I bought about six gallons of bleach, loaded it up into run-of-the-mill garden sprayers, and sprayed the whole thing down. John did the spraying, donning a Tyvek suit, organic respirator, and safety goggles to protect himself. I stayed outside. Once it was dry, we sprayed it down with water to rinse any residue away. It looks brand new now!

Bleaching 2
In process. The difference is really amazing.
Bleaching 3

Public service announcement: Bleach is dangerous. We did this in a very well-ventilated area with appropriate safety gear. Do not do this in an enclosed space and please please take the necessary precautions to make sure you don't get hurt! Safety first, everyone! Despite how the house wrap may look, there was plenty of air moving through here and the smell didn't linger. The same is clearly not true for a finished house.

Bleaching 3

The roofer has been working to get the standing seam roofing installed. He has a good deal done and if the weather holds, it shouldn't be too long before the roof is on. We've been staining fascia/trim boards the past few days to get them ready for the roofer to install. There will be more fascia later; we're just working on what he needs to get the roof done. Oh, and we have stairs to the basement now, too!

Standing Seam

Staining 2

Staining 1

All that's left is temporarily sealing up the second floor and the rest of the first. Provided all goes well, we'll be setting the first bales in a week or two!

It's so good to be seeing bare ground again. The mud I could do without.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Oh, hello. Sorry for my absence the past few weeks. Can I blame it on the Olympics? I mean, the Olympics come but once every four years (well, two if we’re being technical), and I just can’t help but get sucked into the wonder of curling, biathlon, speed skating . . . or ski cross! Man, ski cross looks like fun! If I had any kind of sports skills and could be any kind of winter Olympian, I think I’d do ski cross. Unfortunately, John thinks I have a better chance of mining a gold medal than winning one, so I don’t think I’ll be standing on the podium ever in my life.

Stairs in progress
But anyway. we’ve made some progress after a brief hiatus. We have stairs! No more taking a ladder up to the second floor carrying a saw (sharp), a sledge hammer (heavy), and a crow bar (pointy and heavy and kind of sharp).

Up to the second floor
We wound up having the contractor who is doing our roof do the stairs. This wasn’t in the original plan, but to keep things moving and to not spend weeks trying to lay out and construct them, we opted to have him do it. The layout is kind of complicated since there is a landing and then a bale wall on one side but a stud wall on the other and an opening all the way to the basement. And there are gaps in certain spots and, well, we weren’t confident. So, instead of struggling for a week or longer, he did the stairs in two days. You’d think we’d be better at framing by now, but alas, we are still novices in some aspects. We’ll probably do the stairs out of the basement hatch, but the ones that matter, we left up to an expert.

With treads!
While he was working, we started wrapping the first floor in house wrap to prep for the bales. There’s still a little framing left to be done, but since the weather was so amazing this weekend, there was no sense in wasting a gorgeous day working on something that we could do on a less-than-great day. Next time we won’t try to put it up in the wind because we basically had a giant sail on our hands, but it’s only temporary and therefore doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to keep snow out of the house so we can install the bales. Thankfully, Sunday wasn’t nearly as windy. There's just one more side on the downstairs to do and then the whole upstairs, but the good news is that the wrap kept the downstairs clear of snow despite the four inches we got overnight.

All wrapped up, and almost ready for bales (pardon the mess)
So bales! We’re almost ready for bales! I’m so excited to get started on this. I bet the whole town’s wishing we hadn’t put the house wrap up, though. I hear they’re very confused about this straw business.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Timber Framing, Part 1

baesment posts

Remember those giant posts I mentioned? Those ones up there? Well, before we could stand them up, we had to do a little prep work, which brings me to the first part of our timber frame journey! Immense detail goes into building a home, but even more so when you are timber framing. Cuts and measurements need to be precise so that everything fits together like a giant puzzle.

timber frame - squaring

Each timber must first be squared. You sort of size up the timber. Meaning, you take some measurements, look at where the knots in the wood are based on what you're cutting (knots are much harder to chisel), and find the most square corner that will be your reference face. The reference face is the "truest" and most square face from which all of your lines are drawn. You mark the ends of the timber on the reference face and carry your marks around all four sides, always using the reference face as the guide. Once you have both ends marked, you can then mark the tenons or mortises . . . or both, depending. Or a scarf joint if you're being really fancy.

A mortise is a pocket. A tenon is what goes in the pocket. A scarf is both in one, kind of.
Once you've checked and double checked and had a friend check you marks, you start cutting. Generally, we started by squaring off the bottom of the ends of the timber. We went old school and used a hand saw because we found we were able to make the most accurate cuts this way. It's tiring, though, let me tell you!

timber frame - squaring
Squaring a mighty post
timber frame - squaring
Dueling saws
We did use skill saws to cut parts of the joints to speed up the process, but squaring was one thing we didn't have too much success with using the skill saw because you have to be very accurate with your cuts to get all four sides to line up properly. Using a hand saw allows you to cut down two sides at once and see two lines at once, which helps with accuracy.

timber frame - squaring
Squaring the end of the post, cutting two sides at once
The basement posts have huge tenons on top to hold the main girders in place, and we chiseled those by hand. Once these were cut, the posts were lowered into the basement. A friend helped us stand them up one evening, but unfortunately, we realized after they were up that they were two inches too tall. Better too tall than two short, but this meant they had be be taken down, re-cut on the bottom, and then stood back up again. It all worked out in the end, but it was seriously frustrating.

timber frame - tenon

timber frame - tenon
Giant tenon

This is how we lowered the posts. Very OSHA-approved.

So! That was a super quick and broad explanation of timber framing. If you're interested in reading more, we followed the method in this book (as taught to us by our designer, Sarah). Once I get to the first floor timber frame, there will be a lot more to explain!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Soaking Tub

Oh, Craigslist. You are wonderful. And so are you, people in Skaneateles, for without you both, I would not have found an amazing, pristine claw foot tub for half the price of a new one.

via Restoration Hardware
Not the exact one, but you get the idea.
I’ve always wanted a claw foot tub (I blame Pinterest and Houzz and my love for vintage), but I didn’t want to pay the hefty price for a new one. A new cast iron tub can run you $3K or more, especially once you add in the price of the fixtures, and fiberglass was a no-go because it’s cheap (and not in terms of being inexpensive). So, we searched Craigslist and went to a salvage yard, too, but the problem was, the ones I was finding needed some serious work. That, or they didn’t have feet, which was another search all together, and then finding a faucet, too. Add all of that together, and a $400 tub starts getting more and more expensive. Re-enameling and fixtures are expensive, guys.

Yes, please
via Houzz
via Leivars
So I happened to be browsing Craigslist and came across this lovely thing from Restoration Hardware, apparently never used, and half the price. The listing was brand new, too, so I of course jumped on it. I kept thinking to myself that it must be too good to be true. There must be some sort of catch here. My “scam” alarm was sounding, but I still had hope that maybe, just maybe, this really was an amazing find.

After emailing back and forth with the seller, John and I trekked out to Skaneateles in the snow to take a look at this tub. And as it turns out, it wasn’t too good to be true at all. The tub has literally never been used. Not one dirty butt has sat in it. There is nary a scratch or scuff on the thing (or the fixtures).
As it turns out, the owners were faced with something far too many people doing major renovations are faced with: shoddy contractors*. Apparently, they were planning to put in a big Victorian-style bathroom with this amazing tub, but the contractor they hired royally screwed them over by doing things like gluing tile down with hot glue (excuse me, what?!). In the end, they fired the contractor, but they were forced to rip the entire bathroom out. The tub won’t fit in the new bathroom location, so they had to sell it. We seriously lucked out in this deal, but I really feel for them that it came to this. It's a terrible situation to be in.

We went back Saturday to pick it up, and with the help of some strong friends and the seller, they were able to get it down the tight back staircase fairly easily. I supervised, obviously. Then we drove it home where it is now awaiting it's final destination. I can't wait to soak in it!

tub-1 tub-2
tub-3 tub-4
tub-5 tub-6

* A word to the wise about contractors. You might be lucky and find a good one. We’ve had four great contractors do work for us thus far and we’ve been very, very lucky in that regard, but chances are, if you’re doing major renovation work, you might find one who’s not so great. I strongly suggest asking people you know and trust for first-hand experience before you hire a contractor. Google can sometimes be your best friend, but first-hand experience is really the best, though it can be really hard to find trustworthy people if you are new to an area. Don’t be afraid to ask friends or family if they have experience with a contractor, good or bad. If you find a contractor that you’re happy with, ask them for advice about the next contractor you need. They’ve probably been in the business long enough that they know reputable people in the area. But whatever you do, DO NOT pay them anything until they’ve performed at least some work for you, or even better, until they’ve finished the job. If they’re asking for money up front, chances are they’ll have it spent on a trip to Cabo before they finish your project or even before they show up to do the work. Ask questions about what they’re doing. Read up on how things should be done, check their work, voice any concerns you might have, and ask questions. You can never be too careful and at the end of the day, it’s your money and you have to live in the house. And if they turn out to be awful, give them the boot!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Framing Begins

After our foundation was insulated and backfilled, it was time to start framing! First up were the sill plates, which hold the entire frame to the foundation. We wound up using pressure treated lumber for all the wood that's in contact with concrete because it protects the wood from rotting. Our intention was to use black locust, which is as rot-resistant as wood can possibly get without the harmful chemicals used in pressure treated, but unfortunately our sawyer couldn't get black locust in the width and lengths we needed. We were pretty bummed when we realized we'd have to use pressure treated, but you win some, you lose some.

Under the sill plates, we first installed sill seal, which will help keep air from sneaking in through the minute crack between the concrete and the sill. It comes in rolls and is basically just a long sheet of foam that you lay down flat against the concrete.

sill plates 2
All the sills in place
We cut the sills to size and then drilled holes for where the anchor bolts attach to the sills to the concrete wall. We cut the holes a little larger than the bolt to make sure we could get everything lined up nice and plumb and straight. The plates were then set on the foundation and bolted down. It was pretty easy, all things considered, especially since the foundation was backfilled. We attempted to install the sills before it was backfilled, but that involved some precarious ramps and ladders and my debilitating fear of heights.

sill plates 1
Terrifying. There's an 8 foot drop and I'm kneeling on an 8-inch wall
with giant spear-like anchor bolts sticking up every few feet
Before we could install the basement posts and floor joists, we needed to install the plates (or plinths) that they sit on. This was quite a bit trickier to get everything centered and in line. When you have basically no frame of reference because everything is measured from the outside of the wall, and the wall is not actually 8 inches thick because it's a nominal measurement, and you are measuring from the inside face of the wall on account of being inside the basement, and the bottom of the wall is slightly curved, and the plates are larger than the posts and the footings . . . it's really hard! Have I told you yet that we're not professionals? That might have had something to do with it, too. We did manage to figure it out despite the stifling heat in the sauna-basement and a slight breakdown on account of frustration on my part.

basement 1
The sauna and the post footers
basement 2
Plinths in place and posts at the ready
Squaring and cutting the posts came next and was the first bit of timber framing to be done, but I'll save that saga for another day.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What We Keep

Repotted and added a few more lovelies to this pot in my window sill at work.
Only one casualty thus far (the little guy way in the back), which is good for me,
considering I can't seem to keep succulents alive. Any advice on that front
would be greatly appreciated! This has nothing to do with this post,
really, but these plants have been brightening otherwise grey days over here.
I keep thinking about our storage unit and dreading the day we have to clean that thing out. Honestly, I wish I could forget it exists, but there are things in there that I would actually like to have back, like my sewing machine. It’s great, I suppose, that I’ve learned to live with little, even if the results of our little experiment are a bit skewed given that we are now living with my parents and can use their things if we need to. You know, like the couch.

The truth is, at this point, I can’t really remember what’s in our storage unit. I fished out a few pairs of heavier wool pants last week and while I was looking through the bag stuffed with clothes, I found myself saying, “Wait, what’s that?” It was as though I had never seen some things before. Or I was sure I’d given them away (which means I should have given them away).

When we moved out of the stone house and into the camper, I knew that eventually I wouldn’t need even half of the things that we stuffed into that storage unit and that has for sure been true. As a result, I already have a plan for how I want to attack this 10x15 room full of stuff we do not need.

First, I want to move things over slowly and unpack slowly. Maybe a box a day or something like that to keep from getting overwhelmed. The contents will be kept, donated, or sold. 

Everything will need to be organized and find a home within our home. I’d like to keep things as minimal as possible and keep stuff tucked away and out of sight. I’m definitely not the neatest person in the world, but I tend to get a little jumpy and claustrophobic when things get too cluttered. I crave a clean slate even if I’m not the best at maintaining it. It’ll take some discipline on my part (and John’s) to keep everything in order, but I’ll feel less frantic if things are tidy. It’s all about being deliberate in the things that we keep around and bring into the space, and the things we choose to let go of.

Sadly, though, we have a long way to go before I’m unpacking boxes and purging things I shouldn’t have even stored in the first place. Oh how proud of myself I was when we moved, what with giving away what I thought was so much unnecessary stuff. Little did I know. . . .

For now, I’ll just keep dreading that storage unit and paying the bill so our stuff doesn’t get auctioned off to the lowest bidder. I really do want that sewing machine back.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Chimney

Our chimney is done and it looks great!  Check that one off the list (I like checking things off lists. Who doesn’t really?). This was one of those tasks that we left up to the experts because they could do a much better job than us and work a whole lot faster. And man, those guys are fast. We’d leave for work in the morning and when we got home, the chimney would be up through another floor.

Through the roof!
This chimney (as with everything on this house) wasn’t without its trials and tribulations, of course. Once the timber frame was up, we discovered that the clearance next to one of the beams was less than allowed by code, which was definitely not a good thing and in no way shape or form would we pass inspection. Options were weighed, like going to a smaller flue size (nope) or shaving the beam down (double, triple nope). In the end, the mason did some squeezing and shuffling to get the proper clearance and luckily, he was able to shift the bricks to get just enough space and it will now pass inspection! Once he made it past that beam, it was smooth sailing through the roof.

In process, and the beam in question at the back.
You might have noticed that the materials are different from floor to floor (it's pretty easy to see in the first photo). The chimney's a mix of block and brick, with block in the basement, brick on the first floor, then block again on the second floor, and finally brick through the roof. Since you'll only see the exposed chimney on the first floor and out the roof, we opted to only use brick in these places. The brick is actually the same that was used for the chimney in my parent's house. They had a ton left over, so John and I scrounged it, and then spent an afternoon scrubbing and washing each brick to get the dirt and moss off. It was a lot of effort, but it saved us a lot of money and we recycled something that wasn't being used.

The wood stove we purchased is from a company in New Hampshire called Woodstock Soapstone Company. The stoves are made right there in NH, and because we went to pick it up, we got to pick one of three (and we saved a good amount of money, too). We ordered it way back in March of 2013 so we could get it on sale. They were so accommodating and held the price and the stove until we could come pick it up a few weeks ago. The stoves are not only beautiful, but they’re very energy efficient. The catalytic converter that comes standard in the stove allows for a cleaner, longer burn time, and the thermal mass of the soapstone radiates heat long after the fire has died down. Plus, who doesn’t like the feel of a nice, warm, fire on a cold winter’s day?

Our stove! Well, not the actual one.
via Woodstock Soapstone Company
Now we just need to fire stop around the chimney and have it inspected, then we can install the hearth and the woodstove and we’ll be toasty warm in no time! I can’t wait to be sitting on the couch next to the stove with a cup of coffee while the snow falls softly outside. That sounds so, so nice on a chilly damp day like this.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Design Process

In my last post I explained why we decided to build a new home, but after that, there was a lot more planning to be done. Everything needed to be thought through. 

Dreamin' and schemin'
Photo by Sean O'Kane
Our main concern was the floor plan and making sure it would be livable all on one floor with at least one entry without steps. After many different iterations, we came up with a floor plan that has a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor with an open kitchen/dining/living area. The bathroom will have a curbless shower so you don’t have to step over a threshold to get in. We're planning to build a garage down the road, so we then will have an accessible entry. We’ll be able to drive into the garage, get out of the car, and walk right into the house, with out going up a single stair.

Environmental concerns were another huge factor for us. We want our home to be as relatively low impact to the environment as possible while also creating a healthy living environment us. We researched a few different natural building methods like cob, and light straw-clay, but were most drawn to straw bale because it seemed like a good option for our climate and because straw is readily available in our area. After attending a straw bale workshop, we knew for sure it’s what we wanted to do.

Our straw is hanging out in this giant tractor trailer
In terms of framing, we could have gone a few different routes (standard stud construction, load-bearing straw bale, etc.), but we were drawn to timber frame from an aesthetics perspective so that’s why we ultimately chose it. Tying the timber frame into the straw bale can be tricky, so our designer encourage us to go with a hybrid framing system. The interior is timber frame, while the exterior walls are standard stud construction. After going through the whole timber framing process, we’ve really enjoyed doing it from a building perspective. It’s an age-old trade, especially how we did it (more on the later, I promise!), but the whole thing is really cool and very satisfying when it all comes together.

Squaring up a post
Once we started sourcing materials, we tried our best to choose materials that are local and as low impact as possible. All of our lumber was locally sourced from a mill about 45 minutes from us. Except in areas where structurally necessary, we’re not using plywood or pressure-treated lumber and therefore are greatly reducing the amount of harmful chemicals and glues in the structure. The straw was also locally sourced.

One of many teetering piles of lumber that were delivered
Using straw as opposed to fiberglass means that there are no harmful materials within our walls. Our attic will be insulated with either cellulose, which is a recycled material, or AirKrete, which is so non-toxic you can eat it, and it’s manufactured just 15 minutes from us. The plaster we are using to seal in the straw has a low carbon footprint; when curing, it reabsorbs the CO2 it emitted during the manufacturing process. The insulation we used on our foundation was reclaimed from an old mall and would have just been thrown out otherwise. We minimized the amount of concrete in our foundation as much as possible. The standing seam roof will not need to be replaced for about 50 years, as opposed to shingles which need to be replaced much more often. I’m sure I left out many more, but in any case, we’ve tried very hard to be as environmentally conscious as possible, even down to what we are recycling and diverting from a landfill.

Timber frame in process
All of that said, though, it can be easy to sacrifice quality for the most environmentally friendly product. I’m not suggesting you start throwing in products full of CFCs because they might last longer, I’m just saying that you should do your research. Know the products, know what you’re building, and know what you want to accomplish. For example, we went with an 8-inch foundation wall rather than a 6-inch wall because the contractor vehemently did not recommend a thinner wall and went so far as to say we needed an engineer to certify that the wall wouldn’t fail and he was free of liability. This meant more concrete, but it meant our foundation wouldn’t crack. There are trade-offs with everything, but you can still find ways to maximize efficiency as well as the overall health of your home.

It's an ongoing process and we're making decisions about these things on a near daily basis, but every little bit truly counts, so I encourage you to do what you can, even if it seems small. I'm not one to make resolutions, but if you can make one change this year, I hope you do so by helping to preserve our planet. We only have one, after all.

Happy New Year to you! I'll be back soon to update you on some real progress, like a roof . . . soon . . . I hope. And because you made it to the end of this post and it makes me laugh, I'm going to share with you this photo of a dog staring into the window of a bakery. He's hoping for a doughnut, I imagine.

A glazed one, please