Sunday, March 29, 2009


This weekend our friend Adam came up from western Mass to visit and help with taking down some trees. With skill and accuracy, he was able to scope out the big tree we'd been a little worried about. He set his mark, made his wedge cut, then came in from the back to form a T, inserted his wedge, cut the T and down she went. He made it look easy.

This tree came down for a couple of reasons: It is located where we are planning to put the yurt in advance of starting site work and it creates shade on the future house when we'll most want low winter light and warmth. There is something awe inspiring about the felling of a tree. Its like removing a building in short order. One minute there is a massive structure and the next minute it is laying in the field.

Additionally, Adam gave me an excellent introduction in the safe use of my brand new chainsaw. A chainsaw is a fearsome instrument, but with Adam's guidance, I was making inroads quickly, helping to limb the big tree, and then later planning and taking down a smaller tree that was nearly within the footprint of the house.

The taking down of these two trees is the first visible step towards making the house come to life. Its the first shaping of the environment that will be part of the extended whole of the house.

After the tree work, Adam and I rode up and over the Appalachian Gap to meet Nancy in Bristol for the contra dance. Nancy was calling (Go Nance!)and it was a great time.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Advice Phase

About a week or so ago we met with Danny Sagan, an architect based in Montpelier to run our plans by him. He had a few concerns and suggestions which we gladly took in hand and we've adjusted accordingly. What is continually amazing to me is the experience of feeling like "we've got it" when looking at the plans, and then going back, working some more, and discovering even better solutions. We will likely end up making a some mistakes, but it will not be for lack of sticking to it and trying to refine our plans. At this point we feel pretty close and we're rapidly moving into construction drawings. The big things we need to figure out at this point are mostly system analysis: how much window area, what capacity heating system, structural calculations, etc...

So, we're doing a lot of advice gathering, talking to builders, friends, designers, relatives, and all relevant combinations of the above such as friend-designers, relative-builders, friend-relatives, etc... The more people we talk to the more comfortable I feel moving ahead.

I helped build a modified Larsen truss framed house two years ago and unless we decide to do differently, that is the method we'll be doing for our house. You can see some photos of that project here. Essentially it is system for building a 12" deep wall cavity which will be filled with dense packed insulation. The challenge is that it is not a widely use method. I hoping to meet with Robert (shown in photo), the guy who designed and led that project to have him give our plans a good look. We'll be speaking with Danny again; Joe, our friend and builder who is going to be working on the project with me this summer has already weighed in, and our pal Adam is coming up tomorrow and we'll pick his brain for any impressions. My uncle Paul is a builder and we look forward to his input as well. Additionally, I recently spoke with Bill Hulstrunk who has offered his expertise as well. He taught the super-insulation class that I took a couple of months ago.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Home: Present Tense

For the last six years we've lived in a yurt. It's been an excellent home, and we've learned a lot about the land we are on, what we like in a "house", and what we'd like to have that we currently do not.

The yurt started out as an experiment. We'd been living in Boston and were both eager to move to the country. Having both just read the Nearing's "The Good Life" we were inspired to shape lives that included growing food and living more closely to the rhythms of the seasons. My parents were game to let us put up a yurt on a piece of their land and so we went ahead and built a the yurt. (See the process here.) Instead of buying a kit, we researched, designed and built it as a team with the help of lots of friends. It was a great learning experience and we got a feel for our individual strengths and weaknesses, which we will be employing again going into the house building process.

Folks often credit us with living "sustainably", but that's never really been the goal per se. It's more that we've just done whats felt interesting. The fact is we live in one of the most poorly insulated homes I'm aware of -- not really sustainable. We aim to make amends in that area with the new house.

The yurt is roughly 480 sq. ft. Its been a pretty cool experience to figure out how to live in this little space. With very few exceptions, its been easy, comfortable and fun. We like to joke that we have the biggest living room of anyone we know. And the biggest bedroom. And the biggest kitchen, etc... since its all one room. We've honed the space into something that feels good. That said, we don't have enough room for guests, we have to schlep a lot of stuff in and out to the garage, and there is no running water-hence no real bathroom. We head down to my parent's place to do dishes, takes showers, fill up water containers and such.

Having lived here for a while we've established a bountiful garden and have really settled into this place. Its a privilege to have the opportunity to build a house here and know that we'll be here for the long run.

House 2.0

We've been living in a yurt for the last 6+ years and have known that a house is in our future. Well, the time in neigh, and we are steadily moving towards making this dream a reality.

I've been working on the plans on and off for many months and there are still a few bits to work out, but we are largely there. The photos show a 1/4" scale model we've placed on site to study the light patterns and get an overall feel for the house itself. In terms of square footage, the house is about 3 yurts, or roughly in the 1500 sq. ft. range.

Here are a few particulars:

-We are going to build a passive solar a super insulated house. Insulation and air sealing are paramount to minimizing energy input requirements. R-40 walls; double wall construction. Damp spray cellulose insulation. Still working on the actual configuration of the wall configuration.

-Shallow frost protected foundation with slab. Out heat will be mainly wood with rennai back up propane. We're going to lay pipe for radient should we ever want to go that route, but we don't anticipate hooking it up initially. There will be no basement; we've lived without one for years, it is cheaper to build and it works in parnership with our passive solar goals.

-The house is designed to maximize passive solar, with orientation pretty much due south, glazing on the south, with minimal windows to the north. Good shading to the west to avoid harsh late sun.

-Probably an asphalt shingle roof.

The big points right now are still getting a septic plan approved. We've hired a septic engineer who is going to go to the state with the plan, but wants to wait until conditions are reasonably dry. Thats a bit stressful. we'd love to have the plan in hand. Optimal option is we reengage our old system, plan B is that we build new Presby system if state requires it. In either event, we'd have the plan for Presby in place should option A fail at any point.

We may need to drill a new well... TBD.