A Winter Day in the Greenhouse

14dec_treelights_cr_smChristmas mail has made it clear to me I am a very bad blogger. “We miss your blog.” “No updates on your blog.” “So sorry you’ve stopped blogging.” OK. Truth is, I haven’t stopped blogging. I just haven’t done it lately. (And I’ve blogged at least as often as I hear from my Christmas correspondents.)

It seemed after a while that the farm things must be getting a little boring to you, dear readers. After all, every year the same plants grow, or don’t. The animal procreate, or don’t. The rain falls, or sometimes doesn’t, and we complain either way.

All right: Here is what I am doing today: I am trimming up the over-wintering geraniums in the greenhouse.

The greenhouse turns out to have been useful for a number of things. Last fall (a year ago), I moved a number of my zonal geraniums into the greenhouse to hold them over. I usually start them from seed in the spring, but I thought I’d see how they did inside. I remember my mother wintering hers over in the garage with little light and hardly any water, so I thought the glassed-in beds would be good for this. It was:

15jan04_geraniums_sm They got a little out of hand. And I didn’t, actually, get them planted out into the garden in the spring. So we have had a forest of happy geraniums in the greenhouse, though there was room for other things until summer advanced and we noticed they had fairly taken over the world.

It was nice in there in the spring and summer with the blooms, the scent of geraniums, and the everlasting nosegay. In April we had a bottle lamb from the sheep flock, one whose mother did her best but died when the lamb was a bare 3 weeks old. So Folly, as we called her since she was born on April 1, moved into the greenhouse where it was more convenient for us to meet her feeding schedule.

14apr_greenhousefolly1_cr_smShe enjoyed the geraniums, too. Folly has since then returned to being a sheep and lives with the other ewes.

In summer we had another blessed event, one we would have avoided if we could’ve. But when you live in the country, Providence brings you cats, and it happened that She brought us both a feral tom and a sweet, fertile queen at the same time. In a longer story than I will tell here, Gollum the tom, is no longer with us. But he left a little bit of himself behind. That’s Gollum’s Precious and her 4 grey-striped kittens.

14jul_kittens1_cr_sm We found a good home for 2 of them, and 2 have stayed with us. For a short time, while their mother was recovering from her female surgery, they all  took up residence in the greenhouse, which had been vacated by Folly, and where they learned essential gardening skills.


So the greenhouse has been successful for animal husbandry as well as botanical experiments. But really, really, those geraniums need to be taken in hand. Hard as it is to whack something so thriving, if we intend any use of the greenhouse in the spring, we have to do it. So here I am today, whacking:

15jan04_geraniums3_smThe mask is for the clouds (clouds!) of old pollen falling from the dried blooms.


There are benefits to this exercise: I’ll recover planting space, the geraniums will be, I hope, in splendid condition for planting out in the spring when they will have put on new growth to their now compact limbs, and: I find things! (I knew that trowel was in there someplace!)


It’s raining outside, and I could complain about that, but this is nice way to spend a winter afternoon in the garden. I once had a university professor who said, in regard to plants, “You have to hurt them to make them thrive. Cut them back!”

Published in: on January 4, 2015 at 4:12 pm  Comments (7)  

(Waves hand) Yes! I’m Here!

It has been made clear to me that I am a very bad blogger lately. Someone pointed out it was January when I last posted. Someone else actually asked me whether I am still alive!

I appreciate the concern. I am not yet pushing up late summer stubble.

In the meantime, spring has come and gone. Summer has come and is just now used up. Indeed, the faint signs of a change of season are here: mist in the mornings, fruit on the trees. Partly, you see, the things that happen on a farm and in the woods each season are pretty much the same things that happened the last round. I imagined everyone might have been tired of hearing about them. But when people begin asking if I’m still quick, it’s a good time to check in even if it means repeating myself.

You’ll be inquiring about the house project. It is so very, very close to completion.We received a nice write-up in the  PGE Customer News e-letter: Green dream farmhouse: 8 ideas. Many, many names of men and women who have worked on the house are inscribed onto the roof beam in the attic.

Everyone who has worked on the house has signed the roof beam in the attic.

When I look back at the lay-out of our early design work, I’m impressed at how much the house looks like our first vision of it. Here, for instance, is the SketchUp drawing of the kitchen as we imagined it then.

Kitchen plan

And here is much the same view, with workman mess still in the way (but you can get the idea):

Join us for breakfast at the kitchen counter!

We look with joy at the possibility we’ll be able to use the greenhouse this year. The construction scaffold came down a couple of weeks ago, the painters finished working inside it last week, the final windows are to be installed next week, the 10-foot  Big Ass Fan  is installed and running,

No kidding, it’s called a Big Ass Fan

and the soil is ready to be raked into place. This first time we will be experimenting. First plants in: basil. Let’s see how long we can extend its season. I will be starting some seeds here this weekend, I think: lettuces, cilantro, miner’s lettuce. I’d like to try some late-started broccoli and cauliflower, and Swiss chard. We’ll move some tender perennials inside for over-wintering. We’re hoping it can be a real season stretcher and that we’ll be eating vegetables from it long after the outdoor garden has given up. Besides that, this greenhouse will warm the house in winter. We have no conventional furnace.

Out in the garden, I’ve made some progress. The landscaping is still pitiful, showing all the signs of construction and wreckage. When winter comes it will be discouraging again, but by summer’s end this year, parts of it almost looked like a garden.

The terraces: a beginning

The blocks of stone you see in the photo above will become steps from the first terrace to the next. A great many things are held in pots this year: the herb garden, the dahlias, shrubs that need siting and perennial starts from seed or cuttings. It’s all a process, and I  imagine the garden will never be finished, and every year I will feel despair as to its progress and condition.

The cat over there in the walkway is not dead. She just has an odd sense of what a pillow should be.

Pillow time

It’s seed-taking time already. These marigolds are ready to have seeds plucked out for next spring’s sowing. They’re the tiny Signet type that bloom in clouds of deep and bright oranges: easy to start from seed, a favorite of the springtime flush of slugs here. Though losses to slugs were heavy early on, the plants rallied when drier weather came, and now are throwing themselves into reproductive efforts.

Signet marigold seed heads

This one, below, is Nicotiana. I’m relying on them to self-sow. Oh…, well, maybe I’ll collect a few, too.

In the woods the owls are hooting their autumn signal system from tree to tree. In the night you can hear them, one nearby, hoo-hoo! and then, farther into the dark, hoo-hoo, hoo in answer. Add your own hoo to the conversation and they fall indignantly silent for a few minutes. They’re shedding themselves now, too, of soft gray feathers left in the grass.


It’s a sign, we’re coming ’round to the changing time of year again. It’s the time of year when, if you want to give yourself a case of the creepies, you walk into the woods at dusk. And listen.

Published in: on September 22, 2012 at 9:50 am  Comments (9)  

Construction Report: A Little Walk-though

It’s been a while since we had a walk-though of the house, and things have changed since I shared anything like a general look at the project. Also, I’ve made promises to put up some views. So, my friends, here’s a little peek inside. I apologize to those on slow connections. This issue is heavy with pictures.

Of course, you need to come up to the front door first. This is the west side entrance. The colors of the house reflect, in part, the earth beneath it. We knew we had iron-red soil, but as we excavated for the house foundations, we found a sampler of mineral colors beneath. There were bands of ocher and green, swaths of mysterious deeper reds and purples, and layers of ancient charcoal. We chose the earth-reds for the primary color of the house, and used some of the secondary colors in the arches and for surrounding ramps and walls.

Come on in. Here's the front door.

While we’re still under construction around there, you can perhaps imagine what it will be when we have some gardens. On the left is a little front-door patio where we can set a small tea table and a couple of chairs. On the right are the greenhouse buttresses and the scaffolding under it. The buttresses are just getting their final touches of paint now. You can’t really tell in this shot, but the ironwork as well as the window and door trim on the south side are a wonderful, deepest purple. Like this:

Peeking under the scaffold

Here, where a door exits from the master bedroom suite, we will have a small deck. You can see the framing for it in the foreground. This attached, south-side greenhouse is the primary collecting engine of the passive heating system of the house. Additionally, of course, it’s a greenhouse. We plan to use it as  our extension of the vegetable garden through the cool season as well as a pleasure garden.

So, now you’ve come in, turn around and take a look at the entry from within:

Ground floor entry foyer.

Windows facing south, look out through the greenhouse.  You can see the window moldings of salvaged old-growth fir I wrote about in an earlier post . That’s the elevator door on the right. To the right of that, not visible in this view, is a small bedroom. It’s difficult to make out color distinctions in these shots, but all the south-facing walls are painted in dark hues, to increase their value as heat sinks.

Turning back into the house, you see the music room and the stairway up.

Home of piano, ukuleles, a theremin, perhaps? Come on and sing along some evening.

On the left is the downstairs ‘wet utility’ room. Straight ahead is the entrance to the master bedroom. Doors: except for the elevator, which requires a positive closure interlocked to the lift mechanism, and one coat closet where we couldn’t work it out, all the interior doors are pocket doors. With pocket doors we give up no floor space to the arc of a swinging door.

Notice the stained concrete floors. Both downstairs and up, the floors are concrete. They are the main heat storage feature of a passive solar house like this. You might ask why the house doesn’t overheat in summer, then. If you would parenthetically step outside with me, you’ll see we are earth-sheltered to the level of the attic entrance on the north:

Ramps conceal the cool air system.

That ramp, which also provides stair-free access to the attic, conceals a worm-way of culvert that conveys cool air from the earth into the house. As I write this, we are just coming off 3 days of exterior temperatures over 90°F (32°C), and the temperature inside the house, relying only on this cooling from the north-side vents, is 71°F (21.6°C).

Close parentheses. We’re back inside.

Cross the music room and enter the master bedroom suite. On your right as you enter is: The Library and Reading Room. There is more ancient wood framing the window here.

Shelves both sides and room for a chair with light from over the shoulder.

Continue straight ahead and enter the bedroom:

Master bedroom: wide-angle huge!

It isn’t as big as it looks with the wide attachment on the camera. But it does have 2 walk-in closets. Imagine! When asked, early on, what I wanted in a house, I replied, “Storage, a decent laundry with room for a folding table, and a bathtub.” I have been given all three. Also, one of my favorite features of the bedroom is in one of the power connections in the center of the wall: a plug-in for earphones so whoever is watching late-night television (who will not be me, I can assure you!) watches it privately. That wasn’t even on my list of things!

The master bath gets light through the greenhouse. Natural shale tiles all over the place!

It’s hard to get nice photos of this, but here you can see the important bathtub and the still empty throne room. The tile man did a lovely job setting the natural shale. From the bathroom, you can step out to the little deck you saw above, where you’ll find the The Endless Pool®.

Here’s a close-up of the obscure glass of the bathroom windows:

We thought it looked like rain and seemed to belong here.

OK, back out to the foyer, and up the spiral stair (or up the elevator, if you happen to have an armload, or feel weak), and into the great room.

Join us for breakfast at the kitchen counter!

This is the view from the top of the stair (or from the door of the elevator). That’s the kitchen on the right, and the back door on the left. At the far left, which cannot be seen well in this photo, is the pantry door. Note, the concrete floors even on this upstairs level (contractors’ footprints). The  kitchen floor is natural cork tile over concrete.

You’ll have noticed, perhaps, a change in temperature now. The color scheme we chose calls for cool colors downstairs and warmth upstairs. We wanted our sleeping room, our arts and thinking rooms, to be deep and comforting, to welcome a visitor into the coolness of the earth-sheltering of the house, and provide a transition from the earth colors of the exterior. We wanted the upstairs living floor to be vibrant and full of energy. There is light everywhere in this room, even though, as you can see here,

we maintained the practice of deeply colored walls facing south. From left to right, that’s a coat closet (the one with the swinging door), the elevator, and the office/den/spare bedroom. Under the windows, all concealed right now with protective stuff, is a bank of low shelves suitable for books and other things, and for sitting on a cushion on top.

If you turned around right now, you would see the hearth corner and the little stove.

Pull up a chair by the fire...

We’re hoping, and we do believe based on the performance of the house last winter when it was still full of gaping holes, that the fire will be for comfort of the mind more than warmth of the body.

Let’s step outside again, turn right out the back door, and go around to the south aspect. From here you can see the array of photovoltaic panels on the roof:

It’s 6300 peak watts. We’re just about to pass 6300 kilowatt hours, which was our 12-month target, completed in 11 months. Suppose, instead, this was electricity generated at the Boardman coal plant up the Columbia from us. Five tons of carbon dioxide have not been released in the creation of that power. Furthermore, PGE buys power from us on days when we generate more than we use.

To the left, note the ramp down to the greenhouse entry. This is more stair-free access, intended to make life easy and continuous here if either of us should become disabled. We call this sustainability in a very personal sense. The house is designed to accommodate us even as time goes by and, one day, we might not feel like climbing stairs.

At the very far right of the greenhouse frame, you can see the corner of the flat plate collectors that drive the domestic hot water system. They have provided as much as 160°F (71°C) of hot water in a 250 gallon storage tank. We have, as well, a point-of-use, tankless water heater. Though it can heat water instantly when the tap is opened, these panels feed already tempered water through the system, saving electricity needed to get hot water at the tap.

What you cannot see here, because we’ve been working on it all weekend and it isn’t installed yet, is the solar mat that will heat the pool. It will hang on the lower part of the roof, to the right of the photo panels. Expect an update on that when it goes into service.

So there you have it, as it stands today. We’re not in yet, but it feels like it’s getting close.

Published in: on July 10, 2010 at 8:04 pm  Comments (13)  

New Things and Old Things, and the Weather

In March, fair weather deluded us into thinking it was time to work the vegetable patch, and we did it with enthusiasm. And then came the rains, back in buckets. The bean seeds rotted in the soil. Poor little zucchini plants tried nobly to get things started…

… and then retired again into the mud.

Through weeks of rains coming in, storm after storm,  long past their scheduled allotment, some things struggle forward in seasonal progress. The cottonwoods put on their cottonfall. The garden weeds have leaped forth. The crows arrived in noisy chorus, and the the goldfinches and towhees. The slugs ate the iris blooms before they could contemplate opening to the sun. The sun? Not making much of an appearance this spring.

But here is a sign of the time. The newest crop of the year, trotting beside the road, was swift to get back to it’s mother’s side when I stopped with the camera. It’s so hard to get photos of these little gems. It was like a fairy deer, as petite as they come. Mother was watching from above.

The House is advancing. So many diverse things need completion, it seems the list goes on forever. It’s been such a long project.  Now, when I look at this wholly modern structure, I see something of its place in time and technology.

A house must meet our most primitive need: comfort. We find that in regulated temperature, light, and sound.  Except that we have made choices among modern and, when we could, local materials, our house is only that. It’s a box holding warmth and coolness as we wish it, providing light when we call for it, and containing noise. Nothing special. It has systems that allow it to perform these tasks in efficient ways, which is what we strive for here, but when it comes down to it, creating a dwelling of most  effective, most available materials is not new. In the Mesa Verde area of Colorado, the Hisatsinom people built their homes into the sheltering cliffs, giving themselves advantageous views, protection from the heat of day, and access to horticultural sites that were not, therefore, taken up by dwellings. In their time, the use of the cliffs was a modern advance in housing.

In any case, as our  sun-loving house nears completion, we begin to realize how you cannot build such a house without becoming philosophical about past and future. Goodness knows, our future needs some attention to our past. And though this is very much a 21st Century house, we’ve grabbed a few good things from other centuries.

Look here for instance:

What a nice pile of boards. These will be interior window facings, and they are a piece of good fortune. This lumber is very old wood, held for years in deep, deep storage. There was a time, not so long ago, when loggers pulled gigantic trees from the forests, skidded them down Corduroy roads to the river, and tied them into booms to be floated downstream. Weather and circumstance sometimes delivered these logs to the bottom of the river. where they lay, preserved in their bark coats, awaiting the day when someone found them of sufficient value to invest in their recovery.

Our tree fell in the forest about 250 years ago.

It’s grain is vertical, fine and true. It smells like old fir, resinous and faintly dusty. We think of it as treasure, brought back from that era when we were so wickedly disrespectful of our forest resources.

In other projects, we spent a weekend staining cork tiles for the kitchen floor.

Cork production is renewable and sustainable from the beginning. Cork for flooring is a secondary product, made from the left-overs of wine cork production. Believe it or not, wine corks are more valuable than kitchen floors. Cork oaks live long, and cork floors do likewise. Installed now, but covered up,

Honest, there is a lovely kitchen here...

ours looks great, and should make a floor that is easy to stand on, warm underfoot, and easy to maintain.

In latest developments, iron workers have spent the last two weeks crawling over the greenhouse face, welding up the matrix for the glass panes.

If ever there were a spring in which we could have used the greenhouse (and in which we remember we had thought to be using it last spring), this is it. With a new series of barometer collapses headed in this week, we really do not see any relief from the Spring it Rained.

Salad, at least has been a success in the garden this year. Lettuce doesn’t seem to mind the rain, and if you plant enough of it, you can stay ahead of the slugs making their own harvest. And from back in the woods, Miner’s Lettuce perked up the bowl:

Claytonia perfoliata

It gives a person respect for the weather, this dank spring.

If you’ll excuse me now, I’ll go put my fleecy boots on again, and feed the fire.

Published in: on June 20, 2010 at 4:24 pm  Comments (2)  

Construction Update: Color and Light

Since last I wrote, the house has matured a little. I had reported on the installation of the solar panels. We’ve had them running through a billing cycle now.

Solar panels -- the early days

In good, sunny September, we generated about 1,000 kW of electricity. With the brand-new reversing meter installed by Portland General Electric, any wattage over our own use is credited back to our account at, we are surprised to learn, a handsome retail rate, including transmission and distribution charges. We had earlier been given to expect a credit at wholesale prices. That was a nice surprise. In the last late summer blast of high temperatures, we found the inside to be comfortably resting at about 75F, even with its plastic windows and doors still substituting for real ones. The cold weather hasn’t come our way yet, so the performance of the house in the chill remains to be tested.

The next big, visible change was the application of the “render” coat, over the “parge” coat, over the construction blocks. See the post Construction Update: Captive Electrons about the earlier layer of waterproofing. The coat they call “render” is the final layer under color.

East wall with Render coat applied

It’s too bad, in a way, to have to cover this up. It made me think we had a house on a far-away Greek island. Ricardo, one of the construction crew, whose arm must be tired of applying this stuff to the walls, liked it white, too. “It looks good,” he said. “Leave it.” Of course, in this land of red soil, it would be white for about a month. The first splatter of mud would transform it into… a muddy house.


West wall with color

We thought something like the color of the native soil would be appropriate.

The choosing of colors is not a simple thing. Just when you think you’ve dealt with it, someone reminds you there are window frames and door frames and fascia boards to think of. And then you go back to the color chips, wondering how you’ll come up with something that will go with the rest of it, which you chose 6 months ago and which might not, or might, be a bit of a surprise when you actually see it on the wall. We don’t want it to look tentative… We don’t want it to look ordinary… We want it to be a statement, both to the site and to the sun, which are, together, the whole point of the design. But, you know, a house could come out looking like a cartoon, too.


Back to the color chips. It is astonishing how much difference there is in a color depending, on whether you see it in the light of the ceiling lamp or the light of the sun. Between rainstorms this weekend we’ve been running outside with pieces of colored and numbered paper, holding them to the walls, shaking our heads, negotiating, making lists of numbers, and then going about it all again. Of course, paint can be changed if you make a terrible mistake, but it’s expensive, and some of it is hard to reach. Better to get it right the first time. Results will be reported.

Meanwhile, inside, things that will never be seen again are winding through the walls

Pipes and wires

and overhead

Pipes and pipes

in mysterious ways,

More pipes and pipes

leading to very technical ends.

And more pipes

Enough of that.

Meanwhile, as they say, back on the farm, the hardy cyclamen are in bloom.

Cyclamen hederifolia

It pleases me to see them. They are about the last remnant of  garden that has survived construction of the house. These are from seed I started over 20 years ago, when I lived in Portland. They propagate themselves happily once they’re established, and before we left town I dug a good bucketful from their place under the maple tree. They settled in quite well in their new location beneath the Linden tree here. They are sturdy little things, liking the dry ground where tree roots suck the moisture from the soil. Though I dug some up again before construction started, and set them into pots, the building process has been much longer than we anticipated, and it’s been asking a lot to expect them to make it in holding pots. I wasn’t sure they would survive the passage of construction crews over their native site. So, I smiled the day I saw them show up this fall.

The grapes were coming along nicely

Wine grapes turning color

until, as so often seems to happen, the wild birds paused in their southward passage, took a look, and stopped for luncheon. We did get a few for a glass of juice. Once the house is finished, it’s on my list to provide some protection for the grapes. I recall visiting a vineyard a number of years ago and taking note of the intermittent blast of air cannons. Those explosions were intended to keep birds off the harvest. I don’t think we’re going to install cannons, but a bit of bird netting might be to the point.

The blackberries remaining on the vine are hard and sour. Although they look like they might, they will never ripen. Wasps will have them, or deer, but not we.

Last of the blackberries

And fairies have been dancing in the woods again. It’s a sure sign of autumn:

Fairy ring

Time is passing.

Here’s hoping we’ll be living in that house soon.

Published in: on October 17, 2009 at 6:57 pm  Comments (1)  

Weather Change

I told you in the last post to pay attention to summer while it was still with us.

Now click on the arrow in the orange circle to hear a report of the moment.

No complaints. We can use it. The woods have been tinder-dry. Or, at most, one small complaint. We’ve exchanged long-lingering dust for sudden mud. Of the two… ah, well, it’s hard to choose, isn’t it?

Timing could have been better (this is not a complaint, just an observation), as we are in the middle of excavation for drains.

Rain drains

These are long drains, extending from the floor of the greenhouse, the lowest level of the house, downhill to the edge of the wood. They’re so long because, though the land slopes down from the house, the greenhouse floor is below grade. The drain field has to “catch up” by running a long way to maintain a downward course. With the heavy rains of yesterday and today, and some more expected tomorrow, the excavators will have a thick time of it when they come back next week.

My friend Barbara and I found a remedy for cloudy skies yesterday. We drove off down the valley, as we do from time to time. This day we made for the small town of Canby and the annual Dahlia Festival at Swan Island Dahlias.

Fields of bloom

Oh. My. Even amid showers, this is an intoxicating experience. Acres of dahlias in bloom stand up to assault the eye. Row upon row upon row of colors, some subtle,

Unnamed yet, from the trial gardens

some bold


washed across the cone receptors of my eager eyes. Golly, my optic nerves jumped into action, and sent the spasm to my optic chiasm, where the nerves met and information crossed over from one side of my brain to the other. In a trice, it went on through the optic tracts, entered the thalamus, and synapsed at the lateral geniculate nucleus! Shazam! My visual cortex, back in the occipital lobe, was ready to receive this blast and got to work making it into vision. The human eye can distinguish about 10 million different colors. I think most of them were present in those fields, and all of them attempting to seduce the unwary gardener into rash, unplanned purchases.

The weather probably thinned the crowd, but those who came were the stalwarts who either don’t care much about the rain or came prepared to make their way through muddy fields. They wore a design sampler of weather wear:

Floral boots Dotty boots

Plaid boots


Though I took mine along, it’s a good thing I didn’t choose to slip into my boots.  I could never have competed with the stylists in the gardens.

Just boots

Homely though they are, these boots have their place. These boots are made for ditch-hoppin’. These are chicken yard boots. Sheep yard boots. Mud and hay boots. These are definitely not struttin’ boots. Not even, let’s admit it, not even faintly cute boots. They are, in the defining words of Merriam-Webster, homely: 3 a : unaffectedly natural.

I can’t seem to pull this week’s post together in any organized way. It’s raining. It’s muddy. The dahlias are bright anyway, and they put me in mind to have my garden in some kind of shape. That is, they put me in mind to wish I had any garden at all here, where we have construction dirt in ditches and heaps. I’m resisting the urge to fill out an order form, to fill the yet undefined beds with bulbs to be delivered next spring. I’ve learned in this year not to anticipate a finish date, not to believe in the possibility that items purchased now will find use or destination before they perish. I’ll stick with my mud boots for now.

One more song; click the arrow:

Published in: on September 6, 2009 at 6:29 pm  Comments (3)  

Construction Update: Captive Electrons

PV ready to goFor some time progress on the house has been… invisible. Some things have been going on, but they’ve been difficult to present or to think of as progress.

There was a mishap in regard to the floor color that set things back for weeks while the concrete magician worked out an elixir that would fix it. This was nearly a tragedy. An assistant on the job passed the wrong stain color to the applicator, who conscientiously sprayed it on half the downstairs floor. It takes several minutes for the color to emerge in the applied acid etch stain. I can only imagine B.’s horror as he watched the colors change before his wondering eyes. In the end, after many  hours of “lab time” and  many samples and tests on floor spaces that will be concealed in the final house (under cabinets, in closets…), he came up with a treatment that has given us a lovely floor. It’s not exactly what we had in mind for the ground floor — we had wanted to reproduce something like the natural hues revealed in the soils in the excavation for the house: reddish clays, ochre layers, faint green smears… but it is a really beautiful floor. It looks like old leather. If you did not know where to look, you wouldn’t see the place where the disaster took place.

So, weeks later, the floors are finished and safely covered over so carpenters can come in and start on walls and windows.

We brought our color samples into the kitchen — It’s been a long time since we first made the selections for materials and colors, and, frankly, I had to be reminded. Oh, is that what the cabinets are to be? Good thing we still liked it! I wonder how often people change their  minds drastically after the months pass between choosing and finally seeing? Here is the color pallet, as much as you can tell from monitor pictures:

Stained concrete, cork on the kitchen floor, 'Ceaser Stone' counters in sage and slate green, coffee-colored powder-coat stair railing, stained 'Liptis' cabinet wood.

Stained concrete area floor, cork on the kitchen floor, 'Ceaser Stone' counters in sage and slate green, coffee-colored powder-coat stair railing, and stained 'Liptis' cabinet wood.

The guys took the black plastic off the window holes and replaced it with translucent plastic, and we are pleased to find that light pours into the rooms, and the colors are earth-like and good.

Two bold men spent a month applying what is called a parge coat to the exterior of the house.

Scaffold work

Ricardo on the scaffold, applying the parge coat.

Parge, or parget, is a coat of waterproofing, traditionally plaster but in this case a material more like mortar. It is the undercoat of the exterior treatment.

Some plumbing has wormed its way out of the building:


This looks to me like some kind of Borg bio-mech entity escaping from the foundation.

Meanwhile, electricity has happened. Here, the electricians are installing panels onto the racks on the roof. Note the careful use of safety lines. It’s a long way down.

Electricians on the edge

The ‘Phase One’ array of photo-voltaic panels is installed,  a little over 6 kW, and the attendant inverter is in the attic:

The inverter read-out

In the first test, on a cloudy day, the panels immediately began harvesting hurried electrons and providing them a way through the lines to the meter. The only problem with this was the meter. We still have the original meter in place, and it is not so smart as it thinks it is. All it knows is that electricity is flowing, not where it originated. Until PGE can replace it with a new, reversing, meter we won’t be running the PV system — no point paying the  utility company for electricity we generate. The change-out should happen next week.

On the passive side, we have a different kind of array on the north roof. These are solar tubes, small skylights with reflective tubes running from the underside of the lens into the attic. At its terminus, a tube is fitted with a Fresnel-type lens that distributes the light.

Solar tubes

Solar tubes gather light through a skylight lens and carry it through reflective tubes into dark areas of the interior.

The Fresnel lens, first developed in the 19th Century by Augustin-Jean Fresnel , was the lens that made lighthouse lights visible over distances of 20 miles. These days they are made affordably of plastic and used to magnify images in overhead projectors, and small CRT screens; they are the lenses of traffic lights, theater light instruments, and auto headlamps; they correct vision disorders; aircraft carriers use Fresnel lenses in their optical landing systems; and they concentrate sunlight into solar cookers and forges. Solar tubes with plastic Fresnel lenses are available at common home-improvement stores.

There are five solar tubes on the roof. Three will light the attic. Two will penetrate the ceiling of the main living floor and light the dining area and one bathroom.

Here’s the view up a tube:

Looking up the tube

and here’s the light underneath:

Lighted attic

In daytime, you don’t need electric lights in the attic! These are completely passive, clean, and… well, they are just so neat.

All the time excavation was going on for the house, we were laughing up our sleeves because just down the road from us the neighbors had had to blast boulders out of their backyard in order to install a septic system. Our hole had no rocks bigger than a melon, and not many of those. It hardly seemed fair, and the neighbors were unamused at our good fortune. But last week we found the boulder field. Just south of the house, where a drainage line is headed into the pasture, the excavator started pulling stones from the earth. In an entire day’s work he made about 20 feet of progress on a 2-foot wide ditch, and accumulated a nice pile of volcanic stones.


We’re hoping the field is short, because that drain line has a ways to go. It’s our punishment for glee.

On the other hand, those are fine landscape stones, and we’ll find a use for them.

Published in: on August 29, 2009 at 1:51 pm  Comments (1)  

The Experiment Station

We are nothing if not empirical around here. If you want to know whether or how well something is going to work before you invest largely in it, an experiment is the way to go. Back in March of last year we had a very good time setting up the experimental hydronic floor grid in the craft workshop, and came up with a good plan for even heating. Now we’re trying to decide what kind of glazing will go on the south-side solarium/greenhouse wall of the new house.

We thought glass. Glass is clear. Glass is strong. Glass, given various modern treatments in the way of coatings, has good transmission of the light spectrum we want to the heat-sink masses within the house, and for horticulture inside the greenhouse. Coatings can control the passage of heat into the greenhouse as well as the escape of heat on the way out. And glass, y’know, it has the appeal of  literary references: “He that lives in a glass house must not throw stones.” Also,“glasshouse” to the British means a greenhouse and, our greenhouse was meant to be glass.

Green has become a difficult word these days. How is one to know what a person means when they say, “We have a Green House?” Is it a glasshouse?

Wisley glasshouse

(This one is at  Wisley Garden in Surrey)

Or is it a green house?

The green house at Summit

(The arctic green house at Summit)

Or is it, as we expect ours to be, a Green House?

Green House not green with greenhouse

with a greenhouse.

Try not to think too hard about it.

But I wander.

Monty, our fondly held builder, wants to use polycarbonate plastic. He says it’s safer (it’s half an inch thick, so I suppose he has a point there; if you’re going to throw those stones,  that’s a consideration). We say it’s electrostatically active (We might actually have said “cling,” but just think how much stuff sticks to statically charged surfaces). He says it can be done with larger panels and less framing (OK, another point).  We say, but, it turns yellow. He says, not for years. We say, not enough years! Who wants to replace all the glazing in the greenhouse in 10 years? He says it transmits light and heat just as well as glass. We say: LET’S DO AN EXPERIMENT!

We can’t, obviously, test the yellowing over time before we’d like to move in. Besides, manufacturers provide that kind of information. Here are the labels off samples of glass with different coatings. Almost all you could want to  know about light transmission

The Large Print

except how it performs in the field.

So, let’s build little boxes!

Little boxes, all the same

These little plywood houses covered in insulation and duct-taped over the seams each contain a concrete block for a heat sink and are glazed with [Sta. A] Makrolon® “High-tech plastic from Bayer;” and [Sta. B] glass. It’s more complicated than that, but it’s glass. It’s been several different kinds of glass over several periods of observation, all in comparison with the polycarbonate. The idea is to see how much heat goes in, and how much heat stays in when the outside air cools. We could have built a half dozen little boxes to run simultaneous tests, but we didn’t. Chief Scientist and Mechanic Richard changes out the glazing  in the glass box, leaving the poly box unchanged, and even tries masking the glazing altogether to establish a control condition.

Experiment stations A and B in placeAnd we make notes. Lots of notes on a little yellow pad


kept beneath the thermometers mounted on the boxes.

Science happening live

Science is happening live, daily, at local stations.

Published in: on February 22, 2009 at 3:51 pm  Comments (4)  

Construction Report: They Used to Use Whole Trees

Who remembers this kind of scene?

Parade o' Log Trucks

If you were a kid in the Northwest in the 1950s and ’60s, you’ll have your hand up. Trucks like this used to roll down the highways with one giant log on its way to the mill. They moved them on the rails, too, tucking a couple of little trash logs in under the big one, like in the photo below, from the Oregon History Online website.

Logs on a train car

If you needed, say, a roof beam, someone went out and looked for a piece of a tree big enough to make one for you. These days, I doubt there is a mill in the Northwest that could handle a tree like that. No one then would have imagined trucking a load of little pencils like this one:

A modern load of forest logs

And if you needed extra long boards, why, those could be found, too:

Long-leggedy logs on a truck

If you come across old dimensioned lumber from back then, you’ll find that a two-by-four measured  2″ by 4″,” which might seem normal unless you’ve been lumber shopping in the modern era. Today they are 1 1/2″ by 3 1/2.” And if you want that piece more than 24 feet in length, it will now be finger-jointed together from shorter stock.

I am not suggesting we enjoy a lesser quality of wood since then. If anything, let’s consider those memories of a time gone by to be evidence that we were pretty careless of our resources. There was so much of it! Everyone could have what they wanted from the forests!

In this 21st Century, we are beginning to learn to do better with less.  In an earlier entry I wrote about the Faswall blocks we’re using for the exterior walls of the house.

Faswall block

They make use of otherwise wasted wood remaining after the milling of conventional lumber. Other parts of the house have arrived on the site in what is called Engineered Wood.

Engineered wood is plywood, Gluelam, particle board, wafer board, Masonite… any number of products we’ve become accustomed to seeing in homes. They’re made by taking forest logs and peeling them, shredding them, blowing them apart, smashing them, or collecting up the waste bits of them, and gluing them back together into various forms and shapes. They make use of timber that would be otherwise useless as structural material and, a big plus, the various forms have properties that are predictable in ways not found in natural wood. I admit, I find “real wood” to be more desirable than glued up pieces of wafers and chunks. But we’re past the time when we can indulge the luxury of pillaging our forests for its giants. A managed timber stand of Douglas Fir is harvested at about 40 years of age. The mills are now tooled for trees of modest dimension. Those 40 year-old logs are too valuable to be used wastefully.

So, last week we saw the delivery of a load of I-joists made from engineered wood:


These joists, to hold up a conventional subfloor or roof, would have been solid two-by-twelves. These measure 2 inches across their laminated bases and are 14 inches tall.

And this arrived as well:

The roof beam

It’s the roof beam of the house. It measures 8 3/4 inches by 32 1/2 inches, by 48 feet. Look down on it and you can see the finger joints.

Finger joints in the roof beam

Look at the side, and you can see the, umm, whatever kind of joints these are. C’mon. I’m a woman. How should I know?

Some kind of lap joint or something in the roof beam

And here’s a piece cut off the end (the beam arrived a little over-long). That’s glue in there between the pieces.

Glue joints in the roof beam

This beam is so far from what these men


might have contemplated, it’s mind-boggling.

Meanwhile, the house now has gables (the better to hold up that beam)!

Gables on the ends!Suddenly it looks less like a suburban medical office and more like… maybe the ruin of some ancient house? Appearances are deceiving. It’s not ancient; it’s just right for today.

Published in: on February 15, 2009 at 6:57 pm  Comments (4)  

Construction Report: Building Blocks

I promised you all some further comment on Faswall, the masonry system we’re using to build the earth-sheltered walls of the house. A person might wonder how big a deal it can be, the kind of masonry you use to build a wall that’s going to be hidden in the hillside when it’s done. It’s a great big deal. No end of reconsideration and negotiation has gone into the choices for these walls: we weighed cost, structural attributes, cost, delivery mechanisms, cost, insulative qualities, cost, availability, cost, and… cost.

So, here they are, freshly delivered, a house in a bag, more or less,

like a giant kit of Legos.

Getting them delivered was no small thing. One morning I stepped around the corner of the barn to see a semi with a 48-foot trailer easing itself over the hill. The driver, who must have been 80 years old if he was a day, got out and sauntered over to the excavation site. He peered down the driveway, hung his thumbs in his suspenders, and said, “That trailer ain’t goin’ in there.” And that was about the end of the discussion. Having it explained that if he drove around the hill and came down to us from above, sliding into the driveway would be easy, made no difference. He was arrived as far as he was driving. The fact that a crane was standing by ready to pick the pallets off the trailer and swing them into the excavation, if the load could get close enough, didn’t help. The fact he had driven 100 miles to deliver wasn’t persuasive. He pointed out he was on “detention time” and the more he waited for someone to figure it out, the more was the detention bill. Somebody just better work out how to get the blocks off the trailer. In the end, he conceded to drive down the road (refusing still to back down, which meant he had to back out later on, onto the road where cars come around the bend at 50 miles and hour). The crane moved the pallet loads off the trailer and stacked them on the roadway. And there they rested, waiting for the hands of strong men to move them, old-style in wheel barrows and on hand trucks, onto ramps for sliding down into the pit.

They look like cement blocks, so what’s Green about them?

Faswall blocks are 85% wood chips (the remainder is Portland cement and fly ash). Here’s a close look at one:

The wood chips, or any other cellulose fibers, are bonded to the cement in a process they call “mineralization,” which means the sugars in the cellulose are no longer available to rot-causing organisms.

Standing among the blocks stacked in the site and looming above his head, one of the masons looked up and said, “I’m wondering where the cheese is.” It was a maze of blocks, and a man could disappear among them.

They are indeed like a bunch of great Lego blocks, with keyholes to fit them together, and channels for the rebar.

The blocks carry a 4-hour fire rating, are sound resistant and pest resistant, are suitable for seismic areas, and can be cut with carpenter’s tools. Here’s one that’s had a hole cut through one side using a carbide holesaw.

They breathe and are hydroscopic (air and moisture move in and out of the blocks), do not outgas fumes, and insulate with R values of 18-23. They require half the concrete fill of conventional blocks, and are made with locally available recycled or waste wood.

And, it’s manufactured in Philomath, Oregon, less than 100 miles from us.

It sounds like the perfect building material, and a person now wonders why, if as the ShelterWorks (Faswall) website says, “After World War II amidst the rubble and destruction a way was discovered to take the huge volumes of wood waste, grind it into chips, mineralize the chips to neutralize the natural sugars that cause rot, and bond them to cement to form a building block,” … WHY AREN’T WE USING IT MORE? My goodness, that’s been, what? 60 years!

So, here is a view of the progress on our post-war house.

That girder you can see running around the perimeter of the walls just below the top is the level of the second floor. It’s comin’ along!

Published in: on October 19, 2008 at 7:40 pm  Comments (1)