May 2003 Archives


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One of the concerns that people have about straw bale homes is the issue of fire. We can now address that concern with actual experience.

At about 3:00pm this afternoon, our generator, which rests on the ground under the eaves just outside the utility room, exploded. We have no idea why, Dad was on the other side of the house and heard it stop, he thought I'd turned it off, then a little later he heard a BOOM. Around that time I was out walking the dogs, I heard the boom and thought it was hunters, shooting near the house, I ran toward the house in a rage. Then I saw the smoke.

The generator was burning, flames were running up the stucco, engulfing the window and reaching up into the soffits. The ground all around the house is still littered with straw - why worry, it was gonna be buried next week - and some of it started to burn. Some nearby bales were smoking fiercely but weren't actually burning. That's generally what happens to bales, because they are densely packed they don't burn, they smolder.

I ran into the house, yelling, and grabbed a fire extinguisher, Dad was trying to hook up the hose. I aimed the extinguisher at the generator and let it rip. Then I sprayed up across the wall and over the window. The fire dropped considerably, but the gas tank blew. I ran inside looking for the other extinguisher. Passing Dad with the now spraying hose, I yelled at him that it was a gas fire and to concentrate on the straw. Running out with the second extinguisher I used half of it on the generator, and sprayed some on the wall just in case.

Dad was spraying the straw but the the water stopped. I grabbed a shovel and sort of dragged and rolled the generator away from the wall. Then we started shoveling burning straw away from the house. When Dad and I tried to drag the bales away they broke up, then they started to burn. Once the sheaves are loose they burn quite well. We got them well away from the house and shoveled sand over the sheaves to smother them.

In the end the generator is toast, we lost one layer of ouside stucco, the window blew, the soffits are bent and damaged but the wall is perfectly sound and there is no structural damage of any sort. If it had been a stick frame house.... I'd rather not think about what could have happened. We also lost our phone lines and something is wrong with the pump.

I cannot describe the sensation of seeing part of your house engulfed in flames, just four days after you've moved in. I was shaking for a half hour afterwards, just coming off the adrenaline.

Once I calmed down, I went and took some pictures.

We're in!!

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The Hunter's have entered the forest.

One 14" U-Haul, 1 Ford Focus wagon, a Nissan Pathfinder, and a VW Beetle, brought all of our stuff from the city. Big thanks to Neil, Ian and Susan, who all provided a bunch of help and heavy lifting to get us in.

The kitchen has no cabinets, we can't find all of the hardware for the office desks, and our clothes are hanging from a wire, but we're so so happy.

Here's some pictures for ya'.

The shower stall

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On Thursday Dad and I worked on fibreglassing the back of the shower stall. Rather than describe it, I've annotated the pictures, check it out.

My Dad & music

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Just when you think you've got them pegged, they surprise you. We've had the iPod hooked up to an old stereo at the house for a while now, and we listen to music most of the day. The challenge as I've talked about before is finding stuff that has some giddy-up to it (for working) and remains acceptable to my parents.

Today after lunch Dad wandered over to the iPod and started fiddling with it; the first time he's really showed much interest in the thing. Next thing I know Steve Earle is singing "John Walker's Blues". I suggested to my Dad that that particular album might not be totally to his liking, but he said, "This sounds OK to me."

Then as we were working on the fibreglass we had a discussion about Steve Earle, and country music. Colour me freaked out. I wonder what would have happened if he'd hit on the Jurassic 5, or the Black Keys?

Another stunning day

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20C, sunny, couldn't ask for better. Dad worked on the window casements. We're doing them in maple harvested from our land. Each has to be custom made since each window frame is slightly different. I spent most of the day up in the gallery caulking seams and cutting off window spacers.

We've been cleaning out the front part of the house in preparation for the move. Mom and Jo moved some of the scrap wood out to the back. Jo sanded posts for a good part of the afternoon.

Dad and I are going to start fibreglassing the showerstall tomorrow since we don't want Joanne to be around those fumes, mask or no mask that wouldn't be good.

We've determined that with construction going on we get about three days backup with the batteries. That means that we can last three days with virtually no sun before we have to run the generator. When we have a good sunny day like yesterday we actually gain a bit of charge. At noon yesterday we were generating 8 amps of power from the panels, our record is 12 amps which we got sometime in February. The discrepancy seems to be due to haze, the cold sunny days in February are crystal clear, but the sun's out for much less time. Right now we have long sunny days but they aren't nearly as clear.


Damn fine day

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Here's the rundown: 2 working phone lines, 2 house guests, 2 bays caulked, the bathroom and kitchen painted, and some drywalling done.

As an added bonus Eric came by to check out the state of the road back to the gravel pit. It seems to be OK, and so he's coming out to dig the septic bed next week. In addition he'll be grading the ground around the house, digging the trench for the wind generator power line, and fixing up our driveway. The driveway is bad enough right now that Joanne figures we can use it later to induce labour if necessary.

Gator had to be hosed down again after he rolled in something unspeakably foul. Fortunately he loves it when you spray him with the hose, so it makes the job much easier.

I spent a good part of the morning just relaxing and reading a book. With the windows open and a breeze coming in, the sunlight outside, it was just perfect. Both Joanne and I had a hard time getting a start on house work.

7 days to go.

Want pictures? We've got pictures.

Blogging from the new house

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Excuse me while I geek out for a moment. This entry is coming to you from what will be my living room. So the phone lines are in and working, Dad's wiring up the jacks, and I'm very excited.

What am I doing? Caulking seams and joins way up in the top of the gallery/cupola. It's 20C, the sun's out and the White Stripes are on the iPod.

Life is good.

8 days and counting

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We have a dial-tone!! Just one line works, but it's a start. In the end the problem had to be handed up to a higher order of technician - the so-called "Cable Guy". He was utterly unlike Jim Carrey, but, as has become a tradition in this project, he knew our land. In fact he had hunted coyotes on our land and killed his first one in the south field. I did the nod and smile thing.

On the hunting vein, I ventured out to get some gas and came across two fellows parked in front of my property, both looking across my fields with binoculars. I stopped to ask them if they required any assistance (being such a helpful fellow). Apparently they're just avid bird watchers, not hunters. No sir. Being a rude city person I proceeded (despite their protestations) to make it abundantly clear, in no uncertain terms, that they DID NOT have permission to hunt on my land. One of them finally asked, in a rather nasty tone, "Don't you like hunters?" I like hunters just fine, I don't like poachers, and anybody hunting my land without my permission is a poacher. I told them that there already was one fellow hunting the turkeys, and a crew hunting deer, people who had the decency to come up to the house, meet me, talk to me, and ASK PERMISSION. They shut up after that and I drove on. Sheesh.

On the drive back there was a white tailed deer just wandering up the road. I got within about 30 feet before she saw me and took off into the bush.

Lots of small jobs got done today, some painting, some drywalling, Nick sanding and sanding and sanding. The man is a sanding machine. He said he's coming back next week for a few more days of fun.

Just for Jeff, here are the pictures...

Another annoyed Bell customer

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So the afternoon rolled around and still no dial-tone. So I called Bell. It seems that I'm now considered a repair, even though the line only got installed yesterday and it's never worked. So they managed to book a tech to come out and 'repair' the problem tomorrow. Sometime between 8am and 12pm. Nice. It took me a while to convince the rep at Bell that it couldn't be my inside wiring.

Rep: "Now if it's your inside wiring we'll have to charge you."

Me: "There is no inside wiring. I'm connecting my phone directly to the demarcation point."

Rep: "OK, but if the tech finds that the problem is with your inside wiring that isn't covered."

Me: "There. Is. No. Inside. Wiring. I haven't run it yet."

Rep: "Oh, I see they installed the line yesterday, well then it's covered under the 30 day warranty."

Me: "It's never worked."


Pete, Tina and I did crack repair on the interior walls, yesterday Pete demonstrated crack repair on the exterior walls. Dad continued his work on the conduit, but until we have a dial-tome we can't hook up the phone jacks.

Just before lunchtime Nick (my father-in-law) arrived to continue the fine Sokolowski tradition of sanding paralams. We finally dragged him away at 5:30pm. He's coming back with me tomorrow at 8am.

In other notable events today: Simon (Generation Solar) stopped by for a visit, we connected the clothes washer and did a load of laundry, and the dishwasher was delivered.

A big hello to vistors who have come here by way of Dwell Magazine, seems they printed a letter from me, and included the blog URL. Enjoy the site, please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Sorry Jeff, no pictures today.

What happened Wednesday

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I knew things were going too smoothly with Bell. But we'll get to that.

Pete and Tina were in the house again, and I was helping them out with the stucco. We completed the living room wall and fixed cracks on some of the others. Tina spent some time scraping stucco off the posts and beams, they have a special tool that seems to be made for just that task.

Dad worked on the conduit, and we ran some cable from the mechanical room up across the back and through to the front part of the house. So we have all of the phone and electrical wire run around most of the front part of the house. Once we have a working phone line we'll start connecting the various jacks. We've strung Cat-5 networking cable along the outer perimter as well, but it is my intention to use 802.11 for my main networking needs.

So everybody left around 4:30pm, but I had to hang around because Bell was supposed to come and hook up my phone lines. I waited until 5:30pm and then I went back to my parents. No sooner had I sat down and started into my email than my cel rang. Of course it was the tech, and of course he wanted me to meet him at the house. So back I went, with some reheated lasagna and my book.

By 7:30pm there was still no sign of the tech, so I drove out to the road to look for him. I found him at the main box for the line, cursing. Seems there was no dial-tone and he couldn't get a test pulse from our road box to the line box. That was the result of mis-numbering. With that resolved he had to wire from the road box to the house. They'd already run a line in alongside the driveway with 5 test boxes. The line had to be connected from box to box and then connected to the house. By the time he had wired the line from box to box to the house it was 9:00pm. He finally left at 10:00am, and I still didn't have a dial tone. He said to call if I didn't have a dial-tone by 2pm Thursday.

Pictures? See yesterday's.

Very long day

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Long day, I just want to watch the West Wing finale and go to bed. Here are some pictures.

Rainy Tuesday

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Mom finished the taping and priming. Dad worked on the conduit and wiring. I did a whole bunch of different stuff. Tomorrow Pete and Tina are back and we'll get that last wall done. Bell comes tomorrow, we should have a working phone.

Just three pictures today.

When I got in this morning the turkeys had surrounded the hill and were gobbling away like nobody's business. I don't know what the deal was but those turkeys were definately ticked off about something.

Maybe it was foreshadowing. We had an afternoon guest who would like to hunt the turkeys on our land. Turkey hunting facts: the season runs from April 25th to May 31st, each hunter may take a total of 2 birds for the whole season, wild turkeys are actually good eating. We also found out that somebody might already be hunting our land; apparently there are some guys who travel around in trucks, park on the road, walk across people's land and leave. Hunting without permission is a problem up here, even though our land (and most land) is posted. The Morton's have exclusive privileges during deer season, they've been instructed to chase anybody else off the land. Brent now has the same authority during turkey season. Oh, and he promised not to shoot towards the house, that was nice of him, dontcha think?

Basically I'm a Hunter by proxy.

More progress

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It rained most of the day. Which in our case is good and bad. Good because it made the house more humid which helps the stucco. We were getting some pretty bad cracking and crinkling on the freshly stucco'd walls, part of the reason for this could be that the walls are so dry that they are pulling the moisture out of the stucco mixture too quickly. Bad because we depend on the sun for our power.

The wall that we stucco'd yesterday had to get a recoating of lime today to fill in the cracking and crazing. Pete and Tina went over the whole thing, Tina with her 'jet pack' soaking the wall down and Pete spreading the lime down super thin.

We got the back bathroom (storage room for now) primed and set up the grey shelves. That enabled us to clear out the back room and move the saw and other tools out of the front part of the house. Maybe now we can keep the level of dirt and sawdust down a bit in the front room. Two weeks to move date.

Here's the current to do list:

  • Paint kitchen and bathroom walls (and bathroom ceiling), both have already been primed.
  • Conduit and main house electrical and phone lines.
  • Door and window trim.
  • Caulk/foam all remaining door and window edges.
  • Fibreglass shower back wall, order shower stall glass, door, and all hardware.
  • Measure for kitchen cabinets, get measurements to Gene, cut and build cabinets.
  • Fix exhaust pipes where they pass through roof above bathroom.
  • Get stove & dishwasher hooked up (dishwasher not yet delivered).
  • Clean.
  • That's the list for moving in.

    Here are the pictures for today.

    Joanne here again. It was another busy day as we try to get things done before the big move (now confirmed to our landlord as May 25). Pete and Tina worked on the final coat of stucco. Glen has become quite the skilled drywaller (but if anyone asks for his help on this he will deny all knowledge of drywalling or his repetitive stress injuries will suddenly flare up) and after working on the back bathroom/storage room he learned some more about stuccoing from Pete and Tina. Donna and I finished priming the utility room. She helped Ron with the tub base and I put some Tremclad on the metal around the newly installed shower base (don't worry Karen, I wore my respirator).

    That is both the curse and the blessing of being pregnant while working on the house. It's nice to take more breaks, but it's a bit frustrating when so much still needs to get done before we move in. Although it doesn't exactly break my heart that I won't be able to move the heavy boxes....

    One of the biggest challenges we're going to have is getting the rest of the beams and posts sanded before we move. It's a time-consuming job and we can't do it while we're painting or while Pete and Tina are stuccoing. My dad offered to come out to sand more beams which will definitely help, but ideally it would be good to do the posts with 120 grit because they're still pretty rough.

    Tomorrow I need to drive along Morton Line and find the Kennedys. They stopped in at the house one day when Ron was there and in the course of conversation asked about how I was going to get to work in Toronto. Apparantly there are a few people who car pool to the Oshawa Go Station and they wondered if I'd like to join them, which, of course, I would.

    I did want to add another point to the last entry about the things we've learned. Always start something new in less visible places. Especially if you've never done it before. We first tried drywalling in the bathroom (where it will be seen the most). We should have started in the laundry/dog bath area and done the bathroom once we had a better idea of how to do it.

    You don't get to see me in my Darth Vadar respirator because I took all the pictures today. (my first successful pictures link!)

    Something new every day

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    It's a cliche but everyday I'm at the house I learn something. Today Pete was teaching me some better stuccoing skills. We were filling in cracks on the walls, as well as the gaps where the straw/stucco settled over the winter. Once the cracks and gaps are filled we can start applying the white marble stucco mixture. I'm hoping to help with that tomorrow, and learn some super smooth stucco skills.

    Jo and Mom spent the afternoon priming various walls, Dad did some electrical work, wiring up the back room electrical outlets. We also took down the kitchen lights, to protect them from accidental... collision.

    Tina has fallen in love with our dog bath. A while back we decided to have the dog bath serve dual use as our utility sink. We had it plumbed with a service box that includes a hot and cold water tap, connected with a Y-hose. This set-up allows us to fill buckets, clean tools, and bathe dogs. I suspect Pete's gonna get a request to build one for Tina real soon.

    Here are some things we have learned so far, maybe they can help others:

    1. You cannot plan enough. Check, then check again. It's forgetting the little things, then having to go back and fix them that really eats into your time.

    2. Buy the big box. We started with a 50 pound box of 3" spiral nails. Figured we'd end up with leftovers. Bought a 25, innumerable small boxes, and then another 25. We should have bought a second 50. We're going through the same thing with drywall mud.

    3. The lowest quote is rarely the best. Find the best people, hire them. Use your quotes as a reference, and to make sure everybody's price is in line. In every case when we have hired soley based on price we've been sorry.

    4. There is absolutely no limit whatsoever to the varieties of awful smelly things that a work site dog can find to roll in on 100 acres. Two weeks ago Gator rolled in something so foul it made your eyes water when he got close. Get a hose plumbed ASAP.

    5. Unless you have tested them, the wires are live.

    6. Some retailers have credit cards that save money on your first order. If you time things right you can use the card to save on a big purchase. If we had used such a card for our insulation purchase we'd have saved around $600.00.

    7. The plans are never complete enough.

    Today, we took pictures, imagine that.

    Lazy Sunday

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    Not a whole bunch to report today. Jo and my mom went to a baby shower for my cousin, Dad and I stayed at the house. Ian came down and with his help we managed to get the last of the drywall up in the back room. We had lunch and Ian and I went out for a nice long walk. It was a beautiful day, sunny, clear, and perfect temperature.

    We have the fridge hooked up and running now. The fridge is the biggest electrical load in just about anybody's home. When it's running the fridge presents a load of 4 amps. Right now we're holding steady with what we are generating off the solar panels, that includes the use of various lights and power tools. We're producing about 50 amp hours per day. By my calculations (inexperienced and rusty) that means we're generating 2.4 kilowatts per day (50 amps X 48 volts). Please, someone, correct me if I'm wrong. The wind generator will be some very nice icing on that cake.

    Click for the pictures.

    A Day of Adventures

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    ...and more tours. Glen and Ron did a huge clean up job in the morning and Donna and I joined to help. The place looked fantastic, and our plan to move in a few weeks didn't seem so crazy. Just as Glen and Ron were unwrapping the fridge and getting it ready to plug in, my Mom and Dad arrived (Anna and Nick) for the birthday/Mother's day celebration. Then it was more tours as Ron and Donna's neighbours Jim and Michelle stopped by with their kids and some friends.

    My sisters and their families arrived a short while later and wandered around exclaiming "It's so much bigger than it looks on the web!" After a great lunch Glen and Ron took Karen and Bob and their boys Tommy, Andrew and Matthew and Kim and Gene's daughter Claire on their first adventure past the gravel pit and up the big, back hill. Then they headed through the west bush, along the logging road to the fields and back along the Porcupine trail where they discovered the "mushy, trampoline" part, where you walk on cedar tree roots. Donna, Mom, Dad Kim and Gene and I stayed and played with their adorable younger daughter Kate. After cake and some wonderful birthday/Mother's Day gifts, I took the three boys and Claire on the next adventure - over to see the dead porcupine. Then it was back along the Porcupine trail.

    Altogether it was a fun day with gorgeous spring weather. At the end of the day Glen put the shelves in fridge. It really started feeling like a house with the fridge in place with food in it!

    Somehow in all the confusion, pictures got taken.

    Happy Birthday Jo

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    Yep, today's her birthday. I'm not telling how old.

    Pete and Tina got two sections done today, they're back on Monday. Phil brought Joanne up, helped put up one piece of drywall, helped bring in the shower base, and then had to leave to go to a job interview. He got the job, but it's a night gig so he says he can still come out and help us. We need the muscle.

    For some reason Dad really wanted to have the kitchen lights up in time for the tour today. To get the lights up they had to be rewired, which involved cutting off the old leads and soldering on new wires. We removed the metal rods and hung the lights from the new wires. They look amazing, and we'll leave them up for tomorrow, then take them back down to protect the glass.

    The tour took up a good portion of the afternoon, so we didn't really get much work done. Everybody seemed quite impressed with the house and the land.

    This link will take you today's pictures.

    12 weeks?! Maybe not.

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    Good day for scheduling today. Most of the appliances got delivered, and, BIG NEWS, the shower base is going to be delivered tomorrow. It was supposed to be 12 weeks but turned out to be more like 6. Once we have the base in place we can order the glass and fibreglass the back wall. We may not have to bathe in the bathtub after all.

    Pete and Tina continued cleaning, and fixing up the interior walls. They stucco'd one section, and they hope to get two sections done per day. Their tools for smoothing the cement walls are quite incredible. The first tool is basically a brick with grooves cut along the bottom and attached to a handle. That sucker really works your arms (or so Tina tells me). The second is a flat sander with carbide teeth set at about a #10 grit. And people wonder if the coating on the bale walls is strong enough.

    Meanwhile Dad, Phil and I hung drywall on the back wall ceiling - which, incidently, is a difficult and seriously crappy job. Later I put the last coat of mud on the kitchen walls, and right before I left I applied another coat to the back bathroom. Then I ran out of mud (oh, darn) and had to stop (drat).

    Pictures? You want pictures? Fine.

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