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Reflections in Cordwood

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June 10, 2006. Our House.

It’s as good a time as any for reflection.

6am, still dark outside in the northern hemisphere. I sit at the downstairs table beside a pinging wood stove.  It’s beaming heat onto the cat, who’s a puddle of contentment.

We began this house project in 2006 with the enthusiasm and energy of young saplings reaching for the sky.  Much of the material we needed we gathered from the townships around us in the spring, while we made 32 300 lb cornerstones (with celtic knot imprinted) out of concrete.

building site in April 06, before we poured foundation in June.

We bought a trailer to live in and another to work from, borrowed an old tractor to run an old buzz saw to cut the 1000 cedar rails we’d hauled out of overgrown fence lines (with permission) (see http://wp.me/pVQ5l-k for that photo of Grant using the buzz saw).  We hired a marvelous young 15-year-old to live here and help us all summer (now forever part of the family, Stephan), lived outside, slept in an old trailer, and welcomed any help from whatever family and friend walked down the driveway.

This is our lane, same summer. Note the dreamy quality.
We had no hydro or land line at this point, nor was there cellular service available, so we had to make calls from the road. This was unbelievably liberating.

By June we had settled into a routine – every weekday the hired crew would arrive at 9am and we’d haul ourselves back into the sawing and drilling and moving and hammering, into the ever-present roar of compressors, nail guns, skilsaws, buzz saws, mortar mixers, shovels, aggregate and questions.

Cordwood begins, August 2006. West side of house.

and it continues, as the frame goes up....

My parents became cordwood experts and came tenaciously every week (or whenever we could prep for them & mix mortar) for three years. Lots of others came with trowels, & good will, thank heavens. Cordwood takes love and community.

This is October 3. The rock pile is our water line from the well to the house.

We were resilient, engaged, enthralled, exhausted and, by October, overwhelmed.

Late fall 2006 the snow came early and sober reality began to replace our dogged enthusiasm:  this is a big project; we will not be finished any time soon.

We were also feeling desperate for time without crew or volunteer help to host and manage.  We learned the law of self-building projects:  if you want the help to keep coming, anticipating and ttending to their needs must become your prime directive.  This demands great planning, infinite patience, and positive support no matter what – by fall we were feeling a BIG need to focus a little more on remembering who we were and why we took this project on in the first place.

By then we had walls, a roof, and the skeleton of a space inside – cement floor, bare joists covered with sheets of 3/4 plywood, bales and bales of Roxl insulation waiting to be stuffed between rafters & studs, venting and vapor barrier to finish in the ceiling.  I learned to love tuck tape.  Inside doors and walls were blankets nailed to 2×4 frames, privacy was next to non-existent.

My daughter, finding peace wherever she could...

Our Gothic front door was covered by a sheet of 3/4 plywood and screwed shut against the cold. Outside there were electric blankets protecting fresh cordwood and mortar from freezing.   In December, we watched in horror as a huge dozer pushed dirt into great mounds & tore up ash trees, just so we could flush our toilet.  I know I wept.

We moved out of the trailer and into the house in January, when the in-floor-heating was turned on.  I think our guy took pity on us – certainly the house was not completely sealed, but by then our boots were freezing to the trailer floor, which had no reliable heat.

...better than the trailer....

What a relief.  We cheered ourselves, camped in the midst of our construction chaos, that a mere six months before, none of what now sheltered us had existed.  We now had a kitchen (tho no sink – we used the laundry tub), a new incredible, efficient woodstove to warm us, a toilet that flushed, a bathtub that filled with warm water, windows that were in their proper places (no wind or rain!!!), electricity to run the coffee pot, fridge and stove that worked and a roof to keep us dry.

Incredible, impossible, heady and empowering.  Ha.

We did not live easily in the miracle, by any stretch.  While the work on the house was rewarding (unlike with a reno, every improvement we made in our living space was done for the first time – always a celebration), it was very hard on all three of us psychologically.  Internally I was desperately trying to hold on to my art, my love for language – tenacious about my commitment to accepting music gigs (That first summer I played and sang as one of a 3-member pit band for david sereda & Joan Chandler’s excellent debut musical Tom, about Tom Thomson the painter, who was born here).  But work on the house dominated – we were still its servants, every waking minute.  In 2007 I started digging a garden – that work brought me back to myself (pictures below).  There’s something deeply old and comforting about communing with the soil under your feet, and introducing plants & nutrients there.  For me, those weeks of digging anchored me here in this place – I became the garden, and the garden, me.  We discovered we like one another.

My daughter was ten when we moved into the trailer – the difficult grade 7 & 8 years all happened with a house that was a construction site – I’m sure she’ll either need therapy or she’ll become the most adjustable adult on the planet.  She always had pluck – after this experience, she’s got superpluck.

My husband was holding down a full-time government job, and coming home most nights to continue manifesting this project we called ‘home’.  There are not many people who can do what he has done, and continues to do – envision, design, engineer, collaborate and build a place this unique, efficient and beautiful, while at the same time manage a career, and a business, and commit to competitive curling all winter (he’s really good).

2007: upstairs the ash floor is laid and finished (took 9 months), drywall installed, mudded, sanded and painted by Grant, stairs built, , cordwood continues  – on north and east walls.

Many thousands of 3" screwnails and nine months later, we had a floor/ceiling, and could stop defying death walking upstairs on overlapping sheets of 3/4" plywood. The wood is ash - I cut most of the pieces on my dad's chop saw (which is now featured in a painting). We coated the ceiling side with Tung oil, and finished the floor side with heated lindseed/antique varnish /turpentine (I think turpentine - I'll check). - A recipe from a pub in Wales.

Grant and Alain making the illusion of 'straight' and 'flat' with drywall. G is very good at it - one of the few who actually enjoys the process. We had acres to do tho, and I know he wouldn't willingly go back there to do it again.

I started the garden that year while they were drywalling:

two cherry trees, some baby cedar from the Saugeen Valley Conservation annual tree sale, and a chestnut to replace the one at the old house where Dom and I lived. The garden is small, but it grew...

...and grew, until it was this size in 2009. Since then I've been shrinking it - the old quarry it's in grows rocks, and we really need raised beds for veggies. That's this spring's project.

The trailer (second-hand) was a lovely idea to begin with - I'd never spent any time in one ever. Then I slept in it for 9 months & deep into the winter. No washroom, no heat, no water. By the time it left I was happy so happy to see the back of it. It's now owned by someone who can give it it's proper due in TLC.

We threw a half-way-house party in November of the next year, when the second floor was in place, the drywall up, mudded, sanded, primed and painted, the stairs were installed, the kitchen sink was in, and the trailer was GONE.  Woo hoo!

That was a GREAT party.

Every year since that first winter we have leaped ahead in some way, and burned out in others, only to rise again to push forward some more – the story only begins here.  But that’s another post.

Daylight in the northern hemisphere. This was taken in 2011, when I was sitting at the downstairs table, where this post began.

More to come.  Thanks for reading.

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Author: keirartworks

Artist, Musician, Writer, Teacher. Mum to an incredible person, friend to many, Incredibles. Gardener. Thinker. Collaborator. K

8 thoughts on “Reflections in Cordwood

  1. Great photo journal of the house going up.

    • thanks! I have so many more – I was trying to be kind to general readers in the blog. At some point, G&I will make a book, & use ’em all.

      I guess wood is scarce in Alaska – what materials do you guys work with up there?

      • So also there is some home construction using locally milled spruce but it twists. I used it on my first place and won’t do that again. We use birch for interior trim. Its our only hardwood and its beautiful. Only 7 species of trees here in Interior Alaska

        • Okay, so I wasn’t that far off about your trees. Here in Southern Ontario there’s much variety, but it was logged so extensively in the past century (to make room for farms & to make $$ for lumber companies) that wood from the new forests is not nearly the quality of re-used wood from 100-year-old+ buildings. We reclaimed much of our trim & window/door lintels from a beautiful old bank barn for that reason. We do get to harvest trees (most recently a big dead elm and a huge fallen poplar) from the property and mill them into thick slabs. Very satisfying.

          Re: Alaska and the far north in Canada- I am so deeply curious about your landscape & am eager to come and explore! You must love it up there!

    • I just went to your fb page – very cool cedar house – SURROUNDED by trees. so there goes my preconceived Ontario notion that there’s very little wod to work with in Alaska. Do you see cordwood construction out there?

      • I have heard of a few folks doing it but I have never actually seen one. Hay bales on occasion. We are really moving towards alternative systems such as REMOTE wall (http://www.cchrc.org/remote-walls). I have been doing 2X6 walls R-21, vapor barrier, and then 2X2 or 2×4 furring with 1″ rigid foam between the strips. This way the electrical can all be inside the vb with no penetrations.

  2. Very thoughtful and engaging musing. Lots of great tips for wood-be (would-be) owner/builders of any natural building style. I look forward to more reflections and more pictures as you move toward completion. The arched doorway is a stunning example that will inspire wood masons.
    I would humbly suggest that Grant’s double-wall slipform video be resized and placed on your reflections. His guitar playing alone is worth the price of admission. He certainly is a talented young man.

    • Don’t I know it. Very good suggestion re Grant’s piece – I’m encouraging him to get the video a little tighter so it can be published here and elsewhere. We’ll keep you in the loop!
      K

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