Shangri La

Shangri La

Monday, December 14, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Despite my assertions that I was shutting down until spring, I’ve decided to come out of hibernation to wish both of you Happy Holidays! And while I'm here, I might as well comment upon our most recent trip to Shangri-La to make sure the cabin is still standing...

It is – capped with 2 feet of snow and apparently none the worse for the strain. I had hoped that the 12/12 roof pitch would be enough to shed snow, but the asphalt shingles apparently provide sufficient friction to keep it in place. We’ll see what things are like when we’ve got 5-6 feet in a month or two, but right now I’m feeling pretty good about the oversized roof rafters and the way we tied them to their joists with ½” carriage bolts in 5 locations on each side.

While I blazed an awkward circle in the virgin snow, the LSW and The Boy waited in the car. I popped into the basement to find it dry and uninhabited, and unlocked the front door. As I closed the door behind me, a funny thing happened: My enthusiasm returned. The mental exhaustion that hung over me in October and November lifted, and I actually got excited again about what we were doing. I looked at the stacks for siding and the half-finished bathroom wall, and found myself imagining it all finished, and us unloading the car for a quite winter weekend by the fire, snow gently falling outside the window. Lesson learned: Time away from the project is as important as time on the project.

And so my mind is turning again: Wiring, plumbing, insulation, drywall, flooring, septic, well, porches, etc, etc. What will I do myself, and what will I contract out? What kind of heat will we install? Should we put in a basic solar setup to sell power back to CVPS when we’re not using it? If we have to choose, should we put in the well first or the septic? (I’m leaning toward the well.) Should I build the kitchen cabinets myself?

A lot, of course, depends upon whether or not my esteemed employer decides to provide raises this year, and how much of a bonus pool they’ll provide in this (still) shaky economy. There are a few other potential sources of cabin funds, but the timing for them is uncertain, and I remain resolutely against taking out any loans. Consequently, the only thing we are committed to at this point is the additional septic tests, for which I have already contacted Marquise & Morano. The monitoring will begin in March and conclude in May, and hopefully result in revising plans from the current mound system ($$$$) to a conventional one ($$).

The trip up included an overnight stay at (as always) The Saxtons River Inn. Festooned with lights and decorations, it was a welcoming site on a very cold, dark evening, and the pub - filled with locals, conversation, conviviality and libations - proved a particularly agreeable environment for dinner. As always. The boy even managed to behave this time, and obligingly fell suddenly asleep at 8 PM, allowing the LSW and I to enjoy a stack of new books in peace and quite for a few hours before turning in. Perfect.

We’ll do it all again in January, February and March. Hopefully we’ll be ready to hit the ground running in April and finish this thing off.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Closing Down for the Winter

Well, this is it: The official notice that we're closed for 2009. Tomorrow is my last working trip to Shangri-La, and my last chance to get one full side of the cabin covered in shiplap before the long winter rest begins.

Thanks to those of you who read along this year, and to those of you who helped! I'll be back in March or April to pick up the effort with the septic and well, and hopefully carry it though to our first weekend stay sometime in late summer or early fall!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Slow Work

I have read that the framing is the fastest (and most gratifying) part of building a house - it's all rough cuts and rough nailing, and every day you see big progress as a wall goes up or a roof goes on. And it's true - each weekend this summer left a feeling of accomplishment in its wake, each new picture on my desktop at work drawing comments from passers-by, astonished that one of their desk-jockey compatriots could successfully assault a task so seemingly daunting.

Now? Not so much. The picture from 3 weeks ago showed siding on one side of the building up to the first window. 2 weeks ago the picture had siding up to the 2nd window. With any luck, this week's picture will show one side finished. My co-workers are starting to sneak past my desk without comment.

In fairness to me, I'm now working by myself, one day a week, in increasingly cold weather. By the time I get there and set up, it's almost 10, and I begin to pack up for home by 2. Not exactly a recipe for rapid progress. But the goal is to get all the trim up and get one wall sided, so I keep plugging away. (Thank god, by the way, that I chose white pine shiplap rather than shingles; at this rate I'd be 3 years dead of old age before the shingles would be finished.)

I expect that this weekend (or next) will be the last for the year, and then we'll settle for staying at the Saxton's River Inn once per month (they gave us the corporate rate - thanks!) to check on the place and have a nice meal. Maybe we'll spend some time getting better acquainted with the other 2.5 acres on the property, and I've promised The Boy we'd do some sledding - the cleared slope of land from the cabin to the utility right-of-way should be perfect for it. Might even rent a snow machine or two and explore some of the VAST trails. In any event, it will be nice to go up to relax for a few weekends for a change.

On the plus side, our little slice of heaven has been painfully picturesque as the fall has progressed, and the fresh donuts at the Saxton's River Market seem to get even better as the temperature drops. With the leaves gone, I've noted that - with a little clearing - we've got an potentially nice view of the ridge to the West to add to the current view from the East. We'll have the perfect view from either porch. Nice.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

I'm Exhausted

So I'm sure the two of you who read have noticed the posts getting sparse lately. Sorry about that, but I'm exhausted.

For example, today I got up at 5 am to be on the road by 6. Got to the cabin by 9 am, and began setting up to continue the siding in 40 degree weather. Spent 6 hours covering on 16 feet, and then spent 3 1/2 hours on the road to arrive home at 6:30. Such has been my life each Sunday for the last (?) number of weekends, trying to get the siding up before it gets too cold to work any more.

I know: Boo-Hoo. Just the price you pay for a 'vacation home'. (Actually, I had always assumed that if you could afford a second home, you could afford to pay someone to build it. Sigh.)

It's all good, though - VT is beautiful in the fall. After a few days of rest, I'll post a real update.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Nature Hunting at Shangri-La and A Lesson Learned

LSW here. It was a fun-filled Labor Day weekend up in Shangri-La. We couldn't have asked for better weather. In fact, it was so beautiful, it seemed kind of a shame that we couldn't enjoy all the local goings-on. Ah, well. Our sadness was quelled by this awesome find:

Bird skull! The Boy is very into mushrooms right now, so the Vermonster and I took turns taking him on nature hunts. In addition to the bird skeleton, we found turkey tail mushrooms and coral mushrooms and ... a roach (the smoking kind, not the moving kind. Apparently the roofer had a little smoking break).

One of the first things I noticed when The Boy and I arrived was a horrible screaming sound, like a bunch of children were being lured into a witch's candy house. "Is that a baby?" I asked.
The Vermonster said, "It would seem the neighbors have a couple of new kids-- not the human kind." We're guessing they're goats, although I suppose they could be sheep or maybe even peacocks. In any case, they screeched all day, drowning out the rooster's cock-a-doodle-dooing.

Lesson #1 learned on this trip: Just because two doors are in the same rack at Home Depot doesn't mean they're the same size. Yeah, that front door slid in real easy. A little too easy. There was about 4 inches of extra space, so the Vermonster had to re-frame the hole.
I can't say I was much help over the weekend; mostly I painted trim and weather-proofed underneath the sheathing. I just put this photo here so you could check out my cool shades I got for $1 at the National Liquidators Closing Sale.
By the end of the weekend, we managed to put in all the windows and doors, so we now officially have a lockable cabin, which means we can finally start storing stuff up there instead of hauling it with us every time.

Weathertight and Lockable

The LSW and I packed up The Boy this weekend and headed back up to VT, with the goal of getting the place lockable and weather-tight. 9 double-glazed ModernView windows were being delivered on Saturday morning, and I had 2 Home Depot insulated fiberglass doors and one homemade crawlspace door in the truck with me.

I was out of the house by 5:30 AM, and arrived on site by 8:30, after a brief stop at the Saxton’s River Market to get one of their fresh donuts (the SRM donut thing has become a bit of a habit). The place looked great with the roof on it, but the roofer’s attention to detail was a little off; the Tyvek I asked him to complete on the rear gable was forgotten, and he didn’t put spacers under my 1 x 8 gable trim to get it to stand proud of the shingle siding I’m going to put on. Lesson learned: If you have to hire something out, be on site while the work is happening. Still, I’m not complaining – overall I’d recommend him. In the end, the sheathing and shingling work came to about $3,200.

I spent about an hour cleaning while waiting for the windows (and the wife) to arrive. It occurred to me that I had never put in vinyl windows before, and I had no idea how heavy they were. It would really suck to find that they were too heavy for the two of us and so the weekend was wasted. Fortunately, they were lighter than I expected, and I had 4 of them installed before the LSW pulled in with The Boy at about 11.

I knew from the start that I was going to use double-glazed vinyl windows, so it was just a question of brands. Lavalley’s had JenWeld and ModernView, the principle difference being price (the JenWeld were about 20% more expensive) and the warranty (20 years for JenWeld vs. 10 for ModernView). Otherwise they looked identical. In the end, my rapidly diminishing bank account forced my hand on the cheaper option, although I did splurge on internal muntins and the jam extensions. Six 3’ x 4’ and three 3’ x 3’ new construction windows came to about $1,670.

The big surprise of the weekend was discovering that I had purchased 2 different door sizes – 36” wide and 32” wide. Both were supposed to have been 36”. I’m not sure how I missed this when I bought them, but I was committed to making the place lockable that weekend, so I made due. There’s supposed to be a closet on the left wall of the front entrance, so I put the smaller door there, figuring it would give me a little more closet space.

In the ‘best laid plans’ category, I had rechecked my crawlspace door calculations no less than 3 times, and still got it wrong. I had to trim an inch off the height and 2 inches off the width, which changed some of the door’s design and meant that I would have to come back to do some finish work on it. At least it’s up and locked. I had debated on whether or not I should by a $100 impact drill for use in securing the crawlspace door jams to the foundation, or just make due with a regular drill, but I’m here to tell you it was worth every penny - more evidence for the idea that if you’re finding the job too hard, you don’t have the right tool. I did, and it couldn’t have been easier.

Standing inside the cabin on Sunday, I had to admit that I was just a little disappointed – the interior of the cabin was darker than I thought it would be. This is because the three windows on the road side face north, there's no window in the Southeast corner (due to the entry closet), and the window heights conspire with the roof overhang to shut out most of the direct sunlight. I suspect that the situation will be better in the winter when the sun is lower, but I may need to rethink the closet design to allow for at least one more window. The LSW also opined that the drywall is likely to brighten up the interior significantly, and I’m guessing she’s right. A skylight or two would also help, but I just can’t cotton to the idea of a hole in the roof.

The neighbor up the hill stopped by on his 4-wheeler and introduced himself. I asked him what he knew about the property – I reckoned it to be too small and hilly for crop or grazing land, but the stone wall and some remaining strands of barbed wire hinted that it was used for something. He said that it had been an apple orchard in the 30s and 40s when he was growing up in the cabin across the street, and that he could see all the way down the hill and across the neighbor’s fields. The land is mostly forested now - it's surprising how much nature can reclaim in 70 years. He also mentioned that the trails at the top of the hill (one of which is the abandoned portion of our road) let out in 4 different places, and recommended a 4-wheeler as the best method for exploring them. So now – in addition to the planned Snowmobile – I’ve got two toys on my wish list.

The LSW helped with the doors, chased after the boy, procured lunches, and painted the trim boards, which will go up throughout September. Other work that remains: Self-adhering flashing around the windows, Tyvek on the back gable, and shingles on the sides. At that point, the initial funding for this little escapade – about $56,000 – will be depleted. I figure that there is about $35,000 in work left, including the well, septic, plumbing, wiring and finishing, so now I’ll be forced to pray for raises, bonuses and tax returns if we’re ever actually going to enjoy the place. Of course, if we think of it as a big tent, we’ve now got a place to camp…

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Just for Fun

LSW here. I saw this news item from the AP and had to share. A student at the University of Buffalo couldn't afford housing, so he built himself an 8-by-10 foot cabin on the campus. College officials made him leave, but one has to ask: Why did they wait until he built the cabin? Weren't they a little suspicious at the sight of a student hauling in stacks of wood? Best part of the story: his name is Brian Borncamp.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

I predict a gypsy caravan in our future

LSW here. I saw this book, "Shed Chic" by Sally Coulthard, at the library the other day and thought it looked kind of cool. Funny how one person's definition of "shed" is another person's dream house.
When I think of "shed," I think of a small, dark box that smells of oil and gas and fertilizer and is inhabited by spiders and their nasty, disgusting cottony egg sacs. A shed is a place where you keep your lawn mower, your collection of broken and dirty clay pots, your gardening tools and miscellaneous cans of bug spray, paint and other toxic liquids that hopefully the neighbor's cats (or kids) won't get into.
That's not the kind of shed this book is about.
Obviously these are funky out-buildings used for writing, painting, woodworking, relaxing and entertaining Thurston and Lovey Howell. There are some very cool ideas in here, but one that really takes the cake: gypsy caravans.

Yeah, you heard me right. You know, those funky wagon-type things that are painted in crazy colors and designs. Well, apparently there's a whole subculture of caravan makers, restorers and painters. How could we have overlooked this as a possibility for housing at Shangri-La? As I have gypsy blood in me (my great-grandfather was a gypsy in Bohemia), I'm feeling like we definitely need to have one of these on the property. Maybe I can do tarot readings and tea parties out of it for some extra income. Or sell chocolates. I can see it now: "Gypsy Chocolates & Tarot Readings."
In any case, this discovery had us searching the web last night for more info and we found Tiny House Blog, which is a really cool resource. They had a page dedicated to caravans.
Needless to say, the Vermonster has been reading more and more about these and has mentioned a couple of times now that there are classes offered in building gypsy caravans. Yeah, um, just putting it out there right here and now: Not. Going. To. Happen. Unless I'm the one who gets to take the class.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Remaining Flexible

Just got back from another day trip up to Shangri-La to inspect the progress on the roof. These day trips are rough - what with 6 hours in the car and less than an hour on site - but I've found that the trip is easier with a book on CD. Today's selection was Dennis Leary's 'Why We Suck', which I enjoyed much more than I thought I would. It struck me that the guy bridges right- and left-wing nicely, and - I hesitate to admit this - seems to mirror my own views very closely, if blatantly incorrectly politically.

Anyhoo - the house: Very different feel to it with a solid roof. The eaves now form a visible presence out the side windows, feeling sort of like an umbrella above a patio table. Nice. Also, the gable-end trim boards are up - the first piece of exterior finish carpentry, and the first bit of color and hint of what the exterior will look like. And, unfortunately, another mistake: Turns out that I should have used 5/4" trim to ensure that the trip stood proud of the siding, which I had planned would be 3/4" white pine shiplap. Instead, I used 1 x 4 Windsor One, which - at 3/4" wide - would end up being flush with the shiplap, looking very flat and odd. Rather than ask the roofer to rip it off and replace it, I've decided to side the gables with shingles instead, which will provide at least a little shadow line, and will provide a (hopefully) interesting contrast between the lower and upper halves of the house.

The roofer - Andy Harris of H-Squared Carpentry - expects to add the shingles later this week; we'll settle up on Labor Day weekend when the LSW, The Boy and I go up to install the windows and doors.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

No, I didn't kill myself on the job...

Now that both of you who read this blog have given up on the idea that I will ever post again, I'm back. What can I say? I've been too busy working on the cabin to spend time writing about it.

Since the LSW's last post on July 1, we've spent 3 long weekends and 2 additional Saturdays finishing the walls and sheathing, framing the lofts and roof, and working through the 'punch list'.

Some random notes:
1) Camping in tents absolutely sucks (see the aforementioned 7/1 LSW post)
2) Camping in a bus-sized motor coach ain't nearly so bad (thanks, dad!)
3) A certain motor lodge on Rt 30 can be packed every time you pass it and still be found to be dirty and filled with spiders when you finally book yourself in
4) Super 8 is actually a very clean, economical, and convenient option, especially after you've checked yourself out of a certain spider-infested motor lodge on Rt 30
5) Suffering through a very cool and rainy June and July is infinitely preferable to working in a suddenly hazy, hot and humid August. Thank god we got most of the framing done before the weather turned!
6) When framing a roof, it really helps to have people taller than 5'5" around. Kudos to my sister for marrying above her, so to speak.
7) Note to self for the next time: It is the rafters that should be 12" on center, not the loft joists that connect them. It took a lot of extra 2x4s to ensure that the roof sheathing would have something to land on.
8) Pulling down all of the wall sheathing and re-hanging it is not fun. If you're learning as you go, read the directions before committing the materials.
9) A 12/12 pitch roof (45 degrees) is not for the timid, even if it does begin only 9' off the ground.
10) The money goes really, really quickly.

We're now taking a 2-3 week break while the roofers sheath and shingle (see #9 above). The windows have been ordered - 6 at 3'x4' and 3 at 3'x3' - and should be in by 8/27.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ridge Poles and Rafters

LSW here. Last weekend was a busy one. Not really for me, as I was on child-watching duty, but the Vermontster and his entourage of sister and brother-in-law did some mighty serious building. It was all ridge poles and rafters for the weekend. (Excuse the tiny pictures; we're experiencing technical difficulties.)
I don't have much to say about it all, because my experiences from the weekend mostly revolved around seeing a fox, checking into (and out of) the River Bend Lodge (sorry folks, we gave it a shot, but we're not willing to share our rooms with families of spiders), and cooking on the open hearth electric griddle. But as you can see, it's starting to look like a real genuine cabin! Woo hoo!
My one big effort of the weekend was pretty much a disaster. I tried to build some semblance of a private area for doing one's private business, but it was flawed. A hula hoop, two shower curtains, some plastic ties and string have now set me back $5, bringing MY total up to $808.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How much does it cost to build a cabin? Here's the real answer

LSW here again.
I thought I'd start my own accounting log of how much the cabin is costing us. Let's see:

Speeding ticket: $300
Insurance deductible from the damage done to my car from backing into a tree while camping: $500
Special camping salt and pepper shaker that I bought because I figured we'd be camping all summer: $1.00
Big bag o' plastic toys bought at a tag sale to keep the Boy occupied while we work: $2.00

LSW's total: $803.00

Remember: Doing a project will always take twice as long and cost three times as much as you anticipate!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

An update, of sorts

We've got the power!
LSW here. There's a lot to report from the past few weeks, but what we're learning is that, after nailing and screwing all day (the kind of nailing and screwing that people who've been married for 15+ years do), you don't really have any desire to write about it.
But there have been some big changes and a few lessons learned, such as:
1) You don't hang sheathing randomly or else you're going to have to do it all over again. And trust me, you don't want to do this any more than necessary.
2) The right tool for the right job. I don't know how the pioneers made houses without electric power tools.(Nothin' sexier than a chick with power tools. That's what they tell me, anyway.)
3) You get a heck of a lot more work done when you leave the Boy with his aunt and Memaw for the weekend.
4) Brother-in-laws can be enormously useful, especially when they want to flee a house filled with Memaw and a three-year-old nephew.
5) You're much more productive when you've had a good night's sleep in a Super 8 as opposed to a hellish experience in a leaky tent. (And breakfast is included!)

Again, I'll leave the specifics up to the Vermonster, particularly the explanation of how to get sheathing up, up, up top!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

It's all relative

Look, Ma, we got us some walls! LSW here with the latest report. This past weekend, the Vermonster's sister and husband came with us to Vermont to lend some much-needed brute strength to the process. Because the Vermonster comes from a family of incredibly stubborn determined individuals, they worked their butts off and got some major work done. By the end of the weekend, the cabin was all boxed in (I'm sure there's a technical term to be used here) and it's actually starting to look like something.
While they were busy hammering and cutting, I was off with the kids buying candy at the Vermont Country Store and looking at all the groovy shops in Brattleboro. I definitely had the good end of the deal this time.
The weekend, however, wasn't all hammers and rainbows. As you might recall from a previous post, this was going to be our first weekend camping instead of staying in a hotel. The campground was nice enough and the bathrooms were relatively clean (minus the salamander under the toilet seat)-- very important after a day of working. We set up our tent and the first night we made S'mores and relaxed by the fire. It was all kumbaya goodness. It was the second night that things took a terrible turn. A major thunderstorm came through at about 10 p.m. and it rained all night long. The boy woke up the next day and the first thing he said was, "I don't want to go camping; I want to go home." So we packed up our stuff in the rain (imagine what fun that was), and got ready to head home. But not before I backed into a tree, breaking my tail light and crushing my driver's side back panel. Good fun. Needless to say, we've cancelled our campsite for next weekend. We're going to go the luxurious route and stay at the local motor inn.
(Above, I'm a klassy camper, drinking wine straight out of the cardboard box.)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Framing the Floor

As the LSW reported, we made significant progress last week. We began work at noon on Saturday, and – despite rain and drizzle Sunday morning - managed to get 90% of the floor done by Sunday at 3. I drove back up by myself on Wednesday to finish the job.

My notes from this effort:

The wood was delivered wrapped in metal strapping. I figured there must be some way to remove it without a metal cutter (one of the few things I didn't bring), but I’ll be damned if I could figure it out. In the end we had to shimmy the first piece in each bundle out to loosen the tension and get the rest free. Next time, I’ll bring metal snips.

The top of the foundation looked more level than it actually was. The sills bolted down tight, but after the floor and face joists were in place, I was left with 1/8" to 1/4" gaps in the northeast and northwest corners. I began to shim them, but decided to wait until the walls and roof were up to see if the weight of the whole structure closed them.

I didn’t think to check how the metal bridging – which is sold flat – actually gets installed. My intention had been to install two rows, each about 5’ in from the face joists. I ended up bending the first row into a ‘z’ shape and nailing them to the inside faces of each joist. Something about this didn’t seem right to me, but I went from one end of the building to the other anyway. When I got home and looked it up, I saw that each end should be nailed to the top and bottom of adjacent joists, and felt like an idiot. After installing a row correctly on Wednesday, I considered ripping out first row, but decided to leave them in place so that the next owner can wonder what the hell I was thinking.

My new Paslode cordless pneumatic nailer performed flawlessly; it’s going to be worth its weight in gold.

On Wednesday, CVPS was on site swapping out the pole that is going to feed power to the house. I spent some time talking with the crew, and learned that the Advantek floor sheathing I was using is face-treated with water-proofing, so it should stand up to the elements until I have the roof on. I had hoped that they would hook up my temporary panel, but that, apparently, is a separate job. When I called CVPS on Monday, they expected to complete the job within a week.

After all of the sheathing was in place, I was in the crawlspace installing the bottom ends of the bridging and found myself looking repeatedly at the hatch. There is something about working in a space from which the is only one exit that is unnerving. Not that I expected a bear or the guys from ‘Deliverance’ to show up, but if they did…

The town was hosting a small tag sale and fair at the meetinghouse to raise money for it’s repair. The food was tasty and the folks were very nice. It was nice to see ‘Chris’ again, whom we had met previously at the bar of the Saxton’s River Inn. We also got to go into the meetinghouse for the first time to see first-hand that it needs a lot of work. It really does look like nothing has been done to it since 1817. We made a $50 donation, which I figured was the least we could do to preserve our view.

The LSW easily pulled her weight and made the job more enjoyable, and The Boy was well-behaved despite missing his nap and provided much-needed oversight from the sidelines.

Sadly, this was our last stay at the Saxton’s River Inn before the camping begins. Dinner again was excellent, and homemade donuts and pastries have been added to breakfast. I’ll miss the place – it feels like home at this point.

Next up: Raising the walls with my sister’s family.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Phase II: Introducing the floor, the neighbors and the Stress-o-Meter

(Pictured above, the crawl space where we'll lock up our booze when we're not there.)
LSW here, writing this blog entry on an old car insurance form found in my glove box. I'm sitting in the car, in the rain, in the parking lot of the inn in Vermont, drinking wine from a plastic cup and noshing on Sun Chips because, alas, once again the boy has fallen asleep in the car after a long day at the cabin site.

Today began Phase II of the Great Cabin Adventure. Some important details:

1. There are exactly 30 cell phone towers visible from the highway from Connecticut to Vermont. I know this because, despite my propensity to fall asleep in the car after 20 minutes, I was forced to follow the Vermonster because the generator wouldn't fit in my car, and the boy's carseat won't fit in the truck. In an effort to stay awake, I blasted Led Zepplin and we counted cell towers. Interestingly, as soon as you cross into Vermont, there aren't any visible towers. (Which would explain the lack of phone reception.)

2. I was the lucky recipient of the first job-site injury. A ginormous splinter the size of a sprinkle (or shot or jimmie, depending upon which part of the country you live in) lodged into my palm. Fortunately I packed the First Aid kit. The Vermonster received the second injury, although I wasn't there to experience it. Something about a hammer and a rusty bolt.

3. I learned first-hand how a house gets attached to a foundation. Something I've always been curious about, but not enough to ever ask.

4. We met one set of neighbors. They were very nice, but I was dismayed that the first thing the wife said was that the other neighbors, "are not nice people." I wanted to say, "For God's sake, I'm not getting involved in neighborhood politics before my damn house is even built!" But instead I said, "Well, we're building this place so we don't have to talk to anyone." The Vermonster was appalled, but really, let's just get this all straight right from the beginning. I'm trying to get AWAY from people, not make new frenemies.

5. I fear the Golden Egg has closed. Fortunately, the Inn at Saxton's River is now offering a better-quality breakfast. Not that it matters since from now on, we'll be roughing it at a campground.

6. I suppose I should make some sort of comment about the actual constructing we did. Well, here's the deal. The Vermonster is very, let's say, precise. (I know my father-in-law will agree with me on this one.) This is a good thing, especially when building something as large as a cabin. The devil is in the details, they say. So I can safely say that this will be the most secure, super-structured cabin in existence. I just hope that our marriage (and other family relationships) will survive this adventure. I know it took a great deal of inner strength for the Vermonster to trust me with a measuring tape and screw driver. I could feel him wanting to double-check my work but he held back for the most part. As the summer progresses, though, I don't know that things will be quite as polite. And so, I introduce the Stress-o-Meter:
This trip, the danger was low, although at the end, when it came time to put a tarp over the foundation, I thought I was going to lose it when the Vermonster started making hospital-corners on the damn thing instead of just tossing it over and tacking it with a few staples. Even the Boy commented that it looked like a big present.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Don_P, Deflection Expert

For those of you thinking "jeez, I wish I knew more about deflection in floor joists" - you're in luck: Don_P offered this treatise over at CountryPlans.Com:

"Floors are sort of unique in that we typically don't design them by strength but by stiffness. The limiting factor in most floor design is not bending strength or shear but deflection. The original deflection specification that appears as the code minimum is L/360. If a floor spanned 360" it would be allowed to sag 1" under full design load. This standard was initially to prevent plaster cracks in ceilings under a second floor. The use of 30 psf for "sleeping rooms" dates back at least 40 years. This predates our current lifestyles, water beds, mountains of stuff in a home, thin set tile, etc. Length/360 is a comfortably stiff floor in shorter spans, as they get longer it can become annoying. A sure recipe for disappointment is to design for 30 psf, L/360 on a span greater than about 15'. One simple design rule of thumb that came out of this research was that using 40 psf Live Load and designing for L/480 (25% less deflection than L/360) on the joists almost always works. The extreme example given in class was a 2X10 SPF 30psf floor framed 12" oc and spanning the maximum allowable 19'. The floor passes code but the vibration frequency would be 9 Hz, right in the middle of the most annoying range.

The floor frequency check is a way of looking at how a floor performs. In testing researchers found that people are very sensitive to vibrations in the 8-10 Hz range (I've read that this is the range of frequencies for functions in our bodies). They found that most people were comfortable if the floor vibrations were above 15 Hz. I'm not that finely tuned, what drives me nuts is to hear stuff rattling when someone walks across the floor. I'm not really happy with our 2x10 SPF floors that have roughly the same span as yours, my wife doesn't notice them. They check out right at 15 Hz so the average person, whatever that is, should be happy with them.

I've built long spans of 24'+ in a single lightweight engineered span , deflection of L/480+ a few times. In one case the customer complained, I hated the floor. In that case we had a very high vibration frequency but very little mass, it was too easy to get that snare drum vibrating. Having studied this some we added another layer of subfloor and screwed it on 8" centers in every direction. One of two things happened either the floor was made stiffer or we added enough mass to make it harder to excite.

To me that all gets pretty deep, the easy solution is to quit trying to span so far and don't push the limits with longer spans. Under a building its easy to break long spans in half, 1st to second floor requires some thoughtful placement of load bearing walls rather than a clear span building that can be cut up many ways. A stiff floor will still not feel like concrete underfoot until you get way out there. "

Wow. There's a man who knows from deflection.

Milestones and Deflections

Last night marked the first construction milestone: I cut the last check for the concrete work: $1,191.60, bringing the total to approximately $5,950. This was about $350 more than the estimate, but you may recall that I was warned in advance we might go over by 300 – 500 due to the slope of the land. The contractor was Charlie Record (Record Concrete of Chester, VT), and I’d recommend him without hesitation.

What would I do differently on the foundation the next time? Nothing, fortunately, and that surprises me. I’ve heard enough horror stories about contractors that I have to admit I expected to have at least small problems with anyone I hired. The fact that both the concrete and excavating work has been quick, professional and good quality has been encouraging. Of course, the fact that I researched the work up front, asked a million questions, and went in with a good idea of what I wanted probably helped. Here’s where experience as a business analyst and project manager pays off outside of work.

So far, at least.

Next up: Floor framing. After reading up and consulting a number of Internet Joist Span Calculators (including this one), I called Lavalley Building Supply expecting to order 2 x 10 x 16 Douglas Fir joists that I would space at 12” on center. And here’s where one of those pesky assumptions jumped up and bit me:

Salesman: What’s the span?
Me: 16 feet.
Salesman: You sure you want 2 x 10? Most people want 2 x 12 for 16 feet.
Me: The joist calculators I’ve been using say that Douglas fir should be good for 16.
Salesman: Oh – Doug Fir – yeah that would probably work. But we don’t have it – we’ve got spruce.
Me: Uh..

I told him I’d call back. After some research and a few questions, I determined that the framing lumber they had was lumped into a category that some calculators call ‘SPF’ – Spruce / Pine / Fir – which can be either northern (Lavalley’s was from Canada, eh?), or southern. It looked like I could still span 16’ with SPF 2 x 10s, but I was troubled by the comment that ‘most people want 2 x 12 for 16 feet’. The difference in price was about $9.50 vs. $16.50. My options:

1) Put in a beam and lally posts at 8’, and cut my span in half. This would be more work, but would allow me to use smaller joists.
2) Take Lavalley’s advice and go with 2 x 12s, which – according to the span calculators – should be much more than adequate. These would be heavier to work with and more expensive.
3) Take a chance on 2 x 10s, and insert a beam later if they proved inadequate.

What’s at stake? ‘Deflection’, apparently – the amount of flex or ‘sponginess’ in the floor. Apparently, we’re most comfortable with a deflection of about 1/2”; less and the floor is uncomfortably hard, more and there is too much bounce, causing the plates in your hutch to rattle when anyone moves.

In the end, I compromised by going with the 2 x 12s, spacing them 16” on center (which is standard) instead of 12”. This allowed me to reduce the number, saving a little work and minimizing the cost increase. The floor would have probably been fine with 2 x 10s at 12” oc, but the $200 savings wasn’t quite enough to risk it. And who am I to argue with experience?

Delivery is tomorrow, and we'll have about 14 hours to lay the sills, frame the floor, lay the decking, and then cover it with plastic until the next visit. Now the real fun begins!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Countdown to Phase Two

Once again last week I traded 6 hours in the truck for 1 hour on site. Remember my previous post about assuming nothing? Well I realized after our last trip that I hadn't verified the width of the walls, the size of the cellar hatch opening, the distance from the slab to the beam, etc. So, tape measure in hand, I left the house at 6:30 AM.

At least it was a nice day for a drive - sunny and about 75 - and, being Saturday, relatively light traffic. I arrived on site to find that the Excavator had completed the back-filling, removed the last tree that would block the drilling rig's access to the well site, and cleared the short stretch of brush to the nearest CVPS pole.

God this guy did a nice job. He worked a miracle on my (formerly) sloped property, and left me with a rock retaining wall to support the driveway and a nice rock border on the up-slope side of the driveway that tied into the wall we cut the driveway through. The septic job is his next year if he wants it.

I was surprised to find that the electrician had already put up the board for the temporary power, but disappointed to see that CVPS hadn't yet hooked it up. In a call to CVPS yesterday, they said the weather has been lousy and they hoped to have it in place next week - not good as we're supposed to begin building the floor this weekend. That will add 2 day's rental of a generator to my costs - about $120.

Turned out that the measurements were different from my assumptions, but not enough to have been fatal. No fox sightings this time, but I was visited by a bright yellow bird with black wings that I've never seen in the 'burbs.

Next weekend begins 'Phase Two'. Our goal: Lay down the sills and get the floor framed in preparation for help from my sister's family a the end of June.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Impending Construction

Driving to the Home Depot yesterday, I thought I had a revelation: Build the floor, cover it in plastic, and put in the well, and bank the remainder for the septic system after the 'supplemental' test next April. My thinking: The well and septic are the 'big ticket' items; the cabin can be built as money allows. And a site with well, septic and foundation would maximize my resale should I have to sell before being able to build the cabin. On the way home, however, I realized the that what I was really looking to do was find a way to escape the occasionally overwhelming logistics and anxieties that come with building a house, even if it is only a 'cabin'.

Here's the thing: I'm down to about $13,000, and I still have structure, well and cabin to go. The well will likely cost about $5,000, the septic about $6,000, the cabin shell about $10,000, and finishing about $10,000. My usual annual bonus, though modest, would have been a big help, but the recession/depression has ensured that I'm unlikely to see it again until - what? - 2011?

Installing well and septic with the money might ensure the best resale, but we can't envision a scenario in which we'd sell, so who cares? And is it really feasible to build the cabin 'as money allows'? What good is a floor and two walls, or even 4 walls and a loft? And so we come back to the original plan: Build a simple, lockable shell this year, and bank anything left over for septic next year. At least with a shell we have a place to 'camp', even if we're carting in our own water and using a mulching toilet. We've got a place we can use, if only for weekends. And a place we can stay while we're working on the rest.

The LSW has already reported on the foundation sealing work last weekend. (And how she got lost and found herself with a speeding warning while I paced the streets of Saxton's River wondering where the Dickens she was. With no cell service around Shangri-La, I couldn't just call her and ask.) I'm currently waiting for the excavator to let me know that backfilling is complete and the path to the nearest CVPS pole is cleared so I can get temporary power installed. Our hope is to do an overnight on June 13th to both install the sills and attend the meetinghouse fundraiser that Saturday. My sister and her family are planning on camping with us on June 27 to begin the construction proper, so things are going to start moving quick.

To do:

1) Finalize the plans and place an order with the local lumberyard
2) Install the sills
3) Contact the electrician to get temporary power service installed
4) Contact CVPS to let them know the pole can be replaced and temporary power hooked up
5) Make reservations at the local campground for June 27th and July 4th
6) Dig out the camping equipment and see what we're missing (its been a long time since we camped!)

For those of you keeping score, the foundation sealant was a petroleum-based, fibered foundation/roofing tar that came in 5 gallon containers from my local Lowe's for about $35 each. We went to Shangri-La with 20 gallons, but only needed 10 for two coats. Each coat took about 4 hours, and it was a mess despite our best attempts to be careful. Here's a few more pics from the foundation sealing weekend:

PS: The change in management at the Saxton's River Inn has had generally positive results: I felt that the food was just as good, while the LSW thought that it had gone just slightly down-hill. The breakfast offerings - though still limited - were about 50% better, however, so overall we were satisfied that it would remain one of our favorite New England Inns.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

What in tarnation?

LSW here.
Last weekend marked the opening season of Cabin Building 101, as evidenced by this:
That's the warning I got from the kind officer who pulled me over for doing 47 in a 35 m.p.h. zone. This, after a long day of painting tar on the foundation, then getting lost for two hours in God's Country with the Boy who was saying, "I just want dinner!" By the time the officer got to my car door, I was in tears. Anyhow, all turned out well, as evidenced by this:

Two coats of tar on the foundation. Yep. That's me, in the trenches, literally and figuratively. Now the real fun begins. I looked at the calendar today and realized that we will be in Vermont for the next five weekends, only from now on we'll be camping. I'm trying to be very zen about it. Breathe in, breathe out. It's kind of overwhelming. But then I get to thinking of all the times I'll be able to say, "Hey girls, let's ditch the husbands this weekend and go up to Shangri-La," and it suddenly seems all worth it.
The Vermonster will be posting with some real details shortly.

Monday, May 18, 2009

On Foxes and Porches

Last week the excavator asked me whether or not I wanted him to seal the foundation. With my dwindling bank account in mind, I decided it was time to get some skin in the game. Apparently I would need to break of the form ties with a hammer, fill in the holes with roofing tar, and cover the exterior with sealant up to ground level. Easy enough.

And so it was that I pulled onto the site Sunday morning and was struck by the fact that construction had, in fact, begun. The presence of the foundation transformed the lot and made it, for the first time, very easy to see how our little cabin (and we) would actually inhabit the land. Over the next couple of hours, I found myself again rethinking the design.

We originally wanted the cabin to ‘face’ south, into the land, with a full-width porch that would look down the slope toward the leech field. This presented a couple of problems, though:

1) There would be no ‘face’ to present to the road and driveway. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but houses always seem more welcoming when they face you as you approach them. A house presenting its back seems to say ‘go away’. (I’m curmudgeonly enough to prefer that most people actually stay away, but it would be nice if the house would welcome me when I arrive.)
2) Given that the south side would not be on a gable end, I had (for a number of reasons), decided that I would need 10’ walls on which to secure the porch roof. It was now apparent, however, that that the foundation would rise 4’ about the ground on the south side given the slope of the land. This would mean 14’ to the cap plates, which was higher than I’d prefer to work, given the 12/12 roof pitch and the fact that I myself am well short of 6’. Furthermore, building the deck would be more complicated as it would range from 4 – 6’ off the ground as the land sloped away.

It occurred to me that I could solve both problems and simplify construction by opting instead for two 12’ porches, one on the east side facing the driveway, and one on the west side letting out from the kitchen. Using the gable ends of the house meant that I could revert to 8’ walls, and both porches would give us better access to the leveled portion of the property that wraps around the north and west of the cabin.

When I look back at my sketches over the last few months, it’s interesting to see that what began as a simple 14x24 box kept growing and becoming more complicated, eventually bulking up to 20x30 and sporting a tower facing the road. Once the actual work began, however, the sketches get smaller and simpler as I begin working out the logistics of actually building the thing.

“We only need something like a hotel room with a kitchenette,” the LSW kept saying. “We can add to it later. And she’s right. The simpler it is, the better chance for success.

I hammered off most of the form ties, which – true to form – took longer than expected, and decided to wait until next weekend on the roofing tar. I still needed to check out 3 local campgrounds, and I wanted to get home in time to relax a little before the work week began again. Just before I left, however, a fox emerged from the woods and we stood for a few minutes looking at each other before he casually trotted back into the underbrush. Probably a common site to the residents of Shangri-La, but rare enough to feel a bit magical to those of us trapped in the ‘burbs. I wonder how the Boy would have reacted?

PS: Interim bill for the foundation work - $1967.50 with the rat slab still to go.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Prelude to a Cabin

Spent most of last Saturday in the truck, making the 6 hour round-trip to Shangri-la for a final inspection of the site before the trenches are dug for the foundation. It was 'green up VT' day, and everywhere I looked families were picking up roadside garbage (precious little, compared to CT) and stuffing it into green bags. Those who weren't seemed to be fly-fishing in the West River. I love this place.

On site, the leaves were just emerging, as were the bugs. I stayed for about a half hour before the swarm reached critical mass and chased me back into the truck. The excavator did a pretty good job leveling the land; the only change I made was moving the foundation markers 10' to the east to get a clear line of sight from the gable end to the nearest CVPS pole without having to take down a 50' pine.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Giraffe House

For those of you keeping score at home, it’s been about 3 weeks since I began the ‘test run’ for the cabin – the so-called ‘giraffe house’. As of today, the shed is about 75% complete, needing only roof shingles, trim, a door, and two windows. The LSW is impressed, and – frankly – so am I. Some thoughts and notes so far:

Getting rained on at least 4 times didn’t seem to negatively impact anything other than the flooring, even though it was exterior grade ply. There’s now a slight warp; I’ll need to try to minimize exposure of the cabin floors to the weather until the roof goes on. I wonder if I can subfloor after the roof is up instead of before building the walls?

I’ve got about 24 hours into it so far, and expect that I have about 16 more to go. With the exception of standing up the walls, I’ve built it myself. Math suggests that 40 hours for 10 x 8 should mean 224 hours for 16 x 28 – 28 days. I want to say that’s low, but my gut says its about right.

Sheathing the walls alone was more difficult than I had anticipated. 4 x 8 sheets of T111 are awkward enough (especially in the wind), but finding a way to position them accurately and tack them in place was a real pain. The solution I settled on involved blocks of wood nailed to the foundation for support and quick-release clamps to hold them in place.

Roof framing isn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I got the rafter cuts right on the first try, and used the first rafter as a template for all of the others. Building temporary supports for ridge beam and then using pocket screws to tack the rafters in place before nailing them made the job fairly painless.

A 28-once framing hammer with a long handle and magnetic nail starter beats the hell out of a 16-once general purpose hammer. Wish I had bought one at the beginning of the job. Blisters are still a problem, though.

Huh. Why am I left with ¾” ply for the roof? Did I put the 7/16” on the floor? Was that what I intended? Note to self: Check the plan before committing the materials in the future.

For sheathing: Thank ye gods for cordless drills and deck screws. I wonder if there is any reason why the whole place couldn’t be assembled with them?

A 12/12 roof pitch is pretty scary, even when you’re only 12’ off the ground. My 16’ ladder isn’t long enough to reach the peak at this angle, so I’m going to need a 24’. Unfortunately, my truck only has a 7’ bed, so I’ll need ladder racks just to get it home (and then to Shangri-La). There goes another $400 in unanticipated expenses. I realize that I could use my 16’ and roof jacks, but there’s something about laying new shingles and then poking nail holes through them that bothers me. Roof sheathing and covering is a job that I hope to sub out if possible, especially as I plan to go with a metal roof.

Because of The Boy, I’m hyper-cautious about unplugging power tools any time I’m not using them. I find myself looking around the construction site trying to imagine what could hurt him even when he’s not around. Part of the fun of being a father, I suppose. Or maybe just of being type-A.

After working on it on Sunday, it occurred to me that lodging and food will be another unanticipated building expense unless we decide to camp on the property. The shed isn't very big , but the 3 of us could have lived in it while building the cabin. Why didn’t I do this test run in VT rather than here?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Concrete Plans

My excavator called me last night from Orlando to let me know that the site had been graded if I wanted to take a final look before the foundation trenches were dug. I was impressed that he’d take time out from his vacation update me – my experience with contractors being more on the give-them-a-deposit-pray-they-get-around-to-it-this-year end of the spectrum.

When I met with him and the concrete guy 2 Saturdays ago, it was agreed that the foundation could go in right after May 15th – the date they lift the mud season heavy load restriction on Shangri-La’s roads. (The town only has 2 paved roads – the only two that don’t dead-end – and even they have dirt sections.) The concrete work would take 3 days, and a week or two to cure after that, setting my start date in early June.

That Saturday was also the first time the project began to feel a little intimidating. Standing in the center of this denuded patch of forest I was struck that I would have to actually construct a building here – possibly by myself – before the first frost. It suddenly seemed a tall order.

A few random notes from the last two weeks:

The cabin plans have always called for a porch, and it occurred to me that the right time to pour the footings is while the foundation is being done. My plans call for 5 piers for the front porch, and 2 piers for the back; the excavator agreed to do the work on a per hour basis – at $45, expecting about a ½ day’s work. He also agreed to pick up the sonitubes and footing forms. The concrete guy expected to have enough concrete in the truck to pour them, so he thought the charge would be minimal if anything at all. I may not build the porches this year, but at least we’ll be ready for them.

I met with the CVPS guy on the same day, and we talked about plans for underground service to the house. Turns out that the $35/foot I quoted here was specifically for underground service. If I went overhead, the charge would be less, involving only wire, the weather head and the meter – no pole needed if the gable end of the house was less than 125’ from the pole. (I should just squeak by on that one.) This option does mean that I’ll need temporary power, however, which will be an $80 setup charge plus the cost of an electrician.

The excavator noted that he saved the stone from the wall so he could put it back in place once the width and location of the driveway had been finalized. This wasn’t something I expected, and one more reason why I’d recommend this guy to anyone. Not only was he less expensive than the others, but he seems to take a lot of pride in his work. And a hell of a nice guy.

The concrete guy had quoted me about 5,200 over the phone based upon a level site. He spent almost an hour brainstorming with the excavator on how they could carve a roughly level area out of the 15% slope we had to work with. In the end, he noted that the price could go up by a couple hundred dollars if the forms need to be stepped. This was still significantly cheaper than the next bid, so I’m not concerned.

With the land cleared, we’re now in clear view of the neighbors across the street. Not terrible, but I preferred the out-in-the-woods feeling. We’ll need to do some landscaping eventually the reclaim some of the privacy. On the other hand, the new sight lines should deter any vandalism, so I’ll have to think about this.

Financial tally: $1,000 to the excavator for the balance of the land clearing, and $1,000 deposit on the grading and excavating. Last week I got the formal proposal from the concrete guy, and cut another check for half of the foundation work - $2,600.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Carpe Cabin

LSW here.
The Vermonster will readily admit that he's Type A. He's a leader, a strong personality, he feels the need to control things.
But he's not as bad as he makes himself out to be. Over the years, my decidedly un-Type A family has beat him down, so now he's able to go-with-the-flow. Sometimes.
But recently, when the stock market started plunging, he, to put it simply, freaked.
"Should we? Shouldn't we? Withdraw our 401k? Take a loan? Buy the property and just let it sit? Build immediately?" There were many questions and I know they were keeping him up at night.
Me, well, it's not that I don't worry. It's just that I'm good at denial.
So when we decided to go for it-- to do this project without a loan from anyone-- I found that quiet place inside of me (the one fueled by a big glass of wine at the end of the day) and decided that yes, I would be all right with this.
Throughout the process thus far, I've been okay. I've tried to participate in decision-making, I've tried to be excited about the possibilities. I've really made an effort to be excited rather than totally freaked that we might be pissing away our retirement. But last week something happened that has made me realize that, hell yeah, we are totally doing the right thing.
A friend died of a heart attack. A 39-year-old friend. Yeah, scary shizz. After many days of deep introspection, I've come to realize that I want to live my life doing the things I think will be fun, because you just never, ever know when your time is gonna be up. More importantly, I want to pass this mindset onto my son. He will be three years old in just a few weeks. Some of his first memories will be of us building a cabin in "Mont," as he calls it. He'll climb trees and find bugs and go snowmobiling and do all sorts of outdoorsy boy things at the cabin that he won't be able to do here in the 'burbs. As he grows older, he'll probably hate going up there, and then the time will come when he'll want to go up there to party with his friends. And you know what? It'll be worth it. It'll be worth giving the finger to the stock market and 401ks and mutual funds. It'll be worth every single dime to be able to say, "Let's go up to 'Mont for the weekend."
(P.S. The Giraffe House is almost finished! Look at my boys!)

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Almost a month ago I spent the day in what felt like the middle of woods peering through the trees trying to see the 4 markers that defined my modest, 16 x 28 cabin. To get to the site, I had to park at the meetinghouse, climb over the stone wall, and trudge through the brush.

What a difference a few weeks makes. Last Saturday I arrived at 9 am and was able to drive right onto the cabin site and walk unimpeded over a little less than a quarter of an acre of gently sloping moonscape. It was exciting and intimidating all at once; suddenly it really felt like the project was underway.

I'd like to give you a picture right here, but, unfortunately, I forgot the camera. Sorry.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Meetinghouse

I noted earlier that the painfully picturesque 'Old Meetinghouse' sealed the deal for the LSW. Situated across from our slice o' heaven and unchanged since it was erected in 1817, it provides the quintessential backdrop to our [anticipated] repose in the Green Mountain State.

What could a little town like Shangri-La (yes, I know I've been spelling it sometimes with an 'a' and sometimes with an 'i' - what of it?) have planned for an old building with no septic or electricity on a dirt road arguably in the middle of nowhere? Nothing, we figured, until we saw on the last visit that the second floor windows had been replaced by plywood.

I put the question to one of the excavators, who - as it happens - is also one of the town's 3 selectman and it's road commissioner. Turns out the selectmen hold a town meeting in it once per year, and the town is planning on investing in foundation work to ensure that the the building can stand for at least another 100 years. "It's on the historic register," he noted, "and we'd like to keep it just the way it is." The windows are missing because the woodworker at the top of my street is repairing the 192-year-old muntins and glazing.

In talking with him, I also found out that the town hall was a one-room schoolhouse until not that long ago, with the original chalk boards still hanging in the first floor. The town also has plans to restore it in a historically sympathetic fashion, carefully planning the handicap access to be invisible from the front. This from a town with ridiculously low taxes and nothing that could be described as gentrification. A town with only 2 paved roads, for that matter.

This warms my preservationist heart. Good for them! Or us, as it were. Our past anchors us as we look to the future, and it's hard to overestimate the value of being grounded.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

And We're Off!

The bids have been rolling in over the last 2 weeks. Here’s the score:

Land Clearing:

Way back in November, I got a land-clearing estimate of $3,500 to $5,000 per acre via phone, but didn’t actually meet anyone on-site until 2 Saturdays ago. Over the course of an afternoon, I met with 3 excavators and gained the following info:

  • 3 of the 40 – 60’ pine trees near the foundation should be pulled down or I’ll risk obliterating The Dream during a wind or ice storm. A 30’ pine fallen over the well site since the last visit was all the evidence I needed.

  • Most of the remaining trees were small (less than 8” in diameter, and would be pretty easy to clear.

  • The land is sloped at 15-20 degrees, and it will have to be cut back significantly to ensure the water drains away from the foundation.

  • The grading of the driveway will need to be continued to the well site so the drilling rig can get to it and level itself. The land can be returned to it’s original slope after drilling is done.

  • One of the contractors lived in the neighborhood, and he suggested a small culvert to channel water under the driveway where is meets the road. “There’s a lot of run off on this road during a storm.”

  • Another contractor noted that I might need a ‘cut approval’ from the down to join the driveway to the road. A quick check with the road commissioner confirmed that there was no such requirement in Shangri-La. This place is a libertarian paradise.

  • If the stumps can be buried on the property, it will be cheaper. As soon as they leave the property, they become garbage and must be disposed ‘appropriately’ – which will cost.

  • Final finishing of the driveway should wait until both the foundation and septic work is done, due to the size of the equipment that will be on the property. Until then , the drive can be surface with rough stone.

Estimates? Low of $2,000 from the neighbor, mid of $2,810, and high of $4,500 (from someone who obviously thinks that ‘from Connecticut’ means monied and stupid). All estimates included the crushed stone for the driveway.

The neighbor - who does excavating as a second business - got the job last Wednesday, and the land was cleared by Sunday. We’re heading back up next weekend to see the work and settle up.


I didn’t realize when I started this that excavating and foundation-pouring were separate activities, but apparently they are. The concrete guys I talked to all had excavators they work with. Consequently, I had no line item in the budget for excavating. Oops. The same guys bidding on the land clearing also bid on the excavating, and the scores were similar: $2,000 from the neighbor, a little more from the middle guy, and another $4,500 for the one who mistakes me for a [former] derivatives broker. All included trenches for the forms, preparation for the rat slab, installation of foundation drainage pipe, installation of pipe/conduit for power and septic (to 10’ beyond the foundation), and backfilling.

I’m planning on giving the job to the neighbor, but I’ll wait until I see his land clearing work next weekend.


The foundation is going to be a simple 16’ x 28’ crawlspace with a “rat slab”. The footings will be laid at 4’ below grade (to prevent frost-heave), and will be topped with 8” wide walls. There will be two vents and a 4’ access opening. All concrete will be rated at 3,000 lbs, and the work will take 3 days.

In this case, the low bid also came from my neighbor: $2,200. This from a contact of his in the neighboring town who does concrete work ‘on the side’. This sounded good until the next two estimates came in: $5,160 and $5,800. Some further research revealed the concrete cost alone to be about 2,100, never mind the rebar, bolts, oil for the forms, labor, and rat slab mesh. Suddenly the low guy was suspect, and I reverted to a piece of advice I’ve heard over and over again: Be cautious of the lowest and highest bids. Today I confirmed with the $5,160 guy, who also agreed to throw in the concrete for 7 frost-line piers for a deck, given that there will probably be more on the truck than he’ll actually need.

Total anticipated bill for land clearing and foundation: $9,160 – about $4,000 more than I budgeted for. Say it with me: Twice as expensive as you expected, and three times as long.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Off Topic: The Author Pretends to be a Writer

Occasionally I'm hit with a jolt of creativity and find myself beginning what I imagine will turn into a novel. Because my muse invariably skips town after about 20 pages, I'm always coming across a forgotten file or notebook containing the beginning to a story that I only remember as mine after 3 or 4 pages. I ran across one such start last night, and I'm posting it because it captures some of the mid-life restlessness that let to the cabin adventure in the first place.


It began on a commuter train from the “gold cost” of Connecticut to New York City. As usual, I boarded the train in Stratford and slowly made my way to the last vestibule in the last car. I had begun doing this after the terrorist attacks in the US, London and Spain, figuring that the evildoers were more likely to set off bombs in the front of the train to maximize the damage. What can I say – I’m a whacko. I made a habit of standing in the vestibule rather than finding a seat for two reasons: 1) The rush hour trains were always packed, and I didn’t want to be stuck next to Tony Two-Ton and his breakfast burrito, and 2) it was easier to watch the scenery go by standing by the doors. Not that the scenery changed much day-to-day, but it seemed the best of my limited and mind-numbing commuting options. And besides, the seats are so uncomfortable, wrapped in a frictionless vinyl and canted so you couldn’t help but sliding into a ridiculous slouch until your knees hit the hard plastic back of the seat in front of you. In that position it was impossible to read the paper, drink a coffee, or even comfortably listen to an iPod. I hope the designers spend eternity confined to these seats in hell. The head of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, too, for running these tired old heaps for over 20 years beyond their ‘sell by’ date.

I’m semi-conscious, thanks mostly to the coffee, and on auto-pilot for the first 5 stops: Bridgeport, Fairfield, Southport, Greens Farms, Westport and East Norwalk. Then, after we pull away from South Norwalk I see something I haven’t seen since high school: A ‘punk’. He enters the last car behind an anorexicly thin business man from the car before, looking for a seat. When the Thin Man takes the last one, he skulks to the vestibule and takes the pace immediately opposite me, dropping to the floor in a sprawled seating position that is bound to trip anyone trying to board at the next 4 stops before we express to Manhattan. I immediately tense up imagining the reaction of these commuters, the glaring looks and the inevitable confrontation. I am also immediately aware of his legs and my feet, afraid that they are inadvertently going to make contact and he’ll want to clock me for it.

He doesn’t seem particularly confrontational, though, and immediately digs into his bag for a couple of donuts and a coffee purchased before boarding. Now I’m thinking, wow – what a normal breakfast, as if he were somehow alien and should be eating babies or a two-headed eel or something. He pushes the tab back on the coffee lid and gingerly takes a sip, careful not to burn his tongue. Pussy, I think. As he digs into his donut, I realize that I’m staring at him, fascinated by this fresh sight of a once tired cliché: Jack Boots, leather pants with too many zippers, black Sex-Pistols tank top, nose and ear piercing, artificially black, spiky hair, tattoos on the neck and arms. He is a violent, stark contrast to the conservatively dressed workaday Joes and Janes sharing the car. I am struck by the understanding that this effect is what the first punks were reaching for, before they became a style: A jarring and confrontational contrast to conformity. There is no one else on the car that looks anything like him, and a few people who look nervous about him.

Cool, I think. Good for you. And the odd thing is that his face is almost angelic, very much at peace, striking such an odd contrast to his costume. Is that what it is? Some sort of joke? Biff the preppy going to a dress up day at Darien Academy? No – the tattoos look real. There is a snake spiraling up his right arm, coiled from the wrist to the top of the shoulder. On the neck and left arm are a series of geometric patterns and what looks like a band logo, although I don’t recognize the name. At one point he looks to the right and I see that he has a bright red heart just below his left ear. It seems out of place with everything else about his appearance, and I immediately wonder why he got it. At the Darien stop, he seems to barely notice when the doors open and a handful of people step over him to get in. He makes no concession to them, but continues to sip his coffee and stare at the floor. A few people cluck disapprovingly, and one mutters “asshole”. He looks up and mumbles “sorry” – seemingly sincerely, and then “fuckers” after everyone is out of ear shot.

I am fascinated by this. I am fascinated by his outrageous appearance and his lack of concern for the opinions around him. I am fascinated by his tattoos and the juxtaposition of the soft face and the “sorry”. I am nothing like this. Suddenly, 20 years too late, I want to be like this – whatever this is. I spend the rest of the trip to grand central fantasizing about shaving off my hair, getting a tattoo, wearing ratty clothes, and telling everyone to fuck off simply because they were breathing my air. By the time we reach 125th street station, I am convinced that I am going to transform myself – maybe during my lunch break that very day! I’m going to come back from lunch long enough to shock my boss and tell my coworkers that they could have their grim drudgery and daily grind – me, I’m freeing myself from this pale shadow of a life. So long, suckers! And I’d be laughing my way out the front doors without so much as a backward glance, my middle finger raised in defiant victory on the way.

By lunchtime, my enthusiasm for a grand gesture had been sapped by an inbox of 120 e-mails and 4 seemingly pointless meetings, all of which managed to cover well-trodden ground while arriving at no new destinations. My favorite seemingly endless discussion centers around a software upgrade project for which we have no resources and to which no one outside the IT shop seemed committed. The meeting minutes could all read as follows:

1) We want to do the upgrade, who have we got?
2) No one – we’re already over-committed to existing projects and over-budget in supplemental resources
3) Let’s schedule another meeting next week to discuss options

We’ve repeated these meetings each week for the past 2 months, looking for a miracle that would allow us to squeeze productivity blood from and overworked and over-committed stone. We can’t, but my manager just won’t let it go. The software is in my 'application portfolio', and I can’t help but see the storm clouds brewing on the horizon. The fascinating thing about this process is that we actually had a pretty tight deadline when we began, and we’ve now squandered a month of that time in a group circle-jerk over how to begin. When our miracle arrives we’ll need a fresh one to meet the new time frame and the meetings will begin again. Only this time, they’ll have a different character:

Me: We no longer have adequate time to accomplish the work, what should we do?
My Manager: This upgrade is your responsibility – figure it out.

I’m not sure why this still bothers me - I’ve seen this pattern repeat for as many years as I’ve been here. On the macro level we have ‘the circle of life’; at the corporate level it is ‘the circle of business’. I keep telling myself that they are paying me good money to dance the same, tired dance over and over again, so why not keep them amused? A year prior, I had thought that I could ‘affect change’ by stepping into management, but it turns out the same patterns repeat one level above you until you are at the top, in which case you’re dancing for the board, who are dancing for the stockholders, all of whom likely have someone they are dancing for. The whole world is lost in a wild ecstasy of dancing, spinning and twisting to the hypnotic strains of unbridled commerce! You’d think it would be more fun.

Preoccupied as I was with planning for my exit strategy from the project – that is, who to throw under the bus when it fails – my dreams of sticking to the man becoming sticking it to a man - my grand gesture of defiance had been reduced to opting for a hunk of white – rather than wheat – bread to go with my a cup of tepid split pea soup from the cafeteria. For the next couple of weeks, though, the memory of this punk and my reaction to him would lurk on the fringes of my consciousness, occasionally popping up when I least expected it. And then one day, a few weeks later, I found myself at a tattoo parlor on the way to the hardware store.


There's more, but you get the gist. Maybe a quiet cabin in the woods will provide just the right environment to finish it some day...

Monday, April 6, 2009

Have You Seen Our Giraffe House?

LSW here. Let me just state for the record that of all the sucky things in the world, being woken up early on a Sunday morning after a late evening of boozing by the bang, bang, banging of a hammer rates pretty high up there. What's even worse is when you realize that the banging is coming from your backyard and you know that it's just a matter of minutes before you'll be asked to "throw on some sweats" and come help. Not the best hangover cure, I assure you.
In any case, the Vermonster had assembled one side of our garden shed/writer's retreat/test cabin and needed some help lifting it up. Voila! Now, I readily admit that I have no sense of spatial relations, and the headache didn't help much, but part of me wondered why the shed seemed so ... tall. I wasn't going to say anything, but then the neighbor walked over sipping his coffee and said, "Hey, why's it so tall?"
I'll let the Vermonster explain his reasoning behind that. I will say, though, that I'm quite proud of his workmanship so far. I can actually see this turning into something usable! Maybe even cute!

[Vermonter Replies: No particular reason for the height except that I forgot to consider how a relatively standard 7'9" wall would look on something only 10' wide. Oops.]

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


In the corporate world, if you have to estimate something but really have no idea, you put a figure on paper and let everyone know that it’s a ‘SWAG’. That is, a ‘Silly, Wild-Assed Guess’. In cobbling together an estimated budget for The Dream, I did the same thing in a couple of areas – one of them being getting power to the cabin. $500 should cover it, I thought; $750 at the most.


Discussions with the good folks at Central Vermont Public Service Corp (and they really were a pleasure to talk with) yielded a revised figure of about $35/foot. The good news is that I’ve got that power company right-of-way on the property; the bad news is that I’ve still got about 110 feet from the closest pole to the cabin site. Anyone? Anyone? That’s right: $3,500 – almost 5 times what I anticipated.


The way I see it, my other option is a generator for construction – $750 to $1,500 – followed by solar power for the well pump and house for as little as $750 - $2,000. The solar-powered well pump is low-flow, however, and will require a holding tank at a higher elevation than the house, so the overall cost is likely to exceed the CVSC hookup fee. To be fair, I suppose we could also go with hand tools and a manual pump for the well, but I’m not sure we’re willing to ‘get back to the land’ quite that far.

I was told that the CVPS estimate was free, so I’ve opened a work order and hope to meet with a rep in a couple of weeks to get the ‘official rough estimate’. The excavator opined that sending the line underground would probably be about the same price once you factor in the additional pole and tree clearing that will likely be necessary. If I go with this option, CVSC suggested that I send the power through the foundation and have an electrician hook up the meter on a temporary board with some outlets rather than using a pole on the edge of the job site. This will save me about $80 as I won’t need the company to move the power line to the house later, and we all know that $80 saved is $80 earned.

Fortunately, this was the last SWAG I had in the budget. In the future, I’ll be blaming my low numbers on ‘the optimism factor’.