Shangri La

Shangri La

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.]