House on the Hill

So much has progressed. And then, not so much. It is livable up there … folks willing to live without running water and a bathroom have enjoyed the tranquility it offers.

We had a very efficient but small sheepherders stove installed and it worked well. But after some thought we decided to upgrade. So we bought a super cook stove and got it installed. It is much easier to load wood and is actually much better for cooking. We hope to use the sheepherders stove in the attached greenhouse. We also have a small propane stove in the house for quick cooking in the summer.

But we lack plumbing. And our electric is working, but is not complete. When it is we will also have a working refrigerator. So (Yay! Yay! Yay!) we have contractors lined up to finish the work. It is possible that we will move up there in June and make our barn house more of a work house.

Lots of trim and cosmetic stuff to be done but that is easy to complete slowly. We have had the beautiful benefit of our kids helping us. Jessica comes with her muscles and goodwill! Will (Good Will) comes with his tool belt and know-how (thank you for shelves and window sills and bathtub and so much more). Marj and Eric come and plant and weed and make staircases and help organize (and so much more). And next time, they come with a grandbaby! Thank you!


Now What?

As the structure of the house begins to get finalized, we turn our attention to water and electricity. I realize some folks might have put that earlier in the game but we have a lot to learn. For one, I keep getting confused about the math involved with wattage. Thankfully, Ed leads that charge (yes, I’m being punny). The well is in and attached to it is a solar pump. The only thing left is to mount the panel and connect things up. Well, all the inside apparatus too.

brad and ed
Brad and Ed in the tranches (Thanks Brad!)

The main solar panels are ready to go up too. Meanwhile, Ed is working on the best way to connect it up.

All this said, we are getting closer to realizing life with less access to power. So daily I wonder how we will comfortably do this or that … because comfort is still important. For example, how will we prepare and early morning cup of coffee or tea in the summer? Winter is easy since the wood stove will be hot. Or what will be the best use of limited electricity in the kitchen in general? For the next few months, this will be the focus of our energies (yup, punny again … just can’t help it!)

Hill House

With the (late) arrival of actual winter we finally turned our attention back to the hill house. Almost all the walls are up inside. And we started some stone work outside just before it got too cold. The sheepherders stove works wonderfully and heats the home quickly. This week we finally ordered a small 12 volt fridge (Sundanzer DCR10) which means we can finish the kitchen cabinetry and look for a sink that’s the right size. So … progress. But, sadly, we had to cry uncle on the windows. The windows were our first purchase. $75 for 15 windows and we designed the house around them. However, they have become our Achilles heel. The rest of the house is super energy efficient, but these windows leak not only cold air but sometimes rain, as well. Next Monday we buy replacements and start ripping out drywall to put them in. Life is always an experiment at “Do-Over Farm.”stonework started


hill house Oct 2012living room1-16

The Skinny on Skinning

Just like the structure of our house (straw-bale, slip form, poured concrete … finally to ARXX blocks) the outside required a series of changed minds before we could land on a solution. Still attracted to stucco and stone, we had intended to skin the whole structure in stucco and stone. But there are lots of places where the stick frame and the blocks meet that are challenging. So then we considered putting board and batten over the plywood parts and dealing with the transitions that way. After a lot of research about what woods would work best we found that the locals recommended rough-cut hemlock (which would shrink, but it is used on lots of barns around here) or cedar that is impossible to get. Then as we were deliberating and looking at other structures, we realized that it wouldn’t be a low maintenance solution.

Metal siding and first coat of stucco

We are trying to build a low-cost structure that is easy to maintain and also satisfies our aesthetics to some degree. And, to be fair to us, every stage of this involves some sort of work-around or compromise due to the work that came before it.  So we landed on a solution that will work for us. Some of the building will be skinned with Galvalumed roofing that is a close color match to the stucco. It allows us to do the difficult parts (especially the parts that require scaffolding) with an easy substrate. Our Mennonite source offers an awesome price per foot and cuts it to size. And we can get it done even on cold days. We’ll still have plenty of stonework and stucco to make us happy but our house will be skinned in the near verses distant future!

Like a Duck Takes to Water

Well … what if a duck doesn’t take to water? Our Khaki Campbell ducks that we raised from just a day or two old didn’t seem to like the water at all at first. I suppose that is quite understandable because they were initially raised inside a protective barn and they had no mamma duck to teach them. And I suppose the wide open (it really is a very small pond) water was a very scary place. Once they were introduced to the pond it took them weeks and weeks and weeks to discover the joy of water. Even when we would put a duck in the water it would scurry right out of it.

Then they discovered duck weed! It covered the pond for a while and even a few wild ducks came to explore and feed on it. Finally our ducks realized that they had something really yummy right at the tip of their beaks! All they had to do was take the plunge! And they did.  And now you can hear them laughing and splashing around in the water all day. Here is a video which isn’t all that exciting, but it is proof that our ducks have finally taken to water.

Which just goes to show you that sometimes you do have to take a plunge of faith sometimes. I doubt that ducky expression applies to me and my tarpaper skills (or my comfort-level on scaffolding) and a few weeks ago I was wondering if we’ll ever get an outside finish on our house. But what do you know! We are more than halfway done “wrapping” our house in preparation for stuccoing and other finishes.  And as of today we’ll have all the windows in and last week the floor was poured, so we are set for winter!

What About the House?

When we first bought the property, we intended to keep the barns as barns and growing spaces and build a house on the hill. Fairly early on we realized that it would make sense to build the temporary quarters in the barn, but in the back of our mind we kept planning the house on the hill. Our goal was to employ very cost-effective building techniques yet make the house very energy efficient. Time was not going to be a factor and we would do whatever we could ourselves. We would use salvaged material when possible. We loved the idea of slip form masonry construction … we like the look and its energy efficiency. We also explored straw bale construction, prefab options and SIPs and kept waffling between them all. One thing we were pretty sure of was the basic design and the idea of tucking the home into the hillside for maximum insulation on the north side. Suddenly an opportunity struck. Our resourceful neighbor let us know about an auction at the local school where there would be bidding on windows. On an exceptionally cold morning we experienced our first auction and secured 15 windows for $75. They are double glazed and are 5 feet high and 6 feet wide. Now we had a reason to get building.

Greenhouse and walk into "Barn" house
The greenhouse and stone walkway into the "Barn" house

One Year Later

By the time our first anniversary rolled around (October 2006) Ed was putting up the twinwall plastic to ready the greenhouse for growing. Cow stalls were being converted into growing beds and Ed decided to make the big move and go live full time on the farm in December. We had gently explored the idea of growing food to take to a farmer’s market and now decided to give it a go in the spring of 2007.  We chose a small friendly market and it turned out to be an amazing experience.  Through direct contact with the people eating our food we learned so much. We not only learned what people were interested in buying and when but also what didn’t work. Customers shared recipes and processing ideas and we also learned a great deal from our fellow farmers. This enabled us to tweak our product line and reinforced our plan to focus mostly on salad greens and stretch availability to start earlier in than the market season and extend into the winter. The first season we sold about 8 to 12 pounds of greens a week as well as a variety of seasonal items such as tomatoes and radicchio.

Ed Building
Ed putting on the Greenhouse Roof
cow stalls
Cow stalls ready to be growing beds
Growing beds ready for dirt
Tomatoes and Greens