Post stuffing

Leah and I had a modest Thanksgiving dinner at home on Thursday, with turkey and store-bought dressing and gravy. It sounds sad, but it’s just me and Leah here, so it’s kind of hard for us to justify the effort to make a real spread.

Then on Friday we drove up to Chattanooga to have real Thanksgiving dinner with my brother Henry and his wife Terry. Her son and daughter-in-law came along with their two small kids. My brother’s son Thomas came as well.

I don’t have pictures of the dinner. Terry started cooking Wednesday and was still at it when we got there around 1 pm. The pictures would have been great, but not nearly as great as the food. If you have frozen dressing and canned gravy in the absence of anything to compare it to, you can almost convince yourself that it’s just about as good as home-made. And then when you have the real thing, you realize that no, it’s not.

We had turkey, dressing and gravy again, along with green beans with bacon, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, corn pudding, macaroni and cheese and something else I’m sure I’m forgetting. And then a carrot cake for dessert. There was also pumpkin pie with home-made whipped cream but try as I might, I could not force myself to have pie. Curses!

Before we ate my brother showed me his newly finished garage/woodworking shop, all 600-plus square feet of it, almost all of which he did himself. That was after he showed me the sideboard he had made for Terry. My brother does some nice work. I was embarrassed to show him what I had been working on.

This is the stone stove surround I completed on Thursday. It’s real stone cut to regular sizes so it fits together easily. The edging is 12-inch slate tile cut to size. I had originally planned and started building a surround that was somewhat smaller, which is the recessed area you can see here. Leah asked if I thought it would look better if it were a little larger. I agreed, but said the addition had to look like it was done intentionally and wasn’t a mistake. That’s why the side and top borders extend somewhat proud of the original surround. That looks intentional, doesn’t it?

I think it turned out well enough, but it hardly compares to the things my brother does. At least it’s functional.

We came back home Friday night and woke up Saturday morning to a mild, dry cold front passing over.

I missed the peak of the color by about a minute.

Construction slows

The only progress on our new house this past week was the installation of the power company’s meter on our temporary power supply pole.

David, the man who will do the basement and garage slabs, came up to inspect the site, but can’t do the work for a while. I met him as he was on his way down the mountain and I was on my way up with the dogs. He’s the same one who did the concrete work on our current house. He told me that the foundation forms on our current house were the best he had ever seen. That was gratifying, considering how much work it took for me to build them, but he was probably just being polite.

The week before last was spent mostly preparing for the concrete work. John was hauling more gravel and his helper was grading to make a turnaround at the garage. John offered to let me ride along with him in his truck when he went to pick up more gravel. Of course I accepted.

The view from the cab is commanding. We’re about a block from Broad Street here.

view from the dumptruck

The ride in an empty dumptruck is rough. John does his best to avoid even the smallest bumps in the road, but there’s no way to miss them all. And you feel every one of them.

The gravel we’ve been using is actually crushed concrete. A construction company keeps a stockpile for sale to people like John. Here some is being scooped up for loading in John’s truck. The truck rode better with a load, but it’s still a dumptruck.

loading up

Back at the house, we continued to fill the basement and garage areas.

dumping rock

gravel in the basement

Both will need some work before concrete can be poured. There is probably enough gravel in the basement, but it has to be graded smooth. I’ll have to dig down to soil level at two places to form footings for a post and a load-bearing wall. The garage probably needs more gravel to bring it up to the proper level, but I think there will have to be some discussion between John and David to make sure.

All the work I’ve done this week is on our current house. We’re finishing the bathroom, bedroom and family room in the basement before we sell.

The vanity is installed and plumbed in the basement bathroom, and the light over the vanity is in. I have put in base and shoe moulding where the commode will go. I have the toilet flange in, but need a new wax ring before I can install the commode.

I can’t put the rest of the moulding in the bathroom until I put the door in. I can’t put the door in until I put the flooring in the bedroom and family room. I can’t put the flooring in until I frame out a section of wall that’s bare concrete block in the family room. Once that’s done, I have to stain and polyurethane the windows, trim the windows and two sliding glass doors, and put some pine planks on the laminated beam that crosses the family room ceiling. Leah is staining the doors, door frames, base mouldings and the rest of the lumber I’ll need. I wonder how far we can get in the next week.



House rules

First of all, Leah and I want to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving. We hope you can spend it with people you care about, and we hope you get plenty of good food to eat.

(Updated) I’m certainly not an expert in home design, floor planning or house construction, but after looking for my first house in Alabama, building our current house and planning for our next house, I have some opinions. Some are consistent with standard home design, and some are just my personal view, so take them for what they’re worth. The rules are oriented towards designing a house, but I think you should keep them in mind if you’re looking for an existing house

The first rule is to design your house for the next owner. Quirkiness, eccentricity or even just out-of-the-ordinary taste may suit you, but it’s unlikely to be anyone else’s idea of what a house should be. It doesn’t matter if you think the next house will be your last, because it’s impossible to predict what the future holds.

When I was looking for a house outside Huntsville, Al, my real estate agent showed me a house that a retired couple built. It was an earth-sheltered, passive-solar house with a linear floor plan, like an old roadside motel. There was no central heating or air conditioning. Apparently the owners had read too many enthusiast articles about the virtues of earth sheltering and passive solar heating. As great as they may be, neither works particularly well in Alabama. They had installed a window air conditioner through a wall so that it stuck out into the garage, and then cut holes and put fans in the walls to try to pass the cool air or heat from the wood stove from the living room to the bedrooms. It was their own, personal vision, and it was supposed to be their final home, until they decided to move to Florida to be close to family. It was still for sale years later.

Build the house you want, but make sure it suits the needs of other buyers in your area. If every house in your area has a basement, your house needs a basement. If every house has three bedrooms, your house needs three bedrooms. If every house has central air conditioning, your house needs central air conditioning. If every house has an attached garage, your house needs an attached garage. If every potential home buyer is not a kooky hippie, don’t build a house that only kooky hippies will want.

The second rule is an extension of the first: building a workable house plan from scratch requires hard, thoughtful, informed work. The requirements for practicality tend to control floor plan layout, and every single requirement has to be remembered and met in some way. That’s why if you look at many house plans, they start to look alike.

The third rule is that a house design should meet certain standards for appearance and utility. For example, the tops of windows and the tops of doors on a given side of a house should all be at the same level. If you see a house that happens to violate that rule, you will probably think something looks odd even if you aren’t consciously aware of what the problem is. Ignore that rule and the next buyer swill probably feel some level of discomfort when they look at the house, and discomfort doesn’t sell houses.

The next rule is that a house should be designed for its location. (This is actually such an important rule that it should probably be No. 1.) A house on a slope should probably have a basement. If the slope is steep, the house should probably have a linear layout with the short axis aligned with the slope. If it’s in a hot climate, the roof overhang should be deep enough to provide shade for windows and the sides of the house. If it’s in a cold or even moderate climate, windows should be concentrated on the south-facing side. If there’s a view, put some windows so you can see it.

As a result of Robin’s comment, I came back here to add an important rule as a corollary to the preceding rule. In a climate that requires some heating, taking advantage of the sun’s energy just makes sense. There’s something really satisfying about sitting in a sunny room and being nice and warm when it’s freezing and the wind is blowing outside — and the heat never comes on. Even if a house is not specifically designed as a passive solar house, if the site conditions allow it, there should be windows that can gather some of the sun’s heat in the winter. The slope on our new property prevent having the house face due south as I would prefer. Doing so would introduce features that we’re trying to eliminate, like very high eaves. But we’re going to put deep windows on the southeast and southwest sides to get as much sunlight as we can.

The next rule is that every plumbing fixture should be as close as possible to a water heater. Many (most?) house plans I have looked at ignore this rule because it’s just so convenient to scatter bathrooms all around the house. Put the master bath at one end and the guest bath (or kids’ bath) at the other end, with the kitchen somewhere in between. If the floor plan does that, some provision must be made to get hot water to every outlet quickly, or someone ends up waiting too long for hot water. There are ways to get around it, like recirculating pumps and on-demand heaters, but they tend to cost more. The best plans have a plumbing core, with kitchen, bathrooms and laundry room centered close to the water heater.

The next one is tricky. If you want a 1500-square-foot house, and you want rooms that add up to 1500 square feet, you can’t just draw a rectangle that’s 30 feet by 50 feet.Walls have thickness. Exterior walls are at least six inches thick, and interior walls are around five inches thick. You can either have a 1500-square-foot footprint and smaller rooms, or rooms that add up to 1500 square feet and a larger footprint, not both.

I have some personal rules, or at least inclinations. One is that I don’t like halls; they waste space that could otherwise be used for rooms. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to avoid halls, and I haven’t figured out a way to get around using them. Another is that bathroom walls should be sound-proofed or the bathroom should be located so that the walls don’t adjoin living spaces, especially living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens.

There are so many rules that it’s hard to list them. You know some of them, but you might not be aware of them. For example, every time you enter a room, you expect to find a light switch at a certain height and location next to the entry. If there are two exits for a room, like a living room or kitchen, you’re going to expect to be able to turn off lights at each exit so you don’t have to feel your way through a dark room. When you walk into the house and take your coat off, you’re going to look for some place to hang it up. Vacuum cleaners, sheets and towels need storage.

It’s hard to meet all the requirements even if you know about them. Our current house doesn’t meet all of them. For example, we don’t have a plumbing core. The guest bathroom is out in Siberia, so I end up washing my hands with cold water when I use it. I don’t like a plan that makes it look like you live in a garage with a house attached as an afterthought. Our house looks exactly like that; the first thing you see when you pull into the driveway is the garage.

I have tried to keep the rules in mind while designing our next house. The garage in our next house will be hidden at the back. Our next house will have the plumbing fixtures closer to the water heater, although we won’t quite have a plumbing core. I changed the placement of the master bedroom and living room to take advantage of a view that I didn’t realize we would have.

Last night I thought I was finished with all but the details and was in the process of making a model of the house with foamcore boards. And then when I was taking a shower and thinking about this post, I realized that I had violated my first rule. I had planned for a deck on the front of the house that would have no ground access, which had necessitated putting the main entry on the least accessible side of the house. I realized that layout would look ridiculous, if not crazy, to anyone else. And Leah didn’t like it either.

So now we’re going to have access to the ground from the front deck, and a front door that is actually on the front of the house. Once I got to that point, several problems I was working with suddenly disappeared.

It seems that the rules actually have a reason behind them.

Surprise success

It looks like our search for a building lot is over, and I’m surprised.

Leah and I have been looking for property to build a house so we can sell our current house, which is too large and requires more maintenance than I’ll be comfortable doing much further into the future (like next month). We had narrowed our choices down to four, and then two pieces of property in this general area. Both of the semifinalists are easy walking distance from our house. The closest property is within sight of our mailbox.

The owners of that property had paid a lot for the lot, at least for this type of rural property in this region, so they were asking a lot, although less than their purchase price. We had intended to use the proceeds from the sale of Leah’s parents’ house for the land purchase, but the proceeds turned out to be less than we hoped. We called our neighbor real estate broker and asked him to give the owners an offer anyway. We had an absolute limit that was nearly 40 percent less than the asking price. After a few days, the owners agreed to sell at that price.

We never expected the owners to take our offer; it was just too low. I had already started doing mental site preparation on the second of the two pieces of property. That property could have been bought for less than we had budgeted, so it was easy to make the mental transition.

Now I’m having to make a second transition, back to the original property we considered. Once it’s ours, we’ll walk the property lines and find the center, where we expect to locate the house. We’ll get our level out and see how much slope there is and whether we’ll have to have a basement. (Leah doesn’t want a basement. I’m neutral.) We’ll figure where a driveway goes. There will be much use of a chainsaw and an axe during this period, along with a 100-foot tape measure, yellow tape, and actual, physical marker pins.

Then we’ll start looking at house plans. Once my mother’s house sells, we’ll start construction. We hope to get a lot done, but the rest will have to wait till we’ve sold our current house. At that point, we should have a driveway, well, septic system and a temporary power drop at the new site, plus perhaps the foundation and some additional work. Once our house sells, we’ll move our travel trailer up to the building site and live there while we finish construction.

Leah is not looking forward to this, and, to be honest, it will be inconvenient. To say the least. But it will be a strong incentive to keep the construction moving along.

Right now the broker is preparing a contract. Unless something goes wrong, we will soon end up owning five acres down the street, and we’ll be looking at starting a process that will be long and a little intimidating.

I contracted our current house, and did a significant amount of manual labor during construction, including a good deal of site prep, digging and framing footing forms, moving and packing dirt and gravel, putting in the subgrade sewer lines and acting as the framer’s helper. My brother and I lifted many five-gallon buckets of concrete into a 10-foot-tall form where the wood burning stove hearth is in the basement. I contracted the plumbing rough-in, the electrical work, and the floors. Then with some help from family and friends, I finished the interior: paint, stain, trim, doors, bathroom vanities, toilets, and sinks. So I have a pretty good idea of what the process will be like.

That’s both good and bad.


All hands on deck

Our deck has not weathered well. Many of the boards are warped and cracked (which might apply to me, too). Since I’m in the middle of some much-needed exterior maintenance, I decided it was time to replace some of the decking.

There are three problems. The first is that the current boards are tongue-and-groove, the result of a not-so-great idea by my framer. That means I have to run a circular saw down the joint between the boards to free them up to remove them.

The second problem is that the boards are nailed rather than screwed, which is also the result of my framer’s practices (plus the fact that he apparently didn’t have a good drill to use for deck screws). Deck nails tend to rust in place, which makes them hard to extract. Each nail is a little mini-project in itself.

The third problem is that tongue-and-groove two-by-sixes use some of their width for the tongue and groove, leaving the exposed face between a quarter and a half inch narrower than a standard two-by-six. That means that every new deck board has to have a thin strip ripped off the edge. Twenty boards by 12 feet means I have to rip about 240 feet of pressure-treated lumber. My father’s old table saw bogs down severely on every inch I rip. Ripping each board is a somewhat bigger mini-project in itself.

In the two hours (selected carefully so that they would be in the hottest part of the day) I worked Sunday afternoon, I got three boards down. I takes somewhat longer to get all the nails out than it does to rip the board, and I have to do it all on my hands and knees.

Here are the five new boards I installed over the last two days, along with some of the shards of tongues and grooves plus other assorted chunks of wood removed during the nail extraction process. The missing stiles will be replaced and stained some day.


Our spindly tomato plant makes a cameo here, too.

The deck faces due south, a real advantage for solar gain in the winter. Unfortunately, solar gain also works well in the summer, too. Since having a heart problem diagnosed last fall, I have been exercising enough that my weight went down from the upper 160s to the upper 150s. I have been weighing around 157 to 159 each night. This afternoon when I stopped working on the deck, I weighed 150. That means I lost nearly a gallon of fluid in two hours Sunday afternoon. It was 82 F up on the mountain. I don’t know what would have happened if it had been 92 as it has been for the last few days.

I had three glasses of iced tea with supper. I am now planning on one Shock Top Belgian White as a finishing touch. I’ll probably be completely rehydrated by tomorrow around noon, just in time to start working on the deck again.