Winter Building

I must be honest: this winter I’ve only gone out to help Dan on the house a handful of times. Blame the baby, the kids and the weather. But Dan has been out there in snow and sub-zero temperatures, faithfully plodding away. We try to keep him well fed and warm when he’s back in the kitchen- we’re holding down the fort.

Right now Dan is working on the floors. After leveling the gravel and laying vapour barrier he is putting in recycled styrofoam insulation- some 3 inch rigid and some old tree plug trays which we’re also using in some walls. We got them for pennies each and prevented them from heading to the landfill. 

On top of the styro he’s laying 2×4 floor joists. Attached to those will be radiant floor heating tubes, and then the whole thing will be filled in with sand to replace concrete as a thermal mass. It’s a bit of an experiment as nowhere have we seen this done. Laid on top if it all will be 1.5 inch thick reclaimed fir flooring. The pipes for the flooring will be run through a coil in the wood stove to heat them.  We are looking forward to having a toasty wood floor to stretch out on!

This is really the first winter since moving here that Zena and I haven’t spent every evening pouring over building plans. In our first few years we would hunker down in the shack with sharpened pencils and graph paper and sketch out version after version of our dream home. It changed a lot: at first we had a different building site, then our building priorities changed, some designs were un-buildable, or un-roofable, and finally Zane’s leaving the project meant another re-haul of the design. We created countless versions of “THIS IS IT!” designs, models and all. Though the process was time-consuming, I think we really got a sense of what we wanted in layout. We constantly referred to A Pattern Language (Alexander, Ishikawa, Silverstein) as well as other home building books (including The Hand-Sculpted House (Evans, Smith, Smiley), for advice and inspiration.

It was a relief when we finally settled on the ultimate design. We could finally then start the harder work of collecting materials (hours now on Used Victoria and Used Nanaimo), working out a loose budget, and figuring out the how-to-build part of it. Dan has done most of that; thankfully he has a math brain!

The main job that we girls were doing last fall was the cob wall. Cob is a mixture of sand, clay and straw which is piled onto a foundation and sculpted into thick walls. Our south wall is about 30 feet long and made all of cob. Thankfully we had a bobcat come in to mix up the cob (doing it by hand (or foot) takes forever) but we didn’t get it started until August last year and were not done when the temperatures started dropping in November. The last few feet that we did in the fall still are not dry as you can see in the photo.

So it goes without saying that we put a hold on adding more cob to the wall (despite the huge pile that we have mixed and tarped waiting). Now it’s just a matter of waiting for warmer weather to put up the last foot or two. Warmer weather will also allow us to proceed with the light-clay wall which circles much of the north side of the house.  So for now, we’ll continue to help Dan when we can, and keep on holding down the fort!


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