It’s as good a time as any for reflection.
6am, still dark outside in the northern hemisphere. I sit at the downstairs table beside a pinging wood stove. It’s beaming heat onto the cat, who’s a puddle of contentment.
We began this house project in 2006 with the enthusiasm and energy of young saplings reaching for the sky. Much of the material we needed we gathered from the townships around us in the spring, while we made 32 300 lb cornerstones (with celtic knot imprinted) out of concrete.
We bought a trailer to live in and another to work from, borrowed an old tractor to run an old buzz saw to cut the 1000 cedar rails we’d hauled out of overgrown fence lines (with permission) (see http://wp.me/pVQ5l-k for that photo of Grant using the buzz saw). We hired a marvelous young 15-year-old to live here and help us all summer (now forever part of the family, Stephan), lived outside, slept in an old trailer, and welcomed any help from whatever family and friend walked down the driveway.
By June we had settled into a routine – every weekday the hired crew would arrive at 9am and we’d haul ourselves back into the sawing and drilling and moving and hammering, into the ever-present roar of compressors, nail guns, skilsaws, buzz saws, mortar mixers, shovels, aggregate and questions.
We were resilient, engaged, enthralled, exhausted and, by October, overwhelmed.
Late fall 2006 the snow came early and sober reality began to replace our dogged enthusiasm: this is a big project; we will not be finished any time soon.
We were also feeling desperate for time without crew or volunteer help to host and manage. We learned the law of self-building projects: if you want the help to keep coming, anticipating and ttending to their needs must become your prime directive. This demands great planning, infinite patience, and positive support no matter what – by fall we were feeling a BIG need to focus a little more on remembering who we were and why we took this project on in the first place.
By then we had walls, a roof, and the skeleton of a space inside – cement floor, bare joists covered with sheets of 3/4 plywood, bales and bales of Roxl insulation waiting to be stuffed between rafters & studs, venting and vapor barrier to finish in the ceiling. I learned to love tuck tape. Inside doors and walls were blankets nailed to 2×4 frames, privacy was next to non-existent.
Our Gothic front door was covered by a sheet of 3/4 plywood and screwed shut against the cold. Outside there were electric blankets protecting fresh cordwood and mortar from freezing. In December, we watched in horror as a huge dozer pushed dirt into great mounds & tore up ash trees, just so we could flush our toilet. I know I wept.
We moved out of the trailer and into the house in January, when the in-floor-heating was turned on. I think our guy took pity on us – certainly the house was not completely sealed, but by then our boots were freezing to the trailer floor, which had no reliable heat.
What a relief. We cheered ourselves, camped in the midst of our construction chaos, that a mere six months before, none of what now sheltered us had existed. We now had a kitchen (tho no sink – we used the laundry tub), a new incredible, efficient woodstove to warm us, a toilet that flushed, a bathtub that filled with warm water, windows that were in their proper places (no wind or rain!!!), electricity to run the coffee pot, fridge and stove that worked and a roof to keep us dry.
Incredible, impossible, heady and empowering. Ha.
We did not live easily in the miracle, by any stretch. While the work on the house was rewarding (unlike with a reno, every improvement we made in our living space was done for the first time – always a celebration), it was very hard on all three of us psychologically. Internally I was desperately trying to hold on to my art, my love for language – tenacious about my commitment to accepting music gigs (That first summer I played and sang as one of a 3-member pit band for david sereda & Joan Chandler’s excellent debut musical Tom, about Tom Thomson the painter, who was born here). But work on the house dominated – we were still its servants, every waking minute. In 2007 I started digging a garden – that work brought me back to myself (pictures below). There’s something deeply old and comforting about communing with the soil under your feet, and introducing plants & nutrients there. For me, those weeks of digging anchored me here in this place – I became the garden, and the garden, me. We discovered we like one another.
My daughter was ten when we moved into the trailer – the difficult grade 7 & 8 years all happened with a house that was a construction site – I’m sure she’ll either need therapy or she’ll become the most adjustable adult on the planet. She always had pluck – after this experience, she’s got superpluck.
My husband was holding down a full-time government job, and coming home most nights to continue manifesting this project we called ‘home’. There are not many people who can do what he has done, and continues to do – envision, design, engineer, collaborate and build a place this unique, efficient and beautiful, while at the same time manage a career, and a business, and commit to competitive curling all winter (he’s really good).
2007: upstairs the ash floor is laid and finished (took 9 months), drywall installed, mudded, sanded and painted by Grant, stairs built, , cordwood continues – on north and east walls.
I started the garden that year while they were drywalling:
We threw a half-way-house party in November of the next year, when the second floor was in place, the drywall up, mudded, sanded, primed and painted, the stairs were installed, the kitchen sink was in, and the trailer was GONE. Woo hoo!
That was a GREAT party.
Every year since that first winter we have leaped ahead in some way, and burned out in others, only to rise again to push forward some more – the story only begins here. But that’s another post.
More to come. Thanks for reading.