Sunday, January 31, 2010

solar system rails

An exciting goal was accomplished this week at the building site.

:: It started with the scaffolding

:: Next, an eave extension was built. Along with many other mysterious errors in the tower, the roof was several inches too short for the PV panels and had to be extended.

:: Then, drip edge custom made by our local sheet metal guy (I'll hook you up if you need a reference — he's not on the web), fancy waterproof breathable roof underlayment, and galvanized steel rolled sheet metal roofing was installed.

:: Special aluminum rails made just for holding solar panels are cut with precision

:: Stainless steel bolts and aluminum L-feet are measured precisely and installed on the ground

:: Then the whole assembly is carted up the roof and L-feet are bolted to the rafters of the roof

:: A whole set of racks is installed all the way up the roof to hold our entire system

:: And here we are!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

small scale building

I am thrilled to announce that my darling Boy Builder is back at home. He had a magical and inspired 2 week (2 weeks, oh my!) visit with his grandparents (all 4 of them!) and came home refreshed, grown up, wiser, more independent, and so happy to be home. It was hard for all of us at times, but I'm really proud of my little boy for doing such a Big Thing. His world expanded in ways we could never have orchestrated at home and he's got a new air of confidence that makes a Mama's heart sing.

We've all been busy catching up on hugs and kisses and snuggles since his arrival last night — and getting accustomed again to the constant chatter of this little one. Do other Mamas find themselves having a hard time staying right there when dinner is a little late or it gets to be a certain time of night? Whew! But I love, love, love all the little stories and observations of his travels and his relationships with his grandparents that come sputtering forth over the course of a day.

Eden wasted no time getting busy with his at home projects today. We were stranded without wheels and I had competent help at the building site so we stayed home to play and do office work. Just what the recently returned traveler needed.

By mid-morning he had out drawers and drawers of Playmobil and all the blocks in the house, all arranged in beautiful scenes and stories that meandered all day. At day's end, when I insisted we clean up at least some of his creations so we could walk through the house without hurting ourselves or breaking his toys, Eden got down on his belly for a little photo shoot. I loved watching the concentration of his pose as he photographed his creations just how he wanted to.

Looking at his work, I am struck with how the very fabric of this little boy's life is stitched with the language, the work, the art of building. He has an instinct for this vocation that not many have. I look forward to seeing what he builds as he grows. And I can't wait to have him back at the building site. It's been a bit lonely (albeit more productive!) without him.

{please pardon the blurriness here, but i just loved the perspective and composition}

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

more Up

Today started out snowy and I spent the morning on the phone and computer ordering material for the next stage of the building project, as well as catching up with some dangling Heliocentric tasks.

Once I made it to the site, things seemed to sort of putter along, fixing tool problems and finding things. Grr... Then (then!) I finally completed a task I've been itching to get done for weeks.

This looks pretty normal, right? Sawing with power tools. I've got on my hearing protection, you'll note. Mostly this scene is very passé on a construction site.

Let's take a look at this scene from a slightly different angle:

{please forgive the camera phone image quality}

If that picture makes it look like I'm hanging out in the middle of the air 20+ ft up, it's because I sort of am. (Before you have a panic attack, look carefully, I am wearing a safety harness and rope.)

A corner rafter that was left untrimmed and has prevented me from finishing the roof insulation in that corner of the roof. It's been driving me crazy and I haven't been able to get anyone on the site to fix it. So... today I put my new scaffolding building skills to use and got myself out in the middle of the air and cut it!

Yay for completed tasks and dealing with fear of heights!

Monday, January 25, 2010


There's been a lot of Up lately at the building site. Lots of On Top of Things and Climbing and Sloping Surfaces. I have discovered that this is not my favorite part of the building process. Before building my own house I had no idea I had an issue with heights... but, it turns out I do.

So, how do I deal with it? Well, I climb around on things anyway. And, I use a rope and harness more frequently than some of my colleagues do, but I don't apologize for that. And, while we're being truthful here, sometimes I ask other people to do things that are high in the air when I could do them myself... but they need something to do anyway, right?

Today, I suppressed my fear of heights and got out of my comfort zone — and outside the walls we've built 25 feet in the air — and built some scaffolding. Soon we will be installing the solar panels on our roof and we need scaffolding to do it. How did I build scaffolding having never done this before, you wonder? Well, first off I had a helper from Craigslist — how did people ever do anything before Craigslist???

1. We cut holes in the sheathing over the window openings.
2. We stuck 4 very long 2x6s on end out the windows.
3. We solidly nailed another 2x6 to the framing in the room across the top of the 2x6s sticking out the window.
4. We nailed 2x4s over top of the boards sticking out the window at the window opening.
5. Just for good measure, we nailed another 2x6 to the framing across the 2x6s out the windows.
6. We sent some 4 long 2x4's out the window and nailed them across the top of the 2x6s for support. Next we'll put some 1 1/8" plywood planks on top of that for a place to stand and work.

I can hear you asking "Where are the pictures of all this?" Well, due to technical difficulties I'll have to add the pictures to this post tomorrow. So sorry!


OK, technical difficulties resolved.

Here is the finished scaffolding from the outside (please forgive the poor quality of this phone camera image):

{can you see the scaffolding poking out from the tower way up there?}

And here's what the scaffolding looks like looking out from inside:

Here is the scaffolding in action:

Sunday, January 24, 2010

big snow

Productivity on my house has been curtailed this week by BIG SNOW. This season so far has been incredibly mild and we've been lucky to get to work through so much of the winter, but this week was different.

I'm sorry for the poor quality of this picture, but I didn't have my camera when I trudged in through 2.5 feet of new snow to get some tools at the building site. I took this picture with my phone:

Big snow like this is a whole-body experience. It fills up your every sense (as well as your snow boots).

:: It SOUNDS like quiet and hush; heavy moisture mutes all sound. But when you stop to listen, there are birds, incredibly enough. You also hear the insect drone of snowmobiles and diesel putter of snow plows all up and down the canyon going strong. And when you live just minutes from two ski resorts like I do, there's the jarring staccato of endless rounds of dynamite launches and the thundering reverberations of the avalanches the dynamite triggers, clearing the danger for paying customers in bounds at the ski resort. It can sound a bit like a war zone at times.

:: It LOOKS like endless whiteness. All texture is swallowed by deep snow. Tracks are covered in minutes. It becomes hard to discern up and down. The air around you even becomes a nondescript gray mass and it becomes difficult to judge distance.

:: It SMELLS crisp and clean. Not so metallic as a rainstorm because there's not the ozone in the air from the lightning. It's hard to smell anything very well, though, because sometimes your nose hairs sort of freeze together. It smells washed clean. The clean smell gets interrupted, however, by clouds of fumes from snowmobiles and snowplows.

:: It TASTES like cold and wet, so feathery you almost don't notice it landing on your tongue. There are few pleasures more primally satisfying than catching falling snow on your tongue.

:: It FEELS like moving in a dry lake. Snow is of course made of water, but the snow in my part of Utah is "dry." There is lots of air between the flakes, which creates our famous Utah powder which is so fun to ride. I think the moisture content of typical powder snow is something like 3 or 4%, meaning if you melt a full 3 gallon bucket of snow you wind up with about 1 cup of water. So, the snow is somewhat dry, but it also doesn't have any holding power. So you sink to your thighs and waist in the untrodden. Moving in big Utah snow is a little like swimming in a dry, cold lake with 4 layers of clothing and big boots on. It's very hard work!

We are supposed to continue getting more snow this week, but just little snow. Not Big snow. So, hopefully I can get right back at it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

working for a living

Building a house takes money. Lots more of it that you would imagine. So, sometimes this family building team has to take a time out from the action at our own building site and work on someone else's house for a while to earn the money to build ours. Usually, Troy manages that aspect and I continue to manage our build, but this week I've had to spend a bit a time working.

Our business is Heliocentric and we do all the engineering (and some contracting) to make buildings more energy efficient. We bring science to green building is our slogan.

Here I am last week installing the support structure for solar thermal panels on a client's house:

Today I'm off to 2 different client's houses to work on their HVAC systems, the duct supply store, and to sell a high efficiency window job. Busy day! Troy's giving a lecture on building science to the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, among other things.

I'll check back in soon with reports on our own building project.

Monday, January 18, 2010

mama builder fashion 101: winter

:: It starts with pigtails. They cover if you haven't bathed in a few days (ahem), and they keep your hair out of the way while still keeping your neck warm. On really cold days, I forego pigtails and just let the hair hang, caring little for how dirty my hair started out or will get.

:: Next, the first layer of long underwear. I'm a HUGE fan of Smartwool, but my pocketbook not so much, so I don't get this pleasure every day.

:: Then, some long, warm socks, over the long underwear for comfort and to keep out drafts.

:: Next the second long underwear shirt, usually with a zip collar, just to vent a little if it gets warm (like in the 40s!).

:: Next comes the crazy yak wool double knit sweater and rib knit sweater pants I purchased in Xining, China many years ago. Xining is on the edge of the Tibetan plateau at 7,400 ft, a launching point for further adventures at 11,000 and 12,000 ft, so they seemed an especially practical purchase at the time. There have been many times since that I wondered whether I'd ever need them again outside of Qinghai province, but these things are the bomb!!!

:: Over all that goes the Carhartt insulated bib overalls. The only thing these are missing is a hammer loop.

:: Then, before I head out the door I pop on a hat, my Baffin insulated boots (they fit under the bibs), insulated gloves, and, if it's really cold, my D.I. down jacket and a scarf.

Here's what the ensemble looks like:

A fashionista I am not, but a comfortable, warm mama builder I am!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

to and from

In winter, the roads in our neighborhood are not plowed. So, we park off the main road and travel by other means to our property, about 1/4 mile from the vehicle.

Sometimes we get there like this:

Many times we have to carry things and we travel like this:

There are even occasions when Eden manages to talk me into a sweet ride like this:

the part you can't see is that I am the sled-dog in this arrangement

Sometimes those of us with better balance carry things in with smooth moves like this:

Occasionally, when the load is large we try to fire up our 30 year old snowmobile we paid $50 for to get the load in:

But, mostly, this is how we get to and from:

I wish I'd had my camera on me today. I'll try to paint a picture with words. Imagine a sled, constructed of 2x4s and old skis. Strapped to the top of it is 424 pounds of 16 ft 2x12 and 2x10 lumber. Then picture in your mind's eye two totally crazy 20-something thrill seeking kick-ass skiers riding this contraption down the hill to our house. Yeah. I wish I had my camera.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

heavy hearts

Little pieces of our hearts have flown off to Haiti to be with the devastated people there, as I'm sure has happened in your family, too. Somehow this huge tragedy is made all the more poignant by the fact that Haiti was already such a hard place to live, even before this calamitous earthquake.

Many years ago, in collaboration with a Haitian friend of ours, Troy designed a solar water system for a Haitian village that was suffering due to lack of irrigation water to grow food. Unfortunately, the project was never built as the funding dried up. But, ever since, we've felt a little draw to Haiti and planned to complete the project. Now that the majority of the infrastructure in the entire country is destroyed, it might be a good time to pick that project back up to bring safe irrigation and drinking water to those who remain and carry on. I'll keep you posted on how that project goes and how you might be able to help.

In the meantime, hold your own families a little closer, send love, light, and prayers to those in need in Haiti, and, if you have the means, donate money to the organizations doing work right now to relieve the suffering.

Partners in Health
Doctors without Borders
International Red Cross

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

my baby's gone...

My baby's all growed up! (sniff, sniff)

{Insert bluesy, wailing, rockin' music here, like this tremendous rendition of My Baby's Gone featuring Fleetwood Mac, Buddy Guy, and more.}

I will have to manage the housebuilding project by myself for 2 weeks because Eden is on vacation! I just escorted him to Las Vegas airport today to meet up with his grandmother who is taking him to Florida for fun in the sun. Here they are boarding the plane:

This building project has been hard on all of us. Grueling hours, tough physical labor, very little time off. When E got the offer from his generous and caring grandparents for an all-expenses-paid vacation to Florida and Arizona, we couldn't turn it down.

I must admit, my emotions are complex. On the one hand, I'm thrilled that my boy is so brave and grown up and independent. He's been nothing but unequivocally thrilled about this trip since it was suggested. On the other hand, he's my baby! And 2 weeks is a freaking eternity! The longest he's been away from us in the past is one overnight here in Utah that was less than 24 hours.

I'll miss him, but I plan to make the most of this break and get all sorts of things done that are harder to do when he's here. I plan to get the house closed in enough to heat it and turn on the plumbing so when he gets back things are easier at the building site. Oh, and I also plan on going on a few dates with my husband! ;)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Something is seriously wrong with our Water karma.

First, there was the 2-year HOA Water Connection Fee Fiasco that nearly drove me out of my mind and out of the canyon.

Then, there was the HOA Water Meter Debacle of 2009 that I think did the trick and actual sent me out of my mind.

Next, there was the Water Line Freezing Event: Winter 2009.

After that was the Sewer Line Freezing Event: Winter 2009.

Today: The Flood of Winter 2010. The neighbor of the place we are renting while we build our new house was refilling his hot tub and left it running. The water pressure is really good and water came pouring down the hill, down the side of the building, and straight over the threshold and under the door. It flooded the entire place in less than the 15 minutes it took me to figure out where the water was coming from and turn it off.

Luckily, I found the source quickly, got it off quickly, the landlord and the neighbor were both nearby and available with a powerful shop vac and other tools and hands to get the water cleaned up. And luckily, it's all concrete floors and we didn't have much on the floor so damage should be minimal to none. Whew!

But what a lot of drama! I've been working so hard to get my own house closed in so I can heat it so I can turn on the plumbing and have running water and functioning toilet. I really want to do this, but should I be scared?

Who are the Gods of Water anyway? And what sort of offerings can we make to get them off our case?

(Sorry for lack of photos. I was too busy getting the water turned off and cleaned up to pick up the camera. The visual of Eden with his long underwear hiked up above his knees and his big snow boots on sweeping water out the front door with a broom was priceless.)

Friday, January 8, 2010


Rather than Thanking Goodness It's Friday, today we're Thanking Goodness Injuries were Fended off! Take a look at these pictures and you'll see what I mean:

{they're 30 ft off the ground on a roof with a 50° pitch — and wouldn't wear the harnesses and ropes I kept thrusting at them!}

{not so dramatically off the ground, but hanging onto a 6" snowy ledge over a narrow crevasse}

Today was sunny and beautiful. I spent most of my day organizing and cleaning. We got the sheathing put on the tower roof, support wedges glued in below the rafters, and some of the sheathing put on the larder room, as well as all the trash taken out (quite a project!). It was a relatively productive day.

Tomorrow, we finish foaming and sheathing the roof (and, hopefully, replace the ugly blue tarp)!

P.S. Thank you to Davey & Beth who have lent us a different heater, thus making the foaming tomorrow possible!

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Many, many years ago, before Troy and I were a Papa and a Mama Builder, we were dreaming and scheming about our future together. While imagining our life together, when it was still a new idea that there was an us and that our futures would be together, Troy mentions that he wants to build a house. I heartily agree, not having the slightest understanding of what exactly I was agreeing to.

Fast forward about 8 years. We are now a Mama and a Papa with a toddler (but not builders yet) and we are looking for a place to live after returning from a year in China and having a baby. Papa convinces Mama with oh so much sensibility and rationality that building a house would be soooo much better than buying a house because we could have exactly what we want and buying a house to remodel would be just as much work after all. As I often am, I was completely swayed by the logic, the sensible rationale, the overall prudence of this approach.

And then, the clincher of the deal, our dream lot in a neighborhood we had lived in years before came up for sale. And, miracle of miracles, the price was affordable!

Here is a picture of all three of us with Oma visiting our lot in early summer of that year. Do you see how little E is? I'm not sure what I'm squinting at – perhaps a scarcely imaginable future I'm trying to get a better look at?

There was a moment of extreme panic on the part of me, the Mama Builder on the day we went to sign the papers to buy the lot. I sat in the car with my nursing toddler and tried to picture this life in the mountains out of town, building a house with my baby on my hip, spending all this money all at one time and I just couldn't muster the imagination for it. It sounded scary and difficult and I wasn't sure I was cut out for this life. Papa Builder once again assured me with irrefutable logic and reason and painted a beautiful picture of building a house as a family. I calmed down long enough to sign the papers. This was the summer of 2005. Here are Papa and Baby Builder at my birthday celebration at our lot in September, just a few weeks after signing on the dotted line:

Since that summer, I have dived in head first, learning the ropes of home design and construction; how to do it all with a baby on my hip, a preschooler toddling behind, or a big kid right in the middle of things; how to live in extremely varied circumstances with most of our things in storage; how to work in a male-oriented industry while (mostly) keeping my sanity.

Papa Builder has dreamed of building his own house since childhood. What keeps me going is the vision of a home for my family, a refuge, a place for creativity and growth.

Here's to moving in in 2010!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


This morning Blackbeard wasn't feeling well. The cold weather was getting to him, I suppose.

We purchased Blackbeard in the Spring of 2007 from a Craigslist ad. We were just getting started with our building project and the $800 we spent on this 4WD beast was easily the best tool investment yet in terms of value per dollar.

Building involves a lot of transport of unwieldy, heavy, cumbersome stuff.

Here is a list of known problems Blackbeard has:
1. Missing grill
2. Bent fender
3. A fuel pump that mysteriously runs after the engine is switched off and you turn off with a Fonz-like whack to the side of the fender
4. A makeshift battery cable terminal because the original one occasionally would get a faulty connection due to excessive corrosion and the truck randomly wouldn't start
5. A missing knob for the windshield wipers (we keep a pair of vise grip pliers in the cab to turn the knob stem on and off)
6. Torn upholstery in the cab
7. Missing seals on the windows between the cab and the bed
8. A dented tail gate resulting from a 1000+ lb load of batteries crashing into the tail gate one time
9. Missing/broken hydraulics for the shell back window (I've been hit on the head more than once by the window crashing down on me and it hurts!)
10. Broken handle to the tail gate so that now it won't open (will have to get this fixed ASAP)
11. And, now, an engine that won't start when too cold and wet

Despite this long list of problems, the truck has many terrific features:
1. It came with a shell that makes carrying most loads a lot less trouble because I don't have to tie them down.
2. The 4WD works well and the truck has enough power for all we need it to do.
3. It has a working radio and cassette tape deck which we put to great use listening to books on tapes on long days of errand-running.
4. It's big and ugly and imposing and people get out of my way when I drive it.

Ask me sometime to tell you about the time Blackbeard's drive shaft got twisted clean in half and I went to the Pick-n-Pull to get a new one and installed it in the driveway over a foot of snow and ice.

Here's to hoping Blackbeard starts up without a hitch tomorrow. Long live Blackbeard!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

just breathe

Today started out promising enough. Here was the view from our door this morning:

The weather promised to be "warm" (high 30s, low 40s), warm enough for putting the rigid foam insulation on our roof. This is an exciting step that makes me slightly giddy. It means I can stop worrying about the structural integrity of the roof when loaded with snow and means I'm one giant step closer to being able to heat the basement and have a less cranky child.

So said child and I head out with optimism after the requisite 6-year-old complaining session, bowls of oatmeal, and mama builder's cup of morning tea. Here is optimistic us:

Things started to go south when we arrived and E discovered that his sled was at the building site and not in the truck. Oh the disasters of childhood! The crisis was averted and indignance and anger were soothed.

The crux of the building problems surrounded a malfunctioning propane heater that I was counting on to keep the Instastik foam glue warm so that it would dispense properly, allowing us to properly install the foam to the roof sheathing, thus allowing the second layer of wood sheathing to attach to the foam to create a rigid, structural insulated panel that will provide the structure for our roof that will support the 4000 lbs of metal that will eventually be screwed to the top. And all this must be done in above freezing temperatures (today) and tomorrow has cold and snow predicted. This primary frustration was fueled by the fact that I was hungry, dehydrated, don't yet have a decent place to pee unobserved, was caring for a whiny 6 year old who was just having an all around tough morning, and was super sore from moving around heavy stuff (the main task of building as far as I can see).

The day, however, was somewhat salvaged by the tower roof getting closer to completion. Here's crew members attaching blocking and collar ties to the rafters:

A wise crew member advised me that frustrating days are best addressed with lots of deep breathing.

In... Out... In... Out...

One of those days when I am forced to confess my reluctance at this project, but I try to keep the vision of what I am building in mind. I am building a future, a shelter, a home for my family.

Monday, January 4, 2010

heading home

Today was a big day. 
~ Lots of moving of heavy stuff in the snow (this is the part of building that no one really talks about, but is the most energy and time consuming part of the whole process)
~ More foam on the roof
~ Untangled electrical cords
~ Innumerable tools and supplies located and retrieved
~ Blocking on the eaves cut and nailed in place
~ Lots of plastic sheeting stapled
All 3 of us were able to be there today.
This is the vista that sent us home at the end of the day. Weary, hungry, thirsty, and satisfied. This is why we do this.

Friday, January 1, 2010


This is my new year's resolution for the new decade: to write a blog about my adventures as a homemaker in photos and words. I hope you enjoy!