Friday, March 26, 2010

working from home

Papa Builder and I have owned our own business in one form or another since we started our life together in 1997. The current form of our business has been taking shape since 2002 after we returned from a year-long stint in China.

You'll note that the Boy Builder was born in 2003 and thus has been living in the throes of self-employment since his first day on the planet.

Sometimes, this living and working and playing and learning and growing at home is a challenge. Sometimes it's such a challenge that I throw up my hands, tear out my hair, and cry tears of frustration. But, truth be told, this is how humans have done things from the beginning. We have always worked and played and grown all at once, in the same place. And children have always, until very recently, been right there in the midst of things, learning the trade and talents of their parents and developing their own along the way.

And when I can have the perspective (and am willing to accept the influence of my sweet, smart husband), I can see what a really amazing thing it is for Eden to grow up with us, in all our chaos and craziness.

When we have conversations about problems we're trying to solve with work, Eden has always been right there and now that he's 6, he jumps right in with creative solutions. For example, here's a sketch of the outside of a theoretical showroom Heliocentric might one day have:

Eden's also the only kid I know who understands how solar power systems are put together, has opinions about brands of glycol, and knows how to use a refractometer. (Go ahead, look it up; I didn't know what one was until a few months ago myself.)

Working from home is on my mind because I've been doing a lot of it lately. Heliocentric has been short-handed and Mama Builder has had to hang up her coveralls on some days and sit at the computer and on the phone and in meetings with clients. It is reassuring to know that even on those days when it's the hardest to juggle all my many responsibilities that the Boy Builder is making out OK. Because, really, that's what it's all about.

The Sometimes Reluctant Business Maker

P.S. It's been snowing for 2 days and the Boy Builder insisted I leave the computer glow and head outside for some adventure this afternoon. We saw, buried under the layers of old snow and new snow green leaves! It felt like a magic leprechaun inspired treasure hunt! We were also scolded thoroughly by a blue jay for coming too close to its nest and found numerous magical tree shelters hidden behind curtains of "tree thicket", as Eden called it (can you tell we listen to lots of British children's literature?). There are some tangible advantages of working with a 6 year old. :)

Thursday, March 18, 2010


It's blowing snow outside this afternoon. This morning it was sunshine. This afternoon the temperature plummeted 20 degrees. Yesterday it was 50+ degrees.

Sure signs of spring.

Spring in the mountains is different from spring in the city. The signs are fleeting and transient. And covered in snow.

The other day we were down in the city and saw crocuses blooming. I came rushing up the canyon pointing my camera in every direction to capture signs of spring in our neighborhood. Here's what I found first:

This discouraged me for a few days and I put the camera away. On a sunny day, I found these signs in the snow pack.

The rippling on the surface of the snow is a sure sign of rising and inconsistent air temperatures and more hours of sunshine.

The forest critters are feeling the longer days and rising temperatures and beginning the frantic search for food that lasts all summer long.

But, really visual signs of spring are nearly impossible to capture. Spring arrives by hearsay more than the splendid ostentatious visual display I grew accustomed to in my youth in North Carolina.

When I walk into the building site now, I hear more birds. If I look carefully I can see some of them flitting about, pairing up for the mating season. James said he heard geese flying overhead as he came in the other evening, heading north for the summer. A neighbor said she saw a robin in a side canyon the other day. The mice have started to find their way into our house (ack!), arising from a winter of relative lethargy to look for food and warmth. We are shedding layers of clothing on occasion, soaking up the warm sun on our skin. And staying out later in the evenings with the change to daylight savings time.

But, the other day I did finally find one sign of spring that was willing to be captured on CCR. Can you make out the buds on those aspens?

Spring really is here, just wearing a different outfit than she does in other places.

Monday, March 15, 2010

the new neighborhood

Some of you have perhaps heard of some of the... shall we call it, quirkiness?... of some of our new neighbors. There have been moments when, admittedly, this reluctant homemaker has been reduced to tears and dreams of running far, far away from the nuttiness of living in the mountains by some of our more colorful neighbors.

Today was a refreshing reminder of the beautiful community I'm a part of here on our mountain. A neighbor held a baby shower for a soon to be mama due in a couple of weeks who lives just round the bend from my new house. There were no less than 8 lovely women from our neighborhood (among others) who gathered to wish this new mama well. We shared delicious food, fun companionship, and the sweet antics of the other wee ones in the neighborhood. Life is good!

Oh, and the party was inspiration for knitting project! I haven't knitted in ages and was thrilled for the opportunity. Here's the final product modeled by a coconut:

Eden helped me pick out the yarn and design the hat. I'm not a practiced knit pattern writer, but here's a stab at what I did to make this hat. Enjoy!

Newborn stripey top knot beanie
by Travis Harvey

Yarn: Cascade Fixation 1430 (Butter yellow), 3628 (Ripe strawberry red), 4448 (Melon orange), and 5184 (Spring green) — I made up the color names, as Cascade only identifies the colors by number.

Needles: Size 5, circular and double pointed needles, or whatever size needed to obtain gauge.

Gauge: 6 sts per inch, and 9 rows per inch

Size of hat: approximately 13-3/4" circumference to fit a newborn baby. The yarn is stretchy and soft and just perfect for little yummy newborn heads.

The Pattern
Cast on 80 stitches to circular needles. Join for working in the round.
Rows 1-3: *(K1, p1) in Butter yellow to end of row.
Row 4: K whole row in Ripe strawberry red.
Rows 5-7: K whole rows in Melon orange.
Rows 8-10: K whole rows in Spring green.
Rows 11-14: K whole rows in Butter yellow.
Repeat color pattern in rows 4-14 until piece measures 4 inches tall from brim.

Begin the decreases, continuing to follow established color pattern (except as noted below), and switching to double pointed needles as required.
Place a stitch marker at the beginning of the first row of decreases if you like, to help with counting.
(K8, ktog), repeat to end of round — 72 stitches remaining.
K round.
(K7, ktog), repeat to end of round — 64 stitches remaining.
K round.
(K6, ktog), repeat to end of round — 56 stitches remaining.
K round.
(K5, ktog), repeat to end of round — 48 stitches remaining.
K round.
(K4, ktog), repeat to end of round — 40 stitches remaining.

(About here, I was finishing a green section and I switched the pattern to run backwards. After the green, I did 3 rows of orange, 1 row of red, and then finished the crown off in yellow, so the top knot was yellow.)

K round.
(K3, ktog), repeat to end of round — 32 stitches remaining.
K round.
(K2, ktog), repeat to end of round — 24 stitches remaining.
K round.
(K1, ktog), repeat to end of round — 16 stitches remaining.
K round.
K round.
K round.
K round.
(ktog), repeat to end of round — 8 stitches remaining.
K round.
K round.

(ktog), placing all stitches on 1 double pointed needle — 4 stitches remaining.
K I-cord with remaining 4 stitches for 3 inches.
Tie off, cut ends, and weave in all ends.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

time out for civic activism

Today, Eden and I took a little field trip to the Utah State Capitol.
[his hair really was combed when we left the house]

Utah has a part-time legislature that is in session for 6 weeks every year beginning in mid-January and running through mid-March. It's a hectic time where all the bills for the whole year are debated and passed in one frantic, harried gauntlet. During the session, I send lots of emails to Utah representatives and senators, weighing in on the issues and bills important to us. I also try to take Eden up at least once during the session to get a glimpse of the democratic process in action.

Today, we volunteered to represent an issue close to our hearts (and lungs!) — Clean Air! Utah has a long-standing air pollution problem and I've been involved in one way or another with the cause for several years now. Here's a picture from January 2008 of Eden (4) and I boarding the bus to go testify against a new Nevada coal plant that would have affected Utah's air quality. We're holding posters we helped organize a bunch of local moms and kids to make so we could bring them to the hearing.
[Photo credit goes to Jim Westwater]

Here's our table at the Capitol today with one of the cause's #1 activists.

Eden thought the table needed just a little more targeted take on his position regarding clean air, so he worked for a while...

...And drew this poster to add to our display:
There's a lot going on in Eden's poster. The top half is dominated by a large coal plant sending lots of smog into the air. The coal plant is covered in Xs and there's a NO! Burning Coal admonition written below. To the right there are cars and trucks with Xs through them as well. On the left is a person walking and a person biking with checkmarks ticked on top. The bottom half of the poster is the "solution" part of the poster. It's a house with solar panels on top, powering some hanging lights and a computer for a person sitting up in the attic.

Eden was disappointed that more people didn't come to talk with us. He's really a skilled a charming advocate for causes he feels strongly about.

For me, community building and civic action are so closely related to shelter-building, sustainability, responsibility, and so many other values and projects I talk about here. Although this day was a bit different in character (and wardrobe!) from our typical days, it's all of a piece serving a greater whole.

I'd love to hear how you are participating in the democratic process or advocating for an issue you care about in your corner of the world. Please post in the comments!

Monday, March 1, 2010

doing it yourself: how to make a glulam

{In addition to the green building 101 feature, I've decided to add a doing it yourself feature as well. doing it yourself is a theme for our building project... and, who am I kidding, really our approach to life. We do lots and lots of things ourselves that other people hire out. And we sometimes do things ourselves just for the pleasure or curiosity of knowing how it's done or that we can do it. Because this theme is really a reflection of values we hold dear — self-reliance, sustainability, learning new things —  I thought I'd share some of what we've learned by doing things ourselves, in hopes that it might be useful or inspiring to someone else.}

The first step to making a glulam is knowing what a glulam is. A glulam is an engineered piece of wood made of glued, laminated timbers. One uses glulams in applications where more wood strength is needed than a standard timber of the same dimensions can provide.

We use a lot of glulams in our house. The ridge beam, the yoke beams, the beams supporting the upper floor, the beams supporting the crow's nest, and a big angled beam that will support the greenhouse.

The greenhouse portion of our house is going to be built using a modified timber moment frame construction technique. We will have 3-1/2" X 3-1/2" posts supported by a floor beam to spread the weight across the brittle masonry and supported horizontally by 3-1/2" X 3-1/2" beams that cross the posts. In between all these timbers will be left openings about 42" X 42" where we will install a glass framing system and insulated glass units to create a wall of glass like you would expect for a greenhouse.

The more typical construction material for moment frames is steel. Steel is super strong in rigidity, compressive strength, and shear strength in relatively small dimensional sizes and is relatively easy to connect and fabricate in all sorts of custom shapes and sizes. However, steel is also a much better thermal conductor than wood and our passive house design depends on eliminating thermal conduction of cold outside air to our warm house. Aluminum is also commonly used in small glass-faced structures like ours (think storefront windows at your local strip mall), but it is even more thermally conductive than steel.

Since we didn't want to use metal for the structural component of our frame, we chose wood as the next most available and cost-effective structural material that is much less thermally conductive. However, we also didn't want to fill the room with the huge unmodified timbers that would have been required to support our greenhouse, so we decided on an engineered wood option.

There are two primary kinds of engineered wood commercially available: glulams and laminated strand lumber products (LSLs, which are marketed under the brand names Timberstrand, LVL, and VersaLam and VersaStud, among others). Both these types of engineered wood products take advantage of the same engineering principle — more than one layer of wood laminated together can make a stronger timber than a non-engineered timber of the same dimensions.

Most of the glulams in our building were purchased from a local lumber shop who in turn got them from a local glulam manufacturer. However, the posts and beams for our greenhouse are a smaller dimension than any of the normally available glulams we can get at the lumber store or from the manufacturer. We could get the posts made out of LSLs, but the posts will be an important architectural element in our greenhouse and we wanted them to match up with the other timbers in our house.

So... the solution? Making our own glulams of the appropriate dimensions, of course! (This is a theme with our house — needing something critical for our home, not being able to find it, and having to make it ourselves.)

The first step of making the glulams was finding the lumber. We needed at least 6 lams per timber and a total of 3-1/2" thickness, which meant that the thickness of each lam needed to be about 5/8" thick. I tried buying 1" X 4" dimensional lumber (which is actually 3/4" X 3-1/2" in real size), but couldn't find them in the same species of wood that all the rest of our framing lumber was. We wanted to keep with our wood species theme, so we had to find another solution. We could find 2" X 4" dimensional wood in the same species, but that meant we had to "re-saw" the lumber. Maybe you remember this picture of us getting some help hauling in all that lumber:

So, re-saw we did. Re-sawing lumber is a challenging task. Because the wood is 3-1/2" thick in the dimension it needs to be cut. There aren't a lot of saws that can cut that deep and be controlled in the way that a long board like that needs to be controlled. The most common tool for re-sawing is the bandsaw. We tried the bandsaw and got at least 1 or 2 boards cut that way, but discovered our bandsaw was not really up to the task.

One of our clever workers created a jig to cut the boards with our fancy, plunge-cut circular saw that cuts 2-3/4" deep. He would cut one side and then turn the board over and cut from the other size. It's pretty much impossible to line the cuts up perfectly, so you can see that there's a sort of seam in the board.

After cutting all the boards down, the board were then thickness planed. Planing is a technique of running blades over a board to make them very, very smooth. Thickness planing also removes material from the board so you can end with the thickness you want. Planing is important so that the surfaces between the lams of wood can be perfectly joined with the glue. Here are some of the results of all this planing.

Next, we waited for a warm-ish day (mid-thirties in the day and mid-twenties lows predicted at night). On this warm day with the heater going, we painted each surface of the lams with weatherproof wood glue and piled 6 of them on top of each other. We painted these with a fairly thick layer of glue to make sure the surface bonding was impeccable.

After painting all these surfaces, but before the glue was set up, we would rush around with innumerable wood clamps getting all the lams perfectly stacked on top of each other and smooshed together so that the glue started to ooze out the seams, alerting us that the lams were adequately glued.

We then allowed the glue to partially set and transported the new glulam to our dry box. After this we went through the whole process all over again until we'd made all the 6 glulams we needed. The dry box was a slapped together invention of rigid foam insulation walls and ceilings and a simple frame to keep the glulams off the ground. We closed them up, aimed the heater on them, and kept them warm for the duration of the curing time.

Next, the newly cured glulams will be thickness planed in their composite state to get them all to the 3-1/2" X 3-1/2" final size.

And, that, friends, is how one makes a glulam. :)