The Straw House Blog


What’s happening this summer - inside

It’s going to be a busy summer.

Joanne is pregnant with #2, and so Gil is going to have to move out of the nursury, and into his own room. At the moment my office occupies the space that will be his room. The office has to go, the space needs walls, but before that the space needs a ceiling.

Here’s a view of the currrent floorplan along with notations.

  1. The new office. Just a long slim desk along the back wall. Simple clean, and I’m still working out how to hide the cables and computers
  2. Bedroom wall. This wall will be floor to ceiling bookshelves just like it’s opposite (bordering the master bedroom. The top area will be triangular pieces of sandblasted glass to let in light and maintain privacy.
  3. Bedroom wall. This wall will be clad with panel or drywall on the bedroom side and T&G cedar on the living room side. It will be built to move to expand the size of the bedroom when the time comes to break it into two rooms.
  4. Linen Closet. Lined with all of my leftover aromatic cedar
  5. Bedroom Door. We’re going need to enforce some privacy soon.
  6. Odd, there doesn’t seem to be a number six…
  7. This space is currently the nursury, but it is plumbed to be an ensuite. When competition for the main bathroom gets too fierce, we get our own.
  8. Walk-in closet. Lined with aromatic cedar. Staining is done, but it needs some trim and sliding doors.
  9. Front hall closet. Lined with aromatic cedar, it needs sliding doors, and some better shelves for seasonal storage.

Before the walls for Gil’s room can be built a ceiling must be installed.

The Ceiling

Many ideas have been floated for how to cover our ceiling. Right now it’s just vapour barrier over insulation. Functional, but not terribly attractive.

Drywall: We hate drywall. And installing it after you’ve moved in? On 2000 sq/ft of ceiling, I don’t think so.

Plywood: Nice concept, and I’ve seen it done well, but a huge amount of work, very tough to get the edges clean and straight, and very hard for two people to do, over their heads day after day. I’ve undertaken a fairly exhaustive search for pre-finished T&G plywood, and well, it doesn’t seem to exist. I can get prefinished, but it’s VERY expensive. Or I can get T&G but it’s used for subfloors and is very rough.

Tongue and Groove Wood: Similar to what you’d use for flooring. It’s expensive if you buy pre-finished, but unfinished Western Red Cedar is not too bad. VERY nice looks, somewhat expensive. Now I’d rather use my own wood, but my cedar is way too knotty to use for a ceiling, not to mention that most of the cedar I have right now is slated to be used in decks. I have some maple, ash and black cherry, but nowhere near the quantities I’d need for the ceiling, and it won’t be dry for a couple of years if I don’t get a kiln built. Then there is the work involved in planing, jointing, routing and finishing 2500 sq/ft worth of hard wood. I don’t mind doing the work, but I don’t see having that kind of time in the forseeable future. As the old addage of freelance work goes, “You either have money or time. You never have both.”

What we’re concentrating on now is the back ceiling, the ceiling over the bedrooms and open area. The ‘hallway’ and gallery will likely be done the same way. But I have greater ambitions for the front part of the house. I thought I’d share a few of my inspirational images with you.

Oh man, what a ceiling. We can’t pull off something that daring, we don’t have the space to allow a drop like that, but I’m seriously thinking that a wave effect, done with straight boards could be very effective as well.

Eventscape makes cool tensioned fabric errr… things. Layered I think it would be very cool as a ceiling, but probably expensive.

Yes, that is industrial felt. Great because it’s rigid enough to hold a shape, and it absorbs sound. A big consideration when you’ve built a house that’s largely open concept, and more than somewhat reflective.


October Update

It’s been a pretty busy fall around here, we had the OSBBC house tour right at the beginning of the month, I’ve been very busy with various work projects and Joanne’s maternity leave has come to an end and she has returned to work.

Aside from my regular work (which has been going very well, thanks for asking) I just recently built a custom 6’ long version of my dining room light for Eurolite. I was somewhat apprehensive at first, I didn’t think it was going to come out very well, I was worried that the proportions would all be off, plus it would have to be hung from four wires rather than two. In the end though I was very pleased with the results, if I had enough plastic I would probably build another one for myself. There are some images of the custom fixture on the lights page.

The Tour

Given the weather (it poured rain most of the day) the tour went quite well. We had fewer people than we expected but still had around 75 people over the course of the day. Mom was on the door, Dad helped with tours, Simon and J.P. from Generation Solar, Peter Mack from Camel’s Back Construction, and Paul Dowsett from Scott Morris Architects were all answering questions, showing people around and handing out business cards by the fist-full. Surprising (to me anyway) was that the majority of people who came through the house had read the blog, many of them from the very beginning.

Afterwards we had a nice BBQ, Tina, Steven & Laurie & Malaika, and Regis (from the Paudash Lake house I worked on) all came by, a pleasant visit was had by all.

Final Grading

We have finally completed the final grading around the house, Eric was here last week and the week before dumping topsoil around the house and leveling it back out. The ICF"s are covered and the west and north sides are backfilled with topsoil. The east side of the house has been built up with gravel/sand from our pit - since we are building a deck on that side we didn’t see any point in buying topsoil.

The Floor

Dan Peel was here again working on the radiant floor system and it looks like we have finally got all of the kinks out of the system. We had been having a series of problems where the various aquastats on the hot water tank couldn’t read the temperature of the water inside the tank accurately and as a result the floor would rob all of the heat from the tank. This always seemed to happen right as we were about to shower and you wouldn’t find out there was no hot water until 5 minutes into the shower - and only then would the boiler come on. Over the course of last winter we also had two broken pumps and a malfunction in the boiler that kept it running for one month non-stop (before we clued in), these problems masked the underlying aquastat issues until spring of last year. But by then the sun was out more frequently so we decided to spend the summer thinking about the problem and Dan suggested drilling a hole through the side of the tank cover, through the insulation and placing a temperature prob right up against the stainless tank insert. That seems to have done the trick. We’ve had almost no solar gain for over a week now and the house has been quite comfortable. Thanks Dan!

Site Update

I recently purchased a Kill-A-Watt, which is a meter that shows how much power in Watts and Amps a device uses over time. It can also display Volt Amps (VA), Power Factor (PF), Kilowatt/Hours (KWH) and time (how long it has been plugged in). It has no data logging built in, while it is plugged it works, unplug it and it loses all data.

So I’ve been wandering around the house plugging all of my various tools and gadgets into the Kill-A-Watt and compiling a list. The list is ongoing but I have added in the values of the various lights around the house and posted it in the house section: Load Chart. As I measure more devices I will add them to the chart, right now it’s mostly just the power tools, and computers.



Interior Pictures of the House

These interior pictures of the house are pretty much the same as the ones that appeared on MocoLoco, but larger and with additional captions.

Aside from from the ceiling and some minor pieces of trim the front part of the house is finished, or at least as finished as it is going to be for the foreseeable future. The ceiling is a whole other matter. Right now it is nothing more than vapour barrier over insulation.

There are a variety of options available and the debate revolves around the inevitable nexus of cost, appearance and trouble. The normal, obvious choice is sheetrock (drywall), but I hate drywall, I’m not adept enough at mudding to do it over my head, and even professionals are going to make an unholy mess when it comes to that stage. One problem with open concept is that it is very hard to contain dust. Once it’s up it needs to be painted, which is also a pain. Basically we would need to hire professionals for the whole process.

The next option is tongue and groove (T&G) plywood. Pre-finished T&G isn’t that expensive, with a lift and a nail gun isn’t that hard to install (similar to drywall). The cost is about $60.00 per sheet and we’d need 75 sheets, which comes out to: $4500.00, more than I’d like but not outrageous.  We’ve seen lots of pictures of houses with this done and they all look very nice.

But not great, and whatever we do we’re going to be looking at this for a long time. The best looking option would be T&G wood, and we’re fortunate enough to have a great deal of wood available to us. BUT, we don’t have nearly enough cut yet, and certainly not enough of any given species. So, we could cut down a whole bunch more stock, but the only species we have that is plentiful enough for the ceiling is cedar and I already have most of that earmarked for decks. One idea that is interesting involves taking all the various species and mixing them, creating a patchwork effect. None of this would be ready for a year or so though since the wood needs to be cut, dried (which can take a year or more without a kiln) and routed. The cost though is pretty minimal, the sawyer costs should be around $1500.00 for that much wood, and if get it kiln dried that will add another $1000.00.

We could buy T&G wood but that’s quite expensive, 2400sq/ft at $4.00sq/ft is $9600.00, and far more than I want to spend on this.

One option that we’ve explored is Strawboard, but unfortunately it doesn’t come in T&G or a pre-finished form. Either job is bad, but having to do both is a deal killer for me.

Regardless we’re going to be staring at vapour barrier for the rest of the summer.



Shelves & Ends

The shelves are up and my Mom is currently applying a coat of urethane - she likes painting but hates sanding, I don’t mind sanding but hate painting, we’re a good team. This afternoon we’ll slide (ha! - they’re huge and heavy) them into place and start laying in the books! We’re leaving the backers as wood for now, but I want to replace it with 1/8” translucent polycarbonate sheets. These look like sandblasted glass but are actually cast in place with the texture. They allow light through but only show the faintest of silhouettes. At night they should have a gourgeous glow from the bedroom lights. The drawback? $102.50 per sheet and I need 5 sheets.

Here’s some pictures, including close-ups (by request) of the kitchen handles.



Kitchen & Closet

With Joanne due in less than three weeks the house has once again been the focus of frantic activity. The kitchen is done except for an upper shelf and kickplates.

I bought some rough aromatic cedar which we planed, jointed, ripped and routed for a walk-in closet and coat closet for the mudroom. The walk-in closet is pretty much done but the coat closet will have to wait a bit. The benefit to using rough cedar is the thickness. Regular aromatic cedar that you buy pre-cut is barely 3/8” thick and won’t withstand many sandings, our cedar is over 3/4” thick and should last a lifetime. Aromatic cedar is Eastern Red Cedar which only grows in the south, while regular cedar does smell it isn’t “aromatic”.

I designed bookshelves to create a wall separating the bedroom from the rest of the house. We cut the wood on Gene’s big machine and we’ve been busy sanding and staining the shelves and uprights. Installation should happen tomorrow. I will take pictures, until then here are some pictures of the kitchen and closet, including a very pregnant Joanne.

So far as power goes we had mostly been breaking even but all of the extra work (sanding, sawing, vacuuming) has been putting us into a deficit. Fortunately the insurance company came through and gave us the money to buy a new generator. This proved to be harder than expected since we got the money right after the big blackout so of course all of the good Honda generators in Southern Ontario were sold, but then Honda was diverting all shipments of new generators to the west coast to help fight the forest fires. Stores were telling us that they weren’t expecting a shipment until late October at the earliest. But we got lucky and found one in Uxbridge and drove out there the same day.

Ideally we’d like to put four more solar panels on the roof but that’s going to cost nearly $4K and I’m not sure that’s in the cards right now.



Massive Update Part Two: The Kitchen

Joanne’s brother-in-law Gene works at a company with a CNC routing machine and he graciously offered to help with the kitchen cabinets. This machine can take a 5x10 sheet of sheet stock (plywood, melamine, etc) and cut it to size according to plans programmed into the computer. It automatically drills all of the shelf and hinge holes as well as the holes for knock-down connectors and dowels (think Ikea, only much stronger). Gene programmed the kitchen according to my rough design. He also ordered us hinges, connectors, and drawer slides - and let me tell you these drawer slides are something else. They’re made by a company called Blum (Austrian) and they are the Rolls-Royce of cabinet hardware. Smooth as silk and they automatically close themselves when they get to the last 3 inches of inbound travel. Sweet.

Dad and I had to make a jig to finish some of the drilling that the machine can’t do but after two solid afternoons of work we have a pretty close to full working kitchen. We’re just missing the hinges (on order) and one cabinet (we ran out of wood).

Joanne’s favourite part is the large, tall pull-out pantry. Now we have to decide how to finish the wood. It’s all Baltic birch plywood, but we’re leaning towards a dark mahogany stain for the drawer and cupboard faces and Tung oil for the countertops. Tung oil is clear with a yellowish tinge.

Joanne has spent the day organizing the kitchen and has found, much to her amazement that she my actually have *gasp* too much storage space. But never fear, there are at least two more boxes of kitchen stuff at my parents.

Here are some pictures of the kitchen, and the cool machine.



No more safety net

We’ve got our phone and water (thanks Simon!!) back. The phone line was fixed with a quick underground splice, and Simon fixed the pump by turning it off, and then on again. Which, I would like it noted, Dad and I both did several times over the previous 24 hours, but apparently not with the years of experience, and skill that Simon alone possesses. Now we’re coming to terms with having to keep a very close eye on our energy consumption since we don’t have a generator to fall back on anymore.

Yesterday was pretty interesting, since it had been cloudy the day before, and yesterday was cloudy and rainy, our battery voltage was dropping slowly as the day wore on. We had friends over and with just the iPod and stereo running we were drawing one or two amps. But for most of the day we were only producing

two amps from the solar panels. By dinner time the battery voltage had dropped down to about 46.5 volts. Our low voltage cut off is at 43 volts, that’s when the inverter shuts down to protect the batteries from damage due to excessive discharge. 43 volts is a pretty big buffer zone, and we could probably let it drop down to 40 before we did any damage to the batteries, but while we learn I prefer to play it safe.

We got through the night, and woke to a beautiful sunny day. Right now the batteries are charging at 8 amps and we’re up to 50.5 volts of charge (full charge is around 54 volts). We’ve also done two loads of laundry, which we felt safe doing, since it’s supposed to be sunny for the next three days. Since we have no dryer it’s all hanging in the gallery to dry. At this time of year our peak electrical production time is between 10:30am and 3:30pm. In that period we seem to hold a steady 8-10 amps depending on haze. Our record so far is 11 amps, but that was on a super cold February day, with a piercingly clear blue sky. In February you only get about four hours of useful sunshine, total, so that peak is pretty short term.

Right now the solar hot water system is also running full tilt, and the return water temperature is 70C (170F). More than hot enough for domestic hot water. We’ve noticed that the boiler rarely comes on anymore, even though it’s still restricted to only operating every other hour. I’ve set the thermostats down to 15C so the radiant floor system will only come on if it gets fairly chilly.

We’ve got all of the computers, appliances, and stereo on switched power bars. The problem with all of these devices in an off-grid home is that they present phantom loads of one sort or another. What does that mean? Well many appliances, VCRs, stoves, microwaves, etc, have clocks built into them, these clocks are always on, and always draw a little power. TVs have electronics to keep the picture tube pre-heated, this makes the TV come on quicker when you push the ON button, the same circuitry exists some of my stereo components. Individually these loads are very small, but when you add them all together they are much more significant, they also conspire to keep the inverter out of search mode. When the inverter is on it uses about 10 watts.

But the big surprise for us the the sheer number of things that we own that require chargers. Cordless phone, iPod, digital camera, laptop, cordless tools, cellphone… yikes!! So when we woke up today I plugged in all the chargers to get everything topped up. The benefit to all these devices of course, is that yesterday I could use my computer, and tools without effecting the batteries. The cordless phone though, is a write-off. It doesn’t seem to hold any kind of charge, so my original idea of just plugging it in when the phone rings doesn’t work. This is a problem because we only have one working corded phone, so when it rings you have to jog to that one phone.

On Friday the insurance adjuster came out with two contractors to look at the damage done by the generator. They’re going to replace the soffits, plaster, window, flashing, window bucks, and the portion of the ICF foam that melted, but they are not going to replace the generator (I’m not sure why, I’m going to get that clarified). We will be approaching the manufacturer because the beast is still under warranty, but I just have a feeling that an excuse will be made not to warranty it. We certainly can’t afford to buy another right now, so we really will be flying without a net. And you know what? I’m kind of excited at the idea.



We’re in!!

The Hunter’s have entered the forest.

One 14” U-Haul, 1 Ford Focus wagon, a Nissan Pathfinder, and a VW Beetle, brought all of our stuff from the city. Big thanks to Neil, Ian and Susan, who all provided a bunch of help and heavy lifting to get us in.

The kitchen has no cabinets, we can’t find all of the hardware for the office desks, and our clothes are hanging from a wire, but we’re so so happy.

Here’s some pictures for ya’.



The shower stall

On Thursday Dad and I worked on fibreglassing the back of the shower stall. Rather than describe it, I’ve annotated the pictures, check it out.



Another stunning day

20C, sunny, couldn’t ask for better. Dad worked on the window casements. We’re doing them in maple harvested from our land. Each has to be custom made since each window frame is slightly different. I spent most of the day up in the gallery caulking seams and cutting off window spacers.

We’ve been cleaning out the front part of the house in preparation for the move. Mom and Jo moved some of the scrap wood out to the back. Jo sanded posts for a good part of the afternoon.

Dad and I are going to start fibreglassing the shower stall tomorrow since we don’t want Joanne to be around those fumes, mask or no mask that wouldn’t be good.

We’ve determined that with construction going on we get about three days backup with the batteries. That means that we can last three days with virtually no sun before we have to run the generator. When we have a good sunny day like yesterday we actually gain a bit of charge. At noon yesterday we were generating 8 amps of power from the panels, our record is 12 amps which we got sometime in February. The discrepancy seems to be due to haze, the cold sunny days in February are crystal clear, but the sun’s out for much less time. Right now we have long sunny days but they aren’t nearly as clear.