The Straw House Blog


Lazy Sunday

Not a whole bunch to report today. Jo and my mom went to a baby shower for my cousin, Dad and I stayed at the house. Ian came down and with his help we managed to get the last of the drywall up in the back room. We had lunch and Ian and I went out for a nice long walk. It was a beautiful day, sunny, clear, and perfect temperature.

We have the fridge hooked up and running now. The fridge is the biggest electrical load in just about anybody’s home. When it’s running the fridge presents a load of 4 amps. Right now we’re holding steady with what we are generating off the solar panels, that includes the use of various lights and power tools. We’re producing about 50 amp hours per day. By my calculations (inexperienced and rusty) that means we’re generating 2.4 kilowatts per day (50 amps X 48 volts). Please, someone, correct me if I’m wrong. The wind generator will be some very nice icing on that cake.


Happy Birthday Jo

Yep, today’s her birthday. I’m not telling how old.

Pete and Tina got two sections done today, they’re back on Monday. Phil brought Joanne up, helped put up one piece of drywall, helped bring in the shower base, and then had to leave to go to a job interview. He got the job, but it’s a night gig so he says he can still come out and help us. We need the muscle.

For some reason Dad really wanted to have the kitchen lights up in time for the tour today. To get the lights up they had to be rewired, which involved cutting off the old leads and soldering on new wires. We removed the metal rods and hung the lights from the new wires. They look amazing, and we’ll leave them up for tomorrow, then take them back down to protect the glass.

The tour took up a good portion of the afternoon, so we didn’t really get much work done. Everybody seemed quite impressed with the house and the land.



12 weeks?! Maybe not.

Good day for scheduling today. Most of the appliances got delivered, and, BIG NEWS, the shower base is going to be delivered tomorrow. It was supposed to be 12 weeks but turned out to be more like 6. Once we have the base in place we can order the glass and fibreglass the back wall. We may not have to bathe in the bathtub after all.

Pete and Tina continued cleaning, and fixing up the interior walls. They stucco’d one section, and they hope to get two sections done per day. Their tools for smoothing the cement walls are quite incredible. The first tool is basically a brick with grooves cut along the bottom and attached to a handle. That sucker really works your arms (or so Tina tells me). The second is a flat sander with carbide teeth set at about a #10 grit. And people wonder if the coating on the bale walls is strong enough.

Meanwhile Dad, Phil and I hung drywall on the back wall ceiling - which, incidentally, is a difficult and seriously crappy job. Later I put the last coat of mud on the kitchen walls, and right before I left I applied another coat to the back bathroom. Then I ran out of mud (oh, darn) and had to stop (drat).

Pictures? You want pictures? Fine.


A block of time

Happy times for the next week or so, I launched two sites yesterday, the RCMP Veterans Association Store and a stub page for Scott Morris Architects full site to come soon. I’m taking the next 5 days off to work on the house, next week Jo and I have our first appointment with the doctor in Peterborough. This is our temporary doctor, she’s helping us only until the baby is born, then we’re SOL. The doctor situation outside of Toronto is really bad.

Pete and Tina are in the house again, applying the final coat of plaster to the interior walls. We’re mixing the plaster with white marble dust, it should look pretty cool. Another nice thing about working with Pete and Tina is the music. Music is delicate balancing act in the house, the trick is to find stuff that is enjoyable and good to work too, but doesn’t offend my parents. They’re pretty accepting of most light country, acid jazz, and light rock type music, and Paul Simon. We’re starting to get a bit tired of those albums. So after my Dad left today we threw on the new White Stripes, Elephant, which seriously kicks ass. After that David Holmes’ Bow Down to the Exit Sign. Both great albums to work with.

This week we also have one group of my parent’s friends coming through on Friday and Joanne’s whole family comes up to celebrate her birthday. Somehow I don’t think we’re going to get a bunch of work done those days.

Pete was saying that some of the straw bale house owners he knows have gotten so sick of the constant stream of visitors they have started charging admission. Another house only allows visits one day a month. I wondering if we’re going to get that frustrated. We get about one visitor per weekend, usually neighbours, who we enjoy meeting, but occasionally we get strangers who’ve just heard of the house and are curious. Those people we’re a bit less happy about. We’ve also learned that for most people, a No Trespassing sign is pretty meaningless.



Rube Goldberg came to our house

Well you should see our mechanical room now. We have great soaring pieces of pipe, a panoply of pumps and pressure tanks all humming and burbling in their own ways. Evidently Simon ran into some trouble on Friday as the solar hot water system is still in pieces. Nothing involving fluids seems to go well at our place.

Here’s the way the system works. There is a submersible pump in our well which is 53 feet deep. The well controller runs off its own 48 volt line direct from the batteries. The pump feeds into a 30 gallon pressure tank which feeds our domestic water.

The hot water tank is actually a heat exchanger with two sets of coils. Both coils are closed loop sub-systems. The lower set of coils is fed from the solar hot water system. A glycol/water mixture runs up through the panels and then back down through the heat exchanger. The pump for that loop is fed from a panel tacked onto the side of the main panels. We call it the “pimple panel”.

The upper loop is fed from the propane boiler, which is capable of producing 140,000 BTUs. The upper loop heats both the domestic water and the radiant floor system. There is an aqua-stat on the side of the tank, if the solar hot water system hasn’t pre-heated the water sufficiently, the aqua-stat makes a request to the boiler and it starts to circulate its glycol/water mixture through the top loop. The radiant floor system is controlled through a pair of thermostats in the house and a pair of aqua-stats on the return side of the floor loops. If the ambient air temperature inside the house drops, or if the return mix temperature drops too low the boiler will fire and the floor pumps will start.

If it sounds complicated don’t worry, it’s much much worse when you look at it.



I was gonna rant…

... but now I’m not. I had a big ol’ rant prepared on the age old topic of contractors who don’t show up. Except it turns out he showed up, at night, after we had left. Now I could deliver a mini rant on the subject of contractors who don’t call, but really I’m just happy to find out that the work is done.

On Wednesday my cousins Steve and Phil came up to help. Steve’s in visiting from Vancouver and it was the first time he’s seen the house. He seemed really impressed with the place, and with the land. Being city boys we all have trouble with the scale of 100 acres, Steve and I walked around a fair bit, but he seemed a little overwhelmed. Steve is a few years older than I am, when I was younger I worshipped him. He used to take me to see the Star Wars movies when they came out, and he loaned me his Eurhythmics, Human League, Heaven 17, and Thompson Twins LPs and 12"s. He dressed cool and he moved out when he was 17. That was a long time ago, but Steve and I have grown to be good friends so I was very excited to have him come out to visit.

His brother Phil (who is 5 years older than Steve) loaned me his Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, and Lynyrd Skynyrd albums. Steve and Phil more than anything else are responsible for shaping my adolescent musical tastes. Phil is far more handy than Steve, he helped us hang drywall, and hopefully he’ll be back next week to help hang more. We might even get him mudding.

We gave our notice two weeks ago and the landlord has already rented it out for June first. So we really are committed. Everything now is a milestone, everything is another immediate step towards the big move. This week we put up the mailbox, got most of the plumbing done, sanded a bunch more beams, urethaned the outside of the bathroom, put up drywall, and did a bunch of electrical work.

In addition Simon was in to plumb up the solar hot water system, and Dan Peel rewired the the radiant system to use thermostats out in the house in addition to the hydrostats on the return loops. The boiler has been replumbed so that it supplies hot water to the heat exchanger, and all of the pumps have been configured to work independently depending on whether the request for heat comes from the floor system or the tank.

They’re late but here are the pictures from Wednesday.



Rainy day, dream away

We have a mailbox now. Amazingly the post office has been the least bureaucratic group we’ve had to deal with (so far). Their criteria for starting mail service is: install a mailbox, put your name on it, call them. Oh, and the mailbox may not be more than 42” off the ground. So tomorrow I will put my name on it, and call them.

One of the things I really like about the country is how neighbours really do go out of their way to help each other out. Randy and Kevin Morton who farm our land, and hunt on our land, and whose great-uncle we bought the land from, came down with their post-hole digger to help us install our mailbox. We used a cedar post leftover from our cut two years ago.

Nick spent the night with us at my parent’s place, and was back sanding at 10am. He sanded pretty much non-stop until 5:30pm. His whole body must have been vibrating at the end of the day. He got most of the cupola done and he’s staying over again tonight so that he can finish the rest tomorrow. It’s a crappy job and we’re very thankful that he’s up there doing it.

Dad and I worked on a whole variety of small tasks around the house including,  installing the locks on the bathroom door, some plumbing work, a bunch of electrical work and a whole heap of planning.

Tomorrow we’re going to have a seriously busy day as we are expecting visits from Simon to install the solar hot water system and fix our water pump, Dan Peel to change the radiant system over to air temperature thermostats, Andrew Green (the plumber) to fix a couple of problems and finish the dog bath and bathtub (human bath), and last but certainly not least my cousins Phil and Steve are coming up. This will be the first time that Steve has actually been up to the house.


Who was that masked man?

Joanne here - a new voice. We had a few more visitors this weekend.  On Saturday the president of Thermotech Windows stopped by to take a look and get some pictures. We had broken a lever on one of our front casements and he brought a replacement. He said he’d keep our spare window in mind and suggested we post it here. Window anyone?

Mike the roofer also stopped by to check out the completed soffits and discuss eavestroughes. We didn’t work on Sunday - family event at Aunt Joan’s. On Monday we were back up and were joined by Nick (my dad) who came all the way from Grimsby and spent the day sanding the big double beams in the gallery. I finally got a few pictures since I stupidly missed getting any pictures at the beginning of February when he and Anna (my mom) came to visit. We didn’t even do a blog entry that time! They came all the way from Grimsby, helped out, and we went out for a wonderful dinner for Glen’s birthday and there has been no record of it. It’s been bugging me since then so I’m happy to have finally put it in the blog.

Glen and his dad were working on the bathroom. Today they got the glass in the doors which means we really have a usable bathroom now! Donna and I applied another coat of urethane to the outside bathroom walls and doors. Then I started sanding the posts with 120 grit—I got five done, only twenty-three to go.

At the end of the day Ian showed up, he hasn’t been out here for a couple of months so he was seeing some big changes. Later this week Glen’s cousins Phil and Steve are coming out, Phil to work and Steve to visit (I’m not sure that Steve’s all that handy). The plumber’s supposed to be out tomorrow or Wednesday to fix a few problems. When that is done we can put up the drywall in the kitchen and back bathroom.



A long soft road

Just when the driveway dries out we get 12” more snow. Then that snow melts, and the driveway’s back to a muddy rutted mess. Mom and Dad can’t get in anymore with their Subaru because the ruts are so deep that the car bottoms out. We don’t have any problem but then I haven’t taken the snow tires off the truck yet.

But the big news is the working toilet! Joanne is a very happy camper right now. The plumber got most of the rough plumbing done yesterday, and I hooked up the bathroom sink. We still don’t have hot water but maybe next week. Sunday I’m going to install the exhaust fan in the front bathroom. Dad’s been working on the doors and windows of the bathroom, so we’ll have a bathroom with privacy.

The installation of the soffits and fascia continues, but there’s only one guy working on the job so that probably won’t be done until next week.

We ordered our appliances today through a store in Peterborough. Our criteria for appliances is a combination of energy efficiency, quality, and cost. We chose a Kitchen Aid fridge and stove, a GE front loading washer and an Asko dishwasher.

Today we took exciting pictures of plumbing!


Some good news

The plumber was at the house yesterday, and he should be there today. We might have plumbing for the weekend. Mom and Dad are going into Peterborough today and they said they’ll pick up the glass for the doors and windows (of the bathroom), so we might even have a bathroom with privacy. You know, versus, “I’m going to the bathroom, everybody go to the opposite side of the house.”

The engineer from Bell called this morning and she said they can put in a phone line to the house. It’s going to cost us $2,400.00, and given that the driveway is nearly 1km long that doesn’t seem so bad. In comparison Ontario Hydro wanted $35-$50 per metre to bury their cable. Bell’s going to put in three test boxes along the road just in case something happens and they need to test the line. They’re going to run 3 pairs to the house so we can have a maximum of 3 phone lines. That won’t be going in until mid-May. Right around the same time as the septic bed.

I think we’re going to bite the bullet and give our notice on the apartment for the end of May.