The Straw House Blog

The Driveway

Most people when they come to visit remark upon the length of our driveway. Because the front 30 acres of our land is part of the Oak Ridges Moraine we couldn’t build the house anywhere near the road. As a result the house is near the centre of the land and our driveway is nearly a kilometre long. The quality of the road varies seasonally: muddy and wet during the spring, dry and dusty during the summer, rough in the fall and not surprisingly, slippery in the winter.

Our driveway is plowed in the winter rather than blown. Now here in the country the snowblower vs. plow debate can be nearly religious in its tone and fervour but I personally prefer plowing because it builds up big drifts at the side of the fields which can act like crude snow fences. Our neighbour has a driveway nearly as long as ours and a snowblower and he has constant problems with the snow blowing right back over his lane within days of blowing it clear. The drawback to plowing is that in years with heavy snowfalls the driveway can get progressively narrower as you run out of room to put the snow. We’ve already had problems up where we park the cars where the piles are encroaching on our parking spaces. We pay about $300 a year for plowing for an average of twelve visits. This year we’re already at six so I’m expecting the bill will be higher.

The big problem this year is the ice. We’ve had ice storms before but the ice usually only lasts a day or two and melts or is covered by snow. Our driveway has been covered by ice for it’s whole length for several weeks now. The ice is so thick and so complete that I’ve been tempted to strap on my skates and try and skate the whole thing. The ice is causing us big problems with cars as you can well imagine. We park on a slope and on several occassions we haven’t been able to negotiate the hill. Backing down the hill is… exciting. Joanne has stuck her car in snowbanks twice - once so bad that I had to winch it out - I buried the truck so thoroughly that it looked like I had parallel parked it into a snowbank and my parents spent the better part of an hour trapped in the driveway on Christmas day. We can’t leave the cars at the bottom of the hill because there isn’t enough room to turn them around down there. So every day I go out with the ash tray and spread out the meagre ashes from the wood stove. We can’t get back to the pit and I’m loathe to spend the money on sanding (and I can’t get back to my pit) so we’ll just wait and hope that we get some snow soon.


Update - December 2007

I’ve gone back to Movable Type. The WordPress experiment was a disaster. Not only did I not like WordPress but it had been so long since I last posted that I had forgotten all of my login information. At least with MT you don’t have to be a programmer to modify the templates.

There’s no navigation yet so until I get that built here are links to the house page and the lights page. On the house page you’ll find information about the house and passive solar design as well as a list of books that we recommend. The lights page includes information about the line of LED lights that I build, including most importantly where you can buy them.

Another Straw House Blog

There are lots of blogs out there now about straw bale (and other) homes, but we met Kara and Dave a while ago when they passed through Ontario on vacation. I’m excited that they’ve started construction on their own home, you can watch their progress on their blog.


Canadian House and Home

There’s a feature article about the house (and us) in the May 2006 issue of Canadian House and Home. The magazine has been mailed out to subscribers, but it isn’t on the newstand yet.

The pictures are the best ever taken of the house. So good that both Joanne and I could hardly believe we were looking at pictures of the place we live (it doesn’t look that gorgeous day-to-day believe me - though Gil really is that cute). The article is excellent as well. Very well written, with informative sidebars, and no factual errors (a first).



An update in pictures and numbers

Ceara’s 13. She just got groomed. The groomer went a bit nuts with the sheers. Ceara is not impressed.

Gil’s nearly two and a half. He likes to help me build things. He helps by moving all the tools around.

Declan is 6 months old. This is his first meal of “solid” food. Not bad for flavourless mush.

We installed four more solar panels this winter. They doubled our production to 1.3KW. Life is good.

The first two of possibly five decks to be built this year.


Living Today for Tomorrow

The Friends of the Frink Centre are hosting a Symposium on Sustainability entitled Living Today For Tomorrow on April 22nd, 2006 at the Frink Centre in Belleville.

I’ll be giving a talk on living off the grid at 2:30pm. Also presenting talks throughout the day are my friends Chris Magwood, Patrick Marcotte, and Stephen Collette.

More information can be found here:

The symposium features speakers, demonstrations and exhibits on sustainable construction, constructed wetlands for waste water treatment, renewable energy, and waste reduction and resource conservation.


Morso Stove Review

We’re very happy with our Morso stove. It puts out a nice even heat, lights very very easily and is quiet. Yes quiet. I’ve been around many wood-stoves that ping and pop and make all manner of noises as they heat up or cool down. The Morso does very very little of that which I suspect is due to the quality of its construction. It’s a solid little stove, there’s virtually no play in any of the moving parts, though there is a nasty squeak in the firebox latch. I’m not sure what to do about the squeak, can you grease a part that is that close to the fire?

Esthetically it’s exactly what I was expecting and everybody (so far) reacts very favourably to its clean lines, though Joanne says it’s a bit smaller than she was expecting. It’s very nice in that it isn’t the focal point of the room, it doesn’t demand attention, but it is pleasing to look at. A very nice addition to the room I think.

I’ve never used a stove that lights as easily and quickly as the Morso. It has two controls for allowing air into the firebox: the primary air lever has a very small throw and it used only while lighting the fire. The secondary airflow lever has a much longer throw and controls the burn temperature after ignition. I crumple up 4-5 pieces of newspaper, toss on a little kindling and a couple of small logs and the fire always catches right away. Even Joanne, who was worried (after watching my various travails with the cottage wood stoves), gets the fire going first try every time.

The firebox of the stove is very small (it’s a small stove), but I wasn’t prepared for how tiny it really is. If you are expecting to get a good burn going all night long in this stove forget it. I’ve also had to get used to cutting my firewood much smaller than I normally would. The Morso brochure suggests 12” for log size, but in reality 11 1/2” is a more realistic number - and the manual suggests 10”. I’ve also found that I need to split the logs a bit smaller than normal as well, just in order to fit more into the firebox. This could be an issue if you are getting your wood delivered from an outside source.

The small firebox does create one problem though, there is an annoying tendency for ash to leave the firebox when the door is opened. Either from overflowing over the grate or from the suction caused when the door opens. There is a lip on the front edge of the grate but it is only about 1 1/2” tall, and considering that Morso suggests keeping 1” worth of ashes on the grate that doesn’t leave much room. Consequently we find ourselves constantly cleaning up fallen ash and cinders. Worse if a log falls against the door while burning then when you next open the door you get a tidal wave of ash and cinders down onto the floor. If you open the door while the fire is burning you can actually get red hot embers falling onto the floor, or even onto the wood stored in the space below the stove. Not good. If we had carpet we’d probably have all sorts of charred bits of carpet by now, as it is this is a stove that pretty much requires a stone floor or a floor plate. To be fair the Morso manual only recommends adding new logs once the previous have burned down to coals, but that would be no defense against falling ash and cinders.

Speaking of the manual there is definitely room for improvement here as well. This is, by most people’s standards, a fairly expensive stove. Yet the manual is printed in black and white on cheap paper and while it does provide useful information for the installer is lacking when it comes to information for the end user. Indeed I had to read the section describing the separate uses of the pilot, primary and secondary air intake levers several times to discern their uses. Pictures and photos within the manual are small and not very clear - the downloadable PDF version is better. What I would like to see is separate manuals for installers and end-users. The end-user version would have bigger and clearer images as well some judicious copy editing. To put it another way, think of how much money most companies (and Morso is no exception) spend on their glossy brochures to try and sell you the product, but how little (comparatively) they spend on their manuals after you’ve bought their product. But then again I actually read (and keep) manuals so I may be in the minority here.

Overall we really like the stove, so much so that I’m already thinking of one of the slightly larger versions for our cottage.



More Pictures of Declan

As requested:



Interior Work - Part Two - The Stone Wall

One of the tenets of passive solar design is thermal mass, and from a passive solar standpoint there are two problems with our house: too much glass and too little thermal mass. But we’ve been over this before. This weekend we added about 3500 pounds of thermal mass to the north wall of the bedroom. Due to an odd coincidence I met again one of the stonemasons who helped build the arch mentioned here. I got to talking with him about my ideas for the north wall of the living room and ended up hiring him and his partner to help me build the wall using stone from my land. This is a dry laid (no mortar is used) stone wall measuring 12’ long by 3’ high and 20” deep. 20” is pretty narrow for a drystone wall but we’re not anticipating getting any frost heave in the living room. To figure out the weight of stone you usually use the weight of water which is 62 pounds per cubic foot.

Bright and early Saturday morning Matt and Mike arrived and we spent the morning drivinga round the land investigating and excavating the various stone piles around the land. Eight trips later we had a good bunch of stones to work from and we started work on the wall. I’ve rebuilt some of my grandfather’s mortared walls, but I don’t have very much experience with dry stacked stone. One of the secrets of a dry stacked stone wall is that it is actually two walls, that lean into each other. This lean is called the batter. We could cheat a fair bit because we were building on a solid surface that wouldn’t (hopefully) be moving. So we have only 1” of batter in 3’ of height; it’s barely noticable.

On Sunday Matt and Mike returned and brought John the fellow who was running the arch seminar that I crashed. With three of them working (and me helping) things moved much faster. We made four more trips for stone - if you’re building a wall budget on needing about two to three times as much stone as you need for the wall. Things wrapped up around noon, with the wall capped and level and looking pretty spectacular. It’ll take a bit of time to see if the wall is enough thermal mass, I suspect that we’ll need a bit more mass. But it looks spectacular, and when the wall is finished with our cedar I think the whole living room area is really going to come together.

Now if you know Gator, you know that he loves stones. Loves them in a way that is nothing short of disturbing. So imagine if you will attempting to build a stone wall witrh a dog who is obsessed with rocks. Imagine that dog spending two days with several men who are equally obsessed with rocks, though not perhaps in quite the same way as Gator (I never saw Matt lick a stone). It was an interesting weekend.



Interior Work - Part One

Sometimes life interupts the blog and this has been one of those times. But there has been some great progress in the last few weeks, despite more than a few setbacks. I’ve picked up a contract in the city and so with Joanne home on leave now I’m cimmuting into Toronto on a daily basis. Needless to say this has cut into my available time for working on the house. Recognizing this we hired a friend of my father’s, Russ, to help us with the framing if the interior walls. Gil has walls and a room, but no doors. We have an entry to our bedroom room and a linen closet but no door either. Our weekend alarm clock is Gil jumping onto our bed.

Gil’s room is drywall on the inside, we figure that kids are so hard on walls, why bother with wood. In the long east wall of his room we’ve actually roughed in a doorwayd. We figure that he and Declan can share the room until they’re about 10 (or so) and when the time come to separate them, we cut open the wall, throw up a door, and build a wall between them. Hey presto! Two bedrooms. So we have ten years to forget where the door is.

Dad has been busy dressing the cedar that we cut back in the summer. We tried to do it here using my generator (the tools are 240V and the house doesn’t do 240V). Unfortunately the generator doesn’t supply the quantities of current that the tools need and we blow motors on both the planer and jointer. The planer was fixed with a capacitor change, but the jointer needed a whole new motor, which we just got on Thursday. Next it’s routing and finishing and those walls can go up. The doors are on order and will hopefully arrive soon. We didn’t build the alls up to the ceiling yet for two reasons, we don’t really have a ceiling to build to, and we’re hoping to do something with sandblasted glass and awning windows for both light transmission and ventilation.