Saturday, June 25, 2016

Gratitudinal Calisthenics: Showering In The Alley

2016 now...a long time since a last posting...and lots to report.  We did indeed launch into a major re-do of our living space during the summer of 2011 and have now nearly emerged nearly intact.  Our old house is scarcely recognizable in the one and we are just beginning to feel the reality of having an actual house again.

Through these almost five years of unmaking and then remaking our space, we pretty much stripped things down to the barest of creature comforts.  Getting these back, slowly, and one at a time has actually been a fantastic experience.  There is no finer way, in my opinion, to enjoy what you have than to do without it for a while.  Looking back I woul/dn't trade any of our inconveniences for anything.  I learned too much and smile too much now thinking about them.

As we started the deconstruction, we moved into my office above my shop building, a 300 square foot space.  It had provisions for a bathroom, but only a toilet and sink when we started and no hot water.  As a result, from July 2011 until about November 2011 we performed out ablutions in the alley behind the shop (with a privacy screen...some of the time) using cold hose water.  There was a lot of squealing and particularly as Fall set in we learned how to get things done very quickly.  Pre-suds the hands, rub everywhere, grit your teeth, give the signal for your bathing buddy (this stuff is much more fun with a friend) and then brace for the chilly water.  You hop around like an idiot, flapping, doing what you can to get a fast scrub and rinse, more likely than not yelling instructions and just yelling about how cold it is.  And then it's done:  your turn to get revenge on the sot who just had a little fun hosing you down.

"Time for a Shalley Hour?" was the usual invitation to have a scrub.  It never took near an hour though.  We had a great time.  Cold bathing really makes you feel clean too in some weird way...and happy.  I learned later that this is actually a thing.  Cold water cures the blues.

By November 2011 we reckoned ourselves happy enough and managed to get shower upstairs in my office done and plumbed with hot water from our new on-demand heater.  This development can only be described as miraculous.  We instantly became the most appreciative of bathers.   For months we thought to ourselves, "Wow.  We have arrived.  What else does a person really need?"  I will never take hot water for granted again.

It took a lot longer for something resembling a kitchen to materialize in our new house.  So, in similar fashion we rigged up a cold water only camp kitchen out on the front porch of the shop.  We would I suppose heat water for the dish wash, but the rinse was cold and made the food out there rain or shine for 2 1/2 years on a two burner camp stove.  We still ate well...probably better than most people in fact...supplied from our garden all year long.  We had a fridge on the porch for perishables and a black plastic storage box for the rest.  On occasion we'd borrow a neighbors oven to bake a pie.  As with the alley showers, we mostly loved it.

In 2014 we opened the new indoor kitchen at least in partial fashion with our stove installed, the refrigerator, a microwave, and makeshift counters plus an actual sink...and hot water.  Unreal.  I think I baked four pies and some bread the first week just because I could...and because the house still had no heat and so running the oven felt good.  Once again we became permanently acquainted with a new corner of the pedestrian miraculous.  We'll never lose that.

The third major re-entrance into Valhalla involved our wood stove.  We still heat mostly with wood (supplemented by zone electric heaters), by keeping active, wearing wool, and cooking to warm the house.  The first fire we made after re-installing the wood stove--a plain and lovely Morso Squirrel--occasioned hours of transfixed bliss with the two of us parked in chairs scorchingly close to the fire door, rubbing hands together and once again saying to each other, " just doesn't get any better than this."

We meant that every time, sincerely, in a very present sort of way for hot water, a kitchen, stove, etc....many more times along the way.  It wasn't a comment about how other people live or what they like or about what's better in some objective sense.  It was just a distilled down appreciation made available to us by making do without for a while.  It reminded me of weekly fasting I did in school on year or the solid glee I have felt upon finding a warm rock in the morning sun after spending a cold night in the desert.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Gathering strange and wonderful things...

This summer, after years of idle talk and scheming, it looks like we may finally pull off a re-make on the very modest house I've had since 1996. We're working out design details now with some good assistance from a designer and some architect and builder friends.

One of the fun parts of this effort has been trolling for local materials we hope will add life and interest to our space. We've found some fun and some truly amazing things.

In the latter category we were recently given a largish Oregon White Oak log that had been down in a pasture for a couple of years. After hiring a crane truck to bring it into town, we milled it up into huge slabs which are now air drying in some friends' barn.

Last summer we happened onto a similar trove of local black oak, a windfall tree rumored to have been the largest in the county before a storm took it down. Those pieces will become a once-in-a-lifetime harvest table.

We're also finding old gym lockers, discarded drinking fountains, ancient janitorial mop sinks, interesting door hardware, surplus commercial windows, and whatnot. As our build date approaches, our foraging frequency increases. God help us if plans fall through: we'd have to open a salvage yard.

The abundance of re-usables in most US cities is truly astounding. And, in a striking and utterly predictable way, much of what's out there is actually interesting as opposed to being simply uniform and perfect. Not only that, but there's a lot of great old-school quality out there as well...stuff that'll never wear out and that actually has serviceable parts in case it did.

As these things find their way to us, I'm finding myself increasingly and fruitfully challenged to engage actual design problems and to be creative rather than just build square corners and plumb walls.

I've put up plenty of buildings before, some prettier than others. This time as we gather things to make our nest, some of them odd and some natural, we're also gathering up the habits of care and thoughtfulness and character. I'm hopeful that it will yield deep and lasting comforts for us and our friends who visit.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What lizards know about thermal mass...

Here's a happy report of one small success with the concrete beds. It's now early October with near freezing nighttime temperatures and the concrete beds are performing like a champ already. They warm perceptibly during daytime hours and then re-radiate at night, keeping the soil in the beds noticeably warmer than that on the ground. The slight (15 degrees) tilt to the south seems to be about right...runoff isn't a problem and the sun nowadays is right where the beds can grab big chunks of it.

The plants inside (all cool weather crops) seem more than enthusiastic about being there too. I'm enjoying bumper crops of spinach and chard at the moment and snow peas are probably about one week from ready. Kale and other brassicas are coming on strong too. Carrots look healthy. There's even a rogue tomato and a sunflower in there for good measure.

One challenge I've had with raised beds is that of keeping them watered. However, the cool season goal for this one means that it gets plenty of rain. I do have to baby it a little more during sunny season, but find so far that it's not overwhelming or excessively thirsty.

Will post new pictures soon of this fall bounty!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Paved paradise?

One of the non-building structures in the garden is a set of raised beds to be placed along the fence on the north end of the lot. Raised beds have been a part of the plan since the very beginning, primarily because the lot drains so poorly thereby preventing early spring gardening.

However, I still had to decide how to make the raised beds. Apart from being elevated, the other thing I wanted from these beds was enclosure, both to keep out pernicious grass and to enable 3 or even 4 season gardening. Here in Oregon it's entirely possible to grow some things year round using a simple cold-frame or greenhouse setup.

To facilitate the extended season gardening, I determined to tilt the raised beds up at an angle of about 15 degrees toward the south so as to take advantage of the winter light. That's a very old practice actually.

So, we're raised and tilted. Here comes the hard part: concrete.

I deliberated long and (um) hard about materials to make the beds. I've used wood in the past, but it either has to be treated (not very nice!) or will rot. At 46, I tend toward longer lasting things and less back work, so the prospect of replacing wooden beds every few years is not much to my liking.

So, I started to consider concrete and eventually opted for it despite the fact that I have reservations about adding more concrete either to my small paradise or to the larger wonderful planet we're so lucky to live on.

In my case, however, it was actually the permanence of concrete as a building material that swayed me. One of my goals in doing the garden was to create a long-lasting set aside for growing things. In my neighborhood, there's currently a lot of pressure to increase housing density, often by adding smaller houses in the back portions of larger lots. The site for my garden is in fact a corner lot: prime real-estate for plopping in a duplex rentable to nearby college students.

That's exactly what I don't want to happen to that lot.

So, several cubic yards of reinforced concrete my way of locking in the garden aspect of the lot...hopefully in perpetuity. I recognize that it's sort of a blunt approach. Ultimately my ability to make it a beautiful and enjoyable space may prove the most effective deterrent to urban encroachment. Nonetheless, I'm sure the concrete will slow them down a bit. And, there are side benefits such as its thermal mass (good for heat loving plants), durability (see above regarding my back), inertness (better than treated wood), etc.

And, I promise that as I set about paving paradise, I'll do my best to make it handsome.

Friday, December 12, 2008

What's It For?

Though I've been considering and scheming about a garden structure for at least a couple of years now, it was only recently during a walk on the beach that my daughter held me to accounts and asked point blank: "What's the building for?"

Here's what I told her:

  1. We want a small space that conducive to creative tasks. A quiet place for knitting, working on a guitar, reading, writing, etc. would be great.
  2. We want a small gathering space to enjoy with friends for a beer, a dinner (with a view!), sit around a fire, soak in a tub, etc.
  3. We want a small spillover space that could be used to house a guest overnight.
  4. We want an indoor-outdoor integrated area that supports a number of garden production activities such as canning.

That's what we're aiming we'll talk about size.


Structures and space...

There's been a lot of back and forth around what and whether to build anything in the garden space. I think the 'whether' part has finally been resolved, but not easily.

Buildings take away from garden space. That's the simple version. However, I've also realized that garden space is enjoyed (appreciated) more of the time if you can do something there besides garden. And, in Oregon where 5 months of the year it pretty much rains, being able to enjoy a garden from inside is important unless you're willing to simply cede a third of the year to rain. So, I settled myself on putting a small structure in the garden.

I've learned some things about urban density and space too that give me the courage of my convictions to go ahead and build a garden structure. My small lot next door where I live has four structures on it, but doesn't feel crowded or even overbuilt. Space, I've learned, is really perceived space. Simple square footage means relatively little, at least from an aesthetic point of view. Visual layering, curved paths, effort to preserve small wild spaces, etc. all create a feeling of space that can't be explained by simple calculations of square feet.

There are also good reasons, I think, to work hard to increase urban density...especially where it can be done without aesthetic or environmental impact. Urban density means less sub-urban sprawl. For my money, urban density that's well integrated with living/growing spaces represents a huge improvement over cookie cutter neighborhoods populated with McMansions and sprawling lawns.

So, it looks like there's going to be a building. Now, we've got to figure out what it's going to look like!