Tuesday, January 24, 2012


With a constant flux of material coming in and out of the house, organization is just as much a priority as anything else. It's what separates us from hoarders and what fosters intelligent and creative applications. Lately, the bulk of this volume has been firewood. Though we go through it fast enough, keeping mountains of lumber in our driveway is still visual blight. Exposure to moisture makes it burn cooler and smokier. The wood should be cut, stacked, and covered to dry - but we have little time or resources to build such a shelter, simple as it may be. And we already have a shelter in which the wood can sit.

Cutting the scrap lumber we've acquired into 2' sections and stacking them within the house creates an easily accessible supply. Safe proximity to this warmth should even help dry out some of the more saturated pieces. A tremendous amount of space is saved and the wall is established so that it continues that densifying of space and warmth. As the seasons progress and spring/summer arrive, the wall will have exhausted itself, and the house will stretch its legs once more.

Keeping warm

Even with the over-sized double barrel stove pumping heat at full capacity, the house remains largely uninhabitable. Temperatures now regularly dipping into the teens and below, the hot air is almost immediately sucked out of the porous roof and cracked windows. Bare rafters and uninsulated plaster walls do little to help. The 1890 house was built with virtually no insulation. Luckily for us, the rear extension was (date unknown - but late enough to have used gypsum board instead of plaster+lath). Since this space is not in a state which is currently useful to us, and because water damage warrants substantial rebuilding anyway, we're able to reappropriate this material where it's far more useful.

The severity of structural problems becomes more apparent each time we work in this room. As we pull off pieces of drywall - which we expected to come down in handfuls because of painted over screws, they instead come off in full sheets, often taking the studs they were attached to with them. The pulpous 2x4's which once rigidly held the walls in place explode into dozens of soft shards with the lightest of tosses.

Fortunately this kind of damage is present only in a few isolated areas, and so we are able to scavenge enough batt insulation for almost the entire roof above the stove.

Scraps of rigid insulation in varying sizes, colors, and origins are used as a first defense. These aren't as prone to water damage as batt insulation is, and can withstand any leaks that our quick roof patching failed to catch. A few $3 cans of expandable foam seal the cracks and go a long way in keeping heat from escaping. With the largely airtight seal established, the fiberglass insulation is packed in with lathing strips until a "finish" surface can be applied. 

Having this pitched space insulated - in combination with the large hole above the stove - creates a pocket of space in which the heat can sit. After eagerly moving our sleeping space upstairs, we hold back our first reactions in respect for our hard work: it's too hot.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

On domesticity,

The old house…seems relieved to be rid of our furniture. The rooms where we lived, where we staged our meals and ceremonies and self-dramatizations and where some of us went from infancy to adolescence, rooms and stairways so imbued with our daily motions that their irregularities were bred into our bones and could be traversed in the dark, do not seem to mourn, as I had thought they would. The house exults in its sudden size, in the reach of its empty corners. Floorboards long muffled by carpets shine as if freshly varnished. Sun pours unobstructed through the curtainless windows. The house is young again. It, too, had a self, a life, which for a time was eclipsed by our lives; now, before its new owners come to burden it, it is free. Now only moonlight makes the floor creak. When, some mornings, I return, to retrieve a few final oddments – andirons, pictures frames – the space of the house greets me with a virginal impudence. Opening the front door is like opening the door to the cat who comes in with the morning milk, who mews in passing on his way to the beds still warm with our night’s sleep, his routine so tenuously attached to ours, by a single mew and a shared roof. Nature is tougher than ecologists admit. Our house forgot us in a day. I feel guilty that we occupied it so thinly…that a trio of movers and a day’s breezes could so completely clean us out.
- Hawkins, Culture and Waste: The Creation and Destruction of Value
Low of 18 degrees F tomorrow night, 12 Saturday night. At the expense of more splinters than either of us care to count, our newly insulated roof is nearing completion. For the time, we can only hope that it will be enough to offset the uninsulated walls and paper-thin windows.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


Fire-baked apple bread

Finally upgraded our main entrance from the hanging section of chainlink nailed to the ceiling to a real, securable, door.

Because the screws that hold the hinges on the door are rusted, they're difficult to remove without damaging the door. Turning it upside-down was the only way to work it, and it lets people know right as they enter this is not the typical home.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Free beer and mopsicles

After some time away from the house - seeing family and sleeping in warm beds for the holidays - we've had an eventful day. The busyness of presentations and finals left the house somewhat in disarray (even more than normal), and for the first time since our possession of the house, the city is blanketed in white. There seems to be no disturbance on the property, other than hundreds of little footprints in the snow which run up the driveway. After a few hours in the house cleaning up and reorganizing, the culprits appear.

Two of the three resident cats stand guard on the front porch, stationed beneath the plastic which protects part of our firewood supply. They seem to have, for the moment at least, given up on trying to stay warm inside the house. After several cues in the house - aside from the usual being able to see our own breath - we understand.

Our water barrels, bottles of juice, water, dish soap, and the mop pictured above reinforce the importance of a continued development of our heating system and reinforced insulation. The first response is to take the bricks from the original chimney to make a thermal mass around the stove. These take a lot of the direct heat from the intensity of the fire which was often too hot to stand near, and lets it slowly pour for hours afterward. Since the bricks are salvaged from a chimney, we're confident they're fire rated.

The next few weeks will be spent solidifying this thermal mass, closing off some of the space with temporary partitions, and experimenting with various sorts of insulating techniques: cardboard, clothing, straw bale, scraps of rigid insulation foam, and stripping the fiberglass insulation from the old kitchen which no longer needs to be heated (as an addition, this is the only part of the house that contains insulation).

Small tactics for convenience of living are always being thought up and implemented, and we're constantly scouring the local construction dumpsters. What we'd normally consider a great find in one of the campus dumpsters (of seven pallets, 12' of steel angle, a pair of old crutches, lengths of PVC pipe, and misc hardware) becomes reason for celebration - the clinking of glass catching our ears. "Why would anyone throw out empty bottles instead of depositing them, or at least set them out for someone else to collect," we ponder.

But these are full. A toast to the garbage gods for another great find!