Tuesday, November 24, 2009

From Our Front Porch

These images were all taken from the front door of our yurt.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Many Thanks To...


This blog is called “Our House of Straw.” So far, however, we’ve said nothing much about straw. That’s because this first season has been one of preparation. We needed a few basics before we could begin the straw features of our house: road, water, electricity, temporary housing, an enclosed work space.

Our goal is to do as much work as possible using our own puny skills, but, in some instances, it has been necessary to rely upon the expertise of our many skilled neighbors. All of the cement work and the framing of the garage are prime examples. As Wayne, our architect, explained, building a garage of straw is a rather pointless use of time and materials. The footprint alone for a straw bale garage presented a good argument for traditional construction.  It wouldn’t be a heated structure, and we would only ever use it as work and storage space. That’s why Double T Construction was employed.

Still, we want the exterior of the garage to closely match the earthen plaster exterior of our house. Wayne built three structures on his property in Driggs, Idaho: his straw bale home, plus a garage and a workshop that are built with traditional stick framing. To finish the exterior of the garage and workshop, Wayne used a technique that was very common prior to the introduction of drywall - lath and plaster.

This process begins with lath, narrow strips of wood nailed horizontally across wall studs.  The lath is about two inches wide by four feet long by 1/4 inch thick. Each horizontal course of lath is spaced about 1/4 inch away from its neighboring courses. Once the walls are covered with lath, plaster is applied. The plaster is pushed through the 1/4 inch gaps between each lath which “keys” the plaster to the lath.

We thought it would be a simple undertaking to locate lath, but it turned into a quest. After calling many possible sources, we finally found enough lath for the project at the Home Depot in Richfield, seventy miles from Torrey. As the clerks loaded the bundles of lath onto our flatbed trailer, they asked what we planned to do with it all. After they heard the explanation, one fellow laughed and said, “They invented drywall to get away from this.” I don’t think he shared our vision.

One of the last projects of this first season was covering the exterior of our garage with lath. Now it sits, under a temporary wrap of Tyvek, waiting its future handsome coat of plaster.

How Firm a Foundation

When people find out we’re building a house of straw, their first reactions include incredulity and a few jokes about the big bad wolf. Once they realize we are serious, that disbelief turns to interest, and soon they’re asking questions. "What do you cover the straw with?" "How do you keep the straw dry?" If they know a little about construction and then a just bit about straw, they say, "That's going to be a huge foundation!" Yes, indeed, it will be, and we tackled that foundation this summer.

Since the bales we plan to use will be eighteen inches wide, that means we’ll need a foundation that is also eighteen inches wide.  The frost line in Torrey is 30 inches below the earth’s surface. That means we need a foundation measuring 18” wide and 36” - 40” high all around the approximately 150-foot perimeter of the house that will be constructed with bales of straw. That’s A LOT of concrete. To reduce that amount, we opted to build a rubble trench foundation.

To begin preparing the house site, Scott mowed the meadow grass. (We aren’t big fans of mowing or lawn. This might be one of the only times I’ll ever see Scott use a lawn mower.) Then Tyler Torgersen brought in his crew to remove the top soil. Next the crew dug a narrow trench at the house’s perimeter. They positioned perforated pipe throughout the trench. The pipe’s purpose is to drain any moisture away from the foundation. Typically the pipe runs to daylight. Our property doesn’t have much slope, so, rather than going to daylight, our perforated pipe goes to a dry well that is eight feet by eight feet down to about five feet below the surface where the ground water runs. They filled the trench and dry well with gravel. Finally the crew poured about two feet of foundation concrete.
This is where we left our house for the season. It felt grand sitting in the “living room,” looking at the Cock’s Comb to the south and toasting our good fortune.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

On Our Own

We’ve been back in Torrey a little over two weeks now. We wanted to complete some of the timber frame work - as much as was possible for two novices working on their own. We discovered that’s what we truly are. In all of this time we’ve only completed three trusses. That means we’ve used a grand total of 18 pieces of timber. That’s including the six we used when Adam and Jake were here.

Just when we thought we were doing great, we’d make a mistake...cut a line we should have erased, made a one and one half inch tenon that should have been a two-incher. Yikes! Luckily we will be able to salvage the timbers with those mistakes. There truly is an art to all of this, and we are rank beginners.

Scott has said from the start, “A big project is like eating a whale. It’s done one bite at a time.” Today he said, “I didn’t know this was going to be a blue whale!” I guess he was hoping for a minke.

Now I’ve got to go back to work, but in October Scott plans to be here two more times on his own. He hopes to work on posts, girts and braces. I’ll return one more time before Halloween...the end of this year’s building season. The week I’m here, we’ll put the lath on the exterior of the garage. (When we plaster the garage, that will be practice for our house.) That week we’ll also ready the yurt for winter (basically put the scaffolding back in place to help support a snow load).

When we get back to Logan, we’ll begin making lists for the next building season. A BIG plus for us...Shanna and Doug (Scott’s sister and her husband) are going to be here next summer to lend much-need helping hands. Hooray!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Are We Making Any Progress?

For the last four days, we have been working on timbers all by ourselves. The cutting is slow, very slow. One truss has six parts. After 4 1/2 man-days, we’ve only completed one part, the bottom chord. At this rate, it’s had to imagine that we’ll ever be finished.

I decided to go back to our original timetable and see if we are making any progress at all. This review buoyed my spirits because I discovered that we really are on schedule.

1) The road is in.
2) The foundation was completed yesterday.
3) Fencing and waterlines have been relocated.
4) The garage is done except for the outside facade.
5) We’ve begun the timberframe.

And despite today’s slow going, we’re certain to get faster and, eventually, done.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why the Fuss Over a Garage?

Because Scott and I actually live in Logan, we needed to find a way to frugally live in Torrey during construction season. The best solution for us was to build our yurt, then erect the garage so we’d have a place to work out of the weather and so we’d have easy access to a bathroom.

Once the bathroom was in working order, it was good-bye to the Texaco station and hello to the next phase of house construction - the timber frame. To that end, Bruce Chappel (Thousand Lakes Timber Company) delivered the timbers for our entire house except for the porch. The very next weekend, Adam Riley and Jake Amadon (Teton Timber Framing Company) arrived on the scene to give us an intensive, one-on-one, three-day, crash course in the timber frame process.

If you remember an earlier posting, Scott and I had participated in a timberframe workshop through the Traditional Building Skills Institute at Snow College. But this time we were the only students and we were building our very own home.

As you can see in the following slide show, timber framing is an art form requiring precision, patience and good partners. We had all three! And the garage will be perfect for continued work in all kinds of weather!

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Texaco

When we first contemplated living arrangements in Torrey, we knew restroom facilities would be a challenge. Luckily for us, there is a Texaco service station one mile from the yurt. Jesse, the owner of the Texaco station, didn’t seem to mind our daily visits, but some days that one mile seemed pretty far away. So one of the reasons for building the garage before the house was to provide a toilet and sink for ourselves and work crews plus any visitors that dropped by. Once the septic system was in, this became the next priority.

The interior of the garage was basically finished by the end of July: walls sanded and stained; man door in; outlets, switches, lights, garage door all installed. Three weeks ago we put up the interior walls of the bathroom and hung the door. Next we inserted insulation between the studs and put the exterior walls of the bathroom in place. All of this was done in anticipation of Phillip Winter’s arrival. (He’s our plumber.) We had previously arranged for him to put in two sinks - the porcelain sink in the bathroom and the salvaged stainless steel sink in the workstation in the southwest corner of the garage.

But we were going to purchase and set the toilet ourselves. And that’s where we hit our next snag. Phillip had placed the sewer hole for the toilet based on 2 X 4 construction. Our contractor had framed the bathroom using 2 X 6s. This mixup became apparent as we attempted to lower the toilet into position. The wall was too close to the hole! There wasn’t enough room for the toilet to fit!

After a conversation with Phillip, we learned this was a fairly common and easily solved problem. But, at the moment, it was no consolation since that meant the Texaco station was still in our future.

We spent the next week in Logan running errands which included returning the toilet. We didn’t have to explain to Lowe’s that it was too big. They just refunded our money...no questions asked. Meanwhile Phillip brought in a toilet that fit in a snug space. When we returned, we were very happy to see ...

It has been christened “The Texaco.”

The Saga of the Yellow Submarine

Long before Scott and I could even apply for a building permit, we made arrangements for a percolation test. This, of course, is required by the health department. The results of a percolation test inform the proper design of a septic system for the disposal of waste.

Last March, our friend Bruce, a soil scientist from across the mountain in Escalante, arrived with his tools and met Scott on our property. Scott Chestnut, our contact with a backhoe, was also there with his tool. Over the course of three days, he dug a test hole, and Bruce determined the level of the water table under our property to be about five feet. Below that, there was essentially a river flowing away to the south. The “river” didn’t seem to be a problem in as much as the footings for our house would be far shallower than that, and so would the septic system. Bruce wrote up his report, submitted it to the health department, and we received a certificate to file with our application for a building permit.

Next we met with Wes Jensen, the septic designer, and John Vercoe, the health inspector. Together we discussed and planned our soon-to-be-installed septic system. This would consist of many feet of drain pipe from the garage and house, gravel, a septic tank, and a drain field. As we headed back to Logan that week, we dropped off the required paperwork and planned to return to Torrey shortly in order to go ahead with the septic installation.

Two weeks later, we arrived back in Torrey and were greeted on site by a huge pile of gravel and a tall, corrugated, plastic septic tank which I immediately dubbed The Yellow Submarine because it was bright yellow. These were good signs. They meant Wes would be there in a day or two to put everything in the ground. Sure enough, that Thursday Wes and his assistant, Whitney, showed up with a little excavator and a load of pipe. They fired up the machine and began to dig. While they worked, Scott and I put finishing touches on the interior of the garage by sanding and staining the walls.

From our vantage point, we could see that, at first, everything was going well. But soon each shovelful of dirt was wetter than the previous one. When they brought mud out of the hole, we didn’t want to look anymore. Every now then, Wes would turn off the engine, and he and Whitney would stand beside the hole and scratch their heads. Finally, when they both threw their hands in the air, we knew it was time for us to wander over and take a peek at what had developed. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

The pile of dirt which, ideally, should have been dust dry, was, instead, an oozing mass of mud the consistency of day-old chocolate mousse. The hole which should have been just deep enough to hold the gravel and our yellow submarine was getting no deeper. Instead, it was rapidly getting wider, filling with water, caving in at the edges and creeping toward our future foundation site. Back in March, that flowing river was five feet down. Now it was two feet nearer the surface and eating away our septic hole chunk by eroding chunk. I had visions of our entire building site plus the pasture disappearing into an ever widening sink hole. The yellow submarine would never submerge. It would float forever in the pool rising at our feet.

That night Scott and I kept checking the slowly rising water. By morning the level was steady, and the hole had stopped growing, but it was obvious there was no possible way our new “swimming hole” would ever hold our septic tank. When people came by that day, we offered towels and bathing suits. If they declined, there was still a photo opportunity with the yellow submarine.

In the end, it took extra time and, of course, more money, but Wes found a solution. He pumped out the water, filled in the original hole, brought in a shallower septic tank (more of a black lozenge this time), quickly dug a new hole and got the entire system in without another hitch.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Torrey's Big Apple Day Parade and Pie Eating Contest

Every summer on the Saturday nearest Independence Day, people from across the state and nation arrive in Torrey to celebrate Big Apple Days. The festivities begin with the Boy Scout Breakfast at 7:00 AM and conclude with a dance that night at the Big Apple pavilion. Throughout the day visitors, neighbors, families and friends gather to watch the parade, go to the swap meet, participate in the Little Miss Apple Day Pageant and cheer at the pie eating contest.

Since I hadn't seen any large apple orchards, I asked our neighbor why it was called Big Apple Days. She said she'd heard that, in the early days of settlement, many towns in the west held boxing matches in local arenas. While watching a match in Torrey, one of the local men said, "This is more fun than the Big Apple." The boxing arena (now the dance pavilion) was called the Big Apple ever after. And now, instead of boxing, we celebrate Big Apple Days.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Prior to each trip we make to Torrey, Scott and I make a list of things we hope to accomplish while we’re in town. We also attempt to coordinate our trip with what is scheduled for the hired crews to do. This last trip, over the 4th of July, we completed everything on our list!

For the yurt, I had purchased and refinished a fabulous, sturdy, round oak table to be used in place of our shaky camp table. That needed to be set in place. Check.

We planned to complete the entire electric fence system so Pat could put her horses in the pasture and we could bring our llamas down. Check.

We had to hang the two new 12-foot gates. Check.

At night, from the east window of the yurt, we can see the lights of Malfunction Junction, the only commercial development in town. We arrived with four cottonwoods to plant. In only a few years, they will grow to block those lights. Check.

The soil on the property is full of clay. Perfect for making plaster walls. Not so perfect for other things. The frost-free hydrant next to the yurt is squarely situated in this challenging soil. When it gets wet, we get a sticky mess. On the list? Build a four-foot square “box” full of gravel at the hydrant’s base which will disperse the excess water and keep the mud in check. Check.

As a gift when we were married, Scott and I received two “sling” chairs. Sky Chairs is the commercial name. Hang them from a tree, sit back, take a deep breath, close your eyes and relax all your cares away. In the middle of a building project such as ours, who wouldn’t need a sling chair? We have cares. We have perfect trees. They were on the list. Check.

Our list was completed. The only thing that didn’t get done was the walls and roof of the garage. The shipment of trusses was short by one. Double T did all they could and promised to return the following week.

Utilities Arrive

Monday, July 6, 2009

What A Difference a Day Makes

A little more than a week later we returned to Torrey to orchestrate the installation of utilities. Once we arrived, it was clear to us that these men needed no conductor. They had obviously worked together before. Phil Winter and his crew had already run the water line to the garage. As we drove up, Trent Hunt was in the process of digging the trench for the electricity and phone line. There was also another open trench bringing water to our yurt.

It was the next day, however, that brought out the full cast. By noon, there were more pickups and large pieces of equipment on the site than I could have imagined. All at once we were surrounded by Double T’s crew; electricians Trent Hunt and Nate Hallows; Terry Hunt and Dave Torgerson from South Central Communications; Courtney Cropper and Scott Grundy of Garkane Power; Scott Chestnut from Torrey Town and Wes Jensen who will design and install our septic system. They way they worked together was quite a thing to see.

At one point, with trenches going every which way, irrigation water began flowing from the canal down the phone line trench. Everyone grabbed a shovel to block the water, but Trent deftly saved the day with one well-placed scoop from the backhoe. By three that afternoon we had water, electricity (along with a new transformer), phone and internet.

Many of the books we read suggested it could be challenging to coordinate the installation of all of these services in a rural area. But I must speak to the friendly, helpful and professional service all of these men provided. In fact, late in the day, with an umbrella held over his head to keep the rain off of his laptop, Terry Hunt performed the last few keystrokes to confirm the successful operation of our DSL. Amazing!

I think there may never again be that many people working at one time on our house...that is until we have a straw bale wall raising or a plastering party.

Young Muscles

Prior to construction, our Torrey property was taxed as green belt. That meant the land was used to produce agricultural products. Our agricultural product is hay for horses. Pat, our neighbor, owns and operates Hondoo River and Trails, a guiding outfit that provides multi-day horseback riding trips. In the past, Pat has seen to it that our pasture is watered. She cuts and bales the hay and then puts her horses on the pasture. In exchange, we retain green belt status.

Now that we are building a house, we are required to remove one acre from the green belt property, and that will be taxed as residential property. The rest will remain in green belt. We needed to fence out the building site so Pat could put her horses out to graze.

When we first purchased our ten acres, Scott's parents bought the adjacent ten. We immediately spent many arduous days digging fence post holes, pounding t-posts, and stringing field and barbed wire around over 1/2 mile of perimeter. All of these years later, we find ourselves fencing again. But we've learned to give the toughest part of the job (digging holes for railroad ties) to someone much younger. Enter Tim....

Tim works for Pat, and she suggested Tim might be willing to dig. Sure
enough. When we asked, he was happy to dig eight 3-foot holes for railroad ties. We were equally happy to pay him to toil away while we worked on other, less labor-intensive tasks.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Garage - Step One

The first week of June felt like another beginning. That’s because Tyler Torgerson (Double T Construction) and his crew of three (Darren, Jed and Mel) arrived with backhoe in tow ready to start building our garage.

Even though I had spent much of my childhood playing around the many job sites my dad supervised, I never really observed the actual construction going on. I have to admit it was a little disconcerting to see even a small corner of our smooth, green pasture disappear under a construction zone. Here are the steps to this transformation.

1) With a backhoe, clear the topsoil from the site.
2) Using a laser level, position batter boards to create a perfect rectangle for garage's footprint.
3) Dig trenches for footings.
4) Place forms and rebar in trenches.
5) Cement truck arrives.
6) Pour cement into forms.
7) Screed concrete to create a flat surface for stem wall.
8) Wait for concrete to set.
9) Remove forms from footings.
10) Erect forms for stem wall.
11) Insert and tie together rebar to reinforce stem wall.
12) Have inspector approve foundation prep.

Since this was a short trip, this is all we saw of the foundation work.

While Double T did their job, Scott and I worked on other projects. We finished laying carpet and vinyl in the yurt. To create a kitchen, we assembled a buffet / cabinet with a counter large enough to hold a camping stove and cutting board. The “kitchen” also contains a trash pail, large cooler (refrigerator) and picnic basket (pantry). Next we stalled propane for the stove and a light, brought in our futon and set our camp table and chairs in place. This really made a wonderfully comfortable living arrangement. The first night in the now basically furnished yurt, we realized this was the best “hut” either of us had ever made. If fact, almost simultaneously, Scott and I wondered why we needed a house. However after a few cold nights and hot days, we knew there was something to be said for solid, insulated walls to keep the cold away and the heat at bay.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Mission Accomplished

Our friend Pat called it a Joad Load when we pulled into her drive. I'd just finished re-reading the Grapes of Wrath and laughed because I knew exactly what she meant. The flatbed trailer we'd hauled from Logan definitely looked like it held everything we owned. And, in a way, it did. The makings of our entire yurt were stacked and secured there: lattice wall, rafters, compression ring, dome, door and frame, vinyl cover, carpet, ladders, tools, camping gear galore, plus a large collection of miscellany.

We arrived on a Thursday afternoon, and before we went to bed that night, we'd put the finishing touches on the floor Scott had nearly completed in April. Thank goodness for the longer days of spring.

Rising with the sun Friday morning, we discussed the day's tasks as we enjoyed breakfast then set to work. In no time at all, we attached the bender board designed to hold the lattice wall in place. During our practice session in Logan, we realized we would need a scaffold to support the compression ring during the roof assembly, so next we reassembled that scaffold on the center of the floor.

Quickly the lattice wall was stretched out and set in place. Next the cable was positioned in the notches at the top of each wall section. Scott lifted the compression ring to the top of the scaffold and from there directed me in the placement of the yurt's 72 rafters. It was so much easier this time than the struggle we'd had in Logan!

While Scott worked on the door, I screwed reinforcing brackets into the lattice wall then into the floor. Getting the door just right required patience. After several encouraging words and lots of time spent planing edges then resetting hinges and the strike plate, it was very satisfying to finally be able to see that door glide closed and hear it click shut. Success!

Did we mention that Torrey is a windy place? Notoriously windy? Especially in spring? This was important to keep in mind since, in very large, bold letters highlighted in a box on the front page of the assembly instructions were the words "Warning: Do not attempt to pitch your yurt on a windy day! Even moderate winds can be dangerous until your yurt is completely pitched and secured."

As Friday afternoon approached, that Torrey wind died down and disappeared. We couldn't believe our luck, so we hauled the roof up the scaffold and spread it out over the rafters. Just as we had it all in place, a huge gust of wind lifted the edges of our new roof threatening to carry it away. I had visions of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz clicking together the heels of her ruby slippers and whispering, "There's no place like home. There's no place like home."

But this was no time for whispering. Scott yelled, "Hang on tight!" Which was exactly what I was already doing since there really was no place like THIS home. Soon enough that wicked west wind blew itself out. Scott and I gasped in relief and hustled to lace the vinyl wall in place. The now-intact cover would shed any future wind. Whew! That evening, one short day after we had arrived, our home away from home was standing before our eyes.

Saturday morning greeted us with no wind. Once again Scott climbed the scaffold, this time in preparation to hoist the dome into place. Using a rope attached to it, we slid the dome up the wall and across the roof. Scott inserted springs into eyebolts in the compression ring and attached the opening apparatus. The yurt was now completely closed in. By that afternoon we had installed a large carpet remnant, we'd built a porch and fashioned a landing from three large pieces of sandstone. We'd even had time to build a picnic table. As we headed north back to Logan Wednesday morning, the yurt was basically ready for habitation. One more thing crossed off the list.

Next Sunday we plan to head back to Torrey. We'll outfit the yurt for comfort and convenience, build fence and see the start of the garage. Amazing! And it's just the beginning of June!

A Solid Foundation

During the last week of April, Scott spent four solo days in Torrey. He was hard at work leveling the ground on the yurt site. This involved lots of shovel time removing pasture grass under the stands that would soon support the floor. He spent even more time pounding duck-billed tie downs into the VERY HARD and ROCKY ground in order to secure the whole structure in place. While Scott was shoveling and pounding away, the folks at the local building supply company, Loa Builders, delivered the beams for the floor joists as well as the 1 1/8 inch subflooring.

Because we have no power lines, the only real problem was getting electricity to the site. That was easily solved because Dad was able to lend us his generator. The next steps - positioning the joists and laying the subfloor - just needed muscles, time and persistence. The final part of this phase was to accurately cut the platform into a circle the same diameter as the yurt - 20 feet. Scott accomplished this by determining a center, marking it with a nail and attaching to that nail a length of string equal to the circle's radius - 10 feet. Pivoting the string around the nail, he carefully drew a circle on the platform. Finally he used a jigsaw to cut away the excess wood producing the circular floor we needed. VoilĂ ! By the time Scott left Torrey, everything was set for the official yurt raising which would occur one week later.


Immediately upon our return home in March, we had several conversations with the fellow we hoped would build the road to our building site and install a culvert in the irrigation ditch. When all was said and done, we ended up contracting with a different person, Ronnie Hunt, who only built 25 feet of road and installed the culvert.

The reason? The local power cooperative (Garkane Power) has specific requirements for the alignment of the power line. These preclude the installation of the water and phone line in the same trench. We reasoned, rather than build a new road then immediately put three utility trenches through it, we'd have utilities brought to the site and THEN build the road. A big aha! for us. Probably duh! for everyone else. Oh well. As they say, live and learn.

At the same time, our long-time friend, Bruce Chesler, drove over the mountain from Escalante in order to do the percolation test for our septic system. (Yes, this is a rural area and septic tanks are de rigueur'. We are already personally acquainted with the particulars of such systems. Just ask Scott about the three times he's found himself up to his elbows in it replacing sump pumps leading to the drain field. Yikes!)

The excavator, Scott Chestnut, after digging 5 1/2 feet with the back hoe, hit damp earth and then standing water at 7 feet. We seem to have a river flowing under us. The implications? A few minor changes in the septic plan plus more money, but, after discussing our options with system designer Wes Jensen, and the regional health department official, John Vercoe, we are good to go.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Regularly in the past, Scott and I have wished we'd had a chance to practice on a project before we built the real thing. If practice had been possible, our projects might have resulted in more polished outcomes.

With our yurt, we get that opportunity to practice. Because we built the wall lattice, rafters and compression ring when we were first married, it has been nearly 25 years since much of the yurt was put together. Needless to say, we've forgotten a bit since then.

A new twist is the recent purchase of the yurt's vinyl laminate walls and roof plus the dome. These were made by the Colorado Yurt Company using our original, 25-year-old plans. Now we need to merge these two "systems." Understandably we want to do that in Logan where we have easy access to consultation, muscles and supplies. Hence...practice...in our pasture...before it rains and gets windy.

Click on this link to view our practice: yurt practice

Sunday, March 22, 2009

What's Next

Now we need a home away from home while we're building in Torrey. The plan? A yurt. Over twenty years ago, knowing we would use it someday, we built a yurt frame with the help of my dad. This is that someday!

Using our plans, the Colorado Yurt Company made the vinyl laminate walls, a roof and the dome for us. Here's a Youtube posting that will give an idea of what we'll be doing next...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Big Step

Because Torrey will become our home, one of our guiding principles is to work with local people (our future neighbors and friends) and to use local products. So we spent this week in Torrey talking, talking and talking with anyone who might be willing and able to work with us...plus stay within our budget.

We also realize, given the limitations of living in Logan but building in Torrey (a 5-hour commute) and taking into account the challenges of contruction in the winter , we'll only be able to build from approximately late April to late September. If all goes well, that means we'll be working in phases over a three-year period. Here's the plan:
  • First season: put in road, raise yurt, rearrange fencing and irrigation pipes, build garage, lay foundations, begin work on timber frame
  • Second season: complete and raise timber frame, construct roof, raise straw walls
  • Third season: plaster interior and exterior walls, lay stonework under porch, complete interior detailing

So, who did we meet? All local people who expressed enthusiasm in alternative construction and thought our time frame could be compatible with theirs. This included a backhoe operator and road builder, a general contractor (foundation work and garage builder), the owner of a sawmill. two plumbers, an electrician, the county assessor, the building inspector, the man responsible for getting electricity to our property, and our friend, Pat, who keeps her horses on the property and makes sure it gets watered . We also knocked on the doors of our neighbors (Mike and Sherry, and Shirley and Wayne) to reintroduce ourselves and to let them know what this flurry of activity meant.

As we left town on our last day, Scott took this photo to document the first of many really big steps. Yes, we have actually begun!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Going to School

They say knowledge is power, but they also say a little knowledge can be dangerous. Scott and I knew we needed as much power as possible given the fact that we had never built anything substantial in our entire lives. We hardly thought the rough-planked shed in the pasture or the storage box for our camping lantern counted.

We also knew where the straw bale pioneers lived. That's why we found ourselves driving south, almost to the Mexico border, in order to attend a workshop at the Canelo Project. Bill and Athena Steen, authors of The Straw Bale House (and many other books), taught a week-long class centered around the basics of straw bale construction and plaster techniques. A tour of straw bale houses in the area was one of many highlights. It featured the good, the bad and the funky: an artist's home detailed with antique Mexican doors and earthen floors, a disastrously constructed and abandoned building returning to the earth, and a hand-crafted home full of color and character.

Our house will be a timber structure with a straw bale wrap. We felt that we also needed a class that would teach us how to use chisels and mallets, the tools used to create the mortises and tenons that will connect the large beams that will form the framework of our house. One evening Scott did a Google search of timber-frame workshops. Most were located in the northwest or the northeast. To our surprise, we discovered The Institute of Traditional Building Skills at Snow College in Ephraim, only four hours away. We signed up for three days of hands-on experience and began to learn the basics of a centuries-old craft which we will soon be using extensively.

We came away from both of these classes with a little experience, lots of answers and even more questions. To us, that meant we were headed in the right direction. It remains to be seen which we are becoming - more powerful or more dangerous.

Monday, March 2, 2009

On-Site Study

Torrey is a place people visit on their way to Capitol Reef National Park. Once they've seen it, they never forget the red cliffs rising above town, the cottonwood-lined main street or the dressed-stone pioneer homes. Before we could discuss plans for our own home in any detail, Wayne needed to actually see our land.

That first spring morning as we stood looking at the 10,000-foot dome of Boulder Mountain to the south, Wayne became more and more excited about the possibilities. The land's gradual slope to the south held great passive solar potential. Wind from the west promised the opportunity to ventilate our house with daily breezes. Yet the eighty-foot-tall trees along the property line would protect a strategically positioned building from the full force of the wind.

The following morning, sitting in a room drenched in southern Utah light, we continued to talk while Wayne created a draft that presented his vision of our hopes. We wanted a simple house with three main living spaces: bedroom, kitchen / living room and office. Other important features included east and south light in the bedroom, no hallways, lots of south windows, and a deep, wrap-around porch.

In the months to follow, we had many more chats and meetings. Wayne explained that time spent in early planning would be time well-spent. Today, almost one year after our first meeting with Wayne, we have construction documents in hand and appointments to meet with people in Torrey who can help us begin building in the spring.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Field Trip

Wayne, our architect, wanted us to experience the feel of strawbale houses. He had built his own near Driggs, Idaho, but a trip there wouldn't be possible until the snow cleared. In the meantime, Wayne arranged a field trip to strawbale structures in our neighborhood. We visited a newly-completed home in Tremonton, the greenhouse at Wasatch Community Gardens in Salt Lake City and an artist's studio under construction in the Avenues. Since we hoped to have a very energy-efficient home, the last stop of the day was Envirotherm, where we talked with Larry Wilkins about Tempcast masonry heaters as well as radiant heat flooring.

After lunch, we spent time reviewing the scrapbook of ideas and bookmarked pictures we had prepared. This helped Wayne (and us) begin to understand what we hoped to build. The conversation included tangible and intangible details: the curve of walls, the direction of natural light in a bedroom, the shape of windows, the use of space, the sound of quite, where a cat would sleep and more.

At the end of the day, we felt we were off to a good start.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

More Research

Before we could really talk about what our home could become, we needed to hit the books again. Mary read most of the design books. Scott read the actual "how to" books. The complete contents of our building library is located in the Library Thing link on this blog.

We created a scrapbook of ideas collected from magazines and websites as well as placed post-it tags on book pages.


Hoping to escape the trend of houses built with a forest of wood, we began reading about alternative construction methods. Alternative Housebuilding (Mike McClintock), Dwelling on Earth (David Easton), Build Your Own Stone House (Karl and Sue Schwenke), Passive Solar Energy (Bruce Anderson & Malcolm Wells) and The Adobe Book (John F. O'Connor) all presented, excellent information. More and more we were drawn to strawbale construction. The texture and shape seduced us. And the idea of energy efficiency coupled with the use of renewable resources held an irresistable draw.

Our goal is to build our house without a mortgage, so we formulated a timeline and saved more money until, at last, we were ready to look for an architect. A Google search was ineffective and disheartening. We couldn't find anyone in our area with strawbale experience. On a whim, we e-mailed The Green Building Center in Salt Lake hoping for a reference. They had several. We contacted, met with and interviewed three architects on their list.

We believe Wayne Bingham may have been interviewing us as much as we interviewed him, but we all felt we could work well together. From our perspective we found an architect with experience in strawbale construction who is generous, patient, enthusiastic and creative. We couldn't find a person better to work with.

The Beginning

After finding ourselves exploring the southern Utah area year after year after year, we finally realized we really liked it there. Why else would we endure the drive along the Wasatch Front every time a vacation came around? A panorama of red cliffs always signaled the end to the urgency of traffic-filled lanes and a world of noise and nerves left far behind. Eventually we began looking at properies in Moab since we were so familiar with that area, but none of them worked out. Besides, at that point in our lives, we didn't have enough money to buy even the smallest house on the market.

Years passed and Scott was hired to create a slide show of Boulder Mountain for a local organization. It took a few years and many hiking miles to complete the project. By the time he finished, we knew where we had to live - Torrey, a small, story-book town along the Fremont River between Boulder Mountain and Thousand Lake Mountain. It took several more years of searching and saving, but we found our place! So now the adventure begins.