Thursday, May 28, 2009

Open House - Soon

The weather is warm and life as new parents and full-time professionals leaves us with little free time. A number of folks have expressed interest in learning more about our straw bale experience and we want an opportunity to share it with you. The Plan? We'll host an open house this summer so folks can come for a tour and ask us questions. I'll post a date and time shortly.

BTW - where is that warm weather today?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A year of change

A year has changed us more than we thought possible. Our first child, Noah, was born in February of 2008, evolving us from independent, career-focussed go-getters, to a home/baby-centred family unit. We've also changed some of our opinions about straw bale techniques. And for good reason.

While I was waiting for my overdue baby to be born - waddling around the house and praying for the big event to begin - severe rain, ice and wind storms kept pounding our house. With each storm, the lime plaster layer that had been applied over the clay-dirt plaster, began falling off. At first in small bits, and then in sheets. It was devastating to us and we were fraught with worry that it would cause more than cosmetic damage. Finally, with onset of yet another storm in February, my father and father-in-law braved the icy grounds and winds on ladders and installed tarps around the east and south sides of the house. It was incredibly heart-breaking to have to tarp in our beautiful home, but *such* a relief to know it was protected from the rains. Here's a pic of our tarp hell:

The good news is that the damage was only cosmetic. By poking a moisture metre in many areas of our walls, we determined that none of our straw was damaged. After having a lot of time to test plasters and examine the damage, we believe that using lime plaster over clay-dirt plaster is a bad idea. Clay-dirt alone will not hold up over time in this climate unless you have an extraordinary house design and site. Lime plaster and clay-dirt move differently with changes in temperature and humidity causing the bond to break between them. In our case, it allowed water to get in between the layers in the freeze-thaw weather and the lime plaster fell off in sheets. Here's a picture of our house once we removed the tarps:

Yes, we could have designed the house differently, but it would have to be *very* different - more than the long overhangs on the roof and a porch we incorporated. We also could have chosen an alternate site so that the Nor-easter wouldn't be able to hit the east wall, or that the So-wester wouldn't hammer the south wall, but we live in the Maritimes. And we wanted to live on a location where solar power was a good option. We are surrounded by trees, but, obviously they weren't dense enough to protect us from the elements.

Once we settled in with the baby, we began calling around for help and advice. It turns out that two of our acquaintances had the exact same occurrence in the Maritimes. We had no idea that they had suffered through such damage. Both of those home owners chose to frame up the damaged sides and apply a "rain screen", also known as siding. After many conversations and deliberations, we decided to bite the bullet and install cedar board and batten. Then the trick was to find someone who could do it for us since Straw Bale Projects was not able to return. Time was slipping away and we couldn't find anyone. After a bit of pleading, our friend Charles agreed to take on the job. We were in excellent hands. Charles spent a lot of time determining how to best design the framing, venting, and siding so that it would be incredibly solid and look great. Along the way, we also had reinforcements - our friends Phil, Lee, Kyle, Brenda, Dave, Rob and of course, family. It's amazing we still have any friends and family left! Here's a view of the framing system that Charles designed and installed to accommodate the new siding:

Here's a picture of the resulting, beautiful new face on our east side:

After spending many thousands of dollars beyond our budget and more than a year of extra construction time, what would we do differently on the plaster issue? We would go with all lime plaster next time. We would do a lot more research and testing on various recipes, especially the many tried-and-true ones that come out of Europe. We might have designed the house differently, but it's too late for that. The clay plaster was environmentally-friendly, but it had to be applied by hand requiring many extra months of labour and it is incredibly difficult to make a consistent recipe since the contents are not pure.

On top of all of this, we had issues with our stamped concrete porch that resulted in having to replace it. I'll go into that separately since I'm running out of time today.

I'll leave it there for now. We still love our straw bale home. We love the way it looks, the way it feels and we *adore* our low heating bills. We would do it over again. No question.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The biggest Christmas present...

Two Fridays ago, I arrived home from a work retreat to find my crazy parents had been slaving away on their knees for many hours grouting our newly stained and sealed floor (I say "crazy" with a lot of gratitude and amazement at their energy). I quickly donned my grubby clothes and got to work - we finished that night!

We were scheduled to move in that Sunday afternoon, but the weatherman (I have several other names for him that I won't use publicly) was forecasting the storm of the century... of course. We haven't had this much snow in December in many years! We couldn't switch to Saturday because it was the only time Dave & I could get into a prenatal class before our birth due date, and lord knows we need all the help we can get in the "soon-to-be-first-time-parents" department.

Once again, my parents surprised us and moved a large load of furniture while we were tied up and helped us load up our vehicles so that we were ready to go early Sunday morning. With the help of our friends Charles and Phil, we finished moving in mid-afternoon on Sunday. And, yes, it was storming...*a lot* by that point, but we finished ahead of the dangerous part and everyone made it home safely on the snowy roads.

This week has been as hectic as ever with the usual Christmas preparations still to do - only I did them WEEKS later than I normally would have each evening after work. Note to friends: our Christmas cards will come in the form of...hmmm...well, they may not come at all, even in the the new year. Now we have to finish unpacking, preparing for baby, and making the transition to take a year off from my university gig. Dave and I have always agreed that we enjoy a challenge...good think we're both on the same page here...

Above, a glimpse of our newly arranged dining room. Still some finishing touches to do, but this gives you a view of our finished floor.

An image of our fireside seating area in the same room. Miraculously, between unpacking many, many boxes (and there are still many to go) I managed to decorate the Christmas tree after my Dad and the tree finished WWIII (hmmm... my Dad and tree stands have never gotten along well... it brought back many childhood memories of me trying to watch the classic Rudolph and Grinch cartoons amidst flying fir needles).

The artwork above the mantle and on the next wall are Bruce Stonehouse originals...couldn't resist the plug for Dad Stonehouse...

We still have much to do in preparing our other rooms for the long term, so look for more of the story to be posted in photos later this week as I work my way through each room over my holiday week (while Dave works away at the newspaper).

A Carol Taylor angel snuggled into our living room nicho seemed like an appropriate bookend for a Christmas eve blog post. Happy Holidays all!

Friday, December 07, 2007

A test: the acid stain

After moving the three pets with us out to our little cottage last Sunday to enable us to finish the floors, the week brought more snow than we've seen in a long time. More snow meant we had to move back in the straw house b.c our cottage in the country would leave us in peril of not getting to work (at least not safely, or perhaps not at all). It snowed off and on all week, messing up our floor staining schedule drastically, but this week, we'll finally get things wrapped up.

Above is a pic of the acid stain test patch we mopped on with a sponge mop. I like the colour and it's a lot less messy than spraying it on with a garden sprayer.

This is the StainAstar product we're using to colour the concrete to look like tile. It runs about $65/gal which covers 400 sq ft. We'll apply a concrete sealer after we stain it, then grout the cracks. The grout is the most expensive part.

This is a test patch we did using the garden sprayer. A lot more liquid was required to cover the surface, making the overall colour much darker. Having liquid sit on the surface was bad for our wood work and plaster - it soaked right through the painter's tape and stained both surfaces.

A little view of the beauty brought by the multiple snow storms around our house.

Believe it or not, I wouldn't give up a view like this for anything. When I lived in the American South (yes, it must be cap'd), I desperately missed winter of this kind.

Here's a sneak pic of the antique wall sconces my Dad installed in our master bedroom in the little nichos we carved in the wall.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A brief update in pics before we move in...

The soon-to-be new babe's room (10 weeks to go!). None of the main floor is finished yet.

Dave working the phone in the living/dining area with lots of junk piled 'round.

A partial, poorly photographed take of the kitchen. (Who has time for tripods and good composition when you're desperate to move in??)

One of our new fan fixtures installed in the loft.

The master bedroom with some wall scones still to be installed.

The west end of the loft (where we're currently sleeping). Possibly a spare bedroom or home office...or both. The debate is still on.

The east end of the loft to become our movie/reading room.

The dormer area in the loft and top of the stairs.

Dave hard at work scrubbing the concrete floors in preparation for the acid staining. Most our free time will be spent cleaning and taping off the walls and woodwork in preparation for acid staining...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Christmas is coming early

I have had butterflies of excitement in anticipation of finishing the house and moving in. HUGE milestone reached this week: the last spot of mud was covered in lime plaster and the finishing touches (blending seams of plasters and touching up small spots along trim work etc.) have been mostly completed. Thanks to Charles and Phil for sticking it out with us and doing some gorgeous finish work. My trowelling and surfacing abilities are much inferior to theirs!

Charles has also been assisting us by sanding and oiling the loft floor and stairs. We are using tung oil on the floors as opposed to a varnish. It seems healthier and easy to maintain.

I had hoped we would be ready to acid stain the floors tomorrow, but there is *so* much clean up work to do! Plastering is indeed dirty work, and a year of mud and lime dirt requires a lot of vacuuming, sanding, scrubbing, get the picture.

We will likely move in with a bit of finish work left to do like filling nail holes, varnishing trims etc., but I can do a lot of that over the Christmas holidays. How different life will be not living in a construction zone....

Visions of a clean, settled home are dancing in my head...

(photos to come soon).

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Pumpkins and our porch floor

It's Halloween night here and we await the little gobblins of the neighbourhood. Being our first Halloween in the 'hood, we're not sure what to expect. Without subdivision masses nearby, we may have a few hundred mini candy bars and such not to feast on for the next few months!

Monday, the crew from Lafarge arrived and began preparing the base for our porch floor and main entry door step. We decided to go with stamped concrete so that it would have natural cobblestone or slate look, but without the uneven ground that stone usually offers. It's close to the same price as installing a deck, only we won't have to replace it in 10 years or less and we won't have much maintenance.

On Tuesday morning after our first snowfall, the crew poured the concrete and trowelled it smooth as you can see here above. They ran into a brief snag when the snow began running off the roof like rainwater as it melted and splashing back onto the wet concrete. Fortunately, I had some extra plastic they could use to create a barrier.

Then they applied a powder they call a "release agent" which enables them to apply a stamped pattern without pulling the concrete apart. It also colours the crevices of the concrete to give it depth.

Here's one of the stamp pads they used yesterday.

Here's a glimpse of the pattern on the porch floor before they seal it.

A wide angle view of the porch floor before it is sealed or landscaped.

And a view of the front entry before sealing and landscaping. I'm thrilled it's done before Spring! It will make the house feel so much more finished.

This week we'll be applying flashing over the exposed rigid pink insulation that wraps around our foundation. We hope to finish spraying the drywall with plaster.

And, Charles and Phil are back in town, so we're hoping to make a big dent in plaster the straw walls. The countdown in on... Can we move in before the end of November??

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