Building a Foundation

July, 2016

We could no longer put it off: the time had arrived to put in the foundation of the house. Because we’re doing this ourselves, a full basement is out of the question. Also, throughout our entire property, according to the county soil survey, the distance to bedrock is estimated at 6 inches to 2 feet. Another reason against a full basement. And the homesite is at the top of a hill, so as little material as we have to cart up the hill, the better. It’s not a steep hill, more a long walk with slightly burning thighs, and we had intentionally kept it as a foot path. (Building a house was not on our minds when we decided it would be a foot path.)

Our plans call for hand-digging piers as our foundation. We got our plans approved by the local building inspector. (A process which was nearly enough to turn this Obama voter libertarian.) Because of code, each foundation pier needs to go below the frostline (4 feet) and have a wider base at the bottom. We have 32 piers.

Let that just sink in a little. We will be hand-digging 32 piers.

We didn’t think it would be too bad, because when we built the Screen House, the deepest hole J. dug was about 18 inches. For some of the piers he just scraped aside the topsoil and found bedrock. This spot is about 50 feet away, so we expected something similar.

Turns out, not so.

After a foot of topsoil in the first hole, J. reached a layer of gravel and kept digging through pure gravel till the bottom of the hole was a black void. Apparently the slight hill on which the homesite is located is a drift of gravel adjoining the bare bedrock beneath the Screen House. So much for a quick foundation on top of bedrock.


J. got to digging. He found that, using a post-hole digger and auger, he could dig 6 holes a day, each of them four feet deep by about one foot wide, belling open to about two feet wide at the base. This was enough to enhance his Man-Cred a few notches, but it doesn’t end there. Read on.

Each hole seemed to have a different composition. There was the gravel we had first discovered, then there was a beautiful, coarse reddish sand, and, implausibly, in a vein between the gravel and sand, clay. Also, throughout, many roundish granite rocks, pebble-sized to larger cobbles. The material he pulled out of the ground went into piles according to its composition.

When it was time to mix the concrete, “all” J. had to do was haul the 90 (“No, 92,” J. assures me) pound bags of portland cement up the hill and mix some sand, some gravel, and some cement with rainwater we had collected, and dump it back in the holes. It felt a little silly, dumping the same stuff in that he had pulled out before, but as long as this passes as a foundation in the building inspector’s book, we were willing to do it.


We were about two-thirds of the way through the job when it began to look as if our gravel and our stored water would run out. We dreaded the idea of hauling buckets of water up the hill, as well as bags of gravel and cement. After much weighing and speculation, we decided to begin digging a gravel pit alongside the homesite, with the intention of eventually turning the pit into a willow bog (more on that later, under the category “Where We Put Our Pee”). Gravel problem solved. Also, before we returned to finish the piers–prepared to haul water up the hill–it rained. Enough to fill all our rain barrels.

With much gratitude and relief, we got back to work.


[Here’s the gravel pit. Hard to see it here, but it ended up about five feet across and four feet deep. “Perfect for our future plans,” I say, rubbing my palms together and cackling.]

We may have worked harder that month than we have in our entire lives, shoveling, mixing, pouring. It was July, that nifty pocket of time where both the black flies and the mosquitoes are ravaging. We had to figure out our own personal tolerances for a) more clothing, b) more bug spray, and/or c) abject misery.

Even our children worked their hearts out, shoveling sand with their little shovels into buckets to be measured and mixed with the cement. A. had an additional job: Toad Remover. When J. spied a toad at the bottom of a hole, he called the Toad Remover, who happily raised his arms to be lowered into the hole for toad retrieval. Turns out being a skinny six year old is good for something.


Achingly slow work like building a foundation is a strange kind of antidote to today’s society. The chance to work hard, to sweat and (occasionally) bleed, and then step back when the job is done to admire it, to say “I did this, and it’s done” is rare work indeed these days, and, it turns out, quite satisfying. 

First firing of the kiln

May, 2016

Logs felled, maple syrup season over, we began to look to the firing of the new wood-burning kiln. The kiln, for which I had earned a grant two years earlier, was another study in things taking longer than you had planned. But all that doesn’t matter, now that the behemoth is standing under its timber frame shed, door yawning open waiting for pots to fill it.


The kiln is fired using wood, a labor-intensive fuel because it requires the potter to be a lumberjack as well, or at least a grunt laborer pushing a wheelbarrow. But wood-firing makes sense for us because (a) we currently have no access to electricity or gas, (b) we live in a lumber-producing area where waste slab wood from the local lumber mill is readily available, and (c) I really don’t mind grunting or pushing a wheelbarrow. In my mind, it’s much better than paying the gas company to drop off silos of propane at our front door.

Besides making ecological sense and practical sense, firing with wood makes aesthetic sense. When the wood ash blows through the kiln, it lands on the pots, melting on them and turning into a glaze. The clay, unglazed, can flash colors, sometimes orange, red, and black, sometimes muted flesh tones. Here’s a picture of an unglazed pot from one of the first firings, showing the place on its shoulder where the ash landed.


The kiln is a bourry box, which means it has a separate firebox from the chamber in which the pots are stacked. It allows for a more efficient use of the wood and a more relaxed stoking schedule than a typical wood firing, but at a cost of less glazing from the wood ash. I had wanted a kiln that I could fire by myself without losing too many years of my life, so this modest sized bourry box fit the bill.

I’ll show you a few pictures of the building in progress, just so you can see just how many bricks go into a “modest” sized bourry box…


Here you can see the trepidation on my face.


The two chambers are clearly visible here…on the right, the firebox, in the center, the ware chamber, and on the left, the beginning of the chimney.



Perhaps you, Reader, are not a kiln building aficionado. In that case, I’ll skip to the part where I have a fully functional wood-burning kiln. On a chilly morning that promised fair weather, I struck a match to light a bundle of twigs and birch bark on the floor of the kiln, and, simple as that, began the firing. (Strange, I’m seeing the same look of trepidation on my face as the last picture. It must be a frequent look for me.)


Like many things in life, the act of firing a kiln with wood is a mixture of elation and despair. You sit outside, feeling the glow of the warm bricks, you stoke wood that you’ve cut and stacked yourself, you listen to the crackle of the flame, you put your booted feet up and pick up a book… Then you wonder if the temp is rising fast enough, or too fast, you think maybe you don’t have enough wood, you think you’ll be stoking all night and into the next day, you toy with quitting and leaving the firing, maybe getting an office job…


But, thanks to J.’s endless encouragement and faithful stoking help, we reached the final temperature of 2315 F about 9 pm that night. We moved our chairs out from under the kiln shed and sat, watching the white coals burning down on the floor of the kiln, the cool night air to our backs. The stars were brilliant and firefly larvae were glowing in the twigs of the trees above us. We were tired and we knew we had done well. There was no office job in sight.



The beginning of a house

Spring, 2016

For J. and me, the saga of this place began when it first tugged on our hearts and we began to spend whole mornings together over coffee, giddily discussing composting toilets, greywater systems, orchard care, the whys and wherefores of the sustainable life. For you, Dear Reader, I’ll skip to the action segments; that is, the beginning of a house.

Our plan is to build a Grindbygg, or Norwegian timber frame. The kind of timber frame that’s built by farmers, not carpenters. J. built one in a workshop at North House Folk School, built another on his own as my kiln-shed, and is confident that a full-fledged, story and a half house with strawbale walls cannot be that much more complicated. Wink. We should be able to finish in two years. Wink, wink.

Innocent of the monumental size of the task we were taking on, early this spring, before the sap began to run in the trees, we girded up our loins and began cutting trees. The site we’ve chosen is at the top of a hill filled with sizable oak and ash trees; just enough, J. has calculated, to provide the timbers for the house. All we have to do is clear the site and we’ll have the wood we need.

Feeling the ground shake as the trees hit the ground, seeing the dust swirl in the newly sunlit spot of empty air, we were surprised by a feeling of mournfulness and guilt. The logs lay like beached whales where before they had towered above the hill and swayed in the breezes. Who were we, the pipsqueaks, to fell them? We, who had fallen in love with this land for its trees?


Self-conscious of my earnestness, I began to lay my mittened hands on each trunk to thank it, to promise that we would use it well. It seemed the least we could do, to promise the trees their full use.  The trunks would be the bones of our house, most of the branches we would burn for heat, some of them we inoculated with mushrooms, and the twigs we set aside to later fuel our cookstove and use as the foundation of our garden. Even the bark and the sawdust we used to mulch our orchard. True, we would no longer tip our heads back to admire their grandeur, but, sighing, we reminded ourselves we could appreciate the trees in other ways.

When we began the job of felling the trees, the ground was the hard and frozen ground of winter. As the logs began to add up in their rows, we found ourselves wallowing and slipping in mud. We piled the firewood up in ranks. Rain began to fall instead of snow. Between the logs, hepaticas, the first flower of spring in our woods, began to bloom. Spring had come.

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