Friday, August 31, 2012

Skin and Bones

It is such a pleasure to read through your words and think through you thoughts.  

I am so impressed and happy to hear you taking such a material interest in the structure of Innermost Houses.  Julie is already at work designing her dream.  Pam is interested in beams and rafters and design programs.  After a life of rounded corners, Katrina is longing after rectangles and squares!

Sherry speaks about Feng Shui, the balance between opposing and complementary principles, as the line and the circle.  Ember speaks of the sword and cauldron, and the structure and the contents of Innermost House.   Al speaks of the lines of the house and the hand plastered walls.

To Ember the lines have the beauty of discipline.  To Pam they have the order of geometry.  To Leah they represent the structure that separates the inward from the outward world.  With all of this I agree in my deepest feelings.  

I love the lines because they are not me.  I love the beautiful bone and sinew of reason and structure with all my heart.  It is no wonder that when I found them in a living human being I married him.  It is he who encloses me in this house.

But he loves the walls.  Michael took great care over every aspect of the house, always learning as he went, but there was nothing he took more care over than the walls.  To him I think the walls are me.

Al, you make a kind of distinction between the craftsmanship of the wooden structure and what you might call the "handsmanship" of the plaster walls.  That is strangely true, and I never thought of it before.  The craftsmanship of the woodworker's art has to do with the careful application of tools, but the the handsmanship of our plaster surfaces had more to do with the dogged strength of our plasterers' hands.

Michael knew the walls he wanted.  He wanted a very dense, fairly smooth surface that was gently uneven, that "moved."  He interviewed a number of professional plasterers.  It was interesting.  In our part of the world in California, two styles of real plaster prevailin addition to the drywall and premixed compound that is everywhere now.  Plasterers know how to produce a very smooth, almost perfect surface of the kind that developed in the 20th century, and they know how to simulate the rough surfaces of mud over adobe bricks that belong to the Spanish colonial period.

We were after something we had known in houses from the colonial period in the American east that traveled west with the advancing settlers.  It belonged to the special time in history when, as Michael says, high traditional civilization met the wilderness, and human possibility glowed for a moment on the surfaces of life.

The plasterers didn't know what Michael was talking about.  The man he finally chose combined a high degree of professional mastery with a very open mind.  He offered to bring large boards over, mix up some plaster and let Michael experiment on those boards leaned up against his truck before working inside the house.  He was as excited as we were with the possibilities, and they agreed to work together. 

We chose to use gypsum plaster instead of the lime plaster we had known because it preserved all the essential qualities of the older lime material but dried in weeks instead of months.  Our contractor arrived with a team of three men and work began in the dark and the wet of the woods.

After several trials and errors they arrived at a method that made our plasterer very uneasy.  They applied gentle "mounds" of plaster over a wall in advance, then finished the surface the next day with hundreds of short strokes with the short trowels in their kit.  Michael worked along with the others.  No one was allowed to finish using the larger "floats" that make a wall even and smooth.

More distressing for our contractor was Michael's insistence that they wait until the mud was almost set on each wall before they worked it into its final forms.  This meant the men had to work very hard and fast on the stiffening mud, applying a lot of pressure to move the material.  But it produced a wonderfully dense surface almost like polished stone.  

This all was almost too much for our plasterer, but he preserved an admirable good humor to the end.  His crew put their hearts and arms into it with laughter and singing, despite the very hard work.

When the Plastering Day that had become the Plastering Week was finally done, our contractor agreed to let his most careful worker come back for an extra day so that he and Michael could go over all the hand formed edges and shape them into a final imperfect perfection.  I don't think he could bear to come back himself!  Still after it all he said it was among his proudest work.

The plasterers for the walls and the masons for the chimney were the only professionals who worked on the house, along with the handyman who built the house with my husband.  Those good, hard working, and modest men made the mineral surfaces of Innermost House come to life.  The result was a daily pleasure for us from first waking to putting out the candles at night.  
 
The walls at Innermost House have a quality entirely unlike the wood structure of the house.  They are like living skin over firm flesh, in perfect complement to the bones variously underneath or exposed.  The wood is warm like my husband.  The walls are cool like me.  

  

37 comments:

  1. Diana, I love this entry. I've been so fascinated with imagining the actual nuts and bolts planning and construction of the house itself, and I can just picture what a learning experience it was for the plasterers to 'mix the heart of themselves' into the plaster in a way that current methods may skim over in the quest for ease and the meeting of contractors' timelines. You mentioned that the plasters and the mason were the only professionals who worked on the house but I believe I read on the facebook page that Michael also worked with a carpenter who was perplexed by Michael's silence as they worked side by side. Did Michael do all the plumbing work himself as well? He's quite the Renaissance man, your Michael! And you, my dear, strike me as a blend of many different time periods, from the prehistoric to the era of Jane Austen. Most people live their life passages in decades; you live yours in eras, so as not to miss a single moment of the continuum that is the human experience!

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  2. Diana, I wonder if the profesional plasterer has since used Michael's technique again on other people's homes. I hope you let him take photos of the house during the plastering stages so he could use them for his portfolio, especially since the finished product is so beautifully organic. He would have been in great professional demand at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts while it was being built as a replica of early colonial life.

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  3. Diana, do you think you would like to replicate IH in a new location in the East, or do you feel as though your new home will have a different feel to it in keeping with the East's landscapes and unique energy? Could you possibly conceive of a community of IH cabins built by private individuals all on a large tract of designated land?

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  4. Talking about lines has reminded me of a strange experience I had once. I don't pretend to understand it.

    I was in a study group in the upstairs room of a converted coach house (Ember will probably know where I mean) and found myself feeling peculiar, so I left the room and wandered downstairs to find a cool, quiet seat. As I was sitting there the thought came to me that I needed to meditate on a vertical line. I studied the long, straight edge where the wall angled away from me to the stairwell and felt almost immediately better.

    Is anyone able to explain this?

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    1. I'd like to hear what everyone makes of this also, Katrina. Could it be that you were momentarily in need of some balance? Could the cool quiet female and the straight male edge have smoothed you out that day?

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    2. Katrina, this made me think of the Sushumna, the central channel of energy in the subtle body that rises in a straight line through the center of the body, and is associated with Saraswati, the Goddess of wisdom and learning and the arts. Since you were in a study group when this happened, perhaps you were called to center yourself in this inner wisdom. See:
      http://www.tantra-kundalini.com/nadis.htm

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    3. That's very interesting. Thanks both of you.

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  5. "And you, my dear, strike me as a blend of many different time periods, from the prehistoric to the era of Jane Austen. Most people live their life passages in decades; you live yours in eras, so as not to miss a single moment of the continuum that is the human experience!" How astonishingly apt, Pam! You might not know it, dear, but you have been helping me build my house by hitting all of my nails on the head! All of the participants here have been literally building my house FOR me.

    I admit to not being a very "linear" thinker; my thoughts spring forth as whole things with no obvious relationship to time at all really. It looks like I have gotten my times reversed, in a way. I've been thinking that I will be going BACK in time, you see.

    But, "To everything there is a SEASON, and a time to every PURPOSE under Heaven." Before time began, my bags were packed for my journey to earth. However, I have often had the sneaking suspicion that my bags were packed for seasons yet to come. Maybe I was right. It has been like "The Jetsons meet the Beverly Hillbillies". My Dad described me as being a cross between Martha Stewart and Ma Kettle! (I loved that one.) I should have been paying more attention.

    So many times this little pot HAS been impudent enough to ask her potter, "WHY have you made me thus?" I wanted to know the PURPOSE, that is all. The answer is always "Stick around." So I stuck around. Now I'm gathering stones together. Soon, I'll be unpacking my goodies! It's the SEASON. The time for my purpose is at hand. I'm looking FORWARD, not going back in time as I supposed. There is another nail firmly pounded in. Many many thanks.

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    1. Julie I love this! I am rejoicing at hearing this fine sense of 'you' and your place in the world. How wonderful. Thanks so much for writing it.

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  6. Diana, I can't tell you how much I appreciate the way you have applied the skin to the bones of Innermost House for us. I have been over the moon about your hand plastered walls. I can almost reach out and touch them. So firm and female at the same time.

    My practical questions about Innermost House are being answered as we go along here, but I did want to ask about your bathing. Silly perhaps. I bathe in the creek of an evening in the summer when I can manage it and there is enough water flowing. I sometimes take "dishpan" baths in the house. But you once wrote of "taking a bath, even a luxurious bath..." How does a luxurious bath proceed, if you don't mind telling it?

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    1. Julie, I agree with you about loving the walls. They INVITE one to touch them and run one's hand along the surface, don't they?

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  7. Julie, in one of the videos of IH I noticed a handheld shower sprayer on the wall in the bathroom opposite the toilet. I suspect that there is a drain in the floor of the bathroom for greywater runoff. Diana mentioned that she does sponge baths, so I'm guessing a real shower is an occasional luxury that is all the more appreciated for its relative rarity!

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  8. It walls could talk. Diana, you've told us that the structure and the walls of Innermost House enclose the Conversation. The more I see them though, the more I suspect that they participate in the Conversation as well.

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    1. Perhaps the walls serve as a reflective surface mirroring back to the conversationalists the perfect imperfections that exist in life that are being discussed. Much like the waves that appear in our discussions between the profound and the shallow (whew, sometimes ya just gotta come up for air and talk about lighter topics!) that are part of the wholeness of any conversation, the walls with their undulating surfaces bespeak the variable nature of the phenomenal world that rests upon the foundational support of stillness (the rigid lathe underneath the plaster); both are necessary components of the wholeness of the Conversation that includes the pairs of opposites.

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  9. Diana, did you have any sort of house blessing ceremony when you finally got into the completed IH?

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  10. Around here, in the Boston area, the standard residential wall finish is "blueboard and plaster." That's a thin coat of veneer plaster over gypsum board that looks like Sheetrock, but it has special blue paper to accept the plaster. It's great in that the surface is harder and richer than regular drywall and there's no dusty sanding as is required with joint compound. The downside is that it requires real skill to apply properly, so not everyone can do it. Most people want a smooth, flat finish, but texture is sometimes used on ceilings or on walls in places like basements and closets.

    A crew of 3 or 4 skilled plasterers could hang the board and plaster a tiny house like Innermost House - especially considering no ceilings were involved - easily in one day if applying a standard finish. I'm sure it required great patience for the plasterer to fuss with an unfamiliar finish for a week.

    What was the substrate for the plaster? While gypsum board is usually used in wood frame buildings today, wire or wood lath was once used.

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    2. Mojoman, I was interested in what substrate was used also. I would bet my money that Michael probably used the old-fashioned method so that the plasterers could really manipulate the plaster and perhaps apply a thicker layer than would be possible using gypsum board. (But then again, I could be wrong--I'm wrong about so many things...)

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    3. I'm glad you're here for this one Al. This is right up your alley. I'd like to know the answer to your question also. Do you think I could manage the plastering over blueboard myself? I have only ever made repairs to plaster walls (some of them major repairs) when I used to paint for people. What you're describing here seems do-able since I am not really going for a smooth or professional look, but rather a homemade one. You might know something about the pitfalls of this. Also, I understand that ambient temperature and humidity are important factors for applying the plaster but, so far, I haven't run across anything that tells what exactly to shoot for. Do you know?

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    4. I'm sure you could do it, Julie. As Diana's plasterers did, you could practice and experiment on a few sheets. The materials are pretty inexpensive. And yes, weather is important. Plaster doesn't dry, it cures by chemical reaction - like concrete. If it's too warm, it sets up quickly and there's limited working time.

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  11. Hello all,

    I realize that this conversation has rotated around plaster for the most part, but currently I am seriously examining many practical aspects of tiny house design and construction.

    I am currently in a transitional/liminal state regarding housing. My 1250sf house will be sold/closed on 9/14, then I move into a 120sf cabin with electricity but no water which will be temporary for the winter. I am currently renovating it to just make it livable--insulation, etc--until I build a structure from scratch.

    I am adding/changing vocations and locations(but not totally sure where to yet), therefore I am thinking about constructing a tiny home that is mobile. However, I have also thought maybe I should just gut and refit an old Airstream and then sale after I am relocated.

    Either way the economic, freedom, and time benefits that a small portable dwelling offer seem optimal. Without these benefits, I don't know that I could have pulled the trigger to make these life changes.

    The draw to the Airstream is that I think I can get most if not all of my my money back out of it if I need to--perhaps to build a stationary tiny house once I am in settled in one place again.

    However, I really want to build a portable tiny house that is capable of being on grid or off grid and that is highly portable. I don't think that has really been done yet. I think there is a gap between the 5000 pound Tumblweed Homes and your standard pop-up camper. I am tempted to make a go at building that structure.

    I also think that this in-between type tiny house/rv could fill a need in the market and potentially be a business opportunity. So that might be another avenue that I could pursue. It would be a nice side line of work to go along with my other lines of work if I could just build a couple of these structures a year per order.

    So for me, my life and my dwelling options and choices are becoming extraordinarily intertwined. Things seem to be merging. And frankly, I am enjoying it.

    And I am leaving out all of the spiritual aspects of this. I do feel that this winter I am moving closer to being ready to be able to undertake something that resembles a long retreat or pseudo hermitage. The ideas above are just the practical ways for me to be able to make it happen in today's world.

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    1. D.B., good luck on your major life changes! I'm sure you will come up with a good choice for your temporary housing and the use of an airstream until you decide your new locale sounds like a good option, especially as it will give you a chance to try out the lifestyle and see if it's a good fit. Are you drawn to any particular regions/state where you might want to settle?

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    2. D.B.'s Excellent Adventure! You're going to have some great and instructive stories to tell soon. I hope you share them with us. Thinking ahead to making this a business is so smart.

      Go ahead and set the spiritual aspect aside and I will pray for your venture on the sly--it is kind of my schtick. I won't say another word about it. I promise.

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    3. I might be a potential customer, D.B. Please keep us (me!) posted.
      What part of the world are you in?

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    4. D.B., I just found this neat site for recreational vehicles auctions. Maybe you could get something cheap for temporary housing this way, without breaking into your savings for your future tiny home construction costs. Check this out: http://recreationalsalvage.com/auction/detail.asp?id=3132

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  12. Dewey, Julie and Pam (That sounds like a law firm!), if you haven't already, check out the Tiny House Blog. They have hundreds of posts with practical information and inspiration about tiny houses. That's probably where I first heard about Innermost House.

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  13. I prefer to see it as Hopefully addicted.

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    1. Hee-hee! Of course you're right, Rapunzel. I am, at last, hopeful.

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  14. Diana,I keep thinking about your comment: "The wood is warm like my husband. The walls are cool like me." Could you talk a little bit more about this? By cool, do you mean impersonal and introverted?

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    1. I'm guessing more like yin and yang... speaking as a cool woman with a husband who is like a constant furnace. I can not speak for the Lorences but we women also provide the cool calm to balance the men's hot anger or over-reactions.

      But then, after re-reading the quote.. now I think there could be more to it so I too would like to know.

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  15. "Good design is a lot like clear thinking made visual." -Edward Tufte

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  16. I was thinking about Diana's belief in surrounding herself with that which is strictly necessary over that which is superfluous and her selective use of Chinese art scrolls only occasionally to add art to IH's main room and it occurred to me that because the space is so limited there, to add anything to the walls permanently as decoration would make the room feel claustrophobic. in that limited space, the walls function as the art. In a larger room, however, wide expanses of walls that are too blank appear stark and sometimes unwelcoming and cold. For me, the necessity of hanging art on my living room walls is not so much for the sake of the art itself, but rather for the punches of color that make me feel happy in an otherwise quite subdued living room (my walls are deep taupe).

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