Monday, September 3, 2012

The Handyman

How nice to greet a new week with so many interesting questions!  Today I would like to make a beginning at answering some of your questions about the construction of Innermost House.

Al you are right about the blueboard.  And Pam you are right that my husband inclined toward traditional lath.  The why of it all is a long story, but the how of it is easy to explain.

We used gypsum blueboard for our walls, in the heaviest available board thickness.  So Julie, I suppose it was heavier and a little more difficult to handle.  But we put it all up ourselves before the plastering date.  Michael chose the heavy board because it approximated most nearly the thickness of the "scratch" and "brown" coats of traditional plaster applied over lath.

I didn't know any of this before we built Innermost House, and I barely remember it now.  But before we began Michael had a lot of knowledge of traditional building methods, even though he had next to no practical experience. 

I think modern drywall has made people lose interest in walls, but real plaster can be a very beautiful material.  As you rightly say Julie and Pam, to me the walls are a living circle around the wholeness of the Conversation, part of its life.

Because of the way we handled the material, I find it impossible to tell by eye or hand that our finish plaster is over gypsum board and not lath.  The same is true of the wall structure, which is a mix of traditional post and beam and modern stick construction.  I cannot tell which is which.

That is true of much of the house.  Innermost House is a blending of traditional and modern construction where most everything you can see is traditional, and much that you cannot see is modern.  It reflects the two men who built itmy husband and our handyman. 

Our handyman was a kind of gift from heaven to us.  In almost every way my husband and he were opposites.  He was loud and my husband is quiet.  He was all action and my husband is reflective. He moved at breakneck speed and my husband is deliberate.  He knew how to do everything in a modern house but nothing in a traditional one.  My husband knew a great deal about traditional houses but almost nothing about modern ones. 

The two men worked together through all but the last months of finishing, always in a kind of creative tension.  Sometimes it seemed like a good deal of tension to me!  But thankfully only to me.

Because Innermost House was built with only the rudimentary plans required for such a building, every single day brought surprises and conflicts to negotiate.  My husband almost never even dared leave the site during work for fear of what our handyman might do next.  And because of our handyman, something was always, always doing. 

Michael and I would often be up till the middle of the night talking and drawing, trying to foresee the next day's unforeseeable problems.  I remember the handling of the windows in particular.  We never slept that night working over the questions, and when the next morning we presented our solutions to the handyman at the site, he thought it was "impractical."  So a completely different and unlikely solution had to be worked out there on the spot, much as always.

All this had a most wonderful, unexpected result.  We could never quite pause long enough to design a solution to anything.  Everything was solved on site.  Even such basic considerations as overall dimensions and roof pitch were determined there in the woods and not on the drawing board.  The hill and the tree, the dark and the damp, the mice and the birds, the winter and summerall had a hand in the building.  And it changed almost by the day.  

Most of all the house is a many-dimensioned negotiation between three thingsthe woods that were ever-present, the integrity of tradition in my husband, and the convenience of modern methods in our handyman.  In a way I think it was because not one of the three could quite get the upper hand that the house was free to build itself.

Our handyman was a full-time farmer during most of the building time.  He and Michael would work together for a few hours early in the morning and then he would leave.  In the last months we did most of the finishing work ourselves.  But Innermost House would not have been what it became without our gift from heaven.  I shall always be grateful for our handyman.

41 comments:

  1. OH man, I wish I could leap into this Conversation! The first week of school has been quite intense; I leave the house at 5:45 am, and get home at times varying from 5:30 - 7pm, and of course then I have homework too. I've had to prepare all kinds of stuff too - a schedule, for one thing! - and that's chronophagous.

    My personal preference is for cob, which I love for its hands-on requirement, its versatility and flexibility, its passive thermal efficiency, and its aura of encompassment within its arms. Lime plaster has always held my attention, with its subtle ways of changing and enhancing the movement of light, and I once got into a research frenzy over oil treatments, clay slips, and VOC-free homemade paints.

    I'm really just checking in right now, to say I'm here, and I'm listening, but am not yet steady on my feet with my new realities...

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    1. I'm glad you popped in, Suz, because now I know a new word: "chronophagous." Did you coin that one?

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    2. Yikes, MojoMan, I can't remember whether I invented "chronophagous" or merely swiped it from somebody else. I think the latter - now that I put my mind to it, I rather think my friend Warren introduced the word to me, whether as his own legitimate brainchild I don't know!

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    3. Suzi! You sound SO BUSY. I hope you are keeping well. Love, Julie

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    4. Oh I wish I could leap in too! But our dear Trixie, our Boston Terrier died this week, and it has been horrible! Will try to come back soon. Promise:)

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    5. I'm sorry for your loss, Suzy. I recently lost my Daisy. Comeback to us when you can.

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  2. "I think modern drywall has made people lose interest in walls, but real plaster can be a very beautiful material." I heartily concur, Diana. My drywall walls throughout my home have no soul to them at all--they are mere canvases upon which I can imbue a sense of 'aliveness' through paintings. I've been to India twice and have collected quite a few lovely framed prints of daily life in India complete with palm trees, women with water jugs, elephants, and pundits teaching their students. I also have prints of Krishna and the Gopis which are delightful and which really convey a feeling of love in them. The prints have lots of happy, tropical colors and stylized shapes which would be similar to a Grandma Moses style of painting only in Indian motifs, and against my deep taupe walls they stand out quite nicely and add a brightness to the room. In my old 1820's house all the walls in the original structure were rough plaster and they certainly did add a layer of character and history to the home. However, they were difficult to nail picture hooks into!

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    1. Art on the walls can make them seem to "advance". It can be difficult to work out in a small space because of this, but it can be done. I've seen some small rooms with very large art on the walls and this seems to work. I think it's because several small pieces kind of chop up the wall space too much like too many windows would do.

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  3. So much of building today is about speed and standardization, with ever more power tools and artificial materials. This is due largely, I think, to the increasing cost of labor (including all the taxes and insurance that go along with it) and the decreasing availability of skill. A truly knowledgeable and open-minded builder could have a blast working with someone like Michael - as long as they were being paid by the hour. If the handyman gave a fixed bid and THEN discovered Michael's esoteric tastes, it would have been a nightmare.

    Another feature I love about the house is the thickness of the walls as revealed by the deep window recesses. It gives a feeling of solidness, permanence and warmth.

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    1. Al, I have been looking into using SIPS for this reason. They come in thicknesses of up to 10", which might be overkill, but would make for a very solid looking little house...and I could probably heat it with a candle! Maybe about an 8" SIP with a simple siding and substantial hand plastered walls? I'm thinking of it being dark and heavy and "hidden" in the woods on the outside and light enough to fly away with on the inside. That's what impresses me about the photos of cob, adobe, and even haybale construction--and the feeling that they have been there for a hundred years or more, so permanent.

      I think I can more readily wrap my mind around the mechanics of getting these walls up with a helper or two. They are made to interlock with each other. Like Diana and Michael, I'll be combining the old and the new. What do you think about the SIPS?

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    2. I should have said SIPs. Structural Insulated Panels. They're comprised of a core layer of thick, solid styrofoam, or sometimes something more natural like compressed straw, and fused with a layer of wood on each side. They are really solid and straight with great insulating qualities. They are raised up onto a foundation in sections and each piece interlocks with the next one. Here's a link to give you an idea of them: http://www.sips.org/about/what-are-sips/

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    3. Julie, you may be one to something. I've never worked with SIPS, but they make a whole lot of sense for many situations. I think they could be ideal for many small homes. While they lack the familiarity of building a stick-built wood frame, they can integrate well with timberframes, or speed and simplify things if used alone. For those concerned with energy conservation (And who isn't?) their insulation and air-sealing properties are fantastic.

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  4. Apologies for being somewhat off-topic again, but folks you may be interested in Tinker's Bubble in England.

    http://www.livinginthefuture.org/index.php/3

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    1. I like the round cob house in the backround, Ember.

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    2. Thanks, Ember! I'm enjoying the series of videos. There's a lot to think about here.

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  7. Sorry for the above--editing issues again!

    I've been thinking about Diana's use of the word 'handyman' and how that label contrasts with the use of the words 'craftsman' or 'artist'. All three types of distinctions have subtle differences. A handyman, to me, is a jack of all trades--someone who knows how to do lots of different things very competently, but does not really claim to be an 'expert' in any one field and aims mostly to get the job done quickly and ably. A craftsman, on the other hand, may have a fine degree of expertise in a particular craft or skill and his/her created product MAY be artistic, but it is usually a useful object. An artist, on the other hand, produces a work of beauty or a work that challenges the mind or belief system--a product that somehow changes the viewer's vision of the world. An artist's work may also be useful like that of a craftsman and may embody the skills of a craftsman, but there is an added depth of something intangible that is present within the object created--an aliveness, perhaps, based on a subsuming of the personality into the ACT of creating--that makes the art resonate with a particular vibrance and energetic 'flow'. A craftsman can also be an artist if his/her creation has that special 'glow' of creative energy that is Presence, but a handyman's product, though professional and competent, useful and even sometimes beautiful, will not have that special quality that reaches in and mysteriously grabs the heart, though it may definitely be appreciated.

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    1. Pam, your summary seems very reasonable. Sadly, for many, "handyman" seems demeaning. (Not to mention all those news headlines about "Man Murdered by Local Handyman.") Much of the work I do - in all honesty - is handyman work, but my wife doesn't like it when I call myself a handyman, so I say "Home Improvement Contractor." I live in a world where just about everyone has advanced degrees and works and lives in very nice air-conditioned places, and all the kids are pushed to go to Ivy League schools. There's not much status in working with one's hands and getting dirty.

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    2. Al, I have seen too many people with degrees who happen to be jobless and unable to run their own business not to mention also unable to do basic renovations on their home, car and more importantly live within their means... and balance a checkbook, for that matter.

      I personally really put a lot of stock in "handymen"! There is something sexy about a guy with tools and the ability to figure out the math involved to build, or at least skillfully maintain a home.

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    3. To Al and all the men in the group who labor with their hands: My brother is a building contractor who started a home contracting business after he built his own house by going home and reading his Big Book of Home Carpentry at night and then trying it out the next day! I have the utmost respect and awe for people who work with their hands and can take apart things and put them back together as well as invent and build things from scratch. It is a special talent and gift that not many people have and in my opinion, 'handyman' work involving brute labor and practical spatial skills is not paid enough or given enough respect for such demanding work, not to mention a decent compensation for the debilitating effects on the body of a lifetime of hard, hard work. (My brother is 57 and his body hurts all over from the effects of his hard work). I could never understand why desk jobs get paid more than laborer jobs. I could NEVER do what my brother does, and so I'm so grateful to, and frankly, impressed by, all those who work to make our lives easier and more comfortable through the sweat of their brows. You guys rock!

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  8. suz, I love the look of cob houses, but know very, very little about them except as you say, they seem to just embrace you! I suspect it is very labor intensive! (I love Hobbit houses:)

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    1. Two of my daughters went on a cob building course this summer. Inspiring as well as informative. Cob is a wonderful building material, very flexible and very cheap. It combines well with straw bale building - north (and maybe east?) wall straw bale south and west walls cob. The straw bales are great for insulation and the cob less so (though the walls are thick); but the cob absorbs the heat of midday, releasing it slowly when the sun goes down, thus prolonging interior warmth and helping sustain even temperature. So they tell me. And you can have one of those staircases (what are they called?) with free-floating steps, sunk into the thick walls. Altogether wonderful in all sorts of ways.

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    2. The same is true of logs. Nice in the winter, but of a summer evening, it is sweltering in our cabin. As it cools off outside, the heat is pushed in.

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    3. I suspect the sweltering-in-summer aspect may be dealt with in two ways: 1) trees 2) a living roof. A goat is helpful if the living material on the roof is grass, because you can tether it up there from time to time (build in the ring first - a tethering spike might not be so good on a living roof).

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    4. Thank you Ember. When we first came here, there were many 60' tall sycamore and black walnut trees all about the house. However the Power Board sent men in here to cut them all down in the interest of sending electricity farther down the hollow. They can never be replaced in my lifetime and would be cut down in any case once they reach 20' as the power people claim a right of way here. With my husband's breathing problems, we have had to resort to 3 air conditioners chugging away all summer long and they barely keep up. I'm hoping for a new situation altogether.

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  9. The Conversation ebbs and flows doesn't it? It runs from one thing to another and back around again. There were so many questions posited on the facebook page about the nuts and bolts of Innermost House, even by us, that I think now is probably as good a time as any to finally address them. Still, even when practical matters are being discussed, I invariably find myself face-to-face with some great truth--whether this is a truth about myself or TRUTH. (OMGOSH. I just realized when I wrote this that there are no separate truths; there is just TRUTH...) I see these insights being developed every day; there is no reason that we can't take them and run with them. Lately I have seen our friends revealing a great deal about themselves (and, by extension, MYself) just by discussing what kind of houses they like and what they want and don't want in their dream homes- because the homes we are hoping for will ultimately house our Spirits.

    In my nocturnal dreams I always find myself passing through thresholds into houses and into rooms, noting all that I see there. Diana and her Innermost House are giving me the means to observe my own Innermost world with clarity.

    We are seeking, and finding rest for our Souls, I think, and there are practical ways of gaining that rest that are being so freely shared. Building methods and codes, Feng shui, yin/yang, chakras, are all, at the heart of them, disciplines, road maps meant to get us to where we want to be. Tools for our souls.

    I think we like to see each discussion "boil down" to something in each person. Everything simmers before it boils, though. By allowing two days for each post now, I think we are allowing that to happen... Simmer, come to a boil, and simmer down. Friends, I am having the best times here.

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  10. A true Handyman is very hard to find. I don't think the title is demeaning! I have been around building all my life and have seen many carpenters that should be ashamed of themselves! And they won't even consider doing handyman work. Sheesh. As a decorator, I have had to put up with that is the past until I just got tired of dealing with them!

    Sorry, rant over. I am simmering down, Julie :)

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    1. O Handymen where are you? I so need someone to hack up the loathsome concrete path that runs straight down the middle of our garden. And take away the bits.

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    2. I agree, Sherry and Ember. A handyman comes with a whole gamut of skills and considers it his job to make sure that you are satisfied with his work. A craftsman is in between this and an artist. He has developed his craft to the point of being able to take on custom work, but often also creates works of his own to array in a shop for those who like them. An artist, on the other hand, is always about the creation of his own art. If you love it, you can buy it, but it is what it is, and he is not about to change his art to please anyone else. Not so handy when you are needing help with your own work of art, when you already know what you want but need someone to help you to bring your art to life. Right Sherry? It seems most everyone wants to tout themselves as some kind of "artist" these days and the very few are really artistic at all. They just can't seem to resist messing up YOUR work of art, can they? (Pu-leeeeeze just paint the wall already!)

      I applaud Diana and Michael's handyman and their craftsman too, for being so willing to adjust their considerable skills to get the job done to the satisfaction of the true "Artists in Residence".

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  11. What Diana is saying about the marriage of opposites in Michael and the handyman seems to be a perfect example of the proverb: As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. We are meant to rely on each other and lend each other our skills, even if sparks fly in the process. Thanks for that reminder, Diana. I'm all too much for going it alone. Very peaceful, but not a lot getting accomplished!

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  12. Are we all cutlers then, Katrina; sharpening each others iron? Yes, I believe we are. What handymen we've turned out to be!

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  13. I am making a pest of myself I'm sure, but since we are discussing walls, something has come across my page today that I think would serve for an excellent "Plan B" in case I can't afford the plaster walls. Rustic and homemade but bright and sweet, I could mix up a real whitewash for them: http://www.houzz.com/ideabooks/3930012/list?utm_source=Houzz&utm_campaign=u160&utm_medium=email&utm_content=gallery10

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    1. Love it, Julie! We just moved into a space on the second floor of a house, complete with lots of angled ceilings and mis-jointed framework. This is exactly the look I was thinking of including splashes of teal... I will be giving the room a 'white-wash' kind of look later this week.
      The white will be so calming and I think it symbolizes our fresh, new beginning.

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    2. I'd love to see it, Leah. It sounds wonderful.

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  14. Thank you! I was pondering introducing the subject of death in general, and specifics on the blog..but i chickened out. Pets really do love us unconditionally, and thru my experience as a counselor and my education in Psychology, I truly do believe that it can be worse than grieving for a person sometimes. Trixie was my boyfriends dog, who became "ours". Logos, is my Maltese who became "ours". It gave me pause for thought on the "his, hers, theirs" aspect of IH. I have learned so much about the communion (there's that word again!) of Diana and Michael that it brings me peace to know on a bad day, that these things do indeed exist. My dog Logos is grieving terribly. He won't eat, won't play, and he just stares at the door waiting for his soulmate to come home. There is something to be said about the "concreteness" of how animals grieve. It's all psychoanalysis with humans, but animals just DO. Silly us are lavishing him with attention, and spoiling him with extra toys. He just looks at us as if to say "are you kidding me?!). We often do this with humans, because we mean well, and want to help in any way we can..but it just falls flat. I do believe that time heals. I just don't believe it today. Our innermost house seems so very empty for now:(. Thank you again for your healing thoughts. They are much appreciated!

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    1. Susan I am very sorry to hear that you have lost your beloved Trixie. And Julie that you have lost your dear Daisy. I know what it is to grieve over a lost love, but I can build another home. When our little friends leave us they leave a hole in our hearts we cannot rebuild. I am so very sorry.

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    2. Thank you for that, Diana. You are very kind.

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    3. Yes, Thank you Diana! Your kindness is greatly appreciated..
      And Julie, I am so sorry to hear about your Daisy. It is hard to view life through positive eyes after a death. All we can do is try.

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