Homestead Design Part 3: Theory and Practice
In my last article (Organic Farms, Folks & Foods, Vol.21 No. 3) I talked about the process of getting a house design on paper. In this article I consider our first attempts to engage in the actual process of building.
By the spring of 1994, Laurie and I had our affairs in order to the point where we felt we were ready to tackle the major project of building the Shop. This building was to be our “practice” building where we would, we hoped, develop the techniques for building our house. The Shop would be a twenty-four foot by forty-eight foot two story timberframe in the shape of an English style barn. We wanted wooden floors in the building, both because we expected to use it for drying and storing the wood for the house, and because it would be home to the woodworking tools we needed to use to later produce an attractive, well-constructed dwelling. The plans called for the building to be placed on fifteen piers spaced twelve feet on center corresponding to the fifteen 8 x 8 vertical support timbers in the structure. This would raise the wooden parts of the structure about eighteen inches above grade.
By this time we had been living several years in a camp near the Great Sacandaga Lake in Broadalbin, New York. We had converted the camp to a semblance of a year-around dwelling, one of our first projects having been to level and stabilize the building by replacing the old cinderblock piers with poured concrete ones. Subsequently I had made a handyman business of working on other people’s camps and one of my frequent tasks was leveling, repairing or replacing their piers. Had I liked it more I probably could have made a career of just that aspect of the work. However, it was often difficult working in tight quarters amidst years of dust, cobwebs and rodent middens with several tons of building perched above one’s head on precarious temporary supports. I did the work grudgingly and avoided it when I could.
Because barns were on our minds we would observe closely the old barns we saw as we traveled around the countryside. Over time our observations led to a simple conclusion: Buildings with full foundations stood better than buildings built on piers, and we saw plenty of both. After a while we could tell even from a great distance the buildings with proper foundations. They stood erect, square and with a certain rigorous pride, even if abandoned and decrepit. Buildings on piers slouched and sagged, leaned and swayed, showing always their ultimate desire to sink back into the earth. Inevitably the conclusion took hold of us. Piers under the Shop were a bad idea. We would need to do a full foundation if we cared for the building. The effort we were to put into it would allow no less. The difficulty with this decision was time. We were still learning the virtue of patience and our desire to rush along with the project was still strong. We expected that fifteen piers would take just a few weeks to do between excavating, forming and pouring concrete. A continuous perimeter frost wall dug to four feet below grade would require far more effort and materials. We had no way of knowing how much time it would consume. Laurie was able to put the best face on it when she pointed out that this would give us the opportunity to practice building stone walls with the Flagg-Nearing slip-form method. It was the method we would be using for the house foundation and here was our chance to make our mistakes on the lesser building. After all, wasn’t that the idea? The decision was made and the plans were changed to include a perimeter frost-wall, eighteen inches thick and four feet below ground level. For the last eighteen inches above ground the wall would reduce to twelve inches thick. We included four small windows to vent the crawl space and three piers to pick up the load from the three center upright timbers.
There was one more issue we needed to tackle that spring and for me it was the most worrisome. We needed to obtain a building permit. I had several concerns about this. First, we had engineered the building ourselves. Our confidence in the design did not mean the building inspector would like it. Traditional timber framing with massive timbers is rarely practiced these days and there was the possibility that the inspector would be totally unfamiliar with (and therefore suspicious of) the conventions of the craft. Further, we were planning on harvesting the timbers from our own property. Lumber sold at the local lumberyard is all graded and stamped with some minimum guarantee of quality backed up by some certifying agency. The lumber stamp is the engineer’s assurance that the wood conforms to numerical performance standards that he can then use in his design calculations. Building inspectors (they prefer the title, Code Enforcement Officer, these days) are within their rights to demand graded, stamped lumber for every building project. This is rarely made explicit because the assumption is made that everyone gets their wood from the lumberyard. Our plans would contradict this assumption.
Finally there was the issue of the foundation. A stone foundation constructed using slip-forms was definitely outside the realm of common practice. We weren’t even sure if stones were an allowable material. All these unknowns stirred in my mind an irrational paranoia. On the other hand, Laurie felt confident we had done our homework and could defend our plans if necessary, so off we went, papers in hand, to apply for a permit for our “utility/storage building.” At the time, the building inspector was working out of his home, a house he had been constructing himself for many years. We quickly got into a discussion about some of the work he had done on the building and soon I was somewhat at ease. Finally he looked at some of our drawings.
“So, what’s the foundation going to be?”
Laurie and I looked at each other apprehensively. Laurie answered, “We hope to do a stone foundation.”
“Dry laid or mortared?” he asked. (A dry laid foundation is one in which the stones are stacked without benefit of any “glue” to hold them together. The wall depends simply on the “good fit” of the stones for its stability.) With that single question the building inspector had answered practically all of ours. He wasn’t there to tell us what to do. He was ready to listen to what our plans were for the project. When we got to the question of harvesting our own timbers he turned the conversation to some oak mouldings he had made from wood he had harvested himself. In the building inspector we had found an unlikely kindred soul. All my fears were unfounded. The building permit was issued and we were ready to begin serious work.
Our first task was to set up batter boards. Batter boards are used to define the lines of the excavation and foundation and to establish reference elevations against which the excavation depth and foundation height are checked as the work proceeds. Our batter boards consisted of three vertical posts set solidly into the earth at each corner of the proposed building. The post were set three to four feet outside the finished dimensions of the foundation and arranged about six or seven feet apart to form a ninety degree angle miming the corners of the building. To each set of three posts were attached two horizontal boards at a height above the desired finished height of the foundation wall. In our case we wanted about eighteen inches of wall above grade so the batter boards were set about thirty-six inches above ground to give plenty of room for working with the stringlines in place. Using a builder’s level (a kind of tripod mounted telescope with cross hairs) we made sure that the horizontal boards were all exactly the same height at each corner. We then strung strings from corner to corner and moved them around until we had a perfect twenty-four foot by forty-eight foot rectangle. The batter boards were then permanently marked with the points where the strings crossed them so from day to day the strings could be set up and used to guide the excavation and later to try the alignment of the forms we used for the concrete and stone of the foundation.
Once the batter boards were in place and the stringlines calibrated we were ready to start digging. We had decided to dig by hand using picks and shovels rather than bring in heavy machinery. Helen and Scott Nearing had done their excavations by hand and we felt we could do that too. There was also the consideration that the labor one seemed to save using a machine was really just labor transferred to somewhere else and engaged in some other process; perhaps to an iron mine in Minnesota or Brazil, a copper mine in Chile, a rubber plantation in West Africa, a heavy equipment manufactory in Ohio, an oil field in Saudi Arabia, a refinery in New Jersey, etc. It boggles the mind if one tries to think through all the complex processes, all the hands, that precede the appearance of a backhoe at a jobsite. Mostly they occur far away and represent a diversion of resources away from the local community. In light of this, hand digging seemed more direct, more to the point.
As we dug the foundation trench and, later, as we gathered and washed stones, mixed concrete, set up and took down forms, all in a rhythmic daily routine, we had plenty of time to think. We thought a lot about the process of erecting the frame of the building. While I imagined complex wooden contraptions resembling medieval war machines that I would build in order to raise the massive barn timbers into place, Laurie’s thinking took another tack. One day she said to me, “I think we should have a barn raisin’.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know. An old-fashioned barn raisin’. We’ll invite all our friends and we’ll put up the frame just like they did in the old days. You and I will get all the joinery done before hand. On Raisin’ Day we’ll just have to put it together.”
“Do you think people will come?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. We’ll make it a party. We’ll get beer and hotdogs and hamburgers and sweet corn. Maybe we’ll make it a potluck. It’ll be fun.” She showed me a picture. It was of a massive two-story frame being raised into position by a huge crowd of people. There were men perched on the frame as it went up. Others with long pike poles pushed it toward vertical while still more people held the bottoms of the uprights guiding them into their mortises. Beneath the picture was the caption, “If the whiskey did not flow, the frame would not go up.”
“Sounds like fun to me,” I said.
In my next installment I will describe just how much fun that barn raisin’ was and what we learned on the way to starting our house project.
(Jim and his partner Laurie get to look at their barn from both sides now on their homestead in Meco, NY.)