Saturday, October 31, 2009

Pictures of progress

We are beginning to see the end of this barn-building process. We have half our hay floor built, and are beginning to lay out the string to outline the roof.

We have also demolished and recycled 90% of the old barn. Just a tiny shed still stands, a tool shed we will need for a few more days to keep some items dry.

A few hours at a time, often just an hour a day, is all it is taking to build the building. Well, that and a little behind the scenes organization.

But even so, it's amazing what you can do, one board at a time. Even the largest tasks can be broken down to simple, achievable steps if you use reason and diligence.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Working up high, and the burdens of leadership

Our work has been more uplifting lately.


The building has proceeded to the point where we are working on ladders and on the decking for the hay floor, as we build that floor and it expands slowly but steadily across the open space delineated by our walls and internal timber frame.

We were also required to climb the old barn to remove roofing and rafters before demolishing it.

This has given us a new outlook on life. We can see a lot further from the top of the growing building, or the top of the shrinking one, than we can from the ground.

Demolition is never without its risks. In this case, we were forced to use a chainsaw in some difficult positions to get the pieces to fall safely. And then of course there are heavy pieces of timber falling, which is inherently unsafe.

My approach as instructor and foreman is to do the most dangerous things myself. That doesn't mean to say that no-one else gets to use a chainsaw. It does mean that no-one else is using a chainsaw while at the top of a step ladder, or balancing across two 2 by 8 rafters.

Is this actually safer?

Probably. I have more experience with the tools and the exposure and have more confidence than most if not all of our students.

Is it completely safe? Definitely not.

In a moments lack of concentration on Friday I came as close as I have come to an accident on this job site when a purlin broke under foot and I began to fall. I caught myself, but Rory, down below, got to watch as his instructor staggered around on open rafters with a running chainsaw in his hands.

Luckily, the chainsaw is well-serviced, so it idles without the chain spinning. And it was me that was doing the falling, not a student.

Which actually fits in well with our topic of conversation in class, which is about how society is constructed. Do society's leaders accept the same risks that they expect others to accept?

We were talking about the cases where society has a claim on your life, specifically the military draft, and when and where that may or may not be acceptable.

Do leaders take the same risks and carry the same burdens that followers do? Do they lead from the front? Should they?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Friday Work Days

Every Friday I spend about two hours down at the job sight. Lucky for me I grew up around construction and home renovation, I'd seen most of the tools and equipment but had not used very many. I've discovered a love for the skill saw, an enjoyment for the cut off saw, a excitement and respect for the nail gun, and a love hate relationship with hammers. I've raked gravel, driven a standard tractor, poured concrete and smoothed it out, straightened frames, put on stringers without damaging Mick's car, raised boarding boards, placed 2 by 4s for framing, and a few other odd jobs. I've risked comfort and sanity by doing jobs myself and handing over the ones I've mastered.
When we first started this project I was a little nearvous and concerned about where I would fit in. I've learned that in conctruction it helps to have safety glasses and a hard hat, not only for safety but because they help to make you feel the part. And once you feelt he part it makes it easier to do it. There's nothing like swaggering across the job sight with a 2 by 4 in your hands as you approach the work bench with the cut of saw to competantly make the cut for the support that makes sure the barn doesn't fall over. Ok so that 2 by 4 wasn't that important but I did discover that the cutt off saw has a laser to help you see where the cut is going to be. That was really cool!
Despite all these moments there have been some really awesome times. I've been keeping a log of things that happen at the sight while I'm there and I would like to share it.
Monday August 31, 2009
Work day number one. I had to run back to my room several times this morning; to put on proper shoes, to get my hardhat, then finally to get my things for my next class. However, I think it was all worth it. Now I know that safety glasses and a hardhat are useless if you don’t have the correct shoes. It was really neat and fun to work today I actually felt like I got something done. First I worked on trying to level out the space for the foundation. The area has to be as smooth and level as possible, all with-in four inches of where the top of the concrete is going to be because we need to use as little concrete as possible. The fewer holes and low spots we have, the less concrete we will need. We were raking by hand, and then I got to drive the tractor! That was pretty awesome. I’d never driven anything that was a standard but it was easy enough. The only bad thing is that half the time I was driving it I felt as if I was making things more uneven than actually helping to smooth out the area. But my time on the tractor was soon over, and then I got to make batter boards. Batter boards are two boards each supported by two small posts set at right angles to each other at each corner of the structure. These boards are used to make the straight and level lines with string of where the top of the concrete will be, as well as marking the sides along the concrete. We had to hammer in the posts, level off the wood and screw it into the spots. Each board had to be level along its length and level to the other boards. It was a lot of fun, it seemed like less than two hours and it would have been longer if I had not had chemistry to go to.

Friday September 4, 2009
I tired about halfway through the two hours of work, but it felt good to put my back into something. However, maybe next time I’ll put it into something more like foam. We worked really well as a team, about 21 of us working in a 20ft by 30ft area using shovels, rakes, and our backs to move dirt and stones so that the entire area was level at about six inches from the string that we laid with the batter boards. I was surprised at how smoothly things went with most everyone actually working most of the time. I will never take a smooth flat expanse of ground for granted again; there is too much work to go into it. I remember when we had a slab for a storage building poured at our house, I think the concrete people did most of the work, now I know what it required, I’m just glad we did not have to cut into a four foot hill this time. After the first hour most people left to classes and there were only about six of us left. We broke out the tractor and did some real leveling. I think we got it at least half done before I had to leave. Got a great picture before everyone else left, we’re all circled up and standing there with our tools. I think this will be an interesting experience.

Friday September 11, 2009

Friday September 18, 2009
Boots! Big tall rain boots that Mick calls Wellies. I would rather have Wellies than Evil Empire special but it’s not the boots that are important but the why of the boots: concrete and lots of it. About 18 yards; that is a lot of concrete. It was awesome though, brings back memories. The big truck with the concrete spinner the sound of the gravel hitting the other side as it spins. The slush sound of concrete coming down the gutter and the splat that resembles elephant dung as it hits the ground. Yup it’s a glorious life. There is nothing like standing up to your ankles in something that will harden to close to stone, makes me feel a little as if I have ties to the mafia, I like my concrete shoes. Nonetheless we got the slab poured, we had a slight miscalculation and ended up needing more than we thought, but it all worked out well. I did not get to see the last truck but spread around the concrete from the first two. Most of my time was spent with a rake, trying to get the concrete relatively flat and into the all the places it needed to be. Then at one point I used an 8 foot two by four to shimmy across the top of the concrete using the frame to get a level. This would be like shaking a bowl of Jell-O to get it to level out, except we could not shake the foundation. This is a lot of hard work and involves squatting, holding the two by four and moving it in a side to side motion across the concrete slab. After all this was done we wanted to get the finish as smooth as possible so we used a bull float. Looks nothing like a cow or a moose. It is a long paddle about 8 inches tall and 4 foot long that is connected to a long pole (20feet) in the center. Almost like a mop broom. This is moved up and down across the concrete top which is sprayed with a misting of water in order to get it as smooth as possible. Turns out we had a master bull floater in our class, he was not originally but soon became one. All in all it was a fun two hours in tall boots, hard hats, and concrete. What more could a girl want?

Friday September 25, 2009
Not a terribly exciting or interesting day. There were a few things that needed to be straightened out. Like the frame that had the office door in it. It was a little crooked and we had to pull it right. There was a little screw gun work involved, we undid the cripple but there was mainly the use of brute force to pull it right and back into place where it should be. Then Bri and I worked on finishing the top of the frames where the extra heading was added so there would be a solid unbroken line, over all, around the top of the frame. We got to cut 45 degree angles which was simple but exciting. This involved a lot of hammering with a framing hammer attempting to drill 16 penny nails through two 2 by 4s while standing on a ladder. It was also a little chilly today, a simple hooded sweatshirt didn’t seem to cut it, but rather, it was cut by the wind. There were a lot of people on the job sight and some worked on putting up the boarding boards on the outside which will provide nice wind protection and a base for the shingles to be put on later. And some went to go get the wood for the post and beams we are supposed to be putting up next week, these will hold up the floor of the hay loft and the roof. Wood Hall got new doors on the front, so we got one of the old ones for the barn. Like I said, it was a little windy. The wind caught out door and blew it over; the double paned glass broke on the frame that was on the ground. 15 years in Wood Hall and it survives, 2 hours on the job sight and it dies. We cleaned up the glass pretty quickly though I think we got all of it. But the shattering was very exciting.

Friday October 2, 2009
I got to use a nail gun. Guess that’s pretty exciting. We were placing the 2 by 4s that go in between the framing 2 by 4s for support and as a place to hold the manure boards, called stringers. At first it was me and Wendy we were using the saw to cut the boards then placing them. It was a two person job since one person would hold the board while the other hammered four 16 penny nails into it. Not a very fun task. But oddly enough, at the same time, it really was a lot of fun. There is nothing like a hammer flying in front of your face to take you to your toes. After the first work hour most people left. I continued working on the job myself. Maybe I had some pent up aggression and wanted to continue hammering the nails in but wielding a framing hammer on 16 penny nails wears one out fairly quickly. I saw Mick’s wisdom in moving up to using the nail gun. And that is what I did. At one point I had concern about what type of insurance Mick had on his car, but overall it was a safe and fun. You have to put a lot of pressure on the safety trigger to get it to fire though, which is a good thing unless you are a weakling and at an odd angle. I got more done by myself and with the nail gun than we did with two people putting in the boards and two people cutting them. And ours were fairly straight and level too. Allows one to put a little pride in their work, and in themselves. I got to help raise one of the posts during this. Massive things they are, 6 by 6 pieces of wood that are 20 feet or more long. We have three of them up. They stand through the 8 foot height of the barn and will stand another 12 feet from there to go up and support the top of the roof; right now though it looks like we have sadly undecorated totem poles marking the location of our barn.

Friday October 9, 2009
Today I was at the job sight for three hours. Going was pretty slow for the first hour, trying to get the cut of saws screwed down, extension cords figured out and sent to the right place, the air compressor hooked up and ready to go. It was a little frustrating but everything worked out well, and I do know how to hook up the compressor now, which is pretty cool. I kind of headed up the group that was assigned to do stringers and boarding boards. We got all the stringers finished and a few boarding boards up. I had sent Megan around to make the four foot marks on the frames to show where the stringers were going to go, Wendy and Bri were cutting the stringers, and I was nailing them in place with the nail gun. After about a dozen I decided it would be a good idea to let someone else have a go at using the nail gun, after all it is a lot of fun. After handing this over I felt a little lost and did not know what to do so I went over and helped to put up a few boarding boards. This is a lot trickier than it may seem; especially when there are short people like myself attempting the work. After helping to put up two boards we realized that the tops of the boards were not level with the top of the heading like they should have been so we pulled them off and gave it another go. We managed to get the two boards on correctly but then it was time to call it quits and go to Chemistry. At least the stringers were done all the way around so there was something to put the boards on to. After Chemistry I came back, to get a 6 in long piece of 6 by 6 and to put in another hour before I had to go to work. I was ready to jump on board with the boarding board project (that’s a cornucopia of boards) but was directed instead to framing. Inside our 30 ft by 40 ft barn there are going to be stalls and an office. The office needs to have its own walls and therefore some of its own framing. Luckily there was already the outside of the frame raised and supported, the only thing we had to do was to add the 8 foot support 2 by 4s every 16 inches. This would have been easier if each one was exactly 8 ft long. But they were not. There was quite a bit of comic lifting and raising of two by fours and plenty of shaving with the cut off saw. With only two more to cut though the day was called and it was time to go to work. We got everything picked up and cleaned up. Mick used the chain saw to cut me a 6 by 6 by 6 and I was on my way.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Old fashioned carpentry

Photos: Ryan makes a notch for a 6 by 8 hemlock beam, which will hold up the hay floor of our barn.

The exterior walls of our barn are "stick-built," meaning they are built with relatively thin sticks of lumber, two by four inch by eight foot studs, or "2 by 4 by 8's," or just "studs."

Wishing to build both a sturdy and a locally-sourced building, we employed fully two inch by four inch, locally produced, "rough cut" hemlock lumber of high quality, which we bought in quantity from Gerald Fowler's lumber mill in Thorndike, Maine.

I say "fully" because most lumber that carpenters and contractors use for building is only nominally 2 by 4 inches. Mainstream commercial lumberyards for generations have sold only kiln-dried, planed, stamped 2 by 4 studs. The "stamp" is the manufacturer's quality assurance stamp, and while most carpenters know it means very little, most insurance companies wish you to build with this material. The reason is not because it's the best lumber to use for any particular purpose. It's instead authorized for use because this kind of lumber, stamped by a reputable and large lumber company, carries with it the implied promise that, if the carpenter or contractor uses this lumber, uses it correctly, following standard systems taught in trade school and written in carpenter's manuals, then if the building then falls down, causing a loss for the insurance company, the lumber company will be available to be sued, as well as the contractor, and any sub-contractors, to make up the insurance company's loss.

The lumber companies, contractors, and all but the flakiest of subs, carry bonding and insurance too, just in case they are sued.

Kiln dried lumber, however, is not two by four inches but instead planed down to an actual dimension of one-and-a-half by three-and-a-half inches. This dimension was not chosen for ease of calculation. It was chosen because this was what you got when you planed down a rough two by four. These days, with low kerf band saws and high speed planing knives, you'd get a larger stud by just planing down a rough two-by four, but the one point five by three point five inch size is kept because the savings from the new equipment has been absorbed as extra profit to the lumber company, not passed on as stronger lumber to the customer.

Kiln dried or KD or, phonetically, kay-dee lumber is brittle, generally cut from spruce or douglas fir, cracks easily, warps spectacularly in the wrong circumstances, rots well, and has less than half the strength of air-dried rough cut lumber if hemlock is the species used. Experienced carpenters in Maine, where this conifer is abundant, keep hemlock lumber around and use it for bracing and other jobs where superior strength is needed.

They also use it to build their own buildings, especially outbuildings, where wallboard is not used. Hemlock has the additional benefit of being rot-resistant.

Kiln-dried is for the customer's barn, not the contractor's.

So why would anyone use kiln-dried lumber for an outbuilding?

Because the insurance company made them do so.

This is one of those cases where the decline in lumber quality and concurrent common sense is a symptom or knock-on effect of a primary shift in values in society as a whole,

Long ago, lumber companies began kiln-drying and planing lumber to make it easier to get smooth finishes on walls if dry wall and other wallboard products were to be used. Before drywall there was lathe-and-plaster finish which could accommodate the irregularities of rough cut lumber. My own farmhouse, 109 years old this summer, is rough cut hemlock, and originally had lathe-and-plaster walls. But drywall saves time and produces a smoother if not superior finish, and so planed lumber, and wallboard, were needed to "knock out" the cheap family housing that began to be the norm after Levittown and other motor suburbs, eventually with their attendant shopping malls and "box stores," came to replace the historic pattern of American cities, beginning in the 1950s.

Most American families benefited from this cheaper housing supply and the overall price of housing fell, allowing middle-class values of home ownership to be achieved lower on the pay scale than previously possible. It was also in this era that the dependent, commercial, middle class suburban house began to replace the independent, subsistence and market-producing, rural homestead or farm as the American ideal housing format, the dream that most would strive for.

In fact, since the 1950s there has been a substantial net loss in farm and homestead ownership, and a corresponding commercialization and intensification of agriculture.

And so went the Jeffersonian dream, taking the rough cut 2 by 4 with it, superior strength notwithstanding. Now you can only buy them from small private lumber mills.

Actually, Jefferson, who wasn't a carpenter but knew a fair amount about building and planning, probably would have thought of even rough cut, stick-built, lathe-and-plaster finished housing as cheap and nasty. In Jefferson's time, if you built to last, you used stone, brick, and post-and-beam construction.

The walls of our barn are thus somewhat anachronistic, and employ a building technique, using rough cut sticks, abandoned by the mainstream some 40-50-60 years ago. The interior frame of our barn, which will be held up by massive, cross-braced hemlock posts and beams, will use a technique a hundred or two hundred years yet more anachronistic. Post and beam technique, in English-speaking society, dates back to the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England, or before, to the Iron and Bronze Age Celts. The technique was well known to the Romans and Greeks, and, where timber was available, used throughout the biblical world of the ancient Hebrews and Egyptians. Carpenters in the time of Ptolemy or Aristotle knew how to make a cross-brace that fit. Jesus, an Israeli carpenter by nationality and trade, would have used these techniques. His cross certainly used them. David's palace, and the first, second and third temples, would all have had post and beam roofs, even if the walls were of Jerusalem limestone.

The oldest European-settlement buildings in America are post and beam.

Many can be studied to this day, if you are interested in how buildings, and societies, are built.

My own particular favorite, in which the carpentry, and social construction, can still be observed well to this day, is Third Haven Quaker Meeting House in Easton, Maryland. But I'm a Quaker, and so biased. Third Haven used "green" or fresh-cut American white oak, Quercus alba. In Britain, where the Third Haven Quakers came from, we would have used the English oak, Quercus robar.

Interestingly, alba, in gaelicized Roman, also is Albion, perfidious or not, and where the Third Haven Quakers, and me, were from.

Third Haven was the third haven they had found from religious persecution, as they tried to build a better society.

It was not a metaphor. They were kicked out of the previous two.

The Easton Quakers still meet there every Sunday, or First Day, in summer. These days most that are not retired are commuters and many work in Washington DC for the government.

As for our class, we're just beginning to take our inquiry into the building of a building a little deeper, inquiring further into what the design and execution of a building might teach us about the building of a society.

At 8am, the time for our class, students are tired, and much as Trey, one of last year's students, described in his post here, participation in that debate seems too much for most. Most would rather just build. Building a building is more concrete, and possibly more fun.

But there are hopeful signs that a few are willing to begin to think about what kind of society they are being trained to lead, and how to make sure it is sturdy-built and will serve, or even serve better, for their lifetimes at least.