Thursday, July 21, 2011

Rootcellar... Final countdown!


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Finally, the rain has stopped but it's muggy as s#!t out here

Last week, I woke up around 5:30 one morning and the sky was on fire.

This morning I got up at 5:30a to pee (TMI? haha), I looked out the window and there were a bunch of cows in the soybean field across the street where they didn't belong! So I woke up my aunt and uncle and we all got up to gather them back to their pasture. It wasn't as difficult as it could have been, it was light out, it wasn't raining, or hot yet. My uncle has been grazing his cows and one of the benefits, he noted when they were all back in the pen, was that the cows are more responsive to his calls. Because they associate his call with new food when he called them to come back across the street to the lot behind the house they escaped from they were happy to do it! All we pretty much had to do was stand around them in a circle (my grandpa and the neighbor Kevin got up too) and kind of herd them back to the open gate. I'm sure it's not always as easy as that but for my first time, I'm glad getting the cows home wasn't too difficult :)

The weather here has been sh*tty, seriosuly. It's either raining/t-storms with a threat of hail or tornadoes, or it's crazy hot and humid. I've been here just over 3 weeks and there has been about 2 nice days for working outside. Sigh. Yet... somehow, I'm still feeling the pull of this land that's been in my dad's family for generations.

Today is Festival of Farms, Sustainable Farm Day, in Minnesota as declared by the governor. My uncle was helping out with tours at one of the farms (Mike's place) and I came up for the morning tour. Mike is working his 9+ acre piece of land with a sustainable approach in permaculture. If you are unfamiliar with permaculture and have any interest in gardening, or you own your own land, or you want to be smarter, I highly suggest you look it up. Mike's been experimenting with interplanting; a concept found in permaculture of using layers in planting.

The traditional plant combination of squash, beans and corn is one example of successful inter-planting. Mike is working with rotating trips of different veggies and inter-planting grapes(high), raspberries(mid) and strawberries (low) as well as other things. It was educational, inspiring and exciting to see a permaculture farm in action. Making me very eager to get started growing or at least try to convince people who are growing food to try some permaculture methods. Mike also suggested a book to me, Carrots love Tomatoes, because I was telling him when I was at Cornell for Landscape architecture I wasn't learning about what I was really interested and that was edible food and inter planting (though I just learned that term today).

The root cellar is progressing, a bit slower these last few rainy days. Last night I built one bay of shelving so that when Dan was here on his own today he'd have a visual reference of how I wanted the shelves built. Half of the shelves are built. Garlic harvest is tentatively Tuesday which means we need to get those shelves out of there by the time the garage gets full up of garlic!

This is half of the shelves.

The verticals are pressure treated 2x4s as well as the ledgers. The shelves are 1x4 cedar planks which come with one smooth side and one rough- because they are intended for siding. The widest shelf has slats across the back and that is so that veggies can be piled in without leaning against the wall. All the ledgers stick out at the back at least an inch and this is so when the shelves are in place, with the back legs resting on top of the footing, there is still air flow around the back of the shelves. These ledgers will also offer a place to attach the shelves with anchors to the wall to prevent any disasters of a collapsing nature. I was totally jealous of Dan because it was really fun to make that shelf last night, I wanted to spend a whole day making more!

In a root cellar, air flow is super important. If the air gets stale it can lead to rot because of the humid nature of the space. If vegetables are piled too much without air flowing around them it is just breeding ground for mold. I'm looking forward to getting updates from my aunt and uncle about how they are using the root cellar and how well it's actually working and what kinds of things they need to adjust. It's not as easy as plopping their stuff in there!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Been busy the past few days!

Sorry my postings have been sporadic and somewhat out of order! I'll post a root cellar summary when the project is done so you can see the whole process in one place :)

This is the bond beam before we filled it in with concrete on Sunday:

The bond beam ties the whole structure together.

Vertical rebar comes through the walls into the final course which is turned into a bond beam by cutting half way down the web of each block, knocking the cuts out with a hammer, then laying the block and placing rebar. The chunks of block that were knocked out are then set inside the block wall to keep the concrete fill (preferably corefill) from filling all the other cores. Making a wet concrete mixture and using buckets, we filled all the vertical cores, slid in long rebar then filled the bond beam and inserted anchor bolts and smoothed the top with a trowel. Easy concept, lots of labor. A wheelbarrow full of concrete is not an easy thing to maneuver, especially up a hill!

Monday we took a day off, we were both exhausted working long hot, hard days... those concrete blocks aren't light, that's for sure! I'm now feeling nice and strong... and looking nice and tan.

On Tuesday we placed the drain perforated tile/pipe, filled the floor with soil, attached the top plates and countersunk them to receive the bolts and washers and we installed the 2 side end plates that sit vertically and the east and west joists.

Wednesday we installed the rest of the joists, it went very smoothly and we were done by lunch!

Dan checking out the joists from inside the root cellar before we close up the roof

then we sheathed it in 3/4" foundation grade plywood (like double pressure treated... it won't be rotting any time soon)

A lovely sheathed cap, awaiting dry weather and membrane, insulation and soil

We also got a delivery of the materials for building the shelves, as well as a door that had been taken off of a project that I got for only $25! So I need to build out a rough opening for that then hang the door and install the door knob. It's an aluminum insulated door.

After we finished up yesterday I went to Runnings Fleet Farm store in Hutchinson, MN to get new boots. My steel toe boots died on Tuesday with a split across the sole of the right shoe- the left one has been leaky since January when I'd walk the 2 blocks to the job site and my left foot would be drenched before I even started work. It was time... and here they are! New leather Carharts! I also bought a new flannel shirt I'm very excited about, one is just not enough :)

New boots, I love constructiony things!
It was dangerous walking down the tool aisles :P

Today it's rainy and I'm hoping to get a chance to play some boardgames and drink mojitos as the original plan for that on Tuesday evening was cancelled due to heath issues... so hopefully this afternoon, games will be played and mojitos made and consumed!

Oh and I downloaded an app for my phone that lets me use my own pictures as icons so that's what I've been doing this morning :P For starters I just made a little polaroid sketch and I'm using that for everything... it's fun, so much time-suck potential!


I also have an update on my travel plans. I got a call from a college friend who started a company in the Colorado Rockies and she's looking for help. So we're talking about me joining her for a trial period and seeing how that works out, so it looks like I might be moving to Colorado for an indefinite period at the end of September!
I will still be spending August in Washington state and hitting up my high school reunion in Portland, OR in the beginning of September. My plans for the fashion classes in Portland is going to go on hold though if I can actually do something in the field of architecture... if things don't work out in CO I can always take those classes at the beginning of next year and if things do work out in CO then I'll be busy there, snowboarding :) I'm just going with the flow. I was thinking though that it's kind of funny... I'd been feeling the call of Colorado so I planned to go through and check it out and then I actually got a call, asking me to come to Colorado with a purpose! Kismet? :)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Today the weather cooperated very well, it was cool and breezy til the evening. Sunday we got the walls finished to the 10th course, a bond beam. Monday we took a break, I'd been at it hard for 6 days in a row and I was beat!
Today, my grandpa used the backhoe to dump soil in for the floor, Dan tamped it down and spread it out. We got the perforated drain tile in withouut too much damage to its sock. Then we put in the north and south top plates and the 2 outside joists! It's looking more and more complete everyday! I also confirmed delivery for Thursday of the materials for the shelving which we should be able to start building soon (once the roof is done). There is still muuch to do and about 9 more working days left til I leave.
I'm so grateful for the opportunity to practice my building skills as well as the chance to learn from professionals wwho have been kind enough to offer advice and help and I'm greatful Daniel's wrist is better so he can help me; I couldn't do this alone for sure!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

So tired

When you find yourself in Minnesota and someone tells you something is going to be delivered after dinner... that means after lunch! My uncle and more importantly his check book wasn't around when the second to last delivery of goods arrived today! That was hectic but we got it all worked out. Now I have the materials for the roof as well as the perforated drain tile (pipe). It's pretty exciting! Early next week we'll get the material for the shelves inside (so I'll be making a cut list for that soon!)

This morning a cow got stuck again in the fence. I saw it happen. These girls! There is an opening in the interior door of the fence so that when it is open they can get their heads to the drinking water. Well they pulled off the bungee that was put on yesterday because of a similar incident (different cow, same position) where a cow tries to walk through the opening, gets her head and front legs through but trips over the lower bar and gets stuck. Luckily neither of the girls (yesterday or today) broke a leg but what a pain! Hopefully the metal carabiner with twist action will keep this from happening again. It's easier to deal with a few seconds of work every time you open the gate rather than several people's time and the threat of a broken cow leg every time a girl gets so excited for her silage (fermented corn, basically beer for cows... they love it!).

The goal today was to get to the 6th course and drylok (waterproof paint) what we'd finished so far. We just started it in the evening but the sun was beating down on us hard from the West and we both hit the wall... it was time to stop. So we cleaned up, K2 and I went to town so I could buy ice cream and beer and supplies for Mojitos and came back and we got to play Agricola! It was a very close game, I think K2 might beat me soon, and I'm looking forward to the real game on Tuesday- tonight was more of a learning game for Brandon and Dan :)

Building is going well, tomorrow we'll need to finish about 3 courses and then we can finish the last course (well, second to last course) on Sunday morning before Brian the Mason comes after "dinner" to help with the final course.

The plan is to pretty much work everyday and take off the 16th for farm days and a few evenings for games with the boys. Tomorrow night we're going to a celtic music and labryinth walking event, so that should be nice... I'm going to have to request a shoulder massage soon...I'm sore and soon we'll be lifting the cinderblocks even higher- though we might be able to place them from the hill on the side of the root cellar a.k.a. recently as "The Pit".

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Chug Chug, moving along nicely!

Sore and feeling good and accomplished!

Today I got some help from Daniel. I had to run to the hardware store so I set him up with a couple tasks. When I got back and mixed up some mortar he was ready to go. I showed him what I know about laying block and we got started. We made good time today I’m pleased!

Dan and Me and the mortar bucket

Here's how far we got, Day 2 of laying block- the goal is 10 courses, the last one will be a bond beam which Brian will be helping out with (which is good cause I didn't think of it and I don't think I totally grasp how it's going to work!)

In the evening, Brian the Mason came by and cut some brick for the bond beam which he said he’d help with on Sunday. So we have until Sunday to complete 9 courses of block! With Daniel’s help, we’ll be able to get it done for sure :)

Brian the Mason (and neighbor), all-around awesome for giving advice, and tools, and materials, and time, cutting block for the bond beam. He has 25 years of experience, I try not to let him get to close a view of some of my joints :P

Mark (who helped yesterday) stopped by this morning and I bent his ear about helping with cutting wood for the shelves inside, so tonight I’m working on a cut list for that portion of the project. Materials should be arriving in a delivery tomorrow. Last night I was asked by Mike ( the guy who carrie din a few block yesterday) to come by his place and give some root cellar advice, so I’ll be doing that next Saturday. I also went to Sunny’s last night in downtown Howard Lake with my aunt Marienne and tried beer cheese soup (with popcorn) which was good, and very rich! I’m glad I just got the cup! The food was rich and delicious

Beer Cheese soup, "you're in Minnesota, you have to try it"
It was tasty!

As soon as we finished cleaning up and stepped inside uncle Jerry came calling "all hands on deck". Some cows got out and we were needed to wrangle them back in. Luckily by the time we got there the cows had wandered their way back into the field so Jerry stayed a bit and helped re-secure the fences. Just goes to show that life can be exciting on a farm, always something to do!

Brian the Mason offered to help with the corefill concrete as well so we're going to keep building up tomorrow after we Drylok (waterproofing paint) the exterior; I'd like to get it done before Daniel arrives in the morning. I woke up at 7:30 this morning, so that might not be a problem! I'm already tired and was thinking I didn't even have the energy to watch a movie! Well, really I wanted to play a boardgame but it wasn't in the cards tonight :P I did initiate plans to play Agricola and drink Mojitos on Tuesday though, that'll be fun! Now I need to get the perfect recipe for mojitos (ideally I'd find out from Giles at Hostel Tevere in Warren, VT- best mojiots ever!)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Day one of laying block on the root cellar

Wow I'm exhausted! I can't believe it was just yesterday that we poured ("placed") the footing! This morning, with the help of K2, we marked out the walls with a chalk line and added more rebar generously given by Brian (The Mason). Then a friend of my aunt and uncle and grandpa, Mark, came by and helped for a couple hours before lunch. We did a dry layout to figure out where to drill for the additional rebar and lay the corner blocks at the back (West) wall. After lunch I decided that I needed to work alone for a bit to get back into the masonry swing of things. I was able to get in the zone and get my mortar just the right sticky-iness (when you scoop it up on the trowel it should stick when you hold it upside down). So far I think I used 5 bags of mortar today, and I got started on the second course (row/layer/level). The plan is 10 courses, the gap in the block near the front is where the door will be. There will also be an insulated interior wall creating a cooler, more insulated back room. The shelves have been designed and now I need to order materials for that as well. Tomorrow I will be laying more block, ordering some more materials and installing the lower vent. I need to put in a perforated drain tile around the outside as well and the plan is to paint the exterior with dry-lock to help keep the moisture controlled... which means I need to paint as I go because there's only about 4 inches of space outside the footing and I can't fit back there!

Here is where I reached at the end of the day. Those 3 blocks in the back were brought in by Mike who was checking out the root cellar and I said there was a new rule that if you were going to look at it you had to bring in a block to the back :) I think I need to enforce this new rule, it will prove very helpful as people stop by to check out my progress!

So much to do:
- install vents
- finish block wall
- build wood roof
- membrane and insulate roof
- build interior shelves
- build front retaining wall with bench

I have less than 3 weeks here yet before I head to Wisconsin... I'm going to need some help... perhaps I can get someone to work on cutting the wood for the shelves since the walls are going up now and we'll have dimensions to work with!

I have a footing!!!!!

July 5 - (Internet wasn't working, so posting a day late)
I called this morning for my concrete delivery, they said 9:30, I said, “sounds good!”. Eric, the driver, showed up right at 9:30 (love that!). I told him I haven’t poured concrete before and he said he’d help me out a bit and he used to do concrete. So first he set up the chute and poured a bit of concrete in to check the slump then he showed me out to “scree” it. That is where you take a board and slide it across the top of the formwork to smooth out the concrete. Because I will be laying block I didn’t want it to be too smooth so there is some grip for the mortar. So Eric got in the truck and I drove the chute- giving him hand signals to move the truck or stop letting the concrete come out. He was impressed with my formwork and said it is better than a contractor’s! Such a relief because I was pretty nervous about my formwork all last week having never built any before! First we poured the back then down the south wall, across the front (west) wall then poured the north wall. Right at the end there wasn’t any more concrete coming out of the truck, so that was it. He said that was good, most contractors end up short or with a yard and a half extra. I only had about a half a 5 gallon bucket extra! He asked if I calculated it myself and was impressed when I said that I did!

Katrina and the Concrete: I’m walking on sunshine!! Unfortunately there aren’t any actions shots because when he got here I was too excited to get started to worry about trying to track someone down to take some pictures.

Before he left he gave me some pointers on laying the block. He said the mortar should be like peanut butter and when I get it on my trowel and hold it upside down it should stick- an excellent and important tip! Also he said to start with the corners and build them up as high as the wall will be then you lay the block in the middle. I told him I was planning to keep a string across to make sure it stays level (learned that in Brazil). I also asked when I can start laying block and he said tomorrow or even tonight!

I love building things and seeing it come together and learning to do new things and having professionals tell me that I’m doing it right!!! Feeling good :)

After the footing was poured, I called the block company and had all my blocka n mortar delivered. The guy was clearly an expert at the claw arcade game. He manuvered skillfully around the powerlines, dropping the block right near the entrance to the site. The concrete guy, Eric, said I could start as soon as tonight, but I’m gonna give it til tomorrow.

So then… Brian, the neighbor at the end of the road, stopped by! Brian is a masonry union working so he knows his stuff. He was soooo helpful. he offered advice and lent me tools, some things i didn’t even know existed! He used his laser level thingy (no lasers, just super precise) to help me see how level my formwork was. I was only a 1/2 inch off from level from the front to back, and between 1/8 and 1/4 out from level across the front. Not bas considering I pretty much gave up on getting everything perfectly level and went for level enough :P He gave me suggestions of a few things to do as I go and a few things to get me started. He even offered to come by tomorrow evening and help me cut some blocks! I told him I’d make him whatever baked good he wants!

I think at the end of this project I’d like to have a root cellar party, and invite all the people who’ve helped me out and worked on it. I’m hoping to get a bit more help mainly cause those suckers are heavy, especially when they’ve absorbed some water. Tomorrow is going to be awesome, finally getting going on the walls. Only 3 weeks to finish… wish me luck (and cooperation from the weather!)! If it rains one of these days and I can’t work, I’ll be spending it making something tasty for the neighbors for sure :)

Monday, July 4, 2011

one thing

One thing I've figured out in my travels is that I need a cast iron skillet! The original non-stick!

Could I...?

Could I trade blocks for fields? Public transportation for land/space? Light pollution for more stars than I can comprehend?
The past two days have been filled with awesome people, delicous food, intense and beauttiful weather and hard work. It's been awesome. The community of people in and around the farm and Howard Lake has just blown me away; completely unexpected.
Keeping this in mind (here 3 more weeks) for the bigger picture for sure... not sure how I would make a living out here for one... potentially work as a builder... still want to open Kismet Hostel, so perhaps live here seasonally and live "there" seasonally. I still have exploring to do (Colorado, I'm still coming!). Returning to my Minnesotian roots, something to contemplate.
Main downside so far... mosquitoes!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Building Formwork

If someone had just said "do it the easy way", I would have started with that :P

Excavating went super quickly because of the skid steer and neighbor Kevin's speed and one-ness with the machine. The formwork for the footing is another story! In part because it was so hot on Thursday and Friday.

This is how it's gone so far in the first week of the Root Cellar project:

: Kevin excavated the slope

: Kevin excavated a little more (always measure multiple dimensions before you tell someone it's good to go!); bought all my formwork materials from Maple Lake Lumber (Daryl is so helpful!) also had 13- 20'@1/2" rebar delivered; started working on leveling the clay soil... this is not an easy task! Got in touch with the CMU company and ready-mix concrete company to figure out costs and lead times, I can pretty much call the day before I need a delivery (2 yards of concrete and 440 CMUs)

Wednesday: Went to town and bought a string level which doesn't work very well- it's not the particular string level's fault, it's the string level itself- if you need to level something across a long area get a long board, put it across and set the level on it. The string is never accurate in the center I think because the two arms it hangs off of make it level where the string is, it only works right up next to your board. (see sketch below). K2 and I spent a good 2 hours working on leveling the formwork by removing soil from below the formwork, we got 3 boards level with a plan for how to level the rest of it. I also ordered the remaining materials for the root cellar and they will be delivered next Friday!

Thursday: Oh.My.Hot... Most frustrating day... it was super hot and when I went out in the morning to continue leveling I checked the boards we'd leveled on Wednesday and they were no longer level. After much frustration I sat in the garage for a while to pet Turnal whose purring helped calm my frustration a bit. I'd missed a call from the ready-mix concrete place so I called back to let them know we wouldn't be pouring today. I was trying to figure out how to build the formwork and what needed to be level and the best practices and I realized I should ask the concrete guys!
Oh, I'm so glad I did, they put my mind at ease! Gaps under the wood formwork are fine, as long as the top of the formwork is level that is what is important. Wow, that made things so much easier!
Moral of the story, figure out what your problem is and then ask the right people (and sometimes, this means NOT using the internet *gasp!*)
It was still really hot out, and just sitting down barely moving I was sweating like crazy so decided to take a break until the cooler hours of the evening. I ended up taking a nap and not feeling super so I stayed in the rest of the night. It gets dark around 9:30pm which means it's really easy to work late when the weather is nice!

Friday: Went outside in the morning to try to work but it was still way too hot. I decided that I would just wait until the evening rather than wearing myself out in the daytime without being very productive. This was a good idea! I then went shopping to antique and thrift shops with my Aunt Marienne in Buffalo and I got some sweet stuff including more cassette tapes for my car ride! We left after lunch and started heading back around 5 and looking South the sky was really dark. We got back just in time to move the cars into the garage and secure/stow what we thought might blow away. There was a wall of storm heading NE and we were on the SE edge of it. It was kind of scary, all the cats were inside. We were upstairs and the wind was whipping by, the weather channel in a computer voice was saying "This is a dangerous situation" and saying tornado warning and 4" hail, so we all went in the basement and emptied out the closet under the staircase god-forbid. The first small bit of storm passed and as the bigger system worked its way Northeast we got the skirting edge of it. Some of the fence around the girls (dairy cows) knocked down so when the storm cleared a bit my aunt and uncle went to fix it. No major damage on our farm or on the news, so that's good. The weather has been particularly rough this year. My grandpa, who will be 89 in a couple weeks, said this is the worst weather he's ever seen and he's been farming this land since he was 19. When farmers can tell that the weather is changing, city people oughta pay attention I think. Oh, it was also K2's birthday yesterday! So we had a lovely meal with K2 and Brandon, they are good guys. After the first storm bit of storm passed, I taught them to play Settlers of Catan. They enjoyed it which means when it rains or they have some freetime, I'll have more gaming buddies! Hooray!

Saturday, Today: It has cooled off so much since Thursday! Now my pit is super muddy and nice and cool so therefore the hangout of many a fly. Anyway I go the formwork leveled this morning and piled soil around the bottom edge of it. Now I am waiting for it to dry out a bit more so I can clear the disturbed soil out of the bottom of the formwork and get to laying rebar!

This evening is K2's birthday celebration so I will be heading out for that. I will be introducing him to the wonderful game of Pictionary which I picked up for a mere 50 cents at a thrift store, classing dark blue box and everything! If he enjoys the game, it will be my gift to him, along with the sweet card I made.

To sum up, Formwork basics (check back later to learn how well it actually turned out, should be pouring Tuesday!) :
  1. Get the ground relatively level (like within a couple inches)
  2. Lay out your formwork (1 by stock is standard for formwork, I'm using 1x8 so the footing will be at least 7.25" high all the way around)
  3. Pound in stakes every 4 feet all the way around (inside and outside walls!), pound them in so they are super sturdy! We got 50-18" stakes that were already cut of 1x3s and cost .50 a piece.
  4. Hold a level along the edge of your formwork at the lowest place in the soil, when it is level clamp to the stake. When you have leveled the board on both ends, attach with screws to your stakes (from the outside if you want to be able to remove them!)
  5. Work your way around the outside formwork using clamps and double and triple checking for level and attaching when you are confident it is level. Digging out where the soil is too high.
  6. For a footing, level the inside formwork second, based off the perimeter holding a level across and another along the board. Be sure to clamp before you screw! You can potentially pound the stakes in further once attached but pulling them up will compromise the soil in which they are stuck, so try to avoid this!
  7. When the whole formwork is level, pile and tamp sand or soil on the outside of the formwork to cover any gaps. You can also attach additional boards on the outside.
  8. Remove any loose soil in the bottom of the formwork. This soil should all be virgin, undisturbed soil so has to help prevent shifting and therefore cracking, in the footing/ building.
If you have questions when building, ask people at hardware stores and concrete companies! Well, depending on where you live, I never had much luck with people working in big box stores, but if there is a small local lumber store, hardware store or concrete supplier- go to them! Support local businesses and they'll support you!

Some websites I found useful as a first-timer:
  • Do It Yourself this site is awesome, there is a forum where you can get answers from people who know what they are doing as well as articles that cover how to do things: