Yes, it’s been a while since the last update. I’d like to say that it’s because we’ve been working so hard on the house, and that would be partly true. But, in all honesty, we also spent two weeks basking in the Ontario sunshine and another week travelling some of the most beautiful roads in Western Canada to attend a friend’s wedding in Fernie.
At least no one can accuse us of being workaholics.
That said, I’ve noticed a few yellow highlights in the trees, a chill in the air, and it seems our northern summer is threatening to draw to a close. The push is on if we hope to see straw bale walls up by the time the snow flies. And things are happening! With relative speed, we recently framed the front of our walkout basement and, thanks to a little help from our friends, put the basement timbers in place. We’re almost ready to move above ground.
But for the past few months we’ve been digging the foundation, pouring concrete and prepping the basement. What can I say? It’s not really all that exciting. Building a basement is about as dull and colourless as the concrete itself. But here are a few things I’ve learned in the process.
Before backfilling: See all the black? That’s all underground.
Site surveys are a good thing
Or, perhaps more correctly stated, site surveys are athing. No one ever mentioned that you can hire someone to tell you the exact steepness of your slope. The thing is, when you survey your property (I mean with the optimistic, untrained eye of a novice home builder), you see exactly what you want to: a gently angled grade into which your foundation will tuck into nicely. Not necessarily so. In fact, our property is at such a pitch that the front of the basement overhung the ground by about six feet. Picture your basement floor as an Olympic diving board.
Basements take a lot of time
They also take a lot of money. If you’re planning a house, repeat this over and over: “Basements take a lot of time and money, basements take a lot of time and money…” Like most things, the slope issue was easily solved with, you guessed it: time and money. It meant extending our footings down to original earth and bringing in lots of fill to bring the ground up to our walkout basement door. We’ll also be faced with some creative landscaping next summer. Regardless of your slope, you’ll deal with waterproofing and insulating, filling and compacting, more waterproofing, insulating and — in our case — tubing for in-slab heat, and then pouring the slab. Basements involve many stages and numerous (read “expensive”) trips from the concrete truck. Consider yourself warned.
Straw bales are still fun to climb on
On the plus side, our straw bales arrived! Kudos to our Alberta supplier Graeme Stamper and local trucker Monty Schultz for getting us a load of quality bales at an awkward time in the season. We were fortunate that Nick built a small timber frame on the property, which perfectly fits our 300-plus bales under a tarp for short-term storage. It’s been a long time since I last clambered over straw bales, but I’m pleased to report it’s just as much fun 30 years later. I’d find excuses to “check on the bales” and climb into the attic of my straw bale castle to relax under the billowing tarp and stare out at the aspen. Unfortunately, the bales are also heavy. When we realized the joists holding our 1,500 pounds of straw in place were bowing under the weight, Nick quickly fixed the problem with a car jack, then banned my forays into the straw castle.
So, that’s where we’re at: slowly climbing above ground, while gently climbing down from straw bales. As I write, Nick is in his happy place, tweaking the timbers in our basement, making sure they’re plumb and level, tinkering with the joinery, and likely speaking soft words of encouragement and admiration to the hemlock posts and beams that, I’m pretty sure, hold a close second place in his heart. As for me, apologies for any typos: I’m writing quickly, trying to get home to do a little timber oiling in the beautiful B.C. sunshine.