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Homestead Design, Part 1


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In January at the NOFA New York conference in Albany, Laurie and I did two presentations on homesteading.  In the first, called Ordinary Tools, Extraordinary Results, we discussed the way we employ simple tools, mostly hand tools and tools we can make ourselves, to craft human-scale solutions for the homestead.  In the second we discussed alternatives to grid-power (a subject I had covered in several articles for Organic Farms, Folks and Food, Vol. 20 nos. 2,3 & 4).  In both discussions we had occasion to refer to our on-going house-construction project, complete with pictures of various phases of the process.  Unexpectedly, in both presentations the house became the center of attention for participants.  Veering quickly away from the central themes of the discussions they asked questions about everything from concrete mix ingredients to moisture barriers and ventilation systems.  The spontaneous and enthusiastic interest in the details of the house project prompted me to plan a series of articles describing the process from its earliest conception to its final form.  What follows is my attempt to trace the genesis of the ideas, the acquisition of knowledge, the synthesis of myriad bits of information, and the practical steps that led us to where we are in the building process.  The story starts nearly twenty years ago.

I remember the first conversation Laurie and I ever had.  We met in a bar in Hoboken, New Jersey, introduced by a mutual friend.  It was late on a Friday night in October, 1983 and the place was nearly deserted.  Over glasses of beer we talked about shelter.  Laurie talked about vinyl teepees.  She was into low-tech, low-impact, mobile housing.  She extolled the simplicity of sheet vinyl structures.  I talked about my interest in passive solar design, an interest I had acquired from working on a passive solar heated "envelope house" some years before.  (More on "envelope houses" later.)  It was several years and many more conversations before we became an "item" but that first conversation, with its free ranging exchange of ideas, set a tone for our relationship that endures to this day.

In 1987 a chance occurrence changed our thinking forever.  Up until then our thoughts about the future were pretty vague.  We were interested in everything and focussed on nothing.  We had purchased a small shack on a postage-stamp sized lot in Broadalbin, New York, 15 miles north of the Mohawk River, and we were making frequent visits there.  It was like sticking our toes into the vast ocean of possibilities that existed beyond our city apartment.  It was then that we were introduced to the writings of Helen and Scott Nearing.

Helen and Scott's book, Living the Good Life, was published in 1954.  It was based upon 19 years of experience building a homestead in Vermont.  Within its scant 200 pages they managed to cover an incredible number of subjects.  They described their move to a run-down farm in Vermont in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression.  They recounted the way they developed a habit of self-reliance and the evolving philosophy of life that came with it.  The book was a how-to manual that covered in great detail their building methods, how they grew their food, how they generated income to cover the expenses inevitable to life in the 20th Century, and how, through sensible living and a do-it-yourself attitude they kept such external expenses to a minimum.

What set Living the Good Life apart from others of its type was that it did not simply speak to how things were done.  At each step it asked and answered the crucial question, why.  While the Nearings practiced rigorously sustainable organic farming, they witnessed the rise and inexorable spread of petrochemical agriculture.  They were quick to recognize its menace and, in their book, to tally its shortcomings.  They attacked the white bread diet of the American mainstream as deadly to mind and body and advocated in favor of whole foods locally grown.  They detailed their attempts to develop community and to situate their experiences in a larger world context.  They chronicled both their successes and their failures.  As they promised in the preface, "The book aims to present a technical, economic, sociological and psychological report on what we tried to do, how we did it, and how well or ill we succeeded in achieving our purposes."

The book was subtitled, "How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World" and the sentiment resonated with us.  From our perspective in the 1980's the world was a troubled world.  As President of the United States, Ronald Reagan was overseeing the largest peacetime military buildup in the history of the planet.  Our neighbors in Central and South America were being brutalized as pawns in a cruel Cold War game of oneupsmanship.  Weapons were moving into space and nuclear sabres were rattling on both sides of the globe.  Meanwhile, real human rights like the right to safe food, health care and decent education were being buried under an avalanche of economic globalization and forced privatization led by entities like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.  Laurie had just abandoned a lucrative career in Mechanical Engineering because the only jobs available were in the fields of advanced weaponry and military hardware.  Looking for a pathway that was life affirming, she had returned to school and was pursuing a graduate degree in Biology.  I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with my work in residential construction.  The real estate market was in the middle of a balloon and, as prices of new houses spiraled upwards, the pressure increased to work faster, produce more product, finish more quickly so builders could snatch a bigger piece of the pie.  Craftsmanship, attention to detail and pride in finished product were out.  The trades were flooded with wannabes with little or no real understanding of the tasks they were supposed to perform.  In short the work was becoming worse than meaningless drudgery.

When we read the Nearing's book we were primed for change.  They provided, if not a blueprint, at least a broad outline of a radical new path for our lives.  We immediately decided we would look for a piece of land where we could create our own Nearing-style homestead.  (You can read more on this in Organic Farms, Folks & Food, Vol. 19, no. 2)  As we contemplated the character that such a piece of land would have we began to formulate the first steps in our own unique homesteading plan.  We were very interested in the sun as a source of energy (my fascination with the subject had rubbed off on Laurie) so we wanted the land to have good southern exposure.  In our imagination it would be a south-facing hillside but we were flexible.  I had become interested in traditional building methods through a book called Building the Timber Frame House by Ted Benson.  We decided that construction on our future homestead would tap into this tradition.  We would build the pioneer way with the trees that were available on the land.  As such we decided we were looking for wooded land with trees suitable for building.  Finally, we were looking for vacant land.  We did not want to be tied to someone else's idea of what kind of house we should live in.  We certainly didn't want to attempt to remodel such a place to conform to our ideas.  The Nearings, by their own hand, had built a house of stone and wood on their Vermont homestead.  We were inspired to do likewise.

In these first decisions about land our house design was already taking shape.  It would be a solar house of some sort.  It would align with the sun, not with the road.  It would be some kind of timber frame house fashioned from the trees that surrounded the site.  With these vague ideas as our starting point we set out on our quest for land.  In our first years together we had developed a habit of quick decisions followed by immediate action.  We were unprepared for the three frustrating years of searching that followed.  The right piece of land remained elusive.  Nevertheless other parts of the plan began to take shape.  For one thing we decided, like the Nearings, that our first building would not be the house.  Rather we would start with a workshop/utility building.  This would be a rustic affair, a place to house the tools necessary to constructing a real house, a place to store the wood that needed to be sawn and seasoned for the project.  It would be our "practice building" where we would develop and test the methods and techniques that we would use later on the house project.

We set to work designing this building even as we continued to look for land.  We sketched out a 24-foot by 48-foot English style barn.  The basic shape came from Ted Benson's book and the dimensions stemmed from my years in conventional construction and my habit of thinking about everything in terms of 4' x 8' sheet goods.  (We had no intention of using plywood or any other manufactured product on the building, but the habit was deeply ingrained.)  We found out later that traditional timber frame barns were almost invariably sized based upon the 3, 4, 5 triangle.  This phenomenon of trigonometry is well known even today in the building trades and simply stated is this: A right triangle that measures 3 units on one side and 4 units on the other will have a hypotenuse measuring exactly 5 units.  Thus a rectangle that measures 3 feet on one side and 4 feet on the other will measure 5 feet diagonally from corner to corner.  Barns were typically constructed based on multiples of these dimensions, e.g. 30 feet by 40 feet or 40 feet by 60 feet (2-30' x 40' rectangles).  Smaller and larger buildings maintained this ratio.  The slope of the roof was also based on the 3 to 4 ratio, what today we call a 9/12 pitch.  This was done because buildings had to be square and level (and still do) in order to go together properly.  In the days before retractable steel tape measures and solar powered calculators the standard of measure on a barn building site was the 10 foot pole (the one of "I wouldn't touch that with a..." fame).  We learned of these things later in the design process only when we discovered Jack Sobon's books on timber framing.

Jack Sobon revolutionized our understanding of traditional post and beam construction.  Where Ted Benson had adapted the traditional LOOK of timber framing to modern tools and construction methods, Jack had devoted himself to a careful study of the details of existing period structures dating back to colonial times.  He traveled to Great Britain and to Europe and looked at ancient durable buildings there.  He searched out antique plans and descriptions, paintings and pictures which provided clues to the tools and techniques that had been traditionally employed.  One of his telling observations was that, 150 years ago timber framing was so common, its techniques so widely known, that no one bothered to write down a description of how it was done.  As a consequence, the revolution in building that came with the introduction of mass-produced dimension lumber, balloon framing and platform framing in the Victorian Era all but wiped out any knowledge of the older ways.  Nevertheless Jack was able to reconstruct the common methods of the trade.  More importantly, through his studies he was able to reveal the theoretical considerations that guided timber framing regardless of what building was under consideration.  To us this was the key to understanding, not just copying this bit of joinery or that, willy-nilly drawing lines on paper and hoping they would work in three dimensions.  Jack helped us to see each frame as a coherent whole and each component as a repetition of techniques and rules that led to that unity.

With knowledge gained from both Ted Benson and Jack Sobon's books we were able to proceed to the real detail of designing the building that became known as "the shop."  Because it was our first attempt at timber framing we felt compelled to detail every single component of the frame.  Posts were drawn in four views showing each of the four faces with mortises, peg holes and other joinery details all dimensioned.  Typical mortise and tenon joinery as well as scarf joints, tongue and fork joints, etc. were drawn as large-scale detail plans, which could be referenced as they applied to individual timbers.  Thus, for example, an individual timber plan would show the position of a brace mortise in the timber.  The detail drawing of the brace mortise would show how it was to be dimensioned.  I don't have an exact count now but I would guess there were well over one hundred fully dimensioned and scaled drawings, all done by hand for the shop.  This may sound like a lot of work but we realized early on that a timber frame is like a giant jigsaw puzzle.  You can't just pick up a 6 inch by 8 inch by 18 foot-long maple timber and see if it fits.  It has to be right the first time.  With some timbers in the shop as many as eight other timbers had to match up with them.  It was a daunting task for beginners and we wanted it to come out right.

In my next installment I'll answer the question, "how right did it come out?" as well as practice makes perfect and a dream house takes shape.


Jim and Laurie delve into the past in search of ideas for the future on their homestead in Meco, NY.


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