Saturday, 26 December 2009

Finally, some action!

After the wettest spring since 1945, summer has finally arrived in New Zealand. The job that we’ve been waiting three months to be able to do – digging the holes for the verandah posts – is finally complete and our building morale is on the up.

Timing is very important when you’re digging in heavy clay. If we’d tried to dig the holes for the verandah posts too early, the ground would have been like blancmange, the holes wouldn’t have held their shape and the inspector wouldn’t have approved the footings. If we’d waited too long the ground would have set like concrete and we wouldn’t have been able to get the spade into it.

Me wrapping the frame in builder's wrap

Luckily, by the time this year’s window of opportunity came around we were living up on site, and we managed to get all six post holes dug within the course of a couple of days. Before we could pour the concrete we had to get the holes inspected. At the same time, we asked the inspector to give the frame a quick check. Because it’s spent such a long time being exposed to very wet weather, we were worried that the wood might be too far gone, and we might have to pull it down and start again. That would have really sapped our morale, dented our pockets, and set the build back to square one.

Fortunately both the footings and the frame passed muster, but the inspector said we needed to get the building wrap and the roof on as soon as possible. We were a bit surprised, because the official frame inspection (which we’re not ready for yet because we’ve not built the verandah) is called the ‘pre-wrap’ inspection, so we’d assumed that you couldn’t put the building wrap on before the frame had been inspected. We really wish we’d known this because we would have wrapped the frame up months ago.

 This ugly duckling will emerge as a beautiful swan some day. Or at least, a passable duck.

 We put the building wrap on the day after the inspection. The roof can’t go on until we’ve completed the framework for the verandah roof, so we got some black plastic sheeting and made a temporary roof out of that. The random pieces of wood you can see in the photo are emergency storm-proofing measures to stop the roof lifting off during the inevitable gale that blew up within a few hours of covering the roof. The house doesn’t look great, but at least the frame now has a chance to dry out at last.

Gratuitous yurt shot. I love our yurt!

Now the inspection is out of the way and the house is protected from the rain, our next job is to build the verandah. Getting the verandah posts in the right positions was fiddly but not as difficult or as time-consuming we'd been anticipating - it only took just over a day. Pouring the concrete was even quicker- just three hours! I'm really glad Iain treated us to a concrete mixer for Christmas!

Iain and the verandah posts pre-concrete

Now the concrete is poured we have to wait for it to cure for a few days before we can start building the framing for the verandah roof, so tomorrow we're going to start work on the deck for our yurt.


P.S. A trivia question for you: From which computer game is this post’s title taken?

Monday, 9 November 2009

We're still here...

...honest! We've just got incredibly bogged down with moving-house related stuff, not to mention house-building stuff, and the ever-time-consuming W word. We'll do our best to make a proper post at the weekend, after which normal service will be resumed.


Sunday, 11 October 2009

Y-Day draws close

This week has been unbelievably wet. We didn't visit the site yesterday because, yes, you've guessed it, it was raining. When we went up there today, we found, not surprisingly, that the flooding hasn't subsided, but we were pleasantly surprised to see that it hasn't got much worse, either, and the end of the veranda trench where we did some back-filling a couple of weeks ago has firmed up considerably. All we need is a couple of dry days, and we get we should be able to drain the trench and fill it with some of the spoil left over from the installation of the water and septic tanks. Then all we need to do is wait a few weeks for it to firm up before we can dig the rest of the holes for the veranda posts. And at that point there'll be no stopping us!

There's great excitement chez Whittaker at the moment, because the yurt is now finished, and is due to be delivered some time next week. We plan on spending next weekend putting it up, and the following weekend moving in. Once we're installed in the yurt we'll hand in our notice at the rental, and that will give us three weeks in which to complete the move. This will be useful because there will be all sorts of loose ends to tie up, such as finding somewhere to store all our furniture, building a temporary ablutions block, and organising an internet connection.

As we're going to be moving up onto the site so soon, and the next two weekends are spoken for, we decided we needed to put up the letter box today. Here are some photos.

We borrowed a post hole borer from our friends, Frank and Linda.

Once we'd removed the turf with a spade, the borer made easy work of digging the hole.

I'm very fond of our letterbox - it seems very exotic to someone who's used to letters coming through the front door!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

It's a washout!

The last couple of weeks have been extremely wet, which is pretty typical spring weather here. At this stage in the build there's only one job left to do before we can make any more progress, and that's putting in the posts for the veranda. We managed to dig one of the six holes before the rain set in two weekends ago, but when we went up on site last weekend, we found that the trench where we need to dig the holes was flooded. We bailed out as much water as we could, but the ground was far too gloopy to dig. 

 Our newly-installed septic system and water tanks looking the worse for the rain

 Oh dear!

There's been an awful lot more rain this week, with more forecast over the next four days, so we're expecting the flooding to be even worse when we go up to the site this weekend. What we need is at least a week's worth of fine weather to dry everything out before we can do any more work on the build. It's very frustrating, as the chances of going for a week without rain at this time of year are pretty slim. The build could easily be held up for another month.

This is where the veranda posts go

On the positive side, we've now only got another two or three weeks to wait for the yurt, and once that arrives we'll be moving up onto the site. We have to give 21 days' notice on our rental, which we won't do until we've got the yurt, which means we'll have a nice and leisurely three weeks to do the move and work out where the heck we're going to put everything.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Picture post

So much to do, so little time...but just enough to do a quick picture-based blog post to bring you up to date with developments on the house build.

High altitude power tool usage -- Iain takes his life in his hands as he trims the hanging rafters

Batter boards, Mark II: our new, improved version, with string lines marking out the position of the veranda

We were given this caravan by our friends Frank and Linda. They lived in it while they were building their house, but it's spent the last twelve years as a storage shed.

 First job is a thorough clean (I'm halfway through that now), then we'll give it a couple of fresh coats of paint inside and out, and some new upholstery. It'll never be roadworthy again, but it's going to make a great kitchen/diner while we're living in the yurt, and a cosy office-come-guest room once the house is finished.

 Rob the Digger Bloke starts digging the hole for the septic tank.

Our septic tank is huge. Iain's planning on doing a lot of poos.

20 minutes into the dig. It would have taken us months to dig out that hole by hand. Hooray for diggers!

The septic tank is winched into place.

The installed septic tank (buried, at the front) and water tanks (half-buried, at the back)

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Spring is sprung

September the first is officially the first day of spring in the southern hemisphere, so in honour of the occasion, here's a little ditty my parents taught me when I was little.

Spring is sprung, the grass is riz,
I wonder where the birdies is.
The little bird is on the wing.
Well that's absurd!
I always thought the wing was on the bird.

I've no idea who wrote it. My parents used to recite it in a bad New York accent, saying 'boid' for 'bird'. At that age my only experience of a similar accent was from watching The Abbott and Costello Show on Saturday afternoons, so for years I assumed it must be one of their little bits of nonsense. After a few minutes of Googling I discovered that some sources attribute it to Ogden Nash. I've not found definite proof that it's one of his, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were.

Iain and I have been very busy since I last posted. In my free time last week I took part in a collaborative project called SPARK, in which writers and artists create new pieces using each others' work as inspiration. I was paired with artist and musician Jim Doran from Baltimore, Maryland, and I wrote a story inspired by his photo 'Sisters'. Jim created a wonderful cartoon after reading one of my poems. To read my story and for a link to Jim's cartoon visit my writing blog here. By the time you read this, the work from the latest round (Round 5) might have been posted on the SPARK website. If you go there you'll also be able to see the photo of Jim's that inspired my story. It's well worth a look. And, of course, it goes without saying that you'll also be able to see the work created by all the dozens of other writers and artists who took part. I'm looking forward to reading what my friend Melissa has written.

House-build-wise, Iain and I had a wonderfully productive day last Saturday, and an incredibly frustrating one on Sunday, so our batting average for the entire weekend was fair to middling. We've completed the eaves on the back of the house. Cue photo...

To paraphrase Churchill: 'Never in the history of human building has it taken two people so long to attach 12 pieces of wood.'

We've also installed the hanging rafters on one side of the house, and trimmed them and the purlins to the right length.

Iain attaches the last of the hanging rafters on the east side of the house

We're now only a couple of hours (or, as Iain would say, 'a gnat's cock') away from completing the roof framing. So next weekend we'll be able to make a start on the veranda posts (at last!) This will involve concrete. Be prepared for some interesting photos of mess and mayhem!


Monday, 24 August 2009

Suggestions, please

Like most writery-types (and pretty much everyone in my family too), I'm obsessed with names.

We've already got a name for the house when it's finished. Being typical newcomers to the country, we wanted to have something that shouted 'New Zealand'. We didn't want a Maori name, though. In New Zealand, having a Maori house name when you're not Maori is the equivalent of having a French house name in Britain (i.e. it's a bit pretentious). We've decided on 'Fantail Cottage' because the fantail is one the native birds that regularly comes to visit us on the building site.

So now all we need is a name for the yurt. If you've got any ideas, we'd love to hear them.

The fantail, a native New Zealand bird (Maori name: piwakawaka)

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Y-Day Minus 56

We've been and gone and done it now - we've ordered the yurt! Estimated delivery time: 8 weeks. It's taking such a long time because all Jaia's yurts are custom-made to order, by hand.

Living in a yurt is something we've both fantasised about for years, for some unfathomable reason. Neither of us have ever even seen a yurt 'in the canvas', let alone set foot in one, but we're attracted to them like bears to honey (or, more accurately, like hippies to alternative forms of accommodation).

On Friday afternoon we decided on the best position for the yurt, and used some electric fence 'pigtails' to mark out where it will go. In this short video Iain gives a guided tour - in mime. You may notice the picture shaking a bit; this is because I was laughing so much I couldn't hold the iPhone still.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The Game... afoot!

Not much progress on the house build this weekend, but some interesting developments.

We spent Saturday on site as usual, but on Sunday it bucketed down with rain all day, so we ended up having an enforced day off. Having time on our hands, we got talking about the build, and we decided that we want to do something to speed things up.

So we've made a decision. Gulp. We're going to give up our rental in town and go and live on site. That way we'll be able to put in a lot more building hours per week, and as an added bonus, we'll be living in the place we really want to be.

Camping out for three (or more) months won't be easy, but at least it will be during the spring and summer, so we shouldn't get hypothermia. We've thought up solutions to every practical problem we can anticipate, such as what to do about cooking, having a shower, going to the toilet, doing the laundry, connecting to the internet (essential for my work) and storing our furniture, we've drawn up an action plan, and we've taken the first steps on it. Our aim is to be camping out in our paddock by the beginning of October.

We've not yet finalised exactly what we'll be camping in, but at the moment the front-runner is a 7-metre yurt, hand-built in New Zealand by the lovely hippies at Jaia. Take a look at some photos of their yurts here.

One of the first steps on our action plan was to buy a letter box, as we won't be able to have mail delivered without one.

Our letter box -- rural NZ utility style. I love our house number, and it's so easy to remember: 'Unlucky for some, the answer to the ultimate question'

Random silly photo -- Iain has been playing around with a program called iCover which lets you transform your snaps into magazine covers. This is his favourite result...

...and this is mine. The bundle of fluff is Pookie when she was an itteh bitteh kitteh -- aaah!

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Where did you get that hat?

By now I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that 'Chez Whittaker' is getting further behind schedule with every week that passes. Fortunately, Iain and I laugh in the face of schedules, and like John Cleese's French k-nig-ht, we blow raspberries at them, too, (but only when we're sure they're not looking).

We had hoped to finish off the purlins last weekend, but we didn't go up to the site at all, because I was in bed with the 'flu, and I wouldn't let Iain go on his own, as I didn't think he would be safe, working three metres off the ground with no-one to look out for him apart from a few dozen bemused sheep.

Since the last time we were on site a fortnight ago, Iain has bought himself a new toy --an iPhone. He brought it along with him this weekend, partly in case the house got burgled while we were out, partly to find out what sort of 3G reception we're going to have (not very good!) and partly to test out the iPhone's camera. The camera's not bad. Here are some of the pictures it took:

Sartorial elegance, Whittaker style: if you look carefully you might be able to work out where Iain got this hat from.

My hat's from the same place (the local DIY store). It's not quite so in-your-face as Iain's, but I reckon you could have somebody's eye out with that brim.

View of the building site from the highest point on our land, which we refer to affectionately as 'the nob'. The building on the right is the neighbour's woolshed.

Me in action, attacking some wonky-looking batter boards with a sledgehammer, in preparation for marking out the veranda...

...and working on the eaves at the back of the house.

So, how far have we got now? Well, the purlins are finished at last, which leaves just two more jobs to do on the roof. The first task is to attach the hanging rafters, which hang out over either edge of the roof, resting on top of the end trusses. Once that's done we need to construct the eaves along the back of the house, and the roof will be complete. If we're lucky we might get this all done next weekend, but given our rate of progress so far, it's more likely to take us the next two weekends.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Merlin of the purlins

It's Sunday evening, I'm tired, my brain has turned to mush, and my hands are playing up from a combination of arthritis, RSI and excessive use of a club hammer, which means I won't be typing much, and I'll be letting the pictures do most of the talking.

It was a glorious day today. This is the view down the valley from the top of our driveway.

I spent most of the weekend up scaffolding, hammering wire dogs and z-nails into the trusses. This is the view from my little perch. Nice, eh?

On Saturday Iain got the car stuck in the mud. Our neighbour Mike, who sold us the land, offered to pull us out with his quad bike...

...but the quad bike wasn't up to the job, so he had to use his tractor instead!

Driving home through a sea of sheep on Saturday

Iain, AKA 'Merlin of the purlins' attaches the first purlin on the southern side of the house.

Progress so far - a view of the house from the west

Thursday, 16 July 2009

In the pink

Last weekend Iain took a couple of days' leave and we spent four days on site, putting up the roof trusses.

Since the house is only 5 metres deep, the trusses aren't excessively heavy, but it still wasn't easy for a pair of wimps like us to get them into position on top of the wall framing. Strong winds on Sunday made the process even trickier, and we almost gave up at one point due to safety concerns, but after a cup of tea, a sit down and a bit of head scratching we managed to develop a system that allowed us to hold the trusses rock steady in even the strongest gusts while we were in the process of securing them.

The trusses are a rather fetching pink colour, thanks to the type of wood-preserving treatment they've been given. In most 'normal' house builds in New Zealand all the internal framing is this colour. Our wall frames, however, are green (a higher grade of treatment) because we knew they would be exposed to the weather for several months rather than the more usual couple of weeks.

Last weekend's work was really satisfying, because it was the first time in about six weeks that the house has looked different at the end of the weekend compared to the beginning. Once we'd got all the pieces of the frame up, it took an awfully long time to nail in all the hardware, get everything square and attach the ribbon plate, and there wasn't much to show for our efforts at the end of each day's work.

The current state of play is that all the roof trusses are up, and we're about one quarter of the way through attaching the purlins (the horizontal timbers that stabilise the trusses and will support the weight of the roof). Another two days' work should see the roof framing complete, and then we'll be able to move onto the verandah and deck. It's getting more exciting all the time!

This coming weekend we won't be doing any building work, partly because there's a severe weather alert, but mainly because Iain has got an assignment to do for the e-learning diploma he's currently studying for. I'm enjoying the build a lot, but I'm really looking forward to the prospect of a rare weekend off!

The roof trusses looking very pretty in pink

Iain taking a breather from securing one of the end trusses

Me enjoying a break from hammering and a short spell of sunshine

It's starting to look more like a house now the roof's on

Iain defying gravity to attach the purlins

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Plans and progress


I've just realised that the only plans we've posted on the blog are the first set we had drawn up, which were designed by an architect. As you may already know, we had to abandon the original design because it would have been too expensive to pay someone to build it for us, and too difficult for us to attempt ourselves as first-time builders.

So here, at last, are the plans of the house we're actually building! Iain and I decided on the layout together, and I produced detailed sketches which Phil (our tame architect) then transformed into proper plans that would cut it with the planning department. Not so much Grand Designs, more like The Playschool School of Architecture ('Which window will it be today?'- the square window!)

The floor plan

After my friend Melissa and her son Nikko came to visit us on site, Nikko expressed concern that the bedroom might be too small for our bed. I can assure Nikko (and anyone else who's wondering the same thing) that the bedroom is big enough for the bed, but that fitting anything else in the room once the bed is in (such as a person, for instance) might be a bit of a tall order. There's a reason why the bedroom door slides into the wall rather than opening inwards like a normal door.

The sitting room's not a bad size; in fact, it's bigger than the sitting room in any of the houses we've lived in since we got married. The kitchen is compact, but no smaller than the kitchen of the rental we're in at the moment, and that's plenty big enough for us.

We're not bothered about the size of the rooms, but there are a couple of things we think will take a bit of getting used to. Firstly, the lack of storage (there's just one small cupboard in the entire house) and secondly the fact that we've effectively only got one usable room, so we can't get away from each other very easily. Still, there's a whole lot of outdoors to escape to!

A view of the cabin from the front

Here's a view of the front of the cabin. At the moment we're thinking of painting the cladding red and having a green roof. There are lots of north-facing windows (the equivalent of south-facing windows for those of you in the Northern Hemisphere) so the interior should get plenty of light, but the veranda will keep out direct sun, which should keep the house nice and cool in summer. Both rooms have sliding doors out onto the veranda. We're planning on extending part of the deck a couple of metres past the veranda, so we've got a nice outdoor living and entertaining area.


At long last, we've completed the wall framing, which is quite a milestone! It's taken us six weeks to do what a team of builders could have accomplished in a couple of days, but we're chuffed to bits about what we've achieved so far. It will take us as long as it takes us, and fretting about how slow we are won't help us to finish any faster.

The two photos below show us both in action, nailing the ribbon plate onto the top of the external walls. We're using clamps to make sure the ribbon plate is flush with the outside of the top plate.

Iain shows off not only his hammering skills but also his double chin

I prove that hammers and double chins are not just for blokes

After we'd nailed the ribbon plate down we had to secure it to each stud with a wire dog. The wire dogs require a lot of force to drive in, and I wasn't getting anywhere with an ordinary hammer, so I used a lump hammer instead. Every ten minutes or so I had to take a 'pathetic girly' break because my arm was aching so much.

View of the frame - looking towards the kitchen from the bedroom door

Next weekend we move onto a new and exciting job - putting up the roof trusses. I'm looking forward to it!

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

And now for something completely different

As I've got a bit of spare time this week, I thought I'd spend some of it posting to the blog about a few of the other things we've been doing lately, apart from building our house.

Iain's role at work this year has changed a bit. He's no longer tutoring on the full time teacher aide course. Instead he's in charge of the 'mixed mode' version of the course (partly correspondence, partly taught). This consists of regular workshops and tutorials, as well as visiting students in school placements, but it's not a full-time tutoring commitment. The rest of the time Iain's been putting together the company's e-learning website.

The first course to go online is the certificate in adult literacy, and eventually all the company's courses will be available online, including the teacher aide course. Creating an online learning site from scratch is proving a steep learning curve, even for someone as techno-savvy as Iain. It involves programming, design (of the online activities as well as the overall look of the site), video production and editing, and learning to use a whole range of unfamiliar computer programs. Here's the link for anyone who's interested:

Shot from the local newspaper of Iain, his colleague Jason and the e-learning site they've created

As well as putting in lots of time creating the website, both during and after work, Iain's also studying for a postgraduate diploma in e-learning, which takes up most of his remaining free time in the evenings. As for the weekends, I think you already know what he spends them doing!

As for me, after an intense couple of weeks in order to meet a consultancy deadline, I've now got a whole week off. Work often pans out like that for me; I'll have weeks or even months of working ridiculously long hours, and then I'll have other times when I have no work at all. For someone like me, who loves routine and tires easily, it's the only real downside of my job.

My latest big project -- a series of six library books about space for Macmillan Australia -- is now in the design and production phase. The series is going to be called 'Space Frontiers' (not my choice of title!) and is aimed at 8 to 12 year-olds. I'm looking forward to seeing the first set of proofs in the next couple of months, with publication being scheduled for early next year.

I've got a new big project on the horizon, too. On the back of my work on 'One Africa Maths' I've been offered the opportunity to write a science scheme in a similar vein. Initially the scheme will be produced for the Nigerian market, but the plan is to adapt it for other African countries at a later date, so it could end up being a long-term commitment.

And what about the rest of the family? Not having any children to boast about, I'll have to regale you with a story about the cat.

Pookie, our retarded 22-toed excuse for a feline, will never make it into the 'heartwarming animal story' slot at the end of the TV news. She can't skateboard, she doesn't steal stuffed toys, and she never takes a ride in the postman's mailbag. However, she has exhibited her fair share of bizarre and neurotic behaviour over the last three and a half years, including bringing home litter, digging bowling ball-sized holes in the lawn and biting chunks out of Iain's ankles. Her latest habit is piddling in the bath. She can get out of the cat flap during the day and she's got a litter tray to use at night, but she's obviously decided that pristine white porcelain is more the cut of her jib than garden dirt or kitty litter. At the moment the worst marital misdemeanour Iain and I can accuse each other of is leaving the bathroom door open.

Pookie engaging in another of her hobbies, climbing in the cupboards

Sunday, 14 June 2009

A frustrating fortnight

Progress on the house build has been frustratingly slow over the past couple of weeks. We had hoped to have got the roof trusses up by now, but things won't allow themselves to be hurried, no matter how impatient we get, so we're doing our best to just go with the flow and enjoy the ride.

Last weekend we finished attaching the hardware, which was cause for a minor celebration. Every window needed a strap on either end of the lintel and every stud above the lintel had to have a strap attaching it to the lintel and going all the way over the top of the frame. Like the wire dogs the week before, everything had to be routered in. Regulations call for six nails in every side, which came to a total of around 240 nails -- that's a lot of hammering! My hammer, a cheap one that came as part of a tool kit, started to fall apart, so I had to buy a new one.

The finished strapping on one of the kitchen windows

We've spent most of this weekend trying to square up the frame. There were still two corners to plumb up, which proved to be a real headache. We had to rebuild part of the frame, taking out a couple of nogs (the horizontal pieces) and replacing them with shorter ones so we could bring the end of the wall in a bit. I'm sure that if we'd known what we were doing we could have straightened everything up more easily, but we haven't got a clue about what you're supposed to do. When our first method (whacking the thing with a sledgehammer) didn't work, taking the frame apart was the only alternative we could think of.

Once the corners were plumb we made a start on getting the top of the walls straight. They tend to bow in in some places and out in others, so you have to use a string line to work out where they ought to be, and then use bracing to keep them there. We've now finished the bracing along one of the long walls.

We've borrowed the neighbour's lawnmower -- Mike's bullocks grazing our hill

The completed bracing along the front wall

Once the bracing is complete, it has to stay in place until after the cladding is on, otherwise the walls might bow out under the weight of the roof.

Next weekend Iain's taking both Friday and Monday off work, so we'll have four days to spend on site. The next steps are: 1. Brace the other three walls, 2. Attach the top plate (more wire dogs - ugh!) 3. Put up the roof trusses. This week I'm letting go of expectations, so I'm not going to predict how far we'll get. We'll just have to wait and see.