Nice Wood

John and The First Post

John and The First Post

Six months ago, the Douglas fir came crashing down. Today we started putting it back up again. The cultural historian in me reflecting on the unfolding story of the fall and redemption. The builder in me sharpening my chisels and wondering how to move a 120 kg post.


After the epic January tree felling, Karen put in a few hundred hours getting ripped by hand peeling the logs with a heavy bladed ‘spud’.


Then last week we surveyed the elevations of the tops of all our foundation piers and I calculated the required post heights for the round wood beams and 6×12 joists to be as level as possible at the necessary final elevation. There’s only a variation of 12mm across the entire foundation system, which I’m pretty happy about considering it was all laid out on a jumbled mass of broken rock with a builder’s level, string lines put up with the help of a sick Kiwi, and a plumb bob.


Resting regally on saw bucks I built last autumn, we deployed an arsenal of scrub pads, air tools and elbow grease to clean up the first post. Sporting a fresh chain on the venerable West German-made Stihl chainsaw, I cut the first post to length and then with a decided lack of grace, sliced a slot in the bottom end to slide over the 3/8 inch steel blade embedded in one of the concrete piers.


Oh it looked good, and it looked bleeding heavy.


As well as teaching Karen how to grow organic food at scale, producing probably the best tomatoes on Gabriola and being one of the most generous people imaginable, our radical farmer neighbour John also happens to have a small excavator. When he offered to lend it to us – a giddy man driving an excavator onto your land should never be refused – I released the slaves from my Iron Age building project and violà, the first post was erected.


Once in situ I plumbed it and bored two holes through the post and blade to take hefty ¾ inch bolts that arrive next week.


And there it was in all its golden glory, The First Post. One up and 21 to go.


To say we are chuffed is an understatement. This is it!


All scrubbed up

All scrubbed up


Destined for pier 7 in the future kitchen

Destined for pier 7 in the future kitchen


We haven't seen that in a while

We haven’t seen that in a while

The blade slot

The blade slot



Easing it over the blade with the chain block

Easing it over the blade with the chain block

Drilling the pilot holes for the beastly bolt holes

Drilling the pilot holes for the beastly bolt holes

Pilot holes through the blade seconds before I snapped the bit.

Pilot holes through the blade seconds before I snapped the bit

The Business of the Subterranean

They've built a swimming pool!

They’ve built a swimming pool!

In all the glory and grunt work that is DIY house building, nothing reigns supreme on the level of the mundane as what you bury in the ground.

I’ve gone on at length about rebar and hammer drilling and foundations. Sure it all holds the house up, which is kind of important, and it amplifies the magnitude of even the most minute error. But in the end all that work, money and resources get buried, hopefully never to be seen again.

Even more devoid of rapt attention is the other stuff you shovel dirt over like something you pulled out of your car in the dark. By this I mean waterproofing and drain pipe and pulse raisers like water lines, power cables and telecom conduit.

So here it is in glorious colour moments before burial, my obsession with dryness in a damp climate. Three coats of liquid rubber and a peel and stick membrane to seal the joint between the form bag and the concrete stem wall. All encased in plastic dimple board screwed to the concrete to protect against backfill and eliminate hydrostatic pressure exerted by water in the soil on the foundation wall. Then ringed by a sloped 100mm perforated drain pipe buried in a filter cloth burrito of drain rock around the outside of the foundation. The inside filled with compacted fractured rock as a capillary break on compacted pit run and sand. A multi-tiered defence against water, dampness and all things mouldy.

Running through it all in a trench from our light clay straw power and pump shed, 45 metres of massive armoured power line, twin 25mm waterlines and a telecom conduit so we can get internet access in the future and post scintillating blog posts on standing seam roof cladding and the relative merits of fibreglass versus PVC window frames.

So there we have it. Three months’ work buried under 100 tonnes of backfill and compacted drain rock only to be appreciated in its full glory by the coveted few invited to future family slide shows where I go through the finer details of foundation waterproofing, waterline installation, filling utility access holes in concrete foundations and the ongoing debate over 3 inch minus fracture versus round drain rock.

Heady stuff indeed.

I promise cool timber post and beam framing soon. Really. Really. I’m working on it tomorrow.





The drain pipe burrito

The drain pipe burrito




Trenching from the utility building

Trenching from the utility building





Mia wonders where it all went

Mia wonders where it all went

The Big Pour


You only get one shot.


Eight cubic metres on the first truck pumped out in 15 minutes into our stem wall and three cubic metres on the second for the piers. Eleven cubic metres weighing in at 24,500 kg.


Four hours later and all the concrete was placed, finished and setting up and we were shattered.


A huge thanks to the volunteers (press ganged into service): mum, Karen, John, Andrew, Drew, Genevieve and Alex for pounding, tamping, screeding and finishing the wall and pier tops and inserting the anchor bolts for the wall plate.


Four days later we stripped the forms and there stood our wall and piers, cast in stone for the next thousand years.


Onwards and upwards!






The pump arm



The bloke controlling the pump



Andrew thrilled to be on the job at 8 am



Genevieve thrilled to be on the job at 8 am



Drew thrilled to be on the job at 8 am



John just getting on with the job at 8 am




Finishing up nicely



Love that curve


Guess who gets to clean up this mess?


Oh baby! Stripping that form



The form bag worked flawlessly





Nice hippie wall

A Good Pair of Boots

One day I will be solid

In April 2013, a few days before we ended our decade long sojourn in the UK, bound for Western Canada, I took a straw bale building course hosted by Brighton Permaculture.

Course leader and master natural builder Ian Brown kept banging on about a good pair of boots for any house, natural build or not. By this he meant a solid, dry foundation with excellent drainage. With house integrity contingent upon the foundation and eye popping costs associated with fixing a poorly built one, it pays to put in some serious effort.

As already chronicled, our house stem/frost wall foundation is pinned to Gabriola bedrock with 150 pieces of 15 mm rebar. Building directly on rock means no need for a footing, which means a huge savings in money, concrete and carbon emissions.

On the downside, without a footing there’s no easy level surface on which to layout, form and pour the concrete stem wall. Our sub-surface rock is so uneven that over a metre or two the elevation can vary by the height of my knee.

My solution to the vexing issue of how to build concrete forms for our stem/frost wall was to incorporate an engineered fabric footing bag into the bottom of the forms. My supposition was that it would fill up the gap where the form meets the rock and account for the wildly uneven ground and not blow out under the pressure of 24 tonnes of concrete. Being impervious to water, the material also eliminates the future potential for rising damp, a common housing affliction of moisture wicking up through the foundation and into the dwelling that was ubiquitous in our UK flats.

After installing all of the vertical and horizontal rebar and aligning and levelling 22 custom made knife-blade tie-downs (made by these blokes) for our round wood posts, I started laying out the foundation walls on the rock. This task involved a dozen string lines levelled within a few millimetres, a plumb bob, a tripod, balls of string, three days and plenty of tedium and head-pounding-against-rock.

I pinned 80 metres (300 feet or so) of 2X4s to the rock with 10mm rebar to create footers for the forms and cut 33 sheets of 3/4 inch plywood to fit the contours of the broken ground as closely as possible. The form bag filled the bottom and was sandwiched to the outside of the forms by the 2X4 footers. The form walls were then locked together to handle the massive pressure of the concrete with tie-rod and snap ties through hundreds of slots I plunge cut with a circular saw.

Two curved ‘Hippie’ walls – self-imposed millstones around my neck – were achieved, at my dad’s suggestion, by making vertical slices not quite through the plywood with a circular saw and plenty of heaving, bending and swearing. I formed twenty one piers with paper sonotubes cut to fit and fixed at the base to form bag material with giant homemade hose clamps and plumbed and secured with rebar embedded in the rock.

A mere seven weeks later we were ready for the building inspector and final bracing. With a green light from my structural engineer, the building inspector waved it through and I placed an order for 11.5 cubic metres of concrete and a pump truck.

With three days to go it was all hands on deck. My mum, who was visiting, moved 2x4s, hauled bracing, installed the pour strip,  stickhandled Mia and baked cinnamon buns. I showed my nephew Andrew how to use a circular saw and he hauled and cut 2X4s like a demon. Like a Trojan, Karen tackled the inaccessible and tedious task of methodically air nailing plywood strips over the joint between the forms and fabric to reduce splodge and the chances of a blow-out. Our neighbour John appeared out of the woods with a framing hammer on his tool belt and spent three days putting in bracing.

On July 24 at 8pm in a steady rain, our first in a month or more, I put in the last brace and called it quits with 21 items crossed off my ‘to-do’ list. Eleven hours to spare before the concrete trucks arrived on the 7:05 am ferry.

Next up, ‘The Big Pour’.

But first, a load of photos for my dad (and you other anoraks like my brother) who are into this foundation stuff.


Rebar and form bag awaiting forms

Rebar and form bag awaiting forms


Pier rebar and custom post tie-downs wired in place

Pier rebar and custom post tie-downs wired in place


The uneven rock and the footer 2X4s for our curved wall

The uneven rock and the footer 2X4s for our curved wall



















I braced the hell out of the curved wall, an inherent weak point in the forms

I braced the hell out of the curved wall, an inherent weak point in the forms

Bounty of the Land


Deep in the heart of our plot of land, was a hay meadow. Sun drenched, thick with grasses as tall as me and hemmed in by wild rose and alder. For three decades or more it’s been abandoned. In recent decades the odd pot grower harvested a cash crop and decades before the meadow probably housed animals as evidenced by a collapsed stock fence and rotted gate. Perhaps a century before that pioneers felled the huge Douglas fir trees and cleared the land with oxen.

Our land is in BC’s celebrated but threatened Agricultural Land Reserve. A foot of rich black soil with the potential to provide a good deal of food security and to sever many of our slavish ties to the ecology destroying industrial food system. It’s perhaps our most prized resource.

The first day we owned our land in August 2013, our retired organic farmer neighbour John brought over his tractor and brush cut it. A scant 10 months later and we have 200 metres of deer fencing up. With Karen drawing deep from the well of her Russian peasant genes and under the daily tutelage of our neighbour, she’s transformed it into an immense organic food garden.

Nine rows wide, each 45 metres long, four in cultivation this year and room to expand. Squash, pumpkins, corn, basil, dill, Swiss chard, beans, potatoes, radishes, zucchini, camomile, lettuce, kale, rapini, borage, strawberries, amaranth and cabbage. Next year, all that plus raspberries, blueberries, garlic, onions, apple trees and whatever else our taste buds desire and Karen’s hands can nurture.

Tonight we feast deeply from the bounty of the land. It’s yummy out there!


Our new neighbour mowing our meadow on our first day as landowners August 2013

Before (August 2013)


After (June 2014)


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What the hell is wire worm?

What the hell is wire worm?


The holy trinity of Latin America - maize, beans and squash

The holy trinity of Latin America – maize, beans and squash

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The Master and the Apprentice

The Master and the Apprentice


Mia cooks in the garden

Mia cooks in the garden


Borage – yummy flowers

We are at one with Gabriola


He takes a breather

He takes a breather


Brraaaa, brraaa, brraaa.

Not a new age mantra.

Rather, the incessant rattle of an industrial hammer drill.

When the machine arrived to excavate we knew our house site would be rocky. Once the excavator left I spent a week with a pick and shovel cleaning off the rock. The result was fractured post-glacial jumble beneath what will be our concrete stem wall and the 22 post piers of our foundations. Early on I suspected we’d hit bedrock so I asked our structural engineer Kris Dick at Building Alternatives for a foundation detail for our house plans that covered this scenario for our high seismic area.

So when we hit rock, the need for a massive 30 inch (76 cm) wide spread footing was out in lieu of 15mm rebar for our concrete stem wall being sunk a foot into the rock every 24 inches (60 cm) around the house perimeter plus four 15mm rebar dowels for each concrete pier.

Alas, holes don’t drill themselves. I promptly destroyed the first DIY grade hammer drill on hole number six so I rented an industrial beast and let the hard core vibrating begin.

Three days later I’d smashed 150 holes 12 inches (30cm) deep into bedrock to pin our house foundations to Gabriola.

Gabriola never stood a chance. We will be one.



The Wilf in me emerges. You can't be too precise.

The Wilf in me emerges. You can’t be too precise.

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Our eventual north wall

Our eventual north wall


The Hitachi Beast

The Hitachi Beast

Rob's wacky lunar lander thingy for laying out the holes

Rob’s wacky lunar lander for laying out the holes

IMG_6866 IMG_6864 IMG_6863

It's always 1974 on Gabriola

It’s always 1974 on Gabriola


Daddy, WTF are you going?

Dada, what exactly are you doing?



Gabriola, our wee island

Sunset over Vancouver Island from Gabriola

Sunset over Vancouver Island from Gabriola


Called the ‘Isle of the Arts’ by some and the ‘green’ island by others – wink, wink, nudge, nudge – Gabriola is a jewel.


The northern most of the Gulf Islands tucked up against Vancouver Island to the west and about 20 miles across the Salish Sea to Vancouver to the east. It’s a stunning place of beaches, rock formation, secluded coves, First Nations petroglyphs and parks offering staggering views of the Coast Mountains.


Those who call it home include ex-hippies, new hippies, farmers, publishers, musicians, authors, glass blowers, potters, natural building designers, poets, tea makers, actors, budding film makers, photographers and even regular people who lead regular lives. And now us.


Our neighbour's organic farm IMG_3474 IMG_2770 IMG_2765 Starfish

Roundwood and Light Clay Straw


In March we peeled some smallish logs and with the help of my dad, who was visiting for a week, started putting up the experimental roundwood timber frame for our utility building.

It’ll house our electrical breaker box and power drop from BC Hydro and the pressure tank and controls for our water well which is located next to the building.

I started with a rough plan and then sort of made it up as I went along. The walls are five inches of light clay straw or ‘slip straw’ – clay blended with water to form a light slip that is tossed salad-style with straw and then packed between plywood forms. Karen and I spent a few days making mud and mixing a stuffing. In a few months we’ll natural plaster the building. The Douglas fir rafters and roof planks came out of our huge pile of site-cut lumber.

With no electricity on site, it was therapeutic 16th century build of handsaws, drawknives and the tap, tap, tap of a mallet on a chisel.


IMG_5863IMG_5864IMG_5912IMG_6023IMG_6024IMG_6026IMG_6035IMG_6047IMG_6051IMG_6053dropshed partialIMG_6223IMG_6487IMG_6490


Have portable mill, will travel

big beams

‘So, do you have much experience milling timber?’ I asked Nate the sawmill man.

He just looked at me.

‘Yeah, I’ve probably milled about two million board feet’ he replied, eyes coolly fixed.

Right then.

So three days later we had 9,500 board feet of site cut lumber from our downed trees.

Amongst the vast timber spoils are 16 massive 6X12 inch by 15 foot long joists that will support the upper storey of our house. Twenty-seven nine foot long standing grain slabs from the biggest Douglas fir we toppled, which are destined for an epic feasting table and elephant proof doors. And enough planks to build our micro library to house my thousands strong book collection.


Nate working on board feet 2,000,9500

Nate working on board feet 2,009,500


The off cut pile

The off cut pile


Our Forest Versus Thor



Although we are all about the handcrafted life, we aren’t above using fossil fuels to save three years of pioneer toil such as cutting down a third of an acre of trees for our house site.

Our excavator man is ‘Thor,’ a hulking six-and-a-half foot bloke with hands like bear paws. One January day he arrived. One man, one Husqvarna chainsaw and one massive excavator. Eight hours later, a gaping hole in our forest, sixty trees lined up for the saw mill and a debris pile that burned for three days. There’s nothing subtle about being ‘Thorred’.

On the upside, we got to roast marsh mellows in January with the world’s longest marshmallow stick.


The Machine

The Machine

The Man

The Man

The condemned marked

The Condemned

chainsawExcavator and tree

The Afterman

The Aftermath

Karen roasting marshmellows

Karen roasting marshmellows