Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Snow business

From the mildest May on record we’ve plunged into winter depths rarely seen in the Wairarapa – or the Wellington CBD, for that matter!

The weekend which has just passed was very much dominated by the weather. A turn to the southeast spared us the dreaded westerly gales, instead bringing waves of freezing rain and icy blasts. The unbroken grey sky, and ground so saturated in places that it feels like a thin membrane stretched across a lake of liquid mud, made me wonder if this might be as bad as it gets. I don’t mean that in a depressed sense, because we remain cheerful, excited about the speedily progressing build, and dry and warm when we need to be. Winter will have to try harder than this to get us down, we resolved.
And how prophetic those words would soon prove to be…

A Sunday lunch at the Lake Ferry Pub is an ever-dependable ‘winter blues buster’. Enjoying fish and chips and a pint while perched close to the wood burner, with a good book and a view of the grey wintery sea is always a tonic for this time of year, and today was no exception.
Returning home, we noticed that the rain had stopped and the air seemed stiller somehow. Perhaps the southerly we’d been promised wasn’t going to materialise after all.

Around four thirty the following morning, we were answering the call of nature when I noticed that not only was the doormat colder than usual under my bare feet, but oddly crunchy. The torch beam soon revealed winter’s best efforts – snow everywhere with flakes still falling.

Ed examines strange footprints in the snow, can it be the fabled
Wild Man of the Tararuas?
The good thing about winter trying harder is that snow has the effect of making adults behave like excited children – the potentially morale-sapping weather had provided its own antidote! The following photographs show the extent of that days snowfall, which will probably go down in history as day it snowed in the Wellington CBD, with the city reaching it’s coldest temperature since records began.

Dawn brings our first glimpse of the snow covered foothills – and cars.

Snow continues to fall throughout the day, stranding our builder
on the wrong side of the Rimutaka hill.
The following day dawns bright and clear, revealing the
Tararua foothills in their winter coat

Sunday, 24 July 2011

One Ring Circus

Rose gives an insight into the fundamentals of living in the container, including cooking
'a la crate' on a tiny, single ring camping stove.

Juno watches from her usual spot atop the fridge,
as Rose scrambles to feed cats and humans, 'a la crate' .

When we signed up for the container we were well aware that of the facilities we would be lacking. We wouldn’t be able to shower, do any laundry or use an oven but….ignorance is bliss and the great kiwi attitude of "we’ll be right" prevailed.
The average evening sees me rush home before dark, before the ‘girls’ (my hens) have gone to bed. Chickens need feed in their crops before sleeping so they can produce eggs the next day. I’m not sure where this gem came from but I do my best to abide by it - whereas the chickens consistently fail to abide by their end of the bargain regarding eggs and we have a sporadic supply at best.

Cats need feeding and are usually keen to point this fact out, with Juno shouting and Ed and Monty waiting patiently for dinner to arrive. They all have their own spot and there is a sea of tails and cat bottoms while dinner is wolfed down, before they head outside to do what cats do (and haven’t been doing) all day!
Then it’s on to ‘people dinner’. A couple of years ago I bought a small single ring butane fuelled gas stove for cheese making, little knowing how dependant upon it we would later become.
We have the gas stove and one screw-on fitting for a gas canister, both fit on the bench quite happily and with a bit of careful juggling we manage to eat quite well.
The trick is the art of one pot cooking: stir-fry, curry, chilli, and lots of steak! The local supermarket is a frequent destination to grab something on the way home. We do have a very efficient gas fridge, which has a freezer the size of a small shoe box. This fridge freezer uses a 9kg gas bottle and produces a gentle exterior warmth which Juno has become addicted to - she is usually to be found stretched out on top of the fridge to taking full advantage of it.
Apart from this, we are also eternally grateful to our friends and neighbours with their very kind offers of a meal, and recently we even came home with a freshly baked loaf of bread!
We tend to accept any invitation with what probably seems like unseemly haste, but promise to repay everyone’s hospitality once we have a house of our own, again.

Chicken soup made on our one ring camping stove, and home made bread
from a generous neighbour.
Many friends have also offered us the use of their washing machines, which is incredibly generous. However, we try to abide by our resolve to not make anyone else suffer for our austere temporary lifestyle, so instead frequent a Laundromat at the service station in Carterton. Saturday or Sunday morning sees us piling all our dirty laundry into the car along with books and magazines and a snack or two for Al. Two washing machines and four industrial sized dryers mean we can be quite efficient and bring everything home dry. If the weather allows we have taken to using the fence as a washing line. Not sure what the neighbours think!
I have managed to do a few washes here, boiling the water on the stove, adding cold water from the water barrel outside and giving the garments my all by hand, but this can be very time consuming (and possibly taking the ‘Amish lifestyle’ just a little too far).

Our trooping of the colours - wash day at Little Bush.
Cleaning the container is as simple as sweeping the floor - out the door and we are done, my kind of cleaning! The vacuum cleaner is in storage, but apart from the odd scatter of feathers when the cats have managed to catch some wildlife the place stays reasonably clean. After nearly four months we have pared back our requirements and everything has a place.
I guess at this time of the year with the gas heater on and five bodies contained we end up with a bit of condensation. The weekends (assuming it’s not raining) see all the doors and windows open and the furniture pulled away from the walls for a general dry out, but generally we are very comfortable and keep warm and dry. There is nothing like snuggling up in bed, (usually covered in cats) and listening to the wind and rain or watching the moon rise through the bedroom window on clear nights.
Now approaching August, we have settled into a routine and with the house build beginning, the end is in distant sight. I’m sure we will look back on this experience fondly.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Getting in a flap

Designing a beeline for the felines is proving to be more of a challenge than anticipated.

Monty could barely contain his joy when Rose installed the cat ramp.

We’ve had a week of glorious weather since the last blog entry, and Dean has taken full advantage of it. Each day the construction of our house’s floor becomes more excitingly crisscrossed with beams of timber – if only I could get home in the light to fully appreciate it!

While the serious work of building of our house happily proceeds, I’ll diverge briefly to talk about a small design consideration which we’re still wrestling with. After our article appeared in Your Weekend, last Saturday, a question I have often been asked is about the nature of the ramp leading to our window in the background of the main photograph.
Was it our fire escape route? Was it a ‘lay by’ for passing chickens to deposit their eggs right on our breakfast table?
The ramp is of course, for our cats. Ed, Juno and Monty can access the container whenever they feel like it, and the constantly open window has the added benefit of ensuring that our gas-powered fridge doesn’t asphyxiate us in our sleep. Additionally, condensation is one of the main problems of living in a shipping container, so a constant supply of fresh (sometimes very fresh –it was minus 4 degrees this morning) helps.
We know that not many cats get their own ramps, but they probably aren’t forced to live in a tiny container either, so it really is the least we can do.

After finishing the renovations on our previous home we had one chance to get the placement of the cat door right – and it was an epic ‘fail’. We dismissed placing a cat flap on the south side of the house (a Wairarapa southerly is not to be invited into your home) and the prevailing northerly wind wasn’t to be given the chance, either. The relatively gust-free East side would have been ideal, but it also happened to be the front of the house. With re-sale very much in mind, we didn’t feel defacing our beautiful front door would do much in the way of adding value. So we put a hole in the west side of the house, close to the kitchen (food bowls) and very unobtrusive from both inside and out.
Our self-congratulating came to an abrupt end as the nights became cooler. West faced the Tararua range, and a chilly evocation of the snowy peaks would blow straight out of the cat door, through the dining room and into the living room. On cold nights we were often reduced to moving the sofas together and using cushions to plug the remaining gap.
It was a miserable lapse of judgement, and one which we’re determined not to repeat.

And so Rose and I are looking at every option. The premium side of the new house, east, is now occupied by the bathroom and guest bedroom, so no joy there. South and north are out and always shall be, especially as our north side is mostly glass and we are now in a higher wind zone than before. We’re still looking at possibilities, but hopefully this may serve as another useful lesson for others designing and building a home. Pets are part of your family too, so should be considered along with everyone else.

Rose and Juno explore potential locations for the cat door.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Attack of the Cyclones: Episode 3 - Storm Troopers

All hands to the pump! We’re working outside, and we could be some time...

The pile holes may be waterlogged, but the day dawns sunny and full of promise.
Monday’s weather was, of course, atrocious. The westerly gales continued to shriek and dump vast amounts of rainwater all over the country, so I went to work after all. This worked out for the best as various different circumstances meant that my manager would have been there alone all day if I hadn’t!
The following day dawned windy – but sunny, with vast expanses of blue sky. Dean made the call for us to proceed and made preparations for the cement truck to arrive before noon. We then spent the morning getting rid of as much water from the site as possible - something I had already spent a couple of hours doing on Sunday afternoon, only to have them all filled up again yesterday. The main part of the problem wasn’t rain, but the fact that the water table was at an all time high and ground water would eventually seep back into the holes after we’d emptied them.

By this point small omens that the day wasn’t going to go well were beginning to manifest themselves. The pump which Dean had borrowed to remove some water proved unequal to the task, so he had to rush into town to hire one. This worked brilliantly until suddenly and inexplicably, it didn’t anymore, and he had to rush back to Hire World to get a replacement. Meanwhile, Rose called to inform us that a major storm was working its way up the country. Undaunted, we felt confident in finishing before it arrived and the abundance of sunshine seemed to back this up.
We managed to get rid of the site’s surface water, empty the shallower holes with the pump and position the piles just as Dean’s fiancĂ©e Kate arrived with two thermos’s of soup, so we sat in her car and waited for the cement truck. At this point the only concern seemed to be that the wind was bowing the survey lines which criss-crossed the site very slightly, but Dean felt he could compensate for this.

The sun is still shining brightly as we lay out the piles beside their holes.
The cement truck’s arrival coincided almost exactly with a sudden darkening of the sky and the onset of cold, driving southerly rain. The weather gods must have been in a particularly sadistic frame of mind – the truck’s presence meant that there could be no turning back; we were committed to finishing the job even if it killed us. And I think it nearly did. The South-west squall increased it’s intensity over this unhappy afternoon until we could barely see for the rain in our eyes, or stand because of the strength of the wind. The only thing audible above the storm was the constant and enthusiastic swearing from Dean as he vented his justified frustration at every re-filling pile hole and wildly bowing line. Kate stayed to help try to keep the pile holes empty of water, and she was an absolute trooper; constantly smiling as the storm blasted her, mud splattered her from head to foot and she filled and emptied just as many heavy bucket-loads of water as I did. Dean was so right when he remarked earlier that Kate "Only looked like a Princess".

The concrete truck times its arrival to coincide with storm perfectly.
She and I also did our best to stay out of his way; Dean’s raging by now almost matching the storm in ferocity. I didn’t blame him, it had been a difficult call to make, and it seemed criminally unfair that the conditions now literally couldn’t have been worse for what should be a precise, steady and crucially important procedure (unless it was going to start snowing, which didn’t seem unlikely).
For my part, I think I’ve had karate gradings which were less demanding than constantly propelling a wheelbarrow full of wet cement back and forth through an unrelenting gale and increasingly slippery mud. And just when we thought the weather couldn’t get worse, with every passing minute the wind and rain seemed to get stronger and colder.
But somehow, the 65 piles were gradually finding their new homes, snugly wrapped in cement and standing as straight as they needed to be. Kate was ‘sent home’, where I only hope she got straight into a hot shower, while Dean and I then tackled the much-longer anchor piles. The system here was for me use the pump to empty the 900mm holes as quickly as possible, jumping back while Dean instantly poured the cement before the hole could refill. This seemed to work until we reached the final hole, and in a spectacular explosion of profanity, Dean realised that we would be about 3 barrow loads of cement short to finish. Looking at the prohibitive option of getting the truck to return, we managed instead to scrape the last few loads of cement from around some of the slightly over-filled pile holes (and I have to accept some blame for this). But it worked. The final post was in and the cement truck dismissed.
Dean took care of some final adjustments while I tidied up the site. Feeling bad about it but convinced it was necessary to keep a record, I also took the shots which you see here.

Pronouncing this as one of the worst three days he’s ever had as a builder, Dean headed for home and a well-deserved rest. I made my way inside, ravenous and chilled to the point that I could barely get my fingers to work as I struggled out of four layers of saturated clothing. Naturally, the rain had by now stopped, and I drove to the Barton’s to beg for a life-saving hot shower. Wonderful people that they are, Roger and Barbie also threw a meal and a relaxing night in front of the telly into the bargain, which was accepted with unseemly haste.
It’s tempting to label this a day from hell, but that just wouldn’t be true – like the photographer on Sunday the worst conditions in the world once again haven’t held back a professional from doing their job. Dean has successfully got all the house piles in and that’s a major milestone on the way to our new home.

But the worst conditions in the world don't stop Dean getting
the piles into their holes, and perfectly aligned.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Attack of the Cyclones: Episode 2 - Posing into the wind

Grimacing through a westerly gale, we witness the extremes a photographer will go
to get the ‘money shot’

Reproduced by kind permission of The Dominion Post 

When will I learn to stop tempting fate by mentioning the weather? It was especially a topic of concern today because a Dominion Post photo-shoot had been arranged, to accompany an article I’d written for the Your Weekend magazine supplement in this coming Saturday’s paper.
The Your Weekend Editor, Joanna Rix, approached me a little while ago with a suggestion that I could contribute a series of semi-regular articles about our house build, and living in ‘the crate’. Desperate features-writer-wannabe and shameless media tart that I am, I gave it a few seconds thought and promptly delivered a couple of thousand words by way of an intro article.

Last week the space to publish it finally became available, and Jo had arranged a photo-shoot of Rose and I outside our temporary home. The photographer and former work-mate, Loren, was due to arrive at 1.00pm and miraculously the ever-present gales were not accompanied by rain today. In fact, huge swathes of blue sky and periodic bursts of sunshine were making our slightly swampy outlook appear as beautiful as we desperately wanted it to.

I spent the morning in a state of agitation, frowning at the endless parade of dark, westerly-blown clouds, and then relaxing a little as the gales tore them to shreds and let the sunlight through. Loren called at noon for a weather update and by this stage I was confident enough to promise her good, if windy, conditions.
Big mistake. After shining all day, the sun suddenly disappeared about 20 minutes before Loren and her husband Clint arrived, to be replaced with the familiar driving rain which had us all scuttling into the container for shelter.
I was mortified and Loren was anxious about getting her assignment done, but Clint’s easy-going manner and Rose’s domestic Goddess-hood soon had us all relaxing with a hot drink while we waited for the rain to stop.

Incredibly, it lessened, and stray beams of sunlight saw us all charging outside on two separate occasions. Loren crouched on a saw horse, one arm out-stretched and holding a flash unit while she operated her camera with her other hand – all in a howling gale. Even disregarding the impossible conditions which she had to work under, we were thrilled with the images she took, all of them making our beloved Little Bush look far more inviting than it was at the time.
The following day was Monday, and I was looking forward to an impromptu day off to help our builder put in the house piles. Surely the weather will have sorted itself out by then?

Loren the Photographer prepares for her saw-horse gymnastics

The finished Your weekend article appears here:

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Attack of the Cyclones: Episode One - A blow to the head

Poor Rose discovers why you should keep your head down in a storm.

The weather gods, invoked in my previous post, would have had a good laugh at our expense over the past few days. With consent finally granted at the end of a week of perfect weather, the heavens opened the following day, when Dean had arranged the concrete truck for the setting of our house piles. A shame, but not the end of the world, there’s always Monday.

Saturday saw the beginning of a relentless battering from westerly gales, reaching speeds of 130 kilometres and above at times. Bad enough on their own, these incredible gusts also propel sheets of stinging horizontal rain at anything foolish enough to be standing outside. ‘Foolish’, and ‘outside’ are words which we’ll return to shortly.

A large part of the day was spent researching bathroom fittings, and then we returned home for lunch and what could have been a relaxing cosy afternoon in front of the fire, before dinner with friends that night. Unfortunately, an inability to know when to stay put has got us into serious trouble before, and today was to be no exception. In no time at all, we were both ‘foolishly outside’ in the howling tempest; I was collecting branches which had been smashed out of the trees, while Rose tried to secure the frantically flapping tarpaulin covering our wood pile, placing a couple of metal waratah fence posts on top to help hold it down.
Hearing her suddenly shouting for my attention (not an unusual thing in itself, I’m always being bellowed at from the other end of the paddock) I looked up to shout back that I couldn’t hear what she was saying, when I saw from Rose’s body language that something was wrong. As I ran closer I finally saw that her face was literally covered in blood. It seems that a particularly strong gust had suddenly lifted the tarpaulin, throwing one of the waratahs onto her head. Anyone who knows Rose will not be surprised to hear that she was perfectly coherent and adamant that making any kind of fuss was completely unnecessary. After I forced her to let me rinse some of the blood out of her hair and saw the open wound, I had to firmly beg to differ and we were soon heading quickly towards Masterton Hospital.

Admittedly, Accident and Emergency were very busy, but after half an hour of sitting in a cramped waiting room with no-one even coming to look at or clean my wife’s blood soaked head, I was seeing a different kind of red. We took our business to the Masterton Medical clinic instead, and this time I made sure that Rose showed the receptionist her gory injury. The strategy worked and in no time at all 5 stitches were being carefully sewn into a 4cm long cut in her shaved scalp. Being a perfectly straight line the procedure seemed uncomplicated, although the local anaesthetic injections were clearly no picnic.

In just over an hour, we were having that dinner with our friends - Rose terrifying their kids with her stitches while a glass of wine or two worked its soothing magic. We were relaxed and looking forward to a more settled day tomorrow, surely these gales can’t sustain themselves for much longer?

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Age of Consent

Next to buying our land, getting building consent is the biggest hurdle to our
new home, so far.

Our checkered flag - the Building Consent documents from the Council.

The South Wairarapa District Council have a reputation for being one of the most pedantic and exacting in the entire country when it comes to granting building consent. It’s rumoured that some people have even preferred to move elsewhere rather than jump through the endless succession of hoops which our local body will hold between you and a constructing a new home.

Apparently the consent process for the building of a new home takes 20 working days, but ‘the clock is stopped’ every time an ‘RFI’ (request for further information) is received, and the SWDC being what they are, RFI’s are inevitable.
We went into this adventure with the above information very much in mind, and steeled ourselves to expect the very worst. We were prepared for delays, but our builder, Dean, was aching to start, his own schedule making this week a perfect time for him to begin actual construction.
Meanwhile, the company responsible for drafting our plans also deal directly with the council during the consent process, and we were advised last week that an initial set of RFI’s had been dealt with. Surely consent was due any day now?

Dean paid a visit to the council on Monday, hoping to force a resolution but came away feeling more than a little frustrated. Apparently a final issue delaying things was ‘something to do with our shower head’ (at this point the councils reputation was becoming justified) but the only person who could tell him exactly what that issue was wouldn’t be back until Thursday.

It is now Friday and I’m thrilled to write that a major obstacle has been cleared and consent was granted yesterday, just a few working days over the 20 we were warned to expect. It seems the last issue was something to do with a concern about water splashing from the shower; the honking great glass screen we’ve specified from the beginning apparently not being clear enough on the floor plan.
Dean can now go ahead and pour concrete for our house piles – weather gods permitting, the build begins at last.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Mud Larks

Here's mud in your eye... and everywhere else.

With trusty iPod, I'm as happy as a pig in muck.
Now past the shortest day and within nibbling distance of mid-winter’s gaping jaws, the question we are most often asked about living in a tin box is inevitably: "Is it cold?"

It’s a perfectly understandable question, so people are often surprised when we reply "No, not really".
The shipping container is a small, well insulated space which is very easy to heat. Within moments of turning on our gas heater, or on very rare occasions - the heat pump, it can be very cosy indeed. So far, there have been a few memorably chilly nights, including a minus 4 degree frost which looked stunningly beautiful in the light of the full moon. But the ever-present, heat-seeking, duvet-cats combined with Rose’s infamously-faulty personal thermostat (it’s been jammed on ‘high’ for as long as I’ve known her) usually mean that we stay warm.

It also has to be said that my tongue-in-cheek prediction that we going to have the warmest, driest year ever while living in the container seems to be coming true, with May being the mildest one on record.
If I had to point to an aspect of winter which makes living as we do a little less fun than usual, it’s the mud. Our container doesn’t have eaves, or a deck, a porch, or concrete pathways and even with the moderate rainfall we’ve had so far, the well-trodden area around our front door is becoming somewhat boggy.
And mud gets everywhere. It’s not unusual for either of us to arrive at work, convinced we’re looking sharp and professional, only to discover dried mud spatters up the backs of our trouser legs.
We’ve abandoned trying to park the cars anywhere near the container for fear of churning up the wet ground, so run a ‘gumboot shuttle service’. Carrying our shoes in our hands as head out across the grass in our wellies, change footwear in the car and leave the gumboots parked by the side of the driveway, ready to be slipped back into when we return home. This works well, unless you leave them upright and it rains during the day, transforming your gumboots into two welcoming little reservoirs of cold water for your weary and unsuspecting feet.

The Portaloo company paid us a visit recently to carry out their fortnightly service, in what was obviously a large and heavy truck. It doesn’t require skilled detection to track their slippery progress across our paddock, or identify the two areas where they obviously got stuck, spraying mud and mutilated turf in a frenzied effort to escape. We can accept that they had a job to do, and will move the portaloo closer to the driveway to avoid a repeat performance. It’s just a shame that in removing one load of nasty mess they had to leave us with another. I’ve transplanted pieces of turf removed from our house site over the worst of the tyre track carnage, and despite my assertion that I’ve achieved an invisible lawn repair, I know in my heart that the joins can probably be seen from space.

There’s a postscript to this story too. Apparently the Portaloo company only had our now defunct land-line number and couldn’t reach us. We’ve since discovered that the truck driver arrived back at base upset to the point of tears and mortified at what he’d done to our grass. Rose couldn’t resist raising on my behalf how emotionally attached men get to their lawns, but there’s no hard feelings. I suspect upsetting your sewage contractor is one of those things in life which you just shouldn’t do.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Site for Sore eyes

As the consent progress lumbers forward, a paddock magically becomes a building site -
or the beginnings of one, at least.

Kevin Mcleod laments our rash decision not to employ an architect.

Rose consults our floorplan and starts to mark the layout
of our house’s rooms.

Ed’s assistance proves invaluable. He and Rose walk through the kitchen
- or at least where it will be, one day.

Our builder Dean surveys the site, his laser measurer giving the data to enable
the ground to be levelled (unlike the ground our current home sits on).

There are digger drivers who can pour a cup of tea with their mighty machines,
so digging a level rectangle to fit our house into shouldn’t be an issue.

And it isn’t.
Dean returns to dig holes for the house piles...

... with help of varying degrees of usefulness.

So we now have a muddy piece of flat dirt, covered in large holes and littered
with pieces of pink timber. And we think its beautiful.