Saturday, 27 August 2011

Beam me up

Everything can look different when you alter your point of view – including your view
Imagine what we'd be able to see if this was 13 centimetres higher...
To everyone’s enormous relief the southerly finally moved on last weekend, and when the much-missed sun reappeared on Saturday afternoon, it was set to stay around for a while.
The ground began to dry out almost immediately and, most importantly, Dean was able to resume work on the build with a vengeance.  Prior to my disappearing for an indulgent, extended weekend catching up with old school friends, (leaving Rose to man the crate alone), Dean had an important job for me to help him with first.
The north-facing veranda roof, protecting the decking from the elements and also potentially housing solar panels, is supported on it’s uprights by huge wooden beams.  Enormously strong and heavy, these timber girders have the advantage over metal of not bowing under their own weight – and being cheaper, of course!

The beams, four in total needed to be raised and placed perfectly into position and dropping, fumbling or disqualified lifts were not an option.  Fortunately my friends Mark and Jonathon were also available to lend a hand, and the process went without a hitch.  Already behind our schedule, we left straightaway and didn’t think about it any further.  At least not until Rose asked us that evening what these massive objects were held in place with.  Sheepishly realising that we didn’t think to ask or even look, our unhelpful suggestions of duct tape, prit-stick and spray glue did nothing to alleviate her concerns.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when, walking along a sunny south coast beach a day later, I received a call from Rose.  The beams were fixed in place with robust metal brackets (fitted after we’d left) so that was no problem. The issue was the beams themselves.  Specifically what they did to our view – something else I hadn’t had time to check.
As the build has proceeded and the frame work of our house has taken shape, we’ve been able to experience our home as a transparent object.  We can walk though the rooms but also be surrounded by our view at the same time, with no walls or ceilings in place to block anything.  As much as you tell yourself that everything will look different when the framework becomes replaced with opaque surfaces, it’s still a jolt almost impossible to prepare yourself for. The beam was a good case in point: a long, solid horizontal block looming into our upper window space and uncompromisingly demarcating our view.

In our defence the plans really only showed this structure edge on, making it look for all the world like an upright post. Returning home, we eyed it broodingly and pretty quickly decided that the loss of light wasn’t a problem.  We have other, less direct, natural light sources and the unobstructed Wairarapa summer sun isn’t something which floor-coverings and furnishings can withstand for long.  Had we opted for the concrete pad/passive heating option we would have encouraged this light into our house, but as it is, the solar panels need it more than our carpet does.
To his credit, Dean – despite an understandable aversion to doing things twice, was sympathetic and helped us look at options. Narrowing the veranda and therefore the roof was mooted, and he nailed a piece of timber in place to show us where the posts would need to be moved to support it.  We could quickly see that not only would the new shortened roof destroy the balanced lines and angles which we first designed our home with, but the veranda would be too narrow to be of any practical use.  The other option was raising the beam by 13 centimetres, meaning new, taller uprights to support it, and once again Dean had nailed a piece of timber in place to show us the difference this might make. It clearly wasn’t much, but before we made the decision he encouraged us to sit inside the living room (on a dining room chair supported by a spare piece of ply across our floor joists) and to ‘plank’ in our bedroom, gaining a realistic view of what we would see from inside.

Balancing the costs of new material and time involved against a gaining a negligible wedge of extra sky, we decided to keep things as they were.  It’s been a valuable exercise – as more of the framework becomes clad our views will finally become confined to our windows and doors.  Our house - up until now an outside space - is gradually becoming an interior environment.  Perhaps it’s a little like watching a child grow up, a little disconcerting, but exactly as things should be.

"Quick, Mark - pass the spray glue!"

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Life in the Rail World

While the polar blast delays any significant progress on the house build, here’s an insight into the other kind of metal box I spend my life in.

Many years ago Rose and I backpacked around Europe and found ourselves on an overnight train approaching Paris. We were fast asleep in our seats when the carriage suddenly began filling with what must have been commuters on their way to jobs in the capital, at what felt like middle of the night. In fact, it was probably nearer 6am, but I was still horrified. Imagine having to get up that early just to catch a train to work!

All these years later, I no longer need to imagine. Having moved to the Wairarapa eight years ago, long early morning train trips to work are now a natural part of life. But I’ve come to realise that the pre-dawn vigil at a rural railway station is actually the most normal part of this lifestyle - compared to the world you enter once you get on board.
On entering the train you are immediately faced with an important choice – seat selection. Don’t allow yourself to rush this important decision, because you’ll have over an hour to regret a bad choice. Someone with an iPod so loud that you can hear it as soon as you enter the carriage, or snoring with their mouths open is clearly best avoided. Many people are particular about which direction they face. I try to sit on the east-facing side, preferably in a window seat (increasingly difficult to find). Wellington’s beautiful harbour, glimpses of Lake Wairarapa and sunrises are all sights to nourish the soul and are best appreciated from that side of the train.

Don’t expect a single seat or to have two to yourself – an increase in commuting numbers means you’ll only be disappointed. If you are a thin person get that middle arm down quickly, regardless of whether you claim it for your own use or not (there must be a whole area of psychology devoted to jockeying for possession of the centre arm). Larger people will quite sensibly gravitate towards a large seating area, and unless you lower that barrier you may find yourself vainly struggling against a relentless encroachment into your personal space for the rest of the journey.
Once safely seated you face another choice – how to spend your time. This can be as long as an hour and a half for some brave travellers and far longer if the train breaks down. Whatever you do, never board the train without something to read. It’s like diving without checking your oxygen first – don’t do it.
I’ve found that train time divides itself into three options – non-activity, personal activity and interactive activity.

Non-activity is, of course, sleeping. Factors including an early start, a long hard day and the motion of the train can make this option literally irresistible. Dozing while sitting upright is a skill which seems to come naturally to most commuters, although the perils are many. The ‘saliva trickle’ can strike at any time, catapulting you from deep sleep to a major and prolonged coughing fit in an instant. The ‘unconscious head roll’ can condemn you to a stiff neck for the rest of the day – or the humiliation of falling asleep on a stranger’s shoulder. Some people actually choose inflatable travel pillows to combat this, although I’d personally rather end up with in a neck brace than wear one of those. It would have saved me some embarrassment on one occasion, however, when my head rolled forward and hit the window hard enough to wake me up and cause everyone else to turn and look at the source of the sudden loud noise.

Personal activity often involves electronic devices to engage the eyes and ears. All pretty self-explanatory, but something to bear in mind is that some of these can often accidentally involve other passengers. In New Zealand our concept of personal space seems larger than in other parts of the world – by a factor of ten in some cases. Being crammed into a metal box with a crowd of strange people can occasionally bring out the worst in us. One hot, sticky afternoon I witnessed ‘train rage’. A frantically key-tapping man accidentally brushed his elbow against the woman next to him once too often and she exploded. A loud and lengthy tirade accusing him of ‘unwanted physical contact, with details of what her husband was going to do to this poor man, rang through the carriage. To his credit, he calmly stayed where he was – moving would have seemed like an admission of guilt. But it’s debatable whether he genuinely had to get off at the next stop, or not.
Activities involving earphones can all too easily be accidentally shared with reluctant fellow-commuters. Headphones, although approaching travel pillows in sartorial elegance, seem to be making a comeback – and this is a good thing due to their superior sound dampening qualities. Fortunately Tranzmetro have finally recognised the problem of ‘earphone fallout’, putting up posters in carriages advising MP3-heads to ‘keep it to themselves’.
Portable DVD players are wonderful for passing the time – but be aware that you are watching in the most public place imaginable. The absence of sound only seems to draw more passengers’ eyes to your screen – so be very selective – most of the carriage could be watching with you.

And finally, interactive activity is the choice of those who enjoy spending their trip surrounded by people. For them, the art of conversation flourishes, even at 6am. Greetings ranging from excited squeals of recognition to customary nods and shuffling over mark the beginnings of chats which will span two provinces. Certain groups possibly see and talk to each other more than their own partners and families – for them the daily trip seems as cosy and familiar as a drink with friends at their local.
Unfortunately, we commute in the days of casual long-distance communication, and enduring someone else’s loud cellphone conversation without the option of moving out of earshot is an unhappy side effect. I’ve had to sit through everything from details of someone’s sex life to the 24 key points of another’s board meeting, and often wondered if anyone has yet invented a way to make mobile phones explode by remote control. An overreaction of course, but long distance commuting can do that to you.

The train can be a microcosm where you see both the best and worst of humanity in a compressed area of space and time. Acts of breathtaking arrogance and lack of consideration can be matched by unexpected courtesy, the delight of meeting up with an old friend, or the simple pleasure of watching the early morning sun glistening on Wellington harbour. At times when I’m jammed in a metal tube with a random cross-section of society, hurtling along with little but the view to consol me, I think commuting might also have a higher purpose. If NASA ever wanted to design a programme to train prospective colonists to other planets, simulating the lengthy periods of time in a cramped artificial environment, eking out an existence cheek by jowl with fellow travellers far from home – they could save billions and just buy monthly train passes like the rest of us.
(This article first appeared in the Dominion Post, 5/12/09)

A typically flattering photograph taken to illustrate a story on commuter discontent.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Bigger Chill

Last month’s snow-fall was a once in a lifetime occurrence.
Until, three weeks later, it
really snowed.

By 5.30pm on Sunday, the container had become Ice Station Zebra.

What a year to pick to spend winter in a shipping container! No-one can say that we weren’t given plenty of warning about this polar blast – so much, in fact, that we were beginning to wonder if the Met service had some purpose in scare-mongering. Surely the storm couldn’t be as perfect as they were promising?

Sunday passed as enjoyably as usual, with Dean continuing work on the house framing and Rose and I gathering up firewood and fallen branches. The day was grey, but surprisingly mild at times. We went in at around 5.00pm, poured a glass of wine and relaxed. Half an hour later our home became an Antarctic base, with huge flakes of snow building up on the window ledges, coating the cat ramp and completely burying our gumboots.

Concerned neighbours even kindly offered us their sleep out to spend the night in, which is quite overwhelming generosity. The thing is though, the container is actually incredibly cosy with the heating on, possibly warmer than an average house. We were very happily snuggled up, watching the snow flakes drift past our windows – until some poor person had to use the portaloo, of course!

The huddled black shape at the base of the tree is Juno, rediscovering
her roots as a Norwegian forest cat.

Dawn at the Wairarapa’s own McMurdo base.  Rose takes a bowl of warm
porridge to the chickens (!)

A herb popsicle, anyone?

The only patch of grass left uncovered for miles.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Hammering home

Any degree of traditional incompetence can be overcome when you find yourself unexpectedly working on your own house. 

It’s hammer time!  Or could it be hammer horror…

“Do you want a job” asked our builder, handing me a hammer.  I’d so far shied away from helping for two reasons, one of them being that I knew how much Rose loved strapping on her tool-belt, and I’d never dream of taking that opportunity away from her.
The other reason was that I’d never been very good at it.  Perhaps it was a hand-eye coordination thing, or maybe it was the same unfamiliarity with everyday objects which makes Rose wonder if I really might be from another planet – but tools and me just never seemed to mesh.  As a kid, trying to help Dad nearly always resulted in me running for cover from a loud burst of Caledonian expletives, while a banding system at school saw me rarely set foot in a wood or metal-working class.  Actually, I recall that when I did the result was my one and only caning.

However, Rose was away for the following three days, and I had absolutely no reason at all to refuse.  I reluctantly took the hammer and then listened intently while Dean described what he needed me to do, frowning with what I hoped looked like intense concentration.  Living in what is categorised as an extremely high wind zone, all of our timber connections needed to be reinforced by ‘hardware’: variously shaped nail plates, braces, and other metal joiners.  Amazingly, it made sense: I could see how, why and where so set to it, grateful that I was working on the opposite side of the house to Dean and he wouldn’t see the hash I might be making.
The second amazing thing began to happen.  Sure, I would have been painfully slow by his standards but not only was I enjoying myself, but it felt completely natural and relatively effortless.  The nails almost seemed to disappear into the timber of their own accord, even those in areas difficult to access.

Ed wonders why we need all this ‘hardware’

I worked briefly in the film industry on leaving design school as a Production/Art assistant.  During a shoot I remember attaching a filter to some lighting equipment with perfectly even and carefully positioned strips of gaffer tape, before having the roll taken off me and used up to entirely smother what I had done.  “You’ve used an art department solution to an engineering problem”, I was told.  I’m certain the same held true for my ‘hardware attaching’: every plate I nailed into position was as straight as I could possibly make it and precisely positioned, unmarked by stray hammer blows.  But it’s my house after all, and I’m allowed to have it well-reinforced and still looking good.

I happily hammered away for the following three days, often continuing after Dean had left .  I think he enjoyed the company, and the fact that I was saving him from what would be to him a mundane and tedious job.  The fact that with every nail I hammered in, I was making my own home stronger made it a supremely satisfying experience for me.
A couple of days later, I took some time off to help Dean lift the heavy roof beams into position. The day was still (unlike the weekend) and gradually became hot (in early August!) meaning we worked without shirts for some of the time.  The lifting went without a hitch and fitted perfectly, both of us amazed at how quickly it all came together.  It was the complete opposite of our experience concreting the piles into position in a southerly storm and despite working all day I felt as if I’d had a holiday when I headed back to work.
Finally cool with tools at the age of 45, I’m looking forward to many more days like this one.
It’s coming together nicely!  (The roof beams Dean and I put into place are on the upper right)

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Babe the builder

Rose gives her own account on the joys of being a builder’s mate.

(Reproduced by kind permission of The Dominion Post)
My mum always told me that I could generally be found hammering nails into bits of wood at kindergarten - we were allowed to do stuff like that back then! I can only have been three of four. Having a very practical and capable dad meant that we all grew up learning practical skills. I have always enjoyed the process of building, whether renovation work or putting together the latest henhouse.
When our builder, Dean, made the offer that we could help him with parts of the build I thought all my Christmas’s had come at once! Al had over the years given me an amazing array of tools and accessories, the greatest of which is my chainsaw which was a 40th birthday gift.

When the opportunity came one Saturday morning I was very quick to don my tool belt and grab my trusty hammer and help as best I could. I had a ball; following instructions (yes me!) I helped Dean align the framing on the floor and then at roof height. Quite a precision art, we put in a multitude of string lines and, shortly afterwards, struts to hold the framing in the correct position. After that came the nail plates, which saw me clambering to the top of the framing, clinging on for dear life whilst hammering the plates into position.

There will be more opportunities to help I hope and it is a real joy to know that we have helped in the process of building our own house.

This image superimposes the Draughtsman's impression over our existing
framework to give an idea of how the finished home will look on our property

Monday, 1 August 2011

We've been framed

The pink, wooden skeleton of our home is now growing daily, as majestic to us
and the legendary barn raising sequence from the film
But with less Amish people helping.

Many years ago, my parents built our family home in Blenheim. Such was the economy in the far-flung mid- 1970s that apparently it cost less to build a new home, than buy an existing one.
A building boom also meant that they had to wait a very long time for the house to be completed – so long in fact that we ended up eking out an existence in a caravan for the last few months. My sister and I were still at primary school, and naturally thought this was great fun - like an on-going family holiday.
It’s amazing how history repeats itself - once again, a house is being built for my loved ones and I, and once again living in a metal box is proving to be more fun than expected.

But to return to the ‘70s, I clearly remember my parents excitement at the gradual creation of their house, and how most weekends would see them walk us to the construction site and wander around the wooden framework of what would some day become our family home – dreaming of a new life ahead.
Regrettably - in a perfect example of one of those situations where I wish I could reach back through time and give myself a good, hard slap - I found it incredibly boring. I even remember desperately pretending to have fallen asleep in the hope that they’d leave me behind on one of these pilgrimages. Wretched child! With the benefit of my own recent experience in these matters, I now know how much energy, time and money they would have poured into their dream; how many sacrifices and compromises they would have had to endure just to literally put a roof over our heads.
That makes me not just ungrateful, but also extremely slow on the uptake - it’s taken me almost 40 years to appreciate how thrilling it is!

A month on from building consent, Rose’s and my home seems to be materialising before our eyes. Despite some rather challenging weather, we can now walk around the rooms which until now have only existed in our imaginations, and on paper.
We’ve been warned about the false impression that framing can give – it can be erected quickly, but takes a long time to align correctly and fix. For the time being, however, seeing our dream become a reality is making all the energy, time and money spent so far, more than worth while.

Finally moving into our family home in 1974 was one of the most exciting days of my life – I can’t even imagine what moving into this one is going to feel  like.

Looking back towards our current home
from what will eventually be the study
Come the weekend (and some stunning weather),
Rose fulfils her dream and helps Dean with the framing.
It’s soon looking like this (a view of the North side of the house,
from master bedroom (left) to living room.
And Rose was soon looking like this, with a mile wide grin.
For anyone wondering; I was tea boy, photographer, and site cleaner-upper.