Monday, 26 September 2011

Six months in a leaky crate

We began the world’s longest camping holiday just as daylight saving was coming to a close back in March, and this weekend the little hand sprang forward again – proving time does indeed fly when you’re having fun.

Container living: it’s not so bad (image courtesy of The Dominion Post)

The title of this entry is a misnomer, of course. Our shipping container doesn’t leak, as such, but unwanted moisture in the form of condensation has been the biggest issue we’ve had to deal with. Possibly the only issue, really.
To mark an enjoyable half-year of living in our tin box, here is a list of ten top tips for happy container living.

1. On warm still days, open up all the doors and windows and hang your rugs over a fence. Perfect for drying out the container and it’s floor coverings – and letting in the fresh air.

Fresh air is our friend, so we let it in whenever possible

2. If attempting the open-doors policy on a less-than-still day, constantly check the gas-powered fridge to ensure that the pilot light hasn’t been blown out by a stray gust of wind. If it has, re-light immediately.

Checking the status of the fridge pilot light means
grovelling at floor level to squint at the gauge.

3. The container has no porch or eaves, so don’t leave your gumboots standing upright when you retire for the night. It never rains in the Wairarapa, but if it does, your wellies make perfect cold water reservoirs for unsuspecting feet the following morning.

Our patented gumboot rack solved the ‘reservoir’ effect

4. Thou shalt remember to connect the power unit to the photovoltaic panel each morning. This powers our main light for free, so make sure you suck up that sunlight!

This tiny panel gives us free lighting – if we remember to connect it during the day.

5. Take the iPod out of the stereo before turning the generator off. If you don’t want to break into your own boom box to just liberate your personal music device, you’ll have to turn the generator on again to just to get it out.

6. Make sure you don’t run out of gas. Heating cooking and refrigeration all depend upon this and without those, the container can go from being a cosy home to just a shipping container in no time at all.

7. When leaving the portaloo, hang onto the door until you reach terra firma. It is permanently mounted on a trailer with access via a rather steep ramp. Rose neglected to do this one frosty morning, and reached the ground much sooner than expected.

Caution: this ramp can be hazardous.

8. Try to leave torches in the same place as you got them from. We have stacks of them, but they’re always somewhere else when required – possibly the same place as biros and estranged socks.

9. Check the wind direction before peeing outside. Obvious, really.

10. Don’t try to run the toaster and the microwave oven simultaneously. They are both power-gobbling monsters and our generator doesn’t like it one bit.

Bonus tip: Always keep your sense of humour. This will protect you from almost anything and remind you that living in a shipping container is actually a fun adventure – even after six months.

Some ‘graffiti’ left by Kate when the supports for our veranda
beams were cemented in place.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

We're wrapped!

Now sporting a new weatherproof skin of building paper, we bid our very familiar view of the framework goodbye, and see instead that the house really is starting to look just like the picture!

Another photo-montage demonstrating that, visually at least,
all seems to be going exactly to plan.
 Rose helps Dean with the soffits, several lengths of particle board
which we’d spent a number of hours painting.
Soffits enclose the framework and finish off the underside of exterior surfaces
perfectly, as could be seen early the following morning.
Meanwhile, other details like the fascia boards need to be painted,
prior to the roof flashing being installed. "Now, where did I put that brush?"
The paper gives the interior a vaguely oriental look – very serene
and weatherproof at last!
The south side of the house, wrapped-up tight against the cold.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Lamb's Tales

Nothing says spring like being surrounded by new-born lambs, but Rose discovers how upsetting it can sometimes be when you follow a wandering baa.

It’s Spring! The days are getting longer, the grass is growing and there are literally hundreds of lambs hatching just 10 metres from our container.
I have to admit that this has been a bit of a shock. We have always been surrounded by paddocks, but at our previous home these were used for dairy cows, none of which were giving birth on our doorstep. But on the warm spring days it’s a joy to see brand new, very scrawny, damp lambs, dry out, drink and look very cute very quickly.

The paddock directly behind our native trees is for those ewes bearing twins, the paddock behind and to the left for triplets and there have even been a few sets of quadruplets born this year-in the triplet paddock.
The shock began on a weekend when I was on my own, up on the new house roof painting the fascia boards. I could see a new lamb in the paddock behind calling and calling for his mum, with no answering cry to be heard. I listened for an hour or two, then called Roger Barton and left a message - sounding like an anxious ‘lifestyler’. After another few hours of the little guy calling and being pushed away by all the ewes he thought might be his mum, I jumped in the car and went down the road to report the unfolding tragedy to Roger. He calmly promised to investigate later.
I found it incredibly hard listening and watching this wee thing calling and searching for his mum; he was so new that I don’t think he had even had a first drink.
Roger and Barbie appeared some time in the afternoon, very quickly ascertained that a new mum in another paddock was missing a youngster (the lamb had squeezed through the dividing fence) and put two and two together - literally. A happy ending.

Later the same week we were blessed with a good old Wairarapa southerly, one which brought hailstones that stayed for hours! I got home from work and did the chores accompanied by the hopeful bleating of lambs, most of whom soon found their respective mothers. They had a feed, and then bedded down for the night, tucked up tight with their mums and siblings in the shelter of the trees.
However, one young ’un called for what seemed like hours, and there was no responding call from a searching mother. He had been tagged and marked so was not brand new but seemed very small and unprotected in the cold, wet evening. I called Roger to see if there was anything I could do, hoping that he’d rush to the paddock like a knight on a quad bike as before, find the mother, pair them up and all would end happily ever after. Instead, he pointed out the he had been on his rounds a couple of hours earlier and nothing was amiss.
Unassured, I had a very careful search around the paddock in case mum was unable to respond, but that wasn’t the case. Utterly convinced that the little lamb wouldn’t survive the freezing night alone, and struck by the unfairness of it having a mother who couldn’t count, I burst into tears. Al was working late, and my next couple of hours were spent alone in the container with the stereo on and the windows shut so that I could no longer hear the plaintive calling.

Morning dawned to silence, but there was no wee body in the paddock either - so I comfort myself with the hope that his mum came and found him at last - and all was well.
I have since realised that there is nothing that can be done, life and death is part and parcel of farming life, sheep mothers know what they are doing and can usually be trusted to take good care of their offspring. For someone who, as a child, wanted to bring all the animals inside when it was raining, I just need harden up!

Our current view - mutton stressed with lambs!

Monday, 12 September 2011

The roof is out there

A major milestone is reached as we cover ‘The Gaps of Roof’ (with apologies to John Steinbeck)

One of my strongest memories of my parents house build in the early 1970s was the roof shout. There was a building boom taking place at the time, and makeshift flags seemed to fly from recently roofed houses all over town, as thirsty building teams waited for their reward. My father didn’t keep our builders waiting long (although I recall they certainly didn’t return the favour when it came to completing the house) and I remember being awed at the sheer volume of beer he turned up with. These were the days of flagons and there seemed to be so many that perhaps it was alcohol poisoning which slowed the remainder of that particular build.

Four decades later and times have changed. Our builder Dean is doing all of the work himself, assisted by Rose and I whenever he needs extra hands and we aren’t at work, and often by his redoubtable fiancée Kate. Very early on in the process, Rose and I decided that a meal out for Dean and Kate would be the best form for our roof shout to take – this is a classy build and besides, flagons are nigh impossible to find, these days.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; first the roof had to go on. Spring has continued to be extremely kind to us, and a bonus we could never have expected is the complete absence of the equinox gales! Usually a guaranteed Wairarapa ordeal heralding the change to the warmer seasons and absolutely perfect for delivering our roofing iron all over Greytown and beyond, it seems that perhaps we got more than our fair share of high-speed winds in July instead (see the Attack of the Cyclones entries for that month).
Although strong norwesterlies were forecast, the week marked for the arrival and fixing of our roofing iron had been remarkably still. Rose and I were both home that Friday, and fearful that the promised wind might actually arrive this time, we made the decision with Dean to start at first light – around 7am. A light breeze was blowing by the time we began, the dawn light colouring the clouds pink and gold like the sky in an expressionist painting.
Dawn is still breaking as Rose and Dean place the first length of roofing paper
 Dean did the scary balancing at the apex of the roof, while Rose (Super-Powertool Woman) drilled the bolts at the lower edge. My job was to lift the eight metre lengths of coloursteel up to Dean and then help Rose secure the paper and iron once it was in place.
As with our previous home, we chose an unobtrusive dark grey colour, although Dean had earlier tried to bait Rose by telling her that the iron ordered was alternating pink and orange lengths ‘as per the plan’.
The three of us soon got into a rhythm, and we covered the entire length of the main roof well before lunch. The only incident naturally involved a gust of wind which ripped the second to last length of iron out of our hands as we were passing it to Dean. Anyone familiar with coloursteel will know that its guarantee can be declared null and void if you so much as look at it too harshly - so a flying piece of iron could have caused all kinds of paint-gouging, metal-denting havoc. Fortunately, it simply bounced off the fascia board and fell unharmed onto the grass.

A brief pause while an aperture for a water pipe is cut
Dean and I then drilled the rest of the bolts into place, while Rose filled nail holes in the fascia boards, completing a very successful morning’s work.
 I had to leave after lunch for a late shift in Wellington, so we all arranged to complete the smaller south roof the following morning.

Stealthful roof-top Ninja gains access with a power drill
Getting home close to 2.00am on Saturday morning, I was a little disconcerted when Dean arrived just five hours later, keen to get started. But what the hell, it’s amazing what you can make yourself do when it’s your own house. As for Rose, she had her powerdrill in hand before I’d even managed to struggle out of bed.

Dean starts work on the south roof early the following morning
The three of us used the same system as yesterday, and work went equally smoothly, although I initially found the endless climbing up and down the scaffolding pretty draining on so little sleep. Once again, the wind was negligible, but this smaller roof had its own complications. Three skylights positioned over the bathroom meant a lot of measuring and cutting, and seeing Dean determinedly cutting through coloursteel with hand snips convinced me to ‘man up’ a little about feeling tired.

Due to the bathroom skylights, a lot more cutting is required this time
Once again, it was all over by lunchtime, and hugely satisfying to have our home protected from the elements. It seems clear that after months of living next to the wooden skeleton of our house that its appearance will change pretty quickly from this point onwards. The now cats spend more and more time exploring the rooms and at the end of the day we enjoyed a glass of wine while sitting in the doorway of our living room, watching the sun disappear behind the hills. It’s almost becoming a home already.

The sun sets over our brand new roof

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Floor Plan

 We’re about to live our life on some beautiful matai floorboards, but we certainly won’t be the first to walk these particular planks.

"We'll take the lot!"
On one of the most beautiful, still days which the Wairarapa has seen in months, we climbed into our car and drove to Palmerston North. Clearly there had to be a very good reason for this, and there was – we were going to visit our floor.

When designing our home to be as self-sustainable and gentle on natural resources as possible, it was a foregone conclusion that this would include using recycled timber for our flooring. Friends who had some major renovation work done last year were able to recommend a business based in the capital of the Manawatu which specialised in recycled flooring, and Rose was quick to get in touch with them.
After an initial meeting we brought home samples of 4, 5 and 6 inch wide floorboards, deciding that the 5 inch gave the combination of quick installation and minimal waste which we were looking for. We then debated for some time over whether we wanted to go with matai, or rimu timber. Matai is harder and more commonly used as flooring (our previous home had beautiful, original matai floors) but can tend to be reddish in colouring. Rimu, although softer, is more golden in appearance; a look which we felt would compliment our new, brighter home better.

Eventually, a matai floor in a condemned building became available and we were given the opportunity to inspect it on-site. As adverse as we were to wasting hours of a sunny day in the car, we knew that we owed it to ourselves to be duly diligent. We had elected to go with a matai floor as long as it wasn’t too dark, and this was the only way for us to be certain.
We met our contact, Jason, outside an impressive art deco building which had most recently served as a sewing factory. As well as the expected debris from the salvage work inside, there was also considerable water damage. Apparently the building could once have been saved, (one plan involved turning it into a restaurant or café), but the theft of copper from the roof had eventually reduced its integrity to the point that the weather found its way in, causing irreparable damage.
It was a melancholy experience to see this huge building being stripped and divided up like an enormous carcass from the bad old days of whaling, but we couldn’t deny it was to our own advantage, particularly when we were shown the portion of floor being offered to us. Although mostly covered in dust, we could see that the colour was definitely more towards the desired gold, than orange. There will be some work involved for us in cleaning the tongue and grooves and removing nails, but also a lot of satisfaction in utilising pre-loved timber.

Arrangements were made for when we could collect the salvaged timber (another trip to Palmerston North!) and in the final analysis this was a journey worth taking - a surprisingly fascinating experience to be guided through our future floor’s original home.

This could have been a cafe if the roof hadn't been stolen

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Lettuce rejoice

Spring has well and truly pounced, as they say, so Rose shifts attention from the house to something which is now growing even faster.

A key part of this sustainable lifestyle for us is the ability to produce as much of our own food as possible. We have 8 acres of land in total, divided in half to form the ‘paddock’ and the house block. The block contains our native bush ‘forest’ and enough space for a large vegetable patch and an orchard, one day.
We had a fairly substantial vegetable garden at Woodside Road and enjoyed what the chickens hadn’t trashed! They quickly cottoned-on to this all-you-can-eat buffet when the tomatoes started ripening and although they often got there first, we all enjoyed fresh organic produce.

Once we settled into the container my thoughts turned to growing some winter vegetables. Knowing that we wouldn’t have a proper vegetable garden for some time we bought a couple of kitset macrocarpa beds measuring 90cm x 2m. I had the fun of assembling them and, once stacked on top of each other, they made a perfect interim garden. We found the best sun and wind protection was a spot near the fence in the forest, ideal as a temporary site.
I planted bok choy, cabbages, broccoli, silverbeet and beetroot with a wee patch of celery as well*. There isn’t much more space now that things are growing well and we are looking forward to being able to enjoy ‘home grown’ again. The real bonus is that the chickens haven’t discovered it - yet!

Henry and two of his girls sample the 'chookateria' smorgasbord
The arrival of Spring has also meant that the chickens have finally started to lay again, but they took exception to a change in bedding in their nesting box. I gave them some wood shavings, thinking they might like it, but they voted with their feet and started laying in self-constructed nests in the main part of the chicken house; so back to pea straw it is! I bought them a Chookateria - a metal box with a lid that lifts when they stand on a platform. This is designed to prevent the unintentional feeding of the entire Wairarapa sparrow and finch population, once the chickens have ‘left the table’. It has taken weeks and weeks but I think they are finally getting the hang of it!

We have also been turning our minds to productive use of the land we have. Roger uses the bottom paddock for grazing but it would be great to see it utilised and paying for itself. Various ideas have been suggested (including a mangrove swamp boat tour, wetland petting zoo and railway station carpark over-spill) but nothing has resonated to date. Watch this space!

*Lettuce will be added at some future date

Deep in the forest, the vegetables plotted their take-over.