home sweet home

We've been enjoying the new digs since Thanksgiving; got the Kitchen, living, bath and one bedroom 90% done or more. Went ahead and moved in while we are working on the last bedroom. Still lots to do outside too but the light at the end of the tunnel isn't just a glimmer anymore but is a pretty darn bright searchlight. Two hard weeks could finish it but finding two weeks in a row to take time off is a real challenge right now. Guess we'll have to stay satisfied with weekend progress unit it is finished. The tin shingles behind the TV were found piled under a tree on the place, lots of cleaning and straightening allowed the 1890's roofing to coax itself back into the original slots and they aligned beautifully again once more after all these years of neglect. The ceilings came off of an add on craigslist. The early 60's globe lights came out of the First Baptist Church in Wellington, Texas - we've been carrying them around for years looking for a suitable home.  More soon.


300 lb.s worth of concrete sink

 The kitchen area is coming along nicely with the whole thing planned around a cast 'crete sink. Appliances were bought first to be sure of final dimensions and a late decision to use a porcelain top off of an old Hoosier style cupboard shortened the length of top to build by about four feet. The narrow 20" wide stove (that the punk kid at Home Depot insisted didn't even exist) placement gave me the dimension for a short butcher block top over to the wall and the window placement informed me of what was left of the wall. The resulting wall yielded close to 60" of counter space to fill with the concrete top giving us a single bowl sink centered beneath the window and a integral drainboard to the left. The grey water lines preclude using a disposal - have never been a big fan of flushing good compost material down the sink anyways. We first built the legs to support it out of galvanized 1" pipe using wall and floor flanges, the same pipe was used as a base under the porcelain top. Formwork for the concrete was built across the living room up on legs so that when we flipped over the final form it would be as the same level as the top and we wouldn't have to do any lifting.  Smooth MDF board was used as formwork and then we caulked all the corners for a nice eased edge and heavily varnished it all to seal it from the wet concrete. The trickiest part of the whole affair was wrapping my brain around and then building an upside down drainboard and sink form with leave-outs for all the drain basket parts. This is hardly new technology; other people are masters at this but this was only our second foray into the alternative universe of the concrete countertop. A good article from Fine Homebuilding gave some direction as to methods and tips but as usual winging it is in my DNA. I used an acrylic plasticizer and dark charcoal colorant mixed with three and a half 80 lb. sacks of ready mix. The concrete was reinforced with a birdcage made of wired 4x4 hardware cloth. The local mix of sacrete is aggregated (is that a word?) with limestone chips so it made for a nice contrast with the darker matrix; a nice grog to background ratio.

According to experience a drier mix yields the strongest product, but against my better judgement for flow-ability, we went with a dry enough slump to make firm softball shaped lumps straight out of the wheelbarrow. Lots of tamping, screeding with a 1x2, form tapping with our trusty lead shot mallet and vibrating with an orbital sander (w/ no sandpaper) against the sides brought the concrete to level and all the water migrating to the top suggested a nice settlement of the mud into the form's nooks and crannies. It set for an entire week curing while I worked on other projects. Alas. The much anticipated form stripping unveiled a ton of dry spots, pits, and minor honeycombs. So much for that dry of a mix. Should have used a little more water to get it to flow but the darn thing literally rings it is so stout. We procrastinated worrying over the final finish until it was installed. I added ski rails to the form table and then used PVC pipe rollers to move it egyptian style across the room. 2x4 levers, stacks of gradually removed blocking and a floor jack eased it over and down where it belonged, with nary a busted toe or broken corner. The sink was rubbed and plastered with a thin slurry of more concrete sifted to remove any aggregate and colored extra dark hoping that the filled spots would add more visual contrast. It worked effectively but we wish it had been a smoother finish straight out of the form. After letting it dry overnight the entire sink was sanded with sanding blocks and 80 grit followed by 150, 220 on the orbital sander and a hand polishing with wet/dry 800 emory cloth. It has been sealed three or four times and then waxed by hand. The water bounces off of it and the surface looks like honed lava rock. A helluva lot of work make no mistake, but with the copper spout, and antique brick window sill for fresh herb growing it is the center of attention in the whole room.


Holy Mesquite Batman!

The bathroom floor experiment continues. The log end tile is grouted but due to a slipping thickness jig had to do a lot more in-place sanding than anticipated to even up the floor. Had plotted to use mostly mesquite harvested from the claim but have found that most of what we had cut and stacked was beetle infested on the outer edges leaving me with an unacceptably holy (hole-y) cross section. Fine for fire wood, not so fine for floor tile. A mix of species filled in the gaps and slicing up old cedar and possibly bois d'arc fence posts yielded the prettiest cross section of them all. Scrub oak branches with thin bark look almost like hard boiled eggs and some cedar pieces are wildly shaped. They have grouted very well with little or no shrinkage in the joints. A dark brown grout color was chosen to be complimentary to the darkest pieces of mesquite. We pre-sanded the 1 3/4" thick pieces, glued them down with the strongest vinyl based tile mastic we could find followed by a sealing coat of varnish before grouting. We were afraid the grout would soak into the absorbent wood obscuring the wood color and grain. The grout will be sealed but not before we sand the wood again with 220 grit on an orbital palm sander to polish the wood up before waxing them individually. Jeree made  a small test sample to check for wood color and grout shrinkage and what would happen when we varnished both together. Simply varnishing the whole thing pulled some kind of mineral out of the grout and left white crystallized spots. Some as yet undiscovered grout sealer designed for absorbent stone may do the trick but we don't want it too shiny. A waxed and smoothly worn appearance is more like it. Obviously a lot more work than ceramic or vinyl would have been but certainly not the unique floor we were looking for. Can attest to the toughness of the floor already as I have test dropped lumber and tools on it several times with no dents or chips. :)  


a hot humid summer

July is getting away from us already and its been a hot and humid one. Been working nearly full time on a big restoration project in downtown Houston; a 60 mill plus rebirth of the Harris County Courthouse. Houston in the summer is the kind of place that simply wouldn't exist if it weren't for air-conditioning. It has meant less time at the claim than hoped for this year but in this economy lots of work - no matter the downside - is a blessing. We have been camping out during the week in a ridiculously large rent house in North Houston with several other coworkers that is economical for the company but makes us want to flee for the peace and quiet of the country every weekend only three hours away. After yet more urban living it is a solid reaffirmation of what we are doing here with our humble home project too.
Even with sporadic progress the house is completely wired - plug ins everywhere! What a luxury! - all the plumbing is roughed in, there is a functional toilet, all the insulation is complete, and the all important air conditioning. We have started installing exterior siding, the bathroom mesquite floor, and will start on interior walls soon.
The electrical consists of underground service to 160 amps worth of service, more than adequate for less than a thousand square feet. There is lots of daylight so what little lighting there is will consist of CFL lamps and a few task lights at countertops and sitting areas. I have a weakness for funky lamps, we have gathered vintage fixtures for years that are in storage waiting for use. Dedicated, switched, and GFI outlets are spaced to code. After much deliberation on the AC needs we went with the simplest solution: three through-wall units. They are energy efficient, easily sized appropriate to the space, have no condenser on the ground, no ductwork, quiet, economical to operate, and easy to replace.
Plumbing is going to be exposed copper piping, neatly arranged and sweated connections and simple brass valves at the sinks and shower give the desired industrial hi/low tech look but also keep pipes out of exterior walls to not interfere with insulation. We are using a Sun-mar composting unit with a Dometic SeaLand low profile toilet. I did lots of reading before choosing the system and we are still fiddling with it to get the maintenance down so cannot gloat about the choices so far. There is not room under the floor for a totally direct dump dry composting unit and have never liked the look of an all in one self contained composting toilet. ( They look like you are perched atop a portable sauna.) The Sealand toilet is porcelain and looks conventional except for a foot pedal and no tank. Have had a little trouble with the water seals on the toilet but it is a huge step up from an outhouse. The toilet uses less than two cups of water to flush, a must to keep the compost from being saturated. The Sun-mar has not produced any finished compost yet but appears to be working fine. More experiences to come on that.


Nasher Sculpture Garden

Been wanting to visit the Nasher since it opened in Dallas next door to the DMOA but have not had an opportunity to catch it open - until yesterday. A beautiful spring day, not too many people, and it did not disappoint. The building by Renzo Piano is terrific enough, with all the subtle classical / contemporary beauty and subdued natural lighting of Kahn's Kimball in Ft.Worth. Not as astounding to me personally as Ando's Ft. Worth Modern but still I really appreciated the restraint and deference of the building to the collection. The grounds are pristine; some of the varieties of trees are sculpture in themselves. A boardwalk under a huge weeping willow is its own environment. I'm partial to bamboo anyway and long screens of manicured bamboo in gray river rock beds are to drool over.
I especially wanted to see Turrel's commissioned skyspace. Basically just a small room with a hole in the roof. But what a hole. He's done quite a few of these now and the premise is that a paper thinned edge reveals a patch of sky from below as a plane on the ceiling. Unless there are some reference points like clouds, a plane passing by, etc. it is impossible to tie down exactly what it is you are seeing. It doesn't look like blue sky but some strange new velvety material you've never seen. The execution is almost - but not quite - perfect. Unfortunately, conceptual things like this need to be perfect to even have a reason to exist. The sky yesterday was an average bright, light blue. The edges of the hole are thin but still visible, open joints in the interior of the minimalist room necessary for rainwater drainage and subtle holes for security cameras are small but still are distracting in Hi-rez real life reality. Later in the day as the sky color deepens and in "golden minutes of opportunity" it must be really memorable. In actuality it photographs beautifully even by hacks like me with a point and shoot camera. Maybe losing the 3rd dimension heightens the way that a simple hole in the roof reads as a whole 'nother entity. It requires a shift of perception to appreciate. Genius or stupidity depending on your point of view. Worth another visit to see in different conditions.

The thing that impressed me the most about the visit was that it is obvious that millions were spent on the site, the building, and the collection yet the art is extremely accessible. No rope barriers surround the pieces. Guards were posted all over but were friendly. Walking on the grass and through the negative spaces of several of the larger sculptures is actually encouraged. Signs said no food and drink or flash photography but still photos and sketching of the pieces by students are welcome. Families with small kids were all over and as I left a large group of small kids showed up and were met with smiles by the staff instead of expressions of terror. A temporary piece is of a virtual solid curtain of floating stainless steel text hanging by thin lines that completely cut the building down the middle; there was no way to get to the other side without pushing your way through the piece like a walk through wind chime. To me, the concept of the piece by a south american artist was highbrow and irrelevant. The fact that visitors and children could actually touch it, make it tinkle and were basically forced to interact with it was really refreshing. Small signs discouraged touching of the bronzes for obvious tarnishing reasons and I'm sure climbing on anything by little heathens would be quickly dealt with too but all in all the center has a nicely laid back presentation.
Out in the garden I was appreciating an up-close look at a Richard Serra pair of arcing steel slabs, wondering how in the hell slabs of steel so massive can be formed, handled, shipped cross-country and then placed so delicately in balance with each other. I especially liked the fact that tong marks along the top edge of the bent plates are evidence of it's foundry birth and were left in place. The logistics of things like that will totally escape 95% of people. I was starting to walk through the narrow space between the steel walls when two little girls ran up wide-eyed and asked "Can we go in there?!" I said, "Oh yea, your supposed to!" pointing out the gravel walkway between. Being familiar with the acoustics inherent in his sculptures (the piece in Ft. Worth has amazing reverberant echos) I added "When you get to the middle you have to yell real loud." They gave me a leery eye but ran full throttle through the void squealing. Their parents met them at the other end with their mouths hanging open. The two little rats pointed me out; "You have to be real loud, HE said your sposed to!" Ahh... yes. I just shrugged my shoulders and laughed.
Note to artists: Please cut through all the crap, no art should take itself too serious if it is ever going to be really appreciated with joy. Check it out.



Framed up the mantle (already collecting junk) & hearth for a woodstove using antique brick from the Hubbard / Hill Cemetery at Hills Prairie on the floor. Quartz rocks and petrified wood from the claim will be the backdrop.

The screened porch with electrical and water heater closet is taking shape, destined to be our favorite room in the house.


building a better bottle wall

Have always admired bottle built walls and windows, a time honored folk art way of laying bottles up as masonry with grout. Poor man's stained glass. The bottle village in California is even on the national register of historic places. I've seen whiskey bottles used, beer bottles, coke bottles, wine bottles, even embalming fluid bottles in an old ghost town in Arizona. A bottle house in nearby Wimberley built entirely of coke bottles laid in patterns is a beautiful example. I had the idea to build a large window into the bathroom out of bottles and jars over the tub; it would form one long side of the shower and can shed water as well as glass block. The tub may actually end up perpendicular to it now because of a plumbing situation with the composting toilet we've selected but it will still serve the same purpose. Started with a healthy frame of full 2x material for weight and adequate depth well anchored to the 2x6 stud exterior wall. The bottles are laid up with a bed of mortar leaving exposed ends inside and out that will then be grouted with tile grout after we get all the bottles in. The inherent problem with bottle wall construction is if a full bottle is used then one side or the other is going to have an open neck. I've seen them alternated, with the necks pointing in, or the necks pointing out which makes for the prettiest exposure through the butts from the inside but makes for a great place for bugs, dirt, and moisture to accumulate. If one were able to cut them in half, turn two ends together so that there is a butt inside and out it will solve the open end problem and admit the maximum amount of light in the process but it means using twice as many bottles and lots of cutting. The benefits are worth the trouble though, the resulting "brick" is not argon filled low-e by any means but a 7-1/2" deep dead air space is pretty damn good insulation. Trial and error (and error) gave us an efficient process for making consistent clean cuts. Ronco sold a miracle bottle cutter over the TV when I was a kid, it was a piece of junk and didn't yield us a cabinet full of free drinking glasses, windchimes on the porch or flower vases for Mom but I seem to remember I had fun with it for a day or two. It was basically a jig to hold a glass cutter head a certain distance up from the base of the bottle, spinning the bottle with practice makes a nice even score around the bottle , a bent wire tapper inserted down the neck will finish the break. Sandpaper the sharp edges and Voila! - you just made an ugly drinking glass. I made a plywood jig half the height of the depth of the wall, attached a new glass cutter with screws and with practice it yields a very straight cut. Forget the tapping; the ringing of a bottle is of a deafening frequency and the break lines tended to wander. I have cut bottles before with an alcohol soaked string tied around the jar: light it and let it burn out to heat the glass at a precise line followed by a quick dunk in cold water. The temperature shock shatters the glass in a surprisingly clean line. Neat trick but no good for mass production. We tried holding the score over a candle and dunking in water; meh. Mixed results. More heat! More cold! Yin and yang, fire and ice. Spinning the score line over the low flame of a propane torch followed by a spin on an ice cube snaps that sucker right off. Any broken edges can be cleaned up with nippers. The halves are matched up for size, cleaned, left to dry and then taped together using adhesive stainless steel tape used for duct sealing, one of my new favorite essential materials after duct tape, baling wire and queso. The subsequent sealed joint is buried within the depth of the mortar bed. Mixing colors from end to end - half brown, half clear - gives us more of a color range to work with. Old Evian bottles from our stock at the gazebo are a great turquoise blue, the cobalt blue milk of magnesia, square ice blue gin bottles, lime green rolling rock and olive green wine bottles, and oversized brown Clorox bottles mix nicely. The light transmission is better than hoped for. We have no shortage of jars and bottles yet plus my beer selection of late has leaned towards the bottle color over brand in anticipation of this project. The son-in-laws have filled in the gaps with lots of green, clear and brown beer bottles. Road kill provided us with a large wine bottle and a stop at a BBQ joint turned up gallon jalapeno pepper jars that will let in a lot of light. Random sized round bottle ends form an intended visual connection with the mesquite log ends we will be laying the bathroom floor with. Now we have the family gathering bottle caps to grout down as a tiled vanity top for a similar theme at a smaller scale.


St. John Colony

A recent article in Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine talked about St. John Colony and other freed slave communities in Texas.

Finally got some agave in the ground via a want ad on Craigslist for a variety of cheap or free plant material. May have some free bamboo spotted this weekend too. More framing on the screen porch done last weekend. Probably will be our favorite room in the house. Have always wanted a good screened room with a view, shade, a hammock, a ceiling fan, maybe a bird cage. Sipping an adult beverage, some Hank Williams from an old radio, a good Travis McGee book.... ahhhh.

Have been working on the bottle window in the bathroom, Jeree has the technique down after some experimenting and is mass producing beer bottle bricks.


A visit to the Decommissioned Harris County nuclear reactor

Was able to garner unrestricted access to the decommissioned Harris County nuclear reactor last week and managed to sneak this shot down the very throat of the central core. The control rods are plainly visible after slowly draining off all the coolant into the downtown tunnel system. Rad levels are tolerable and at street level near the intersection of Preston and San Jacinto hardly registered above exposure from a few chest xrays. I had to harness off of a rusty but otherwise stable relief vent louver near the top of the containment dome and lean pretty far out to get a clear view but it was worth it to get this close up look at a rarely seen or even known about chapter in the state's energy past. Few Texans realized it existed peacefully downtown for decades quietly churning out the megawatts to light the likes of the Astrodome and kept the computers humming at the stealthy ICBM installation buried within the truncated black glass towers of nearby Pennzoil Place.

close enough to 4/1/10


finally a little progress

It's been too long since my last confession. Forgive me father blogg for I have strayed. Our schedule, the economy, the holidays and most of all the weather has taken a real toll on the house progress. It has rained an entire year's worth since October. The pond is in constant floodgate stage and the draw below it runs like a mountain stream; albeit a muddy one. Thankfully we were able to get the roof in and Tyvek on before all this started so the house has been able to sit unattended, but dry, for awhile. This past weekend we had all the exterior sliding doors and windows delivered and have the sliders in the holes, shimmed, leveled and all but sealed up. The underdog New Orleans Saints won the Superbowl last night. That's the extent of the good news for the weekend. The Penske delivery truck made it down to the house site and promptly sunk up to the rims. A frustrating time was had by all for the next three or four hours and but for the help of good neighbors with a new John Deere the delivery van would still be entombed in the mud. The end result is that our picturesque little two lane gravel packed road is a complete disaster for its entire length. We are parked at the gate and packing in supplies through the muck for the foreseeable future with more rain forecast this week. RC and his tractor had to drag the truck backwards to the gate. It was all but unsteerable and the pitiful excuse of an overweight and underpowered dually truck plowed ruts so deep on both sides of the road that I even had to fetch a chainsaw to remove several mesquite trees we had planned to save. The waterline was exposed in several places and snapped a connection in the process so plumbing repair and shovel mucking was on the agenda as well. We'll be forced to have a "real" road built now; no hand distributed gravel will fix this mess. Sigh. Heavy sigh.

Will install the rest of the windows next. With glass in place I can get started on exterior siding, and can finish framing the screened back porch. We recessed an area of floor for a brick pad under a wood stove using handmade brick from the 1870 era Hubbard / Hill Cemetery and will continue to gather the quartz stone and petrified wood from the place to use for the wall under a timber mantle. The majority of the salvaged lumber from the house has been cleaned and stacked under cover to dry to use for interior walls, ceiling and trim. Certainly no shortage of projects for the foreseeable future.