Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Many Around One

I'm in the thick of a design for my rose window. Turns out all kinds of geometric magic happens when a circle is divided into 12 angles. Perfect squares pop up everywhere. And equilateral triangles. This confirms for me the specialness of the 12-around-one orders we see in Scripture: 12 tribes of Israel around one Pillar of Fire; 12 disciples around one Master; 12 eternally open gates around the New Jerusalem. The God who orders his people so also governs the division of two-dimensional space.

There's still a lot of exploring to do to nail down a final concept. These are some of the sketches I've done over the past few weeks. (Sometimes yellow sticky notes are the closest medium when a vision strikes.)

And while I exhilarate myself with sacred geometry there's an array of stuff happening in the background to prepare for the next phase of work on site:

My sewer/water tap guy STILL finds the groundwater too high to bore, so he's researching alternatives.

The house envelope has been staked by a surveyor, precisely as my foundation contractor wanted it staked. Glad I asked, because I would never have guessed he wanted it that way, but it makes sense. I met with him on site last week to look at the stakes, and the first thing he said when he saw my lot is that a concrete truck will not be able to move around the trees to pour the foundation. I was hearing death knells, and asked what that means. He said, "We're just gonna have to pump it." Pump it? "Yeah - back the concrete truck onto the driveway, pour the concrete into a pump, and pump through a hose to the footings. I'll order pea-gravel concrete so it will go through the hose." And that's no problem? "Nope. I have a pump." Okay, so we'll pump it. Thanks God for filling in for my ignorance again.

As we were leaving he looked at the group of trees in the middle of the clearing and asked, "Is that staying?" Yep, that's my courtyard. Then he pulled a knife on me. (In jest... I think, mostly.)

Tomorrow he's going to put up batter boards and string to locate all the foundation and footing edges. I can't wait to see the ghost of this house hovering over the ground.

This morning I finally met with the owner of the adjacent lot, because she has to sign off on the better of two options I have for getting power to my site. The nearest power pole is on the far corner of her lot, and I can put another pole at the corner of my lot and run lines from hers to mine and to the next pole down - requiring all trees within 15 feet of the lines to be cut out of both of our lots. Or, we can dig a trench between my corner and her corner, bury the lines, and cut down trees within five feet of the lines. Of course the latter path is the way I want to go - no new pole, two trees to remove from my site (instead of about 20), five trees from her site (instead of about 15). Seems clear to me. But she was nervous about the digging. And she wanted to be paid for the trees we remove from her lot. Hm. I gave her the number for my power company contact and she said she'll call him and let me know what she decides.

Port-a-John will be delivered Friday. Big day.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Destruction Before Construction

For ME?? I'm a five-year-old child on Christmas morning. And yet it's much more than that.

All this machinery arrived in front of my land Thursday morning (about the only day without rain since I got the building permit... what?) to install a pipe and dirt for the driveway, and to clear and grade the building pad.

I was still nervous about the clearing. I did about all I knew to do to make clear which trees I wanted removed. I marked each tree. I flagged the outside corners of the house, and the inside corners of the courtyard, where a group of trees are to be saved. Then I walked the site with the guy who would be leading this work and showed him everything. I even gave him a site plan showing the footprint of the house and each tree to be removed marked with an X.

And I was nervous. It's against about every experience these guys know to save trees. As this contractor told me, typically his crew go to a site with a bunch of equipment and mow down all but maybe three choice trees. This is easy and quick. You might think it would be quicker to take out fewer trees, but in fact that just makes it more tedious because the backhoe has to be maneuvered around all the trees remaining, not to mention taking care not to knock down large trees onto the others.

My particular arrangement of remaining trees required lots of three-point turns with the backhoe. Of course I didn't intend this; I just didn't think about it. I guess I imagined a couple of people walking through the lot with a chain saw and taking out trees one by one. That may be another way to do it, but then how do you remove the "root mat" (in my case basically six inches of pine straw covering the ground) and grade the building pad? Anticipating how a backhoe would move around the site to do its work is something I failed at here, but will consider in future projects because of this experience. I was lucky that there were no huge problems; the backhoe had just enough room to move without having to remove trees I've designed the house around. I shouldn't say "lucky"; one of my constant prayers is that God will take care of the things I will inevitably miss.

When I first saw the backhoe bouncing through my pine forest I thought, "bull in a china shop," and a new wave of nervousness infected my stomach. But as I watched him work I realized that he's a "bull in a china shop" IF the bull had the soul of a mouse. This guy was a master at maneuvering that clunky thing, touching with the steel-clawed bucket only what should be touched, reaching between trees to scrape up the forest floor but also snapping pine trees like match sticks when he saw red tape.

He took a break after the first wave of clearing (to consume a Red Bull and two Reese's peanut butter eggs) and said, "This is a tough little lot to clear right here." His brother chimed in, "Because of all the stuff that's stayin'." I joked that I just wanted to give him a challenge. He echoed what I'd heard before, that what they usually do is clear the whole lot, and how much easier that is. Then they told me what my next challenge would be: maneuvering the concrete truck around these trees.

The easiest way is not always the best. I think that's true here. It is sad that the usual way of dealing with a wooded lot is to indiscriminately remove everything - just because it's easy. And this deference to what's easiest seems to be the default mode for all the construction trades these days. Which is why just about every phase of building this house will be a special chore for the workers. The goal of everything in the design was to be good, imaginative and true - not to be typical. This clearing job is just the first in a long line of efforts where I will have to ask the workers to forget the easy way.

But I was encouraged about the whole project by the fact that this clearing job was a success. I stopped by the site on the way home from work on the day it was finished (praying all the way) and saw the group of trees for my courtyard standing like an island in an ocean of dirt, huddled together for dear life, a small church of trees. I smiled. And then I realized that this part of the work was a whole other burden: it's one thing to clear only a spot in the middle of a forest, but another thing entirely to leave a spot of forest within the clearing. He even hauled the largest logs to a local mill to be converted into usable lumber. Icing on the cake. I sent a text to thank him for the extra effort. He replied, "It was a pain, but we got it."

So, seven years after the first sketch of this project - and now I get my first whiff of fresh-sawn pine and turned earth. It's exhilarating, and a bit surreal, to see something that has lived so long only in my mind and on paper suddenly mark the physical world. Below is a five-minute video I put together from that first day's work on site, and from a later visit when clearing was done. The last clip shows a small bird, a nuthatch, finding food on one of the trees I saved, ascending with song and dance. Mark the physical world, yes, but with reverence for what God's already done.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Crazy Architect with Building Permit

Receiving that thick yellow piece of paper was the exclamation point at the end of a long Monday, which also included the closing of my construction loan. Below is a summary of the schedule for that day, which I wrote out for myself three different times over the weekend just to be sure I didn't forget anything, or do anything out of order.

Sometime before 10 a.m.: Call Progress Energy to schedule meeting at site to discuss options for power pole location.

Sometime before noon: Call guy doing sewer and water taps, clearing and driveway pipe to schedule meeting on site. (After tagging with red tape the major trees to be removed, but not removing the yellow tags that the surveyor placed on ALL the trees, I wanted to make real clear to this guy what these different colors mean.)

11:30 a.m.: Leave work and stop by bank for cashier's check for loan closing fee. (For these thousands of dollars I don't actually get anything. Well, except the loan. It's money I have to pay to get money.)

12:00 p.m.: Drop off checking account application forms and proof of current address to other bank (the one giving me the loan). (Must happen before closing at 2:00!)

12:30 p.m.: Lunch. (Yes, I scheduled this; otherwise I would have missed it.)

1:00: Meet Progress Energy person at site. (Found out that my power pole can be placed at either of the two front corners of my property, and that all trees within 15 feet of the pole and lines have to be removed. My site is a forest. Still deciding which location will require the removal of the fewest quality trees.)

1:30: Leave for loan closing at attorney's office. (Signed a bunch of papers I didn't read.)

2:45: To sewer and water company to pay impact fees. (These were over $4,500, just to tap into existing lines, which, outrageously, is actually lower than some other local areas. This was also required to complete my building permit application, which the building inspector approved six months ago. So, finally...)

3:30: To County Permitting Office with sewer/water payment receipt to get building permit. (Which costed $730, bringing my total spending for the day to over $8,200. I haven't built anything yet!)

5:00: Meet at site with sewer/water, clearing/driveway guy. (We walked the site and I interpreted the tag colors. He said he's going to bring ONE other guy out for this job, as opposed to the usual half dozen, in order to be especially careful about what gets cut - easing my nerves immensely.)

6:00: Go home for the evening. Place building permit in clear view. Eat pizza. Drink beer.

Tomorrow may bring the first actual work on site, if the rain isn't too heavy: installation of the driveway pipe and felling of the first trees. I'm confident this guy will do it right, but I still have to be there for this..