It’s not a Mansion, nor a Palace and it’s made of recycled wood and the upkeep is always needed But it’s home and it’s a Happy place to boot

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Dream House on a Shoestring    I D 2762 Oct 07, 2008

Well maybe I’m a bit over the edge with the dream house claim in this day and age but if you have modest tastes and equate moderate size with minimal upkeep then this type of housing might suit you. There is a quality about wood that is like no other building material and the age of the wood actually improves the grain and stabilizes the size of the boards too. Wood is readily available in old buildings that need tearing down and it’s surprising what beautiful patterns lie beneath the visible surface. Old wood may be gray, painted, riddled with nails and perhaps even cracked down the center but when it’s planned again to new dimensions and oiled it looks like a million bucks even though it was once lying on the ground as a discard. Around here there is plenty of spruce, pine and ceder and lots of sawmills so it’s easy to find culls at the wood lot going for a fraction of their retail cost and you are buying from the sawyer as well.

When I build stuff I look around for as much free material I can get and then transfer that into the design of the project. That way the cost is minimized but it can never be lowered to zero because there are many things in a building that must be bought new. Wiring, insulation, plywood for the floor and roof, linseed oil, tung oil and spar varnish, not to mention the nails and screws, glue and roofing. On a six hundred square foot main floor building you will be spending about $500 bucks minimum on each of the categories listed above so if you can save anything by scrounging fasteners or fixtures then do so. Chimney blocks, flue liners and concrete foundations can cost a bit too and is not easy to find for free so it’s a good idea to minimize the need for these things. The fireplace or heating system can either be built or purchased new but my whole cost to that point was still under $5000 and the building was completed for that amount without water pump or appliances. There is one other cost regarding the tools required given that many of them will have to be replaced during the building but you will wind up with a full set in the end. You need a jigsaw, 3/8" and 1/2" drill, hand held planer, 5" body grinder, Skil saw and a table saw plus all the blades, bits and pads required. I don’t bother with a router or any other tools because I like the wood to look rustic. Naturally you will need a good set of wood chisels, lots of sandpaper, carpenters glue by the gallon and patience by the bushel.

A local Finlander wanted his old house removed from the premises so I made a deal to remove all the wood materials and leave the insulation and plasterboard behind but it would be well worth even paying for the stuff and cleaning up for him. All walls and roof were covered in pine and spruce boards, both sides, and then the walls and floor had 2 by 4’s and 2 by 6’s so there was plenty of materials. This coupled with a few other small buildings and fences etc. created quite a pile on my property. When the buildings are dismantled you must be careful to preserve as many boards as possible using two hooks (crowbars), an axe, a hammer and a sledge and it’s a real good idea to do all the de-nailing before you load your trailer. Oh yeah, did I mention you need a long trailer and a car to haul the beams and the stacks of lumber. I used a K car and a homebuilt trailer with a super-long tongue to carry the loads but with the 24 foot 8 by 8 beams all stacked up, the back end of the car bounded off the road all way the home, good thing it was front wheel drive. Don’t leave these piles outside to get rained on. I built the roof as soon as possible and then placed the interior and exterior wood on the floor of the building to acclimatize it in nice big air spaced stacks to keep it straight. Wood has a water content that partially determines it’s size and straightness so these things must be kept in control even if the wood isn’t new.

At first I tried to use a belt sander to remove the paint from the exterior pine siding but that proved to be impossible so I switched to a hand held power planer that cuts a swath nearly 4" wide as clean as a whistle and dead thin. Old siding needs to be turned over to use, and two such swaths must be cut to cover the 6" width of the boards. The first planer I purchased used hard steel blades that got dull in about 30 boards and needed sharpening constantly so I returned it for one with carbide blades that could plane the surface of hundreds of boards before failing. You need a guide on the edge of the planer to keep the path straight. These pieces of wood were close to 100 years old and in some cases older so you can imagine how beautiful the grain is when revealed and the effect of adding linseed oil darkens, and eventually varnish and wax creates the most astounding effect considering you are using something that was originally discarded. I especially prize the milkrot grain that is dark red, found in spruce and jackpine. Knots, fissures, spruce bug holes and deep discoloration all add to the beauty of the finished product and that includes the rusty holes made by thousands of nails that have been removed. My interior walls as well as the exterior are all covered with this wood, placed at an angle for strength and coated with varnish outside and just oil inside. You will find that knots and nails that you missed will tend to ruin the planer blades so caution must be exercised to make sure you don’t pass over a loose knot or hit an overlooked nail. It’s funny, but I have to actually point out to admiring guests that there are old nail holes everywhere that somehow get completely lost in the effect of natural and slightly distressed solid wood paneling used.

The cottage is on lake Superior and has others along the lakeshore on both sides, has been here for years and this was the third replacement of the entire structure. Building permits here are a bit tenuous so I had pull off some magical stunts to allow the completion of my dream home within the constraints of a permit that was ostensible only for a new roof. The building inspector and the system involved was lax and I managed to manipulate it sufficiently to succeed. To allow for a loft the roof angle had to be raised to just below eight foot in the middle. Once the old roof was removed and the new trusses were prepared I had to cut down the old seven foot high walls and replace them with eight footers, in the dead of night, in fall when other campers were not around and use the old surface covering temporarily to fool any spying eyes. This also meant that the floor had to be removed after the new roof was installed and all the underpinnings then refurbished which is absolutely the wrong way to do it. I doubled all the original floor 2 by 6’s and raised the building high enough to install a second set of beams under the structure as well. These buildings are on sand and above a water table that is about 4 feet down so there is no possibility of basements and the best method not to disturb the roots from the surrounding trees that run under the plot since the foundation pads need all the support they can get. To make things even more difficult I had to pour a giant triangular pad under the back corner where the rear door is, that extended all the way to the middle of the building supporting the fireplace and chimney on the way. This and another steel reinforced concrete beam under the front window area that extended the full width of the building had to be poured through the open floor structure with the supports temporarily set aside. It was fun.

I had to demand that my friends show up exactly when these clandestine operations were taking place and pulled off with the precision of a bank robbery in order to thwart the forces that would prevent any povertino such as myself from building anything of value. Others on my beach built absolutely anything they wanted, but then they had lots of money and could have the rules changed if they so chose. At one point I arrived at dusk when the whole place was fleshed out full size but nothing more that a bunch of stud walls supporting a brand new roof. Through the gloom of the darkening day I could that someone had stapled a yellow sheet to the middle of the wood scaffolding and I immediately knew it was a ’Stop Work’ order placed by the building inspector. Unwittingly the beach officials had signed off on my design changes shown in the blueprints so a quick call, in the middle of the night to the inspector at his home got the order rescinded. I was relieved. I had to bargain with them to allow the eight foot rise for the roof but other than that it was just political manipulation and stealth that allowed me to succeed.

The winds in winter in this area come off the frozen lake and the temperature can go as low as forty below with a significant wind chill and I have had lots of experience trying to keep warm in one of these tarpaper shacks in such conditions so I needed to construct a design that was very low cost in terms of maintenance yet comfy enough to do clay work and type in the dead of the winter deep freeze. All the windows except the front are recycled double pane glass elements from various sources framed in wood. The entire south wall or waterfront of the building is covered in 10 panels of recycled plate glass from broken storefronts. These can be purchased cut to size for about $2 per square foot from any commercial glazier that saves broken plate. The effect of having a full glass opening two stories high in winter is astounding. I don’t get up till the crack of noon or even later and by that time the wood stove has stopped heating about six hours ago but the low arc of the sun is blasting it’s solar rays all the way to the open concept back wall and you would think that there was a heating system operating but it’s just passive solar. The sleeping loft is the big secret. Up there the heat lingers and is trapped because it’s above all the openings and even in the highest winds and the coldest weather I am quite comfortable to let the fire go out when I retire. This lifestyle isn’t for everyone. In winter the cat water on the ground floor will sometimes freeze at night even though the floor is well insulated but upstairs it’s all comfy cosy under my two comforters. Actually I can sleep quite well in below freezing temperatures and am more comfortable when the indoor temp is around 40 Fahrenheit (5 Celsius) but that comes from having to survive several years with little wood and getting accustomed to sleeping in below zero conditions.

In summer the building had to be able to be cooled sufficiently without the use of air conditioning and that was accomplished by making the west wall open with wooden louvers to expose a screen wall. This covers half the wall and is blocked off with styrofoam pads covered in cloth in winter. These together with the front and back doors open to screens constitutes a wind corridor that cools everything off quite well. Again not for everyone. The Ceiling is vaulted to the roof with only three main solid wood trusses leaving a large open concept 600 sq foot area two stories high with only a 8’ by 10’ bathroom and tiny office area about 4’ by 8’. All the walls and roof inside and out are covered with 1" wood that is planned to about 3/4" and the wall wood is mounted inside and out in a triangular fashion to give character and strength. Everything is well insulated, anything but airtight, even though there is a full vapor barrier. Houses that are too tight are unhealthy and defeat their purpose when one is forced to ventilate during the heating season. I use four or five cords of birch per winter, presently at $240 each delivered. One must constantly attend to the wood finishes, varnish outside and oil inside. Spar Varnish simply evaporates over the years so it does not have to be removed to revarnish but sanding is necessary. Urethane varnish turns into creamy colored flakes and is undesirable. Linseed oil or flax oil is the cure for cancer so you can take of sip of your paint as you oil the wall inside and you never have to worry about poison or allergies. Tung oil is for the finer decorations like handrails and window trim, is made partly of flax but not edible.

All the staircases including the indoor spiral stair that runs up to the loft and the front and rear entrance stairs are made of a rather unique design interspersing 4" by 4" spacers with 3" by 6" treads and don’t ever creak. These came from the lumber yards and were purchased as culls or discards because of spruce bug holes, bark inclusion and missing corners but that just adds to the character and they are half price or less. All the heavy wood including the window frames and stair cases are put together with glue and heavy dowels or broom handle and screwed where appropriate. I hardly ever use nails except on stud wall construction and mounting wall boards. Everything is screws and glue with 3/4" or 1" dowels driven in. Design work must be meticulous and if you don’t do that part yourself then find someone that will do it as a hobby or it might cost you a bundle and possibly not work at all. Many things look correct on paper but never work out that way unless they are of the same old, same old construction consisting of studs, plaster board and vinyl siding ..yech! The kitchen cupboards are quite unique, as well constructed of the finest of solid hardwoods, meticulous joinery and wooden sliders, handles and hinges. These took a couple of months to make out of loads of pallets from all over the world, as pallets tend to be. The hinges have steel pins in the center made of 1/4" rod and washered with drilled out dimes or nickels because steel washers rust and brass washers are too expensive. Don’t tell the Queen. I used the dimes on the cupboards and nickels on the window louvers. The window louvers took over a week to shape, plane and oil and each section opens and closes with a wood wedge. In the windy part of fall and spring the louvers clang away like wood chimes and is sounds absolutely fantastic.

I love my little mansion and it has become not only a cottage but a year round living space without the costly city taxes. It has also become my art studio and display area and in the last three years the location of INTS or the online virtual university ’The Institute of Non-Theoretical Science’ where the average hippy, namely me, can pretend that he has a life. My upkeep has slid a bit lately but I’m catching up, and all the pictures I have are on the web to be seen. After writing this I feel new inspiration to display the unique designs of louvers, staircases and cupboards and will do so shortly. Do not hesitate to email me as I really enjoy contact and mostly just get spam.

Ross Owen

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