Friday, April 15, 2011

Moving on...

As I wrap up the big projects in the barn and the vision of a grand opening appears on the horizon, it is time to start advertising more aggressively. We recently launched a new website at, so please check us out. The blog has been incorporated into our new site, so future updates can be found there instead of here. Please link up if you're interested!

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Stairmaster.

I started referring to the staircase as the 'stairmaster' because of the mental workout I get trying to build this thing. My last project was the railing, and I thought I could bend some wood strips around a curved plywood form to create the curve that was needed- however, after making the form I realized the railing must twist and curve 3-dimensionally, like a helix...and so my simple 2-dimensional form idea was useless. Rats. After a long period of head-scratching, googling (is that officially a word now?) and burning mental calories on the stairmaster, it seemed the best way to do it was to form the railing in place. So, the riser boards were removed and studs were lag-screwed to the framing to create an appropriate form for the railing path. Then, using every clamp in the arsenal, I glue-laminated maple strips like this:
Since there are two distinct curves to the staircase, I had to build two railing sections, separated where the pitch changes. Here is the upper section being clamped to the forms:
After removing them from the forms, I realized that I hadn't placed my uprights as accurately as I should've and the railing was pretty 'wavy'...another lesson learned on the stairmaster of life. Considerable reworking ensued, and I was able to get it trued up reasonably well, or at least good enough for a barn. I epoxied the two sections together, then painted the railing white to cover all my mistakes. I installed it with wrought iron balusters, tightly spaced to meet the latest code requirements (either babies are getting smaller, or their parents are becoming less attentive...). Voila!

Monday, February 28, 2011

A country kitchen.

After two years of kitchen building, I now understand why most people leave it to the pros and buy all this stuff! I'm finding my 'developing' craftsmanship results in a lot of imperfection, but it blends in well with the country's the finished product:
Open shelving made from pine slabs: An induction cooktop, which so far has been great to cook on: I hid the microwave under the countertop:

As well as the garbage/recycling bins and Asko dishwasher, which have panelized doors:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Running on the sun.

The mega solar array has been active for over a month now and I am pleased to report that the everything has been working very well. I designed the barn foundation as a high mass sand bed storage system, capable of receiving the heat from the solar collectors during the day, storing it in the concrete slab/underslab sand bed, and slowly releasing the built-up heat to the living space. The benefit is higher efficiency from the solar collectors (since they are operating at much lower temperatures than a conventional system with tank storage) and it eliminates the cost and space required for the large water storage tank. The downside, however, is not being able to store the solar heat for more than a day or two. I was only able to find a few resources on this method (like here and here), but it seemed well suited for extreme climate areas like ours here at the north pole, where we pretty much need 100% of the heat capacity during the winter months and thus there is no reason to try to store it in a water tank.
Here are a few pics of the high mass foundation system during construction, showing the underslab insulation, high mass sand bed, hydronic tubing and finally the concrete floor:
Normally, hydronic tubing would be buried in the sand bed as well as the concrete, but here we only have the upper, slab run of hindsight, I should've installed it in both areas. The poured slab. The concrete was polished and stained to be used as the finish flooring.
Unfortunately, I picked the snowiest winter in the last half-century to prove out a solar heating system, so the run time has been less than anticipated! However, when we have sun, the system is producing around 250kBTU per day, which is typically enough energy to heat the guest house this time of year. With multiple sunny days in a row, the high mass of the floor absorbs the heat and slowly releases it back to the living space- so far I have not seen more than a 8 degree change in indoor temperature during sunny periods, and we were able to make it through a cold -30F night without the need for supplemental heat one day last week. Very promising indeed. More later....

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


One of my greatest fears is to have a failure in the heating system's PEX tubing, which is inconveniently entombed within the concrete slab of the barn. Having thought about if for a few years now, it just doesn't seem like a good idea to seal off any electrical, plumbing or HVAC systems behind walls or under floors- while it may be aesthetically pleasing to have the nervous system of the house well hidden from sight, this makes it difficult if not impossible to upgrade or repair things that break...and sooner or later everything needs fixing, right? Alternately, the concept of disentanglement keeps these systems separate and accessible, usually in chases, raceways and conduits, to increase the adaptability and longevity of the building. I like it, and kept the idea in mind when installing the HRV system, as well as plumbing and electrical runs going to the upper floor of the barn. With all the utilities in place, it looked like this:

Then I built removable soffits and a chaseway to cover it all, which looks like this:

Admittedly, the wood soffits wound up being quite heavy, but can be removed if necessary without destroying anything.

Monday, January 24, 2011


The bedrooms are basically finished, and the guest house is at least 'sleepable' now! Here are the details:
We purchased a natural mattress from OMI for the slab wood bed, and topped it with organic
linens from Coyuchi. The comforter is organic wool from our friends at Prarie Glenn Wool in South Dakota (we'll be getting more of these shortly- they are great). The night stands are Box Elder slabs bracketed to the wall.

The dresser was saved from the landfill and is in the process of being refinished.

Bedroom #2 with similar linens.

I made night stands from salvaged lumber and antique sewing machine bases. The lamps (made from wagon wheel hubs) were found in an antique store and seemed appropriate for the barn:

My mom donated a really nice antique dresser as well:

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Solar Sundays Part IX- Finishing up

We purchased Palram's twinwall polycarbonate panels from Farmtek to glaze the collectors. Since it is now the dead of winter, I brought them all inside to warm up before applying the gaskets. I sealed the top edge openings with Tyvek tape, and the bottom edge with a vapor-permeable tape supplied by Farmtek. Next, the perimeter was lined with adhesive-backed gasket strips. Back outside, I put the glazing panels up and covered the seams with cedar trim you can see, it has been a snowy winter so far. The finished solar array: The 'closet' at the far left end of the array houses the supply & return plumbing and wiring before it goes underground: The hot fluid exits the solar array at the top and connects to the 1" pex line below. The tee fitting at the top left leads to a schraeder valve for purging air from the high point of the system. The two valved tees midway down the closet are for a summer bypass loop- this is yet to be completed, but will likely lead to a heat exchanger in an outdoor shower system I'd like to build. The return water enters the array bottom right. Since I separated the 9-panel array into two 'banks', there are two separate supply lines. The two stubbed lines in the middle are for a spring/fall diverting loop which will dump excess heat into our garden beds to preheat the soil- this will be connected later. The diversion is controlled by the 3-way diverter valve at the first tee.
Inside the barn, I installed addition plumbing and controls to tie the solar system in to the existing hydronic system. My dad said it looks like "an organized Rube Goldberg project" and I can't really argue with that. I have managed to fit a 3-zone hydronic system, boiler and the solar hot water controls in about 4 square feet of floorspace...not bad. And it is actually quite simple- The solar heated fluid enters the barn through a pump (the pump is activated by a snap switch inside the first solar collector via a single-zone relay). The pump will send the hot fluid through the in-slab hydronic loops (2- 300 ft lengths of 7/8" pex tubing embedded in the concrete floor) then back to the collectors. Should the slab get too warm (say, spring and fall when not much heat is required), a thermocouple in the slab will signal an aquastat to switch a pair of 3-way diverter valves, thus bypassing the slab and sending the hot fluid to the diversion loop instead. The first diverter valve is located middle left in the photo below and the other in the closet at the collector array. Finally, the two stubbed lines at the top left are to send the hot fluid through a yet-to-be-installed DHW preheat tank. The photo below was taken as I charged the system with glycol, so the temp hoses and bucket-o-glycol are shown as well. Again, there are a lot of dangling wires since the controls for the diversion system are not yet connected, but you get the idea.Here is a shot from inside the utility room (actually just a 2 foot deep closet). The existing hydronic system is on the facing wall, and the solar branch controls are on the left wall.
SOOOO, I'm ready to flip the switch- all we need now is some sun!