Sunday, December 13, 2009

Zone 2- the hydronic wall.

Winter arrived hard and fast, bringing the issue of heat to the forefront. The in-slab hydronic system is working fabulously on the main floor, but the hayloft is usually 5-10 degrees cooler and in need of supplemental heat. Since our future plans call for solar-thermal hydronic heating, I want our system to be able to run at the lowest possible temperatures. That said, I opted for a 'hydronic wall' in the hayloft, instead of underfloor heating that requires somewhat higher fluid temps. To get started, I framed in a partition wall to divide the hayloft into two semi-private bedrooms (we decided not to extend the wall all the way up to keep the architecture of the high arched ceiling visible).
Then I built a "hydronic sandwich" using aluminum heat transfer plates between 'sleepers' of 3/4" foil-faced isocyanurate insulation.
With Lisa's help, we routed 1/2" pex tubing in a serpentine pattern through the wall, across the doorway framing, through the smaller side wall, then back to the starting point...then we repeated it in the second bedroom with a separate run of pex...whew!
Here is a closeup of the assembly:
Finally, ready for drywall, which is screwed into the studs being VERY CAREFUL not to puncture the tubing runs.... The aluminum plates help conduct the heat out of the pex tubing and into the drywall surface. The insulation 'sleepers' act as spacers between the drywall and studs, and help direct the heat out outward to the room. The drywall surface readily conducts the heat and radiates it outward to the room. By using this method rather than the more tradition underfloor hydronic installation, more BTUs can be delivered to the room at lower water temps...and it was a much easier and less expensive method in this case. The obvious downside to this method is the risk of puncturing the tubing with fasteners. I took a lot of pictures of the assembly and documented the pex locations so if we ever need to hang a picture on the wall, I'll know where not to pound a nail!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Night lights

The lack of light pollution is generally welcomed in our rural setting, except when trying to walk around the yard in the middle of the night. Without moonlight (or a flashlight), it is black. Some landscape lighting was in order, so I dabbled with a couple versions of solar lights during the summer. They were all dismal in performance, providing little more than a flicker for a few hours after dusk. What we need is reliable pathway lighting strong enough to get our guests from building to building without wandering into the woods or falling into random barn foundations (which happen to be located smack dab in the middle of our yard). Fortunately I found a low-voltage lighting kit on clearance (80% off!), which had everything we needed for the job. With winter almost here, I scrambled to build some mounting posts that would elevate the lights above the snow cover we're about to get. I built a dozen posts from some cedar barn timbers, boring holes in the top for the lights to press in to: I set them up along the path from the house to the barn, and piled field stone around each post to hold them in place. This started out as a temporary fix to get us safely through the winter, but we think they look good enough to be permanent.
The light kit came with a programmable timer and 20W halogen lights, which meant our 11 lights were putting out 220 watts for several hours every night. That's crazy! I replaced them all with 2W LED lights, which are working just as well and cut the power consumption by 90%.

December Salad.

One of my gardening goals this year was to pick a fresh salad out of the yard in December, and we barely made it! I planted a fall crop of carrots, chard, mustard greens, spinach and lettuce in September- a little later than I should've, but most of it grew to an edible form. Protected by the cold frames covering a raised bed garden, they survived the frosty weather into the winter. Last week, we enjoyed our last fresh salad of the year- a variety of greens, radish, carrot and tomato (picked green in september and ripened in our basement). Then the true Minnesota cold moved in and took the rest- here is the remaining lettuce breathing its last breath. Next season I hope to pipe solar-heated water under the beds to extend the season a little further...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The kitchen takes shape.

With all the 'winter preparedness' tasks completed outside, I've been able to spend more time working in the barn lately. The kitchen is the focus right now, although I always seem to have several big projects going at the same time. We purchased new appliances during the summer, so I would know exact sizes/locations before starting to build anything. I made the cabinets from 3/4" Skyblend particle board- an FSC-certified, formaldehyde-free material we got from Certified Wood Products. The cabinet fronts and timber posts were milled from our old barn beams. The horizontal paneling is 30 year-old material I found at an estate sale (this is the leftovers from the hayloft flooring project in July). With help from Lisa and my mom, we got everything painted and put back in place.
This paneled wall that hides the cabinet backs will support a pine bar top (still working on that, though). The opening on the left provides access to the utility lines that come up through the slab under the cabinets).
I also finished the ceiling by attaching drywall to the subfloor in each joist bay, leaving the timbers exposed from below. We painted it with Bioshield clay paint to match the walls. Time to build some countertops!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

On The Run

We took time away this fall to play a little. In early October we went to the cities and we both completed the Twin Cities Marathon. It was a little chilly, but a good day to run. It was my first long distance run and my goal was to just finish. This was Shawn's 2nd marathon of the summer and he set out to run under 3 hours and to qualify for the Boston Marathon. All goals attained!
No pain here! Oh, the pain! I think I can, I think I can... After passing our cheering section...
and a little pep talk from my sister... I did it!
Last weekend, we went to Door County, WI where Shawn did the Fall 50.
Yes, the 50 means 50 miles. It was an absolutely gorgeous course. The leaves were still brilliant and it was mostly on sparse roads next to the water. I was signed up to do the race as a team, but got sick that week and was unable to run. Luckily, I had a very understanding team that did very well without their 5th person. So, instead I was able to follow Shawn. He did terrific! Made it look very easy!
Rounding the corner to the finish line!
He did it!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The hen house.

Winter is coming! We got our first accumulation of snow in early October and the girls did NOT like it. They wouldn't come out of their portable coop until it all melted later that day, so I knew it was time to get crackin' on their winter coop.
When I built our second wood shelter earlier this summer, I left a space between it and the first one. I wish I could say this area was intentionally designed for a chicken coop, but I wasn't even thinking about it at the time. Nevertheless, it seemed like an good spot to build- it is close to the house and we'd have easy access to it all winter without having to shovel paths through the snow. I could use the corner posts of the sheds to support the coop framing, and the wood piles on either side would provide some wind protection. Plus, there's plenty of field on the back side for the chickens to free-range.
Here's the finished product on moving day (I finished just as another batch of snow was falling).
Because of the orientation of the wood sheds to one another, the coop is shaped like a trapezoid. The raised roof line provided a little more headroom and allowed me to blend the three structures together without too much difficulty. Other than the pressure treated lumber I purchased for the floor framing, the entire coop was built with salvaged wood from the other buildings we have deconstructed on the farm (and whatever I can pull out of the debris piles at our local landfill!).The two little doors on the front provide access to the nest boxes, so we can gather eggs without going inside. All the doors were built with foam board interiors, and weatherstripped to keep the cold drafts off the chickens.
The walls were insulated with fiberglass batting and foam board, then covered with salvaged barn boards. The roosting bars are round floor joists from one of the barns, and the chickens know just what to do with them. I put a window (actually, I sandwiched together three old storm windows to make one triple-paned version) on the south wall so they can spend the winter watching the snow pile up outside. I also trenched a power line to the coop and installed lights, a heat lamp, and an outlet so we can use a heated water dish this winter.
On the back side of the coop, I built a sky walk that leads to their new 'run'. With it up off the ground, we won't have to deal with snow shoveling or roof runoff. The side door is to let them outside to free range when we are around.
We decided to spend a little money for enough wire hardware cloth to fence in their run. We buried the fencing a foot deep and piled field stone around the perimeter so the predators can't dig their way in. I also covered the top and framed in a hinged access door so we can get inside when necessary.
It was a lot of work, but at least now we know the kids are safe and comfy for the winter. Besides, we owe it to them since they make us breakfast every morning!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Chainsaws...not just for firewood anymore.

Some very old maple trees harvested from city property found their way to our yard recently, and I had to figure out what to do with them. At nearly 3 feet in diameter, they were far too big for our sawmill and too heavy to move. Cutting them into firewood would be criminal. So after a little research, I invested in a used pro-sized chainsaw and an attachment called an "Alaskan Mill", which combine to make a simple, portable sawmill. The Alaskan Mill has been around for decades- I remember seeing their ads in Mother Earth News magazine when I was a kid and thinking they were cool. I never thought I'd actually own one someday, but then I never expected to be building a barn at the North Pole, either. So, today I went to work on one of the smaller logs (!). I started by screwing an aluminum ladder to the log to guide my first cut across the top. It worked great, leaving me with a surprising flat, smooth surface. With the ladder removed, I set the mill for a 3" cut and started making slabs. The excitement dwindled after about an hour when my forearms were burning and I was getting dizzy from the chainsaw's exhaust. These slabs will be used for stair treads in the barn, as well as some table tops and who-knows-what-else. It took me all afternoon to whittle one log down into 16" square timber- just small enough to fit onto the Hudson sawmill where I can finish the cutting without so much effort. I've got six more logs to go, so looks like this will become a winter project...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The factory tour.

Here's some photos of our solar-powered sugar factory as we approach the harvest season: Five of our six-member Fertilization Department took a pause in their busy day for a company photo: While Lisa's family was here for a visit, we made an very important discovery: small tomato plants appear much larger when photographed next to a 2 year-old: and who says kids don't like vegetables...
Oh, and the egg-citing news around here is that the chickens have been slowly ramping up their production...we now get 2-3 eggs for breakfast every morning:
Life is good!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


After tearing down the old pumphouse, we decided to leave it's foundation in the ground and use it as a flowerbed. I built a little shelter to cover the well casing, and some steps with the leftover slate flagstones. I put in some fresh soil and Lisa planted wildflower seeds in June, then we waited to see what would happen. After they grew up, she filled in with some purchased perennials as well as transplants from around our property. The view from both directions is definately improving!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A heat wave, and how we beat it.

About 70 years ago, a channel was dug to divert water from a nearby open-pit iron mine. From the pictures we have seen, it was a project of epic proportions that pretty much desecrated the land in its path. Unfortunately that path went right through the farmstead that we now call home, splitting the field in two and no doubt leaving behind quite a mess.
But that was then, and Nature has an incredible way of winning back her territory. Today, we are gifted with a beautiful 'river' that is just a stones-throw from the barn. With lakes in either direction, it is a perfect starting point for some local paddling adventures. We've also found it to be a great place to sit and watch the world go by on a hot summer day.
Here's to enjoying summer!

Friday, August 07, 2009

Authentic travel.

We are excited to have been listed on Green routes, a guide to help eco-conscious travelers find one-of-a-kind places to eat, play, shop, sleep, and learn. We're the very first destination for the iron range area of northern Minnesota, but we plan to help other local businesses join us soon. Check it out next time you are planning a trip!

Sunday, August 02, 2009


The mild weather (is it really summer?) has been great and I've taken advantage of it by finishing off some outdoor projects this week. The big job was to extend the urbanite pathway that I started building last fall (I ran out of concrete chunks and ambition at about the same time, so put it off for a season). Instead of collecting more urbanite, I stumbled across a local source for slate flagstone to use instead. This material is overburden from the nearby iron mining operations- basically the surface material that must be excavated to get to the iron-rich ore below. A company has set up shop only 2 miles from Green Gate, splitting the slate boulders into various sizes of slabs for landscaping projects. We got a few crates like this:

With the larger pieces pushing 200 pounds each, I stood no chance of moving them by hand. So, I bought a 2-wheeled dolly and used it to transport and position each stone in its new home (this worked great!). I filled in the remainder of the site with some hardwood bark mulch. The finished path, including a little buggy-bench sitting area, turned out like this:

Next year we'll plant some greenery....

Friday, July 17, 2009

Smart chickens.

Not only have they managed to survive outside for two months (shattering the previous record by...two months), but our chickens suddenly learned to fly... ...and they've invited, albeit cautiously, some new friends over to play in their sandbox.Now if they would just make us some eggs!