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Saturday, August 22, 2009


What a lovely day at Cascade Bluff! We started today, August 22, by admiring the view from Pike Lake Road of the garage from afar.
That small white blotch is our garage roof

Then as we approached our land from the north, we could see the curve of the bluff from the road that crosses our neighbors' land. Dave and Meredith Homans are up at Leo Lake off the Gunflint this weekend, with no cell phone or internet service... ahhh... bliss.

We spotted a visitor (or we should say that we were visiting her territory!) who very nicely posed for us on a nearby branch. She is a young broadwing hawk, and I say "she" because the she-hawks are always 30% bigger than the he-hawks, and this one was pretty darn big. She was munching on something; you go girl, get them mousies for us!
A beautiful broadwing hawk

Here is the view from just above where the cabin will sit. You can see the forms for the concrete footings laid out in front of you, and our fabulous view of Lake Superior and the Wisconsin shore in the distance.
The footings are right on bedrock. That rebar is driven into solid rock! This cabin ain't movin'!

These are stacks of insulated concrete forms that will make up the enclosing walls of the foundation and surround the insulated slab.

Here is some future firewood....

And future cedar benches...

And some aspen that will make cordwood for a heavenly scented sauna.

To entice our friends to come and visit, here is a trail along the top of the ridge that we worked on today with our hand saw and clippers.

One of the now very rare majestic white pines... So few left because they were nearly all cut down in Minnesota for their very fine lumber.

White pine needles and cones...

Moose maple leaves with some hints of autumn...

One more view of the Great Lake...

Ahhh... Bliss!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Blending New and Old

Here is the latest photo from the New World! This is the excavation for the cabin foundation. We hear they hit bedrock at 10 inches... this is the north shore, after all. Next will be footings, some runs of insulated concrete block at the edges, insulation underneath, a poured concrete slab (with in-floor heat), and more insulation around the edges.

The Little Dig, with a View

We've engaged Conservation Technologies, a team of energy engineers in Duluth, to work with our builder Chris Norman to optimize energy conservation for our building. The idea is to reach toward a building that is so energy efficient that it could be heated passively -- by the body heat of the occupants! This sort of leading edge house design is hot in Europe, especially in Germany, a cloudy country with much poorer "solar resources" than most of the US. And those inventive Germans are succeeding--designing homes and commercial structures that are so well insulated and well designed that they don't require a furnace! In northern Europe! Click on the newest in our list of links for lots of information on The Passive House.

We're not going to live there year round (at least not at first) and our climate makes such a dream very difficult to achieve... though not impossible.
Conservation Technologies has been working with folks building an off-grid home in northern MN and they've just been awarded the first Passive House certification in the US. (See the second new link on the right, the Isabella House.) With the blue-sky-it push-the-envelope ideas of the number-crunching science guys at Conservation Technologies, the grounded-in-reality experience and wisdom of Chris (who does his own number-crunching, too), and our own special stubborn spin on things, we think we've come up with a great blend of new technology, old wisdom, practicality, aesthetics, and dreams. If nothing else, we have learned LOTS.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

We've got a garage!

And now our blog has actually caught up with reality. We've got a garage! And it is a beaut. Here are some of the photos from the work in progess....

Start at the bottom...

...and work your way up...

The jaunty angle of the roof allows the proper orientation
for our solar panels which will face directly south.


For those of you who don't live in Cook County, here is one factoid: the County decides when big trucks are allowed to drive around on County roads, which are mostly unpaved and therefore subject to frost heaves, washouts and the like. Our road builder had a very good start on the fabled Road To The Top O' The Bluff by fall of '08, but it wasn't done. And, to be honest, we weren't done tweaking, either.

By Memorial Day weekend of 2009, we were finally 100% convinced of the best building site. This was a dozen or so feet higher on the land, up on top of a smaller mini-bluff, and required another stretch of road.

So as of July, here are some shots of The Road! It is about 3/8ths of a mile long, solid as the rocks beneath it (mostly) and as yet is still a work in progress, awaiting some gravel and finishing touches. But our Babe the Blue Jeep can make it just fine, and having a road gives us an entirely new perspective on just what surprises are in store for us!

The "exciting" section

Gazing down from the building site at the end of the road

Something New (for us): Empire Builder and a Carpentry Internship

The Empire Builder pulls into St. Paul

In late March of 2009 we got on the Amtrak train, the Empire Builder, in St. Paul and rode the rails to Whitefish where we became temp workers in the Healy Timber Frame and Hunting Dog Breeding Enterpise. We spent a great ten days or so re-learning what we'd forgotten from our Timber Frame Basics class at North House a year earlier, and helped carve some of our very own timbers! We ain't tellin' which ones, though... You'll all just have to guess. (Look for the telltale blood stains...)

Beautiful Douglas Fir end grain... and a bitch to carve!

The Japanese chisel-mortiser

Tom wielding the massive saw

Some beams with finished mortices...

Healy actually allowed Kathy to do some of the layout...hope the frame stands up...

Val checks the width of the mortice...

I love my router!

Val putting her Harvard degree to work... or at least her sweatshirt...

Kathy demonstrates her grasp of the concept of the "knee brace"...

Healy the extraordinary cook making lunch...was it sharp-tailed stir fry or venison chili that day?

The Wirehaired Pointing Griffons... ooh my, such scary dogs!

Not all work--we also visited Lake McDonald in Glacier NP

Dawn in Whitefish on our final day, waiting for the train to take us home...

Something Old: Timbers

By the beginning of 2009 we were rolling. Tom Healy had started to send us drawings for a timber frame for our two story "tower" adding a half loft over the living area. We really wanted to use as much reclaimed and recycled material as possible as part of our project. Duluth Timbers, based in (you guessed it) Duluth MN but in the business of buying and reselling deconstructed timber from all over North America had some recycled Douglas Fir. We had seen this in a few homes and really appreciated the look of the wood: golden-red, rich, beautifully grained and smells wonderful.

We gave Tom the go-ahead and we were the proud owners of giant reclaimed Douglas Fir timbers, from Fircrest Academy in Seattle, the Port of Portland docks, and from the Olympic Fish Company, at the mouth of the Skagit River. How cool is that?

Port of Portland

Here are some shots of the timbers at the salvage yard in Seattle, and on arrival at Tom's workshop in Whitefish, Montana.

Doesn't look like much now... but wait 'til you see them later!

They also needed to be searched for errant chunks of metal and de-nailed. Tom was kind enough to save some of this interesting junk for us... we haven't figured out what to do with it yet but we think it looks funky.
Travis at work with the metal detector....brrr...

Tom began milling the timbers to the proper size and these wondrous oblong amber gems began to emerge. There was enough wood from the trimmings that we hope to be using that for our interior window and door trim, cabinets and kitchen floor!

Making Up Our Minds

We spent much of the summer, fall and early winter of 08 and into 09 on a mission to figure out what we wanted for our dream cabin. Not too big... but big enough. Not ordinary... definitely not! Beautiful. Practical. Great view. Energy efficient. Cutting edge, but traditional. Rustic, but comfortable. We toured. We gathered opinions. The Team of Fabulous Guys (hereafter known as TFGs) floated a bunch of ideas by us. We looked in magazines, and spent hours on the 'net searching for small cabin plans..for timber frame plans... for energy-efficient plans... We hemmed and hawed, and sighed. We weren't really excited about much of what we saw.

Then Val remembered an article we saw in Natural Home Magazine from Jan-Feb of 2006, not long before we bought the property. We'd clipped it and saved it, and it had been a "look" we'd both really loved.

So, "A Lookout Above" became our new starting point. A house in central Oregon designed to look like a fire tower, the original is 20 by 20 feet, has 3 stories and a deck on all four sides with windows encircling the 3rd floor. WOW! We knew we had a fabulous view of Lake Superior to take advantage of, so why not?

Our first try at a floor plan, using plain ol' pencil and graph paper....

"Architectural drawings" a la KMO

We tweaked and morphed, made compromises to the Cook County climate and eliminated the deck and bank of windows on the north side, tweaked and pulled, yanked and squawked, scratched and pondered and probably drove our TFGs a little bonkers. But, it IS our house, and we wanted OUR stamp on it... And we've finally got it!

Elevation from the south (will look out over the lake)

Elevation from the west