This is a story of how we built a great little home using recycled materials and no power tools except the occasional chain saw use, no generator… ocean views and sea breezes… This is the way to do it!
OK, we’re on to something different now. Rachel and I have been in Hawaii over a month now, and we’ve done lots of good stuff. we spent a few weeks with a bunch of family here (luke’s brother paul’s girlfriend’s family from texas and belgium!), had a lovely christmas and new year with all of them, and really got to see the sights of the island. now, we are on to why we are really here…For the last two or three weeks, we have been working on a live-in pole barn with my brother Paul. Paul and Maxine live in an old plantation house in hilo, but Paul takes care of an orchard 25 minutes’ drive up the coast, so it’s a lot of driving. they want to be at the orchard to be able to better care for it, not to mention getting out of town and into the country.
The barn structure is a timber-frame style design, built with green eucalyptus posts, recycled scaffolding from a local bridge repair, and other salvaged materials. As you can see from these drawings, there will be two floors, arranged in split-level fashion. Ground level will be storage, 1st floor kitchen, and loft bedroom.
To minimize material usage and impact on the land, we dug shallow footers and poured eight custom pier blocks to raise the posts off the ground and provide a solid foundation. i always thought a foundation was a standard thing in any house, but apparently, that isn’t the case. luke said that because the ground never freezes here, there is no need for a sunken slab. the shallow footers and pier blocks are actually pretty fancy–some folks just build their houses right on the lava rock.
The formwork for the pier blocks was improvised from cheap plastic flower pots. The white block in the picture is only to hold the anchor straps while the concrete sets, it will be removed before the frame goes up. we poured the footers and the pier blocks on two separate days. the first day, i was just the gopher–hauling bags of concrete when needed, pouring water into the mix, just whatever i could do to make luke and paul’s job easier. but the second day, paul had other work to do, so luke and i did the pier blocks ourselves. it was the first time i had ever worked with concrete (boy, does it make your skin dry!), and i really enjoyed it. it was a process to get everything level. we used a cool thing i had never heard of before called a water level to make sure each pair of footers was exactly even. i think they are quite pretty.
For the past few days, Paul, Maxine, Rachel and I have been like elves in Santa’s workshop… marking, sawing, and chiseling mortises into the posts. No power tools except the occasional chain saw use, no generator… ocean views and sea breezes… This is the way to do it!
as you can imagine, this whole building thing is totally new to me. but it is really interesting, and i like that we are doing most everything by hand because it makes me feel like i can do it. i don’t know where to start with all those intimidating power tools, but i can grab a chisel or a hand drill and get started. my chiseling skills are improving, slowly but surely.
mighty fine chisel work, if i do say so myself! okay, okay, luke had to come in at the end and clean in up a bit, but i am still pretty proud of it!
this is one set of posts, ready for the next step. you can see the opposing joints that will face each other when they are set on the peer blocks. these are the lower corner posts. we are almost finished with the upper corner posts. then the four inner posts. by the end of the week, we’ll be ready to start putting the pieces together!
We did it! The most exciting day of the project went off without a hitch. Well, almost (we only dropped one bent–and really, three out of four ain’t bad for a bunch of amateurs!). Paul, Maxine, Rachel and I, along with a crew of friends and neighbors, got it done. it was really an amazing day, for so many reasons. as far as the structure itself goes, it was eye-opening for me to finally see all these separate pieces we have been working on put together in their intended shape. chiseling this post here, cutting that beam there, drilling holes every which way–it was hard for me to envision what it was all really for. i mean, of course i knew we were “building a house,” but i wasn’t able to fully step back and envision how we were building it. then, as one bent after another went up, it all became clear…
First, let’s look at some of the details. This close-up shows the end grain of a piece after treatment with boric acid. Termites are a problem here in Hawaii, so we are taking every precaution. see all the sparkles? this is on every cut end of the whole frame. plus, the salvaged wood has spray paint, pinkish-red metal primer, silver paint, and all sorts of other stuff all over it. it is like a sparkly colorful dream house–the trash fairy could live here!
but seriously, the sparkles are a happy by-product of a serious issue. termites are all over the place, munching down on buildings left and right. i didn’t know much about them before i came here, but termites are pretty interesting little things. they eat wood, but most species don’t actually produce the enzymes needed to digest it. instead, they rely on a symbiotic relationship with protozoa in their guts that break the cellulose down into more absorbable particles. the protozoa, in turn, have a symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria embedded in their surface that manufacture these necessary enzymes. so, the bacteria make the enzymes the protozoa use to digest the wood for the termites. that’s a pretty amazing picture of evolution in action, and on such a small scale.
The picture above shows the connection between the footings and the post. Notice the concrete took on the surface pattern of the formwork, which was a plastic flower pot. The aluminum termite shield will be trimmed back and the straps bolted into the post. when we treated all the exposed wood, i wondered why we weren’t treating these huge exposed posts, and instead focusing only on the end cuts. apparently, termites are relatively weak, so they really only get into end cuts because it is easier to bore with the grain rather than across it. termites are not particularly tenacious, so the shields and boric acid treatment should be enough to hold them at bay, especially since there are probably no established colonies because there has never been a house on this site.
Below you can see where the floor girder joins the post. It is a whole timber tenon and thru-mortise, wedged in place from the top, which has proven to be very strong. It locks itself in place, so no need for any bolts or pegs. i really love this look. the wedges were a decision paul and luke made along the way, and i think it adds a simple beauty to the structure. they were a bit of extra work–each post is different, and because it is unfinished lumber, each beam is slightly different as well, so each wedge was unique–but it was worth it. another bonus is that since the posts are green and will probably shrink slightly over time, paul can go around with his monster mallet (see below) every few months and knock them in a little further.
We used a plumb-bob to align the posts…
And a Flintstones mallet to pound in stakes. paul made this mallet a few days before the raising. the handle is guava and the head is rambutan. both of these are fairly dense woods, so that mallet is heavy! we used it to pound stakes, pound wedges, fit the beams through the mortises, level the posts, and it sure did the trick. everyone wanted a turn swinging that thing. maxine and i weren’t too good at it, but we sure felt tough!
Everything came together fairly smoothly, with some minor adjustments here and there. Apart from one small (and correctable) mathematical error, all the beams came up level and the posts read plumb. hey now, it can’t always be perfect (a lesson i have had to learn myself). after all, we’re building with trash here. our motto for the project, which comes from an old boss of luke’s, sums up all the little mistakes we’ve made over the past month or so: “hey, we ain’t buildin’ a piana!”
Here you can see the final bent assembled on the ground, ready for lifting. The bents were very heavy, but many hands make light work. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but we got them up without too much drama. for each bent, we carried the two posts over and set them up on their base and luke’s sawhorses. then we brought the truss over and fit it into the notches at the top of the posts. after bolting the pieces together (that’s what luke is doing in the above photo), the bent was ready to go up. we tied one end of a rope to a stake, tied the middle to the top of the truss, and then heaved-ho! about halfway up, someone ran to the other side and helped pull with the rope. when the bent was up, everyone would steady it until the rope was tied off to another stake. then came the minor adjustments to get everything all lined up and level.
Here, Paul is placing the tie-beam, which runs the length of the structure, tying the bents together into a frame.
paul and maxine had several friends and neighbors that were really eager to help out. people came and went, depending on their schedules, but there were always enough people to get the job done. here are a few of the day’s helpers. This is Bam-Bam. I mean, Chase. He looks tough, but he’s really pretty cool. everyone feels like a badass with the monster mallet in their hands.
this is lucas being a goofball. he had to work in the early evening, but he was there for most of the day and really got into it. we were glad to have him–and his height!
This is Uncle Al. His years of carpentry experience helped us through the process. Not to mention his witty remarks and hilarious stories to help lighten the mood when it got too serious.
The day’s work…
And its future residents…
There’s nothing like a cold beer and a barbecue to wrap up a long day of hard work. paul and maxine lured their friends up to the orchard with promises of beer and food. and while those things were very welcome come the end of the day, i think they were just icing on the cake. for a moment, we forgot everything else, and were united in a common purpose. the who, what, and why of the building fell away, and all that mattered was that we were building something, together. and that, as the grill indicator below says, is nothing short of ideal…
Reprinted with Permission. To see the video compression of the barn raising go to:
Pole Barn in Paradise: Barn Raising
To read about the entire project and see a photo essay go to: Pole Barn in Paradise
Many Thanks to the Author for the story and photos, Luke Flessner.