Monday, October 15, 2007

Off-the-Grid Caffeination

John and I love espresso. We also love camping (and by extension, our future stays in our as-yet-to-be-built cabin). Let me tell you something: It's hard to get good espresso off the grid.

But we have a secret weapon. It's called the Presso, and it's a manual espresso machine that makes fabulous espresso every time. Then, after you've whipped up your espresso shots, all you need is a heat source and a milk frother to make a cappuccino, latte, or mocha that, in addition to making you almost weep with its sheer perfection, has the added charm of having been made entirely by hand. (And yes... you CAN taste the love.)

For a long time, we were the only kids on our block to have one of these magical devices, because they were only distributed in the UK. But now the company has gone global (click here for Canadian vendors), and you too can convert your camper/tent/cabin/boat into a personal coffee shop.

(This entire post is probably a sign that we've lived in Vancouver too long.)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Rescuing Caterpillars and Making Plans

So I guess we're watching Iron Chef America. Quite the comedown after the way we started the day touring the property with Aaron Rosensweet and Jake Fry, partners in a local design/build company called SmallWorks, and their kids.

After a leisurely water taxi ride and mosey up to the property, we showed them some photos of structure concepts and camp layouts we liked, and while they huddled to come up with a plan, Tammy and I took turns going out on to the road with the kids to rescue stray caterpillars.

An hour or so later, we all regrouped, and while the kids horked all the M&Ms out of the trail mix, Jake and Aaron outlined their plan for developing the homestead. It was pretty clear to me and Tammy that, based on what the guys described to us, we were ready to move ahead and get them drawing up some plans.

The idea is to contruct an outdoor -- but lockable -- kitchen on a large, possibly covered platform that crosses a little ravine to connect with a pair of bunkies. The concept is simple, keeps the focus on being outside, and gets us comfortably on the land without spending a fortune. Also, the phrase "superstructure" came up a lot, which Tammy really liked.

To be honest, I was a little concerned about the possibility of being forced to spend the morning making awkward conversation with strangers, but as it turns out, Aaron and Jake are really nice guys, and we all seem to be on the same wavelength.

We learned a little bit about their backgrounds prior to starting SmallWorks. Jake is a director-turned-carpenter, who specialized in finishing carpentry work on well-heeled extravagent projects, with an interest in smaller, green projects. Aaron was an industrial designer fresh out of Emily Carr looking for an interesting gig in designing sustainable and unique structures.

All of this made it clear that we could spend years looking for a better design/build team for this project, and probably not find anyone else better suited to it.

One concern though... I hope our dog stops eating the tall grass. I just did what seems like the magician's handkerchief trick pulling it out of his bum. Sorry for that... but that's life in the bush, I guess.

Can't wait to get back to the land in the next few weeks to clear some slash.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Pitter Patter, Let's Get at 'Er*

We're excited. This Saturday, weather permitting, we're going over to the island with the architect and builder who may be designing and fabricating our cabin. We had a great initial consultation with them (I say "great" because (a) we seemed to have the same aesthetic, and (b) they didn't laugh at our budget), so this is the next step.

We showed them some of the many photos we've been collecting in what I guess designers would call our "inspiration folder." Here's one of the first pictures (Designed by Tim Prentice, Spotted in: Great Backyard Cottages) that got us thinking in the direction we're moving toward:

And it just occurred to me that we've never posted the video we shot of our building site almost a year ago. So here it is:

Just picture the sleeping cabin in the top pic -- better built and with a twin -- and place it in our lot, and you've pretty much got as clear a picture as we do of what we're looking to create.

*Shout-out to Charlie!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Wilderness Modernism

John and I are intrigued by the idea of modernism as it relates to cabin living. Don't misunderstand: we're anything but minimalists in our day-to-day life in the city. Clutter seems to be helplessly attracted to us. (Having a toddler, a dog, and two cats -- not to mention two adults who can't resist bringing home any weird objects they find during their day -- all in a ramshackle old house is probably a factor.)

But the more we talk about what we want out of island living, the more we seem to come to the same conclusion: that this is a place where we want less, not more. And this is where modernism comes in -- not in the fetishy, trendy, chrome-and-plastic way -- but in applying the classic modernism mantra to all our plans for creating our island environment:

First, is it necessary? And if it is necessary, is it beautiful?

We're reading a lot of books and magazines and websites to help us process these questions. One book that took a lot of chasing down is Cabins and Beach Houses (the link is to Amazon, though we found our copy on eBay), which was published by Sunset magazine fifty-five years ago, just when modernism had trickled down to the middle classes, at a time when regular folks were entering a period of affluence that allowed them to buy recreational property. The book contains 63 sets of plans for various cabins, and while some are still amazingly contemporary looking, there are quite a few that haven't aged quite so well.

In addition to building plans, the book contains chapters on practical matters such as how to find a building site, how to develop a spring, and how to close a cabin for the season. The book also has a section on building practices and specifications, as set out by the U.S. Forest Service to govern the construction of all its Forest Service cabins across the country. I find these specifications fascinating because they do a thorough, sensible job of explaining how to create harmony with the natural environment, while at the same time allowing a great deal of leeway for architects and designers:

Building Design: Generally, cabins fit the ground more readily when horizontal lines predominate and building outlines are low and sprawling.

Wall and Roof Materials: Cabins are fundamentally rustic vacation homes and should present that effect when completed. Rough wood and stone are considered the best basic materials. They harmonize easily with surroundings, and have a long life with minimum maintenance. Smooth-surfaced and thin materials, on the other hand, look manufactured and lack the strong, rugged appearance necessary in most mountain sites. Approved materials are: peeled logs, hewn logs, log siding, rough sawn lumber, wood shingles, shakes, single-tile, composition shingles, and stone. Concrete, masonry blocks, and brick may be used in portions of the exterior in combination with more natural and rustic materials, provinding overall design is rustic. Smooth or finished lumber may be used for trim and minor areas of the exterior when the basic exterior material is of rougher or more natural stuff. Sheet metal, stucco, cobblestones, flexible paper, or felt materials, composition wall materials, and mechanically laid masonry are classified "undesirable" because of unnatural colour, texture, or unsatisfactory performance against the rigors of mountain winters.

Roofs, too, are required to be of rough-textured materials. Exceptions are when a flat or low-pitched roof is used, little of which is visible from the surrounding ground. Built-up tar and gravel, painted sheet metal, and other similar materials may then be used.

Design Details: Foundation should be as low as possible consistent with good construction. Use of masonry, concrete, or concrete blocks is approved. Pier construction must include siding or heavy latticework which extends to ground level to enclose the underpinning.

Windows and doors should be of uniform size and shape. Top or head-level should be at uniform height above the floor. Window area must assure adequate indoor light.

Chimneys and fireplaces are required to be of safe, substantial construction with a solid masonry or concrete foundation. Flue lining is necessary.

Exterior Color: Colors generally found in the soil or the bark or the foliage of trees are recommended: subdued red, gray, gray-green, or warm brown. Stain or paint may be used, or exterior walls and roof can be left to weather naturally.

Doors and trim may be painted lighter or darker shades of basic colors. Bright colors may be used for small exterior areas, including doors.

Administration of Standards: Approval of plans and specifications is up to the individual Forest Supervisor. He may allow for architecture, materials and colors which are not generally approved. For example, sheet metal may be approved in a high fire hazard area and in heavy snow country to reduce snow damage.

When otherwise inappropriate materials are allowed, they must be painted an appropriate colour.

It's as if Miss Manners had written a book of design etiquette for the wilderness. In theory, I agree with most of these guidelines. I believe that a cabin should integrate with its environment. I've never understood people who buy a beautiful, pristine piece of wilderness and then erect either a faux-Colonial manor or one of those ultramodern monstrosities like the one in Beetlejuice.

But I also like the balance between rigorous, thoughtful standards and the flexibility to recognize when and how best to deviate from these standards. After our cabin is up, it'll be interesting to revisit these specifications and see how close we came to hitting the mark.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Our First Crack at Homesteading

So. After weeks of being screwed by alternating bouts of bad weather and poor time management, we finally made it back to the land for some weekend camping. All in all, it was a success, though we've definitely learned a few things about how to convince a previously crib-bound toddler to sleep when he's suddenly drunk on the freedom to careen around a tent unfettered.

We trekked around the roads and trails for what felt like miles, but then realized that it was probably only about 500 metres. It's funny how schlepping around a 35-pound organism screws with your sense of scale. Thanks to the extra surveying work John commissioned, we learned that our lot is much bigger than we'd originally understood it to be (see above re: poor senses of scale), and that our chunk of the bluff (and the view) is even more incredible than we'd thought. We also finally discoved the trail that leads down through the woods and to the brook, which ROCKS.

We also had a chance to get re-acquainted with some of our neighbours, and we met others for the very first time, and they are all lovely people. We're looking forward to getting to know them better.

We are ridiculously stoked to start building a homestead, and we have a gazillion ideas we'll be posting here in the near future. But in the meantime, a few inspiring pictures:

Created with Paul's flickrSLiDR.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Tired of Thinking About Poop

I've been thinking about poop a lot these days. Now before any of you poop aficionados who came across this post via some weird google search go getting all excited, it isn't that kind of post. I'm talking about what we're going to do with poop on our recently purchased acreage. Since our lot isn't serviced, we're forced to deal with this issue ourselves, and so this is new territory.

First off, at this stage of our lives we can't afford to build a cabin with a bathroom, let alone install a septic system, so that's off the table for the next few years regardless of how we may feel about the sustainability of one of these things.

Composting toilets are interesting, but they don't come cheap. After I reckoned our "output", I realized that we would need an Envirolet Waterless Remote System, which runs on a 12v battery. Since there's no power, we'd have to charge it with a solar cell, and since the toilet has to sit over a meter above the composting bin, we'll have to construct an elevated structure. I figure all this come in at around $4k+. That's a lot of dough for a glorified hole in the ground. Mind you, it looks like some of our neighbours have managed to rig up a home-made composting toilet without too much trouble and expense.

Then there is the venerable outhouse. I really don't like outhouses, but I found some good plans (PDF) to work with, and for about $500 I could build an all cedar structure, and seal off the hole with a concrete pad, thus helping to keep down the smell. Trouble is, I have no idea how deep the topsoil is, and I haven't walked the land to know if there is a place to drop it far enough away from the creek, and well in order to meet ministry standards.

I really can't wait to stop thinking about poop all the time. Frankly people are beginning to talk.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


Wow. Colonel Wilson's Moonshine stills. Dare I live the dream, quit my job and become a moonshiner like my grandad?

So much to consider.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Abandoned Summer Camp Not a Selling Feature

News that we bought land has now spread through our group of friends and acquaintances, and so I've been answering a lot of questions as to why we decided to buy on Gambier.

One of the selling features was its proximity to Vancouver, and so to give people a sense of how fast we can get there, I'll run through the trip... "so you drive to Horseshoe Bay, catch the water taxi to the Fircom dock, cut through the abandoned summer camp, and..." - this is usually where they stop me. Pretty much everyone is creeped out by the abandoned summer camp. I mean sure... so these feature prominently in a number of teen horror films, so I guess I can see their point.

Generally I'm not one to let my imagination get the better of me, but then I'm surfing through Flickr searching for photos tagged "Gambier Island", and I find this photo of a creepy doll which was apparently taken at Fircom. What gives?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Surveying the Land, and Next Steps

Now that all of the paperwork is behind us, it feels like we can move onto next few steps. We're planning on having a surveyor swing by to clearly mark the property, since our building site sits so close to the property line.

Once this is done, I figure we'll head on over, and start planning a camp. We've pretty much come to accept that a cabin is not feasible in the immediate future, mostly because we're probably going to have a second child sometime in the next year or so. These kids... it's a good thing they're so cute, because they're really expensive, and they poop all over the place.

Once we've moved past the diaper stage, we should be able to get it together to build something. Frankly I'm fine with this, because this is just when the critters will really be able to start enjoying it. Until then, we'll just have to rough it.

I figure though, that the camp has to be comfortable. And so this end, we're planning on making it not just civilized, but stylin'. It's going to need storage, a nice place to cook, a farout fireplace/pit, and room for a family of four, plus guests.

I've spend enough time living out of a dome tent to know that I don't want to do this if we can at all help it. So to get past this, I've been looking into prospector tents. These durable canvas tents are tough, look good, and last a long time. I'd like to maybe throw up a few of these, and build some simple plywood platforms to get us off of the ground.

A cook tent, or shade structure will work as a kitchen/bar, so long as we can lock our gear up in the storage shed. And for the fireplace, I found a guy who goes by the name Satan, who does really cool metal fabrication, and sculpting. Hopefully his prices aren't too high, or diabolical.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

"We don't even know what we bought"

Finally, FINALLY we have closed the deal on the land. It was a long time coming. The developer had to settle a few subdivision issues with the Island Trust (or something like that), and this took until late December, and then suddenly our conveyancer suddenly tells us: "we-have-to-close-right-now. NOW damn you!"

Tammy ran around like a fart in a mitt to get all of our paper work together, and transfer the money, but it's done, and so now we're left with a "oh no... whadda we gonna do now?" sorta feeling.

Seriously. We don't even know what we bought. I think we've actually seen about 5% of the 5 acres, and I don't really remember it all that well. I think we're going to plan a visit as soon as the weather improves, and do some exploring.

The current plan o' the week is to simple set up a skookum camp that we can use for the next few years while we get our shit together to build a proper cabin.