After a lovely visit and cozy carpet story time at their family cabin in the Swan Valley, Jessy’s dad, Mike Stevenson, agreed to take me on as an intern. He built custom homes in this beautiful landscape for quite some time, including his very own that he drew plans for by hand back in high school. I was so amazed by the structure and aesthetic (who doesn’t feel at home in a log cabin?) and found myself pondering how every piece had come together. When I found out that Mike had switched gears somewhat and was planning on building two homes in Missoula to sell, I immediately wanted to get involved however I could. My steadfast dream for my adult life is to build my very own house and to build others. And not of the cookie-cutter, 10 houses like-it-on-the-block variety. I want to build with quality and introduce value engineering, green materials, renewable energy, creative designs. I want to do it all. And Mike, well, he kind of does just that.
In our first meetings, Mike explained the projects. The houses are two adjacent mirror images of each other that will be three floors to maximize their small footprint of 17’x 25’. The exterior walls will be constructed out of Faswall building blocks. I have heard of Structural Insulated Panel (SIP) systems and straw bale houses before but have never quite seen anything like these. The blocks are 1’x 2’ and are made up of wood chips impregnated with cement and contain a built-in layer of foam insulation. It gets cooler: the blocks are made from 60% recycled materials. Faswall blocks have a high thermal mass and excellent insulative properties which help to mitigate energy use, a major potential loss of energy in homes. This system has been in use for 25 years and people have increasingly positive feedback about it. They also dry stack like legos with no mortar needed – a must have for a do-it-your-selfer. Mike also plans to add solar panels and is using some engineered lumber in the homes.
Halfway into the semester and I am loving it! It is so refreshing to work with someone who is willing to teach you as you go but knows when to let you run with it. My first task was to draw up the stairs with details of exactly how they are going to work out to be attached at each of the corresponding landing heights. It is basically figuring the hypotenuse of a right triangle and the steps are small right triangles with your rise and run as the legs that divide up the larger hypotenuse into small ones. Sounds simple right? Not quite. These houses each have four runs of steps that zig-zag up the three floors. I love a good challenge and hand drafting is a skill I am very fond of. These drawings were necessary because even though an architect will draw stairs on their plan, they don’t exactly figure for you, in most cases, how high or what each tread width will be. There are also a lot of building codes and standard conventions that come into play that one might not necessarily realize the importance of until they’ve been up a bad set of stairs. We used the drawings to make a material list and to help us visualize each run later in the assembly process. Once we knew what we were getting ourselves into, it was off to the lumber mill!
I got the opportunity to walk around Hunt’s timbers in St. Ignatius and hear a little bit about their operations from the owner, Rusty. Fast forward and I’ve done a few other drawings: edited the perspective drawing done by the architect to show the solar panels and drew up a rebar detail, which the concrete guys laid out their rebar placement in the footing with. I am currently busy getting covered in sawdust routing out the stair stringers to hold the treads.
Working with Mike teaches me new things every chance I get. I am telling myself to keep a mental bank of all of the tips and have contemplated writing them down. Like myself, Mike is very meticulous and reassures me that one should be as meticulous as they feel they need to get the job done the right way, despite how anyone else may be doing things. In other words, by all means brush the sawdust off of your saw every once in a while to ensure you are maintaining good contact on the fences. This will help to ensure a precise, 90 degree crosscut. Knowing how to “talk the talk,” as they say, has proved very helpful for me in communicating my questions and ideas. I am so grateful to have had a two-year education in Carpentry at the college level that has allowed me to confidently discuss residential building components even with those that have far more experience than myself. Planning ahead is also very important in carpentry. Just in the stair project alone, there is so much problem solving every step of the way. In order to execute one task of the building process you have to know what is coming next and how one piece is going to fit into all of the others. How the stringers are going to be attached, what type of floor they will be sitting on, how thick that flooring material is, where the railings will be, if you have adequate headroom… this is not even half of what you might consider for just one little piece of the whole house.
Being outdoors requires a specific skill set, sure; anybody can take a walk in the park, but to really get out there, you’ve got to know a thing or two about the elements and how to thrive in them. Ice climbing or trail running, parachuting off a mountain or swimming across a lake – these are outdoor activities in which you hone your personal skills each time you revisit them. When you are backpacking or even just on a camping trip, you have resources. Your sleeping bag will keep you warm at night (you hope), your sleeping pad will make the ground feel a little less like the ground, and you’ve got plenty of high energy food to keep you going. You have brought all of these physical resources with you, but are really relying largely on yourself to navigate the unknown, to keep yourself alive. There is no expert technology out there in the Wilderness to tell you how to wash out and treat a blister. You will have to perform practical skills on the spot. At the eventual edge of every Wilderness, we find civilization, without which Wilderness may not have been delineated. Even the wildest outdoorsmen and women seek respite and comfort in a physical house. The construction of this house was done largely by hand with nothing more than the tools, blueprints, and the brawn and brains of the workers. That is what I love about carpentry. When you are in your element, you know just what you have to do, and this comes not from Google, but off of the top of your head. You can take your skill set and apply it to any given project and work your way through it with self-reliance, confidence, and practicality. And in 10 years or 20 or 50, that house you lended your hand to build will stand as strong as those trees that will continue to preserve Wilderness forevermore.