Thursday, July 28, 2005

Next Step, Lego

Tuesday was supposed to be my biweekly apheresis at the Red Cross, but I got there to discover the type of machines they normally use with me were full. The other type is very similar, but uses different anti-coagulants, and we discovered my body doesn't like them as well. So it was off to Camron-Stanford House to work on the database, et al. Only to discover their Mac wouldn't boot. After spending a while trying different things, I gave up and took it to a local repair shop. Which is to say, Tuesday was not a particularly productive day.

Wednesday I worked with Naun. He did wear his new boots, though he commented they were 'pesado'. My dictionary didn't have it, so a quick trip to Babel Fish and I found out it meant 'heavy', a fact I can't argue with. But I reminded him they were to protect his feet. He seems more relaxed, and it was a good work day. Building more forms for the foundation footing, and bending, placing and tying rebar. I got him to laugh again on the drive home. He asked how much the car (a '94 VW Golf III, 4D) cost, and I told him I didn't know since it was 12 years old. (The Kelly Blue Book says somewhere between $2,100 and $2,500.) Then we saw a classic Corvette convertible zip past, and I said, "That car cost much more than this one." (pause) "But he can't carry lumber and rebar with his car." OK, still not the funniest joke in the world, but it's nice to see him relax a bit.

Today I worked alone on finishing up the footing forms and rebar. A couple more pieces to tie in tomorrow, and I'm ready for the ICFs. They should go up quickly, so I'm hoping to get an inspection and pour next week. Wahoo!

Saturday, July 23, 2005

New Shoes

On the way home the other day, I took Naun to Sears and bought him some steel-toe work boots. He's been wearing some decent but scuffed up leather shoes (from Honduras; I asked), and it struck me while he was cleaning dirt out from them that they weren't the best work shoes. Even after he's done working on my project, he'll have other work opportunities, so why not be prepared.

So off to Sears we went. He was a bit confused at first by the request to take off his shoes, but I explained as best I could that I wanted to get him some new boots as a bonus. They were on sale, so they didn't even cost that much...probably about what my steel-toe work boots did 5 or 6 years ago. I just hope he doesn't treat them like his dictionary, and not bring them to the work site for fear of messing them up.

I think and hope I'm paying Naun a fair wage for his work. The benefits package is limited (transportation and lunch), and bonuses rather arbitrary depending on when I think of something, but it's a good deal more than minimum wage. Minimum wage just isn't a survivable amount of money to make anywhere in the U.S., but especially in expensive areas like the SF Bay Area. The median house price recently hit $630,000 -- yikes! Fortunately for people like Naun, rents haven't gone up as insanely as house prices.

I'm in the middle of reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, an intriguing look at how people who work for low wages get by (or not) in America. She describes one job where she was expected to buy her uniform vest and a tape measure. It's one thing for a business person to go out and buy a suit, briefcase, etc. when making a decent salary, but to expect someone making not much more than minimum wage to spend a chunk of money just equipping themselves for the job seems absurd.

So some new shoes for Naun to work in seemed like a darn good idea when it occurred to me. I just wish I'd thought of it a couple weeks ago. But then again, a couple weeks ago I didn't know if Naun was going to work out.

I like working with him well enough, and he's an incredibly hard worker. But for a lot of stuff, I'm more comfortable working without him. As an introvert, it takes energy for me to interact with other people. And it definitely takes me energy to explain how to do stuff and be patient with his learning process (like others at Habitat were with me), doubly so in Spanish. I enjoyed Friday's work, where I worked at my own pace, and didn't have to explain any process to anyone.

Today Kat led another prayer workshop at Resurrection. As with the first, it was well attended, and although Prayer of Examen is hard for some people (myself included) because of the introspection required, I think people got a lot out of it. This afternoon I prepared the service slides and artwork for tomorrow's services. So no work on the house until Monday. Hopefully I'll have an estimate for the QuadBlock concrete forms soon.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Dirt Management

One thing I hadn't really counted on was just how much dirt would be involved for digging for the foundation. I know dirt expands some when you dig it up, because you're loosening it and mixing in air, but we now have a huge (yooooj) pile of dirt. A bunch of it will go back into fill around the foundation after it's poured, but we will have permanently changed the landscape of the backyard.

Wednesday I was at Camron-Stanford House again, working on their database. The database is an ugly mess, to put it mildly. I figure there probably need to be 20-30 fields at most in the artifacts database, but there are over 100, many with near duplicate and frequently non-descriptive names. Ugh.

Yesterday I worked with Naun, digging more for a larger foundation footing. I'd missed an addition the city had made to the plans for the foundation footing size, and using QuadLock it suggests a different approach for the footings, requiring more space. So we dug.

Today I worked on my own, straightened and squared the forms, cut spreaders for the footing, dug space for a pilaster, and added more forms for the footing. All in all, a good day.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


The dual-pane kind, not the buggy software kind. I spent much of the day installing new windows at my friend Cindy's, who runs Oakland Firefighters Random Acts. It's a great local non-profit, but part of the original plan was to have it spread all over, which it's started to do. There are now Random Acts programs in California, Arizona, Ohio and Tennessee. Probably more that I don't know about.

My charming assistant for the window install was none other than Larry Hendricks, the Oakland firefighter who started Random Acts. As part of the fund raising for that, Larry has started the Burning Pianos project. (Nothing at the website yet, but they just recorded a song for it, and shot and edited a music video for the song.) It was a good thing to have someone to work with, because the center window of the three was about 5' by 5', and heavier than I could have installed alone. I ripped out most of the old windows, then with two of us we made short work of framing up a new opening, and getting the windows put in and squared up.

Tomorrow I'm off to the city to talk about changing the plans a bit, and spend the rest of the day helping Camron-Stanford House get their database updated so they can get their insurance straightened out. In other words, no planned work on the house for a bit.

Monday, July 18, 2005


Not a very productive day, alas. Naun and I got some heavier plywood (19/32" aka 5/8") to build forms with, but I spent much of the morning discovering that the basic problem is the depth of the forms I'm trying to build. The stuff I've done before at Habitat has been on level ground, and a single level (for a two-story house). What I'm trying to build is on two levels, with multiple levels for the footings because of the slope of the hill. The deepest part (around the thermal mass for passive solar heating) will be about 5' tall, though most of foundation is 4' or less. 4' tall foundation stakes just aren't going to cut it for that.

I'm going to look into pre-fab insulated forms, maybe something like Quad-Lock. Doubtless it will be more expensive than wood, but seems a lot easier for what I'm trying to do. Maybe they appeal because of the similarity to Lego. I not only loved Lego as a kid, I still think it's pretty cool--best toy ever.

I also got (another) frantic phone call from Camron-Stanford House, one of the local non-profits I do tech support for. They needed to send out a press release with a photo, with the photo coming from one source and the press release with another. They're very nice people, but not the most tech-savy. So I took Naun home a bit early, stopped for a pint at Pacific Coast Brewing, then headed over to CS House. After a quick check, I determined they didn't have the right USB cable to connect the digitial camera, so we made a trip over to Berkeley and back, got the email of the press release, put it all together, and *phew* sent it out.

Pacific Coast Brewing is a great brewpub in downtown Oakland, on Washington between 9th and 10th, near the Oakland Marriott. If you're ever stuck at a conference or the like in Oakland, PCB is a great spot to duck out to for a long lunch. They just finished getting their kitchen remodeled. I hope my project doesn't take as long as it sounds like theirs did. They make great beer, and have a bunch of other great beers on tap, but don't use their site as a paradigm of great web design. If I weren't so busy with the addition, I'd probably try to figure out some kind of barter exchange of web design for beer.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Firm Foundations

Yesterday I spent most of the day helping my friend Cindy pick up some new windows at Home Depot. We've done a bunch of work on her rental unit while she doesn't have tenants in it. I'll be over to install the new windows next week sometime. It wasn't the biggest load I've ever carried on the Golf (that honor goes to the 20' long rebar that Naun and I brought home the other day), nor the heaviest (a mound of Trex for building the new steps at Cindy's), but it was pretty darn big. But we got it safely to Cindy's, and with the help of a couple of neighbors, carried up into the house. In the afternoon I finished drilling into the current foundation (yay!) and bent the #5 rebar, then epoxied it into place.

Today Naun and I started building forms for the foundation. A painstaking process, since everything needs to be exact, but is on a large scale. And we learned that larger trenches are a good thing...and we need them. It's difficult nigh unto impossible to hammer the building stakes into the foundation forms with a limited amount of room. We got a start, but more digging will be needed before we progress much further. Somewhat frustrating.

It didn't help that today was hot. SF Gate says it was a high of 77, but I think it was warmer than that. There was some fog forming over the San Francisco this evening, so maybe it'll be a bit cooler. But the forecast says not for a while, so we'll see.

Thursday, July 14, 2005


About time I posted some pictures of things.

Here's the before shot.

Here's a picture from last week. It doesn't look too much different now, since at this distance you can't see the holes drilled into the foundation, or all the marks I've made on the side of the house to show elevations of things.

Me working with the jackhammer.

Naun in the trenches.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Aprendemos ("We Learn")

Today was a low key work day. I worked with Naun. Kat and I were in Santa Barbara for a Stenstedt family vacation at the start of this week, and while I was there I bought a small English-Spanish/Español-Inglés dictionary for Naun. I decided on a small one rather than the newer version of the 20+ years old dictionary I have, so that he'd have something he could easily take with him when he went in search of work or whatever. I hope he'll have a lot more opportunities for work after the house is done.

We got 3 of the 4 holes into the existing foundation drilled, the stepped parts of the foundation footing cleaned up, and some boards cut for the foundation forms. We started the day buying some rebar and looking in vain for a rebar bender at Home Depot. Alas, in one of those great mysteries of life, they carry rebar, lots of tools, but no tool for bending rebar. The rebar cutting part I can take of with my handy-dandy sawzall, er...reciprocating saw. But the bending part I'd have to improvise something for, and it's not worth my time for something that may or may not work very well.

I spent part of today teaching Naun how to measure, mark and cut (with a Skilsaw, er...circular saw.). I explained about measuring in inches + fractions instead of feet + inches + fractions, marking with a 'V' so you know exactly where a measurement is, and various safety things about using a saw. He understood all of it immediately, but as with many things, the cutting part will take some practice. I told him I'd had lots of practice cutting with a skilsaw at Habitat for Humanity. But fortunately, he'd have lots of chance for practice, since there will be a lot of wood in the house. The teaching process reminded me of working at Habitat, or on a Mexico mission trip, only I had the added challenge of teaching in a foreign language.

But I managed, for example, to convey the importance of checking the blade guard on a skilsaw by telling him about a site worker at Habitat who'd cut himself badly by messing with it. I wasn't there, but apparently he'd wedged the blade guard up because he was doing a lot of surface cuts. He forgot about it (just once, but that's all it takes) and set down the saw while the blade was still spinning. It quickly walked back up his hand. Urgh. So check your power tools before using them, and don't disable safety features, even "for a little while".

Construction is a great area for stuff abrogating trademarks by absorbing them. Like kleenex, xerox, and a host of others, skilsaw has come to define circular saw, sawzall to define reciprocating saw, and who knows what else. There's no putting a jake brake, er...Jacobs Brake on that process. They used to have a nasty-gram type message on their website about reporting municipalities that used the term "jake brake" instead of "engine brake". But I guess they're now comfortable enough with their masculinty, position to not worry about that so much.

Today reminded me that I really should start making my own construction Spanish dictionary. I have a small one from Amor and the annual Mexico Misson Trip, but those houses are pretty simple, and leave out a lot of stuff that's normal for UBC. There are commercial ones available, but I know I only need a particular subset of most of those.

I think Naun enjoyed today, and not just because we didn't work so hard. He seemed to really enjoy learning about using different tools, and I know we both enjoyed not doing so much digging. And he clearly loved his new dictionary, and took great care with it. While we were working he referred to my dictionary, and left his new one in the car.

Friday, July 08, 2005

One Brick Short...

...not of a full load, but of a wall. Yesterday I finished building the little brick retaining wall by the hot tub. I was within one brick of estimating the amount of mortar correctly. Not bad for my first brick wall. It looks pretty nice for something that most people will never see.

Today I worked with Naun again, leveling and otherwise fine-tuning the foundation trenches. We also dug a little bit under the existing foundation footing, which will be used to tie the two foundations together. And I began the tedious process of drilling into the existing foundation to insert some rebar as part of the tie together.

My Spanish is improving rapidly. No, that's not quite right. My comfort level with speaking Spanish is improving rapidly. I've had a couple of full-fledged conversations in Spanish, and besides not remembering a word or two, I didn't even stress. But I know that I'm frequently butchering the language. My Spanish instructors would be pleased that I'm still speaking Spanish, but probably be appalled at how much I've forgotten. I do pretty well in present tense, but I've forgotten conjugating for past and future tense, and I frequently forget to use the command form when it would be appropriate.

I've begun teaching Naun English. He's no dummy, and knows that knowing English would help his job prospects. I told him at lunch that when the house is done, he'll be speaking English and I'll be speaking Spanish. And if my project takes as long as Rob and Ginger's, that may not be far from the truth :-)

As evidence of my comfort level with Spanish, I've even said a few things (intentionally) to get Naun to laugh. Part of today's English lesson was some of the foods at lunch: rice (arroz), beans (frijoles), juice (jugo). And the simple phrase, "more juice, please." We were reviewing words while I was driving him home, and I asked him to say "more juice, please." in English. He'd forgotten 'more', but prompted with that, came up with "more beans, please." OK, now for the big laugh. I corrected him, and he chastised himself for forgetting 'juice'. I responded in a very deadpan way in Spanish, "What would you like to drink? Hmmm...beans, please!". OK, so it's not the funniest joke in the world, but it was a start.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Stuff That Just Works

Orange Goop
Every once in a great while, you find a product that just works. There aren't that many relative to the millions upon millions of products that Madison Avenue tries to entice us to buy. But one thing that just works, yet I've never seen an ad for is Orange Goop. It actually lives up to the claim of "gets hands dinner table clean", even with grease (from the jackhammer), latex paint, and just plain old dirt. I first learned about it at Habitat for Humanity, where you can end up with a variety of different substances on your hands at the end of the day.

The term "Madison Avenue" makes me wonder. Is it still the center of advertising media in the U.S.? You hear about it in old movies like Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. It was a must-see given this project, though he doesn't do any actual building, just pays (and pays and pays) various contractors to do the work. But that was almost 60 years ago, and things do have a way of changing. I'd guess that even if it is still the center of advertising, most people these days wouldn't have the slightest idea what you were referring to. Makes me feel old, *sniff* and I'm not even 40 yet.

Today was a quieter work day. No Naun, I worked more slowly, and not on the addition at all. We have a hot tub, but we haven't used it since the California "energy crisis" when electricity rates shot up, i.e., Enron and friends milked CA for all they could get. Katarina realized that my back would probably appreciate the hot tub every now and then during this project. We decided it was time to fill it again, so Kat started by cleaning it. But at some point I got it in my head to rotate it 90', partly to reposition the cover and the seats, but also to give better access to the drain (which proved to be an issue when cleaning and draining it). So today I ran new wiring for the hot tub so the electrical could come into it in a different place, and built my first (and probably only) brick wall. Only, because I'm re-using some bricks that used to be part of the front walk, and because unreinforced masonry is just a bad idea for construction in earthquake country.

I think my body appreciated the semi-rest. Carrying the jackhammer to the car this morning to return it made me think it had grown much heavier during the night. I'm sure Naun felt fine this morning, even given that he worked incredibly hard yesterday, and started carrying a huge piece of concrete out from under the deck, hobbling along doubled over. No 'lift with the legs' there -- it made my back hurt just looking at it. I made him put it down, and I wheeled it out with a handtruck. Funny how a situation like that can inspire you to make yourself understood in another language.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Happy 4th of July

I worked today with Naun, Edis' uncle. He's also a very hard worker, but I don't feel I'm being left in the dust...quite as much. He speaks even less English than Edis, even though he's been in the U.S. for four years versus one for Edis. While we ate lunch (thanks, Kat), we talked about different stuff. His journey to the U.S. sounds hard. Bus to the coast. Boat to Mexico. Freight train to the U.S. border. But as hard as it was, it sounds like it was worth it to him and his family. According to the CIA World Factbook, Honduras has:
  • 28.5% unemployment
  • $2,800 per capita GDP
  • 53% below the poverty line
Compare with the U.S.:
  • 5.5% unemployment
  • $40,100 per capita GDP
  • 12% below poverty line

Though it's still amazing to me that as the wealthiest country in the world, we have anyone below the poverty line.

I did more careful layout lines to check our digging, and used my new electronic water level to get them level. Pretty cool gizmo, and with a tone audible into the next county, easy to use with one person. Naun did a lot of digging for the foundation. I need to rent the jackhammer again, but I think one more day should do it.

Last week while laying things out and digging, I thought of a beneficial design change, namely making the bathroom the same level as the bedroom (at +21" from existing floor level) with the foundation to match. It will make the steps and door a bit more complicated, but simplify the grading, the foundation itself, and the floor framing. And it will give us another 30 sq. ft. or so in the bedroom, with no change to bearing walls or the footprint of the addition. Now I just need to find out how hard it is to get a change through with the city...

Friday, July 01, 2005

Programmer Hands

I worked for a lot of years as a programmer. It's one of many jobs where you sit at a desk and don't do much physically. Besides a tendancy to bulging waistlines, desk work has the effect of letting your hands get soft. Sure, I'd do some physical labor here and there, but 3 or 4 days straight at a Habitat Build-a-thon isn't enough to really toughen up your hands much, and certainly not 3 or 4 times a month volunteering at the Habitat building site.

So here I am, one week into the addition project, and already my hands feel different. There's the expected blisters here and there, but there are already callouses forming, and the skin is rougher.

They don't feel like programmer hands anymore.


No Edis today, but I jackhammered for a couple hours, had lunch with my friend Jim, then jackhammered all afternoon. Gone is the brick retaining wall, the top of a concrete retaining wall, and more bits and pieces. Getting close to being done with jackhammer, I think. Just some sidewalk and an already-cracked retaining wall to get through.

It became clear why unreinforced masonry is bad for earthquake country. A double-wide brick wall came apart with surprisingly little force, and a lot less force than needed for a thinner concrete wall.