Thursday, June 30, 2005

¡Y escuche! Mis brazos están cansados.

As mentioned earlier, I'd already decided to hire one or more laborers to help with clearing the site and digging for the foundation. In Oakland and Berkeley, there are various locations where you can hire day laborers. For example, near Truitt and White in Berkeley, there are dozens of men waiting every morning, hoping for work. I figured I'd try hiring one, and when I found someone I worked well with, keep hiring them as long as I needed them. Good for them to have steady work, hecka easier for me.

But several weeks ago when I was volunteering at Habitat, one of the future homeowners was working there putting in some of her 'sweat equity' hours. She'd brought 3 friends with her. Unfortunately, while she speaks English quite well, none of her friends spoke any English at all. Which relegated them to menial tasks, because no one wanted to try to explain more complicated tasks to someone who was likely to be there only once, and in another language to boot. But we eventually got them helping us hanging drywall, and in the course of things, my limited Spanish led me to believe one or more of them was in search of work -- they'd done the 'wait to be hired' thing many times, with not much success.

I confirmed this with Angelica, the future homeowner, and told her I was waiting for permits from the city ("permiso de la ciudad"), and would hopefully need at least one worker in a couple of weeks. We exchanged phone numbers, and I figured it was as good a place to start as any.

Fast forward to this week, and I called Angelica and set up things to hire one of them. I wasn't sure which of the three, nor where exactly they lived (near Fruitvale and Foothill), but I had phone numbers, so Wednesday morning, off I went. I ended up with Edis, a young man originally from Honduras. He's been in the U.S. for about a year, 8 months or so in Houston, and the last 4 months in Oakland. He lives with his mother and his uncle (another of the 3 I'd met) in the Fruitvale district of Oakland.

It's no exaggeration to say Edis works like a man half my age. In no small part because he is half my age. But it's more than that...he's an incredibly hard worker that would work a lot of people into the ground. I know I didn't work that hard when I was 19. He's a nice kid, intelligent, patient with my limited Spanish, and great to work with so far.

Yesterday we dug, pulled up ivy, chopped roots, and Edis did most of the work of digging up a huge stump. And I cut off the corner of the deck where the addition will be. Today I rented an electric jackhammer, and we went back at it. Edis dug for the foundation footing, and I began breaking out a small brick wall and the front walk which is paved with flagstones. Unlike much of the house (minimum perimeter foundation, stick-built framing for everything including the roof, such that the two halves of the house don't line up), the front walk was incredibly over-engineered. Instead of 3 inches of gravel, 3 inches of mortar, 2 inches of pavers, it's more like 5 inches of concrete, 3 inches of mortar, 2 inches of pavers. And not surprisingly, a bear to get through, even with a jackhammer. And boy, are my arms tired.

My Spanish has been rapidly improving, too. The most recent lesson was pulgada: inch. Which makes a lot of sense when you think that pulga is something small, namely a flea (yes, Alameda de las Pulgas on the Pennisula is "way/walk of the fleas"). The joys of language. It's a lot more sensible than English with all its homonyms and words that are spelled one way and pronounced another.

The Mexico mission trips have been good practice for this. There's always stuff to talk to the family about, like where they want their new house, where the door and windows should go, etc. I've gotten enough time to talk with Edis that we've gotten beyond the "hello, how are you" stuff. Yesterday covered some politics ("el presidente es el diablo" got a laugh out of him), and today we talked about biking. Turns out he loves to bike...he has two bikes, a racing bike (bicicleta carrera) and a 'normal' bike (fat tires). I told him about moutain biking in Redwood Regional Park, and he told me about cycling fast in Honduras.

Oh, and we made good progress on the worksite, too :-) Still more of the walkway and brick wall to break out, and more footings to dig for, but we got a lot done.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005


OK, this has absolutely nothing to do with the house project, but is one of the most amazing pieces of software I've seen in a long time: Google Earth. My computer doesn't have a powerful enough video card to render everything properly, but it's still amazing. And once you've zoomed in to one place, type in a new location, and hang on for the ride. It'll take a moment for the data to download, but once some is cached..."woah" (said in your best Keanu Reeves voice).

Salad Days

Yesterday I spent rebuilding some stairs for a friend, who runs Oakland Firefighters Random Acts of Kindness. It's a small non-profit started by an Oakland firefighter who wanted to do some good in the communities in which he serves, instead of always seeing the bad -- fires, wrecks, etc. Enough years of that got to him.

My friend Cindy runs the non-profit from her house, and I do occasional tech support for them and maintain the website. Last winter I was going to help Cindy with some home improvement / repair tasks (we'd met years ago volunteering at East Bay Habitat for Humanity), and before we got going her back flared up again. So I ended up doing most of the work myself. Yesterday wasn't the last work that needs to be done, but at least the upstairs tenants have proper stairs and a railing now.

Today was a light work day. This morning I did some disassembly of the part of the deck that sits where the addition will be. This afternoon, I went to the Red Cross for apheresis. It's kind of like donating whole blood, but it's just the platelets, which get used for cancer and leukemia patients, as well as those receiving organ transplants and undergoing heart surgery. It takes longer than whole blood, so fewer people tend to do it. But the need is always great, because platelets don't keep aslong as whole blood. I do it because I've got the time, and it's an easy way to help save a life or three. And I get to watch a movie.

But the upshot of it is that afterwards, I can't do any heavy lifting. Fewer platelets, and my blood doesn't clot as readily. Katarina isn't very good with medical stuff (in the same sense that the Titantic "wasn't very good with" icebergs), so I think she imagines me bleeding in some sort of Monty Python-esque spoof of a Sam Peckinpah film. I don't think it would be quite that spectacular, but it still means I won't do any heavy lifting for the rest of the day. I cleaned up the detritus from this morning's activities, and disassembled the downspout, but besides that the heaviest lifting is bound to be 12 (fluid) oz. I get everything but the platelets back (and those replace themselves completely within 3 days), so I'm not as much a lightweight afterwards as with whole blood donation.

Tomorrow I hire a laborer or two, and get cracking on getting the stumps out. I'm going to have to rent a jackhammer to get the brick wall and bits of concrete out of the way, but first things first.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

How it Began

Several years ago when I was working full-time at home and Katarina was working full-time split between home and office, we decided we needed a bit more space. I'd used the second bedroom as an office, which we shared for a while, but we decided we each needed our own space. So I set up shop in what was the dining room.

We then hired an architect and had some plans drawn up. It took a long time to get something we liked and was readily buildable (the existing foundation isn't enough to support a second story, so going up was less an option). We ended up with a great design, a pentagonal-shaped master bedroom suite offset from the existing house and connected by a hallway. Ed Soos did a great job.

Then we went to get bids from contractors. The SF Bay Area building boom was in full force, and it was difficult to find contractors. The only bid we could get was from the architect, which was a design/build firm in Berkeley. It just wasn't practical -- it was substantially more than I paid for the house and land a few years before that. So we decided to shelve the idea, and I still have my office in the dining room where I sit while typing this.

Fast forward a couple of years to about 6 months ago. We talked some more about building an addition, and I had a couple more years of volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and helping lead mission trips to Mexico. I started sketching ideas, and quickly decided to purchase a design program. After trying various options, I ended up with Home Design Pro, which is sold under the Better Homes & Garden label, but is actually created by Chief Architect, which makes high-end architecture software.

After a lot of revisions and learning the software, we ended up with something we liked, and something that I felt I could build given my experience level. The plans and some renderings are below. It adds one bedroom and bathroom, extends the dining room a bit, and moves the entryway to the addition. That allows us to expand the kitchen into what is now a recessed porch and front hall, nearly doubling the size of the kitchen. That was the one thing I didn't like back when I bought the house -- a small kitchen.

The addition and new master bedroom aren't huge, but the current house isn't very big, either (less than 1,000 sq. ft.). We included lots of windows (we particularly like the large, cross-shaped windows on the south wall) and two lofts above the dining room extension and bathroom. The addition will have 12' walls, but the bedroom will be at +21" from the existing floor level, giving about 10' walls (compared with the normal 8'). All this should give the room a bigger feel, and with windows on four sides, good light and ventilation.

And yes, those are solar panels. We haven't figured out exactly what we're going to do for those, but part of the design was to include a larger south-facing roof to allow for them in the future. We're trying to be as green as possible with our building practices as well as the design, by using as few resources as possible both during building and after the addition is built.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Grunt Work

Katarina and I spent yesterday afternoon and a couple of hours today clearing the building site. Now I know why they call it 'grunt' work -- you grunt a lot with the effort involved. And now I remember why I'd previously decided to hire laborers to help with this stage.

The building site is covered with ivy several layers deep. There's also an assortment of shrubby things, a wannaba lemon tree (it doesn't get enough sun where they planted it), and a rhododendron or two. It's all got to go ("It all has to go! No money down! We'll take any offer! Se habla español!"), though we're going to transplant the healthiest rhododendron.

The ivy is incredibly tough stuff. It's a bear to get anything through it, and you have to go through 5 or 6 layers of it and its roots to dig anything up like a stump. But you can't just pick it up and pull, either, since it sends runners off in every direction to anchor itself and spread.

But we're making good progress, and warming up for the long haul ahead. Tomorrow's my day off for church (though in a lot of ways, Sunday is my work day, since I work harder running sound and media at church than a lot of my other work), though I'll probably go shopping after church to look into getting a laser level. I could probably borrow the pastor's (he got one for our yearly Mexico Mission Trip, where we take the youth group from church down to the barrios of Tijuana to build a house), but I always worry about borrowing stuff that can break. There's a zillion options, but most of them look like they're for indoor, short-range use.

Tomorrow I'll post some images of the building site and the plans so you can see what all I'm babbling about.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Plans Approved!

The planning department called Tuesday while I was out, and the plans have been approved! I picked them up yesterday, along with filing permits for the electrical, plumbing and mechanical (heating and cooling, though for our house the latter consists of a couple of ceiling fans). Today we can officially break ground!

And so it begins...

I'm entering the world of blogging at the same time I'm breaking ground for the addition, so you'll doubtless hear of my mistakes for both. In any event, welcome along for the ride.