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Oaks and Dragons: the Master Plan

 
Posts: 138
Location: Campton, New Hampshire
9
forest garden trees hunting tiny house food preservation woodworking
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Greetings fellow permies. We (Jordan and Will) are a soon to be married young couple currently calling a rented apartment in the bustling metropolis of Charleston, South Carolina home. Within the next eight months we will be moving to somewhere in New England, depending on where we can find work. So far Concord, New Hampshire and the Finger Lakes region of New York are the two most likely candidates. Once we’ve been there a sufficient amount of time to scope out the surroundings and be sure we’ve arrived somewhere we’d like to set down roots we’re hoping to acquire some land and make a go of creating a productive, happy life together.

We hope to acquire at least 5 acres – preferably 20-50 – of land, using three to five of those acres to create a home site and gardens and orchards that will provide most of the vegetables, fruits, and nuts we consume by the time we retire. (Hopefully sooner!) We hope to use the rest of the land to provide the occasional forest product for our hobbies, or protein source for our table, while converting it into more productive habitat for wildlife. No domestic animals other than a spoiled rotten house dog fit into our plans at this point. Will doesn’t have the time and Jordanne doesn’t have the interest. We may try to set things up in such a way that animals can be easily added later. Time will be the primary limiting factor. Neither of us has any plans to exit the rat race. Our activities will be limited to what two people can accomplish with evenings and weekends and very infrequent help from friends or family.

Since we don’t have a site picked out yet, we don’t really have any specific projects to document at this point. This thread is meant to serve as a master thread, documenting the process we will go through over the years to change our lifestyle from one that primarily consumes resources to one that takes more responsibility for supporting itself. I’ve created it now because we’re using this time to plan for one very probable contingency – that we will acquire land that doesn’t have a house or any other structures already in place. If this turns out to be the case, we’d like to have something prepared so we can get started on it quickly and get out from under the rent trap as soon as possible. Our planning and information gathering efforts on that front will probably be the first sub-project documented here.


But first, an introduction, to give some of the background behind our decisions. I (Will) am a career wildland firefighter and a trained forester with bachelor’s degrees in forestry and natural resource conservation. I grew up in Florida and have lived or worked all over the western US and in Finland. Jordan has a master’s degree in medieval archaeology, but has spent her career so far working in the banking industry. We’re hoping to change that with this move, but we aren’t holding our breath. She grew up in Wisconsin, and has lived in South Carolina, England, and Scotland. We both agree that we’re getting tired of not having snow in the winter anymore. We picked New England because it's a very historic region (hopefully leading to better job opportunities for her) and because we want a lot of fruit and nut trees - and we want them without having to deal with the massive mountain of stupidity that is water rights and irrigation regulations in the western US.

Both of us have some gardening experience: Jordan mostly with ornamentals, and Will with very undemanding annual vegetables. (I travel a lot for work, often for weeks at a time, and move back and forth between the east and west coasts every year.) We both work in stained glass as a hobby. I have a fair amount of home remodeling and some woodworking experience. I would like to get into woodworking and furniture making more, and we would both like to learn blacksmithing.

I’d say that’s enough for one night. Will post more later.
 
Will Meginley
Posts: 138
Location: Campton, New Hampshire
9
forest garden trees hunting tiny house food preservation woodworking
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So, as mentioned previously, one scenario that we’re planning for is that we purchase a property with no buildings or other infrastructure in place. We’re thinking this is probably the most likely scenario, as most of the larger parcels we’ve seen for sale are raw land, and the few that do have structures on them are often outrageously expensive, with houses far larger than we could possibly need. Our rough plan for this scenario is as follows:

Phase 0: Information gathering.

This phase began about 1 ½ years ago and is ongoing. So far we’ve been reading up on various natural building techniques and design principles, discussed our wants and needs, and brainstorming possible structures and layouts.

Thus far we have examined several construction methods including earthships, cob, straw bale, timber framing, and rammed earth. In the end, we’ve tentatively settled on timber framed construction for most of the major structures. This is partly for sentimental reasons – the idea of a timber frame home appeals to Will as a forester and to Jordan because it was the vernacular architecture of most of the civilizations and time periods she finds most interesting. Timber is plentiful in New England, and we may have to cut a fair bit of it down anyway to make way for structures and food producing areas. It’s also somewhat of a calculated move to improve Jordan’s career prospects. We’ve discussed the idea of sending her back to school for training in historic preservation, to increase her odds of landing work she actually WANTS to be doing. Although there will be nothing historic about these structures, and hopefully they won’t need any preserving until long after we’re dead, the skills learned building them could be very useful for her, as she has very little construction experience so far. It’s also very appropriate for the area. New England has many historic timber framed structures, some dating from as early as the 1600s.

As of yet, neither of us have any experience with timber framing, and it doesn’t appear to be the easiest method of construction to attempt learning on your own. So, going into the future, phase 0 will mostly be about learning the skills we will need to make this happen. We’ve found several organizations in the region offering courses in timber framing - some through this permies thread and some through google searches - including Yestermorrow Design School, the Adirondack Folk School, and the Heartwood School. We plan to send at least one of us through a timber framing course at one of these places. We also plan to find some masonry training for one of us, as a masonry heater is high on the wants list for the main house and we would prefer to avoid using concrete anywhere in the build, including the foundations.

During phase 0 we also want to get the plan for phase 1 finalized, or as close to it as possible, so we can set to it quickly and get on site.

Phase 1: The workshop

This phase will begin once we have the property in hand. First comes a quick site survey to assess what options we have for providing building materials from onsite. Next will come a rough site plan, mostly to determine where buildings will go and the rough location of gardens and orchards.

Ideally, any timber harvesting would begin in the fall after we buy the property, so that construction can begin the following spring. The first structure built will be a small lean-to – maybe 4ft x 12ft that will be used for tool and materials storage during the subsequent build, then firewood storage afterward.

Following that we plan to build a small, single story, 3 bay structure approx. 12ft by 24ft. One of the end bays will contain a small bathroom and kitchen. The other two bays will be an open living area. The two end bays will have sleeping lofts overhead, with the center bay left open. Ideally, we would like to be moved in before the following winter. This would be our primary home until phase 2 is complete, then convert to a workshop/stained glass studio/guest quarters.

Phase 2: The garage.

This phase will begin as soon as we have gathered enough cladding and roofing materials to cover the frame as soon as it’s raised. Work will continue in a piecemeal fashion until completed. This structure will be a 1.5 or 2 story structure with an unheated two car garage downstairs and a 2 bedroom mother-in-law suite upstairs. Ideally, this phase will be completed within a one or two year time period. This will be our primary home until phase 3 is complete, then convert to guest quarters.

Phase 3: The house.

This will be a 3 bed/2.5 bath house of modest size.


Somewhere along the way, other outbuilding may make an entrance as needed/desired. A sauna will probably be built early in the timeline, possibly in combination with a greenhouse. Will has also promised Jordan a tower, which he'll probably try to work in as part of a gravity-fed water system.

All in all that should keep us busy for quite a while. Hopefully not too busy to get any planting done!
 
Will Meginley
Posts: 138
Location: Campton, New Hampshire
9
forest garden trees hunting tiny house food preservation woodworking
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Well, a lot has changed in the three years since I last added to this thread. We wound up picking Concord, New Hampshire. A year later we moved further north to be closer to my work. Shortly thereafter, a four-legged companion joined us. Less than a year later he had a two-legged sibling. Around the time said sibling arrived the house we were renting went on the market to be sold. We knew we didn’t want it, and there are not many rental properties available in rural New Hampshire, so we made the decision to go on the market for a place of our own.

We had to lower our expectations a bit. Small acreage of the size we were hoping to find is available here, but most of what was available at the time would require a commute of 30 – 45 minutes for me. That is neither economically or ecologically prudent in my opinion. The rest was out of our price range. I also had to give up on the idea of buying bare land and roughing it until we had something built. My wife doesn’t deal very well with roughing it, or stress – so the idea of roughing it while dealing with the stress of building a place to live (pretty much by myself) while simultaneously raising an infant child sounded like a particularly sadistic version of hell. After a few false starts we settled on a place in the same town as the office I work out of. It came with a house, a small shed, and 0.6 acres of land. The community is mostly vacation homes owned by middle- and upper middle-class people from Boston and southern New Hampshire. It won’t be a home we retire to, but it will give us a place to practice skills for later. We still want to look for acreage around here that will turn into the place we retire to. At first it will probably just start out as a vacation property that I can build on as time and resources permit. But that’s a while in the future yet. For the moment, this place will provide plenty of challenges and training opportunities. Always leave every place better than you found it, right?

So, to the task at hand. Our property is shaped like a large amphitheater that faces west-southwest. It’s fairly steep, with a vertical rise of about 80 feet from the front of the lot to the back of the lot a couple hundred feet away. Our property is about midway up the slope. The only semi-flat spot is the septic drain field immediately below the house. That looks like it was put in by mechanical means when the house was built. Other than the house footprint, the drain field is also the only unforested spot on the site. The overstory is white pine (Pinus strobus) with an understory of red oak (Quercus rubra), beech (Fagus grandifolia), birch (betula spp.) and maple (Acer spp.). Toward the eastern side of the lot where it’s wetter, the understory starts to transition toward more birch and hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). The forest is well into the canopy exclusion phase at this point, so not much grows on the ground under the canopy at this point. In places, it’s dog hair thick with suppressed, wrist-thick saplings and difficult to walk through.

Like every other place on earth, ours has its plusses and minuses. Working against us, the community has its own Department of Making You Sad, which has some say over what we can do on our land. For example, we couldn’t keep livestock even if we wanted to. We have to ask permission to cut down any tree that’s further than 30 feet from the house. We will need to build terraced garden beds and thin out the trees south of the house before we can grow any of our own food. The driveway is steep and impassible for our vehicles during the winter in its current state of repair. The house is oriented with the long axis – and probably 80% of the house’s windows - facing southwest, and has no air conditioning, so it gets brutally hot indoors during the summer.

In our favor, we have a HUGE zone 5. One not so terrible requirement of our community’s Dept. of Making You Sad is that you must keep at least 25% of your property in a forested, unmanaged state. Our land care plan will leave about 50% in that condition. We also have a large (probably about 150 acre) parcel of forested common land north and east of us. No one has built anything on the lot to the west of us since our house was built in the 80s, and the lots south of us are unbuildable because of streams, so those areas are all effectively common land as well. We have all the granite we could want on site. We plan on drastically thinning the upper half of the property, which will leave plenty of timber for projects and firewood as well.
 
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