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Janet Branson
Posts: 192
Location: Missoula, MT
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I recently grew from a Gapper into an Ant and am eternally grateful for the opportunity. So far, I've built a J-tube-style rocket stove from stone and natural plaster. Thus far, Ants have gathered around the fire every night. I'm really diggin the instant community created by a simple fire.
 
Julia Winter
steward
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Location: Moved from south central WI to Portland, OR
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Congratulations on becoming an ant!  I look forward to admiring your progress.
 
Nicole Alderman
garden master
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I'm really excited to follow the progress of a female ant, and look forward to all your progress updates!!!
 
Janet Branson
Posts: 192
Location: Missoula, MT
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Thanks Julia and Nicole! Steve says I'm here to make the lab more women-folk friendly! I think that means I need to build a private pee spot in the village. There is talk of a rocket-heated pooper in the village, after our homes are finished of course. The male ants have all been encouraging and helpful and quick to offer tips and safety checks! I came to wheaton labs in April, hoping to learn enough to one day be an Ant. They taught me that I can BE an Ant and learn along the way. I wasn't sure it was possible before, but every day I get a little closer thanks to them.

Here are some pics of my future house site. I really am lucky this spot wasn't already selected!
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Janet Branson
Posts: 192
Location: Missoula, MT
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We have the 6 ants planning to over winter and 4 homes to winterize. The ant village is buzzing with chainsaws and hammering all day every day.

Being the last to get started and learning building skills as I go it seems best to start tiny, like all the books recommend. Steve and Jim make a good case for building a 7’x14’ cabin so I’ve finally put to bed the idea of a mere 8’x 8’.

Plans change with the availability of materials, like insulation. I’m going with a passive solar design and want a stone/cob floor for the excellent thermal mass. Still haven’t figured out insulation though. While there will be sun scoops surrounding the north and northeast corner of the house, it isn’t a wofati and will need high R-value. Evan recently shared that 1” of cardboard has an R-value of 3-4. That’s pretty good for freaky cheap materials! I’d certainly rather have wool and am on the look out for other high value freaky cheap options. Suggestions welcome!

Everyday I get a little closer to accumulating my sticks and stones. Still need (1) 21’ beam, (2) 14’ posts and (10) 14’ rafters. Better get peeling!
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Tyler Ludens
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Very interested to follow your progress!

 
Janet Branson
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Location: Missoula, MT
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Thank you Kerry Rodgers for sending the timber screws and the drawknives! The curved drawknife really makes it easy to get into the pink layer, especially on the really big logs. It is certainly my go-to tool for peeling now. I can't wait to put the timber screws to use! It won't be long now!
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Janet Branson
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We have the 6 ants planning to over winter and 4 homes to winterize. The Ant Village is buzzing with chainsaws and hammering all day every day.

Being the last to get started and learning building skills as I go it seems best to start tiny, like all the books recommend. Steve and Jim made good cases for building a 7’ x 14’, but winter is coming. A 7’ x 7’ is certainly too small for the long run, but for now the goal is to not freeze to death.

Knowing that I want to add on later, I am planning to install doors on both the east and west sides of the building, 2 large windows on the south side and one each of the large windows on the east and west faces. The house is going to start out mostly doors and windows! That’s one way to save on lumber.  Heat loss is an obvious concern that I hope will be mitigated by the earthen mass floor and the other mass I add to make the most of the solar passive design.

Haven’t figured out the design just yet, but I want thermal shutters than can fold down into a table top or flush against the wall below the window. The windows are large and to keep the table from becoming too cumbersome, I’m thinking there will be four of these shutter-table tops to cover the southern windows.

Still haven’t figured out insulation. While there will be sun scoops surrounding the north and northeast corner of the house, it isn’t a wofati and will need high R-value. Evan recently shared that 1” of cardboard has an R-value of 3-4. That’s pretty good for freaky cheap materials! I’d certainly rather have wool and am on the look out for other high value freaky cheap options. Suggestions welcome!

Thank you again to the recent generosity from permies Kerry Rodgers, Tom Rutledge and Casie Becker. Your gifts to ants are very much appreciated!

You can also follow me on Instagram at Ecobunks.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Could a couple of the shutters fold up against the ceiling?

 
Nicole Alderman
garden master
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You mentioned wanting wool, which made me wonder if thrift stores like goodwill have a bin of torn/stained clothing that they are tossing out. I've also heard about people snatching up bags of random clothing at Goodwill Superstores for really cheap. Would packing that into the walls and then stapling cardboard over it help? It wouldn't be a long-term solution, as different fibers likely have different R values, and are more prone to mold/mildew, are more desirable to animals, etc. But, it might help get you through the winter, and you could replace as you get better materials by simply taking off the cardboard and stuffing different stuff in there. 

Hmm, I wonder what the R Value of dog or cat fur is? Would places like petco or other pet groomers be happy to part with their dog hair, especially since they then wouldn't have to pay for disposing of it? Might be worth calling around!
 
K Putnam
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I wonder how many old wool sweaters it would take to fill up your cubic footage.  Hair-brained scheme for an old sweater drive...
 
Janet Branson
Posts: 192
Location: Missoula, MT
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Tyler Ludens wrote:Could a couple of the shutters fold up against the ceiling?

That's a thought. I wonder how these shutters could serve multiple purposes.
 
Janet Branson
Posts: 192
Location: Missoula, MT
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Nicole Alderman wrote:You mentioned wanting wool, which made me wonder if thrift stores like goodwill have a bin of torn/stained clothing that they are tossing out. I've also heard about people snatching up bags of random clothing at Goodwill Superstores for really cheap. Would packing that into the walls and then stapling cardboard over it help? It wouldn't be a long-term solution, as different fibers likely have different R values, and are more prone to mold/mildew, are more desirable to animals, etc. But, it might help get you through the winter, and you could replace as you get better materials by simply taking off the cardboard and stuffing different stuff in there. 

Hmm, I wonder what the R Value of dog or cat fur is? Would places like petco or other pet groomers be happy to part with their dog hair, especially since they then wouldn't have to pay for disposing of it? Might be worth calling around!

Nicole, I have been thinking and Googling and calculating a lot on these ideas! Thanks for posting! given the time constraints I, with the council of several Ants have revised my design yet again. Paul recently declared that winter officially begins October 15th. That shortens the window for building a bit as we had beleived winter might begin on December 21st, not that I had intended to still be building at that point.

To eliminate some labor and add summer-heat mitigation, I have decided to berm the house on the north side as high roof eave. The east and south sides will be partially bermed no higer than 4 feet. This means that I won't be insulating the walls at all. I do plan to add on to the west and with more time would like to experiment with several insulating options including pet hair and salvaged wool clothing. I think limiting to only one type of insulation makes the materials gathering process that much longer. We'll see. I still have dreams of a cob house...
 
Tyler Ludens
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Janet Branson wrote:
That's a thought. I wonder how these shutters could serve multiple purposes.


You could hang clothes and things on them so when they are folded up against the ceiling the clothes or things are laying flat.  If things want to shift around too much you could secure them with elasticize storage nets or something similar.
 
Janet Branson
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Tyler Ludens wrote:
Janet Branson wrote:
That's a thought. I wonder how these shutters could serve multiple purposes.


You could hang clothes and things on them so when they are folded up against the ceiling the clothes or things are laying flat.  If things want to shift around too much you could secure them with elasticize storage nets or something similar.


Oh cool! I like that idea!
 
Janet Branson
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Oehler replaced posts as needed on his first house and I will too since there will be a few pines. I'd like to think that since they will be kept dry under the umbrella, will be charred and sunk with borax, then dried all winter with the wood stove, that the pine posts should last at least long enough for me to build a bigger better house. Time is ticking and pine will just have to do. There won't be but a couple and they will be separated and spaced about two feet from fir posts.
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Janet Branson
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Between the peeling and the digging I get to spend my time at one of the prettiest spots in the village! Birds flutter about around my house site, from trees to berms while I work. My office has some pretty great views and wildlife! We really get to have a pretty fantastic life in the ant village.

Evan, Jim, Steve, Josh and Ben have all been helpful with the heavy lifting, making progress possible. I'm feeling pretty grateful to all those supporting my anthood. The pad is finally ready for post holes and the posts are charred and ready! 

Gotta run..there is digging to do!
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Gary Huntress
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Hi Janet.  I've been following your posts and am looking forward to seeing your house come together.  I like what you've described for your construction plans and I think it'll work out pretty well.  Keep up the good work!
 
Inge Leonora-den Ouden
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I will follow your adventure as the first female ant!
 
Glenn Herbert
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I know you must be insanely busy right now, but I hope you will post pictures of what you are building when you have time.
 
Janet Branson
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Location: Missoula, MT
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Why am I doing this?

For four months my house has ranged 10°F - 42°F in the morning. Wool socks and thermals get stuffed down into my sleeping bag to warm. I’ve mastered shimmying into my thermals beneath the blankets and lie there waiting for a hot flash before I bolt out of bed and start a fire. Hours later I am still sipping coffee and day-dreaming out the window. Free time. Finding this elusive resource required blowing up my rat-race-lifestyle. One with hot baths, a thermostat and mild-altering stress.

My grandmother thinks I’m crazy, “Why the heck are you up there freezing your butt off? … How far must you travel for water? How is your car handling the snow?” she asks. For her, roughing it is using paper plates at dinner. Although my grandparents’ camping trips in Colorado inspired my own outdoorsy adventures, she recently revealed that by ‘camping,’ she meant eating out with grandfather sleeping at a motel and picking her up in the morning for breakfast. All the pictures of my grandfather perched on a log next to a tent in front of the Rocky Mountains were staged!

“How many other people are there right now, I know you said others went home for the holidays… Is anyone close to your place? If something happens, can they hear you scream? How long before someone comes to check on you?” She was not hanky-wringing worried, just crinkled-forehead-tilted-chin worried. Two weeks after the inauguration she agreed I was far safer in rural Montana than in the cities.

Our conversation went on in this form another twenty minutes before we got to the bigger question, the one I want more people to grasp, “Why are you doing this?”

Why am I doing this? Why am I choosing to live off-grid in an incomplete tiny house with a dirt floor and no running water in a Montana winter?

It’s a long story. Stay tuned
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Janet Branson
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For the majority of my teaching career, the urban parts anyway, I sought the forest and the stars nearly every three-day weekend or holiday break. Summer of 2012, halfway through my Masters of Science in Science Education at DePaul University, my cohort had just completed Ecology and I hit the road pondering the implications of ecosystems on our agricultural systems. The plan was to spend my remaining weeks off from Chicago Public Schools, hiking, car camping and a little back-packing in the UP (Upper Peninsula, MI.)

Stopped for gas in Wisconsin and saw a group of 5-6 twenty-somethings pile out of a van. They were covered in mud, barefoot and laughing their asses off. I HAD to talk to them! They invited me to come see their project, even if I didn’t want to get dirty. Their project turned out to be a garden wall made of cob with beautifully carved benches and what I later learned was a Rumford-fireplace. I jumped in and started sculpting, grooving on the muddy dancers’ energy. Cob. The new tag that would dominate my nightly Google searches. Similar to adobe, its clay, sand, water and straw mixed and formed into bread loaf size ‘cobs’ that are then stacked and sculpted to build walls. For the rest of my trip I watched hours of permaculture YouTube in my tent each night. Including Ernie and Erica’s most viewed video,  the one where they are explaining their in-home rocket mass heater and as Paul puts it, “Erica’s boobs were everywhere. People like that.” Well, something to that affect. The videos were empowering. I was seeing 60 something single women and young teen agers building tiny homes off-grid with very little money. I spent the days hiking and the nights absorbing every thing I could. While the context was a gradual build, the realization hit me suddenly and with great force.

My life was upside down. At every break from public school teaching I sought the forest, the night sky free from light pollution. It’s what drove me to the UP (Upper Peninsula, MI.) Realizing I should have been living in the forest and visiting civilization only as needed. On the job rewards were few and infrequent, but the pressure and stress constant. Still, my camping get-aways usually included curriculum development or grading. Going back to the basics, to a reduced overhead would let me escape from the pressure. A five-year plan started to develop. I would save money, buy land, build a cob house and live happily ever after.
 
Janet Branson
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Gardening, homesteading and Permaculture all the time..
e.g. the happily efer after

My cancer treatment was over in just eight months; now, it’s easy to be grateful it wasn’t longer. Then, I just wanted out. Away.
Radiation Therapy lasted 45 minutes five days a week with chemo and other drugs infusing 6-8 hours once a week. There were nine surgical procedures, the last one I consider ‘the big one.’ When lying beneath the electron beams I imagined tiny pixelated lasers blasting those bastard tumors Asteroids-style. Conscious to never breathe too deeply, never twitch or shift a muscle. The blasters would miss the target if I moved! I escaped the stress by focusing on the future. The escape plan.

Every available minute of treatment and waiting room time the nurses would find me, eyes closed and ear buds in listening to Paul Wheaton. The podcasts drew me away from reality into a fantasy land where everyone talked about gardening, homesteading and permaculture. All. The. Time. Paul’s voice was a soothing constant and of more value, a how-to guide for a future worth fighting to live for. “If I can get through this, then I can save up, get land and live happily ever after.” I thought.
 
Janet Branson
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The Big Tiny

You're looking at the future site of the big house. Designs haven't been decided upon just yet, but I love how the western larch and ponderosa pine frame the area.  It's unrealistic to live more than five years or so in the tiny house and hope to build something about 200 sq ft, probably another earth-bermed Oehler-style structure, but better. 
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Janet Branson
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*Early into the 2012 school year, Chicago Public School teachers went on strike for a fair contract. The Board of Education initially came to the table, during a local election year, demanding a longer school year without additional funds for those days. They eventually agreed to increased pay for those days, sort of, and have since created furlough days for staff to save money.*
Throughout the trip I was also further developing my 9th grade STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum. When I returned home I bought every permaculture book Paul Wheaton recommended on richsoil.com. Bill Mollison’s Introduction to Permaculture became my go-to resource. My copy became cluttered with notations matching the new National Science Standards, IL state science standards and ideas for labs that would fit the ACT Science standards. Our existing Environmental Science text was 15 years old, the names of students assigned each text year after year were listed below the formatted box for 6 students, in diagonal scribbles closer to the seam each year. Where are these amazing schools that can buy new texts books every six years? It didn’t matter, Bill was on my side. Bill had done all the work and was holding my hand the entire design process, now. The Theme: Discover local solutions to global problems. The plan: Overlay the engineering design cycle in all our projects and labs. Students would build a hydroponics window-farm, investigate current climate events, the 6th Extinction, micro computing technology, alternative energy options and conduct soil health experiments. I too was planning to infect brains with permaculture.

Feverish idealism and a detailed plan fell short against the realities of teaching in south side Chicago. For the first time in my career, camping over the Thanksgiving and winter breaks was too exhausting even to plan. I just wanted to sleep, to take hot baths between naps and dream of greener pastures.

Christmas Eve (2012) I had started to feel pretty off, intense pelvic pain, swelling and nausea for a couple days. It took a fever and the inability to cross the street in the allotted 18 seconds for me to make an appointment. The family doctor didn’t really have an answer and prescribed a broad-spectrum antibiotic, blood-work and a follow up appointment. Which happened to fall on New Years Eve. My friends and I had tickets to see Book of Mormon. We’d bought those tickets the previous February. An hour before we were supposed to meet on the corner for a cab, I’m calling my friend from the ER to scalp my ticket because they were admitting me for surgery. Fuck.

It was a minor procedure compared to the eight to come.
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Janet Branson
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Compared to conventional construction, natural building takes considerably longer. Most of the labor is in gathering the materials, which in my case were logs. Neighbors, friends and three workshop participants graciously helped fell trees, peel logs and carry them over to the work site.  Without them, I would not have had a place to stay this winter.

Not just any tree will do

The design plan for the house changed multiple times while we gathered the logs. Trees with a 4-6" diamter were selected for posts when they were expected to be just 2 feet apart. Once post holes were dug however, the plan changed and 6"+ posts were needed. Beams were in the 10" diamter range.

Our land was once owned by a paper company and thus is a near monocrop of Douglas Fir, fine for building. So much Doug Fir in fact that proper woodland management requires we thin the forest. Forest fires are a real threat in some areas of the property and we have a responsibiity to remove the hazards. We also have Ponderosa Pine. Opinions around the lab differ as to its integrity over the long term so I opted to avoid them. We do have Western Larch, the strongest and most rot resistant tree available to us, but there are so few I avoided cuttting any more down. My inexperience and focus on dimensions over species cost the life of two small larches. One of which is now a prominently featured post on my western wall.

Lessons learned

Douglass fir has knots every 10-14" up the trunk. If a chainsaw wasn't handy I'd just use my axe to limb the tree, but this did not create a smooth post. Several of my posts have large bits sticking out that made installing shoring and insulation framing complicated. For the Big Tiny, I will be sure to cut every single limb flush.

Paul Wheaton says that charring the hole-end of your post is only 10% effective.  No idea the formula used to attain the figure, but his influence and my own experience means I won't bother charring next time. mike oehler recommends charring 1/8" into the post. It's damn near impossible to tell how deep your char is until youve cut it so we just pulled them out when the log burned white and looked 'done' to us.  Trimming a piece later I saw that even the section we had agreed was 'too' burned had really only charred about 1 mm deep. It was a pain the arse to haul them to the burn site then rotate them to burn evenly. In the end, I felt like I had just wasted a bunch of firewood to turn my posts sooty.
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Janet Branson
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Location: Missoula, MT
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It took a week of digging all day to prepare 15 post holes. Five days of digging by hand and I only had 3 holes, none of which were my target 3 feet deep. With the workshop beginning soon I decided to rent an earth-auger. One of the Ants suggested what we got was a snow auger. Considering how it responded to my rock layer at 2.5 feet, he may be right.
Kai took a break from cobbing his castle to help keep the auger digging for two days. He says the machine takes all the work of digging by hand and compresses it into a short time period. It's a rough thing to operate. It kept tilting because I wasn't strong enough to hold my portion of the weight. It kept dragging me into the hill. At one point the vibrations caused my hands to go numb. I lost my grip and the machine whipped around and slammed Kai in his thigh. Sorry Kai.

Next time...

For some reason, I spent all of August solely focused on logs and later, time soley focused on holes.  On the Big Tiny, I will divide my time between peeling logs and digging holes. Breaking up the tasks rather than spending 8 hours a day in the same position doing the same repetitive motion will be more enjoyable I suspect.

The tractor has an auger bit, though it isn't as wide as my future posts will be. Next time, I will dig test holes before I decide on the final site location. Fingers are crossed that my favorite spot will have easier digging.
 
Janet Branson
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Rocks are Hard

Kai broke up the rock layer with the pry bar and I excavated the loose bits with the post hole digger. At about 2.5 feet deep the post-hole digger is of little use and I start to remove the debris with a coffee cup. It was a long week.
 
Mike Jay
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I rented one of those augers to dig a dozen holes in clay 4' deep.  NOT FUN. 

I have heard (but not fully explored) that a "one person earth auger" is much easier to use.  I hear that the auger is on the end of a long arm and the engine is at the other end of that arm.  The engine sits on the ground and the auger pivots up and down.  So you only lift the weight of the auger and not the engine.  Plus it resists the torque for you since the engine is so far away from the hole.  I haven't used one but if I ever need to auger a hole and don't have a tractor mounted one, I'm going to seriously investigate these.
 
Janet Branson
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Mike Jay wrote: I have heard (but not fully explored) that a "one person earth auger" is much easier to use.  I hear that the auger is on the end of a long arm and the engine is at the other end of that arm.  The engine sits on the ground and the auger pivots up and down.  So you only lift the weight of the auger and not the engine.  Plus it resists the torque for you since the engine is so far away from the hole.  I haven't used one but if I ever need to auger a hole and don't have a tractor mounted one, I'm going to seriously investigate these.


Hi Mike, I wanted the one-man auger, but we didn't have a vehicle that could haul it. I'll keep that option in mind for the next house if the tractor auger isn't available.
 
Kerry Rodgers
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Janet, thank you so much for this story...I hope you will continue it!  Good to hear you are still surviving on your ant plot in the house you built.  But 10F is cold!  All the best going forward!
 
Nicole Alderman
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Thank you so much for sharing your story and progress. You're an inspiration!

And, yeah, as former elementary and preschool teacher, the lack of funding of our schools is horrible. I remember in High School we had 20+ year old history text books. Mine had pages fused shut by mold. I guess updating history books was the least priority, since "history never changes." I hate to have seen the state of your history texts if your science texts were 15 years out of date!
 
Janet Branson
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Nicole, thanks for reading!

More than one history department I have been around didn't have enough texts to check out to students. They were just enough for a class set, many missing pages. One teacher had her students write the missing page numbers in Sharpie on the cover so no one wasted classtime looking in a book. Admins and some teachers reasoned that new text books were a waste of limited funds since students can just use the internet to find information. Given the biases that come with our history books I'd probably assign students to find sources that contradict or better enlighten us on the topics covered.

Mold, lead pipes, asbestos falling out of ceilings, the mark of a public school in alow income minority neighborhood. It's sick.
 
Miles Flansburg
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Good stuff Janet, please stay warm !

Ever thought of building a Hogan next time? Avoid all those darn holes! Just stack logs and bury the whole thing, easy peezy.
 
Abe Coley
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Impressive.
 
Bill Erickson
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Janet Branson wrote:
Mike Jay wrote: I have heard (but not fully explored) that a "one person earth auger" is much easier to use.  I hear that the auger is on the end of a long arm and the engine is at the other end of that arm.  The engine sits on the ground and the auger pivots up and down.  So you only lift the weight of the auger and not the engine.  Plus it resists the torque for you since the engine is so far away from the hole.  I haven't used one but if I ever need to auger a hole and don't have a tractor mounted one, I'm going to seriously investigate these.


Hi Mike, I wanted the one-man auger, but we didn't have a vehicle that could haul it. I'll keep that option in mind for the next house if the tractor auger isn't available.


Janet, I have used the "one-man" auger myself when I fenced in my acre lot. I had 120 holes to dig, and like you, I started that with a post hole digger and digging bar. That shit sucks going through sand, clay and rock/gravel by hand. I rented that auger and where it took me a days worth of labor to dig ten holes, I did all 120 and another 30 for some animal corrals in one day. It was truly helpful all the time it saved me to get the fencing in and up. Highly recommend, and it sucked you all didn't have a rig that could pack it to the Lab.
 
Janet Branson
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Hi everyone! A video and brief discussion about raising and securing beams on my tiny Oehler house is available here. Thank you for your support and patience as I gradually share more about the construction process. Ben, Evan, Steve and I went south to thaw out and we all look forward to getting back to work when Montana thaws out, too!
 
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