Wednesday, March 21, 2007

whew! i just got back from working on a habitat for humanity house. i have a headache, brought on from the lethal combination of dashing out of the house without coffee, too little sleep, and the pounding of hammers & shrill whine of the saw in the next room. it was good, maybe almost fun. the two duplex buildings are getting close to completion--we nailed in the subfloor luan boards that go under linoleum in the kitchen & bathroom. that's pretty much it. nails every four inches in an entire kitchen/dining room. i was pretty bad at driving nails but improved a lot. the other people working there were pretty nice. they were all a lot older than me, many of them retired, i think. i have a lot of respect for 50-something women kneeling on the floor pounding nails.

a lot has happened in the last week. thursday i was up early and took the train into new york to attend the orientation at Nontraditional Employment for Women. they offer pre-apprenticeship training for women in the areas of carpentry, painting, and maybe other stuff like welding & electrician, i'm not sure. i think i was the only person there that was white & had a degree. i felt a little awkward, like i might get yelled at if they knew i had a teaching job and a master's degree. a young woman talked to us about what a day of work is like in these jobs. they pay well, but the work is intense, and you can face some prejudice.

we took three aptitude tests in english & math. a video they showed gave me the impression that the construction they are talking about is in large buildings, and maybe big industrial projects. that is not what i'm interested in. i left feeling a little discouraged--feeling like maybe this thing i'd been counting on to be my way into building wasn't really something i could count on or that i even wanted to be a part of. besides, this is for underprivileged people who can't do something else, right?

but the next day i got a phone call saying they wanted to interview me.

after some reflection i decided that they can disqualify me if they want to, but i'm not going to back out. i'll be open with them about what i want to do, and i think i can gain some useful skills working with them.

i spent the afternoon in brooklyn with b. and the boys. good chats, cute boys, legos, thai food, and my beautiful tree painting is nearly done. can't wait!

friday this unbelievable blizzard started dumping right as i was getting ready to drive up to vermont. i hadn't checked the weather. the internet said it would take about 6-7 hours to get there; it took 12. however, i arrived safely in the end and sank gratefully into bed at the hotel near yestermorrow.

the two-day workshop on building energy-efficient houses loaded us with information. we calculated heat loss through various materials such as wood, drywall, windows, insulation. passive solar means orienting your windows to face south and also putting awnings over your windows so that the summer sun is minimized while winter sun is maximized. you can use trig to calculate the necessary angles to achieve this.

composting toilets, super-insulating walls, stone masonry to surround a wood stove and absorb heat which is then released slowly during the night. floors that absorb winter sunlight and then release it slowly. the specific heat of a material is the rate at which it absorbs and then releases heat.

putting insulation around your foundation so that it can retain the heat that seeps out of the house. different types of foundations. making sure that water drains away from the foundation/basement. types of windows (double pane, low emissivity is pretty standard now). being aware of toxic chemicals in many building materials. arsenic & formaldehyde & carcinogens... knowing about less toxic alternatives. also being sensitive to where materials come from and the impact their manufacture has on the earth. cement isn't dangerous to be around, but the manufacture of a ton of cement releases 1.25 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere!!

about 15 people attended: a mix of builders, interns from yestermorrow, and people who have plans to build houses. the instructor was quite an interesting guy--here's the blurb about him from the yestermorrow website:

From geodesic domes in the 1970s and a community land trust homestead program in rural Maine in 1981, Robert has worked as a project manager, trainer, and consultant for non-profit building projects from inner-city Boston to the hollers of Tennessee. He has focused on passive solar super-insulated buildings, with one of his design/build projects receiving a Citation for Excellence in a national energy/resource-efficient design competition. He is also a ritual leader, vision quest guide, and rites-of-passage facilitator.


it was interesting to chat with some of the others who attended. one guy works for a building company (north of pittsburgh) that specializes in natural/environmentally sensitive building practices. he seemed to know about strawbale construction, among other things. i asked him if i could come and work/volunteer at his job & he gave me his boss's contact information.

i also asked our instructor if i could come up and work on the house he is building this summer. he gave me a less than enthusiastic yes, but it was a yes, nonetheless.

i don't think the style of houses that he builds are exactly what i have in mind, but they are certainly closer in spirit than the traditional style of building.

i want something very small and simple. exceedingly simple. i hate the idea of having so many layers and complexities in the floors and walls and ceilings of your house. however, robert told us about many things that he does not put into houses because he engineers around them. no air circulation/central heating/air conditioning system. no crawl space or basement. so i certainly picked up tips.

[by the way, i really like vermont's landscape and culture. it's a mix of what i think of as out west ruggedness with a little bit of gun rack and some folksy music and a dreadlock or two mixed in. and skiing.]

monday i got on the phone and called habitat for humanity and found options for volunteering on wednesdays and saturdays. i also called the local carpenter's union and was quite intimidated but managed to ask the guy what was involved in getting an apprenticeship. he told me that there was a paper test, a drug test, and then a probationary period (which i guess means if you are a total clutz they'll let you go). i also asked if there was demand for carpenters and he said, 'yeah, we keep pretty busy.'

meanwhile, i'm prepping for calculus, which is really taking up a lot of my time. i'm so used to teaching algebra which i can do with my eyes shut, but calculus stresses me out because i have to memorize everything, like the derivative of the arctangent of x. i can't remember this from when i had it (in 1994!) and i'm requiring my students to know it all, so i'm terrified that i'll be doing a problem at the board and not know some basic fact.

and the funny thing is that i'm enjoying my teaching quite a bit this semester. it's like now that i've stopped trying to be a model faculty member, and don't really go to the annoying faculty meetings, and i have decided that i'm just going to do what is good for my students, not what looks good for tenure...well, it's just a lot more fun.

this has me quite conflicted and confused. i have no idea if i will regret leaving this job. it's so complicated. i feel an obligation to be a sort of guardian to this generation of kids that may be somewhat neglected by their parents, by society. and yet, what am i giving them, really? how to factor a polynomial? what's the good in that? i can love them, teach them self-discipline, and allow them to crash & burn if they choose to do that. but i wish i could spend more time talking to them about life instead of variables and equations.

is it selfish to take time off to learn how to build a house? is what i really want not the actual building (i can be a clutz with a hammer), but perhaps architecture or interior design? i think of both as careers in which you work for the wealthiest 20%. I don't think I'd find it fulfilling to design an interior for an ostentatious home. i prefer the aesthetic of simple living. i'd rather build shelves or do repairs for someone who needs it. i'd like to have a say in the design of the house.

i know it's a lot harder for me to work with my hands than with my mind. and yet i crave the satisfaction of being able to see the fruit of my labors.

3 comments:

Katherine said...

this sounds AMAZING . . . i have this dream too, to build my own home . . . wow . . . i look forward to your stories about all this . . .

Katherine said...

ooooo, weird, it looks like i'm anoymous . . . it's kate from datinggod :)

fog said...

thanks for sharing! i hope you too get to build yourself a home.