I said that I didn’t know squat about construction….

….and I did not. And Sally, of course, knew even less. We were clueless. But, in our blissful ignorance and optimism, we both concluded that building a house was not rocket science and there were how-to books everywhere on everything and, what the hell, it is ‘just a cabin’.

To assist with our wishful thinking, I dug out my old Whole Earth Catalogue and looked at pictures of hippy-hobbit houses made from logs and tarps. “Piece of cake!”

And so, armed with little but dreams and fantasies, we headed up the coast to our property circa 2003. You know, to suss it out and maybe stake out the foundations or whatever one does first?

I bought the property back in 1974 when I was 26. Buying a house in Vancouver was too expensive and so I just hitch-hiked up the coast until the property got cheap enough to consider. And that amount (for me) was around $5,000 (which was borrowed). I thought I might be able to find five acres of waterfront for that. That kind of non-thinking is part of the ‘squat’ we didn’t know.

And there are a number of stories about trying to find land, too.

But, back to the past-modern day (Y2K+3)…..before heading out, I bought a 12′ Achilles inflatable and a Mariner 20 with which to power it. We’d load the boat and motor into our 6 foot utility trailer along with some building materials, totes full of food and tools and wine and then drive up the coast (8 – 10 hours counting the ferry). Then we’d unload it all into the boat. Fully laden-to-the-too-low gunwales, we’d then head ten miles up the coast into the beyond. We went regardless of weather because well, ‘we’re already this far, let’s push on!‘ Slowly.

Our first landing was pretty eventful because there is no real beach. It is just a rocky shore with short choppy waves leading to a few yards of more kelp and slime covered rocks fronted by a small 8 foot high wall of irregular granite just to get above the high tide line. But, we managed.

And there we stood….a pile of camping crap on one mossy slope and us on another. That first day, I stood with my left leg about a foot higher than my right. Sal tried standing along an edge. We literally had no footing. The slope was severely unwalkable and slippery, even the supplies kept trying to slide back down to the water. “Well, first thing to build is a place to stand level, eh?”

Of course, you can’t really just ‘whip up a deck’ in twenty minutes so we found a level spot further up the hill, camped that night and contemplated our fate. We drank all the wine and decided that we should stay at a local B&B on the other island while we established base camp where it was impossible to stand. And that routine became the modus operandi for the first summer of deck and boathouse building.

We’d drive up from Vancouver Thursday night laden to the gills, stay over at the Farm-stay and then, the next morning, launch the boat from a beach a mile away and fill it with our crap. Then we’d motor over and try to get something done before it got dark. Three days later, we’d return to Vancouver. Sal had a job, I was still doing mediations.

We worked like rented mules. And we were hopeless at it. Everything we tried to do slipped down the hill. Eventually, I decided to leave the tools on site because transporting it all in a small inflatable each visit with food, materials, a genset and fuel was a major task in itself.

So I bought a big steel BC Hydro surplus transformer box (400#) the next time back in Vancouver (which was incredibly unwieldy) in which to create a secure storage unit. Transported that in the trailer and then boat, too (stormy seas that day). That story is in the book but the bottom line was eventually having a big yellow box on the high beach to save some of the schlepping. It worked. But, in an ignorant show of caution, I painted it camo. Being yellow on a mossy slope, it was somewhat visible. After painting it camo, it stuck out like a stop sign. I eventually painted it flat brown and it disappeared to even a focused eye.

You can imagine how much time this all took? Well, it took maybe four to ten times longer than you can imagine. Part of the reason, of course, was the slope and the ignorance and the lack of materials but another part was an invasion of visitors. We could barely get the breakfast dishes done before someone would ‘drop by’ to see the ‘new folks’. Tools were downed, tea was put on and finger foods were served…..until, after an hour or two, I would simply get up and try to get something done. When the guests left and we started up again, I swear we didn’t get an hour into the afternoon before other guests showed up…for tea…and cookies…and another two hours wasted.

That first year – over the three or so summer months – we had 110 visitors!

The best thing I got done that year was a 12 x 20 deck that served as a tent platform and workspace. The worst thing I got done that year was that same 12 x 20 deck that mostly served as an entertainment platform for visitors.

What was the lesson…? I dunno…I was too tired to think most of the time….but I would venture to say it was this: building may NOT be rocket science but there are incredibly complicated logistics and ancillary issues that complicate even the simplest of construction tasks. City living sucks in so many ways but it is designed to facilitate getting things done. Fast food everywhere, hardware stores within a mile or two, roads and trucks and loading docks. Few cliffs and rocky slopes to navigate. Perhaps more to the point, everyone in the city is actually busy and the idea of sitting down to interrupt construction workers for two hours over tea, chit-chat and cookies is NOT A THING!

Maybe the biggest lesson was that starting the actual cabin building at 56 was a smidge late. I had been thinking and reading and planning and learning for at least five years beforehand but we were also earning a living and keeping house and home and an active social life going back in town. I did not take the time to attend Cabin Construction University (altho I did work for a year at a packaged-cabin company and learned more in that year than I had otherwise).

It may not be rocket science but even the first step of learning diddly-squat was not easy.

21 thoughts on “I said that I didn’t know squat about construction….

  1. I bought a cottage in PEI that needed a LOT of work.
    I would “vacation” for a month and have all my work mapped out.
    Visitors, visitors, and more visitors put the end to my bast laid plans….
    Until.
    The following year.
    I put visitors to work…..
    No more visitors.
    🙂
    Work proceeded as planned

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    • I gave that a shot…..and, to be fair, Steve, Brian and John were fabulous. But one-or-two day fabulous. They had jobs and lives, too. Most of my city friends were even more useless than we were. “Can you pass me or toss me some screws? I can’t seem to walk here. And what am I supposed to do again…just explain it one more time?” One friend looked around and asked (dead serious) “When do the landscapers come in?”

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  2. I remember those times very well! I was the harbour manager in Heriot Bay at the time. I would watch the two of you spend several hours on the boat ramp inflating the boat, adding the motor and then loading everything else into the boat! It wasn’t long before I (being a helpful sort of guy) asked, “why don’t you get yourselves a REAL boat?” You can only imagine the response!

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    • At the time, Paul, it was a good question with no really good answer. But, in hindsight, it is this: we had no dock. The boat had to ‘bump’ up against the beach. Too deep to anchor off. But also I had no idea what I really needed. Now, 20 years later, I do. The John R is just perfect. An island commuter boat needs to have a lot of carrying space and yet have a cover and a windshield. It also has to be stable if you are built like me. More and more it has to burn less and less fuel. It does not have to be fast. But it has to be able to handle the currents in tight passages. You were a great wharfinger.

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  3. Oh my god, these pictures must look nice looking back :-). But I can barely imagine the amount of work, and hauling all that stuff with the inflatable boat!
    For sure, you did not buy the most accessible land. I have seen plots for sale with at least a bit of a rocky beach that would allow stuff to be moved in a lot easier.
    But I guess, looking back, you would do it all over again? (maybe not in the same way, but still)
    I’m 56 now, some entreprise to be doing at 56….
    Still, I am crazy enough to dive in this kind of project

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    • Well, you have the benefit of having the advice of an old-timer, now. If I had to do it again, it would be easier and, given the time saving, not much more expensive. No question – carve out enough flat space for a couple or three shipping containers that have been modified in town (one holds a kitchen and bathroom, the other is a sleeping room and sitting space). Leave one pretty empty. Then fill ’em with appliances, furniture, tools and screws and crap. Then have them taken by barge to the site where you unload them onto the beach and then relocate all the removable crap under tarps so as to lighten them up. Now you spend some money.
      Have helicopters come in and lift all three to their designated foundations. Then load all the crap back into the empty one and live in the other two as you build your cabin. The cabin will sit on roughly 24/32′ x 40′ containers-as-foundation. Perfectly level. Then build a 40 x 60′ deck on top with proper joists and all. I might stop there but most people would then slowly build a beautiful cabin on the upper deck. Cabin size: 1200 sft.
      That’s a simpler version. When we built our boathouse on the shoreline (12 x 20) and had the deck in front, two old guys in kayaks went by and said, ,”Nice cabin”. We said, “Oh, this is just the boat shed. We’re building something nicer up the hill.” They laughed, “Don’t be stupid. It’s perfect the way it is.” They had a point….

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  4. But honestly, did you haul all that stuff in the little inflatable boat (even the wooden beams)?
    I’m surprised you made it safely across all these years!

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    • Oh no. The largest beams came in by barge, once at 4:00 am, (story about that in the book) and a lot was local wood delivered by one of several local millers. That bunch on the beach came by way of a local, too. My guess is that only about 20% of the building materials came by us. Maybe 25% because you just never stop and, eighteen years of at least two trips a year adds up. The rest was transported by others. Having said that, virtually every stick was carried by me from the beach up the rocks until I built the funicular. And, for the record, when transporting, we were many times dangerous and only once did Sal actually think she was going down….and she was…but she managed to just make it.

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    • Well, imagine 3 containers all 40′ long. You then place them side by side with space between each. Kinda like Kit Kat fingers. The first 8′ is container, the second eight feet is space, the third 8 feet is container and the next 8 feet is space finishing up with one last container. Those three cans plus two spaces is 5×8 or 40′. You can push two together and make it 32′ or you can push all three together and make it 24′. Given that all that space is under the eventual house, then that gives you a varying foundation size from 24 ft to 40 feet wide by 40′ long. 40×40 is 1600 sft on the main floor and I think that is too much house for me. I’d be fine with 24′ by 40 and almost 1000 feet on the main floor (maybe 400 or so more on a second level (you have to build a roof anyway). What I like about cans is that it accomplishes a helluva lot quickly. Place to live. Work storage. Etc. Make sure you put ’em all on level concrete feet and voila…square and level. I envision the top of the cans just to hold joists so that the deck can be huge and there is room for plumbing and electrical. Just a thought….

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