Friday, July 17, 2009

Concrete Progress

Two days ago I helped pour the floor for Ma'ikwe's new house at Dancing Rabbit. And my ribs still hurt.

Although I've done a fair amount of homestead construction over the years—not to be confused with professional experience—I've drifted away from it over the last decade. While there's always something that needs attention on a farm, it's been over 10 years since Sandhill built a new residence and I'm on the road about 60% of the time these days (promoting community and doing process consulting). Most of my remaining on-farm time goes into food processing and a few specialty tasks like filing taxes, cutting wood, and celebration cooking.

I only get involved in the occasional construction project any more. But I miss it.

I like working with my hands, and I like having tasks where it's easy to tell what progress you're making. This is in sharp contrast with process consulting, where it can be fairly subtle figuring out how much things have changed over the course of a weekend. With house construction, it's WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get), and often one day's work will result in dramatic changes. It's highly satisfying.

While most of my efforts in support for Ma'ikwe's house have been financial (we figured out early on that I was more valuable earning money to pay for the building than I was saving money by doing construction), now and then I get out to the work site with gloves on. Two days ago was just such a time, when I helped massage 14 cubic yards of ready-mix into a four-inch floor, in the process of which we encased the gobs of plastic tubing that will serve as the guts of the radiant floor heating system.

While things got a little more exciting than we wanted when the power trowel died on us 15 minutes into the finishing process (and the surface was way stiffer than we wanted by the time we'd raced to town and rented a replacement), we nonetheless ended up with a substantially flat floor that will be perfectly serviceable.

Knowing that I was simply an adjunct to an experience concrete crew, I sussed out early in the morning that my best role was to work the edges against the retaining wall, which was beyond the reach of power tools and needed to be worked by hand. That got me out of horsing around with the spin screeder or pushing the wet concrete around to the low spots.

While I was happy to not have an aerobic assignment, there was an acrobatic challenge to my wielding a magnesium float: all my work had to be accomplished with my body horizontal, leaning over the stem wall and reaching to the floor. After three hours, I had bruised ribs.

By the time the second power trowel arrived, I was happy to retire from the field. I drank five glasses of milk and took a two-hour nap. It was glorious: the sleep of the righteously exhausted.

[Afterwards, Ma'ikwe and I went into town together—Wed is my regular bridge night at the Kirksville duplicate club. We did a bit of shopping for construction supplies (Monday I get to wire the main circuit breaker panel we bought, and give Ma'ikwe's crew 120-volt service on site, courtesy of her solar panels and the July sunshine), and had dinner before I played cards. I drank two beers with my burger and fries and then achieved a whopping 82% game—by far the best result I've ever had in 10 years of playing duplicate. Kinda makes you wonder whether it was the commingling of physical and mental stimulation, the calming influence of the two beers, the joy of having a productive day, or just blind luck.]

And I'm not done yet achieving concrete results. In a month or two, I get to build a cistern for Ma'ikwe and a neighboring couple (Bear & Alyssa), suitable for holding 8000 gallons an
d with stout enough walls to be the foundation for a laundry and heating facility to be build atop it. While the walls will be surfaced bonded concrete blocks, the floor will be another round of ready-mix.

The trick will be to find a window of weather dry enough to excavate to a depth of nine feet, level it out, form it up, bring in the trucks, let it cure, stack the walls, and parge the inside and outside of the blocks—all before a thunderstorm leads to a cave-in. Essentially, if it never rains, I get to pour.

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