Discovering the world on $20 per day ......................

Post 331: Building in Boonville .....

The plan was, and to best of my knowledge still is, to help my brother Alan, his wife Torrey and their two children Sam and Willow to build a new family home in Boonville California. The new home is located on approximately 160 acres of hillside along a private road that looks down across vineyards and redwood forests into the depths of the Anderson Valley. It’s a large parcel of land that under normal circumstances would be totally unaffordable. But this is not a normal place, this is Boonville and everything happens a little differently in these parts. The 160 acres of land borders an intentional community called ‘Emerald Earth’ (‘Intentional Community’ is a new age name for a commune) and was initially purchased by a Californian whose name I will not divulge. The Californian in question purchased this particular parcel of land in order to protect the integrity of the neighbouring community at Emerald Earth and thus avoid the creation of new vineyards. The production of fine wines is essential to the economy of the Anderson Valley but the establishment of new vineyards deprives the small farms of much needed water during the dry season. The people of Boonville enjoy their wines just as much as everybody else, but they also enjoy their local organic food and it’s one of the few places that I’ve visited in America where the word ’Community’ really applies. It’s a community where people help other people and at a chance meeting in a local restaurant, Alan was introduced to the Californian land-angel. By amazing coincidence, the Californian land-angel was looking for an organic farmer to take on the 160 acre plot and Alan was looking for around 50 acres of land on which to expand his organic farming operation. The intentions of both parties matched perfectly but the numbers simply didn’t add up. Alan and Torrey could never in their wildest dreams afford to purchase 160 acres of land with a million dollar view, but the land-angel made things simple for them ….. “however much you can afford is exactly what I‘ll accept for the 160 acres” . And so the deal was done. It wasn’t quite that simple and certain restrictive covenants apply, but it was certainly a lucky day for the Thomas’s…… mai pen rai

At the beginning of August 2010, Alan approached our good friend and Boonville resident Steve ‘Guitar’ Derwinski and asked him to draw-up plans for the proposed new house at Lone Tree Ridge on Peachland Road. Steve was officially in retirement but instantly agreed not only to draw the pans but to personally manage the build up to roof level. Plans were submitted to the Ukiah Planning Department and the intention is to make full use of ’Class K’ planning regulations. ’Class K’ is a planning system available for building low density dwellings in rural locations and allows for the building of some quite funky and unique dwellings. Under ‘Class K’, once the initial plans are ’Accepted’, you build the house and the planning department will only inspect the building at the end of construction. This avoids the costly process of ’Permits’ and ’Periodic Inspections’ and allows the builder to use ’Free-Cycled’ materials. Being five miles away from the main road, the house is designated ’Off-Grid’ and will be self sufficient for energy. It will have wood burning stoves fuelled by the many fallen trees on the land and solar panels to capture the year-round sunshine. No more heating bills, thank you very much.

On the 25th of August, Steve Mize brought his excavation equipment to the building site and began to make a level platform in the side of the hill for the home to sit in. Once the pad was cleared, foundation trenches were then excavated and the building process could begin.

Wooden forms were then constructed and reinforced with steel bars ready for concrete to be poured for the base foundation. While the forms were being erected, Steve Mize constructed a new road that runs several hundred yards from the existing private road to the new building site. The site is on a steep hillside and the new road had to navigate it’s way up the unfeasible gradient and around ancient oak trees before reaching the house. Personally I thought that it was an impossible task, but two days later the road was complete and the cement trucks were able to gain access and the foundations were poured.

Two days after the concrete had been poured, the form boards were removed and the building began to rise. Wooden plates were attached to the tops of the new concrete walls and massive wooden beams laid down to support the floor joists. The spaces between the floor joists were packed with insulation and then plywood laid and nailed on top to form the floor.

Exactly four weeks after the first shovel full of dirt was moved, all of the ground floor walls have now been build and we’re about to start work on the second floor living and kitchen areas. We’re using a building system called ’SIPS’ - Structural Insulated Panel Systems - and it’s actually not dissimilar to using a child’s building set. Each panel is a six inch thick piece of polystyrene sandwiched between two pieces of eight foot by four foot weatherboard. Channels are already cut to carry the electrical wiring and you simply put the panel in the right place and attack it with a huge pneumatic nail gun. On it’s own, each panel seems quite flimsy, but when joined to the next panel the strength of the structure increases dramatically. That’s just as well, because we’re building one hundred miles north of San Francisco and I suspect that puts us right on the San Andreas fault line… mai pen rai

We’re now four weeks into the twelve week build and we’re on-budget and slightly ahead of schedule. I’ll be leaving Boonville on the 16th of November and hope to leave the building with a roof. The internal finishing will take a little while longer but Alan and his family intend to move in to the new home before Christmas. Every day on the site I can hear Kevin McLoud’s voice ringing in my ears -Channel 4’s Grand Designs- but hopefully there are no major disasters looming on this build. Oh, did I mention that we’ve just had our initial planning permission refused? …. mai pen rai

Post 330: Boonville Fair & Rodeo ....

The house build is going well. Three weeks since we first began digging the foundations and we’ve just started to raise the walls on the ground floor. Structurally everything is fine and my lack of building knowledge is as yet undiscovered, but on Saturday morning a letter arrived. It was from the Ukiah Department of Planning and the letter began …. ’’Dear Mr Thomas, we regret to inform you’’. When a letter begins with those words you just need to sit down with a very cold beer. It appears that the Department of Planning are not entirely happy with the proposed structure and have denied permission to build. Well, the structure isn’t “proposed” it’s actually “half built“, but thankfully not the part that they’ve objected to. The plans will be adapted to suit their administrative requirements and we’ll still build the house that Alan and his wife Torrey actually want. It’ll take a little longer then planned and add a few thousand dollars to the final cost but there’s no use crying over red-tape …. mai pen rai

The disappointment of the official letter was short lived. It’s “Fair Weekend” in Boonville and that means a time for fun and relaxation. That is unless of course you’re a Rodeo Rider or a Bull. I suspect that you don’t need to be amazingly bright to ride 500Kg’s of angry bull, but an honours degree in stupidity wouldn’t go a miss. I think the point of the game is to stay on the bull for seven seconds and the angrier the bull is the more points you’ll receive. Fortunately, the bulls seemed to win every round without problems or injuries, and as for the Rodeo Riders??? …… mai pen rai

They seem to like things big here in California; hats, guns, trucks and bulls included. It’s Halloween in a few weeks time and some kids are going to need strong arms is they’re carrying lanterns made from any of these beauties. The winner of the Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off was 207lbs, which is only a few pounds lighter than my new bike. Apparently the local Messiah of Pumpkins has an example weighing at least 500lbs but is saving it for the State Fair in a few weeks time. Bigger pumpkins for bigger prizes.

On Sunday morning at the main arena, I thought for a second that I was back in Blighty. It was one man and his dog, or in this case, several girls and their dogs. No, this wasn’t anything kinky from the darker regions of Craig’s List, this was just good old fashioned sheep dog trials. I haven’t watched sheep dog trials since I was a kid growing up in Darlington, but it was actually good fun to watch. As the beer tent opened relatively early, I’ve no idea which dog eventually won, but the dog that came home in third place is the full brother of Emma, my brothers dog who you can see inspecting the new house in the photo above.

Sunday lunchtime was spent on the steps of the Boonville Hotel watching the annual parade and drinking a few beers with friends. The parade was led by the ‘Veterans’ and this year there were only three. The proud trio got a rousing cheer from the appreciative audience and everybody hopes that next year all of them will return. To the outsider, Boonville probably appears to be an area populated by fully grown-up hippies, and that’s because it is. People flocked here in the 60’s & 70’s and many of them have stayed and matured here. Where Goa became a little bit twee for the discerning hippy, Boonville continues to provide folks with an environment that allows practical freedom. It’s not perfect but it’s probably about as good as it gets …. mai pen rai

Post 329: Boonville Time .....

It’s taken a little more than two weeks, but now I’m there. Sure, I arrived in Boonville a while ago, but it’s taken me this long to adjust to ‘Boonville Time‘. Things move at a different pace here and sometimes that means no pace at all. People arrive when they arrive and things get done exactly when they do. It reminds me very much of Thailand and maybe that’s why I feel so much at home here. People here are always in a rush but there’s very little rushing. People have time for people and there’s always enough time to just stand and stare. Boonville is in Mendocino County and Mendocino is famous for two things; amazing wines and the worlds finest marijuana. I’m not sure that these things are in anyway connected to the pace of life here, but they’re certainly not in conflict with it ….. mai pen rai

Here in Boonville, the ‘normal’ things seem to take on greater significance than they do elsewhere. Like early morning coffee at the ‘Redwood Drive-In’. It’s probably not the best coffee in the world, or even the best coffee in Boonville, but it’s just a great way to start each day.

Back on the London Despatch Circuit, a place that I once called ’home’, most of my day was spent dreaming of ‘home-time’, but here in Mendocino every part of the day is here to be enjoyed. A 6:00am start to feed cows, pigs, chickens and lambs means rising long before the sun. If the fog is still hanging low in the valley then it’s cold and somewhat magical, and if it isn’t, then the sky is filled with stars that are too numerous to count. Work on the house up on ’Lone Tree Ridge’ is hard, but the time passes quickly and home-time arrives long before you really want it to. If you linger long enough then you’re rewarded with the most amazing sunset and a new set of stars that couldn’t have been painted any brighter by Hollywood‘s finest designers.

On the other hand, if you leave in the ridge in daylight then you can enjoy what I now consider to be one of the finest biking roads in the world. From ‘California 128’, Peachlands Road rises into the hills and if you follow it for long enough will probably take you all of the way to Ukiah. It’s a private road and to enjoy it fully then you’ll need a good dirt bike and the combination codes to several locked gates. I’m a very lucky guy because I now have those combinations and a previously enjoyed Kawasaki KLR 650 on which to explore ….. mai pen rai

Post 328: Let the building begin .....

So …… the excuse for this visit to Boonville is to help my brother Alan and his family to build their new family home in the hills overlooking the Anderson Valley. For a London Despatch Rider it’s quite a change of occupation but hopefully they’ll initially put my building ignorance down to nothing more than English eccentricity. By the time they realise that I know as much about building as I do about string theory I’ll hopefully have learned sufficient building skills to get by …. mai pen rai

Once you’ve found the ideal building plot for the dream home, the reality soon begins to bite. Unfortunately, reality’s got bloody sharp teeth and before you can even think about starting to build, you first need to establish ‘Access’. Access to any building site is usually by road but if no road exists then you’ve no choice but to make one. The building plot is about five miles North of Highway 128 and for four and three quarters of those miles there’s already a perfectly usable sand and gravel track. Thankfully, it’s only the last two hundred yards that are the problem but as we stand looking at the challenge in front of us, it’s difficult to see an immediate and simple solution. A few trees will need to be removed and that’s fine, but the fire department insist that any access road to residential property must have a maximum incline of 16%. A 16% incline is still quite steep, but what we’re faced with looks less like an incline and more like a cliff face. Fortunately here in Boonville, the ’go-to-guy’ for any earth moving challenges is Steve Mize. Steve doesn’t talk much and that‘s probably because he doesn‘t need to. When it comes to this problem, Steve Mize is the ‘Master’ and we’re nothing more than his appreciative audience. He looks at the problem, strokes his full white beard, glances left and right and then jumps into his John Deere ‘Backho’ (Excavator). At the end of a long and hot day, the desired road is in place. It’s twice as long as the original path and curves around giant redwoods and great oaks before arriving at what will eventually be the rear of the house. What Steve has achieved is not excavation ….. it’s art.

It’s day two of the build and we’ve now a got a beautifully usable road leading directly to what will be the main entrance to the new home. The next task is to create a shelf in the hillside upon which the house will sit. Once again it’s the ‘Steve Mize Show‘. A solo performance that see’s him operating his ‘Backho’ in ways that seems to defy the natural laws of gravity. He seems to work in three different dimensions at the same time and without ever looking, he’s always aware of what every arm an lever is doing. It’s mechanical ballet set to a diesel soundtrack and an absolute pleasure to watch. He systematically scoops, moves and dumps tonnes of earth and by lunchtime, the building pad is completed and the laying-out of the foundations can begin.

Steve ‘Guitar’ Derwinski is the Engineer, Project Manager and font of all technical knowledge on the this build. In his time Steve has built everything from houses, to steel boats and more recently a range of amazing acoustic guitars. He’s the guy that we go to with all of our technical questions and he‘s seldom stuck for a answer. Officially I’m a ’Volunteer Worker’ on this build but in reality, I’m just Steve Derwinski’s ‘Bitch‘. I fetch things that all seem to have different names here in America and carry them to wherever Steve wants them. He marks out the holes, I do the digging and I always get to hold the dumb-end of the tape measure. It’s not that Steve doesn’t trust me but while I think in beautifully simple metric measurements, Steve talks in yards, feet, inches, eighths and sixteenths. I try to sell him on the idea of metric but he doesn’t seem to be buying. My brain will instantly tell me exactly how many millimetres are in 12,137 millimetres, but when it comes to how many 1/16th of an inch are in 10 feet, 9 and 7/8th inches, things take a little bit longer. Anyway, however you want to measure it, this build is planned to be completed in 12 weeks and within a couple of days of starting, too many tonnes of timber has arrived on site. Of course, the timber that we need first is at the bottom of the pile, but what else are bitches for? ….. mai pen rai

At the end of a week where the temperature has seldom dipped below a hundred degrees, a lot of progress has been made. The site has been levelled, the access road made, the foundations dug and most of the wooden shuttering and structural metal is in place and ready for the concrete to be poured. The water diviners had previously located the underground sources and one of the two wells is now producing beautifully fresh water at a rate of 25 gallons per minute. On Friday 10th of September the concrete will arrive and from that point onwards, the real building work will begin. However, this area of Northern California has at least three of the world’s top ten riding roads and this afternoon I’m going out to buy a motorbike. I’m not a guy who’s easily distracted, but a combination of the Pacific Coast Highway and a Motorbike are probably more than enough to lead me astray …… mai pen rai