A few times a week we have a babysitter come and look after the kids for a few hours so Isaac and I can work together on the house. We rack up a list of two-person jobs to conquer during these precious chunks of time, working as efficiently as possible. Last week the most exciting item on that list was taking down the scaffolding that has surrounded the house for several months while we finished the exterior. We had finished securing the fascia and soffit boards to the edges of the roof, and we’d framed the plywood seams of the exterior with batten boards – we were ready to see what this thing looked like without a big wooden frame around it.

Within a few hours the scaffold was down and we had stacked the wood neatly under the deck for other projects (I’m overjoyed at how much wood we have!). We stood back and looked at this house we had designed a year and a half ago at our dining room table in San Francisco. “Does it look like you imagined?” Isaac asked. “Exactly,” I said.

In fact, it looks better than I could have imagined, knowing all the sweat that we have put into it and al the moments when I wondered how on earth we would make this thing happen. It’s been 14 months since we started working on clearing the land, and we once thought we’d build this house in six months. It seems miraculous to me now that we’ve made it this far at all.

With rain in the forecast, we hurried to get the gutter up on the rear of the roof so we could fill up our water tank with the run-off. Our early Christmas present to ourselves was a portable hot tub we plan to put on the deck as soon as it arrives, and the storm raining down on us now as I write this is plenty to fill the tub. We’ve had months to monitor the output of the solar panels we installed earlier this year, and calculated there is plenty of power to run the heater on a hot tub whenever the sun is out. I never thought I’d be living off the grid and coming home from the beach or from a surf to jump in a hot tub.

Getting the hot tub inspired us to design an outdoor shower at the side of the house. Not only will it be handy for rinsing off sand and washing off wetsuits, but it means we could move in this December without finishing the indoor tub and bathroom. In summer months we swim almost every day, and a quick rinse off outside is all we and the kids really need out here. We constantly talk about a concept we call “minimum viable house”, which is a list of things we need to have done in order to live in the house. Hot water? Yes, part of minimum viable house. An indoor bathroom? Nope. We can brush our teeth in the kitchen.

Even without the pressure of finishing the bathroom before we move in, we’re running a tight timeline to get in by Christmas. We have a few little bits and bobs left on the outside of the house, and then we’ll tackle the inside. As summer approaches, the sun roasts down through the ozone hole over our heads. I’ll be very happy to be working indoors over these coming summer months.

(The boys were overjoyed to have the deck clear to play on for the first time ever, and went right to work building a bike ramp from the scraps.)

When we first moved here we imagined staying for a year or two. That doesn’t seem like long enough now, and even though we continue to research places in New Zealand where we’d want to settle down and get the kids going in school, that feels so far off right now. “I just want to live in the house a while,” I said to Isaac recently, to which he responded, “I just hope we can just relax a little once it’s done.” We’ve been working harder than we did back when we lived in San Francisco, working right through the weekends, taking turns looking after the kids.

Meanwhile Isaac got a longline we are dying to go fishing with, and we bought a secondhand kayak that has been stashed down at the beach waiting for us to go exploring in. We’ve gotten a few surfs in here and there, but otherwise life is pretty full-on with building in this last stretch. Once summer hits and we’re living in our “minimum viable house”, it may be a while before we get that bathroom done.

I write this sitting in our shipping container with the big metal doors flung open. I’m at the desk Isaac built for me out of a sheet of pine when I needed a place to work at home in 2020, sitting in the office chair I bought back then too. Both are smeared in mud now and coated in sawdust. The back of the container is piled with boxes we haven’t opened for over a year now, and mattresses that have been wrapped in clear plastic for as long. Around the desk are boxes of nails, tools, building drawings, and a big basket of snacks. The babbling sound of yesterday’s rain storm is trickling down the drain we dug behind our work site like a creek. I’ve sat here many times to write, though it’s been a long time, and today when I look out I can see the house we’ve built, painted dark green and nearly finished. It makes me so happy.

Much has happened since I last got a chance to write. Our six-week trip to the US ended up being more stressful than we could have imagined. Our youngest sliced his arm open in a fall that required stitches, then our oldest was bitten in the cheek by a dog, requiring more stitches. A shelf fell on his head shortly after that, requiring yet more stitches. The universe seemed to be telling us to get back to the island. We also did SO much – saw all our friends and relatives, visited two national parks and countless campgrounds, went to zoos and aquariums and a gazillion new playgrounds, ate heartily and shopped like true Americans. It was exhausting.

Revisiting Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

Both those green bags are filled with stuff we purchased in the US.

After a 12-hour flight followed by a rough 30 minutes in a 10-seater plane through inclement weather, we finally made it onto the island’s grassy runway. We rejoiced. Isaac and I unpacked our bags (we had bought two duffel bags worth of stuff in the US, amazed at how cheap everything seemed, and of course we stocked up on Trader Joe's delicacies). Then, we dove straight into working nonstop to get our house project moving along. We want to be moved in by December, and the clock is ticking.

With siding/cladding and windows done on three sides of the house, we just had to complete the rear, which includes two doors and a store room. I put one of the doors in myself and cannot believe how tricky it was to get the thing plumb and straight. My shims kept slipping out or moving, and once I got it level in one direction, it would fall out of level in the other. The siding and fascia boards are equally tricky, being so visible. Framing, it turns out, is a forgiving part of the building process compared to these last bits.

Putting up siding/cladding

Last week we had all the plywood siding up and were ready for my favourite part of the job – painting! We picked a dark green colour called “scrub”, which is what the manuka trees all over the island are referred to colloquially. True to its name, the paint makes our house blend in nicely with the trees all around. Two days of painting and I’d covered the whole thing with two coats. As my mother-in-law put it, “It’s perfect.”

Our plan is to get to “minimum viable house” by December, which basically means making the house liveable so we can move in, even if trim and bits of work have yet to be done. We’re still working solo, with one of us looking after the kids while the other heads up to the site. It’s a joy to work alone, but we do have help coming to finalise the electrical and plumbing. We also hope to get some help putting the gib/drywall up, given how heavy the sheets are. Then we’ve got to lay the flooring, after which point we plan to set up the kitchen and move in. We won’t have a bathroom, but can shower and bathe down at the big old house we’re living in now; our outhouse and composting toilet will only take a few days to build once we’re moved in. It seems insane that we thought this project would take us six months when we first moved here. It’ll have been about 18 months when we finally get it all finished.

What we do on a rainy day when there is nowhere else to go but our yard.

In between pounding nails and sloshing on paint, we’ve been gratefully enjoying the quietude of winter here on the island. After such a busy and stressful trip overseas, I have a newfound appreciation for how safe and uneventful life is here. Last year at this time, I was awestruck by mundane things like cows meandering in the road, or rains that flooded our little valley and trapped us at home. Now they’re commonplace – the other night I drove the boys home from dinner at a friend’s house only to slam on my brakes a quarter mile from our driveway when I hit a flood. I had to backtrack a few miles on the road to get cell service and call my father-in-law so he could come get us. Just another day on the island. Now that we have wetsuits for the boys, rainy days mean swimming in mud puddles that crop up around our yard and driveway. Oh, the joy.

We’ve also gotten quite good at trapping mice. We discovered when we got back to New Zealand that they had infested our store room and chewed tiny holes in every bag of food we had in there. After cleaning out and patching up that space, the mice doubled down on our house, finding their way up through rotten floorboards into storage spaces throughout the house. A week of strategic trapping and clearing things out, and we’ve patched up their holes and are mouse-free again, thank goodness. Our son can’t stop talking about wanting to get a cat, which he says he’ll train to chase mice. That would be nice.

I also managed to find a few afternoons when the waves were small and the wind was offshore (blowing out to sea rather than toward the beach) to pick up my huge pink foam surfboard and head out for a surf. I hadn’t been out at all since we moved here, even though Isaac bought me a surfboard before we moved. One of my US purchases on our recent trip was a wetsuit for myself, which makes winter swimming and surfing a joy. I can see how people get hooked on surfing – I smile nonstop when I’m out there, despite how bad I am at it, and then can’t wait to go again.

There’s a turn in the road not too far from our house where it edges out over a cliff and you can look down on the whole of our little beach. Isaac has always pulled over there whenever we’re driving to or from our house, sometimes to my annoyance, to watch the swell for a little while. After just a few days surfing this beach on my own, I find myself doing the same. I stop the car and look over the edge to see how big the waves are, whether the water looks glassy (good) or choppy (bad), and imagine where the sand banks are underwater so I can picture where I might go out. This newfound love is just one more incentive to get our house done by summer. So now, back to work!

The surf lookout

I have been meaning to put an update on this blog for a long time now but haven’t had a chance. Since my last post, we had a burst of activity working on the house, getting the rafters and all the other details ready to install our steel roofing. Our wet winter weather set in, turning the work site into a muddy slip n slide, as well as making life in general harder. Simply put, living off the grid in winter is hard.

A freezing cold day working on the roof.

Our electricity and primary hot water system relies on the sun, and without sunshine we are constantly on the edge of running out of power and hot water. We can do without power pretty well and are used to managing most nights with headlamps and rechargeable LED lanterns. Our laundry piles up while we are waiting for a sunny dry spell (in order for the washing machine to have power and for our clothes to be able to dry on the line afterwards). A few weeks ago we had our first dry sunny day in a while and whipped through five loads, then filled up the washing lines and had laundry strung up all over the house drying for two days.

Our wood stove is a “wet back”, which means the water pipes are heated when we have a fire going, so in the winter we crank it every afternoon in order to both heat the house and get us enough hot water for dishes and baths. We burned through the existing pile of wood, so many afternoons in July were spent hauling pieces of timber from the piles we cleared around our house site, chain-sawing it into manageable pieces, trucking them down to the chopping block, then wheelbarrowing the firewood and kindling around to our wood box. I learned a good lesson about chopping wood when I was smacked in the face by a a stick as I attempted to cut it in half lengthwise with the axe. The chores never seem to end this time of year.

A break from chores to explore.

By the middle of July, we were on track to get the roof on, get the windows and doors put in, and get the house wrapped in time for our departure to the USA for a trip at the end of the month. Then, we all got Covid.

Needless to say, things slowed to a crawl as we nursed the kids and tried to recover in time to jump on our trans-Pacific flight. With help from builders we hired on the island, we got the final tasks done on the house just in time. When we boarded our flight to San Francisco at the end of July, we were thoroughly exhausted, but breathed easy knowing our house was “closed in” and would be protected from the winter weather while we were away.

Due to having Covid, I didn’t get to be involved nearly as much as I would have liked to in the process of closing the house in. After knowing how each piece of the project has been done up to now, it’s strange to look at it and not know how the roof was put in, how the windows fit into the frame, or how the cladding (siding) is attached. By the time we headed to the airport, I was still so wiped out from Covid that I had only walked up to the work site once to see the progress. I can’t wait to get back and dive back into the project. (Below: the process of getting closed in, first the roof, then wrapping the building and putting the windows and doors in, then adding plywood cladding/siding to the outside)

For the next month, we’re traveling around the western USA, visiting friends and relatives, and feeling both at home and far from it. I had forgotten how friendly Americans are, and we were shocked by the portion sizes when we stopped to get lunch in the airport on a layover in San Francisco. My salad looked like it could have served a family of four, and the hot dog we ordered for the kids came with a mountain of fries and a pickle the size of my toddler’s forearm. “Welcome to America!” Isaac said as we dug in.

The gas here seems so cheap to me, at $4.60 a gallon. Back on the island we regularly pay as much as $11 USD for a gallon of gas. And when I loaded up a cart at Trader Joe’s and saw that the total was only $280, I couldn’t believe it. Everything here is so cheap compared to what we pay living back on the island.

Right now we are near the end of a two-week adventure through the Pacific Northwest in a 22-foot RV. Sleeping together in the same small space has been challenging and joyful. I often wake up to a toddler crawling across me in the semi-dark, and it’s light until 9pm so our bedtime routine involves taping black plastic garbage bags over the windows to make the kids think it’s time to sleep. But that’s a small price to pay for getting a delicious taste of summer in the middle of our wet New Zealand winter. We’ve eaten as many melons, berries, and nectarines as we can get our hands on, and even got to pick our own raspberries at a farm in Washington (not many made it into the basket).

Despite enjoying our trip immensely, Isaac and I talk often about the house back home in New Zealand. We’re on a tight timeline to finish it before Christmas, and part of me will be thrilled to pick up the drill again and get to work after this nice little break. Until then!

Exploring North Cascades National Park

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