Heartwood week 1

I made it to Washington! Well, I’m currently in Pittsfield at the home of my lovely hosts, Janet and Tom. I have had a thoroughly wonderful and interesting week. I drove directly to the Heartwood School from home on Monday morning to arrive at 8:30am and the rest of the days I commuted from Pittsfield which is half an hour away. The school is located in a beautiful building (of course) at the top of a long windy and narrow drive. It’s a lot smaller than I imagined it! There is a nice small work yard shaded by trees out front, but with enough sun to get burnt if we stayed in one place long enough.┬áInside there’s a wood shop, a classroom upstairs where we spend our mornings, and through the door of the wood shop, the building suddenly transitions into a very homey and beautiful kitchen/ dining area.

When I first arrived on Monday, I learned two very cool things. First, I walked upstairs to the classroom ready to meet everyone and encountered a familiar face. Though I’d never interacted with her before, I recognized Fiona Wilson from Four Rivers! It turns out that she went to MCLA for two years after she graduated from Four Rivers in 2012 and is now taking a leave of absence to build a tiny house on wheels! There are only eleven people taking the course, three of whom are interns there for the summer, so this is quite a coincidence indeed.

The second very cool thing is that for the course, the project we’ll be working on to learn the skills and process of home-building is constructing a tiny house on wheels! In past years they’ve had to commute to different building sites nearby where students would work on projects that where going on elsewhere in the Berkshires. This is the first year they’ve done a tiny house.

Like I said, there are ten other people taking the course: Ann, Eli, Hank, Hank, Fiona, Sylvain, Sarah, Terry, Lenna, and Tate. Tate, Eli, and Fiona are all around my age (under 21) and everyone else is older by a little or a lot. It’s been nice having such a small group of people to connect with and learn from as our experience varies a lot too.

Throughout this week, I think I enjoyed the afternoons more than the mornings mostly because I’m a hands-on learner. On the first day, we learned about all the tools, what they were for, and why, and then learned how to use some of them. Will and Michele Beemer, the instructors, first taught us how to use our measuring tapes correctly, and how to make a swallow-tail/ arrow to the point we wanted to mark, then use our combination square correctly to draw a line. They emphasized how important it is that, when building a house, we keep everything plumb, level, and square (perpendicular to the earth, parallel to the earth, and with right angles). Then we learned how to use a hand saw and a circular saw. Throughout the rest of the week, we mostly hammered a lot of nails and did a lot of measuring and cutting. It’s actually a lot like a puzzle where we have to fit everything together.

In the mornings, Will gives us lessons on the more conceptual and mathematical things about building houses such as what types of wood to use and how to calculate the weight a house will bear in order to determine the size and species of lumber and how much of it to use. He shows us pictures with everything, as examples, which helps my understanding a lot. This week we also learned a lot about designing our houses and what to take into consideration. Will spoke a lot about “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander, a book I’ve heard mentioned several times. The points that Will mostly talked about were the importance of careful thought going into designing our houses and how we can use our space effectively and efficiently. Since I’m building a tiny house on wheels, there were some mornings that didn’t apply to me as much, like when we were talking about foundations. My house will be on a trailer and I found that there is a lot to learn about where to build and how to meet codes, and what to use for building foundations that I didn’t really need to know.

At noon we have a delicious lunch made by Michele. Not a bummer meal yet! We always have sandwiches with a tasty vegetarian option instead of lunch meat and with fresh veggies, some kind of soup or cold salad, and yummy desserts. Then we have a short break during which I usually work on my tiny house plans. After the break, we put on our tool belts and head outside to get working! I love that it feels more like we are working on a project together and learning from experience and our leaders (Will and Michele) rather than having a full week of demonstration and observation with a little hands-on experience. We really get to work directly with Will and Michele and ask questions as they occur. I worked with Michele, Fiona, and Ann

By the end of the week, we have flashed the trailer (put down shiny aluminum flashing that keeps water and muck from coming up through the trailer into the house), framed the floor, cut and installed insulation, sealed with caulk, covered the framing with subflooring (particle board), framed the walls, assembled the walls, and put the walls up/ attached them to the trailer and to each other. We encountered several problems that we had to deal with. First, the trailer provided for us has railings that we had to build around. We had to figure out how to cut the boards and insulation right so it would fit around the railing and also frame the floor around them. We had to figure out what to do when we didn’t have enough flashing. And we had to try something different when a nail bent or didn’t go into the wood. The first two walls weren’t square when they met up. Sometimes we had to undo our work. But like I have learned about life, not everything works out and it is important in carpentry/ construction as in everything else to learn how to problem-solve rather than resort to desperation.

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