Archive for July, 2008

Genuine Alaskan Adventure

What comes to mind when you think of Alaska?
Vast expanses of wilderness? Bears, wolves and wild animals? Glaciers?

This is not, for the most part, what I saw when I was in Alaska. Instead of scaling a glacier while being chased by bears I had what is arguably a more genuine Alaskan experience–I helped work on a re-finishing a friend’s house. This is how a large number of Alaskans spend their summer, so I too participated in the true Alaskan Adventure.

The state of the built environment in central Alaska leaves something to be desired. Despite extremely harsh winters requiring large amounts of energy to heat homes (40 below is not an uncommon temperature) it seems like a huge number of them are either built improperly for the environment or just plain built improperly. It is not quite correct to say that there is no building code but I would say by observation that many (many) structures do not follow said code. I guess the reason this bothers me so much is because there is a large energy consumption associated with poor building in a climate such as interior Alaska. Despite being in an oil state, fuel still costs ~$4/gallon and a house can use more than a thousand gallons of oil over a winter (according to the local paper the average is between 1,300 and 1,350 gallons of heating fuel per year). How can these people afford to heat their homes?

The house my friends purchased this summer consists of two buildings connected together by an internal causeway. One of the buildings is about 30 years old and made of logs without additional insulation. 8″ of wood is better than nothing but it can’t keep things particularly warm. The other building is newer, insulated and contains the house’s water system and bedrooms.

The list of things to be built or re-built is fairly substantial and the deadline is November. Some of the projects are to bring the house into compliance with insurance requirements, others are to save some money and energy heating. They are hoping to take advantage of a rebate and mortgage rate reduction available if they can greatly improving the energy “rating” of the house.

First on the list: Build a deck railing for insurance compliance.

Next: Build a make-shift kitchen to operate out of while the current kitchen is dismantled. These hearty alaskan folks will probably do ok, but I know I would have trouble working out of this arrangement for more than a few weeks….

They need to replace/update their kitchen so we talked about which parts they would keep and which they would replace or build themselves. They decided to keep the cabinets and re-finish them. We primed them while I was there but reports are that painting them is taking many coats of paint (and therefore a *lot* of time). They still have to decide on a counter surface to put in. I calculated some approximate costs for the seamless counters from the hardware store vs building the counter and tilling it yourself. I think the cost of doing it yourself is about half, but it takes two days of work which might make the two balance out.

The older cabin is going to be framed with new walls, insulated and then sheet rocked. I didn’t get to see the first wall go up, but it was built on the floor the day I left. Only 3 more to go!

Don’t worry, we did some (more traditionally) fun things too! I got to go canoing where I saw the Bald Eagle at the top of the post. The eagle was really close, that photo was shot with a small waterproof digital camera so there is no fancy zoom action.

We picked some rhubarb

and blueberries

and I saw all sorts of neat plant life. Arctic vegetation is on my brain these days and I find the plant communities there fascinating.

I did a fair share of knitting as well. It seemed appropriate to work on my norwegian mittens while in a cold climate. I’m loving how they are turning out. Maybe I’ll get around to posting about them later, otherwise you can check them out on Ravelry.

For some cultural exposure we attended the World Eskimo Indian Olympics. They have some crazy sports that involve jumping really high and kicking your feet in the air. There is also a selection of sports which involve ears – hanging large weights from your ears or having a “tug of war” between two ears. I think I’m glad I missed those events. Check out this coat from the native regalia contest. I was in love…

That woman also competed in the blanket toss event and wore the coat for the first jump!

The flight home was long and tiring. Most flights out of Fairbanks come and go around 1am, so I flew all night. I used to take the red-eye back to NY when I lived there, but this was much more brutal than I remember. I have recovered now though and I had a great time. It is fun to work on large scale house projects when you don’t have your own. It is even better when I don’t have to make the decisions! I just think now I might need vacation from my vacation…


I was doing some blog reading a few weeks ago and came across some ceramics that triggered a memory. I really enjoy the designs over at Skinny laMinx. She regularly creates wonderful images of household items such as spoons and mugs, and a few weeks ago she showed a design she made for Heath Ceramics of their signature ceramic vases. She even got paid partly in tableware! The Heath factory is located only a short drive from here in Sasualito and I’ve been there a few times with my Mom. I love the look and feel of their dishes but I’m not sure I should be allowed to own any as I would probably break them immediately. Maybe if I find a teapot or mug at their factory…

Speaking of going to the Heath factory, the reason the name Heath catches my ear in the first place is from the work I did with my parents re-tiling their kitchen counters and bathroom floor. Below is a blog post I wrote for a diy-home type website, but I think it is time the story came to my blog to live. The following was written more than a year ago (March 2007) and we started with the kitchen counters in summer 2004.
In the last two years I have helped design and install a tile counter and bathroom floor that is less than traditional. It was a lot more time consuming and involved than a tile installation with only one or two types of tiles but I think the results are very rewarding.

The background:
My parents built their house in 1980 and it is just getting to the time where things like counters are needing replacement. The original countertop was made using seconds from a local handmade tile shop which were pretty but, after 20 yrs, a bit boring. They hemmed and hawed over what kind surfacing to put in. There were granites they liked but with a 4′ by 8′ island and a 3′ by 12′ counter a slab was out of their price range and tiles had a lot of variation. They liked the handmade tiles but they were somewhat bland over such a large area. They were really looking for something dynamic. I took my mom to a tile mosaic shop for some inspiration and we ended up walking away with boxes and boxes of tiles. The colors! The variety! It was wonderful. So we decided to make the counter a mosaic, albeit not your typical broken tile type. In fact we designed it much more with quilts than mosaics in mind. We made it all up as we went along and my parents like it so much we did the bathroom floor too!

Here is how we did it:
Shopping for tile
We shopped for tile at a tile mosaic store and also at factories near by. We happen to live close to two tile manufacturers: McIntyre Tile and Heath Ceramics. Heath had a whole room of seconds and overstock that were at reduced prices. McIntyre has one large sale of seconds etc. each year, usually in the fall. The mosaic store has since closed but stocked overstock, seconds, glaze samples and experimental tiles from several tile makers. Most of the tile was sold by the pound. We bought a large variety of colors, sizes and textures (including one box of matching tiles for a border) using a very rough estimate of what we needed and headed home. With this method you really need to buy more than you will use so you have some variety and choice while laying out the design.

The first thing I did was lay all of the tiles out arranged by color and size.

The 6″ tile color pallate.  Notice the old tile counter underneath (tiles also from McIntyre)

3″ tile color pallate

We set some basic parameters for our layout by deciding that the kitchen counter would have a 6 inch border of large matching tiles and then a 6 inch grid. The back splash and the bathroom floor were much more free form. I made a scale layout of the counter tops out of paper in another room and then walked back and forth choosing tiles out of the color arrays and placing them onto the paper layout.

Mock-up of the kitchen counter on paper.

The grid on the kitchen counter was done with interspersed 6″ tiles and then collections of other shapes and sizes to make a 6″ square. When we abandoned the grid in the bathroom it became much more difficult to account for the proper grout sizing but I was more comfortable with laying out the design by then and I was able to compensate. We had a tile saw available and we used it to cut down tiles to fit in obscure sized holes in the design. We made all of the border tiles (6″ by 12″) from 12 by 12 ” square tiles. With a little more planning (and different border tiles) we could have done without a tile saw at all.

Laying the tiles
For the kitchen we built the counters first using plywood sheets glued and screwed together and then covered with cement board. I drew a grid in directly onto the cement board with a sharpie for guidance. We laid the tiles in thin-set cement which we mixed in a 5 gallon bucket.

Laying the kitchen counter

Since the tiles were all laid out on the floor in the living room we had to transport them before putting them into the cement. We used a small plywood boards (3′ by 4′ ?) and would transfer small sections at a time to the board and then move the tiles from the board into the cement. This process didn’t work as well in the bathroom where we had no grid in the design. It was hard to account for the necessary grout thickness in the design phase so we had too many tiles when we went to put them on the floor. I was fairly comfortable with the shapes and sizes by then so I just re-designed that part of the floor as I was laying the tiles.

Bathroom Floor before border tiles and grout

There was a large variation in thickness of tiles since we were using anything and everything from a variety of sources. We accounted for this by applying a compensating thickness of cement to the back of each tile. Very thick tiles had almost no cement on the back while thin ones had a generous layer. After all the tiles were laid we used plywood pieces (the same boards from before) to apply an even pressure across the surface and push down any tile sticking too far up.

We let the cement set and then grouted using a neutral gray which went well with the range of colors represented. That’s pretty much it! Here is the bathroom floor complete (ok, the tiles are done but the baseboard still isn’t on).

Bathroom Floor with border tiles and grout

the Kitchen Island

And the backsplash

I would love to hear about other people with similar projects, my parents have never seen anything quite like it!