A Hole In The Ground

Week of April 20-24, 2015

With the septic system installed, the site now cleared of debris and other prep work behind us, it came time to get on with the real building. First step: Foundation.

Another visit from Rob and his backhoe got things going. After some consultation about corners, placement and depth of footings, he took the inaugural scoop. 

This is it!


Measure twice, dig once.

A full day with a lot of horsepower moved a lot of earth and changed the geography big time. When I think of the thousands and thousands of head-high thistles I have pulled off that area, I had some satisfaction in thinking that maybe, just maybe, a backhoe removing up to 5 feet of soil could be the ultimate weeding machine.


What a giant hole for my modest house!

Much of Gabriola is on bedrock and many people find rocky surprises when they start to excavate for a foundation.  Although one part of my acreage is a damp slope due to a huge slab of bedrock a few feet below the surface, I knew from observation, the septic test holes and other work that had been done removing stumps, that there was a good layer of soil over much of the house site. But until you start digging it away, you never quite know what you’re going to find.

Things proceeded well on three of the corners. As expected, we did find lots of topsoil, lots of native soil and lots of small rocks.  But that last corner produced our rocky surprise.  The backhoe chipped away at as much of it as he could, but in the end we had our own Rock of Gibraltar to contend with. 

My own subterranean Rock of Gibralter

In the grand scheme of things, we were pretty lucky to find only this much rock. Although the problem wasn’t unsurmountable, it did give us some challenges thinking about the footings framing that was starting next. 

As it turned out, there was only a small portion of the framing that was impacted by The Rock. The building inspector was pleased with what he saw and only asked that we drill into the rock to anchor the rebar, so we dutifully complied.


Fortunately the footings framing was minimally impacted around the rock.


The rebar in the footings framing anchored to the rock

So we got off pretty easily on that one. We will no doubt have more fun later when the stem walls have to be poured over the bedrock.  But that’s for another day. 

The Wee Hoose

Week of April 13-17, 2015

While the septic system was being installed, we had limited access to the house site, so we had to find alternate activities to keep us busy. 

In keeping with the septic and humanure theme, and in anticipation of work crews, workshop participants, work parties and other people on site through the rest of the house build, I thought it made sense to provide appropriate “facilities” for folks.  So we tackled an outbuilding: an outhouse. It’s what my Scottish mother, with her Aberdeen brogue, would have affectionately referred to as the “Wee Hoose”; I’m not sure she was aware of the innuendo.


The Wee Hoose under construction

Outhouses are another one of those “grey” areas where you’re not really supposed to have one but experts agree that there’s really nothing inherently bad about having one.  And it seems the law is on my side this time, since you are actually allowed to have an outhouse if you will have an approved septic system in your house. Go figure: when you don’t really need one, that’s when you are allowed to have one!  Here’s a 2014 article from the local paper, the Gabriola Sounder, that addresses the issue. 

I located The Hoose far enough from the main house site to afford some privacy, but near enough to the trailer and utility shed to be practical into the future. 

While the backhoe operator was onsite the week before, I had him dig a hole in the appointed spot.

Outhouses can be gross and disgusting places. I wanted mine to be a nice outhouse but I also didn’t want to break the bank building it, so I incorporated used building materials wherever possible.

The design mimics the shed and was a form-follows-function attempt to provide enough height where it was needed i.e. at the front, but less where it was not needed i.e. in back, where the seat is. But somehow, when I wasn’t looking, the 7′ back wall that we drew out in the plan, ended up being 8′ instead, which resulted in the front being 10′ high.  Oh well, if a professional basketball team comes to help, I’ve got ‘Facilities’ for them!

Here’s the list of free and/or re-used materials and where I got them:

The roof support pillars are cut from one Douglas Fir tree that blew down last winter and got hung up in the branches of a neighbouring tree. It took a bit of educated guesswork, a few chainsaw cuts and some strong-arming with ropes to coax it from its tangled position.  It yielded two very nice logs, with lots leftover for another project.  Cost: Free – if you exclude the chainsaw time, the labour to cut it down and the time to peel it.  

The metal exterior door is from the Habitat For Humanity Re-Store in Victoria. The etched window is pretty cool and provides light and privacy – definitely destined for the upscale outhouse. It came with the fancy handle, too, but lacked a deadbolt, which I added later. Even the colour works, sort of, being a reasonable colour outside and white inside. Cost: $80

Reused door and window

The window is from the Gabriola Island Recycling Organization (GIRO).  The crinkle pattern in the glass obscures anything obvious but lets in lots of light. Cost: $4

The roof will be metal. I called a local roofer, who I was told had lots of leftovers on his back lot, and he said he expected some leftover materials from an upcoming roofing job nearby.  Cost: Free. 

Since I wanted a bright space, I thought a sky light would be neat.  The only ones I saw at the recycle depots looked suspect for leakage so I sprung for a new one at Home Depot for $125. I talked the sales clerk into giving me the 15% sale price that was being offered on “all windows and doors”, arguing, successfully, that a skylight is a window in the roof.

While I was looking for design ideas online, I found a forum where someone mentioned incorporating a urinal into their outhouse.  OMG, what a brilliant idea!  Anyone who has raised boys will know all about the toilet cleaning horror story that includes not only the seat and bowl (inside AND out), but also the surrounding floor and walls. It took me years to figure out that the nagging smell I couldn’t find was coming from accumulated crud under the seat hinges!  Soooo, a urinal was definitely a must-have.  But what do I know about urinals?!  If you have a few spare hours and want some side-splitting online reading, Google “Outhouse Urinal” or “DIY Urinal” and follow some of the threads and images.  Let’s just say that women’s washrooms are pretty dull and boring by comparison. But I digress.  With some wild imagination on my part and an independent, but discreet survey of some male friends, I settled on a plastic vinegar bottle from the recycle bin and some tubing from the hardware store to plumb the fixture into the vent stack (not installed as of this photo) and into the hole. It seems to be working so far: no drips on the toilet seat!

An outhouse with all the mod-cons

In order to protect the exterior plywood, and to make the interior brighter and easier to clean, I wanted a good quality paint finish. Fortunately one of my sons had some cans of marine paint and primer leftover from some sailboats he had built or worked on so he generously offered them to me. Cost: Free


Painting the interior. The exterior is primed.


Malcolm works on the exterior paint.

If this were the main house, we wouldn’t be quite ready for occupancy yet, but it hasn’t stopped us from ‘testing’ the systems to make sure things work. 

The Grass Will Grow Greener …

Week of April 7-10

Another week of much activity onsite and a major development milestone: the installation of the septic system.  As a city slicker my whole life, septic systems have been those things I was aware of but never had much experience with, so I have done a LOT of reading, asking around and online research into the topic of human waste and its management.

If you’re at all squeamish, you might not want to read any further.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.  🙂

Anyone who has ever done backcountry backpacking will be aware of the protocol of carrying a trowel so you can bury your own waste an appropriate distance away from a water source.  Nature takes care of the rest.  Indeed, animals do “their thing” in the woods all the time and it all contributes to the ongoing cycle of keeping the forest going.

Gabriola Island has no municipal sewer system and the trailer I have onsite is not hooked up to any services other than the power I had brought onsite a few years ago (the story of hauling a 53 pound battery back and forth to the city to charge will have to wait for a later post, and one which I’m glad will be told in the past tense).  And since winter temperatures can dip below freezing, having the trailer’s water tank filled seemed risky, so I haul all the water I use.  That means that the lovely bathroom, complete with flush toilet, sink and shower, gets used for storage instead of its appointed purpose.  So for the past four years I have been using a system called a sawdust toilet as described by Joseph Jenkins in The Humanure Handbook, available to read online for free, here.  Overview: Make your deposits into a 5-gallon bucket (I used a smaller one since I’m petite, hehe), cover with sawdust or wood chips/shavings (available in abundance from anyone who does woodworking), and when the bucket is full, dump the contents into a dedicated ‘humanure’ compost pile, which, when well composted, can be used just like any other compost, but for non-food crops.  Simple.  Elegant.  Cheap.  Waaaaay cheaper than the $26,000 solution about to be described, even if I were to spring for a new bucket every year!

I am intending to divert my greywater (from showers, sinks and laundry) and am committed to using some form of composting toilet in my house (likely the same sawdust version, though I will “upgrade” to a full 5-gallon bucket), so I have questioned the need for a septic system at all.  But if you are building a house, you need a building permit.  And if you want a permit in an area not served by municipal sewer, you need to have an approved means of dealing with waste water.  A sawdust toilet is not on the approved list (go figure!), so that means having a septic system of some sort.  I even considered having just the septic tank installed and having it pumped periodically.  There are, naturally, all kinds of regulations around that, too, which I was willing to deal with, but for resale considerations and other reasons (like so my other city slicker friends can flush a toilet), I decided to go with a full system.

Septic systems take up a LOT of room.  There is a large tank that holds the stuff flushed down toilets, sinks and tubs.  There’s the leach field where all the effluent (the tank’s bacteria-treated liquids) goes.  And in BC now, there is a requirement for a separate distribution tank that pumps the effluent, under pressure, out to the leach field.  You’d think on a 5 acre property there would be plenty of room to install these components and still leave lots of room for a house.  But my site is traversed by a winter creek (officially classified in Riparian terms as a “seasonal drainage ditch”) and anything septic has to be at least 50 feet away from a source of fresh water.  Add to that the constraints of the thick tree belt around the site plus a driveway and parking area, and you’re left with a tight fit for a house, carport and septic system in the area I’ve chosen to build the house (so chosen for its solar orientation).

I asked four local septic professionals or installers what they recommended for a system.  They all agreed the tank could go adjacent to the house, on the downhill side, which, on a sloped site, was an easy decision.  But for the leach field, there was no consensus on the type of system or the location.  One couldn’t figure out where it would go at all.  One was going to locate a traditional piping and gravel system a few hundred feet away from the house and pump the effluent uphill to there.  One was going to locate the traditional system closer to the house, but it meant digging up and sacrificing the entire driveway and parking area (rendering them unuseable for anything but walking on).  And the fourth was going to install a gentler type of subsurface drip system, which I liked the sound of, but it would be in a pristine woodland area adjacent to the creek, because “no one would know once it’s put in”.  Sigh.  Lots of advice but no solution.

On the advice of a friend, I called a fellow who is not only a wastewater practitioner, but also an engineer. In fact, this fellow literally wrote the book the other septic professionals study. He came for a consultation and confirmed the difficulty the others had with the site. But being an engineer, he has the professional discretion to relax the rules a bit, and to design a custom system for my site.

His solution was to locate the leach field behind the house site under the trees adjacent to the roadway using a subsurface drip system less than a foot under the ground, using 1/2 inch tubing that winds in and around the tree roots “irrigating” them with regular dispersals of the effluent in the pressure tank. It’s a more expensive system than the traditional piping and gravel type, but it is much less traumatic to the site … and to me, the owner!

After months of research on the various systems and more months of getting opinions from the local septic folks, and even more time connecting with this consultant and the company he recommended for the installation, we got the appropriate approvals in place and were all set to install the system last fall, but the weather turned bad so we postponed until the spring.  So finally, it was time.

On Tuesday, the installers came with their excavator and after some discussion about the optimal location, started excavating for the tanks, which were installed on Wednesday. Although there is sandstone bedrock exposed in a number of places around my site, fortunately this location for the main tank provided plenty of depth for the huge tank to be well buried.  But they weren’t so lucky with the distribution tank, which was to be located in the wooded area, so it was relocated adjacent to the main tank, which I’m happier with since it will require less electrical conduit to hook up.


Gigantic tanks being lowered into place and leveled.


Of course, that was only the tanks!  On Thursday, the work started on the drip field.  I was lead to believe this would involve a minimal amount of ground disturbance, making shallow trenches to bury the tubing, which would allow the plants – mostly salal – to grow back quickly.  But no, it was the same excavator basically clearing all the ground cover in a 10 foot wide path 12 inches deep and about 150 feet long through the thick wooded area behind the house site, adjacent to the road.  Then 10 lines of tubing were installed, hooked up and eventually backfilled.  Machines can certainly make short work of big tasks, but they can also do a lot of damage in a short amount of time.  Clearing out the understorey was one task I would have preferred to do by hand … but that would have cost another $2600.  So given the options, I’m counting on Mother Nature (with a lot of help by moi) to regenerate the salal and ferns that gave their lives just so I can have a flush toilet.  To the credit of the installer, he was aware of the trauma it was causing me so he kindly saved a number of the ferns and relocated them when he was done.


Half of the drip field excavated and irrigation tubing being laid in place. The vegetation on the right was the next to go to make room for the other half.


So that was a major milestone taken care of.  Or so I hope: they ran out of time to fill the tanks with water to test the system so will be doing that once the electrical service is ready to hook up many months from now.  My cynical side just shakes her head at the thought of them discovering a leak in the system and having to dig it all up again …

Stay tuned for other exciting adventures.

Let’s Get Going!

With no real winter to speak of, spring has come early this year which means housebuilding can start earlier than planned.

Daffodils blooming at the end of March are a beautiful sight ... and thankfully the deer don't eat them!

Daffodils blooming at the end of March are a beautiful sight … and thankfully the deer don’t eat them!

Week One saw a flurry of site prep activity.  Some trees that were felled in November were milled onsite by a local sawyer.  We set up a portable garage to protect them from the elements until they were needed for the carport or the house.


From this …


… to this. Some amazing cedar and Douglas Fir planks and beams that will be used in the carport or house.

Logs that weren’t suitable for milling were limbed and bucked, ready for splitting into firewood.  A gas-fired splitter and some strong, able-bodied help turned that pile into about 3 cords of stacked wood.


Hired hand, Jonas, waves after we stacked about 2 cords of split wood, three rows deep. More nearby stacks followed a few days later. They should be ready for my new wood stove next winter!

Site Prep Continues

The week started with splitting the last of the log rounds into firewood and making yet another stack.  Splitting was quite the job even with a two and three person assembly-line feeding the gas-fired splitter.  I can’t imagine how long it would have taken manually especially since some of the log rounds were more than 2 feet in diameter!

With the firewood neatly stacked, and with good weather conditions for a couple of days, we started a controlled fire to burn the large pile of smaller branches.  The pile had been crudely covered with a tarp over the winter, so the centre was relatively dry.  Of course, a little propane incentive helped!


Richard, coaxing the pile to get going.

We had the backhoe operator extraordinaire, Rob, on site to do some landscaping the next day so we had him put some of the stumps onto the now-reduced burn pile.  Talk about a bonfire!


Your turn to put a log on the fire!

I even found some time to clean off my trailer.  An overnight rain loosened the moss so it was a relatively easy job to scrub it away.  Squeaky clean!

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Eeeeewww, gross!

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Ahhh, that’s better!

And the highlight of the week was to head over to the Regional District of Nanaimo office to pick up my permits!  I have one for the house, one for the carport and a temporary living permit that allows me to live onsite in my trailer for up to 2 years.


Ok, I’m a little blurry, but that’s what happens after forking over so much money for permits!