Back in 2009 Cynthia and I had just bought this property. It was going to be a few months while she and I created the house plan and the architect did his work and got all the approval stamps. I was sitting in the house that we were renting and I was bored. I needed a hobby.
Hi there. I bet you thought you would never hear from me again. Well I’m back with an update and possibly a reboot of this blog. For those who want more shipping container house building info, my future posts may be disappointing. The container part of the house build is done and it has been done for more than three years now. `
For the past three-and-a-half years, this shipping container/art house has been for sale. As in much of the world, the housing market here is absolutely flat. Only a couple of properties have sold here and they were priced well below what the sellers wanted and way below what we were asking.
Meanwhile, Cynthia and I have been living here. Real living and not just the five-year all-consuming exertion of creating and building this house. We’ve had time to be creative with our arts. We’ve had time to just sit and relax in the master bedroom porch and watch the birds. We’ve had time to know each other more deeply. As time passed, we explored other places to live when the house would potentially sell. Medellin, Colombia (we’ve been there five times now). Guanajuato, Mexico (wow, but stairs, stairs, and more stairs make it not a place for Cynthia with her new knee). Greenville, South Carolina (fair weather, progressive culture, health care, etc.) and Austin, Texas (Cynthia’s family).
But through all this time, two factors have become important priorities.
One factor is that we love the rich nature and relative seclusion of where we are. Every morning we wake to something we’ve never had before. Recently it has been a family of Aracaris (Toucan like birds). And the flock of wild parrots absolutely prevents sleeping in and missing these wonderful mornings. To start over somewhere else and miss a significant amount of time (years?) without just sitting and being has become a less inviting idea.
The second factor is really a matter of time and energy. We have created something here and it took a lot of energy and a lot of years: this custom house that is a joy to live in, a workshop that I have organized for the first time in my life, a new glass studio for Cynthia, a watercolor painting studio for me, and more is in the works. We want these things in our life and to start over with the diminished energy of age is looking more and more unlikely and un-enjoyable.
As an example of what I am doing when not building a house, here is a cabinet I built for my art supplies:
So with a substantial and significant amount of pondering, realizing, and talking, we have come to the “ah-ha!” decision to remove the house from the market. Not that it is selling anyway, but we have come to settle on all the good points of staying put.
Over the next while I will post Part II of the reserve water tank project, our studios, an orchid wall that I built, and a major project that is underway.
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by. Fred
We’ve been thinking about building a reserve water tank, and here are some reasons why:
Reason 1. A few weeks ago, a neighbor set a small fire of yard debris, then left for his house in the city. (I know, I know, I will refrain from comment…) A few hours later, Cynthia looked out our kitchen window and yelled, “FIRE!” I knew that that house didn’t have any water as a new well was being drilled. So I ran to the neighbor of the property on fire and roused the sleeping caretaker.
He and I stretched a hose to the neighboring property and fought the fire for more than an hour. We didn’t have enough water pressure so it was slow going. While the other man used the hose, I used a now-destroyed plastic leaf rake to move the fire away from the unburned pine needles. Had we not acted, lots of pine and palm trees would have burned, plus all our properties were in danger. The whole time, I wished we had more water. Here’s a photo:
Reason 2. Sometimes, the power goes off. And with no power to the water pump, there is no water at our house. Not a real problem, unless the power is off for more than a few hours. Or if there is a fire! Of course we could get a 220-volt generator to power the pump, but that is another thing that needs maintenance and fuel and fussing with.
Reason 3. This was a tough dry season. We never ran out of water, but I suppose it could happen.
Reason 4. Sometimes we want to use two hoses at a time. But our pump is rated for seven-gallons-per-minute. Exceed this and the pump protection system shuts the pump down for a half-hour to allow it to cool off. By having a reserve tank, we can use two-or-three hoses or sprinklers at once.
Reason 5. Building stuff is FUN!
So armed with these reasons and a couple thousand dollars, we went to work. Armando and I scouted a location where the tank would be high in the air to deliver good pressure, and would be mostly out of sight. We settled on the area where we were going to build the hydroponic greenhouse (before we decided to sell). There was already a good foundation and a few rows of blocks. We went up from there.
Day one, Alex, who had worked for us before, joined Armando. We cleaned the area and started laying blocks:
At the end of day one, we were up this high:
Day two showed this much progress:
It is common practice here to lay blocks, but don’t connect them at the corners. Reinforced concrete columns are poured here. At the end of day 3 we had the rest of the blocks up and corners formed and poured:
Day four was a long day. We stripped the corner forms and made forms for a beam that went around all four sides of the structure. We formed a welded rebar armature that fit in the form work and made a good strong base for the tank. Here I am welding the rebar armature:
We put the armature in the form work:
There will be more blocks above this beam, so before we poured the beam, we cut and welded a LOT of rebar in place to support the blocks above from the massive pressure of the water:
Next, we poured the concrete beam. It was still early in the day, so we cut a lot more rebar and welded it in place to make reinforcement for the floor of the water tank:
While I was welding the rebar, the guys went into the jungle and cut 15 strong saplings that we would use to hold the floor form work in place. After we made the form work for the floor, we tied the rebar together with wire:
At this point it was almost quitting time for the day, but the guys said they wanted to pour the floor, too, so that we would be ready to lay blocks tomorrow. I told them that I would pay extra if they wanted to keep going. The guys mixed the concrete, and we set up a relay to get the concrete to the roof. This was tough going for the old guy in the middle!
The next day I stayed in the hammock while the guys laid more block. The blocks took two- or three-more days.
Next, we formed another beam that went around the top of the entire tank, the rebar all connected as in the other beam. We also welded in place more rebar that we will bend at a 90-degree angle to make reinforcement for the concrete roof and will tie the roof to the walls:
We were anxious to get the roof poured, but first to make our work much easier, we had to apply the plastering to the inside of the tank. Here is some of the first plaster:
At the end of today, day ten of the project, we have all four walls plastered. In this photo, Armando finishes tooling an angled strip of mortar at the floor line to prevent water from leaking through the wall/floor joint:
We’ll continue next week when the guys return Monday or Tuesday. Left yet to do is to form and pour the roof and then plaster the walls outside of the tank.
In other news, when Cynthia was a teenager, she was in the Masonic order Job’s Daughters, and was crowned DeMolay Sweetheart. The Masonic youth organizations are planning a reunion for later this year. For the event, Cyn is making ten crowns for the former Sweethearts (they passed the crown on to the next Sweetheart so they never got to keep their crowns). This is a surprise gift from Cynthia for the Sweethearts who are attending the reunion. One of the Sweethearts has passed away so in accordance with tradition, Cyn has made a white crown in her honor for the memorial.
This has been a lot of work, but the results are handmade pieces of art that will be a reminder of memories from years ago. Here are some photos:
Two 12″ x 12″ pieces of glass, a clear piece and an amber-colored iridescent piece, cut into 3/8″ squares, were glued together then fused together. Then each of those rounded pre-fired pieces were glue tacked onto a plain piece of glass, then fired in the kiln to fuse the pieces together.
After she fused the crowns but before she curved them in another firing in the kiln, I drilled holes at each end for attaching wires that can be bobby-pinned to each woman’s hair:
Here are a couple of the crowns after Cyn curved the glass and applied some crystal beads.
And remember the climbing vine at the front of the carport? Well finally, finally after a year, the plant is lush and in full bloom:
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
I haven’t posted in a long time because I haven’t done anything much write-down-word-worthy lately. But I felt like writing this morning and cranked out the following bit about the month of April here in the mountains of Panama, and I thought I’d show you a little project that I have been working on.
As I do many mornings, today I was on our roof deck sweeping away a few dry leaves and watering the plants. From the roof deck I can see the woodpeckers that, as they do every year in April, are making new nesting holes (in preparation for babies and for protection in the rainy season) in the trees in the next lot over from us. It’s quite a show.
Every day I put several bananas in the dead tree stump in our front garden. We’ve covered this stump in bromeliads and orchids, and nesting birds have made the tree a bird condominium. They have a wonderful time darting in and out of the plants on their way to and from the bananas. There are black birds, black and red birds, black and yellow, green, and even blue birds. Robins, and the woodpeckers, too, come for the bananas. Small reddish-brown doves peck in the freshly-tilled garden and finish off the banana peels that fall to the ground. The bird banana buffet gives Cynthia and me hours of enjoyment as we watch out the kitchen windows.
The tall trees in our front garden turn golden-crested in April, and the loudly-chirping hummingbirds work the blossoms all day long. Soon, bees will arrive to take the nectar that the hummingbirds leave behind; their buzzing is very loud and reaches a crescendo in the heat of mid-afternoons.
I also love April because now, after several very dry months, we are starting to receive several rain showers each night. They don’t last long, but come down in brief sheets, signaling that rain is on its way. The fragrance of freshly-dampened soil smells good and I go back to sleep.
The other day our gardener, Armando, pointed out a loudly singing bird that was “calling the water,” he said in Spanish. I’ve really enjoyed learning Spanish so I can pick up these bits of local knowledge – such as when the breezes that start in November and December are called “brisas de Navideña,” — the breezes that bring on Christmas. Many of the local workers here may not have a lot of book learning, but they know the wildlife and the subtle rhythms of the seasons.
With everything so dry, the birds enjoy the three birdbaths that we made for them; keeping the water refreshed is a pleasant part of my daily routine, too.
Recently we noticed that the mango trees are in full-bloom in our area; we should be picking mangos fresh off of the trees in late June and July. Because we are in a micro-climate zone, our mango schedule is quite different from down in town or just down the mountain road a few kilometers.
There are distinct seasons in Panama, not as dramatic as, say in New England, U.S.A., but they are distinct in their own subtle way. I love April; there is a lot to observe and to appreciate here.
In other news, the other day I got a call from a friend of ours. She has been taking care of the home of someone who had recently died, and she lost the keys! She asked me if I could get into the house. Of course I could, houses are my business, but locks, unfortunately, aren’t.
I did a survey of the exterior of the house and decided to remove the security bars on a small bathroom window (the window was small, and so was the bathroom, come to think about it). Fifteen-minutes with a hammer and chisel and I had the bars removed from the concrete block house. It would be minimal work to mortar the bars back in place. I climbed through the window, removed the screws from the two deadbolt locks, and opened the door. Our friend bought two new deadbolts and I installed them in just a few minutes.
But this got me thinking — how much easier it would have been on my senior citizen body if I could have just picked the locks and not had to mess with shoe-horning myself through the tiny window and making the high drop to the floor. YouTube to the rescue. Over the next couple of weeks, I watched a couple-hundred videos, maybe more, about lock picking. I now dream about picking locks.
So I thought that I would buy a set of lock picks. They can be had for twenty-bucks, or a high-quality set for under a hundred. But then again I thought, why not make them myself? There are lots of videos on YouTube showing how to make picks from hacksaw blades and the thin pieces of spring steel that sit under the rubber part of most windshield wiper blades.
Our car needed new wiper blades anyway, and a few bucks bought a handful of saw blades. A day or two later I had my very own homemade lock pick set (I still have a couple more picks to make…). I think they came out pretty well, all ground, sanded, and polished to a bright shine. Here are a few photos:
So now it is time to see if I have what it takes. I have a pile of old padlocks that I am gearing up to practice on.
By the way, if you are the least bit interested in how insecure most of the locks that most of us use, here is a video by a man named bosnianbill. Locks are his hobby and he enjoys figuring out the puzzle of each lock he touches. Bosnianbill is part of an international group of people who consider lock picking a grand sport. They have competitions and swap locks and information among themselves, picking for the fun of it. Here is one of his 600-or-so videos:
Now, after a bit of practice, maybe I will be able to open a lock the next time I get a call from a panicked friend. I’ll “keep it legal” as these sport pickers say at the end of their videos.
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
I have been promising you, and promising you some more, that I would make a video of the house. With this post I announce that I am half-way there. I have completed a seven-minute video of the exterior of the house! I wonder if it will break any box office records as Star Wars has just done… ah, probably not, never mind, dumb thought. Here it is (full screen is better) :
This was no small task for me as I had to acquaint myself with my GoPro 3+ camera and the GoPro Studio editing software. I even built some equipment including a slider so I could get smooth side-to-side shots. Commercially-built sliders are available for a bunch of money, but I built mine for not-much with a couple aluminum shower curtain rods, a cut-up plastic kitchen cutting board, and some PVC pipe fittings. I bought the wheels online. Here is my slider. The shower rods were my idea and make for the lightest-weight five-foot slider in the Universe or anywhere…:
I saw the DIY PVC pipe fitting dolly on YouTube. I put an extra port on the dolly so that in the future I can mount an LED video light for closeup work:
I bought a gimbal. Until recently, gimbals were only used in big movie productions and cost many thousands of dollars. Now they are available for the hobby market for just a couple hundred dollars. A handheld gimbal allows a video photographer to walk over rough ground, climb stairs, and even run, and the gyros in the gimbal keep the camera stable. I love what miniaturization is doing for tech. Here is Cynthia modeling my gimbal:
Not counting building the slider, this shoot took me about twenty-hours to video, edit, find music on the Web, and add the audio track. I also had to diagnose and fix a problem with my computer — when I would download and play an audio clip, it sounded all garbled and fuzzy. The problem was that I had an older version of VLC Media Player. Once I uninstalled the program, the audio opened on Windows Media Player and sounded just fine.
I spread the shoot over a couple days to get the sun at its best advantage. Sorry, the sun doesn’t shine on the north side of the house at this time of year so this side is in shade — I’d have to wait another six-months to complete the video. I opted not to wait. Overall I had a good time, and especially enjoyed making the opening and closing credits. I learned a lot… I like steep learning curves!
I hope that you enjoyed my video. I’ll work on the interior shoot soon. I promise.
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
At long last, the house is what I am calling 99.9998% complete! I have a very short list of unfinished items, most of which I can do in a day or two. But yesterday and today Cynthia and I staged the house and took photos inside and out. Here is a video with 93 pictures. To save you from me imposing my music choice on you, there is no sound. You can make it full-screen if you like:
So that’s it. Five-and-a-half years and all I have to show for it is 93 lousy photos!
I still hope to make a nice video. Stay tuned.
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
I have made some progress on the kitchen cabinets.
If you remember, a long time ago I framed the cabinets with 1.5″x1.5″x1/16″ square steel tubing. At the time, I had no idea how I was going to mount hinges and drawer slides, but I knew that I would figure it out when the time came.
Well, the time came. I spent some time sitting on an upside-down five-gallon bucket, analyzing and figuring out what I would have to do. Finally, I had a clear idea in mind. I would build a wooden “carriage” inside the metal framework to carry the drawers and to mount the door hinges to.
The 1.5″x1.5″ pieces that I cut for the purpose were finally dry enough to work with. I made pilot holes in the wood, then screwed the wooden pieces to the metal framework with 2.5-inch zinc roofing panel screws. These screws are self drilling and hold well.
Where I needed to attach one piece of wood to another, I used my Kreg pocket screw jig to make the holes for the screws. Here is a photo (credit — Kreg website) of the jig and the pocket holes that allow you to screw the pieces together. I like this jig; it is well worth the money and really speeds assembly of parts:
Building the framework was a double-jointed contortionist’s idea of a good time. Here are some photos of the completed carriages — sealed, sanded, and polyurethaned:
Between coats of urethane, I spent most of a day running boards through the thickness planer. Here are the drawer fronts — I still need to cut them to their finished length and width:
And the pile of un-thickness-planed boards that you saw in my last post —
Now looks like this:
I planed (as in past tense of to plane) the parts that will be the door frames down from one-inch to 13/16″. I still need to take these down another sixteenth to 3/4″ when they dry just a bit more.
And I planed the parts that will make the drawers and pull-out trays down from one-inch to 3/4″. I still need to take these down to their final 5/8″ thickness after they dry just a bit more.
Each board went through the planer six-or-so times as it is best to take off a little bit at a time; I was like a one-armed wallpaper hanger, jockeying each piece of wood in and out of the planer as fast as I could. I took Armando home with four more bags of expensive shavings for his chickens.
I’ll let the wood dry a few more days, then plane it to its final thickness. I took my dovetail jig out of storage today — I hadn’t opened the box in eight-years. I was afraid it would be full of big black ants and a lot of rust, but everything looks good to go. I can’t wait to make the drawers!
So that’s my update on the kitchen.
In other news, I finished painting the front door wall metalwork and spent a few hours with a razor blade cutting paint and caulk off of the perimeter of the windows. It looks nice now:
Here is a panorama shot that I took from the pickup as well. Remember, the driveway doesn’t curve, it is just the panorama distortion:
Cynthia has been spending a lot of time at her lampworking torch. She and I were just remembering how her (now fired) neurologist told her that she would never work with hot glass again because of the neurological damage done during her last open-heart surgery. Never tell Cynthia that she can’t do something! Here is a slide show that we put together of some of her recent stunningly-beautiful beads:
And finally, Jabo takes solace on the cool tile next to the living room fountain on a warm afternoon.
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
Not so much this time — watching wood dry is not very photogenic.
But I have made progress. After about ten-days of the planks drying, I rough cut all the pieces that I will need for the kitchen cabinet doors and drawers. A few days later I thickness-planed the 2″x2″ pieces to their finished 1.5″x1.5″ sizes. I ended up with three trash bags full of very expensive sawdust, which Armando was happy to have as bedding for his chickens. Here are some photos:
With a new $80 blade, the Caoba (African Mahogany) cuts like butter:
I had to do a complete tear-down of my thickness planer. Years of lack of use in this tropical environment rendered it rusted and frozen. I completely disassembled it, replaced a new gear that I bought on the Internet, and sanded, polished, and lubricated all the moving parts. A total of $5 and a day’s elbow grease got it going again as good as new:
While I wait for the wood to dry, I kept at my Long List Of Stuff Still To Do, including installing roller guides for the door in the half-bath in the hallway off of the living room:
The strong east sun had faded the trim paint at the front door wall, and the caulk glazing between the glass and the metal angle iron had shrunk as well, allowing water to enter the framework and rust the metal. I am in the process of caulking/repainting this front wall:
I spent a full day working on the front door. Some welds on the door jamb needed to be ground smooth and there were areas that had never been properly primed and painted. Also, the hole for the latch was ragged and ugly, so I welded in some new metal and ground and filed it all smooth. The door closes much better now.
So bit by bit, I’m chipping away at the remaining detailing of the house. Feels good to be this far along.
In other news, nature happens all around us, all the time. This morning while I was washing Very Stinky Jabo, I spotted this motionless drama — a very pregnant gecko tried to eat a very large spider. Neither won, neither walked away:
Every now and then, an adventurer/traveler, looking for a place to park a camper, will find our quiet neighborhood. I generally invite them to park in the road in front of our house — it is well lighted and safe and no one will bother them. Yesterday, Peter, from Germany and on the road now for about two years, stumbled upon us.
We invited him in for dinner with one of our Panamanian neighbors, and had a pleasant evening talking about exploring and traveling. Peter’s camper is quite a rig, an engineering and craftsmanship marvel, and I am very envious. He built it himself with 3,000 hours of his labor, and his blog shows construction of the rig plus his travels around the world. Here are a couple photos of the Lady Grey:
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
We’ve spent the past week or two essentially electrifying the rest of the house. With very few exceptions, the electrical phase (pun intended for you electrical engineers out there) is now all done.
The work involved several days of me under the house and Cynthia inside the house, the two of us fishing, running, and pulling about 500-feet of wire. After all that wire was placed, I spent the better part of a week wiring all the plugs, switches, and lights, and installing the switch-plate covers. The results are illuminating and it feels very good to be able to walk through the house and turn on any light we want. Cyn is thrilled to no longer have to trip over extension cords.
I may have mentioned this before, but many years ago when I was in my early twenties, I helped an older electrician by pulling wires and crawling under houses, doing the work for him that he could no longer do because of his failing health. In the process he taught me a lot, including the principle of “a path of light” through the house. So now, thanks to Ernie, we can walk from room to room to room, switching off one light switch and turning on another without ever being in the dark.
Following are some photos that show the completed electrical work:
Back in the kitchen, there was a big-ugly-stinking-mess at the shelving and electrical panel to the right of the refrigerator:
Using my homemade, DIY sheet metal bending brake, I formed some aluminum shelving and also a cover for the electrical panel. To cut the aluminum, I set up shop in the carport:
My shop is a mess, but I had just enough space to bend the cover for the electrical panel:
Here are the shelves and panel cover in place:
The door can be opened to access the electrical panel:
So with just one or two tiny electrical details left to do, I can almost cross this one big task off my list. I consider the electrical work a success — I had just two small issues to figure out — I transposed two wires on one three-way light switch, and in the bank of switches in the kitchen I inadvertently screwed a switch mounting screw into a bunch of black wires, causing a dead short when I flipped on the breaker. Once the smoke cleared, both issues were easy to figure out and fix.
Next week I have some more aluminum to cut and bend to make shelves for the little office, plus make a few remaining shelves for in the walk-in master bedroom closet.
In other news, I spent a lot of last Sunday modifying my new GoPro camera. GoPros can take excellent quality photos and video, but the fixed lens gives somewhat of a fish-eye effect. Also, the focus is fixed so that the foreground and the background are always in focus. But a modification kit exists called the Backbone Ribcage that removes the stock lens and allows for using virtually any other lens made for photography. Of course I had to give it a go. Here is what the modification entails:
Here I am readied to do surgery. The original GoPro is at the bottom left. The other parts and pieces are for the modification:
Here is the camera all torn down and ready for the rebuild:
And here is the final product with a nice little wide-to-telephoto lens:
Everything worked well, but when I tested the camera, the video came out black even though I had removed the lens cover. I sent a quick email to tech support and heard right back from the owner. He told me that he once made the same mistake — the iris in the camera was shut completely down, preventing any light from hitting the sensor. Duh Fred.
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
It has been some time since my last post. But in there was a cold that put me down for a week, plus a trip to Medellin, Colombia. And our very poor Internet service hasn’t helped; I attempted to write all last week, but although we are paying $110 a month for 3 megs, the best we could get was 0.33 megs or so. Uggh. But now we have a new provider, 5 megs/$38 per month, and we are getting a good, solid, better-than-four megs, depending. I’ll call it a success!
A while back we tiled the floor in the half-bath between the living room and the master bedroom. Since then, I have tiled the counter, painted the walls, installed the sink and faucet and the toilet, hung the door, and painted the walls a light, warm gray.
I started off with a problem. A few years ago when I poured the concrete counter, I failed to make provisions for the counter to be thinner at the faucet and drain so that I could install the fasteners from below. I just didn’t know. So using a concrete drill and a hammer and chisel, I cut out two holes:
Then using slices of PVC pipe as forms, I made two, 1-inch-thick concrete doughnuts:
When the doughnuts cured, I stuck them in place with some bondo:
Later, when I tiled the counter, I filled in the gaps with mortar. Here I am starting the tile job:
We chose an iridescent blue-gray glass tile. I got lucky-as-could-be in that I didn’t have to cut a single tile! Here is the counter, the pedestal that I made out of a concrete culvert, and the rest of the bathroom all done:
Here are some more bathroom photos:
We’re good and happy to have this last really raw area of the house done!
In other news, now that the driveway is free of piles of sand and gravel, we spread an additional eight-yards of crushed gravel. Here’s Armando chipping away at one of the piles:
After a year away from her glass bead studio, Cynthia is turning out some lovely beads. Here she is working on one at her torch:
Our Medellin trip was only for five days, but here are a couple highlights — Every morning we had breakfast at a small natural food store/restaurant called Salud Pan (healthy bread). The two pictures in the next photo are hanging on their wall:We met up with my girl cousin from Massachusetts for the trip. Even after all these years, I still can’t help but pull her pigtail. Here we are at Jardin Botanico (Edit — actually, the next two photos are out of order — we are really at Parque Arvi, higher up in the mountains, hence Cynthia wearing a jacket in the cool air) :
And Cynthia and me:
Some flowers and plants at the botanical garden:
The garden isn’t just about the plants. There are lots of birds and other critters, including this gargantuan iguana (taken with a telephoto as you don’t want to get too close — these critters aren’t afraid to run at you full tilt)!
Luckily they weren’t just sunning but were kind of active. Here’s a short video:
We went to Plaza Botero again on this trip, always fun to see Botero’s work. Here is Cynthia with the cat:
Another view is like something out of a 1930’s earth invaders sci-fi movie:
It was quite warm in the plaza, so we took refuge in the air conditioned museum. I have to stop eating all those arepas!
So that’s all for now. Now Cynthia and I are pulling the last of the wiring for the master bedroom and bathroom and a few other spots. Thanks for stopping by.