It’s been some years since I felt like sharing the highlights of my life, and I’m glad to have the energy again to now take up the task.
Eighteen months ago, I bought a fixer-upper home with funds provided by my father when he died. Thank you, Dad.
I said many times, “I’m rescuing this strawbale home.”
I didn’t like seeing a strawbale building on the market setting such a bad example for this wonderful construction type.
I had seen the obvious things it needed and wanted to save it before the maintenance issues made it worth nothing. However, there were MANY non-obvious problems I would soon encounter. And they have made these last 18 months incredibly difficult.
Nevertheless, I’m proud to report on my progress. Here are the major accomplishments:
1 Redesigned the photovoltaic system, pulling the batteries out of a recessed place in the floor of the utility building to a safer place above grade, adding more solar panels and another inverter and controller. (Thanks to my friend Kelly Cranston for his huge contributions!) This huge project took over a year to complete.
2 Repaired broken plaster that was damaging the straw bales in three places and would have destroyed the home eventually. Began 18 months ago, still working on the finishes.
3 Redesigned the water harvesting system, from gutters to downspouts to plumbing, moved the existing tanks and added more storage. Huge project, recently finished. Planning to paint the tanks and surround them with vegetation.
4 Organized and stored every single thing that could have a future use, everything from firewood kindling and odd pieces of metal to very useful plumbing and building materials.
5 Hauled away many truckloads of trash, dragged from all around the house and out in the desert. (So beautiful to see the desert natural again without those visual interruptions.) Also removed truckloads of mistletoe and bucketfuls of thorny goat heads. Removed snake habitat from the fenced backyard.
6 Replaced two damaged windows with sun-melted plastic tracks, keeping them from closing.
7 Replaced a charming but severely deteriorating ocotillo patio roof with a steel roof to harvest more water.
8 Untangled the plumbing connecting the water pump, filter, pressure tank, and solar storage tank, which had been revised too many times in a too-small space (making every handiman and plumber who saw it back away, moaning about what a mess it was), moving it all indoors (original location?) and making all the parts accessible for any future work (or that was the theory – more on the actuality later). Also removed the outdoor structure previously enclosing them, creating greater visibility down the driveway. And moved the water tanks from near the front door to a less intrusive location.
9 Created a beautiful flagstone patio in the front, repurposing the flagstone scraps from other locations, tying together the house and utility building, providing a nice walking and sitting experience there.
10 Added shade to the east and west ends of the utility building, moderating the summer temperature inside. It had been unbearable as it was, and is now very pleasant year-round.
11 Created an artsy 10’ long fence and gate connecting the house and utility building (backdrop to the flagstone), using scrap metal and found items around the property to make the backyard private.
12 Removed excessive crushed quartz in the backyard (making it difficult to walk) onto pathways around the house, and added native vegetation for bird and bee habitat, herbs, and summer-long greenery, plus two little ponds for wildlife. Repaired stone borders around gardens, and added a fence to hide trash and recycling.
13 Repaired three sets of sliding glass doors on the utility building, and removed and rebuilt 44’ of termite damage!
14 Removed a very dilapidated chicken coop and scrap-fenced yard from the entryway to the property, now an excellent place for friends to camp and offering a beautiful, natural summer sunset view.
15 Created diversion ditches, dams, swales and berms to hold water on the land and keep sheet flow off the driveway and the road.
16 Raised one side of the back patio roof so it now drains toward the garden and not the house!!
Half the time I’ve been in good health. The other half, I’ve struggled so hard just to feed myself and often wondered whether I’ve taken on too much and should just sell and leave. When nomad friends invited me to events, I mourned that I was stuck here. Why stuck? The house and cat needed me.
Yes, this house came with a cat – so traumatized with PTSD, I’ve been very hesitant to leaving him for more than a few hours, though I have a couple of times. He had been left here when the family left, apparently having hidden when the other cats got in vehicles to drive away. So he was fed dry food by neighbors for 7 months, from January through July, fending for himself with the cold and heat. With lots of love, we’ve learned each other’s ways and are now getting along very well.
The first major challenge with this house was brought on by the home inspector who flipped the “disconnect” switch on the photovoltaic system up, down, up, down, up, then smirked and left. The label for “disconnect” was at the top, but to disconnect, the switch should be set down. So the batteries began discharging and I didn’t recognize it, as I hadn’t had time to read the 200 pages of inverter and controller owners manuals, when so many other things needed to be attended to. Including that the house was so dang HOT! But cooling it would require working batteries, which were soon to die, though I didn’t know it immediately.
A strawbale house usually utilizes a lot of thermal mass to hold the temperature steady inside – but this house had had NO cooling for the most brutal months of summer and was 94 degrees inside. It would take a LOT of cooling to reduce the temperature of all that plaster and concrete in the house. I quickly became overheated and couldn’t think well. Besides that, there were no screens on the windows, and I was bit in the night by kissing bugs which make one weak and sick. Then, one day, having fallen asleep mid-day in the shade of the back patio, I woke after the sun had begun shining on me, my heart racing chaotically from the heat. Some survival part of me grabbed my water, poured some in my mouth and the rest on my body, and I came back somewhat to my senses, but only somewhat. The next day, I drove to town to keep cool in some air conditioning, but found I had very little energy for walking. I noticed security people in the Tucson Mall keeping an eye on me as I struggled to walk from bench to bench. I believe I’d had a heat stroke the previous afternoon in combination with the kissing bug bites. Thankfully, I was mostly back to normal in a few days.
Meantime, I discovered my battery issue and began trying to find help. No one local knew what to do with my system. Even experts rarely want to mess with something designed by someone else, so I was on my own. For weeks, even in this heat, I tried to use no power, hoping to save the batteries. The 48 V system dropped all the way down to 24.1 V – which means I was right on the edge of losing the entire bank of batteries which had just been installed new a few months ago at a cost of $3,200. And there was no sense in replacing them if I couldn’t understand why they were losing power. I’d discovered the disconnect error (intentional by that smirking home inspector??) and reconnected it, but the batteries were now so low that the inverter didn’t want to recognize or charge them. I needed help from a friend (Yay, Kelly, again!) to lead me through a series of actions that would trick the system into thinking it was 24 V, so it would charge again, then when it had charged them enough, we tricked it into thinking it was a 36 V system, and it recharged some more. Finally, we tricked it one last time, got the batteries up over 48 V – actually all the way to 57.5! – and I’ve been using them happily (and carefully) ever since. Along the way, I learned a lot about my system, so that’s good.
At first I used Angie’s List and Thumbtack to find workers, as well as Facebook pages for the area, and hired people to help with a whole range of tasks. I often had three crews working on three projects at once. Sometimes I missed people doing exactly the wrong thing, or stealing things. In one case, I had to pay to have someone’s work entirely demolished and hauled away. Then one worker, whom I’d depended on for excellent work, suddenly began screwing up. For one, he ignored the plans we’d discussed many times for straightening out the plumbing, and he ignored the signs I’d pasted on the walls indicating where everything should go, and instead laid it out in a way I’m now in the process of redoing, and he poured concrete all around it. That’s just one thing he did before I fired him.
Eventually I found trustworthy handimen, and continue to work with them three days a week. No more hiring and expecting anyone to do what I’ve asked, I now stay right there and work alongside them as long as I have the energy – which is good for me. I’m getting lots of hours of physical labor outdoors, which feels great.
One night early on here, I woke to the sound of a huge crash, and the next morning was able to see what had happened on the security cameras – though there’s definitely some mystery here. A band of javalinas had been in the utility building where the neighbors had stored cat food for the cat (and the sliding doors were open, not yet repaired). On the video, I can see a strange bright light descend inside from the north central ceiling, swing to the south central side of the ceiling, then swoop toward the sliding glass doors and one camera, then one glass door bowed out and burst, releasing a surge of glass and 7 javalinas. Then the light from inside seems to shine from outside, as all the shadows changed! An orb? I will soon post a video I made of the event. Skeptics have asked me to send my original video, and I have, and they’ve offered no further skeptical remarks.
Other times my surveillance cameras have caught coyotes, skunks, a bobcat twice, moths and mice, and LOTS of strange, very fast-moving lights that often appear inside the utility building or west of the building, like this single frame taken from an hour of equally dramatic footage. My conclusions are still open, but it seems as though I might have bought a house and utility building sitting on a portal of some sort. There have been a few events like this – that I’ve seen. I don’t often watch the cameras as it can be such a time stealer.
Last year, I also had a very odd, altered-state (it seems) experience when I was outside, assessing the plumbing to and from the water storage tanks. Suddenly, I was coming to consciousness with my foot bent radically, wedged inside a trench between the wall and a pipe. Some part of me coached myself to extract my foot and, in two separate actions, returned it half-way to its normal position, then the other half of the way – though my conscious mind cannot tell you exactly how it was (too shocking to stay in conscious memory, I guess) and what exactly I did to straighten it. I crawled back to the house, removed my shoe, and sat with my hands on my foot, reminding my bones, muscles, and every other part, “You remember perfection, you remember perfection.” I was on crutches and using a walker for a month, eventually showing NO damage. I still have no idea how I ended up with my foot in the trench.
The night of January 1 this year, I stayed up a little later than usual and found myself staggering around the house. Thinking I was just tired, I went to bed, but the cat climbed on my chest and began pounding me with his front paws. Eventually I realized: This is different. Something is happening I need to pay attention to. So I wondered if there was something making me stagger besides my tiredness, and I got out a hand-held flammable gas meter, calibrated it outside, then came inside, and it began screaming! I turned it off, opened the doors and windows to clear out the house and cleared my head! I also turned off the propane to the gas stove. Since then, I’ve had four other events like that in these four weeks, some with slightly different apparent characteristics, sometimes getting high readings near the floor, other times near the ceiling and not the floor, sometimes making me worry the strawbale walls were not properly repaired, might be composting and giving off methane near the floor and ceiling! Sometimes I’ve gotten higher readings from the sinks, making me think it was the plumbing, not the stove or walls. So five January nights, I’ve been up late with all the doors and windows open in near-freezing weather, losing all my home’s heat. I’ve been wearing ski pants and my heaviest winter clothes inside. And the mystery is still unfolding.
Some friends who have been “targeted,” as I believe I have been, have shared stories of their homes being poisoned with gases delivered through the rooftop vents or windows or even from septic system access. My confusing gas readings caused me to contact the hand-held gas detector company, and they sent me a new one, which has given me very different readings – still quite the mystery, nothing clear. So I’m on my guard, always turning off the propane, and keeping the gas meter handy.
I tried gardening last year, but because the earth is so sandy, I wasted a lot of water which ran right through. So I moved a new avocado tree into a pot in the front window of the utility building and will be moving a small Desert Gold peach there in February. I have plans to enclose the inside south of the utility building (with great solar windows) with greenhouse fabric, so I can isolate my growing plants and their humidity and mold spores, etc, from the rest of the building. Eventually, I hope to have a small herb-growing operation inside.
This place is now beautiful, even though there’s still lots to do. I welcome friends to visit.