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Hasselhoff and the Chicken Conservatory

Hasselhoff and the Chicken Conservatory

It being New Years Eve today, naturally the missus and I decided to spend some quality time with the chickens. These ladies have been popping out eggs all year and with the weather turning Canadian-nasty over the last couple of weeks, they’ve been packed in tighter than Germans at a Hasslehoff concert.

We’ve been employing the deep litter technique for their bedding which sounds like Middlesbrough Council’s approach to inner-city street cleaning but is in fact a bona-fide approach for keeping the coop clean. It worked pretty well through the summer and autumn but unfortunately isn’t so great for the winter. Having the girls indoors every day means it all gets rather messy. Like with the Belgians, we tried to explain the concept of toilets, or even just using a single corner of the coop for their Number 1s and 2s. Alas, like the Belgians, they just don’t seem to be able to grasp it.

Suffice to say the resulting frozen mat isn’t something we want our chickens on and it had to come out. So, we spent the last three hours digging and cleaning the coop from top to bottom for the Ladies What Lay. When the fresh shavings were in and smelling better than a bottle of Kouros, we turned our attention to the issue of outside time. It’s no surprise that when the ambient temperature is -20 Celsius, snow is falling and the wind is blowing hard enough to scour the freckles off your face, the Ladies don’t want to be outside. However, if we’re to avoid the need to change their bedding every few days, the Ladies have to venture out.

The inspiration for a solution came yet again from our youth. Emma and I have been together for nearly 18 years and have been engaged for the last 13 of them. We did originally intend to actually get married, sort of. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a small affair quickly got out of hand and the prospect of hundreds of barely-recognisable relatives greedily munching and drinking away our life savings was more than we could bare. Instead, we spent our money on a conservatory for our home.

For those of you not familiar with a conservatory, it’s a glass box added to your house in which the British like to sit and complain about the heat in the summer and how they can no longer feel their testicles / toes / other extremity of your choice in the winter.


Ours was a bloody nice conservatory mind you. It had a knee-high wall, top-end uPVC windows and vertical blinds to conceal the view of our garden’s brick wall. Granted, like all conservatories it was colder in the winter months than a 5p Mr Freeze and we had to pay the bloody Duke of Northumberland a couple hundred quid for his permission to build it (when the revolution comes, I’m getting that back), but it was ours and we didn’t have to worry about the bar bill or who we had offended by not inviting them to the grand opening.

Little did we know at the time that a mere twelve years later we’d be hip-deep in snow and chicken shit building another conservatory out of 2x2x8 lumber and 6mil clear poly. Life, ha, it’s a laugh eh?

Anyway, we cantilevered out the 2x2s from the gable side of the coop, used concrete blocks to support the ends and draped over the poly to create a prism of power. I applied way too many staples because once you start with a staple gun it’s almost impossible to stop, so the result isn’t the most aesthetically stunning home improvement. However, I’m fairly confident that we just built the world’s first Chicken Conservatory. I like to imagine they’ll be organizing concerts or cocktail parties under the luxuriously protective 6mil poly, perhaps having a soiree or two and raising a glass of Chateau Neuf-du-Pape to the Big House. Or maybe, like the Brits, they’ll just sit around and complain about a loss of feeling in their toes and how they’d have preferred it to be a little bigger. Whatever my avian Ladies decide on, as long as they do their business outside I’m a happy farmer.

Hope you all have a wonderful 2013.

The First Draw

The First Draw

It’s now three months since we broke ground on this build way back in May. Half of the time we’d allotted has been consumed with the big stuff: earthworks, wells, foundation and basement, framing, roofing and chicken coops.

The remaining months are, to put it poetically, like a fat Geordie in a lycra dress: squeezed in way too tight and at serious risk of collapsing in an ugly mess the minute things get too funky. Or, to put it another way, tight enough to make your heart stop.
Windows, polished concrete floors, bathrooms, kitchens, electric and plumbing, plasterboard, even stairs need to be done. There’s the outer sheath of steel siding and stucco to put on, a wood stove to install, internal doors to hang, heating and the small matter of a septic bed to lay.

I suggested to Emma that Dave The Man and his Merry Crew could work weekends and evenings but that went down like a liberal manifesto at a Tea Party rally (bit of politics there for my American readers). So, reluctantly I have to accept the odd day slipping here and there for vacations, plumbers that fail to show up and lightweight jessy concerns that it’s too hot to work on the roof when the thermometer nudges 40C.

For all that, I’m not alarmed (even though I probably should be). At 50% time complete, we’re only 35% done with the work. But the reason for my unrealistic optimism is simple. It’s because what we have completed is unabashedly, unreservedly, unmistakably…astonishing. Like a pint of Guinness, the best things come to those who wait and we really have waited for this.

From the south it’s clean, box structure is clear. Unlike anything the Ottawa Valley has ever seen before, the south face is pretty much just glass. Every room will be flooded with brilliance and vistas. Then turn around to the west face and you are presented with a very different perspective. Here you can see the slope of the single pitch roof, the height and delicate stacks of the building.

Around on the north face, it’s all business. Very few windows so we conserve heat and retain privacy from the road. Once the siding is on this perspective will have an almost agricultural or industrial feel.


Similarly from the east, there are very few windows to reveal what lies beyond. Only the vast solid oak Portal of Doom (otherwise known as the oversized front door) we’ve bought from an architectural salvage yard will hint at the grandeur inside.


Finally, the clear-span interior design is starting to be visible now that the supporting struts have been taken away.
This sounds like a little thing, but it’s almost as important to the design as the windows. Like the Tardis or your mother’s handbag, the space inside feels bigger than you know it actually is because there are no pillars to obstruct the eye. Every room is unified and part of the whole, no corner of it cut off or expected to be “low traffic”. So even though it’s smaller than our last home by 10%, we’re probably getting much more usable space.
That’s further reinforced by the views from every room that are open and draw the eye outside. When we have the money next year, I’ll be building a patio off these ground floor sliding doors / windows. That should add to the available living space and unify the inside and outside. Until then, we’ll have to be content with the view of fields and forest.
Of course, talking about money, there’s a price to pay for all this luxury. We’ve managed to get this far with our savings but, like a first year student who’s heard the rumour of a cheap pint, wandered into the wrong Gentleman’s Club and ended up having way too much fun, we’re about to come face to face with the ugly end of a whole lot of bills. Luckily, Canadians are a rather pleasant bunch so while I don’t expect a visit from “Norman The Negotiator” and an invitation to inspect his Very Deep Pit, I could do without the disappointed looks and lifetime ban at Roots. My sister simply couldn’t live without their high quality hoodies.
So, taking advantage of the prolonged global economic recession and plummeting stock markets, we’ve landed ourselves a rather sweet deal with the bank. Disappointingly, we’ve had to ditch HSBC, our long-standing filthy money-lender of choice on account of them transforming over the last 18 months into a bunch of utter morons with the customer service skills of your average earthworm and all the charisma of an unwashed arse. Instead, we’ve gone all Canadian and signed up with TD Canada. Mainly because the “D” in TD stands for Dominion and that’s all Sisters of Mercy-esque.

I mean, who wouldn’t borrow a boat load of cash from a man who wears big sunglasses at night and has the singing voice of a depressed gargoyle? As you can imagine, I was trembling with excitement for my first meeting with them. Unfortunately, in a devastatingly cruel twist of fate, our personal banker at TD Canada turns out to be a middle-aged chap called Allan. He offered me a cup of tea and told me about his passion for cycling.

Pushing aside my crushed expectations, Allan Not A Goth, explained that unlike a normal mortgage, i.e. where your lawyer gets all the money in one big payment, takes his dirty undeserved cut and then sends the little scrap that remains to the poor sod you’re buying from, it works differently for self-build construction. These loans are done in draws and you need to be as quick as John Wayne and twice as smart to work the buggers out.

We’re 50% of the way through our build, have spent nearly 45% of the budget, done 35% of the work, but only get less than 30% of the money. That’s bank logic if ever I heard it. I’m a reasonably intelligent man and know my way around a quadratic equation, but the way they work out how much money you can “draw” can only be decipherable by bankers or blissed out Fine Art students who have done way too many mushrooms.

Eventually though I did work it out, which is a little worrying since I haven’t been anywhere near a mushroom in years and quite frankly would rather pluck out my own pubic hair than become a banker. All I can imagine is that it has something to do with being a Jedi Knight.

Anyway, using my new-found multi-dimensional mathematical ability, I’ve put in place a schedule of draws that should keep as much of our money out of the filthy grubby hands of banks and lawyers while enabling me to pay The Man. All is good, and the massive crater that appeared on our land last week can now be filled up with water for swimming and ducks, instead of a very deep hole for dealing in a very British way with very debt-ridden dreamers.

Hope you all enjoyed the photos. More will undoubtedly be coming soon!


I’m half way through a blog post but to be honest, I’ve just been too tired and busy to complete it. So instead, here’s some rather nice pictures of the land wreathed in mist that I took on my iPhone when I was there tonight putting the Ladies Who Lay to bed. Enjoy the peace.












Real Men and The Chicken God

Real Men and The Chicken God

As a boy growing up in the 70s and 80s there were certain indicators of a privileged life. The first was that you had a Tonka toy. Not one of the modern mostly-plastic jobs. No, we’re talking the steel-plate, scaled down construction-grade dump trucks, diggers or cat-tracked beasts. Real toys for real men’s sons. But now I’m a father, I know the truth. Those toys were bought not just for their earth-trembling awesomeness in the sand-pit, but because as Dads, we want to demonstrate our children might wear tomato-print shirts with collars so large you could use them as a stunt-car runway, but they’re still the sons of Real Men. Demonstrating our Real Man credentials is something that I realise never stops.

At the land our house build continues apace. We’re getting the backfill done, first with a dozen truck loads of sand and then tomorrow, the guys are starting to dig the boating lake for all the extra fill we need for the final grading.

As Dave The Man and I watched the contractor expertly spinning around in the insanely large excavator like he was the Sugar Plum Fairy, I realised that I still love Tonka toys and secretly want the grown up versions.  George The Tractor was like a little Fiat Punto next to the digger and he’s certainly got nothing to be ashamed of in the metaphorical Heavy Equipment showers.

“I want one. They are frickin awesome.”

“Yep, pre…tty cool,” drawled Dave The Man. “But do you reckon the operator still thinks they’re cool after so many years doing it?”

“Oh, yeah,” said I, grinning like a teenager with a party-bag of gin and tonic (supersonic).

“Yep, I reckon you’re right,” agreed Dave The Man with a knowing smile. “They’re so cool.”

But alas. Even though I’m paying them enough money to buy a voting seat on the G7 and by rights should totally own their arses, you need a license in Ontario to drive a massive earth mover which I don’t have. So, reluctantly, I settled for taking the opportunity to top up my manliness by making appreciative noises about the earth-moving equipment then returned to the baking heat to complete the Chicken Coop.

Some say that it’s design is based on the Great Celestial Chicken Coop In The Sky and that there have been riots in chicken nurseries all across eastern Ontario over just which four lucky chickens would be chosen to live in it. Now, I can’t say for sure whether that’s true or not, but as I started to build, I felt a definite avian power flowing through me that can only be described as divine. I was compelled to build this coop, and not just by Emma looking stern.

The original plan was to reclaim materials from the old sheds on the land but after an hour with a lump hammer and a crowbar, I realised that it just wasn’t worth it. Especially since Dave The Man was offering me 8ft 2x4s for $2 each. You can’t even buy a small packet of Ferrero Roche for that price. So obviously I laid down my demolition equipment and whored myself for the nice clean new wood.

I’m certainly glad I did. Having everything at prefabricated lengths and just about square made the job a lot easier. Which, to be fair, wasn’t difficult since I’d elected to build the structure alone, mano-y-coopo style in the burning midday sun. There are times when having monkey arms is a definite advantage, but during the course of the last couple of days, I would have liked to have been as well endowed as Mr. Tickle, especially when it came to nailing on the boards. Who knew that an 8ft x 4ft OSB panel weighs the same as a small donkey? Or that I was in fact a numpty muppet boy for spacing my joists 2ft on edge, rather than the more conventional 2ft on centre. Apparently there is a good reason for that convention and it has to do with the fact that nails don’t have a very good holding capacity unless they’re actually nailed into something. Duh.

Yet, despite those challenges, I was guided by the Chicken God and knew I couldn’t fail. Slowly the superstructure of the Celestial Coop took shape and all who saw it trembled. Probably in awe, but I can’t rule out mirth. Getting the first two A-frames up was, quite frankly, a bitch. Gravity, so long my friend, turned coats and became a prankster of the highest order. Eventually I managed to get them basically upright and square, which to those of you who who aren’t versed in technical jargon is also known in plain speech as “near as dammit”, “within a few inches” or “seriously, they’re chickens. What do they know about vertical? They can’t even fly.”

The basic plan that took shape as I nailed and swore was to create an A-frame structure. I choose the A-frame for two reasons. Firstly, it’s similar to a Swiss chalet and since they make most excellent penknives and chocolate you’d think they also know a thing or two about effective wooden structures. Secondly, the inside would look like a corridor from the Liberator, Blake’s 7 spaceship and hello, that was just about the most cool spaceship ever. Oh, and it’s pretty good for shedding snow apparently (the A-frame, not the Liberator which being in space, doesn’t tend to encounter very many heavy flurries).

I figured that the boards would need supporting joists every 2ft and I’d need ventilation at the roof to let the notorious and quite noxious chicken farts escape which, incidentally, would also give me some overhang on the bottom to help water run off and not seep into the base.

I struggled for a while getting the joists parallel and the boards nailed on (it turns out there are other uses for a Dad-sized belly than just a portable trampoline for small children). With a mouthful of nails, a hammer and my legs burning, I got the first side sheathed. Obviously my effort was rewarded because almost immediately the clouds rolled in and gave me a brief respite.

Emboldened and uplifted by this sign from my new chicken god, I pushed on and by the end of the day, just about managed to finish. There are a few bits left to do, mainly to generously add chicken wire to prevent rodents and more serious predators stealing any of my eggs or chickens, but I’m pretty pleased. I need to trim the front and back panels to reveal the glory of the A-frame, but since chickens aren’t noted for their sense of aesthetics, I’m happy to wait until the weekend to do that job. It’ll give me a chance to fire up my new reciprocating saw which is rather hot.

I knocked up four nesting boxes from off-cuts and scraps from the build (to salve my recycle, reuse, re-whatever conscience) and am looking forward to many eggy delights being discovered in them in the weeks ahead.

All in all, a good long weekend of work. Now all we need is a chicken run and the lucky chickens who will be joining our existing trio of Harvey, Custard and Sunshine.

It might not be as elegant as the structure Dave The Man is building for us, but I reckon this is one coop that will be standing just as long and building it has earned me more Real Man status than driving a monster excavator could ever do.

Jedi’s always win

Jedi’s always win

Triumph. Not just the name of my rather awesome motorbike, but also the natural state for a Jedi Knight. Behold the foundations of our new home.

From here, I will plan and execute my inevitable domination of the world, or at least the Ontario niche alcohol and heritage farm products markets. The clock is ticking!

Jedi Mind Tricks

Jedi Mind Tricks

Back in 2001 we still lived in the UK in a rather uninspiring “executive” home in Newcastle. Not very much happened until one day, the postman delivered a Census Form. It was the first time I remember it happening, or at least the first time I got to fill one out as a real live adult. The man of the house, so to speak.

Now perhaps I should have taken it a little bit more seriously because in 200 years time when my distant descendant looks me up on whatever becomes, they’ll see that I put down my official religion as Jedi Knight.

I am, if I admit it, a little bit of a geek. Not a huge one. For example, I don’t have the secret Jedi name of Lenai-tan, or a special robe for the weekends. I did download the Light Saber App for my iPhone, but in my defense, so did a few other people and it was entertaining for about 2 minutes.

But the real reason I claimed to be a Jedi Knight on the 2001 UK Census was because lots of other people were doing it in an attempt to have the British Government officially recognise Jedi as a religion, that sounded like a bit of a laugh and secretly, I knew I had real Jedi powers. They were just locked away really deep inside.

Of course, there will be people who mock and ask me to levitate a small green goblin. That’s not real Jedi power. It’s made up for Hollywood stuff. The real Jedi power is all in the mind.

For example, my favourite part of Star Wars is when Obiwan says to the imperial guards “These aren’t the droids your looking for” and gets the guard to repeat it and let them pass. That is way, way cooler than levitating goblins or X-wing fighter spacecraft. For years I practiced that trick.

On my parents:
“This isn’t the gift you’re looking for”

On my missus:
“I’m not the stench you’re looking for”

On my mates:
“You will buy Stephen another round”

On my boss:
“Give Stephen the raise he’s looking for”

Unfortunately, many of these efforts passed unrewarded and fruitless. My vast powers somehow couldn’t penetrate the murky depths of the minds around me. I see now it’s because those needs just weren’t important enough. Then today I had a breakthrough. In my last post I explained some of the problems we’d been having getting the right levels and grades for the foundations of our new house.

Today I met with Dave The Man and the grading engineer Jamie (nice chap, needs to eat more pie). Things were not going particularly well. Jamie wasn’t happy about the depth of the house, especially around the walkout basement and Dave The Man’s suggestion of bulldozing half a field to terraform the land into compliance wasn’t meeting with much enthusiasm by anyone.

Seeing the prospect of our build costs and schedule spiraling out of control in the first week, I did what any real Jedi Knight would do: mind tricks.

“These aren’t the grades you’re looking for.” (said in a Jedi undertone to Jamie)

“Huh?” said Jamie but already I could see I had him.

“The door shall be moved, master engineer.” (this time said in a firm Jedi tone)

“Move the door? Hey, move the walkout basement door! That should solve all your problems!” exclaimed Jamie

“What a fine idea, let’s move the door!” agreed Dave The Man.

My exultation had to be kept under wraps you understand. It doesn’t become a Jedi Knight to be seen capering about in flip flops on a building site. But I was dancing inside because in one stroke, my Jedi powers had turned the conversation from an inevitable “computer says no” conclusion, to “Hurray, we’re all happy and slightly embarrassed not to have thought of this sooner” situation.

So, we have the green light to proceed at the foundation depth and grade we want; we have minimised the amount of fill we need, kept the gravity fed septic field and walkout basement, eliminated the need for crushed gravel under the footings and got a better position for the walkout door too. There might need to be some extra paperwork with the city, but in summary, that’s what I call a result.

The moral of this story? Never give up on unleashing your Jedi powers on unsuspecting and uncooperative people when you think you can get away with it. Oh, and don’t mess with my original plans, even if you are a qualified designer. I have Jedi powers.

The House

The House

In a strange kind of way, today is an appropriate time to be writing the post about the house we’re planning to build on the land. That’s because today, after nearly 6 months of planning and bureaucracy, we’ve offered up the children’s inheritance to the City of Ottawa in exchange for a Building Permit. This rather disappointing piece of paper is more precious than a golden Willy Wonker ticket and arguably harder to get. I’d expected big wax embossing, or at least some fake gold leaf sticker. Perhaps a grand signature or two from someone of note. Instead, we got a photocopied proforma and I had to sign it myself.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Back in November 2010 when we submitted our offer for the land, we began to dream about houses. Now, I’m the first to admit that I don’t like scuff and would rather contract herpes than live in a bland house for the rest of my life. Perhaps you’re thinking a nice country farmhouse? French country kitchen, stone walls and gingham? Er, no.

I like modernist architecture. Bold, big and bare. I’ve mellowed in my old age and wouldn’t go so far as to design a white box to live in, but under no circumstances do I want nooks and crannies, little snugs and french bloody country kitchens. Not unless I’m being blackmailed by someone with less compassion than Pol Pot.

Instead, there will be light. Lots and lots and lots of light. Which is good, because that was Emma’s top priority too. In all honesty, she’d probably be ok with a nook and a few crannies. Snugs are fine in her book. But since I decided to design the house myself and I can sulk like a grounded teenager who’s just been informed that the cast of Twilight are outside waiting to play, I get to choose.

But she’s also a practical and cunning woman. She laid down her requirements in less juvenile ways than me. A kitchen at the heart of the home, easy access to the outside, minimized carrying of laundry, cupboard (lots of), no balconies for the kids to parajump off, etc. Nothing unreasonable, but a bugger to fit into my initial designs. Out went the Mediterranean modern villa, adios to the grand internal staircase with glass railings. But what we ended up with, after about a dozen design iterations and some input from the guy who would turn out to be our GC is really rather stunning.

Here’s the final design:

And here’s the 3D model I built to base it on. Other than some changes to the siding and the window configuration, it’s just about identical.
Inside there are 4 rooms downstairs – a kitchen in the middle surrounded by a schoolroom/dining room on one side and a family room on the other. I have a study at the end. All four bedrooms upstairs are south facing to maximise the views and the light. The master has an ensuite and walkin wardrobe and the kids share a huge bathroom.
In the basement we have a walk-out french door to make access easy for carrying in slaughtered livestock for butchering and to provide easy access to my BREWHOUSE. Oh yes boys. A brewhouse. For the making of fine mead, ales, cider, perry and perhaps a wine or two. This house has everything. Perhaps it won’t be such a chore to stay put for a little while.