Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Windows & ceiling fans for improved summer & winter comfort.

The cold from drafts last year with the family's discomfort last summer with lack of ventilation or ability to open doors without letting insects in inspired me to think of solutions.
Although we have plans to fit air conditioning in the kitchen and our office upstairs, it's simply not practical to have a house this size with ceilings this high be air conditioned.
In any case, it's not a healthy solution.

As we have a lot of roof over-hang and also had some very draughty old sliding doors that cut much light due to their frosted glass (whilst also reducing view of the garden), so we got a quotation to have custom made sliding double-glazed doors. These were fitted by specialists whilst Arnie was working on the chimney flue.

Although structurally it was OK, the quality of finishing was laughable as in being non-existent for some parts so I was prepared to ask the company owner if he'd leave screws exposed on the outside of the house, were it his own. He seemed to pre-emp my planned questioning by presenting an invoice with 20% off his original quotation, so we duly paid it and had Arnie make some nice trim to match the rest of the exterior, so these look more authentic than aluminium would have done.

Still, I learnt my lesson. Watch the work of contractors and make sure they do a good job before they make mistakes and leave them. Not all Japanese work to high quality, especially in the building trade, is something I've come to learn.

Views of the garden and daylight are of course much improved & the rooms are a lot less draughty. We hope they'll be less permeable by insects in the summer too and plan to keep the windows open during the day with use of well fitting mosquito screens that make up part of this installation. Inside, there's still some staining of wood & small pieces of trim to add inside, but with all of these things when restoring & improving an old house - the work's never really finsihed. Someday soon I'll get around to it.
The plan for these windows is to have silk blinds which will be custom made in Portugal by someone we know.
We'll have to commission those sometime soon as the intention will be to bring them home with us after visitting this coming summer...

Before Ryan & Mandy - our friends in the military returned to the States at the end of last year, I ordered some Hunter fans with extra long poles to fit.
Fortunately as Arnie had extra wiring put in with the intention of using these for picture lights, it wasn't too difficult for me to neatly integrate into the style of the house with all wiring hidden above the beams.

We've left them around 2 metres off the ground, which to some may seem quite low, but my thinking is that the greater the space above them, the less hot air that may be blown downwards in summer. They're silent and apparently quite efficient. Although we could use them for convection of heat from the stove we haven't really - so far, so we'll wait and see how effective these are.

The main lounge:

The second lounge:

Next will be the planned air-conditioning and fitted de-humidifiers in custom made wardrobes... sometime before summer. Then we'll see how effective our changes have been.
Always much to do, but we need to pace ourselves. As I said to my wife, the first two years of living here will be the hardest, then it' should get more and more comfortable.

Clearing forest for next year's heating & views of a snow covered garden.

Just after new year's, Jun & I spent a good while in the forest behind the house, cutting down the thinner cedar trees, so that there would be more room for the thicker ones to grow unhindered. We must've cut down some 20 trees in a couple of days, although it doesn't look like much when I go back to view it, whilst collecting wheel-barrow loads of chopped wood to fuel the stove.

After spring, I am hoping to get soem cuttings of weeping cherry blossom trees & red maple and grow saplings from these to eventually plant as a border of trees seperating the forest from our house. I am guessing by the time the children have grown up, they'll be fairly large and ready to be trimmed and looked after and if things go to plan, they'll eventually take over looking after the garden, but we'll see what life brings I guess whilst living it one day at a time.

There are some huge hardwood trees (Similar to oak) on the land. Keyaki is the Japanese word for the wood from the Zelkova serrata tree.

This wood is highly prized by Japanese woodworkers for its beautiful grain, and is used to fashion items as small as bowls to large pieces of furniture although I've also heard it said that it's the carpenter's heartbreaker as whilst it dries it can twist and deform terribly, so before any work is done with it, drying will take a very long time...

ne of the oldest and largest known Zelkova trees is called the Great Zelkova Nomo, in Toyono Nose, Osaka, Japan. It is more than 1,000 years old and is a National Natural Monument.
I have no plans to cut any of these beautiful trees down, rather I want to remove a lot of cedar around each of them, to give them space to grow unhindered & at the same time create a spaceous forest with smaller more interesting trees of colour and variety to enjoy. Someday it'll be nice to have paths around our land where we can walk and enjoy the beauty whilst caring for and maintaining the forest. Ideas imagined like this are my inspiration, but I'm under no illusion they'll take a long time to achieve. Indeed, someday when we have a good supply of naturally grown foods & a few small log cabins I hope we'll be able to welcome woofers who will help us make these dreams a reality slowly & bit by bit. It's all part of the excitement of seeing things develop and blossom each year.

Our daughter likes drawing flowers, so in the spring I plan to plant a lot of them in the garden together, so she can watch them blossom. Last year we planted bulbs around trees. I wonder if she'll remember them this year.

Some of the smaller trunks from the trees we cut down have been saved to make trellis with in the front garden. In the sunnier areas we'll attempt to grow grapes together with roses, which I have read - accompany each other well. Whilst doing this, I hope our daughter will take an interest and so learn about flowers and gardening for pleasure from a young age.

It's recently snowed and I took the opportunity to take pictures not just from ground level, but from the top of the roof whilst scaffolding is still up to enable me to climb so high.
Bear in mind the top of the roof is some 20 metres. I'm sure we have some trees that are nearing 40m in length, especially the Zelkova Serrata trees (That's the tall one without leaves in the background).

The above view is taken from the roof and is of a very tall cherry blossom that towers over the house. My guess is that's some 100+ years old.

The building in the left of this picture is what will eventually be moved & rebuilt as a guest house.

The two views below are aerial shots (from the top of the roof) of the right side of our front garden.

We recently met with the owner of the land directly to the right of the house (Behind the trees). He owns some of the taller ones. We asked for and received permission to cut down some of the taller ones that are on the edge of his land - at his expense. These are Japanese cedar, so the plan is to leave mostly Zelkova serrata trees, plant cherry blossoms, citrus fruit trees and cherry blossoms.

Making firewood & Bringing down an eyesore.

A close friend who visits us often & has a good eye for aesthetics made a suggestion a few weeks ago, that we should think about demolishing an ugly wood shed that was very delapidated.
With our young friend Jun working on the land each week, it seemed like a good idea!

First off I got him to demolish and old out-house, so he'd get practice in breaking down a small building first, then after moving cars stored around it, he got on with bringing down the wood shed. The beams & pilars that had made the structure were still good, so these were cut using our chainsaw and stacked on another pile as ready-dried fuel for our stove. At the same time this solved the problem that we had been going through wood rather fast - as we now had enough to keep us warm well into Spring!

Here it is in all it's (lack of!) glory.

The first part was removing the roof, which put a lot of dust in the air from the bark that had been drying under rusted sheet steel for over 50 years.

The structure was interesting as it was all notched together with no use of nails, although some had been pounded in over the years presumably to hold things up.

This is what it looked like shortly before I took the chainsaw to it.

Now there's nothing there, so it'll be space for parking cars that are stored, until we make a proper hard-standing for cars in the forest behind the house, but that may be some years away.
The plan is to eventually take apart, move & rebuild the storage barn that is opposite the house, as a small guest house, but this is a project still some years away!

Meanwhile, Jun has been working on clearing yet more land to grow vegetables on, so the vegetable patch area in the picture below is to also be enlarged.

It's fun to record these pictures, as someday when the guest house is made and complimented by cherry blossoms and red maple, we'll be able to look back at how it all started and smile.
Well, that's the idea but time will tell...

Monday, January 28, 2013

Warm dreams come true.

Last winter was as cold as this one and so over this year we'd looked at the costs & best methods of installing a quality wood burning stove to keep us warm in these colder months.
Those of you who have followed our news will be aware we had chopped & stacked wood from December to Spring, to dry it ready for use in the winter.

This is what it looks like today, but it was an adventure to fit!

We'd obtained several quotations, but each time as they became more detailed we found the estimates escalating. It got to a point that I said - enough, we'll just have to import and do the job ourselves since this would slash costs in roughly half!
My uncle Carlos whose family are based in California had always liked this form of heating and so took a particular interest when I asked him to help me engineer, buy & ship the goods to Japan. As we talked, a plan was hatched. We'd engineer the solution together, based on a detailed quotation we'd obtained here in Japan - he'd order and pay for the goods & shipping and in return I'd supply him a car of the same cost, to import to the US when it becomes eligible in a few years (The car was bought in the meantime and the bodywork restored before putting it under cover to preserve it till it's 25 years old and eligible for import to the US). It'll be further improved with nicer wheels, lower suspension, etc. before it leaves us to head to my uncle.
Hopefully in return it'll be a dream come true for him in 2014, but he'll be over in February to visit and the intention is - he'll get to drive it here too.

And so this story turned into a family project. We spent weeks together going over the details carefully over & over via e-mail & phone to make sure we had all the components we needed to make a very well engineered solution. The stove itself would be the best & largest available. I measured and triple checked, whilst Carlos would continue to question our choices. Eventually we both felt we knew exactly what we'd need to order. We looked at shipping, organised for delivery to his house and collection from there with delivery to Yokohama. By 2nd week of November it was ready to collect from Yokohama port. My wife & I dropped our daughter to Kindergarten, rented a large truck with a tail lift and headed to Yokohama port to do customs clearance and collect the goods.

I made sure the lightest pallets went in the back of the truck and the heaviest closest to the tail lift.

On arrival home, I unloaded the 3 pallets, using 2 trolley jacks and a plank of wood to wrestle the 300kg stove off the truck floor, onto the lift & off it again before driving the truck back to the rental depot with my daughter. Our first part of the mission had been accomplished!

The components for the chimney flue, including spare piping & flashing as we didn't really know how we would create the right solution. We just knew we'd do our best - so we covered various options.

Arnie (Our friend & carpenter) quickly figured out an easier way to get it inside the house using old planks of wood and scaffolding wheels and the two trolley jacks to tilt the pallet enough to allow the wheels to be fitted.

And so by lunch time, the stove was sitting in our other lounge awaiting the build of the hearth place.

Arnie & I figured that a thin 3mm plywood sheet attached to an oak frame - stained and laquered with a plastic membrane sheet taped into place would make a good base. It only needed attaching to the wall at the very back, since the weight of the stones & concrete would hold it in place permanently.

We'd ordered 4 square metres of stone, but when it had arrived the colour turned out to be much more "pink" than we'd imagined from small pictures. Still, by then it was too late as we had to get on with the job.
Sam, Arnie's son is an artist and was well suited to making a good pattern of fit, whilst Arnie trimmed the stones outside using a cutting wheel.To protect the floor we laid scrap cardboard down well and used masking tape to the very edge of our wood trim.

The stones were laid in a bed of concrete, making especially sure the positions where the stove's feet would sit would all be well supported and level. Then the concrete was left to dry over the weekend.

Before using white cement to grout the gaps. Note the hole in the ground. This was carefully measured for the cold air feed, which enables the stove to use air from under the house for the fire, which reduces air being drawn from inside the house and thus reduces drafts from outside.

The local stove company who'd spent a fair amount of time working out the quotations for us had understood & appreciated that their pricing was unaffordable to us when we called to explain, apologise & thank them for the time they'd invested. They kindly said that if we did need any help or advice, to ask - The Japanese are sweet like this and we hope we can in turn help them in some way in future.

The scaffolding company they use came to fit, but had never worked on a copper roof before and had no idea how to safely put up scaffolding without damaging the contours. From inside, Arnie & I measured where there were metal beams & wooden supports and from this knowledge, we were able to make a pine frame on which the metal feet could be attached. From a team of 5, two worked feverishly carrying components, whilst the remaining barked orders. Shinobu, Arnie's son did most of the securing of wood with screws, but by around 6pm we had it done.
How scaffolding would be put up without damaging the roof had been a concern but as we finished the day I breathed a sigh of relief. Another challenge had been met!

The next day with Arnie having prepared a frame over the preceeding couple of days and added a 1cm thick fireproof layer, we glued the remaining stones into place using self-tapping screws & pieces of scrap wood to hold them in place. We fitted small boxes around where electrical receptacles were positioned and masked these off, before concreting between the gaps.

With the concrete dried, we removed the masking and swept the cardboard clean to avoid concrete dust causing scratches to the varnish. The hearth had turned out a lot nicer than we'd imagined.
Now at last we were ready to put the stove into place and begin working on fitting the chimney flue!

To lift the stove into place, we used a 3-Ton Chihoru mechanical winch I'd bought from Yahoo! auctions as a 2nd hand kit to use for tree felling & dragging...

We didn't know how to release it... So on top of a 3 metre step ladder I had a fight with this 3 ton winch.... and the winch won!!

As I pulled hard on a short lever, all of a sudden the long handle which had been used to lift the stove released the weight of around 300kg & whacked me on the side of the head.
"OOOOUUCH!!!!" I yelled, as I rubbed my swelling head. Fortunately I hadn't been knocked off the ladder!

We continued, whilst the side of my head bled a little and begun to swell. I could only laugh at my stupidity and be thankful it hadn't been worse but for the next week or so I wondered what people thought I'd been up to when they saw me, ha!

The stove positioning had been carefully planned to allow enough space from combustible materials and now sat perfectly - without even needing to adjust lef heights. Our concrete slabs had dried in position without sinking.
spot lights I'd put up were re-positioned and we marvelled at how good the stove now looked in it's permanent home.

The next step was of course to be up in the roof. A messy place as there's still so much soot from the irori fire that had burned inside the house for centuries!
Arnie & Sam had used scaffolding to make a safe platform to work on first. Arnie then figured out the safest way to route the double walled flue as straight as possible up to the roof, avoiding beams along the way and using correct lengths to enable the chimney to protrude the required amount through the intended hole. Particular attention was paid to movement from heavy earthquakes as well as clearance from combustible surfaces. He even used cladding to make a collar so that if straw were to fall at the base of where the piping comes through the ceiling, it wouldn't be able to sit against the chimney flue.

The picture below shows a wooden plank close to the flue, this was part of the scaffolding whilst working. For those interested in how we engineered safety through a thatched roof - Notice the fibreglass insulation inside the chimney facade that was made for the protrusion through the roofing. The plywood box was very strongly attached to the structure so it could never be blown around by winds. The insulation also left no air gaps. With a double walled chimney flue carrying the gasses temperatures can never get hot enough to risk a fire. Aside from support brackets and locking rings between each section, the piping used was fitted as short as it could possibly go - which means the weight of the chimney can never cause the chimney to reduce in length.
Arnie's the man!!!

The top of the roof was the final part of course. The existing copper roofing had been cut to allow the wood to come through, so this was beaten and bent back into place first.

I'd ordered 0.8mm copper which was very heavy to carry & work with & overkill - but it was the thinnest I could find of the sizes we wanted.

First we secured the stainless steel chimney top and made sure the copper wouldn't come into direct contact with any other metal to avoid any possible corrosion form electrolysis.

Nails used were all copper and so we had to punch holes in the sheet first, then hammer the nails home.

To finish, we put on the copper chimney cap Carlos had sourced from a Stateside supplier.

The final solution had saved around 30-40% over what we'd have been charged to buy & have the work done by the local specialist, but most importantly had been fitted to the best level of quality & safety possible & I hope these pictures and details will help give a good example to others who may want to fit a similar stove to their Kominka here in Japan.

It's now been a couple of months since we begun using the stove. We've been burning Japanese cedar, which is the prediminant wood we have on our land that we also intend to continue cutting down. Our lounge has become a room that is used much more and on especially cold nights we bring futons and sleep in front of the fire together.

As it has a catalyst, it burns much of the creosote resin that would otherwise escape up the chimney. On very cold days we heat just the lounge, but the adjourning rooms can be heated too, especially if we use a small fan to direct the warm air. Although we bought a fire grate to protect our son, he knew from the beginning it's hot & therefore dangerous and doesn't ever go too close, but of course we always keep an eye on him. We also haven't fitted the fan kit at the back of the stove to aid convection. The cold air feed was definitely worthwhile.
I guess we can sell the extra things we don't need, as there is demand for this sort of thing in Japan anyway.

My old sailing friend Obata San is very good at making metal things and from pictures I e-mailed of our progress, he kindly made two log racks for us to use. In return, we gave him a truckload of wood which will help keep he & his wife warm at home this winter. I'd like to give him some of our wood each year. It's always warming to the heart to be able to help a friend in return who has helped so much in the past when we sailed our catamarans together in Inage & Yamanaka lake.

We have gone through about half the wood we stacked and dried last year and will have enough wood to continue to burn well into the spring, especially as we took down an old wood shed (eye-sore!) recently

Finally, here's a picture of us on our son's first birthday, where Mum & daughter had baked the cake & decorated it together. Slowly, our little girl is taking more & more interest in typical female interests. I hope to plant lots of flowers & rose bushes in the spring with her and make those little fingers green from a young age. Time will tell...

A memorable Autumn

I returned from Portugal as temperatures begun to fall. Most of our family's birthdays & our wedding anniversary fall in this season. Family life has a habit of keeping our free time busy and so there wasn't much time to continue working on the home project before November, but we had fun together.

Our little boy has grown very quickly. He eats a lot and as a result has stamina, strength and needs lots of nappy changes. He crawls, teeth have all come out & I keep being told to enjoy these times and so I do my best to as this innocence won't last forever. Having a 2nd child is definitely harder work than having just one, so I try to give my wife as much help as I can with them. We're both enjoying being parents, but sometimes look back at the luxuries of travelling care-free for weekends away, enjoying evenings out or just spending half a day in bed.
Sacrifices of the heart for love are all worth it.

With the continuing turmoil in the world business has slowed over the last 5 years.
Although thankfully it continues fairly steadily for us, I find as I make less income, the quality of our lives continues to improve inversely proportionally. I find I have more time to think of what we want to do and although there's less money to spend - there's always a way if there's motivation. So I spend some time educating myself on how to do things, observing others and imagining what life can become if we put our minds to it.

Our daughter is now 4 and so we're trying to teach her what we can, whilst always remembering to keep it fun, exciting and challenging.
I drive her to kindergarten each day, to help give our boy more time at home than sitting in the car for up to 2 hours a day for the commute.
As she now speaks English fairly well, I try to teach her a little Portuguese from time to time and vary the conversation.
Sometimes it's about what she wants to talk about, sometimes I share about things she's interested in. Mostly it's important to talk and stimulate her mind & imagination.

We continue to belive that despite the 1 hour commute there & back, plus the amount of extra time mothers need to spend there cooking, organising events and more - our daughter's kindergarten was the right choice for her. In the summer they made some basic swimming pools in the play area outside complete with slide and so the children learnt how not to be afraid of water.
She's learnt to put her head under water and hold her breath and does her best to swim which was a great start, She's become quite creative with drawing & making things and always looks forward to going in the mornings. We feel she really is learnng all sorts of basic things that are important for life, rather than accademic work, although she's showing definite interests in learning to read, which we're figuring out now - in the most fun ways possible of course.
The school had a small festival in the autumn, where the children performed songs, shared activities with parents and watched shows given by tallented mothers.

The children from her school did a singing performance in the park of our local village. In the evening three men climbed to the top of the bamboo & straw tower and threw mochi (Rice cakes) and other snacks to all the crowd, before setting fire to the tower as the sun set. This was a rice festival to bless the next harvest & be thankful for the one they'd just had.

I sometimes joke that as we live in a forest we don't need to travel to go to one, but of course it's good to get away, especially during the colourful season in October.
For our wedding anniversary we did something impulsive and drove 4 hours to get to Kamokochi. Whilst the children slept on a double futon in our van, we sipped Port wine, whilst bathing our feet in the foot spa in the moon light. Next day we took the taxi ride to the national park to walk and enjoy the autumn colours of the mountain range.

Our daughter continues to enjoy dancing, something we'll continue to encourage.

For her birthday, despite a healthy dislike for multinational commercialism - we took her to visit Disneyland. Surprisingly her favourite ride was the merry-go-round.