Repurposing

After a few failed attempts at jump-starting this site as a home renovation blog, we’ve decided it’s time to move on to something different.

While we’re still doing a lot of work on the house, much of that work is extremely slow moving and difficult to pin down in a way that was easy for us to keep writing about.  Not to mention that while the ins and outs of our duct insulation is a gripping topic for us, it’s likely not such a relatable topic if you’re not going through a renovation project.  On top of it all, having a kid and starting a small business have made it difficult for us to find time to update regularly.

Still, we did at one time successfully maintain a blog with a pretty active readership so it seemed like we should be able to figure out something to do here.  One thing about 30 Bucks a Week that made it easy to keep writing was that we were challenging ourselves to change a part of our everyday lifestyle.  The project required consistent planning, which it turn gave us fodder for blog posts.  A new personal challenge seemed like a good place to start for the future of this blog.

Building on the elements DIY and sustainability that were part of 30/Week, our plan for Minnisingh is focused on localism.  In short, we’re going to try to engage as much as possible in local systems, institutions, and people to provide the goods and services we need.

There are a lot of advantages – economic, environmental, social – to turn to local resources first, but it’s not necessarily a straightforward path. Unlike 30/Week, this isn’t a project with one simple rule (don’t spend more than $30/week on groceries).   This challenge has the potential to touch essentially every part of our lives and a big part of this new challenge is going to be figuring  out what we want the rules to be.  There are all sorts of criteria we could use to evaluate the things we do and don’t want to buy.

How much do we care whether the locally-made bread we buy at the locally-owned market is made with flour from halfway across the country? At the moment, the idea of cutting coffee, chocolate, citrus, and olive oil out of our diets seems pretty much like a non-starter, but maybe if we challenged ourselves to use local alternatives for a week we might learn something.  And there will almost certainly be times when we have to figure out how we want to weigh local provenance against other important criteria – not least of all cost.

And how close is local? Fifty miles from home?

We have a lot to figure out.

We do have a couple legs up as we get started.  We’re members of an amazing CSA whose farm is located a 10 minute bike ride from our house and we’re looking forward to diving back into writing about cooking as we enjoy the season’s harvest and work to preserve as much of it as we can so that we can rely on this ultra-local fruits and veggies as much as possible over the winter.

There are also a bunch of folks focused on building local economies nearby, including groups dedicated to supporting local agriculturerevitalizing downtown Poughkeepsie, building a local currency, and encouraging localism generally.

We’re excited about this new experiment.  We know it’s going to be a long-term project and it won’t always be easy, but we’re looking forward to finding out what we can learn from the challenge and for the prospect of connecting more with the community we joined when we moved here three years ago.

Stick with us!

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Garden Fence!

Our first big garden infrastructure project is done!  We now have a split rail fence surrounding the north half of the property, which includes our main garden area as well as the little strip behind the house where we eventually want to put in a patio.

We had been thinking this could be a DIY project, but given how visible the fence is for us and all our neighbors, we didn’t really trust ourselves to be able to install it as neatly as we would have liked and still have it done in enough time to get some use out of it this year.  Plus, fence rails and posts are not cheap even for a DIY project.  So we ended up going with professionals and we’re pretty happy with how it turned out overall.

The rear gate at the site of our future patio.

The rear gate at the site of our future patio.

The primary purpose of the fence is critter control, though to that end it doesn’t offer much of a physical barrier.  Our fence is only 3′ high – mostly because town code only allows a 3.5′ tall fence anywhere between the front profile of the house and the street frontage, where about half our fence is located.  Definitely jumpable for a deer if it really wants to get in, but our hope is that the fence will still work as a psychological deer deterrent given that there are plenty of other ways to cross through the neighborhood without hopping a fence.  Anyway, we wouldn’t really have wanted to install at 10′ deer fence even if the town allowed it – or we could afford it.  If it turns out deer are jumping the fence, we can always attach some tall trellising (or tall stakes with wire run between) that can be easily removed if somebody complains.

Attached to the wooden rails, the fence has welded wire (like vinyl-coated chicken wire) that keeps smaller critters from coming through and also makes it a relatively effective dog fence so Penny can have a place to run around outside without being hooked up to a lead.  Again, she could probably jump it if she really wanted to, but so far she hasn’t tried.  Also, we’ll eventually want to dig a little trench along the fence line and lay down some additional wire to keep critters from digging under.

The front gate - easy access from the Bilco.

The front gate – easy access from the Bilco.

In addition to a pest and pet barrier, the fence is also the first big design element of the garden and I’m finding it makes it easier for me to visualize how to lay out the rest of the space.

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The edge of the driveway, where we’ll eventually have some deer-proof hedges on the outside of the fence and some currant and gooseberry bushed on the inside.

Next up – soil improvement and planting some edible shrubs (i.e. berry bushes) and a fruit tree.

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2015 Garden Season Launch

With most of our attention focused on the kid last spring and summer, our 2014 garden expansion ended up being a bit of a bust.  This year rather than trying to make the garden bigger, we’re focused on some fundamental improvements to make it better.

The first task here is soil improvement.  We’re staring with heavily compacted, gravel-filled suburban lawn and last year’s half-hearted sheet mulching wasn’t nearly enough to transform it into healthy garden soil.  This year, the sheet mulched bed is getting tilled up using our newly acquired Rogue field hoe and then planted with a green manure cover crop.   Meanwhile, the raised bed soil’s getting supplemented with our first solid bunch of homemade compost.

IMG_7124After some reinforcement, the soil sifter I made out of scrap lumber and hardware cloth last year was up to the job of separating out the fine finished compost from the chunky bits.  If we braved the snow to turn the pile over the winter I think we would have gotten more finished material, but what we have should be enough to build up the organic matter in the small beds.

IMG_7125The other big garden improvement we’ve embarked on is a fence to keep the critters out.  We decided to hire professionals for that job and work is underway right now, so we’ll have pictures to share soon.

Finally, we invested a little money in a basic drip irrigation kit so we can water more effectively and efficiently throughout the season.

Hopefully, all these improvements will make a firm foundation for bountiful fruit and veggie harvests.  On that note, we have some exciting plantings queued up for this season, including a fruit tree and some berry bushes.  More on that in a future post.

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Long Time no Blog

Updates around here have been conspicuously absent so far in 2015 (not to mention for most of 2014).  Mostly that’s a result of jobs and the baby and the dog leaving us limited time to undertake blogable projects, much less write blog posts about them.  In last couple of months in particular though, the Minnisingh household has been busy with a couple of big things in addition to shoveling endless snow and trucking endless firewood into the house.

For one, Phil left his job at the end of the year to start his own business – a consulting practice providing financial planning help to nonprofits and small businesses.  It’s off to a really good start, but tending to a fledgling business on top of everything else really cuts down on free time.

Second, we had to deal with some family medical stuff.  We’ve known since before he was born that Lucien had a condition called hydronephrosis in one of his kidneys.  It’s pretty common and often resolves itself either in utero or soon thereafter.  In Lucien’s case, however, the issue was more on the severe side, not improving, and starting to do permanent damage to his kidney.  so in early February he had a surgical procedure to correct the issue.  He came through the surgery like a champ and chances are good that the problem will be completely resolved.   Also, it’s worth pointing out that he doesn’t seem to have ever been in any discomfort or had any noticeable symptoms at all –  it’s only due to ultrasounds that we ever knew the issue existed.  Anyway, between all the doctor appointments and pre-surgery testing and a the better part of a week in the childrens’ hospital, a big chunk of our 2015 has been focused on getting this situation taken care of.  Maybe we’ll write some more about this at some point – it was definitely helpful for us to hear from other folks who had been through it.

Good as new!

Good as new!

But now spring is starting to sprung and we have no shortage of projects waiting for us so it seems like a good time to jumpstart this site.  A few of the things we’re looking forward to (and/or “looking forward to”) tackling in the coming months:

  • Fencing in the north end of the property as a first step to significantly expanding the garden.  Deer deterrence and local building codes around fence installation will go head to head.
  • We’ve got to start doing major soil amendment work if we’re going to grow much of anything at any point.
  • The chimney chase running through our home office is still unfinished drywall and in the process of having it installed, we exposed a bunch of nice moldings that need serious refinishing.  Also, the shape of that part of the room is weird now and we’ve been thinking about installing some built-in shelving to make it look more purposeful.
  • The winter has left our already sparsely-graveled driveway a muddy, rutted mess.  At least one of us has dreams of a brick or paver ribbon driveway, but in the short term we may just need to bite the bullet and pay for like 15 yards of new gravel.
  • In the never-ending quest for some kind of energy efficiency, we want to install some weatherproof convertible screen/storm doors that, unlike out current storm doors, actually cover the whole aperture of the doorway.
  • Everything is always breaking and we need to figure out how to fix it.

Stay tuned!

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Mix and Match Heat

The path toward figuring out how to heat the house is really a one-step-at-a-time project.  Getting the wood stove installed was definitely a big leap in that regard, but it didn’t get us all the way there.  The big issue these days is distributing the heat produced by our (sizable) stove throughout the house.

In general, we’re using the air handler to circulate the hot air throughout the house and we’ve put dampers on most of the ducts leading to registers on the first floor so that the hot air is directed primarily to the second floor, where the radiant heat from the stove can’t reach.  In addition, we had the thermostat moved upstairs (and out of the room with the wood stove), effectively creating two heating zones in the house: the first floor relies on the wood stove and the second floor which gets residual heat from the stove, but gets an assist from propane as needed.

A the moment, the temperature of air through the forced air ducts still a bit uneven, which I think it largely due to draftiness near the floor returns on first floor drawing colder air into the ducts.  Out ongoing efforts to air seal and insulate will improve this situation over time.

Also, we want to maximize the passive transfer of heat to the second floor, which could involve installing a short vent between the ceiling of wood stove room and the floor of the hallway above.  Our fire inspector pointed out that there’s a safety concern here, in that a vent between floors of the house could allow a house fire to spread more rapidly.  He didn’t know whether the vent would be acceptable under fire codes, so I had to get in touch with the New York State Department of State’s Division of Code Enforcement and Administration.  It turns out that there is no code that directly addresses this issue and as a result, it isn’t prohibited.  They state agreed with the safety concern our local inspector raised, but noted that an open stairwell (in the adjacent room, in our case) offers a similar risk.  So, we may move forward with that.

In the meantime, we’ve had almost two months of use out of the wood stove so far, which gives us some data to show how it’s impacting our propane usage.  The last time I charted our propane usage was for the winter and spring of 2012/2013 (i.e., not this last winter of polar vortices).  During that time, we were using anywhere between 5 and 7.5

propane usage 3

The temperatures in recent weeks have been somewhat higher, overall, than those in the last chart, but it’s hard to miss how much lower our propane usage has been.  Even when the temperatures dropped in the latter half of November, our average gallons/day (right-hand Y axis) came in at just under 2.5.  The last delivery period in the graph above had roughly the same average high and low temperatures (high 46, low 28) and we were using almost twice as much propane.

 

fall2014propaneSo, it seems pretty clear that the economic benefit is there.  At the rate we’re currently paying for propane ($2.49/gal, which seems to be our baseline pricing, though in winter it has gotten much higher), reducing our daily usage by 2.5 gallons means a monthly savings of about $185.  Once it gets colder out, we could potentially have more dramatic savings assuming we can maximize our wood heat.  Even more so if propane costs increase again.  Of course to know our true savings and the timeline for a financial return on installing the stove we also have to account for how much we’re paying for wood.  But since it’s a bit hard to gauge exactly how much we’ve spent on the wood we’ve used so far (some of it was bought, some I split from trees we paid to have taken down, some I split from trees our neighbors took down), I’m going to wait for spring to do that calculation.

Above and beyond the economics, the big difference is that our house is much more comfortable so far this fall and winter than it has been the last two years.  Draftiness is still an issue and the upstairs does still get cold toward the end of the night, but now we can spend a snowy evening at home without needing to put on two pairs of socks and an extra sweater and climb under a blanket to get warm.  There’s a lot of value in that as well.

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This Old House

Out to brunch at one of our favorite local restaurants a few weeks ago, we came across the Poughkeepsie edition of Arcadia’s Images of America local history books.  We were flipping through it while waiting for our food to arrive and were pretty excited to find this:
musselman farm

We recognized not only the names right away, but the view.  The house in the background of this picture is right across the street from us and Young Mrs. Aylmer Musselman is sitting in our front yard.  The “distinctive turreted stone house” is of course none other than our very own Minnisingh!  We knew that the Musselman family built our house (and that we are only the third owners) but this is the first photo we had ever seen of any of the Musselmans and it’s definitely the oldest photo of the neighborhood we’ve seen (by a good 50 years) . Here’s what the same view looks like today:

23musselmanI had always meant to look into the history of our house at our local historical society, but now that we really have some information to go on I’m going to make this a winter project for sure.

 

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Squash Corn Cakes

Until today, it looked like the weather was going firmly in the direction of deep autumn. Over the weekend, it was chilly enough that hot hearty breakfasts were the order of the day. These cornmeal pancakes coated the ribs for sure, incorporating two of the three sisters – corn and squash.
corn squash cakes

 

Cornmeal Cakes with Squash

  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup diced squash, pre-cooked (we used butternut)
  • 2 egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/8 milk
  • 1/4 apple cider
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Basically just combined all this stuff in a big bowl and then cooked the batter up in a cast iron skillet.  Served with butter, maple syrup, and a couple over easy eggs on top.  These are some pretty dense pancakes and are perfect for a fall or winter morning.

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Wood Stove Installed

One of our longest home improvement struggles to date has finally (essentially) drawn to a close.  After a year and change worth of conflicting inspections, assessments and estimates from half a dozen contractors and vendors, we have a functioning wood stove.

Beyond the nice atmosphere it lends, our plan all along has been to use the stove in order to convert a big part of our home heating to wood (from propane).  As a result, our process of planning the installation has involved not just fire code, budgeting considerations, and aesthetics, but also overall energy efficiency concerns and how the wood stove fits in with other elements of our current HVAC system.  Complication after complication.  Fortunately, a lot of those complications worked themselves out.

In the end we couldn’t use the existing masonry chimney and had to run a new pipe up through the house.  Our contra11ctor had warned us that the new chimney was going to stick up about 11 feet from the roof in order to meet fire code.  We  were worried it might look sort of ridiculous – a giant metal missile sticking out of an old stone house – but they painted it matte black and it doesn’t look half bad.  Maybe it’s an effect of the steep pitch of the roof, but it doesn’t even look that tall.

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Upstairs, the chimney runs through the office before hitting the attic, so there’s some additional reno we’re going to have to do there to finish up the chase (drywall, baseboards) and we’re thinking of building some custom shelving alongside it to tie the new shape of the room together a bit more.

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Before the stove could be installed in what was the dining room, we also had to deal with the crumbling plaster walls in the (now former) dining room.  In other areas of the house, we’d been able to do a passable job at patching old plaster with joint compound and then just painting over it, but that strategy wasn’t going to work here.

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In the end, we took the plaster and lath down with a chisel and a pry bar and replaced it with sheetrock.  This was no picnic in itself, since the various depths of the wood window trim, the baseboards, and the existing sheetrock lining the tops of the walls made it pretty much impossible to install the new wallboard flush with all the existing surfaces.

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We ended up using the same tactic as the prior owners and covering up uneven seams in the walls with molding.  While we had the walls open, we decided to also install some insulation, since otherwise the only thing between us and the outside would be drafty old masonry and a layer of 5/8 sheetrock. I installed some foam board and spray foam at the top of each bay first to try to keep air from flowing up through the walls, then installed a layer of R15 mineral wool batting.

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We knew this wasn’t going to be a huge insulation fix (especially since it was only on one section of exterior wall), but hopefully it’ll be better than the cold air highway of empty balloon framing.  We had a chance to test that theory out with a new energy audit.

We’ve engaged a historic preservation consultant to help us work through some of the idiosyncrasies of the house’s construction – particularly around how to effectively insulate and air seal.  We went through this process a while back, which led to a bunch of the work we did in the basement, as well as getting cellulose insulation installed in the floor of the attic.  Unfortunately, from the results of this new energy audit, it looks like those measures weren’t terribly effective.  Which is a bummer, especially since they weren’t cheap.  Anyway, what we’ll have to do to achieve real energy efficiency is a whole other blog post.

For now, suffice it to say that our DIY insulation job in this room will probably end up being only marginally effective.  But it didn’t take all that much money or time, and it got me some experience learning how to insulate a wall so I’m not too upset.

Even if we aren’t keeping as much of our heat inside as we would like, we have had a couple cool days recently that let us get a sense of how well the wood stove can heat up the house and it actually seems to do a pretty great job.  The stove is rated for a 3,000 sq. ft. home (ours is not that big in terms of finished space) so the room with the stove gets toasty.  We’re also using the air handler’s fan to circulate that hot air through the house via the duct work.  This means we’re using a fair amount of electricity to distribute the heat (the air handler is running almost constantly), but that was sort of the case when we were running the boiler for heat as well, plus we were using propane and the house didn’t get nearly so warm.

We still need to do some experimentation to figure out the best way to keep the heat as even as possible between the two floors and of course we haven’t had the real test of a polar vortex yet, but so far the new system seems promising in terms of increased comfort and decreased heating bills.  Plus, we can sit with a glass of bourbon and read books by the fire now.

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We’ve also got some furniture planning left to do, but just took delivery on our new couch and with the partial decorating we’ve got done so far, the room is looking pretty good.

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Plus, it turns out that the room with the fireplace and the bay window works really nicely as a dining room.

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Battery Acid? Pssshaw!

In prepping for Lucien’s arrival, we got a bunch of things for free or cheap via friends and Craigslist. One thing we got for free was a baby swing. We were told all babies need to have a swing, so a free one was awesome! After getting it home and cleaning it off, we put it in a corner to await the babe’s arrival. Post-birth we thought it would be a good idea to put batteries in the swing so we could actually use it. After opening the battery compartment with a tiny screwdriver (baby toys + tiny screwdrivers = annoying) we discovered batteries…batteries that had corroded and ruined the ability of the swing to swing without manual labor on the part of us, the busy parents.

We still used it occasionally, swinging it with our bare hands, until one day when I thought that the internet might have an answer. IT DID. The answer is baking soda. What can baking soda NOT do? To fix up nasty battery compartments, just mix up some baking soda and water to form a gloppy paste and clean the corroded terminals and wherever you see green/white crusty bits with a q-tip. Then, just wipe that off with a damp cloth, let dry and voila! You have a working toy. Thanks to this guy on YouTube for showing me how.

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Updates, Various

Finding time for blogging with an infant in the house hasn’t proven so easy, but there’s actually been a fair amount going on around the house.  First, a gratuitous baby shot.

Summer 074

  • After almost a year of assessment and reassessment, we’ve finally scheduled the installation of our wood stove.  This means our dining room where the stove has to go will have to become a sitting room and our sitting room will have to become the dining room.  It’ll all take a fair amount of reconfiguration (not to mention an 11 foot chimney pipe sticking out of the roof) but at least we should have a warmer house and lower propane bills this winter.
  • While we had contractors looking at the wood stove options, they noticed that the cap on the second chimney (the one that used to vent the oil-burning hot water heater) was way to small and basically just letting tons of rain water funnel directly down to the foundation.  So, we had that sealed up with a steel plate.  That side of the basement is still super damp, but we made it through some recent rain storms without the sump pump coming on for hours at a time, so maybe the plate helped.
  • To figure out our path forward on the historic masonry and the insulation for the walls, we’ve hired a preservation firm to provide some consulting services.  They came to do an assessment a couple weeks ago and we’re awaiting their report in the next couple of weeks.
  • Out in the garden, we had a good crop of peas and beans, but a lot of the other veggies (brassicae, tomatoes, beets, carrots) are producing some underwhelming yields.  Since the nitrogen fixers seem to be the only things thriving, I’ve decided it’s time to focus on big time soil improvement, especially adding organic matter and nitrogen with compost and cover crops as well as dealing with soil compaction – mainly by digging up the beds with a pick mattock, but also by using a cover crop of oilseed radishes.

We’ll try to get back on the posting wagon now that we’re getting the hang of child care (for now).  For now, one more baby pic for the road.

Summer 159

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