Sunday, November 30, 2008

Building a Small House

A house under 2000 square feet is considered small; it is the typical minimum house size in a subdivision development. But a small, energy efficient house is easy to heat, cool, clean and maintain.

It is not easy to squeeze a spare bedroom, over-sized master bedroom, extra bathrooms, washing machine, dishwasher, an HVAC system, a water heater and storage into a home under 2000 square feet. Consider what is really a necessity and how many well defined spaces you need to create. An open floor-plan helps a small space feel large but it can be difficult because it doesn't always offer the inhabitants enough privacy.

There are many energy and space efficient materials available like instant water heaters and boilers that take up a third of the space and a tenth of the energy of their predecessors. As with budgeting the cost of a home; budgeting the use of square footage requires planning. And it requires an understanding of the spaces you need. Identifying how many people occupy a home at various times of year, how the spaces in the home are used, and what is done at home will help in this planning process.

Featured here is a 24x36 timber frame with about 1700 square feet of space with two bedrooms, two office nooks and an open plan kitchen dining and living room and lots of storage. It takes approximately two months to gather and prepare all of the materials for the shell of a home this size. Our crew raises a 24x36 timber frame in one day, the panels are installed in another two days. Windows, doors and a metal roof are installed in one more day. We are typically on a house site for four or five days (depending on the weather), building a weather tight shell. A homeowner than has a comfortable, protected, and lock-able environment in which to finish his or her home.

In this uncertain economy with high heating costs a small energy efficient home is a joy to own, heat and maintain.

small often makes sense. We will be posting a series of articles and photos of small house building projects that we have designed, built or perhaps simply inspired. If you have a project that you would like us to share with the Shelter Institute Community, please email a description and any photos to

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sharpening Efficiently and Effectively

by Pat Hennin

A carpenter’s, cook’s, landscapers, artisan’s . . . well, EVERYBODY’S recurring frustration is a tool that fails to cut. For forty years I’ve sharpened on virtually everything, even a concrete sidewalk while trying to mow a lawn I had been dropped off to do with a dull blade! Over the years, a slowly growing income and faster growing knowledge have led to better alternatives: sandpaper pasted to glass, seemingly cheap – but it doesn’t last and it is not too portable since the glass breaks; oil stones from slimy gritty to awkwardly short slimy Arkansas (do you rub the stone on the tool or the tool on the stone?); Japanese wet stones with honing guides that either ride on the stone and ruin it or guides that ride off the stone and need to be readjusted; diamond stones clogging with invisible rust and costing . . . well, like diamonds. For awhile I tried the flat plate circular electrics – leaving all of my clothes soaked at waist-level and turning all of my tools into skew chisels! Lurking out there was this magical tool, the Tormek, which I refused to buy because it cost so much! When my son joined the business he insisted I grow up and buy the Tormek. It paid for itself in a month! While our crew used to spend hours sharpening their timber framing chisels and slicks, the job is now done in minutes, right on site with very little interruption of work. Combining a 220 grit vertical wheel spinning at just the right speed not to spray water, both the grinding and the conditioning is done in one step instead of two and in a minute instead of forty. The buffing wheel is extraordinary, it puts a razor edge on in seconds. The convenience, speed and accuracy of this tool make my former concentration on short-term savings foolish . . . penny-wise and pound foolish as they say. By spending a little more (a good set of wet stones and guide start at about $250). We have saved thousands in time and labor. The Tormek has also proven far more durable than stones. With a long list of accessory guides, virtually every shape can be sharpened on the Tormek. It turns with such a steady fortitude that I find I can usually sharpen things free hand and certainly easily touch up anything! Life is SHARP, life is GOOD!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Small House Building

by Blueberry Beeton

The trend toward smaller houses continues to increase in scale and scope. It does not seem to matter whether it is a single family home, a second home or a camp. Homeowners, owner builders, designers and architects, are seeking smaller and more efficiently designed spaces.

One of our favorite techniques for helping students prepare for a project is to have them build a small structure on their property. This exercise provides two benefits: the experience and the end product! It offers you the opportunity to test your project planning and construction skills on a small and manageable scale; giving you the opportunity to identify which parts of the project you enjoy and are good at doing. You may fall in love with the simplicity of plumbing or enjoy running your own electricity or perhaps you will find that you hate trim detail or love it. In the end you are left with a great small structure that you can use to store tools and supplies as you are building or having the full-size structure built!

Many of the inquiries we have from clients and students are from people interested in downsizing in order to simplify their lives, reduce their carbon footprint and overall expenses. Whatever the reason, small often makes sense. We will be posting a series of articles and photos of small house building projects that we have designed, built or perhaps simply inspired. If you have a project that you would like us to share with the Shelter Institute Community, please email a description and any photos to

Featured here are photos from our last
Small Housebuilding Class in which students came from all over the country. They learned about design, construction planning, construction skills and techniques. And they had the opportunity to put there hands to use and to test and hone their skills. Visit to learn more about the various classes, books and tools available to build your next project, large or small!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

New Free Seminars

There are a lot of alternative products available from composting toilets to instant water heaters, geothermal heat sources and active solar. It can be really difficult to know when one of these systems is appropriate to use. Join us for a free information session on some of our favorite alternative products and learn about pros and cons of the alternative method, the difference between brands and how to decided if an alternative method is right for your project. Visit our schedule for a list of upcoming discussions. If you don't see the topic you need please send us an email with a suggestion:
Sessions are free of charge but you must pre-register: there is a minimum of five attendees and a maximum of 25. Visit our website, call or email to reserve your spot today.
Geothermal Heat Source: (October 24, 2008 9:30 AM)
Geothermal heat is becoming more and more readily available with the crunch in fuel sources. But a lot of people still don’t really know what it is. Join us for a free one hour lecture on geothermal heat pumps. Our featured speaker will cover the basics of open and closed loop systems, heat and air conditioning distribution technologies and why they are appropriate. As well as information about potential pitfalls.

Composting Toilets: (November 15, 2008 9:30 AM)
We’ve been using and selling composting toilets for 35 years. Come for a one hour workshop on the basic function of composting toilets, what is required for installation, code conformance and basic pros and cons of various models. Bring your questions and if we don’t have the answers we’ll get them for you.

Intro to Active Solar Energy (December 13, 2008 9:30 AM)

Is solar a viable option for you? Our Solar Angles lecture in the Design Build Class teaches you how to site your home to capture both active and passive energy using a compass and climate maps. In today’s uncertain energy market many past students and current customers are asking us about active solar. Our guest speaker, from Revision Energy, will discuss viable renewable energy options including: solar electricity, solar hot water, and wood fired boilers. Our presenter will be discussing renewable energy applications for your home. She will discuss the costs of these systems, your return on investment, and show you completed project photos of some the hundreds of Maine residents who have already made the switch to one of these sustainable energy options. The program will last about an hour and will include time for questions and answers. This is a free presentation but space is limited and you must sign up in advance.
Instant Water Heaters: (January 17, 2008 9:30 AM)
Instant water heaters are an excellent solution toenergy consumption problems. Join us for a one hour workshop on the basic function of instant water heaters, different brands to consider, how to size them, and installation tips. Bring your questions and if we don’t have the answers we’ll get them for you.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

2009 Class Schedule

The long awaited 2009 class schedule is now available on our website. Those of you who have been trying to sign up for one of our 2009 courses but did not know the date can now register! Whether you are a current homeowner looking for ways to make your home more comfortable, interested in learning the art of timber framing, planning to be your own general contractor or just need to learn more about houses, we've got the class for you. Check back regularly as we will be adding one-day workshops throughout the year.

Sept 7-12, 2008
1-Week Purely Post & Beam $975 /person or $1500/couple
Sept 29-Oct. 3, 2008
1-Week Small House-Building $775 /person or $1075 /couple
Oct. 9-10, 2008
2-Day Concrete Countertops $300/ person
Oct.11, 2008
Sharpening $95 /person
Oct.18, 2008
Rocking Horse Construction $250/ person
Jan 18-23, 2009
1-Week Purely Post & Beam $975 /person or $1500 /couple
Jan 24, 2009
1-DayStructural Insulated Panels $400 /pers or $325 w/Purely Post&Beam
Feb 5-6, 2009
Contract-It-Yourself $325/person or $525/couple
July 20-31, 2009
2 Week Design/Build Class $1025/person or $1650/couple
Sept 13-18, 2009
1 Week Purely Post & Beam $975 /person or $1500/couple

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Vapor Barriers

By Gaius Hennin, PE

Someone recently asked me “What is the most common mistake in residential construction?” Without hesitation I responded: “Vapor barriers.” Vapor barriers are the most common mistake in residential construction? Yup-everything about them is often wrong. They are even improperly named. The word ‘barrier’ implies that a vapor barrier stops the movement of vapor, when in reality it only retards that movement. All membranes installed in residential construction as vapor barriers allow some vapor to pass through, for two reasons.

The first is on a molecular level; vapor moisture travels through these membranes via diffusion. This is the process by which water molecules travel from where there are many of them to where there are fewer of them as a result of their ‘kinetic’ properties. Molecules are constantly in motion, bumping into each other, and will therefore mix until evenly distributed. If there is an abundance of vapor moisture on one side of a vapor ‘retarder’, it will work its way between the molecules of the retarder until there is an even quantity on both sides; even a six-mil polyethylene membrane, even a sheet of glass, given enough time. The amount of vapor moisture that passes through the membrane is a function of the discrepancy of vapor moisture and vapor pressure; if one side is very wet and the other dry, more moisture will pass through than if one side is slightly damp and the other dry. Adding heat (and therefore pressure) to the wet side will also accelerate the rate of diffusion.

The second reason is much more practical. Materials manufactured for use as vapor retarders are sold in long rolls (long enough to go around the house several times), but are not wide enough to cover the inside or outside of a house without seams. These seams will leak air and therefore vapor. Also, the vapor retarders are installed with staples, and get pierced thousands of times with drywall screws; more opportunities for vapor to get through. Perhaps most significant, though, are all of the necessary and planned wall penetrations. Every electrical outlet can represent a large hole in the vapor retarder, as do direct vent combustion units used for heating, the all important cable TV wire, the cookstove hood, dryer vent, windows, doors, light switches, air conditioning piping, solar water heater piping and direct vent boiler exhausts, to name a few. Even with careful detailing using acoustical sealant tapes and specialty products that self seal to the vapor retarder, all of these penetrations make it more likely to leak.

In addition to the inherent problems with the vapor retarder itself, there is also significant confusion about when it is appropriate to use a vapor retarder and where to place it in the wall assembly. This confusion is well deserved. The ‘rules’ (by rules, here I mean scientific rules, not building codes which heretofore have been static on the topic of vapor retarders) for vapor retarders change based on the climate in which you build, the type of vapor retarder you use, the type of wall assembly you use, the (variable) climate inside the house, who you ask and which building code is being enforced in your area. It is a contentious subject, with far more misinformation than fact readily available. Figuring out the ‘right’ answers to vapor retarder questions such as whether or not to use one and where to place it in the wall assembly can seem overwhelming and is more critical than ever with today’s highly insulated walls. The fact is there are no short answers or simple generalizations that can be applied to vapor retarders: vapor transport in buildings is complex. However, there is a solid body of knowledge based on partial and full scale testing of different wall assemblies in different climates. The two most important aspects of the wall assembly are the type of vapor retarder and the type of wall cladding (exterior siding). Wall claddings will greatly influence the selection of a vapor retarder. For years, the four model building codes defined a vapor retarder as “a material having a permeance rating of 1.0 (a ‘perm’ of 1) or less when tested in accordance with ASTM E96”, and 4 mil rated polyethylene was the standard bearer. For interest sake, and I know you are interested or you would have stopped reading in paragraph 1, a perm is defined as a hairstyle with long lasting waves or curls produced by treating the hair with chemicals.*

As the result of a five year study at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and aggressive educating of the establishment figureheads by Joseph Lstiburek and Betsy Pettit of The Building Science Corporation and Achillles Karagiozis from ORNL, the building code has finally been modified to reflect reality. The predominant code in use today is produced by the International Code Council. The ICC has multiple publication (The International Residential Code, The International Building Code, The International Energy Conservation Code, etc) which are collectively referred to as the I-Codes. I will be writing more on these codes later as most states are now adopting the I-Codes and making their enforcement mandatory; it is the most widely used code in our history and it is here to stay.

The IRC (which governs construction of 1 and 2 family dwellings) recognizes 8 zones that the Department of Energy has developed for moisture control recommendations (see accompanying map from the DOE). The 2004 changes to the code have eliminated the requirement for vapor retarders in zones 1 (Southern Florida), 2 (the gulf Coast Region), 3 (such as Oklahoma, Arkansas, South Carolina) and 4 (such as Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland). The 2007 (to the IRC and the IECC) change moves from the old definition of a vapor retarder (see above) to three classes of vapor retarders :

  • Class I - Less than or equal to 0.1 perm (such as polyethylene)
  • Class II - Greater than 0.1 perm but less than or equal to 1.0 perm (such as kraft-facing)
  • Class III - Greater than 1 perm but less than or equal to 10 perm (such as latex paint)

The code now requires that zones 5, 6, 7 and 8 have a Class I or Class II vapor retarder. There are several exceptions to this, the most far reaching is that a vapor retarder is not required on walls constructed of materials that cannot be damaged by moisture or freezing.

For the first time we have rules regarding vapor barriers not dictated by politics, but actually based on fact. Getting any building code to change is a colossal undertaking, and usually involves going toe-to-toe with some of the largest and most established organizations in the country (the National Association of Homebuilders, for example, who fought this change to the very end). The facts of the studies, however, and common sense make the necessity of this change obvious. We have known for years that a one size fits all approach to vapor retarders simply doesn’t work, and finally it is no longer a part of the document that governs how we build.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Saw Sale

This is the largest selection of Japanese Hand Saws in New England and our knowledgeable staff can help you find the perfect saw for your next project whether it is fine furniture building, trail clearing or fine home building! From now until Thursday July 31, receive a 20 percent discount on all Japanese Hand Saws -- reference the blog when you place your order to take advantage of the discount. Purchases can be made via our website, the telephone or in person. This offer cannot be combined with any other discounts -- this offer applies to in-stock items only. Offer expires on July 31, 2008.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Pat's Perspective

Maintaining an Oil Boiler by Pat Hennin

Right now is the perfect time to prepare for what will be the most expensive winter of our lifetime. The U.S. owes 90 trillion dollars to the rest of the world, a world which is not likely to continue to buy worthless American paper to continue to fund our questionable lifestyle, so let’s set about taking care of ourselves.

Over the next few months I will post strategies that I personally use which, taken together make my home considerably more affordably heated and comfortable. It is my experience that all people can learn to be competent and self-sufficient. Do learn from many sources before diving in. In my 45 years of adulthood I've found that whether dealing with oncologists, oil burner "technicians", estate lawyers, auto mechanics, veterinarians, flight instructors, physicians, builders, etc., I've always had to fix their errors and pay and pay. There is great joy in discovering how much can easily be learned and applied personally. Don't trust anything I say or write but use it critically to refine your knowledge. Please tell me of my misconceptions! And of course government people have never made life better and always more time consuming and costly...the ultimate mafia (Al Capone is wishing in his grave that he had simply become a code enforcement officer or Senator)

Let’s start with a simplified look at oil boilers and furnaces since there will be a crunch on these services this fall. Oil, no matter the price, still produces about 100,000 BTU’s of heat per gallon if the furnace is working right, which it never does without considerable help. Read the following and assess how much of it you can do or want others to do. Anybody can screw it up.

  1. Only clean oil will squirt into the boiler or furnace and burn hot. Most dirt is created in the oil tank by moisture that condenses over the summer in partially empty tanks. This condensation creates rust, sludge and sulfuric acid. I keep my tank full and warm. If a tank is sweating, the basement is too cool, I keep my tank away from walls so I can keep it painted and rust free. I use “bullet” or similar rust-proof paint.

  2. I clean the oil on its way to the burner gun by changing the filter now. There is a model number on the filter can and my local hardware store carries most filters. I turn off the valve at the bottom of the tank (counter clockwise) and tap it down, (it sometimes stay stuck up and open despite an unscrewed valve handle). I put a one gallon steel or plastic pan under the filter assembly to catch spillage. I unscrew the canister, usually by turning the bolt on top of the canister counterclockwise, clean the canister and replace the filter and rubber seal, carefully lining the seal up in its groove. I hold the canister up in place while screwing the bolt on top clockwise until finger tight, then usually another ½ turn or so with a wrench until it feels seated and tight. (Tightness is a feeling one develops with practice of putting different things together and observing them work or not). I keep the pan under the filter in case of a leak and dispose of the dirty filter. I turn the tank valve clockwise until it stops; I then gently back off one turn. The valve handle is soft metal designed to melt in a fire, so the valve can pop shut and not feed a fire with the fuel. Some newer furnaces have a more modern spin-on filter that is easier to replace, costs considerably more, but supposedly lasts several seasons. I run the boiler once a month off season to keep sludge from congealing in the filter and pump.

  3. Next stop is the burner gun. People in the trade and lawyers will tell you not to touch these. It is yours, it is up to you. Here are some principles: a gun is a fan and a pump run by an electric motor which pumps oil from the tank and squirts it into the boiler chamber with the right amount of air while also creating a constant electric spark to keep the oil burning. There is a little photo cell in there which, if it does not detect an adequate flame in the boiler within a few seconds of start-up, will shut off the pump to prevent flooding the furnace and basement with unburned oil. Three things must be right. (A) Nozzle through which the oil squirts must not be clogged. The spin-on-filters pretty much prevent this. These nozzles control the amount of fuel burned (e.g. .6 gallon/hour and the shape of the flame to fit the shape of the boiler chamber, e.g. cone shape 60 degree spread. Nozzles are cheap and commonly replaced yearly. (B)The right amount of air is controlled by adjusting a plate covering the air intake by adjusting a screw or sliding a plate back and forth until the flame goes from orange or yellow (bad) to white or blue (good). Older boilers have a peep hole for this. Watching the exhaust gas out of the direct wall vent or chimney top go from black smoke to clear is the general objective. Today this process is refined by inserting a probe into the exhaust pipe and measuring the by products of combustion and by sucking exhaust gas through cotton filters to observe soot quantity. Air in-take is adjusted accordingly. (C) The two electrodes in front of the nozzle must be the right distance apart for electricity to jump from one to another to create sufficient spark at the right place to ignite the squirting atomized fuel. These electrodes (two wires about ¼-in apart) burn away over time, and must be adjusted forward and closer together over the nozzle or replaced yearly (see manual for exact calibration). A turbo shaped plate near the electrodes will have soot on it which must be cleaned. It swirls incoming air. Nozzle and electrodes are on an assembly that is easily removed from the gun for service. The manual illustrates this. One screwdriver and one wrench usually do it. I unplug the photo cell before I remove the assembly and check for soot on the cell. If it can’t see, boiler won’t ignite. Air intake is usually on the side of the gun. Again, to access all this, I shut the valve on the tank before disassembly. After reassembly, I turn the valve at the tank back on, but oil will have been replaced with air while I was changing the nozzle and points. Absence of oil in the pump will prevent it from pumping (remember the song . . . You must have faith and believe . . . ) so it will have to be primed by loosening a bleed nipple on the pump and letting air squirt out when the furnace is trying to start. Shut the nipple when a steady stream of fuel is squirting out hopefully not on your shoe. I put a foot of 3/16 vinyl tube over the nipple into a can to prevent spillage.
  4. But the real fun is about to start. Since no one has done the previous steps correctly in years, yellow orange dirty flames have created huge amounts of soot that have completely coated the inside of the boiler so that no matter how good the flame is, it can’t get heat past all that soot to the water in the boiler or air in the furnace. A boiler is like a cast iron radiator through which water is pumped to other radiators in the house (these could be individual cast iron radiators, cheesy baseboard, expensive porcelain wall radiators or plastic in-floor tubing). If that first radiator in the boiler or furnace is soot covered, the heat from the gun just goes up the chimney. So, the entire gun is easily removed, and usually a side or two of the boiler. Then, bottle cleaner-like brushes are used to scrub the boiler radiator clean of soot and scale. A vacuum cleaner you don't care for is useful. Know your boiler before attacking it. There may be a fragile pot at the bottom into which the flame is directed and there may be pieces of sheet metal among the boiler sections to spread the flame. The general idea is to remove all material that was not there when the boiler was new that might prevent heat from getting to the water inside the cast iron. This is a very dirty job with very choking sulfuric dust. I’ve learned to enjoy it every year for the past 40 years because I’ve found no one cleans my boiler as well as I do.

Obviously, all of this is fraught with potential danger, damage, explosion, personal injury, pollution and many other possible calamities, jail sentences and liabilities. But, it is done every day by people with a hugely varied amount of understanding, training and give-a-damnedness.

Make your own decisions about participating (don’t take chances), only hire people who will let you watch and learn, but at least understand and supervise what needs to be done. The difference in fuel cost between correctly and badly running furnaces is huge. And remember that to live a long and happy life, take no pharmaceutical drugs, avoid animal based foods and eat very varied fruits, nuts, and vegetables. If a visit to a doctor results in a prescription, run! Patsy would be here today. Donations are always welcome to the PKH Cancer Research Fund, managed by the Maine Community Foundation. The can be mailed to the Maine Community Foundation 245 Main St, Ellsworth, ME 04605

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Design Build Class Schedule

Spaces are still available in our July Two Week Design Build Class. Come to Maine at the most beautiful time of year and enjoy two weeks of learning the best practices of housebuilding from the ground up! We'll cover everything from laying out your site to take advantage of its natural features and passive solar gain to foundation and septic design, framing, architecture, engineering, wiring and plumbing, insulation and energy efficiency. We'll even cook your lobster for you! Whether you are building a new house to avoid the energy crunch or trying to make your existing home better, this is the course for you! Check out the daily course schedule on our web site.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Father's Day Special

Father's Day is just a few days away and we have some great gifts! If you are like us you are still scratching your head trying to think of the best way to show Dad that you love and appreciate him! We've picked three of our favorite items with great value that are sure to fit the bill, no matter whether your Father is a woodworker, a tinkerer, a builder or homeowner and no matter what your budget!
Peltor WorkTunes make even the most boring jobs more entertaining with a built in AM/FM radio and 26 decibel noise reduction ($89.95).
The Tajima Caulk Gun is one of those go to tools that everyone should own, even if they already have a caulk gun. It comes equiped with an awl for opening your tub of caulk and will last a lifetime. ($16.50).
If your Dad isn't into building we have beautiful butcher block cutting boards that we have paired with Japanese Kitchen Knives ($100).

We are offering 20 Percent off of your entire purchase of instock items (gift certificate's included). Just mention the blog when you place your order and we'll take 20% off your purchase when we process the order. Orders must be placed by Sunday June 15th. This is a one time use and cannot be combined with any other discounts. Stop by, visit our online store or call to place an order!

Unfortunately our Dad has one of each of these favorites so if you have any suggestions let us know . . . we're still shopping for him!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Shelter Institute in the News

The high cost of fuel has forced many Americans to downsize their vehicles from SUVs to economy cars. The same trend is holding true in the housing market. The Shelter Institute in Woolwich, Maine is where students are learning to make a much smaller footprint.
NECN's Amy Sinclair has the story.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Small Housebuilding Class May 2008

We began our one-week small housebuilding class on Monday May 26th, 2008. We have ten students from all over the country gathered for five days to learn how to balance design themes with insulation value, passive solar elements, efficient and effective construction techniques, cost-saving strategies and the function of a small structure.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Timber Frame Kit

The simplicity of the 24x48 timber frame makes it an affordable and stunning structure to be used as a home, barn, garage or workshop. We built this home in Coastal Maine in November 2007. The homeowners have nearly completed the interior and we'll post finish shots shortly! Keep your eyes peeled for an update!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

What to Look for in a Home

by Pat Hennin, Founder

I was recently asked by the local media for a sound bite: “What should a prospective house buyer be looking for in today’s market?”

The short answer is a series of questions to consider and whether you can live with the answers:

  1. Can you afford to make the payments on a thirty year mortgage, increasing payment to pay it off in 15 years?

  2. Is it air tight or does the heat blow out when the cold blows in?
    Insulation, insulation, insulation: What is the quantity and quality of installation of the insulation?

  3. Does it have double or triple pane windows?

  4. Does it have window shades sealing three sides of the window and are those shades easy to draw every evening – they should last at least twenty years.

  5. Is it oriented to take advantage of passive solar (windows on the south wall comprising 15-20% of the wall)

  6. Is the fuel choice consistent with local supplies? Solid fuel, oil, gas, propane, electricity. Electricity would be the most expensive per BTU, solid fuel would come from your own lot and be the least expensive. If two thru six are done well than solid fuel will be a small problem.

The longer answer is also a series of questions; more detailed and perhaps more critical. The real answer here is to understand what is important in today’s world of housing, as well as what is truly important to you.

  1. Does this house work? Are the kitchen, bathroom, and master bedroom stacked so that only one small part of the house needs to be heated?

  2. Is the garage door such that you can automatically drive in and have ample room to empty the car into the kitchen with the door closed?
  3. Does the building shed water or does it have so many dormers, siding variety, porches, decks, chimneys, angles and corners that it will be a nightmare to maintain? These features catch water in hundreds of places causing rot. This is the base point for me: The entire exterior must be dry shortly after the rain stops. None of today’s "McMansions" meet this criteria and will be neither maintainable nor saleable.

  4. And last, but really first, do you like it? It takes us sixty hours to teach this encyclopedia, to understand the substance of what “liking” a house really means.

I write this with Patsy in mind and the many ideas she and I developed together.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Best Timber Framing Plane

by Gaius Hennin

It is uncommon to think of timber framers using hand planes, much less that one is particularly well suited to timber framing. Well, I’d like to introduce you to Lie-Nielsen’s number 10-1/4 Bench Rabbet Plane, patterned after the old Stanley number 10-1/4. Rabbet planes have a plane iron that is exactly as wide as the plane body, allowing you to plane an inside corner, or plough a dado as wide as the plane. Lie-Nielsen’s version has a Bedrock frog (patented by Justus Traut at Stanley in 1895) instead of the Bailey frog which had been the standard for about 40 years. The frog attaches the plane iron to the plane body; a solidly held plane iron is critical. Anyone who has ever dug a whole on the coast of Maine knows that bedrock is solid, and that is why Stanley chose the name for it’s improved frog; it all but eliminates blade chatter.

Lie-Nielsen’s plane body is made from iron, with a bronze cap and frog, and cherry handles. It exemplifies the plane makers’ precision, understanding of the art of planing, and ability to make the mundane, beautiful. When I first saw it, my mouth went dry and my hands got sweaty; I knew I had to have it. The smooth cherry handles (which almost feel soft), the gleam of the bronze, the ductile iron body, the movable knickers on each side just kept calling my name.

The plane is well suited for timber framing for several reasons, the first being it’s size: at 12 ¾” long with a 2 1/8” wide iron, it tips the scales at 5 pounds, which gives it plenty of momentum when planing the tenon on an 8”x12” carrying beam. What’s even more exciting, is that both the front and rear totes (handles) pivot both right and left. When you are planing the tenon on the right-hand end of a beam, pivot the handles to the right and your knuckles now comfortably clear the hard corner of the tenon shoulder, or any other tall inside corner. On each side of the plane body, perfectly flush, just ahead of the iron, are knickers which slide up and down and are affixed with a single screw. When planing a right hand tenon, simply drop the left hand nicker down 1/32” and it cleanly cuts the cross grain in the corner between the tenon face and shoulder.

The plane is stealthy enough to chamfer tenon ends, yet long enough to knock down planer snipe or true up a two foot scarf face, and I have even used it to ‘erase’ layout errors (on other peoples work.)

Lastly, being a timber framer myself, I know that some of us suffer from bouts of vanity. Owning and using this plane is guaranteed to make you look professional, plane a dead flat, bragging-rights grade tenon (at 90 degrees to the cheek), and look even more handsome.

Monday, April 28, 2008

April Timber Framing Class

The April 2008 Purely Post and Beam Class had 18 people from all over the country. They raised a 24x24 pine timber frame complete with dovetail, mortice and tenon, birdsmouth, and pocket tenon joinery. They learned how to calculate roof rafter angles and basic beam sizing as well as how to work together. Our next class is our Small Housebuilding Class (currently 16 enrollees), a one week long session in which students learn a variety of construction techniques from working with prefabricated panels to building your own panels, window and door installation and metal roof installation. Visit our web site or call for more information.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


We use all kinds of timber framing techniques.

Click the image above to view a slideshow of Hennin Post & Beam images.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Timber Frame Additions

by Gaius Hennin

In today’s uncertain economy, many people are opting to stay in their current home and add on to it, rather than building new. This option makes sense; the site expenses (driveway, septic, well, electrical service) associated with new construction can largely be avoided, effectively lowering the cost per square foot of construction significantly. In addition, the expense and disruption of moving can be avoided.

Disruption, though, tends to go hand in hand with additions. Adding to an existing building can mean that dust, dirt, moisture, trucks, building materials and unknown people are introduced to your life and home daily for a long period of time.

We have had great success attaching timber frame additions to existing, lived-in homes with minimal disruption to the lives of our clients. One reason for this is that the connection of the timber frame to the existing structure is simple and non-load bearing, whether stick built or timber framed. This allows us to leave the existing building closed, in many cases until the addition is nearly complete. If the existing building is one of our frames, joining the two buildings can be done at the end of construction, simply by cutting the stress-skin panels of the original structure; no elaborate engineering of headers is necessary.

Because the bulk of the work in creating the timber frame can be accomplished at our shop (instead of at the home being added to), the length of time that construction has a presence at the residence (trucks and materials parked in the driveway) is minimal. Also, the excess noise, mess and disruption associated with construction is minimal. The timber frame and structural panel enclosure arrive at the site pre-cut, so there is almost no waste generated. Typical time of construction for our super-insulated shell is 5 days. We start on Monday and by Friday the shell is enclosed and dry. At this point, the interior work can be started.

These photos feature several additions designed to blend in with the existing home. One of the dangers of an addition is that it looks like an addition. Let us help you design a new space to add to your home that fits your needs, your budget and your home!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Coastal Home

January 22 -- It is about 20 Degrees out and our crew has just started building the First Floor Platform of this 32x54 seaside timberframe home. The garage was constructed about two weeks ago and will be connected to the house with a breezeway. Here, our crew sets a steel I-Beam with our 95-ft boom crane. Check back for more photos as this project progresses!

Timber Frame Garage

This is the interior shot of a 26X28 Timber Frame Garage, constructed the week of January 7th, 2008. The wood is Eastern White Pine stained a deep brown. The subfloor is 2x6 tongue and groove spruce decking and the walls are unfinished gypsum. Visit again for shots of the adjacent home under construction in the next few weeks!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Design Build Class Premise

by Pat Hennin

When Patsy and I founded the Shelter Institute in 1974, we had just built a house for a client at a quarter the then average price and the house had no harsh, questionable products. It was built of wood, glass, concrete, some steel and copper, fiberglass and our four hands. What could be simpler? The first passive solar home made the national media and the rest is history.

The Oscar-nominated movie “Urge to build” documenting Shelter Institute students building everywhere, concluded with the words; “when we finished the house, we didn’t celebrate its wonder; it was just something that freed us.” More than ever, knowing structure, wiring, plumbing, vapor, heating and cooling, septic systems, and water supplies, truly lifetime roofing, how to successfully and enjoyably make calculations are the road to true freedom. Shelter grads are free because they avoid having to spend half a lifetime making high mortgage payments. And because they built a better house for less, their profits at moving time are much higher.

Our culture today wanders far from the independent-minded “can do”, even love to-d0, caring and thoughtful lifestyles we witnessed in the sixties and seventies. Today we seem consumed with consumption. People couldn’t wait to discard their expensive PC Windows program every few months for the next version, and industry was very careful to mind our pathetic lust, hence billionaires. Shelter clients learn on the first meeting to spot these traps and laugh our way around them. While Shelter Grads built solar capes on the coasts and solar sheds in the deserts, most Americans built mega mansions of 13 gables that cost fortunes to design and build, caused enormous material waste and will prove to be not maintainable or saleable.

The Shelter Institute Design Build class is the single most important learning experience you will ever have. Our graduates tell us so every day, whether they were here yesterday or thirty years ago.

2008 is about finding a president, whether the rest of the world will continue to finance our lifestyle, icecaps melting, and vast increases in cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Come join us in one of our classes and learn to build the most elegant, super-insulated, and functional home, knowing exactly where each penny will go. The common sense and competence we teach will free you, and those four big issues will take on a handleable perspective. We do it every day, you can too!