Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Chicken Update

Pullet Run/span>
The chicks have grown into pullets. In order to give them more room I've built a small chicken run for them. They now live on the back porch, rather than the screen porch. They seem to enjoy their run, which lets them scratch in the dirt, take dust baths and generally behave the way free-range chickens should behave.

The cardboard is for shade. In the afternoons we use a flattened wardrobe box to provide additional shade when the baking sun directs its whithering gaze onto their cage.

This arrangement should take them through the rest of the summer, when they should be old enough to start laying. That gives me a couple of months to get their final chicken house built.

CIMG3798I find the chickens facinating to watch and have started spending a good bit of time just sitting and watching them in the evenings after dinner (which also has the effect of encouraging Dada to play outside instead of parking in front of the TV to watch Robots).

Sink Redux

Originally uploaded by drmacro.
Hopefully this is one of the last construction-related blog posts. Our builder has finally replaced the sink-side kitchen counter in order to correctly install the sink as an undermount. In addition they replaced the originally-speced Grohe faucet, which failed to pass enough water (and which appears to be a design flaw as I couldn't find any way to modify or adjust it that would improve its flow rate) with one that passes more than enough water.

The removal of the old counter and installation of the new one was remarkably smooth and non-disruptive. They came in the first day, got the old counter out with very little disturbance of the backsplash or cabinets, prepared the new countertop and had that installed by the end of the first day. The next day the plumber came out and hooked everything up and they re-grouted the backsplash and kid the touchup painting.

Now we have a fully-functioning kitchen sink.

They also installed the clothes bar in the laundry room, which was in the plans but had not been done as part of the original construction.

All that's left is one remaining light fixture and the mis-located rain deflector on the back porch roof.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Dada's New Stove

Inspired by our niece Natalie Julie made this toy stove for Dada, along with a nice little metal cookware set. Dada likes to cook, as you can see here:


Dada Picture of the Week

Originally uploaded by drmacro.
Here is a picture of Dada being cute. Nothing more interesting than that.

Chickens: T+2 Weeks

The chicks have survived their first two weeks in our home. We have upgraded their accommodations to this chicken cage, which is designed to hold up to four laying hens in factory farm comfort, but provides a decent amount of space for four pullets.

The chicks are growing rapidly--they're already the size of robins and eat an amazing amount of food. They can fly well enough to get on top of the cage if they are outside of it.

Once they're a little bigger we'll move them off the screen porch and make them a pen so they can go in and out of their cage. This cage should be sufficient for them until such time as I can make a proper chicken house and enclosure.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Guitar Hero

Or should I say "Rock Goddess?"

We have the game Guitar Hero for the Playstation. It uses a special guitar-like controller on which you play notes and chords and strum as indicated on the screen as you play along to famous rock guitar songs.

Dada can't really play the game but she does understand how to rock out with the guitar and enjoys just watching the game or listening to the music and rocking out. She has learned how to push the green button on the neck in order to move through the various game screens.

I'm sure it's only a short matter of time before we'll be having fights about her putting the #(%#$@ game controller down and going outside to play. We're also working on taking turns ("honey, it's daddy's turn to play" "No! Dada's turn!").

Big Girl Underwear

The latest big Dada news is that on Friday she requested big-girl underwear. She and Julie went to Target and got some training pants and some Hello Kitty! underwear. She's been remarkably good about going potty although she's had the usual accident. Thank goodness for concrete floors, that's all I've got to say.

Today we went to the Farmer's Market and she asked to go potty in time for us to make it to the port-a-potty. We were very proud of her.

This was pretty unexpected--up till now she seemed to be perfectly happy to wear a pee-filled pullup but I'm certainly not complaining, although it does add a little bit of stress to trips out of the house. But it does mean that that the end of potty training is in sight.


We have started our backyard flock. Last Saturday we went to Callahan's General Store and bought four baby chicks: two Barred Plymouth Rocks and two Brown Leghorns all pullets (females). These are intended to be layers. Here you can see Dada holding one of the Barred Rocks. They are cute as the dickens.

We currently have them on the screened porch in a cage I cobbled together from 1/2 inch hardware cloth and an extra light socket on a cord we happended to have lying around. At Callahan's we also got some chick starter feed, a little feeder and a little waterer.

CIMG3757That and a little bedding (we're using pine shavings we got from the exotic pet store) is pretty much all you need to keep the chicks alive.

They are growing really fast and have already developed wings sufficient to get out of your hand if they really try (but not really fly).

By about six or eight weeks old they should be big enough to live in a proper chicken house, which I have yet to build. Julie ordered a chicken cage that should be more than sufficient for them while we get the chicken house built.

CIMG3759From our experience with the playscape we've realized that getting stuff built quickly is just not realistic between the beastly heat and Dada. It doesn't help that we've both had some sort of crud the last couple of weeks that has sapped a lot of our energy reserves (but hasn't been bad enough to actually put us out of commission.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Solar System is On

We got our photovoltaic system turned on this week. The guys at Meridian Energy Systems had gotten it installed and hooked up before the Cool Homes Tour but it required the City to inspect it and then come out and provide the appropriate meters before it could be turned on for real.

They came out and installed the meters on Tuesday, which of course was the darkest, cloudiest day so far this spring. Wednesday was too, but Thursday and Friday were nice bright days. So far we've collected 24 kilowatt hours (kWh) and returned two to the City.

Our energy usage for May was a total of just over 1000 kWh (which is the average household usage for the City of Austin), or an average of 37 kWh per day. Our PVs should produce about 9 or 10 kWhs per day this time of year, so it looks like we're on track to produce about 1/4 to 1/3 of what we need from the PV system. This should make our electric bill less than $100.00 per month, which is pretty good for a 2500 sq ft house in this climate.

At that rate that represents about a 13-year payback on the cost of the system, which isn't too bad. Of course, if electric rates go up, the payback is faster.

Also, just having system on our house reduces the chances of a neighborhood power outage due to excess demand. The solar guy said that having just 100 houses like ours in a city the size of Austin can mean the difference between blackouts and no blackouts during peak usage times.

Now I'm just waiting for the plugin hybrids so we can put PVs on the garage and have solar-powered cars....

Our Backyard Playscape

Dada's Grandpa Bill (Eliot's father) bought Dada a fancy playscape for the back yard. We ordered it when he was here at the first of April but it took them a few weeks to manufacture it. The playscape is from Playwood, an Austin-based company that makes high-quality playscapes and focuses on safety and long service life.

Anyway, it was my responsibility to prepare the backyard to receive the playscape. This would involve leveling a 30 foot by 20 foot area to within 2 inches and then enclosing it in a border of landscape timbers two high. Our backyard slopes just a little bit such that at the highest the ground was about 7 inches above the level point and at the lowest 7 inches below. This meant that I would just need to move the dirt uphill to downhill. How hard could it be?

Of course I hadn't done anything about it when, on the Thursday before Mother's Day, Playscape Dude called to say "we'll be there on Tuesday to install it--you'll be ready, right?". Doh! Of course we had already planned to spend the weekend in Houston with Julie's mother and I had to work on Friday so that left Monday and Tuesday morning to get the site ready. So I said "sure, I think I can do that". I was motivated in part by wanting to have the playscape in place in time for the Cool Homes Tour, which would be the Sunday following Mother's Day. Also, if we didn't take delivery on Tuesday, there was no tellilng when it might get installed and there would be a storage charge. That evening (Thursday) Dada and I went over to Home Depo to get the materials I'd need: landscape timbers, rebar, big nails, weed mat, a saw blade, and a few other minor things.

CIMG3704So Monday I started working about 6:30 am laying out the site boundaries. First I had to move all the leftover building materials, mostly long 2x4s and 2x12s, which I had specifically requested be saved and which had been neatly stacked by the builder against the north fence. Unfortunately, in order for the playscape to fit in the back yard I needed that space. So I had to move all that wood behind the garage. Once that was moved I was able to lay out the boundaries of the playscape's "fall zone", which would ultimately be filled with pea gravel. Fortunately the huge pile of leftover stone from the front of the house was just outside the fall zone, so I didn't have to move that.

CIMG3703Finally, by about noon I had everything moved and layed out and I was starting to hack at the ground and quickly discovered that the combination of the fill from the builder and the soil that had been there had become a hard amalgam of clay and limestone, interspersed with chunks of old tile sewer pipe, rocks, bits of discarded stone from the front of the house, and big chunks of limestone. This required all my strength to break up with a pick axe.

CIMG3706By about 9:00 p.m. I had moved maybe half of what I need to from the uphill side and had reached my physical limits. I took a sauna and crawled into bed.

Tuesday morning I got outside at about 6:00 am and started hacking feverishly at the dirt. The guys were supposed to show up "mid morning" and I was hoping that meant more like 10:30 than 9:30. By about 8:30, with Julie's help, I had moved most of the uphill dirt, which thankfully was not quite as hard as I got closer to the edge of the property. My goal at that point was to get just the area where the actual playscape parts would go level, rather than the entire fall zone, since I assumed that the primary need for leveling was for the playscape itself--it shouldn't matter if the gravel is a little deeper in some parts.

CIMG3719The Playwood guys showed up a little before 10, just as I was moving the last bit of dirt that would give them enough level area. They deemed that they could in fact install it and set to work. The thing comes as pieces that they bolt together. By about 1:30 they were done. At that point I commenced work on installing the timbers, which needed to be at least mostly in place before the 16 tons of gravel showed up on Thursday morning (the original plans called for 14 tons of gravel but I calculated I needed two more tons in order to account for the unleveled area on the downhill side). With the aid of a work light I was able to work well into the night. I wasn't able to complete the framing but I was able to complete the downhill side, which seemed most important in terms of containing the gravel. My expectation was that the truck would dump a huge pile of gravel into the middle of the playscape area and then I would spread it around.

CIMG3738On Thursday the gravel truck showed up. When I told the driver "I'd like in the back yard" he looked at our brand new driveway and at his 25 tons of truck and gravel and said "you're going to have to sign a release before I go on your driveway". After some discussion we agreed that we didn't want to risk damaging the driveway and so he dumped the gravel in front of the house. I would have to move it into the backyard myself.

I called our builder to see if he could send over his Bobcat over to move the gravel. He said he'd see what he could do. As it happened he could do nothing as the Bobcat was at some job site way out of town. So I started moving gravel in the wheelbarrow.

This is a hard job. My goal for that week was to get enough gravel moved so that the playscape was at least safe enough for Dada to climb the ladder, use the slide, and swing and so that it looked a little more finished. I discovered that I can only move gravel for about an hour or so before my arms give out--that stuff is heavy. It takes about 5 barrow loads to move a ton.

Long story slightly less long: as of today the framing is not quite finished and there's still a few tons of gravel left to move. But the main play areas have the gravel they need to be safe.

Image008We went out and got a couple of Tonka trucks for playing in the gravel and on the Saturday before Memorial day we had a BBQ and my collegue Adrian brought his two kids, who are around Dada's age and they all had a good time playing on the playscape and in the gravel, so it definitely serves its purpose well.

One nice thing about the playscape is that it is well shaded by about 3:00 p.m., so even though it may be hot outside, it's a relatively cool place to play in the afternoon.

It definitely dresses up the back yard and removes most of the need to have grass or anything back there. In a way it's the ultimate xerescaping feature. We're seriously considering just leaving the rest of the back yard mulched since the dog's don't really need grass (and Forrest gets a rash from spending too much time on grass as it is).

Hopefully I can get the framing finished up this weekend. It's a challenge because I can only work on it when Dada is awake and when Dada is awake she wants to be with Daddy so it can take hours to actually complete the cuts on a timber and get it in place. Not to mention it's been beastly hot and I felt like Memorial Day weekend was a time for rest given how busy we'd been up 'til then. But I'm sure I'll get it take care of before too long. Moving gravel is good exercise....

Friday, June 02, 2006

Feelin' Real Urban

There's been a lot going on and a lot to report but I thought I would start with the story of our family outing two Saturday's ago as I write this (Friday 2 June 2006). The Saturday before Memorial Day weekend was the Saturday before the Austin Cool Homes Tour, of which our house was to be one. The week leading up to the tour had been quite busy and stressful. By the Saturday before the tour we were ready for some sort of outing.

Detail of engine drive mechanism
As it happened the Union Pacific railroad was bringing a 19th-Century steam train to town Saturday morning. I like trains and Dada likes trains and Julie likes trains so we thought we would go. The train was coming to the Amtrak station, which is just north of Town Lake, about 1.5 miles from our house and easily accessible by bicycle.

So we loaded Dada into her bike seat and pedaled down to the train station. This was at about 10:00 a.m. (the train was supposed to arrive at 10:45 but got there early). We got to the station and felt very smug about having ridden our bikes as there was no parking. We explored the train and waited for them to move it back and give us the show of having it pull into the station, which was pretty cool. While waiting for the train we got to see an Amtrak train and a freight train go by.
Diesel and Steam
When the freight train went by it passed the steam train and we were in position to get a shot of the diesel and steam engines side-by-side.

Once we had gotten to see the train in motion we got on our bikes and headed back toward home, first stopping at this little grocery store that's no too far from our house. It's a boutique sort of place specializing in fancy foods, high-priced bottled water, and yummy sandwiches.
Dada eating chips at the neighborhood store
They have a little patch of shaded lawn and blankets available so you can have a little picknic. We bought some water and some potato chips that were, without a doubt, the best chips I've ever eaten. After our snack we got back on our bikes and continued on home.

This whole outing was just the sort of thing that we wanted to have by moving closer in--the ability to get to lots of interesting places on foot or by bicycle, to generally be more physically active while pursuing our day-to-day activities, to be able to go to local businesses, and generally be part of a distinctive neighborhood with lots of variety.

If we had been at our old house it would have been a much bigger deal because we would have had to go in the car, it would have taken more effort to get out of the house, we wouldn't have gone to the little store (which has no counterpart in our old neighborhood) etc. etc.

So I'm pretty happy about that. Just this evening we rode over to the ice cream place that is near our house and ran into some of our neighbors from down the street.