In 1981 I spent the summer in Aspen, Colorado, for an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship evangelism program. About 40 students from all over the country lived together in a lodge and got jobs in the community. It was one of the best summers I ever had.
I was fortunate enough to get hired by a carpenter named Rock Mason. He and his son (let’s call him David because I can’t remember his real name) were building a house for a local restaurant owner, a few miles down the road to Glenwood Springs. It was located on a hillside with a gorgeous view. They had been working for a contractor who got paid $1000 a week to come by for an hour or so a day and tell them what to do, so they persuaded the owner to fire the contractor and let them finish the job for decent carpenter wages, which at the time was $20 an hour. (I got paid $6.)
The house included a number of energy-saving innovations. There was a glassed-in sun porch that collected solar heat, which was pumped by a fan down to the crawl space. The crawl space was insulated outside the foundations, so that the concrete foundations would hold heat, not cold. At night the warm air filtered back up into the house to provide warmth. The roof was pine siding covered with thick polyurethane foam and topped with bituminous sheet roofing.
The first floor had a radiant heat coil under the flooring, but according to Rock, it would rarely be used. “The sun porch keeps the house in the 50s even in winter, on sunny days,” he said, “and the wood stove does the rest.”
My first day, I helped attach the fascia. I had to hammer hanging over the side of the roof while Rock and his son held a heavy piece of lumber in place, and of course I missed the nail a couple of times, leaving visible dents in the nice redwood. Rock spat on his finger and rubbed the saliva into the dent. “Sometimes it will swell back out when it gets wet,” he said. It didn’t work, although I’ve had a few small successes with the technique since then. (I’ll bet I could locate the dents if I went back to that house now.)
On this house, I had my first experience with hanging and taping Sheetrock, and stapling up insulation and vapor barrier. I learned that the door between the house and the garage had to be solid-core and fire-resistant. (They had used a hollow-core interior door and it didn’t pass inspection). I learned about headers over doors and windows, and that the rule of thumb is one inch of height for each foot of width. (A header made of 2x4s will span three or four feet, a 2×6 header will handle a six-foot wide window, etc.) I watched Rock struggle to solder a copper pipe that had moisture in it. (I had never dealt with copper pipe before.)
I was assigned the job of leveling out an area for a patio, raking a bed of sand over it, and laying cobblestones. That part went very well. What didn’t go so well was trying to edge it with cedar 2x4s that weren’t straight.
The house had well water which tasted great when it was fresh, but if stored in a jug, smelled nasty the next day.
We sided the outside of the house with lapped cedar, using handmade spacer tools something like this:
You tuck the notch under the previous piece of siding (siding is added starting from the bottom of the wall) and set the new piece on the top. If you’re careful, the siding will go on level. I discovered that it was still a good idea to check it with a level every few rows.
The house was on a space cut into the side of the mountain. David and I were tasked with using boulders to edge the outer perimeter of the parking area. There were a number of egg-shaped rocks bigger than the size of a large watermelon. It took both of us to move them around. At one point, David was standing on the slope just below the edge of the perimeter, when the boulder we were rolling got away from us and rolled over the edge at him. It must have weighed a couple of hundred pounds. He tried to stop it, but it bore down on him while he shuffled and slid and skipped backward, pushing at it with both hands. Finally he managed to leap sideways. At that point I was laughing hysterically. Even though it had been a very dangerous situation, watching him hop backwards with that look on his face had been hilarious.
Another builder, Fred Alderfer (boss of my IVCF buddy Noel), was building himself a house on the outskirts of Aspen. Rock and David and I helped him pour his foundations. I learned that a gift of a case of beer was helpful in gaining the cooperation of cement truck drivers who don’t like working in tight spaces.
A week or so later, we participated in Fred’s building bee. Noel told me that another carpenter he talked to had been extremely skeptical. “You mean people are going to give up a day to build a house for no pay? I’ll be surprised if anyone shows up.”
As I recall, there were about fifty people there that day. The framing had been factory-built in sections, and arrived on a big truck.
Many of the other carpenters were using compressors and pneumatic nailers. Rock was dismissive. “You can get it done just as fast with a hammer,” he said. He also doubted that having the walls framed at the factory saved much time over building them on the spot. (He was wrong about pneumatic nailers; it takes about three solid blows to sink a framing nail with a hammer, usually two blows for a decking nail, while a pneumatic nailer does it with one pull of the trigger.)
That day we installed joists for the first floor, decked it, got the first floor walls up, and got the second floor joists laid before it got dark. Noel and I couldn’t work the next day because of IVCF activities, but the group that assembled got the second floor framed and the roof trusses and decking up, from what I heard.
A couple of times I worked at Rock’s house. The Masons lived in a trailer park in Glenwood Canyon. The house was a rambling sequence of modules, each built independently and bolted to the previous one, following the trailer park code. As I recall, we worked on a small apartment for his son, who was recently engaged. There was a volleyball court in the backyard, with electric lighting.
Rock’s house had a solar water heater, which consisted of a black rubber hose that was coiled on the roof of the trailer. By the time the water reached the electric water heater, it was something like 118 degrees, so the electric heater had little work to do. In the winter he drained and disconnected the hose. (I’ve always wanted to do something similar, but I think I would pipe the water through my attic, with a bypass and drain for winter. An attic in Dallas will get well over 120 degrees in the summer. I suspect Tampa would be only a few degrees less.)
Working for Rock was a great introduction to American construction conventions as well as energy-saving innovations. It gave me a discriminating eye for the houses I’ve lived in or worked on ever since, and the urge to find creative ways to save energy.
I left for Kansas before the restaurant owner’s house was finished, and when I went back to Aspen in 1982, didn’t have occasion to visit there. But I did get to play volleyball at Rock’s house, along with Noel, who had also returned.*
*I spent the most of the following summer, 1983, in Europe. Noel and I agreed to meet in Aspen at the beginning of August, ride his Honda 750 to Miami, and spend the fall in Medellín, Colombia, where I would work on my thesis and he would get an English teaching job. Unfortunately, the day after I arrived in Aspen, Noel’s fiancee called me to tell me he had run head-on into a truck four hours from home.