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ManyTracks' House and Home
Solar ~ Underground

by Sue Robishaw and Steve Schmeck

laying stone in greenhouse

Rebuilding ~ Changes ~ Upgrades
 to the Underground House




The nice thing about building your own is that you feel free to upgrade, rearrange and change your mind. The challenge is that you are always changing and wanting to change your surroundings to match. It is both fun and frustrating. But it always feels good when it's done. Including those needed repairs that happen over time. It is a project that is never finished.

1999 - Greenhouse Rebuild - The cedar posts that held up the original attached greenhouse had rotted away some years ago. Literally. The portion in the ground was completely gone. Very active soil we were told. How nice. The room was being supported by the roof and walls. It was due for some attention. This time we poured and laid a cement and stone foundation (and floor). It is a very secure room now! The plants and I love it. This is actually our second rebuild. The first had been made of recycled materials and not so well constructed. When we rebuilt we again built of wood and it lasted quite well except for those fickle cedar posts! We have used recycled glass and windows for all of the incarnations. (For information on using the greenhouse click HERE.)

1999 - Front Wall Rebuild - from wood wall to brick wall...


Spring 2021 -- Over the following years we continued to repair, replace, upgrade as needed or the mood struck us, as is the way it is with an owner built home, but really, not too much major on the outside (or at least I don't remember it!). But in the summer of 2020 we finally dug in (literally) for a major roof, and some wall, job. We didn't do the entire roof and walls (we didn't want to have all the fun in the same year!) but it was a good large amount, fixing some leaks, mouse entrances, ant issues, and replacing insulation with a better system. Following is our summer's adventure with the house.


2020 - Major Roof Work, or "How We Spent Our Summer"

July 24 -- House Roof Repairs Adventures

roof repair clerestory 2020Where to start - that seemed the biggest hurdle. We had two leaks, one of which Steve had temporarily repaired several years ago and as good as duck tape is it wasn't a comfortable permanent solution. The other we sort of knew at least part of the problem, and also had a temporary repair in place which worked except in big downpours, which meant there was more to it, somewhere. Both were caused by small holes chewed in our plastic waterproofing by some unknown little rodent for unknown reasons. The mice went elsewhere but the ants loved the easy entrance. It was time to fix both.

We had already decided this would be the summer for roof repairs and reconstruction (entry room and greenhouse). Our wonderful house is 35 years old, created and built with a lot of enthusiasm, not much money, and even less experience. In spite of that it has done us well so we aren't complaining at this year's work. We've done some repairs and upgrades in years past, but it's been awhile. It was hard to get the shovels out and start unburying what we'd hoped would never need to be unburied again, especially when we didn't know just where or what we'd find. But we had the extra incentive thanks to the mice.

We've had mice in the not ever quite finished add-on pantry and root cellar from the beginning. A few now and then, mostly in the winter. It wasn't much of an issue to trap and move them until we got around to putting the final touches on that back area. When we had two super hunter cats they no doubt kept the numbers down, too. But this year we've had a mouse explosion - not just in the back but in the main part of the house - 4 to7 a night - nicely spaced about an hour apart. Noisy mice, trap eating mice (we live trap), cute but sleep-disturbing-irritating mice. And a wonderful much-loved cat who is a moderate but not overly enthusiastic hunter. Besides, mice inside aren't as exciting or interesting as mice outside. Apparently. And if we thought it was hard to track down a leak, well, trying to figure out where a mouse, or many mice, were suddenly getting in turned out to be ridiculously difficult and frustrating. But this was a challenge that really needed to be solved. So as soon as the garden, orchard, firewood, spring chores were caught up our attention turned to the house. We hadn't planned on this year's record heat, which has slowed us down, but we've adjusted.

We had some fairly good guesses for mice entrances, and the leaks, and other more common construction issues. We'd just take them one at a time, and figure it out as we went along. After all, that's how we had built the house and that worked out fine. Sure, we'd do many things different if we built again, but we didn't want to build again. Considering that option, repairing was more enticing. And we've always enjoyed working on the house together. We just had to decide where to start. While we weighed pros and cons, levels of importance, this and that, a bear came along and decided for us.

In the middle of the night a number of weeks ago some noise woke me up. Being used to this by now, I got up without even waking all the way up, to take care of the noisy mouse. Steve woke up, too, and when I said something to him about "another mouse" he replied, "I don't think it's a mouse" as he looked out the clerestory window at a very large black bear, busily digging for ants and making a mess of our carefully arranged tarps covering one of the known leaks. The bear apparently didn't care for the sudden lights and noisy humans and took off, and we decided where to start our work, which we began soon after. The repairs would also take care of a lot of the ant problem. We'll never get rid of the ants, of course, but we don't need to encourage large populations by the house.

From the inside we stopped up possible mouse entrances as we discover them, including making a new cat door after I watched a mouse simply trot in that easy entrance. Lilli wasn't at all impressed with the new arrangement but after a few adjustments decided it would do. Another (we're pretty sure) entrance was unearthed along our west roof-wall edge, now blocked with cement. So the numbers have gone down, but not ceased completely. But there's hope as work continues. And we look forward to the day when the entire house is repaired-reconstructed-reburied-regrowing, and the inside is mouse and ant and rain free. Meantime, work is coming along and our mornings (before it gets too hot and when it's not raining) are committed to our house. Though the mosquitoes are apparently not taking time off this summer (this is their kind of weather!) the numbers have gone down so we can even work sometimes in the (sometimes) cooler evenings. Apparently we have gotten somewhat used to the unusual heat since a few days of wonderfully "normal" U.P. temperatures in the mid 70's actually felt cool! We've sure enjoyed those days.

August 3, 2020 -- Update

reinstalling foam on roofGood news here. We had a beautiful U.P. weather type cool north wind day (ahhhhhhh) today and made good progress. It may not look like such  great progress in the photo but we are very happy to be at this stage of puroof workers summer 2020tting new (and old) foam insulation back on, and soon (tomorrow) new (and old) waterproofing. Then on to the fun part - reburying.

We had a healthy batch of new toads born this year (about 3/4 inch long now) and I'm sure they (and us) will be happy when we're done and they can hop around in peace without worrying about being stepped on, dirt thrown on, weird stuff in their way, and humans forever moving them or trying to direct them where they don't want to go. Same for small snakes and a lone chipmunk. One is never alone up here!

August 10, 2020 - Looking Better!

begin reburying the roofFalmost done reburing roofriday we finally began recovering the roof and after a couple of good hard work days, and a big incentive of wanting to get it reburied keeping us going, it is much closer to being back to it's "green roof" self. It's not done yet but we took today off to work on some indoor projects. Being a hot and very humid day with thunderstorms forecast (which apparently went elsewhere) helped that decision! It feels good to be able to imagine the completion of this phase of our summer house repair/renovation projects.

thumbnail Tam's Slow MarchOur new video camera arrived Friday so before we started working on the house yesterday we decided to give it a test and re-record Tam's Slow March. We were quite pleased with the results, both audio and video, and glad we switched from the phone. We had a little extra accompaniment on this one in the form of a nearby, and very vocal, cricket, and a fly-by bird adding its little bit. Nice to have company. The camera is a Zoom Q2n 4k. Here's a link to the video: LINK (or click on the thumbnail). 

August 20, 2020 - Roof Work Finished

re-done rood and clerestoriesHurray! It's done! The last dirt hauled, the last sod placed, new front and ends on the clerestory, and seed scattered to help rebuild the vegetation. Since I had a supply of buckwheat and oats on hand I spread that seed around generously, knowing it would be hit and miss for germination since it wouldn't be properly buried, and with so much sifty sand as part of the soil structure some would likely wash away when we got a good rain. We hoped for some rain (August has been dry) but no gully washers. Well, we've been fortunate on the no-hard-rain but rather lacking in any moisture at all, so I've spent many hours on the roof with the hose, admiring the view, the new roof, and the many baby toads who don't at all like being sprinkled. Oh, and not to forget the resident chipmunk (or two) who has taken a great interest in all this activity. It turns out I didn't need to worry about how the buckwheat would germinate because it didn't take long at all for the resident chipmunk (with likely help from friends and/or a red squirrel or two) to vacuum all those neat little buckwheat seeds off the bare ground and safely bury for future consumption (I assume). Well, if I'd thought about it I guess that shouldn't surprise me, but I didn't think they'd take ALL the seed! I think they're working on the oats now. So next trip to town Steve picked up a bag of rye grass. Hopefully that much smaller seed isn't as popular. I had better luck with some extra lettuce and spinach seed that I tossed about. Maybe we'll be picking salads off the roof this fall! But all that is just to get something rooted and growing to hold the soil until the local vegetation  can regrow and spread out again. This doesn't include blackberries, however, who would love to take over, and which we will endeavor to keep out.

back cut in bankback doorAlong with the roof work we finally, after all these 35 years, put finishing touches on the back door area. It is an emergency exit idea that hardly ever gets used. But next to the door is a window into the pantry which lets in light and air when opened (and every year hosts a phoebe nest though it's isn't a particularly good spot). And now there is a much nicer view out the window which we're enjoying. And it feels good to step out the door, onto new brick and pavers, so maybe the back entrance will get more company now.

August 23, 2020 - Entry Hill Work Begins

shoveling dirt off entry hillWe took a few days off in-between, catching up on other chores, discussing options and ideas, then decided to just go ahead and start digging and figure it out when we get there. This is the east "wall" of our entry, or part of it anyway. The main house is sturdy and secure on larger-then-necessary footings (or so the building inspector said - after we had already poured the footings). But when it came to the pantry/root cellar and entry/porch we chose to build using cedar and tamarack posts for "footings", probably due to time, money, and ease of building. This worked well - until the the posts started rotting, as wood posts in the ground tend to do. We did what we could from the inside, and in the back (pantry and root cellar) decided that though they had moved in some, the wall structure appears to be holding things all together so we would just leave it be unless we saw more movement. To replace the posts would mean digging down all the way down to the footings - not a job we want to do (the roof and down a few feet was quite enough!). But the entry really did need more attention. The design is a bit odd but there is an 8 foot section next to a front window that slants out at an angle from the roof to the ground, making a nice little triangle area for the washer (the design was meant to help balance the dirt on the other side of the house). The wall boards rest on tamarack posts, the bottoms of which, having rotted, pushed in, especially the center one. We made temporary supports from the inside some years ago but it was time to make the major repair. Which meant, as most work on our house means, dig in, and dig it out. We're quite up to speed now on digging, and after a couple of hours made pretty good progress. As it is once again sunny, hot and humid that was enough for the day. But it felt good to get started on this project we've been considering for so long. And we had good company while we worked, the resident chipmunk sat nearby, cheeks full (I don't want to know with what), watching, or running across the area, up and over the dirt piles. We had to be careful not to toss a shovel-full of dirt on him.

August 29, 2020 - A Step of Successouter entry wall repair

Digging and more digging - but the bottom finally emerged, down farther than I thought it could be. After removing a number of layers of foam, both insulation and barrier, it was great to find the bottom waterproofing plastic in good shape. Underneath, the boards were in good shape as well except at the bottom front edge where there had been a long term leak which rotted the boards in that area, and the rotted structural posts where they were in contact with the wet dirt at the bottom. We knew about both (though not the extent) so it wasn't a surprise.

The big question now was could the center post be jacked out successfully to get it back in line enough that we could just rebuild the bottom of the structure and not have to tear off and rebuild the entire thing. We had cojacking post back outnsidered a number of ideas, the easiest, though not the most creative, being to repair and rebury, keeping the same design. This is the solution we were aiming for, and today was test day. Inside, with the washer moved and the area cleared and cleaned, Steve carefully secured the jack against the laid stone floor of the main room and to the center post, which being at such an angle didn't make the process easy but it worked. So one pump at a time, without fanfair or fuss, the post moved back out. Oops, too far, now there was a hump instead of a dip. Back down. I checked the outside wall for straight across, and that was it. Back in shape. The end walls of this little space had kept the two side posts more or less in place. All three had pulled down some when they came in, but not excessively, and the only way to get them back in original place would be to tear it all apart. We decided it was good enough.

Of course, this isn't really it. There's a bit of work to do now, with concrete and new boards, to repair and rebuild the damaged bottom area, replace the insulating foam with new dry pieces, cover with new waterproofing membrane (the original design has the waterproof barrier under the insulation not on top of it, resulting in waterlogged not-very-insulating styrofoam), and then, finally, reburying. It seems like a lot but knowing where we're headed and having a plan makes it feel quite do-able, which I'm sure it will be. Having temperatures finally back to U.P. cool makes it easier as well, even if we're having to play cat-and-mouse with the scattered rain. But the rain has encouraged the recently reburied roof to grow. And it turns out there was plenty of buckwheat and oats left after the chipmunk had collected his share, so we have a healthy crop of both growing along with the more recently seeded rye grass. It will be a lush pasture soon!

So all in all, a good day, topped off with a trip to town for a traditional dinner out at a favorite restaurant (Happy Birthday, Steve!).

mixing concrete for footingsSeptember 4, 2020 - New Footings!

It certainly brought back memories! Gathering the tools, remembering the formula, mixing cement, sand, gravel in the wheelbarrow. I mixed and Steve hauled many wheelbarrows of concrete when we were building the house so many years ago. It wasn't all by hand (though there was quite a bit of that) since the main footing pour came by truck (remember that, Nancy?!) and most of the other concrete was mixed in our reliable and much appreciated green cement mixer . Later when we added stuffing concrete in footing formsbrick to the front wall and rebuilt the greenhouse of stone it was back to the wheelbarrow, keeping the brick and stone layer supplied with mortar. These are good memories.

Thifootings dones job was much smaller - three deep footings to replace the rotted bottoms of the posts - but it was still a lot of mixing and placing and tamping and finishing, made a bit tricky since the posts are at an angle and in place but the footings are straight up and down, stuffed around and under the posts, kneeling in a small space both inside and out. But when they were done and the tools all cleaned (I well remember that part, too!) we were very happy with the results. I expect this repair will well outlast us and whoever comes after. It was a satisfying part of the project.  

foam insulation on rebuilt entry wall

 September 6, 2020 - Making the Sandwich

Maybe not as tasty as some sandwiches but it certainly was welcome! First a second layer of new plastic over the old (just in case), then 2" of new insulation, kept dry by the main waterproof layer of sturdy EDPM. Before the dirt goes on we'll cover that with some closed cell foam that will help protect the EDPM from roots (and chipmunks and such). This is one secure wall! And certainly will be better insulated. The styrofoam and beadboard that we removed, which were on top of the waterproofing not under it, the way the whole house was built, were at various stages of waterlogged. That was the standard system of the time - now we all know better.

reburying from abovevinyl installed - start the reburyIt was a bit tricky getting all the slippery layers installed at this angle, especially with gale force winds to help! But it didn't rain and finally - it was time to start the rebury! The hole that seemed small when we were working in it how seemed quite large! Thankfully, we're digging sand not gravel or clay. And yes, I did get to do a share of the rebury. Wouldn't want to miss the fun.

good start to the rebury first dayBy the end of the day it was great to have the bottom knee-wall buried and being able to walk in at ground level. In spite of the piles of dirt to go it doesn't seem quite so daunting now that we've begun to put the dirt back. We no longer had to cover it with the hard-working tarp. It was a high point to fold that up and put it away! While the basic shoveling suits me Steve gets to do all the fine-tuning and bits and pieces that always go along with any job on our sometimes challenging house. It works - as he finishes up I go make dinner!


dirt half way up the wallSeptember 7, 2020 - Almost There!

Mid-morning we started in digging. Though it was still windy we had another beautiful day with enough clouds to keep us cool (and we are very much appreciating having good U.P. temperatures now! Even if we do have to wait for it to warm up in the morning). It was a pleasing rhythm - dig, stomp, dig, stomp. By noon the dirt was well up the wall! Wow, this was going faster than I thought it would.

almost buriedAfter lunch (and a welcome short nap) Steve went back to it while I headed off to the garden and orchard to take care of some other chores. Fall will arrive soon and there was a spell of rain forecast. As I went back and forth the change taking place amazed me. We had decided we wanted a different landscape footprint this time and Steve put his sculpture talents to the task but with dirt instead of his usual wood. It's amazing what can happen when one really gets into it and just keeps going. I certainly didn't expect it to be this far along by the end of the day. There's more to do but the end is now much easier to imagine.

chipmunk in dirtA resident chipmunk has been our regular companion. Sometimes I think he's enjoying the goings-on. But today it was obvious he was intent on stocking up and I doubt he appreciated this constant moving of his dirt piles and people in his way. Not to mention the destruction of well made tunnels (in yesterday's photos you can see a hole in the upper part of the bank, one of his most elegant entrance/exits). There really wasn't much we could do about it but trust he/she has time to stash enough when we're done, which I'm sure there will be. And I know he'll soon have new tunnels in the fresh laid dirt.

September 8, 2020 - The New Hill is Finished!

entry hill reburiedSteve spent the day shoveling, moving sod, sculpting, re-arranging, hauling rock. He finished just when it started to sprinkle so I quickly grabbed the last of the rye grass and tossed it out. Rain forecast tonight and tomorrow so it was good timing. A few more smaller projects on the window corner and we can have a celebratory dinner for the job done. All we'll have to do is watch it grow and enjoy this part of the outer house that we see the most. In a few years whoutside entry refurbisheden all the vegetation gets growing it probably won't look much different but we'll know and at least for awhile we'll remember. It won't take long for new projects to take our attention (I hardly remember the roof work!) which is what keeps us going. Always something new, even when it's old.

September 13 - the final odds and ends completed - and now we can cross this one off our lists!


September 15, 2020 - Lush Rooflush planted growth on roof

new clerestory facade and growthApparently I really had planted plenty enough seed ...

maybe we should consider adding a goat to the roof.




October 8, 2020 -- Beautiful Octovideo thumbnail Arran Boat Song - Shady Groveber on the Roof

The changing colors of fall is such a magical time, and every year is so different. This year seems to be a lot of golds and browns with subtle small patches of red, and still a lot of varied greens. After a rainy spell we've had wonderful sunshine and been making full use of this great October weather to fill the woodshed and get the potatoes in the root cellar. Steve's been in daily contact with chainsaw and wood splitter (and so appreciative of the good tools that makes that big project go better!). I drop in to the project to help stack - a fall ritual I love. My time is, as is often the case, in the winding-down garden (mostly digging potatoes recently) and getting the young orchard trees ready for winter. It's a great time of year to be outside.

But we realized it is indeed "that time of year" when the weather can change rapidly and if we wanted to do another outdoor video while the temps were mild we better take time out to do that. Plus the beautiful leaves have a tendency to fall fast some years. So this was the day. To get some of that beautiful red maple color for our backdrop we took to the roof. It was fun to be up there and not be digging or hauling dirt! We enjoyed our morning musical interlude as a start to this beautiful day - hope you do, too. Here is the YouTube LINK (or click on the photo). The rest of our day was great, too. The woodshed is now full (hurray!) and there is a very good start on next year's stack in the field.  

* * * * * *
Copyright by Susan Robishaw


To read more about the first two decades on our homestead check out

"Homesteading Adventures -A Guide for Doers and Dreamers"  

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Updated 04/07/2018


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