Empire State of Mind

I took a day off to help friends build a house in Willsboro, New York. Harvest Hill Farm is in its second year of operation, and owners Liam and Jenny figured if they can grow their own food, why not construct their own shelter too?

Liam cuts rafters. Greenhouses in the background.

Liam cuts rafters. Greenhouses in the background.

The house measures 14 feet by 24 feet. It’s bolted to a foundation of sonotubes with detachable hangers. Right now the couple live and farm on borrowed land, and if they succeed in buying a plot across the street then the house can move with them.

It's not a junk car, it's a combination shed/sawhorse! Luke lays out a ridge beam.

It’s not a junk car, it’s a combination shed/sawhorse! Luke lays out a ridge beam.

It can’t move much further than across the street because their steep-pitched roof places the peak far above the 14-foot height restriction for legal towing on roads. Creating that peak was the goal for the day, and I enjoyed cutting rafters and knocking heads with Liam about how to splice the ridge beam together. We decided to erect the ridge beam’s full length with five pairs of braced rafters, then check level and straightness before we installed the remaining rafters. Luke lent a crucial third pair of hands and a healthy dose of comic relief. It was one of those days where we could stand back at the end and really appreciate what we had accomplished.

What’s really cool is that Liam has never built a house before, and his primary source of knowledge is not an in-the-flesh carpenter but a book. He showed it to me. I don’t think I could have learned carpentry this way… reading is so passive and building is so physical. But Liam clearly has a passion for this kind of work and an enviable ability to learn, absorbing new ideas like a sponge.

I’m impressed by his patience, as well. Getting your beams level, your walls plumb, and your corners square is a real challenge. So often it’s tempting to say “close enough” and move on. Liam has never taken that bait. Instead he reasons, “I always assume that any mistake will turn out to be catastrophic, so I don’t let it happen.” Spoken like a true carpenter.

A little manual labor in exchange for fresh heirloom tomatoes and sweet corn. I could get used to this.

End of day. A cathedral roof frame rules over Liam and Jenny's empire.

End of day. A cathedral roof frame rules over Liam and Jenny’s empire.

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