Sean’s Recovery Update, 8 weeks

I’m happy to update the blog about Sean’s recovery. It’s been 8 weeks and Sean has thankfully regained most — if not all — of his major muscles. While he has a long way to go to regain the dexterity, control, and strength of his pre-stroke self, it’s happy to see that the pathways that connect his brain to the body parts are functioning. Now the hard work happens. Sean continues to push himself during his physio sessions, while maintaining a level of calm and patience.

Sean’s recovery has been substantial in the last week or so. He walks confidently (albeit slightly slower than normal) and has graduated away from the equipment and aids that he needed just a couple weeks ago. Gone are the walking stick, the Sara Stedy and the commode chair, as well as the shoulder brace (he wore this under his clothes) and the sling, both of which were worn to protect his shoulder from dislocating. Now, his shoulder is strong enough to support itself.

He also barely uses the wheelchair, since the physio team have him walking all over the hospital, to and from the gym on the 2nd floor, and occasionally down the elevator to the gym on the ground floor. His walking has improved so that he only needs one person spotting him, and around the hospital he doesn’t need the foot strap that keeps his toe from dropping. I think in the coming days, they’re going to re-introduce walking in shoes, which will be one more happy detail he’s regaining from his pre-stroke life.

His daily physio sessions are quite substantial, even a bit taxing. Right after breakfast — which he prepares for himself — Sean works on strengthening the lower body muscles with 150 or so sit-to-stands. Then after morning tea, he usually spends an hour to 90 minutes working on the upper limbs. He’s thrilled now that all the major muscle groups have come back on line, particularly the hand and finger muscles. At the moment, Cliff and Anne have Sean rolling with his left hand a ball of clay until it’s a long snake. Then he takes a knife and fork and cuts the snake into pieces and moves them into a pile on the far side of the table. Or he practices picking up small bean bags and moves them from one side of the table to the other. This progress is exciting, but the improvement of the fine motor skills — relatively slow compared to the big muscle groups of the legs and trunk — illuminates pretty clearly how far Sean has to go before he reaches 100% recovery. This is the part of rehab where he must wrestle with keeping patient and letting the recovery happen at it’s own pace.

But even though there are more moments of fatigue (he’s working harder now than he was a couple weeks ago) and impatience, Sean continues to be so so thankful with each new skill that he notices he’s regained. For example, he walked for 20 minutes on the treadmill today in two, ten-minute repetitions, about half the time without any assistance and the other half with Cliff helping Sean with his form.

Here’s a video of that :

Sean is still an in-patient on Ward 9 Monday – Thursday. Then on Fridays, after the afternoon physio session, we bring him home. Sean spends the weekend doing his physio homework, but also trying to rest and recuperate as much as possible. And he is enjoying the time at home, particularly since he’s losing his dependencies. Sean does more and more on his own or with minimal assistance. For example, he stands at the sink to brush his teeth instead of in the wheelchair or the Sara Stedy. He showers with a minimal shower stool, rather than the commode chair. And he sits in a regular chair at dinner instead of the wheelchair. In fact, the wheelchair stayed folded in the trunk of the car the whole of last weekend. I can only imagine how living his pre-stroke life in these minor details must improve his state of mind!

During the week, I’m still heading in to the hospital to eat dinner with Sean and then stay the night. Even though he needs me less and less to help him get comfortable or do basic functions, these night visits have become precious for us. We owe an incredible debt of gratitude to Sean’s mom and dad who have put the kids to bed each night — not an easy task — so that I can be here. Particularly as I segued back to work, I’ve been seeing less and less of Sean (hence the lack of videos). If it weren’t for these couple hours each night, I would barely see him at all.

These evenings, over a meal and the nightly rituals inside his small room, he shares the victories of that day’s physio sessions, or talks about the frustration of butting up against the next barrier. It’s the time that I share funny things the kids said, or the parenting moments that went awry. Basically, in those couple hours between the time I arrive and the time I switch off the overhead life, we’re being a “normal” couple again, talking about what other couples talk about. We forget this big thing we’re facing and we’re just a comfortable, pre-middle aged, married couple watching our shows and telling the other who we saw that day, or what funny message we got, or the ridiculous thing that happened.

Thank you to all of you who support us in all your ways, big and small. Your meals, your visits, your cards, your well-wishes, it keeps us going. Thank you for keeping Sean in your hearts!

More videos and pictures to come!

Aroha nui,

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A three word story: Our life changed.

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted anything. Life… To catch up:

1) I got a job, 30 hours per week at a non-profit agency that aims to help our community be more active and healthy. My role engages with sports clubs mostly, to help them build capacity so that they can thrive. It keeps me busy, in between the time when I’m busy with the kids/family. Some perks of the job:


posing with the Webb Ellis Cup, aka the Rugby World Cup when it came through town.

2) We built the house. It wasn’t straw bale, but it followed the same floor plan and was as eco as we could make it, which was pretty eco. And it came out pretty well, I think.


Life was pretty perfect. Maybe a little too perfect. Because a month after this guy’s 46th birthday…


… this very fit, clean-living man, shocked himself and everyone he knows by having a stroke. Two weeks ago, he was at work, on call at the hospital in fact, when it felt like his left leg had gone to sleep. He’d just gotten a call from the Emergency Department to come check in on a lady who needed a ob/gyn consult. But when he got up to walk down to the E.D., he couldn’t walk. After a few minutes of waiting for the sensation to go away, he tried again. His left leg wouldn’t move. So he called down to the E.D. to let them know that he wasn’t going to be able to make it down there, and in fact, they might have to come get him. By the time they got him down to the E.D. and hooked up to monitors, he’d lost the function of his left arm and hand.

We endured the next two days as anyone does when they’re fearing the worst medical outcome and helpless to do anything about it. The CT scans showed that he’d had a hemorrhagic stroke, sort of a spontaneous bleed of a blood vessel in the brain. It had stopped bleeding, but we were unable — beyond our hope, praying, and bargaining with the universe (e.g. “If you don’t take him, I promise to never be annoyed by his sniffling ever again”) — to keep the bleeding from starting back up.

While we were terrified and shocked, and feeling like we were suffering an unjustly cruel turn of fate, we were also feeling so incredibly lucky. Sean was still breathing, and on top of that, he had lost no cognitive, speech, or other motor functions from the neck up. We are thankful that he suffered the stroke while he was in the hospital, and not say, out running in the country, or while driving with the kids in the car. We are thankful that his dominant side was the unaffected side. We are thankful that the bleeding stopped when it did, and didn’t put pressure on the parts of his brain that control his speech, or his ability to swallow, or his personality or sense of humor.

We got through the first 48 hours without a subsequent re-bleed, while adjusting to the reality of our new life. Sean was paralyzed on his left side from the neck down. I got through the initial denial and anger (“Why does this happen to someone like Sean, one of the most selfless, good-hearted, capable people in this community, when there’s an asshole out there who beats his wife and kids, who does nothing to help anyone, and he gets to keep the use of his whole body?!?”) and we started getting on with days ahead of us. Generously, Sean’s mom traveled to Gisborne as quickly as she could. She’s been spending each night looking after the kids so that I could spend more time at hospital with Sean including sleeping there over night. Friends have been amazing, making us meals, looking after the kids, while I stumble into my new role as supporter, and mood-brightener, and hand-holder, while trying to keep life good and stable and normal for the kids. Life is hard, but we’re getting through each day. And it’s cliche but it’s true. Each day we endure, we’re stronger for it.

Now for some good news: I’m writing this at 15 days post-stroke, from our tv-room couch with Sean sitting next to me, watching the All Blacks v Wallabies. He’s looking at a 2-3 month hospital stay as he engages in twice-daily rehab. But he was given a long-weekend furlough. We’ve seen some regained function already, mostly in the left thigh and trunk. But there’s a big hill still to climb. Sean’s spirits are high and we’re keeping our goal square in our sights: 100% recovery.


Stay tuned, as I document Sean’s fearless and determined recovery…

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The post where I break the news that the straw isn’t happening

One day, building a straw bale house will be easy. Today is not that day…

We knew that we would have to make sacrifices and that building a home from scratch would come with a seemingly never-ending list of complications and drama. Here are the ups and downs that have taken us up to today.

Back in December and January, we were waiting on our local council to grant us a building consent. This was dragging out, mostly because an alternative building method needs to be raked through with a fine-tooth comb. That “fine-tooth comb” was a peer reviewer up in Auckland, to whom our local resource consent office had sent our application. I’ll glaze over this part because it puts me in a bad mood just thinking about it (the peer review’s long summer holiday, followed by long stretches of not answering phone calls or emails from our architect).

Meanwhile, we’re all starting to get antsy, in particular our builder and his crew, who had scheduled our project for their first project of 2015. He and his guys were out at our site doing everything they could, shy of starting the project — pegging out the site, confirming with us the real-life layout of the house, realizing a flaw in the water run-off plans that was ultimately corrected, anything they could do.

When building with straw, you have a window in late summer when the straw has been harvested and there is relatively dry weather in order to stack the straw. You don’t want to stack the straw over the wet months or else you risk the straw getting wet and rotting inside your walls. So we were all watching the weeks slip away one by one and fearing that our window was going to arrive and we weren’t going to be ready.

And then one day, our “straw guy” got a lead on some straw. You might even remember me posting about it. (Sigh.) He and Sean went out to a local farm and stacked and carted away, and then re-stacked in a friend-of-a-friend’s warehouse 300 bales of straw. Woo hoo. We were getting close now. Half of the straw, but it’s a start!

Then finally our architect convinced our local council to issue us a foundation consent, due to the endless delays of the peer reviewer, so at least we could get started while our architect and council worked out the minor details that were holding up our consent. Great! Let’s set the last piece in motion: the bank loan.

And this is where it all fell apart and where our naivete at being first-time home-builders was revealed. See, the bank would lend us 80% of the value of the house. Great! We had the builder’s contract and saw the price. And it was high, but it included the costs to put the services (septic, water catchment, electricity) on our section. And it included the slightly higher labor costs to build with straw (plastering the internal and external walls that give everything the rounded look takes a long time in building terms). But we had the 20% down payment. We could afford it.  And, most importantly, this was going to be our dream house. We were willing to pay more for the house we want, that we will live in for the next 30 years.

Okay, let’s do this! Let’s get the builder’s prices to the bank-approved valuer (they work with 3 private valuers in town), get his approval that the costs are all valid, that this is what it costs to build this house… Wait, what? That’s not what the valuer is doing? (This is where my naivete came in.)

The valuer doesn’t double-check the value of the cost to build. The valuer is finding the price that the bank could sell the house for if we foreclosed on our mortgage. The valuer assigns the future house a value as if it were on the market. What would a house this size, on a section this size, in this part of town, go for? What would people pay for this house, once it was built? And — here is the kicker — because none of the current straw bale homes have changed owners yet (they’re all pretty new), there’s no data that shows that a straw bale home, in all its soft edges and warmth (tangible heat retention / insulation), in all its eco-friendliness and efficiency, is actually worth more in real terms. The straw walls and solar power and solar hot water, and low heating and cooling costs all add appeal, but have yet to prove that they add value.

And so the value came in significantly less than the cost build. Really significantly. Which meant, that the bank would loan us 80% of the value of the house. Which meant that we would have to come up with 20% of that value, PLUS the difference between the value and the actual cost. This was so unexpected for us that we didn’t even know how to process this. We’re talking, triple the down payment, which was just laughable.

We found out on the Friday afternoon, a mere hours before heading to Lake Waikaremoana, a wonderful retreat in the middle of Te Urewera National Park. On walks, and late into the night, we talked it through. Could we build half of the house now, with the straw we had and then in a few years, build the second half? Ultimately that would cost us even more, given the cost of bringing all the tradespeople out two times, rather than one. Could we modify the design so that half was straw and half conventional? Doubtful. Could we shrink the house? But we need the space now when it will be all of us under one roof. Will the fact that we have to run services onto the section, no matter what size/style, prohibit us from ever building on it, i.e. do we sell the section.

Whoa. Now that’s a step too far. In our conversations, it became clear that giving up the section was not a sacrifice that we were willing to make. We’d spent a little time out there, walking the pegged-out perimeter. We’d listened to the quiet. We’d taken in the peace of the surrounding trees, the bird life, the big hills to the north. We’d felt so lucky that we’d bought it. That was where we saw ourselves. Would we sell the section. No, not yet. We were going to stick it out, and find ourselves out there on our own little piece of the world. We’d grown to love that little piece.

So we’ve begun the process of modifying where we can. The straw walls are being erased and replaced with extra-thick walls (150mm thick instead of the standard 110mm). But most of the other features will hopefully remain. Passive solar heating with all the North-facing windows, the poured concrete floor for retaining thermal mass, and solar hot water and power are all still part of the plan. At the moment, we’re waiting for the architect to re-draw the plans and for the builder to re-cost the project (everything was contingent on those ultra-thick walls). If we can get the costings down near the value, we’ll be good to go. But that’s a big if.

And so we wait. At one point, it felt like we were a mere 48 hours away from breaking ground. And then it felt like we would have to sell the section and try to find a house that we could love as much as the one in our imagination. Now, we’re back to somewhere in between those two extremes. We knew building a home would have it’s challenges. But somehow we didn’t expect it to be like this. I was more thinking something like “If I have to decide on one more drawer pull, I’m going to LOSE IT!” But I guess it’s not really a challenge if you see it coming.

Our one consolation in giving up our dream to build a strawbale home? It will be so much easier when we only want to build a little one-bedroom strawbale hobbit cottage when we’ve retired and it’s time to downsize.

Stay tuned as the adventures (hopefully much more boring and predictable) unfold.


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An Update on the Straw Bale House

Sadly, not much has happened since my last post. We’re STILL awaiting building consent from council, something that people building unconventional homes have to endure.

But there have been a couple small but exciting developments.

Firstly, our builder has been out to our section, pegging out the boundary of the house, spray-painting the dimensions of the exterior perimeter on the ground. This is what we found ourselves walking one evening after dinner.

If you look close at the grass in the picture below, you can see the pegs that mark the shape of the house. It’s bigger than the wall exterior, so were thinking it may be the widest part of the house, the roof overhang. Regardless, it was tangible work towards making our house a reality and we were kind of giddy about it.



Here’s Sean, standing in the little alcove, marked by the pink spray paint, that will be our front door. He’s standing with his back to the front door.


Here’s Thora channeling her future teenage self and having a little sulk in the area that will be her bedroom.


It was exciting to be out there, as the summer sun was still high in the sky long passed dinner time. I stood where I thought the kitchen sink will be and took in the view that we will surely take in every night as we wash the dishes. To listen to the quiet of the country, the crickets, the deep flap of the long wings of the wood pigeon — in moments like this, it feels hard to be patient.




And then an even more exciting development happened. Despite thinking that we weren’t going to be able to source local straw, Sean got a call on Monday from Aaron, our straw and plaster specialist, who said he found a lead on some straw. Could Sean go out with him and load it up onto a truck and take it to a friend’s to store it? Amazingly, Sean had long ago taken the week off to complete an online course. So suddenly he found himself out in Patutahi, gazing at the some of the straw that would become the walls of our home.


By Monday night, Sean, Aaron, the friendly straw farmer (who by the way is the brother of the famous Gisborne All-Black, Ian Kirkpatrick) and his wife had all worked to move those straw bales off his paddock and to storage, where they will wait until it’s time to stack them.



More updates to come when more progress is made. Stay tuned!

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We’re Building an Straw Bale Eco-house

Here’s a little back story. Part 1: Sean has always wanted to build his own personal ski lodge/home, complete with dark timber, a Great Room with a roaring open fireplace, and a second floor balcony overlooking it all.

This may be a slight exaggeration of his dream.

Part 2: I have always wanted to live in a big, old farmhouse, with ancient, scarred wooden tables, exposed beams, and sun-bleached timber floors.

Exposed beams and high ceilings

I’m such a hippy.

Part 3: If we would’ve found a well-insulated home that was fuel-efficient to run or sensible to retro-fit with eco-minded functionality, we surely would’ve grown to love a house even if it didn’t fulfill the fantasies of our combined dream home. However, the more we looked, the more we found houses that had puzzling layouts, or typical Kiwi insulation (i.e. little to no insulation), or no way to keep the house warm in the winter without multiple fires and heat pumps.

With each house that missed the mark with us, Sean became more and more eager to realize his dream of building his own house, the one he’d been imagining his whole life, the one out of his boyhood fantasies. “If I could build a house, it’d have a secret passageway from a downstairs room to an upstairs library!” he said once. I have to admit, I agree.


I, on the other hand, became more and more eager to build an environmentally sustainable house. I found myself Pinteresting my nights away to the sound of the rugby whistle in the next room as Sean caught up on his endless collection of taped rugby games. (In case you’re envisioning Sean watching rugby games with a whistle in his mouth, I say to you, “Great image!” But sadly the whistle belongs to the ref… on the TV.) The Tiny House movement compelled me, as did Earthship homes. Should we go off the grid? Should we have a living roof? Could the four of us live in an ingeniously and efficiently designed shipping container?

Tiny houses-Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. I love the minimalistic simplicity of these. Yes, I believe I could live in one. For a short time, alone! lol

(I think the answer to that last question is probably no.)

Anyway, back to the more realistic questions: Could we completely sustain ourselves with sun and rain? How eco can we afford to build?

We went to visit some new friends who have a straw bale house. Our mindset when we arrived was the same as it had been for months: Plan A is to build our own eco home; if it’s too expensive to build eco-friendly, Plan B is to settle on a house to purchase. Upon leaving our friends’ house, there was no longer a Plan B. We were building our own straw bale house. There was no other option.

Their home was cozy and warm and yet airy. Their house was a structure, but it was also the architectural equivalent to an embrace. The beautiful, thick, natural walls, the rounded edges, the earthy colors–it felt very solid and inviting and like the best, homiest home we’d ever been in. The house felt a part of the land. It was wonderful and suddenly we knew that this was the kind of house that we would build. Plan A or Bust!

As we talked to our new friend, Aaron, a stone mason by trade, we learned that he’d worked on the build for his own house. Then he’d helped out on another friend’s straw bale house, and then another and another. “So you must know who the local expert is here in Gizzy that we should talk to,” said I. Umm…duh.  He’s one of the local experts. (Face. Palm.) Through the work on these projects, he has compiled a crew of technicians, builders, and contractors that work well together. He offered to point us in the direction of all of these people. “Or we could just hire you as our project manager?” we countered a conversation or two later.  Thankfully, he agreed.

Let’s back up a bit. Here are a couple common questions: “How do you build a house with straw?” and “Haven’t you read ‘The Three Little Pigs’?” So you build a timber structure. But then instead of layering in conventional insulation, you stack and compact bale after bale all the way up to the roof. Then instead of siding or weather board on the outside or drywall on the inside, you coat the straw, inside and out, with a plaster mix of lime, clay, and possibly something else. (Despite the research I’ve done, I’m clearly NOT the expert.)  You can hand-plaster it on but we’ll probably opt for the faster method which is to cover everything in chicken wire and then machine-spray on the plaster. From the outside, it looks much like an adobe home. And if done correctly, there’s no extra fire hazard than a conventional timber home. In fact I’ve read from some sources that a well-built straw bale home can take longer to catch on fire since there’s not enough oxygen in the straw. Like trying to light a ream of computer paper on fire, while flammable, it takes a long time to ignite. (So I’ve heard.)

So why straw bale? Why not rammed earth (packing in layers of sand and gravel and clay to create the walls)? Firstly, straw is GREAT insulation. And in a place with a mild climate that still gets near freezing in the winter, we still need to insulate. And straw bales are known for retaining the daytime warmth in the winter and keeping the house cool in the summer. Additionally, straw is a natural waste by-product of agriculture and there’s no shortage of agriculture here in Gizzy. We will be attempting to locally source our building materials throughout this build and we might be able to locally source 100% of our straw here in Gizzy. Straw bale homes also “breathe.” While the walls are waterproof and packed tight enough to deter fire, moisture doesn’t get trapped inside. Straw bale homes have low rates of mold and mildew growing inside, and are good for asthmatics. Lastly, the straw bale walls provide many opportunities for artistic detailing that give a house a one-of-a-kind identity, like rounded corners,

window seat

alcoves, small knick-knack-sized ones or big bed-sized ones,

bed alcove

built in shelves,

Inset shelves

and glass walls.

glass bottle wall

So fast-forward a few months. We bought a section, a beautiful 1-acre “bit of dirt” just outside of town, 2 kms passed the hospital in the “country.” In fact, this one right here.01

We then began working on the design with Shane Kingsbeer, the architect recommended to us by Aaron. We’ve been very happy with Shane (highly recommend!). And after talking with him, Aaron, and Phil, the builder, we began to hone in on our design. Our original sketches incorporated Sean’s hope for a Great Room and a balcony and my desire to live in a farmhouse. So we came up with a compromise: living in a barn. Something like this!

Beautiful open space. Verbouwde woonboerderij | VIVA VIDA

But alas, it was not meant to be. It turns out that with a straw bale house, it becomes significantly more costly to build an entire second floor. Like a lot more costly. And when you build two stories (storeys), the pressure it puts on the dirt below the house is significant, which of course incurs more cost for extra soil reports and ultimately a more expensive foundation. So we said goodbye to the second floor balcony, the multi-floor secret passageway, and Thora’s favorite dream feature–a laundry chute!

So back to the design: Instead of building up, we’re building out. Our house is long and skinny, with the long side facing the strong north sun (we’re in the Southern Hemisphere remember). Here is how our proposed house will sit on our section. I’ve included the garage/in-law apartment that we also hope to build as soon as Sean’s parents move out here permanently. The driveway will enter near the upper left-hand corner of the image below, at the northwest edge of our section. The driveway will curve toward the long, northeast border and then end in the space between the house and the garage/apartment.

two buildings with border

First, our design adopts the easiest and cheapest way to heat our house: Passive Solar Heating. The sun will come through all these north-facing windows and the concrete floors will absorb the heat and retain it. Concrete is a mixed bag for eco-building. On it’s own, concrete contains materials, mainly Portland Cement, that leave a significant carbon footprint behind. However, over the life of our house, our concrete slab floor will allow us to use very little green house gases to heat and cool our home. While we were hoping for a rammed earth floors (all natural materials layered and compacted repeatedly and then sealed with a resin), it was cost-prohibitive for the size of our house. We might be able to do a portion of rammed earth and a portion of concrete. Fingers crossed.

To keep the floors warm, we will install underfloor heating. Prior to pouring the concrete floors, pipes will be put in. Then a pump will circulate hot water through the pipes, warming the floor. Our plan includes solar panels on the roof. These will heat all of our water, both for showers and taps, but also the water that is pumped through the floor. Lastly, we’ll install a closed, stove-top fire, which is much more efficient to run than an open fire since you adjust the oxygen input to control the temperature and speed in which the wood burns. And in fact, after talking with other straw bale home owners, it seems that the fire may not be necessary but a dozen times over winter since the walls do such a good job of retaining the sun’s heat. So with the solar panels, in addition to providing us our electricity, we should be able to heat the water for the underfloor heating and run the pump that circulates the hot water, without using electricity from the grid.

While Sean was sad to see his balcony go, it was a sensible compromise to make. Especially because we have so many of our other wishes for our Dream Home still intact! And seriously, if we were going to build our Dream Home, we were going to include everything we ever wanted. I mean, why wouldn’t you? If they have to be cut, they’ll be cut down the road. But one should dream big, right? And of course, by “big” I don’t mean building a large house for the sake of building large. I mean, we have the chance to build a house that’s thoughtful and responsible, in tuned to how we use the various spaces. Yes, it’s roomy. But there is purpose behind those rooms. We hope to build something to last our lifetime and even our kids’ lifetimes. We hope to create a lovely and welcoming space to spend our days as a family and to entertain visitors for the evening, for a weekend, or for a month! So here’s where we are with our dream… at this very moment… right now. So before we’ve compromised anything else to our stretched-thin budget, let me highlight the details we love about the plan for our new house. (Fingers crossed all these details stay where they should.)

Here’s a close-up of the layout. (We have lots of appreciation for Shane’s work. He is great to work with; he’s been very patient and receptive to our goals and ideas while adhering to sound and budget-friendly architecture.)

You can see the two separate living areas, the common living area and guest room are on the left and the more private parts of the house are on the right. The entrance is on the south side of the house.

house plan with border

* We have a self-contained guest room with private bathroom. This was a priority for us because we wanted to build a house that could be roomy enough for long-term visitors or grandparents. Or both at the same time!

* We have a large, open-plan living area, which is also a priority. We wanted to give more space to the common areas to encourage togetherness. The Dining Room walks out onto a covered, year-round deck with a louvered awning (Gizzy is a great place for 3-season, al fresco dining), while the Living Room doors to the west, open onto what will be a small patio with a spa pool/hot tub. (We’re opting for a spa pool instead of a pool.)

* We have a single-purpose TV room (it’s called a Media Room on the plans, but we’ll always know it as the TV room) which will work to remove the TV from the center of the living space and can be closed off when not in use. We love the fact that in our current rental, the TV is in the front lounge, a room we only use when we have something to watch. We’re thrilled with this development; our kids don’t watch TV out of boredom. We wanted to replicate this in our new house.

* It will have a raised ceiling and exposed beams to suggest a Great Room.

* We have a pantry (luxury of luxuries), big closets, and a mud room/laundry room.

* We have a study/library.

This is the “front” of the house. This is what you’ll see when you drive in:

front of house with border

The circle window is the study/library. It is in the center of the house and breaks up the two living areas. That room on the north side and the entryway on the south side will be the only parts of the house not walled with straw.

This is the “back” of the house. You’ll come around the side and park in front of the “front” door, which is really in the “back” of the house.

entrance with border

Here are the elevations of the four sides.

Elevations with border

So that’s where we are with things. Still early stages. I’ll continue to post updates as progress is made and to document the journey of building our own eco-home. Stay tuned as the adventure unfolds!










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Our Summer Adventure to the South Island with BaBa and NuNu, Part 3

Here is the third and final installment of this fun-filled visit. We pick up where we left off, after our trip to Milford Sound, followed by a day trip to Arrowtown. We were back in Queenstown and enjoying the sights, as grey as they might’ve been. The week we were there was unseasonably cold and dreary. (It was the middle of summer, for all you North Hemispherians.) Of course the forecast for the week after our visit looked gorgeous. Isn’t that always the way? But the weather didn’t slow us down any.

January 7: Queenstown

Sean and I had been hoping to do a nice long hike one day on this trip and weather be damned, this was going to be the day. BaBa and NuNu generously took the kids on a vintage steamship tour of Lake Wakatipu on the TSS Earnslaw while Sean and I followed our Queenstown map of walking trails to the start of the Fernhill Loop track, what looked to be a challenging, 3-hour hike.

Below is a photo of the grandparents and the grandkids boating across the lake in the TSS Earnslaw.


While I don’t remember all that they told us, I do remember that despite the rain, they had a great time! The tour guides were informative, and riding on the vintage vessel was exciting and educational, with some of the mechanisms visible to the passengers. They boated across the lake to a sheep farm, where the farmer (a funny, personable guy) demonstrated how a farmer uses the help of a sheepdog to herd the sheep. He told them about the nature of sheepdogs and the sheep they herd, and he even quickly sheered a sheep. They had morning tea and then headed back for Queenstown. Here’s their souvenir photo.

01While they were having their adventure, Sean and I were having ours. Although, ours was not such a resounding success. Our hike was cold and wet and sadly, we spent the first 45 minutes getting lost in the woods. I don’t think we ever got to the start of our trail. At some point we abandoned the Fernhill Loop and found our way into the Ben Lomond Reserve and walked up until we found ourselves at the top of the Skyline Gondola.  And right in front of us, perched on the edge of the hill, was a timber hut, the office of operations for Ziptrek Ecotours, the zipline tour company that we now realized was responsible for the squeals of fear and delight that echoed through the woods as we’d been walking up. Sean and I looked at each other. “We should zipline down the mountain!” we said. That would surely be a story to tell the kids when we met back up with them. Alas, their next group tours wasn’t scheduled to start until early afternoon, a few hours away. And so we began our cold, wet hike back down the hill.

07Despite the cold and wet, we enjoyed the scenery as we meandered our way back to the CBD. We attempted to warm up via hot chocolate while we waited for the TSS Earnslaw to return. I didn’t warm up until I soaked my hands and feet in the motel tub for 10 minutes. Good times!

That afternoon, we drove to the impressive Aqualand Aquatics Center just outside of town. It was a great time in there, although sadly, the few hours that we spent inside in the covered warmth out of the rain was also the only few hours that the rain stopped and the sun came out. Oh well…

We drove back to the motel and then walked into town for dinner at the delicious Thai restaurant, @Thai. And because we had many a noodle and rice dish at our table, thus continued The Unintentional Carb Binge Tour of the South Island 2014 ™.

This was the cloudy horizon at dusk over Lake Wakatipu as we walked through town homeward.


January 8: Wanaka

The weather forecast was pretty bleak this day as well, so we decided to drive to nearby Wanaka (WAH-na-ka), and check out the National Transit and Toy Museum and Puzzling World, both with indoor entertainment. Sadly, NuNu had a day of work to do, so we set off without her to Wanaka. We drove via Arrowtown, since Sean felt that we would all regret not tasting the sticky buns at Provisions of Arrowtown that we’d missed when we were there a couple of days before.  Our Gisborne friends had recommended these to us while we were there, (“obscenely good” is the phrase that is used by those in the know); however, when we’d gotten there that day, in the mid-afternoon, they’d been sold out. So back to Arrowtown we went for coffee, hot chocolates, and carb and sugar fuel to power us! (They lived up to the hype.) With sticky fingers, we drove the scenic route from Arrowtown to Wanaka via the Crown Range Road and Cardrona Valley. There were dozens of switchbacks to start, with overlooks like the one below. Although it’s hard to make out, there was a faint rainbow spanning those two hills.



First, on the list, The Transit and Toy Museum. What an overwhelming collection of vehicles of all kinds from all eras, as well as a dizzying collection of toys! This place is probably every hoarder’s dream, the example that gives legitimacy to a pathological level of collecting. It was unbelievable all that they had amassed.


First we enjoyed playing on the pedal cars in the yard that sits between the hangars that house the various vehicles, and the main building that showcases the ga-zillions of toys.

19Soon, the skies opened up and we made a dash for the nearest hangar full of vehicles.




11I can’t believe that I didn’t take any pictures of the toy part of the museum. I think I may have been in a bit of shock. If you click on the link above, you can see some of the photos on their website. However, it doesn’t begin to capture the mind-boggling collection that they have.

We ate a picnic lunch and then it was on to Puzzling World, a destination that I knew would be a hit, since BaBa, a mathematician, is a serious puzzler. (Sean and I are fans of puzzles, too.) BaBa loves word puzzles, number puzzles, crossword puzzles, as well as tactical puzzles. We sure got our fill here! Puzzling World is a one stop shop for all kinds of puzzles and games (they have a great gift shop and cafe to sit and play puzzles and games to your heart’s content), a very tricky 3D “Great Maze,” as well as exhibits of illusions of many types. If puzzles are your thing, this is a great destination!

When we first arrived, the rain had stopped, so we took that as our chance to try to the Great Maze.

12At first, you think that, what with the elevated sections, it can’t be that tricky, since surely you should be able to see what you need to do. Umm, no. It’s a very tough maze and is made all the more fun as you pass group after group, all plotting their plan of attack, all of which sounds remarkably like the plan that you just had, before you hit a dead end and started retracing your steps. There are exit doors that allow you take a break or give up. You’re never trapped. But we didn’t give up. We broke into two teams, Auric, BaBa, and I on one team, and Thora, Sean, and Nathan, our Gisborne friend, on another team.

The goal they give you is to reach each of the 4 towers in the 4 corners of the maze. Here is a moment of celebration: Sean’s team is in a tower taking a picture of us in a tower. There was probably some taunting being yelled between those two towers.

01Here’s Thora and Nathan, aka Silhouette Man.

02We did eventually solve it, although I think it took us about 30 minutes longer than we expected. Sixty-five minutes is the time that Sean and I are remembering. It’s funny to have walked so far and so long, but within such a narrow scope as that maze.

03Please don’t ask me if I’m pregnant. I don’t know why I’m holding my hand like that. I’m not pregnant. I’d just been binging on carbs for the last 5 days, remember?!?

04Relieved and proud of our victory, we had a brief rest over ice blocks (I was eating for two remember? Kidding! I’m not pregnant!!!) and then it was on to the Illusion Room. This first bit of the Illusion Room is really intense. I got totally nauseous almost immediately due to the brain-smashing illusions. Mercifully, this part of the museum is short. You’re out and on to more stable illusions that don’t screw with your basic sense of direction, like up verses down. Sheesh. Here’s a cool one, a wall of faces that look as if they project out into the room; however… they don’t! They cave in. Even though I know that, it’s really hard to make my eyes see it.


Here’s a short video of the kids and Sean illustrating one of their interactive exhibits.

After we walked through all of the Illusion Rooms, we retired to the “puzzle cafe” where they have dozens of games and puzzles for you to play with for as long as you like. We happily hung out in this part of the museum for a good 45 minutes attempting all sorts of puzzles. I bounced between here and the gift shop. (It’s great!) Here’s BaBa and Thora hard at work on their respective puzzles.


Hmm… Will he figure it out?

15      He got it!


And lastly, a trip to the toilets provides one last illusion. Here’s Auric using the communal long drop toilet with strangers. (Hint: it’s an illusion.)

05After we got back to Queenstown, we met back up with Cathy for dinner at the lovely restaurant, Halo, which also marked the end of The Unintentional Carb Binge Tour of the South Island 2014 ™. They had a great menu and while I can’t remember exactly what we all had, I’m pretty sure none of us ate pizza or pasta. Or sticky buns.

January 9: Our last day in Queenstown/Glenorchy

We were so impressed with Halo that we went back there for breakfast the next morning. These were our last few hours with NuNu, before she flew back to the states to prepare for the beginning of the upcoming semester. We had a nice walk through the gardens and posed for some group shots. My strangle-hold on Auric will seem understandable in a couple photos.

06Here’s a nice one of the grandparents and the grandkids.


And here’s what happens when Auric is not restrained.

08We took NuNu to the airport, wished her safe travels and then gave our goodbye hugs. We had just a few more hours on the South Island ourselves and decided to fill it with a drive on what has been called New Zealand’s most beautiful road and one of the most beautiful roads in all of the world, the short drive between Queenstown and the tiny town of Glenorcy.



Here’s a short video made by an Auckland couple that does a great job illustrating the truths to those claims of “most beautiful road.”

With only a short couple of hours to kill, we didn’t take advantage of much that Glenorchy has to offer aside from a short walk along the Glenorchy Lagoon Walkway, an hour loop walk that allowed us to take in the gorgeous scenery on this beautiful day.


09We actually ran into our Gisborne friends for the third day in a row as we waited for our food at a local restaurant. The wait was so long, though, that we had to race back to Queenstown just to make our flight! The Holliday Lateness Anxiety Gene caused for a couple of very stressed-out people in that car ride. But thankfully, we made it!

Our travels landed us in Napier in the evening. We’d booked a night at the Spanish Lady Motel in Napier ahead of time. So we rocked up, dropped off our bags, and then drove into town, starving and hoping to find a place to eat at 9:30 pm.

Thankfully the Emporium was open and happy to water and feed us! We had yummy food (I’m sure carbs were involved), and then around 10:30, we dragged our kids out of the bar (always a good look) and made our way back to the hotel.


January 10: Napier and Gisborne

Now that I think about it, I can’t remember why we didn’t go to Splash Planet, the highly recommended water theme park. Maybe our wallets were hurting after a week in Queenstown (everything is expensive and they have all these amazing ways for you to spend your money!), or maybe we worried it would be swamped and over-crowded. I can’t remember. Regardless, we opted for the Ocean Spa, a nice aquatic center overlooking the beach. (The beaches aren’t used in Napier, I think due to the rip tides.) We had a nice time at these pools, briefly plunging into the cooler ones, playing in the warmer ones, and mellowing in the hot ones. After a few hours here, we packed it up and drove back to Gizzy, our adventure at it’s end.

January 11: Gisborne

Somehow I didn’t take pictures of my dad’s last day in Gisborne. I think we might’ve gone for a run and then later in the day we may have taken the kids out to Bushmere Estate  for a glass or two of a nice local white wine and some nibbles, a very Gizzy thing to do on a warm and sunny day. But because I didn’t take any photos, I don’t know for sure. (I’m pretty sure.)

What I do know is that we had a great time with BaBa and NuNu and look forward to their next visit. Here we are at the Gisborne Airport, saying goodbye. (Sniff.)


And here is where I leave you, faithful and probably weary, reader. That was a lot to take in and you’re a champ in my book for reading to the end! Stay tuned for the next installment. Until then…

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Our Summer Adventure to the South Island with BaBa and NuNu, Part 2

Okay, on to part of the trip where we really get down to the business of experiencing the drama of the South Island…

January 5: our day in Milford Sound.

We started by getting up early in the morning and groaning at the terrible weather predictions for the day. There was no rescheduling. It would be what it would be. Fingers crossed. My dad and I ran out to get some breakfast sandwiches, thinking quick and could be easily eaten in the car. Sadly we aimed wide of the mark on this one. Flash forward an hour, and we’re eating immense sandwiches of any and all sorts of breakfast protein you can imagine, piled between two pieces of butter-soaked bread. Yikes. We were fueled to take on Milford Sound! Albeit from a seated position, looking out the glass walls of the boat, but dammit, we were fueled!

To give you an idea of where we were traveling, here’s a map of the region. The day before, we’d driven from Queenstown to Te Anau, and then on to Lake Manapouri for the Circle Trek. On this day, we’d packed up our stuff and driven north to Milford Sound.,168.0942889,9z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0xa9d5e04dba4b49e1:0x2a00ef86ab64de00

As we neared Milford Sound, the scenery started to become very dramatic indeed, even by New Zealand standards.

The clouds got low…

17…the horizons on either side of the road began to crowd in…


… until sheer, high, rock faces, trickling with waterfalls were right on the shoulders.



We took our 2+ hour tour with Real Journeys and I highly recommend them. Here is the M.V. Sinbad, the sturdy vessel that would brace the winds and the waves as it took us through the Sound, out into the Tasman Sean, under waterfalls (I’m not kidding), and back again into safe harbour.


10Stunning scenery. Stark and ancient, daunting and honestly, stupefying. I looked up at these fjords and the sight cut the ties to my regular life, like I’d been tethered with cobwebs. I looked at these cliffs, and the ones behind those, and the waterfalls and the narrow passageway out to sea, and I became completely un-moored.



Here’s an photo of BaBa, aka Hip Grandpa ™, that in a darkly romantic way seems to personify the feeling that one feels when amidst this landscape.


In addition to the ennui and mild heartbreak I felt at the forbidding and beautiful scenery, I also felt a significant amount of sea sickness. Auric and I had to close our eyes and the nappers we are, of course we nodded off for about 30 minutes. Thank goodness that there was still plenty of good views to be had when we woke up from our little power naps. (It’s great that we came all this way to pay for a nap at sea!)

03The wind was incredible through the Sound. Each time we rounded a fjord, we would hit almost tornado-level winds. Here we are trying to stay anchored to the boat while we pose for this picture. (Auric isn’t anywhere near the frame of this shot.)


Here’s a funny little video of the wind billowing NuNu’s jacket into a bobble head. (Turn down your speakers; the wind is terribly loud. Sorry!)


“With a mean annual rainfall of 6,813 mm (268 in) on 182 days a year,[9] a high level even for the West Coast, Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand and one of the wettest in the world,” says Wikipedia. Because of all that rain, there are plenty of waterfalls flowing down the sides of the rock faces. Some of the waterfalls starts so high up (1000 meters) that they are carried away on the wind before making it to the water below. There are a few strong waterfalls and on a couple occasions, the captain of the boat steered us under the waterfall, in case brave souls were keen for that experience.




I wish I could remember all the interesting details I learned about the natural fauna and flora that thrive in this place. We did, very briefly see the fins of some bottlenose dophins and we were impressed with the views of the kayakers braving the elements and kayaking Milford Sound. Maybe one day… Mostly I just stared up at the cliffs, awed.

The weather oscillated between grey and windy, and raining and windy. There was one brief glimpse of blue sky, though.

12 After our tour, we disembarked the M.V. Sinbad and under sheets of rain, we ran to the parking lot and fought off the aggressive sandflies (mosquitoes that look like fruit flies) that thrive in the parking lot and prey on tourists. Quickly into the car, we ate our lunches on our drive back to Queenstown.

Again, the beautiful turquoise waters of Lake Wakatipu greeted us.


Dinner on this night found us at Cow, named for it’s location on Cow Lane (on which the cows of yore were driven to the stables to be milked), rather than what it serves. What does it serve, you ask? Why, pizza and pasta, of course. And here is where we enjoyed the third stop on The Unintentional Carb Binge Tour of the South Island 2014 ™. Delicious food was had by all.


January 6: Queenstown and Arrowtown

The next day, I started off with run along the lakeside path, snapping this shot of a bee in a poppy, with Lake Wakatipu in the distance. #nofilter

19NuNu had work to do that morning, so the 5 of us rode the gondola up Bob’s Peak to take in the views and to ride the Luge.

21 20Stunning views from the top of the hill. Too bad my vertigo forced me to ride the gondola with my eyes closed.


23 24


After our morning up the hill, we gathered NuNu back up with us and headed for Arrotown, a sleepy little town that was put on the map back in the 1860s during New Zealand’s gold rush. Upon arriving in Arrowtown, we met our Gisborne friends along the banks of the Arrow River. They were spending some time in nearby Gibbstown with a house swap. Our kids panned for gold (you can rent pans), and then we followed the trail through the Chinese Settlement historic monuement which memorialize the lives of the Chinese who were invited to the Lake district by the New Zealand government to help stimulate the mining, and yet were often the victims of discrimination.

Then we wandered through Arrowtown’s main street before stepping into the wonderfully eclectic and hands-on Lakes District Museum. What fun we had in there! The museum documents the lake district’s Maori and European settlement and history of the region.

26  29 28 27

30 And then we stumbled upon a photographer in the back of the museum, Old Fashioned Costume and Photography Studio. The photographer, Karen (I think her name is), has collected an impressive multitude of period costumes and props. She stages these startlingly realistic souvenir photos and then filters the photos for antiquated perfection. I couldn’t resist and thankfully my family got into the spirit–even Sean! Actually this was perfect for him, given his reluctance, nay distaste, for smiling for photos. And poor Auric, who has such a great smile, had a really hard time keeping the grave expression of old-timey photos. Thora, of course, got into the drama of it. I can’t help but look at the “Thora” in this photo, a photo that tells the story of comparative of wealth and opportunity of the time, and I imagine the harsh love and icy affection she endured at the hands of those rigid and serious parents. What sadness she has in her face! What a ham. Ha!


After our photography sitting, Karen recommended a nearby restaurant, the Fork and Tap, a lovely gastro pub with a great selection of beer and wine, delicious food, and a nice play space out back for the kids. There were games and decks of cards to play while you waited. Here are NuNu, Thora, and I playing cards.

01In fact the kids had so much fun here that upon leaving, we chatted with the parents of some kids that our kids befriended while playing outside. Thora was really hoping that we’d be able to meet up with them again. Oh, the fast friendship of 7 year-olds in restaurants.

We enjoyed the nice drive from Arrowtown back to Queenstown, and settled in to the motel for a quiet night after our exciting day.

And this is where I’ll leave you. There are still a few more days left of our South Island adventure. Stay tuned. And thanks for catching up with us!

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