Building the Cube– Part 1

The madness continues-- Lao New Year

As you can see, the one spot at the Vientiane residence which I could sort of call my own for a quiet beer in the evening was overrun, beset upon by an intoxicated mob of revelers. They carried on like this for three strait days during the recent Lao New Year festivities. I took refuge, as best I could, in the suffocating little cubbyhole that is both my bedroom and my office. I wanted to get another chapter of the book that I’m translating done so that I could get paid quickly and get away, escape, flee the scene of the madness. But the locals had other plans for me. They assured me that I was missing all the fun, come and see, which was just a ruse to get me to go outside, and when I relented and made what I’d hoped would be a brief appearance, they poured buckets of ice cold water down my back (the water was a gift from the shop across the street whose owner so generously provided the runoff from his ice-making machine).

Truckload of rice husks.

Needless to say, this became a repetitious circus act in which the Big White Guy is lured from the safety of his closet only to become the target of water cannons and short women wearing pink, wet T-shirts and armed with an arsenal of talcum powder. I’d succumb, of course, and the beer they forced me to drink, completely against my will, would numb me sufficiently to bear it all.  Eventually it winded down. I got my translation done, days later than planned, got paid, and on Saturday, April 20, with my little Lao helper in tow, I made my escape. I felt like a kid just out of school for the summer. The day before we departed, I’d had Dad load my truck with a heap of bags full of dry rice husks.  I woke up so early that morning that we were off from Vientiane at 7:20 a.m.

It was the first time in a long time that I’d done the Lao route to the South, where my farm is. I usually go through Thailand because the roads are better and it’s about the same distance, although doing two border crossings is annoying. The roads had improved, miraculously, and since it wasn’t quite into the rainy season yet, most of the animals were not standing in the middle of the road. It still took me eleven and a half hours to get to Pakse, which happens to be the third most populous city in Laos. Pakse is “just about there,” but I usually stop somewhere about “half-way there.” I wanted to make full use of Sunday, though, so I drove as far as I could.

Screwed up stacking order.

Although I’d planned everything quite precisely, “stacking order” was not part of the plan. So, when we got to my farm at around 10:00 a.m., Sunday, April 21, after checking into a guest house in the nearby town of Paksong, we unloaded the bags of rice husks from the truck and began shuffling through the assorted semi-finished panels and other building materials I’d smuggled in from Thailand a few weeks earlier. The semi-finished floor panels were what I needed first, and they were, as you’d suspect, in the lower half of the pile. So out of necessity one pile became two. At last the two semi-finished floor panels were retrieved and placed one each on top of the piles. I received a blank look from my little Lao helper when I explained that the plywood surface that was facing up was actually the bottom, and that a copious amount of preservative needed to be applied to it. I didn’t know if this was true, but I thought it better to be on the safe side. When I opened the small can of preservative, it wasn’t what I expected; it was gray and foamy (from shaking it), and I’d expected something like a dark-brown stain. These days manufacturers are required to print so much information in so many languages on the back side of their products that the print has become impossibly small to read, so I’d relied on the larger print on the front of the can which was mostly just an advertisement. But it was an expensive imported product from Germany that claimed to be a wood preservative, and I didn’t want the overly-attentive staff member following me around at the hardware store as if he were attached by an umbilical cord to think I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I’d chosen it somewhat haphazardly. I continued to pretend that its contents were exactly what I wanted when she watched me open the can. I’d bought a paint brush, too, and she looked at it with what seemed to be a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. I demonstrated, dipping the brush into the mysterious liquid and using the tips of the bristles to spread it evenly. I let her carry on with it while I went to the building site about 20 paces away to level some strings, again, as some kids had been playing around there while I’d been away and had broken a few of the stakes which I’d painstakingly erected and leveled a few weeks before. I checked how she was doing twice. The first time I noticed that she was sort of smearing the stuff onto the plywood, the brush almost horizontally applied. I demonstrated again how you paint with the tips of the bristles, like I’d learned as a kid. She didn’t seem to see how that was any better, so I mentioned something about capillary action and fluid dynamics and completed my lecture with, “Just do it like this, okay?” The second time I checked up on her she’d just accidentally tipped the can over right in the center of the second panel. It couldn’t have been a more perfectly placed accident. We used some flat edged pieces of wood to spread the stuff about and coax the excess back into the nearly empty can. “Baw pen yang,” I said.  Never mind. I expected things to start off badly.

And that’s about when the storm came. The storm was, in principle, supposed to arrive in the late afternoon, otherwise my eleven-and-a-half-hour effort to get to Pakse the day before so that I could begin work early would have been in vain. And that it was. Although we were under the roof of a fairly substantial building, the building didn’t have any walls, and this was not a normal storm. It became nothing less than colossal. We later learned that it had toppled a number of poorly constructed buildings, garages and such, in the area. Poorly constructed, huh? As it quickly became as dark as night and the wind began spitting the rain at us horizontally, we realized there was nowhere to hide. The two piles that lay exposed were getting soaked. There were no gutters on the building, so the downpour that fell off the roof just splashed up noisily and joined the rain that was blowing in and soaking us, as well. Where there was earlier a puddle of wood preservative on a panel, there was now a puddle of water. We covered the piles as best we could with aged tarps of dubious quality. We waited for the storm to die down, but it just got more intense. My little Lao helper took shelter, crouching behind the wall of bags filled with rice husks, while I stood defiantly in the center of it all, as if to say, “Come on! You can do better than that!” Lightning struck all around us with hardly a delay before smacking our eardrums with its thunder. The trees that we could see around us were not just swaying in the wind, it was as if they were being shaken in a fit of rage. We would have just gotten in the truck and left, gone back to the cozy guest house, but we realized that by making two piles we’d made it impossible for Billy, my landlord, who was probably suffering as badly as we were, but elsewhere, to move his motorbike-with-a-side-car. So we first had to put one stack back on top of the other and then cover it again. This was how the Bolaven Plateau greeted us on our first day.

 Monday, April 22

Treated to a weird light show

We got an entirely different reception early the next morning. I parked the truck nearby the building side, and when we got out an looked to the east where the sun was already surprisingly high, there were two shining sun-like objects on opposite sides of the sun. In the photo here at the right, the sun is behind the tree. I’m sure there’s a perfectly good scientific explanation for it, but it was pretty cool, nonetheless. Although I don’t have a photo of it, a bit later a ring formed around us in the sky; it was sort of like a halo, and sort of like a rainbow, but neither. It was weird. We felt welcomed. Had we passed some test that the Spirits of the Million-Year-Old Extinct Volcano (that’s what the Bolaven Plateau is) had cast at us the day before?

Getting the foundation level-- almost. . .

Then we got to work. I’d decided not to use any concrete at all. It probably wasn’t the best decision I could make. The bags of gravel which I’d decided to use instead were not easy to level. I wasn’t worried about the durability of the polypropylene bags, because I know that if they are kept out of the sun, they will last more than a century, and their tensile strength exponentially exceeds what’s needed in this application. But they were hard to get level. My little Lao helper seemed to think that a centimeter or two didn’t matter, so, exhausted from moving the 60kg bags around, I said, “Let’s find out.”

Tuesday, April 23

Vapor barrier, maybe.

Then the whole thing got two layers of black plastic. I have my doubts about this stuff, but I didn’t want to use any of the expensive greenhouse plastic that I have. If it’s kept out of the sun, I figured, it’ll probably continue to function as a vapor barrier for long enough, if not forever. Although I’m a believer in biodegradability, I’m not ashamed to use these products of the petrochemical industry when it suits me.  This is about when I noticed my little Lao helper grinning. Or was it a smirk? Did she think it was clever (I’ve never seen a vapor barrier being used here), or stupid? It’s another one of those things I’ll never know.

Semi-finished floor with rice husks for insulation.

We set the two floor panels down and I bolted them together with the help of a C-clamp. Then we started filling the voids with rice husks. It was oddly satisfying. Although it’s not well known, rice husks are classified, in the USA, as a Class A thermal insulating material. You can’t get better than that. There is no Class A+. They generally refuse to burn, and they absorb so little moisture that molds and fungi find them quite inhospitable. And they are free.

My little Lao helper, aka Thone, mother of our 3-year old daughter.

Having successfully filled all the voids, we began attaching the upper sheets of plywood across the two panels, essentially tying them together. My little Lao helper finally understood what I was doing, or pretended to, anyway, and managed a smile. Although I like to take my shirt off and expose myself to the sun, vitamin D and all that, the sun is the mortal enemy of all Southeast Asian girls. They abhor it, and spend hundreds of dollars a month on skin whitening creams. And at more than a kilometer above sea level, it’s a strong sun, although it’s cool and comfortable in the shade. I was beginning to appreciate the “sacrifice” she was making, but I also wanted her to stop bitching about “becoming black.”

Foundation, floor, and one roof truss-- end of the second day.

It would have been nice to just start putting up walls, but I needed the flat surface of the finished floor to assemble my roof trusses. I’d cut the timber to length in Ubon, so it was just a matter of making a few cuts and tying them together with plywood. I got the front truss finished by the time the weather began to look ominous in the early afternoon. So that was the end of our second day of work. Foundation, floor, and one roof truss completed. About a 5-hour day. No beer. Exhausted. We covered it with the dubious plastic tarps and retreated to the safety of our guest house. Hot shower, happy happy.

Wednesday, April 24

Two wall panels up and bolted together. Trusses at the right.

I finished putting the trusses together. I’d never made trusses before. It was really hard to keep myself from over-engineering them. It’s an 8′ x 8′ box, after all, not a gymnasium. I’d planned on 5 trusses, but realized that was overkill, or maybe I was just letting laziness get to me, so I settled on 4 trusses. My little Lao helper agreed. She kept on asking me, “When you do roof?” She also asked me, “Where you put posts?” Any shortcut I suggested was eagerly accepted. “Don’t need posts,” I said. “Okay!” At one point I thought of suggesting that the building really didn’t need a roof at all, since there’s only about 3.5 meters of precipitation each year. She might have hesitated for an instant before replying, “Yes, don’t need roof.”

Ugly veneer but easy to disinfect and it keeps the rice husks in.

Billy, my landlord, had gone off to get food for his pigs (scraps from the market), and the walls which I’d made in advance were going up so quickly that I got carried away and careless. I’d wanted to impress him, which, given the fact that he’s got a degree in mechanical engineering, was not an easy thing to do. By the sixth wall panel, that “One or two centimeters doesn’t matter” began to matter. But it wasn’t anything that a bit of mindless bashing with a sledgehammer couldn’t solve. Three sides were up, and we’d begun applying the really ugly but easy-to-disinfect veneer interior paneling. So the walls got veneer paneling applied horizontally on the inside, and we filled the voids with rice husks. “When you do roof?” I was asked again. Not yet. I had to apply the top plates first, pieces of timber that would tie the whole thing together, but I couldn’t do that until the voids were all full of rice husks. But she didn’t understand. And then the weather became threatening, so after battening down the hatches, we gratefully returned to the guest house and enjoyed a long, hot shower.

Thursday, April 25

Battening down the cube with dubious tarps.

I was convinced I’d have the roof up on Thursday, although I’d originally thought it would only take a day to complete. Every day I thought I’d get the roof up. But there were minor things I had to do, first. Ventilation would be nice, I knew, so I had to make vents on two of the walls. And as much as I’d wanted to get the roof on quickly, I decided to get the two remaining front walls up first. Then I got carried away and went for the roof, completing a bit of it before the weather became threatening again. This bit of roof just got in the way afterwards. I didn’t like being hurried. I didn’t like the sound of thunder in the distance. . . My shorts were in tatters. It had been a 9-hour day. I was almost too tired to drink beer in the evening. And it was just a tiny box, a cube; thank God I wasn’t building anything bigger. I would have “expired.”

Friday, April 26; Saturday, April 27

The roof is on, time to take a break.

I didn’t take any photos on Friday. We finished the inside, filling the wall voids with rice husks. I remember just about getting the top plate on the front wall done when the weather began threatening us. But, by the end of the day on Saturday, the roof trusses were up, and the roof itself was done. An hour or two before getting the roof done, I’d smashed the middle finger of my left hand with the hammer, and then sliced a knuckle of my right hand seemingly to the bone when I nailed to close to the roofing material, which has quite sharp edges. It was okay while the blood was flowing, but when I’d left it be for a while and later realized I couldn’t even pick up a glass of beer with it, I decided that we were done. Part One was over. I was quite satisfied even if it was a minor achievement. With the top plates on and the trusses in place, it was solid as a rock, over-engineered, as I’d expected. My little Lao helper actually spoke fondly of it, as if it were an ugly but irresistible duckling.

To be continued. . .

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One Response to Building the Cube– Part 1

  1. I use rice hulls in my composting toilet, and one thing I noticed is that they settle quite a bit. About one inch per foot over the course of a day or two. If you are not careful, you might end up with 7 feet of insulated wall, and one foot of airspace.

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