Monday, 27 June 2022

After the footings/foundation were complete there was another week or so of effort to dig trenches, lay drainage tile and connect up our sewer/water lines. Then, we waited for the materials package to arrive so that the actual house construction could start. It had been a year and a half of effort to get this far and building the actual structure seemed to be almost an afterthought after all the work that had gone into the preparations to be able to receive it. 

We'd hoped that purchasing a custom home materials package from Pacific Homes with most of the components pre-built in an indoor production environment would pay off in both quality and weather-dependent construction time. And so it was. Only ten working days in the capable hands of just two experienced framers from Oakehart Construction (of Qualicum Beach) and there it was. It was amazing to see it come to life with the spaces and views taking shape, just as we'd imagined them in our heads for so long. From the living room, we'll have this great view of the  MV Frances Barkley as she makes her thrice-weekly journeys down the Alberni Inlet to Bamfield.

Here's a day-by-day photo sequence of the ten days of construction.

Day 1

It was an absolutely dismal day with drenching rain when the truck and crane pulled up one early morning. It was just another "Juneuary" day, part of the cold/wet/long spring we've been experiencing this year. It wasn't that cold though and it couldn't dampen our mood. Finally, it seemed like we were actually going to start building a house!

Day 2

All the lower level walls are up, we couldn't believe the one day progress. Note that the wall panels are pre-insulated.

Day 3
Subfloor joists constructed.

Day 4

Another truckload of materials arrives and the window wall is standing.

Day 5
Floor sheathing is on and interior walls are starting to take shape.

Day 6

Mostly together, but no roof trusses yet.

Day 7
Trusses are in.

Day 8
Roof sheathing is on. It's not a large living space, but, the vaulted ceilings should make it feel spacious.

Day 9
Lots of sunshine streaming through the west-facing window wall.

In the kitchen, there'll be a large, elevated sundeck beyond this patio door. West and south exposure will give us lots of sun. It also catches the afternoon sea breeze that starts up every afternoon and funnels up the Inlet. It is delightfully cooling in the hot summer weather that has finally arrived.

Day 10

Structure done. Next steps are interior stairs, windows, doors, roofing and siding. All materials are already on-site and it shouldn't be long before we're weathertight. Then, all the interior systems can be installed, a lengthy process with a lot of detail to work through. At this point, we're probably at least a couple of months from occupancy. That assumes immediate availability of sub-contractors and materials, a big ask in these days of labour shortages and supply chain issues. We'll see...

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Sunday, 5 June 2022

While the house build is continuing, we've been keeping busy. Boat projects never end and there is always a long list of projects waiting for us. As we're living aboard until the house is built, the boat interior cosmetic changes were high priority. We've completed most of those. Now, we need to start the list of mechanical/electrical and exterior projects. As we're not going to be doing much cruising this year though, these have taken a back seat. 

The house-build related workload, at least the part we can do, is also slowing down. We have two storage units stuffed full of all our recently-purchased cabinets, plumbing/lighting fixtures, appliances, fireplace etc. There will be flurries of necessary shopping activity as the house structure goes up, but, most of the work of designing, researching, choosing, ordering, purchasing and picking up 'stuff' is mostly done (we hope!). So, that means we've been able to explore more of the trails that surround us. We have even managed a couple of trips further afield despite the record-breaking cold/wet spring we've been experiencing here in Port Alberni, BC, just our luck. There've been a few good days though and we've taken advantage of them. It's impossible to plan ahead, but, when there's a nice day we try and make an effort to get out.

We visited Vancouver for a memorial service at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club. It wasn't the best day weather-wise, but, it was a nice view of the city from their docks.

The view of the Point Grey beach on the other side of the clubhouse wasn't too shabby either! Hard to believe how close to the centre of the city we are here...

While in Vancouver, it was just a short hop over the border to visit the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in Washington State. The strange thing is that while we were there, it all seemed to look rather familiar and we realized that we'd actually been this way before , in our camper van in 2016! This time though, on a beautiful day and thanks to the late spring this year, we were able to see the fields at their peak.

Even the tree blossoms were still in great condition...

On the way back, we passed through Deception Pass State Park which provided an interesting history lesson.

Back in Port Alberni, we went up the Lookout Trail. When in town, on the valley floor at sea level, it's sometimes hard to realize how the City nestles in its valley, surrounded by mountains. From this view, you can see Sproat Lake off in the distance and the Beaufort Range. It was a hazy, warm day, so not the best photo.

We did a few other new trails, all were great, but, not extra special like the China Creek Falls Trail, just a five minute drive out of town. The clarity of the water had to be seen to be believed and the Falls were perfectly proportioned and cradled in a rock chute. A lovely lunch spot on another perfect day. We also took note of a couple of good swimming holes along the route in case the weather decides to get too hot!

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Sunday, 29 May 2022

Next step in the build, after preparing the lot, is to place the concrete footings and foundation walls. In our case, we only need concrete foundation walls on two sides of the structure as the other two sides are fully exposed and will be built using standard wooden stud construction. In this picture you can see where the dirt stops and the gravel starts. The gravel area has been totally excavated down to the hardpan, refilled with crushed gravel, reinforced with layers of landscape fabric, tamped and all held back from going down the hill with a huge, ninety foot retaining wall.

Wooden forms are built and the concrete is poured.

Once the footings set up, the wall forms can be built.

...and then poured

Now, it's all cleaned-up and ready for the structure build to start. We can't wait!!


While we are waiting for the next phase to start, it's fun to visit with some of the new neighbours...

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It's been over two months since I last wrote. Our house build progress has been slow, but, steady. First, the ground was poked and prodded by our geotechnical engineer to determine the location of the 'hardpan'. Unlike in Ontario, where the Canadian Shield predominates and solid granite is usually easy to find, in British Columbia, to locate a suitable place for house footings they look for the top of the glacial till layer where the ice-age glaciers scraped the soil clean leaving a hard, dense surface. There was good news and bad news. The good news was that the hardpan layer was close to the surface and easy to find on the north side of the lot. Where the lot started going downhill on the south side of the lot, the layer was deep. It wasn't just bad news, it was very bad news because it wasn't just a matter of excavating a trench through the soft layer and putting in a wall. All the loose soil underneath and adjacent to the house location had to be removed and replaced with a new gravel mix that could be compacted into a dense, stable, supporting layer. 

And, so it began. The dump truck came and went fifty-five times! It took away twenty-seven loads of beautiful, rich, topsoil and replaced it with twenty-seven loads of crushed gravel. Drains were laid at the bottom of the pit. Each load of gravel was spread out and compacted using a hand compactor. Between each layer landscape fabric was laid, which helps to stabilize and link together the whole construction. We needed six rolls of fabric, each was $1,500. The first load of blocks arrived and the wall started to take shape. 

Two B-train loads of blocks were required, 152 blocks in total. Each block is 40 inches x 20 inches, weighs 1,200 pounds and had to be placed with an excavator. 

We knew we might need a retaining wall, but, we didn't think it would need to be this huge. It ended up ninety feet long and in places is ten feet high, all backfilled with new ground material. Over half the wall is buried, so, it doesn't look that massive from the downhill side and from the uphill, house level side there will only be about a foot visible above-ground. We did gain some extra usable level ground with the wall build, one small blessing. Although it took over 10% of the entire house budget to build, there was very little satisfaction once it was done, it was just a necessary evil before we could get on to the actual building of the house. 

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Sunday, 13 March 2022

We've mentioned in this blog, multiple times now, that we're building a house in Port Alberni, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The Alberni Valley is a beautiful place and we'll be right in the centre of it, surrounded by mountains and linked by a 25 mile fjord to the Pacific Ocean.

It's been over a year now since we purchased our building lot here, in November 2020. Since then, we've been trying, valiantly, to get this build going. It's been a struggle. The last time we built a house (1987, in Ontario) it took us only eight months, from a back of the napkin design at Easter to move-in at Christmas. That house was a custom-built post and beam home, around 2400 sq ft. Now, we're trying to build a home less than half that size and it's going to take three times as long. The reasons are many. Covid played a role as did labour shortages due to housing demand, huge cost spikes and supply chain issues. Location played a big part. Building in BC, in both a high seismic zone and a tsunami zone, meant there were many additional obstacles to overcome. We needed structural engineering review to deal with the seismic issues. We'd never heard of 'geotechnical' engineering before, but, soon learned that was a requirement as well, due to risk of landslide on our fairly steep lot and close proximity of a neighbour's rather large retaining wall. We also needed a new survey, usually around $800. The 'current' one was done in 1910 and unfortunately it ended up costing $12,000 because we had to survey, not just our lot, but the entire City block. The biggest reason for the delay though seemed to be that the company we had hired for design and material supply just didn't seem all that motivated to get it done. The design has changed very little from the first sketch, yet, it often took a couple of months to implement one revision. Then, we'd find it hadn't changed the way we'd asked and would have to keep repeating ourselves. We're not patient people and the wait has been excruciating. 

However, I'm now thrilled to report that, at last, we have started! The excavator has been working for three days. Our 'geotech' engineer has had a look at the dig and decided that we will also be needing a large retaining wall to ensure we don't migrate down the hill. We thought that might be the case, but, it still means a very heavy expense that's not usually required. We could have bought an easy, flat, boring lot but we think the attributes of this lot are worth the extra expense. We have a fabulous 180 degree view of the Alberni Inlet, a triple-sized City lot with services, unopened road allowances on two sides, laneway access at the rear and a cul-de-sac at the front. We can easily walk to shops/restaurants yet still feel we are living in a private, rural location.

So, everything's in place now and fingers crossed, it will be a reasonably trouble-free, fast build.

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Sunday, 27 February 2022

This second winter on a boat in BC hasn't been quite as easy as our first winter. Last year, in Victoria, we had just one dump of wet snow in February that was completely gone in about three days. This year, in Port Alberni, there was a nasty, almost record-setting weeks-long cold spell over the Christmas period with lots of ice and snow. Temperatures hit -16C, the record December low for Port Alberni is -17.4C, set in 1950 (average low is +0.4C), so, very close to the all-time record. The boat is not insulated, so, we could definitely feel a chill right through the thin fibreglass hull, although it wasn't that bad with our diesel stove, an electric top-up space heater and our quality down duvets. A skin of ice formed around the boat. It was thin so there was no risk to the boat and it was fun to watch the ducks slipping and sliding trying to figure it out. It was when the pipes froze in the marina buildings that we started to wonder how bad it would get. We had no water for over two weeks as they had to wait for a thaw before they could fix things. The weather slowly improved through January and we made a quick trip to Vancouver (only four hours by road/ferry) to combine a few nights hotel stay with shopping for the upcoming house build. It was a nice break that came with an unlikely Vancouver snow storm, bad weather seemed to be following us! At least the water stayed on in the hotel.

February arrived, nothing was happening with the house build, weather was warmer, but, damp, foggy days were the norm and we needed a break. A warm-weather destination appealed, but, with covid restrictions still in place, we didn't want to leave the country. We decided, after a six year absence, to go downhill skiing!

We chose Big White resort in Kelowna BC. We booked just a couple of days ahead and were surprised to see there was still some availability and reasonable accommodation prices (at the budget end anyway). Of course, accommodation is only a small part of a ski vacation cost. Equipment rentals and lift tickets tripled the accommodation cost. 

We had doubts that we'd have the stamina to get our money's worth from the lift tickets, but, it was a great trip. Our aging legs and knees held up ok and it felt amazing to be outdoors in a beautiful mountain environment. The weather was perfect: warm, brilliantly sunny with lots of blinding-white snow. The base was 167 cm which the locals said was less than half what it is normally. There seemed plenty to us, enough to make a good cushion after we took a few tumbles due to our rusty technique. By the third day we were improving, but, unfortunately it was time to leave. We enjoyed it so much we have plans to return next year. 

We liked Big White a lot. Our room in the centre of the village had a sunny aspect, a great mountain view and a lift about 30m from the front door. 

It was also a short stroll to some very nice restaurants.

The village is not too big, mostly traffic-free and is all ski-in/ski-out. There were no long lift lines. The terrain has something for all skiers. After our long absence from skiing, we felt like beginners again, but, there were plenty of green (easy) runs to keep us occupied. Unlike other resorts where the easy runs are only at lower elevations, at Big White, you can get all the way to the summit on multiple long, easy runs. 

An added bonus to our time away was that on our return to the Island it seemed like spring had sprung in our brief absence. When we left, Mt. Arrowsmith was still snow-covered. On our return there was absolutely no snow anywhere at street level. Things looked very green with nascent buds on the trees. Port Alberni greeted us with spring-like temperatures, +11C and clear sunshine. Not bad for mid-February in Canada!

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Tuesday, 8 February 2022

So, how did two non-fishers end up choosing Port Alberni, BC, "Canada's ultimate fishing town", as their new home base?

Well, it had a lot to do with geography. As seen on the map, it looks very far inland. However, it is directly linked to the Pacific Ocean, via the very beautiful 25 mile/40 km. Alberni Inlet (fjord). It's a deep water port, accessible by large, ocean-going cargo ships. For pleasure boats like ours, it provides direct access to the incredible cruising ground of the wild, west coast of Vancouver Island. The city is located almost in the centre of Vancouver Island, central to everything: approx. one hour west to Tofino/Ucluelet (incredible surf beaches and Pacific Rim National Park), one hour north to Mt. Washington ski area and Strathcona Provincial Park, one hour south to Nanaimo (all the shops you could want and the ferry to Vancouver) and 2-1/2 hours to Victoria, the provincial capital with all city amenities in a beautiful location. Officially a City, Port Alberni is part of the Alberni-Clayoquot Region. There are only about 18,000 residents. It's not a large place, but, definitely poised for growth.

The geography was great, the City itself not so much. In the 1960's Port Alberni actually had the highest per capita income in Canada. It was two towns originally, Alberni and Port Alberni, amalgamated into one. This bifurcation is still very apparent and works against the town. The older, 'uptown' half in which we will be building a house used to be the commercial hub. Banks, restaurants, shops and government offices thrived here. Now, a lot of the shops are deserted. Stop work orders are plastered on doorfronts of decaying buildings. Commerce has mostly moved to the other half of town where the new strip malls, fast food restaurants and big box stores are located. The two halves are divided by an industrial centre, three large paper mill sites with hulking buildings that block access to and views of the waterfront. Walking between the two halves is only possible via a very busy, unattractive road. A lot of the existing housing is very old and poorly built. Sounds horrible, doesn't it, especially when compared with the multiple retirement and tourist havens that dot the entire east coast of Vancouver Island (Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Ladysmith etc.) 

We wouldn't be settling in Port Alberni if it didn't at least have potential and lots of it. The signs are everywhere. Now, after living here a while we are confident we have made a good choice. There's a small regional hospital, extensive recreation facilities and other hidden gems that have become apparent only after being here a while. Like, a few good restaurants and bakeries, with more opening soon. There's also an incredible network of easily accessible, extensive walking trails that thread through the entire city. 

The immediate surrounding area has lots to offer as well, the Alberni Inlet (which we wrote about during a brief visit in 2016, Barkley Sound) is amazing for both boating and hiking. A little further out is McLean Mill (a national historic site) and Stamp River (a major spawning salmon stream) Provincial Park. Nearby are two large freshwater lakes: Sproat Lake and Great Central Lake offering freshwater swimming beaches and boating opportunities.

The three (there is a fourth smaller, plywood mill on the southern boundary) dominant mill sites are also changing. The San Group has installed a large, landscaped berm with trees which improves the view along their stretch of road between the city's two halves. The Catalyst mill looks like it's thriving and in good, working order. The third mill site, the 43 acre former Somass Sawmill is the jewel in the crown. It's abandoned, derelict and looks it, but, the good news is that the City has just purchased this prime, waterfront site and it will be redeveloped. If done well, it will be a gamechanger. It may take too long for our remaining timeframe, but, having an extended waterfront walking path would be something we'd really enjoy. At the very least, we'll watch the changes happening with interest. Following photo reprinted from city-port-alberni-redevelopment-plans-somass-lands.

The City and much of the surrounding area is dominated by Mt. Arrowsmith. Often shrouded in cloud, we didn't realize it even existed until all-of-a-sudden, one day, there it was in all its glory. We now enjoy seeing it in all its moods.

Taken from the boat, here's a view at sunrise:

and this one is with the first snow cover, seen in October.

We're looking forward to continuing our exploration of this amazing location over the next few years. Now, as to that "ultimate fishing town" label, we can't vouch for that as we don't fish, but, the winner of the 2021 salmon derby was a whopping 31 lb. (14 kg.) salmon. The strange thing is, there isn't a fish market anywhere in the town (that we've found) to buy any of the catch....

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