38 Stonewall – Greene Building @ High Cove

contributed by: Jane Greene

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We woke early that morning in July, but not nearly as early as the crew of 7 who would be arriving soon at Lot #5. They were coming from the Banner Elk area, armed with chain saws, ropes, and heavy duty wood chipping equipment. They knew exactly what they would be doing, as they had practiced the choreographed dance many times before for other audiences. We were to be left gasping in awed appreciation for their performance.

The process of building our house did not start that day. Ron and I had discovered the High Cove community, visited and found it a good fit for our retirement place wish list. We had picked out and purchased Lot 5 and moved to Asheville from Missouri. Many months of work researching, questioning, learning about building, and in particular, building an energy efficient, “green” house had preceded the July event. We had decided on a plan, located where the house would be on the lot, gotten both approved through the High Cove design review procedure, found a builder, and dealt with financing. (These subjects will be explored in future articles.)

The event we were to witness that July day involved thinning the trees which covered most of our southeast-facing half-acre lot. The area where the house would be built had to be cleared and selected trees removed to allow some reasonable amount of solar access. Passive solar was on our list of strategies to insure that we would have a really energy efficient green home.

As the active partner in this project, I had spent many months on the lot before that July morning, getting to know it in its many moods and guises. I had cleared most of the young seedling trees, generally less than 2 feet tall, so that we could see the lay of the land more clearly. I had consulted with Kevin Ward, of Southeast Ecological Design, Inc., who does environmental assessments. (I found him and other professionals who helped us along the way through the Green Building Directory, an annual publication of the Western North Carolina Green Builders Council, abbreviated as WNCGBC, and the Mountain Express.) He prepared a report for us on the trees, identifying the species present and appraising their health. He suggested trees which should be removed and those which should definitely be kept. He provided an estimate of the board feet of lumber we might expect from the trees he targeted for removal.

Asking around, I located a couple of potential tree men to carry out the task of cutting. I interviewed them, trying to get a sense of how they felt about trees, and got estimates. In the end, it was an easy choice – Tony Hunter of Hunter Tree Services came highly recommended, he had a permanent crew, and he paid workmen’s comp for them. What’s more, he said he could do the job in one day!

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marked trees

Before the big day, Ron and I had marked all the trees with either a red or a green ribbon – red for cut and green for save. We had surrounded groups of trees to be saved with orange plastic fencing to clearly define a protective perimeter. (We later recycled the fencing to a young farmer

who used it for portable chicken enclosures.) While we referenced the advice from the environmental assessment, we used our combined judgement to make the final decisions, which were vetted and approved by the partners before we scheduled Tony’s work.

This was not easy for us. We both love trees and appreciate the beauty of native woodland. We left one area on the eastern edge of our lot as a “wild area” and created groups of trees with different species and maturities together. In the end we marked about 40 trees for cutting, leaving about half again that number to be saved. We justified some of our choices of trees to be cut on the basis of the threat they posed to the house if they were to come down in a storm. Some we chose for their potential to become part of the house in one form or another. The rest were picked to improve solar access and create more desirable growing conditions for trees that were to remain.

After a quick breakfast, Ron and I made our way over to the lot to find an out-of-the-way spot to watch the performance. I’m pretty sure we didn’t expect to remain rooted to that spot for the next 12 hours, observing the skilled interaction of the seven member crew being directed by Tony Hunter and the track hoe operator we had hired to move the logs off the lot to an area where they would later be sawn into lumber. It was awesome!

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tree cutter in action

Trees were roped and cut in such a way that they fell without endangering other crew or the trees which were to be saved. Several trees at a time were coming down on our half -acre lot. Limbs were being removed and the debris being mulched. Logs were being cut into specified lengths depending on species and intended use and then moved off the lot via track hoe.

One 32″diameter red oak, the largest tree on our lot, had to be sacrificed because of its proximity to the future house location and the fact it had been damaged by a lightning strike at some time in the past (probably the reason it survived the last logging of the property). The crew used the oak to break the fall of the trees around it, preventing damage to nearby trees which were to be saved. It was one of the last trees to be taken down. When that time came, one guy climbed to the top and worked his way down, cutting branches as he descended. He cut almost all the way through each branch, letting it hang vertically from a bark hinge. Once it stopped swinging, he touched it with the saw and it fell straight down, posing no threat to branches of trees mere feet away.

We lost one tree, a poplar, which was marked to be saved. Even that proved to be a positive experience. It is startling how far the tops of our trees move in the wind – it can be scary to see. When the poplar was struck by a misdirected tree, we watched, mesmerized, as the trunk bent further and further until it was nearly parallel to the ground before it splintered. It is a reassuring memory when the winds blow through the waving tree tops during high wind events. The crew member who took responsibility for the errant tree was the one who volunteered to cut the big oak as penance.

The total bill for the tree removal, including the separate track hoe operator for the day, was approximately $7500. When the job was done, we had about 60 trees on the lot, representing at least 12 different species. They ranged from young trees with 2″ diameter trunks to trees more than 50 years old, measuring up to 22″ in diameter. Despite those numbers, the lot looked denuded in the immediate aftermath. It no longer looks so bare, although the long, unbranched trunks still look tall. We mostly see the trees at branch level, from the high side of the lot. Trunks don’t block much sun.

Where stumps were not close to saved trees, they had been removed and the area graded to return it to the previous configuration. We had a huge pile of logs ready to be sawn into lumber and beams to be used in the construction of our house. There were piles of mulch left from the chipping of smaller limbs. And the area where our house would be built was clear and ready for the next steps.

Following on the heels of Tony and crew’s performance, we were to have another rewarding experience. Over a period of several weeks in August, Nathan Schomber of Asheville Treecyclers (no longer in business in that guise, as best I can tell), working with his assistant Bill, transformed the logs into rough-cut lumber. Nathan and Bill set up the portable mill by the High Cove barn, steadily moving logs from the pile to the saw. The resulting planks were stacked beside Castanea, ready to be transported to a kiln drying facility outside of Asheville. They also cut beams and other large dimension pieces which would be used green or air dried on site. We were astounded at the size of the stacks.

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From the kiln, where the lumber spent several months, it was moved to a milling facility and turned into dimensional lumber or specifically milled for tongue and groove decking, flooring material, trim boards, and elements for our staircase. In the end, trees cut on our lot provided the raw material which became the poplar soffits and decking for the porch ceilings, the poplar exterior trim, the locust posts, braces, and corbels supporting both porch roofs, the custom built 2-1/4″ thick oak front door, the oak beams in our cathedral ceilings, the random width oak flooring on our main level, the oak steps and risers of the staircase, several poplar tongue and groove ceilings inside the house, and a beautiful black birch vanity and countertop in the master bathroom. A substantial amount of black birch lumber we have stored will become built-in cabinetry on our lower level at some future date.

Was this cost effective? We don’t have enough information about some of the costs to accurately evaluate that. Our contractor combined materials and labor for a number of elements of the build. Was it worth it? We certainly think so. Using the trees Tony and his crew cut on that July day in the construction of our house is a source of enormous satisfaction and ongoing pleasure.

When Tony came for his interview and to prepare his estimate, he told us that we really should cut the big 32″ red oak. We had been resisting doing that through many iterations of our plans. Tony pointed out that if, or when, the tree went down, it would be taking part of our foundation with it. That convinced us that it had to be done, but it didn’t make us happy. Then he pointed out to us that the wood derived from the tree would last far longer in our house than it would on our lot. That made it all OK.

If you have a choice, doing tree removal in the winter, while the sap is down, is the best time. The trees weigh less, possible damage to foliage of saved trees is avoided, and the understory herbaceous plants are dormant.

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