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How high is too high?
20 June 2011

barn

It doesn't look very high in the pictures.  It certainly didn't look too high in the CAD drawings.  Yet when I ascend the ladder and crawl out on the bare rafters, suddenly the new barn roof feels pretty darned high.  It is only 17'6" at the highest point.  That's not all that high, until you're up there holding on with one hand and moving heavy boards into place with the other.

I think it's interesting how people perceive heights.  I did a test with Valerie.  I put the ladder on stable ground and had her step up on the bottom step.  No problem at all.  The next step still wasn't too bad.  The third step though, that's where she started to get nervous.  She could have done the fourth step but only if she had a valid need.  She did not consider a silly experiment to be a valid need.

Acrophobia is an irrational or overwhelming fear of heights.  Valerie isn't particularly afraid of high places.  Airplanes, bridges, high windows are no problem at all for her.  She can climb the ladder all the way to the top when I really need her help.  It is scary for her but that's different than an irrational or overwhelming fear.

I can climb up and down a ladder all day without feeling even slightly nervous.  Start climbing on the unfinished roof framing and things get scarier for me.  When I crawl out over the open space between rafters I make sure I have a good grip before going from one board to the next.  I can do it but I don't consider it fun or easy.

Standing On those same narrow boards my buddy Matt can stand up and walk around while carrying heavy tools and awkward roof panels.  He's not really afraid of heights at all.  So what's the difference between the three of us?  Matt has fallen from high places more often than I have and I've fallen more often than Valerie.  Are Matt and I too stupid to learn?  Maybe so but fear is not a rational emotion and intelligence rarely has anything to do with it.  Is it bravery?  I don't think so because bravery would mean overcoming one's fear.  In this case, Matt simply has less fear than I do and I have less fear than Valerie.  There's no need for bravery when there's no fear in the first place.

I think the primary difference is physical ability.  Reflexes, coordination, strength and experience are all important.  I feel confident that I could hold my body weight with one hand if I had to.  Matt is coordinated and strong enough that he could grab onto a board and stop a fall with a couple fingers.  Matt's ability makes him more confident than me and I am more confident than Valerie.  Confidence is different than ego or will power.  All three of us know our limits and our fear, or lack of fear, is an indication of those limits.  A wobbly enough board and even Matt gets nervous.

I did another experiment.  I stood with both feet on the very top step of the ladder.  You know, where it says "Do not stand or sit on this step."  With the ladder out in the open, nothing else around to hold on to, that is a very scary thing to do.  Yet when up underneath the roof where stable boards are right next to me, it wasn't scary at all.

Bucket My first thought was that having the boards there acted as a safety net that I could grab if I fell.  However, putting my hands behind my back or even in my pockets didn't make me any more nervous.  Even a slightly wobbly ladder didn't make me nervous when there were boards nearby for reference.  I didn't need to hold on to anything to feel stable, simply having the boards there was enough.

You can feel the same effect by standing on one foot.  Without touching anything, stand on one foot in the middle of the room.  It's kind of wobbly but not too difficult.  Now stand on one foot with the tip of your pinky finger barely touching the wall or a chair.  It is easy to feel the difference in stability.  Your finger isn't keeping you from falling by holding your weight, it is simply providing another point of reference so your brain can more easily keep your balance.  This effect is magnified when standing some place high.

Scary or not, the roof needs to be built.  If I were a wealthy farmer I could hire a construction crew and let them deal with it.  It's possible they'd have some sort of crane or scaffolding but it is more likely that they'd simply climb out on the roof and get the work done.

A crane would be great but is far too expensive.  Renting scaffolding is approximately $150 per week for the three layers (15 feet) I would need.  Scaffolding sounds like a good solution but I'd have to move it around so much it would take forever.  A simple ladder is a bit scarier but much more practical.

Extension Ladder My extension ladder is only 16', not quite tall enough to reach the high parts of the roof.  A decent 24' ladder costs $300.  That would be easy to justify if I didn't already own four ladders.  Instead, I got creative.  I put my ladder on top of a work bench which made it just tall enough to reach.  It looks scary but it is surprisingly stable.

Part of the roof extends out over the water tank where the ladder can't reach.  Scaffolding wouldn't work either.  For that area, I used my tractor and it worked great.  The tractor's bucket reached just far enough over the tank that I could stand in it and reach the roof.  As many problems as I've had with that tractor, this is one instance where it proved to be hugely helpful.

In the end, most of the roof work was done by simply climbing out across the rafters and purlins.  I made what I call roof rafts.  They're just 2x3 boards with a plywood hook on the end.  I can move them around to wherever I need a handhold.   I also made a temporary bridge.  It's more difficult to move around but stable enough that I can walk across it.  Just don't look down.

The only other challenge is the rain.  Walking on a wet, slippery roof is not a good idea.  With rain nearly every day, progress has been slow.  It's almost done now though.  It will be nice to have all that extra dry area.

Roof




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