The Evolution of a Pond

I’m rarely satisfied.

This trait is both beautiful and terrible. It pushes me to achieve more than I ever thought possible, and yet I almost never feel truly finished with anything – projects, writing, etc. I know that I can always improve.

In Season 1, Episode 7 of “Revisionist History,” Malcolm Gladwell describes two types of artists. Picassos seem to create pieces quickly (but often meditate on the piece long beforehand). Cézannes remake the same song, object, etc. over and over until reaching a “final” product.

Although I think and plan, I am a Cézanne.

I’ve previously traced my chicken coop designs over the six years I’ve lived in my human coop. But long before I ever decided to get chickens, I started thinking about ponds. I’ve always loved the water – gentle splashing, smooth reflections of light. The moment I started looking at houses to buy, in the back of my mind, I was also planning my first pond.

Before I dug into the ground the first time, I had a few goals for my water feature:

  • a small waterfall
  • fish
  • to be able to hear the water through open living room windows.
  • within reach of an outlet (for the waterfall)

The most obvious location was right outside my side door. There’s a covered exterior outlet, and the side door leads straight into my living room. Perfect!

I started digging and pretty quickly ran into a thick PVC pipe. Okay, so my pond would be two levels: the end with the PVC pipe would be about six inches shallower than the far end. I figured it actually worked out pretty well for water circulation because the deeper end held the pump and filter box, and a hose ran the water from the box to the waterfall at the shallow end.

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This first pond was basically a hole with a sheet of pond liner on the clay (what passes for dirt here), some river pebbles along the bottom, and pavers around the rim. I built the “waterfall” out of stones and old concrete chunks I found around the yard.

What that picture doesn’t show is the leaves that constantly rained onto the water from an oak tree overhead. The tree provided nice shade that kept algae at bay, but it made cleaning the pond a constant struggle. Those little rectangular pavers were also inching into the water too.

That said, the pond was cute and met my initial needs. It was enough low enough that the chickens stopped by for water breaks. The few goldfish that called it home seemed pretty happy too.

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Here it’s not as pristine, but the goldfish enjoyed the creeping jenny trailing into the water. I also added a second layer of pavers around the perimeter, which improved the stability. However, the leaves were still an issue, and the chickens kicked mulch and debris into the pond every time they went near it.

The biggest issue with the first pond? Look how close that wall (and the house foundation) is to the pond. Although the pond likely wasn’t deep enough to permanently impact the foundation, as a new homeowner, I grew nervous (ditto with the weight of the water on that PVC pipe). Having a hole so close to the foundation just wouldn’t do for the long term.

The second pond was a little bit away from the house, but still within reach of the outlet. The distance was maybe eight feet? I also wanted an above-ground pond to combat the mulch-kicking from the chickens.

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Rather than buy a bunch of pavers, I decided to build a wooden frame and make my own “pavers” out of Quikrete. They weren’t gorgeous, but they were cheap and functional. As there was no obvious place for a waterfall, I opted for a fountain in the middle.

Actually, what I really wanted was to a hand holding a sword coming out of the water – a la Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake – with the sword acting as the fountain. I tried to build one out of a plastic sword and a manicurist practice hand, but I just couldn’t get it to work. Years later, I’m still sad; the Sword-in-the-Lake fountain would’ve been awesome.

You may notice that this pond had the added benefit of being a nice gathering point for a sitting area. That wooden post between the benches is part of a pergola I built not long after rebuilding the pond. The only thing is, this space was cramped. The pond was also a bit too small because I opted not to dig down more than a few inches before building up the sides.

But the biggest issue with this second version? My own desires and aesthetics. I yearned for mountain streams and curving water. The above-ground pond looked too constructed. I wanted something more natural and meandering, like the creeks of the North Carolina mountains where I used to hike. So down came Pond 2.0.

For the third pond, I started digging again. I laid out ropes and hold water hoses to approximate a winding creek. It would have a waterfall at one end and a pool (with the pump box) at the other. A second waterfall would separate the “creek” and the pool.

Fortunately, I was able to reuse all the pavers – bought and made – and the pebbles. I had to buy a few more bags of pebbles, though, because this new pond was quite a bit larger than previous versions.

Around the same time I was building this version of the pond, I had four ducklings quickly growing to adult size. One of the reasons I wanted to build larger was to give them a space (in addition to the repurposed bathtub in the coop) in which to splash around. Water isn’t required for ducks, but they sure do love it.

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The only downside of having a duck pond is those silly birds are also ravenous murder birds. I can’t really keep fish or any other living thing in the pond. Even the cleverest goldfish with plenty of hiding spots has eventually gotten snapped up.

This past summer, though, I tried an experiment and fenced off the upper pond with poultry wire. I added some aquatic plants and let the algae grow, hoping to create the perfect environment for toads and/or frogs. My end goal is to establish a toad or frog community for pest control in the gardens (which are only a few feet away from the pond).

It seemed to take forever – but I also didn’t have a good idea on when tadpoles appear in New Orleans. Then sometime around June, I realized little black dots were scooting around the pond!

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Pond 3.0 has worked well so far. It’s definitely my favorite design, and my qualms with it stem from structural choices. For example, the waterfall separating the upper and lower pond leaks water and is less of a “fall” and more of a “seeping pile of rocks.” I’ve also struggled to control algae at times because the pool sits in direct sunlight for much of the day (fortunately, the algae issue seems to have worked itself out, probably due to the ecosystem self-balancing).

I love ponds, and my favorite designs also skew towards more natural states. I enjoy watching plants and animals grow, develop, and interact. That’s probably why I also love creating gardens – it’s not just about growing plants. Gardens, for me, involve creating a natural community. Then, I just step back and observe.

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Covering Up!

Where we last left off, the skeleton of the shed extension was more or less entirely in place, from floor to roof. So let’s jump right in:

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I ordered the siding in a big bulk purchase with the longer (i.e. 12-ft) lengths of lumber, the roofing, etc – all the stuff that was too large or unwieldy for my car. Therefore, I picked the siding out from descriptions on the website. I thought I was buying textured plywood that matched the existing structure. I did not read closely enough. What I actually bought was a “Brown Engineered Siding Panel.” (no wonder it was surprisingly cheap…)

These engineered panels seem pretty tough and they have good reviews. However, I was really worried when I first touched them – they almost feel like tough cardboard or fiber board. I’ve witnessed the latter practically dissolve when hit by water.

Although it’s normally a good idea to seal wood projects soon, I was careful to immediately work on these panels to protect them. First, I caulked all the seams and nail holes/heads.

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Then everything got a nice coat of Kilz, inside and out (since I didn’t have the roof on yet). I’m happy to say that the panels seem to be holding up really well so far.

This stage is finally when everything started moving a little bit more quickly, not in the least because I was excited about the polycarbonate panels.

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I chose these specialized panels (ordered from Greenhouse Megastore) because they advertise “high impact resistance, excellent heat retention and 80% light transmission.” My other option was the standard polycarbonate ridged panel found at most big box stores. I opted against those, however, because the ones I’ve used on chicken coops tend to get brittle after a year or two under the subtropical sun. I’m hoping these hold up better.

As you can see in the photo above, installing them is more complicated than nailing siding to studs, but not by that much. Seal the top edge with foil tape (the silver roll) and the bottom edge with dust tape (the white roll) to keep out dirt and insects. Then plastic caps go on the top and bottom – but before the bottom cap goes on, drill a few tiny holes in it for condensation to drip out.

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Panels like these will tell you which side needs to face out (otherwise the protective qualities won’t work) – they’ll have different colored film on either side. On these, the blue side faces the outside world.

Finally, secure the panels in place with roofing panel screws that have self-sealing neoprene washers to keep the water out of the screw holes. If you’re lazy like me, you might not always stop to pre-drill holes, but it’s especially important to do so here. If you don’t pre-drill, you risk cracking your fancy new panel – ditto if you over-tighten the screw.

Place your screws wisely – the more holes you add, the less insulation your panels provide. These panels seem pretty tough, but they aren’t provided structural support. Therefore, the screws are mostly there to make sure the panels don’t rattle or fly off in high winds.

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Bonus chicken butt fluff

Unless you’ve designed your structure to match the panel dimension exactly, you’ll need to cut them at some point. Fortunately, there are blades designed for this delicate task. You’ll want a fine-tooth blade designed for plastics, plexiglass, etc. to reduce the risk of cracking. This one worked fine for me.

Now onto the roof! (shrieking, gnashing of teeth, general terror)

I read up a ton on whether or not it was okay to install metal roofing over shingles. The most frequent opinion I saw was, “Technically it’s fine, but ideally, remove the original roofing.” I tried ripping off the old shingles, but those suckers held on tight. Meanwhile, the sun beat down on my poor little back and sweat made tools slip right out of my hands. If I wanted to finish the project, I needed to give up on removing the shingles and focus on the new install. (I justified this laziness because it’s an outbuilding. I like to think I would’ve completely removed the shingles on a residential roof.)

Step one of covering up my past is a nice layer of tar paper, tacked down with roofing nails.

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Although the above photo makes the roof look tiny (instead of stretching back 12 feet), it does a good job showing how awkward it was to maneuver around. My ladder’s sticking up through the rafters. I have the chicken coop on one side, the resin shed around back, and a fence on the third side. Above, a live oak tree was always trying to smack me in the face with branches. For normal shed usage, it’s plenty of space, but for roof work and ladders, it’s irritatingly tight.

On top of the tar paper went metal roofing panels, secured by the same neoprene washer-screws as the polycarbonate panels. I needed about three little plastic boxes of screws for this whole project, and I chose the 2-inch ones to make sure they plunged all the way through the shingles and plywood.

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I chose metal roofing panels over more shingles for a few reasons. First, they’re lightweight and easy to manage. Second, I’ve toyed with the idea of adding some gutters onto the shed and collecting water in a rain barrel to use on the garden. I wouldn’t feel as comfortable doing that if shingle dirt was in the water.

Due to the combination of tight spaces, squishy ground underneath ladder legs, and a fear of heights, the most worrisome part of this whole project was adding the roof ridge. I used the same galvanized metal ridge for the whole shed, including over the greenhouse portion.

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The roofing panels extend at least a few inches beyond the edge of the shed on all sides. I also replaced some of the drip edge under the new metal roofing. I didn’t install drip edge under the polycarbonate panels because there isn’t a plywood substrate to worry about. I have some extra, though, if water dripping inside becomes an issue (we’ve had several summer storms, though, and the inside of the shed remains dry).

One of the most recent steps involved repainting the whole shed from tan to light green. The color is “Ballroom Dancing” by Valspar, and I love how refreshing and natural it looks, especially with the white trim and the “frosted” effect of the greenhouse panels.

So am I done?

…er, well, mostly. I’d argue that construction/projects and writing share something in common: they’re only ever done when you decide to stop working on them. I’m frequently going back and tweaking existing projects, just as a writer will return to revise a piece over and over.

In terms of this project, there are a few smaller things that need finishing. If you look carefully, you may notice missing fascia (the horizontal facing board) underneath the greenhouse roofing. I’ll need to add that at some point to keep out critters and to help insulate the shed/greenhouse a bit better.

I also need to go back and seal up the areas between polycarbonate panels, the meeting point between the metal and polycarbonate panels, and the gaps between the roof ridge and the panels. For larger spaces, I have sealing spray foam – that stuff is messy, but I love how easily and quickly it fills gaps. Then, for the smaller spaces and perhaps over top of the spray foam, I’ll use clear silicone caulk. Manufacturers of polycarbonate panels will specify which sealants can or cannot be used with their products – make sure you check before buying!

As far as the inside, I’m working on that as I go. The first thing I knew I wanted and needed were some nice shelves for potting and storage. Fortunately, I overbought plywood, so those were relatively easy to whip up and put in place. I also had spare shelf brackets from an earlier house project, which certainly helped.

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It’s not perfect, but it’s functional and I love it.

Future ideas for the inside include building more shelves (whoo, storage) and maybe a flip-down workbench in the “shed” part of the shed. I’m also considering adding some plastic sheeting to separate the shed from the greenhouse and concentrate the heat and humidity in the latter portion. However, as it’s still summer and highs are around 90F, I have some time to get there.

Overall, this shed extension/greenhouse addition was a monster of a project. Summer was not the time for this kind of build in south Louisiana, but I’m glad it’s (mostly) done. My “new” shed is extremely spacious. I no longer have to worry about balancing trays of seedlings on scanty window sills inside my house, where one of my cats could easily take a wrong step and flip potting soil onto the floor. I’d say that alone is a win.

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< Step 3: Working on a Roof When You’re Afraid of Heights

Working on a Roof When You’re Afraid of Heights

I was never a big fan of heights. Growing up, my brother was the one who climbed up on the roof to clean leaves out of gutters. High ropes courses left me jelly-legged and lightheaded (that’s assuming someone was able to persuade me to even scramble up the ladder).

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HAHAHA, NOPE. Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

Then in my late teens, I found myself working in a clothing store with one pregnant co-worker and another stricken with vertigo. There was no else to climb up to the tippy top of the ladder and change the light bulbs – except me. I learned to tolerate heights, but I’m still not a great fan. I can climb up on my roof a) if it’s the flat part and b) if I stay at least four feet away from the edge.

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As a homeowner working on a budget, sometimes you just have to face your fears and patch roof leaks on your own.

So you can imagine how much I looked forward to installing the roof on the shed extension.

As with the rest of the framing, I wanted to mimic the rafters of the original shed. It was a basic design – a 2×4 on each side with a trapezoid of plywood nailed to the front and the back, stabilizing the whole structure. Then the rafters are then toenailed into the header (the board laid horizontally across the tops of the studs). And if I’m particularly good, they’ll be further secured with hurricane ties to help them stay in place during high wind or pressure changes (thanks, hurricane season in the Gulf!).

I could’ve done a bunch of math and measured angles to determine the cuts, but truth be told, I have a history of messing that kind of thing up. The faster and more accurate route that works for me is to trace the original and make a pattern.

In the above photos, you can see how I made a paper pattern of half of the original trapezoid (it was easier to do half) and then turned that into a full plywood pattern, which I used to draw the rest of the pieces (6 total).

The surface where the 2x4s met was a similar process, although I actually tried to measure to angles and had to make a few practice cuts to get it right. Honestly, guys, geometry was one of my worst subjects in high school, which makes building things really challenging sometimes.

The angles were the hardest part of the rafters. It was easiest to start the toenails with the rafters on the floor of the shed, so that when I lifted them to the headers, I could support the rafter with one hand and hammer with the other.

In the “shed” portion of the, er, shed, the plywood roofing is nailed into the rafters, securing the structure to itself. But for the greenhouse portion (the front 4 feet of the shed), the polycarbonate panels were a bit different. Most sources I found on the internet advised installing boards to stretch between the rafters for the panels to “rest” on. Since I’m a one-woman shop, nailing those boards onto the rafters while they were still on the floor – or even while they were in place – wasn’t going to happen. Fortunately, there’s hardware for that!

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I chose supports for fence beams so that I could easily slide the boards right on in. Supportive hardware makes things soooo much easier when you’re working by yourself.

After that, I popped the boards in.

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The directions on the polycarbonate panels stated that underlying wood needs to be painted white. Well, they just so happens to jibe with my aesthetic anyway. Truth be told, my white paint is just a few layers of Kilz primer. When I’ve needed to slap some white paint on something outside, I often just end up using Kilz and it tends to hold up pretty well.

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I think we’ll call it quits for now. The next post will be dedicated to covering all of the – well – coverings!

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< Step 2: And the Walls Rise

Step 4: Covering Up! >

And the Walls Rise

As quick as things might seem in these blog posts, this project stretched out over weeks. Late summer is the rainy season in south Louisiana, so between that and the overbearing heat and humidity, working in long stretches just wasn’t do-able. Additionally, I work full-time during the week, so I just had the evenings and some weekends for the project. I’ve seen videos where a pair of fellows assemble a shed in a day – and good on them! But I just couldn’t manage it. It’s totally fine for a huge project to take a while, especially if you’re working alone.

One more thing before we get farther:  shout out to my dad for gifting me a nice pair of sawhorses. During my visit in May, we searched the web together for good quality sawhorses to replace the rickety folding table I’d been using for sawing stuff (horribly unsafe). These Dewalt ones have folding legs and are lightweight. They’ve been excellent for this project.

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Onto the shed!

The existing structure’s frame was built out of 2×3 studs, so I did the same. It is absolutely crucial to lay out your frame before assembly. I did so and realized that two of my measurements were off. If I’d assembled it like that, it would’ve been a mess and taken me twice as long to take everything apart and reassemble.

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A lot of shed builds will go ahead and nail on the paneling here. It’s easy because everything’s laying down. But since the majority of my wall was going to be polycarbonate panels (and I wasn’t yet sure about how to join/overlap the polycarbonate and the composite sheets that would form the other part of the wall), I left it as just the frame. Another benefit of doing this is, if you’re working alone, a frame is lighter to lift than a frame and a bunch of heavy plywood.

I used a few quick screws to secure each of the frames to the floor before going back and adding half a dozen decking nails. I also used screws to connect the frames to each other and to the original shed’s frame.

The original doors were on the front of the shed. However, with the greenhouse, that wasn’t going to work. Therefore, the doors rotated around to the side. It’s a liiiittle tight with the chicken coop, but it works fine.

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Measure like 400 times before committing to a door frame.

Once this side frame was secure, I went back and cut out the piece that stretches across the bottom of the doorway to create a smooth threshold. That’ll prevent me from tripping all over the place, but more importantly, taking wheeled things like my mower will be easier to take in and out of the shed over a smooth threshold.

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Happy little handsaw at work!

Alright, folks, that’s it for now. Next time, we’re gonna raise the roof! (and the crowd goes wild)

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< Step 1: The Shed: from the Bottom Up

The Shed: from the Bottom Up

Although there was a minor planning/execution screw up at the beginning of the Shed Expansion, the rest of the original shed remained mostly in place.

Before any structure was added onto the shed, the front had to come off. I had vague  schemes of re-purposing the lumber and paneling from the front, but I knew the doors definitely needed to be saved and reused on the final building. Therefore, they were the first thing to come off.

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Like a happy, screaming mouth.

The door was held on by a pair of long piano hinges that spanned the height of the doorway. There was also a metal strip along the bottom of the doorway to protect the wood. I unfastened a few dozen half-inch screws, which all ended up getting thrown away due to rust. Throughout this project, I’ve tried to save and reuse as much material as possible, but in instances like this, it just wasn’t feasible.

As you’ll see in progress photos a bit, the rest of the front will come down and leave a huge gaping hole. This was not a delicate process. Initially, I tried to delicately pry away the nails with the claw end of my hammer, but that wasn’t doing much. I resorted to whacking the crap out of the panels and 2x3s until they shook loose.

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The ladies dancing on the fallen body of the front.

After the existing shed was ready, the next step was to lay the “foundation” for the new addition. The original structure sits on a skid foundation, so I decided to continue that. A skid foundation is basically posts – usually 4x4s – laying across concrete blocks. Then, on top of the posts, you lay your floor frame (aka the subfloor). Skid foundations tend to work best with small- to medium-structures sitting on relatively flat ground.

Because concrete blocks are a pain in the ‘tocks to level, I procrastinated on that part and set about building the frame for my floor. Although the original shed uses 2x4s, most of the guidance I read leaned more towards 2x6s. I probably would’ve been alright with the 2x4s, but better sturdy than sorry.

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The spacing between my joists varied from 12 to 20 inches because I was trying to make sure the plywood flooring seams would land on a joist. I secured everything together with 3-inch ring shank decking nails. I normally overbuild and used monstrous screws, so I was worried about the lasting power of nails. However, after having a few go in wonky and being unable to pry them out, I’m convinced the frame is very solid. (particularly when the plywood is secured to the top) Yay!

Then I couldn’t avoid setting the dang blocks. In order for the addition to sit level, I had to account for the extra height of the 2x6s (since the old shed’s floor frame uses 2x4s). I dug and redug holes for the blocks and added or removed buckets of pea gravel until they sat as even as possible. Then the 4x4s went on top, stretching across 10 feet across blocks.

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I ended up used about 5bags of pea gravel for the 6 blocks. The new addition will be 6-feet deep, so the poles are evenly spaced to support that. Now here comes the frame!

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I should get tiny hardhats for the ladies, since they’re always supervising my work.

With everything in place, I screw the new floor frame onto the original frame. Here, you can also see the front of the shed has been ripped off. I was also slow to put the roof sheet back on that I removed during my false start.

Before the moving on, make sure everything’s nice and square! If not, a few whacks of the hammer should help adjust things.

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The frame is secured to the skids through a technique known as “toenailing,” in which you drive a nail a little steeper than 45 degrees into 2 pieces of wood. This project was the first time I tried to toenail anything, so it took some practice to get the technique. It helps to start by driving the nail straight into the wood and then angling it downwards.

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The last thing I worked on that day was installing the plywood floor.

I was working with 4’x8′ sheets of 3/4″ severe weather plywood. Side note:  get someone to help you carry these sheets. I was able to sort of drag them across the yard, but one ended up falling on my leg and gave me a nasty bruise.

Anyways, in my plan, I figured out how to puzzle-piece these together. The first sheet went on whole, then I laid the next sheet right beside it, put a few nails in to hold it down, and cut off the excess. That excess formed the final piece of the floor. I used subfloor adhesive as well as those 3-inch decking nails to hold everything together.

Well, guys and gals, that was it for the day. If I can make a suggestion, don’t take on a huge, labor-intensive, outdoor project like this in June and July in a subtropical climate. I was so happy to have some spotty shade from the old oak tree, but the heat still knocked me on my butt everyday. Take care of yourself.

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Step 2: And the Walls Rise >