Archives for the month of: December, 2010

Watching the house come out of the ground has been fascinating. We spent almost three years in the design process before breaking ground. This translates into many hours spent looking at one-dimensional pieces of paper and talking through details, with an aspiration of one day–some day–seeing an actual house emerge.

We even built our own house model using foam core, glue and balsa wood.

A Christmas break project from two years ago. Note the rookie move of gluing the "beams" on the wrong side of one section of the roof.

L & K helped by making a clay weimaraner and furniture.

I’ve heard some people compare the design and building process with giving birth. Part of me has thought that this is a hokey idea. I’m not so sure anymore though.

We’ve invested so much time on not just the big concepts of the house, but in smaller details like understanding how the roof connects to the retaining wall or how two pieces of wood on our kitchen cabinets will meet. Seeing these details become real three-dimensional objects and structures has been far more exciting and satisfying than I could have imagined. And I went in with pretty high expectations.

Here’s an example: the brackets that carry the posts that will attach to the roof.

Early in the design phase we talked about these in very general ways. They’re in a really visible part of the house/courtyard, so we wanted to do something special, but early on they were pretty non-descript drawings. Why? Well there were bigger things to work on, plus my guess is Matt hadn’t yet figured out how much load they would need to carry. On top of this, “special” can mean elegant and minimal, or it can mean something massive and articulated.

The idea behind the brackets began to evolve. I even sketched some ideas based on what we talked about to give to Matt, which could very well be included in a book titled “Bad Client Drawings.”

In any case, the general idea for the brackets began to evolve. You can see this below in the wire frame schematic.

As Matt worked with Paul, our structural engineer, the brackets were put on steroids and the design emerged more and more.

A detailed set of drawings were developed next (in fact many sets of drawings). Matt then worked with metalworker Sean Smith to come up with a plan to build them.

Finally, yesterday Sean sent me a text message with the picture below.

So yes, in a way we did give birth to this thing. From general design discussions, to sketches on a blank sheet of paper, to architectural drawings on a computer, to Sean in his shop with a welding mask, torch and hundreds of pounds of steel, a team of people made this happen.

Pretty amazing. We’re open to suggestions about what to name our new baby.

Yes, it was 70 degrees and sunny in California yesterday. So the 9″ of snow forecast for tonight will be a bit of a shock. Hopefully we’ll get over this though.

I couldn’t help but run by Smitty’s shop to see the brackets that are being assembled this week. Thankfully he works in the Bat Cave, just a couple of blocks from my office. And of course I ran up to the site to check on the walls, which look unbelievable. Arkada and Alexi pulled off a couple of pieces of cedar to find the hidden letters in the concrete. Pretty cool, and it was fun to watch Alexi’s face, who had no idea the letters were there.

Overall, I love how the forming turned out. The concrete is still pretty “green” and needs to cure, but the look is just what I hoped for.

P.S. You have no idea how difficult it was for me to resist titling this post, “My nuts are bigger than yours.” I guess I’m becoming more mature.

A short post since I’m out of town visiting family, but I received a couple of cool text messages today.

But first, yesterday’s big pour was an all around success. 90+ yards of concrete (or 10 concrete trucks, if that’s easier to visualize).

Matt passed along a picture of the first forms coming off. I just have one for now, but more to come when I get back. I’m pretty excited to check this out.

A lot of the concrete "ledge" will break off, kind of like what you see in the lower left. At least I think that's what happens. Credit: Matt Melcher

Sean Smith, who is fabricating our steel brackets, sent a second message, with the description, “Did someone order a bomb shelter?”

Bomber. Sean says the bolts are as big as the palm of his hand. Crazy. Credit: Sean Smith

Indeed. These should do the job. 70 pounds each, and that’s just the first part of the base.

Anyway, another good week of progress.

After a solid month spent working on concrete forms, Wednesday morning the big concrete walls will be poured. Sadly we won’t be here for this, or the work on Thursday when the crew strips off forms to reveal the board formed concrete. Happily, we’ll be in California where it promises to be quite a bit warmer than the winter wonderland we have in Spokane. Two sides of a coin, I guess.

Over the weekend I also spent a bit of time installing a set of plywood letters to act as a kind of cornerstone within the long entry wall. If all goes well the letters will leave a clean impression in the concrete. Installation was a bit of a trick. Trying to manuever the letters, a four-foot level, a nailgun and pencil in between a grid of rebar was awkward at best. I think it will turn out well though.

I spent a couple of hours on site yesterday with the crew, talking about a few details and tending to important work, like picking up pizza to eat while the snow dumped on us.

Arkada and Jacob finishing up the final work, on the final wall. Nice.

When I’m not working, raising a family or helping to build a house, I spend time riding my bike–something I’ve been immersed in since I was 13. Bit of a non-sequiter, I know, but there’s in fact a link. On nasty, cold, windy, wet days on a bike, you create a  unique bond with your training partners. Difficult conditions enhance camaraderie. I think the same can be said for the guys on site. You could see that yesterday and over the past month or so. They’ve worked hard during a hard time of the year to work. I hope they’re as proud of their work as I am.

OK, on a totally different note, yesterday Contemporist featured the house below. I forwarded a link to Matt Melcher under the subject line, “second cousins.” There’s a definite common thread between this house and ours. It’s a different project, look, and likely budget, but fun to check out the similarity in floor plans and some of the details. (A long narrow house, big roof overhangs, similar window details, big glulams, etc.)

I’ve pasted a few images below (all via Contemporist). You can find the full set here. Kudos to Scott Edwards Architecture on a gem of a project.

The roof pitch may be a bit steeper than ours, but there's a strong family resemblance.

Circulation around the outside of the house. Love this.

Deep overhangs. Lots of glass. Fantastic.


Without sounding like a broken record–or iPod–we have a lot of board formed concrete in our project. If you’re new to reading this blog and want a description of what I’m talking about, you might check out this post.

I haven’t asked quite so bluntly, but reading body language I think the concrete team has more than a little bit of project fatigue, and are ready for the next big pour. To be clear, building board form walls is seriously labor intensive. And we have a lot of walls. Hence a lot of labor.

Work, work, work.

From early in the design phase knew we wanted board formed walls in our project. Finding out more about the process, and identifying a good contractor though, was more difficult than I expected. Googling “board formed concrete” didn’t help too much. Mostly I found a lot of examples of very expensive residential or commercial projects, with little information about how to do it or what it costs.

An aspirational look. Bill Gates evidently saved up some benjamins for this project.

Locally, I talked to a few contractors who all said some version of, “man, I don’t know. You’ll probably need to find some old guy to do that for you.” (Board forming is a pretty dated technique.)

The helpful peeps at Olson Collins made a suggestion of someone to speak with. Olson has incorporated board form work into some of their projects, and in fact one of their contractors has built a pretty slick system for building formwork. Check out the pic below. The problem is, we couldn’t get any specifics from him beyond, “that looks really expensive, like maybe a hundred grand or something. I’m not sure though.”

Along the helpfulness spectrum, that suggestion was pretty far to the left.

Aluminum channels and framing lumber. So simple. So handy.

The lumber is attached through the channels using screws, but the screw holes are hidden. Clever

So, this is all a long build up to walk through how Mikel and his team created our walls.

Our contractor, Carrie, has some experience with board form work, and what we’re doing is similar to how she created walls in her own house.

We start with forming walls like you would for normal, smooth-walled concrete using plywood and snap-ties.

Standard forms on the outside. Cedar on the inside.

Once the first side of the wall is up though, Mikel nails rough-sawn cedar to the inside. A lot of people use fir 2 x 4s, or 2 x 6s–wood that’s typically used for framing. This gets expensive though, and the fir tends to flake off and get stuck in the concrete. It also doesn’t leave as much of an imprint in the concrete as cedar–a quality we want.

Then Mikel needs to figure out how to work around the snap-ties. These are used to keep the plywood forms stable during the pour. If you’re not familiar with concrete, as it’s poured and set, it exerts a tremendous amount of pressure on the form work. The ties hold things together.

Boards run above and below snap-ties. You can see the variety of wood thickness here, too.

Ties and cedar.

However, the snap ties can get in the way of the cedar boards. The way we worked around this is to use a variety of board heights. You’ll see this in our wall. We may have an 8″ piece of cedar, then a 4″, then a 6″, 2″, etc. I love the variety. Very cool.

The other thing we did was use a variety of thickness of cedar. Again, this will get picked up when the concrete is poured, and I think what we’ll end up with is a wall that looks a bit like an old ruin.

I found the cedar for this project on craigslist for a great price–59 cents per lineal foot. This is the upside of the end of the building season and a down economy, I guess. The material was all 1″ x 8″, and 7/8″ thick. So we sent it to a big shop and had it ripped in half. This effectively doubled the amount of wood we bought and now have some material that’s 7/8″, some that’s 1/4″ and some that’s about 1/2″. Mikel is mixing these in randomly.

According to Mikel, the most challenging part of our walls (beyond the sheer size) is the corners. When he gets to these, things get tight and it’s hard to maneuver the cedar, the rebar and the snap-ties. Mikel is also working hard to try to get the courses of wood to align–a nice touch for sure. He and Carrie also decided to add triangular shaped trim called chamfer strips that ease the corners. I think he was worried about our daughter getting hurt on a sharp concrete corner. Thoughtful, eh? (I also think it looks quite beautiful.)

Check the corner boards. I like this detail.

The big pour happens early next week. The boys have about 30 feet more of wall to construct, then want to take a day or so to get the bracing right (remember the big pressure from the concrete?) and to get the walls perfectly straight.

Unfortunately I’ll be out of town when the forms get pulled off the new concrete, but I’m sure I can convince someone to take a few pictures. As Jennifer Love Hewitt might say, “can’t hardly wait.”

This will be damn straight(!) before the pour.

Our once snowy construction site is now a mud bog worthy of inclusion in the next Indiana Jones movie. The boys are cleaning up a couple of things on the site today, but are now done with installing the walls and beams.

Misha hopes to pour the walls sometime late this week or early next, at which point in theory we could put up the roof. The plan though is to hit this the first week of January, when Jerry from Big Sky can come out to provide a bit more direction.

In the mean time, here’s a little video of something you shouldn’t try at home. That is, if your home has a giant snorkel lift in the front yard. The cropping of the video doesn’t give great perspective, but he was about 25 feet in the air.

Judging by the look on his face, Andrei had a great time flying around the site, not to place a beam, but to take pictures with his phone. Kind of a crackup.

Warning: A longer, more techinical post than usual!

It’s been pretty fascinating to watch the house walls go up. We get a lot of questions about how the structural insulated panels, or SIPs, are assembled, so I thought I’d write about it. There are other resources on the web that show examples of house assembly, but here’s how ours is working.

First off, if you’re not familiar with SIPs, they’re fabricated in a factory. In our case, the walls and roof were made by Big Sky Insulations/R-Control, in Bozeman, Montana. What you get when the truck shows up, is a huge pile of panels that are foam insulation, with oriented strand board, or OSB, on either side. So the panels end up looking like big green sandwiches, with foam as the tasty center.

The OSB has a green tint, but not green as in “we’re so special, we’re building green!” No, it’s a proprietary mildew and termite treatment. So we now have a 20-year warranty against all kinds of nefarious things. Which is a good thing.

During manufacturing, wiring chases are cut into each panel. These run horizontally at set heights (so it’s easy for an electrician to find wires for outlets or sconces or whatever), as well as vertically. Big Sky also ran chases to the exact location of every ceiling fixture. This isn’t essential, but should make life much nicer for our electrician.

Note the wiring chases.

The panels come mortised to accept a connector, and to attach to the sill plate.

OK, so the panels show up on a big truck, and the sill plate has already been installed.This is a 2″ x 6″ mounted to a piece of treated plywood. The plywood, I think, helps support the OSB.

Installing the sill

Each stack of SIPs from the truck comes with an inventory. Individual panels are also marked.

Our crew, with some guidance from the SIPs rep (also not essential, but a definite value add), began putting up walls. In theory it’s a simple process, but with our snowy/slushy/rainy site conditions, there were times that weren’t terribly fun for the crew.

The drawings from Big Sky show the panel layout, among other things.

The next step is running a thick bead of R-Control’s “Do-All-Ply” to the sill and the inside channels of the SIP. Essentially anywhere foam contacts wood, this caulky/gluey looking material is used.

Installing lumber into SIP

You can see the "Do-All-Ply" splooging out in this shot.

The panels are then lifted onto the sill. And they can get heavy. I think (although am not sure) that they’re five pounds/square foot, for the 6 1/2 inch wall panels. So our panels are between 100 and 350 pounds each.

Lifting the panel. Site conditions = far from ideal.

Once the panel is up, it gets nailed, through the OSB skin, into the sill plate.

From there, the crew installed connecting material between the panels, nailing it all together again. The type of connector varies though, depending on where the panels are, what’s attached to them (another panel or say, a sliding door) and the what the house needed from an engineering perspective. Our architect, Matt Melcher, worked through the engineering with Big Sky’s panel engineer, plus an independent structural engineering firm they hired.

Dennis messing with an insulated spline.

In our house, we’re using a combination of R-Control’s insulated splines, standard 2″ x 6″ framing lumber (where we have large window or door openings) and 6″ x 6″ posts (when we need to support roof beams). All together this creates a very strong and rigid system. In fact it’s stronger than a traditionally framed house.

Each panel is detailed for placement and how they'll be connected.

Big Sky cuts its panels to within 1/16″ of what is provided from our architect. And in my opinion, Matt came up with some very, very clever design details that play to the strengths SIPs offer.

For example, check out the details below. These are pockets that Matt designed into the panels. In a traditionally framed house, this is a fussy detail, at best. It requires a lot of framing work, and a lot of finishing work to make it look right. What we ended up with is beams, supported by the panels and surrounded by either insulation, or supported by a wood post. This makes beam installation really easy, removes figuring out how to insulate around the beam, and will create a very slick system for drywalling our ceiling. (More on this another time.) Anyway, it’s one of those very simple, elegant solutions that make the design nerd in me happy. Good for Matt. I love that he’s playing to the strengths of the materials we’re using.

The slick system I wrote about. This beam also has a nailer attached to it, which will be used to attach a clerestory window.

More beam detailing. This one sits on a 6" x 6" wood post.

Here's the end of our garage, showing the beam pocket, sans beam.

And then there’s the insulation properties. SIPs create a highly insulated envelope. We’ll be around R-30 at the walls, and R-50 at the roof. But to hear the company talk about this, compared with traditional fiberglass (or similar) insulation, we’ll have a “true” R-50. My understanding is that it’s impossible to install a batt of fiberglass insulation, or even field applied spray-in foam, without air leaking around the sides. With SIPs we don’t have this problem.

Finally, the last thing we get asked about–a lot–is cost. Without going into too many specifics, by working the design process, having a builder on board that was willing to work with an alternative building system (Carrie), and having a vendor (Big Sky) that really came to the table with great ideas, we were able to get the cost difference between SIPs and stick framing down to a couple of thousand dollars. The materials cost more, but labor to install is less–even in crappy weather like we’re having. And because of the excellent insulation we’ll have, it will absolutely save us money after a year or so.

Finally, a major tip of the hat to Big Sky. The panels have been absolutely spot on. As far as I know, we haven’t had a single panel that needed adjustment. To me this is no small feat. They’ve also been a lot of fun to work with, and that’s important too.

Check the title. This was K’s first statement when she arrived on site today. In fact it was the first time she had been by to visit since the boys starting putting up panels. A busy week at work, combined with entertaining our daughter, L, combined with the darkest time of the year meant she hadn’t had a chance to check things out.

As usual, K is right. It DOES feel “housey.”

Things look unbelieveable. Really. I mean it. I can’t believe how well everything is coming together. The crew is doing a phenomenal job. The framers are flying, Matt has been out a few times a day to offer suggestions and check on things, Misha is cranking away on the retaining walls, and we now have a septic field.

And the SIPs panels have been perfect. Yes, assembly is slower because of the conditions, but every cut, every beam pocket and every connection has gone as hoped.

To say things are slower though is relative. We started putting up panels in earnest on Tuesday. By Friday afternoon the wall panels were complete, and 6 beams had been placed. So we now have walls, including the framing, insulation, wiring chases and interior/exterior sheathing. Nice, and pretty impressive.

All in all, it’s been a week of big progress.

Again, I can’t believe how amazing things look. It’s so beautiful, the scale of the house is incredible, and for the first time, we can truly see and feel the relationship between the land, the house and the retaining walls.

I’ll post better pictures this weekend, but in the mean time, here are a few to at least get you up to speed.


I don’t have time to write much of a post, but the short version of what’s happening? The crew is putting up panels. Cool!

The conditions on site are slowing things down a bit, but the boys put up one of the long walls yesterday, and expect even more progress today. I poached a short meeting this morning between Matt, our SIPs rep Jerry and the framing crew as they worked through a couple of questions. As Jerry put it, “you know, this house is like a giant geometry exercise.”


Well, we have panels. Cool stuff, but a couple of little challenges. Of course. Nothing to be too worried about though.

Here’s what’s happening, in 10 somewhat sarcastic steps.

  1. The SIPs company loaded panels onto a truck in Montana, at their factory.
  2. Like you might expect, they organize the panels in a way that let them get as many panels as possible into said truck to avoid making more trips than necessary.
  3. The semi shows up at our site, and our framing crew uses a forklift to meander down our windy, icy driveway, to our long, icy foundation.
  4. The framing crew unloads the panels.
  5. The framing crew realizes the panels aren’t organized by, say, the way they need to be assembled. So for example, panel number one might be at the bottom of a stack of 10 (100+ pound) panels, number two in the middle of the stack and number 3 at the top.
  6. The framing crew looks around and sees piles of snow and ice everywhere. (Not good–there’s no place to reorganize the panels.
  7. The framing crew gets frustrated.
  8. The builder gets frustrated.
  9. The on site SIP rep gets frustrated.
  10. The builder calls the homeowner, who luckily ate zen pills for breakfast.

All exaggerating aside–and the top-10 list had plenty of exaggeration–it’s a small hurdle. Everything is fine, just a bit of reorganizing to do. I guess. It’s just a crappy winter we’re navigating. If this is the biggest challenge in assembling the house, we’re in darn good shape.

Can’t wait to see the house take shape. Should be fantastic, and I expect there will be a ton more progress tomorrow.

Wish us luck.

Big truck, lots of panels

Ready to go...

Installing the sill