Archives for category: Construction progress

This past week was busy, with zero time for blogging. I wanted to post a few more of Angela Parris’ photos though, this time with a focus on the exterior of the house. There are a few of these that I particularly like.

First, it’s hard not to feel happy looking at Sacha the dog’s rabbit impersonation. She’s in her element on a hiking trail and I think her dog-like happiness is captured nicely. Plus, I have a good memory of K’s story of our daughter, looking at this photo and laughing so hard she fell off her chair.

I also love the close up of the big brackets that shows off the patina that’s starting to form on the galvanized steel. I can’t believe it was just a year ago (less really) that these were being built. There’s another detail in this shot that’s cool, too. See the weep hole, right in the middle of the bracket where the wood posts meet? If you look carefully you’ll notice that its shape is identical to the shape of the overall bracket. Nicely done, Mr. Melcher.

Finally, we have such a beautiful trail around our property, and there’s  one spot in particular affords a pretty fantastic view of the house. All in all, good stuff!

Click for the bigger versions.

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“Why are you moving that crappy wood?”

This was a logical question asked by a friend when we packed up our old house. Among the boxes and furniture to be moved was a pile of ancient, filthy 2 x 4s, complete with nails and tacks dangerously protruding from the surface. Picking up a piece without gloves was a sure path towards a nasty splinter or case of tetanus. When you ask friends to help you move, things like this probably shouldn’t be in the job description.

About a year before we moved out of our last house we did a major remodel in our bedroom. Major as in we pulled down plaster to the studs, moved two walls, added a bathroom and built two new closets. In a turn-of-the-century house, this was no small task.

When I knocked the plaster off the walls though I found treasure. The framing lumber, as my friend noticed, looked crappy. But after closer inspection I realized it wasn’t. Rather, it was old growth, quarter-sawn (mostly) Douglas fir.

This might not mean anything to you, but once planed and finished that junky looking wood is absolutely beautiful, and almost impossible to find. Dense, heavy and tight-grained, this is the kind of lumber many an old-growth forest was cut down to produce. One of the studs is easily triple the weight of what you’d find at the lumber yard today. And back in the day—as in 1912—it’s what houses were framed from.

Two moves and roughly two years after I salvaged the crappy wood I found a use for it. This weekend I built an office desk.

To go off on another semi-related tangent, the office in our house isn’t a stand-alone room. Rather, it’s an area creatively sandwiched between our living room and laundry closets. We wanted to keep square footage down, and Matt Melcher encouraged us to think about how we needed the office to function.

Did we need a door? No.

How much space did we need beyond a large work surface and lots of storage? Not much. It’s not like we’re meeting clients at home, and even if we were I don’t think I’d traipse one through the entire house to get to a 10 x 10 office, or whatever.

When I think of all of the offices I’ve worked in one of my favorites was quite literally an IT closet. It was this tight little afterthought of a room that had a giant window, tiny desk and filing cabinet. Period. I loved it though. No room for clutter, lots of privacy and a great view.

Anyway, back to the desk. In thinking of its design there were a list of things that struck us.

  • First,  to show off the wood. Old fir has a beautiful, almost orange hue to it, but with occasional creamy streaks of sapwood.
  • Second, we dig design that shows off structure. For example, check out the Rietveld “Red and Blue” and “Berlin” chairs from the 1920s. One of these days I’ll get around to building one. It would make a great patio chair. Or maybe we’ll just make one out of Legos.
  • Nothing too heavy-feeling. A massive, permanent-feeling piece wouldn’t work well in what’s a generally tight space. The rub with a lighter design though is strength and stability. Sometimes things that look light are as stable as a noodle.
  • Finally, nothing too finicky to construct. The reality is I’m getting a bit fried on the cabinet-making front.

I jointed, cut and milled some of the old wood down into 2 x 2s, looking for sections mostly free of knots. Watching the pock-marked, dirty wood run through the planer was a crazy sight as the cutters  peeled off the brown crud. A lot of the wood had nail and tack holes, but we kind of like this. K says it’s part of the story and a nod to a house that gave us fantastic memories.

The desktop is a leftover piece of fir plywood edge-banded with 1/4″ solid wood.

The top sits on four of the 2 x 2s, which rest on a longer 2 x 2 anchored to the wall. The supports sandwich vertical legs. It’s simple and strong, but quite elegant in person.

I thought about a couple of different ways to join everything together, eventually landing on exposed screws and washers. Originally I wanted to use dowels, in a darker wood like walnut. While not terribly difficult this is a bit fussier, plus I kind of like the exposed screws. They show how everything works and tells the story of  the structure of the desk. It’s a solution that works for me visually, and it’s pretty easy to assemble, especially using what’s called a finishing washer, which hugs the screw head. Still, I was a bit stressed drilling the holes for fear of royally messing up all the prep work.

We’re really pleased with how this came together. While not quite as easy as an Ikea project, which one could  argue it looks like, it wasn’t terrible. It was a weekend project, but milling and finishing this wood was time consuming. There’s a reason why furniture built from reclaimed wood is expensive. It can be tricky to work with, requires pulling nails, etc. Fir also splinters easily, so it took time to cut. I went as far as running masking tape around areas that were especially important ahead of cutting. And I banked some good tweezer time each evening.

More pictures to come. Our camera’s charger has been missing since the move, but there’s a $40 fix for that. Until then …

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We took a small break from cabinet-making today. Well, we did build one cabinet box early in the morning, but spent most of the day working with Jesse installing house wrap. OK, not the most exciting thing to do, but we’re one step closer to installing windows, which should start tomorrow.

It was absolutely beautiful today too. We lucked out. No rain, no wind, no worries. And mundane task aside, it was actually pretty fun. Plus, three sets of hands helped things go quickly.

I forgot my semi-good camera today, but here are a few snaps to check out. The good people at R-Control will be quite happy. The house is now a giant R-Contol billboard.

More to come.

It’s been what, almost a month since the last post? Way too long I know, but there are many very, very good reasons for the blogging vacation.

I referenced this in the last post, but we’ve been navigating a pretty stressful situation the past couple of months on site. Sadly, this led to sleepless nights, meetings with our bank, checks written to lawyers, and a new builder on site. That’s also all I plan to write about the topic on this blog. As unhappy as I ended up, this is a blog about building a house, not flaming a builder.

But on to more interesting things. A week ago I flew to Chicago to meet my father, who lives in New York, and we then drove back to Spokane together. 1,900 miles and two-and-a-half days later we arrived home. Somehow we survived the long trip in an F-250 filled with a bed full of cabinet-making tools.

Cool rock outcroppings in Wisconsin.

More driving in Minnesota.

Only in South Dakota: "Help Manage Your Wildlie. WEAR FUR."

One of my neighbors asked how the drive went. My response? “Well, we didn’t bond enough when he was changing my diapers, so we needed a cross-country trip in a pickup with an AM radio.” I thought it was funny anyway.

So the past few days we’ve started working on our kitchen cabinets. To say we obsessed about the cabinet design is a massive understatement.

We’re building everything from beech, with the exception of the plywood boxes. Beech is a wood that for whatever reason is not in vogue at the moment. I love it though. It’s hard (similar to oak), reasonably stable and has a tight and consistent grain with subtle brown specks. You’ll often see it used in Scandinavian furniture. Lots of Danish Modern designs, for example, are made from beech.

beech

So in addition to being great wood to work with, there’s another upside to beech–it’s relatively inexpensive. To put things into perspective, at wholesale prices beech runs about $2.85 per board foot. White oak is more like $8. This is a good thing, especially given the amount we’re using.

As an aside, if you’re looking for an affordable wood with more figure (or wavy, visibile grain) you should check out ash. It’s similar in appearance (except much whiter) and qualities to oak, but less expensive than even beech. It’s one of those things that confuses me. Outstanding wood, easy to source, absolultely beautiful, yet for some reason not popular.

OK, more about the design. The cabinets use butcher block for both the legs and the countertops. I ordered these through Country Mouldings in Ohio and can’t say enough good things about their service. I’m also thrilled with the quality. Beautiful wood, super-precise sizing, perfectly square corners and edges. Great stuff.

We have a highly-modular design based on using the blocks and plywood boxes. This makes the work relatively fast. The key word in the last sentence is “relatively.” Cabinet work is never terribly fast.

The boxes will sit 8″ off the ground. Some people would call this a waste of space. And yes, we could have shoved another drawer in the void, but I love the way it looks when you turn cabinetry into furniture. I’ll also to take a moment to point out to anyone who doubts this logic that it’s a beautiful waste of space.

Checking things out. The horizontal plywood strips will go away, replaced with a full piece of beech plywood.

Looks good now. When it's finished it should be incredible. And to you cabinet geeks, yes, those are drywall screws. They're temporary.

We haven’t done this yet, but we’ll also use a router to cut in a shallow rabbet, or square notch, anywhere two pieces of wood touch, like for example where a leg meets the counter. This does a couple of things for us. First, it helps hide any inconsistencies in the wood (or mistakes). It also creates a nice little shadow line.

We have a ton more work to do, both in terms of detailing and basic cutting, biscuiting, screwing and gluing. But the general idea is captured here. More to come in the next few days though. It’s a pretty fun start though.

An update and cabinets: Part One.

About a year ago I was doing some work with a consultant who described a situation he was in. He referred to it as “starting with a ‘d’ and rhyming with ‘mama.'”

Yep, we’ve had a bit of this lately so you’ll have to excuse the rarity of recent posts. All is well though, or at least it will be in the long run. Like anything in life, there are going to be speed bumps and barriers and learning curve and personalities and frustration. There will also be joy and awe and inspiration and personalities and gratitude.

One of the things I’ve been most excited about is the cabinetry and casework. We’ve put a ton of time into thinking through what we want aesthetically and functionally. K and I both lean towards the functional, but at the same time want something beautiful and that stirs something a bit…emotional I guess is the word.

A hallmark of Shaker cabinetry is restraint, simplicity and craftsmanship.

My father is a cabinet maker, so this goes a long way towards getting what we want. It also represents a pretty unique opportunity. The chance to work on something together will be special.

Originally we had some pretty involved ideas. Involved as in complicated and (even though our labor is free) expensive. When it comes to woodworking there’s an irony. In general, the simpler the look you want, the more work, precision and fussy details you need to expect. In other words, simple = difficult.

So for example, if you want a drawer to fit perfectly into an opening without trim, or wood overlapping or exposed hardware, it’s going to take a lot of time, effort or expensive equipment. Sometimes all three.

Anyway, we spent a lot of time looking at friends’ houses and magazines. We also spent a lot of time talking about what we liked about our old house, how we like to cook. We talked about what we want and what we don’t want.

In our old house we pulled all of the door fronts off of the upper cabinets to make it easier to access everything from plates to spices. Eventually we had to add a few upper doors because our dog was jumping up on the counters and stealing bags of chocolate chips from the top shelves. Nice.

We added wood countertops to our old kitchen and loved them. Solid, warm, beautiful. So that’s something to include too.

The pantry in our old turn-of-the-century house. This was after the doors had to be installed to thwart our thief of a dog.

We’re big fans of exposed joinery. Showing off dovetails or finger joints or through-mortises is our ideal. It shows how the piece is put together and is very Japanese and Craftsman in its aesthetic. But back to the introduction, this is also fussy work. There’s a reason that face-frame cabinetry is so popular. It’s strong, relatively simple to construct and fast.

In the right house some of the modular Italian cabinetry is fun to look at. It’s clean, organized and keeps everything out of sight. It’s also a bit too rigorous for us. Never having anything on display or easily accessible would be a pain. We felt like we’d be constantly opening and closing doors and drawers to find a spoon, a pot or the refrigerator. Too much. Plus, in my opinion I don’t think this kind of kitchen wears well. Chip the veneer on a cabinet front and it’s obvious, and looks like hell. If you’ve ever bought anything from Ikea made from melamine you’ll likely know what I mean.

Can't you imagine it? "My kitchen is the same color as my Ferrari. And I cook as well as I drive."

On a business trip to Seattle a couple of years ago I stopped in the Henrybuilt showroom. Crazy beautiful stuff. Crazy expensive, too. And while K likes their look, it’s not exactly what she wants either. But if you can afford $80k in cabinetry for your kitchen, check it out. Beautiful. Oh, they also have a lower cost line called Viola Park that’s quite nice too.

Henrybuilt. Batshit beautiful.

There’s a company called Kerf that does some cool stuff too. I like it, but overall it’s a bit too far to the mid-century side of the spectrum.

Kerf Design. Get your Eichler on.

Then I stumbled upon a company called Hansen Kitchen. This is a Danish outfit run by an architect. Fantastic. Their philosophy is very similar to what we want. They eschew cabinet doors (vs. drawers), use primarily solid wood and have a very clean, modular design. The modular aspect is especially appealing since we’ll build these ourselves and time is an influencer.

Check out the image below of the finger-jointed legs. Originally I wanted to copy/adapt this idea. Really strong design, and while difficult wouldn’t be too horrendous. It would require a ton of wood though. I would have been OK with this, but because of the earlier drama I alluded to we’ll be taking on quite a bit more work ourselves, so something a bit more straightforward might be the right choice for us.

Up next: Why I just ordered 100+ feet of countertops, and an emerging design.

Another busy weekend for me at the site for me. And for Jesse too, who spent today finishing up the third and final “Y” bracket. It took four of us to get the steel-covered glulams into place. It didn’t help that we were seven feet in the air and standing on a 16″ wide concrete wall. Good thing we took our macho pills this morning.

I think the crew is hoping to finish the roof tomorrow. They also had the membrane that will cover the roof panels delivered, and my understanding is that will go on too. It’s a big roof, but a shallow pitch and all one plane. So hopefully that helps…

Here’s a stack-o-photos. Some of the site, and some of a few details.

 

A short post after a long day. Also a productive day.

After relative quiet on site–over the weekend it was just me and Jesse, with Matt coming out a few times as well–we had a hive of activity today. Jesse kept cranking away on the brackets, while Alexi and his crew got started on the roof.

The SIPs panels arrived on two semis first thing in the morning. From there half the crew did some final prep (I even got in on the action again, using a router to detail the beams) while the other guys organized 45 panels into the right order. At up to 700 pounds each, this is no small trick.

We rented a big crane for the day to get panels into the most difficult corner of the house. Good call. And while the crew hoped to get a few more panels installed, we covered our daughter’s room, the guest room, bathroom and a bit more.

Starting a SIPs roof is a bit like starting a tile job. The first few pieces take longer. Why? Well the first panels set the geometry and rhythm for the rest of the project. If you’re off a bit on the first few, you’ll be off a lot by the last few.

Tomorrow should see big progress. I’ll be back at work, but it should be fun to swing by afterwards. The crew expects to have most of the house covered by the end of the day.

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.

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.

Here’s today’s math question: what does 2 cement trucks plus 1 giant pumper truck equal? If you guessed 40, you’d be correct!

Yes, another day, another 40 yards of concrete. I’m nursing a nasty little cold, but couldn’t resist running by the site to hang out in 39 degree weather to say hello and check in with Misha and friends.

Lots of work today, and I couldn’t help but think of our contrasting work environments. You know those days when it’s 2 degrees cooler than normal in the conference room, and everyone complains and keeps taking breaks to get more tea or coffee? No more complaining. Like I mentioned, it was still very cold at mid-day, and Misha was covered in concrete splatter all day long. Very. Hard. Work.

One other thing. There’s something amazing to me about watching highly skilled people work. I have a picture of this below, but watching Misha detail the edge of the round sonotube was inspiring. It was a series of quick movements that looked so very simple. Yet were to try it yourself it would become quickly apparaent how much skill it requires. This kind of thing–mastery through repetition–is true for most things in life, but it’s still a wonder to observe.