Saturday, October 15, 2016

Construction - Back to Dirt Work - Insulation/Watershed Umbrella (Cont'd some more)

This is the third post on the insulation/watershed umbrella.  The first post covered some tasks that had to be done before starting the umbrella then it described the installation of the first three layers of the umbrella.  The second post detailed the installation of the next six layers.  This post covers the last layer -- the topsoil backfill.  

Reminder:  click on any photo to enlarge it to full screen.

Vacillation on Methods
For months, I have dreaded the time when the umbrella had to be backfilled because I assumed that it would have to be done with wheelbarrows and shovels instead of the trackloader in order to avoid damaging the underlying sheet plastic and foam board insulation. The excavation contractor who had done work for us earlier described a method for using the loader safely.  Not only was it rather complicated but I felt that my track loader skills were not up to the task.  Ultimately I did use the loader somewhat like he recommended but only after some trial and error.

By the time we had installed the two layers of carpet and the four layers of sand over the foam insulation, I became convinced that the umbrella might be resilient enough to withstand the weight of the loader.  But I still bought three sheets of 3/4" plywood to lay down in front of the loader on which to drive thinking that the weight would be more evenly distributed and less likely to damage the umbrella.  But this method took three of us -- I drove the loader while two guys moved the plywood.  

Trackloader Saves the Day
First few tentative trips onto the umbrella with the
trackloader before deciding that it could be used for
backfilling without damaging the umbrella
After the first trip onto the umbrella using the plywood, we realized that the soft loamy topsoil, close to 2' deep, would suffice as a cushion as long as I avoided two maneuvers that the contractor warned about -- spin turns or raising the bucket too high.   So I began bringing in the topsoil in straight line pathways and, in so doing, not only distributed the soil but also began slowly to compact the soil over which I passed. Eventually, the compaction was enough that I felt comfortable making looping turns to fill in the gaps in the corners that were left by the straight line pathways.  And, as much as possible, I used straight pathways when smoothing and leveling the grade.

I would estimate the amount of backfill we used over the umbrella at 3 - 4 tandem truck loads or 40 or 50 loader bucket loads.  To
The backfilling about half done; notice that it is easily deep
enough to support vegetation; we plan to use shallow-
rooted native plants eventually even though turf grass
 is going in first to stabilize the soil against erosion in 
the short term
have moved this much fill with wheelbarrows would have been unbelievably arduous and time-consuming.

Perfecting the Grade for Seeding
Final grading with hand tools; ready for seeding
I thought I had done a pretty good job with the loader with regard to sloping the grade over the umbrella for proper drainage and leaving a smooth surface almost ready to seed.  But, on close inspection, it left a lot to be desired.  So I rented a self-propelled tiller and asked friend Pat to help run it for the several hours it took to loosen the soil enough to be able to shape and smooth it with hand tools, which, in itself, took 1 1/2 man-days between my wife's Uncle Archie and I.

Seeding and Stabilizing
Coffee bag burlap over grass seed to prevent erosion
Our long-term goal is to landscape with native plants instead of turf grass but the immediate goal was to establish a cover crop that would prevent erosion of the soil during the heavy rains next spring. Consequently, we planted conventional grass seed with the intention of replacing it over time with ground-hugging shallow-rooted natives (if there is such a thing as shallow-rooted native plants).
Wheat straw over grass seed to prevent erosion

Our soil is wind-blown loess left by the glaciers.  In order for it to have been transported by the wind, the particle size had to have been minute -- a fine-grained silt -- which is highly erodible.  In order to hold it in place on the steep slopes, I cut open recycled coarse burlap coffee bean sacks and fastened them together with hog rings.  After the seed was broadcast, we positioned the burlap over the slopes.  The burlap was stable in the wind so we only needed to anchor it by stapling it to boards laid under the critical edges of it, as opposed to anchoring it also in the middle with landscaping fabric staples.   All but a small section of the remainder of the seeded area was covered with wheat straw for erosion control.
The French drain can be seen in the
shadows to the left
Finally, we used a sprinkler to compact the burlap and straw, to stick the seed to the soil and to jump-start germination.  And luckily, it rain a few days later. 

Tweaking the Solar Collector Before Surrounding It With Topsoil 
Before adding the topsoil to the slope immediately south of the solar collector, I needed to dump six loader buckets of sand into the collector for use later when it goes into service as part of the AGS system. However, as described in a previous post, water collected in the collector numerous times and deposited about a foot of soil that had to be removed. The main reason for its removal was to uncover a French drain that passed under the collector (one of seven placed early onso that it would be available to drain any water falling into the collector after it is finished.  As step-son, Keith, and I pitched the excess soil over the wall of the collector, we shaped the dirt floor so it will direct water to the French drain after it soaks through a thick layer of sand.  The sand overlaying the soil will support the corrugated steel that will adsorb the sun's rays for the AGS system -- the topic of a future post.
Collector after the sand has been added and
spread enough to cover all of the soil

As for the time being, we merely made sure that all of the dirt floor was covered with sand until the collector can be finished then left the rest of the sand piled up.

Insulating the Porch Footing
Another task to be done before finishing the topsoiling was to insulate the screened porch footing.  Since the foundation of the porch is a frost-protected shallow foundation, the footing needed to be insulated on its exterior where not already insulated by the umbrella, i.e., on the three sides not facing west towards the umbrella.  

Future Plans for the Insulation/Watershed Umbrella
Now the only area within 20' of the front of the house not covered by the umbrella is the section in front of the main entrance and the garage.  The umbrella here will be installed next year in conjunction with pouring the sidewalk and driveway.  The umbrella next to the retaining wall west of the house and the umbrella behind the concrete north wall of the house will also be installed next year.
Insulation at the level of the porch footing before backfilling

Landscaping Beyond the Umbrella
The catch basin lies in the rough ground south of the umbrella and the solar collector.  Because the basin is critical for keeping runoff onsite, it and the area around it will be the last portion of the building site to be landscaped.  The basin will give way to a series of rain gardens planted with natives so that rainwater will leave the property underground and purified instead from the surface and contaminated.
Rough area containing the catch basin (click on photo to enlarge it)

I guess we were pretty fortunate considering that it took almost three weeks to install the umbrella without having to deal with any serious rain. The final photo shows the site in mid-October as we return our attention to the carpentry phase in hopes of getting the house under cover before the rainy season in spring and early summer.
Status of the building site after the latest round of dirt work

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Construction - Back to Dirt Work - Insulation/Watershed Umbrella (Cont'd)

The last post covered the first three layers of the insulation/watershed umbrella.  This post deals with the next six layers.  A subsequent post will talk about the last layer -- the topsoil.  
And the usual reminder:  click on any photo to enlarge it.

Now that the insulation and a thick layer of sand made for a rather squishy surface on which to work, wheel barrows were out of the
A thin layer of sand covers the foam board
question for subsequent layers of sand, so the real work began.  I brought loader buckets of sand to the periphery of the umbrella in three places then we broadcast the sand shovel-by-shovel and broomed the sand until the first layer of plastic was uniformly covered but only half as thick as the first layer of sand. The purpose of using another layer of sand is primarily to serve as a drainage plain in case any water penetrates the top layer of plastic. It also smooths out the transitions as the thicknesses of foam go from 4" to 3" to 2".  The drainage would have been even better by having a thin layer of sand between the first layer of plastic and the foam board as well as on top of the board but I was afraid that the sand would cause the foam board to scoot around when we walked on it and pitching sand was already getting to be a little tiresome.

Intermediate layer of plastic sheeting batten down for the night

We merely butted this second layer of sheeting against the foundation wall instead of mating it with the sheeting extending from under the cement board/stucco covering on the foundation and the retaining wall.  The purpose of this layer is to provide another barrier to water penetrating the umbrella should the top layer of plastic be breached.

Another thin layer shovel-broadcast and evenly spread.  The purpose of this layer of sand is to provide a drainage plain for any water penetrating the top layer of plastic sheeting. Without it, the weight of the topsoil layer would pinch the two sheets together so tightly that water would trapped between the sheets and not be able to escape down-slope.

This layer was butted against the foundation walls and the retaining wall then the second sheet hanging out from under the cement board/stucco foundation and the retaining wall was shingled over it.  As with the first two layers of plastic, one long piece went from the screened porch to the western end of the excavation, a distance of almost 60'.  A shorter piece was installed between the west wall of the house, the extent of the excavation and in front of the retaining wall, such that it overlapped the first piece in shingle fashion by a large margin.  The two together pretty much used up a 100' roll of plastic.

The top layer of plastic will be the primary barrier against moisture penetration into the envelope but it is imperative that any moisture it collects finds an unobstructed passage off of the umbrella.  So the last layer of sand provides the drainage plain through which water will easily exit the envelope.  I reasoned that this layer should be little thicker for drainage purposes and to withstand some redistribution as the carpet was tweaked into position.

The primary function of the carpet is to protect the sheet plastic from physical damage caused by someone digging in the topsoil layer who doesn't know, or forgets, about the underlying umbrella.  It will discourage aggressive plant roots (although we plan to landscape with native ground-hugging plants with shallower roots).  And burying the carpet is also a green thing in that it keeps it out of the landfill.

I have been collecting used carpet for several years in anticipation of making it the last
The last layer of plastic has been covered with a substantial layer of
sand;  Pat and Roger are in the process of laying down the first layer
of carpet by simply laying it in place and unrolling it, thereby keeping the
appearance side up
layer of the envelope before backfilling with topsoil. Most of my stash of carpet came from friends and family who knew to keep the pieces as large as possible.  As it turned out, I was short by about 1,200 sq ft. Fortunately, +/- 800 sq ft appeared on Craigslist the first day I realized that I was short. For the remainder, I tried networking with carpet layers who are willing to keep the pieces large until I could come by and help carry them out.
However, I found that carpet layers remove old carpet by cutting it into narrow strips that, when rolled up, are easy to carry out of the building, and that those I contacted did not want to bother with an alternative approach.  I ended up dumpster-diving behind a floor covering store (with permission) to find pieces big enough to finish the project.

We laid the carpet upside down in two layers, each in shingle fashion to shed water that
We ran out of carpet when the larger area in the distance
was covered with two layers but the area in the middle
distance had only one layer of carpet and the area in the
near distance had none; nevertheless, it was possible to
begin the backfilling while obtaining more carpet as
evidences by the track loader in the background
would be flowing on top of it and taking care to mismatch the junctions between pieces in the two layers so that all areas were sure to have at least two layers of protection between the topsoil and the sheet plastic.  We also unexpectedly found that it was best to lay the first layer right-side-up for a couple of reasons. First, and most important, rolled carpet always seems to come with the backing side out and, when unrolled, has the appearance side up.  If we were to have insisted that the first layer be upside down as originally planned, we would have had to unroll it and re-roll it to be able to position it correctly without disturbing the sand.  To say it another way, it would not have worked to have unrolled it then dragged it into position across the sand, as opposed to merely unrolling it across the area of sand that needed covering.  There was a second reason for laying the first layer right-side-up. After the first layer was in place and we were laying the second layer upside-down, it was easy to keep track of which areas had not been covered with the second layer. Having the "good side" of the first layer exposed meant that, at a glance, we could see which areas had not yet been covered with upside-down carpet.  The second layer was easier to lay in that it did not have to be unrolled precisely where it was to end up -- it could be unrolled close to its final destination and dragged to place across the first layer of carpet.

A Couple of Additional Nuggets
Hiat, the principal authority on the envelope, warned that the plastic sheeting would probably be punctured while laying it but not enough that its function would be compromised.  However, we saw no evidence of punctures.  6 mil plastic is pretty tough stuff and the layers of sand cushioned it from the underlying rough soil and gave it enough resiliency that we could walk on it with abandon.

The carpet must be of synthetic fibers, not wool, in order not to biodegrade in the soil.  Also, it is important to protect the carpet from UV rays while in storage which is as simple as covering it with tarps that are of sufficient quality to resist UV disintegration themselves. We had to discard a few yards of carpet that were not adequately protected by the tarps. Another benefit of keeping them covered is that they stay dry and are lighter when handling them for the umbrella.

          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

The topsoil backfill will be the subject of the next post, especially how we solved the dilemma of using the track loader on top of the envelope without crushing it. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Construction - Back to Dirt Work - The Insulation/Watershed Umbrella

As much as I would have liked to have continued with the carpentry phase of construction, the reality was that it was mid-September and we had only a few weeks to finalize the grade in front of the house and get it planted with a cover crop to control erosion during the rainy season next Spring.  Consequently, with the internal bearing walls in place, it was time to shift our attention to more dirt work.

The main job was to get the insulation/waterhed umbrella installed.  (Click on the "Featured Post" feature in the left column for linkage to Annualized GeoSolar and the role of the umbrella.)  However, loose ends had to be taken care of first.  The porch foundation had to be insulated and clad in the manner described for the east garage wall.  The exterior of the insulated concrete forms for the house foundation wall had already been covered with cement board but still had to be parged with stucco.  The grade needed tweeking before the umbrella was installed.  The umbrella needed to be laid down and covered with topsoil and the topsoil needed to be blended with the grade further down the hill in front of the house.  Finally, the cover crop needed to be planted no latter than mid-October.  Oh, boy! The race was on.

Insulation for the porch foundation; the footing extends
below the insulation and will be insulated eventually with
more foam board laid horizontally
Insulating the Porch Foundation
Cement board over the insulation
The foundation for the screened porch needed to be insulated in order for it to meet code as a frost-protected shallow foundation.  The porch floor was intentionally poured 3 1/2" wider than the foundation wall on all sides in order to accomodate 2 1/2" of foam insulation and +/- 1" of cement board parged with stucco. For details on the DIY insulation for concrete walls, check out a prior post.  In addition to vertical insulation for the wall, horizontal insulation laying on the footing and extending out 2' on the three sides that are not part of the umbrella is necessary to complete the frost-proofing.  It will be installed in conjunction with final backfilling against the porch foundation before winter sets in.

Stuccoing the Foundation
The house foundation was insulated automatically by using insulated concrete forms but
Stepson, Keith parging the cement board with stucco

Friend, Roger, parging the cement board that covers the insulated
 concrete form
needed to be veneered for appearance-sake and to protect the foam from damage.  Again, I used 1/2" cement board. The next task was to stucco the cement board on the porch and house foundations in exactly the same manner as described in the prior post. The stucco serves two purposes.  It improves the appearance of the top part of the foundation visible above grade and it seals the cracks between the cement board panels against freeze-thaw damage.

Insulation/Watershed Umbrella
The grade for the umbrella was largely done months earlier with the track loader but had been overtaken with grass and weeds that I did not attempt to combat because they controlled erosion.  Now it was a matter of using the trackloader blade, tipped up as a scraper, to remove the vegetation then spending a couple of days tweeking the exposed dirt with hand tools to be sure the insulation met the foundation footing correctly, the soil surface on which the umbrella would lay was as smooth as possible and that the entire area would drain properly.
The grade after removal of vegetation with the track loader
and tweeking with hand tools; notice that the dirt is still not
smooth enough to protect the plastic sheeting from puncture

Parenthetically, parts of the umbrella were already in place.  The insulated and impervious garage and screened porch floors comprise most of the umbrella on the east side of the house. I will install the rest of the umbrella on the east next year before the concrete walkway to the main entrance and the driveway are placed over it.

Building the Umbrella
The umbrella consists of ten layers as follows, starting from the grade and moving up through the umbrella:

Sand / 6 mil plastic sheeting / foam insulation board / sand / 6 mil plastic sheeting / sand / 6 mil plastic sheeting / sand / two layers of recycled carpet laid upside down / topsoil.

This configuration for the umbrella deviates only slightly from the one John Hiat describes in his book, Passive Annual Heat Storage, primarily by virtue of our liberal use of sand.  I will discussing the first three layers of the umbrella in this post and the last seven layers in the next post.

Two-inch thick sand layer over the raw soil to protect the
overlying plastic sheeting
Fortunately, I was able to enlist the help of step-son, Keith, and our friend, Roger, for the installation, which would have been extremely arduous for me working alone after having just done the dirt phase alone.

The dirt surface, despite all of the hand work, was too rough on which to lay the first layer of plastic sheeting without worrying it being compromised when loaded.  So we covered it with +/- 2" of clean sand.  I could bring the sand only to the periphery of the umbrella with the loader so we had to use wheel barrows to distribute it.  We found that a push broom, used mostly upside down, to be the most useful tool for spreading and leveling the sand.  

First layer of plastic sheeting with foam board on it
to help hold the top edge in place as it is stretched out
The best buy on 6 mil sheet plastic that I could find was at a farm and home center in the form of a 24' x 100' roll which was only a little more than what we needed for each layer of plastic going into the umbrella.  We cut and laid the first layer of sheeting over the sand base.  I previously had left two layers of plastic sheeting hanging out under the cement board/stucco covering for the house foundation and from under the rock retaining wall to the west of the house that needed to be woven into the sheeting of the umbrella. The first overlapped in shingle fashion the edge of the first umbrella sheet.

Most of the umbrella extends 16' feet from the house (20' would have been better but the
Most of the foam board in place and anchored for the night
placement of the solar collector and the under-dug embankment west of the house changed the rules). So the pattern for the foam insulation, based on Hiatt's prescription, was as follows:  4" thick for the first 8', 3" thick for the next 4', 2' thick out to the 16' periphery.  And in the few places the full 20' was possible, 2" thick for the last 4' (Hiatt recommended 1" but a sheet that thin at the periphery could be crushed too easily).

Balance of the foam in place; notice that the weaker white EPS
board in the first tier has been covered with the stronger XPS
 board in the second tier
In all, it took 70 sheets of 2" board, 20 sheets of 1" board -- all laid as much as possible so that the cracks between sheets in the first layer did not line up with the cracks in the second layer. Expanded polyethylene (white board in the pictures) is half the cost of extruded polyethylene (blue board) so about 40% of the 2" boards were EPS installed under the more rigid and relatively crush-proof  XPS.

Part of the hand work for the grade preparation was to make sure the first 2" layer of foam board butted up against the footing and was flush with the top of the footing.  In this way, the second layer rested on the footing and against the foundation wall so as to fulfill the requirements of a frost-protected shallow foundation. As mentioned above, the cement board/stucco cladding for the foundation wall was backed by two layers of plastic sheeting that stuck out quite a ways at the bottom.  The innermost layer overlapped in shingle fashion the plastic sheeting that laid directly on the sand bed.  As we will see in the next post, the outermost layer overlaps the top layer of the umbrella plastic.  The loose ends of plastic sticking out from under the stone retaining wall were handled in the same way.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Design - Photovoltaic Array

Not "If" but "When"?
If we install photovoltaic cells, our electric company will allow us to use reverse metering to export electricity to the grid when we produce more than we consume. Unfortunately, unless the rules change, we will be credited at a lower figure when exporting (meter running backwards) than what we will pay for electricity when importing (meter running forwards).   Our goal is to break even with the power company without over-spending on photovoltaics but we won't know until we live in the house for awhile what it will take to do so.  Then we can size the photovoltaic array to our needs or perhaps decide that the return on investment for an array would be problematic.

Other Advantages of Waiting
In addition to monitoring our needs before investing in solar, there are other advantages to waiting.  Solar prices keep coming down and the panels almost certainly will be cheaper in the near future.  Utility company rebates and government rebates and tax credits come and go but I think the probability of this kind of help may actually increase over time pending which political party dominates at the federal and state levels.

Disadvantages of Waiting
Installing the panels initially would afford the opportunity of having them double as an
overhang for the second level clerestory windows, as shown on the accompanying
Click on drawing for expanded view
drawing, and thereby eliminate the cost of a conventional overhang.  The conduits and wiring from the array to the service panel would become part of construction instead of an afterthought.  However, we are more inclined to delay construction of the overhang for a couple of years anyhow in order to use the heat from the summer sun to jump-start the AGS system. Moreover, in order to function as a overhang for our latitude, the tilt of the PV panels would likely not be optimal for generating electricity.

Compromise Plan
We will probably decide to wait at least a year before investing in PV panels.
Instead of using the panels as an overhang for the second story clerestory windows, they will probably take the form of a free-standing array on the backfill behind the house that will be an easy electric hook-up and will be scarcely noticeable from the street. Free-standing, as opposed to attached, could include an upgrade to a mobile sun-tracking system to maximize solar gain.

Estimating Needs
The average rate-payer in the St Louis region uses 10,000 to 13,000 kilowatt hours per year, depending on whose figures one uses.  The 13,000 figure is about the average for the country as a whole.  The modern rental house in which we lived when first moving to Collinsville would be a better barometer of our electric usage than the 100-year-old farmhouse that we have since bought and occupy next door to the construction site. The rental unit had HVAC, electric range and electric dryer as the main demands on electricity.  We consumed 6,400 KwH/yr which is not much more than half the area-wide average, due in part to our sustainable-centric lifestyle and the reasonable size of the house.

Based on our experience in the rental unit, we are guestimating our electric needs in an energy neutral home to be 1,600 KwH/yr despite it being a larger house.  The load will be diminished, compared to the rental unit, by the intentional design of the house. Gas will be the choice for cooking and heating water (energy efficient tankless heater).  There will be no conventional electricity-scarfing air conditioning.  Abundant natural light in all spaces will minimize the use of lights during the daytime.  Most of the lighting will be task lighting.  General lighting will be controlled by manual override, dimmable motion activated switches so as to match use with occupancy. Energy-saving LED will prevail over CFL. Phantom loads will be minimized via strategic switching, not just for electronic equipment, but for mundane appliances like the toaster, microwave and clothes washer.  

Return on Investment
If an average consumer at 10,000 - 13,000 KwH/yr were to buy PV with enough capacity to make some dent in his/her energy consumption (forget about breaking even with the utility) the initial cost would be dependent upon how big a dent s/he wanted to make.  But the return on investment from energy savings would be protracted because her/his home was probably not designed for serious energy conservation.  My take is that adding PV to the average production home with 2 x 4 walls, or even 2 x 6 walls, and questionable attention to air-sealing, or to older homes like ours with no wall insulation, homes with solid masonry construction or homes with leaky windows and doors is like rearranging the deck furniture on the Titanic.

As counter-intuitive as it may be, PV for our super-insulated, passive solar project may not be a good investment.  Our consumption will be so low that the payback on a PV system that breaks even with the utility may not make sense.  On the other hand, it might.  The decision to invest in enough solar to be energy neutral might have less to do with cost-savings now as it does with insulating us from escalating energy prices in the future. If we add PV, it will be with the conviction that, with the current and future pressure on fossil fuel energy, the cost of electricity will only go up.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Construction - Second Line of Interior Bearing Walls

As explained in the previous post, it made sense to erect the interior bearing walls before starting the exterior walls.  Accordingly, that post went on to describe the first bearing wall -- situated a few feet inside the concrete earth-contact north wall.

This post details the second east-west line of structures, more or less in the middle of the house, that will support the front wall of the second story and the roof above it. This line is 55' long and comprises a complicated combination of a 2 x 4 wall, 15" thick truss wall, a header and a post and beam span over the living room-dining room-kitchen open floor plan.

(For a better understanding, it might help to consult the architectural drawings.  Click on them, as well as on photos here, for exploded views.)

Central Bearing Walls
The central bearing wall nearly complete; truss wall in foreground, post &
beam section in the middle; bathroom framing next and a dual header last
The south wall of the bathroom area comprises the 2 x 4 bearing wall section. Consequently, my first task was to build out the bathroom framing, including the joists that form the ceiling for the bathrooms and the floor for the second floor balcony office. The second story exterior wall will rest on the sub-floor on top of the joists.
Another view of the central bearing wall for better visualization of the
bathroom framing and the dual header to the left

Next, I had to build the north wall of the laundry area and a short section of the exterior truss wall extending east of it -- the section that will house the main entry eventually. Unfortunately, the wall contained pre-made wall trusses with plywood gussets that needed to stay dry and an imminent threat of rain caused me to wrap this section of wall in plastic before taking any photos.  Just as in the bathroom area, the second floor exterior wall will sit on the subfloor of the second story bedroom. Consequently, I had to install floor joists and
The subfloor on which the second story exterior wall will rest; the
narrow isthmus comprises the catwalk between the balcony office
in the foreground and the bedroom in the distance 
tie them into the front wall after it was under the plastic.

The second story exterior wall will also rest on the subfloor of the catwalk that bridges between the two second story rooms and extends westward over the master bedroom. The bridge portion of the catwalk is supported by two beams.  The short section of the catwalk that will overlook the bedroom will be supported by a combination of a header, a joist and a beam.  None of the catwalk could be built until all of the
Pre-made wall sections under cover
beams were in place.  Early on, the pre-made wall sections for the windows were stored under plastic in the master bedroom area.  Now they are in the way of completing the west end of the catwalk. I plan immediately to call in volunteers and lift most of them to the new second story for use in the south exterior wall. Then the remainder of the catwalk can be framed and subfloored to complete the central bearing wall.

Post and Beam Section
When designing the house, my fondest dream was to use salvaged barn timbers for the post and beam supports.  And my step-son and I were able to salvage a few good timbers and many not-so-good timbers from a 19th century barn.  We used the better ones for his house several years ago and the rest would be unsuitable for our needs.  So, in the interest of time and probably money (salvaged timbers can be pricey), I decided to scrap
Friends and family volunteers installing the heavier beam
the barn timber idea in favor of the man-made variety of which there were two options.

The plans called for 3 LVL's (laminated veneer lumber) fastened together to make the main beam.  They do not come in "appearance grade", meaning they are not pretty enough for a natural finish look and must be hidden behind something like drywall. An alternative was Glulams, another man-made product.  A natural finish on them became moot when the manufacture recently quit offering the option of a clean product with no identification information stamped on it.  To use them would involve much sanding to erase the markings for a natural look that even then would have been marginal at best.  The plans called for two sizes of beams. For the larger one, a Glulam beam would cost 28% more than an LVL's; for the smaller, a Glulam would cost 32% more than LVL's.

The posts specified by the drawings were 6 x 6s and the options at my lumberyard were pressure treated yellow pine, cedar and kiln-dried pine.  I chose the latter for a several reasons.  Pressure treated posts were unnecessary, more expensive than the pine and more likely to warp. Cedar, although it could have a natural finish, would not fit in with the other natural woods used in the house and it would be twice as expensive as pine.  The disadvantage of pine is that its natural look does not fit well either and will therefore need a drywall covering.  The robust hardware used to join the post and beams is anything but aesthetic and is best hidden behind drywall as well.   

Beam Construction
For bridging the 20+ foot gap between the bathrooms and the laundry area there needed to be two beams -- the "main" beam, to carry the second story wall and the "catwalk" beam, to carry the north edge of the catwalk.  The plans called for three 1 3/4" thick LVLs fastened together for the main beam supported on posts at both ends and one post midway.  Two LVLs were specified for the catwalk beam with no intervening posts.  

According to information online, the LVLs could be fastened together with through-and-through bolts, with construction screws or could be nailed together with 3 1/2" nails.  For
expediency and to save costs, I chose nails.  The longest nail my Paslode framer shoots is 3 1/4" which is just long enough for fastening 1 3/4" thick LVLs back-to-back.  The nailing pattern for a 12" tall beam was as follows:  Either two or three rows of nails (I chose three) with the nails in each row no further apart than 12" and no closer to the edge of the boards than 2".  Furthermore, the nails in each row should be driven from both sides so that the nails on a given side would be 24" apart in an alternating pattern with the opposite side.   In the case of the main beam that involved three LVLs, I nailed two together 24" OC then flipped them over, laid on another LVL and nailed it in an alternating 24" OC pattern.  The photo shows clamps to align the LVL's for nailing and the chalk lines guiding nail placement.

Despite manufacturer-applied "weatherization", I doubt that the integrity of the LVLs -- much like other manufactured wood products like plywood and OSB -- would hold up under my snail-like construction schedule that postpones getting them under cover for several months.  Therefore, my intention was to caulk any cracks and openings on the topside then paint them with Kilz undercoated in order to buy some extra time.  However, only the larger beam got painted; before I could l paint the smaller beam, we had the subfloor installed and I am assuming that its 500 hour rating against the weather will protect the beam sufficiently.  I do not regret having painted the larger beam because it is more vulnerable to sideways rain coming from the southwest and southeast.

Post and Beam Hardware
The hardware needed to join the posts with the beams was simplified by having beams long enough to span the entire 20' distance.  All that was required were off-the-shelf post bases to anchor the posts to the floor and keep them from touching the concrete and "T" braces (stand-alone post) and "L" braces (end posts) to secure the posts to the beams. The braces were pretty robust -- 1/4" thick -- and were fastened with the substantial 1/4 x 2 1/2" hex screws that came with the braces.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Construction - Carpentery Phase Begins with Interior Bearing Walls

Now that most of the dirt and concrete work are behind us, the carpentry work can begin in earnest.  However, some "infrastructure" work needed to be done first.

"Infrastructure" First
The carpentry phase of the project will take quite a while since I will be working alone most of the time and working alone is several multiples slower than twice the time of two workers or three times the time of three workers.  So, it makes sense for me to acknowledge the situation and spend as much time as necessary upfront to shorten and simplify the process downstream.  

Consequently, I used a couple of substantial steel desks that I "inherited" to create a sawing station.  I secured the compound miter saw to them well enough that stealing it would be too much trouble. By covering it with a tote to protect it from the weather, it can be left in place indefinitely.  I created a way to lock the abundance of the drawers in the desks in one fell swoop so as to be able to store tools and supplies on site.  Instead of installing temporary electric service and incurring a minimum per-month-charge for a meter, I ran a 10 ga extension cord from my workshop next door high enough overhead to be safe from tall vehicles.  I made provisions for locking the ladders under a cover.  And, as will be discussed below, I spent lots of time simply building a safe scaffold that will stay in place until after the drywall that can be reached from it is hung, taped and painted.

Sequencing Wall Construction
A must read for anyone doing construction alone
I made the decision to reverse the order of wall construction over what a professional builder would likely do, viz., I am building the interior bearing walls ahead of the exterior walls. The exterior walls will be constructed from shop-built  wall trusses and window-housing wall sections that have plywood and OSB elements that would not survive prolonged exposure to wet weather. Consequently, they will need to be roofed over as soon as possible after being raised. By contrast, the interior bearing walls will have no plywood or OSB so will be more able to handle some rain while I raise the exterior walls and construct the roof. Accordingly, I began with the most interior of the interior walls -- a tall wall that parallels the north concrete wall -- and, in conjunction with it, the scaffold.  It is mid-August and we are entering what is usually a drier season.  I am hoping to erect the exterior walls and get the roof in place before the Spring rains start.

The Long and Tall Bearing Wall
The first wall is 56' long, 16' tall and parallels and stands 5' away from the north concrete wall.  Eventually, it will divide the living space from the storage area (see the architectural drawings).  Four of us raised it in three sections that I tied togetherlater via 2 x 12 headers and, for a short section, the second component of a double top plate.  The fourth section (last photo below) was added subsequently with the help of volunteers.

Since the wall is so tall, scaffolding was necessary early on for joining the wall sections with a top plate or headers. The scaffolding will also be necessary later for adding a short truss wall to the top of the concrete wall and for setting the roof rafters.  And, as mentioned above, It will stay in place until the dry-walling and painting above it are done.  I suspended the scaffold between the two walls flush with the top of the 12' concrete wall. Not only does it serve as a work surface, it also holds the tall wall plumb until it can be tied to the roof.  As you can see in the pictures, the scaffold framing is all salvaged lumber and the plywood deck has been weatherized with stain so it can be reused later.
Above left photo:  interior view of scaffold.  Right photo:  exterior
view of scaffold; notice stationary ladder and the rope from the 
pulley hanging from the guard rail that runs to a box below
 for raising tools and supplies to the scaffold

It takes only a glance at the wall framing to appreciate the challenge of installing the three double 2 x 12 headers after the wall was raised while working alone, especially the one at the 16' height. I was able to do it primarily from reading John Carroll's "Working Alone". His individual methods come in handy but its major impact is the way it fosters a different way of looking at construction that makes the seemingly impossible quite possible.  It would have been a real challenge to have assembled the headers on the floor then attempt to raise them by myself. So I raised the pieces for each header separately, which in itself was a bit of a challenge for the higher headers, and assembled them in place -- without Carroll's influence I probably would have been calling for volunteers and waiting until they were free.

The long low header to the right in the photo below bridges over the numerous stubbed-out ends of the PEX water supply lines that run separately to each faucet in the kitchen, bath and laundry (home-run configuration).  They emerge from the concrete just barely behind the wall but the temporary bracing that holds them in place now would interfere with raising the wall in front of them.  The header allows me to postpone piecing together the bottom of the wall until the bracing is removed.

Salvaged Lumber Situation

As you can tell by the color of the lumber in the tall wall, most is new.  There were not many salvaged 2 x 4s long enough and straight enough for the job.  Pre-building the wall trusses over the past couple of winters consumed most of the salvaged 2 x 4s that were in the eight-foot range and the section of the tall wall being installed in the photo below used the few that were longer.  My current inventory of salvaged 2 x 4s is mostly boards that are less than 8' but will work or can be made to work, for most of the other interior walls. Ultimately, I do not expect to have to buy many new studs.  As for the 2 x 6 walls, there will be enough salvage for all of them.
Frontal view of the wall after the section being raised in the next photo is in place;
the headers to the left are in association with a second story room that protrudes
 through the wall; the header to the right bridges across the termination of a 
dozen or more PEX water supply lines
(as with all the photos, clicking on the pic will enlarge it for better viewing)
Design of the Tall Wall
Initially after raising the wall, there were two large openings above substantial headers. As can be seen in the fourth photo, the opening to the left is to accomodate a second story balcony-like office that will cantilever through and extend 2' beyond the tall wall. Before the the photo was taken, the other opening to the right of the wall above the header that is just over the PEX plumbing rough-ins (under the burlap). The fifth photo shows the fourth and last section going in over the 
The fourth section goes up with two of us pulling from  the scaffold
plumbing with the help of friends and family.  

The Next Line of Bearing Walls
Actually, the next line of east-west "bearing walls" that are slated for the middle of the house, comprise as many post-supported beams as stick-built walls due to the open floor plan in the dining room/kitchen/living room area.  These mid-line bearing structures will support  the second story south wall and the catwalk just inside of it but not alone -- the floor framing for two second story rooms plays a role as well.  All this will be covered in the next post.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Design - Final Architectural Drawings

I have deliberately withheld the architectural drawings until now (the 84th post to the blog) because most of the dirt work and concrete work, except for that pertaining to the AGS system*, is pretty generic for any slab-on-grade house and the drawings would not have added much value.  The atypical dirt and concrete work for the AGS system*, although definitely unique, was only loosely influenced by the floor plan. But, now that we are ready to start building vertically with wood, the architectural drawings may perhaps be of interest.  

The drawings lack the finite details that are typical of most construction projects. The design is mine so the drawings were mostly a matter of professionalizing my amateur drawings so the structural engineer would stamp them and the Building Director would accept them.  Not only was the Building Director comfortable with letting me sweat the details, he encouraged me not to pay additional architectural fees for more detailed plans. Because we had already had 5+ years of collaboration on the project, he was also willing to trust me to make changes without checking with him first. 

(For a blow-up view of any drawing, click on it or click on the first drawing to blow it up then scroll down through the rest of the drawings.)

Design Summary
The house is nestled into a 15 degree slope so as to have the right amount of earth contact and it faces south so as to benefit from the sun's energy for passive solar heating and air conditioning via a system called Annualized GeoSolar*.  It would qualify as a two-bedroom, two-bath ranch except it has two second-story rooms -- a third bedroom and an office.  As is typical with passive solar homes, the house is longer east and west than north and south -- by a factor of 2:1. It has earth contact with nearly all of the two-story north wall, half of the west wall and with a slab-on-grade floor. All but three small windows face south but, by virtue of clerestory windows, there are no rooms without dedicated windows. The two-car garage is attached and is heated by the same AGS system as the house but to a lesser degree.  The "back door" into the kitchen leads in from the screened porch in front of the house. Except for the second story, the house exceeds compliance criteria for the American Disability Act.  

Page One
Page 1 contains two drawings showing the front and back of the house.  The top drawing
is useful for visualizing the screened porch and garage relative to the house and the abundance of south-facing windows for passive solar gain. This drawing and the one on page 5 shows a photo-voltaic array for generating electricity as well as serving as the overhang for the second story windows. This early idea was abandoned in favor of a site-built overhang and a free-standing, post-mounted array to the north of the house. Otherwise, we are adhering pretty closely to the drawings.

The second drawing shows the extent of backfill against the tall north concrete wall -- almost 12' above floor level in the center.  It also shows a short stick-built wall on top of the concrete.  The abrupt changes in elevation of the backfill represents the location of retaining walls running north.

Page Two
Page 2 shows the details for the footings, foundation, concrete walls and concrete slab. With regard to the tall north wall, the design shown here is not what the structural engineer accepted but what he designed and stamped was not what we did. With the blessing of the Building Director,  we poured a 10" thick wall, instead of 12", and used three deadmen and two right-angle west and east walls to brace it. We also poured a slab at least 5" thick and reinforced with fiberglass fibers instead of a 4" with steel mesh reinforcement as called for in the drawing.  Otherwise, we stayed with the drawing.

Page Three
Page 3 is the floor plan for the lower story. Here we are taking liberty with the drawing in the living space adjacent to the garage. The drawing shows a workshop north of an airlock. When we were able unexpectedly to buy the property next door to the building site and use it as our our temporary residence, I turned its large free-standing garage into a workshop which I will keep even after we convert the temporary residence to rental property. The workshop area in the plans then morphed into more living room space, a reconfigured airlock and more storage area. The DIY picture of the altered floor plan appears as the last photo below with my pencil drawing of the changes taped over the original drawing.  Otherwise, we are sticking to the plan.

Page Four
Page 4 shows the second story layout.  There is a balcony office over the bathrooms that looks out over the living room towards the east but not over the master bedroom on the west. There is an east-west catwalk cantilevered over the living room and master bedroom. Towards the east it connects a bedroom to the stairs and office and towards the west it extends out over the master bedroom. It serves three functions:  (1) it provides access to the second-story bedroom; (2) it provides access to the clearstory windows for opening and closing, washing and, perhaps someday, managing thermal shades and (3) it adds architectural interest. 

Page Five
Page 5 shows primarily the east and west profiles of the house and screened porch as well as a north-south cross-section at the level of the stairway.  

It brings dimension to the extraordinarily high ceilings in the living room and master bedroom -- 20' from the floor at the clerestory windows and 16' at the partition between living quarters and storage area. The high ceilings will allow light from the clerestories to reach the back of the living room and master bedroom. The drawings clearly show no windows on the west, three small ones on the east, two of which are in the garage, and the rest facing south.

Altered Floor Plan (Last Photo)
The workshop has been eliminated and its space reallocated to the living room and some to the storage area along the north wall.  The long dimension of the airlock was shifted 90 degrees for better utilization of the abandoned workshop space for the living room.

* For information on Annualized GeoSolar, click on the "Featured Post" in the left column above which is the the first of three posts on AGS.