Stake ‘n Snake

 

Ugh, the rough framers pushed back their start date, again.  It’s tough to get excited when progress keeps getting delayed.  Fortunately we have plenty to keep us busy.  The land is basically rough graded.  I awoke early this morning and drove out to meet the excavator.  Having spent some time the previous night coming to terms and getting comfortable with the lay of the land, I was confident going into our quick morning meeting.  We walked down to the future pond area and I we talked about the planned shape and location of the pond.  It will be more of a water catcher than a formal, dug pond.  To start with I doubt it’ll be more than 4′ deep.  Should  be nice enough for frogs and nesting ducks hopefully.  And hopefully I can get enough bats to mitigate (is that the right word?) any mosquitos.  One missed opportunity is that all our blue clay is intermingled with regular clay so we won’t be able to line the pond with blue clay, which would be the preferred method, especially if you’re getting free blue clay.  For now the pond area is just staged dirt piles.  They’ll be arranged and feathered out either during the final grade or when we go to do the landscaping next year.  If need be I’ll secure the mounds with fabric or organic material to reduce erosion over the winter.

Tonight the plan was to stake out the breezeway and screen porch.  We’ll have the excavator drill out holes for each post location.  Then we’ll insert a sonotube, which is a circular cardboard tube, into each hole.  When the cement contractor comes out to pour the garage and studio, they can pour cement into each sonotube.  The top of the sonotube will be flush with the grade.   Before the cement sets we’ll insert a threaded rod which will allow us to attach an adjustable bracket and then ultimately our pressure treated posts will bolt / nail to that bracket. The excavator will use a 13″ bit on his auger which should allow a 12″ sonotube to easily slide down into the hole.

To stake out the locations we (the wife and I) used a tape measure, the house plans, some orange spray paint, wooden stakes (from Lowes), and a mallet.  I bought a nice 200′ tape measure from Lowes for around $20-$30.  It works very well, just make sure you’re looking at the right side as one side has decimal marks instead of inches.

Tools of the trade. This pic is actually from the night before when I plotted out some of the landscape elements for reference.

Rolling up the driveway I stopped at the electrical box and grabbed my stack of wooden stakes, threw them in the back of the truck and proceeded up to the build site.  We unloaded our “tools” and took a quick look at the pond area and rough grading.  Everything looks real nice, and a bit flat, but that’s okay.  Pretty much our entire house is on an 4′ grid so naturally the breezeway columns are basically 8′ apart.  We didn’t get too technical, just measured off the house and studio foundation walls, took a few diagonal measurements and drove a stake into the soft freshly graded soil. 

In addition to the stake, I marked each location with some spray paint.

 After we got most of the breezeway staked, Christine randomly blurts out “snake”.  I get up from playing with a clump of clay (I’m easily distracted) and walk over to see what she is talking about.  After 10+ years of marriage I pretty much just assume she’s insane (it’s a mutual assumption I’m sure) and sure enough she points over to the pile of stakes resting on the house plans and I see nothing.  Hmm.  Fortunately, I don’t say “Um, honey, those are ‘stakes’ not ‘snakes'” as if I’m talking to my two-year-old.  Realizing my skepticism she ushers me closer and says “snake” again.  Still dumb founded I reluctantly pick up the top stake off the pile half expecting to see a rattler jump out at me as part of some sort of America’s Funniest Home Video moment.

Then I see it. 

Wouldn’t you know it, it’s the smallest darn snake I’ve ever seen in my life.  Then the biggest cricket I ever saw jumped out of the stake pile and I nearly screamed like a 12-year-old girl, but that’s not the point.  Back to the snake.  We decided to “rescue” him and release him in the east preservation area.  I have a phobia against touching any thing that is alive and isn’t a mammal so I scoot him (how do you know it wasn’t a her?) on to the house plan and walk him over to a grassy nook in the preservation area.  Snap a quick pic and he’s gone.  Of course he’ll grow up and probably scare the be-jesus out of me next year, but for now he was just about as cute as Mother Nature makes animals, this side of baby rabbits.

Our snake friend just before he was released into the preservation area. Not sure what kind of snake he was, other than awfully cute.

After Mr. Snake was gone we went back and finished the breezeway.  Some of the snakes, er…..stakes didn’t have easily aligned reference points so I pulled some diagonals from previous stakes and plotted out their locations.  Everything looked pretty good.  We then plotted out the column locations for the screen porch and back porch according to the print. 

Actually, having the rough framers delayed is good because now we’ll be able to have all the post pads (i.e. sonotubes) poured when they do the studio and garage.  And ultimately it’ll all be done around the time the framers start so they can post out the porches and breezeway without putting in temporary posts for the most part.

Picture of the staked out open breezeway that connects the garage to the house (right).

 

Screen porch stakes.

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Backfill

The framers are delayed until later in the week so the only work being done on the site is the excavators are meticulously backfilling the house and relocating the dirt pulled from where the house currently rests.

Backfilling the studio requires significant amounts of gravel to minimize pressure on the Superior Walls of the main house.

 
 The land is changing quickly.  I still miss what it looked like when we bought the property and walked it, even with all the ticks.  It’s looked like a moon scape the last six weeks.  Now the large mounds of dirt are being used in some of the back fill or being relocated to another part of the property.  We’ll be using some of the dirt to form mounds and eventually a pond. As the mounds around the house are removed it restores the topography back to what we remember but alas all the vegetation is gone.  Hopefully our planning works out well and the top soil that was set aside will be drop on top of the restored sections.  This should assure that the vegetation that was there before grows back.  Within a couple of years any areas that aren’t landscaped should return to their natural state. 
 
There are still some decisions to made on roughing in the landscaping.  We need to cut our excavation budget to account for the excess gravel, but we should be able to fit in the rough in of the pond.  There’s a natural area for it to fill from so we’ll leave it where the original plan called for it to be. 
 

You can see a mound to the left, and to the right an area where the mound of dirt has been removed.

After talking to the HVAC contractor, I think geothermal may be back in play.  Using the pond for the geothermal system would be beneficial, but the pond is pretty far from the house.  We’ll have to weigh our options in the coming weeks.
 
We’re kind of in a state of flux, between phases.  On one hand things have slowed down so it should be relaxing, but on the other hand a lot of decisions have to be made and bills paid in short order.  All of which leads to increased stress levels.  So we have a diverse array of subjects that we have to consider on a daily basis, from mechanical systems, landscaping, and topography to designing entertainment centers and planning the basement layout. It’s kind of sad to see the land in the state it’s in now.  We ran over a lot of little to medium vegetation.  With all the dirt we had to remove because of the blue clay, the disturbed area is significantly larger than I’d imagined.  And sadly I noticed one of the largest trees on the property must’ve been shocked even though it’s in the fenced preservation area.  It started to lose its leaves early and doesn’t look good.  Hopefully it’ll bounce back after all is said and done but you and I both know how that goes.  A real bummer because it provides all the shade for our screen porch and west rooms.  A tree that size won’t grow from scratch within the number of years I have left on this planet.  If it dies I’ll cut it down and plant a new one under which my grandkids can chase each other around. 
 
 
 

There was a large mound of excavated dirt here. It's slowly being reduced by the heavy equipment on site. The dirt here is being relocated to form a pond and / or back fill parts of the house.

 We’re passing the time until the rough framing picks back up again by designing the fireplace and entertainment center.  The biggest challenge here is we have an open floor plan and a 26′ long wall that will have a door, hutch, fireplace and television / bookcase.  It’ll be a miracle if we can design it not to look like a train wreck.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Here you can see we're backfilling the entire height of the 10' tall Superior Walls with a layer of gravel then the remainder is dirt. Very expensive but necessary.

 
 
Also we’re trying to wrap up the plans for the off again, on again fireplace.  It’s on again so we’re trying to get quotes and figure out if the flue will be inside or outside the house.
 
That’s about it for today.  It’s about time for ProjectCam to get a recharge and my rain barrel has collected virtually no water.
 
 
Hopefully by the end of the week we’ll have more to share in regards to progress on the home front.
  

We picked up our Pactiv Greenguard Raindrop housewrap. It's pricier than normal house wrap, but unlike normal housewrap it won't lock water against the OSB. We've gotten several compliments on our housewrap. I try not to brag too much.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

This is what our dinette looks like these days. Plans, sketches, magazines..... Right now we're designing the fireplace & entertainment center.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Phase One Wrap Up

The excavator has started to back fill the house and garage.  This will make the property look a bit different and closer to what it looked liked about a month and a half ago when we cleared out the brush.  With the exception of the wood and cement rectangles that are the house and garage.  In my mind I kind of consider this to wrap up Phase 1 of the project.  Now we switch over to rough framing and selections.  We’re past any of the major deal breaking hurdles at this point.  Knock on wood.  (With my luck the foundation will collapse just to spite me.)

The garage is backfilled inside and out. It also proves to be a convenient lumber yard, freeing up space for the excavator and bulldozer to move around. You can't really see it but by the trash cans, I added a rain barrel. We don't have any water on site so this will give the workers a source for clean non-potable water. We got ours from Woodland Direct for about $115.

The Superior Walls require special consideration when back filling including gravel bottom to top to minimize pressure against the walls.  We also have to brace up the stair opening during backfilling.  Our blue clay necessitated a 45 degree dig so backfilling involves stepping the dig first then back filling.  Overall, the amount of gravel required in prepping the footers and backfilling the cast cement walls decimated our excavation budget.  This means that we’ll have to forego any landscaping and need to accept the push back from our building helpers on the cost of engineered rafters and other performance & sustainable features.  We’ll be over in other areas such as cabinetry, appliances and fireplace as well.  Savings will come from rebates on the windows and my ability to find fairly good pricing on the metal roof.  We’ll see where else we can save.  I have to be careful because many products out there appear to cost less up front but typically are of inferior quality or performance, or the product cost doesn’t factor all the costs associated with that product.  For instance I didn’t factor in the amount of gravel when comparing foundation options or engineered lumber performs better than traditional lumber so it may be money well spent. 

Also I’m not sure we’re getting a discount for some of the labor-saving methods we’ve employed.  For example our architect designed the home so everything is divisible by 4, which is what most building materials are sized in (e.g. 4×8 sheets).  Also he spec’d 2′ on center wall studs to reduce material and save costs.  I have to look so I’m not sure if the lumber yard picked up on that and laid out the framing accordingly.  I do know there was very little scrap left over after the rough framers built the first floor deck; virtually no OSB cut offs left over.  Not sure if our rough framers reduced labor costs because of the minimal cutting and lighter weight engineered joists.  It definitely makes their job easier.

We did push the lumber yard to provide us with trusses for the garage even though they’re a little more expensive.  This will avoid wasting old growth 2×12’s to hold up drywall in the garage ceiling.  What a waste that would be to rip some old growth forest in Canada down so I can hang drywall in my garage ceiling.  I’m assuming there are families in Canada that like forests as much as we like forests here in Ohio.  As I said before, I had to cut and run from using engineered lumber in the main house roof to appease my “builder” and to offset the cost over runs for the excavation.  We’ll be using 2×8’s which will give us 95% of the performance of the engineered rafters, and save us about $5,000.

I’m saving a lot by self contracting but it’s an uphill battle because no one really has the same perspective or philosophy as I do, so I have to do the best I can to at least sway their thinking for the portion of time they’re working on my house.  If you’ve got the money and interest, hiring a contractor familiar and sensitive to the triple bottom line may be well worth it.  The other advantage is having a contractor increases, in theory, that someone’s looking at the details 24/7 vs. my situation where a handful of people all take a small part, myself included.  Save money my way, but you have to live with imperfection, and inefficiency.  Also, cost avoidance is still hard to come by.

Who knows, maybe I can start a new career as a green builder.    Of course if we don’t sell the house we’re in now, this one we’re building will be for sale. 

And we can start all over from scratch again.

I got to walk in my basement. It was AWESOME. I do love the inside of the Superior walls and can’t wait to finish them off. You can see the bracing necessary though around the stair opening.
 

Say goodbye to the outside of the Superior Walls, they're being backfilled. Kinda sad because I've gotten used to seeing them. Here you can see the filter fabric we laid down first, then there will be 2' of solid gravel, then a channel of gravel up along the wall. The sloped walls will be stepped and backfilled with conventional material. There will be so much gravel in this area that I don't think we need a drain under the window. It should naturally drain down to the drain tile. We will have to build a retention wall on the far side of the window though. My dream is to finish this area in stone.

Gang Aft Agley

 

The older I get the more worry. 

The more I over think. 

The more I annoy the bejesus out of pretty much everyone I encounter. 

I promise to be better.  I’ll start next year (I procrastinate too).  I’ll start as soon as I have a plan in place.  And a contingency plan in case something goes wrong.  Of course the problem lies in that I don’t plan very well or rather I don’t plan that often.  Instead I charge ahead at the front end and deal with everything on the fly as the wheels fall come off.  When I do plan I think of every angle without coming to any real resolution most of the time.  Basically an organizational top spinning around waiting for life to happen.

When building my own house, I’m quickly realizing that a) It probably wouldn’t have hurt me to plan more and b) the reality is nothing goes as planned anyway so I should have golfed more before I started building.

Not that anything is going tragically wrong, rather a lot of little “middle of the road” things kinda go unplanned and then either resolve themselves or result in, you guessed it, a change of plans. Expectations, design, realization, design, expectations, fill out forms.  Pay some money, expectations, realizations, wait two weeks. Do some work, pay some money, expectations, realizations, watch the rain.  And so on and so on, for roughly eight months…..we hope.

We’ll have some budget challenges coming up since we allotted more money to some areas and have run over on the excavation with our blue clay incident.  I suppose a soil core test would have alerted us earlier, but wouldn’t have saved us any money. Based on our research we were not expecting the blue clay.  And I don’t think it would have nixed the project even if we had known.  I guess  lesson learned, do a soil core test just in case.  We were able to save some money (and add a green feature to the project) today by ordering recycled rigid insulation, so not all is bad news.  We can balance the budget too when we get to finishes and delaying some built-ins like bookshelves.

One plan that did work out was we were planning to get the footers inspected today and we passed with flying colors.  Yay for us!  Knock on wood, but anytime we have anything to do with the government, it works out great.  Mother nature, not so much.

All the drain tile (which is really plastic pipe) is laid.  These series of pipes will collect any water on the outside of our foundation and route it away.  The cement thingy (it’s late, and I forget what it’s called) that forms the collection area for the sump pump is in too.  The sump pump and it’s pipes (I think there are pipes) on the interior of the foundation will collect water and pump it out before it can get into my basement.  It’s placed in the lowest point of the basement excavation.

Picture of the approved excavation. All the gravel will be for the floor. The Superior Wall system will rest on the gravel around the perimeter. My studio is the higher portion on the left. the sump pump crock is the little round thing at the opposite corner from this vantage point.

Tomorrow we’re going to lose one more cherry tree I suspect.  It’s the one near the garage that we tried to keep even though it’d make backing out of the drive difficult.  Well, turns out it may make the foundation install go smoother so I’m pretty sure it’s coming down.  I took a picture of it today.  Out of the three cherry trees we saved, it’s the nicest.  There goes that plan.

To the left of the drive in this picture is the cherry tree they'll most likely take down tomorrow. To the right is the garage. The semi and crane coming on Friday will have to thread the needle between the two. That's why they get paid the big bucks.

 Everything looks really spread out and open, but that’s because of the 45 degree walls on the excavation.  Tomorrow after work I’ll lay down some vapor barrier where the walls are going.  Additional vapor barrier will go down after the walls are in, before I go to lay down the rigid vinyl and they pour the basement floor.

My biggest worry right now is getting the semi-tractor trailer and crane back to the job site  on Friday.  That should be interesting as our driveway is pretty crazy and goes across my neighbors property.  I’ll either be really happy or really sad Friday night depending on how it goes.  Also weighing me down is the insulation will be coming in on another semi-tractor trailer next week. When that comes I’ll have to unload it by hand near the street.  I don’t even want to plan for that but I have to.  Not expecting that to be a happy endeavor.

Foundation hole as seen from just outside the screen porch. My studio is the higher ground on the right. With the blue clay, we laid down stabilization fabric just like we did under the driveway.

Well, here’s hoping I’m filled with promised joy on Friday, regardless of whether or not things go as planned.  I guess the real plan is to get the foundation in without destroying anything. 
 
If that happens then I’ll be happy as a mouse.

 

Bloom Is Off The Rose

We had two rose plants that I transplanted last fall.  They were both gifts from me to my wife.  I figured best to transplant them in case we sold our house (stop laughing) in the winter and I couldn’t transplant them in the cold.  Turns out the spot I picked was just about the worst and the Fall rains wiped out the one plant that was as tall as me.  The smaller plant, that at one time I had nursed back from a twig, was done in by the Spring rain and a second attempt at transplanting.  The symbolism is not lost on me, especially after a long week 2 on the project.

Building a house is a god awful, miserable, experience.

I don’t even respond anymore when I tell people I’m building a house and they say “How cool”, “I’m envious”, “Sounds like fun.”  Or the best one, “You must be excited.”  Define excited.  Is it exciting to consistently wake up at 3:57 a.m. unable to go to sleep worrying about some aspect of the new house falling apart, while my left eye twitches uncontrollably?  Is it exciting to watch your budget swing wildly in amounts equal to new Land Rovers?  I certainly don’t get excited as I measure out the house for insulation and come up with a different number fourteen times in a row.  Not exciting.  I don’t get excited.  I drive up to the Quickcheck, buy a twelve pack of Budweiser and contemplate if I can make it to Wyoming before anyone misses me.

Building a house is about the least enjoyable experience I can think of short of any real tragedy such as death, famine or being kidnapped by Ecuadorian Rebels.

I have not gotten back the soil report, but from what I hear we’re supporting 1,500 lbs. psf which is what we thought all along.  I’m going to beef up the crushed stone footers to 12″ x 24″ and we’ll lay down stabilization fabric.  Also we’re going to install a sump pump, just in case the blue clay is more aggressive than it looks.  We’re still on schedule for foundation installation next week.  My happy foundation walls are drying somewhere up the road in the New York heat I suspect.  I talked and emailed quite a few people and I’m sticking with the original plan regarding the foundation with the adjustments noted above.  I think I’m doing my due diligence and I guess only time will tell.

When I said I had everyone looking at our foundation, I meant everyone. Daphne examines the basement plan and can't make heads or tails of it. She spends the next two minutes licking her butt on the print and saunters off. I'm pretty sure she thinks I'm an idiot.

 I did not go out to the site yesterday or today.  Spent most of my time on email, phone calls and pouring over books regarding the soil and foundation.  I did attempt to measure for the XPS & ISO rigid insulation that will go under the slab and the exterior walls.  I think I’ve got a good square foot estimate.  We’ll have to order that soon.  Also, since we’ve got a free Saturday we’re going to start looking at plumbing fixtures and flooring.  Which is good because it’ll get my mind off of all the “exciting” parts of the project (add to that bank, appraisals, disgruntled neighbors, etc. etc.) 

So not every day is rosy when designing and building a house.  The bloom is definitely off the rose for this project.  But roses bloom again.  So I’m sure once we get framing, picking out wall sconces and debating the pros and cons of this stone versus that stone our rose will bloom again.

Though with my track record for helping rose bushes, maybe I need to be more hands off.

Blue Clay Blues

My house will fall apart but I’ll have the nicest pond and natural swimming pool in Ohio.  You know that picture I showed you yesterday?  The one with the cool top soil and the cool greyish blue streak of soil at the bottom of the hole?  Well I got a call from my excavator and apparently we’ve got “blue clay” where we’re digging the foundation.  Blue clay is awesome for horseshoe pits and lining ponds (water won’t penetrate it), but horrible for building a house on (it can barely support my weight after an all night chicken wing bender I suspect).  It actually is worth something in those regards, so the wife wasn’t too far off when she jokingly asked if we hit oil or gold when I told her the excavator hit something while digging. 

Alas, suffice to say I’m not rushing out to paint “Blue Clay for sale” on a cardboard sign.  I’m a little bit preoccupied with building a home for my family.

This is what "blue clay" (the clump in the middle) looks like compared to regular clay (the brown stuff all around). It really is blue.

 Regular clay that we have here in Ohio can support on the order of 3,000 pounds per square foot (psf).  And of course my wimpy blue clay can hold about 800 lbs psf.  So my gravel footers that I was going to use for my fabricated foundation walls will most likely be but a distant memory by time we get done.  For now we have to do a soil test / report and then we’ll work with the foundation company and possibly a structural engineer to determine a proper footer.  I suspect, and remember I’m a total lay person in this regard, but I suspect we’ll end up with concrete footings on the order of 5′ wide.  Which of course is an unplanned purchase.  But what can I do?  Not much but manage the situation and try to stay positive.  I can’t fret over that which I have no control.

In the 90 degree heat the wife wanted to join me and bring the boys out to the land when I met the excavator.  We got to see the hole and clay situation first hand.  We saw how you could push a metal rod only about 2 inches into the regular clay and about 8 inches into the blue clay. 

Picture of the hole today.  You can see the blue clay at the bottom corner.  The orange lines are where the footers will go.  The ledged walls will soon be excavated out at an angle for safety and stability.

We also learned that for safety sake the excavator has to dig out our foundation hole at a 45 degree angle to avoid cave ins and to keep things stable.  Another unplanned expense.

My quick drawing of our foundation hole cross section. Normally you can just dig straight up with a shelf ledge halfway up. In our case we'll dig at a 45 to prevent cave in.

 We’ll find out more tomorrow to see what the effect is on schedule.  At this point I have to assume the foundation will be delayed.  They were supposed to start building it tomorrow, but we’ll see how long that delay will be.  I actually, knock on wood, don’t think it’ll be that long of a delay.

As always leave it to a toddler to keep life in perspective.  In the midst of a bummer of a day my wife relayed a story that made me chuckle.  She asked him what he wanted to be for Halloween.

“Do you want to be a fireman?”

“No.”

“Do you want to be a dragon?”

“No.”

“Do you want to be a tomato plant?”

“Sure.”

I think I laughed hard enough I cried.

So as long as little kids around the world want to be tomato plants, or god knows what else, for Halloween, I’m pretty sure us adults can survive life’s little setbacks and roadblocks. 

In the grand scheme of things it’s only blue clay.  We’ll figure it out.  If not, I’ll be the guy just around the bend on the roadside with the “Blue Clay For Sale” cardboard sign…..right next to the kid dressed up as a tomato plant.

Blue Clay For Sale

We’ve Got A Hole

Well, we sort of have a hole.  Or at least the beginning of a hole.  And it’s really deep.  Careful. 

A picture of our "hole". From this vantage point I'm standing in the laundry room or staircase and looking through the kitchen into the dining room and screen porch. Check out the cool layers of soil. "Pass me the ketchup," is only 8 months away.

We had a lot of rain the last 24 hours, but that didn’t stop the excavator from starting to dig the foundation hole.  Our building site is basically flat, but there is some change in elevation, enough that I think the best we’ll do at my studio door is 12″ from grade.  I may have mentioned we were shooting for the regulation minimum of 6″.  Turns out the opposite end of the house is pretty high and we do have to slope away from the house to keep water away, so we’ll be digging like crazy at one end and a little high on the other.  That’s okay, it happens.  And I can ramp up to my studio when the drive and landscaping go in.  I’ll survive. Our land used to part of an old century farm so it’s kind of neat to see old fence rows grown up (the east preservation area).  There are a lot of interesting plants too, and not all are native as their seeds blew in over the years from surrounding communities and gardens.  I think I tagged at least three blossoming trees that really aren’t from Ohio.  I didn’t look too closely at the layers of soil but will do so tomorrow.  I think we can see some nice farm / pasture quality top soil in the striations revealed in the foundation dig.  Maybe I’m making that up but it sounds good to me. 

In case you were wondering, yes, an excavator will fit in my studio based on what I saw today.

 I adjusted my ProjectCam now that I know where the house is.  It’s taken 200 photos so far (of about 2,600 per SD card) and about 73% battery life left.

As the sun set over the job site I could hear a deer snorting at me from the other side of the west preservation area.  I like to think she (or he) isn’t too mad at me for disturbing the peace and taking some of her space for my family home.  I’ll propose a deal, I may have created a big hole now but this time next year, maybe a bag of clover seed will accidentally fall out of the back of the jeep and a certain deer will have a little patch of clover all to herself.  Maybe then we can be friends again.