This is a description of the project I'm currently (June 2006) working on for helping my sister's family build a house. It started when she was complaining about the house she's living in now (It's tiny, over 100 years old, and the floors and roof and heat-tightness are very much showing their age) and I said "I'll build you a house - it'll be good practice for me." A couple of days later she called back asking "Would you really?" and we went on from there. I and others are supplying most of the money for materials with the understanding that there will be a mortgage after there is a certificate of occupancy and we will be reimbursed. I'm donating interest on the loan and my time to the project. I'm living in the old house, which has broadband internet, with my sisiter and her husband and their 14 year old son and 5 year old daughter and two dogs and two cats. A couple of years ago, when this started, I drew this house: (Click on images for larger versions)

Downstairs Upstairs

The notion to this house is that the kitchen is a half story above the living room. We determined that this house would be too expensive, and since new drawings needed to be made and anything I drew would need to be evaluated, possibly modified, and approved by an architectual engineer, they desided to hire an architect to do the new drawings. In the meantime, I took a class at the now-closed Rastra factory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as that's the material that we're using for the exterior walls. They came to a difference of opinion with the first architect, expecially regarding the scheduling of his time (primarily to other projects) and then they hired Susan Feiszli of Valley Design in Cortland. She made the following drawings; her husband did the engineering, and a permit to build was issued last July.

Downstairs Upstairs Basement

The Rastra hadn't been ordered yet, and there was an eleven week lead time, so we agreed to put off construction until this spring. The septic and drain field for the new house were put in last fall (and connected to the old house, which ended the leaking of the old septic into the yard) and the foundation hole was dug around May 10. I didn't get here until about May 21 owing to some drama that happened at home, but Steve took some photos I put here. And, this is how it was when I arrived: Rastra Blocks in the Front Yard, May 21 Tile Tec's Forklift in the Front Yard, May 21

The Foundation hole view from the drain ditch (NorthWest) A Closer View of the Foundation Hole from NorthWest The Foundation hole view from the West NorthWest

When I first got here, it rained a lot, and I moved in and visited some and we didn't get much done. Then we did some work surveying and pounding in the stakes and fastening some thin plywood (yes, I know that this won't hold cement as it is now) to them. During the process we found that a local raccoon sometimes likes the chimney of the old house for his daytime sleeping place.

Raccoon Rastra Blocks

The Foundation hole view from the West NorthWest May 29 The Foundation hole view from the South SouthEast May 29

Then we dug a ditch to serve as a drain around the footer, and got some flexible pipe with holes in it (called "Tile" here) and put a cloth sock around it to keep bigger particles out and installed it in the ditch. Then we realized that the water flowing in to the hole is a bigger problem than we had hoped. It was causing cave-ins along the East edge, and silt was clogging the sock around the tile.

The Foundation hole view from the West NorthWest June 4 The Foundation hole view from the South SouthEast June 4

We got Chuck (Susan's husband, the architectual engineer) to come out and look at things, and he told us to deepen our ditch, and to remove the dirt from shoveling out the ditch from the hole and recommended geotextile fabric for lining the ditch to keep silt out. So, the form work was optimistically timed. Since then we've rented a mini-excavator and changed the path of the drain ditch, so that it no longer intersects the septic drainfield (why it did in the first place we don't understand - The poeple who dug the hole were the same people who installed that drainfield). We've shoveled the ditch deeper and have shoveled out cave-in mud from along the edges. The next big project is removal of all the mud from the hole. It looks like it's going to be buckets.

The Foundation hole view from the West NorthWest June 11

It was buckets. Here's a view at the end of the last day of bucketing, three days later.

The Foundation hole view from the West NorthWest, June 14

Then we thought we'd fill the inner part of the hole with the gravel, but after the buckets, we strongly wanted an alternative to shovels for getting it down there without destroying the forms. The local gravel people told us that cement people have trucks with "slingers" for placing gravel where you want it. But, when we called the cement people they wanted more for the same gravel than the gravel people, and twice that amount if it's delivered on a slinger truck, so we took a week building a 50 foot long trough.

The trough, before the liner was bolted in, June 22

Before we got the trough situated, we were visited (for the second time, but I didn't get photos the first time) by a swarm of honeybees. Some appear to have taken up residence in the top of the old house, but so far we and they have gotten along ok.

Honeybees in the tree by the house, June 23 Closeup of honeybees in the tree by the house, June 23

Here's a couple of photos Steve took of the trough after we got it in place.

The trough, viewed from the hole, June 25

The trough, a wide view, June 25

I'm trying to make a trough shaker since its slope isn't very steep.

Saturday, September 16, 2006. We got the footer poured this morning. Pictures will follow, along with an update of the work up to now. After almost four months of preparation, it's a very good feeling to see the concrete in there. He may say it to everyone, but man who did the pumping told me that it was the nicest footer preparation he had seen.

The Foundation hole view from the West NorthWest, September 16

Thursday, September 28, 2006. It was too rainy to use power tools this afternoon, so I took some pictures and the composite is here below. Since the 16th, we covered and watered the concrete for three days, tried to remove the footer forms from the gravel, gave up on that and just removed or pounded in the stakes on the inside of the basement footer, compacted the big gravel inside the basement footer, then added more and re-compacted until it's more or less level. Then I drew the layout for the rastra blocks and we started cutting them. As of now, all the straight parts in the basement are done. We tried beveling the edges of a couple of the vertical ones by hand and didn't like the results. I got stuff for making a beveling tool today. Hopefully it will work out better than the trough did.

The plan for the future is to get one layer of vertical and horizontal Rastra glued together with its rebar installed (including the ones we have to glue into holes drilled in the footer) around the perimeter of the basement and then pour the basement slab. Before the fiber reinforced concrete comes for the slab we need to put down, insulation - radon vapor barrier (we're looking at "Slab Shield" brand), a 6" grid 10 gauge steel reinforcing mesh, and then pex tubing for the floor heat. After the slab is in, the wall needs to be built up to 9 feet tall around the basement and 4 feet tall around the garage footer and the ledger beam around the perimeter of the top of the basement for supporting the ground floor attached (probably by all thread until the big "L" bolts are set in the wall concrete) and then concrete can be poured into the Rastra. I've been thinking it might be a good idea to coat the Rastra with Q-Bond or Foundation Coat on the outside and Structural-Skin on the inside (all fiber reinforced structural stuccos) before the pour to help prevent blow outs. We're only allowed (by a law based on straight wood frame walls) to back fill to 4 feet high before installing the framing for the ground floor. The garage needs to be filled with compacted big gravel before the garage floor can be poured. That floor has to be 4 feet above the footer so that the footer can be below frost depth.

Sometime, probably around the end of October, it's going to get too cold out nights for good concrete curing conditions, and we'll stop work until the spring.

The Foundation hole view from the West NorthWest, September 28

Sunday, October 1, 2006. Well, the amazing Rastra beveler has been working out ok (-knocking on wood). The first try was with the saw the other side up (motor lower than the blade), and that didn't work as more cement dust got into the mechanism. Even as it is now, it looks like regular disassembly and cleaning will be a necessity.

The Amazing Rastra Beveler, October 1

Monday, October 9, 2006. A few days ago on the sunny day after rain had knocked the bulk of the leaves down the night before, the beauty of the freshly fallen leaves inspired me to get out the good camera to take the next photo of the site. As happens so often with me, the action lagged the inspiration by a few days, so the leaves in this photo aren't so pretty as once they were. We've created Rastrahenge, standing up all the beveled form pieces in an approximation of their destinations. Hopefully, we'll get them glued in place before they succumb to the domino effect. What is going on now is drilling 11/16" diameter holes 8" into the footer concrete, then gluing Rastra in place, and then gluing rebar into the holes in the footer. The drilling is tedious and time consuming, but even so, it feels much more like actual construction than did the shoveling that occupied the bulk of the summer.

Rastrahenge, October 9

Monday, October 16, 2006. Here below is a picture of the progress so far on the basement walls. Then, we move to the next section of wall so that the foam glue has time to set up before the next attempt to chip off any excess. Also, it's best to have any discrepancies between the length of the wall and the length of a whole number of blocks to occur at the midpoint of the wall section, not at corners or arc ends. So, we're starting at all the end points simultaneously and working towards the middles.

Basement Wall Progress, October 16

Monday, October 23, 2006. We had hoped that the work on the first two curves would be complete by now, but over the weekend, we suffered a couple of equipment failures. First our 5/8" drill bit failed. We've been drilling 1/2", then 5/8", then 11/16." The brand of drill bit we bought as replacement and have found that works best is the Bosch "Blue Granite" type. The next day my dirll died. We bought as replacement (Steve saw the need to own another one anyways) the nicest switchably impact capable drill locally available on a Sunday. It cost about $160 and lasted for about 3 1/2 holes until it made the smell of magic smoke and quit. We returned it and Steve got online and ordered a Metabo brand drill with the overheat sensor, the same model as mine. I spoke with Metabo USA this morning, and quickly got good tech support by a knowledgable person. With his help, I found that my trouble was a wire from the back of one of the motor brushes that had come disconnected from the brush holder. I ordered new set of brush/holder assemblies (for about $6) and they'll be here in a few days. In the meantime we're cutting beveled edges in the Rastra for the kitchen curve.

Basement Wall Progress, October 23

Wednesday, November 1, 2006. I glued in the last piece around the perimeter of the basement this morning. The drill came in before the motor brushes (which still aren't here) and I learned from reading the manual that cement impact drilling should be done at the high speed setting on the gearbox. This has made for a hotter gearbox, but for much faster, easier drilling, as we had been using the low speed gears. Now to finish the drilling for the last part of the internal wall, and look to getting a blower/vacuum for the leaves. We've learned that in cold weather, the foam glue dispenses better if we keep the working can in an insulated lunch pail along with a couple of old soda bottle of hot water. We're using at least 3 times as much glue for the vertical pieces on the curve as we would for pieces that fit together squarely, and we're also getting a few bags of waste foam. Right now we're considering externally applying urethane foam insulation (like Earth Foam) in a Protected Membrane Roof type manner (in my mind, the "membrane" would be an inch or two of fiber reinforced concrete with a light weight aggregate and a waterproofing admixture) and spreading the scrap on the roof to be foamed under and used that way. Considering the 43 psi compressive strength of Earth Foam's roof product, we could put a layer of pea gravel and a garden up there so long as the roof's structural supports could handle the load.

Basement Perimeter Complete, November 1

Monday, November 6, 2006. We finished last of the drilling and bottom layer of Rastra in the basement, and over the weekend we got a leaf blower/vacuum from Sears and vacuumed the leaves out of the basement area and have put some time into removing excess foam glue. We also found a problem which is that some of the glue had shrank after it finished expanding. The best explanation I can think of so far is that, using the pre-warmed glue on a cold day had left it still warm after it was finished expanding, and then it cooled and shrank. I checked on using spray urethane foam under the basement, and it's quite doable. It has sufficient compressive strength, would conform to our less than perfcetly flat gravel, and would form it's own vapor barrier. However, the cheapest price I've been able to find for spray urethane foam insulation ( RHH foam system 50) is still a little more money per board foot than the styrofoam boards, so I'm not sure which way we'll be going from here.

Basement Vacuumed, November 6

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006. We've learned a little bit more about insulation. The Canadian government did a study whose results can be found at which suggests that 2" foam insulation works much better than reflective sorts of insulation like Slab Shield, so we're using that. Also, after some kind help and job quoting from EarthFoam and others, we've learned that sprayed urethane foam, while it does a better job than styrofoam boards, also costs about twice as mutch for the material and, unless you buy the RHH foam kits, costs labor in addition to the material. So, we'll be putting styrofoam boards under the basement floor. The pex tubing we ended up buying is ThermaPex oxygen barrier pex made by LK Pex in Sweden and distributed by Mr. Pex in the USA. This tubing is white. The only reason we bought it instead of the orange oxygen barrier tubing made & distributed by the same people was that we got a good deal on the freight charges. The project looks about the same now as it did a week ago. I hope to put up photos of before, during, and after the basement pour.

Sunday, December 3, 2006. Here's some photos of the basement with the new floor as it appeared on November 30th. I'll make a separate page for pictures taken during the pour. The pour went well with the exception that the contractors didn't pull up the reinforcing mesh/pex off the insulation at the bottom of the slab. As you'll see from the pour pictures, they were standing on that mesh, wading in the concrete during the pour, which would have made pulling up the mesh a futile waste of time. The equivalent of show shoes for use with wet concrete exist and would have allowed them to possibly work without standing on the mesh, but I've got a feeling they would have found it to be a real hassle and they'd have wanted to charge more than the $1/sq. ft. that they bid for the pour. One nice product they did suggest and install for us during the pour were zip strips. They cost us about $0.25 per lineal foot, purchased locally at the last minute and are, in my opinion, the way to go for creating control joints in residential pads having hydronic tubing. They pushed the strips in while the concrete was wet, and the flat tops of the strips kept them at the top of the pad. Then, just before operating the power trowel, they pulled all the flat tops off, and the trowel smoothed the concrete where it was left. So, the strips give the effect of a cut, but with the surface being smooth and no worries about accidentally cutting tubing. We saw the first cracks form at the strips the next day. They're hairline (unlike the dust catching control joint cuts I've seen in the past), running in straight lines along the strips, and we're happy with them.

The new cement floor, November 30 The new
cment floor from the other side, November 30

Here's a photo taken December 15th, the day I left. Since then my sister has applied a lot more of the foundation coat. Steve got her a stucco mud mixer for an electric drill which greatly sped up the coating application process for her.

The house, December 15

On to part (year) two

Here's a link back.