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)
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.
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:
A note on the photos: All so far, and likely most all in the future were taken with my Pentax
Optio S4 WR digital camera. The screen in the back stopped working last summer after I had it in my
pocket while working in an engine room that had an air temperature of 130 degrees at the time. So, I
can no longer make any but the most rudimentary adjustments to the settings. I have the Rollei and the
digital back here, but it's wanting to work tethered right now, and after a day of shoveling mud, the
little water resistant camera seems very much like the way to go. I've performed minimal corrections
and sticthed together a few panoramic views, but the exposures are all different (on auto). I'm not
trying to create art here, just give an idea of what's going on.
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.
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.
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.
It was buckets. Here's a view at the end of the last day of bucketing, three days later.
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.
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.
Here's a couple of photos Steve took of the trough after we got it in place.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Monday, October 16, 2006. Here below is a picture of the progress so far on the basement walls.
The steps to adding
a vertical Rastra block are approximately as follows: 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.
- Put the next block in place as closely as possible while still
being able to tip it to exactly vertically level.
- Mark for the next hole for the rebar in the footer past the
- Move the block back out of the way and drill & ream the hole.
- Reach in and break off any excess glue foam
that is sticking into the cavity on the inside of the joint of the last block.
- Clean up any glue puddled around the
last rebar glued into the footer.
- Push the six pieces of horizontal rebar in so that they're flush with the unglued side
of the last block (2 person job).
- Wire a piece of angle rebar to the glued in rebar.
- Cover the hole in the footer and mist
(with water) the edges of the last and next Rastra blocks about to be glued together and also the footer that will be under
the new block.
- Remove the covering over the hole and put the new block into place again.
- Shim the new block so it's
level from side to side and move it so that its distance is perfect - so it's as close to the existing block as can be but can
still be tipped to level, and so that it conforms to the curve and isn't offset sideways from the last block.
- Foam glue
under the bottom of each side by tipping the block a little to one side and then the other.
- Make sure the shim is sitll
correct, then climb the ladder, tip it to level the other way and hammer in a staple to the previous block to hold it in that
position (easier & quicker with 2 people).
- Foam the glue into the vertical crack on each side.
- Blow out the new hole in
the footer with compressed air.
- Put some construction adhesive into the hole.
- Pound in the next piece of rebar outside
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.
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
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.
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 www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/odpub/pdf/63728.pdf
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.
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.
On to part (year) two
Here's a link back.