Saturday, December 22, 2012

Stopping for Christmas

It looks as though we're halted for the next few days, and winter may have finally caught up with us.
The blocks on the house are done, but the garage won't be finished until after Christmas now. We've got some snow on the ground, which is probably a good thing as it's going to be turning colder this week and we haven't finished back-filling around the garage. The snow will act as an insulator and limit the depth of the frost.
The plumbers got started on the under-slab pipe on Friday, and will finish that up fairly quickly. Then we can get some stone thrown in to the basement, and start the framing before the new year.
In the meantime, Sharon and I have some pacing to do.
When we designed the house, we paid a great deal of attention to room size and traffic flow. For the past two years, we've found ourselves walking in to people's houses and saying "how big is this room? Is it big enough, or too big?" Then applying that knowledge to the rooms we've planned. As architect Sarah Susanka has noted in her excellent books, everyone is afraid of building a house that's too small, which is how North America has ended up building so many houses that are too big.
We've spent the past dozen years living in a house that feels too small for five people, bumping in to furniture and limiting the number of guests we have over. We didn't want too small. But we also know that we won't always be five, and bigger is costlier to build and to run. And we've all been in homes that are too big and feel cavernous. In my line of work, I go into cottages like that regularly. Too big isn't good either.
So we designed what we thought would be the right size of house. Then we dug the hole for the basement and every tradesman who came and looked at it said 'wow, big house.' And we started to have second thoughts.
Then we poured the footings and built the foundation walls. Now we can walk around in the basement and we're saying 'oh. Is this big enough? Will the furniture fit where we thought it would? How does traffic flow in this room?'
On paper, I know it works. We've even used scale models of furniture to map it out. You can see some of them on the table in this photo taken during one of our friendly planning discussions last year. Heck, one day last year, when I was obsessing over rooflines, I built a 3-D model out of drywall scraps. Then, just for fun, I put scale pieces of furniture in it. We know that our rooms are the right size.

But dammit, it doesn't look big enough now that the stubs of walls are in place!
There's nothing we can do about that now, but we do need to work out a few things regarding furniture placement and -- more criticaly -- window and wood stove placement. So, sometime between now and Boxing Day, Sharon and I will go over to the site and stomp some lines in the snow to make sure everything will go the way we think it will.
Hey, if I can find a few scraps of drywall, maybe I'll make some full-sized models and take them along too.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Odd skills

One of the fascinating things about building a home is the range of skills required, and the diversity of the people who have those skills.
We've all seen and admired the talent of a good backhoe operator. Scott, who has been doing our excavation work, is truly a master at his craft. It's quite remarkable to see him sitting in the cab of a machine the size of our house, controlling a bucket that's the size of my car, and being able -- from forty feet away -- to scoop two inches of dirt from the bottom of a hole.
But I knew we'd need someone like Scott on the job. And someone who can lay block with precision. And someone who can tell at a glance whether a post is out of plumb.
I didn't know we'd need someone who's talented at unloading a truck, though. But this morning, that's what we got. Simcoe Block delivered the latest load of blocks, and I caught the tail end of the unloading. I watched their driver use a boom to hoist skids of cement blocks -- not strapped in place skids, mind you, but skids of loose-piled blocks -- and place them down in the bottom of the hole.
Some of them needed to go beyond the reach of the boom, but that wasn't a problem: our driver just started them swinging back and forth like a 5,000 pound pendulum, and when the skid reached the degree of swing he needed, he just dropped it down in place.
It was a small thing, I suppose, and just one of many deliveries he would have made that day. But it's just one more thing that made me say "huh. Who knew that was a skill one needed to have?"

Backfilling went well today. We can now see the grade that we'll be living with, and the driveway is roughed in sufficiently for trucks to back right up to the garage. Blocklayers back on site tomorrow (thursday) to build the rest of the above-grade walls. They're planing to push through if the weather holds, and aim to be done by Sunday.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Is it too late to change the roofline?

The problem with designing a house is that you keep on designing it, even after the blueprints are printed and construction has begun.
Designing your own home is fun. Waking up in the middle of the night, sweating about details that can't be changed and wondering if we got this or that right is not.
This morning, at 5 a.m., it was thoughts of how the walkout elevation is going to work, and whether the roofline is going to look too high from a particular viewpoint. I've got a much better idea about how to do it -- how we should have done it, perhaps -- and I found myself wondering why we didn't do it that way. And then I realized the reason we didn't is because we didn't know this problem would exist until we got shovels in the ground. We needed to clear the site to see the driveway slope. We needed to dig the footings before we knew exactly how low they had to go to hit undisturbed soil. We needed to X before we could Y, and by the time you do X it's too late to change Z.
The reality of a custom design on a complex piece of property is that there are many things decided on the fly. You can't possibly anticipate everything, particularly when everything is so interconnected. Changing the roofline would mean changing the screen porch, which would mean changing the windows, which would mean rethinking the furniture placement, which would probably create a problem that could only be resolved by changing the roofline again.
Maybe that's why people who build their own home often go on to build another: they're hoping that they will get it perfect.

Weather forecast is calling for freezing rain this morning, changing to rain this afternoon and overnight. Mild for the next couple of days, then turning colder again, with snow by the end of the week. If our excavator can get started on Monday (which depends on the amount of freezing rain we get), we should be able to get our cement work done before the cold hits again. Block layers won't be working on Monday, to allow the excavator to get in there and backfill.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Slow but (nearly) steady

Well the promise that "the blocklayers will be right behind the footings" turned out to be a little more optimistic than I would have liked. In fact, for nearly a week if you'd asked me who was laying our foundation, I would have said "nobody." Bad weather, bad planning, or just plain malfeasance... whatever it was, the block layers didn't get started until nearly a week after they were supposed to, all the while the temperature was giving me concern. But that's all behind us now, I hope, and we're nearly done the frost walls.

There's a freakish amount of fill to be added now -- because of the way the grade worked out, we either had to bring the basement slab up nearly three feet above grade level, or we had to face having a really steep driveway. We decided that we would regret a bad driveway more than we would regret a big bill for fill -- the pain of the latter is only felt a few times, but the pain of the former is felt every time it snows or freezes. 

So on Monday, weather permitting, the dump trucks arrive and start pouring sand into this lovely big hole. Once that's done, the blocklayers can finish their work and the framers can start.

If we're really, really lucky we may just have a main floor in place by Christmas. But I'm not counting on it. 

The weather has been kind to us so far, but we're pushing our luck for sure. It's starting to look like a real house, though, and that's kinda exciting.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Our first approval

Everyone likes approval. We crave it, we thrive on it, we spend our lives chasing it.
And today, we built on it.
The town's building inspector approved our footings. And so we celebrated by hiring a very expensive truck to pump cement in to the forms.
The weather's been cooperating so far, but it's going to get cold tonight. I'm watching the long range forecast obsessively, but it looks like we'll be able to get away with it. We're putting some sand into the pit tomorrow, pouring a bit more cement into the garage forms, and on Thursday it's on to the block work.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Oh yeah -- we started. Forgot to mention it

It's been a whirlwind. We had a design, then we got prices on what we thought was our final design. Then we redesigned our final design because it was tens of thousands over budget. Then we... well, let's just put all that behind us, shall we?

What matters is that we've broken ground. Not only have we broken it, we've made a big pile of it where there was no pile at all. Our excavation contractor dug the hole in just one day, and I stopped calling it 'the lot'  and started calling it 'the site.'

That was Thursday. On Friday we had the surveyors out to pin the footings, and this morning our masons showed up to form the footings. Footing inspection is at 10 a.m. tomorrow morning, after which we can pour cement and then start laying blocks.

We're going with a block foundation, which was a bit of a surprise to me. I'd just assumed we would either pour cement or use ICF, most likely the former as ICF is supposedly so much more expensive. But when we priced it out, we found they were roughly the same price, by the time you factor everything in. Then we got a price on block, which turns out to be roughly 35% cheaper. Apparently it's a supply and demand thing -- there are only so many people with forms, but there are all kinds of block layers out there and pricing is aggressive.

Of course, when you do anything with concrete in December you do it with one eye on the weather. We've got some good weather today and tomorrow (highs of 9 or 10 and lows above zero), but it's going to cool off after that. Still, with lows of -1 to -5 for the rest of the week, it's still above normal and shouldn't cause too much problem. (Or so say the masons). To be safe, though, we're trying to cover everything up with earth as soon as we can, to keep the frost from getting under the footings or the slab. That means making sure anything that needs to be buried near a foundation wall  -- phone, hydro, water, etc., along with foundation drain tile -- gets buried while the hole is open.

There are still lots of decisions to be made, of course. That part won't stop for months yet. But it's more exciting than frightening now. Last week, as we were readying to dig, I felt like I was sitting in the car on the roller coaster, looking up at the steep climb ahead of me and thinking this was probably a bad idea. Now the ride is underway and it's too late to do anything but hang on. And occasionally scream like a little girl.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tweaking the design

We got the first round of quarter plan drawings last night. I was surprised at how many changes Phil had made from our initial sketches -- some good, others not so much.
Sharon and I spent an hour (after getting back from the theatre, so a tired hour) going through and making notes, then sent it back.
Somehow we're back to the debate about whether to have a high cathedral ceiling over the living room, a decision I thought we had made ages ago. Funny how that goes -- just when you think you've won, you find out you haven't!
Tree-cutting is going well. Only a couple of big ones to bring down, a few mediums, and lots of little baby trees to kill. Of course it isn't the bringing them down that takes the time, it's limbing, dragging and stacking. Isaiah was out helping me the other evening, and I'll get some more labour out of him this weekend. It makes a big difference, and almost makes it worth all the cereal we have to buy to keep him fed.
We had a couple of burns over the winter (well, one in the winter and one that was really too far into a rather dry spring -- a near disaster that I'm not in a hurry to repeat!). The rest of the branches are being stacked well off to the sides of the property with the idea that we'll bring in a chipper when the house is built and convert them all into lots of lovely mulch for gardens. Sawlogs are also being stacked for future firewood-making days. Thank goodness for a good Stihl.
Chainsaws, by the way, are one of those tools where it really pays to buy the best you can. I bought a $200 Homelight chainsaw from Home Depot, and when it kacked out even a staff member at HD asked me why I was buying such a crappy saw. I now have a $650 Stihl, which I love using. Starts, runs, cuts, shuts off, all when it's supposed to.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Decisions at last!

So many options, so many possibilities, it's been more than a bit overwhelming. But we've made some key decisions in the past couple of months, and we're moving forward.
Like 95 per cent of home builders in North America, we're going with standard stick framing. It's cheap, it's proven, it's efficient. Tempting as it was to go all funky with bio sips or rammed earth, this is just too big an investment to play with. I'll build a straw bunkie or a rammed earth shed sometime, maybe a hand-hewn log cottage, but the house will be 2x6 on 16 inch centres.
We've signed on with Rolston Home Building Centre in Huntsville. Their lead designer is an engineer with tons of experience, and he really enjoys helping first home buyers through the process. And he lives four doors down from our new home, so he's really familiar with the property. We handed over a deposit last week, and are hoping to have quarter drawings from him within a week or so.
Once we've got that done, we go back and forth with him to finalize the design, file the site plan with the town, and await blueprints. With blueprints we can then get final bids from contractors and get our building permit (after we pay gajillions of dollars for it! Honestly, the fees are an unbelievable cash grab. Permits and development fees will cost more than the well and septic!)
The plan is to start building around the end of September and hopefully get it closed in before winter sets in. I'm acting as general contractor and hiring our framing contractor to also be the siteman and coordinate the trades. Once it's closed in, I'll take some time off work (been banking a lot of holidays and time in lieu!) to do a lot of the interior work -- flooring, trim, baths, closets, kitchen, fireplace surround, painting, etc. I ain't doin' drywall, though -- you need to know your limits.
In the meantime we've been prepping our current house for sale (the upstairs bathroom is now unrecognizeable.... in a good way). I'm taking a week off next week, and will spend much of that time either working on this house or cutting trees and prepping the site on Cedar Lane. Will a change be as good as a rest? Ask me this time next week.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


So last Friday I got a chance to tour the Niagara EcoHome with Ian Weir. Ian is the president of NatureBuilt, a company which makes Structural Insulated Panels using straw as an insulating material.
The technology is pretty cool: rather than building a straw wall and then plastering it when it's upright, you pour the plaster into a horizontal mold, then pack the bales in place, then smush more plaster on top. Once it's dry, you stand the panel upright, and hey presto, a section of wall. Panels can be as big as 8 x 10, and they're 16" thick. With an inch of plaster on either side, and a wooden frame, they're fully structural.
Like all SIPs, one of the advantages is that they're built in a controlled environment and then brought to the site en masse, so when you start building the house goes up very quickly -- just a few days and you're ready to put the roof on.
Unlike many green technologies, these walls also claim to be cheap -- comparable to stick frame but achieving R35+ with no thermal bridging and considerable thermal mass.
I'd looked into them a few months ago, and was intrigued but really didn't feel like driving to Welland to see the model home. But I had to go to Vaughan on Friday, which was halfway there, so I figured I may as well take the opportunity to have a look.
I was quite impressed. The system has many of the pros and cons of straw bale builds -- among the positives, thick walls make for impressive sound barriers; plaster tends to give a room a nice acoustic warmth; and air quality feels good. Thick walls can also make a house feel dark, particularly if the windows are undersized. In this home they've used good-sized windows, and expanded the flow of light by shaping the walls away from the windows. Unfortunately, the rounding gives it a bit of a Hobbit house effect, something we've disliked in other straw bale homes we've seen. Ian assured me that they can achieve a squared off look, or do an angled cut on the sides of the windows.
Because the panels aren't able to contain windows, window and door sections are framed conventionally. This is one of the potential downsides of this system, it seems to me: you're going back and forth between different wall types, between straw bales and conventional framing. The problem with that -- and here I'm wading into territory where I'm a bit murky -- is moisture. Straw bale walls, as I understand it, are meant to be vapour permeable (some call them breathable, but that seems to imply they're porous. It's not that air passes through them, but moisture can, very slowly.) That's why there's no vapour barrier, just an inch of plaster on either side. A conventional wall, though, has a vapour barrier. So you now have a six foot section of wall with no vapour barrier and straw insulation, adjacent to a few feet of wall with vapour barrier and window. So what happens to the moisture? Seems like there's the potential for problems there.
There are also issues with the look of the wall where SIP meets conventional framing. There's going to be a seam visible, which means you either have to plaster over both SIP and conventional wall (adding another step that requires skilled labour) or find some other way to bridge the gap. Ian said you can actually drywall over the entire interior wall, but I wonder if that doesn't work against the whole breathability issue. Then again, it would add more thermal mass to the interior, at a fairly low cost (you're bringing in a drywaller anyway to do all the interior walls.)
Exterior of the house. The walls have been treated with a skin of stucco. Note that they've decided to use the transition from SIP to conventional wall sections as a design feature, emphasizing the transitions with slightly different wall thicknesses.

Interior. The window ledges are deep but not outrageous. The rounded effect of the walls is something I'd prefer to avoid. This was one of the first houses built with this system, even though it's just opening as a model home now (delays in other aspects of the build, I believe). Ian said they've learned a lot about interior finishing since this one.
There are still a few questions to answer, but it does seem interesting.
There's much more information at the Naturebuilt site. CBC also did a piece on the overall project -- ignore some of the "gee whiz" tone of the reporter!

Update: Ian responded to some of my questions. See his response in the comments section, below.

Friday, April 27, 2012


Structral Insulated Panels, or SIPs are touted as a great green alternative. They're thick, they're built in a factory so there's superb quality control, and they let you put the walls up quickly. There's very little thermal bridging, and they use far less wood than conventional framing. So what's even greener? SIPs with straw as insulation, or bioSIPs.
It's an intriguing idea. I'm going to tour the EcoHome in Niagara next week, to see if it's for us.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Yeah, it's been pretty quiet around here.

Coupla reasons for that. I've been busy working, and we're not building yet. But the bigger reason is that I've run into an unexpected reality: I'm not sure I want to share everything about building our house on a public blog.
There's a lot of personal stuff that goes into planning a build -- things like finances, and family squabbles, and personal assessments of builders ("did you count your fingers after shaking that guy's hand?"). So I've opted for silence.
But now I'm rethinking the blog, and thinking about using it as a place to muse on building in Muskoka, rather than on my building in Muskoka.
See, in the past year I've had an awful lot of interesting conversations with people who want to talk about building. Architects and builders, of course, but also lawyers and photographers and writers -- people who are just interested in what's being done and what can be done.
I was toying with the idea of having a Beer n' Building party, but I figured that wouldn't be fair to the people who actually know stuff -- we'd all be glomming on to the builders and architects to pick their brains. A bit like having a What's Your Ailment party and inviting doctors and sick people to attend.
But a virtual party, on the other hand....
A chance to chat about cool projects, interesting building ideas, and maybe some disasters. (Have you seen the Muskoka airport terminal? Did nobody tell them that the window could be centred?)
So I'll start the conversation, but feel free to chime in.
Bring your own beer, though.