a timber frame raising of one's own

This upcoming Saturday, May 2nd, Maxine and I will raise our own timber frame. It's a bit of a strange thing, but now I'm getting quite excited, having written that sentence. Years in planning, design and permitting, and now busily excavating, pouring concrete and laying block. Poof it's here. As my old friend Peter once said, "Jonathan, after years and years of hard work, you're an overnight success." I feel the same about this home I'm building, this timber frame structure about to go up.

Come if you can and you're near. Here's what I sent to a friend: "
Thanks for thinking about coming next Saturday. As timber frame raisings go, this one is modest. The home isn't large, and it is a hybrid between timber framing and a modified platform construction. We'll use a crane, and will probably start raising about 9:30. We'll stop for lunch somewhere around noon, and finish up soon thereafter. If you're around the lunch time, plan on soup and local breads from Marco's. There will be plenty.
Traditionally at the end of a raising we pin a bough to the gable and toast. Reckon this will happen, and I do believe we'll drink a beer. I'm ready to savor the moment a tad."

To be ready it will be quite a week: prepping the masonry slab, including laying out the radiant tubing today and Tuesday, backfilling the foundation and rough grading Wednesday and Thursday, pouring the slabs on Friday, and then delivering the timbers, pre-assembling Friday afternoon through Saturday, when we raise. Even this last Sund
ay found Maxine and I finishing parging the basement wall. Lordy there is SOMETHING about a woman in khakis wielding a trowel.

Of course, we might not have been so far behind if I had not been at a Timber Frame Business Council event in South Carolina last week, where, among other things, I rode bikes with Tedd and Christine Benson, of Bensonwood Homes, and Jeff Arvin, of the Cascade Joinery, to raise money for the local Meals on Wheels group. They deliver 1500 meals in Greenville county every day, to people who may or may not get a four square, and even more likely won't get a visitor. Our combined 240 miles didn't seem so far after all.



Next up, having now filled the cores of our foundation blocks with concrete, is to prep for the slab in the basement, build the first floor deck and backfill/rough grade the site, to be ready for our timber frame raising on Saturday, 2 May, just 11 days away. On this you’ll hear more, for sure, or you can click here for all the information, and for YOUR invitation, as you would be welcome. We’ll have good soup and better beer, as I’m told by our friend Nick Harville that Rogue Breweries is supplying a keg.

Prepping the dirt for a good slab pour is all about preparing what’s underneath: soil raked flat, stone spread to about 4” deep and then compacted with a plate tamper. We also need to place all the lower level drainage pipes, which means we need to be very sure of where every toilet, floor drain, and sewer pipe are located, because you can’t change any of this after the floor is poured, as you can imagine. The 6 mm polyethylene vapor barrier, between two inches (in the center) and upwards of 4” at the perimeter of extruded polystyrene insulation under a wire mesh that has our cross-linked polyethylene tubing for radiant heating of said concrete floor.

Only THEN can my mason friend, Ken Froeberg, show up with his cadre, steel trowels flashing. Ken and his wife Susan own Water Brothers Construction and if you’re a concrete-as-art-medium freak like me, you need to check out their work. In the struggle to find the right material for counters, for finished floors, even for certain furniture, particularly outside, concrete should be a contender.

At NEW you’ll almost always see a combination of the hard (and typically natural) sharing counter duty with the warmth of wood “where elbows land” as I like to say. Our favorite hard is slate, which is mined from glacier-pressed quarries in New York and Vermont. Peter, a 4th generation quarrier at Sheldon Slate, will give you a tour; call ahead. Good embodied energy, gorgeous and, unlike the too typical Chinese or Brazilian slates, this is impermeable and therefore about impossible to stain.

That said, we've done some fun concrete counters, and are considering more at the Vermont Street Project. Ken and Susan’s work with finish concrete, even including integral sinks, rocks. Or to borrow a Jake phrase, it’s overgood.

Overgood. This might need an explanation: Jake River is all about motors. When I’m not sure about the controls for the latest forklift that shows up, I’ll turn to him, and often, he’ll just know. I don’t know how, but he does. Ask somebody else: lot’s of people have seen this. Alex from the yard team gave him an honorary certificate of training, for gosh sakes. So when he suddenly began talking about something that is great, powerful, way out in front of the rest, that was his designation. Overgood. You know, like overdrive, as in a motor going all out.

He has a thumb-meter assigned to overgood. Bad is thumbs down (you knew this), medium is the thumb horizontally, pointed inboard, good is thumbs up of course. Overgood is the stretch, further rotating the thumb past straight up to the outboard horizontal position, so that it takes some effort, a bit of a stretch, gotta work it. Here’s Jake giving the overgood to ice cream at the base of Multnomah Falls, in the Columbia River Gorge. You get the idea. Makes you want some, yes?


a brutal and tasty bush

Well everyday now I say to myself, by golly we're really in it now. It's that old feeling I'd get down inside when the raft would stop responding very much to my oar as we entered the next set of rapids on, say, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and I knew that I had to keep cool, make fast decisions, and pull like crazy. There is no hitting that eddy now.

Many decisions are the mundane, like the brand and application method of the below grade waterproofing. (A straight up parge coat of 3 parts sand to one part cement, mixed real loose and slather on somewhat smoothly, followed by a resin-style waterproofer, followed by a dimple
membrane to let moisture drop down to the footer drains. With this, we can use the clay-soil from the site as backfill without worrying about leaks on the foundation wall.)

Or try this: we have extra polyisocyanurate insulation inserts that came out of the Faswall blocks, because the city made us due a bunch of bond beams that precluded their use. Throw them out? Bad eco form and waste of money already spent. Send them back? Their unique size of 7"x8"x2" was special for us, so I doubt that's an option. What about lining the inside of the block on top of the footer, as an additional thermal block against perimeter loss from the radiant slab. Bingo, IF... this insulation is rated under slab. Each detail, each decision is its own 1-4 hour detour.

Then there comes any of the monsters, and today I visited our two window finalists, Kolbe and Jeldwen, to try to wrap up not only the manufacturer, but... the cladding type and color,(aluminum, red sashes, dark bronze or black frames?), wood species,(FSC certified Douglas-fir) hardware color,(dark metal-ish), stile widths, (narrow, it's about the view) glass types, (366 double-coated low-emissivity rating on the south and west, 270 low-e on the north and east) screen types, (upgraded for clearer mesh in higher-use areas), push vs. roto awning openers, (wow the new push out awnings and casements rock,) and more. This level of fenestration detail comes long AFTER you figure out where the darn things even go on the house.

But for relaxation, then, there's blackberry bush fighting, as we try to wrestle control of our own wetlands backyard. This is NOT a sport for the sissy or weak of spirit. The Himalayan blackberry has officially been labeled an enemy of the state, here, in spite of offering up some of the most scumptous and plentiful berries I've ever had. In the early fall you simply walk down any street or into any field and pick all you want for jams, syrups and fresh eating. But like so much of the if-it's-too-good-to-be-true-it-might-not-be world, this plant chokes out everything, and grows an impenetrable and nasty crush of lethal mesh. Even field mice won't nest there.

Legions of volunteers take their Saturday and go to hand pulling the stuff from parks, fields, green spots all over town. it's a win-able fight, but not without some scratches.


Pour the Core, A Solid Foundation

I mentioned Faswall block in an earlier post. made in Philomath, about an hour south of Portland. It's a post World War II invention-of-necessity from Austria, when there was not enough concrete to go around, and wood chips were neutralized of sugars, etc. and used as the filler, along with a binder, like cement, for structural blocks.
With an insulation insert tests suggest an r-20 or so for the blocks, and unlike typical ICF's (insulated concrete forms,) that are made of expanded polystyrene, these can be parged with stucco-type products and called good.
The blue "Smurf tubes" you see are electrical conduit as Jason and Cameron dry stack the block prior to pouring the cores full of concrete. The re-bar is to further strengthen the shear strength, in the event of a catastrophic siesmic event.

And then begins the pour. In Portland everyone seems to be addicted to concrete pumping trucks, rather than the wheel barrows and buckets of my youth. Kinda like 'em, really.
As we continue to fill the cores of the uphill (retaining) wall of the detached studio, this photograph shows the main house in the background, with an extraordinary amount of bracing and additional wall support. We used the plywood that is destined for the main floor decking to help us hold together the tiers of blocks.

In spite of the support, we did have two almost wall failures. Cameron drills a 4" hole through a ruptured support plank to "drain" the concrete therein, allowing us to push the wall back into place and re-fill. We were well-staffed, so no time was lost as a team stayed back on this and another repair while the pumper moved on. The decision was made to only fill half the wall today, or about 6 of the 13 courses, rather than a complete fill. "The better part of valor" as my New Orleans-bred mother would say, and we'll live, along with some better support on the upper tiers, to pour again. (Tuesday)

Here's a response I sent to Paul Wood, the block manufacturer, and a classic New Hamsha- type fellow: (Paul had emailed YET AGAIN last night wishing us well on our pour and again expressing concern that we would have blowout and wicked wall failures if we were to try to fill the entire thing in one day.)

paul, i have a few questions in regards to your concerns:
1) do you know how to pray?
1a) if you don't know how to pray, do you know a good bookie?
2) if we succeed, do we get written up in your hall of fame?
3) if we succeed, do you promise NOT to tell anyone what my cell phone number is, or my home address? you know how i hate so much attention.
4) if we DON'T succeed, do you think there is any chance in hell that we'll admit it to you?

Dang, I bet Paul is going to know now, for sure. Kidding aside, NEXT
time, we'll get 'er, all in one day.
There's always something to be said about the relationship between goals and obstacles.


getting energy right

So here are some late night notes to Jonathan Cohen, of Imagine Energy, our heating and energy design consultant:

"Jonathan, talking points for your heating consult/design:

main house:

solar hot water: steel collector vs evacuated tubes? recent research suggests my long dislike of the latter may have been misguided, as their embodied energy:btu output ratio seems good, and their shady day output off sets their inferior performance on a sunny day. haven't met with a local supplier yet. plan to.

photovoltaics. obviously a matter of efficiency vs price vs square footage requirements. i have the space for a large array, and have just relocated the woodstove chimney pipe to eliminate passing shade.

in both solar cases, we need to fight for s-clamps on the roof.

planned heat distribution: crosslinked polyethylene tubing in lower level slab (minimal in work room, none in wine cellar, standard in balance, unless we discuss zoning the guest bedroom)

european-style wall radiators in main floor and tower. i believe i forwarded a quote from hydronic alternatives in mass. you might know of other sources, but after the tyranny of runtel pricing for years, these were exciting. a problem exists in the kitchen and dining areas, as there is no real wall place. we may have to consider floor radiant or something . HELP. remember that we'll have a rais sealed combustion stove in regular use in that big space.

do we need to "tune" our window glazing? we're only about a week out from ordering! there is no air conditioning in the house, but aesthetics is an issue while we do what we can to minimize summer heat build up.

we've spec'd only 9 1/4' EPS structural insulated panels for the roof. have we shot ourselves in the foot here? my thinking was that its ONLY a 4500 heating degree day city, for gods sake. we'll also have super reflective metal roofing.

boiler: we have nat gas, so this seems a no brainer. make and model is not as clear, except that it has to modulate and be at least 95% efficient. also, should we tie this into the solar back up, rather than messing with a separate unit, like the navien or other condensing on demand unit? was it you who was saying takagi just intro'd one? i like the idea of the dhw loop off the boiler, for obvious reasons.

for the accessory dwelling unit (my studio); loved your idea of electric baseboard as a money-saving device in a mostly day-use studio/office... until we found we'd be booted from the energy-star and leeds clubs. need to figure out a single source boiler for dhw and heat, with the latter either using a 4 way valve or something. if leeds and energy star will allow electric on demand heater, then i'd be happy, and suggest a steibel or similar."

Lots of jargon, and so much information one has to talk in short hand, barely able to spend the time searching for typos and nonsense. The targets are moving constantly in all the home systems, and at some point triggers need to be pulled that allow us to feel good about our decisions, acknowledging our mortal flaws of limited understanding, limited funds and a forward moving project.