Friday, December 29, 2006

How Not to Build a Deck

In removing the old doors to the deck the other week, I noticed some spongy spots in the siding at the level of the deck. So I removed one of the boards of the deck, and started scraping at the ledger board. I scraped, then dug, then stopped when I couldn't reach any more with a putty knife and still hadn't found the bottom. Not surprisingly, I decided the ledger board and that piece of siding had to be replaced.

It's not the first repair I've made to the deck. Even with my limited building skills back then, when I bought the house I knew that the deck hadn't been built quite right; for one thing the boards were a little too close together, which meant pine needles and other cruft were going to get stuck. Since then I've replaced one of the joists and a couple of the posts because of rot. So finding this wasn't any big surprise.

I removed the ledger board and a piece of siding, and let things dry out overnight. The ledger board was attached well enough with lag screws, but unfortunately they weren't galvanized, so they'd begun rusting. That's the kind of thing that leads to news stories about 'deck collapses during party, injuring dozens'. The screws let loose, the deck isn't attached to the house, things rack, and off it goes. These screws weren't too bad, but not great, either.

Inspecting things in better light and after it'd dried, I discovered that the rot had spread into the rim joist, too. And then I looked more carefully, and realized some of the missing wood was due to termites, because there were little tunnels and pellets, even into the redwood siding. No live termites, fortunately.

Time to break out the sawzall (actually I used it for removing some of the siding, too) and attack the rotted bits. I finished removing stuff this afternoon, replaced the part of the rim joist, and got part way into re-applying siding.

All this could have been prevented for less than $10, using galvanized lag screws and a little bit of flashing. These days with pressure-treated (PT) wood, you have to be careful about what sort of metal you put next to PT wood, so rather than replace all the joist hangers as well as the ledger board I replaced the it with more redwood.

Supposedly the deck was built by a brother or brother-in-law of one of the former owners, and he built decks, etc. as a profession. (And the materials were paid for using the insurance money from when one of the neighbor's cars rolled down the hill and dented the corner of the house. No, really.) Given the problems I've seen with the deck, I'm really hoping this guy has either learned more or isn't building decks for a living any more. Because this is how not to build a deck.

P.S. Go Bears! Cal beat Texas A&M yesterday quite handily in the Holiday Bowl. Another 10 win season, and co-champs of the Pac-10. I'm sorry you weren't here to see it, Dave. Though I'm sure you watched it from a blue and gold cloud somewhere.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Radiant Heating

Radiant heating. It's become more popular lately, but it's not new, having been around since the Roman Empire. I hadn't included it in the original plans since we already have a nice forced-air furnace, but the more I read about it, the more it makes sense to install some while I've got the floor ripped up. The kitchen currently relies on heat from the occupants and appliances, and whatever comes from the adjacent rooms to stay warm, but we're planning on tile for the floor. It'll still be as warm as now, but will feel cooler because of the tile.
Similarly, the new bathroom will have a tile floor. Katarina gets up early for work, and while a bath mat helps, it'd be a lot more comfortable if a timer-based radiant heat system warmed things up for her on those cold winter mornings. It usually doesn't get that cold here in the SF Bay Area, but we do have the occasional freeze, and we even get snow at our elevation every 5 years or so. Still nothing like my parents' house back in Michigan (though who knows what global warming is going to do to various climates affected by changing ocean currents), but comfortable is comfortable.

The addition is so much better sealed and insulated than the rest of the house that it's been pretty comfortable even though the heating duct isn't connected to the furnace yet. So I don't expect either zone to get that much use compared with the forced air for the whole house, but it's a lot easier to install now than later. I do wonder how California's Title 24 compares with Canada's R2000 standard for the energy part (R2000 also specifies green building techniques, like low VOC paints) and how that compares with what I've built. I know I've exceeded Title 24 needs by anywhere between a little and a lot, but the whole house is only as good as its weakest point in a lot of ways. The fact I've been insulating stuff during the remodel, installing dual-pane windows, etc. helps, but it'll never be as good as the addition.

I've been busy reading up on it on That Home Site! (thanks for the pointer, Azar) and on the Healthy Heating site. That's been one of the fun things about this project -- learning new skills, new techniques and new technologies. Whee!

Saturday, December 16, 2006


We've been having a fair amount of rain lately, so Friday morning I finished installing the new header between the dining room and the living room. But around noon, it started clearing up. I looked at the forecast and the Doppler radar, and it looked good, so I got grabbed a prybar, got out the sawzall and went to town on the old dining room doors.

In the "it no longer surprises me about this house" category, I discovered that the main thing holding the French doors in place was the trim. I had already removed the interior trim, so the first thing I did was remove the exterior trim. I noticed as I pulled the last of it away that one of the upper corners moved. Uh-huh. I ran the sawzall along the top and sides, and didn't meet a lot of resistance, then lowered the doors outward. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the only thing that had been holding the doors in place that went through the frame were the very tips of the screws through the hinges, and not all of those (hence the upper corner moving when the trim was gone).

I then quickly framed a new section of wall to hold the three windows, put it into place, and slapped some Tyvek over it. Not exactly air tight, but it'll keep the rain and the worst of the wind out. Not bad for 5 or 6 hours work.

Tomorrow is church and running sound for a concert, but next week I'll get the windows in and make the wall a little more weatherproof and a lot more air tight. Assuming the weather isn't too bad, that is.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Back to Work

Yesterday I finally got back to work on the house. I removed the rest of the paneling in the dining room, working carefully so I can reuse the paneling as needed in other parts of the house. It revealed a few more interesting things in the construction of the house.

The complete and utter lack of insulation no longer surprises me, but I found some other reasons why the dining room was always cold before. One was the nice cold well next to the chimney. I'd seen the space before from up in the attic, but I hadn't realized there was just a layer of paneling between it and the living space. The attic is open to the outdoors via roof vents, so that meant a whopping 1/4" of paneling for insulation. What's that, R 0.25 or less? There's a similar little space open to the attic in one of the other corners. Couple those with the general lack of insulation, the mirror butted against the outside wall, the leaky French doors, and it's no wonder the room was cold.

And here, boys and girls, we have a lesson in why you put a header above doors and windows, and why if you use two 2-by pieces, you put them vertically, not stacked. It's harder to see in the photo, but there's a nice downward bow to the 2x4s and the trim below it, about 1/2" or more. This lesson goes double if it's a load-bearing wall (which this is, as the ceiling joists rest on that wall, and indirectly, the roof does as well). Given the span and it being load-bearing, this header really ought to be 4x6 (and will be when I'm done).

The construction of this house is puzzling. Some things like the diagonal bracing show great care and craftsmanship. And other things leave you scratching your head. Of course, I'm sure someone in 50 or 100 years working on the house will wonder some of those same things about my work. Of course, I'm building to current building codes or better, so it will all be solidly built and well-insulated, so probably not so many.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Redux

Part of why moving my office out of the dining room took so long was that there was so much stuff. I took some time to sort through it, and shredded a lot of old documents for recycling and threw away some useless crud. But the best way I've found to get rid of stuff I don't use is Freecycle. It's kind of like a local eBay, but free. You post what you've got, and other people claim it. Or you ask for stuff you need, and people may have it. It's a great way to keep stuff out of the landfill while simultaneously preventing more stuff from being made to replace it. There are now happy new owners of computer speakers, unused printer cartridges from Camron-Stanford House for a printer they no longer have, and some other bits and pieces are awaiting pickup. And I now have a futon for visitors to sit on, and which can serve as a guest bed.

Not surprisingly, I first read about Freecycle over on Treehugger, which is a great site for keeping up with what's new in the world of green and greenish things.

Friday, December 08, 2006

This Blood's For You

The last couple of weeks have been interesting. Not so much the "fun, new and interesting", but more the Chinese curse interesting, "May you live in interesting times." Not surprisingly, work on the house has been sporadic.

An old friend died of cancer of the esophagus. It's hard to believe Dave is gone. He was always enthusiastic about whatever he was doing, whether it was cheering for Cal sports, cursing various ESPN commentators, or randomly calling an operator in Atlanta a few years back when the Braves were in the World Series. (She of course was rooting for the Braves, but thought one of the opposing players had a cute butt. Which of course sent Dave into gales of laughter.) "Joie de vive" only begins to describe him. A golden retriever kind of personality, a Golden Bear, and a heart of gold. Or at least gold plated :-)

Another friend's father died of lung cancer. Amazing it didn't kill him sooner, since he smoked for over 70 years. I never met him, but I feel like I know him a little since I've been helping my friend prepare a video tribute to him. Chinese immigrant. Decorated WWII veteran. Restaurant owner. Loved to cook. Great sense of humor. Loving husband and father.

Our neighbor John died on Monday at the ripe old age of 95. A couple years ago he bought a hybrid Honda Civic because he'd seen our Toyota Prius and I told him how much we loved it and what great mileage it got. Even though age had slowed him down, he always had a smile and up until a couple of months ago walked his little dog.

Recently I received a beautiful gift, a copy of Galen Rowell: A Retrospective by the Sierra Club. I took a number of photo workshops with him, learned a lot, and was inspired by his work. I was planning on a trip to Antarctica on which he was one of the featured leaders, but the ship sank on an earlier cruise in the Pacific*. I took the picture on the left in Yosemite, one of Galen's favorite spots. He and his wife Barbara died several years ago on their way home from one of their many trips. I love the book, but it was a fresh reminder of their passing.
(* In the immortal words of Dave Barry, "I'm not making this up." It hit an uncharted reef, and the captain ran it aground to keep it from sinking completely. The insurance company called it a total loss, and the planned trip was delayed.)

But of course, people die all the time. Civil wars, hunger, disease, murder or just bad luck. It can all make you feel pretty small and helpless sometimes, even (or maybe especially) if you believe in God. So what's a person to do? Appreciate people like it's their last day on earth, because it might be. Give blood -- there's a continual need for it. Because the next life it saves just might be yours.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Break On Through To the Other Side

Last week I made a momentous change. I finished moving my stuff out of the dining room (which is pretty momentous in itself, or at least mountainous) and took down the wall between the existing dining room and its counterpart in the addition. It took a while because I'm going to reuse the cabinets in the basement for storage, and I salvaged the precious 1x12 redwood siding for the bits around the new windows.

But it's done, and now we don't have to go on to the deck to get between the bedroom and the rest of the house. The cats had been using their "secret passage" through the back of the bottom drawer, but they seem to approve of this change, probably because I haven't had the furnace company hook up my new vent for the bedroom, so this allows some heat in the bedroom (besides the solar gain).

I've also started taking the groovy grooved paneling off the walls in the dining room in preparation for putting in windows where the French doors are now. It comes off pretty easily, which is nice, because I'll need some for patching the hallway door that will be moved from the kitchen to the dining room. And it's encouraging for some distant day when I'll install new double-pane windows in the living room and insulate the walls there. Note the festive diagonal bracing between the studs in the "after" picture on the right. I don't know how much strength it adds (certainly not as much as plywood sheathing), but it certainly makes insulating more of a pain.

This week I've been doing some quick exterior painting, because the gutter people are due to come sometime soon. Normally I would wait until everything was done, the whole house repainted, the whole shebang. But we've found in previous wet winters that it's good to have drainage, and to encourage the runoff water to go on its way down the hillside, instead of through the basement. So I painted the fascia where the gutter will be, and painted a bit of the wall where the downspouts will be. Everything will get painted later, but it's a lot easier to paint those now.