Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Taste of Mexico

Yesterday I finished up building the forms for the new bit o' foundation, then 'Mixmaster K' and I mixed and placed 7.5 bags of concrete into them. Given how things were partly tucked under the existing house and set on top of the existing foundation, it was the most complicated wooden concrete form I've ever built. (The foundation for the addition was larger and on a slope, but considerably easier to build because I used ICFs.) It also made it very difficult to fill. It gave Katarina a small taste of what RLC's mission trips to Mexico are like. Except it was 1/2 a day of mixing, not 1.5 days, and we had a flush toilet and running water just inside the door. But it did give her an idea of just how back-breaking mixing concrete by hand is. Fortunately the kids have lots of energy and enthusiasm, and the older ones who have been on a trip or two quickly teach the new ones to pace themselves. So 11'x22'x4" (plus a bit for footing around the edge) gets mixed by hand in a remarkably short amount of time.

The foundation under the new floor joists was the hardest to fill. I had to get in under the house with a piece of plywood to serve as a hawk, and shove it in bit by bit. But the whole thing went pretty quickly with Katarina's help.

Today after church I pulled off the forms, and our handiwork looks pretty good. I still need to pull out some bits of 2x2 (under the new rim joist in front of me in the picture), where part of the new (pressure treated, thankyouverymuch) sill plate will sit under the new joists. And there's lots more to do before it begins looking like a regular part of the house, but after spending so much time tearing stuff out, it's a relief to be moving forward again.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

It's Our Cats' House

Nate and Jen of Milwaukee Back House recently asked if there were pictures of some of the kitty-friendly features we'd designed into the addition.

We were inspired in no small part by The Cats' House. Alas, their website has been pretty slim for a while now, but you may be able to find a copy of their book at your local bookstore.

The loft that we can use, too, is one of the obvious features, with a sisal rope-covered ladder to make it easier for the cats to climb leading to it. They love to use the ladder to climb to the upper window to look out in the morning when the blinds are closed (since the picture was taken, I've added a little shelf from the ladder over to the window to make it safer and easier for them) as well as the loft. You can see the loft in the plans and 3D renderings here. There are a couple of less obvious features we all like, too, like the double-pane windows, extra insulation, passive solar heating and the radiant heating in the bathroom (though they'd probably prefer we left that on 24/7, and put it all over the house.)

If you look carefully in the plans, you'll notice that the new bathroom was going to be at the same level as original house, which would mean another loft above it. I ended up changing it to make the bathroom at the same level as the new bedroom, i.e., +2 feet from the original house. That made the loft above it only 2' high, so not really useful for us. (Though the part that's inside the closet makes a great place to store our camping gear, which needs a clean, dry place, but not necessarily frequent access.) But I still built the loft, and included the planned window for light and ventilation. And since the cats are considerably shorter than us, the limited height was no big deal for them. So I built a walkway between the two lofts, just for them. Using a design I saw described at The Cats' House, I routed out a groove in the top, and put a small piece of carpeting in. The groove means that you can't see the ragged edge of the carpeting, except a small section on the end (with more careful routing, that could have been avoided.)

They sometimes look out the window to see who's coming up the path, though they know they can get a better look at us coming down from the carport from the window in Katarina's office. But again inspired by The Cats' House, as well as by a design feature common in convents(!), I added a peephole from the loft out into the front hall (the one place in the addition with a 12' ceiling; the bedroom is 10'.) Rosie is our token extrovert in the household, so she's more likely to run down and greet who ever comes in. But when appropriately bribed with food, she'll look out the peephole, too. Star, being older, wiser, and considerably wussier ("Wuss in Boots"), has used the peephole in earnest a number of times. She has looked out with fear upon the marauding horde known as my nephew Jimmy. Eventually the hole will be covered with something more decorative, maybe the outline of a cat's paw, or like in The Cats' House, the outline of a cat's head.

And for any of you linguaphiles out there, Katarina and I both remember there being a word or phrase that describes this feature in a convent. It was designed to let nuns look out and see visitors without being seen themselves. While both our cats are chaste (and when Jimmy is around, chased), neither of them is very nun-like except Star's black-and-white clothing. But neither of us can remember what the word or phrase is. Anybody out there know? It's like the age-old question: how do you look up a word in the dictionary if you don't know how to spell it?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Dear Mr. Bildrong

Dear Mr. Bildrong,
First let me say how much I love your column. Now for my question: I'm building a house, and I want to make sure that rot sets in to the whole thing. I'm working on the foundation now -- how should I proceed?
- DAB, Oakland, California

Dear DAB,
You don't need to make the whole house rot, just the framing -- the rest will follow. The easiest way to make sure the framing rots is to put some of the wood below grade. That is, make the top of the foundation below where there can be water when it rains, lower than the ground level. It doesn't need to be much, even 1/2" will do. That way the sill plate will get wet every time it rains or you hose off your front walk!
- Mr. Bildrong

Dear Mr. Bildrong,
Great suggestion! However, I live in California where it only rains in winter. It's pretty dry the rest of the year. My neighbors look at me funny if I hose off the walk -- something about wasting water. I really want to make sure the house rots, and I'd like to make it as friendly to termites as I can. They're so cute!
- DAB, Oakland, California

P.S. I read in one of your older columns about stuffing a rag into a pipe instead of bothering with one of those pesky caps. It's a great idea -- I'll be sure to use it when I get to the plumbing.

Dear DAB,
This is getting pretty advanced, but if simply having the top of the foundation below grade isn't enough, I'd suggest having a small depression for the sill plate to sit in. That way any water that gets in will be kept there for the wood to soak up. Be sure not to use pressure treated wood.
- Mr. Bildrong

Dear Mr. Bildrong,
The only non-pressure treated wood I have is some redwood 3x8, and some scraps of redwood siding. Will that do? I plan to wedge the scraps in between the sill plate and the floor joists instead of building the foundation the right height.
- DAB, Oakland, California

Dear DAB,

Redwood is OK for this, but it will definitely slow things down. Some Douglas Fir would be better, but sometimes you have to make do with the materials you've got. The termites won't like the redwood at first. But if you're patient and let the water start to rot the wood, it will leach the natural protection out of the wood and your little termite friends will soon be happy as proverbial bivalves. Once they begin tunneling, the water will be able to spread more easily, and things will really get rolling.
- Mr. Bildrong

P.S. Be sure to buy my new book, available at bookstores next month! It includes advanced framing techniques, like putting floor and ceiling joists at irregular intervals. And I devote a whole chapter to great ideas like wooden gutters!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Knock, knock

Knock, knock.
What's not there?
Isn't that supposed to be "who's there?"
So? What was the last thing about this house that was exactly the way it's supposed to be?
Good point. OK...what's not there?
The old front porch!
Hmm...interesting, but not very funny. Don't quit your day job.

Yesterday I touched up the paint around the tile in the bathroom, then I went into demolition mode. I hauled the last bits of debris from the front porch 'round to the back yard, chopped up some bits of rim joist that had been rotting away in the back yard, and then went to work on the front porch with my sawzall. After working on the media for church, I went back at it today.

The good news is that I got a lot of stuff removed. The bad news is that I need to take out even more, because the termite damage goes beyond the porch itself. The mudsill, the rim joist, parts of the floor joists...I hope it ends soon. I still haven't seen any live termites, but the damage is pretty extensive. And the construction was pretty sketchy in any event. The ledger board that the joists under the porch were resting on wasn't attached to the foundation, just to the joists themselves. So instead of it holding them up, they were holding it up. And not very well, give how rotted stuff was.


Friday, August 08, 2008

Reused Materials

Now that the tile is all done, yesterday I installed the last bit of baseboard in the bathroom, and installed and primed some cleats to hold up the little shelves in the wall next to the shower. I'm using a couple of nice bits of beech that I had left over from building the kitty walkway and ladder to the loft, and I'll stain them cherry to match the vanity.

I also took some of the salvaged redwood decking from the walkway by the side of the house, and built a a little outdoor table to go in the sitting area near the Mediocre Wall. Not bad for a couple hours work, and a fine use of wood that was too short and too weathered to use for repairing the rest of the deck. In any event, it'll probably outlast the wall, and provides a fine place to set a beer while watching the sunset after a hard day's work. Also note the lovely handmade coasters made of reused materials :-)

We've been trying to reuse as much as we can during the remodel. The obvious (but difficult) thing was the 1x12 siding. We managed to reclaim enough of it that I haven't had to mill any new siding, but we'll see if that holds for the last bit of wall when the old front door goes away. The bedroom and bathroom doors are from the East Bay Habitat ReStore and the nearby ReUse People store. You can't reuse structural lumber, and there's limited gains to reusing uninsulated older windows, but fortunately the East Bay has a lot of options for reused building materials.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Of purlins, plinths and plenums...

There's a fun article over at the Boston Globe on 'not real words'. Slang has long been a part of language; it's part of how languages evolve. The writer's plea is for people to chillax (chill + relax) and not preface every usage with "I know it's not a real word...". I've worked with computers for a long time, and the tech industry is notorious for making up words, verbifying nouns, nounifying verbs and if all else fails, making a new acronym that worms its way into the language.

But even if you limit yourself to 'accepted' words, English is full of wonderful words. Two of my favorite word sites are WordSmith.Org, home of A.Word.A.Day, and The Word Detective, which is a fun place to learn about the origins of words and phrases, and embiggen your vocabularly while you're at it.

Like many fields, construction and architecture have their own vocabulary. Words like purlin, plinth and plenum. Or cricket, fenestration, clerestory and escutcheon. And they're not above genericizing words like skilsaw. So, dear readers and fellow home improvement bloggers, what are your favorite words from construction and architecture?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Shower Power

Yesterday, Katarina and I applied grout sealer. While that was drying, I installed the shower curtain rod, and the shower head and control handle. Drilling through tile is a pain in the patooky. Back when I installed the new toilet, the holes were larger so I could use a masonry bit. But the holes needed for the shower curtain rod are little 1/8" things, so I probably trashed my 1/8" bits in drilling the four holes. Ah, won't be the first time I replaced them, since I've broken 1/8" bits in the past, and given how frequently that size is used and how skinny the bits are, it probably won't be the last.

I also worked on The Mediocre Wall of Montclair. I was mulling over what a pain it was going to be to haul away all the rubble from the old front porch. Either I'd have to pay someone to haul it, or haul it myself and then pay to dump it. I got to thinking about our other plans for the house and yard, including a recent brainstorm to terrace the hillside. There was already a small flattish spot where Katarina had put some potted plants and a chair. I enlarged that, and have started using the rubble to build a small, mostly decorative retaining wall behind it. At some point, we'll build one or more terraces below with proper stones, and make them into a vegetable garden. But for now, this is a good place to use the rubble and get it out of the way so I can continue removing the old front porch.

Then yesterday evening, we took our first showers in the new bathroom. We both give it two thumbs up! It also feels great to hit a major milestone, too. Even if there still is lots more work to do (and even a little in the touch up the paint on the ceiling above the shower, install baseboard in the corner between the vanity and shower, and build and install some shelves in the little nook to the left of the shower...)