Thursday, April 28, 2011


Slab Number One, finished and dried, prior to removing the forms.

A "control joint" sawed into the slab. An engineer friend of mine says there are two kinds of concrete: that which has cracked, and that which will crack. A control joint creates a "path of least resistance" for cracking so it happens in a straight line and just where we want it to.

On the same day the main slab was poured, they also poured the footings for the four columns in the Great Room.


This is after the primary, vertical forms were removed; the boards that formed the notch at the edge are still in place.

Here the notch forms have been removed. The raised square at the corner will support a steel column baseplate exactly that size, and will be surrounded by a course of brick.

The brick pillars start to rise in the Great Room. These will be the supports for a massive sky-window.

These columns are some of the mason's best work so far.

Yeah, I climbed to the top of the stone wall for this shot. How could I not do that?

Preparation for the porch slab, a perfect square that encloses existing trees. This is also about when I realized I had fallen down on my "general contracting" duties...

I remembered that I had talked with the plumber about running the main lines from the house at a 45 degree angle, under the future corner of the porch slab, and out to the road through a gap in the trees. The foundation guys had spent a day getting the porch forms just right, and then had to take down a corner of them so the plumber could dig his ditch and put in the lines. They were not happy, but no real harm done. Lesson learned.

My plumber understands me. He dug this ditch with a 5-foot wide backhoe straight through the woods and missed every major tree.

The brick edge going in. This is the same "Flemish bond" pattern as seen in the walls - long, short, long, short, etc. I located the columns based on that rhythm too. And the studs. And the roof joists. Studs will line up on the centers of the short bricks (16 inches apart), and the wood finish boards outside and inside will be attached to the studs with exposed fasteners. So the same 16 inch rhythm dances around the whole house, from the floor to the walls to the roof, and is visible outside and inside.

My contractor's response to this ambition: "Good luck!" Well, the brick is lining up with the concrete column bases; that's a miracle in and of itself. So far so good.

There is something holy about order, or something orderly about holiness. It relates to perfection, and harmony, and beauty. "The beauty of his holiness" is a phrase I remember from scripture (Ps 29:2), referring to God. Order in the physical world, especially when it is rigorous to the point of seeming miraculous, is an expression of holiness. When the same geometric or mathematic "DNA" governs the development of every part of a building, it has a relationship to nature.

Order is an aspect of architecture missing from most buildings I experience. A stud wall is built, 16 inches on center. Sheetrock is applied to the wall, 4 x 8 sheets. That's a special rhythm already - three 16's is 4 feet. But then the joints are plastered over, smoothed out, and painted to make one uniform surface. Then the room sizes are fairly arbitrary ("15 x 13 or 16 x 14, what can we afford?") and have nothing to do with the 16-inch dance behind the paint. Then all the arbitrary spaces are crammed into a rectangle. Order is erased.

Slab Number Two finished - for the Great Room. This slab will be covered with brick around the outside of the columns, and with slate on the square inside the columns. And of course - the patterns here will directly relate to those found everywhere else.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Concrete from Heaven

The concrete pour for the main slab, which will be the floor structure for the kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms, was delayed a couple of weeks - somewhat on account of rain, but mostly on account of the complexity of the formwork. I designed a brick edging detail (above) around the main slab of the house, which requires an 11 1/2-inch wide and 2 1/2-inch deep notch to be left in the slab all the way around. Oh, except for where there will be columns. Then the notch is only 7 1/2 inches. So my foundation contractor had to first build the main forms for the boundary of the concrete (complex enough given how this part of the house bends around the courtyard), then cantilever additional formwork over this to make the 11 1/2" edge, THEN cut out pieces of those forms wherever there will be a column. Of course unique conditions happen at outside corners, and at inside corners, where there also will be columns. The first photo below shows just the vertical formwork, the next was taken after the edging formwork was built, and the last shows the notch at an outside corner where a column baseplate will sit.

My contractor said that when the building inspector came out to inspect the foundation prior to the pour, he asked, "What's all that stuff on top of the forms?" When the brick edge was explained to him, he just shook his head, said "I'm outta here," and approved the foundation. This scenario happened before regarding the temporary back-up wall to my stone wall (Inspector: "You can't have a 2x4 wall 24 feet high." Contractor: "It's temporary, just to lay the stone to."). Apparently the norm for my inspections is: inspector asks silly question, gets silly answer, approves and leaves. I expect this to continue.

Here's the foundation ready for the pour. The white plastic sheet is a vapor barrier - to keep moisture from coming up from the ground and through the slab. The grid is WWF - "welded wire fabric" reinforcing, to keep the slab from pulling apart when it cracks.

Problem: a concrete truck will not fit down my driveway, what with the curve and the trees. My contractor noticed this immediately upon his first visit to the site, and seemed sure that a small concrete pump would work fine. But he since decided against that pump because of all the special engineering that has to be done to the concrete mix - special aggregate, additives, etc. Even with all that, apparently, the pump still gets clogged and is a pain to clean.

So. He decided to ask my neighbor if we could drive a huge pump truck across his driveway to the side of my property, and pump the concrete through its long arm over the trees. My neighbor said sure, as long as we repair his driveway if it breaks.

Yep, it did. But just a small corner. Mostly we just disturbed an ant colony, which rebuilt itself inside the crack within a day.

Here's a video montage from the day of the pour, including some discussion with the contractor, the concrete pump pushing through the trees, a resident lizard, and the "resurrection" of a tree I saved in the courtyard despite being pretty sure it was dead. Also you should get a good sense of why architect Rem Koolhaas described concrete as having "the consistency of vomit." In general it all looked like jazz to me. Hope you enjoy.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"99.4% Natural"

This is a label on my Burt's Bees hand lotion. I've also noticed from purchasing organic foods that almost none of them are made of 100% organic ingredients; for a food to be certified organic, I remember reading, only a certain percentage of the ingredients have to be organic. Well, if the body-product and food industries are anything like the building materials industry, I understand now why it's so hard to get that last 0.6% out. All of these industries seem to be so mired in dependence on artificial chemicals that it's nearly impossible to create, or even find, a purely natural product.

For what I put on and in my (God's) body I'll take what I can get - the less toxins the better. And I've realized that I'll have to take what I can get with this house as well. One of my original goals - also for my body, and/or yours, and animals and plants - was that it would be made of nothing but natural materials: no paint; no stain; no treated wood; no sheetrock; no carpet; not even concrete.

And then I saw the price tag - for a granite boulder foundation and cedar window headers and iron drain pipes and...  and realized that just as there would probably be no Burt's Bees hand lotion if they demanded 100% natural ingredients, there would be no Church House if I demanded 100% natural building materials. So I decided to settle for 99.4% - or thereabouts. There is still no paint, stain, sheetrock or carpet, and I see no reason there ever will be. But the pictures below from the last few weeks of work indicate places where compromises have been made. In the end most of them will be buried - and that's the way to do it. If you must employ the services of poisonous ingredients, make them the ones you never touch.

The first window header in the stone wall, a 2-foot thick stack of 2x8s
bolted together. The wood is "pressure treated" with who knows
what chemicals. I hope not the ones that began to be phased out
a few years ago when it was discovered that treated wood
in playground equipment led to higher rates of cancer in people
who played on it (hey, that includes me!). But even so, we ain't gonna
climb on these headers. Well, not every day.

Footings dug for the four brick columns in the Great Room.
Not for stone boulders now, for concrete. And you'll never see it again.

Plumbing is in! That's PVC pipe - "polyvinyl chloride."
Anything with both vinyl AND chlorine...
well, it's good enough to haul shit, I guess.

This is PEX pipe for water - "cross-linked polyethylene."
Pretty. But I don't plan to drink from it.

I had to end with some of the 99.4% - chunks of baked clay bathing in the sun. And below, some of the Old Artist's living sculpture that will benefit from it.