Sunday, August 28, 2011


No, I haven't baptized anyone on site yet, or even noticed any conversions. I mean "baptism" in the general sense of an immersive new experience that transforms and reveals. Both my house and I have had baptisms of this kind in the past week.

The first new experience for my house was provided by the Virginia earthquake. I was concerned about this because, as Washington DC is discovering, masonry is the worst possible construction for earthquakes. Unlike wood and steel, masonry doesn't give when the earth shakes, it just cracks. On my site currently there is a concrete foundation, brick walls, brick columns and a stone wall. All are reinforced with plenty of steel, but all that does in an earthquake is hold the mangled masonry together so it doesn't fall on people before it can be repaired or demolished. If I had thought there was any likelihood of a significant earthquake in this area I would have reconsidered using masonry for this house at all.

So I was nervous when, 30 miles south of my house site, the little wood-frame building where I work shook noticeably for 10 seconds. I called my mason. He was driving at the time of the quake and didn't feel it. When he got back to the site he asked his helper about the earthquake; he also hadn't felt anything. My mason spoke with one of my neighbors; he didn't feel anything either. My mason checked all the walls and columns, and I checked everything later in the day; no cracks visible.

I started to think that the tremors somehow bypassed this area entirely yet still affected the town farther south where I work. But just today I spoke with another one of my neighbors; she said she did feel it; she noticed her computer monitor moving and felt her whole house shake. So I guess my house experienced its first earthquake after all, likely the strongest it will ever feel (prior to the Apocalypse), and all the masonry held up just fine.

Then there was the baptism by hurricane, courtesy of Irene. I was less nervous about this. Reinforced masonry is good in wind. My mason joked that even if it was a category 5 the whole neighborhood and all the trees would be leveled and my stone wall would be the only thing left, standing in an open field. Turned out that Irene was only a category 1 when it passed us, and we only got tropical-storm-force winds here (60-65 mph). So I guess this was only "baptism by tropical storm." No worries; hurricanes will come soon enough.

I was still a little worried about falling trees, in part because I want to keep as much of the existing forest as I can, but mostly to avoid costly repairs a falling tree might cause the existing construction. Of course if even one of the larger pines fell across the stone wall, the tree would probably just snap in half. But if a tree fell on the steel or brick columns, or the screening at the tops of the brick walls, it could cause significant damage. I drove to the site the day after Irene and was glad to find no trees down. Tall spindly pines and even dead pines remained standing.

I think in high-wind zones it's wise to keep large groups of trees, as opposed to cutting down all but a few, or even all. Trees standing close together in a group brace each other in wind. Even if a tree does fall it's more likely to fall against another tree than on a building. But if you leave only one or two choice trees from the original forest, they will have nothing to protect them from wind that they've likely never had to resist before. And if you cut all the trees out then your house bears the full brunt of the wind. Better to preserve the whole forest; it will protect both itself and the house.

I was not much concerned about flooding, since last year a rain-storm dropped 24 inches on us in three days, dwarfing the 10-15 inches predicted for Irene (and just about any hurricane, I suppose), and the sandy soil of my site soaked it all up. My neighbor's yard across the street was completely submerged in a new lake, but there was not a drop of standing water on mine. So all I found after Irene were some small puddles on the slabs and minor tree debris:

The individual stones in this wall stand out more after some wind-driven rain. Also, as I'm sure you have already noticed, the brick column on the left was moved 2 inches.

We did take appropriate measures before the storm to batten down the site, including roping the port-o-john to a few trees:

Lastly, my baptism. I have been baptized by immersion in cost estimates from product suppliers. In the past week the products were wood framing members and windows. I got the wood estimate first. I looked over it quickly in the store and didn't see any problems. But when I got home and looked at it more carefully, I noticed a line item for one 30-foot long 4 x 12. Cost: $599. To compare: a 20-foot long 4 x 12 on the list was $85. No 4 x 12 in this house is longer than 13 feet, so I have no idea why a 30-footer was added. The total cost for 4 x 12's, with this error, was $2,738.

Naturally I wondered what other errors may have been made in tallying these 4 x 12's, so I counted them all myself from my drawings. I also asked my framing contractor what the most cost effective lengths of wood are; the answer: 18, 20 and 24 feet. So I fit all my 4 x 12's into those three lengths and sent the list to the supplier for a revised quote. It came down to $2,405. Better, but in the supplier's list I noticed another anomaly: the 24-footers cost $450 apiece, whereas the other lengths were $96. I asked him about this and he explained that the 24-foot length requires a different setup for the mill, and a whole different size of tree. My framer apparently didn't know this. So I asked the supplier what lengths are most cost effective; 12 and 16 feet, he said.

I revised my list again to get all the 4 x 12's into those two lengths. The revised quote came in at $1,520. Same material, same grade of wood, same size, just different lengths ordered, and over $1,200 was shaved off the cost. This wood is now ordered; it'll be on site in three weeks.

Revising the cost estimate for my windows was not as complicated, but even more money was saved. The original estimate for all my windows and doors, including installation, was $37,440. I called to ask for a few cost-saving revisions - delete the "low-e" coating from the glass (not really helpful when the glass is mostly shaded), and delete the closers from the doors (not sure why these were added for a HOUSE anyway). The window supplier told me these changes would reduce the overall cost. Later he sent me the new quote: $40,110. It went up by nearly $3,000. Of course I called with some pointed questions. He didn't seem sure why the quote would have gone up, and he didn't really recall what the previous quote was. I wouldn't have remembered it either since it was from about a month ago; but I made sure I dug it back out to compare. I gladly reminded him what it was, and he said he would look into it. Later I received the revised quote: $35,223.

That's nearly $5,000 less than what I would have paid if I didn't dig out that previous quote. Total savings from micro-managing material estimates? $6,105. I feel I've risen from these waters victorious.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Not Without Blemish

March 5, 2011 / August 5, 2011

That's the starting date and completion date of the stone wall. It was finished five months to the day after the first chunk of granite was laid. Below is one of the first pictures I took of the wall.

Here it is now.

From the courtyard side:

(The "pockets" or recesses left on this end of the stone wall are where the courtyard roof beams and joists will rest.)

I have been haunted by halves of inches of late. The last two brick columns to be completed (the two in the foreground of the photo above), were supposed to be aligned with the columns on the other side of the wall. They are off by about two inches, which I noticed without measuring. So I measured all the other column spacings in this line to find the error, but everything checked out with my plans. I told the mason, and he measured every column in the courtyard and couldn't find the problem. Is there a hiccup in the space-time continuum on my site?

The mason suggested that one of the concrete slabs is out of square. But the slab measurements also seem to be correct. We left the site mystified that day. The next evening I measured every column spacing; I noticed a difference of about a half inch between the spacings of columns on the back side of the courtyard and those on the front. Those three or four half inches seem to have added up to the two-inch discrepancy showing up in the last two columns. The mason offered to redo a few columns if I thought it would help. I think I'll take him up on it. The patterns I designed for the courtyard floor will not line up with the columns as they are.

Another half-inch error is not so "easy" to resolve. Installation of all the steel columns was completed this week. My framing contractor had marked their locations on the floor slab with chalk lines, based on my plan dimensions. Then the steel installer stood each column in place, marked the four bolt holes on the slab, drilled the holes, set the column back up, and bolted them down with expansion anchors. Except for the Great Room, these columns are the structural support for the whole house.

You may recall that these are the 22 columns I hauled to Raleigh and back in a failed attempt by two companies to electroplate them with zinc. After that they hung out at the Wilmington welding shop for a few weeks waiting to be shipped to Charlotte to be "hot dipped galvanized" with zinc. Several weeks after that I got a call from the welding shop saying my columns were finally back in Wilmington and ready to be delivered and installed.

I stopped by the site on my way home from work after the first day of installation. About a third of the columns had been bolted into the slab. Then I saw the half-inch problem. The column baseplates along the back wall of the house were about an inch away from the brick edge:

This was supposed to be a half inch - basically a brick joint. I designed the baseplates to be the same size as the bricks to fit perfectly in these notches left in the brick edging. I also designed a floor detail to go over top of this plate to highlight this order. But with these columns out of place that detail will not work.

Wondering what had gone wrong I checked the marks for the baseplates at the opposite wall. I noticed that these marks would result in the baseplates sitting right against the brick edge. So, all the columns, at least in this portion of the house, are shifted a half inch from where they should be.

I'm not sure why this mistake was made - or that it would even be considered a mistake by the framer who made it: "The columns are lined up, spaced correctly from each other, and all fit on the foundation... so what's the problem? Besides, all these baseplates will be concealed under the floor anyway, right?" Wrong, mostly - though the steel of the plates will not show, a different kind of wood from the rest of the floor was planned to attach directly over it.

Later I realized that I should have made it clear to the framer what was most important to me in the way these columns get laid out - that the crucial thing is that they fit as perfectly as possible in these pockets formed just for them...  So I ended up just being angry at myself for not remembering that every phase of this project requires a special meeting with the workers to clarify what is unique about it.

Some of the columns are in fact in the right place. Here's a good example:

In a last ditch effort to fix the ones that are off I asked the installers if those columns could be moved a half an inch back. Uh, no, they can't, they said. You can't drill a 3/4 inch hole a half inch away from another 3/4 inch hole and put another wedge anchor in it. It will blow through and won't hold.

What do you do with a mistake that can't be repaired? Damage that can't be erased? You develop over it a beautiful scar. I find myself not wanting to cover up the mistake, to make it invisible in the finished house, but also not wanting to highlight it, to celebrate it, as if pretending it was intended, and good. There's an in-between that doesn't hide or highlight, but calmly acknowledges and extends "grace." In my best design thinking, the original (ideal) design doesn't ignore the issue and leave it gaping, naked for all to see, resenting the error forever; neither does it race to cover and make it look as though an error never occurred. Instead the ideal allows itself to flex into a gracious and elegant accommodation of the mistake. If the mistake leaves a gap in the floor, the floor boards forget their original length and extend into the gap, the extra length of those boards revealing that an unintentional gap has been covered. It is God making coats of skins to cover the sin-revealed nakedness of Adam and Eve. He didn't just magically take back their shame, or make them blind; instead he introduced a new design element that both covered their nakedness and served as a visible reminder that because of disobedience nakedness had become a shame.

I'm still imagining how to extend grace over the sin of this half-inch. But I have an idea. Also I'm imagining my preparation speech to the workers of the next big phase of construction, the wood framing - stud walls, girders, joists, nails, screws, bolts, braces, moisture barriers, flashing, windows, skylights. The framing contractor already told me he wants to do all this in three weeks. Maybe I need something like a house-building Sermon on the Mount. You have heard it said, "Git-R-Dun!" But I say unto you, if she ain't done right, she ain't really done.