Sunday, October 30, 2011


In the last post I expressed some regret about having to put plywood on the roof and therefore block the sunlight streaming through the joists. Well, I take it back.

Sheathing the roof made the skylights more visible. We know light by darkness. Within an opaque field the skylights are exclamation points of transparency and illumination.

You spoke with me from the sky,
the trees,
before I knew I loved you
(Terrence Malick, "The Tree of Life")

Now I'll back up to show some process. The parapet wall facing the courtyard was built before the roof was sheathed.

Each stud for this wall attaches to a "high joist" - which is what we've been calling the upper level of joists. The lower level is for structural support of the roof, the upper level has a slope cut into each member so water will flow to an internal gutter. This gutter is open for the moment, and is the reason for the line of light running down the middle of the space in the photos below. Hm, can I get a transparent gutter?

Then the parapet wall was sheathed.

A "glass wall" will wrap the portion of the house facing the courtyard; it will sit on the center course of the brick edging seen here and extend up to the bottom of the parapet wall. Which means the beams and the ends of the joists will be visible from outside, and that light will continue to pour in between those joists just like it does now.

Once the roof sheathing was complete, I was able to visit the roof for the first time. I kinda wanted to stay.

Peter went up on the roof to pray.
Acts 10:9

I found this illustration of Peter receiving his vision on the rooftop (from It suggests he had a bed up there. Excellent idea.

It was also nice to see the rest of the house from the roof, especially the courtyard.

Now that the roof structure is basically complete, the next major task is roof-ING - installing the waterproofing materials: membrane, gutter liner, flashing, sealant. Now if I can just find someone good enough and crazy enough to do all that for this house.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


My framer was concerned about the fact that all of my 2 x 10 joists will be exposed in the finished house. He said I'd see some irregularity, some warping; then he half-joked that this is what sheet rock is for, to cover up these imperfections. I said I'd rather see irregularities in natural golden pine than to cover it up with boards of chalk and paper.

Besides, everything looks pretty straight to me.

I think the framers are getting the hang of the rhythmic nature of this house: every joist is lined up with a stud. And I only told them once.

Growing up I watched a lot of houses get built in my neighborhood. I always liked to see the construction just after framing was done - all those neat rows of natural wood. If I walked a site I enjoyed the smell of the fresh-cut pine too. I remember being a bit sad when all that got covered up with vinyl, sheet rock, and asphalt. When I'd see a house in the framing stage I'd think to myself, "This is the best this house will ever be."

The skylights over the bedrooms are framed.

Seeing the way the sun comes through these joists made me a little sad that I have to put a solid roof over them at all. Maybe I'll get that figured out for my next house.

I like the variety of natural materials on site now. First you encounter a wall of stone, then brick columns and brick walls, then zinc-coated steel, then rows and rows of pine. The colors are blue-grey, red, silver, and gold - all without the use of paint. And it smells great.

Monday, October 24, 2011


After the beams were installed the framers started building the 2 x 4 stud walls that wrap around the kitchen/bath/bedroom wing of the house.

I don't know how many times I've explained to various people (the wood supplier, the framer, the framer's helper, etc.) that THESE STUD WALLS ARE NOT LOAD-BEARING, therefore they are allowed to be almost 13 feet tall. Apparently the building code requires 2 x 6 studs for walls this high - if they carry any weight. In this case though the studs are essentially "balloon framed" - they extend past the roof instead of letting the roof rest on them. My roof is supported by the beams, so the stud walls are free to rise past and become the railing for my roof deck. Just like the brick walls around the Great Room, the stud walls here are "parapet" walls, in that they extend higher than the roof. I fully expect to have this conversation with the building inspector as well.

Below is the result of my pre-framing meeting: the wall sits on the middle of three courses of brick in the edging; every stud is centered on a brick; and every steel column is straddled by two studs. The studs won't be visible in the final house, but the fasteners that hold the wood paneling to the studs will; so the studs will be "visible" by proxy.

Window openings also fit into this rhythm. Which is a good word for it - rhythm. This house has been designed like a piece of music. There's a beat runs through everything, a base line that guides the development of every other component. First it was in the brick - long, short, long, short, 12 inch, 4 inch, 12 inch, 4 inch. The steel columns are placed within this structure, like trumpet blasts rising from the soft but steady brick heartbeat. Then the studs highlight every other brick beat by pulling it into the air. Then the joists pick up the rhythm of the studs and carry it over our heads. Then windows. Then skylights. Then fasteners. Each building element is another rhythmic layer that fits within what came before, like instruments added to a symphony.

I came out one day to find this:

The "jack" studs in the middle of the window frame are correct, in this case centered on 12 inch bricks. But the whole window frame is shifted too far to the right an inch and a half. I asked the framer what happened and he said he added up the dimensions on my drawings and came up with this location for the window. In that case, I told him, screw the dimensions, follow the bricks. He did, and now all the windows are perfect.

In fact the brick edging shown here went through a similar revision a while back. I came out one day to find that the mason had shifted the edging off about an inch, so that it was obvious the bricks weren't lining up with the notches in the slab left for the columns, or with the bricks on the other sides of the house. He said he did this so the corner would work the way he thought it should. I don't recall the wording of my response, but the gist of it was, "Screw the corner, follow the concrete notches." Now the bricks are perfect, and the corner looks just like I thought it would when I drew it.

Most people don't seem to make this connection between architecture and music. Auditory beats somehow have more prominence for us than visual beats. If a drummer in a band suddenly lost the beat and started playing a quarter step off the guitars, we would know, and for good reason: we would no longer be listening to music but to noise. There is both music and noise in the visual realm too. Perhaps we are just numb to the difference because we live so often with architectural noise.

After studs, plywood.

The studs are covered up. But as with the interior, the fasteners that will attach the horizontal shiplapped wood siding planned for the exterior of these walls will be visible, and will be driven directly into the studs. So within the horizontal lines of the wood siding will be vertical rows of stainless steel screw-heads centered on the bricks below. That's the idea anyway.

Next, joists.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


This will be the first of three posts about the wood framing that has been going on for over a week now. As expected, this work is a lot faster than concrete and masonry. The place looks very different already. First the 4 x 12 beams were cut to length, notched, and bolted to the steel columns. (MAN it's easy to say that.)

These beams are the primary horizontal structural component for this part of the house. They will hold up the roof, in other words. But also because of the four-bolt connection to each steel column, no walls are necessary for lateral stability. Interior walls are just for privacy, and exterior walls are just for keeping out the weather. So if someone (or group) ever wanted to use this house for something requiring no interior walls, all could be removed. But mostly I think I just like the clarity and honesty of this system: what holds everything up and together is obvious. Contrast this with typical stud wall construction, where load-bearing walls are indistinguishable from non-load-bearing walls, and even in the load-bearing walls it's hard to be sure which studs are doing the work. That's always seemed a bit sloppy to me, a copout for more careful construction.

The exact size of these beams is 3 1/2" x 11 1/4" - much thicker than anything typically used. Which means they were a "special order" and took three weeks to get, despite being our homegrown "southern yellow pine." That was one delay that I in my general contracting ignorance didn't expect.

The beams and columns will all be visible in the final house, so I wanted to be sure the connections were clean and consistent. In an early meeting with the framer I pointed to the detail of this connection where I called for a 1 1/2" space between the end of the beams and the face of the steel columns - everywhere. And he did it.

And behold, below, the prettiest beam in the house. The framers thought to place it in my laundry room. I thought about having them move it, but something about this resonated with the gospel. The prettiest wood in a service area... the best will be the least... the greatest will be your servant... the Prince of Heaven coming to Earth. So I left it.

I also noticed that some of the beams had black stains on them. In the photo below you can see it on the beam in the upper right corner.

Someone suggested it was "blue mold" and could be washed off with a bleach solution. So I tried scrubbing the stain with bleach, but it didn't budge. Then I saw this piece of scrap cut from one of the beams.

The stain penetrates deep into the wood. After looking this up online I learned that it is caused by a fungus; the stain is not fungus but is left by the fungus, so it can't be removed. I called the lumber supplier to ask why "number 1 grade" pine would be allowed to have black stains. I didn't get much of an answer. Lumber grades apparently refer only to how many knots are allowed. I'd rather have knots than black stains. I was told I should always expect to see some members with stains, especially in 4 x 12's, since only one of them can be cut out of an entire tree in most cases; too many trees would be wasted if every one with stains was trashed. I think - surely there's a better way. Perhaps don't buy from tree farms that are infested with fungus?

Fortunately I had enough extra that I could replace the beams that had the most stains - some were entirely black - with ones that actually looked like wood. The beam I pointed out in the upper right of the above photo was one of them.

So all the beams were finally set, then the steel columns were leveled, shimmed and tightened. Next up: exterior stud walls.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Today I stopped by the bank to extend my construction loan. This was an expected part of the process; from the date the loan opened with a nine-month span I was sure it would have to be extended to the full year. I told the bank this originally, so I'm not sure why they set it for nine months. When I asked I was told that it would be easy to extend the loan to a year if necessary.

So I was never concerned about getting this extra three months. But in the last few weeks I have become nervous about whether I can even complete this house within a year. Wood framing has only just begun, and when I look ahead to what's left to do between now and the end of January (including three major holidays) - windows, doors, skylights, roofing, flashing, gutters, porch roof, electrical wiring, lighting, plumbing fixtures and piping, heating/air conditioning and ductwork, insulation, interior finish wood for walls, ceilings, and floors, brick and slate flooring - I get very nervous.

If this was a typical house, MAYBE this would be possible. But every phase of this house seems to require extra time to research materials, iron out all the weird details, and find someone who can actually do it - within budget. It took a full week just to find the right waterproofing product for my masonry walls - for instance. Not to mention the time spent asking the person who can actually do it to take it apart because it's all wrong and to do it again.

But I like this process. It results in a high-quality, fascinating product that everyone learns from. I don't know that there is another way to get unique work done. It's always going to take longer, always cost more in both money and energy, always ask workers to stretch what they know and how they do things. And it's worth it. I have no interest in designing a typical building just so that it will be on time and on budget. Ultimately those are not meaningful goals, and don't inspire me. I always want to create a fascinating, provocative, beautiful place that helps us all get a little closer to each other, to nature and to God. Things like time and money are subservient to this, and God has more than enough of both.

He's already helped me with money beyond what I thought possible (as described in this post), and today I feel that he's done the same with time. I showed up at the bank still nervous of course about having to finish in a year, and starting to feel slightly nervous about whether the bank would even decide to give me the extra three months. But the completed paperwork was soon in front of me to sign, so at least that latter fear was allayed. The lady who processed the loan then said, "We extended it for a year, so the loan will come due next October." I stopped signing and looked at her, "You mean, I have a full year FROM NOW to finish this house?" Yes, she said, explaining that they "just decided" to make it a full year rather than three more months.

Not in my wildest dreams (and they're pretty wild) did I imagine that the bank would give me more than a year to finish. I looked at a lot of construction loan packages early on and not one suggested any possibility of extending beyond a year. Especially in this economy. As I recall, some of them didn't offer more than nine months. I still don't know exactly why this bank decided to give me a full 21 months to complete this house, especially given that it was appraised far short of the total construction cost. I was too excited to ask. But it was pure joy to ask the follow-up question, "So, what if I finish BEFORE the closing date?"

Apropos: framing is progressing nicely. I'll follow this post with a photo-laden one to update on that work.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ready. Set. Stop.

Did I say in that last post that framing would start this week? Ha ha!

I guess in some sense it started, since all the framing materials were delivered. It felt like some kind of Christmas morning to stop by the site Monday and find a lumber yard.

I especially liked to see the 4 x 12 beams, conveniently left across the front of my driveway by the delivery person. Just kidding, kind of - it seems there was no other choice; the beams were too long to be placed farther down the driveway.

Tuesday was the scheduled start of framing. I met with the framer that morning to go over all the unique (read OCD) visual demands I'm placing on this phase of the work. (Every stud has to center on a brick, for instance. He took notes on that one.) Then I left the site for a local wood shop to pick up my ipe trim. (Yeah, I think it's rainforest wood. But there's only a little bit, just an accent, a line, beside columns and below beams. And consider, from the photos below, how pretty.) I finally got to use my truck for something! Saved me $120 in delivery fees.

But I had only gotten a few miles down the road when the framer called me to say the bolts in the steel columns were not holding into the concrete slab. He was able to just push them over; the "anchor" bolts were sliding right out of the holes. So he sent his helper home and called off framing till we could resolve the issue. When I got back to the site with the ipe I checked several columns and saw the same thing - I could push them with my hand and the bolts pulled out of the concrete.

This would not be a problem if the columns only had to resist the weight of the roof, of course. But they also have to resist "uplift" forces. Without proper anchoring, a hurricane or tornado could lift this whole part of the house right off the foundation.

My framer suggested the only apparent solution - re-drill all 88 holes bigger, fill them with epoxy, set the bolts, and let it cure for a day or two.

But who would do all that extra work? And for how much? Why weren't the expansion bolts holding anyway?? Were they too small?? Were the holes drilled to large??! SERIOUSLY! WHAT KIND OF--- WHO WOULD---  WHAT THE---- ???  So, naturally my first reaction was to call the steel company that I paid good money to install the columns. I was spectacularly calm. "I have a question - the bolts you guys put in to anchor the steel columns, they're - ha ha! - able to be pulled out of the slab BY HAND."

The steel guy then explained, just as calmly, that they left the bolts loose so we could level the columns later, and that the nuts have to be tightened all the way down before the expansion part of the bolt will grab securely in the hole.

"Oh. Okay. Thanks!"

I knew that the nuts were left a little loose, but I also assumed that they had been tightened enough to expand completely in the concrete. Still slightly skeptical, I asked my framer to come out Thursday morning to test one. He tightened a nut - and tightened, and tightened - until the rod was several inches above the nut and seemed like it would never stop. Then he said it felt like it was getting tighter. He did the same to the other three bolts. Then I gave the column a push. Didn't budge. I pushed harder. Still no budging. It worked!

My framer texted me later to say he was happy with the result of the test and has rescheduled to start framing this coming Monday. So it seems that the project was delayed six days because neither I nor the framer understood how expansion bolts work. At least that won't happen again.