Friday, September 7, 2012

The Smiling Building

The installation of the interior wall boards is underway. They are (and will remain) unfinished tongue-and-groove southern yellow pine. My concept for this house's finish details is now visible. As explained in an earlier post, "Revealing," these boards don't cover everything. They hold back to leave exposed the 4x12 beams above, the steel columns, the ipe wood strips next to columns and beams, the brick edging, even the edges of studs at doors and windows.

Every element is given its own visual presence, is seen fulfilling its unique role, but also works carefully with the others towards the single goal of defining a room.

That's something else happening as these boards go up - the true space of each room is becoming visible. The place feels very different now; walls that were transparent yesterday, barely suggested by a stud every 16 inches, are opaque and impassable today.

This is good, not just because a bedroom needs to be private, but because the careful order I gave the place is felt not just visually but bodily. I can't just walk through a stud wall wherever I want; both my eyes and my body now have to follow the order I was inspired to give the place. And what lovely barriers they are, with their constellations of knots, their cosmic swirls of color, that I did not give them.

Here we can see another way the studs are allowed to express their presence - the rows of nails in the boards, just as with the exterior siding.

One of my favorite examples of a reveal is the inside corner where a steel column is imbedded in the wall:

At the center is the column (the actual structural support for the room) then the half-inch ipe strips, then the end studs of the walls, and finally the finish boards. It's like a pealing away to reveal what's beneath, a visual hint as to what the place is actually made of. Which is why, in the earlier post, I called these reveals "little apocalypses."

The concept of the reveal follows my more general goal of honesty or truth. I wanted to be honest and expressive about how everything goes together, rather than to deceive and conceal, as is the typical practice in construction today.

Another way to think of these reveals is anthropomorphically. When we open our eyes or smile, we reveal inner parts of our bodies - eyes, teeth, tongue - along with our inner state of consciousness and emotion. I hope that this house also, by the nature of its openings, appears to be awake and smiling.

There is another important function for these wall boards that is clear now: to be a canvas for sunlight.

Sometimes sunlight hits the walls from windows, sometimes from skylights, but either way it now has a solid surface to fall on. So in a manner of speaking these walls are painted - with ever moving and changing natural light from above.

Once the electric lights go in, the walls will be a canvas for that light as well. I look forward to the golden glow emitted through the glass wall when the lights shine on these boards after dark.

Thursday, September 6, 2012


What can I say? I'm a boy; I prefer blue over pink.

No really, I prefer 100% cotton over fiberglass. And, if possible, could I get something with no formaldehyde in it, if that's not too much to ask? I'd rather not breathe it for the rest of my (shortened) life.

Why yes, yes I can. The picture above is a close-up of recycled denim insulation in my house. It's appropriately called "UltraTouch," made by Bonded Logic. They transform 100% cotton bluejeans (and jackets, I guess) into insulation batts, and treat it with a non-toxic boron-based fire retardant that also resists mold and mildew. Thermally it performs just like any other insulation.

Here are bags of R30 (for ceilings) stacked unto heaven in the Great Room. This is only half of it; the rest was in the kitchen.

Now, to be fair, you can get the pink fiberglass insulation without formaldehyde now. But still, I've installed that stuff. I itched for a week. Even though I didn't personally install this, it felt good to not worry about what I was breathing, or what I was touching, or what I was tracking around on my shoes. It's just cotton. And mostly recycled cotton at that. I walk through the house now and touch it on purpose.

Here's the R13 in the walls of a bedroom:

And in the short walls of a skylight:

At the stone wall in the Great Room:

And in the walls of the Great Room skylight:

So, is blue more expensive than pink? Yes, but not by a whole lot. It's actually cheaper than the spray-applied insulation that was in my budget. So I ended up saving money off the original quote by going with these cotton batts. Besides, I think it's worth spending a little extra for a product that's better for people and nature.

The next post will continue this all-natural-architecture theme: interior wall boards - no paint, no stain, no sealer; just pure, simple and beautiful southern yellow pine. Smells good too.

Monday, September 3, 2012


Here's what a passed inspection sticker looks like!


That's what a failed inspection sticker looks like. Stuck to the stainless steel of my front door, no less. I had to use a razor to peel it off. In this case the plumbing inspection failed only because the house was locked when the inspector came. There was a key hidden nearby, but apparently these inspectors don't pay attention to that, even if you tell them where it is. And they don't call you if there's a problem. And they don't tell you when they are coming. "So I just have to leave the house unlocked all day??," I asked my builder friend / consulting general contractor, who called in these inspections. "Yep." So I had her call for re-inspection on a day I knew workers would be there. Then the plumbing passed.

The house did fail a couple of inspections for other reasons than the house being locked, though they weren't exactly legitimate failures either. The heating and air system failed at first because, as my builder friend texted to me, "there's no insulation on the ductwork in the unconditioned space." I texted back, "There is no duct in unconditioned space." "That's what I told him," she said. So he came back out to look again and passed it. One glance at my section drawings would have shown that not only is no duct in unconditioned space, there is no unconditioned space in this whole house.

Then the framing inspection was put on hold until the inspector could measure the heights of the window sills in my bedrooms. He thought they looked too high to pass the egress code (but didn't have a measuring tape with him at the time). That made me nervous at first, even though I remembered looking up that height in the code and being very careful to follow it. I knew it was close, and I started to worry that the inspector would interpret the rule a little differently than I did. Was it 42 inches to the top of the wood sill? Or 42 inches to the window frame? That's a few inches of difference. I looked at the code again and it specifically says "sill," not "frame," then I went out and measured the height to the sills: 42 inches exactly. Apparently the inspector interpreted the code as I did, because the next sticker I saw was a "pass" for the framing. And I vowed to give myself a little more wiggle room in the future.

Oh yeah, and the plumbing failed originally (before it failed because the house was locked) because water pressure had not been applied to the pipes before the inspector arrived. This was just an oversight. We called the plumber out to add pressure and then it passed.

Come to think of it, the electrical wiring is the only part that passed immediately.

This series of inspections is called the "rough-in inspections," since they are done after all the systems have been roughed-in - plumbing, electrical, mechanical. And in this county they lump the framing inspection in with these. I felt relieved when everything finally passed, since each one is unconventional in some way, or ways.

The next inspection was for the insulation, which passed on the first go-round, amazingly enough. But this insulation deserves its own post, so that will be next. Teaser: It ain't pink.