Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Construction & move in complete: A year in review and Happy New Year!

Since our last post in February we have been so busy being general contractor, construction manager, millwright, wood sander, and wood stainer/polyurethaner along with our full-time jobs, and the girl’s school and activities [Whitney (13, 7th grade) and Laura (9, 4th grade)] that we did not have time to update our blog.  Now that the Holidays are here and most of the house construction is done, and we have a little time off we finally have some time to update the blog.  Since building the house was so much of our lives this past year, this blog will also serve as our Holiday letter.

By the end of February the “shell” was pretty much complete:  Reward System Insulated Concrete Forms, poured concrete walls from foundation up to Energy-Heal trusses, concrete basement floor with foam insulation + capillary drainage pea gravel + drainage tile underneath, seamless metal roofing, primed drywall, Anderson windows, Protecto Wrap and foam sealing around the windows + any obvious potential air leak locations.

 Even before the attic was insulated the subcontractors noticed how tight and energy efficient the “shell” was compared to a traditional stick built home.  During the winter months they used a large propane heater to warm the working space.  They kept it on the lowest heat output at first, but it soon became clear that even this amount of heat was too much for a house as efficient as ours, and so turned off the heater.  The pilot light continued to burn and that was enough heat to keep the house warm enough for the work crew.  On sunny days it actually got too warm inside the house for most of the crew.
To maximize the thermal mass available to absorb as much solar heat as possible we installed tile on all floor surface area of the main floor except the master bedroom and walk-in closet.  In addition the lower level concrete floor (except the two bedrooms, the bathroom and mechanical room) was acid-stained a dark “coffee with cream swirls” coloring with a high gloss epoxy finish.  With this extra heat radiating from the floor thermal mass, the furnace never ran even though it was fully operational before Spring had sprung!

Knowing how energy efficient the house was going to be, we chose the smallest advanced wood burning fireplace.  We have been extremely pleased with the BIS Nova fireplace, and we now have had two months of experiencing why, in Europe first, and finally now in America, they call homes like ours “houses that can be heated with candles.”  The Geothermal forced-air furnace never runs when the fireplace is in use and the upstairs maintains a constant temperature somewhere in the range of 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit.  When we installed the B-vent for the fireplace we ran another run of B-vent in the same chase for a small soap-stone free standing woodstove in the basement.  We have not purchased the woodstove yet, because we want to monitor how the house performs with just the fireplace and the furnace fan circulating air.  So far it does pretty well, but the downstairs zone of the furnace does run occasionally, even when the fireplace upstairs is in operation.  When we install the soap stone woodstove, I am very confident that the furnace will not run since the downstairs will be heated first and then the heat will of course rise up the open stairwell to the main level.


By the end of February, all of the rough electrical and dry-walling and priming had been finished by the subcontractors and Riemco crew.  Since there is no empty space in the exterior walls and there is 3 inches of Styrofoam on either side of the concrete, all wiring in the exterior walls is pressed into the foam of the insulated concrete foam forms.  Then the drywall is attached to the insulated concrete forms by screwing into the plastic “ribs” that provide the scaffolding within the blocks.  (The scaffolding just connects the inner and the outer foam “walls” of the blocks).  In locations where there is a need to attach a built-in to an exterior wall it is very helpful to cut out the drywall and attach plywood or OSB to the plastic ribs so to make it easier to screw into the wall and not have to “hunt and peck” to try to find the plastic ribs.  After the drywall is installed, it is necessary to drill into the concrete to attach anything of significant weight in locations where you do not know where the plastic “ribs” are.

In locations where there is a need to attach a built-in to an exterior wall it is very helpful to cut out the drywall and attach plywood or OSB to the plastic ribs so to make it easier to screw into the wall and not have to “hunt and peck” to try to find the plastic ribs.  After the drywall is installed, it is necessary to drill into the concrete to attach anything of significant weight in locations where you do not know where the plastic “ribs” are.

 At the same time Riemco subcontractors were adding thermal mass to the outside of the shell which included a combination of the cultured stone (installed in February) and cement fiber board.  During the evening of sunny days I can really feel the heat radiating off of the siding.  

In addition, soffits, eaves troughs and downspouts were added.  The three foot overhang minimizes the solar gain through the windows during the summer to reduce the heat gain in the house when the sun is high, and maximizes the solar gain through the windows (facing 5 degrees east of south) during the winter months when the sun is low in the sky.  The soffits and the energy-heal trusses allow for an 18-30 layer of blown-in cellulose insulation (on top of 8-inch thick fiberglass batting) without letting the cellulose “escape” into the soffit and still allow good airflow on the underside of the roof decking from the soffits to the roof vents at the peak.  In addition Mary, Whitney, Laura and I built foam boxes out of 3-inch thick closed cell foam that I sealed to the drywall over the can lights using caulk and spray-foam window sealant. 

 In March as Riemco and the Riemco subcontractors were installing the septic field and tanks, and were finishing up their portion of the construction of the “shell” of the house (including the drywall and priming), we began the part of the construction that we were responsible for.  This included shimming & foam sealing & dry-walling around all the windows, tiling the master bathroom, interior painting, interior built-ins, stairs, bamboo flooring, as well as standing and running trim.

During Pete’s Spring Break from teaching at the Early College Alliance @ Eastern Michigan University  (  www.earlycollegealliance.org  )  Pete painted the entire interior of the house with a first coat of paint.  It took 8 days averaging 14-16 hours per day, and at least 1/3 of that time Pete’s dad was helping paint as well.  After doing the first coat, and after thinking about all of the other work that had been done and what still needed to be done, we decided to hire someone to paint the second (final) coat of interior paint and to polyurethane the stairs.  Tom and Gina Bratton (TRB Painting) did a great job and were so kind to come back multiple times to do touch up.  

Then for about a month in April into May, each evening after work and on weekends, we tiled the master bathroom using slate on the floor and porcelain on the walls.  Prior to tiling the shower, a waterproof isolation membrane was painted on the walls and pan.  We were fortunate that Mary’s sister Carol flew out from Los Angeles for several days to work with us to get a large portion done and to give us lots of expert advice.   We were very glad we put so much time and effort into multiple coatings of sealer on the tiles and cleaning the epoxy grout from the surface of the tiles.  It turned out beautifully, and it has worked fantastically.

Over the next month, during May and June, we installed 5/8 inch thick tongue and groove strand-woven Bamboo flooring in all three of the bedrooms.  Whitney choose a Tiger Strand pattern, Laura chose “Natural” which is a blonde color, and Mary and I chose “Carbonized” which is looks like medium-dark stained oak.  All of these floorings are three times and strong as oak.  Since Whitney and Laura’s bedroom floors are in the lower level, we used a special moisture barrier adhesive over the concrete to install the bamboo.  Although it was very sticky and messy, with proper planning, precise cutting and layout, it worked very well, and turned out spectacularly. 

We also made our third and most successful attempt at purchasing Motowi Tiles for the fireplace surround.  We did this by being very prepared for the bi-annual tile sale at the Motowi factory.  We had learned much from our first two tile sales and from follow-up visits to speak with employees.  Mary learned from them that the best plan of attack on tile sale day was to come early with a large cardboard template of your fireplace and surface area that you want to tile, know what color of field tile you are looking for, grab as many of that color as you can when the doors open, and go find a place on the floor in the factory that you can lay out a pattern that works for you.  That is what we did and it was quite an experience!  I dropped Mary off about 1.5 hours before the doors opened.  She was second in line, with work to do as she waited.  I went to pick up all of the interior doors for the house and returned about 15 minutes before the doors opened joining Mary in line.  When the doors opened it was a free-for-all!  We grabbed a cart and boxes and went to the table with all of the green tile.  We grabbed a bunch of boxes of green (but not all of them).  I heard some lady in the throng say “are you going to leave any for us?”  As I walked by her I smiled and said “this is what the Motowi fireplace designer/expert told us to do and I think we got just about the right amount of tile for our fireplace,” and we did!  Now all we have to do is wait until we no longer want to use the fireplace sothat that we will get a window of at least a month after tiling when the mortar and grout can cure without excessive heat from a fire.  So sometime late Spring or early Summer we will do the tiling and build the mantel out of 5/4 Cherry that we already have.

Also in the Spring, we hired Robin Reilly (Rob’s Remods) to help us determine additional areas that needed sealing and insulating and to finish the insulation and drywall around the window “buck-outs,” and to “customize” the IKEA kitchen cabinets.  Robin performed a blower-door test that creates a vacuum in the house which allowed us to determine where any air leaks were in the “shell” of the house.  We did not find many but we did find that there were small gaps at the bottom corners of the windows where the Protecto-Wrap prevented the spray-foam insulation from completely filling the gaps at those locations.  We also found air leaks where the electrician had drilled holes in the wall caps of the interior walls to run wiring in the walls.  This was detected at all of the electrical plates on interior walls, so obviously these holes in the wall caps needed sealing.  We did not find any air leaks in any of the exterior walls.

Robin’s plan and customization of IKEA cabinet boxes was an excellent and creative idea that allowed us to get great cabinet hardware, and save cost substantially on the boxes compared to having custom boxes built for the kitchen.  He had done something similar in his own kitchen.  Using the ¾ inch cherry wood planks we already had, and ¼ inch cherry plywood from the local lumber company, Robin “skinned” the IKEA boxes so that they look like solid cherry from the outside.  As a mock-up/practice for the kitchen, we started with the laundry room and mudroom, where we also installed IKEA door fronts that we purchased.  This was the only location in the house where we used the IKEA door fronts (we made custom door and drawer fronts for all other cabinets and built-ins). Doing the laundry/mudroom area first allowed us to make sure we liked what we planned on doing in the kitchen, and gave us a template from which to work, and get specifications for the doors and drawer fronts and make jigs to increase the efficiency when it came to working on the much larger space that the kitchen cabinets would take up.  It also allowed us to work out all of the kinks.  The boxes were very easy to assemble and the Euro-style IKEA hardware with their soft-closers work very smoothly and are very durable.

In the Spring I planed all of the kiln-dried oak planks down to ¾ inch, then sorted it by size and quality and placed it on a drying rack inside the house to keep the moisture levels consistent to reduce the wood’s expansion and contraction.  Once again, just like with the Sky-Trac, we were very fortunate that Riemco came through with a very helpful offer and was so kind and thoughtful to let us use a drying rack that they had built.  It was also great timing that my Sister Ellen’s family was visiting about the time I had become tired of all the planing and carrying lumber.  They were very helpful in helping me finish the planing and carrying lumber inside and stacking it on the dry-rack.

All Summer long from sun-up to after 10 pm every night, and often until midnight or after, I worked doing site management, general contracting, clean-up and set-up, and millwork (cutting, planing, rounding-over, and sanding) all of the standing and running trim.  Mary worked every evening sanding and staining.  Whitney often helped in the evenings;  She spent most of the Summer either cleaning and packing getting ready for the move and prepping our other house for rent or sale.   After work [at Geosyntec Consultants (Environmental Engineering)] Mary picked Whitney up and brought me dinner.  Laura helped occasionally, but most of the summer she spent helping her grandparents on the farm.  Our good friend Max, who is an experienced carpenter built most of the non-kitchen built-ins, and I assisted as needed.  We were also very fortunate that Max lent us many great tools to use while he was away building a restaurant in Belize and they continued to be all summer long when Max returned to help us.

About mid-summer we took all of the best ¾ inch cherry planks to B & B Hardwoods to have them glued up and sanded to make 85 door and drawer panels for the kitchen, wet-bar, entertainment center, and master bath vanity and cupboard.  In August we picked up the large stack of various oversized panels.  Max started cutting, rounding over, sanding and then gluing and screwing rectangular dowels on their backs as reinforcement to prevent bowing of the door panels.  Mary and I finished sanded and stained them.  Once the doors and drawers fronts were sanded to our liking we hired a finish carpenter that worked for Robin who had experience spraying Ceramethane (a water-based polyurethane that contains finely ground-up ceramics) to create a very hard glossy finish.  We set up a “clean zone” in our garage and a large rack system to hang the doors and drawers.  Each piece (including all the interior oak room doors) was sprayed three times, and we sanded each item between each spraying and did our best to keep the “clean zone” as dust and insect-free as possible to prevent pooling and dripping of the ceramethane that creates bumps on the surface.

It really started looking like a home over the summer, especially after the subcontractors installed the finish electrical and plumbing and added the railing to the deck with the mission style detail we had chosen.  We also had a final official blower-door test to determine the "leakiness" of our house.  We achieved a 50 HERS score, and this final blower-door test allowed us to find leaks we had missed which we followed up with additional sealing.  We got our certificate of occupancy at the end of August right before the start of school and before Pete went back to teaching. 

Although we still had built-ins yet to do and much staining and some painting to do, we had all that we needed to live in the house comfortably for the Fall and the Winter.  To this date we still have finish work and built-ins yet to do, and of course many boxes yet to unpack and we have not hung a single picture on the wall.  However, more importantly we have had some great gatherings of friends and family; The weekend after we got our certificate of occupancy, we had all of Pete's co-workers over for a "pre-return to teaching party," then at Thanksgiving we had a gathering of 21 of Pete's family, and then over the Christmas/New Years Holiday, we had a variety of gatherings of 16 of Mary's family.  Thanks to everyone for joining us and making all of the gatherings so enjoyable and for "breaking-in" our new home with so much fun and good cheer!  We had a great time throughout the holidays with everyone and look forward to more gatherings.


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  2. The result is beautiful especially the cabinet and bookshelf.

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  4. Another informative blog… Thank you for sharing it… Best of luck for further endeavor too.

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