Thursday, December 13, 2007

"As Long As He Keeps Using His Finger, We're Fine"

Barry the builder on the left, Ted the architect on the right, sketching out a detail for the cedar siding. "Detailing" is where the design rubber meets the execution road, and you want your architect and builder to meet, both physically and mentally.

As Pete and Shawn blocked the roof joists, Ted and Barry figured out some alternatives for the lapped cedar siding, which will cover the framed walls (including the green part on the right of the picture). Based on these discussions (I shot photos of the snow drawings so Ted could document them in a little more permanent media), Barry's going to mock up the different options so everyone can make an informed decision and Barry's crew will know exactly how to execute it for real.

The objective here is to warm up the structure with the cedar, but keep it modern. So the shape of the groove between the boards is key (square-ish, not a V, some slope on the bottom to let the water run off), the finish of the boards is important (smooth as a baby's butt, not furry), as are the corner details (a little aluminum edge sticking out at the miter just to give that "machine" look (that's a Ted-ism).

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Manger is Ready for Christmas

Now that the steel is all up and the roof joists installed, Barry and his crew have put down the first layers of the roof over the dining/living room and master bedroom. So the finished ceiling there is done.
"Huh? How does that work? You haven't even installed the standing seam galvalume yet."

Well, this is no ordinary roof, it's an Arctic Hot Roof. If you have an attic, you probably have a cold roof design, where the space in the attic is unconditioned and insulated from the living area. In the winter, it's cold in the attic, and therefore the roof itself is cold, preventing snow from melting on the roof and getting water into the house. It's a good system, but it's not perfect (the space has to be vented, which creates opportunities for moisture and critters to get in there, moisture can seep up from the conditioned space, the moisture can turn to frost in really cold climates, and so on.)

The Arctic Hot Roof, perfected in Canada and other cold climates, focuses all its insulation (6" of continuous rigid foam) and waterproofing efforts on the roof structure itself, and doesn't require an attic. All the air under the roof plane is heated (hence the "hot roof"). That's very helpful for this design, which has a massive shed roof (thanks to the covenants and restrictions that required a pitched roof). It also means that the maple veneer plywood ceiling panels were the first layer on top of the roof joists. I hope I like them....

The windows finally got ordered (the window company is very nervous), so the manger won't be one for long.

Friday, November 16, 2007

It almost looks like something

Ted, my esteemed architect, took these shots after Barry, my esteemed builder, put up the roof joists, apparently in high winds. No one was hurt, and they look terrific. They're glulams from Rosboro--not much more expensive than dimensional lumber, straighter, and so good-looking they don't need staining (but they'll be sealed, of course).

By now Barry's trimmed the joists, and might even be laying the roof. The interior side will be maple plywood panels between the joists, the exterior will be galvalume (galvanized aluminum).

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Stairway to Work

Barry the builder (Bob didn't return my calls) just sent a new batch of photos. Here's the stairway to the study and the terrace over the guest wing. The form ties have been snapped off of the concrete (thanks, Jason), so now the wall looks a little friendlier.

The rest of the steel is also up, as is the engineered lumber that will support the roof joists. The front steel frame will support the curtain wall, which will have black mullions (Dramatic? Yes. Too heavy? Perhaps.)

Jason also finished the concrete pouring with an overhang for the garage, and the concrete step ramp (this one's for you, Allstate).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"It'll pass inspection, but they won't insure it"

So one of the design issues has been what to do with the path up to the house--a concrete step ramp or a simple gravel path. To save a little money, we opted for the simple gravel path.

Not so simple, apparently. The building inspector said that it's probably OK vis a vis the building code, but no insurance company will cover it. In the winter, that slope will turn into a nice little toboggan run, without the toboggan.

Back to the concrete step ramp it is...


The West facade will be a curtain wall of sorts (more like a "window wall", but that's a painful story told in the bar), and it's going to need some support. Hence the steel frame, which will also hold up one end of the large shed roof.

We're still waiting for the shop drawings from the window manufacturer, so I'm concerned that, without the windows, the roof will go on and create a big wind bucket. The other question is: what color should the mullions be? We're leaning heavily toward black, since anodized aluminum isn't within the vendor's capabilities. What color would you suggest?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I Have Wood

The concrete work is now done, and the conventional framing has begun, using 2x6's so that we can stuff more insulation into the structure. The green stuff is called "Greenguard Raindrop" by Pactiv (which also makes Hefty bags), and is new to me. It's a building wrap that, unlike Tyvek, has channels that will allow any moisture that gets behind the cedar siding to drain out to the ground.
It supports a "rainscreen" approach, which says "I know that I'll never be able to completely prevent moisture from getting in behind my siding, so I'm going to make sure that that space behind the siding can breathe and drain out the water."
That's the theory. Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

New Decision

This is the approach from the car court, going up to the front door; on the left is garage. This was intended to be a concrete "step ramp", that, unlike a set of normal stairs (we don't have enough rise to go with the long run) would have a "step step walk walk walk walk walk step step walk walk walk walk walk rest" (I'm winded) rhythm. Nor is it a straight ramp ("wheelchair races at 5, everyone"). Yes, it's narrow. I've decided to like it.
Also, note how the path leads up to and aligns with the window. Ted, the architect, wants you to notice this important detail, which is why architects make the major coin.
So Ted is now suggesting that maybe we leave this path just as crushed stone. What do you think--see the poll at right.

Glimpse of True Potential

The excavation has been filled in and all the vertical concrete is done, with the flatwork remaining (or maybe it got done this week, I'm not sure). Ted, the architect, shot this perspective from the Northeast, which really puts the structure into context and, for me, gives me confidence that this design is actually going to work.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

OK, that's high enough.

We've finally topped out the concrete, with the flatwork remaining. The above view (Lucky included for scale) is from the West, with the top of the nearest wall being ground level and the base of the curtain wall. The large wall parallel to it defines the East edge of the public space.

From the Northeast, the ground level on the left is the kitchen, and the study will be above that, with a door to the terrace over the guest wing and some windows.
From the East, the box in the foreground is the garage, featuring pre-cast concrete planks (the slabs with the holes in them). We're using these to better support the "green terrace" that will go on top of it. This terrace has a few things going for it: a softer, more natural view from the master bedroom, a cooler garage, and less forceful water runoff in rainstorms. And, if I get my act together to install a graywater system, free irrigation water.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Thanks for your input. We're going in a different direction.

As for that poll on what color of fiber cement we should use for the siding (Barn Red or Charcoal Gray), um, never mind. The reds we looked weren't going to work well with concrete, and the combination of charcoal gray, concrete, glass and window frames couldn't come together, no matter what we tried. Plus, the charcoal gray that looked halfway decent was getting real dark, and we were in danger of this place being called "The Black House." I'm not particularly concerned about resale, but this is nuts. Maybe next time, expensive Swiss imported siding...

So, we're moving to the more conventional, safer one-step-short-of-cliché cedar, but not the cedar shakes you're familiar with. This will be what some people call "channel siding", where the boards are long and thin, and not beveled, but are ship-lapped and offset so that there's a narrow (half inch?) channel in between boards. Probably horizontal.

To keep this from becoming rustic (shudder), we'll use select, no-knot cedar and galvanized aluminum trim elements to make sure it's really clean. Everybody, including Barry the Builder (Bob wasn't available), seems to be happier and somewhat relieved. I'll budget for periodic maintenance.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Higher. No, *Higher*.

It's gettin' up there. Above is the view from the Southeast. The grey box to the right is the basement for the guest wing. The wood forms in the foreground are for the master bedroom's basement and the taller forms to the left are for the high wall sections on the South and North sides that will support the shed roof.

Here's the opposite angle, from the Northeast. Again, most of this is basement wall. The grade will come right up to the top of the wall on the right, which will support the curtain wall facing West.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Going Vertical

I got to witness the first big concrete pour on Thursday--very impressive. There must have been 9 or 10 concrete trucks showing up every 20 minutes or so, for over 3 hours of pouring.

It was hot and it was humid, and the crew worked their butts off. It was also somewhat humbling to find out it took a solid week to set up the forms to accomodate the T-Mass insulation, the wire reinforcing mesh, etc. Concrete guys probably like corners less than any other building trade, because it's a beast to get every form perfectly square with all the zigs and zags the walls make. Sorry guys!
The construction economies I had expected ("I'll just pour the T-mass walls and I won't have to insulate, paint or install vapor barriers" would seem to have disappeared. Aesthetically, t-mass was still the right way to go, and I still expect to save money heating and cooling the place due to the tightness and the thermal mass effect of the concrete.

Above is a panoramic photo taken 2 days after the pour, comprised of 5-6 regular shots, so don't be thrown by the bowed walls that are artifacts of the stitching-together process. There were some glitches with the aggregate hanging up and creating some voids, which is an issue with the above-ground parts and particularly those on the inside, so we'll have to come up with a touch-up approach that looks authentic and not "appliqué" – my architect's personal bête noir.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Taking Shape

The footings have been poured and now the forms are being set up for the concrete and the T-Mass insulation (the blue stuff). Note the connectors, which I'm told are poor thermal conductors (that's a good thing), that make sure the insulation is in the middle of the wall and tie the two concrete walls together.
The structure in the middle of the photo is the master bedroom, which is somewhat separated from the public space. The idea here is to let people visit without my being there, allowing them the run of the house without me having to make my bed or pick up the towels. Not the most cost-effective design decision, but peace of mind is a wonderful thing.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

*That* Goes into the Sales Brochure

The concrete guy, who will be doing the T-Mass work, has been slightly delayed because he was pouring T-Mass walls at the new penitentiary.

Monday, July 23, 2007


There's many a ton of concrete in this beast (in polite company around town it's called "the concrete house"; I don't want to know what other, more judgmental labels have been attached to it). That's a lot of gray.

So we're going to break up the gray concrete walls with siding, gray siding. Darker than the concrete--pretty much a charcoal gray.

I'm toying with more of a barn red, which has caused long conversations with my architect. He's not 100% against it, mind you, but also isn't sure it makes sense. During the discussion, he pulled out a photo of a Steven Holl (one of the reigning starchitects) building that's all red (bright red). He terms this choice "intentional", which on reflection hurts a little--so my choice is random?

So, time for more input: charcoal gray or barn red. Remember, this siding lasts for 40 years.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Many contractors; I feel important.

The out-of-place Bimmer is mine, but will someday feel at home with the kitchen guy's Mercedes wagon (hmmm).

Barry, the general contractor, invited the key trades to meet with me and the architect, and with each other. The concrete guy won the show-and-tell award with a four-foot square sample of the T-Mass wall construction, with the Pella windows guy coming in a close second with donuts.

Kidding aside, having this kind of a kick-off meeting was a terrific idea. We caught all kinds of minor inconsistencies and omissions, and might have saved a couple bucks of rework and change orders in the process. Everyone now has a face to associate with a name, and for those that stuck around, I bought lunch at the local restaurant and cheese emporium.

I have a big hole

I guess I'm committed. There's a big hole in the ground (about 60' across) and, I'm embarrassed to say, several old Oak trees that are going to make some wonderful flooring for someone.

Some of those trees had some big rotted areas inside, so they were due, and they blocked the light from many of the younger, struggling trees, so it's not as bad as it may seem, I hope.

To get a sense of scale, double-click on this picture to see Ted, the architect, taking a picture of the Oak we really want to save. This one will stand right outside of the kitchen and provide shade during dinner prep, and frame the right side of the view to the West.

You'll also notice a fair amount of rock below the thin coat of soil. It made for tough digging, but at least there's no clay, so we're expecting few water problems. And check out the roots that have penetrated the rock.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Modern Expectations in a Traditional World

How do you know when you're on the same page with your collaborators (architect, contractors, subs)?

For some things, where you can say "I want the Kohler faucet #12345 in Satin Nickel", you're done.

Try doing this with concrete. For this house, much of the exterior wall is unfinished concrete, as mentioned previously. Concrete is a wonderful material, but it's not like picking out a faucet. How do you agree on what "light, warm gray, but no brown or beige tones, natural-looking, without too many defects" looks like?

You can't.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Program

"Programming" isn't what you think; in architecture-land, they talk about "the program" instead of "requirements" or "the brief".

In a nutshell, the program for this project is:

  • Create a getaway house that is as different from the client's (hey, that's me!) vintage condo (in Chicago) as possible. This means modern, airy, secluded, no brick, lots of glass.
  • Organize the structure so that friends can visit, socialize and then, when they're tired of socializing, go somewhere private.
  • Give the owner (me) the same option, and isolate my private space so that people can visit and not intrude on my private space.
  • Give me a place to work, but again, isolate it from the public spaces so that it's out of the way when entertaining or relaxing.
  • Get lots of light, but avoid being hot. The architect loved that one...

Concrete Momentum, and Panic

Momentum is the force that gets difficult projects done and keeps people from changing their minds. It breathes life into all sorts of undertakings ("Relationships are like sharks, they need to keep moving forward to stay alive. What we have here is a dead shark." --Woody Allen in "Annie Hall.")

This project ("Chartier Hermitage") has been in the works for a couple years now, and almost got built last Fall, but it lost steam when we couldn't resolve some key issues. The biggest decision was how to build and insulate the concrete walls. Concrete has essentially no insulating value of its own (although it acts as a thermal mass, like a stucco wall), and there a few ways to keep out the cold:

  • Conventional insulation on the inside--frame a wall against the inside concrete surface and fill the openings with your favorite insulation material.
  • Insulated concrete forms--the concrete is poured between forms made of a rigid Styrofoam sandwich. Called "ICFs" in the trade.
  • The "Thermomass" approach--another sandwich, but the reverse of ICFs. Concrete makes up the bread, and Styrofoam insulation is the filling. The two concrete walls are held together by plastic ties that don't conduct heat.

You guessed it, we're going for the third approach. This means that there can be a bare concrete wall on both the inside and outside, so the structural material is also the finished surface. ICFs force you to add another couple of layers to the wall on both sides, This has a lot of appeal for modernists, and, given that I'm paying a ton of money for this T-Mass approach, you're gonna see every inch of that concrete.

It also creates its own set of concerns:

  1. Not many foundation contractors have experience with this technology.
  2. It's a proprietary technology, so there's no price or product competition
  3. It's therefore not cheap. How much "not cheap" is difficult to say, because of #1, not many people do this. We couldn't get a true apples-to-apples comparison to the conventional approach because we couldn't find two T-mass foundation guys. So, while this project is in southern Wisconsin, our concrete guy is coming from Minnesota.
  4. The finish of a concrete wall is somewhat of a crapshoot. You can clean the forms so they shine, use the right release agent, spec the concrete recipe precisely and use fancy admixtures, but there's no guarantee that it'll come out the way you wanted.

Hence the panic. We start pouring in 10 days; until then, I'll be dreaming about concrete...

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Pulling the Trigger

It's been a long road--I'm on my third builder and the expected cost is twice what I was shooting for, so I've been sitting on this decision since last Fall, when I called a halt to the project. In movie business parlance, this project was "in turnaround."

The design hasn't changed much: the light grey is concrete (lots of concrete), the dark grey is fiber cement panels (more on this later), the tan stuff is wood, and there's a huge curtain wall of glass facing west-northwest. Oak trees surround the East, South and North sides of the house.