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Thank You Inspector! May I Have Another?


Sunday, September 6, 2009

We passed our rough inspection. That sounds slightly dirty, but it just means that the city inspectors have approved our framing, electrical and plumbing work. This is a BIG deal. It means that all the work we’ve put in since finishing the foundation has been approved. The next major inspection is the final. That’s the one that will allow us to legally move in. And really, the final is more of an i-dotting, t-crossing thing than a real inspection. The rough inspection is the one where they check the bones and guts of the house before you cover it all up with insulation and drywall.

When the inspector showed up, I was suffering from high anxiety. Literally months of work was being examined. It seems so strange that they let people get so far without checking their work. The day before the inspection I called the building department and asked them what I needed to have ready. They told me that our plumbing system should be full of water at city pressure and that the vents and waste pipes should be full of water as well. I hadn’t counted on that. So I hung up the phone, freaked out, mumbled incoherently and ran to the hardware store to buy stuff. I think that was some sort of Pavlovian response to building stress, since I hadn’t really evaluated what stuff I needed to buy. I walked aimlessly around Orchard Supply for about 10 minutes before snapping out of it and returning home.

In order to test the water system I first attempted to pump it up with air. If the system can hold 20lbs of air without losing pressure, then it will probably hold water. Unfortunately I couldn’t get 1psi of air into it. I ran around the house looking for leaks but couldn’t find any. My heart started thumping and I sensed pieces of the sky beginning to fall. Major leak. Major, unfindable leak. Major, unfindable, costly leak that will take days to repair. I called Bert, my voice trembling, asking him to come over to help. I figured I could pump in the air and he could run around listening for where it was escaping. After hanging up I realized that I had simply forgotten to look behind the fridge where we have pipes that lead to the outdoor shower. Hadn’t plugged those. Doh! Never mind Bert! Sorry! After that, (and after a few more unnecessary freak outs concerning maladjusted valves and a couple more spazzy calls for Bert’s assistance) the system pumped up fine. After days of soldering copper pipe together, I figured there had to be some leaks somewhere. Hundreds of joins are involved here. Either we got lucky or there’s gonna be a surprise water slide in the hallway a couple days after moving in.

Next were the toilets. They are installed in such as way as to make testing slightly difficult. Ditto for the way I had set up the washer dryer. Oh and I had forgotten to link the hot and cold water sides of the plumbing for testing. Oh and did I mention that this was the morning of the inspection? So at 6:30am I had three hours to fix all these problems before the city man showed up. Running. Running. Actually, normally I’m a fairly level headed person, even under stress. Sometimes too calm in fact. But that wasn’t the case this time.

The inspector showed up while I was hooking the hose up to the water system. I had to slowly flush it before applying full pressure. So while he walked around counting roof trusses and matching them to the engineering drawings I filled up several buckets of water from the ass-end of the system. He would ask me about whether we were planning any additional counter space, and then I would run out and see if the water was sputtering out or flowing out smoothly – showing that the air had been fully evacuated from the pipes. He knocked on the vents to check that they were full of water and walked around looking for any leaking water. He checked the bolts on my hold-downs (metal brackets that keep the shear walls from distorting). He told me he was going to make a list of all the things he wanted me to fix in order to pass. I asked if he would return the next day to check. He said I should call him when I’m done fixing things and he’d return to sign off on the inspection. In the end, there was no list. He wanted me to move one of my grounding wires over a few inches so that it was more protected on the wall. After signing the permit sheet he said that he almost never passes anyone on their first attempt. I thought I was going to pass out at that very moment. In the end I didn’t finally relax until the next day.

We’ve got some insulation dudes coming to insulate our house on Wednesday. Why are we hiring that out? It turns out that hiring people to do your insulation is cheaper than buying the material and doing it yourself. Weird, but true.

After that is drywall. This is also being hired out. Because hanging drywall sucks. And taping and texturing it is hard. Every single person I’ve talked to about this has strongly recommended getting a subcontractor for this.

Hopefully we’ll have real, non-see-thru walls in a couple weeks. After that… man… we start a new phase of finish work – installing the radiant system, kitchen cabinets, hardwood floors, interior doors, trim, and painting. And we gotta wrap this baby up before the real baby pops. Um… wish us luck – we’ll need it.

The Metamorphosis


Saturday, February 21, 2009

At one point today, when I had a moment to pause and reflect, I looked around the house and realized that Holy Smokes! We’re building a house! Adding sheathing to the gables and fascia to the trusses has transformed our little construction project into what can clearly be identified as a house. Now from the street it is possible to see what our new home will look like. It’s strange because while we’ve spent endless hours thinking about it and drawing it out and imagining rooms and layouts, I don’t think we really knew what it would actually turn out like. 

We’re racing the weather trying to get the roof covered before the next rainstorm. Once the house is weatherproof we’ll be able to start on the electrical and finish the plumbing and install the insulation. After that we’ll put in the drywall and then the rough cabinetry. Then the floors and trim and appliances and some paint and we’ll be moved in! I keep telling everyone we’ll be in by August. I must be optimistic because that statement is invariably met with skepticism. Okay folks, start your timers…

She’s Sheared


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

We have structurally improved the shear performance of our house against lateral loads and seismic stress. In other words, we attached plywood to the outside of our house with a boatload of nails. I guess we framed the house too. It’s sort of sad that framing goes by so fast. It’s one of the most fun phases of housebuilding because you accomplish so much so quickly. But just when you feel like you’re finally getting something done and giving real form to the house, the job is over and it’s back to more tedious work like blocking and sheathing. 

Allow me to digress. The framing process is relatively straightforward but fraught with pitfalls. First you lay out where the walls will go in chalk on the floor. Then you cut two pieces of 2×4 for the top and bottom plates of the wall. Then you measure every sixteen inches along both plates to mark your stud locations. My stud location is on Castro and 18th, but that’s a different matter. Then you separate the plates and nail the studs in between them, forming a wall on the floor. Finally, you tilt the wall up, nail the bottom plate to the floor and brace it so it doesn’t fall on your head. With super-efficient framers like Reggie, this process takes literally minutes per wall. But with me involved it can take up to an hour. Anyway, in a couple of days your walls are built. 

There were snags of course. The beam we designated for over our big opening in the back seemed woefully undersized. But a bigger timber beam wouldn’t fit between the top of the doors and the bottom of the roof. So I hit the books (specifically the AF&PA Design Values for Joists and Rafters) to find out how to size an engineered beam. All that homework wasn’t necessary however because those nice folks at Big Creek lumber helped me select the biggest, strongest and best looking beam that would fit. It took four of us to lift it into place and luckily, as the shortest member, I was relieved of my labor as my aerie-nosed crew heaved beyond my reach. 

Also, somehow, and I take all the blame, we ordered a transom window that won’t fit into our wall. I think we made our front door taller and thus squeezed the window out of it’s spot. If anyone needs a fine, fine, Marvin all-wood transom, I have a deal for you.

This week has been all about the plywood. We tore through a stack of it, cutting out around our windows, doors and vents and generally nailing it a lot. The plywood stiffens up the walls by applying a rigid skin to the frame. Now the walls don’t move four inches when you lean on them.

One great thing about all this framing, and I never anticipated how gratifying it would be, is that we finally get to walk through our house. We finally get to see how big the rooms are and how wide the hallway is. We see how big our windows are and what our view looks like. With the tub in the bathroom we can imagine what it will be like to take a bath and holler into the kitchen for a clean towel. It’s also cool because we can give people tours. We had a constant stream of visitors last week and Kari and I traded turns walking them through the house and handwaving where the cabinets would go and where we’d have the tv. There is a great sense of community here and we really feel lucky that people are friendly enough to stop by and are patient enough to let us show off our labor of love.

The Rain of Error


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Really I can’t complain. We had an entire January without rain. And… I know, we need rain in this drought afflicted winter in California. But man! we were SO close to getting our walls up before this rainstorm came along. So I’m a little sad. But overall I’m happy that we got as far as we did. The WarmBoard is in place and all the tubing has been stuck in the little channels and routed under the house to the main manifold. We measured out all of the walls and they are ready to be nailed together. All we need now is a couple days of dryness to build them and tilt them up. Anyhow folks, here are some photos of the first walls going up along with some other shots of our WarmBoard progress. Now that it’s raining I’ll work on all those websites I promised y’all.

Behind the Shack Door


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Well, although this blog has been silent lately, we have been diligently working. Ever since I got back from France I’ve been trying to get the plans approved by the city. And finally, last Thursday, they were! So after paying them a healthy, rather large, and rather unexpected large fee, we have our plans in hand and are ready to start building. But, uh, actually it’s not that simple. See, we want to put radiant floors in. And that means we need to have these special WarmBoard panels that act as both the subfloor and the holder for the tubes that keep the floor warm. They need to be ordered in special configurations that meet the layout of the house. In order to do that you have to figure out how many zones and loops you’re going to have and generally how your radiant system is going to work. The lumber had to be ordered as well. And we never poured the concrete piers for the inside of our foundation. And since we’re doing a truss roof, that needed to be configured and ordered as well. The rough plumbing, which includes the sewer lines, the waste line, and all the hot and cold water that will run under the floor all needed to be figured out and ordered. The One-and-Only-Greatly-Revered-and-Lauded George Williams was very generous with his time and drew these amazing schematics that showed how every part of our rough plumbing system would work. He then wrote up a manifest with every part we needed and got it priced for us (at a discout I might add). How awesome is that??? We owe George, big time. 

At this point, all of our construction materials are ordered and scheduled and will be delivered in a timely fashion. It’s like we’ve been laboriously pushing a big boulder up to a mountaintop and are about to let it fly down the other side. It’s a strange time to start building since it seems as though all building has stopped and since the holidays are just about to kick in to high gear, but that’s how we do. 

Last week Reggie and I installed our salvaged doors (with a super-expensive jamb added after-the-fact) into the shack. It gives the shack a certain viable presence now. Makes it feel like a real building. Also I dug holes for the piers and built forms for pouring concrete into them. I’ll get them inspected tomorrow and hopefully we can pour concrete into them on Tuesday. That will kick off the floor building spree. After the floors get built I’ll install the plumbing. Then the WarmBoard goes on, including the PEX tubing. After that the walls get built and then finally the roof trusses are tacked on top. I’m hoping to have all this done by February. Heh. Wish us luck.

Raise the Roof


Monday, September 15, 2008

We finally put a roof on the shed. Walking on the rafters scared me, mostly because I’m a big wuss. See the photos below. 

Here’s an update of our progress and plans so far. The old house has been torn down. We are cutting parts of the old foundation off so that we can make room for the new foundation. That will involve a concrete saw, a jack hammer, a demo bar, a sledge hammer and a 20 gallon can of elbow grease.

Next we’ll dig the ditch for the new foundation. I estimate that that will take about four days. Normally that would be a problem, but I have time to kill since the building inspector is at a conference this week. We’re still waiting for estimates from the truss roof dudes and the energy analysis dudes. The truss dudes are going to build trusses for our roof. They deliver them to the site, crane them onto your built up walls and then you just nail them into place. Sweet! The energy analysis dudes look at your plans and tell the Great State of California if your house meets Title 24 energy requirements. What are those requirements? Only people with computers can tell you that, but apparently it’s a pass/fail sort of thing. 

So while we’re waiting for the paperwork, we’re gonna dig ditches. Hopefully this will be the last set of ditches that we dig. We’re going to France in October and I’m hoping to get the foundation poured before we leave. 

We Sheathed It Good


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sheathing just sounds like a dirty word. It’s a romance novel word I guess. Well, today we sheathed our tall, hard, hungry framing in a sultry, passionate layer of dry wall and plywood. Bert and I were on our own on this one and it started out a little shaky. I was nervous about things. Not the things I didn’t know, but the things I didn’t know I didn’t know. Like Donald Rumsfeld famously said: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” That’s how I feel when I’m looking at a job I need to do and I feel like there are a million little things I don’t know that are going to come back and bite me in the rear after I’ve finished. There is a name for this educational technique –  learning things the hard way – or LeTHaW.

Eventually Bert and I decided not to sweat the details and we just make it happen. My natural pace is very, very slow. I like to think it all out, get nervous, run to the bookstore, buy a new tool, call anyone who I think might know, and then, very cautiously apply everything I’ve just absorbed so that I can screw it up in my own, unique way. Bert’s natural pace is lightning mode. In all fairness, I think his approach is better because his gets done quicker. But I simply can’t go at it like that because I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. As a team however, we make a good pair. Bert keeps the pace up and I fret about critical cuts or measurements. Today it worked out great and we managed to sheathe the shack (ewww) in half a day.

The first part of the day was spent capping the sewer line to the house. Sewer lines are awesome when they are empty. Ours is made out of something called Orangeburg. The only consistent information I seem to get about Orangeburg is that I should remove it as quickly as possible. It makes babies cross-eyed, attracts cats in heat, and is nearly porous after two years of burial. 

The lumberyard was next. I loaded up my truck beyond the capacity recommended by the lumberyard faculty and wheelied all the way home. 

Also! Our peaches are ripening. We sheathed our shack next to succulent ripening peaches. Ewww! And I have photos to prove it:

Something from Nothing


Saturday, August 23, 2008

I’m amazed at how much we’ve accomplished this week. Tuesday morning I was putting the finishing touches on a ditch in an empty yard and by Friday night the walls were framed. Kari has also begun planting in the back yard – we’ve got a tree fern, an elephant ear (esculant), a bougainvillea and a plum tree. Actually, the plum tree was already there but it seemed unhappy in the shady corner of the yard so Kari moved it to the sunny side. There is also a peach tree and an avocado tree in the back. Both of those trees look like they were cared for by blind lumberjacks, so Kari is working on pruning them so that they look like trees again.

Bert has been over every day, helping a ton and politely informing me of all the mistakes I’m constantly making. I’m like his adopted retarded son. Having people around makes the day and the work go by really quickly. Bert also has some serious skills when it comes to building stuff, so I really appreciate the additional expertise.

Framing is really hard compared to the concrete and floor stuff. Until Friday I thought it was the other way around – that concrete forms were really tricky and that framing would be a breeze. But a framer needs to be good with his tools, consistent, and smart about how, where and when things get nailed together. And it’s not always obvious in what order things should be built. Again, Reggie to the rescue. He’s very, very patient. Bert and I calculated that we were actually slowing Reggie down by being in his way the whole time. And of course I’m constantly pestering him with questions. But he’s a great teacher. Actually, he’s a real professor at San Jose State in the business department, with a doctorate and everything.

It seems like all of my building instincts are wrong. Today I was installing the sill (the board that sits under the window) for a window opening. First I forgot to support the header (the big wood piece that goes above windows and doors) with trimmers (2x4s that don’t reach the full height of the wall). Then I nailed the sill in without trimmers below that to support it. Basically, I’m stupid. But I think I’m getting less stupider. The whole point of building the shack is to learn how to build the rest of the house by starting with a more manageable scope. Still, I have high expectations of myself that I keep not meeting. Dang it!

Reggie brought his 6-year old son, Nathan over on Friday to help out. He found nails in the dirt with a magnet and located all the secret passages on the property, and eventually built a gate between the house and the back yard. He was pretty stoked on doing construction so he came back today and made a Nathan sign (photo below). He’s a really cool kid and based on what I’ve seen him build so far, I think he’s better at construction than I am. 

Also, I bought a nail gun. Don’t tell Kari. Nail guns don’t give you quite the satisfaction of manually hammering a nail in, but they sure make quick work of sticking things together. Too quick sometimes. Already I’ve hastily nailed boards together that shouldn’t have been only to have to pry 45 nails loose afterwards. I’ll try to make a video of the gun in action for all my graphic designer friends who think that a nail gun is some sort of pedicure device.