Sunday, February 27, 2011

Retaining Wall, Revealed.

Here's the footing, peering at it from the East. The little blue foam caps are stuck on the rebar so that people are aware of them and don't accidentally trip/fall.

This is a beautiful sink that was about to be thrown in the dumpster next door. I also collected two stainless steel sinks, but this one is a very heavy ceramic (or cast iron with enamel?), in great condition!

I have hired Dylan to move "urbanite" (broken up chunks of concrete) to my site from down the street. They just recently jackhammered down a 4-foot-high retaining wall two houses down, and so there are a couple big piles of concrete chunks. I'm hoping to make a short, dry-stack retaining wall with this material somewhere in the backyard.

And here's the form beginning to come off of the retaining wall:

This is a spot at which concrete leaked up from the wall's footing, up from behind the form. When I saw this concrete spilling out during the pour, my immediate thought was that the wall had blown out somewhere, and my brain was scrambled to pieces for 10 seconds until I realized that it wasn't a form-break (and consequently not a huge problem).

This is the cavity in which the stairs will eventually go:

A look from down the sidewalk:

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Concrete Pour

A lot has happened since the last post! After having sat in front of the computer for 3 weeks while my finger recovered, I was just itching to get back to the site (and the computer has been terribly unappealing since). Below is an update of the last week and a half of work...

This is what the site looked like during those three long weeks of recovery:

Last Saturday, I was blessed with the presence of my friends Dylan (my sister's neighbor) and Ariel (a student at NC state). We did a pretty good job of transforming the site in the previous photo to the site below. It also took a good chunk of Sunday to finish all the details of the excavation, and get it down far enough below ground level. Dylan and I dug until 11:30 PM on Sunday night, with worklights (and a delivery of pizzas).

This past monday, my first official employee (ever!) showed up. Jeremy will be working with me on most Mondays and Tuesdays over the coming month. He has had a great deal of experience with conventional construction in California, and also has done some strawbale work in Virginia. He convinced me that we should install "batter boards," which is the system of posts and strings that you can see in the photos below:

The whole idea with the system is to locate a level, "square" (meaning perfect 90-degree angles) rectangle. Most people do this before digging the footing trench.

Below is the footing form that Jeremy and I made for holding the poured concrete. The footing is essentially a thick, wide, concrete perimeter that will hold the weight of the house.

Because the ground is sloped, I designed the concrete footing to have two levels (like a terrace, or step). Here is the part of the form where the one level transitions into the other:

I got one load of gravel in my little truck, and then decided that it would be a ridiculous waste of time and gas to drive back and forth to bring the additional loads that I needed. So I ordered a big truck to come dump a big pile of it for me to conveniently take from. The gravel will be used for drainage purposes - underneath the footing, beside the footing, around the retaining wall out near the sidewalk, and so on. Whereas clay expands and seals itself off when it gets wet, gravel creates a whole community of little negative spaces through which water can drain and safely leave the underbelly of a building.

As the house footing project was beginning, I simultaneously decided to take down the retaining wall in the front of the lot (as it was old, poorly crafted, and falling over). I was able to push over all of it just using human power and a 5-foot, steel dig bar. You can see the remains of it up on the lawn.

After knocking down the old, it was time to make space for the new. This was another couple days (and nights) of digging.

This past Tuesday, Jeremy and I began building the form for the retaining wall. Every single retaining wall in this neighborhood was built vertically (and are all seemingly about to fall over any minute), so I decided to design the wall so that it tilted back against the earth at a 15-degree angle. Think about how much easier it would be to push over a wall that's standing in a vertical position, versus trying to push over a wall that's leaning against you. In the first scenario, you just have to tip it enough to let gravity take over. In the latter, you have to overcome gravity just to get it to vertical, and only then will you be able to heave it over. This is the challenge that I am setting for the earth behind the wall.

I continued working on these forms through the week...

It is important to get all of the details very tight and clean, so that I can eventually get the forms back off after the concrete is poured (and reuse the wood). If they aren't built meticulously enough, then concrete can seep out and entomb the wood for all of time with its gray, cold grasp.

Dylan volunteering some form work, in his I'm-going-to-the-moon jacket. The trapezoidal shape of the form around which he is working will be the space in which I will build stairs (probably concrete with brick steps):

The form is ready for concrete (finished the morning of the pour - phew!):

The night before the pour, Dylan and I again got out the worklight, ordered pizza (and beer this time), and set up for a long night of gravel-dumping and rebar-setting. I never ended up getting a great photo of our work, but here is one that my brother-in-law, Doug, took the following day of both Ian and the rebar (the rebar is the steel rod sticking up out of the gravel - it acts like a skeleton inside the concrete, so that if the concrete breaks or shifts with the earth, it still holds together).

My future digging partner in action!

The truck has arrived. It's quite a logistical nightmare to figure out how to pour. It's especially stressful because of timing. The truck can only stay for so long (so that the concrete doesn't set up inside of it). The chute can only reach so far. The truck can only back up so far. And so on...

On the afternoon of the pour, I had more help from Dylan, and also had my friend Danielle out (she's the builder of the two-story cob house that I have featured photos of before), and also my nephew! Doug generously offered to pick up Ian from school to take him on a personal field trip to see the pour. He's a big fan of heavy machinery - diggers, trucks, you name it. Below, Dylan and Danielle are pulling the concrete through the form.

For the second tier of the pad (which the chute couldn't reach), Dylan and I devised a wheelbarrow plan, involving two wheelbarrows and a precarious ramp.

First, the truck would fill the barrow.

Second, the driver would lift the chute (and stop the flow of concrete), and I (or Dylan) would begin pushing the barrow underneath the chute (through a shower of concrete droppings), and up the ramp. By the end of the pour, my hat was covered in concrete, as was my left arm, my shoes, and my whole backside.

 And thirdly, we would strategically pour the material out wherever it needed to go (or, in some particularly stressful instances, we would tip the barrow and spill the concrete all over the pad where we didn't want it - you can see one of my spill spots in the photo below, to the left of me).

For the retaining wall pour, I adjusted the chute to the right length and angle, and then the driver was able to slowly drive the truck along the road and pour as he went. Danielle held a sheet of plywood across from the chute the whole way, to re-direct any escaping concrete down into the form (like a really stressful game, almost).

9 yards of concrete later, and the pour is complete!

Today I began to remove the forms, which was very much akin to the feeling of opening christmas presents when I was seven. Tiana, below, is one of the neighborhood kids who have been consistently interested in visiting the site to check on the progress of things.

And the footing after the form has been entirely removed. I was really pleased with how the pour went, despite how rough a start we had (for any number of reasons). I will admit that it was probably the most overwhelming building experience I've ever had (aside from certain teaching experiences), but was very satisfying to get mostly right.

Tomorrow I'm excited to remove the form from the retaining wall!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

How do we communicate ideas?

A lot of what I have been doing on the computer is creating a collection of images with four viewer groups in mind:

1. the city planning department (givers of permits)
2. an engineer (to approve the structural integrity of my design)
3. my parents (the clients)
4. myself (when I want to look back at this project in the future and remember exactly what I was thinking)

In a lot of cases, the same image can satisfy all four groups. In some cases, it helps to first make a technical drawing and then a more visual image, both representing the same thing, but for two different sets of eyes.

In any case, it's interesting to think about visual communication. The benefit to being my own boss and not being tied to conventional construction is the freedom I have to design a unique visual identity for expressing my projects. If I was an engineer or a general contractor, I'd be drawing things up in the same way, by the book, for every project. Consider this: the planning examiners at city hall had offices around the perimeter of a room full of cubbies - and all of the cubbies were the same size, and were filled with very similar-looking scrolls of drawings, which look less-than-stimulating (void of color, mostly void of the third dimension, etc...). It's very obvious why the common aesthetic for new residential construction in this country is as terrifying as it is - check out this song (this is the original, and the best - there are versions by countless other artists, including regina spektor, if you want a different voice), and consider its meaning.

Even without getting into building ethics, it's very interesting to think about communication. For example, in my head I can say "I want my parents to understand that from this hallway, these rooms can be accessed, and because it is high-traffic, the hallway has a wood floor, while the rooms have earthen floors, and the outlet in the hallway is for a lamp that can be turned on by it's cord, or by a switch at the other end of the hall, etc..." - but I don't want to say all of that over and over to every person I talk to; I want an image that says it all. (I am pretty happy with the "mini floor plans" in the previous post, as a way to explain important information about the layout that cannot be gleaned from looking at the unadulterated floor plan alone). Below are three things that I've been working on, and am going to continue with today. I'll post the updates later on...

Here is the same image from the previous post, but with the simple addition of arrows and 2 quadrilaterals (which represent planes in space, corresponding to sides of the building). Instead of using words, like "south side" and "west side," and encouraging the viewer to match the corresponding words, maybe this is a more visually-competent solution?

Here is my latest attempt to provide structural information about the details in the post-and-beam framing that are difficult to understand in the larger context. Playing with the transparency of certain structural members in the smaller images has allowed me to show all of the details around a complex construction point, and then reference the dimensions of each member.

Here is the first (and rough) draft of my wiring layout. There will additionally need to be a more schematic-like diagram to show all of the circuits, but this image is more appropriate for the client, in order to open up a discussion about where certain outlets are, what switches need to be operable from different points in a room/hallway, where appliances should go, and much more (like the location of outdoor outlets, dimming switches, details, details, etc...). The whole floor plan has been altered since making this drawing - this was pre-post-and-beam, even - so I will make some drastic changes to this today).

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Revised Floor Plan

Through a design conference with my parents, it was decided that switching the kitchen and office spaces might be an improvement so that the office (where my parents quite a bit of time) could be very near to the house's heat source (the gas stove). In playing around with this, I happily came upon countless other reasons to make the switch:

1. Kitchen will get morning sun through the horizontal line of windows between the two roof lines
2. The office is a great "through" space (like a hallway), and it's more efficient to have through-spaces in the middle of the house, versus around the perimeter
3. The kitchen will feel like a destination, not a through space
4. The exterior door from the office will now be a more central exit into the backyard, and can lead on to a deck tucked neatly between the kitchen and bed cubby
5. The office, where my parents spend most time, will be in the physical center of the most popular places for my parents to be during the day (the kitchen, living room, bathroom, and backyard)

Here's the new roof line (I wanted to keep the kitchen ceiling pretty high to make it feel spacious - it's about a 12-foot ceiling):

Below is the revised floor plan: 

Following are 4 mini-plans that detail certain types of spaces within the floor plan:

And here is some updated work in regards to the post-and-beam framing design:

Happy Birthday DAD!

Friday, February 4, 2011

The post-and-beam framing design is pretty much complete! (until the engineer challenges the structural integrity of it, that is...)

I made the following diagrams to explain the components of both the green roof and foundation in greater detail than can be gleaned from solely looking at the computer model:

I collected three rather large windows from Craigslist years ago in Syracuse, NY (my hometown), and they have been sitting in my parents' attic ever since. My father will be coming to visit in March, and bringing these gems with him. I don't want to have too many windows on the North side of the house, in order to avoid unnecessary heat loss, but I thought two of them would look nice together and provide a liberal view from the living room. The eyes of the house, if you will. Will you?