Oh What a Feeling

Some high end homes use wood planks on the ceiling with a great effect.  We thought it would be nice to do something similar but less expensive in the living room between our exposed beams.

Then, considering our open plan and hard flooring, I began looking for acoustic wood panels.  These are available with any number of perforated patterns and, backed with a acoustic insulation, will dissipate and absorb sound.   I found this, this, and this to work from.  We like the wood slat pattern, so I priced it between $8,000 and $12,000!  WHAT!?  Not for us!

66_Ceiling_SuperAcoustic13-3Panel    66_Panels_01    66_Picnic

So I touched base with Dick Lutin and James Lidecker ACS Sign Solutions, a local sign shop recommended by several colleagues, and if I supplied the plywood they could do the CNC cutting/drilling for nearly 1/10 the price.  Awesome!

The boards sit on aluminum angles with a foam gasket between to help reduce vibration.   The angles anchor directly into the exposed beams (my mom came through town with a friend while these were going up and we had a picnic lunch) and the panels slip up between,  just like regular 2 x 4 acoustic ceiling tiles.

66_Ceiling_01   66_Ceiling_02   66_Ceiling_03

I was anxious about messing up because I didn’t have any extra panels made.  It was a trick to work around the electrical rough-ins.  A few seams show because the plywood is bowed and the edges don’t meet up flush.  Once these are straightened out this should look perfect.

66_Panels_02   66_Ceiling_05   66_Ceiling_04

If they perform acoustically as calculated, these should be about the same as having carpet in the room.  So it should look great and be functional!  The beams were stained yesterday (for higher contrast, and to lead the eyes outside) and the insulation installed.  We’re just waiting for the painter to apply varnish, and we’re moving on to build the open-riser stairs!


All Work No Play

I’m putting in a LOT of time.  We’ve established a routine and every couple of days is blurring together.  I can’t tell where I end and the house begins.  I’ve probably dropped 15 lbs. and I’m pretty sure there’s a Tyler Durden version of me by now, with a Marla Singer version of Melissa attending single parent support groups.

65_Wall Base_01  65_Wall Base_02  65_Wall Base_03

But we are coming right along.  I hired help to install the pre-hung doors (except 4 that were delayed), and the cabinet installation was also hired out.  (A dedicated cabinet post has been drafted.) I’ve spent most of my time staining and finishing interior wood.

65_Kitchen Cabinets_01   65_Kitchen Cabinets_02

The baseboard was the first to go in and delayed by drywall “errors.”  The drywall bottom was not installed straight and corners were not lining up.  As if the intent was unclear.  Before drywall work began I suggested it be set on cleats for best results.  Of course the builder said that’s probably what SHOULD have been done AFTER the fact …and after the 4th time of correcting issues.  Have I expressed my frustration with  his ‘coordination’ yet?  The drywaller complained about all the call backs.  “This has been a challenging house.”  Them’s strong words for an 84 y.o. gentleman.  If he had done it right in the first place…

The wall base looks slick.  Other trades are coming in and going, “huh.” I’ll take it as a compliment.  (I have a running theory that the best compliment a non-creative can give is, “Well now… that’s different.”)

65_Door_01   65_Door Casing   65_Door Casing_02

Door casing went in after base and, edge easing, staining and finishing aside, it went up fast.  Window sills and aprons were the same.  The woodwork makes the house look more like livable space!

65_Window Sills

Huge thanks to friends and family for the help!  I’m at a point where I shove a tool into someone’s hand and say, “please do this,” then go work on something else.  Not very social, but highly productive.  THANKS Kyle B., Matt W., Jason P., Stephen T., Al E., Paul S., and Dan W.!

This weekend we worked on the infill panels between the exposed beams in the living room.  More to come on that.

The Pace Quickens

We’re busy throwing in more labor now and coordinating gaps in scope.

We’ve been out and about looking for an accent tile for showers.


Due to a snag between Home Depot, GE, and us, we had to take delivery of our appliances Monday instead of the end of April.  So they are in storage off site.  For real?  Uh, yup.


We changed the plastic finish edge at the bottom of the drywall to a different type for a better, cleaner finish.  This caused a slight delay but we want it done right.  A lot of corners didn’t match up.  I marked locations on Monday and most of them were already fixed (still awaiting final mud coat) by the end of the day Tuesday.

64-Drywall-Errors    64-Drywall-Locations

Doors arrived yesterday and my installer showed up shortly after and most of them were in by the end of day.

64-Door Delivery

I wasted a LOT of time testing stain mixes to get the interior wood trim to match the flooring.  I ended up at Sherwin Williams and they NAILED it.  If you ever need to do this, just go straight to the pros to get it right.  Most of the wood base boards are stained, and I’ll be finishing and installing it through next week.

It’s been fun reaching out for quotes on flooring, hardware, plumbing and lighting fixtures, (not to mention quotes on labor for work we would lag on) but it’s a work out!

Tick Tock

Melissa talked to a friend who had a production home built while her sister had a custom home built.  She said her process was pretty smooth, but her sister bitched non-stop about the custom builder …and that really captures the part of the story we haven’t blogged about yet.  Sorry to all of our friends, family, and co-workers who have become weary when asking about the  house.  The project is moving along, but the nuances of mistakes and delays are definitely under our skin.

Better Be Prompt!  63-TickTock-SCZ_03  63-TickTock-SCZ_02

We met with our builder early this week to discuss a few things:

Our 9-month term construction loan ends in two weeks (we have to purchase an extension)

  • The three other builders we initially talked to (and even the banker) said this was a 5-6 month project.  We added 3 in the term of the loan to factor in our involvement.
  • They say in construction you get to pick 2 of these 3: Quality, Reasonable Cost, Timely Completion.  We’ve obviously picked the first two, but this is ridiculous.
  • Delays were blamed primarily on the alternate beams ordered outside his regular supply chain to save nearly $8k (even though I prompted him of the lead time several times well in advance – the part of the story he seems to have forgot.)
  • Delays and mistakes by the fireplace installer, outside of his regular supply chain, were also mentioned.  They did screw up.
  • The many other factors were not brought up.  But the worst is that he takes no personal responsibility and offers no sense of urgency moving toward completion.
 The sequence and schedule of the remaining work
  •  The order of events are not entirely intuitive, it’s good to get them straight.
  •  There is a LOT of “owner performed work” coming up and I need to know how to spread my vacation time out.
Scope of work: who does what
  • A couple weeks ago I reminded him that I planned to provide and install wall base and door casing, and asked when / where the doors were coming from.  He said those were on my plate because that’s part of an interior trim package (despite that my intended performance was outlined in detail and handed to him well before we signed a contract).  We wanted to ensure more “oh, that’s your scope” things weren’t going to creep in from other aspects of the build.
  • We were able to push painting back onto him.  His pro will work 3 times faster and have to do the touch ups at the end.
  • We were NOT able to push any flooring back onto him because our selected products (also shared with him from the beginning) are not carried and therefore not installed by the 1 resource he uses.  This was news to us.

The lesson we learned is that “custom builder” is a loose term.  Our builder has primarily one resource for each trade, and if you look outside of those resources, his oversight, loose organization and coordination falters.  This explains why he could offer nothing when asked what to change in the initial design to control costs following his first estimate (despite 35 years experience), and does more to explain the many days with no action on site (tradesmen tied up on other jobs, no one else in the queue).

Builders have been forced to work on smaller profit margins to remain afloat this past decade; their process is lean and streamlined.  This eats into front end planning and supervision.  It would seem prudent to have reviewed the consequences of this earlier, especially considering the arrangements we made regarding scope of work and the greater vigilance for coordination it requires.  You know, just all around good ol’ communication.

It’s clear that we picked the wrong partner for this project, but we’re over that fact and only interested in facilitating our move-in as soon as we can.

Regardless, I still intend to share The List in another post (I keep track these things).  It’s only fair to share red flags that should send you running to another builder.

Blown In

We know some freakin’ fantastic people.  Stephen T. said he was available if I needed help.  Out of the blue.  Like I said, fantastic!  He fed bales of insulation into the blowing machine while I hung out in the attic, aiming and distributing the product.  It looks like snow.  We had a little extra material so that went in too and we probably have r-55 up there.  Like the drunk octopus ductwork pictured below?  We heaped a little extra over those and even used some spare batts.

62-Attic Before Insulation             62-Attic After Insulation

We took partial delivery of our interior trim – most of it from Melissa’s dad (what we worked on in his shop) and partially from an outfit called Quarter Sawn Flooring.  The base will be flush with the drywall – 6″ on the first floor and 4″ on the second (I’m holding 4″ up on the 1st floor in the picture.)

62-Trim Delivery             35_Zabel-BaseDetail

62-Trim In Place-01             62-Trim In Place-02

Stephen and I got to work to the music of the drywall crew as they slam bammed through the house hanging drywall.  And auto-tuning still doesn’t sound any better in Spanish.  It’s starting to look like livable space!  

Our esteem for the builder goes up and down; down regarding his lacking sense of urgency and coordination.  But when we pointed out a lot of screw-ups by the drywallers (and their blatant negligence of the wood stored on site) he had our back.  Anything missing or damaged, they have to replace.  They might get kicked off the job too.

62 Drywall Progress

We’re on the verge of a lot of finish work, so I redrafted a schedule and our move in date will likely miss the 9 month term of our construction loan (even without our involvement factored in).  Regardless, we have a lot of fun stuff coming up and I will try to keep on top of progress here!

Insulation Installation

TL;DRWe got a huge discount on fiberglass, and had an air leak sealing product applied to the wood framing.  We installed the insulation two weekends ago with a couple days off work:

61-TheCrew   61-Selfie_01   61-Selfie_02

The most popular options for home insulation are 1) fiberglass, 2) cellulose, and 3) spray foam.  Foam also seals against air leaks (greatest cause of energy loss) and comes in two types – open cell and closed cell.  Open cell matches the thermal resistance of fiberglass around R-3.5.  Closed cell has a whopping thermal resistance of R-6.5.  It has a low expansion rate and also adds structural support and is vapor impermeable. 

I REALLY wanted to super-insulate this home, reducing the size of equipment and energy use to maintain it.  Closed cell spray foam insulation would do it.  However, it’s pricey, and most bankers and builders, ours included, see no benefit (ROI) in exceeding code minimums.  We are an incredibly short-sighted culture.

There’s a hybrid method: spray a thin layer of foam to seal air leaks then fill the rest of the wall cavity with fiberglass or cellulose.  It’s called “Flash and Batt” or “Flash and Fill.”  Open cell foam expands too much, so this is only done with closed cell foam.  As a vapor barrier, Building Science must be considered!  Flash and Fill places a vapor barrier on the exterior side of the wall (appropriate for warmer climates), so in colder climates, the right depth must be provided to avoid condensation within the wall, or hello mold.

61-Fiberglass     OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA     61-SprayFoam

I got pricing to insulate several different ways:
Closed Cell  – $21,900
Flash and Batt  – $12,900
Open Cell  – $12,600
Fiberglass + Installation through Builder  – $6200
Fiberglass @ retail + Self-Installed  – $4200
> Fiberglass with Trade Discount + Self-Installed  – $1,000
> EcoSeal + Firecaulking – $1,600
> Odds and ends - TOTAL – $2800

The foams were too costly.  But we still wanted superior air sealing.  There are different versions of air sealing products to be paired with conventional batts and we used Knauf’s EcoSeal.  We purchased insulation at a huge discount through a friend.  Since we found nobody to install a product they didn’t provide (with the huge mark-up), we are also saving on labor costs by DIY.  And learning something too.  Cool.

R-21 High Density Batts w/ Kraft Face – Exterior Walls
R-49 Blown-In Fiberglass – Attic
R-51 Unfaced Batts – Attic where inaccessible
R-15 Unfaced Batts – Basement Walls
R-11 / R-19 Unfaced Batts – Interior Walls/Ceilings for Acoustics
R-38 Unfaced Batts – Garage Ceiling / Living Room Floor & Rim Joists

61-Before Insul_01  61-Before Insul_02  61-Before Insul_03  61-Before Insul_04 EcoSeal
Took pictures of everything before installation to know where things are later on!  The blue stuff is EcoSeal.

Day 1 - 2nd floor exterior walls
Day 2 - 1st floor exterior walls and all interior wall acoustic (with Melissa in the crew)
Day 3 - basement exterior walls, rim joists, garage ceiling and 1/2 the 1st floor ceilings.  Huge thanks to Matt and Josh (Melissa’s brothers) for help!
Day 4 - remaining ceilings, mark studs for final framing changes, make/install vent baffles

61-Insulation_01   61-Insulation_02   61-Insulation_03

I followed up during a couple lunch breaks, insulating the 3rd Bdrm and stair ceiling with spare batts after I realized the pain it would be to access, even for blowing in insulation.  Overall, insulating is not rocket surgery, it just takes time.  And when your glasses fog up from wearing a face mask, it doesn’t evaporate in below freezing weather.  GrRr.

61-VentBaffle_01      61-VentBaffle_02      61-Insulation_04

Soliloquy on Siding

We’re currently bouncing back and forth between a subcontractor’s incomplete fire protection and a hardass building inspector (the kind you really want, actually).  I picked up the incomplete work this weekend and we’ll see if we pass the re-re-inspection this afternoon.  In the mean time, I wanted to dish details on siding.  When I find time I’ll add pretty pictures.

TL;DR – Given our options and budget, we’re using painted Hardie siding, furred/spaced off of the sheathing and vented at the top and bottom…  in most places.

Siding material determines the look of a building just as much as the shape.  “Sustainable” guidelines urge materials that require less energy to produce, to maintain, and are lasting.  While we LOVE the warmth and texture of cedar siding, it requires fairly regular maintenance.  While vinyl is durable, it looks unnatural and has a high environmental impact (see blue vinyl).  One industry answer to meet demands is a fiber-cement composite, (some makers use recycled fibers), and comes in both panels and shingles.

We wanted integrally colored fiber cement; it requires no finish, or refinishing if scratched or gouged.  Zero maintenance.  There are few manufacturers.  We found two serving our area – SwissPearl, and Silbonit.  The first is over 6x the cost of regular fiber cement, and the second, over 2x.  Too much for our budget.  (Admittedly, we were never provided the breakout cost for exterior paint for a real comparison).

Another option is a recycled paper product from Richlite.  Again, over 2x the cost.  There are also laminated composite panels like Parklex, EcoClad, Trespa, which can come with wood grain finishes, but are again about 6-7 x the cost of regular fiber cement.

Our original design included aluminum “reveal” joints (seams) between panels.  These provide a slick modern look.  Fry Reglet, EasyTrim, and Tamlyn are some makers.  Through a change order, we “value engineered” these out of the project, opted for wood trim “battens” to cover the panel seams, and saved $2600.  We lost a really slick detail, but the trade-off adds up quickly.

In the days of cheap labor lap siding would be mitered at corners.  It’s typical now to use a vertical piece of trim instead to simply cover the corner.  We, however, used a pre-formed metal product to mimic the mitered look, providing an uninterrupted horizontal line.  Our builder, his supplier, and installer was unfamiliar.  On the very first corner installed, the sub contractor used a vertical trim piece because the metal corners weren’t delivered.  Melissa commented that this is like a kid saying “I didn’t see a meal on the table, so I ate candy for dinner.”  The trim was taken down and the corners were installed as designed.

An age old method, forgotten but seeing a recent resurgence, is use of a “rainscreen.”  This is where the siding material stands out from the surface of the exterior plywood on strips of material 3/8″ thick or more (furring).  This provides a secondary drainage plane and airspace for vapor to dissipate.  We’re learning that this increases the performance and life of the wall assembly and the siding material itself.

There are two versions.  One has open joints or gaps around each siding piece.  It’s dead sexy because of the contrast between pieces and the stark punctuation of deep shadow lines.  However, it requires a more expensive (UV resistant) house wrap on the plywood surface underneath, and seems to me like an invitation to nesting insects like the mud-dauber wasps.  We opted for the other version where the only venting gaps are at the top and bottom of the wall (and openings) and is protected against insects with a mesh.

Furring is/are strips of material between the substrate and finish.  I called for 1/2″ treated wood  in the drawings, following any requirements of the siding manufacturer for warranty (some recommend a rubber strip between the siding and furring).  The good guys at BUILD LLC have success ripping down composite decking for this.  And a good friend pointed me to Cor-A-Vent, a hollow plastic furring with a proprietary insect mesh vent/drain for the top and bottom.  The sub had figured in 7/16 plywood for furring.  We sourced Cobra Vent and ripped it to 3″ wide sections for the insect mesh.

It eventually became apparent that the builder and his sub were not familiar with a rainscreen application.  What’s worse than your builder/sub not understanding something specified (like a rainscreen): NOT ASKING QUESTIONS.  The work was half way done before I showed up and pointed out that there were no vents above or below windows and doors.  The argument: “but then you’d have a gap, and that would look weird!”   I overestimated their comprehension and failed an opportunity to bring them up to speed.  Who looks at the drawings anyway?

We’ve learned time and again that the sub contractors should ask more questions and make fewer assumptions, especially when the drawings show something atypical.  (The electrician has been exceptional, asking questions at every step!)  The thing is, everyone (including you and me) wants to perform their job as efficiently (easily) as possible, which tends to overlook the big picture/end result.  That’s why general contractor selection is critical, because coordination is their job.  An excellent GC will coordinate work before it starts.  A good one will make sure it gets done right, even if it has to be redone.  And a bad one will do it their way and convince you to leave it.