Thursday, February 11, 2010

Shop 'til ya drop

Since I am still hemmed in by poor weather, I have used the time to shop for deals, among other things. If you are to stay on budget you must be aggressive in looking for deals, even if it is something you won’t need for awhile.

My latest conquest, of which I am immensely proud, was a very nice Kohler toilet I found in the clearance section at Home Depot. This is a brand new $200 toilet I got for $14. For those of us who are math challenged (I’m including myself), that is a 93% discount. There were 4 and I bought 2. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t get all of them. I also purchased some Simpson Strong-Tie HTT22 Hurricane Grade Tensioners. These retail for $16, and I got them for $6 off ebay. Now please don’t say there aren’t deals to be found. It just takes looking.

At the very minimum, I’ll share a simple trick that I have discovered. Many of you may find yourself shopping in Lowe’s quite often. If that is the case, I can save you 10% off every single purchase from now on. Email me if you’d like to know how!

Monday, February 1, 2010

That warm, fuzzy feelin'

Seeing as it has turned from rain to snow...AGAIN (ya killin’ me), it is a good time to turn to my heating solution.

I had originally planned on simple propane heaters in a few strategic locations. It won’t require much considering the efficiency of the structure. However, half way through the slab grading, with a little encouragement from my helper, I decided to switch to in-slab hydronic radiant heat.

OK, now I knew next to nothing about radiant heat. In fact, I had never even heard of it before reading that first strawbale book. However, I found a ton of good data on the web, but ended up on the web site of these folks (

Now, here is my first endorsement. First of all, these guys offer free design services. I simply emailed my a rough sketch of my design (basically layout and dimensions), and they did the complete design, parts take-off, and quoted it to me. The design was mine for free, whether I bought from them or not. However, their prices were very competitive, and they offered free shipping, too.

Second, they offer turn keys kits. For a guy like me, that's perfect. All pre-assembled, shipped to your door, only need 3 or 4 connections and your done. I LOVE IT!

Now there are some important factors when using radiant heat. It won’t be such a challenge considering I will be using it in Tennessee. Winters (normally) are not severe. However, it is important to insulate the slab below and on the edges, since that is where most of the heat loss occurs. I have insulated mine following the example of the Red Feather manual (used in the Dakotas...much more severe winters). I have installed 2-inch rigid extruded polystyrene insulation all under the slab and around the perimeter. The 2-inch board has a value of R-10.

One thing to keep in mind in Tennessee is termite preparation. It is code, anyway, but I would have done it regardless of code. The side border insulation could especially be an issue since termites might try to come up between the insulation and the slab.

Once the insulation board is down, it is important to mark wall locations with spray paint. The reason is after the slab is poured, you can’t see the PEX tubing, and if you have laid it under the place where an wall is going it is much more likely that you could drive a nail through it. Not a good thing!

So after the board is down and the walls are marked, I set the interior slab rebar. Now this is another detail which most contractors won’t do. Most concrete contractors would put down that wire mesh for slab interiors (if anything). The problem with the mesh is when the concrete is poured it just pushes the mesh to the bottom. The whole point of the steel reinforcement is to add tensile strength to the concrete. Concrete is awesome in compression, but in tension...not so much. However, the steel does no good at the bottom of the concrete. So rather than using the mesh, I used 1/2 rebar 18-inches on center, in a grid on plastic stands, above the rigid foam. This keeps the steel in the center of the concrete, and gives you a good tie point for the PEX tubing.

When tying the PEX to the rebar, I used plastic wire zip ties instead of the standard concrete wire. This is probably overkill (I’ll admit it), but this reduces the chance of the PEX getting cut during pouring. Better safe than sorry, right.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Crap rolls down hill

That statement my be obvious to most, but then we have already established that I am not a rocket scientist.

More weather delays, so I decided to go ahead and assemble all of the under slab plumbing in the shop and install it as one piece. What became obvious very quickly was the precision required. I had exact measurements in 3 axis where all of the piping needed to be. However, as I began assembling it hit me that I might have a small amount of play where the toilet and sinks were concerned, but the shower drain had to be spot on. It took me 3 days. I was being very cautious, as the saying goes...”measure twice, cut once.” However, I found myself getting discombobulated in my mind very easily while trying to cut, and figure angles, and whatnot.

I finally got everything cut and fitted, with only 4 trips to Lowe’s (and only wasting two joints. Not bad for a total novice). I have to say I was very proud of myself...OK, yes I realize a plumber could have probably done the whole thing in 10 minutes. But hey, the point was to do it myself, and I guarantee it would have cost more than the $21 of pipe and fittings if a pro had done it.

So I get to the building site, trying to beat the rain (which was due at noon), and as I am ready to install the plumbing I notice that the p-trap for my shower drain was installed below the 3-inch sewage pipe.

Now, for those of you out there who say, “so what?”...crap rolls down hill. So had I installed it as is, that p-trap would have filled up with crap, literally, and I would have been up crap creek.

SO...back to the truck, I cut the section off to move the p-trap, of course not having the requisite parts. Off to Lowe’s again (trip #5), and when I return to the site...the bottom falls out AGAIN! Now I know how Noah felt.

So I’m waiting for dry weather again...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A solid footing

WOOHOO! We have dug our footing. After months of weather delays, road building, and other issues we have finally broken ground. We have settled on a monolithic slab.

After reading the concrete book, I had specific ideas of how a slab is to be properly done. The book, Foundations and Concrete Work (For Pros By Pros), is written from the perspective of a foundation repair expert. In other words, this guy goes in and fixes what other concrete people do incorrectly, years after they have been paid and left. Now from the reviews, not everyone loved the book, but I found several things in it that were helpful to me...since I have never dealt with concrete at all.

What I quickly realized, and what you will probably run into as well, is that doing something the right way may not always be the common way.
One of the first comments I received was “That’s overkill” in regards to my rebar design. However, according to the concrete book, rebar should be overlapped at every corner, stair or change in direction. That is all I did. By the way, I am VERY stoked about how my slab will come together (but more on that later).

Suffice to say, I am glad to be making some progress.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Filling in the mental gaps

Now that the design generalities were settled, there were many things I needed to consider. Specifically what types of technology was I going to implement in this design, and how is the best methods to implement them. As I said up front, I am not a builder. However, I know some things, as most people would classify me as “handy.” Nothing related to the building process seemed like rocket science, no offense to any contractors out there. I’m no rocket scientist myself, though I am related to one.

So I began a process of trying to get a handle on some areas of construction science I would classify myself as “weak” in...namely concrete work, plumbing, and to a lesser degree, electrical. After hitting libraries and bookstores, I found a series a books by Tauton Press that seemed to speak to me. I bought books on concrete, plumbing, electrical, and drywall.

Remember, though, one goal of the whole project is low cost, so borrow when you can, and when you can’t shop aggressively.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The design process

I have always been interested in architecture. There was a time in high school when my plan was to attend Auburn University to learn architecture. I went another way with my education. However, my interest in architecture never went away. On our honeymoon, my wife and I travelled down the Natchez Trace touring all the beautiful antebellum plantations along the way, and staying in a few that were now B&Bs. When we travelled to Ireland and the U.K. we always marveled at the architecture.

Yet in my mind, architecture isn’t just about creating beautiful spaces. I am generally a very pragmatic person. Frank Lloyd Wright, the great American architect, designed many interesting and beautiful buildings, but he always seemed to ignore the practical aspects of the design, in my opinion. Now before all you architects jump down my throat for challenging your idol, let me explain.

I believe use and maintenance should be part of the design process. I want beautiful structures, but I also want structures that are low maintenance so that they stay beautiful without constant care. Wright’s structures almost always had major issues like leaks, requiring major retrofits in some cases.

So in my design process, I wanted to focus on several factors.

Aesthetics. We wanted an Italian style villa, and I looked for technologies and materials that would stay true to the style.
Ease of construction. I am building this myself, so I wanted to focus on construction methods that I could implement without having to hire specialists.
Low maintenance. I don’t want to spend every year after painting, and staining, and working on the structure. So I focused on design issues that “take care of themselves” so to speak.
Low cost. I had set out from the beginning to focus on building a structure that just about anyone could afford to build.
Efficiency. I wanted a super efficient structure that would not only be inexpensive to build, but would also be inexpensive to own (heat/cool).
Growth. This first building is my test case, so I wanted a design that could be expanded later if I choose.

My initial designs ideas were timberframe construction, poured concrete forms, earth berm...anything I could find I considered. I was leaning toward timberframe, as I have access to a bandsaw mill and it was my intention to cut and mill my own timbers. But as I continued to research, and sought information through discussions with engineers, architects, and of course, the internet...a friend, who also was interested in the same things I was looking at, told me I should look into strawbale structures.

Now my reaction was probably the same as the one you are having now...”WHATHA? Straw...are you insane?” Images of the three little pigs were going through my mind. He let me borrow a book he had, the Red Feather Handbook for Strawbale Construction (I think). It was very interesting. So I began searching the internet for more information and technical data. The more I researched, the more it seemed like a viable solution.

I ran across Andrew Morrison’s website,, and began getting more and more questions answered. Andrew runs strawbale workshops, and I decided to attend one in New Mexico in September, just after closing on our land. The workshop was somewhat helpful. I can’t say it was priceless, not because of the quality of the workshop, but because on the second day I got sick as a dog and missed half the workshop sick out both ends (like you wanted to know that). It was apparently altitude sickness, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

Anywho, I was able to get all the information I needed, and that settled my design. I would build a post-and-beam structure with strawbale infill.
This design fulfilled all of my requirements. Inexpensive (if done right), easy to build, super efficient (data I have found rates strawbale around R-50), and low maintenance (again if done right).

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Beginning...sorta

Snow in the Deep South! Are you kidding me?!? Unfortunately not. More weather delays (which I will touch on shortly), so I have decided to track my project via blog and this website during these snowy days and beyond.

Pardon the length of this first entry, but I need to catch everyone up to date...

This project has been in the planning since August 2009. Not a very long time, I’ll grant you, but there it is. My wife and I had been talking about building a place for our growing family for a short time. In August we decided to put our condo in Huntsville, Alabama up for sale and begin planning.

Now what is the saying about the plans of mice and men?

Anywho...we figured with the economy in shambles, and the crappy housing market it would take several months for our condo to sell. One week...ONE WEEK later it is sold.

LESSON 1 - Unexpected things happen.

So we’re off and running...soon to be homeless, no definitive plans, and no property to build on (though we had been looking, so we weren’t totally without ideas).

We began an aggressive property search and within a few days had settled on a beautiful 11 acre piece of heaven in Prospect, Tennessee. We closed on our condo sale at the end of August, and closed on our raw land in the middle of September. Whew! A place to go and grow...

Within a couple of weeks I had pretty much hammered out my design and am ready to get out to the property and start working. Then came the October rains.

LESSON 2 - Weather is unpredictable.

I think it rained every single day in October. The weather folks said this October was the wettest in recorded history. Are you kidding me?!? I went out to the land several times and piddled around cleaning up trash, moving rock (by hand no less...did I mention I am 43! Idiot.). Then I came to my senses and bought a Yanmar 2610D tractor with front-end loader. AWESOME! I love my tractor.The rain continued.

It got a little better in November. I started having the drive (or road) put in. This is one of the few areas I had someone else do the work. However, it rained about every other week so it basically took two months to get the drive in. 1100 feet of chirt, and 2 inch crushed limestone base over 2 running springs. It is absolutely beautiful, but a nightmare trying to prep it for a building site road.