Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Front Door

Finding an entry door was much more of a challenge than I anticipated. The requirements in concept were simple - I wanted a door that looked as similar as possible to the neighboring windows in the foyer. I quickly found out that almost all residential front doors are made out of wood, not aluminum and glass. There is, however, a type of door that does fit the requirement - commercial storefront doors!

I started calling up various door vendors in the area including Vortex doors and Goldfinch Brothers, but had bad luck with all of them. The sales reps sometimes didn't respond, took forever to supply a quote, gave ridiculously high bids, or were disinterested in my queries. My guess is that since my search was rather unusual and one-off, the salespeople didn't see value in working with me.

After about 3 months of frustration, I finally found a vendor willing to work with me on a custom storefront door. Washington Door Service does about 80% residential and 20% commercial work. I ended up getting a Pacific Aluminum 300 series storefront door with the following features:
  • narrow stile
  • insulated glass
  • weather sealing
  • Adams Rite handle and locking mechanism
  • electrified door strike
  • hidden, continuous hinge
The door was manufactured and installed in 2 weeks time. It looks great, and I'll be able to enter and exit the house without needing a key!

Front door from the outside

Nice, modern Adams Rite handle

View from the inside

Monday, October 15, 2012


In my research, I came across many different types of insulation that one can install in a new construction home:
  • fiberglass - by far the most common and cheapest
  • blown-in cellulose - this is where, with the use of a special machine, one fills all the cavities between the studs with a loose-fill cellulose fiber insulation. The benefit this provides over fiberglass is that it behaves more like a liquid during installation. It fills in all the gaps that might be left with fiberglass batting, has greater thermal mass, and is easy to manufacture
  • open-cell foam - this is a type of spray-on foam. It does not provide air or water-tightness, but is easier to apply as closed-cell foam. 
  • closed-cell foam - this is by far the best and most expensive type of insulation I came across. Similar to the open-cell insulation, a polymer liquid is sprayed onto the walls, and it expands as it cures. This type of foam provides very high R-values as well as creates an air and water-tight seal against whatever surface it covers

In order to get the most benefit out of the properties of the different materials and to save cost, I went with a hybrid approach. All ceilings were sprayed with a 1" layer of closed-cell foam, then the rest covered in fiberglass batting. That gives the benefits of the air-tightness of the foam and saves costs. The 2nd and 3rd floor walls were all given a blow-in cellulose treatment. 

Blow-in insulation on walls and closed-cell foam on ceilings

The rafters get filled in with fiberglass

Lastly, there was a bit of an error made in the planning of the downstairs area. Downstairs, much of the the concrete walls are exposed and insulated from the outside of the house. Unfortunately, the city inspector didn't like that there was a section of wall near the top that is not insulated from either side of the house. In order to keep the proper look of the house from the outside, I decided that the downstairs area walls should be framed out and insulated. I lost about 6" from the room, but I don't think it will be noticed. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Siding Part 2 - Charred Cedar

The siding contractors have finished installing the first of three siding materials on the house - charred cedar. This type of siding originates from an old Japanese technique called shou sugi ban. Traditionally, planks of wood are set on fire and allowed to burn for a few minutes before being extinguished. This creates a dark layer of carbon on the surface of the wood that serves as a natural layer of protection. The benefit of this technique over staining is that it is low-maintenance and will not fade over time. 

A truly authentic application of this technique would have leave the wood planks with deep veins, which I didn't want in a modern application. The contractors instead used a blow torch to burn the surface, rinsed and scrubbed the planks, and repeated the process three times to achieve an even tone in the wood without over-burning it. 

Blow-torching cedar siding. That looks like fun! (he had a big smile while he was doing this)

Rinse, scrub, and repeat
The result
 It looks really nice on the house, and hopefully will be very low maintenance. I think that over time, the dark brownish tint of the siding coming up from beneath the carbon layer will fade to a grey and will still compliment the other materials on the house.

Front of the house in full sunlight

Back of the house

Western side of the house

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Solar Heat Pipes

A green feature I wanted included in the build was the installation of solar heat pipes going from the roof to the mechanical room. Solar heat pipes are metal, insulated pipes that carry heat generated from solar thermal collector units on the roof down into a heat exchanger in the main hot water tank.

The collector unit is capable of generating heat even on cloudy days, so I'm hopeful this will give me good energy savings during the winter. 

I'm only installing the heat pipes for now to try and save cost.

The pipes start out on the roof...
They then make its way through the kitchen...
...go down a crowded wall in the foyer...
...and finally end up in the dark mechanical room

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Siding Part 1 - Moisture barrier

I've been neglecting the blog ever since I started a new job, and there are lots of updates I need to provide! Let's start with the outside. The materials for the siding have finally arrived, so the siding guys have started their work. The first step to siding a house is to wrap the exterior with some sort of a moisture barrier.

There are two major choices for a moisture barrier: Tyvek, or tar paper. I left this decision up to the siding subcontractor since both options seem about equally effective. The subcontractor chose tar paper since it's more time-tested and a bit cheaper than Tyvek.

Once insulation is complete in a few key spots, they can begin applying siding to the house. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Multi-Phase Construction

Progress update: high voltage electrical is in, and low voltage is being installed this week. There's no rush with the electrical since the siding still hasn't arrived and that's on the critical path. Not much further progress can be made to the interior of the house until the siding is installed.

I've been mentioning that this project has been going over-budget. Unfortunately, I just don't have the cash to be able to finish the house out the way I want it. Normally, I think what people (especially spec home builders) do in this situation is look for ways to cut corners or eliminate components altogether. If I were flipping a house or planning to sell ASAP, I'd probably do the same thing. However, I'm planning on living here for quite a while, so I'm taking a different approach to my problem.

I am keeping standards high, but am going through the list of features in the house, and eliminating anything that can be easily added at a future date. If there is a non-essential major feature that needs prep work, I'll pay for the prep work so it's ready to be installed at any time.

The following things are being eliminated from phase 1:
  • Rooftop deck - I'll install mounting brackets for stairs and railings
  • green roof - this doesn't need any prep work other than framing that can support the weight
  • solar electric generation - A rigid metal conduit between the roof and garage is all that's needed for this
  • solar heat - a set of insulated pipes will be run from the roof to the mechanical room
  • Automated lighting - this was a tough choice since light switch consolidation can only be done now. Any future automated lighting system will involve replacing existing light switches with controllable ones. It won't be as clean and minimalist, but it's no worse than any other existing house that I've lived in. 
  • Security cameras - ethernet cable will be run to strategic locations
  • home theater - conduit, outlets, and speaker wire will be installed for a projector and sound system
  • generator - gas lines and transfer switch installed for now
  • outdoor grill - gas hookup and power is on the deck
  • overhead fans - the electrician has pre-wired for these
  • MIL unit - all the electrical and plumbing hookups are there, but it will remain unfinished.
With the preparations I have in place, I can complete any of those bullet items on my own time as budget allows with minimal disturbance to the existing structure. They are upgrades I will get to look forward to over the coming years.

By cutting the above from the budget, I don't have to cut corners on siding, doors, lighting, roofing, insulation, flooring, and other things that would be prohibitively expensive to modify after construction is complete.

Monday, June 4, 2012


A lot of time has been spent with the windows in the house. It's a big component, making up almost 1/3 of the surface area of the house.

The living room is where the windows are really featured. The windows are situated so they intentionally frame the view of capitol hill and the surrounding trees, while mostly blocking out the neighboring rooftops. This brings in tons of natural light, which is quite important around here, especially during the rainy season. 

The plans originally called for fewer, larger panes and had a giant Fleetwood 14'x9' triple sliding door out to the deck. This would have been an awesome feature of the house until I got some major sticker shock when I saw the ~$18K quote for the sliders. For a project that's already pushing the limit of what I can afford, that's way too much. We tried really hard to find a cheaper alternative without sacrificing the large opening, but none was found.

Original plan with large sliders

In light of the cost of the sliders, Pb redesigned the window/slider configuration in the living room to use a more standard Milgard 10'x7' set of double sliders. It's not as awe-inspiring as the large triple-sliders, and it shrinks the width of the opening to the deck from 9'4" to 5', but it ended up looking fine.

Current plan with double sliders

 Installed, it ends up looking like this:

Living room windows

The living room creates a great impression with the wall of windows. I feel like I'm in a tree house.

View of living room windows from the outside
One of the reasons this posting came a bit late is that the lower set of windows in the living room were ordered incorrectly by the rep at Home Depot and arrived in black anodized aluminum. It took a couple weeks for them to correct the mistake and have the replacement windows manufactured and shipped. 

The skylight had its own issues. Earlier, during the framing process, there was apparently a misunderstanding about the size of the skylight that was going to be installed above the kitchen. The result of that misunderstanding was that the opening for the skylight was 1-2 feet too wide in both dimensions. This would have been a non-issue (just get a bigger skylight) until I found out that nobody makes insulated glass skylights of that size without going to acrylic (with no insulation specs), or spending a lot more for some sort of a structural skylight. The house is already at the limit for meeting insulation code requirements due to the large amount of windows, so we had little choice but to frame in the opening to fit the originally-planned skylight. My contractor ate the cost for the extra framing, so least the mistake didn't cost me anything.

skylight above the kitchen with living room in the background
The frame for the skylight is bigger and taller than it needs to be as a result of the framing correction, but it's unimportant that it ended up that way.

The entry has a doubled set of full-height windows that give that indoor/outdoor feel to the house even before you enter. I'm still on the hunt for a decently-priced front door, but the intention is to make it look like the windows next to it.

entry to the house
 And finally, behind the entry is another set of windows that bring in as much light as possible to the office area and stairwell. It also opens up the entire second floor and makes, what otherwise would be a narrow hallway, something more substantial.

view from the lower patio
Overall, I'm very pleased with the windows in the house, and they were one of the few line items that ended up being on-budget! 

Friday, May 25, 2012


There are a few different types of roofing one can use for a flat-roofed house. I considered the following:
  • Torchdown - this is a classic method for waterproofing a flat roof. it involves applying heat to a bitumen-backed membrane (tar-like substance) and sealing it to the roof. This is relatively inexpensive and is expected to last 10-20 years depending on the thickness of the membrane. 
  • TPO (thermoplastic olefin) membrane - this is a relatively new kind of roofing membrane that's mid-priced. It is expected to last around 10-15 years. Since this is a newer, less proven material, some older TPO membranes have been known to break down faster than expected. I believe any new formulation doesn't have this problem. One nice thing about TPO is that it is white and allows for creating a cool roof
  • PVC (polyvinyl chloride) membrane - this is similar in design to TPO but has been in use for a much longer time. It comes in white, is a little easier to work with as far as sealing seams, and is expected to last 30-50 years. The downside is that it is the most expensive of the three options. 
Since I plan on living here for a while, I don't want to take any shortcuts with the roofing or siding of the house. I'd hate to get a leak, especially if it's underneath a layer of concrete. I chose to go with the PVC roofing. This roofing comes in several different thicknesses. I chose the thickest, 80 mil, since the price difference was only about 10% compared to 60 mil. It isn't very significant compared to installation costs and gives me some extra confidence that it will last. 

Here is what it looks like on the roll:

80 mil PVC roofing membrane
Installation is relatively straightforward. The roofers first lay down a thin sheet of foam insulation, mostly to prevent condensation from building up underneath the membrane during frosty nights. 

Roofers laying down foam insulation
 The PVC membrane is then rolled out on top of the foam, and is either heat welded or chemically bonded together. It looks like this when it is done:

Roof with PVC membrane
 The deck was finished in the same way.

View of deck from the master bedroom

Soon there will be 3" of concrete sitting on top of that. I really hope it never leaks. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Framing Completed

It's been a while since my last update. It's mostly because not much has visually changed since the last post.

As you can see, the changes from the exterior are rather subtle. So what's happened in the last month?

  • The framers completed work on the structure
  • The structure went through two rounds of inspections before it passed. There were a few minor corrections that the framers had to make, and the structural engineer needed to update the structural plans
  • A contractor for the roofing was secured
  • Work on interior plumbing has started
  • Windows have been ordered. This is probably worth an entire blog posting of its own. 
Factor in a few days waiting between some of those bullet points, and you get about a month. Having an independent general contractor vs a larger builder means that there is less project management and available resources, so things take longer to accomplish. The reward for the trade-off is usually a lower construction cost and slightly greater flexibility. 

Underneath the ground-level patio
Above, you can see the extra framing added to the stairwell to give strength to the stairs. I had the option to box-in the entire structure (like in the concept drawings), but decided against it since it reduces the amount of available space on the patio. It also doesn't do anything negative aesthetically, in my opinion. 

Inside, some of the changes are more visible. 

2nd floor bathroom plumbing

Aside from the plumbing, you can see that the framers meticulously built up the height of the floor in between all the studs in the house. This is in preparation for the concrete flooring that will be poured some time hopefully next month. 

The framers also added ties and hold-downs everywhere. This helps add earthquake resistance and further strengthens the entire structure. 

The plumber started on his work as well. Most of the drainpipes are in, and a lot of the PEX tubing for the hot and cold water has been strung just in the last few days. There's more tubing to come once he starts on the hydronic heating system. 

Media room

Washer/dryer closet
What's next? The plumbing needs to be finished. The windows are due to arrive in a week or two. The materials for the roofing arrives in about a week, so the roof can be installed. Once the roof is in place, the structure can start to dry out and electrical wiring can be installed.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Rooftop framing

The final structure of the house is starting to take shape. It's looking pretty good! There have been countless small issues that have cropped up, and the framers and my GC are both frustrated, but I have a standing structure. 

The house

Standing on the roof
I finally got to walk around all the rooms of the house with roof overhead and get a sense of the proportions. I think everything is just about right. The deck is larger than I thought it would be, and the bedroom is a little smaller, but it's nothing unreasonable. The skylight in the kitchen is awesome, and it's about 4x larger than I pictured in my mind. I don't think I'll ever have to turn the lights on during the daytime.

View from the bedroom

View from the living room

View from the dining area
I think the framers finish their work this week. As expected, the roofing and siding bids came in way over-budget, and I'm still deciding what to do about that problem. The stress level hasn't gone down yet, and I'm bracing for more surprises until I get my certificate of occupancy.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Third Floor and Corrections

The third floor is now up, and we're slowly making progress. There were two oversights during the framing, which have been corrected. First, the support beam underneath the garage was incorrectly installed. The plans had two adjacent beams underneath the garage, but the framers only installed one. Oops! Looking at the blueprints, I could see how the plans could have been misinterpreted. 

After a quick discussion with the architect and structural engineer, there were two choices: install a pole underneath the single support beam, or install the adjacent support beam as per the plans. Option 1 would be easier, but it would create an obstacle in my future mother-in-law unit. We went for option 2 and gave the framers some assistance with the installation. They had to cut open the garage floor, install the extra beam, and reattach all the joists to it. It was quite a bit of work, but the bonus space is saved. 

garage floor above the support beam

future MIL unit with doubled-up beam supporting the garage floor

The second oversight had to do with the bridge and the south-side roof support. The structural engineer had assumed that the retaining wall was in a different location than it actually was, so there was no practical way to support the bridge and the roof with the current plans. The fix was to pour a block of concrete and install a tall 5" steel support beam on top of it. 

New concrete block poured

house with steel pole installed
Of course, all this stuff costs money, but at this time, the goal is to get the house to completion without bleeding too much more. As an aside, once the house is complete, I'll make a tally of how much over-budget everything has gone. To all those thinking about building a house, make sure you have stockpiles of cash hanging around post-down-payment. You may not need it if everything goes according to plan, but if you do, it'll be the only thing that prevents you from going underwater on a project like this. I'm lucky to be in a good financial situation with a very supportive family. 

Up on the third floor, I have all of the main living space.

view from the living room
You can see the living room in the foreground, deck to the right, dining room and kitchen to the back. Note the use of plywood instead of OSB. Plywood is a little more expensive, but it holds up to moisture much better (kind of important in the pacific northwest) and is stiffer. 

on the deck looking into the living room
on the deck looking into the bedroom
hallway going from the kitchen to the bedroom
 That's all for now. Roofing trusses are supposed to come in today, so we're getting close to completion for framing! We also have requests for bids out on the roof, siding, and windows, which I'm expecting to go over-budget too, but I should have enough cash to cover it. It's been quite a wild ride so far!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Structural Steel

What's the secret to having a massive cantilever and two levels of concrete flooring without having the house collapse in on itself? Structural steel! Big, half-ton I-beams. The beams and columns came in and have been installed. Check it out!

Steel I-beam going down 2nd floor hallway

Steel beam supporting the cantilever

Big connecting bolts

Wood and steel

Looking downward, the steel column is bolted into the foundation
Steel column supporting the cantilever
The giant cantilever does need a little extra support via a steel column. If I wanted to get rid of it, I would have needed an additional $~30K worth of steel - not really worth it. The column is so small in comparison to the space, it doesn't really change the floating effect of the structure.

Next up is framing of the third floor!