Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Powered Up

Since Mike is out of town, I get the honor of posting to the blog. Unlike him, I'm not a natural writer! So, more pictures today than text.
Today was the day on which our electrician, Mark Creager, had a field day. First, the temporary pole (the wooden contraption at the far left in the picture) - after passing its inspection - got turned on by Dominion Power. It is making everybody's life easier to have an electric connection on site. Most of all, it allowed us to run our sump pump and pump the water out of our basement that had accumulated after last week's rain. We hope this was the last time we had a swimming pool in there.

Next, Mark's guys installed the permanent meter. There wasn't a wall yet where the meter will go, so Aaron and Willie's guys quickly built one. Such is the advantage of Compressed Earth Blocks!

And this is where the circuit breaker panel is. When I go for simulator training in the airplanes I fly, one of the instructors' favorite tricks is to make random circuit breakers pop (they're almost always the ones that make your flying life difficult). Hopefully not much will pop on this circuit breaker panel.

Mark, our electrician, is a very careful and thoughtful guy. Just the sort of qualities you want in an electrician. Electrifying a Compressed Earth Block house is new to him, but he seems excited to learn how to work with this new medium. I think he needed a bit of coaxing to believe us that you can screw directly into a CEB wall. By the time he's done with our house, he'll have done all sorts of things to CEBs that he wouldn't have thought possible.
Power's on!

Walled In

The work on the TerraBricks/CEB is going a bit more slowly than expected. The crew definitely is too small for this job, even though our house is not so big. The Green Machine purportedly is capable of making 300 bricks per hour. We should have had the Green Machine for two or two and a half days.The machine's been on-site for three times longer and they're just over half way through the brick making. However short-staffed and slow, they have been making progress making and stacking the bricks - steady and surely. In addition to stacking several layers of TerraBricks around the whole house, the crew set some posts to guide the plumb and level construction as they stack higher, as you'll see in these pictures.

Meanwhile, downstairs, the framing crew worked on Saturday to frame-in the walls for the guest bedroom, closet, and downstairs bathroom. We're concerned about where the sump and ejector pump pit were located, and what impact that may have on the closet, but it's too late to move that now since the concrete has been poured. We will be speaking with the contractor to find out why this is different than expected. There's probably a good reason, just one that, unfortunately, wasn't communicated to us.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Smooth As Silk

While I was in Montreal for work this week, the pressure test of the radiant floor tubing was conducted (we did a great job, the tubes consistently are holding 65 psi) and the folks at Bartley Corp. poured the 4 inch concrete slab in the basement as well as the area way steps. This concrete had about 30% fly ash in the mixture, which makes it much more environmentally friendly and will score us even more points on the EarthCraft House certification.

Several people who know about such things were incredibly impressed with how smooth Bartley finished the slab. That's exciting for us, as the concrete will be the floor - there won't be carpeting, tiles, wood, or any other flooring on top of the concrete, so smooth makes us happy! I didn't get a close up look at it myself yet, since it was raining tonight and our construction site is a mud-pit, but I hope to be able to admire Bartley's work up close and in person on Sunday.

We thought all of the TerraBricks/CEBs would have been made by now, but when I stopped by this evening, it seems like they have a ways to go yet.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Saturday, CEB Demonstration

WOW! What a fantastic day! We were hoping some folks from the green community would stop by to observe the manufacture of the TerraBricks/CEBs during our demo that we had scheduled and announced a few weeks prior. We had well over 100 people throughout the course of the three hour demo period, with some arriving early and others still coming after the end of the demo. The weather was spectacular, friends and relatives were able to come by, and my colleague, Scott, and his wife, Laura, brought cupcakes that folks enjoyed.

The folks who attended were a mix of people from within the green community, including Jason from Amicus Green Building Supply in Kensington, MD, some folks who consult and supply "clean energy solutions" and a whole host of consumers
- and even a delegation from the Government of Costa Rica - who heard about CEBs and wanted to check out the demonstration as they consider this technology for their home construction.

The demo was a great marketing opportunity for our architect, John Spears, with the Sustainable Design Group, our contractor, Aaron Holmes with Cornerstone Building Services, and the folks at TerraBuilt who leased the Green Machine to us.

It was also great to show off our construction project to my family members who were in town visiting from Pennsylvania.

We'll have some short videos coming soon in another post showing the Green Machine in action and the crew stacking the bricks.

Our Contractor, Aaron Holmes, talking with a demo attendee.

John Morris from TerraBuilt explaining the Green Machine.

A normal miter saw is used to cut the TerraBricks/CEBs.

City of Falls Church green program leaders gather to watch the crew set some of the TerraBricks.

Setting the TerraBricks.

Our friend, Jeff, ready to video the crew set the TerraBricks.

TerraBricks in place - two levels high.

Friday, 3/20, Brick Making

While we were installing the radiant system below, Willy, John Morris and Aaron were outside manufacturing the TerraBricks/CEBs. During the afternoon, we welcomed a number of Falls Church staff who dropped by to observe the CEB making. While civilizations around the globe have been building with earth for generations, it's now a unique construction process here in the U.S. where the "norm" is construction methodologies designed for quick assembly. Unfortunately that results in a disposable house with a significantly shorter lifespan than expected for our solid CEB house.

Willy on the left and John Morris on the right, ensuring the quality of each and every CEB!

Matt Brown and Jason Widstrom, City engineers, observing the CEB manufacture.

Andreas protecting his hearing and wondering if and when
they'll make a quieter version of the Green Machine!

Our clay soldiers all lined up, ready to be stacked as a wall.

Friday, 3/20, It's Getting Hot

Aaron picked up the staple system early in the morning, so we met him at the lot to start work on the pex tubing installation. We worked diligently for approximately six hours installing the tubing. The staple system made it very easy, as compared to the other method of zip-tying the tubing to a metal grid. We took lots of pictures through the installation process, and the final product. Some of these photos are for our benefit in the future (after we win the lottery) when we install the wine cellar and build out another wall to create a media room. If you see in the photos below we left one area open without radiant tubing (for the wine storage) and a wide area in another section for a wall to divide the basement area to create a separate workshop and media room space.

A note on Radiantec - the company that we purchased our hydronic radiant floor heating system from. These folks there were extremely helpful, supportive, and responsive. We called a few times in advance of the purchase with questions and once since we received the product shipment. They were happy to take our calls and extremely helpful.

Thursday, 3/19, Change of Plans, but Good Progress

We were scheduled to install the pex tubing in the basement for our radiant heat flooring system. But things fell a bit behind schedule on Thursday as there was a last-minute change in plans on how to install the tubing. Our architect learned of a staple system that fastens the pex tubing to the 2" extruded foam board insulation. So that stapler had to be obtained while the plastic staples were sent overnight for a Thursday morning arrival. Well, that didn't go as planned, but it all turned out fine in the end (as you'll see in the next post) and Andreas and I didn't have to work in the cold rain.

Meanwhile Bartley Corp.'s team was on-site to add yet another 4" of stone to the basement, plus the 2" extruded foam board. They wrapped up their work while our contractor Aaron, Willy Obando who oversees the crew for making and stacking the TerraBricks/CEBs, and John Morris from TerraBuilt who was training the crew and managing the operation of the Green Machine, were testing out the machine and the getting everything set for brick making.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

TerraBuilt's Green Machine Arrived Today

I spoke with our contractor, Aaron, a few moments ago and he shared that the "Green Machine" by TerraBuilt arrived on-site today. Aaron is working with John Morris from the company to find the right mixture of clay soil, sand and Portland cement to make the TerraBricks (CEBs).

When asked why we chose to build with TerraBricks/CEBs, I would have to say there are a number of reasons this innovative technology appealed to us. Primarily it is because the thermal properties from this construction method will allow us to use much less energy and, if we want energy independence as a nation, we need to CONSERVE energy in addition to increasing our sustainable, clean, domestic energy capability such as solar and wind power. And to conserve energy while living in a home that proves to be comfortable, acoustically pleasing, and sustainable - it's a match made in heaven. While I hope to video the demo of the Green Machine on our lot this Saturday, if you can't wait, please visit http://www.terrabuilt.com for their video of TerraBrick/CEB construction.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Not So Big House Yet Again

After the foundation was poured, one concern we had was how far out of the ground the house appeared to be. It made our intentionally small footprint house look like a much larger house. When we were planning our house, we read some of Sarah Susanka's "Not So Big House" books in earnest, enjoying her perspective on designing a house for how we really live and using each room daily. Anything else is would be unnecessary extra for us. You can learn more about Sarah's philosophy, which we certainly share, here: http://www.susanka.com/.

Now that Bartley installed the window wells and did the rough grading around the house, the home looks like it will be a much more management size. What a difference a little dirt can make.

When the weather clears later this week our Contractor, Aaron, will be on-site to test the dirt/sand/cement mixture in order to make the Compressed Earth Bricks for the walls. Then the team will get into full swing with brick manufacture! We're looking forward to the demonstration of the brick-making this Saturday. If you'd like to come by and need our address, please email me at flybymike at gmail dot com. (replace at with @ and dot with a period).

One more note - the HUGE pile of dirt in our neighbor's yard is now a much smaller pile of dirt, which will be used for making the CEB.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mother Nature 1; Liquid Nails 0

In my last post, I listed a number of upcoming tasks. We're taking two steps forward, one backwards, and, thankfully, making progress. The radiant heat system arrived late last week, ready for installation this week. On Friday, the 50 sheets of 3" extruded foam insulation came, so I spent all yesterday installing the foam board on the outside of the foundation. I was armed with dozens of tubes of liquid nails and my caulk gun. I organized the work site and got about 8 foam boards installed, and then "the rains came."

Since I'm not the wicked witch of the west, I needn't worry about melting, so I worked away, getting all of the foam boards installed. I was worried, though, that the rain would affect the liquid nails' ability to cure. So I used leftover cuts of wood from the first floor installation to hold most of the board to the house. I didn't have enough leftover wood for all of the sheets of foam board, so once the boards seemed firmly affixed, I moved the boards to hold the next set of sheets I installed. I left the lot about 9 hours after I started the project, exhausted, covered with mud from head to toe, and soaked to the bone.

It rained through the night. After church this morning, I drove by the lot to see how the liquid nails held up. Mother nature won the battle, at least with the five boards on the west side of the house, which were no longer affixed to the foundation. Not surprisingly, those were the only five boards I did not wedge the wood up against, since there wasn't a good way to do that on the west side. Fortunately, all of the other boards still were affixed to the house, albeit not to firmly. The liquid nails simply couldn't cure with the steady rain for more the 28 hours.

I waited until the rain slowed significantly and then headed back to the lot this evening to fix the problem. While I was there, Helen and Jeff from across the street, two of the nicest people we've ever met, stopped by to say hi. All of our neighbors have been extremely kind and their visits while we're on-site are always
very welcomed. It's such a great neighborhood and we can't wait for the house to be complete so we can be there full-time. That reminds me, yesterday Chris from directly across the street came by to visit in the rain and offered me some tips on sump pumps - a very timely discussion because of the rain, and since we'll be buying those pumps this week.

Back to today - after Helen, Jeff and I chatted for a bit, I put more liquid nails on the five western boards, and I propped the boards up with some wood. The wood only needs to hold the boards up through the back-fill which is scheduled for tomorrow morning. Then the earth will hold the foam boards to the wall forever and the liquid nails become a moot point. I'm hoping that none of the other boards will fall down this evening, but, if they do, I hope that our contractor, Aaron, will be able to put them back in place Monday morning before Bartley back-fills.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What is Dimple to Board, Drain to Tile, Water to Proof?

Ladies and gentlemen, some of the most important preventive measures are being addressed during construction this week -- that is the waterproofing and water removal system around the house's foundation. This was one area where we wanted to spare no expense, in hopes that we won't have water challenges in our basement.

The good folks at Bartley Corporation came back to the lot to coat the foundation with a waterproofing product, install the draintile around the perimeter of the house, and install dimpleboard which acts slightly as an insulation and predominately as a means for water to drain into the black plastic draintile. The draintile then was covered with stone and a filter cloth.
All of this will soon be covered up when Bartley returns on Monday morning to backfill around the house. This all will be matched on the inside with a double sump-pump system with battery back-up.

In the meantime, we have ordered 50 sheets of 3" extruded foam which I will affix to the foundation exterior walls this weekend. We've placed the order for the WeatherShield windows & doors with Quality Window & Door in Beltsville, MD. And we ordered the energy-efficient radiant heat system and high-efficiency gas water heater from Radiantec in Lyndonville, VT. The windows & doors will take five-to-six weeks and the radiant heat materials should arrive early next week. I have scheduled vacation for March 19th & 20th to install the radiant heat system in the basement.

Check out our fancy waterproofing system:

Saturday, March 7, 2009

FSC Wood Arrives! FSC Wood Installed!

One of Earthcraft's requirements to certify a house as green, is that more than 50% of the wood used in the house must be sustainable/green. One program that promotes sustainable practices for wood products and certifies wood as sustainable is the Forest Stewardship Council. The wood we purchased from T.W. Perry's branch in Gaithersburg, MD is FSC certified. Also, our first floor deck (not outside deck, but actual subfloor on the inside of the house) is AdvanTech, a green engineered wood product. Here's our stack of wood products just after delivery: And here's the framing crew, headed up by Hector, working away early on a Saturday morning to install the floor joists and first floor deck:

Friday, March 6, 2009

CEB Demonstration

We will be demonstrating the manufacture of Compressed Earth Brick (CEB) on Saturday, March 21st from 11:00am - 2:00pm. If you would like the details for this demonstration, please email me at flybymike at gmail dot com.


Thursday, March 5, 2009

Character Is Like the Foundation of a House - It Is Below the Surface

I'm not sure who that quote is from, but I like it. Don't worry; this isn't a philosophical post, it's an update on our house foundation!

Today, Bartley removed the forms for the walls and the foundation looks great!

The lumber package has been ordered and our primary contractor, Aaron Holmes with Cornerstone Building Services, will be on site over the next couple of days with a crew to install the first floor decking. We're actually building a house and I can finally prove it!!!