Sunday, September 27, 2009

Update at Last!

Many, many thanks to Mom and Bill for coming two weekends in a row to help out with home construction projects. It's been a busy time since I last blogged, and most of our effort on the house was cleaning up some errors Aaron Holmes (from Cornerstone Building Services) and crews he hired had made. There's still more of that to address, but we're making progress there. The rest of the time was spent moving various projects forward. Much of what we did is barely noticeable, but are important details.

Here's some of what we accomplished:

- Carried 165 sheets of drywall into the house, that 84 Lumber delivered in the yard.
- Measured and ordered paperless drywall for the bathrooms, as required by EarthCraft for the top-level certification (Aaron ordered greenboard, which is not permitted under the EarthCraft certification program top-tier)
- Met with two drywall subcontractors to obtain quotes for installation.
- Prepared PVC pipe for rainwater recapture tanks.
- Corrected framing mistakes (e.g., changed framing so the range hood exhaust can be centered on the wall the way it was supposed to be).
- Installed new framing around the TRV ducting and return air grill ducting in the guest bathroom and the master closet.
- Corrected the range hood vent ducting so it is now centered on the kitchen wall.
- ARS installed the fresh air ducting to the TRV and insulated the ducting in accordance with EarthCraft requirements.
- Nailed in electrical boxes in three areas where Tom from Creager Electrical left wires hanging for future electrical components.
- Mixed American Clay Loma and Porcelina plaster in buckets.
- Photographed all of the framing, plumbing, and electrical wires and noted measurements for each of these so that we know where they are hiding in the walls once the drywall is installed.
- Ordered copper-to-pex fittings to connect the pex tubing with the radiant floor heating system.
- Stained the cedar trim boards TW Perry delivered, which is for the house siding. (Aaron had not specified enough cedar when he gave us the requirements to order more, so the siding work has been on hold until all of the cedar come in. This was the first of three kinds of cedar we ordered again through TW Perry.)

In addition to helping with these projects, Mom and Bill brought us a wonderful lunch and homemade shoo-fly pie for Saturday, and fresh eggs and bacon from Pennsylvania Dutch country for breakfast on Sunday.

Sorry, no photos this posting.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Installing Rain Water Tanks

You might have seen the cute, little rain barrels that one can make from wine casks or plastic drums. Most hardware stores, and all green building centers, have these in stock so you can capture rain water from your gutter/downspout and use it for watering plants, etc. While those are good for existing homes, that's child's play compared to our new rain water capture system. We have three tanks that hold 1,400 gallons each. DeMarr's crew was on site to dig the ditch in the front of the house; the tanks will live under ground. They've been filling the tanks partially with water as they've backfilled the ditch. Bernie from Clarke County Plumbing will be on-site Friday to connect the PVC pipe to bring the rainwater to the tanks, and also to connect the pump system Andreas drove 8 hours roundtrip to Salem, VA to pick up so it would be here on time (another failure on our construction manager's part with poor planning). More to come on this as the tanks are connected, but here are some photos of the tanks in the ground.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Economy Has Recovered!

Based on the lines at every store this weekend, and the amount of money we spent on the house, I think we can officially declare that the recession in the U.S. ended as of September 7, 2009.

If only that were true....

Over the past few months, we had shopped around for a while at various retailers for appliances. Andreas's boss, Tim, suggested we look at Lowes, since he found them to have the best prices overall. We had a good sense of what the appliances for our house would cost, and then, as it turned out, Lowes had a 20% off all Energy Star appliances sale this past weekend. Ka-ching! It was great. Each appliance we could buy with an Energy Star rating has now been purchased: Washing machine; dishwasher; refrigerator. The dryer and the slide-in range are not available as Energy Star approved. Except in Winter months, we likely won't use the dryer that often anyway, as a clothes line in the backyard will dry the clothes and add a fresh smell that will remind me of home when I was growing up. The range was our splurge - an Electrolux with great features. Our refrigerator/freezer (with the freezer drawer on the bottom) is Samsung. The washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher all are Bosch.

Now it's time to brag and talk bucks. Or savings of bucks, to be more precise. Andreas and I picked out an efficient Bosch washing machine and dryer. We were excited about the quality, but not thrilled with the price. The washing machine alone cost $1,098. That's more than I had ever spent before on an appliance in my entire life. But it was really quality, and really efficient. While we were waiting our turn for assistance, we wandered the showroom floor and came across three floor model Bosch washers - the exact same model as we picked out - marked down several times. All had a few scratches on them, but they still were brand-new, and everything seemed in order. We wondered why these floor models were so cheap. When a sales rep (Zony was his name) was available, we asked him why it was marked down so much. He said people usually don't want to buy them when they learn that they have to buy an $1,100 dryer to go with it. But since we already planned to buy that dryer, this was quite a deal for us. Zony helped us with all of our other appliance questions and the order, then it came time to buy the floor model Bosch washer. He needed an override for the discounted price, so he asked his manager to enter that. While asking his manager for the code, Zony asked him to give us an even greater discount on the washing machine, to which he agreed. Are you sitting down? The $1098 washing machine cost $200. We bought an extended warranty....just in case.

While our appliance brands don't all match, we're excited about the quality we got - best in class (well, best within our budget) for each appliance type. The only appliance left to buy is the range hood, which we'll order tomorrow. We've already picked it out.

While we were on a shopping roll this weekend, we decided to go to IKEA to get our kitchen cabinets. We will have only base cabinets, not upper cabinets. The cabinets we selected are very warm, yet contemporary in style. Fortunately, IKEA had everything in stock, so we took our new cabinets with us. They're ready for assembly! People who like to dismiss the thought of IKEA cabinets either are a bit uppity about name brands, or they don't know the significant increase in IKEA kitchen cabinet product quality over the past several years. My father and I made the cabinets in the kitchen in my condo, and they're beautiful. The IKEA cabinets look almost as good, but for a lot less money.

On a completely separate note, I saw yesterday the work of the siding crew and I am glad that Aaron fired them. Again, and again, and again, I emphasized to Aaron how important it was that his siding crew nailed every board of cedar in a straight, vertical line. I even sent photographs to of other buildings to show exactly what I meant. However, his crew's nailing, which does not show up on the photo we posted the other day, looks horrific! It's like they were on drugs and zig-zagged everywhere with the nail gun. I think all of the siding needs to come off and Aaron will have to replace any boards that are damaged. He had clear instructions, and in writing, so it's his responsibility to make it right.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Recycling Dumpster Report

As you might recall from earlier posts, we had a recycling dumpster on-site during part of our house construction. Rather than sending everything to the landfill, our dumspter vendor (Environmental Alternatives, Inc.) goes through all of the dumpster content and recycles everything that they can. Only what cannot be recycled goes to the landfill.

We filled the dumpster twice. About 45% of the dumpster content was metal, wood, concrete aggregate, gypsum, or other recyclable material. So while more went to the landfill than we hoped, almost 15 tons of material were recycled.

Three steps forward, two steps back

Since Mike is out of town, I get to make the Friday progress report.

Early in the morning, Dominion Virginia Power - our power distributor - came to hook up the cable that D. A. Foster had laid the day before. All they had to do was to run the cable up the electric pole at the front of our lot, connect the other end to our meter box, install the permanent meter and ... we had power in the house! They took the meter out of the old temporary service, and we can now dismantle the old temporary pole. Power's on!

Next, I decided to take the concrete that Bartley Corp had spilled (see Mike's earlier post) to be recycled. Since we are still officially Arlington County residents, I drove the concrete to Arlington's Solid Waste station. As a resident, you can drop off "small" amounts of concrete there for free. They grind it up and re-use it as aggregate for road and other construction.

Here's a picture of 1,120 pounds of concrete in Mike's truck:

And this is Arlington County's inert materials yard where it gets recycled:

Next, Southland Insulators came to install the spray foam insulation in our ceiling, and around the band in the basement. We chose a Demilec product, "Agribalance." Like the more well-known Icynene, it is an open-cell spray foam, but it contains more than 20% renewable, agricultural-based ingredients (mostly soy). It gives us an R-value of 4.45 per inch - and we're getting just a little over 8 inches for an R-38.9.

It's not easy to install. The applicator sprays a thin film onto the ceiling, which over the next 3 seconds grows to anywhere between 4 and 10 inches. Applying this smoothly and evenly is a difficult job. If you're thinking about doing this yourself ... think again! It is not for the faint-hearted, it's a messy job (it sprays just about everywhere), and ... it stinks. Here's a picture of the applicator, complete with plastic protection suit and fresh-air respirator:

Here's the ceiling once he was done ...

... well, three-quarters done. Then he ran out of material. They're coming back on Tuesday (Monday is a holiday - labor day) to finish up the ceiling and sides, and move on down to the basement. That means we had to cancel the scheduled close-in inspection, but it gives us a chance to measure that we've got the right amount of sprayfoam depth everywhere. I marked the areas that were under-sprayed with orange spray paint - that way, there's no ambiguity about where we need a little extra! Chris Conway, our EarthCraft advisor spent a few hours helping me understand how to tell where the insulation got under-applied, and how important the right spray-depth is.

Another step back (or forward?) was that the siding crew got fired. They just proved incapable of being precise and careful with what's a very visible component of our house. Every time one of our team (Aaron or I) turned around after giving them instructions, they just did how they pleased anyway. So, on Tuesday another siding crew will take over where they left off, fix what they couldn't do right, and hopefully give us the perfect siding.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Long Live EarthCraft House Virginia!

Andreas kept a close watch on the crew today, inspecting on a regular basis and coaching when they forgot to do something that met the EarthCraft House technical guidelines. The EarthCraft book and Andreas's persuasive personality persevered and, at the end of today, we had 22 clerestory windows installed! The only clerestory window issue remaining is the window that broke, presumable en route from WeatherSheild to Quality Window & Door.

If all goes well, the siding crew will finish installing the cedar siding tomorrow.

Here are some pics of the windows installed as well as the new house wrap properly installed and with seams and staples taped over.

Super Siding

Andreas snapped this photo with his iPhone and emailed it to me. I had to get it up on the blog. Doesn't the cedar siding look wonderful? I love the shiplap siding with the 1/8" gap between the boards. That adds so much character in a contemporary design way. The color of the Osmo all-natural stain we selected is so beautiful to me, exactly what we wanted, and I think it looks fantastic against the light grey/tan stucco. This is a nice way to end the day!

Holey, Holey, Holey

Bob DeMarr's crew came back to core drill some holes through the foundation and the TerraBricks for the TRV fresh air inlet and exhaust and the fireplace fresh air inlet. In addition, Piedmont Roofing came back and completed the roof penetrations for the fireplace chimney and the kitchen exhaust hood pipe.

TRV Fresh Air Inlet:

TRV Exhaust:

Fireplace chimney:

For Range Hood:

For Dryer Vent:

Inspection vs. Expectation

There's common advice that folks share when talking about building a house -- it's what you inspect, not what you expect. One can provide contractors with detailed explanations of homeowner expectations on design, quality, etc., but trusting that will be done just does not cut it in the construction industry -- there's only one thing that will, and that's inspection. It's disappointing that many subcontractors cut corners. Perhaps it's a lack of training, lack of skill, lack of supervision, or all of the above. But there are too many horror stories related to construction that only strong supervision by the owner(s) and inspection of worked performed will ensure quality construction meeting the design intent. We faced that issue twice this week. First with the new clerestory window installation and then with the deck post installation. Our construction manager, Aaron, was the subcontractor for each of these tasks and his crew just failed to get it right the first time. The end result is they're doing the work over, which is taking more time, costing Aaron more money, and adding unnecessary stress and frustration (for us, for Aaron, and for his crew that's doing the work over again). So the clerestory window saga continues. One of the selling points for using Quality Window & Door was that they would send a technical rep to oversee all window and door installations if you bought windows through them. That's included in the price. This is another area where they failed. When the original windows and doors were installed, the tech was there for only part of the day. This time, they couldn't find a rep who was available, so the sales guy who royally screwed up our clerestory window order came instead. He doesn't seem to know anything about window installation either. The fact is the five windows that were installed on Tuesday were put in wrong, under his and Aaron's supervision. The workers did not follow the WeatherShield installation instructions, nor the EarthCraft House program's technical guidelines. Andreas caught the error. Had he not inspected their work, all of the windows would have been installed incorrectly. There were a whole host of problems, and now the windows will have to be removed. One primary concern was that there was no house wrap (e.g., Tyvek) used for the window installation and the caulking was wrong. Had this not been inspected, the problems would rear their ugly heads years down the road. Once again, Chris Conway, our EarthCraft Technical Advisor saved the day as he confirmed that what Andreas described was incorrect and he walked Andreas through the correct installation process. (This is probably the 40th or 50th time we've called him with technical questions related to green construction and he has been unbelievably helpful and patient with us each and every time. He's amazingly knowledgeable and helpful!) We spent Wednesday morning on-site so Andreas could supervise the window installation to ensure the crew understood the EarthCraft technical guidelines and I could supervise the cedar siding installation that had been scheduled. I was leaving early Thursday morning for a work trip to Aspen, CO so this was the only opportunity to meet with the siding crew. As it turned out, the siding crew was unable to do any siding installation since they had to help the window crew install the windows. By the end of Wednesday evening, about 15 of the windows were correctly installed, with 7 left to go (plus the work of removing the incorrectly-installed windows.) The second inspection came quite by accident. While we were on-site, we noticed that one of the deck posts on the North side of the house was leaning. Since Dominion Power's subcontractors were trenching there, we thought they might had bumped it with their Bobcat. It turns out they didn't, but the posts were not installed correctly. There are concrete deck piers. The 6"x6" pressure treated posts must sit directly on the deck piers. Apparently, Aaron's crew decided they would set one short piece of post on the concrete pier, and then set another short piece post on top of that - instead of one proper length deck post. Apparently someone leaned on the first deck post on the North side of the house, it shifted in the soft clay soil, and that's when we pulled it out to inspect what was causing it to lean. That was very disconcerting so we checked the next one -- it was also wrong, with two shorter pieces stacked on top of one another. We brought this to Aaron's attention, checked the third one, and that one was fine. Now, we need to pull out each and every deck post to find any more that might have been installed incorrectly, and Aaron will need to replace those. Again, more stress and frustration (and expense to Aaron) that would not be an issue had Aaron been on-site supervising his crew and/or his crew had been properly trained and/or skilled to perform this job right the first time. Yes, Aaron's accepting the responsibility for these mistakes and we hope these are isolated instances and no future situations like this will arise. If they do, we'll know, as we'll be inspecting all of the work that's done. Speaking of inspections, the City inspected our framing and mechanical systems yesterday afternoon and both passed. Southland Insulators will be on-site Friday morning to spray foam insulation in the roof/ceiling area and around the basement upper walls (in the joist areas at the outside perimeter of the house.) Then we can schedule a close-in inspection and start installing drywall!

The new clerestory windows that have been installed look really great (again, no photos of those, since it was dusk when we got to the lot after going to our offices to work during the afternoon and early evening.) You can get the idea, though, from the picture taken inside looking out in the "incorrect installation" series below. (The window with the cardboard is the one that was broken upon delivery from WeatherShield to Quality Window & Door.)

Incorrect Installation:

Corrected Installation:

Leaning Deck Post:

The Electric Company

Earlier this week, Dominion Power's subcontractor dug the trench in our lot and ran the conduit and electrical wires through that. It's great that we won't have above ground power lines running from the street, down our lot, and connecting to the house. Underground lines will look better and, importantly, are not susceptible to tree branches falling on them, knocking out power.

At our condo in Arlington, we participate in the Dominion Power's green energy program. I expect we'll do the same in our new home.

At the same time the crew installs the conduit and wire for electricity, they laid conduit for Cox Cable. That's standard practice, even though we don't plan to have cable TV service.