Monday, July 30, 2007

Still no pics

But I've been taking lots of them. And I'll be back home (sleeping in a real bed, instead of on an eggcrate) on Thursday. So lots of pics by the weekend.

Craig and Carter leave at the end of the week. They've gotten just about all the siding finished and the cabin looks great. I'm waiting for my Cembonit color samples to arrive in the mail so I can get my order in. And I'm just about to bite the bullet and order my ipe. I'll get some money updates posted when I get home too.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

And ANOTHER thing...

Just kidding. (Actually, I need to find a roofer cause my contractor ordered all the wrong materials and that'll be the last mistake he makes for me. But more on that later.)

Back from vacation and a quick trip to WV - the cabin really looks terrific with the siding on (three sides just about finished). I've got lots of pics but I left my camera's USB cable in the Adirondacks, so they'll have to wait for awhile. In the meantime, here's what's new at the site since I was last there: Craig is apparently a magnet for hummingbirds, and Carter does a fantastic Christopher Walken (Carter does the True Romance scene, but I've decided to keep this blog family friendly). The deck footers are poured. The Guest House has apparently found out about us, so we might meet some of our neighbors soon (hopefully they won't catch on to our secret plan to steal all their customers). Simplex will have a crew out to the site next week to do some punchlist stuff. John and Joe from Res4 will be out to visit on Wednesday (on their way home from speaking here - if you're anywhere near Richmond, definitely check it out). I think our friends from TV land will be at the site then too. Turns out the Lost River State Park has had wifi all this time and I didn't know it - so now I can update the blog from WV (as if I don't spend enough time posting here as it is). And I'm back out there tomorrow morning.

Monday, July 23, 2007

One more complaint

I'm back out to West Virginia tomorrow morning to supervise the buildout of the roof eave. But first one more note about things that haven't gone quite right. My rough budget numbers for the siding and deck were premised on the rough numbers in my contractor bids. And because I never walked though the details of the bids with the contractors (cause I knew we were going to do lots of it ourselves), the numbers for the siding and the deck were, it turns out, rough. Nobody (least of all me) priced the cost of the materials spec'd in the drawings into their bids for those items. But it turns out top-grade cedar and ipe are - surprise, surprise - very expensive. So the cost of the siding and the deck materials alone are approaching the contractor bids for those parts of the job. Good thing we're doing it ourselves...

So that's really a complaint about myself. I could/should have priced those materials beforehand. It wouldn't have changed anything, I don't think; though we've kept costs down on our finishes on the inside of the house, the mat'ls for the exterior are really important to us. I just wish (as the balance in our operating account dwindles) I'd been more meticulous about planning out each and every cost. One thing about DIY is that you're gonna spend more money than you think, so the more costs you know about beforehand, the more predictable the money will be.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Post- (really Media-) Mortem

So I'm on vacation. (Some of my friends and family would say I've been on vacation since work began on this cabin, and others would say I've been on vacation since I quit being a lawyer.) Ironically, my vacation finds me trading a construction site in West Virginia for a construction site in Tupper Lake, NY (home of the Wild Center), where my in-laws have a cabin that was supposed to be renovated in the spring and ready for our arrival, but we all know how that goes.

Without any new pics to show off, this seems like the right time to catalog some of the messiness of our little prefab project. First, some context. As a rule, I'm a pretty low stress person. I take most stuff in stride. And this cabin's premise - occasional second home and (hopefully) more regular rental - means that mistakes aren't the end of the world. So the breeziness of my take on some of the ups and downs of this process probably isn't representative of how many people deal with the nuts and bolts of building a new home. (Some poles on the how-stressed-do-you-get scale: AustinMod and ModHampton, both of which I should have linked to by now). There are been lots of instances in which a different person - with different things at stake - would have been justified in being really exorcised. So here are a few of those.

First, when the house arrived, it was apparent that very few of the final punchlist items had been resolved by Simplex. None of them were major, but the most significant item - a slider column that was out of plumb in the factory - meant that the house was open to water infiltration where the slider door should have met the jamb but didn't. I knew that Simplex would send a crew to resolve these issues, and I know punchlist stuff can take a while to resolve, but it was disappointing nonetheless that items we had identified hadn't been dealt with (and we actually still haven't even resolved these unfinished punchlist items - we'll have a conversation about them this week).

Then the day our set was scheduled to occur was a ridiculous mess. Joe and John from Res4 had come all the way from NYC, and as soon as we all got to the site it was obvious that we were not going to go forward. The hitch for the bulldozer was woefully inadequate for the weight of the house. The weight of the house was info that the contractor had been given months before, and it wasn't until the bulldozer operator showed up that morning that the contractor told him how much the house weighed, at which point the operator balked. What's more, the crane operator showed up that morning and said he wouldn't do the job with the size crane they had already spec'd for us, another absurd last-minute change of heart. (I can't imagine anything that I could have done to anticipate either of these items, so I don't have any good advice about how to prevent this other than to have more competent contractors than the one I've chosen for myself.) So we rescheduled, and after lots of rain delays we pulled the house up the hill a week later, and set it a couple of days after that.

I haven't said a lot here about the trip of the house from the bottom of the driveway up to the homesite. We'd known since the beginning of this whole project that difficult sites are not ideal for prefab and that we might suffer for our hubris in choosing land with access issues. I also knew early on that my contractor was prone to giving answers I wanted to hear as opposed to being frank about potential problems. (NB - this is a difficult tendency to discern in the first couple of meetings you might have with potential GCs/contractors/builders, but one that can present huge trouble. I'd suggest that you really push people you interview on where they envision problems occurring. You'll probably already know some of the tricky spots. Are they frank? Do they sugarcoat it?) I knew that our road was going to be hard to get our house up. I didn't know in what ways. At the end of the day, the biggest problem was that the grade of the road meant that the trailer couldn't turn the corner without the back end of the trailer dragging. Which meant that as the bulldozer continued up the turn, and the front end of the trailer continued to go up with it, the back end of the trailer sat in one spot and rotated, like the point of a compass. As the front of the trailer got higher, the wheels of the trailer - located underneath the midline of the house - supported less and less of the weight of the house, until finally they were off the ground, and the bulldozer was basically trying to drag the whole weight of the house, which was resting on only the back end, which was stuck in the ground. When this happened, the front end of the house was probably about eight feet higher than the back end, and the trailer was bowing pretty low in the middle, which meant that the house itself was bowing quite a bit, and it was really visible in the window and slider frames (which were trapezoidal during the worst of the stress). Now we'd all talked through this quite a bit beforehand. We talked about getting a hydrolic dolly to slide the trailer laterally, and about winching the trailer laterally. But I have to say that once the trip up the hill started, no one really seemed to be in charge. There were two different bulldozer operators, my contractor, and many different laborers, and everyone was so focused on trying to move the house that I was the last person anyone was paying any attention to. So while I watched the house bend (and wondered if it might actually just collapse), I really wanted to scream STOP and make everybody back up and start over, doing all the things we'd talked about doing. But that's a hard thing to know when to do, and an even harder thing to actually do. We ended up putting sections of telephone pole between the wheels and the end of the trailer and got the trailer moving again that way. The house settled down, but much of the distortion in the window and slider frames remained. We had no idea how much damage was done or what would be required to remediate it.

Our first task in the days after the house was set was to take all the trim off the windows and sliders and see what was what. Res4 was pretty sure that we were going to be ok - their experience has been that houses settle down quite a bit once they're set. And they were more or less right - turns out everything could just be reshimmed/leveled/plumbed - not the end of the world. But the sliders need to be worked on from the outside, and we can't do that until the deck or some scaffolding is over on that side, and that hasn't happened yet. All in all, the stress on the house seems not to have had any lasting effect - I didn't want to blog it until we knew the extent of the issue. But it was a huge question mark after the fact, and one that preoccupied me for a little bit.

The one lesson I keep coming back to in my mind from these episodes is the importance of the people you have working for you. Simplex, in spite of some minor nits, has been great in terms of communication so far, and I fully expect that whatever little issues we have will be resolved. Res4 I cannot say enough good things about. My contractor - well, I could have done a better job vetting and managing him, I suppose. A couple more odds and ends and he'll be finished, and I'll have nobody to blame for any of my troubles but myself.

UPDATE: I guess another lesson here is that this house is tough. While it did look to me like the house could have crumbled in light of the stress it was under, it didn't, and no one else was ever worried about that. Res4 didn't really flinch when I told them about it, and told me some stories about similar situations with other sets where the houses came through fine even if the owners' nerves were a bit frayed. I'd never seen a house move like that, and I didn't know they could. But this one did, and it appears to be no worse the wear.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Concrete Feet

No, not these. These:

It's the footer/column for our deck posts - a Sonotube, a cardboard tube for pouring concrete columns, set atop a Square Foot, which forms the footer for the column. So instead of pouring footers and waiting for them to cure and then pouring the columns, you pour the whole thing in one shot. (Craig found the Square Feet through Dan Cook, a real cool guy at United Rentals in Frederick, MD.)

The guys at the site set these forms today (I am on vacation! - more on that later); concrete should come anytime. Then we can get going on the deck. Sounds like the electrical meter/panel connections are finished, as is site grading and the pump for the well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Craig and Carter finished the trim on the uphill side of the house:

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Rough carpentry

I got tired of climbing in and out of the house all the time, so I made these little steps, which Craig promptly fell down once it got dark (2x6 treads are not ideal for 6'5 guys, and I'm sure don't meet code):

The excavators are scheduled to finish burying the conduit tomorrow, and then they'll move up to the site to begin grading. That'll make getting in and out of the house easier, and we'll be able to set up scaffolding to begin fastening the upper reaches of the siding.

We were supposed to have our electrical "inspection" on Saturday (scare quotes because all they check is the exterior meter connections and the connection at the panel). But we had to push it off cause our contractor didn't set the meter socket on Friday like he promised. Not too big a deal, but I can't get the power company to begin the process of getting power to our site until that's done (and with the conduit just about in we're almost ready for power to be connected).

The well folks should be out this week to finish their connections (they brought the water line into the basement last week; now they need to install the pressure tank). Lumber for the deck and framing the basement will come this week after grading is finished and we have someplace to put it. We should pour footers for the deck posts this week. Concrete polishers come next Monday to do the basement floor.

I'm out at the site for the next couple of days.


I've got lots of mistakes and little problems - from construction to delivery to the trip up the hill to the set and on and on and on - that I need to detail over the next week or so. Nothing huge, but I feel it's time for an intermediate post mortem (if you can do such a thing).

But in the spirit of such a future post, I think I've discovered the first big mistake for which I am solely responsible. One of the most imposing tasks of acting as your own GC is ordering materials and making sure you've got the right stuff on hand at the appropriate time. I've been driving all over the place getting stuff for the last few weeks and that's one of the realities of not having someone else responsible for that kind of thing. Anyway, the math for ordering lumber is not always straightforward. In calculating the amount of cedar siding we needed, I had to compute the square footage of four sides of the house, subtract the volumes of windows and doors, multiply by 3 to account for the number of 1x4 cedar boards that make a foot, and multiply by 1.1 for waste. Or so I thought. Turns out 1x4 is a nominal measure (much like a 2x4 is really 1.5 x 3.5). And turns out that you need FOUR boards of 1x4 to make a vertical foot, not THREE. So it looks like even with my extra 10%, I'm going to be 15% short. Which means more ordering, acclimatizing, sanding and staining. Ugh.

Lions and tigers and...

That's right - BEARS! Carter saw a big old black bear along one of our old logging roads a couple of days ago, which thrills me to no end. There's also an albino deer that wanders our property and the adjoining land, which apparently the neighbors have all agreed not to shoot (though I've been told that of course I can shoot it if I want - not a chance, even if I knew how to hold a gun). Some wild turkeys and a fun turkey blind (looks like a teepee). Woodpeckers and owls all day and night long.

How much?

There's been plenty written about the Loblolly House already, and the Post added a recap over the weekend. I am dying to know where they ended up moneywise, though I guess for a prototype the more important question is where will they end up moneywise on the next ones.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I love blogging this house. I love to read other people's home/design blogs and I love that people are reading mine. That's why it makes me sad to know that people are checking in here when there's nothing new and leaving disappointed (hi Mine!). But being in WV for days at a time makes it hard to update regularly, and I beg your indulgence. Posting will be in chunks for the next few weeks, with lots of nothing in between.

We take requests

DoResearch asked for a pic of the view from our sliders. Here's what it looks like at the moment:

That's a west-northwest view of the setting sun through the trees. There is a wonderful ridge that runs across the whole horizon here; we'll see how much the installation of the septic field thins the trees, and then we'll select cut/trim to open it up however much more makes sense at that point.


And it looks pretty great.

That's Carter on the left, one of Craig's friends who we've recruited to help (Craig is standing on the compressor - we're probably going to need scaffolding soon). Carter and Craig are both good carpenters (and Carter is a yo-yo expert). The white gap in the siding is cut for an exterior outlet.

It's going up pretty quickly. We're using a finish nail gun and 2.5" finish nails, though most folks recommend that you hand nail to avoid splitting. We've found that the nailer is doing just fine, and the marks the nailer sometimes leaves aren't a problem since we're blind nailing the siding (each board rests on the board below it, and only the tongue at the top gets nailed, which is then covered by the groove of the next board).

Our plan was to put the trim boards on the vertical corners first, but since the roof eave isn't finished yet, we can't install the trim boards (they extend all the way to the top). So we'll put all the siding on and then rip it even at the edges with a skill saw when we're ready to get the trim on.

The window/door trim is also ready to go on. I've waffled a bit about how to fasten it. Ideally there would be no visible fasteners (and I think that's Res4's preference, too). But the trim is thick and heavy (2x2 cedar), and the fasteners also need to go through the gooey window tape. So we've decided on stainless torque screws, which will be regularly spaced and should accent the drip edges and the door hardware.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


One of our local radio stations has been pitching itself as green lately, and apparently Home Depot thinks that lawnmowers are good for us (Times subscription req'd - sorry). So I haven't really talked about our cabin as "green" too much - though we've tried to take advantage of some sustainable materials and we've been attentive to energy efficiency. And prefab (arguably) has a claim to being green in its own right.

But I tell you - staining 5000 linear feet of cedar is NOT green. And it doesn't wash off. I feel like a duck with all the water-resistant oils my body has absorbed. But we are (pretty much) done with all of it - a few pieces of trim to stain, but after two full days of sanding and staining we are ready to start getting it up on the house. Back out to the site tomorrow to begin...

Stacks of drying and dried cedar:

Test run (with our fingerprints all over it - that's why you should wait til it dries...):

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

No thank you

When the slab was poured, there was extra concrete (about a yard, apparently). The driver and our contractor pushed us pretty hard to find uses for it (lining the driveway ditch, filling the carpad, etc.). I guess it's a pain for them to get rid of it. If I'd known ahead of time we could have located a spot for a shed and had footers poured for it, but it wasn't a last second option. So I told them no thanks and take your concrete with you. Craig told me follow the concrete truck out and make sure he didn't just dump it in the woods, and I did, and he didn't.

Anyway, walking around the site yesterday we found this off the side of the driveway:

That is presumably what the concrete guy who poured the foundation walls did with his extra concrete (we weren't there for that pour). So the moral of the story is keep an eye on where your extra concrete ends up, and have a plan for it ahead of time if that makes sense for you.

The Frontier Thesis

Building a cabin in the woods has a romantic appeal to some (This American Life ran a piece this weekend about one family's misadventures). And our accommodations are improving bit by bit. That being said, here's our new kitchen:


Not really, of course. But now that the set is done, the work of our contractors will quickly wrap up. Utilities need to be connected, septic and backfilling and grading hopefully done next week (electric still a bit away), and a couple of trades need to get in (the items we won't be doing ourselves - rough plumbing, HVAC).

Which means that our work begins in earnest. Yesterday we started staining again. (Because we were getting so much junk from the trees falling down on our newly stained wood, we had decided to wait until we had the house set to stain the rest of the cedar so we could let it dry indoors and under cover). We built some drying racks and hope to finish by the end of the week.

Letting some air in

I really LOVE how these windows look. It's odd - they have a presence about them when cranked open that you'd think would distract from the transition from inside to outside. Or maybe they're just emphasizing that transition? I don't have a vocabulary for understanding why I react to them the way I do. But it's one of the elements that really drew me to Res4's designs, and I still dig em.


By Monday evening everything was gone - all the people and equipment. Craig and I cleaned up a bit. Tried to picture what everything will look like once we restore some of the natural grade. This will surely be a "before" pick in some post down the line:

We needed a crane to set the crane

Not even kidding. We ended up using a 130 ton crane, which took forever to get ready. It required 110,000 lbs of counterweight to lift our house, and the counterweights are huge steel plates of various sizes (5 ton, 8 ton, etc.) that attach to the bottom of the crane. After the crane was up at the top of the hill, the counterweights were carried up in dump trucks. The second crane moved all the counterweights at the staging area down the street.

Then the crane at the top unloaded the trucks (of counterweight, mats and bracing for the crane's arms, the cable and spreader arms for the pick, etc.):

Preparing the spreader arms, drilling holes in the sill of the house, passing the cable through:

Our intrepid film crew declined OSHA-recommended hardhats:

Ready to go:

Watch those toes:

Set and secure on the foundation:

The crane's last job was to turn the trailer around so it could be towed down to the bottom of the driveway (where Simplex will pick it up one of these days and drive it back to Scranton):

Mark, our contractor, recapping the day:

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

House Set

No attempt at a witty title - I'm too tired. But everything went great. The set was a breeze. Only really took about fifteen minutes to actually lift, move and set the box (and about six hours to set up and break down the crane). I've got lots to post about all the details, but for now here's a little slideshow of what it looked like (Sarah says it makes her kinda seasick, but then she's pregnant).

UPDATE: ACKK! I just realized that the youtube clip uploaded with iPhoto's default slide show music - Pachalbel! Gonna have to fix that...


Sunday, July 01, 2007

We're gonna be in pictures?

Last week, Joe at Res4 forwarded me an email from David Cook, a producer at the Fine Living TV network, which is filming episodes of a new show to air in the fall called Home Second Home (about, um, second homes). We caught up with each other on Thursday on the phone, and on Friday he had a film crew at our site (filming us standing around in the rain). I think they'll be out again on Monday for the set, which should make for better tv.