Making the Grade

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Todd from Pillsbury, grading. It is finally possible to walk out of the walk-out basement.

The theme for today was moving earth. Pillsbury returned to slope the walk-out basement, install footer drains around the perimeter, and fill outside the basement walls. Grades around the house perimeter are very close now to the final elevations.

With Todd operating the big excavator and Tim driving the little Bobcat, the Pillsbury crew also spread crushed stone over the entire basement footprint. We contributed with our shovels and rakes and screeding bars to get a smooth surface. Then we laid out 4-foot-by-8-foot polystyrene foam sheets over the crushed stone, moving more stone as necessary so the top of foam was flush with top of footer everywhere. In some locations we had to cut holes in the foam for utilities, or trim end pieces where a full sheet wouldn’t fit. It was a fun puzzle to cover the footprint using as few sheets as possible.

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Tim from Pillsbury levels crushed stone with the Bobcat.
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Foam sheets complete! (The scuff marks are just boot prints, no big deal.)

Outside of the grading, plenty of odd jobs kept us busy. Monday we made a long list of things we could do before the excavators arrived, and we completed nearly all of them. Install top plates on the basement half-walls. Use masonry nails to secure formwork for the concrete slab at the walk-out part of the wall, the only place the slab isn’t enclosed by ICFs. Install triple joists and double sills around each window, then nail down the window trim. Cut trim for the Barn’s back door. Staple mesh to the top of the basement exterior walls, in preparation for a ready-mix coating we troweled on today.

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Father-Son Combo One (Colin and Cole) use the latest equipment on site – a table saw – to rip plywood.
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Father-Son Combo Two (Terry and Carson) trowel the top of the wall.

Also today we stapled some final pieces of weatherproofing onto the Barn exterior, and we installed an extra 2×4 under the Barn’s ridge beam to support the rafters better. And we dealt with some bad news regarding the basement slab formwork. Turns out Todd can’t drive his equipment into the basement with our boards up, contrary to Terry’s understanding, so we had to pull the masonry nails out first thing in the morning and reinstall the lumber later. Now, there’s a technique to hammering into masonry, and I easily bent a dozen nails trying to learn it. For my eventual success to be negated by miscommunication made the ordeal doubly frustrating. But there’s no time for hard feelings on a construction site… so I got over it. Formwork is back in place and better than ever.

With the Barn doors up and running, the inside is more secure and we can really keep tools and materials out of the rain. And at last we’re ready to place the basement concrete slab… now if only the weather will cooperate.

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It’s been awhile since I posted a shot of the whole site. Check out that Barn door!

This and That

After a sequence of major construction accomplishments, it’s anticlimactic to change gears and spend some time on smaller, less visible tasks. But the little things are every bit as essential as the big, and we’ve completed plenty of them since the basement walls were placed Tuesday. Priority number one was to remove the wall’s bracing after giving the concrete a day to set. The foam ICFs themselves are designed to stay in place, but those steel bracing towers become redundant once the concrete wall can support itself, and they belong to Vermont ICF anyway. So we removed the (reusable) bracing towers, as well as the (also reusable) scaffold and the lumber supporting the outer perimeter. This cleanup took the better part of a day.

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Balancing act: Terry carries away a 60 pound, 10 foot long bracing tower.

We put up a vapor barrier on the outside of the basement walls to keep the inside dry. Cole and Carson get most of the credit for completing this task: they cut the material from a roll to the various lengths required, and then they stuck each piece to the foam as smoothly as possible, like wallpaper. Meanwhile, Terry and Colin installed pipes and conduits inside the basement walls for the various utility connections we’ll need: water, septic, electric. We now have a bunch of PVC hanging in midair, but they’re all in the right locations, which will guide us when we build out the basement interior.

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Tinky Winky and Laa Laa stick up the vapor barrier.
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Fine-tuning the PVC. Lots of utilities visible in this shot, passing through the north wall and the east footer.
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Basement plan. North is right. Plumbing goes to the bathroom, laundry room, and dog room.

For the partial-height basement walls in the northeast and southeast corners, we surveyed full-height elevations and built short stubby stud walls to fill the difference. The studs sit on a 2×6 sill plate atop a pressure-treated 2×8 sill plate. We extended the 2×8 plate around the entire perimeter, including on vertical faces of the wall where the ICF elevation changes, and we installed wedge bolts into concrete (drilling holes with a masonry bit) where we hadn’t already sunk anchor bolts. To accommodate the bolts, we measured and drilled completely through the 2×8 plates, then routed partway through the 2×6 plates in the same locations.

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One stud half-wall is up; surveying the other. Note 2×8 sill plates around the perimeter.

Back at the Barn, we received our first window delivery as well as our overhead doors, so we prepared rough openings to fit them all. The garage doors get 1x trim around the edges and some nailers for the overhead equipment. The windows require an opening half an inch bigger than we built (it’s a new supplier and they spec the windows differently), and we spent most of Thursday afternoon enlarging those first-floor openings until they just fit. Tip for installing windows: remove the glass! It makes the frames so much lighter and easier to handle.

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Terry puts finishing touches on our first window; Cole and Carson remove the ladder.

And we finally started shingles on the back side. As with the front, it took a long time to install the drip edge and the first row of shingles, but once Terry put in roof jacks the pace really picked up. We ended Friday with the back side about one-third shingled.

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Another balancing act: Turner prepares shingles and passes them down to Terry.

The small stuff is less exciting, but you can’t live without it. And with floor joists delivered and the basement slab concrete scheduled to arrive Tuesday, we have plenty more big tasks on the horizon.

White Castle

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Wow, check out this basement! The wall forms are complete and filled to the brim with wet concrete that’s setting even as I write. It took lots of hands working in the hot sun to get there, but the footprint of the house is taking shape and we’re nearly ready to move above ground.

Monday was a wild ballgame with Terry, Colin, Cole, Carson, Turner, Kiara, and myself all pitching in. Together we installed bracing towers at 6-foot intervals on the interior of the forms, built a scaffold so we could work higher off the ground, and topped off the ICF walls. The braces conveniently provide a horizontal surface on which we could lay planks for our scaffold, but we didn’t have enough of them, so we used scrap 2x lumber as additional posts. No worries structurally speaking: the posts are temporary and the only weight they need to carry is us, but I’ll admit to you other engineers that these spans exceed L/800 deflection by plenty. To brace the exterior of the forms, where the excavation left little room, we set up a perimeter cleat and some temporary studs.

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Cole saws the top course flat. Good shot of the bracing towers and scaffold.

You may be wondering why the forms look incomplete, with only two sides at full height. In fact, we have three different wall heights: one for the mudroom (nearly level with the Barn slab), one for the raised first floor, and one for the daylit part of the basement which will have clerestory windows. We built timber dams to prevent concrete from spreading out the side. Each ICF Lego piece is 16 inches tall, and annoyingly none of our three wall heights is a multiple of 16 inches. Two are close – half an inch greater – and to reach this height we just shaved off part of the interlocking top nubs. On the 108½-inch wall, we needed to trim the top course by 3½ inches. For each of the 15 blocks in this course we started our trims with a circular saw, finished cutting through the nylon webs with a hand saw, and smoothed the exposed edges with a utility knife. Quite the ordeal.

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Straightening the wall. Colin’s inside, Terry’s outside.

Tuesday at 1pm was our main event, and we prepared amply for the concrete delivery, threading PVC conduits through the forms, checking the forms for straightness and plumbness and twisting the bracing tower turnbuckles as necessary. Harrison brought back their pump truck, then delivered 27 cubic yards (independent calcs by Colin, Terry, and me all agreed on this volume), three mixers full. While Terry guided the hose, Colin followed behind on the scaffold to trowel the top smooth, and Carson and I kept our eyes on the outside and inside of the form to watch for bulging. Thanks to our fine bracing job, the walls barely budged.

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Pumping concrete.

As the concrete began to set, I installed anchor bolts on 4-foot centers. Terry led a final check for levelness (using a transit) and plumbness (eyeballing along each wall), and we levered in a few extra braces to straighten some minor bowing. It’s got to be perfect now… come morning, these walls ain’t moving.

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ICFs fully loaded with concrete, plus anchor bolts and a dam.