Saturday, June 29, 2013

Pish. And more pish.

The weather has been, as we say in the RAF Mountain Rescue, "honking." Like a wet weekend in Keswick, except I can't forget about work and go have a nice cream tea, or better yet, a pint.

So, we went driving around yesterday while the rain fell, and gathered up stuff we will need, eventually. I have all the electrical first and second fix materials in, as well as some plumbing stuff and heater duct for the old oil furnace, which we'll hook up, although likely not use.

The truck alternator seems well fixed, so there's that to be grateful for.

Yesterday afternoon, tired of waiting for the rain to end or at least die down, I slowly and carefully maneuvered the very heavy sliding glass patio door out of the garage, using the old garden trailer for a dolly or what Americans would call a "hand-truck," and on to the subfloor decking.

I was hoping to get some help for this job, but managed it on my own, going very slowly for fear of damaging the $450 unit.

Once it was out waiting on the subfloor decking, I may as well fit it, so I did, even though it was still siling it down.

Then, an early start this morning and the rough frames began to go in. By the end of the afternoon, we'd done a whole 39-foot wall, and half an 18-foot one, including a couple of completed window holes. This is the south wall, so there are four large windows and the patio door, to allow the sunshine to heat the room during the winter months.

Here's the chief builder and bottle-washer, reflected in that heavy old patio door, with a sheep in the background on the other side of the door.

In case you were wondering, we do have drawings. They're not full plans, just outline sketches and projections, done on the drawing board with t-square and triangle, just like they taught us at school in Sheffield.

They're not required by the town planners -- all we needed for the building permit was a sketch showing the measurements to the property line. The only things that will be inspected will be the septic and our plumbing. But I need them to explain to myself what the building should look like when I get done.

Otherwise it could turn out just about any old way it wanted!

Although my subfloor was supposedly guaranteed for 100 days of rain, it has warped. We've had around eight or nine inches of rain total in the last few days, enough to warp the subfloor and my brain. The sheep are like walking, soggy wet off-grey sponges.

Luckily, the damage is in what will be the utility closet, easily fixed.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A very stupid place to put an alternator

We've been busy around here. Earlier in the week we'd taken delivery of two hundred bales of Amish hay, as well as the last and final load of pig feed. The firewood was in and drying nicely. I'd gotten the extension project as far as I could without spending money we don't yet have on lumber.

But all good things come to an end. I got done with back-filling the foundation hole yesterday, had some lunch, took a short nap, and then, finally, had no remaining distractions or excuses not to start a job I'd most definitely not been looking forward to -- switching out the alternator on the old Nissan pick-em-up truck.

This truck is superannuated by now, having gone past it's 220,000 mile point. We long ago switched out the old rusted-out truck bed for a wooden flatbed -- which project, although I did it from necessity, to pass inspection, gave the truck a whole new lease of life and more usability, since the old 6-foot metal bed was not very good at carrying hay or plywood, two items we have frequently to carry around here.

I'm very happy with the "new" wooden bed, now three years or more old.

Since replacing the bed, we've used the truck for no more than two or three thousand miles a year, pretty much all of it load-carrying, except for a few miles in the deep snowdrifts each winter. I expect to kep it running as long as I possibly can, and have maintained the frame, suspension, and brakes accordingly, but one day a major engine problem will surface and that will be all she wrote. I could rebuild that engine, or even put a secondhand one in, but I'm not going to. Too much trouble. That will therefore be the point at which we scrap this old truck.

The plan is, one day, when this truck finally dies, to simply get a large trailer that the Land Rover can pull, and not need a pick-up truck at all. I fully expect to keep the Land Rover running until I die.

In the meantime, keeping the old truck running well is a fine art. In particular there's a small oil leak from somewhere or other, and a tiny coolant leak near number four spark plug, that shorts out the plug every three or four thousand miles, so you get a misfire, and then the plug has to be pulled and cleaned or replaced. One oxygen sensor is out on each side of the exhaust system. Both are essentially unreachable without some special tool. There's also a tiny brake fluid leak inside one of the wheel cylinders. I'm not sure which one, but whatever one it is, it's not sufficient to wet the drums or discs and reduce the braking power, so we just top off the fluid every two months or so. The wooden tailgate on the home-made bed is tricky and requires a secret special "thump" in just the right spot to get it to work well. And the whole under body gets a good thick coating of Fluid Film underseal every winter.

It was a bit of a setback, then, to have the alternator on this truck go out, just when we most needed the vehicle to run.

When the alternator light came on, I wasn't exactly sure what was happening, since the air bag and automatic transmission temperature lights also came on. I pulled the codes just to see if that told me anything, but the computer didn't say anything different about anything, except the stupid old oxygen sensors, so I bit the bullet and ordered a secondhand alternator from an online junkyard sales place. It cost only $95, and came quickly enough in three or so days, but I was still crunching to get the concrete work done with the rented cement mixer, and after that trying to finish out the joist structure, so I just set the new unit aside, for nearly a week, and made do as best I could. It slowly got buried under building materials in my workshop

In the meantime, I had to keep fetching such materials on almost a daily basis, so we either used the Land Rover to get things, if they would fit in a Land Rover, or we charged up the truck battery and hoped for the best.

I guess, also, I just wasn't looking forward to trading my clean light, breezy, airy workspace on top of the floor decking for the underside of a nasty greasy truck.

Finally, I knew I was getting serious when I pulled the Chilton's manual from the pile of automotive manuals we have in my workshop. That was Friday night. Saturday afternoon, I started the job.

I needed the manual because this particular alternator is not exactly visible from the top of the engine. I knew more or less where it was, but I didn't know how to get at it.

Usually alternators are easy to do. The Land Rover's alternator would probably take me less than four minutes to switch out. But the Nissan Frontier makes you jack up the vehicle, put it on jackstands, take off the sump plate, and then lay on your back with your arms at full stretch working on connections and bolts you can't see.

The whole underside was greasy due to the oil leak. My hands were stiff from building work, and kept getting cramps, while me poor old fingers had lost a lot of their mechanic's sensitivity as a result of working with rough boards and concrete.

To top it all, since I've been getting older my glasses have to be off for me to see close work, while I can't see that well with goggles on, and so grit kept falling in my eyes.

It wouldn't have mattered had I been made blind. You could only actually see the heads of a couple of the bolts, and none of the three wires. I needed to use a mirror to figure out how to dishook the final connection.

But eventually, after much ado and quite a bit of cursing, we got the alternator switched out. I tried a quick test start before putting the sump plate back on, and got a satisfying 14.25 volts at the battery. It took only two hours.

Considering that I'd just spent three weeks essentially in a hole in the ground sweating daily, I have to say I took it quite personally that my alternator went out at this particular time. And that it was such a nasty, hard job to replace it. I know it's character-forming to have to face adversity, and I know that long ago I made a lifestyle choice to be self-reliant and less dependent on the rest of society, but this particular job wore my patience, and my body, out pretty good.

Still, I expect it saved us at least $300.

After celebrating with a run to town for a milk shake, and to have the old alternator tested at the chain store auto parts place, just to make sure it was completely dead (it was -- diodes, field coil, and rotor were each burned out), I spent much of the rest of the day sleeping, and went to bed at 8.45 pm.

I plan to take it a little easier today.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Pretty in pink

Once the joist structure for the larger of the two rectangles that comprise this building was complete, I laid subfloor. We used an "engineered wood product" that is supposed to be moisture resistant. Unlike the joists which were cut within twenty miles of here and milled into lumber just five miles away, this came from a factory which as far as I can make out is in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Not only was this not local, but at $30 for each 4 by 8 foot sheet, it was also expensive. Yet it had to be. I needed a moisture-resistant subflooring material because we typically get some heavy downpours here in Maine during the summer, and it would be a few weeks to a couple of months before I could get a roof over this structure. This stuff came with a hundred day warranty -- it could be exposed to the weather for at least a hundred days without damage.

Back in the day Maine-cut hemlock or pine "one-by" or 5/4 ("five quarter", ie, or 1.25 inches) subfloor boards were of course naturally moisture resistant, and so we could have used a local material instead. But I knew from hard experience that those kinds of more natural materials are too uneven for modern flooring products, and Aimee wants a "proper"flooring product. Laminate flooring is generally best for folks who have lots of animals, because it can be very easily swept and it doesn't hold dog and cat hair. (Hardwood is even better but prohibitively expensive.)

Again, we know this from hard experience. Back at the Straw Bale House, I "improvised" pine floor boards by recycling two by six planed pine boards materials from an old chicken barn. The resulting floor looked fine (for the first few weeks of use) but had all these cracks that just sucked up dog hair and other "accidents". The only way you could keep down the smell of any such accidents was to periodically rinse the whole thing with bleach water. Since then, considering each subsequent set of Bale House residents has had multiple dogs and cats, this situation has just gotten worse and worse, to the point where I'm thinking about sanding and filling the whole floor and covering it with a hard polyurethane varnish.

That was back in my "heroic" days of building material recycling. I got those boards for $2 apiece, but had to pull twenty or thirty nails out of each one. I don't have the energy for that kind of recycling in this building project. If I had to pull nails out of floor boards, it would take another summer to build this place. The Straw Bale House took two summers to get closed in and insulated.

Once the subfloor was down we had a "line" for the height of the finished joist structure, so next we covered the foundation walls with foam board insulation up to this height, gluing the edges with spray foam. This effectively air-sealed the whole basement/crawl space area, except for the exit route for the sewer pipe, which will be sealed with spray foam once the sewer and air duct are in place. 

Although you can't tell from this photo, which was taken late in the afternoon, the foam board is a "hot" pink color.  Much of this too-bright pinkness will get hidden by dirt, as we back fill the basement hole. You can see from this picture that I've begun to fill the hole in already on the north side. Today I'll do the other three sides, using the Kubota tractor. 

What foam board remains visible above the dirt will get a coating of chicken wire and surface-bonding plaster. But that job can probably wait for next summer. We'll live with pink for now.

The foam board insulation was also expensive. We used two-inch closed cell foam, which has an "R-value" of ten. It took around twenty sheets to cover the entire foundation, although there are a lot of off-cuts left over that can be used in the walls later. At $33 a sheet, this cost nearly $700. We'll also install a layer of this material with underlayment on top under the laminate floor -- as a "floating" floor insulation, and air-seal it all with the bubble wrap sealing material that comes with the laminate floor. That should be enough to separate the house space from the crawl space more or less completely in terms of both air-sealing and insulation.

Most builders don't insulate and air-seal foundations and basements to this level, but if you want to build a passive solar house, you need to air-seal and insulate to a very high level indeed. 

In this case, we also want to run water pipes in the basement area, and so need to protect them from frost. If it wasn't for that we could just insulate and air-seal the subfloor, but that won't do here. We need to keep the basement area from freezing.

That big rock ledge will help even out the crawl space temperature over the seasons, but it may also import cold at the point where it's not very deep. There's a point on the north side where the rock is essentially at the same height as the ground surface, although I plan to add a few inches of dirt there to give it some cover. 

Later today I plan to run a wire down in the crawlspace and put in a couple of basic lamp holders with sixty-watt incandescent bulbs. Not only will these light the space for doing work down there -- fitting the sewer line, water pipes, and air duct, but they'll also provide enough heat to keep the pipes from freezing if the house is ever left shut down in winter.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Out of the ground!

We finally got done with foundation work on Thursday, so Friday and today were spent on joists. I was so happy to get out of that hole and done with concrete work. Carpentry work is so much better.

Here's the joist structure nearly finished already. It always goes faster when you get done with the foundation.

Walking around on top of the new joists is fun for me after three weeks in the hole. It's nice to be up high and working with wood, instead of down low and working with mud. I'm reminded of the elevator operator in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

In other buildings I've built, I've used slabs, rubble trenches, wooden (cedar -- resists rot) or concrete piers, or just big rocks placed on or in the ground -- just about anything to avoid spending days and thousands of dollars in a hole in the ground. If I'd known how much ledge was in this hole, I think I would have done something different here too, although I'm not sure what considering the bedrock slopes way too much for a slab -- the shape of the ledge, soil conditions and slope were all set up in just such a way that the weight of a building on a slab in that spot would have been just asking for a landslip. 

But the concrete work is done now, it won't violate the expectations of the mortgage bank or insurers, and we managed to use less concrete than is normally used for what is essentially a 650 square foot bungalow, about a sixth. 

Concrete is bad for the climate. Here, we were able to save using hand work and the bedrock itself. And it wasn't expensive. We used 300 x 60 pound bags -- they were on sale for $1.99 at Home Depot, and about 250 blocks at an average price of about $1.40 each. With the price of the tractor work and a few sundries, this particular hole "only" cost us $2,000.

In other news, Aime has been nursing a sick wee chickie. This particular animal had some kind of paralysis or weak legs. She couldn't walk for a few days there, but is getting better now. Aimee kept her in a tub in the bathroom, where the cats and dogs couldn't get at her.


She seemed happy enough, considering, peeping quietly to herself in her tub. When Aimee took her out for some sun, parking her in a small cage on the lawn, she was less happy, because she could see the other chicks in the chicken tractor, but couldn't get at them.

I have to go take a short teacher training workshop now for work. I'll get back to the construction job on Wednesday. The subfloor decking should arrive early next week, and after that we'll be framing up the walls. 

This build will proceed quickly from here on out, now we're out of the ground.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Grade that beam!

Here's the job site today -- another day of rain! But I've stripped away the tarps and the forms and you can see the grade beam I cast yesterday using the plywood chute to speed things up. It's within an half-inch of level, which is not bad considering I was half-blinded by the rain, working without my glasses most of the time.

The small missing section in the middle is a spot of remaining bedrock where I need to bring the wheelbarrow into the foundation area, so the beam on that area won't be poured until last thing, once all the rest of the block is done.

In the background you can see the $50 cement mixer. Tomorrow will be its first day of work. We'll use it to mix the mortar for the remaining blockwork, and, I guess, see whether or not it was such a good bargain.

I was discussing this project with a buddy from search and rescue the other day and realized a lot of people don't know the difference between a grade beam and a footing. To my mind a footer is a concrete floor you put in a trench, which may or may not be steel-reinforced. A grade beam is a poured, shaped, concrete beam that brings a job up to a specified grade. It should be steel-reinforced.

Grade beams can also move up or down with the contour of land, as this one does. Footings are usually at a level.

One way to use a grade beam is to cast it on a rubble trench foundation -- that's what we did with the bale house kitchen.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Squaring the circle

Tired of running concrete over to the footing forms with a wheelbarrow, once I got over to the north wall of the foundation and closer to the cement mixer, I tried something I'd seen on one of my TV shows. I like to watch shows about construction, building, and restoration, mostly to see what materials and techniques are being used that I don't yet know about.

In this case, I used a piece of plywood as a chute to run the concrete direct from the mixer to the form, something I'd see on UK Channel Four's Grand Designs. It worked well and saved a lot of labor. I was able to run through thirty or forty bags of concrete in a morning -- the most I've ever been able to do.

In preparation, I'd finalized the form almost all the way around to meet where I'd left off with the west wall. There's just one raised boss of bedrock there that isn't leveled yet, nothing that can't be handled with just a very small amount of concrete.

As a result, the very large rented cement mixer will go back to the rental yard tomorrow. From here on out, we'll make do with the $50 one I found on Craig's List. Since all we need to run is mortar and a small amount of concrete, we should be fine.

I have to say that making this foundation has been a serious and extended workout for an old feller like me. I don't think I've lost any weight, but I'm sure I've converted quite a bit of weight that was in fat to muscle.

We'll market this new diet and work-out regime -- the Foundation Diet.

Think it'll sell?

If it does, maybe next time we'll be able to afford to blast all that ledge and start with a square hole!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Slow progress

Here's the progress so far on the foundation. We have two completed footings and one-and a half completed walls. You can see that this is more than half the total because of the slope of the ledge. The remaining two walls will have a shallow footing, because there's fewer ups and downs, and they will require less block.

For which small mercy I'm grateful. My back, arms and legs are quite stiff each day from the heavy labor. yet still the rented cement mixer turns every day for several hours. 

Tomorrow is supposed to pour with rain all day so I may get a day off - my first in ten!

The ledge defeated my heavy duty half-inch drill and masonry bit, and I was forced to rent a hammer drill with a carbide bit. With this I was able to set the rebar pins fully eight inches deep. The rock is sound and doesn't crack when drilled, and so I'm confident that these will hold.

In other news, two lambs went in the "Lamb Rover" to our buddy John Mac and his partner Nancy. They take two each year to save lawn mowing, and then butcher both at the end of the year. Nancy showed us a nice sheepskin from one of last year's black lambs. Apparently it cost around $60 to send away to be processed, including shipping. Four or five would make a nice and very classy WW2 type pilot's sheepskin jacket. 

Here's what our murderous cat, Shenzhi, dragged in today -- a baby bunny. The poor wee mite was catatonic. Aimee of course decided to rescue it and try to nurse it back to health. We'll see how it does. I don't have high hopes.

Finally, the baby hens, already too big for their chick tractor, but still too small to go in with the adult hens, got an extension. 

Aimee said that "It took a lot less time to make the chicken tractor extension than the house extension."

So you see what I have to put up with! 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Memorizing the diagonals

Extension diagonals:

The two eastern corners of the overall building:

Hypotenuse of 38 feet 8 inches x 18 feet, converted to inches, is root of 215292 plus 46656, which is root of 261948, equals 42.65 feet, or 42 feet 8 inches

The corners of the smaller western square:
Hypotenuse of 15 feet right angled triangle is 21.28 feet or 21 feet and 2.5 inches

Saturday, June 1, 2013

One wall almost done

Unfortunately, it's only the shortest one. Still, it represents about 15% of the foundation work, since Thursday. At this rate, we'll get there in about three weeks.

I hope to get it done a little sooner than that, because a) the rental mixer costs money, and b) I don't  enjoy foundation work as much as I enjoy framing, and c) the weather has been ridiculously hot, considering it was still May until yesterday. I've been starting at 5 or 6 am just to get a few hours of cool weather before my head explodes from the heat.

I can't work much past noon if it's 90 degrees out there. This building site is a heat trap in the morning and early afternoon. Only after about 1.30 am does it begin to be shaded. Long before then I've usually exhausted myself, and have to quit before I make stupid mistakes.

Luckily a cold front will blast through tomorrow afternoon, which should about double my effective working day.

This blockwork foundation has a very variable footing. In places the footing is about a foot or more deep, in other places only six inches, to accommodate the ups and downs of the rock shelf that it sits on. Every inch rests on solid rock, though, to which the concrete bonds very well, so it's not going anywhere. I haven't had to pin it much because there were so many little troughs and ridges to act as keyways. I just ran a piece of rebar through laterally, bending it over the ridges and down into the troughs.

Later on we'll be out of the trench and on slightly sloping rock. There we'll need to put in a lot of pins.

The hard part is getting the footing to the right level so the height of the block ends up on the string. Once you start with the block, your height flexibility is virtually nil, so you have to get the footing height just right.