Step 6a – Stakes and Steel

Concrete can withstand an incredible amount of force when it is compressed, but doesn’t do as well when it experiences tension forces.  Steel reinforcement (rebar) embedded in the concrete helps give it more tensile strength.  County building codes require two runs of horizontal rebar at the bottom of the footings and one horizontal run within the top 12″ of the stem wall.  These requirements are very clearly spelled out with some pictures on the county website.  The three horizontal runs must be connected by L-shaped vertical rebar every 4 feet, alternating direction between the two bottom rows of horizontal rebar.

An excerpt from the County Construction Guide

One of the more difficult aspects of installing rebar is ensuring that it is embedded inside the concrete (most codes require 3″) as opposed to just lying on top of it or underneath it.  I will be using small blocks called dobies to hold the rebar up so that when the concrete is poured over it they will stay the required 3″ off the ground.  The vertical rebar is held upright by tying it to the bottom runs using rebar tie wire.  To make things easier, I bought a neat little tool for $15 that quickly and neatly twists the tie wires together for you as you pull on the handle.

Using the rebar tie tool to attach two pieces together

Rebar comes in lengths up to 20′ so when you need a longer run than that you need to splice two or more pieces together.  These splices must not occur in exactly the same spots on each run and must be 50 bar diameters in length.  Since I am using #4 rebar, the diameter is 4/8 or 1/2″ (#5 rebar would be 5/8″ in diameter, etc.)  If we multiply that by 50 we get 25″ so the spliced rebar must overlap by at least that length.  I had already used Rhino to figure out exactly where I wanted these splices so it was simply a matter of cutting them, bending them, and using the rebar tie tool to attach them together.

I noticed that one of my Point Roberts neighbors had an old rusty rebar bender/cutter in his yard and asked him if I could borrow it for a week.  It was barely holding itself together and at least twice as hard to operate as a newer one, but it did the job and saved me the money it would have cost to rent one.  The two notches on the front work together to shear the bar in two, and the knobs on the side work together to form a 90 degree bend in the rebar.   I put the stakes to hold the form work in first to ensure that the rebar wouldn’t be blocking me from putting them in just the right place.  Then I installed the rebar before hanging the form boards up so I wouldn’t have to work around them.



You can see above how the alternating vertical rebar join together the two bottom horizontal runs and the top horizontal run.  Once the forms are hung on the stakes, I will use some more rebar tie wire to straighten out the runs a bit so they don’t sag and wave so much.


Step 6 – Dig and Prep for Foundation

With the permit approved it was time to break ground!  I had already planned a mini excavator rental and surveyed the lot extensively so I knew where and how I wanted to orient the house.  The end result of my work will be the picture above.  You can see the perimeter footings forming a rectangle and the other trenches that run through it will be for plumbing, electrical, and HVAC.

Before digging, I needed a game plan.  I set up some makeshift batter boards with 2 foot nail stakes and scrap wood and then stretched string lines between them to mark out the inside and outside of the trenches.  I measured carefully to ensure the strings were spaced the correct distance apart from each other and also measured the diagonal distances between the corners to ensure that they formed perfect 90 degree angles.  You want to ensure that you are leaving enough space between the trench and the batter boards to fit the mini excavator.  Once I was sure the lines were straight and square, I notched the batter boards where the strings crossed the board so I could remove them and reset them without measuring again.

Close up of the nail stake, notched batter board, and string line

Next, I marked underneath the string lines using inverted spray paint. Unfortunately, I had already gone through one can before I read that you can just use cornmeal to mark the lines.  I bought a bulk bag and put some in a container with a spout on it and just poured it over the string lines.  It fell past the string and made a neat line on the ground -yet another way of Saving Sustainably.  Once the lines were marked I removed the string lines and hopped on the mini!

Above, you can see the string at the top of the photo that I had untied, wound up, and placed over a stake for future use.  At the bottom is one of the strings that is still tied in place.  You can also see how I used the painted lines to align my digging with the mini.

When I was planning out my build, I thought seriously about just buying a mini excavator.  They have great resale value and are incredibly handy.  You can not only use them to excavate, but also to raise walls, move dirt around, or just move heavy objects.  In the end, I’m glad I decided against it.  The thrill of operating one of these machines is an experience I was happy to have, but by the 4th hour or so I was losing interest.  It takes about an hour to get pretty good on the controls, so of course the learning aspect of that was an enjoyable challenge, but once you have it down the digging becomes monotonous and I’m not a fan of diesel fumes.  If I had it to do over again I would just use a skid steer to clear the topsoil and level everything and then I would dig the footings by hand.  That having said, my soil is pretty sandy here so I’m sure I would feel differently if I was dealing with a more clay-like substrate.

After the footings were dug, I used the mini to move the “spoils” to a location out of the way where they will remain until I finish building and will use it to “backfill”.  I did use some of them to add on to my septic field mound just to give it a more rounded, neat look.  I used my builders level to painstakingly level the interior and ensure that my footings were dug to the proper depth.  You can see below how I made a little jig to hold the grade stake in place so I could walk back to the level and check the depth.  A rake, shovel, and wheelbarrow also made moving the dirt easier.

Now the only thing left as far as digging is concerned is just a few small trenches for utilities (HVAC, water supply, electrical)  It’s very gratifing to see the design I have been working so hard on slowly becoming reality.

Step 5b – Overview of the Permitting Process

A huge box was checked off today as I picked up my building permit from the county office.  It had been approved by the plans examiner a week earlier but it wasn’t official until I had it in my possession, ready to present to any inspector who might request it.  The entire process was unknown territory for me, and I couldn’t find much information about it online, so I thought it might be good to describe in detail what it was like and what I will do differently if I build again in the future.

The county website does a great job describing how to apply for a permit, but there isn’t any information describing what happens after you apply.  I wasn’t sure at all how much detail they wanted on my plans other than what they listed as being mandatory.  My mentor had a ton of extra information on his plans describing precisely how the building would adhere to code so I figured I had better do the same.   I spent countless hours painstakingly drawing out the fine details of my design using CAD.  Looking back, it seems that for the most part, these efforts were completely unnecessary.  The building department added several stamps and stickers to my plans that said the exact same things I had already written on them.  My advice would be to just give them exactly what they are asking for and nothing more.  This gives you more flexibility to change things if you choose to do so during the course of the build.

The first step was called a permit pre-screening.  They take a quick glance at what you want to build and check to see if there are any additional concerns that will need to be addressed.  It was during this meeting that I was told I would need to conduct a natural resources assessment.  After the NRA was complete and my site plan was submitted, the county sent me a NOAR (Notice of Additional Requirements).  This email notified me that the setbacks I had noted on my site plan were not sufficient and needed to be bigger (60′ instead of 50′).  I made the appropriate changes and resubmitted my plan, and a little over a week later I received an email that I had passed and was free to schedule an “intake appointment”.

I went through the permit application checklist on the county website and made sure I had all the required documents ready, and then scheduled my appointment.  Unfortunately, the earliest available date was over two weeks away!  If I had it to do over again I would have scheduled this the second I received notice and then prepared my documents while I was waiting for the date of the appointment.  The intake appointment was much less formal than I imagined.  I unrolled my plans on the counter and the plans examiner looked them over briefly and then let me know I would need engineering.  I explained this encounter in a previous post.  They were able to schedule me another appointment just a week away and I used the time to make the adjustments to my plans that he had requested.

The second appointment was much the same as the first.  The plans examiner unrolled my plans and checked to see that the changes had been made.  He also spotted one additional mistake but said that they would just make a note of it on my plans.  (I had used the rough opening of my egress, or emergency exit, windows to comply with the minimum opening area of 5.7 square feet instead of the area of the actual window opening)  They gave me approval and said that they would notify me when the permit was ready to be issued.

I received a call almost two weeks later that they had found one additional mistake with the front setback. (I would have disputed this but they had already come up with an easy solution)  Basically, I was allowed to shorten the setback if I agreed to plant a couple rows of pine trees at the back of the lot, something I would probably have done anyway.  A couple days later I received an email letting me know that the permit was ready to be picked up.

When I looked over my plans I saw that in addition to the stamps and stickers, they had marked several things as needing adjusting.  The first were the windows that I had made mistakes on.  The second was on the foundation plan, where they had added a 16″ x 16″ square for a reinforced section of the foundation.  This was to carry the load from the opening in the floor for the spiral stairway.  I had specified the correct amount of support on the floor joists but hadn’t carried the load all the way down to the foundation.  I’m sure they could have forced me to get this engineered but instead they basically engineered it for me saving me a grand!

Looking back on everything, this is a process that I would have started a lot earlier in the game, even though I hadn’t fully completed my design at the time.  There was plenty of time to finish in the weeks of waiting and there were also plenty of opportunities to make alterations.  Even now with the plans stamped and approved, the inspector has already told me that I can still make adjustments as long as he approves them.  The entire process of getting a building permit with no experience as a builder was surprisingly easy.  The county was very easy to work with and never gave me a hard time even though I made several mistakes along the way.  They even helped me correct some of my errors!  I’m sure this isn’t the case at every county building office but it is the experience I had.  Now I can focus on getting going on the foundation!

Using a rented plate compactor to ensure that the bottoms of my footings are well compacted. I also used it a bit on the top where the slab will be