Step 12 – Wall Sheathing

With the roof underlay on, the structure is now safe from direct rain, but there is a ton of wind here in Point Roberts thanks to the proximity to the ocean, so wind blown rain is still a threat. Installing the wall sheathing will solve that problem, at least for the short term.

Many builders apply the wall sheathing to the studs before they even stand the wall up. This would have required me to rent some heavy equipment, so I decided against it. Another good thing about installing the sheathing now as opposed to earlier in the build, is that I was able to wait until I was sure that the interior of the structure was nice and dry. If I had attached it earlier before the roof was on, rain would have soaked everything from above and then the sheathing would have blocked all the wind from drying everything out.

The wall sheathing serves several very important functions besides acting as a blocker to wind blown rain. Most importantly, it provides the necessary wall bracing to adhere to building codes.  Second, it functions as the integral part of the outer air barrier, which is crucial to achieving net-zero.  Last, it will provide nailing support for the exterior rigid insulation.

Sheathing the walls solo, like the floor and roof sheathing, required a few creative bits of ingenuity.  The 4 foot high and 8 foot long sheets weigh a little over 45 pounds, and the top row of sheathing must be installed 20 feet up in the air.  Just carrying one of these sheets is cumbersome, let alone figuring out how to hold it in place and nail it with only 2 hands.  On top of that, I had to figure out how to apply a bead of caulk around the edges of the sheets and at window openings, and keep in mind that some of this would need to be done on a ladder.  The task at hand was quite daunting, but after thinking it over for a bit I was able to come up with some techniques that worked surprisingly well!

Before the sheets could be installed I had to attach some blocking halfway up each wall, in between all the studs.  This is required for wall bracing to ensure the sheathing is fully attached to the structure.  I had several extra 2×6 studs from a minor mistake I had made when ordering the framing lumber, so I ripped them in half and then cut them to fit between the studs.  Each block was end nailed to the stud on one side, and then toe-nailed on the other side.

Marking out windows and studs before installing the sheet made nailing a lot easier

Attaching the first row of sheathing was obviously the easiest.  I snapped a chalk line halfway up the bottom plate and then sank a few 16d nails just below it so that if I rested the board on the nails, the bottom of the board would line up with the chalk line.  Next, I grabbed a sheet of plywood from my stack and drew a line every 2 feet.  This would make knowing where the studs were for nailing much easier.  Next, I grabbed my caulking gun and used Dynaflex 230 to lay a bead of caulk along the top of the bottom plate, the bottom of the blocking, and the two studs where the ends of the sheet would be.  I also caulked all the way around any window openings that would be under the sheet I was installing.  After that it was a simple matter of lifting the sheet onto the nails at an angle so the top of the sheet wouldn’t smear the caulk, then positioning it precisely, and last pushing it into the wall and nailing it down.  Each sheet was nailed every 6″ along the edges and every 12″ on the lines I had drawn.

Plenty of caulk along the edges of each board and around windows will ensure an airtight barrier

Installing the next row wasn’t a whole lot more difficult.  I sank 16d nails on each stud just over the top of the previous row of sheathing.  This will leave a small gap between the rows which will allow for expansion due to heat and moisture.  I marked lines every 2 feet to line up with the studs and caulked just as I had with the sheets in the first row.  Then I hoisted the sheet up on top of my homemade scaffolding and then used a ladder to get myself up on the scaffolding as well.  From here I could install the sheet just like the first row by angling it onto the nails, positioning, and then pushing it to the wall and nailing it down.

The third row got a little more tricky.  I installed more blocking, snapped a line marking where the top row of sheathing should go, marked lines every 2 feet on the sheet, and caulked.  Then, from the second floor inside the house, I clamped my winch to the top half of the stud that would lie in the middle of the sheet, and used a c-clamp to attach the belt to the sheet of plywood.  Then I cranked up the winch until the sheet was at the right height, positioned it from inside the house on the second floor, and reached around with my nail gun to tack it down.  Then I removed the c-clamp, went downstairs, and climbed a ladder to finish nailing down the panel.

On the gable ends, I was able to install the final row just like the third row by simply moving the winch up to the gable end truss and attaching it there.  On the other two sides I had nothing to clamp the winch too!  After trying in vain for quite some time figuring out how to do it on my own, I realized this might be one of the times I needed to call a friend over.  I drilled holes in a couple of scrap blocks and nailed them to the frieze blocks, and ran one of my nail stakes left over from the foundation through the holes.  Then I ran a rope around the nail stake so both ends dangled down at the bottom of the house.  I attached one end of the rope to a c-clamp around the plywood, and left the other end dangling.

Here you can see the bar we used to help us lift the last of the sheets into place

When my friend arrived, I caulked the area where the sheet would go and then he stood on the second story and hoisted up on the rope while I simultaneously pulled in the slack at the bottom.  Once the sheet had reached the top, I nailed a second stake into the ground and tied off the rope so we could both let go and the board would stay in place.  At that point I climbed the ladder with my nailgun and gave him instructions on which way to nudge it so it was perfectly positioned and then nailed it down.

 

It may look pretty boring now, but the interior is protected from the elements!  The exterior of the plywood sheathing will definitely still get wet, but the water won’t leak through and the inside will stay nice and dry.  I will wait until it gets a little warmer in a couple months so I can be sure that the outside of the house is completely dried out, then I will install the exterior foam, water barrier, furring strips, windows, etc.  In the meantime, it is nice and dry inside and I will be starting on the plumbing!

A huge thank you to my friend PJ for his help, both with coming up with the idea on attaching the bar to the house and for his strength helping to hoist the sheets!

 

Step 11e – Drip Edge and Underlay

Today I weathered in the roof by installing the drip edge and underlay.  Together with my fiancée, Elena, who is in charge of making the house look great, we decided on navy blue/grey aluminum shingles for the roofing material.  Aluminum is supposed to hold up well against the salty ocean air of Point Roberts and the system I ordered from the Aluminum Shingle Co. came with a lifetime warranty.  This becomes extra important for a solar net zero home like the one I’m building because if you have to replace the roof then you have to remove the entire solar system first.  The aluminum shingles are built to interlock together, which not only makes installing them a little easier, but also ensures an extremely watertight barrier.

The first step in the install was to attach the drip edge to the eaves of the roof.  For the aluminum shingle system, the drip edge came with the package because the shingles will actually lock into it (even the nails to install it were included!)  For a more typical shingle roof, the drip edge can be purchased separately.  The job of the drip edge is to ensure that water doesn’t drip down the fascia as it travels to the gutter.  The face of the drip edge extends out over the fascia so the water coming off the roof drops directly into the gutter without touching the fascia.  After watching the installation video a few times, I carried the drip edge up to the roof and set about installing it.  Some small cuts had to be made with some tin snips where the different pieces locked together but overall the process was extremely simple.

Getting the roll of underlay up to the roof was probably the most difficult part.  It weighs close to 100 pounds and wasn’t quite wide enough to ride up the rails that I had used to haul up the roof sheathing.  I decided the best way to do it was to unroll a little more than the amount I needed to complete a row, cut it off, and then roll it back up.  Then it was light enough where I could carry it up the ladder safely.  Starting at one end, I nailed it down so it almost covered the nailing flange of the drip edge and then unrolled it all the way to the other side.  After tacking it at the end and cutting the roll flush with the gable end, I nailed it down with cap style roofing nails every 8 inches or so.

Step 11a – Frieze Blocks and Baffles

Working on the roof definitely has its perks when it comes to sunset!  Doesn’t show up as well in the picture but I had a beautiful view of a snow covered Mt. Baker there.  So when I ordered the roof trusses, I had specified that I wanted a 15″ energy heel.  This feature ensures that the attic insulation will maintain it’s full strength all the way to the edge of the wall.  I will be using blown-in cellulose insulation in the attic and to achieve my desired strength of R-60 I will need about 16.5″ of insulation (blown cellulose has an r-value of about 3.7 per inch)  A standard truss would slope all the way down to the top plate, leaving only the width of the truss chord between the ceiling and the roof.  For a net-zero home this is unacceptable.  So before we can apply the roof sheathing, the sides of the walls need to be built up to the same level as the roof, otherwise the cellulose would just fall out after we blew it in.

 

The pieces used to build up the wall are called frieze blocks.  If you look closely, you can see how I had to add in a layer of plywood to ensure that the blocks were tall enough.  In addition, I beveled the top edge of each block so that it would match the slope of the trusses.  Any place in the house where insulation exists, it becomes very important to have an airtight seal all around it.  The beveled edge will make it much easier to air seal the frieze block to the trusses on the sides, and to the roof sheathing on top.

 

You might notice that every third frieze block is a few inches shorter than the others.  The spaces there will be used for baffles.

A baffle is used to ventilate the attic.  Even with a perfectly installed roof and airtight seals all around the insulation, moisture has a knack of finding its way into pretty much anyplace you don’t want it to be.  The most effective way to remove this unwanted moisture that could potentially lead to rot and mold is to use moving air.  The air will enter the attic through the baffle and warm slightly, causing it to rise and eventually exit through the ridge vent at the peak of the roof.  As the air completes this journey, it will pick up any moisture that exists in the attic.  As you can see below, the baffle is more than just an opening through the wall of frieze blocks.  It is actually more like an air tunnel that runs over the top of the insulation.  Again, recall that it is extremely important to ensure no moving air comes into contact with the insulation. 

If you can imagine the roof sheathing going on over the top of this baffle, it will create a 2 inch wide air tunnel through the attic between the two layers of wood.  Below you can get a good look at the frieze block from the bottom.  Several months from now, practically this entire area you see will be filled with energy saving insulation.  You can also see where I added hurricane ties to lock the trusses to the top plates of the walls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 4c – Ready For Another Inspection

And there you have it folks.  My $7000 high powered sprinkler system!  Hard to believe that underneath the plastic “infiltrators” you see in the background and 12 inches of soil, that spray is going to be the last step in safely disposing of my sewage.  Today, the septic designer brought over the last piece I needed, a “hose assembly”, and we hooked it up.  The hose assembly attaches to the pump at the bottom of the tank and makes three 90 degree turns before exiting the tank and going through the PVC pipes I assembled a few days ago.  

Now it was time to fill up the pump chamber with water and test the system.  It was necessary to fill up the chamber with water for two reasons. First, you never want to run any kind of water pump without water in it because air has much lower resistance than water and the motor will burn out without that resistance (so make sure you aren’t out of windshield wiper fluid!)  Second, the panel won’t operate the pump unless both the redundant off and pump on floats have been activated and I’m not too keen on climbing down into the tank and flipping them upside down by hand.  After ten minutes or so I had enough water in the tank to activate both floats and I turned on the power to the control panel.  The pump activated and we got the beautiful water show you see at the top of the post.  The septic designer called the inspector for an appointment tomorrow so I can replicate the display for him and he will sign off on it.  There will be a few more minor things to assemble once that is done but nothing I can’t get done by the end of tomorrow as long as the backhoe operator shows up.

Step 1 – Buy Land

Where are you going to build your dream home?  For myself, it was important to locate a site where I could find affordable land near a large city.  Luckily for me, I was able to find the perfect spot.  An affordable, reasonably sized plot near the beach just a half hour away from one of my favorite cities in the entire world.  It was a stroke of luck that I can’t possibly see how others can duplicate but the stars aligned and I now own a small patch of the world and no bank or other can lay claim to it.  Here’s how it came together…

I began by listing my priorities out.  I will be building solo, so it was important for me to have a large city nearby where I could utilize meetups to balance my building time with social time.  I needed to ensure I had access to electricity, water, and sanitation.  To cut out engineering costs, I needed a plot that was only mildly sloped and with decent load bearing soil.  On my wish list was a view and proximity to a beach.

The optimal location became quite apparent when my brother told me about a geographic anomaly by the name of Point Roberts.  A quick half hour drive from downtown Vancouver, BC and just a few hundred feet from its million dollar, overpriced southern suburbs is a small peninsula that crosses south below the 49th parallel that marks the border between Washington state and British Columbia.  Home prices below this invisible line are a fraction of the cost of similarly sized homes on the Canadian side, mostly due to a lack of jobs and high schools in the city.  Thanks to www.mrmoneymustache.com I had no need for a job and it will be at least 20 years before any future children of mine are in need of a high school education.

My decision became relatively simple at this point as the city of Point Roberts has limited lots available and only 3 realty companies that serve the area.  I used their websites to sift through all their available inventory, and after contacting several of the realtors with some minor questions I chose the one that had been the most accessible.  I made an offer on my favorite lot and included several “feasibility contingencies” to ensure that I had sufficient time to thoroughly research it before the deal was sealed.  Some examples of good feasibility contingencies to include but are absolutely not limited to:

  • Zoning – are single family residences even allowed?  Up to what size?  Is the plot of land big enough to accomodate that size with legal property setbacks?
  • Availability and installation cost of utilities – water? electricity? gas?  sanitiation (sewer, septic)? internet and/or phone? Waste collection?
  • HOA – are there any community dues and/or regulations that would ruin your idea of a perfect home? What if you happen to be a dog lover and the HOA has bylaws that forbid them?
  • City / Neighborhood – are you sure this is where you want to live? what are the hospitals, police, schools, and fire fighting facilities like?  what are the neighbors like?  Spend some time in the city and make absolutely sure you want to live there
  • Site characteristics – How is the soil?  Is the lot sloped? Is it in a flood plain?
  • Building/ Impact Fees – some cities charge ungodly sums of money to discourage people from building new houses in an effort to control population.  You will certainly have to pay building permit fees as well as countless others.  Know what you are getting yourself into and be prepared to budget for these unavoidable costs.

You will most likely have to lay down some money as earnest deposit to prevent the sellers from bargaining with another party while you are researching all of these items.  You may also have to fork over some money for a soils test, property survey, etc.  Once you have done enough research to be thoroughly convinced that you know exactly what you are getting into, the local title company will accept your funds, walk you through the signing process, and record the title transfer with the county.

 

 

 

Welcome!

This site is a novice attempt to create a resource for intelligent people with excess time that wish to get the biggest bang for their buck when it comes to Saving Sustainably.  These days, most people spend the vast majority of their income on housing, especially those that wish to live in a large metropolis with short commutes to work and endless options for friendship, entertainment, and cuisine.  These dwellings consume vast quantities of gas, electricity, and water, which only add to their high price tags.  The supplies of these resources are finite, and their exploitation tends to cause pollution and hardships for wildlife.  Building a water and energy efficient home is the number one way a person can save a ton of money and help the environment all at the same time.  The problem is that building a house seems like an insurmountable task for the average person.  It seems to take an entire army of trades to get the job done, with plumbers, electricians, roofers, framers, masons, and on and on and on.  I am setting out to prove that conventional wisdom wrong.

I’ve used the last 9 months to acquire some basic construction and design skills, and in the process I’ve realized the dirty truth that the average house is not constructed very well at all.  The entire industry focuses on getting the job done as quickly as possible and using paint and drywall to cover up the lack of attention to detail.  Just think about it, every contractor out there is paid by the job rather than by the hour.  Their method of payment influences them to cut as many corners as they can get away with.  Since the majority of problems with houses aren’t discovered until several years after their completion, it has become relatively easy for them to get away with completing shoddy work.  The drywall crew and painters come by and cover it all up, and homeowners wonder why their heating and cooling bills are so high, why it is so easy for insects to move in with them, and why they can hear and smell everything from the next block over.  The answer is simple.  If you peel back the paint and drywall from the average home, you will find a house that is more of a swiss cheese than an impenetrable, protective haven.  The workmanship is so bad in many cases, that I’m willing to bet that anyone willing to invest their time in attention to detail can do a better job.  What’s more, is they can do it far cheaper, and can customize their home as much as they want.

DISCLAIMER: I am an unlicensed beginner.  This site is meant to be a resource, not an instruction manual.  I volunteered several months of my time to acquire some basic safety, design, and construction skills, and anyone looking to build their own home is strongly advised to do likewise.  Keep in mind that building codes vary from country to country, state to state, and even county to county.  The laws that pertain to the construction of my home may vary substantially from the laws that pertain to your specific building lot.

How to Apply Continuous Plywood Sheathing Efficiently

20161122_073612Installing continuous plywood sheathing isn’t one of the more difficult tasks in building a house, but my mentor showed me how to do it the right way.  The first step is to nail in blocking between the studs at the sections where the plywood sheets will break.  The perimeter of every single sheet must be nailed down in order to satisfy code requirements.  It is a lot of work to cut blocks to fit in between all of the studs but once they are nailed in it gives a really nice, clean look to the wall.  The best practice is to end nail one side of the block and toe nail the other side (you can’t end nail the other side because the previous block is in the way).  As you can see, the blocks obviously don’t need to be applied inside the window rough openings.

Once the blocks are all nailed in, it’s vital to apply a layer of caulk to the outer studs, top and bottom plates, as well as all window and door openings.  This will create an air barrier at the exterior walls and decrease the opportunity for leakage.  The sheets are installed in just the same fashion as the foil faced roof sheathing (minus the H-clips).  Place the panel so that there is room for nailing on all four sides, and then hammer down 8d nails 6 inches apart on the edges and 12 inches apart in the field wherever a stud lies.  When hammering in the nails on the edge, the best practice is to stagger them every 3 inches so they look as if they have been sewn together.  One of the advanced framing techniques used on my design is to use wall lengths divisible by 4 feet.  This ensures that the studs will line up with the trusses every 2 feet, but also saves costs on sheathing because the plywood comes in 4ft by 8ft  sheets.  The next layer of sheets should be staggered so that the sheets meet above the center (or as close as possible) of the sheet below it.  Ideally this would mean beginning with a full size 8 foot sheet on the first layer and then starting the next layer with a 4 foot sheet.  Window and door openings can be cut either before or after nailing down the sheet.  When the door or window opening falls on the end of a sheet, cut out the opening before nailing.  When the opening falls in the middle of a sheet, cut it out after, using a drill to put a hole in each corner, a straight edge to connect the holes, and then a circular saw or jigsaw to cut out the opening on the lines.

I learned about a great idea to reduce costs by cutting out the foam insulation on the gable end walls outside the attic.  On my design, the exterior plywood is covered with a 2 inch layer of polyisocyanurate foam to help insulate the walls.  The attic, on the other hand, has no need for this extra insulation.  To maintain the same thickness of the wall on the gable ends, I will use 2 inch strips of wood to fur the plywood (you can see them jutting out above the plywood in the pic to the left)  I will place these strips wherever the edge of a sheet will end up.  After the furring strips are nailed in, the plywood will be fastened just the same as before, but the end pieces will be cut to follow the slope of the gable end truss. Here’s an example…

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How to Meet Wall Bracing Requirements

20161201_105223When most people think about the structural integrity of the house, they think about the force of gravity pulling on the house and the need for structural members like studs, headers, top and bottom plates to be strong enough to stand up to this pull.  While this downward force is certainly the most important one acting on the house to account for, many houses in the past have been obliterated because too little attention was paid to forces acting in other directions.  Foundation bolts are required because in the past, houses were blown off of their foundations in tornados.  In earthquake prone zones like mine (d1 seismic zone), building codes require that the walls of the house are braced to ensure they can withstand forces from the sides as well.

Likewise, wind can also be powerful enough to blow over a wall as if the studs were a line of dominoes.  With only one connection between the stud and top plate, and another between the stud and bottom plate, you are relying on a few nails to prevent this from happening.  While this might be good enough for a short wall, the building code has certain rules on bracing the studs to prevent this domino run from occurring.   Imagine a house that doesn’t adhere to code requirements for wall bracing as a cardboard box that’s open at the top and bottom.  It doesn’t take a lot of force to flatten the box.  Adhering to the code requirements for wall bracings (602.10) is like putting the top and bottom of the box back on.   The added panels provide stability against the lateral forces that would otherwise flatten the box.

braced-wallsThe development of these wall bracings begins way back in the design stage of the building process.  For smaller, simple rectangular houses, the exterior walls will act as braces on each other, so the builder only needs to ensure bracing requirements are met on the exterior walls.  For larger and/or alternatively shaped houses, select interior walls will have to be braced as well.  In drawing up plans, the first task is to decide what walls will need to be braced.  This is accomplished by drawing imaginary, perpendicular lines on the plans called braced wall lines.  These lines are absolutely required every 50 feet, but are recommended every 35 feet.  The farther apart they are placed (closer to 50 ft than 35), the more bracing is required to be applied to the walls.  The lines should be placed so that as much of the length of line as possible is within 4 feet of an existing wall (as with the 35-50 ft, the more wall that lies within 4 feet, the less bracing is required of those walls)

Once the braced wall lines have been drawn out on the plans, it is now time to designate braced wall panels on the walls that lie within 4 feet of the braced wall lines.  You can check out some sample brace wall lines on the house plans above.  The triangles labeled ‘P’ and ‘G’ mark braced wall panels.  The letters identify the type of bracing used with ‘G’ identifying gypsum wall board and ‘P’ identifying plywood.  While there are three other acceptable methods of bracing walls (descriptions provided below), these two types are recommended because they provide opportunities to insulate the house better as well as brace the walls.  Notice how the builder has used plywood bracing on the exterior walls and gypsum wall board bracing on the interior braced wall lines.  This is because gypsum wall board must be applied to both sides of the wall in order to meet bracing requirements.  This works great on the interior but would be very wasteful on the exterior.

After deciding what kind of bracing to use, it’s time to calculate how much bracing is needed.  A table in the code (provided below) gives a percentage based on how far apart the braced wall lines are, what kind of bracing was used, how tall the walls are, and how many stories the house is.   For my design, I will be using continuous plywood sheathing on the house so I don’t have to worry so much about where to apply the plywood bracing since it is going everywhere.  I do however need to ensure it is attached to the studs to code with 8d nails every 6 inches along the seams and 12 inches in the field.  The braced wall panels are about more than the sides of the house though.  The bracing must run from the top of the house to the bottom.  That means that the trusses attached above the braced wall lines must be secured with special clips (this info can also be found in the building code) and the bottom plates must be attached to the foundation with bolts that extend at least 7 inches into the concrete.  As you can see here, the builder marked the placement of the braced wall panels on the concrete to make it easier for the inspector to see that they had fulfilled the code requirements.

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