Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Week 22 - Interior Changes

We were told that many things would start happening inside the house this week. That has been the case - as we're seeing door and window trim, the tile in the bathrooms, and the fireplace details being done. It appears that the fireplace masonry and most of the bathroom tile will be done before the week is out.

I am most excited about the fireplace stone as it is the focal point for the tall living room. The stone on the upper 2/3 is a stacked stone that matches the chimney outside; the lower part (surround) is a Pennsylvania sandstone that will have copper-colored streaks. The sandstone is broken into blocks that appear heavy - to visually carry the stacked stone above. The texture and color should provide some contrast.

Many of the frames for the maple doors were hung so the trim work could start. The doors will soon be removed and stored until near the end of the job to avoid damage.

Each bathroom will have tile on the floors and on the walls surrounding the shower or tub. As a sub-surface, the contractor is using a cement board. This prep work is almost done and some of the wall tiles are being set.

Outside, the bluestone treads for the porch are being cut. They will be set ontop of the brick risers. It is my expectation that the walkway that leads to the porch will be of the same bluestone. That will be part of the landscape plan. The hardscapes within the landscape plan are being priced at the moment.

I will meet with Chris Hildebrand tomorrow about the "trellis" that will cantilever over the porch. This piece is not intended to be a water-shelter, but rather will function as a visual marker for the house's entry point and provide a visual balance to the front composition.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Landscape Plan

An Architect who designs a building should have a mental picture of site features and plant material that also occupy the site. Some of the things to take into consideration when creating a landscape design: topography, the seasons, available sunlight, flow of water, maintenance, hardscapes, as well as the characteristics of the plant material.

Preston knows that I like to be involved in the design of landscapes so he created this first draft plan for me after meeting on site to discuss Carrie's and my goals.

There will be elements of the landscape to be installed and evolve over time, but there will be a few key things that I'd like to have done as part of the initial construction. Those are the things that change the topography like hardscapes like retaining walls and sidewalks as well as the major plantings like trees. The rest of the material will play off of these major items. It is also easier now to get those installed while the yard is already torn up from construction. The rest can be done incrementally as I find time.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

End of Week 21

The interior finishes are starting to go in. Yesterday, "Cowboy" was able to put wood flooring on almost every room in the house. There are four rooms on the first floor where they were able to save all or part of the original oak floor. In one of these, they were able to tooth the new with the old. At some point, they will all be sanded then finished to have the same appearance.

One more thing that has begun is the fireplace stone. The upper part will have stacked stones that match the outside chimney. The surround and hearth will be made of slabs of Pennsylvania sandstone. This natural material has slight veins of rusty orange which should work well with the range of color above it.

We are gradually whittling down the list of decisions. This past week, I met with Michael and Todd to locate shelving and hanging rods in the closets. I guess most people have more exotic requests than Carrie and me - as it took much less time than Michael had allowed. The other thing that was decided last week is the door hardware that will be a lever-type and brushed nickel that will match other metalic items in the house.

One other meeting that took place on Thursday was with Preston Dalrymple who is designing the landscape plan. He and I have worked together for many years and discovered that we grew up a few blocks from each other in Paducah, Kentucky. The current plan (that will be posted at some point) shows most of the back yard with no grass to cut and a mixture of vegetable beds and aromatic flowers. Ours is a small back yard and half of it is shaded by the large oaks and half is full sun. That will allow a variety of plant material and interesting places made around them.

The front yard will see the most change. Along the street, I've asked that a wall and steps be created to deal with the 5' of slope from the house to the street. The wall will also be set back a bit from the property line to allow a parking space or two. At present, our narrow street makes it hard to find a convenient place for a guest to park. We will also realign the sidewalk from the driveway so the approach is a bit less acute. Preston suggested that we keep the are in front of the house fairly simple to match the contemporary lines of the house. His thought along that eastern face is a large bed of ferns. That sounds interesting to me.

This coming week, the roofer is scheduled to arrive and start the copper paneling - assuming the weather finally cooperates. This and the garage door (also scheduled to arrive this week) are the most obvious things remaining to be done to the outside. Michael said the next two weeks will see lots of progress - then it will appear to slow down again as they start doing more detail work.
We'll see how much they can get done before the neighborhood tour on April 25 - that includes our house and 6 others on our street. It won't be a finished product, but we agreed to participate. I know people are curious. It will also be a chance to meet some of the neighbors.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Changes and Coming Attractions...

Carrie and I have been away for a time. She is traveling for work and I took a few days off to play golf in Pinehurst with a couple friends.

The interior has seen a few changes in the past week. The 3 back doors are hung and most of the gyp board, taping, and spackling are done. With the gypsum board in-place, it is now much easier to visualize the spaces. The design that was floating around in my head is now fairly easy for others to see. From this point on, the finishing touches will be fun for Carrie and me. It is looking more and more like a house we can live in.

One thing that always happens during construction is for spaces to seem large when the framing is done, smaller when the gyp board goes in, and then feel large again after being painted and furniture is placed. That is certainly true so far with a few spaces in this house; however the general openness of the plan may tend to reduce the small feeling. I think a big change in scale will occur when the floors are installed and they connect all the open spaces.

Some things to watch for in the next couple weeks:
· The painters will return to put a final coat of finish on the cedar siding and paint the PVC trim,
· The roofer will return to install the copper panels above the brick and siding.
· Oak flooring
· Hanging of interior door frames
· Interior trim

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Updated Schedule

The framing and rough-in inspections are done and the insulation work was completed on Friday and Saturday. The inside of the house will look very different soon as the gypsum wallboard will be going up. Yesterday, the activity at the house was the delivery of the wall board. It came on the back of an open bed truck and was hoisted off with a crane built into the truck. Workers then took it into the house and stacked it neatly into small stacks near where it will be installed.

Seeing the gyp board spread out all over the house reminded me of some of the small but important details about safety, constructability, and schedule. A tragic construction accident a few years ago in Richmond was apparently caused by the heavy gyp board being stacked high on a second floor. This caused the front of the building to collapse and a person working below was killed.

Construction sites have inherent dangers and contractors control access to keep it safe. These sites are work zones and are not intended for public access. The contractor's superintendant is always looking for ways to make the project safer. An obvious example of this in our house is the temporary railing that was built to make level changes obvious. The rails aren't designed to the same standard the final one, but defines the edge and will help keep a worker from backing off while preoccupied with their task. At some point, there is only so much the contractor can do; the responsibility falls on everyone who is on-site to be alert to what is going on around them.

In the design and construction process, the contractor is usually responsible for the order in which things go together - the sequence. A good contractor will organize the process so that trades can work efficiently. The fewer interruptions a sub-contractor has, the better for everyone. The job should take less time, the owner will save money, and the project is ususally constructed better. A contractor knows which items need to go in early and which materials should wait till the end. You also don't want too many people on the job at the same time. All this goes into making a good, but realistic schedule.

An experienced designer will understand these sequences and anticipate some construction challenges. We can embed a logical order of construction in our documents. Dimensions on a plan can show what spaces are a priority and where any slack can occur. We can provide enough space for building systems so installers don't have to worm in and out of obstacles. Ultimately though, it is up to the contractor to manage the schedule and set up the sequence of construction.
Even with the best of plans, there are always unforseen things that will change a schedule. In our case, we received the updated schedule and found out that completion will now be around the first week of June. This was due mostly to the lousy weather since November and also there were some items we added to the scope. Of course we'd love to get in sooner but we want the work to continue at its current high level of quality.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Insulation Begins

The images to the right show the insulators from Creative Conservation installing the Icynene (open cell) insulation. This product will be installed in all the framed walls and ceilings. This material is sprayed on as a liquid and expands to fill the cavities.

After expanding, the material is scraped off with a long blade - using the studs as a screed. The workers use respirators while they work to avoid the fumes and particulates but there is a limited amount of off-gassing that occurs after the material is in-place.

As was mentioned in an earlier post, there are other types of insulation that will be used - depending on the nature of the wall. On the walls that were already insulated on the outside and covered by cedar, we will put 3/4" rigid board on the inside cavity.

Overtop of the interior face of the remaining brick walls on three sides, we'll use a closed-cell insulation between the old furring channels. This will help limit cold transference but also block any moisture that wicks through the brick and block. Where open cell insulation like Icynene allows some migration of moisture in the walls, closed-cell insulation is a vapor barrier and moisture will be blocked at the masonry wall.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Did you ever wonder how much water falls on your property every year? It's probably a lot more than you ever imagine. Our region of the country is blessed to have a dependable flow of rain that gives us plentiful and diverse plant and animal life. The James River begins in the mountains of western Virginia and flows east until it drops abruptly and becomes tidal in Richmond. For the next 100 miles the elevation drops less than 20 feet -until it empties into the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

For the past 30 years there have been dramatic changes in how we develop land. The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act - inacted in 1988 by the Virginia legislature was the biggest catalyst for this change. This legislation was a good start, but only stemmed the tide. It has had little real effect on the water-quality of the Bay. The real problem still to be addressed is the silty runoff and fertilizers from agricultural land.
New development in Virginia is required to manage and filter runoff water within the bounds of a site. There are also limits on development adjacent to sensitive waterways and wetlands. With the land-planning work I do for clients, there are constant reminders of how things have changed.

This week I was asked to look at an old industrial site near downtown that has 150 acres of land - 90% of the site is paved or is covered by a roof. Before that site was developed, nearly 100% of the rain was absorbed into the land. Whatever water wasn't used by the plantlife was filtered on its journey to aquifers or the river. Today, nearly all of the rainwater that lands on that 150 acres is piped directly into the nearby river and along the way collects the dust, chemicals, and oils sitting on the hard surfaces. A 1" rainfall amounts to 4 million gallons of water from this one site. Since Richmond is tidal, all this extra "fresh"water changes the biology of the river. The unfiltered pollutants also damage plant and animal life.

Our new house is not much different than most others in that the roof will catch a lot of rainwater. In fact, since Richmond averages 43" of rain each year, our 2700 SF of roof area will see 72,000 gallons of rainwater during that period. At least we didn't add much to the problem since we built up and not out.
The roofs are set up to shed most of the water along the back in gutters and disperse into the soil - hopefully limiting the runoff into the open gutters that eventually flow into the nearby river. Our intent before long is to collect much of that water in an above-ground cistern and use it for landscape irrigation. That way the water will eventually get back into the ground as it once did.

The reason for writing this essay is not just to show you the problems but highlight the need for continued change. There are some things that we can do to reduce the problem - and save money too. Some of these require community action and a change in public attitudes and policy. Urban planning has been an area of much research and evolution in the past 20 years. Let me just say that there are much smarter, cheaper, and more sustainable ways to plan our cities and neighborhoods than what is still done in most communities around the country.

From an individual point of view, we can become better stewards of the water we use. There are ways to use less water through more efficient plumbing fixtures and appliances. We can use less toxic products and properly dispose of these chemicals instead of dumping them into the sewer system. We can better manage our rainfall by using porous materials when possible, limiting our paved areas, and reducing the amount of water that flows into the storm systems.