Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Climate control....

This summer has been exceptionally hot and dry in Kentucky. To keep the heat down at the house site, we've been opening a few first floor windows at night and placing an exhaust fan in one of the windows on the third floor. If the outside temperature is in the high 90's in the day and mids 60's at night, I can keep the temperature in the house between 72 and 80 degrees with the fan alone.

Even though I've only mounted 6 of 36 solar electric panels on our roof so far (1200 of 7200 watts), we've had a surplus of solar electricity all summer. So I went out and bought a small 8000 btu window air conditioning unit (less than $150) in order to do something with the extra electricity when the batteries were full. (we are not connected to the utility grid, so we don't have the option of selling back the excess energy capacity.) The sticker on the 8,000 btu unit said it would consume about 1000 watts, but in reality I think it consumes 700 or 800 watts (based on our inverter display readings). Somewhere in the 700 to 1000 watt range is just right for using up the average daytime electricity from the 1200 watt array on our roof, without dipping into the batteries too much when a cloud passes over.

Our SIP panel walls are R-24 and our ceilings are R-50, and we have a fairly tight house, so the little 8000 btu unit actually does make a difference. No, it won't change the temperature of the whole house by more than a couple of degrees during the course of a day, but it can drop the relative humidity by at least 10%. When we get the rest of the panels on the roof, there is no doubt in my mind that they will be able to run an air conditioner of sufficient size to cool our house during the hottest months of the year (July and August). I'm also hoping (confirming?) that for 6 months out of the year, all we'll need is a fan and opportunistic window openings/closings in order to keep the house at a comfortable temperature. That's good news!

A splash, or two, of color!

My wife is the designer, purchaser, and applier of paint in our new house. Her patience for painting right-up-to, but not onto the timbers far exceeds mine, so I'm glad she's taken up the challenge! The first rooms she painted were white and antique white, and it really made the timbers stand out. We were excited to see finished walls, and it really brightened up the rooms but frankly, they still looked a lot like drywall!

She went out on a limb and painted our master bedroom in green - a shade which might best be described as "sage" or "olive." It's hard to convey with the digital camera. We've been living in a mobile home for several years (you can't really paint the walls), but have taken our share of road trips, so it wasn't much of a surprise when our kids took one look at the color and unanimously said it reminded them of a hotel room. :) The braces in this room are ash, and the timbers are ash and white-oak. The color really compliments them well... better than white!

We were pleased with the first splash of color, so she decided to go further out on a limb and paint our dining room another shade. She bought 3 samples of brown/tan and painted a swath of each color on the walls next to the timbers. We honestly didn't like any of the colors. Selecting a color of brown or tan that doesn't clash with oak might be possible. It might also be possible to do the same thing with walnut. But this room had oak and walnut and it seemed impossible to find a brown shade that matched them both. Solution... go red! Kids response: "This is the room where the Christmas tree goes!"

Even though she chose satin, not gloss, the dark red color, with copious natural light flooding into the room, really exaggerates the slightest imperfections in the drywall. We hired a professional to finish the drywall and he did a great job, but things you would never see on a white or even green wall, are discernible on a bright red wall. Just a word of caution if you're painting and decide to go this route!

Speaking of kids, here's one of the ways my wife kept them occupied at the house site this summer. She made swing sets from crane straps... each at a different height, depending on the age of the child. We know these straps will hold their weight - they held the timber frame when we lifted the bents into place.

Herringbone Flooring

We decided to try our hand at herringbone floors, and it turned out to be extremely time consuming. Not counting sanding or finishing, it took myself and my wife 30 hours to nail down the flooring in this 14 x 14 foot room. Although you might think it would make sense to start in the middle of the room, the only way I could figure to lay this flooring (and still use a flooring nailer to nail into the tongues) was to start at one side of the room and work back and forth, from one end of the room to the other.

The pattern got so out of whack on the first two rows of flooring that I decided to rip it all up and start over. That was a waste of about 3 hours. With a false start behind us, we started cruising. But just when I thought I had things under control and had about a third of the room finished, the pattern started getting out of whack again. What I mean is that it became impossible to draw the pieces of wood tightly together and simultaneously keep the pattern running straight. I called a time-out and started thinking about the problem.

Our solution turned out to be simple but tedious. We sorted through hundreds of pieces of 3"x12" flooring, measuring the width of each piece with digital calipers. Although they were supposed to be 3 inches wide, manufacturing tolerances and shrinkage (or grow-age!) differences had caused the all of the pieces to be a little over or under 3 inches. We labeled each piece according to how many thousandths of an inch over or under 3" it was. Some were as wide as 3.050" and some were as narrow as 2.980" with the average size around 3.010". It doesn't seem like much of a difference, but randomly grab three pieces in a row that were 3.033" and you would create a 1/10" of an inch gap that could not be drawn tight. Throw into the equation the fact that the lengths were not exactly 12.00", and you can see how the pattern could diverge quickly.

With the flooring sorted into piles (the piles looked like the textbook version of a bell-curve), we set out to get our pattern back on track. Before nailing, I would test fit each piece and either accept it or ask for one that was 0.010" larger or smaller. The solution worked, and we were back on the job. We were determined and able to get the joints extremely tight. Who knows, maybe there will be cracks everywhere as the flooring seasons with the house, but it should be fairly stable because it is quarter-sawn white oak.

In these pictures, I have 3 coats of oil based polyurethane on the flooring (and one heavy coat of general "house-under-construction" dust). I applied two coats of gloss and one coat of satin, sanding lightly between each coat. I'm not entirely satisfied with what-was-to-be the last coat, so I plan to sand and apply at least one more coat of polyurethane. Tedious, tedious, tedious, but probably worth it. When my older son moves out of this room, I'm going to claim it for my office, if my wife doesn't beat me to it.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Still in the stone ages...

The stone mason just keeps on going! I estimate that he has laid about 70,000 pounds of stone on our house so far. I had a huge pile of stone before he started and that disappeared quickly. Now we have been digging it out of the ground again in an effort to keep up with him. I shove the dirt/shale/clay off the top of the layers of stone and pull the layers up with a backhoe. At that point we have lots of methods for "squaring it up." By far, the quickest method is using the hydraulic rock biter that we built. But some of the rocks are too thick for the rock biter, or too big to lift on to the table. For those stones, we either 1. hit them repeatedly along an imaginary line with a carbide tipped maul that the stone mason has loaned us, 2. hit them in a line with a chisel and hammer, or 3. score them with the gas powered chop saw and then split them with chisels driven into the cuts. Disadvantages of using the chopsaw are dust, noise, gasoline, and wear-and-tear on the $200+ diamond blade (although we've yet to come close to using up the blade). Plus, we have to "pitch face" the stones to remove the saw marks. The advantage of using the chop saw method is that it breaks exactly where you want it, which is important for some of the stones that have to be of an exact dimension.

In short, where there's a stone, there's a method for making it square! The last step in preparing the stones is to pressure wash the shale and clay off of them. I'm using a solar powered water pump to get water from our pond to the (gas powered) pressure washer. When a cloud passes over, the pressure drops... other than that, it's a pretty nice setup. I was worried that the iron deposits on the stones might run down the face of our walls when it rained, but that doesn't seem to be happening. I have found only two tiny places where rust streaks have appeared on our walls in the last few months... and those streaks are coming from gray metallic inclusions in the stones, not from the orange iron on the stone. Mr. G says he thinks it is a form of soft pyrite that will weather out.

For the back door to our kitchen, I tried pitch facing thick bluish colored stones (same color as the window sills) and asked the stone mason to work them in around the door opening. I really like how it turned out. It is subtle, but the stones around the door opening are more deliberately worked and laid than the other stones in the wall. I am going to try this effect on the main tower on the front of the house.

At my request, the stone mason also built a step for us directly into the 8" thick wall, just below the kitchen door. The step is made of 12" deep blue stone and juts out 4" from the wall. By the way, the kitchen door is the first piece of fake wood in our house. The budget is getting tight, and we rationalized that it might be wise to use an insulated fiberglass-faced door on the west side of the house. When the brutal evening sun is beating down on it, the outside of the door feels hot enough to cook an egg, while the inside of the door feels relatively cool. Sorry, I am rationalizing... in reality I hate fake wood, but there you have it!

I'll be outside today preparing more stone for the mason. He needs some 135 degree corners to go around the main tower at the front of the house. I also have a lot of blue stone to cut and face, since we are capping most of these walls at 5'6" with blue stone and going on up from there with some TBD shade stucco. All of this stone work (and a broken digital camera) is bogging my blogging!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Slate Conference in Pennsylvania!

This summer, my family and I attended the Slate Roofing Contractor's Association conference in Pennsylvania. It was an extraordinary event! The organizer and host, Joe Jenkins (author of the slate roof bible) noted that it was the first gathering of professional slate roofers, specifically for slate roofers, in over 50 years. I am not a member of the organization, so in order to attend as a guest of Mr. Jenkins (and qualify for "guest rates"), I volunteered to give a presentation of my slate roof installation. Although I was a rank amateur, my presentation was very well received by the professionals. The event was held on Joe Jenkins' farm, which is a reclaimed strip mine (coal), complete with a lake and primitive camp grounds. Mr. Jenkins' has done an amazing job of restoring the land - he has transformed the previously tortured landscape into the textbook definition of idyllic.

The concurrent workshops were by far the best part of the conference. My favorite workshop was the "rounded slate valley" workshop, given by Brent Ulisky. He showed us two different methods for implementing slate valleys. The one pictured on the right requires no metal flashing. Brent installed this type of valley on his own home and is proud to report that it does not leak. Having put an eyebrow dormer on my house, I can really appreciate the difficulty and elegance of a slate valley.

There were three copper-smithing workshops (two pictured here). Copper work is required in all but the simplest of slate roofs, and I was able to muddle my way through for my own roof. I could have used some of the knowledge transmitted through these workshops. Barry Smith showed us how to build a flat lock, soldered copper roof. Something like this would be required on low-pitch roofs, or flat roofs (like the top of a mansard roof). Man! What an insane amount of work goes into one of these roofs. Even with 4 to 6 attendees helping, it took almost all weekend to finish a small (10x16?) roof. It's easy to see why a roof like this, professionally done, would cost you more than $30 per square foot! Rich Stainbrook was clearly a professional with years of experience. He showed us one way to implement expansion joints in copper box gutters. Expansion joints are required on soldered copper gutters over 30 feet. If you leave out the expansion joints, you can expect the inevitable expansion and contraction of copper to tear apart the copper seams, so this is an important detail.

Liam Tower showed us how to hang slate siding. Here's the result of his workshop - simply incredible! The color, shape, and pattern of the slates he chose evoked thoughts of "dragon scales," for my children pictured here. I am seriously considering slate siding for the sides of the dog-house dormers on our house. I learned that applying slate siding is almost just like applying slate roofing, except that you can use a smaller head-lap. Step flashing is probably a good idea for the corners, to keep things completely water tight.

James Warden presented a workshop on heavy duty now guards. I did not install snow guards on our slate roof here in Kentucky. We get a moderate amount of snow each year, so it might be prudent for me to install retro-fit snow guards on some areas of the roof. For now though, I've got way too much to do before we can even move into the house!

They're talking about having another conference in two years if there is enough interest. I would highly recommend it for professional roofers, amateur roofers, and home-owners. Basically - anyone interested in slate roofs. If you'd like to learn more about the slate roofer's conference, or the organization that puts it on, you can visit http://www.slateroofers.org/conference_2007.html

Almost forgot to mention... thank you to Camara Slate for sponsoring the beverages at this event! That's the same company that sold me the slate for our roof. Good people!