Live/Work Update: Exterior Trim

It’s been a while since the last post…the delay mostly being due to the fact that I’ve spent every waking moment on the electrical system.

The good news? We passed our inspection on the first try! For an experienced electrician, this is not a big deal. But for a DIY homeowner, this is almost unheard of. I did have some great help (lots of books) and some great advice from the “right” people. Thanks to everyone who contributed to my ever-expanding knowledge-base.

Windows and Doors

Doors and windows arrived last week and the crew at Bronze Construction started installing right after the product arrived on-site. I should mention we took a bit of a risk here: while Bronze had a track-record for rough framing, they aren’t exactly a dedicated window/door/siding crew. But, after a few conversations with the owner, my contractor decided it was worth the risk.

Our decision to go this route was based on several key factors. First, there was cost. Most of the siding bids we had received were out-of-this-world expensive. And while siding isn’t necessarily easy work, our budget couldn’t afford the figures we were seeing. Santos (Bronze) was much more reasonably priced.

The second factor wass the fact that Bronze had a good track record on the Live/Work project. During rough framing, they fixed mistakes without nickle-and-diming us to death (I won’t mention other subs who weren’t quite so stellar). At the end of the day, Santos’ guys were good at framing and the business owner stood by his work. That’s worth a lot, and I was willing to place my bet on these guys a second time around.


A big part of the windows and doors is flashing. And this project had a flashing system unlike anything you’ve probably ever seen. To put it in simple terms, we have a layer of plywood, then a layer of tyvek, then a layer of pink foam. On TOP of the foam sits the windows and trim work. To keep the water from running inside, we cut back the foam and tyvek to the wall, then ran “z” flashing to the face of the head trim. Any water that got behind the foam would run down the tyvek until exiting the building via the z-flashing. A picture (or video) is needed to tell the story, but for now suffice to say we’ve created perhaps the most redundant rain barrier known to man.

Window Flashing Detail

The down side to this system is that it takes a bit of time to install, and the crew needs to be extra careful not to cut the tyvek in the wrong spot. Once again, I’ve been impressed by the Bronze crew, as they seem to have managed to get everything in place, in the RIGHT place. Kudos also to my contractor, Rory Read, who spent vast amounts of time explaining and supervising.

Live/Work Update: Roof, Electrical, Plumbing, House Wrap

It’s been a busy month at the Live/Work project. After the guys at Bronze finished framing, we started in on roofing, plumbing, electrical, and the exterior house wrap. Let me just say that the addition of the roof (thanks T-Mix!) was a huge blessing, especially with the recent spat of bad weather.

The Electrician Arrives

I’ve made the decision to tackle the rough-electrical myself. The project budget dictated some cuts, and doing the wiring made the most sense. It’s not for the faint of heart – up and down ladders, drilling holes, pulling wire…it makes for a long day. There’s a good reason electricians get paid well – they generally earn it! That said, I’m happy with the decision. It’s enabled me to make small changes to the lighting, plug placement, and switches. All of this would have been difficult (or expensive) if someone else were wiring the project.

Wrapping it Up

Another big change you can see in the photo above is that we’ve started to wrap the house. We went round and round over our final wall details, and finally settled on a system that’s affordable, energy efficient, and weather resistant. Here’s a simple graphic showing how the exterior wall works:

Exterior Wall and WrapThe idea here is to accomplish several things. The Tyvek (house wrap) prevents water from reaching the plywood. This is a fairly typical use of the product – you’ll see it used over and over in new developments because it’s cheap, goes up quickly, and keeps the water out (mostly). What’s different about this configuration is 1) the use of plywood instead of OSB and 2) pink foam board (R5) on the exterior.

Thermal Bridging

The purpose of the pink board is to prevent thermal bridging. Thermal bridging occurs when you have a material with poor insulation characteristics that touches both a warm and cool surface. In home construction, the primary source for thermal bridging are the 2×6’s used in the stud walls. Because studs touch the exterior envelope AND the interior drywall, they act ass conduits for heat loss. The pink board creates an insulated envelope that reduces the heat loss, while also reducing air infiltration and providing a second layer of water protection.

Flir, a company that makes thermal imaging cameras, has some great shots of this in action on their website. Here’s just one example showing the “cold” 2×4’s in the wall:

Exterior Walls Thermal Bridging

My contractor, Rory Read, has also spearheaded several advanced framing techniques to better insulate the home. Thes have included things like 24″ spacing on studs, hangers for door and window headers, and hollow-corners when possible. I’ve really come to appreciate the level of detail he put into making sure the house was an energy efficient as possible…without breaking the bank.

Portland Architecture’s Renovation Review

Brian Libby, author and host of the pre-eminate blog on Portland architecture, has a splendid review of the last ten years of “renovations” in Portland. Portlanders will recognize many of these projects and it’s great to have a bit of the back-stories to these wonderful landmarks.

I’ve followed Brian’s site for some time and appreciate the volume of work and his ceaseless effort at putting Portland architecture on the map. Writing fresh content on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis takes a tremendous amount of work. Even though the site runs on a sponsorship model, I would hazard a guess that it’s more of a labor of love than a big-time money maker.

Portland White Stag Building Interior

So, spend a few moments at Brian’s blog, Portland Architecture. It’s well worth the visit.

Photo Credit: Brian Libby.

Wal-Mart: Built in Portland?

As reported in the Oregonian and the Portland Business Journal yesterday, Wal-Mart plans to expand its operations in North Portland. The plan is to build a new 86,000-square-foot store in the Hayden Meadows area, just off of I-5. Many of you will know this area – it’s near the Portland Meadows racetrack and Lowe’s home improvement (and, not coincidentally, just over the river from our low-tax-paying friends in Vancouver)

Lowes-MapWal-Mart’s had a tough time establishing a beach-head in Portland. Attempts at a building in Sellwood and Hayden Island were thwarted when local neighborhood associations and politicians joined forces. As of today, Wal-Mart has only one store in Portland, located near SE 82nd and Holgate.

Here are some highlights from the articles:

  • Wal Mart is touting its environmental commitment and job creation. According to the Business Journal, “The store will create roughly 300 new jobs and feature sustainable features such as high-efficiency LED lighting.”
  • The Oregonian also talks about Wal-Mart’s efforts to win over Portland Mayor, Sam Adams: “…company executives have been trying for months to win over Adams by pushing an environmental makeover and increased pay and benefits.”

Obviously, Wal-Mart deserves some serious scrutiny about it’s labor and environmental record. But what struck me most about these articles is the fact that Wal-Mart plans to, “raze two vacant buildings to make room for the store, which would be just a short drive for Vancouver residents.” (Oregonian)

Big Box Wasteland

Now, if you’ve ever been to the Hayden Meadows area, you know what it’s all about: Big Box stores. There are no quaint stores or cute coffee shops to be overrun by the Arkansas giant. No – Hayden Meadows is actually a wasteland of EMPTY boxes and failed chain stores.

What I find ironic is the fact that Wal-Mart wants to be an environmental ally by…tearing down two buildings! It’s not clear if they have a plan for recycling the demolished materials, but I’m guessing they will quickly level the existing facilities and add the rubble to a nearby landfill. Even if they manage to reclaim the used concrete, the cost in terms of embodied energy is incredibly high.

A Better Plan

What I’d like to see is some serious design innovation. Could we integrate one of the existing buildings (heck, how about two of them?) into the new design? What about offering a road-map for new buildings that includes a strategy for decommission? Maybe we turn the old “boxes” into some sort of community attraction that brings visitors (and new customers) to this economically and aesthetically blighted region? Or, maybe, we figure out a way to bring nature back into these asphalt catastrophes. I don’t have the answer, but simply repeating the same idea (build a box, tear it down, build a box) seems like a huge waste of resources and opportunity.

The Dead Boxes

As part of the research for this article, I found a few sites with incredible imagery. Top of the list goes to the work by Brian Ulrich, who has produced “Ghosts of Shopping Past,” an amazing visual account of abandoned malls, shopping centers, and big box stores. Here are a few of the photos from his collection:


Circuit City?

There’s a fantastic interview with Brian on the website The Morning News. Check it out, along with (a really ugly site with some interesting information).

Side Note: Personally, I’m all for converting these spaces into giant volleyball facilities where I can go play….but that’s just me.

Post photo: Wal-Mart in La Junta Colorado. Photo credit, Brave New films

Picking the Right Roofer in Portland

It rains in Portland. It rains a lot. If you own a home in Northwest Oregon, you know that Portland winters can be merciless on roofs. Just this last summer I spent a week of time on top of my house, repairing a really bad roofing job around my chimney.

What Makes for a Good Roofer

Most crews can handle the basics of 3-tab roofing installs. A nailer and a bundle of shingles isn’t rocket science. Where you start to separate the good from the bad comes in how the roofer handles the penetrations in the roof system – the chimneys, vent pipes, and (most importantly) the skylights.

Roofer installing skylight

Skylights are notorious for causing problems in roof systems. Poorly installed skylights cause countless issues with wet insulation, mold, damaged drywall, dry rot, and so forth. Most of us have seen the telltale signs of a bad install – stains around the perimeter or “downhill” from the skylight.

Roofing: The Devil in the Details

So, when you’re selecting a roofer it’s important you get someone who pays close attention to the details. Take the crew on the Live/Work project, for example. Here’s a detail of the flashing on the top side of the skylights:

Skylight Flashing

See how the flashing directs the water away from the skylight? It’s cut nice and low, so it looks good, but still does the important job of keeping water away from the edges of the skylight frame.

A Great Roofing Crew

The roofers on this project, T-Mix Roofing of Portland, also went the extra mile on the shingle installation. Most roofers use 15# roofing felt, with shingles nailed on top. Todd’s crew first put down a butyl-rubber membrane, followed by a layer of 30# roofing felt, then a layer of shingles. We didn’t ask for this level of effort, but as Todd said, “the last thing I want is to be called back to a job.”

Moral of the story – the next time you’re looking to hire a roofing contractor, get into the details. Find out what underlayments they’ll use, the brand of shingles, how they’ll handle the flashing and venting, etc. Ask for references, and call on them. There are a lot of companies out there that do the fly-by-night routine, so take your time and find a reliable business.

Big Kudos to Todd and his crew for a job well done!

Post Script

In my effort to find a roofer for the Live/Work project, I called two businesses who didn’t return my calls. One roofing company had a big website filled with glowing customer testimonials; the other company came recommended by a contractor I know and respect. While it’s good to get into the details of a bid and experience, sometimes the “business basics” (like, RETURNING A PHONE CALL) are good indicators of the business’ attention to detail.

Vent Pipes Never Looked So Sexy

On my last trip to the Harpoon House I observed a cool strategy for getting plumbing out of the walls. Why would you want to do this? For one, insulation improvement. The more stuff in the walls, the less insulation can fit in the cavity. More insulation = more efficiency = lower heating/cooling bills.

Here’s an example of a simple yet brilliant way to deal with one of the most common pieces of plumbing: a vent pipe. By running the pipe outside the house and behind the siding, the homeowners have effectively increased their wall’s R-value without adding significant additional costs. Since the home’s design already included a rain screen, bumping the siding out another 2″ meant they could run the pipe up the side of the house.

Harpoon House makes use of SIP panels, so this makes even more sense (SIPs are pre-fabricated, preinsulated panels). The fewer holes and tunnels you put in the panel and insulation, the fewer opportunites for air intrusion and heat loss. Kudos to the Harpooners!

Live/Work Framing Videos

Here’s two new time-lapse videos showing framing over the course of 4 days. Hard to believe you can get all of the walls up in such a short period time.

Of course, there were a fair share of challenges in Portland this week. Namely, that we had some of the coldest weather in history. Temperatures in the teens and serious wind-chill made for a tough work environment. Air lines froze; couplings froze; compressors stopped working. Rory and the framers had to jury-rig enclosures for the compressor and fittings to keep them operational. We even brought in space heaters to warm up the tools…Rory seemed to get some perverse pleasure out of the fact that I was effectively heating the outdoors with 2 electric space heaters. Don’t even ask what my power bill will be.

Our weather troubles aside, the framing went remarkably well (with the exception of one poor fella who took a hammer in the nose). Our framing contractor, Santos, runs a good crew and all of the guys worked really hard morning to evening. I think the most impressive sight was watching this one guy pick up 6 2×4’s on his shoulder…even more impressive considering he wasn’t much taller than 5 feet.

The one bright spot in the weather has been the decided lack of precipitation. While it’s been cold, at least the dry weather has made for a reasonable work site. Once things thaw, we’ll be back to the mud pit. Forecasts call for freezing rain and snow this weekend.

Here’s a preview of the job site:Muddy Job Site

Live/Work Update: Framing!

This has to be the most satisfying part of the project thusfar – seeing the walls raised and the building begin to take form.

The crew from Bronze Construction arrived today in force. In almost no time, they had the sill plates in place and the first wall established. It’s amazing to watch a team of experienced framers work together…especially when you consider the 26 degree weather (and did I mention wind chill?).

Fortunately, nothing slowed these guys down. In fact, things might have progressed a little TOO quickly when we realized the wall studs were nailed 16″ on center (as opposed to the 24″ we had specified). A BIG kudo to Bronze’s owner, Santos, for agreeing to make it right. His guys tore out the studs and replaced at the correct distance.

One Wall Framed!

Why is this important? Well, for several reasons: first, less material means a slightly more eco-friendly approach to framing. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the 24″ centers allows us to use more insulation. Wood has a very low R-value, and the more you have, the less efficient the building.

And, speaking of efficiency, I’m glad to see my contractor, Rory Read, has made some great strides in reducing the amount of wood used throughout the project. One example is in the headers above the windows. By specifying metal brackets (instead of 2×4 jacks) we’re reducing the amount of wood in the wall and allowing for even more insulation. Rory’s actually done a lot of research in this area, and I’ll follow up with a post on some of these techniques. Our goal is to build a highly efficient building at a reasonable budget.

Here’s a shot of the building at 5:00:


Build it Small: Portland’s Harpoon House

Last weekend I visited the Harpoon House in Portland’s Buckman neighborhood.


Owners Matt Kirkpatrick and Katherine Bovee were kind enough to show me around and talk about how their dream of a small home is growing into a reality. Some highlights include:

  • <500 sq. ft. footprint on 2500 sq. ft. of land.
  • Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) for a super-energy-efficient envelope.
  • Triple-pane windows.
  • Eco roof with no composition shingles!
  • No garage
  • Anticipated LEED certification

This is Matt’s first house as a designer, and it’s impressive to see the level of ambition for someone so new to the field. Even more remarkable is that the couple was able to pull off the purchase and financing in a decidedly un-friendly lending climate (When I asked Matt what the biggest hurdle was about building, he didn’t hesitate to reply, “the bank.”)

Harpoon House Sign

As the project moves forward, we’ll update with new developments and site walk-throughs. This is a great example of the growing “small house” trend and it will be interesting to see how closely this project meets the couple’s needs.

Live/Work Update: Concrete Slab

Some people find concrete work mundane. After today, I’m convinced concrete contractors are totally underrated.

Think about it: Somehow, workers manage to wrestle this extremely heavy goop into a form, shove it around pipes and rebar, smooth it down, level it off…all with minimal power-assisted technology. Sure, the truck and pump get the stuff to the site, but it’s sheer muscle, experience, and know-how that transforms the wet blob into a smooth, seamless surface.

Today was a big day for the Portland Live/Work Project: We brought in two truckloads of concrete for the slab; when that truck arrives, there’s really no going back.

Our biggest concern during the pour was the network of PEX tubing tied to the rebar. A web search the night before told me that it wasn’t impossible for a concrete worker to slice the PEX, creating a totally $#!&!-ed situation. Fortunately, all went as planned and the system retained pressure the entire day (you actually “charge” the radiant system with 100psi of compressed air to ensure that there are no leaks).

One of the coolest pieces of equipment was this mechanized trowel (I’m sure there’s a name for it…I called it the “Whirlybird”). This photo tells its story well:

Power TrowelEven with the help of power tools, much of the process requires an expert touch and experienced hand. Still more impressive was how quickly the crew went from pumping concrete to walking across the surface. In about two hours the crew went from pouring concrete to to walking on the surface. Here’s a few more shots and a timeline from the day’s effort.

10:00 AM: Concrete truck arrives and the pumping begins.

Pumping Concrete at Live/Work

10:07 AM: Kip begins hand-troweling at the corner. Other workers spread the concrete and apply trowels as well. We’re relieved that there are few sharp tools that might pierce the PEX.

Troweling Concrete

10:20 AM: The crew begins screeding and troweling in earnest. Large portions of the slab begin to take shape.

Concrete Screeding

11:30 AM: The pour is complete and worker put the final touches with the float and hand trowels.

Final Concrete Floating

12:00PM: Workers move out onto the slab and begin smoothing the concrete with a series of trowels.

Hand Troweling the Slab

12:10 AM: Kip and the crew walk on the slab, using both power and hand trowels. This process continues for at least another hour.

Power Trowel and Hand Work