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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 12/10/2010

I had my first visit to a scrap yard today. It was very interesting, and I quite enjoyed myself. Take note though, if you ever go to a scrap yard, don’t call it a “junkyard”. Apparently that’s appallingly bad etiquette to those in the scrap-yard-know, my husband being one of them. As I have since learned; a junkyard is where trashed cars are kept for spare parts while a scrap yard is where metal is sorted and recycled – or in our case, acquired for building all sorts of new and useful things. Have I drunk the Kool-Aid or what?

Our target for this trip was a stack of new, still strapped to its pallet, steel siding located in an out-of-the-way corner. John positioned the trailer as close as possible to the pallet racks so he could stand on the racking and slide pieces down to me. We needed 32 pieces of the 16-ft-long ‘tin’ to use for the ceiling in the farm shop. The previous day’s rain had frozen the sheets together, which slowed down our effort a bit.

After we were done loading and securing our find we pulled the truck aside so we could have a walk about the yard. There were mountains of scrap metal, literally as big as our house! Giant shears were cutting the metal into pieces and processing it in a seemingly-endless maze of humongous piles. But what really caught my eye was a small section of stainless-steel scrap items. There were some tanks of unknown industrial origin, possibly food processing, but I’m not sure. And some commercial sinks with and without integrated counters. All of these items would be sold by weight, and for stainless it is currently about $2 per pound. I admit it, I have a thing for stainless. In fact, my first Craig’s List purchase was a pristine 600-gallon stainless steel tank (from a dairy) for a ridiculously low price. I’ve got future plans for it, but that’s a different post altogether. So the stainless at the scrap yard glinting there in the afternoon sun was truly calling out to me... but I resisted.

After our walk in the scrap yard, we piled back into the truck for the 45-minute drive to the property, loaded trailer in tow. We unpacked and stacked the material in the shop and called it a day.


Set up to load
MOUNTAINS of metal
Back at the shop to unload
First drive onto shop slab!

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 12/7/2010

Today I submitted the building-permit application with the township. It’s a pretty simple process in our area, and the local officials are very helpful. We may still do some edits on the floor plan in the new year, but at least everything is submitted well in advance of the new building code starting on Jan. 1st. Even if we don’t get the permit immediately due to the upcoming holidays and all, it is the date that the application was submitted that counts.

I’ve been researching windows too. I went to see Marvin and Andersen brands at two local lumberyards and also stopped in at a Pella dealer. I’m still scratching my head over this one, and need to do some more research and looking before I come to any conclusions. I’ve also started reading and thinking about HVAC systems – but haven’t even talked to anyone yet on that topic. Lots to learn… lots to do. And I don’t even have the permit yet!

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 12/5/2010

It seems winter has moved in early with unseasonably cold temps, but it hasn’t slowed down John’s work at the farm shop. He borrowed two large scaffolds from the same good guy that let us use his chop saw, and assembled them in the shop. I’m told we’ll need the scaffold to install the yet-to-be-purchased ceiling material. I think that’s a two-person job – but I’m really rather afraid of heights… so I’m not sure if I’m going to be the second person on that task. We’ll see.

John also framed in the interior walls for the bathroom from our self-made package of pre-cut lumber. He nailed together all of the lumber while it laid flat on the slab. Then he positioned a chain hoist in the roof truss and used it to lift the walls into place. His plan includes a sturdy ‘ceiling’ above the bathroom that will serve as a platform storage area below the building’s 14’ ceiling.


Recycled carts and commode.
$20 auction find: pallet-jack makes for movable scaffold.
Back right corner; Lumber pre-cut off site, assembled walls on site &...
...lifted into place using chain hoist mounted on roof truss.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 12/4/2010

I’m still working (um, stressing) over getting a set of house plans from the designer in time to submit before the end of the year and change of building codes. Meanwhile, John has taken over more of the planning and implementing role for the interior of the farm shop. He finished Part Two of sealing the slab by adding a hardener product and I’m told the slab is now officially open for use.

In the evenings, John has been planning the interior walls for the shop’s bathroom. He purchased the required lumber and hit up a family member for use of his chop saw. The plan was to precut all of the lumber and just assemble the walls on-site, since we don’t have any electricity yet. So early on a very chilly Saturday morning, I went along to help with cutting the lumber. We got to use this very nice Bosch saw – a far cry from the carpenter’s hand saw we have at home. John got a brief overview of how to set the fancy stops on the workbench, after which the saw’s owner wisely retreated into his nice warm house and left us to our task. We proceeded to sort, measure, cut, label and stack the lumber back in the truck. I was the lumber sorter, labeler and stacker, while John did the measuring and cutting. We worked in silence, each focused on the tasks at hand with only an occasional comment as to how cold it was. (Alright, I admit that it was only me complaining, um... I mean commenting on the frigid temps.) I guess I was an acceptable assistant, because after a while I got promoted to using the chop saw.

I like learning new things and John is generally a good teacher although he sometimes forgets that I have NO experience. So I’m making my first cut on the lumber and despite my glasses, the sawdust is kicking up in my face pretty good (I think John’s height avoided this problem). I was squinting my eyes against the onslaught when John got a glimpse of my squished up face under the hood of my coat… and mistakenly thought my eyes were closed. John’s a pretty laid-back guy – but this state of affairs brought on a full blown Safety Stand Down with a firm lecture on the the proper handling of power tools and a grand finale, "And you must keep your eyes open!” I replied with a sweet smile, “Oookaaayyyyy Honey. My eyes were open, I was just squinting.” John had no comment except to review the main safety issues, again, before we started back at work.

Aside from that minor incident, our work progressed well. I'm happy to report that no fingers were lost and no divorce decrees were issued. I got some good first exposure to power tools and we got all of the lumber cut and ready to go.


P.S. And THANKS to the nice guy willing to lend the use of his very snazzy Bosch saw!


Just squinting, Honey.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 11/28/2010

After some research and cost comparisons, John decided to use a two-part process to seal the slab. In Part One, the slab was allowed to dry out (finally) and swept very clean.  Then the first sealing product was sprayed on, spread with broom until it gelled and then finally the excess squeegeed off. John taped a four-pound sledge hammer to the squeegee for a bit of added weight. It took a lot of steps back and forth across the slab, and by the time I arrived at the property, he had all but finished. John pointed out a few spots where the application was a little too thick and left a white cast in the finish. No big deal though, and overall I think he was well pleased with his day’s effort.

As John finished up with the slab, I painted the shop’s main door. I didn’t like the look of the white door at all and I’ve been wanting to do this for awhile. But one thing after another kept getting priority over this mundane task so it was nice to finally get it done. I like that the newly-painted main door matches the trim color and seems to say, “Enter here”. This is in contrast to the back door, painted months ago, in a color matching the building siding so that it fades into the gable wall. My idea was that when you drive up the long driveway and see the gable side of the building at the edge of the bowl-shaped pasture, what you notice is the iconic farm building shape and not so much the trim details. It’s just a subtle detail thing. John sometimes teases me that I fret too much over such details. I prefer to think of my effort as ‘thoughtfully considered’ rather than fretting. But at any rate, I’ve now got ample ammunition to give as good as I get. You see, John spent a good deal of time “considering” how he wanted to seal the slab. And in the fading light of the afternoon I found him admiring the newly-sealed slab’s glossy finish. “Smooth as a baby’s bottom.” he remarked with pride. Now really, who is going to notice that?  ;-)


Squeegee plus sledgehammer
Smooth as a baby's bottom.
Ugly white door
After painting, better.
Man door fades into building color. I like the simple shapes of farm buildings.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 11/26/2010

It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since my last Black Friday post. I’m still not a shopper at heart, but I’ve learned a lot about buying stuff since then. Craig’s List (CL) has turned out to be my friend. Just recently I’ve gotten some attic insulation baffles (not enough, but some), a used rain barrel that is already in use at the property, and enough pricey flex-wrap flashing to do the house windows and doors. I’m frankly surprised at some of the useful building materials that get listed on CL. But try as I might, I’m still a conservative CL buyer. For one thing, I’m not going to drive all over the place to pick up $5 items – I’m definitely not in it for the thrill of the chase. ;-)

Building supply auctions are another area where I’ve gained some experience – both good and so-so. I’ve been to a couple of auctions where I just look everything over and decide not to stay. But there was one auction last spring where John and I found and bought many required things for the farm-shop project. We probably saved 70% off retail, but it was a long and tiring day with a good bit of physical effort. On the other end of the spectrum was a recent auction where we wanted some white metal roofing that we would repurpose for the shop ceiling. It was a very long wait and then when it finally came up, the bidding was crazy – way too high. I think a person can sometimes do well at an auction, but you have to be willing to spend time and physical effort in exchange for the chance to save some money. And these days, there seem to be plenty of people who are more than willing to trade their time and effort for that chance. It is by no means a sure thing.

Since that auction, John has located some metal roofing at... wait for it... the scrap yard. He said it's just what we need and we can get it at 'scrap prices' - way below what it was going for at the auction. The catch? Well it is stacked up high, and he said we have to get it down (apparently a two-person job) and load it ourselves... so I'm going to get my first-ever visit to a scrap yard. I'll be sure to let 'ya all know' how that goes.


Note to self: Bring heavy-duty gloves and wear old jeans.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 11/21/2010

John had one of the concrete samples strength-tested at the concrete supplier. They put it in a hydraulic press and, well …PRESS. At first, nothing much happens, but then a low slow groan emanates from the machine (or sample?) and finally a loud sharp crack. The machine’s meter pegs out at the top psi before failure and we have our results.

We ordered a concrete strength of 4,000 psi for the slab. After 26 days of wet curing with average daily temps of 46 deg. F, the sample tested out at…

….drum roll please…….

4,574 psi.

Pretty good!

So today (finally!) we can stop watering. John took the plastic off the slab and officially started drying out the slab in preparation for applying a sealer. It’s so nice to be done with the wet slab (and damp boots) and be one step closer to actually using the building!


The two containers at back were filled with concrete during pour for later strength testing.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 11/16/2010

It has been great working with the new designer. He seems experienced and capable, and is good at communicating and collaborating. So far he has been completing the work very quickly, and then emailing me a PDF for review. We get right on it and sent it back, so things have been clipping at a good pace. He has contributed many ideas that have drastically improved the plan. I also like that he is willing and able to discuss construction details and relative costs. That is very helpful in making better informed choices. Overall, things seem good, and hopefully we’re moving toward submitting for a permit in December. Fingers crossed!

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 11/5/2010

A bombshell of sorts was dropped on our project a few days back, and it was our architect flying the plane. Well, maybe I overstate, but that’s how it felt at the time. I haven’t posted much about our work with the architect since our start, not so good first draft, and my stint with Chief Architect. To catch you up: I needed a pro to produce the construction drawings, and I decided to use the original architect, since he had done a site visit and was familiar with our project. So, way back in July I contacted the architect and we started work again in August with a mutually-agreed finish in November. Then I would submit for a building permit in early December to avoid any possible problems regarding the adoption of new building codes on January 1st – which may require residential fire sprinklers.

Since August, work was progressing slowly but getting there – and it was tremendously exciting to finally be getting the house plan done. But then on November 1st, the architect let me know his new finish would be somewhere around January 15th. In a discussion to attempt to work out the schedule problem, I was incredulous when he stated that he had a new client who also needed their drawings done by the end of the year... a client who was building in “the” place to live in our area. (And no doubt represented quite the professional coup for him – a far cry from our somewhat modest owner-builder project in the hinterlands). I guess he knew the position he was putting us in, because he ended the conversation with an offer to let us take the drawings elsewhere if we wanted to.

The next day, in exchange for a signed a letter releasing his copyright on the drawings, I paid the architect in full for all of his time on our project. Not the best deal for sure, but I really needed a release on those drawings. Throughout the brief transaction, I was astounded that he apparently considered this completely normal and ethical business behavior. So be it… time to move on.

Over the next couple of days, I focused all my time and effort in getting hooked up with another designer, pronto. When I found one I liked I explained our need to pick up midstream in the process, get the construction drawings done, and submit before the end the year – preferably by mid-December. Our first meeting with the new designer was today, November 5th, and it went very well. Both John and I are cautiously hopeful that this will all turn out for the best.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 11/4/2010

As I described in the Slow Cured post, John had quite the afternoon in trying to locate the anchors embedded in the slab. It turns out the solution was right there on eBay – a pinpoint metal detector. This little gem has a two-inch depth range and worked perfectly to locate the anchors. John patched the previous misplaced crater and exposed the anchors with a bit of work with a cold chisel.

We continue to keep the slab wet to slow-cure the concrete. A layer of plastic on top and the new, insulated 12x12 overhead door help tremendously in that effort. We also worked on some odds and ends. I painted the inside of one man door – which took a lot longer than I thought it would (I was thinking I would paint the outside too, but that will have to wait for another day). John removed the wooden forms he built for the slab pour, and installed the handles and locks on the man doors. Now the building is secured, which is nice feeling.


Pinpoint metal detector to the rescue!
Exposed anchors.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 11/1/2010

A few weeks back, two of the three overhead doors were delivered and installed. These were the two 9’x9’ doors on the lean-to shed. The other door, a 12x12 high-lift overhead, had been delayed by the door company until after the rebar was covered by the slab. The door company assured me that I needn’t be on-site for this installation. But I got there early to remove the tarp we had set up over the 12’x12’ opening to help keep the slow curing slab wet. I had the tarp all stowed and was watering the slab (yet again!) when the installers arrived.

When they first pulled up and saw the gleaming slab in the morning sun they feared it was a completely fresh pour… until they saw me standing on it. The more experienced of the two installers realized that with a slow cure effort underway, and only three days old, that using their hydraulic lift would be risking damage to the slab. Kudos to him for thinking of this and being willing to work from ladders instead!

I showed them the drawings John had discussed with the door salesman several weeks before when he visited the site. He had specifically discussed the high-lift design and how the door, when raised, should be a maximum of four inches below the bottom trusses. This was to allow room for the future bridge crane. Unfortunately, the installer let me know that four inches was “impossible”; try more like thirteen inches. Thirteen! That was not happy news… at all.

I tried to contact John at work to discuss this, since he was much more familiar with the crane than me, but he was unavailable. I hadn’t been expecting any problems with this install and didn’t have my paperwork with me as I usually do. My bad on that! Then I noticed the 800 number on the installer’s truck and called the door company. What luck; the salesman that we had dealt with happened to answer. I explained who and where I was, and he remembered us and the door order. Then I explained the problem with the clearance. Throughout the conversation he kept repeating that he had agreed only to “keep the door as high as possible” while I reminded him that four inches had specifically been discussed and agreed upon. Several minutes of non-productive discussion passed when the installer indicated he wanted to speak with the salesman. Then talked for several minutes and then installer approached me and said he thought he might be able to work something out. He spent a few minutes thinking, measuring, and phoning the company and finally declared, “I have a plan”. Great!

He planned to install the door’s counterbalance and springs above the not-yet-installed ceiling – actually above the bottom of the trusses. This would allow the rails to then meet the maximum-four-inch spec. John and I would have to build out a box around the assembly when we did the ceiling – but I was sure that was a tradeoff John would be OK with. It would take longer than a typical install, require some custom on-site changes to the parts, and possibly access to some of the spare lumber we had on hand. I volunteered to get any additional lumber or hardware that might be needed and also set up some makeshift workbenches, so they could keep the myriad parts and tools off the wet floor.

In the end, we now have three nice doors. The two on the lean-to shed are decent quality, insulated with no windows. The 12’x12’ high lift is well insulated and has nice windows and a chain hoist. It is a good quality door, but came with a price tag to match. The positive turn in events after such a bumpy start was partly due to my making a bit of stink about it, and largely due to the experience, skill and desire of the installers to go the extra mile. Looking back, I’m so glad I was on site, as it would have been a very bad day indeed to show up and see this expensive door installed far too low to be usable. It’s a good lesson that even if you think something is a no-sweat issue, as an owner-builder, you really need to be on-site as much as possible to resolve issues and avoid even bigger problems.


I climbed to the top of the ladder to remove the tarp - pretty good for a total fear-of-heights person like me.
Counter balance and springs above future ceiling, rails 4" below trusses.
All doors in, yippee.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 10/30/2010

Before working on this project, I would have associated “slow cured” with something you eat, not concrete. From John’s research, he learned about the relationship between how fast (or slow) concrete cures and its final strength. I think it can be generally summed up as: the slower the cure, the stronger the final product.

One way to slow the curing process is to allow the concrete to set up and then simply keep it wet. I bought a rain barrel on Craig’s List a while back knowing that we would want water for the curing process, and that we have no easy access to water on site. John had set it up after we got the gutters and it has been full for some time. It’s not real pretty, but it gets the job done for now.

They finished the slab on Friday, so John and I took shifts watering the concrete. John also placed the concrete samples he had taken in a bucket of water to cure them under similar conditions. He plans to strength-test it later.

When we had been working on the rebar, John had welded some steel pipe into a rectangular frame (~2’ x 1’) with two threaded anchors sticking up from it. The assembly was set onto the vapor barrier at the back wall of the shop and wired to the rebar. The anchors would be just below the surface of the 5-inch slab. The plan was that after the slab had set up, but not yet gained much strength, John would hand-chisel a small amount of concrete out to expose the anchors. These would become part of a very strong tie-down system embedded in the slab for tasks such as straightening large pieces of metal. So that was the plan.

In reality, and quite to his surprise, John was unable to locate the anchors, even though he had marked the side of the wall as a reference. After unsuccessfully probing the slab, i.e. making a three inch CRATER in the beautiful new slab, he decided to step back and rethink his approach. He tried using a compass from the truck, the stud finder from the shed and even a rented a metal detector. But they all seemed to give vague responses. Perhaps the steel frame and rebar were enough to obscure the results for finding the small anchors.

A similar frame was embedded at the front of the shop – but he didn’t even try to excavate that one. Hmmm. John is going to give this issue some thought.


Night shift, checking the slab.
Tracking temp and RH.
Day shift, finished watering.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 10/29/2010

Mary has been the author on our project so far, and I offered to write up the slab post while she worked on the house plans. As she mentioned before, we decided to use a trailer-mounted concrete pump to place the concrete because of the difficulty of rolling wheelbarrows and concrete buggies over the top of the rebar.

The contractor provided a crew of seven men. Controlling the three-inch-diameter concrete hose is about like wrestling a giant anaconda snake. 

 The biggest workman took the ‘head’ using a rope tied to a tee handle. He then stood on top of the anaconda and pulled back with both hands. The beast’s head reared up as the man directed it left and right. The pump operator had a remote-control switch on his belt to turn the pump on. With each stroke of the pump, the “snake” writhed as if in pain, and then belched out a big glob of 5½-inch slump, liquid concrete. The other two men helped alternately drag the giant into position or stand on it to hold it down.

Some of the rebar chairs got flipped over or stomped down into the vapor barrier and gravel. The workers set them back into position as they retreated without my asking them.

Four men handled the spreading. One made a pass with a vibrating screed. This had a ten-foot-wide bar and was equipped with handles like a motorcycle. The operator backed up slowly while the others pushed the concrete in or pulled away, as required, with occasional checks with a laser level. Then they did one pass with a bull float with a twenty-foot-long handle.

It only took about one hour to place two truckloads of ten yards each.

At this point the crew left, except for two finishers who said that they planned to be there until late into the evening because the weather was so cool (55 deg F) and the concrete setting would be delayed.

I decided to omit the control joints and allow the slab to crack naturally. In my employer’s shop, the control joints were ineffective and also became chipped out from the traffic of carts with metal caster wheels. I think that small hairline cracks will be easier to deal with, and I am not concerned with the cosmetics.

The crew did a great job except when they sprayed their tools with oil (to prevent sticking) and got some on the rebar. The finishers gave the floor a hard-steel-trowel finish with a helicopter-type troweling machine. It came out very smooth and shiny, and we’re really pleased with it.


Pump trailer, waiting on concrete.
Ready mix arrives.
Crew & anaconda start battle.
Half done.
Second truck arrives, circle driveway proves useful!
2nd truck backs in, 1st one pulls out.
Meanwhile, John pulls sample for slump test. Fill cone, rod it down...
...Remove cone...
...and measure slump. 5.5" - good.
John also gets samples for later strength testing. Just for fun.
Finishing with vibrating screed.
Working as a team, everyone retreats to door, finishing as they go.
Only one hour to place the concrete. Well worth the pump trailer!
Two guys stay for finish work.
Then wait for setup.
Little critter intruder, oh well.
Helicopter screed next, which took place late in the evening. This crew had a great work ethic and did a fine job on the slab.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 10/26/2010

The quotes for the well, unlike those for the slab, seemed pretty straightforward. Prices are per foot drilled, plus costs for casing, typically PVC in our area. I selected the low quote - from a company that has been drilling wells in our area for 130 years. That’s some track record, eh? We set a date for the work, and when I called a week early to confirm, they let me know they had a cancellation and could squeeze us in early. Terrific! Before the driller came out, we plotted out (again) the more-finished architect’s house plan on the land. This helped us locate the best place for the well.

The drillers arrived in the early afternoon and set up. While one of them was on the phone, the other one had a few moments to chat. It was interesting hearing what he had to say about drilling in the area. He described a job they did for small subdivision of about eight houses a couple of miles down the road. He said all of those wells were dry as a bone. After drilling and drilling, they finally had to bring in some type of water tank that forced water under high pressure back into the well hole in an attempt to fracture the nearby rock and hopefully get some water. Yikes! He said that in this rural area sometimes you hit good water and sometimes it was really stingy – you just never know. Gulp.

Okaaayyy. Let’s hope our little hill had some water under it. So they start drilling, I start praying. But you can’t really just stand there the whole time, so after some photos I went off to work in the shop while they did their thing.

An hour later, I returned to find a pile of dirt and limestone around the hole while they readied some PVC pipe. I figured that was a good sign and after a few minutes the driller stepped away from the very loud rig to give me an update. Sure enough, they had about six gallons a minute at 100 feet and felt this would be a good well. (Sigh of relief.) It was getting late in the day, so they planned to get the PVC in and then do some additional drilling the next day. The driller didn’t expect the flow rate to change in a deeper well, but the water could be better quality and the deeper well would give us some storage.

I couldn’t be on site the next morning when they finished the well, but we spoke by phone when they were done. A last-minute item that came up in the conversation was the suggestion to get a tamper-proof well cap. This came up since the property is unoccupied and while we haven’t had any significant problems, you don’t want some yahoo doing something stupid. We also discussed the pump requirements so that John and I can purchase and install a pump when we’re ready, sometime next year.



Drill here.
Start drilling.
First casing goes in.
Next section.
End of first day, halfway there.
All done.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 10/18/2010

A while back, I set three goals to try to accomplish before the end of October: pour slab, install septic, and drill well. In the background of the slab work, I was making phone calls, getting quotes, and selecting contractors for the septic and well.

We’ve used one excavator for all of the work (driveway, site prep, farm terrace fix) so far. They offered good prices, did good work, and by now we had a pretty good working relationship. But I didn’t want to just fall into a habit of using the same company without even checking other prices, so I contacted an excavator recommended by our framer. He seemed eager for the work and I was hoping his quote would be very good and that he would get the job. It wasn’t that I didn’t like our current excavator – it’s just that I wanted to try out another company. If both companies did good work, it would give me two potential contractors to choose from for the house. The septic design was already finished (a requirement for the permit), so all the new contractor had to do was provide a price quote for that design.

Well I chased that guy by phone for a good two weeks, and he kept saying he would get to it – but he never did. I decided to just go with the first excavator who had promptly quoted the work. I gave them a “yes” over the phone, and based on our working history, they put me on their schedule. Then I called the delinquent excavator to let him know that I had selected another contractor. He responded by providing a quote right then and there! I explained that I had already given a verbal agreement to another contractor but he persisted, asking whether his quote was lower and pressing the issue. I wasn’t too impressed. If he could provide a quote on the spot like that, why hadn’t he done it in the previous weeks when I had repeatedly called him? Truth was his quote was about $500 lower, but I was having second thoughts about using this guy if he couldn’t even get the quote done. And anyway, I had already give my word to the other company.

As I continued to work on the slab prep and well drilling, the excavator showed up on schedule and completed the job over two days. I’m trying to establish a very good reputation among the area contractors, so I pay for the work as soon as possible after completion. When I stopped into their office to pay the bill, I was pleasantly surprised to see they had deducted $400 off the cost of the job. This was because the stub into the house couldn’t be done (house not built yet). The thing is, they could have left that $400 in their price and I would have paid it, none the wiser. So they were honest, and it saved me $400. In the end, their price was only $100 above the other quote. The more I work with the company the more I like them.


Finished. No pics in process 'cause I was working in the shop! I raked and hand-seeded the area.
John checks out the work.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 10/14/2010

We were so busy prepping for the slab that I didn’t start lining up concrete contractors until we were nearly done. I got together a list and made some calls. I thought that the contractors would come out, take a look, produce a quote, we would select one and be merrily on our way. But with each conversation I learned more about the process and the possible options, until the only thing that was clear was that we clearly didn’t know which contractor to select. All of the price quotes were in the same ballpark – so we’re basically talking about differences in how the concrete is produced and placed.

For placing the concrete, the fact that we had tied the rebar to their support chairs was an issue. Apparently common practice is to lay the rebar on the vapor barrier and then have the concrete crew pull it up into the wet concrete as it is being poured. This allows the use of a motorized wheelbarrow to get the wet concrete into the center of the building where the chute won’t reach. But it also raises a risk factor that during the rush of placing the concrete, the rebar won’t get pulled up into place, thus leaving the final slab much weaker. The solution to this problem is to use a pump truck or trailer to pump the wet concrete into the building, much like an ICF pour.

And a second issue was the type of concrete: ready mix from a concrete plant or metered (mixed on site). Honestly, I didn’t even know such a thing as metered existed until one of the contractors mentioned it. And I certainly didn’t know which was better for our application.

I decided to seek some experienced opinions at a forum called Construction Resource that I’ve used in the past. Many of the posts seem to be “from pros for pros”, but there are also some homeowner or owner-builder questions. I posted a few questions on the forum and got some interesting and useful feedback that helped us decide: Ready mix, pumped.

The only problem was none of the contractors were quoting that combination, nor seemed inclined to change their usual methods – which is fine. Personally I think it is much better to work hard to select a contractor who is already working in a manner that matches what you want, rather than ask a contractor to change the way they do things. Then I got smart (finally!). I called the ready-mix plant in our area and asked for two recommendations, and one of those – an Amish-owned business - was the one we hired. We set a date for the work in about two weeks' time, on a Friday, so John could be there too. Then we started reading up on how to best cure concrete (more on that to come.)

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 10/9/2010

The shop will have a concrete slab – and when I say that… I mean a concrete slab. Not some wimpy thin crust of Portland over dirt. Oh no! We’re talking a hulking mass of 5” thick, 4,000-psi concrete placed over more rebar than you can shake a stick at! All kidding aside, the slab is an exciting thing because it is a big step in making the interior space usable. In the background of our other work on site, John has researched concrete specs and how-to info, and we’ve been sourcing and buying the slab materials for quite some time.


We found a local low-cost supplier of rebar. Similar to our plumbing supplies, this vendor has a no-frills setup on his farm. He specializes in rebar and associated tools and materials. John planned out the rebar schedule and got contractor pricing on the materials. A satisfying deal, since the same purchase at the big-box store would have cost ~37% more. The chairs that hold the rebar in the middle of the slab (see photos) were purchased many months ago, and were a lucky find at a building-materials auction and purchased for literally just a few bucks.


While the excavator did the finish grading, he also dumped self-compacting stone inside the building. Two men spread the stone, checked it for level and even carved out a 2’ wide by 2” deep section of stone at the perimeter of the building. This would account for the rigid under-slab insulation we planned to use at the edges of the building. And then came our turn, which has taken the better part of several long weekends to complete. John did the lion’s share of this work, as I was busy on a deadline with the architect (for future house). John transported the materials, laid out the vapor barrier, set down the rebar grid and built the forms at each doorway. I worked on finishing the slab-edge insulation detail at the 12x12 door. Oddly enough, this required yet again more tamping – which I thought I was forever finished with when the stone went in. I think John saved that job just for me.  ;-)


After the rebar grid was laid out, each piece had to be tied together and to a chair using a metal wire. Pre-cut metal wires with loops on the end are made for this purpose. They come three gauges: light, medium and heavy duty. John, being John, bought the heavy duty ties that I’m pretty sure are rated for construction projects like the Golden Gate Bridge. And when I offered to continue tying the rebar while John made some of the custom bends we needed, I found out just how hard that work is. It was nearly impossible for me to use this little tie-tool thingy to twist the wire around the rebar. After awhile, and some well-timed whining, John took pity on me and let me use a lighter-gauge roll of wire. I had to cut each piece by hand in order to wrap them, but is still was much easier overall than using the heavy-duty stuff.


Prepping the slab has been a lot of work, some of it quite tedious, but hopefully it will be worth it in savings and producing a quality job.


Load up rebar...
...and insulation, then to site.
Excavator moves stone in.
Stone in, view of half bath.
2' wide 2" carve-out for insulation.
Insulation going in. Wall rebar will be bent down and tied into rebar grid.
12x12 door form and slab-edge insulation.
Vapor barrier goes in.
Chairs on display.
Starting the rebar grid.
Bending rebar. BTW: John knows the flame is misadjusted, but he did that for the photo op. ;-)
Mary slaves over rebar tying.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 10/7/2010

With the building up and the tin on, it was time to finish the gravel drive/park area. In the months that have passed since we put in the driveway circle we’ve had all sorts of traffic; cement trucks, lumber trucks, trucks carrying hydraulic lifts, and even the odd horse, cow and fox. Four-legged critters aside, whenever we had a chance, we asked the drivers how they found the layout and if they had any suggestions on how to make it better. The circle (60’ inside diameter) was a pretty good size it seemed, but the turn from the building parking area to the main driveway was too tight for easy use. We decided to bite the bullet and make it right by adding another eight feet or so to the existing twelve foot width. We also decided to add a subtle swale alongside the lean-to shed to help move stormwater past the building and down the grassy area in the bowl.


In addition to the finish work, I wanted to redo the grading on the south and west walls. The excavator had left it much too high and too close to the sill plate. I believe the main factor that lead to this result was a lack of communication with the crew, as I described in an earlier post. Live and learn. And in that spirit, I made it a point when scheduling this work with “the (excavator) boss” to ask him if he would be on site, and if not, who would be the one in charge. At first he said that he didn’t plan to be on site, but then quickly changed his mind and said he would be out to get the job going and then named the man that would be in charge after that. I thanked him and said that would be great.


On the appointed day, John and I got to the site early to see a beautiful sunrise over our newly-baled hay and to do a bit of prep removing downspouts, clearing the work area, etc. We were ready and waiting when the excavator (boss and crew) showed up. We had a walkabout with the boss to tell (and show, as I had prepped a diagram) how/what we wanted done and to get his ideas on a few items. The boss then met with the crew to let them know the plan before he hopped into his truck on the way to another job. The crew set about their work while John and I tended to some young trees we’re nursing along. The head guy asked us a few questions throughout the day and had check their work before they left. It went really well - excellent results, low stress, good working relationships. I will try to use this method in the future with other contractors – where I let it be known ahead of time that I expect to be able to review the plan for the work (on-site) before work begins and that I want to know who my point of contact will be on-site during the work.


Sunrise over round bales.
Bales go to neighbor farm on hill.
Park area before work.
Scrape off soil and compact.
Large stones over geotextile.
New section to make turns easier.
Add smaller stone, compact.
Trim geotextile & finished.
Drainage slope away from doors.
A few days later, the subtle swale visible after rain.
Before: South wall, backfill too high.
After: Backfill lower, and slopes away from drive/park area and building.
After: Parge coat in color to blend with siding now visible.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 10/4/2010 12:50:24 PM

In the days after our window install, the framer continued with the siding and trim. The building colors are a somewhat subdued clay-greenish color that I think blends well with the setting. It wasn’t too hard to settle on the siding and trim colors because, frankly, there weren’t all that many to choose of them. Sometimes a limited selection is a good thing. ;-) To bring in a bit of color and as a nod to the traditional big red barns in our area, I decided to do the door and window trim in a red-brownish color. John wasn’t sure about that – but was willing to defer to me on this issue. So, red it was. This was applied to all of the doors and windows except the single door on the west elevation. In that area I asked the framer to trim out the door in a color that matched the siding. Then I painted the door to to match as well. The door and trim blend into the siding color and essentially disappear, leaving the west elevation as a large shape outlined against the sky as you approach on the driveway. I like the end result and we've gotten nice comments from others who’ve seen the shop.


A local gutter company that seems to own the market in our area did our gutter work. There was a bit of discussion with them to plan how the gutters would dump into downspouts only at the back of the building. This moved all the water away from the drive/park area, and sets me up for a possible rainwater collection system. We also got heavy-duty hangers for the gutters to hopefully avoid problems with heavy snow loads. A minor cost difference, but a ‘nice to have’ owner-builder upgrade.


The scary bowed window install is still looking good. We tested the window operation and they seem to be OK. I’m not sure if they’re totally good or if they are going to prove very air leaky. Time will tell and we’ll deal with that problem if and when it crops up.


West elevation from driveway.
Finishing east elevation.
Surplus Anderson 400 windows in color to match trim. A great buy!
All siding and trim finished.
John checks 'bow' windows on south side. South door yet to be painted in trim color. I painted the four small windows (another surplus purchase) in trim color before installation.
Gutters go up, maybe just in time.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 10/3/2010

The window install work was split between us and the framer. I think in our original agreement it was the framer’s job. But as we were working on site and all getting to know each other, it just seemed to work out this way. Splitting up the work kept the framer working on the siding and let us spend all the time we needed on the window flashing. I did a little research on the topic and found some decent videos – in YouTube of all places - on “best practices” for installing windows. Since we had a metal-sided building with girts, we had to adapt the process to fit our specific situation but the research still gave us many good ideas. We had to hunt our local area to find the flexible flashing and it cost a pretty penny – but the results we got were worth it.


We did run into a slight kink in the plans. When framing first began a couple of weeks back, we transported the metal doors and the two large vinyl windows to the site so they would be on hand when needed. And so the two large windows sat in the hot, hot summer sun, under the black tarp until John and I got the OK from the framer to install them. As soon as we pulled back the tarp and lifted the window, it was obvious for all to see - we had a problem. The two large windows had been set on a few 2x4s and the extreme heat had actually softened the vinyl enough to bow the frame from top to bottom. And of course it doesn’t really help much to have the framer standing behind you calling out, “I’ve never seen a window do that. Boy, I sure am glad you’re installing that and not me!” By this point in the project we had a pretty good working relationship with the crew and I actually liked their good-natured ribbing - and bowed windows – come on, they just couldn’t resist. We took the peanut gallery comments in stride, but it wasn’t really a confidence building situation, if you get my drift. So I was standing there gazing upon one of these bowed windows while my thoughts spiraled deep down into a sea of doubts: How am I going to get another window to fit this size opening? I’ll never find one in surplus stock. How long will this hold up the works to order new ones? How much more will it cost? And on and on…


Meanwhile, John quietly set about putting the other window – bow and all – into the window opening. He screwed in the bottom of the window (over my nicely-placed sill pan and flashing) and then attached some OSB scraps over the window flange. He used more OSB scraps over the top window flange. But up there he just barely screwed in the first few thread to loosely secure the window to the wood frame. Over the next several hours, John tightened up the top screws a bit at a time until the entire window was eventually flush against the window framing. It was a wacky way to start our window installs, but it seemed to work. After the two windows were fixed to the framed opening, we put the rest of the flashing on. John knows I’m not keen on heights, so I did the lower parts of the windows and he did the upper parts. John doesn’t seem bothered by heights, which is OK because my fear of heights extends to those around me! And of course, loving husband, knowing height-based-fear-trigger of cherished wife does all he can to make her feel safe and at ease… NOT. See picture below – ‘nough said.


We got the four lower windows installed and prepped the four small high windows. The framer would use his hydraulic lift rather than a ladder to install those – much easier (but still high up, IMHO). The rest of the windows were all safe and sound, not a bow or bend among them, so installing them proved to be the easier part of the job.


Plastic strip makes raised back edge of sill pan to keep any rain water that does get in from running into wall assembly.
Flexible flashing covers plastic strip and wraps around to outside of building.
First piece of flashing in place.
Do windows usually curve like that?
OSB and optimism.
Several hours to allow windows 'relax' in new (unbowed) position. OSB holds window flanges secure.
Removed OSB and windows stayed put - Hurray!
Putting up the rest of the flashing.
'Orangutan man', as he is sometimes known at work.
Wife reads aloud to husband; OSHA regulations for correct ladder use.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 9/24/2010

The shop will have metal siding, typical of what you see on agricultural buildings. I got some quotes from siding/roofing installers in our area, but none of them were keen to have me supply the materials. They all warned that I wouldn’t be able to place the order correctly and that I would be responsible if the correct materials weren’t on site and so on. Our framer had also quoted the siding/roofing as a separate line item from the framing. And after talking with him, he was OK with me getting the materials. In fact, he even said that he would work out the parts list and place the order and all I had to do was pay for it directly with the manufacturer. It worked out well, and I think the framer and I were both happy with the arrangement. Now the roofing and siding is up and we are really happy with the colors.


Over the past few years we’ve spent a bit of time at the property working on various projects such as planting, mowing, weeding, driveway work and of course site planning. I had gotten used to the ‘all weather’ working conditions. And especially with John, who thinks weather is a state of mind  ;-)  and never a reason to delay a scheduled work day. Well, the framing and roof of the shop was finished before we got any rain in this year’s dry, hot summer. John and I were both at the property working on window flashing when we got our first real wet weather (and cooler temps, thankfully). We took shelter under the roof of the shop and watched the rain come pouring down. It was so odd, and soooooo NICE to have a dry place to stand and even continue working. In that moment the property went from a place where you're always outside come what may – to a place where there is a beautiful 'outdoors', and when needed – a sheltered 'indoors'. Progress indeed.


Roof on, start siding.
Working and watching storm clouds.
A sheltered place to work. Nice.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 9/19/2010

Maybe it's not typical for a ‘shop’, but we provided Tyvek for the framer to install, including taping the seams to reduce air infiltration. This work proceeded pretty smoothly once we worked out with the framer the install details for the Tyvek, girts, (horizontal strapping for metal siding) and window/door flashing. We had a drawing done by a local designer in order to get our permit. But the drawing in no way attended to this level of construction detail, so these items were worked out on the fly, on site. The weather during this time was very hot and humid for our area and I have to commend the framer’s work ethic in staying focused and putting in long hard days.


As framing progressed, John and I turned our attention to hand-tamping the interior dirt pad as the first step toward pouring the slab. The excavator had done a good job of compacting most of it, but about five inches around the perimeter proved to be too narrow for their large machines, or even their little plate compactor, to really do a good job. We want the entire surface as well compacted as possible to properly support the slab. So every time we’ve gone to the site we did the following:

-         haul water in 5-gal buckets

-         pour water around the foundation to settle the dirt

-         hand-tamp until your arms are ready to fall off

-         add more subsoil from perc test pit (do not add topsoil)

-         repeat

This wasn’t my favorite job, but it was absolutely necessary for the sake of getting a quality base for the slab.


South wall (July photo): Overhang shades windows. In winter, lower sun angle shines in and warms slab.
Girts in place
View of interior bracing

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 9/14/2010 6:41:15 PM

Many months ago I had gotten two quotes for the trusses on the building, and they were within $100 of each other. One of the companies was literally a couple of miles down the road, and I had had very good experiences in dealing with the father-and-son owners. I had an opportunity to review the truss design with them using their computer program for that purpose. I was able to watch, learn and ask questions as they edited the truss assemblies in their computer program. It was very informative and I found them to be generous with their time and knowledge. They were clearly interested in providing both a good-quality and good-value product rather than just the code-minimum truss. They said it was exasperating to deal with some builders who are so keen to save every single penny that, while they barely meet code, they allow trusses that don't add to the quality of the building (i.e. bouncy floors, etc). And for a very small amount on the order of a few hundred dollars a much better result could be achieved.

I also had a good discussion with the father of the truss duo regarding entrepreneurial issues. Since I have a small-business background, it was very interesting to hear his opinions on how the economy had impacted his industry and company. Meeting good people like this, having a chance to see up-close how they apply their craft and glimpse how their business operates is, for me, a very positive experience associated with our owner-building project. My only regret was that John wasn’t able to be at this meeting as I know he would have found it interesting too.


So – as the framing got underway I stopped in at the truss company to officially place our order – aka drop off the deposit. They set a delivery date in about 10 days time which sounded fine to me. When I relayed this info to the framer he muttered, “Ten days, we’ll see about that.” Since the truss guys and the framer guy had known each other for years and were actually pretty good friends, I thought I would just let them work it out.


Just a few days later, I was happy to be making my daily site visit with John along too, since he hadn’t see the building since lumber started flying. As we approached the site John said, “Hey, they’re putting up the trusses!” At that moment I couldn’t see the site since I’m too short to see over the grass from the below-grade road, so I blurted out, “That’s impossible, they aren’t due for another seven or eight days.” But as we drove up the driveway, sure enough – trusses were airborne. It seems that our framer has quite a bit of pull with the truss company, and needed the trusses earlier in order to keep his schedule moving along. Our truss order was pretty basic and easy for them to build in a few hours, and since we were just down the road, they squeezed us in an afternoon hole they had in their schedule.

That was just fine with us – although I was surprised that they were delivering trusses without notifying me first, because it was all in the agreement of sale and posted in their offices that the balance was due in full before any trusses would be set (I guess they had gotten burned on that once or twice before). What if we hadn’t happened along when we did? I guess they trusted us to pay them – which was nice to know. Happily, we had our checkbook with us, so we were able to cut a check before the truss guy left the property. The framer stayed on schedule. The truss guy got the work out of the shop and paid for all in a few hours time. We were a step closer to an actual building. It all worked out great and the weather was just fine. And it was darn exciting too!


Truss company provides crane and operator with trusses.
Framer and his assistant make quick work of the task.
Final truss has OSB already attached.
Main trusses done. North side Lean-to shed will be next. Note smoothed-out farm terrace (soil) at left. High temps & no rain slow germination.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 9/13/2010

The weekend before framing, John and I packed up some items from our house and moved them to the site – namely two metal (people) doors, two large vinyl windows for the south side of the shop, sill-gasket box, and j-bolt hardware. It was amazing the amount of space we had in our (current) living room after those windows were moved out! At the site, we stacked the items carefully on some pallets and covered them against the weather. Although the doors and windows wouldn’t be needed right away, the framer could use them to take the actual measurements needed for rough openings. It took a little bit of time to do the pack-transport-unpack-tarp for the materials, so it was good to get it done over the weekend with John’s help rather than me doing it on my own on the first day of framing.


The backfill process had left a good bit of dirt on the top of the blocks. Maybe this is just a girl thing – but seemed to me that cleaning that off before the sill plate got bolted down would be a nice thing. So I got there early on the first day of framing to get that done.


I also got out the sill gasket that we wanted, but would not normally be used by builders in our area. The gasket, from Conservation Technologies, is advertised to provide a good seal against air infiltration. It costs more than construction adhesive or typical (foam) sill sealer, but it is such a small item in the overall cost of the building that for me it is a no-brainer.


So with these items ready, I awaited the main event.

The framer showed soon afterward with two assistants in tow, one experienced and one who looked to be at his first day on the job. They all got busy setting up their work trailer, saws, and generator, and checking out the lumber supply. The framer gave his assistants some tasks and then wanted to talk with me to review a few items. And then it was ‘off to the races’. There were a few hiccups and some on-the-fly problem solving that I’ll cover in some later posts – but overall, things moved along pretty quickly.


Sill Gasket diagram from Conservation Technologies.
Framing starts.
Framing seen from south side.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 9/10/2010

What’s that expression; “Timing is everything.” Well, I’m not sure I would go that far, but I would say that timing is at least something.


Late in 2009 when we were planning for the shop, John showed me an ad from the local big-box store as we were both on the lookout for materials and costs. OSB was on sale for less than $7 a sheet. We discussed getting some, knowing we would need a lot of it for the shop. But frankly we just weren’t that enthused about moving so much OSB around (from storage to site) and we had no place to store it anyway. After all, OSB is just OSB. It wasn’t like trying to find just the right size/style/color surplus windows at auction so I didn’t feel any pressure to run out and buy run-of-the-mill OSB. I didn’t think anymore of it – until several months later (April, 2010) when I got two lumber quotes for our project. OSB was up to $12-something a sheet… and according to the guys at the store… climbing fast. In fact all lumber prices were up. Seems our timing was not very good. A few discussions with suppliers and a bit of internet research indicated that prices were nearing a peak and could be expected to come down again, hopefully. It seems that in Dec, 2009 they were at an unprecedented low… Boy if I only knew then what I know now.  ;-)


As I was still working on final agreements with the contractors and waiting to get onto the excavator’s schedule, we decided to slow our progress on the project a bit to take a watch-and-wait position on the OSB and lumber pricing. Several months passed (August, 2010) by the time the mason was starting and we really needed to order our lumber. I had been keeping loose tabs on the prices and had a pretty good idea that they had been coming down. Turns out timing is something – because we saved nearly a thousand dollars on OSB and lumber by waiting.


We were fortunate, because we could wait on the purchase of the lumber. Now that I realize what an impact timing can have on building-materials supply and cost, I’ll try to keep a better lookout for using this understanding to our benefit in future projects. I realize it’s a long shot to repeat; we need to be aware of pricing trends, have the ability to purchase early (funds?, storage?) or wait (schedules?, end dates on loans/permits?), and a bit of luck helps, too. But at least it’s a possibility, once you realize the opportunity is out there. Plus this is just interesting stuff, learning more about how various businesses/industries operate. It’s a positive side effect of owner-building for sure.


Here is a link to a forum of contractors discussing the run-up in OSB prices (April 2010):

And attached are some articles that are on the pricing issue for the information junkies among us.


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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 9/9/2010

Along with backfill activities, we had our lumber delivery. I had already checked with the framer to see if he had a preferred location for the pile, and since he would be working with a motorized lift, he expressed no preference. On the high ground in the center of the driveway circle I set out some scrap pallets we had collected for just this purpose. I wasn’t sure when the delivery would be along the next day, but since I would be at the site all day, anytime was good for me.


Well, the next day when I was pulling into the site at 7:30 am, I was somewhat surprised to see the last of the lumber being offloaded from the truck. Unfortunately it was being set down right next to the building on a rather low area of bare dirt. The driver did put down some scrap 2x4 under the banded piles, but it looked like not the best spot to me. The driver told me he had called the yard to see if they knew where I wanted the lumber placed, but they didn’t. So he placed it as close as possible to the building because he didn’t know what equipment the framer would have. At least he was making good judgments with the limited info he had to work with. It’s a shame the guy at the lumberyard didn’t take a moment to call me. I guess I should have posted a sign at the site so that even if I wasn’t there the information would be available to the driver. Well it was on the ground now, so there was nothing to do but work with it as is.


The driver was quickly reviewing the paperwork with me when he casually remarked that there was no treated lumber in the order, and he noticed that the foundation didn’t yet have a sill plate. As soon as the words were out of his mouth I realized I had screwed up! The framer was scheduled for the next morning and he would need the treated 2x6’s first thing, and at 16 ft in length, it wasn’t something I could just run out and pick up. Fortunately, a call to the lumberyard yielded a late-day delivery of the needed materials - and with no extra delivery fee. Nice service! I made sure to tell the owner of the lumberyard that I appreciated his service and that his driver was a great guy and really saved me by taking the initiative to comment on the lack of treated lumber. Kudos to the driver!


I keep a simple spiral-bound notebook with my notes, to do’s and such for the project. I looked back over the notes I had regarding the lumber order. After reviewing them, I recalled how our phone conversation had gotten pretty detailed on the type/quality of lumber and soaring prices for OSB, and I saw that the line item for the treated lumber just plain got overlooked. Lesson learned: After ordering, double-check the order paperwork against drawings or specs, especially for big ticket or long-lead items.


Tarps for OSB (background) and lumber.
Cleaned up & backfilled site ready for framing.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 9/3/2010

During initial discussions with the framer, I asked what things he wanted from us to help him to his job. I try to do this with all of the subs, as it gives them a chance to provide input and educate me about the work flow. The framer requested we backfill before he started work. I readily agreed, even though I didn’t see what the big deal was one way or the other. Now after working on the construction site myself, I completely understand the framer’s POV. Jumping back and forth over the trench and walking on the soft uneven piles of fill is very tiring. I was really looking forward to backfill.

In preparation, John used a marker to write on the inside of the block wall showing the desired finish height of the dirt pad. On the outside of the building, the excavators could use the parge coating as their guide to backfill height. To protect the sill from moisture, we wanted as much as 16 inches above grade rather than the 8 inches called for by code.


The excavator ‘boss’ that I had been dealing with for the previous work was not on site the day they came to backfill. The three-man crew was already working when I arrived and seemed intent on their task so I didn’t interrupt them – and I wasn’t even sure which of these guys was in charge. I walked around a bit checking over things and that’s when I noticed that the pile of good-sized angular rocks that had been sitting on the dirt pad were now laying in the trench – right on top of our 1” water pipe that was about to be backfilled. I had used the rocks to weigh down the plastic tarps while doing the foundation insulation. I didn’t clean them off the pad because we thought that we would just cover them with gravel when we eventually poured the slab. I guess it was nice of the guys to clean them up, but they shouldn’t have put them in a trench where they could create a puncture hazard to our water line! So I got belly down on the dirt pad (the only way I can reach the bottom of the trench) and started picking out these rocks. Two crew guys standing nearby seemed surprised and asked me what I was doing. Over my shoulder I told them I did not want these rocks in the tight trench with the water line. I guess they agreed that probably wasn’t the best thing to do and the older of the two of them ordered the younger guy to help me fish out the rocks. It only took a few minutes to toss the rocks into another section of the trench, so I’m glad I spotted it before they backfilled that area.


Other than the brief interaction regarding the rocks-on-water-pipe problem, I didn’t have any discussion with the crew. I left while they were still working on the inside pad and before they even started the outside of the building. As it turns out, lack of discussion and/or leaving were mistakes on my part. When I returned the next day, I was disappointed to see that the exterior backfill was much too high up on the foundation wall. In some places it was only five inches or so from top of block – way too high. I wasn’t sure how much settling to expect. Maybe it will sink back down, but it is hard to see how it will settle enough to bring the final grade to where we wanted it, about 14 inches below top of block.


Another problem occurred as they backfilled the interior pad around the plumbing pipes. They accidentally rotated the pipes so that the vent and drain pipes were no longer vertical. John surmises that the two 22.5-degree elbows we put in to fix the alignment problem created a broader area than just a straight-pipe run, and when tamped down, it lead to the rotation problem. Fortunately, John was able to correct the problem and get them vertical again. And we’ll pressure-test everything again to ensure that we were still good on all our connections. It is interesting to see how a fix for one thing can lead to a problem for the next thing.


So backfill was a mixed bag in terms of results. While it was good to get it done, I was disappointed that some of it may need to be fixed up to get the results we want. I’m still learning to manage the things that happen on site and how to deal with subs, but learning a lot with every day.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 8/21/2010

John got a new compressor to replace the one that arrived DOA from a cheap on-line source. He pressurized the system to 5 psi and it held the pressure overnight. That was a good thing, since I had scheduled the foundation and plumbing inspection for the following morning.


We got there early to take the plastic off the foundation and then worked on general site cleanup until the inspector arrived. We made a good bit of progress cleaning up and getting rid of the trash. Site cleanup isn’t very glamorous; picking up the construction trash, old T-shirts, soda cans, sandwich wrappers and whatever else the workmen dropped where they were standing. But it felt good to get things more in order as we looked forward to backfill and framing.


The inspector stopped by at the appointed hour, checked the J-bolt schedule in the foundation, the plumbing setup and pressure and proclaimed us “passed”.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 8/18/2010

As plumbing rough-in was wrapping up, we started on the foundation insulation. This was a DIY task, too – and to tell you the truth, I don’t know who we could have hired to do it. I think the foundation insulation is a little like the driveway geotextile we put in earlier. While the excavator agreed the geo was a great idea for a quality driveway, he also admitted that “we don’t touch the stuff”. (And indeed putting it down was a bit of a physical effort.). Similarly, the foundation insulation is an ‘upgrade’ that we knew we wanted, seemed well within our abilities, and so we decided to do the work for it.


The first step was selecting the correct type of rigid-foam insulation and the desired thickness. I settled on 2” of XPS, which will give us about R-10. I tried to find a good deal on the XPS via a building-materials auction or even a purchase of recycled foam pulled from the demolition of a building – but to no avail. Then in the middle of last winter, when I was reviewing our weekly email from the big-box store, I was pleasantly surprised to find it on sale. We needed a good bit to do the foundation wall and under-slab perimeter… which led to the next issue. If I buy it way ahead of time, where will I store it? It’s not heavy, but very bulky – and frankly our 1,440-sq-ft house was at that time already holding our geotextile rolls, scrounged doors and windows, plumbing supplies, impromptu O-Bs headquarters office, and just couldn’t accommodate the XPS too. Fortunately we know a nice guy with some commercial warehouse space to spare and he graciously let us stow the material there for the several months between our purchase and use. Thanks, guy!


We weren’t entirely sure how to attach the XPS to the walls, because it needed to survive being backfilled without shifting around or getting dirt behind it. Based on some advice from an on-line construction forum, we decided to attach it with very liberal amounts of a caulk-like adhesive and then use mechanical fasteners. We had to experiment a bit on some spare block before we felt comfortable that the fasteners would work without risk of cracking the block wall. I had an idea to make a jig that I could use to create a standard measurement for the height relative to the block, but I wasn’t sure how best to build it. Fortunately, John was able to quickly make the perfect thing from scraps on-site. He’s really good at this stuff and it worked like a charm.


I put up the insulation over two long days while John was at work, and then he put in the fasteners during the evenings. I have to say, I was excruciatingly slow at doing this task. I’m just not accustomed to this type of work (I’ve spent the past 20+ yrs behind a computer screen in an air-conditioned office). For example, I would get the adhesive on the foam board and be ready to smash it into place, only to realize I hadn’t moved the jig down from the previous gluing sequence. Just silly stuff like not keeping my tools close by or misplacing the knife I needed to open the next caulk container – it really takes a toll on the clock… and on my feet with all those inefficient trips back and forth across the building site.


And unfortunately after the first few panels were glued on, a heavy downpour came along and popped them loose. It seems the adhesive really needs to cure to hold them on there. And the foam needed to be tightly braced against the wall during the entire curing time. My first attempts at bracing were somewhat comical, using any spare thing on site to wedge between the rigid foam and the dirt building pad. I know this all sounds like common sense, but if you’ve never done it before… and you're working alone… well you just have to figure it out as best you can. I guess it is a version of ‘construction kindergarten’. As the day progressed, my bracing got better until I had it down to a simple piece of rebar crammed into the dirt pad and wedged up against a 24” wooden stake placed flat against the foam board. It worked great. Pity I didn’t have a photo of the last set of foam boards all nicely braced against the block wall. But I was way too hot, tired and dirty to do much documenting!


To be safe, and because I didn’t want to redo any of this work again, I covered the whole kit and caboodle with plastic sheeting left over from the foundation trenching to protect it from pop-up thunderstorms.


It takes up a lot of space!
Go ahead, laugh. Bracing 101.
John's quick jig rests on top of the wall, stakes provide a 2" offset down the wall for height of foam.
Two walls done, two to go...
All done and protected from the rain.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 8/17/2010

From research I did, and informal input from other people who know a lot more than me, I wanted to try to operate the shop with a low reliance on mechanical heating during the winter. I ran this by John, who will after all be the main user of the building, and he was game to try it. Brave fellow. I have to admit, this is a keen area of interest for me so I appreciate John’s willingness to give it a try… and to accept a target indoor winter temp of 55 degrees F. Certainly most would find that too chilly for a house, but for a shop we think it will be just fine. And if 55 to 60 degrees is achievable with no ongoing energy bills and no astronomical upfront investments (which is pretty much a given with our budget)… then all the better.


Here’s the basic idea: Use the Earth’s deep soil temp (about 55-58 degrees in our area) to temper the building interior during winter. Use available solar energy to add heat during the day. Limit heat loss during the night.


Here are some of the things we did (or are doing, or planning to do) to try to make this work. Keep in mind, this is likely a multi-year project to get everything done.


-Orient building with long side to solar south. Plan south-side wall space for installation of thermosyphons we’ll design and build. To gain some working knowledge in this area, this past winter I designed a rough prototype thermosyphon and John helped me build it. We installed it in our current house in a door to the south-side deck. It was temporary for the winter, but a great learning experience and quite the conversation piece. ;-)  The BuildItSolar website is a great resource for this stuff.


-Place windows on the south wall so that winter sun can fall on ‘always open’ slab just inside the overhead door (on the east wall).


-Insulate the foundation wall and slab perimeter with 2” rigid foam, also known as XPS. This will (hopefully) isolate the slab and the soil under it from cold outside temps seeping through the foundation wall and under the slab.


-Insulate the typically exposed slab edges at the man doors and especially at the 12x12 overhead door. This is very important, and I’m still working out the details on this, but feel pretty confident we’ll be able to do it. Apparently a LOT of heat flow occurs through the edges of the slab.


-Insulate the walls and ceiling of the shop – better than is typically done in these types of buildings, but still keeping our budget in mind. Install heavy-duty thermal covers for the windows and possibly for the 12x12 overhead door. I’m thinking these are items we get raw materials for, design and possibly use a local tarp company to sew up for us. This should reduce nighttime heat losses.


So, that’s the general (albeit some might call squirrelly) idea – in a nutshell.


Building prototype thermosyphon. Yes... in kitchen of current house. Too much snow to work outside. Now that's flex-space, eh?
Thermosiphon installed in doorway on south deck. Open (existing) door only during times of good sunshine.
Interior view: Room air drawn into collector at bottom, heated by sun, rises & passively vents into room at top. Not pretty, but simple. :-)

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 8/15/2010

Months ago when we decided to do on our own plumbing, I bought two basic plumbing books that John used to diagram the shop’s simple system. He included the foundation wall penetrations, keeping in mind our overall site plan (future house & septic locations) so that the water line (from the house) and waste pipe (to the septic) made sense. Meanwhile, I found a plumbing supply in a nearby town, on an old-order Mennonite farm. It is apparently an adjunct to their farming operations and run by some of the family members. Typically these businesses are no frills and value priced. They often don’t take credit cards and are never open on Sunday. Their pricing beats or competes well with the big-box stores, and ironically it is easier and quicker to get what you need and get on your way than negotiating the zoo at big-box warehouses. Based on research and John’s inventory list, we purchased the various pipes, fittings, primer, glue, etc. and added them to the burgeoning supplies we had stowed in virtually every room of our current house.


We decided to run the water line along the interior footing, around the perimeter of the building to the bathroom at the back of the shop. This keeps it below frost line and does not require it to cross the waste pipe. At the front of the building we planned a sleeve and fitting to allow for a hydrant (outside). I noticed the local farm store had hydrants on sale (15% off), so that too was purchased ahead and stored until we needed it.


When the foundation wall was almost complete, it was time to put our plumbing planning and purchases to use. I was really pleased that the excavator agreed to dig out the sloping trench needed for the waste pipe (from toilet to foundation wall). This saved us a ton of work to hand-dig the compacted building pad – Yippee! A good start to the task for sure.


I uncoiled about a hundred feet of the one-inch water line from the five-hundred-foot roll and worked it down into the narrow footing trench. To be on the safe side, I picked out any rocks near the water line so there was less risk of punctures when we backfill. I also attached the fittings and pipe clamps. At the same time, John worked through dry-fitting the bathroom drain and vent pipes. As part of the prep, weeks before, John calculated the depth of the waste pipe at the foundation wall based on the slope we needed to meet code. We provided the mason with a six-inch sleeve to build into the block wall at that height so we would have the wall penetration ready for us when we did the plumbing. The mason readily agreed to angle the sleeve so that we could avoid any sharp bends in the four-inch waste pipe – to hopefully reduce any tendency to clog. As John fit the waste pipes between the toilet and the foundation wall sleeve, he found a little 'oops'. The sleeve angle was just a bit off and would not allow a straight run of pipe to cross the distance from the wall to the future toilet. But, two 22.5 degree elbows fixed it up and soon enough and we were back in business. After reading some plumbing tips on the Internet, we knew to apply colored primer before gluing, and to position the pipes so that the ‘schedule 40 PVC’ label was on top so the inspector could see we had used the proper technique and materials.


John had also purchased the parts to pressure-test both the supply and drain lines. This is not required by code in our area, but was strongly suggested by our building inspector… and we had planned to do it in any event. Better to test and know, than to concrete and leak. His initial stab at this showed the cheap on-line compressor we bought was defective, so we had a slight delay while he got another one. Sometimes a bargain isn't. ;-)


In addition to the time actually on site, there was the time researching it and acquiring the parts, storing them, and then packing them up to take to the site on work day. And we had to buy a few more items than we had initially, but that is pretty typical for any DIY job. The work itself was very doable and would have even been fun, if not for the 90+ temps and high humidity – but even that was offset with a gorgeous sunset. I was really pleased it worked out so easily. We saved a little bit of money on the labor and I learned some new skills.

All good.


Run, John, run. See John run. Staging materials.
Pondering the plan.
Oops! Sleeve at wrong angle.
Fix! Two 22.5-degree elbows.
All glued up.
Sink & toilet drains and vent.
...but we have a bad compressor.
Set up for pressure test...
Protecting gauge until next time.
Hydrant sleeve. Gotta' plan this stuff ahead of time.
Mary preps 1" water line.
You're working hard and then look up... Time for a break to watch the sunset.
Picking rocks from near water line in narrow footing trench.
Done for today.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 8/9/2010

As an owner-builder, or newbie GC if you like, I’m sure I’m making many errors along the way. Some I catch and correct, others I’ll never know about, and some don’t show up until the next step… when it’s too late (read too expensive) to go back. Such was the case with our footing trench.


John and I had dutifully measured and set our batter boards prior to the site excavation. Then the ‘top of block’ strings (attached to the batter boards) were let down to make way for the pad excavation. I was unclear on whether or not they were done with the building pad, and then the next morning I arrived on the site to find them most of the way through digging the footing trench… without me first re-establishing the reference strings and painting a line on the pad for the trencher to follow. When the workman climbed down from his big machine, I asked him if he had done that (marked the dig line) and he replied that he had eyeballed it. I think that in all things ‘foundation’, eyeballing it is not a term you want to hear. The depth of the trench was spot-on, because he used his laser level and was still able to reference our batter boards. And the perimeter trenches were pretty good too. However, the trench interior wall between the main body of the shop and the lean-to shed was off by a several inches. What I learned here is that I need to specifically ask regarding critical overlaps between my tasks and the contractors’ tasks. I can just rely on the contractor to volunteer the status info. Be proactive in getting ‘who’s on deck’ info – that’s the lesson.


Code calls for an 8-inch-high, 24-inch-wide footer. When I first saw that, I thought why do we need a footer 24 inches wide to set an 8-inch block wall on? Couldn’t it be just 10 or 12 inches? Well now I was happy we had a full 24 inches of width! The mason explained to me that he would use that width to account for the, ahem – tolerance error – in the trench. Good news.


The mason had a tight schedule with several other jobs in his hopper and he wanted to bang out our job as quickly as possible. He assigned five guys to the site and they almost finished it in one day. It had been about 95 that day with high humidity and it was obvious they had all be working very hard. I think laying block has got to be one of the most physical jobs there is. Really tough work!


One of the nice things about being an owner-builder is our ability to interface directly with the ‘boss’ for each trade rather than going through the builder. For example, before we hired the mason, we met with him to discuss ideas for extra rebar strengthening the block wall and also tying into the future slab. He also gave us ideas for using a parge coat above grade because I wanted nicer appearance than block but couldn’t afford stone. None of these things added greatly to the cost. They were just little quality issues that take a few minutes to work out, but will hopefully improve the results for a long time to come. And I find it interesting talking with the tradesmen. Most of them are small-business people and they take pride in their work and want to have a good result too.


View from general area of future house site. Driveway turnaround, shop foundation on the left.
Block wall showing cut-out for 12x12 overhead door in shop.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 8/8/2010

During excavation, I had been in contact with the mason several times on when he could start as I knew he had a lot of jobs going and I wanted updates on the schedule. Early on the day the excavator was set to do trenching, the mason called me regarding the predicted thunderstorms that night. He asked if I could lay a piece of plastic in the trench to minimize mud problems for tomorrow when they started. On my way to the site I picked up some plastic, now being familiar with every home center, building supply, farm supply and hardware store between home and the building site. When the excavator finished digging the trench, I started to work on my trench-laminating task. The mason had only asked for me to cover the bottom of the trench but the plastic came in sheets much wider than that. However, Mother Nature had other plans, because I had only been working a few minutes when it started to rain at a good clip. So rather than take the time to cut the plastic down, I decided to just lay it in the trench, and up the side walls and weight it to the compacted pad with scrounged-up rocks. When I climbed out of my nicely protected trench, I was probably the dirtiest I had ever been. But the plastic worked well and captured several inches of water in the bottom of the trench.


The next day, the mason lifted the plastic sheeting from one end of the trench to the other to force the water to drain out a side channel. That dry trench meant they could get right to work setting the rebar rather than scraping mud off the bottom first - a good thing, because I had prearranged with the building inspector to stop by at 11:30 to review the rebar prior to the footing pour that afternoon.


That was my first face to face with the inspector. He checked the rebar, talked with the mason for moment, and then we chatted for a few minutes. I also got answers to several questions I had listed for when I met him. All in all, friendly, professional and productive.


When I was first planning the construction of the farm shop, I was very tempted to put the footing pour on our list of To-Dos to save labor costs. But after having had a chance to see the setup and witness the pour, I was very glad we were not doing it. First off, I learned a lot seeing how the mason tied the rebar, did the step-down and put in references for the footer height. And working in the trench to get the concrete at the correct depth and screeded before it set up looked to be very hard physical work. I could see that the concrete-truck driver and mason were experienced and knew their tasks, even though they had never worked together before. It was a great learning experience.

Will we do the footers for the house? Not sure. Have to think it over.


Masons remove/drain plastic cover.
Masons check our 'top of block' reference height.
Detail of step-down in footer
Detail of vertical rebar to guide desired height of concrete during pour
Get ready
Working very hard
Scrub-and-wash TLC for truck after pour.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 8/5/2010

With the farm terrace fix and driveway underway, it was time to start building the pad for the shop. A simple enough process; strip the topsoil, replace it with suitable fill to the correct height, and compact. The thing is though, determining the correct height took a little bit of thought and effort well before any heavy machinery arrived on site. Here is what we did.


Based on our site plan, were knew where the shop would go, and it’s orientation to take advantage of passive solar in the winter. That was all about the x-y axis stuff, in terms of the site plan. But now we also needed to think about the z-axis, or elevation. For example, we wanted the shop high enough to keep storm water running away from the building, but not so high it appeared to be blasting off into space. And how high should the slab (inside) and the final backfill (outside) be relative to the top of block. We needed to decide these things and communicate this information to the contractors in an accurate and reliable way. I was lucky to come across a book called Measuring, Marking & Layout by John Carroll and studied the pertinent sections on how to survey and set ‘top of block’ height for a block foundation wall. Based on information from the book and thinking about what we wanted, we hand-sketched a scale cross-section drawing of the footing, block wall, stone and slab (inside), and backfill (outside). Then it was time to put ‘measure, mark & layout’ on the actual dirt.


We wanted to rent a laser transit for this task, but it was already out. Lesson learned: reserve way ahead! So we wound up with a traditional transit, and fortunately John took to it like a duck to water. I was the able assistant and we set about laying out the building boundaries and setting up the batter boards (to establish a ‘top of block’ reference) just as described in the book. Then: double-check measurements, adjust batter boards and repeat. And repeat. And repeat… until you get it right. And now, we were ready for excavation.


As it turned out, our simple hand sketch was one of the most useful tools I had in communicating with the contractors and just plain keeping it straight in my own head. For example, our drawing indicated that the contractor would need to bring in fill to bring the pad up to the desired height (after the topsoil was stripped). Referencing the drawing, we could see just how many inches of fill were needed, so we were able to discuss how that was going to happen (getting subsoil from the simultaneous work on the farm terrace). The drawing and other docs I had organized in a folder helped me answer questions promptly and with confidence, OK, a bit of confidence. Sort of like that first day at a new job, except that in this job I had no prior experience and I was starting as the boss.


All in all everything worked out pretty well. Over the course of a couple of days our three-ring circus began to resolve according to our site plan and foundation drawing.


P.S. I find I really like large earth-moving machines. I know my niece and nephew are fascinated with them, too. Maybe it’s something some people never really outgrow. A few months ago when the two young’uns came for a visit, we returned home from a morning outing to see that two houses down they were ripping up the driveway and repaving. The kids were so enthralled they didn’t want to come in for lunch. So I brought sandwiches out and we had a picnic lunch and ‘show’ out on the front lawn. I’m not sure what the construction guys thought of their peanut gallery, but we enjoyed it very much. Maybe the only thing more fun than watching the equipment would be getting to use it… but I guess that’s a project for a different day!


Massive machine scrapes subsoil from terrace, then drops and grades it at building pad.
Building pad taking shape, batter boards still standing (good).
Finished pad, ready for foundation trench.
Everyone loves to watch big machines, and with PB&J sandwiches, what could be better?

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 8/2/2010

Simultaneously with the farm terrace fix, we were putting in the rest of the driveway and the turnaround circle. We used the same construction method as the first half of the driveway completed last fall – with one exception. While several excavators bid a spec of removing six inches of topsoil for the driveway, we noticed that in the first half of the driveway work we had more like ten to twelve inches of topsoil, not six. We discussed this with a family member who builds roads for a living and he encouraged us to get all (or as much as possible) of the topsoil up before putting in the driveway. He admitted that for a gravel drive, and with our use of geotextile underneath, it was not as critical as a paved roadway… but to try to get as much up as we can. So I discussed this with the excavator and even included it in the agreement I wrote up. Basically, we agreed to pay for more stone if we needed to go deeper than six inches and we would decide based on site conditions. That way, he was covered on cost and we could control quality based on how much we wanted to spend and what the soil conditions really were – rather than just saying “take six inches off the top”.


We came prepared with our geotextile and plenty of stakes, having learned from our previous experience of laying this stuff down in heavy crosswinds. But on this day, our problem was no so much a crosswind and more a lack of any air movement whatsoever, as temps climbed to 95 degrees with 90% humidity. It was hot and heavy work lugging that geotextile roll about. And we had to work at a pace that kept ahead of the stone trucks. Also, laying the geo around our circle was harder than we had anticipated. The circle is sixty feet on the inner diameter and the gravel drive is twelve feet wide. Lots of walking back and forth, bending, cutting and staking the fabric. We started at about 9:00 a.m. to give the excavator time to clear topsoil and compact subsoil, and then we worked hard until 4:30 p.m. when the crew finished. They went home, we took a break and then worked for another few hours putting up silt fences, packing up the truck and general clean up. A long tiring day – and a finished driveway and turnaround.


Strip topsoil
Quality-control Check
Ready for geotextile
Start geotextile.
Large stones, compact, small stones & compact again.
Overview: looking SE to road
Overview: looking SW

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 7/31/2010

I had posted a while back about the problems with an existing farm terrace on our property. After considering our options over the winter, we decided to eliminate the terrace on our property by re-grading the farm field. In early spring, I asked the Conservation District out to our site to review our plan to keep it all on the up and up. After some discussion, they provided their blessings on our plan.


I also got an estimate from the excavator to include the farm-terrace work in our site work (driveway and building pad) and was pleasantly surprised at the reasonable cost. The excavator said that since the terrace had been man-made, it would be easy to fix (i.e. no rocks or ledge under it) and he would have heavy equipment at the site anyway – no problem. Great!


Some months later when the excavation actually got underway (a couple of weeks ago), I guess I had really no idea what was involved in fixing the terrace. They stripped 700’ long by about 50’ wide and at least 6” deep of topsoil, and put it in one hugely long and high pile. Then they re-graded the subsoil and finally replaced the topsoil so I could seed it. The topsoil pile was clearly evident from the main road. Heck, you could probably have seen it from space, like the Great Wall of China. John joked that we should tell the neighbors we were starting a strip-mining operation.


And then it rained. So there was delay to let the soil dry out enough for them to finish. So it dawned on me – duh... maybe I should have cleared this amount of site work through the zoning department too (not just the Conservation District). But honestly, I was thinking of this as agricultural work and not really part of the building project, per se. Well, too late now. I just hoped they would get it all done soon before any neighbors complained.


Unbeknownst to me, the building inspector was driving by the property the evening after that rainstorm and saw all that topsoil piled up. He thought, what are they doing… and where is all this topsoil coming from?! He even called up the zoning officer to ask if he knew what was going on… and of course he didn’t. Yikes. So the inspector drove onto the property to, well, inspect. And promptly got stuck in the mud of the excavated terrace. Double Yikes!


If you’re thinking this may all end badly with permits being withdrawn and fines being levied – it didn’t. A few days later when I met the inspector for the first time (here was there to check footings). He related the stuck-in-the-mud story to me and to his credit he was able to chuckle about it. I heartily apologized that I hadn’t notified him about the field work and explained what we were doing and why… and that I had had the Conservation District out to approve the plan before we started. Turns out our inspector has lived on a farm all his life in a neighboring county and completely understood and then we chatted about the Conservation District and other Ag-related things. He said he would call the zoning officer to let him know it was all OK. When I got home I also made a follow-up call to the zoning officer… just to make sure he knew what we were doing and to see if I needed to get any post-work permits… but he was cool with it. So it all worked out well in the end.


I’m currently reseeding the newly-graded non-terrace with oats. These will germinate quickly to prevent erosion and then die over the winter. We’ll frost-seed our permanent pasture in the very early spring and hopefully in a season or two it will be impossible to tell this work was ever done. Yippee!


Hubby for scale. That's a long, high topsoil pile.
Does it look like a massive strip mine? Yikes!
And from the other end of the terrace.
Nearly done. No more ditch (terrace), just a gentle grade down the slope.
Finishing up, moving topsoil back so I can seed it.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 7/30/2010

A few weeks back, it seemed as if progress was very slow working through contractor agreements, proof of insurance and quotes for materials. And then we started jockeying the schedules of the contractors with the excavator setting the start date and then me keeping the others informed for their planning purposes… and then all of a sudden, we were in the midst of a building project… and there was no time to rest, let alone to post anything. So for the next few posts I’ll be playing catch-up.


As the whirl of paperwork and phone tag played out with the contractors, a funny thing happened to the prairie grass on our property. It grew. And grew and grew. The building site the John and I had so carefully laid out in early April was now obscured by a twenty-plus inches of gorgeous green, waving in the breeze. It would obviously need to be hayed or mowed and we didn’t yet have a tractor at the property. However, our dairy farmer neighbor was very interested in the chance to get the hay and that worked out just great for us. He mowed and hayed it leaving us with a neat stubble of grass at the building site. Prior to his harvesting efforts, I pulled (once again!) all of our site-planning flags and stakes so they wouldn’t be accidentally baled. This meant John and I had to (one FINAL time!!) set up the site markers for the driveway and shop… in 95-degree heat. We started at 7:00 a.m. and finished by 1:00 p.m., so it wasn’t too bad.


The first part of the project was literally a three-ring circus – but in a good way. The excavator was going to
(1) re-grade a farm terrace,

(2) finish the driveway and circle turnaround and
(3) prepare the building pad for the shop

For the first few days there was so much site work being done that I think we must have stunned our neighbors in this rural community. But fortunately when things started to take shape and not look so torn up they could see we weren’t really building an international airport after all.


Lovely, productive grass... except when you're trying to do site layout and excavation.
Grass mowed and drying to be baled for hay.
Final time to lay out site markers for excavator... on newly-mowed stubble.
So after two wks. with no rain (a long time in these parts), we get rained out on the first day of work. Me and my geotextile, all rolled up and nowhere to go.
Overview of initial excavation.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 5/25/2010

Septic permit - done.

Next up – building permit. This requires three copies of the septic permit, building drawings, site plan, erosion-and-soil-control diagram, and the permit application. This sounds like a lot of stuff, but it was pretty straightforward and all of it, except the building drawings, were documents I created. We hadn’t picked out our contractors, yet so the zoning officer let me know I could just fill in TBD and “owner” in place of the general contractor. About 10 days later the zoning officer called to let me know the amount of the permit fee. I handed over a check and got the building permit and one copy of my paperwork back. Easy-breezy. After reading about some of the nightmares other owner-builders have experienced, I have to say that I’ve encounter nothing but helpful and very competent professionals in pursuit of our permits. And the permit fees have been under $1,000 for the septic and shop.


I’ve been getting quotes for the materials contractors - excavation, foundation, framer. The excavation, in addition to building site proper, includes finishing the rest of the driveway that we started last fall, and fixing a farm terrace. I got a good quote from the company that did the first half of the driveway and am leaning strongly toward using them again. I got foundation quotes on CMU, poured, and even DIY ICF. I want to insulate the foundation wall, and after totaling the costs of XPS rigid-foam insulation for the foundation, I got to thinking about ICF. But after seeing the minimum 15% uptick in price for an ICF (even a do-it-yourself ICF), I think we’ll be contracting for a regular ‘ol CMU plus 2” rigid-foam insulation that we do ourselves. The framers were more difficult to evaluate, because several of the recommended companies wanted to do the entire job. They were builders, in addition to framers, and wanted to be the GCs on the project. But after some looking and discussion I did find a small outfit that I think will work. He has done entire houses as a GC, but was still interested in doing our framing and siding. If his work is good, I hope I’ll be able to use him on the house next year. He came recommended by the truss company I plan to use, and we’ve had a few good conversations on the phone regarding his bid. I think over the course of the conversations he’s seen that while I’m not “in the trades”, I’m familiar with my project and working hard to make sure the details get done. He was very willing to give input on the results of my effort at sourcing for the lumber and roofing/siding and openly discussed his pricing and sources. I think we’ll be able to work together well... Fingers crossed.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 4/24/2010

I had flirted with the idea of getting the septic system permit last fall when we were working on the driveway.  I had met with the Sewage Enforcement Officer and got an explanation of the steps involved for getting a septic-system permit. I would need a deep probe test and if that was OK, then a perc test. I also got some helpful advice on planning the size of the system, which is determined by the number of bedrooms, not bathrooms as I had been thinking. We’re planning for three bedrooms, but will put in a septic system capable of handling five bedrooms. We plan to live here a long, long time and haven’t been a slave to the ‘resale’ issue in our design choices. And while we won’t likely need the five-bed septic system, I could easily see a young family with children wanting to expand the house someday. It’s not that much more upfront cost for the larger septic system and in these parts, if you think you’re ever going to need a bigger system it’s best to do it as part of initial construction. Expanding the system later is much more difficult (and sometimes impossible) in terms of permits, not to mention the additional construction cost and hassle.


So that was all decided last fall, but not implemented in terms of doing the actual test and getting the permit… which brings me to this post. I scheduled with the excavator and sewage enforcement office and got the holes dug and tested. Wrote a few checks. And in the end, yeah, a septic permit is in hand.


An interesting thing we noticed about the deep-hole probe was that there is one heck of a lot of topsoil on this property. It looks to be about 11 or 12 inches of topsoil. That brought back to mind our experience with putting in the driveway last fall. I had hired an excavator to take off 6” of the topsoil and then construct the driveway. John had noticed on that day that we didn’t see a change in the soil color during that excavation, so we know there was still some topsoil left there. And the bare soil seemed a bit spongy to us, even after initial compaction. But a six-inch excavation was the typical deal, as all of the contractors had quoted. Fortunately we went the extra step of installing geotextile below the large and then the smaller base of stones. The driveway seems rock solid even after this miserably cold and wet winter, so maybe the extra topsoil isn’t too much of a problem. But nonetheless, I will discuss this issue with the excavator as we schedule the remaining portion of the driveway up to the shop & house.


And on a lighter… ahem… I mean heavier note. Normal procedure is to fill in the deep-probe hole right after it is dug, because the sewage officer meets you on site for that. But in our case, due to it raining cats and dogs on the day the hole was dug, it wasn’t checked until a few days later. So now I’m filling the hole by hand. Well, with a shovel, by hand. And let me tell you, 7’ deep and 2’ wide is a lot ‘o' fillin'. Every time I’m out at the site, I do some shoveling. Fun stuff indeed.


Lots of topsoil.
That's the hole I'm now filling with a shovel. Well, at least it was dug with a machine. :-)

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 4/12/2010

We did the final layout of the site based on the Chief Architect version we had worked out. Since we didn't have survey equipment, I put a reference point in the center of our driveway circle and then drew dimensioned lines to the corners of each building (shop, house, future barn). I printed the center circle of the site plan at a very large scale on 8/5x11 paper and taped them together on a large sheet of cardboard. We packed up our cardboard reference drawing, a level, 300-ft tape measure, plenty of stakes and flags... and lunch. I mentioned previously that we had tried this several times and found problems in our site plan after it was laid out. So by now we've gotten pretty quick at doing this. And we finally got a site plan transferred to the property that we are actually happy with. So it was time to finalize the plans for the shop.


We are on a pause from using the architect who had started our house design so I selected a local designer to produce a set of farm-shop drawings that I could use to obtain a building permit. I provided our fairly detailed Chief Architect drawings and tried to make it as clear and efficient as possible for him to review it. It seemed pretty straightforward to me, so I was surprised to see that the drawings he created had over a dozen errors on them. Some of the errors were really stupid typos as if he didn’t even check his work. Originally, I was thinking if this guy worked out, maybe we would do the house drawings with him rather than go back to the architect. Guess what…


With drawings in hand, I set out to get some initial quotes; site prep, foundation/concrete work, roof trusses, framing, siding and roofing and garage doors. Things are still a bit murky in my mind as to how to pull it all off. But talking with each trade about the proposed work is an education in itself. If I pay attention, every conversation has something to teach about the sequence of the work, the typical (or not) way it is done and so forth. And with all this conversation and quoting, I think it is likely we’ll want to make some tweaks in the plans. Not to the layout so much, but to the construction details, based on input from the trades I’ve talked with thus far. Lots to learn!


Our site plan done in Chief Architect, printed at 1"-200' and simply taped onto the topo map. Works for us.
Site plan with 'layout lines' used used to transfer plan to property. We might be off by 10' one way or the other, but we got the relative distances and orientation set.
Commend central for site layout. We oriented the large-scale drawing taped to cardboard, the put a stake directly under the table. Measurements were made from the stake, using lines on the drawing to 'sight down'. Hard to explain - but this low-tech approach worked for rough building locations.
Lunch in the truck, admiring the layout of the shop.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 3/10/2010

We spent the better part of an afternoon looking at surplus windows for the shop. Since I had done plans and elevations for the shop, I had a good feel for the windows we wanted. Prior to setting out, I researched our target sizes at a big box store so we had that info as a reference to compare against the surplus pricing.

The first store appeared to have bulk selections of new white vinyl windows with the surplus store's name stuck on them. Most of the windows were for new construction with plenty of windows in each size. There was also a small section of replacement windows. In comparing their prices with a big box store, I didn't think the suspect quality was worth the few dollars in savings. Of course, I'm no window expert, so maybe the quality was okay... but to me they looked cheaply made. The second store had a random collection of windows of all sizes, shapes, colors and specs. Ninety percent were replacement windows and a few were new construction. There didn’t appear to be any organization to the way they were stored, and their published inventory list with window locations was useless. But the people in the store were pleasant and helpful and willingly helped load our truck, too.

It took a bit of looking, and some flexibility on the design, but we managed to get seven new-construction windows to meet our design requirements for $561. This may not be auction bargain pricing, but I think we had a decent savings. The two large windows are moderate quality, and the five smaller ones are better quality than I would have gotten if we bought new.

And to Michael and Jeff on this forum, thanks again for the input on new vs. replacement windows. We got lucky and found new-construction surplus windows. And aside from the easier installation, we thought the flanges on the windows offer some additional resistance to wind-driven rain.


South-East view: Two large windows for passive solar, awning shades them in summer; four small windows for daylighting shaded by roof overhang.
North: Lean-to shed shelters north side and adds storage. Square is future machine vent, not window.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 3/4/2010

It seems like the planning has been taking a long time, with a lot of looping back over the same issues, tweaking things, changing things up to see if it works out better. When I first started serious planning in Jan. 2009, I thought this would all be settled by March 2009 and we would break ground that summer. No way! We got far enough along in the planning to put in the first part of the driveway in the fall of 2009. And here it is, March 2010 and we’ve finally seem to have got it settled.


We have site plan, house plan and farm shop plan. All of these were done by yours truly in Chief Architect. We started the process of getting construction drawings from a professional, using our plans and elevations as a fairly detailed starting point. Overall, I feel really good about the house plan. Its been a long time coming, but I think it will suit our needs well. At 2,300 sq. ft. it’s bigger than I had originally wanted. But when I added in space for accessible, aging-in-place features and room for out of town family it just kept coming up to the 2,300 mark.


We’ve been planning a farm shop and we’ve decided to build this building first rather than start with the house. It will give us (me) construction site experience and then serve as a storage and launching pad to do the house. Of course Hubby is thrilled that the shop is going up first. In his mind, the shop with a bed in the corner is all that the property requires. But I’m pretty sure we’ll still need to build a house. ;-) We’ve finished the plans for the shop and just need to get construction drawings, which should be a quick thing to do as it is a pretty simple building.


And after several more attempts at computer designing and then actually laying it out on the site, I believe we have the site planning settled too. It took a lot longer than I thought it would, but in the end I’m actually glad we were forced to spend the extra time on site. For each iteration we would layout the buildings and connecting driveway and then actually drive it, and walk it and stand there and think how the wind was going to come through and would it be comfortable, and how would the daily chores work out and where were the views and on and on. The weather conditions were very different each time we happened to be there, and it was good to get a feel for the layout on a nice sunny day last Fall versus a brutally windy day in January. Over the several iterations we were able to make tweaks to the plan that I think will really improve the daily living on site.


Our goal is to break ground this spring… or summer...

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 12/17/2009

Our neighbor to the east bought his parcel shortly before we bought ours. Being a general contractor by profession he promptly put up his house, partially finished barn and fencing. However, he neglected to locate the property boundary - with the unfortunate result that a portion of the fencing seemed to cross the boundary. Since we weren’t using that land per se, and weren’t going to be building for a few years, we decided to take no immediate action. Within two years the neighbor’s property was listed for sale and about a year later he finally found a buyer; a nice Amish family.


Soon after moving in the new neighbor contacted us to ask if we knew where the property line was... since the fencing seemed ‘odd’. Apparently they wanted to plow a section of the western part of their property (which backs up to our eastern boundary) in order to get cover crops in this winter. Since time was short on his planting schedule, we all agreed that he should use his best judgment to plow and plant what he believed to be his land. In the meantime, we would schedule a survey for our property. If it turned out their cover crop of radishes was encroaching on our land, then he would still be able to plant a crop for the 2010 growing season so as to not lose the effort and cost of prepping that ground.


The autumn weather has been terribly rainy and it took a while for the survey crew to schedule us. I hired them to mark the boundaries with survey pins rather permanent concrete markers. But survey pins don’t last many years in farm fields before they’re forever lost or plowed out. Enter handy-hubby, who made a series of heavy metal stakes, three feet long, two inches in diameter and with a giant nut welded to the top.


When the survey company notified us that the job was done, we headed out the very next day to tackle the task. It was a cold and very windy day – but sledgehammer work has a way of warming you up! We pounded each stake into the ground leaving about a foot exposed, then piled rocks around it and topped it all of with a dab of fluorescent paint. We had just finished when I was surprised to see the survey crew coming up the driveway. It was a bit of a letdown when they told us that there had been an error in their pins and they needed to redo the entire job, essentially rotating the perimeter by a few degrees and thereby changing some of the pins by several feet. Bummer. The bad news was we would have to redo all our work. But the good news was we were only dealing with three foot long metal stakes and not with a building foundation!


When all was said and done, it turns out the neighbor’s fence erected by a previous owner and the newly placed cover crop both encroach on our land. This is something we’ll need to discuss with them and we feel confident that with all being reasonable people, we can work things out. I’m glad the boundaries are now known to all and well marked, as good fences really do make good neighbors.



Our metal stake in rock pile, surveyor's marker yet to be removed. Yellow line shows our east & north boundaries. Pink line shows misplaced neighbor fence and crop field.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 11/29/2009

I’m not a shopper – except for land of course. ;-) I guess I have interest in land/acreage the way some people have an interest in electronics or designer shoes. But my interest doesn’t carry through to appliances and such. So knowing that I have to source and buy everything for this project – well, a bit daunting. But nonetheless we got our O-B purchasing off to a good albeit unglamorous start with our first purchase; two 250 lb. rolls of geotextile fabric for the gravel driveway we've put in.


Prior to this project, I had never shopped or even visited Craig’s List or eBay – as I said, not a shopper. Now I check out Craig’s List all the time. I’ve seen a few things that would be useful – a nice laundry room tub, exterior steel door. But no purchases yet.


I went to a building supply auction run by Peak Auctioneering. Didn’t buy, but good learning experience. And it is interesting to hear how others on the O-B board have used auctions. Peak will be running two other auctions within driving distance in December and March, so I hope I can get my buyer’s hat on for those events. There is another auction near me that is a regular thing – once a month. It is different than the Peak Auctions in that this regular local auction seems to have more odds and ends – consignments from individuals who happen to have leftover stuff, and some stuff in pretty rough condition. But, if you’re willing to sift through and spend all day waiting for the item to come up, then I guess it could be worth it… If you’re the type that likes shopping, comparing prices and the thrill of the buy then I could see this being really fun. I’m not sure I’m that type – but I’m trying to at least cultivate an interest since buying smart is part-and-parcel of a successful O-B project.


I also regularly visit the websites of the building-supply-surplus places in my general area, such as Ironstone. I’m starting to see trends; new things that come in, go fast… the issues with finding a full set of windows all the same spec for a house, and so on. I got pretty excited over a recent find of a complete set of Andersen 400 Low-E windows for a house – I mean like 10 windows all one size and spec – very close in size to the 10 I need – and then various other windows in different sizes. The sizes were a bit larger than what our draft plan calls for, but would still be doable – actually a nice upgrade. And all for $4K. Wow! So I go to the Andersen site to check out the detailed specs on the windows and find they are “replacement” windows, not for new construction. Oh well. Keep looking.


And then there is the good ‘ol big-box store. I signed up for the sale circulars. But honestly, I’m starting from ground zero on what this stuff costs, what’s a decent deal vs. a real ‘steal’. I moved into my current house over 15 years ago with builder-grade appliances and have been using them happily ever since… so like I said – not a shopper.


So on this recent Black Friday I find I have a  new topic to explore, figure out and take action on. That’s the OB experience. It’s all good.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 11/8/2009

On the rescheduled day for our driveway install I arrived bright and early before the excavation crew and was shortly greeted by the rumble of a very big truck and trailer. The driver jumped out and hurriedly started unloading the bulldozer, calling out over the engine noise, “I guess the office didn’t contact you?” Gee, that’s not what I was hoping to hear. Turns out they were delayed on a previous job and wouldn’t be starting until afternoon. He was just dropping off the dozer for later today. OK – not a problem.

First Lesson: As per The O-B Book, confirm the start date with your sub(s) the month before, week before, and day before to avoid surprises at the site.


As per that morning’s chat with the contractor, they would start in the afternoon and I would check in at the end of the day. I drove the hour back to the property that afternoon to find they had rough graded the driveway. It was really exciting to actually see something being done on the property. I must have just missed the crew so I called the excavator to confirm the plans for the next day, including the time John and I should be ready to put down the geotextile fabric. Before I left for the evening I got to enjoy a nice view as the last of the day’s sun lit up the view to the east while dark storm clouds passed overhead. Beautiful.


The next morning a whole herd of heavy construction equipment showed up to finish the work. John and I weren’t needed for at least an hour so I stayed out of the wind in the truck cab while John stood out in the cold to watch all the activity. I guess that’s a guy thing.


We got a good price from the excavator on this job, but he didn’t want to handle putting down the geotextile, saying “My guys just hate dealing with that stuff.” So we agreed that we would handle the geo. We hope that the geo will help create a really stable base for a long lasting - and easier to maintain gravel driveway.

Unfortunately, it was a very windy day – not what we were hoping for to spread out 670 linear feet of geotextile fabric. At first the construction guys, while waiting for the first load of gravel to arrive, jumped in and helped out with the geo. It was really nice of them, but they were moving too fast and unrolling too much of the geo before I could secure it – so of course when the stiff wind running perpendicular to the driveway caught the geo – it was like some giant black snake 12.5 feet wide and some 60 feet long took life right then and there. I was a little concerned that this was going to go very badly indeed, but some hardy running back and forth, staking down, and indeed lying prostrate on the geo, while my good husband dumped buckets of rocks to keep it down, soon won the battle. After that, the first dump truck of ballast stone arrived so construction guys let John and I on our own with the geo … which I think was good for all concerned.

Second Lesson: If you’re laying geotextile, bring twice the number of stakes you think you’ll need. Carry a knife to puncture a small hole in the edge of the geo or it will be nearly impossible to pound in the stake. Do not unroll more than you can control and stake in – and in a stiff crosswind you may be limited to 10-foot sections (unroll, stake, move on). When you need to cut the geo to fit it around the bends, be very generous in your overlap sections because you’ll need it when 24-ton dump trucks roll on by.


So we were progressing along and had about a third of the geo staked in when John noticed that the driveway was getting narrower. We had contracted for a 12-foot-wide driveway but it appeared to narrow to 10 feet around the first bend. Bummer. I asked the excavator about it. He checked the width in several places and then we all chatted and agreed that he would use the skid loader to carve out another two feet where needed. But John and I had to bunch up and weight down the geo that had already been laid to get it out of the way. We were running pretty hard to get it done and not hold things up. But it all worked out. The driveway was widened, we put the geo back in place, and got on with the rest of the work.

Third Lesson: QC! QC! QC! I should have measured the roughed-in drive for quality control the night before. I was on the site alone and could have checked the work without offending the crew and then I would have had the opportunity to raise the issue with the boss before work began. I’m glad I got this little life lesson in OB-land for only the price of a little extra sweat.


John and I were able to get the rest of the geo laid out without holding up the crew. It was a production line with John and I laying geo up front, then dump trucks of large stone, then the skid loader smoothing it, then a giant vibrating roller compacting it, another load of smaller stones and fines, more skid loader and compacting… and 17 dump-truck loads later... Voila! – a driveway! There was a lot of equipment on site and it was interesting to see the skill of the cross-trained crew jumping from one piece of equipment to the next to keep the pace moving along.


All in all a good first experience on site. I enjoyed the effort, the challenge, working side-by-side with my hubby, and of course, having a driveway when we were done. It’s a real motivator to kick it into gear on the rest of the site planning, so we’ll be ready for construction on the house next year.


Just me, the man in the moon, and a silent dozer. A half-day delay.
View from the road, roughed-in driveway.
View from the end of the 670-ft. driveway section. Will do final section next year with house construction.
View from house site at the end of the first day.
Start of second day has a herd of construction equipment on site.
Won the battle over the wind, 1st section of geo staked in. Notice increasing overlap of geo onto grass of inside bend. Driveway was out of spec, too narrow at bend. Bummer.
Rolled back first section of geo to enable skid loader to carve out inside bend to meet 12-foot-wide spec. A lot of extra effort, but worth it to get it right.
Got it all down! Ran out of stakes and had to resort to weighting with stones. Lots of extra work, but we got it done. Always bring more than you think you need!
24-ton dump trucks create ruts, even in the compacted surface. Crew came back at the end to fix these up.
You could feel the ground vibration from this roller/vibrator from about 40 feet away. Wow.
We needed to be on hand to fix up geo after construction traffic. End of the line - for now. Next section to be done with house construction.
End product: Tired feet and gravel drive.
Just a bit of clean-up work and this job is done. Topsoil pile with silt fence at end of drive. Imagine the bend of the drive continuing around to the right and you'll get a feel for the building site on the knoll.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 10/30/2009

We’re on a rain delay for the driveway, which was supposed to go in yesterday and today. And we’re to get rain each day for the next several days – so we’ll have to wait. But there are always other things to do, such as dealing with the terrace failure problem. 


Our property was part of a larger farm that was subdivided into three parcels; 60 acre, 20 acre and our 30 acres. And back in the 1980’s a farm terrace system was implemented on this land. The terrace system is a series of ditches, underground drains and grassy waterways – that in 2009 now cross three property lines.  The ditches are a few feet deep and wide and run for hundreds of feet, to guide storm water to an underground drain system. I know it sounds really ugly – but if the ditches drain properly and can therefore support vegetation, they pretty much fade into the visual landscape of the acres of farmland. The drain transports storm water down the eastern slope to flow out onto a grassy waterway and eventually to a stream on a neighboring property. In 1980, the idea was to prevent storm water from carrying away topsoil.


This terrace-drain system has definitely seen better days. One drain on the neighbor’s property and about 50 feet from our property line has failed, likely many years ago. The failed drain creates standing storm water about two feet deep at the drain and backs up several hundred feet onto our property. The standing water kills the pasture grass we planted, invites invasive weeds and creates a mosquito problem in the warm weather. The tail end of this backed-up stormwater stretches into a shallow soggy area very near our planned building site. Bummer.


The easy thing would be to fix the failed drain – except it isn’t on our property and it won't be easy at all. At three feet down and likely filled with years worth of silt, rusty and sitting in a saturated area… well... it doesn't seem a DIY job with hand tools. I’m working on contacting the new owners of the other lot to see if we can work together on fixing the drain. Barring that, we’ll need to do something on our land to help drain the water. In the short term, John and I will try to siphon the storm water out of the ditch down to the next terrace where there is a working drain input. Hopefully we’ll be able to drain off enough to get a better look... or allow an excavator to look/work… or at least we’ll have some fun playing in the mud.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 10/26/2009

The house and site planning has certainly occupied center stage in our planning to date, but I have been trying to get a few other things going too. We don’t plan to start building the house until Spring of 2010, but we have a driveway scheduled to go in on Oct. 29th (yeah!) We’re still finalizing the site planning but I feel we’re good to go on the driveway. Its total length from the road to the house and outbuildings will be at least 900 ft., but we are putting in only 670 ft. next week. The remaining 200+ ft. won’t be put in until construction, to give us flexibility in finalizing building placement over the winter months.


Getting the driveway going provided me with a much needed round of practice in getting a permit and contacting, interviewing and selecting a contractor. I also had to prepare, deliver, and get the contractor's signature on the contract agreement and Stipulation Against Liens document (aka Stip). The doc prep took me a little bit of time, but should go faster next time. Getting the signature on the contract agreement was no problem. It reflected his proposal with some added items to be more clear on scope and expected quality - and didn’t have anything a self-respecting business person would have a problem with. But the Stip – well, that was a sticking point indeed. I knew it would be, as he had a negative opinion on signing one when I asked him about it during our initial discussion. After some discussion the doc was signed and I filed it at the courthouse the next day. Wasn’t sure how to do that, but in the end it only took about 45 seconds in the prothonotary’s office. I think we’re good to go on Oct. 29th.


When we planted our property for pasture grass, I remember watching the skies and hoping for rain. Now were ‘planting’ a driveway and I’m hoping for clear dry weather. Fickle girl!


I tried to show planned drive in blue.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 10/12/2009

Since my previous post I’ve continued to work on the floorplan in terms of refining it and trying to make sure it’s accounting for our needs. I also circled back to site planning again with the more finalized floor plan – along with the detached garage, the run-in sheds and storage building for animals and John’s 30x50 building. Yes, it grew from 30x40 to 30x50! Gee, how did that happen? A while back we got a measuring wheel on eBay and have been noting the distances between buildings for several weeks. We’re trying to develop a sense of the walking distances we wanted between buildings on the farmstead. This isn’t a topic where John and I always agree, so we’re working hard to try to get to a consensus site plan. Ha! Ha! – does that sound politically correct or what?


So finally last week we headed out to the property with our site plan in hand to stake the driveway and building. First, we staked the house on the knoll, then we used the relative site plan dimensions to approximate the locations of the other buildings and long driveway. Fluorescent-colored tape marked the actual building perimeters in the tall grass, and made it easier to take in the future farmstead. It was very informative to walk the distance between buildings and to actually travel the staked driveway and turnaround in the proposed gravel courtyard. It's funny how once it was staked out, we could see problems with the layout that weren’t so obvious on paper or even in the 3D program. This led to a bit of tension between John and I – as I think he just wants to move forward with the project. Enough planning already! I can see his point, on the other hand I’m really concerned (some might say obsessively so, but I prefer to think of it as 'very thorough') with getting this as good as we can. In my mind, we only get one chance to locate the buildings. Then we’ll be living with them for a long, long time to come. Anyway, by late afternoon we got it all staked out, made some improvements to the driveway and called it a (long) day.


Back at home with the site visit and staked buildings fresh in my mind’s eye, I tried to improve our site plan in Chief Architect. John and I reviewed my edits and agreed that I would I head out to the property again the next day while John was at work. Working alone was considerably slower but also allowed me time to think about the layout as it took shape. It was another gorgeous, windless day and I always love being there. Living there is going to be so wonderful!


I was nearly finished as the sun was setting when a swarm of mosquitoes decided I would make a nice steak dinner. I remember reading on Tanglewood’s blog (on this site) something about don’t stand downhill when you’re stacking logs… well, here’s another gem fer ‘ya: When you’re pounding in stakes with your Grandpa’s old hammer and find yourself in the main course for cloud of bird-sized mosquitoes, put down the hammer before you start flailing your arms about your head and neck. Ouch!

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 8/30/2009

I don’t have any kids. My sister has two, and the second one brought into the world via natural childbirth. She’ll probably want to kick me for this – but honestly Sis... your labor was what? 16 hours? 20 maybe? Whereas I’ve spent day and night, night and day, every waking moment and most sleeping time too, sweating and working and gnashing my teeth over this floorplan. And finally, after six weeks, a floorplan is born.

What a relief!


The Chief Architect program I mentioned in the previous post has been invaluable in getting this done. We’ve wound up with a simple two-story rectangular house with a gable roof – can’t get more basic than that. :-) On the west gable end is a smaller single-story rectangle-gable-roofed space. The long axis of the house will be oriented toward solar south with plenty of windows on the south side. The single-story space (on the west) contains the mud rm/farm laundry/storage area, John’s office and a full bath. The (main) downstairs area has a small guest room (with private access to the full bath), and the kitchen/dining/living areas in an open plan. Upstairs is a small laundry, full bathroom, our bedroom and two generously-sized closets, my office area, and a spare bedroom. Currently the garage is detached and situated to the northwest of the house, making it a short trek to the mud-room door at the west end of the house. The overall style of the house is a simple 1900’s farm house. Clean lines, front porch, clapboard style siding, metal roof. Overall pretty straightforward when you think about. How did it ever take so long to get it laid out?


I think a lot of the time had to do with matching the flow of rooms in the house to our daily pattern of life, and to the views and sunlight we wanted in the space. Placing the windows for views/sunlight and still maintaining the exterior look of a traditional farmhouse was quite a challenge. Another time-consuming thing was trying to get the house done within the square-foot target of under 2,000 sq. ft. The first ‘final’ version was around 1,750 sq. ft (not including decks/porches). I put it out to a few family members for comments and then made some edits a few tweaks… and the new ‘final’ version is up to 2,300 sq. ft. Bummer. Despite the uptick in size, I’m pretty happy with the floorplan and elevations. I’ve put the updated version out again to a small circle of reviewers and we’ll see what happens next. I may decide to trim the size a bit.


I may have a floorplan, elevations and 3D views I like, but I’m still a long way off a set of construction drawings required for permitting and actual construction. I don’t plan to do those drawings as I don’t have a construction background. When I feel I’ve got a final-FINAL floorplan we’re happy with, then I plan to get professional help to make sure the plan is buildable, meets code and to have a set of useful construction drawings made. I’m still investigating how best to do that phase of the design.


Overall, it feels great to have the basic floorplan done though. Happy camper here!

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 7/29/2009

After the disappointing first round with the architect, I took some time to think it over and see if I could come up with a design myself. I know… this is my second time around as I started out a few months back trying options before turning it over to the architect. Well, if at first you don’t succeed…


When I tried a few months ago, I was attempting to use a home design program from Punch. I’m reasonably computer literate, but I found the program pretty doggone difficult, to the point that it became a hindrance. So I decided to just do it on paper. That worked well enough I suppose, but was slow, difficult to generate options, and impossible to view in 3D without time-consuming models. And so on. Enter the architect, and you know how that’s gone so far.


So I recently downloaded a free trial of another design program to give this second try. It is Chief Architect v. 9.0. After about 6 hours with the download, I was pretty sure this was a program I could work with in a productive manner and get at least a floor plan together. I bought the program and have been working with it for about 80 hours and I believe it’s going better than I had anticipated.


I spent about 30 hours sort of ramping up on the program. That sounds like a lot, and in truth, in just a few hours with very user-friendly ‘space planning’ tools and the click of a ‘build house’ button you can get to a custom floorplan. Building roof structures, staircases and such takes a bit longer, but still is surprisingly easy. I practiced with a simple rectangular gable-roofed house. After that initial ramp-up, I spent another 30 hours or so exploring two different floor plan options we were considering. I carried those designs through to a stage to include windows, furniture placement, windows and a generic roof. We were able to study these in various types of 3D renderings (i.e. doll house, glass house and walkthrough). And then in the past 20 hours or so, I turned my attention to site planning for the house and the two planned outbuildings. John and I were able to look at a several brainstormed ideas on the site plan and discuss the pros and cons of each. This was a very useful exercise. We both seemed to narrow in on one site plan as the best option. Now I’m trying to refine the previous house floorplans into the site plan – and refine issues related to views, prevailing winds, daily traffic (car, truck and people) to and from other buildings.


I’m not certain where this will lead in terms of working again (or not) with our architect. It may be we take our fairly refined floorplan and site plan and ask him to produce construction drawings for us. Or, if we go with a non-framed building envelope (i.e. looking into composite block such as Durisol or Faswall), then perhaps we don’t need the framing construction drawings and can work with a lumber/truss supplier on the roof since the walls would be block. I’m not sure on that yet, and initial prices on Durisol took me back a bit… but that’s a story for another post.


For now, floorplan and site planning continues and progress (albeit slow) is being made. :-)

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