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By Andrew in Glen Carbon, IL on 3/23/2010


A little help here on the basement. How should I go about getting bids for this? Should I buy concrete and just ask for bids on basement walls, etc.? Or did most of you go with a turnkey basement solution? Also, what type of price difference should I expect between 8- to 9- to 10-foot pour?

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Andy


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 3/24/2010


Andy,

Welcome to the forum. I think you will find the answer to your questions is, "it depends." A couple of calls to contractors in your area will answer these questions.

Around here, basement contractors tend to be turnkey solutions. You call a basement contractor, they bring formwork and concrete pump, and order from the readymix plant. Sometimes they bring their own insulation, sometimes they bring waterproofing options; but these are not necessarily hard and fast. You do need to make sure they know where to install your tie-downs or j-bolts for your house, as well as brick ledge if you need it.

While they do not bring excavators, I would ask if they have excavators they like to work with. They appreciate a level excavation, and they might be able to guide you to good excavators that make their job easier; alternatively, they might suggest avoiding other excavators. If they know who your excavator is, they may have a bit less frustration factor in their bids (or a bit more).

I would recommend going with big footers. Labor is fixed here; the only change is material cost. Big footers are cheap insurance. As this is something completely invisible to the end consumer on mass-produced houses, I find that many GCs tend to skimp on this critical piece of the house. I would also load these with steel; again cheap insurance.

While very uncommon, I really like a moisture break under the footer that ties into the vapor barrier used under your basement slab and ties into your exterior waterproofing membrane, this provides no path for moisture to migrate in the concrete foundation wall. Concrete is porous, and capillary forces allow it to wick water from any moisture source. You waterproof the outside, you put vapor barrier under the basement slab, but unless you address moisture barrier under your footer you can still have your basement walls wick water. I didn't use bag forms myself (Fab-Form), but these look to be an easy solution here.


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By Mary in PA on 3/24/2010


Hi, Andy.

Glad you asked this, as I'm sort of in the same stage of planning. Ken, great info as always.

I recently read about the under-footing vapor barrier. I was thinking that it doesn't look too hard or costly to do and it would improve quality. But I know it is never done as part of standard building around here - I've never even heard anyone mention it. In the few calls I've made so far, I find that some contractors don't even insulate under the slab, much less attend to issues under the footer. Did you find push-back on these types of issues?

Do you think a willing owner-builder could step in and do these items for the contractor without messing too much with the build sequence and timing? For example, an item I'm not sure of is who puts down the stone - the excavator or concrete guys? If the excavator does rough stone and then the concrete guys finish leveling it, then they'll want to start work and I won't have time to get my stuff down before they place concrete. Do you see what I mean?

Thanks,

Mary


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 3/24/2010


Please read the Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Insulation Fact Sheet - there is also a link to a Basement Insulation Technology Fact Sheet (a PDF file) that is also informative.

As to underslab insulation, I am up in the air on this. I didn't install it, but since I used ICF, I effectively insulated the walls below grade on the exterior (as recommended by DOE). ICF also insulates the interior walls, and my slab doesn't have direct connection to the concrete basement walls. My basement is barefoot-warm in wintertime, so no issues. My previous house had concrete basement, concrete slabs, and that was wool-socks-and-boots cold regardless of air temperature or thermostat setting. As a compromise, I might just insulate one width of panel around the perimeter. Now then I didn't exactly risk too much here, as my ICF subcontractor didn't have underslab insulation on his house. Being as he is in the same climate, I had a pilot project to follow. In fact, it was he who recommended I could save money by avoiding unnecessary underslab insulation.

As to who brings stone, you need to look at the sequence. I assume you mean underslab stone. You need to have your plumber in there to do underslab plumbing installation before the concrete slab gets poured. Your plumber needs to have the stone to set the slope properly on the underslab drain, waste, and vent system. Hence stone goes in, plumber comes in, inspector comes in, (plumbing inspection), stone cover for plumbing goes in, flatwork concrete comes in, and they put in vapor barrier and rebar, and then the concrete readymix truck shows up. GC brings in the stone; it gets placed before the flatworkers show up.

Now there are always exceptions. For my build, I brought in a big pile of stone. The plumber identified where he needed stone, he brought in labor to place enough stone to satisfy the plumber (he built this into his bid, no surprises here; communication is critical). After the plumbing inspection, I brought in a Telebelt with the flatwork crew, between a Bobcat and the Telebelt, we placed the remaining stone in short order. As the stone was being placed, it needed minimal level (that Telebelt gets it exactly where you want it - depending on the operator, of course), vapor barrier went on, reinforcing went in, and then readymix trucks showed up and we used the Telebelt to place the concrete for the slab. However specialized machines like Telebelts cost money, like big money, like more money than concrete pumps. Considering that it placed that big pile of rock as fast as the skid loader could load it onto the Telebelt, and then considering that concrete readymix trucks could turn around quick, sometimes you have to spend money to save money ;-). And big fun machines like this make great pictures that most don't have.

As to getting local subcontractors to adopt new work practices, I considered it education. It was my job (as GC) to educate my subs on better ways to do their jobs. It truly gave me some credibility with the subs that I understood their jobs. And given a competitive environment, I figured that their education was something they could incorporate into future build jobs. And as many of these "better" techniques also include cost-saving techniques, hey that extra competitive edge that they just learned about seemed to be well received. And I know for a fact that many of them have used this competitive edge on future jobs, so it really was win-win.


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By Mary in PA on 3/27/2010


Kenneth, I read your post shortly after you made it but didn't post sooner because I was just thinking through some stuff. I wanted to come to some conclusions and post them here - but I don't have any yet. It seems to me that you have a good bit of construction experience. That isn't the case for me. I think my lack of experience wouldn't be an issue if I just went with whatever the contractor wanted to do (builder-grade option, meet minimum code) and was done with it. Or if I want to improve quality (e.g. insulation levels) then I could make the jump to an entire building system like ICF. But if I try tweaking typical building practices (e.g. add underslab insulation) the contractors just don't seem to offer them as part of their service. And if I push the issue, I'm pretty sure it will show up in the quote as a PITA owner-builder surcharge.

Thanks for the links - they provide a lot of good info and great diagrams.


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 3/28/2010


You are correct, I have had a bit of construction experience. However, my residential construction experience was limited to volunteering for Habitat for Humanity (I picked up a subcontractor or two from this source). Every one of my subs knew I was in the construction industry somewhere, yet none of them could identify where. Some of this comes simply from using the jargon.

I did have two residential subcontractors I used as mentors. I wasn't competing with them, therefore they were willing to help. And they added credibility if/when they referred subcontractors to me. It was also nice to discuss techniques with them, subcontractors, even borrow tools. Now then, this is why I also didn't hesitate to bring in big tools (Telebelt, concrete pump, boomer) that you rarely see on residential projects (granted ICF requires the concrete pump, but large-scale equipment certainly wasn't absent).

I have encouraged many O-Bs to volunteer for Habitat or other residential construction charities (Habitat not being my favorite, but there is probably a chapter near almost everyone). You will learn a tremendous amount, in a controlled environment, on a small scale. And don't be the person pushing the broom, be the person asking questions, talking to the trades, and absorbing everything they have to share (and hey, they need manual labor too).


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 3/29/2010


As I reflect on this situation, you are falling into a trap a lot of O-Bs fall into. Here is a lesson for all potential O-Bs; as the project manager you need to know your limitations and hire expertise to fill the gaps. If you are not a        fill in the blank here (framer, HVAC tech, electrician, plumber, etc.)   , you hire this expertise. So if you are not an expert in building trades, why do you not hire this expertise? There are a bunch of little pieces that get put together; you better know they are put together properly. Also given the complexity, this means there are a bunch of things that can go wrong, and a bunch of unscrupulous subcontractors that are willing to take advantage of your inexperience. However, as a first time O-B, you are under no obligation to not have this expertise on your project team.

 

So where might I look for expertise related to building trades?

 

1)     Can you learn this? Either by experience, classes, or by reading books. I wanted to build ICF; there isn’t a whole lot of ICF builds going on locally. I took the training class, as offered by the distributor. Great, one day of training makes me a certified installer. OK, I read the manual cover-to-cover many times. And then I volunteered on another O-B’s ICF house (who doesn’t relish the opportunity for free labor?). It was only based on these three things that I felt comfortable going down the path of ICF, and I hired an ICF subcontractor (this didn’t make me experienced enough to pour my own house, this only made me experienced enough to properly qualify and hire a subcontractor).

 

2)     Can you hire someone that has this expertise? Clearly yes, but where do you look? I might suggest one of the following:

 

a.      If you finance, the bank will have an independent inspector review the project periodically to make sure they are getting commensurate value for their investment and that you are managing the project sufficiently. While these inspections are somewhat cursory, the person doing the inspections is experienced in building trades. Perhaps you can hire this person as a consultant, although there may be conflict of interest issues related to their providing services to the bank, so maybe not.

b.      What about a retired GC? I have met two types here; those that this is what they do, and those that this is who they are. You obviously want to avoid the former, because what they do is pinch every dime out of a build to maximize profit. The latter, they are proud of their name/brand, this is who they are and they built quality. But this trade takes its toll on a person physically, so they retire.

c.       Don’t overlook the insurance industry. I don’t mean a retired medical insurance coder here, or even your friendly agent. But who does your agent call when property claims need to be made? You want someone who has done property and casualty claims. These guys know building sciences, and more importantly they know proper techniques that should be incorporated. Personally I would put these at the top of the list of who I might look for to fill this gap.

d.      House inspectors. You wouldn’t buy real estate without an independent inspection, and they frequently have to make assumptions about things they cannot see. So why not use them periodically to make sure the quality is built in before the sheetrock goes up? Now then, there really isn’t a formal certification process here, so you certainly want to screen these before you start calling out of the Yellow Pages.

e.      If you have an architect or designer, perhaps they have a service. Now you don’t want your architect out there pulling a slump cone from the concrete truck simply because that is a lot of hourly rate to pay for this. I wouldn’t necessarily limit this to architects, but engineers as well.  Again, these professions like to stay attached to their trades, so even if retired they are frequently willing to provide some part-time services. My architect was retired and worked out of his house (low overhead).

f.       Retired code inspector. So why not rely on the minimum code inspections then? Good question. Code inspections are based on a number of things, and statistical analysis is one of them. A code inspector may hit a couple of spot items, and if you did them correctly then the assumption is you did everything correctly. They have targets and metrics, and performing a thorough inspection may not be what their employer is paying them for. Your municipality may be more about quantity of inspections; taking a back seat to quality or thoroughness of inspections. Also they are looking for minimum code compliance and frequently focus on issues of life safety, not good construction.

 

I offer this as a caution; subcontractors don’t like to work jobs with engineering or architect oversight (and I assume anyone they would view as nitpicky experts, but they claim engineers are the worst), and they will raise their bids to deal with this headache. Best to keep these inspections to off-hours when the trades might not be present. They need to hear from you, you are the project manager. However, they don’t need to see everyone on your construction team either.

 

I offer an example of why you need this expertise. One day I left my ICF subcontractor with three pages of punch list of things that had to be done prior to calling for an inspection (these were all either code violations or quality variances that I wanted corrected. As an O-B, when the inspector comes on-site I want it to LOOK GOOD to establish my credibility). My sub called me about noon, said the inspector had come over and signed off and they were ready to bring concrete tomorrow. I said, “Wow, you really finished that punch list quickly, I didn’t anticipate this getting done and the inspector coming out for a couple of days.” He responded that no, they hadn’t done the punch list, but since it passed inspection it was good enough. I explained that he worked for me, not the building inspector, and that punch list was mine. I further explained that we would go over it item-by-item before the concrete pump shows up, just to make sure it is all done. Concrete didn’t get there until next week, but you can bet that every window/door, etc. had properly-tied rebar, every penetration in the concrete was there (actually I missed a couple), and that I knew exactly what was behind that wall and was satisfied that the quality was top-notch. Let's just say that next time I left a punch list of items, there wasn’t a lot of question of what might be optional.


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By Mary in PA on 3/30/2010


Kenneth, good thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to organize and post these helpful ideas, as I plan to make use of them. I take note of your cautions, but I honestly don't feel like I'm falling into a trap of believing that I have to be an expert in the building trades as part of O-B'ing our home. I will admit though, to being keenly interested in all aspects of design and construction, and perhaps my interest and questions on this forum had led you to your conclusion. Design, construction, process control, etc. are areas of personal interest for me that reach far back before this project -  and I am really enjoying learning so much as I stumble through the first stages of O-B'ing our farm shop.

 

But despite the impression I may have given in a previous post(s), I am in complete agreement with you that a project manager should seek out and hire expertise to settle design/construction issues and certainly to do the bulk of the actual work. I have a few more thoughts on the issue, but I think I'll let them cook a bit to see if they're worth posting. Anyway, I've probably hijacked Andy's thread for quite long enough!

 

Once again, thanks for the benefit of your experience.


Mary


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 3/30/2010


Mary,

My comments were not directed to any one person, but to O-Bs in general. We have no problems hiring carpenters, electricians, etc. and we make the assumption that they will do good work. However, O-Bs in general don't hire independent inspectors for the important quality-assurance function. A lot of the drive behind O-Bs is to save money, and it's really hard for us to justify to ourselves that spending money on inspections/expertise can really save money overall. And while all of these trades talk code compliance, I found none of them actually had a code book in their trucks. My code inspector didn't have a code book in his truck either, and there were several times he told me things were not to code that once researched he agreed that my interpretation was accurate. Also code minimum is not what I necessarily consider the hallmark of "quality."

And yes, we have certainly migrated this topic far beyond the OP's question. Even though I am a moderator and Mark likes these to stay on track, I am probably one of the worst offenders ;-).


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By Jeff in Hartland, WI on 3/30/2010


A lot of great info in this thread. I'll add some comments on my own experience. Generally the foundation is one of the first things done--first comes the survey, then the topsoil is scraped, and the hole is dug by the excavator, and then the foundation goes in. It's really important to get it right: it's the foundation of the house. But if this is your first owner-builder project, how can you be sure that you're getting it right? My approach was to pick the best subs I could afford, and trust them. But before any sub started working, I did as much research as I could on that particular trade. I read multiple books on concrete, and read everything I could find online. I talked with local builders. I got bids from multiple foundation subs. But in the end, my foundation guy was the expert. So I relied on his expertise. And I'm glad I did.


So how did I find the foundation subs? I looked at the list of contractors used by local residential builders--usually, they list their subs in their marketing material, so it was pretty easy. In this area, there are three tiers of foundation contractors: the best (and there is only one), the good (the list expanded to two), and the rest. The best was about 10% more expensive than the good, and the good were about 5% more expensive than the rest. If I chose on low bid only, I probably would have regretted it. But I also didn't want to blow the budget. So I chose one of the good guys. How did I make the final selection? Easy, I asked the guys who followed him in the project: the framers. I figured if the framers were happy with a foundation, the contractor did a pretty good job. It turned out to be a good choice. 

Foundations are handled in this area by subs who specialize in foundations. They set and pour the footings, they provide and erect the forms, they pour the walls, they insulate and waterproof the walls. I even had them pour the basement, garage, workshop, and porch slabs. They also offered to put in our sewer laterals (the sewer and water supply), but the excavator did it cheaper. Foundation overall turned out to be about 10% of my budget. 

If you're convinced that a vapor barrier under the footing makes sense, by all means, insist on it. But talk to your subs, and preferably ask for it in the specs you put out for bidding. Same for under-slab insulation. In this area, code requires 1" of foam insulation on the walls, but nothing underneath the slab.  I thought about using 2" on the walls, but the framer told me that if I did, I'd have to have the plans redrawn, lumber bids and framing plans modified, etc. So I stuck with 1" because I didn't want to wait for the plan modifications. Had I told my designer up front, it wouldn't have been an issue. I asked my foundation guy to install 1" foam beneath the slab. He was too expensive. So I bought the panels at Home Depot and laid them down myself. 

The cost of going with 9-foot walls was basically the cost of the extra concrete. I had them install 10-foot walls in my workshop, so they had to increase the thickness of those 10-foot walls from 10 inches to 12 inches. So it was that much more expensive than the rest of the basement. But it was a good decision for me. Your mileage may vary. 

One thing to keep in mind is that you'll need to get any underground plumbing done between the time the walls are poured and the time the slab is poured. A good foundation sub will guide you through the process. 

Good luck with your build!

Jeff

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By Mary in PA on 3/31/2010


On the topic of sub-to-sub referrals: I was talking to a truss guy about a quote and he got the picture pretty quick. I’m an O-B, working hard, on the learning curve, but basically clueless. He volunteered the names of three local framers he recommended – with a stern warning to stay away from these fly-by-night framing outfits that think a chainsaw is a valid tool on site. Since he’ll be working with the framers to set the trusses, I can see he has a vested interest. It’s a win-win for us both to have a good framer. I’ve already talked to one of his recommendations, but have the other two on my list for today. I will definitely ask them who they recommend for concrete work, as you suggested, Jeff. A great and timely tip for my project – thanks!


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