Construction week 49: 2 weeks until occupancy

In order for us to move in, we need to obtain an occupancy permit from the city. This does not mean our house will be complete, but means it has all the necessary mod cons for us to occupy it safely. We’re prioritizing tasks that will get us to occupancy. We will have toilets, for instance, but no Interior doors. 

Here's the roundup from week 49.

Deck
The deck platform and stairs are finished, with the exception of the final stairs to ground level. We need our final grading to be completed first, which should bring our number of stairs down to 2 instead of 4. We also need some railings. These will most likely be temporary railings, to get us to occupancy.

Looking down from the roof deck

Looking down from the roof deck

Railings still to come

Railings still to come

ottawa-canada-architect-passive-house

Tile
Benjamin was at the house and finished laying the tile in our bathroom. It was a lot of tile, extending all the way to the ceiling (which will get the special wood-treatment soon). It’s quite dramatic.

In progress

In progress

Countertops
Our island counter was installed. And quickly covered as to not incur damage. We chose Caesarstone because it's zero-maintenance.

Caesarstone in Concrete colour option

Caesarstone in Concrete colour option

Electrical
We have lights! Now there’s no excuse for us not to work late. Most of our fixtures are in. Minus a few feature lights. Thank you Yves, and sorry for choosing pot lights that tore up your hands during the install :(

The best tip we received for lighting was to consider what you want to light. With stairs, for example, it's important that the stairs are lit, so you can see where to put your foot, and not the entire stair well. And with general room lighting, it's the walls that need defining, so direct your lights towards the walls and not the middle of the room.

Stairs are beautifully lit

Stairs are beautifully lit

Look Ma, no pendants!

Look Ma, no pendants!

Plumbing
We have a toilet in the house! This is majorly exciting for me. I don’t have to use the porta-pottie when I’m working on site anymore! And we can finally get that thing removed. The remaining fixtures will be installed this week.

This little throne I call my own, I aim to keep it neat. So darn your soul, pee down the hole, and not upon the seat. ~ classic outhouse quotes

This little throne I call my own, I aim to keep it neat. So darn your soul, pee down the hole, and not upon the seat. ~ classic outhouse quotes

Vanities
Mark assembled and mounted our bathroom vanities. We opted for Ikea vanities. We went through multiple explorations, trying to find an alternative, but just couldn’t stomach the associated costs. We almost pulled the trigger on a custom bent metal vanity that we designed, but in the end, it left us with too many unknowns (and no drawers). In our bathroom, we have an Ikea base that we’re pairing with a Caesarstone counter and Toto vessel sink. It will be partially custom, in this case. It will look great, but I really wish that Ikea made a 1 drawer depth vanity. I prefer the proportions, but am sure the extra drawer will be put to good use.

Ceiling
Mark and I had this crazy idea that our sloped ceiling would look fantastic if it were clad in wood. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And I’m sure it will become a good idea again, after all is said-and-done. But now? It’s a lot of effort. 

The order of things is a follows:

Step 1: lay plywood
Step 2: level and strap ceiling
Step 3: paint everything black
Step 4: install lighting tracks
Step 5: oil and stain ash planks
Step 6: mount ash on strapping
Step 7: admire hardwork 

Graham and Sebastian helped to progress the ceiling over the weekend. Finishing off the strapping in our bedroom and bathroom. They moved on to the main space, over the void, and set up what they nicknamed ‘the death trap’ – a precarious platform to help them reach across the 2-story open space (aka. void) that exists in the middle of the house. It isn’t actually as precarious as the name makes it sound. The hope is that they finish the strapping tomorrow, leaving the death trap setup for Mark or I to paint everything black. Yay. 

It really will look fantastic…

Inspiration photo — our ceiling should look something like it

Inspiration photo — our ceiling should look something like it

I see a ceiling and I want it painted black

I see a ceiling and I want it painted black

The so-called 'death trap' or 'widow-maker' spanning the void 20' up

The so-called 'death trap' or 'widow-maker' spanning the void 20' up

Landscaping
We’re working on a landscape plan with Rebecca James, an architectural technologist with a horticulture degree. Landscape design doesn’t pay the bills, so she does it on the side of her regular 9-5. Because she loves it. My kind of girl. We’re happy with what’s she’s shown us so far. 100% we won’t have landscaping for occupancy, nor this year for that matter, but we want to set up the design now, so we know what we’re working towards in the future. I wish it could all happen RIGHT NOW!!!!

Project management
On the project management side of things, we’re hoping to finish electrical and plumbing this upcoming week so we can go for our next construction mortgage withdraw. In the meantime, we’re racking up lots of travel points on our credit cards. One of these days we’ll want to leave Ottawa and our new house, so those points will come in handy. One of these days...

Our heads are down and we're ticking tasks off our lists faster than new ones are getting added. It's looking promising *knock on wood* for us to make the occupancy call on Aug. 23rd. My mom is visiting from Vancouver this week and has taken our kids to a cottage. I got to spend the whole weekend working on site, And will have my evenings to contribute this upcoming week too. Miss the kids like crazy, but won’t have much time to do so. Lots of site tidy-up and painting on my plate. And getting ready to move. Hopefully for the last time.

Construction weeks 47 and 48: sprint to the finish

We’re in the midst of the push-for-occupancy phase, which I mentioned in my previous post. There are many moving parts that need to come together. Our biggest challenge has been staying on top of things and ensuring that the things that need doing, get done. Which is why I’ve been MIA on the blog. There’s a ton to catch up on.

But first, we had a rooftop picnic with the girls tonight (on our newly finished rooftop deck!). When we arrived back at our just-ok rental house a few blocks away, Josie started crying. She said “I no want this house”. Ha! I guess we’re all getting a wee bit anxious.

Stairs and screen wall

Stair brackets installed against screen

Stair brackets installed against screen

It glows

It glows

Climbing plants to be installed at a later date :)

Climbing plants to be installed at a later date :)

Our stairs are designed to float between the wall and a 2 storey metal screen wall. So before the stairs themselves can go in we had to install the screen wall and metal bridge. Mark tackled this over a couple of weekends with some great help — huge thanks to Rob Villeneuve, Steve Dufresne, Mike Davis, Graham Dorey, Nick, and Gary Sharp (again! Gary, we owe you so much for all your help on our home). The metal screens support the bridge and the stair treads, and the bridge and stair treads stabilize the screen. Mark installed temporary treads so that the stairs are usable until the finished treads can be installed.

Kitchen install

Island – facing the living space

Island – facing the living space

View of the pantry wall (with our fridge in the way)

View of the pantry wall (with our fridge in the way)

We have a kitchen! And it’s gorgeous. Ordered our kitchen from Astro and had Kosta do the install. He was a pro. Took him 3 days. We have a combo of a white, glossy laminate for the functional kitchen drawers and a brown ash, sandblasted finish, on the doors facing the living space. For more on our kitchen design and layout, read this post.

Our counters will be installed next week. We decided on Caesarstone, in a dark cement finish. The counter is from Solid Decorum. And we have some beautiful ash butcher block from the Wood Source for the sill-come-counter under the window.

Tiles

Living room tiles (pre-grout)

Living room tiles (pre-grout)

Bathroom floor tile (pre-grout)

Bathroom floor tile (pre-grout)

The majority of our floor tiles have been laid. With the remaining to be completed and grouted over the weekend. We have quite a bit of tile in our house. In our bottom floor entry, and our main floor living space, we went with a dark, larger-format tile, arranged in a staggered pattern Mark designed. We’re really happy with them. In our upstairs bathrooms, we opted for a 1” x 3” black tile on the floor, which conveniently hide our linear drain in the master bath. And a larger format white subway tile on the walls. We’ve got a lot of wall tile in our master bath because of our sloping ceilings. Really look forward to seeing it go up – next week.

We’ve also been very happy with our choice in tile contractors. Flowtopp. Highly, highly recommend them. Tiles was sourced from Ceragres. We used Gate on the main floors (in Licorice), Unit on the bathroom floors (black), and I forget for the bathroom walls…

By the way, we aren’t concerned in the slightest that we’ll have cold toes on ceramic tile. We won’t have any thermal bridging thanks to Passive House. We also have a lovely area rug we purchased on our Moroccan honeymoon (years ago now, wow) for the living room, to soften up all the hard surfaces.

Priming and painting

Looking down the void our bright white walls

Looking down the void our bright white walls

The house has been primed and painted. Quelle difference. It’s starting to feel like a finished house. We went with Benjamin Moore, Chantilly Lace, in a flat finish (aka. white). We understand that an eggshell finish cleans more easily, but wanted to make sure that when light washes against our walls, they’ll look smooth and dreamy. Flat does a better job at hiding blemishes. We enlisted the services of Michael Fenton, who helped us paint our last house as well. This man knows his paint.

ERV and heater install

Mission control

Mission control

The hair dryer heater 

The hair dryer heater 

Mark is nearly finished installing the Zehnder ERV and ground source heat exchanger. The units are hung in place and most of the ductwork is connected. Our 4kW Thermolec duct heater is also in place. This is the heater for the whole house! It’s small enough for our 3 year old daughter to hold on her lap while she eats ice cream. Nathan from Ackland Plumbing will be priming our ground loop and connecting it this coming week. 

Hot water tank install
Nathan from Ackland Plumbing also installed our Stiebel Eltron heat pump hot water tank. It’s an 80 gallon tank that uses an air source heat pump to heat the water (meaning super energy efficient). It looks cool too.

Siding
Our siding is finished and looks fantastic. Thanks to Graham Dorey

Final siding on the roof deck

Final siding on the roof deck

That's a tall ladder

That's a tall ladder

Roof deck

Our most-finished space

Our most-finished space

Our rooftop deck also looks amazing. Thanks to Graham Dorey. Who struggled with a strained knee, from a football accident and not the house, these past couple days. Going up and down a ridiculously high ladder with decking materials. 

We have yet to install a railing, which we’ll need for occupancy. The building inspector nay’ed our initial design, because it didn’t meet the building’s code definition of safe. He considered it climbable. He did say, however, that if we built a mock-up, he’d come look at it and assess the climbability in person. So that’s something we’ll be progressing next week. And/or we’ll look at redesigning it.

Front deck

Helical piles going in

Helical piles going in

Our front deck build is underway. Step one was to get some helical piles drilled into the ground to support the structure of the deck. Why helical piles? To minimize root damage to our big tree out front. A more typical deck pile requires digging of a hole much larger than the post itself. Whereas, a helical pile requires a hole only as large as the diameter of the pile itself, which you see in the picture is quite small.

Step two was to lay some landscape fabric and gravel for underneath the deck. Mark did all the gravel moving himself in the humid, sweltering heat that is Ottawa in July. Deck build is set to start this weekend and continue over the course of next week, with Graham on the job. 

That’s all folks. I’m sure I’ve missed things so I’ll be sure to write more frequently over the final weeks to come. If for some reason you don’t hear from me, it’s because we’re building a house, and are busy building it.

Project management 10x

Our latest project management software –  Trello

Our latest project management software – Trello

When Mark and I decided to move forward with the build of our home, we decided to take on the heavy task of acting as general contractors, together. We knew it would be a sacrifice, with extra hours into our evenings and weekends, but fingers-crossed, it would be a short-lived one. Since we had two toddlers already, we weren’t giving up any kind of social life to speak of. And we were both self-employed, with a good deal of control over our schedules (minus the toddlers factor). Shortly before breaking ground, however, an exciting full-time job opportunity came my way, as they do when you least suspect them, and I took it. Leaving Mark to handle the build almost entirely solo, with me acting as the annoying backseat driver, into our evenings and weekends. 

Full disclaimer: who am I kidding? I had/have no business acting as a GC anyhow, but I was ready and willing to learn. In any case, I resigned to understanding that I was contributing to the house in other ways. Making a steady paycheque and putting food on the table. Still, not quite what we planned for.

Mark has done exceptionally well, all things considered. There have been ups and downs in our learnings, from budgets extended to pigeons roosting. With the delays incurred due to the floors, and standing on site, seeing the state of things, I was starting to see our move-in date slip further and further away. I wasn’t about to let that happen. It’s crunch time. Our older daughter is going to school in September. Come hell or highwater, we need to be in the house in August. So we sat down together one night and project managed the shit out of our house.

If you remember from our previous project management post, our binder is in a state of disarray and our Gant charts have fallen behind (ie. pretty much non-existant). So for starters, we downloaded all the information that was in Mark’s head to a free tool/app called Trello. We’ve both had some experience with project management methods like Agile and GSD (get shit done, as my office calls it), so we borrowed some of these methods on our house. The list is a mile long, but we are getting through it, one task at a time. It will be done. Oh yes, it will. Every night we check in with eachother to see how we’re doing, what tasks need to be shifted or altered, and we’re getting shit done. We’re pulling together, in our race to the finish line.

 

Construction update week 44: wood floor fiasco

They looked so good :(

They looked so good :(

I’m finally able to write about week 44. We had trouble with our hardwood floors. 

We bought white ash, 5” solid wood planks from the Wood Source. They were sitting in our house, acclimatizing for a couple weeks. The kitchen was all lined up for install the following week (week 45) and the floor was to be laid prior-to. Our lead carpenter, Graham, installed the floors with Mark’s help. They looked spectacular. But when walked on, they creaked. Not good. They were laid on top of waxed paper, and used staples every 12–16”. A bit more context on the situation: the subfloor is ¾” plywood glued and screwed on open web joists on 12” centres. The subfloor seemed good prior to installing the hardwood, with no squeaks or detectable movement, and moisture content within 5% of the hardwood. So what could the problem be?

That same day, they ripped them up, and re-installed. Second time around, they used waxed paper, 2” cleats every 4–6”, and glued the tongue and grooves together. Still, they creaked. At this stage, I was so ready to just screw the floors down to the subfloor and live with screws all over our new kitchen floor. But Mark, bless him, was not down with this. Again, they ripped up the floors. This time the glue destroyed the tongue and groove as they pulled it up, and this along with all the nails made the wood unsalvageable. Sniff.

We delayed the kitchen install while Graham and Mark consulted the Wood Source and multiple installers to try and troubleshoot the creaking. No one was able to provide any clear direction forward. With all the uncertainty, we decided to proceed with the kitchen install, which happened this past week (week 46), despite having no floors. 

We wanted the floors laid first, so the island could sit on top of them, at the right height. And because it makes for a much finickier install around the island. But it is what it is, we couldn’t delay our kitchen install any longer.

This was incredibly frustrating. It actually still is. We have some ideas on what to try next, but we’re not confident and therefore and continue to consult other installers and wood flooring companies. I want to be sure that when we install them for a third time, we won’t run into the same problem again. And if we do, we can confidently identify the culprit and get compensated for any loss. Fingers crossed. Any suggestions are welcomed.

Kitchen install is well underway

Kitchen install is well underway

Square footage and magic

Window bench

Window bench

Apparently we've been misleading people when they ask us 'how many square feet' our house is. We've been guesstimating it at around 2,000 sq ft, when in actual fact, it's only 1,530. It just feels like a very generous 1,530, which, in my mind, so clearly establishes that good design can make a space feel larger.

Square footage is a funny thing. We understand it as a measure of how big a home is — how much usable floor space there is. Stairs and unfinished spaces are not included in its calculation. Neither are the open-to-below spaces, like we have in our house. So although the floor plate is around 900 square feet (30' x 30'), actual usable space is less than.

Square footage also comes in to play when you talk about costs. It's common to break down the cost of a build into a cost per square foot measure. This is an altogether different calculation, measured using outside dimensions. Maybe another discrepancy in our estimation has something to do with the fact that our walls are so thick. 

Those thick walls are one of the key design features that make our house feel so much larger. Each and every window takes advantage of them, which is where the intersection of passive house principles and good design principles align. For example, in our kitchen, the entire 20' length of the window will be fitted with butcher block in the sill to double as a counter and become any chef's dream prep space. With our sliding doors, the floor actually bleeds through the wall, until it meets the glass, effectively extending our floorspace by an extra two feet. And in our master suite, we have a picture window with a sill at bench-height, which we're building out further to become a comfortable, cushiony, window seat. So we're reclaiming square footage with these little tricks, even if they're not technically considered usable square feet. Magic!

Also, don't ask me about our build right now. I am sooooo ready to be done. Still so much to do. I'll talk about it when I'm in a better emotional state. 

Construction week 43

image.jpg

The scaffolding is coming down! The Hardie panel on the front, and along the south side still needs finishing, but otherwise – the siding will be finished this week. Major excitement. The drywall will also be finished this week, including the first layer of primer.

Over the weekend, Mark and I worked away on the house. My mom was in town to facilitate this, helping to watch our girls. It’s extremely satisfying to get out and swing a hammer, so to speak. We made great progress as well. We did a massive cleanup of the job site. We’ll be returning unused lumber and selling or giving away the rest on Kijiji. It’s starting to look less like a job site with all the construction material cleaned up and scaffolding mostly down.

We filled another waste bin to the max. The amount of waste our build has generated is something I’m struggling with. Even though most of the materials came from the earth (wood and gypsum), it doesn’t feel good throwing them back in a landfill. There’s a lot of embodied energy in our dumpster. Our friend Gary told me that according to CMHC, the average waste produced by a new home is 2.5 tonnes. That’s about one and a half dumpsters the size we’ve been using. We’ve already filled two and have ordered another one… Our house is no average house, on the other hand. There's a lot more material inside our walls. Considering our walls are two feet thick, and a standard house maybe 8". This is a case for building for the long term. That helps to put me at ease.

Over the weekend we also started laying the subfloor for our tile guy, who will be starting later this week. We also started on our wood ceiling. Wood ceiling you say? Why yes. We’ve decided to build a slatted wood ceiling. This will add to the sense of discovery we’re hoping to create throughout the house. And will enable us to get clever with our lighting solutions, and hide the mounting tracks. 

Tons of coordination efforts this week. Things are shaping up.

Preview of our wood ceiling

Preview of our wood ceiling

Tidy piles of extra construction material

Tidy piles of extra construction material

House adornments -- pigeon scaring tactics seen to be working!

House adornments -- pigeon scaring tactics seen to be working!

Construction weeks 37 & 38: electrical rough-ins and drywall

Drywall is getting hung, son!

Drywall is getting hung, son!

Mark is full-time at the house these days, including weekends, and it will likely continue this way until move in. I’m pulling double-duty with the rest of life, so all I can muster today is a point-form update. Words, sentences and all the things are feeling difficult. Please forgive me.

  • Mark finished running the flex ducting throughout the house.
  • Graham and Sebastian continue to install siding. And continue to do an outstanding job of it.
  • Yves, started and finished all the electrical rough-ins. Since he has a stellar reputation with the ESA (Electrical Service Authority), we quickly passed the inspection over email.
  • Prepared for drywalling, with the help of Brian Rosen, Gary and Alex Sharp.
    • Carried 40 sheets of 12’ long drywall boards up stairs and between rooms.
    • Moved and re-installed our construction stairs away from the wall so the drywall could run past.
    • Since the house is going to be so quiet (outside noises disappear with our thick walls), that means we’ll be extra sensitive to any inside noises. To counter this, we've taken a couple additional steps.
      • Installed resilient channels on ceilings. These are metal strips that the drywall gets screwed into. They reduce foot step noise from floors above by reducing the contact surface area between the drywall and wood structure.
      • Added extra Roxul to our ceilings to further buffer any sound between floors.
  • Started hanging drywall! Ceilings throughout the house and the girl’ bedrooms are finished.
  • Added structural blocking for our floating stairs — the top two staircases. Some extra structure was added between existing studs to anchor the metal brackets that will hold the treads.
  • Ordered custom metal for the interior of the house. Including a metal screen, which will support the other end of the stair treads, and our bridge that spans the open space over the dining room. Both will be powder-coated white.
    • The metal screen will span the height of the main space and frame the stair cases. As you wander through the house, it offers glimpses of the void and of our tall vertical window flanking the opposite side. We’ll hang pants off the screen, and transform it into a bit of a greenwall to breathe more life into the main space.
  • Nathan installed 1 of 2 bathtubs. The master bath is going to be a tricky one. The space is tight and looks like we may have been sent an incorrect part.
  • Mark ran another air test to the same result of 0.4 air changes per hour. He was hoping to improve upon our last result having filled some known gaps. But with new gaps made for electrical and plumbing, even though there were properly sealed, they may have balanced each other out. Or it might be the OSB that’s ‘leaky’ — it is a construction grade material after all, so at this level of tightness, maybe it just doesn’t stand up 100%. We’re hopeful that after drywall, our result may improve. However, Mark’s not holding his breath. He warned me that even though, in a typical build, an air-test post-drywall can improve 20–30%, it’s unlikely our will because we’re already dealing with such small numbers, and there’s little room for such impressive movement. Still keeping our fingers crossed.

That’s the gist of it. We’re managing many moving parts at the moment, but it’s finally starting to feel like we’re getting close to the home-stretch. The building inspector won’t be returning until it’s final occupancy time. Mostly finishing from here on out.

One more thing before my head hits the pillow: don’t miss Mark’s virtual tour this upcoming Thursday. We’ll post the video on the blog afterwards, in case you miss it. Oh, and check out the photos below.

Drywall on the ceilings.

Drywall on the ceilings.

First board goes up.

First board goes up.

Flex ducting complete.

Flex ducting complete.

Kids bathtub (concreted added beneath the tub since this photo was taken).

Kids bathtub (concreted added beneath the tub since this photo was taken).

Marvelous Eastern white cedar.

Marvelous Eastern white cedar.

Hardie board too.

Hardie board too.

Window sill details.

Window sill details.

The roof!

The roof!

Quick screen grab I got Mark to take of his Sketch-up model to show the stair screen and the bridge that floats in front. 

Quick screen grab I got Mark to take of his Sketch-up model to show the stair screen and the bridge that floats in front.