Part 1 of the construction project, March - August 2006

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During the summer of 2003 I realized that we had built up enough equity in our home in Silver Spring to where it was possible to leverage the purchase of some land in the country. There we could build a house and then live there with very low expenses and not have to work full-time just to get by. I approached my beautiful wife about the idea, fully expecting her to turn the idea down, but to my surprise she agreed to the plan. The caveat, though, was that I had to get a regular job again (I was enjoying my attempt at 'early retirement' and self-employment (that 'employment' is a bit of a misnomer as I wasn't actually being paid for any of the work I was doing; it was fun though!)) so we could pay our bills (we were living off of savings at that point). In February of 2004 I approached my old boss at NCBI and lo and behold, she took me back! Same everything except for my cube and phone number, but then again it was only 9 months. We promptly began our search for land by contacting the real estate agent Larry Turner. Our initial high expectations were quickly dampened when we realized that essentially all the land for sale had gross problems of one form or another (on the side of a cliff, all solid rock, or my favorite: across from an industrial park and with a gas pipeline going through what we would choose as our building site) and we reluctantly decided to throw in the towel. Just a few weeks later Larry called and told us about a property that had had two contracts fall through due to financing problems and was going to go back onto the market. Larry said he would have purchased the property himself if he hadn't just put all his money into an apartment building, so decided to tell us about it. We went to look at the property in the cold of early spring and decided that while it lacked any sort of valley view (it is in a local low spot surrounded by higher ground), it would give us what we were looking for. At bit more than we expected (land and cost) when we started the process, but during our search we discovered that houses that were not that much larger than what we were considering building were selling for quite a substantial amount, so our initial plans of building a small place on-the-cheap and living off the land shifted to building a bigger place with the idea of using it as our retirement 401K (we still haven't worked out what to do when/if we sell our estate, but that isn't a worry for at least 20 years, based on our current plans).

The land had cows running on it at the time and it appears that cows love to eat the florescent-colored tape used to mark property boundaries and in doing so almost always eat/trample the wooden stakes as well. Since the property owner (Bowman of Bowman Apples; there is an orchard on either side of our property) wanted to a) retain all water rights on the stream nearby by having 100 ft setbacks along that edge and b) wanted a 100 ft setback from his apples on the other side so to reduce possible complaints about spraying, it was very difficult to visualize the property boundaries. We made as a condition of the sale that the cows be removed and the boundaries remarked so we could know exactly what we were purchasing. After they were re-marked we went in and put in large metal stakes so we could find the boundaries again later. One corner in particular we marked with three stakes, put in barbed wire and wrapped the whole thing with yellow florescent tape. Since it was right in the road bed being used by the owner of the cows (we invited back the cows after we had marked the property, they are great at keeping down the grass) we wanted it to be visible enough to keep it from being run over. The next time we were at the property we checked the markers and this particular corner not only had every bit of the yellow tape eaten off, but the poles had been pushed down and the barbs on the wire were stuffed full of cow hair. Apparently they were using it as a scratching post!

Other than occasional visits we were seldom out at the property. It had no driveway, so access required us to park at an old barn next to the lot and walk (I am always amazed at how big the property is when I start to walk across it). We went back and forth on construction plans going from simple to extravagant and back again. We wanted something we could reasonably finish ourselves (our plan at that time was to have the shell built by professionals) in a timely manner so we could move out there, but large enough that we could comfortably live in whilst we built a larger house nearby (the property is actually two lots and we were planning to build on each). After some inquiries with the appropriate authorities we found out we could actually build two residences on each lot! After that our plans started to crystallize. Since the two conventional septic perks were on the rear of the property (the main reason why the owner decided to sell both lots together, as the front lot had no perks anywhere) we decided we would build two buildings there and leave off construction on the front lot for the indefinite future. As we started to get estimates for getting started (i.e., driveway, well, septic, foundation, etc.) we realized that the initial cost was going to be so high we didn't want to put in a tiny house since that would make it very difficult to sell (if necessity required). We then started to evolve the plan to build a workshop/laboratory for my future work, but in such a way that we could live in it for a couple of years while building the larger (current plan is an 8,000 sq ft sprawling mansion) house nearby. After much discussion the boss decided that the layout of the workshop/lab had to include 3 bedrooms and 2 baths in such a format that we could live there comfortably indefinitely in case we never built the big house (she is so practical). To try to keep things simple, we decided on a 36x72 building that we would divide into three sections. A laboratory section at one end and a workshop at the other end, each a bit less than a third of the structure, then a middle section (a bit more than a third) that would contain three bedrooms, a computer/office room, two baths and a kitchen. The kitchen is a long (about 26 ft long) skinny (only 8 ft wide before the cabinets are installed) afterthought. I had completely forgot to add a kitchen when doing my initial sketches and when Eliz pointed that out I quickly shrunk the bedrooms, shifted the baths and shoe-horned in the kitchen. Hopefully it won't look stupid when it is all finished. Now that we finally have a plan we can start to get actual bids to do the work.

That turned out to be a lot more trouble than I expected! Since the housing boom was in full swing I was completely unable to find any general contractors that would consider doing a shell (we wanted the exterior completed so we could work on the interior at our leisure). During some communications with the local authorities we discovered the region has 'expansive soil' and that our foundation had to be engineered. We were given the name of an engineer who could do the design for us (Freddy Neal of FD Neal Construction). After meeting with him we asked him to give us a bid on doing the foundation installation along with the shell and driveway. He decided to just provide a bid on the foundation and driveway and talk about the shell later. I had been using an out-dated Means construction estimation guide (2000 I believe), but the Shenandoah region is given as having a 25% discount on the prices in the guide and someone I contacted on-line who was in construction estimation indicated that contractors typically are able to bid lower than the prices in the guide so I felt that I should not get too many surprises in the estimates. Wrong! Freddy's initial foundation bit was 50% higher than what I had calculated and his driveway estimate more than twice as high! Since we were not able to get any other bids, we reluctantly agreed that we should go with Freddy as we didn't want our first experience with pouring a concrete slab to be the 2,600 sq ft floor of our house. However, I decided I would do the driveway myself since in my ill-gotten youth I had obtained experience working with heavy construction equipment. Thus we rented a bulldozer (a 'small' D3 that 'only' weighted 11,000 lbs, though after trying to pry a few boulders out of the ground, I developed some respect for those comments) for a few days and proceeded to that task. We managed to come in at our original estimation for the job, which took me about 3 days, primarily by going with a narrower road with less gravel than initially calculated. Frankly, the driveway sucked, but it was good enough to get the equipment in and out of the construction site and we could always pay a professional later to do it right. At least it was laid out exactly how I wanted it and it was fun to drive the dozer. We had two cattle guards installed. One at the front entrance from the road and another at the rear of the property to keep the cattle out of the construction site (once, of course, we installed a fence). Because the VDOT permit (did you know you need a permit to connect a driveway with the road? I didn't) required that I carve off a couple of feet off the embankment on the corner, we had to run an electric fence around that area to keep the cows away. Remarkably, the electric fence worked like a charm (as did the cattle guard) and we haven't had any problems with the cows. The plan was to re-install the fence along the road and take up the temporary electric fence and put it in the back to protect the construction site. However, it turned out to be nearly impossible to get the metal stakes out of the ground and we had decided we would use the area already fenced in from the road to build a nice estate-like entry way so we purchased new metal stakes to put in at the rear construction site.

With the driveway installed Freddy was now able to easily get his equipment back to the construction site. Our original plan was to ensure we had a good well and the septic was installed _before_ we started construction on the foundation, but various delays in getting bids along with a bit of pressure from Freddy to get started got us to give up that decision. Since Freddy told us he wouldn't know for sure what the cost of the foundation was going to be until he started to do the digging we were expecting to get some bad news on the foundation cost, but the additional cost drove the final price of the foundation to more than twice my initial Means estimation. We were kind of stuck at that point and had to agree; the original budget was starting to get large tatters in it and we had barely got started. The one bit of good news on the foundation was that they were able to place it directly on bedrock (which is close to the surface in Shenandoah in general and on our property in particular) so we should never have any problems with the foundation settling. We checked on the layout several times when we were visiting the site to meet with contractors and were able to catch a major mistake before they poured the slab saving everyone a lot of time, money and angst. I decided to put in the temporary electric pole (would you believe that a 1/3 mile string of electric wire and poles only cost us $50? The price the electric company has to pay for their monopoly, I guess) myself to save a few bucks and the couple of hour task wound up taking all day in large part because the ground was hard as rock. Fortunately, while I was cursing over that work, Papa, Tita Marie and Eliz (mostly Papa) put in the metal poles for the electric fence (nearly a quarter mile, I believe) around the construction site saving me from that effort. We finally had everything in place for our June 2006 date to start framing (we had to give up the idea of paying someone else to do that with our expensive slab), all we had to do now was get everyone else to get their part done. However, it seemed that everyone was going very slow, and then the area was hit with a massive amount of rain (our basement in Silver Spring flooded again and the crappy driveway was considerably worsened by washouts) so we had to push the start to the first of July. That failed to work out (though the slab did get poured during that time) as the installation of the well pump (the initial well location appears to have been over a cave and had to be moved; fortunately I was able to talk the well driller into moving closer to the construction site instead of further away), itself more than twice our original expectation (primarily because I wanted a heavy-duty pump to deliver lots of water) took weeks because the parts were not in stock, then the electric company had delays as their crews were helping to clean up after the storm. During all this time I worked up a set of hand-drawn building plans (I was never able to figure out any of the CAD programs I tinkered with) and submitted them to the permit office. I confidently told Eliz that the likelihood of the plans being approved at all was slim and being approved without changes infinitesimal, but to my great surprise they were approved unaltered. By July 10th the well pump installation was almost done and the electric was connected so we decided to start on July 12th when Tita Marie could help us by baby sitting Donovan for two weeks.

I would like to mention what a supportive boss and employer I have. Donna, my boss at NCBI, and MSD, my employer, did not object when I indicated I would like to have a couple of months off to build the house. My initial (admittedly grossly over optimistic) plan had us with the roof on and weather tight in two weeks (I still think it is possible with a couple more experienced people), but Donna was convinced it would take substantially longer and insisted that I work a day and a half a week to be available for bug fixes, etc. That actually turned out to be a very positive thing as coupled with checking email several times a day (after we got the DSL installed) I was able to average working 20 hours a week for the period of full-time construction activity. Not only that, we got home to do laundry and were able to give our bodies a little break. The break, however, never seemed to make us feel better, rather the opposite. We were always very sore those days finding it very difficult to get out of bed or even move if we sat still for more than a few minutes (such as sitting at a computer programming for a couple of hours).

The first thing we did when we got out to the property full-time was get things set up so we could live in our travel trailer comfortably (Eliz insisted we purchase the used trailer since she objected to the idea of living out of tents; such a sensible woman!). Since the roof leaked on the trailer we had purchased a large canopy to cover it and keep it dry (what nightmare to install! Heavy and awkward; without the help of Mano Caloy I doubt Eliz and I could have done it), but it turned out to have the most excellent side benefit of keeping the worst of the sun's heat off it as well and knowing that now I would recommend to anyone who was going to permanently place a trailer to get such a canopy. The trailer is not exactly level, it leans a bit to one side and I was going to correct that before we moved in except I forgot and we piled a bunch of stuff behind the trailer making it too much trouble to fix. I didn't even notice it after the first couple of days and it is probably just as well as it helped get the water from the AC unit off the roof. The first order of business was to get electricity, which was fairly strait forward (just plug into the temp electric pole). The second was to get the water going, but that was a bit more of a challenge. The well line was installed but the pump wasn't in the ground. Fortunately that was a matter of a day or so to get squared away and water would come out of the water line, but only as long as you held down the override switch. We proceeded to purchase a pressure tank/reservoir, switch and fittings to get the water to run on-demand, but had problems finding the appropriate fittings, then a headache getting the wiring for the pressure switch. The local hardware store had the right fittings and Larry (our real estate agent) suggested someone to solve the electric problems. The guy Larry recommended gave me advice over the phone that was enough to get the situation resolved saving time and money. With that done we now had water (somewhere along the way I also installed the digital satellite, so we had TV), but no phone. We did have a port-a-potty we would make use of for two months, though we had problems initially getting it cleaned regularly (amazing to me, it only stank outside, the inside was quite acceptable). The start of the septic was delayed by over a month (a month past its way over due start date, btw) so we didn't get septic installed until we were essentially done with full-time work. The phone/DSL was delayed because the rock cutting machine (would you believe we got phone installed (under ground, no less, through hundreds of feet of rock) for some $20? Also thanks to monopoly regulation I suspect) was busted and down for a couple of days. Our actual construction work was further delayed by really crappy weather, which plagued us for the first week or so (it once rained over a half inch on our construction, but at the road it was nearly dry). We had to have gravel brought in because of all the mud left over from the installation of the well water line and the gravel truck got stuck (thankfully he didn't crush the line!), fortunately the fellows cutting the rock had a key to the backhoe left by the phone company and I could push him out. Then, when the trusses were delivered, that driver also got stuck. Again the rock cutters came to the rescue and pulled him out. It was a fortuitous accident that the truss truck got stuck as he wound up dropping them where they would be most accessible rather than in the place I had intended which would have really complicated matters later.

We were now finally able to start actually hammering on construction. We had decided to go with building our own wall panels because when we made the decision of pre-fab vs. construct we still had a fantasy of completing within our budget and the couple of grand difference seemed to matter. The panel building took the better part of a week. Most were 8 ft long (10 ft high), but two had to be made 16 ft because there was a window or door that fell directly in the middle. We got a lot of rain off and on and even though we tried to cover everything with tarps things still got wet. We had one rain where the tarp formed a belly in between the studs of a stack of wall panels with so much water in it I dipped 3-5 gallon bucket's worth of water out before it was too shallow to get a full bucket out of it. I didn't expect the panel building to take as long as it did (nothing came close to my expectations timing-wise, though looking back on it we did get a lot of work done just the twain of us) and on top of that we lost several days due to bad weather, so instead of the huge barn raising party we had been planning for the months up to our start we wound up just having a little bit of help a couple of weekends (thanks Lolyn and Mitch!). My uncle Kenny was a help driving the forklift and his friend Danny offered some helpful advice in the beginning that saved me a lot of work later and Tita Marie was very helpful keeping the site clean, but well over 90% of the work has been done (and is likely to be done) by just Eliz and I.

About this time Eliz and I realized that there was no chance that we were going to be able to get the construction finished without an additional infusion of cash. Initially we were going to get an additional loan on the land, but our lender felt that the cheapest alternative was to get a construction loan, though that does put us on a 12 month timetable. The building appraised for much less than we had anticipated because the appraiser decided that the workshop and lab bays were not living space. That effectively made our building a 1,000 sq ft house on 23 acres, very difficult to find comparables. The appraised price was high enough to satisfy the bank for the amount we would owe, so it was a moot point, but I had already marked on the official building plans that the 'workshop' bay was to be a living room anyway and Eliz and I have since decided to re-designate the laboratory space as family room / rec room and cover all the floors (carpet in the bedrooms, likely vinyl on the rest of the floors). When the appraiser came to visit the site she called our trailer and surrounding area (by that time Kenny had joined us with his motor coach) as a gypsy camp, which we found quite amusing.

With all the wall panels built we could now focus on installing the panels and getting them braced and bolted to the foundation. The banker we were working with just happened to visit at the very moment we were starting to put up the very first panel. Danny and Kenny were complaining about how over-built and heavy the walls were and I commented that I wanted them over-engineered since I didn't know what I was doing and our banker covered his ears said he didn't hear that. Other than having to re-drill almost every single bolt hole (I think exactly one panel when on the anchor bolts without widening the holes) the erection of the panels was fairly straightforward. I did learn a valuable lesson: the length of the pressure treated lumber used for the bottom plate was consistently about a quarter inch longer than the non-pressure treated lumber. That required me to make cuts along the edge of every few panels to keep things square and lined up properly. Next time I will ensure that the top and bottom plates are exactly the correct length before building the wall panels. We purchased the pressured treated lumber, btw, over a month in advance to allow them to dry out and finish shrinking before we started to use them. That also made them much lighter as well. Erection of the panels was immensely assisted by the construction forklift we rented. It was rated at 8,000 lbs, so the lifting of the wall panels (and later the trusses) was nothing close to its capacity. In fact the only time I ever felt it was starting to work was when I lifted a pallet of shingles, the rear end actually responded to the lift by rising a bit. After we erected the end wall (furthest away from our 'gypsy camp') we erected the long wall that would face the septic since we always seemed to be just a few days away from its start. Due to all the rain we had to be careful where the forklift was driven as there were many very soft spots and we managed to create a few deep pits before the ground dried out. The erection of the wall panels went more or less according to plan and only took a couple of days. However, by this time Tita Marie needed to get back to her life and we took a 5 day break until my mother could join us.

We picked my mother up at the airport and went directly to the property. That afternoon we installed the very first truss on the end wall; it took several hours. The next morning we started to install the second (first unsupported in the middle) truss, it took over 4 hours. The primary problem was that there was no place to stand and very little to brace against (and a very hard concrete floor if I fell). We were using the forklift as a crane (we would pick up the truss off the stack then drive down the center of the building (all plumbing pipes just far enough away to allow this) and set the truss on top the walls) which ensured that the truss wouldn't fall down, but it could tip back and forth making the bracing quite challenging. We took a break from the first truss installation for a couple of hours, then were able to install 4 more that afternoon (there were now places to stand while bracing). Eventually we were able to get a truss installed in as little as 20 minutes, but never did more than 7 in a day because I got so stressed climbing about doing the bracing. Generally I don't have problems with height, but initially there was a huge amount of movement of the trusses (some of that went away when there were enough to add cross bracing) and in every case the truss I was bracing started off as the one that had no bracing at all. I recon it was a bit less than a week to get all the last few trusses installed (we had to wait to finish the last few trusses because we had to build the other end wall, left open so we could get the forklift in and out), then we started to sheath the mostly completed roof. The biggest problem with the roof sheathing was I had to first install the 'lookouts' at the short ends of the building and my fantasy of a simple quick accurate installation was far from reality. It turned out pretty solid, though, but much cursing went into the process (my constant cursing, typically at the top of my lungs, is a very sore issue with my wife; I was eventually persuaded to take a break before I got to that point and I believe the frequency and volume decreased a noticeable amount afterward (I doubt the actual pace of construction slowed, though, since I typically did nothing useful, just spewed froth and raged, when I reached that point)). In addition to the lookouts not being square and level, I had in many cases put the cross bracing in before ensuring that the truss tops were properly aligned and there were many cases where we had to put in nailer blocks to have something for the edge of the sheathing to attach to. Important for future truss erection: make damn sure they are plumb and accurately spaced before securing them with cross bracing! I am confident that the trusses are within specifications, they are allowed to be as much as 2 inches out of plumb according to the installation instructions and we never got that far out.

As tension filled as the truss installation was, it apparently gave our body's a chance to lose its edge received from all the work on panel construction and erection as when we started to build and install the final wall we were incredibly sore the next day. With the final wall installed we were able to secure the final few trusses, install the lookouts and finish sheathing the roof. By the time that was all done my mom's two week Dondon sitting stint was over. Fortunately Tita Marie was able to come back for a week and a half, so after a couple of day rest we were back to cover the roof. We began the roofing process by installing pressure treated boards along the edges of the roof, then filling the many gaps with caulk or, when the gap was too large, with expanding foam, then putting on drip edges. The tar papering wound up taking more than a day because instead of being able to secure it with staples or with nails from the pneumatic nailer, we had to hand nail these big plastic-headed nails (the staples wouldn't go in all the way, the nails were cutting the edge of the tar paper). When we finally had that process all finished I decided that we should do the initial courses from the ground using the forklift as a mobile platform (I was eventually persuaded to build a platform to fit the forks of the lift, something I should have done much earlier) since I knew Eliz wouldn't do those initial courses from the roof and that my knees would be in agony trying to do so myself. I believe I was able to get about 6 rows of shingles installed from the ground, but it took about a half day to do each side. When we were finally ready to start installing shingles on the roof we were both eager to see how fast we would be able to go. It turned out that even with the pneumatic nailer we were not going very fast, and the first side we worked on has lots of wavy lines of shingles as Eliz and I had different views of what the proper reveal was (we switched to using a measuring stick for the other side, fortunately the side most easy to see, and the results are much better). We wound up not being able to work for at least 5 hours each day as the shingles would start to stick to each other by around noon and it didn't cool off until after 5. Also, my back got so sore from the bending over that my pace that I often had to spend as much time stretching as I was spending laying out shingles for Eliz to secure. Instead of the two days to shingle the roof, we spent a bit more than 5 days (some say that was still good progress as the roof totaled a bit more than 4,000 sq ft with its 6 ft overhangs on the long edge and 4 ft overhangs on the short edge) getting the shingles on. Amazingly, the rain held off almost the entire time (we did have a couple of light sprinkles, but not enough to even knock down the dust) allowing us to get the ridge vents installed with about 4 hours to spare before it rained more than a half inch over the afternoon and evening.

With the roof protected from the weather my sense of urgency diminished substantially and I pretty much goofed off that half day it rained. Eliz nagged me to get back to work, though, so we finished the sheathing on the short ends of the building and installed the house wrap and windows to protect most of the walls. The long walls had the 6 ft overhang, so I was much less concerned about them. The great big 8x8 double doors had been an unexpected problem as we have been unable to find acceptable suppliers for doors 8 ft high, 4 ft wide. I had originally planned to build them myself, but I was persuaded that the doors would inevitably warp and wouldn't be weather tight, but I may have to do something just to get through the construction process. After Tita Marie left we had two days off before the Labor Day weekend (which was expecting the remnants of a hurricane to drop 3-6 inches of rain on the region). We now are in the weekend-only mode (got to get back to full-size paychecks); hopefully we will be able to get the building exterior fully finished before long.

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