Let’s Go Inside…

Progress continues at a steady pace and the “trades” are being sequenced in to lend their respective skills to the effort. Over the past few weeks, the house continues to be transformed before our eyes. It seems that with every day, there is something new. Some days we are seeing big, dramatic changes while other days the change is more nuanced.

The most visible progress, at least from the outside looking in, has been the completion of the framing, laying the roof shingles, addition of the vapor barrier (house wrap), and the installation of all the windows and exterior doors. All in all, the place is really beginning to take shape!

Now that the outside is protected from the weather, the main effort has turned to getting the essential utility systems in place. The first of the big three household utilities is the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning). After a close review of the house plans, the HVAC contractor started by mapping out the various vent openings in the floor, walls, and ceiling, and cutting holes in the subfloor where needed to install the supply and return registers. As the work progressed, the under floor duct trunks and pipes began to fill some of the spaces between the floor joists in the basement. These ducts and pipes serve as the “air flow arteries” to distribute conditioned air throughout the house, and return air back to the air handler to complete the cycle.

Finally, the air handler, which essentially serves as the heart of the system by pumping the warmed or cooled air through the ducting, was installed in the basement. To complete the system, the main air flow trunk duct and the return plenum were connected, and the flue piping was connected to the outside vents. Eventually, the outside heat pump unit will be delivered and connected to complete the HVAC install.

While all of this work is occurring, the plumber is in the initial stages of the layout for the plumbing. I anticipate that the next update will include a detailed overview of the all important fresh water and waste management system.

On the Rise… Going Vertical

For well over a year, the only real representation of our house was the two-dimensional drawings that our draftsman created from the ideas we presented to him way back in April 2020. Now that long wait has been rewarded, and we are seeing some fairly dramatic daily changes as the physical structure of the walls and roof are being erected.

Beginning to look like a house!

It has been interesting to see the various construction phases that I’ve documented in this series of stories, starting with creating access to the property, prepping the homesite, and finally constructing the foundation. These phases were essential, but still not enough to properly visualize how the space would feel by walking through the various framed rooms, and having the three-dimensional perspective to better imagine how the multitude of interior selections we’ve been making over the past several months would actually fit together into the picture we imagine in our minds.

“De-constructed” House

The indications that something big was about to happen began to appear about two weeks ago with a massive delivery of lumber, to include pallets of OSB (Oriented Strand Board), 2×4 and 2×6 framing boards, and pre-fabricated floor joists. Then a few days later, all of the pre-fabricated roof trusses were delivered to the array of materials already pre-positioned at the site. So, now all that was needed was the crew to put our “de-constructed” house together.

The process to assemble started with the framing of structural walls in the basement that would also serve to partially support the floor joists for the main living area. This was followed by installation of the OSB panels for the sub-floor. The work was completed in two days and created the platform for the interior and exterior walls that would be constructed in the next two days. So as the interior layout of the house began to take shape, we were able to “walk-thru” our future front door into the interior “rooms” and “hallways” while imagining the views from the various windows that were framed out.

The final part of this framing process, still in progress but nearing completion, is the placement of the roof trusses and installation of the OSB sheathing to enclose the roof. All in all, the framing phase takes about 7 days total and remarkable progress has occurred in just the 5 days since we began. I suspect that over the next several weeks we will begin to see some more materials arrive on site. I anticipate that the “skin” of the house (which includes asphalt roof shingles and house wrap to create the all important weather-resistant barrier) will be installed next, followed by windows and exterior doors. Stay tuned for the next page in this story….

Taking Shape…

The slow but deliberate building process continues… over the last several weeks, we’ve watched as the different pieces of the house building puzzle get sequenced and fit together. The previous post in this series ended with the completion of the foundation footers. Since then, the forms for the foundation/basement walls were placed and the walls were poured. After that, exterior waterproofing was applied and a French drain system was installed around the exterior base of the wall.

Once the drainage system was installed, soil was backfilled against the walls and the rest of the homesite was graded. Since the soil at our site contains a significant amount of clay, it has a large shrink-swell capacity. This can present problems when the soil is either saturated or dry. When wet, the predominate clay expands with the absorbed water and can cause extra pressure against the underground walls. Conversely, when dry, the soil shrinks. So to avoid the shrink-swell expansion and contraction that can lead to cracks in the concrete, we had to have “non-native” soil trucked in for the fill against the basement walls. This non-native soil creates a buffer that is designed to absorb the natural shrink-swell of the native soil, thereby preventing damage to the foundation.

With the foundation firmly established, it was time to do some work on the interior (the future basement). Before the basement floor could be poured, the plumber installed the “rough-in” plumbing… essentially the components of the water supply and drainage system that exist under the basement floor. There was some delay caused by periodic heavy rainstorms which made our future basement look like a muddy swimming pool, but once things dried out, gravel was spread and a vapor barrier installed across the expanse of the basement. A few days later, the concrete pump truck supported by several concrete mixer trucks arrived onsite to pour the basement floor.

Now that the foundation is complete, the framing should begin in earnest over the next several weeks. Soon, we hope to see the physical structure that we’ve been imagining all these months! Exciting times ahead!…

Rejected at the Border

Today we began a long planned trip to New England, including a visit to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. The trip began uneventfully enough with a short 48 minute flight into Buffalo, New York. After that, though, things became a bit more challenging, beginning at the rental car counter. With our reservation in hand, we thought it would be a quick pickup before we were on our way to cross into Canada. Boy was I wrong! The line was long and there was only one agent. After patiently waiting for over 40 minutes, it was my turn to hand over my driver’s license and credit card for a car I had reserved and paid for many months ago. Much to my surprise, the agent looked at my well-used credit card and said he couldn’t accept it because he was unable to verify the card since some of the account number had worn off. Despite my pleas that I could provide the full account number, he did not have the authority to authorize my card and needed supervisory approval. So, off to the side I waited for another 20 minutes before the supervisor appeared and was able to resolve the problem after some additional “negotiation.”

With transportation finally attained, we were on our way to our designated entry point into Canada. Of course the pandemic makes the routine aggravatingly difficult. Having done our research though, we thought we had everything in order for an easy entry into Canada. Prior to the trip, we had successfully completed self-administered COVID tests with an online proctor to validate the result (…entry into Canada is contingent upon a negative test within 72 hours of arrival). With negative test results and all of our travel information entered into the ArriveCAN app, we were confident that we would fly through customs without a problem… but, alas I was wrong for the second time in what was turning out to be a frustrating start to our trip.

Thinking all of our documents were in order, we confidently pulled up to Canadian Customs with passports, COVID vaccination cards, and ArriveCAN data entered with the results of the negative COVID tests we had all recently completed. All was well until the officer asked to see the negative test results, which we dutifully produced, only to be informed that the tests we had taken were the wrong type of test for entry into Canada! Despite our research that indicated the test we had taken was approved, we were informed that we had taken an antigen test, not a molecular test. So, with no recourse, we were turned around and instructed to leave Canada and return to the U.S. to find a rapid testing site that could perform the proper test and get same-day results.

I made the off the cuff comment that some enterprising entrepreneur could make a lot of money by setting up a rapid test site at the border. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised that when we began to research our options we discovered that this exact scenario had occurred. It turns out that the same company that conducts tests at the airport, had a pop-up testing station in a parking lot a stones throw from the border. Several testing options were available, but if we wanted same-day results it was going to cost us… and boy did it put a dent in our travel budget!

An unexpected cost : (

Since our hotel was on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and there was a no cancellation clause, we didn’t have a lot of options, so we had to pay for the rapid test. Once payment was made, the tests were administered and we waited the requisite 60 minutes to get the results which we were pretty sure would match the tests we had just taken two days earlier. To no one’s surprise, we once again tested negative. So back to the border we went, perhaps a little less confident that we understood the nuances of international travel in the era of COVID. Fortunately, our investment paid off and we were granted access into Canada, only to be told that we had been selected for random COVID testing!

Yep… you read that right. We had just paid a substantial fee to get a rapid test on the U.S. side of the border so we could get into Canada and as soon as entry was granted, we were randomly selected to get the same test! Unbelievable!… for the second time in 2 hours, we were tested, but at least this time it was free, courtesy of the Canadian government.

Testing courtesy of the Canadian government

Although we finally made it to Canada to witness the awesome beauty and power of Niagara Falls, it wasn’t easy. But… at least its a story to share. So, for those who are thinking about international travel, please make sure to do your research to avoid the hard lessons we learned today.

Horseshoe Falls in the morning… Awe inspiring!

Kilimanjaro: Time to Train

In roughly 5 months, the Everest Base Camp crew, along with my son John, will be joining for what we hope will be another indelible experience… a trek to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. This trip has been planned for several years, but due to the pandemic it has been twice scheduled and twice canceled. Hoping that the third time is the charm, its time to get serious about our preparation.

Kilimanjaro is a big mountain, topping out at 19,341 ft (5,895 m). It is also Africa’s entry in “the Seven Summits” (the highest peaks on each of the seven continents). Another interesting fact is that it is tallest free-standing mountain in the world, rising dramatically over 16,700 ft (5,090 m) from the plains surrounding its base. By comparison, Mt Everest rises roughly 11,437 ft (3,486 m) from base camp to summit. Needless to say, our 8-day trek (6 days going up and 2-days going down) will involve a fair bit of climbing and the need to acclimate to the thin air at the upper reaches of the mountain.

Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Since it is not considered to be a technical climb, advanced mountaineering skills and specialized equipment are not needed, but fitness and perseverance are required. To prepare, I plan to continue with my weekly fitness routine, which usually includes work at the gym on either the stair climber or the elliptical trainer, and mountain biking on the local trail network. This regimen helps to maintain a good base fitness level, but it doesn’t prepare the body for hiking with a weighted pack on uneven terrain at high elevations. So, now is the time to add bi-weekly hikes into the routine.

These hikes serve two purposes… first, they work the large muscle groups in the lower body and get them used to the added weight and stresses of trail hiking. Once the initial soreness wears off, the hikes are quite enjoyable and an opportunity to get away from all the noise and distractions of everyday life. Second, especially as the weather gets colder, the hikes become a great test for the various clothing layers that will be required to stay comfortable through the five different ecological zones we will experience during our trek on Kilimanjaro. As summer turns to fall, and ultimately winter, there will be plenty of opportunity to test our gear in temperatures ranging from the high 80’s down into the teens.

Click here to read more about Kilimanjaro’s different ecological zones.

One thing you can’t really prepare for is the thin air at the higher elevations on the mountain. At the summit, the oxygen levels, is approximately 50% of what is available at sea level… so we will literally be “sucking air” as we exert ourselves during the steep push to the summit. The good news is that if you follow a well-planned acclimatization schedule, the body will adjust over time. So, part of the reason it takes 6-days to ascend and only two to descend is that there are two extra days built into the schedule to “hike high, sleep low.” These couple days expose the cardiopulmonary system to lower levels of oxygen when we will climb to nearly 16,000 ft (4,572 m) during day hikes, but descend to camp at approximately 13,000 ft (3,962 m) to sleep and recover. This process aids the body in creating more red blood cells to increase the flow of oxygen in the blood, thereby allowing the body to become more efficient at processing the lower levels of oxygen that are available.

I hope this introduction to the adventure ahead gives you a glimpse of what awaits. Stay tuned for periodic updates as we get closer to this highly anticipated adventure.

Transformation

Over the past month, a lot has changed on Hope Rise and the home site is being rapidly transformed from an open field to a construction site. The catalyst for all of this activity was the completion of the culvert header walls down at the roadway entrance. These poured concrete walls ensure that the entranceway can withstand the heavy construction vehicles that are now using the road on a near daily basis.

A nice wide entry with capacity for a monsoon event!

The real work of constructing the house began in earnest in late June with the start of site excavation. First, the surveyors marked the footprint of the house by precisely measuring, then placing metal pins to mark the exact location and orientation of the foundation. Once that was done, the excavator removed the topsoil and set it aside for when it will be eventually be put back in place for the yard.

Once marked, our excavator went right to work throughout the long Fourth of July holiday weekend to dig out the house site. Since the house is one story with a full basement, the excavation required was substantial. Over the course of three days, massive mounds of deep red clay (the predominate soil in our part of Virginia) began to appear on Hope Rise. I was amazed and impressed with the skill of our excavator as he worked deliberately to carve a very precise hole in the Virginia clay. It is only through years of experience that someone can attain the skill to move earth using large bulldozers and excavators and end up with a hole that looks as if a house-shaped cookie cutter had been used!

In the meantime, while all the construction activity was occurring, Joanie and I were knocking out our list of tasks. In order to ensure that the design elements of the house are available when the installers need them, we need to make our decisions early in the process to account for the various supply-chain delays caused by the pandemic. This past month, we selected our plumbing fixtures, purchased our appliances, met with the kitchen designer to begin the process of cabinet and countertop design, viewed hundreds of samples of granite and quartz, purchased a garage door, and began the process of selecting our flooring. Needless to say, there are a lot of decisions to be made, and I don’t think we have really even begun the hard part of color and materials compatibility!

The growing list of things to do and decisions to make!

A month of significant progress culminated with the pouring of the footers for the foundation and basement walls. Once the wood forms were placed (per the previously cited survey), a fleet of concrete trucks appeared on site and in the matter of a few hours, while a severe thunderstorm was descending on the area, the footers were poured with the crew finishing up just as a tornado warning was called! In the span of a single month, the site has truly been transformed and I am looking forward to sharing all the progress to come. Stay tuned…

Evolution of a Road

The gateway to Hope Rise has been constructed!… In my previous posts I have described the challenges we faced to get a road entrance designed, approved and finally constructed. Given the low terrain and steep drop from the main road, there were numerous challenges to surmount in order to span a difficult low area that retains quite a bit of ground water, even during the driest months of the year.

Fortunately, we have one of the best excavators in the state who devised a plan of attack to build the road by approaching from the high ground, then systematically placing large chunks of concrete aggregate across the saturated ground. The work of establishing a solid foundation was completed early in the month, but then a record setting rainfall caused a delay in finishing the road. Interestingly, the material shown in the picture below was actually sourced from the demolition of the bridge that crossed the river into our historic downtown, so we have a bit of local history supporting the road to the house!

Weeks later, anticipating that site prep and excavation of the house site was again imminent, it was necessary to once again cut down some of the field grass that had grown over the past month. Unfortunately my small riding mower had some major issues (a severed drive belt and some carburetor build up resulting in combustion problems) that needed to be quickly repaired. Thankfully my friend John, has a talent for small engine repair and he was quickly able to get me up and running. Shortly, I was back on the site with my woefully small mower to tackle the large mowing job ahead.

While mowing, my excavator Doug, showed up to drop off some additional heavy equipment needed to finish the road. I think he got a chuckle seeing me on my tiny mower, which was significantly smaller than the machinery he uses on a daily basis. His wife was with him and must have felt sorry for me, because shortly after they departed, Doug returned yet again with more equipment. He explained that after they had left, his wife had asked the leading question: “You’re gonna go back and help him, right?” There was only one answer to that question, so when I saw his truck approaching from the corner of my eye, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this time he was towing a large, commercial grade zero-turn mower that he promptly mounted to join me in finishing the mowing job. With his help, the job was quickly completed and Doug decided to spend the rest of the weekend grading the site and moving dirt to top the road base that had been established earlier in the month.

Over a two day period, truckloads of soil were dumped, spread and compacted and the culvert pipes were placed, resulting in a level surface that will be able to support all of the heavy construction vehicles to come. Now that there is a direct access to the house site, I think things will begin to move at a faster clip. Stay tuned for the next update…

In the Beginning…

I am happy to report that things are beginning to happen out on Hope Rise! A flurry of activity has occurred during the past few weeks that has all the indications that this project is really getting ready to take off. We were fortunate to have a rather dry May which allowed the driveway entrance area to dry out and firm up enough for the excavator to start constructing our entrance road. To prepare for this, the long grass and hay had to be cut, Miss Utility had to mark where any underground utilities were located (there were none), and the survey company had to mark the precise location of the all important culvert pipes and headwalls.

Now that those tasks have been completed, the heavy equipment has arrived onsite. Imagine my delight when on one of my periodic visits to the site, I saw that a large excavator had been parked on the property… the first real indication that something was brewing! Just a few short days later, we saw definitive progress, with the completion of the construction fence and two dump truck loads of concrete aggregate delivered to the site for what I assume will become the foundation for the driveway entrance area.

Coming soon!... The Road
Coming soon!… The Road

Although this topic doesn’t seem overly exciting, it is critically important. As discussed in previous posts, this driveway is the key to the remainder of the project. Due to the watershed, drainage, and environmental protection considerations, a well constructed road that diverts the seasonal flow emanating from a small pond on the adjacent property is necessary to ensure we have uninhibited access throughout the year, regardless of what the weather throws at us.

So all in all, things are beginning to look up. It has been a long journey to get to this point. Soon, I hope, we will have a rough driveway that provides direct access for all the construction activity to come. In the meantime, we have our own homework to do to ensure that the color, style, material and design elements are selected in the proper timeframe and sequence to avoid any further delays caused by supply-chain issues or availability of critical components.

Due to the increased prices of lumber and other building materials, we are already expecting some extra costs, so we are doing our best to stay within the allowances of our contract. So far, we’ve selected our windows, doors, siding, roof and stone, with many many more decisions to make. I am confident it will all come together in a well-constructed, beautifully-appointed home. More updates to come…

Journey to an Approved Permit

After 196 days, we finally have an approved building permit!… Yep, you read that right, 6 1/2 long months to get a building permit for a single, modest-sized home on a 3 acre lot. When we first started this process, I fully expected to have a permit in hand after about 60 days, so I was either excessively naive or simply did not anticipate the level of creative regulatory interpretation employed by county staffers to make the process as long and painful as possible.

By any definition of the word, this experience was truly an adventure. It started with the exciting anticipation of what was to come, was full of surprising twists and turns, moments of anxious hope, periods of slogging drudgery, and finally the reward of attaining the goal after so many bumps along the way.

So, what could possibly lead to such a convoluted process?

Was it the house design – No! Was it access to or location of utilities – No! Was it a problem with property line offsets – again, No!… The single issue that caused all of the delay, was the uncelebrated, lowly gravel driveway, or more accurately stated, the first 60 feet of a driveway that will ultimately exceed 500 feet in length.

The reward for all the time, cost and frustration will be the most over-engineered ditch crossing along our entire rural road. Although our future neighbors directly to our north and south have to cross the same roadside ditch, their driveways feature a single 12 inch diameter pipe simply dropped into the ditch where their driveways are located. Our entrance, on the other hand, will feature two concrete abutments with a tandem of 32″ drainage pipes. Enough drainage volume to easily control a small creek with continuous flow, not the trickle of water that typically flows during the rainy season.

Culvert plan that includes two concrete abutments and two 30″ diameter pipes.
This shows a heavy flow of water after a prolonged rainstorm…

But, despite the setbacks and delays we are excited to finally have the sanctioned greenlight to proceed with construction of the road entrance and eventually the house that will sit at the top of the rise… which we have affectionately named… “Hope Rise.”

An Adventure of Another Kind

It has been awhile since my last post… of course a lot has occurred in our world over the past year as we have all experienced the COVID-19 Pandemic, each personally and collectively with our own unique stories. But, this post is not about that. Rather, it is about another adventure we are beginning to embark upon…. an adventure that many of you may have already experienced, and undoubtedly an adventure in which we will encounter many “ups” and “downs.”

So, what am I talking about?… The experience of building a house! Now, to be clear, this is not about me actually doing the construction; but rather the journey that begins with an idea and eventually culminates in a new place to call “home.”

Like many journeys, this one began with a random thought, that resulted in a discussion, and ultimately coalesced into a plan. Over the years we have had a lot of conversations about where we wanted to retire and build a house. Of course this resulted in ideas ranging from the fantastical and unrealistic, to intriguing but ultimately untenable, and finally to something that was both exciting and attainable. This ultimate plan is one where we will eventually build on a 3 acre site that is less than one mile from our previous home, but has many of the things we have been looking for all along… a place of our own design in a community we enjoy, that still allows us to launch into the world for more adventures in the years ahead.

It all started in June 2019 when we approached our good friends with an idea to partition off a parcel of their farm that we could eventually develop into a homesite. We, of course, had no expectations that this was even a reasonable request or something they would want to consider, but we forged ahead anyway and threw the idea out there for them to consider. Of course there was one very important caveat had to be met: in no way did we want this “business deal” to affect our deep and valued friendship. After thoughtful consideration, they agreed to sub-divide a 3 acre parcel and sell it to us… and there begins the real adventure!

Now, 20 months after that first conversation, we are on the cusp of beginning construction. Of course, a lot has already occurred to get where we are today, including:

  • Multiple site surveys to define the property boundaries, location of the homesite, and development of a site plan
  • Submission and approval of a Minor Subdivision application by county officials
  • House design and selection of a contractor to build house
  • Application and approval for a construction loan
  • Attainment of a building permit (as of this post… pending, but imminent… we hope!)

Some of this has been easy, but due to unanticipated challenges related to nearby wetlands, watershed protection considerations, and conversion of agricultural property to residential zoning, we have encountered our share of frustrations along the way. I won’t bore you with that story, but look forward to sharing the progress going forward. Now it is time to let the ground dry out after a wet winter so that we can finally begin construction. More to follow in the months ahead!…

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