We’ve got two parallel tracks for the next little while: framing the first floor and the mechanical room plumbing. For now I’m working on the framing. My friend Matt B. will be down tomorrow and Friday to help work on the house, so we’ll be tackling the opening for the stairs in the first floor. In order to be ready I had to go back over the stair calculations, re-measure everything and come up with the final plan and position of the stairs. The stairs are extremely complicated because everything has ripple effects and there are some tight constraints.
For example, the first floor stairs will go straight up to a landing, turn right 90° and go up the remainder. The bottom of that landing needs to be more than 80″ above the floor so that we can put the stairs down to the basement underneath it. The stairs from the second floor to the attic are above the first floor stairs. Those stairs have a landing directly above the first floor stair landing. We need at least 80″ from the top of the first floor landing to the bottom of the second floor landing plus another 80″ from the top of that landing up to the roofline, and there needs to be a consistent rise and run to the stairs to allow them to get to the correct height at the correct place.
To further complicate things, the brick foundation is thicker than the frame walls, so the finished first floor wall will be 9″ from the finished basement wall. In order to have the minimum 36″ stair width going down to the basement, the stairs above them must be wider, which means the landing must be wider and deeper, and the stairs from the landing to the second floor have that much less space to go up the remaining distance because they can’t go through the LVL beam we just put in. Despite all of that, we did have some play in where the stairs could go front-to-back. Moving them back makes the front bedroom on the second floor bigger, but the coat closet, pantry, and walk-in closet in the master suite smaller. We eventually figured it out.
Despite the stick drawing of the stairs, I did account for the head room under the stairs after stringers and drywall. Everything checks out, but it’s very close to the 6′ 8″ minimum height. I’d really like to have more clearance, not just for tall people but for moving furniture, but unfortunately there’s no good way to fit more in without building a dormer in the attic above the stairwell, something we really don’t want to do.
The stairs from the first floor to the second will be 42″ wide with 11″ treads (including a 1″ bullnose). From the floor to the landing they’ll rise 7 ⅝” per step, and from the landing to the second floor they’ll rise 8″. The stairs to the attic and basement will have an 8″ rise and a 10″ tread. We’ll build the stairs from framing lumber (rimboard for the stringers, OSB for the risers and treads), and eventually cover them with finishing treads and risers that match our floors.
Every time working on the house involves swinging a sledgehammer and generally banging on things, rust inside our terrible, terrible galvanized steel pipes flakes off into the water and clogs up the aerator on the faucets. When this happens the water faucets slow to a trickle. This means that nearly every time I have to swing a sledgehammer I have to then bring the pipe wrench up to the bathroom and kitchen faucets, take off the aerators and clean them out, removing the little flecks of rust. Then the faucets work fine again. At least, they did until yesterday.
I’d been dealing with the progressively worse faucet in the bathroom for about a week and finally cleaned out the aerator. Unfortunately, either loosening or tightening it back on resulted in an sudden flood of water under the sink and onto the floor. It’s a pedestal sink, which in this one case was a good thing because it meant I noticed the problem right away instead of after it had soaked things, but it was still a mess. Of course this was right after we had gotten back from a big trip to Menards, where I easily could have bought a faucet and it was late and Sarah was taking the car the next day.
After removing the faucet, which was rather a pain because the hoses connect up underneath the sink where there isn’t any room to work, I took it apart and confirmed that it wasn’t possible to repair it. The faucet is very cheap. It may not actually be that old, but it’s basically designed to leak at least some water, and not designed for the aerator to be regularly cleaned out. We ordered a new faucet for pick up in store from Home Depot.
We decided that Sarah could drop me off at Home Depot on her way out and I could take the bus home. I’ve taken the bus to Home Depot on a couple of other occasions and the timing worked out really well. I was worried that on a Sunday I’d have to wait a while, but the bus was there right as I came out of the store and I hopped on. The next one would have been 18 minutes later.
We can’t fix the tile that won’t come clean, but we can put in a nice new faucet. It’s WaterSense, which means in uses less water but more importantly for our purposes puts out a decent stream despite our poor water pressure. The idea is that we’ll re-use this faucet for the basement bathroom, along with a shower kit we bought years ago that’s still in the box. That limited us to brushed nickel, which was good because we didn’t really plan on designing our other bathrooms just yet. I’m excited because it’s single handle, which I think is easier to use.
The first floor has what look like original windows. They’re single pane, wood framed, and while they were probably nice when they were new they leak heat like sieve and they’re falling apart. The front door is a newer steel door, but it’s cheap, scratched and dented, it’s been kicked in at least once from the looks of it, and in typical fashion it was installed wrong. Plus it’s an 80″ door that was retrofitted into an 84″ opening. The original transom over it is visible from the inside but sided over on the outside. It’s all in need of an upgrade.
The process of shopping for new windows and doors started, as usual, with Google. I educated myself on panes, glazing, U-factors, R-values, SHGC, visual transmittance, aluminum, vinyl, fiberglass, wood cladding, air leakage, and more. I did research on companies, materials, methods, and pricing. We’re trying to make our house energy efficient, not just to save money but to conserve resources. That said, money inevitably comes into play with a lot of these calculations.
After learning about different window types, styles, and their respective properties, we started considering what we wanted. When it comes to resale, “new windows” is about as far as most prospective buyers go, so the prevailing wisdom is not to spend a ton on them. Resale isn’t our top priority, though. We want to build a house that will last, which means using quality materials. The second floor already has “new” windows, and they’re about as cheap as it gets. Most are single-hung vinyl from three different brands. They leak air and in some cases water, they were installed wrong, and they conduct heat badly. As a result we’re planning on replacing all of them when we redo the second floor, which seems like a waste, but even if they weren’t crappy windows most of them are damaged or the wrong size.
I settled on fiberglass frames because they’re stronger than vinyl and will hold up better. I didn’t want wood cladding because even good windows can condense if the indoor humidity gets too high, and when that happens wood-clad windows don’t hold up well. I also didn’t want aluminum frames because even with thermal breaks they generally don’t insulate as well. I discovered, not surprisingly, that high-end fiberglass windows with great efficiency are very expensive, to the point that they don’t make a lot of sense when you consider the money you save on energy versus what you spend on the windows.
If our house had a big window curtain wall, the window efficiency would make a lot more difference. As it is, we don’t have a ton of square footage of windows. We closed up the windows on the North wall, leaving about 185 square feet of window and doors on the first floor, or about 14% of the wall area. I narrowed my search to three reasonably priced fiberglass window manufacturers and started getting quotes. To minimize air loss I stuck with casements and awning-over-picture windows, though in the back we have a sliding glass door with transom and one double-hung because an open casement would block the stairs off the porch.
I initially focused on triple-pane windows. The third pane increases the glazing and reduces air convection within the window. They are notably more efficient than double pane windows and the first company I talked to said they only add about 10% to the cost. However, after I got a quote back from one of the other companies, the salesperson noted it would be considerably cheaper with double pane. I asked for a double pane quote and, at least from them, the price came down by 25%. That was enough to give me pause, so I went back and re-did my heat loss calculations. When I factored in the cost of energy (albeit at today’s prices), it would take over 50 years to recoup the price difference. While I expect energy prices to go up and the windows to last that long, it was still a tough sell.
The deciding factor was the front door. No one seemed to make an entry door that I liked, mostly since I’m really picky. Last year Sarah and I decided to add a consistent style to certain elements of the house, a theme if you will, of curved wrought iron, to the railings on the stairs and the front porch and to the glass on the front door, as well as other accents throughout the house. Not all of the door manufacturers had wrought iron styles that we liked. I’d also seen operable sidelites, where the windows adjacent to the door are screened and open to let in air, so you don’t have to have a screen door. I don’t like screen doors because they make it difficult to go through the door if you’re carrying things and they ruin the look of a front door, so I was immediately sold. Unfortunately only a few manufacturers sell them. Finally, most of the steel and fiberglass doors have a wood frame and the door itself is built with wood. It’s exposed to the elements and often looks bad inside of five years without regular repainting. Only a few had composite frames and steel door construction.
Then I stumbled across iron doors. Iron doors are relatively new on the consumer market. They combine a heavy gauge steel door and frame with wrought iron scrollwork. Best of all they have operable sidelites, they’re filled with polyurethane insulation and you can get Low-E glass so they’re fairly energy efficient, plus they look gorgeous. On top of that they’re extremely secure. The drawbacks were two-fold: very few have a thermal break and all of them are expensive.
The thermal break issue is that the door and frame are made with solid steel tubing, so heat is conducted through the metal despite the insulation inside. This can lead to condensation if there’s enough humidity and temperature difference, not to mention heat loss. I found a couple of companies offering thermal breaks in their iron doors, but they were prohibitively expensive (think new sub-compact car), which only exasperated the second problem. After scouring the Internet for a reasonably priced solution, I finally gave up on the thermal break.
The price difference for the iron door over a regular fiberglass or steel door was about the same as the price difference between the double and triple pane windows. A door we really love, that makes a strong first impression to visitors, plus adds resale value to the house versus an up to fifty-year payback in energy efficiency from triple pane windows was a fairly easy choice. We decided on double pane fiberglass windows from Inline Fiberglass and an iron door from Donatello Doors. It will take six to twelve weeks to get them made and delivered and then we’ll still need time to install them, so we’re ordering now.
Last week Sunday morning on short notice, Eriq and Dean arrived to help me install the beam in the first floor. After getting some coffee we got to work taking out the load bearing wall. Much like the basement beam I had held off taking it out until the day of to minimize the time that the house was resting on the temporary wall. The downside to this is it cost some time, and that’s something we wound up running out of.
I mentioned in an earlier post that the brackets I bought were the wrong size, meaning that the beams fit, but there was no wiggle room. This made getting the pieces properly seated quite difficult, especially since this was a retrofit. In new construction they can drop the beams into the bracket from above. In our case we needed to wedge them in from below.
The real difficulty started with the second section, because the bracket was positioned close to the ceiling joist, making it nearly impossible to fit the beam sections in. We wound up using a sledge hammer and a wood block to pound each individual section into the bracket, sometimes a sixteenth of an inch at a time. Eventually it succumbed to brute force and we got the second section in place.
This picture helps explain a bit better (sorry it’s a bit dark). Each beam section is made up of three separate LVL pieces. There are three sections, so a total of nine beam pieces. Here we’re propping up one end of the second section on a makeshift post, since there’s no way to put it into both brackets at the same time. By the time we finished getting the second beam section up the day was already spent.
I worked on the project a couple of nights during the week, but didn’t make significant progress. It turned out that in order for the beam to be level the end column needed to be shorter than we’d made it. The last couple floor joists are inexplicable raised up by nearly an inch (!) which will make levelling that floor an interesting venture down the road. I also learned that in order to get the beams snug in the bracket you should shave the corners.
Finally yesterday I was able to get cracking on it and got the last beam section up. That proved to be the easy part. Getting all of the holes drilled for the bolts was maddeningly difficult for some reason. I couldn’t manage to drill straight through and my cordless drill batteries kept running out and I’d have to wait while it recharged. I think I should buy a corded drill.
I put the laser level up on top of a window and pointed it at the beam (barely visible), which is how I determined that the last column was too tall. Then I put up a string line to make sure that the beam was straight across the three sections. Sarah helped me get the two beams into alignment. First we lowered a bottle jack until there was some play, pulled it into position, and then jacked it back up. Once everything was in place I measured, cut, and installed the last column.
Sorry this picture is dark, but it does show the finished beam. I haven’t gotten the temporary wall taken down yet; I’m waiting until I have the column bases anchored properly. It shouldn’t really matter, but I’m playing it safe. I ordered some brackets I need to do that, but they haven’t shown up yet. I also need to cut off the excess bolts. The instructions called for 6½” bolts, but they’re usually only sold in one-inch increments.
I’m sore today, much as I was last Monday, and toward the end yesterday I was pretty frustrated, but it’s up. I’d like to thank Dean and Eriq for their assistance last weekend. This was a big project to do with just three people and they really kicked ass.
This morning the truck delivering the first floor beam parts arrived. Sarah and I were waiting for him, though unfortunately there weren’t any open spots along our street. I had expected a smaller truck that we’d offload pieces from individually, but he has a forklift on the back and was able to take the whole skid off in one shot.
He left it on the corner of the sidewalk and from there Sarah and I brought the pieces into the house one by one. When I scheduled the delivery they said not all of the column caps were in, but everything was delivered so it must have shown up in the mean time. Unfortunately the LVL must have been left out in the recent rains, because it was not only wet but a couple of the beam pieces actually warped. I’m not too happy about that. One of the supposed advantages of engineered wood is that it’s 100% straight and true, but that’s just when it’s made. Leaving it out in the elements, especially the rain we’ve had this month will warp nearly any wood-based product.
We put the warped pieces on the bottom and stacked everything on top of it. We’re hoping it will at least partially bow back into shape. If not I’ll have a fun time with the engineered screws getting it tight enough together that it will fit in the brackets. Tonight I’ll test fit and make sure the brackets will work and provided they will I’ll go pick up the bolts I need. Hopefully I can get the beam installed shortly.
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