picking up the pieces

Rebuilding of a Nepali pavilion toppled in the April 2015 earthquake.
We’re just getting back from 2 weeks in Nepal where I and 23 other ‘westerners’ lent a hand picking up the pieces from the spring earthquake(s). This was part of the Karma Thalo Foundation trip so we also provided 6 days of medical clinic as well. It’s a great mission, a cool trip, and is good time so check it out.
My part, along with three other guys, was to figure out how to clean up and reconstruct a fallen structure using nothing but a handsaw, hammer and nails. Oh, and we had to reuse only the material we had on hand, whatever wasn’t damaged in the earthquake. We chopped the gabled roof into a shed roof and captured the ‘extra’ wood to use as columns. Incorporating some original trim and bracketing into the rebuild, it actually came together pretty nice, considering…
Of course there’s SO MUCH more to the story of our visit to the other side of the world. If you’re interested I actually put together a blog about it. www.nickinepal.wordpress.com

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3 Month Point

We’re wrapping up our third month of construction at the ‪#‎richmondHeightsHome‬. Last week saw major progress on MEP (mechanical electrical plumbing).

HVAC ductwork is completed. To ensure energy efficiency, all seams in the sheet metal are sealed and will be pressure tested for leaks. All ductwork within the attic received an insulated ‘jacket’ as well. We do this to maximize efficiency of the air handler – reducing heat loss between the source and vent locations reduces the energy needed to heat and cool the house. With lighting cans installed we conducted an electrical walk-through with the client and electrician. Made some small changes to switching but most everything’s as planned.

Plumbing rough-in is also nearly complete. We used PEX piping as a common less-expensive alternative to copper. Talking to the plumbers this plastic tubing is really becoming the preferred method of piping both for ease of installation as well as price. With the completion of plumbing came the completion of basement slab as well.

Interesting design note – I tried very hard to understand the MEP systems and incorporate allowances into the design from the beginning but it’s interesting to see now how these components have been installed. The vertical duct chase and continuous soffit on the first floor were utilized – crammed, in fact, with piping. But the soffits on the second floor were abandoned and now we’re actually taking them out, as the intended ducting was just run through the open-web roof joists and insulated.

Lastly there’s been some progress on exterior material. Primed cement-board-panels are installed on the west facade and brick, corten steel, and cedar is slated to start this week. Should look pretty interesting on the next update.

Slab Pour
Slab Pour
Primed Hardie Panels

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Nearing Enclosure

‪#‎RichmondHeightsHome‬ is almost enclosed. Battling wet and cold weather through January, the guys have the roof membrane adhered, sewer connections made, nearly all windows installed, and HVAC ducting begun.

We used a white-colored rubberized membrane, TPO, atop 4″ rigid foam insulation on the roof. The light color helps reflect summer heat and reduce cooling costs. Moving the insulation to the outside will reduce extreme temperatures from entering the conditioned air space…a detail that’s preferred by modern building scientists.

The BIG project recently completed is one you can barely tell took place – the sewer/water connection. You’ve to get clean water to a house and you’ve got to get waste away, right? At our lot the building sits 60′ away from the curb and about 10′ uphill (which is good). The sewer line is located in the middle of the street and the water main is actually under the opposite sidewalk. So for about a week Vushaj Construction dug, drilled, spliced, and stubbed pipes from the basement to the city lines. All that’s seen of this work now is a few PVC stacks peeking out of the basement grade!

More notable is the window installation. We’re using Anderson windows 100 Series composite windows. They’re nice because they offer decent thermal/glazing characteristics, a sleek/sharp modern profile, and they’re affordable. BIG windows are an important component of the design of this small-ish home, making modest-sized rooms feel much larger. the client and I agree that one of the best spaces in the house is one of the smallest – the 2nd story guest bedroom is only 9’x10′ but an entire wall is glazed with possibly the best view on the block. It’s sweet.

With all that wrapping up it’s time to start exterior siding materials and MEP (mechanical electrical plumbing) inside. I left the site today with sheet metal guys routing ductwork through the joists and noted furring strips at exterior hardie panel locations. Stay Tuned…

From Arlingtion

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Digging Done

Yesterday, Tuesday, was the beginning of framing. That’s great because that means we’re about done digging in the dirt. No more surprises, unknowns, washouts, or freeze-delays.

Buried beneath that mud is our drain tile and the spray-applied concrete waterproofing. I met the carpenters in time to watch them lock-down the last few sill plate anchor bolts, readied for floor joists. There’s a good detail that you won’t notice in the pictures; below the sill plate there’s a green ‘foamy’ material, like packaging, called a sill sealer. It’s basically a roll of foam tape that’s installed between the top of concrete and bottom of the wood sill plate to fill potential voids and air/water leaks. This home will be only the third structure in Richmond Heights to meet the 2012 energy code regulations (2009 is the typical standard) which requires a much tighter, highly insulated building.


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Formwork & Foundation

The guys poured the footing in the snow. They erected formwork in the sleet & rain. But thanks to these dude’s efforts we’ve got a foundation to work with.

It’s tough to see in the pictures but the footing is actually stepped from back to front. We had to do this to meet code-required 30″ min coverage on the north since the grade drops almost 8′ from back to front of the house. It’s more of a hassle for the excavator and formwork guys but it saves on overall concrete. The other thing you cant see is the extensive amount of steel rebar that’s embedded within the concrete. Steel is terrific in tension (concrete is good in compression) so it’s engineered and placed in the walls to resist the inward-pushing loads from the backfilled earth. There are also vertical bars that tie the footing and foundation walls together since they’re poured at different times.

The homeowners texted me to say ‘this is getting cool’…. certainly something to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving weekend!


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There is a big hole in the ground.

And that’s a good thing. The big hole means we didn’t uncover any abandoned gas tanks, car bodies, dead bodies, or smithsonian artifacts. I talked to the excavator today and only learned that the ground was ‘loose’ down to a certain depth on account of the previous structure that used to be there. He had to dig down to undisturbed soil, in some spots about 3-4′ below where finished basement floor grade will be. This is all filled with rock now, making me consider how laughable it must be for these guys to see architectural drawings that specify ‘minimum 4″ compacted gravel fill’ below slabs…as if it were that accurate in real life.

We did uncover (and cut) a clay pipe drain. It seemed to have water trickling out and the guys think it might be ‘live’. It’s well within our property boundary so there’s no fault in the disruption but we have yet to determine who, if anyone is going to be watering our temporary mud pit. It seemed not to bother the high-lift operator as he explained he’d found ‘everything except gold and diamonds’ in his line of work.


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Richmond Heights Home

We’re building a modern, energy efficient, new home in Richmond Heights. Let’s talk about it.

This morning we broke ground and things should start happening pretty fast now. But the process to get to this point has been involved. We lost the original contractor that introduced the project, went back and forth with the municipality on design, and edited $100k out of the budget.

I met the clients in January, introduced through a general contractor that planned to do the work. We worked through a few months of design, budgeting, and community hearings before, in June, got news that the contracting company was breaking up. The breakup went a little rocky and in the end we found ourselves working with a new builder. This required some extra time but ultimately brought the project into real focus that identified construction methods and design details that needed to be addressed.

I knew building a modern home in St Louis was going to be a challenge. We also started with an unusually narrow parcel of land. It took two community review hearings to gain approval for our design. The 18′ wide home required a 2′ variance to the sideyard setback, approved in April, and then a separate architectural review because of the ‘unusual’ aesthetic. These meetings occur only once a month so it’s important to gain approval on account of the overall schedule. We took a proactive approach to show of community support and started a petition to ‘let us build modern’ that generated 212 supporters and ultimately the approval of the architectural review board members.

With the design approved and the contractor identified we put the project out to bid. The result was a home that cost nearly $100k more than budget. This was a big miss for sure, but not too surprising, as the original contractors’ strategy was to ‘include everything’ and revise later. That’s a strategy I won’t apply again as it results in the feeling of ‘cutbacks’ to the design, not to mention a huge time-suck on my side to make the revisions to the drawings. In the end we’re building a great house—a modern, neighborhood-appropriate, energy efficient home that still meets MOST of the clients’ wishlist as well as their budget.

That leads us to today—groundbreaking. And now is when the real fun starts. So stay tuned.


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What’s up? Where you been?

I spent the month of October in Nepal. My dentist girlfriend and I (and 18 other people) went on a medical mission trip, providing healthcare to nepalis in remote villages in the Himalayas that we gladly trekked to over a period of 2 weeks. It was cool. Way too cool to capture in a single recap so if you’re interested to learn more please check out the site I created to document the adventure…


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Where in the World?

Travel feeds the soul. It’s relaxing, inspiring, and offers perspective. I consider travel an essential part of life and therefore my work.

It’s been a good summer of travels. Adirondacks for two weeks. Rockies for two weeks. Nepal in a month… stay tuned

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