color and texture

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May 182008


This week has brought a lot of texture to the outside of the house, and major progress on the inside. The driveway and curb have been completed, stained cedar siding is going onto the setbacks on the front of the house, and we’re painting and working hard on the interior stairs.

First, the driveway. Artisan Concrete (who also did our foundation) did the pour, while scattering pami gravel that I hauled on Tuesday into the fresh surface, troweling it in. All three things are going on in this photo below.

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A couple of hours later, after spraying a retardant on the surface to keep it from hardening too fast, the concrete is set enough to hold the pebble in place. The pic at the top of the page shows Dominic power-spraying the surface with water, removing the top layer of cement and exposing the pebbles. The transformation was amazing and beautiful to watch.

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Meanwhile, Nancy and I have been staining the cedar siding on sawhorses across the street. Mauricio has started to install it on the wall of the 3rd floor deck.

Aaand…today we worked on the stair framing. Steve & Tom Tillson installed the main stringers and framing posts a few days ago, and it’s my job to put walnut stain on them. Before and after.

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This wood wall up the center of the stairs is going to be completed with narrow slats of clear douglas fir, spaced so you can see through it. The framing is dark, for contrast. I should have pictures to share by the end of the next week.

Nick Razo (Senior and Junior) are arriving Monday to start tiling the house. George and Nancy and I are moving along with the painting, and I’ll be assembling and installing kitchen and bathroom cabinets this week. And cleaning and priming the floor, and installing the ProFlex underlayment membrane before tiling. The stair brackets arrive Wednesday, and we have to paint them. I have less than 2 weeks to get everything out of our storage unit, so the refrigerator, dishwasher, washer & dryer, sinks, toilets, lighting fixtures and bathtub all have to come over soon. The garage is going to be packed.

 Posted by at 1:58 am

it’s gone!

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May 132008


…or perhaps, “it’s there!” At the end of the movie “Groundhog Day”, Bill Murray has a moment of enlightenment when he realizes it’s a new day. We finally can see our house, in something like it’s final form.

Awareness pops in sideways. Yes, I made the phone calls: ask Bob Hartwell to get the scaffolding out of the site, ask National Construction Rental to remove their fence and the porta-pottie on Monday. Then there is the reality of arriving Monday morning, and seeing the house without all this stuff in front of it. The stucco color is really good, and looks different throughout the day, muted sage green in early morning and evening, bright under the midday sun, like the picture above. Proportions are great. Folks walking by like it.

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Of course, it’s still a construction site. A pile of boulders sits in front of the property, now wrapped with orange plastic fencing, surrounded by orange pylons. Brent Harris’ skip loader and backhoe are parked, ready for duty. The driveway is graded and prepared for our final concrete pour tomorrow morning. Today was wild…I spent a couple of hours hauling 2000 lbs of pami pebbles (to seed the driveway surface) in 5-gallon buckets. With Brent’s crew (thanks again, Randy, Ernesto and Braulio!) we positioned three key bluestones in morter, and laid out the stress crack grid in the driveway, I got bids and ordered 54 steel brackets for stair treads, inspected the treads being cut and planed to size from huge 4” douglas fir boards, talked to a tiler about a bid, and talked to our tile supplier about crack-suppressing underlayment from ProFlex. I also put in a half day at work. Needless to say, I’m a bit tired tonight.

Tomorrow, I’ll be there at 7am to adjust the grid to meet Nancy’s specifications, deliver some 2×12 lumber so we can create a ramp from the side of the driveway into the garage, and continue work on stairs, cedar siding, painting and radiant heating while the concrete sets. Pedal to the metal.

Here is my drawing for the stair brackets, and some of the stair treads being manufactured by the Tilson’s in their shop.


I can’t believe I’m so excited that we have our first working toilet in the house 🙂

 Posted by at 11:53 pm

more railings

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May 022008


Now that the stucco is done, I’ve taken time off of work to install the cable railing system. It’s more than half done now, and the results are great! And my arms ache from the effort.

I bought cable kits from Feeney Architectural Products to do the whole thing. The first thing I discovered is that the self-swaging cable terminators require 9/16” holes in the rail posts on one end of each cable run. There are 5 cable runs, each with 12 cables…so I had to drill 60 9/16” holes through 2 layers of 1/4” steel. This meant that I had to purchase a really good drill (i.e. a guy toy, a Milwaukee 1/2”), a 9/16” cobalt steel drill bit (thank you, Grainger), and ultimately, a drill bit sharpener. I now have incredible respect for people who work with steel. It took a lot of strength and energy to drill those holes!

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Let me start with the cable kits. Once again, we’re at the place where “some assembly is required”. Here is a set of cables, short 5-footers and long 15-footers, with a tube of locktite, the nuts that go on the threaded end, the swages that go on the bare end, and the stainless steel caps that finish them off.

The cable is threaded through the posts, a nut and washer goes on the threaded end (not visible), and a the swage slides onto the bare end with a nylon washer. The swage locks onto the cable, so it can only be pushed in one direction. These are the 9/16” holes I drilled, with 4 swages installed, and a 5th swage going onto the cable.

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The almost-finished product. Nuts on the threaded ends on the right have been tightened to make the cables taught. The next step is to take a cutting wheel to the threaded shaft, trimming the excess, add a drop of locktite, then snap a finish cap onto the end. The result is the neat, clean installation you see on the left.

By the way, I left some extra threaded shaft on the end of each cable, so I can pop the caps off and tighten the cable if it stretches over time.

Meanwhile, work is starting on the inside stairway. Steve and Tom Tillson have started making templates for the 4×12 stringers that will go up the center of the stair well, which will support the floating treads. I had a load of 4×12 ‘selected grade 1 structural kiln-dried free-of-heart-center douglas fir’ (aka ‘select 1 struct KD FOHC DF’) delivered to their shop today. They are planing the 16’ beams down to size, and I should have some pictures and progress to report within a few days.

George, Nancy and I continue to prime all the walls, paint ceilings and door frames, and prepare the house for final smooth drywall touch-up, kitchen cabinets, and bath room tiling. Waterproofing of the shower and decks will be finished this coming week. The gutter downspouts will be done Tuesday, and the scaffolding will be picked up Wednesday. Cedar siding arrives on Thursday. We’re scheduling the concrete pours for the curb and driveway, and placement of rocks on the hillside to build the slope back up in front of the wing walls. I’m keeping my foot on the throttle.

 Posted by at 11:09 pm

pretty on the outside

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Apr 292008


Vargas Construction is finishing the exterior stucco today, and here are a few pictures. What surprises me the most is how different the finish looks at different times of the day. Above, you see the house early in the morning, and the stucco looks like a nice medium gray, with slight sage green tint. But during the day, under direct sun, it’s a lot lighter.

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Here is the work underway, and the final result on the 3rd floor deck. It’s pretty bright, under direct sun. Nancy wasn’t completely happy with it at first, because it looks awfully light. But in the morning and evening, it looks great, and the color seems to compliment the bronze and the cedar accents nicely. I’m also happy because this color will help keep the house cool during the summer. We don’t have any air conditioning, and it regularly hits 95°F or even 100° midday during July and August. The window system will help keep the house cool…but I’m glad we don’t have a darker color that would absorb more heat.

(Note the beautiful bronze paint job Nancy and I did on the spiral staircase 🙂


This last shot not only shows how bright it can look, but how hard the Vargas crew works. These guys rock.

In the mean time, George and I are priming all the sheetrock walls in the house, and starting to paint the final colors. Steve and Tom Tillson have come in to built our interior stairs, the plumbers are finishing the radiant heating system, Division 7 is waterproofing the shower in the master bath, and I’m working on the cable railing. I’ll have more pictures shortly.

 Posted by at 11:45 pm


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Apr 122008


Finish details are appearing as we push towards our move-in date. We hope to be in the house in early June, and that will require completion of the kitchen, a bathroom, exterior deck railing, working doors and lighting, and a safe stairway. We have a lot to do, and I’ll be taking time off work to do as much of the finishing work as I can. I’m already acting as the project manager, with a PERT chart scheduling the subcontractors, showing dependencies, etc.

Over the last two weeks, we’ve seen the drywall crew complete most of the mud and taping, the stucco crew have applied the “scratch” coat and the “brown” coat, and the elevator and garage doors have been installed. For the first time this weekend, the house is an enclosed, contained structure that we can lock up at night.

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Here are pictures of the elevator installation. You can see steel channels bolted to one side for the lift mechanism, with the hydraulic ram and cable that raises and lowers the cab. The next picture shows the frame that the elevator cab is built on.

The finished product is on the right. We got bronze hardware to match the windows and door fixtures. The elevator is made by Savaria Concord, and Nationwide Lifts did a great job of putting it in for us.

This makes our house accessible for our parents. It also gives us a way to get the kitchen appliances up to the 3rd floor!

Below are some pictures of the drywall and stucco crews, both hard at work and taking their lunch break. These guys worked long days, and one full Saturday, to get the job done while the weather was good.

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Right now, the garage ceilings and the exterior railings are all painted, and we’re ready to do the garage walls and start painting upstairs when the walls are ready. In a week or so, I hope to be starting to assemble and install kitchen cabinets, having someone start the bathroom tile work, and installing the cable railing for each deck. And we’ll be working on the interior stair way before the end of the month. I also want to have a working toilet this week, so we can have the fence and porta-pottie removed from the front of the house. Our neighbors will probably appreciate that 🙂

No time to rest.

 Posted by at 10:07 pm

presto! instant house

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Mar 312008


The four-day transformation is complete, and we now have walls. The picture above is the same part of the house from last week, before sheetrock. What a difference! I think I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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Living room, with folding doors, the deck, and the top of the stairs. See the soffit over the stairs? Nice detail, Nancy! The right photo is looking from the bedroom toward the living room, past the same soffit. The window at the end overlooks the big oak next to the house.

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Living room corner, with the EcoSmart fireplace, and a recess for a flat-screen TV. When we can afford to buy one 🙂 2nd floor bedroom, with door going out to a small deck. The douglas fir windows look really nice next to the light-colored walls.


By the way, sheetrock is really messy. Here is the living room last Friday, before clean-up!

And finally, a few exterior shots. We now have retaining walls on either side of the driveway, which is graded and ready for paving. The extra dirt and rock is back on the slope behind these walls, which we will build back up to bury as much of the retaining wall as possible. And the exterior of the house is pretty much the same, ready for stucco, which is starting today. The skiploader and backhoe are gone, and we are working to clear out everything behind the fence.

Next week, the elevator goes in. And I’ll paint the garages, so the garage doors can be installed and we can seal up the house.


 Posted by at 6:53 pm

picking up the pace

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Mar 192008


After 3-1/2 months of infrastructure work, we’re starting a few weeks of radical change. There will be walls and ceilings soon, and the place was swarming with teams yesterday – plumbers finishing drains, Tony & Mauricio tending framing details, a crane delivering tons of sheetrock, and two teams installing insulation. Plus some of Brent’s concrete crew working on the driveway retaining walls. Add two owners, the architect and the general contractor having their weekly meeting, and the place was crowded like a disco. And just as loud, with diesel engines and power tools thrown in 🙂

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Drywall delivery at 7:30am yesterday. We now have neat stacks of it on each floor, weighing, what, 30,000 lbs? Sheet rock guys arrive on Friday, so rough walls should be in place in a week.

This fellow is spraying foam insulation onto the underside of our roof deck. The spaces between these joists are not ventilated, and will collect condensation. So foam insulation is applied to eliminate any space for dampness to accumulate. After the foam expands and hardens, another guy saws off the excess to make a smooth surface for drywall.


Of course, this leaves a gigantic mess. At the end of the day, the third floor looked like a foam snowstorm. And the walls and ceilings are almost completely stuffed. We have R-30 to R-60 insulation levels everywhere, so the house should stay very comfortable all year ‘round.

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As I write this, I am sorry that we didn’t manage to use fully renewable insulation materials. Shredded jeans apparently make a great product. I’m concerned about out-gassing from from the foam, for instance. But none of our contractors are comfortable with renewable insulation materials, and there are some places where we have to worry about condensation. I’ve just got to trust the professionals.

 Posted by at 9:26 pm

a maze of twisty details

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Mar 142008


There was a computer game in the ‘70’s called “adventure”, where you could get lost in “a maze of twisty passages, all alike”. I’ve felt like I’m lost in a maze of twisted details, but today I stumbled out and found the gold nuggets. After several weeks of hard work by everyone, and dozens of issues to resolve, our house passed the “rough in” inspection today. We are installing the insulation and sheetrock next week. Pardon me, but…YEEEHA! Kudos to Bob Hartwell, Tony Mowers, Rick Hayward from Lackett Electrical, Craig from Peter Levi Plumbing, and Brent Harris’ crew. They’ve all worked hard.

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Some of the details keeping us all busy: besides the alcohol fireplace in the living room (go to for details) we added framing and conduits for a home entertainment system, blocking for hanging pictures and towel racks, conduit for telephone, cable TV and yard lighting, forms for the small retaining walls and curb around the driveway, and completed the drainage system. And the plumbers and electricians completed their work. This pic shows a concrete driller cutting one of the 4” holes in our garage wall for the 2nd floor deck drains. Next are shots of the conduit and drain pipe in the front of the house, and the retaining wall forms.

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Here are details I’m personally proud of. We needed to make a slot opening in the curb for the 6” drains from behind the house and wing walls. How were we going to convert the 6” PVC pipe into a slot shape? I got a bunch of foam, and carved it by hand to form the shape we needed, 6” round on one end, 3 x 9” rectangle on the other. Then I wrapped it in black duct tape. You see it here, stuck in the end of the drain pipe, fit into the form for the curb. When we pour the new curb, we’ll add extra concrete around the foam shape and the 6” pipe. Then we can reach in through the opening in front, and dig the foam and tape out, leaving the drain slot open.

We also completed the final telephone hookup, asked several glass vendors to bid on our glass rail in the living room, picked up the last kitchen cabinets, got the copper gutter on the roof deck shortened so there is enough room for stucco around the ends, and of course, continued painting the railing and spiral stair. All railing now has the first coat on it, and if the weather permits, we’ll do the second coat this weekend. And, my friend George finished putting clear coat on all doors and windows.


Here are some of my sketches (thanks to Google SketchUp, a great freeware tool) of house details. I work on these late at night, in my spare time 🙂 This is our master bathroom vanity, surface-mounted sink with LaCava Waterblade faucet and lighted mirror. On the right is a side view of the skylight tower over our stairwell, showing the roof deck across the middle. I used the Golden Ratio to size the bottom opening, giving balanced proportions. The skylight had to be mounted 36” above the deck to meet code.


This was used to get bids on the glass railing around the top of the stairs, next to the living/dining room. I drew the 4 x 8’ beams underneath the floor, to show how it will be mounted.

 Posted by at 10:03 pm


 House Building  Comments Off on railings
Mar 032008


No, not that kind of railings. Well, maybe a little 🙂

I took some vacation time from my job this week, so I could work on the house. The railing system arrived a week ago, and someone needed to install it. Everyone on the construction team is feverishly working towards the “rough-in inspection”, which should be happening within 10 days, so I nominated myself to do a bit of construction work. Also, these rails are through-bolted into the house, so if there are any water leaks around them, I only have myself to blame. I think Bob was happy to let me do the job.

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First of all, you should know that steel is heavy. Lugging all the parts up to the four different decks took effort. I also got a first-hand view of how important it is to be organized. Tony & I measured size and counted the of bolts we would require TWICE, yet I still had to make a three trips to the hardware store to exchange bolts and return extra washers. All of the hardware is 5/8” galvanized steel, which we chose because it holds a paint finish well.

The roof deck post mounts are attached with 9” bolts, right through a beam (top photo). This area is at risk of leaking the most, so I put Sikaflex goo in all the holes, around the bottom of the mounts, under and over the washers, and under the bolt heads. I’m enjoying doing this.

The 3rd floor deck posts are side-mounted, again bolted right through a big beam. Tony was great to work with — much easier with 2 guys. You can see the nuts on the inside of the flashing in the picture above, also carefully covered in Sikaflex. The right-hand picture shows a deck on the second floor, with 4-1/2” concrete bolts drilled right into the front concrete wall. These rails are amazingly rigid, they don’t move at all when I tug on them.

Then of course we get to paint everything, including the new spiral stair. Nancy and I invested our whole weekend in this project. It took a full day to touch up the primer on all the rail posts, and prime all 140 or so nuts and bolts and washers. Today we started on the bronze enamel finish coats.

Working up on a scaffolding is a bit scary. We’re logging a lot of time there.


 Posted by at 12:10 am

something curved this way comes

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Feb 042008


One of the architectural features of our house, not always obvious, is a large spiral stair case connecting the 3rd floor deck with the roof deck. It arrived this morning, and as Bob Hartwell said, “Wow, your house suddenly looks modern”.

We chose a stair design by Stocklin Iron, up in Santa Rosa. There were some interesting details we had to settle before fabrication could start:

  • the bottom tread starts an extra 2” higher, so that the tread spacing is even after we install the tile system on the deck at the bottom of the stair.
  • the landing on top is 1-1/2” higher than the current deck surface, so that it will be at the same level as the tile.
  • the whole stair is rotated about 30 degrees, so that it meets the landing at an angle on top. This allows the entrance to the stairway to point out into the middle of the lower deck, making it more convenient to step onto.
Installation was going to be a problem. There was no easy way to maneuver it up through the house, and Stocklin offered to cut it in half, bring the pieces up, and weld it back together. Instead, we hired a crane, Stocklin gave us a break on the installation cost, and we actually saved a little money. So this morning, we had more big equipment at the job site.

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The stair arrived first, carried like an odd appendage on top of a van. The crane pulled in a few minutes later, and within a half-hour, the stair was dangling over the 3rd floor deck, 850-lbs of awkward primer-red spiral, catching the first rays of sunlight over the hill.

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An hour later, the deed is done, and we can walk right up to the roof deck without balancing on a ladder or scrambling up the hillside. The stair is solid, spacious (treads are 36” wide). And very red, sort of like an odd piece of the Golden Gate Bridge has been transplanted to Fairfax. A little paint will make the whole thing look more harmonious.

I haven’t posted a pic of the outside of the house for a while, because little has been changing. But you can see that we have waterproofing wrap on most of the exterior, ready for stucco. The front door is installed. And we’ve got nice copper gutters, slowly losing their brand-new shine.


 Posted by at 10:15 pm