Cirque du soleil Part Deux


I’m back on that treadmill of pounding nails and publishing books by day and researching hot topics like the counter intuitive best way to air seal a window according to NRCan by night. [Really, no caulking under the window flange, for real, I’m not making this up, it’s all about the Delta P.]

While I luxuriating in my evening hours borrowed from the future, I realize that my blog is still living in the summer of 2015, while my house build lives in the winter of 2016 and my publishing brain lives in the spring of 2017.

So rather than subject you to eight or nine scintillating posts about humping 112 sheets of plywood up on the roof, the depths of my neck tan, the moments of despair as the rain broke through the tarps and saturated our T&G ceiling, or the mad dash to get the metal roof on before the heavens unleashed the autumn gales if it wasn’t for that bleeding Rothenburg 49 degree pitch, I’m going to give you the back-of-a-beer-mat version with a truckload of photos. When you emerge on the other side it will be the spring of 2016  and we’ll all be in a better place.

Then we can get on with talking about thermal mass and swoon to the viscidity of Swiss Siga sealing tapes. Oh, yeah. Be still my beating heart.

Here we go.






The task list [took twice as long)


Nice outriggers


Strapped so the engineer can sleep at night



Chris Sauer volunteers to be monkey man


Half of the sheathing on. Cursed dormers still to come.


Clamps and string. That’s how you build it.



11mm of pain


Definitely water


Framing out a dormer wall


Rolling the barge boards



Two days to hang those before the roofers arrive


Dormer meets the roof peak


All 112 sheets of plywood on the roof


Tammy, Karen’s mum, lends a much needed hand


Dad, remember this from the ’80s? Guess where I learned that trick?


Almost there



Karen thought today was going to be about gardening



Still together after all those fascia boards.


On the so-called ‘chicken strips’


Get it on lads


Metal for the ages


Cirque du soleil Part I


Hours after my last blog post, an email flittered out of the ether from a distant land:


‘I do enjoy you wasting 6 minutes of my comfortable office life with tales of sunshine and screwing.…’


Oh my, the rapture of 2x6s, insulation and plywood decking.


Speaking of which, about 12 hours after finishing the upper floor deck, a couple of lads from Hi-Tec Industries rocked up with our engineered roof trusses and plopped them on the deck with a crane. It took them 20 minutes to set me up with three month’s worth of work.


A few days later my bro Ed showed up with his family and despite a multi-decade interlude since we built anything together, we seamlessly slipped into work mode, anticipating each other’s every move and within two days we had the upper dormer walls framed with plenty of time for beer and the beach. There’s a reason modern houses are stick framed – it’s fast. Very, very fast. Especially with your well-seasoned brother on the chop saw. Sadly Ed had to leave after a couple days and missed the erection of the first roof trusses that catapulted the house from 10 to 27 feet high.


I scratched a spot bald on my head trying to figure out how to lift a 32 foot long truss that weighed in the ‘really heavy’ range onto the dormer wall by myself. In the end I nearly got one up but it was a precarious business best not spoken of. So I defaulted to Plan B: casually waiting for unsuspecting wife / neighbour / old friend to happen by, lure them up to the top deck with the siren call of ‘hey, want to see where the bedrooms will be’ and then pouncing before they could scramble for the ladder.


So within a few days the press-ganged labour had the dormer trusses up. I built Douglas fir posts to carry the double ridge girder for the steep east and west roof sections and Karen and John and me lifted the end trusses into place.


It was weeks and weeks of climbing, shinnying out on a girder and then inevitably dropping or forgetting my tape measure / drill / hammer / plumb bob / whatever-tool-I-needed at a key moment in a really awkward place, necessitating another laborious round trip to the ground.


Oh but it was fun too.


I do like a bit of high angle acrobatics and neck tanning in the relentless sun.



$6000 worth of engineered trusses





The beginning of three months of work


South dormer wall almost framed before lunch


Ed talking to John when he should be working


Not bad for an older brother


Mia gravely concerned that her room has no roof


I got the first truss this far by myself and nobody died


First truss being braced


My confidence is overwhelming


Hey Jen, nice to see you. Wanna put up a truss?


Joe, haven’t seen you since 2002! Fancy putting up a few trusses?


John, come say hello to Jen and help us put up this truss


Mia, can you give me a hand with this truss?


The girder slot in the middle


West end built-up Douglas fir post


Ratcheting the trusses for blocking


East end temporary post and first 13.8 in 12 pitch truss



Installing the West gable ridge extension



Scheisse, is that my nail gun down there?


Nailing the east end ridge girder together


South side lower rafter tails


Hey Darren, I know you’re only here for 24 hours but  want to sand this beam and help me install it?

Six Minutes You’ll Never Get Back


So after banging out the T&G for our main floor ceiling, we had a really epic deck for knocking back cold drinks in the sun. As an upper floor though it was far too flimsy with a mere ¾” of Douglas fir bridging 5 foot spans.

If this was going to support my many thousands of books in an upstairs library then it would need some serious beefing up.

So I humped 130 fourteen foot 2X6s up onto the deck and began building a lattice of joists to carry the load. The engineer specified 16” centres for the joists but since he’s never seen my Earthscan book collection and probably doesn’t own multiple sets of Das Kapital, never mind Janson’s 3.7 kg, 1168 page History of Art, I decided to go with 12” centres in most places to add even more meat.

I also framed overhangs on the east and west ends that rest on the exterior posts and beams to create covered areas below. That sounds easy, but it really wasn’t. On the back of a week of 14 hour days in the sun, it felt right to share the pain and ruin my electrician’s sailing holiday by having him drop everything and wire for the downstairs lights.

Rough wiring in, I filled the joist bays with bats of Roxul Safe’n Sound mineral wool insulation as a fire break and sound dampener for when Mia’s 14 and cranks the Justin Bieber of 2025. On top went 964 square feet of ¾ plywood, with the last screw of 3000 sunk at 9 pm, eleven hours before the roof trusses arrived and were plopped on top with a crane.

Was building the subfloor structure exciting? A life changer really. At least as thrilling as reading this post. There’s six minutes of your life, gone, forever. All to look at some guy put in screws and stuff insulation.

Next up, cranes and high angle antics. Really, I swear on a stack of Kapital, it’ll be exciting.


Beginning the lattice


Through the middle is where the library will go



The 2X12 east overhang


Rough wiring


A downstairs light fixture box


Dirt, manure, mineral wool, what’s the diff?



Insulated and ready to cover





John decides to join the back pain club



Almost ready for the truss delivery!

It’s groovy, man.


Wood. It’s expensive on many levels. As it probably should be when you cut down a venerable living thing and slice it up into boards and sawdust. Vital ecosystem, carbon sink, cubic metres of cash, something to chuck into your woodstove.


It depends on your view point.


So I set off to find some flash but affordable wood for our house ceiling that met a number of environmental, economic and aesthetic objectives.


Rule number one: no old growth.


So I ring up on mill on Vancouver Island near Ladysmith and request a quote on some tongue and groove planks. I’m very specific: ‘Douglas fir or red cedar, no old growth.’ Mill man responds: ‘is there any specific reason why you don’t want old growth?’ as if it’s the most bonkers thing he’s ever heard.


If I have to explain to someone in 2015 why my house cannot possibly justify cutting down a 500 year old Douglas fir tree then is there really a point in going on? Sure it’s British Columbia and we’ve diligently cut down 99% of the old growth Douglas fir over the past 125 years so hell ya, why not go all in and turn those remaining ancient 200 foot tall behemoths into flooring for wankers?


So I move on to mill man two. An FSC certified mill near Parksville. Plenty of wood, all young second growth, all from monitored woodlots. Good start. Mill man appears highly motivated. Even better. So as we’re discussing micro V versus flush milled tongue a groove joints I spot some dust covered lifts of lumber in the back of a vast warehouse.


‘What’s that?’


‘Oh some flooring. I think it been sitting back there for eight or ten years.’


‘Hmm… would it work for a ceiling?’


‘Can’t see why not.’




So I’m back a week later. Mill man is very keen. I suspect the bank is circling overhead, talons glistening.


‘You can have two lifts for $1700, including tax.’


‘Including tax, eh?’




‘For all 1900 square feet?’




So handed the mill man an envelope of freshly extruded plastic $100 bills and the wood is mine.


Over 6,000 lineal feet of mostly clear [knot free] second growth Douglas fir tongue and groove flooring, seasoned after a decade of collecting dust in a saw mill warehouse. Somebody’s long forgotten dream floor that never happened, now destined for our ceiling.


So the recipe for great early summer T&G: cut board to length, pound tongue into groove, nail, repeat 600 times while developing that neck tan.

One lift, still dusty

One lift, still dusty








Looking good from downstairs

Looking good from downstairs


Taking a break from the neck tan to put up Mia's Mother's Day present so mama 'Won't forget my name' Ah bless the logic of 4 year olds.

Taking a break from the neck tan to put up Mia’s Mother’s Day present so mama ‘Won’t forget my name’ Ah bless.

Where ya been hiding?


So maybe while killing time between packed buses, flossing your teeth or changing a nappy, some of you in Melbourne, Singapore, Auckland, Nashville or Biggleswade might have been wondering what the hell has been going on?

Blog entries as regular as a Saturday hangover in London climaxing in torrid prose about power planes, drilling jigs and threaded rod and then nothing. Nada. Pure radio silence.

City bred greenhorns. Perhaps they threw in the towel on this folly of a house build and overly ambitious micro farm? Maybe Rob dyed his grey, grew a real beard and shed ten years, abandoning the good life for the better life of East Vancouver hipster. Karen trading her plenty-of-sweat-required 1/3 acre veg garden for two square feet of containered micro-greens on a fourth floor balcony. Cleaning the country living out from under her nails and sipping a latte while posting earnestly ironic photos of Mia in skinny jeans on Pinterest.

Na, none of that happened. Though I’m still working on that beard and Mia and her jeans are pretty skinny.

You may recall in my last instalment back in early June, we’d just finished our heavy timber post and beam frame. After basking in glory for about ninety seconds, thoughts turned to winter. Sure late May flowers blanketed the roadsides and Karen’s garden burst with the promise of ten thousand green shoots already a month into what would become a five month drought. But in my mind I saw only the spectre of November gales lashing down, turning a year’s work to rot.

The vision was powerful, the way forward clear.

You can’t live in a wood frame with no roof so it was time to stop the self-congratulatory B.S. and get hammering. The solution to cold night sweats about rain half a year in the future? A five month diet of ten hour days. As a consequence, I ended up too shattered to type, think up witty things to say or bother with showering.

So what follows over the next half dozen blog posts is a heady tale of high angle acrobatics, repetitive stress syndrome, 30,000 nails, an epic builder’s tan and the tendency to Shanghai unwary visitors into lifting something really, really heavy. All in the bid to get that bleeding roof on.

Next up, how we got our (tongue) and groove.

From this

Internal cross bracing removed. All is revealed!

End of May 2015

To this

Mid-Oct 2015

Mid-Oct 2015

The Last Post(s, Beam and Joist)

'The gap' mocking my 9 months of labour

‘The gap’ mocking my 9 months of labour


11 mm of wood between me and the completion of our heavy timber frame.


A yawning micro gap mocking me on the Hillary Step of nine months of hard post-and-beam graft from above the fourth of five posts over which sat our last and longest beam. A beastly 27’ 7” (8.5m) chunk of Douglas fir felled by Thor and intended to support the entire east end of our house.


Somehow in the complicated layout of the beam flats, incorporating two distinct horizontal planes to negotiate a long gradual taper, I made an error. As the post top elevations were spot on – triple checked with the optical builder’s level – I probably introduced the error in layout when transferring elevations onto the curved surface of the roundwood for the flat contact surfaces for posts.


Perplexing that 11 mm.


But no matter.


Nothing the Makita power plane couldn’t turn into compost toilet shavings in 90 seconds flat. Never mind that the 400 kg beam was suspended by two ropes off an excavator bucket perilously close by. My neighbour John was on the controls, keeping the timber steady while giving his dog Libby a head scratch.


A snowstorm of fine fir flakes off post five, a mere flurry off post four and a paper’s thickness off post three. With a flick of the wrist on the joystick John shunted the beam half an inch and it settled down on the flats. I reshot the beam top elevations and it was level within 5 mm across the entire length. Well within the variability of the roundwood. Chuffed, relieved, ecstatic.


An hour later we’d popped the last 6×12 joist into place in the northwest corner. A slightly complicated affair with one end on the roundwood, as with the other 14 joists, and one end terminating on a block on top of a three-ply 2×12 door lintel in our 45 degree wall. I jacked the joist into place and tapped it onto its marks, the top flush with the outer stud wall double plate, east-west variability of 3mm across the length. A satisfyingly tight connection after the inelegant final beam fitting.


Later in the week, after a site visit from our delighted structural engineer Kris Dick, I screwed the joist in place with a half dozen 12 and 16 inch GRK structural screws. The post and beam drilling jig was put into action for the last time on the five connections on the east beam and the post and beam frame was complete!


Nine months, thirty-five roundwood posts and beam sections, fifteen 6×12 joists, five built up 4-ply 2×6 posts, 4 plate steel flitch plates, 66 bolts 12 X ¾” , 26 pieces of 5/8” threaded rod and steel backers, 5 galvanized post brackets and 10 half inch bolts and 21 custom made plate steel post tie-downs cast into the foundation last year.


The next day I took down most of the cross-bracing and the shape of the house revealed itself to us in all its sturdy glory. Strangely it somehow doesn’t look like that much work now that it’s done, but maybe that’s the point.


Thanks to my dad for helping put together the built-up posts and east external stud wall while on holiday. Special thanks to John, our neighbour, for lifting each and every timber at least a half dozen times with his excavator. Your generosity knows no bounds.

The beastly east beam

The beastly east timber before layout

South end beam-to-post flat

South end beam-to-post flat

John flexing his hydraulic muscle

John flexing his hydraulic muscle

Will it fit [we know it won't]

Will it fit [we know it won’t]


The last plate steel post tie-down prior to drilling

The last plate steel post tie-down prior to drilling

Ploy cutting board screwed to the bottom of the exterior posts to provide an air gap. Nice (cheap and easy) call by the engineer.

Plastic cutting board cut with a jigsaw and screwed to the bottom of the exterior posts to provide an air gap. Nice (cheap and easy) call by the engineer.

The drilling jig in action for the last time

The drilling jig in action for the last time

The top hole

The top hole


5/8" threaded rod

5/8″ threaded rod

Done except for the washers and nut

The giant Ikea connector in action

The last joist at the beam end

The last joist at the beam end

And on the mark over the 45 degree door lintel

And on the mark over the 45 degree door lintel

16 inch GRK screws through the double top plate, through the josit and into the supporting block

16 inch GRK screws through the double top plate, through the joist and into the supporting block

Internal cross bracing removed. All is revealed!

Internal cross-bracing removed. All is revealed!

Post at the bottom of what will be the stairs

Post at the bottom of what will be the stairs


More self-aggrandizing photos

More self-aggrandizing photos

The view from up top with a dusting of Borax for mould prevention

The view from up top with a dusting of Borax for mould prevention

View from what will be Mia's room to the SW

View from what will be Mia’s room to the SW


Cutting up bread for lunch

Cutting up bread for lunch



Straddling two ladders, 80 kg of Douglas Fir on my shoulder, I lowered the timber onto a flat spot chiselled on the round beam. A satisfying thunk onto its mark 1 inch (25mm) below the string line, the bones of the upper floor complete.

Time for beer.

For the past two months I’ve been measuring, sawing, chiselling, and sanding the 15 epic joists that will support the most vital bits of our house like our bed and the library for a couple of thousand books.

Milled last spring, the 6X12 inch joists run perpendicular to the three parallel rows of round wood beams running through the house.

Each joist interfaces with the round wood at a custom cut curved notch that adds both stability against earthquake racking and enabled me to remove any remaining elevation error caused by the variability and taper of the round wood.

This means that the upper floor of our house should be perfectly level with twin goals achieved; the roof should go on square without any twists and crucially, Mia’s marbles shouldn’t roll across her room and under the bed.

The timbers are still raw with the saw blade marks from milling, juxtaposed against the organic curve of the peeled round wood. Chiselled by hand, lifted by machine, nudged onto their marks with muscle. The interface between the natural and the machine made.

I recommend lifting timbers with your shoulder. It’s the antidote to decades of desk dwelling.

Check out the photos below for the step-by-step in case the urge takes you.

String lines up, laid out with the surveying scope

I laid out the string lines with the surveying scope


Chiselled flat and radius on a beam

The raw timbers

The raw timbers

Rolling a joist into my tent shop

Rolling a joist into my tent shop

Chewing through the radius line with an auger

Chewing through the radius line with an auger, obviously after a load of measuring

Profile gauge for transferring the radius from the beam to the joist

Profile gauge for transferring the radius from the beam to the joist

Chiselling the radius

Chiselling the radius after drilling

Coming along

Coming along



Radius smoothed with a grinding wheel and edged mortised

Ready to be lifted into place

Lightly sanded and ready to be lifted into place

Popped onto the beams with John on the excavator

Popped onto the beams by John on the excavator


Final positioning onto the flats

The 5/8" post-beam connection hidden beneath the joist

The 5/8″ post-beam connection hidden beneath the joist.

Through bolted into the post-beam connection on one end

Through bolted into the post-beam connection on one end


Not one of the finer joist-beam connections but I’ll take it

12" by 3/8" GRK structural screws connect the joist to the beam on the other end

12″ by 3/8″ GRK structural screws connect the joist to the beam on the other end

John monkeying around with one end on the joist

John monkeying around with one end of the joist


There she be!

One happy post and beamer!

One happy post and beamer!