Right on Time


Mia up for the challenge

In my last blog post, just the other day six months ago, I spilled some virtual ink catching up on the summer and autumn of 2015 in a post that was like an iPhone 6, instantly obsolete and contributing little of value to your life.

A half a year later and I’m a full twelve months behind on updates so I’m going to make a year at the high-performance house building coalface vanish in a [not so] tight 3,000 words spread over a few posts along with a raft of photos [which is all people really want anyway]. I’ll try to be witty but what can you do when so much of it is just about insulation,  and cross-bracing and high spec sealing tape?

So, casting back to 2015, after we got the metal roof on last October I took off to New Mexico for a Natural Building Colloquium, hanging out in the mountains west of the Trinity A-bomb blast site with people who eat plaster for breakfast and build entire houses from clay, straw and sweat.


Mum cutting vapour barrier in posh shoes

While I was away my amazing 70-something parents spent three days on their hands and knees on fractured drain rock putting down the impermeable sub-floor vapour barrier in our house and meticulously sealing it around every concrete peer with $80 a roll tape. The barrier is twenty times less permeable than the building code requires and is so tough you can drive construction equipment over it. I can’t overstate how vital this job is to the performance and comfort of our house, how much this sort of job isn’t my cup of tea and how brilliant my parents did with the sealing and detailing. They asked for a ‘substantial and important job’ and so they got it. They still have sore knees.

By the end of the year I’d laid down 6 inches / 15 cm of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam insulation over the barrier providing thermal resistance of Imperial R24 / RSI 4.23 / U0.23. I have deep ambivalence about using EPS ‘expanded foam’ – the stuff ‘disposable’ [as in last for 1,000 years] coffee cups in the bottom of landfill sites used to be made of. It’s substantially less bad than the rigid pink or blue extruded polystyrene (XPS) foam, which uses much more potent greenhouse gasses during manufacture. But at the end of the day all foam insulation is basically petroleum-based plastic soaked in fire retardant, as are so many commercial building products. This stuff pains me and buying a truck load of the stuff pained me even more.


The sub-floor EPS cross to bear.

I contemplated using Rockboard, a firm mineral wool board from Roxul, but it is hard to  find and unaffordable at nearly six times the price of EPS, which also had the advantage of being manufactured locally near Vancouver. A better natural option I learned about too late in the game was hempcrete or ‘hemp lime’ [lime mixed with the inner part of hemp plants], which would have been worth considering for the sub-floor and the walls. It may well appear in the next project and I like it so much that I commissioned this book.

On the upside, despite the billions of foamy balls which plugged and burned out our borrowed vacuum, and the child sacrifice screeching sound when I cut it that had Karen in hysterics, substantial EPS sub-floor insulation over an impermeable barrier results in a bone-dry floor with a very slow rate of heat loss to the earth. This is the absolute inverse of the half-subterranean, damp, stone floor-over-bare earth deep freeze that Mia lived in as a baby in Crystal Palace, South London. When we moved from that flat, the carpet under the bed was covered in mould and we had to bin the almost new mattress. Of course that place was a virtual Atacama Desert compared to our Streatham flat. It’s so often these cold, damp blanket recollections of my UK housing experiences that drive my quest for very warm and very dry in our house.

Bizarrely, like Hyde, after I was done the sub-floor insulation I sort of wished I’d used even more EPS and laid down 12 inches / 30 cm of EPS to double the floor insulation, as if I lived in Flin Flon rather than the [imaginary] Canadian Riviera. When is enough, enough?

On top of the EPS, which has an impressive compression rating of about 2300 lbs/sf / 11,300 kg/m2, we framed the internal ground floor walls of the double wall system making 16-inch / 40 cm thick exterior walls downstairs and 12-inch / 30 cm thick walls upstairs.  During this time, my sister dropped in for a few days from Calgary and for an early 50th birthday present I showed her how to use the mitre saw without losing fingers. She chopped studs while I nailed and we managed to frame out the double walls of both the upstairs gable ends over a weekend.

This whole internal double wall framing business involved nearly six weeks of building custom top plates and air baffles and extensive air sealing detailing using roll after roll of [really, really, really expensive] Siga Wigluv sealing tape. The temptation to get lazy was always and ever present and the only antidote was lunch, coffee and judicious eyedroppers of my not-quite-buried childhood perfectionism.

As the foolish Europeans who arrived to colonized this place fewer than two centuries ago never knew, the BC coast is historically a brick-shitting deadly seismic zone. To mitigate [some of] the risk posed by a megathrust earthquake, which builds with every passing hour that the Juan de Fuca plate sticks to the North America plate in the Cascadia subduction zone, my engineer specified heaps and heaps of cross-bracing. So, I spent weeks and weeks cutting and nailing 2X4 ‘X’s into the double walls to a prescribed pattern until the entire house was thoroughly cross-braced.

There are a numerous seismic features in the house. The concrete foundation pinned into bedrock and large, frequently spaced anchor bolts and heavy steel post tie-downs should keep the house from doing the table cloth and dinner plates routine in a big shaker and sliding off the foundation. Hurricane ties between the roof and the walls, galvanized strapping between the gables and the rim joists and many, many dozens of foot long engineered GRK structural screws and heavy bolts should keep the layers of the house from flying apart. Lastly, the cross-bracing should in theory keep the whole thing from buckling. At least that’s what the calcs say, though the upward seismic limit isn’t known. With massive earthquakes it’s all about distance, depth and duration and unknown, unknowns.

About the same time we added the cross-bracing, in went the sub-floor plumbing for the toilet, bath, sinks and water delivery lines. Then we wheel-barrowed in and compacted 11 tonnes of road base [gravel, sand and clay] as a solid base for the eventual earthen floor. Much more on this later when you get to watch a video of Mia laying floor.

For now, here’s some more pics of insulation and cross-bracing and sealing tape.

See, now that contributed value to your life.



Fiddling with the vapour barrier


Pleased as punch


Completion photo


Pier detailing


Water line and power line penetrations


My ‘just in case’ radon gas mitigation pipe



Sub-floor waterlines for the loo and the toilet flange


Laying out the downstairs loo walls



More subfloor plumbing


Sealing the sub-floor vapour barrier to the exterior sill plate


And nailing it for life


Laying out the floor plates for internal walls


X bracing at a window


And more


And more


Shear wall X bracing


and more


Custom double wall top plates and Siga tape air sealing


Gable end double wall


More air sealing


Collar ties I added to create the plane of the upstairs ceiling, and the future chimney location


Dormer air sealing baffles


Upstairs double wall with X bracing on the outside


Pat chopping studs like a high schooler


One sip and she’s blurry


Karen moving road base


And more


And much, much more


Mia spreading the road base


Rob on the plate compactor


And look what happened in the garden. The elderberry tree was blooming


And some early flowers


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