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June 19, 2006
Small successes

Gail works to "plug" an unexpected hole between the first and second floors

Once upon a time, we thought that we would complete the entire exterior of our mountain house within the first year of construction. By the end of 2005, however, we had only installed the eight walls of the lower story. We had not even begun any of the eight walls of the upper story, let alone any of the windows.

Now we were almost halfway through our second year of construction, and we had still not even begun any of the eight walls of the upper story. Despite Gail’s eagerness, Russell did not want to start on the second-story walls until we had someplace to stand while we were installing them. This would mean completing two prerequisite tasks:

  1. Installing the decks
  2. Framing the stairwell

Adding to Gail’s impatience was the knowledge that – due to our schedule – we would have much less availability this summer than last summer. We were therefore ecstatic when the boys’ school year finally ended. Friday, June 16 was Joss’ last day of school. Although Cameron had gotten out of school a week earlier, June 16 was also his last day of Driver’s Ed class.

Accordingly, on the afternoon of June 16, we braved the Friday rush hour commute traffic and drove back up to the mountain. As usual, our friend Steve met us there. (In fact, we were happy that Steve beat us to the mountain. By the time we arrived, Steve had already graciously disposed of the various rat carcasses that he had found in and around the house. Apparently, the poison finally worked.) We pitched a tent for Russell, Gail, and the boys; and we set up Steve’s sleeping bag on the floor of the house.

On Saturday morning, June 17, work began. Russell, Cameron, and Joss took on the job of completing the remaining deck sections. Because the last three sections of deck were contiguous, Gail requested that all of the planks line up at the intersections. Russell was able to accomplish this by bending and tweaking the composite planks as necessary.

By mid-afternoon, the decks were completed. A cheer went up from the excited work crew.

Joss installs a deck screw
The finished contiguous decks (note how nicely the planks line up at the intersection!)

Meanwhile, Gail had determined that she could begin to install the eight corner pieces of the upper story. She and Steve took on the job of doing this. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a much bigger job than expected.

While four of the corner pieces had windows and four were solid, Gail and Steve had no problem lifting them, moving them, and attaching a bitumen weather seal to their undersides. The problem was that when lifted into place, the top of the corner pieces hit against the underside of the ceiling before they could be plumbed upright.

The top of the corner pieces hit against the underside of the ceiling before they could be plumbed upright

Each corner piece would have to have part of the top shaved off in order to fit into place. We tried planing them. We tried rasping them. We tried chiseling them. In the end, we had to use a Sawz-All in order to remove the amount of wood necessary to make the corners fit.

Joss tries to plane the corner
Cameron tries to rasp the corner
Steve tries to chisel the corner
Gail and Steve ultimately had to use a Sawz-All

By the end of Saturday, six out of the eight corner pieces had been successfully installed. A cheer went up from the exasperated work crew.

Steve and Gail model another success

The remaining two corner pieces would go on either side of the stairwell. Again, the stairwell would have to be framed before we could proceed any further.

As we examined the large hole where the stairwell would someday go, we discovered another problem. Because the upper story was larger and cantilevered over the lower story (like a mushroom), there were two large holes on either side of the stairwell section that were not covered by a floor or wall. None of Topsider’s four construction manuals or blueprints had any instructions or specifications on how we were supposed to cover these holes. We would have to make something up.

On Sunday morning, Steve and Russell made the half-hour drive into town to find an open store. Although Meeks’ Lumber was closed, Lowe’s Home Improvement Center was open. The men returned with a 4x8 foot piece of exterior wood that corresponded roughly to the existing walls.

The rest of the day was a slow and methodical exercise in logistics and improvisation. We would need to cut the wood into odd trapezoidal shapes and lay them horizontally across the holes. However, we would first have to make the holes level. Because they were bordered by various wall segments of different heights, we would have to use pieces of scrap wood to bring everything to an even level.

We spent several hours digging through the scrap wood piles for suitable pieces. These then had to be cut and nailed into place. A combination of bitumen and caulking provided a water-tight (and bug-tight) seal. Finally, by the end of the day Sunday, we had completed filling the holes. A cheer went up from the exhausted work crew.

The hole, "before" -- viewed from above
Cameron applies caulking
The hole "ready" -- prepared with scrap word, bitumen, and caulking

The hole, viewed from below -- "before" and "after"

On Sunday evening, Steve departed for home and the coming work week. Gail, Russell, Cameron, and Joss stayed for one additional night.

On Monday morning, we finally began the complicated task of beginning to frame the stairwell section. This task was complicated because:

  1. Neither Russell nor Gail (nor Steve) had any knowledge of framing or constructing stairs, and
  2. None of Topsider’s manuals or blueprints contained much information either

We figured that any experienced contractor would know what to do, but we were neither experienced nor contractors.

(In fact, a year ago Russell had been so concerned about the impending stairwell that he asked Gail to request additional information from Topsider. They had dutifully sent out several additional pages showing the step counts and the landings, but they didn’t give us the complete picture. The only way that Russell was able to get all of the dimensions he needed was by combining the figures on several different pages of the blueprints.

In addition, Russell needed to know whether the upper story wall would be constructed on top of the subfloor [in which case the subfloor would have to be installed first], or whether the subfloor would simply abut against the upper story wall [in which case the wall could be installed first].

Gail asked this question to Topsider several times, but had difficulty getting a definitive answer. In the end, we did what we usually do: we made it up as we went along.)

With half a workday left before we departed on Monday afternoon, Russell and Gail spent the morning installing joists on the left side of the stairwell section. (The day before, Russell and Steve had puzzled over the various joist hangers at Lowe’s, trying to determine how to hang joists against a 67º cross-beam.) We only installed two joists, but it was quite an accomplishment. A cheer went up from what was left of the exhausted work crew.

Joists installed on the left side of the stairwell frame

It was a weekend of small successes. We feel that we are taking baby steps towards our larger goals… but each success is bringing us one step closer. The next time we journey here, we hope – finally – to begin moving walls.

Cameron and Joss, each on their completed deck


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