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April 21, 2007
Nightmare on the 2nd floor (Part 2)

Gail with Dennis, our building inspector. He is required to review our progress every six months to keep our building permit active. (Note the blue tape on the floor, marking the locations of our future interior walls.)

We had been looking forward to the third week in April as our first chance this year to spend an extended period of time up on our mountain. Both of our sons were out of school for the entire week, and Gail and Russell had both requested time off. Of course, Cameron and Joss were in the midst of adolescence, so we couldn’t possibly spend the entire week away from home. Our compromise was to drive up on Tuesday evening and stay until Saturday afternoon. This would give us three full days (and four nights) to continue building our mountain house.

One of our tasks this trip was to rearrange the kitchen. We did this in order to accommodate a large pine dining table that we brought up (actually the dining table that Gail grew up with).

We have been in the process of fixing the entire 1,000-square-foot second floor of the octagonal kit home. The floor is made up of four concentric “rings” numbered “A” through “D” from outside to inside. Each “ring” in turn is made up of eight separate sections of framed joists covered with sheets of OSB sub-flooring.

We were told by both Jim (our electrician) and Dennis (our building inspector) that we should have bolted each of these rings together when we first installed them. (While this information was nowhere in any of Topsider’s many installation manuals, apparently it is a standard procedure known by any experienced contractor.) Better late than never, during our last trip we had begun bolting together the various sections that were already even. Russell volunteered to continue this thankless job.

Meanwhile, in the “C” (second innermost) ring, the OSB was sagging because Topsider had inexplicably installed the joists 23 inches apart instead of the required 16 inches. During our last trip, we had removed all of the OSB and added additional joists. The next task would be to re-install the OSB with new construction adhesive and screws. Gail volunteered to continue this thankless job.

Russell’s and Gail’s respective jobs took the entire first two workdays, Wednesday and Thursday. Gail worked upstairs, enjoying the company and occasional help of Cameron and Joss. Meanwhile, Russell worked downstairs by himself, facing a constant rain of sawdust and insulation that filled his eyes and mouth.

Given the massive amount of building supplies that we are currently storing on the lower-story floor, Russell constantly needed to figure out ingenious ways to fit a ladder so that he could reach the ceiling

(Cameron and Joss were only able to contribute intermittently because they had homework and other tasks to complete. Joss’ responsibilities included studying his French and doing exercises to correct his recently-diagnosed scoliosis. Cameron’s responsibilities included math and chemistry homework, as well as preparing for his upcoming SAT test. As Gail later remarked, this particular trip reminded her very much of our trip around the world several years ago, when we home schooled both boys.)

By Friday, both Gail and Russell were sore and exhausted, but the biggest job of the trip still lay ahead. At the outer rings of the octagon, the entire floor was uneven: the “B” ring was a good half-inch higher than the “A” ring. After much examination, we determined the cause of this unevenness: the “B” ring was directly above the lower-story walls. When we had originally installed seven-inch vertical lag screws two years ago to secure the walls to the ceiling above (i.e. the second-story floor), the force of the lag screws had actually raised the second-story floor a half-inch higher at those points.

The "B" ring of the floor (left) was a good half-inch higher than the adjacent "A" ring (right)

As we mentioned in our last letter, we had argued and brainstormed numerous solutions that ranged from planing the uneven bits to installing a layer of mastic (cement) over the entire floor. In the end, we agreed on what we thought would be the best alternative.

The solution, however, would be complicated. First, we would remove the vertical lag screws from the lower-story walls. Second, we would somehow bring the “A” and “B” rings to the same height, either by lowering the “B” ring or raising the “A” ring. Third, we would bolt the “A” and “B” rings together so they would remain level with each other. Fourth, and finally, we would reinstall the vertical lag screws in the lower-story walls.

Gail and Russell both set to work early Friday to devote the full working day to these tasks. We decided to tackle one section at a time. Removing the vertical lag screws was fairly straightforward, although the impact wrench was heavy, loud, and jarring.

The biggest challenge was to bring the “A” and “B” rings to the same height. Russell’s original idea was to use a long wooden brace to prop up the “A” ring and lift it higher. This was easier said than done, as the “A” ring actually lay outside of the house (the two stories are cantilevered) and it was difficult to brace against the gravel-covered ground.

Gail came up with an absolutely ingenious alternative. Instead of raising the “A” ring, we would lower the “B” ring. We would do this by setting a brace between the second-story floor and ceiling, effectively forcing the “B” ring downward. Using a long 2x8, several 2x4s and a sledge hammer, the alternative worked beautifully. We ran upstairs, set a brace, then ran downstairs and installed lag screws to bolt the “A” and “B” sections together. When we ran back upstairs and removed the brace, the two sections remained level with each other.

We used a brace and a sledge hammer to move the "B" ring down half an inch.
The bowing of the brace demonstrates how much force was required to do this.

The vertical lag screw (left) attaches the lower-story wall to the ceiling, while the horizontal lag screw (right) attaches the "A" ring to the "B" ring

It took most of Friday, but we finished the entire second floor. Russell was so exhausted that he fell asleep on a lounge chair in the sun, but Gail continued using the electric plane to even out the last bits. She even cleaned up downstairs and cooked dinner that night (as she did every other night), putting everyone else to shame with her amazing endurance.

Gail with her new favorite toy, the electric plane

The trip was not all work and no play. In order to make the week more tolerable, we had brought a Playstation 2 video game console and real mattresses to put on the boys’ twin beds. We also brought up a double bed for Gail and Russell (our original 20-plus-year-old wedding bed, in fact), although it would still have an air mattress on it. We found time to play several board games, catch up on episodes of “Lost,” and watch a couple of movies in the evenings. Cameron and Joss were able to play video games late into the night (using headphones) while Gail and Russell passed out in exhaustion.

One major accomplishment this trip was that we finally got rid of the four incorrect sliding glass doors that Topsider had originally supplied (they were incorrect because they had mullion cross-grids). Bill and Renaldo from Habitat for Humanity were happy to take them off our hands.

Saturday morning was devoted mainly to cleaning up, and we were surprised how quickly it went. (We still recalled the days when it took us three hours to pack up the kitchen, tents, and sleeping bags. Now, we just leave the beds made and cover up anything that we don’t want the bugs to get into). We were ready to depart by noon.

On Saturday morning, we were visited by Scott Bur of Stark Realty, who originally sold us this property four years ago. Note some of the "comforts" of home: magnetic jacket hooks, privacy screens for the boys, and a double bed for Gail and Russell.

This was a rewarding week in many, many ways. Aside from a few minor glitches, everyone had a good time, given the good balance of work and recreation. We discovered the same comfortable rhythm of coexistence that we had achieved on our world trip seven years ago. And most important, we got a lot of work accomplished , effectively completing our repair of the second-story floor.

The saddest part was that even after four nights, Gail was not ready to leave. Rain was expected Saturday evening, and she very much wanted to stay and experience it. (We have still never been up in our weather-sealed house in the rain, and unfortunately this will probably be the last storm of the season.)

Looking ahead, we still have a few tasks to accomplish before we can begin construction of the interior walls. We have to re-engineer the four corner window walls that Topsider constructed in the wrong size. There is one more section of floor that needs some additional joists to fix a sag. But we can feel the next exciting phase of our adventure just around the corner.

Some of the wildlife that we encountered this trip: a wild turkey, a trio of deer, and a mouse that startled Gail when she was cleaning downstairs


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