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October 17, 2007
Pole dancing

The center pole, vaulted ceiling beams and knee braces. Beautiful to look at, but painful to construct around.

Gail’s stepfather Gordon is long-retired; but in his younger days, he built several houses from scratch by himself. When he came up to visit our mountain house building site last weekend, he shook his head. Noting our octagonal post-and-beam construction, with its vaulted ceiling beams and knee braces, he remarked, “You know, stick-built is a whole lot easier than this.”

Gordon wasn’t kidding. We have already endured two years of crazy non-perpendicular angles, from the foundation to the exterior walls to the floor sections. At least we anticipated those because they were in the blueprints. But nothing prepared us for the horrors we would face in trying to construct the interior walls.

Topsider’s blueprints showed the interior walls fairly clearly, although Russell still had to do a lot of calculating and guessing for exact lengths and locations. The blueprints also showed which walls should extend all the way upward to the vaulted ceiling, versus other walls that terminated with a drop ceiling and parapet.

What Topsider’s blueprints did not show us was that a majority of the interior walls would run right into the center pole and the eight knee braces that protruded from it. There were no plans that indicated where this would happen, and no instructions for how to deal with it. Russell took on the task of making everything fit, and he ended up spending weeks and months working out solutions.

Every wall was different, and walls would intersect knee braces at 22.5º, 45º, 77.5ºor some other octagonal angle horizontally. Because the knee braces and ceiling beams slanted at a 15º vertical angle as well, wood needed to be double-mitered for both studs and joists.

The joists were a particular challenge. Whereas the wall studs always attached to the floor as an anchor, the joists often had nothing to attach to except for other joists. They had to avoid the center pole and knee braces while still coming right up against them. And they all had to be level.

At home up in the rafters, Russell makes sure that a joist is level

As a result, Russell was faced with a chicken-and-egg puzzle of which joists to place first, and which joists to attach to other joists. Every single piece of wood had to be cut individually to length, horizontal angle and vertical angle. Some could be held together by nails, while others could only be secured with screws.


The hallway joists, viewed from below and above.

We had to finish the joists before we could finish the plumbing walls. We had to finish the plumbing walls before we could install the plumbing. And we had to finish the plumbing by January, when our next inspection would be due.

With these deadlines looming and the weather turning colder, Russell finally decided to take a half-week off of work and stay at the mountain for six days by himself. His goal was to finish the joists and the plumbing walls.

Russell left at midday on Tuesday, October 16 and made good time, beating all of the normal commute traffic. He spent a rainy Tuesday afternoon unloading hundreds of square feet of hardwood flooring from the van that Gail had picked up from freecycle.org.

With an early start and clear skies on Wednesday morning, Russell worked straight through the day, stopping only for meals. By late afternoon, the joists were finished.

Because we would ultimately construct a floor over the dropped ceilings (parapets), Russell constructed a "girdle" on either side of each knee brace to help support the flooring

The center pole also required a "girdle," so that flooring could be adequately supported in he future

It’s a satisfying milestone, but there’s more work ahead. The next task is to complete the plumbing walls, which will be even more physical and exhausting. It’s only the beginning of a long week, and Russell’s biggest challenge will be to pace himself.

A glimpse at Russell's notebook page detailing the joists, and the actual construction viewed from the same angle


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