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October 19, 2007
Plumbing walls

Russell tries to figure out how to construct a corner where two walls come together… right in the middle of a knee brace

In the blueprints for the mountain house that we are constructing, there are a few interior walls on the second floor that are designated as “plumbing walls.” This refers to the fact that they are next to a bathroom or laundry room and will have pipes running through them. As a result, they need to be constructed using 2x6 instead of 2x4 pieces of lumber. These particular walls also run all the way up to the vaulted ceiling, as opposed to ending at a drop-ceiling or parapet. This is so that ventilation pipes can run all the way out through the roof.

While we have completed all of the interior walls as high as the drop-ceilings (about eight and a half feet high), we have not built any of the upper halves of walls that extend farther up. This is because we first needed to complete all of the drop-ceiling joists.

During the first full workday of his weeklong solo stay up at the mountain, Russell finally completed the joists. On Thursday, October 18, he began work on the extended walls. His first priority would be the three plumbing walls, adjacent to the hall bath, master bath, and laundry room. These walls would need to be completed before we could begin to install any of the actual plumbing.

In anticipation of this, Gail had spent the previous weekend attaching more plastic sheeting to the vaulted ceiling sections as a required vapor barrier.

She had also helped Russell mark where the walls would touch the ceiling. This was an incredibly tedious task; each wall would have to extend upwards perfectly plumb in line with the lower part of the wall that was already built. Any misalignment would cause a bump or bulge when drywall was ultimately installed. Marking the ceilings was a difficult task, requiring two people and a combination of plumb lines, levels, and a laser sight.

Gail poses with her vapor barriers

With everything pre-prepped, Russell was now ready to begin the actual installation of the plumbing walls. He had not been looking forward to this particular task; and the execution confirmed his fears.

Step No. 1 was to install the top plates. These were horizontal joists installed against the ceiling, so that the vertical studs would have something to attach to. As Russell described it to Gail on the phone, “Imagine standing on the edge of an eight-foot drop, trying to balance a heavy 2x6 over your head with both arms fully extended, then trying to secure it to a slippery plastic-covered ceiling with your third hand.”

It was extremely grueling and physically-exhausting work. Each piece of wood had to be cut with a double-miter at each end, to match both the slope of the vaulted ceiling and the angle of the glu-lam beams. Because the dimensions could not be measured exactly, Russell had to cut each piece, try to fit it, then cut it again – often several times. Each time he had to re-cut, Russell had to climb up and down the ladder, then up and down the stairs. (He kept the saw outside to avoid sawdust getting all over everything inside of the house.)

Often, there were no ceiling joists to attach the top plate to, and Russell would have to figure out some other way to attach it to the ceiling.

Once a top plate was installed, Step No. 2 was to install the vertical studs. Again, each piece of wood had to be double-mitered, and each piece had to be re-cut several times before it fit. By the end of the first full day, Russell had completed only half of the plumbing walls.

Step No. 1: install a top plate against the ceiling (if you can find anything to attach it to)
Step No. 2: install studs against the top plate

Luckily, the weather was on Russell’s side. The forecast had been for rain off and on, but so far Russell had experienced only sunny skies and a nice constant working temperature of 60º inside of the house. The second day went smoothly, and Russell was able to finish the second half of the plumbing walls.

The plumbing walls run from the hall bathroom (left), over the hallway to the laundry room (center), then to the master bathroom (right)

By the end of the first day, Russell had completed the right half of the plumbing walls

By the end of the second day, Russell had completed the left half of the plumbing walls (he also removed the temporary brace that spanned the knee braces)

Russell saved the biggest challenge for last. Over the living room, there was a point where two walls formed a 90º corner right in the middle of a knee brace. As usual, we had not been warned in Topsider’s blueprints, and Topsider provided no instructions on how to construct this. After a particularly long thought experiment, Russell was able to engineer a solution. He installed the last stud at 6:15 pm, just after dusk when it was getting too dark to work.

The problem: two walls come together to form a corner right in the middle of a knee brace.
Russell was able to install a short stud underneath the knee brace, but couldn't figure out how to construct any higher.

The solution: Russell installed "girdles" above and below the knee braces (red circles). When we install drywall in the future, we can attach it to these girdles.
Russell could now install the final corner stud above the knee place (yellow circle) by attaching it to the girdles.
(These last pictures were taken with a flash because it was basically getting too dark to work at this late hour.)

After two long and exhausting workdays, the plumbing walls are complete. Russell’s original stretch goal was to install all of the vaulted ceiling walls – including the non-plumbing walls – but he has since regained his sanity. Tomorrow is Saturday, and he plans to spend his last full day of the work week doing something a little less physically demanding.

On the wildlife front, we seem to have been adopted by a squirrel. He likes to play around in the wood pile when we're not looking, then he runs up onto this branch and spies down on us.


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