Information about design and construction of earth sheltered homes and a journal of my own progress

Lath and Stucco

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Posted on October 9, 2016 by

 

The style of the home is something my wife and I are calling “Modern Tuscan“.  To us, this means a stucco and stone exterior.  While the majority of the Quonset hut will be buried, the Fox Block ICF endwalls would be visible (and prominent) and need to be stuccoed. But first, we would need to attach lath to hold the stucco.  Since the work was pretty standard, I decided to hire a professional to take care of the actual stucco work.  This is the story of how that all came together, but first, the video.

The Video

Lath overlap

As always, this is a journal of my progress, not a “how to”.  I don’t always do things the right way at the start, although I do usually learn from my initial mistakes.  For the lath, I read about attachment details like how often to put screws in each direction (and then I exceeded it), but I didn’t pay too much attention to the part about overlapping the lath and just butt jointed everything so the surface would be flatter for the stucco. Probably I was also thinking about saving on lath.  At a later point, I changed my mind, so the later pieces are properly overlapped…  Either way, the professional stucco guys said we did a good job and only needed to add some J-pieces to form the bottom edge.

The window

With such a large and prominent wall, I knew I needed a window to break up the space.  Personally, I think a square window would have looked stupid, so I bit the bullet and budgeted for a nice round window.  At least I went with a standard diameter window so it wouldn’t need to be custom.

However, when I finally got to this stucco stage, I wasn’t ready to order the windows. I want to order them all at once to get the bulk discount, and I wanted to build all (or most) of the bucks before I order, so…  In the meantime, I decided to go with polycarbonate Lexan.  This is pretty basic stuff that you can buy from Home Depot less than 1/10th the price of a window.  The R-value is also pretty similar to a double pane window.  I figured it would at least give us a temporary solution that would keep the inside dry over the winter.

It ended up looking so good, I might just decide to keep it this way.  We will see how well it holds up to UV.  Obviously, if it yellows or cracks over time, I will switch to glass.  But it did claim to be “UV stable” and has looked fine so far, so I am optimistic.

 

 

Still, I wanted to make sure that the window opening was ready for proper glass so that the stucco edge would all be done correctly.  We used wood strips to form a curb, and then put two layers of the tar paper to protect the wood and then a strip of lath to hold the stucco.  Lots of screws…

 

Getting a Contractor

I have had many struggles with getting contractors to work on the more unusual parts of my build, but I was surprised to even have trouble getting something as basic as “stucco over ICF”.   Very few of these companies advertise properly, probably because most are kept busy by professional builders and are not actually looking for work. Eventually, I went to the stucco supplier and asked for a list of names and recommendations.  One of those paid off, but even then I had to wait quite a while to fit into the schedule.

Of course, the contractor, Hoffman Plastering, did a great job in terms of how nice and flat the wall was (they certainly had to compensate for my less than professional ICF job).  Their classic worm finish was also excellent.

Cracking

 

 

However, in the months after the stucco was applied, we did get a bunch of fairly obvious cracks in various places and we have not been able to get them to come out and take a look.  On the phone, they said that it was probably my fault. Essentially, they blamed the copper cap and said that water probably got behind the stucco and froze, but I was able to find pics showing the start of the cracks before the first freeze, also the cracks look more like ones that are caused by expansion and contraction of the stucco its self.  Basically, I imagine that if the south wall expanded in the sunshine, this narrow region would be the highest stress concentration and the most likely to crack. The inspector thought it may have been that the top layer was applied too soon after the brown coat. The contractor may have rushed that step because the work was done in October. The cracks are not wide enough to get the edge of a coin or screwdriver in there, but are still concerning. The conclusion of this story is still on hold, but I should probably do something before winter when water might actually get in thru those cracks and cause further problems when it freezes.

Future Stucco?

I wish I could hire a contractor to stucco the rest of it.  Their work was excellent (other than the cracking) and the quote to handle the rest of it was probably fair per square ft.  The problem is just the large number of square ft required. The majority of the cost is the professional labor, the actual materials are a very small fraction of the cost.  Therefore, I am guessing I will need to do it myself. With any luck, my skills will grow quickly.

Gallery

As per usual… A collection of pics related to the lath and stucco.

Waterproofing the earth sheltered home

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Posted on August 28, 2016 by

When burying your home, structural strength is probably the most important thing, but a close second is waterproofing.  My home will feature a number of layers of waterproofing (belt and suspenders analogy), but this layer of Blue Max liquid rubber is probably the most important.  As usual, I did make some mistakes and we can get to that later, but first…

The Video:

 

Not Cheap:

I had used a different waterproofing on the basement that I have since concluded was totally inadequate.  That stuff cost about 255$ per bucket.  I decided to switch to Blue Max after seeing it done on another earth sheltered home I was involved with.  The Blue Max costs 100$ less per bucket, but it goes on much thicker, so you get fewer square feet per bucket. Also, I had to buy a whole pallet to avoid shipping costs and get a bulk discount.  I calculated that the whole pallet should take care of most of my surface area according to their coverage estimate…  but with all the lumps and bumps and holes due to the rough shotcrete surface, we used it up at about double the rate and I will need a second pallet for the rest of the house.

Rained Out

An unexpected and very heavy rain storm washing away our work.

Getting rained out that first day only made matters worse.  Expensive water proofing was being washed off the house and the day was shot…

But it turned out to be only a moderate disaster.  Only some of the waterproofing really washed off, so the second layer went on nicely. Also, the lift rental company (Wolverine Rental) were really nice guys and let me keep the lift for free for a few more days to make up for the rained out weekend.

Finishers:

Basically, you have part of the crew shooting the shotcrete, and they need to keep moving to keep up with the concrete trucks.  They can’t really stop to smooth it out.

When they are available, my Shotcrete guy charges an extra few hundred dollars per day per finishing guy.  These guys come after the gunner crew and trim off the excess and generally try to smooth it off.  Maybe “smooth” is a bit of an exaggeration, but “shaping” it does help to get rid of the worst lumps and bumps and splashes and slumps (if Dr. Suess did shotcrete).   The expensive waterproofing goes twice as far on the smoother walls and the savings quickly pay for the finishing guys…  Plus the smoother walls just look better and probably shed water better, etc.

So, paying for the finishing guys is a no-brainer. My only problem is that the finishing guys are not always available.  I was only able to get them for 3 out of the last 8 shotcrete days I have had.

We had a finisher on site when we shot the right side, but none were available when we shot the left…

 

Bad timing:

As you may tell by the fact that I thought I could build this house in 18 months, I am an optimist. Optimists are generally much more pleasant than pessimists (or “realists” as they call themselves), but we do tend to get ourselves in trouble from time to time.

In this case, I thought that I would be able to get the next couple shotcrete sections in so I could bury the house before winter…  Winter came early and that plan was derailed.   Spring brought its own scheduling problems and now it is mid summer and we are still waiting on shotcrete.

This has left me with a problem of long term exposure to UV…

Ultra Violet Damage

UV rays destroy most things, especially insulation and rubber waterproofing.  The Blue Max guys say I should get their product covered (buried) within a month.  I couldn’t.  I did try covering it with large sheets of 6 mil black plastic, and I am sure that helped, but I had to fight with winter storms to keep that on.  It has been a long time and I am seeing some signs of damage, but fortunately not nearly as dramatic as what is happening to the rigid insulation.

A zoom in on the surface after months of UV damage. You can see the little cracks.

Paint Brush

Because of the lumps and bumps in the unsmoothed shotcrete, getting full coverage was very difficult.  Sherri was doing touch-ups with a paint brush long after I was done with the sprayer.  By the time she was done, we had only one single bucket of Blue Max left…

Sherri went back over most of the structure with a paint brush to get around all the little lumps and bumps… Using up even more Blue Max.

Gallery

As usual, here are a bunch of pics to round out the story.

Bedroom Shotcrete

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Posted on August 18, 2016 by

After a lot of setup work, we were finally ready to have the shotcrete sprayed over our bedroom wing.  The Quonset garage was actually done at the same time, but that is another post.

In this post, we have some pics to illustrate the process and challenges, along with some tips for anyone planning to do something similar.

But first, The video.

The Video


Challenges

Financial

Try to get a quote that includes some expectation of how far they will get.

With each shotcrete visit, the cost (when I divide out per yard) has gone up dramatically.  I don’t have the calculation right in front of me, but this visit was more than double the cost per yard of the basement job, and that first one totally blew the original estimate out of the water.  So, as you can imagine, we have now (writing after the 3rd shotcrete session) blown thru all the money we allocated for shotcrete in the budget.  It is not so much that the shotcrete company underestimated the daily costs, but they dramatically overstated the amount they could get done in a day.  During this run, there was one day when they only got 8 yards (because the compressor broke), other days got 16 or 24. They said they would pro-rate, but in the end, the costs were all the same per day.  If you are paying a daily rate and the volume can vary from 8 to 24 yards, it is difficult to budget.

We will need to come to a better agreement that factors in some of my expectations when we do the next shotcrete.  We want to be fair (it is hard specialized work), but we don’t want to go bankrupt either. Next time, I am going to try and work in some better expectations of how far they should get for the money.  It probably seems basic, but I am sure it is easier said than done.

A few more guys is a good thing.

Each day costs thousands of dollars for the base crew and concrete… The extra finishing guys are just a few hundred dollars each.  That is a bargain when you realize how much energy they save the base crew (so those guys get more concrete up) and how much smoother they make the walls (so you can save on waterproofing).

The lift will save you more than it costs.

The lift rental was over a thousand dollars.  This got worse because the shotcrete took a weekend and several days more than expected.  But actually, they guys at Wolverine Rental were pretty cool about it and made me a good deal that factored in days when I wasn’t actually using the rental, even though it was sitting on my lot.

The crew would have liked a nicer lift with a more powerful engine and tracks, I can’t even comment on how much more that would have cost because I simply couldn’t find one at any of the rental places in my area.  I suppose it would have saved a little time (they got stuck a few times), but probably not enough to justify the additional cost (I am guessing it would be a lot more).

The crew also complained about not having a second lift for the finishing crew.  Looking back, this may have paid for its self…  I’ll have to do a more careful financial analysis when I get a chance, but probably.  Looking forward toward my remaining shotcrete jobs, I don’t think there will be enough lift work to justify two, but maybe…

After saying all the negative stuff first for some reason… I will also say that I am pretty sure the lift really saved us more than it cost.  Certainly, it was necessary for reaching the awkward hard-to-reach places with that shotcrete hose.  But it also helped in the other areas where they could have used scaffolding or some “cheaper” method.  It helped move the hose around and allowed the guys to conserve their energy so they could get further in a day and do a better job.  I can do a quick mental calculation and say that it easily saved me much more than it cost.

Chunks

One of the mix trucks must have had some old cement set inside it after a previous delivery.  When it brought us our concrete, those chunks broke off and jammed up the concrete pump causing us to lose nearly an hour while the Michigan shotcrete guys tried to get the chunks out again.  Because we delayed the cement truck past the time they expected it to stay on site, the concrete company charged us an extra fee (75$), which was nothing compared to the value of the delay to us…  Any longer and we would have had to dump the remaining concrete. At the time, Sherri took this picture of the chunks so we could argue against the silly charge, but in the end, the 75$ wasn’t enough to bother fighting.

The chunks of concrete that came out of the mix truck and jammed the concrete pump. Sherri’s shoes for scale.

 

Equipment

The concrete comes from the supplier in a mix truck.  The factory adds the dry ingredients into the truck according to the recipe from the shotcrete guys.  It is basically a 7 sack mix with sand and peastone and Fly Ash (carbon nanospheres that help it flow) and various other admixtures determined by the weather and other conditions.  Along the way, water is added and the barrel of the truck turns to mix it up while on the way (which is why it is called “transit mix”).  They need to get the concrete out of the mix truck and on the wall within 90 minutes of starting to mix it.

Once on site, the concrete truck dumps the wet concrete into the hopper of the concrete pump.  This pump uses a 110 HP Cummins diesel engine to power two large 6-inch diameter pistons that can handle pumping concrete with aggregates at a rate of up to 50 cubic yards per hour.  Of course, they never got above 8 yards per hour, but that is more a function of the complexity of my design.

Meanwhile, the compressor sends high-pressure air thru the smaller hose (1-inch diameter) to the nozzle where it meets the pumped concrete and blasts it thru the nozzle and out into the air…

All of this comes together in the nozzle.  The most obvious control is a mixing valve for adjusting the ratio of air to concrete right behind the nozzle.  The concrete pump is controlled by a remote that was usually carried by another guy (who could go over and check the pump when something goes wrong).  The nozzle man indirectly controls the flow rate of the concrete pump by communicating with hand signals (and occasional verbal abuse) to the guy with the remote.  The nozzle is also pretty heavy and the video clips show how the nozzle man has to work with his whole body to control it, often while standing in very precarious positions.  The end of the nozzle is a rubber tip that can be switched out depending on the task or concrete properties.  The nozzleman can control the fan of the shotcrete spray by pinching this tip with his fingers.

From there, it is all muscle and skill as the nozzleman builds up the concrete in the right places, properly encasing the rebar and all the other annoying things I have in my walls.

These are the main pieces of equipment that make shotcrete possible.

 

Big job

Shotcrete requires a lot of setup to get rolling.  Once the guys get rolling, they can only put up so much concrete in any one place before it starts to schlep off.   Instead of doing the bedrooms and Quonset separately as two smaller jobs, we combined them.  I am pretty sure this saved us money and gave the shotcrete guys somewhere to go when the one-half of the project needed some time to cure.

Gallery

I guess I’ll tell the other stories here in the gallery.

 

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