Monthly Archives: March 2013

March Update


Posted on March 30, 2013 by

Lets review March…

The plans…

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I had met with the architects and engineer at the start of the month and reviewed a bunch of stuff.  Most importantly, we came to agreement on a few things, including some changes they wanted and some that I wanted (and had already asked them for months before).  I came home with a new set of prints that included the 12 sheets of house plans, plus 6 sheets from the engineer.    I could see that the architect had already made a good effort to target the issues I had reported in my big “catch up” review…  Of course, I found some new issues, especially as I got to the later pages, but it wasn’t too bad.   I carefully went thru sheet by sheet and itemized all the issues over several emails.

Mean while, I was trying to get a meeting with a shotcrete company in michigan (who has since asked to have his name removed because of negative comments on youtube about his work).  I figured I would run the plans by him to make sure it made sense to him while I still had the architect and engineer under contract.  In had been a few weeks since I had received anything from the architect, so I asked for an update of the plans to show the shotcrete contractor.   Not many of the corrections I had asked for were implemented yet, but they had added two new and interesting sheets.

One of the sheets included images of the sunshade…  The sunshade had been hard to see in the elevations, but now that they had done a detailed view, it was clear that they had not understood what I meant when I said the front corners would sit on pilasters between the windows on the side walls.  Hopefully we will get all these details sorted out soon.


This month, in prep for my meeting with the shotcrete contractor, I did a lot of planning the order and process of construction.  It suddenly occurred to me that the large concrete ribs were sized as if they would be set on the finished slab floor, but in order to keep it from being damaged, the floor would not be added until long after the ribs were in place.  The foundation drawings showed footings for the ribs, but nothing was indicated between the footings and the ribs.  This was particularly bad on the half of the house with a basement.  Similarly, the walls (and the steel ribs within them) would need to start from the footings, which most of them already did.  The problem was that the exact depth of the footings is not known until they are poured, so if we based the arch heights on the drawings, they would almost certainly be wrong and require us to build a stem wall which would weaken the structure.  I contacted the architect with solutions to both problems and he agreed.  We would add pilasters to support the ribs, and extend the bottom of the ribs down 6 inches below floor level so we could later pour around them.  For the steel arches in the walls, we could order them a bit long and cut them down to shape.  I will also try to delay ordering those as long as possible and will perhaps have the actually installed footing depths at that time.

I plan to "frame" the vertical portions of the walls with these metal studs with metal lath backing and rebar reinforcement, then I will get the shotcrete guys to encase it all in concrete...

20 gauge steel studs with open web, $0.47/ft

I also noticed that some of the drawings still specified steel studs in the vertical walls.  This idea had come up in November, but one of the concrete guys (Ken Veera) had been worried that the steel studs would be flimsy and deform under the impact from the shotcrete.  They would also cause weak planes in the concrete (like cold joints).   The idea of using metal lath should stiffen the wall structure up a bit.  But before asking the architects to change this again, I figured I should come up with a better idea.  I decided to try and find more suitable metal studs.   Previously my metal stud research was based on reducing heat loss thru the front wall.  Now I shifted my focus and my search terms to look for stronger studs that would resist deflection.  I ended up discovering studs from Marino Ware that were 20 gauge structural steel studs, and had the cutouts that would reduce heat loss if used on the front wall.  Also, the frequent holes allow the shotcrete to pass thru reducing deflection and preventing the cold joint effect.

Anyway, back to the shotcrete guy.  He is a busy guy and was somewhat hard to get a hold of.  I guess that could be a good sign (I don’t want the contractor who is just sitting by the phone).  That week, he was actually putting in the Beaver Habitat at the Detroit Zoo.  Eventually he squeezed me in between a day at the zoo and an evening at a pool show.  I just had 50 minutes to chat and show him the plans.

He seemed quite comfortable with the plan I presented, which included 20 gauge studs to frame the walls.   He was also fine with shooting the basement from the outside, so I could have the nice planar specfinish over metal lath interior walls; as long as the slope of the excavation outside was greater than 45 degrees for at least 8 ft. We talked about the shooting tower, the bedrooms, the garage, the “light well” and the eyebrows.  We talked about order of operations including how his guys would handle working without the floor in the main living area. We talked about storage for his equipment, as well as what equipment I would need to rent (articulating man lift, crane, etc.).  I asked what other aspects of the job he would like to bid on and he said he was interested in all the steel frame work and the floors.

I asked him several times if any of this scared him, but he said it did not.  Like me, he is an optimist with a “can do” attitude, so I am not really sure if he should be scared, but just doesn’t know it yet. 


We also talked a bit about when we might start. I told him that I hoped for a June start, but that means the architect would need to be finished in the next 3 to 5 weeks (end of April).  I emailed the architects an update and asked if they thought they would be ready, but they have not responded for over a week now.  I will call them next week.



Since I finally had some final drawings for the ribs, I took another shot at getting quotes on getting them precast by professionals.  The last time I had looked for quotes, one of the replies told me that they didn’t feel they had the right PCI Plant Certified or APA Plant certification.  I used each of those terms as a Google search and found a lot more precast concrete companies that did carry that certification.  While browsing thru these sites, I learned about the different finishes (I am interested in a sand blasted or acid etched finish), terminology, etc.  With this new info, I sent off requests for quotes along with some details and drawings to half a dozen companies.  One replied the next day and quoted me $4K per rib.  I have 10 of them, so that adds up to more than I want to pay.  The majority of the companies never bothered responding.  Another company in IL called back to tell me that they wouldn’t ship that far.  But a couple days later, I got a call from a company in Wisconsin that I had not contacted because I thought they were out of my area.  Apparently, the one in IL had passed my info on to them.  This Wisconsin company is very organized.  They have called me a couple times to discuss finishes and immediately sent me a 7 lb box of concrete color samples (Sherri and I agreed on “sandstone”).  However, it has been a couple weeks and I have not received a quote yet.  I suspect that the shipping will be relatively high (~400 miles).  Since doing that search (which didn’t get me a lot of call backs), I noticed that some of the companies were in the Architectural Precast Association, which gave me a bunch more companies to try eventually.

If I can get each rib for a reasonable price, I would rather pay someone else, but if not, I will make the forms and precast the ribs myself.  I figure each rib requires less than $500 of concrete and rebar. Each form may use a few hundred dollars worth of supplies, but those can be reused.  Check out this page for more info on that.

This house was framed with Steel studs

This house was framed with steel.  Click on it for a closer look at the open web studs and joists.

This month I also spent some time at drywall suppliers…  I was not looking for drywall, but just those steel studs.  These out of the way suppliers have much better options and prices than Home Depo.  Presumably, they save money by hiring unhelpful people and I faced the same sort of product ignorance and lack of interest I found in my other sourcing adventures.  The guy behind the desk would tell me they didn’t sell something or such and such a product didn’t exist, so I would give him the part number to look up in his computer.  One guy actually argued with me for a while before actually entering it.  He told me it didn’t exist, but I noticed a poster of it on the wall.  He didn’t even believe the poster.  He just kept saying I could drive around back and look for myself.  Eventually he entered it and I got my prices.  Other guys just asked me to write it down and they would get back to me.  Guess if they did?

While researching steel studs for the walls, I also got interested in steel studs for the floor joists over the basement area.  The drawings specify 2×12 lumber, but I found I could also switch to wood I-beams (straighter and lighter  or steel joists from Marino Ware.   The 2×12 or wood I-beams cost about $1.50 per ft.   The steel ones cost about $3.50/ft, but would never burn or rot.  I only need 65 beams totaling 605 linear ft, so the price difference isn’t that much in the big scheme of things. The advantage of steel is that you tell them all the lengths up front, so they do the cutting for you and there is very little waste compared to buying a bunch of 16′ or 24′ wood joists.  I am still thinking about it and will research more.

I also spent some time looking at spiral stairs and steel grates and a few other things…

Eye Candy

Everyone’s favorite part of the site…


Phillip Johnson Painting Gallery


Posted on March 28, 2013 by

The Glass House that Phillip Johnson is famous for is certainly not Earth Sheltered

The Glass House that Phillip Johnson is famous for is certainly not Earth Sheltered

When you are planning to build an earth sheltered home, you tend to keep your eyes open for similar structures.  Tomorrow I will try to give an actual status update, but for now I will just take a couple minutes to show you the most recent example of earth sheltered architecture that I stumbled upon (it was actually built in 1965).

Perhaps you have heard of Phillip Johnson, the architect famous for his “Glass House”.  If you want more info you can do a quick internet search or pick up this book.  You may even want to tour his estate next time you are in Connecticut for a couple hours.

What I didn’t know until recently was that he also designed and build an underground painting gallery.  To call it “earth sheltered” seems like a bit of an understatement.  It was inspired by a visit to the Treasury of Atreus, an ancient (~1250BC) underground tomb that was a marvel of bronze age Greek engineering and stood as the largest dome in the world for over 1000 years.   Like a tomb, it was the opposite of the glass house, which made it much better for displaying paintings.

The Tomb known as the "Treasure of Atreus" inspired Johnson

The Tomb known as the “Treasure of Atreus” inspired Johnson

The Gallery wouldn't make a very good home.  Unlike the Glass House, it has no windows.

The Gallery wouldn’t make a very good home. Unlike the Glass House, it has no windows.

Right next door was the sculpture gallery   Wouldn't it have been great if these two buildings were joined as one?

Right next door was the sculpture gallery. Wouldn’t it have been great if these two buildings were joined as one?

And where did Johnson sleep?  Not in the glass house with its early morning sun.  He slept in the brick house, the ceilings of which, should appeal to any earth sheltered home builder.

And where did Johnson sleep? Not in the glass house with its early morning sun. He slept in the brick house, the ceilings of which, should appeal to any earth sheltered home builder.

Cliff House


Posted on March 11, 2013 by

Underground homes come in all shapes and styles and budgets…  Here is a very nice example designed by Scott Allen Architecture and built into the side of a cliff in the harbor

This is not what most people think of when they hear "underground house"...

This is not what most people think of when they hear “underground house”…

If the picture above doesn’t look much like an underground house, let’s try looking at it from the front. Imagine pulling up this driveway and just seeing this glass box instead of a house…

The "front door" of the Cliff house...  The grass is above the living area below.

The “front door” of the Cliff house… The grass is above the living area below.


Here is another view showing access from the front yard down to the courtyard below…

This is a "sunken" courtyard, at least relative to the front yard.

This is a “sunken” courtyard, at least relative to the front yard.


You may need to go back to the first pic to see how these areas all fit together.  My younger son couldn’t wrap his head around it.  He kept saying, “so they are just pretending it is underground, but its not, right?”   It is really beautiful home.  If you want to see more, check out the architects site.

Even with all that glass, I bet the concrete structure and protection of the cliff keeps things relatively calm inside during a storm.

I am guessing they were not as focused on efficiency as I am, but still, it is a really cool example of the flexibility of earth sheltered homes.