Monthly Archives: June 2014

Steel Track


Posted on June 29, 2014 by

After completing the footings, the next step was to erect the steel studs and metal lath that we would shoot the concrete (shotcrete) against.  You can think of the steel studs as fancy integral formwork.  I had had some trouble up front getting the steel ordered, particularly the steel studs.  So I went with another company to at least get the track (including Flextrack) ordered.  This let me put the track down first while I wait for the steel studs to arrive.

Track&StudsBasically, track is needed to hold steel studs in place.  The studs hold the metal lath and the metal lath will catch the shotcrete and shape the walls.

I originally had this part of the job in my gantt chart as a 6 days’ worth of work starting the first week of May, so I started last week about 7 weeks behind.  To make matters worse, I ended up working on it over several partial days spread across a week and I haven’t even started on the vertical steel studs.  I would guess that by the time I am caught up on putting in the steel studs, I will be about 8 or 9 weeks behind.  Winter is coming, but I will resist the pun of saying that I am working to get back on “track”.

There is definitely a learning curve, but I consider the basement as practice for the main level and I was definitely faster by the end (as you can see in video).  Knowing my velocity (per ft of flex track or straight track) lets me better estimate the time (and resources) I will need to complete the main level.

Here is the time lapse video.

On to the story.

Like an ant moving a mountain, I am just doing things one bit at a time and trying not to be overwhelmed or forget anything.  For this past week, the first step was preparing a simplified version of my drawings (a basic shop drawing) with just the door buck and track dimensions labeled.

Measure twice, cut once…  But first make sure you know what the measurements should be.  And simplifying the drawing to show just what you need does help…  But make sure you also have an idea of the other bits that will interact with that or you could get yourself in trouble.

The next bit was putting together the bucks.  I decided to do that at home where I have a chop saw and a garage to work in.  I cut and labeled all the pieces and loaded them (un-assembled) onto my trailer.  The bucks are made from 2×6 treated lumber.  They are 6 inches taller than normal because I am fastening them to the footing and will come back and cut off the 6 inches at the bottom after the shotcrete walls are in place.  Then I will pour a floor to make up that 6 inches.

Others might have built the walls on top of the floor, but my “wall first” approach uses the floor as a shear plane against lateral earth loads.   “Walls first” also makes the shotcrete installation much easier because it covers up the joint between the wall and the floor (so they can be less picky about it) and because they don’t need to shovel the “rebound” out of the basement.  Rebound is the “pea stone” and cement that bounces off the wall during the shotcrete process.  It can be up to 10% of the volume of the walls, which for my basement would be nearly 4 yards.  Lugging rebound out of the basement would have been hard work for the shotcrete crew and would have cost me a lot of money.


I added my generator to the trailer (needed to power my hammer drill) and headed to pick up my supply of steel.  The look on the guys face when I pulled up told me he was pretty sure it was amateur hour, they told me that there was no way they could load my steel onto that trailer.  I quickly told them that, “This steel order weighs 660 lbs.  I already have 332 lbs of 2x6s, 55 lbs of 2x4s and the generator weighs 163 lbs.  My trailer can handle 1100 lbs and my car can two 2000 lbs, so we are all good.”   I had just guessed at the generator weight, but my rapid fire numbers somewhat startled the loading dock guys for a moment and convinced them that I was serious.  While they were recovering, I quickly took the back and side off my trailer and unloaded the generator so they could set the pallet of steel down with the fork lift.  One of the guys helped me load my generator back on top again.  Still a bit concerned, they asked me how far I was going. All I could say was, “All the way.”


Sherri said I should probably never show anyone this picture (above), but I think it shows that “where there is a will, there is a way”, even if you can’t afford to look like a pro and you end up being chuckled at by a couple of loading dock workers.

My Brother-in-law, John R., came out to help me assemble the bucks.  With everything pre-cut, it was pretty straight forward.  We would have screwed them into place, but I forgot my hammer drill.  It took more than half an hour to get three Tapcon screws in with my regular drill.  That was a waste of time, so we focused on leveling the steel storage container and getting ready for more productive days ahead.

To level the 4800 lb steel container, we used a hydraulic mechanics jack to lift one side and then we stacked bits of waste concrete (that the trucks had dumped on the sand) like a dry stack foundation wall.  It looked pretty cool; I should have taken a picture before we covered it with sand.  The process went pretty smoothly, but it was hot & tiring work, so I really appreciated John’s help.

As a consolation prize, John went home with a really bad sun burn.

I came back on my own with the hammer drill and got to work on the steel track.  The footing is full of ¾ inch stones.  It is a lumpy surface to work on, and depending on the underlying stone, the drill could go thru like butter or struggle and fail to penetrate at all.  I often found that moving a few inches over was easier than trying to push thru a hard spot.  Sometimes I had to try 2 or 3 spots before I found a good one.

After drilling the pilot hole, I would switch to my socket drill to drive in the Tapcon screw.  I quickly found that the torque setting on my drill was also helpful.   If I set it above 15, the Tapcon screw heads would just snap off.   Still, it was often a frustrating struggle to get the Tapcons to screw into the harder spots. I worked until I ran out of screws and my cordless drill batteries were dead.

You may think I should have planned better and brought the charger, and you would be right, but at the time, I was tired and glad to have an excuse to go home.


The next day was my oldest son’s 10th birthday.  I ended up taking him out to the property to help out.  Having learned my lesson, I took my dwalt battery charger with me so I could charge one battery with the generator while using the other one in my driver.  On the way, we stopped and picked up some more Tapcons.  I also bought a box of smaller Tapcons (3/8ths instead of ¼), to see how they compared.


My initial plan was to use the larger Tapcons on the ends of the studs and the smaller ones between, but that was hardly necessary.  The smaller Tapcons were just so much easier to drill and screw than the large ones. I ended up using up the box and buying another rather than keep using the larger Tapcons.  The smaller 3/16ths Tapcons also cost 35% less than the ¼ inch.

I started out using ¼ inch Tapcons which have 1160lbs pull out and 900 lbs of shear resistance.  Clearly that was overkill.  The 3/16ths Tapcons had 900lbs pull out and 720 lbs of shear resistance, which should be more than enough to keep the wall in place while the shotcrete is applied.  For the door bucks, I used several of the large ¼ inch by 3-3/4 inch Tapcons.


For the flex track, I bought very simple track.  It doesn’t have the metal straps or locks or other “structural features”.  It is simply cut so that it will stretch on one side.  The shape is held by screwing it to the concrete.  The fancy “structural” flex track is ~$2.70/ft and the simple stuff I bought is only ~$1.19/ft.

I had marked the footings at the right radii so I could lay my track.  As a novice, I pulled the track into position, the stretching was uneven.  I later learned that I could get a much more precise (and rapid) curve by inserting a screw driver and twisting to widen the outside side of the track.  More experience and I found that two twists in opposite directions resulted in a more level track.

The close up install video is here.

I had to go back for a third day to put in a last few hours and get the job done before my son’s birthday party this weekend.

Next step is a small job of putting together the window bucks while I wait for the vertical studs and scaffold tower to arrive.  Both should arrive next Wednesday, along with some family and friends to help erect it all.

Our most expensive date ever!


Posted on June 25, 2014 by

This afternoon, my wife and I had our most expensive date ever! 

We closed on our construction loan!

Getting this loan was a long and painful process that involved an appraiser, our insurance lady (that we ended up dumping because she was messing everything up) and a few other big surprises.  I plan to document more at a later date, but here are the basics of what happened recently.

Last week, we had asked for an updated estimate of the closing costs.  Of course, there were all the usual “fees”, including flood inspection, etc.  The biggest of the recent surprises was that the bank wanted us to deposit all the money we planned to use, up front, in their account, so they could manage the disbursements and make sure it all goes into the construction.  The difference with this latest update was that the bank added 10% more to cover “unexpected costs”.  This was a significant jump that had not been included in previous discussions (they had been willing to accept that I had built safety factors into each line item).  We scrambled to figure out how to scratch together the additional money (imagine suddenly needing to find 10% of the cost to build your home).

PiggyBankStressedWe could have swung it, but I was worried about our shrinking liquidity (I still need to buy tools, rent equipment, etc. and those costs are not covered by the construction loan).  We ended up deciding to take some money out of our retirement savings plan.  We will need to start paying it back to ourselves immediately (it starts coming out of my next pay check) or face a tax penalty, but the interest rate (to ourselves) was good and there were no significant fees.  It was actually a pretty painless process and we put the paperwork together in about 20 minutes (Sherri and I working together).  We took a bit more than we thought we needed, just in case.  That check arrived yesterday.


OverwhelmedPaperwork_323x210Today started with Sherri still up from the night before going over the receipts that we have already paid.  I gave up and went to bed at midnight, but I assume she checked everything more than twice more (as is her nature). These receipts are required to support our “Sworn Statement” that says how much we have paid and how much we have left to pay.

We showed up for our lunch time appointment at the bank today with a big accordion-folder worth of paperwork.

The first biggest surprise was that we were expected to pay off the remaining mortgage on our land before the new loan would commence.  I had thought our land may come up since the appraisal was based on the house and land and I figured it may occur to the bank that they had already loaned us something, but I thought they would take the money out of what they were going to loan us now.  Instead it was added up front as closing costs before the other loan would go through.  Ouch.  Good thing we had more in the account that we thought we needed.  But this is a significant cut to our liquidity.

The silver lining is that we now own the land outright and no longer have that land payment.  Also, the new mortgage percentage went down a bit from the last estimate, so in the end, our payment is very reasonable (over 30% lower than we thought it would be for the house and land payments combined).

We spent over an hour signing papers.  Sherri is very thorough and likes to read everything; she found a number of mistakes, including her name spelled wrong several ways on a single page.  The lady at the bank had to make a number of runs back upstairs to reprint documents with corrections.  She was getting a bit tired by the end of it.

Eventually we got through it all and the Earth Sheltered Umbrella Home is fully funded.


I finally got the bill for the footings today.  It was a volume plus materials sort of deal, so I was a bit nervous about how the cost of materials would add up.  However, it did seem reasonable.  I am not thrilled about all the unused forming supplies that I bought.  I hope they don’t get wrecked by the weather before we can use them on the main floor footings (I have them covered with 6mil plastic at the moment).  The cost of the concrete was 6% lower than expected and the giant pump truck was 14% lower than expected.  Unfortunately, the rebar and other steel was 17% higher than expected, probably due to that 18% bump in the price of steel over the past year.   Overall, we are still on budget.

26 ft tower and internal stair clamp 001I also purchased a new 26ft tall scaffold tower today.  I had been trying to get a used one.  There were not many to choose from and most looked like rusty pieces of junk.  The worst part was they were priced only 30% below new.  I found one nice aluminum one for a reasonable price, but I called the guy and he had sold it for scrap.  In the end, I needed one next week, so I decided to pay a little more and get a brand new one, and that was for a “delux” model with the extra wide outriggers and other safety features.  It should arrive the middle of next week along with my steel studs (which were originally supposed to arrive last Friday).  I should be able to sell it at the end of construction for a reasonable price.

I had also been looking at buying turnbuckles to help me plumb the steel stud walls (tricky because I don’t have a top track to attach to).  I was looking at the sort of thing that ICF installer’s use to straighten and plumb their walls before a pour.  I found them to be very expensive, so I designed my own and priced it out.  I figure I can make equivalent hardware for less than 1/10th the price of buying them.  The only catch is that I will need to buy that MIG welder sooner, but I planned to get it for the main floor steel anyway.

I have a 25% off coupon for a nice MIG welder (another thing I couldn’t find second hand), and will probably pick that up this weekend.

Construction Birds

Some of you may have caught my video on the river swallows at the construction site…  Here it is anyway.

Eye Candy

Yes, time for some eye candy.

Footings are done


Posted on June 19, 2014 by

Steel Ordered

StudRite-product500pxWell, I managed to get the steel studs ordered this week.  I had to pay the 20% higher price then the previous quote from the other distributor (who ended up unable to get me the MarinoWare studs because they only ship when he has enough orders to fill a truck).  Anyway, this first order of studs for the basement isn’t very large and the difference was really only a few hundred dollars, so I pulled the trigger and ordered.  They said it may be delivered as soon as tomorrow.

Joe is walking down the street and passes a new butcher shop with a sign in the window that says “Sirloin Steak; 5¢ per pound”.  He goes in to buy some stake, but they are all out.  So he heads over to his regular butcher.  “Hey Mac, your competitor down the street is selling steaks for 5¢ per pound.  Can you match it?”   The butcher smiles, “That’s a great price Joe. Did they have any left?”  Joe says, “No, they were all out.”   “Well”, says Mac, “When I am out of steak, I can sell it for 4¢ per pound.”


In the meantime, I ordered the track and metal lath separately (from the cheaper distributor) and will pick that up, with my new trailer, Friday morning.

I am buying my Quonset hut from SteelMaster Buildings.  I heard that June 16th was the last day to get the 2013 steel prices, so I called and managed to get a great deal.  I had budgeted for the list price of about $10,000, but I managed to get it on “sale” for $7200, including all the nuts and bolts and delivery and the kit to connect it to the ICF end walls.  That is not bad for more than 4000 lbs of galvanized 22 gauge steel.  They will hold it in their warehouse and deliver it when I need it.


This is a construction photo for the same size and type as what I ordered (S-30-15×40).  We will need to have a steel raising party ;^)  I will end up building the end walls out of ICF forms.

Footings are done.

It has been nearly a week since we poured the footings. The forms have been stripped. But the site was a bit of a mess (chunks of concrete, cigarette packets, nails, etc.)   I wanted to return things to the nice soft sand situation I started with, so I took an hour and cleaned things up.  I dumped all the concrete chunks in one section of the footing where no one was likely to walk.  The wood scraps made a very small pile of kindling and I had a bucket of trash dropped by the crew.

I got out my cell phone and made a quick video to show you where we are.

The exposed aggregate finish looks kind of nice, and will give the shotcrete something to grip, but it may be a bit of a bumpy hassle for laying the track.

The bleeder pipes were made of flexible corrugated drain pipe nailed to either side of the forms.  As the heavy concrete was poured, the light weight pipe floated up in the middle, which is probably not ideal at all.  The guys pouring the concrete made brief attempts to hold it down by stepping on it.  Next time, I will bring my own 2ft sections of rigid PVC so I can get the slope I want.

The concrete bulged in a few places and some of the edges were a little rough, but overall, it worked out nicely…

Funny thing is, I am still waiting on a bill.  I have not paid a cent yet.  I actually texted Doug today asking if they would send a bill so I can pay it.  I am more eager than usual to pay because anything I can pay out before we close (next Tuesday) means I don’t have to bring an extra 10% (safety factor) to closing.

SwallowEgg_croppedSome of you may have noticed a section of the swallows nest collapsing in the rain during the last video, click here to jump to just before the sand collapses.  Did anything bad happen to the swallows?  Well, I didn’t find any dead birds, but I found an egg…  Oh well.

The building inspector said these swallows were great for eating the bugs flying around the site.  I just hope the excavated sand holds up until the little birds are ready to fly.

Steel Shipping Container

Since my construction site is so far from my home, I needed a way to lock up construction equipment (generator, welder, table saw), supplies, etc.  I ended up deciding that a 20’ steel shipping container would be a pretty good idea (thanks to John H. for the tip).  They are pretty cheap ($1300 to $1600), so I was tempted to buy one (and later bury it), but I got such a great price on rental (79$/month, which is less than half of what others were charging) and delivery from MACs Storage Containers in Lansing that I couldn’t justify buying one…

I had leveled the “perfect spot” across the driveway from the rest of the construction site.  But the sand on either side of my driveway is very soft and the heavily loaded tilt truck was just tearing it up.  It was quickly stuck up to its axels.  Eric, the delivery guy from MACs, started “unloading” where he was, on an uneven spot of sand half overlapping the driveway and pretty much in the way of all the future trucks that would be coming thru.  I thought, “Oh well, now I really need to buy a tractor so I can drag this into a proper location.”  But it turned out that Eric was just using the tilt bed like a clams foot to push the truck out of its hole and try again.  He tried a couple other approaches as I looked hopefully on.  Eventually, he asked if I minded him driving on the grass behind the spot, I didn’t.  But to make that work, he would need to turn the container around so the door would be on the right side.  He slipped it off, drove the truck around and scooped it up again with evident expertise, which I always appreciate in anyone I work with.  After that, the delivery was easy and he was out of there quickly.

I will probably need to go and jack up the the front left corner a bit to level it out before I move in.  I will also need to buy a couple locks.   The container has 4 vertical locking bars so it is pretty secure (unless the theif has a tilt bed truck like Eric).  It smelled a bit musty inside, but it has the secure storage space I need.  John also gave me the idea of putting a tarp off the one side for a shady place to work.

Here is a video of the delivery, just because I could.

Next steps

Friday (June 20th), I plan to put the basement door bucks together and head out there to lay the basement track.   My vertical studs may arrive and so I can start to go vertical on Saturday.  I still need to buy some scaffolding, but I will take my 15 ft ladder for now and start with the shorter pieces.