Category Archives: Sourcing

Waterproofing the earth sheltered home


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.


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.


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

Quad Deck, Part 1


Posted on September 24, 2015 by


Quad-Deck is a product sold by Quad-Lock, an ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) company. It is basically a flooring (or roofing) system that uses polystyrene as a form for concrete.  The panels click together and include steel beams so they can span greater distances (with less shoring) while supporting the wet concrete.  The concrete hardens to form a continuous floor over the panels and the panels are left in place as insulation.

Quad Deck

My unique earth sheltered home design includes a basement.  This increased the height of the walls holding back earth.  Structurally, I needed my floor to be a sheer plane that would prevent the earth from pushing in those walls by transferring the lateral loads right thru the house into the dirt on the other side.  The resulting compression would be well handled by a concrete floor. I just had to find the easiest way to build one.

I could have built a deck out of wood or steel panels supported by bracing and just poured concrete over that.  There are modular systems that work pretty well and are cost effective for rectangular buildings, but my curved shape would make it quite difficult and expensive.  Also, those systems generally produce a uniform concrete thickness, which adds to the expense.

ICFs had the advantage of being easy to setup and easy to trim.  They also use less concrete because they can form that stronger IBeam shape.  The insulation is also perfect for my in-floor radiant heating and helps with more consistent indoor temperatures and reduced sound transmission.

Unlike ICF building blocks, there are very few companies that make this sort of ICF floor system, just about the only other company with a similar product is “Lite-Deck”, but they had no distributors in my region.  AMDeck is a similar product that only comes in short pieces (32 inches long) so you don’t need to order custom lengths, but you need to place the steel joists separately and then place the Insulation over them and it just seemed like more could go wrong.

The Video

The Process

Pile of QuadDeck1) The quad deck panels are cut to length (according to a cut sheet I provided) in the factory and shipped to the site.

2) The installers (in my case, Dan and Brian), started by setting up scaffolding spaced across the floor. Beams were placed across the scaffolding and the scaffold legs were adjusted to level the beams across the space.

3) My curved walls required both ends of every piece to be shaped to fit.  This was done with a measuring tape and a saws-all.  Occasionally a big cutting wheel was used.


4) Each piece was pushed up against the previous piece before being screwed in place so that they would be held tightly together.  The screws were “toe-nailed” thru the wood shoring and into the steel reinforcement.


5) Spray foam was used to seal the gaps between the top edge of the wall and quad deck material.

6) Rebar was placed in the channel and across the quad deck according to the drawing.  Rebar chairs were used.

7) A perimeter form, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, radiant floor PEX, etc. were added later (next post).


In my region, it seemed like I pretty much had to go with QuadDeck if I wanted this sort of product. To make matters worse, QuadDeck only had one single installer in my region.  I asked for a quote on both the quad deck and the ICF walls of the garage.  The wall quote from this builder was not even in the top 3 and several times more expensive than doing FoxBlocks myself.  But they were the only quote for the Quad Deck, and I thought special bracing was needed, so I decided to go with them for that portion of the build.  The quote was for “Quad Deck install, labor and shoring rental.”  I called for further clarification and was told it would get the quad deck ready for the pour, but did not include the actual concrete or labor to pour and finish the floor.  I would need to call a separate contractor for that.  The price was high, but acceptable for a company with specialty experience and equipment, so I put them in my estimate.

Later that summer, after back-filling around the basement, it was time to get the quote updated and call the crew out.  I sent in pictures of the basement (including zoomed in shots of the edge of the wall), along with a cut-sheet and images from my 3D model, calculations from the QuadDeck manual (it is a pre-engineered product), etc.  They updated the quote, but said they wanted an engineering stamp before they would start work.

My engineer had retired (still young, but wanted to stay home with his kids), so I contacted the builder’s engineer.  He was willing to check and stamp my work and he was very affordable, but he was also very old (eighty something) and only worked face to face (no computers). I would need to take him drawings and he would hand calculate and stamp them if he approved.   There was a funny telephone episode where I was asking him his address (so I could google map it), but he just kept repeating how to get to his office via landmarks. Before I could get out there (he lived 4 hours away), he had a stroke and retired.  I didn’t want to pay a new engineer to learn about QuadDeck, so I began a search for someone with experience.  The builder wasn’t much help.  I even called quad-lock company headquarters and they just forwarded my request back to the builder.  I called QuadDeck back a few times and asked for other regions until I eventually found an Engineering company in the southwest that was licensed to stamp a drawing in Michigan.  It ended up adding a surprise $1200 to my estimated cost, but may have saved me some money because my version would have used twice as much rebar (I was being conservative with the Quad Deck load calculations).

I still couldn’t schedule the builder to come out.  I tried to go around him, but it turned out he was also the only builder in the surrounding 4 states.  He had a monopoly and ran his business that way.

Eventually, we got the quad deck panels ordered.  I knew it would take weeks for my order to be cut and then delivered.  They were supposed to call me with a delivery time 24 hours in advance so I could organize to unload.  Instead I got an annoyed call from the driver at 6:00 in the morning wondering why there was no one at the building site.  Surprise, my 10-year-old and I hopped in my car and drove the hour out to the property, but there was no way to organize any other help in that short time.  When I got there a little after 7:00 AM, there was a large 18 wheeler trailer full of QuadDeck planks waiting for me.  It was the closed in kind with big double doors at the back, so I could not unload with my fork lift.  The panels were stacked to the roof and would need to be removed by hand, slid out one at a time.  I had to get a 13 ft ladder just to reach the panels.  The driver was impatient, so David and I got to work without setting up the camera.  The driver complained that we were taking too long, so I told him that he could have called to let us know he was coming (as he was supposed to do) or he could help.  He helped a little with a couple of pieces that David could not physically lift, but generally speaking, he just paced back and forth.  Eventually we got them all out of the truck and the driver shook David’s hand before he left.  I think he was impressed with David, but was also still pretty annoyed with me for not having a real crew.

We used the SkidSteer to move the blocks up behind the house and stacked them and covered them with a tarp…  And then waited.  Every few weeks, the builder made up some excuse and moved the date back.  The list of back and forth texts is quite ridiculous. Eventually, 3 months later, he said he would be able to slot me in before the end of Sept (one week away).  He asked if I had the rebar on site, I did.  He asked if I had the full list of building materials he needed…  I had no idea what he was talking about.  He sent me a list, which added up to $1700.  Surprise!  The list included 4×6 beams, 35 lbs worth of screws, 3/4 inch plywood, 2x4s, 2x6s, a case of spray foam, anchor bolts, etc. I called him and asked if he was planning to build the shoring?  I was obviously annoyed, which annoyed him and he said we could just call off the whole thing and I could look for another builder.

Of course, I already had the material on site and he knew he was the only builder within 1000 miles that had ever installed this stuff before…  I gave in and we proceeded.  He then told me that his quote did not include the perimeter forms that would also be needed before we poured, but he could do that for an extra cost.  I was so annoyed, I didn’t even want to discuss the extra costs or argue that he never mentioned this before, so I told him I would take care of that myself.

I asked how many days it would take for what was included in the quote, he said 6 or 7 days for a crew of 3 people.

Anyway, as you can see from the video, it took 1 day just to set up the shoring (which turned out to be regular scaffolding and my 4×6 beams, leveled).  Then 2 days to put in the quad deck.  There was also a short 4th day of just a couple of hours when they finished the quad deck off and were gone by 9:00 AM to work on pouring some other wall somewhere else. Then the last day was just putting in rebar and spray foaming. The main boss never even made it out to the property.

After the job was done, he sent a final bill that included about 2000$ extra costs for “unexpected extra work” including putting in rebar and spray foam and “gasoline for the generator”, etc.  I was sick of the surprises and fought him on most of it.  He kept asking me to “meet him half way”. Instead I went thru my emails, texts and time-stamped-timelapse photos and wrote up what could easily have been a trial defense.  For instance, I pointed out that he had estimated 7 days for 3 people, but got the job done in 4 days with mostly 2 people, how could he justify “extra costs”?  He eventually gave in on most of the bogus extra charges, but still got his “36$ for gasoline for the generator”.  I just wanted to move on.

Then he hit me with the scaffold rental.  He wanted several thousand for that.  I told him that his quote said “labor and scaffold rental”.  He said that was just the first 2 weeks, I had kept the scaffolding for 3 weeks longer than that to finish getting it ready for pour and then leaving the scaffolding in for 2 weeks while the floor set.  He wanted $15 per unit for those 3 weeks.  I eventually agreed, but then he defined the units as half sets (so twice the cost).  Arg!  long story short, I ended up paying an additional 810$ to rent that scaffolding for 3 weeks.  For perspective, I paid $1200 to buy my other 5 sets of scaffolding, and that included 6 decks, 8 wheels, outriggers, a grouser bar, etc.

Anyway, as much as I liked the idea of QuadDeck, I would never work with that builder again.  I have some quad deck left for the roof of the mezzanine.  I plan to install it myself.

Bonus fun facts…

IMG_20151031_170822546 (Medium)1) The scaffolding that I rented has been stacked nicely and ready for pickup for almost 4 months with no responses to my monthly texts to the builder to come and pick ’em up.  You will see it in the background of various other videos ;^)  It was actually quite labor intensive to remove it from the basement (next video), so I hope the builder appreciates that that free labor.  I wonder if I could surprise him with storage fees?

2) At the end of each day, the guys did a great job cleaning up the site.  They used a leaf mulcher to suck up and bag the little broken bits of Styrofoam so they wouldn’t blow all over the place and they carefully stacked the other trash.


PiggyBankStressedThe original quote was about 4$/sqft for quad deck materials.  That turned into 6$ by the time we placed the order (including freight).  Then another $7/sqft for labor and shoring rental.  I also budgeted about $1 for rebar and 2$ for concrete, plus 3$ for labor to pour and finish the floor.  Then I had the surprise of just over 1$ for engineering plus just under 2$ for extra materials (some of which I was able to return unused and much of which I will reuse elsewhere in the build).  Then, finally, that ridiculous “additional” scaffold rental at the end, which divided out to just under 1$/sqft.  That comes to about ~22$/sqft by the time we were done.  Quite a bit over-budget, but survivable.

Fox Blocks, Phase 1


Posted on June 13, 2015 by

As part of my build, I wanted to experiment with a variety of different construction methods, including ICFs.

ICFs are “Insulated Concrete Forms” that you can use to build a very well insulated wall.  They stack like lego and include strong high density plastic (HDPE) inner supports that hold the sides together while the concrete is being poured.  This inner web structure is also used to position and support the rebar and the portion embedded in the polystyrene acts as furring strips for attaching things to the wall. After the concrete is poured, the forms are just left “in place” as insulation.

In addition to the 4 inches of polystyrene insulation, we will be adding 6 inches of concrete that will give the wall mass to retain heat, “dynamic R value“.

The front and back of my garage (Quonset hut) are flat walls that needed to extend past the Quonset hut and perform double duty as a parapet retaining wall, all without any complicated construction or difficulty attaching insulation.  ICFs seemed like the perfect choice for this application.

The final setup

The final setup

Installing the Fox Blocks ICFs was pretty easy, as you can see in the video.  Lessons learned are included in this post.

The Video:

Fox Blocks;

I looked at many different ICF companies and carefully considered their various advantages.  Some fold flat for easy shipping, others have longer or taller blocks or come in separate pieces that can be assembled in a variety of different ways.  Cost of materials and installation were also a concern.  In the end, Fox Blocks was my first choice.  For more on why, see this earlier post.

The blocks cost about 20$ each and I was able to buy them directly and install them myself without any fancy tools or equipment (or skills).  A regular concrete block wall (CMUs) would have been cheaper, but would have been much more work and required much more skill.  I would also have needed to insulate it, so maybe not even that much cheaper.

The Story (lessons learned in orange boxes):

The Setup;

ScreenShot_DimensionsWe started out by measuring and marking all the locations for doors and windows right on the concrete pad/footing. From this, we could easily mark all the locations for the rebar.  We drilled half inch holes 3 inches into the concrete at each rebar location.

The Fox Blocks stack very easily.  We also use the “Fox Clips” to clip the blocks together horizontally and vertically.  After each layer, we added the horizontal rebar.  My engineer specified one piece of #4 alternating near the front or back of the wall each 16 inches.  The internal web of the Fox Blocks had notches to hold the rebar so that we didn’t even need to tie it in place.

The lego bits (that Bonnie insists are called “nubbins”) are every 2 inches and the blocks can be stacked upside down or back to front, but you definitely want to line up the internal webs so that it is easy to clip things together vertically.  It also makes it easier to attach things to the outside of the wall if the webs are all lined up.


In the first section of wall, we had a T section for 3 levels on the back.  So when Bonnie got to the 4th level, it was a bit tricky to trim a block for that transition and you can see her trying a few different things (stacking and unstacking and then trimming and re-stacking) to get all the internal webs to line up.

After the wall was mostly up, we started dropping in the vertical rebar (half inch) and then using a hammer to tap the ends of the rebar into the half inch diameter holes in the footing.  These 3 inch deep holes were enough to hold the rebar vertical within the wall, however, in many cases, I still wire-tied the vertical rebar to the top horizontal rebar just to keep it all where it was supposed to be. This vertical rebar strengthens the wall and also helps the later layers hold across the cold joint at the top of this section of the wall.

When initially constructed, the blocks are securely attached to each other, so you have a monolithic form.  The vertical rebar keeps it from moving very far in any direction, but it is still very loosely positioned and not plumb.  You can see it moving around a lot in the video.  The wall will need to be plumbed and aligned as a final step.

We screwed 2x4s into the sides of the bucks.  It is very important to screw them in where the plastic reinforcement is.  In those locations (which act like internal furring strips), the screws bite in nicely and hold well.  Anywhere else, and they will just pull right out of the polystyrene.  these strips are hidden under the polystyrene. Fortunately, the blocks are clearly marked with the words “Fox Blocks” along the furring lines.

Unfortuneatly, I was not clear enough when working with my friends/family and assumed they all understood how the plastic strip locations were marked.  When their screws would not bite in, I would say something helpful like, “You need to make sure you screw it into the FOX BLOCKS.” and I would point to the line that said “FOX BLOCKS” vertically on the side of the block.  I would even screw one in for them to show them how it worked. They would nod and smile, but were actually thinking, “Yea, I am screwing it into the Fox Blocks, what did you think I was doing?  But its not working for me!”


It also didn’t help that we were (at least initially) using screws that were not threaded far enough up the shaft.  It was fine for the 2x4s, but when used with the thinner boards, the threads passed all the way thru the plastic and spun without really tightening up.  This caused quite a bit of frustration for Zack who was in charge of putting up the thinner boards.


Once the 2x4s were in place, we positioned and plumbed the ends of the walls using bracing and stakes to fix them in place.  Then we stretched string between the ends so we could align the rest of the wall.  Section by section, we used a level to plumb the wall and the string to align it.  The bracing at each section was individually staked.

This turned out pretty well, but I didn’t factor in potential movement at the bottom of the wall.  I had not fixed all the degrees of freedom and had relied on friction and the weight of the wall to keep the base where it was.  Of course, an ICF wall is relatively light and the strong winds shifted it in the 2 days between setting it up and the concrete pour.  I ended up needing to make some last minute adjustments.  Next time, I would also do something to secure the location of the back of the wall along the bottom edge.


Holes for the windows are cut out of the Fox blocks.  We used “Fox Bucks” to frame around the windows.  Fox Bucks are similar to the Fox Blocks (Polystyrene molded around an internal webing of tough HDPE plastic), but without the “snap together” feature. Instead, they must be taped into place and then the seams are held together with externally applied boards screwed in on both sides (the block and the buck).  Again, it is critical that the screws be in the plastic within the Fox Bucks, but the plastic fills pretty much the full sides, so it is hard to miss.

fox-buck1 fox-buck2

Not everyone helping understood that the concrete would be exerting hundreds of lbs of lateral force to push the bucks out and that tape and a couple screws would not hold them. I understood, but my big mistake was not fully inspecting (I was too distracted) that the boards were screwed into both the bucks and the adjacent Fox Blocks every 8 inches or so.  This lead to some blow outs and additional work down the line.  More images of this sort of mistake in the gallery at the end of this post.


The Fox Bucks are also used at the top and bottoms of the windows.  When used as window sills, we had to cut holes to allow the concrete to be poured in.  We also sloped the sills (by trimming the front of the underlying blocks) so water would drain off.

The full height of the wall is 12 blocks tall, but we only setup the first 4 levels because we wanted to be sure that the concrete would consolidate all the way down in the forms.  If we were more experienced, we may have tackled a deeper pour and got more done at once.  But as it was, I was glad we kept this first one simple.  Stopping at 4 levels also meant that I could let the first part harden before I added concrete across the tops of the windows and garage door, which probably saved me a disaster.  The cold joint that will occur is bridged by the vertical rebar.


The final steps were to place 6 mil plastic to separate the coming concrete from the Quonset hut steel and to spray foam some gaps and along the bottom of the wall. It not only fills gaps to keep the concrete from leaking, but works as a very effective glue.

The ICF wall was inspected and approved.  Keep in mind that the inspector checks basic things like if you have Rebar in place, etc.  He does not check for every screw.  As the general contractor, that was supposed to be my job.

Permit (Medium)

The Pour;

On the day of the pour, we also planned to take care of the basement floor and the concrete ribs while we had a pump truck on site.  I was actually running on fewer than 4 hours sleep and still frantically finishing some final details on the rib forms when the concrete trucks were rolling up.    I should have been inspecting the forms.  Is that enough foreshadowing for you?

Since I had experienced concrete guys on site to take care of the floor, I also asked them to help with the ICF walls also.    To make sure that the concrete was properly consolidated in the walls (without air pockets, etc.) I had bought a 5 ft long concrete vibrator for $99.00, which I would recommend to anyone doing similar work.

As soon as the concrete started filling the forms, the end started popping open.  It was immediately obvious that one of my helpers (who shall remain nameless) had not really understood that concrete would be trying to push its way out of these forms and had not secured things nearly enough.  For instance, on the first end, he had only fastened the top and bottom of the board.  Hundreds of lbs of lateral force were pushing out the middle and we had to scramble to brace it.  The windows bucks held up well, but then one side of the garage gave out and a few hundred lbs of concrete spilled out while we frantically grabbed scrap wood to brace it.  Seeing that not nearly enough screws had been used, I ran ahead of the concrete hose and frantically added more to the other bucks.


We made sure that the forms were not filled all the way to the top and we roughed up the top surface of the concrete so that the next layer would grip well across the cold joint.

It all happened very quickly… So quickly that, for the time-lapse, I had to slow it down by 50% so I could fit two sentences into the scene.

Once the day was done, I had time to think about my mistake and plan to do it better next time. There will actually be several more phases and I will need to wait until all the rib forms are done before I can complete the garage and put another ICF wall on the front of it.


Here are some pics from the day with descriptions.  Thanks to all those who helped me out.