Year in Review and New Year Preview

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By this time, if my planning schedule was accurate and blogged about, I should have been in phase three of my home addition, but other issues prevented that project from starting. Two products that I wanted to use on this project were announced, but not yet through the arduous Los Angeles building and safety review. Living in earthquake country, and under a well formed bureaucracy, innovation is squashed, or takes many thousands of dollars to persuade city engineers that products are viable. The two interesting products form the basis of the foundation and the structural members of the home, so basically everything. I had already settled on using structural insulated panels (SIP’s) to build the home, but the previous technique require much material handling machines like forklifts, front reaching cranes, and a teams of laborers. that’s the old way of building. I want to build a home with one or two people. It can be done!

The first option is Apex Block. This product, around for a few years, made LA approval on 1 November 2008, and would require a complete redesign of the structure, but when complete would only need grouting with cement for insulation and stability. The second option is the modular housing system (MHS), approved 1 December 2008. Both are lighter in assembly, as the foam Apex Block are extremely lightweight, and the extruded aluminum of the MHS system is manageable. The venerable choice remains Premier Building Systems tradition heavy SIP. What better way to decide which to use, but by having each one go head to head in a bidding war! I’ll let you know the outcome in February 2009, when in earnest I begin again.

First I am going to the International Builder’s Show in Las Vegas to research some interior fixtures and lighting design packages. It’s easy to look on the web, but a much different experience to view the finishes and touch the products. It will be cheaper to get a room in Vegas for a night than drive a couple hundred miles to showrooms around Los Angeles, hoping that they have the product I want to see and touch. that show runs 20 – 23 January 2009, so that is my final check list and then the construction!

Have a wonderful 2009. I will be busy. It has to start out of the gate at full gallop, and this time I hope to finish the race, and not have to scratch out like in 2008. make 2009 your green year, where you climate change contribution is half of 2008. We all can do it.

Hybrid SIP Aluminum System

OSB and rebar on table

When you’re at the computer screen ten hours a day, you sometimes forget about the real world outside. Over the last twenty years this neighborhood has changed. It was earlier this year, someone fired 8 rounds of a 9 mm Lugar outside the house, littering the street with shell casings. That was a really scary night. As the economy has collapsed, families have become extended, and the volume of cars in driveways, in front of houses, and on the street have five fold increased, if not more.

In this environment, the Rosales clan has decided to build an addition. As I’ve been exploring the design over the last 234 days, there’s been a lot of ups and downs, changes, investigation, and game changers. After learning that the City of LA will not allow flexible living quarters, the structure moved from the back of the property to come in contact with the main house. LA requires either 10 feet of continuous roof or 4 feet of common wall to call it an addition in juxtaposition to an accessory building. In an addition, you’re allowed all forms of living quarters except a kitchen. An accessory building cannot have natural gas, hot water, or a sink larger than 1 square feet, to prevent having a granny flats structure.

I had chosen early on to adopt a more robust and user friendly construction technology, in defiance of current common platform building with wood stick construction. I read an interesting article on the history of residential building, and in summary concludes building technology has evolved to incorporate lower quality and inexpensive components, instead of the highest quality old growth wood and timbers of years gone by. Wood engineering is the where the future of construction lies. The addition will not include a single structural tree member, but instead a hybrid of wood fibers or wood strands with resins and adhesives.

Something I explored this week is the combination of engineered wood panels and a lightweight aluminum superstructure. It’s a neat hybrid system using metal where necessary, but the wide open spaces with insulated panels. in fact, a company in Van Nuys, CA has a demonstration unit that I had a chance to walk through and absorb the possibilities. Where my project has stalled is in the ancillary technology to assemble heavy large cumbersome SIP’s, namely renting forklifts, cranes, and heavy material handling equipment that most likely would add $10,000 to the project.

The hybrid metal SIP technology, introduced to the USA with MHS, is still a work in progress, yet to achieve approval in a seismically active area. I thought about building without a permit, but then the City would most likely insist it’s removal, once a complaint from a neighbor came through. I’ve written anyway to the Long Beach CA manufacturer to see how much it would cost and how far they are on their way to ICC acceptance. The SIP structure would most like cost $45,000 installed. the Van Nuys licensee wanted $120,000 or more for their architectural imprimatur.

The World of Concrete

ICF worker with APEX block form

In the typical construction project, I suppose you need to start with the ground and move upward. I took the opposite approach and started form the roof, and moved through the skylights, doors and windows, walls, flooring, foundation, and earth. I’ve already selected the windows, skylights, roofing product, and building system, but have not selected the foundation yet.

I thought it would be easy. you have two choices in general in seismic design category D, continuous foundation walls, or concrete masonry units (CMU). I’ve investigated all sorts of technologies in anchoring a structure to earth. Everything from metal helical rods, posts and grade beams, and every type of gluing scheme. The foundation not only holds up a home, but acts the interface between the earth (air, water, fire) and your dry structure. It has to prevent moisture buildup underneath, hold fast during movement, and last longer than what stands on top of it.

I got the definitive word form APEX block that their lightweight composite ICF solution is not approved nor likely to be approved in the city of Los Angeles for many months. I have to select a plan B, which is either a tradition six inch formed footing and stem wall, or an alternative forming system, like an ICF. My idea is to eliminate concrete, or at least reduce it. The APEX system took this structure down from 6.63 cubic yards (cu yd) of cement to just 4.70 cu yds. All other systems reduce concrete use, but the next best system I could find was a waffle grid ICF called American Polysteel PS 3600, which will use 5.70 yards of concrete. Why this matters is concrete should be used where needed, and not extravagantly, because it has a extremely large carbon footprint in its manufacture. Concrete is also very, very heavy, and takes a lot of diesel to transport. That’s why CMU’s are out of the question.

The Polysteel forms weigh in at 7 pounds, compared to a CMU at 60 pounds. I calculate I’ll need around 75 blocks, saving over 2000 pounds from a flatbed truck. I’m hoping to design a monolithic pour of the footings and stem walls using some materials I found on the internet from Award Metals. they make a novel footing brace and monolithic strap that should accommodate the ICF forms. I chose the waffle grid, which by simple by having a irregular mold shape, it uses much less concrete than a form that has straight walls. I’m also hoping that since the walls will only be 22 inches high, my building and safety department will not require a stamp of a structural engineer.

I do have a few engineer names that specialize in ICF foundations, just in case. It’s always down to the budget. My time is basically free. This project has cost very little so far, but with professional consultants, I’m sure the fees go from zero to $1,500 really fast. I found the names through the newsletter of the Structural Engineers Association of Southern California. I hope I don’t need to call them.

Towards a Better Foundation

APEX block ICF form delivery

I thought I could whip out a foundation plan in three days, but like the SIP structure, the foundation structure needs the approval of a structural engineer. There may be a loophole of some products, using a prescriptive method for insulating concrete forms in residential construction, but I’ll have to check with LA Building and Safety. It does look like I will have to visit the department with the drawing I have and ask for some advice.

I was planning on specifying the Nudura plank style ICF, but when I checked if it was still legal to use in Los Angeles, the company failed to renew their research report approval, and their product has lapsed. Since I have to start building in two or three weeks, I can’t wait around for them to renew. In the interim, I’ve discovered several other styles of ICF: block, panel, and plank. The material used to make the form can either be EPS or some hybrid or composite material (wood fiber and cement or EPS and cement).

I’m now steering this project toward a composite ICF, as only the stem walls of the foundation need reinforcement, and the larger EPS forms, though greater insulating factor, will not come off the ground much. The composite ICF that I like, is currently not approved in Los Angeles, but there are older styles that have gone through all the testing.

Moving Forward Fast

premier building systems wall panels

I got some responses from the manufacturer of the SIP panels, with answers to my satisfaction. Premier also suggested I apply for the Los Angeles building permit now at the Department of Building and Safety (LADBS), as it may take some time. I had prepared drawings for panel manufacturing, but not for submission to the LADBS. I had not made the foundation plan, nor the proper elevation plans. LADBS wants to know what type of finished will be in the interior, exterior, and roof, along with insulation levels.

It took me two weeks to get the complicated drawings prepared, and I hope i can finish the refinement to the plans in three days.

Designing with Nudura

APEX block with rebar layout

With the new millennium, we get new technology is mobile phones, mobile internet, computers, and cars, but where technology has not touched too much is home building. If I were to tear open the walls of my house, it would expose a dimensional lumber construction style developed in the 19th century. With progress in almost everything else in the world, our built environment must take advantage of the research and materials of the 21st century. I’ve been researching these alternative materials for many years, hoping that production builders would start to use them, but so far no Home Depot or Lowes sells anything other than lumber or concrete blocks as a house building system.

The building comfort level is certainly there, but the experience and details of fine home building are lost on most. My home addition will use the latest in durable, lightweight, and super energy efficient products as a demonstration project to at least document what can be achieved with not too much extra money.

The walls, floors, and roof are compromised of Premier Building Systems structural insulated panels, and today I start my design on a Nudura insulated concrete form (ICF) foundation system. if concrete were not as environmentally taxing, you could make an entire first floor out of concrete, but the manufacture of concrete is extremely environmentally hazardous, taking over 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (mining, manufacture, transportation, use). Concrete offers many advantages in seismic areas that no other material allows, so it’s OK to use, but must be use wisely.

Initially I tried getting a manufactured foundation, which is available on the east and central areas of the USA, but the west coast with earthquakes, manufacturers are hesitant to release and certify the product. The next best thing is designing the use of concrete to present its inherent strength and longevity into cavities and forms. This is what an ICF product allows. Just enough concrete for performance, but not excessive amounts, like in a typical foundation system.