Category Archives: construction

Garden Patio Comes to Life

What we loved most about our new home when we bought it a little over four years ago was its enormous potential. We didn’t love the multiple layers of wallpaper or the mauve carpet throughout, nor did we care for the eighties era cabinetry in the kitchen. With the exception of one mature tree (a rare elm in Denver) and several bushes, the lot was a homogeneous wash of kentucky bluegrass. Too much to water and way too much to mow. Yes, it would take a lot of work, but this house had the potential to become something even more special than it already was. Here’s a picture from when we first looked at the house back in 2007.

Ain’t she cute? The house had been lovingly cared for over a century and we fell in love at first sight. We discovered my wife was pregnant while the house was under contract, making the move all the more necessary. We did a cosmetic remodel to the interior before moving in, but it wasn’t until the second year that we had time to tackle the outdoor living space we envisioned. This is the north side of the house after tearing out the sod.

Our vision was relatively simple: create an outdoor space where we could relax and/or play with the kids. We had already torn out the sod on the sunny south side of the house and planted a garden. For the shady north side of the house we wanted space to entertain, space to play, and we also wanted to create some separation from the unoccupied neighboring property.

Before I continue, I should clarify that I have a habit of saying “we” when “I” is really a lot more accurate. “We,” my wife and I, used to do these projects together but ever since she first got pregnant the “we”s have turned into “I”s. Take note expecting dads…

So at the start of the project there was this mature lilac bush that we wanted to keep, the problem was it was in the wrong spot. Now, keep in mind that I would not recommend doing this to anyone, but it is possible. I didn’t know if the bush would survive but thought it was worth trying so we, I mean I, dug the thing up and moved it about six feet so it was centered outside our bay window. Backbreaking work, but it was worth it as the lilac is now the center piece of the patio garden. This photo shows the lilac in its new location as well as the french drain installed along the drip edge of the house.

With no gutters on the house there is a considerable amount of water that falls along the edge of the concrete walkway, so we wanted the new patio to protect the foundation by shedding water away from the house, but we also wanted to keep that water in our yard to benefit our landscaping. A permeable sand-set patio with a french drain and an area drain seemed like it would work but we weren’t 100% sure.

Below is a picture with most of the patio set. To the right of my son’s foot is the area drain (connected to the french drain it discharges in the lawn out front) and to the right of that is the sand box. We reused brick found on our property to “warm up” the square concrete pavers from the box store.

The side door of our house functions as our backdoor so this area sees more traffic than the front porch. In a tray in front of the lilac bush are hundreds of clumps of moss that we (I) painstakingly saved from the sod tear out.

It doesn’t really show in these pictures, but the moss is now growing in the garden and in the joints of the pavers, which makes it feel like the patio has been there a lot longer than it has.

For some strange reason I thought it would be a good idea if we (I) added a 1,750 lb. boulder to the garden. I still think it was a good idea. I just wish I had hired a crane to drop it in there.

We added the pergola the following summer using salvaged wood (a 16″ x 20″ x 20′-0″ beam was quartered to make the posts) and fence components (metal cross pieces and cables). The posts are mounted to tapered concrete piers and appear to float in space, giving the somewhat massive structure a bit of levity.

With a big rain storm water collects at the low point of the patio where a wisteria vine climbs the pergola. The wisteria seems to like the additional water as it is now blooming for the forth time this season. We continue to encourage the wisteria to grow over the pergola, and morning glories have filled in the horizontal screen along the back of the patio. Yes, it’s been a ton of work and it’s taken a few years to get it done but we are so enjoying our outdoor living space right now.

It’s hard to describe how this patio has transformed our house, but it is truly dramatic. We sit in the sun, we sit in the shade, we eat meals and we saddle up for adventures, we play, we relax. It has become a much needed extension of our living space and the best part about it: it cost next to nothing. Ok, there were a few hard costs (the square pavers-$600, the boulder-$40, the fence components-$80) that totaled less than $1,000. Considering how much value we’ve added to the house, spending that money now seems like a no brainer, right?


Rain Screen Beetle Kill Siding

The abundance of beetle kill pine here in Colorado makes it a very affordable and sustainable building material. Most pine species are considered soft and often are riddled with knots, so while it can be used untreated for rustic furniture or trim indoors, untreated pine is not known for its durability outside. Which got me thinking…

How could I incorporate this inexpensive, readily available material into my newly framed 7,200 cubic foot man cave as a siding application?

Traditional lap siding and vertical board and bat applications set the material directly against the building paper which leads to bending, warping, cupping and cracking as the siding material is weathered unevenly. Beetle kill pine, milled down to manageable lap siding thickness, would surely fall apart over time as knots pop out and cracks develop.

What if rough sawn 1×6 beetle kill was attached to furring strips to hold the material off the wall, with gaps between the boards it would allow it to breath on all sides, right? When it rains, the whole board gets wet. When the sun is out, the whole board dries out. The obvious drawback is the additional waterproofing and flashing needed to make the surface behind the “rain screen” watertight. But with the beetle kill being so cheap, and with an abundance of free labor, I decided to give it a try. Ladies and gentlemen…may I introduce to you…The Rain Screen Experiment.

After painted cement panel siding was applied over the house wrap, the rain screen areas were flashed with metal, then 6″ adhesive flashing with the black, 30# building paper over that.

With the 3/4″ furring strips anchored securely to the frame, the rough sawn pine boards were cut to length and sealed with two coats of a stain/sealer. It should be noted that the pine was originally purchased from the mill after a spring snow storm and the material was, shall we say, damp? So we stacked the boards on stickers and allowed them to dry for several months.

And here is the finished appearance. The cement panels cost about $1/s.f. for the material, the beetle kill pine was about $0.60/s.f. but with the flashing factored in it was also about a $1/s.f. The upside of this project is that I was able to side our garage for very little money. The down side was that it took an embarrassingly long time to finish. Oh well, as I tell my clients, there are three major components that dictate the course of any project, money, time, and quality. You can only control two of them, so choose them wisely! In this case I opted for a quality finish on a tight budget, the schedule flew out the window a long time ago.

With the siding complete the experiment begins, how will this material hold up over time?


A decaying horse shed was in dire need of replacement when I was asked to take a look at shoring up some of its buckling walls.  We talked about emergency repairs, more permanent measures, and the possibly of replacing it with a larger structure.  The homeowners wanted to replace it, but expressed doubt that the city would let them do much more than repair it because of the non-conforming status of the property. 

With a little investigating into the local zoning code, a provision was found allowing said lots to be treated as conforming lots provided the gross lot area is at least 80% of the zoned lot requirement (2 1/2 acres).  The property itself is only 1.79 acres, but with the “gross lot” allowance extending to midpoints on two adjacent streets, the property is 81% of the zone requirement.

Grab the sledge, this shed is coming down.

We actually used pry bars and hammers to carefully remove the wood siding, windows, and what little of the timber that was salvageable. All to be reused in the new “barn” to give it a sense of context and history.  The old horse shed was probably built at the same time as the original farm house in the early twentieth century. 

The original farm house has since been replaced by a Colonial Revival, and  the clients wanted to keep the new barn in that same tradition.

This is the north end of the house, closest to the barn.

I think where this structure really shines is on the inside.  I worked with an engineer to figure out how we could use tongue and grove 2×6 that would serve as the wall sheathing as well as the interior wall finish.

The result is a warm, lofty feel.  Elements from the old shed keep the new structure true to it’s dirt floor roots.  Old posts find new life as table legs.  The original windows are now in the cupola, and the old siding provides shelving material.

The word barn implies that there are livestock here, which there aren’t.  In fact, the electrical inspector made me go down to the city and change the use of the building from “barn” to “garage” because we didn’t ground the foundation and was thus non-habitable, even for livestock.  Haven’t missed a foundation ground since.  Didn’t matter to the owners, they use the barn to house planting and pottery activities, a small tractor and yard equipement.

Mortice and tenon knee braces at each end of the ridge beams had to be “encouraged” into place as the glulam beam was lowered into place.  One of many details I’ve drawn over the years that looks great on paper but proves difficult to build in the field.  Not much fun if it’s not a challenge.

green build

This “green build” was completed two years ago at the height of the market here in Denver.  Back then it seemed anyone could get a loan, and green was the new black.  Reflecting back on the project, it got me thinking.

What exactly made this project a “green build”? Is it still green today?

Good questions.  In this day and age, it seems, the criteria for being green is simply that the word green has been written on it.  The bar for being green has not just been substantially lowered, it’s fallen off the rack and is resting on the ground.  The word “green” has gone mainstream, which in the grand scheme of things is probably good.  But it also means that “green” doesn’t always mean what it means, if you know what I mean

Within the construction world, there are a number of different organizations that have different labels for different levels of green building, sustainable design, energy efficiency, green materials, and so forth and so on.

Some of these organizations amount to not much more than a marketing tool for home builders.  Built Green Colorado, for example, has put their stamp on thousands of homes that stood up to their checklist, which amounts to little more than business as usual in the construction world.  Are these homes more environmentally friendly than tract homes built back in the eighties? Yes, but not by much.  Does the “built green” sign in the front yard help sell the property? Definitely.  Interestingly, what was touted as the oldest and biggest green home building program in the country, Built Green Colorado, is unable to operate through the down economy.  What they were calling an “intermission” on their website, has now lasted two years.

Ok, sure, there’s no surprise there.  Of course some of these green organizations are going to be gimmicky.  Like with any other trend, there are going to be people that jump on the bandwagon and try to capitalize on it, instead of furthering the cause.

At the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Certification program is the global standard for measuring how green a building is.  It was founded back in the mid-nineties by environmentalists whose initial intent was to create a set of guidelines for architects and builders to reduce waste in construction.

While the LEED program has produced tangible results, reducing energy and natural resource consumption, some argue that the forecasted consumption (upon which certifications are based) and the actual consumption of a LEED buildings are totally different numbers.  Of the tens of thousands of projects around the world bearing some level of LEED certification, how many would maintain that status if re-evaluated based on actual performance? Realistically, not many.

The USGBC has attempted to address that concern by requiring building owners to report annual energy consumption data, but it seems largely symbolic as there no process to repeal certification if the building out consumes it’s forecast.  Like the fate of so many that started as a well intentioned grass roots effort, the USGBC seems to have morphed into another bureaucratic organization whose original intent has been whittled away by the developers who see increased value in LEED certified buildings, but want to keep construction costs down.

Getting back to the original question, what makes this house a “green build”? Well, on paper, not much.  It is not LEED certified, it is not “Built Green”, and it is not Energy Star rated.  This was a custom home designed for the owner, not a “spec” home to be sold upon completion.  The additional cost of obtaining certification wasn’t something that could be marketed and recouped on the back end of the project, so why bother? The architect knows it’s green, the owner knows it’s green, and the builder knows it’s green.  Could this be the first structure in modern times to actually be green, without having the word green written all over it? 

While that would be nice, probably not the case. 

Anyways, from the perspective of the builder, here’s what makes this house green:

Urban infill– built on an empty city lot, increases population density in urban core.

Smart design– architect S. Adams designed the space to maximize natural daylighting, using clerestory windows to bring indirect light into the space up high.  Glass block towers illuminate three stories of stairwell while maintaining privacy.  If the sun is up, there is no need to turn a light on in this house.

Modulation and Prefabrication– building dimensions were sized to minimize construction waste (this project produced about 1/6 of the trash usually produced by building a custom home).  Framing components (trusses and roof panels) were fabricated offsite reducing waste and speeding construction.  What would take a week or two on a conventional frame was done in a day and a half.  

Super-insulation–  The 11 1/4″ SIPs roof panels have an R-value of 47.  The 2×6 exterior walls were filled with a water based (no VOC off-gas), spray foam insulation that provided superior thermal and sound insulation.  Gas filled, low-e glass on all the windows and sliders minimize heat loss and reduce energy loads.

Energy efficient systems– on-demand water heaters and high-efficiency furnaces reduce energy consumption, and over time, pay for the additional initial cost.

Blankets– As is evident by the discrepancy between a LEED certified building’s forecast performance and it’s actual performance, a building is only as green as it’s owner.  So turn your thermostat down and throw another blanket on the bed.  Turns out that a “green” blanket is part of what makes this house truly green.

the rain screen experiment

Looks like there was a bit of dust on the lens when I took this photo.  It actually captures the varying colors of the beetle kill pine quite nicely.  The usual yellow and orange pine is dissected by a blue and gray stain. 

It seems unfair, the pine beetle gets all the credit for killing trees, when, technically it’s a fungi carried by the beetle that slowly strangle the core of tree.  The beetles prefer living trees, boring tunnels in their skin.  In fact, I’m sure the beetles don’t even know that they are the cause of the massive kill-off of trees here in the nearby Rocky Mountains.

While the additional waterproofing layers and furring strips added time to the labor on this project, the rough sawn 4/4×6″ beetle kill pine will hold up much better as a siding material used in a rainscreen application.  After generously applying two coats of a stain/sealer on all surfaces of the siding, they were spaced, leveled, and attached using 3 inch deck screws.

In theory, air circulating over all four sides of the “screen” will allow the wood to age more gracefully than conventional lapped wood siding. 

park sculpture

Project: “Common Ground”
Location: Denver, Colorado
Designer: Barbara Grygutis
General Contractor: Rock & Co.
It November of 2000,  Tucson based artist Barbara Grygutis sent a request for proposal to Rock and Co in Brighton, Colorado.  She had won a design competition sponsored by the local Gates Family Foundation to promote public art.  “Common Ground” would be a gift to the City of Denver, the crowning jewell of a new park along the South Platte River.  The centerpiece of the City’s plan to redevelop, and revitalize the Central Platte Valley.

 Value Engineering–  Systematic method used to analyze functions in an effort to improve the ratio of function to cost.  Value can be increased by reducing cost or improving function.

As lead estimator at commercial masonry contractor Rock & Co., the task of submitting a proposal for this park sculpture was mine.  Initially we were asked to price the stone masonry work only, which at the time was specified to be entirely wrapped in granite from Minnisota.  Ms. Grygutis would orchestrate the project acting as a general to the different trades.  We were qualified to build the whole structure, so we submitted a number  for us to perform as general.

Rock & Co. was awarded the entire project, but with a catch.  There was a fixed amount of money to fund the project, our proposal exceeded that sum by a staggering 40%.

I’ll never forget the morning founder of Rock & Co. Bruce Davis slid a set of plans across my desk, mentioning something about an artist.  “I think this one’s right up your alley!” he said with a smirk.  Wasn’t sure what he meant by that, so I unrolled the drawings to reveal a 200 foot long sculpture, clad in stone.  Hey Bruce, “I’m on it!”.

Initially we put together an estimate for the stone work only, the designer intended to act as G.C. and sub-out the different trades.  A granite veneer from out of state was spec’ed,  and our masons would assemble. 

As is often the case in construction estimating, the numbers were higher than expected.  After subsequent months of negotiating, we developed a relationship with Barbara, the designer.  She asked us to not only act as general contractor, but help value engineer the project into budget prior to construction.  We happily obliged.

To bring project cost down we sourced local materials as much as possible.  Instead of hauling cut granite from 800 miles away, a rhyolite quarry 25 miles from Denver provided a light weight, easy to manipulate, natural stone for the veneer material.

Raw material was delivered to the job site in the form of large boulders, 2 to 4 foot in diameter.  The masons then split the boulders into smaller pieces that would fit on the 6″ ledge.  Using different scribing methods, they fit the stones tightly together.  I mean really tight.  Like Machu Picchu tight.  Of course the more precise you are with stone, the more waste you produce.  In this case there was about 300 tons of scrap stone, from the nearly 600 tons delivered.  Fortunately, the scrap was readily hauled locally for use as landscaping material.

One of the more interesting aspects of the project was the excavation.  A stones throw from the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, these banks are layered with a 150 years of the city’s history.  A big flood in 1865 leveled a number of buildings near the confluence, shifting future developement of the city to higher ground, or what is now lower downtown Denver.  According to one of the Denver parks department employee that coordinated the construction of “Commons Park”, the project site had a checkered past. 

For years the site lay vacant, piles of debris had accumulated there during the flood and it became a dump of sorts.  Around the turn of the century, meatpackers filled the site in and built a plant, before the rail yards expanded and ran over it a half century later. 

Because of the soft and variable fill we would be building on and the lengthy nature of the structure, the engineering called for over-excavating 3 feet beyond the bottom of foundation.  The 12 foot wide trench was 8 feet deep in places.  Visible from I-25, the enormous pile of dirt attracted nightly visitors that would scratch the walls of the trench looking for valuable antique bottles.  Our job site office soon became littered with hundred year old bottles.   We also unearthed leather boots, stained glass, and cattle bones, though I didn’t keep any of those.