Mahogany flooring

So, this project has ballooned to epic proportions, as the last floor plan demonstrated. So, among other things, we need flooring materials for the main floor. (The original plan was to have a concrete slab and do something like polished concrete with area rugs.) Thankfully, a friend was out shopping at the Lynnwood, WA Habitat for Humanity Store and came across 950 square feet of matching solid real mahogany flooring. (3/4 inches thick, 3 1/4 inch wide boards, and between 10 and 14 feet long.) The price was $2300 for the batch (about $2.50/square foot). They said it was donated by someone who bought it, but never got around to installing it, so it was in storage for a while, but it is new. As it happens, the floor area of the house is pretty close to 950 square feet. After taking out ~100 square feet for tiling the bathrooms and the laundry room, that will give me plenty of spare flooring to make sure everything comes out just right.


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Code note about exterior walls

As you probably recall, I’m trying to build this house as close to 1000 square feet as possible, because that is the largest allowed by county codes for 2nd dwellings on a single parcel. However is 1000 square feet defined? Well, it’s everything inside the exterior walls. So, if you have thick walls, you lose space to wall thickness. That’s a bummer for those who want to insulate well, since that means thick walls and thus less square footage. However, my architect brother-in-law said that he believed the code said the exterior walls end where the structure ends, so anything outside the exterior wall structure doesn’t count towards wall size. Specifically, if you have insulation, sheathing, siding, etc outside the structure, you ought to be good to go. Well, I did some code searching today and here’s what I found in Chapter 2 of the International Building Code:

EXTERIOR WALL. A wall, bearing or nonbearing, that is used as an enclosing wall for a building, other than a fire wall, and that has a slope of 60 degrees (1.05 rad) or greater with the horizontal plane. 

EXTERIOR WALL COVERING. A material or assembly of materials applied on the exterior side of exterior walls for the purpose of providing a weather-resisting barrier, insulation or for aesthetics, including but not limited to, veneers, siding, exterior insulation and finish systems, architectural trim and embellishments such as cornices, soffits, facias, gutters and leaders. 

EXTERIOR WALL ENVELOPE. A system or assembly of exterior wall components, including exterior wall finish materials, that provides protection of the building structural members, including framing and sheathing materials, and conditioned interior space, from the detrimental effects of the exterior environment.

So, “Exterior wall” isn’t entirely clear whether that includes insulation, but if you hop down to “Exterior Wall Covering”, you see that that includes anything on the exterior side of the exterior wall, including insulation, siding, trim, etc. Then they have a separate term, “exterior wall envelope”, to include exterior wall plus all the coverings. (And just as a reference for myself, Island County uses the 2012 International Building Code, which can be found referenced here:, where it states “The 2012 International Building Code is in effect”.)

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Heating system notes

Part of building a well-insulated house is considering the kind of heating system you need. Ideally, all the money you spent on insulation should be balanced by being able to get away with a lower-capacity (and thus cheaper) heating system, and also offset by lower energy bills. So, the question is what to do. Some of the major choices for heating systems include:

  1. Propane furnace
  2. Electric furnace
  3. Radiant floor hydronic heating
  4. Electric resistance heaters
  5. Heat pumps
  6. Wood stoves
  7. And oh-so-many more

In version 1 of the house, the main heat source would have been hydronic radiant heat in the concrete slab. However, now the concrete slab is in the unheated basement, so that’s out. You can do hydronic radiant heating under wood floors, but you have to be super-careful with your temperatures because you run the risk of drying out the wood and warping everything.

A particularly efficient mechanism for heating is the heat pump. Fundamentally, heat pumps extract heat from the outside (although it is cold) and bring it inside. So, they don’t generate heat, but just move it. Because of that, they reach higher levels of efficiency than would even be theoretically possible with electric resistance heating systems. Back in Raleigh, NC we had a heat pump system in our house (as do most houses because a heat pump can also be an air conditioning system). However, when we had the heat pump replaced (just the heat pump and air handler) it cost $5000 and needed to be done by pros because it dealt with refrigerant lines (and that didn’t include the ductwork, which would have cost extra and takes up space!) But while searching the internet today, I came across a “mini-split” heat pump system, which is basically a ductless single-room heat pump. Since the house only has 3 rooms, one per room really isn’t out of the question. Also, it appears that you can owner-install it without too much trouble. Here is a link to the product.

So, for $725 each (so $2175 for the whole house), you get a heating and cooling system that you can control on a by-room basis. So, I think that may be the way to go.

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Styrofoam Lego Concrete House

So, a big question that has always been at the forefront of my mind is how to built the house. To minimize energy costs, I’ve always wanted a well-insultated house (note that the exterior walls were always drawn to be a foot thick – that’s actually the plan). However, there are various methods for doing this. One method is insulating concrete forms. These are basically blocks of Styrofoam that act as a form for a concrete wall, and will sandwich the wall after pouring. There are upsides and downsides to building with concrete. One thing that can be a blessing and a curse is that concrete has a huge amount of thermal mass. Thermal mass is ideal if the the average of daytime and nighttime temperatures is a comfortable living temperature. Then thermal mass will keep you cool during the day and warm at night, because it will even out the extremes. However, concrete is a horrible insulator. Concrete has an R-value of 0.08 per inch. Soft wood will give you 1.25 (more than 15 times as much). Even single-pane glass will give you more insulation than a half foot of concrete. However, if you have concrete sandwiched in a large amount of insulation, its tendency to leak heat will be blocked by the enormous amount of Styrofoam on the other side. There will still be a large amount of thermal mass in the middle of the wall, but there will be multiple inches of insulation of either side of that mass. So, I think that will help control the difficulty one would have in heating a concrete structure, as well as maintaining proper moisture levels inside the house. (If you have poorly insulated concrete in a cool climate, the walls will be incessantly cold, and will cause condensation and thus mold.)

The big advantage of building with concrete to me is that it will easily enable a daylight walkout basement. (See notes at the bottom of About the House. Basically, a basement is not part of the square footage, so it won’t make us break the 1000-square-foot rule for second houses.) Basically, you have to do concrete walls for a basement, but as I noted above, normal concrete is just too non-insulated and it will draw in coldness from the outside ground. (And all the heating and moisture problems that go with that.) However, if I’m using insulating concrete forms for the main walls, it’s not too much of a stretch to go a bit further and use insulating concrete forms to build a basement as well. A bit advantage of having a basement is that you have super-easy access to all the utilities. Plumbing just drops through the floor, and then you have a nice, dry, open, tall area to work on your plumbing. I really dislike crawl spaces. They are dark, damp, and not tall enough to work in. I like slabs, but they lack flexibility for changes. A basement allows you extra-easy access for all your plumbing and electrical work.

Also, the insulating concrete forms allow for more flexible house shapes than some of the kits I looked at previously. So, now I’m considering a 50-foot by 20-foot house in the basic configuration of a left-bedroom, a right-bedroom and a center kitchen-living-dining area. A spiral staircase would lead to the basement. All utilities (water heater, breaker box, etc) would be in the basement.

So, now that I’ve gone on and on about the advantages, here are some pictures of some insulating concrete forms that I picked up from Quad-Lock.DSC_6570

They are basically Lego blocks. You have two parallel rows of Lego blocks, held together by plastic ties. The plastic ties keep the forms from sliding away from each other. They also serve as a point to hold both horizontal and vertical re-bar. And then they also serve as a material for affixing siding on the outside and drywall on the inside. (However, it seems that you can also apply stucco directly to the outside, which will probably be my path. Nadja is from Germany, and stucco is a very common German look and I think she’d appreciate that.)DSC_6571

Quad-Lock open DSC_6574DSC_6575

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Kitchen cabinets and extra kitchen items

Another important item for the design of a house, and a big money pit if you’re not careful, are kitchen cabinets. As it happens, people renovate kitchens a lot, so there are often lots of extra kitchen cabinets left over. So, after doing some Craigslist searches, I came across this:


For $500 I got the cabinets (uppers and lowers), electric range, range hood, sink, faucet, garbage disposal, and dishwasher. I already have a gas range, so I’m going to put the electric range up for sale and get some of my money back. Also, I think I have another kind of sink in mind, so I’ll probably sell the sink. I already got a dishwasher previously, but this new one is better, so I’ll probably sell the old one. And I certainly don’t need the disposal, so I’ll see if I can make anything off it too.

We also had an adventure getting the cabinets inside the barn. The upstairs of the barn is the largest area for storage of house items, as well as the driest. So, the cabinets needed to go up there. However, the stairs going up are only 2 feet wide, which did not provide enough room for the cabinets to go through. However, the upstairs of the barn has a 4’x4′ door at floor level that just goes out to open air. So, I built a ramp out of a couple 2″x6″x20’s and built a small rope-pulled sled to go on the ramp. We loaded the cabinets onto the sled one-by-one and dragged them up the ramp. It was surprisingly effective and went off without a major disaster. Sadly, we don’t have any pictures recording that fun. Perhaps when we take the cabinets back out again!

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Septic site registration

Because this house is being built in a rural area, there are no public sewer systems available, so plumbing waste is disposed of via a septic system. The principal is that the solids are separated from the liquids, and the liquids are released into the ground and get filtered by the ground. Of course, some soils are more suited for filtering than others. Some soils are incompatible with a septic system. Some soils work with a fairly primitive, inexpensive septic system. And some soils work with a septic system, but the septic system needs to have a more advanced pre-treatment system to ensure that the liquids leaving the septic system are much cleaner, because the soil has a lower filtering capacity.

So, on January 12, a local backhoe operator and septic installer, a local septic designer, and the county health inspector convened on the property and started digging holes in the ground to do a soil analysis. (Note: they used to dig holes and pour water into the holes to observe how fast the water drains – now, they look at the soil to determine the different soil types at various depths and use that as a basis for septic system type.) They dug holes in many different spots on the property, but the soil types were very consistent throughout. The soil was good enough for a septic system, but not good enough for conventional, gravity fed systems. The septic designer seems to prefer aerobic treatment systems as the best alternative design, and both he and the septic installer agreed that such a system would cost around $15,000 to install on our site.

Emma and Rebecca came along to watch the digging, and they’re glad they did, because they got to play in the holes. Here are some pictures from the dig:

DSC_6377 DSC_6379 DSC_6382 DSC_6388 DSC_6389 DSC_6390 DSC_6392 DSC_6400 DSC_6402 DSC_6404 DSC_6410 DSC_6414

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Refined floor plan (floor plan version 3)

So, it was time to update the floor plan again.Floor Plan 3

There are some changes in this floor plan. First, I was talking with my brother-in-law, who is an architect and regularly works with Island County. As you may recall, the house must be no more than 1000 gross square feet. Gross square feet is defined as area inside the the outside walls (including the outside walls!) minus utility rooms and a few other deductions. I included a utility in my plan to bring the square feet down from 1009 to under 1000, but it seems that if you have laundry in a utility room, then they don’t count it as a utility room. So, I indented the front entrance of the house to make an outside mudroom. That section is 4 feet wide and 4.5 feet deep, so that cuts out 18 gross square feet, bringing me down to 991 gross square feet. I also added a covered porch to the plan so that there’s lots of “dirty space” before entering the house. Western Washington is wet (at least during the wet season), so it’s useful to have a plan to deal with wetness before entering the house.

Next, I did some refining of bathroom 1 to make it more compact. There was some dead space around the sink before that was just for standing in while washing hands. So, I pivoted the sink and moved it to another wall and then placed it inside an indent. Now there is no dead space. Because I’ll be using pocket doors, I don’t have to worry about door swing areas.

Also, the plan reflects the larger windows that I actually acquired. And I added a second window to the living room on the west side to let in afternoon light.

The purple is built-in shelving. Also note that I added Murphy beds to enable dual use of certain floor areas without too much trouble (play during the day, sleep at night).

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Washing machine, two more windows, and a breaker box

I have to admit, Craigslist E-mail Alerts feature is really useful. You can do a search on Craigslist and up near the search bar there is a link that says “email alert”.

Craigslist Email Alert

You can then sign in and add an e-mail alert. For some searches, the number of alerts may excessive and annoying. However, it’s a good way to snag a good deal early. One item I’ve been looking for is an LG front-load washer. We had one back in Raleigh, and loved it, and then there’s one where we’re living now, and we love it. If you get the right model, it’s a big machine, and it cleans well, and it spins fast to give you fairly dry clothes for quick drying. However, I was afraid I’d never find a good deal on a used one. But, as it so happened, there was someone who wanted to switch from a front-load washer to a top-load washer, so he was getting rid of his LG front load washer (the identical model to what we had in Raleigh), and he put it up on Craigslist for $135. (The washer was around $800 new 5 years ago.) I called him within about 15 minutes of him posting the ad, and I scored the washer. It was in much better shape than I expected. It was shining clean and had no signs of wear or tear. They played nice with their machines.


After buying the washing machine, conveniently located in Lynnwood – just a bit away from Mukilteo, which is where the Whidbey-to-Mainland ferry lands – I headed over to Lowes to pickup some non-project related items, and then to the Habitat Store in Lynnwood. Of the Habitat for Humanity stores in the region that I’ve visited so far, this one most consistently has the best deals. I chatted briefly with the manager, and she said her policy is to price things well from the start so they move quickly. But additionally, they color code their items so that they get discounted further automatically if they don’t sell. During this visit, red tag items were 60% off and blue tag items were 30% off (and green and yellow tag items – the most recent items on the floor – were priced as marked). So, if you get a well-priced item that’s 60% off, you’ve got yourself a bargain. Despite their aggressive pricing, they manage to get enough donations to keep their store well-stocked.

So, during this visit, I found 2 more brand-new windows, both identical 6-foot-wide by 4-foot-tall windows (where half the window slides to open) that meet the energy code (u-factor of 0.30 is required, these still had the stick saying they had a u-factor of 0.29, where lower is better). They were priced at $75 each, but because they had a blue tag, they were $52.50 each after the discount. I also found a decent normal-size bathtub that was priced at $40, but it had a red tag that brought it down to $16. Finally, they had a bunch of brand-new Square D load centers (main breaker panel for the house). I got a 200 amp value pack, that included the box, ground bars, 200 amp main breaker, 5 20-amp breakers and one 2-pole 30 amp breaker. The item was not discounted, but at $50 it was still a good buy. I also picked up 3 more boxes of LED lights with 4 bulbs each for $10 per box, which is a price subsidized by the utility.

DSC_6179DSC_6180Circuit Breaker Load Center

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And now we have a range

Another quick addition to the project: A Jenn Air JGR8775RDS Gas Range. I bought this at the Bellevue Habitat store as I was passing through the area on other business for $149. It was factory-configured for natural gas, but it has the LP conversion kit still in the back for converting to propane.

Jenn Air Range

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