Conventional Stick Framing

I am still in Gunnison, Colorado building a straw bale house in Crested Butte. We have made a lot of headway and are currently putting up siding. It has been about 4 months since we finished our foundation and framing alone took up a month and a half of that time. Framing made me realize just how much of a kinesthetic learner I am.  I really struggled with comprehending the framing process from the talks Dusty, our construction supervisor, was giving us. 

 In a constant look of confusion...

In a constant look of confusion...

However, once I jumped in and began working things slowly became clearer. Today I am going to do a blog on the process of conventional stick framing.  There are many minor details to the process so I am just going to explain the general steps.

 The fabulous Dusty aka the only one who actually knows what's going on...

The fabulous Dusty aka the only one who actually knows what's going on...

FINDING SQUARE

So the very first thing we had to do was deal with finding square on the concrete. Whenever you pour a foundation it always moves slightly after it solidifies and it is almost impossible to have it end up perfectly square according to the plans. As framers, it is our job to figure out where we will put down our bottom plates that will match up with the plans and make things easier for ourselves as we continue to build upwards.  This is the most important part of framing; if you do this incorrectly it will effect the rest of your upper floors and the roof. It HAS to be exact.

We used our retaining wall (the vertical concrete wall) as a constant because it can’t be moved. The process of finding square is kind of confusing and I won’t go into details, however we did it using a laser level. If you don’t have a fancy laser level you can use the Pythagorean theorem , a2+b2=c2,  to find your square as well. (I never thought I’d actually end up using this in real life!!) 

One of the most important things to remember during the process of framing is to BUILD TO THE NUMBER.  Your plans give you specific details of exactly where everything should be and you should always follow it before you try to make things plum or level.

BOTTOM PLATES

Once you have finally figured out where on the concrete you will want to be building on to make things correct, you snap chalk lines to mark where your bottom plates (which are just 2x4s that will be directly on the concrete) will go.

 You can see the two bottom plates on the concrete

You can see the two bottom plates on the concrete

If you read my blog on foundations you will know that we put in anchor bolts into the concrete, this is how we will connect the bottom plates to the foundation slab. All of the bottom plates are done with treated wood so that they don’t rot from the concrete absorbing moisture. We also put sill seal underneath the boards, which seals any air spaces that might be between the concrete and the board. Once we build our walls we will stand them up on top of the bottom plates so that we will have double bottom plates. Our house will end up having both double bottom plates and double top plates.

BUILDING WALLS

So the blue prints will let you know exactly how each wall will need to be built. Let me first explain some common terms so that it is more easy to understand.

Stud: Spans from top plate to bottom plate, these are what make up the majority of the wall systems.

12 on center: The first number can be replaced with any number, it just means that from the center of one stud to the center of the next is that number.

King Stud: This is what is used for making windows and doors, it is the long stud that will also go from bottom plate to top plate. Most windows and doors take several special studs put right up next to each other to make it stable.

Jack Stud:  Goes from bottom plate to door or window header

Header: A horizontal support that distributes weight. It goes at the top of a window or door.

Sill: The bottom plate of a window

Cripple: Short board that stands vertically underneath a window

Rough Opening: The opening between the jack studs that is for a window or door

The process of building a wall is to first cut all of your studs. They might vary in length depending on which floor or which unit you are on but as far as for example, the west unit first floor; they will all be the same height. So you can get them all pre cut before you put your walls together.

Once all of your boards are cut then you can lay them out on the ground. You will have a bottom plate and a top plate and then your studs will go in between them which whatever spacing is asked for in the plans. Most of our walls are 24” on center.  You will want to have most of your walls built before you stand anything up.

When laying out your studs you want the spacing to start on the south end of the building (we are pulling south to north) and continue consecutively uninterrupted despite doors and windows. So if it is 24” on center you continue to have a stud ever 24” on center no matter if there is a king or jack stud from a window right next to it so that you create an even grid.

 You can see on this wall with a window, the King stud is on very outer parts of the window, the jack is in the middle, stretching to the header, and the cripple is just underneath the sill going down to the bottom plate.

You can see on this wall with a window, the King stud is on very outer parts of the window, the jack is in the middle, stretching to the header, and the cripple is just underneath the sill going down to the bottom plate.

For walls that have doors and windows you have to pay close attention to how many king and jack studs the plans ask for and make sure your rough opening is the exact dimensions that are asked for.

Note: One of the reasons it is so important to follow the plans about the spacing of the studs is because of the drywall. The drywall is a specific length and if you don’t space the studs correctly you won’t be able to add it. (All of our interior walls will have drywall; our exterior will have the straw bales and plaster.)

STANDING WALLS

In our situation because we are building a duplex home, we have a party wall which is the wall separating the two units. By code, this has to have a fire separation, which is drywall. The drywall went on while it was still on the ground and then we all worked together to get it in place and stand it up. We had to add drywall plaster to any cracks to make it a complete fire barrier. A fire wall was added on both sides so that they were pressed against each other. We braced them to hold them up until the rest of the walls were able to go in.

It’s best to have many walls made before you stand them up because then you only need minimal bracing. The walls obviously support each other once they are up so it’s best to get them all up in a day so that you don’t have to worry about creating other support for them. You usually start with the outside walls and then put in the interior walls.

Note: Any walls that are going against concrete have to get flashing tape on the boards touching because you can’t have untreated wood touching concrete due to the moisture absorption.

 What's more important, holding up the walls or posing for the camera? Why not do both?

What's more important, holding up the walls or posing for the camera? Why not do both?

PLUM, LEVEL, SQUARE

Once all of our walls are up and we have done everything to the number we will check for plum level and square. The importance of doing everything to the number is that if everything is equally off as far as being plum or level goes because you’ve gone to the number, then ideally when you adjust one wall, all of the walls will follow it to become correct.

 Dusty trying to explain how we were going to get level...we were really thrilled to get to fix that

Dusty trying to explain how we were going to get level...we were really thrilled to get to fix that

The way we fixed the plum (which isthe vertical level, level being the horizontal level) is by essentially just pulling and pushing the walls to where they needed to be and putting in braces to hold them. To get things level, you could shim everything up but Dusty didn’t want to do that so he decided we would wait until we put the floor for the second level in and shim that up which is easier.

SHEETING

Once our walls are in place we mark lines for sheeting. Once the walls are sheeted they will no longer move and you will no longer need bracing. The lines for sheeting makes sure they are all going on at the same height so that they are all put on evenly. We want to put them all up in the same orientation, only changing their length but keeping the height the same. This makes it look nicer and overall easier to put on because you won’t have to make as many custom cuts.

 NOTE: Windows were cut out with a sawzall after they were put up as full sheets

NOTE: Windows were cut out with a sawzall after they were put up as full sheets

 The crew

The crew

MOVING UP TO THE SECOND FLOOR

We will have rim joists that will go around the border on top of our first floor framing. These are very big and thick structural pieces of wood that support a floor or ceiling. The rim joists are what eye joists will attach to. Eye joists are long pieces of wood that is what the floor will actually sit on. These have to also be either 12” on center or 24” on center. The eye joists stand up right, running across the building in whatever orientation the plans call for.

 These are the eye joists, you can see at the very end of them they are connected to the rim joist. Also note the blocking in between them.

These are the eye joists, you can see at the very end of them they are connected to the rim joist. Also note the blocking in between them.

Once these are in place, this is where we shim up to get level. We used the laser level again to find high points and work off of that. We will want to shim our eye joists up to the highest joist and get it all even. We also had to get them flush with the rim board so that the floor can go on level.

Once all of our eye joists are level we will ad blocking in between them at the ends to add stability. This keeps them from bending over.

PLY BOARD FLOOR

Once the joists are finally all level and in position, we can get up and add plywood to create the floor for the second story!  The process of laying the ply board is first putting glue on to the eye joists. You drop it down and get it flush to the framing underneath, and then nail it in. When you add the next piece you want to make sure it’s tight everywhere, you can do this by using a sledgehammer to get it snug. Each board has a female and a male end so that they can fit in to each other nicely. You do have to make sure that you move quickly though because the glue begins to dry quickly.

 Women builders, just as a competent but a bit more stylish...

Women builders, just as a competent but a bit more stylish...

 I guess the view is alright...

I guess the view is alright...

Once your ply board floor is on you basically just start the whole process over again for the second and then third floor!

TYVEK

We started to add Tyvek once we got our second floor up. Tyvek acts as a drainage plane. With the temperature difference between the outside and the inside being so different it creates condensation so you have to have something to get your water outside so it doesn’t create mold.

To make it look nice we put all the Tyvek on in the same direction.  To apply it you just roll it out across a snap line you have made for yourself and then staple the top first to keep the line. Then just staple all the way down and repeat.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

So there were definitely parts of framing that I really enjoyed and parts that I definitely hated. I found that I really enjoyed doing the dry wall plaster. I also liked having to read the blue prints and figure out how to build the walls correctly and then getting to put them together. I also felt that the flooring was pretty enjoyable. The things that were the worst in my opinion were the squaring and the shimming. You have never felt real frustration until you have found that no matter what you do nothing is ever square the way you need it to be.  Also trying to get everything shimmed to being level took forever and was another thing that never seemed to end up correct. Overall I enjoyed framing, however, whenever I build my own house, I only want one story.

SIDE NOTES

-Our third floor has vaulted ceilings, the way we framed that so that we didn’t have to make walls that were all custom heights is we framed it to the lowest point and then went back in and added framing above the walls that went to the ceiling.

-We had a few other huge structural beams called GluLams that sat on PSL. The GluLam or Glue Laminate, is what supports the roof. It sits on a PSL or Parallel Strand Lumber that distributed the weight downward into special points on the first floor. The engineer is the one who figures out where this is needed and how to get the weight distributed to make the house be able to stand and support the roof and snow load.

-Our windows and doors needed what were called window and door bucks. This is a surface around the windows that is 12” out that meets flush with the straw bales once they go in. The window bucks were the last thing before finishing the vaulted ceilings that made our framing complete!

 Window Buck

Window Buck

ENGINEERING TALK

Our engineer came out and talked to us to answer some questions in mid June. Here are some of the things we were told.

-An engineer is actually more important than an architect when it comes to building a home. An architect creates the design of the house but the engineer figures out how to make it structurally sound and doesn’t fall down.

- They designed our house to be able to hold 100 lbs a square foot of snow. That is roughly about 10-12 ft.

-We frame everything first and don’t use straw bale as anything structural so that we can get a roof on so that when straw goes in it is protected by the elements.

-Light post and beam (a type of timber framing) is the way to do a straw bale home with the least amount of material. However, it is much harder to frame and it doesn’t work very well with multiple stories.

- 1/3 of an acre in Crested Butte with nothing on it will cost you between 600k-1.2 million.  Which is why affordable housing is so important!

-Affordable housing houses can only increase in worth by 3% a year so that they will always stay affordable housing. They also will only be able to sell to people that fit in the affordable housing qualifications.

-Straw bale and Straw cell don’t have much difference in R-value. However if straw cell is done right then it can have a little bit more.

CONCLUSION

So that is the basic process of conventional stick framing.  I’m grateful we had three stories to frame because I don’t think I could have fully comprehended it if we had had only one story to learn from.  There are many different types of framing and everyone does things slightly differently. This was the most practical way to do this build for our climate, environment and budget. Thanks for reading!

Foundations

I am currently working with a non-profit organization called Community Rebuilds in Crested Butte, Colorado. We are building two, three-story duplex straw bale homes for lower income families as a solution to affordable housing. The foundation was supposed to get poured last fall, however the concrete company in the area was behind and instead we have gotten to be a part of it so I thought I would blog about the process.

1. Concrete Form

Our first job was to build the form for the concrete.This was a very tedious process because you have to get the whole thing level and in the correct position. The way you do that is by using survey points. Survey points are legal points that are put in by surveyors and we are not allowed to move them. This is because if the house ended up being over the property line then we wouldn’t be liable.

So initially we set up all of the walls that created the form using long pieces of wood. We would find the survey points and create our corners then drive stakes in behind the wood so that they would stay in place. Then once the shape of the house was created, we would move it to get it exactly where it needed to be according to the blueprints. Once the form was in the correct place, we then had to level it. This required a laser level. We had to walk around the form and add or take away dirt to get it all the exact height. Once that was completed, we had to again fix the position of the form and get it where it needed to be. This took us several days to accomplish.

Once that was complete the plumber came in to lay in the piping, only a few of us got to go up and help him with that. 

 The completed form with some interns helping install plumbing

The completed form with some interns helping install plumbing

2. Radon Pipe

Finally once the forms were set we had to lay our radon pipe. The radon pipe was a black perforated tube that is laid into the ground and surrounded the entire foundation area.

Note: Radon comes from the uranium that is in the ground. You usually have to deal with radon in mountainous areas. Radon is atomic so it can come through the smallest of spaces. You have lay several layers and special tubing in the foundation to redirect it out of the house. The legal limit of radon is 4 and it is the 2nd most common cause of lung cancer with smoking being the first. Because the tube is obviously hollow, the radon will go into it because it will take the path of least resistance. The pipe will lead out of the house with a fan at the end of it to suck out any radon that has entered. Therefore preventing radon from entering the home.

3. Gravel

Once our radon tube is laid we added gravel.The purpose of the gravel is for drainage and it should cover the radon tubing. The gravel also had to be leveled evenly.

4. Plastic

Next was a layer of plastic.The purpose of the plastic is to create an extra barrier for the radon to have to travel through.

5. Insulation

After that we laid a layer of blue board foam for insulation. It’s important in places with climates like Crested Butte to have lots of insulation in your foundation to hold heat energy.

Note: Looking at the blueprints there were certain spots that we had to leave open with no gravel or blue board. That is where there will be main support for the roof and to create the strongest structure possible it needs to be directly on concrete and compacted earth with no gravel or blue board underneath.

You'll notice how hard we work...

6. Rebar Grid

After the insulation was added we created a rebar grid. Concrete isn’t strong enough on it’s own to withstand pressure so you have to add rebar to create stability and structure. Our rebar grid was 16”x16” squares. This was another tedious process of getting the rebar laid correctly. We had to cut the pieces to the correct length with an angle grinder and a rebar bender.

Then we had to lay them out and pull out our tape measures and tie them with rebar ties. The north and east walls had to have “L” shaped rebar connecting to them that stood vertical so that we would have something to connect to retaining wall to. We have to build a retaining wall because of the height of the dirt behind the house. However you can’t build the retaining wall until the bottom slab is finished and since concrete dries chemically and not mechanically, you have to have a way to connect the two masses. (Something that dries chemically can never go back to it’s original state, something that dries mechanically, like cob, once dried can have moisture added to it to become soft and shapeable again)

 You can see the "L" shape rebar in the back that form a teepee shape. The blue is the blue board and the white piping is the radiant heating. You can even see the open space where we didn't fill in.

You can see the "L" shape rebar in the back that form a teepee shape. The blue is the blue board and the white piping is the radiant heating. You can even see the open space where we didn't fill in.

7. Radiant Heating

Once the grid was created the plumber came in and laid radiant heating that will heat the concrete and floor of the house. Radiant heating is amore efficient way of heating because it heats the mass rather than trying to heat the air.

 

8. Pour concrete, add anchor bolts, smooth

Once all of that is completed then the concrete is ready to be poured. They brought in one concrete truck at a time and began the pour. The process was to pour, smooth/level, clean the tube, change trucks and repeat.  They began by filling the outside first. Once the outside was filled up level with the form they used that to scree off of and fill into the middle. They then smooth it out with magnesium trowels and a really long float called a bull float. After the bull float has been used they place anchor bolts where they need to go. Anchor bolts are how you connect the house to the foundation. They stick a few inches out of the concrete and when you go to frame, you drill holes into the bottom of boards and connect them to the anchor bolts. The blueprints mark where they should be placed. You want to make sure they don’t get put in doorways and you want them to be within 12” of corners and buried 7” into the concrete spaced 48” on center. Once the anchor bolts are in place and everything has been smoothed they use a power trowel or finishing machine that almost looks like a push lawn mower with a big fan that spins on the bottom, with each fan blade being a trowel. After that someone will put on trowel skis so that they can crawl out and smooth out any bumps that were left from the power trowel.

Note: The wood that connects to the anchor bolts has to be pressure treated or it would rot being on the concrete.

 Here is the power trowel or finishing machine

Here is the power trowel or finishing machine

9. WAIT!

Now all you have to do is wait for the slab to set!

10. Control Joints

The very last thing that gets done once the concrete sets is someone has to come in with a concrete saw and add control joints. Control joints are lines that are put into the slab so that if the slab was to move due to movement in the earth then it would crack at the joint and not spider web throughout the slab.

Here are some pictures of the process of the grid and form for the retaining wall going up as well as the entire finished product. 

Now that the process of a foundation is explained, I want to talk a little bit about concrete.

I didn't think concrete was a green product...

Since we are doing natural building I'm sure you are curious about the choice to use concrete.. Obviously as most people know concrete foundations aren’t exactly “green”. A concrete foundation has a pretty high embodied energy. Embodied energy being the amount of energy associated with the mining and processing of materials, manufacturing, transport of product and production.  In our situation we have to follow codes so we didn’t really have many other options, however there are a few to choose from if you are building on a smaller scale. First though, let’s discuss the pro’s of a concrete foundation.

Pro's of Concrete...

So the positive side of a concrete foundation with the insulation we added to it is that because it is a monolithic slab it has a huge amount of mass, and mass holds energy. So although it has high embodied energy to begin with, the amount of heat energy it saves can potentially make it more sustainable in the long run because you won’t have to heat your home nearly as often. Your mass will hold heat rather than letting it get lost. So you are using less fossil fuels long term and in the end is much more efficient. Other benefits are that it has the potential to last longer and is more structurally sound.

Here are some points to be aware of with foundations we learned from our construction supervisor Dusty Sylvanson

You must…

  • -Get below the frost line
  • -Eliminate soil moisture
  • -Look at capillary breaks (a barrier so moisture can’t get into building)

You must consider…

  • -Site conditions
  • -Loads
  • -Drainage
  • -Building design materials
  • -Energy and material efficiency
  • -Long term or short term structure
  • -Code jurisdiction requirements

A good foundation is…

  • -Economical
  • -Low embodied energy
  • -Well insulated
  • -Well drained

Foundations for Straw bale…

  • -Wide platform
  • -Capillary break
  • -Minimum 6” from grade (grade being the ground surrounding the house)
  • -Plaster stops
  • And always remember that bales should never be below grade because they will rot!

Here is a picture of the blueprint model of what we did. At the very bottom the hatches are the compacted soil, then you see the next layer is black diamonds which is the gravel. Then lines which is blue board. Then you see the long black lines with the dots, that represents the rebar. The bottom is obviously the bottom slab and the vertical one is the retaining wall.

So lastly let's discuss the alternatives to concrete foundations. There is another form of conventional concrete foundation that we could have used that includes a crawl space and is less concrete, however it doesn't have as much mass and therefore doesn't hold as much heat energy. 

So... the alternatives

 Here is a picture of a power point Dusty showed us. These are some of the alternatives that include:

  • a shipping pallet on a gravel pad
  • straw bale directly on gravel pad
  • sandbags topped with cob or concrete
  • framed box filled with stone and concrete
  • stabilized adobe, rammed earth or field stone
  • the Earthship approach which is used tires with rammed earth
  • railroad ties and gravel
  • rock-filled gabion 

So while these can all be acceptable foundations in certain situations depending on climate and terrain, there are still several issues you could potentially face. If you are having to deal with codes and regulations you could be very limited on your options. Also, many of these options aren't good for load bearing which means you are limited to the size of your structure. So if you just want something small one of them could be perfect for you. They also may not last quite as long, unfortunately these options aren't guaranteed to last. 

Sadly there isn't another material out there yet that works as well for a foundation as concrete. Some people have mentioned hempcrete but it is not nearly as structurally sound. However, there has recently been a new product that has been found that apparently is stronger than concrete, but they haven't found a way to mass produce it yet. Below is the attached video if you are interested.

CEMENT ALTERNATIVE VIDEO

Hopefully in the future we will have better alternatives to concrete that will be able to be up to code for neighborhood regulations. Until then, this is the foundation we created and we all learned an extensive amount in the process. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, I hope you found it to be informative.