I can’t remember the last job I had where I woke up excited to go to work. Since starting this project not a single morning has been sluggish. It is difficult to be indifferent when the project that you designed is manifesting right before your eyes. Akin to watching a favorite television show, it is a pleasure observing the carpenters frame up a wall and the masons lay the fireplace.
All it takes is one week of framing to turn a concrete pad into a semblance of home. Watching the entry wall go up was the highlight of last weeks ‘episode.’
The entry wall is over sixteen feet tall. Essentially a two story building, but instead of two floors it is a single floor with double height ceilings. An average sized person is one-third its height. This wall also establishes the height for the other pitched roofs over the master suite and carport. Its verticality and scale deliver a lot of drama to the courtyard.
We have been framing for two weeks now, and are almost completely done building the walls. It is an incredibly fast process, so fast I can hardly keep up with documentation.
Framing begins by cutting the “bottom plates” to length for both interior and exterior walls. Bottom plates are made with pressure treated wood – lumber injected with a preservative to extend the life of the wood. Any lumber touching ground or concrete is exposed to water and susceptible to rot.
Next, a layer of Sill Seal is laid under the bottom plate at perimeter walls. Sill seal is a thin blue foam gasket, which helps to prevent moisture from traveling up into the wood framing. The exterior bottom plates are then bolted to the foundation stem at all anchor bolt locations (remember when we poured the concrete into the CMU stem walls, and placed the anchor bolts every four feet?) At the interior wall locations both Sill Seal and anchor bolts are absent, instead a squeeze of liquid nails is administered with a caulking gun.
The interior bottom plates are then further secured with cut nails, thick and triangular in shape. Cut nails are kind of “old school” according to my dad. They are mostly just reinforcement until the liquid nails dries.
Note: there is some risk when hammering cut nails into the slab because they might puncture the radiant tubing – it has happened before, and is made evident by a loud hissing noise as the pressurized air escapes from the tubing. We fortunately got through this step unscathed. If we had punctured tubing, concrete would have to be ripped up and tubing repaired. The mark of a good builder (designer, plumber, etc.) is the ability to disguise a mistake, because they are bound to happen.
After fitting the bottom plates, the carpenters began to build vertically. This house is framed with 2×8 studs, 24” on center (o.c.) Typical stud spacing is either 16” or 24” o.c. because plywood is 48” wide and is nailed onto the evenly spaced studs. We decided to use 2×8 stud walls because visually I wanted thick(er) walls. (Thick walls are a traditional aesthetic in New Mexico – many old structures are built out of adobe brick, which makes for deep walls.) This also allowed for the windows to be recessed in the wall – not flush with the exterior surface. Recessing the windows required adding a 2×6 “pack-out,” around the windows, which provides material for the recessed window to be nailed into, and for the plaster (stucco) to wrap around.
There are two methods of framing a house. The first, and most preferable is to frame on the slab (a flat surface is required) and then lift up into place. The second method is what the guys call “stick framing,” which is literally building the wall in place, piece by piece. Some of the walls were too tall to build on the ground so we built them using the stick method.
I have drawn this handy dandy diagram to describe the terminology used while framing.
There are a few rules of thumb employed in wood framed buildings. The first being, for openings greater than 5 feet, two trimmers are required on either side of the header. They help to support the long span. In modern design there are often openings greater than 5 feet and therefore many double trimmers.
Next is the California corner, made with three studs, and open to the inside. Typical wall corners are also made with three studs, however they are designated a “cold corner”, because once framed and sheathed (both done by the carpenters) it is impossible for the insulation sub contractor to go back and fill with insulation, therefore making it cold. Following is a diagram of both types of corners.
After everything is framed, or while the carpenters are waiting on a material delivery, they will begin sheathing the exterior of the building. That is a fancy term for covering it in half-inch plywood. The scale of the rooms drastically change between these phases; although the framing gives you a sense of the walls, the plywood really makes it feel like a room.
Tricks of the Trade.
A Story Pole is a long piece of wood, as long as the building is tall, with marks and measurements at every important element in the wall assembly: bottom plate, top plate, trimmer, beam, joist, roof, etc. It establishes the building height before it is built – an important visualization for any carpenter. It also provides measurements for the carpenters to cut lengths for the wood that will be used in the wall. Gil was adamant that we use a story pole because of the complexity of the roof lines in this project – it has proven its worth.
Gil is chalk full of carpenters tricks. For the upper part of the shed walls he snapped chalk lines on the ground to lay out the roof angle and the studs. These cuts can be very tricky and no two are the same. It is fool proof to make the layout on the ground first. Measure twice, cut once.
It is an odd sight seeing (hearing?) the carpenters work together – they have been doing it for so long that they hardly need to talk to each other. Their roles are as follows: Gil reads the plans and tells the guys what lengths to cut and where to begin; always working a few steps ahead of everyone, so that they never run out of things to do. Greg then follows, cutting and annotating the bottom and top plates. The annotation system that Greg scribes on the top and bottom plates tells Juan how to build the wall, which he builds on the slab. Meanwhile Weasel and Leaps are cutting studs and making headers for all openings in the walls. Once a wall is done, all the guys help lift it into place, stabilize, and make square. They work like a well oiled machine.
In England, circa 1796, Count Rumford designed a tall and shallow fireplace with a streamlined throat that efficiently removed smoke and simultaneously prevented heat loss. We decided to use the Rumford fireplace design because the client wanted an open flame as well as an effective heat source. Typically, in Northern New Mexico, you see kiva fireplaces or stoves. So we definitely are stepping out of the box with this one. If you are at all interested in learning more about the Rumford fireplace www.rumford.com is an incredibly useful website.
During framing we had Harvey and Gato (the same guys who built the foundation stem wall) build the fireplace. Once again they did a great job, and once again they made it look easy. To jazz things up we did a herringbone pattern on the firebox walls, and instead of running it vertically we turned it sideways. There are not a ton of firebrick color options, especially available in Taos, so I was bummed by the color of the brick, but it is growing on me.
We are moving sooooooo fast – I need to start writing the next installment. As of today we have the beams up in the main room and are adding the joists above. It is a sight to see… in a few days.