These are my notes on creating nice residential concrete floors. In my primary residence, I put in about 1500 sq-ft of concrete floors in the lower level. I used a 6-inch slab on crushed stone with 1/2 inch PEX tubing for hydronic heating. I’m pretty happy with these floors, although not wild about the results I got in finishing/sealing them. I am in the process of building a second home in which all three levels will have concrete floors. In principle concrete is (a) very inexpensive, (b) a wonderful means of installing hydronic heating, and (c) attractive. But, I’ve found that there is all kinds of confusing information about how to achieve these aims. Here is what I’ve learned based on experience, research, talking to concrete contractors, and my own experiments.
Posts under ‘6. Interior Materials and Finishes’
The architect Christopher Alexander wrote “totalitarian, machine buildings do not require trim because they are precise enough to do without. But they buy their precision at a dreadful price: by killing the possibility of freedom in the building plan.” (Incidentally, Alexander’s Pattern Language is a fascinating book on design. This link is to his “Pattern 240″ on “half-inch trim.”) While I don’t see trim in ideological terms, the stuff is a vexing challenge in modern residential design.
The flatwork guy (Gough Concrete) poured the lower-level slab on Thursday and saw-cut the control joints on Friday. I stopped by on Saturday to take a look. We used a 2% mix of Solomon liquid color, which they call “smoke.” It’s just right. The tint is significantly darker than natural concrete, but still comes across as gray, not black. This color in this concentration costs $39 per cubic yard of concrete. Given that the mud itself only costs $110 per yard, that’s pretty significant. However, given that for this I get a finished floor, I consider the tinted concrete a bargain. This floor cost $5.40 per square foot for everything (#4 rebar, pump truck, concrete, tinting, placing the concrete, finishing the concrete, coating with an acrylic sealer, and saw cuts). This did not include the 15 mil vapor barrier and the under-slab insulation, which my plumbing and heating guy did.
DuWayne (Gough Concrete Specialities) poured the upper-level concrete floors last week. We specified a 3 inch slab of tinted concrete (the same 2% tint we used on the lower-level slab). A 24-inch grid of #2 re-bar is laid over the hydronic heating tubes before the floors are poured. I had them saw cut control joints in nice locations as I had on the lower level. Looks very nice, even if the floors still need some work with a Swiffer.
Drywall is a pretty amazing trade. It goes like this: (a) a truck with a big boom on it lifts 40,000 lbs. of limestone into the house (sandwiched between two layers of paper in the form of drywall) , (b) 8 guys descend on the project and in two days “hang” the sheets, (c) a different load of guys show up and tape the seams and finish the surface to deliver nice smooth walls. This all happens for shockingly little money; the whole process costs less than $1/sq-ft of surface including materials and labor.
The doors arrived this week. They’re beautiful. I’m really happy with them. The only problem was the stain/finish guy who delivered them knocked them over in his truck and dinged a bunch of them. He’s fixing ‘em (cheerfully, I might add). The doors came from Lemieux Doors in Canada. They were hung and finished by subcontractors to ProBuild, my materials supplier. They cost about $500 each, pre-hung and pre-finished (for 7 foot doors 1-1/2″ thick). The main entry door was a lot more, about $2000 all in. Worth it.
Picking tile is brutal. I hate it. There must be a million options…in a single showroom. I decided to focus on a nice simple tile scheme and to pick a simple affordable tile. I concentrated on the American Olean line, as they have a little bit of everything and they had a good display in the tile showroom. Fancy tile is $40/sq-ft. Tile at Home Depot is $2-3/sq-ft. It’s all the same material, basically. So, the trick (for me) was to find a mainstream tile that could be used in an elegant contemporary design.
For all the showers, I ended up with American Olean St. Germain in “Creme.” I used the 12″ x 24″ tiles laid up in brick pattern. Here it is being laid. I love it. It’s crisp, clean, and contemporary. It ran about $4.50/ sq-ft for the material. My tile guy is very high end…he charges about $12/sq-ft for installation. But, I didn’t want to mess around with quality on this.
The wood ceiling in the great room and master bedroom is 1×6 clear mixed-grain hemlock. I had it prefinished, so the finish carpenters just pin nailed it in place, filled the nail holes. It’s then done. No one has to get up there again. This material is not cheap: $1.72/linear foot for the material and $0.67/linear foot for clear finish. So, this comes out to about $5.50/sq-ft of finished ceiling for material, including about 10% waste. My finish carpenter, Eric Epps, first stapled up black landscape fabric (cheap). I had him leave a 3/8″ gap between boards. This gives a nice linear effect. Everyone loves this ceiling.
Tile is hard to choose. Paint not quite as bad. Still, there are lots of choices.
I’m going with the Benjamin Moore “Affinity Colors” which allegedly can be mixed and matched arbitrarily. Here I’m trying out a few options. Home Depot will mix 8 oz. jars of paint from the Benjamin Moore fan deck chips for about $3 per jar. So, I had a bunch of colors made and tried them out. I knew this, but forgot: don’t test really subtle differences; they don’t matter much, and are so subtle it isn’t clear the small swatches would tell you much. Just test the really distinct alternatives. However, you should definitely test. In my case, I decided that these reds were just too red. I’m not going to use them. I’m using variants on the khaki and two shades of the “pumpkin.”
The baseboard in this house is 1/8″ x 3″ hot-rolled steel strip. It came in 20 ft. lengths and was installed with McFeely’s washer-head combo-drive screws centered on the strip. The finish carpenters did it. They were curious if not skeptical initially. By the end, they loved this stuff. There is only one seam in the entire house (on a 25 ft. wall). It went up easily. I plan to do nothing to this. Everyone likes the way it looks too. Did I mention it is super cheap ($0.60/ft or so)?
I saw a nice wall made by the Lucky Dumpster which was a mosaic of barnwood pieces. I had Trestlewood mill up a variety of colors of barnwood into tongue-and-groove “flooring.” Eric, my finish carpenter, then installed the pieces on the family room wall. It’s excellent.
Here it is finished…
Whoa. It’s crunch time. We’re trying to finish this house in the next 10 days. There are about a dozen guys scrambling all over the place. The great room is still a wood shop, but the painters are trying to work around everything.
I suspect if you have a 12-18 month construction schedule you can avoid this. But, we’ll finish this house 7-1/2 months after breaking ground. That requires some overlapping of tasks.
Of course everyone wants to “go last.” More precisely, the painter, electrician, and plumber all declared that they should be the last people on the job. I suspect that if I had wood floors, the floor guys would also want to go last. The reality is that everyone ends up iterating a bit at the end to work around each other.
Eric and Spencer, the finish carpenters, have been highly versatile contributors. They banged out the obvious jobs like hanging doors, installing the wood ceiling, and finishing stairs. But, they also have been willing to do a lot of the interior steel work, they are installing all the door hardware, and they built all the closet interiors (which I’ll feature in a separate post).
One of the cool details in the house is an 18″ wide bench that essentially runs the length of the house. Here, is the bench in progress, along the section of the great room in front of the fireplace. The wall around the fireplace will be 10 gauge steel panels with exposed fasteners. We’re installing those over landscape fabric, as we did the barnwood and ceiling.
Here’s the bench in the more-or-less finished space.
A surprising amount of work lies between getting a certificate of occupancy (i.e., technically finishing the house) and moving in. In my case, the C.O. was issued on Tuesday and my family was scheduled to arrive on Thursday. I had ordered a house full of stuff which was piled in boxes everywhere as we were finishing the house. But, first, the layers of dust had to be removed. A hardworking crew of husband, wife, and 17-year-old son came in at 5pm on Tuesday and worked until 1am on Wednesday to clean the house. They vacuumed up a lot of dust, wiped down all surfaces, did a quick wash of interior window surfaces, mopped floors, and cleaned bathrooms. Wednesday and Thursday I sealed floors and unpacked boxes.
Making blank walls visually interesting is a challenge. Here’s one idea that worked out very well. I was inspired by the arrival in the mail of my son’s thick catalog of skateboard decks. We found a cool collection of Warhol images on decks and bought five of them for a total of less than $200. Here they are on his wall.
The building materials supplier had promised hemlock stair parts would be delivered two days before our target completion date. Eric, the finish carpenter, was ready to install the stair in a day. Then, they flaked out on us, saying it would be two more weeks. We needed Plan B.
We found that MacBeath Hardwood had clear, vertical-grain douglas fir in stock in rough 4/4 thickness. So, we bought a couple of hundred board feet of the material and planned to set up our own mill to make the flooring, treads, and risers. MacBeath delivered the material to the job site in FOUR HOURS. The wood was beautiful and mostly in 14-16′ lengths. Had I known how nice this material was, I would have used it for door/window casing too. (However, it was expensive…about $6/bf for the rough material.)
My architects like hanging shelves and I do too. They often take the “cowboy” approach of using galvanized threaded rod and nuts and washers to support the shelving. I wanted something a little more refined, but didn’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for fussy little European hardware bits. Here’s a solution I came up with, which has proven to be excellent in all respects.
In the Park City house, we have three bedrooms that all are set up nearly identically with wall-mounted TVs. We fed the wires through the wall, but then have the pesky cable box to contend with. I wanted a shallow media shelf of some kind that would accommodate a cable box and a DVD player, but be relatively small and unobtrusive. The main problem with some of the products on the market is that they are too deep. I really wanted something about 11 inches deep, which is plenty for the items to be stored. So, I designed a shelving unit that could be assembled from tubing and flat shelves. Here’s what I ended up with. It’s 32″ W x 11″ D x 21-1/2″ H.