Archive for January, 2010

Polywhat? Interior Wood Finishes

January 16th, 2010 by KTU | 4 Comments | Filed in Notes on Approaches
wipe-on polyurethane finish on cherry

Cherry Shaker Table Finished with 4 coats satin Minwax Wipe-On Polyurethane

These are my opinions on interior wood finishes. They are based in part on science, logic, and my own experimentation. They also rely somewhat on the testing and writing of others, although since I am a myth buster and skeptic, I believe very little of the conventional wisdom.

Finishing wood for interior applications serves the functions of (1) protecting the wood (mostly from liquids) and (2) enhancing the appearance of the wood. First, I’d like to dispel some myths.

Myth 1: Urethane and acrylic finishes give a “plastic” look to wood.

The plastic look people are referring to when they assert this claim is the result of high reflectivity or “gloss.” It is just as accurate to say that wood that is finished with a high-gloss surface has a “wet look” or has a “glass look” (indeed, these adjectives are sometimes used to market wood finishes). Surfaces are glossy when they reflect a lot of the light that hits them. Sure, wood can be imparted with a glossy finish with urethane or acrylic coatings. But, oil finishes, lacquers, shellacs, waxes, and other finishes can also be glossy. Furthermore, most finishes are available in low-gloss versions, usually called “satin.” So, the “plastic look” and the type of finish that is used on the wood are really two separate issues. As a technical aside, virtually all wood finishes are polymers (molecules comprised of long chains of carbon and hydrogen molecules), which is a technical term that includes all “plastics.” In fact, wood itself is a polymer (cellulose).


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Ponoko Laser Cutting Service

January 18th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in Fabrication Resources

Ponoko is a web-based business offering laser cutting from almost any file format. This service can be used to make fussy parts with complex curves. For example, I needed to prototype a three dimensional component and made the basic structure with interlocking pieces of plywood. Here is a sheet of the pieces as they came from Ponoko. To minimize costs you try to nest as many parts as you can on a sheet of material. I fit nine sets on this piece. Ponoko offers lots of materials. I drew these parts in Adobe Illustrator, but almost any drawing tool can be used, even Powerpoint, I think.

Nine sets of parts nested onto one sheet of plywood as delivered from Ponoko.


Existing Conditions

January 18th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in 1. Planning

Church House - Summer 2009

I live in a decommissioned church, built around 1895 as the Methodist Episcopal church for Narberth, Pennsylvania. My wife Nancy and I bought the house in 1996, just after its 100th birthday. The church was displaced by a much larger building across the street in 1929 and was eventually converted to a residence in the 1950s. The main sanctuary was about 65′ long by 30′ wide with a cylindrical apse and raised altar at the south end. The ceilings in the sanctuary were 17′ high.


Master Bedroom and Bath “Loft”

January 18th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in 7. Upper Floor Renovation

This project moved in three phases. First, we attacked the lower level. Then, we moved upstairs and took on the dining area, kitchen, and main-level bath. Finally, we moved upstairs to do the master bedroom “loft.” We lived in the house through the whole process, which is why we moved in phases. It actually wasn’t too bad. I sealed off each section with plastic (and even with a temporary door during the last phase).

The upper level during demolition.


The Idea

January 18th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in 1. Cabin Plans and Design

Completed shed from across stream (May 2009)

In Summer 2008 I had the urge to build something from scratch. I have owned some land in Southern Vermont for several years, including a very lovely spot next to a stream that cascades about 100 vertical feet into a beautiful river. The land borders the Green Mountain National Forest and is quite secluded, yet is accessed with a decent year-round road. The site is a 5 1/2 hour drive from my home in Philadelphia, so I don’t get there more than about five times a year.


Basic Baubilt Bread

January 20th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in Baubilt Bread

Many people have tried the outstanding no-knead bread recipe adapted from the Sullivan Street Bakery, published in the New York Times (at least twice) by Mark Bittman, and the subject of a lot of follow-up traffic on the internet.

I tried each version of the recipe as it became simpler. Bittman now claims 5 minutes of labor to make a loaf. I think I’ve got it down to half that. The crux move for me was discovering a teflon-coated ceramic baking dish that can serve as the single receptacle for the entire process, including mixing, rising, and baking. The dish I have is shown here along with the finished loaf. It’s available from Amazon for $39.99. (No, I’m not a shill for the manufacturer. Yes, I do get 80 cents if you buy one from Amazon.)

Teflon-coated ceramic baking dish and loaf


Why Most Houses in Park City Look The Same

January 22nd, 2010 by KTU | 6 Comments | Filed in 1. Planning and Design

Many of the custom homes in Park City look kind of the same to me. One reason for this is the highly restrictive covenants that most homeowners’ associations have adopted. Almost all new construction in Park City (and in the West generally) is in a subdivision, which usually has a homeowners’ association. In Park City, during the boom period of 2000-2010, subdivisions sprang up like weeds. Each developer basically copied-and-pasted the CC&Rs of some other subdivision (CC&R = codes, covenants, and restrictions). These CC&Rs are really detailed and often highly restrictive. For example, they specify exactly what roofing materials may be used, the range of roof pitches that are allowed, and explicitly outlaw certain design elements. Combine these CC&Rs with fairly homogeneous suburban tastes, and a few stylistic trends, and you end up with houses that could be cousins if not siblings. Here’s an example.

Archetypal custom home in a Park City subdivision

More specifically, the archetypal Park City house has these elements:

  • 4′ high stone veneer at the base (certain amount of stone required in CC&Rs),
  • staggered facade with gables over each protrusion (CC&Rs do not allow uninterrupted walls),
  • complex roofs, with fairly shallow pitch, and lots of valleys (maximum height restrictions, and maximum uninterrupted ridge lengths),
  • some combination of stucco, board-and-batten, or shingle siding above the stone base (CC&Rs),
  • three garages (the American way),
  • single-level living (but usually with a big lower level as a bonus…why climb stairs?),
  • arch-topped windows (current style trend),
  • timber or log columns (current style trend).


Finding a Western Modern Architect

January 22nd, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in 1. Planning and Design

Wyoming Guest House

I searched far and wide for architects who both shared my aesthetic values and who did interesting, highly site specific, modern western architecture. I looked at the work of maybe 50 residential architects throughout the Rocky Mountain West. I especially liked the work of Carney Logan Burke Architects out of Jackson, WY. Even better, I really liked the houses the architects at CLB had designed and built for themselves. The two architects at Carney who have really spearheaded my project are Eric Logan and Andy Ankeny, outstanding guys, with a lot of talent. Even more unusual is that they are good with schedules and did not shy away from the highly aggressive budgetary goals for my project.


The Architectural Stylo-Meter

January 22nd, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in 1. Planning and Design

In my first meeting with architects Eric and Andy (Carney Logan Burke Architects), they asked about my stylistic preferences, invoking the idea of a stylometer for gauging client style. Since I had picked them in part because I liked the houses they had designed for themselves, I was pretty confident the stylometer would give similar readings for us. Here is what I can articulate about my own stylistic preferences, to which I’ll add a few points which Eric and Andy brought to the table and to which I’ve come to subscribe.

New Fork Social Club Residence. Two simple forms connected. Thin roof edge. Bump out. South glass.


Support Structure

January 22nd, 2010 by KTU | 2 Comments | Filed in 2. Site preparation

One of my goals for this project was to tread lightly on the land.

The high spot of the site was a boulder maybe 16 ft. x 8 ft. and protruding 8 ft. above grade at one end. I decided that a nice approach would be to set the structure on the boulder. I reasoned that the boulder probably extended several feet below ground and was probably not going to move much over my lifetime.

Here I laid out the structure with some 2×4s to figure out how to orient it relative to the boulder. The boulder is covered with moss and lots of wet organic stuff as is typical of this part of Vermont.

Laying out location of structure with 2x4s and clamps.


Goals for Church House Renovation

January 24th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in 1. Planning

While we liked the location, the basic architectural form, and the overall size of the church house, it had several major deficiencies:

  • We had two tiny bedrooms on the upper level with 7′ ceilings and we had two rapidly growing boys. We envisioned six-foot teenagers and their friends cramped in that space.
  • We had no family/tv room.
  • We could not get to our backyard, except through a convoluted path down an improvised stair.
  • There was no off-street parking, nor bulk storage area (e.g., Shed, garage, etc.).
  • We had 1500 square-feet of lower level (former apartment) but couldn’t really get to it and it was not comfortable even if we could get to it.
  • We had an improvised master bedroom spanning two smaller bedrooms, which was kind of in the middle of the main living area.



January 24th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in 2. Demo + Structure

Here’s the lower level before demo started.

Lower level prior to demo. Floors were southern yellow pine on joists resting on a stone footing running down the middle (with dirt below). Walls were pine tongue-and-groove, which I had painted white when we moved in.


Steel and Stone

January 24th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in 2. Demo + Structure

Our church house was constructed with a rubble-stone foundation. That means basically that the builder dug a deep hole in the ground and then started constructing thick stone walls to form the perimeter of the structure. The walls are about 24 inches thick at the base. They seem to extend 2-4′ below the level of the lower-level floor, which is between 10′ and 6′ below grade depending on where one is on the slope of the site.

As the walls extend upward they become thinner. At the top of the building they are about 12-14″ thick. When the walls emerge from the grade, the outer face is nicely dressed and pointed, whereas the inside face remains pretty rough.

Here the steel has been installed but just the top section of the column has been removed. The rest was knocked down and hauled out. The new steel column rests on a new footing which will be covered by the new slab when it is poured.


Cabin Cost Accounting

January 25th, 2010 by KTU | 2 Comments | Filed in 1. Cabin Plans and Design

Rough-sawn lumber and siding right after delivery.

Here is what the Vermont Mini Cabin cost me:

Pressure-treated lumber (Home Depot) $100

Rough-sawn lumber (Eagle Saw Mill) $704

3/4″ plywood $568

Nails, screws, other misc. supplies $200

Tyvek $145

Ship-lap pine siding $600

Stain $100

Metal roofing panels and flashing (Fabral) $936

Clear pine for trim $180

Insulation $100

Steel door $100

Windows (12 Pella ProLine casements w/screens) $3623

Stove (Morso Squirrel) $1100

Chimney and stove pipe (Simpson) $500

Flooring (Forbo Marmoleum Click) $502

Cost before adjustments $9458


Forgone BMW purchase ($44,260) …’cuz that’s what my friends are buying instead of doing stuff like this.

12 days labor of high-priced innovation consultant (not thinking about that)

Net Savings $34,802

Incidentally, I purchased the site for $8500, plus another $1000 or so in legal fees and transfer fees/taxes. (One of a half dozen lots I was able to aggregate in a largely defunct development.) So, even including the land costs, this project was well under half the cost of the BMW, and I believe it will be around a lot longer than that car would have been.

Incidentally, Dunn Lumber has an excellent site with prices listed for most lumber-yard items. This is a great reference for cost estimating, even though you most likely will not purchase from them unless you live in their service area.

Using Rough-Sawn Lumber

January 25th, 2010 by KTU | 5 Comments | Filed in 3. Basic Structure, Notes on Approaches

Dimensional lumber used in framing (i.e., 2×4, 2×6, etc.) is usually sold after planing and kiln drying. That’s why a 2×4 is actually 1.5″ x 3.5″. The stick of lumber from which that 2×4 was made was originally sawn to dimensions of 2″ x 4″. The length of these “rough sawn” boards is the nominal length plus at least 2 inches. So an 8′ 2×4 in rough-sawn form is 2″ x 4″ x 98+”.

Ends of rough-sawn 2x8s. See how both the height and the length varies slightly. I mostly ignored these differences, doing a little sorting to eliminate any real big jumps.



January 25th, 2010 by KTU | No Comments | Filed in 3. Basic Structure

The framing of the cabin was straightforward. We used rough-sawn lumber and 3/4 inch plywood sheathing. I used a simple framing scheme with no headers above the windows and a single top plate on the walls. I used 3/4 inch plywood power nailed to the lumber with ring-shank nails to tie everything together into a strong and stiff wall system. I was confident that with this heavy sheathing, the minimal structure would be plenty strong.

Here my father, my sons, and I are tilting up the first wall.