Thursday, October 31, 2013


Connections can refer to many different things: how a front porch connects a house to the sidewalk, how neighborhoods relate to each other to become a community, how the planning of the built environment shapes the relationships of the people who occupy the buildings, or, what we discuss today- the connection of water and sewer lines. It's exciting stuff!

DPW guys marked the road to show where the service hook ups are located. The road was ripped open and the village's water and sewer lines were located and tied into. Trenches were dug back to the house site. Pipe was connected through sleeves in the concrete foundation wall. Shale and fill were compacted back under the road, and the cut in the road was re-paved.

Digging up the road
Locating the services under the road
The pipe under the road!
Drilling in the muddy water to make the connection
Services enter into the crawlspace of the house
Tamping a layer at a time for road patch

There has been a lot of talk around this election/budget time of year about "sharing of services" to save money. In a village or city, residents do share services- as opposed to a more rural development where each house will typically have its own well and septic system. Like we were taught in Kindergarten, sharing is good!

Tivoli got its water and sewer services from the good works of the one and only First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the mid 1930s. As I've mentioned in this blog, this area has very heavy clay soil. Clay is bad for gardening and for septic systems for the same reason: it doesn't drain. And sewage that is not disposed of properly makes people sick. So, for public health, Eleanor worked to get a public system for the residents of this village, which according to her autobiography, she spent a happy part of her childhood. Thank you, Mrs. Roosevelt!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Architect term of the Day: Context

Street View of New House
Enough talk and pictures of dirt and re-bar. Today I thought we could discuss some planning and design ideas.

Context is the architect's word for looking at the area surrounding the building site and then designing a new building that fits in with its neighborhood. This can mean matching regional styles or materials. It  can mean aligning horizontal banding of an old university brick building or highrise with lines of a new design. It can mean creating the new to be similar in scale and massing to what is around it. Admittedly, "fitting in" can mean different things to different people. Some may argue that referencing existing context stifles creativity or focuses one to build in an out-moded style, but I do not believe that is the case.

neighboring house
Here in Tivoli, the building code incorporated a "Pattern Book" to guide designers so that new construction would blend with the context of our village. Two stories. Gable (or narrow end) facing the street. Full front porch set back a similar distance from street/sidewalk as the adjacent buildings. Clapboard siding. Detached garage. Basically a traditional village house. You can view the document here: Zoning/TivoliPatternBook.pdf

As a resident of this small village, I appreciate the Pattern Book. It helps protect us from "ugly" development in a world where all houses are not designed by architects or sited by planners. The house I designed will fit in well on the street and in the village such that next year a passer-by might not know which house is new. Similarly when I design an addition to a house, it's usually one of my goals that once complete, a visitor won't be able to tell where the new part is because it blends so well with the existing house. Granted, blending in is not everyone's style - but it was right for this site, project, and client.

On another site nearby, but just outside the village, a radically different house is under construction. It is secluded at the end of a long, winding driveway where context and pattern books do not apply. This creative family is building a home out of stacked shipping containers. I had a chance to see it recently after the containers were placed and some openings were cut for windows and doors.

Different architects give varying amount of importance to context. Different sites demand varying amounts of contextual respect. I agree with the team who created the Pattern Book, that here in our one square mile village, looking around at context is important. It helps our village have a cohesiveness of place that is valuable and visible.
shipping container house under construction

Foundation Walls

The footing is done. The foundation wall is constructed next. This house will have a concrete foundation wall that is partially below and partially above grade. Concrete on its own does not have tensile strength (but does have high compressive strength) so steel re-bar is used within the concrete to strengthen it. Forms are placed on the footing around the re-bar and then wet concrete is placed in to form the wall. The next day, when the concrete has cured, the forms are removed and you have your finished concrete wall.

Installing form for the walls
Footing with forms removed

Thursday, October 24, 2013

End of excavation phase

Early this week, the excavation - or digging phase of construction finished. Because I kept the foundation systems so simple, it only took one day for one man to prepare both the house and garage footing locations.

Some more pictures of dirt:
tamping the soil under the garage slab
the dug footings for the house

Next up: the mason begins his phase of the construction: forms, re-bar and concrete!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Digging for the Footings

With the site prepared, digging for the footings and foundation can begin. This morning Dan and Glenn shot the heights and today Glenn is scooping out the soil at the perimeter of the house site. I've always believed that figuring out the heights - whether on an addition where you want the new finished floor to match the existing floor, or on a new house where you want a certain amount of steps up (or not) from grade to finished floor - is one of the most difficult parts of construction. It takes some thought and calculation and it's so important to get it right to know how deep to dig.

This area is known for it's clay soil and high water table, so during the design phase, and in order to be economical, this house was planned with a crawlspace on grade only. This means minimal digging- scraping of top soil, really. (you can see it piled in the background of the photo) We end up with a slab that is on the grade level. It also means that we don't need to install a footing drain to keep that space dry - very valuable in this soil type, where I've seen a newly dug foundation filled with water like a bathtub.

Because we live in an area where the ground freezes, we do need to dig below the frost line for the footings. The footings are the wide base that distributes all the loads of the building to the ground. They need to be stable, and therefore, below the frost line where soil doesn't move.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Day 2: Driveway

Glenn, the excavator, continues to make quick progress on the site. All the stumps are piled in the way-back, all the cedars are chipped into a mulch pile behind the future garage site, and all the hardwood is cut for splitting into firewood. (Mike chain-sawed that last night)

Today the driveway was located and formed, a drainpipe installed under its apron, and landscaping fabric laid along its length. A small front-end loader beeped around the site, no doubt annoying the neighbors. Dump truck loads of  crushed shale were delivered to spread and compact for the driveway base.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Site Work Begins

The permit was granted and now the site work has begun. This is big, loud work. First the strong trucks pull long trailers up the road to drop off equipment. Yesterday a worker went up in a bucket with a chainsaw to safely take down a dead tree that was leaning toward the street. Now a large, orange excavator rolls around the site using it's claws to pull out the overgrown, gnarled cedar hedge. A chipper will chop the softwoods and limbs into mulch. Saws and splitters will chunk the hardwoods into firewood for next winter.

Like I said, this work is BIG. This work is LOUD. It seems so destructive. Neighbors look on, some curious, some concerned about the changes. It is such a contrast to the quiet design phase that I think of as "creating a house". My pen scratching on paper... My computer mouse clicking around the drawing screen... My mind looking for solutions, trying ideas...
But it only seems destructive and different. This loud work implements the quietly created site plan. The buildings were purposefully placed on the site to keep as many of the healthy trees as possible. The excavator operator controls the machine efficiently and thoughtfully such that his work is not actually too unlike my work of pen on paper. It occurs to me that it's really just a matter of scale and what tool one is skilled at using.