Terrific Broth

The life of two scientists, creating a small home, in big mountains

The I-beam Discovery

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This post has been a long time coming. I usually write about projects that are ongoing or just finished. But today, I want to give you a glimpse into a year worth of slow progress in our basement.

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Above was the only basement photo I took during the walk-in. Hello 20 year old carpet + 1960 paneling. If you do not recall this space, I do not blame you. I sometimes forgot about it too. Since moved in, we only came to this basement once a week to do laundry…To remind all of us including myself, below is the basement floor plan.

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Besides the living space and a small laundry area, this basement was divided into three more kid’s bedrooms, two on the north end, and one next to the stairs. These three bedrooms bumped the total number of kid’s bedrooms to 5 in this small ranch.

The northwest bedroom

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The northeast bedroom

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The 5th bedroom next to the stairs:

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2017: Getting rid of the 5th bedroom

Culture phenomenal swings between extremes. The number of the kids/kid’s bedrooms in this house was no exception. Thus far we have reduced the number of the bedrooms in this house by 40%. First of all, we converted the second bedroom upstairs to an office for Slav. Second, we knocked down the 5th bedroom last summer to make HVAC and tankless water heater installation easier.

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Opening up the wet wall

Soon after, we exposed the wet wall behind the washer/dryer. This two story wall is the only wet wall in the house, and opening it allowed us to identify/fix several problems with the utility lines/ducts.

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By the end of 2017 the utility room looked like this. Utilitarian to the extreme.

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On the opposite side though, the purple walls and the tiny closet served as a reminder for the old bedroom:

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Behind the purple wall above is the basement stairs. The previous owners framed the space underneath the stairs into a closet.

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There was also a window in this bedroom, looking into the living space. I guess it was here for meeting codes? It is amazing what creativity and laziness could produce. With four kids sleeping downstairs, a gas furnace, and multiple space heaters, I am glad that whoever slept in this bedroom made it to the next house safely.

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Thus far it concludes all we had done in this utility room in 2017. For the matter of fact, this was all we’d done to the whole basement last year.

2018: Basement floor demo

2018 was supposed to be the year of basement renovation. But we really could not figure out what we want for this space and had to wait for the inspiration to strike. Fortunately, we did know what we do not want here. For example, the decade-old carpet. Early Spring, I started cutting off carpet and used them to suppress weed in the garden.

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Mid-May, as a surprise for my birthday, Slav removed all the remaining carpet in the basement when I was at work.

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Under the carpet we found tiles, all of which were glued to the basement slab. Slav chipped everything off and got down to the leveled concrete.

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Removing the flooring was a big step forward. Seeing less old fixture helped me to imagine what is possible. Our slab was in very good shape and we have the option of any type of flooring without much work. The next thing I knew would help to grasp the potential of this basement was to figure out how the house structure was supported.

The I-beam discovery

I once made a birthday card for Slav, which said “some people never grew up, their toys just became more expensive”. I think we are both this type of people that have to know the mechanisms underlying everything. Knowing the mechanisms opens the possibility for improvement, and gives maximum flexibility for what we desire.

Anyway, this is a long justification of my desire opening this wall, between the utility room and the living space.

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This was how the wall looked like from the utility room. The purple wall on the left with the window belonged to the 5th bedroom, and the white wall to the right used to be in the laundry room. The angled frame was where the bedroom door used to reside. The soffit above enclosed some air ducts.

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We knew that the supporting mechanism for the whole house was inside this wall, but there was no way of knowing what it is except opening it up. So this happened. And I can proudly say, I did it.

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All by myself. Without injuries.

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And what did I find inside this wall? An I-beam running along the mid-line of our house!

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You can read about the purpose of I-beam here. But after all, this I-beam is what supports all the floor joints above. The white pipe next to it is the old gas line, which has been discontinued during the HVAC installation.

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Having the I-beam means that none of the walls downstairs are weight bearing. In another word, all the basement walls were put up purely for creating rooms and can be removed to our liking.

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The I beam was held by three steel columns and likely sitting in notches on the foundation wall on both ends. The steel columns and the foundation wall are the ones that bear all the weight of the house. All the wood framing are not.

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In fact, you can see from the picture below that the 2″ x 4″ wall framing was practically hanging off the beams with nails. It was the I-beam that keeps the walls in place, not the other way around.

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Opening up more walls

Old houses like ours rarely come with structural blueprints. Often times, opening walls are necessary to learn how the house was structured. The I-beam discovery was a success in terms that we gained the option of open floor plan if we desire. However, not every open-wall investigations validate the best case scenario. For example, I later removed the weird bumped out drywall near the dryer, as well as the drywall covering the closet. In both cases, the demolition confirmed the need for their existence.

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It turned out that the bumped out portion next to the dryer was for hiding a pipe. If we were going to cover this portion with drywall, my demo work would have been a waste of time. Fortunately we will not be using drywall here. I will explain it in another post.

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Last I demoed the closet. After taking the door and all the shelves out, I removed all the drywall on the wall framing.

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This wall framing is also not structural. However, it does hold up the stairway drywall, so it stays. Before closing this wall again, we will likely widen the closet opening and put in some insulation. The latter will prevent the sound and warmth from travelling as readily between the two stories.

The basement today

Here you have it, our basement living/utility room today. Although what we did so far was pure demolition, it expanded the potential of this space which we had not seen before.

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As we speak, Slav is poking around in the bedrooms and the bathroom to find out more about the basement utility. Through the drywall dust we are contemplating a new plan for our basement, a plan far far from what we ever envisioned. Buckle up, guys!

How Much Does It Really Cost? A Closer Look into Our Horizontal Fence

Renovation cost can vary a lot. Before we started the DIY fence build, one very important yet hard-to-find information we sought after, was how much a fence should cost.

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We did request a few quotes from local contractors, but for many reasons I will explain below, no one could tell us how much it would cost to build the fence we wanted. We eventually chose to DIY, and budgeted based on our design, starting from the price of raw material. We ended up spending <70% of the average quote, and got a quality product that would have doubled the average quote.

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In today’s post, I’d like to share how much we spent on the fence in detail, and how different design and building technique may affect these numbers. It might be a number-heavy post, but for anyone who is considering a new fence, especially a horizontal fence, these numbers might be helpful.

1. The anatomy of a quote

We received four bidding from local contractors. For ~125 ft of 6′ cedar fence, the lowest quote was $4200, and the highest was just under $5000. However, these quotes are based on the most basic/standard cedar fence in our area: 4″ x 4″ posts, 2″ x 4″ top and bottom rails, and 1″ x 4″ pickets running vertically. Chain link demolition and hauling away all the debris would have costed us ~$600 in additional ($5 per foot).

Slav visited a few lumber yard to get an idea for material cost. For a basic vertical fence descried above, the lumber and concrete would cost under $2000. We assumed that contractors will get some kind of discount price from their own supplier, which means 2/3 of the quotes (on average ~4500) was actually for the labor.

Of course labor costs – it would take a few guys two or three days of work to demo and rebuild. However, with five grand of expected spending, we did not want to compromise on the quality and the style of the fence. We wondered how much more we needed to pay to get a horizontal fence with better materials.

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2. Option for Customization and the Decision on DIY

The first thing we discussed with our contractors was the option of using thicker pickets. The ones offered by contractors are similar to the ones you can find in big box stores. They are 5/8″ thick and fairly light-weight. These pickets are likely to be harvested from farm-raised, fast-growing trees, so their wood grains are more likely to be coarse and the pickets are easy to split around the fasteners. Our back fence is constructed with this type of pickets, and many of them have already split and even peeled off from the rails. We would like to swap for better lumber, however, the contractors wanted to stick to their suppliers and were resistant to our request of using different lumber.

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The second question we had was the plan for building on sloped land. Using the fence above as an example, this section of the fence sits on a 1~ 1.5″ per foot slope. The usual way of fencing is to following the slope, which means that the top of the fence would be parallel with the slope of the land. We would much more prefer a step-down look, but it would require cutting pickets to length, which in turn increases labor cost significantly.

The other dispute we did not expect regarding the front fences was the location of the posts. Also using the north front fence as an example, with 20 ft span and the common panel width being 6 ft or 8 ft long, we had to have a short panel on one end. We asked if we could space the posts evenly, but was told that this small customization would raise the quote significantly, also due to more cutting/labor involved.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the possibility of a horizontal fence. Running the pickets horizontally requires much more precision of setting posts, as well as cutting the pickets to length. Together it means a lot more hours of labor and results in much higher quotes.

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Without any promise of accuracy, quotes with customization were laid out and they sounded unreasonable. $8000, $9000, even  over $10000. The key reason is the labor of cutting pickets to length, which is inevitable for horizontal fencing. In the renovating world people say that one can only have two out of three things: cheap, good, and fast. At this point, we felt that hiring out may only get us the “fast” aspect. So DIY was the way to go.

3. How much we actually spent

We bought premium material from a lumber yard (without contractor discount) and did all the labor ourselves. At the end, we spent <$3200 (before tax) for materials and about 20 days of labor (one man). The permit fee is $65 in our city. It is hard to count Slav’s labor, but with the cash spending being 1/3 of the quotes for horizontal fencing, we consider this build a DIY win.

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The $3200 material fee includes all the posts, pickets, concrete, auger rental, and gate hardware. You can find the detailed budget here. and below is a quick break-down:

Demo ~200 chain link    $0 (DIY)

Auger rental (1 day)         $129.44 (from Home Depot, after tax)

Concrete (103 bags)         $267.80 (from Home Depot, before tax. We got contractor price for ordering 112 bags)

Screws, drill bits, post level, mason line, line levels, etc.  $114.88

Lumber (from Front Range Lumber. We did over-order and have leftovers. The numbers below reflect how many we actually used):

1″ x 6″ x 6′ pickets (285) $1558.95

1″ x 4″ x 6′ pickets (24)    $56.88

4″ x 4″ x 8′ posts (14)       $314.58

4″ x 6″ x 8′ posts (7)         $283.29

4″ x 4″ x 10′ posts (1)       $33.47

4″ x 4″ x 12′ posts (1)       $37.97

For constructing the gate:

2″ x 4″ x 8′ (4)                  $38.68

2″ x 4″ x 10′ (2)                $25.42

EasyGate kits (3)             $89.94

Cane Bolts (2)                  $19.96

Optional:

T-post (12)                       $53.76

Post driver (1)                 $34.98

Landscape edging (~80ft)   $79.20

Pea gravel (one ton)              $34.95

4. Paying more for quality lumber

The lumber we bought is much more expensive than the big box store cedar. 1″ x 6″ x 6 ft cedar pickets cost $2.87 a pop in Home Depot, and if you buy in bulk, it can be as low as $2.73 per picket. We paid $5.47 per picket for 1″ x 6″s, nearly twice as much. But these pickets are 3/4″ thick (opposed to 5/8″ from the big box store), and nearly twice as heavy. They are harvested from naturally grew trees from Canada. BTW, the price of cedar was a lot higher nowadays compared to that of two years ago. Trump’s tariff against Canada has raised cedar price by 70% in our area.

Interestingly, the price of the cedar posts from this lumbar yard was comparable to big box stores. Home Depot 4″ x 4″ x 8′ cedar post costs $23.72 and we paid $22.47 a pop for 4″x 4″s.

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5. Beefy Post, Stronger Fence

We used 4″ x 6″ posts instead of 4″ x 4″s for front fences. We live in a wind tunnel through which the northwest wind passes aggressively. So the fence facing west can always use more reinforcement. The two sections of front fence used seven 4″ x 6″ post total; and we paid $40.47 for each post.

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Contractors we talked to tried to convince us that 4″ x 4″s were plenty enough, and our neighbors usually use 4″ x 4″ as well. But based on our observation, there are plenty of falling fences in our neighborhood. Keep in mind that fence construction does not come with warranties – some company might promise a year of labor, which only applies to detaching pickets. Therefore, we decided that beefing up the posts on the west side is worth it.

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Our land slopes down at the back corner and required taller posts. We used one 4″ x 4″ x 10′ and one 4″ x 4″ x 12′ post here. This cost can be skipped completely if you build on a flat land.

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To decide how many posts we actually needed, we need to decide the spacing. We chose around 6′ because the horizontal pickets are likely to sag in the middle with longer span. Another important thing to consider is the actual length of the pickets. The 6′ pickets are not really 6′. They are always a bit shorter and there are some variation. So make sure you measure the pickets before digging the post holes. At the end, we spaced our posts 5’10” on center to accommodate the shortest pickets. This decision is completely personal. Decision like this might change the number of the posts for your fence.

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6. Bigger post hole means more concrete

Another detail that worth paying attention is the dimension of the post holes. 4″ x 4″ post calls for 12″ diameter holes, and a 4″ x 6″ post should be set in 18″ diameter concrete on the 6″ side. We were surprised when contractors advocated for 8″ holes, because “it should be enough” according to their experience. Although they might be right, but all these falling fence posts in our neighborhood made us wonder, “what if?”.

I think one big reason of under-dig is not for saving concrete, but for saving labor. Our area has very heavy and compact clay soil. Digging under 12 inches of soil is practically digging concrete. To do the right thing, we paid additional $130 to rent a hydraulic auger.

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Bigger post holes means more concrete to fill them. For 8″ holes and 4″ x 4″ post, you can get away with 1.15 bags of the 80 lb concrete, which means 92 lb per hole. We had to use 3.5 bags of 60 lb bags, total 210 lb, in one 12″ holes. This is not only because the void is much bigger, but also because we decided to bring the concrete all the way to the top of the soil to help with drainage.

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Besides the regular 4″ x 4″ posts, we also have seven 4″ x 6″ posts, which called for 18″ holes. It took 7 bags of 60 lb concrete to fill each of these 18″ diameter holes. Due to the sloped land, a few 4″ x 4″s on the back are much taller (12″ or 10″) and the post holes were proportionally deeper as well. In total, we ended up using 103 bags of 60lb concrete.

The good news is that we bought them in contractor price – the same $3.25 per bag concrete mix becomes $2.60 per bag when you buy 112 bags or more. It came out a lot cheaper (112 x $2.6 = $291.2) than buying exactly what we need in retail price (103 x $3.25 = $334.75)

7. Screws and Hardware

Using quality pickets, beefy posts and sufficient amount of the concrete, we spent double amount of the money compared to using standard materials and practices. But all these will be worth it now we have a long-lasting fence that should need less repairs. Quality lumber also improves the appearance of the fence – you can definitely tell these pickets apart from the ones from big box stores.

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We used standard deck screws and gate hardware. Each 1 x 6″ or 1 x 4″ picket was attached to the post with four screws, and each 1″ x 2″ was attached with two. This fence consumed 1400 screws, which cost less than $80.

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8. How much should horizontal fence cost?

In total, for 125 ft of the 6′ horizontal fence, including the pickets on the gates, we paid $2440 for lumber, including $670 for 23 posts, $1560 for 1″ x 6′” pickets, and $57 for 1″ x 4″ pickets (for creating the top pattern). For a standard horizontal fence, without the 1″ x 4″ pickets and 4″ x 6″ posts, you are probably looking at $2100 for 125 feet, which is ~$16.8/ft.

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We spent additional ~$200 for the two gates, which includes $64 for 2″ x 4″s, $90 for gate kits, and $40 for latches and cane bolts.

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One thing saves with a horizontal fence is that you do not need horizontal rails on each panel. That saved two 2″ x 4″s per panel, which can be costly as well. However, with the rails you only need two screws to attach each pickets, which we had to we used four screws for each 1″ x 6″s. For anyone who is considering a vertical fence, you can halve the screw cost but need to add the cost of 2″ x 4″s.

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Moreover, our building permit costs $65 and this price may be higher where you live. Including permit and tax, we spent close to $3400 on the fence. It is not cheap, but building such fence by contractor would have costed us three times as much.

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I hope this post is helpful for people who are considering horizontal fencing. Slav already mentioned that he would like to replace the back fence (another 90 ft!) next Spring. And with this experience, I am sure that the next round will be a lot easier and faster. Let me know if you have any questions!

Fence, Finished!

After five weeks of hard work, our DIY fence was complete.

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Do you like it? WE DO. A LOT. 🙂

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Besides a few weeks of planning, this fence took five weeks of physical work to build, including demoing the old chain link fence. Here is a week-by-week task breakdown:

Week 1: Preparing the ground for the fence

Week 2: Concrete work – setting fence post

Week 3: Attaching bottom pickets

Week 4: Demoing the old chain links and a mid-project clean-up. Slav also finished attaching the top pickets during this week.

Week 5: Building Gates

The goal of this fence project is to replace the old chain link with cedar fence for both privacy and curb appeal:

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And here are the new fence we built in the place of old chain links:

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The north front fence is the perfect backdrop for the front yard landscape we installed this summer. To accommodate the slope, we divided this 20 ft of fence in four panels and stepped down after each panel. We also made each panel 5′ wide so we would not end up with a short panel on one end.

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The new south front fence on the other side of the house is only 15 feet long. It consists of a 4-ft walk gate and a 10-ft drive gate:

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You might remember how much trouble we went into building these gates. Now we are fully rested, all the effort feels worth it. The choice of simple black hardware and the decision of having them hidden resulted in a perfect seamless look from the street.

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For finishing touches, Slav mounted address letters onto the new fence, which we have been holding onto since moving into the ranch, 17 months ago.

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The new south side fence is the longest stretch of this build – it is a little over 90 feet and also sits on a slope. Slav incorporated several step downs to keep the height under 6′.

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You may notice that the pattern of the side fence is a bit different. The side fence is constructed with only 1″ x 6″ picket, whereas the front fences have decorative details on the top.

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Slav did 90% of the work. Despite being his first fence DIY, Slav did a fabulous job. Don’t we all expect this though? He is a perfectionist and we all knew it. 🙂

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As expected, the new cedar fence has been the biggest upgrade to our curb appeal. Here is what the north side yard looked like this Spring:

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And here is the same angle today. I loooooove how the color and the texture of cedar play with the evergreens, black mulch, and river rocks.

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This is what the south side yard looked from the street before:

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And today:

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The new front fences not only added privacy, but also enclosed two side yards which we can now access from the back. The northern side yard used to get lots of afternoon sun and had to irrigate. But now, with the 6′ cedar pickets to its west, this area is in shade and a lot cooler.

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Without the chain link running along the northern fence, we can finally landscape this area. It will be a great outdoor project next spring:

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We needed a “utility yard” for a long time and the new south side yard is just that. Behind the drive gates is the perfect spot for Slav’s trailer, and we are thrilled to keep the waste bins off the view from the street.

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With two dogs we always had a poop bucket outside. Someday I would like to have a beautiful porcelain planter just for that. But for now, a Lowe’s bucket with a “bullshit corner” plate mounted above will do.#pitbullmom

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Here you have it, our new horizontal fence. As our first DIY fence, we are proud of ourselves for pulling it off in 5 weeks. Most importantly, we wrapped it up before the harsh winter set in. It is beautiful, it is sturdy, and it will become the perfect backdrop for more pretty things – I am talking about pergolas, climbing vines, and solar powered outdoor lighting. But we will save the fun for next Spring, because the mountain is calling!

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