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

Tag: Outdoor Living Page 2 of 3

Building a Dream Patio – The Concrete is In!

Welcome back, friends! For those of you who are following along our back patio renovation, thank you so much for your support and encouragement! In the last a few posts, I’ve showed you how we removed the ugly metal awnings covering the patio, demo-ed of existing porches and the new patio plans, and replaced an old window well. All these effort led to today – when the concrete was poured and our patio appeared in front of our eyes!


In the afternoon of the day we replaced the window well, the concrete guys showed up around 5 PM to double check the level of the ground and remove large debris. They had scheduled the concrete trunk for 5:30 PM sharp, at which time our future patio was completely in shade and the outdoor temperature has cooled down a bit. This condition allows the concrete to dry fast enough to pull the frame off the same day, but slow enough for the crew to finish it before it was too hard to work on.

We removed a good portion of the chain link fence so the concrete trunk could drive right next to the work site.


It is interesting for us to learn how the business works – our contractor, who demos, frames and finishes concrete actually does not own the concrete truck nor mix the concrete themselves. They order just right amount of the concrete from another local business, whose worker drives in this truck with concrete mix and water tank equipped. The concrete business does not do any demo nor framing – all they privide is X amount of the concrete. As soon as the concrete was mixed in the truck and spilled down the slide into our contractor’s wheelbarrow, it became our contractor’s responsibility.


See the young guy in construction vest standing next to the concrete slide? He is the driver of the concrete trunk and all he is responsible for was to turn on the mixture, let out X amount of the concrete (one wheelbarrow at a time), and clean up his trunk afterwards. That is why it is so important to order just right amount of the concrete – any leftover concrete mix needs to be washed out of the trunk and disposes at the job site (on our lawn for example). So if our contractor had ordered too much concrete, they would have to haul the leftover away after it had dried on our lawn.

First wheelbarrow went into the future stair in front of the backdoor:


And as soon as it was full, one of our guys went in and compacted it with a small trowel:


Then barrows after barrows of concrete were poured carefully into the frame, starting on the far end of the patio. Two guys were transporting the wet concrete mix with two wheelbarrows non-stop while the third contractor of ours leveled it with a shovel.


After a couple minutes, one of the guys stopped transporting concrete mix and started packed down from the far end:


As this point, one of our contractors was pouring wet mix in to the frame, another leveled the wet mix with a shovel, and the third person packed every bits down. The whole action was well-coordinated.

It is amazing how fast the pouring process went. Before the whole thing started, our contractors, the father, son, and son-in-law trio all got ready as if they were in a race. And soon I realized why: it was indeed a race – a race to achieve a solid and leveled base before the concrete started to dry.


As soon as the whole frame was filled, while the other two of our guys were still busy packing down the last corner, one guys already started smoothing the surface:





See the small portion of wet concrete on a piece of plywood? That is how much leftover we had. It was THAT precise. And even this tiny bit of concrete did not go to waste – they were later used to fill the holes after the framing around the stairs were removed.

After the whole surface was packed down and smoothed out, one of our contractors started to further smooth it with a smaller trowel:


From end to end:


At this point, the surface was already pretty nice. It was still too soft for the broom finish, so our guys caught a moment to rinse off the wet mix on their tools and in the wheelbarrows, and paid for the concrete delivery truck.


As soon as the surface got a bit harder, the framing around the step were taken off and the holes from the vertical studs were filled with leftover concrete mix. The whole stair were then finished on all sides.


This was also the time to put in the expansion joints, which are these straight lines to allow the concrete to swell and shrink in different outdoor temperatures.

The final step was finishing the surface with a big broom. For a broom dedicated to concrete work, it was surprisingly clean and well maintained. Apparently these guys rinse it off carefully after each job. Watching them rinsing their tools reminds me the paint brushes we inherited from my late father-in-law, who was an experience contractor – his used paint brushes were all clean and soft, carefully wrapped in their original packaging to protect the bristles, and neatly organized in a soft-bottom brush bag. Good workmanship requires good care of your tools.


The broom finish step took a long time. It was done in multiple passes. It was just amazing to see how detailed this part was – all the edges and seams requires very precised movement of the corner of the broom, which means that the guy moving the broom sometimes needed to hold it up while rotating it gently. This part definitely needed muscle strength!


From the time concrete trunk arrived to a finished surface, it took about two hours. Most of the time was spent on finishing and detailing. While our contractor had some spare time, they also patched some gaps in the existing concrete walk way with leftover concrete. We appreciated it!


The new patio will continue to cure for a few days before we could walk on it. To prevent dogs from scratching the patio, we locked the backdoor and completely fenced off the patio. It was a paws-off zone here!


This is how the patio looked the next morning – it was so hard not to walk on it!


Building A Dream Patio – Replace An Old Window Well

Hey friends! How is your week going? It feels like a roller coaster ride here. I never knew that concrete demo could be this dusty – everything in our living room and kitchen was covered in a layer of concrete dust – even with all the windows and door closed! I caught Roxie drinking from her outdoor water bowl that was covered in concrete dust – and she was licking it because it was almost dry! I felt like such a bad mother and needless to say that she got some really good treats for being neglected.

With the framing in place and the concrete truck ordered, we did not just sit around and wait the magic to happen. There was yet something that needed our attnetion BEFORE the concrete could go in:

This window well.


I knew that I have shown you the dirty carpet, ugly metal awnings, and the half torn garage. But believe me, I still feel embarrassed to show you this window well. I guess it is because that all the other things either have been upgraded, or at least their days are numbered. But we still have a whole bunch of these laying around, and sadly, without any plan to be replaced. There is just no point to change basement window wells until we enlarge the windows. But honestly, these window wells started bothering us more and more. With major exterior demo happening one after another, these window wells started to stand out and are definitely rising to the top of our “eyesore” list.

They deserve it. They are old, rusty, non-functional, and practically outdoor trash bins when we moved in. I will not be showing you what we have pulled out of these wells. This is a family blog – let us keep it classy.

But we will be replacing THIS particular window well today, because it will be enclosed in our new patio. It was enclosed in our old back porch, so this will be our only opportunity to replace it without breaking concrete ourselves.

Due to the concrete work, there was only a 24-hour window for us to get it replaced. And of course we had to find out that our window was not in a standard size…The window is only 32-inch wide, and our old window well was 33-inch in width. All the in-stock window wells we could get on the same day were 37-inch wide. So I spent some time googling “is wider window well a problem” but only found mixed results…

So should we go forward with a much wider window well? When there is no clear answer out there, it is time for my scientific training kicking in. All I needed to do was think logically:

  1. Is it necessary to get a perfect fit window well? No. Many egress windows rock much wider window wells. As long as the well is covered, with the sides sealed, it should protect the window as well as a smaller window well does. The only difference is cosmetic – it may look funny, or unfit; but functionally, there is no reason that a wider window well wouldn’t work.
  2. Do we want to wait for a few day in order to get a custom-fit window well? No. The concrete trunk is ordered and our contractor has other jobs lined up. Besides, even we could postpone the concrete work for a few days, the backyard is a dust bowl and my kitchen is covered in muddy paw prints. I won’t delay the work myself.
  3. Is a generic window well sufficient for our needs? Yes. The material will be the same as a custom-fit one and the price tag is actually much lower. Majority of this window well will be under the patio anyway, so instead of the looks, being strong and new are the most important things for us to consider.

We have been making many decisions during our renovation. Most of the time, we could base our decisions on scientific facts and experts’ opinions. This window well decision is an exception. Just like the work I do in the laboratory, sometimes you just have to make an educated guess based on the circumstances, when there was little previous knowledge you could trust. So I made my peace, padded myself on the back, and sent Slav to the big orange store for the most generic window well ever. He brought back this beauty one:

And this cover:

Classy. They are nothing exciting, but I actually think that they could blend in the concrete patio quite well. And I appreciate the fact that they are plastic and should never rust.

New on the left, old on the right.


In the morning of the day of concrete work, we got up early and started digging.



The new well is 4 inches wider, so Slav made a much bigger hole around it to make our work easier.

Just like other metal component we found on the exterior of the house, both the old window well and the screws holding it in place were badly rusted. Slav had to grind some screws off to free the window well from the foundation.


Once the old well was off the house, we started to grading the soil at the bottom. Just like how we graded soil around the house foundation, the soil within the window needs to allow water to drain away as well.


We then laid down two layers of 6-mil Poly. Now any water getting into the well should drain away on top of the poly layer, instead of seeping down. Some gravel will hold the poly layer in place instead of soil to facilitate drainage.


Next, Slav drilled the new window well into the foundation.


Then caulked the heck out of it:



Do you see the red line on the foundation? It indicated where the top of the concrete patio would be. The rule of thumb is that the window well should be at least two inches above the finished surface (in this case, the top of the patio), and at least four inches below the bottom of the window sill. Our 24-inch well satisfied these requirements.

You may notice that there were some gravel at the bottom of the well too. We put down a thick layer on top of the entire poly layer until it reached the bottom of the well, So when we backfilled, dirt would not get into the well itself.

According to the instruction, someone need to “support the window well at all time during backfilling”. Guess who went inside…


It took Slav about 10 minutes to backfill. He shoveled some dirt around the well, one inch at a time, then compacted it really well by doing a little dance on top of it. I, on the other hand, was busy at this one-woman show, pretending to be buried alive. So Slav started pretending he was preforming a sacrifice. It was too much fun.


Isn’t it beautiful? I could not believe how intimated we were about installing it and how easy it actually was! We filled the well with the rest of the gravel and cleaned up a little:


Yes you are looking at the finished patio around it! We got the concrete poured and it is curing now. I cannot get over how beautiful the whole back patio is! Here is another sneak peek:


I will be back tomorrow to show you the process of pouring concrete and finishing the surface. The big reveal will be on Saturday (hopefully we can get our furniture here on time). Are you ready for some mimosas on our new patio? You bet I am!

Building A Dream Patio – Concrete Demo and New Patio Plans

Things have to get worse before getting better, right? (Please tell me it is right – someone? Anyone?)


As I told you yesterday, we decided to tear out the sinking porches and re-pour a new patio at the back of the house. For concrete work, we hired a local mom-and-pop concrete business.

We are fortunate to live in a very established neighborhood. Our neighborhood does not have a HOA, but all the neighbors took care of their properties and have great curb appeals. It is safe to say that we bought the worst house in the neighborhood (based on the looks). Since we started working on the house, many neighbors paused on their walks and welcomed us to the neighborhood. It was really sweet. They also gave us information of contractors they used in the past. Through our neighbors and realtor, we were be able to find trust-worthy local business to work with. It is important to support local businesses!

In the morning of the Demo day, the father, son, and son-in-law trio from Big Mike’s Concrete showed up and got straight to work. They started demoing the back porch right away:


And by late afternoon that day, the old back porch, steps next to the house, and the concrete path were completely out:


I’d like to pause here and give you an overview of our patio plans. You might remember the site plan of our property:

Ranch Site Plan

The half circle adjacent to the back of the house was the existing back porch. There was a concrete path wrapping around the garage side of the house, connecting the front and the back yard. This concrete path was narrower than the porch, leaving a strip of bare dirt next to the house.


After demo, the entire back porch and the concrete path at the back of the house (where Charlie sat) were gone. The path on the side of the house (including the part in front of the gutter extender) remained.


And our new patio will start from where the gutter is, and extend along the back of the house for 34 feet. It will look something like this:

Patio plan_back_

You can see the back door in the middle, kitchen window to the right, and the new electrical box (How can I leave it out?) on the left. The barrier on the side of the house is our current chain link fence. We will be replacing it soon and potentially move it towards the front yard. But for now, this is how the patio and fence will look like from the back:

Patio plan back

What about these columns, you may ask? We have plans to add roof structure for the patio in the future. In order to build any kind of roofing over the patio, we would need to prepare the adequate footing for future porch columns. Although these columns will not be built today, they indicates where the footings need to be.

Patio plan_2D

We have not decided what kind of roof we would like to have for the patio yet. But having lived in Southern California, Slav and I are both very into a style called Spanish revival. One of the architectural elements I love the most of Spanish revival is the arcades:


(via here)

We like the arched columns and the long patio space underneath. Coincidentally, traditional Chinese structures often use covered porches to connect buildings, a lot like these arcades:


(via here)

So we did some research on what kind of footing are needed for porch roof. This is when I felt really lucky living in Arvada, where all the building codes are crystal clear, and all the requirement, permits and resources related to renovations are neatly organized on the city’s website. With little research, we found this document on the city website clearly indicating what kind of footing we need for future porch roof structure:


You can see that for supporting the future roof of any kind, the footing needs to be concrete columns that are at least 8″ in diameter, and 3′ deep into the ground.



The framing went in the next day, and five holes were dug for pouring the footings for future porch columns:


And rebar are drilled into the foundation:


We are getting a new backdoor step poured as well. The new patio will be sitting just slightly above the ground level to give out a “more connected to the backyard” vibe. This step is necessary to bridge the deep step-down between the backdoor and the new patio.


With all the framing complete, the guys moved onto demo the front porch. It was a lot harder due to the depth of the porch, but they got it done, in 90 degree weather!

Concrete trunk scheduled for tomorrow – stay toned!

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