Staking Out Your Territory — How To Survey And Set The Grade

One of the challenges that any builder has is to transfer what is on the plans to the physical reality of what you happen to be working on. If you’re building a birdhouse, then you have to take the written dimensions on the plan and transfer them to the wood. Remember to subtract the width of the saw kerf! (My woodworker friends will appreciate this bit of free advice.) If you’re building a structure on a piece of land, you have to transfer those dimensions to the land. This is not a trivial endeavor,  because land is not necessarily level, square, or plumb. That’s construction terminology for orthogonal axes in a cartesian coordinate system, depending on your point of reference. But I digress.

The bottom line is that you first have to establish reference points, relative to your plans, to measure and mark your material. With wood, this pretty easy because typically  the raw material has reasonably straight and square edges. With land, you are on your own. The first priority is to establish a reference point. In the world of land surveyors, this comes down from edicts issued from backroom deals made among the wealthy and powerful who claimed the land and established certain boundaries, which may or may not have had any bearing on the indigenous people who currently occupied the land. So, because the rich and famous had guns and cannons. they displaced the indigenous occupants who had no concept of land ownership, and established the boundaries that you and I obey.   Again, I digress. Maybe this is a sign of old age.

So, if you follow the legal thread, you own property, which is documented precisely in the county records. Your deed specifies the plat (the drawing) that is the official and legal record of the land that you own. That plat has specifications which detail the dimensions of your land, as well as the precise locations of the corners of your property. If you are adventurous, you can probably take the data from the  records, and locate the surveyor’s marks on your property. If you are a city dweller, then you may see them as little nails in the sidewalk.

The builder of the house will transfer the dimensions of the corners of the property to the footprint of the house. There, the builder will begin excavation, pour the foundation, and build the house. All per the plans submitted to the city (or “building official”) and approved. It is with this thread that I start my measurements. My assumption was that the house was situated correctly on the property, and since my objective was to obtain proper drainage via a proper grade away from the house, I would use the corners of the house as the reference points.

But the problem remained: how to accurately locate the level of the land when the raw material was dimensionally random. For this, I had to learn a little bit about surveying. The basic geometry is middle school math, but the application is a bit more nuanced. How do you measure a level over a long distance? How do you mark the reference and set the other marks precisely relative to this reference? Professional surveyors use high-tech tools like laser levels and differential GPS theodolites. The equipment costs thousands and rents for hundreds. Was there a DIY solution? Well, yes. There is ALWAYS a DIY solution!

The first step was to take inventory of what I had. I had a laser measuring “tape” (I bought it when I needed to take the dimensions of the “as built” house for my plans.), a tripod, and an iPad. I checked out the apps that were available for the iPad and. lo and behold, somebody had developed a theodolite app. A theodolite is an instrument which will tell you the precise azimuth, elevation, and level from a given reference point. (If you don’t understand this terminology and how to convert polar coordinates into cartesian coordinates, then maybe surveying isn’t your thing.) The theodolite app was the ticket. All I had to do was to build a “surveyor stick”.

To explain: Surveyors need to measure changes in elevation over long distances. To do this, they set their measuring device (transit, theodolite) over a designated reference point, and then focus on a “stick” that is held by an assistant at the point they want to measure. That stick is essentially a ruler, which if the transit/theodolite is level, will measure the vertical distance between the observer and the stick.  If you combine this information with the azimuth (i.e., the angle from true North), you will have an EXACT location of that point on the earth. So, I needed a surveyor stick that was self-supporting because I couldn’t assume that I would have an assistant. I designed one, and the plans are here.SURVEYOR’S STICK. Once I was able to measure the difference in elevation, all I needed to do was to establish the grade, i.e., the slope, to allow the proper drainage. The slope is 2% away from the house, and 1% from front to back. So using my handy-dandy laser rangefinder, I simply multiplied my measured distance by the % slope to get the final elevation at the measured point.

All I had to do now was to research a bit of jargon with respect to grading and how to actually mark the property. The first thing I learned was that surveyors will mark the land using squat little stakes called “hubs” which are pounded level into the ground where you’re making your measurement. The vertical distance of the hubs are then measured between the hub and the reference (theodolite). You then take that difference and compare that to the plan. If the measured vertical distance is greater than the required distance, you need to fill (raise) the level of the land at that point. If it is less, then you need to cut (lower) the level. If you do this at several points, you can establish the contour (grade) that the plans specify. So at each hub, I would put a grade stake, with a mark that indicated a cut “C” or a fill “F” of a given dimension. Professional surveyors use 1/100 of a ft., but since my measuring devices were calibrated in inches, I used that standard. Whatever works.

The cool thing about all of this was that after all of the staking, I began to see the real outline of the plan manifested on my actual property. It was, perhaps, a turning point in the project because it represented a change in direction from demolition to construction. In my mind’s eye, I now have a glimpse of how the finished product will look like.

Here are some pictures:

Grade Stakes. Don't you like the colors?

Grade Stakes. Don’t you like the colors?

My Site Plans and Measuring Tools

My Site Plans and Measuring Tools

Theodolite App. Awesome!

Theodolite App. Awesome!

Theodolite and Surveyor Stick

Theodolite and Surveyor Stick

Empty dumpster. Ready for the next load!

Empty dumpster. Ready for the next load!

 

Irrigation — And How A Project Expands

This past week, I’ve been working on gutting my landscape. The reason for this is because the first order of business is to install a site drainage system. The reason this is first on the list is because I have to excavate in order to install my upgraded electrical power line from the power head on the street. I then have to cover it up and pour concrete because that is where I am going to place the temporary storage box for all the household crap I have to move in order to vacate my master bedroom to build out the addition. A real Chinese puzzle.  But I digress. So, if I’m going to excavate and break up concrete and hardscape, I better do this once. That means that I have to plan for ALL underground utilities, being it 12V lighting, drainage, or irrigation.

When I started looking into irrigation, I wanted to make sure that I was making a very conservative plan as water, especially for irrigation, is a scarce resource here in Southern California. My studies revealed that the two approaches which made most sense were drip irrigation with a xeriscape, and use of grey water from the laundry. First the xeriscape.

The idea of a xeriscape is not new. There are several high quality example gardens in our area, and we have visited them on more than one occasion. The idea is that you provide some drip irrigation to start the plants out, and as they mature, they require less and less water. Plus, drip irrigation is very efficient as it waters the roots directly, as opposed to spraying water all over the place and having the excess run down the storm drain. Let’s face it: if you live in Southern California, or any other place which is subject to drought, then you should be ashamed of yourself if you have spray irrigation. Especially if you have a lawn. If you like the expanse of green, then get artificial turf. The modern and smart way to landscape is with drip irrigation and water conservative plants.

The best reference I was able to come up with was a website called irrigationtutorials.com.  The person who writes this is a professional landscape architect, and his information is very detailed and practical. Regardless of what irrigation system you choose, you would do well to visit this site and to peruse, if not read thoroughly, what he has to say. I learned a TON about what to do, but more importantly, what NOT to do. Pay particular attention to the section on backflow prevention. This is serious stuff, especially if you don’t want your drinking water contaminated with whatever happens to be on or near your drippers. After all, animals, both domestic and wild, have to do their business somewhere!

The other thing I discovered, and I am STOKED about this, is the use of grey water for irrigation. Grey water is waste water from your house that is not sewage, e.g., not from your toilets. So, anything from your sinks, showers, dishwasher, or laundry, is considered grey water. Now, if you’re ultra conservative, you could set up a system that uses ALL of your grey water for irrigation purposes. But some of this requires permits and professional design. However, there is a low-cost DIY approach: using the effluent of your washing machine. Your washing machine uses a lot of water per load. If you have a top loader, then it’s 40 gallons per load (20 gal wash and 20 gal rinse). Even the high-efficiency front-loaders are 20 gallons per load. So, why not put all of that water to use in irrigating your property? The answer is that it’s pretty simple and definitely within the realm of a DIY project. First, there’s typically no permit required. Second, it’s relatively cheap. All you need is a 3-way valve, a vacuum breaker, some PVC pipe and fittings, some materials to make a bunch of mini-dry wells (perforated pipe, gravel, and circular pavers), and some inexpensive valves to regulate the flow such that you have an even distribution of water. There are some regulations that you have to be aware of, such as property line setbacks and having sufficient surface area to distribute water so that it doesn’t pool or overflow, but these requirements are spelled out very succinctly in a number of on-line articles. The best one is a manual that was produced by the city of San Francisco, CA (San Francisco Grey Water Design Manual) that is a very comprehensive guide. It includes detailed instructions for installation of a DIY laundry effluent grey water system. In my jurisdiction, Chula Vista, CA, the city took (plagiarized) elements of this manual for local guidance. So, if you care about water conservation and are in an area where drought is a concern, this something very simple and do-able for the average DIY.

The San Diego County Water Authority published a good guidebook on how to design a “water-smart” landscape (here). Additionally, the City of Chula Vista posted some professionally designed xeriscapes. Here is the link, but for some reason, it’s not working at the moment I’m writing this, so I’ve posted one of the plans here: wildlifefriendly-irrigationplanwildlifefriendly-planwildlifefriendly-plantimageswildlifefriendly-concept,

So, this was an expansion to the original project, but for several reasons, I think this is the way to go. I’ll have more details about my site plan in future posts.

Detailed Design — How To Design A Structure

After the architectural design was complete, the next step was to actually figure out how to construct it. My plans needed to be detailed enough for the city building department to approve them. At first blush, one might think that pushing out a bedroom by seven feet is no big deal. Throw together a few trusses, use the existing flooring, build some walls with holes in them for windows, and you’re done.

Well, not really. The short story is that building codes have advanced, and when you build an addition, you are actually going to build a carefully engineered structure. If you’re really not a die hard DIY and/or don’t have any background or training in structural engineering or construction, then your best bet is to hire a designer to do the work. They aren’t cheap (I got a quote for $7,500 minimum), but it may be worth it, depending on the complexity of your project. Having said that, you don NOT have to be a structural engineer to design an addition , or any other structure for that matter. All you have to do is follow the prescriptive  methods contained in the applicable codes. This is essentially a “cookbook” method of designing a structure that includes a number of safety factors such that a design using these methods will withstand loads and stresses (people, wind, earthquake, etc.) that are expected for a residential home in a specific location. Here is where you can benefit from my experience. DO NOT try to get all fancy and design something that is not clearly specified in the codes and deviates from the “cookbook recipe”, then you will have to get a sign-off by a licensed Professional Engineer (P.E.). Again, this is expensive, and probably not worth it for a smaller project. So if you’re willing to spend some study time (and maybe even learn something!), a DIY solution awaits!

The best place to start is the building code that is applicable to your jurisdiction. The California Residential Code is actually reasonably easy to follow, but I found the American Wood Council Wood Frame Construction Manual (WFCM) a better resource for my purposes. Since the California Residential Code allows it, that is what I used. What really made a difference and put it all together for me was the WFCM Workbook, which has an example home design that steps you through the process. You will also have to determine the environmental conditions that your structure will need to withstand. This includes maximum wind conditions, seismic design category, whether or not you’re in a flood zone, maximum and minimum temperatures, termite infestation likelihood, and other factors. These are usually spelled out in the code and it makes sense to put together a little table for yourself so that you can refer to it when bouncing back and forth between the various parts of the code to get your numbers.

The approach that I used, which was taken directly from the WFCM workbook, was to start at the top and work my way down from the roof to the foundation. At each step you not only have to specify the materials (trusses, roof underlayment, studs, joists, etc.), but you ALSO need to show how these elements are connected. The code gives a table of fasteners (mainly nails) for fastening framing and sheathing, but when it comes to connecting major assemblies to each other, you typically have to use engineered specialty connectors (for example, roof truss to wall top plate). You have to be able to show, step by step, that the loads from each element are transferred through successive elements all the way to the foundation. So, roof to wall, wall to floor, floor to wall, wall to foundation.

A quick word about fasteners. The common nail is a very nuanced component. There are many types of many materials, and it is IMPORTANT that you use the right nail for the right purpose. The tables in the code tell you what to do, but therein are requirements for not only nail type, but spacing, and orientation, e.g., toe nail vs. face nail. Bigger and more is not necessarily better because you risk splitting the underlying wood member. So follow the instructions! In general, nails are better than screws, especially for framing. This is because they have significantly higher shear strength, and have some ductility which means that they will “give” a bit in a storm or an earthquake whereas screws tend to be brittle. Not that screws are bad. Just don’t use them for framing or shear walls. An exception to this are structural wood screws (SWS). These are larger screws made of heat treated steels that have higher quality control than your run-of-the-mill screw. The manufacturers of these screws have data sheets which detail their application. I used them in some places, a ledger board for example, but in general, I stuck with nails when I could.

One thing that was scary for me at the last was trying to figure out how to retrofit concrete anchors to bring the addition into compliance with seismic requirements. Fortunately, the folks who make these connectors also provide a method of anchoring these connectors with special epoxy into existing concrete. The only “downside” is that I have to have a certified inspector sign off on the installation. Well, maybe not a downside as it really has to be right. Just additional expense.

Although I spent many months getting to this point, and went down a few “rabbit holes”, I can definitely say that the effort was worth it, especially as a DIY’er. The process of designing showed me how to build it with all of the right materials, methods, and references. It’s going to be really pro!

Here is a link to my detailed construction plans.

1370 BFD Detail Views

 

Energy Conservation and California Title 24

California is known for being, among other things, a “progressive” state. I won’t get into the nuances of exactly what that means other than to point out that California has some fairly stringent energy conservation laws and regulations. One of them is the Title 24 energy requirements, and the law focuses on the twin aspects of energy efficient design regulations, and compliance regulations. Energy efficiency is always a design objective for any home or remodeling project, not only to minimize the ongoing cost of utilities, but also because there is great concern about reducing our collective energy “footprint” due to the impact on climate and the environment. There is always a trade-off between the extra expense that has to be incurred up front to make a home energy efficient, and the expense one saves in utility bills which amortize this up front cost. Hey, if you spend so much making your home super efficient, but it takes 100 years to recover the expense, maybe that’s not such a bright idea.

In California, some of the guesswork about this has been regulated away. However, the way the state has done it is pretty cool (IMHO). Instead of prescribing how much insulation or what kind of roof you can put on your house, you design using a performance based approached. The state has a free computer program that will calculate the energy efficiency of your house, and you can make tradeoffs between energy efficient windows, reflective “cool roof” shingles, radiant barriers, insulation, etc.. to get within requirements. These requirements are specific to your geographic location and take into account the orientation of your house, the historical weather conditions, the length of daylight, elevation of the sun, and calculate your energy usage over an entire year in 15 minute increments (that’s  34,560 iterations). The reason I think this is cool is because I’m a geek at heart and this computer based modeling interests me. Fortunately, because I modeled my house, it was easy for me to get all of the measurements (surface areas). California also has a simulation for commercial buildings and, check this out, it uses a SketchUp plug-in called Open Studio, which is made by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

OK, enough of the geek stuff. The output of the program shows you how much energy you’ll be using, and it ALSO gives you an idea of what your heating and air conditioning requirements will be.  So, for me, I now can approach an HVAC contractor armed with some knowledge and make sure that they are sizing the units correctly.

As I mentioned above, another thing the program was useful for was to do some design tradeoffs. I had originally planned to replace all of my windows with vinyl high efficiency window. One thing that I noticed was that (a) these things are darned expensive to have installed (figure minimum $500 per window), and (b) it’s pretty difficult to get the right materials. Replacement windows are DIFFERENT from new construction windows, and while you can work your window opening to accept a new construction window, it’s difficult and expensive to do. None of the retail outlets sell replacement windows. I did some serious research and the only thing I came up with was to find some contractor who could buy the windows for you, and maybe you pay him a little bit and he puts your windows on an order he’s doing for somebody else. I swear, there must be some sort of conspiracy! So I had resigned myself to get a contractor to come in and do the stinkin’ windows. In the course of finalizing my plans, I had a professional inspector come in and give me the low down on the condition of my home because I didn’t want any big surprises (more on that later). He asked me about the windows, and when I told him I planned on replacing them, he strongly advised against it. Although I have single pane aluminum sliding windows, he said that all they needed was a good refurbishment, and that the energy savings were minuscule because of climate we live in. In addition, vinyl windows started to exhibit problems in as little as 5 years (in his experience). So, I went back to the energy simulation program, put back in my original windows, and darned if he was right. Hardly ANY change in energy efficiency. THAT saved me about $8000!

I won’t get into California Title 24 lighting requirements too much. I will only mention two things. (1) Incandescent lighting is an EXTREME wast of energy! An incandescent light should be re-named a light emitting electric heater, because that’s what it is. Go with high efficacy lights such as LEDs or Compact Flourescent (CFL). (2) California Title 24 requires that you have special fixtures that accept a specific light base (GU 24) for all permanent lighting (like all of those recessed ceiling lights I want to put in). This is because the regulators wanted to make sure that the owners wouldn’t just go out and buy typical screw-in lights when the “fancy ones” burned out. Unfortunately, the market for these special light bases and fixtures is limited (to new construction in California), so the industry has responded by making a whole BUNCH of high efficacy lights with the screw base (Edison). Now, I don’t have much of a choice in lights because of this response to the code by industry. It turns out that the new requirements for 2018 will allow screw in high-efficacy lights. BUT, I’m being permitted under 2010 requirements, so I’m stuck. My plan is to get a bunch of really cheap GU-24 CFLs to put into my lighting and have the inspector sign off, then when he’s gone, buy a bunch of GU-24 to Edison adapters and get the screw-in lights I really want.

So, to conclude, if you have a “geek streak” and are interested in learning about energy efficiency,you might want to consider one of the computer models that give you an accurate picture of what your energy improvements, and savings, might be. It makes it easy to compare energy upgrade costs versus utility savings, and it can give you some really good information when it comes time to discuss options with contractors. Since it’s a requirement in California, you’re either going to have to DIY, or pay somebody to do it. For me it was worth the effort to DIY, and I now have a good plan for making meaningful energy efficient improvements for my project.

Architectural Design — The Addition, and Fixing The Roof Leak

One of the major reasons I started this project was the fact that I had an annoying leak from the roof that was making a big stain on the ceiling in my living room. The leak really comes from a second floor balcony which is adjacent to the master bedroom. The design is poor because water accumulates from the roof and concentrates in the balcony, and there is no easy way for the water to run off. So it stays in the balcony and ultimately leaks onto the porch, the garage, and the living room. I tried three different ways to fix the floor of the balcony (tile, flat roofing, and rubber membrane), and none of them worked. In looking around the rest of the neighborhood with houses of similar design, I noted that they also had the same problem.

 

BALCONY DESIGN_2

ORIGINAL BALCONY DESIGN

So another approach was necessary. Fortunately, a few of the houses had a modification that put a valley roof directly above the porch. I asked the owners if that helped and they all said that it completely solved the leakage problem.

ROOF OVER FRONT PORCH-1

ROOF OVER FRONT PORCH 2

That being said, the balcony itself was just wasted space. It was hot in the afternoon because it faces South West, and it has an expansive view of the garages of my neighbors across the street. Not exactly a place where I’d hang out and relax. So, to make more out of the space, I decided to see what it took to completely eliminate the balcony and expand the master bedroom.  There were some homes in the neighborhood that had done that, but I didn’t like the outcome because they didn’t fix the leakage problem. Plus, I wanted to reconfigure the windows to provide better air flow and noise mitigation, and I wanted to rearrange the master bathroom and closet to provide a more open floor plan.

EXPANDED MASTER BEDROOM

EXPANDED MASTER BEDROOM

 

So, I looked at my original floor plan, and went back to the type of functionality we wanted. We decided to utilize the new space in an open manner, swap the location of the toilet and lavatory, make a small “room” for the toilet area with folding doors, and enable a natural flow from the bathroom to the dressing area. The dressing area would be open, yet private, and have some nice light coming in from the new windows. We also have some room for a sitting area and our desks. Simple and straightforward, but it looks pretty nice. At least from the plans!  I think it meets our requirements for making the most out of wasted space and provides a permanent fix for the roof leak.

Here are the plans:

 

ARCHITECTURAL

ELEVATIONS

 

 

 

ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN

EXISTING 2ND FLOOR

ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN

NEW 2ND FLOOR

Electrical Design

As with any other design, electrical design begins with your requirements. Lighting requirements, which I discussed in a previous post, will dictate the locations and types of switches and circuits. But one also must consider the other electrical needs of the house. This includes electrical outlets,  appliances, HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning), and specialty circuits such as an electric car charger or a stair elevator. When considering the electrical requirements of my remodel, I also wanted some room for future expansion to take care of needs that aren’t yet specified. In an older home, this typically means that you’ll have to upgrade the service going into the house. More on that in a bit. Here is the list of requirements that I came up with for my remodel.

  1. Significantly expanded permanent lighting to be controlled with switches from convenient places.
  2. Additional outlets for the den (entertainment center) and kitchen.
  3. Dual electric car chargers.
  4. Air conditioning system.
  5. Additional outlets in garage to support a smart home wiring closet

Now at this point of the design, we start to get on thin ice when it comes to a DIY job. You will have to start making design decisions and tradeoffs which are going to be influenced by code requirements, and unless you have some background and experience with electrical design and code requirements, it might be a good idea to enlist the help of a professional. In my case, I have an engineering degree, so I have a good handle on basic electrical design and circuits. In addition, I have several years of experience from the Navy as an electrical officer and engineer officer, so I have a lot of practical experience with electrical systems including power generation, distribution, control, and most importantly: SAFETY!! This is why I caution anybody who does NOT have experience with electrical systems to get professional help sooner rather than later. Electricity can kill you and can burn your house down, so you’d better be sure you know what you’re doing. With this in mind, I started with a focused study of the California Electrical Code, which is basically a reprint of the National Electrical Code (NEC). There are also a lot of “how-to’s” on the Internet, and there are a lot of forums where you can pick up some good tips that help demystify the arcane language of the NEC. One site, which is particularly geared to the DIY enthusiast, is Wire Your Own House. The guy who writes this is a professional electrician, and his website is chock full of good information. Turns out that there are a lot of professional tradespersons who freely share their techniques and knowledge. If you really want an education on how to do things like a professional, YouTube is a great resource. Consider it your apprenticeship program! Now, armed with knowledge, I was ready for the next step. As in every other remodeling project, the first place to start is figuring out what you’ve got. So I went to my service panel and methodically turned off one circuit after another and with multimeter in hand, recorded every switch, receptacle, and appliance, and matched all of those to my the individual breakers in the service panel. Needless to say, I found some problems.

  1. The service panel was woefully inadequate for what I had planned. It was a 100A service and it was maxed out. I knew I needed more than that. Wasn’t sure how much yet because I hadn’t completed the design, but I knew there was no room for expansion.
  2. Some circuits were not per code. I had a massive amount of lights and receptacles on one circuit, and it looked like it was messed with by the previous owner of the house. My adding some “extensions” to the circuit didn’t help much.
  3. I didn’t know what I was doing. What did I say before? If you’re not in the business then be VERY CAREFUL. Turns out that I made several code mistakes, like powering kitchen lights with dedicated small appliance circuits (a no-no) and extending lighting circuits with junction boxes buried under drywall (safety hazard — and not per code). However now that I know the code better, I’m going to right these wrongs. Plus, my design has to get approved by the building department, so they will provide an independent check. PLUS — I’m going to hire a consultant to check any work I end up doing myself. I may be smart, but I don’t know everything, and an independent look is well worth it.

Sidebar: a couple of months after I accomplished the “as installed” conditions, I had an electrical fire. No kidding! The dryer breaker fried. So I pulled apart the dryer to make sure that the heating element was OK, and it was fine. I then went back into the distribution panel, and lo and behold, the 240V wiring from the dryer in the panel had shorted out. You know, the one with the red insulation on it? Upon further inspection, I found out that there were knife cuts in the insulation, probably from stripping the outer plastic sheathing on the Romex during the original assembly. So, I put some heat shrink on the offending conductors, and clipped the blasted out wire so that I had a good solid wire to work with, and put in a new dryer breaker, the original one being a slag heap. Moral of the story: Even the professionals get it wrong on occasion! If I needed another reason to get a new distribution panel, this was a good one.

Now that I had the “as installed” configuration, I could start to work on the remodel. I went back to my design requirements and placed all of the lights, receptacles, and switches where I wanted them on the plan, and then mapped those to the existing circuits, making new circuits where necessary. Also, to be code compliant, I had to consider not only the numbers and types of circuits, but also which ones were Ground Fault Circuit Interruption (GFCI), but also Arc Fault Circuit Interruption (AFCI). AFCI is used to help prevent fires by detecting the spark (arc fault) that occurs between two conductors that short out (such as with a faulty lamp cord). Those are required in living areas such as living rooms, dens, and bedrooms. Basically, if you want to be up to code, you’re either going to have a GFCI or an AFCI breaker in your distribution panel. Not so many “standard” breakers anymore! Lastly, now that the circuit design was done, I had to calculate the loads to figure out what service I needed. The code can be pretty arcane when it comes to figuring out what you really need. Fortunately, there are some great resources on the Internet, the best one was from a website (“Electrical Knowhow“) where you can find a handy-dandy spreadsheet(ResidentialLoadCalculations) where you put in your numbers and it figures out what you need based on the code. BUT…you REALLY need to understand what goes into that spreadsheet and why it produces the numbers that it does! I referred back to the code at every step to make sure that I was putting in the correct numbers and that the results were code compliant. To sum up my diatribe on electrical design, allow me to leave you with these thoughts:

  1. Approach the design with the same top-down method that all designers use. Start with your requirements and work down, making sure that the design meets those requirements as you get increasingly detailed.
  2. Use the DIY approach to detail the design within the limits of your knowledge and experience. It’s OK to stretch a bit as long as you’re willing to invest the time and effort to self-educate. Even if you never get to the point where you finish the design, or do any of the work, the time you spend in learning the details will pay off when you hire a professional.
  3. Have humility. Don’t pretend to know-it-all and, if you’re doing this as DIY all the way, at least have the common sense to hire a consultant to check your work. The stakes are too high.
Electrical Plan_1

ELECTRICAL DESIGN FIRST FLOOR

Electrical Plan_2

ELECTRICAL DESIGN SECOND FLOOR

Here is my final electrical design.

Lighting Design

Although lighting and electrical design can be, or should be,  intimidating (because if you screw up you can electrocute yourself or burn your house down), there are some important design and planning aspects which a DIY’er can accomplish. These revolve around things like placement and functionality, as opposed to detailed design such as number of circuits, wiring requirements, distribution panels, and component specifications. The detailed design is best left to professionals. Even if you’re SURE you know what you’re doing, you still should get some professional advice. More on that later. First: Lighting Design!

Lighting design is important for an age in place home because as you get older, your eyesight diminishes. Besides the inconvenience of  fumbling around in the dark for the light switch, older people are endangered by unseen trip hazards. Remember, if you fall when you’re older, you may lose your mobility, and that is a death sentence. Lighting can also be a very aesthetic addition to the home.

There are three types of lighting: (1) Ambient (or General) which is used to provide light to a relatively large area, (think garage overhead lighting); (2) Task lighting, which is directed over specific areas where people do work, such as over the stove or kitchen counter: (3) Accent lighting which is used to draw attention to specific areas such as wall wash lighting for a picture display or outdoor foot lights on the sidewalk. Lighting design can get pretty involved, but a good place to start is the American Lighting Association website that has a lot of good resources to investigate. Another good resource is the California Title 24 Residential_Lighting_Design_Guide. This has some nice plan views to help visually show some of the options. A great resource, if you have to deal with California Title 24 lighting requirements, is the UC Davis California Lighting Technology Center (CLTC). Hey, even if you don’t give a rip about Title 24, this is cutting edge stuff.

So, I went through the house and imagined where I would want light for going from place to place (general), seeing what I was doing when I was cooking and washing my face (task), and highlighting our family picture wall (accent). I then drew up some plans and did some rendering to see what it might look like (here). A short word on rendering. It takes a bit more effort to understand computer rendering. But if you have a good 3D  model, you’re over half-way there. It’s actually pretty cool to see your virtual creation look like a photograph, and it’s possible for not too much $$ if you’re willing to take the effort. Kerkytha render is a free program, but you have to jump back and forth from SketchUp, which for me, is a PITA. A better program is Twilight Render, which at $99 is a real bargain. It is integral to SketchUp, and you can produce fantastic photorealistic renders. In any case, I did a few renders and walk-throughs, and came up with a lighting design.

Kitchen 4

Kitchen Lighting

Another aspect of lighting design is how you’re going to hook up the lights and control them. You want to be able to control certain lights from specific, convenient locations. Many times, you’ll find that it will make sense to control a group of lights from different locations, such as hall lights with a switch and the beginning and end of the hall so you can turn them on and off as you move through the space. That’s where the electrical hook-up comes into play, and we now are getting down into the nitty-gritty of the electrical design.

Kitchen Design

Now that I had the house drawn up. It was time to start thinking about the re-design. A good place to start was the kitchen because it’s my favorite room in the house. I happen to be an avid amateur chef, and before I started this remodeling project, I was the food King. Meaning that I did all of the menu planning, all of the food shopping, and all of the cooking. And I’ll probably want to pick it back up afterwards because I’m going to have a great kitchen to work in! These culinary experiences and interests give me a particular viewpoint on how a kitchen should be designed. I had some concepts and constraints in mind when I approached the kitchen design. In addition to having a good physical and experience-based idea of what I wanted as a cook, I also wanted to have things easy to clean, easy to access, durable, attractive, and inexpensive. There were many features of my current kitchen which I really liked, and in the end, I kept the same basic design. Yes, I tweaked some things, and yes, I came to the conclusion that I would have to re-do the cabinets and the island, which gave me the opportunity to put my woodworking skills and tools to good use, and incorporate some additional features. Let’s face it. Every dedicated DIY fanatic ALWAYS is in search of the next “project”, so here was yet another opportunity. And in continuing my research, I found that the original design was actually a better design than I thought. One of the things that I noticed about most of the model homes we visited during our “Love It Or List It” period was the fact that most kitchen designs suck. I mean really. Most of them look great if you just want to hang out and eat, but cook? Refrigerators across the room from the ovens. Islands too far from the other countertops. Backsplashes made of expensive material that looks nice but will be a bitch to keep clean. Storage that’s clumsily arranged and hard to get to. No concept of workflow (storage to preparation to cooking to cleaning). And my pet peeve:  a microwave over the stove.  So I started with that, and then went down the list of things that I didn’t like, but keep the stuff I did.

  1. Get rid of the microwave over the stove. These things have almost zero fan power and don’t extend far enough over the stove top to trap the oils and particulate that are a part of your cooking.  So all of that junk gets embedded in the wood of your cabinets and the ceiling above. Impossible to clean. Plus, the heat from the stovetop kills the plastic and fries the electronics. And the house gets all stunk up when you’re creating yet another culinary masterpiece that you will decide is too hard to ever do again. (Why do I keep doing that?) Replace it with a good vent hood that is designed for the purpose.
  2. Resize the island to make it closer to the sink so I could easily step back and forth, and farther from the refrigerator so people could go in and out of the kitchen with the refrigerator door open. Relocate the microwave to the island. Having the microwave in the island is a universal design concept that allows easy access to somebody who can’t reach high, but is convenient for everyone.
  3. Make pullouts for all of the shelves in the base cabinets, island and pantry. Another universal design feature. As you age, it’s more difficult to get on your hands and knees and look in the way-back for this pot or that bag of flour. Come to think of it, it’s a Pain-In-The-Ass (PITA) at any age. (If I didn’t spell it out, you would have thought I was talking about some kind of bread.)
  4. Redesign the island countertop for 2 levels. One at 36” for standing work, and one at 30” for seated work. Another universal design feature.
  5. Make the inner carcass of the cabinets around the dishwasher and sink out of pressure treated plywood. The current particleboard is coming apart.
  6. Integrate beverage storage/liquor cabinet into the island design.
  7. Lower the “spice rack”. My current island has an area between the work surfaces and the “bar” where I keep all of my baking and cooking essentials (spices, flour, sugar, oils, seasonings, baking power etc.) When you’re in the midst of cooking, this arrangement is extremely helpful in streamlining your workflow because you’re not constantly going in and out of the pantry to get the next ingredient. The only downers are (a) the tops of the containers tend to accumulate detritus — hopefully solved with the vent hood, and (b) it was placed too high to conveniently see the football games being played in the den. The new design corrects this problem.
  8. Provide a place for all of my cookbooks so I would have to ferret around for them (too much, anyway).
  9. Have a pull out cart for the mixer (a king size kitchen aid) that also serves as a supplemental work surface. More universal design.
  10. Provide increased task lighting and general lighting (universal design).
  11. Make the backsplash out of white porcelain tile with a decorative glass inset. Looks nice, easy to keep clean, and inexpensive.
  12. Have a white quartz countertop on the upper top of the island. The purpose is to be have a place to roll out pastries and cookies without having to lug out a slab of marble (which isn’t big enough anyway).
  13. All other countertops will be white Formica with a decorative oak rub rail. I did this on the first remodel of this kitchen about 12 years ago, and it still looks pretty good. Yes, it needs a refresh, but these tops aren’t that hard to make and they aren’t very expensive either so occasional replacement is no big deal. I guess I’m not a big fan of these stone/granite/marble/glass composite/concrete countertops. I mostly don’t like the look because it’s distracting when you’re trying to cook because it’s not a clean background, they’re hard surfaces so stuff breaks on them when you drop something, and they’re so dang expensive. They seem to be pretty popular, but I wonder if any of the designers/builders/owners of these are actually serious cooks. One question: Have you ever seen granite countertops in a restaurant kitchen? I think I prove my point. AND, I have the best restaurant in town. If you’re lucky, I’ll have you over for one of my dinner parties!
  14. Laminate wood flooring. I know what you’re saying – this stuff has a funny sound and is not as warm and inviting as real wood (or engineered wood). Here’s the deal: It’s inexpensive, has good traction (universal design), durable, and EASY TO KEEP CLEAN. Did I mention that it was easy to keep clean? Hey a bucket of water, a greenie, and a squeegee and you’re good to go. No fancy waxes, dirt in the grout lines, peeling varnish or gouges (like linoleum). I installed it in my last kitchen remodel 12 years ago and the only defect is when my King size kitchen aid mixer fell off the counter while kneading an extra large bread dough recipe and made a divot. It has filled up with dirt over the years so I’m GTG.

Here is a rendering of what the kitchen will look like.

KITCHEN REMODEL

KITCHEN REMODEL

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a SketchUp model of the island. If you know about Dynamic Components, check out the microwave, the drawers and doors, and the cart pull-out.

You’ll have to download a free copy of SketchUp to see it. Why resist?

This program is extremely powerful. And fun I might add. It has probably 90% of what you get in the pro version, and if your aim is to model, or do some small scale projects, this might be the ticket. BUT… if you want to DIY like a pro, well, you need to consider the pro version. More on that later.

Know What You’ve Got — Modeling The Existing House

The first step in designing a remodel is getting an accurate drawing, or model in this case, of what you have. This will allow you to do some design tradeoffs and, if you have a nice modeling program, give you a glimpse of what it will look like. The other benefit from doing this up-front work is that you end up learning a lot about how the structure is built and this helps give you a good idea about how to go about doing the actual work. Since I am using the SketchUp Pro modeling tool, some of what I’m going to write about will be particular to that tool. However I’ll try my best to put things in more general terms so that the narrative will be useful to as many readers as possible.

There are a number of different ways that can help you translate your structure and land into a modeling program, but the approach you decide on depends on what your goals are. For instance, it is possible to take digital pictures of your house and read them into the modeling program, do some rudimentary modeling shapes, and you now have a house. However, you don’t necessarily have the insides. Plus, if you’re going after a nicely dimensioned layout, then you’ll have to take some time to be accurate. All of the books that I’ve listed in my reference pages under design and modeling have various methods, and I encourage you to give them a look. For my purposes, I figured that just doing actual measurements would work, and it did. I had to do a lot of them, and it took several weeks of my spare time to put the model together. It looked pretty nice when it was done, but, as I kept reading about how to use the program, I found a couple of authors who did things in a much more streamlined way. So read the books first if you want to save some time. The other thing I discovered is that the building department will sometimes have the original plans for your home. Hey, somebody had to get a building permit at one point! So it is WELL worth your time, and the administrative fees, to obtain a set of your plans. Had I known this, or even had thought about it, I would have saved a lot of time.  In addition, you will likely have to show a detailed foundation plan if you’re changing any structure, and the easiest way to do it is to copy the original plans (sure beats excavating and measuring). That being said, nothing substitutes for poking around your house and figuring out what’s what. 2D drawings really don’t give you the sense of how the thing is built that a thorough walk-around and poke-about does. You’ll also discover a few other things that need “fixin’!

Here are a few things I learned about computer modeling when I did this project:

  1. There is a “goldilocks” level of detail. Too little, and you don’t get a sense of what the project is about. Too much, and the model becomes bloated and difficult to work with. Start simple and add detail as you go. If you need extra detail, like showing framing and such, then consider having a separate model for just those details.
  2. Be accurate. Learn how the modeling program “snaps” to various points and edges. I learned that the hard way and I can’t tell you the amount of time I wasted correcting sloppy modeling.
  3. Learn how to organize your model. Michael Brightman’s book (see “Design and Modeling” under References) has an excellent method, and had I used that the first time, I would have saved at least a week of my time.
  4. Customize your modeling program for workflow, meaning setting up toolbars and keyboard shortcuts. Again, Michael Brightman has some excellent ideas that will help you model faster.
  5. Be patient. Regardless of how intuitive a given program is to learn, it will take you some time to develop the necessary skills. You will make some mistakes, and in some cases, it will be easier to start over. Don’t be discouraged. Take the time to study and go on line to go through the numerous tutorials and You Tube video “how to’s”.
  6. If it’s time for you to get a technical refresh on your computer, consider getting a system optimized for graphics. The SketchUp online community organized a special deal with a custom computer maker (JNCS) that provided an optimum system. Yes, it cost some money ($4K when you include a really nice graphics monitor, wireless keyboard, and mouse for computer graphics), but it sure speeded up the modeling and I didn’t have to put up with the crashes caused by an inadequate system choking on the model.
  7. Have fun! The time spent 3D modeling can be reward in itself. It is especially cool if you can see a finished product and move it around, look inside, and see how it mimics reality.

Here is a render of my finished “as built” model:Rev 1.0 Render #1

 

ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN

Detailed Design — Learning How To Draw

Well, it was time to roll up my sleeves and get to work. The first thing I needed to do was to make up a drawing of my existing house. On several of my previous projects, I used a set of rudimentary drafting tools and some skills I learned in my 8th grade shop class  to draw up some fairly nice plans. In my most recent project (a “catio” more on that later), I used Microsoft Visio to make up a set of electronic plans. That worked OK, but it really wasn’t a full-on CAD program, which is what I figured I needed if I was going to produce a set of building plans (the ultimate goal). So, I started shopping around for an architectural CAD program. Most of these programs are several thousand dollars (Chief Architect — $2695, AutoCad — $4195), and they seemed pretty difficult to learn how to use. I eventually went for a dumbed-down version of Chief Architect called Home Designer. That cost $495, and it promised to be easy to use and had a lot of nice automated features such as detailing of walls and quick rendering of interior and exterior views. So I ponied up and got the program. The term “easy to use” was relative, and I spent a lot of time learning how to use the program. I went about measuring the house and modeling it in this program. After several months of my spare time, I came up with a decent model, but I found out a couple of things: (1) I really couldn’t produce a set of working drawings with this program — it’s for “designers” who give their concepts to real architects who have these expensive CAD programs that produce “real” drawings, and (2) all of that great detailing automation meant that you couldn’t go in and customize things. You had to accept the default materials, dimensions, etc. Plus, the program was quirky and wouldn’t accurately model some of the idiosyncrasies of my house. So I was becoming increasingly frustrated as I saw that I was approaching what seemed to be a dead end.

One day, I was lamenting my woes to a colleague at work, and he mentioned another 3D modeling program called “Sketchup”. He said that he made several remodeling plans for his home with it, and he was very happy with the program. Best of all, it was free.  No kidding. It turns out that there is a free version, now called Sketchup Make, and there is a “pro” version which includes a separate program called Sketchup Layout, which is a full-on drafting program. The pro version sells for $590, which is about the same as I paid for the Home Designer loser program. So, I decided to at least try out the free version, and I discovered that it was not only intuitive, but that there was a HUGE online community that offered all kinds of help in learning how to use it. Plus, there was another group of professionals who were using the pro version to design real buildings and produce real plans. I was sold. So I swallowed my pride and bought the pro version and started afresh. That was a bitter pill because I had to start from scratch. The good news is that as I learned the program, I could customize the model and make it really accurate.

Although the program was intuitive and I picked it up pretty fast, there were a lot of nuances that I needed help with. I ended up reading a whole lot of books, which ultimately gave me a bit of mastery over the program. I have a complete list of my references under the references page in this blog. I think all of them are good, otherwise I wouldn’t recommend them,  but I would suggest starting with either the “sketchup for dummies” or one of  Bonnie Roske’s books. Also, follow the links on the Sketchup home page, check out the SketchuCation website,  or just Google search on Sketchup and you’ll find TONS of You Tube video “how to’s” and other resources. As I mentioned before, there is a tremendous online presence to help you out.

So after a lot of time, I ended up with a pretty good model of my home and some good drawings. I can say that I really came to enjoy the process, and now that I have the skill set, I feel confident that I could approach any aspect of architectural design and drawing. The building department was favorably impressed and was asking if I had any background in design. Well, I guess after 3 years of my spare time messing around with it, I could answer in the affirmative, even though my path was somewhat random at times.

I will post some of the results of my labors when I have the chance, and when I can figure out how to do it on this blog. That’s another skill set which I’m beginning to learn about.