Tag Archives: Architecture

Constructive Traveling (Weeks 64-71): It’s a Wrap!!!

It’s hard to believe that our ADU project will be completed next month! The latest photos below are captioned and describe the finishing process for the third and final phase of construction for the interiors.

With final inspection and a few finishing touches left to complete, we plan to move in by the end of January 2023! Thank you all for following our progress on this once-in-a-lifetime experience! We hope you have enjoyed the ride!

Together with J&J (Design/Build team) and Fong & Daughter (Planning and Design), we planned, designed, and physically built this entire 1000 sf addition to our existing house. Each member of the Fong & Chou Family are grateful for the opportunity, manageable weather, and our good health to finish the project.

Dear Felix deserves a special mention. He endured the trials and tribulations of mom’s intermittent absence from the homefront to the battlefront. Initially he could watch all the action from the dining room window, as many of you have witnessed in early posts. But as time progressed and the walls were enclosed, he lost his viewing stand and parental supervision. (that is, his supervision of his mommy and daddy!)

Nevertheless, he was a total professional and cooperated with us wherever he could. He observed the daily development and progress as his parents built a home for his family, his grandparents, and generations for years to come.

Spoiler Alert: Next month you may see a regular post of Travels with myself and Others in ….Paris!! Until then, Happy Holidays!

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: Rockin’ and Rollin’ (Weeks 55-63)

If you followed the last couple of posts, I took a hiatus from the construction of the ADU and went to Germany for a couple of weeks. The main event was the Bayreuth Festival, where I sat through 17 hours of The Ring Cycle amidst a primarily German crowd. Check out the posts if you are interested in Germany and opera.

But this week it was back to the grind. Progress on the ADU project continues slowly, but surely. With the challenging first two Foundations and Rough Framing phases behind us, we are now energized by the advent of the third and final phase for Infrastructure and Interior Work.

There is only one exterior opening outstanding before the project can be officially deemed “sealed and weather-tight”. The two-story hallway picture window was temporarily covered in plastic, then hoarding used to cover the large opening. All the rest of the windows have been installed, including the large French patio doors to the exterior deck and the sliding doors to the breakfast nook. Additional weather-proofing details, such as roof and window flashing, will be applied following the stucco patching on the original house.

The Building’s Respiratory, Digestive and Circulation Systems

Like the human body, a building is reliant upon its respiratory (heating, ventilating and air conditioning system), digestive (plumbing) and circulatory (electrical) systems to function properly. Once the skeletal system (structure) is formed, the other layers are added.

Infrastructure defines our modern-day living standards but is seldom seen or appreciated. Without the effort of HVAC mechanics, plumbers and electricians, we would still be living in caves. These contractors were now front and center stage.

They drilled and sawed through and between stud walls to place plumbing pipes, vents and electrical outlets. Their work is grueling as we watched them twist and screw sewer lines, vents and ductwork in between walls and in awkward crawl spaces. We depend on their ingenuity to fit conduits, connectors, and pipes within confined spaces to provide us with essential juice and means of discharge.

We seldom think about how crucial these elements are until they are missing or misplaced! And of course, the brains are stored in the controls, meters and sacred electric panel.

After the plumbing and electrical work, blanket insulation was installed. Upon successfully completed inspections, sheetrock was placed on both sides to form walls, with cutouts for electrical outlets and switches.

Rockin’ and Rollin’

Before we were able to pause and catch our breath, the drywall was quickly put throughout the unit. It left a marked visual change to all the spaces– we could no longer telescope through the rooms! The windows were suddenly framed by opaque walls and views popped out of each space. What a joyful sensation after such a long wait!

The drywall scope is quite an intricate process. After the drywall is installed over stud walls packed with blanket insulation, gaps between panels are taped, “mudded” or sealed with wet plaster, troweled, and allowed to dry for a couple of days. The mud is sanded to a smooth finish so there are no flaws on the surface of the sheetrock. Despite having seen this process over hundreds of commercial and residential projects over the course of my career, it’s not the same as watching it unfold in front of you real-time. The swiss cheese gouges in sheetrock are no longer visible to the naked eye. It can be gratifying but only after endless hours of what feels like watching the grass grow.

The Kitchen Renovation

Without a functional kitchen, the stress and anxiety built to fever pitch . Washing dishes in the bathroom vanity sinks and avoiding clogging food particles in the narrow 2″ pipes was a daily brain bender.

Following drywall wetting and drying processes, the primer and paint was then applied. Different paint finishes, such as flat, eggshell and high gloss, determine the amount of light reflectance and resilience. The higher the sheen, the higher the light reflectance. In the kitchen, we wanted to maximize the light reflectance due to the limited amount of natural light. If you remember from one of the earliest posts, we sacrificed the kitchen window to maximize the ADU.

The kitchen now has no natural light. Using higher light reflective paint helps to capture as much light from elsewhere as possible to mitigate limited daylighting. Most of the walls were going to be covered by high gloss overhead and base cabinets so the wall color was moot.

Laundry flooring led me into the world of engineered products. You can now buy vinyl floor tiles that do not require grout. They are “keyed”, or grooved to the next piece as you would expect Pergo or thicker simulated wood flooring. The profile of the vinyl tile is less than 1/4″ thick, but manufactured with a laminated surface, a composite sandwich in between, and then with a plastic backing. These new engineered products command a premium price, but it is worth it for ease of installation and a more durable material.

After considering products at Home Depot or Lowe’s, I decided to purchase the product at Floorcraft, an “old school” retailer down on Bayshore. A sales rep waxed poetic and shared his years of experience as a flooring installer with me. As a real-time responder to my endless questions, he sold me on his recommendations. There’s still something to be said for customer service where you can see the whites of their eyes.

In progress photo, still with film on the surface of high gloss white cabinets and no tile backsplash
Coming Soon….

Watch for the next post to see the finished kitchen and more steps to the finish line for the ADU! Don’t forget to comment or let me know if you have questions about the design and construction process!!

Right by Bayreuth

Wagner pompously stated “there’s Bayreuth…and everywhere else. Its hard to escape this dominant patron in the tiny city of 75,000.

This may sound incredibly arrogant, but the attitude is understandable when you are here. It’s an out of body experience to infuse the soul of one of the most enigmatic characters in modern history.

Germans adore their musicians, and support their favorite sons actively with state funding, reduced rate performances, and frequent indoctrination by researchers who uncover new tidbits of information about their musical gods and heroes. If only Americans would be so kind to their own artists and creative community!

But back to the Wagner drum roll. His family were prominent residents of the town and managed to nab a slot in an idyllic park in the middle of the city. Then he built the festival opera house on a hill overlooking the city to present his work. His Ring cycle, four operas over six days and 17 hours of entertainment, opened the opera house in 1876.

For those unfamiliar with Wagner, you might wonder what the whole fuss is about. It would not be a stretch to say, at least among his disciples, that he represents not only the pinnacle of German opera, but of Western opera.

In the Ring cycle, Wagner not only wrote his own libretti or poems (in this series to tell the saga of a dysfunctional extended family), but he also scored some of the best classical music ever. He was an intellectual snob but succeeded transformed music with emotional skill and content.

Fast approaching its 150th anniversary in 2026, the Bayreuth Festival has been tooting its horn for quite some time. No other musician has attempted to build a monument in which his own works could be performed. Doing so seems pure folly. Wagner went ahead and did it anyway.

There’s no doubt Wagner was anti-Semitic. The Wagner House museum displayed some of his writings, but claimed that it was his family who embraced his writings and promoted them during the Nazi regime.

“There’s Bayreuth…and the rest of the world…”

I don’t know if you know anyone who’s been to the Festival, but I can claim only one other person from the States I know crazy enough to have come here. My friend warned me that Wagnerians take their religion seriously. Members of the Wagnerian society meet regularly, then proselytize after being trained in intricate Wagnerian minutia.

I’m only a neophyte, but I confess to ordering three books on Wagner. I felt compelled to weaponize myself in case my knowledge was put to the test. Aside from a narrative version of the Ring, a German-English paired translation of it, and a scholarly analysis of its music and history, I felt I had earned proof of my devotion to Wagnerian principles and thereby gained access to Valhalla.

The Festival Hall

Nothing too remarkable, except that it perches on a heath overlooking the town of Bayreuth. My accommodation was a fast half-mile walk and perfect for the occasion. The opera house accommodates 1500 eager opera lovers, a cozy size for the acoustics of unamplified voices and the way opera should be heard. That’s nearly half of the 3800 seats in the cavernous Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

The orchestra sits under the stage and is hidden so the audience is not distracted by the musicians. They huddle like Nibelungen in the cave, chipping away and churning out musical notes. Wagner exercised musical chairs to reposition players according to the sound they projected to the audience.

Every seat is a good view. The wide cone of nearly 70% makes everyone feel equal to the best. The down side is that, with nearly 50 seats per row without aisles, you have to skip the cocktail champagne to get into your seat in the middle or incur the side seaters’ wrath. Everyone grits their teeth until the center sitters arrive, then are finally able in domino fashion to seat themselves. By the last half of performances, late arrivals lost their pole positions and got relegated to the edges as others were instructed by ushers to move into vacant seats. That suddenly upped our real estate 10%.

I made the mistake of forgetting that cushions are available from the garderobe. During my first performance of Das Rheingold, I squirmed between drifts of head bobbing. I had not prepared myself properly with an obligatory nap beforehand. Rushing to Bayreuth with three changes on the day of the performance and buzzing from the glamour of being there was a fatal combination.

Catering is well planned for a variety of tastes and affordability. I tried most of every type of station—from sushi to ice cream, bratwurst to cold steak platters. I did pass on the 70€ buffet only because I didn’t think I could gorge on all that was offered within an hour!

The controversy over Wagner’s anti-Semitism lingers. Displays of prominent Jewish composers and musicians who contributed to Wagner’s success were posted. You couldn’t help but wonder if was only a token effort.

The Performances

Having now seen all four operas of the Ring Cycle, I was intrigued by the visual changes to the traditional story. Performers wore contemporary fashion and gestured in current body language. Think Kardashians. Think Trump. Think downfall of society.

It took awhile to get whetted to the visual style. The director transformed iconic fairy tale characters into trash behavior. They strutting in stilettos, grabbed guns for attention, and constantly glued themselves to cell-phones. Did we really want to see a fantasy playing out the way we witness life every day?!? Where are my hero and heroic heroine figures that I came to wish upon a star with?

I tried my best to keep an open mind, but I struggled in the end to accept the director’s imagery. For me, an original story with timely relevance today expressed by Wagner in word and song over 150 years ago did not have to be a literal translation. This ironically backfired and left a very bad taste in my mouth not just for this stage direction, but also caused me to question Wagner.

Audience Reaction

Take my one interpretation and multiply it in a room by 1500. One of the most startling and entertaining parts of the evening was witnessing the audience reaction to each performance. The noise level steadily escalated to a crescendo in the fourth and final act of Gotterdammerung.

There were two competing aspects: superb singing and horrible visual effects. This is not the ho-hum nervous applause you expect from any American curtain call, embellished with an obligatory standing ovation.

German audiences are much more reserved and discriminating. They give standing ovations for performances that are genuinely exceptional. No grade inflation. But there was no standing here. The Germans were too busy in their seats stomping their feet while clapping furiously for minutes on end!

Simultaneously, wild jeers and boos were spat out while foot stomping. No one rushed off to catch taxis or buses, but remained in the theater far too entertained by the raucous scene to think about lost time. It was just too precious a moment to miss. This is one of the rare times I saw so many genuinely smiling faces in Germany, as if it were the community spirit suddenly unleashing itself. My, what a refreshing group therapy session that was!!

The Rest of the World

There’s still plenty to see in Bayreuth if you aren’t an opera fan. You can indulge in 1. another opera house recently made a world UNESCO site. Margravine Wilhelmine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth (1709-1758) was the Prussian king’s daughter and favourite sister of Frederick the Great.The baroque opera house was dedicated to the wedding of Wilhelmine’s daughter. An opera buff and some time theatre director, Willy chose high drama to showcase her daughter’s betrothal.

Opera House Margravian, a
UNESCO World Heritage site

2. Wagner’s house. OK now we get it. He was of the gentry and came from a prominent family. Nice grounds to prove that Wahnfried deserved its name—to be free and satisfied.

No, I wasn’t traveling to Bayreuth in the winter. This is a model of the opera house in Wagner’s house. Designed by Semper, it has strong resemblance to the shape and character of the Dresden Opera House that I love. Despite the uncomfortable seating in the Bayreuth operahouse, the acoustics are worth experiencing.

3. The Royal Palace (see header above): the royal court of Markgraf Friedrich von Brandenburg- Bayreuth landed here, and used the mid 1700 rococo facilities to impress and entertain the militia. No doubt a fun place to have a blowout. They even recreated an Italian grotto in a room where you went in full regalia to gawk at an imitation of the real world. Fortunately it was before Wagner’s time or he surely would have left an impression on Wilhelmina.

A sojourn in Nurnberg, about an hour and a half by slow train and bus to visit the medieval section of the walled city, where the Albrecht Durer House was located. I also visited the National Rally Grounds of the Nazi Party. It was a vast field of multiple football fields to promote the training and display of military might for the German people.

Author’s note: In 2018, I saw two Ring cycles: one in Munich, and one in San Francisco. You can read a comparison of Munich’s version here: https://travelswithmyselfandothers.com/2018/07/26/day-16-20a-ring-ring/

Apologies in advance for any errors or inconsistent information. I’m a bit rusty! Also trying to post this from my Iphone at the airport before takeoff!!

Back to Real-Time Travel!

After two years of self-imposed travel black-out to Europe, I finally decide to take the plunge for an opera trip to the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. After applying for two years in 2017 and 2018 unsuccessfully, I was offered a slot to purchase tickets for Wagner’s Ring cycle for 2022.

Normally all performances are sold out years in advance. You qualify after four years of application. I’m sure the COVID pandemic was a big detractor for many, so my chances of getting tickets were improved. I deliberated back and forth until I was advised by others to “live my life as I would have normally before the pandemic”.

I am taking a break from the past year’s construction project. If you have been following the story of the ADU (accessory dwelling unit) under the direction of Foreman Felix, we will resume after this two week diversion!

Munich–the Gateway to Bayreuth

After a direct flight from San Francisco to Munich, it felt odd to suddenly be plopped out of nowhere to a country that I had studied and admired so much. Being in Germany reminded me of all the reasons I became a Germanophile: Citizens take the environment and sustainability seriously; clean, predictable, comfortable public transportation; appreciation for and attention to architectural detail; and safe streets (except for bicyclists running over pedestrians).

Refreshing my German language studies before coming helped to prepare me, despite a huge reliance on fully capable English-speaking Germans. The immediate sensual experiences were the lush green countryside, church bells ringing, and the distinct lack of smell or taste.

This summer, scores of public transport agencies have joined together to offer a special incentive to use their services. For a flat price of 9 Euros, passengers can ride any of the local agencies throughout Germany for an entire month (June, July and August). You can get just about anywhere in Germany, as often as you want, for the price of a round-trip subway ticket!

Many residents were concerned that trains and buses would be overcrowded. Rush hours and popular tourist sites need to be avoided, but the summer months are normally the lowest ridership. I wondered if statistics were due to the high volume of Germans traveling outside the country during summer months pre-Pandemic. In any event, it appeared that my three changes to reach Bayreuth were completely manageable.

Dachau Memorial Site

Worry-free travel encouraged me to venture to Dachau to visit the grim Concentration Camp outside of Munich. Now known as a Memorial Site, it was a second visit for me. It was not as jarring as the first, when memories were raw and more startling.

Mature beech trees and religious institutions are now located on the site to reduce the impact to visitors. Audio-visual materials translated into English helped to describe what happened. Efforts to explain economic hardships after World War I and during the Thirties gave perspective on the past. When the Americans arrived in 1945, prisoners were freed. Unfortunately, the advent of the Cold War distracted the war trials. Few were held accountable for causing the Holocaust.

Alte and Neue Pinokoteks and the Modern Pinokotek

This extensive array of Western Art from the Greeks to Impressionists propelled me into full museum battlement. I covered many miles by foot and found the masters including DaVinci, Raphael, Durer, Van Gogh and Manet. I was delighted to find an Egon Schiele, one of my favorite artists. And the pastel collection was a great value lesson on how the medium achieves more luminosity over oil paintings. Pastel artists struggled with the chalky powder, so I felt vindicated by my shared frustration.

From the Alte Pinothek to the Modern, I searched specifically for any display of Thonet bentwood chairs. My early education as a design major gave me an appreciation for the best industrial design and chair production. The Modern Pinothek did not disappoint–in fact it showcased a chorus line of beautiful period Thonet chairs in chronological order!

In the trendy Schwabing neighborhood where I was staying, I stumbled into a woodworker’s shop specializing in Bentwood refurbishing. Like many Germans in August, the proprietor was on “urlaub”, or vacation. A peek through his shop window motivated me to follow up with him after my return to the U.S. I also learned from conversations with a retail supplier that, while “Thonet” is produced in Germany, “Brueders Thonet” is a separate company out of Vienna, Austria. Important to know the date and source of production when searching for vintage pieces.


Several spins around Schwabing, the equivalent to St. Germain de Pres and near the Ludwig Maximilian University, yielded a boutique selling exquisite hats and headpieces, an academy for ancient Greek Sculpture where you can sketch to your heart’s delight, cute babies, and a yummy French bistro next to the hotel where I stayed.

(Note: the copper pipe in the featured photo above would never survive in San Francisco! Ah…such trust…)

I’m off to Bayreuth, about three hours by train-bus-train to see Wagner’s Ring Cycle! Sixteen hours of sitting in a theatre seat could just about get me around the world! Yes, the gods must be crazy and I am about to find out.

Don’t forget to write from wherever you are! When was the last time you were in Germany?!?

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in…” (Weeks 40-54)

Part I: The Shell (Weeks 40-47)

Completing interior spaces provides great satisfaction in experiencing each room after many months of planning, design, and construction.

“Fly’through” of Second Floor Master Bedroom and Deck

The new challenge is to work efficiently within confined spaces. Temporary storage of materials and equipment occupy space to be finished, so careful logistics and organization are needed to save time and effort. Lumber is very heavy and cumbersome to move!

Parapet Construction

Designing the roof parapet was part of the permit submittal and approval. It was important to make sure that the assumptions for the design were correct. The height of the roof parapet had to be confirmed before waterproofing could be applied to the roof.

In order to maintain minimal impact on the neighborhood and balance proportions viewed from all sides, we checked the height of the parapet from across the street. It didn’t hurt to get some friendly input from our neighbor.

Felix tries to figure out what Mommy and Daddy are doing outside!

One loop thrown at us was wet weather–not the kind of driving rain that predictably hampers a construction site in the winter–but “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” kind of weather. The pebbly fog hung around for weeks in late July and early August–forcing us to delay finishing the waterproofing and window installation.

Finally, the skies parted and the grayness dissipated. The roofing insulation and waterproofing membrane were added after completion of the roof and parapet. Note the difference in the weather from the photos!

Material Delivery

Being located in the rear yard was ideal for the ADU, but it posed temporary challenges for providing delivery access. Fortunately, the side of the house was just level enough for large trucks to move supplies as close as possible to the back. Felix had a field day watching the speed and skill with which drivers were able to shunt and offload heavy loads.

how trucker offloads lumber at side of house
Part II The Core (Weeks 48-54)

With the end of Rough Framing and the start of the third and final phase for Interior Finishes, we happily shifted gears. Previously, it felt painfully slow as we hurried and then waited for action. With multiple possibilities and combinations of skilled labor and materials, we were often faced with making decisions that could impact the project later.

For the exterior walls, waterproofing was smeared over the nails and knotholes forming scabby polka dots to allow for the inspector’s scrutiny. Then, the rest of the waterproofing was applied to the exterior walls to form the underlayment for wood siding.

After the windows were installed, it no longer felt like a shell. We could really visualize being occupants in the space!

Passing rough inspection was a red-letter day. It officially determined the completion of the second of three construction phases. With rough framing behind us, we could proudly identify ourselves not only as owner and architects, but builders as well.

Coming Up: A diversion to…Munich and Bayreuth, Germany next!!!

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: Windows to the World (Weeks 36-39)

This month’s activities includes installation of windows, building the stair between two levels, and waterproofing of the exterior skin. Both the roof and exterior walls need good moisture protection, so additional care is being taken to check details with a waterproofing consultant.

Delivery of Exterior Windows

In addition to interior wall framing, shear walls between the existing house and new addition have been added. You can see a portion of the wall along the stair to the right in the photo below. In the next photo, deck rails have been built. The roof parapet will be built next, providing protection for a future deck and extending the roof approximately 42″.

Miscellaneous windows and exterior doors were ordered, and planning for interior finishes and equipment went into high gear. While we thought that ordering materials and products would create issues with delivery and material availability, the problem was not as great as imagined.

There are always alternatives if you are flexible about the products, and since we were not providing custom or high end finishes, we could work around lead times and locally available products. Out of the items for kitchen casework through Ikea, appliances through a discount broker, and plumbing accessories appear to be within reach, at least at his point before actual ordering takes place.

Wind rather than rain is a deterrent to working on site. The gusty coastal weather has been downright unpleasant at times and chills you to the bone. We can’t wait for the autumn weather when the winds die down, although we may be in for some unpredictable air quality from fires.

With the existing kitchen and dining room out of commission, it has been a challenge to prepare and eat meals. On top of that, the ambient temperature in these rooms average around 50 degrees. The heating bill was over $700 last month until we realized that the exposed air was sucking all the heat out and the thermostat was registering the coldest past of the house!

Felix has lost his viewing stand from the dining room window and can only wistfully catch glimpses of Mom and Dad during bathroom breaks or snack sneaks. The roof obscures all the active work taking place inside the new space, so there’s no opportunity to view activity from above when roof joists were previously open and exposed.

As an alternative, Felix has watched street construction down the block. His beloved dump trucks, bulldozers, and and excavators are all readily available in full operating splendor during his daily strolls. They complement his readings from favorite construction books. He never tires of hearing them again, even on the sixth or seventh time in a row.

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: Being Floored (Weeks 29-31)

The bone dry weather has serious outcomes for the Bay Area and California, but for us the lack of rain has helped us. So far, we have been able to continue building the ADU. Where we sit on a bluff, strong winds have been more problematic.

View from Level two with arly Morning Moonset over the Horizon

Still, there are many other challenges. A two-person crew, trained as architects, are learning to become builders. They must make many decisions about basic construction– how to organize the means and methods of building, order materials and equipment, and master the tricks of the trade.

Problem-solving on the spot may not happen as quickly as expected, particularly as each choice affects the next task or decision. Building a new structure connected to an existing residence requires complicated tie-ins and repair to areas where the exterior skin and window were removed. Eventually, solutions surface and we were able to move forward. Teamwork and collaboration are the keys to working toward a common goal, along with communication and trust among team members.

Recap of First Floor Walls

As you may recall from the previous post, we had completed the first floor wall framing. The video walk-through below gives you a real-time sense of the space from the end of the unit, containing the Office, Living Room and Dining Area. You can also see the small window along the north side in the kitchen and the view of the entry into the unit.

Walk Through showing South, West and North Elevations from interior

Architects think of building systems as analogous to those in the human body. Plumbing systems are similar to our digestive system, electrical systems are like our central nervous system, and ventilating systems are like our respiratory system. The beams and columns form the structural system, just like our bones do. So yes, creating a building from scratch can feel like a powerful act.

As we continue on our journey to build and complete the ADU, we will be referring to these building systems as they are developed throughout the construction process.

The Second Floor Framing

Wood construction uses many of the principles we learn as children when we played with blocks and legos. But the actual joining together of materials and elements require some additional skills. It helps to think three dimensionally and have a sculptural understanding of shapes and planes. A complex structural design to address an irregular shape and site configuration raised the bar for these skills.

After last month’s challenge constructing the wall framing for the first floor, the next hurdle was the floor for the second story. Referred to as a “diaphragm”, the combination of plywood sheathing and floor joists stabilizes the walls below when the two vertical and horizontal planes are joined together. They now form a box that work together.

In the video above, you can see the walls of the first floor below. They support the upper floor. At the edge, a 3 foot cantilever extends over the first floor walls to provide more floor area for the second story above. It will be one of our last opportunities to “see through” this space before it is covered up.

Completing the Floor for the Second Floor

With the plywood sheathing attached to the floor joists, we finished the second story subfloor! The 3/4″ plywood is keyed with a tongue and groove system so they attach and seal together at the edges.

In the video, you can see that the wall framing for the north wall of the second floor Master Bedroom has been built on the ground. The completion of the second floor provides a usable work surface for building the exterior walls before they are tilted into place.

Hot Flash!

This is the latest photo of the second floor exterior wall erected yesterday morning. The master bedroom window frames a view of the Golden Gate Bridge above the tips of the 50-year old junipers!

Foreman Felix

Foreman Felix continues to watch from his control tower, except that now he can see his crew directly in front of him at the same level. He joins the conference on the mound while having a refreshing mid-afternoon snack.

Foreman Felix joining a staff meeting on the mound

Foreman Felix had time to get away every now and then from the job site. He managed to raid the kitchen pantry and found a treasure trove of tasty new toys hidden within.

Forager Felix

Stay tuned as the story (the second story) unfolds!! Don’t forget to write home!

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: Room with a View (Week 25-28)

The first real sense of seeing the interior space and the spectacular view from the office window was thrilling to see. We could actually witness the results of many months of planning, designing, and building our ADU (accessory dwelling unit).

Heavy Lifters

Still, more heavy construction work was ahead of us. Two steel beams arrived from the fabricator and stared us in the face: more calculating and logistics on how to erect these 800-lb gorillas. It took a few days to prepare the existing structure and get the necessary equipment to erect them safely.

Headers and Footers

After getting refreshed over the weekend, Team J&J erected the two steel beams. With help from the rented lift and a portable scaffold, each beam was placed to form a 3′ overhang over the deck. The overhang provides additional floor space for the upper level and also shading for the windows on the first floor.

Once the steel beams were placed, the edge beams to support the upper floor were installed between the steel flanges.

Wood beams inserted between steel flanges

With so little tolerance to work with in joining all of the angled walls, the wood beams required several attempts and shaved edges in order to fit them inside the steel flanges.

Finally, a perfect fit!!

A Footnote: Multi-tasking in the Front Row Seat

Felix continued to dominate the box seat to watch his crew staying on the job. While he kept an eye on them, we watched his new skills as he learned to enjoy the freedom of feeding himself!

Felix eating on the job
Felix supervising the installation of the second edge beam

Onward and upward! Next in store will be floor joists and stud walls to finish the first floor, and window installation. Stay tuned for more fun, and don’t forget to comment!

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: Start of Rough Framing (Weeks 20-24)

A Bird’s Eye View of Construction with Second Exterior Beam bearing its Namesake

As the Bay Area was blessed with torrential rains over Thanksgiving and December, our secret hopes of a dry winter were dashed. Fortunately, the exterior foundations, concrete slab, and exterior deck framing were completed before the slushy weather soaked the property. Ironically, a 50-year old juniper tree collapsed, which was caused by the drought but too weak to be saved by the downpours.

The bids we received for rough framing often varied drastically, so we made a point to receive multiple bids for each scope. The foundation bids seemed exceptionally high, which were due in part to the difficulty of the structural design and the fact that contractors are in very high demand in the Bay Area (a natural side effect of a hot housing market and an uptick in renovations during the pandemic). In the end, we took what we could get. Knowing that the foundation is perhaps the most crucial part of a project that should not be compromised, we took a deep breath and signed on one of the higher bidders.

exterior deck and concrete slab

Once the complicated foundation was completed, we were left with a dilemma. The pier drilling took much more time and money than expected, so we rebid the rough framing work. Earlier conversations raised the possibility of self-performing some of the work. As property owners, we were allowed to serve as our own contractor.

Originally, we had considered self-performing some of the finish work. Constructing rough framing for posts and beams all by ourselves seemed like a daunting task. The thought of getting the budget back on track together with the opportunities for learning the nuts and bolts of construction made a compelling argument for pursuing self-construction.

We had already planned, designed, and prepared the detailed working drawings for the project. The permit was approved after two years of being at the forefront of complex ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) requirements. The foundation that took nearly three months was now complete. After many discussions, we collectively agreed to forge ahead and do the framing ourselves.

We drafted a written agreement among the team that mapped out the costs and schedule for Rough Framing. Each of us signed and committed to making the framing portion of the project a reality. Between three architects and a baby, we combined all our professional skills as a structural engineer, contractor, designer and planner all into one pot.

Before the December rains, we framed the exterior deck, which would serve as an extended work surface. A complicated stepped grade beam in the existing basement was still not complete. We made the most of inclement weather and built the grade beam ourselves. After some changes to the structural design, we were able to avoid a costly change order.

Interior Grade Beam Construction

First, we excavated the area surrounding an existing interior footing, around which the new grade beam would be poured. Next, we bent the reinforcing bars by hand with two hickey bars to create the rebar cage. We drilled and epoxied new rebars into the existing foundation to connect to the new cage. Our special inspector was willing to advise us on the steps needed for the work to be approved. He even complemented us on our rebar craftsmanship when he came back to see the final product!

Once the rebar cage was tied and we’d gotten the necessary inspections, we placed the formwork for the concrete.

After calculating that it would take more than 50 bags of mix-it-yourself concrete to pour the grade beam, we decided to treat ourselves to a concrete truck and pump. The pump operator gave us a few tips on how to vibrate the concrete (not too much!) so that it would settle evenly and finish nicely. Concrete is similar to baking: make sure the proportions are correct, don’t mix it too much or over-work it, and make sure to use the proper techniques to allow it cure at the given temperature.

After the concrete was poured, the formwork was removed, and voila! A grade beam!

Building the grade beam demonstrated that we could do at least some of the work ourselves! After working well into the night to make sure the rebar and formwork was ready for our concrete pour, we took a brief holiday break for Christmas and New Year’s.

Structural Steel Support

Meanwhile, we confirmed calculations with the structural engineer for a modified steel column and “Kicker Beam” which would connect the addition to the existing house. We worked directly with a structural steel fabricator in the Bayview.

The fabricator delivered the post to our site and allowed us to borrow his hoist to erect it. We built a temporary structure through the second-story window to support the hoist. The hoisting went smoothly, but once it was vertical, attaching it to the existing structure proved to be a huge challenge.

First Signs of Exterior Walls!

With the post finally installed and the sill plate anchored to the slab through a series of cast-in-place bolts, the wood framing members finally began to go up. Heavy PSL beams were set in place with the help of a rented material lift. The edge of the addition and its distance to the rear property line is now visible and a real sense of the three-dimensional space was evident. We put up the header and sill for our first window — a perfect frame for a crystal clear view of the Pacific Ocean and Point Reyes beyond.

Construction Supervision

We can’t overlook our cheerful foreman, who supervises all construction from the corner window to make sure we are on time and within budget. Here, his conscientious staff erect the first column and complete the second of three major beams as he watches from his viewing tower.

Second of three beams erected along the west face of the addition

We hope you enjoy these constructive travels! We are about one-third of the way towards our goal of completing the ADU this summer. Thanks for joining us, stay tuned, and as always, your comments are welcome!

CONSTRUCTIVE TRAVELING: Completion of Phase I Foundation Work (Week 17-19)

Newly completed slab showing where the entry to the unit will be located

Our ground floor slab has been completed! In the photo above, me (and my shadow) are standing on the ground floor where the living/dining/kitchen space will be located. I am facing the new entry area where I will be greeting you at the door. You will be waiting outside, where the gravel is shown!

We were very relieved to finally see the results of the foundation work after several months of hand wringing. As with all construction projects, you somehow reconcile the realities of time and budget. Expectations always exceed reality, and you are forced to make some hard decisions. You learn a lot about the business of construction, the players, and the many moving parts that come into play. You come to accept and live by those hard choices that had to be made.

Difficult conditions on a small sloping site created challenges for the foundation crew. While most of the pier drilling went smoothly, there were a couple of stubborn piers in the middle that refused to cooperate. These were clearly aggravating the drilling crew, yet they pursued and prevailed. At times, no one wanted to breathe for fear of causing a collapse of the openings.

Aware of their concerns but unable to affect any change to the site conditions, I watched from the dining room window. The crew hacked away at the sandy soil, drilled through and extracted dirt and rock, force-fed the steel casings, lowered the reinforcing cages (some 30′ long), and injected the concrete.

We watched this dramatic choreographed performance unfold each day. The huge drill plowed within inches of our window. At times, I thought it would smash the window or crash into the side of the house! The exposed wall of the kitchen concerned us as a few leaks threatened to derail our comfort, and a few vibrations kept us wondering whether we were going to be shaken into homelessness.

As it stands, the foundation crew knew exactly what they were doing, where to place their equipment, and drill the holes. I was grateful to the care and precision they used. Their expertise is the lynchpin of the project.

The concrete work for the retaining wall went quickly following the pouring of the piers. Before we knew it, the slab was topped out after the layers of gravel, foam insulation, moisture barrier and rebars were set over the backfill. We could revel in the delight of finally “getting out of the ground” and declared the first phase of the ADU completed.

Phase Two Construction of Rough Framing has officially begun, with the deck supports being tied to the retaining wall. The deck framing will provide a work space for the ADU construction when framing work begins. Interior finishing will complete the project during Phase Three.

Recap of Phase I Foundation Work

This video represents a year’s end celebration of our work and efforts toward building the ADU.

We hope you have enjoyed following the journey building the addition to our house. We wish everyone a safe and joyous new year. Let’s look forward to the great new adventures ahead for all of us!