Photo date: October 21, 2022. See header image archive.

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Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) Rationale

"Once a plan gets too complex, everything can go wrong. If there's one thing I learned in Nam..."

— Walter Sobchak

In a couple of weeks I'm attending the Better Buildings-Better Business conference at the Holiday Inn in Stevens Point, WI. Fine Homebuilding Podcast star Ian Schwandt will be in attendance, and has promised to buy a round of post-event beers for all readers of this site. C'mon and join us!

The sessions sound right up my alley, with the possible exception of the "building assemblies" talk at 1:45. One of the session's objectives is to "Understand how to build an effective R28 wall using a combination of continuous exterior and cavity insulation."

Hmmmm ... what if I told you there was a wall "assembly" that:

  • out-of-the-box is R33 (8.25" @ 25°)
  • out-of-the-box has 3 out of the 4 control layers built in (after taping the seams)
  • is fabricated offsite
  • by robots
  • that can be erected in days, instead of weeks

You'd think this was some kind of manna from the Building Science Gods, right?

Nope, it's just an EPS foam sandwich on OSB, hold the mayo.

For a third helping of these cheesy food-themed metaphors, I recognize timber frames and SIPs go together like peanut butter and jelly, but they just make so much sense I don't get why every house isn't built with them.

Mo assembly mo problems.

There will certainly be more posts on this subject as we get closer to the build, and the more I read and see about the latest awesome wall assembly wheel reinvention. For now I want to leave any SIP-curious readers with some information and resources about them that I found useful. Let me know if you land at the same place I did.

Timber Frame Rationale, and First Look at Our Version

One look at the MVC floor plan and even a casual observer could see that we're doing timber frame construction. (The posts are a dead giveaway.)

I didn't get exposed to timber framing until way too late in life, and now I wouldn't consider stick frame construction for anything, even a shed. Every day I bike by all these massive new stick frame additions and new stick frame construction here in Edina and after I say, "Gross!" — usually in reference to the already dated, cheesy-ass architecture — I next ask myself, "Why?"

Even putting aside timber framing's subjective superiority over stick frame, like its clean, simple, organic, timeless, rugged, and sturdy appearance, it's *objectively* more practical and better than stick frame in three important ways:

  • They can be cut offsite. In a controlled environment, with precision, *before you even own a piece of property*, then shipped to the building site. I don't care if it's Larry Haun's Ghost doing the stick framing; he still can't do it offsite.
  • They can be erected quickly. While the MVC is small — just 36x24 — the Big River Timberworks (BRT) crew will put up the frame *and fully enclose it in SIPs* in 5 days. Let's call the frame erection half of that; 2.5 days. Stick framing is measured in weeks.
  • They don't have structural interior walls. I've laid out interior walls on the floor plan, but this is all still pretty flexible, for the most part, and they're all partition walls. Nothing is load-bearing. Nothing is critical. I can put an interior wall anywhere, and when I goof it up, I can put it somewhere else, no problem. Someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but unless you use trusses, stick frame will have an interior load-bearing wall.

Onto the specifics about our frame:

  • Port Orford Cedar. All my previous — and very limited — experience is with EWP (Eastern White Pine), which is readily available, cheap, and easy to work with, but I hate how it yellows over time. Thanks to BRT, I got turned onto Port Orford Cedar, which grays over time. Please don't judge our carbon impact having timbers shipped from Coos Bay, Oregon, but we far prefer POC over EWP, and really all the other timber options we looked at.
  • No braces. Timber frame purists might scoff at our frame, but a brace-free design really cleans things up, pretty dramatically. Again thanks to BRT for pointing us in this direction.
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For a few days I thought I could cut this frame myself over time, in my garage, but after practicing this rather advanced joinery (for me) on some scraps, I gave up. 4 hours yielded this sad-looking post. At this pace we would have the MVC when I'm dead.

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First Look: Foundation Assembly

Foundations are *by far* the thing I've spent the most time researching, looking at different assembly drawings, and trying to understand. There are so many different approaches it can start to make your head spin, especially if you don't come from a building background. TBH I'm still not on totally firm ground. (End of foundation-related puns ... for now.)

One constant in my mind has been that bedrock is near, so we should use the foundation Mother Nature has generously provided. It's as good as it gets. There is 4' of soil on top of bedrock at the thickest points. At the MVC site it's more like 2 feet, and at the northwest corner of the volume it's basically exposed bedrock.

The other piece of the puzzle is that we're cladding the structure in a full stone wall, so that has to sit on something hard.

So with the help of our timber framer — who also builds whole houses — here's where we're at right now:

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Points to note:

  • For the stone wall, I wanted to start it directly on the bedrock, but in the interest of time-to-market we decided to go with a 2' wide concrete wall rebarred into the bedrock. I can't let my time-consuming, amateur stonework block the structure's erection. 🤭
  • 2" of foam is shown here, but we're still looking at foamed glass aggregate — specifically Glavel — as an option. We already have loads of foam in the Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) that's giving me anxiety. (Much more on SIPs to come.)
  • Adding to the anxiety is the amount of concrete, but given the site, the building plans, the timeline, and its familiarity to most masons, it's a logical route.

Any foundation pros out there, I'd love to get your take: dack@dack.com

First Look: Floor Plan

The best space in our current Minneapolis house is this den. We spend countless hours here in front of a fire watching Dateline, 48 Hours, and 20/20. On network.

The 🐕 🐕 love it, too.

The coziest room in all of Edina. See full-size image

A key objective of the MVC (Minimum Viable Cottage) is to recreate this space, except with a view of Lake Michigan. On paper it's somewhat of a success. Our current den is 12' x 13' with an 8"6" ceiling. The den on this floor plan is 12"4" x 11' with an 8"6" ceiling (once the loft is built).

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Taking two feet from such a small room turns out to be a 15% reduction, but it's not a "hard" 11 feet because there isn't a rear wall. At least this is the rationalization I am going with.

The rest of the floor plan needs a lot of work, but it's pretty simple: 1 bedroom, 2 baths, 2 lofts (not shown yet), galley kitchen, laundry/mechanical room, puzzle table, and 3 garage doors to the western (view) elevation. Much more to come.

Everyone has an opinion on floor plans. Lay them on me: dack@dack.com

First Look: Topographic With Volumes

Here's the first look at the parcel, with the property lines and dead-end road draped on the topographic, and the three volumes placed about where I think they'll go.

The first build, which we are trying to get started in summer 2023, is the 36'x24' structure on the far left of the image (the northernmost volume). This is an "expandable house plan," where we will add on the larger 72'x24' house and the 30'x24' garage later, and everything will be connected via conditioned breezeways.

We just need to get a place up there ASAP, and a MVC — Minimum Viable Cottage — is the fastest, most direct route. Plus, we'll (hopefully) make all of our biggest mistakes on a very small house.

The long property lines (~800 feet) run exactly east to west. This is a view to the northeast. See full-size image

In order to make this drawing, I had to painstakingly trace elevation lines from the Door County map, elevate each of them, and then in SketchUp choose Draw > Sandbox > From Contours. Then I placed the three volumes.

It took hours but was totally worth it. Having spent a fair amount of time on the parcel, the satellite elevations are incredibly accurate. I completely trust that what's on this drawing is what's in real life.

Please note the vintage Ford pickup that's in my future.

Also please note, this plot not only provides a pretty awesome view of Green Bay, but a challenging ⛷️ run as well.

Here is another view of the drawing, with the view. This is aiming due west, and the SketchUp horizon (the blue part) is the bay.

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Surf Door County: Part 1

One of the reasons we can't wait to spend the rest of our lives in Door County is the surfing. No, it's not Nosara, or even vaguely resembling San Clemente pier, but rides are to be had.

Also, no 🦈.

Our favorite spot is Whitefish Dunes State Park, but I ran into an old surfer dude by his house in Stonewood (corner of 42 and Townline Rd.) who also recommended checking out White Pines, Glidden Lodge, Portage Park, and of course, Cana Light. See you out there, Dennis.

Here's my son Ben on a so-so day at Whitefish Dunes. Sunday, August 28, 2022.

'Driveway' & 'Parking'

One of the objectives of the 8-day Door County stay was to create a "driveway" and "parking" on the lot so I didn't have to keep parking on the side of the road. And on the 8th day, mission accomplished. It felt great to actually drive onto the building site. It suddenly somehow felt more "owned" than before, getting a truck in the space where one of the bedrooms will go. It certainly was much handier accessing gear, and beer.

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Before heading back to Minneapolis I put all the timber I plan on milling on makeshift stickers so they're not rotted by direct contact with the earth. Even using wood-moving techniques taught in The Bible, and with the help of a cant hook, it was a lot of work. I also destroyed all evidence of any laughably amateurish felling cuts. There were a few decent ones (but nothing great yet). I kept those visible for any stump readers who might stop by.

I can't wait to get back and start exposing part of the view (hopefully in October). I'm also excited about the possibility of placing the structure between a giant white pine and a giant white oak, where the oak would be the centerpiece of a circular driveway, while the pine would ideally sit between two windows on the western elevation. I need to bring the measurements and compass readings into SketchUp to see if it will work out. The results will be posted here.

50-yard field goal attempt. Photo taken to the northeast, from the far south end of the lot. See full-size image

'And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper'

As you might imagine, clearing a wooded lot has generated mountains of brush. In my case, three 8'-9' tall stacks, along with several dozen 3"-6" "trunks" of underbrush and small trees. On Saturday I rented the Bandit 75XP and fed everything into it.

On its face it seems pretty low-effort: grab some pre-stacked brush, stick it in the chipper, and repeat a few hundred times. But at the end of the day it was the most wiped I'd been all week. It's also extremely loud, even with good ear protection. I'd be fine not ever doing this again.

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My new neighbor John stopped by to help for a couple of hours, and his wife Gretchen even sent along some homemade cookies. They are setting the High Bluff Road neighbor expectations bar, way, way too high. (John and Gretchen, I hope you read this.)

Here's a video of my kind of chipping: insert a long piece into the chipper. Stand around for a few seconds and have time to shoot a video.

Wide-Plank Oak Flooring

Our wide-plank oak flooring has landed. I'm not gonna lie. I should've popped a couple of Valium or Xanax — or maybe both — before taking this oak down. While I have been prepping for it all week, reviewing my previous experience in my mind, and re-reading key verses of the tree-felling Bible, there is no getting around the anxiety of felling a 20" diameter tree. Unless you do this for a living, it's big and scary. Anyone who says otherwise is full of shit.

Also, I am out here on my own. 😬

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It all went pretty well. I didn't die. I did make a rookie mistake by not making a relief cut before lopping off the first 8' 6" section once it was on the ground, which caused the split you see. I can't imagine making that mistake again.

Later this year it's all headed to Henschel Sawmill, just a few miles away on Townline Rd. It's famous for being the only female-operated sawmill in Wisconsin. Jamie Henschel is awesome and I look forward to having her mill all our timber.

Our 5

For anyone following along, it's going to be important to see the plot of land on the high bluff where the cottage will be built.

It's 785' from east to west, and 355' from north-ish to south-ish, for a grand total of 5.05 acres.

The lot is on the Niagara escarpment, which runs from about Fond du Lac, WI to, you guessed it, Niagara Falls, NY.

Below is a parcel map from the Door County site, with 2-foot elevations. The highest point on our lot is 798' above sea level, and the lowest is 644', for a 154' vertical drop. Niagara Falls' vertical drop is 160'. All we're really lacking is the Niagara River.

(I can't mention vertical drop without dropping a long-range property goal: Door County's only ⛷️ run. It's a blue-black with a big steep at the end, where the red lines are really close together.)

The yellow dot indicates the spot where the header photos are taken from, aiming straight west. See full-size image

As you can probably tell from the image, the best buildable area is in the southeast corner of the lot. That's the spot where the header picture will repeatedly be taken from, aiming straight west. Right now it's just trees, but at some point in the next few months a pretty killer view of Green Bay will be revealed. Stay tuned.

Welcome to Cottage on High Bluff Road

Hey. Thanks for checking out this cottage build blog.

On August 5, 2022 my wife and I closed on a 5-acre lot in Door County, Wisconsin. We're building a cottage on it. This site will document our progress.

This journal is going to be super casual, and sometimes veer off on weird tangents, but here, broadly, is the rationale for the site, and the type of content to expect.

  • Selfishly, dack.com/cottage is primarily for me, Dack, as a place to document our cottage build progress. But even more important than documenting it as it happens is documenting the information I'll gather along the way *before* the build, so I can refer to it when we're actually in the middle of having to make decisions. The web is a great medium for this. Additionally, by writing about it, upon review it will either validate or challenge my current thinking, and I like that.
  • A close second is that sharing our experience can hopefully help a fellow owner-builder on their journey. We're sure to make 1000 mistakes. With the benefit of reading this blog, perhaps someone can make just 900. That alone is worth me publishing this site.
  • It would be great if the forthcoming posts opened a conversation with some of the folks I'll cite, and the manufacturers of products we'll use, to add to the depth of content. Links get people's attention. I've spent enough time on the web to know not to invest effort on moderating comments, so that is not a feature here. But I would love to hear from you the old fashioned way: dack@dack.com. Please don't hesitate to drop me a line.
  • Finally, I get to create a logo. (More on this in a future post.)

I imagine the list of topics essentially following the build process. At the beginning there will be a lot of lot clearing, lumberdacking (not a typo), milling, site planning, terrain drawings, and architecture.

Then we'll get into the actual build and cover foundations, wells, septic, timber framing, SIPs, WRBs, stonework, roofs, windows, doors, and PV.

As the structure gets enclosed it will shift to framing, electrical, plumbing, cladding, flooring, furniture, cabinets, fireplaces, and interior design.

I am surely missing a bunch of things — not to mention the weird tangents — but this is roughly what you can expect along the way.

Thanks again for coming. I hope you find it sometimes useful, and sometimes entertaining.