Days 81- 90: Finalizing the Shell

Posted by on Dec 1, 2011 in Electrical, Siding | 25 comments

If you’re a Minnesotan (or maybe a fan of Game of Thrones), one phrase can send shivers down your spine: Winter is coming.

The house, with siding!

The house, with siding!

It’s coming for us now, and Ryan’s team is moving as quickly as possible to get the shell secure before the snow begins in earnest.  “Quickly as possible” is really not all that quick, unfortunately.  The walls of the house are not simple by any measure, and the details are time consuming.  Building a wind-tight, waterproof, vapor open, highly insulated wall that will last for generations is a tall order in any climate, but we here in Minnesota are blessed with some of the worst weather in the country.  Here are the layers of our exterior walls, from inside to out:

  1. Drywall
  2. 2×4 Studs and insulation
  3. Original sheathing (on old house)
  4. Taped OSB (the air barrier)
  5. 9 1/2″ I-Joists and insulation
  6. Insulweb (to hold in the insulation)
  7. Fiberboard
  8. SIGA Majvest (weather resistant barrier)
  9. 1x Strapping (to create rain screen)
  10. Siding

That’s a lot of work, and that doesn’t include all of the foam, tape, wood, trim and metal that surround the window and door openings.  The fact that we’re on the last two layers of the exterior shell is sort of amazing to me in this context.

Yes, that's our Christmas tree

Work continues inside the house as well, primarily with electrical.  Electrical, the work that would take ‘a weekend or two’, has now dragged on for several weeks.  One of those weeks I had taken off from work, and I’ve had probably another 20 or 30 hours of help from friends.  Here’s the problem: I’ve always lived in old homes.  For me, it’s perfectly normal to have a room with one or two outlets (usually ungrounded), a single light and/or fan in the middle of the ceiling (if you’re lucky), and one wall switch.  No outlets on exterior walls, maybe a single GFCI outlet on a countertop, and plenty of power strips in any room where you have to plug in more than a single lamp and a clock.  No three-way switches on stairs, so you’d find yourself trying to remember to turn the lights on and off in the right order.

Contrast that with our current plan: over one hundred lights, most of them recessed, spread throughout the house.  With code requirements a small room will have five or six outlets.  Dedicated circuits for all appliances, a dozen three and four-way switches, outdoor lighting and outlets, wired smoke detectors… When we’re done we will have strung about a half mile of wire, every foot of it meticulously planned, laid out and secured.

But we’ll be done with it this weekend.  Promise.

Complaining aside, I feel incredibly lucky to have such awesome friends and family.  As Desiree said in her Gratitude post, as long as this project has taken and with all of the work it has been, it would have been unbearable without the outpouring of support from the people in our lives.  As much of a privilege as it is to be able to build a house like this, it’s nothing compared to how we feel when we think of these amazing people.


  1. I live in South Dakota. For a few years now I have been curious about doing a “Chainsaw Retrofit” of my 1959 ranch home. Last fall I airsealed from the attic side, and added 15″ of cellulose. Someday, I will get to the exterior walls, basement, windows…

    I am curious how your air barrier transitions to the ceiling? Or maybe you already have listed this in a previous blog– if so, please direct me to it. Keep up the posting.

    • Mark – the air barrier at the second floor ceiling is pretty simple: seal the top plate to the exterior sheathing with tap. Nail OSB to the trusses from the inside, then tape all joints. That’s it! The interior OSB has 2×6 24″ OC courses to create a ceiling chase, which allows us to install ceiling lights, run ventilation and electrical, etc without having to punch through that air barrier. I’ll post pictures on this soon.

  2. Paul & Desiree,

    The house is really starting to take shape since the early days in August. I stopped in just before your open house to say to Ryan and look at the progress and see the unique construction taking place. Your project has inspired me to learn more about Passive/LEED/Green building techniques. It will be exciting to hear about how well the house works next January when its sub-zero outside. I’m sure it will be cozy warm inside after seeing how thick those walls are! Continued success on your project going forward.

    • Thanks Mike! I’ve been pretty spotty with updates, but as the thermometer drives towards zero I’ll be sure to let everyone how the house is faring. We’re hoping to have the in-floor heat done by the end of December, as I’m not very interested space heaters being our only option.

      Also, I’m very glad that the house is generating some interest in efficiency in buildings. That’s a large part of what we’re trying to accomplish.

  3. This project is absolutely inspiring to me. You are setting a much-needed example for all to consider. Thank you!

  4. Hi,
    You house looks great and certainly a labor of love…
    Saw a little write up in the Chicago Tribune on your project.
    What I was wondering in reading this is did you or your architect consider the US Energy Dept appraoch to using 9.5″ expanded poly styrene and start from scratch?

    Sounds radical I know biut the energy result is almost the same as quoted in the approach you are using BUT more importantly the materials and labor allow you to weather the houseand complete it at a substantial savings to the stick and materials approach you are taking.
    The integrity of the house also is cement – post and beam and then insulation so simpler constrction allows you and your wife to put a house like you are doing up in less than 4 weeks maybe half that time with a crew plus as you have it loks a 12/6 roof simple likewise with eps between lam joists.

    I haven’t done this in cold weather but did so in hot weather climate ( Jamaica WI) and built the house to hurricane conditions 2,000 sq ft 2 floors- $ 128,887 @ occupancy permit stage ( exclusive of land – This number was drafting – materials, shipping, own labor 3 weeks + crew 2 weeks Assisted the trades but used local skills for Elec, Plumbing, finish carpenters and foundation. I use only 1/6th the tonnage of A/C

    Getting same reslt on energy usage but more importantly just like you a MUCH TIGHTER House ( less than $ 600 year total utilities a/c + Hot h2o must use air exchanger also.

    Best wishes

    Keep warm

    Good Luck

  5. Electrical always seems to take much longer than you think, and the sad thing is how little there is to show about it all until it’s all there. But once you get that done, things can go really quickly. We started on the lighting a month before we moved in. It can be done.

    Good luck.

    • I really appreciate the support – it’s disappointing how much work it is, and how slowly it goes. But as you said, it should go fast once it’s done :)

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