Archive for the ‘Flooring’ Category

Baling Over Framed Floors Instead of Concrete Slabs

Building a straw bale house on top of a concrete slab is certainly the most common system employed; however, it’s not the only way to go. If you have reason to build a raised floor system, you can. In the photo to the left, you’ll notice the change in grade from one side of the picture to the other. That’s a great reason not to build a slab as the amount of either back fill or concrete would be insane to make it work as a flat slab. There are a lot of advantages and disadvantages to each type of construction, as with anything in life, so let’s take a look at some of those now to help you decide what is best for your build. (Remember, there are lots of other options too from earthen floors to pole structures. Don’t get stuck in the belief that you have limited choices. The largest limitation will likely be the building department, not the fact that you’re using bales for your walls.
Rather than focus on the negative and talk about disadvantages, I’ll simply discuss the advantages of each. Let’s lay it out here.

Concrete Slab Advantages:
1. Large amounts of thermal mass. The ability to use that mass for passive heating and cooling is large.
2. Radiant heating. Again, the mass comes into play. Radiant tubing installed directly in the floors is an extremely efficient way to heat a house.
3. Durable. Nothing is more durable than hard concrete over time. It just gets harder with age.
4. Ease of installation. Built all over the world, concrete slabs are installed by many tradespeople. This brings down the cost as well.
5. Back to cost. Because the slab acts as the structural element of the floor AND the finished floor, it is a relatively low cost option.

Wood Floor Advantages:
1. Perfect for working with uneven terrain. Like the photo at the top of the article, a raised floor can accommodate a sloping lot.
2. Deep excavations requiring basement walls lend themselves well to framed floors. Why not use a daylight basement or a full basement?
3. Applying wood, bamboo, cork, natural wool carpet, or any other finish flooring type is easy, and in many cases, easier than with concrete.
4. Comfort under foot. Wood floors have built-in, limited deflection which allows the floor to “give” under foot. This makes it very comfortable to walk on.
5. Access to utilities. Raised wood floors allow you to maintain access to things like plumbing waste lines which would be buried in a concrete slab. Should they ever fail, you have easy access for repairs.

There are some differences with the installation of bales over a wood floor as compared to a concrete slab. In most case, working over a wood floor is easier in terms of the bale installation; however, you need to decide what advantages are important to you and also what disadvantages come along with them. In my soon to be released, new production I show the details of working over a wood floor where as my old production focused on installations over slab construction.

Check Your Finishes BEFORE You Install Them

I had a very close call on a job I am working on this week. While I was in Maine on vacation, $10,000 worth of cork flooring was delivered to the job site and set for installation. My project manager noticed that there were blemishes on the cork and stopped the crew from installing it. He had the crew open a random number of boxes of the material and all of them had the same blemishes.

He contacted the flooring company and they routed the call to the distribution center where a representative open an entire pallet of the material and it ALL had the blemishes. It seemed this was just a part of the material and that the blemishes were simply areas that do not take stain, like a knot in wood. We had to clear this with the owners, who live in Alaska right now, before we could install the floor as the sample they originally viewed did not show any blemishes. Thank goodness we did because it turns out the flooring company had sent us the wrong floor! The blemishes quickly became a moot point as we were not looking at the right style of cork to begin with.

The obvious moral here is to pay attention to the materials that are delivered and insure they are in good condition and the right style before you install them. I am glad my project manager was on top of the blemishes; however, I now realize that as I was the one who helped choose the flooring with my clients, I should have given my project manager a sample of the material they chose before I left for Maine. In the future, I will keep samples or pictures of all finish materials on site so that no wrong materials can be installed

Baseboard Trim

We are currently building a house where the architect has called for base board trim to be used throughout. That is fairly standard delivery for most homes; however, is much more difficult in bale homes due to the undulations in the bale walls and the large curves in corners.

Making the situation even harder is the fact that the architect has called for stain grade wood to be used. Again, this is possible but difficult. To ensure that the trim follows the undulations of the walls properly, you may need to use 1/2″ stock rather than 3/4″so that the material remains flexible. In addition, you may need to score the back side of the trim to allow it even more flexibility. This is almost always required in corners where the trim is forced to make deep bends to stay tight to the wall. When installing the trim, be sure to use nails and glue to hold it in place. Nails alone may allow the trim to pull away from the wall in places. If you can use paint grade trim, you will find it easier to bridge the gaps with caulk and paint; however, keep the trim as tight to the wall as you can because caulk and paint are no substitute for wood/wall contact.

In many homes, we eliminate the base board trim entirely and finish our plaster to the floor. This is hard to do if a floating floor or wood floor is installed as a gap is required against the wall for expansion. That gap is usually hidden by the trim. For that reason, planning is required for your finish trim when you are building the walls and plastering them. You will need to know what type of flooring will be installed and how that will finish to the wall. You don’t want t o spend the extra time plastering tight to the floor only to realize you will have to install base trim.

Natural Slab Floor Over a Concrete Slab

I was recently asked if it is possible to do an earthen or cement skim coat over a slab foundation. The answer is yes, you can do a skim coat of either clay/straw (earthen floor) or cement over the top of a concrete slab; however, there are minimum thicknesses that need to be maintained. At least 3″ of concrete are required unless a specialty skim coat is used (this takes extra skill).

There are specialty coating systems available that can be used if you have the skills, but in general, they are much more difficult to finish well. In fact, it may be easier to simply finish the concrete in such a way that the foundation slab can be used as the finish floor of the home. Be sure to protect the floors during construction. If you plan to acid stain the floor, make it a point to know the details of that art. For example, you would want to know that a stack of lumber left on the concrete during construction will cause the stain to fail in that area leaving a blank or discolored straight line that will not look very good at all in the finished floor. You will also have to be very clear with any subs that the slab is the finished floor and inform them that they cannot write notes on the floor with a construction crayon or snap lines with red chalk. There are many things to keep in mind here and some basic knowledge is a must. Knowing what to watch out for ahead of time will be a life saver in the end!

When applying a skim coat of stray and clay, it is a good idea to use about 2″ of material to get proper adhesion and compaction. Be sure to apply the earthen floor in lifts. In other words, apply one inch of material and then let it cure. Moisten the surface of the cured floor and apply another 1/2″ for proper adhesion to the base coat and then apply the final 1/2″ while the previous 1/2″ is still moist. This will ensure a tight bond between all the coats. Compact and finish the floor as you would any earthen floor. In most cases if an earthen floor is used, you can eliminate the concrete slab altogether and build the earthen floor over compacted gravel lifts. A foundation can be poured to carry the loads of the home and then the gravel and earthen floor can be built up inside the foundation.

If an existing concrete slab is to be covered, many options are available and the ones listed above are just two of many.

A Great Example of Straw Bale Construction Efficiency

Yesterday I spent the entire day neutralizing, washing, and sealing concrete floors that I had acid stained the day before. I figured the floors would dry quickly between washings since the temperature outside was 112 degrees!

“Unfortunately” bale houses are so well insulated that even with all the windows and doors open, the inside temperature never reached above 60 degrees and the floors took all day to dry in between coats. I realize now that it is important to factor about twice as much time as you think you need for finishing the floors since no other subcontractor can walk on them until the job is done. It is better to finish with some extra time on your hands than to need more hours than the day provides!