Featured Posts

  • Aerial Photos and First Floor Walls Finished

    Happy Thanksgiving. Two days ago the first floor walls were poured finally. So ICF is a really long construction process, really, really, long. There is a ton of residential construction going on where I live right now and I’m forever jealous of these stick frame homes I see go up in a week or two,… [more…]

    Aerial Photos and First Floor Walls Finished
  • Castle Wall Stone Options

    One of the main reasons to build a castle is because you like the way castles look, obviously. Otherwise you wouldn’t take on such an ambitious building project. One of the key components to how they look is the exterior stone cladding for your walls, and that can also be a significant budget expense. I’m… [more…]

    Castle Wall Stone Options
  • Exciting Day: First Looks at Castle Exterior

    After dreaming this place up at least a decade ago, putting it in the “what if” and “maybe someday” category, gradually moving it into the “possibly” category, then the “probably” category, and now hopefully in the “definitely” category.  After over a year of finally getting down to the nitty gritty and nailing down the interior… [more…]

    Exciting Day: First Looks at Castle Exterior
  • An Energy Efficient Castle

    We’re building with concrete, for a number of reasons. It is strong, it can survive hurricanes and tornadoes, it is thick, giving us the wall thickness we desire, but also it is incredibly energy efficient, and I wanted to build an energy efficient castle. Concrete has immense thermal mass which allows it to only slowly… [more…]

    An Energy Efficient Castle
  • My Modern Castle Design Philosophy

    I am not building a time capsule. It is not my desire to recreate a castle as it existed back in 1350. I am aiming for a more evolutionary structure. Conceptually with the idea that the castle may have been originally built many hundreds of years ago, and the bones of the structure would be… [more…]

    My Modern Castle Design Philosophy

Trials and HVAC Tribulations – Geothermal Edition

This has been a long process, when I say years ago, I really do mean years ago. Also writing this post was a long process, I wrote it over a period of months.

So, years ago, when we were designing this place it wasn’t simply a matter of drawing walls on paper, engineering must be done, structural, mechanical, electrical, it was all very complex. The finished plans weighed probably 30 or 40 pounds when printed. Imagine all those dead trees.

I had done my own research on how to heat and cool this place and it seemed to me ductless minisplit systems would be the way to go. Many of the design choices I’ve made in his home come from my dissatisfaction with conditions in other homes where I have lived. For instance, I hated how you would have but one thermostat in a home and so some rooms would be hot and some cold (and usually it was my bedroom that was the wrong temperature). Also I intrinsically knew that if I had a HVAC system in the basement and it was trying to blow air up to the 4th floor we’d have a problem. I needed a distributed system.

So I first really got into this Mitsuibishi system called City Multi. It was a ductless (meaning refrigerant was pumped around the house in little pipes, not big ducts), and split, which meant that the heat pump and the air handler were separated from each other. The heat pump (condenser would be a similar word) is what makes air (or refrigerant, or water) hot or cold, and the air handler is what blows it around. This system could have many different zones throughout the home with independent thermostats and could even move hot air from one room to another without using much energy, making it very efficient.

There are two types of heat pumps we could use with this system, air source or ground (sometimes called water) source. Air source heat pumps work by pulling heat (or lack there of) from the surrounding air outside your home. So when its 90 degrees out and your air conditioning is on its trying to pull cold air out of that 90 degree heat, and in winter when it is 32 degrees out it is trying to pull heat out of that 32 degree air. This is hard to do and takes a lot of energy making air source heat pumps less efficient.

Ground or water source heat pumps work with water, and if you remember from school water is a much better conductor of heat than air, which is why an ice cube melts faster in cold running water than in a hot oven. Additionally if you get your water from underground, such as through a geothermal well loop, it is always 55 degrees. So in winter, when it is 32 degrees out, your heat pump can make heat from 55 degree water instead of 32 degree air, and in summer, when it is 90 degrees out, your heat pump can make coolness from 55 degree water instead of 90 degree air. It takes far less energy.

Of course, it is expensive to put in a geothermal ground loop, though you do earn back your investment, the upfront cost keeps many people from doing it. A nice side effect though is you can enjoy the outdoors without hearing the whirring fan of your heat pump, only birds and leaves rustling.

So we did the geothermal ground loop, quite a few years ago, and hooked it all up late last year, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The problem now with Mitsuibishi was that they required 3 phase power for their water source heat pumps, we do not have 3 phase power available at the castle, so they were out. Luckily LG had a single phase option, so rather than one big heat pump we would get 4 small single phase ones, hooked up to 14 internal air handlers (concealed in the ceilings) with 14 zones and 14 thermostats throughout the castle, with the ability to move heat between rooms if needed, variable flow, really good and efficient.

So my architects hired a mechanical engineer, Kelso Regen out of Knoxville and they designed this system and called for 20+ tons of heating and cooling capacity, like a whole lot. This was crazy, I was researching other castles, other ICF concrete homes, and none needed anywhere near that amount. The mechanical engineers apparently had little experience working with ICF homes. Anecdotally, even before we had the roof on and insulated, before we had doors and windows, you could enter the castle at the height of the summer and be cool because of the large thermal mass of the walls. Essentially for the sun to infiltrate my walls it needs to heat up two inches of stone, then two inches of foam, then up to 14 inches of concrete, then another two inches of foam, and then depending on the floor, another two inches of stone, or maybe drywall, or maybe wood paneling. Then the heat can finally get inside.

So I hired a separate firm specializing in energy efficient homes to do the analysis and they came up with a much lower tonnage, 16, which I still sorta think is too high, but we will find out. They really think I have more of a heating load than a cooling load which is weird for this area, but they worry I will lose a lot of heat out of my skylight. That also concerns me but I also have the opportunity to produce a lot of heat with my fireplaces (3 woodstoves and a masonry heater). I might have to simply weatherize my skylight in the winter, which would be doable.

I also had problems with the mechanical engineers doing things wrong or exactly the opposite of what I asked for, multiple times. For instance they put in a hot water circulation system, when I had repeatedly told them not to, because all the research shows them to be energy (money) wasters unless you live in a desert with water restrictions. They told me that they were required by code, which was of course false, they were misreading the code books – which as professionals should not have happened, was this their first house?

So we end up with this 14 zone minisplit system powered by ground source heat pumps. This other company, Rheaco Services, whom I must strongly recommend against anyone ever hiring, was contacted by the architects to do a bid for our budget. They did this, and sent us a bill for $3000 some. I’m not in the habit of paying for bids, I said they could get the money when they got the job and were actually hired to do it. But eventually, at the urging of my architect, I paid this bill. Then when it came time to have Rheaco out to do the work, guess what? They said no. So I paid them $3000 some for nothing. I’ve strongly considered taking them to court over that nonsense. So we were stuck trying to find a replacement bid with no time and most of the people had us over a barrel and were giving us just huge bids, bids that could vary by more than $100,000 dollars. By 50%. How can you get two companies in the same industry bid the same job and be apart by over $100,000 and more than 50%, nearly 100%? Because I’m convinced there are a lot of crooks, or just shady people who will bid a job not what it costs but what they think you can pay.

So we find a guy who can do it and it’ll be more, more than $50,000 more than be budgeted, but they say they can do it… only later they start getting what I could only describe as cold feet, and then the LG people come out and the LG people start telling us they don’t really recommend their product. When the manufacturer tells you their own equipment isn’t good, that was the last straw and we abandoned this system.

So then we needed to find a replacement that utilized our existing geothermal wells (and now turn out to have a leak just discovered late last week, the hits just keep on coming), and didn’t need a lot of ductwork because our walls were up at this point and we didn’t have space for big duct runs.

So eventually we settled on SpacePak, which is a high velocity system that utilizes only small 3 inch ducts that can be snaked through walls and ceilings. So we brought our engineer (the bad one) back out and walked him through and pointed out where we thought we could put their air handlers and we reduced the zones from 14 to 7 because these air handlers were larger and he said he would redo some drawings and send them to SpacePak, and what did he do? He just sent them our old plans instead, and so we lost another month or two as SpacePak did this system with 14 air handlers instead of 7.
So after more wait and more delays we finally ended up with this system whereby hidden throughout the home are 7 air handlers that turn hot or cold water into hot or cold air and shoot it with a high velocity fan through small ducts to nearby rooms. Each air handler has it’s own return air and filter. Then in the basement we have this amazingly expensive and complex room with 4 geothermal water to water heat pumps and expansion thanks. So the heat pumps take the 55 degree water from the earth and turns it into either hot or cold water which is then pumped to the 7 air handlers (on demand) and turned into hot or cold air.
We ultimately went with a very good and professional company, Air Comfort, to do the HVAC install, and we are now living in the house and it is working fine. Electricity wise, I had one partial bill that was in the high $300s, but my solar panels also weren’t turned on yet and workers and kids have been leaving a lot of lights on, and it has been in the 90s with super high humidity. The house I’m leaving my electric bills were high 200s into low 300s during such hot times so now that I’m 6x larger only going slightly more seems like a win. I think once the indoor humidity gets under control we will be able to achieve lower bills, plus the solar contribution. For instance I’m typically very comfortable with bedroom temperatures of 74 and living area temperatures of 76, but I’ve needed everything 2-3 degrees cooler in here because of the humidity. I guess all the building materials are still drying out, granted we’ve been enclosed for a year so the paint should be dry all that stone mortar and drywall and paint and stain continues to dry out. I read that some homes really don’t get down to stable humidity for a year.

Heat has been another matter, it has been very cold here in Tennessee this winter and I’ve had one bill as high as $780, other bills in the $550 range. We have a hot tub too of course and the cover kept blowing off of it. There have been issues with my heat pumps, the operating temperature was turned down which I believe lowered the efficiency. I’ve also been burning a lot of wood trying to help the heating system work. All told I’m not happy with my heat performance and efficiency. We’ve been finding gaps in insulation or weather stripping here or there. Statistically speaking when you consider how many square feet I’m conditioning I am doing better than prior homes I’ve lived in I think (slightly, perhaps), but I think I should be doing better still considering all the money put into insulation and efficient products. Solar panels are on now but with cloudy short winter days… well in December they contributed $14 dollars. Payback will be about a thousand years on those at this rate but I imagine they will do better in summer.

So I am going to keep fighting on this, figuring out how to better insulate my doors, tracking down areas of air infiltration, and hoping to get my heating system running in its most efficient manner. On the plus side I get exercise chopping wood and find it enjoyable.

I don’t know yet how to say if our 16 tons is really what we’ve ended up needing. The system has no trouble keeping the house warm, and no trouble keeping the house cool. Sometimes I feel it short cycles, especially the heat in my bedroom, but that is because a vent is over the thermostat I think. The electrical cost is more than I would like, but I don’t think the system struggles to keep up with demand. Maybe we could have used fewer tons.

We’ve Moved In


We moved in back in September. It has been a busy period of time for us. There are myriad things still to be posted about, and the place isn’t done, not by a long shot. The masonry trickles on every so slowly and of course we cannot do any landscaping or the driveways until the Masonry is completed.

The interior isn’t even fully done, we’ve lived here as various parts have been finished. Last week the last major thing was finished, which was the the first floor fireplace mantle staining and finishing, now all that is left on the interior are touchups.

The exterior though, sometimes I think it will never be finished. We also need our pool finished but at this point it is a bit moot as it is freezing outside.

Am I happy with how things have turned out? Yes, I hate to toot my own horn (okay, I love to toot my own horn) but I did a great job designing the place. All the little things I wanted or designed really turned out well. It is a well designed well laid out house, we have many floors sure but with the central and easy location of staircases (and on the topic of stairs, there is such a thing as the castle diet, eat whatever you want and then live in a house with 100 stairs and watch the weight melt off) no where is inconvenient to get to. I especially am happy with the lighting design I did. Both the ability for daylight to filter in through the skylight, but also the lighting design when the sun goes down and I turn on all the accent lights. It is gorgeous.

But there are some regrets and some unexpected things. Sound really carries because of the open layout. It isn’t hard at all to reach the third floor from the first. A single (nice) speaker in my great hall can fill the public spaces of the castle with sound. But at the same note, sound does carry, so if you want it to be quiet, and there are kids around, well….

I spent a lot of money on an intercom system, and more money on wiring it in, and then Amazon comes along with Echo devices and for far less money I could have put a better hands free intercom room in each home, and I have done this mostly because my electrician has never finished the intercom system (on which the doorbell was to rely, so we have no doorbell) but I could have saved thousands to just not do this at all.

I also think if I could go back in time I would choose not to use the faux slate shingles on the small bumpout we have that includes a roofing section over a compound curved stair and it is being a huge handful to roof taking days and days of work (not done yet) and a very high quality asphalt shingle would have been done in a day for far far far less money. I had to pay a thousand dollars just for shingles for the sides of the curve.

There are some issues with my steel doors, which are very nice in appearance, but not performing well keeping the cold out. Storm doors just don’t look great on a castle you know?

If I could go back in time I would fight tooth and nail not to use steel framing in my subfloors at all, it is noisy and I just don’t like it at all, it was also expensive and slow. I also would do my skylight differently. I love my skylight it is one of the most important architectural features of the castle and it provides an immense emotional benefit having all that daylight coming down inside. I can see the moon from the interior on my house you know? I can see stars. Its nice. But the thing leaks water and isn’t remotely insulated. I think I lose a ton of heat out of it. I would keep it if I could go back in time but I would frame it up like a roof, not have it be 100% glass, and then put in normal skylights that are made with double paned insulated glass and made to be water tight. Right now I have a clear tarp over it like what they use on commercial greenhouses, it keeps the water out and provides some degree of additional insulation. Of course, on a sunny day, the thing collects heat. In the summer I have considered getting a shade cloth to keep some of that heat out. But its nice on a sunny winter day.

I’m not fully happy with my floor. I like how it looks but not how it is performing. For one, way too much work happened in the house after the floor was done, the place was not kept clean and drywall dust was constantly being tracked up from the basement and elsewhere thanks to people not wiping their feet and much of it has settled into the pores of the wood. The wood needs some additional treatment to prevent things from soaking in but I’m not sure what yet. Some other kind of penetrating oil, maybe a wax, I want something older and authentic. Currently it has two coats of Watco Danish oil.

One unexpected benefit I didn’t plan was the basement’s ability to stay warm. Just the way I laid things out the main living area of the basement does not have hardly any exterior walls in it (and what it does have still needs to have some earth piled up against it so it will get even better). So there are closets and other things around creating a sort of buffer and with all the walls, even the interior ones, being insulated ICF, the basement stays very warm.

I am going to try to fill in some more blogs on some details I haven’t done yet in the coming weeks.

I do love the view, the sunrises are amazing. 21753187_1612487555480796_1759818488400879168_o

Cabinets and Painting

We’re in the home stretch, supposedly, we’re still having hiccups on the exterior but on the interior we’re basically to the point where all materials are here, they just need to be installed.

The very first countertop was just installed, that was a bit of a fluke though, the rest are several weeks out. As of now though we have the master bathroom cabinets installed (and they have been for a couple weeks), the kitchen ones are in process. We’ve had the lowers installed, including my absolutely massive island, but the uppers were apparently measured wrong so there are problems. But that shouldn’t interfere with the countertop being measured and getting into production. We’ve also had vanities installed in two of the bathrooms, one of which also has it’s countertop.
Meanwhile paint has started and is ongoing, and painting includes also staining all the wood, and there is a lot of wood. This is another thing I want to talk about where we get the “castle price.”

So way back when I call this place for a quote for us to put into our budget for paint. He tells me on the phone it is a dollar a square foot, and he says it somewhat defensively like I will claim it is too much. I say “of wall area?” He says no, of floor space. If you have a 3,000 sq/ft home, it is $3000, and that includes walls and ceilings, and all wood and wood trim. I say “Are you sure, it’s a castle with high ceilings and lots of trim and its huge.” He says, doesn’t matter, a dollar a square foot.

I still don’t believe the guy so I double it and put that number into our budget.

This guy isn’t some fly by night guy, he is the biggest in town he’ll tell you, he drives a hummer, he has tons of crews out working for him. So I figure he knows his stuff. So we have (had, actually some space was sacrificed on the altar of the budget) 13,000 conditioned space which would be painted, and so I had doubled the budget number for paint to $26k. This guy comes back when we actually need him to finalize his quote, his original estimate of $13,000 became $75,000 when he saw the castle.

I’m not a crazy person, nor am I made of money, nor am I uneducated. I didn’t win the lottery and had no clue how much things cost. I’m a small business owner who built my business scrapping and bootstrapping all the way, I’m intelligent, educated, and a compulsive researcher. I know when I’m being bamboozled. I had most of my house painted before we moved here, it was a much smaller house, 2200 sq/ft, but we painted most of it, two coats, and we had really bright paint underneath and were going to light neutrals so it took a lot of paint to cover, and we had all this complex trim in that house they had to cut in against, it wasn’t new construction with the big open areas. This painter we hired was very professional, he also drove a very nice truck (Ford Superduty with lots of chrome), and had multiple crews. It cost me $1200.

We went and got another paint quote, this guy came in at under $35,000 dollars, and he was doing more than the $75,000 guy, who only committed to one coat of finish on all the wood (the cheaper guy is doing 3 coats), and wasn’t using the products I wanted either. So guess who we went with? And the less expensive guys are doing a fine job, and they are very professional, and it is still a larger company with multiple crews. All the drywall is getting primer and at least two coats, all the wood is getting stain and three coats of finish.

What products am I using?

For paint we’re going with eggshell latex paints. I tend to like glossier paints, I like both the look at their durability and ability to not show my kids fingerprints etc, but I get that they’re not trendy. In my old house we used all gloss or semigloss, so going down to eggshell is less glossy for us. Also I think the glossier look is more period accurate. I let the kids pick the colors for their rooms and bathrooms, and I picked different colors for some of the other bathrooms. For the walls in 90% of the house we went with a bright white color called Swiss Coffee – this is also period accurate as well as white washing walls was about all they did back then. So the main colors of the house are dark grey stone, dark brown wood, and bright white.
For stain we’re using Minwax’s Jacobean stain, and then for a sealer we’re using one coat of amber shellac and two coats of clear shellac. Shellac is a glossy wood top coat and sealer made from shell secretions of the lac bug that are ground and suspended in alcohol. It is one of the oldest known wood finishes and so is period accurate. It also gives off no bad VOCs or odors. When applying it smells like whiskey, it is safe enough to eat in some forms (in fact it is used on food and as a coating for pills, the stuff you put on your wood might have additives so I wouldn’t drink it), and it dries in minutes. Polyurethanes take hours to dry, during which time debris can fall on the wood and mar the finish. This also helps with labor. If you’re shellacking a door and start at the top, by the time you get to the bottom the top will be dry. It is also spot repairable. If you have polyurethane finished wood and you want to repair a damaged spot or scratch, you need to do a lot of sanding and or refinish the whole piece, or you’ll have a bump. With shellac you just slap on some more and it merges with the lower coats, it takes seconds. I really like using it and I’m surprised so many people don’t know about it. Clean up is also easy, just use ethanol.
It comes in both clear and amber, I am using one coat of amber and two of clear because that gives just the right color I like. The only downside of shellac is it doesn’t stand up to water near as well, especially repeatedly getting wet or having standing water. So you shouldn’t use it on a floor, and I am not using it on my windows which could be left open in the rain or get condensation drips. On the windows frames we will use polyurethane.

Flooring Going In

We’ve started flooring the 3rd floor and the kitchen are done. We’ve had other flooring done for awhile now if we consider the tile in the bathrooms but here I’m just referring to the wood flooring.

I have around 10,000 sq/ft of wood flooring and that is a pretty big budget line item so I really had to shop around and try to get the best deal on it, using, every dollar per square foot I could save was $10,000 in my pocket. I ended up getting what I wanted from Hardwood Bargains.com Guy V. over there took good care of me, they had good customer service, and were able to get me what I wanted, which because of the quantity and the specificity was a custom run from a mill. I have 7″ wide white oak engineered planks, character grade with knots and whatnot, lightly wirebrushed, unfinished.

Engineered vs solid was a choice to make, in the end it came down to price and availability. The main benefit of solid wood is that it can be sanded a bunch of times, whereas engineered can only be sanded 2 or 3 times. I plan to never sand my floors so that isn’t a benefit at all to me. Meanwhile engineered is cheaper, more uniform, more dimensionally stable, less likely to cup, warp, or twist, and can also better be installed over concrete subfloors, of which I have a small amount.
Why unfinished? The plastic/etc coatings on prefinished wood floors are fine and nice and they will never look better than the day they’re installed. They do not look old or antique and they never will, and they’re also quite expensive. I do not like prefinished floors, some look very very nice, they do, but if they ever get damaged and you want to repair you generally need to sand the entire floor down into the wood.

So we’re putting down this wide plank unfinished wood floor, and then we’re applying Watco’s Danish Oil in Black Walnut. This is another product so many have no familiarity with that I really like. It is again something they used to use a lot more often a long time ago and I think it is coming back into vogue. It is a combined penetrating sealer and stain, it both protects and colors the wood, and it does so by seeping into the wood and hardening. It isn’t a top coat, it doesn’t go on top of the wood, so you walk on the wood, not a sheen of something synthetic. So over time the wood gets a little worn and antique looking, which is desirable. You also never, ever, need to sand your floor. If you have any sort of texture on your floor be it hewn or wire brushed you can’t sand it because you’ll remove that texture, but that means you can never refinish if you have a urethane finished floor (something you’d otherwise want to do every 8 or so years). Like the shellac I like for my wood trim, Danish Oil is spot repairable, if you have a damaged spot you just pour more on, let it soak, wipe it off, boom done. No sanding required.
It also applies very very easily, unless polyurethane or similar floor finishes where the guy is down on his hands and knees carefully brushing on a smooth finish, you literally just pour this on the floor, and push it around using a squeegee or brush, let it soak, and then wipe it up. I had a guy, who was either giving us the “castle price” or was quoting based on his own lack of experience, tell us $2 a square foot to apply this. Our current flooring installer is just charging us hourly to do it. He did the entire kitchen which is almost 500 sq/ft for $45. What is that 10 cents a square foot? He had never used it before but is now sold on the benefits of the product. It makes a nice floor, colors very evenly, is super easy to use, and has super easy future maintenance and repair.
The goal is for my floor to eventually look like an old pub floor you’d find in England that was laid down two hundred years ago, and these products will allow me to get there.

Stone Cold Problems

The interior stone is basically done.

There is a lot of it, it ended up being something around 6,500 sq/ft of stone just on the inside. We had real trouble getting masons situated started around New Years. Our original mason, Accent Masonry, had to be fired/quit it was sorta mutual. I thought he (Josh, the owner), left in good spirits. He had agreed to a price and was working at that price, but only very very slowly, not sending the men up necessary, and even though we had an agreement we gave him an increase to try to make things better, and it really didn’t. Then we finally put it to him that we needed him to send more guys to finish and he said he would have to walk off and we sort of made it mutual, he claimed to be losing money, and we were losing time, and it wasn’t working out for either party. So I thought it was on good terms. I think the overall reason why he didn’t work out is he was never on site, just his guys, and they took a lot of breaks. He was paying them hourly but we paid him by the foot so without him there keeping them motivated and on task their pace suffered greatly.

Then we were going to hire this other guy, only this other guy didn’t really have employees in so much as he coordinated crews and acted like a middleman, which was okay, except he kept promising his crews one thing and they would show up, look at the job, and not want anything to do with it. But this guy kept telling us he could do it for us. So we told him okay, but he kept not delivering.

Meanwhile, the original mason, Josh, allegedly sent the below text to the new guy.

Mason's Fighting

We didn’t end up going with the new guy, he couldn’t in the end deliver the workers at the agreed upon price, but he was nice enough to forward this text to my builder. This is the sort of stuff we’ve had to deal with. After he left Josh gave us a price to get him to come back, then he allegedly attempts to collude with this other mason about raising prices.

Of course it’s also possible this other guy faked the text somehow as a negotiation tactic, we don’t know, we couldn’t be sure, we were tired of both of them. They seemed to us to be fighting over the job with us in the crosshairs.

So our stone work is at a dead standstill and we’re trying to find new guys. Originally we were paying $6 a sq/ft for labor, and we had found 3 masons to agree to that price before we went with Josh, then we gave him a bump to $6.5, and then he left, we had guys quote us $15, or one guy quoted me $23. I wonder if he thought I was an idiot or couldn’t do math. I’m not a lottery winner, I’m an educated successful self made man, I can do math, I can read financial statements, and I even sometimes do for fun. So this one guy quoted us $23 a square foot and says he pays his guys $7 take home pay. Like I say, I’m not an idiot, I know by talking to masons, local and out of state, and reading articles from Masonry Magazine and trade publications, I know how much a mason can lay down in a day. It supposed to be between 100 and 200 sq/ft, per guy per day (with a tender, some lower base laborer guy fetching and carrying). Even Josh’s guys who were slow, according to Josh, did 50 sq/ft a day. So if I remember my third grade multiplication correctly that means this guy is paying his workers $350 to $1400 a day. With 260 work days a year at the low end these masons are making $91,000 a year, at the high end $364,000, per guy, per year. It was all I could do not to laugh in his face, I waited until after he left. We get these ridiculous “castle prices” sometimes, yet another thing to deal with.

Finally we found a real winner in a mason named Samuel Hernandez. He had previously worked for a larger commercial outfit and recently struck out on his own. He has had his workers and arranged other crews and gotten them up to the site and cruising on the stone, stone is simply flying up, they seem to be working 4-5x faster than Josh ever did.

Most importantly the interior stone is finished, and for a long time I was worried that the rest of the house would be done but the stone would still be going on. I no longer worry about that. However our masons are going so fast we’re running into other problems in that now the stone supplier is having trouble keeping up with the window trim pieces we need to keep things rolling, and we also need to find a contractor to install our corbels that go around the cantilevered battlements.

So, here are some pictures of the completed interior stone:














And here are some pictures of the exterior stone progress.

More Exterior Stone

Exterior Stone

I don’t even know how many tons of interior stone we have, but think of what all that mass does to the building. For the sun to heat it up it first needs to heat up the stone on the outside, then go through an inch of mortar, 2 inches of foam, up to 14 inches of concrete, 2 more inches of foam, another inch of mortar, and two more inches of stone. Stone is a good conductor of heat, but it also simply absorbs energy, it banks it. Its why you can put a hot pan on a granite countertop. This is why you can visit an old castle or old church in the middle of summer and it can be cool inside. I’ve been up there when its 90 degrees out and our air isn’t on yet and its quite comfortable inside. I worry our HVAC loads are going to end up totally oversized because building with so much thermal mass is so outside the norms that their models didn’t account for it. No matter how hot it has gotten outside, I’ve never gotten hot while indoors at the castle, even before we had windows and doors and insulation, except in the greenhouse, which is supposed to get hot. Of course if you actually go outside on the roof on a hot day you will bake.

Overall I think stone is the single biggest line item in our budget, and perhaps rightly so, it is a castle afterall, but it is also totally worth it.

Ready for Drywall

I need to do an update, there are reasons why I haven’t.

Reason 1: It has been sort of depressing. Work has not progressed as fast as I’d like. When we got our HVAC contractor nailed down in December I was told it could be 4-6 weeks for drywall, you’ll notice it is now almost May. We’ve had masonry issues as well I will discuss in another post. So to go up and look around and see almost no work done is depressing and so I don’t want to go up as often. There is also less to talk about because things aren’t getting done.

Reason 2: I’ve been incredibly busy with kids and family stuff. I coached a whole YMCA basketball season, now my son has baseball and up to 3 games a week, plus traveling for business and traveling to visit family, and watching a baby during the day as my wife gets more busy with her work (I’m the boss at my work, so I give myself kid duties most of the time since I can give myself the time off to do it.)

We finally got the sign off from the HVAC inspector 12 days ago for drywall, since then we’ve had a couple crews come up and leave, or say they’re going to show up and then don’t. There is too much construction going on in Chattanooga its hard to find people. So we have this drywall staged at each floor ready to hang but can’t find the guys to hang it. Then of course there are the people who want to give us the “castle price” but we can’t afford to pay that.

So we’re currently looking for drywall contractors, the job is big but it is broken up by floor and could be done a floor at a time. If anyone knows anyone please refer them.

So we have two and a half rooms with drywall hung, but not taped or mudded. Tile has been done in a few rooms and areas, the master bathroom is close to being done, and the cabinets for it are done but not yet installed. We have the interior doors on site, and a few are installed. We recently got a painter hired, which will be another fun blog post later. The big thing is interior stone is basically done and I want to take some pictures and do a separate post about that.

We’re so close to being able to finish up some rooms, and its frustrating that we’re having all these fits and starts trying to get it done, even the stone has had major delays. I just need something to go right for once.

So I need to do a post about the interior stone, and the stone in general, the masons, the HVAC, the tile, the interior doors, etc. But as we’ve just passed the 2 year mark on construction I just haven’t been feeling it as much. I thought we’d be in maybe by last November, hah, that we’re not in by May is incredulous to me, and I don’t know when the completion date is going to be. Not enough is happening on a daily basis to get us there.

I have a working portcullis

I guess not everyone is a castle nerd and knows what a portcullis is. A portcullis is a (usually metal) grid gate like a lattice that would be in front of the castle gate or door. Possibly behind a drawbridge but in front of the gate or door. Often the first line of defense it would be vertically raised and lowered using a counterweight system such that, in the event of an emergency (orc attack) the counterweights could be cut and the portcullis would come crashing down.

This has very little functional purpose outside of harassing solicitors who might come to the door. However, most castles had these, and I want to be authentic. Typically you’d most often see it in the open position as below:


So I thought about just getting a short section and permanently bolting it into the wall so it’d look like there was a portcullis but there wasn’t really, this would have been cheap but not really ideal to me. I’ve tried to avoid doing lip service to authenticity like that. One of my pet peeves for instance is when people put tiny decorative crenelations on top of a building they mean to look like a castle. Crenelations need to be large enough to hide defenders, smaller ones are entirely pointless so why bother at all? Or to quote one of my favorite authors, they are about as pointless as nipples on a breastplate.

So we had planned from the get go to make it functional and it did require some finagling in the end, but it was planned for in the construction and so we had the spot where the portcullis could go.

But just because we had the spot for it does not mean we could figure out how to work it. We researched it heavily, asked garage door people if they had an option, asked steel people used to hoisting metal into the air, anyone we thought might have input we asked their advice on it. I also tried to figure out if there was a way to make a roll up portcullis as that would have been easier hid in the wall. Some of the solutions they proposed were quite expensive, but in the end we were able to use a $100 electric hoist (not a winch, a hoist, they’re different, something I learned in this process) and it works great. Smooth and quiet.
Then we had to do the portcullis itself, and the same company that did our doors and many of our light fixtures, Iron Gallery LLC, made it for us. But they, and another supplier who had bid it, also talked about doing a track system, and a stainless steel ball bearing glides, or whatever. And that was very expensive, and I didn’t like it. Both the cost, and because I didn’t really see metal rubbing on metal as being a good idea, eventually it was going to scrape and be noisy.
Then I had an idea, and I will pat myself on the back and say it is a good one. We decided to just use composite decking to build a track for the portcullis to slide through. Black composite decking. Probably the weirdest use for composite decking in the history of the world. Real wood may have been an option but wood eventually rots and having it buried in the wall rotting in what is ultimately an exterior installation (even if it is covered by an overhang above) was a bad idea. And then metal of course would have been noisy, but composite decking, largely plastic, and naturally slippery, won’t rot, won’t make any noise, and will look great, and was much cheaper than the fancy metal track option.
There was a surprising amount of labor in getting it installed and the encapsulating walls put up around it, but it is done now and it opens and closes smoothly, quietly, and impressively. For safety we have a lockout on the 2nd floor with some steel bars preventing it from being lowered accidentally, which is good considering it weighs nearly 500 pounds. The bars can also be used to lock it closed as well.
I don’t know how many people in the United States have a functional portcullis on their house, I’m willing to bet it is less than 5 people though.

Masonry Heater

We ended up going with a masonry heater for our great hall. I didn’t know what these things were before I started this process so I had to learn about them.

Originally what I wanted was a double sided see-through fireplace. The problem was we couldn’t find one that would work with our situation of having a very tall flue. The taller your flue the more draft it has, which means wind passing over the top sucks air out faster or something. Modern wood burning appliances are tested to function within certain parameters for flue (chimney) height, there is a concern they will get too hot and cause a chimney fire if the flue is too long.

I ended up cutting the fireplace in the basement for this reason. But I wasn’t going to go without a wood burning option in my great hall, I mean, come on, it is a great hall.

So a masonry heater is not a metal fireplace box or wood stove, but as the name suggests, built entirely out of masonry. And additionally the smoke’s path goes up, then goes down, then goes back up, so they’re making it even longer, all out of masonry. There is a firebox, then above it a secondary combustion chamber, and then the snaking masonry passage for the smoke. Mine also happens to send some of the flue gasses through a pizza oven, so yay!

The point of all this though is to make the firebox super hot so it burns up all the flammable smoke. There is no creosote buildup because the creosote burns up before it collects anywhere. It gets super hot and generates an immense amount of heat on only a small amount of wood. One or two fires is enough for heat to radiate from it all day…. and there are no flue height restrictions so bingo.

So I got a double sided see through masonry heater, with an attached pizza oven, and it fits the space well because of the width required for the down then up flue channels. However, the one downside is it doesn’t have that epic large opening you might think of in a castle, something you can throw a whole pig into or something. My builder was concerned about this fact, he felt the door was too small compared to large open fireplaces. Overall this is much much larger than any fireplace, but most people just see the door and wouldn’t realize that. But I was sold on having one of these, plus pizza oven.

This won’t heat the house alone, but I’ll be able to put my 20 acres of oak and hickory to use providing a super comfortable radiant heat during the winter, and of course pizza. It will get epically hot enough though that there is no way we will be able to use it to cook pizza in the summer.

I shopped around quite a bit for this, and ended up buying it from Maine Wood Heat (it also of course required a skilled installer). They had the best option I found and I also really liked some of their door styles with their gothic arch detailing.

If you’ve never seen a masonry heater before I recommend doing a Google image search, there are some really neat ones out there.

Masonry Heater

Masonry Heater

Mine still needs to be all dressed up with stone, it is sort of naked now, but the guts are all in.

Copper Turrets

Its been 6 weeks or so since the main roof was finished and we’ve been waiting, and waiting, and waiting, on our copper. The copper supplier’s machine broke or something and we were stuck waiting for a replacement.

They’ve been getting worked on for a week or so now though and I didn’t want to post about them because thousands ($$$$$) of dollars worth of copper sitting on the ground where we’ve already had thefts….. I’m sure all you readers are honest but still. Now though the copper is installed and 70 feet in the air, so, I think we’re safe from theft. Tristate Roofing did the installation on our copper, just like our flat roofs.

So, to recap, some blocks were leveled and a custom curved heavy steel tube was brought up to the site at the exact radius of the towers. This tube was set on the blocks and light gauge steel truss work was built on top to create the conical shape. This was then sheathed with layers of plywood and covered with roofing underlayment, then, mostly, covered with copper roofing panels. Leaving a few gaps to provide an area for the crane to hold onto it. Then, this morning, the whole assemblies (20 ish feet wide, 12 feet ish tall, and weighing god knows how much) were lifted up into the sky by a crane and placed down precisely on top of the steel framed wall built to accept them.









After they were put in place the workers added the few remaining missing copper panels, and I got some pictures.











Meanwhile, fortuitously, our big heavy custom iron doors were delivered yesterday, so the crane was used to lift them on to the floors on which they belong, from which they can be wheeled into place. Some of these doors are 500 pounds or more, very solid, built to keep the marauders out.



In addition to the doors being delivered yesterday, and the turrets going up today, on Thursday or Friday our greenhouse and skylight are supposed to be delivered/installed. So that is exciting as well, a very busy week.

In other news:

The plumbing rough-in is almost done.
The electrical rough-in has started.
The fire sprinkler rough-in has started.
The HVAC rough-in doesn’t even have a plan yet :(
Rainwater catchment system is complete (future post about that)
Masonry heater is complete (but not finished with veneer yet – future post)
Ceiling beams are all installed in the 1st floor family room (future post)


The Roof, The Roof, The Roof is on mostly…

Stone has been chugging along, bits of framing here or there, chimneys, breezeway stuff. Not a whole lot of big monumental things. We have our first few windows installed, more will go in next week. Plumbing has started and we’re about to turn HVAC and fire sprinkler guys loose.

The biggest recent development has been the completion of the majority of the roof. Why only the majority of the roof? Well, because we’re using different roofing systems. The majority of the roof is flat and uses what is called a TPO membrane. I want to thank Chris Fetty of TriState Roofing for getting that done for us. First they had to put down multiple layers of foam boards for insulation, then glue down the reflective white (and man that thing is bright, I think I need snow goggles on when I go up there – but that just shows how much heat it is reflecting), and of course flash all the penetrations. I had them use grey membrane for the sides of the parapet walls, it is the same material, just a darker color, and not as reflective. From a distance it may look like stone. Of course the tops of the crenelations will get stone, but then the inside of those walls up here I’m fine with leaving the more artificial (but water tight) finish. I wanted to use the white on the roof for the energy efficiency benefits, but the parapet walls aren’t insulated conditioned space so I’m fine with them absorbing a little more heat from the sunlight with the grey finish – and it makes it much easier on the eyes to look out over the battlements too. I’m not kidding, it is bright up there.

We will also apply spray foam to the underside of the roof deck, so when you combine that foam, the foam on top of the roof deck, and the reflective white membrane, I think we’ll have a very efficient roof assembly.

All we need now is the copper for the front conical turret caps, and then to crane those up and into place.

We also had some metal ship ladders built by JC Electric Gates installed for accessing the roof of the rear towers (the 5th or 6th floor if you count the basement or not), the view from up there is epic.

We do not yet have the skylight installed, but it is covered up for safety (and covered with plastic to keep the rain out).