Stone Complete

The masons laid the last wall stone on March 28th 2018. The first had been laid on February 7th 2016. So it was over two years. It didn’t need to take so long but we had supplier problems and changed crews a couple times and had small crews generally. But the exterior stone is now done. Now we move to cleaning and landscaping. Spreading top soil, moving dirt, pouring the driveway. There is a splayed base that comes up the front that is going to be made of packed earth and rubble that needs to be done, but I include that in with the landscaping. So the home stretch. Of course still waiting on the pool to be finalized.

Below is a picture I took the day the last stone was applied. For those curious it was around the rectangular window to the left of the round window on the front right tower.


Then there are some pictures I took one day when we had excellent lighting.











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, literally from a foundation to a fully framed home in a week or two, whereas my home is taking 8 weeks a floor.

ICF is still superior, far superior. It is essentially a double walled cooler with a large thermal mass inside, the energy efficiency of the walls is amazing. Additionally, concrete building is the safest building you can do. Who remembers major hurricanes or tornadoes where house after house is destroyed, and then you come across one that is barely damaged – that home is usually concrete. It is more expensive, but I knew that going in, I didn’t realize how much longer it would take. ICF is really slow. Perhaps we need a larger crew working on it? That would help.

But finally the 1st floor blocks were up and so two days ago they poured the concrete in them. Also on that day I happened to have a helicopter flight I won at a charity auction so I’m sure you can guess where I wanted to fly to.

It will take two weeks to set the steel and subfloor system for the 2nd floor. This is another thing that takes longer than a stick frame house. Steel just takes longer, but here it really was the only option. We have large clear spans inside. I wanted the castle to look very authentic from the outside, and the 1st floor of the inside I wanted it to have very appropriate decor and finishing details, but one area where we are definitely not traditional is the size of our rooms. The first floor is basically one big open floor plan, huge rooms, big clear spans, like any other modern house we don’t really have much in the way of walls separating areas of the first floor. An actual castle would have had relatively small rooms simply because they lacked the engineering for the big spans. But with steel I beams and engineered trusses we can do that sort of thing.




















So, I’m told around December 14th we’ll start the 2nd floor walls. Hopefully things speed up a little, I wanted to get the roof on by Valentine’s Day but unless things speed up that won’t happen. The floors should get easier as they go up, there is a little less material in each floor. At the rate things have been going they might only be starting the 3rd floor walls around Valentines day.

I want to thank Rock Creek Aviation for the helicopter ride. I will have to go up again when the castle is 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 looking at about 30,000 sq/ft of stone wall on the exterior, and another 5,000 sq/ft on the interior. That sort of high volume means you can negotiate discounts, but it also means every additional dollar you spend per square foot really adds up quickly.

There are five main options you can use to clad your castle. Stucco, brick, manufactured stone veneer, real stone veneer, or full thickness stone. I’ve ranked them I believe in order from cheapest to most expensive.

Stucco is absolutely the cheapest, you’re not really going to find stucco castles out there in history, but many castles were built so well or otherwise coated to have very smooth walls, especially later ones, and if you used stucco but then used real stone trim around windows & doors, or at corners, it can look okay. You won’t be able to pull off the look of an early castle, but later castles (which were mostly used as palaces) often had the smooth look. Stucco can last awhile, but it doesn’t have near the longevity of the other items

Brick castles are not really common, and included in brick would also be brick veneer. But it was used as a building material and you may be happy with it and able to pull it off. Lots of gothic revival castle like structures from the early 1900s were done with brick, and you might be able to find some really old true European castles that used it as well (quarries were not always conveniently located). Brick is fairly cheap, and brick masons are cheaper than stone masons so you save on install. You can do full thickness brick where a brick wall is essentially built just outside your building’s structural wall, or brick veneer where thin brick is adhered to your building’s structural wall.

Manufactured stone is essentially brick, built the same way, but made to look like stone. It is usually only sold as veneer you apply to your wall. From a distance it looks really good, but up close you can usually tell it isn’t real stone. It is usually more complex to install, needing more labor than regular brick, but it is cheaper to install than real stone because it is much lighter and easier to handle. Weight also matters for the freight costs of getting it to your build site.

Both brick and manufactured stone last darn near forever, mortar can fail but brick tends to keep on chugging along.

Thin veneer stone is where they take real stone, and saw it to be an inch thick or less, and then it is adhered to your wall. It is much cheaper and easier to install than full thickness stone, but more expensive than manufactured stone veneer. It isn’t available, or availability competitively priced, everywhere in the country, as it relies on a good supply of local stone.

Full thickness stone is usually 3+ inches thick and is built like full thickness brick. A second wall is built outside your structural wall with stone. This stone is by far the most expensive option, it is expensive, heavy, takes a long time to install, and requires the most specialized labor. The freight can be killed if the quarry isn’t close to your build site.

Stone of course, also lasts forever.

For my project I explored the last three options. I had bids on full thickness stone of about a million dollars, ~$30 sq/ft installed. This was not affordable in the least. Thin veneer stone I was able to get for less, around $12 sq/ft installed, and I would have gone with it, except I really need to hit my budget numbers and need to find savings where I can. Because of volume I was able to negotiate manufactured stone veneer down to $9.5 sq/ft installed, which saves me almost $100,000 over thin veneer stone at the volume of 35,000 sq/ft.

My stone mason did a mockup for me, overall I want a dark grey stone with light trim accents, so in the below mockup I choose the middle dark stone color.

Exterior Wall Stone Mockup

Exterior Wall Stone Mockup

For the actual trim, like for window trim etc. There are also a variety of options. You can use standard aluminum brickmold style window trim, precast stone trim (a very fine concrete essentially), architectural foam trim (foam coated with a stucco like product made to look like precast), or cut stone. Turns out my mason figured the cheapest way would be to just buy flagstone (about $1 sq/ft) and cut it as needed. It’ll look a little more rustic than precast would, but I like rustic. We haven’t quite figured out what to do for corbels and some of the other exterior architectural details yet.

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 structure. We finally, today, received our first looks at the exterior of the castle and I could not be more excited.


First, the 3D renderings, which I am over the moon about.


It looks like an actual authentic castle, I couldn’t be more pleased. It isn’t 100% finalized, but it is at least 99%.

Now the more detailed elevations. First, the front:

Front Elevation

There is pretty much done, a few window edits need to be made, and some work with the portcullis in front, but it is pretty much all there. This is the view of the front of the house as you approach. You’ll need to take stairs up to the front door because the 1st floor sits 8 feet above the ground. This allows me to have the lowest windows be 12 feet up, which makes them seem more defensive like a true castle would be. As you increase in elevation the windows get larger.

Now the back patio:



I really like the back, how the archest turned out. Here I had to make some exceptions to usability to allow windows lower to the ground. Surely, a castle built for defense would not have large patio doors and windows on the ground floor of the rear. But we needed them to access the pool area, and they’re in the back, the side most will never see. My view on the structure is one of evolution. Meaning I am not making a time capsule, something to transport you back 1000 years ago. Rather I want it to appear as if the structure, the bones, were built 1000 years ago, but then it was added to, edited, lived in, changed, (aka, it has evolved) since. So maybe the windows were added in the 1700s when threat of invasion had passed. The whole backend could conceptually have been a later edition.

Now the side facing the forest:



I like this side as well. This is where we have those large cathedral style windows, they shine into the great hall. Within the great hall they will be starting 10 feet off the floor, and then go to the ceiling. The ceilings in there are 24 feet tall, so they are 14 foot tall windows. Between the windows are buttresses I wanted added for architectural interest and because they would have been used in the period for this type of gothic architecture. Along the wide tower in back you see a winding staircase. These stairs will be enclosed and will allow access to the basement root cellar from the kitchen (the kitchen being in the 1st floor of that large rear tower. You can also see the side profile of the greenhouse.


Finally, the side facing the road:



The smaller front tower houses the elevator, so I was able to limit windows within it without sacrificing too much interior light, since it is the tower most visible publicly, I think this works to make the structure seem fortified. The mater suite opens onto a small balcony on the radius wall you see that pops out. Inside this radius wall is a rose window, modeled after a traditional rose window. This window is 6 feet across and will be finished with stained glass, it will look amazing on the interior and will shine into a large family room. During the holidays I imagine we’ll put our Christmas tree beneath it, and should we ever have to host an indoor wedding, I imagine the altar would go beneath it.

We have a total of 6 “car garages.” We have a two car garage in the main structure under the aforementioned rose window. This part I’m not quite happy with yet, the transition to the garage door and the trim around it needs to change. We also have space for 4 more cars in garages underneath the pool deck. You then see an exposed exterior staircase, that will be stone, curving from the pool deck down.


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 transfer heat. It actually works very well for a home since it takes so long for the walls to warm up and transfer heat, it takes all day, then they give the heat back during the night. Concrete walls are pretty much more energy efficient than any other wall type.

But we’re not even using regular old concrete, we plan to use ICFs, which are insulated concrete forms. Normally when forming a concrete wall wooden forms are put up and the concrete is poured in, it hardens, and the forms are removed. With ICFs the forms are premade with foam, the concrete is poured in, but the forms are then left in place.  This gives you a moisture/insulating layer of foam, then concrete, then more foam. In our castle it’ll be an inch of stone, half inch of mortar, 2 inches of foam, 6 inches of concrete, two more inches of foam, half inch of mortar, and another inch of stone, making for a fairly thick wall, and incredibly energy efficient.  Essentially it makes the whole house a double walled cooler.

For heat we plan to use a geothermal heat pump with radiant in floor heating on the first floor, which should be enough to heat the entire building as the heat rises. Our location is too remote for gas and geothermal is the most efficient electrical powered heating form I know. You essentially use the heat of the earth, which is a constant 55 degrees, running through various heat exchangers to heat or cool your house seasonally, the one system can do both (though, ducts will be required for cooling).  As far as energy uses go, it is very efficient, the most efficient heating method I know other than passive solar.

As far as cooling goes, I hope we don’t need much, by limiting windows, and having high ceilings, I think it’ll stay quite cool on the inside. When I visited Rome it was sweltering outside, yet stepping in St. Peters Basilica or the Parthenon it was always cooler, even though windows and doors were open, just being inside a large stone structure made it cooler.

Also our main skylight, which runs the center of the house, will be operable, allowing hot air to escape automatically in the summer in what is known as a solar chimney.  The skylight also provides ample natural light hopefully limiting the need for lights during the day in a house with this few windows.

The roof, being largely flat and hidden from prying eyes by the battlements, becomes an excellent place for a solar array, as pictured. I want to cram as many panels as possible on to the roof, as budget and space allows. In my ideal world we’ll be a net 0 (no net energy use) castle, but we’ll see how things turn out.

I have thought for some time, because of the height, that rooftop mounted wind might work as well, but as near as I can tell that technology just doesn’t seem to work well. Buildings can’t support turbines of any appreciable size because of vibrations and wind load and all these other things. We can leave the option open for the future.

We hope to heat the pool as much as possible through solar thermal heat as well. Much of the surrounding land will be used for home food production, which doesn’t necessarily make the building more energy efficient, but our lives will be.

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 that old, but that it would have been lived in since, and the interiors would have evolved with the ages. So the exterior would like old, but the interior might have very old beams and raw stone married with Victorian era woodwork styles, I don’t have a problem with that.

I am however of course making some sacrifices on the interior in order to both make it more livable and to better achieve the look I want on the exterior. Namely instead of doing relatively smaller interior rooms, I am doing large open floor plans, and I’m putting in a massive skylight. In my post on What Makes a Castle a Castle, which you should read before this post if you’ve not. I talk about how you need to minimize windows, especially at lower levels (and the “face” or front of the building) in order to look like a defensible structure (ie, castle). I’m doing that, heavily minimizing windows, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life living in a dark and dreary place.

So I am using an open floor plan on the lower floors with minimal room dividers to allow what windows there are to light multiple rooms, and I am putting a large skylight over the center core of the castle, which will be open for three straight stories shining on the main staircase. The thing is like at least 12×25, I think bigger even. This feature is very uncastle-like, or at least I’ve never seen it, but it is the only way I think I can minimize windows to the extent that I want to.

I will also be using a splayed base as I discussed in my What Makes a Castle a Castle post, as well as very substantial battlements.

The other thing you can do is go tall, and get any windows as high off the ground as possible. I’m having the 1st floor start 6 feet off grade. The basement will have no windows of course. So you’ll ascend steps to enter the home from the front door (like so many churches). The floor structure is two feet, then if we say the first window is 4 feet off the floor, you essentially, on the exterior, don’t have a window start until 12 feet up (and even then I’m keeping them small). In the great room, which is two stories (the first floor will be 12 foot ceilings, others 10 foot ceilings), I’m putting in very large gothic windows with buttresses between them, but they’re not going to start until 8 to 10 feet off the floor (on a 24 foot ceiling height), so while they’ll be large windows, on the exterior they’ll still be 16+ feet off the ground. And they’re on one of the back sides of the house, facing state forest, not the public side of the house.

And yes, we’re are going tall. Our footprint, not counting the towers, is just a 40×60 keep. This section will be three stories tall. 6 feet off grade, plus two feet for the floor, plus 12 feet for the first floor, two more feet for the floor, 10 feet for the second floor, two more feet for the floor, 10 feet for the third floor, two feet for the roof, 6 feet for the battlements. The wall height of this section should be 50 feet.

We’re doing a four tower structure, the two front towers will be slightly smaller and have 4 stories with conical roofs, the back towers will be 5 stores with crenelated roofs, maximum wall height off grade including the battlements is going to be around 74 feet.



We are going tall both because it looks more like a castle, and once you get up high you’re allowed more windows (in fact, the tops of the towers will be all windows, as they should be. Once you get that high a tower without windows for full range of view isn’t fulfilling the purpose of a tower). But also to maximize our view. We’re on the summit of a ridge, but it is wooded. If we clear the immediate area of the summit our goal is to have the building high enough that we get the view above the trees lower on down.

Of course, going this tall necessitated us finding land not covered by a homeowners association, which was difficult, but ultimately we found the perfect lot.


What Makes a Castle a Castle?

Sometimes a castle may be hard to define, but like the courts with obscenity, you know it when you see it. Or rather, you know it when you do not see it.

I have a pet peeve about people calling non-castles castles. Some people think you can put stone on the outside of something and call it a castle, or if it has a turret it is a castle, or if it has crenelated detail on the roof it is a castle. These things are not the case. It might be a chateau, a manor house, a Victorian someone defaced with stone, but it isn’t a castle. Crenelated battlements were kept as architectural details long after they ceased being functionally used on castles, and not every building with crenelations is such a castle. Likewise, stone doesn’t make a castle either, nor does having a round “tower” or turret like you see on many Victorian homes.

I am building an actual castle, well as close to actual as I can. Real castles had walls up to 20 feet thick, this will not be the case for me, but the exterior will look like an actual castle. What makes a castle a castle is that it looks like a defensible structure, and the easiest way to achieve that look is by limiting windows, especially those close to the ground.

That, for instance, is not a castle. Can anyone for see that standing up to an assault? The windows are too large and low to the ground, it is only two stories tall, and the crenelations at the top are too small to be anything but merely decorative.

It is a nice house and they have done some nice architectural details, but I would call it a classic manor house, not a castle. Wikipedia has a a nice page on manor houses that explains why they aren’t castles.

On a trip from Michigan to our building site in Tennessee I drive by this “castle” in Ohio called Bonnyconnellan Castle this also is not a castle. This building is fairly ugly, built by a rich guy with more money than style. It looks like he took a Victorian, added a second turret, put in ugly windows, and an ugly and non-functional crenelations on the top. It is not a castle, I wouldn’t even honor it with the manor house title, to me it is an eye-sore.

So there are small but important details that make a castle a castle, things you may not notice until they are pointed out, but are definitely necessary for that castle feel.

In additional to there being limited windows, the windows should be narrow. Many years ago they did not have the technology to do large glass panes, and of course you didn’t want attackers crawling in through windows, so they were made small. No one likes a dark home, and in the modern era we have building codes for egress windows, but windows do need to be minimized, especially on the front of the building, and low to the ground. When you need to make a larger window you should at least use simulated divided lights so that it appears period correct.

Another feature often overlooked is a splayed base.

The above tower is almost a perfect example of castle architecture, one thing it has is a splayed base, where the base flares outward like a pair of bell bottoms.  Splayed bases exist for a few reason. One reason is that they did not have heavy equipment or poured concrete wall technology when building castles, so to make a stable foundation they simply mounded up stone and rubble, until it formed a stable base, on which they would build vertical walls. The need to do this depending on geography and you see it more on mountain castles  with irregular terrain than those in flatter areas, but it is one of those features you only notice when it is missing. The splayed base however also serves two important defensive purposes. The first is that it will deflect rocks or other dropped projectiles outward at attacking troops when dropped from the top of the wall, allowing the defenders an advantage in defense. The second has to do with the physics of projectiles. There is a reason modern tanks have angled side walls, bullets cannot hit with nearly as much energy when they hit an angled surface, a projectile hits with the most force when exactly perpendicular to the surface it strikes. If you undermine a castle’s foundation it will fall, and if you destroy the bottom of the wall the top of the wall will fall. Cannons, fired from the ground, if aimed straight, will hit a wall perpendicularly… unless it has a splayed base, and of course if the cannon is angled up then it’ll hit the higher straight wall at an angle as well. Catapults and other earlier siege equipment have to deal with the same physics.

Another thing often forgotten or missed on people building reproductions are the machicolations The battlements are built wider than the tower they sit on, they are supported by corbels made of stone as in this tower, and the gaps between the corbels are the machicolations. Traditionally these had holes from the tower roof floor so that defenders could again drop rocks directly down on attackers without exposing themselves. The whole purpose of making the battlement wider was to create these machicolations for defensive purposes. As the years progressed and warfare lessened and people started building chateaus and manor homes this feature was one of the first to go. They walls would go straight up to crenels and merlons, but it the battlement would not flare out to provide the space for machicolations.

Finally the tower is a very good example of crenels and merlons, also know as crenelations. The crenel is the gap, the merlon is the tooth. These were not merely decorative. The idea was for a defender to hide behind the merlon, duck to the crenel to attack (arrows, rocks, boiling oil), and duck back to the merlon. If they are not big enough to hide a person as such I would call them decorative and the building not really a castle.

So, when I say I’m building a castle, I mean a castle. It should look like it was originally built for defense. Like this one, Butron Castle, from spain, defensible, but still livable with windows higher up.

I’m Building a Castle

You can call me Ishmael, and I’m building a castle.

I’m a bit of a nerd, and I’ve had a lifelong dream to build a castle, something you’d see in Europe, on a mountain, overlooking a river, but in the mountains of Tennessee. Luckily I met a woman who was fine with that dream as well, liking mountains herself.

Luckily as well I have been successful enough that this is going to become a reality, and I still get giddy when I think about it.

We live in Michigan now, and are moving to Tennessee in 2015. We’ve purchased land there, the point of a ridge, at 1640 feet it is the highest point around with views of nearby mountains, the nearby city, and river. Also, being a point, we really should have 360 degree views when things are all said and done. It should be breathtaking.

Right now we just have to imagine the view. I found the land using Google Maps, looking for privately owned land with height that doesn’t have any buildings on it yet, and that wasn’t part of a homeowners association, which would have blocked the construction.  I found this lot that wasn’t for sale in an area that most locals did not know had any private land (they thought it was all state owned). I contacted the owner though and was able to come to a deal for it.

One of the nice features of the land is that it is heavily wooded with old growth hardwoods. The largest oak has a 40 inch diameter, and it is mostly oak and hickory. These trees are beautiful and majestic, the kind you’ll only find in a hardwood forest where lack of light has naturally limbed them up. We’re saving the oldest and the biggest and once they’re thinned it will look like a park that has been there hundreds of years. However, we can’t see the view from the building site because of all the trees. So I used Google Earth to hover over the point and turn a full circle to see the view from all angles, and from the highest towers it should be tremendous. Since we’re building on the high point we’ll be able to leave the trees at lower elevations and still get the views. The site is simply perfect.

Our castle will be gothic-norman in style, and be highly energy efficient. I hope to have very small utility bills. More on those topics later.

This blog will chronicle the journey going forward. We’re having plans done by an architect, will start clearing the land this winter (hopefully at a profit with the value of the lumber) and we aim to start construction in 2014, for a summer 2015 completion date.