kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Zero Net Energy + Permaculture Yard

Category Archives: landscaping

Gravel Border Around the Foundation

2

Before we purchased our empty lot we had been told that our subdivision has a fairly high water table, so managing underground moisture, especially with a full basement, was going to be a necessity.

In order to better control water below-grade we had our concrete subcontractor install drain tile on the exterior and interior sides of the foundation walls at the footings in order to maximize the amount of water that could be quickly and efficiently sent to our sump pump. Once our sump pump ejects the water outside it travels through an underground pipe to a culvert out by the street, moving with the aid of gravity, along with water collected from our neighbors’ homes, before ending up in the municipal system.

In addition to the spray-on damproofing applied to the exterior of our foundation walls, the 5″ of Rockwool on the outside of our foundation also encourages water to make its way down to the drain tile system before it has a chance to collect and sit, causing serious problems.

At grade, around the perimeter of the house, we also decided to install a gravel border, both for its decorative effect and its ability to encourage water to move away from the top of our foundation and down to the drain tile, particularly during periods of heavy rainfall.

We also considered various ways to protect and finish the top of the exposed Rockwool on the foundation. Here’s an older Green Building Advisor article discussing the issues involved along with possible solutions (as far as I can tell there’s still no single, obvious solution yet, although a parge coat or stucco finish is arguably the most attractive and durable, especially if combined with a gravel border as opposed to just top soil): GBA

After initially deciding to go with a combination of tile backerboard and Tuff II (giving the exposed insulation the look of finished stucco or exposed concrete), we ended up using metal flashing from coil stock instead (typically available in the widest number of options from a local roofing supply company).

It was only after construction began that I learned the tile backerboard manufacturers don’t honor warranties for this below-grade application (perhaps this will change in the future, or maybe they’ll develop a product for this specific application). Although I know the product is commonly used in this way (I couldn’t find an example of a bad experience, or a case of catsastrophic failure anywhere online), the lack of warranty protection doesn’t bolster confidence for its long-term durability.

In this regard, I imagine some kind of gravel border is probably essential, especially if the house would otherwise be surrounded by a lot of clay soil that likes to retain moisture. Also, just getting the backerboard attached to the foundation through the 5″ of Rockwool would have been time consuming (assuming you can find long enough flat-head concrete screws, which we unfortunately didn’t), so we opted instead for metal flashing mainly for its ease of installation and for some cost savings.

Starting on the green Zip sheathing as if it was a typical Z-flashing, we had the siding guys just continue the metal flashing down the face of the Rockwool on the foundation below where we knew the level of the gravel would end up (more on this in a future blog post regarding siding installation details). So far this has worked out well, with the metal flashing avoiding damage, and without much “oil canning”, even on the west side of the house, which has the largest amount of exposure. It probably helps that the metal flashing in this area around the house is the same color as our siding, helping it to ‘disappear’ visually to some extent.

When our excavator did backfill, knowing we were going to have to cover the Rockwool around the top of the foundation, we had him hold back on the top 16″ or so. With this ‘trench’ left exposed, we first applied landscape fabric in order to try and control weeds in the future, and to better contain the washed gravel that we would be putting down inside the trench.

gravel - west side w: just fabric

Setting up the landscape fabric.

As with many other areas of the house, we decided to opt for a more informal look, avoiding a perfectly consistent and squared-off border, preferring more of an undulating path as the outside edge of the border makes its way around the house.

gravel nw corner

Section filled with gravel.

And instead of moving around endless loads of gravel with wheelbarrows, we rented a compact front loader, in our case a Ditch Witch (sometimes referred to generically as a ‘dingo’), which made the project go much faster while also saving everyone’s back.

We had watched Felipe move gravel and other materials around during the construction of our stone window wells, so we knew just how versatile and useful these machines can be — and they just look like a lot of fun to use, which they are.

changa on ditch witch

We rented the machine from a Rental Max location near us, which wasn’t cheap, but we definitely felt like we got our money’s worth, as it saved us from having to endure many hours of hard labor. My wife loved using it, in part because the controls mimic those used in video games, so it was fairly intuitive for her as she quickly learned to precisely and accurately move the machine around exactly where it needed to go, including some fairly tight spots around the house.

We think the machine is worth every penny of rental cost if you have a significant amount of landscape material that needs to be moved, especially if a wheelbarrow is your only other option, or if tight spaces preclude the use of larger machines.

guys helping me spread gravel on west side

Luke, Jesus, and Eduardo help me shovel and rake the gravel into position as my wife drops each bucketful in place.

The boys were profoundly disappointed that they were never given a chance to operate the dingo, especially when they saw how much fun my wife was having using it.

gravel n and w views

Northwest corner of the house as the gravel border takes shape.

 

setting up gravel on west side

View of west facade as gravel is installed and we prep for boulders.

On the west side of the house we decided to add some boulders where there’s a drop-off in grade. In addition to adding some visual interest, we thought the boulders could help with surface run-off during the heaviest rainstorms.

setting up for boulders

Adding these little gravel beds helped get the boulders set securely in the hard clay soil.

We purchased the boulders locally from Lurvey. They have a nice selection of boulders and flagstones in a wide variety of styles and sizes. We would’ve chosen even larger boulders, but we were somewhat limited in this regard, having to base our selection on what we thought the dingo could safely handle.

first boulders going in on west side

First boulders going in.

In addition to the boulders, once mulch and plants are added to this area we shouldn’t see any erosion in the future.

Setting the larger boulders in place, and selecting and arranging cobblestones around the edge of the gravel border, was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun. I can see why someone like Lew French, or Dan Snow, gets so much enjoyment from their work:

And apart from their decorative function, and their ability to help prevent erosion, kids can’t help but try out their balancing skills on the boulders.

ninja training

Ninja in training.

 

north side w: gravel and first cobblestones

Cobblestones going in around the edge of the gravel border for added decoration and to keep the eventual mulch in the yard separated from the washed gravel border.

There will be more photos showing how the gravel border turned out in a future blog post on the installation of the siding.

nature taking back

With the clay soil left exposed around the house for many weeks, mother nature didn’t hesitate to fill the void with a wide variety of ‘weeds’, some quite beautiful in their own right.

Stone Basement Window Wells

0

The Design Goal

We always wanted a basement for our new house. The idea of building a new house on slab without one was foreign to us. Both my wife and I grew up in homes that had very active basement areas, with fond family and friend-related memories.

For both of us, basements were places to go for various games (board games, ping pong, pool, etc.), watching TV with family, a place for bulky exercise equipment, or just respite from hot summer sun.

And to improve the basement’s “livability”, we wanted it to have a 9′ ceiling height (we felt it made a big difference in our last house over a 7′ or 8′ ceiling), and large windows facing south.

We also thought that window wells that were more open and expansive could help draw in the sun, hopefully making the space feel less like a dungeon and more like normal living space (the window wells should have an additional side benefit, but I’ll explain that later).

After exploring the options, including this line of products:

Spycor window wells

We decided to go with real retaining wall cement blocks.

The Execution

In researching the Versa Lok product , I came across a series of interesting videos by Dirt Monkey on YouTube about retaining walls:

We like the long-term structural stability of the Versa Lok product, and it helps us achieve the Urban-Rustic look we’re going for.

We received several estimates, but decided to go with Poul’s Landscaping & Nursery since they had previous experience building these stone basement window wells. We paid a slight premium to do so, but part of that premium reflected their recommendation to use a concrete footing that would be tied into the foundation with rebar. Without it, they had seen too much movement on previous projects, creating future headaches and costly repairs.

Candido and Felipe excavating hole for wdw well

Candido and Felipe begin excavating the hole for the first window well.

 

carving outline of window well

They carve an outline for the dimensions of the window well.

 

shaping the hole for the window well

Felipe and Candido continue to dig out and shape the hole.

 

holed carved and shaped - ready for stone

Hole prepped for footings.

 

Candido putting down crushed stone for footing

Candido spreads out the crushed stone before setting up the form for the concrete footing.

 

Felipe and Candido prepping for 1st footing

Candido and Felipe set up the form for the concrete footing — got lucky with the timing of this shot — note the flying hammer and speed square.

 

prep for footing: crushed stone-form-rebar

Corner of the form for the footing with rebar.

 

close up of rebar going into Roxul for wdw well footings

Close up of the rebar going into the 5″ of Roxul and the foundation.

After the guys set the rebar in the foundation through the Roxul, I stuffed the holes as much as possible with pulled apart Roxul Comfortboard 80 before they did their pour for the footings.

first wdw well prepped for first row from basement wdw

View through basement window buck before they started building up the first window well.

 

first blocks for first row

First row being set on the footing.

For color, we wanted a basic concrete gray, which we thought would complement our overall Urban-Rustic design look, in particular the eventual charred cedar siding.

Since firing our builder (there were two of them) in February, the job site has been quiet as I work alone, but then all of a sudden…

ComEd shows up with a new pole for our electric service, just as pallets of Versa Lok retaining wall block are delivered to site. The job site went from relative silence to hyperactivity — stressful, but also extremely exciting to see after such an extended delay.

Candido leveling 1st row on footing

Candido leveling the first row.

 

Felipe and Candido starting first wdw well

Candido and Felipe trying to protect themselves from forecasted rain.

The first wall begins to rise:

 

washed gravel to backfill around window wells

Piles of washed gravel for back fill behind the walls of the window wells.

 

wdw well tools of the trade from above

Tools of the trade.

 

slowly rising wall w: landscape fabric and washed gravel backfill

Washed gravel installed behind the growing wall.

 

Candido applying adhesive to block

Candido applying adhesive before setting the next block.

 

Felipe and Candido double checking their work

Felipe and Candido double checking their work.

 

geotextile fabric

Geotextile fabric being installed for soil stabilization, and to improve the overall integrity of the wall.

 

Felipe prepping for capstones

Felipe covering up the fabric in preparation for the last couple of rows of block.

 

close up of capstones

Close up of capstones on the pallet from above.

 

capstones going on

Capstones being installed on the first wall.

capstones complete #2

First window well complete before backfill.

 

Spring sun peeking into basement window

Spring sun sneaking into the basement window.

 

basement window letting in light

Light pouring in one of the two basement windows.

 

Candido building up the 2nd wdw well

Candido building up the second wall.

 

finished window well (west)

Completed second window well.

Views of first completed window well from inside the house:

On the next to last day, Felipe and Candido could’ve rushed to finish, but instead they came back for a few hours the following day to complete their work while also doing a really nice job of cleaning up — which we noticed and really appreciated. They even took the time to put back scrap plywood sheets that ran from the driveway to the front step so I didn’t have to.

Felipe has been working for Poul’s for 40 years (the company has been around for 50 years). Putting that into some kind of perspective, that means Felipe’s been doing this kind of work since the Jimmy Carter administration — that’s astounding.

Candido and Felipe make a great team: they seemed to really enjoy working together, they’re both diligent and conscientious, and it was fun to watch them do their thing — a mixture of back-breaking labor and skill.

Candido and Felipe finishing up

Candido and Felipe — thank you for doing such a nice job!