Debt Free Dream Home Build Story – Phase Three

Excavation, Layout, Concrete Footings, Drainage, ICF Foundation, Waterproofing, Water Main and Rough Plumbing, Slab Prep, Hydronic Tubing Installation, Slab Pour, Steel Beam, Sill Plate Installation, Floor Framing and Hydronic Radiant Subfloor Installation

Build Story Overview

The Debt Free Dream Home Build story is one of lofty ideas, impossible odds, tight deadlines, underdogs, not taking no for an answer and a beautiful, simple home built from a strong desire to be self sufficient and debt free. This is a 36×36, 3447 sq ft home with 3 levels built using principles of building science, high efficiency materials like ICF block, SIP wall and roof panels and a timber frame sawn, cut and raised on site in a blizzard. This owner build project started in 2015, broke ground in 2017 and is currently under construction.


Phase Three Overview



Phase Three – COMPLETE


It’s officially, officially, official! The house build has begun! Well at least we’ve made a huge crater where the house should go if everything goes to plan!

With help of a friend in the business we laid out the foundation using south, the desired final ‘view’ and an approximation of how far into the hillside we could place the building to take advantage of earth cooling.

Staking, strings and a good thumb helped us stay on track. Using a laser to help ensure we didn’t over excavate, one of the most common errors at this stage, we started into moving dirt.

Not really knowing what we’d find we were on the lookout for pockets of clay to give us some clue about the soil condition. We ran into some issues caused by the actual depth of the hillside controlling the house position. Here we go, let’s make some moondust!

Foundation Layout & Footings

Crafting the perfect foundation for this monster building starts with this dirt canvas of delightful moon dust and scorching heat. Threatening to make us suffer through work that is seriously only for the most rugged of people.

First we set the corner of the building which will become the reference for everything from there and being setting up batter boards from which we’ll lay strings which represent the boundaries of the building.

Turns out strings can fail? So we struggle for a bit with that. Oh and tape measures can be used improperly? Yep! Once we survived layout it’s time to build our spread footing forms with a step down and this HUGE pier footings in the middle of the foundation.

Our friend in the business stopped by to oversee the final form layout and intervened suggesting a buttress and a bump in one of our post locations. Annnddddd it’s time for the pour! As we say with concrete, “Ready or not, here we come!”

Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs) and Scaffold

Yep, those are legos. Just kidding! They’re ICF’s! They’re a revolutionary approach to concrete walls, footings and foundations.

Helping us towards our design goals of a high efficiency home the ICF’s give us an instantly insulated frost wall and daylight basement.

We start with doing layout on the footings with a chalk line and then insulating the footing with a thermal break. Next we layout blocks like you’d do with bricks These are just big bricks that hold concrete! Don’t be fooled. We had some silly, but serious, misunderstandings about their installation which once cleared up set us on smooth sailing.

Like always the first few days of a new phase or material are slow, tedious and often painful. Once through the ‘college time’ things start accelerating. Block, rebar, zip ties, block, rebar, zip ties. With a routine the blocks are going up with ease with just 2 people. Finally scaffold bracing is set up to support the wall during the pour, provide a work platform for the pump crew.

Up to the very last minute blocking, bracing, penetrations and patching work is being done to prep the walls for the pour which was just shy of 36 yards and before we know it….there it is! Our ICF Foundation!

Footing membrane water proofing

Early in the ICF stacking process we actually stopped to add the footing insulation and the membrane which overlaps the wall to the footing. It was “easy” at that point to access.

This seemingly straightforward process gave us endless grief. Another example of you don’t know what you don’t know. Trying to interpret the very specific details provided by the manufacturer versus how industry actually uses the product really threw us for a loop.

Since this is our foundation, literally, and we really get one chance to get it right we had to go to some pretty ridiculous lengths to get to an application that we felt at peace with.

In the end its a solid installation that protects the footing through a thermal break and a robust membrane and sealant system.

As it turns out this was time well invested because these lessons would be most helpful later as we circle back to waterproofing after the ICF walls were poured.

Slow is fast in foundation work. This is one really solid foundation!

Footing drain, filter stock & pea gravel

Drainage is a huge priority in foundation construction. Water isn’t picky, it goes where it wants and takes the path of least resistance. Get this wrong and you’ll be cursing water for the rest of your homes existence. Especially a walkout basement surrounded by earth. Especially once where many feet of snow accumulates!

This work was done in stages as it made sense during the construction of the ICF wall. Consisting of perforated pipe, filter sock and pea gravel.

The focus here is to stop water which might want to migrate, give it a place to exit and remove any chance of hydraulic pressure build up.

A tedious process of trying to plumb in some very unstable conditions and maintain slope and prevent soil/silt intrusion into the pipe or rock is taxing and tries patience. It’s also hard to work with because of the cramped spaces that are now inaccessible. The decision to do this now was brilliant as it would have been nearly impossible later.

Imagine trying to pack buckets of pea gravel between a concrete wall and a tall rock embankment while not knocking rocks and soil into the gravel. Yea, good luck!

ICF Foundation Waterproofing & dimple fabric

Really the focus at this stage is backfilling because soil stability on an open excavation at this stage is a big concern. Not because of safety so much but because the foundation draining has to be built in a certain way and a sluff or cave in would create headaches we simply would love to avoid!

Straight to it we’re apply a asphaltic direction adhesion membrane from the top of the wall and overlapping the membrane applied earlier which overlaps the lower wall and footing. Voila! A swimming pool! Ok, we don’t really wanna find out, but that’s the idea here. Water stay OUT!

Next up to aid in drainage and give liquid water a clean ‘fast track’ down to the perimeter drain applied earlier and prevent any acute hydraulic pressure we installed a dimply fabric. Again, top of wall to footing. This has a filter fabric material over a semi-rigid bubble composite. Water doesn’t stand a chance!

Sub-Slab Backfilling & Grading

With the walls up we now have a long slog of prep work leading up to the slab pour. To begin we’re backfilling the ICF wall with large washed drain rock just enough that a sluff of the excavation wouldn’t cause major damage. Then moving inside the foundation we’re backfilling and compacting the earth in small lifts.

Building up the grade a little at time to ensure good compaction so our future slab cracks…..less! We’re using crushed gravel with fines for this as the native soil is too unpredictable and has an amount of clay which will make for a horrible base.

Ground Rough Plumbing, Water Main (again!) and Final Grade

As the grade comes up to level we shift to working on our ground rough sewer main and branches. Working in the heat was extremely difficult as the black pipe wanted to warp and twist. Early in the build we worked closely with our engineer to ensure we had the drop needed to reach the septic. There’s no room for error!

Sadly during the inspection we learned our water main was unsatisfactory as it had not allotted for the length needed to reach the mechanical room with NO fittings in the pipe. So the existing main, yea the same one that blew up in our face, had to be completely excavated and replaced. Ground plumbing done and approved!

Now comes the finesse work getting things really fine tunes to ensure the slab elevation and thickness are dead nuts. Some careful use of a laser and screed board with sand gets the surface flat and level.

Sand, Vapor Barrier, Slab Insulation & Rebar

A vapor barrier and 2″ sheet foam are added to stop moisture transmission and provide a thermal break from the earth for the slab. This is critical as we’ll be installing radiant in the slab.

We used double 6 mil plastic sheeting but there are some very strong commercial products our there for this application. It’s a tedious process because of all the penetrations but the need for the pier footings to make direct contact with the slab. Lots of cutting and taping.

Foam is a high PSI 2″ foam sheet used for underslab applications. Joints are taped and lots of scribing and carving to ensure the slab thickness isn’t compromised.

And finally a large grid of 1/2″ rebar is going in which will provide reinforcement for the slab and a framework to install the radiant tubing. The plans call for a 12″ grid. Yea, every one of those intersections of rebar gets tied. One gets very intimate with the rebar in the process!

In-Slab Radiant Hydronic Heat

Framework is set for the radiant tubing to be installed. First a manifold is installed on the wall of what will become the mechanical room. From there loops, ideally of equal length, are routed in ‘circuits’ out into the floor and then back to the manifold.

There’s a sweet spot with tubing run lengths and it’s to not exceed 200-250 feet. So using a radiant tubing calculator the result in our installation is 5 loops which provide roughly identical lengths and help balance the system for even heat.

As we lay the tubing zip ties are used to secure it to the rebar grids. This ensure during the fairly abusive process of the concrete pumping the tubing does not get dislocated. It also ensure that the buoyancy present in the tubing doesn’t allow it to float to the surface.

We could have used a software to really dial in the tubing layout for max efficiency. We didn’t. So what you see is “what happened”. To do this at the peak of design more time would have been committed to this process.

Finally the system is pressure tested to ensure no leaks and that it’s charged for the coming slab pour.

Concrete Pour & Finishing

Ready or not, here we come! Sound familiar. It’s the crack of dawn and the pump is on site. Final checks are in order and we’ve got an apron form set up with screed guides set. It’s time to have some concrete fun!

Extra hands on deck to help our slab pour go smooth we used a pump to ensure an easy job placing concrete in symphony with the screen and float.

Honestly another one of those ‘you’d never believe it if we told you’ stories, a couple from the mid-West literally drove straight through 27 hours to help us with their craft. Concrete. Without their help and the help of friends in the trade this slab….we don’t even wanna talk about it okay?

Concrete is going down smooth, screed board going good, bull float bringing up the cream nicely on this six sack mix and the first couple trucks are gone in a flash! As the concrete starts to set up we’re able to start getting on the slab to work on floating, troweling and getting the flat work looking the best. Especially in the detailed areas like corners and around plumbing.

With somehow a mix up leaving us maybe one yard shy and paranoid of a cold joint a truck is round tripped to finish up the pour. The army of helping hands are burning up their shoulders to make the slab flat and smooth. A power trowel is used to do the heavy lifting and there it is. An absolutely gorgeous 4″ thick floating concrete slab!

Steel Beam & Garage Post Installation

Onward and upward we’re back to the sawmill! Partly to continue teething and partly to make beautiful posts from logs with a story! We’re using trees from our property to mill up some chunky 8×8 fir and larch posts.

It’s a huge blessing that we took on this sawmilling at this stage because it brought to light some lessons about sawmill operation, trees and precision that would become very important later during the timber frame sawmilling project.

Before diving into the sawmill we get the call our custom fabricated W8x18 (that’s the wood equivalent for the curious minds!) steel beam is ready and on it’s way. A crane truck arrives to set the beam in our makeshift beam ‘tripods’ used to set the beam.

Post installation is going to be a major project. A small oversight in placing radiant tubing has us playing our least favorite game ever installing the engineered post bases. Radiant roulette! Yep, it’s exactly what it sounds like!

No we didn’t buy a lottery ticket, but we did somehow dodge this mega-bullet and in go the posts supporting the beam. Big, bold and beautiful! Our first sawmilled posts!

Sill Plate Installation

Preparation continues for floor framing. Well, actually these sill plates are extra special. First, they’re massive! 4×12 to be exact and we’re actually going to be making them even larger. More on that later!

Getting the sill plates installed means a fair bit of layout work has to be done to ensure once we start drilling the plates land exactly where they should. This is effectively putting a building on top of a building!

Once laid out we’re lifting these honking pressure treated beasts onto the 14 foot high wall and fastening them with huge concrete anchors post drilled into the wall. This will keep the house from flying away. Details!

Floor Framing, I-Joists, Rim Board, Squash blocks

Time to build the first floor platform! We’re using engineered products on this because it just makes sense.

The floor system consists of i-joists, LVL (laminated veneer lumber) and LSL (laminated strand lumber) rim board. One constant span means the entire floor acts as a single ‘monolith’ with little other blocking or joining necessary.

Getting these 36 foot long i-joists (read wobbly noodles) up on to the sills was fun. Once we got it figured out things start going smooth.

Wow we’re working at heights over a concrete floor so time to get our legs back under us from the hop scotch work that is floor framing.

Setting the first rim board is super critical as the remainder of the floor framing will reference this placement so lots of care was taken to ensure it’s dead nuts….ish!

No blocking in this floor assembly but there are squash blocks! More on those little fella’s later!

Finally our stair opening gets framed out using LVL to provide extra strength in that span and for attaching the future stairs!

Radiant Sub-Flooring Installation

The Ferrar….Porsch…exotic! of subfooring is a low mass aluminum embossed panel that is both the 1 1/8″ subfloor and an integrated tubing layout.

Our subflooring has arrived and it’s not a simple lay, glue and screw operation. We have a fair bit of reading and orientation to consider as this subfloor has a very specific layout prepare for us by the manufacturer.

There are four basic panel layouts, left, right, straight and double. Using these panels we’ll be essentially be building the bulk of what will become our floor plan. The heating zones to be used to control room-by-room comfort in the house are built around tubing runs just like the concrete slab radiant, only they’ll have individual thermostats!

After getting our heads around the system we start the installation trying to keep the panels tight and oriented properly knowing that the joints matter since we’ll be nesting tubing in them later.

Slowly the floor plan and panel layout starts to take shape and with enough screws and glue to hold down a castle our subfloor is officially installed!

Phase Three Contributors


Building Phases

Overview Debt Free Dream Home Build Story
Debt Free Dream Home Build Phase One
Phase 1 – Septic, Deck, Hot Tub, Solar, Learning, Test Projects, First House Plan, Timber Frame Workshop, Better House Plans
Debt Free Dream Home Phase 2
Phase 2 – Estate Sale, Off Grid Water System, Backhoe & Sawmill Acquisition, Site and Material Planning, Apprenticeship
Debt Free Dream Home Build Phase Three
Phase 3 – Excavation, Foundation, Plumbing, Radiant, Slab, Steel Beam, Hydronic Radiant Subfloor Framing
Debt Free Dream House Phase Four
Phase 4 – Sawmill Timber Frame, Plane & Stage 115 Piece Timber Frame, Timber Frame Workshop, Timber Frame Raising

Want to do a news story or interview on this build story?

Need content for your news article (HARO), podcast, newsletter, blog or YouTube channel? KERF would love to help you share our message about high efficiency construction, owner builder projects, debt free construction, timberframing, sawmilling, ICF construction and building as a couple! If any of those sound like a good fit get with us to see how we can help!

Hide picture