PSL – Parallel Strand Lumber – or “Parallam” as it’s known in the trade, is an engineered wood product that exhibits organic qualities unlike any other. It’s half way between a “Microlam” or LVL, which looks like a plywood beam, and a LSL beam, which has an appearance similar to OSB. Nothing against OSB, it just looks like they swept the floor of the mill and then glued all the little pieces together, which they did.
But with the Parallam you get the benefits of using small strands of fast growing trees in a more appealing look – long strands of soft wood (poplar/fir) that vary in color, and each face has distinctive feel.
This is what the material looks like after a few passes through the planer, and then cut to length with the old beam saw. The 16″ blade on the beam saw cuts through PSL like it’s warm butter, yum.
Anyways, I digress.
This is how the finished stairs turned out –
To be perfectly honest this outdoor living space wasn’t created overnight – it took a couple of years to plan and build it, and then a couple more years before the vegetation matured and we added lighting. But I think that organic unfolding of ideas over time is part of what makes this space so special.
Think Big, Start Small
Come up with a master plan of how you envision the space being used, then try to tackle the project in phases.
Our entire yard was basically a blank slate of sod, but after our first summer living in the house we realized the north side of our house offered some enticing shade. Not to mention the kitchen side door opened to the north, so it seemed like a natural place for our indoor living space to spill outdoors.
That first year we rented a walk behind loader to scrape all the sod up on the north side of the house. That left us with a lot of dirt and sometimes mud right by our back door, so there was a big push to immediately get the patio down. Before setting the patio though, we dug up an old lilac bush and moved it back towards the fence and centered on the bay window. You can’t but mature landscaping. I mean you can, it’s just really expensive! This hundred year old lilac bush stands eight feet tall and shelters a little shade garden while providing privacy from the neighbors. Well worth the effort to move the bush.
We also buried a perforated drain pipe in line with the drip edge of the roof above, and set an area drain to catch run off at a low point near the house. With site drainage addressed the pavers were set and the patio complete. Encouraging moss to grow in the cracks of our patio helps to keep the sand and weeds at bay, and it softens the hardness of the concrete and brick pavers. The moss stays green year round so in the depths of winter, after shoveling our patio, it appears to have bright green grout joints!
Pergolas Provide Privacy and Shade
The next year I tackled the “pergola”, which is basically a free-standing shade structure. I’ve probably built a dozen pergolas for clients over the years, but never one like this! A huge timber salvaged from another builder was quartered to make four of the five 8″ x 8″ posts, and then 2 – 6″ x 12″ beams were mortise and tenoned into the posts. Metal strapping was added to the tops of the post to hold them together – sometimes that salvaged lumber ain’t all that straight!
20′ lengths of 1″ x 6″ cedar were stained and secured horizontally on the back of the pergola to further privatize our outdoor living space. Two wisteria vines were gifted to us and made perfect bookends to the pergola, growing up the end posts and over the whole structure, our patio gets cozier with each year the wisteria fills in overhead.
I know it’s hard to imagine – but after all that the patio still felt like it was missing something. Something big, something massive. Here’s the shade garden before;
And here’s the shade garden after adding a 1,500 lb. boulder. Ahhhh, that’s better! Something for the kids to climb on.
It’s taken a few years, but we’re now enjoying the fruits of our labor on this shady, patio retreat.
My favorite cabinet designers here in Denver finally put together a website showcasing what they do best – and it’s quite impressive. Have a look around:
Notching beams on a pergola is a great way to tie the structure together, and more importantly, it looks cool.
Here’s a peek at how to do it –
First, layout where the notches will fall on the beams. For this project, we’re notching the bottom side of 4 x 6 rough cedar beams to rest on top of 4 x 8 cedar beams at each end. We want our notch to be an 1/8 of an inch larger than the thickness of the 4 x beam to allow for a layer of paint and some wiggle room when installing. If the notch is too tight the end of the beam can split or crack off when forced into place, which is a most undesirable outcome when you’re handling limited stock of pricey material.
Set your saw blade to the desired depth of notch – keep in mind that by notching the beam you’re reducing the depth of the beam which reduces the span, so don’t get greedy. We’re taking a 2″ notch out of our 4 x 6 beams, or a third of the material depth.
Use a speed square to guide your saw along the outside edges of the cut, and then go to town in between. The more you score it, the easier it comes out with a chisel.
Use a sharp chisel to clean out the base of the notch so the beam will rest level.
Ok so this next step is really important – anyone can notch a beam but to prolong the life of the structure you want to seal that sweaty connection. Liberally coat any surfaces that will be contact with each other with an oil stain to penetrate and seal the wood. If you don’t do this step my painter will take you out back and kick you in the pants.
Assuming all your measurements were correct, the beams will slide right into place.
As a residential contractor, I occasionally uncover an “oops-ies”, or a “dang-it”, or sometimes even a “oh no you didn’t!” While I can’t say I’ve seen it all, after ten years with my license I’ve definitely seen some crazy shit.
Just to be clear, we all make mistakes in life, I myself have made a mistake or two along the way. But it’s how we fix those mistakes (and learn from them) that defines us – here at Sound Builders we’re proud to say we’ve never buried the likes of any of these mistakes:
“Oops-ies!” – just because you cut a post exactly 1/2″ short, doesn’t mean you should use drywall to shim it up!
“Dang it! I can’t figure out how to get this wire IN the wall.” Said the electrician’s helper.
“Just run the electrical wire through that rusty hole in the radiator, once they put the baseboards on, nobody will see it!” Said the electrician, who we can only hope is no longer in business.
“Oh no you didn’t!” – two nails and a half-inch of bearing means this beam was one dance party away from falling on someone’s head. Notice the split in the old stud where the beam was nailed off, and again below the beam where the shoulder was over cut.
For starters, what’s a zoning variance? And why on earth would anyone want to seek one out?
If you’ve never heard of it, consider yourself lucky. The process of pursuing a variance is a test of patience, among other things. Basically you’re asking your local zoning department for permission to build or alter a building in a manner that does not conform with the current zoning code.
In this case, my client wanted to build a second story deck off of an existing house located at the rear of the lot. Current zoning code does not allow second story decks in the rear of the lot, but it also doesn’t allow siting a primary residence in the rear of the lot, as this one was some 100 years ago. We felt like we had a good case, so we went about the process.
1. GET DENIED – Before one can apply for a variance, one needs a formal denial from the zoning department. This requires submitting a zoning permit application, along with a site plan and full property elevation drawings, and then waiting for the plan reviewers to stamp denied on them. In our case, that took about three weeks.
2. SUBMIT VARIANCE APPLICATION – With a zoning denial in hand, you’re ready to apply for a variance. State your grounds for pursuing a variance. In our case, we argued that the property owners were not being allowed reasonable use of their structure because of unusual site conditions, through no fault of their own.
3. SCHEDULE A HEARING – Three and half months out, not much you can do about it.
4. GET YOUR DUCKS IN A ROW – My Clients informed each adjoining property owner of the project we were seeking a variance for, and kindly asked for a letter of support. Then we took everything and boiled it down into a neat, spiral bound presentation. Satellite images and site photos help to communicate neighborhood context and site conditions.
4. POST A SIGN – A week before our hearing the city required we post a sign, informing neighbors of the pending hearing date.
5. MAKE YOUR CASE – The property owner and I provided each member of the Board with our spiral bound presentation and verbally walked them through our situation. To my surprise, the Board was receptive to our request and hearing no objections from other community members, they granted a variance for our project.
It’s comforting to know that while we attempt to suck every last ounce of rotten dinosaur from the earth’s crust, there are some very bright people thinking – not about where the next source of energy will come from – but how to vastly reduce the amount of energy we consume in the first place.
One of my favorite university instructors, Fred Andreas, is one of those passionate individuals on a team of architects and engineers at the University of Colorado researching the concept of a “living wall”. The term “living wall” is just the skin of what is really more of a whole body approach to building. The underlying theme is biomimicry – just as the blood vessels in our skin expand and contract to regulate the core temperature of our body, so too could a living wall for a building.
As Fred admits in this NPR piece, there are still significant technological and engineering hurdles to clear – phase change materials, hydrogels, polymers, and a bunch of other stuff we weren’t even talking about twenty years ago have yet to be integrated into building systems on a large scale – but then again we were saying the same thing about touchscreens and voice recognition ten years ago, and now they’re ubiquitous. It’s literally just a matter of time before living walls completely shift the paradigm.
“This is an architectural and engineering renaissance that we’re experiencing right now…I think the sky is the limit.” – Fred Andreas, 12.20.2013
If you’re interested in learning more about the future of building technology: