Stilt house final stretch

The stilt house in the back yard is almost done.

house half done

Billy came down for 2 days before Stormageddon or whatever the pansies in this neck of the woods are calling a little rain. They actually closed school! But I digress… Billy got the walls framed in and the roof started in one day, then the next day he finished the last two walls,  installed the door (which involved cutting a foot or so off the bottom of a standard door) and then, just before the storm closed in, threw on the roof panels and the first layer of tar paper.

A word to the wise when building a shed

So you want to build a shed or a play house or a tree house or something like that. Good on ya! I read a couple of books on the subject as I was getting this shed house up and going. One thing they all say is “check local building codes” which sounds like the sort of cover-your-ass boilerplate that the publisher made them put in. But there’s a lot of wisdom in it because if you know the rules, and follow them, you could end up saving hassles down the road.

The stilt house is going up in a small backyard. And it’s a giant structure in that small backyard. There are neighbors just over the fence, and we’re all nice and cosy… their trees drop leaves (hell, one of their ivy plants came over the fence and killed the one tree in my yard which is why I built this thing on stilts in the first place). This thing is a part of the neighborhood, like it or not. We talked to some of the neighbors about it in general terms, but even I was a bit surprised at how big it looks there in the yard.

And here is where reading the regulations comes in. Our town actually has a very nice write up of the municipal code concerning accessory buildings, in plain text (and in Comic Sans, so you know it’s user friendly, natch). So we’ve got a definition as “A detached, subordinate building, the use of which is clearly incidental to that of the main building or to the use of the land.” Check.

accessory buildings

More important is stuff like “If… will exceed 120 square feet in floor area, a Building Permit is required; if 120 square feet or less, exempt.” Hmm. My original shed house  would have been pushing this limit. Another critical one is the roof height and offset. The walls must be either less than 6 inches from the property line, or more than 3 feet. Since I have a 6″ cinderblock wall in my yard, I can’t really go to the narrow limit, even if I cared to, so I made sure it was 3′ away from the line. I don’t actually know where my property line is, but I assumed it was a few inches from the inside of the fence and called that good. Then there’s the roof height: 12′ from the foundation. Again, the shed house would have pushed over this, which is the thing that killed that plan more than anything. There are some other regulations about doors and windows as a % of wall size and in relation to the property line, but they are all simple to understand.

Once the poles were in, we went looking for where the roof and floor should go. Basically, we started at a roof of 11’11” and worked down from there. The poles were set so as to be far enough from the edge. The windows won’t be too big, and the floor layout is 64 sqft. All good.

Back to the knowing all these regulations, and following them: when the building inspector showed up at the house the day after we started construction, it was nice to know the rules were on our side. My wife was running out the door, but she waved him into the backyard and told him to measure away. When I called him later to follow up, he had some serious advice about covering up the pressure treated posts to keep the kids from getting splinters, but as far as the house itself, we were good to go.

I’m sure this will blend in as time goes on; in the meantime, the kids like it looming in their field of view. I look forward to them looming over me as I garden or bbq in the yard.

Stilt house gets realer

Another productive day on the job site… by sundown, here’s where the stilt-house stands:

The floor is framed in with 46, the 26 joists have been added, and the interior floor (3/4″ ply) is in place). The first roof joists are in and the fascia board on the front is added to be sure that it’s not going over the 12′ height limit.

stilt house framed

Here are the 46’s getting added. This took a lot of math to get right. Billy put a laser level line on each post last night, and we were able to work all the measurements from there this morning. I’m starting with the 12′ height limit and going down from there. I know that I want to be able to walk into the house without totally cracking my skull, so it’s got a 70″ internal height at the front. Between the roof joists, I’ll be able to stand up! At the back, it’ll drop to just under 5′, so it’ll be cramped, but we’ll probably have a bench there anyway.

The 46’s are bolted into the uprights with 2 1/2″ through bolts. And then a Simson angle on the inside. The whole structure feels pretty rigid at this point.

side members

The girls are just having to much fun with this project. They have been sorting nails, Tessa helped mix all the concrete, and Eliza is begging to be allowed up the ladder.

job site helpers

Today was another big day at Home Depot… $1300 for all the exterior wall sheeting, the floor, and all the roofing including trim. It also included a door and 3 windows. I was originally going to use reclaimed stuff from Urban Ore or The Reuse people, but hiring Billy changed my mind. It’s a hassle to have to make do with mis-matched windows and a door that’s an odd size. Since I’m paying by the day to have it done, I’m paying for that hassle to get figured out. Turns out, it’s cheaper to just buy the cheapest stuff they’ve got at Home Depot.

Stilt house gets real

For those of you who’ve been following along, you know the tree house has been bubbling along for almost a year. Today, it got real. Actually, reality set in a little while ago, with a reminder from Grandpa John, that little girls don’t need a tree house their whole lives. Time to get it started. I realized a while ago that this was going to be a big task for me to do myself, maybe more than I can handle. I can build a lot of stuff, but I’m a scrawny dude with a bad back. And pretty sloppy as far as woodworking goes. Stuff that a pro can do in minutes takes me a week of searching the internet to figure out. So I’ve been looking for a contractor to help. I found a few, but they all shot down my two-story shed plans as being in the $10K range. A couple weren’t even willing to do the 8′ x 8′ stilt house for a reasonable amount. Then my brother connected me with someone he’d had do great work… he had 2 kids and a real sense for what I was trying to accomplish. Since it had dragged on this long, I was willing to wait until he needed work… here’s a tip: if you ever have a little project that pro’s aren’t excited to take on, wait until the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. No one likes to have a remodel in process around the holidays, but remodeling contractors like to buy their kids Christmas presents. Some of the guys who wouldn’t return my calls before started calling back mid November.

So Billy came down and we drew some sketches. I called a guy I’d met in the Home Depot parking lot and 30 minutes later, the concrete started to disappear.

concrete busting

Then the shed disappeared…

shed demo shed demo 2

And pretty soon it was time to build. Billy came down again, for the weekend this time… We did some more talking, then hit the lumber yard and Home Depot. We bought a lot of wood. Billy thought the 66 support posts were overkill, but I liked the look. We also went to Urban Ore to see if we could find some recycled doors and windows. We did, but none of them were ideal. And since I’m paying him by the day, I’m not sure it makes sense to spend the extra time trying to make some old piece work.

lumber ready to go

Then the digging started. We originally planned to get the posts a full 3′ into the ground, but I can’t say many of them really hit that depth. The tree roots were brutal, and the soil in the nastiest clay I’ve ever dug. But by the time the sun went down, four 16′ 6x6s were concreted into the ground.

tree house posts up

Tomorrow we’ll start drilling in the 46 floor supports. We also have to run back to Home Depot for the panel pieces…

So, to recap:

– 66 pressure treated posts in the ground

– frame of 46 pt holding up the floor.

– stud walls, unfinished inside, cheap Hardie siding outside. We’ll see how the money looks at the end… if there’s enough left, I’d like to put shingles on.

– roof with be 24, attached to the main posts. Sheathed with OSB and then some cheap tar paper roofing.

– front will have  a 3′ deck out of redwood

– Front door, front window, 2 side windows, skylight?

Cost thus far:

$730 for main lumber, including nice redwood decking from Ashby Lumber

$300 for concrete, studs, nails and Simpson hardware at Home Depot

Stilt house

Having realized that there was no way I could afford a house with a totally built shed beneath, I’m now focused on getting the house up top done… then I’ll put some storage lockers down below. And maybe  a chicken coop.

Plan is for a simple ladder up the right side (as facing it) and a fire pole down the other side. Thinking there will be some eves, but have to see if I can afford them.

I’d also like to use pretty stout supports (66) so I can hang  a hammock off one side. Probably bury pressure treated wood 3′ in the ground.

stilt house v1 right dim stilt house v1 left dim

Shed house: more details

Here are some additional details about the Shed House. I put in some details about the deck. I drew the deck with a massive support post, which looks kind of silly, but I’ve been looking for a place to connect a hammock or a slackline. I don’t know about the other side, but once I get the other shed out of there, I’ll be able to find on the edge of the yard to sink another one.

corner shed v3 rail side corner shed v3 rail door side corner shed v3 top

Here is a photo of the site. The existing sheds both need to go. No idea how to get them out of the yard, but that’s problem for another day. There is also a concrete pad that should go as well. I think I’ll leave the cinderblock wall, though… taking it out would mean rebuilding the fence behind. I’ve sketched leaving in an apron of the concrete pad under the deck, but that’s not well thought out.

backyard as of August 2014

Ergonomic stylus for Galaxy Note

I’ve been a big fan of tablet computers for years. I got a Lenovo Thinkpad 61xt back in 2007, and really tried to use it for all my note taking. Onenote was probably the best piece of software out of Microsoft in years, and I loved jotting down stuff in meetings, etc. Sadly, the computer was just a mite heavy, and the battery too small. So I eventually stopped using it, but always hoped for something to come along and live up to all that potential that the tablet always promised but never delivered.

A year ago, it was time to upgrade my cell phone and I decided to take a chance on the Galaxy Note 2. I couldn’t actually try one out anywhere, but I figured the big screen would be nice to read on. As I’d feared, there was nothing to do with the pen except for S-note (the Samsung software that came with it). That was about as useless as just writing with a Sharpie on the bottom of my shoe, so I left the pen in the Note and never touched it.

Along came Evernote, with the first app I found that made use of a pen in a meaningful way. With the handwriting release a couple of months ago, I pulled out the pen and started jotting. I was previously filling a 100 page pad  about every 2 months… now I haven’t used 10 pages in the last 4 months. And, I actually refer back to my notes more than I ever did because I can find them.

The downside, though, is that the S-pen sucks for writing. After a couple days of heavy meetings,  my hand was completely cramped up. I thought it was from my bike or something until I picked up the pen this morning and felt a shooting pain up my arm. Oops. During the meeting, I actually ordered some sort of S-pen holder on Amazon, but it won’t be here for another week or two. I needed a fix now.

Then I remembered the old Lenovo. I actually had a couple of extra styli for that which I’d gotten via warranty when the button broke. I pulled them out of an old bag and realized they worked great on the Galaxy Note. Now it was just a matter of making it a bit bigger to hold. I always carry around a Papermate PhD pen because they are comfy in the hand.
I pulled out an old one and tried to shove the stylus down the barrel. It was a bit big, so I headed to the garage to see what I could do.

Note: read this whole post before you follow anything I did. I describe a bunch of dumb shit that didn’t work. I would do it all differently if I were starting now. But, these pictures might help someone else trying to do something a bit different from me, so I include my mistakes.

First I tried to cut the outer case off the pen with a dremel… this works, except that if you even touch the little coil inside, you ruin the digitizer. Good thing I had  couple extra pens, right…

inside of waccom digitizer

Learning from the broken one, I tried again. This time, I cut just above the digitizer module.

digitizer cut

Then I was able to carefully slide the business end into the barrel of the PhD pen which worked beautifully. Then I tried writing with it, which didn’t work at all. Damn. I feared this might happen; the tip of the PhD pen is metal, and, as it turns out, the barrel is metal too. The digitizer gets power from the screen through the little inductive coil at the tip, so the metal shields it and stops it from working. I did a little more comparing and realized that the barrel of the PhD (the part under the rubber grip, seen on the picture below) is the same diameter as the Lenovo stylus.

What I finally ended up doing was just pulling the rubber grip off the PhD pen… the metal barrel slips into a plastic ring, and I yanked this out. The front part of the stylus (cut as seen in the picture) slides right into this, then I pulled the rubber grip back on. phd digitizerThis leaves
only the need for a nice looking tip. I opted to wrap it with electrical tape instead, which looks like ass, but works just fine.

Shedhouse v1

shed house top view

shed house front view

corner shed v3 20140720 backThe treehouse project got new life and enthusiasm.I mean, what’s the point of building a play house for the kids when they’re in high school? This has to happen soon!

After deciding that the tree had to go, I’ve been thinking about designs for a shed house. This will replace the existing storage shed with a 2-story deal that will have a play room on top.

I want it to be kind of discrete, but also big enough to be usable.

Here’s the first draft of the design… plan is for the base box to be 8’x8′, offset from the cinderblock wall by 3′. There will be a stairway up the back cinderblock wall, and a 3′ walkway around to the door on the front. Ideally, there’ll be a fire pole somewhere to get down from it… probably where the deck around the front gets really narrow. I really like the idea of a curved front wall so that the thing faces into the yard instead of being square, but tucked into the corner… It’s a small yard, and a big looming box would make it look pretty jenke. There has been talk of having some kind of vine grow up the sides, too.

Questions: Trying to figure out the roof… it’s quite tricky to think of how to slope it down from the curved wall to the point in the back. I want it to have a bit of an eve, for one thing, to give the firepole somewhere to attach! There’s also the issue of slope. I’ve heard recommended a 3 in 12 slope minimum. That means a 2’+ drop across the roof. I really don’t want this whole package any taller than I need, but don’t really want the back of the house to be much shorter than 5’6″, which gives me 7’6″ in the front. I’m assuming the bottom story has to be at least 6’6″ for sticking storage tubs in.

Yeah, there’s some weirdness with the way I drew the walls meeting the roof. This is me hitting the limits of my skill with sketchup.

As always, comments very much welcome.

Android garage door opener

When they handed me the key to my house, the seller’s agent mumbled something about bringing by a garage door opener. Now, he didn’t lie, he brought one by, it just had no real connection to the actuator installed on the ceiling. I tried to figure out how to make it work, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I mean, I don’t keep a car in the garage, and only a fool would waste all that prime space on a car anyway. So I don’t really go in and out of the garage that much. It is true that my wife has been riding the kids to school on bikes that live in the garage for a long time, and there was a certain amount of grumbling, but I just never got around to getting an opener. Actually, I looked at Home Depot and realized that I’d have to spend something like $40 for each opener I wanted, and that annoyed me, so I spent time surfing the interwebs looking for fancy arduino designs that would clean the garage while they weren’t opening the door. Then I started riding my bike every day and understood just what my wife had been bitching about. So I went back to the first thing I found on my internet search and just made it happen.

What I got was the GarageMate app from the Android store. Like I say, I’d found this early on, but then I went to find the appropriate parts, and figured I could find them cheaper and didn’t and then he stopped selling the kit on his website. But now I was on a mission, so I just went to Amazon and spent $30 on the Samsung HM1800 headset 

that will do the trick. An hour in the garage later, both my wife and I can open the door with a tap on our phone screen. Hot damn.

Ok, so why am I writing this at all? Frankly, Lou over at Garage Mate did all the hard work, and you should be sure to donate to him when you realize this awesomeness. But, there are a few things I learned through the process that I would have liked to know up front. Plus, I truly hate video instructions. A well written page is so much more useful.

One question I had: why do you need to use one of 2 different Samsung headset models that are no longer made? Here’s why: when the phone tries to connect with them, a dumb voice in the headset informs the listener that a phone is connecting. This would drive me bat shit crazy if I were wearing the think in my ear. But, on the plus side, it means that a connection event (to a previously paired phone) triggers noise on the speaker that GarageMate exploits to switch a transistor. This is the sauce that makes this work. Lou only recommends 2 headsets; undoubtedly others will work, but he’s got better stuff to do than test a million headsets to see if they bark in your ear when the phone tries to connect (but, critically, at no other time). Eventually, of course, Amazon will run out of these two models and then someone will have to figure it out.

Following the video from GarageMate

will get you up and running. A few things I did differently:
1) Getting the leg of the transistor to slide into the socket along with the USB plug was a pain. Instead, I just wrapped it against the base of the USB connector and soldered it in place. There was a little plug visible out of the socket anyway, so I still got a secure connection.
2) Don’t stress the precise value of the 30 ohm resistor. I happened to grab a 47 ohm, and it worked fine. I suspect that any value under a kohm would be OK.

Thanks GarageMate! Someday I’ll get fancy with something that tells me whether the door is up or down and does other fancy stuff, but it might be a while.

Treehouse Update

The treehouse project has been on the back burner a bit. We had an arborist come over who basically refused to do anything besides cut the tree all the way down. The man had some good points: the tree itself might (probably) be rotten, especially on the side where no live branches remain. The weight of the house would make it worse… blah, blah. I’m cooking up a new plan to get much of the weight off the tree itself. Everyone keeps suggesting just putting it on stilts, but damn it, that’s not a tree house.

So I found some dude… he did some digging on our front yard (my wife found him mowing the lawn down the street… he and his brother work incredibly hard for not a lot of money). He came over and offered to dig all sorts of roots and stumps out of my yard for $750. He also agreed to prune the treehouse tree and hack the ivy off…

As a reminder, here’s what it has looked like up ’til now


Half way through the day, here’s an update. That little tuft sticking out is a still-living bit of the original camphor tree…


By the time Milton was done, here’s the stump in all it’s glory. You can’t see it in this picture, but I had him leave that little tuft. It can only help prevent rot and I can always lop it off later.


This shot should give an example of how gnarly the ivy was…


Anyway, now it’s time to get serious about the design. My plan is to have it start just above that lump out to the right, about 8′ up so I can walk under it.