Putting Up Walls and Breaking Through Barriers

I began delving into the Desert Rain project just two weeks ago, and it’s hard for me to believe how fast things are moving. I know that for most of the people involved in this project it seems to be going at a snail’s pace—and certainly no one feels that more than Tom and Barbara. But when I first walked onto the lot last week this is what I saw—foundation, subfloor, and the beginnings of a couple of walls:

The Desert Rain House just after the walls started going up in February, 2012.


When we walked back onto the lot just a week later this is what we found:

The Desert Rain House—what a difference a few days makes!

To the right of the structure in the above picture is a backhoe that had been hammering away at the lava rock for weeks, clearing out room for the home’s 35,000 gallon cistern. But the pounding has finally ceased; the cistern hole is done! Tom and Barbara have worried over the noise from the hydraulic hammer, as it’s been constant. Perhaps the only people happier than they are to have it done are their neighbors. Even with the consistent hum of nail guns and a small portable radio, the site is now remarkably quiet compared to last week.

On the leading edge of green and sustainable building

Through all the hammering the framers worked on. Contractor Joel Schaeffer and his framing crew—Jason Bozovich and Scott Creson—are putting up the bones of the home, board by board. Because so much of what’s being done at Desert Rain is on the leading edge of green building, there’s a steep learning curve here for everyone involved, and framing is no different. Jason, Scott, and Joel are encountering plenty of challenges. From the nails they’re using (sourced in the United States when most come from China—and with a wider shank they do fire differently out of the nail guns) to the wood they’re driving those nails into, everything is different. LBC certification requirements dictate where products can come from, both in terms of physical distance  and how those products are made or harvested. For timber, all wood must be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), reclaimed from salvaged sources, or taken from timber harvested on site with the purpose of clearing land for the construction. Desert Rain incorporates wood from each of these sources—new fir used in the framing is FSC certified from Oregon; reclaimed wood salvaged from buildings deconstructed on site and off site will be used throughout the home; and wood milled from a 201 year old Ponderosa will be incorporated, as well.

A load of FSC-certified lumber from Parr Lumber on the house lot

FSC certified products can be tracked following a “chain of custody” certification process that makes it possible to track the wood back to its source—and in the case of Desert Rain, the fir used in the framing comes from FSC-certified forest in the Pacific Northwest. So, the FSC-certified wood and how it’s harvested fits LBC standards, and the timber’s relatively close proximity to the home site also meets certification requirements.

But, like challenges encountered when using American-sourced nails, the framers also run into problems using FSC-certified wood. “The wood is different,” says Creson. “This wood, which is specialty, comes out different widths. 2′ x 12’s, for example, will come out anywhere from 11′-1/2″ to 10′-7/8″. So having a 5/8″ difference between boards means you really have to pay attention. And we’re welcome to send things back, but it’s a month out. And so, to keep that in line with the progress that you want to be making, you really just have to be creative.”

Because they’re encountering many things for the first time with this project, Creson and Bozovich are figuring some things out as they go. But they both—like many people involved in the Desert Rain project—seem to welcome the challenge of working at the forefront of new building techniques and demands. “Take two giant steps back before you take that first step forward, make sure you know where you’re going,” Creson cautions. “Because you can’t waste wood, you know. So making a mistake and hacking something apart is not an option. It’s almost like, the slower you go the faster you’ll be done. Which is good. It’s how things should be. Just get it done right.”

The FSC wood used in the framing is coming from Parr Lumber. Nate Morgan, Parr’s sales rep for the Desert Rain project, echoes Creson’s feelings about thinking things through completely. “Because of the LBC standards it’s important to minimize transportation and fuel costs, because that all matters and it’s all part of the big picture,” says Morgan. “For example, on this project you might think twice about delivering three boards out to the job and the next day delivering five more. Because every time you do that it takes resources, such as fuel, and causes emissions. The idea of the project it to be as sustainable as possible, so we’ve had conversations about, hey, we realize you need that, but would you be willing to wait until you need the rest of it or more of it? This job is about sustainability and the footprint. So we’re all working to overcome people’s historic mindsets of how construction has been done.”

Jim Fagan of Timberline Construction agrees. “It’s radical change to do this. Construction in general is slow to change. People in the trade can be stubborn; if they’ve been doing something one way for years then they can have a tendency to want to keep doing it that way. But I want to keep moving forward, to stay at the forefront of change. This is a great thing to be involved with.”


Forest Stewardship Council 

Living Building Challenge

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