Category: Foundation & Framing

Quick Tip: Engineered I-Beams

Engineered I-beams surpass traditional framing lumber in strength and stability, avoiding many of the pitfalls to which the latter is sometimes vulnerable.

To save time and money on your next building project, one option is to use engineered I-beams. Made from engineered lumber products rather than whole trees, they’re extremely stable and uniform; they can be manufactured to spec; and they have pre-drilled punch-outs that save electricians and plumbers time and work.

For more on framing, consider:

Rough Construction
Engineered Wood Beams (VIDEO)
Factory-Made Flooring and Roofing Systems

How To: Toenail Lumber

Nailing a board at angle is a basic carpentry skill known as toenailing. Although the technique can be challenging to master, these guidelines can help you learn how to toenail wood the right way.

When framing a house, there are many applications in which you have to join two pieces of wood at a right angle, such as roof rafters, ceiling joints, and wall studs. Here’s how to hold your lumber temporarily with a toenail. Spike in a large nail to hold against your lumber to keep it steady while you toenail the opposite side. Remove the temporary spike and toenail the remaining side.

For more on framing, consider:

Rough Construction
Wall Framing (VIDEO)
How To: Make a Mortise-and-Tenon Joint

Quick Tip: Framing with Engineered Wood

Professional builders agree that compared with traditional lumber, engineered wood framing proves superior time and again. Here are just a few reasons why.

Framing a house using engineered wood has many advantages. Glue-laminated beams are stronger than their conventional solid, sawn counterparts. Engineered I-joists span greater distances, and their stiffness prevents squeaky floors. Oriented strand board sheathing prevents racking and provides good nailer for siding.

For more on framing, consider:

Rough Construction
Deconstructing Engineered Wood
Engineered Wood Joist System Discussed (VIDEO)

Quick Tip: Structural Insulated Panels

Instead of traditional framing lumber, homebuilders nowadays often use structural insulated panels, or SIPs, as the material combines insulating properties and remarkable strength.

Building with structural insulated panels is becoming a popular way to save construction time and energy dollars. Composed of thick, rigid expanded polystyrene foam sandwiched between sheets of oriented strand board, these structural insulated panels replace traditional framing, sheathing, and insulation.

For more on framing, consider:

Bob Vila Radio: Metal Studs
Advanced Framing Techniques
Structural Insulated Panels Discussed (VIDEO)

Quick Tip: Joist Hangers

Joist hangers not only simplify the framing process but also strengthen the deck or floor you are building.

When hanging floor joists, use joist hangers to make building a floor deck simpler. Place hangers every 16 inches on center. Position each hanger using the tab to hold it in place. Nail one side on at a time. Use a scrap of two-by as a nailing guide for the other side. If possible, nail them to your ledger board in advance. Now properly secure the ledger boards onto your walls. Set each floor joist into place and secure them with nails. Always check with your local building inspector.

For more on framing, consider:

Quick Tip: Using Metal Studs
How To: Identify a Bearing Wall
Engineered Wood Floor Joist System (VIDEO)

How To: Install a Sill Plate

Building a new home or addition? Here's how to install a sill plate directly onto the foundation.

Here’s how to properly install a sill plate on top of a foundation wall. Sink anchor bolts into your foundation every four feet, laying a sill seal on top of the foundation to create a weather barrier. Pre-drill two-by-six sills to accommodate the bolts. Use pressure-treated lumber to resist water and insect damage. Secure the sill in place with a washer and nut.

For more on foundations, consider:

Advanced Framing Techniques
Concrete, Block, and Slab Foundations
Home Foundation Inspection (VIDEO)

How To: Measure Concrete

For those building a new foundation, there's an easy way to calculate the concrete needed for the job.

If you’re pouring a concrete foundation, how do you figure out how much concrete you’ll need? There’s a pretty simple formula. Take the length in feet times the width and height of the wall to figure your cubic footage. Then divide that figure by 27 to get your cubic yards (because there are 27 cubic feet in a cubic yard). Most cement trucks hold between eight and 14 cubic yards. An average house with a full foundation will take four truckloads.

For more on cement, consider:

9 Easy DIY Concrete Projects
Bob Vila Radio: DIY Concrete
Concrete and Cement: A Case of Mistaken Identities

Quick Tip: Using Metal Studs

Easy to work with and impervious to insects and rot, metal studs are superior to wood members in many ways.

If your home improvement project calls for new walls, you might want to consider metal studs. They fit together like an Erector set, and you can fasten them with miniscrews. You can even use metal brackets and plywood to stiffen the walls, which makes hanging cabinets easier. Metal studs are lightweight and fireproof. They won’t warp or split. You don’t have to worry about termites and in some places, they cost less than wooden studs.

For more on walls, consider:

Bob Vila Radio: Metal Studs
How To: Find a Wall Stud
Building a Metal Stud Wall (VIDEO)

The Excavation and the Foundation

Consider this advice before building on the foundation and embarking on the excavation.

Home Addition Foundations


Before the building of an addition can begin, site preparation may be necessary. Are there any garden plants, shrubs, or other vegetation you want to remove and set safely aside for later replanting? If there’s a tree in the way, you’ll need to arrange for its removal. Any other obstacles to the process—an old patio, say, or a stack of fire­wood—must be moved out of range before work can begin. Depending upon where the work is to be done with respect to the street, additional preparation may be required to clear a path for the equipment and materials to reach the work site.

If you’re building a large addition, the arrival of a surveyor may signal ground will soon be broken. With a smaller job, your designer or contractor will probably begin the process by marking out the extent of the new, enlarged footprint of the house.

The plot plan will guide whoever it is that does the staking out. For a large project, a transit will be used, an instrument that establishes elevations and levels and points, to help precisely locate where the new excavation is to be done. When the staking out is completed, there will probably be stakes and connecting strings that mark where the excavation is to be done. Perhaps lines of lime will criss­cross the ground, extending beyond the actual location of the foundation or cellar hole to guide the men with the earth-moving machines.

Don’t faint dead away upon seeing the plot staked out. Even large structures can seem diminutive when reduced to strings or lime lines struck across the ground and viewed under the canopy of the sky. Your new, expensive, and carefully imagined space may suddenly seem rather small. So prepare yourself.

After you’ve managed to keep your cool on first look, take a second and closer peek. It probably makes sense for you to extend your tape measure from comer to comer. Think of it as a warm-up exercise for the job to come. Your purpose is to make sure the new foundation abuts the old structure where it’s supposed to be and oth­erwise matches the plan.

Now the noise can begin. Diesel-powered earth-moving machines arrive a day or so later. Often a back hoe will be enough, though for big jobs there may be a bulldozer (call it a ‘dozer) with a wide blade. Or an excavator, a descendent of the steam shovel, with its long arm and the bucket at the end. None of these machines move quickly; they weren’t built for speed. But they’ll shift gargantuan quantities of soil and, if necessary, tree stumps and miscellaneous boulders. They will leave you with a foundation hole dug to a depth of at least six inches below the frost line.

The frost line is the depth to which the winter frost penetrates the earth. In the northern United States, that means the foundation must be at least 3 or even 4 feet below grade; in southern regions where subfieezing tempeiatures are rare, the foundation may virtually sit on the surface. The base or “footing” of a foundation must be beneath the frost line to prevent the frost from thrusting portions of your founda­tion upward and causing your house to settle unevenly (which would result in cracks in the foundation and, eventually, cracks and other damage upstairs in your home). The deeper frost lines in northern areas are one explanation for why full basements are more common there.

The potential problems during the excavation process are too many rocks (if it’s solid ledge, blasting may be required); too much water (an underground stream or spring may require special drainage); or even soil problems. Some soils simply aren’t firm enough to bear the weight of a structure without additional support, typ­ically an enlarged concrete footing (see below). In parts of the country where soil problems are common, your designer or architect will probably have suggested you test it in advance.

Speaking of soil problems, you may need to protect the soil you have. You may even be required to construct fences, stake hay bales, or employ other means to pre­vent soil erosion in the event of a heavy rain.

Once you have a hole in the ground, the foundation can be built. The first step is the footing, usually a base of cement wider than the wall to be constructed on it that will distribute the weight over a larger area to prevent settling. (For a house built on piers, foundation pads for the supporting posts to rest upon are necessary.)

The walls come next (after the concrete sets, which takes an average of three to five days). The wall may be of cement block or of concrete poured into a wooden form that is removed after the concrete has set. Setting up the forms for a poured foundation will take a portion of a day; the forms will be stripped two or three days later. Stone foundations are almost unheard of these days, though for aesthetic rea­sons some concrete foundations are built with a small shelf set into the portion of the foundation that will be above grade (i.e., not buried) onto which a veneer of brick or stone can be laid to hide the less attractive concrete.

After the concrete forms have been removed, perforated piping (called drain tile) is laid outside the wall at its base in damp climates. These pipes will be pitched to allow the water that enters them to drain off and away from the foundation.

The earthmoving equipment will then return and backfill around the cellar hole. The soil on the surface must be graded so that when there is rain the water will naturally flow away from the house rather than into its foundation. Done by a bull­dozer or other earthmoving machinery, this work is called cutting and filling, as the blade of the ‘dozer serves to cut off the tops of the high spots and fill in the low ones. If you are planning on landscaping work later, now is the time to give the yard at least an approximate shape while the heavy equipment is there filling in around the cellar hole.

The foundation won’t be completed in day; a week or two to complete the various steps is usual. But once your foundation is ready, the carpenters can begin their work.

Rough Construction


If you are simply reshaping existing space, you don’t have to worry about a big hole in your yard. You also won’t have to be concerned about the framing of the build­ing or the roofing (unless, that is, you’re adding a dormer or otherwise amending the existing roof, in which case you should be sure you read the roofing and siding sec­tion).

Yet almost every remodeling job requires some preliminary demoli­tion. Those kitchen cabinets you’ve always hated will be removed. Perhaps the cracked tiles in the old bath will be sledgehammered and shoveled into a dumpster.

Make a point of being present at the work site—or having your architect or designer be there—as demolition is about to begin. It’s essential that everyone understands exactly what goes and what stays. Sometimes the meeting of the minds you and your designer reached doesn’t get communicated clearly. Plans alone may not be enough, so you (or your designer) may want to apply spray paint or masking tape to guide the workers. Even if your general contractor understands, the laborer who actually wields the tools may not. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of jobs where the wrecking bar removed or ruined something that was supposed to remain intact. The best renovations are those where you can’t tell where the existing structure ends and the new work begins. Don’t let a window frame or an old door you’re plan­ning to reuse get tossed into the dumpster.

Once the demolition has been completed, the process of building anew can begin. The carpenters will construct the wooden framing for any new walls, floors, or ceilings. In some municipalities, certain struc­tures are required to have walls constructed of brick, steel, concrete, or other materials speci­fied for fireproof construction. Most single- family homes, however, utilize a traditional wood-frame construction, so carpenters will handle the rough construction.

While the framing work is going on, you will probably hear some words that are not part of your usual vocabulary. A stud is a vertical wall  floor sup­port; a post is a larger vertical member, often at a corner; a beam is a large horizontal member that supports the structures above.

Framing doesn’t demand the kind of precise (and time-consuming) attention to detail that finishing work does, so inspecting the work site after the workers have been there only a day or two can be very satisfying. New spaces seem to emerge almost overnight, and you can suddenly get a sense of how the rooms will appear and relate to one another. With a small remodeling job, the demolition and rough framing may be completed in a day, but don’t jump to the conclusion that the job will get done much faster than expected. Framing is often uncomplicated and goes quickly. Most of the decisions will have been made already.

Sometimes the demolition and framing will take longer than expected. In the case of many older homes, only when the wall or ceiling surfaces are opened up in preliminary demolition are structural problems apparent. Your carpenter may uncover areas of insect damage or decay caused by dampness. That will mean the replacement of deteriorated structural elements that are required in the new design.

Structural problems may also result from poor construction many years earlier, or plumbers or other tradesmen who gutted members while retrofitting bathrooms or heating and cooling sys­tems. Shoring up structural weaknesses may be necessary. They’ll take time and probably cost you money as most esti­mates are based upon no unexpected obstacles.

Your job is not to supervise the men and women at work; the contractors and the subcon­tractors do that. Your job is to examine what’s been done, approve or disapprove, and determine when payment is due.

On the other hand, while the car­penters are constructing new walls, opening up new windows or doors, and doing other framing work, you and/or your designer or construction manager should spend some time measuring and inspecting carefully to be sure that the partitions as constructed coincide with the plans. I’d recommend, however, that you put your tape measure to use after hours. There’s no need to insult the carpenters, although they know as well as you do that, no matter how experienced they are, they’re still capa­ble of making a mistake. Walls do get built in the wrong place, openings set at the wrong height.

You may think there’s a discrepancy between what you see and the plans. You may find yourself very disappointed with something—perhaps you just hadn’t imagined the kitchen would feel so small. In either case, now is the time to raise the issue. Discuss the differences with whomever is supervising the construction. If your designer is in charge, ask him to have the hard conversation with the contractor/car­penter. But raise the issue as soon as you recognize it. Unbuilding gets more difficult with every nail, every board, every stage in the process. In a polite but firm fashion, raise the red flag, even at the risk of causing a small delay in construction.

Changes will probably cost you money, but this is your home. If there’ll be delays or added costs, ask yourself whether the problem will quickly fade—or will you be unable to forget about it and experience a pang of regret every time you walk into that room as long as you live in the house? As the old saying goes, speak now or forever hold your peace.

Speaking of old wisdom, if you believe in tradition, you may want to perform an ancient ritual at the time the ridge board is raised on your new roofline. (The ridge board is the uppermost horizontal piece of lumber to which the angled roof mem­bers, the rafters, attach at the peak of the roof.) Early colonists in North America placed an evergreen bough at the roof’s highest point. The evergreen was a symbol of permanence and an appeal for good luck.