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Formaldehyde-Free Flooring, Roofing and Walling Part 2

The trailer is still up. This is frustrating. So in the meanwhile, I’ll talk some more about the theory of building a healthy house.

In Part I, I talked about the main sources of formaldehyde outgassing in the home, which are: Furniture, Walls, Floor Joists, Sub-floor, Hardwood Floor and Roof

I explained how we’re avoiding the formaldehyde in furniture and how we don’t have to worry about the walls (because we’re using ICFs). In this post, I’ll try to talk about floor joists and sub-floor, or only the floor joists if the post gets too long.

So, floor joists. They’re the things that hold up the floor. On a finished house, you usually don’t see them, but on an unfinished house they look like this:

Picture taken from this website.

Picture taken from this website.

You put subfloor over the top of them and then put carpet, linoleum, tile or hardwood over the subfloor. Except we all know that the only cool choices are tile and hardwood of course. On that picture, the floor joists are simply untreated dimensional lumber (2x10s by the look of them). Until not so long ago, that was pretty much the only choice. It’s also a pretty good choice because untreated lumber doesn’t outgas anything.

The problem is, dimensional lumber doesn’t commonly come in lengths greater than 16 feet. It’s just too hard to find trees that are tall, wide and straight enough. However, the interior span of our house is over 30 feet. Normally, you can work around that by correctly placing load-bearing walls so that no unsupported span is over 16′. However, our living room is 16′ 3.5″. That’s simply impossible to do with dimensional lumber. Oh no! Have we been gypped by our architect?!

Fortunately, science comes to the rescue with a couple of options. One of them is I-beams, which consist of two pieces of wood attached to the top and bottom of a long piece of plywood:

This is a composite wood I-beam. Picture from this website.

This is a composite wood I-beam. Picture from this website.

The advantages are: an I-beam is stiffer than dimensional lumber of the same size. This means the floor is less “springy”. I-beams can also be much wider and longer because they’re not cut out off one piece of wood. Dimensional lumber doesn’t come in a size greater than 12″ wide by 16 foot long; I-beams, however, can be up to 16″ wide or even bigger if you custom-order, and they can be any length you want. A 16″ I-beam doesn’t need any support over a span of 32 feet! An I-beam will also not bend or warp due to age and humidity.

The disadvantages is I-beams use engineered wood and therefore outgas formaldehyde. They’re also more expensive than regular wood.

Here’s a picture of I-beam floor joists:

I-beam floor joists. Picture is from this website.

I-beam floor joists. Picture is from this website.

Another option are floor trusses, which are frames made out of 2x4s or 2x3s:

Floor trusses stacked on each other. Picture from this website.

Floor trusses stacked on each other. Picture from this website.

Advantages: no formaldehyde because they use regular untreated lumber. However, they may be coated with a fireproof coating that can outgas substances. That should be looked into. Floor trusses can also be made as long as necessary and strong enough to cover any span. Another advantage is that it’s really easy to run plumbing, ducts and electrical through them because they already have a bunch of openings going through them. For I-beams and regular wood trusses, you have to carefully drill holes through the trusses.

Disadvantages: they’re a little more expensive than I-beams, and much more expensive than regular wood.

Here’s a picture of floor trusses in action:

Floor trusses in action! Picture from here.

Floor trusses in action! Picture from here.

Final option: steel floor joists. They look like this:

Steel joists. Picture from here.

Steel joists. Picture from here.

Advantages: Tough and cheap (the only thing cheaper is dimensional lumber). Fireproof. Doesn’t outgas anything. As you can see in the picture, they have pre-drilled holes for plumbing and electrical.

Disadvantages: Not going to lie on this one – I’m personally a little leery of screwing sub-floor to thin sheet metal (which is what steel floor joists are made of). It doesn’t seem like that would be as strong as attaching the sub-floor to a nice, thick bearing surface. But I may change my mind as I look into this more.

So which of these options are we going with?

I’m leaning towards the floor trusses for the advantages that I listed. The cost is really not that much higher than I-beams and they don’t outgas formaldehyde. However, in the big scheme of things, I-beams don’t outgas all that much formaldehyde compared to all the other stuff that we mentioned: there’s only a few of them, they don’t contain that much plywood and furthermore they’re encased in the floor. Steel joists are being perhaps unfairly side-lined for the disadvantage that I listed above…

Oh, another advantage of I-beams and steel joists is that they’re available instantly! Floor trusses have to be built to your exact specifications and it usually takes a few weeks (I’ve been told 2-3 weeks). So keep that in mind!

Anyway, enough stuff about building. Here’s a picture of baby:

The child and I are not amused by how long it's taking to bring down this trailer. Can you tell how not amused we are?

The child and I are not amused by how long it’s taking to bring down this trailer. Can you tell how not amused we are?

Good free help is hard to get!

Or, it was for a while at least. There were a couple of weeks there where the trailer was only half demolished, and (sorry, neighbors!) it looked a heck of a lot worse than it did when it was in one piece.

As it turned out, the first guys we gave the job to came to us and told us that they couldn’t finish it. But they brought another man with them who said that he would be happy to finish the job…which was fine with us, as long as somebody took care of it before we wanted to break ground! Without the trailer gone we wouldn’t be able to get construction vehicles onto the land without running over lilac bushes, which I would REALLY like to avoid! Lilacs are one of our favorites 🙂

So today a new group of people were out there working away, and now the trailer looks like this:

Trailer Take-Down

Wonderful progress!

Almost there now! (Please don’t let that jinx us…)

And since it’s been a couple days of lovely (not too hot) sunshine, Baby has been out there enjoying it. That’s his grandfather in the picture.

Grandad and baby

Hey, a hat!

Grandad and baby II

It looks better on me, right?

Guess what Baby’s got his hands on…

Drum-roll please…………………………………………………………


That's right!

That’s right!

In other (brief) news, the people who are in the process of tearing the trailer down have suspiciously disappeared since last week. Granted, it was raining for about half of the days they’ve been missing, but the rest of the days have been sunny and not deathly hot or anything…where are you, fellas?? That half a trailer is calling your name!


Inventory and Things To Do

I wanted to quickly summarize where we are in the home-building process. But first, a random picture of our beautiful child:

Get a load of those cheeks!

Get a load of those cheeks!

What we have so far:

  • One (1) parcel of land, approximately 3/4 of an acre in size
  • One (1) burning desire to build a house
  • One (1) bank account with not enough money in it
  • Some tools and stuff

Things that we need to do next:

  • Find an architect. Not only is this required for getting a building permit, but we’re also building with ICFs, which means that the walls of the house will be literally cast in concrete once they’re finished. Also, have you ever tried to sketch house plans? We have, and it’s pretty fun until you realize that your stairs run straight into a blank wall, the master bathroom has windows facing out into the hallway and one of the bedrooms is not actually accessible from anywhere else in the building. (Not kidding, this is what actually happened.)
  • Find a septic engineer. This is also required for a building permit. The calculations themselves aren’t actually all that difficult. Our land is in a pretty rural area, so we have no option for city sewer, city water or other nice things like that.
  • Talk to well-drilling people, to get quotes.

Local friends: do you have anyone you could recommend for us?

The First Post

Yay! We have a blog!

So first thing, Disclaimer: Although the heading of the blog is “how one family built their dream home”, at this point it’s actually more about “how one family decided to build something that might someday become their dream home… it might actually be more of a nightmare… we don’t know… stay tuned”. But as you can see, that would be far too long for the heading, so I decided to bend the truth a little.

My wife, I and our 9-month-old baby are going to build a house. We’re going to build this house with insulated concrete forms (ICFs) because those things are awesome, energy efficient, green and sustainable. We’re going to do most of the work ourselves because we’re trying to save money and because it’ll be fun. And we’re going to blog about it, because that seems to help keep things organized.