Saturday, November 10, 2007

A house of Railway Sleepers - Part 4

This is the fourth article in a series about the lakehouse I'm building with railway sleepers.

More than a month has gone by since the last article - there's been a lot of work at my new job lately - and weekends have been a lot about building the house but not so much about writing about it... which I have decided a good sign. The project is picking up momentum as we managed to start getting away from the floor.

I'm staying in Santiago this weekend so I've decided to catch up with the writing in two articles that will bring this electronic chronicle up to date with the physical building.

The wooden beam express

In the last article we drove back to the city with our sailboat trailer so we could carry back the 20 ft. and less beams that go on the roof structure. We got these from a 100 year old school and church demolition, and they were stored in our house in santiago, safe from the winter rains that could damage them and bend them.
We spent the first day of the mid september four day long weekend loading the beams into the trailer and 3 of the heavywheight champion 4 x 5 ft. windows from the same 100 year old school into our truck's bed.

We had to drive slowly but didn't had any trouble along the way, here you can see how long the wooden beam express looked parked in a rest area along the highway.

The first windows and walls

When you are a kid and draw a house you usually start by a horizontal line - the ground - to support it, and then you get right on to drawing the walls and roof, a fireplace if you don't live in the tropic, and then you usually add a window or two and a door.
It's on the walls where your house starts to take shape, it could be anything yet, but as a shape is far more rewarding than the horizontal line. Once you add the roof lines the drawing becomes unmistakably a house.

Well, believe it or not, the same happens when you are building a house. the foundations of the pillars and the - endless is the right word here - floor structure becomes, well... endless. That's the reason most of us didn't spent a lot of time drawing the foundations of our stick houses... it's not a lot of fun after a little while. Some of us drew fences, or grass and trees, even a doghouse, but no one spent too much time drawing what's beneath the floor.
When I was a 14 year old used to draw a motorcycle parked outside my house drawings, and afterwards I just drew the motorcycles and forgot about the house for a long while.

The good news about your real house is that once you start adding the walls and windows the shape does become more exciting, and if you step "inside" and aren't to sensitive to those peripheral details - like the absence of a roof - then it starts to resemble a house.
Now, let's get not too excited or go too fast, after all this article is not about drawing Crayola houses but about building real railway sleeper houses, so it's not as simple as adding a few lines and you have a window. Sleepers are harder than that, but surprisingly they are just as irregular as those Crayola lines from my childhood.

So if you try to bolt a window within two pillars you will discover that perfectly rectangular windows don't fit at the first try between two bent sleeper columns. This is credited to be the main reason why our early ancestors didn't bother installing windows in their caves, they were perfectly comfortable with a round hole for a door and another for the window (if you are a Flintstones fan).

So you will need your trusty disc saw or chainsaw (some times you have to remove a whole board off a sleeper to fit the window) to flatten and straighten a little the sleeper faces were the window will be bolt. While we are at this make sure you buy some spare discs and chains, this wood is hard as steel and sometimes stones are buried deep into the creaks, we have already rendered toothless one disc and two chains.

Once the surfaces are flat and the angles are square you can fit the window, tie it down while you position it right and maybe even fasten it in place with small nails and boards, so you make sure it doesn't move. Then drill the holes for the bolts, fasten the first one. Make sure everything is still in place and square and bolt the opposite one (Eg: upper-left, lower-right), check again, and the add the remaining bolts, once you add the third bolt things will stop moving so you should make sure (yes again, trust me on this) everything looks fine.
Walk around... look it from a distance, grab a beer, see if you like what you see, you're only three bolts away from this window's starting line, if you don' like something change it now, it will be harder once the upper beams and roof are on top of everything.

If everything's fine, fasten all the bolts and finish you beer. Congratulations! Your wooden contraption is starting to resemble a house.

If you got 100 year old windows which iron bars bolted to them, then yours weight 200 lbs or so a piece as well, and you'll only manage to install two per day and you will need one helper to keep everything on place.
Once you have finished the second daily window you should treat yourself with a barbecue or something like that, yes you can have another beer. In fact you should grab that beer and sit on whatever room you installed windows in and look outside first, and then go outside and look in from your window and back outside through the second one. It's a good exercise and one that only can be performed real in houses.

Speaking about real things, installing these windows is a lot more fun than installing their virtual counterpart, and hopefully these will be more stable and last longer, or won't require frequent re-installations to keep them usable.

Mind the gap

Even if you are a master straightening hardwood with disc saws, chances are that the sleepers you use for walls are not really square faced.
You don't want to build a house this solid to have wind whistle at you and wildlife enter your house reminding you about those gaps between the sleepers.

So here is where the Compriband goes. This is a highly compressible rubber-like band, that in my case is 12 mm thick x 40 mm wide and will go as thin as 1 mm once you lay a sleeper or heavy window on top of it. It will later expand and absorb any irregularities in any of the two surfaces creating a water proof and bug proof seal.

It can also be compressed with the hands, squeezed into a gap or creack and then it will slowly expand and fill the hole completely and tightly unless the space is too large. You can fill the gaps at the edges of windows in this fashion and then add a small board of nice looking wood to cover and finish it up.
A wonderful material really... Thanks dad for the tip.

Once you have some windows and walls installed you can move on to the last row of sleepers and start figuring out how you are going to pull up the center roof beams up the center pillars to begin with the roof structure.

We'll see all that in the next article, along with the installation of two large 7 x 5 ft. walk through windows that overlook the lake.

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