Big Windows In Tiny Cottage

Today we finished placing the outer panes of glass for the big windows. WOW! It is amazing how bright the light is now. We had previously had two layers of somewhat dirty construction grade 6-mil plastic in the window openings to keep in the heat. That worked pretty well but it also blocked a lot of light. Using my Fuji camera‘s meter I estimated that the glass is letting in about 250% as much light (2.5x) as the plastic had been letting into the cottage. That should improve the solar gain! The glass is also sealed tight so there will now be less infiltration, e.g., drafts, around the windows.

Much more importantly in some people’s eyes, we can now look out and see the beautiful scenery. To the north east we can see Knox Mountain and Butterfield Mountain. To the east Hadden Hill. To the south our new pond, picnic area, beyond to the south field and the mountains beyond. Holly was very excited. Our old farm house is set down in the vale and has few windows to boot so no views.

On a funny note, you can easily see right through the house as demonstrated by Holly who is behind the house looking at me in the photo above. You can see her looking in the kitchen window through the east front window. Saturn, one of our livestock guardian dogs, went in and is looking out the front door. From the dining area you can see northwest to the treehouse, south to the upper pond, south east to the south pasture, east to Hadden Hill and northeast to the marshes. Almost a 270° view – pretty magnificent!

All the windows went in smoothly and easily, except one. The west front opening was millimeters too small – Built in concrete no less. Ouch! I spent half an hour carefully chipping and shaping. What had happened was I had used some split half blocks. This all relates back to the concrete block company having delivered the wrong type of block for half blocks. That’s what I get for cutting things too close. But, all’s well that ends well – the window fits perfectly now and there is room for thermal expansion. When I put the stone facing on the chipping work will all be hidden. Frankly you don’t even notice it now unless you look very, very carefully. Lesson: Make all openings generous. Shim and fill later. Trim hides the extra.

We had one other oddity. One of the panes of glass we salvaged has two small streaks. We had thought they were just grime. On closer examination they look like etching acid was dripped onto them. Unfortunately we didn’t notice them until after we had the windows up in place, foam insulation cured and screws in. If I had looked closer and seen those marks I would have used another pane and saved that one for a less obvious location. Lesson: Inspect salvaged, and new, materials more carefully before installation. Still, for $5 per window I’m not complaining!

Our technique for putting in the windows was to set them in place on two 16 penny nails, use minimal expanding foam under the frame to seal it, remove the nails so it drops down on the foam opening a gap at the top, foam the left edge, slide the window right and foam, center it and foam the top. Then we screwed it in from the outside. Since the crack to put in the foam is so small (1/8″) I used the chew the straw technique to get a very narrow applicator. The foam then continued to expand and sealed everything up tight while we had lunch. This worked well, resulted in minimal extraneous foam and an excellent seal. A couple of hours later I cut off the little bit of foam that extruded around the window frames.

This is the view looking out from the back wall. Holly’s standing in the dining area, on a pail, cleaning windows in the right front. Holly says that “anyone who complains about cleaning windows should be so blessed as to have windows to clean.” To the left is the front door. Right now you can see all the way across the partitions but in the final room there will be an archway between the partitions that supports the kids’ loft. Their window is hidden by the pink foam form above – it will be another spectacular view looking out over the upper pond and fields.

While Holly cleaned the windows I scraped foam. We built the walls by dry stacking and pouring cores. This means that the walls were not air tight. When I was locked in because the foam around the door was curing I squirted can of foam into all the cracks I could. When we parge it will further seal the walls but I figured foaming any large gaps (>1/64″) to be good insurance. In retrospect, I would have used can of foam as I dry stacked the block for the spaces between the blocks. It was an interesting chance to review my work. Virtually all the blocks were straight and true. The problem places were where mostly where I had hand split blocks which leaves rough edges. Foam fixed that. But the blobs of foam on the walls looked like psychedelic worms crawling in the corners of my eyes. Scraping them off was a joy. Very addictive and easy with a sharpened spatula. Interestingly, the orange triple expanding foam is much tougher than the white minimal expanding foam. The inside of the cottage looks much better now!

While washing the windows Holly noticed an interesting little chemistry item… She squirted a foam of alcohol and soap onto the window. This mix dribbled downward across the fogged glass. Much more quickly the area around the foam cleared of fog! It was fascinating to watch. I believe what was happening was the soap was acting as a good little surfactant and de-beading the water so the fog coalesced. This made the water on the window pane have a single surface instead of many beads which meant the light was no longer being scattered as the fogged glass did. Pretty cool.

So why is there fog on the glass? Because it is cold outside and moist inside. I put out buckets of water to keep the air inside the cottage humid to help the concrete cure. The glass is only a single pane at this point which has very little R-value. The result is the dew point is inside the cottage on the inner surface of the glass. Water vapor from the air condenses on the cold glass fogging it. Dirty oily windows fog more noticeably since the water beads up causing the light to bend and scatter – that’s called refraction. Cleaning the glass and then wiping with soap keeps them less foggy even with the c
ondensation. Ammonia is an excellent glass cleaner but for health reasons I don’t like it. It also can damage certain materials like OPCs in laser printer drums. Alcohol combined with soap works well and is a bit less toxic. The water that condenses on the glass does drip down to the sill which is why I used cedar, not for its looks but for its rot resistance around windows and next to concrete. The ultimate solution is better insulated windows which we’ll be building soon. The glass we’ve put in is just the outer panes.

Ben and Hope building another snowman. Or perhaps I should say sculpting. Ben said he didn’t want to do the traditional three balls so he carved legs and Hope poked in buttons using her stick. Check out Ben’s blog over at Sugar Mountain Life and leave him a comment – he loves hearing from people.

Outdoors: 44°F/21°F Overcast, Dusting of snow, light rain early morning
Farm House: 63°F/53°F six logs
Tiny Cottage: 55°F/46°F Big windows in place

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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10 Responses to Big Windows In Tiny Cottage

  1. Kristianna says:

    Wow! Those windows and the door look wondering! The cottage is moving along very nicely.

    I lvoe the snowman. My kids want snow…we have none, nothing but a dusting (twice) so far this year. ugh! I think the snow is on the way, however.

    Nice work, Walter.


  2. GrannyGardner says:

    The cottage looks great with the windows and door in. Although the door has been in for some time it didn’t show up as much as it does now with all the light shining through. I can’t wait to see how much solar heat gain you get from just having those sparkling clean windows for the sun to shine through.

    Ben and Hope look so cute working on the snowman.

  3. pablo says:

    Well, you certainly won’t be able to walk around in your underwear in that house!

    Why windows on the back. Can you get sunlight from that direction too?

  4. Pablo, the ‘back’ in this case where Holly is standing is the west side of the house so there is quite a bit of light that can come in from that way. It will be even more so when I clear the upper pasture again. It has grown up in trees which block the light about an hour or two early. The true back, the north side, has now windows and will eventually be bermed, as will the northwest and north east edges, to protect us from the wind.

    As to underwear, why would I wear that… :) We have no neighbors to scare. :)

  5. dragonfly183 says:

    It looks a lot bigger from the inside. I’m really curious to see what else you guys are going to do with it. I love all of the windows. i think views are very important.

    I probably missed the post where you mentioned this, but are you guys going to live in this thing year round?

  6. Views are something our existing farmhouse is totally lacking in. It sits down in a hollow against the hill. Adding windows wouldn’t even have helped. That is one of the goals with the new house.

    We plan to live in the cottage year round. It is a test for a lot of techniques, something for us to learn on and eventually the cottage will become part of a larger house and earthsheltered. These things take time but are worth going slowly so we learn along the way.

  7. David says:

    Hello! I’ve been reading through your blog for a couple weeks (going through the archives) and I really have been enjoying it! I’d like to build a house similar to yours someday. I was wondering though, why you chose to dry stack the blocks? I definitely like that they are filled and rebar reinforced though.

    I also see that you ended up going with arched ceilings in the rooms, originally you had mentioned flat ceilings, is this just due to the strength of a concrete arch over a span?

    Do you have any issues with cracking now that the building has been there for a few years? Ever think about buying or building pre-stressed slabs?

    • Um… Sort of. Flat vs rounded that is. The roof of the cottage and thus the interior cathedral ceiling is a barrel vault. I like that for the strength. In comparison the bedroom’s ceiling is relatively flat with only a 4″ curvature over 7′ of distance. I don’t think visitor’s notice the bedroom ceiling’s curve. I know it’s there and it theoretically helps with strength but mostly I did it for fun. I have not yet done the bathroom’s final ceiling. I’m playing with ideas and might do several small domes inside the space, segregating the toilet stall from the shower stall around the central pillar and planter arch. I enjoy doing arches and such both for their strength and elegance.

      We’ve had no problems with cracking other than a couple of small cracks that appeared in a very thin sheet of concrete I did as an experiment. That was caused by thermal stress because it was poured in cold temperatures and has thick surrounding beams. When the beams expanded with the warmth the thin sheet cracked but it presents no problems.

      The dry stacking was an experiment. It worked very well and is fast. I’m pleased with the results – a very smooth finish which is easy to parge over for interior wall finish. I also did standard mortared block in some areas such as the air ducts and three rings around the walls for earthquake resistance.

      I’ve not used commercial pre-stressed concrete although I’ve read about it. For the butcher shop ceilings we made some of our own pre-stressed concrete by pre-tensioning the steel.

  8. David says:

    Thank you for the quick reply! I’m new to working with concrete so I’ll definitely take your approach working small to big. Guess I also have a dog house in my future :)

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