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From commercial pilot to general contractor: (7) Losing the bulkhead blues

Building without bulkheads requires careful planning, careful communication with subtrades, and careful coordination between them.


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July 6, 2014 by

Designing joist directions to accommodate pipe, vent and duct runs above supporting walls and structural beams creates the space needed to eliminate bulkheads below ceilings and down walls.

Designing joist directions to accommodate pipe, vent and duct runs above supporting walls and structural beams creates the space needed to eliminate bulkheads below ceilings and down walls.

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Bleasby is a retired commercial pilot transitioning to life as a general contractor. As he builds his family’s new home north of Toronto he is blogging his experiences. 

To easily access previous posts, please scroll down to the bottom of this article…

It’s the little things on the wish list that prove troublesome. One thing I insisted on, right from the design stage was ‘No Bulkheads!’ I wanted none of those boxed-in enclosures that span a room or run up corners, hiding (usually) heating ducts, cold air returns, and often pipes, drains and HRV, range hood and plumbing vents. Who wouldn’t want to smooth, uninterrupted walls and ceilings?

I’ll be first to recognise that sometimes, particularly in renovations, bulkheads are inevitable. But in an architecturally designed custom house costing north of $500K … c’mon! Building without bulkheads proved to a little more difficult than I had imagined, but I can happily report that it has been achieved! Basically it was all part of the recurring theme: Getting the trades to coordinate. Here’s how it went down.

First, I told the architect that I didn’t want bulkheads… at all… period. That was the easy part. When the plans were starting to take shape, I asked him about the direction of the floor joists and roof trusses, realising these were the key determinants as to whether bulkheads would be required or not. But architects, for all their skills, do not install ducts, pipes and vents. What they might think is acceptable may not, in fact, work for the fellow who has to do the installation. I had to do something more.

My mechanical installers took immediate advantage of the joist spaces to run preliminary gas lines (black pipe) and air conditioning lines (copper and electrics) through the pre-planned service penetrations in the ICF wall and over supporting beams towards the Mechanical Room in the centre of the basement)

My mechanical installers took immediate advantage of the joist spaces to run preliminary gas lines (black pipe) and air conditioning lines (copper and electrics) through the pre-planned service penetrations in the ICF wall and over supporting beams towards the Mechanical Room in the centre of the basement)

In an earlier installment I described how ICF construction requires planning with regard to ‘service penetrations,’ or one finds oneself drilling through concrete and rebar after the fact. The same goes with all other infrastructure that runs inside the house. In this case, without pre-planning, any number of ducts, pipes and vents could find themselves orphaned below ceiling level or running vertically outside finished walls. It takes only one forgotten item to result in an unwanted bulkhead.

So I met with the plumber, the mechanical team and the electrician while we were in the early design stage and asked each of them to map out what they needed in an ideal world to keep all the spaghetti hidden above ceiling level and inside walls both in the basement and on the main floor. What we came up with was a centrally-located mechanical room in the basement from where air, water and electricity in their various forms would be distributed via panels, pumps and ducts. Then each trade showed how they would plan their routes. Since it meant moving and changing some joists and truss directions, I went back to the architect armed with their input.

I can’t emphasise enough how important it has been for me to keep my key trades informed and involved throughout the design and construction phase. It is a mantra I will myself repeating many times as the project moves ahead.

With the joists and trusses now in position and the house shell now nearing full enclosure, in my mind’s eye I can see my smooth, uninterrupted ceilings and walls. To me, it’s a thing of beauty!

PREVIOUS POSTS IN THIS SERIES

(1) Flying by the Seat of My Pants

(2) Oh, the Things You Can’t Control!

(3) Half-Load Restrictions, Half-Speed Construction

(4) How I Became an ICF ‘Block Head’

(5) Mistakes Will Be Made!

(6) Calculating Time Frames for Permits