Sculptor at home with concrete
By: Carole McMichael
Photography courtesy of Jerry and Ann Palen
Jerry Palen, a Western artist of many disciplines—painting, carving, cartooning (Stampede)—is widely known for his striking and energetic bronze sculptures of horses. So, it is not surprising that he chose to build a home and studio in a unique place in Wyoming. Palen’s home is one of 20 built on a hot springs resort, located on an island called Saratoga Inn. It is nestled on the western slope of the Snowy Mountains with the North Platte River running on one side and a lake on the other. Local wildlife, such as deer, moose, coyotes, and foxes, are equally at home and frequent visitors.
Palen designed his one-story, two-bedroom house to satisfy his artistic nature and still complement the western and rustic styling of the neighboring homes. To do this, he relied in part on colors that are complementary to the surrounding area. Bringing to mind the frontier forts, he included gates front and back and 18-foot-high parapet walls that reach around and extend beyond the roofline. Besides style, it provides a bit of privacy and keeps deer out of the flowerbeds.
“You don’t really see the entrance to the home,” says Palen. “There is no giveaway. You walk into the courtyard and step up two steps into a spacious outdoor room with a large fireplace. It faces east. As you walk through the outdoor room, there is a huge door that was handcrafted on-site. It leads into a large gallery area where I have some paintings and bronzes, many of which are 11 feet or taller, that we are getting ready to show or that are for sale. We don’t have much hallway; rooms just flow into each other.”
The gallery leads into the living room. From there, the ceiling drops in one direction to an open walkthrough that leads into the studio. The open, curved-wall studio faces true north, with a generous bank of windows that provide light for his work. Palen’s wife, Ann, has a circular office adjacent to the studio. She chose glass-block windows, which stylistically mimic those found in indoor horse arenas and function practically to defuse the sunlight, which would interfere with her computer work.
According to Palen, visitors to the house are charmed by it, but they want to know where the kitchen is. The kitchen is minimal, lacking overhead cabinets to minimize having to reach for things. This aspect of design was part of Palen’s intention that all the features of the house would accommodate the physical restrictions that come with age.
Palen finished the house in stucco because he didn’t want to climb ladders and paint. One of the primary reasons he built with concrete was the low- or no-maintenance living it affords. Another reason was concrete’s insulating values—he didn’t want forced-air heat or AC.
“About the only way you can get away with not having forced air,” Palen says, “is to use in-floor heating and build something with thick walls to keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter.”
Prancing Antelope, a Saratoga building firm, took on Palen’s project as its first ICF house. Builder Chris Shannon hired Nick Bobiney of Quinn’s ICF Construction LLC from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to construct the ICF portion of the project. Bobiney, who has done remodeling and foundations, has been specializing in ICF home building for three years.
The energy efficiency of ICF forms and block-makers’ efforts to improve their product impressed Bobiney. In choosing between blocks, he noted they vary primarily in the tie mechanism. He focused first on selecting one with a good tie, which he defines as one that leaves the customer or other trades something they can tie their stuff to. Next, he looked at concrete flow. According to Bobiney, some tie designs are so prohibitive to the flow that you have to add product to make it loose.
The Palen project was built with the Phoenix ICF wall system, which is what Bobiney used on most of his other ICF projects. The block, which is 48 inches long and 16 inches tall, has a 5-inch or 7-inch core for concrete thickness. Ties are 8 inches on center.
“Phoenix ties have a really good screw pullout,” Bobiney says. “I have heard many complaints from dry-wallers on some ICFs, that the screws they would sink in would pop out before they could countersink them. If the strips are not good enough to mount the drywall, that is a problem. Other companies are upgrading theirs now since Phoenix has had them all whipped by about 100 pounds.
“There are quite a few 45-degree angles in the Palen design. We could have bought blocks at that angle, but we prefer to cut them out of straight blocks. By doing our own cutting, we were able to line up the ties where we wanted them.”
Learning new things
To build on the Palen site, it was necessary to tear down an old house. That taught Bobiney a lot about the wood rot and mold, and the kind of water problems they would have to deal with. The North Platte is a good-sized river with no dams. The soil on the island is really river bottom and retains an enormous amount of water. In the summer, the water may come up into the crawl space of island homes. Consequently, he chose slab-on-grade and added fill and a perimeter drain.
“The preplanning began in May,” Bobiney says, “but we didn’t start the actual erection until early November, which is not a great time to start building a house in Wyoming. We had to make sure everything was thawed out before we could do any work. First, we rented a ground heater to warm the ground. We had a monster 400,000-BTU boiler on a trailer. It had large radiant-heat hoses that we reeled out and spread out on the ground and then fired up the boiler. It thawed out the ground about a foot deep in 24 hours. Also, after we poured, we spread the tubes around the footing and on top of the wall, blanketed them and let the boiler run for a week to keep it warm. The average temperature that we worked in was around 25 degrees. We covered the top and put insulation on the tops of forms so they wouldn’t fill up with snow.”
According to Bobiney, the ICF building process is easy to learn. When he first started, he took a Phoenix installation class and did some training on-site with a former dealer. On his first ICF house, he worked with a builder who was his technical rep and had access to lots of different people for answers. After that, he understood the main principles of ICF building, and how and where to brace because of his previous experience with poured walls and checking for plumb. In the beginning, Bobiney worked alone. He later added four men to his crew, and that was the Palen project team.
Erecting with ICFs
Because of the soil conditions, Bobiney used a 24-inch-wide and 8-inch-deep footer, using No. 5 rebar. The blocks were placed over the protruding No. 4 rebar and connected with the ties, which are molded in. A furring strip 1/2 inch wide runs the entire 16 inches of the block.
“We poured the footer and 4 feet of frost wall in one pour,” Bobiney says. “That included all the anchors for hanging the interior deck, which came next. After the pour, I waited seven days for a 50 percent cure. Then, I continued the stacking to do the upper level, but left the bracing on. We went up to a 9-foot ceiling height, and did the second pour. It took 10 days to do the first part and 10 days for the second. Some scheduling and weather interfered—many times we had to shovel snow off the deck before we continued working. On top of the walls, we put a sill plate, which was bolted onto to the concrete and that is what we nailed the roof trusses to.”
Anytime Bobiney wants to get a slump higher than 4 inches, he will use superplasticizer to decrease the amount of water needed. According to Bobiney, water weakens the concrete and makes it take longer to set up the concrete between lifts. He prefers one with a 45-minute activity. Starting with a 3-inch slump in the truck, the crew mixes in plasticizer and the slump is ready to pump at about 5 inches. By the time another 4-foot lift is poured, that concrete is stiff, reducing potential problems with bulging.
Bobiney’s business growth, as that of most builders, relies on word of mouth. “The customers who come to me usually know about concrete,” he says. “We do a high-quality job that people are willing to tell something about. We are in a niche and there are not that many people around here that are good at it.” CH
For more information, visit phoenixicf.com.