There is a very narrow but important window of opportunity between mechanical (electric, gas, plumbing, HVAC) and insulation/drywall. If you’re having a home built, you absolutely must take advantage of this time for your sake and the sake of anyone else who might do work on your home.
The Hat Trick
Imagine your brother-in-law is over helping you hang pictures. Well meaning, he finds a nail in the garage and hammers it into the wall. Next thing you know, water comes gushing out of a nearby heat register. When you turn on the light to investigate, sparks shoot from the wall. Turns out he found a stray 3″ framing nail and drove it through a wire, through water supply pipe, and into a duct.
How could this have been avoided?
For one, use the right bloody hardware. A lot of people go to the hardware store and buy overly long nails and screws to hang pictures. Remember that drywall is typically only 1/2″ thick–you don’t need anything longer than a 1″ nail. If you need to hang something of any weight, make sure you have a backer board installed during framing or use a wall anchor. Pipes and wires less than an inch from the face of a stud require protective shields, but if you use screws and nails that are too long, you can still make contact with shocky or drippy bits.
Another very valuable option is to document everything. You can take photos of every wall and write down measurements, but I chose to document it all in video.
One sunny afternoon, I went to the house with a laser ruler, camera, iPhone, several SD cards, and backup batteries. I spent the next couple of hours methodically documenting every wall cavity in the house. Pipe locations, wire runs, ducts, and any other feature that would be hidden by drywall was recorded. In most cases, I measured the distance to these elements from the nearest perpendicular surface. I found a few interesting trends:
- Horizontal wire runs through the house are typically 24″ to 36″ above the floor
- Any “wet” wall (a wall with water pipes in it) adjacent to a bathroom is a minefield for anyone with hammer and nail
- Electrical wiring is often run in an arterial style with many wires clustered together and peeling away from the group as the near their destination
I ended up making a documentary of my house that runs almost 90 minutes. Its entertainment value is near zero, but if you’re truly curious, you can see it here.
A few tips for making a good electro-mechanical documentation video:
HD or Go Home
Shoot in the highest resolution possible. You’re going to use this video months or years after you created it. You’ll seek to a particular part of the tour and then freeze frame trying to count exactly how many studs a pipe you failed to measure in the video is from an adjacent wall. If you have 1080p, use it. If you can borrow a 4K camera, use that instead.
Use Your Words
The people consuming this video will be completely removed from your build context. Things that may seem obvious or implicit in person should be spelled out for the future viewers. Wire locations and duct runs that seem glaring as you pan over them are a complete mystery the moment you cover them with drywall. Remember that your future audience might not just be you–it could be a remodel architect, a handyman, your family, or a future homeowner.
Slow and Steady
One of the things I wish I had done was to get a lightweight tripod or monopod and move it from place to place as I shot. Watching my video is a bit like watching a much more boring version of Cloverfield. At the very least, make sure your video equipment has image stabilization and that you don’t have the jitters when you shoot.
Make Sure Your Gear is Up For It
I had never filmed anything longer than a few minutes on my camera before. As it turns out, our point-and-shoot takes amazing video, but it breaks momentarily to create a new file every 15 minutes. Also, camera batteries and 8GB SD cards go extremely quickly when shooting full 1080p video. In addition to backup batteries, have spare recording media and perhaps a laptop to copy the files off to so you can cycle your cards if you need to.
Don’t be afraid to go back and re-shoot an area or to make addendum video clips. If you forget to talk about a critical component, go back at the end and record that bit as its own short clip. Doing it all in one take will just be more work cutting out useless footage later.
Fix It In Post
Take the time to post-process your footage. Move the clips around so they make sense. Splice all of your shots into a continuous film. If you’re feeling like an industrious little flim maker, add transitions and titles to make it easier to watch and understand (later on, you’ll be amazed by how much footage of bare studs all looks alike). Use iMovie or Final Cut Express to edit it into something you can use later on.
It’s perfectly acceptable to cut out redundant, rambling, useless footage. We don’t need five cumulative minutes of you holding the camera steady saying “Ummm, uhh, ohhhh.” However, make sure you aren’t cutting any important or unique video or audio content. If the only footage of an important wet wall was accompanied by a sneezing fit from the dust, you may be better off leaving the footage alone and at most cutting the audio out.
Upload your film to Vimeo or YouTube or Flickr. Make it private if you don’t want people knowing your home’s inner business, but make sure you have it stored online in some free place that won’t delete your video down the road.
You know those super annoying YouTube pop-up comments? Those are annotations and you should definitely use them. There are facts and figures you may not have had available at the moment of shooting that you’ll want to document in the proper context. Video annotations are the perfect place for that. Best of all, annotations can be toggled, so they won’t cover up important footage or slow down the overall pace like title cards in a silent film.
That’s a Wrap
There is a lot to think about in order to make a good electro-mechanical walkthrough. However, if done right, it can be an extremely valuable tool that you reference for years to come. It can save you hours of (re)work, and headaches. Best of all, it’ll help you become the literal master of your domain.
It was pointed out to me that I forgot to mention one more important thing that can be found in our walls. Following a BBC article about a rare 1938 Superman comic found buried in a house wall, I bought and hid several potentially (eventually) valuable comics in a secret location somewhere in our house. Perhaps in several decades, someone will be doing some remodeling and will find our tiny trove that at a bare minimum is a charming little time capsule.