Friday, January 28, 2005

December 3rd, Footings

By the end of November we were ready to roll. Our permits had miraculously been issued after a few minor hangups and I raced to coordinate our team to get the ball rolling for real. What a thrill!
(Originally posted to LiveModern 1/28/2005)

In a previous post I talked a little about excavation and there's more to that story that I think is worth telling so I'll start there.

During excavation, first the the lower floor level grade is established and then the footing trenches are dug down from that to below the frost line. In our case, the backhoe took two scoops to get down to footing depth, saw the soil conditions and immediately stopped digging. Here's where I stopped breathing.

One of the things I had been emphatically advised to do by my GC uncle was to get soil borings done while the land was in escrow, to be certain we were purchasing land that was buildable. Borings and a soil report were bid in the neighborhood of $2-3k based on my phone calls to geotechnical/soil engineers which would be unrecoverable funds should the land sale fall through. Since the surrounding land is developed and this lot had never been bought or sold previously, I reasoned that the chances of the soil being unbuildable were slim, and decided against getting borings done prior to closing. THIS WAS A HUGE RISK, and I don't think I'd take it again. Discovering non-bearing soil conditions would have meant either falling out of escrow, tens of thousands of dollars worth of correction (i.e. digging out non-bearing soil, hauling away and replacing), or being stuck with land that you can't do anything with. (I've been told that non-buildable lots are actually bought and sold all the time by people who don't bother to investigate the soil conditions prior to purchase [ha!imagine that], discover poor soil after the fact and then re-sell the land to the next unwitting buyer.) For sane people, it would presumably be ideal to know you can't build on your $100k worth of land BEFORE you've got several thousands of dollars invested in design, plans, permits, digging, etc, and your whole team sitting on site at the ready. Maybe I'm a little more sane now...

As our story ends, my excavator happens to keep a soil engineer on call. After the two fateful shovelfuls by the backhoe, I held my breath and tried not to have a nervous breakdown while we all waited ($$ flying away as equipment and labor sits around) for the engineer to arrive and take soil samples. Two hours later, he announced that there was good bearing soil slightly deeper than our desired footing depth around the entire building pad, which meant we could proceed and just needed to dig a deeper footing. WHEW. So for the extremely agreeable price of $600 for a site visit and soil report by the engineer, and the few hundred dollars worth of materials for a taller frost wall, we dodged what would have been a very expensive, miserable bullet. Note to self: could have avoided this all by getting soil borings in the first place like uncle said. On the other hand, it turned out OK and we're building our house on a beautiful lot that we might have otherwise been afraid of buying if we had had soil borings done in advance.

Here's a few pictures of our footings getting set up and poured. For those of you from warmer climates, those big black and white floppy things in the trenches and piled around are frost blankets that are used to insulate the ground until the foundation is in and backfilled. One of the many complications of winter construction in MN.

Access issues meant the first of what has so far been a few visits by the pump truck which is the big boom/hose thing you see (the expense of a pump truck is one of the necessities of ICF construction as well). Basically a giant arm that supports a hose unfolds and extends from a huge truck designed specifically for pumping concrete wherever it needs to go. Concrete flow and the movement of the boom is operated by remote control just like a real life video game while a guy in the trench or on the wall holds the outlet end. Pretty neato and also very expensive. I've said several times that the greatest shopping trip I could imagine still wouldn't equal the speed with which money is spent when the pump truck is on site. You can practically watch dollars come out of the end of that hose.

Our ICF guy, Jeff Schultz of Concrete Building Supply formed and poured our footings using a cool product called FastFoot It's basically just a big three sided plastic bag that comes on a roll that's stapled over a ledger board to form the footing, replacing the much more labor intensive means of building footing forms out of wood. Once the stakes and ledger are in place, it's just simply unrolled into the footing cavity and you're ready for rebar and concrete, plus it's waterproof so it prevents the footing from wicking ground water up from underneath. It's one of the many products that's a huge improvement on mainstream methods but has yet to become mainstream.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Perfect Timing

Does anyone else ever get those moments of panic where you're sure you're making a huge mistake? When doubt takes over and you wonder if you should just go buy a tract home like the rest of the world? I've always been a believer that when the time is right things will fall into place and that things happen for a reason. So far our project seems to be adhering to that belief...this is one of those stories.

There was a point last summer between the time we had closed on our land and before we started construction when I was having a period of major doubt and uncertainty about our entire project. It had started to seem more like just some crazy idea we took a few steps too far instead of something that we could actually make happen. Wrapping up our design details was taking longer than I had anticipated putting us behind schedule on our construction loan timetable and costing us a hefty interest payment every month, and we had decided to go ahead with the purchase of our lot (which used up around ¼ to of our overall budget) instead of accepting the gift of a recently inherited city lot being offered to us by Vern's parents. In terms of the actual logistics of getting the house built, there were just so many more questions than answers that I felt lost, confused and a little scared. I had been struggling to find a qualified ICF contractor, and my search for other subs was becoming frustrating as well. No one seemed to understand what we were trying to accomplish and why much less display the level of experience and professionalism that I was looking for. Then we came face to face with a reminder of what we were doing.

We were out riding our motorcycles on a scenic route we've traveled more times than we'd remember, cruising along the bluffs near the St. Croix river and enjoying the sights on a beautiful summer day. It's an area of mostly old Victorian homes and cottages, some renovated and some in increasing states of disrepair, a touristy, small downtown that plays up the historic river city genre to the max with antique stores and railroad memorabilia and turn of the century brick storefronts lining the main street. It's a place that's about as far from modernist as you'd think you could get. We were caught up in weekend sightseeing traffic coming into the business district and for whatever reason I looked up from the cars and road in front of me at exactly the right moment and spied this:

I was completely shocked. It was like this house had appeared out of no where at that exact second. I had been this way numerous times and never caught even a glimpse of anything like it before. I gave Vern the “lets turn around signal” and went back. He pulled over thinking I was crazy until I directed him to look above us up a steep street. We really couldn't believe our eyes. Here was a blatantly modern house smack dab in the middle of a place we had been hundreds of times and the last place we'd ever expect to see such a thing. It was like it had been built overnight.

We drove up the hill and stopped in the street out front to get a closer look and noticed that it was being worked on. My exuberance and surprise got me off my bike immediately and right up to have a chat with whomever I could find that was willing to indulge me.
As it turned out, the owners were working to wrap up what they said was “a total rebuild”. Apparently they had contracted to have the home built new five or six years ago and as it was put “nothing was done correctly and the whole house was practically falling down”. Our conversation went on to become a tale bad contractors, shoddy construction, lawsuits and “paying to build the house twice”. You wouldn't think this would be a reassuring or confidence inspiring chat given all my doubts at that time, but it was like a magic pill. I just couldn't get over the fact that out of nowhere and when we least expected it we had come across others who shared our vision and were willing to put their effort into into making it a reality.

This event may have been a simple coincidence and maybe I'm crazy, but it worked wonders on my psyche despite the horror story. Seeing a physical example of something in the realm of what we had been dreaming of for ourselves was exactly what I needed to buoy my confidence and reaffirm my knowledge that there are others besides us in this place that believe in something different and better when it comes to a home.

Side note: The owner told me he designed the home (I'm not sure if he is an architect or what) as a literal interpretation of a Mondrian painting which was a weird coincidence because I had just mentioned Mondrian to our architect the week before and this had been in my head as a jumping off point for designing our homes' exterior since the beginning. Apparently the major issue that forced the rebuild was mold and water due to improperly installed windows and a stucco exterior over traditional wood framing. Incidentally, this has been a huge issue with newer homes here for the past four or five years and has forced more than a few big dollar builders into litigation or out of business.

I took the picture with my phone's camera so it doesn't really show a lot of the architectural details that made it cool. The big blue wall on the upper part is curved and walks out onto a deck. There's a second story breezeway/sleeping porch between the two major volumes of the house and the shed roof barely visible on the back was a deep, inviting patio. Too bad they didn't invite us in to get a better look :)

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Thoughts on being an owner-builder

(Originally posted to LiveModern 1-18-2005)
I got up yesterday morning at 6a.m. to make the one hour drive to our lot to supervise the unloading of our steel floor and roof trusses, beams, and decking. The temperature was -18 and rose to a balmy -6 by afternoon. Standing around outside freezing my butt off prompted me to think about the pros and cons of self -general contracting one's own home.

First I have to admit that I am a control freak, so the decision that I was going to act as our General Contractor was almost a given. I also have the thirst for knowledge, and it would have killed me to know that I could have learned something and missed out by not being as involved as I could have been with our project. Now that we are nearing the halfway point in actual construction, I have some definite opinions and a better picture of whats involved with being an owner-builder that I hope others may find useful.

Skills: I'll begin with what I feel are a few indispensible skills for the self-GC. First, the ability to communicate effectively with people from a variety of different backgrounds is key. You'll talk to thousands of people while getting bids and during actual construction, and being comfortable and clear in communication is essential to getting what you want and getting things done right. On that same note, it's absolutely critical that you know as much as possible about everything that's going on and into the home at every stage. When you don't know something, you need to have the desire to find the answer or know who to go to that can give it. I think it helps a lot to be interested and curious. Third, you have to be able to go with the flow and not get freaked when things change or are vague. When we started this thing, there were way more questions than answers about the project itself and the actual process. As we progressed those questions got answered, but it was a huge effort and often very stressful to work around the gaps and not get too lost in the details. Likewise, trying to structure everything down to the last dollar and detail in advance probably has some advantages and might work well for some people, but I think it's just setting up for added stress in the long run. Fortunately this is not my style anyway, but I feel like the more flexible I can be, the better. Almost nothing has gone exactly as planned or cost exactly what we anticipated, and stressing out about it changes nothing. My motto is “accept and move on” and I'm getting better at it every day.

Time: I believe time is the biggest obstacle most people face with the decision to self-CG. It's a major commitment both before and during construction. I'm fortunate in that I can devote as much time is necessary to our project and have the ability to be flexible in terms of making last minute scheduling changes, getting on site on short notice and being there on an all-day, everyday basis. I consider it my full-time job and my first priority. Were it not for this, the process would be much more stressful and much less convenient. Having subs you trust makes a huge difference in this regard. We're fortunate that our biggest and most involved sub, our ICF contractor, is trustworthy, dependable and extremely hard working whether I'm on site or not. On that same note, it's a huge help to have subs that will work with you in addition to working for you. Even though you're the one writing their checks, I've found that a sub that understands and can be accommodating to your non-expert status and is willing to cooperate with all aspects of the project is worth a great deal more than the cheapest sub or one that just shows up, does his job and leaves. I look for people who seem interested and excited about what I'm doing and are willing to act as a partner in the project. Having to constantly babysit subs would make it a whole different project and experience. If we begin to see that side of things as we move forward I know I can make the time to deal with it but if that were not the case, I'd probably have chosen to hire a GC instead.

Costs: I've come to believe that much of the cost that one would save by choosing to act as their own GC is spent in other ways yet this is not necessarily a negative. A good, experienced GC has a pools of subs for any task from flatwork to finish carpentry, whereas I make ten or twelve calls or more just to find a sub that's interested in my job and seems competent enough to get the bid. A GC is likely to already know the sub and the quality of their work, while I have to investigate, check references or be blindly faithful that the end product will be of acceptable quality.

The professional GC is likely to get a better price and to have a higher degree of subcontractor loyalty because they're a volume employer. He or she builds homes on an ongoing basis and those subs want to be hired again and know they're likely to get repeat business which sustains their profitability. I on the other hand, am likely a one time only job.

A professional GC is in it to get paid, which from my perspective has the potential to force decisions prioritized as easiest and biggest profit=best choice rather than best solution for the situation=best choice. I'm a control freak, remember? I like to have as much information as possible and feel comfortable making decisions based on knowledge I've sought. If I was relying on a GC to provide that information I think there's a greater chance I may not hear the whole story. My experience with the construction industry thus far has revealed a huge knowledge gap when it comes to current products and methods. The technology exists but very few “professionals” are paying attention. I've learned to investigate (or exhaustively research) everything myself because 99% of the time, a contractors' “best” is really just whatever product they've got a vested interest in, are most familiar with or whatever makes them the biggest profit with the least effort. When it comes right down to it, construction tradespeople are mostly in the business of time equals money which is not always the same as the business of building the best house.

Overall Pros:

Control over who you pay and who does what

Complete control over materials and methods

Steep learning curve

You set the schedule

Immensely rewarding...I've put the plan into action, coordinated the team and gotten the house built. I'm seeing it grow from start to finish and had a hand in nearly every decision that's been made along the way (I guess this could turn out to be a negative as well).

Overall Cons:

Big time commitment: Countless hours on the phone and Internet sourcing subcontractors, materials and methods.

Steep learning curve

You set the schedule

The “it's better not to know” factor. Being one's own GC puts the many small and sometimes costly details front and center. If something goes wrong it's your fault, you'll know about it and you'll pay for it, with time, money, headaches or all of the above. A pro would presumably insulate you from this for better or worse.

Even more time: I've spent a lot of time educating and hand holding potential subs on what we're doing and how. This can be frustrating since they're the ones that are supposed to be the experts, but it also goes hand in hand with our deviating from the status quo and gives me a good idea of a subs' flexibility and cooperativeness.

I believe that if the time is there or can be found, anyone can be their own GC. At this point I'm still happy with the choice but it does require tenacity, resourcefulness and the willingness to ask a lot of potentially stupid questions without fear. I'd love to hear others' experiences and opinions on the subject.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The ICF Decision

The rationale for and thoughts behind our decision to build with Insulated Concrete Form.
Orignially posted to LiveModern 1/11/2005

Having a basement in our part of the country is the norm, but no matter how much is done to improve the livability of the space and make it comfortable and welcoming, there's still always something basement-y about it that hinders the desire to spend time there. With our no-wasted- space tendencies, we started thinking about the possibility of building a slab on grade home very early on, a fact that directed our process and clearly defined our destination as ICF before we really even knew it.

Because my vision for our home was a somewhat industrial looking finished product and we knew we wanted to try to economize, I started to explore commercial construction practices with the thinking that this must be a more economical means of getting a basic structure. As it turns out, the commercial standard of building with concrete block doesn't make sense for residential OR commercial construction (that it persists is crazy, IMO. I attribute it to the power of the labor unions here.), so that option was quickly eliminated. Then I ran across Insulated Concrete Form, a product I was aware of but really knew very little about at that time. Like most deviations from the status quo (ie. stick building), I at first figured ICF was just another anomalous new product, here today and getting sued tomorrow, yet hearing my carpenter uncle lament about how the quality of wood building products has sharply declined while increasing in price certainly helped me to start believing in and looking for alternatives to stick construction. The more I read the more I started to believe that ICF might be a good fit for our needs. In my mind, the most important selling points were a high level of energy efficiency and weather resistance for our demanding climate and strength and feasibility for slab on grade in MN. It just made sense to me that if the means existed to build a stronger more weather resistant structure with a much higher degree of energy efficiency for nearly the same cost, why not do it? Humans started building things out of wood centuries ago because it was readily available and nearby, which is no longer the case, so isn't it time we start embracing the more sensible alternatives that technology has afforded us? A decent rant, right? Yet the decision to take the ICF leap was a little scary especially since most of the people we talked to about it, including my relatives who have been building homes their entire lives, had never even heard of it, and we weren't exactly planning a $50K cabin in the woods.

ICF presented many attractive features and made sense but I did expend significant time and energy on research before I was comfortable saying I thought ICF was a good idea. It was definitely helpful that we are both questioners of the status quo. The idea of not doing things a certain way simply because that's the way they've always been done comes naturally to us (this can probably be said of most modern enthusiasts). In our case, outside the box happened to mean choosing ICF, just as others have chosen modular, SIP's, rammed earth, straw bale or whatever. That we could have had our home built with wood for the cost of the materials only and my gracious uncle's free labor, yet chose to use ICF is a good indication of how strongly we felt it was the right choice.

I'm going to end with my floorplan sketches.

This is basically what we started with. I'm fortunate to have a relative who is a draftsmen who converted this floorplan into a very basic set of D size prints that we used for the plan appraisal required to get our financing. Our land purchase and financing all happened prior to our having found an architect so our final plans did change and I'm definitely NOT recommending doing things in this order because it was all a bit dicey. Fortnuately the plan appraisal process for new construction seems to be a "how much does it need to be valued at" kind of game. These sketches reflect my adaptation of a previous plan for slab on grade to the walkout lot we bought. Because of our dislike for basement space, I had originally planned to leave the half of the lower level unexcavated, put the garage on the upper level, and have a third floor for studio space. Once I met with an excavator on site, it became apparent that the result (and eventual demise) of this idea was that we would have had to pay to truck in several hundred yards of fill for a box full of dirt within the walls of those unexcavates spaces. In the end, we exchanged the unxcavated space for garage and shop on the lower level, put my studio on the upper level and deleted the third floor entirely.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Excavation photos and comments on beginning the construction process
(originally posted to LiveModern 1/9/2005)
I thought I'd start adding some photos and stuff about the actual activities of building now that were in the thick of it. These are pictures I took on the day we broke ground, November 30, 2004. Exciting and unreal at the same time. Up to this point, I was still hearing a little voice in my head on an almost daily basis telling me that it wouldn't happen.

Starting construction November 30th was about six months later than we anticipated, but we feel fortunate to be cruising right along now thanks to the milder than normal winter this year. The biggest downfall to getting started late aside from being at the mercy of the winter weather was that we were required to make interest payments on the land portion of our construction loan beginning 60 days after closing which amounted to several hundred dollars, essentially wasted, every month. Not an ideal way to start out. Because we were expecting it to take a long time to find land yet we found what we wanted in a matter of weeks, we had barely begun researching the details of the various financing options and had to make a quick decision so as not to lose the lot. In hindsight, we would have been much better off getting a land loan but at the time, we (naively) thought we'd have our plan details wrapped up and be ready to start in short order.

Until the point that the guys show up with the equipment and actually start moving dirt around, it's really hard to visualize what the topography of the lot will be like with the house on it, especially when the lot is sloped and there's a basement involved. As far as the actual excavation goes, the top soil is scraped off first and grade is established a few inches lower than finished slab height using a story pole and survey laser. Next the footing trenches are dug, to within an inch of what is required for bottom of footing...I found the whole process really interesting... In our case, this amounted to about $7K worth of digging, not including what we'll pay for the remainder of the backfilling against the north wall and the finish grading in the spring.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Design Notes

Designing a home seems like a daunting task and I knew I wanted to hire an architect eventually, but prior to that we put a lot of time into thinking about what we wanted our home to be and getting our ideas down on paper.
(originally posted to LiveModern 1/4/2005)

This project was born out of our desire to have a home that functions the way we want it to instead of adapting our lives to work with the house. Living in the Beaver Cleaver world of dining rooms and formal living rooms and the gym-meets-family room concept just aren't us. We're too practical (and hopefully sensible) for that. If we're going to spend the money to get it, every inch had better be useable and used on a regular basis and it had better support all our activities of living with ease.

I've always been a collector of ideas, and I knew I had a really good handle on what we were looking for in a home. I've built it in my head a thousand times. Keeping a general idea in mind of the size of home we though we needed and could afford, I sat down and finally put all my ideas on paper. It was a scary step because I felt this was our first move based on the belief that we could actually DO this. My thinking out loud on paper went through several incarnations as Vern and I discussed what we thought we wanted and I started to get a better grasp of how different combinations of spaces added up to a total square foot number. I was also working off the premise that simpler equals more affordable. I wasn't interested in complicated angles, circular dining rooms or lots of little nooks and crannies and this wasn't what I envisioned for the house anyway. I started designing simply in terms of a square box with a general idea of the square foot requrements I though were appropriate for the major rooms.

Some of the basic elements we considered essential to our design:

*A bigger kitchen with maximum functionality...a chef's kitchen. Truthfully, the entire house design started with what I determined to be my ideal layout and size for a kitchen, how I wanted it to relate to the other spaces and what I wanted to see when I stood in the room and looked out. I wanted continuity with the living and public areas and support for things like social cooking, teaching, and large-scale food prep. I love to cook, promote and share cooking. We love to entertain and do so frequently and I'm at my limit of tolerance for our currently trial-size tract house kitchen. Another requirement was that the kitchen have convenient access to the outdoors, preferrably at ground level since we spend a lot of time doing food outdoors in the summer and I love to gather from the garden to make a meal. (I also have plans for a someday outdoor kitchen, but it's just not all that practical in Minnesota.)

*Similar to the above, I wanted there to be a sense of enticement and unity to the outdoors, or as much as is practical given our harsh climate. I've always been atttracted to places where inside and outside are not clearly defined and where large doors or walls dissapear to blur the line between interior and exterior. I love the idea of outdoor rooms. Unfortunately most of the really cool ideas are too impractical for Minnesota winters, and if it wasn't that, it would be our mosquito issue. I feel like this is the biggest design compromise we had to make, and I sure envy all you warmer climate folks with your potential for overhead doors and outdoor living rooms. I'm also fanatical about having great light, so lots of windows was a given, yet this is another point of compromise because of climate.

*A place for motorcycle maintenance that could also act as a showroom in the off season. Did I mention that Vern and I are both motorcycle fanatics? Our summertime hobby is roadracing motorcycles and it's something we're both passionate about. We spend a great deal of our free time either actively riding or maintaining as many as six street and track motorcycles, so a dedicated motorcycle garage was a must-have. Also, when you live in Minnesota you've got to do something with bikes in the winter. We think of them as functional art, so putting them in the middle of the living space seems perfectly reasonable to us :) Plus, this would be the ideal place to utilize a service station door inside the house, which is an idea I've been itching to copy for a long time.

*A more private master bedroom and bathroom. This is one of the other major shortcomings of our current home. I wasn't looking for a grand master suite with sitting room, palacial bath and apartment sized walk-in closet, just something with a little space to move around in and our very own bathroom. I also knew I wanted a Japanese soaking tub and a big, walk in shower.

*A guest bedroom and bathroom. As much as I dislike giving up space to something that will not be in daily use, I dislike hosting overnight guests without being able to grant them their own private space even more. My hope is to make this room as multi-purpose as possible while still maintaining it as hangout for visitors.

*A dedicated art space for me. My current studio is a spare bedroom and while close to adequate in size, it's not as functional I would like.

*A general focus on ease of entertaining. To us this means an open floor plan, a great kitchen and an exciting, interactive and welcoming environment that we and others want to spend time in. I'm all about the feeling you get from a place, and I find myself more and more aware of both what attracts and repels people within a space. I love be engaged by an interior or exterior environment and I love creating a comfortable place to “be”.

*Flexibility. As I said, our point is to create a home that is designed around how we live, which is never a static thing for anyone. My hope is that we'll have something flexible enough to adapt to us when we need it to and that has decent resale appeal should we ever decide to move.

So, with that I give you the lower level floor plan:

and the upper level floor plan:

Reviewing the drawing now, I realize we updated the guest bathroom layout to have a door that enters directly from the guest bedroom. I anticipate a few other minor alterations to interior walls as well once I finalize interior materials, but basically what you see is what we'll live with. Note that the main entrance to the house is on the upper level, while our main living space is on the lower level. Our driveway/garage are downhill from the shared drive and entering the garage will require a 90 degree turn.