Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Warm and Cozy

We've been living in our house now for two months and we're loving every minute of it.  As the days get shorter and the sun is lower in the sky, we're really appreciating the solar design of the house...the way the sun comes in the windows and warms the concrete floors.  Our heating system is working really well using the back-up propane water heater.  Paul Martin is our heating contractor and I give him tons of credit for his work.  We had to fire the first heating contractor we chose; he did a terrible job installing the HRV system and we had to hire Beech Air from Torrington to finish installing the system and get it operating properly.  We discovered Paul when he came to Jeremy's business looking for a digital print wrap for a mobile solar hot water trailer that he takes to events/fairs.  Paul was able to take the components of our heating system, previously designed and purchased through Radiant Floor Company, and neatly install them in a very tight space in our mechanical room.  He and our plumber, Lemieux Mechanical, did an awesome job getting the system hooked up correctly.  So far the radiant system is working very well.  I love the "set it and forget it" mentality that comes with radiant heat.  No more huge swings in temperature or dust being blown around like in forced air systems.  Jeremy has been doing all the prep work for our solar thermal collectors which should arrive and get installed next week.  He installed concrete footings for the steel frame and dug the trench for the copper piping from the collectors to the house.  After much consideration, we decided to install the panels on the west side of the house toward the back.    We chose this location because we will get really good solar exposure in the winter, but less (approx. up to four hours less) in the summer when we won't need hot water for heat.  People have been asking for more details on our system so I will try to upload some schematics, photos, and more details on our system soon.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hot water, please?

We haven't posted in a while because we're spending every waking minute trying to get the house habitable.

Our downstairs bathroom, the only one finished right now, is done and we can't wait to use it properly.  The urinal got used right away (Jeremy was upset that Oslo beat him to it).  The toilet we initially purchased, a Kohler dual flush, didn't fit in the rough plumbing opening.  Ugh?  Luckily, our plumber, feeling badly that it didn't fit, helped us return the toilet and found a Toto that we like even better, and he gave us the contractors price on it.  I completed the tile in the shower.  Wow, that was way more work than I anticipated.  We used glass mosaic and it is unforgivable and very difficult to work with.  It lays down quickly, but it also shows every irregularity on the surface and is tricky to cut.  Jer and I designed the vanity/sink combination.  The cabinet is maple and we found the legs online, which we stained to match.  The countertop is a beautiful piece of remnant soapstone from Berkshire Stone in Winsted, CT and the backsplash is Vermont green slate.
The IKEA kitchen came together nicely.  Those Scandinavians know how to design.  We're very pleased with the quality of the cabinets and appliances.  I chose the IKEA ovens (microwave and convection oven) from IKEA, manufactured by Whirlpool, because I wanted to make sure they would fit in the IKEA oven cabinets, plus they were cheaper than buying the same Whirlpool appliances at Sears.  Our other appliances consist of a Kenmore Elite induction cooktop, Kenmore Elite fridge by LG, and Bosch dishwasher.  It took a bit of work getting all the cabinets ordered, picked-up, and assembled (not recommended for the novice weekend warrior). We decided to use the oak butcher block countertop for the areas on either side of the sink.  The island has a temporary countertop, until we decide on how we're going to finish the island and what material to use on the countertops.  We just installed a 1/2" piece of veneer from the "seconds room" at IKEA.  If you're creative, that's a good place to find some awesome deals.
Jeremy has been concentrating on the stairs, which have turned out great!   The steel stringers are from Artistic Iron Works in Canada.  Jeremy had a steel frame built for the landing and we used reclaimed barn beams for the treads and landing decking.  We had a local sawmill remill the beams and we planed, sanded, and finished the wood.  The posts are pine and the railing is galvanized hog wire fencing from Tractor Supply ($30 per 16 feet section!!)  And the added bonus is that the inspector "passed" our stairs much to our surprise.  We thought there would be lots of issues with the openings everywhere, but he just asked us to cover the risers and we concurred.
Now, all we need is hot water and we can move in!!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sweat Equity

It's been a busy couple of weeks.  We decided to hire a painter so we could get the painting done fast and move onto other things.  We love the color...agreeable grey.  Then Jeremy and I slaved and fretted over the concrete floor.  We cleaned, stained, and sealed the floor using Ecoprocoat soy based stain.  We like how it looks now (after hours of wax-on/wax-off Karate Kid action) but are very disappointed with the sealer.  Water drips and spills on the floor still seep through to the stain and leave watermarks.  We decided that right before we move in, we'll touch up spots with more stain and use good, old fashion wax sealer.
Jeremy's dad, Charlie, helped us pick up our IKEA kitchen, located within about 200 boxes.  Last weekend we assembled most of the cabinets and installed them, along with appliances. We are very pleased with the IKEA products and service.  With the exception of several  damaged pieces, our order was correct.  My only complaint was the omission of instructions for installing the ovens in the IKEA cabinets.  My dad was visiting and he helped me get them in place correctly.  Jeremy has been installing light fixtures and I've been tiling the bathroom.  The electrician and plumber returned last week to complete the finish work (outlets, switches, and set fixtures).  The highlight for Jer was installation of the urinal in the downstairs bath.  I have to admit, it's a beautiful urinal and will get lots of use.  Oslo was excited to be the first one to pee into it. 

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Green List, Part I

A common question we are asked after people hear we are building a "green" home is, "what makes it green?".  It's a good question, especially after hearing what other home owners and builders are pawning off as a "green" home. While having a low flush toilet, some fluorescent light bulbs and low VOC paint is certainly a step in the right direction (a local builder is touting a home like this as a green home) , it's far from a complete package. Instead of  talking about what isn't, I wanted to start a list of items and attributes of our home that make our house energy efficient, material efficient and environmentally thoughtful. It's going to be long, and I'm going to forget some items which is why I've titled this entry Part I.

The Site
This is a key factor and where it all begins. After years of searching for the perfect piece of property we knew we had found "it" within 15 minutes of seeing it.  It had great southern exposure (passive solar), where the house site would be, and it was in a meadow so we didn't have to take down a single mature tree, just some small pine and birch (less than 10' high).  It's close to town and only a 7 minute commute to my business.

The Design
We did a ton of research, talked to architects, visited many homes on solar home tours and you know what we ended up with? A box. A simple open floor plan that suits the way we live and utilizes that open space to distribute heating, cooling and natural light. Couldn't be simpler and that's the point. Minimum material is used, maximum efficiency is reached. Key credos in "green" home building.

The Foundation
We used a prefab foundation (Superior Walls) and as anyone who knows about green homes will tell you, prefab is about efficiency and minimum waste. It went up fast with no waste products on site (plywood, left over concrete, etc.). It's super insulated and we went so far as to add another 2" of rigid insulation on the walls to minimize any thermal bridging with another 3" rigid underneath the heat sink.

The Shell
Why more people don't use SIP panels is beyond me. ALL homes should utilize this technology. It would save hundreds of tons of waste from going into landfills. It would make homes so tight and efficient that minimum fuel and electricity would be used to operate them. The list of advantages would make a long blog entry in itself. It you are going to build a new home or have an addition, give SIP's some serious thought.

The Windows and Doors
Anderson 400 for everything. Casement and awning windows (when closed they make a tighter seal than sliders or double hung). The doors are standard swing, even for the patio. Sliders just don't seal well. We opted for Smartglass film on all southern doors and windows to protect the interior from UV.

The Heating System
In one word; radiant. We used 7/8" Pex tubing for greater heat distribution for all three layers (Heat sink, in slab and staple up under the second floor). Our main source of heat will be from 4 arrays of 16 tube solar collectors with a backup of a propane fired hot water on-demand Takagi heater which we hope will barely ever have to fire up. As far as our "Heat Sink" system, look to an earlier blog post for an explanation.

The Siding and Trim
I'm not a fan of maintenance. Not to mention that painting and patching a home takes time and chemicals. We used Hardie board siding and Azek trim. I'll never have to get on a ladder and paint. Ever.
Also, we used old fashioned tar paper for the vapor barrier as opposed to Tyvek. Tyvek is crap. Any contractor worth their salt would tell you the same. It's just well marketed.

The Roof
We almost went for a traditional asphalt shingle roof because of our budget but it just didn't sit right with me. Here we are building an environmentally minded home and I'm going to put a petroleum based product, which when it's life cycle ends, goes straight into a landfill? I bit the bullet on this and went with a galvanized metal roof and installed it myself with the help of a couple guys from my shop. It was a bitch, especially the cupola, but it's going to last my lifetime and when it's time to change it out, completely recyclable.

The Floors
Our home is slab on grade. No basement. Another common question we get from folks when they hear that is "where are you going to keep your stuff?". I usually pause before I reply, allowing them a moment to think about their question even though it doesn't do any good. Think about that question. "Where am I going to keep a bunch of crap that I don't need or use and stockpile in a place that I rarely occupy except to clean out in order to have tag sales?" But I digress. We're leaving the concrete exposed. I sanded it to a "baby ass smooth" and then we stained it using a soy based concrete stain called EcoProCote. It came out sweet.
For our second floor we used Teragren Strand Bamboo flooring which is phenomenally hard and looks beautiful.

Interior Walls and Trim
First off, we did drywall returns on all the windows and doors. Not only does this give a very clean and modern look, it saves a ton of money (and material) normally spent on trim. Floor board trim was used primarily to cover the electrical chase for the outlets (SIP panels, while a great product, pose a challenge to electricians). In this case we used more of the Teragren Bamboo product. It's a carmelized bamboo plywood that we ripped into 8" strips and cleared with a water based poly satin. It looks trick and contrast beautifully with the floor and walls.
All the walls and ceilings were painted with a Benjamin Moore product called Harmony. It's a no VOC paint that after 24 hours of drying left absolutely no smell and looked clean, bright and seamless.

All right, this is going to be a hell of a long list. Need to take a breather and get back to the house!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Looking like a home

I thought I would add lots of photos today.  We had a small break in the rain so I could run outside and take some photos.  No, the roof is not white, it's galvanized metal reflecting the grey sky.  We are so happy with how the roof turned out.  Jeremy's says it definitely makes up for spending six days 30 feet off the ground.  
We're satisfied enough with the siding, but we're going to add corner boards, some window trim, and possibly battens.  The siding we choose is typically installed with battens, but we thought it would look OK without them...not so sure now.  The drywall contractor is almost done, so I took photos of the inside.   Oslo is standing in the mudroom with the stairwell area behind him (upper left).  A view from the upstairs balcony looking east toward the childrens bedrooms (upper right).  Oslo and Nola run around the downstairs kitchen and living area (bottom left).  Oslo's room has a nice size loft over Nola's room (she gets the big room and closet and Oslo gets the killer hang-out area.  This week I'll be starting the tile in the downstairs bathroom and Jer will continue to work on putting together all the elements of the staircase, railing, and bamboo trim.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Rain is the name of the game

I just had to post this cute pic of Nola taken while we were blueberry picking last week.

I gathered up some fans and our dehumidifier and took them to the house so we could try to dry up the drywall compound. It's been so wet and humid the drywall job is taking longer than normal. We're also drowning in mud. We've been waiting for the excavation contractor to come back and finish the grading. Right now we have about 10 huge piles of dirt (imported fill; yes, we needed more!!) waiting to be spread out. I'd love to post some pictures, but it hasn't stopped raining long enough for me to poke my head out the window and take some pictures (sorry, Mom, we'll try tomorrow.)
The past several weeks we have been consumed with 1) trying to catch any errors before they were covered with drywall, and 2) trying to get everything lined up so we can swarm into the house after the drywall is done. We decided to splurge and hire a painter. We got an incredible price to have the whole house painted and the exposed beams oiled. Our frustrations have mostly involved the installation of the ventilation system in regards to quality and timeliness. We've ended up doing portions of the work ourselves to keep things on schedule. I've been working on ordering/buying everything we need to do the first bathroom (downstairs) and the kitchen. I made a pilgrimage to IKEA and ordered our kitchen cabinets. After looking for used cabinetry in reclaimed stores and online for the past 9 months, we finally gave up trying to find something that was going to fit in our space/fit our needs. We also looked at some "sustainable" wood products, but cost and additional labor for finishing the wood made that option cost prohibitive. So we had to make a sacrifice on the "green cabinetry" and go for the IKEA option. They now have a solid wood, oak door that we like that should wear well. I was impressed with the kitchen department at IKEA. They were very helpful (don't ever go on a weekend, though) and put my order together promptly and correctly (so far). I ended up getting my oven and microwave from IKEA - they are Whirlpool products that cost a bit less than the equivalent models at Sears and have a more stylish look. I also was concerned about getting appliances to fit in the IKEA oven wall cabinets. One more recommendation on IKEA. Go to the store prepared with a full list of cabinets and accessories, or upload your custom design to their website using the IKEA Kitchen Planner software. I made the mistake and took a CD, but they won't accept outside data media. My other success this week was finding a reasonably priced slate from Vermont, without driving to Vermont to buy it. Suprisingly, I found some nice green grey Vermont slate through Home Depot at a very competitive price. Most slate, usually multicolored, you see is from Brazil. That's a long trip for some chipped rocks.
Tomorrow, Jer will be picking up our strand bamboo flooring. Today I installed the shower pan liner and sandmix mortor base for the tile in the downstairs shower stall. It was cheaper than a base, but more work and will look much better than a solid base. That's the theme for this house. Why skimp out on the details now...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Sweating the Details

In the feverish pace of putting the many pieces in place that constitute this project, we realize we simply aren't going to catch everything. Coordinating all the various tasks while solving the problems as they pop up leaves little room for ruminating on the process and there will be things we wished we did or caught or changed or.....

Even though we are getting towards the tail end of the project, it seems the amount of decisions to be made have increased. It's all the finishing details; stair components, concrete stain, lights, cabinets, tile, backsplash, yada, yada, you get the idea. My mind is in texture overload. And there is Karann on the computer researching pendant lights. She's unstoppable. 

I'm working on the stairs tomorrow. Scored some old barn wood, 2" x 12" of various lengths that I'm going to have milled at a local lumberyard. More recycling and monetary savings. I love that combo. 

We're going to be constructing the components for the stairs at the shop next week and getting everything set so when the painters are done and we stain the concrete everything is set to go. Karann's focus has been the bathrooms and kitchen (surprise!) and she's been getting all the ducks in a row to outfit these rooms in short order.

I've arranged for the painter to get going on Monday but we may have an issue with the taping/mudding contractor running late due to the humidity slowing the drying time. It's been an extremely wet July which hasn't helped. Fortunately, the only thing that has been against us is the weather, oh, and the contractors who don't show up when they're supposed to. But we're managing.  We've got a lot of other things to be thinking about.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Blue Jean Insulation

This is my car, completely stuffed with UltraTouch insulation.  This insulation is made from 100% cotton, 85% which is post-industrial recycled cotton (blue jeans, maybe??) and contains no VOCs or formaldehyde.  I purchased the product at DeVries Building Supply in Sheffied, Ma.  Very nice people and they deliver to Connecticut.  We're going to use it in the walls and ceilings for sound suppression in the music room.   The great thing about the stuff is that while Jer and I are installing it, the kids can be sitting on a pile watching a movie in perfect, safe comfort.
Today, all the subs finished with the rough-ins and I worked on the shower base in the downstairs bath.  I learned the difference between mortar and cement.  We'll be working hard the next couple days getting ready for the drywall contractor.  Also tomorrow we are having an intermediate blower door test to see if we have any air gaps that need filling.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


We haven't posted in a while because we are always at the house.  For the last 10 days we have had the plumber, HVAC, electrician, carpenter, excavator, and well driller all there at the same time working.  While progress is being made very quickly, it is difficult to keep up with all the decisions that need to be made, and keep up with everything that we need to be doing to keep on schedule.  Oh, yeah, and our jobs, home, and kids have to fit in there somewhere.  It's exhausting and mistakes happen.  After a week on the roof, Jeremy has decided he made the right career choice (anything but a roofer).  Our friend Paul did a great job managing the roofing installation.  It looks awesome.  When the sun shines on it, I'll bet it blinds pilots.  The windows are also installed and the siding is going up.  Had some issues with windows (how to insulate properly without extension jambs (we selected to have drywall returns).  And today we had some problems with the siding.  Luckily, I think we've solved the problem.  The exterior is still going to require a bit of paint touch up, corner boards, and possibly some trim.  We want to wait until the siding is up before we decide the final touches.
On the inside, the rough in is done for the electrical and radiant, and the plumber will finish tomorrow.  The HRV will be installed later this week.  We decided on the Venmar Eco 1.5 HRV.  It uses only 40 Watts of power verses around 150 Watts for other similar cfm rates.  
On Sunday, Oslo and Jeremy installed cable, CAT5, stereo, and phone wiring.  The electrician and I talked him into doing this even though he believes everything will be wireless eventually (he's probably right).

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Cupola Raising

Yesterday was an exciting day.  We watched the final piece of the SIP puzzle being lifted into place.  The cupola was assembled on the ground, with windows installed, and then Ben from North Timber Associates, lifted it with his crane and attached it to the roof.  It looks great, like whipped cream and a cherry on top of a sundae.  It's been a bit chaotic on the site this week...the SIPs team is finishing up; the framers are working on the interior walls; the drillers are drilling the well; and the excavator has been working on the septic system.  Oh, and I also walked through the house with the electrician to work out an electrical plan.  I guess it's time to call the bank for another appraisal and advance so we can pay all these people.  Keeping the money flowing is key to keeping the job moving forward, especially in these economic times, where cash flow for contractors is a challenge.
We decided to have a work-in-progress house tour on July 11 from 3 to 5 pm.  We've had requests to show the house before it's complete and I thought it would nice to draw attention to the "skeleton" of the house - the really important features that make the house energy efficient.  

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Up, Up, and Away (Again)

Despite the rain, Ben Ellis from North Timber Associates, has moved right along on our second floor.  The rest of the walls went up quickly; then they started on the roof, ridge beam and one purlin beam first.  They assembled three roof panels then lifted the whole piece into place.  The goal was to get the purlin beams covered as much as possible before the next rain storm moved in.  Tomorrow they will finish the roof and hopefully install the cupola before the weekend.  Our windows arrived yesterday from Anderson (via Forestville Lumber, Plainville, CT).  I've been in charge of the windows from the beginning (design, placement, ordering, etc.) so I am quite nervous and very anxious to see them on-site and installed.  So far I feel pretty good about how the placement of the windows, or should I say openings, have turned out in the house.
Nola and Oslo are getting used to spending lots of time at the jobsite watching (or in Nola's case exploring the various construction debris scattered around on the ground.  She really likes those plastic strips used to wrap building materials (she's 2 for those who don't know her personally).  Oslo, age 8, had the privilege of operating the crane today - he moved the hook up, down, and swung the arm once.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Our Bubbling Brook is a Raging River

After 10 days of sporadic rain and thunderstorms our cute little brook is a raging river.  We could hear the water from our house, not a usual occurrence.  The rain hasn't slowed down construction of our house, but I do worry about all that moisture that went straight down into our foundation earthbox.  Hopefully the water will drain down though the sand and find it's way through the joints in the insulation.  We did install a vapor barrier on top of the earthbox, so the moisture should not come up into the slab.  Last week the mechanical subs were busy laying drain lines, water lines, electrical conduit, and radiant tubing which will all be within a 5" concrete slab.  The picture above shows Oslo next to the radiant tubing manifolds (protected inside the OSB boxes) and the water lines coming up into the mechanical room.  The smaller manifold box contains the tubing for the earthbox (it's actually not smaller, it's lower because it's within the sandbed).  The PEX tubing that crosses the other lines will actually house a slab temperature sensor.  The slab was skillfully poured yesterday by our concrete subcontractor.  Those guys (Design Concrete from Danbury, CT) knew how to work with concrete!  Our slab is so smooth and even - the floor is going to look great after we stain it.  The kids loved watching the concrete trucks and all the different spreading/float tools the guys used.  Then, of course, the obligatory hand print in the concrete floor was the highlight!
Today the carpenters started the interior framing; installing the beams, posts, and floor trusses for the second level.  The glu-lam beams and posts in the kitchen and living area will be exposed - we'll sand and treat them with oil to bring out the color.  Things are moving really fast now.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Up, Up, and Away

Less than a week later and look where we are!! The SIP installer arrived on site on Tuesday and was done putting up the first floor walls by Wednesday evening. It was amazing to watch the crane lift the panels while four workers wrestled the panels into perfect position. They started on the north side of the house and moved clockwise around. The larger portion in the center of the south side contains structural supports due to the windows and thus extends to the roof in one piece. It was great to stand in the middle of the house and look out the window openings at the trees and surrounding landscape.
I love the positions of the windows, both their proximity to the ground and their height. It makes you feel like you are standing outside. We really agonized over the window positions and sizes during the design of the house, and so far they look great. In the picture to the right, the view is looking south out the living room windows toward the kids playscape. That is where I spend much of my time swinging Nola and watching the progress. We will be starting all the mechanicals in the slab (plumbing, electrical, and radiant tubing) next week. After consultation with our Energy Star (HERS-Home Energy Rating System) rater, we decided to put a vapor barrier between the earthbox sand layer and the poured slab. We hired the HERS rater to do the Energy Star certification for the house. This has to be done in order to qualify for all the state and federal incentives (cash rebates and tax benefits). We also found out last week that our house was chosen as a finalist in the Connecticut Zero Energy Challenge. A website will be launched soon, by Connecticut Light and Power Co. and the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, that features all the finalists and their projects. We'll include more information and links when we know more.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Nothing like a good foundation

(Jeremy) A busy week indeed. The foundation was excavated, footings and drain lines were installed and Superior Walls delivered and installed the precast foundation. All that was done Monday and Tuesday! From there we ran into a snag of needing a lot more fill to backfill around the foundation than originally estimated. Fortunately our new neighbor, Troy, was quick to point out a huge mound of fill he needed removed from his property and voila, problem solved (oh, and an additional $3500 for the excavator to supply the machinery and equipment). We're getting very familiar with change orders from the GC!
So on Wednesday he started breaking up the fill and bringing it to the site. We decided to have them install a layer of gravel inside the foundation over the dirt to prevent any capillary action into the 3" of rigid insulation above. The insulation was then installed over the entire area inside the foundation - two layers of 1.5" rigid foam insulation (EPS - Encapsulated Polystyrene), with the joints staggered for better thermal barrier. We also had them install an additional two inches of insulation against the inside of the foundation walls. This was in addition to the 1" of rigid insulation that was installed in the factory. So what are we doing with all this insulation inside our foundation? We're creating a huge heat sink under the house. This "earthbox" as we're referring to it, is 3' of sand directly under the slab. On Friday, they brought in the sand and put 18" of it into our foundation walls (on top of the insulation) and compacted it well. On Saturday, Karann and I spent a good part of the day laying down 1200 linear feet of radiant tubing (7/8" PEX). We read the installation manual from Radiant Floor Company and designed the three 400 foot loops the night before. We were surprised how easy it was (although hard on the backs and knees). Monday, our heating contractor will pressure test the system and on Tuesday the building inspector will inspect everything allowing the excavator to install and compact the remaining 18" of sand. The first major component of our home complete.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Our Excavator Rocks!

(Karann) We closed on our construction loan on Thursday. The loan closing actually pushed our schedule back because there were some legal issues with having the contractors working on site before we closed on the loan (even though we held title to the land). Whatever. The excavator mobilized quickly there after. First he managed to gingerly move our 40' cargo container out of the way and into a very tight spot among the trees (I still don't know how he did that!!). Then he cleared the small trees in the footprint of the building and was able to relocate some of them to another property (his, I think.) I'm glad some were able to be "recycled". He then laid down a very nice track pad of 5" to 6" rocks for the remainder of the driveway and scraped the topsoil off. On Monday, he will be ready to dig the hole and get it ready for the Superior Wall (precast foundation walls) that will be delivered and installed on Tuesday.
This weekend we will be going out to the building site with our compass and locating "true south" so the house can be oriented in the optimal position for passive and active solar. In CT, true south (not magnetic south) is facing approximately 14 degrees toward the east of magnetic south. So we will basically rotate the house to the east slightly to get the best sun.
Today, we received all our radiant flooring supplies from the Radiant Flooring Company in Vermont. We decided to go with their design for the solar-assist radiant space heating and domestic hot water system. Jeremy and I felt the most comfortable with their design and it utilizes evacuated tube solar collectors, which we really wanted to incorporate in our house. They are much more efficient, especially on cold or cloudy days, making them a good choice for Connecticut.
Next week should be fun and action packed. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Let's Dig a Hole!

(Karann) We are very close to breaking ground.  We are a few days behind due to the schedules of our septic engineer and surveyor.  Tomorrow morning we are having a "kick-off" meeting at the site with our GC and all the subs.  Oh, and of course we'll be giving our check book some use giving deposits to the subs we've hired ourselves (plumbing and heating).  We decided that because the fine details of the heating and plumbing systems are still evolving, it would be better for us to retain control of those portions.  We also have spent quite a bit of time on the windows, so I wanted to stay in charge of the window order, in hopes of preventing errors.  Because the window rough openings are cut into the SIP panels at the factory, we had to make sure that the window order was set and that the SIP construction plans matched with the window specs.  Anderson windows have so many options available (probably close to 20 option categories) that it is easy to make mistakes on the order.
So, if all goes well tomorrow, and our surveyor gets out to the site and stakes everything, we may be able to see a hole dug by the end of the week.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Bank Appraisal is In

(Karann) After being on pins and needles for the last week, we finally got word from our bank, Northwest Community Bank, that our appraisal is complete and everything is good. We had heard from our bank representative, Monica, earlier last week that the appraiser was having a hard time valuating the house because it was so different from traditional construction and there were no "comps", or compariable properties for her to use for reference. We got very worried that the house and land wouldn't appraise out, especially due to the current real estate market. I think we were lucky with the appraiser, she seemed genuinely interested in the project and sought as much information from a variety of sources to help her with her valuation. So, we are one step closer.
The other news is that we have decided to enter the house in a design/build competition. See the title and link at the top right of this blog. The Connecticut Clean Energy Fund and state utilities are sponsoring a competition (1st, 2nd, and 3rd place) to find three houses that are as close to zero energy homes as possible. They are even awarding cash prizes!! The education opportunities are great as well. We think our house will be an excellent example of a zero energy home, so I've been putting together everything required for the application. The deadline is May 1, with finalists being announced by May 15th. The awards will not be anounced until after the houses are built, December, 2010.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Sad Separation, but Moving Forward

(Karann) While on our Spring Break vacation in Florida, we did some serious soul searching and number crunching regarding how to proceed financially on our house.  Our bank was on-board with us, however they were quite nervous about us being our own GC (as were we).  When we received the initial proposal and bid from our chosen GC, David Jones, Jeremy decided we needed a second opinion-always a good decision when you are spending this kind of money.  When we returned from our vacation, we met with the 2nd GC (also Dave), and were surprised to get a much lower cost for the exact same proposal (we insisted it was an apples to apples comparison).  Dave (Nugent) was able to find a SIP provider that was much less expensive (by cutting out a middle man) and offered some other minor alternatives that saved money.  We thought long and hard, and decided to go with the cheaper guy.  It was a very sad separation from our first GC who has spent so much time on planning our project, educating us, and sharing green building experiences with us for the last 6 months.  I was especially sad.  Jeremy kept reminding me..."it's business, not personal".  
So we're moving forward.  Our building and zoning permits are ready to be picked up.  Those were surprisingly easy to get.  Our new GC, Dave, has been very good at getting everything we needed for our bank quickly and correctly.  And we should be set to close on our construction loan as soon as the appraisal and title search is complete.  We have a "break ground" date of May 4.  Wow, we have an actual date.  Hopefully, we can start on schedule.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Just Like Us

(Karann) I finally found some people just like us.  The Porter Family.  We too believe that building green does not mean building a house that costs $2oo - $300 per square foot.  Our philosophy is the same and we are also trying to use as much salvaged materials as possible (verses new "green materials").  
We purchased salvaged cabinetry and granite counters for our laundry room.  We found most of the interior doors that we need at a non-profit organization that accepts donations of salvaged and left-over building materials.  We also acquired some old cedar barn siding and salvaged red oak flooring that we are going to use as wainscoting in several rooms.  We found a black marble bathroom vanity counter with attached, undermount double sinks that was a reject from a high end home in Avon, CT.  We're constantly scouring websites and the newspaper for opportunities to find interesting materials that we can recycle.  A little creativity goes a long way.  And to us, hunting for the stuff is way more fun than buying something new...imagining how and where you can use something...the feeling you get when you get a great deal while recycling something that would otherwise end up in the dump.
Like the Porters, we're also using SIPs for the shell, however, our heating system is very different (and less expensive).  We're relying on solar generated hot water to supply heat through radiant tubing.  We're also fortunate to live in a state that has great rebates and a leasing program for photovoltaic installation so we can start producing our own energy right away without spending $40,000 for the system.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Finding a way

(Jeremy) We were pretty taken aback by the realization that we simply couldn't afford this house. While our entries into this blog have been few, our efforts for the past several months have been many. From concept, to design after redesign, not to mention the untold hours of research and discussions, this house has been the focus of an immense amount of time. And emotion. To be at an impasse like this was an immediate kick to the balls. 

Not to say I wasn't expecting it, but it still steals your breath for a moment upon impact. And what do you do then? I'll tell you what, you catch your breath and you go kick the person's ass who was the culprit. Well, that's what you should do. I, myself, began to entertain the idea of cargo container/prefab home dwellings or selling the land and moving to Costa Rica or possibly roaming the land for adventures in our VW Camper. Think of it as a "Swiss Family Robinson" meets "Kung Fu".  It took Karann a few days to talk me down but together we started to come up with "realistic" solutions and I think we are well on our way to figuring this whole thing out. For the record though, I still like the "Cargotecture" option. 
Cost Rica sounds good too. 
I really don't think the VW/Kung Fu option would work out.

(Karann)  I actually liked the cargotecture house link above.  Nice concept, good recycling idea, and pretty cheap.  I just didn't like the idea of starting over on an idea, especially when Spring is on the way and the snow is melting.  Besides, we both really love our house design.  
So the plan we're working toward now is to have a GC working on the project up to completion of the shell (excavation, septic, trenching, foundation, all radiant and plumbing in the slab, slab poured, SIP package built, and windows installed).  At that point we would take over the contracting.  We really believe it will save us a considerable amount of money and allow us to do some items ourselves at a slower pace at that point.  Jeremy thinks he knows enough contractors that are also clients that we can use.  
So with our plan in hand, we went to our bank, not really sure if they would let us be our own GC for the last half of the project.   They surprised us by being very excited (about the house) and were willing to let us be an owner/builder.  Wow.  Some good news finally.  Things are looking up for right now.
Since we already had quotes and a detailed estimate for the finish work in the house (floors, cabinetry, fixtures, etc,) we just have to fine-tune our quotes for some of the bigger items like roofing, siding, plumbing, etc.    Then the bank can order the appraisal and we can hope that our land hasn't lost too much value in this dismal housing market.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

And the numbers are in...

After months of plan revisions, meetings, research and more revisions, we've finally compiled all our numbers and received all the quotes from our GC and various vendors to find that....(dramatic pause)....we're incredibly over budget.

While being over budget is not really a shock, being 30% over budget is a bit disconcerting. Forget about a scalpel, we've got to break out the ax, maybe a chain saw.

So Karann has been re-crunching the numbers and I've been talking to several contractors seeking advice. We're finding ways to widdle down the costs like taking out a couple banks of windows, going back to an IKEA kitchen, forgoing the trick stairs and living with a basic set until we can afford to upgrade. I'm making some connections with contractors who are willing to barter services, proving that this economy is one of opportunity not just dread. The bottom line is that we're going to figure something out to make this happen. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Monday, February 2, 2009

House Plans

Here's our most recent floor plan. We have not made an exact calculation yet, but I believe we're at about 2700 square feet. The living room and stairwell will be open to the second floor above and the master bedroom will have a cathedral ceiling. Oslo's bedroom (northeast bedroom) will have a cathedral ceiling with access to a small loft over Nola's room. The kitchen is open to the living area with exposed glu-lam beams and posts. The "music room" will double as Jeremy's practice studio/Karann's sewing room and spare bedroom for guests. The main entrance for the house is on the east side of the house where a large mudroom is located. Like all good passive solar houses, most of the windows are on the south side of the house. The cupola, in addition to providing light, will be vital in the summer for natural cooling.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

House Elevations

My New Years resolution is to post on this blog more often. So, in an attempt to catch up on the past several months, you'll be seeing a flurry of posts in the next several weeks.
For a start, here's our house plans and elevations as of December 31, 2008. Several small changes have been made since then, but nothing major. The elevations don't depict the siding or window divided light patterns. I'll post examples of siding and windows in future posts. The screened porch on the west side of the house is a last minute addition. We will likely have the foundation and ledger boards constructed for this at the same time as the house is built, but we will finish the room later. It will have a flat roof that will serve as a deck for the balcony above accessed from the master bedroom.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Poop and Circumstance

Nothing happens quickly in this game. In fact, things take much longer that you would like.
The only thing that happened quickly was approval of the site plan and septic design from the health department, but not before wrangling an engineer to actually complete the work needed for said approval.  We thought we'd have it easy since the land we bought was previously parceled, perc tested, and engineered.  A simple call to the previous engineer would facilitate a small fee, a print out and off we go. Wrong.
A string of phone calls to this engineer (over several months) that grew in desperation finally yielded a response that told us of a hefty fee and a prolonged process.  After that bit of info we found another engineer who, after receiving a retainer, said that he needed more perc tests, more survey work, blah, blah, blah.  When we figured out we could say "Thanks, but no thanks", we did so and held him to his contract and got a septic design that gained approval easily.   Step one complete.
While this was happening, we started working on a floor plan for the house.  Having dreamed of building a house for about 12 years, we had lots of sketches on napkins and the backs of kids artwork to work from.   In July I met David Jones, a general contractor.  David was building a house that I was fabricating some stained glass windows for in Falls Village, CT...a stunning post and beam with structural insulated panels (SIPs)  and beautiful craftsmanship inside and out.  More on David's immense skills later.  The owners also introduced us to an architect from NY, who built the Bog House in Sharon that we toured and loved.  Unfortunately,  we could not afford her services and decided we really did not want a full service architect, anyway.  We set out to find a designer to take our ideas and make plans from them.  David hooked us up with Panel Pros (SIP panel provider) in Vermont who recommended a free-lance designer.  We've been working with him since September, with input from David, on the house design.  The windows have been my primary responsibility.  By that I mean choosing the right windows; style, size, and hardware.  I can safely say I was a bit unprepared for this task, practically memorizing the Anderson catalog has been a requirement. We've made more changes to the design in regards to the windows than anything else, by far.  And then when we thought we were done, Jeremy discovered that some of the windows would be too high for me to even see out.  It sucks being short.  So we had go back and look at every window again and make changes.  I'm happy to say we now have a final design, and David is gathering bids (his and subs) right now for us.  This process has been slow with lots of decisions to make, but since it has been a very cold and snowy January, we don't feel pressed for time yet.