Archive for November, 2008 —

You Know You’ve Picked the Right Architects When…

… they not only show up to your Halloween party but they come dressed as your house. Kevin, Andrew, and Duff over at Build went to great lengths to produce the costume of the night and even documented the entire thing on their blog:

Photo of the night, however, goes to my friends Steph, Tim, Sooz™, and Lavina who dressed as Yearning for Zion polygamists and appeared in the photo below. Love the expressions:

Book Review: Building Your Own Home for Dummies

There’s only so much books can teach you about the homebuilding process, but having no better leads for must-have guides, I picked up Building Your Own Home for Dummies from Amazon and read it cover to cover. I’m a slow reader and finished the whole thing in about four days, so it’s a refreshingly quick read for an all-encompassing reference guide.

The best thing about the book is that it’s applicable to people like me who are using architects and other professionals to build the house as well as those who are doing the design, general contracting, and even construction themselves. Wherever you fit in the spectrum, there’s useful and even essential information in here for you.

Everything from construction loans, to protection against liens, to steel vs. wood framing is covered. Besides the occasional oddball statement like “if you don’t currently use e-mail, take the time now to figure it out” or an explanation of Palm PDAs and Lotus Notes, the book seems plenty up-to-date. It’s also chock full of plugs for other books in the Dummies series, but hey, whatever.

If you’re going to buy this book and read it, I recommend keeping a highlighter handy to highlight any information you find particularly useful. It’s not the type of book you’d want to read cover-to-cover twice; useful, but not even mildly entertaining. In fact, I find that most jokes attempted in Dummies books make me feel slightly uncomfortable for the author.

All in all, my inner dummy appreciated the usefulness of this book, and I would recommend it as a good first read for anyone thinking about building a house.

Heating and Cooling Plans Take a U-Turn

Sarah Palin

Turns out we’re actually not going to Drill Baby Drill.

A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of wrestling with some difficult cost-cutting decisions, Build and I met with an energy consultant to discuss the viability of equipping the new house with technologies like geothermal and radiant heat. My hope was to use both, in an attempt to be as green and comfortable as possible.

I had been told by a couple of local drilling companies that I probably only needed three 300-foot holes drilled, at $5000 apiece, to generate enough load to both heat and cool the house. Although $15,000 is a lot of money, it seemed like a good investment and the right thing to do, from an environmental standpoint.

To my dismay, however, the consultant was pretty sure I needed five holes, considering how many windows I have, and that the total drilling bill would be more like $30,000. If I was under budget or close to it, maybe I would have still considered it, but since I’m still substantially above where I want to be, it made sense to say goodbye to geothermal heat, unfortunately. I get the feeling this happens to a lot of people; swearing to use as many clean technologies as possible and then shuttering many of them along the way as costs begin to spiral. I look forward to the day when the cost of building green is not significant enough to even notice. That being said, building green is not an all or nothing proposition. Just because I’m not plunking down $30,000 for a fancy geothermal system doesn’t mean the house won’t be energy-efficient in many other ways.

The next decision revolved around radiant vs. forced air HVAC. Going into this meeting, I didn’t even think forced air would be on the table, as many people have told me that radiant heat is far superior. The problem, however, with radiant is that there is no built-in cooling. There is a “comfort system” they can build these days which runs cold water through the radiant pipes but it’s not really capable of cooling the house by more than a few degrees. Given the fact that so much of the west side of the house is glass and will transfer a lot of heat from the sun, it seemed necessary to have a full-fledged air conditioning system for those (admittedly rare) sweltering Seattle summer days.

Could we try and design a house which used breezes off Puget Sound to cool the house in the summer? Sure, but if it didn’t work so well, retrofitting for air conditioning would be difficult and expensive. Given that, the project now required full ductwork for a forced air A/C system. And given that, we were now talking about two totally separate systems for HVAC: radiant pipes for heat and forced air for A/C. Expensive, and arguably overkill.

On top of these complications, the energy consultant also warned me that radiant heat is not nearly as fast as forced air at changing the temperature of a house or a zone in the house. Radiant can take 2-3 hours to do its job while forced air is more like a matter of minutes. While this usually isn’t a big deal because most people keep their house at a relatively constant temperature, my house may present a difficult challenge because of all the west-facing glass (this is becoming a theme, I am noticing): on a cold, clear winter morning, it may be 30 degrees outside and the heating system would probably be cranking. But as soon as the sun hits the west glass in the afternoon, that could warm the house up naturally quite a bit. At that point, the heating system needs to ease up a bit. And then when the sun goes down, it needs to crank back up. Radiant heat is simply not as good as forced air for quickly adjusting to these sorts of things. And on top of that, radiant heat does not work perfectly under wood floors. It’s generally best under concrete, slate, or tile.

So anyway, with all of that to consider, I made the call to move forward with a natural gas powered forced air heating and cooling system. I may do a mini radiant heating pad to warm up the master bathroom tile, but that’s it. On the downside, it’s not as forward-thinking of an HVAC system as I was hoping for, but on the upside, it should be more comfortable, and it saves me probably $40k-$50k in total.

Asbestos, Lead Paint, Demolition, and The Economy

As you can probably deduce from the title, there are several unrelated things to cover in this post. Some more important than others.

First things first: I had NVL Laboratories check the house for asbestos and lead paint last week, and as expected, there’s a significant amount of both (mainly under floor tiles and on the exterior of the house). None of it is airborne, so that’s good, but it presents a bit of a challenge when taking the house down. You’re supposed to have a professional abatement team come in and dispose of the stuff in a special way.

That brings us to the subject of demolition. Build hooked me up with a great local non-profit organization called RE Store that is actually going to “deconstruct” most of the existing house piece by piece and sell the re-sellable elements as “vintage” building materials. Not only will this option save me a significant amount of money in demolition costs but it will save 52 tons of material from going to a landfill. This is really the best type of building decision: the kind that is environmentally friendly and saves you money. As if that wasn’t good enough, I can also write off the market value of the donated materials — $8500 — and get a nice tax refund out of it. It’s a win-win-win.

With regard to the timing of deconstruction/demolition, there is an opportunity to do it as early as December but my feeling is that it should occur as close to construction time as possible (spring). I just don’t like the idea of tearing down a house before the plans for the new one are even approved yet. I also don’t want my across the street neighbors to get too used to their newly sweeping water view. I think they may actually end up with a significantly better view than they have right now by the time I’m done, but their best view is clearly when my house is just a hole in the ground.

So that brings us to the economy. I could probably do a whole post on this, but the long and short of it is as follows: the market and the economy in general have gone from bad in early 2008 to worse in mid 2008 to near catastrophic in October. I’m invested about as conservatively as you can get (mostly cash and muni bonds, very little equity exposure), but even with that conservative allocation, October and now November are really making me fear for the future of the economy. I remember clearly the 1987 crash and the dot-com bubble bursting, but in neither case did I think another Great Depression was possible. When you start to worry about whether your bank deposits are safe, how many millions of people are going to lose their jobs in 2008/2009, and how our government is going to deal with all of it, you reflexively move into “batten down the hatches” mode a bit.

My feeling as of now is that if things stay where they are at or get better, there shouldn’t be any change in my plans, but if the economy dives further off the cliff or I don’t think things have sufficiently stabilized by the spring, I may re-examine my construction schedule. I’ve prepared Build for this possibility, and they of course understand, being plenty in-tune with the markets and the economy themselves. It’s still game-on for now though. Permits are being applied for, documents are being submitted, and the project marches forward. Let’s hope Barry O. has the calming influence on the country and the economy that we think he can and let’s hope the market stops trading “like a lunatic on ecstasy”, as my favorite CNBC guy Steve Liesman likes to say.

First Interior Renderings

The first interior renderings from Build are in and they look great. I’m really loving how the aluminum framed windows look on west wall of the living room. I’m a bit concerned that all of the interior wood will be overwhelming, but I won’t have a good feel for what it will actually look like until I see multiple angles.

Anyway, here are the two best-looking renderings: