Chugging along

In the last month the interior framing has been completed and various other elements are going in. The plumber has been plumbing . Here’s a summary:

  • Frames of walls done
  • Plumbing lines are in
  • More dirt in the front lawn
  • Very nice (small) retaining wall built
  • Roof shadow board being installed
  • Fancy roof elements decided
  • Pylons for porch are set
  • Root cellar roof placed
  • Fios installed
  • Leach field dug
  • Septic tank placed 

Wow. That’s a lot when you type it all out.

Look at all that tape! Sealing tightly.

We have a pretty typical number of bathrooms planned, but there still ends up being a lot of plumbing. Top floor has one bathroom with shower (two vanities, two shower heads). Ground floor has a bathroom with bathtub, washer/dryer, kitchen sink, and island sink. Basement floor has a bathroom, bar sink, and utility sink (on suggestion by the plumber for no added cost as it is next to the pipes in the utility room). Outdoors will have three faucets. 

Leach field prep

You might be wondering why we bothered installing fios at this point. It was a request from our builders because t-mobile has lousy service in the area. It’s pretty awesome that we can get fios at the house in a rural town of 9000 when my current place doesn’t have fios and is in a much bigger city. I’m glad we sorted out the fios though. It took me a month of phone calls to get them to create the order. One of the quirks of building your own road is that maps don’t update fast enough. Verizon kept hitting a wall when they tried to look up my address. Eventually the right engineer was contacted who updated their database. Good to get that sorted now. It would have been sad to be ready to move in and have no internet for a month while they dithered.

Checking out our framed basement at night

Another mild crazy-making venture is deciding on tile. There are a dozen tile stores in my area. Tiles must have one heck of a profit margin. But we found that many of the tiles we liked were discontinued (never trust that gorgeous tile installed on their floor: it was installed 10 years ago and they no longer carry it). Currently we have chosen a slate from one online company, a marble floor from another online company, guest bathroom tile from a local shop, and I think I’m getting some custom copper tile off Etsy. Yeeesh. I hope it all works together. I’ve basically given up on a kitchen backsplash for now because I can’t bear the idea of having to make more tile decisions.

Root cellar roof

Lastly, I’ll talk about our fancy roof detail. My builders have been very accommodating when it comes to the trim of this house. While we have basic drawings on the architect plans we knew that we wanted fancier detail throughout the exterior (as constrained by budget). So when the builders started planning a straightforward roof rake and shadow board, we had to halt and revise. They have been excellent about thinking it through with us and finding a compromise between aesthetics and cost. I think the effect will be beautiful and completely unlike anything in the region. For now I’ll have to leave you in anticipation of the final result of the roof.

Making our own cedar post for the mailbox


Framing it up!

I admit that I’m getting excited! There has been a lot of work over the last two months since the last post. The weather has been fairly reasonable, with nowhere near the amount of snow we normally get. Hard to forget the effects of climate change.


I’d give you a play-by-play of the last two months but this post is all about the pictures. Here we go:


You can see a metal beam on the left-hand side. That’s to create a larger room in the basement than would structurally be feasible.

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Pre-made walls


So quick!


From the front yard. We are going to have to haul a lot more fill for this project.


It’s really fun to see what the future views will be!

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Here’s another one.


And lastly,  here are most of the interior framing walls completed on the first floor. The floor is glossy in this picture because of rain. You can see they’ve started to put the subflooring in above.

Sadly while I was going to use a drone during construction, it’s having technical difficulties so I missed a couple good opportunities for shots. Also you can’t use a drone in sub-freezing temperatures so I wouldn’t have had a lot of opportunities anyway. Sadface.


Winter Construction

It is bitterly cold out. We had hoped to be further along in the construction before winter truly hit. Disappointingly we had a month delay due to our foundation walls. Superior Walls, a pre-cast concrete wall supplier, originally estimated a 3-4 week production lead time but ended up scheduling a seven week lead time. This gave us an end of December delivery. We were able to use the extra time to finish up site work and continue discussions about various details of the project but it did feel like wasted time. Especially with winter creeping up.

The process of installing pre-cast concrete walls was interesting and I’m glad I got to watch. Ahead of time my builder dug down below where the walls would be placed and filled to the appropriate thickness with gravel. Then the surveyors placed stakes at all 10 corners (imagine three rectangular boxes with two sharing a back wall) with the assistance of GPS. After the survey was complete the Superior Walls crew placed metal rods every several feet horizontally on the gravel where the walls would go. They tapped down the rods to the final grade then swept the gravel in between to match. The metal rods were removed prior to installation.


“They’ll need a crane”

Then the crane picked up each wall (some weighing over 5000 pounds) and carefully brought it over. The crew positioned each section and used sealant to join them. They tightened metal bolts between them as well. Each piece went together smoothly over about a day and a half. My builders were happy with the walls and installation.


Frost walls being lowered

Superior Walls markets themselves as a very watertight product with a high PSI. Since they can pour their concrete in a controlled environment on a flat surface they can achieve 5000 psi. The weakest parts of the system are the edges where two pieces are joined. Supposedly the sealant and bolts create a tight connection. We are still going to water proof the north side as extra insurance. It’s one of those relatively cheap things to do now to prevent a potential major headache later. They also insist that their R value of the Xi Plus walls is 20 on average, but this includes a low value of 3 at the studs. It’s because concrete is a terrible insulator and at the stud it’s almost entirely concrete. Makes it hard to improve the R-value at that location since it’s the thickest part.


Lowest R value is at those metal studs: solid concrete between the foam.

But on the whole it should be a very well insulated wall. It’s great that it comes with the studs premade with wiring conduit. We hope to finish our basement at the end of the project and this puts it in DIY territory.

It’s exciting to see our house really get underway. The next steps are going to be very cold for our builders who will be framing next week. But the next couple months should be amazing with a ton of changes happening every week.



Construction Has Begun

Since financing was finalized it’s been a slow but steady slog. In order to start construction you need a building permit approval. In order to have a building permit approval you need a functional well. For a well you need a site plan. We already had our site plan with well and septic design completed in the spring which had been approved by the Board of Health. It’s an intricate series of dependencies.

Watching the well drilling is pretty neat. They use a series of metal rods to drill very far into the ground. In my area it is typical for wells to reach 400-600 feet. Unfortunately for us, we had to drill quite far. We even had to hydrofrack which is related to the terrible-water-that-lights-on-fire gas hydrofracking but is done at a much shallower depth with clean water.



The rods get joined to the vertical pipe to extend the drill downward

After the hydrofrack they had to pump out excess and dirty water for a couple days until it runs clear. Then they tested it. So far it looks like we will have to fix the aluminum and iron levels of the water but nothing else.


Ewww. Dirty water from hydrofracking.

Once that was complete, the only thing stopping our building permit was our road. Yes, that road (See Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4). Getting the road ready to pave was a scramble but it all worked out. A local paving company gave us a great quote (about $16,000 to grade and pave about 11,000 square feet of binder course) and worked with us to get it ready for the paving. Amazing that after two years of weekend work on this road only 3 hours were needed to pave it.


Graded and rolled


Crew getting started and the engineer double checking



With the road and well complete we finally had everything needed to receive a building permit. The town had no problems and gave us our stamp of approval in mid October. Our builders were excited to get started and are confident they can manage the winter weather. The first step was to remove the top soil in the construction area and pile it up for future use. The next step is to create the (very tall) driveway so that it can serve as access for the project. One of the difficulties of building on a sloped lot with a walk-out basement is managing the driveway/garage. We didn’t want our garage facing the street because of the design of the house as well as concerns about rainwater flowing from the road into the garage. This meant we have a side facing garage. With a sloped lot, this places the driveway further “downslope” which means building it up a lot in order to avoid a slanted driveway. Making a relatively level driveway means a big drop-off on the other side. We are hoping to make it look nice by terracing or creating a natural appearing change in elevation.


Black box is below grade, black line is driveway

I expect progress will be much faster over the next year than the previous two! I hope to provide an update after every major step in construction. Thanks for reading!

Finding $$$

After choosing our builder in April, our next task was to secure funding. I had previously contacted some banks to learn about the construction loan process. You have to provide your blueprints for an appraisal so they can determine the market value of your future house. This determines the amount they are willing to loan you. This doesn’t take the actual construction cost into account at all. With this type of loan they send out inspectors who verify the work has been done and approve the next draw. During construction the loan is interest-only then it switches to a standard loan. Usually this carries a slightly increased interest rate than their standard package because of the added risk of a new construction.

We started the process with two banks of identical rates. My original thought was to pay for two appraisals in order to double our chances of obtaining a favorable appraisal. However, I got spooked by one bank because they had a several thousand dollar fee if you requested a rate lock and didn’t go through with the loan. I caught the fine print in time, but the fact that the bank didn’t verbally disclose it to me before I signed the rate lock agreement soured my opinion of them. Ultimately starting the process with two banks cost me money anyway: the second bank received a lower credit score report because of the first bank’s credit report (dings your score by ~20 points) so we had to come up with extra cash at closing. Sucks.

But that was just a minor frustration compared to the rest of the loan process. It ended up taking about four months instead of their usual two months. Of course it was the appraisal that caused all the trouble.

We were assigned an appraiser in early May. I spoke with him and answered questions about the design. But a week later I heard from the bank that a second appraiser was assigned. This was the first hint that there were going to be problems. I asked the first appraiser what had happened. He told me that he found it hard to find “comparables” for the home and passed on the assignment. Comparables, recently sold homes that are of similar size and quality, are the foundation of an appraisal. Uh oh. So we started with the second appraiser. I answered his questions and he declined to speak with my builder. After a couple weeks we received the appraisal.

It sucked. Basically it evaluated the home at less than 50% of our construction + land costs. Completely unworkable. Worst case scenario. I started working with the bank immediately on our options. They told me that I could write an appeal stating why I thought the appraisal was inaccurate and provide my own comparables. I got to work and wrote up a lengthy list of the appraisal’s faults. I noted that he didn’t take into account any of the green energy design even though there are methods to compensate for it. He hadn’t met with the builder and had declined to speak with him. He compared our massive wrap around porch to porches 10% of the size with no adjustment in value. This beautiful custom home was being compared to stock development houses. I actually contacted the first appraiser (the one who had passed on the job) and asked him to review my appeal. He approved of my report and seemed apologetic for the mess we had gotten into. Fortunately for us, the bank agreed that the appraisal was bogus.

But then, oddly, the bank asked the same appraiser to re-appraise the home. He provided a new appraisal that was higher but not drastically so. It was still a pathetic amount. This time the bank readily agreed that the appraisal had problems and needed to be thrown out.

So, we weren’t totally screwed but time was getting away from us and we hadn’t made progress with the application. The bank assured us that they would find an appropriate appraiser. Two weeks went by and they told me they had contacted 7 appraisers, none of which were willing to pick up the assignment. They were too busy or felt there weren’t enough comparables to write the report (like the first guy). Finally they found someone. This person spoke with our builder and took the green energy design into account. We waited impatiently for the new report.

Success! The appraisal was much closer to our goal! There was still a gap between the loan and our builder’s budget but it was within our means. Location is such an vital determinant. If we had a small parcel of land near Boston and built this house, it could get appraised for well over our construction budget. But in a rural area with more modest homes the loan could only go so far.

With the new appraisal in hand the closing went absurdly fast. They needed some last minute documentation but they were determined to close before their rate deadlines passed. This meant that 12 days after our appraisal came back, we closed. Having gone through 70 days of dancing around appraisals it was lightning speed!

Soon we will be starting construction on the house. Each step has been complicated but worthwhile. This project is awesome and daunting.





Forging ahead

I hope everyone had a lovely holiday. 2016 was an emotional year both personally and nationally. It is sometimes hard to separate that stress from the rest of life. This blog focuses on our little subdivision project and offers a bit of respite from the real world around us.

Last week was a major stepping stone for the project. We received the Permit Set construction documents from our architect! She and her training architect did a fantastic job of translating our vision into an elegant and well thought out home. We have chosen a builder (project manager and finish work team) and will be starting on material selections this week. Today I’ll show off some of the elements of the design.


Located on the  northwest corner of the lower level

First is a root cellar. Our house is situated on a slope with a walk out basement. Because of the overall design, we had the space for a root cellar. It is exterior to the house and mostly embedded in the slope as well. It’s inset to avoid sunlight warming the door, and measures 16 feet by 8 feet. There will be concrete walls (plus some insulation and cement board) and a stone floor. There are two air outlets planned to help modulate the temp and humidity. I’ve never owned a root cellar before but I’m looking forward to learning how to use the space effectively for extending our vegetable storage.

Our exterior has a number of details that are unusual for a New England home.  Here are the arched windows on the second floor. There are two sets of these on the north side and two sets on the south side. We had originally considered a basic half circle atop a rectangle but it didn’t give the right look. It resembled the common colonial window seen all over New England which wasn’t our goal. The extended half circle looks much closer to the Norwegian design we are referencing. Adjacent to the set of three windows are two chevron wood panels. The pattern was drawn from the St. Hanshaugen restaurant. It’s tough because we don’t have detailed drawings or images. It’s definitely not an accurate representation of the restaurant but hopefully comes across convincingly. It reminds me of our efforts in cosplay. You often make judgment calls from grainy video or photographs. The studio lighting impacts the colors. Do you go with the true color or the color as it appears on the TV?


Close-up of the windows we are referencing


Detail of insulation

Lastly I wanted to highlight the insulation for the house. We are using a “double stud wall.” This means that there will be two wall frames set ~12 inches apart. Dense packed cellulose is blown in between the frames. This provides high “R-value” with a green material. For the attic we have 18″ of blown cellulose to provide an extra thick layer of insulation. These details plus careful air sealing will provide a comfortable home with low heating and cooling needs. Green energy design is better for the environment, saves you money in the long run, and feels more comfortable.

I’ll post additional highlights of our home plan as we begin our material selection this winter.

Take care.


Architect Adventures (part 2)

As I mentioned in my first post about architects, we changed our minds and went with a second architect after a year and a half of work with our first one. We are now about 5 months into our second round and much happier. The difference is that we went in with a very clear vision of what we wanted our house to look like and some sample floor plans.

Justin and I like the same kinds of homes. We are not ones to embrace the modern aesthetic. Tudor, English Cottage, Gothic Revival, Storybook, and Richardsonian Romanesque are some of the styles we find appealing. But we also love Stave Churches. Stave Churches are a type of medieval wooden church found in the north-west parts of Europe, particularly Norway. We visited Norway for our honeymoon and went to the most famous stave church, Borgund Church:


Well, it’s impractical to build your house to look like Borgund Stave Church unfortunately. On the bright side, there was an architectural movement between 1880 and 1910 called “Dragestil” (dragon-style) that pulled from many of these design elements. Holm Hansen Munthe was an architect who was known for this style. He built this restaurant in Christiania (later called Oslo):


When we came across this photo we knew we had found the style we wanted. It even fit the slope of our land. It was simple enough to allow us to utilize green energy design principles (simple geometry of the living space, south facing roof for solar panels) while keeping it interesting. We even found some floor plans of the restaurant that allowed us to compare size. Our house would be a very similar size to the restaurant!

We are about to enter the construction documents phase. We could have gone much faster, but we’re not in a rush because our road construction still has more to go. Here’s a sneak peek of our new house. This is a 3d model from a different corner but you can see the similarities. Some changes have been made for cost reasons.


What do you think?


Building a Road (Part 2)

Progress is happening! It’s been a little while since I’ve posted, but I have a few planned posts in mind. As I mentioned before, we have a subdivision road to build before we can construct our homes. Our friend is doing the vast majority of the construction for it. Last December we brought a blasting company in to remove the ledge. This weekend our friend was able to clear out almost all the rubble. It’s an impressive series of changes.

Subdivision Before

Entrance to our subdivision off the main road

As you can see, there was a path on the lefthand side going into the property. We weren’t allowed to use that path for two reasons: the slope of the road is too steep for fire trucks, and the angle where it meets the main road is too sharp. We knew that there was ledge to our right-hand side but it was impossible to make the planning board change their mind. We also knew it was for a good reason, even though it was going to cost us more.

Subdivision During

Blasted away the ledge

I wrote about some of the issues with the road and clearing in this post. The rubble had to sit untouched for about six months because winter started soon after the blasting. Spring meant spring rains which prevented the excavator from being of use in the soft mud. But with enough dry days in a row our friend returned to slog through it. We were very lucky that a neighbor saw him removing the rubble and asked to purchase it for his own landscaping project. Thus we were able to make a little bit of cash and find a good use for many loads of it. We kept a decent amount of it for our own purposes as well. One of the lots will require some additional grading and we like to use the well shaped rocks for some hardscapes.

Subdivision After

Rubble mostly cleared

Isn’t that impressive? There’s a large rock remaining in the photo that needs to be broken down further before being moved. But you can see where our eventual road will run. It’s more clear now how the slope is improved on the right-hand side versus the left. We’ll be thankful when it’s icy and we’re trying to drive up the road to our houses. The subdivision follows a 50 foot width further in, but widens sufficiently at the main road.

What great progress!

A Common Purpose

Something I haven’t written about much is our plans to create an intentional community on the land. Wikipedia offers up this definition:

An intentional community is a planned residential community designed from the start to have a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork. The members of an intentional community typically hold a common social, political, religious, or spiritual vision and often follow an alternative lifestyle.

The whole project started out as a way for my friend and me to be neighbors. He ended up buying a ready-made farm down the road but we will still be involved in his projects and vice versa. However, two other couples will be sharing the land with us. We are making specific decisions to both combine our resources but also live independently from each other. Many towns don’t support easy communal living and specifically zone against multifamily structures. This was okay for us because we wanted to have separate financial stakes in the community. I have functioned as the financial coordinator: purchasing and organizing the land to support several build-able lots adjacent to each other. Once the road is complete I will sell two lots at cost to the two couples. One of the individuals has been instrumental in constructing the private road. Everyone has been pitching in where they can. Once the road is complete each of us will build our own homes. I expect that the other two couples will be doing much more of the house construction on their own while we will be working with a builder. I know having three separate houses for six people is wasteful but we each have fairly different needs and want to maintain our own spaces.

Here are some of our current plans for resource sharing:

  • Vegetable garden on my field (best sun, already cleared)
  • Chicken coop attached to the garden
  • Additional field (no house on that lot) available for future cultivation
  • Shared hiking paths through all the lots
  • Skills: woodworking, carpentry, technical, business, artistry, etc
  • One big media room in one home
  • Shared tools and machinery
  • Fire pit in one yard
  • Pizza oven in another
  • Communal root cellar
  • Hardworking help for everyone’s hobbies and projects

It takes a lot of trust and shared expectations. I know many people worry on our behalf about our future. But it’s honestly low-risk because of the individual lots. If we ever part ways in the future, no one is going to be kicked out of their home. We feel we’ve made some good decisions with regard to temperament and friendship. This is family you choose.


Architect Adventures (part 1)

Before we actually chose the land I wanted to work with an architect. The hope was that the architect could weigh in on land options and site orientation. My husband and I have strong aesthetic tastes and wanted a home that really matched our sense of style (okay his sense of style. I’m not known for having style). I also feel strongly about green building design. I’ve been an avid reader of The Green Building Advisor which posts articles about sensible energy design. There are a lot of ways to go about it, from LEED certification or Passivhaus certification to Net Zero goals. So I called a few architects with those ideas in mind.

You find out quickly that architects are expensive. Their usual going rate is approximately 10% of the final house cost. Just… think about that. Remember that custom houses are frequently on the high end of costs and you’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars. But we knew this was what we wanted to do instead of utilizing a house kit or stock house plans or builder plans.

We chose a lovely architect. He’s amiable, calm, and thoughtful. He’s also old school and draws actual blueprints still. This was endearing to us. We agreed to work together and he actually visited both our house and the land to get a sense of how we live, our space requirements, and how the house might fit onto the land. Really incredible service.


Future house site toward the back left before the tree line

He started coming up with plans. They were nice but not quite what we wanted. I don’t blame him fully for this. I think we were having a lot of trouble balancing quality of materials, size of the house, budget, and green energy design. There are a lot of things that give a house character but create energy loss like heated space above unheated space, multiple angles in the floor plan, and excessive windows. Other things are beautiful but very expensive like stonework, turrets, or steep roof pitches. And other items were on my avoid-list because of an increased risk of structural problems like complicated roof lines and bay windows.


The first drawing provided on a beautiful blueprint

We went through several house styles and settled on one we liked best. The flow of the house was good and we liked the size and feel of the rooms in the design. I had reservations about the energy design of it but was willing to keep going with it. We made changes and he dutifully incorporated what we wanted while setting limits when he thought we were making the wrong choice. He made window schedules and detailed the door frames. We were… mostly pleased. There was still this nagging feeling that it wasn’t quite what we wanted.


Justin tried to make it more fanciful

We had a few of these crises during the project and had chosen to keep going forward. I felt that it was due to the medium of the project (two dimensional paper) that made it difficult for me to love it. Justin even made a model out of foamboard and cardboard so we could visualize the final design. We discussed siding colors. We worked with our architect from start to finish over about 18 months at a slow pace meeting once every month or two. We finally got to the point where we could ask for bids. Even though I had gotten to the point of realization that this house was not the one we wanted to build, I felt it was important to get through the bid process to know what it would have cost.


Justin’s model of the front side with a TARDIS for scale

I tried to get a bid from three companies. I actually never heard back from one to schedule with them to look at the plans, a second company looked at the plans but never gave us a quote, and the third one did quote us a rough estimate. Without the site work, septic, and well, the quote was actually quite reasonable. It just wasn’t the house we wanted.

I felt bad about having spent all that time with no tangible result. I do feel it was a really useful process for us but it hurts to spend that kind of money without the design of your dreams. We paid the architect fully during the project for his time and hopefully he felt he was appropriate compensated. I did chicken out and make Justin speak with him about not building the house. He told Justin he knew we were hesitating and we were making the right choice not to follow through with it. I owe him a drink and a chat one day.

So we walked away from it. We regrouped and thought about what we wanted. We went back to looking at stock plans and house kits and timber frame homes etc. I was tentatively interested in a stock plan but it seemed like giving up on something close to our hearts.

In December of 2015 we started a new search for a new architect. I intentionally decided not to let them know that we had worked with a previous architect unsuccessfully. I felt like it was the kind of thing that would scare off a second architect. I didn’t want them wondering if we were unworkable. I know there are definitely benefits to being up front about it though. We agreed to approach this architect very differently than our first. This time we have very strong ideas and came with a specific vision. We’re only a couple months into working with the new architect but we’re feeling optimistic. For the first time we’re really excited about the design.

I’ll let you know how it goes.