All the money

Yes, it’s been a while. There has been lots of progress on the house, though! Almost all the interior framing is done, the roof is on, the windows are in, and the basement stairs are in. Wow!

Lookie! It’s a house!

Day to day, there isn’t too much to do besides gawk at the awesome progress, chat with the builders, and bring them baked goods. I like to stop by once or twice a week, but I know I slow them down so I try not to chat with them too much. The team consists of two primary builders (BR, TP), a younger helper (O), another fellow (TH) who is learning the ropes, and the project manager (BF). 

Second floor before any walls went up

BR is the main day-to-day contact, who often runs various decisions past me when I’m around. There have been changes from the architectural plans like whether the porch should be at the same level as the front door or set down one step. Or if the doorway to the garage should be moved over a few inches to match the doorway below. 

Crane placing walls for the second floor

BF is head of the project and gets us on task for the bigger decisions: shingle style, the plumbing fixtures, soffit material. We meet every 2 weeks to review next steps. He gets the bulk of the homemade goodies ūüėČ The rest of the team like to tease him about no longer being hands-on in the field; it’s a notable event when he puts on a tool belt. We review cost issues with him frequently, trying to balance quality and cost. 

Builders in the roof trusses

TP is a finish carpenter and is also doing much of house construction with BR. We tease him because he will make sure everything is at 1/32nd tolerance or spend half a day building shelving for their tools. I swear we’ve spent a decent chunk of labor cost on the support structures (shelving, a table, temp electrical panel) but I think it comes with the territory. He and BR care a lot about quality.

Taking a peek out of our roof

Cost overruns happen in construction and this project is no different. Some are beyond any of our control: material costs increase over time and especially with tariff threats. Some are due to changes for aesthetics or quality. And one annoying cost was due to underestimating the cost of fill.

Before the basement concrete pour

OMG the fill. In order to minimize the slope of the driveway, I chose the location and height of the house to be pretty highly elevated. This meant that we dug very shallowly to place the house on the hillside, generating no extra fill. The driveway comes from the high side which means that the garage is about 10′ above the low side. Cue: fill. We have trucked in at least 50+ trailers of dirt or crushed concrete and we’re not done yet. There will be a sharp slope on the south side of the house which makes me nervous but we have some ideas to manage it. Per unit volume, fill isn’t that expensive: $6-8 / cubic yard. But when you need thousands of cubic yards it’s no laughing matter. Who knew I’d be working extra shifts to pay for dirt.

Some second floor framing

Besides those painful moments on our wallet, we are enjoying the process. We love hanging out in the house as it’s being built. We’ve been out there at night and on weekends just chilling and imagining our future. 

Our beautiful dark Alpen windows

Next month should be pretty amazing with the arches being poured and the deck being started. I’ll keep up with more frequent posts about the process. If you have any questions feel free to ask me ūüôā

Owl cave ring from Twin Peaks, Moiety Dagger from Riven, and Seal of Rassilon from Doctor Who


The Seven Dwarfs

Since the last post, we have been working on choosing a builder for the project. It’s a big decision and not one you can make quickly. I’ll use pseudonyms for this blog post and¬†name the builders after the Seven Dwarfs. Aside: Did you know that there are tons of crazy names given to the dwarfs in the last 100 years of adaptations?

First, we were given a reference for Axlerod¬†(okay I decided to go with the 1965 Dwarf names from Mr. Magoo’s Little Snow White) through the energy consultant. The energy consultant had worked with the architects regarding the heating/cooling systems and the ventilation system. He had worked with Axlerod¬†in the past and felt it would be a good match. In fact, Axle’s¬†crew is skilled in finish carpentry which was a particular asset for this project (See the last blog post). So we met with Axle¬†and his teammates.

They were definitely green energy geeks. They were also really excited by the Hanshaugen Restaurant which served as the model for our design. Axle felt confident that they could construct the exterior details that form the personality of the house. We filled out their material selection list and began making trips to tile shops, flooring stores, and kitchen hardware galleries. Things were going smoothly until we got our first proposal from them.

Ooof. It was a doozy. But how Axle¬†and his team explained it, they just went through each of the elements getting bids or best-guess estimates based on square footage. They weren’t looking to hit a specific budget goal. And unfortunately their proposal¬†was about 40% higher than our ideal budget. Not easy to swallow. We reluctantly decided to widen our builder search. Axle¬†understood and agreed to keep working at the budget to bring down costs. We suggested leaving a¬†couple major elements unfinished (the stone veneer arches at the walk out basement and the basement itself) to cut down costs. Then we had to approach other builders.

Since one of my goals is a green energy constructed home I was very wary of using conventional builders. So much of the performance of a green energy home depends on the detail and finesse that the builders put into it. Sealing every air leak and understanding how edges of the house come together smoothly are vital. I ended up sending out queries and speaking to six more builders. Here is how five of them went:

  1. Bartholemew¬†was a friend of our guy building our road. “Talk to Bart!” he said. Well, we talked to Bart. We sent him plans. Then silence. After a few weeks we heard back that he isn’t licensed in our state so he couldn’t do the work. Okay. So he recommended Cornelius.
  2. Cornelius builds fancy homes. Our house is a fairly fancy home. I spoke with him and sent him the plans. He seemed interested. Then silence. After a few weeks, I sent him a follow-up email. Silence. So, maybe not so interested.
  3. Dexter was a nice guy who chatted with me for an hour one Saturday going over some of the details of our plan. He thought that our first bid was probably within the right ballpark, and said that he’d get back to me with some budget ideas. Then silence. I emailed him and got no reply.
  4. Eustace was a similar green energy builder who got back to me with a few questions regarding the plans. He replied a few times that he was still gathering bids. But after a month I still had nothing concrete from him. Time to pass.
  5. Ferdinand¬†wasn’t sure if the project was too far for him so we sent him the plans to take a look. He spoke with the rest of his group and sadly decided that our town was a bit further out than they like to go.

Lastly was George. George¬†and his wife run a design-build company. He drew¬†up our house in ArchiCad and had a lot of ideas about the house. Some of them were about cost saving alternatives and some were about better flow in the house plan. We liked shifting some of the spacing to create a better kitchen space and adding some width to the staircase to gain doorway space elsewhere. A few ideas¬†we had contemplated during our architect design phase but had opted against. For example we have a large master bathroom. He wondered why it was so large and offered some ideas to cut it down into two separate rooms. We explained that it was the only space suitable for direct sunlight for plants so we opted to keep it open. Cutting it into two separate rooms would create a lovely “grow room” but since our plants are entirely decorative it would be silly to hide them away.¬†A few other ideas were aimed at cost savings but drastically changed the aesthetics. Overall though, we were impressed with¬†the effort he had put into pouring over the details of the plans.

George did worry us with some of his concerns about some of the structural elements of the house. He recommended we eliminate windows in one area due to the concrete wall foundation and remove a steel beam to simplify the structural supports. He also suggested redesigning a balcony to eliminate a cantilever. He felt that it was necessary to spend time building the construction documents from the ground up with his construction knowledge.

At this point, Axlerod had come back with an improved budget by getting different bids, changing some construction methods, and by bringing some elements in-house instead of subcontracting. Their new proposal was 14% higher than our ideal budget. High, but within reach. We discussed with Axle our conversations with George because we wanted to address the concerns that George had brought up about the structure. Axle explained that they were happy with how the construction documents were drawn and had no concerns about each of these elements brought up by George. Axle noted that some builders like to build a specific way and want to mold houses in this image. This matched with our perception of George as well.

So we had to make a decision. Axle and his team brought enthusiasm, engagement, and shared values. They did scare us with their first budget, but worked hard to bring it more in line with what was feasible for us. George¬†was clearly very thorough in his approach but couldn’t commit to a budget until the re-design. Ultimately we decided we trusted Axle. We shook hands and signed an agreement for the first phase.

Whew. We’re excited about moving forward on the house. There’s certainly a lot more to come over the next few months before the first hole is dug. We still have to obtain approval for a mortgage. And just as importantly we have to finish the road. If these things fall into place, we are tentatively aiming for July as our start.


16.12.10 Casements

My sketchup drawing of the house! Prize for getting to the bottom of the post.

Building a Road (part 4)

Yes, this is still an on-going project! The town engineer did come and approve our subgrade last month. It was fortunate that we had a dump truck delivering construction entrance gravel that day, because we needed to have it drive slowly down the road to prove that the dirt was compacted. I had no worries about the compaction level of the dirt because our friend has been driving up and down it for a year with the excavator and trucks. Passed easily.

But we still don’t have gravel down. Why? Great question. For one thing, the road requires several methods of water management. When you create impervious surfaces (the asphalt) the town requires you to mitigate the additional surface water. Our friend is constructing a swale on one side of the road as well as two retention ponds. Each “pond” serves as a buffer for run-off in case of storms. They are wide and shallow. One is placed at the entrance on the corner of our new road and the existing residential road. The other is at the end of the hammerhead.

Our friend has made great progress in constructing these. It took a lot of dirt to bring the hammerhead-side pond to the right elevation. It’s a good thing we have some dirt and rocks to spare. In order to spare our topsoil (the nutrient rich layer), he dug down and used some of the lower quality soil underneath:


Stealing a bit of fill

Look! It’s where our future vegetable garden will be! Rest assured the quality soil will be placed back at the end.

The other delay has been due to utilities. When you build a subdivision road you are required to place utilities alongside it. Makes sense if you want electricity and internet to reach your home. Your electrical company is the one who designs the plan. You pay them a lot of money to design the utilities trench, then you build it for them. They inspect along the way. At the end you hand over the possession of the trench to them for maintenance in perpetuity. We did not realize how lengthy this process can be. Our electrical company estimates 5 months from initial contact to completion. And since we only contacted them a few weeks ago… you can see how this causes a delay in the road.

We are also contemplating the pros and cons of “aerial” versus “underground.” By default the utilities are supposed to be placed underground in a trench. This is a bit more costly but reduces the likelihood of power outages. Looks nicer, too. However we have a lot of ledge alongside the road where the trench would go. Until we start digging in that area we won’t know how much is composed of massive stubborn granite. We need to talk with the electrical company engineer to discuss how they feel about it. If they believe that aerial will be necessary that means requesting a waiver from the town. Which means meeting with the planning board again. Let’s hope whatever the result is, it’s the best choice for the road and the subdivision. Crosses fingers.

As I said in the last road building post, we needed an extension. That was blissfully easy though. The planning board accepted that we were having delays due to some of the topography (the blasting added a great deal of work) and allowed us a one-year extension. On Friday I picked up the amendment, notarized it, and submitted it at the Registry of Deeds. I certainly hope that’s the only extension we need!


Current status of the road

Oh but one bit of extra bright news in all this. Even though our friend has had to slog through many additional hours over the last month on this project, he found the time to place an additional standing stone around the fire pit. Justin and I helped with placement and shoring it up. We now have seven of eight stones placed! This one has an adorable sitting spot on the right-hand side.


Seventh standing stone

Until next time.



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!