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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

-Clara

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Graded and rolled

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Crew getting started and the engineer double checking

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SO PRETTY

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.

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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!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

-Clara