Thursday, March 06, 2014

Designing a House: a whole new learning experience!

Summary of the house-designing travails following the purchase of our property (March 2013 – Feb 2014):

Executive summary by the Rambling Rover:

Following her admirable beginning as an Amateur Lawyer (writing up the 31-page Easement Agreement entered into with our six prospective neighbors), Katrina continues to develop new DIY skills. Amateur Lawyer succeeded by Amateur Architect. Here follows another two months where the only visible part of Katrina continues to be her head sticking out over the top of her laptop with feverish eyes that would stay open late into the night, before she would crawl into bed, trying to awaken my sleeping brain with random questions, like: “How much clearance do you need to walk around an open dishwasher?…”.

And now, in Katrina's own word:

For several months, I explored ways to combine my fanciful love of European houses and medieval castles, along with our own custom desires (like space for a grand piano – Michael’s father is a pianist who restores old pianos, after all, and I didn’t spend 15 years taking piano lessons for nothing!; a large space for a muddy doodle to hang out; an open-air balcony where we can sleep at night…). And, of course, it had to be a house that we might actually be able to build! But by April 2013, thanks to the awesome computer program we had purchased (Home Designer Pro), I had managed to turn all my plans into an actual 3D model complete with printable blue-prints (the finalized versions, granted, weren't officially ready until December). 3,000ft² of conditioned space, plus a staircase and open air space extending through the second story (it will make for a great performance venue – looking down from the upstairs hallway to the piano…!), and of course, the 500ft² of unfinished space above the garage that will make for a perfect storage area and that we could eventually finish into whatever space we find we need later down the road.

Still not impressed?!  How about:

Some of my inspirations…:
A House Down the Street from our Current Rented House in Redmond

One example of a good half-dozen houses in our current neighborhood that all follow some variation of this design: obviously we’re not the only ones who think castle turrets are cool!

A Castle we visited in Germany: way awesome!
(Castle Eltz above Mosel River, June 2010)

Don’t you love Europe! Some of the Tudor-style houses we saw in Germany
(Tauberbishoffshein, Germany Sept 2013 on a road trip with Erik)

Okay – this might be on a bit too grand of a scale to serve as inspiration, but you get the idea… we’re obviously drawn to the castle-theme!
(Michael, Erik, and Matt during our trip to Switzerland at Chelan Castle on Lake Geneva Sept 2013)

            Basic design for our own mini-castle essentially complete, we took our plans to a mechanical engineer to design the structuring of the house (so don’t be afraid to enter the doorway for fear of my architectural inexperience allowing the house to collapse at any point!). Next step was getting the trusses designed, which fortunately, the truss manufacturer will do essentially for free, for a deposit that can later be applied towards the purchase of the actual trusses. And in the meantime, it was time to research all the other finer details that needed to be specified before applying for a permit: what sort of siding we would have, insulation, roof and crawlspace ventilation, eave overhangs, etc. etc. And of course, whipping out my basic trigonometry skills that hadn’t been used for quite some time (not much need for a French major!), in order to calculate the volume of the house, and the angles we wanted the roof pitches to get the eave overhangs to line up just right.

            I also got to brush up on my excel skills as I became an Amateur HVAC Designer: plugging in data for the area of the floors, walls, ceiling slopes, and volume of the house to use the rough formulas provided by the county to get a rough sizing of how many BTUs per hour we’ll need to heat our house to 70º when it’s only 20º outside (the magic “Design Temp” for our area). I also did a lot of research into different HVAC and power systems: we even looked at trying to run our house completely on solar panels, but I guess the whole living in a forest of super tall trees underneath the cloudy Seattle sky doesn’t work so well for solar energy J Still, it turns out that heating our water with solar panels might actually be a valid, cost-efficient possibility, at least over the course of about twenty years, so we’ll see… J And speaking of trying to be “Green” – I looked into using spray foam for insulation, but again, the high initial costs make it not a practical, worthwhile solution (not to mention its flammability, when designing for a house that fire trucks won’t be able to reach).
            For a while, we got hooked by the idea of trying out a less conventional and supposedly greener HVAC system: a ductless heat pump. Since a lot of the inefficiency of a forced air heat system comes from the leaking of heat from ducts (especially when the ducts run through unconditioned attics or crawlspaces), it’s supposedly a lot more efficient and cheaper to install a ductless heat pump system (and you can control each inside unit separately, which means you would only have to heat or cool the area you’re actually using at any given moment). However, given how we’d still need two outdoor units and at least four indoor fan units, whether it was still cheaper became questionable, and there’s always the preference not to have large plastic units with running (and hence noise-generating) fans installed on your interior walls. So we finally ended up back at the “traditional” heating system for the Washington area: a heat pump, which provides both cool air in the summer and heat in the winter except on the coldest days (when we can use an auxiliary electric heat strip attached to the air handler fan).
            As for the “V” in HVAC (Ventilation): apparently modern houses tend to be so well insulated and tightly sealed that the quality of the air inside the house can actually be more polluted than the outdoor air of large cities. So county code requires that fresh air has to be introduced throughout the house: but doesn’t that just negate the whole effort to tightly seal the house to avoid wasting energy on heating and cooling bills? Cheapest option: waste a bit of energy by re-introducing fresh cold or hot air into the heat pump fan and circulate throughout all the ducts. There are other alternatives, like a Heat Recovery Ventilator, that tries to prevent heat loss from incoming fresh air (or heat gain in the summer), but we’ll likely end up with the standard option.

            So it’s now around July 2013, and it was time to move onto the last big DIY skill I needed to develop before we could submit our plans for a permit. Faced with the 134-page manual I was presented by the helpful county workers, I was told I can either use this “small” appendix to design the drainage system for our property myself, or I can hire a Civil Engineer to do so. Having faced much more than a mere 134 pages of technical jargon during my grad school days (granted it was in French, and more on a philosophical/literary level, but still…), I was ready to dive right in and begin my next phase as an Amateur Civil Engineer.
            So tell me, have you ever considered what happens to rainwater when it hits your roof or driveway? Where does it go? How does it end up back in the ground? If not designed properly, the water could end up funneling uncontrollably down a hillside and cause erosion, or pool up on your neighbor’s property to create a nice little mini bog (hopefully complete with mosquitos and tadpoles, if you don’t like your neighbor, right?!). How do you avoid such undesirable outcomes, especially if there are no underground city stormwater pipes you can easily hook into for the stormwater to be neatly whisked away? Well, I now know the basics of how to get the water back into the ground! (And to be honest, this is probably a much more useful skill than many of the things I learned in grad school!)
            First step: research all 134 pages of the appendix and explore some of the more unusual options, like a rain garden (essentially a depression in the ground where water pools, with rain-loving plants to help absorb the water quickly during a storm), and a rain cistern (a big underground water tank that holds the stormwater until you can re-use it in landscaping). Next step: go with the traditional option (do I sense a trend?! maybe I should try to avoid some of the extraneous, time-consuming alternative research in the future, though that is some of the most fun!). We didn’t have enough room on the property to allow for long, 100-ft stretches of flat native vegetation where you can essentially direct the water to flow from splashguards at the bottom of gutter downspouts, so the simplest “full dispersion” option was out. Option b) “Full Infiltration”: tightline all of the rainwater from gutters to an underground pit filled with gravel (about 2 feet deep, 11ft-diameter). Once the water reaches this gravel “drywell”, it should be able to quickly disperse back into the ground.

            Finally, it’s Sept 2013, and I’ve frantically completed all the paperwork required to apply for our permits. I’ve prepared it all: two copies of my 15 pages of building plans, three copies of site plans, printouts of the engineering and truss designs, manuals for the fireplace and heating system we plan to install, and the other twenty or so forms we had to fill out, all neatly arranged in a nice little binder.

Kinkos at Midnight: Fun Times!

            And then I get to the Permitting Office the following morning, and all my naivety seems to crash around me. First of all, I get a lesson in bureaucracy. In general, I actually truly support all the strict guidelines of our county, designed to protect many environmental concerns, like preventing erosion on steep hillsides, or protecting native vegetation and wildlife. But it’s frustrating when your situations tend to be a little unique, yet all the standard case guidelines are rigorously applied to your individual case. End result: it’s not until Dec 2013 that we finally manage to submit our plans, having divided our application into two separate permits (with extra costs involved, of course!). On the plus side, we did save our neighbor the hassle of having to get his own permit for clearing a small area for his future building plans. And we never had to hire out to an official Civil Engineer with all the upgraded requirements that would have entailed. And because the county is so thorough in all their required specifications, I’ve already done a lot of the research and decision-making in this “planning stage” that should save us a lot of trouble further down the road.

            Meanwhile, Michael and I have been developing our skills as Amateur Surveyors.

Notice all the colored flagging – and this doesn't really do justice to all the pretty markings we've put up, that look like some kindergartner got to have a field-day learning primary colors!

            This has been an ongoing skill development that could also be deemed somewhat of a hobby. Some people enjoy hiking on the weekends; and true, we ourselves have often been known to partake in many a hiking adventure in our free-time. But for a good dozen or so weekends over the past half a year, we’ve often chosen to trek not through alpine wilderness carrying a backpack, water, and food, but instead through the brambles of our own property wielding stakes, hammer and a machete! You might think “trekking” is an exaggeration, but trail blazing through the tangled Washington undergrowth to clear out paths for marking can mean that going 100ft takes as a long as it would to hike a mile!
            What does “surveying” entail? First, and most importantly: find and mark out the boundaries of your property. If you mess up marking the boundaries, that could lead to building part of your house on a neighbor’s property, which in turn could lead to expensive lawsuits later down the road. In our case, though, a survey had already been completed in 1998, and the property corner stakes were still in place and even a few bits of flagging here and there had survived on some of the tree branches. With the kindly help of our friendly neighbor, we managed to find these corner stakes, and with these, it was a fairly straightforward – if somewhat tedious – task of clearing a path to string up marking tape along the property boundaries.

Map from the official Survey done in 1998

           Next surveying task: mark out the top of the “Critical Areas Steep Slope”: this is the point at which our flat hilltop starts descending down to the access road and creek below at a 40% grade. How to determine where the magical point is at which 39% transitions to 40%? Well, we took out our trusty 100ft tape-measure, and measured out 10feet. We then had one of us hold the tape-measure 4ft above the ground, and the other at ground level, and walked down the slope until the tape was level. We then had to continue doing that from one edge of the property to the other, and then string up another line 25ft upslope of this line, and a third one 40ft upslope. Why are these lines important? The county tries to prevent erosion by forbidding any sort of clearing within a set distance from the top of a steep slope (25ft in our case), and forbidding any sort of actual building for an additional 15ft upslope.
            What’s next? Well, once we had our boundaries for where we could build marked out, we could then plot out exactly where we wanted everything to go. This was not exactly an easy task: not only did we have to find the perfect spot for the house based on how we want it to look and determine how we’ll want to grade things, we also have to get everything to fit in a fairly tight ½-acre area – including a spot for our future septic active and reserve drainfields, and a spot for the future well with its 100ft radius setback in which nothing can be built. And of course, we have to try to preserve as many of the huge douglas fir trees as we can, especially on the sides of the long access driveway which crosses through our neighbor’s property (which in turn means we had to get our neighbor’s agreement for the entire driveway placement, as well). Needless to say, we spent many an hour at our property – pondering, marking, and re-marking. But as of January 11th 2014, everything has been marked out: the path of the driveway and the massive trees we will try to skirt around to avoid cutting down; the well site and its 100ft radius buffer zone; the rough corners of our house site; the septic area; and all the property boundaries. We’re now ready for our site inspections from the County Permitting Office!
            (We even know where we’re planning to put our future vegetable garden. Hoping, of course, that we can get enough sun to grow the veggies once we’ve cleared out some of the trees. Knowing we’ll be providing more sun for veggies and flowers does help console me for all the trees that we’re going to have to cut down for our driveway and house. Maybe we’ll take a page out of one of my friend’s book, whose college exploits included wearing black cloaks around campus whenever one of her fish had died! I wonder what sort of funeral our beautiful doomed trees would appreciate?!)

            It’s now time to transition to what will be my full-time, main job over the course of the next year: Amateur General Contractor for the construction of our house. There are a few construction tasks we plan to do ourselves: I really enjoy tiling, and we’ll probably end up hanging cabinets (we’ve had some practice, after all!), putting in shelves, landscaping, etc. But most of the work we’ll be hiring out to professionals, not only because we lack the experience to do most of it, but because we won’t have time. We’ll need a bank loan to fund our construction project, and they usually have time limits for when everything needs to be completed (it looks like we’ll have to be finished within a year of first breaking ground). So it will mainly be my skills in writing specs, hiring out subcontractors, and managing the building process that I’ll be honing over the next year. So far, my experience has essentially been limited to interviewing a few subcontractors to get quotes for clearing and grading the long gravel access driveway, working with a septic designer to get our septic design and permit approval from the Health Department, and working with the mechanical engineer and truss designer. General conclusion: things have tended to drag out, and this is not exactly my strongest skill set. But it’s time to step up my game and whip out my latent people skills: and not the nice, submissive, helpful ones, but the determined, charming, leaderly ones. (Surely they’re there somewhere, right?!) Because it’s now time to seriously interview a whole bunch of subcontractors and start organizing our budget and construction schedule. Fortunately, we will have help available: both from Michael’s father, who built his house mostly by himself and who will probably be joining us for a couple months to help with some of the construction, and from one of our future neighbors, who just so happens to be a professional builder himself. He’s agreed to work with us as a consultant: allowing us to tap into vast depths of experience for tips or questions we haven’t been able to figure out. And hopefully he’ll be able to provide some of the “muscle” and “intimidation” if we have any problems with subcontractors not showing up, and doing quality-checks on the work we hire people to do. This should make our building process more fun for him, too: now it won’t be just some random crews and trucks driving past his driveway and disturbing his peace and quiet, but people he likely recommended to us, and working on a project he has some vested interest in.

            So, despite some of the hurdles we’ve had to work past (getting easement from six neighbors, working with county constraints on our property, and gaining a whole bunch of new skillsets as we completed most of the design work ourselves), and some of the hurdles we can anticipate dealing with in the future (like getting lots of construction trucks up the one-lane, gravel, 30%+ access road), we’re still completely in love with our forested, creek-crossed property. And now we’re ready to switch from theory to reality: it’s time to find actual subcontractors to work with, organize our budget, and get the bank loan.

            Then, once our permits get approved (hopefully with no revisions necessary), we can dig the well and start excavating and grading the driveway! Should be an exciting summer!

5 comments: said...

Hi, I like your ambitious plans and when it is built, look forward to seeing it. Good luck. Love aunt Jan

Anonymous said...

I know it will be beautiful eventually -- hang in there! We'll be out to see it for the 4th!
Love, Mom

Kris said...

Oh... So it'll be all done by July 4th? Awesome! ;)

Anonymous said...

I am really impressed. I remember telling you some of these pitfalls (county requirements) and issues (to the letter) and you telling me about your castle....Dreams do come true!

Unknown said...

Well, Kris -- if by "all" you mean, the land will be cleared, a well put in, and maybe the foundation poured, then sure, it will "all" be done by July 4th! Mom and Dad will definitely have to use their imaginations to visualize our future house when they come out! I don't think the house will all be done until next spring/summer... :)