Good, Fast, Cheap… Pick 2

As promised – here’s a silver lining posting.

It seems like we’ve been working on this project forever – and while that can be frustrating – it’s also good.  Why?  Well, because we can look around for good deals on “things” for the house.  For example – and this is a small one – I have a really funky duvet that was on sale that I am saving to break out for the new master bedroom space.  Or – we bought an amazing Italian dining room table that totally does not fit in the existing house but will be stellar in the new house.  And it’s sitting in the basement.


See? told you it was awesome…

I’ve always liked a good deal.  Not cheap, necessarily, but frugal.  And so goes the title.  We could wait until it was crunch time to buy stuff and you could get good stuff fast, but it won’t be cheap.  It’s much nicer to take things a little slower, but pay a lot less.  And deals are out there if you are patient and persistent.  For example – even before we started this journey, we saw a faucet that we decided was the sexiest piece of bathroom hardware we’d ever seen.  And it was extra cool that it was Grohe (our fave bath fixture manufacturer) and is the Porsche Designed.  The first purchase was a roman tub filler thermostatic trim (easy for me to type…).  But it was a REALLY good deal – and we had always planned to add a tub into our master bath (current house) so….  this began the saga to try to find the rest of these Grohe F1 fixtures to at least do the master bath, but then maybe all the baths, because, yes, the fixtures are that cool.  And they WERE insanely expensive.  Like $1300+ for a single bathroom faucet.

So far – we’ve amassed all the faucets we need – centersets (picture), widesets and even a wall mount / vessel.  We also have towel bars, shower bars, tub spouts, robe hooks some on / off valves, and a shower diverter – but we are still looking on ebay for some specific part numbers.  Will we be entirely successful?  Who knows.  But – we’re saving a TON of money and it will allow us to finish the house to a level that we’d never be able to if we didn’t take the initiative and get these really good deals.  We have all the kitchen faucets, kitchen and laundry room sinks, laundry room fixtures and more.  It’s also been slightly less painful just spending a little every month before we start carrying a construction loan and totally freaking out.

So – there is a silver lining to having things take a little (ha!) longer and it can and does pay off to do a bunch of the legwork on finishes and other items yourself.  No one watches over your money as well as you do!  Thanks for reading.

Next up – appliances and universal design…  and my cheap gene…..

Financing the Energy Efficient Home – Saga Part 4

frustrationHonestly, I am at the end of my “playing nice” rope.  Appraisal saga continues.  As noted before – we had some issues in the comps – specifically the Energy Efficiency line item for comparison vs other new homes that do not appear to have any energy efficiency features AT ALL.

We’re 3 weeks into trying to determine the process to ask for a review of the appraisal and no one seems to know how to do this.  Seriously.

The Appraiser said she couldn’t speak to us, since the bank was ‘the customer’.  The bank then tries to speak with her (after a vacation, and another week of issues where the Appraiser can’t meet / teleconference) and then are told that any questions need to be addressed through the 3rd party quality control group and that direct contact is against their guidelines.

Is there any reason this little tidbit couldn’t have been shared 3 weeks ago?

I don’t mind “the process”.  I don’t mind that I have to use a 3rd party to ask questions and have them ensure that we’re not trying to unduly influence the appraiser and to make sure that any changes are in line with facts / data, etc.  In fact, I LIKE process.  I am usually a pretty orderly person.  What drives me absolutely batshit crazy is the total lack of urgency on anything.  ANYTHING.

We’ve now submitted our concerns and supporting documentation (including filling out the 5 pages addendum ourselves) and we’re waiting for a revision.  And as far as I know, no one makes a commitment on the time this will take to turn this work around, etc.  THAT is what drives me nuts.  This is not particularly complex.  It does not involve questioning the comps themselves, or even multiple line items – just ONE FACET of the entire appraisal.  The facet that we specifically required that the Appraiser have experience / certification with assessing value to green / energy efficiency features.

Thankfully the bank is processing our approval with the “value” being blank (hopefully at an “up to but not to exceed” number, so we can plug it in and close as soon as we’re done with this exercise.  Because – we’ve continued to fund the project out of pocket.  And that we paid the Austrian window and door company almost the entire balance of a pretty large sum.  (It kinda freaked me out – but hey – it’s only money, right?)

lucyI would like to get back to the “fun” stuff.  Some more design decisions, envisioning how we’re going to finish the rooms – bathrooms, kitchen, etc.  And I would REALLY like to see some dirt moving.  I think that once that happens, I will know it’s real.  And it will be easier to engage with the rest of the suppliers, ask for best and final pricing, and nail down some details.  It’s hard to maintain focus on the project until this financials are done and WORK starts.  I know Tonic is eager to start too – and are feeling a little bit like Charlie Brown and the football.

I can’t believe how amazingly painful this has been and how time consuming.  Not the real amount of “work”, but the amount of dead time between any activity.  Painfully slow.  Excruciatingly slow.  It’s amazing that anyone builds anything and handles the construction financing.  It’s also pretty easy to see why so many leave this to the large production builders who take care of all this and pump out maximum square footage / code built / neighborhoods of “pick plan A, B or C” houses.

Next Financing post will be the end of the saga (until I freak out over budgets…)  I promise.  But until then – I think I’ll get myself back in the groove and blog about how we got here and why we’re making the decisions we are – not technical like the other half – but more emotional.  (and unfiltered!)  Thanks for reading.

Congratulations to tonic design

Short diversion here.

Triangle Modernist Houses, whom I have referenced here often, helped bring the George Matsumoto Prize to life.  In it’s second year, the Prize is awarded annually to a Modernist house in NC.  Entries are submitted to a jury of accredited architects and also a public vote is one sixth of the total score.  See the 2013 entries and results here.


Congratulations to tonic design, Vinny Petrarca and Katherine Hogan, on winning this prestigious award for their Rank Residence, completed in 2012.  tonic design continues to carry on their tradition of award winning architecture.  Also congratulations to Michael Rank – who had the initial vision.  Check out this link for pics and also a link to an article in the Raleigh News & Observer for more press on this special home and the design influences behind it.

Rank Residence

I had the pleasure of attending the awards and the NC AIA building in Raleigh.  After a lively happy hour (Thirst 4 Architecture), some crazy infused bourbon, and a talented band of architects – yes – a musical band, George Smart announced the People’s Choice Awards, and then Frank Harmon took over to convey the jury’s placings.  Despite some tough critiques on the entries, and some overall general comments on all the submissions, the remarks about the Rank Residence were extremely positive and fitting the Matsumoto Prize.

Congratulations to the team – and the talent at tonic runs deep.  We’ve chosen well.

One last announcement, Triangle Modernist Houses, is now NC Modernist Houses.  A name change that more accurately reflects the growing geographic reach of the nonprofit organization.

Financing the Energy Efficient Home – Saga Part 3

How can you get your Green Home the credit it deserves?

The Appraisal Balancing Act

I had sooooo hoped this would be the final Part to this saga.  But that would appear not to be the case.  Let’s recap…

The Appraisal process, at best loose science and conjecture, at worst complete black arts, has always been cloaked in secrecy and rather subjective.  Toss in a Modernist home (more valuable per square foot – as buyers will pay more), and a LEED Platinum home that is almost Net Zero, NOT in a neighborhood and on acreage – oh and with nonstandard construction techniques and you have a “complex appraisal”.  Which I now understand this to mean that it 1) takes longer and 2) costs more.

Add the layer of the appraisal “clearinghouse” to improve the ethical dealings of banks, appraisers, mortgage brokers, builders and real estate agents and it seems to be very well designed to not hold anyone accountable for the accuracy of validity of the data in the appraisal.  (Can you tell I am less than thrilled here?)

While you can’t select a specific appraiser (again – that ethics thing), you can have certain requirements for an appraiser.  In our case, we felt it was imperative that the appraiser had SOME training and familiarity with “green” or sustainably built homes.  Once again – there’s no one certification or accreditation available from the professional association – but there is the 5 page Energy Efficient Addendum that can be used to augment the appraisal and help apply value to each energy efficiency feature.

We got our appraisal back after providing the appraiser a copy of our preliminary Energy Star report / HERS Index (33 without photovoltaic, and -7 with PV) and also our detailed preliminary LEED classification with all the detail from our LEED AP consultant.  All this information would allow the appraiser – remember the “green appraiser” – to fill out the 5 page addendum and accurately attribute value to the energy efficiency.

One page - valuation of your entire project.

One page – Should this be a valuation of your entire project?

If you are not familiar with the manner in which the appraiser goes about valuing a property – I’ll net it out.  The appraiser takes comparable properties (comps), and through a series of comparisons to your project / home / plan, normalizes the other homes to have them more closely match your home through a series of additions or subtractions.  For example – our house has a pool in the plan.  One of the comps did not.  So, the appraiser “added” $25k to the sales price of the comp to try to account for the missing pool – i.e. since a pool would raise the price and since we have one – this is the normalization.  Since it’s rare to have a 100% equivalent property sell within a year  – it’s important to pick the right comps.  And yes – some of the attributes that drive additions or subtractions are subjective, you hope that the overall process is sound.

Or not.

There is one line entitled “Energy Efficiency” in the one page that is really the meat of the final assessment (as far as we were concerned).   This is where we were expecting to have the appraiser utilize the 5 page addendum so that the amount they could attribute to our project (assuming they could not find a comp that was also Energy Star / Green / highly energy efficient, etc) would be reasonable.  We didn’t expect it would really cover the costs of the investment we are truly making.  After all – this investment will pay us back over the entire life of the home with, potentially, having zero or VERY LOW energy bills, and very little maintenance.  So – yes- we’re going to pay more because ultimately, we’re going to get more.  I am okay with that.  What I am NOT okay with is how the appraiser populated the energy efficiency line item.

  1. Comp 1 – new construction.  Labeled as “Good” in Energy Efficiency.  $0 added to the comp sales price.  Upon further investigation from the home’s MLS listing, there is no mention of ANY green or energy efficient feature.  There is nothing to indicate this home was built to any standard higher than the local / state building code.
  2. Comp 2 – 12 year old Modernist home.  Labeled “Average” in Energy Efficiency.  $75k added to comp sales price.  No updating was done to this home and I happen to know this home had monthly utility bills of well over $1000.
  3. Comp 3 – 5 year old single story Modernist home.  Labeled “Average” in Energy Efficiency.  $75K added to comp sales price.  This home also averaged utility bills in the $1000 per month range.

Flipping through the appraisal – the Energy Efficiency Addendum WAS included.  5 Pages. The appraiser filled out one question checked one box for LEED certification.  That’s it. Nothing on R values.  Nothing on my window u values, r values, triple paned, krypton filled lusciousness (grin).  Nothing on solar photovoltaic and the potential to EARN MONEY or have $0 energy bills.  Nothing in the State and Federal rebates for which the house will be eligible. Zip.  Zero. Zilch.  Again – even though this was provided in the LEED checklist and the LEED AP contact was made available.

So – what do you do?  I realize that appraisals are somewhat subjective – after all – you have to take “similar” comps and make educated guesses on how to adjust these disparities.  But – essentially what was done here is that the appraiser gave us no credit for anything – ANYTHING – that we have done that is over the crappy state building code.  Yes- the home is more energy efficient than one built 10 years ago – but it’s also a TON more efficient that a ‘base’ home built today.

Because of all the regulation – the bank cannot “contest” this.  I guess I have to.  And I also realize that this is going to be coming dangerously close to me telling someone that is a professional how to do his / her job.  But seriously – this is a person who has touted their education and familiarity with green homes, building techniques and valuating these features!  I am also sure that any changes to this appraisal will have to be accompanied by an explanation – and then ‘certified’ by the third party that acts as a clearinghouse AND quality control point to reduce industry corruption – so it may raise scrutiny.  (and it’s extra work – but – when you charge extra for a ‘complex appraisal’ – I expect you to actually DO SOMETHING)  However, I am going to present this as an ‘error’ and not something that I am essentially arguing a subjective “I don’t think you valued my project high enough” – but instead – focusing on specific things that simply don’t add up.

I’ll let you know how that works out.

We’re close – we’re really close – and I think we can make it work at the present value if we HAD TO – but it sure would be nice to be given SOME credit.  Perhaps rating out home “Excellent” compared to the new code built home that was rated “Good” in that same category, and then, filling out the addendum to justify both the “Excellent” rating and the increase valuation. Novel idea.  The appraiser did include a bunch of copy / paste words about increased market value of green homes, and green homes spending less days on the market (DOM) that standard homes, and then, of course, didn’t pay any attention to them.

And then – if we can get the appraisal saga done – according to the bank – we can close a loan in 2 weeks.  WHOO – freaking – HOO!


Money and Windows and Doors…. Oh my…


This gallery contains 10 photos.

Our windows and doors are moving down the manufacturing line and are getting ready to be put in a container to make their way across the pond.  Did you miss the post about closing our construction loan, you ask?  Nope.  … Continue reading

Financing the Energy Efficient Home – Saga Part 2


How can you get your Green Home the credit it deserves?

How can you get Green Home credit?

So – what’s next?

After doing a bunch of internet research, and trying to learn as much as I can about the appraisal process by pouring over old appraisals, we’re trying again.

One site, Green Building Advisor, had a wealth of knowledge about this process with one blog, especially helpful – not only in the content, but also in the comments.  This guy seemed to be having the same issues I had.  More research, more info, more education.  Appraisers are generally reeling from the mortgage / banking mess as well, as banks try to look for a convenient scapegoat for “over valuing” homes.  Granted, there were some appraisers that may have been unethical, but the vast majority of them are only comparing homes to other sales – so once the avalanche over snowballing prices starts, they just need to keep up with the numbers.

Appraisers are all about “comps“.  Comparable properties that are close enough to your property that they can, through a series of additions and deductions for features and specifications, determine a “value“.  Realize that in new construction this is a complete crapshoot.  Add in a “green” home and you have entered into the world of a complex appraisal, and this requires someone with some specialized training.

The governing professional organization of appraisers is the Appraisal Institute.  And, because of the growing issue with “green” valuations, they have developed an addendum to the standard form that is amazingly thorough in outlining the features of a green home.  Everything from your thermal envelope, to blower door tests, to indoor air quality.  In order for an appraiser to fully utilize this form, they NEED to have specialized training.  Too many appraisers just crunch the numbers with little understanding of the real differences in systems and other features, instead putting “typical” in the area on the main 2 page comp sheet.  To be blunt, they need to be able to understand that HERS is not the opposite of his…


Another vestige of the housing mess, is that banks can no longer have a direct relationship with the appraisals.  In order to remove cronyism and the ability to target a “certain” appraiser, banks now need to use clearinghouses that assign appraisers from a pool so that you never know who you will get and, supposedly, this adds integrity into the process. Couple this with the fact that the homeowner is likely kept as far away from this process as possible, when you are doing a house this cutting edge, you are relying on the mortgage person to convey this to the appraiser.

The good news is that you CAN require some training when you submit the request to the clearinghouse, you CAN insist that the 820.04 addendum be used, and you CAN approve the appraiser that the pool assigns.  I guess since you are writing the check, they give you SOME input.

SO – because of the help and the research on the Green Building Advisor site, we’re trying this again.  We’re providing our preliminary HERS rating, and our expected LEED Platinum status, as well as a ton of other documentation.  I am meeting with the appraiser at the property Tuesday (due to the fact you cannot just drive by and access the property).  Hopefully, having an educated appraiser will help us get to where we need to be and we can start this project in July still.

Stay tuned for Part 3 – I hope it’s labeled SUCCESS!

Financing the Energy Efficient Home – Saga Part 1

appraisal_formWhere to begin?  We’ve been working on financing for almost 9 months.  I had hoped to be in a position to start construction early in 2013 and thought I had budgeted enough time and money to do this.

We’re not amateurs; we did a construction loan on our existing house and, without tooting my own horn that much – we’re pretty darn good credit risks if you believe all the score stuff.  😉  So what’s the deal?

A perfect storm of nonsense, that’s what.

  • Banks are exceedingly paranoid about lending their money at low rates.  Especially jumbo loans that might have to pass scrutiny and not get sold on the secondary market.
  • Large banks, despite being some of the most “creative” when it came to financing and building up the subprime mortgage market, are excessively difficult to work with.  And then have the nerve to talk to ME about how risk averse they are.  Seriously?  Does the word “robo-signing” mean anything to you?
  • Banks seem to do less and less “bank” stuff, and instead – prefer to make money playing with other peoples’ money.
  • Interest rates at historic lows means that banks have little interest in making 30 year mortgage commitments.
  • Credit unions rock – I love mine – but they stopped doing construction loans about the time I needed one….
  • Pair Modernist with Energy Efficient and the banks / appraisers don’t know what the heck to do with themselves.
  • And the new rules designed to prevent the fraud that occurred a few years ago have effectively crippled the ability for “normal” (and qualified!) folks to get a loan.

Early in the process we started with one bank and (mistakenly) abandoned them when we got a poor appraisal.  Instead of forging ahead and looking for options or other comps to work with this appraisal and get it to where we needed. we had another bank and went to them.


Me – dealing with banks.

In our defense, the 2nd bank was promoting themselves as having an interest in community lending, and specifically, putting together a Modernist home loan program because their research indicated that Modernist homes – well designed and well loved – simply didn’t go to foreclosure.  As I have mentioned previously, Triangle Modernist Houses is a force for Modernism in the area and were also trying to forge relationships with banks to help preserve our at risk homes in the area and have a modern-friendly bank that understood that while “simple” in design, usually a Modernist home is more costly than that of a home built for square footage.

After a process that I likened to a financial colonoscopy, we were approved.  However, when the commitment letter arrived, it contained terms that were so impossible, we simply could not go forward.  This was very disappointing in that we had spent so much time, and pretty much had had positive feedback all through the process.

Live and learn.  So – we’re back and bank number one – and we DID learn something from the last experience – we are understanding the appraisal process and what we can and can’t do, who is and isn’t qualified, and how we can position ourselves for success.

Next post will discuss financing the energy efficient part.  Another challenge.  Heaven forbid you do anything “different”…


The Thermal Envelope

If you can’t tell – I’m the ‘She’ in the About Us page.  I am not the technical engineer.  I have a good solid understanding of mechanics and more technical things based on my career, experience and the fact that I can be a little bit of a gearhead with the cars.  However, I am also a sales / marketing person at heart and I am a firm believer in “Do not let Perfect be the enemy of Good”.  I am an 85% is FINE – get it done person.  So – I blog.  I write.  I am the extrovert.  I am the one usually spinning out of control and scurrying around.

I share this because you will see some posts from the ‘He’ here shortly and just in case you couldn’t tell – I wanted to let you know you’d see several authors.  Also – if you want more of the nitty gritty technical stuff – it’s coming.  Trust me.

At a higher level – I may be focused more on aesthetics than performance, but I do appreciate a high performance ANYTHING.  I also appreciate that our current house was overbuilt and outperforms all the other houses in the neighborhood.  We’ve already been familiar with geothermal heat pumps, alternative types of insulation, better sealed envelopes and windows with argon filled sealed spaces and low e coatings.

After we selected the wall system – it became apparent that we were onto something – one product – several functions.  It begged some thought and discussion about how to carry this “theme” to other areas.  Hubby had said early on as an “architect test” that he wanted a house with no 2×4’s and no sheetrock, and it appeared we could get that for the walls by using concrete sandwich panels.  Also, with steel, concrete and glass being our mantra, we had a lot of flexibility on materials.

Roofing traditionally is metal or membrane or shingles.  Since we had rejected the flat roof purely out of functional paranoia, a single sloped roof was in order.  However, I was 100% in love with the flat roof “look” and it fit so nicely into my mind’s eye of the mid century look I was trying to get.  Enter the insulated roof panel.  Initially developed for refrigerated buildings, we could easily now get R-50 in a LONG panel that was totally thermally isolated and that gave us the inner and outer surfaces, as well as some great insulation.  Several companies provide this type of panel, but we found a local installer and a fairly local manufacturer.  Metl-Span had just what we needed and Metal Roofing Corporation is an amazing partner and dove in helping us fully utilize the benefits of the product for both our roof, as well as the extensive shading structures we have to manage the summer sun.

red roof

The roof helps with LEED (insulation factor, airtight, no thermal paths, and solar reflectivity – not to mentions “local” material within a few hundred miles.) and provided the look and feel we were going for.  The inside of the roof will sit on our open bar joists (for a loft like look) and provide the finished ceiling.

Next – we’ll see how International Precast was able to help us connect the roof to the wall insulation as the cooler building (ha! pun!) continues.

We’re building a cooler.

A cooler what, you ask?  No, a cooler.

The reason a cooler works so well at maintaining the temperature of the things inside it, is that it fully insulates the contents from the ambient temperature.  For the most part (except for the opening lid) there is no thermal path that connects and conducts outside temp to inside temp.  Therefore, your beers stay icy cold!

coolerWhile we might not want to be icy cold, certainly the thermal envelope of any building is the single most important part of the building process, and minimizing the thermal paths, from outside to inside is paramount (as is sealing it up, but more on that later).

Conventional construction – whether 2×4’s or 2×6’s or even 2×8’s have wooden thermal paths every 16 to 24 inches or so.  Therefore, you can stuff some high R value insulation in those spaces, but your still fighting those paths.  Folks have gotten around that but essentially building a house within a house and offsetting the studs, but that seemed, to us, to be a little complicated.  So – what will we use for a wall system?  What can minimize these thermal paths, and is durable and cost effective?  SIP panels?  These are a really good product to minimize the thermal paths, but still very conventional and you still have to put something on the inside of them for walls, and then something else for your exterior finish.

We’d heard about some concrete panels with insulation – essentially the Superior Walls method, but that still wasn’t the answer.  Finally – we found the concrete sandwich panel.  3 inches of concrete, 4 inches of insulation, and then 3 more inches of concrete.  What this did, was allowed the panels to provide our exterior finish (remember – we like the minimalist aesthetic), our insulation, and our interior wall – which we can paint, adorn, or leave in all its grey glory.

Interestingly, this “all in one” material started us down a path for a couple of themes, including one material providing finished inside / insulation / finished outside and also working to minimize the subcontractor on the project to try to contain costs.

So – we now have the walls for our cooler – and we’ll talk about how the insulation could be continuous around the house…..

What do we want?

questionsSimple question, right?  But the answer isn’t the simple.  We knew we wanted an energy efficient home, but “how” energy efficient?  We knew we wanted a Modernist home, but how Modern?

We knew we wanted one level.  Having lived in our current home that is essentially 3 levels – and really only using one – it’s apparent that the other floors are somewhat wasted.  And – since we have dogs – old dogs and blind dogs – accessibility is important.  Having elderly dogs and vision impaired dogs help you learn about things like “aging in place” and accessible (or universal) design.

I am probably more into the aesthetics and the design process than my husband.  He’s definitely into the performance and the materials.  Not to say that he’s not quite particular about design, because he is – he just sees more beauty in a functional design and I might be swayed by anything ‘shiny’…

In working with tonic design, we knew they had recently done a LEED Silver home.  What’s cool about that is that it is the was the first Modernist LEED home in NC.  With basic tenets of modern architecture being lots of light / windows / volumes, it becomes an additional challenge to make these types of homes energy efficient.  It’s pretty easy to make a box with tiny windows LEED Gold or so, but not so easy when you want to use materials like glass, steel and concrete – historically pretty horrible insulators.

As we worked through the design process, we focused on the house and the shop and how we could build efficiently, and how we could make sure that the buildings related to each other correctly and to the site correctly.  The “shop” portion of the project is important to us, so it needed to be fully integrated into the plans.  It was not going to be an ‘outbuilding’ or anything that spoke a different language than the house.

The result is ShopHouse.  A study in glass, concrete and steel that also ends up being LEED Platinum.  Getting that to happen is going to require the right materials and the right team.