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.

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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…..

Deep dive – everything you possibly want to know about concrete sandwich panels

So at a more detailed level – what are concrete sandwich panels??  Basically they are panels consisting of concrete as the “bread” of the sandwich with insulation as the “meat” of the sandwich.  In the case of the panels offered by International Precast they consist of 3” thick high psi reinforced concrete wythes of concrete with either 2” or 4” of Polyisocyanurate insulation as the interior.

IP_Sample

A surprising and very important differentiator of the International Precast concrete sandwich panels is that International Precast claimed that they could deliver panels where the interior and exterior wythes are not connected by any thermal bridging material – they would be completely isolated by the interior insulation.  We quizzed them at length on this claim but they were able to demonstrate to our satisfaction that they could indeed deliver on this claim.  This opened up the possibility of completely isolating the interior and exterior of the house from one another with insulating material and eliminating all thermal bridges.  There would be no through concrete in the panels!!  This started the thought of the house as a cooler – more on this later.

The concrete wythes would be connected via non-conductive cast-in wythe to wythe fasteners.  These are described by their suppliers as being made from “high performance heat and alkaline resistant engineered polymers” or “high-strength, low-conductivity, not-corrosive and chemically resistant” polymers.   These are spaced at defined intervals in the panels per well tested engineering specifications.  They are poked through the insulation at the center of the sandwich panels and have heads that end up being embedded in the concrete with a very small diameter high strength fibrous material connecting the heads together.  These connectors work in tension to prevent any wythe movement under load – basically keeping the exterior concrete surfaces from moving relative to one another under loads and enabling bending loads to be shared between the 2 wythes.  To be 100% technically correct these panels are referred to as “structurally composite concrete sandwich panels” because both the interior and exterior wythes act compositely to carry the external gravity and lateral loads.

 

The concrete itself is high psi concrete with reinforcing wire and rebar embedded in each of the wythes to enable the concrete wythes to carry structural loads.  Both the interior and exterior wythes are reinforced so both can carry structural loads – this would turn out to be a key factor in enabling thermal isolation for other parts of the house such as the roof.

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.

Why concrete sandwich panels for our exterior walls? Part 3 – Step 2 toward concrete sandwich panels – the interior walls

Having bought into the concept and design aesthetic of concrete exterior walls we started brainstorming about interior walls surfaces.  Out initial thoughts were to use wood to warm up the interior of the house and avoid the dreaded sheetrock as a wall material.  We bounced around a lot of ideas on how to execute interior wood walls while keeping with the evolving design aesthetics.  We came to the conclusion that it would be better to use wood as warming / accent material via furniture, cabinets, doors, etc. where it made logical sense to use it.  This then led to the crazy, wild assed idea of using concrete on the interior walls – an idea that grew on us after initially us being skeptical about it.  So why not??

In parallel with our discussions on interior wall materials we had continued our internet search for precast concrete wall manufacturers.  And during this we stumbled across a company that claimed that they made concrete sandwich panels – panels that had both a concrete exterior surface (known in the trade as a “wythe”) and a concrete interior surface or “wythe”.  And it turned out that this company, International Precast, was fairly local to us – offering the ability to meet with them in person, see their facility, etc.  The fact that they were local also helped from a LEED perspective as it minimized the environmental and cost impacts of shipping the finished panels.

So our next steps were an initial telephone call and then a visit to International PrecastIP_SampleThe net out of these discussions and site tour was that it appeared that they could do exactly what they claimed they could do – deliver concrete sandwich panels that could form the outer walls for both buildings for our project.  So our crazy wild assed idea to use concrete on our interior walls was actually possible.  Not only was it possible – it seemed that properly executed concrete sandwich panels would deliver both our interior and exterior finished walls in a single product.

Why concrete sandwich panels for our exterior walls? Part 2 – Step 1 toward concrete sandwich panels – the exterior walls

In considering the wide variety of exterior materials that we could use I half jokingly made the statement that I wanted a house built of concrete, steel and glass (design aesthetic #1).  Note that all of these are lousy insulating materials.  So why these materials??  From my personal perspective these were part of the commercial / industrial / modernist design aesthetic (we can call this design aesthetic #2) that I like.  So we asked ourselves why not a concrete exterior to the house??  Properly mixed and cured concrete certainly is a very durable, low maintenance cost material that does not require any exterior finishing as is proven in the millions of commercial buildings that are built out of concrete.  And if it is used without trying to make it look like something that it isn’t then it meets a design aesthetic of “truth in materials” (design aesthetic #3) – it is what it is so don’t try to hide this.  And if we use it this way we get the bonus of not having any additional cost for exterior finishing.

concrete exterior

So how could we execute concrete exterior walls??  Certainly we could do poured in place walls – but these required lots of work in on site forms, dealing with all of the quality issues caused by weather, variations in concrete batches, etc.  Our architect / builder had done poured in place walls on a previous project so they were very aware of the issues with using them.  In particular the waste material from building custom wood forms was an issue.

The next thought was precast walls that could be cast in more controlled conditions that would then be set in place on site.  We looked at these fairly closely and even visited a factory where they were manufacturing walls that had a concrete exterior and were fitted with various materials to serve as studs in conventional walls.  We were convinced that we were on the right track on finding a material and method of making walls that met our exterior requirements – the panels would be “cool” as a way to meet our evolving design aesthetic and accomplish the our exterior durability / minimal maintenance goals  .

Further analysis showed that these panels that we had found still had some issues that we needed to consider.  First, they would still require insulation and interior finishing.  In that sense they solved our exterior goals but not our interior goals.  And they did not achieve the goal of thermally isolating the exterior and interior surfaces – we would still have to accomplish this.  They were clearly a big step away from conventional 2×4 construction – but were they a big enough step away??  Another concern was with this particular company’s ability to execute the panels to the detail and precision that we expected our project to require.

Coming up next – Why concrete sandwich panels for our exterior walls? Part 3 – Step 2 toward concrete sandwich panels – the interior walls

Why concrete sandwich panels for our exterior walls? Part 1

This is the first post from the engineering geek guy for our ShopHouse project.  I will be explaining some of the more technical reasons for the design and material decisions that we are making as a couple for this project.

So why build using concrete sandwich panels for our exterior walls??  There are a  variety of reasons but this decision started as a desire to find a better way to build a house and shop.  And a better way to achieve our goals of having the lowest possible operating cost and the lowest possible maintenance cost.

wood framingI look at conventional 2×4 construction as “lowest common denominator” construction – while it is cost effective I find it to be incredibly wasteful and sloppy.  It also has a fundamental problem that we needed to avoid to achieve our “cooler” concept of thermally isolating the inside of the house from the outside as much as possible.  Every 2×4 creates thermal paths between inside and outside surfaces, thus creating thousands of holes in the thermally isolated “bucket” that we are trying to achieve.

There are certainly a number of ways to reduce the thermal  paths or bridges between the inside and outside surfaces but these add complication and cost to the building process.  One way is to build 2 separate walls so that there is insulation between the inside and outside surfaces.  Again this can give a good thermal result but essentially you are building 2 separate houses, one inside of the other.

Another factor with conventional 2×4 construction is that exterior wall surface materials must be added to project the exterior surface from the elements.  The exterior sheathing, typically plywood or OSB, must be covered to prevent degradation from rain, sun, etc.  There are obviously a very wide variety of materials to use but most are susceptible to damage from the elements and require some level of maintenance.  Brick can be used as an exterior material but you are again essentially building multiple walls in order to achieve the desired end result.

In almost all cases conventional 2×4 construction assumes sheet rock for the interior wall surface.  I find this to be another “lowest common denominator” construction material.  It is very forgiving of construction errors, easy to find people to install and finish, etc but I personally find it to be a material that I would like to avoid if at all possible.  It is messy to install and finish, susceptible to damage from everyday household activities (and especially damage from dogs!), and difficult to hang items from the walls because of its low structural strength.

The net out of wanting to find a better way to build a house is that I challenged the architect/builders that we considered to design a house with no 2×4’s and no sheetrock.  Needless to say the reactions were interesting.  I think that most didn’t believe that I was serious – but at least one took it to heart and embraced the philosophy that this challenge required.

Coming up next – Why concrete sandwich panels for our exterior walls? Part 2 – Step 1 toward concrete sandwich panels – the exterior walls

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.

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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…

Gallery

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…

ai-residential-green-energy-effecient-addendum

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!