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A house is made up of glass and concrete and steel and wood (well, not ours) and a host of other materials.  You assemble the pieces and you “build”.  But it’s the people involved in the project, that can set it apart.  The people either rise to meet the challenges or they produce the minimum they can to get by and don’t inspire others, and likely don’t garner a lot of personal satisfaction from their “job”.

Think Big!

Think Big!

We’ve been very fortunate on this project to have met some incredible people.  People who’s skill and caring have helped us realize this crazy dream.  People who took at little extra time to understand what we’ve been trying to do, and figured out creative ways to help meet the goal.  They’ve stepped outside their personal or professional, comfort zones and took us seriously when we asked ‘why not?’.

We hope that we can partner with some of these folks as we move through the process and at project completion when we do “the fun stuff” – like the open house tours with NC Modernist Houses, or open house required by LEED, or maybe the Green Home Tour (although no sure I’ll be spending the money to put our house on the tour…)

The house is “stuff”, but the process is people.  And continue to be pleased and comforted by the folks who are passionate about what they do – and strive to differentiate themselves against “the rest”.

LEED for Homes 4, Passive House, Energy Star, DOE Challenge Home, and and and…

There seems to be a decent amount of alphabet soup or certification “choice” when it comes to energy efficiency and measuring your “green-ness” – but realistically, what does it mean and what is it worth?  We’ve already established that the mortgage industry and the appraisal system doesn’t give it a hoot, and since we’re not a builder – what the heck does any of this stuff MEAN to us?  Overall, nothing.  Well, that’s not entirely true – it should result in lower operating costs and a “better” home.  But at what cost?  What’s the payback calculation?  There’s no way in Hades that we’ll ever pay for our uber windows in energy savings with anything close to the current rates for power in the US. So why do it?

Maybe we’re looking at this wrong.  It’s not about the certifications, (although we believe they DO have value for both builders and suppliers of the materials for the project) it’s about building the High Performance Home.  THAT’S my new personal certification – HPH.  Everyone else seems to have a certification program – why not me?  HPH fits a theme here – we have high performance “stuff”.  My daily driver car is a 469 HP station wagon.  It’s not the highest HP car out there – but in it’s class, it’s top of the heap.   Henry drives a Dodge Cummins diesel dually pickup.  All the wheels and all the torque – a high performance towing machine.  We have a little vice in that we drive Dodge / SRT Vipers.  Very high performance American muscle.  This level of high performance may not be necessary, but it’s pretty cool when you can achieve it.  And ultimately, that’s what we want for our house: quite simply, a house that performs to the level of the rest of our lives.

But- since HPH is not a globally recognized certification (yet), what are our options?

LEED can be regarded as being a little prescriptive  and judgmental (after all – what the hell would we do with an electric car charging station? Unless I get a Tesla) and there’s a lot of focus on stuff we can’t control – we’re not an infill lot and our “walkability” score is pretty low.  But then DOES cover things like Indoor Air Quality which we believe to be a real benefit to living better.  LEED incorporates this measure, and also Energy Star into its rating system, so you are getting a little more bang for your buck here.  And maybe feeling that you are looking at your home’ performance from a multifaceted approach, and building a High Performance Home.

But then you look at Passive House – I call this the Engineer’s certification.  It’s VERY much performance based and focused on energy usage, and not wasting energy.  This certification becomes very much a numbers game.   Without being all that smart on Passive House – it’s close to saying that your energy usage is about 10% of something “normal” for your home’s size and location.  It also says that you take advantage of passive means to heat (and cool or avoid heat) the home – so using solar warming of a slab concrete floor, for example.  In this regard, Passive House is right up our alley.  They are VERY interested in building envelope performance- with requirements for multipoint blower door tests and other more stringent qualifications.  The other good news is that Passive House seems to be “flexible” in how you meet the requirements – and for an out of the box project like this – that’s GOOD news.  So – this very much works with the High Performance Home theme.  Passive House also incorporates the Department of Energy’s Challenge Home criteria – so again – more recognized certs as part of a higher level program.

With this in mind, we’re going to see if we can meet Passive House without any major design or building plan changes, as it’s highly regarded as a standard for PERFORMANCE.  Once we know if we can pre-certify – we’ll show you the numbers and talk about it more and see if it really makes sense to got for the full certification process or just “built to the Passive House standard” that often gets used instead.  In the meantime – let’s hope we can nail a high performance BUDGET…

If all goes well, we’ll be able to move to submit for our building permit this week – another milestone we need to make.  Onward!

P.S.  What do you think of the new rendering???

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.

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”…


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.

Is there a for Architects / Clients?

words about projects

words about projects

Who is going to design this new house?  Then, who’s going to build it?  How will they view our project?  How involved can we be?  Can this person take our list of must haves and translate that into something REALLY COOL?

In the last post, I noted that we’d done several TMH tours and had started to get a good “feel” for the local architecture scene.  TMH is an amazing resource for all things Modern.  Between the tours, the website that has amazingly comprehensive listings for homes for sale and the local architects’ resumes (both past and present) – we started here.

Hubby and I sat in the couch and had our notepads and dueling laptops, and we went through the listing of Triangle architects one by one, writing our lists with ‘definites’, and ‘maybes’.  After we completed that exercise – we compared notes.  Anyone that made both our ‘definites’ made the short list.  Where we both had ‘maybes’, we discussed, and same thing when we had an architect that made only one ‘definite’ list.

Because this is a personal matchmaking decision, I won’t name names – but I do think its important to share what we did and why we ended up where we did.  We had 4 architects / firms that we wanted to engage and speak with in greater depth.  We had talked to several of them on site during a tour, but that’s not the time to discuss anything in any detail.

We spoke to 2 single architects that were not a design – build firm.  One fit with our energy efficiency objective, having worked on some very efficient homes with probably the most extreme area builder of ‘green’ (man, I hate that word) homes, and another fit our need for aging in place and truly understood our goal to make the house ‘dog friendly’.  Ultimately, we decided that it was imperative to us to have a design – build firm.  We’ve both refereed finger pointing sessions at work as to which team was at fault for some failure and we didn’t want to do that in our house.

That left us with two good design – build firms.  There was some initial concern that, while there was not a single tonic design home that we didn’t like, were they “too far out there” and too much an artist and not enough scientist (or engineer, or builder) to execute what we knew would be a very technical project.  We appreciated their design process that allowed a feasibility study to be done at a VERY reasonable cost and would likely help us understand if we could make this all work.  But, with the other firm, after viewing a more modern home of theirs, we thought perhaps they were “just right” – so we started there.

We went through an extensive schematic design process with Firm #1.  It was very enjoyable as we went through 4 different designs and spoke to each one of them about what appealed to us, and what did not.   One of the more bizarre items that we threw out there was that we wanted a house with “no sheetrock and no 2×4’s”.  While it sounds odd, it was really meant more to challenge the teams to think differently and not necessarily an edict.  Ultimately, we learned a LOT through the initial design process with the first team.  We learned that I wasn’t going to win the battle and get a flat roof, and that we really did want single floor living, and that we were going to be pushing the envelope on both design and energy efficiency.

Technically, we could have gone forward with the design we had – it worked, it was certainly aesthetically pleasing, and I am sure would have been a great, custom, liveable house.  But – it wasn’t as “boundary pushing” as we were looking for.  It was conventionally constructed and contained many of the dreaded sheets of sheetrock and tons of 2×4’s…  Because tonic design had the Feasibility Study option – we felt we owed it to ourselves to see if there was a better fit out there before making such a major commitment.

After a meeting or 2 with Vinny, Katherine and Maggie, it was apparent that this team not only would rise to the occasion – they would thoroughly enjoy the challenge and loved the idea of no sheetrock and no 2×4’s.  The design process was so tactile and creative (think building blocks, clear lucite chunks, clay, paper, scissors and tape) it allowed a level of engagement and involvement by us, the client, that it truly felt like “our” house already.  There was a sense of adventure when we started on the LEED Platinum route, and when we started asking about concrete sandwich panels, and all sorts of other nontraditional materials – it was met with a true sense of engagement and the collaborative effort we were looking for.  We knew this was the place and that the house would be exceptional.

Next up – performance, cost and form following function.  (or, as it’s sometimes known – the engineer vs the marketing chick….)