Fabulous Finnish Footing forms…

wall-footing-cross-sectionBecause we’re insane (or too dumb to know better  – take your pick…) we decided to take on the job of “manufacturing” the Finnish foam forms for our foundation.

Pay attention to the alliteration – it will come into play later…

Here’s the deal – we have worked so hard to thermally isolate the walls, and build our giant cooler, there was no way we’d just slap them onto a normal concrete footing and let the inner wall be in normal direct contact with both the ground, AND the outer concrete wall.  So – we went about thermally isolating the “inner footing” from the “outer footing”.  Finnfoam was a huge part of that – but so was figuring out how to tie the 2 halves together without traditional metal rebar (a HUGE thermal conductor)

Working with our engineering firm – to make sure all these crazy ideas will actually work… we established the following design:


Then – we needed to find the non-conductive rebar – which wasn’t all that difficult (seems to be popular in Canada – gee wonder why…) so we ordered hooks and straights and picked up a pallet.


Next, I had to get my head around the fact that footings don’t really attach themselves to the ground and that when you translate the PSI rating of the foam to the PSF spec we had to meet for the compacted earth – and get comfortable with the fact that my ENTIRE FREAKING HOUSE will be sitting on 4″ or FOAM….  Ok – done with that.

We then set out to manufacture the forms.  our design is pretty simple – and we figured that the foam would be standard 8′ (nope – metric) and instead it came in at 8′ 3.5″ or so….  and then the rebar hooks had to be spaced at 12″ increments – we just added a ton on complexity.  Sure we could have cut them all off at 8′, but that actually would have been pretty wasteful.

So – that meant each form was fairly different in where the first hook was placed, that we had upwards of 7 different forms, and that’s before we start talking about how to deal with the corners.

“How hard can it be….?”  Famous. Last. Words.

Site ready…

Summer is long over.  And the site is finally READY!!!

I am pretty sure I would have never anticipated this project taking this long.  My latest joke is that the pyramids were built faster.  But hey – they had slave labor and the only slave labor around here is MINE.  We’re tackling a lot of things ourselves, and perhaps that’s the right thing, but perhaps not.  I do know that we will have a one of a kind project when complete, but that completion is likely being driven to a later date because of some of our decisions.  In the overall scheme of things, that’s not a big deal  –  I mean after all, this is our “forever house”  but I am still ready to “get going”.

The site looks outstanding – it seems so long ago that the northwest corner was down about 10 feet.  Standing in the corner that will be our bedroom / master bath area you do feel like you are in the trees – but still on ground level.

Never thought I would be this excited about dirt...

Never thought I would be this excited about dirt…

We had an issue with the cistern floating because we had not completed our backfill, so that was a repair issue.  But – we then decided to add some drainage into the cistern excavation.  Good thing, because that hole DOES.  NOT.  DRAIN.  We’ve installed a 4″ corrugated drain pipe, completed the 2″ first flush drain, installed most of a 12″ drain for the cistern bypass during really heavy rains, and still have a 6″ cistern overflow and a 15″  stormwater drain to install.

Believe me - it's a lot more painful than it looks.

Believe me – it’s a lot more painful than it looks.

We’ve basically done this all by hand.  On a good note, I don’t need to go to the gym. (today…)


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…..

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 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.

And so it begins….

Why build?  Why now?  What to build?  Where to build?  Can’t we just buy something?  Are we nuts?  Will our marriage survive this?

All valid questions.  (And some with answers that remain to be seen….)  We’ve got some catching up to do here, since we pretty much have plans and are ‘this close’ to breaking ground.  So stay tuned for some daily posts – or perhaps a couple times a day to get current.

After 15 years in our current home – we decided that, although it’s a great house in a great neighborhood, it would be nice to:

  • have more space (acreage)
  • have true ‘one floor living’ to help with aging in place (we’re not old, but we’re not getting any younger – and besides – when you live with a couple of blind dogs, you find out pretty quickly how daunting stairs can be…)
  • be able to build a real cutting edge, energy efficient home, and
  • be able to build a true modernist home.

Our style has evolved and matured, and while this house is in no way traditional, it was as far as we could push the envelope at the time, and within the bounds of the neighborhood covenants.  We also know that, from staying current with trends and homeshows, it’s way easier to find modern fixtures and styles now, than it was when we built (1997).  It’s either the Mad Men effect, or the HGTV influence.  Either way – we’re thankful.  Also, the entire “green” initiative has grown by leaps and bounds.  When we built, getting a 14 SEER heat pump was “crazy” and our builder commented that he had seen units that large outside the Sears Tower….  Never mind the “low e – squared” windows, and recycled blue jean insulation batting.  Now – there is LEED, and PassivHaus, and Energy Star (oh my!) and a host of technological advances.

Dear Husband has stated that he’s not “green” to be “green”, he’s green because he’s cheap.  He’s not cheap, but he’s practical.  Energy costs have nowhere to go but up.  In the US, we’ve enjoyed artificially low energy costs for years – and you saw what happened when we had crazy price increases (and they never really came back down).  So – focusing on operating costs of a house is just smart business and hedges your expenses in the long run.  If you can lock into a 30 year mortgage, and focus on energy costs, maybe our retirement savings will last as long as we do…  ha ha….

So – after years of touring homes on the AIA Tours, and TMH (Triangle Modernist Houses) tours, and ALMOST pulling the trigger on 2 cool homes,

dp6 house_rear

(driving our neighbor / Realtor crazy) – we decided that if we’re going to do it – let’s do it once, do it right, and do it for us.

So next – we pick an architect.