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Archive for April, 2010

when is custom really custom?

April 30th, 2010 by

So once one decides to create a ‘custom-built’ house, that’s when the fun really starts. It’s not easy to learn how to go about getting a house built. Of course, there isn’t really any shortage of information; in fact, the opposite problem exists. There is an enormous pile of uh, ‘information’ out there. The challenge is weeding through all of it and cutting out all the folks that are just trying to sell something that they already have, like “easily customizable house plans, ready to go!”, and “custom-designed homes built by our preferred builder.”

Custom tailoredLaura came up with a great analogy for describing what type of custom house we wanted. Because she hasn’t posted it yet, and because we—for the moment—live in the community property State of California, making the analogy 50% mine, I am going to go ahead and post it first. Hopefully sharing this analogy will not trigger an analimony case. (Hmm, somehow that didn’t sound quite right. Oh well, I’ll get to the bottom of that later.)

Her analogy was to the world of tailoring. In clothing, there is ‘ready to wear’ aka ‘off the rack’, which is what 99.9% of us utilize for 99.9% of our clothing. In the house building world, that equates to picking out a house with your favorite paint color in the lovely just-opened phase II of the subdivision owned by the publicly-held mega real estate developer / builder company. You know those companies; they’re the ones that are quoted in the news every month when the government decides that there either is or is not a continuing housing crisis or boom.

it would have been easier

April 27th, 2010 by

Read my sweetie’s post, below, and you’ll understand.  It would have been easier to buy a house.  That was how I started when we decided to chuck it all, retire early, and move to a place where land is measured in acres, not square feet.

After all, I said then, my needs are simple: I want lots of big windows, so the sun streams in and opens up the house.  I want openness, spaciousness, a feeling of clean, clear and easy.  At the same time, I want privacy, so everyone in the neighborhood isn’t looking in those big windows and watching what we do.  (We have a neighbor now who is a wonderful neighborhood-watch kind of person, always knows what’s going on, but on the other hand I’m not sure I want anyone to know EVERYTHING I do.)

Kevin had already begun to influence my architectural appreciation, and I agreed modern would be good.  So of course we’ll find a nice, existing, modern house with clean lines and the conveniences we want–like zoned HVAC, double-paned windows that keep the heat out in the summer and the cold in the winter, a nook in the kitchen for my espresso machine.  Of course.

Well, I love Eichler’s courtyards, and Neutra’s off-kilter sense of style, and I’m a big fan of Frank Gehry’s studied weirdness.  But they don’t have houses for sale in a warm place at a reasonable price that aren’t also in great need of …a little love… and a hammer and nails.

So we started looking into affordable ways to “build,” at first, particularly prefab.

prefab house

One of Marmol Radnizer's prefab homes, from the Skyline series.

And while they were affordable (if built near the factory), and interesting to look at, and had the windows and clean lines, we still had the land issue; building near where they are tended to mean paying through the nose (ouch) for the land on which to put the house.

Believe me, we had some animated, painful, lively, difficult discussions.  I kept insisting we should buy an existing house–that didn’t, so far as we’d seen yet, seem to exist–and Kevin kept insisting we should build.

But it’s cheaper to buy!  I’d say.  Buy what? asked Kevin.  Something we can’t stand to live in?

I hate it when he’s right.

why build? aren’t there enough houses already?

April 26th, 2010 by

The “why build?” question is one that often comes up in semi-polite company, usually delivered in conjunction with a look that says “Aren’t they cute? They think they can actually do this without killing each other.”

Invariably, our potential house building discussion partner suddenly finds that he has to help the hostess vacuum the dog or put the sushi in the oven. I suppose it’s fair that the thought of building a house sends most people running for the (already fully-developed and subdivided) hills. The thought of designing, coordinating, managing, permitting, insuring, funding, financing, acquiring, and being held liable, responsible, inspectable, culpable, and certifiable—for some reason—seems to intimidate most people.

Houses for saleTherefore, in order to find a place to live the aforementioned “most people” generally gravitate to structures where others—anonymous builders and designers—have run the gauntlet described above, and have emerged with an inventory of houses placed into an inventory of subdivisions that conform nicely with other subdivisions approved by a county and governed by a State. Sadly—in my admittedly skewed opinion—what comes out the other side is a clusterclump of simulhouse-clones that are designed and constructed to look as if they are about to encounter the late 1800s. Hence the pseudo-shutters that are nailed—open, of course— to the side of the house, and the oh-so-handy faux hay-loft door perched above the modern three-car garage complete with a genuine reproduction wrought iron rooster wind-vane on its genuine reproduction cupola.

keeping track of everything, with FredDB

April 24th, 2010 by

Unsurprisingly, there are thousands of details that need to be captured and tracked when you are trying to build a house. Notebooks, clippings files, Google docs and Evernote—I love Evernote!—all come in very handy, but it is very difficult to aggregate and share all the stuff that resides in them, with all the people it needs to be shared with.

Architects, builders, lawyers, engineers, suppliers, subcontractors, etc. all need to have the latest, agreed-upon-by-everyone information, or very nasty surprises can happen. Given that I tend not to be terribly well organized, I felt that we needed a technology tool to address this problem. (Besides, I’m a technologist, and what guy doesn’t love tools? It’s a no-brainer!)

The answer was FredDB. FredDB is a FileMaker database that I created to track all the stuff we need in order to make Fred into our true dream house. FredDB keeps track of all of the features that we want incorporated into our house design, all of Fred’s rooms and dimensions, the inventory of stuff that Fred has to have a place for, all the contact information for the people who are working on Fred, and the decisions, minutes and documents that come out of all the meetings about Fred. They are all cross-linked together, so a user can easily see all the house features that are part of the kitchen, or a list of all the rooms that contain a certain common feature, such as built-in storage. (Note to readers: I love built-in storage. This will become painfully evident over time. You have been warned.)

Here are a few screenshots from FredDB; click on the image for a larger view:

FredDB can also generate PDF reports on all of its contents, organized in a variety of ways. These reports can then be used as timestamped ‘snapshots’ that provide an audit trail of decisions and changes.

FredDB is hosted securely via FileMaker Server. Our architect/build firm has direct access to it from any of their desktop machines, so they can always check out the latest status on features that we have asked for, or the decisions that were made at any of our meetings. It’s early days in the project right now, so it’s hard to say how well any of this will work, but the crew has been great about trying this out. We’ll definitely do some follow-up posts to let everyone know how well (or badly) this works!

the view from a (small) hill

April 13th, 2010 by

Tuesday, April 13

This is the day we try to find a temporary place to live that doesn’t feel so temporary.  Let’s face it, we’re both terribly spoiled; we like our creature comforts, and we are creatures of habit, so a two-bedroom townhouse in a crush of other townhouses that all look the same isn’t going to cut it.

I’d set up several appointments to meet with property managers and look at potential rental houses.  Some of those came from Craigslist, some from other sites online.  Some had pictures, some didn’t, but mostly they were in the higher end of rental houses—or so I’d hoped.

The first place we saw pretty much ruined us for other houses.  It sat, bucolically, on a pretty little hill overlooking a horse farm and a perfect little pond.  The house wasn’t so little; it held more than 3,000 square feet of very comfortable living space, a LOT of that in the kitchen, and had a screened porch the cats would just love.

screened porch

The view from our temporary home in Chapel Hill

Security system?  Check.  Wi-Fi?  Check.  Desk space in the kitchen?  Check.  (There was even a Mac already sitting on the counter, which boded well even though we’d have to bring our own.)

As we left that house, tooling down the nicely paved curving road back into town, which met another nicely paved road perfect for cycling upon, we mused that it was going to be hard to beat that place.

It was.

We went on to look at a dozen other rental houses in the same price range, and saw the wreckage left behind by student renters (so many UNC jerseys on the wall in one place that I had the overwhelming desire to say something about Blue Devils) and young families with small children.

By the end of the next day we were calling Kevin, the property manager for the beautiful house on the pond, and nearly begging him not to let anyone else rent the place until we could get him our security deposit and first month’s rent.

The picture above is the porch Gus, George and Jack will be enjoying while we build A House Named Fred.

what you aren’t supposed to do

April 10th, 2010 by

After a grueling Saturday spent driving, driving, driving from one piece of land to another, we decided to just see a single lot—one we’d decided not to drive to the day before, because it was a ways away from where we’d been tooling around.

It was just over the county line from Orange into Chatham, which has all sorts of advantages here, not least a decidedly lower tax rate.

That did put it a good bit further from Hillsborough, which I wanted to live near because of the writers’ communities there, but hey, we’re just looking, right?  So—without Linda, who had a previous commitment—we grabbed our Garmin (brought our own, thank you, no to Hertz Everlost) and piled our stuff into the rented Ford Escape.

It was easy to get to, this lot; pretty much straight down 15/501, turn right on a pretty countrified road where horses and cows were leisuring in nice rolling hills, make a couple more short turns, and there we were.  We detoured down the driveway of a house for sale; the sign said “contemporary” and we could see an Asian-style roof from the road, so it seemed worth a look-see.  Nice place, if a bit small, but not quite what we were looking for.  Beautifully sited on its very sloping lot with a swooping driveway down to the house from the road.


We saw a for-sale sign up ahead, but when we stopped and pulled out the information packet (just a single sheet of paper; how is that a packet?  Ah, this pedantic mind) we knew it wasn’t the lot we were looking for because it cost about $50,000 more than the listing had said.


A right turn, and up the road on the left was another for-sale sign.

photo of Araya Lane land

Boulders on the perfect lot

This time we were in the right spot, and my heart leapt and sank at the same time because I just freakin’ fell in love.  If you’ve ever been to northern Ohio, near Cleveland, and seen a park called Squires’ Castle, you’ll have an idea of the kind of land we were looking at.

It rolled, but gently.  It was covered, completely, with hardwood trees; oak, maple, even a beech or two and maybe that’s a sycamore?

The sunlight shone down through the leaves, dappled the ground and the many boulders scattered across it like God was throwing jacks with them.

As we walked onto the lot (which, as it turned out later, was a happy home for ticks), it was as if we’d become engulfed in a fairy forest.  I fully expected to see hobbits come out from under one of those giant rocks.

So we did—well, I did—what you are not supposed to do: fell in love.  With a lot.  Dirt.  Ground with rocks and trees.  I expect that love will go forever unrequited.

looking at land

April 10th, 2010 by

We had promised ourselves this weekend “off,” to maybe drive down to Pinehurst and Southern Pines, see some sights, play tourist and take it easy. Knowing the week ahead of us would be busy and stress-filled, we’d agreed to plan some down time particularly for the day after the loooooooong flight.

As it turned out, though, our realtor—Linda—wanted to show us some pieces of land, and what the heck; let’s do it, right?

So off we go.

She met us in the lobby of the Residence Inn, punctual as usual. When we walked out to find her, she sat at a couch facing the desk—we were walking up on her from behind—and she was reading the paper. I noticed how perfectly her hair was done. She’d gotten a nice cut since the last time we saw her, looked really good.

As always, she was smiling. There isn’t a bone of meanness in her, but if that had been me (knowing the day ahead), the smile would have had a curl of mischief.

We spent a long day looking at land. Have you ever just gone out and looked at land? After a while, you find ways to entertain yourself about it, comparing the trees (these are taller than on that other lot), the ground underfoot (more bumps and holes), the sounds (can you hear that road noise?) and the color of the sky from here.

We saw flat land and hilly land, rocky land and sandy land. Land with clearings and driveways already on it, land with no sign of any human being ever setting foot there. As it turned out later, we even saw land owned (or once owned) by a dog-breeder who may have supplied Michael Vick with his fighting animals.

Linda is a wonderful, sweet person with some serious scruples. She won’t lie, I can tell by the silences she leaves when a question might force her to. But she also won’t say anything bad about anybody, and I have great respect for her principles. Her car shows how hard she works, and is built for durability more than comfort.  So the day, covering some serious mileage in and around Chapel Hill and Durham, was tiring. Still we saw some good potential locations for A House Named Fred, and knew she’d figured us out—she got what we wanted and was helping us find a new home.

trip number three

April 9th, 2010 by

Friday, April 9.  It’s always tough being away from our (present) home for a long time, even when we’re on a vacation in a beautiful place.  It’s even tougher when we have multiple goals we want to accomplish that will, ultimately, lead to upheaval, newness, uncertainty.

Flying from our Oakland rental house to Raleigh-Durham International airport (RDU, to its close friends) takes a long time.  There are no non-stops, and the best we could do was Southwest flight 300, which doesn’t require us to change planes but still means flying to Chicago and sitting on the ground there while most of the plane empties out and we can’t leave, even to get a sandwich.  And remember, no meals are served on Southwest, so that nine hour or longer timeframe is spent eating whatever we brought on.  Unless we want to make a meal of peanuts, Ritz crackers, and Chips Ahoy 100-calorie packs.

With the 3-hour time change, that means leaving Oakland about 7am and getting into RDU after dinner time, with nothing substantial to eat in between and long hours in cramped airplane seats.  (Even when you can grab the Emergency Exit rows, which—thankfully—we were able to do.)

So you can imagine our mood upon arriving at the Residence Inn in Chapel Hill.

Add to that the failure of their online system to sync up with the hotel’s own checkin procedure—meaning the request for extra towels, down pillows and an upper floor went unregarded—and you have the making of two very cranky people just starting out a ten-day stretch in a town that is definitely not in California.

Of course, it is in North Carolina, which is freakin’ beautiful…and this is something I realized back in January, when we first started down this long and winding road.