Archive for October, 2008 —

Compromises, Already!

Building a house is an exercise in creativity and compromise. Being only six weeks into the conceptual design stage, I thought the compromise part was still pretty far away. During my meeting with Build last Friday to go over the second round of designs, however, it became clear that it was already imminent.

I already don’t want a gigantic house so I figured the compromise stage would mainly be relevant when picking fixtures, appliances, and building materials. The problem, however, is that the existing concrete foundation I’m trying to work with is already a bit too big. It’s about 1700 square feet, so a simple two-story house would weigh in at 3400 square feet. Finish out the 1300 square foot basement and you’re at a whopping 4700 square feet, not even including the garage.

I’m trying to keep the house under 3000 square feet so it’s a challenge finding areas to chop out. Although the basement level has a killer parlor room which opens out to the lower lawn and garden, I’ve decided to leave that entire level unfinished for now, mainly to save money (on both construction and the tax assessment). I figure we’ll just frame it, insulate it, run electrical and plumbing down there, and then think about finishing it years later. The rest of the house is so spacious that if the basement level didn’t even exist, I would barely miss it.

I inquired with Build as to whether we could move the north wall of the house in by 5-10 feet in order to create a bigger sideyard buffer between me and the neighbors and also to reduce the house’s square footage, but it turns out that might actually increase the price of construction because it requires some modification the foundation. We may be able to shove the garage 5 feet or so into the house footprint reducing a bit of square footage, but I’m not sure how much that will save.

Without being able to chop much off the footprint, the upper floor becomes the main opportunity to eliminate square footage. Vaulting the ceilings in the living room so that they are double-height chops off a good 500 square feet, and I already wanted vaulted ceilings, so that is a gimme. Build, however, recommended that I think about eliminating one of the bedrooms up there so that the upper floor contains only the master bedroom and one additional bedroom. While I don’t have any problem with this as it relates to me living in the house, this is officially the first time the subject of “resale” has entered into the decision making process. Many people feel that if you don’t have two bedrooms for kids on the same level as your master bedroom, your house is significantly less desirable to potential future buyers with small children. Although I hope I live in this house until I die, I’m not sure I can eliminate that bedroom and risk compromising resale value. Additionally, I feel like the two additional bedrooms on the top floor will be among the cheapest parts of the house. Drywall, carpeting, closets, and lights… that’s about it.

So with all of that, we may not be done cutting square footage yet… we’ll see. Onto other matters.

Chloe seems to like the entire stack of plans.

Build presented three separate designs on Friday to determine which layout felt most comfortable to me. Even though this meeting was supposed to zero in a little closer on a single design, I very much appreciate the fact that I was given three, considering how many variables are still up in the air. Schematics of the three designs are below. I’m concentrating on the main floor for now because that is where the majority of waking hours are spent. Once the main floor is nailed, the upper floor can follow from that.

4B is my favorite plan (by quite a large margin) because it accomplishes the following things:

  • Opens up the living room
  • Connects the media room to the living room and pushes it eastward away from the giant glass, eliminating glare
  • Places the dining room in a dramatic spot, from a view perspective, without chopping up prime main floor space
  • Locates main entrance such that it leads to a long straightaway which eventually exposes the grand view
  • Doesn’t attempt to dominate main floor with kitchen, but centrally locates it so it can serve multiple areas

It is also interesting to note that Andrew and Kevin over at Build preferred 4C. There is nothing wrong with this, but it illustrates two important things:

  1. It’s perfectly ok for your preferences to differ slightly from your architects’. If they differ tremendously, then you may have picked the wrong architect, but there is nothing wrong with putting in first place what your architect may initially put in second place.
  2. If an architect picks their favorite early on and presents it without any alternatives, they may be doing you a disservice. I love that Build followed through and presented three separate designs even though they really liked one in particular early on.

So without further ado, below are the latest plans. Overall, I’m extremely happy with the progress Build has made so far and look forward to the next meeting the Friday after this one. So far, all of the meetings have been exactly two weeks apart and that seems like the right amount of time to properly iterate. I’m not in love with how the house looks from the front just yet, but it’s still a rough rendering and we’re concentrating on the interior for now.

Front of the house

Back of the house during the day from the northwest

Back of the house during the day from the southwest

Back of the house at night from the southwest

Plan 4a

Plan 4b (the tentative winner)

Plan 4c

Zeroing in on One Design

Last Friday’s meeting was all about zeroing in on one design/floorplan and going over initial cost estimates. At this point, I’m very happy with the general floorplan and how the house looks from the back (the view side). The front of the house and the cost, however, need a bit of work. Below are the latest renderings and schematics:

Back side

Front side

Main floor

Upper floor

I think the back is looking really great. The major addition since the last renderings is the rooftop deck with the hot tub. We’re still figuring out how the roof access is going to work, but a hatch seems like the most cost-effective, least obtrusive (albeit a bit ghetto) solution.

The floorplans are also looking good, with the main floor really opening up, two flexible locations for the dining room (west edge or north edge), and an upper floor that accommodates the requisite three bedrooms. I still have a punchlist of things for Build to nudge around in the floorplans but nothing major.

The front of the house, however, is still not quite doing it for me. It just hasn’t achieved the Feng Shui that the back of the house has yet. I don’t know if it’s the angles, the paneled siding, the colors, or what, but it’s just not there yet. We’re going to experiment with some siding and color options as well as modifying the angles and lines until we achieve curb appeal nirvana.

And now for the costs.

Ohhhh the costs.

Let’s just say they are too high. It’s not Build’s fault as they are just estimating materials and labor for a house of this size and finish, but as the house is currently spec’d, it’s about $400k over my anticipated budget.

That’s a lot.

I’m not sure what we are going to do about it yet, but I’m glad we’re having this conversation at this stage rather than mid-construction. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about architects underestimating projects only to have the homeowner vastly overextend themselves in order to finish the project. In Build’s words, they are trying to “make sure any financial surprises we run into will be positive ones”.

I like that.

We’re going to meet this Friday to discuss packages of things we can possibly save money on.

With the stock market sinking a whopping 18% last week, I have major questions in my head about what the cost of construction labor and materials will be come spring when we break ground. I have thought for the last several months that the cost of construction would decrease as the economy soured but have been told that so far, that hasn’t happened. That’s all well and good because before last week, the decline in the economy was a slow bleed, but last week was extremely damaging. It wasn’t just damaging to wall street fat cats and hedge funds. It was damaging to anyone and everyone who has any money invested in the stock or bond markets. In my opinion, it was the sort of calamity that is going to finally cause people to really watch their spending.

Everybody is always so quick to talk about how the American consumer borrows and spends above their means, but I think this episode shook a lot of people to their core. I think it canceled a lot of vacations and certainly canceled a ton of construction projects — indefinitely. When I think about how many construction projects will break ground in my neighborhood this spring, I think there is a real possibility that I’ll be the only one. Who knows.

Although the financial crisis we’re going through right now is a terrible thing, I’m hoping the cost of building a house during it will be commensurate with the reduction in wealth we’re seeing in the equity markets. If anyone has any good web sites at which to track the cost of materials, let me know. I know the cost of both lumber and copper have plummeted, but beyond that, I have no idea.

Floorplans Finalized, Front Shaping Up Nicely

Over the last week, Build successfully made the (mostly) final nudges and modifications to the floorplans, and everything is now exactly where it should be. If you enlarge the floorplans below, you will see that the media room has increased in size, a couple of sliding walls have been added, the washer/dryer have been relocated, and a few other miscellaneous issues have been resolved.

More importantly, however, the front of the house is looking much better now. During our meeting last week, we studied several different materials for the exterior of the house including corrugated metal, fiber cement, stucco, concrete, and a few different woods. Discouragingly, none of the comps that were presented made me jump out of my chair and say “that’s the one!”, but I encouraged Build to refine their rendering with more foliage and multiple camera angles and I would re-evaluate at that time. I have to say, upon leaving the office, I did have a nagging doubt in my head about whether or not the front of the house would ever end up working for me.

Not being able to think about much else, I spent my entire Friday night playing around in Photoshop, adjusting angles, colors, and a few other things. Modifying a 3D model in a 2D program is no easy task, but by the end of the night, I was able to produce a slightly modified model that already looked quite a bit better to me. I shot the model back to Build, and a few days later, they shot me an entirely new set of renderings that were much, much better than even my modded one. Thank god for modeling programs. I couldn’t imagine building a house without this sort of visual aid.

The front of the house is starting to look sharp now! See drawings below:

House front, view from straight-on

House front, view from northeast

Main floor schematic

Second floor schematic

Roof schematic

So, with everything looking great now, I need to do some serious thinking about how and where we can cut some costs associated with construction. So far, that’s proven difficult, as I’ve heard it always does. :)