Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Update on Windows and Doors (and a skylight project)

Well, we've been going around the mulberry bush a bit about the windows.  North Carolina code requires that certain windows have an opening of at least 5 square feet (ground floor) and 5.75 feet (second story and up) which means that we have to change which parts of our windows open (we had the small part opening but the requirement is driving us to make the large part opening.  Not a huge concern but there is also the concern about the roller shade (rolladen) - if it blocks the opening then we're expecting they will tell us we can't have it.  The law is designed to ensure a fire fighter can enter or exit the rooms with all his gear using the window as his egress point.  

 On the finances front, we have word that the bank has all they need and now we're waiting for the appraisal to come back which will set the basis for the loan amount.  We don't see it as a problem but we fully expect the appraisal to come in below the cost-to-build due to the unique construction methods we're using.  

This week we went shopping at plumbing and tile supply companies in Florida - the tile prices are significantly lower on some things and they have moved to 24" tiles instead of 16's, 18's or even 20's.  Shipping is worth it if we order larger quantities (1-2 pallets of tiles).  Bath fixtures we looked at were more that we could actually see them one the showroom floor here which we haven't been able to do in NC.  We did find the ADA seat height for toilets to be a bit more comfortable than standard height (and that includes the 5'3" person too!).

One of our projects here in Florida has been to replace skylights.  One of the requirements was to minimize light on 3 2/0x4/0 skylights while maximizing it on 2 of the same size (different exposure and roof pitch).  We also had to meet Miami-Dade country hurricane certifications which limits your sources.  We managed to find a suitable polycarbonate skylight, self-flashing, that meets the hurricane rating requirements.  The one thing that isn't available is a high-efficiency unit that diffuses the light while providing insulating values from the blazing heat of the Florida sun.  We have been researching skylights for our build and figure that we'll use the OEM skylights (which are horrible for R-Value but the price is right) and add the Aerolenz product beneath the 3 with fading/heating concerns.  We e-mailed the folks at Aerolenz and they were extremely helpful with describing the mounting methods and how to measure the openings for the Aerolenz.  The R-9 rating of the produce and it's light diffusing qualities are perfect for the southern "cooling" climates.  It is quite surprising to us that nobody has been successful at manufacturing and marketing the product in Florida!


Monday, May 16, 2011

Triangle Green Home Builders Tour - Invaluable!

This past weekend was the first weekend of the Green Homes Tour in the Triangle area.  We visited a number of the houses (something like 7 on Saturday and 6 on Sunday).  We took away several ideas from houses along the way, including changing our primary choice for garage doors from recycled carriage house doors to aluminum/glass overhead doors.  The house where these were installed was over 6000sf and a very open floor plan. The doors we saw were Clopay Avante doors with a frosted glass option.  We also visited one house that had untreated soapstone for kitchen counters - it was a green variant with more movement than we had imagined possible in soapstone.  It was pretty clear that sealed the deal on soapstone provided we can find one like this.  One thing we did get to see was a couple of scratches in the stone but with as much movement as there was, they were hardly noticeable.  The owners were very happy with the quality and they intend to treat the stone with oil in the coming months.

 Another house we say had concrete cast-on-site countertops that were surprisingly warm to the touch.  One thing we did notice was some chipping around the sink edge but that may have been due to a squared off edge instead of a bullnose.  The eMonitor energy monitoring system installed in one of the houses was a very interesting find.  They were able to monitor the solar systems as well as the supplemental heat systems.  Talking to the builder, they were actually able to identify and correct some failing systems or mis-tuned systems to reduce consumption significantly.  The console did appear a bit "geeky" but it appeared that was due to the high level of interest by the owner and builder to monitor every power input and output from the building.

  We also had the opportunity to see some different materials used, including McNichols metal panels and fiberglass decking material.  The fiberglass used for the decking was quite acceptable and comfortable in stocking feet while the grates used for the 'hallways' upstairs was spaced a bit too far to be comfortable for out liking.  Speaking with the architect, that selection was made to carry through the open concept design and allow light to filter through to the lower levels.

  We found some accents for tile work that validated our earlier thoughts as well as finding that 9' door heights were a bit overbearing.  It was clearly valuable to see the different methods used by different builders and the 'interesting" claims made, including "insulated attic space that will be the same temperature as outside, even on hot sunny days in the summer in NC."  While the day was cloudy, it was still warmer in that attic than outside we weren't falling for that statement, especially since they had also attached insulation to the backside of the access door.

We took lots of mental notes about things we liked and didn't like for finishes.  That will help us as we have to make some major design decisions in the next several months.  For instance, we had chosen one style of interior door but saw another similar style with fewer panels (down from a 2 panel shaker door to a single panel shaker door) that happened to be supplied by the same company we are using for our doors.

  If you are intending to build a house and a tour like this happens in your area, it is well worth the time spent traveling between the houses and discussing the construction with the builders/architects.  One of our motives for visiting the houses by our builder was to gauge traffic since we expect to be on the tour next year.  Due to the location of the house being a ways from the majority we may not get the same people but there may be others that come because we are the closest to them.  The Passive House nature of the design/build will clearly draw some folks interest - as one person put it this weekend, this is taking energy consciousness way beyond putting CFL bulbs in all the lamps and calling that saving energy.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Permit Applications Submitted

Thursday was the day we submitted applications to get permits for the well, septic and erosion control, and notify the County for waste/recycling practices during construction.  Once all those are approved we'll then be able to submit the final building permit.

  Because the well site wasn't determined when we got the improvement permit (which determines buildable house size/septic system type and grants approval to apply for the construction permit) we have to revisit the site with the inspector to ensure we comply with the separation requirements between the well and septic field (100' minimum by code) when taken into the context of the land contours.

Today we're finalizing our door and window selections - there is a question on requirements for one of the doors that requires a code interpretation so that may be a bit of a slow-down.  We have modified the plans slightly to reduce some unnecessary doors while adding a couple of closets that were not included in our plans.  Overall this meant the door budget was staying pretty steady.  We had the door supplier quote both Poplar and Birch doors - but we do like the looks of the birch better sine we're not painting them but we warn to reveal the beauty of the wood.  Birch is slightly more expensive than Poplar for doors but it's only about 3% of the overall cost.

 Our next big thing will be to get the contract and specs to the bank, then submitting the orders for the windows & exterior doors from Germany (Hoco) and the pre-cast walls.  Because of the costs of all those components and the requirement to order them early, we have to be sure we correctly specify what we want so we don't get into a bind when things are delivered and ready for installation.

Next week looks like it may be a big check-writing week.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mortgage Application started

Today we submitted the initial paperwork for the mortgage.  Because we are building a non-traditional house there is a significant chance there will not be "comps" in the area (within a specific radius of about 5 miles) that can be used for the mortgage assessment because nothing will have been sold.  That likely won't have an impact on the appraisal of the house but could mean the bank will have to hold the mortgage which they call a "portfolio loan," presumably since they will maintain the paper in their portfolio.  We aren't concerned but it may mean a slightly higher loan rate in the end.  There are a number of different loan options so we spent some time discussing the best options and chose the one that we felt was least risky and provided us the best financial position.

  We plan to submit the remaining mortgage paperwork by the end of the week and then we'll submit the application for the building permit with the county.

  Our next step will be to have the surveyor make the final adjustments to the siting for the house and septic so we can eliminate the "field of flag tape" that currently exists.  Right now there are countless flags around the property marking bad perk test sites, good perk sites, boundaries, the original repair area, the current main/repair area combined, the house site, the garage, initial grading markers, and several that we placed before the professionals began their work.  Then there are those that are hard to identify a purpose for.  We agreed with the builder that we simply don't want to take any chances with the septic siting, the house siting, or any of the setback or property lines as we begin the work.

   Because of the approval timeline we will begin some of the preparations on the "downpayment" money we are bringing to the table for the construction.  That lines up perfectly with the Bank requirements to spend our money before we begin drawing from the loan.  A very important step is making sure we document our expenditures well and notify the bank of any large dollar expenses.

Things are starting to move well.  Can't wait until we plant the first shovel on the property!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Friday 6 May - Windows, doors, landscaping - And Skylights?

Yesterday was a pretty successful day.  We spent part of the morning with our landscape designer walking the grounds of the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill and then reviewing our plans.  Lots of great plants that are part of the plan and we got to see them in their native habitats which really helped.

 In the afternoon we met with our builders who had received a window from a canadian company that makes a good quality fiberglass window.  We liked the window but it didn't seem quite as sturdy as the German made windows - several of the seams less precise than something that costs as much as these windows.  We've decided to go with the German units (after spending most of Thursday with their salesman and an engineer who flew over from Germany at just the right time).  They're really working well with us on adjusting the designs for optimal performance and keeping within budget.  The windows will be vinyl with a U-factor of .16 (R-6.06) and a Solar Heat Gain of just over .50 which are hard numbers to match in a US-manufactured window.  This will be an important decision since the lead time is 8 to 14 weeks and the Europeans start their vacation "months" in July - where workers take an entire month off to spend with their families.  Now those Europeans know how to live!  We're going to finalize the window schedule this weekend - making sure we have the appropriate window sizes and that the operable sections of the windows is correct.  We will provide them the updated schedule for costing and once they price it out, we'll go over it one more time and sign it.  We simply can't afford to get anything wrong here - either from a timeline or cost perspective!  We will purchase the exterior doors from the same company and we may be able to share the container costs with another homeowner who is considering the same manufacturer (though a different profile). That cuts delivery costs in half which is a good thing for both of us.  We'll also try to buy the tape systems and have them shipped with the windows unless we can find a vendor in the US that sells them.  We're really impressed with the systems they use for waterproofing and air-tightness.

For the interior doors we visited a vendor's showroom in Efland NC and much to our surprise, chose a different style of door than we'd originally had in mind.  We've changed from a 3-panel (horizontal stiles) shaker style to a 2-panel (vertical stiles) shaker and we really liked the birch so that's where we're headed.  For the interior doors to the living room and formal dining room we would really like to get the antique "rolled glass" look.

With luck this coming week will be contract signing day with the builder, submission of mortgage applications, and visiting the property with the builder and surveyor one more time to clean up the flags on the property and ensure the house and septic are easily identified.  Once that's done we'll start clearing/excavation the last week of the month.

Todays' big find was skylights that appear suitable for passivehaus use - they use NanoGel technology and there are several manufacturers.  At present we've found them from a company called Wasco ( but we're still researching the possibilities.  Wasco also makes a triple-glaze but at present all their skylights require a minimum 3:12 grade which would simply mean changing the skylight to sit on one of the roof planes instead of straddling the ridge.  Researching the web, these skylights are not that much more expensive than standard brands available at the home improvement stores.  One thing about the nanogel is it appears to be opaque white so it's a diffused light and not direct sunlight so the shadowing will not be as pronounced and fading should be minimized as well. This is a big deal because we really want a skylight in the main entry but using a standard unit simply wasn't going to cut it and using a passivhaus certified window drives the cost through the roof.

 This was a good week!  Window vendor chosen, plans delivered to subs for estimates, interior door selections narrowed significantly, and we have found skylight options.  Next week we're hoping to sign paperwork and start moving out on the construction. First shovel planted will be before the end of May and that could mean weathertight structure by the end of August.  WoooHoo!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Plan Day

Yesterday was the day the plans were delivered to our building team so they can prepare the materials schedule which we will provide to the bank.  Today we meet with one of the window vendors to discuss options to fit them within our budget.  We are working to get a window selection made in the very near future since they currently are the longest lead-time items we have.  We still need to make the final modifications to the window schedule but part of this becomes chicken and egg where the suggestions made by the window manufacturers will drive the aesthetics and sizes which will then mandate some changes to the pre-cast openings.