Saturday, August 7, 2010

Our House Gets a Workout

Today, Todd and Michael came over to attach the small eyebrow over the front door. This has been planned for a while but the final design and construction took a back seat to those items required to move in. My original design was much more elaborate but as the house was built, complexity seemed wrong - distracting from the simple lines elsewhere.
The eyebrow is there for several reasons. Compositionally, it helps draw attention to the entrance by wrapping a horizontal line around the corner column. It also takes a small amount of summer sun off of the glass and brings down the scale from the cantilevered roofline above.
What was built is a light cedar frame that cantilevers 18" over the front door. One small rod is attached to the house at the corner to help hold up that corner. The rest of the eyebrow canilevers off of bolted connections into the trim. Weighing only 30 pounds, it couldn't be more simple to build and hang. The really great thing about it is that it was made from the small stack of leftover cedar siding and trim.
Our house is starting to get a workout. This past weekend, Carrie and I hosted 10 scouts from Scotland. The whole group stayed at our house for two nights after the Jamboree. Matresses covered most of the downstairs bedroom floors, but everyone seemed content with the accommodations; we gave them full run of the house. After having spent 12 days in the summer heat, I think they were glad to be anywhere it was cool.
On Friday, I borrowed the church van and shuttled these visitors around the city for a while. The first stop was a hike to the rocks and rapids of Belle Isle in downtown. With our recent rainfall, the water was moving pretty well; and they were able to see a group of kayakers test and play with the rapids for a while. They also did some rock-hopping before heading to Bottom's Up Pizza.
On Wednesday, we'll have another large group of people tour our house. This will be the August stop for Modern Richmond Tour. Fortunately, we already had some items planned this week that will help finish the house and make the tour more complete. Our long-awaited dining room table came today and fits well in the space. Window blinds will be installed and the windows will be cleaned on Monday.
We both wanted to do some cleaning and prep today but we lost power for the fourth time in 36 hours. Dominion is working on the lines around us and must be having some issues. Each time this happens, you can hear the hum of generators all around us. Hopefully tomorrow we'll get some of the more important things done.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Wrapping Up the Paperwork

This past week, we had our final "official" meeting with our contractor. In addition to making the last payment, we received a notebook of documentation we may need in the future. Inside this close-out binder is contact information for every subcontractor who did the work. There are photos of the wiring inside the walls just before insulation and wallboard covered everything. Also included are digital copies of the drawings in Adobe and Autocad format.
Since we chose to pay for the project through a cost-plus method, we maintained a notebook with all subcontractor invoices. These were put in a large notebook each month - divided by trade. After 8 months of work, this binder became very full.
One of the more interesting pages inside the closeout notebook is a document from Ace Waste that tabulates the volume of demolition and construction debris that they processed from our project. It was staggering to learn that 70 tons (140,000 pounds) of stuff went into the dumpsters over the past eight months. The good news is that 81% of it was recycled in some way. If we were tracking the project for LEED certification, we would get 2 points in that category.
Recycling this way was not free but was similar in cost to taking everything to the landfill. If the motivation is there, you can be more careful about what goes in the dumpster and also separate materials to get a higher percentage. We could have done more with the roof rafters and wall studs, but making them usable for future use would be labor-intensive. My guess is that it will soon be accepted practice (if not mandated by the locality) to recycle all construction debris.
Another item of paperwork at the end is the filing for the $1500 federal tax-credit for energy efficient renovation. The work that qualifies is the replacement of the HVAC system on the first floor. It can be earned only once - but there are a variety of ways to qualify if you're doing a project with a scope like ours; the most common are windows and doors, insulation, and mechanical systems.
Over the next couple weeks, we will be hosting a couple events and several overnight guests. On the 11th of August, Modern Richmond is scheduled to make a tour of our house. There are 50 or 60 people who are proponents of modern design and tour a property each month. The week before that, we'll be hosting a group of British scouts who are attending our National Jamboree in Caroline County. Some will be staying here for a couple nights and the whole group of 30 plus leaders will be coming over for a cookout one night.
The house is starting to feel like ours and being able to have guests use our house was part of the reason we did the renovation.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Move-in Plus 3 Weeks

We've been in the house now for a few weeks and there is still a pile of stuff in the rental house to remove. With the recent heat, it's been hard to get the motivation to finish. Ugh.

Yesterday, I lugged my very heavy drawing table into the second floor loft. This will be a temporary situation for two reasons: First, I want to limit the amount of design-work I bring home. Second, we need a place to pay bills and set the computer.
We have decided to build a desk that matches the wood cabinets and will wrap around the northeast corner of the room. It was always anticipated to have a desk there, but didn't know if we'd find a piece of furniture or just build something in-place. We installed several receptacles for powere and data, but like other decisions we decided to wait until after we used the space for a while.
Right now at night, a person at the desk is a bit conspicuous to passers-by. But when the window treatments are installed we'll be hidden from the street but will still see the sky, trees, and vista across the river. The top-down/bottom-up feature of the window treatments provides that flexibility.
We just received our first full-month's electric bill. We weren't living there the entire month, but the HVAC systems were all running as if we were; to dry things out and test them. The electric charges were a good bit less than what we would normally receive in the summer before the renovation. That is really great news as we added 800 SF of conditioned space (50% more) and more-than-doubled the glass area of our house. Also, this past June and July were unusually hot. There are several factors that I attribute this reduction to:
  • The old house had very little insulation in it. We more than doubled the effective R-value on the remaining old house walls and have a very high value on the new construction.
  • The house has less air-infiltration than before. The expandable insulation helps as well as having new windows that seal tighter.
  • The old single-pane aluminum windows were all removed and high-quality insulated (R-3)windows are being used throughout.
  • The lights were hardly used before 8:30 PM. With so much window area and the open living areas, there is plenty of light to do most any task.
  • The HVAC systems have a higher SEER value and should be more efficient.

We'll continue to monitor the energy consumption throughout the year and compare it to old bills for the 30 months we lived in the house before starting the renovation.

Monday, July 5, 2010

First Event

One of the special features of our street is its vantage for viewing the July 4 fireworks at Dogwood Dell just across the river. We could see them from our front yard, but the best viewing is 100 feet down the road where you have a wide view looking across and down the river. The city closes our block at 8:00 PM so people can put their chairs and blankets on the road. Last night, there may have been 500 people on this little stretch of road.

Because this is such a fun night for our street, we left my family reunion in Kansas City a bit early so we could be in town for the first Fourth in our new house. Most of our neighbors have friends and family over beforehand. We invited some church friends over for ice cream before the fireworks - and of course a tour of our house. The tour doesn't take real long as it's not that big of a house.

The list of things remaining grows shorter but there are a few important items. Anyone that has moved recently will remember how long it takes to put everything away and get those little details taken care of like the newspaper service. With all the things to do, we still go over to the rental house to pick up the paper each afternoon.

The biggest trouble we've had is with our communications provider Comcast. There have been 6 appointments made and have yet to get our internet or telephone service installed - or the wires buried in the back yard. They did manage to get the cable TV hooked up on the third try. Our general contractor warned us that this would be a frustrating task - despite having our entire house pre-wired. The technicians are friendly but the issue is one of communication with the people on the phone making the appointments. Ironic, isn't it?

The next things happening at our house will be the arrival of the dining room table, the installation of the cantilevered trellis over the front door, and the window treatments. On the design-front, I will be taking Preston's landscape plan and adjusting it into the new layout of the front yard. Because I shifted the entrance walk more to the center, some of the plant locations will need adjustment. This re-draw will be done sometime between now and mid-August so new plants can be placed this fall.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Testing 1-2-3

We are in the process of trying out everything new at the house - not just to see if it works, but to see if it works as we hoped. With the high temperature in the 90's nearly every day this month, we've been giving the AC quite a workout. The temperature and humidity in the house is quite comfortable.

The lights are probably the biggest unknown as there are so many different types and varied ways to control them. It will take a while to know what switches control which lights. For the most part however, we're hardly using the lights. The sun is still up past 8:30 PM and with the large windows, there's little need to turn them on.

It's kind of funny and pitiful at the same time, but we've had temporary curtains on the large windows while we settle on exactly what to do. These large windows were wired for motorized blinds, but we just didn't want to spend the large amount of money on them until we experienced a few nights and mornings with the sun and traffic outside. We bought very cheap 60" curtains and tension rods that we put up and take down each day. It looks lousy from the outside and I'm sure the neighbors are worried that this is our ultimate solution.

I'm glad we waited - what I anticipated during design would have been a disappointment. Instead of dropping them from the top and covering the entire window, we'll raise them up from the sill - just enough for privacy. We both enjoy looking at the tree branches and sky outside while laying in bed. What we found is that a short shade on the bottom part of all front windows will give us complete privacy, keeping light and view at the top. The lights from neighbors' lamposts and cars climbing the hill below cast interesting patterns on our ceiling. In the morning, it is much easier to wake up with the large amount of light pouring in from this east side. Until the blinds come in, we'll make-do with the temporary curtains.

Having completed the house in June, the landscaping is the one part I knew wouldn't live up to my wishes right away. We put all the walls and sidewalks in but decided to landscape only what was necessary to stabilize the yard until the fall. Some grass seed and a sprinkling of straw was put down but without anyone being there to water daily, very little of it has come up. It has been too hot and dry. The grass is a lost cause but what weeds are there should help limit erosion. I am tempted to dig it up and start fresh but that would be pointless for another couple months.

The Japanese Maple seems to have come through in fine shape despite being directly up against the garage wall. Todd built a wood frame around it for protection. That did its job.

However, the poor large dogwood was less fortunate. We had construction fencing around it for all but the final month. That month was brutal to it as the masons ran a backhoe under its canopy to access the front yard, then hit it many times while spreading dirt. This week, I picked off at least 40 dead, broken branches from its perimeter. To add insult, the asphalt pavers last week pruned it back on side that overhung the driveway so they could run their equipment freely. At least their cuts were clean. Dogwoods are tough trees but I hate to see this kind of stress put on it during super-hot weather. We'll water it generously; and if it survives the summer, it should be fine.

Hanging around landscape architects for years, I have a basic understanding of how to work around trees. They are an important part of any architectural project and when you are fortunate to have older specimens on-site to work with, go to extreme measures to keep them. It takes at least 20 years for a high-quality planted tree to obtain any real size. Here are my suggestions for working around existing trees:

First, if the tree is essential to your plan - consult with an arborist. I'm not talking about someone who cuts down trees and calls themself an arborist - but a person whose job it is to understand and save trees.

Second: never, ever drive heavy equipment under the canopy of a tree. Look up at the spread of the canopy and expect the roots to spread below the ground at least that much. The roots often lie just under the surface and are easily damaged. Heavy equipment compacts the ground and inhibits proper water drainage.

Third: do not significantly change the drainage pattern around a tree you expect to save. If a tree was in a damp area, keep it that way. If it was in a dry zone, keep it dry. I've seen people add two feet of dirt over the tree roots and around the tree's base. I've also seen people cut the ground away nearly up to the base. Expect bad results from these kind of changes.

Fourth: If you thin out a section of trees, know that trees which were inside the old cluster grew upward, reaching toward the light and may have few branches except at the top. On the good side, they are now exposed to more light which should encourage branches at lower areas. However, they are also exposed to wind that they didn't experience before and are more likely to bend and break. I've seen thinned-out pines snap like toothpicks in high winds. The thick grouping of trees that used to be around them blocked some of the wind - but now they take the full force alone.

As I said before, an arborist can help guide you if called on before work starts. On a project many years ago, there was a specimen beech tree just up the hill from where a foundation excavation was to occur. The arborist was on-site during excavation and gave very specific pruning instructions as the roots were exposed on one side. With clean cuts (and I suspect some chemical treatment) the tree came through very well. It was worth the time and money.

If you were wondering about the image at the top, it has nothing to do with the content in this post. If you couldn't figure it out, it's a sideways shot of the copper panels as they go through their patina process. The color is rather spectacular right now and in a couple months should be penny-brown.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Moving Week 2

Moving provides a great time to purge all those physical things that really don't have a purpose in your life anymore. When I was a kid, I collected things that I thought were valuable such as scout patches, coins, commemorative plate blocks, and arrowheads. There were also collections of post cards, baseball cards, campaign stickers, and things that reminded me of places I had been. None of these have any real value other than reminding me of my early years and the people associated with them.

As I get older, my ability to get rid of stuff is much stronger. I evaluate an item's "worthiness" to stick around by asking three questions. If the answer to any one is yes, then it can remain:
  • Was it used it in the last 3 years and do we expect to use it sometime in the next 3 years?
  • Could someone else put it to better use now?
  • Will someone else value it one day (or) will it just be seen as junk?
When we moved out last October, I was in the middle of my Wood Badge training class and didn't have time to properly clean out. We just put a tarp over the stored items in the basement and threw stuff in boxes. Now however, we have three full weeks to move back in and everything is getting much greater scrutiny. Some of our unneeded furniture will stay in the rental house with Ashley, but a few items will be given to a family new to this country and currently setting up an apartment. There will be lots of yard-sale items.

The most significant construction task this week was the over-paving of the driveway. Gone are those stone circles that we hated to drive over and were hazardous to pedestrians. The contractors added a 2" layer of asphalt for now. However, one day we would like to replace it with concrete pavers or another material that will better retain the storm water.

Over two years ago, Carrie gave me address numbers in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright to put on the house. It just didn't seem right to put them on the brick rancher that we were about to alter, so I put them away for the day we finished our little project. There were several occasions over the past 3 months when I went looking for them - through the 40 boxes in the basement. This past week I finally found them and put them up. It is my humble opinion that they look made for the house (or is it that the house was made for them?)

Finally, the grand piano was moved yesterday afternoon. It adds another lower-scale element into the tall living room and its black color plays off the metal railing nearby. Other than the residual items at the rental house, the only things not in the new house are tables and chairs purchased from Mitchell Gold. These are scheduled to arrive next Saturday and will complete our living room, dining room, and loft.

If only we could get the cable guy to come.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Over the next couple weeks, we will be putting furniture back in the house. If you saw the last post, we had art and books spread all over the floor. Carole Hochheiser-Ross came over this past Sunday evening and within 30 minutes had located every item we had sitting on the floor. I thought we had way more stuff than what she would use but amazingly at the end, every item found a place of honor.

When designing the house, there were several walls set-aside for special pieces of art we had collected over the years. None of it is very valuable, but together it is an interesting blend of Carrie's tastes and mine. Carrie is less timid in color choices and has a preference for yellows and reds while I tend to favor greens and blues.

Tonight, Carrie and I hung a few of the paintings on the wall. The locations were as Carole prescribed within an inch or so. Each one was placed to maximize its impact on the space and help direct or frame a view. Maybe you can see some of that in the images with this post.

Staging is part of the design process, but it must work with the way residents live. Houses and furniture placement can direct behavior to a point, but if it is contrary to the way people live they won't use the space. This can be seen in so many of the "traditional" houses in the suburbs. These houses are replications of a way of life 250 years ago and the floor plan no longer describes how modern families live. Go into almost any of these houses and you will see a formal living room and dining room that are rarely used. All the activity occurs in the kitchen and den in the back.

In a city like Richmond, more than half of the houses exhibit a colonial style and floor plan. That's what the real estate agents say the market is and that's what most spec contractors build. Any deviation from what everyone else has is said to be risky - "you need to consider what the next occupant will want".

Our thinking was the opposite. Let's build a house that closely matches the way we want to live for the next 20 years:
  • Since we both like to cook and the kitchen is the most used space in the house, why not put it where it is the most accessible and where the users can see and communicate with others. Don't bury it in an isolated part of the house.

  • Connect all the public spaces so they flow together and allow natural light to get deep into the house. Use walls sparingly for structural needs, to create privacy, and gently define different functions within the house.

  • Create spaces that will adapt as we progress in years - enjoy the dramatic river view from upstairs but have comparable accommodations downstairs for when we are less mobile. Have an upstairs master and downstairs guest room now, then reverse it later.

  • We'll embrace modern styling because we both appreciate the beauty in simple, clean lines. Much of the modern design that the public sees is poorly done and out of any context with neighboring buildings. If contemporary design is done thoughtfully and quality materials are used, it will be embraced.

  • Instead of buying a second home or condo, create a home that feels like a vacation house or bed-and-breakfast. Have a location with a great view and feels like it's in a recreational area. Since time is precious to both of us, choose a site near those places we frequent.

We'll continue to post occasional essays and images for a little while as we start using the house. If you are driving by one day or will be viewing the Byrd Park fireworks from our street, please don't hesitate to stop in and have a look. We hope you like it as much as we do.