Friday, November 2, 2012

Everything AND the Kitchen Sink

In response to my last post, three different groups of people gave outrageously generous donations to this project. There's a nice diversity to my relationship to these groups, too: one is from my immediate family, one is from my extended family, and one is not from my blood family at all, but definitely from my spiritual family. Combined, these donations will not just allow me to make the house livable, but to completely finish it. My cup overflows. And one of my lessons is, even when a man and his God dream up their own project together, buy the land, get the loan, and start building, God can still say, "It will not be possible for you to finish this without help from many other people."

So it's a joy to report that the work is humming right along. Well, okay, so this work will never "hum along;" it's plodding along at the usual snail's pace. And that's just fine with me. Here are some incrementally glorious advancements that happened since the last post.

I received my kitchen sink. Since my cabinets aren't installed yet, it's sitting in a box in my bedroom:

It weighs 106 pounds - because it is cast iron, with a white baked-on ceramic finish. Cast iron sinks are often way more expensive than stainless steel sinks, but this one I found by Kohler is actually cheaper than all of the steel sinks I was considering. When I found this, I also started thinking that the bright white finish would work better visually with the countertop, which will be stainless steel. Rather than having a steel sink in a steel counter, there will be a contrast. This will be sort of a reversal of the typical look of a hard-surface counter with stainless sink. It was also a nice surprise to find this note about recycled content on the box:

I also received my front door latch (and dead bolt).

When I hadn't received it after a week beyond the date I was told it would arrive, I called the company. They said that after leaving the forge in India, the latch was briefly lost in transit in Germany, but then reappeared in Texas. So after touring the world it finally arrived at my door. The latch is called a "Bermuda" gate latch, but as far as I know Bermuda is one of the few places it did not visit.

My cabinets have been built, but are currently stored in one of the bedrooms until the kitchen tile can be completed.

They are made of walnut and non-toxic, formaldehyde-free board. They are raised nine inches from the floor on stainless steel "feet." I've always wanted the cabinets in this house to be elevated in this way. There's something I like about the openness, allowing the floor and wall to be visible underneath. I think it goes along with the general theme of transparency or honesty in construction. The doors are flat panel, or "shaker style" - like all the interior doors will be. The countertop is currently at the metal shop, getting wrapped with stainless steel.

The ceiling panels between the joists, covering the roof insulation, have all been installed. Well, except for the ones in the bathroom, which I kept down so I could put a waterproof sealer on them. Here's the completed ceiling of a bedroom:

And of the kitchen area:

The three circular cut-outs are where pendant lights will be attached to suspend over the kitchen table area.

This panel material is called Vesta board - a non-toxic, formaldehyde-free particle board. It wasn't my first choice, or even second, for the ceiling panels. But my first choice - a board made of sunflower seed hulls - doesn't seem to be available anywhere currently (and it is pricey):

And my second choice - a board made from reclaimed sorghum plants - is downright exorbitant:

Clearly I was going for something darker, and with quite a bit more texture, partly to contrast with the joists and beams. The Vesta board was inexpensive and non-toxic, and that's good enough for now. But it is screw-attached, so I could easily replace it over time as a board I prefer becomes available at a reasonable price. Replacing each Vesta board slowly and at random over time could make for an interesting transformation.

I used the same stepped or staggered joint here as I used for the exterior siding, interior wall boards in the Great Room, and eventually the wood flooring.

Oh - and the wood boards for the Great Room ceiling. Here the staggered joint runs all the way up the walls from the floor, across the ceiling, and up the high wall to the skylight. The wall boards haven't been installed in this room yet, but the ceilings are almost complete.

No particle board here; it's all square-edge 1x6 southern yellow pine, with a 1/4-inch space between them.

The rectangular openings are for air conditioning vents. Recessed lights will be cut into these boards as well, four on each side of the skylight.

Speaking of lights, the power company came out this week and dug up my entire driveway to bury the permanent electric lines:

Within an hour the trench was covered back up, and a new conduit ran to the meter.

See the guy standing near the stone wall in the first photo of the trench above? That's my tile guy. He worked the kitchen floor first:

As mentioned in the last post, this tile is a natural stone called travertine, in this case quarried in Turkey. I selected the 4x4-inch nominal tile size so that it would work with the four-inch brick and 12-inch column baseplates.

The whole house is organized on a four-inch grid, which can be seen in the brick edging, but is now made even more clear by this tile; the house's organizational module becomes visible here in its most basic and pure form. There are exactly three tiles per column base plate, nine tiles between base plates in the hall, three tiles per 12-inch brick, and so on.

The nine-square grid design (and unintended crosses) that show up in the brick patterning, and even inspired the Great Room floor plan, are here, but in the abstract; the imagination is free to find them wherever it will.

The joints in the tile had to be pretty tight, but they do line up with the brick joints - completing the grid's path that up to now has been seen running up the walls as studs and nails, across the ceiling as joists, and back down as window frames and bricks. So this tile completes the "circle" of this four-inch order, extending it across the floor from wall to wall.

Not a single tile across this entire floor had to be cut. Hallelujah. And amen.

The tile extends into the laundry and mechanical area as well.

I like the color variation in this stone. The tiles that have more gold in them highlight the yellow/orange of the wall boards, and tiles that have more brown and violet will match the walnut cabinets.

Once the tile is grouted and sealed, the mechanical contractor can finish the A/C system - since the air handler has to be set on the tile floor. Then the electrical contractor can run power to the air handler and heat pump, and install switches and lights. Then the plumber can put in toilets and sinks. Then I can move in. I never imagined so much would depend on finishing floor tile.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Dollar Short

Last week I turned in my "60-day notice" to vacate my current apartment. Which means I'm expecting to be able to move into this house the first week of December, at the latest. The bank is the primary motivation for this schedule; my official closing date is October 31st. Very scary, indeed. But mercifully there is a 30-day grace period to close after this. I'll need every minute of that grace, but I think it's doable.

Unmercifully, time is not the most limiting factor in finishing this house. Over the last couple of weeks, it has become clear that the funds in my loan will run out a good while before the house is complete. The story behind this is the main subject of this post. And in the interest of sharing the latest construction progress, I'll intersperse this narrative with some recent photos and descriptions.

Finally, the temporary back door to the Great Room was replaced with the permanent
one. These are the keys for it - the first permanent set of keys I've held for this house.

Much longer than a couple of weeks ago, I knew I was a little over budget. The main reason for this is the increase of material costs from when my original estimate was done - three years ago. Contrary to what we all might have expected, during the recession costs of all kinds of materials went up instead of down. Consequently, when I got updated quotes for each portion of work I saw material cost increases of 10-15% (labor stayed about the same). Of course this put me over budget, but not by so much that a credit card and maybe a relatively small loan from a friend wouldn't cover it.

But recently I hit on an item in the original builder's estimate (which my loan is based on) that turned out to be about a third of the real cost. Instead of $5,000 for interior wood finish work, it will cost close to $15,000. That $10,000 extra puts me out of credit card and friendly loan range. My total shortfall now is about $30,000. I met with the builder and crew at the site to find out why their original number was so low. There's no question that the work is worth much more than that number. They reminded me, quite rightly, that the original estimate was adjusted in several ways to get the total cost down to the loan amount my bank was offering - with the understanding that some compromises would likely have to be made to my original design in order to build the house for so little.

The pine board finish has been installed in the skylight wells -
part of the work that ended up being way more expensive
than the original estimate. But there is no question that this work
is worth every penny of the new amount. In fact the carpenters
gave me very high craftsmanship for a very reasonable fee.

My builder told me it was something of a miracle that I've been able to keep the budget so close to the original estimate up to this point. Other builders and subcontractors that have visited this house have guessed that it must cost about $500,000. This squares with the other two original bids I got from general contractors: one was $450,000 and the other was $480,000 - and that was three years ago. But the low bid, the one I've been going by, is $276,000. Even adding to this the extra $30,000 means that I'd be completing this house - without compromising any of the original design - for just over $300,000. Yeah, that is a miracle, and not at all of my doing.

Funny story: This is the trailer my carpenter uses to transport his equipment and tools.
Naturally I was excited that he might be a church-goer and Christian. But when I asked
him about it he told me he doesn't attend this church; the church was selling the trailer
and he needed one, so he bought it and just hasn't gotten around to
painting over the sign...

But of course that doesn't change the hard reality that I'M SHORT BY 30 GRAND. My first response was to ask the bank to consider increasing my loan amount to cover this shortfall. I gave them the information of the previous paragraph, and suggested that perhaps a new appraisal would value the work higher now that the uncommon quality of materials and craftsmanship is clearly visible. The bank considered it for a week, and then declined, saying that a higher appraisal wouldn't help anyway - my debt-to-income ratio is already maxed out. And Fannie Mae has only tightened this ratio limit since I got the loan, so even if my income was higher now (ha ha!), I likely would not qualify for a larger loan.

The Great Room skylight well, with its new pine board finish.

So. The range of options I seem to have at this point span from completing only those items absolutely necessary to get a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) from the building inspector (which will require "only" about $12,000 extra), to finding enough additional funding sources to finish all of the construction by the time I move in. Of course I like the second option best. A CO doesn't even require a finished floor, so that would be one of the first items to go. The kitchen and bathroom floors would have to be installed, since plumbing fixtures sit on them. But the rest of the floors would be left as bare concrete. The intricate brick and stone flooring for the Great Room would definitely be left out - a sad prospect; that's one of the best features of the whole house. Also for a CO the only interior doors I need are the ones for private rooms - bedrooms and baths.

There's an effect here that is unintended, and lovely: the wood finish reflects the
skylight structure and makes it seem to extend indefinitely in all directions.

And so on. I would move into a rather obviously unfinished house, and with no foreseeable way to finish it in the future (although of course that would be the goal). Because I have no additional funding at the moment, I'm proceeding along the lines of Option One. Assuming I can find the extra $12 grand, I'm at peace about this, and even a little excited just about the prospect of being able to move in soon. But at the same time I'm hoping that in the ensuing weeks enough funding will come from somewhere that will allow me to completely finish the house.

This is why I decided to conclude this post with the list of work yet to be done and the cost of each - so that anyone who reads this and is inspired to contribute to a specific item may do so. This probably seems like an awkward plea; it sounds like I'm asking random people to help pay for "my" house. But remember that this project was never meant for just me. It's as much for you, whoever and wherever you are, as for me. It's a house for a group of Christians, and also a church building for public worship. I've always meant for both the architecture and the people who end up living here to be blessings to the neighborhood and the world. I just happen to be legally considered the "owner" for the moment. My first role in this project has never ultimately been to own it or even to live in it, but only to design and build it. If I never ended up living here for whatever reason, I still will have fulfilled my main calling to this house.

The brick pavers for the covered porch are now complete
and grouted.

Now to the nuts and bolts. First, here is the list of work that is either in progress or has been completed but hasn't been billed yet:

- Interior wall boards & ceiling panels: $4,000
- Aluminum windows & doors: $4,500
- Lumber milled from trees removed from site: $850
- Masonry waterproofing: $1000
- Kitchen cabinets & countertops: $3,210
TOTAL: $13,560

Then there are the remaining items that I have to complete to get the CO:

- Heating & Air Conditioning: $6,000
- Electrical labor: $2,320
- Electrical fixtures: $1,260
- Plumbing labor: $1,400
- Plumbing fixtures: $1,576
- Front door handle & threshold: $300
- Tile flooring, material & labor: $3,000
- Interior door hardware: $500
- Appliances (refrigerator & range): $1,500
TOTAL: $17,856

So the total cost of necessary work is: $31,416. The amount remaining in the construction loan is $19,034, meaning I need an additional $12,382 just to close on the loan and move in.

I thought this would be a good place to share my tile selection for kitchen and bathrooms
(including shower walls). It's a natural stone called travertine, originating in Turkey.
It makes me a bit nostalgic for my time in Italy with a study abroad program
in college. Travertine is so abundant there that they use it for parking lot curbs.
That wouldn't be very cost effective here, but I am getting such a good deal
on this that it will be less expensive than basic, unglazed ceramic tile - $2.44
per square foot. I especially like that it's from Turkey, the home country of one of
the greatest church buildings ever, Hagia Sophia.

Finally, here are the remaining items to finish everything:

- Wood flooring, labor & materials: $5,900
- Brick & stone flooring for Great Room, labor & materials: $4,500
- Dishwasher: $500
- Trim materials and labor: $4,000
- Bathroom hardware & mirrors: $500
- Sealing & Coating: $2,000
TOTAL: $17,400

Which puts the grand total at $29,782 of extra funds needed to finish everything. How's that for transparency? Y'all let me know if God pulls on you to give a little to the cause - and ONLY if He is the one pulling you. Of course I also welcome any thoughts you have about this. And especially prayer.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Smiling Building

The installation of the interior wall boards is underway. They are (and will remain) unfinished tongue-and-groove southern yellow pine. My concept for this house's finish details is now visible. As explained in an earlier post, "Revealing," these boards don't cover everything. They hold back to leave exposed the 4x12 beams above, the steel columns, the ipe wood strips next to columns and beams, the brick edging, even the edges of studs at doors and windows.

Every element is given its own visual presence, is seen fulfilling its unique role, but also works carefully with the others towards the single goal of defining a room.

That's something else happening as these boards go up - the true space of each room is becoming visible. The place feels very different now; walls that were transparent yesterday, barely suggested by a stud every 16 inches, are opaque and impassable today.

This is good, not just because a bedroom needs to be private, but because the careful order I gave the place is felt not just visually but bodily. I can't just walk through a stud wall wherever I want; both my eyes and my body now have to follow the order I was inspired to give the place. And what lovely barriers they are, with their constellations of knots, their cosmic swirls of color, that I did not give them.

Here we can see another way the studs are allowed to express their presence - the rows of nails in the boards, just as with the exterior siding.

One of my favorite examples of a reveal is the inside corner where a steel column is imbedded in the wall:

At the center is the column (the actual structural support for the room) then the half-inch ipe strips, then the end studs of the walls, and finally the finish boards. It's like a pealing away to reveal what's beneath, a visual hint as to what the place is actually made of. Which is why, in the earlier post, I called these reveals "little apocalypses."

The concept of the reveal follows my more general goal of honesty or truth. I wanted to be honest and expressive about how everything goes together, rather than to deceive and conceal, as is the typical practice in construction today.

Another way to think of these reveals is anthropomorphically. When we open our eyes or smile, we reveal inner parts of our bodies - eyes, teeth, tongue - along with our inner state of consciousness and emotion. I hope that this house also, by the nature of its openings, appears to be awake and smiling.

There is another important function for these wall boards that is clear now: to be a canvas for sunlight.

Sometimes sunlight hits the walls from windows, sometimes from skylights, but either way it now has a solid surface to fall on. So in a manner of speaking these walls are painted - with ever moving and changing natural light from above.

Once the electric lights go in, the walls will be a canvas for that light as well. I look forward to the golden glow emitted through the glass wall when the lights shine on these boards after dark.

Thursday, September 6, 2012


What can I say? I'm a boy; I prefer blue over pink.

No really, I prefer 100% cotton over fiberglass. And, if possible, could I get something with no formaldehyde in it, if that's not too much to ask? I'd rather not breathe it for the rest of my (shortened) life.

Why yes, yes I can. The picture above is a close-up of recycled denim insulation in my house. It's appropriately called "UltraTouch," made by Bonded Logic. They transform 100% cotton bluejeans (and jackets, I guess) into insulation batts, and treat it with a non-toxic boron-based fire retardant that also resists mold and mildew. Thermally it performs just like any other insulation.

Here are bags of R30 (for ceilings) stacked unto heaven in the Great Room. This is only half of it; the rest was in the kitchen.

Now, to be fair, you can get the pink fiberglass insulation without formaldehyde now. But still, I've installed that stuff. I itched for a week. Even though I didn't personally install this, it felt good to not worry about what I was breathing, or what I was touching, or what I was tracking around on my shoes. It's just cotton. And mostly recycled cotton at that. I walk through the house now and touch it on purpose.

Here's the R13 in the walls of a bedroom:

And in the short walls of a skylight:

At the stone wall in the Great Room:

And in the walls of the Great Room skylight:

So, is blue more expensive than pink? Yes, but not by a whole lot. It's actually cheaper than the spray-applied insulation that was in my budget. So I ended up saving money off the original quote by going with these cotton batts. Besides, I think it's worth spending a little extra for a product that's better for people and nature.

The next post will continue this all-natural-architecture theme: interior wall boards - no paint, no stain, no sealer; just pure, simple and beautiful southern yellow pine. Smells good too.