is it wrong if it's wright?

Been grooving on Frank Lloyd Wright lately. I'm not a big fan of many of his interiors (dark, foreboding, and tall dude unfriendly), but I love his Robie-era sleek exteriors and his late-era Usonian houses. The photo at top is a house we stopped to gawk at from the street in Kansas City. Not a big fan of the house (in one of his Aztec phases...) but love the gate and gate-stop with light. He did something similar with the lights for the interior of one of his homes.

a lot of camping

“I have an unusual request…” came the email from The Architect.

After we bought the lot in late September, we signed an agreement with The Architect in October to design a house. I told him that we weren’t in a pants-on-fire rush to start construction because I didn’t want to start building until early next summer. My job gets a little crazy and unpredictable every other year in the spring. Because I read that it is a good idea to frequently check on progress while building (frequently as in every freakin day), I decided I did not want to be building a house during my busy work time. There is only so much stress a dude can take. That gave us some breathing room to think about the house and not rush design.

As it turns out, The Architect  was a little busy with another project, so the non-rush worked out on his side as well. With his schedule freeing up a little bit, he reached for his sleeping bag. "I want to go camping on your lot, and I want to do it with y'all. Are you in?" My bride immediately said “No way. Where would we pee?” Not a surprising response as her idea of roughing it is staying in a hotel without room service. Me? I responded with “Hell yeah!” It was a kooky idea, and I’m all over kooky ideas. Besides the kookiness, it would give us a chance to spend some quality time with the land and to chat about this and that (including the home-to-be). All it would cost us were the vittles.

Time was of the essence. The end of the year was upon us with its cooler temperatures, and cooler temperatures combined with large amounts of beer dangerously increases the odds of same sex cuddling. We finally settled on a Friday in November with a predicted overnight low in the low 40s. I was already hooked into the neighborhood association enough to be on the neighborhood watch email list, so I sent a quick note about our plans to let the neighbors know that, although we look like bums, we weren’t (and that it was a one-night gig). “You’re going to spend the night in jail,” predicted my bride.

After setting up our tents, we drove several blocks over to the grocery store for provisions (ah, the challenges of the urban outdoorsman). Once we got a fire going (this involved some yard work in picking up branches), we popped the tops of a couple brewskis. After tiptoeing through the typical Texas taboo topics of politics, religion, and livestock, we talked house.

When working with an architect/designer, it's important that he knows what you like and expect. Hopefully your likes and expectations line up with your architect's. That makes things easier. One way of doing this is keeping a file of photos and what-not of what you like with some notes of what you like about it. These might be clippings from magazines or photos printed from the internet. This Website called Houzz offers a free service to do just that with their large and ever-growing collection of home photographs. Since I can make and host web pages, I chose to pull our want list and photos into a web page. I also made sure to include helpful phrases such as wanting "quiet drama" in the foyer and a "large but cozy" master bedroom.

The Architect said he had never had a client put together so much information for him. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not, but I assume it is. Information is good. I think he said it would have taken 83 pages to print it all off, so perhaps we overshared. However, much of it was photographs.

On the web page, we noted what we liked about the lot, what concerns we had, what we plan to do in the house (now and in the future), provided some design guidance (what we like and don't like), listed green features we'd like to see, and posted photographs of "precedents": Houses we really like. I also posted photos of the light switch covers we want.

After grilling some burgers, opening a few more beers, and waving at curious onlookers, The Architect explained that when he thought about us he thought of the book/movie "Where the Wild Things Are". Perhaps it was the beer, but I didn't quite know what he meant. He had a photo from the movie. It looked like a hamster den.

We may be a bit of a conundrum to The Architect. We want a modern house, yet we live in a place built in the 1880s. And the decor in our house, although there are a few modern touches, is mostly grandma. Or maybe, more accurately, grandma on some real good pain meds. When HGTV filmed at our house several years ago, the producer described us as maximalists. And it's true: There's a lot of stuff in our house, but I like to think that it's fairly organized. Over the years, our tastes have trended from grandma-country-shabby chic to modern and minimal. In my mind, a house dictates, to a certain degree, how it should be decorated. Our current houses yearns for country-eclectic. Aside from a few modern touches, you would never guess while perusing through our house that we are (now) modernists at heart. As I told The Architect: If this minimal modern thing doesn't work out for us, we can always junk the place up!

As our pile of aluminum recyclables reached higher and the evening stretched deeper into the dark, we noticed a good amount of traffic noise from the east; the subtle roar of rubber on grooved concrete, most likely from Highway 183, an elevated roadway some 25 blocks away. I hadn't ever noticed highway noise at our current house, deeper in the heart of downtown, but after listening the next day, we can hear Interstate 35. We've lived there for almost 20 years and never heard it before. Amazing how camping outdoors in town can recalibrate your hearing.

Sometime after 1 am, once the neighbors stopped gawking at us through their blinds, we called it a night and crawled into our sleeping bags. The Architect wisely brought a pooch with him who jailbreaked sometime during the night and thoughtfully cleaned the dishes.
After the Earth rotated us back into the photon spray of our solar system's star, I collected some wood, started a fire, and offered The Architect a breakfast beer (for the record: he declined). We ate donuts and worked up some scrambled eggs. I brewed the worst cup of coffee in the history of Western civilization. We packed up our tents and belongings after allowing the morning sun to disperse the dew. Our work was done. The lot had been christened.

And for the record, despite the cold overnight temperatures and large amounts of beer, we each stayed in our own tents.


get with the program

The Architect appeared at our door with a large foam-board-mounted printout of our lot and a herd of cutouts. The Architect said it was time to figure out the "program" for the house: What rooms do we want and where do we want them?

Some rooms are easy: Kitchen? Check. Dining room? Check. Bedrooms and bathrooms? Sure, but how many? And like an artist with a blank canvas or a writer with a blank page, it can be a little daunting to work out the details with a blank lot before you.

Although there are just two of us, we have to think about resale value to some degree. Therefore, we are looking at three bedrooms with an additional "flex" room that could also serve as an additional bedroom. For our lifestyle, these rooms will serve the purpose of (1) the master, (2) a guest room, (3) an exercise room, and (4) an office/studio. A little booshwazee for just two people, but this get-up would also handily serve the average 1.86 kidded family with an extra room to serve as an office, family room, or grandma's retreat.

Because of potential noise issues at the rear of the property, we agreed to place the master at the front of the lot on the second floor with the other two bedrooms. We've envied the treehouse feel of bedrooms on the second floor of other houses we've seen and think the ups and downs of the stairs will be good for our health. Also, we don't plan on spending our last years in this house; however, who knows where life will lead us? Therefore, the flex office-but-it-could-be-a-bedroom will go on the ground floor. Maybe we'll need to use it as a bedroom for us at some point, but hopefully not.

Next we talked about bathrooms. Obviously, the master suite will include one, but what about the other bedrooms? The Architect noted that some high-end houses these days have a bathroom for each bedroom, but that's too much for us to flush. Therefore, we agreed, at this point, to have a shared bathroom between the two extra bedrooms with access to that bathroom being on-suite for one bedroom and through the hallway for the other. That'll work swell with our intended purpose of a guest room. We also talked about the downstairs "public area bathroom", generally a half bath, being a full bath with just a shower. The Architect suggested that the office/bedroom have it's own bathroom, something we initially balked at but are now thinking about given the possible future use of said room. Choices, choices...

With the rooms generally decided, we then talked about the arrangement of the rooms. The Architect proposed a module approach with three main modules with linking modules between them. The street-side main module would hold the living room downstairs and a master suite upstairs. The next main module would hold a kitchen downstairs and a bedroom upstairs, and the third main module would hold the office downstairs with a bedroom upstairs. The first linking module would hold the public entrance (on the side in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright), the dining room, and the stairs. This module would also serve to connect the living room to the kitchen (When The Architect asked about whether or not the dining module should be two stories tall with a bridge connecting the master to the second bedroom, the bride quickly yelped "Bridge!" The Architect was pleased.) The second linking module would hold the "service" entrance and the hallway between the kitchen and the office on the first floor and the bedrooms on the second floor.

We're even talking about having a bridge to the roof of the "garage module" to use that roof space and provide a covered walkway to the house from the garage. With this module approach, The Architect is addressing our desire to have outdoor living spaces (these would be defined by the space between the modules) and a great deal of natural light. It would also make for an interesting house.

We also discussed building placement on the lot. We're fortunate to have a large lot for inside the city, so there is lots of space to work with. Originally, we thought the house would hug the northern edge of the property to take advantage of the potential for solar power, a slightly better view to the south, placement of the garage between us and the air compressor, and an existing driveway cut in the curb. However, this placement was not thermally ideal (you really want your back to the Texas sun) and, because of the substantial amount of real estate needed for a driveway turnaround (she ain't backing her car up that distance, at least not without casualties), much of the ideal garden space on the lot would be paved. So we flipped everything to the south side and feel much better about it. It even saves a tree or two. Early in the design phase, it's important to be flexible and openminded, weighing the pros and cons and listening to your designer/architect and carefully considering their thoughts and ideas.

We also chatted about orientation of the structures. Although our lot is approximately oriented west to east, it's about 20 degrees off. Therefore, to orient the house with the sun (something I very much want to do), the house has to be at a 20 degree angle to the street (something that doesn't set well with the bride's German blood and engineering degree). However, after several post-Architect conversations, she is willing to consider an angled house if there are street-parallel walls to take the angular edge off. Not only would an angled approach be better thermally, it would also (slightly) increase side yard space, give the street-side main module better views, help with drainage and, perhaps, give the project a little more visual interest.

With this feedback, The Architect will start to work up some more detailed, yet still general, plans. He wisely doesn't want to get too detailed too quickly to ensure we are both on board as the plans come together. Nonetheless, we got a lot worked out at our first meeting. Given how much fun it was to meet and talk about the program for our house (several hours went by like nothing), we can't wait to see what The Architect has for us next time.


sound thinking

While watching an HGTV show last weekend, two wild and crazy guys were looking to flip a house but were having trouble finding a buyer. "The property has a fatal flaw," explained the agent. "There's a highway behind it. That means the property is worth 10 to 20 percent less than if it didn't have that flaw."

Our lot has a fatal flaw: It's got a little Fahrfenugen behind it. Because the lot is on the edge of the neighborhood, it backs up on property zoned commercial. At present, this is a Volkswagon dealership. The good news is that the large building is behind us. The bad news is that the air compressors are behind us. And air compressors are loud.

Ultimately, the charms of the lot outpaced the negatives. And my bride, an engineer, is convinced an engineering solution can be attained to deal with the issue. Furthermore, we benefitted from the fatal flaw: We got the lot at 10 to 20 percent less than if it were in the middle of the hood. But now we have to deal with those compressors.

Fortunately, we're pals with a sound engineer, and not one of a musical flavor. J. deals with engineering solutions to deal with noise. He's had an interesting career of working on embassies around the world (where keeping sound from leaking out is an issue...), on hotels near highways and airports, and various other sound issues. He's kind of a quiet guy.

I met J. at the lot, and he quickly set up a microphone and decibel reading and recording equipment. And then we chatted (quietly) about sound.

Some of what he said is obvious: Dealing with the sound at the source is better than dealing with the sound at a distance. And dealing with sound at a distance means dealing, at a minimum, with any line of sight to the source. After that, there are some subtleties through which J. earns his keep.

So how do you deal with sound at the source? The compressors have pressure release valves that periodically hiss like angry sea serpents. J. noted that for 15 to 20 bucks, you can buy silencers for the pressure release valves. I'm guessing that James Bond has silencers on his air compressors. As for the compressors themselves, the ideal solution is to close them in. J. mentioned that there are special steel panels with interiors perforated to absorb sound. J. recommends steel panels because its important to have a good seal. Given that these are air compressors, they have to be somewhat open to the atmosphere. Here, J. recommends louvers pointed to the sides. Another option is to hang sound curtains about the compressors. Sound curtains, which come in different weights, are designed to absorb sound.
If the dealership doesn't take pity upon our sensitive ears, we'll have to deal with the sounds at a distance. J. asked if we were concerned about hearing the sounds in the house or hearing the sounds while outside. "Ummmmm," I ummmed. "Both?"

For dealing with sound outside, it's important to break that line of sight in the proper way. Building a fence is a possible way, but it has to be solid. A traditional plank fence will only reduce the sound minimally because of gaps. The ideal situation is to build a concrete wall with concrete blocks with a surface designed to absorb the sound. A reflective surface would bounce the sound back at the dealership's steel building and then bounce in back into our yard. J. says these special blocks are only 10 to 20 percent more expensive than standard blocks. And since we plan to put a garage back there, they can be be part of that structure.

So how do you keep sound out of your house? According to J., don't have any windows. Houses, of course, have to have windows unless you happen to be a vampire. One choice is to not have any windows in the direction of the sound source. That's a possibility at our place, although the sun wouldn't be able to kiss us in the morning. And we like to smooch the sun in the morn.

Typical windows are terrible at keeping sound out, even double and triple paned windows. Jack says that the narrow air gaps are great at transferring low and high sound frequencies. To avoid that transfer, you need at least a two to four inch gap! But fear not, there is a special kind of window made with laminated glass, the same kind of glass in your car's windshield. Laminated glass has two pieces of glass with clear rubber between them. In automobiles, this rubber serves to keep the glass from spewing all the place in a wreck and cutting your whiskers off. For a house window, it serves to dampen all the frequencies. And they come double paned.

Jack noted that it's important to think about the location of vents. Vents need to be vented where they are not facing the sound source. This not only includes roof vents, but also dryer vents and air vents.
So where do we go from here? We'll work with the architect to design the house to "respect" the rear of the lot. We'll also, at some point, go talk to the dealership to see what they're willing to do. An enclosure will probably require a variance from the city since the compressors are within the setback.

Silencers are golden.


to tub or not to tub

I’ve been conducting detailed anthropological studies by watching an ungodly number of Househunter episodes on HGTV and have come to this conclusion: Everyone wants a tub in their master bath. From the 19-year-old skater dude all the way up to the 85-year-old grandma, folks expect a tub in their on-suite, whether they plan to use it or not.

The Architect has broached the subject of not having a tub in our master. It takes too much room for something that doesn’t get used much. Therefore, one of the trends in modern home construction is just having a shower in the master (there’s always a tub/shower get-up for the other bedrooms, of course). When was the last time you took a bath? he asked. Good question. In our house, my last bath occurred circa 1995. My bride’s last bath was prolly about the same time. For the record, it was not a shared bath.

Given that fact, I’d be ready to proudly shout “No tub!!!”, but I’m not there. In part because my detailed anthropologic studies suggest no tub could mean no sale when the house goes on the market some distant day. The other part is my love of modern stand-alone tubs. They’re like sculpture! Gorgeous with a capital G. Perhaps a standalone tub instead of our current clawfoot/shower with its substantial prep for tub time will lure more time with the rubber ducky. Perhaps.

“To tub or not to tub?” That is the question. I think the answer is: “Tub”.

to tub or not to tub: part deaux


haiku for the book “the provident planner” by roger rasbach

That seventies book
When shag carpet was the king
And toilets were low

A pal recommended that I read this book published in 1976 by a Texas mid-century modern maven. His houses are known for being extremely energy efficient and are sought after in San Antonio and Houston. The book? A bit of “meh” (with touches of Frank Lloyd Wright arrogance). By the end of the book, I wanted to slap Mr. Rasbach for starting so many of his sentences with the I’m-looking-down-my-nose-at-you phrases of “The Provident Planner would…” or “The Provident Planner should…” or “The Provident Planner will always…”. Perhaps it’s a product of its time, but it irritated the holy providence out of me.

Nonetheless, Rasbach preaches what amounts to modern green building. Place your house considering solar, use local materials, build for generations instead of a few years, build a livable home. His thoughts on the livable home were of most interest to me, such as: Place your light switches at doorknob height (the height most switches are at these days is dictated by when light switches used to be dangerous and people wanted to keep them away from the children), put your bathroom counter at 36 inches and your kitchen counter at 37 inches, the toe space beneath kitchen cabinets should be 6 inches, base cabinets should be 36 inches deep, and toilet seats should be higher (More leverage! More leverage!).


hiring an architect

If you plan to build a custom home, you need to hire an architect. And hiring an architect is kind of like finding a spouse. There are furtive glances across the room, several dates, a mutual decision to get serious, a paperwork signing ceremony and, hopefully, resulting progeny (made of wood, steel, and glass). But how to find an architect?

One of our hobbies is going to open houses and home tours. These are a great way to get a gander at the goods of various architects and see what the cost and quality may be. On home tours, the architects will oftentimes be there, so you can interact with them in a cocktail party atmosphere (but don’t drink too much or else they will take advantage of you). In my experience, architects are among the nicest and neatest people you will meet: Smart, creative, intuitive, empathetic, and visionary. There are, of course, some kooks out there, so builder beware… Architects sometimes speak like new age gurus in loincloths when describing walls and windows. Others see you as a giant credit card there to achieve their architectural vision (which is fine if you are, indeed, a giant credit card there to achieve their architectural vision).

In our case, we were looking for an architect who could do modern but be considerate of the costs. And not do that spacey architect-talk bidness. When we reached a point where we thought it was financially hopeless to build an affordable modern house, we did one last open house in our neighborhood and found our man. The open house featured was a decent sized house (2,500 square-feet), was pleasantly modern, and had a reasonable price. If the kitchen, closets, and concrete floors had been exactly what we wanted, we may very well be in that house today. It was nearly perfect. Out front was a sign for The Architect. After a few calls, some Web trolling, and a couple dates, we had found our man. (Note that we would have been happy with a woman, but there just doesn’t seem to be many women in the business. We're also not sure The Architect would be amenable to a sex change [although he would make for a mighty fine dirty blonde...]).

There are other, perhaps more direct, ways of finding an architect. For example, checking out the rolls of the local AIA (American Institute of Architecture) chapter. But we strongly recommend checking out the goods—and making sure you like and can work with the person.

As it turned out, hitching up to an architect early in the process was a good idea. The first several lots we made offers on really required having The Architect take a look at them because of topography and potential building challenges (both of which add to cost…). The Architect was also able to check with the city on some potential issues as well as give guidance on value given the house we were building (a real issue in the center of town given the “small” size of house we wanted to build). Using The Architect during the lot vetting phase also allowed us to spend some quality time with him before later signing a contract for the home design.


there's a lot to love!

Whelp, we did it: We bought a lot! Suddenly this hypothetical of building a house is turning real, real fast. It certainly wasn't without its ups and downs and surprises but, in the end, it got done.
Our search was two years in the making after first finding a "dream lot" in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood. That lot was a bit Green Acres: city views out the front, a country creek in the back. It also had some building issues (challenging topography) and some less then desirable attributes (did I mention the railroad tracks one house over?). However, the owners were absolutely unwilling to budge on price, despite our financial stretching to within 90 percent of what they wanted. That lot is still unsold...

About a year later, after expanding our search, we found a wooded lot in northwest Austin. Again, backing on a creek but with far more challenging topography, a lot we called the "cliff lot". Into negotiations we went and came within a cat's whisker of having a signed contract when the neighbors used a small bulldozer to tear out trees and dam a small creek on the lot to landscape their backyard (all without city permits). The lot owner didn't appreciate our concerns with the potential liabilities, not to mention that he wasn’t at all upset about the transgression (suggesting he was somehow part of the whole affair), so we walked.

After pouring over the financials more closely, we realized that we were somewhat blessed to have those two deals fall through and started looking for lots for about a third less than what we had been budgeting for. This pushed our search out from the city core a little bit. We flirted with another greenbelt lot in northwest Austin, but balked because of city restrictions and neighborhood covenants.

That brings us to our current lot. It's different than any of the lots we'd considered before in that it is flat and doesn't back on greenbelt. However, it is a larger-than-usual city lot (1.5 times the "normal" size at a quarter acre). Located in Allandale, it is on the north side of downtown but "in the loop" (south of 183, east of MoPac, west of I-35, north of 290). It's also in the coolish mid-century modern part of Allandale. Most importantly, it appears we can build and, if we had to sell right away, not lose money. We can have a garden, and the neighborhood, because of its lack of topography, is “Isetta friendly”. Interestingly, the subdivision of Allandale that our lot is in is called “Green Acres”. So although we didn’t get our “Green Acres” lot in Bouldin, Green Acres is where we will be.

The seller was a little kooky. He wanted us to sign a nondisclosure statement on the selling price (we refused), and he added a little trickery into the contract which he revealed just before closing that nearly scuttled the deal (we walked out of the room with our cashier's check; lawyers were consulted). The agents, sensing a disintegrating deal, stepped up “to make things right” before the seller’s resolve was tested. Talk about a poker game…

The lot does offer one challenge: It's on the edge of the neighborhood and backs up to a car dealership. Unfortunately, the dealership keeps four air compressors out behind its shop right behind our lot. But we're confidant that can be dealt with in some way.

Because my job gets a little crazy from now until May of next year, we won't start building until then. That gives us plenty of time to work with the architect on designing the house and preparing our current abode for sale.

I stopped by the lot yesterday and christened it with its first blue bottle. The adventure has just begun...


green by design

My bride and I spent yesterday, Saturday, at an all-day seminar (8:30 am to 4:30 pm) to learn about building a green home. We heard some surprising things. First, Austin was the first city to have a green building program. Starting in 1985, the program resulted in the Energy Star program now used by the feds, and the green rating used by the city served as the inspiration for LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Impressive. As might be expected from such an influential program, the day’s seminars were also quite impressive and informative—as well as entertaining and inspiring.

Some (appropriately shaded and low wattage) highlites:

- Design for passive solar. Seems like a “duh” kinda deal, but most houses do not consider the sun in their design. Developers are more concerned about getting the house built, looking good, and sold rather than operating good. The city architect’s point was that how the house was designed with respect to the sun was the single most important “green” item to think about. Such houses use far less energy than houses dolloped onto lots with no solar consideration. I have to confess that I was fixated on active solar rather than passive before learning this. I’m happy to report that I am now solarly passive aggressive.

- Strawbale, adobe, and rammed earth aren’t good choices for Austin. These building techniques rely on large diurnal temperature swings to work their magic. Aside from earlier this week and the occasional blue norther, Austin doesn’t get those swings. Therefore, the thermal loading works against you in our nonswinging climate. Not that we were considering these building techniques, but they are definitely off the table now.

- In Austin, air conditioning in the big energy hog. Therefore, anything to lower cooling costs is paramount for lower energy consumption. There’s the aforementioned passive solar considerations (design for windows to be shaded in the summer but sunned in the winter), but there’s also the design of the central air system. AC contractors tend to oversize units (no one has ever been sued for oversizing a unit), but that increases electric usage and decreases dehumidifying. Also, architects don’t usually consider where the ductwork is going to go. The straighter the duct work, the more easily the air flows, the more efficient the system, the less tonnage you need, the less energy you use, the more money you save. Put the air handler and the ductwork inside the conditioned space of the house—You don’t have to worry about leaks (and cooling the attic) that way. The HVAC engineering guy gave one of the most entertaining and informative presentations of the day. He was awesome.

- The typical goal for an HVAC system is to have the ACH (air changes per hour) less than 0.5. This means that half the air in your house is replaced with air from outside your conditioned space every hour. Say what?!?!? On one hand, maybe this is a good thing: Nobody wants to breathe stale air. On the other hand, that’s a lot of hot air your house is pulling in and subsequently having to cool during the summer. If your house was perfectly sealed, an ACH of 0.5 means you have a hole 10 inches by 12 inches in it. Progressively sealed houses get down to 0.3. Hyper-sealed houses get down to 0.1. I reckon our current house is over 1.0…

- You need to run the vent in your bathroom for at least 30 minutes after you take a shower. It’s critical to get that moisture out of your house. It saves you in the long run.

- The vent over your stove is to remove heat, not smells or greasy air. Always have it on when your stovetop or oven is hot.

- Geothermal may not be such a good idea in Austin. Installers call it geothermal, but it’s actually a heat pump using the earth as a heat sink (in summer) or a heat source (in winter). Usually, these systems use boreholes drilled some 150 feet into the subsurface, one borehole per ton of cooling. What is happening is that the ground is warming up from the heat exchange during the summer months but, because our winters are so mild, the system is not bleeding off the heat enough during the winter months. Therefore, the ground is slowly heating up year after year decreasing the efficiency of the system. We were thinking about geothermal; we’re not thinking about it anymore.

- Heat pumps work well in Austin, but they fail to heat your house when temperatures fall below 37 degrees. The back up heating in these systems, electric strips, use a lot of power. On balance, a good idea, but pray for global warming.

- Your ceiling fans need curved blades.

- Solar water heating may not make sense for just two people.

- Annual heating and cooling loads should be 1 to 1.25 kilowatts per square-foot. Our current house, at 1,000 square feet, should have a load of 1,100 to 1,375 kilowatts. It actually has ranged between 5,600 to 8,700 kilowatts over the past four years. Ouch. That's what a 100 year + house gets you.

- Electric generation by solar runs about six bucks a watt.

- IKEA cabinetry is free of formaldehyde.

- Austin is not a good place for personal wind generation.

- There are some crazy women that go to these things.

- And finally, through good design choices and good building, it’s possible to build a net-zero “capable” home.

So there you have it. Highly recommended if you are interesting in attending and useful to anyone from around the country.

To learn more:


rain, rain, come this way...

If we ever build a house, it will harvest rainwater. We installed an 800 gallon tank behind our current house and love it. We use it to top off our cow trough pond and to water the garden and sometimes the grass. Truth be told, 800 gallons is not enough. We want more.

But how much more could we get with a new house? To help answer that question, the Texas Water Development Board has a helpful manual with ways to calculate and size a tank for your home.

The first thing to figure out is roof catchment. We're considering building a house in the two-story 2,500 square feet vicinity with a detached garage of about 400 square feet. Halving the 2,500 (to account for the two stories) and discounting possible "orphaned roofing", we have about 1,500 square feet of catchment to work with. Austin gets, on average, about 32 inches of rainfall a year. Now, there's nothing average about Austin, and there's sure nothing average about the rainfall here as well. We've had dry months (no rainfall) and gullywashers (15 inches in 30 days). The average monthly amounts that make up that average annual number range from 1.72 inches in July to 4.33 inches in May. We're fortunate to have two rainy seasons: May-June and then September-October. If we were planning to rely on rainwater as a sole source of water, I would use the median rainfall values, which are lower than the averages (and more reflective of central tendency, but we won't go there...). However, average is good enough for government work.

Based on that roof size and that rainfall, we should be able to capture, on average, 30,000 gallons a year (inches of rain divided by 12 [to convert inches to feet] multiplied by the catchment area in square feet multiplied by 7.5 [the approximate number of gallons per cubic foot]). Divided by 12 months, that equates to a storage estimate of about 2,500 gallons. This is probably on the low side because it would be ideal to have a larger nest egg of water going into the high demand summers. If we were relying on rainwater for all of our water needs, we would need to go through the detailed worksheet in the rainwater manual mentioned above (and have much more storage). But we're not. We're just looking for lawn and garden watering (and perhaps an occasional car wash).

It would be super cool to tap into rainwater for toilets and other uses such as showers and clothes washing, but some issues-that-cost-money arise. One is the need for a backflow preventer on the city-supplied water line. Water providers start getting sweaty-brow nervous when you use other sources of water in addition to theirs. Their primary concern is having water of unknown quality sucked into their system during a pressure loss. If that happens and your water has little wigglers in it, you could make your neighbors very sick or even kill them (now don't be getting any ideas...). There are ways of dealing with this potential siphoning, such as having an air break where the two sources of water potentially mix (having an air break means that there is always air between the city source and your source and there is never the potential of your water coming in direct contact with the outlet from the city source). But there's a lot of trust that has to occur between a rainwater collector and the water provider to rely solely on an airbreak. Hence the backflow preventor: No trust required. If you have to install a backflow preventor, you have to pay for it (upwards of $1,000) and pay for once-every-two-years testing by the city (upwards of $200 a test). Bringing the water indoors would also probably require some treatment such as filtering and a dash of UV to kill the little nasties. If you plan to drip irrigate, you may need to filter the water first as well to keep any sediments from clogging your drip emitters.

So how much would 2,500 gallons of storage run us? We're really partial to those gorgeous Texas Metal Cisterns metal cisterns: Shiny, metallic, and somewhat clean-lined modern. A 2,500 gallon tank runs $1,650. Still need piping to hook it up (and perhaps a sump pump?), but that's not too bad in the grand scheme of things. An additional 500 gallon tank for, say, the garage would cost another $645. Austin gives a $500 rebate for installing a city-approved rainwater harvesting system. And the State of Texas doesn't charge state sales tax on tanks and accoutremount purchased to install a system.

Rainwater harvesting in the city has to be more of a love affair than a financial-based decision. Water is cheap. Just to pay off the 2,500 gallon tank with saved city water will take over 622,000 gallons, enough water to meet our current lawn watering needs for more than 30 years (note that the economics of rainwater harvesting in the boonies if used as a sole source in lieu of a well are far more appealing). Nonetheless, it's a "right thing to do" sorta thing, it's fun ("Look! The tank is filling!!!"), and plants and ponds prefer rainwater.

So do we.


sweet agave

Cute little house up yonder at the Agave development east of Austin, one of our favorite places in town. Agave is a little too far out of town for us, and the houses, as designed, don't quite meet our needs (for a garage for small cars...).


does the lot vet out?

"Vet out" is horse slang. When you consider buying a horse, it's wise to have a vet take a close look at that horse to ensure the critter doesn't have a hidden or unnoted issue that would decrease or scuttle its value. It's a good idea to do the same thing for a lot. Who wants to buy a lot and build a house and then find out you have to sell it at a loss? And even if you think "I will die in this house", life can take unexpected twists and turns, so it behooves you (so to speak…) to ensure that you can get out of the house with your finances intact or, at the very least, know exactly what you are getting yourself into.

We've not found too much guidance in assessing whether or not a lot is a good deal. Real estate agents will tell you that it's worth what you or someone is willing to pay for it. Not terribly helpful. However, a real estate agent can get you comps: Comparable sales in the general area. However, comps are only helpful if there have been a fair number of lots that have sold in the area. If the area is too broad, then a number of other factors start to kick in (neighborhood, nearby amenities, nearby non-amenities, size, schools, slope). And folks selling lots outside the desirable core are usually pushing to get city core prices. Can’t blame them.

We've been using several techniques to assess the value of lots we've looked at: (1) comparison shopping, (2) comps, (3) county assessed value of the lot, (4) an analysis of county assessed value of neighboring houses, (5) an analysis of what our final house would cost, and (6) infatuation level. Whew! No wonder this process is tuckering us out!

Comparison shopping is simply knowing what other lots for sale are going for and what their pros and cons are as compared to the lot du jour. If a ho-hum lot in a suspect part of town is twice as expensive as a comparable lot in the nice part of town, then that ho-hum lot is most likely way overpriced (perhaps there's treasure under them thar hills!). Comparison shopping is even better when the lots are in the same part of town. However, some lots are real difficult to assess. For example, a lot with a view of the river located in a bad part of town has a river pulling the price higher while the neighborhood pulls the price in the opposite direction. Sellers, not surprisingly, root for the river (and emotional pull a river may have on a potential buyer). At the very least comparison shopping will let you know whether or not the price of your potential lot is in the ballpark.

Comps will tell you what lots actually sold for and also allow you to see what the owners asked for when they sold those lots. In a seller’s market, bidding wars may drive the price higher than asking. In a buyer’s market, selling prices may be lower than asking prices. If a seller is smart, she will highball the price in hopes of maximizing returns.

In Texas, the value of the property as assessed by the county appraisal office is public information. In Austin, this information is online. By law, the tax assessor is required to appraise the property to within five percent of what it would sell for on the open market. How that is assessed, I don't know, but I've found the county assessed values for residential properties to be pretty good. Keep in mind that these numbers are backward looking. If the market has warmed up, the tax assessor's numbers may underestimate the value, and if the market has cooled down, the tax assessor may overestimate the value of the property. Using their database, I can see what the value of the lot is as well as the value of the improvements. I don't know what their logic is in assessing values, but it appears that they determine what properties are selling for, subtract off $75 to $100 a square foot for improvements (the house), and assign the remaining to the land. Not an unreasonable assessment, in my humble opinion.

Using these county-assessed values as well as the comps, you can determine how your dream home fits financially into the neighborhood. You generally don’t want to have the most expensive house in the hood. This puts you on the cutting edge of prices, and you are likely to get cut by that edge if you have to sell. So if the lot is $100,000 and it costs you $250,000 to build a 2,000 square foot house, you can see if comparably sized houses in the hood are in the $350,000 range you would need to break even at the end of construction. If you need a substantial construction loan, you need to look at this because your bank certainly will.

Something to keep in mind is that the bigger the house, the more likely the lot will vet out. The cost per square foot of land for a 100K lot for a 2,000 square-foot house is $50. For a 4,000 square foot house, it’s $25. If houses are generally selling for $150 a square foot, your McMansion comes in at $150 (good) while your MiniMansion comes in at $175 (not so good). Sadly, there’s a financial incentive to build big on expensive lots, hence all the inner-city scraping going on.

And then there’s infatuation. For us, this is what pushes us to offer more for the dirt (Look at the view of the river!). In the end, it’s better to kill the mood with spreadsheets of reality than to wake up years later with regret. Spock v. Kirk.


how much does it cost to build?

Note: We have an updated (and much more informative [with numbers!]) post on this topic here.

One of the challenges of building a custom home is figuring out how much it costs to build. Some books state that you can forget about accurately estimating what it will cost to build a custom home--a disturbing prospect for a bud on a budget. Furthermore, it's important to know if whatever numbers you are comparing and contrasting are apples and apples and not oranges and apples. For example, we asked an architect friend how much it costs to build modern, and he replied "Plan on $200 a square foot." Another architect told us $125. For a 2,000 square foot house, that's a $150,000 difference (not to mention a scary amount of scratch to begin with). What gives?

The first thing to note is the difference between "soft" and "hard" costs. In short, soft costs occur before construction begins and hard costs occur after construction begins. Soft costs include the architectural planning, property acquisition, the permitting and approval process with the city, and any carrying costs (such as interest payments) before construction begins. Oftentimes, quoted cost per square foot only includes the hard costs, the costs once the concrete starts sloshing and nails start flying. Therefore, a quick question you should ask after receiving a back-of-the-envelope estimate is "Is that just hard costs?"

Another thing to ask is whether or not the price per square foot includes the garage and any patios as part of the square feet. In other words, is the price per square foot for conditioned space only? If not, you might walk away with a considerable underestimate of the total price to build. This is important not only for budgeting purposes but also for assessing the economics of building on a particular lot.

Costs vary, of course, across the country. For the Austin area it seems that building a cookie cutter suburban-style, a semi-custom, starts at about $100 a square foot. For custom, costs start at $125 for builder-grade finish out (in other words, not fancy). The fancier you want it, the more it costs. Modern tends to cost more because the materials and construction are less familiar to builders and the materials themselves can cost more. Building green also adds to the cost.

kouichi kimura

Love love love these houses designed by the Japanese firm, Kouichi Kimura. Very sculptural, calming, and zenny. The sides shown here are the privacy sides, something that seems to be a calling card for these architects on these urban and inwardly focused homes.


dirty deeds (done dirt cheap)

One enemy of modern architecture is the dreaded deed restriction. A deed restriction is a little goodie attached to the deed of the property, with or without a house, that dictates what you can or can’t do with the property. On one hand, this can be a good thing. It ensures an apartment building or gas station or business doesn’t get built or moves in right next to you. However, it can be a real mood killer if you want to build modern. For example, consider a lot we drooled over in the hills of northwest Austin. After reading through an inch-and-a-half thick stack of paperwork titled “Restrictions”, we discovered several items that were ultimately unworkable for us.

In the past, the neighborhood association had to approve your building plans. Given the standard architecture in the hood, it would have been highly unlikely that they would have approved a blocky, flat-roofed modern with lots of windows and steel. In short, our house would have been designed by committee. Yuck. We all know what comes out of committees… Fortunately, that provision had been removed several years ago. However, there were restrictions on the outside materials, the color of those materials (which explained the bland sameness of color up and down the street), and the configuration of the yard and whatever sat on the yard (posing potential problems for rainwater harvesting). Anything you did outside that upset a single neighbor could turn into the Spanish Inquisition.

More troubling were the building restrictions posed by the city on the lot. The lot was going to be a challenge to build on. Grade started at the curb at four feet above street level and wandered up from there to the back of the lot. Given the grade issues, it would make sense to place the driveway and garage on the western side of the lot where the slope was more gradual and there was more room to place a drive. However, the city had placed several restrictions on the lot that makes it impossible to build on without variances. First, the city required that any cut in the limestone could not be any greater than 4 feet deep. Second, the city required that the grade of the driveway be no smaller than 1 foot rise (or fall) per 10 feet of length. Third, the city required that the garage be 20 feet from the street. And fourth, the city required that the drive and garage be on the eastern side of this particular lot. Given those restrictions, it is impossible to build on the lot without a number of variances from the city. A friend in the neighborhood confirmed that the lot had gone unsold for many years because no one had figured out how to build on it. At first glance, after a hike about the property, I didn’t understand why. After reading the deed restrictions, it became real clear.

Yes, it’s possible to get variances from the city, but that adds time and cost, not to mention no guarantee of success. That, combined with color and yard restrictions (and the lack of western exposure to enjoy sunsets), caused us to bid ado to this little piece of hillside heaven. Furthermore, a previous owner, way back when during the days preceding prohibition, put a deed restriction on the property disallowing the brewing of beer. Not that I'm a brewer, but what if I wanted to?


the back story

We've lived in Austin now for almost 20 years. Back in the latter part of last century circa 1992, we bought an old and adorable house in central Austin. The main part of the house, built in the 1890s by a fellow from New Orleans, is actually a board-and-batten shot gun shack, so named because you could shoot a shotgun clear through the house and not hit a wall. The house was expanded to its present 1,100 square-feet by 1910 or so. Eleven-foot tall ceilings, 10-foot tall windows, and bucketloads of quaint have made it a joyful place to live.

However, it is a little cozy (house guests = nope), closet space is at a premium (and not even the width of a modern day coat hanger), and, over the years, we've fallen cowboy hat over cowboy boots in love with blocky modern (is it the Italian in he and the German in she?).

This cube lust started over a decade ago with the new Jiffy Lube around the corner, a place to get your oil changed in a jiffy! It is very blocky, has storefront windows and doors (after all, it is a store...), has three bays for cars to roll in and out, and is crowned with a second story office adorned with dark square windows.

"Wow!" I said one day to my bride-to-be, "wouldn't it be cool to convert that place into a house and live there? Big open kitchen-dining-living open to all sides, a rooftop deck, big closets."

"Indeed!" she replied.

It was at that moment I realized that we were architecturally compatible. I married her.

It wasn't until years later, tempted by a subscription to Dwell and various home tours, that cube lust struck. This is our story...



Well hello! Welcome to our blog of us maybe-possibly-hopefully-someday building a modern (as in cubist and minimal) home! The purpose of this blog is to document our adventures and heartbreak for our own later reference and, perhaps, for you if you embark on a similar adventure. No promises of consummation: This whole affair could end in heartbreak and/or financial ruin. You have been warned.

One of us is a scientist and the other an engineer, so we tend to be hyper analytical and comfortable with databases and numbers. Although we don't sound like much fun at a party, one of us is also somewhat artistic and the other an animal lover and quietly fiery. In other words, if Spock and Kirk mated and had children, we would be them (a disturbing thought on many different levels...). Oh! And we want to live in a cubist house! This is our story…