Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When is a design done?

I had just made a rough sketch of what I wanted to build. As I looked around my field, and talked to family and friends, I decided the central courtyard wasn't going to work. I decided that the central courtyard wasn't going to offer me a view of the trees I had. The reason I bought property with trees was so that I could enjoy the view of them. It also wasn't giving me a floorplan that I liked. I just couldn't work the rooms so that I could meet code, and have a layout with the rooms in good relation to one another. Its roof was going to be complicated by the four sloped roofs coming together. While adding some complication in a wood frame roof, I was planning for the roof to be reinforced concrete. Getting concrete poured with slopes in four different direction seemed to be asking for problems. If the roof didn't slope away from the courtyard, I was concerned that I might end up with a pool in the middle of my house.

Here is a partially completed plan with the central courtyard. 
The plan changed to a simple rectangle, with the goal of burying as much of the house as possible and making a nice cozy inside. I had seen quite a few earth sheltered houses that had a large south face jutting out of the ground. Although you can enhance the look with second floor decks and other details, that wasn't a look that particularly appealed to me. So I proceeded with more research on what makes an earth sheltered design work, I bought a number of books on various aspects of home design, both the aesthetic and the structural. I saw features in various plans that I liked. I saw earth sheltered designs that were the simple rectangles like I was planning, but they had a corner jutting out like someone with a severe under-bite, or a goatee. I wanted to get natural light into the home, but I also wanted to keep sharp edges hidden. I decided that a goal would be to bury two sides completely and to also berm up over all the corners. I worked on the floor-plan and asked for input from friends family and co-workers on the layout.
The design underwent many revisions, some were small, and some were complete redesigns. The rooms have undergone multiple shufflings and the whole plan has been flipped and rotated. More than once I have heard "But I thought the kitchen was over there..." Here are some of the permutations it went through:


While I was deciding what the layout was going to be, I was also doing research into building codes, and options for how to build the walls and roof. I was looking into how I would get fresh air into a home that was going to be designed to have very little infiltration through its walls. How was I going to heat it? Fireplace? Heat pump? I thought about geothermal heat pumps, but after more research I realized that the smallest geothermal heat pumps were going to be expensive to install and probably oversized for the heat load I was anticipating once I took into consideration heavy insulation, and the earth sheltering. I don't like having cold feet in the winter, and listening to a big blower try to push air through ducts to try to warm up the house. I decided that radiant heat in a concrete floor would make a lot of sense. The floor could absorb energy in the winter from sunlight coming in the few large windows I was planning on, and I could also install solar thermal panels, and store energy in a tank of water for keeping the house warm at night, as well as provding my hot water for washing me and my clothes. That would be my primary heat, and I would a small water heater to supplement or backup the solar collectors.
Finaly I thought I had done about all the designing I could without talking to someone with experiance building houses. So I started looking for a builder. I had been working on the design for about a year, and thought I had a pretty good idea what I would be building, but there were still a few questions. I started talking to a custom builder, after all this was not a tract house I was building. Then my organization at work was re-organized with changes in management, and I was not sure what was going to happen, or if I was going to have enough time to devote to working on building a house. I decided to continue refining my plans on my own. When things settled down, I found that I couldn't seem to get a response from the builder that I had talked to. Off to look for a new builder, I was talking to Marcus, and he said that he had his house custom built, and that I should talk to the builder who built his house.
He put me in touch with Newt Bartel from Fortress Homes. As it turns out, Newt was getting into green building, and found what I wanted to do, to be quite an opportunity to expand what he was already getting into. We worked on figuring out how we would pull off certain features I wanted, while staying in a budget I was comfortable with. I had been looking at using insulated concrete forms (ICF) for the walls and the roof. They offer a lot of insulation, and can save time over applying insulation and furing strips to traditional poured concrete walls. Newt had started working with a company that supplies ICF blocks. We started looking at prices. We realized the roof was going to be particularly expensive to do with concrete in most any form. So Newt suggested that commercial steel roofs normally have to carry heavy loads, and that a steel roof might work well. We found a company that could lay a steel truss roof on top of the walls at an acceptable price.
I thought things were progressing quite well, then I contacted the local electric utility to find out about getting power to the property. I filed paperwork to get an estimate of what it would cost (or so I thought). When I talked to engineer at the utility, he informed me that I would have to pay them a good size fee up front, to get a final price for getting power. He could not give me an estimate, as that was against company policy. I was quite surprised that I couldn't get an estimate. He was courteous enough to give me some estimates (very wide estimates though) of how many poles would be required and what they would run. I had to pick up my jaw off the floor. I was looking at the very least at $10,000 to get electricity, and was much more likely that the bill would be around $20,000. When I had first started talking to Newt, I had explained that I was interested in solar electricity, but that I didn't think it was going to be something to include in my house construction since I was figuring the added cost would be difficult to justify, even thought I like the environmental aspects. When I told Newt what the utility had told me as far as cost, he told me I should go put together an estimate of what it would cost for me to go with solar power instead of hooking up to the utility.
Back to design. I had been reading books and magazines for years about generating your own power and in particular using photovoltaics which convert sunlight into electricity. I put together an estimate of how much electricity I would need, and went shopping for the major parts to see what I was looking at. Once I had a rough estimate, we talked to one local company about installing solar, and we tried to talk to a few others. The one company we actually got an estimate from didn't give a lot of details on exactly what they were including in the bid, so I wasn't sure if it was what I needed, or if the bid was really fair for what they were planning. Newt asked me to go complete a bid of my own. Now I don't have to expense my time, so in the end if that company was bidding on what I am now planning to install, they were probably offering a fair price. But I am now going to know every bit of my system, and since I will be maintaining and monitoring it for a lot of years, that is a good thing. My cost will probably be more than what the utility price was going to be, however, I won't have any power lines going across my property, and I won't have a utility bill that could skyrocket if energy prices rise dramatically.
Now I was going to have an earth sheltered house, where I was going to generate my own electricity. I made some changes to my appliance selection, a propane fired range, and dryer were more appropriate, than trying to install enough solar panels to supply electricity for those. I wasn't going to settle for a refrigerator that made it onto the Energy Star list, I was going to go for one of the most efficient refrigerators I could find. These decisions can make a big difference in how many solar panels you need and how big your battery bank needs to be to get you through the winter wile minimizing the use of a generator.
We got an initial estimate of the cost for building the house. It looked OK to me, and so I started trying to find a bank that would give me a loan to build this house. I had read that this could be challenging. The first bank that I talked to was a bank that Newt had dealt with in the past. However, they wanted to make loans that they could sell to another bank. They weren't going to be able to offer me a loan, but they recommended that I talk to a local bank, or a credit union, where they are more likely to hold on to a loan. I looked around and found a local bank that was willing to consider giving me a loan. However, they wanted a final set of numbers for the bid on the house construction. So Newt got firm numbers, and I got really detailed on the solar thermal system, the photovoltaics, and some of the other mechanical elements.
When we added up the revised numbers, it was quite a bit more than our initial estimate, and would require taking out a larger loan than I was willing to have. So we looked over things, and some features I decided to keep. Other places we made adjustments to features I wanted but bring the price down. I decided to set things up so I could add the panels for solar heat at a later date after the house was finished, but not include them in the initial construction. There were more items that I was going to do the labor on. Newt revised a bid for one of the items where he had decided the bid he was given was just out of line. We managed to get it down to the price that I was OK with, and I got the final drawings put together. I had lots of plans and images of what I intended to build when I went to the bank.
I didn't use the term Hobbit Hole with the bank, but what I am building is certainly in the spirit of what Tolkien explained that a hobbit-hole meant, "it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort". Although more than one person (including my father) has thought I should have a round door, my biggest concern is that my home should give me a comfortable place to live. I am an engineer and so I have put a lot thought into how the systems in the house should function to work best. However, I have also spent a lot of time thinking about what I like or don't like in the appearance of other houses, and what aspects I want to include in my home that are simply there to look at and enjoy the feeling they give to your heart. The rounded tops on the windows don't offer any functional advantage, and certainly cost a lot more than just rectangular windows, but I decided I look they give. The wood trim, and other details, make it my home.
Well, I have been rather long winded this evening, and so now that I have gotten approved for my loan, and we are about to start digging a well, I give you my final floor plan, and a close approximation of what I intend for the front of my Hobbit Hole to look like.


1 comment:

  1. I came across your blog a few days ago and over the weekend I have found time here and there to read it all. How many sq feet is your home? What are the particular building code issues that you had to work around in your design besides providing egress in the bedrooms? I only ask because I am in that "thinking about layout" of my own future earth sheltered home.