Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Looks like I have a well, but...

Newt called today to tell me how the well was going. Alright, so the drillers got down somewhere over a hundred feet, and they apparently got a flow that they thought would be good. However, it was salt water that was flowing! He asked them if they were joking (he hadn't run into this one before) and they said no, it was salt water. They told him that there was water at a shallower level (only about 30 feet down) but it had been a pretty low flow and had a lot of sediment apparently. They did not believe that going deeper was going to get past the salt water. So they are going to fill in the bottom portion of the hole to seal off the salt water, so that I can use the water from the shallower location.

We will have to see how it tests. Hopefully that goes OK. This could be very interesting, since my estimate is that the level they seem to have gotten water is about the same level as Buck Run Creek nearby. I wonder what that means. At least I shouldn't have any high water table issues with the house.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Waiting to hear...

Hmmm, well everyone is obviously wondering, do I have water yet? Did they strike oil? Did they bring up some horible creature that will devour all in its path? Don't worry I am not Roger Corman, and I would be quite upset after finding such a nice piece of property, if I had to go looking again because of some natural resources being found.

I haven't talked to the drillers again. But I decided to take a couple hours and just enjoy wondering around the property and taking photos yesterday. Drilling is messy business.

I took a look at the muck. It would appear maybe some worms made there way out of the ground and across the muck, judging by the tracks I saw.

I am hoping to hear tomorrow how the drilling is going. Hopefully they aren't half way to China yet, but my understanding is that getting a good well in this area can be a challenge.

There are more striking views on my way to and from the property, but I didn't think this was bad either. I should have taken a lawn chair and a book. It was a very nice day.

I also took pictures of some of the honeysuckle that is around.

The berries look quite stunning.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

They moved the well!

Short post today.

Today I took a quick trip out to the property to see how they had done with the rock. Well, they had gotten through the rock, it apparently was just a boulder. However, they couldn't get the well casing down through it. So they had to start over in a new spot. They moved the well about 7 feet. They were down about 40 feet today at lunch time. So I have my fingers crossed that this one works out.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The earth shook under our feet

So today the well drillers were showing up early in the morning to get started trying to get me some water. I decided to get out to the property and take some early morning photos. I setup my camera and took some pictures of my field as the sun was rising up through the trees.

Here is where the house is going to go. We are facing where the front door will be. It is difficult to see my stakes (they are green and don't stand out as well as the surveyors stakes). The stakes you can see pretty easily are each about 12 feet closer to the camera than my markers. The surveyor put in wood stakes with yellow flags.

The sun was playing through the trees and painting the landscape, and I was just enjoying the view.

Here is the house location from the west property line. This is facing toward where the garage door will be.

Another picture of just enjoying a beautiful fall morning. Someday I will be able to walk up on my roof, and sit among various wild flowers and enjoy this view and listen to the birds singing their songs in the morning.

Then I spotted that I had a couple guests. Actually they were in the neighbor's field, but this is why I made sure my camera had a good zoom lens when I bought it.

Make that three guests. Can you find all three?

Here is a nicer view of just the one deer.

So, after the photo session with the deer, Newt called. He and the drillers were on the way. The driller had some difficulty getting his truck up the drive. The drive will definitely need some work. We showed the drillers where I was thinking the well would make sense. We made sure that the well would be far enough from where the house was going that concrete trucks would have room to drive around the excavation for the house in the future. We are going to try to minimize how many times we need a cement pump truck, they are expensive each time they show up. While they got the rig setup Newt and I went and got some breakfast. We found a nice little place just a few miles away, with some pretty decent food at a pretty reasonable price.

By the time we got back, they had the rig setup and were drilling.

The rig they have, has been drilling wells for a lot of years. It basically has a large steel rod with a bit on the end, and it lifts it up a few feet, and drops it into the ground. Then every so often, they lift it out of the hole, pour some water down the hole, and lower a hollow pipe that acts like a bucket, and they pull the mud out of the hole with that. Then they put the drill back in the hole and keep going. Each time the drill goes down and hits the bottom of the hole, the ground shakes. They hit rock about 17 feet into the ground. You could feel the vibrations in the ground change when that happened. They had to change to a different bit, one designed to drill through the rock. Then it was back to pounding a hole into the ground.

The rock slows down the drilling, but hopefully it will also give me a good quallity well. We shall see. Tomorrow I am going to go out to the property again, and see how the well is going. At least with the rock 17 feet down, the excavation of the house, probably won't run into rock.

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.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Finding a piece of earth to build in

Back to the realty sites, this time looking for acreage. With what I wanted to do, I knew I was going to need at least an acre to have room to build and have room for some trees around the home. I knew I would need to have the option to "bring my own builder" and I was going to need to avoid home owner's associations and extensive covenants and restrictions.
There was some beautiful wooded property for sale nearby. However the property was being sold by a developer, and they were concerned about all sorts of details. The 18 pages of restrictions included a requirement to paint your satellite dish to match your house color. Well, it was unlikely that was going to work for me.
Then I found a piece of land away from people, not too far from work, and a fair amount of land for a good price. Marcus my manager was looking at satellite views of it with me, and we realized why it was at a discounted price. There was a junkyard across the road from the property. Now, if you are going to be getting water from a well, you really don't want to be near a place that has a good chance of contaminating the ground water.
I spotted a piece that was 10 acres of wooded land. From the aerial views, it looked nice, was probably about 10 minutes from work, and was inside or just outside a small city where utilities probably wouldn't have been much trouble to obtain. It was a fair amount more property than I was looking to buy, and cost around twice what I had intended to pay for my land. Marcus looked at the map, he told me, that is a nice area, however to get to the property would involve driving a hill that in the winter could be quite treacherous. Not being into extreme sports, I decided it was best to pass on that piece of property.
I continued to look, and Marcus offered his advice on a few more pieces. One day, we were looking at some that I had found and I saw a nice piece that was about 2 1/2 acres and wooded. I thought it looked nice, but looking at the map, I thought I was looking at it taking an hour to get to work. I really didn't want that long of a commute. Marcus said he drove by that area each day on his way to work, and it was a nice area and not as far from work as I thought. He said that it would also be a nice drive into work. So we took a drive out to the property to have a look. Marcus was right, the drive was only about half an hour, a bit longer then I had wanted, but manageable. It was also mostly country roads, so it was rather scenic. We got out to the property and there was a dirt driveway. It was for farm equipment to get up to the field that ended on this piece of property that was being sold, but it was drivable. We drove up in and got out. We didn't have any markers to tell us where the property lines were, but from the areal views, I knew that most of the property I was looking at was wooded. There was a farm field leading off to the east from the property and going up a gentle hill.
I decided to try to contact the agent selling the property. Well, I reached another agent at the same agency, and he informed me that that piece I was looking at was already going to be bought by someone else. He then told me that there was a 2 1/2 acre piece of property to the east of the one I had looked at. I thought that might work to, so we met out at the property. Ray the real estate agent was able to give me an idea of where the property lines were, but since they weren't marked he couldn't be precise. I told him I would think about it.
As I thought about it, I realized that the piece he showed me, might be easier to build on. It had a cleared area where the farm field had been, in the middle of the property, and occupying the highest area of the property. I would have fewer trees to remove with this property, and yet could have my home surrounded by trees. Building into higher ground, would help avoid issues with water/flooding.
The covenants and restrictions were pretty minimal and I didn't think they would present any difficulties to what I planned to do. I decided to buy the property. The purchase went smoothly, and the lady selling the property thought my plans for my home sounded neat. Now I owned 2 1/2 acres with no direct access from the road, and a lot of planning to do before I would be ready to build. Here are some pictures of what the field in the woods looked like when I bought it.

Looking from the south side of the field toward the north tree line.

Here my brother, sister, and father are trying to help me figure out where my eastern property line is. We started down by a corner stake near the road and navigated up through the woods on a compass heading to try to figure out where in the field my property would end.

Here my brother is standing roughly where my east property line is, and I have a view from my property on up the field into the neighbor's property. It is a rather gentle slope, but I think it will work fairly well to nestle a home into.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Deciding what to build

If I was going to build my own house, I knew I wanted energy efficiency with low maintenance to be main requirements. I wanted to be able to walk up to the front door and feel this was my home.
I like the rustic character of a cabin, and the warmth of the all the wood surrounding me. However all the wood on the outside would require regular maintenance and diligence to keep the wood boring, burrowing and eating insects in our area, from turning it into sawdust!
I like the inherent energy efficiency that dome homes whether geodesic or sprayed concrete on an inflated membrane could give, but dealing with all the curved walls seems like it would be a challenge to make efficient use of the space. I also don't like heights and since a dome would need at least two floors to work, there would be areas in a dome that would require getting up on a ladder to do any maintenance.
I also had concerns about weather to consider. Sometimes the area gets a lot of severe weather in form of thunderstorms and tornadoes. So I wanted very solid walls and a strong roof, where I could sit comfortably in my home with minimal concern that my roof would be ripped off, and the walls would fall in on me.
I had read about earth sheltered homes in popular science back in the 80's. I liked the energy efficiency, the safety of the structure, and the idea of having plants on the roof struck me as a wonderful feature to allow the home to become part of the landscape.
I drew up an initial plan for what I wanted to build, it was a big square donut. It had a central outside courtyard, and was designed to be sunk into the existing ground or to be put on top of the ground and have earth bermed up on all the outside walls.
My father refered to it as the sunken Hacienda plan. Some have likened it to Uncle Owen's home in Star Wars.
At any rate, I had decided that my home was going to be merged into the landscape. Now I had to find a piece of property to fit it into.  

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Deciding to build

Around two years ago, I decided that I finally had enough reasons to consider moving from an apartment to a house (I won't bore you with the reasons I had finally come up with).
Off I went searching for a house I could call home. I had looked at quite a few houses at on-line sites when my parents had decided to move to a new house, so I thought I would start there, rather than finding a real estate agent first.
I had very few requirements as this was a house just for me. This left a lot of options open, however when I went searching I just couldn't find a house with the character I was looking for. I spotted some nice houses, but they were in locations that meant I would go from living across the street from work and a 5 minute drive, to having an epic journey every day to get to and from work. I drive to work because the street that must be crossed is a state highway with folks doing 55 and ignoring stop lights on occasion. I also was not finding houses I liked with prices I could accept, except in neighborhoods where I really did not want to be after dark.
So I decided that I was going to look for property where I could build what I wanted.