Thursday, November 13, 2008

It's Easy Being Green

We've posted earlier blogs about the EarthCraft Virginia certification program. On Tuesday, we met with Chris Conway, our EarthCraft technical advisor; John Spears, our architect; and Aaron Holmes, our construction manager, to review the EarthCraft certification standard and to determine if we met the requirements and could achieve enough points for the house to be EarthCraft certified.

EarthCraft has three levels of certification: regular
EarthCraft House, Tier 2 (known as EarthCraft Select), and Tier 3 (known as EarthCraft Premium). As you might guess, the required standards are even more stringent for tiers 2 and 3 and more points are required for each higher tier. (150 for regular, 200 for tier 2, and 230 for tier 3)

It took over three hours to review the certification technical standards worksheet line-by-line and compare that with our house plans. Since we set out for this to be a green house, we expected to easily achieve the regular EarthCraft House certification. After the careful review, it became clear that we had met all of the requirements for EarthCraft Premium certification AND we earned 462 total points as we calculated them. The certification restricts the total number of points that can be earned for certain categories (e.g., Durability, Energy Efficiency) and when we capped our points for these categories, we were still left with 331 points. Since Tiers 2 and 3 are new categories as of April this year and, to the best of our knowledge, no one else has built an EarthCraft Premium certified house, we have a chance at being the first EarthCraft Premium House in Virginia. That would be wonderfully amazing if we can make it a reality.

Kermit the Frog says it's not easy being green. I beg to differ. It is easy - you just need the right architect!

Thursday, November 6, 2008


GreenFest is starting in DC and it ends on Sunday. I'll arrive home from California on Sunday morning and plan to go on Sunday to sit in some educational sessions and walk the exhibit floor. Check out their site:

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Certifiably Crazy

While some people think we're certifiably crazy for embarking on this project (instead of just buying an existing house), we think it would be crazy to buy a traditional (energy inefficient) house in the DC area that we don't really like and then have to put a lot more money into updates and upgrades. This way, we get what we want in terms of style of house, sustainability in construction and living, etc.

Speaking of certifying, we attended a green building class in Roanoke this past week for the EarthCraft Virginia certification program. This training was geared for construction companies, architects, etc., but they allowed us to attend as owner-builders. The EarthCraft certification is like LEED for homes, but it's a much less expensive certification process. The program started in the Atlanta area and, to date, more than 4,500 homes have been certified by EarthCraft. The program expanded into Virginia just a few years ago and they are hoping to certify several hundred homes annually in the Commonwealth.

The seminar focused on how the certification program works. There are minimum requirements that must be met in order to receive EarthCraft certification, then there are other points a builder has to earn in addition to the minumum requirements. Many of these requirements are tied to energy efficiency. For some homebuilders, this will take some significant change to their construction practices in order to achieve certification. For us, since we have intended the house to be environmentally-friendly from the start, this is a validation to ensure we are actually building green.

We've been assigned an EarthCraft technical advisor who will oversee our construction and conduct some on-site inspections to ensure we meet the required standards. We're very hopeful that we'll achieve this certification.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

What a Surprise!

I opened my email to grab and then post the scanned image of the building permit, and received a delightful surprise. Our house designer, John Spears with Sustainable Design Group, emailed me some artistic renderings of the house. Computer imaging is truly amazing. I hope you enjoy seeing these as much as I did.

Building Permit

Three Steps Forward....

So many things came together this week and we're very thankful for that. First, as Andreas posted, the CBIRT meeting went well on Wednesday. Second, on Wednesday evening, we received the completed appraisal, and the value of our project was better than we had hoped for, which should allow us to obtain the financing we want. Third, on Friday morning, the City issued the building permit to us.

The 30 day appeal process (whereby City residents can appeal the issuance of the building permit) is counting down - it ends on November 16th. We scheduled closing for the land for November 17th (tentative date which will be changed only if there's a valid appeal of the building permit, which we don't expect since we didn't ask for any variances and everything is in line with the city code).

We're now working on the co-ownership agreement with our lawyers, developing the detailed project plan, and awaiting the final confirmation on the financing (the loan underwriter will be going through the appraisal with a fine-tooth comb in the next few days). Also, I'm working on a public relations/marketing plan for this project to give visibility to environmentally friendly design and construction principles, and to recognize our partners who are collaborating with us on this project.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sea Birds

The City of Falls Church has a public review process for the approval of grading plans - the Chesapeake Bay Interdisciplinary Review Team (CBIRT). Each grading plan gets discussed at the CBIRT meeting; neighbors within 150 feet of the property are invited, and a public notice appears in the Falls Church News-Press.
Today was our turn.
Normally, people show up to complain about one aspect or another of the proposed construction (even though, strictly speaking, the meeting is only about grading, zoning, and tree preservation compliance). I had a bet with the City's Zoning Administrator that someone would turn up to complain that the house was too small.
Well, nobody showed up to complain - and within a half hour the meeting was over. Our grading plan now has a big "APPROVED" stamp on it; and with the grading plan approved, we can now go and collect the remaining signatures on our building permit. The hope is that within the next day or two, we'll have our building permit issued as well.
And then, we waits.
Our contract for the land is structured so that we close 30 days (to allow for appeals) after issuance of the building permit - we wanted to avoid owning an unbuildable lot. So our next challenge is to find financing. As Mike wrote in an earlier post, Debbie Perper is working hard for us on that aspect. Tentatively, we've scheduled closing for the middle of November, more than a year since we first started this process.
I should say that everyone at the City has been wonderful, especially in working around the fact that we don't technically own the lot yet - all plan and permit approvals are typically issued to the property owner, and only after tree protection and sediment control has been put in place. But with a few quickly drawn-up letters of agreement (we agree to put tree preservation and sediment control measures in place within 7 days after closing on the lot) we were able to work around this. I'm sure not every municipality is this helpful.
It feels like we're on the home stretch.
At least until we start with the building portion!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Appraisal Coming Soon

One aspect of obtaining a construction loan is getting an appraisal for the project (land value + building value). Given the volatility of the financial markets this past week, we were understandably a bit concerned about how the appraiser would view our project. Tonight we received an email from our mortgage broker stating the following:

Just an FYI that the appraiser loves the plans. Here is some of what he has told me:

We are working on Falls Church property. It is an inspiration what they are doing.

The subject property is extremely close to West Falls Church Metro, where there is to be a large new town to be built this Spring.

They are so smart and got a great price on the lot too. Brilliant! Appraised value will indicate an entrepreneurial profit after all costs (acquisition & construction). $X-$X at the end of the day.

Again it is such a blessing/inspiration to be a part of this process. I repeatedly communicate to people of how great open floor plans/contemporary architecture is. My favorite modern edifices are Dulles Airport, the East Gallery and Falling Water.”

We should see a report early next week I hope.

The appraisal is the key ingredient for our financing. Without financing, there's no Falls Church Erdhaus. Needless to say, this email made our day. Sorry for X-ing out the numbers in the quote above, but you understand.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Canadian Center for Architecture

I'm in Montreal, Canada for work this week for meetings at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The U.S. Delegation met for dinner this evening and since we all share an interest in architecture, visited the Canadian Center for Architecture. The CCA had an exhibit called, "Some Ideas on Living in London and Tokyo by Stephen Taylor and Ryue Nishizawa". It was quite an enjoyable exhibit; the contemporary design of the Tokyo architecture was quite appealing to me and both architects were effective in their use of very small lots. Here's how the CCA describes this exhibit:

"The exhibition marks the first North American presentation of residential projects by Taylor and Nishizawa and reveals their ideas addressing the challenges of building homes in existing city environments. Due to their scale, extensive built environment, and existing efforts to grow the city from within, London and Tokyo face similar urban development issues but occupy cultural contexts in which themes of proximity, privacy, community, and public space take on different meanings and require distinct solutions."

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Financing in Today's Market

In an earlier post, I discussed the house design and noted we were planning 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. That's in-line with the concepts put forth by Sarah Susanka and other followers of the "Not So Big House" philosophy. However, the banks probably don't subscribe to that philosophy and we've been advised by our mortgage broker to finish the 3rd bedroom on the lower level so the house will be a 3 bedroom/2 bath house. That's a little extra money and more work for us up front, but should help significantly in the valuation of the house so we can get the necessary bank financing to make this project a reality!

Are We There Yet?

Whenever folks ask when we'll be in the new house, my standard response is, "hopefully this time next year." I've been saying that for about 6 months now. This process reminds me of the many family vacations where I sat in the back of the car asking, "are we there yet?" for hundreds of miles, driving my parents crazy. The patience that was required on my part was always worth the reward of the vacation destination. I'm sure the same will be true of the house construction project. (Of course another benefit of the house project, unlike the vacation, is there's no tortuous drive home - once the house is built, we'll already be home!)

And there are signs we might be getting closer to the construction phase. The fine folks in the City of Falls Church had some questions about the tree preservation plan and the grading plan. The companies that developed those plans finished their work in response to the City's questions/concerns at the end of last week, so the revised plans can be submitted to the City at the start of this week. Hopefully our vendors did their work properly and the City will soon issue the building permit. Once we have that, we'll schedule the closing for the land and line up the tree removal company, excavator, and concrete company for the footers and foundation prep. Hopefully, we'll be able to break ground by early November before it gets too cold and the ground freezes!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Amicus Green Building

After I published the last blog, I thought of something else I wanted to mention - that is a store in Kensington, MD that specializes in environmentally-friendly products. The store is called Amicus Green Building supply. We got a quote for our kitchen cabinets from them and we're planning to buy our soy-based stain for the concrete floor there. We're also intrigued with a product called American Earth Clay plaster. I received an email from Amicus promoting a seminar on applying this plaster yourself and called within two days of getting the email. But by the time I called the class was filled. So I'm now on their waiting list.

Check out American Clay at and Amicus at

Bad Blogger

I was reminded yesterday and today that I haven't been a good blogger. Unfortunately, not a lot has been going on with the house. The City of Falls Church had some comments on the building permit application, so the architect turned his changes around rapidly. It has taken longer than I expected for The Care of Trees to finish the tree preservation plan changes and for Huntley Nyce & Associates to finish the grading plan changes. But we hope that those changes will be complete soon and the City can then finish its review of the building permit. If no more changes are required, we could have a permit soon. Or not.

Once we have the permit, we will schedule the closing on the land (we haven't purchased the land yet, but will do so approximately one month after we get the building permit).

We've been working with the mortgage broker on the financing package details (we'll now finish the third bedroom on the lower level to have a 3BR/2BA house -- with rough-in plumbing for a third bath -- which will help increase the appraisal for the loan). The quotes for some of the work came in higher than we were originally led to believe they would by our construction manager, Chad, with UBuildIt, but we've been working to get those bids down to much more reasonable quotes for today's (slow) construction market. We want the subcontractors to make enough of a profit that they can afford to eat, but we don't want to pay them so much money that we won't be able to afford to eat once we're in the house!

I've traded messages with my insurance agent about the necessary coverages for a construction project, since we'll be the general contractors, and I hope we'll be able to
talk in real time soon.

Let me know if you have any a comment and tell me what you're thinking.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Bit About Our House Design

Another of the good things about our future neighborhood in Falls Church is that there's no one prevailing architectural style. Glancing up and down the street, one sees old farm houses, craftsman style homes, colonials, cape cods, ranches, and even some contemporaries. So our little house will fit right in -- it's yet another style (green modern, in the absence of another name to describe the architectural genre of our house) to compliment the diversity of the neighborhood.

Our house is one level plus a full basement. 2 bedrooms with 2 bathrooms. Each bedroom suite is positioned on an end of the house, with the master suite at the back of the house (eastern exposure, quietest part of the lot). In the center of the house is an open floor plan great room, with kitchen, dining, and living rooms. There are five sliding glass doors on the south side and three on the north side, with a deck surrounding the house to allow for an indoor-outdoor flow during parties, etc.

As you see from the sketch, there's a "shed roof" rising towards the southern sun, bringing the ceiling from about 9 feet to about 15 feet. This helps prevent the small house from feeling too small while allowing more winter sun to warm the house.

We are going for a modern look, without the coldness that some modern homes project. Our friends and family are welcome in our home and we look forward to (some day) opening our doors to you.

Not Much Action

Not much new to report. We're still shopping and pulling together the list of fixtures, etc. for the detailed budget. We had a conference call on Friday with Chad Hackmann from UBuildIt to touch base on the bids he has been receiving for the hard core house structure(framing, foundation, etc.).

While on the Eastern Shore for my cousin's wedding, we reviewed the list of licensed tree companies in the City of Falls Church and paid Dan (my sister's fiancee) $20 to call all of them for their email addresses and fax numbers. We sent the tree preservation plan to several of the companies and we're awaiting bids on pricing to cut down the trees that need to be removed. We've also asked them to suggest a sawyer or mill that could cut then kiln dry some of the trees to our specs so that we can re-use the wood in the house.

While we've been staying on top of these details, there's no major progress to report.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Shopping Mania, Learning from Those Who Go Before Us

While the application for building permit is under review by the City, we are now searching for everything that will go in the house, from bathroom tiles, to toilets and wash basins, to cabinets, to windows and doors. There's so much to consider, we've developed a 33 page Word file to capture ideas of what we like, including descriptions, photos, and (importantly) prices. There's so much that we like that's simply out of our price range. For example, we really love Paperstone countertops as an option. They're environmentally-friendly, using up to 100% of post-consumer waste paper. Paperstone is made from cellulose fiber (paper) and a non-petroleum phenolic resin derived in part from a natural phenolic oil in the shells of cashews. I love cashews! But at $3,000, one wonders if the less environmentally-friendly formic option might make more sense given our budget constraints.

Yesterday, during our shopping excursion, we visited Amicus Green Building Center ( in Kensington, MD. I've wanted to go there for a year or so, but now had a real reason to visit their showroom. It was smaller than I expected, but they had a good variety of products suitable for our green home. The sales guy we talked with (Trevor) seemed excited when we told him our architect was John Spears with the Sustainable Design Group. Trevor showed us some kitchen cabinet options, called "EcoFriendly" (, soy based concrete stain for the floors, the Paperstone referenced above, and American Clay plaster, which we're considering for the walls.

After spending a couple of hours at Amicus, I drove Andreas to see the Hartnett House (see the link to the right for Mr. Hartnett's blog), which is under construction in Montgomery County, not too far from the Amicus store in Kensington. Andreas was impressed with the Compressed Earth Bricks (CEBs). But we both were concerned about the forms that were installed to hold the
concrete as it's poured to form the vertical pillars, locking in the CEBs. In a few areas, the forms were not strong enough to hold the weight of the concrete. As a result, the plywood appeared to bow, pulling the nails out of the CEBs, creating a "potbelly" appearance in those the columns, and in some cases, shifting the CEBs, so there were gaps between the bricks.

We're counting our blessings having someone go through this process with the same team right before we do. All of these challenges seem manageable, especially if we know about them beforehand and can take appropriate precautions, since we're able to learn from the mistakes of the pioneers.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Please Disturb Responsibly

Just a small side note on our building permit application. The State of Virginia requires listing a "Responsible Land Disturber (RLD)" on the building permit application. The RLD is the person responsible for ensuring erosion and sediment control during the construction process. Well, since we don't have a general contractor (who would usually be the RLD), we have to do this ourselves.
The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation certifies you online (; you pay $90 and then take an open-book test. I am proud to say I got 100% correct and am now a Responsible Land Disturber. But that also means that I now have to be out on the lot all the time to check on mud fences, and all the other good stuff we'll have to put up to make sure our neighbors' gardens don't get flooded with our dirt.
As long as I get to wear my hard hat!

Monday, July 14, 2008

So You Wanna Build a House?

I'm not sure what led us to the point of wanting to build a house. I've always loved houses in general: architecture, design, and construction. When I was a kid, I used to bike through the city I grew up in to look at the different styles of houses. I've kept my eye on the real estate market, wandered through open houses on occasion, and drew house plans and elevations for houses I thought would be cool to live in.

As the DC real estate market started to cool off, it seemed to me that it might be a good time to look at what options might be available. We casually looked at several homes, all of which had a list of problems that would require extensive renovations. At the price point for these homes, renovating wouldn't be in the budget for years to come. Many of these houses were extremely energy inefficient. Others were simply out-dated with 1980's kitchen cabinets and linoleum flooring. None of them were modern design. And the vast majority of them were huge, with bedroom after bedroom that would go unused.

Several years ago, Mom and Bill had bought me a subscription to Dwell Magazine, which contained many homes that were really cool looking, and which seriously introduced me to the concept of a "green" house as a viable option. They keep renewing the subscription and I read each issue religiously, learning with each turn of the page. Then a lightbulb went off in my head (or maybe Andreas said it often enough that I finally heard it). Why not build what we want rather than move into someone else's house and modify that to meet our needs?

And that's the start of the journey. In future posts, I'll write some more about the path we went down, considering pre-fab (of different shapes and sizes) and detail some stumbles we had along the way. Many people have helped us significantly with our learning process, and we've put together a good team that have counseled us through the planning and implementation phases. I'll introduce you to some of those folks too. More to come...

Does This Phase You At All?

It's been almost a week since I've posted an entry to the blog. I was hoping to have some news of some sort to report, but that hasn't been the case. Chad with UBuildIt Bethesda (I'll blog about who Chad is and what UBuildIt is in a bit) has sent out out house plans for bids for the foundation and other early stage projects of the construction. But no word back on that as of yet.

Since I began this blog with the "Implementation Phase" (which I think of as the period after we applied for the building permit up until we break ground and start the "Construction Phase"), I thought it would be helpful to add some posts that discuss the "Planning Phase". For the next few weeks, I'll bounce back and forth between Planning and Implementation. So you will get a sense of what brought us to this point while I keep you current on where things are at as we move forward.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Final (?) Word on Trees, for now

The decision has been made -- with many thanks to those who both posted comments and emailed your input privately. The maple tree will go. BUT, it will be replaced with another maple tree, and a multitude of other new trees on the lot. One friend, who always offers sage advice, suggested:

"if you cut it down, can you somehow take the seeds from it to plant elsewhere? That way, the tree wouldn't technically be "gone," just moved and given a second chance."

We'll give that a try and see how it works. We'll also work hard to ensure the tree is not turned into mulch, but cared for appropriately so it can be made into beautiful furniture that will live for many years to come in someone's home. Who said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression?!?!

In order to provide adequate canopy coverage in accordance with the City of Falls Church guidelines, we were informed today by Care of Trees (the consultants we hired for the tree preservation plan) that we needed to coverage on 900 sq.ft. of the lot, based on a 10 year sq.ft. coverage projection. We've selected the following trees:

Tree Location Points
Red Maple Front yard/west side of lot (replaces maple to be cut down) 145
Red Bud NorthEast side of courtyard wall 96
Paw Paw In courtyard area - to the East of the Red Bud 75
Canada Service Berry Back yard behind house - 1st tree at North side of lot 96
Tulip Poplar Back yard behind house - 2nd tree at North side of lot - very NorthEast corner 202
Fringe Tree Back yard behind house - Slightly SouthWest of Tulip Poplar 65
Yellow Wood Back yard behind house - very SouthEast corner of lot 145

Including a diversity of trees, rather than repetition, should give us bonus points of 10%, which puts us just over 900 sq.ft. coverage -- the threshold we have to meet. We'll see if the tree experts agree that this is a good plan, or if it's a disaster waiting to happen. When building a house, I never imagined we'd spend this much time on "trees", but they're important and add so much value. The return on the investment will be immeasurable.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Tree Preservation, Part 2

I've been thinking more about that old maple tree and whether we should replace it or try to save it. For the required canopy coverage, we probably need that tree to have enough points. (Although replanting new trees will get us points too.) However, we will have to dig a trench from the front of the lot to the house in order to bring the utilities from the street to the house. Given the location of the electricity connection at the street, that means the trench must pass right through the maple tree. Trenching around the tree surely will harm its root system. And given the age of the tree, the roots certainly are across the entire 40' width of our lot. So anywhere we trench will damage the roots, right?

While the "greenest" option might be saving the tree, cutting the tree down and using the wood in some way on the property and planting a new tree in that spot also would be green. It's not an easy decision to take a life. Stay tuned.

Tree Preservation

Like us, the City of Falls Church is progressive and environmentally conscious. As part of the building permit process, we have to submit a tree preservation plan. Yesterday morning, I met with the city arborist, who is a great guy and extremely helpful, and the company that's developing the plan for us. All of the trees on the property have suffered from years of neglect. When building green, it's ideal to save as many mature trees as possible. We also want to ensure the trees are appropriate for our region and non-invasive. Some trees are so badly damaged that they'll need to be removed. We'll replant with appropriate new trees.

One of the biggest decisions, though, is what to do with an old, red maple tree that's at the very front of the lot. As you can see in this photo take late last Autumn, the tree has some storm damage and vines growing throughout the entire tree (English Ivy and poison ivy).

It will cost $$ and significant effort to protect the tree from construction activity and bring it back to a beautiful state. But there's always a chance the tree won't survive construction -- ours or the inevitable next-door construction after someone buys that old, dilapidated, white farmhouse and tears it down to build a new home.

We're fairly certain we're going to work to save this tree and clean it up, rather than cutting it down and planting a new one. Any and all thoughts are welcome
, though.

First Blog, First Post

Hi. Over the next several months, I hope you will enjoy following my journey as I blog about the construction of our new, home in the City of Falls Church, Virginia. I'll share what we're learning about building an environmentally-friendly house and invite your feedback throughout the process.

This blog was created the week we applied for our building permit, which is about 9 months into the process for us. Between postings about the construction, I'll insert retrospective blurbs from the previous 9 months to more fully share the joys (and pains) of planning to construct a new home.