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.