"Let the Games Begin"

Lordie I hate cliche's, particularly in their overused forms by headline writers. But when Maxine turned and whispered these words to me on site today, while glancing around at corner stakes, elevation pins and the big Kubota excavator in which Jake was sitting, searching for the keys, it worked for me. Her eyes were big, my heart was beating. This project has begun.
I say that design is a process, not a product. You'll hear this again. If you are a client of mine, you'll hear it often. This is as true for us as it is with any, and without this sensitivity to on-site adjustments, a project simply can't blossom as it might. So sure enough Maxine and I jumped right in and changed the lower level exit door location today, based on site contours and traffic flow.

The land will teach you much about the house design. It did today, stopping us from stepping out our lower level onto what would have had to be a set of stairs or a platform as the slope continued it decline off the west side.


builder or project manager

Jake River came home from school shouting, "There's a large track-hoe excavator on the site! Let's go look at it. Do you know how to run one? There are directions on the side..." Mmmm... which is better, to admit to my own son I would be VERY dangerous on one of those things, even if I could figure it out, or nod quietly with a "that's so cool," and ask him if he's hungry for milk and cookies?

It is pretty cool indeed to see the site equipment arriving. Dirt flies on Monday. One of our West Coast timber framers will be there, directing, answering questions, monitoring quality. I'll stop by, if there's time between two more solar designer interviews, a conversation with the lumber yard manager about the project and FSC wood, and the day to day work at NEW and PMW. Therein lies the difference between the builder and the project manager: He with the most patience, steady-handed organizational skills, and stick to-it-ness gets the role of implementor. Me, I'm a reasonable mentor but lack the imple. A PM needs focus, a set of specs and as little distraction from those two as possible. I'll do the specs: That there are thousands of hours of design, re-design, research, interviews, debates and calculations is where I come in. How a home is built today without this intensive level of thought and participation is the topic of another day's rant.

Today, for instance, I met with two renewable energy guys, the sharp-as-a-tack, hip and designer glasses engineer, and the veteran survivor of the Ronald-Reagan-tear-the-solar-system-off-the-White-House years. We began to map out the solar domestic hot water, and delved into the project photovoltaic opportunities for the time. Just this one topic will take perhaps 60 hours of interviews, specifications, negotiations and integration, and I am starting from a relatively knowledgeable platform of 25 years. This is just for the solar-assist.

I can't tell you the system specifics of where I'm leaning right yet, as it would be impolite. The gist is two 4'x8' solar hot water panels that heat propylene glycol by sending it through black painted copper tubes behind glass on the roof. The energy picked up is exchanged with potable water and then supplemented by, in our case, a tankless gas-fired water heater. In portland, sun should take care of half to two thirds of our needs in showers, baths etc. Questions like closed loop vs. drained back and DC vs AC pumps lead the long list of specifics TBD.

Photovoltaics is easier. (Einstein's only Nobel prize was in photovoltaics; the conversion of sun light to electricity.) All the panel suppliers seem to use the same datum: dollar per watt installed. And all the components look to have long and reasonable equal life spans and consistency. Although a still a long payback, if there is money in the budget at the end, it is extraordinary insurance against rising energy costs. State and federal incentives make it low hanging fruit. Gotta do it, just gotta.


downright civil

Maxine, having read the last entry, writes, "Okay, all that harshness on the inside towards the city (that you’ve screamed over and over again inside your head) absolutely wasn’t heard in your latest blog entry. Downright civil actually."

I'm pleased, I think.

Another friend writes at his surprise at the $26,000 permit fee. I was wrong. It turned out to be $29,000 and change. This DOES NOT include the fees for additional third party testing of concrete (two site visits), soils compaction and erosion engineer (multiple site visits,) and a variety of other soon to be revealed fees and costs, having nothing to do with the cost of building, nor do they count the costs of the additional staff and engineering time to prep or then administer, including delays. In rural New York, we might see an inspector twice, and no more than 4 times. Here in Portland, the average home reguires 30-40 site inspections. We're not sure, but we think we'll be seeing between 60 and 80!

There is a joke among the builders and architects I am meeting in OR that Portland is the city that talks about change and innovation and then stops you from doing it. Certainly we are blessed with being able to push forward through this grist. How many can? My sense is that the city has so far cost us our solar PV array, at least . We'll see.

The money wasted has to come from somewhere. For most, it results in vinyl windows, lesser insulation, shallower craft. Asphalt composite shingles replace early goals of metal, (recyclable), and items like sustainably harvested wood products and higher efficiency appliances give way to lower cost models. The architectural process is deemed a budget casualty and builders offer stock and lowest-common-denominator plans to overwhelmed clients.

Maxine and yet another pleasant (i mean that) Portland bureaucrat.

My libertarian friends are having their way with me right now, and even I find it hard to stay in bounds of my good-government belief structure. Like so many things that started out to right an obvious problem, building and zoning codes are necessary. And like so many institutions, this one has grown out of sync as it matures into a series of mindsets based on fear.

So now it's midnight somewhere as I fly over the heartland from a great week in NY to home, ready to fondle my stamped plans, lick my wounds and build. Tomorrow I give a seminar at the Everything Green Oregon conference on salvaged wood in construction, and next week we'll be setting silt fences, starting the driveway, and interviewing renewable energy partners. I'm pretty excited to discuss our domestic hot water ideas, soon.

I'm also pretty excited to wake up to my little family on Valentine's Day. A happy one to you, also.


A Building Permit


"Believe it or not, Jonathan, Susan G. from the city just called me and said the permit is ready to be picked up." came the message from Doug Murray, my project manager for this home.

I... am not sure what to say.

An honest and large flood of emotions will wash over me, I'm sure of it, any moment. By golly they can't take that away from me, can they? Lessee... they've taken 9 months. They've taken the ability to do site work in the dry season. They've taken r-values here and there throughout the house as they've forced unneeded structure where good insulation should go in too many wall cavities. And tomorrow, when Doug and Maxine go to city hall to pick up this piece of paper they'll take 26 grand or so in fees. I definitely won't let them take away my well-deserved and thoroughly predictable shouts.

But there are no emotional yells just this minute, and, after an expectant pause, I'm deciding that I'm not going to worry about not being washed over with joy or something related. Just as I have the right to an emotional minute or more, I will also admit that I'm not even totally believing it and likely won't until Maxine (I'm in NY this week, and can appreciate even THAT bit of irony,) sees it. Tomorrow.

I also will admit that this also rings up the be-careful-what-you-wish-for syndrome, and now it's time to git 'er done. Now THAT has an exciting ring to it.

Hopefully, I'll also stop whining about the city. It could turn me into a Libertarian or something, like friend David Hughes with whom I skiied Bristol tonight, and for whom we designed and timberframed this killer boat house on Seneca Lake this summer. But JUST in case you're interested... you can go to portlandonline.com/bds, click on "permit search in the lower left corner, pick "permit number," put in 08-131489 (for the main house) or 08-131502 (for the studio) and YOU can see what I've been staring at for months of high-tech online capable fancy reporting good communicating and NONETHELESS huge amount of bureacracy. Have at 'er. Tell me what you think.