Appraisor my appraisor

Not surprisingly, I'll take out some construction financing that will later become a mortgage. In a bit, a third-party-assigned fellow with a rigid set of guidelines will show up at the project and tell me, the bank, and all who want to know just what the place will be worth. It's a sad and yet intriguing prospect. The game is clear, and the rules set in place to minimize the fraud and greed too often running rampant when we are left to our own devices. These rules are even more stringent with the backlash against the blather of the recent mortgage system meltdown. Bad extra bureaucracy to solve the problems of bad unregulated business. ouch

We are told that our home will be worth what other homes within a half mile circumference or less that have sold within 6 months or less that have about the same square footage... or less?

cha cha cha.

I'm thankful that for years Maxine and I have built up the sweat equity to be asking only for a fraction of this probable low appraisal. Our loan-to-value ratio should set the bank at ease. cha cha cha...

I struggle for the occasional client of ours, though, who is told by the bank that the appraisal doesn't pan out, sometimes with some banker-nobody who doesn't know or wouldn't understand what we do suggesting that perhaps... the price is too high...according to this appraisal...which uses the comps of bloated starter castles of plastic siding and granite flash.

Well, 25 years later, we're still bucking the odds and enjoying the ride.

Sent the gang home today at noon. Yesterday the air was 103, today it was to be 104, tomorrow we're told 105. Our rental house is so hot we can't leave the basement.


How to lose a client...

Here's a letter just sent to a very nice lady for whom we probably won't work. She's too far away. She also mentioned that although she wants to be green, the local building costs were.... an amount that won't get a truly green home, I fear. Did give me a chance to think out loud, though...

"Dear _____________,

"Thanks for the time on the phone today, and for your interest. I loved the floor plan you sent: concise, personal and yet welcoming and friendly. As much as most of us need.

"If you visit our website, timberframe-postandbeamhomes.com, or peruse our brochures, you’ll see our homes tend toward the woody and natural. While many of our homes are often large, we are known for what is called green, or sustainable, building. I define sustainability with four major points: 1) advanced thermal and mechanical systems; 2) thoughtful and renewable sourcing of materials; 3) longevity in structural enclosure systems, and; 4) high levels of design and craft. I'll break them down a bit more.
"It's no longer a dream to build homes that take little to heat and cool, use water efficiently, and provide fresh air to the inhabitants. Honestly, we've known how to do this since the early 80's, but recently it really feels like people are taking the information more seriously. This includes better levels of insulation, (and no fiberglas!), modulating furnace and air conditioning units that can self-regulate down to very low levels of demand, home-sourced alternative energy like photovoltaics for electricity and solar hot water, heat recovering ventilators, water-efficient plumbing fixtures (dual-flush toilets have been used in Europe for fifty years, for gosh sakes,) and rain-water harvesting systems. All of these items can be considered on their individual merit and project applicability, but frankly, most should be non-optional.
"The embodied energy that goes into each of our building products is now being considered more carefully. Natural and renewable resources like lightly processed stone and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood lead the list, of course. Major manufacturers are “green washing” us all the time as they try to convince us that their own highly processed polymer products are the new answer. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Locally sourced products, while not the most important issue, should always be considered first.
"Oregon and New York alike have seen their share of building system failures due to poor detailing of rain planes and resultant moisture problems. Again, we've known many of the correct methods since the early 80's, but have failed to act on them. This is partly due to laziness in most builders, and the fact that the market (our clients) push for cheaper houses that go up faster. Greed is a major factor for both provider and end user, though I have to give the former the larger share of the blame. For some reason we don't give the builder (or for that matter the residential architect/designer,) the professional status that perhaps we do for lawyers and doctors, in spite of the equally important role these professionals play. We rely on regulatory agencies, and they have caved to special interests. No surprise there.
"Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I believe true sustainability to be closely linked to the timelessness of great design, and the beauty of fine craft. Both inspire us to love and maintain a building, create meaningful work, establish a "high bar" for every one involved on the project, and better use the resources at hand. I fear that part of the reason the "energy efficiency" movement of the early 80's died was that most of those homes were ugly, and poorly made.
"As a side note, I don't link timber framing, which is gorgeous, and what we're best known for, is directly and solely tied with great green building. It can be an important asset in of all of the 4 tenants as described, but they can all be done without a timber to be seen."

And on to the end. Made me think. You? Does this jibe? Here's a picture of Maxine talking to a group of designers and builders at the house this past Saturday from the local Earth Advantage Institute. We've gotten a warm reception in this incredible city.



Fired the insulation company today. Up and kicked them off the site, before they could get started. A truck full of the wrong stuff...

I felt bad for the installer, for as usual, the trouble with labor is management, and as I am want to add, the trouble with management is ownership. In this case, the poor guy looked on helplessly, trying to find a pleasant word, something reassurring, in spite of the sad clarity of the moment.

I'm a cellulose guy. It's chewed up newspaper that insulates, and therefore has very low embodied energy in its life cycle, breathes well, minds its own business. I ask for only a few details: that the additive used for vermin and fire retardation be boric acid, an easily achieved derivative of the naturally occurring mineral borate, and that the sidewalls be wet sprayed, using only water to bond with the starches in the formula. The former because it's effective and inoculous compared to aluminum sulfite, the cheaper alternative; the latter because in vertical applications cellulose can settle (gravity wins again,) except that in my 25 damn years of experience with the stuff, in a proper wet spray application that cannot possibly happen.

So what do you think management of this particular company was thinking when they sent out the truck with an installer who looked visibly uncomfortable, and a truck full of insulation with aluminum sulfite-processed cellulose. Here's a close up of the warning on the packaging:
In case you can't see it, let me read the inscription: "NOT FOR USE IN SPRAY-APPLIED WALL APPLICATION." The reason for this is that aluminum sulfite, when mixed with water, can do some nasty outgassing at about the same time that it is turning very mean and corrosive. Add to that my own decision simply not to want aluminum sulfite in my home, nor to support its resource-intensive manufacture.

My not-so-complex question algorythm is 1) are they crooks, or 2) are they stupid, or 3) which would you like to entrust with the thermal performance of your home?

On the bright side, here's a pic of Scott and Val finishing up installation (correctly) of the clerestory windows.

I liked Maxine adding her touch in the previous post, even if it sounded a bit cheerleader-y for the home team. I think she has even more to say. I'll ask her about the color struggle she's having with natural clay plasters...


Maxine Speaks Up (at last.)

Some of you blog readers have been wondering just when I (Maxine) might be offering up a view on this house building process. I've been composing vignettes in my mind for a long time and the other day one too fitting bubbled out.

It was a beautiful day and Jake and I had been motoring around town and on the way home we were quiet for a long while just taking it all in (we're both incorrigible daydreamers). Jake finally broke the silence with this question: "Who knows more, you or Daddy?" "Well," I started out out tentatively "probably Daddy, he's a really smart guy..." "Like he knows more about building than you do, right?" "Yes," I replied, "he absolutely knows more about that than I do." We continued the discussion in this vein for a bit then I broadened the topic and reminded him that it can be hard to quantify "who knows more" for each of us naturally gravitates toward what is of personal interest. Seeming like the perfect teaching moment, I went on to explain that one of the greatest benefits of community is the collective knowledge that's gained and shared. There's an almost magical interdependence that makes the whole so much stronger, smarter and more interesting than just the sum of its parts. There was another long stretch of silence as we both pondered that.

I can't speak for what was going through Jake's mind then but I know it didn't take long for me to start thinking about all that's right about Timber Frame Homes by New Energy Works and our quirky little community. Jonathan and I had been talking not too long ago about a recently completed project a NY mag was interested in covering. The owners wanted to maintain their anonymity and Jonathan was worried that it may not be as interesting to readers without that sense of personal connection. As the reader of way too many articles on houses and house design I pointed out that this is common practice and that it just doesn't get much more personal than the process of design and build that happens at New Energy Works. In a design/build project the 5 working groups (design, timberframing/engineering, construction, fine woodworking and our sister company Pioneer Millworks) are right there in the process with the client and with one another basically from day one. Working together makes us better at designing spaces, at building shelter, at leaving a legacy of craftsmanship. The disconnect that can happen doesn't. It's amazing to be able to walk over to the folks in design (or fine woodworking, or Pioneer etc) and say "Hey, I was thinking it might be interesting to..." or "wouldn't it be great to..." and we figure it out together. I love that. Reinventing the wheel each time isn't the easiest way to build or design but the challenge seems a little less daunting when surrounded by the community of knowledge. I personally have always loved going on site and talking with the guys, trying to get some basic understanding of what makes it harder or easier.

The interiors phase of Vermont Street is ramping up so I've been busy detailing things, which always leads to more questions than answers. I've tried to make time the past couple of months to bake more. It's not for us but for "the guys"at the future home. You see, being new to me they don't really realize the pot of trouble I'm cooking up in my mind when it comes to finish work so I'm trying to sweeten it up at least literally. I get ideas that I don't have execution plans for - I'm smart enough to know that these patient and talented guys will know how to build it better than me.

Editor's note: That article Maxine mentions is just on the newstands this week in Rochester Magazine. Don't ask me what newstands, though.

a breath of fresh air

There are times when I'm very detail oriented, and, well, there are other times. I know a good deal about the mechanical systems of homes, and am learning more now. The main thing I have learned in the last 6 weeks is that I know significantly less than I thought, and less than I want.

We're using a heat recovering ventilator (HRV), in our case by Fantech. Unlike other mechanical systems, we've spec'd and installed it ourselves. (Or just about, as we've just a couple of more ducts to run before insulation plugs up our wall cavities on Wednesday.) The idea is that homes that are well built don't have enough natural air changes to dissuade indoor air pollution and built-up moisture caused by offgassing surfaces, cooking, showering, and living our dang modern life.

An HRV takes air from the bathrooms, laundry room, and kitchen and sends it outside through a central ventilator that at the same time is bringing fresh air in and supplying it to living and sleeping areas. The cold, dry, fresh outside air is pre-warmed by the stale but warm indoor air with the use of air-to-air heat exchange. They claim about 65% efficiency, which I guess means that about about 2/3rds of the latent btu's in the outgoing air are recovered in the pre-warming.

Maybe. This air can feel cold to me. One mistake I made years ago was to bring it into a closet. Wasn't long before I got a call wondering why there was mildew on the clothes. Turned out that the cooler air in the volume of the smaller space couldn't hold moisture suspended, so the dew point was being reached, causing condensation which in turned caused fungal growth.

Still, you have to have fresh air, bathroom fans are wasteful, in most climates keeping the windows open enough isn't practical, and 65% isn't all that bad, really. I figure almost all homes built today are too tight to assume enough natural ventilation, so as long as you have to buy the equipment anyway, it may as well REALLY have a job to do! For years we have tested for envelope leakage using blower doors to put the home under a vacuum and found that our homes hover around one tenth of an air change (.1 ACH) per hour in natural pressure. This is extraordinarily low, and can account for some tremendous energy savings. ASHRAE standards suggest that this be boosted to a controlled ACH between .25 and .35.

In a home with air ducts for heating and cooling, we have tapped directly into those for distributing the fresh air. The Vermont Street Project is foregoing air conditionong and is heating with a combination of radiant tubes in the basement slab and European-style wall hung radiators in the main two floors. With no ducts already there, we've run our own 4 and 5" rigid pipe, winding around the plumbing (oh why didn't we beat them to that joist space?), always counting our static pressure (SP) losses, and adding a Panasonic low sone booster fan in the main bath, which is also the farthest spot with the highest SP, or resistance to the airflow.

The unit runs all the time, at a low rate of 60 cubic feet per minute (CFM). When you step into the bath room, you hit a remote timer which kicks the unit up to 150 CFM for either 15, 30 or 60 minutes. Neither 60 or even 150 CFM is much when spread throughout an average house volume, yet the job will get done, noise is all but eliminated, and fresh air is inexpensively introduced.

Like all high performance operations, this house will require tuning. We're sure to experience some unbalanced airflow, and I'm undecided whether to run the unit in good weather, when windows really will be open. We'll watch this system and make our call as we live the home.


oysters and holiday weekends

Two new things for Jake River this week: He went to Tae Kwon Do in his new uniform, and he ate his first oyster. Liked it, a lot. We were grilling shrimp, and I threw on a couple of big Pacifics in their gnarly shells as an afterthought. He looked them over, pulled back his shoulders and said, "Hey, can I try one?"

I tell the story, perhaps too often, of Sierra being the fourth generation Orpin to eat raw gulf oysters at the Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter. My great grandfather was there when it opened in 1913, and we've been wolfing them ever since. Out here in the Pacific Northwest, there is a far greater variety than those big slimy monsters in Louisiana. Designer oysters whose price per dozen goes UP the smaller they get. Go figure. Here's an oyster note I shared with a friend last night:

"...a favorite northwest recipe for when there's no one around but you and a good bottle of red wine and it's late but hey you gotta eat and ain't you a man anyway? Take some Hama Hama oysters (west side of the Hood Canal) and dust 'em good with finely ground corn meal with some salt and pepper, fry them in olive oil and garlic. When they're still soft put them aside and throw on some barely-wet-from-washing spinach leaves for just 30-40 seconds. Put an oyster on a baguette or whatever bread is handy (sliced thin), then some brie (yes I KNOW....boring... but this is the right place for brie, trust me,) a dab of the spinach and wham... heaven. Repeat. Try dabbing the bread in the garlic-y oil. Don't forget the red wine. And it doesn't have to be Hama Hama oysters, I just like that family... they reminded me of the Stampers of Sometimes a Great Notion when I walked their timber lands last year."

Sierra was 9 when she first had those oysters in New Orleans. We were on an extended adventure through the southeast, and this picture of her standing by a sinker cypress log deep in rural Florida is from that trip, so we can compare her first oyster eating age with Jake's above. Conclusion? Hmmm, none really. Perhaps if we see how she turned out...

Motorcycles. Okay, I admit it. You shouldn't feed young children oysters, or they'll grow up to ride motorcycles. I'm sending Jake to a monastery, while he still has a chance to mend his ways.

A co-worker wrote yesterday, "Hey I know you're busy, but I'm jonesing for my Vermont Street Blog fix. How's the house coming?" A gentle prod using kind words indeed. Little did she know that it's not really that I'm busy, but that I have gone ABSOLUTELY MAD! We've spent all waking hours since the last post on specs and deadlines, and when we sleep, we dream of the project. I wake up from sweaty circular dreams of wiring and radiators with relief, that it was only a dream, to find that the day ahead is to be filled with wiring diagrams for LED lighting and heating schematics for the radiators.

To be fair to you and the project, I need to break these down, and share them. Tonight though, the task is insurmountable. Friend and client David Hughes said today as I chatted on about heat recovering ventilators, "Mmmm, I can see that for me, this would all lead no where, as I am smart enough to be satisfied not knowing everything there is about buildings and their related technologies. You, on the other hand, don't have any such luxury. It is your job to know everything, and you can't ignore this simple but hard fact."

Thanks Dave. Later for you, bub.