Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Three bids, and you're out

We made it through a minor milestone this week: the plan, including both the buliding plans and the landscaping plans, we're approved by the subdivision's architectural control committee. The house plan went through with no problems, the landscape plan is approved contingent on appropriate drainage. The next step is to get approval from the village's architectural review board. This step is required before we can get building permits.

I tried to make sure that we had everything necessary done before going to the village. We're hoping to raise the building about 3 or 4 feet higher than the developer initially had in mind for our lot. Why? So we can have a basement with a partial exposure, allowing more light into the basement. Since we're trying to deviate from the builder's master grading plan, I wanted to be sure that we had our ducks in a row ahead of time. We'll see how it goes.

We received our final builder bid last Saturday, so all three bids are in, and the verdict is...undecided. Prices from builders vary from 20% to 50% higher than we want to budget. Although we're disappointed, we're not too surprised. We've spent months researching new home construction techniques, processes, and materials. We asked for some pretty high quality construction, and quality is usually directly correlated with price.

We spent several months talking with builders. Some specialize in custom houses, mainly for the high-end market. Others produce their own line of spec houses--you can have anything you want, as long as you're okay with making small modifications to their stock plans. It took us awhile, but we found builders who specialized in building custom houses for the mid-market. All of them work on a "cost-plus" model, and they were very open with their pricing models. All of them were flexible enough to allow us to do some of the work ourselves to save money. But still, all of them are too expensive.

So now comes the next set of difficult decisions. We certainly can't afford to build a house for 50% more than our budget, so how will we hande this problem?

We have several options:

  • We could modify the plans to remove enough features or square footage (or both) to bring the cost more in line.

  • We could throw out the plan we have, and go instead with a stock model from a builder that is less expensive.

  • We could attempt to go the owner-builder route, where we would be our own general contractor. This would probably also require us to modify our plans and specs to reduce some expense.

There are pro's and con's to each option. At first glance, the first option (modifying the plan) sounds the most logical. But it took us quite a bit of time to get the plan to where it was exactly right for us. Making significant modifications really isn't an option we'd be happy with. The second option would certainly allow us to build, but we'd probably have to settle for something less than what we really want. Since I feel pretty strongly that we can build the house within our budget, Megan challenged me to prove it: now I have to bid on my own house...

So now I'll start getting bids from individual subcontractors. I've started to compile a list of subcontractors and material suppliers, and I'll start asking for bids next week.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

First bid is in

The first bid is in, and it doesn't look good. It was about 30% higher than we had hoped. We have the plans out for bid with two other builders, so we'll see where they come in. In the meantime, we have some renderings of the front and back of the house.
We love the front facade. It makes a big difference to see it in perspective. The side gables balance things out well. I actually like the right facade even better. Megan, however, likes the rear facade the most. I think I agree with her now.
When we looked at the elevations, we were worried about the left facade. There wasn't a lot of interest other than the garage doors. But really, what can you do with a garage? But looking at it in perspective, I guess it doesn't look so bad after all.
Kerry did a great job with the roof lines. Overall, we love it.
One of our next steps is to get approval to start building. And that requires approvals from two different groups: the village's architectural review board, and the subdivision's architectural control committee. The developer who initially developed the subdivision runs the architectural control committee so we need to start there.
Both groups need to see construction plans and site plans. The developer also wants to see colors and materials for the exterior. So we had to go through a few steps. We bought a flat lot, and we want a partial exposure on the right side, so we have raise the house a couple feet above where the master grading plan for the subdivision suggests. Which meant in addition to a survey, we also had to get a grading plan. We need to show the location of sidewalks, retaining walls, patio and driveway, so we hired a landscape architect to do a landscape plan for us.
The architectural review board only meets once a month. Before we can go before the board, we have to get developer approval. I tried to get everything done prior to the October meeting, but that didn't happen. I now have everything but the landscaping plan, which is going through a second revision right now. Hopefully, I'll make it in time for the November meeting, but it looks like December might be a better bet.
With the state of the real estate market, and the bids we're getting from builders, the delay isn't a big deal: we may not start the house for a while anyway.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The plan

The preliminary plans are done and out for bids. Before I talk about what was necessary to get the bids, I'll talk about the plans. Here's a simple rendering of the front of the house. The style is, as we asked for, influenced by the shingle style.
A small gable in the center, flanked by two larger gables over the garage and the dining room. Gables are clad with shingles, and we'll use Lannon stone (a local limestone) to decorate the front facade. We had some trouble with the front facade: Kerry began with two columns flanking the front door, but that left a big expanse of porch that appeared unsupported. He solved the problem by replacing the separate columns with a a double column centered on the porch. It looks better, but we might want some half-columns built on either side of the porch.

The first floor incorporates a number of design patterns. We decided to build over the family room, which means the house needs to maximize ceiling height without any two-story rooms (other than the foyer). So we used the varied ceiling height pattern to distinguish rooms from each other without putting physical walls between rooms. The dining room uses the long view pattern to look through the kitchen into the breakfast room. It uses the same pattern to get a diagonal view of the family room.

On the second floor, we decided to go with four bedrooms, even though the guest bedroom is located on the first floor. We wanted interesting features in each room so that none of them look like a box. The basement includes plenty of storage, as well as room for a rec room, bedroom, and theater. It also includes a workshop under the garage.
Those are the highlights. In the next post, I'll talk about how we prepared for the bidding process.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

More on Design

Kerry made great progress on the designs: the preliminary plans are just about complete. He came over to the house the other night to show us the progress he's made. Our initial meetings focused on the first floor. Later, we discussed the second floor. This time, we also looked at the foundation and exterior elevations. We loved what we saw. Just a few more minor modifications, a few more drawings (electrical, construction sections, etc.), and we'll have enough to send out for bids. When that happens, I'll post a copy of the plans.

Before I show the plans, I want to talk about a few great sources of information that we've used to get this far. There are several books that I think are absolutely necessary for anyone going through the design process. Probably our favorite is Home by Design: Inspiration for Transforming House into Home, by Sarah Susanka. This book is basically a collection of design patterns that you can use when designing your own house. There are probably more than 60 or 70 patterns in the book, and they cover everything from the importance of an entry to varied ceiling heights, and window placement. Home By Design is a follow-up to Susanka's Not So Big House, which became kind of a cult classic.

As good as the Susanka books are, it's worth noting that the idea of a design pattern, and even the basics for most of the patterns in the book, were conceptualized by an architect named Christopher Alexander thirty years earlier in A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Alexander, however, was a bit of a nut, and Susanka does a much better job of describing the patterns and providing great examples of the patterns in use.
There are quite a few books on construction techniques that are worth reading. I'll cover those in a future post.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Designing the House

As I said in the last post, we searched the online house plan sites for months without finding exactly what we were looking for. So we decided to hire an architect or designer. Once we made that decision, we had our next problem: where would we find one?

Since we started our plan search online, we figured an online architect search was a logical place to start. An easy first hit was Milwaukee Craftsman. We talked with Bruce Wydeven, the architect who owns the site. Some of his plans were listed on the Healthy Home Plans site, and we really liked them, but we wanted something a bit bigger. We found his site online, and contacted him. Bruce came out to talk with us, and it turned out that he wouldn't be available until the fall. After our initial discussion, we decided we really wanted to be done with the plans in the fall, not wait until then to start them.

So we kept on looking. Finding an architect locally is difficult. Finding one online is almost impossible. We searched everywhere. And we probably found sites for about 20 or more local architects online. But almost without exception, architects who advertise online are looking for commercial or very high end residential jobs.

Sharad, a colleague of mine at work, is building a house on Pewaukee Lake. He referred us to Kerry Sutton. Kerry used to design houses for a local homebuilder, and decided to strike out on his own last year. As soon as we met him, Megan and I were sure he would be able to design something we liked.

So we started the process of working with Kerry on a design. In our first meeting, we talked about what we liked and didn't like. We like a lot of the features of our current house: the rooms are a good size, and they flow into each other well. The bedroom on the first floor is isolated enough to be private. Ceilings, at about 9'6" are tall enough that you don't feel claustrophobic. The kitchen that we renovated has double ovens, a great cooktop, built-in refrigerator, and cherry cabinets. The exterior details are great: limestone foundation, and cedar shingles with a skirt all the way around the building.

There are also things we'd like to do differently. Built in 1903, the house really isn't very open. Rooms are distinct. We'd like for rooms on the first floor to be a little more open to each other. We weren't sure we wanted a two-story family room, but we certainly didn't want the typical 8-foot ceilings throughout the house. We have family get-togethers pretty frequently (several times a year), and need to be able to seat 35 people. A single dining room, even though it's pretty big, isn't quite enough.

We've been working with Kerry for a couple months now, and he's just about done with the first stage of the plans. So we'll be able to put the plans out for bids by contractors sometime next month.

Friday, July 6, 2007

House Plans and plans and plans

When you're building a house, the first step is to find (and buy) a lot, and the next step is to find a plan. That way you can be pretty sure that the plan you select can actually be built on your lot. Building lots usually have a number of restrictions, the most significant at this stage are the setbacks: how far away from the edges of the lot you can place a building. If you have a lot selected before you pick a plan, you know how wide and deep the house can be.

In our case, we bought a wedge-shaped 1/2-acre lot. The front of the lot is about 140 feet wide, and the lot narrows to about 65 feet at the rear. We have setbacks of 20 feet at the side of the lot, 40 feet in the front of the lot, and 35 feet at the back of the lot. So we are limited to plans that are no more than about 65 feet wide, but depth isn't really an issue since the lot is 250 feet deep. We can't go overboard, but a 65-foot width limit gives us quite a bit of space to work with.

Once we knew the width and depth restrictions, the real hard part of selecting a plan starts. Megan and I have spent a huge amount of time looking at builder models and existing houses to determine what we like and don't like about interiors. We prefer craftsman-style or--even better--shingle style. We want a 3 1/2 or 4 car garage. And we want the master bedroom with either two or three bedrooms upstairs, and a single bedroom downstairs. I need a big space that is isolated from the rest of the house for a workshop.

We initially thought that last requirement--the workshop--would be the hardest to fulfill. We started by looking for lots that would support a separate out-building. Fat chance. Developers today do everything they can to ensure that all houses in the development look the same. To build a house with a detached garage or workshop would mean we had to move too far out in the boondocks to find a development with few restrictions.

I was talking about this problem with one of my co-workers. He suggested building the garage with a floor made out of Spancrete panels. Spancrete is the same stuff they use to build parking garages, so we could build a basement under the garage to house the workshop. What a suggestion! A basement under the garage is perfect for a woodworking workshop. It's isolated from the rest of the house. It has plenty of space. It meant we didn't need a separate outbuilding, so it really made the prospect of building a house possible for us.

So we started looking online for house plans. If you haven't started looking yet, you'd be amazed at the number of plans available online. One of the bigger sites, ePlans has thousands of plans. Others with a good selection include Global House Plans, Cool House Plans, and the Plan Collection. These sites have a great selection of plans, but not necessarily a selection of great plans. We found a couple of sites that had plans that were a little more unique.

The first is Vintage Cottage House Plans, which has a fewer number of relatively unique plans. They've got some shingle-style plans, some craftsman plans, and a bunch of "cottage-style" plans. Architectural House Plans is another interesting site. The site contains plans from architects, some of whom had plans featured in The Not So Big House, by Sarah Susanka. Our favorite on this site is the Maple Forest.

After looking at the plans at every one of these sites--actually, I think we looked at every plan at every one of these sites--we still couldn't find exactly what we were looking for. So we chose to hire an architect or designer.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Out with the old, in with the new?

This will be a long, drawn-out saga. I plan to cover our experiences from start to finish in building a new house. Here's the first installment...

Now that we're just about done with the current house, Megan and I decided we want a different challenge. This time, we're building a new house from scratch. My first house was a ranch in Lilburn, GA. I did a little bit of work to it, but most of the work was done by contractors (new roof, new furnace, new windows, new carpet, etc.). The second house was in Lake Zurich, IL. Megan and I did a lot of work on that house: we painted every wall in the house (twice), put in new natural maple floors in the living room, dining room, and family room, built a craftsman-style fence of our own design, finished the basement, and had quite a bit of landscaping done.

The current house, in Waukesha, WI, was more challenging. A 100-year-old shingle-style Victorian on an acre lot on the edge of downtown, this house required quite a bit of work. We immediately started renovating the kitchen (a project that is still in process after 5 years), painted the exterior, did some landscaping, refinished original hardwood and heart-sawn pine floors, stripped about 15 different styles of wallpaper, renovated one bathroom, and added another. We only have a couple rooms left to do, and the house will be completely restored/renovated. Once we're finished, hopefully, I'll get around to an online tour of the end result.

Besides being done with the work on the current house, we decided we wanted to move to a more suburban location for Zeke, our 18-month-old. We want him to be able to run around the neighborhood without worrying about traffic.

So we started looking at lots in the area, and did our research on communities, schools, crime rates, etc. After looking at well over 100 lots, we found a nice 1/2-acre lot in Hartland, WI--in the Four Winds subdivision. The lot is about 200 yards from Swallow Elementary school--a K-8 school in Hartland. Just a little further on is Arrowhead High School. So the new house will be walking distance to elementary, middle, and high school for Zeke. It looks like the neighborhood is packed with kids, so Zeke will have plenty of other kids to play with too.

Next time, I'll talk about the house plan....