31 January 2011

A Small House is a Green House

Yesterday the Austin-American Statesman (that's the name of our local newspaper...weird, I know) had an article in the home section about a green house built by a couple using Sarah Susanka's Not-So-Big-House concept. We read her first book (by the same name) at the beginning of our design process, and although we didn't actively incorporate any of her concepts, we approached our project in a very similar way. She's big on multi-functional spaces and advocates for things like a single living area and a single dining area instead of formal living and dining rooms that would never be used because the reality of modern life is that people hang out in the family room and eat meals in the breakfast area.

The family in this article actually used one of Susanka's plans and had a local architect modify it for their lifestyle, the topography and local climate, and their energy-efficiency goals. Needless to say, I thought that was pretty cool, as this is the first time I've seen someone else use hybrid plans like we did (we bought a set of CAD files from houseplangallery.com and had a local designer do things like add a bedroom, create a true mudroom out of the garage entry and laundry area, and modify the wall and attic design to maximize the efficiency of the structure). We found it to be a great way to save time and money on the plans, but our real motivation was simply that we loved the front facade of the house and wanted to use it as a starting point.

The house in this article is 3,300 square feet -- hardly "not-so-big," at least in my book. I don't know whether that was the size of Susanka's original design or if the owners added square footage, but many of her ideas are geared toward much more modest houses. (The pictures in her books show spaces with lots of stained wood, which gets pricey, but her space planning ideas can, of course, be used without all of the expensive finishes.) Basically, her philosophy is to create a wonderful, inviting, livable home without building a huge house that will be a bear to keep warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and clean year-round. Yup, I can get on board with that. (And did.)

Here's the link to the article -- and copied below since it may not be on the website forever.

Not So Big turns Do It Yourself in Montopolis

Family adapts a house plan by Sarah Susanka to an inner-city hilltop, and saves money by acting as general contractor.

Sarah Susanka's design philosophy draws on a Japanese aesthetic, Frank Lloyd Wright's conceptual use of living spaces, the Arts and Crafts movement's use of warm, natural materials and a general principle that more is not better. Beginning with her 1998 best-selling book, "The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live," the North Carolina architect started a comprehensive lifestyle vision that now includes not only building plans for new construction but also landscaping, interior design details, home improvements and remodeling.

It was the Not So Big concept and a modified blueprint of a Susanka design that inspired Montopolis residents Fred McGhee and Lisa Goddard as the couple embarked on a new living space for themselves, their two young children, Alexander, 3-1/2, and Thelonious, 2, and for Fred's mother, Theresia.

The light-filled, two-story, 3,300-square-foot Prairie Style home takes advantage of a 1.13-acre hilltop lot with sweeping views and a country feel. Completed in November 2009, the home combines German efficiency with a Japanese aesthetic and embraces the best features of modernism, McGhee says. Generous wood trim and accents throughout the home balance the contemporary aspects with a warm, natural feeling. It has a five-star rating from Austin Energy's Green Building program.

Both Goddard and McGhee came into the marriage owning property. McGhee, a maritime archaeologist, historical anthropologist and building contractor, lived in a 1,800-square-foot condominium just around the corner from their current home. Goddard, online marketing director at the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, owned a quintessential small bungalow in Bouldin Creek.

McGhee moved into Goddard's house, and all was terrific until their family began to grow. By the time Lisa was pregnant with Thelonious, they began to explore possibilities to stay in Bouldin Creek, seeking solutions that would include room for Theresia to join the household.

"Our first choice was to build an addition. We explored demolition," says McGhee. Neither proved viable.

They found this Montopolis lot for sale on Craigslist. McGhee says the property was known in the neighborhood as undeveloped land where a considerable amount of illegal dumping was taking place. Part of the heavily vegetated lot also was being used as a homeless camp.

Having lived in Bouldin Creek and Barton Hills, McGhee recognizes they could not have afforded this size lot in many close-in neighborhoods or the construction costs if he had not acted as the general contractor.

After purchasing Susanka's plans, McGhee and Goddard enlisted architect Philip Keil of Furman + Keil Architects, an Austin firm that specializes in custom residential work with a regionalist approach. Keil notes that three of the firm's homes were featured in Susanka's book "Home by Design: Transforming Your House Into Home."

"When they first came to our office, Fred was saying how he was planning on building this house and had never been a contractor before," Keil says. "I tried really hard to talk him out of it, as I would with any client. It really takes a pretty particular set of skills to pull off a successful contracting job.

"I was very much proven wrong. Fred did a great job with the contracting. But I still wouldn't recommend it for the average person. Fred is not an average person."

And there still were many challenges in the process.

"I helped them through a process of making the house appropriate by taking a generic floor plan done by an architect for a generic site in a different state, perhaps, and making it suitable for their site and the particulars of the trees, solar exposure, wind, slope of their site, and also making it more particular to their lifestyles and modernizing some things.

"It's a little bit different than what we normally do as custom residential architects," says Keil, who also helped the couple customize and update the plans for key functional spaces such as the kitchen and bathrooms.

Keil notes that many of his contributions are hidden behind the walls. "A lot of the things I worked through with Lisa and Fred were on the specifications," he says.

"We wrote specifications that weren't even included with the original plans and laid out a design for the insulation, air barrier and the overall design of the building envelope to create a high-performing building that uses low energy as the ultimate goal of green building from an energy standpoint," he says.

With plans in hand, the Web- and tech-savvy couple maximized their research skills to track down green technology and affordable-yet-stylish building materials and fixtures.

Walking through the house, McGhee points out tiles, handles and pulls and bathroom fixtures and cabinets the couple found at retailers such as Costco and IKEA, as well as high-end appliances such as the German-made Stiebel Eltron solar water heater. McGhee explains that they were able to incorporate off-the-shelf materials into a custom-built home, saving time and money.

As with Frank Lloyd Wright's concept of compression and release, varying ceiling heights separate spaces based on their importance.

The foyer is the main artery to the home and opens into the large primary living area, which has a more than 20-foot ceiling and windows and doors leading to the large wraparound decks. Built-in bookcases line one wall. Ceramic tile with a copper overlay makes a statement, defining the circulating fireplace and hearth. Beyond the living area is an open dining area and a roomy kitchen.

The couple changed Susanka's traditional screened porch to create a screened second living area fondly referred to as the "man cave." Tropical-style ceiling fans cap off a room with a deep red Persian rug, a comfy built-in day bed, and Tuscan-style tile. "This is where I can smoke cigars," McGhee says.

The master suite is comprised of a modest-sized bedroom, commodious his-and-her closets with ample built-in shelving and a Zen-like bathroom with a river stone-tiled steam shower and a large 6-foot Kohler Tea-for-Two tub that looks out onto an enclosed lava rock garden housing reproductions of two Frank Lloyd Wright sculptures.

Completing the first floor are the laundry, a bedroom used as McGhee's office and a full bathroom.

The boys' bedroom, a guest room and a full bathroom are on the second floor, which also features a large, functional landing that overlooks the main living area.

Situated halfway down the long, sloped driveway is a cheery, bright blue 576-square-foot cottage that is home to Theresia. "We were doing research online on small house design for constructing quality, low-square-footage housing," McGhee says.

Known as a Katrina Cottage, the home's plan resulted from a competition to design affordable homes for the Gulf South after Hurricane Katrina. Brad Pitt, through his Make It Right Foundation, has used these plans, constructing homes for New Orleanians displaced by the hurricane.

Plans are now sold by Lowe's, which also sells materials packages to build the homes.

McGhee says, "You can build that house for as little as $40 a square foot." Green building features and upgraded finish-outs pushed his building cost up to about $70 per square foot, he explains.

The main home's solar system came online in July. McGhee says they've generated 4,319 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which averages out to 617 kilowatt-hours per month. They still buy some electricity from a utility company, for an average of $156 per month. Their high, in September, was $248 and their low, in November, was $64. The house has all-electric utilities.

They also prewired the property for wind turbines.

"We are on a hill, and based upon my anecdotal data collection, I think that installing two grid-tie turbines will bring the house down to net zero," McGhee says. Net zero energy homes consume less energy than they produce.

"That's the eventual goal," McGhee says.

30 January 2011

Morning Glory

The title of this post unfortunately does not refer to my performance at this morning's half marathon. (I'll spare the gory details, but the bottom line is that I not only did not achieve my goal of taking fifteen seconds per mile of my best time on this course, but I was actually fifteen seconds slower per mile (finishing more than six minutes slower than my goal), and every step was a struggle to keep going. If there's a silver lining with regards to the marathon -- in three weeks! -- it's that (1) I proved to myself that I am able to keep pushing the pace even if I'm not hitting my goals and (2) even the disappointing pace I ran was still faster than my goal for the marathon, albeit only for half the distance.)

But back to the real reason for this post. I've been working on picking fabrics for curtains in all of the rooms, and I've found a fun one that I think is going to be perfect for the exercise room -- Amy Butler's Morning Glory:

I love the bright, cheery red -- which is way bolder than the muted grey-blue of the walls -- so I'm happy that the blue background in the fabric ties the two together:

I placed my order this afternoon (from a local company that is online-only), so I should receive the fabric in the mail in the next few days. If all goes well, I may have them sewn and hung by this time next week.

29 January 2011

Status Saturday: The Bunny Room (and the Bunny)

Since we put up the bunny curtains and tree wall art back in August, the bunny room has been one of the most complete rooms of the house...but that doesn't means there isn't room for improvement. And since we try to limit the bunny decor in the rest of the house, this space is perfect for bunnying up.

As a Christmas gift for Steve, I took an old three-picture frame from Pier 1, got a custom off-white mat from Hobby Lobby to replace the stark white mat that didn't match our trim color, and added three bunny notecards:

It now hangs to the right of the bunny room doors. I had thought it would go on the left side, but the light switch over there meant that it would have been too high on the wall. Instead, I mounted an old Pottery Barn shelf (from the guest room of the condo), popped an old Easter card into a frame I had lying around, and added a wooden bunny that wasn't working on the dark built-ins and a stuffed bunny that I've had forever:

I've also ordered a swatch of some festive bunny fabric from Tonic Living and will probably order a yard to make some fun holiday curtains for their room, assuming they don't clash too much with the wall color. Even if they do, I'm hoping that Tonic Living's extra-large swatch will include the bunny part of the pattern in a way that I can frame and display at Christmas. (BTW, I just picked up a couple of sets of super-affordable black frames from Target's Great Save Event, which I'm sure will start making appearances around the house)

Now that the decor update is out of the way, let's focus on the real star of this post: the ever-handsome Mr. Dash.

I haven't given an update on his condition in a few weeks, and I'm happy to report that the incision under his ear is healing nicely. We continue to give him Cipro and antibiotic ear drops twice a day, and now that he doesn't have an open wound, we'll start back on nightly physical therapy in hopes of alleviating his head tilt. Even if it is permanent, though, Dash is a happy little bunny and always beats Millie to the food bowl.

And at the intersection of decor and bunny news, World Market recently stopped selling the seagrass (sea grass? One word, or two? Not sure) mats that we use for their cage (but are really intended to be used as floor rugs):

Dash isn't entirely steady on his feet, so he needs these mats on the bottom of his cage for traction. When I couldn't get them at World Market anymore, I started googling around for a new source and found a bunny organization in the midwest that also uses the mats (bunnies love to eat them, too), and they were nice enough to share with me their new mail order source, Frank's Cane and Rush Supply. If you're as bummed as we are that World Market no longer stocks the mats, Frank will take care of you.

28 January 2011

Green House, Good Life, Good Food

Steve designed us an amazing kitchen...

...but we haven't been making the most of it.

While we don't eat out a whole lot, we don't make meals from scratch very often, either. We tend to eat things that don't require much preparation -- store-bought ravioli, soup from the Soup Peddler, etc. And that's just a waste of a good kitchen.

So we recently instituted Family Dinner Tuesdays. We alternate planning responsibility, but we cook together. Last week, Steve made tuna burgers (with fresh ginger mixed into them...delicious!) while I made mango sorbet for dessert.

I also made whole wheat rolls for the burgers, and Steve picked up some frozen vegetables, which rounded out the food groups (along with milk).

This week I decided on one of the first dishes we ever made together -- cod with mashed potatoes on top, and a layer of garlic in between. (You'd think the potatoes would be really heavy on the fish, but they're not.)

I also bought some white asparagus, but I forgot to cook it, so Steve heated up some more of the vegetables from last week. And we had store-bought bread, 'cause we're still working on pulling together the perfect 100% home-cooked meal. But it's a step in the right direction, and there's a certain formality about Family Dinner Tuesday that makes it nice to sit down together, put distractions aside, and just talk about our day.

25 January 2011

Don't Blame Us for the State of the Union

American Express was kind enough to send us a year-end statement totaling our 2010 spending. It's totally against their interest to do that, as the bottom line was enough to make us cut up all of our credit cards. (I am, of course, just being melodramatic. We didn't cut up our credit cards.) We obviously had a lot of one-time house expenses, like the wiring supplies, our dining chairs, granite that we paid for directly, etc., so I can't beat myself up over it too much. (And to be clear, we pay off our balance every month.)

In fact, we should probably get some kind of economic stimulus award for spending as much as we did. Seriously. On this one credit card (which we used for almost everything, although not for Dash's vet bills, which were substantial in 2010), we charged more than my annual salary at my first two jobs after law school. Here's hoping that 2011 brings a return to the modest credit card bills we're used to....

The Texas Legislature, which only meets for six months every two years, reconvened this month, and the budget crisis is their biggest challenge this session. Since Texas has no state income tax, and property taxes go to various local jurisdictions, the state depends heavily on sales tax revenue. Although the details have yet to be worked out, it's looking like there are going to be significant cuts to all levels of education, social services, and state employee benefits. We've tried to do our part (and building a house really couldn't have come at a better time for the economy), but I don't think we quite generated $27 billion in sales tax revenue.

24 January 2011

Desperate Landscape

There's a show on the DIY Network called Desperate Landscapes. Needless to say, we think our house would be perfect on that show...but unfortunately, they're only casting in Las Vegas, San Diego, and Miami. (I've been checking the DIY and HGTV websites for a year and a half, hoping to find a landscaping show casting in the Austin area, but there's been nothing.)

So, with a free TV makeover out of the question, it's looking like we're going to have to pay for our landscaping. We liked the designer we met with on Friday (we'll call her A), and as of this morning we have officially contracted with her to provide design services for us. She definitely seemed disappointed to hear our budget, but she acknowledged that we've spent an awful lot so far, and she was happy to get started on the design with the understanding that we may want to bid out the actual work. (But I hope it will work out so that she will be the one to do it, too -- I'm tired of interviewing contractors.)

A doesn't do driveways, fences, or irrigation, so she gave us names of people to contact to get started in those areas. Once we get rough quotes for the driveway and fence, we'll know how much of the budget is left for the actual landscaping. For now, she's going to start putting together a master plan, and we'll figure out what is Phase 1 versus Phase 2 when we know how much everything is going to cost.

23 January 2011

Running Out of Steam

This weekend would have been so different if I had known when I woke up yesterday how things were going to go.

After last week's long training run (21 miles), we were only supposed to run 10 miles this weekend. I spent all last week thinking about it as "only" ten miles, but when my alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. yesterday, dragging myself out of bed to run for an hour and a half in near-freezing temperatures didn't seem so great. After waking Steve up to complain about how I didn't want to run, I finally got up, got dressed, and grabbed some breakfast. Then I checked my e-mail and learned that my running buddy, Christina, was sick and was planning to run today instead. I was happy to postpone my run for warmer weather and better company, so we planned to run together this afternoon.

Steve and I had a lazy morning yesterday, hanging around for an appointment at the house at 11. But then we got a call asking to push it back to 12:30, so Steve went out for his run and I waited around for the meeting. Steve finished his run and came home as the appointment was ending, and when he decided that he wanted to go out for another two miles, it sounded like a good idea for me to run a couple of miles, too. But then, as we left through the garage, we found our visitor still there, looking under the hood of her car, which wouldn't start. We pulled our car out of the garage and tried to jump-start it...but nothing. We decided that Steve should finish his run while I tried to help with the car, and our guest and I ended up taking out the battery, driving it to AutoZone, and buying a new battery. Steve finished his run just in time to witness the car's triumphant start. Our guest drove away -- and seconds later I discovered that she had left her phone in my car. It wasn't like I could call her, but fortunately she figured it out and came back for her phone pretty quickly. In the end, the appointment that should have been over by 11:30 didn't wrap up until about 2.

This morning, my afternoon run with Christina was still on despite her feeling even worse than yesterday...until she sent e-mail saying that her husband was insisting that she rest. By then, it was too late for me to run 10 miles before meeting a friend for brunch, so I was facing an afternoon run by myself...which sounded like misery. I finally made it out the door around 4:15. While I didn't run the full 10 miles as prescribed, I made it 6.3 miles -- better than skipping the run altogether, which I'll admit to spending part of the afternoon trying to convince myself would be acceptable.

Bottom line? If I knew when I woke up on Saturday what I know now, I would have either run with my training group in the bitter cold at 7 a.m. on Saturday, or later in the morning with Steve before our appointment, or, at the very latest, this morning before brunch. This weekend has been different from most, but I've spent the last four months of my life have been consumed with running, thinking about running, planning to run, and being exhausted from running.

After a marathon, it is recommended to take a couple of weeks pretty much totally off from exercise. I'm sure I'll keep up my regular gym routine and look forward to getting back to our Sunday bike rides as soon as possible, but I'm looking forward to a nice, long running sabbatical as soon as the marathon is over. I'm okay at running, but I'm going to be great at not running.

22 January 2011

Fabric Sample Misfire

The process of deciding on window coverings is officially underway. Two weeks ago I ordered samples of four fabrics from fabric.com that I thought might work in the master bedroom, and the package finally arrived yesterday. Here they are with our bed spread, quilt, and rug for color comparison.

This stripe is cute, but too narrow, and too pink.

This leaf pattern is okay, but not for yards and yards of curtains. Too boring.

I actually really love this stripe, but, again, too pink to work with the red in the room. All of the other colors are perfect for color scheme going on in there. If only one of the pink stripes were red....

I have no natural aptitude for this stuff, so it was a big step for me to pick out and order samples, and I didn't expect to find a winner on the first try. I'm going to make missteps, and I'm happy to do it with $2 swatches instead of $100 of fabric.

Today we also visited yet another local fabric store to look for contenders, but we struck out.

Next up? Samples from Tonic Living, a really neat fabric store in Toronto. Their selection is more modern, more retro, more fun, and I can't wait to get my hands on their swatches.

(The fourth sample of my order, you ask? They forgot to send it. But it was the least likely to work anyway, so it's no big deal.)

21 January 2011

Hypothetically Speaking...

Today I read about a gorgeous 500-square-foot NYC apartment here, and while it's not exactly my style, I was struck by how much stuff the owners must not have in order to fit into that tiny but immaculate space.

I dig my stuff and shudder at the thought of ever having to pare down into 500 square feet, but imagining that scenario is a great decision-making tool for figuring out what to keep and what to toss or donate. "Would I keep this if I lived in 500 square feet?" Since I would never get to the point of asking that question about the things that I really would keep if I were downsizing to a studio apartment (the true "yes"es are no-brainers), the answer will pretty much always be "no" -- and I need more "no" in my life, at least when it comes to hanging onto clutter.

20 January 2011

Landscape Design, Take Two

Back in August, we met with a landscape designer who had some good ideas but ultimately wasn't right for us. It was also so soon after we finished construction that we still had decision fatigue, and we just weren't ready to get started on landscaping. The decision to put it off until spring came easily after that meeting.

But spring will be here before we know it. Applying to the green building tour lit a fire under us to refocus on landscaping, as the selection process includes site visits in February and pictures for the tour book in March. I think we still have a bit of a selection hangover from construction, but we just can't put it off any longer.

Tomorrow we're meeting with a landscape designer who just might be perfect for us. In addition to having a lot of experience with native, drought-tolerant landscapes like we're shooting for, she did the landscaping at a house our builder was working on at the same time as ours (a very similar, five-star green house), and my cousin, who used to work with her at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, had great things to say about her. Plus I sent her pictures of the front and back yards, which look positively post-apocalyptic, and her response focused the beauty of the house rather than the sorry state of the current landscaping.

I'm nervous about our meeting because we still haven't figured out exactly what we want (rainwater collection cistern? Paver driveway? More lawn and less planting bed, or vice versa?), but hopefully her knowledge and experience will guide us toward the perfect solution on some of these issues. And hopefully the perfect solution won't completely deplete our bank account.

19 January 2011

Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful, But Our Utility Bill is So Delightful

We finally received our first winter electric bill yesterday. Between living in central Texas, where summer hangs on into October, and our well-insulated house, we didn't even turn the heat on until about Thanksgiving, so this bill covering December 8-January 10 was our first full month of winter. The total bill, including water, wastewater, garbage service, etc., totaled $128.74, of which about $60 was actual electrical usage.

I'm going to try to compare our utilities here versus a winter month in the condo, like I did with our first summer bill after we moved in, but winter is a little more complicated because our furnace and water heater in the condo were powered by gas, whereas now our geothermal heat and water heating (also assisted by the geothermal system) appear on our electric bill. And since our water was sub-metered by the condo association, I need to add our December 2008 gas ($63.26), electric ($70.14), and water ($25.16) bills, which comes to $158.56. Now, for a fair comparison, I have to add our current gas bill to our current total, but since our only gas appliance is the range, that's only about $12, for a total of about $140 for utilities last month. Adjusting for the $15 of garbage service that we currently pay to the city, versus garbage service that the condo association paid (but we ultimately paid, of course, through our monthly fees), we're looking at about $174 in the 1,200 square foot condo versus $140 in our nearly 2,300 square foot house.

Looking at it in terms of electric usage, we used 787 kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity last month, whereas we used 621 kwh for a comparable time period in the condo. However, the true comparison is 787 kwh of electricity in the house versus 621 kwh of electricity plus 5,000 cubic feet of gas in the condo...and if there's some way to convert gas to electricity for comparison purposes, I don't know it, so we'll just have to settle for an apples-to-oranges comparison on this.

Looking at it one last way (but sparing you the math this time), if we extrapolate our energy usage (not including fixed customer charges, etc.) from the condo to a house that's twice as big and built with comparable (traditional, not "green") systems, insulation, etc., we could expect that our utilities would have come to about $270 last month. Thus, my best estimate is that building green (which is certainly not cheap) saved us about $130 in energy last month -- which, at our unbelievably low interest rate, covers principal and interest on about $26,000 of our mortgage.

18 January 2011

Construction Recap: The Fireplace and Built-In Cabinets

Looking back at our construction pictures, I realize that my posts during that time were organized chronologically, not thematically. I pretty much just wrote about whatever happened (or didn't happen) each day. As a result, we skipped over certain explanations and information that might have been helpful. Case in point: the fireplace.

The plans that we used as a starting point had a fireplace and cabinets in the great room, and that's one of the few interior features we didn't change. Well, not much. We did change the shape of the hearth (it was rounded in the original plans), and we wanted the hearth to be flush with the floor. (Since the living area is pretty compact, the flush hearth gives us more flexibility with use of space.) In order to get the hearth flush with the top of the wood floor, the foundation had to be recessed to accommodate a mortar bed and the hearth itself. As soon as the foundation was poured, we could, therefore, see where the fireplace was going to go (toward the top left of this picture):

Placing the hearth recess had to be a tricky process ("measure twice, pour once"), but that couldn't have been nearly as hard as deciding on a location for the in-floor outlet, which you can see to the right of the hearth recess in the picture above. Trying to figure out where the furniture is going to go -- so you can be sure the outlet will be covered -- is next to impossible while the "house" is nothing but a pile of dirt, plastic sheeting, and rebar.

In the picture below, the house is fully framed, the fireplace unit is in, and you can see the outlet in the floor at the bottom right. So far, so good.

While the framing was going on, we were busily working with the cabinet maker to work out the final details on our cabinets. (Going into the housebuilding process, we had assumed that we would use stock cabinetry, but our designer explained that "Texas doesn't have unions," by which she meant that these things cost a lot less than they do in some other areas. However, we still paid as much for the cabinets as we paid for the most expensive car we've ever owned.) It was nice to be able to figure out room sizes, locations of appliances, etc., and then make cabinets to fit, with whatever features we wanted. It was also nice to be able to match the wood finish to our coffee table, since the coffee table would be in close proximity to the fireplace cabinets and the fireplace cabinets would be within sight of the kitchen cabinets. (The bathroom and mudroom cabinets would be made of lower-grade materials and would be painted the same shade of off-white as the interior trim.) On the day I took my boss over to see the house, after the drywall was up, textured, and primed, I was thrilled to find that the cabinets had arrived a day or two early:

Since the fireplace stone would go in after the cabinets were installed, the cabinet size was determined from the plans (and perhaps a bit of rough double-checking on-site), and a gap of several inches (the depth of the stone) was left between the drywall and the cabinetry:

As nice as it was to be able to dictate every detail of our cabinetry, we found working with our particular cabinet shop representative frustrating at times. When we first started discussing the fireplace cabinets, we explained that we wanted typical base cabinets with shallower bookshelves on top. His interpretation of our vision had both parts flush in the front, with a false back on the bookshelves so they would only be half as deep. We had to step in and set him straight...on something that seemed really straightforward to us and shouldn't have been new or unusual to the cabinet guy.

Because we had the cabinet makers finish the stained cabinets before delivering and installing them, they were in their final, finished state before the interior painting took place. Sheets of plastic protected them from the painters' spray guns.

And then it was finally time for the stone to go on the fireplace.

We opted for a mortarless look on the fireplace, unlike the exterior with its typical mortar lines.

We love the mortarless look, but the cost to do it everywhere would have been prohibitive, so we limited it to the fireplace. (I didn't think the upcharge -- about $750, I think -- was worth it for the fireplace, but Steve insisted, and as the stone went up, I realized he was so right.)

The big shock for us when the fireplace was finished was that it was so much bigger than it appeared when we were looking at the drywall skeleton. The stone added about six inches on each side, and that extra foot made a significant difference when we first saw the finished product. It looked HUGE! Now that we're used to it, it's definitely a major focal point, but I no longer worry that it's too big for the space. We love it.

However, there were a couple of miscommunications regarding the fireplace. When we said that we wanted the hearth to be flush with the floor, our builder took that to mean that it would be within an inch or so of the floor. No, we wanted to be able to put a chair right in front of it if the need arose without the legs wobbling. We cleared that one up before the stone slab was cut, which was lucky because the recess in the foundation wasn't deep enough to accommodate the typical slab thickness, so we had to go with a shallower slab, and there was a risk that it would crack in transit or during installation. (We were warned that a new piece might have to be cut into thirds if the first slab broke.) Fortunately, the installation went smoothly.

The other miscommunication was more significant, and we didn't catch it in time. We were all in agreement that the fireplace would be gas and would be controlled by a switch (like a light switch). We didn't know that there were two kinds of gas, switch-controlled fireplaces. There is the kind with an electronic ignition, where you flip the switch and fire comes from nowhere, and then there is the kind that has a pilot light that stays on all the time, and the switch turns on the gas to light the logs from the pilot light. We assumed that there would be fire when the switch was turned on, and no fire when the switch was turned off, so I was shocked to arrive after the fireplace installation was complete and find fire -- albeit just a small flame -- in my empty house. A pilot light a few inches above the floor, visible from virtually anywhere in the room and accessible to any toddler who can pull open the glass doors, seems so dangerous that it shouldn't be legal, but apparently it is, and no one thought to mention it to us or ask if we wanted to upgrade to the electronic ignition version. (Um, yes, please -- whatever the cost.) I immediately turned the pilot light off that day, and that's how it has stayed since May. We haven't had the occasion to light the fireplace yet, but when we do, we'll turn the gas on and light it the old-fashioned way, then turn the gas back off when we're finished. We asked about switching out the unit for the kind we expected to go in, but it was virtually impossible by that point.

The things that went wrong (or almost went wrong) with the fireplace, along with the things that went right (too many to count), underscore the importance of hiring the best builder you can find. So much of the construction process boils down to one chance to get it right -- or huge cost to correct errors -- and having an experienced, detail-oriented, conscientious builder can make the difference between a wonderful home and a pile of problems.

17 January 2011

The Magic of Celery

A while back I found a really ugly ceramic elephant for $8 at Ross and instantly knew that a coat of spray paint would make it look amazing.

No, that's a lie.

I saw it at the store, thought it was kind of neat, and took it home to show to Steve, who did not share my enthusiasm one bit. I reluctantly decided to return it, but I didn't realize that Ross's return policy is only 30 days and missed the deadline. I contemplated stashing it somewhere in the (future) garden, or cutting my losses by donating it, before finally realizing that it could be saved with some spray paint.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture before I started working on it. But believe me when I say that it was really ugly. I realize that now. It was mostly brown, with tan speckles. Not pretty. Steve was right. But a coat of white primer made a world of difference:

White ceramic animals are always lovely, but with the dark cabinets and the other things already on the shelves, I thought a muted color would look better. I chose Krylon's celery in a gloss finish:

Wood chips on the ground probably weren't the best platform for this project. (I was just so excited to get started on the transformation.) I had to turn the elephant a few times to get at the undersides of his legs, arms, inside his ears, etc., but I got it done. Pretty cute, huh?

16 January 2011

Status Sunday: The Guest Room, Take 2

It just isn't working.

Our guest room, which was so pretty in our old condo, has different proportions and windows and everything here, and it's just never going to be the cohesive space it used to be.

(Even though I recently found a second pear lamp at HomeGoods...but I think I'm going to move them into the master bedroom. Don't tell Steve. He thinks they're too big for everyday use, but maybe he won't notice.)

Our current guest room is the exact same yellow that we put in the guest room of the condo (Sherwin-Williams Parchment), and it worked so well in there, but it just doesn't feel the same here (plus different sun exposure really changes the way a color looks on the walls, and it's a completely different color in direct afternoon sun during the summer). I've been thinking that my color decision was totally wrong for the guest room, but I really, really didn't want to have to repaint (and even if I did, what color?), so I was thrilled to find this duvet from West Elm's new line:

The color is actually a little less bold than it appears in that picture. In person, it's closer to this:

The yellow in the pattern, which is brighter and more saturated than our wall color, will be just enough of a tie-in for the yellow walls to work. I see painting the bed frame and nightstands in my future, and I've started looking at fun fabric options for curtains from Tonic Living.

After being in such a hurry to make decisions on lighting, colors, etc. for each room (because we had to in order to keep up with the construction schedule), I've been realizing that I didn't really think through what we planned to put in each room that would pull together the colors, the lighting, etc...but at least now we have the luxury of time to figure it all out.

15 January 2011

Weather to Run...or Not

Today was another 22 mile training run. It didn't hurt quite as much as a few weeks ago (when we ran the same course, but in reverse), but it was still SO HARD. And the rain didn't help. (If I could be guaranteed that we would have dry weather for the marathon, I would have skipped it. The only thing that got me out the door at 6:30 this morning was the possibility that the marathon would be wet, too...and I didn't want that to be the first time I had to slog through 20-something miles of pouring rain.)

I'll spare you the details of the run and just say that I've spent the rest of the day (after showering) resting and trying to replenish the 2000+ calories I used up on the run. And wondering how I'm going to do it again, and more, on marathon day.

11 January 2011

Stuff, Revisited

I've been putting away Christmas decorations, etc., and it's been frustrating because I don't have a system in place yet for what goes where. (We have a great space in the attic with nice shelves and lots of bins with red lids, but as far as what goes in which bin, that's still being determined, so there's a lot of moving things around and trying different arrangements out.) But tonight I realized that it's not just frustration. Sometimes it actually feels more like resentment.

Yes, resentment. I resent some of my things.

Realizing that felt like a light bulb going off over my head. Once I realized that I actually resented a thing, it became really easy to put it in the Goodwill bag. And since I love simplifying and decluttering, I definitely need to hone my stuff-resentment-detector so I don't miss future opportunities to stop storing things I don't even like.

09 January 2011

And It Only Took Three Months...

You know how, this fall, I started going to garage sales on my way home from marathon training? (I've never been a garage saler, but I love the prospect of finding something great at a fraction of retail price and working it into the house in ways that I'd never thought of before.) Around October, I saw a small, shallow square planter priced at fifty cents and immediately realized that the master bathroom really needed some cacti. I thought the color would be a good match to the counters, and at that price, it wouldn't be a big deal if it wasn't. But it was:

And that's how it stayed for months, until my mom bought me these little guys just before Christmas:

And that's how they've been for the last few weeks, until I found some vase filler at Ikea this weekend. So I'm happy to present, for under $12, this cheery little number for our otherwise neutral bathroom:

08 January 2011

Construction Site Etiquette

Back during demolition, I wrote about how a new house (especially under the unusual circumstances by which we came to be building ours) "belongs, in a sense, to the whole neighborhood." It was a nice feeling, knowing that the neighbors were cheering for us to write a new chapter after the previous house caught fire. And over the course of construction, neighbors continued to say hello, introduce themselves, and share in our enthusiasm about our new home.

But there were also times when we wished our house were less conspicuous, more anonymous. As construction got pretty far along, people still felt entitled to just walk on in -- including people who weren't neighbors at all but saw the house as they were driving by and were curious about it. (We had a security fence, but when we were there we usually left it unlocked, so uninvited visitors sometimes showed up as we were there tinkering or just looking around.) We were usually happy to show people around, but when they didn't seem the least bit timid about just walking right in, well, our graciousness was tested.

Now that we're moved in and the doors have locks, people don't walk right in anymore...but this morning, someone who had been a dropper-inner toward the end of construction stopped by, knocked on the door, and asked about our exterior paint color. Again, we love that someone loves the color we chose and were happy to share the information, but I guess I would have preferred if her question had been prefaced with "Do you mind telling me..." or "I'm sorry to bother you..." or anything to suggest that she recognized that her presence might have been an imposition. I actually got the impression that she was expecting to be invited in for a tour (for which neither I, in my weakened condition, nor the house, with its post-Christmas hangover, were prepared).

I love walking around construction sites as much as the next guy (assuming that guy loves construction), but any residential site is someone's future home, so caution and respect should be the order of the day. And after it has become someone's present home, well, all the more so. It only makes sense.

(For a 35-second video of part of the demolition process -- easily one of the most captivating experiences of my life -- click here.)