Wednesday, April 29, 2009


    The architects and structural engineer think that we'll need a beam or three in the house to keep the fairy-tale wolves at bay. Steel beams are typically the most expensive beam option (and therefore, probably too pricey for us), so we'll look at a couple of wood options instead. Traditional old-growth timber is not a great choice if we're trying to use materials from sustainable sources, but reclaimed timber may still be an option.

    Another option, which I hadn't heard about, was Parallam (and similar structural composite lumber, like Glulam), but I guess that it looks a bit like wheatboard (which I had seen, and liked):

    We'd look for a source that doesn't use formaldehyde to hold it all together. If we end up using this as a beam, we might leave it exposed. Has anyone out there seen this application? Does it look good exposed? What works?

    Tuesday, April 28, 2009

    Master bath update

    We may be ditching the full tub in favor of a shower only. I know, I know...I said I didn't like showers only. But space has become a bigger issue than it was before, and in order to get everything else in there in a way that makes sense, we may be relying on the tub in our second bathroom instead.

    Our schedule has morphed a bit as we approach the end of design. We met with Kenner, Matt and Stephanie last week for our penultimate design meeting. Our next meeting isn't until May 7, but in the meantime, the team is finishing design and starting construction documents — blurring the lines between the two phases ought to keep us on schedule for bidding and permitting during June. We'll be firing up the chainsaws for some "brush clearing" on the lot around mid-June, and we're still hoping to start construction somewhere between mid-June and early July.

    Friday, April 24, 2009


    Last night's meeting was great — we know what our floor plans will be, we have an idea of what the exterior will look like, we're all on the same page for materials, and on and on. (If you know us in real life, just ask to see the exterior elevation sketches next time we run into each other.)

    A new and welcome wrinkle for us is the addition of Stephanie Kooyman from Architectural Nexus to help with our interiors. She comes to architecture by way of an interior design background and now works with Kenner and Matt at the firm. We talked last night about generally what we like for interior fixtures and finishes.

    Stephanie's caveat is that no, we won't be able to afford everything we like (sad, but old, news to us!), but she can help us find similar things that will still look great in the space. She already has some interesting materials such as cork-infused bamboo and connections with suppliers that will help us understand what makes sense for our budget.

    As part of that conversation, we touched on paint preference — light? dark? strong? any that we actually hate?

    After a few seconds to think about it, my reponse was, "I'm not really afraid of bright colors. I would even do a bright purple, pink...whatever." Kenner: "Pink?! What is this? A cathouse??"

    Kenner gets bonus points for being under 80 and using the word "cathouse." I get negative points for briefly considering a hot pink wall.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009

    Batter up

    It's been two weeks since our last meeting with Kenner and Matt, and we are suuuuuuuper excited for this one.

    Things that we hope to learn about our house tonight:

    • final floorplan (including whether the master bedroom mash-up works)
    • exterior treatments (tweeted earlier this week — btw, check out the new feed on the right!)
    • window placement

    I feel like we've been hearing great things about this house for a while, but tonight is the first date when we finally get to meet in person.

    Tuesday, April 21, 2009

    Structural Engineer

    Turns out that structural engineering is a pretty important step in the process of designing a home, especially a non-traditional home, since a structural engineer essentially figures out a way for your house to not fall down. I don't really know enough to sound intelligent about it, but basically lots of things want to make your house fall down. There's gravity, live load, dead load, snow load, earthquakes, wind, and fairy tale wolves. After getting recommendations from the architects, the builder and one of my clients, we interviewed several and had them submit proposals. I found the choice to be a bit stressful because I was trying to balance several priorities, budget being a pretty big one, while still feeling confident that they could engineer to everyone's satisfaction what will end up being a pretty unique structure. 

    Since our house is not going to be a traditional structure we needed to make sure that the engineer understood this and was prepared to interface with the architects and brainstorm with them to figure out how to make certain of our design elements work. Since steel frames are probably out of our budget, it is important too that they figure a way for us to do this with traditional wood framing. We finally hired our engineers yesterday and they are meeting with the architects today to get going on the process. This is good, because it really was the next step before we could go much further with the design. We need to know where and how big the shear walls need to be before we can make meaningful decisions on the windows and door openings. Our hope is that after their meeting today, the architects will have a good enough idea to have those things ready for us to look at at our meeting on Thursday.

    So, after architects and engineers have worked together a bit and we generally know what is possible and settle on our final design, the engineer will take the plans created thus far and figure out how to support the structure so that none of the above referenced forces can make the house fall down.

    Friday, April 17, 2009

    Shaking my faith

    I learned a little while ago that photos such as these...

    ...are about as real as these:

    Why can't we have a little more of this?

    Here's the slc202 promise: we will never touch up our house photos! (You'll be lucky if we even clean first.)

    We didn't have an architect meeting this week, so we'll have to wait until next week to get another update. In the meantime, enjoy your spring — we're spending ours thinking of a yard.

    Thursday, April 16, 2009

    The master bedroom mash-up

    After looking at the different bedroom options, we realized that a great solution was probably going to take a bit of mix-n-match. We're not totally sure that what we want to do will actually work, but the design process has involved some dreaming for us, so why not a bit more?

    This is what we'd like the master bedroom to look like — we pulled elements from three different sketches to get to this option.

    If you can't read our scribbles, then the bedroom portion is from Option 3, our preferred toilet-linen combination is from Option 2, and the rest of the bathroom is from Option 4. We're not quite sure that our preferred drawing will work, hence the (2), with a slightly smaller linen closet and re-oriented toilet room.

    Also, kudos to Lisa for her two-sided linen closet idea. We will henceforth call it "The Lisa." (Other naming opportunities still abound.)

    Tuesday, April 14, 2009

    Master bedroom layout

    We've been working on laying out the master bedroom and bathroom. As it turns out, making a closet, toilet room, double vanity, shower/tub and linen closet into an 18'-by-18' grid is a bit tough. This was the first go at it:

    We wanted to redesign this version because 1) we forgot a linen closet, 2) we needed a bit more living space in the bedroom part itself, and 3) it turns out that I really don't want a walk-in closet, even though I said I did. Ever the indulgent ones, Matt and Kenner sent over a few other options.

    Option 1:
    Option 2:
    Option 3:
    Option 4:
    Option 5:
    In each drawing, north is "up," and the rest of the second floor is to the right of the drawing (you can see the entrance to the master suite in the same location on each drawing). We're still working on the drawings, but in the meantime, which would you choose if it were your bedroom?

    Monday, April 13, 2009

    Meet the contractor

    Meet our general contractor, Davido Biesinger, of Biesinger Construction and general Biesinger family fame.

    Davido comes from a strong residential building background, with a lot of work on custom details and large, fancy houses. We're thrilled that he's slumming it with our little project, and we're counting on Davido to keep us on the budgetary straight and narrow, take our heads out of the clouds, and let Tai swing a hammer every now and again.

    Davido (pronounced "David-o") was an early adopter of ICF building, and has agreed to bring his building experience to our ideas about what works for a small, modern home.

    Wednesday, April 8, 2009


    We've been all-house-design-all-the-time here for a while that I haven't mentioned anything specifically about the "green" elements we're incorporating into this place.

    Here's a quick run down of what is planned at the moment (i.e. this will probably change) and how each element could be considered sustainable, energy efficient or just plain cool:

    Radiant heating: We'll run tubing through our concrete slab on the first floor, then run heated fluid through the tubing. The heat generated is highly energy efficient (and comfortable!) because you heat the concrete, and its substantial thermal mass warms the objects in the house instead of the air. Radiant heating responds much more quickly to heating needs than heated air and maintains a constant temperature better. The fewer "warm-up" periods (equivalent to when our current furnace kicks on) save on energy costs. We'll also run radiant on our second floor — attached to the underside of the floor — for the same effect. Radiant is also a healthier option because it does not blow contaminants and particulates around the house. Plus, Tai can't wait to help lay tubing like this:

    (Knock yourself out, honey)

    • Insulation: Framing the exterior walls with 6-inch studs will provide two additional inches of depth for wall insulation over traditional construction (the type of insulation is something we haven't decided yet, but we'd really like to do blown-in to fill all the nooks and crannies). Super insulation is a concept central to Passivhaus construction — we'll probably fall a notch or so below those European standards, but still be a great deal more than the average existing home (and even more than typical new home construction). 6-inch framing should allow us to achieve R-19 in the walls. The roof should be able to achieve R-30 just by insulating in-between the roof joists and with the foam for the membrane roofing material the final product should be around R-45 to R-50.

    Solar orientation and passive solar heating: This is a big, big reason that we were interested in an architect-designed home in the first place. Our home will take into account all the benefits and disadvantages of our site, with its strong southern orientation (not necessarily true with a stock plan bought from a builder or other outlet). We've already spent a fair bit of time talking about this in our meetings with Kenner and Matt — it's on everybody's radar.

    Low-e windows: Multiple panes, with an insulated, tight envelope construction and a low-e coating allow visible light to enter but reflect infrared radiation. In the summer this will keep much of the heat from the sun out, making it easier to maintain a comfortable temperature at lower energy consumption. In the winter, enough heat can get in to help warm the objects in the house, reducing the energy consumption required for heating.

    • Ikea kitchen: We've said it before, but we'll say it again — Ikea products are among the most sustainable mass-produced stuff out there. They build their cabinets (and the million other MDF products they have) to stricter standards — no formaldahyde with lots of recycled and sustainably harvested content, such as wheatboard. The company's philosophy on product quality and safety touch on life cycle and efficiency, among other topics. Buying standard sizes of a flat-pack kitchen also means that more kitchen components can be shipped at once, lowering the per-item environmental impact. We're using easily accessible materials — not creating a custom solution that would require more waste to pull off.

    Climate-appropriate landscaping: Our initial budget will not have room for extensive landscaping, but we will have — eventually — front, side and backyards that make sense for Utah's hot, dry summers and cold winters by using native plants, drought-tolerant plants, grasses, etc.

    • Energy-star appliances.

    • Solar hot water heating: Budget permitting, this is something that we both really want to create. We'd run a hyper-efficient solar hot water system on the roof to take care of the bulk of our hot water needs. The sun's there, so why not use it?

    • Use of renewable materials: We've had multiple love affairs with bamboo at this point (which grows very quickly), and we're interested in cork flooring as well for the second floor. Plus, I think it's gorgeous:

    (Too lazy to edit their caption at least now you know about the diversity of cork flooring options...)

    • Low- or no-VOC paints.

    • Designing in a way that makes good sense. This is harder to quantify, but it involves things like not over-sizing rooms, not over-sizing the house, etc. It also means adding a mud room for backyard entry from the detached garage and an entry vestibule for the front that will let us take off our shoes before coming inside so that we don't track outside muck/particulates all over the house, etc.

    What don't you see on this list? A lot of gadgets and things like solar panels. Solar panels are still just too expensive for us. They require a substantial investment up front, which then takes a long time to recoup in saved energy costs, and this isn't the house we plan on living in for the rest of our lives. We hope that the price of solar systems will keep dropping and the technology will keep improving. Also, you won't hear us crowing about our righteous use of ceiling fans and swamp coolers — because we're getting an air conditioner. It will be a small and efficient one, but getting an efficient AC unit is sort of like getting an efficient dryer — you're sunk just by definition. (And we're owning up to it.)

    We are trying to make logical building decisions that are efficient and sustainable, and we aren't interested in "green-washing" the project. We just don't have the budget to make it super outwardly "green" or "eco." But it is going to be a smart, responsible and efficient house.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009

    More Thoughts on Basements (From Tai)

    Another reason that was key in our decision to forgo the basement had to do with marketability and appraisal of the final product. At first glance we thought that for marketability a basement would be necessary, but looking at it closely it proved otherwise.

    Most of the homes in the neighborhood are about 1,500 to 2,000 square feet total, with half of that footage being in the basement. We will be building approximately 2,000 square feet on two levels above ground, so the quality of our 2,000 square feet should be much nicer than neighbors. But if we were to try to have a basement we would end up with a home that is closer to 3,000 square feet. Even if you figure that you can get half as much value out of the basement as you can upstairs, that would put us in a house that costs 30% to 50% more than neighboring houses, which is definitely a tough sell on an appraisal and could prove difficult in the eventual resale of the house when we are through living in it.

    This was verified by the bank when we were getting our financing. They told us that they just couldn't get appraised value out of the basement and it would make the whole financing package that much less desirable to the bank.

    So, yes, a basement would make good room for future expansion of the house, but expanding the house to that size would make the house too big for the neighborhood. Plus, like Kersten said, we should see significant savings in construction costs by avoiding the costs for trusses on the first floor, subflooring and finish flooring. Our slab will be all of those things. A slab will also give us really good thermal mass and greater efficiency for our radiant heat system, and perhaps most importantly, a slab will allow us to fit under the 20 foot height required for flat roofs by zoning and still have good ceiling heights.


    A comment from ArchMedia on "Sharing" reminded us that we haven't discussed the whole basement conundrum yet.

    It's pretty rare for a new house in Utah to not have a basement. It's considered space-banking — build an unfinished basement with the distant goal of finishing it when you need the space, when you have the money, or when you need to burn a bunch of time. We both always figured that we would do similarly and give ourselves some extra square footage for exercise equipment (which we don't own), a utility room, and storage.

    We were fairly early in our search for architects, however, when the subject came up and we saw a different point of view. Unfinished basements are a gigantic energy suck. Plus, we're not sure that we would be in the house long enough to warrant finishing the basement. We are already planning separate space for a home office, in addition to three bedrooms (which ought to last us plenty long, given that we live in 1+office right now). That only left the question of storage, and we're confident that we can work in enough kitchen storage for food and dry goods, and enough outdoor storage for those bikes we ride too rarely and Tai's myriad, growing and impressive power tool collection.

    Not building a basement allows us to do slab on grade, which will make our radiant heating more efficient. And it will spare me from all the scary basement creatures (cousins of the Things from the closets) who won't have space to hide in. (Fear of basements goes back to a doozy that we had in a childhood home in Pittsburgh. *Shudder*) It also gives us motivation to condense our living spaces into the ones that we'll actually use — we'll have to be more disciplined about efficient use of space if we have less of it.

    That said, it's a bit disingenuous for me to argue that skipping the basement is an altruistic move because ultimately, it all comes down to the almighty dollar. And when we have fewer of them, we tend to keep better track of them. Slab on grade will cost less to pour, and we won't have the added cost of deep excavation and dirt hauling. But we'll take credit for "green," too.

    Monday, April 6, 2009

    The 96/4 rule

    This Thursday's meeting with Kenner and Matt will be about, among other things, some exterior treatments for the house. We're excited to see what they present because while we're all roughly on the same page, Tai and I still have slightly different ideas of what we'd like to see on the facade. I prefer a cooler, almost industrial look — primarily concrete and metal with small accents of warmer materials such as wood. Tai leans toward warmer materials — primarily woods, with accents of the cooler materials. (Incidentally, we think that Tai's approach would be more likely to pacify neighbors than mine would...which, of course, goes right back to the differences in our personalities.)

    At any rate, one of the larger differences between the two of us is our opinions of stucco. Tai's not opposed. I adhere to a 96/4 division: I hate it 96 percent of the time, but I might not totally hate it the other 4 percent of the time. This is my quasi-liberal side coming out — I don't want to totally discriminate against stucco, so I'll keep an "open" mind to allow for uses that I haven't seen...or that might not actually exist...

    The 96 percent (and all similar ilk):

    Maybe this can be part of the 4 percent?:

    I have such an aversion to its use, though, that I'm still undecided...

    Is this normal?

    Friday, April 3, 2009

    Every day should be Thursday

    We meet with Kenner and Matt each Thursday to work on the house designs, and we spend all week looking forward to it. The meetings are long but exciting for us as we talk about the rooms in the house, how we'll use the different spaces, and how the flow of the building should work. (Again, big thanks to their families for loaning them out after hours.)

    Last week was a philosophical discussion about how we used our home that ended with a rough sketch of floor plans. This week they walked us through the 3-d conception of the house.

    (Showing the outlines of the rooms — second floor superimposed on the first)

    A lot of the discussion was about how the inside of the house affects the outside, how the outside affects the inside, and how to tweak the layouts of the rooms so that everyone is happy (including our budget). We hit on the possible placement of the front door, the layout of the kitchen, the direction of our staircase (and a very cool window idea), the layout of the second floor bedrooms and bathrooms, location of a fireplace vs. location of a TV, use of the south side yard for outdoor living, and a hundred other things.

    We think we have the layout firmed up. Here's the first floor...

    ...and the second floor:

    Next week we'll hear about how this layout will fit with city utilities (sewer, water, gas, phone, cable, power) — certain rooms may shift slightly based on the distances to connect to those utilities or the best stacking for things such as plumbing — and we'll start talking about materials for the exterior of the house.

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009


    Things that our architects now know about us that our friends and family may not:

    1. Closets need to have doors so that Things don't sneak out and get you in the middle of the night.

    2. I don't like shower-only bathrooms because there is no place to rest my foot while I shave my leg(s).

    3. Tai thinks the TV plays a bigger role in the living room than I do.

    4. We believe in doors for bedrooms and bathrooms. As Kenner put it, "Sometimes in architecture, we have to talk about how you make noise when you have sex and going to the bathroom means making stinky smells." Well said.

    5. The only space in my grandparents' house where my family and our out-sized personalities fit during the holidays is their large front room with a double-height ceiling. Many years of those memories are why I was thrilled when Kenner and Matt mentioned it might be possible to get a double-height space into our floor plan.

    6. Master bedrooms are for sleeping. Not lounging, not entertaining, not doing laundry, not lazing about. We don't need a couch to fit in our master bedroom, and our bedroom is not a social space.

    7. We prefer a wood-burning fireplace to a gas one.

    8. I crave natural light so much that I will get out of bed after lights out at night and open our curtains so the morning light can come in.

    9. We include the kitchen in our entertaining space.

    10. I aspire to be a doddering old lady with a garden.