Building / Maintaining a Home
Hole, Sweet Hole

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By FoolYap
September 8, 2003

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We are the proud owners of a big hole in the ground! Our new house's foundation hole, that is. Another step in a process that began last year.

I've been taking fairly good notes along the way. It's been taking longer than we'd hoped, but we hope the results will be worth it. Anyone thinking about building a home "from scratch" -- that is, fully custom and not a builder's "spec" home -- may find this interesting.

March, 2002: First time we saw the property we now own, about 11 acres in central Massachusetts.

September 18, 2002: Finally were handed the deed to the property, after months of extremely painful wrangling with the crooked realtor/builder who was the seller's agent.

October 2, 2002: Met the architects we would hire, David F. and Paul F., on the lot. We liked them, hired them.

January 23, 2003: After a long search for someone local with experience building with ICF (insulated concrete forms), we met Rich D. at a home site. Extremely blustery, cold day. Rich was knowledgeable, personable, patient. Visited a completed ICF house he built as well as one just being framed out (that one with only an ICF basement). We were sold on the technique, and on Rich.

February 3, 2003: We met Tom F. at his home, to talk about turning lumber into kitchen cabinets. I met Tom on the Internet; we'd chatted a bit about the project, how the lumber was cherry and walnut from my Dad's farm, he expressed some interest. Meeting him and seeing some of his work sold us. He's fairly new to this as a full-time profession, so we had some trepidation. But his enthusiasm, demonstrated skill, and -- frankly -- low price would lead us later to shaking hands over the deal.

February 18, 2003: Met with Peg P. at the bank I'd been most favorably impressed with on the phone, to begin the process of applying for a construction loan. We own our land outright, which banks like: Plenty of collateral in the event of disaster. We handed over a sheaf of personal information. But two big parts were missing: We did not yet have a final design for the house, and we did not yet have a builder to build it. Details, details...

February 22, 2003: Met with builder husband & wife team Bill and Pam K. at their home, to talk about our project. We had a preliminary design. We wanted to measure them, and get their reaction to working with ICF and an architect-ed design. They'd come very highly recommended, we got encouraging responses to the project, and we ultimately hired them. (We phone-screened five builders. Met three in person. Asked for bids from two.)

March 27, 2003: Spoke with an engineer at the electric utility (the town has its own) to get a cost estimate on running power to the home site. Our driveway is long -- about 700 feet. Got estimates for running power both above and below ground. Let's just say, we're likely going to have utility poles. ;-)

April 2, 2003: Having gotten a price estimate from Bill & Pam K. that was in the ballpark, we met with Bill at one of his nearly-finished homes. The style was nothing we'd want, but the "fit & finish" were extremely good. The work-site was neat. Perhaps we were (f)oolish to hire them after only seeing one house, and not aggressively asking for more references. But our intuition and the homework we had done were in agreement on this pair.

May 28, 2003: Our attorney gave a thumb's up to the contract the K.'s sent us. We agreed to hire them, with the understanding that the architects were still completing the final construction set. Any substantive changes from the preliminary designs they'd bid on could raise or lower the price, as agreed by both parties. Here is where we did eventually run into some stickiness with the architects, who seemed to constantly be slipping in little changes -- "just an extra detail" -- that would've cost more. Some of their suggestions we may take, but they'll be change-ordered individually if we do, and were not put into the final construction set & specs. At this point, we had not yet signed the K.'s contract, as there was some wrangling with the architects over the form of the contract; they strongly persisted in asking that it be an AIA format, which the builder was willing but reluctant to try to use. After a lot of back & forth between us, the architects and our attorney, we were convinced that the AIA format was severe overkill for a project like this. It seems better suited for very large-scale projects. We overrode the architects and used a modified form of the K.'s contract.

June 25, 2003: Mailed a signed contract to Bill K., along with a check for $9,333. This was his first "installment", required up-front. And herein lies a small Catch-22, which I gather is common: He required the money before he'd hand us a signed copy of the contract. The bank, for its part, required a signed contract before they'd close on the construction loan. Hence, the nine grand came out of our pocket until the loan would close, and make an initial disbursement. Something to be aware of. Fortunately, we've been socking away money for months -- intending to use it to buy appliances, light fixtures, various upgrades, etc, but it was there to be "borrowed" from, luckily.

June 26, 2003: Met Bill K. on our lot with Tim ?, a "tree guy". Our lot is heavily wooded, and well over an acre of it had to be cleared to make room for the driveway, the house, and a septic system. Tim and we walked the course of those areas. Tim said he'd give us a quote ASAP. I should explain: Bill K. is the general contractor, coordinating with sub-contractors like Tim (which he recommended) and Rich D. (which we found for ICF). And Bill had estimated what things like tree-clearing would cost. But we ultimately write the checks when the work's been done.

July 4, 2003: We load all the rough lumber for the kitchen cabinets into a rented truck, and deliver it to Tom F. the cabinetmaker. Tom will store it in his shop until we finalize the details of the cabinets. (We just need to send him the final design of the kitchen island and a bookcase. Been kinda stalling that off, to get more pressing stuff done. We were able to give Tom a rough enough idea of them for him to rough-quote their cost.)

July 15, 2003: Tree-clearing commences. We shot a lot of photos of this! Impressive machinery. I had one large red oak set aside for my own use, as three logs; I'll have these sawn up into lumber later. The rest of the trees will be taken away by Tim to offset the cost of clearing. The stumps are pulled up and shredded, and carted away.

July 18, 2003: Bank approves the loan. Yay! When it closes, we can spend borrowed money instead of our savings! :-)

July 24, 2003: We met the architects on the lot, which now has a clearing carved out for the house. With tape measures and stakes & twine, we determine that where the well had been placed was too close to the house, and that the house doesn't quite fit as oriented on the plans. We decide to call the surveyor back out to stake the well and foundation where we want it, and redraw the map. (The town will want a topological plan of the lot showing the well, house and septic. A topo [topography] plan showing the well and septic and "plausible location of a house" had been supplied by the lot's seller. That it would be done before we even had a house plan is not as bogus as it sounds; wet areas on the lot pretty much dictate where any house must go, and the well doesn't have a lot of room to wiggle in either. We could've changed the house location from what that topo plan showed, but I guess moving the well was another matter.) Another $1,200 to have the survey crew come out twice to get it right; the first time due to our mistake: they planted the stakes where we told them, but not where we wanted them. ;-P

July 30, 2003: Loan closes. By now we've already written another $16,000+ check for tree-clearing and silt-fencing: A line of hay-bales staked along the length of the driveway, one side of the house site, and the length of the septic system (another 600 feet!). Such measures are required in Massachusetts, which has strict laws designed to prevent construction runoff from reaching bodies of water. (Can't say I mind paying for that, either.)

July 30, 2003: The driveway has been roughed in, which means that the large rocks (there are many, ranging from bushel-basket to four feet across) have been muscled aside, and a bed of sandy gravel has been laid. The length of the septic system has been similarly prepped. At this point, we still don't have the final construction plan-set from the architects, and I've taken to pinging them every three days or so about it.

August 11, 2003: Received a "review" copy of the final construction set. We pored over them very carefully, found minor errors, asked for them to be corrected. Also realized a couple of nits (not errors, just things we didn't like) that we'd not caught before, asked for those also to be changed. Corrected copies are sent directly to Bill K., and to us.

August 18, 2003: The well-driller's rig shows up, starts drilling our well. Another big milestone: We can't get a building permit until we have a well that meets minimum flow and quality standards. We also see that the septic system's leach field pit has been excavated.

August 31, 2003: Hole, sweet foundation hole! This is also the first time my college-age son has seen the property. Bill K. informs us that they hit ledge "in one corner" of the hole, and that as a consequence the foundation hole is 6 inches shallower than the plans call for. Meaning, the house will sit 6" higher. He's confident it can be dealt with without changes to the plans. (Heck, I would think he could grade around the foundation to cope with that small a height change?)

September 3, 2003: Bill K. informs us that the well quality test has not yet been received, but the flow-test showed it can deliver 10 gallons per minute sustained, which is pretty good. They went down to 500 feet to get that.

Friday we'll meet Bill K. to sign the town's application for a building permit. By then he should have the water quality test results, and that's good enough to try to jump the next hurdle: A permit to actually begin building the house.

Meanwhile, Rich D. has been kept in the loop, so he knows when he'll be needed. We hope in about two weeks (fingers crossed that the town doesn't unduly drag their heels over the permit, but so far the inspectors we've spoken to and that Bill has spoken to seem quite reasonable), he can begin pouring the footings for the foundation, and then to erect the ICF block walls. I'm definitely taking time off of work to see and take photos of that!

I will be so extremely happy when this house is done, and we're able to move into it. I would never dream of GC'ing a project like this. And yet, I find that we're doing more GC'ing than I'd expect, given that we have both a real GC (Bill K.) and a pair of architects. Anyone contemplating building a truly custom home should be prepared to digest and track a lot of details. For every milestone I mentioned above, I've left out a dozen little choices and decisions.

Be prepared for people to say "no" to you at every step of the way, directly or more subtly by what they try to convince you to do instead of what you say you want. The trick is getting them to say "yes" at a price you can afford. ;-)

Be prepared to do a lot of homework. The Internet makes this easy, but it's still time-consuming. I have spent upwards of 3 hours a night online for weeks at a stretch, researching: building techniques (ICFs, SIPs, etc); heating/cooling (geothermal, solar; we ultimately decided to go with a conventional oil-fired boiler-based forced-hot-air system); appliances; light fixtures; kitchen & bath fixtures; flooring; windows; etc, etc, etc. My browser's list of bookmarks has grown enormously over the months. In many cases we've been happy to find that what our builder or architects recommend were also brands/techniques that my i-researching had zoomed onto. In other cases, we're going to override them -- our builder's plumber will not warranty the particular toilet I want to use, but that's okay: I'll replace the darned things myself if they give us grief.

Also be prepared to watch it all like a hawk. Even people who are conscientious and honest will make mistakes, and none of them are as concerned with the final result as you. If it matters to you, be as involved in every step as you possibly can be. (Short of being in the way, of course. :-)

If the above all sounds like an incredible hassle, think at least twice before every trying it yourself. ;-) But, so far anyway, we still think it's been worth the effort. Every time we visit the site, we can picture the house a little more clearly... And that makes it worth it.


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