Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What if we turned it 90 degrees....

It's funny how one simple starting fact can affect the entire plan. You start with one step that seems obvious, and before you know it you've got a plan that makes sense. But what if your initial step is wrong?

For the past few months, every house plan we've drawn up has had a couple of common features. Among them is the orientation. This is step one.

Our lot has a substantial slope in the area we want to build -- roughly 4 in 1, dropping from the road side (east) to the river (west). That's not a problem, because we want to build a place with a walkout basement. In fact, it's just about perfect: if the house is 40 feet long, and each floor is roughly ten feet high, then a 4:1 slope means that there's very little earth moving required to have a front door at ground level on one side of the house, and a basement door at ground level on the opposite side.

Step two: Because we have a sort-of view through the trees toward the river (that is, we think we might be able to see the river with some selective pruning, and even if we can't we've got a nice view down the wooded hillside), we've naturally been thinking of putting most of our windows on the west side.

Step three: We want a simple roofline (to save money) and we like the "wall of windows" look, particularly if we have a cathedral ceiling in the living room. Therefore, the roof ridge should run east-west, with most of the windows on the western end.

Step four: We'd like to have a deep porch on the entry side. Kind of like this home from Beaver Homes. Now we're getting somewhere. Picture this place sitting on a sloped lot. The porch would be on the south side, and the land slopes down from the east (right side of the picture) to the west. The wall of windows you can see in this picture would be moved so it's on the opposite end of the house -- that is, on the west side. Looking good?

Not so fast, there, homebuilder. Now we come to step five: the problems.

As I've mentioned before, it makes sense to incorporate a lot of passive solar elements in the house, which means windows on the south side. We need an overhang to block the summer sun, but a six- or eight-foot overhang that you get from a deep porch is too much: we'd still get sun in December, when it's really low, but we'd lose it by February.

There's also the question of what this house would look like on a slope. You don't see too many homes that sit across the slope: usually the're oriented so that the land falls away to the back or the front. Is there a reason for this? Quite likely, and I don't want to discover that reason by building the house wrong.

A third problem is what we do about a screen porch. We eat outside a lot, and when you're building on a wooded lot in Muskoka a screen porch is pretty much a necessity. They don't call 'em Muskoka rooms for nothing. On this plan the natural way to build one is to screen in one end of that nice deep porch, but that blocks off even more of the southern light. Or we could put it on the west end, but then it's right in front of that lovely wall of windows, and raises some serious roofline questions.

We've been wrestling with this for weeks now and getting nowhere. And then we visited friends and had a look at their house. And suddenly thought: "what if we took this design and turned it 90 degrees?" What if we, in effect, went back to step one and changed our assumptions?

Now we've got a gable end wall of windows facing the south, allowing plenty of solar gain. The land slopes away from the front of the house, in a more conventional arrangement. And the screen porch can go on the west side.

There are still some issues. We've got a lot of windows facing south, where the view isn't as grand. But perhaps we don't put quite as many windows there as we had initially planned, and add more windows on the west, balancing that out. We'll need to calculate the overhang on the south side carefully to ensure we're not bringing in too much sunshine in the warm season.

We'll also need to do a bit more land-shaping to make the walkout basement work. But since the footprint we're looking at is 32 by 40, it's not that big a difference.

Is this the solution? Perhaps. We've got to live with the idea for a little longer and see if we can spot the flaws. But I know one thing for sure: it was a lot easier to turn the house 90 degrees now than it will be in a year or so.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Back to round one.... again

After our meeting with the technologist, we were talking about the options we had open. And Sharon said "Does this mean we're definitely not going with log?" Since we had spent a fair bit of time looking at a local builder of log homes, we decided we needed to see for sure whether that was an option before we went any further.

And while we were being definitive, we decided we'd better make sure we had ruled out some of the other options we were considering, such as hiring French's (a large builder in our area), building a Viceroy, or buying a kit from Beaver Homes and hiring a contractor to erect it.

So we've had a couple of meetings this week, one with French's and another with True North. We still don't have a decision, but the numbers are becoming more clear.

True North can give us a clear price on their home package. It includes exterior walls, roofing, windows, etc -- the complete shell. They can also tell us how much it would cost to have them build the shell, or give us a completed, turnkey home... if we want to just pick one out of the plan package and say 'we'll take that one.' If we want to make modifications to an existing plan -- which almost everyone does and we certainly would -- we'd need to plunk down a deposit before they'll start redesigning and repricing. Fair enough: that's quite a bit of design time. But it makes it a bit tricky to price. And, if we go with log, price is a consideration because it's a given that log is more expensive than stick frame.

A bigger problem with log is the insulative value. I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the future marketability of a home will have a lot to do with its energy-efficiency. When oil is $200 a barrel, and when every new home coming on the market has an official energy-efficiency number attached to it (which they will), greener homes will be worth more. Even setting aside future sales, one of the things we both really want is a home that is warm in winter and costs little to keep that way. Log homes are great... when they're well built, well-chinked, large round log homes. Engineered log homes, on the other hand, are a little less so. The r-value of softwood is about 1.5 per inch, so an eight inch log (one firm's most popular) has just R12 in the walls. The house we're in now, with its 1970s 2x4 walls, has around R16. Modern homes with 2x6 walls are about R20, I think. If you go with a more creative framing (offset studs, or blockers to end thermal bridging) you can get R30 without too much difficulty. That's a heck of a difference.

Still, the appeal of log is strong, so we're not ruling it out yet. We need to get some solid numbers on foundation costs to pin it down.

We also met with French's. More on that later.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Meeting with a designer

Had a very good meeting with a designer on the weekend. She is an architectural technologist, and she came to the house on Saturday to show us her portfolio and discuss how she works. She was recommended to us by a friend in the building trade, and she seems to know her stuff. Next step is to get some references from her and check on them.

So will the references and her portfolio tell us what we need to know? Probably not. Choosing a professional is, I'm starting to realize, as much art as science: you do the basic homework, and then you go with what your gut tells you. We both had a good feeling about her, and in our two hour meeting she offered up several tips that sounded like they would save us money (including advising us which surveyors have a reputation for being more expensive -- I would have thought that was one area in which prices didn't vary by too much. Apparently not.)

If we hire her, the next step is to tour the property with her and show her our list of wishes, wants, needs and don't wants. Then she puts together a concept drawing, we comment, it gets amended, and we keep going back and forth until we're ready for... construction drawings! Woo Hoo! Which we can then show to builders and find out that we can't afford to build what we just spend weeks designing. Or so the pessimist in me says. But one step at a time.

On the hands-on side of things, Charlotte and I drove out to the lot on Sunday afternoon, parked in the beautifully hand-crafted parking area, and walked down to the water in our wetsuits. She stayed on shore while I waded in and lost all sensation in my feet. Still, after half an hour we had the dock out, and there she stays until spring.