Friday, June 25, 2010

We have a permit! Ground-breaking in 3 days.

Though I am late in posting this news, we received final permit approval from Seattle this past Monday, and should break ground this coming Monday! Permitting took about three months, and required two rounds of corrections. The biggest issues were in the ECA (environmentally critical areas) slide review; they wanted to make sure we wouldn't cause a landslide or disturbances to neighboring properties. The city had two sources of concern. The first was that digging our foundation required somewhat deep cuts near the property line. The second was that we planned to remove the rockery wall at the front of the property and replace it with a concrete wall and steps, but we needed to convince the city we could do so without disturbing the rockery on the neighboring property.

As a consequence, we had to make some small changes to the design of the front stairs and concrete wall, though I think the changes are improvements. More unfortunately, the city required us to get a soils test of the property and a geotechnical review from an expert certifying that our plans would likely not cause a landslide. While our geotechnical firm PanGeo is great and well-priced, it was a several thousand dollar expense that we had hoped to avoid. The city is also requiring us to contract PanGeo to monitor the construction, which is an additional cost.

Today, our GC and the city of Seattle had a required "Pre-Construction" meeting at the site, to go over various requirements imposed by the city inspectors. Because our building is near the height limits, they will require a surveyor to verify that we don't exceed our allowed height (yay, more costs). They also want us to re-submit a stormwater drainage plan, since we have postponed the green roof due to cost. Clearly they're not looking to make our lives easy. I'll conclude the post with one bonus image: the first sign of activity at our site. Our GC built a silt fence, as required by the city prior to the pre-construction meeting, which helps to control erosion and sediment caused by construction activity. On Monday they'll start digging!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The design!

Now to the fun stuff: the design of our house! The house was designed within the context of both our family’s needs and the strong constraints presented by the combination of an odd lot and Seattle city codes. We presented PB with a big list of needs and wants, along with a collection of images of houses that we love. The highlights of our “program” (which is the architectural term for the client’s needs):
  • Between 2000-2500 sq ft in size.

  • Three bedrooms plus a home office.

  • Smooth integration between outdoor and indoor entertaining spaces.

  • Open spaces, minimalist and modern finishes.

Beyond our program, the site presented unusual challenges and opportunities.
  • The buildable part of the lot is small and sloped by about 20 degrees.

  • The setbacks (i.e., the boundaries of the buildable region specified by the city) are diagonal across the lot.

  • There is a driveway through the middle of the lot.

  • There is the possibility of great Western views, but only from high up since there are houses and trees blocking the exposure.

I think the design PB came up with in this context is genius. The most striking aspect, obviously, is the diagonal cantilever sticking out of the front. Here are some images. The first is a rendering, and the rest are Google Sketchup captures; note that the terrain is actually smooth, but the survey data is discretized:

The diagonal cantilever doesn’t exist just to be cool (though it is pretty cool). The diagonal jog is parallel to and right up against the diagonal setback specified by the city. The cantilever allows us to extend beyond the small buildable area and use more of the lot, without sacrificing the small backyard play area. Finally, only the third floor is cantilevered because Seattle requires a 16’5” clearance over driveway easements (we originally planned to cantilever two floors before finding this out). Thee city even has a helpful diagram for this seemingly unusual situation :)

Another unusual feature of the design is that the living/kitchen areas are on the third floor. The downside of this is the need to carry groceries up two flights of stairs; however, it allows us to capture Western views in the living room. Also, the primary and most spacious outdoor areas are on top of the building (the rooftop deck and third-floor deck), so we wanted the kitchen to be next to these areas for entertaining. The floating staircase, with windows underneath it, is designed to make the experience of ascending to the third floor a little less tedious. We’re also excited that the living room features 11 feet ceilings! Finally, here are a simplified version of the floor plans, from the bottom up.

Getting the land purchase and loan approved

This post is the next in my catch-up series, describing the process that brings us to today.

After we got the land purchase under agreement, the real work began. The challenge in doing an all-in-one construction loan is that a remarkable number of steps needs to be completed before you can be certain that the loan will close. You need to:

  1. Design the house; not completely, but to the point where a general contractor will offer a hard or not-to-exceed bid (the latter is a bid to charge for time and materials, plus a guaranteed maximum). This generally means that structural engineering will need to be completed, and allowances for finishes agreed on.

  2. Choose a general contractor, and get a signed contract. The GC must also be vetted by Washington Federal and meet their requirements.

  3. Submit plans and the signed contract to the bank. The bank orders an appraisal, and IF the appraisal exceeds what you're paying for the house, you're good to go.

The unfortunate part is that you spend a fair bit of money to get to the point where you know the house can be built. In our case, we also decided to apply and pay for Seattle building permits before this process was completed, so that the construction wouldn't be delayed. It all worked out, but it can be uncomfortable to take on that risk. Anyways, in our case we quickly set to work creating an initial design with PB, and interviewing general contractors.

It became clear from our interviews with GCs that our budget per square foot was significantly lower than all of them were used to. In fact, several large and well-known Seattle-area builders simply told us no once we informed them of our budget. Others said it was possible, but that we would need to make significant compromises. PB assured us that they had built many houses on our budget. In the past PB was a design/build firm that built most of their houses themselves; after the economic collapse, however, they became a design-only firm. They referred us to several small GCs (often just one person) that they had worked with successfully in the past on low-budget projects, but I was much more comfortable using a construction company that was "google-able."

In the end we got initial bids from just two GCs, though both were quick to point out that their bids were rough since the design wasn't complete. On the basis of those bids and interviews, we selected Logan's Hammer, and we really look forward to working with them. Logan's already had relationships with both Washington Federal and PB, great references from former clients, and experience building lower-priced houses (including spec townhouses).

Even though Logan's was great in getting costs under control, we still had to make a number of compromises in the initial design to get under our magic number. We cut:

  • The green roof. Our plans call for (and still call for) a modular green roof system in roof areas without decking. We had to cut it, though I plan to hopefully be able to purchase that system in 2011. The roof is still engineered to handle the load.

  • Several of the higher-end green features. I wanted spray-foam insulation plus a heat-recovery ventilator. Alas, it was not to be.

  • We have in-floor radiant heat throughout the house, but originally we wanted the bamboo floor to be placed over a Warmboard layer. It was just too expensive, so the heating tubes will be stapled up under the sub-floor. (Only the second floor will be bamboo; the rest are sealed concrete.)

  • Since our living/dining/kitchen is going to be on the third floor, we wanted a dumbwaiter. Once we saw it cost $11,000 installed, it was quickly cut.

  • Our window bids came in way too high (we have a lot of floor-to-ceiling windows). So, we had to cut the window coverage by roughly 25%.

After all that cutting, we managed to get a budget that Logan's would sign off on, and delivered the paperwork to the bank. Amazingly, the appraisal came in about 25% over what we are paying, and the loan was approved! Though I'm skeptical that we will have that much "instant equity" upon completion, it was a great relief to hear that we made good choices in our location and design.

In the next post I'll present our design.