Wednesday, March 31, 2010

January 15th, 2010 - 7:30 a.m. - Four big packages arrive...

and are hoisted into place.
The kids stayed home from school....
The stairs were dropped into place.....
and the last box headed for home.....

The roof was folded up into place....
The gable ends were fit right in...
and bang zoom we're done: 5:30 p.m.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Concrete Matters

One of the favorite sounds from my youth is the beep beep beep of a concrete truck as it backs up to the site to drop its load. The unbridled stress, the scrambling excitement, the harrowing permanence of it - it is pure joy to me.

My concrete guy is the coolest hand in the land. Nothing was a big deal. Everything was no problem. And when we set the house on it a month later, it was dead-eye dickie accurate.

The process is simple enough:

You dig out the hole...

pour in, spread and compact the gravel...

set up the formwork...

call in the truck...

and pour....

A few days later, you set up the wall forms....

and pour them too.

This was my Ando moment. I'm reminded that buildings are so beautiful in their rawest stage, that the more they look like buildings, and actually function, some of their poetry vanishes.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

At the Corner of Lime Rock and Greystone

As we drew and questioned and met with Bob Segalla, we started to nail down basic things, like the house dimension and placement, so we could begin the excavation and foundation work in advance of the house set. Our house was scheduled to be delivered January 15th, so we had to get going on the earthwork before mother nature stopped us cold. Phone calls were placed, bids were gathered, and one guy was 20% cheaper than the others. Suspicious as I was, I hired him. Best decision I've made. It turns out, he had the proper equipment for the job.

So on a fine fall day, I heard a rumbling, and peered out my window: the yellow beasts began to arrive.

Immediately, they jumped on to the septic system, which, due to ledge and perking considerations, had to be sited about 1000' away in a field. The other bidders had planned to build a road down to the septic site. My earth mover had a huge off-road dump truck that could just ride through the field and get the job done. This amounted to enormous savings. As the job wore on, I realized he and his guys were like musicians with their equipment - such a feathery touch with those big hunks of steel. Pure athletes.
On another fine fall day, a soft-spoken man with an easy smile showed up with a truckload of dynamite. He brought a giant drilling machine, and methodically bore a grid of holes in the earth, set his charges, had the machine operator drop a blasting mat, and we all stood behind the pick-up truck and waited for the boom. You felt it more than you heard it, and I never got used to it as I concentrated on my furniture work in the adjacent workshop. It started to stress me out, yet I knew nothing was wrong and I found I had to just tell myself to chill out. Once there was a really big blast that seemed out of the ordinary, and the next day I found a big white rock about 50 yards away, confirming my suspicion. That said, we blasted safely within 3 feet of my 1956 barn and I've found no cracks or other signs of damage there.
The rock, which was plentiful, was beautiful. Some was very white, a type of limestone. which explains my address: 126 Lime Rock Road. Some was a gray color, very hard, and I was told it was called Stockbridge Marble. And now I know that the name of the development lane that runs beside our property was only partly atmospheric: I live at the corner of Lime Rock and Greystone.
Lastly, some of the stone was too beautiful to bury....

so I had the backhoe operator load up the 8 best ones, and now we have our own private Stonehenge.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Attacking the Modular Look

As we drew plans and sections and elevations of our proposed modular house, we'd step back from them and think, "Looks good: no one will think it's a modular." But a gnawing fear ground away at my stomach: lines on the paper can mislead if not lie. As I looked at a very expensive local modular house, which I did not realize was a modular house until the owner told me so, well then it really jumped out at me that you can spot certain details that tip the hand a bit. We were shocked when we submitted our drawings to the factory, and they were redrawn by them, and when they returned to us, our house looked like a modular house. We had to get busy and get on top of the details.

People typically want 3 things when building: they want it cheap, quick and good. Peter Forbes, a superb architect I used to work for, used to tell clients, "Pick two." But we would go for all three. The modular process offers some real advantages to consider. First, know that 120 workers will build your house in 5 days. They will be indoors, as will the building materials, so things that oughtn't get wet don't. Most components are cut with computer settings, so, for example, all the studs in our walls were cut precisely to 9', as we wanted. This was particularly evident when we found that all the rafter tails lined up with unusual precision as we installed the fascia and gutters. The house will be scheduled, and it will arrive at it's appointed hour or there will be penalties: this tends to ensure the prep work for it is completed on schedule as well. The house will arrive at various stages of completion. For some, it is virtually complete: floors are in, walls are plastered and painted, doors are hung, roofing and siding are buttoned up, plumbing fixtures are set, the kitchen awaits your dishes. For us, it would arrive a shell: in our attempt to "attack the modular," we pulled all that stuff out and decided to source and install our own.

Modular factories offer standard floor-plans. At their base, these are really assemblages of big boxes, proportioned not unlike shoe boxes, sized to fit on the backs of tractor trailers. In that we wanted essentially a loft-like space, and we had site restrictions, we decided to go with four shoe boxes, sized 12' x 60' x 9' tall. This size hauls easily on the road without the necessity for expensive police escorts and middle of the night dashes. They can go to 16' wide, but that's when the money starts to flow for hauling. We planned to set 2 boxes side by side, then put the 2 others on top of them. Given the snows we get here in the Northwest corner of Connecticut, we went with a pitched roof in spite of our flat-roof modern sensibilities. This roof would ride flat on the 2 upper boxes, and would hinge up in place. An advantage to this roof system is that it can easily accommodate a cathedral ceiling upstairs, so we did so in the master bedroom and bath.

The real trick for our downstairs design would be to figure a way to eliminate the structure the modules need to run down their center line. We didn't want a bunch of columns breaking up the space, nor a beam hanging down the center of the room like a spine. We settled on hiding a flitch plate, or, very thin beam, in the ceiling between the boxes. We placed a mammoth fireplace 24' in from the gable end wall, and in that we'd hide some columns to catch the hidden beam. Problem solved. I squint my eyes, and now I'm in a Soho loft.

As I mentioned, we stripped everything off to attack the modular. No vinyl or cedar siding - we were to do horizontal shiplap for a smooth look like the really old houses. No asphalt roof - we want a standing seam metal roof to match the silos and our old barn that we saved. It also reminds me of the Tidewater Virginia farms of my youth. No doors - we will make them. Same thing for the kitchen. No factory windows please - we want a black metal multi-lite outswing casement. Not only does this let us throw open the windows like some Parisian washer woman, it lets us put the screens on the inside of the house. This is huge. Screens over windows rob houses of their life: they put a gray pall over the exterior. And they get dirty. We'll do our own floors please - no honey colored oak strips for us. And while we will lay out every light and switch and outlet in advance, we will provide the lights themselves. And the plumbing fixtures - just give us the pipes to plug into. And we want some glass - some big glass - no little 6' wide sliding unit. Real flat glass to bring the outdoors in. We don't want the standard overhangs of our roof eaves - we want them high and tight. And we want to set the house on stone, not concrete, so we'll run a line of granite curbstone around the base to give the house some soul. And, and.....

And so we roll up our sleeves, break out our pencils, pick up the phone, and start calling our people who can help us pull this thing together.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Getting Started, for 4 years

I am a dis-ordered soul, which may explain why the things I make are highly ordered in their making and aspect. So it is with some discomfort that I start this blog on the building of our house 3 months into it, which means I have some back-tracking to do to fill in the blanks. You see, the house is there, in place, but the fun stuff is yet to come.
Pilar Proffitt is my wife, the mother of my three children, my business partner, my co-designer, my editor, my wiser soul, and a great pair of eyes. We have spent the four years since we first saw our place designing numerous houses that we could build on the property, and finally, we picked one. I find I can design a million things, all of some degree of merit, but nothing really happens till you pick one. Then you make it good.
So, of all the ones we drew, and re-drew, we settle on the one we thought would meet our needs, give us something interesting to think about, and that we possibly might be able to afford. This last point had more sway than we would have preferred: if you have 3 small people you have produced, and you need some privacy, you need a bit of square footage. We didn't want huge, but children and all the plastic they come with need space. We didn't want to exceed 3,000 square feet, because, at the local rate of $250-$350 per square foot, we couldn't afford it, and something about going bigger seemed dirty. We looked into renovating our barn into a house, and adding on to the end of it, but Pilar didn't want to live right next to the workshop (OK by me) and there was something about the flies that still think the cows are coming back for a good milking.

At the end of the barn there is a glorious open and relatively flat piece of land. The view to the northeast is of a meandering country road that vanishes into the hills in the distance. Farther on, there are a sprinkling of Massachusetts mountains. There is a McMansion or two in the foreground: one looks a bit like Churchill Downs; the other, a wedding cake. But we look over and beyond them with our rose colored glasses, and breathe in what we signed up and paid for.
After talking to at least a dozen of the local builders, from real firms, to guys with magnet signs on their pick-up trucks, we decided we really couldn't afford anything. At all. So we had a crazy idea. Why don't we build a modular home? I'll be frank: I have never, ever, in my life, seen a modular home that I admired. There always seems to be something not quite right. Even the new modern ones I see published in the glossy's seem to be either too small, too expensive, or too aspirational: I know of a local couple who went with one, and while very cool, it ended up at over $400 per square foot, according to the builder. But how about this: what if we went to a local modular company, worked with what they can do in their typical set-ups, tweek it to fit our needs, and spend the savings on eradicating everything about its appearance that speaks of modular. We did a drive-by design, and got it priced: holy cow it came in at $117 per square foot and off to the races went we.
We only looked at one modular builder: the guy we kept hearing about, met, and grew quickly to respect was Bob Segalla of Segalla Homes. He is the local builder that works with Westchester Modular, a house factory that serves a fairly large portion of the Northeast region. As best as we could determine, not only was Westchester's construction of the best quality around, the Segalla's have a reputation of being straight-up honest and direct. As we got into it with Bob, we found things were remarkably simple: if you wanted the cedar siding option, it cost X. If you didn't, the deduction was the SAME X! No yanking around. So at the bottom of the list of all the things we wanted, and all the things we didn't, was a total, and that, quite literally, was the number we took to the bank. It took a large portion of the risk, the discomfort, the uncertainty right out of the building equation. (I say large portion, not all, because of the things I pulled out of his contract, such as the earth-moving, which is the most fraught with uncertainty and risk of all. - more on this later.)
Now the work really started: we learned to work within the limitations of the system Westchester offered, then we drew, and tweeked, and drew some more till we had a plan that worked for us. We wanted 4 bedrooms so Sammy could move out of our closet, a TV area separate from the living area, a basement for the kids and all their stuff, a workable mudroom for mud mud mud and gear, a drive-in garage to limit that mud mud mud, a bedroom and bath that gave a sense of escape, if not an actual escape, and downstairs, we just wanted a big open loft space, with a big damn fireplace. We designed a masonry bookend for the house to turn our back to the road, and glassed the opposite end which aimed toward the mountains. We drew a covered connection to the existing barn, so I can make a clean escape to and return from the workshop when something needs to happen.
The next job was to address the finishes, those things you see and touch that tell you the house is modular. This is for the next entry.