lien on me

Before heading off to the office this morning I noticed a letter from Nelda Wells Spears on the table. Ms. Spears, who has a pseudo-awesome name, is our county tax assessor/collector. We get yearly letters from her asking us to register our vehicles. However, this letter looked a little different. Having an extra 23 seconds before needing to hit the road, I quickly opened the envelope and unfolded the enclosed paperwork. My eyes nearly Hindenburged out of my head: It was a lien against our lot for failure to pay taxes along with a bill for $3,300! Since I had to drive to work right then and there, this surprise problem was going to have to wait until the evening for resolution. This revelation, combined with a double shot latte and a small Ziploc bag of walnuts, made me extra fun to be with at the office today.

Returning home this evening, I was able to imbibe a couple glasses of mediocre red wine and spend some quality time with the fine print of Ms. Spears love letter. As it turns out, the lien part was no big deal. The many-worded letter explained that state law automatically places a lien on property on January 1st and that the lien remains on the property until the tax bill is paid. That made me feel a little guilty for being so hard on the stapler earlier in the day

The next issue was: Why was I getting a tax bill? Wasnt that built into our payment to the bank like our house? Umm, no It seems, for some reason, that with land the bank is less concerned about you paying taxes on the property. OK. That explains why the payment seemed lower than it should have been.
The issue after that was: Why such a high freakin bill? We had only owned the lot for a few months. Had the previous owner bailed on their share of the taxes? Ummm, no After looking at the closing documents, the previous owners share of the taxes were built into the give and take of closing costs. (If youre from out of state and from a place with low property taxes, you may have yelped to yourself Good Gawd! at that tax bill. Since we dont have an income tax, the Lone Star State has got to get its pound of flesh out of you somehow. That somehow is property taxes.). The closing documents probably deserve a separate post. My bride and I, between us, share five technical degrees and struggled with understanding the non-intuitive nature of the closing documents. I've read that the feds are working to make them easier to understand. Please do, Uncle Sam.

Lesson learned. Next time, ask the who and what about property taxes. And expect a big ole bill (with a lien) at the beginning of the year.

Ms. Spears: The check is in the mail


the modern home tour cometh

Next weekend (Feb Five) is the Modern Home Tour (seems like that should be "Homes"; I hope I bought a ticket to see more than one home...). There's an article in today's paper about one of the homes on the tour:


What's interesting about this home is that it has some of the same elements we're looking at in the home we hope to build. The photos above, also from the article, show a mega-windowed living space wrapped about a courtyard, analogous to our (currently planned) living-dining-kitchen space. Also note the kitchen with a lack of overhead cabinets and just a shelf, something else we are looking at doing. This house is different than the one we currently have plans for (for example, the tour house has much higher ceilings and a unified living-dining-kitchen area), but seeing this space next weekend will give us a sense of what ours would feel like. If the space is as cool as the photos, we're going to be happy (urban) campers!


if the house don't fit, you must acquit

When we were contemplating making an offer on the lot, we asked for and received from our agent a list of recent sales in the neighborhood. I converted that table into an Excel spreadsheet and began to do a little cross-plotting. Note that this information represents home sales in the neighborhood over the past two years and not the full population of homes. There are homes in the hood worth more, and there are homes worth less, and there are bigger and smaller homes. Nonetheless, this is real sales data that seems to be a pretty good representation of value in the neighborhood.

Since we were looking to do a 2,500 square-foot home at a cost of b$100 (see http://austincubed.blogspot.com/2011/01/thats-bunch-of-b.html for an explanation of what b$ means), we generated this graph to see how our planned budget compares to recently sold homes in the hood (click on it to make it larger if you need to). As it turns out, our goals fit quite well with the data (and the neighborhood).

First, take a look at the horizontal axis. Setting aside the outlier at b$25 (that house must have been full of dead raccoons when it sold), home sales have ranged in price from about b$35 to b$115. Thats quite a range, but the good news is that if we stick to budget, we havent built the most expensive house in the neighborhood. Developer rule no. 1 is to never build the most expensive house in the hood. Thats doubly important for us because our lot is not perfectly located.

Now take a gander at the vertical axis. The square footage of these homes ranged from 1,500 to a little over 3,000. Our initial goal of 2,500 (the house has crept to just north of 2,900 now) fits in as well.
Each black dot represents a house of a certain square footage that sold at a certain price. You may notice that although there is a mosquito swarm of dots, the whole batch of them tends to slope upwards to the right. Thats to be expected: Larger houses tend to go for larger prices. However, theres a great deal of spread among these dots. For example, houses that have about 1,500 square feet sold for between b$40 to b$75. This is probably a reflection of whether or not the house had been updated (most of these homes were built in the 1950s) and where the house was in the neighborhood. A crappy house next to the creek is probably comparable in price to a moderately updated house in the interior of the neighborhood.

Ive drawn a vertical line on the graph up from our price point (b$100) and see that houses at that price point generally have 2,250 to 3,000 square feet. Thats in our ballpark. Say, for example, we were insistent on building a 1,500 square foot home at that price point. You can see that we would be way outside (35% higher) the going price for a similarly sized home. In that case, it could be a struggle to sell that house if we needed to.

The other thing to consider is how much you spent on the lot relative to your overall budget. We spent about b$28 on the lot. That gives us b$72 to spend on building the house. Banks generally want to see you spend two to three times the lot cost building the house. Were at 2.6 with this lot. If youre building out in the boonies, your lot cost is probably a lot lower than this and this two to three times rule doesnt apply. But if youre building in town, it seems to be a good rule of (hammered) thumb.

that's a bunch of b$!!!!

Im a little reluctant to get too detailed with cost on this blog. Maybe too much (personal) information? And I dont want to seem like were bragging. If anything, Im a little ashamed to be building in this economic climate while some are struggling. In some ways, its a little crazy to be building in this economic climate since who knows what could be happening to our own jobs. On the other hand, weve lived a financially conservative life, have no livestock (how a childless friend refers to children), and hold a huge amount of home equity having lived in the same house for nearly 20 years. Now is our time, or so we believe. And if everything goes to Lubbock in a handbasket, we can carry the note on the lot for a good while if we need to.

I want to talk about money because thats an important part of building a house. Therefore, Ive come up with a way to talk about the bucks without talking about the specifics. We have a total budget for the project, but Im not going to tell you what it is. So what Ill do is normalize everything to that total budget. All that means is that whatever Im talking about budget wise, Ill divide it by our total budget (the normalization) and, to make things easier, multiply it by 100 (Bonus! This normalization also works as a percentage!). I will call these normalized dollars builder-bucks, or b$ for short. Yes, bS is intended. Draw your own conclusions.

So say, for example, our budget is $150,000. If the land cost us $50,000, the land would have cost us 33.33 builder-bucks, or b$33.33: $50,000 divided by $150,000 times 100. Got it? Great! You are now normal(ized). Let the b$ begin!

a view with a skew

After pondering the plans for a couple of weeks and exchanging a few friendly emails with The Architect, we decided that our next step is to investigate skewing the present design on the lot. The bride and I love the initial design but do not like the house pressed up against the northern side of the lot and encroachment of the house onto garden area and hammerhead (turnaround for the drive). Skewing orientation of the current design addresses these issues. However, skewing is not without its own issues.

The Architect hasn’t been too excited about skewing the house. In large part, this is due to aesthetics and losing sides of the house. He pointed out that with a skewed alignment, there is only a front and back of the house. I hadn’t thought about that, although I recognized that by skewing the front of the house toward the south, the northern “private” side of the house was now exposed to the street. The master suite, outdoor dining area, and “upper level nude sunbathing deck” are still hidden, but the rear end of the Sandcrawler, which houses a covered deck for one of the bedrooms, is now exposed. But we can live with that. A tall wall or fence extending from the house to the property line would serve to protect ground level privacy and frame nice sectors of the yard front and side.

The Architect says that skewing the house ruins the tectonics of the Sandcrawler as viewed from the street. He is right about that. By skewing the house, the front of the Sandcrawler will be completely hidden from streetside gawkers. People will only be able to see the rear end of the ‘crawler (and it’s a fine-looking rear end…), but it probably won’t be as pleasantly jarring. That’s a shame. On the other hand, we’d be compromising on a lot of day-to-day living conveniences to keep the front of the ‘crawler visible. On this, we lean strongly toward function over form. We would be able to see and enjoy the ‘crawler every day (and only reveal it to close friends). In this sense, the property would be like a pair of Lucky Jeans…

Side note: My bride and I debated what The Architect meant by “tectonic” when he described the Sandcrawler. Being a geoscience and engineering couple and savorers of words, we thought he was referring to plate tectonics, the well-established theory that the Earth’s continents float about (very slowly and very destructively [see San Andreas fault]) on a sea of magma. Therefore, my bride thought he was referring to the floating nature of the front of the ‘crawler. I thought perhaps he was referring to the fact that the ‘crawler appears to be faulted out of the house (the geologic term here is “horst”). After asking The Architect about this and then taunting him with an email about the new Massive Attack album being tectonic [which, indeed, it is], The Architect replied with a standard dictionary definition. Tectonic is, first and foremost, a building term. The root of the word, tekton (from late Latin), means builder or carpenter. Well, there you go. Now back to the house…

Another concern is that skewing the front of the house muddles a visitor’s approach. Because of the skew, the formal entrance will (probably) need to flip from facing south to facing northwest. The drive and informal entrance would remain on the southern side. With the drive and formal entrance on the same side, all the visual cues are aligned: There’s only one place to go. With them split, there’s an opportunity for confusion. We plan to put in a gate (hopefully an automatic one…) to close off the southern side of the property to foot traffic. Having lived near downtown for nearly 20 years and having been broken into several times, we’ve learned that open access to your side and rear yards invites shenanigans via bums and crackheads. Perhaps a gate and strong architectural and landscaping signals to the formal entrance will help here. If not, there’s always the shotgun…

When we first talked about building on the lot, I yearned for a solar aligned house. Because the bride-engineer and architect weren’t too keen on having the front of the house at an angle with the street, I retreated. Now we’re looking at aligning with the sun to solve some other issues and yet keep the house as initially designed. The Architect suggested a composite: Have the front module aligned with the street and then skew the rear modules with the sun. But that’s a very different house and the likely death of the Sandcrawler. Nonetheless, we may wind up investigating that approach. And although neither of us want to, we’re fearful that we’ll have to move the garage toward the front of the lot. Because all of this designing costs money, we’re moving incrementally.

For now we’re going to view the skew and then decide on what to do…


design palettes

One of the many things we’ve been thinking about is our design aesthetic for the house. What materials, colors, and feels do we want? To help guide us on this adventure, we’ve chosen the theme of “icehaus” because of our love of Iceland, which fits in with our love of (emotionally) cool modern. Iceland defines a color palette of blinding white (snow), granular black (basalt), wavering orange (fire), frozen blue (sky and ice), washing grey (sky and ice), and ephemeral green (moss). Icelandic homes huddle against the elements; in their case cold, in our case heat. And Iceland is strongly embraced by the arms of Scandinavian modern.

I like having a theme because the theme acts as a filter on design choices and ties the house, inside and out, together. My bride, the engineer, rolls her eyes at this theme business. But she appreciates the direction and the fact that everything ties in across the house.

A designer-ish pal of ours suggested creating these palettes of what we’re heading toward to see how it all works and looks together. All I did was take some screen captures of the various elements we are considering and pasted them all together into one document for each room at approximate scale and relative location. I used Adobe Illustrator for the pasting, but Word would work just as well. These palettes don’t include our art, which will add a lot of pop to these rooms. But you get the idea.

Can you see Iceland in these palettes?


austin modern home tour on feb five

the staked plains

With plans in hand and a break in the weather, we set out to stake the footprint of the latest realization of the house. “Flag” is more technically correct as we used little pink flags attached to wire, but saying we went to “flag” our house sounds like it’s being penalized for “unnecessary roughness” or being “offsides” (especially in this, the playoff season). Regardless, if you ever find yourself doing this, I recommend flags over stakes. Flags are much easier to deal with: No pounding and easy to move when you realize you’ve measured wrong (or you change the design). You’ll also want a reel-type tape measure (at least 100 feet long) with a stake to hold one end down if you’re alone. And don’t forget your plans and a ruler!

I highly recommend flagging/staking your house during the design stage. We’ve had plans for about a week now and gawk and gander at them daily. Hell, I’ve even been having design dreams about the living room. For us, at least, it’s been hard to get a sense of scale of the rooms and the house itself. One way we put the plans into perspective was to compare the dimensions of the proposed rooms to the dimensions of the rooms in our current house. That helped somewhat, but didn’t really account for circulation. The other way was through staking.

The staking was eye opening. Rooms that seemed way too big on the plans suddenly seemed much smaller (and more reasonable) staked on terra firma. For example take the living room. It seems ginormous on paper. Once staked, to get a square foot from us you would have to pull it from our cold dead fingers. Walking about the flags on the property, synapses sparked to reveal a conversation I had about sizing rooms with a friend several months ago: “Find your comfort zone for a room and then add one or two more feet to the perimeter. You won’t be sorry.” Standing between the flags of a room gave the floorplan a real sense of scale. Staking “shrunk” the living room, kitchen, and master.

The other eye opener was how much room the driveway and garage take. For a city lot, our lot is a big lot, but between the house, the garage in the back, and the drive, much of that land is eaten away. Suddenly the rated-PG cursing of The Architect under his breath when he saw the lot while contemplating the garage (“Sure wish there was an alley back there…”) made a lot more sense. We’re giving up a lot (literally…) by having a garage in the back. We vowed that our next lot would be at least five acres. Maybe more.

And one more eye opener was how small the garden area in the northeast corner would be with this design. A friend of ours that lives three houses away from the lot tends to a huge Stonehenge-like garden in her back yard (you can see it from space…) and laments that she’s become a slave to it. So perhaps a smaller garden is best. And there are spots along the house and in the front for planting. Maybe that’s all we need. And the top of the garage…


haus v. 1.00: sandcrawler/walker

The Architect stopped by last Saturday to show us our previous discussions/brainstorming laid out in schematics. The Architect had been busy! All the plans had the same basic layout: A large capital “E” with the back pointed south and the tines pointed north. Prolly the first thing that jumps out at ya is the large “What-the-hell-is-that?” wrapped about the center of the structure. We both love the “What-the-hell-is-that?” part. As I quietly thought to myself “That looks like something out of Star Wars…” The Architect noted that it reminded him of the sandcrawlers out of Star Wars. It reminds me more of the Imperial AT-AT Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back. My bride simply thought it was cool (sometimes it’s neat to be married to a geeky engineer…). The section through the dining room is just about as spacey-cool as you can get.

The “E” layout allows quite a bit of outdoor living with lots of windows and a screened-in patio nestled in with the living room, dining room, and kitchen. Out back is the office/bedroom. And the kitchen looks grand. Upstairs are the bedrooms including a spacious master with spacey windows above the living room.

It looks sweet, but it also looks expensive. And the square feet add up to a little under 2,900, which is prolly more than we need. We’re hoping to stake out some of this design this weekend to get a sense of the scale of the rooms and the house itself. I’m also surprised by how far the house reaches into the lot. And it’s amazing how much room a driveway, garage, and hammerhead (turnaround) eat up. It’s a big lot for the city, but it’s gone real quick with the garage in the back.

It’s neat to see how The Architect put it all together to make it work. We’re now listing out loves, likes, and concerns for The Architect to contemplate for the next round…


happy new year!

Our pals cut up a burn barrel to celebrate the new year and our adventure for the new year. Viva la cube!

a fire in its place

There's something primordial about fire, as if it's been burned into our DNA. “Discovering” and, more importantly, controlling fire was probably bigger than the iPad back in the day. Fire not only meant warmth and bar-b-que but also a social center for family and friends. When the fire was a-roaring, the cave folk all gathered and grunted around the flames. This long human history with fire has carried over into our present-day homes with fireplaces. Although very few warm their homes solely with fireplaces in these modern times, the hearth is still seen as the center of the house.

But are fireplaces green?

The City of Austin's green police say, in short, that fireplaces are uncool and, therefore, ungreen. The reason? Because these days fireplaces are for aesthetics, not heat, and they make houses less energy efficient because you’ve punched a big ole hole into your roof. And that pleasant smoky smell from the fire burning in your house? Where there’s smoke, there’s…carcinogens. So if you’re smelling smoke, you’re breathing cancer. Kind of takes the fun out of it, doesn’t it?

But what about wood-burning stoves?

A wood-burning stove is different than a fireplace in that a stove is enclosed and specifically designed to produce heat. And modern-day wood burners can be quite efficient, upwards of 86 percent. That sure beats the less than 10 percent efficiency of a standard open-hearthed fireplace. To be as green as possible, you want to purchase a stove that is catalytic: One that burns the gases and particulates to reduce emissions, similar to your car. The downside of catalytics? They can be ruined if plastic, other materials, or even the wrong type of wood are burned in the stove. And catalytic converters have to be replaced every six years.

Wood burning stoves tend to be stand-in-the-middle-of-the-room devices. However, wood burning stoves also exist as fireplace inserts which are made to be inserted into an existing fireplace or appear like a fireplace in new construction. With a glass front, you miss the snap, crackle, and pop of the wood, but you see the tongues of flame and feel the heat.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certifies wood-burning stoves as meeting certain emission limits (less than 7.5 grams per hour for non-catalytic stoves and 4.1 grams per hour for catalytic stoves). EPA labels also show the efficiency of the stove. Their web site:

lists stoves that have met the emission requirement and also lists the tested efficiency.

Gas fireplaces/stoves are another possibility. No wood, no ashes, no mess. Gas is also clean burning, so emissions are quite low. EPA doesn’t certify gas fireplaces or stoves because emissions are simply not an issue.

My bride is ambivalent about a fireplace, however it manifests itself, in the house. She’s not against one, but she not yearning for one either. I lean toward “for it” from the standpoint of having an expected focal point in a house at our price point, boutique heating on chilly days, and the romance of fire (from the grunting caveman perspective). Since we’re in the chilly season now in Central Texas, I’ve been paying attention to how much we might actually use a fireplace. I’m thinking we’d use it enough to justify having it. If I had a fireplace, I would have one burning right now.

For a fireplace insert in a modern/contemporary house, I found these:


and really not a whole lot of others. There are, however, quite a few gas inserts out there with modern pop:

many of which are quite stunning (and quite expensive).

In short, if we put a place for fire in our house, I want it to be green and to be efficient. In other words, to provide heat; I don’t want to be burning something just for the sake of having flames. I’m torn between a wood-burning insert and a gas insert. At first, I was anti-gas because I thought they were all about aesthetics. But after learning that they are essentially non-emitters and can be there for heat, I’m (ahem…) warming up to them. But a gas insert misses out on the ritual of gathering wood and setting it aflame. Gas is the fast food of fires. But when you’re hungry and when you’re cold, fast can be good.

One thing’s for sure: If we get a fireplace, we will not be placing a television above it.

More links on fireplaces: