article: green homes

Nifty little article about the growing trend of folks building green, including in Austin. For crying out loud, megabuilder KB Homes (along with Martha Stewart) is now marketing a net-zero house

The house above is from a cool little development on the east side of Austin called "Sol" that features only green homes that have solar or are "solar ready" (ready to install solar panels once you buy 'em). Love this house.

My tea party friends equate building green with tree-hugging socialism and French kissing Al Gore, but one can build green for a number of reasons, including money (much lower utility bills), patriotism (increasing our nation's energy independence), and a simple love of efficiency (what's wrong with peace, love, and efficiency?).

Click on the blog entry title to read the article (or here). Enjoy!


some numbers

some numbers

Posted over yonder by the good folks at modernaustin (click on "some numbers" above). Having owned a home (and paid property taxes over the last almost 20 years), the pricing increases (and not) fit our property. Not mentioned is that going into 1990 the state was coming out of an oil bust and the savings and loan fiasco which suppressed home prices, so when the market took off, there was a bit of pent up demand. Also, Austin greatly increased in population over the past 20 years, swelling from ~472,000 in 1990 to ~657,000 in 2000 to ~790,000 in 2010. This caused prices to go up in the more desirable (= less of a commute) city core. The dotcom boom really drove prices up during the 1990s. For the most part, Austin “missed out” on the run up of prices during the 2000s, in part, I believe, because the market was still recovering from dotcom fallout.

haiku for the book “building your own home for dummies”

want to build a house?
and dont know dead from doornail?
are you a dummy?

The truth is this: We wouldnt be building a house if it wasnt for this book.

As a scientist, the first thing I do before casting off into the great unknown is to do a literature review: A compilation and quality reading of what has been written about the topic of interest. In this way, I can learn what others have already learned and not go down rabbit holes and dead ends already discovered and discarded. Being a scientist, and not being able to help myself, I did the same when we started getting serious about building a home.

The first books I found and read were not promising and, in fact, were frightening. One book on building a custom home simply stated that it was impossible to estimate the cost of building a custom home. While probably technically correct (although I have to believe that theres at least one home out there that was built for the budget), that statement was not at all helpful. That book recommended building semi-custom and then went into excruciating detail on working with Generic Homes Inc. in choosing cabinets and paint colors. Unfortunately, Generic Homes Inc. doesnt build cubist homes. It wasnt until I picked up this Dummies book that the hammer hit the nail.

The first time I was at the bookstore, I passed over the Dummies tome. Im not a dummy…” I whisper-whined to myself so the cute girl with tortoise shell glasses and an Edgar Allan Poe tattoo wouldnt hear me. After striking out on several other books I was back at the bigbox to anonymously buy the Dummies book. Would you like a bag, sir? Why yes, yes I would. And make it quick, please

The book is written by a banker, a builder, and Ms. Lincoln Logs. I skipped over the log-talk (having grown up in Illinois, Ive heard my share of log cabins) and headed straight for the financing and building bits. And my-my are they beautifully chock full of useful information.

The authors wrote the book before the banking crisis, so tread carefully through the financing parts (dont worry: banks these days will help you by simply saying NO!). Nonetheless, there are lots of useful tips. For example, we were thinking that we would put most of our cash into the lot when we bought it. However, after reading this book, we realized that we need our cash for a more efficient build (if you have to wait for the bank to release money from the construction loan, construction can be slowed; if you have cash, you can write checks to keep the project moving while waiting for the bank to pay you for the work).

The building bits of the book are likewise horribly helpful. One giant section explains the building process in great detail, the different ways of contracting with a builder, and lists common mistakes, ways to lower costs, and how to resolve problems that may come up.

Building a home is still a leap into the great unknown, but at least with this book weighting us down, well (hopefully) get there faster!


oh no! we’re surrounded by setbacks!

If youre building on a piece of property within city limits, you probably have zoning restrictions. Zoning restrictions tell you what you can and cant do with your property. For example, you cant build a gas station on a lot that is zoned for residential use, at least not easily. Zoning generally tells you how far away from your propertys edge you can build (something called setbacks), how high you can build, how much impervious cover is allowed, and even, in some cases, how many square feet you can have.

Our lot is zoned SF-2, short for Single Family Residence Standard Lot. If your city is worth two hoots and a holler, it should have all of this info on its web site. In fact, you should even be able to figure out your zoning from its web site as well. To be SF-2 in Austin, you have to have a lot of at least 5,750 square feet. This zoning also comes with a height limit (35 feet), restrictions on usage (for example, we could have a bed and breakfast or an urban farm on our lot [fire up the tractor!] but not a duplex), minimum lot width (50 feet), maximum building coverage (40 percent), maximum impervious cover (45 percent), and minimum setbacks (25 feet for front yard, 5 feet for side yard [15 for street-side side yard], and 10 feet for rear yard).

In Austin, zoning gets a little more complicated because we have something called the McMansion Ordinance. After a slew of sun-blocking McMansions popped up like cowpies in a feedlot during the last building boom, the city put some additional restrictions on certain parts of town. For example, McMansion applies to our lot, so instead of being able to build to 35 feet, we can only build to 32 feet. McMansion puts a building envelope over the lot and restricts square footage. Because our lot is bigger-than-the-average-lot, we dont have any worries, at least for what we want to do. Your (hopefully local) architect should have a good familiarity with the your citys zoning requirements (and zoning personnel and personalities).

Just because your zoning says you cant do something doesnt mean you cant do it. One path is to do it anyways and duke it out in court once the city finds out (but as the saying goes: You cant fight city hall…”). The other path is to seek a variance. A variance is an official reprieve from the city from a certain zoning requirement. Although it sounds rather serious, cities give variances all the time. In fact, in my humble opinion, its appropriate that they do. Rules are rules, but rules usually dont anticipate all circumstances. And if youre close to meeting the standards (the parameters of which are somewhat arbitrarily set), why shouldnt you be able to do want you want to do?

Lets say you have a lot zoned SF-2 but, instead of having the required 5,750 square feet, you only have 5,700 square feet. Guess what: You cant build on the lot! The variance system allows you to go to the city and get an official reprieve from that requirement so you can build. When seeking a variance, you have to be reasonable. Lets say that instead of 5,700 square feet, you had 2,500. Unless you gave heartily to the mayor in last years election, youre probably not going to get that variance. Variances take time and, if you use professionals to represent you, money. So you definitely want to carefully consider any required variances before you buy a lot. Again, if you architected up early, he or she can help you out.

I served on our current neighborhood associations steering committee for more than 10 years. Because we are an older neighborhood (established before 1900), there are no enforceable neighborhood-wide covenants in place. The only influence we have on development is through the variance and rezoning processes. Because these are city and, therefore, public processes, there are opportunities for public input and influence on the final decisions. In Austin, neighborhood associations are fairly powerful, so if you, the landowner, dont have the support of the neighbors and the neighborhood association, you may be in for the ride of your life.

Theres a right way and a wrong way to get a variance or a zoning change. The wrong way is to try and bypass the neighborhood association and go straight to the Board of Adjustments (the name of the body appointed by city councilfolk and the mayor to oversee variance requests, at least in Austin). You might get away with this if its a minor request, but if its not a minor request, you just made whoopie to yourself. The right way is to meet with the neighbors and neighborhood association and be honest and forthright with your goals. You need their trust, and you have to earn it. All neighborhood associations have had multiple bad experiences with developers, so they approach developers or anyone who smacks of a developer with great caution. Your every move and word will be scrutinized.

Many times Ive interacted, as a steering committee member, with developers and landowners that cannot believe that they have to meet with and negotiate with the neighborhood association. Meeting with the association is not required, but you are almost certainly assured smooth sailing through the process if you have the neighborhood on your side. If you are looking for minor variances, then getting a stamp of approval (or expression of neutrality) from the neighborhood association will assure smooth sailing. If youre looking for something more major, then prepare to do a little wheeling and dealing. If you and your agent are doing it right, then youre listening carefully to concerns and doing what you honestly can to address those concerns whether or not you agree that the concerns are concerns. Its also good to ensure that you and/or your agents are polite and professional to everyone at all times, even if you and the neighborhood arent seeing eye-to-eye. If you want to create a neighborhood jihad against your project, go ahead and be a jackass. I hope you have deep pockets and a strong tolerance for disappointment.

Not all neighbors and neighborhood associations are reasonable, so you may find yourself going to city hall anyway. Again, be polite and professional to everyone all the time. Ive seen developers be their own worst enemy by insulting city staff and even city representatives, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Be logical. Be truthful. Be nice.

Several years ago the lot behind our house and our neighbors house sold. It was a tiny lot on a former alley zoned for light office. Our neighborhood plan expressed a desire for this lot to eventually be zoned some flavor of single family. Unfortunately, when our neighborhood plan was approved by city council, staff miscoded the desired future zoning as mixed use. The owner, someone in the business of buying and selling land, came to us (the neighbors and the neighborhood association) requesting support to change the zoning to mixed use. His desire: to build a single-family home on the lot that his family would live in.

The neighborhood wasnt too keen on supporting mixed use zoning on this lot facing a paved alleyway. Given the expressed desire to build a single family home for his family on this lot (suspicious given that the lot was bounded by parking lots on two sides and sat across from dumpsters), the neighborhood found a special flavor of single family zoning that would achieve the owners stated goal. But that wasnt good enough. He wanted mixed-use zoning. At this point, the owner lost any credibility with the neighborhood. We found a way for him to do exactly what he said he wanted to do without mixed-use zoning, but that wasn't good enough. What did he really want to do? And since he wasnt sharing, all we could assume was the worst. After a bitter eight-month battle that went all the way to city hall (twice), the owner lost.

I went to nearly every hearing during that affair and learned some important things. One is that if you hire someone to represent you, go check him out beforehand and attend hearings on your issue to watch him. The guy the owner hired to represent him was terrible. He wasnt familiar with the process (something I geekily learned by pouring over city codes, bylaws, and pamphlets and attending earlier unrelated hearings to understand the culture and modus operandi of the different boards, commissions, and councils we had to work through). And even worse, when expressing frustration about things not going his way (in large part because he hadn't done his homework), the agent publicly lashed out at city employees as incompetent.

Never ever lash out at city employees, even if you deeply believe the nasty things you believe to be true. City folks are supposed to be helpful and neutral, and they usually are, but they are human just like you and me (its true!). How helpful do you think you could be to someone who publicly accuses you of being incompetent you in front of your bosses and the world? The other thing to consider is that staff tends to have close relationships with the various commissioners, board members, and councilfolk they work with. Insulting staff very likely insults the folks voting on your issue.

I could go on and on about this (and realize that the aforementioned will mostly fall on deaf ears for those that most need to hear it because the first law of jackasses is: If youre a jackass, you generally dont realize youre a jackass.), but Ill leave it at that. The bottom line when pursuing a variance or zoning change is to be reasonable, be truthful, be polite, and be professional. If you do this, you place your case in the best possible light, and facts, not emotions, will (hopefully) be the deciding factors.


things a boy and girl would want in their house

While packing this past week, Ive stumbled across a number of long lost (including lost from memory) items as well as bizarre ephemera. Sometimes I feel like Im conducting an archeological dig, carefully dusting off historical discoveries. One of the bizarre items I found was the above note written back when my bride-to-be and I were in the market for our first house some 20 years ago. Included on the list:



Places for plants

Carrot garden

Music room


Big bathroom with 3-D mirrors

Little swing

Little lake by the little swing

Lots of windows

Two cat doors

No onions in the garden

Garage doors!!

Some of these things are still on our list

scheme j

Amidst the packing and decluttering and prepping of the current house The Architect sent over the latest on the new house: Scheme J (click on the image above to see a larger version of it). Scheme J is orthogonal with a longer dining area (to create more space out the patio) and a flip of the bathroom to the north (to allow room for the hammerhead; a place to back the cars before heading out of the drive). As a bonus, The Architect also drew in an entrance patio (which looks awesome) as well as some other stuff.

The dining room is now hey-uge: theres room, I reckon, for a buffet or buffets. And it definitely increases space off the side patio. Oh look: Theres the horno (the circle near the AC units). According to The Architects contacts at the city, the horno can be placed in the easement. That deserves a hip-hip-hooray!
I cant tell how much longer the dining room is (maybe I can convince The Architect to put a scale on these): Maybe 4 or 5 feet. The house is also pulled a foot or so from the northern boundary. This scheme shows a gate through the driveway (something needed to keep the riffraff out). And it shows the trash and recycling bins (a pet peeve of ours on modern houses: They never plan for a place to hide the trash and recycling). Theyll still need something around em to hide em, but there they are. Oh! And I shouldnt forget about the outdoor shower off the first floor bedroom!

My engineer bride likes what she sees but worries about cost. After quickly pecking at her calculator, she frowned a little. Well need to talk to The Architect about where the budget is on the project. And what the second floor looks like! And where the rainwater harvesting tanks go...


buy low. sell high.

Before we can build, we must sell. And so, fitting in with the grand plan, weve started preparing our current abode for the cold cruel market. Weve lived in this lovely little purple house, built (mostly) in the 1880s, for nearly 20 years. Its the first (and only) house weve ever owned. We bought it, in part, because it reminded us of New Mexico and because of its tall ceilings, huge windows, and overall personality. We were married in the backyard, fer cry eye! So while weve been getting ready, the thought has crossed my mind: What the hell are you doing? Nonetheless, while there is sadness, there is also excitement for whats to come.

Pre-bust, we would have (most likely) stayed in this house until a few months out from constructions end before putting it on the market in an attempt to time the transition such that there would be a single move. However, we live in a post-bust world. To ensure we dont have to carry notes on two houses (and to apply the equity from the old house to the construction of the new house, greatly increasing our chances of getting a construction loan) we will sell first and build later. In this way we will have some certainty in our budget and wont have to worry about a double dip recession (something federal and state governments seem intent on causing these days). And if the house doesnt sell, well carry the lot until it does, something we are fortunate enough to afford to do.

Weve often made the observation of how people will suddenly spend bucks to fix up their place before putting it up for sale. How sad, wed say, slowly shaking our heads. And now we find ourselves in the same position. Projects delayed for years are suddenly being finished by a crew we hired to complete a bunch of punch out items we feel need to get done before we enter the market. If I had known how (relatively) inexpensively we could have gotten some of this stuff done, we would have done it earlier. Oh well. Our message to you: Do it now and enjoy!

The cosmos must be with us because the local birdcage liner has started a new column about home staging written by the dude, Roger Hazard (who happens to live in Austin), that brought home staging to television. His first column appeared this past Sunday:

In short, declutter, remove religious iconography, superclean your bathrooms and kitchen, let in light, remove any personal photos, get rid of your TV, get SLR photos of your house for the listing, get stuff off the top of your cabinets, and remove half your clothes (from the closet!).

A friend of mine told me that he and his wife hired a professional stager and were able to sell their home in short order after being on the market for awhile (tips from her: make sure you can see your corners; no magnets on the fridge; acceptable art [which means the Tara McPherson print of a young lady fighting an alien squid and a John Hancock original of a two headed, three-breasted woman probably have to go]). A real estate friend of mine said to beware of over-staging the house. He said that because of cable TV (the aforementioned Mr. Hazard), most buyers are aware of staging and will react negatively to it if it is obvious. Interesting Nonetheless, weve packed up 18 boxes of books (which is not all of them; the new house will have a wall of shelves somewhere) and are working to declutter but not overstage (which is not an issue in our house for various reasons).

The other thing weve been doing is contemplating where we will live for about 1.5 years while we design, finance, and build the new house. For several years, intrigued by high-rise living, we considered buying a condo downtown. Five hundred dollars a square foot quickly dissuaded us from those impure thoughts. But one idea is to rent a place downtown and get downtown living out of our system. Fortunately, places downtown dont rent for what would be needed to pay a note on a $500 a square foot place, so its within the financial realm of possibility. Monarch, close to Whole Foods but not too close to the entertainment districts (but walking distance nonetheless), looks very promising.
But first, we must sell. And, hopefully, sell high.


the fir tree

While in Santa Fe a couple weeks ago, we ventured over to Pecos to see pueblo ruins and attempt to gawk at "The Fir Tree", a house Frank Lloyd Wright built for Arnold Friedman. The house sits along the headwaters of the Pecos River nestled among (you guessed it) fir trees. Although the house is nearly invisible from the road, the gate and associated stonework is clearly Wright. This house was based, in part, on the neverbuilts of a resort for Lake Tahoe.

Update (April 9, 2013):

The Architectural Record recently posted some photos of this house. A couple are below, and here is the link to read the article and see more photos.


steel and sawdust

Dorothy Parker wrote about attending a party in New York and the home having the palette of freshly polished steel and sawdust. Like this kitchen. Kind of timeless, really. Like Dot.

(photos from the Alno catalog)

stop skewing around

Hooked up with The Architect to discuss the various house layouts we’ve been discussing-chatting-writhing about lately. Unfortunately, we haven’t hit upon a solution that addresses all concerns, namely the street approach, the hammerhead (where to back the car), and patio space. After plenty of discussion, flirtations with other potential designs, and a questioning of original assumptions, we settled on, for the time being, the originally proposed orthogonal placement with a lengthening of the dining module (which also lengthens the patio space) and an impending investigation of how close we can place our 1,500 pound New Mexican bread oven to the property line. Everything seems to hinge on the bread oven now…

The 3-D renderings above show how the different skewed orientations might look like from the street. Ultimately the original plan (posted here) looks best.

(photo of the horno by me taken in our current back yard; 3D realizations by The Architect).