mad for a pad

The rains postponed the pour for the house (the guys did the garage on Tuesday), but, on the good side, it allowed us to get out and savor the work thus far (and get some good photos with everything all blue with the vapor barrier). Before the pour, the architects have to sign off on the work, the engineer has to sign off on the work, and the city has to sign off on the work. We have no idea what we are looking at, but it looks good (the bride thought the foundation was ready for an earthquake). As the bride says "[insert first name of builder] doesn't [insert appropriate epithet] around."

The builder came out and had his crew clean things up on Friday in preparation for the pour. They also started work on the footing for the "privacy wall" out in front of the house.

The only question I can think of asking is: Donde esta la conduit for the outside wiring (for the light out front and for the power to the tub [and stage]). Maybe that's all getting done from the box...

As always, every week we update the "time lapse" photos under the tab above to show a lo-fi time lapse of progress.

design dilemma: light over the kitchen sink

We would like to hang this light above the sink:

However, at 27.5 inches across, we're concerned it's not at the right scale (oh the things you "worry" about when building a house...).

I scaled the image above to the elevation of that side of the kitchen to get a feel for it there. The top one has the light centered on the upper window, and bottom one has the bottom of the light alined with the top of the bottom window (got that?!?!).

Hmmm.... Not sure what to think... It looks too big and awkward, perhaps.

This has prompted us to consider some other options.

One option is to simply use the same light we plan to use over the peninsula:

It's slightly less than 10 inches in width, so perhaps at a better scale and would tie the pendants in the kitchen together.

We both rather like this LED fixture:

It's 13.8 inches in diameter and it looks like a jellyfish:

The bride found this one:

which is neoplasticish and 12 inches wide and 16 inches tall.

The bride also found this one:

Yet another option is to not have a pendant there at all, just a can.

Leaning, at this point, toward the jellyfish...

Decisions, decisions... Design thoughts appreciated.

construction update

Lots going on: hard to keep up!!!

rain delay

We hoped to have the foundation for the house poured on Friday, but the builder called off the pour early that morning. I was surprised it was still on as of Thursday evening with rains predicted for Friday, but with the rains not expected to hit until later in the day on Friday, I suspect it was OK (not sure how long concrete has to sit before it can take a downpour). Things looked far more uncertain Friday morning, and here's what the radar looked like at 5ish:

The stuff to the south of Austin was coming north and the stuff to the west was coming east (we eventually got it from both sides).

The pour is now scheduled for Tuesday, and the forecast is looking good:

Fingers crossed!

hob knobbin'

A good thing about making fixture and appliance choices early is that you've made your choices early. The bad thing is that after you've found the perfect choice, it may then go out of production. As it turns out, this happened to our hob (the word the Brit's use for cooktop). After plenty of searching, this hob by Whirlpool Europe is the one we totally fell in love with and, to a certain degree, designed the kitchen (at least the cabinets, range hood, and sink) around:

Since the local providers aren't able to provide it, we set out to order it a couple weeks ago and discovered that it had been discontinued. We then discovered that Whirlpool was selling their remaining few on Ebay UK, but then found out that they would not ship to the good ole U S of A. After more hunting and several emails back and forth, we found a place in Italy that (1) had some and (2) is willing to ship to us. As an added bonus, while amidst the process of ordering the thing (as in between putting it in the basket and confirming the purchase), the sucker went on closeout and dropped in price by 200 euros (from its previously lowered price; this confused the hell out of me because I was then not convinced what I had ordered is what I had ordered). Ultimately we got the thing for 40 percent off. Not bad (although I'll truly believe we've succeded when the thing arrives).

So a good thing about making choices early and having them discontinued is that you can (sometimes) get them on closeout!

The bride, worried about losing the hob, researched back up plans, shown below. That's a pretty hawt hob as well! From Australia...

Electrolux EHGF93CX Kitchen Cooktop

that's plumb good

The builder has pinged us to make final choices on plumbing and electrical fixtures; thus far, we've finalized the plumbing fixtures. As it turns out, the plumbing fixture supplier, Ferguson, can't get our preference for bathroom faucets for the master and guest bathrooms, so I set out to order them over the interwebs. Before doing so, I checked to see if there were any deals on our true loves, these (much more expensive) asymmetrical beauties by Graff:

and I found a place that had 'em at 40 percent off with free shipping! We'll stick with the (still less expensive but similar) symmetrical Fresca Orba for the guest bath:

interweb shopping

The builder is not too keen on us shopping for stuff over the internet, and for good reason (a single supplier that caters to builders means that if there are issues, there's a known single supplier to deal with familiar with builders' time issues). However, if the single supplier can't get our choice (or can't sufficiently entice us with an alternative [and we are picky-picky-picky]), we're gonna get it ourselves from the interwebs. Furthermore, if we find something online at a crazy low price (like that potfiller), we're gonna get it. Prices at the single supplier (Ferguson) are pretty darn good, so we're not worried about getting "ripped off" by the supplier.

Buying used items from the interwebs really gives builders the heebie-jeebies. We're not going there, but if you do, make sure that all the parts are included, and, if they're not, order replacements. Builders don't want to sit down to do their job and find out that parts are missing. In fact, checking for all the parts is good for new purchases as well.

The fact our cooktop is coming from Europe has some risk. Missing or broken parts are that much more difficult to get in a timely manner. However, it's a risk we're willing to take. If you do this, make sure you are extra understanding with the builder if things go wrong.

remedial framing

We have really been pushing for advanced framing on the house, and to the builder's and framer's credit, they signed up (after some initial reluctance) despite having not done it before. However, the stucco installer put the kibosh on it, predicting cracking problems. After some online research into stucco and advanced framing that confirmed these concerns, we've bailed on advanced framing. Lesson learned. Stucco and advanced framing do not mix.

If you're hawt for advanced framing, we've learned that it's critical to go into design with an advanced framing (ahem) frame of mind. If you do advanced framing right, the house is built on a 24 inch grid with windows and whatnot placed to fit within these constraints.

Maybe the next house?

HVAC attack...

We've had a curveball thrown into our HVAC choice: to be eligible for more than a two (or three?) star rating from the city's Green Building Program, there can be no more than 1 ton of cooling for 600 square feet of house. Our current system is spec'd at 4 tons. Our square footage (2,281) divided by the spec'd tonnage equals not good (570 square feet per ton). We could go with a 3.5 ton system (652 square feet per ton), but the variable speed compressor we covet only comes in 1 ton increments, so we'd have to go with a 3 ton system, but that's 760 square feet per ton. Given the amount of windows we have, the architect's concerned that might not be enough cooling.

My understanding of a variable speed compressor is that it runs at just the right speed to deliver just the right amount of cooling. If that's the case, it seems to me that it doesn't really matter how big the system is (as far as energy efficiency is concerned; system size impacts cost). Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that the city's rating system takes this into account, probably because these variable speed systems are relatively new. Ironically, the rating system may "force" us into a less efficient system (we're still thinking about this; not sure that a 5-star "false" rating outweighs real efficiency).

We've requested a manual J analysis (an HVAC sizing analysis required for any rating; the 4-tons mentioned above appear to be a shoot-from-the-hip estimate) to see what the actual fit is, and I will be verifying my understanding of how a variable speed compressor works. Based on those answers, I may try to talk to our rater (the person at the city in charge of overseeing our green rating). Also need to investigate whether or not variable speed compressors from other vendors come in half ton increments.

We're starting to lose our cool...  ;-)


boo boo... to woo! hoo!

As the forming finished for the front of the house, I scratched my head. What's supporting the extension of the northern wall to the west? Shouldn't the foundation have a footing that extends out that way? (See red area in the diagram below which is looking down on the floor plan. The bottom figure shows the foundation plan.)

So I sent a note to the builder and architect: Shouldn't there be something there? The builder wrote back shortly thereafter (I swear the dude never sleeps!) explaining that they assumed that the wall cantilevers over the ground in that area. As evidence, he included this detail from the plans:

If you look closely at the bottom of the wall, there's something that says 18" TREATED GLU-LAM. Glu-Lam is basically a bunch of wood glued together to create a beam:

As indicated elsewhere in the plans, that beam runs the entire length of that wall. There ain't no other reason for doing that other than having a cantilever in that location. Sweet! That's a big woo! hoo! there.

Our two longtime readers may remember that the initial concept for the house looked like this (with a cantilever):

and then later changed to this (without a cantilever):

That and several other items resulted in us noting to the architects what we liked and didn't like about the later design, including a "like" on the cantilever of the previous design. However, it was unclear how the architects responded (our request was along the lines of "We like the cantilever better but understand if it can't be there because of structural reasons."), and since the above was the last 3-D realization, we assumed the cantilever was gone. It was a pleasant surprise to have it back!

So it was a boo boo on our part for asking about support for that wall. The good thing is that inquiry got a conversation going on how that Glu-Lam beam was attached to the foundation. Note the pink area below:

Yep: That's angle irons and bolts inside the house! This is why you should never let an engineer decorate your house. The builder noted that this (ahem) detail was strange. After discussions with the architect and the structural engineer (and a brief flirtation with bolts on the outside of the house), the builder suggested metal straps that extend out of the concrete and then are nailed to the beam. The engineer agreed, and now we have hidden fastening of the beam: a boo boo turned into a woo! hoo!

Very cool.


we have (partial) pad!

Hoop-doodled out to the lot over lunch to see some concrete, and I wasn't disappointed: We have garage slab! After I introduced myself as the homeowner, the concrete sub looked perplexed, telling me that someone else had been there earlier claiming to be the homeowner (there was a flash of Brokeback Mountain across his face...). "Was she good looking?" I asked, thinking the bride had stopped by. "Nope," he replied. "He was a he." Not only that, the "other homeowner" said he wanted the concrete pad to be smoothed, polished, stained, and scored. I said "Say what?"

After several phones calls and conversations, I "think" I know what happened. The concrete sub mistook the builder for the homeowner, and the builder said "We want the floor of the garage to be finished the same as the floor in the house." The sub then assumed that we were staining and scoring the concrete in the house (cause that's what "everyone" does with concrete, right? [answer: yes]), and it went from there. Just a wee glimpse into how things can get screwed up if given the chance (lots of our friends think its bizarre that we will have a straight-up polished concrete floor).

I was also happy to see that the drain for the master shower was moved to the correct location, this after three attempts to get it fixed (third time's a charm!). A couple things I learned after that: (1) when you think something is wrong, don't weasal-word it: be direct. I'm not an expert in this building stuff, so I have a tendency to mealy mouth communications: "Excuse me , dear sir: I may be wrong about this, I'm not a builder after all, but it appears the drain, the drain for the shower? in the master?, is not properly located." (followed by a pinky-extended sip of hot tea from a dainty teacup).  Better to boldly state: "You put the damn shower drain is in the wrong damn spot!" (OK, I didn't say the damns, but you get the point [sipping tea now...]). The other thing I learned is (2) to show a picture (see below) so they can see exactly what you're talking about. On my second attempt to get the issue addressed, I noted that the drain was placed 22 inches from the outer wall when it needed to be 78 inches from the wall, and that didn't work. But the picture worked. So now we know.

to ERV or not to ERV, that is the question.

Modern homes (those built today) are much tighter than homes build even 10 years ago, and just about everyone (if not everyone) agrees that the tightness of modern home construction requires some level of forced ventilation to prevent indoor moisture problems as well as the dreaded stale air. But what kind of forced ventilation?

According to this great article by the Green Building Advisor, there are three primary kinds of forced ventilation: (1) exhaust-only systems, (2) central fan integrated supply systems, and (3) heat recovery ventilators or energy recovery ventilators with a dedicated duct system.

Exhaust-only systems are basically a bathroom fan than runs all the time. The make-up air comes from Gawd knows where (poorly sealed windows and doors, intended house penetrations, unintended house penetrations, mouse holes).

Central fan integrated supply systems are connected directly to the upstream side of an HVAC's air handler and generally have a controller (such as an AirCycler) that manages a motorized damper to open and close access to outdoor air and controls the fan on the HVAC to ensure proper ventilation. Unlike the exhaust-only system, which creates a slight negative pressure in the house, the central fan integrated system creates a slight positive pressure. You have control of the air source but not on where the air exits the house. If the fan on the HVAC is not energy efficient, you can pay a high energy cost for fresh air.

A heat-recovery ventilator (what the cool kids call an HRV) brings air from the outside and exhausts air from the inside at the same rate to maintain a pressure balance (although the use of bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans and dryers are still not balanced, but I digress). An HRV not only moves air in and out of the house to balance pressure, but also facilitates heat transfer between incoming and outgoing air (warm air going out warms the cool air going in during winter months; cool air going out cools the warm air coming in during summer months). An energy-recovery ventilator (what the cool kids call an ERV) also transfer moisture between incoming and outgoing air. According to another excellent article from Green Building Advisor, an ERV makes sense in a hot, humid climate (that be us!).

ERVs can be installed in several ways, but the two broad ways they are installed is (1) in the plenum of the central HVAC and (2) with its own ductwork, with the latter considered the Cadillac of ERV/HRV installation (see the Green Building Advisor). However, all that additional ductwork requires additional work and materials which requires additional moola.

The Green Building Advisor recommends a separate duct system, but others suggest connecting it to the upstream end of the central HVAC system. Bryant, who we plan to use for our HVAC system, recommends an upstream installation of their ERV:

So what to do, what to do...

Since it makes sense to transfer heat and moisture to minimize overall energy costs, we're going to go with an ERV. As far as installation goes, since our HVAC with a variable speed compressor should ideally be running most of the time anyway (saves energy overall, believe it or not), we're going to go with an upstream installation. Furthermore, this is what the manufacturer recommends. And since we're going there, we're going to go with Bryant's ERV (there's only one) which reportedly is made by Venmar (known for energy efficient units):

As the bride says, if you don't know exactly what to do, you might as well get it from the same manufacturer. In this case the unit will integrate with the overall system and the existing controller.

In the spring and fall (those week or twos that happen here in Texas)? We'll (forcibly) open a window. 


time to choose the HVAC...

The builder pinged us late last week to finalize the HVAC system. We've toyed with having a ducted mini-split but have decided to go with a more conventional ducted (maxi-split?) system (I know, I know: yawn.). The house was designed for one, the trades are more comfy with it, and for some reason the SEERs for ducted mini-splits are lower than for the higher-end maxis. And we're gonna get a tricked out conventional system a la Bryant:

Evolution Extreme (say it with your voice lowered 1.5 octaves...)

  •  up to 20.5 SEER
  •  up to 13 HPSF
  •  up to 16 EER
  •  variable speed compressor (the holy grail for conventional systems and the reason mini splits tend to do so well)
  •   as low as 58 dB for cooling, as low as 62 dB for heating
The tricked out bit is the variable speed compressor. Typically these suckers only have two stages. Ours will have (wait for it...) INFINITY STAGES!!! Oh hells yeah!

Evolution System Plus 95s Gas Furnace
  • up to 95.0% AFUE
  • variable speed motor
We could get a couple more points of efficiency here with a higher end unit, but this is the one the sub recommends. Decided to go with it. 

Evolution Control thermostat
  • optional remote access (will need to check into that...)
  • optional zoning system (hope to have three zones...)
  • detects dirty filters

Preferred EZ Flex cabinet air filter
  • (comes with) MERV 10 or (can be fitted with) MERV 13 filtration

Coming soon: "To ERV or not to ERV, that is the question."


AIA Austin Homes Tour 2012 coming soon!

October 6th and 7th, to be specific. One of the houses is a radicalish remodel in Allandale (lower photo).

haiku for the book “Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand


the crowd wants to control you.
be true to yourself...

This book has been on my maybe-I-should-read-this-someday list for awhiles now, in large part because of its architectural backdrop. However, with Ayn (rhymes with fine) Rand entering the news as Paul Ryan’s favorite author and the book popping up in conversation with the Usonian Expert when I bumped into him at the farmer’s market a couple weeks ago, I decided it was time.

The novel (described as a "philosophical novel" by some) tracks the career and life of Howard Roark, an idealist architect on the bleeding-leading edge of Modern architecture. By Rand's own words, the novel is her description of the ideal man (or person, if you want to remove the sexism): an individual who adheres to his ideals and integrity, even if it leads to poverty and failure. Philosophically, the novel focuses on how societies strive to destroy idealists and force them to fall in line with everyone else.

Her choice of the ideal man as an architect at the leading edge of Modernism is perfect, undoubtedly influenced by living and working in Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s. Many suggest that the novel's hero, Roark, was based on Frank Lloyd Wright, but that's simply not the case. Given the number of biographies and autobiographies I've read, it appears Roark embodies bits and pieces of all the early California Modernists. As the photographer Julius Schulman notes: "...many architects would say to me 'Well, you know Ayn Rand patterned Howard Roark after me.' Raphael Soriano said that. Richard Neutra said that. Gregory Ain. There are others. Oh, many people said that." 

I see bits of those folks as well as Schindler and Wright (although I do see a lot of Soriano's biography in Roark). Some have suggested that the dynamic between Roark and his (initially) more successful and accommodating alter ego Peter Keating reflects the Schindler-Neutra dynamic. Rand read biographies and architectural histories and even worked for half a year in Ely Jacques Kahn's architectural office to learn more about the profession.

If you know anything about Wright and architecture you quickly see that Roark is not based (wholly or even largely partly) on Wright. Roark's architecture is more in the vein of the International Style (complete lack of ornamentation), and his life story varies considerably from Wright's. Touchstones are there, but there are many more that don't match. Interestingly, Wright rebuffed Rand's requests to interview him when she was working on the novel; they didn't meet to speak in detail until a year after publication. In a classic Wright move, Wright took issue that the hero (tall and red-headed) didn't look like him (given the subsequent success and influence of the book, I'm sure Wright secretly regretted not meeting with Rand when she first requested it). 

Ayn Rand herself is quite interesting. Born in Russia in 1905, she experienced (and hated) the Bolshevik Revolution and the resulting socialism that confiscated her father's business causing them to nearly starve. Instead she advocated for rational and ethical egoism which encompassed atheism and laissez-faire capitalism. In short, she rebelled against anyone who would tell you what to do or what to think and believe, including government, church, and the press. Rand first came to New York for a "visit" in 1925. She quickly found her way to Los Angeles to work in Hollywood (Cecil B. DeMille gave her her first Hollywood job as an extra and script reader). "The Fountainhead", her first successful novel, allowed her to work on what many consider her masterpiece, "Atlas Shrugged". 

She started "The Fountainhead" in 1935, and it was published in 1943 after being rejected by 12 publishers. Based on word of mouth, the book became a bestseller two years later.

I was not expecting to enjoy the book as much as I did. Architecture provides the backdrop for a lot of detailed philosophizing, but the plot amply pushes the dialog forward. Very few of the characters are endearing: it's like watching a demolition derby as different people move into each others spheres and mayhem erupts. I've read critical reviews about how Roark is naively idealized; however, many of the early Modern architects were just like Roark: unwilling to compromise and willing to flirt with poverty to maintain their ideals. But Roark does come off a bit one-dimensional as he stoically accepts every tragedy in his life. And the happy ending, the ultimate victory of the individual, is and would be, for most ideal individualists, unrealistic. Only the very fortunate go through life uncompromisingly.

Rand ultimately doesn't portray humanity pleasantly. Most people are slaves to public opinion, others are second-handers stealing the creativity of others, others are seeking to destroy the idea-makers, and yet others are manipulating the public and the people around them. It's not a pretty picture. But sadly there's a lot of truth in that picture.

As far as Modern architecture goes, Rand walked the talk. She and her husband bought the Von Sternburg house, designed by Neutra, in the early 1940s and lived there for several years.

Later, Rand asked Wright to design a country cottage for her (design below; unbuilt). In what was probably a nod and a wink, Wright included a large fountain in the design...


weather or not; drain pain; it's a gas gas gas; progress

weather or not

Back when we were looking at building the first house (remember?), I was (selfishly but mixedfeelingsly) pleased that we were entering a La Nina phase of the El Nino Southern Oscillation, a year-to-year variation of sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial region of the western Pacific Ocean (the cool kids call it ENSO). La Ninas (cooler-than-normal sea surface temps) tend to favor drier conditions in Texas, and drier conditions are better for building. Now we are entering an El Nino phase (warmer-than-normal sea surface temps). El Ninos correlate to wetter conditions in Texas. Rain is not good for building, at least the earlier phases of building.

I just so happened to meet the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's ENSO expert earlier this week and asked him about the impending El Nino. He projected a weak El Nino this winter (an El Nino kicks in when sea surface temps are 0.5 degrees Celcius warmer than normal; we've been at this level for a couple months now). He said a weak El Nino portends wetter-than-normal conditions in the lower Rio Grande valley (think Brownsville), drier-than-normal conditions in West Texas, and mixed in-between. So we shall see. Although we're hoping for dry conditions until we get the house dried in, I'd sure like to see some rains in drouthy West Texas...

drain pain

Laying the drain pipes for the house has been a pain, in part because the builder made an assumption on the depth of the city sewer line that turned out to be wrong. Typically (based on info from the builder and a pal of mine) city sewer is about 48 inches below the street. City sewer in front of our house is a mere 23 inches below street level. Given the length of our drain lines and the code requirements for the slope of such lines, we have to add another six inches to the height of the pad and raise the drain lines, all of which the builder has already done.

it's a gas gas gas

While digging the beams for the foundation, the builder ran across a couple gas lines. He was concerned about whether or not they were live, so I called the gas company. GasCo told me that they didn't have an active account for the address (of course) and that their files didn't show that natural gas had ever been used at that location (hmmmm....). They suggested that we call to get the location of their lines identified, but that wouldn't address whether or not the lines were capped at the street or somewheres unknown on the property. The builder dug up the lines today and found the ends, uncapped. That was the green light to cut into them.


After placing plastic liner over the soil, gravel, and sand and installing rebar, the garage foundation is ready to pour, which is expected to happen on Tuesday (yay!). Most of the forms for the house have been raised the aforementioned six inches and additional sand placed on the "pillows" (areas between the beams). They still need to place the plastic liner and the rebar, which will happen next week. The gravel, sand, and plastic provides a moisture barrier between the slab and the underlying sediment. The gravel and sand provide a capillary barrier between the soil and the concrete, but they're not perfect. The plastic "perfects" the seal.

The builder is planning on pouring the house slab on Friday if the weather cooperates. What does the 10-day forecast look like? hammy.....


According to the last weekly memo we got from the builder (the weekly memos from the builder are a nice touch), we are presently 1 to 4 days behind schedule. If all the pouring goes according to schedule, they'll start framing on October 1st!

Rain, rain, go away?