home automation

Because I'm something of a gadget freak, my pals ask me about how automated our house will be. And I've disappointed them by noting that, aside from the audio system, we aren't planning to have any wired-in automation. Why? Three reasons, really: (1) cost, (2) rabid obsolescence, and (3) the coming revolution in wireless.

Automation systems are expensive. We've checked out a few (for example, Control4), and they cost thousands and thousands of dollars. Furthermore, these systems are often proprietary. If you want an addition to your system or an upgrade, you have to have the local supplier supply and install it.  In other words, it's a bill that keeps on billing.

rabid obsolescence
Ever been in a house from the seventies with a pushbutton intercom? At least back then it took a decade or more for that system to become obsolete. In today's day and age, it can take a year. Many automation systems have their own (proprietary) touch screens and controllers. But how long before they become obsolete? And why have a proprietary touchscreen when many of us already have one in our pocket?

the coming revolution
Enter the reason we are holding off: Wireless. Most homes already exist; therefore, it's expensive to wire existing homes. This creates a strong incentive to develop a wireless solution to access the full home market.

the revolution arrived yesterday!
And just yesterday, Philips announced Hue, a wireless-controlled scalable lighting system:

The app-controlled system allows you to manage up to 60 LED bulbs (gulp) from the screen of your smart phone or tablet. You can change color and brightness and can even program special scenes such as fading on in the morning and flashing when you need to go to work. It's not exactly cheap ($200 for a wifi controller and 3 bulbs; $60 per bulb for extra bulbs), but it's less expensive than a wired proprietary system, it's user controlled, and it's infinitely flexible (need that light over there to be controlled rather than this one? Just change a bulb!). Geek.com has a nice detailed review of the technology. The starter package and extra bulbs will initially be sold at Apple stores.

Add this to the nest wifi controlled smart-thermostat, the beginnings of wifi controlled plugs, and (ugly) wifi door locks, and (reasonably) affordable home automation appears to be in reach.

competition coming
I've been following the Kickstarter efforts of LIFX to do the same thing. It has to be a blow to have one of the big boys beat you to market, but perhaps competition will drive prices lower (sweet note from one of the execs at Philips on LIFX's facebook page). Insteon has also had it's system out there for a bit.

house hackers?
All this wireless tech makes me wonder: Will the evolution of a hackglar (hacker plus burglar) be too far away?


week 10: Framing almost done...

The framers been framing, putting the finishing framing touches on the house. Most of the framing of the walls is complete, so they've been focusing on the roofs. They figured out the ceiling goofiness in the rear entry/pantry area as well as the roof intersections in the "armpit" part of the house (where the "public wing" intersects with the "private wing").

Also, the stairs are completely done (we call this next series of photographs "Thankfully Amply-Dressed Homeowners Descending a Staircase" ):

The cantilever is more framed out, especially on the back. Believe it or not, it still has a foot or so addition coming to it!

It's been fun checking out the views out the windows. Here's one of the corner windows at the front of the house:

Looking from the back toward the master suite:

Looking along the front of the house:

Perched framer:

Long and nice-looking:

The good news about the head framer mucking up his achilles is that he has more time to chat. He said the cantilevers were a challenge. He said they had to search high and low for a glu-lam beam to meet the specs for our house and finally found the one place in Texas that one (and it was expensive!). He said the carport was tricky to build but will soon be removing the supporting walls in the living room and framing the bookcase wall.

other news:

  • The architect and builder toured the house together this past week. Looking at the horse wall in the master bath (no, we're not done talking about that yet...), they both agreed that it would be better to have the wall tied into the ceiling. Now that they're both in the same camp, we're gonna tie it into the ceiling.
  • The replacement faucet for the guest bath arrived, and it is mucho better than the first one (the faucet is straight this time). One of the handles doesn't quite sit in the off position flush with everything else, but at least that can be adjusted. This faucet is relatively inexpensive; you get what you pay for, it seems...
  • Big-D over at Green House, Good Life has been a great resource for us; even better, she's watching our back! She was at the Austin Energy Green Building open house last night and asked about our HVAC situation. They told her that they often give exceptions to the 600 square-feet per ton requirement to be eligible for five stars if indeed someone is caught in half-ton purgatory and meet the 550 square-feet per ton requirement (which we do). Good news! I know, I know: "often" does not mean "guaranteed", but we feel good that our variable-speed compressor (we loves us some variable speed compressor...) will seal the deal.

the future!

  • The framers start sheathing next week and expect to finish by the end of the week. That'll be interesting because the house will become more solid and we'll get a better feel for the space.
  • We need to order the foot faucet and the faucet for the laundry (the supplier can't pick 'em up).


week nine (to ten): general updates

Several things working on several fronts...

appliance and plumbing review

The builder sent over the draft orders from Ferguson, the supplier of such things, for review. Let me tell you, you need to check this stuff closely when you see it! First, we needed to identify the hand of our tubs (hadn't been asked that before, so that's cool). Second, we got a "Are you sure?" question on the moving-air size of the vent hood (We do appreciate "Are you sure?" type questions since we're rarely 100 percent sure). Third, we found some errors (the range hood somehow changed from white enamel to stainless steel; only noticed because the cost was about ~$450 higher for stainless steel). Fourth, the kitchen faucet changed from "by others" to them ordering it. Fifth, the pot filler showed up as them ordering it (it should be "by others" since we already have it). And sixth, the foot faucet changed from them ordering it to "by others". Talk about entropy in action!

On the appliance side, we changed the fridge to the Whirlpool White Ice version which is (of course) more expensive (sigh...). The White Ice version is a better fridge that will take advantage of the space we have there, match the oven/microwave better, and have in-door ice and (filtered) water, something the bride would like. We considered getting the matching Whirlpool dishwasher, but the Bosch we are getting is so highly rated by Consumer Reports as compared to the Whirlpool and generally raved about by owners, we're choosing function over form. Since we've never had a quiet dishwasher before, we're wondering what that will be like...

the hob is here! the hob is here!

Our cooktop (what the brits refer to as a "hob") arrived from Italy. I'm rather amazed: It took six weeks of back and forth emails to confirm delivery details (it was taking the Italians a week to respond to each email I sent...). But it's here, and safely! And it looks mighty fine.

guest bath faucet is here (and then away...)

Received the faucet the other day. Really, really nice. Love the design, but... the faucet arm on the one we got is crooked! Mega-kudos to Overstock.com for making it amazingly easy to return the item and get a new one shipped immediately. Now we'll see if the flaw we saw is a flaw or endemic of all their faucets...

horse wall

We've written previously about the framers not getting the horse wall between the tub and shower correct. This created a barrage of emails after we noted that it the wall wasn't quite right. The subsequent concern from the builder was: How stable will that sucker be? After expressing a desire to keep the wall "ponied", this prompted pulling in the engineer to design some metal footings to support the wall. However, a comment from the engineer suggested there still might be some movement "from a strong hand" which was later clarified to mean someone really really strong would have to be pushing really really hard at the tippy-top of the wall (eight feet up there) to get some movement. We're going to keep it ponied (but there's an extra $450 in metalwork and installation; I need to check how much $$ is left in the contingency fund!).

It's been interesting watching the framing go up. I'll see things that are wrong and decide to not comment on them until later, and they'll get fixed/addressed "on their own". I've only yipped and yapped about stuff that, if built upon, will be harder to redo later, or will take some doing to address. In other cases, I know I'll be able to yip and yap after the framing is "done". The builder/framers clearly have their own QA working, so best to leave them alone until the very end.

coming up...

According to the builder, the framing should be completed by next week, the windows arrive on the 5th, and the stucco goes up on the 10th. Holy moly, that's fast! We need to all the MEP (how the cool kids refer to mechanical-electrical-plumbing) rough-in materials on site before the stucco starts.

All in all, things are going good. Some dips into the contingency fund, but that's to be expected.


ch-ch-ch-change orders

Theme music for this post.

There are many four letter words associated with building, but none are as expensive as "change order". A change order is a deviation from the building plan that invariably adds cost (a change order could theoretically lower cost, but that seems to be as rare as a dodo hunt).

Change orders occur for a variety of reasons: An owner changing his or her mind about something ("I now need a Jacuzzi tub for four in the master suite."), the code changing during the build ("We're gonna need a bigger vent."), incomplete or erroneous construction documents ("How is this wall held up?"), sudden unavailability of building supplies ("We done run out of nails."), and building surprises ("Look out everybody: QUICKSAND!!!"). Change orders are a big reason for having a healthy contingency fund (or contingency plan [Adios, landscaping!]), because if there's one constant in this (built) world, it's change (orders).

We've had one big change in the project thus far: The foundation. Because of the unexpected shallowness of the sewer line at the street, we had to raise the foundation six inches. To our surprise, the builder ate the additional cost of this. You could argue that he should have checked the depth of the sewer line before setting the forms; however, you could also argue that (perhaps) the architects should have checked that as well (although to be fair, I'm not sure how they would have done that or if that would even be considered part of their job). Nevertheless, no charge to us for this change.

We've changed some of the fixtures from the original bid to the current time. Instead of this faucet, that faucet. Instead of this light, that light. These changes have varied in costing more and costing less. Clearly, we're responsible for these changes. We changed our mind; we (invariably) pay more for the changes.

Some other change orders are a little irritating because ideally they shouldn't have happened. For example, consider the cubist wall pooper. The original hard bid had a standard toilet. After seeing how well we did on the hard bid, we upgraded the pooper to a cubist one that hung from the wall. This was discussed at a meeting and added to subsequent versions of the fixture wish list. However, it wasn't until the drain plumbing was being installed before the foundation pour that we learned that it would cost an additional $600 to install the toilet. Understandably (now), it's a more delicate exercise to install an in-wall toilet. Unfortunately, that increased installation cost wasn't included in the bid, so it wasn't included in the loan. In other words, break out the checkbook.

We've had something similar happen with the HVAC system. All along we've been asking for a three-zone system. It was in the specs that went out for soft and hard bids. We asked about the zonage when it wasn't clear that it was in the sub's soft and hard bid. Finally, after asking umteen times, we find out last week it wasn't in the sub's bid and, even worse, it's going to cost an additional $2,000 (!!!).

So who's fault is this? Did the builder not convey the details of the system to the sub? Did the sub not pay attention to the specs? Did the builder not verify that the sub paid attention to the specs? Did aliens alter the space-time continuum and monkey with our build? Given that the builder has been good in the past in conveying specs to subs, given that the sub hasn't been terribly responsive or detailed, and given that it is currently unknown whether life exists outside of our planet (setting aside the unknown shiny things on Mars), Occam's Razor suggests this is a screw-up with the sub. You could argue that the general contractor is ultimately responsible, but I think all we gain from that is bad blood (and attempts to "make up the cost" in subsequent change orders). And if the sub is indeed responsible and we try to hold him accountable, all he has to do is bail on the bid. It's a problem without a clear solution (except for writing a check...).

Furthermore, I get the sneaky feeling that items captured in change orders cost more than if they had been part of the original bid. This article suggests this feeling is not without merit. That's doubly frustrating since we asked for these things either before bidding or before we went for financing. grrr... We're all human, so mistakes happen. It just sucks when the bills for those mistakes all come to you.

Sooo..... if you're building a house, we recommend that you (1) work out and confirm all those details before you go for financing (including verifying that the builder and subs include all your desired items in writing), (2) make sure anything changed after the hard bids come in are re-hardbidded, and (3) have a contingency fund because despite your best efforts you almost assuredly will have changes, surprises, and unconsidered booboos.

And pay attention to those details, because no-one else is...

Further reading:

Coping with Change Orders

Change Orders: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Change Orders: The Bane of All Construction Projects

The Trouble with Change Orders


(two thirds of a) stairway to heaven (on the second floor)

Theme music for this post:

Stairway to Heaven - Led Zeppelin

The bride stopped by the house this evening. She noticed that the framers had 2/3 of the stairway finished. Neat how the fridge inset is just the right height to provide support for the second stairwell landing.

the Eileen Gray de stijl table project: done!

My pal Dan finished with the table about a week ago, and it is gorgeous! Despite having the dimensions, it's a lot bigger than I thought it would be. It's quite large for an end table, but it came out great!

Dan said the paint job was tough because of the abrupt changes between the two colors and the fact the two colors were as opposite as you could get (the blackest black and the whitest white). After sitting in my car overnight, the table outgassed more than Rosanne Barr after a Terlingua chili cookoff. Felt like I had been huffing paint thinner every morning when I went to work. Decided to leave it in the car until it nearly (fully) outgassed.

Can't wait to place it in its rightful place!


cantilevers and windows

Good day! The framers framed up a bunch of the windows and have started to frame up the carport cantilever.

That's a hell of a carport. If we had two Smart cars, we could both park our cars under it!


week nine: second story framed

Whelp, we have a second story as well as roof trusses installed except over the living/dining/front entry area and rear entry/laundry/master closet area. Yet to be built are the stairs in the stairwell (we reckon they leave this until the end to keep folks from getting up there and falling out of the house [there are a lot of goofballs out there...]), several of the windows (we surmise they leave these out as convenient "doorways" into and out of the house), and the roof support over the living/dining/front entry/carport area, something that looks rather tricky.

We can really start to get a real feel for the scale of the house as well as the rooms, and we're really happy with what we feel. With most of the mass of the house framed out, we get a better sense of how the house relates to the front and back yards and the garage. For me at least, the yard feels smaller than it looked on paper. But again, it's a nice feel in how the yard relates to the house. It will be good.

Met a couple more of the neighbors. So far everyone we've met and chatted to have been real nice and happy we're moving in and building!

Updated the lo-fi time lapse over yonder if you want to see the development over time.

Looking from the garage toward the house. Can see the garage roof trusses up:

Looking up toward the second story from just outside the master bedroom. Roof trusses!

Custom card table for use during breaks:

Looking up toward the second story with the master closet in the foreground. The roof for this part of the house is not yet done:

Some bits in the trusses are pink. Breast cancer awareness month? 

Looking up toward the second story from the front of the house:

The future location of the gas line noted just outside the kitchen:

Not much happened the past week on the big cantilever:


this sucks (but how much?)

Now reviewing the appliance order, and the supplier wondered if we should have the 600 cubic feet per minute (cfm) model instead of the 300 cfm model.

How much suck do we need?

We are getting our hood from Vent-A-Hood (not to be confused with Robin Hood...):

Beautifully minimal and the proper length for our goofy linear cooktop. But which size?

The well-aired folks at Vent-A-Hood suggest a 600 cfm capacity (which is really 900 cfm according to their chart) for a run-of-the-mill (that is, non professional) gas cooktop (apparently gas cooktops require more suck [about twice as much according to these guys] than electric cooktops). Sucking 900 cfm is a whole lot of suck. Of course, a larger unit costs more (and results in more profit), so I'm not sure I trust these guys...

eHow suggests a calculation that includes the volume of your kitchen plus the BTUs of your range. Our kitchen is 13 feet long by 12 feet wide by 9 feet tall, which equals about 1,400 cubic feet. eHow says that the Home Ventilating Institute (now THAT would be a fun place to work!) suggests the fan be sized to change the air in the kitchen 15 times. So 1,400 times 15 equals 21,000. Dividing by 60 gives 350 cfm. eHow goes on to say that you also need to add 100 cfm per 10,000 BTUs of your cooktop onto that number. Our range puts out 7,000 watts, which converts to about 24,000 BTUs, so we need an additional 240 cfm bringing the total to 590. So this suggests we need a 600 cfm unit.

Since eHow could very well be written by eDiots, I decided to verify what the fun folks at the Home Ventilation Institute actually say, and they say something different:

So according to these guys, our 48-inch hood requires a minimum of 160 cfm with a recommended suck of 400 cfm. The 300 cfm unit by Vent-A-Hood, which is really 450 cfm (according to them), should be plenty sufficient.

KitchenSource recommends 150 to 300 cfm for an electric cooktop and 100 cfm per 10,000 BTUs for a regular (non-professional) cooktop (that's 240 cfm for us).

300 cfm is enough suck.

is your tub left-handed or right-handed?

We're reviewing the orders for plumbing fixtures and saw that we needed to "verify [the] hand" of the tubs. This explanation at eHow confused the heck out of me except for the "check with the manufacturer" bit. In most cases, when facing the tub, it's left handed or right handed depending on where the drain is. If the drain is on the right side, you have a right handed tub! If the drain is on the left side, it's a left-handed tub! (See how exciting this is!)

If the drain is in the middle (as is the case with the tub in the master bath), you can (generally) look at the shape. In general, tubs have a flatish side and a curvy side, just like a capital D. If the flatish side is toward your right, it's a right-handed tub (and vice-versa)! Indeed, this is how our tub-o-choice is arranged (although we have a curvy side and a less curvy side):

So then the question is: Do we want a left-handed tub or a right-handed tub?

In general, your back relaxes into the curvy side of the tub (the head) and your feet dooble down toward the flatish side of the tub (the foot). In the master bath, there's a window toward the eastern side of the wall for the tub area, so it makes sense (to me at least) to face that side and be able to look out the window (to see if the cable guy is peeking in on you...) rather than looking into the wall (although it will be a fine wall).

Given all this, I would assume we would need a left-handed tub, which would look like this:

Fortunately, I remembered that I had actually sat in one of these tubs eons ago, so I dug up the photo to see how I sat in the thing, and this is what I found:

Comfy! (Notice the look of abject content.) And I was lying in it with my back on the "flatish" side. After a quick search of the inter webs, I verified that this is the proper seating situation. Soooo..... the head of the tub is on the "flatish" side (glad I sat in it!). So what we really need is a right-handed tub:

Which, to my eyes, actually works better geometrically. In terms of where the faucet controller goes, I'm thinking right above the overflow drain.

I was concerned about the ceiling truss running right up the middle of the tub area and interfering with the placement of the ceiling spout, but the manufacturer suggests placing it somewhere in the back quadrant away from the head of the tub: No need to center (and in fact shouldn't be centered).

Chosing the hand of the upstairs tub was easy because it tub placement already done by the architects and we're using a more standard tub:

Makes sense to put the foot of the tub on that side since that is where all the plumbing is.

Two righties tighties it is!