Building a new house in Palo Alto

Building a new house in Palo Alto

Friday, December 21, 2012

Deconstruction & Roderick Cooper (Founder of ReBuild Green) in the Wall Street Journal


All my favorite cast of characters appeared in a Wall Street Journal video and article about one of my favorite topics today. The WSJ's talented reporter-editor-camerawoman-in-one, Monika Vosough, does an impressive job explaining the benefits of deconstructing a home vs. demolition. As a bonus, you can also see some shots of our house and a cameo by our general contractor, Jeff, pretending to review building plans with me.

In my opinion, the hero in this story is Roderick Cooper, founder of ReBuild Green a Bay Area deconstruction company. Roderick is one of the most impressive entrepreneurs I've ever met. He grew up in East Palo Alto and pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He saw a market need for deconstruction services and has built a thriving business around it. He keeps thousands of tons of potential waste out of our landfills and diverts the usable materials to non-profits. He also employs dozens of workers, one of whom described Roderick as "the best boss I've ever had." How often do you hear that about 27-year-old?

We hired Roderick and ReBuild Green to do the deconstruction of our house and it was one of the best decisions I've made throughout our building process. Roderick, keep up the great work. You're nailing it! (Pardon the pun).

ReBuildGreen.net or (650)720-1301.

Even Palo Alto's top developer deconstructs with ReBuild Green.
P.S. The accompanying WSJ article, The Demolition Discount, by Pui Wing Tam includes an awesome slideshow. Here's an example of a beam made from reclaimed redwood. We plan to do something similar in our house.  


More reading on the subject:

D-day in Palo Alto: The green deconstruction begins!

Green Deconstruction Part 2 (aka waiting for city of Palo Alto utility disconnections)






Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Closet Karma

Closet Karma. It's for real and will bite you in the butt.

You can write the right to more closet space into your wedding vows.


You can declare that she who manages the house design shall get the bigger closet.


You can wait until the framing stage--when an extra 10 square feet is less noticeable-- to casually point out the closet assignments.

Yes, you can do everything imaginable to get your greedy little paws on more precious, precious closet space but in the end the universe will find its own equilibrium. Nature abhors a vacuum. Witness the current state of my closet:

Jeff installing the steam shower generator in the only room that has "extra space" for it.
Behind Cisco is another surprise installation...the panel for the radiant floor valves. 
Cue the wah-wah pedal.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Busy Town in Palo Alto: All Trades, Rough In & Decisions Galore


It's been busy town at our construction site. After we passed our structural inspection all of our tradesmen descended upon the house to do their part. This portion of the build is called "rough in" and is when all the infrastructure is installed for the home's systems: electrical, plumbing, heating, AC, audio & data, smoke & carbon monoxide detectors, fire sprinklers, fans, dryer ducts, and the list goes on. It's been eye-opening the amount of expertise, labor and materials that go into building a house and mind boggling the number of decisions there are to be made every day.

The 101-decisions-a-day stage
I've been quiet on the blogging front because so far, this has been the busiest stage for me. By rough in you want to have all your appliances, lighting and plumbing fixtures picked out since your trades people need to install the wiring, circuits, pipes and connections needed to set these fixtures. Not only that, it's helpful to know how you plan to decorate the finished rooms so that you can place lighting and outlets to accomodate your furniture layout and artwork. You can make changes later but they'll cost you a pretty penny once the walls are closed up.

A little more to the right, no left, up, down. Forget it, I'll just put lamps on the nightstand.

The hardest part of this process has been the sheer number of decisions that need to be made every day. Some times they are things that you've probably never given any consideration: Do you want stain or paint grade facias? Flat or round gutters? How do you want to wrap the garage door jam? How high do you want the outlets and light switches to be from the floor? And do you want them vertical or horizontal?

Other times they are decisions with massive dependencies and ripple effects: Do you want light switches by the bed? His and her controls? Where do you want to position them? How wide is your bed frame? How high is the top of your mattress? Will there be anything else on the wall like sconces? What about wallpaper? Are you sure?...there's no going back once you punch holes in the wallpaper. And *BAM* paralysis through analysis hits as you realize you're designing your fancy new master bedroom around a bed you bought on clearance at Macy's after graduating from college. Next thing you know you're out furniture shopping instead of blogging...

Where to put this lovely device? Code requires 3 ft unobstructed clearance in all directions.


Many of the decisions involve adjustments we have to make along the way...like where to hide the upstairs electrical panel. City code requires three feet clearance around it in all directions, so we had to sacrifice some of the floor to ceiling cabinets in the laundry circuit breaker room.

Oops, our whole house fan doesn't fit between the roof trusses.  Plan B?

There are also occasional "oops" moments like when our whole house fan arrived a few of inches larger than expected. During the planning stage we mistakenly went off the exterior face dimensions instead of the actual unit measurements which was wider.  As a result, it didn't fit between the roof trusses where we had originally planned to put it, so we had to shuffle things around to make it work.

In many cases, decisions you made may change once you see the space come together.
Meh. Make sure you buy your lighting fixtures from a shop with no restocking fees.
There are some people who can imagine the look and scale of things in a room.  I am not one of those people, so I love the fact that our GC Jeff mocks things up for us to see. Our kitchen island went through a few iterations before deciding on a configuration that seats four.
Is this island big enough? We widened it 6 more inches so leggy Norwegians don't bang their knees.

Every day there are more decisions to be made...

Fireplace vent or chimney? Looks like Santa's going to have to use the dog door to get in our house.















Much to his chagrin, Thomas learns there are a zillion different roof colors out there.
Astro opines about the perfect height for the dog water fountain.
Wiring in the family room. Surround sound increases resale value, yes?


Rigorous carpet testing. Any favorites, Cisco?

Electrician James asks how high to place the exterior lights? LED, fluorescent, or incandescent?

Deciding the porch column design means matching a front door that doesn't yet exist...



I could go on and on about how busy I've been but I'm having so much fun, it feels like I'm playing hooky from the actual working world. As I watch all the trades people involved in the process, I am tremendously grateful to have such a hardworking and skilled crew hustling to build our home.  They cheerfully show up early every morning, most weekends, (even Black Friday!) and they don't leave until their part is done and done right. Due to all their hard work we passed our All Trades inspection this week, so we're now ready to insulate and begin drywalling. 

One of my favorite quotes this year came from Tim Kreiger's must-read New York Times essay, The 'Busy' Trap:
More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor* in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary.
Oh snap! I resemble that statement. I don't seem to recall a Marketeer the Cat or a blogging boa in my beloved childhood books. I'll probably never be able to use a power tool without cutting off a chunk of finger (sadly a true story), so instead I'd like to dedicate this post to all my favorite cool cats and construction characters. I am so in awe of you guys:
Our fire sprinkler safety experts from Thorpe Design.
Our electrician, Marc wires the wall in the master bedroom.



The radiant heat masters from Alternative Energy.
Charles (aka Sawdust) the carpenter framing out our family room fireplace.


Daniel and team pouring our garage floor slab.


Jeff, Mayor of Busytown ensures all the teams stay coordinated for smooth sailing.


*Footnote: For the record, there were no boa constrictors in Richard Scarry's books. Tim Kreiger was likely referring to Lowly the Worm.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

All buttoned up and water tight

Inspector Cisky reviews our house plans.

Good news, we just passed a major milestone in our home construction. Last Friday we had our Roof, Exterior Sheething and Structural Frame inspection. It's one of the most important and complicated inspections, so there were high fives all around when the house passed with flying colors. This week was spent buttoning up the house and getting it water tight. Winter is coming and we're ready for whatever she brings.

Puddles in our bedroom. (Kay was weeping).


We were hoping to get the roof on before the rains but October had a couple of freak storms that thwarted our plans. Our general contractor and ever the optimist, Jeff said not to worry, a little water is good. He says it will help reduce problems like squeaking because the lumber will have a chance to expand and contract before we install the floors. Nevertheless, it's a pretty sad feeling when you show up the day the roof framing is scheduled to begin and instead of workers hammering away you find a big fat puddle in your bedroom. It reminded me of our wedding day when everyone was trying to convince us that rain is good luck and the gods were weeping in joy and then you get a note from Mr Strategic Planner saying not to worry, we can move the ceremony indoors. Cha.

Fortunately, like our wedding day, the rains magically stopped and by afternoon we had blue skies and sunshine. The roof construction moved along quickly because we had pre-ordered trusses that were made off-site and arrived ready to assemble.

Roof trusses are pre-fabricated off-site which cuts down on construction time & expense.


Trusses are extremely sturdy and a great way to save time and money but the trade-off is that their webbed design leaves little room for storage. Because we wanted usable attic space, our architect Jeanine strategically designed parts of the house to be built using rafters and conventional roof framing.

Conventional stick framing over the guest room where we have high ceilings & attic space.
The extra bonus about attic space is that as long as the ceilings are under five feet, the city doesn't count it towards your maximum allowable square footage.

The attic space behind our bedroom will be reserved for little black dogs who snore like a freight train.





The roof frame is covered with plywood sheathing lined with aluminum on the inside.
The aluminum creates a radiant barrier that keeps the heat out in the summer but in during the winter.
Covering the eaves with a facia. Our architect made our eaves slightly longer than usual as a design feature.




The lovely orange paint is not a design feature. All sheer walls must be clearly marked for inspection.






Thomas & Astro inspect our new roof. Marking verboten.


Woohoo, the first window goes in!














Installing the gutters.

Yay, it's beginning to look like a real house!
Here's who to call if you want the world's best general contractor:
Jeff is fully licensed & insured but his dog Buster is still learning to drive.
Astro is also crazy for Jeff but needs to work on his high five technique. #high5fail

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Privacy, please! Window views & our new Evergreen Dogwoods

View from the guest room. Happiness is a maple tree with turning leaves.
One of the best parts of the framing process was discovering the views that we will have from each of the rooms. This is when we really started appreciating our architect, Jeanine because beyond making sure every room had a window, Thomas and I never paid much attention to their size and placement.

Jeanine, on the other hand, meticulously planned the windows to optimize for the best combination of light, views, privacy, ventilation and energy efficiency. She was also mindful about how the windows would impact furniture layout. In many cases she opted for clerestory (aka high) windows because they not only provide privacy and light but also allow furniture to be placed beneath them. 

As a first-time builder, I've come to realize how critical it is to get the window plan right. There's an intuitive sense of rightness that comforts you when you're in a well designed home and it begins with the windows. Next time I build a house, (yes, there will definitely be a next time), I'll be paying a lot more attention to these details. In the meantime, I'm grateful we're working with a pro.

Of course, there's only so much your architect can do with any given lot. In our case, we're in the flatlands, so we only have one teensy view of a mountain and sadly no oceanside rooms. For this house, happiness is a view of a pretty tree. Come inside and take a look.  Oh, and let's play a game...one of these is not like the others...one of these does not belong...

View from living room. There's an owl's nest up in the old oak tree.
View from the Zen den. 
The view Thomas will be enjoying while he's doing dishes.
View from bedroom #1...perfect for spying on the neighborhood below.
Bedroom #2 will have a window seat to relax on.
Views from the Jack & Jill bathroom. High enough to shower in.
Clerestory windows in the master bedroom--our "mountain" view.

View from master toilet, aka "paradise while you pee." 
View from family room.  Ack!
Can you tell which is not like the others? 

Jeanine did a great job of making sure our windows don't line up with any of our neighbors', unfortunately she didn't have much of a choice when it came to our patio doors and the naked spot in the yard that used to be a garage. I'm all for loving thy neighbor, but it's a whole lot easier when they're not watching you spend your afternoons on the couch cruising the Internet and popping bon bons. This needs to be fixed STAT, say I. 

This is where it comes in handy to have friends in the biz. My builder bff James Witt (who's building a dream house in the neighborhood next to ours) was placing a landscaping order in with his supplier, Devil Mountain Nursery, so we were able to add a few extra trees to the order. 

Santa Witt shows up with a tree delivery.




Much to my delight, James introduced us to a beautiful new tree we had never heard of--the Cornus Capitata Mountain Moon aka the Evergreen Dogwood. True to it's name, the Evergreen Dogwood keeps its leaves all year round and will probably grow to about 20 feet tall. They are flowering trees with little yellow blooms in the Summer and red berries in the Fall that birds feed on. Best of all, they arrived 14 feet tall and immediately blocked the view of our neighbor's balcony and upstairs windows.
The perfect height for impatient people Kay.
View of our new dogs.