Building a new house in Palo Alto

Building a new house in Palo Alto

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 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.


  1. Are the four legged consultants paid?
    did you pre-wire for a doorbell, how about a garage door opener?

    1. Ha, the canines in our household have a pretty good benefit package so no complaints. We did pre-wire for a doorbell and garage door opener and even Christmas lights! Thanks for the watchful eye, James.

  2. Don't forget, doggy paws need heated floors! ;)

    1. Yep, you're going to love the blog post I plan to do on building a dog-friendly home!

  3. Wow, really coming together, Kay! Congrats on passing the inspection. Love the Richard Scarry overlays... especially the cat with the bathtub hanging off the pulley. Can't wait to see the internal surfaces and fixtures/appliances start coming together...

    1. Thanks, Elaine. My personal favorite was the electrician dog...I didn't plan that when I took the pic! If only Marc had been wearing a yellow shirt it would've been perfect.

  4. The Richard Scarry overlays are so genius. All the dots are connecting! I love the parallel poses. How did I miss this latest flurry of posts. Looking forward to dog friendly design.

  5. Hi Kay,

    I am a home owner in palo alto and planning on a home addition project.
    I have been reading your blog and found it very useful and amusing.

    you mentioned 101-decisions-a-day stage. I am wondering how to decide ahead of time and not rush during that stage. our project does not have a lot of custom features. I want to be well prepared before we start the construction. Where can I study the list of decisions to be made? thanks!

    1. Hi Mich,

      Glad you're liking the blog. At one point I was trying to document all the decisions that needed to be made but it became quite overwhelming tracking them, let alone making the decisions. There are a surprising number of steps involved in building a house! Ideally your builder and architect can help you map out the big stuff you'll need to decide on.

      Here's a partial list of things to tackle (and the rough order I would recommend).

      1. Appliances (best to pick before your architect designs the kitchen) + heating system if radiant
      2. Windows (you'll need exact dimensions when you lay the foundation), also figure out if there are any electrical needs (electric windows & shades for high windows)
      3. Skylights (you'll need dimensions during framing)
      4. Whole house fan (you'll need dimensions during framing, make sure you know measurements of the unit, not just the finished dimensions)
      5. Kitchen & bathroom sinks & fixtures (nice to have these by rough in). Don't forget to buy the rough valves for the wall. Hansgrohe has a universal I valve that works for both bathtub/shower configurations and also for showers that have two showerheads. There's a small pin in them that you can remove (once the inspection is done) if you want water to come out of both sources at the same time.
      6. Lighting (need to run wiring during rough in)
      7. Fireplaces (need these installed during rough in)
      8. Roof shingles & exterior finishes
      9. Front door & garage, garage door opener (choose these as you're finalizing your exterior finishes but don't forget to wire for a garage door opener)
      10. Flooring, Cabinets, Tile, Countertops (these all tie into one another)

      Also, if you plan to have two electrical fuse boxes, make sure you designate an area upstairs for one. They need 3ft unobstructed clearance in all directions. Also for new construction, make sure you plan for a backflow water preventer required because of the fire sprinklers. It must be above ground and within 5ft of the front property line, so make sure your architect puts it off to the side of the house where it's less noticeable (but not within 5ft of the gas or sewer lines).

      Hope that helps!

    2. Kay, thank you so much for providing so much useful information. really appreciate it. It gave us much more confidence about our project.

  6. Had such an interesting time looking at all your fabulous build details! I need to know what color did you end up picking for the presidential shake roof?