Building a new house in Palo Alto

Building a new house in Palo Alto

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

James Witt's Palo Alto dream house is for sale

Coming soon: The mother of all dream houses. 4008 El Cerrito, Palo Alto. 

My building idol, James Witt (the Steve Jobs of Bay Area builders) is working a dream house in Barron Park that will be finished in November. James has been kind enough to let me shadow him while he builds it and is mentoring me through my own construction. In coming posts, I'll be blogging about some of the many lessons I learn from James and the makings of a dream home. 

For those of you who'd rather buy than build, below is a sneak peek of the house and his contact information in case you want to make an offer before it hits the market. I offered to trade lots with him but sadly he didn't accept. Maybe you'll have better luck.

Address: 4008 El Cerrito Road, Palo Alto, CA 94306
  • 5 Bedrooms, 4 1/2 Baths
  • 13,328 sq ft lot (backs up to the open space and trails behind Gunn high school)
  • 3750 sq ft living space plus attached 2 car garage
View from the living room.
The house has a convenient single story layout with soaring ceilings, an open floor plan and big windows. It's the essence of Palo Alto (which was named after a redwood tree) magically captured in a house. The first thing you see when you walk in the house is a view of the beautiful redwoods that line the yard.  Spin back around and through the front door and window above is another redwood tree perfectly framed in the entry. Ah, words cannot describe the tao of James Witt.

Entry way to the house. Welcome to James' world.

*Tip for would-be buyers:  
The house won't be done until November but James will occasionally pre-sell to the "right buyer." If you ask James what that means, he'll say the right buyer is someone who stays out of his hair. You see, James not your typical developer (spec home is a four-letter word to him). Anyone who's met him or has seen one of his houses knows that James an artist who labors over every last detail, so messing around with his vision is not advised. Having said that, a wino friend of mine bought James' last house before it was completed. Not only did my friend avoid the bidding wars, he also somehow managed to convince James to customize a wine gallery room for him. (Pretty sure there was plenty of alcohol involved in that negotiation.)

If you would like to contact James, stop by the house or email him at the address below.

Aug 2012 Update: Sorry folks, this house sold a few days after this post. Contact James if you'd like to be put on a list for future homes.

The floor plan. Perfect for California living.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

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

Luckily for our neighbors, I did not get to drive an excavator this week.
Last week the ReBuild Green dream team worked at breakneck speed deconstructing our house and garage in a mere three days. With only the foundation and driveway left, it looked like we'd be done in one more day. Winning! Sadly before I could give high-fives all around, we were slapped in the rear with a time-out.

This week was spent at a standstill while waiting for the various city of Palo Alto utilities departments to perform their requisite sign-offs and shut-offs. To those who don't know any better (e.g. moi), it seems pretty simple...just flip the big switch that turns off our power, water and gas, right? 

No ma'am, it's a little more complicated than that.
While deconstructions get fast-tracked before building permits, it still takes up to 10 working days after you've filled out all the forms and paid the fees to get your water, gas, wastewater and electric utilities disconnected. [For more details, see: A Guide to the City of Palo Alto Utility Disconnections Prior to Any Building Demolition or Excavation.] For people who have trouble reading instructions (e.g. moi), the process of running around to the various departments to fill out forms and pay fees adds another few days to the count. And in case you're wondering, calling the various departments everyday to check where you are in the queue doesn't appear to speed up the process. 

No-problem Rod strikes again
By the time Friday rolled around, everything was disconnected except the gas line to the street. Woohoo! However, the gas utility guy (who graciously returned phone calls from both me and our contractor) predicted it'd be up to another week before the gas shut-off. Boo.

Since no excavation is allowed where live gas and electric utilities exist, you can imagine my surprise when I showed up to the site on Friday and saw this:

A Bobcat poking apart the foundation (water is sprayed to control the dust).

Um, Roderick, you know the gas line to the street is still live, yes? 

Yeah, no problem! he said. 

It turns out, Rod (the owner of ReBuild Green) found a creative workaround to our waiting for Godot dilema. That morning he had driven over a Bobcat tractor that he had borrowed from his buddy Scott (owner of Scott's Demolition) who was doing another job in Palo Alto. It was armed it with a telescopic sledgehammer-like attachment which I, being a wordsmith and all, dubbed "the Pokey thingy." Rod explained that unlike an excavator, the Pokey thingy "delicately" breaks up the foundation without disrupting the ground and gas lines. The process is more labor intensive than excavation and will take an additional day or two, but I'm betting we'll still be done before the gas gets terminated. Kudos to Rod, Scott and everyone at ReBuild Green for salvaging everything including what would've otherwise been a wasted week.

This slab of concrete is no match for Pokey.
Too high for the Pokey thingy, the multi-talented Magic Mike knocks down the top of the chimney
with a sledgehammer. Watching the effort made us decide we don't need a chimney in our new house.
One poke and the brick wall comes tumbling down.
The corner in the upper left (where the gas line is capped off) was kept intact
until the very end when the guys carefully dismantled it by hand.
All concrete will be recycled and ground up to make asphalt.
No gas lines (lower right) were harmed during the making of this blog post.

More reading on the subject:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

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

ReBuild Green officially started taking down our house this week. We don't have our building permits yet, but the City of Palo Alto gives green deconstructions a head start since they take longer than demolitions and the city wants to encourage sustainable practices.  Instead of bulldozing down the house in a day and dumping everything in a landfill, deconstruction involves disassembling the house piece by piece to salvage materials that can be reused or recycled.  A 1600 square foot house like ours will generate approximately 85 tons of debris but with deconstruction 73 of those tons will be reused or recycled.  The deconstruction will take about eight days and we're three days into the process. Here's where we are so far:
Day 1 (AM): Appliances, toilets, sinks, tub, kitchen & bathroom
fixtures, lighting, cabinetry, doors, & heater removed for reuse.
Day 1 (PM): Removed exterior siding (for reuse), hardwood floors (for recycle),
insulation, dry wall & glued down tile (for disposal).
Day 2 (AM): Removed windows (for reuse), roof, wiring, ducts (for recycling).
Day 2 (PM): Removed framing & de-nailed lumber (for reuse), nails to be recycled.
Day 3: It's Saturday but the crew still showed up to deconstruct the 400 sq ft detached garage
and remove the subfloor (for reuse), plumbing & copper pipes (for recycle).
The next step will be removing the foundation, bricks and driveway. There are also piles of lumber that need to be de-nailed. Removing nails is one of the most time consuming parts of deconstructing a house and has the biggest environmental impact. Lumber is one of the easiest of materials to dump yet it's the hardest on the environment to replace.  The disposal fees at Zanker, our local landfill, are $25 a cubic yard for most construction debris but only $8 for lumber and wood (nails okay).  As long as there's no termite damage, any de-nailed piece of wood longer than 4 feet can be reused.  
Mike works on a lumber pile. I call him Magic Mike because he strips the nails out of this and turns it into...
this! Ta-da! 85% of the lumber from our house will be reused.
In many older homes, the quality of lumber is actually better than the equivalent made today. We are planning on reusing the original redwood siding for accents on our new house. The siding is in great shape and we like the idea of having a bit of the old house in the new. We also want to incorporate the ribbon window panels from the entry somewhere as an artistic element. 
Removing the redwood siding. Like new but better.
Look for this ribbon window in our new house.
The Bottom Line: Cost of a Deconstruction vs Demolition
For us, deconstruction was a no-brainer not only from an environmental perspective but from a financial one, as well. The upfront cost of deconstruction is about two to three times more than demolition. However, if the salvaged materials are given to a 501(c)3 non-profit, the property owner is eligible for a tax write-off for the donation value. In our case, the deconstruction will cost $21,600, which includes all transport, recycling and dumping fees. The materials will be donated to Building Resources, a not-for-profit salvage yard in San Francisco. We will also pay an independent appraiser $1500 to itemize and value the building materials for the IRS, which brings our out-of-pocket expenses to $23,100. We checked with our tax guy and he says we'll still receive a charitable donation write-off even if we're in AMT. The expected donation value will be approximately $100,000 which means the tax write-off for us will more than cover the entire cost of deconstruction. On the flip side, a traditional demolition would have been about $10,000 and a hell of a lot of karma points.

Hire people not wrecking balls!
The Dream Team: Rebuild Green
One of the surprisingly gratifying side-effects of hiring a deconstruction team over a wrecking ball is the sheer number of people employed in the process. At peak times of activity, I counted 18 guys hustling to disassemble the house. We hired Rebuild Green to do our deconstruction. I was a little nervous about this because I prefer to work through personal referrals, but no one I knew had ever done a deconstruction. Instead, I interviewed four companies and Rebuild Green came out on top. They quoted the most competitive bid and the owner, Roderick Cooper had me visit one of his other deconstruction sites in Palo Alto to see them in action and learn more. Roderick teams up with Scott's Demolition for additional manpower and project manages the whole process. This week the house has come down with amazing speed and efficiency. The team has been great and Roderick is a "no problem" kind of guy, my favorite type of person to work with...

K:  Roderick, can we keep the redwood siding for ourselves? 
R:  Yeah, no problem. We can sand it for you too.
K:  Rod, can we push the schedule out a week? I can't get the tenant to move out...
R:  Man that sucks, good luck, and no problem.
K:  We're ready to go! Can you start now? I mean, yesterday?
R:  Sure, no problem. 
K:  Ack, the city hasn't shut off the gas line yet.
R:  No problem, just let me know when it's ready.
K:  Roderick, can you make sure to preserve all the trees on the perimeter?
R:  Yeah, no problem.
K:  Can we save the plants too?
R:  Sure, no problem, I'll have one of the guys dig them up.

And so it goes...  
ReBuild Green's owner, Roderick Cooper makes everything easy breezy!
If you're planning on tearing down a house in the Bay Area, I highly recommend doing a deconstruction with ReBuild Green. And if there are any journalists/reporters reading this who want to cover green deconstruction and/or stellar small business owners making a difference in this world, I encourage you to contact Roderick. 

More reading on the subject:

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

Sunday, July 1, 2012

TED talk on building a green new house

Kermit was right, it ain't easy being green. Building a house for the first time involves making decisions about a million and one different things you've always taken for granted. Trying to "build responsibly" adds a whole new level of complexity on top of everything.

For the last month I've been holding out in the hopes of writing the mother of all blog posts on green construction. But alas, the more research I do the more baffled I become and the less likely the post will ever happen.

Instead, I will leave you with the wisdom of someone far more qualified on the subject. Catherine and Paul Mohr built a new house in Mountain View a few years ago and created a gem of a resource: When Geeks Build Green. Filled with smart research, photos, and local resources, the blog makes the green construction process a lot less daunting. However, before plunging into the murky pond of all things green, I recommend watching Catherine Mohr's TED talk about embodied energy and building a green house.  It's amusing, data driven and an enlightening six minutes that will save you a whole lot of grief.