Building a new house in Palo Alto

Building a new house in Palo Alto

Monday, December 9, 2013

Monitoring our construction site with TechCam Live Video Streaming (+bonus time lapse video!)

I have a confession to make. When we were building our house in Green Acres, we had a sign like this posted at our construction site:

But we didn't actually have any cameras set up, much less 24 hour video surveillance.  I posted the sign hoping to deter any would-be hoodlums and thieves who weren't smart enough to see through my bluff. In reality our only surveillance system was Trudy, our 83 year old neighbor across the street.

This time around HomeCrunch has gone high-tech with We now have the sign *and* the cameras. In addition to protecting our property, I dig the fact that I can work from home and check out the progress from my living room, kitchen or even the nursery during those middle of the night feedings thanks to the night-vision cameras. I can even walk over to Trudy's house and show her the live stream on my mobile phone. I love love love it. Pretty sure I'm the first person to build a house in her PJs.

You may have noticed I've been woefully bad about blogging lately, so if you ever want to see where we are in the construction process, just check out our live stream at:
Woohoo night vision! Perfect for sleep-deprived moms.
If you're tech savvy and have the time, you can set up a live stream yourself but ours was done by an awesome startup called TechCam. We have two cameras at different vantage points, both equipped with infrared night vision. In my opinion this is well worth outsourcing since one of the cameras is dangerously high up in a tree and also because they do all the troubleshooting...from fixing the wires every time the construction crews accidentally cut them (this has happened way too many times), to making sure it works on Android, iPhones, iPads, and all of our computers and gadgets.
Construction site theft is a big hairy problem. (Photo courtesy of James Witt & his epic Thailand vacation).
Construction site theft is a big, expensive problem for contractors and home owners. James Witt and I are happy we have the TechCam crew to help us combat it and keep an eye on the job when we can't be there. In fact, James just took his first vacation in too many years and was able to see what we were up to all the way from Thailand.

One last bonus feature from TechCam is their time lapse video service. They created this extended version of our deconstruction just for kicks. It may seem a little long but believe me, it's pure magic if you need to distract a crying baby. I can't wait for the time lapse of the house being built. Check it out:

Sunday, October 20, 2013

New Palo Alto Modern Home: 172 Park Avenue

Android users click here for stream!

Good news everyone, HomeCrunch has a new baby in the works! I am officially partnering with modern home builder James Witt on a new house in Palo Alto. I'll be documenting the ins and outs of the build here, so if you're interested in email updates, sign up to "Follow by Email" on the right side of this page. We plan to sell it once it's completed-- hopefully around the middle of 2014, so if you know of anyone in the market for a new home in Palo Alto, please send them our way!

This past week the existing 720 square foot house was deconstructed by Roderick Cooper's Rebuild Green dream team. I am spending a lot of time at home with the actual baby so Roderick surprised me by setting up a live webcam. Now you and I can follow along remotely by clicking on the "parkHD" button in the photo above or going to:

Here are some of the basic facts about the build:

Bedrooms: 5
Baths: 4
House size: ~3000 sq ft (including garage)
Lot size: 7500 sq ft

Walking distance to California Ave shopping & restaurants, Caltrains, Stanford, Peers Park, Palo Alto High.

Scheduled completion date: mid-2014

The Neighborhood:
The house is being built at 172 Park Avenue in the Evergreen Park neighborhood of Palo Alto. This is one of my favorite parts of Palo Alto, having grown up on Sequoia Avenue just a stone's throw away.

Evergreen Park is a welcoming neighborhood with old-fashioned charm. Most of the homes date back to the early 1900's and have varied architectural styles with personality. Traffic-calming measures (i.e. cul-de-sacs, traffic circles, islands and one-way streets) keep the streets sleepy and safe for kids to play on and ride their bikes. It's a tight knit, family oriented community with two annual events that draw residents together -- a block party potluck and the Peers Park barbecue.

Welcome to the neighborhood! Disclaimer: Banjo-playing skeletons only come out at Halloween.
Tucked away between Stanford University and Peers Park, Evergreen Park is an ideal location for folks who want a cozy neighborhood vibe but the convenience of nearby restaurants, shopping and a Sunday farmers' market. California Avenue, aka Palo Alto's second (and calmer) downtown is within walking distance and home to some of my favorite restaurants...TerronePalo Alto SolJoanie's Cafe, yum! California Avenue also has a Caltrain station which makes San Francisco just a train ride away. Also, the house would be a real score for Cardinal football fans because you can walk to games at Stanford stadium. Tailgate at Park!

Generous neighbors with green thumbs abound in Evergreen Park. 
The Design
The house is being designed by Steve Simpson. Steve Simpson is one of the most admired architects in the Bay Area and responsible for half of the homes featured in this Wall Street Journal article about the rise of modern contemporary architecture in Silicon Valley. James Witt uses him exclusively and for this project challenged him to create a warm and peaceful modern home that is understated, yet unexpected. Steve calls this house "Hamptons Modern" and designed it to fit in with the relaxed character of the neighborhood and highlight the majestic redwood and oak trees that line the property.  I'll elaborate more on the design in a future post, for now here's a drawing of the future 172 Park Avenue:

Coming in 2014: "Hamptons Modern" at 172 Park Avenue, Palo Alto

Friday, August 16, 2013

Interior Photos: A Tour of Our House courtesy of Tam Vo Photography

Our baby has decided to be fashionably late, giving me time to spruce up the house and provide you with one last entry before slipping into the abyss of sleep deprivation. To assist with this post, our general contractor sent over his photographer friend, the talented Tam Vo. What I love about Tam's photos is that she didn't use one of those super tricked out wide-angle lenses that stretches every room into looking like an Architectural Digest spread. These photos (dogs and all) actually look like our home...well, except for being perfectly tidy and spotless, that's definitely a one-time embellishment. Enjoy the tour!

Living Room:

We kept the living room relatively small (12 ft 9 in x 11 ft.) since we don't plan to use it much. To make it feel more spacious, our awesome architect fought tooth and nail with the city planners to allow the living room ceiling to reach up to 10.5 ft high. The majority of the first floor is 9.5 ft high which we found to be plenty tall. Note: the height of your house is one of the areas Palo Alto planners always seem to take issue with.

Instead of two enclosed rooms, we joined the living room and office with a see-thru fireplace and a partial wall with an opening that connects them. The wall that wraps the fireplace is done in a Venetian plaster finish.

Office / Optional Dining Room:

We don't need a formal dining room, so we're using this space as our office. The room has pocket doors that can be closed if needed. You can see part of the door in the next photo (far left).


Thanks to our architect's savvy negotiating skills, the city planners allowed us to have a dramatic 11.5 ft vaulted ceiling in our entry way. We adorned it with my favorite light fixture in the house, a stunning Arctic Pear chandelier (miraculously found on eBay). The entry is also conveniently wide enough to accommodate two dog beds by the front door so that Cisco and Astro can be on duty protecting our house while we're out.

Great Room:

Our great room includes a kitchen, dining nook and family room.  We made this the largest area of the house since we knew we'd be spending most of our time here. Our cabinets are custom made out of rift sawn white oak and stained with a natural, 0% VOC, oil finish by Rubio Monocoat.

We have a dining nook for entertaining. However, we eat most of our meals at the kitchen island. Topped with Madre Perla granite and a nifty "chef-inspired" prep sink from Kohler, the oversized island is our favorite part of the kitchen.

We installed Du Chateau engineered wood floors throughout the house. Engineered wood floors are more durable and resistant to moisture than hardwood, making them suitable for kitchens and homes with radiant heat. They are also more sustainable. I shopped around and got the best price for the floors plus installation from Al at Stanford Carpets. Their service turned out to be impeccable too, making them my #1 go-to shop for all things flooring (we also got carpet runners and vinyl attic flooring there too). What I like about the Du Chateau floors is that they have a hard wax finish from natural oils instead of toxic polyurethane. The wax soaks into the wood giving it a pleasing matte finish that can be spot-fixed. With polyurethane, you have to sand down and refinish the whole floor whenever you need to make fixes. Also, since Du Chateau floors are pre-finished and the wax only takes a day to dry, you save about 2 weeks in the build process.

_In our family room we replicated Bardessono's signature corner fireplace. We were able to do this thanks to Kristin, the uber-helpful guest services rep who researched the exact name of the tile (which I then ordered from Aubry Flooring). Located in the delicious town of Yountville, CA, Bardessono is our favorite dog-friendly weekend getaway spot. As one of the only LEED-platinum certified hotels in the country, it's a great place to get green design ideas.

The Granny Unit / Guest Suite / Flex room:

Off of our kitchen is a butler's pantry (aka mud room) that leads to the guest room / "Multi-Generational Wing." The idea behind this space is that it can be closed off via the pocket door and lived in as a separate, private unit. There's a small beverage fridge in the pantry, along with a sink plus room for a small cooktop and microwave. For now, it's our guest room for whomever is willing to change a few diapers during their stay.

We designed the cabinets/closets so that we can store a low profile, platform queen sized bed in them. This way we pull out and assemble the bed when we have guests and they can use the closet for their clothes. When we don't have guests we can put the bed back into the closet and convert the space into whatever suits our fancy.  Pretty sure that this will become a play room in the not too distant future...

The room has its own entrance and an excellent view of the squirrels in the backyard.

Because the guest room doesn't have any of the second floor over it, we were able to make the ceiling 13 ft high which feels spectacular when you walk in. It allows for lots of picturesque windows which makes it feel very zen but comes with a hefty price tag when you factor in electric windows and blinds. Two key learnings:  1. Electric windows aren't worth the cost and hassle.  2. Plan ahead when you have high windows and make sure you wire for automatic blinds before you close up the walls.

Guest bathroom:

And of course, guests are treated to a spa-like bathroom with a pretty pebble floor that's good for massaging tired feet.


_If Baby O ever decides to make an appearance, this will be his room. The window seat was pure joy to create. is an awesome website where you can order custom cushions and pillows.  I ordered the window seat cushion and coordinating bolster pillow from them. You simply plug in your dimensions and pick from their collection of fabrics or send in your own. It's super easy and they will send you fabric samples upon request.

The main light fixture is a cleverly disguised ceiling fan called the Fanaway. The fan has retractable plastic blades that tuck inside itself when not in use.

Here's a photo of the Fanaway in action. The only problem with the fixture is it comes with an obnoxiously bright white (4200K) florescent bulb. I replaced it with a warmer (2700K) bulb made by Satco (FCL 40W T5 - S8164) that you can purchase from Light Bulbs, Etc.

Astro's room:

I originally named this room the owl room because it overlooks the holly oak in our front yard where a family of owls lives. For whatever reason, Astro claimed this room as his own and can usually be found lounging in it when we're not home or when he needs his space.

Jack & Jill bathroom:

Astro's room and the nursery share a Jack & Jill bathroom. All of the tile in this bathroom came from All Natural Stone in San Jose. The counters are a polished Blizzard Caesarstone. The backsplash is shimmery glass tile mosaic that looks like little fish and is aptly named Rainbow Pisces.

Master bedroom:

All of the ceilings on the second floor are 8.5 ft, except for the master bedroom which we decided to make fancier and taller (9.5 ft).

The hallway leads to our beloved his and her closets and the master bathroom.

Master bathroom:

In addition to his and her closets, we also put in his and her shower heads. This is actually quite convenient if your spouse has tall Norwegian genes since you don't have to fiddle with the shower head height everyday. If you do decide to put in dual shower heads, make sure you use the Hansgrohe iBox rough. If you remove a special pin in it, you can use both shower heads at the same time (just don't mention this to the inspector). I'm also a big fan of the Mr. Steam steam shower feature...and eucalyptus lavender essence oils. Love. Love. Love.

We're still working away at our landscaping, but here's a peek at our backyard. After some initial missteps, our Evergreen Dogwoods are thriving once again.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Dog-Friendly Home Building (Part 1): Making an On-Demand Dog Water Fountain

Ever since he was a puppy, Cisco's always been a fan of water fountains.
A "dream home" means something different to everyone. When we started planning ours, a dog water fountain was on the top of my list. I didn't know what it would look like, I just knew that it would deliver fresh water on demand to my furry little kids with little effort on my part. After all, nothing says dog-friendly better than a bottomless bowl of water...

Yountville, one of our favorite weekend getaway spots has a special fountain for dogs.
Here's Cisco showing Astro puppy how it's done.

Fresh water is an important part of keeping pets healthy. However, dish washing has never been my forte and keeping a bowl clean and filled when you have two thirsty critters can get tedious. I've tried the plug-in reservoir fountains like the Dogit and the Drinkwell 360 which are good for making you *feel* like your pets are getting nice recirculated filtered water. In reality, they get slobbery and slimy really quickly. If you're a diligent pet parent then these are great but I found that the illusion of fresh water made me even lazier about cleaning the fountains.

When we embarked on building a custom home for our family, I explained to our contractor Jeff (and fellow dog lover) my vision and we conspired to make it a reality. Here's a must-see demo video of what we came up with...starring Astro who clearly has a budding future in doggy infomercials:

We had to do a fair amount of experimentation to get it right but the finished product is not very hard to construct if you plan ahead. This fountain is easy to include as part of a new home but could also be worked into a kitchen or bath remodel if you have the space and aren't on a slab foundation. We designed it like a shower so that the drain runs under the floor.

List of Materials:

Doesn't this sink look like it was made to be a dog bowl?
1. Semi-recessed or vessel sink
I splurged on this black mosaic sink from Linkasink because I love how it looks like a fancy dog bowl. I was lucky enough to find a floor model on sale at the amazing Bath & Beyond showroom in San Francisco, but really, a no-frills sink will do and you can get deals on eBay and Amazon. To keep the water from splashing outside the sink, I recommend getting a semi-recessed or vessel sink.


2. Wall-mount touchless faucet with sensor
I opted for the Kohler Purist Wall-Mount Faucet because the sensor is a separate unit and can be adjusted independently from the faucet.  This is important because you'll want to adjust the sensor to the right height for your dog/s. To run the faucet you also have to buy this Hybrid Control Kit.

_3. Tile & waterproofing materials
We waterproofed and tiled the area around the fountain in case of any splashing. It turns out the 17" Linkasink captures pretty much all the water but some dogs are more "vigorous" drinkers than others, so this is a wise step. We used extra tile from our bathrooms since you don't need much. One mistake we made was tiling the back wall before determining the correct height for the sensor. As a result, we had to use an elbow pipe when we wanted to adjust the height of the sensor since we had already drilled a hole in the tile.

_4. Extension pipe
We learned we needed this during the testing phase. We originally installed the sensor on the wall along with the faucet but then realized the dogs had to reach under the faucet in order to turn on the water, getting showered on in the process.

Oops, the sensor is pre-set to be triggered when a hand reaches under the faucet.
We wanted to drench the dogs' thirst, not their heads.

_.A Few Lessons:
1. Getting the sensor juuusst right...
The real trick to setting up the fountain is getting the sensor placement just right. Not only does the sensor need to be adjusted forward so that your dog will trigger it without getting rained on, you also want to make sure it's at the right height. If the sensor is too high, your dog won't be able to activate it. If the sensor is too low (as was ours the first time we set it), your dog will trigger it but when he moves his mouth upward to drink, he will no longer be in front of the sensor and it'll turn off before he can get a few licks of water.

Cisco testing the faucet height during the framing stage.

We found the best place to put the sensor is about an inch below the fountain spout and half an inch behind it. Note: This will vary depending on the sensor range of the faucet you select. Ours didn't specify the range in the manual so it required hands (and paws) on testing.

Astro's a little shorter than Cisco but it's better to place the faucet a little high than too low.

_2. Place the fountain in a strategic location
Ideally you want to place the fountain next to existing plumbing to limit the amount of additional pipes that you'll need. We placed ours at the end of our kitchen counter next to our main sink. We cased it in the end cabinet so that future owners could convert it to a storage cabinet should they choose. Of course, dog lovers are going to get special treatment when we eventually decide to sell the house. We also made sure to place the dog door near the fountain. Oddly, Cisco always steps outside after taking a long drink of water. Must be a golden years thing.

Hopefully all future owners will have a dog, if not they can convert the space back to cabinetry.

_3. Work with a great plumber
At our last house we learned the cost of do-it-yourself plumbing projects (and the importance of Teflon tape) after our self-installed dishwasher flooded our kitchen floor. Water lines are not something you want to mess with if you're a novice. Antonio, our awesome plumber helped us construct the fountain and ensure that it's water tight and up to code.

Special thanks to Antonio of ACH Plumbing for putting up with Astro's backseat plumbing.

P.S. If you are an avid do-it-yourselfer, AVBrand has instructions for how to build a nifty automatic dog water dish with an ice-maker water hookup line instead of dedicated plumbing in the floor. The bowl re-fills itself but you'll still have to clean it regularly since there's sitting water and no drain.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Quick and Easy Driveway Apron – Thumbs Up for the Rubber BRIDJIT Curb Ramp

Yay, no more scraping our cars.

Keeeerrr-crunch! That was the sound of our cars bottoming out in the gutter every time we pulled in and out of our driveway for the last few months. It was a painful daily reminder that I needed to stop procrastinating and find a fix to the steep rolled curb between the sidewalk and street right off of our driveway. Not quite as fun as interior decorating and landscaping which is why the task kept slipping to the bottom of my to-do list.

Driveway Apron Options

The area between the sidewalk and the curb is called the driveway apron.  In our neighborhood most of the aprons are made of concrete with an embedded pipe to allow water to flow through it instead of pooling around the edges. Unfortunately, the pipes get easily clogged by leaves and street debris.

Most of our neighbors put concrete in the gutter to make the transition from their driveway smoother.

Some of our neighbors have fancier aprons made out of treaded (non-slip) steel plates. These have better drainage. The quote we received for a custom steel driveway ramp was approximately $2000 for 20 feet of gutter coverage.

Steel plates bolted into the sidewalk allow more clearance for water to drain underneath.

The option we ultimately decided upon was the BRIDJIT curb ramp system. It seemed like the quickest and easiest solution out there and it was relatively inexpensive compared to concrete or steel. They come in 4 foot sections so we ordered the BRIDJIT 3 Piece Curb Ramp Set plus three 48" Center Section Ramps to span across our 23-foot driveway. The total cost was approximately $730 and they showed up in two days thanks to Amazon Prime's free shipping. It's about $10 less if you order directly from the BRIDJIT website but I think it's worth paying a little more for Amazon's no-hassle return policy in case something goes wrong.

Each BRIDJIT section is 4 feet and weighs about 50 pounds (conveniently over my lift limit)

Installing the BRIDJIT ramp is pretty easy, especially if you're pregnant and have a strong spouse who volunteers to do it.

Made out of recycled tires, the ramps have just enough flex to accommodate the curve in our driveway.

The ramps get assembled upside down using galvanized bolts (included) to connect the sections together. Once you've attached all the sections you flip the ramp over and position it in the gutter. The weight of the ramp holds it in place so it doesn't have to be bolted down to the curb. We were worried it would move around and slip down the curb but so far we've driven over it many times and it has stayed in place.

Bolts connect the sections and a 2.5" groove allows water to flow underneath. 

As you can see from the photos, leaves and debris do collect under and around the ramp but it's easy enough to lift and clean if you have two people (one to lift a section while the other cleans, or two people to flip the entire ramp out of place). It's a small price to pay for Fahrvergn├╝gen.

Thumbs up for good ol' American innovation. Our new BRIDJIT ramp kept 24 old tires out of a landfill.

The best part is that BRIDJIT ramps are made in the USA out of scrap tires that would otherwise be piling up in a landfill. Woot! Everyone wins. Okay, now for the bad news...

Complying with City Codes  
Unfortunately, none of these driveway aprons–concrete, steel or BRIDJIT ramps conform to Palo Alto's building standards. Technically, before you mess with the city's curbs you are required to apply for a permit and have a licensed contractor do the work in accordance with city codes. I spoke to a very nice City of Palo Alto Public Works Engineer who acknowledged that most homeowners have modified their driveway aprons without a permit. The city's main concern is drainage, so if they find your driveway ramp is causing any drainage or safety issues they can pull it out without warning or permission from the homeowner. So while he didn't officially bless our rubber ramp, he did concede that it's lower risk since they are less permanent and can be moved easily.

So if you're a stickler for the law or don't want to invest in a solution that your city might rip out, here's what I recommend:

1. Call your city's Public Works Department and inquire about the requirements for your neighborhood. Most cities will not officially refer you to contractors but you can ask them to give you the names of the last dozen or so contractors to be issued Street Work Permits as a place to start.

Here's the contact info for Palo Alto, they were quite friendly and helpful:

Palo Alto Public Works Department
250 Hamilton Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94301
Phone: 650-329-2151

2.  Before you pay for it yourself, find out if there are any capital improvement projects scheduled for your street. Periodically, cities invest in sidewalk projects which include things like fixing damaged sidewalks, tripping hazards, replacing curb ramps to make them ADA compliant, and easing gutters. In our case, our street is in the queue to be worked on in the Winter of 2014. I spoke to the engineer in charge who informed me that they intend to replace all of our driveway approaches at no cost to the homeowners. Woohoo! So if anyone needs some gently used BRIDJIT curb ramps next year, let me know...

The Modified Type B Curb
For those of you who are interested, here's the only Palo Alto-approved driveway apron design for our street.  [NOTE: Not every street has the same requirements so this does not necessarily apply to all streets in Palo Alto.] The design is fairly cost prohibitive given it involves ripping out the sidewalk along the driveway frontage and a $460 street work permit. One of our neighbors got an estimate of $3200 to do the work. *Ouch.* She ended up opting for the BRIDJIT curb ramps too.

Palo Alto's "Modified Type B Curb" spec. Looking at it makes my head hurt.