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 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 Fahrvergnügen.

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.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Old is New Again: The story of our reclaimed Redwood house features

My favorite features of our new house are the old parts of it.

The day our offer was accepted for our Palo Alto property I had to drop off a deposit check at the selling agent's office. The owner of the house happened to be there so the agent asked me to come in and meet her. I was a little nervous because conventional real estate wisdom says that buyers and sellers should never meet lest someone says something that makes the deal go south.

"So, you love the house right?" the owner asked earnestly.

"Yes, we love the neighborhood...and the trees...and the parks and open space...and the fact that you can walk to all the schools," I gushed, trying not to blow the deal. Indeed those were all things that we loved about the house--everything but the house itself. I rarely fall in love with a house until I make it my own, plus we were planning on rebuilding part or all of it, so I wasn't personally attached to the structure. Needless to say the deal went through but her question made me reflect on the sanctity of a well-loved home.

The original house built in 1952 as part of a new development. (Photo via Google Maps).

The Deconstruction
While navigating bidding strategies, multiple offers and nearly non-existent inventory it's easy to forget that the piece of property you're fighting over was someone's home. Our seller and her siblings had grown up in this house and it stored a lifetime of memories. Knowing this, the thought of bulldozing down and disposing someone's childhood home seemed disrespectful and flat out wrong.

After much research we decided to deconstruct the house. Instead of doing a demolition and taking the debris to the dump, we hired Rebuild Green to painstakingly dismantle the house piece by piece, board by board to reuse and recycle everything and anything that could have another life.
Deconstructing the original house and saving the redwood siding to be reused.

Here's a Wall Street Journal video about deconstruction starring Rod Cooper, James Witt & yours truly.

Old lumber is better than new

Living in Silicon Valley—the techno capital of the world—where iPhone models become obsolete in a year and cars will soon be driving themselves, we often assume that new is better. When it comes to wood, this is not always the case. While gathering quotes from deconstruction specialists, the one part of the house that had everyone drooling was the 1950's redwood siding. Lumber used back then was not farmed, it was harvested from our once abundant forests. Nowadays the only place you can find wood like that is in our protected national parks.

Today's farmed lumber is manufactured from fast-growing commercial plantations where trees are cut young and dried in kilns. Naturally aged wood is dense with tight rings and low moisture content which makes it rot resistent and reduces the tendency to shrink and pull apart. Here's a photo from a great blog post about reclaimed lumber:
"Below is a cross section of two 2x4s. The one on the left is over 100 years old. The other on the right is about 5 years old. Both of these are pine. The old lumber has very tight and dense rings. The new lumber on the right has broad rings. Today's lumber is grown on tree farms where the trees are given growth hormones. Old growth trees took 100 years to reach maturity. Today's trees are ready to harvest in 20." [Source: Ogden Insights]
Old vs young lumber.
Building with reclaimed wood
We decided we wanted to incorporate the redwood siding from the old house into our new one so our general contractor brought in master carpenter, Charles Dubois, to help design something special. Working with reclaimed wood requires extra patience, ingenuity and an artisan's attitude. It's not something that you want a run of the mill production line crew hammering through. Charles spent his childhood on construction sites, picking up loose nails for a penny and learning the art of carpentry from his builder dad, Jim. The two now team up to run their family construction business building homes and taking on specialty projects like ours. Speaking of old becoming new again, I've found that many of the best trade people come from families who have been doing it for decades. Knowledge and skills get passed down and age-old techniques are refined and "reclaimed" by each new generation. 

Below is a photo documentary of all the steps (there were many!) involved in reclaiming our redwood siding and transforming it into beautiful details throughout our house. To keep it low maintenance, we mainly put it in areas that don't get a lot of exposure to the sun and rain. We started with porch ceilings.

Instead of stripping the paint from the front of the siding, we used the backside which hadn't seen the light of day in over 60 years and was still in great condition. Mature redwood is naturally rot and pest resistant so holds up well over time.

Some of the siding was a little rough around the edges or stained from the tar paper so Charles ran each piece through a planer a few times to clean them up and make them smooth. Rebuild Green's dream team did a great job de-nailing the lumber. The siding was completely free of metal. It's important to inspect reclaimed wood because a single stray nail can ruin a saw blade.
Originally 1"x8" lap siding, Charles and Jim used a 200-pound workshop saw to cut the pieces down to size and remove the lapped edges. Each board had a natural shape to it, many were bowed or wonky, so they devised a 12-foot long table saw fence using a few pieces of white trim stacked together and clamped to the saw. This served as a guide for the saw so that they could cut perfectly straight edges (without the guide, the saw would've followed the curvature of each board).

They decided on 3 1/2 inch wide planks since they could cut two pieces out of every 8 inch wide board. More precious, precious wood...

and minimal waste!

Charles created plywood cut-outs in the size of each porch ceiling and painted them black.  He mounted these to the ceiling as a backing material so that he could nail boards into any part of the ceiling. He painted them black so that if any of the boards shrank over time, the gaps would be less noticeable.

Our chevron front porch ceilings
Since, thanks to too many hours browsing photos on Houzz, I am obsessed with chevron patterns, Charles designed a porch ceiling with perfectly proportioned zig-zag panels. By the way, he calls it herringbone, I call it chevron...apparently, there is a difference between the two. To keep it from being too busy, Charles suggested we add a straight  board between each zig and zag panel. I was skeptical at first but then really liked how it turned out.

His dad Jim cut an angle into each board end, used a hand sander for final smoothing, and then applied glue to the back of each piece before handing it off to Charles to mount. The boards are held in place with glue, as well as nails. Working together, they were able to get a beautifully tight, precise fit with no gaps. If you look closely you can see black marks from the original nail holes but this is considered part of the beauty and authenticity of reclaimed wood. 

Charles was very fussy not only about the layout but the composition, as well. He mixed a combination of light and dark pieces to show off the wood's character and rich patina. 

A simple mosaic porch ceiling
We did the front porches in the chevron pattern but mixed it up for the side porch (aka the dogs' yard) with a simple mosaic. 

Turning exposed beams into architectural eye candy
Next we moved to the interior. We decided to turn a structural necessity—the beams in our downstairs flex room (aka the guest wing for our parents) into a feature. 

Charles and his dad boxed out the exposed beams with black plywood then wrapped it with our pretty reclaimed redwood.  

Et voilà! C'est magnifique non? I managed to find a chic ceiling fan that perfectly matches the redwood.

Obligatory dog photo
At this point, I started looking for any excuse to incorporate more reclaimed redwood into our house. After all, I was falling in love with everything Charles and Jim designed with it. Plus, the color matches Astro's fur (unlike our stucco), what's not to love about that? 

The pièce de résistance...gable covers!
We were originally going to just buy boring off-the-shelf metal gable covers but decided it'd be the perfect place to work in something a couple of cherries on the top of our house. 

These required extra ingenuity since Charles had to make 14 degree and 63 degree cuts in the wood so that the joint where the "veins" come together would be perfectly tight. Standard tools max out at 45 degrees so he had to get creative with a table saw set-up and a radial arm saw. He tried explaining the process to me but it went way over my head. While I can't appreciate the mechanics of what went into building them, I was awestruck by the sheer beauty of his creation. 

In building the trim around the gable covers, Charles left the reveal (where the veins come together) uncovered.  It's a small detail but a sign of Charles' craft-above-all design philosophy. It would've been easy to hide sloppy cuts behind a piece of trim and from 30 feet below certainly no one will notice the difference, but that's not how Charles rolls.   

Making everything matchy-matchy
One of the final steps was to tie all the different wood elements together. Our garage door is African Mahogany (from Garage Doors, Inc.) and our front door is made out of a renewable wood called Lyptus (from Pioneer Millwork).  We wanted both doors to match the reclaimed redwood as closely as possible.  

If you're going to stain your garage and front doors, make sure you ask for extra wood samples when you order them. That way you can test different stains on them to find the best possible color. 

Matching three different woods is not easy but our stain guy Dennis worked wonders. A good stain guy is worth his weight in gold because you don't get a second chance when it comes to staining wood. 

The magic of lighting
We had originally planned to just put recessed lights on the porch until Jeff and Charles came up with the brilliant idea to also light the gables. Our crafty electrician James, wired some no-frills LED ribbon lighting to the back of the gables' facia boards and the result was amazing. Well, amazing until later that night when the sticky backing gave out and we had what looked like a string of janky Christmas lights dangling from the gables. Duct tape works as a quick fix but if you want your lights to stay put for the long haul, be sure to put in brackets like the ones above. 

Thomas on the roof duct-taping our LED strip lighting so I could get a good blog photo.