October, 2008

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Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

(Yes, this is it — the famed pumpkin from the LA home show!)


Thursday, October 30th, 2008

As difficult as some things are seeming with all this, others seem positively, wonderfully easy. Here are two examples.

I have talked to our new phone company a few times, and they are so great to deal with. Seriously, nothing is a problem to them. I just got off the phone with them to set up all the lines we need for home and business. They can do everything we want, including moving the lines when building is done. Then she said “Do you have email?” (so they could send me the app instead of doing it all over the phone). YES!! EMAIL…how wonderful. (I was beginning to think no one out that way used computers.)

Another example is the Cochise County Planning Dept. We met with them last week to talk about permits and the whole building process. They couldn’t have been nicer and more helpful.  If you can believe this (we don’t), they even said that all inspections are done within 2 (and usually 1) days of the request.

Home building show in NM

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

After attending the home building show in LA a couple weeks ago (from which the best part was getting a free pumpkin and stumbling into a Hispanic heritage parade downtown afterward), our expectations for this one were tempered.

The show in NM, which included an eco/green building exhibit, was better, but not great. There was a lot on solar, which we are now already pretty well versed in. We did discover a new roofing material that we think might be a good option. We learned about geo-thermal, which was interesting, but not a good fit for us.

We talked to a couple designers. Neither was a very good fit, but talking to more people has helped me better articulate what we need and be able to judge potential fit in just a couple minutes. We’ll keep looking.

Like the LA show, there were an assortment of seeming unrelated exhibits, like cookware, knives, beauty products, teeth cleaning, jewelry, and even a Kumon booth. Apparently, the “lifestyle” part of the show refers to this, along with a general idea that if you have the money to remodel or build a new home, you have plenty of disposable income for this stuff too.

We spent a couple hours at the show before heading off to hike in Petroglyph National Monument.

Adobe building insight

Monday, October 27th, 2008

We were luck to run into this half-built adobe house on our way from Taos to Santa Fe. It gave us some insights into the building process. (It reminds me of the mud brick building we built in Africa. Scary.)

AZ-NM trip and the whole design thing

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

We were in NM and AZ this week, taking care of some details for our upcoming move and commencement of building the house.

The main purpose of the trip and the reason we rearranged our schedule was to meet with a prospective designer.

Here is what I wrote about this a couple weeks ago about the whole design thing:

One of the first steps in the usual process of building a house is to hire a designer and architect. When we started this project, Brad and I had a pretty good idea of what we wanted. Given that, our budget, our propensity to DIY, and our past experiences with expensive “professionals,” we thought we might design ourselves and perhaps just get someone to draw up the plans to get them through the permit approval process.

Then we got into some of the decisions about building techniques and other design issues. I found my own lack of knowledge frustrating. Then my need to plan everything in detail and in advance began to clash with Brad’s more laid back style. As we struggled with all of this, we thought how nice it would be to have a consultant who had a base of experience to inform our decisions.

I searched the Internet and visited many, many architect and design sites, focusing on people in AZ and NM. I found a lot of people who didn’t seem to fit what we were looking for. Also, many had web sites that were horrible or didn’t work at all. (Lots of consulting work potential for when we get there.)

I love Su Casa magazine and looked there as well. Many of the designers there didn’t have web sites at all. I wondered if we could we work with someone who didn’t have a web site? It’s kind of a silly criteria, knowing that not all people are “technology” people, but it’s so much a part of who Brad and I are….and how were we to see if there was a “fit”? There are only so many people we can go and meet, and this isn’t always an effective way to evaluate fit anyway.

Then I read the article “Ready, Set, Build” by Vishu Magee. The article really resonated with me, and I thought that yes, if we could find a designer that could work with up in the way this article described, it would be so wonderful. Then I went to Vishu’s web site Archetype-Design. Wow! Not only were Vishu’s designs beautiful, his approach and style seemed amazingly like our own.

Reading the site FAQs, etc., I learned so much and also gathered that Vishu was very busy and often has a large backload of projects. I went ahead and emailed him though, holding my breath to see if it might be possible to at least talk more.

I was so happy to receive an email a few hours later saying that his backlog was not huge right now and that he’d like to talk more. (“The building business simply stinks right now,” he said. Yes, we’ve heard. More doubts swelled up, but not serious ones.)

We are looking forward to meeting Vishu to see if we might work together.

So we were very excited about meeting Vishu, but also trying not to get our hopes up too high. (We had been reading his book over the long drive from Phoenix to Taos, which only served to raise our hopes.)

Our meeting started out well, and we quickly had a good rapport. Vishu lived up to the impression we’d gotten from his web site, emails, and book. He had done a little research on our location and read over the project vision we’d written and the design survey and sketches we’d sent. Overall, he seemed to think we had a good idea of what we wanted and liked the approach. He said it was not a particularly challenging project.

We discussed various elements of the project and our needs and design ideas. He gave us a lot of great input and advice. Some of my key take-aways were:

  • The construction style that may make most sense is thick wood frame outer walls and adobe inside walls to provide thermal mass. (We finally have a grasp on insulation vs. thermal mass and why you want both.)
  • Adobe is apparently easy. Even we could do it. :) (Contrary to what I had read, “no one” makes their own adobe bricks any more. You buy them. I’m much more comfortable with that.)
  • We can have windows. :) We just need to plan the north-south-east-west orientation right.
  • We probably don’t need radiant floor heat. (We are now thinking of a gas woodstove-style heater as backup heat.)
  • We learned a lot about passive solar, including trombe walls and passive solar water heating (which involves large storage bottles painted black to absorb heat from the sun).
  • We learned about some interesting, environmentally-friendly, and inexpensive finishes like adobe mud for the exterior, clay for interior, and acid wash concrete floors. More to learn and explore here.
  • We probably only want/need 10 feet high walls in the main house.
  • We probably can use the existing slab, but are now thinking of it for the office building because of its orientation.

A key point in the meeting was when Vishu asked us what had made us think he was a good fit for our project. At the instant he asked, I thought he was asking from a marketing standpoint – How did we find him? What made him appealing to us? After thinking about everything after the meeting, I think he asked because he wasn’t sure he was a good fit for what we needed….or more precisely what we could/should afford given the scope of the project and our needs.

So then came the discussion of price for design. We already new his basic formula, a percent of construction cost. What we didn’t know was that “construction cost” would be the cost to have a builder build x square feet in Taos. Of course, that is multiples of what we’ll spend building ourselves in Portal. So we were presented a number that was multiples of what we had hoped for. Even after Vishu discounted it for our circumstance, there is still a pretty huge gap from his bottom price to our hoped-for maximum price.

Perhaps more importantly though, Vishyu really validated a lot of our ideas and made us feel confident that we can in fact do this in much the way we were hoping. So while we are back to looking for a designer, we are on a solid path.

First crack at a floor plan

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

(Click twice to magnify.)

Off-grid solar power

Monday, October 20th, 2008

I’m working hard on the math for off-grid solar power right now. The system consists of several big pieces, solar panels, batteries, a generator, and a control piece that manages charging the batteries and converting battery power (DC) to AC. It also provides DC for the few things it makes sense to run on DC.

The first thing you need to do is figure out how much electricity you need in watt-hours per day. This is a lot of work. The refrigerator is the biggest consumer as well as the easiest to figurel it’s on all the time. Contrast that with a microwave. Let’s see, we have a 1200 watt microwave we use about five minutes a day or a garbage disposal.

For solar panels, it seems you figure on five six hours (I checked a chart for our area) of sunlight per day. You multiply that times the number of watts your solar panels can produce and that’s how much power you can generate.

For batteries, you multiply your daily watt-hour needs by three to give you a three day supply of power. You then multiply that number by two because you don’t want to discharge the batteries below fifty percent. (Routinely discharging the batteries below fifty percent shortens their life.)

We are going to have a generator which means that something odd like ten days of rain is not going to leave us in the dark. It also lessens the tendency to overbuild the solar power.

The big power draws:

  • Refrigerator
  • Washing machine
  • Clothes Dryer
  • Microwave
  • Pressure pump

You might wonder what a pressure pump is. Our water tower is not nearly tall enough to create the water pressure you need to shower or run things like tankless water heaters. When getting information on how much power the pressure pump needs, I was told to first to figure out how much water we will use a day.

One piece of solar power that is already done is the water supply. It’s a perfect little functioning system. It has its own solar panels (no batteries) that run the pump when there’s sun. It pumps the water about twenty-five feet up and into the water tank (1250 gallon). My rough estimate is that the tank holds about at least weeks worth of water and could be completely refilled with one good day of sun.

“Off the grid”

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

So our new house will be off the grid. To clarify, that means we will be on all solar. We will, however, have regular phones and even DSL. (When we found out this was possible, we regarded it as a sign from the heavens that this was meant to be. Most places in Portal/Rodeo do not have DSL.)

We have talked to a few people who have solar and even looked at the set up. It doesn’t look bad at all. We did get costs on running power, but it’s fairly expensive ($16,000/mile plus) and really doesn’t seem necessary. And as one future neighbor pointed out, not running power is likely to keep future development out.

In telling people about our new adventure, it’s been interesting to gauge reactions. One thing I didn’t anticipate is that saying we would be “off the grid” would cause people (even those who know us) to question our sanity. In fact, after I told a few people, I stopped telling others. Or I just said we’ll be solar. That seemed less troubling to folks.

Something I’ve always wanted to do

Friday, October 17th, 2008

For 20 years or so, I’ve had the idea of moving somewhere completely different, remote, isolated, beautiful. At various times, this has taken different forms: a move to a desert island, a foreign country, a big farm in the country.

I could never find anyone who was willing to — let alone wanted to — do this with me though.

Then I met Brad. He always said he thought something like this sounded fun. Then a couple years ago when we began working together and had more professional flexibility, we began making plans.

So for a long time, we looked for a place to go make a new home. Our basic requirements were to find someplace 1) warm (preferably no snow), 2) remote (sparse population), 3) within 2 hours of an airport, and 4) inexpensive enough that we wouldn’t have to work constantly (especially looking at someday retirement).

Those requirements led us to the southwest. As much as we love California, it is too expensive and too crowded. We narrowed it down to Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. We really like Utah, but ultimately decided it wasn’t for us. (We got fairly close to Moab, but after subscribing to their local newspaper, decided there are too many development issues there. Subscribing to a local newspaper is a great way to find out about things you’d never know in a few weeks’ visits.) We liked New Mexico, but the elevation in much of the state means snow. Nevada — pretty, but I can’t stand the slot machines in every corner store.

We kept coming back to Arizona. It met all of our “checklist” items, but we visited city after city and just couldn’t find the place that “felt” right. We heard great things about the Tucson area, but after 3 or 4 trips never found a place we liked. We tried Bisbee; that wasn’t it. (The ginormous mining pit on the edge of town did not make a good first impression.) We kept looking and made trip after trip.

Along with all the trips, we also scoured the Internet. We looked for places selling lots with a lot of acreage. Then we found Portal-Rodeo. There were an amazing number of 40 acre lots for sale there, and the prices were amazingly cheap (and not even just by California standards). So we decided to go look.

The first time we were there, we loved it. The second time we were there, we found KB Ranch. The third time we go, in a couple weeks, we’ll stand on the land that will be our new home.