Step By Step Activity

There are a number of steps in the process of building a house, the first of which is finding suitable property, property that meets your long term need.  Our goal to have a retreat center meant that we had basically two options:  find and buy something that existed and would meet our needs or start from scratch.  We search for the former without much success, what we found was costly and did not quite meet our needs.

Finally, a friend of our -- a dynamo and magnate in her own right -- said, "You need a buyer's agent.  Here's the name of mine.  Call her, tell her exactly what you want and she'll find it."

Lesson One.  When you are fortunate enough to find someone who is obviously successful at what they do, and what they do is peripherally related to what you want to do, and they lovingly provide advice, take it.  We took Ann's advice about the buyer's agent -- and many other things, as well.

Within a couple of days, the agent provided us with a list of properties that met the needs we provided to her.  Given how the real estate market is in this town, we looked at them all immediately.  We looked at the Vanshire property first and it seemed ideal.  To check the "reality" of this, we looked at all the other property on the list and found that our first impression was the best.

Though it sometimes is not best to pay "full freight," we decided that the property was attractively priced and represented the seclusion that we wanted for retreat.   In addition, it was close enough to a metropolitan area so that services and transportation  would not be an issue.  The property is located about 20 minutes from downtown Fort Worth.
The first steps of the process involved determining where we wanted the main residence to be.  Since one of our development principles was to leave as much of the property undisturbed as possible, we decided to build the house where the previous structure had been.  This also made economic sense since the we would be able to use the existing infrastructure:   driveway, electrical, water, natural gas, etc.  The Property page shows how we found the property and basically how it was developed.
Second, you must determine what type of house you wanted to build and who should design it.  Often in metropolitan and quasi-metropolitan areas, there are restrictions on what types of housing can be built.  In the town of Lakeside, houses must be a minimum of 1,750 square feet and have two bedrooms.  For each subsequent bedroom, you must ad 250 square feet, so a three bedroom house would be 2,000 square feet.  In addition, fifty percent of the structure must be masonry -- stone or brick -- and you cannot have any wood shingles on the roof.  This latter restriction makes perfect sense for fire reasons; if you like that cedar shake look, you can buy fire proof shingles that are indistinguishable from their wooden cousins.

Several more of our development principles came into play in the design process:  low maintenance, simplicity, efficient operation, and open and spacious feel inside.  Low maintenance meant that the exterior and interior finishing be able to withstand severe weather conditions, mostly sun and heat, without requiring frequent painting.  This dictated the exterior finish of masonry, more than the 50% requirement of the restrictions.  For economic reasons, we chose brick over stone, though we would have preferred stone; for a house the size, stone would have been about $15,000 more.  For the non-brick areas -- the eves and gables, we chose HardiPanel: a cement and wood fiber material that is highly resistant to the elements.

Simplicity meant that the design would reflect a more traditional look: the roofline would not be complex, squares and rectangles would be used in favor of other shapes, and non-essential frills in appearance would be eliminated.

Efficient operation meant that the house would be comfortable without making huge demand on the power grid.  To address this development principle, we incorporated several energy efficient elements: wall size (and, therefore, insulation thickness), roof overhang, and windows.  We decided to go with a 2" x 6" wall to enable additional wall insulation.  With the brick siding, the walls are approximately 10" thick.  The roof overhang was designed based on latitude of the site and the desire to block the sun's rays and heat from the expanses of windows on all sides of the house.  The overhang blocks the sun during the summer months and allows the sun during the winter months.  Though we would have preferred a wooden window, the number of windows in the house would have meant an additional $16,000 to the cost of construction and increased long-term maintenance.  We chose a high-quality vinyl window that is double glazed and has a Low-e film to reflect heat to the outside in the summer and to the inside during the winter.

Open and spacious feel meant that, though the house would be relatively small in terms of square feet, it would not feel that way on the inside.  We drew on the "not so big house" concept in our design.  The final design can be seen by clicking on The House Plan link.  In addition to the not so big concept, we took the ceilings up to 9 feet.  This one foot difference over the traditional design makes a large perceptual difference.
During the design phase, we began looking for a builder.  We wanted a custom builder who would build our design the way we wanted it.  We found a number of custom builders who were willing to build their house on our lot or were willing to build our house at their finish level.  We chose a builder who we came across by driving around the town of Lakeside and looking at who was doing what and how they were doing it.

One Sunday afternoon, we came across a nice looking house where the owner and soon-to-be-occupant was cleaning up the yard.  We stopped to chat and were graciously invited to come inside.  The house had many of the characteristics that we wanted to incorporate, mostly energy efficiency -- the house was geothermal, and the construction was first rate.  We inquired about the builder whose sign we had seen in the yard and were informed that he was an acquaintance from church; that, in itself, is half of a recommendation.

What we found out about Al Cramer -- Allen Construction -- was that he would build the house you had designed.  In the process, if he thought you were making an unwise decision, he would tell you; the final decision, however, was always cheerfully up to you.   If you asked for his opinion he would readily give it to you.  If you were confused, he would help straighten you out.

We interviewed all and two other builders and determined that he was the best value.   It all comes down to that: how much will it cost, how comfortable are you with the final product based on what you have seen, and trust.  Though we would be visiting the house almost daily during the construction process, we didn't want to have to worry that things weren't been done right or that corners were being cut or that we were stepping off into a costly abyss with one of our "would this be nice" ideas.

During the process from the beginning of the design to the final design shown here, we went through one major iteration.  The initial design of the house was two story to decrease the footprint of the house on the property and to reduce the cost of the roof.   It was also about 300 square feet larger.  With the first design in hand, we got three bids.  One was way over the top at about $90 per square foot -- their level of finishes on our design, one had a few too many unknowns in it such as adding on for the septic system, etc.  Al's bid, though it was more money than we wanted to spend, was in the realistic ballpark on cost per square foot.

We went back to the drawing board.  We cut off the second story, thereby eliminating a costly stair case and laminate floor joists for the second floor span.  Next we cut the size by about 300 square feet and placed that component of the house on an "L" pattern with the main part of the house; to get some variation in level, we used a step-down into the master suite.  These changes saved about $50,000.

Lesson Two.  Be very clear with the architect and tell them -- give them permission -- to reign you in when you are going over the line; we did not do the "reigning in" part.  We used someone who did exactly as we asked and provided very good design solutions.  However, we were not reigned in during the process and had some rework at the conclusion.  (If you have an unlimited budget, ignore lesson two!)
In the process of buying the land, we had secured a bank that we would use during construction.  With all that in place, we began.  To see where we are, look at the pictures on the Construction pages.
The House Project Home Getting Started
The Property House Building Decisions

2000
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03/26/06
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