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Building the Maxon House: Week 22

In our latest Backstory series, Seattleite Lou Maxon recounts the thrills and trials of ditching the suburbs, buying property, and designing and building a modern house with Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects. Week 22: Status Update.

 

We took ownership of our newly minted 21+ acre parcel in late summer 2007. For those keeping track, that is just over four years ago. One of the most direct questions we get from almost everybody (family, friends, visitors to this blog and our facebook page) is “When do you break ground?” For someone not familiar to the process it's a logical question. Why does it take so damn long to make this all happen?

Naivete marks the early stages of the project. You look at the proposed schedule and feel deep down that it's all going to happen as planned, as if you were booking a vacation or something. When we bought the property we really had no motivations other than financial to get things moving. After all, having a regular mortgage on top of a land payment was motivation enough to start visualizing what the finish line would look like. For those who have been following along for all 22 weeks you know this is more of an ultra-marathon than a sprint. Here are a few things that any potential property owner or home builder may encounter along the way—along with some tips to keep you sane on your own personal home design journey.

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Finances
First off, we had a house to sell before we could really throw money into new construction. This was Spring 2008 and luckily we were able to sell before the housing market took a steep dive. Beyond the proceeds from the sale we'd have to set aside money for initial site reviews, a feasibility study, a deposit for the architect and contractors. We spent that and more over the years, on geotechnical engineering, county permit fees, well drilling and installation, septic design and installation, and all the
thinning and clearing work.

You learn quickly when you are in a rural site that things don't quite happen in domino succession. You can't just thin and clear and then move to the next item on the list. This is where the intersection with the county and permitting comes into play. Finances, for the most part, are a controlled element of the project. You either have money or you don't. What is not solid about finances is knowing exactly how much you'll need, how to budget for potential over-runs, and making sure during the concepting, schematic, design development and construction documentation phases of the architecture that you have cash out of pocket to pay architecture services.

In fact, because of the economic climate we endured from 2007 to present, all costs associated with our project to date—with the exception of our land loan—required liquid assets (cash in hand). Cash is king in the construction financing world and while credit scores and steady income are all required, being prepared cash on hand is what you need to get loans these days. As I've stated in previous blog posts, we didn't have the resources to write one big check, so having to spread out our cash outlay required adjusting our timetable and aligning our budget with critical milestones in the project. Sure we could've gotten the project done quicker but it wasn't an option financially.

They key lesson for us was that we had to find partners (contractors, architect, etc.) that understood our position and were willing to work with us to make it happen.

Recognized for his seamless integration of architecture and landscape, Kundig’s projects are unique in their meticulous attention to detail and in the materials used, which are often left in their natural, raw state. His igenuity is evident in the experie
Tom Kundig, of Olson Kundig Architects.


Site and County (Permit) Issues

We did a substantial amount of homework and examined potential pitfalls before we purchased our property. Once we connected with Olson Kundig Architects and they revealed their concepts, new site issues arose with respect to codes and permitting associated with cantilevering and structural engineering.

When we acquired the site the only critical area identified was steep slope—meaning that we had to have setbacks and buffers delineated on our site plan and approved by the county overseeing our project. We also had a forest management plan in place so there were restrictions on developing a designated area of our property (which affected future issues such as where to site the well and septic).

Getting permits to thin or cut took time—and then it took time to get contractors on site, and then get their work approved. This pushed out every other date on the timeline. At other times, weather set us back. Ultimately though, we sort of embraced the turtle pace and learned to really love and appreciate each line item.

In our particular jurisdiction we learned it was not uncommon to endure a one-year to two-year permit review depending on the scope of your project. During this time everything is put on hold while you address questions or concerns by the county, such as drainage, clearing and grading, firetruck access and sprinklers, and erosion control and mitigation.

The site of much permit-wrangling.
The site of much permit-wrangling.

 

Personnel Issues
People change jobs. We had multiple instances of getting to know our foresters, well drillers, civil engineers, and geotechs—only to see them leave their jobs (hopefully we didn't scare them from their respective career!). When someone finally gets to know you and the intricacies of your project, it takes time to hand off that work to someone new.

For that reason we've learned when engaging with consultants and the county that it's important to identify both your direct point of contact as well as the backup or supervisor to the contact. One thing to keep in mind for Dwell readers who are more likely dealing with a more contemporary design: though there are many efforts to reward green building or eco-friendly designs, you don't typically get any preferential treatment based on the design you submit. Folks don't really care about your design (unless it's your actual architect or contractor of course) so trying to get brownie points for doing the green thing doesn't really go far. A septic is a septic no matter if it's attached to a double-wide or the next house to grace the cover of Dwell magazine.

Speaking of personnel issues, one ongoing motivation for my wife and I is to make sure we get this all done before our three kids are grown up and out of the house!

A collage of images showing the site and scenes from the design and site preparation process.
A collage of images showing the site and scenes from the design and site preparation process.

 

Timing Issues
While we are not completely on schedule due to many of the above issues, we are also not completely off schedule. There is an end in sight, and we are getting very close.

Here is a list I have compiled to share with people who ask the question, "Have you broken ground yet?" Here's what we've accomplished to date:

Purchased land. Hired surveyor. Land surveyed. Hired architect. Hired contractor. Paid for architecture concepts, schematic design, design development plans and building permit plan set. Had geotechnical drilling and geotechnical plan review. County critical areas review and designation. Got health permit for well drilling. Clearing and grading permit. Did thinning for forest management designated area. Hired forestry management consultant. Cleared trees and area for well access and new road. Covered existing logging road with rock cover for heavy machinery. Limbed trees. Drilled the well. Designed septic tank. Structural engineering. Permitting fees. Civil engineering for small and large-scale drainage reviews. Legal fees for site specific issues. Property appraisals. Paid contractor deposit and pre-construction contractor services. Hired wetlands expert. Recorded all documentation with county records...

What's next? We have submitted plans and are anxiously awaiting final approval from the county. We are in negotiations with a few different lenders for construction loans, and will get a pricing update from our contractor based on the approved building permit set. Then hopefully if the stars align we will break ground end of 2011 or Spring/Summer 2012. We still have to bring power out to the building site and do additional clearing before the foundation goes in, but we are getting close to the fun part: Construction and ultimately moving in.

Site work in progress.
Site work in progress.

In closing...
Conceiving, planning and ultimately building a project is an extremely risky venture. A good design and good planning gives you some insurance that when you ultimately walk into your house for the first time, it both meets your original desires as well as feels timeless for years to come.

While we anxiously await that moment of breaking ground and finally spending that first night in our new home we know it doesn't come without some amount of anxiety, stress or bumps in the road. A great design endures. And having the right team around you is critical to ensuring the success of the project and ultimately the happiness of the owners—which I'd argue is far and above the most important thing of all. This should be fun, right?

 

For previous installments of "Building the Maxon House," click here

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