Friday, April 20, 2012

The Empti-er Nest

In the last year, we’ve seen our youngest daughter Annie successfully launched.  She graduated from college, moved to San Francisco, got a job; she’s all grown up.  We sold our house.  Wally and his business partner began year one of their exit plan, working fewer hours.  In March, our oldest daughter Barrie decided to flee the rainy northwest and moved to San Diego.   In six weeks, she quit her job up here, put everything in her Jetta, drove to San Diego, moved into a condo with a former sorority sister, and got a new job; she loves it.
While we are immensely proud of our children and feel a great sense of accomplishment that we raised such competent humans, our nest is really empty these days. 

The first emotion I felt at these milestones was grief.  Our life as we knew it was over.  Even the dog is gone. For the last 26 years, it has been all about building and raising a family.  We have lots of interests, but what defines your life, what gives it purpose, is raising decent humans.  Then you have to let go of them and see them fly away.  And when they do, it’s a bittersweet thing. 

So how do we fill the space?  Wally’s taken up painting again, and I couldn’t be happier about that.  It’s very interesting to see him move back to something that gives him so much in return.  He’s cooking up a storm.   I’m working out, trying to lose the weight that keeps my cholesterol levels high, and am making progress and feeling stronger.  And I’m weaving and reading a lot.  It’s important to have creative outlets that let you accomplish something fresh and new.  The silver lining to all this is that we have the house project to focus on. 
Of course, the point of this blog is that life is a journey.  For most of us, getting a college education was quickly followed by starting a career, then finding a mate and settling down to start the next big chapter.  That’s the journey we were programmed by society and our families to follow.  And we probably made most of those decisions with a child’s mind - emotionally. 
As I approached this phase of life, I came to believe that when you reach middle age you are probably just a bit more than halfway through your lifetime.  Good nutrition and health care are extending our lives, and so we can go another round.  We almost have an obligation to be more intentional this time - life after child-raising does not have to be any less active, interesting and meaningful.  In fact, there is growing evidence that staying active and engaged extends your healthy life.

Really, you get to write your own script for the rest of your life.  And even better, you get to write it in a way you couldn’t have the first time around.  This time you write with self-knowledge and the gift of experience.  And that is a great thing, is it not? 
Next Post:  Cherrybaby/Cherrybabies/Cherubs

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Choosing A Builder - Again

Johnny Brenan’s death required a fresh start in our search for a builder.  When we decided to work with Johnny, it was on personal recommendations from a number of people, including people our daughter worked with.  We liked the work he did on the Keyser house in Leavenworth, and the chemistry was great. But we had to move on.

Now, I think a lot of architects and every one of the trades.  But for me, the builder is the most important member of the team: part conductor, part tradesman, psychologist/marriage counselor, keeper of the purse.  We started with putting out feelers.  A number of people had recommended names of builders in the area.  We also reached out to our architects and others to generate a list of potentially qualified builders.  We researched their websites to look for projects that were comparable in size and type to our project.  After looking into their work, we narrowed the field to 5 and did a phone interview.  From the pool of five, we chose 2 to prepare an actual bid for the project.  That’s where we are now.
The phone interview told us so much about each builder.  Here are the questions we asked:
Background/History – how did you get into this business?  Are you a general contractor/Construction Manager (GCCM), or are you hands-on for certain aspects of the work?
Different strokes for different folks, but our preference was a home builder, not a general contractor.  A GCCM subs out all the work, and delivers value to the owner by effectively managing all the players, the schedule and budget.  This is not to be dismissed – like any other orchestra, someone needs to conduct. But we want our builder to have intimate knowledge of the house in all of its stages, to be able to speak with intimate knowledge of the problems we need to solve together, a good sense of our desires, and the ability to relate to the architect.  Knowing he puts on the bags for various stages of the process felt right.
What parts of the home-building process do you do yourself?
It only makes sense that the foundation be right.  If something is off in the foundation, it will make its way through every other stage of the process – through framing to finish.  Not to disrespect foundation contractors, but if they’re just there to form and pour the foundation, they don’t have as much to care about in how it turns out as does the guy who’s going to frame it. We want our builder to be directly involved in the big parts (foundation, framing, finish carpentry), and are just fine with everything else being subbed out. 

What is your preferred method of contracting?

There are many variations, but most homes are built under either of two types of contracts:  fixed fee (or lump sum), or time-and-materials.  With a fixed fee, the builder absorbs all cost overruns, you make periodic (progress) payments, but run the risk the price is set too high to provide contingency for the builder.  With a time-and-materials budget, you only pay for the work that is done – but there can be no end of the process if a not-to-exceed amount is not agreed to up-front.  

A word on materials costs. On a time and materials contract, it’s the markup on the materials being passed through to you that provides the builder his profit margin. There are basic materials needed to build a house – trusses, nails, concrete.  But there are also all the costs to make the house your own – things like tiles, cabinets, countertops, appliances, etc. - and these can vary wildly in cost.
Say you choose a Sub-Zero refrigerator over a GE.  The markup on a $10,000 refer is a lot more than the markup on a $2500 refer. You should not have to pay a markup on the extra $7,500 you chose to invest in your kitchen – it’s just a refrigerator to the builder.  But he may have to do more work enclosing it – and so he should be paid for his labor time.

One builder we talked to had a good way of handling this.  For the time and materials parts of the job, he provides a straight summary of all labor – who did what, when, who was sick, etc.  He passes through all the things he bought for the job – at their actual price, with receipts.   And then he attaches an overhead amount to the bill – that’s his overhead cost and profit, and it’s based on the value of the labor side, not the material side.  That seemed fair to us.  

How do you work with West-Siders and with Architects?

The last time we built a house, we lived next door.  So our nightly ritual to tour the day’s work with a glass of wine kept us totally up to speed.  But not being in the area will create communication challenges.  Equally important, how well does the builder work with architects?  We need to feel the relationship between them and the builder is going to be professional and productive. 

Most of the high-end homes being built in the area are second homes for people from Western Washington.  We will be living there and running a farm eventually.  So our home has to not only fulfill our dreams for a lovely Modern Mountain home, it also has to be a practical and functional primary residence.  Checking previous work and talking with prior customers helps to flesh out the story behind the pretty pictures on the builder’s website.

Questions about sub-contractors and schedule?

Lastly, we inquired about their ability to start soon, and whether their subs are local.  We want to keep on schedule as much as possible.  Everyone we interviewed was bullish about us being able to celebrate Christmas in the new house, and all predicted quick turnaround times for permits at the County.  As for the subs, we were looking for a builder with long-term relationships, quality work and competitive pricing from his team.
We applied for a building permit and line extension from the PUD last week, and we already have the septic, geotech and water approvals.  We will be getting two bids to review in the next week.  At this point in time, we are shooting for a mid-May start.

Update:  The building permit is final; I'll pick it up next Tuesday.  We hope to make a builder decision this weekend.  Also, further discussion over studios ensued - I'm now sharing space with the guest bedroom ("Guest Bedroom/Home Office/Weaver's Studio"), and Wally's using the Loft ("Artist Studio/Workout/Overflow Guest Sleeping").  It is what it is.

Next Post:  The Empty Nest

Unexpected Challenges

"Never underestimate the challenge of building a home."  Seems like good advice, but we have experience.  We’ve been through several home remodel and we built one new home.  So we should be old hands at this, right?  Well, yes and no.  Nothing is quite like building a custom home in the country, two hours away.

Building on a hillside was not our preference, but we had no choice given the setbacks imposed by the seller.  We will have a great ‘overlook’ location in the canyon, but that prospect comes with extra costs brought on by the challenge of simple geometry.  After much tugging and pulling, we decided to eliminate the entire lower level of the home, opting instead for a larger loft upstairs. 

Another surprise is how hard it is to keep overall square footage down.  Take, for example, the exercise room.  Even though eventually we will be running a farm and our fitness will come from living that life, we felt we needed to have an area where we could work on strength and conditioning to keep us mobile as we age.  Well, that square footage had to go, or we wouldn’t have a guest bedroom.  We managed to keep a nice-sized studio for Wally and I to share.  We’re down to around 2,500 square feet, two bedrooms plus studio (which could be converted to a third bedroom), two and a half baths.  The program got compromised, but we still will get the uber-mudroom I wanted, and the killer kitchen our modern farmhouse deserves.

The biggest shock, however, came in late February, when our builder, Johnny Brenan, was killed in an avalanche in the Stevens Pass back-country.  Johnny had been working on a gut-check budget figure for us, an early read on whether we can afford this house.  After the avalanche, we sat tight for three weeks, waiting to learn if his wife Laurie would want to keep our project.  In the end, she decided to close down the business.  With two young girls and a Doodle named Pablo to focus on, keeping the business going was just too much.  They’re finishing the nearly-done house on Icicle Creek and ceasing all other work.  We are so saddened by this event.  And it's been really amazing to discover all sorts of connections between Johnny and other people we know.  He touched many lives.  But the world keeps turning, and so we had to move on, too.

When he was out on the site with us last fall, Johnny suggested we plant a grove of aspen trees in an area close to the base of the hill which has evidence of shallow groundwater; aspens will grow well there and offer something beautiful to behold in all seasons.  I think I’ll do that, and when I hear the aspens quaking, I’ll wish him and all three of his girls well.

Next Post:  Choosing a Builder