Asheviller: Ron and Valerie Move to Asheville…

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Mon
28
Jun '10

While You’re At It…

They’re making steady progress on the lower level. They still have some framing to do around the bathrooms and the stairwell but I think they ran out of 2×4′s and 2×6′s. Until more get delivered, they set the large beams that support the main level and began sheathing the exterior walls. They’ve also started notching out deck support posts and attaching the brackets to the concrete footings. Lots going on at once.

Last week we ordered the windows. This week’s task is figuring out the exterior doors. I’m ashamed to say that we’ll have eight of them. Yikes. Front, Garage, Shop, Screened Porch, Mud Room, Unfinished Room, Lower Deck, and Upper Deck. I can foresee lots of bedtime pillow talk, “Honey, did you lock X,Y,Z doors when you came in this afternoon?” Maybe we should invest in remotely lockable doors so we can press one button… Anyway, the big door question is metal, fiberglass, or fir? Metal and fiberglass are better insulated. Metal’s inexpensive but it dents. Fiberglass is more $$ and can be painted or stained but it doesn’t come in the style we want. Fir does come in the style we want but is a poor insulator and will require more frequent painting than fiberglass. I’m all about low maintenance on this house so it’s a tough call. We need to talk to Steve and visit Home Depot and Lowes to look at samples before we decide.

And, you know that dangerous building/remodeling phrase, “While you’re at it…“? Well, we gave Steve the go-ahead to frame up the unfinished room in the lower level. It’s sort of an orphan pass-through room that leads from the family room to the lower deck and to the shop. It’s 10′x13′ and is listed as unfinished on the plans. There’s no closet (so it can’t be considered a bedroom) and no windows, but there is a door to the outside. So, while we’re at it…we decided to put glass in the exterior door and to stud-out the walls. I imagine we’ll later decide to sheetrock the walls and continue the wood floor into it…while we’re at it. It’ll make the perfect bunk room for overflow guests/kids. For tax assessment reasons we’d rather not call it a bedroom, but when we eventually sell the place (in 40 years or so) we can easily add a closet and make it legit. We don’t want to repeat a painful mistake…

 

 

 

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Fri
25
Jun '10

Greenwashing

Greenwashing is the practice of describing a product as environmentally friendly when, in reality, it’s “green-ness” is highly debatable. Compact florescent bulbs are one example. Yes, they use much less electricity than incandescent bulbs, but they are made with mercury and must be properly recycled and almost require a hazmat cleanup if broken.  Bamboo flooring is another example. Bamboo is a renewable grass that grows quickly vs. local oak and maple trees, but because of its popularity, some Chinese companies are clear-cutting forests to plant it, using child labor to harvest it, and then shipping it via huge container ships thousands of miles across the ocean. Green? Maybe, maybe not, it depends on your definition of green.

Enter solar hot water heating. Way back in 1977, I entered a science fair in Pittsburgh with a model solar house. It was a crude little thing that pumped water up to the roof, dripped it down over black corrugated metal, returned it to a large tank surrounded by rock in the basement, and, if I remember the resulting heat gain, would eventually coddle the home’s occupants. It proved a point, though, that you could indeed get lots of energy from the sun for heating hot water. I won a couple awards, too.

Solar technology has come a long way since then, but it still works on the same basic concept. During the design phase of our house we left open the possibility of adding a solar hot water system to provide our hot water. In North Carolina, with a good southern exposure, solar can easily provide 100% of your hot water needs, even in the winter. The cost for such a system? Our architect has a saying, “How much can you afford to save?” What he means is, how much money are you prepared to spend now to save money in the future? A typical hot water heater, installed, is about $300. The average annual cost to heat water for a two person household is $400. A solar system that would provide 100% of our hot water would cost…$6,500 before tax credits and $3,400 after tax credits. Is it worth it to spend $3,400 now to save $400/year for the next 20 years (the expected life of the system)? Payback would be in 9 years. After that, hot water would be free, essentially saving $400/year. Not bad. If you assume that the cost of energy will continue to rise and/or you believe global warming is real and caused by pumping CO2 into the air then going solar looks even better. I’m not ready to commit, just yet, but it does appear to have potential.

Now, to the greenwashing. When I talked to the solar salesman he said that he would also quote a system that had an extra solar panel, an extra tank, and a “booster coil” that would go in the cold-air return duct of our furnace. In the winter, once our water heater was at the right temp, the excess hot water from the solar panel would be pumped into this “booster coil” to preheat the air and, ultimately, reduce our home heating bill. The theory is, don’t throw away the excess heat; dump it into your house. The cost for these add-ons: $4,000 before tax credits and $2,000 after.

If you’ve read the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking you know all about how we make snap judgments. Our brains can work through thousands of criteria and make a decision without us realizing it. Sometimes you just know the answer without knowing how you know the answer. I was dubious that this booster coil thing was the real-deal. It just sounded hokie. So, I asked him, politely, to PROVE IT, send me the calculations that will show how many BTUs this thing would actually put into our house. I figured, hey, you’re selling it, you must know if it works.

A couple days later he emails me a page of calculations and a long disclaimer saying that they had to make lots of assumptions about our hot water usage, daily temperatures, furnace efficiency, etc. Fine, I would think that these should all be pretty well established numbers, but, whatever. So, what was the final answer? Each year the booster coil would save us 421kWh of electricity. Wow! Four hundred twenty one thousand watt hours! That’s a lot of electricity, right? Ah, no, not so much. In North Carolina (and most of the US) the average cost per kilowatt hour is 10 cents. So, the average net savings would be a whopping $42/year. A $2000 investment to save $42/year!? Payback would take over 40 years! To put it in perspective, I ran these numbers: If you replaced just 5  75-watt incandescent bulbs with 23-watt CFLs at 5 hours/day you would reduce your annual energy use by 475kWh. For $20 in bulbs you would save slightly more energy than you would by spending $2000 for this booster coil. And, I’d be willing to bet that there is way more energy spent and carbon emissions produced in its raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, and installation than will ever be saved by its use.

Mr. Solar Salesman and I had a long talk. He’s a very passionate environmentalist. I’m a skeptic. After an hour of discussion we basically agreed to disagree. He did concede that the booster coil might not make sense for us (I can’t figure how it makes sense for anyone) but he feels that we should all be doing whatever we can to save the planet – replace the bulbs and get the booster coil. I think you need to look at the big picture and consider the feasibility and practicality as well as the costs, especially the ROI. Valerie put it more succinctly: “If someone came to you and said they had a small black box that would sit in your back yard and would power, for free, five light bulbs for twenty years, you’d probably be intrigued. If they told you that it costs $4000 ($2000 after tax credits) you’d tell them they were crazy.”

Solar hot water probably meets my bar. A solar booster coil for whole-house heating—that’s Greenwashing!

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Thu
24
Jun '10

Walls and Windows

More great progress this week! The lower-level (we’re not calling it a basement) walls started going up on Monday. These “woodpeckers”, as our excavator affectionately calls the framers, sure don’t waste any time. Although we didn’t go out to look, today, it’s possible that by this afternoon they completed framing the entire lower level. Everything looks good—it matches the plan, the layout works great, and the views from the guest bedrooms and the poker table will be fantastic.

The lumber for the lower deck was delivered on Tuesday. WOW! Six of the posts, the main support posts across the back, are 8″x8″x20′. The others are 8″x8″x12′. Steve and Caleb (the head framer) were discussing how to get them around back and set vertically on the concrete posts. I think I’ll be paying for a crane for a day as I really don’t know if it’s possible, let alone safe, to do it just with muscle. We’ll find out in the morning.

We finalized our window plan on Wednesday. Whew, what a mentally taxing job. Casement, slider, left swing, right swing, fixed, double hung, retractable or standard screen, pine or fir, green or bronze, white or bronze or brushed nickel, egress size, safety glass, etc, etc. Round and round she goes. We spent two hours at the lumber rep’s office and then I spent several hours last night reviewing every last detail. There’s a 6-8 week lead-time and windows are expensive. If you screw up the order, you’re screwed. You eat it and/or wait for a replacment. I found several mistakes that would have been bad news. Steve caught a couple too. We gave the order one last look this morning and Steve placed the order this afternoon. Sometime in mid-August, hopefully about the time the woodpeckers finish framing, the big truck will arrive from Lincoln Windows and we’ll get “dried in.”

P.S. Here’s a difference between a mass-market house and a custom house done with an architect and builder. Note in the second picture down on the left that the large window opening isn’t just a big hole. There are two vertical 2×6′s splitting the hole into three. Most builders would put a single large window in there. We, instead, are putting in three individual windows. Why? Even though there’s a large header across the top, in years, it will sag. And, even if it doesn’t, the frame around a such a large window will. Case in point is the windows we had in Woodinville. The dining and living room windows, each about 6′ wide, would barely open and there was a visible dip across the top of each one. The way we’re doing it, with three windows instead of one, essentially adding two supports in the center of the span, will keep the frames straight and true and the windows working long after we’ve move into a retirement home. You pay a little more, but, you get what you pay for.

 

 

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Sun
20
Jun '10

This Might Actually Work

It’s amazing what umpteen dozen loads of gravel and dirt will do. This thing looks like it might actually work! You can now walk down a gentle slope (which will eventually be under a bridge to the front door) and get onto the basement floor. It’s complete except for trimming off around the edges. Standing there, it all looks pretty normal. Even the concrete wall (the back of the future stairwell and unfinished fourth bedroom) looks reasonable. And, the crawlspace, now that it has been back filled, isn’t crazy high inside; it’s definitely no worse than the crawlspace in our Woodinville house. Of course, on the outside of the back wall it’s still at least 12′ to the ground. Serena doesn’t seem to care, she just stands on the very edge and surveys her new domain—SQUIRREL! Next week, the basement walls go up and possibly the lower deck!

 

 

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Wed
16
Jun '10

Mud and Trusses

After we left, yesterday, it stormed. All that dirt we had delivered…well, it was a bit muddy at the job site, today. Steve said it rained 1.5″ at his house. Luckily, the dirt was really dry and the rain soaked in rather than run off so only the road and the top couple inches of the dirt piles were mucky. We spent about three hours on-site loading Steve’s dump trailer with everything we carried up the hill. Next week, if the thieves don’t get it first, I’ll load the pickup with the several hundred pounds of metal debris and take it in for recycling. Beer money!

But, the news of the day is that the beams and trusses started going up on our lower level! Yah! We have a floor! We’re using engineered products rather than plain-old dimensional 2×10′s and 2×12′s. They’re perfectly straight and super strong. I have this pet peeve about floors that vibrate when you walk across them—shaking dishes and rattling grandfather clock chimes. I told our architect that I wanted to be able to play basketball on our floor, and this is what he spec’d. I think they’ll do nicely.

A good day, a good week, of progress. Maybe the plywood floor (actually another engineered product called Advantec) will be installed by Friday and we’ll be able to walk on it. Valerie leaves for Indiana Friday morning so here’s hoping…

 

 

 

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Tue
15
Jun '10

Keep Them Doggies Movin’

I don’t plan on working on our house like this everyday. My deal with myself and Valerie was that we spent a lot of time prepping and selling our Woodinville house and that we would put sweat labor into fixing up Camp Bell, but we were not going to be laborers on our new house—other than keeping the site clean, maybe finishing the shop, and me doing the low-voltage wiring. We’re going to pay professionals on this one. Yesterday, today, and a few hours tomorrow will be an anomaly. Promise! We simply don’t have time with all that we need to do on Camp Bell and soon, with all the decisions, selections, and purchases that we’ll need to make for Vance Gap. I got the impression that Steve was in a jam with everything sort of starting at once and could use some cheap labor (us) to catch up. Although it was crazy hard work for both of us, it was fun to be there with all the action and see our future home progress—finally.

Today was much the same as yesterday. Eleven loads of dirt were brought in and spread out around the house to fill the holes and grade it away from the foundation. The framers were busy installing the sill plates around the foundation and they’ve cracked open the floor trusses. The weather was identical, 88° and humid, and thunderstorms were rolling by, but not over us, all afternoon. We spent about six hours on site, carrying garbage up the hill, breaking up concrete, shoveling and raking dirt, skipping lunch, and were exhausted again at quittin’ time. We made a huge dent in cleanup and should be able to finish in the morning.

P.S. In the spirit of over-sharing, which is what a blog is all about, right…I had a little personal problem at the end of the day. I was soaked with sweat through and through, including my shorts and underware (sorry, gross, I know). At some point in the afternoon I began to chafe. I sucked it up and kept working. That was a big no-no. When we left, I actually had to leave, there was no choice in the matter. I was walking like a cowboy who had been on a horse all day. I had a nice wide stance because my inner thighs were rubbed raw. If it didn’t hurt so bad it would have been funny. But, a couple beers later and some liberal use of zinc oxide cream and it was tolerable. I didn’t sleep well but it was much improved in the morning.

 

 

 

 

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Mon
14
Jun '10

I Love the Sound of Circular Saws in the Morning

Okay, it wasn’t exactly in the morning, but just after lunch, today, all construction heck broke out! Since I had been out of town for a week and was anxious to see the completed concrete piers, we went out to the lot around 10:00am to look around and see if there was any movement. As we pulled in I saw that the gate was closed and that no one was working. Bummer. We walked the perimeter and took a few pictures and left at 11:00 so that Valerie could get to her dentist appointment. I called Steve at noon for an update and he said that the excavator and the framing crew would soon be arriving to start work. Better late than…never, right? We had planned to go out later in the evening and again tomorrow morning to do some construction cleanup since it was going to be 88° and humid in the afternoon. There is tons of crap laying everywhere around and inside the foundation; steel form connectors, rivets, and shims, scrap pieces of plywood, random length two-by-fours, rebar, rebar, and more rebar. There are many pieces of two-by-fours still nailed to the footings with concrete nails that were used to hold the wall forms in place. There are several mega-sized blobs of hardened concrete that poured out of the pumper hoses before and after they filled the forms. And, there are dozens and dozens of drink bottles strewn about. I’ve learned that concrete guys are pigs. All of this stuff needs to be removed and lugged up the hill and that wasn’t something we wanted to do in the heat of the day. But, with the excavator (who will be pushing dirt around the house and dumping dirt into the foundation) and the framing crew (who will be covering up the crawlspace) soon to arrive, I figured that Steve might need some assistance…now.

So, I loaded up the shovels, sledge hammers (big and small), short-tined rake, several buckets and Serena into the pickup (our beloved Toyota that I drove back from PA yesterday) and headed to the lot. I arrived to meet Jeff, the excavator, with his dump truck and backhoe, Caleb, Eric?, and Jeff?, the three framers, and Steve. They were soon unloading equipment, cutting straps on bundles of lumber, taking measurements, moving dirt, and within the hour, over the blaring of National Public Radio from a boombox, I heard the sweet sweet sound of a circular saw cutting our first lumber.

I texted Valerie so that when she was done at the dentist she would know where I had disappeared to and maybe want to come out and play. I put my gloves on and got to work. Did I mention that it was going to be 88° and humid and that our house is on a 45° slope? Yowza. It’s one thing to walk up and down that hill. It’s another to stairstep while carrying umpteen pounds of rebar with you in a steam sauna. Steve and I tackled the interior of the house, first, because we needed to get dirt dumped in to fill around all the piers and to make a nice, clean, slope from top to bottom. Once the floor trusses go on, that’s it. As soon as we got it cleaned up, Jeff was dumping in loads of dirt over the wall and we were shoveling it into the holes around the piers and raking it smooth. While we were busy in the hole, the framers were taking measurements and, with what seemed like reckless abandon, weren’t using ladders, just walking the perimeter of the 10” wide concrete walls 15’ up. As Caleb said, “It comes with the job.” Check out the picture, below.

Somewhere around 2:00 I called Valerie. She didn’t answer (that must be some dentist appointment) so I left a hot and sweaty voice message. Back to work. Around 2:30 she calls me. Oops, she had left her cell on silent after her dentist appointment and was beginning to wonder where I and Serena had gone. She was busy working on her Camp Bell painting project. She quickly came out with a snack and some cold water and joined in the fun picking up trash and lugging it up the hill. We worked like dogs! Serena did, too, following us everywhere, times two. Finally, about 6:30pm, exhausted and sopping wet from sweat, we called it a day.

 

 

After we cleaned up, we had dinner at the Hendersonville Road Papas and Beer, a place that defies the “good/fast/cheap, pick only two” theory. They are all three, especially the Guadalajara (steak, chicken, and shrimp) fajitas with a 22oz frosty Dos Equis! I don’t seem to remember when exactly we fell asleep…

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Sat
12
Jun '10

The Foundation is DONE!

Whew. I’ve lost track of how many weeks we are into this little project; something like ten.?. Over the past few days, the foundation crew formed and poured all the foundation posts. On Friday, they removed all the forms…and that means…drum roll, please…that the foundation work is…DONE! Footings, walls, piers, all DONE! Yeehaw!

As another sign of progress, on Thursday, we got some more wood delivered (in addition to a partial load of floor joists that have been sitting on the street for two weeks). The framing crew is scheduled to arrive on Monday. They will, apparently, work in parallel with the excavator who should also be there to backfill the crawlspaces and the perimeter. The latter is going to be quite the balancing act (literally) on the back side trying to navigate equipment around all the posts without tipping over or sliding down the hill. I’m thinking maybe ten day-laborers with shovels might be safer/easier. How do you say “Please move all this dirt from here, to over there” in Spanish?

P.S. I plan to drive back from PA tomorrow (Sunday) and be on-site Monday to welcome the framing crew! They’ll have no idea why I’m so happy to see them. Then again, when they look around, maybe they will.

 

 

 

Tue
8
Jun '10

Ye Ol’ Gamma Knife

I’m driving to PA for a few days to help out Mom and Dad. Dad is having Gamma Knife surgery at UPMC on June 9 as a last ditch attempt to control his essential tremor. It’s progressed to the point where it’s really impacting his daily life and the medication is not helping. UPMC has a superb neurological program and his surgeon, Dr. Kondziolka, is probably better known and more respected in brain-land than my surgeon, Dr. Siwek, is in heart-land. Hey, it’s your health and your life, you gotta go for the best. Most insurance doesn’t care who you see as long as the doctor is on the their list. Hmmm, should I stay in my little town and be treated by some country doc or drive an hour to a big city and have the best doctor available? The choice seems obvious to me…I’ll gladly drive them to and from Pittsburgh for the best care.

Update: The surgery (actually more of a procedure) went well. Dad’s doing fine. But, now we have to wait…for several months…to see if it worked. The radiation was beamed to a precise location in his brain where the mis-firing neurons were located. Over the next few months a lesion will form and hopefully short-circuit what was causing the shaking—sort of like the Maze Procedure done on my heart for a-fib. Since he’s right-handed, they zapped a spot on the left side of his brain that controls the right side of his body (and hand). If this works, in two years after his brain heals, he could elect to do the right side. For now, I’m sure he’ll be thrilled if it helps to any degree on his right hand. There’s an 85% success rate, meaning major reduction in tremor. Here’s hoping he’s in that 85%!

The nurses were kind enough to take this picture of Dad in his Hannibal Lector mask…

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Sun
6
Jun '10

39 Loads of Gravel Later…

While we played at the beach, Steve decided to go ahead and fill the tub most of the way full. I think caution lost to practicality.  Although the wall is engineered to hold back a full tub of gravel without the need for additional support from the connecting floor joists, Steve was hesitant to fill it. I like a cautious builder! But, having a driveway and front yard to park trucks, drop lumber, and use as a base for a trackhoe to dump additional fill over and into the crawlspace was really necessary. I was game to fill the tub from Day 1. Sometimes you gotta just put your faith in the engineering. If anything, it’s over-engineered, so I’m glad Steve went ahead and filled it. And, the really cool thing about all that gravel…when you’re standing in our future front yard, it’s okay. I mean, I have less of an “OMG what have we I done?” feeling. Building a huge concrete tub, filling it with gravel, and literally creating a front yard out of thin air will actually work. Steve says that once the lower/basement floor is framed and brought up to the street level, it’ll be even more “okay.” That’s the plan.

And, how many loads did it take? Thirty-nine, ten-cubic-yard loads. Thirty-nine times ten is, let’s see…390 yards. Yikes. I was off by two. I calculated thirty-seven. It’s not quite full, it’s about 2′ short, but that’s by design. Eventually we’ll bring in more gravel for under the driveway and walkways and top soil for the planting beds.

Next up, construction of the interior and deck piers; twenty eight of them.

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Sat
5
Jun '10

OBX

We just returned from a week of vacation at the Outer Banks (OBX) with Pat, Mike, Abby, Jack and Mike’s niece, Maura. We haven’t really “rested” since our 20thanniversary Maui vacation last March. It’s been a looooooong time coming and we took advantage of it…by doing mostly NOTHING. I can’t remember taking a vacation where we simply just sat and enjoyed life (and read and drank Coronas) like we did this time. We typically go out exploring and seeing the sights but, having been to the Outer Banks just a couple years ago, we were in that been-there-done-that mode and decided to just relax and enjoy our time off. No relocating cross-country, no heart surgery, no remodeling, no construction. It was pretty darn nice. We need to vacation like this more often…

It turns out this was sort of an Outer Banks anniversary for us. Awful Arthur’s Oyster Bar, our favorite seafood restaurant for raw oysters and steamed shrimp, is celebrating its 25th year! Way way back in the late 1980′s when we were young and innocent and working at Texas Instruments in Johnson City, we used to vacation at the Outer Banks. Awful Arthur’s had just opened and was the hot place to go. AA’s hasn’t changed a bit. It still is the place to go. Same great seafood, same brick walls, same bar and tables, and the same 1980’s music playing on the tinny overhead speakers. Life is still good.

Rather than ramble on about our trip I’ve just attached a bunch of pictures, below. Those should be worth a least several thousand words. Hover your mouse over each picture for a short description.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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