An online journal documenting the planning and building process of our modern home from start to finish. It is intended to share our experiences throughout this project with all those interested in modern design.
posted by the bunny on 10/17/2010
Day #1 (Tuesday) - Electric/Solar: Met with Eric Pipkin from Pipkin Electric. Eric is a super-nice, down to earth guy that was very knowledgeable with solar installation. Discussed placement of the solar panels, including the possibility of mounting a panel on the ground. After walking the site, it seems like the best place is still on the garage roof provided a few trees are removed. We had some ideas on bringing the electricity from the overhead power lines that run along HWY 54, including trenching up the road, trenching up the valley, or maybe running overhead to the top of the hill and then trenching to the panel. Since Eric is an electrician, we asked his suggestions on the matter. He helped us understand that in Jackson County, the utility provider does the installation work, including any work up to the panel at your home. In California and Arizona, Joe and I are used to having to do that work with approved contractors first, then having the utility come in and inspect the work, and then hook up the electric from wherever their main line is located.
Day #2 (Wednesday) – Site work: Today, we (I should say Joe) worked on the site – primarily working on more tree trimming/weed removal. Joe did an awesome job trimming up the slope so some younger trees, including oaks, poplars, choke cherries, and pines, can now thrive! My sister, Karen, came out and hung out with us, too. We also hung a hammock between a few trees. The doggies had a great time running around and hanging out!
Day #3 (Thursday) – Geothermal: Met with Dan Green from Water Source Heating & Cooling, Inc. out of Eau Claire, WI. The day started off rough as it was rainy out. We made our usual stop for breakfast at McDonalds and headed out to the property. We drove up top while we waited for Dan to arrive. We decided to head back down the hill to wait for him as 10 am arrived, in the meantime it had started to rain. We met Dan at the bottom of the hill and jumped in his truck to head up the hill. Unfortunately, we got stuck at the low point right where the road goes past the pond. His truck was a bit heavier than ours and the rain had formed a greasy mess as it mixed with the clayey topsoil. About an hour later, we got towed out and officially started our visit.
After walking up to the top of the hill and going over the layout, Dan recommended going with a system of four (4) vertical wells, each about 150’ to 200' deep. Putting the wells in to the north and/or east of the proposed house location seemed like the best location, but locating the septic system would need to be worked out, first, then all the other utilities would be laid out around the septic location. Dan went over some of the projects their company had worked on in the area and made us feel comfortable that it was a good idea, especially considering the incentives offered by both the Federal Government and the local utility, Jackson Electric. Dan strongly recommended in-floor heating, which we had planned on from the beginning. On the cooling side of things, Dan recommended a traditional air conditioning system. This is something we are not sure of. We'd like to forego air conditioning and place windows in the right places that passive venting and the overall placement of the house/windows/shading will keep things cool enough. We learned that creating zones is a pretty easy thing to do and should help keep costs down, especially when we are only using a portion of the house.
Dan also echoed what Eric had told us about as far as the utility putting in the electric to a site. Dan called his contact at Jackson Electric and was able to get them to schedule a site visit with us on Friday, which was awesome!
Day #4 (Friday) – Electric & Architect: Met with Dan McKevitt with Jackson Electric Cooperative. Dan is an old family friend and it was neat to see him again after such a long time! Dan is a little older than I am. He was a great athlete and I remember going to basketball games with Dad to watch him play when I was in Junior High. We were so thankful that Dan rearranged his day to meet with us on such short notice. I had talked to him on Thursday to arrange the timing, but I don’t think he made the connection that I was Anne “Thompson” – Al and Laura’s daughter from Merrillan. When we met him at the office, it all made sense.
After meeting at the office, we made a plan to meet Dan at the site in about an hour, so we stopped at McDonalds and then headed out to the site. Not wanting to get the car stuck, we walked up the hill to check out conditions. We thought Dan might be on the way, so we started walking back down and met him halfway up the hill. We had a great time talking with Dan. We explored all the possible ways to bring in electricity. Dan indicated we could possibly use the electric pole and use an overhead line, provided the span is not more than 300’. He went over the costs, timing, process, and rebates offered by Jackson Electric. Dan planned to come back and inspect the site again in fall after the leaves fall off the trees to assess the options of trenching up the valley and overhead power. We sent a map of the three options to Dan for him to use in his assessment/cost estimate.
As we were finishing up with Dan, Jim arrived. It was perfect timing! Jim had some plans, his camera, and a cool picnic! We walked up to the picnic table and spent some time catching up, then started to talk with Jim about the design. It is funny that Joe and I were really happy with the design the way it was, and didn’t really anticipate any changes before we had the meeting. Then we met;-)
Jim had a few questions for us that he came up with after thinking about the design over the last few months. First question was the deck. After talking for a short while, we decided to eliminate the deck to the south and keep the one to the east. Another question was the arrival. The last time Joe and I were there, we took some PVC pipes and laid out the corners of the garage and the house. If you look closely you can see the PVC, as well as the pink string we used to mark the first floor/lower level elevation.
This helped to “see” the arrival as we walked up the access road. After walking all around the entry area, we all agreed to flip the garage 90 degrees so that the garage doors face west instead of south. Also, we decided to send the access road in through the trees just before you get to the top of the hill instead of dropping in elevation and around the clump of trees. Doing this maintains the east-west axis of the house and really accentuates the view as you arrive. It also places the garage further away from the trees to the south of the house, making the solar opportunity better – we may be able to get away with cutting fewer trees. This was a big change that really made so much sense. Right when we were standing there, we all were like – Yeah – that is perfect and how it should be! At that moment, the sun broke through the clouds and we all experienced a “Jesus” moment.
After sitting back at the picnic table, Jim sketched up the changes and we ended up simplifying the design a bit as far as the lines in the house. The garage mass is now reflected in the dining room mass with a backbone of the kitchen/entry walkway connecting the two. The garage shift also created an outdoor area with three sides that creates a cool, sheltered area for the doggies. Can’t wait to see the new plans, dare I say Plan E for Ennesser? This time we really feel like this is it…we are so excited!
Mom stopped by as we were finishing up with Jim. It had been dry for awhile, so Joe went down to drive her up the hill. Unfortunately, the truck that got stuck yesterday created ruts and the road hadn't dried out enough and the allroad got stuck by the pond, too. I rained really hard Friday night and made things worse...what are the chances of that!?!
Decided to start driving the long road back to California Saturday afternoon. On the way out of town, walked up the hill again for one last look, even though it was hot and humid. We will sure miss it! Next steps are to plan the summer of 2011. Hopefully we can determine the septic location/design, get the road graded to drain with a nice base laid down, get the electric up to the site, and drain the pond by placing a culvert under the road.
It was great meeting the local contractors. It is so refreshing to meet good people that you really feel know their trade and can be trusted. A completely different feeling than you get in California. We are really looking forward to a great experience!
posted by anne on 8/16/2010
posted by joe on 6/09/2010
posted by anne on 4/12/2010
My best friend, Angela, LOVES Plan C. Others that I have shown Plan C like it better, too. I can see where most other people wouldn't like their bedroom to be so "exposed", but Joe and I are good with it. After thinking about it for over a month, both Joe and I landed on developing Plan B as the design concept. We like the simplicity of it, and it should be cheaper as it is smaller. I'm not sure if it truly is, but Plan B also seems less complicated.
Next plan is to go home in April and set some stakes down on the ground to see where it will sit on the land. I am going armed with the sun/moon angles for the year to see if any rotation of the house would be a good idea, too. I can't wait!!!
posted by anne on 3/12/2010
The new design is similar to the first concept, with the portion of the home that extended out like a diving board flipped back on itself with an interesting angle. It sort of turns into a pinwheel. Overall, the house is wider, which makes for a more open main living area, which we both really like. Another interesting concept is the master bedroom, with is open to both the kitchen and living rooms. We are planning to incorporate some sort of pocket wall/window to close it off, if we choose. I don't think this will be very often! Here are the floorplans, too:
We are both very excited about this one and can't wait to see how the final design unfolds!
posted by anne on 2/05/2010
posted by anne on 1/08/2010
Recommendation is to remove the topsoil, clay, and silt and to anchor the foundation into the sandstone in areas closer to 50' from the top of the slope. Looks like we can build the house, the question is what kind of foundation will be needed.
posted by the bunny on 12/31/2009
In the week leading up to the drilling, we kept checking the weather report as snow storms and bitterly cold temperatures were forecast. On December 8 and 9, the area received over a foot of snow! My Dad hired a guy to plow the dirt access road to make sure the drill rig could make it up the hill. The plowing was to take place the day before the drilling, on the tenth. I was also flying that same day, with my flight leaving on the morning of December 10. On the way to the airport, I talked to the geotechnical engineer, Jay, and he confirmed that it wasn’t too cold to drill and as long as the road was plowed, the rig should make it up the hill. I arrived at my Mom and Dad’s place at 11:45 pm. It was -9° F. When I got in the house, I discovered my Dad wasn’t there. He had gone back out to the site to help the guy plowing the road because he blew out a hydraulic line on his bobcat and his truck had gotten stuck in the hole at the very top of the hill.
Long story short, the guy worked on plowing the road from 1:30 pm to past midnight. The next morning, the drillers showed up, put on chains, and made it up the hill no problem. That was a big relief! I think my Dad was convinced the rig wouldn’t make it. It ended up being a beautiful day. It was 5-10° the next day, but fortunately there was hardly any wind. We drilled three holes along the conceptual placement of the home. Under the topsoil, there was around two feet of dark gray clay, then around two feet of dark gray silt, then around four to ten feet of orange/yellow fine grained sand, then yellow/white sandstone. Jay said the stone looked pretty strong and his preliminary assessment was as long as the clay was removed, which we would do anyway, it should be OK. I was sure happy to hear that!
posted by anne on 12/11/2009
posted by joe on 11/25/2009
posted by joe on 10/13/2009
posted by joe on 10/10/2009
We just arrived driving from Riverside, CA to our property in Wisconsin. We drove here to meet with an architect in Madison, WI to possibly begin the design of our home.
Orion and Astro drove with us and they traveled really well. The majority of the way, you wouldn't even know there were two dogs with us. We drove from Riverside to Cedar City, UT on Tuesday night, then to Lincoln, NE via Denver. The drive through the Rockies was awesome - we caught it just in time to see the autumn colors at their peak and even a few inches of snow covering the tops of the mountains from the night before. We even hit a cool hail and lightning storm in the dark just as we were crossing from Colorado into Nebraska.
The rest of the drive took us through Iowa, then Minnesota, and into Wisconsin via La Crosse. From here it is 37 miles to our property - considering that I might end up working in La Crosse, it's not a bad drive. We arrived at our property just before sunset. Going up our driveway (1/2 mile from the road), the trees all around were in full autumn colors and it was like driving through a tunnel of bright golds, oranges, and reds. As you near the top, the view opens to overlook the Black River and the view was amazing! (the picture is looking east over the cliff/drop-off).
posted by joe on 10/09/2009
Here is the third map. This is an isometric 3D view of the property looking to the WNW at the property. In this view, you get a feeling of what it looks like from closer to the road level looking towards the property and can see how the road wraps around the property and the sandstone cliff on the northwest of the property.
posted by anne on 9/26/2009
Finally getting time to update the blog with our recent progress. Although it took a little longer than expected, we finally closed on the 14 acre piece of property in Wisconsin. It is located about 6 miles outside the town of Black River Falls. It is a beautiful vacant lot with a half-mile dirt road leading from the paved road below to the top of a 150ft tall cliff with clear views of the entire eastern horizon overlooking the Black River valley.
We spent several days there in July clearing brush and surveying the property. It took about an entire day to to clear the fallen trees on the road and mow down the tall weeds that had grown up on the road and clearing at the top. Anne's dad and brother really worked hard to help us get it done. We then spent the next three days topo surveying the entire 14 acres from top to bottom. You would never know how exhausting it can be to survey such a small area until you do it. We were wiped out by the time we were done but there is no better way to get know your property than to walk up and down the entire thing. Besides the great clearing at the top (where we are going to put the house), there are some other really neat hills, valleys, clearings, and even a small pond here.
As far as wildlife, we saw several deer and wild turkeys while surveying and even saw signs that there might be bears here (from the ripped up tree trunks). There were even a few eagles flying around below the cliff - very cool! Although the ticks were no where near as bad as when we first looked at the property, we did have a few on us by the time we were done.
Anne is working on the data from the survey now and preparing a topo map which we should be able to post a picture of soon. Then we will start putting together a "portfolio" of ideas and design elements we like to start taking to some architects so we can get a design going.
Here is a map of where our property is. View the larger map and zoom all the way in to see a rough property line and the place where we are going to site the home.
View Hwy 54 Property in a larger map
posted by joe on 8/23/2009
Anne spent several months searching for property listing and Google Earth for vacant land with some terrain and rolling hills. She really did put a lot of work into it and it finally paid off.
We finally found a really neat piece of property for sale just south of the town of Black River Falls - just over 13 acres, with around a 100ft sandstone cliff that has a nice, flat, build-able area at the top. It has a great 180 degree view of the entire eastern horizon going about 5 to 15 miles off in the distance and somewhat to the south. (see the Google Earth terrain model picture). Should be able to see some great moon and sun rises from there and should be good for utilizing passive solar "daylighting" heating.
There is very little building below it (except for a house just at the bottom of the cliff and out of view) and the Black River is visible just to the east of the property. Pretty much everything in view east of the river is county forest land so will never be built on.
There already is a dirt road in good condition going to the top which will make construction much easier and the big flat area at the top is more than enough to build a home on. Since it is unincorporated, we won't have any village board to deal with and since there is river/lake/creek on the property, the DNR won't be involved either wo-hoo!!.
We put an offer in on the property, are in escrow now, and set to close on June 12th if all goes well. Overall, this is an awesome site and we are excited to finally start making some progress again!
posted by joe on 5/25/2009
After some stones from the south wall of the Mill building foundation fell out and into the creek, the DNR decided to issue a "draw down" order to the Village for the lake behind the dam. They claimed it was a "high hazard" dam and the the stones falling out of the foundation of the building compromised the dam's safety. The funny thing is that just 12 miles away, there is a real dam with a hydroelectric plant, a big lake behind it, and substantial infrastructure below the dam. This dam actually is crumbling and needs to be repaired or removed (something being worked out by Jackson County and Black River Falls). The last time there was a major flood in 1993, a large part of the city was flooded damaging more than 100 homes (source here). Funny, this dam is rated as "low hazard". Compare this the the Merrillan dam which at most has around 10 acres of water in it and maybe 8 feet deep at the deepest part. Also, there are no homes/buildings in the flood plain area down river. Why would this dam be considered high hazard?
Regardless, the Village Board was upset at the lake being drawn down which became even more of an eyesore. They didn't want to work with us to try to improve the situation and instead decided to try to first issue a "raze order" and then try to eminent domain the property from us. Amusingly, they really couldn't decide what to do, because at various times they were trying to eminent domain it from us and at others, they claimed that we really weren't the owners and the original sale to the first private owner was "illegal". Really, they had no basis for the eminent domain since having a lake isn't really a public necessity.
We finally got tired of all of the trips and paperwork (and costs) to keep fighting and ended up selling the property to the Village in Jan 09. Which immediately afterward, they hired some local Amish people to tear down the wooden part of the Mill structure. The funny thing is, we can't figure out why they were so quick to tear down the wood since it really didn't accomplish anything.
The DNR still won't lift the draw down order since nothing was done to address the "safety" concern and it is going to cost a lot of money to remove the foundation and engineer fill the site to a condition the DNR finds suitable something the Village really can't afford. We could have (on the other hand) afforded it, and would have added a beautiful structure to replace the delapidated Mill and also would have added quite a bit in property taxes to the Village's tax base in the process.
In the end, no one benefited since the lake is still down, it is going to cost a bundle to fix it, and now there is a big, ugly, open hole in the ground next to the dam. So much for the public safety claims since the Village now does own the property (WITH A BIG OPEN HOLE) and has made no attempt to fence it in, or prevent someone from falling in to it (check out the video below).
posted by joe on 5/25/2009
Hi everyone. I have been remiss in maintaining our blog. After the December Board of Appeals hearing, I was pretty upset and had a hard time getting going again on the project planning. In some respects, it seemed hopeless and hard to deal with being so far away. I’ve spent some time today in updating the blog to fill in the blanks on what has happened since December. Hopefully, the project can get some traction now and make forward progress.
Over the last month, I have been working with the attorney to respond to the DNR to address their concerns with the building project. We were just about to approach them to go over the issues.
While driving around today, I noticed a new e-mail that popped up on my iPhone. It was a message from my sister, Karen. She had sent a .pdf of a letter that the DNR sent to the Village and our family regarding the mill wall failure. We (our family and the Village) have been informed that the DNR has been notified of the mill wall failure, has inspected the situation, and wants to know what we are going to do to rectify the situation. So, we will be getting back to the DNR next week, with the information we have already prepared. Hopefully, we can work cooperatively with the Village to respond. We have a simple solution – allow the building project and all the problems are solved! Stay tuned;-)
posted by anne on 4/18/2008
So, my Dad called today. He left a voice mail message. He never hardly calls, and if he does, he doesn't leave voice mail messages. Not only is this a rarity, the message was 1 minute, 46 seconds long! When I saw that, I knew something was strange…I listened to his message to find that a portion of the south wall of the mill building had fallen into the creek. Granted, it was old, but since the Village was working on the
posted by anne on 4/04/2008
So I finally did it. I never thought in my life I would have a real need to ever hire an attorney, but I do now! In addition to researching the Wisconsin State regulations to learn them for myself, I searched the internet for hours (from California) and asked for references from anyone I could think of to find an attorney in Wisconsin that specializes in land use, zoning, and municipal law. I figured if we were going to spend the money, we might as well go big and hire the best firm we could find. After talking to a few of the best around, we landed on a team of three attorneys from DeWitt, Ross, and Stevens. They came recommended by the architect we like.
After talking with them, they confirmed what I was afraid of – if a judge heard the case, we would more than likely win, but all that would come of it is the judge ordering another hearing on the same issues, with the same Board of Appeals. The BOA members would still not be able to read a map or understand their Ordinances. If heard a second time, the BOA would have an attorney on hand, actually hold the meeting correctly, and come up with “valid” reasons for denying the variations. Unfortunately, we would be out a lot of cash and be right back were we started. The attorneys we hired had an alternative proposed game plan that we work with the DNR first, then go to the Village (if the DNR can work out an acceptable project with us). That sounded good to us, so we signed the agreement and sent in the retainer today.
posted by anne on 2/21/2008
Today, the BOA finalized their official denial letter. During the December 18th appeal hearing, the BOA was advised they could consult with an attorney prior to making their decision, but they elected not to do so and made their decision right then, during the meeting. It is interesting that many of the reasons cited in the denial were not brought up in the appeal hearing. I was wondering how an attorney hired after the fact could come up with valid reasons for denial if they weren’t brought up at the meeting.
In accordance with the Village Ordinance, the decision was to be filed immediately. The BOA elected to hold off on the official denial until they got it done with the attorney. The Ordinance states we would have 30 days from the decision to file an appeal with a Court of Record, if we believed the decision was not in order, but the Clerk said we would have 30 days from the date of the official denial to move forward with an appeal to a Court of Record. I’m sure that we would win, if a judge heard the case, and are gathering information to take the next step.
posted by anne on 1/14/2008
The meeting minutes were finally done today. I have been asking for all kinds of information from the Village to see if it can help my case. The minutes are all over the place and some of the facts are off (and some are missing), but they are done, nonetheless. They can be found here, if you are interested.
posted by anne on 1/03/2008
The reporter from the local paper, the Banner Journal, attended the BOA appeals hearing and wrote up an article for the paper. Unfortunately, the way the meeting went can not be conveyed in an article like that. I just hope that going forward, we can help educate everyone on the facts of the project and get it ultimately approved. At this time, we are looking for attorneys to give us advice on how to proceed. The next step, per the Village Ordinance, is to take the decision to a Court of Record for a review.
posted by anne on 1/02/2008
The Board of Appeals (BOA) meeting was held today to see if a zoning permit would be issued. There were five variances requested by us:
1) to be within 20' feet of the south property line
2) to be within 10' feet of the west property line
3) to be within 50' of the centerline of the road or 17' from the right of way
4) to construct with a flat roof
5) to construct without overhanging eaves
I gave a PowerPoint presentation, similar to the last one I gave, only this time I concentrated on the reasons I was requesting the variations, and gave a list of community benefits including: strengthens dam embankment and foundation, provides example of green building techniques and construction/design methods, may improve utilities, improves the beauty of the area by replacing the deteriorating building with a beautiful structure, observatory will provide an educational resource for local schools, and continued use of property for residents to enjoy.
To make a long story short, the BOA members were not able to read and/or understand the maps that I had prepared for the project, the Department of Natural Resources threatened to sue the Village, and two of the BOA members didn’t like the idea of the project at all. Highlights include:
1) One of the BOA members was convinced we didn’t even own the property, even though an independent surveyor (hired by the Village) spoke and confirmed that we did!
2) Another BOA was concerned that our sewer connection would require disturbance of previously undisturbed earth. No matter how many ways I tried to explain that the sewer lines would run in the street/right of way in already disturbed areas, just like everyone else’s, he didn’t get it.
3) Two BOA members keep thinking the existing building was south and west of its real position. The Clerk provided the BOA members with an incorrect map of the area, prepared by the County for their GIS mapping project. Each time I explained it with all available maps including aerial photos, they kept forgetting and making references to the wrong location. During one exchange, after being told that the location of the mill building, “was most certainly not!” in the location I said it was in, one of the BOA members finally got it for a fleeting moment and said, “By golly, Annie, I think you’re right.”
4) They kept saying the property was zoned Conservancy, but it is really zoned both Residential and Conservancy, and the entire project would be considered Residential pursuant to the Village Ordinance. Because they couldn’t read a map correctly, they kept getting this point wrong.
6) The DNR had a letter read into the record, told the Village they would have to remove the dam if they allowed the project to move forward, said that they don’t want to “force the DNR’s hand” and make them sue the Village for not enforcing their zoning ordinance and finally said, “It is OK to vote no.”
7) Of course, our friendly neighbor, “Swede” was there, speaking out against the project.
On the good side, a few of the neighbors came and spoke in support of the project. But that didn’t matter. After the BOA heard that the DNR would potentially sue them and make them take out the dam, they didn’t really want or need to hear anything else. Without even questioning if the DNR even had the jurisdiction to do anything they were threatening to do, and without giving consideration for each of the variations individually and the reasons for them, in the end, the BOA members voted NO on the “project”.
They didn’t give any reasons until I pressed them for reasons. The most vocal BOA member said beauty is in the eye of the beholder and with a flat roof, four sides – that's a trailer, a crackerbox, and we don't want a trailer there (the existing building has a flat roof on half of they building). Also, there were too many variances all at once and just because someone thinks they can build a house somewhere doesn't mean they can. He also mentioned it is zoned Conservancy (it isn’t!), that there is no yard (there is more yard than most residential properties in town!), and we would have to go on private property to wash our windows (the property borders Public property, not Private!). It was too late for me to address these issues, and he hadn't asked about these concerns he had during the public hearing to make an educated decision.
One of the other BOA members said that she liked the building just the way it was (as if it was the Village’s building and a Village project), and didn’t want it to change. I said I didn’t hear any reasons pertaining to the three part test they were supposed to apply to grant or deny the variations and the Clerk said she’d come up with something out to it.
After the meeting, they decided to hire an attorney to draft a response. The meeting was not conducted like a typical public meeting – there were no rules of order observed and even though it went on for over two hours, it went by in a flash. I wanted to say so much and have them understand so they could make an educated decision, but I wasn’t able to get the message across.
posted by anne on 12/18/2007
posted by joe on 12/09/2007
We both will be back in Wisconsin in mid-December to give another presentation to the Village Zoning Board of Appeals to who will decide on the fate of the variances that we will need to move forward. Here are the before and after mock-ups that I made for the presentation.
posted by joe on 11/20/2007