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.

Geotechnical Evaluation

We received the Geotechnical Report from CVT on December 30th. Overall, it was good news to know that competent bedrock was between 12' to 17' deep. To summarize, There is about 3-4' feet of brown silty clay under the topsoil, then around 2-4' of light brown silt, then some 4-11' of orange fine graded sand, then orange/yellow/white standstone. The boring logs can be found here. Here is a map showing the clearing and the approximate boring log locations:

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.


In November, the architect asked about the subsurface condition to ensure where the house could be placed (how far away from the top of the slope) and to determine an appropriate foundation design. After asking my sister, Karen (who is a structural engineering that works on bridges out of Eau Claire, WI) what geotechnical engineering firms were located in the area that she would recommend, we contacted a few consultants. After receiving a nicely summarized proposal and having a good conversation with one of the geotechnical engineers, we decided to hire Chosen Valley Testing to do the subsurface investigation and slope stability analysis. We scheduled the drilling for December 11 and I got some plane tickets to come home for a long weekend to watch the drilling and meet the geotechnical engineer at the site.

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!

A quick but exciting peek...

 A couple weeks ago, Jim sent us a few aerial and elevation views of the topo data that Anne generated from our survey.  It was neat to see all the work we did in the survey turned into a 3-D map but we were unready to get this (below) so soon.  Jim has been working on the design and sent us a few early images of what the house will look like.  This is just too cool!  It was really awesome to see what we had talked about just a few weeks ago take on a physical view and to see it on our site - WOW!

You can see the concrete supporting blocks below and the "sky pier" extending out past the house.  These are still just really really early drawings but it is exciting to see our project coming so far and so much more real every day.  Here are just a couple of the pictures to share:

Exciting Day - meeting Jim (the architect) at our property

Anne and I have spent a lot of time (years) looking through various magazines and websites (Dwell, Innovative Home, Architectural Record, etc.) and a lot of time talking about exactly how we envisioned our future home would look and fit into our property.  Basically, it was going to be a "boxy" two story structure, perched along the edge of the overlook with our bedroom being the only part of the upper floor to maximize the views (but this was all going to change by the end of the day).  Basically a bunch of stacked boxes with lots of windows.

It was a pretty cold morning and it had actually snowed overnight, although for the most part it didn't stick and today was the day we were meeting Jim out at our property for the first time.  Even though it was cold, it still was particularly nice since the leaves in all the trees were in their autumn colors.  This site really is just amazing and when you first get there you just have to spend a few minutes taking it all in - pictures just don't do it justice.  We spent some time and walked around our entire property talking some more about what we wanted (or maybe didn't even know we wanted) from our home.

We went back up to the top and between walking around the clearing and sitting at the picnic bench, Jim started sketching out some ideas.  His initial suggestions revolved around not having the master bedroom on a second floor but rather as part of the main floor ("why go upstairs to go to bed? he kept saying) where the kitchen and living room would be then have a lower level containing other bedrooms, exercise room, etc.  We were still pretty sure we wanted it located along the overlook out near the edge of the clearing.  He then started talking about and drawing out what the structure itself might look like.  After a couple iterations, he threw out this idea, that it could look like a bridge/train trestle - an elongated structure sitting on top of several repeating concrete walls or piers.  These piers would make up the lower level of the home with rooms built in between each of the piers.  This lower floor would be built partially underground.  This was an idea Anne and I both really liked a lot.  Then Jim suggested that there could be a walkway deck running along one side that continued out past the house almost like a pier or dock out over the drop off.

This got us really excited, but we still had the house right in the middle of the clearing - it was then that we realized what really was the best part of the property.  It's not just the sweeping view of the horizon from the overlook, it is the experience of getting there.  In coming up "driveway" to the top of the hill, you round a corner and there is a WOW! moment as the sweeping view of the horizon comes into view.  The picture included here is what you see and there is a short video clip of driving up  HERE - sorry for the bad cinematography (if you would even call it that, but I think you get the idea).  At first you think, the middle of the clearing would be a great place to build a home, but obviously putting it there would take away that wow factor as you arrive.  It was then that we decided to place the house along the line of view so the walkway and "sky pier" would guide your eyes out towards the horizon and to push the house as far to the left field of view as possible, almost so it wasn't blocking the view at all.  At this point, it seemed like nothing else could be a better design for this site and for our home - an elongated bridge-like structure with a sky pier extending out towards the horizon.  Cool!

To get going on the design, Jim would need the topo data from our survey and some information on zoning and construction requirements.  Anne has already put a lot of time and research into this so we have a good start but we'll need to work on getting a geotechnical analysis done to determine the stability/bearing capacity of the soil.  Also, we'll have the contract details to work out with GMK Architecture which we can do over the next few days.

It's funny how we started today out being so sure that we "knew" exactly what we wanted and having in our mind what w thought that looked like but left today with something somewhat different and really feeling that the elongated bridge-like structure concept is really what "should' have been built here all along.  Both of us are really excited to see where it's going to go!

Meet the Architect day

We drove down to Madison yesterday to meet Jim Gempeler the residential design architect at GMK Architecture. We actually met Jim a few years ago when we were trying to plan our earlier (but failed) project at the Merrillan Mill site (see earliest posts).  We had approached him to design our home there and besides having some great ideas, the first time we met at his office, we ate bratwursts they were barbecuing out back and ruffles potato chips for lunch.  I think the brats sealed the deal for Anne.
We showed Jim the topo survey map that Anne made, pictures, and video of the site and talked about what we "envisioned" being built there.  We also talked about the design materials that we would like to see (exposed concrete, steel, and glass) and things we didn't like so much (curved walls, angled rooms).
The whole time, Jim was really excited enthusiastic and you could get the sense that he is passionate about his work and really wanted to design a house that fit us and our lifestyle.  Something about the whole situation just felt right and there was a certain calmness about it.  He threw out many great ideas but really wanted to take a trip to the site to see and discuss it first hand.  Since we didn't have much time left in our trip and with winter approaching, we decided to meet there the following Tuesday morning.  We left that day feeling even more excited and optimistic knowing that we were one step closer to finally making this a reality.
We drove back to Merrillan and to top off an already great day, we went back out to the property after dark and watched the Moon rise over our view of the eastern horizon.  It was awesome to think about how many more rising moons we would see in the coming years when we live here!

Road Trip - California to Wisconsin to meet an architect

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).

Map Info - finally...

Maps at last! I've made three maps to show some of the details of the property that we obtained from our survey back in July. The first map is a basic map showing the contours and other data we obtained (roads, pond, clearing, trees, utilities, culvert, etc.). As Joe stated, after spending four days walking up and down and all around (especially Joe because he was on the rod the entire time!) we really have a good idea of the lay of every inch of the place and how it fits in with the surrounding area.

Here is the second map. It is the same as the first, but I've added the Google earth image to the contours so you can see how the contours relate to what is actually on the ground. You can really see the dirt road leading to the clearing at the top, Highway 54, and the neighbor's home with this view. It was so cool to have these features that we surveyed line up with the photo view! It is also neat to see the Black River to the east. There is also a neighbor directly to the south; however, there is no way you can see this property from the top - you can barely see it as you drive up the dirt road. One other interesting thing to note is at the very top. You can see a small patch of yellow where the greenery has been removed. The previous owner had a trailer parked at the very top. They dug a hole to place the trailer in and the vegetation has not grown back in as of the Google Earth 2004 photo.

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.

Bought and Surveyed a 14 acre wooded parcel in Wisconsin - its AWESOME!!

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.

We are really excited to finally be moving forward again and it looks like the building restrictions are pretty minimal since it is an unincorporated area - we may even be able to put some small windmills up on the west side of the property since there seems to be a nice steady breeze on that side.

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

A new home site? - let's hope so...

Since the whole Mill property fiasco started going down, we started searching for a new place to build. We did find a pretty cool place and actually spent a few days doing a detailed survey of the property (see link here). It was a 11 acre parcel just east of the town of Merrillan with a big hill about 150ft high occupying the majority of the site. However, in reality it would be a pretty difficult site. The hill was very steep from all sides and there wasn't much flat space near the top to build on no to mention the construction of a road to the top would be expensive and steep - not so good in winter. Anne likes challenging projects ;-)
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!

The Mill - R.I.P. 1860 something to 2009 - now a big unsightly hole and hazard...

It has been a long time since we last posted and much has happened since then. Much of it was related to legal issues we have had with the Village of Merrillan and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It is a long story with a lot of boring details but here is a short summary:

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).