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.

Fall Colors and Septic Layout

Did a quick weekend trip last weekend with a plan to meet Rich Halverson from Halverson Plumbing out of Black River Falls. We set this up right after our summer trip as the septic location needed to be determined in order to complete the house final location and all the other utilities.

Septic System: We ended up leaving Friday morning out of San Diego to Minneapolis and flew back Monday afternoon. We met with Rich right on time on Saturday morning. After walking the site, we were happy to hear that Rich thought the location we preferred had a good chance of working for us. It was really nice for Rich to come out on a Saturday to pre-meet us before Monday morning's plan to meet the County! Bright and early on Monday morning, we got up at 5 am (3 am PST!) to make it out to the property to see the sunrise. We ended up getting there right after 7 am and made the final corner at the top of the hill right when the sun was starting to rise. The valley was foggy and super-cool! We heard Rich down the hill unloading the trackhoe right on time at 7:30. Rich ended up digging around eight holes to get the lay of the land. The inspector from the Jackson County zoning/planning department, came out and inspected the holes and confirmed that the amount of usable soil was just deep enough for an in-ground septic system - we were so happy! After confirmation from the County, Rich figured out which holes worked best, and came up with a concept on how to lay it out. He got out a laser level, set up some contour lines on the ground, and managed to set out three leach fields fourteen feet from field to field, that will probably not require cutting down any trees. How awesome it that! Not only will an in-ground system work, but it will be out of site from the house. What a relief!

Fall Colors: Can you say perfect timing on the trip, too? I think we spent the nicest three days of the year on our property. The trees were at peak color and the maple trees on our property were some of the most awesome trees I have ever seen! So awesome that we have considered some ideas on slight changes to the house design because of it. We will see what the details of Plan E look like and see if any changes make sense and talk to Jim about it. It was interesting that on Monday morning, many of the trees had lost half their leaves. The change happens so quickly! It was nice to just be out there and as the breeze kicked up, you can see and hear the leaves gently falling to the ground. It was nice to also see Joe's dad and Terese, too. They came up on Saturday morning and spent the day on the property with us then we (Joe/Terese, Mom/Dad Thompson, and all of Anne's siblings) all went to supper at the Stone's Throw in Hatfield.

Every time we go back, it is harder to leave - especially when the weather is so perfect! Ended up leaving the site on Monday a little after 11 am, met Dad and Alan at the station to lead up and head to the airport in Minneapolis. Minor scare on the way to the airport when traffic stopped and the car started to overheat! Got to the airport safely and on-time, made it to Phoenix and found our flight was delayed. Ended up waiting an extra hour and a half, and got to San Diego just in time. After running through the airport and catching a slow shuttle to get the car, Anne managed to make it to the pet hotel at 8:59 - just in time! Too bad that the doggies couldn't come with this time, but after we picked them up at the Petsmart Pet Hotel in La Jolla, we found that they had a great time and Orion found a girlfriend, Patches! It was nice to see them;-) Went back to the airport to pick up Joe and the bags and ended our short trip and long day back in Riverside sometime after midnight...

Another Trip Back and Plan E?

Flew back to Chicago/Wisconsin in late July to celebrate Joe’s little brother, Jon, graduating from High School. This gave us an opportunity to visit the property again. We made arrangements with an electrician/solar power installer, a geothermal heating contractor, the electric utility provider, and last but not least, Jim!

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.

ay #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 meeti
ng 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!?!

Day #5 (Saturday) – Travel day: Got up early and Dad, Joe, and I went out to the property to get the allroad unstuck. Joe put the snow chains on and Dad hooked up a chain and we pulled it out. When we inspected the area, it looks like the level of the water was almost over the top of the road. We will need to consider how to design the area by the pond to ensure the road never gets washed out. We can put in a culvert to drain the pond and build up the road, make sure the road is compacted well, and add some rock/grouted rip rap. We can always attach a standpipe with a drain at the top to keep the water level at a constant elevation in the case of high water, too.

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!

Exciting Start to Memorial Day Weekend - Plan D

We didn't have anything planned for the holiday weekend (I don't like traveling during holidays) but it started off with an exciting email from Jim at GMK Architecture with his most recent design plans for our Wisconsin home. This most recent plan is the result of the changes we discussed when we met at his Madison office back in April. This is about the fourth version that we have gone through since November:

Plan A - initial plan, long and narrow, like a glassed in bridge extending out toward the cliff; 2 floors with a long "pier" like deck that continued the "bridge" concept to the cliff
Plan B - long, going out towards the cliff but then turned back on itself with bedrooms on backside of house; 2 floors. This change was necessary after the results of the geotechnical engineering study showed we needed to stay 50ft back from the cliff.
Plan C - 3 floors w/ master bedroom on top which had a south facing angled huge skylight above the bed.
Plan D - the current one - a 2 floor version of B with a skylight like C which will run from just over our bed, south over the kitchen. The master bedroom is set up so that it is open into the kitchen and living room so the view from all the windows in the living room and bedroom can be shared, as it was in Plan B with a large pocket door and a pocket wall that we can move into place for privacy when guests are over; however, the pocket wall's orientation has moved from north-south to east-west. Most of the living/dining/kitchen area is going to be floor-to-ceiling windows looking out towards the cliff. The master bedroom window looks west out into a beautiful stand of poplar trees.

We were excitedly waiting to see this update and it did not dissapoint. After spending a lot of time this weekend looking at the plans, there aren't many changes that we will want made other than moving a couple doors and maybe a window near the master bedroom. I think this is the final design concept and now its on to working out the details. As Jim goes on to work out the structural and building details, we've got a few things we need to work on as well:

Heating/Cooling - no forced air (i.e. duct work). We'll have radiant heat in the floors and use a geothermal well system to heat and cool the house. Anne is working out the early details of the geothermal system. We will be on a well for water, we'll be drilling that anyway.

Photovoltaic system - we had an assessment for solar energy potential done by a local consultant, Pipkin Electric, Inc. It looks like solar will work great and we now need to determine how many panels we will need.

Electricity/Phone - need to figure out what is the best way to get it up to the top of the hill. Our access road is 1/2 mile from the paved road (and power) to the house site. It's not feasible to trench up the road, so we need to figure out how to go up the side of the hill. I think we will also have a back-up generator in case. Since our power will be coming down the road from a long single run either way on the highway, in the event that there is a big storm/ice storm, a generator would be a good idea. We plan to meet with Eric from Pipkin Electric to go over the constructable possibilities.

Septic System - not really happy about this, but here is no sewer system in this area so we'll need a septic field or large holding tank. We don't have much flat land at the top of the hill, so the latter is probably the only choice we have.

We've set a goal to start construction in April/May 2012 to give us time to finish working out these details and hopefully to have it completed by December in 2012, just in time for the end of the world!

Plan B-2

After thinking about it for a few weeks, both Joe and I decided to move forward with Plan B. We just liked it better as it seemed more simple and there was something about it that just seemed right. The architect has worked on expanding Plan B and come up with some new concepts in what we are referring to as Plan B-2. The main changes are moving the Living/Dining Rooms around, having the Living Room space move out on to the deck, lowering the ceiling in the main area of the house to 8', and adding a skylight slicing through the middle of the house on a 15% angle. Here are a few pictures:

Overall, we both like the Living/Dining Room switch, but are not completely sold on the skylight. We are planning a trip home soon to lay out the house on the land and see if that can help us identify which solution to develop. Can't wait to visit the site again!

Plan C

Really, this is Plan C of location #3...between the mill concept and the HWY 54 property, we were trying to negotiate to purchase eleven acres of land near Merrillan. I might go back and post that small chapter in the Our Modern Home book so if anyone is out there, they will get the full story.

We have had Plan C for some time now, and I thought I should share it with the world. The architect knew I wanted to be up high (I love to be on the highest floor of any hotel!) as I like to have the most awesome view any building can provide. Between that and the concept of a window view of the stars (think Luxor hotel in Las Vegas), the architect came up with a three-floor design which basically adds another floor on top of a skinnier Plan B. This concept provides an upper floor that is all private space, including a second bedroom on the top floor, which would be good if we have kids. Here are the two similar views to compare to Plan A and B:

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!!!

Plan B

Sometimes, Plan B ends up being better than the original plan and that is what Joe and I believe about the second design concept for our home. After review of the Geotechnical report and recommendations, we decided to pull the home footprint back away from the edge of the slope. Building the original concept could be done, but we weren't willing to pay for the more expensive foundation, so we explored new ideas (this way, we will have more money for windows, anyway!).

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!

Conference Call

After having time to review the geotechnical report, we scheduled a conference call with our architect , Jim, on January 8th. Jim talked to the geotechnical engineer and a structural engineer that he works with frequently. Based on the implications of the stability analysis, Jim had a new concept for the home which moves the footprint back away from the cliff to avoid a complicated/expensive foundation. Here is a cool sketch of the new concept that Jim sent over.

We went over the sketch together in our conference call. At first, Joe and I were bummed about the news, but the more we looked at the new concept, the more we liked it. By the end of the call, we were ready to give up on the diving board and look into the new concept full steam. Instead of a long, narrow "shotgun" style house, this new concept turns the portion of the house that was near the cliff back on the house itself at an interesting angle. The result is the master bedroom now has a cool view of the poplar trees. Also, incorporated is an entry bridge that is detached from the house, connecting the driveway and the front door. Very cool!