Saturday, March 19, 2011

Meet the lot

Let's take a closer look at what I just purchased. First, the street. Looking south and uphill, I see this:

Looking the opposite direction (downhill), I see this:

It's a pretty quiet street, and it looks like parking won't be an issue for larger events. Now facing west, I see the driveway, with someone's car parked in it.

Walking down to the end of the driveway and turning around:

You can see the drop-off on the left side. That's about where the center of the new driveway will be. The idea is that the utilities will be run along the bottom edge of the drop-off, then dirt from the foundation will be used to fill the rest of the driveway. Now pivoting to the left, you can see the southern half of the lot:

It's currently a backyard for the neighboring duplex. Not any longer! Going around to the other side of the duplex facing west, there's another dropoff leading into the next lot. I think most of that slope is mine. 

Walking further down, you can see there's a view of Capitol Hill from ground-level. 

It should look pretty nice from 30 feet up. There's a little shed on this side of the lot:

That needs to be torn down. The giant bush needs to go as well:

Well, there you have it. That's what my 4700sq feet of land looks like right now. The first step is to get a silt barrier around the lot and then have an onsite pre-construction meeting with the city on Monday to get approval to break ground. 

Friday, March 18, 2011


After many months of waiting I finally closed on the lot yesterday! I got an email about a month ago saying that the fix to the title was finally recorded. This meant I could finally proceed with closing on the lot. At this point, it had been almost 6 months since I signed the purchase and sale agreement, so I had to start all the financing from scratch. The good thing is that at this point, I didn't need to apply for a land loan and could get a construction loan right away. The next few weeks were a frenzy of phone calls and emails and some tense waiting. The following things happened:

  • I had to gather up and hand over recent pay stubs, tax returns, and bank account statements to prove I had proper assets (just like with a normal home loan)
  • The bank had to run a credit and reference check on me
  • I had to get two full sets of plans from the architects to the bank
  • I paid the bank ~$500 to get an appraisal done on the lot + proposed structure. The appraisal had to come up at or above the value of the loan. 
  • I had to formulate and sign a contract with the general contractor I picked out to build the house
  • The bank had to run a credit check on my contractor including a reference check on all of his subcontractors
  • The purchase and sale agreement had to be amended to include stronger wording regarding the shared driveway between the two lots. This had to be signed by both me and the seller.
  • I had to pay a deposit to lock in my interest rate at 4.999%
  • The underwriter had to approve the loan and the loan amount
If any one of those items didn't go through, the whole process would come to a halt. Luckily, it all turned out okay. The only bad thing that happened was I had to increase my down payment to a very uncomfortable amount in order to cover for the changes made to the foundation. This is something I hope I can live with and won't come back to bite me in the construction phase. Anything that goes over the proposed budget + contingency during construction has to be paid out of pocket. My pocket. My very empty pocket.  

The final steps were to write a deposit check to the contractor, completely drain all my accounts with a massive down payment check to the bank, and sign the final set of loan docs at the title company. And with that, I am officially a land owner in Madrona. 

I can't quite celebrate yet though. The adventure is only halfway over. Will everything contintue going smoothly and on time? Will I go drastically over-budget, sink the project, and go bankrupt? I have no idea! Tune in to find out!

Geotechnical Engineering and the Foundation

Back when I signed a purchase and sale agreement for the land, I got a set of docs for the lot. This included a survey, a geotech report, and some proposed plans. One thing I noticed when reading over the geotech report was that the engineer recommended using pile foundations due to softer soil on my lot. The foundation drawn out in the permit set was a standard spread footing foundation. When I pointed this discrepancy out to the architects, they did recommend we talk to the geotech enginner and find out if this is an issue. Unfortunately, the original engineer who wrote the report was unreachable, so I had to hire a new one to do an analysis on the lot.

About two weeks later, the new geotech engineer and my structural engineer met and worked out that there should be a mat-slab foundation for the house. This means that instead of just having a perimeter of concrete holding up the full weight house, a slab of concrete will be poured over the entire footprint of the house to help distribute the weight. I was told the previous spread footing foundation would have most likely been sufficient, and wost case is I would have seen some very minor cracking over the years. The new foundation won't have this problem at all. That makes me feel better, especially for such an important part of the house. 

The improved foundation uses more concrete and is more expensive, so the cost of building the house went up, but not by much relatively speaking. There is an additional benefit, however, to having a foundation of this type. It creates a very large crawlspace under the garage with a finished concrete floor. This opens up the possibility of using this area as a mother-in-law unit at some point in the future. 

The revised plans will be submitted for post-permitting, and it won't hold up construction. The city is estimated to charge about $600 approve the revision to the permitted plans. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Once the plans for the structure and layout of the house were completed, the next step was to get it all ready for permitting. This is a rather tedious process involving describing every detail of the structure and surrounding areas. Pb Elemental spent October drawing out all the detailed plans.

During that time, a set of the plans were also submitted to a structural engineer. The structural engineer's job is to figure out what type of framing should go where and how it should be attached so that the house can stay upright and not fall apart or exhibit other unwanted behaviors.

One challenge the structural engineer had for this project was to figure out what was necessary to implement the cantilevered portion of the house. Before we submitted the project to engineering, we were debating whether or not there should be a post to support the cantilever. Once the engineer ran the numbers, he determined that it would require around $15-20K of structural steel to have a freestanding cantilever of that size! That result pretty much made the decision for us. Even with the post, there will be some steel I-beams in the house to support the structure, but much, much less of it.

As soon as the engineer and Pb were done with their work (around the end of October), a full-sized set of plans were submitted to the city (along with a ~$3k deposit from me), and then it was time to wait.

About a month and a half later (around mid December), the city came back with two minor corrections they wanted to the plans. The corrections were no big deal to make, so a week later we re-submitted. By mid-January (along with a second payment), we got issued permits from the city! Total elapsed time for permitting: about 2.5 months (including Christmas and New Years). Total cost to get permits: about $5K.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Final Draft / Virtual Tour

Around the October timeframe, Pb Elemental got the final draft of the house completed. One of the issues they realized with the new exterior is that the shell extended out about 8-10 feet beyond the setback of the lot! Oops! They ended up resolving that issue by shortening the height of the shell and using railings for the rooftop deck instead.

They got a fancy updated 3D model of the house too:


There were many subtle stylistic tweaks done to the house at this point. Here's what the final interior plan looks like (screenshots taken from the permit set.. ignore extra lines):

We start at the bottom floor. There's a media room and large storage/server closet. All of the high-tech wiring will be routed to that location. There's also a half-bath added by request. 


Going half a flight up, there's a sliding door to the ground-level patio.

 Going into the entry and up the stairs leads you into the living room. Of note here are the sliding doors from both the living room and bedroom. Opening both up, should create a large indoor/outdoor area. For parties, the bedroom can be blocked off with a pocket door. The guest bath is off on the side of the kitchen out of the way of the entertaining area. 

All the flooring throughout the house is concrete. This will especially help unify the surface on the deck with the surface indoors. That seamless effect will also be noticeable in the bathroom. The plan right now is to run the concrete surface straight into the shower and slightly slope the surface to allow for proper drainage. 

And lastly, following the outside stairs, you get to the rooftop deck. It overlooks the green roof over the master bedroom and kitchen. There is also a skylight positioned over the island. 

There are lots of windows throughout the house, and it does serve a practical purpose. They will bring in lots of natural light into the house. The cloudy season in Seattle is very long, and this should almost eliminate the need to use indoor lighting during the daytime. It also helps give a visual connection to the outside, thus furthering the indoor/outdoor theme. While my views will be very urban - no million dollar panoramas or water views - it will be better than staring at a blank wall.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Third Draft

About a month after showing me the second draft (end of September), they came up with what would be close to the final design of the house. The interior design remained mostly the same - some minor tweaks here and there. The exterior, however, got a major overhaul. They dropped the concept of two volumes, and instead came up with a sharply-angled exterior shell for the house. Very cool.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


During one of our meetings, we started discussing possible materials for the house. I like the concept of using materials in their natural state. I wanted the exterior finishes of the house to be both low-maintenance and to work with nature, not against it. As an example, if you take a yellowish cedar plank and put it outside without any treatment, it will eventually weather and turn a shade of grey. That's what happens to it if you let nature do its work. One can fight nature by applying a clearcoat on the wood every year to keep its color, but at some point, nature will win. I wanted to use something that didn't require that kind of upkeep.

The guys at Pb were totally with me on this idea and they showed me two materials that follow this concept. The first is corten steel. This is a special alloy of steel that is designed to rust on the outside. It's often used in large public works projects and doesn't need to be coated or protected. The oxidized surface acts a layer of protection for the steel underneath. It starts out greyish, but eventually turns to a rich brownish-red over time.

The second material they showed me was charred cedar. This is normal cedar wood that has been torched so that the surface is black. The charred carbon layer on the cedar protects the wood underneath and doesn't fade when exposed to the elements. This technique was apparently used in traditional Japanese architecture.

When they showed me both of those materials, I immediately fell in love with them. It would be a perfect combo for the exterior of the house.

The house also has three other materials which follow the "natural" concept: concrete, aluminum, and glass. Those don't need any other explanation. I think together they compliment each other really well and are all zero-maintenance. The house should actually look better as it weathers over time. That's a new concept!

Here's what it all looks like together:

Second Draft

So a couple weeks later toward the end of August, they came up with a much better second draft, this time with a 3D model!

Many things had changed:
  • This version now had three floors, so the room proportions are better (no small rooms with 17' high ceilings). 
  • The house also had a wider footprint. The footprint inspired the architects to think of emphasizing the cantilever and create a concept of two mirrored volumes stuck together. It added a lot of character to the house.
  • The square footage increased to around 2100 sq ft. While it's a bit large for what I need, I like the wider proportion better, plus it gives me extra square footage if I ever need it in the future
  • The stairs to the rooftop deck were moved from the entry area to the rear lower deck.
  • A more substantial entryway was added with bridge and coat closet. It is also backed by a set of windows, so you can see straight through the house and get a very indoor/outdoor feel. Cool!
  • The bedroom got its own set of doors to the deck
  • An office was added with open walls. It gives the possibility of turning it into a third bedroom in the future if I wanted to. 
  • The media room was moved to the new daylight basement along with a large storage room/server closet.
  • The location of the kitchen and living room were swapped
  • A pantry was added next to the kitchen (by request)
At this point, we were all pretty happy with the general layout of the house and the internal spaces. As far as the exterior, it was nice, but was still lacking that wow factor. I thought that the exterior shell of the house could be a bit edgier to really emphasize the shapes, and I think the architects were thinking the same thing.

Friday, March 11, 2011

First Draft

As far as I understand, Pb Elemental uses a design process called "exploratory design". This involves sitting down and cranking out dozens and dozens of variations of a subject, then picking the best ideas out of those and repeating if necessary. It's rather tedious and time consuming, but it forces the designer to explore all possible avenues of a concept and make sure the best possible variant bubbles to the top. All this happens behind the curtain, so my only exposure to it is through a few incremental drafts. 

Toward the end of August, Pb Elemental settled on a the following concept as a first draft. There would be two separate volumes joined together - one going up, the other going down. In this version, the house would be a split-level.

The garage is on the split.

The second floor is cantilevered over the lower floor and is designed to be the main living area. 

Last, there is a set of stairs leading to a rooftop deck. There would be a large, sloped skylight over the living area, and a green roof over the bedroom. 

The house had around 1600sq feet not including the decks and garage. This design incorporated many of the requirements I asked for, set up a general concept for the spaces in the house, and was enough to get a conversation going. 

I thought that the concept was great start, but it had some flaws, as expected and forewarned. The proportions of the rooms on the bottom floor were a bit off (ceilings too high for the size of the room), and the house was a little narrow for the lot. I would have a useless 5' strip of yard on the left side of the house. 

I made the request to increase the width of the house to take advantage of that strip, knowing this would push up the cost of construction. I think this was the right decision to make, even though it would lead to some tense moments during financing later on. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Land and Construction Loan Requirements

One thing I didn't know much about are the requirements and processes for getting a land or construction loan with a bank. It is similar to the process for getting a home loan, but with a few more restrictions and a lot more paperwork and project management.
  • If you're just purchasing land, you have to get a land loan. These come with high interest rates (4-5% higher than a normal home loan).
  • If you plan to build right away, you can avoid the land loan and get a construction loan. 
  • Construction and land loans require a 20-30% down payment depending on the bank and your finances
  • In order to qualify for a construction loan, you need land, completed plans, a permit from the city, and a contractor in place and ready to go
  • The contractor also has to be approved by the bank. In most cases, this isn't an issue, but the process can take a couple weeks. 
If you don't have everything in place, you can always buy the land first and then roll it into a construction loan later on. This, however, does end up costing more because you have to pay interest on the land and close a second time on a construction loan.

I ended up working with Washington Federal to get my construction loan. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Closing Issues

The closing process ended up not going as smoothly as I would have hoped. In September I found out the title on the land was incorrect because a boundary line adjustment was not filed properly. This meant that the titles on all the adjoining lots needed to be re-appraised and modified. The title company up to 6 months time before the problem was corrected and I could close, but could never give me a definitive date.

Other than the constant uncertainty of when I could close on the land, this meant that I could potentially get all my design and permitting done beforehand and immediately start on construction once the deal closed.


The cool part about building a custom home is that it gets to be tailor made for you. In order to give the architects a starting point, they gave me a questionnaire to fill out and also gathered some basic requirements that I wanted out of the house. My list of requirements is obviously very similar to the kind of house I've been looking for:
  • Modern, clean design
  • high ceilings
  • ~1500-1800sq ft
  • large, open living room for entertaining
  • large, well-equipped kitchen with pantry
  • more emphasis on living areas, less emphasis on bedrooms
  • garage for at least 1 car
  • server closet
  • high-tech wiring throughout the house
  • media room or living room that can double as media room
  • low maintenance/upkeep
  • try to use natural materials and finishes
With that information in hand, plus a list of architects and projects that I like, Pb Elemental started on a first draft design of the house.