May 1 News Update! (baby picture inside)

Firstly, I want to apologize on behalf of Grace and myself that we haven’t gotten to the interesting part yet (you know, the actual construction). Better people than us, I’m sure, would’ve already laid the cornerstone by this point. But we are not that efficient.

News of the Past Few Days:

First, we’ve come up with an architect who is experienced at working with ICFs and thrown a list of requirements at him. He’s going to convert these into a sketch. We’re going to critique the sketch. He’s going to produce another one and so on until both sides are happy. (Well, until we’re happy, anyway. Hopefully, he will be happy as well.)

This is literally all the proof I have that the septic engineer wasn't a figment of my imagination.

This is literally all the proof I have that the septic engineer wasn’t a figment of my imagination.

Second, we’ve talked to a septic engineer. If there are any high school age kids out there reading this, this is a great career path: he came out here, dug a hole, poured water in it, wrote something on a piece of paper, collected $600 and drove away. That was Monday. This morning, we got a big envelope in the mail with a bunch of maps and stuff. Good news: he pretty much drew it the way we were envisioning it in the last post. In case anyone needs a septic engineer in Central NY (Madison/Chenango counties), here’s his contact information:

Wayne Matteson
Phone: 315-662-7146
Cell: 607-423-4321
E-mail: wmatteson at frontiernet dot net

Third, in exploring the whole field of ICF construction, I came across the Green Building Talk forums. Talk about a wealth of information. Lots of knowledgeable people on there and the archives are full of good stuff. I felt a little intimidated asking about our 25’x30′ foot cottage when other people were discussing the construction of malls and health clinics. But I didn’t lose any limbs and even gained some enlightenment.

Our dog Shark. Darryl's dog is the same breed (Great Pyrenees)

Our dog Shark. Darryl the Contractor’s dog is the same breed (Great Pyrenees)

One of the folks on there ended up e-mailing me after he saw that I was located in New York State. His name is Darryl Thomas and he is an ICF contractor and ICF block distributor covering most of upstate New York. We ended up chatting on the phone and he sounds like a pretty awesome guy. Definitely someone who knows what he’s doing (at least, I couldn’t come up with a question to stump him) and very open to the whole idea of working with self-builders like us. Grace and I are strongly considering having an experienced contractor help us for some of the crucial steps in the process and he’s on the short list just based on that conversation.

We discussed the possibility of my shadowing him at a job site just to see how things are done and he said he would let me know if/when he had any builds in our area. (When Darryl says he covers most of New York, he’s not kidding: he currently has builds going on in Niagara, Port Jervis and Keesville out on the Canadian border.) His number, in case you’re looking for an ICF contractor / consultant and he sounds like a fit, is 518-312-0486.

Oh, he also owns a big white dog just like ours.

That’s about it for news. And now, baby picture. This one was the work of famed photography duo Matt & Grace and is entitled “We Waited Too Long”:

"We Waited Too Long"

“We Waited Too Long”

About the Site (the building site, not the website)

Well, we have our “bit of earth”- about 3/4 of an acre of property, and about half of that is a sunken marshy area with a cattle pass leading onto it. There are no cattle there nowadays, but due to it being low ground we can’t build there anyway. So that leaves us with about 1/3 of an acre to build on, and we have to do some careful measuring and juggling to fit some key elements onto it.


The view looking from the road (and the corner of the trailer)

First- a well needs to be dug. We need to find out just how far from the road/property line it needs to be, according to code.

Second- a septic system needs to be put in. Per the building code, the septic tank needs to be at least 50 ft away from the well and the leach field needs to be at least 100 ft away, for pretty obvious reasons.

Third- a house needs to go up! Lengthy discussions and sketches and “bring-a-tape-measure-outside-to-see-exactly-what-this-will-look-like” sessions have led us to the conclusion that this house will be “compact”- not tiny per se, but certainly not sprawling. This is actually just what I was hoping for, but my gosh did the outline look tiny (TINY) when we measured it out!

Property map

Property map

The septic system is going to be on the lowest part of the property, and the well on the highest part, so there’s no possibility of septic runoff into our well area. So, looking at the diagram, you can see that there’s really only one way to set this up while adhering to the code.

Also, see that trailer sitting there, right on the site of our future well? That’s gotta go, either as a whole or in scrap pieces. It’s a bit of an uninhabitable wreck, but there are definitely some salvageable pieces on it if we do decide to scrap it. Our neighbors have assured us they will be oh-so-happy to see it go, and so will we 🙂

Inventory and Things To Do

I wanted to quickly summarize where we are in the home-building process. But first, a random picture of our beautiful child:

Get a load of those cheeks!

Get a load of those cheeks!

What we have so far:

  • One (1) parcel of land, approximately 3/4 of an acre in size
  • One (1) burning desire to build a house
  • One (1) bank account with not enough money in it
  • Some tools and stuff

Things that we need to do next:

  • Find an architect. Not only is this required for getting a building permit, but we’re also building with ICFs, which means that the walls of the house will be literally cast in concrete once they’re finished. Also, have you ever tried to sketch house plans? We have, and it’s pretty fun until you realize that your stairs run straight into a blank wall, the master bathroom has windows facing out into the hallway and one of the bedrooms is not actually accessible from anywhere else in the building. (Not kidding, this is what actually happened.)
  • Find a septic engineer. This is also required for a building permit. The calculations themselves aren’t actually all that difficult. Our land is in a pretty rural area, so we have no option for city sewer, city water or other nice things like that.
  • Talk to well-drilling people, to get quotes.

Local friends: do you have anyone you could recommend for us?

Why ICFs? (And what *are* ICFs?)

(… and what’s wrong with good old-fashioned wood anyway?)

So, you may be asking yourself: what the heck are these ICF thingys and what are the benefits of using them?

See? Doesn't look like a concrete bunker at all! (And the page I stole this from has some good stuff about ICFs and their insulating properties).

See? Doesn’t look like a concrete bunker at all! (And the page I stole this from has some good stuff about ICFs and their insulating properties).

Okay, so it’s really simple – ICF stands for Insulated Concrete Forms, and they’re like big legos for adults. They’re made of 2 polystyrene (think styrofoam) boards held together by plastic, and they stack easily together to create hollow walls. These walls are then filled with poured cement, and voila! you have an insulated concrete house that can be finished to look like pretty much any other building on the market (don’t picture Soviet Russia here – it doesn’t wind up looking like a concrete bunker, unless of course you WANT it to).

ICFs are, as I already mentioned, super insulated, due to the polystyrene the blocks are made out of. This means heating and cooling costs go way down (go green!) and it’s a lot cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Speaking of saving money, ICFs are (supposedly anyway) very easy to work with – again, think legos for adults – and my husband and I are REALLY excited to do as much of the work as possible ourselves. Will we need help with things like digging the foundation and pouring the concrete? Yeah, probably. But laying out and putting up the walls, we’ll be all over that, no additional work crew needed (edit: this does not include any close and dearly loved family members who will be conscripted politely requested to help us out here).

Another bonus? The insides of ICF homes are nice and quiet because of the thickness of the walls. This is a particularly good thing for us, because our lot is beside a county highway, and I’m not a big fan of hearing traffic go by 24/7!

Also, not that it’s really a concern in our area, but all that concrete pretty much makes these houses hurricane proof. Hundred-mile-an-hour winds? Not a problem, these walls will stay standin’. The Third Little Piggy would approve.

The Husband: “Nice post! Though I don’t know if it will convince all the unbelievers — like your uncle [he’s a carpenter]. He thinks that building with anything other than sticks is eccentric and unnecessary and will end in tears. Except you shouldn’t write that because one day he will come across this blog and then I will be in trouble.”

The First Post

Yay! We have a blog!

So first thing, Disclaimer: Although the heading of the blog is “how one family built their dream home”, at this point it’s actually more about “how one family decided to build something that might someday become their dream home… it might actually be more of a nightmare… we don’t know… stay tuned”. But as you can see, that would be far too long for the heading, so I decided to bend the truth a little.

My wife, I and our 9-month-old baby are going to build a house. We’re going to build this house with insulated concrete forms (ICFs) because those things are awesome, energy efficient, green and sustainable. We’re going to do most of the work ourselves because we’re trying to save money and because it’ll be fun. And we’re going to blog about it, because that seems to help keep things organized.