Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Last Week

Not much in the way of bloggable stuff going on right now. Got our permits (septic, well, building) in the mail this week. But because we got our poured concrete sub so late, we're not on his schedule til June 11th. (We were on his schedule the last week of May and then the first week of June, but I guess we can't complain since he's squeezing us in as it is. Those kinds of interactions with contractors deserve their own post - if not their own blog - and I'll get to that soon.) So we hope to get our footers dug and poured this coming week, and be ready for the forms to go up for the foundation the beginning of the next week.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Monday, May 28, 2007

Radiant Heat

We've decided that we have to have air-conditioning. Personally, I'm not a big fan of AC - I like a good floor fan and to be able to hear the outdoors. But if folks are going to give us money to stay in our cabin, last thing we want to do is ask them to suffer through the occasional 90 degree WV afternoon (and then there are the down-the-road resale considerations). It's a big added cost for us; we could have just done radiant heat in the floors and the woodburning stove, not have hired an HVAC guy, and not have had to have a soffit in the basement or to cut up the floors to add registers (air vents) after the house is delivered (Simplex doesn't recommend doing it in the factory, because HVAC guys are always moving the locations of the registers around to suit the duct installation).

So we will have a forced air AC system. Which means that radiant floor heating becomes a redundancy - forced air heat is a no-brainer if you're doing AC. But we really want it in the basement - exposed concrete will be chilly down there, and what's the point of having it if you're just gonna put rugs over it? So I'm thinking I'm going to try to put in radiant heating anyway, if only in the basement (but maybe underneath the first floor, too). Anybody have any experience with a redundant system like this? Used a furnace with a closed secondary system for the radiant? Or used a separate heater (maybe tankless)? Installed it yourself? Let me know - lostrivermodern AT gmail DOT com.


We bought them today (Memorial Day sales and all). The only real observations I have about buying appliances are:

-There are too many options; and

-Cabinet-depth refrigerators apparently aren't cabinet-depth. If you put something call "doors" on them, and then something called "handles" on them, all of a sudden your cabinet-depth fridge is sticking out five inches past your cabinets. The alternative, I understand, is to pay three times as much for a "built-in" fridge that really is cabinet depth.

A Generation Gap

So we combined our visit to the factory last week with a visit with my grandfather. He wasn't aware of any of the details of our project, though he knew it was happening. I told him it was going to be a prefab house and started to explain how prefab construction works, and he stopped me and told me he knew all about it - he'd seen it on Bob Vila (my grandpa is a solid DIYer).

Then I showed him the blog and the design of our house. This is a rough recap of the conversation:

Me: It has an inverted roof.

Grandpa: Why?

Me: (Something about modernism)

Grandpa: But how do you shingle it?

Me: (Something about a rubber roof that's less than a 1/2" thick)

Grandpa: (Back to watching the baseball game)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Some comparisons of renderings to the box as it stands now:


I've gotten some great feedback from people emailing and asking that I address issues they are interested in. A few people have wondered what the quality level is of the finishes. So I'll detail a few here:

Windows are Anderson 400 series, sliders are Anderson Frenchwood Patio doors;

Daltile white subway 3x6 tile in the shower (we looked at the much more expensive glass tile, which we both liked a lot, but decided against it), Daltile black and white mosaic 1x1 tile on the bath floor (instead of slate or other nice stone products);

Zodiaq synthetic black countertop in both the bath and kitchen (instead of some more expensive natural/synthetic stones);

Merillat maple cabinets (nice maple doors with less expensive plywood boxes);

5/8" strandwoven bamboo floors from Sustainable Flooring;

Lutron Maestro dimmer switches;

Lightolier recessed lighting;

Kohler sinks, toilet, bath fixtures (though nothing outrageous).

As I said, compared to a lot of the finishes you see in Dwell or even in some of the Res4 projects detailed on their site, ours are modest and genuinely cost effective (and of course largely unspectacular).

More about the Factory Visit

As usual, we were well received by the folks at Simplex (last time I was there they put my name on the marquis on the highway). We had asked Jason beforehand if it would be ok if our kids tagged along and they were happy to oblige (though they kept us out of the factory). It was really great to actually step inside of the box and feel what the space was like. When we were first looking around at the different prefab options, we had no real perspective on what 14' wide or 16' wide would be like for the whole length of a house - those are both obviously fine dimensions for a single room, but how does it feel to have a whole house fit into that width? When we first met with Res4, we were lucky to learn that they had a project on Long Island that had recently been set that was right around the corner from my mom's house. There were contractors on the job, and we met with the foreman one afternoon last summer and walked through. It was an enormous house - I think it was four modules. But we were really able to see how a single bar would work just fine for what we wanted. So yesterday it was reassuring to actually stand in ours and feel how open and comfortable the space is. The soffit feels like it extends a bit further into the middle of the house than I was expecting, but it certainly has the anticipated effect of forcing one's attention to the sliding glass wall and it certainly exaggerates the height of the butterfly. Of course, as you can probably tell from the pics, the boxes in the yard are all stacked pretty close together, so the view was of some lumber and other materials. It'll be nice when it's a view of trees, sky and valley.

The finishes, for the most part, looked terrific. One of the real upsides of designing this as a second home/rental is that we aren't nearly as obsessive about the finishes as I'm sure we would be over a place we'd be living in full time. That's another of the paradoxical advantages of prefab (or at least the process as we've experienced it): constrained choice. Res4 has done this so many times now that they've identified a limited number of finishes that they think work. We picked cabinet and floor material/color, tile selection, sinks, faucets and appliances from a small set of options they recommended. They did the rest. So walking through the box I'm seeing things for the first time (like the brushed aluminum recessed lights, which we never discussed, but which look awesome). I'm sure we would have wanted more say over those types of finishes if this were a fulltime house, and I know I would have hated that process. (In a previous life I was a lawyer and I was involved not too long ago in a litigation over a $1.5MM custom home between the original builder and the owners. Reviewing the email and correspondence was really enlightening; having to pick every finish detail in a 5000sf home is an overwhelming task.) As a result, there are of course some things that wouldn't be my first choice - the windows on the uphill side of the house have white hardware, while the sliders have a much more attractive silver, for example. (I asked about that today, and John at Res4 said that Armstrong charges a hefty premium for the silver and Res4 doesn't think it's worth it.) So those are the kind of tradeoffs you're talking about when you cede control over the finer details. I'm happy with the tradeoff on the whole.

One big surprise (and it shouldn't have been, because both Res4 and Simplex talked to me about it months ago) is that we are going to have to paint. One of the realities of prefab travel and setting is that drywall inevitably cracks. I had reviewed this with everybody a couple of times; we discussed that Simplex will not be responsible for fixing any of it. But it turns out that, because of this inevitability, they don't do finish painting - just a white prime coat. And the sliding doors come unfinished as well. So that's one more thing to do on the back end. Not a big deal, but one more thing (and not a fun one, either).

There's also the fact that not everything's perfect at this stage. Wrong size cabinet here or there, mismatched door hinges, little things. The last apartment that we owned (in a wonderful old cast-iron building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn - man did it kill me to have to sell that place) was also new construction, so we were used to the idea that there are always things that get missed/need to be fixed. That's something I think anybody who's doing this process for the first time should be prepared for. The key is to have good communication and a good process for how that stuff gets resolved (and between Res4's very high expectations and Simplex's excellent responsiveness, we've been very happy with that part of this process).

Sarah says my posts are always too long, so I'll stop here. But more about the visit soon.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Today's Factory Visit

Well the house is coming along great. The EPDM is on, bamboo floors are in, bathroom is being tiled, trim is being fitted. It was great to see everything in person rather than pictures...

Simplex seems to be keeping up with Res4's attention to detail, and it's great to know that both of them are as excited as we are about getting everything done right. I hear some of the guys at the factory have even been checking in on this blog - if so, thanks for all the hard work.

On to pics. I'll just put them up and say a bit more about the visit tomorrow...

Gotta wear your hardhat:

Looking up at the peak of the butterfly over the master bedroom:

Open windows of the downhill side of the bedroom:

From the inside of that bedroom:

Clerestory window above the stairs:

Double windows and tile in the bath:

Close-up of bath window and tile (the sills are sloped toward the shower, which is a nice touch - thank you Simplex):

Bamboo floor (darker than you usually see):

Close-up of the bamboo:

Sliding mechanism for bedroom pocket door:

Brushed aluminum recessed lights (look very sharp):

Trim in the living room (just tacked right now):

Kitchen cabinets (I was worried about how the sloped ceiling would look above them - I wanted a soffit to come flush to the front of the cabinets; I was convinced otherwise and I'm glad. The slope of the ceiling is pretty dramatic with the shadowing here):

Front door hardware:

Sliding door hardware (same finish as the front door, but the light is different here):

Monday, May 21, 2007

I should be grading papers right now, but instead...

...more pics from the factory. These are from last Friday. We'll be at the factory tomorrow, where I understand they installed the floors today and began the tile. So more pics tommorrow night.

Toward the master bedroom:

The entrance side:

Toward the kitchen:

The shower stall (to be tiled with white subway tile):

Looking at where the stairs will be (this plywood will be knocked out and stairs will be build on site; the factory would build them and ship them loose like they are with some other items, but being off at all with the foundation height would create problems):

Down the hall toward the bedroom (these floor-to-ceiling cabinets are across from the bathroom):

The corner windows in the master bedroom (which I think is my favorite part of the whole house):

Framing the cricket in the roof (EPDM is going on at the end of the week I think):

Saturday, May 19, 2007


I've begun to post hard numbers for our budget here. I've posted a permanent link to that page on the bar on the left. I've tried to list site costs first, and house costs second, but the whole science of calculating $/sf is lost on me (I don't know what gets included and what doesn't). If anything is unclear or if there are costs I've missed, shoot me a note (lostrivermodern AT gmail DOT com). I'll be doing this piecemeal, so bear with me.

Friday, May 18, 2007


No pics from Res4 today, but here's another rendering from Res4 with a fuller perspective (the windows on the corner will actually have another set underneath them):

They've also updated our status page, so people can see our project on their site (along with lots of other great Res4 homes). We'll be headed to the factory on Tuesday and we'll definitely have some pics as soon as we get home.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Too Hot in the Hot Tub

I know it's probably blasphemous, but Michael and I occasionally sing it Godfather style.

Anyway, anybody have one of these? We're scouting out hot tubs and it looks like a lot of different people are selling these barrel stave cedar ones. Please leave a comment if you know anything about them...

Res4 Factory Visit

John was out at the factory today and said things are moving along. All the windows are in and they were getting ready to start the floor and tiling. They've got the box out of the assembly line and into the yard, so the pace of work is no longer dictated by the boxes in front and behind of ours in line. Sounds like they've slowed the pace down a bit to accommodate our concrete hold-up, which is nice. I think they're shooting to finish the box around the first week of June, and to deliver it the second week (after final inspections, punchlist items and signoff).

Should have some pics tomorrow. And Sarah and the boys and I have an appt at the factory next Tuesday afternoon for our first walk through, which should be very exciting. So lots more pics next week.

Insulated Concrete Forms

Just a note about our foundation. As you can see from the plan for the house, the foundation is kind of an "s": the three walls of the house (the fourth wall is panelized in the factory) and two retaining walls for the parking pad. We explored using an ICF like Superior Walls, which seem to have some pretty good upsides, but because they can't be used as retaining walls we still would have had to pour concrete (or come up with another option like Allen Block). So it didn't make sense for us. (A cost comparison is difficult - the ICFs cost a little more, but they give you better insulation and often come studded and ready for drywall.) But you can read more about why it might be a good choice at GreenOptions (with some different opinions down at the bottom).

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Context for our $/sf

I want to give some perspective to the rough $/sf numbers that correspond with what I posted below. One of our goals when we designed this project was to keep the costs down. We were originally looking at just a single bar design, the most cost effective option, but that was pretty cramped. We talked about a double decker; we talked about a double decker with a half box for the second floor. Res4 was completely attuned to how to maximize space for the money, and walked us through which aesthetic and design elements meant how much money. A pitched roof, clerestory windows, decking, external stair modules - each of these has a pretty identifiable $/sf effect; the Dwell House, for example, has design components that correspond to additional costs that we won't have.

So by way of comparison of our house to something like the Dwell House:

-our module will only be one box, and it will sit on a walkout basement that has the same footprint. This minimizes the button-up process - literally just siding and constructing the stairs. The more modules, and the less footprint shared by the modules, the more "sewing" is needed to bring them all together (interior and exterior);

-our box is coming finished on the interior - floors, cabinets, trim, the works. There is literally nothing left to be done on the interior except appliances and the stairs (we were hoping it would even come with exterior siding, but no luck). Bigger projects will need to have the modules joined on the inside where appropriate, meaning the floors, trim, drywall, etc. need site work (though I get the sense from Res4 that they've got some bigger projects than ours in the works that are really maximizing the finish-level out of the factory);

-Res4 designed a "modified butterfly" roof for us. Instead of a separately constructed module unit that would come on its own trailer and need to be put together on site (with all the post-set work that entails), we've got a roof that is being built in the factory on top of the box. That means we need to live with an 11' height profile (max allowed on the roads), and lower ceilings in the house (9' ceilings on the interior at the highest part of the butterfly, and 7' at the lowest - there's a soffit that runs the length of the house). This reduced our cost significantly - the Dwell House's roof module prices out now at about $30/sf (but you get a wonderful 14' ceiling);

-the walkout basement really helps keep the cost down, and it's half the square footage of our cabin (though this is a smaller project at 2000sf, so a bigger building envelope would spread the fixed costs like the well, utilities, etc. over more square feet);

-our finishes are modest by comparison to what you see in a lot of the high-end modern stuff that's out there. Nothing "cheap," but certainly cost-effective.

That's all simply to say that our $/sf is probably a very low baseline for purposes of comparison to other Res4 projects.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

More Factory Pics

Here are the latest pics from the factory. John Kim at Res4 took them during his visit to the factory on Friday, May 11; sounds like they going slow (for them). They were planning on being finished by tomorrow, Wednesday, May 16 - doesn't sound like they will be. That is fine with us, as we could use a little buffer to get our foundation walls up.

Looking from the kitchen toward the entrance door:

From the entrance back toward the kitchen:

The uphill window in the master bedroom:

Architect's fee

So someone has wondered whether paying Res4 an architect fee for what is such a simple design was worth it. I think that person was an architect and was being snide. (And I'm sure Res4 would say "what do you mean, simple?") But I'll answer it because I'm sure other people must wonder the same thing.

I was ambivalent about the return on that 15% in the beginning of this process and I can only say that it was an educated leap of faith. You don't know exactly what you're going to be getting for that money other than what your architect tells you and what you can learn about their process. I was satisfied on both counts before we signed up with Res4 that we were going to get our money's worth, and we have. We've taken up more than our fair share of Res4's time and resources over the last year, and been through quite a few designs (and iterations of this design) to get to where we are today. They've encouraged (and enabled) us to be our own GC. They've been spot on with all cost estimates, and they've delivered what they told us they would. They've more than earned their fee.

But more importantly for us, they were the best option (fee included) for the process we had in mind. We looked at the weeHouse, the LV, MKD, the Empyrean offerings, at stock plans that we could stick build. And at the end of the day, for the house we're getting, at the cost we're getting it for, in the time its taking, Res4 made the most sense for us.

Homesite update and some issues we're dealing with

Yesterday I met with the contractor who's coordinating the set, Mark Wratchford. As you can imagine, West Virginia has its fair share of modular construction, and Mark's been setting traditional modular homes for a while. I met with him last summer before we had even found our land; he spent the day showing me around his various job sites in the Lost River valley (which has a pretty energetic second home boom going on). The guys at Res4 had told us that anyone with a good modular background would probably be good for our job; the trick for them has been finding competent people to do finish work when necessary. Because we've got so little (and such uncomplicated) finish work, the finer points of modern architecture and finish work that can slow a bigger job down shouldn't be too much of a problem (crossing fingers).

We're dealing with lots of little logistical questions at the moment. First, we got the structural engineer's report and third-party stamps a couple of weeks ago. (As I've said, Hardy County has what I'd call a "buy your permit, build your house" ethos when it comes to this process. This is another thing that makes this project a little unique for those trying to learn from our timeline - with a PERC test and a well permit you can get a building permit here; we dug the holes for the PERC last Thursday and expect to have our building permit by the end of next week. And there's no inspection process or certificate of occupancy req't; all this is likely to change as the county reacts to the construction boom.) The original design gave us the option for either block or poured concrete walls for the foundation, and Mark had planned on using block (which his crews can do). But the engineering report, apparently to reduce the complexity of the strap/hinge combination that will tie the box to the foundation, decided we needed to have poured concrete. Since Mark doesn't do the forms, he needs to sub it out and the subs are all booked for a few weeks (again, I imagine this project is unique in that changes like this, though causing a small delay, are not traumatic). So we need to figure out what to do with the manufactured box in the meantime (it's supposed to be delivered around the time the concrete walls will be poured). One option is to park it at the bottom of the road for a week while the concrete cures (not my first choice). Another is to ask the factory to hold it on their end (which is not ideal for them, but probably what will end up happening).

Second, we need to figure out how, when the box is delivered, to get the trailer around the 150 degree hairpin turn on our driveway. That's the scariest thing we're dealing with right now. Bulldozers can do lots of pushing and pulling of trailers, and there are special hydraulic dollies that can move them sideways, but it won't be pretty. And since I'm technically the GC, there's a little question about insurance (and who's responsible for the box from the time it's unhooked from the truck to the time the crane picks it).

Third, how can we minimize the clearing of the site to maintain as much of the trees while still accommodating a crane (which needs a 30'x30' pad below the foundation) and the house, which both Mark and the crane guy want on the other side of the crane? Our road comes into the house on the high side, and these guys want about 50' of room and a road on the low side as well. In our minds, we were imagining a quaint little driveway that bends into the house so you see it all at once. Instead, at the moment we've got a 60' wide road that holds very little in the way of suspense. These are the realities that we are getting used to, and one of the (minor) disadvantages of prefab - you need a bigger envelope than you would if you stick built in the same place (bigger road, bigger clearing for the homesite, etc.).

Today they finished clearing the site and dug the foundation (though I had to head back to DC before they started the hole). Here's where they were when I took off:

And we got a "911 Address" - though we wish they hadn't spraypainted it on the poplar tree:

Monday, May 14, 2007

At the site today

Just a quick post - I'll recap later. But I wanted to put up a couple of pics of the Lost River valley - pretty nice this time of year.

Friday, May 11, 2007

What things cost

While I said when I started this blog that I would be frank about how much everything costs (because that was the info I most wanted to know when I started exploring this process), I've been tardy in getting the numbers up for people to see. That's mostly because we weren't sharing this blog with anybody. But now that we are I need to figure out a way to present what everything has/will cost in a way that makes sense. For now it'll just be in the form of this post. But if anybody has any better ideas about how to maintain such a thing on blogger (or questions about costs I haven't detailed), let me know.

The cabin will be a 3BR 2BA, roughly 2000sf space. Master bedroom, common bath, open kitchen/dining/living space on the upper floor (the factory-manufactured box); 2 bedrooms, common bath, mechanical and rec/media room in the walkout basement (see the May entry on Floor Plans). The walkout wall of the basement will be panelized in the factory (with windows/sliders) and installed by the set crew before the box is set on top. We haven't hired a GC; instead we've hired a very competent excavator to get us up to the site and dig the foundation, and a contractor who has lots of experience doing traditional modular sets and finishes to pour the foundation and coordinate the set. There's not a whole lot of complicated stuff going on here (that's getting done in the factory!), and Res4 (and my contractors) has been really great with guiding us through the process. We've done some significant interior renovations (kitchen, bath, plumbing) ourselves before, but no real construction management competence to speak of. The biggest negative of not having a GC so far has been having to get out to the site often enough (it's a 2-3 hr drive, depending on the time of day).

We hope to do most of the finishing work on site ourselves. That will include installing the cedar siding, building the deck, and finishing out the basement. The skills I'm sure we'll need contractors for are electric, flashing and HVAC; we'll see how the rest goes.

OK - our ballpark budget for the house (excluding land) was about $250K when we started. Our original intention when we first met with Res4 was to put a single bar on concrete piers and be done - a crowded 2BR design was worked out, with minimal site work to speak of. But after walking the site with Res4 and talking it over with them, it made much more sense to do a walkout basement - the construction cost for that kind of space is about half the cost we were looking at out of the factory (which was already very economical at about $150/sf), and we thought the extra space made more sense both for rental and resale purposes (not to mention personal use). So we opened our budget up a bit more, and continue to believe that we can economize with some sweat equity in finishing the basement.

That said, here are our rough numbers so far:

Land: $142K - 30 acres in Lost River, WV;

Prefab Module: $155K - 16'x64' (1024 sf) factory manufactured unit, including all interior finishes except appliances, excluding exterior siding and flashing (*here's a place where soft costs need to be kept in mind - that $155K number INCLUDES tax (which is a tricky thing to figure for the purchase of a prefab module), transportation-related expenses, the structural engineering, third-party stamps/seals, and the panelized front wall of the basement);

Road: $38K - our land was unimproved and getting a road up to the homesite was an exceptional cost for this site, which we knew going in;

Foundation, septic, HVAC, basement wiring and plumbing, well, polished concrete basement floor: $75K (this is still an estimate);

Deck, siding, finishing basement (most of which we hope to do ourselves): unknown, but rough numbers for the materials at this point are around $10k;

Design fee (15% of the rough construction cost of $225K): - $34K.

So the math works out like this - excluding the land and the road, our house cost is less than $275K for just over 2000sf (figure another $40K or so if we had a contractor finish the basement out). That's pretty affordable, as far as we're concerned, for the terrific design and streamlined process that we're getting, and we're thrilled that Res4 has been so close with all the numbers we talked about in the beginning of this process. Long way to go, still, but it's all going to happen very quickly over the next month or so...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Pics from the factory!!!

So this is what it looks like to have your house built on wheels in a factory! To give you a sense of how quickly this process moves, the factory started framing on Wednesday, May 2. These first four pics were taken on Monday, May 7 (the last one was taken today, Thursday, May 10). They expect to finish (done, ready for first walk through) next Wednesday, May 15.

Exterior from the front:

From the back (you can make out the butterfly of the roof in the left foreground, though it's subtle):

View from the stairs looking toward the kitchen:

From the master bedroom:

Cabinets in the bedroom:

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Clearing the Homesite

All kidding aside, Louie and Elmo (the bulldozer and excavator operators) really seem to know what they're doing. Both older guys (50s), both chewing dip (and sometimes smoking a cigarette to boot), both been operating these machines in this part of West Virginia since they were teenagers. Not being any of these things, I'm really impressed by the whole process. (Louie actually said today that he'd worked in fish hatcheries as a kid, and wished he'd stuck with it, but was awed by the idea of actually driving a bulldozer. Now his body's tired of it.) They are amazingly precise with these immense pieces of equipment. And there's a lot of thinking that goes into it: we're not trucking all the brush off the site (the excavator is going to take most of the tree trunks - you'll see them stacked in a lot of the pics; they're not mature enough to turn into lumber, so his guys will split them for firewood), so the tops and bottoms of the trees need to get buried. The whole process of building the road was a matter of deciding where to get dirt to replace all the soil that got scooped up with the trees, and where to bury the trees. They map it out before hand, work for a bit, adjust as necessary.

Long story short, they dug a 30' hole today, most of the dirt from which will be used for backfill after the house is set, and they cleared and buried a whole lot of debris. Here are some before, during, and after pics:

Road is roughed in all the way to the homesite

I was out at the site this morning. They've done quite a bit since last week: installed some pipe to bring water under the road, finished roughing in the road all the way to the homesite (including the switchback), and cleared a pad for the equipment necessary to drill the well. Today I talked with Louie and Elmo (not kidding) about the perimeters of the homesite, how far to clear, where we'll need backfill, etc. I was there for most of the morning and they made pretty good headway.

First some pics of the road (first looking away from the homesite toward the switchback, then looking up toward the homesite):

Here's what the switchback looks like now v. last week: