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Posted by Steven in Colorado Springs, CO on 1/20/2011

In a project of Tanglewood's size, there were literally thousands of things that went right, so right that I didn't even notice them as they went by. That's understandable enough—after all you don't notice if there's a fork in the drawer when you go to snag one for dinner, you only notice if there's not one there.

Some things stand out though as particularly significant. When all was said and done, these are the things I thought went so well as to merit special note:

Radiant Heat Better Than I Thought

I am incredibly happy with the decision to extend radiant heat throughout the house, and equally pleased that it was Colleen and I who did the work rather than have a sub do it.

Back when we were first designing Tanglewood and going to various Home and Garden shows, Colleen and I quickly fell in love with the idea of radiant heat after visiting a couple of booths at the shows. While both of them provided me with extensive information about how much the system might cost and when in the construction process they wanted to be involved, I quickly discovered from talking to folks here at OwnerBuilderBook that radiant tubing was both dirt simple to install and a good way to save money. After much fiddling with designs with Architectural Engineer Scott, I decided that his approach was too “theoretical” and I quickly elected to design the system myself with the extremely useful LoopCad radiant heat design software.

After some research, I quickly decided on going with the one of the most “dense” configurations I could deploy, laying out the 1/2” PEX tubing at 8” intervals. While this size tubing can theoretically be laid out with 6” loops, that's fairly rare; Builder Dale offered that he'd rarely seen systems placed tighter than one-foot loops. For the same reasons, I didn't want a subcontractor to do it—not only did that seem like a frivolous waste of monies, but I had my doubts I'd get the layout and spacing that I desired. My approach would drive up installation costs and increased the number of manifold loops I needed, but it also would provide for extremely even coverage and more uniform temperature differentials along each loop. I didn't want any “cold spots” at all on the floor anywhere and tighter loop spacing helped me reach that goal.

Similarly I got a lot of pushback on my plan to deploy loops in the garage, where I was told more than once that it was a needless cost that wouldn't add much value. I heard a couple of stories regarding folks who'd installed radiant systems in their garage who “never used them” since the garages were keep warm enough with heat seeping into the garage slab from the house proper. I stuck to my guns on this though; the weather I have at 8,000 feet is significantly different than the houses that were offered as examples at 5,000 feet, and I felt that the benefits of having cars that weren't at sub-zero temps far outweighed the extra $700 of tubing and manifold.

The results have been remarkable. The house heats up more quickly than many of similar size do (the heavy underslab insulation here surely helps this) and stays warm even with open doors. The air coming in the door is cold, of course, but you aren't since you're standing on a nice warm slab. And the radiant heats everything touching the floor to around 6 or 7 feet up—the walls, the toilets, the countertops, the furniture—anything touching the floor soaks up the heat. This makes the whole room into a heat radiator bathing you in warmth from all angles. It's simply marvelous.

ICFs Were a Fantastic Building Choice

Deciding to build with ICFs was quite simply the best choice we could have possibly made. I couldn't be happier with it.

ICFs were by no means our initial choice—in fact we didn't even know they existed early in the process. When we were first trying to figure out how to build Tanglewood, Colleen and I went through a lot of different construction options. She was a big fan of building with something along the lines of straw bales or possibly a cob house, as these have excellent heat retention and insulating properties and seemed amenable to DIY (which early on we wanted to do). Cob in particlar was attractive to Colleen, since it would allow her to make the house very “organic” and curved throughout, with built-in planters and countertops that would simply rise up from the floor.

Later (after the first Lord of the Rings movie) we both became big fans of the idea of building Tanglewood mostly underground a la a hobbit hole. We flirted with this for quite a while with Colleen in particular liking the “low visibility” aspect of the idea, and even drew up a plan or two, but the logistics of digging into the hill and siting access into the structure eventually killed the idea.

For a bit we looked a log homes, but almost immediately after this Colleen stumbled across the ICF technique. By happenstance she had stopped at one of our neighbors' new house in the lower part of the canyon and they gave her a tour of their new place, which had been built entirely with ICFs. She immediately fell in love with the strength and thickness of the walls as well as their intrinsic R-value, and after she dragged me up for a tour the following weekend we were sold.

After that it was just a matter of picking out a system. There are probably 30 or so ICF systems in the United States, and they all have some pretty strong claims. I eventually whittled down the list in an engineering fashion, making a list of those systems that most appealed to me and then building a spreadsheet of the pros and cons of each. After this I solicited bids from each company, and those that replied (it's amazing how few contractors actually felt they needed to answer my emails) got put on the short list. After that it was a toss-up between two particular brands, PolySteel and BuildBlock.

A chance meeting with the local BuildBlock rep sealed the deal. We'd run into him early in our search when he was a PolySteel dealer; while we liked him immensely he didn't handle our area, and directed us to the local PolySteel guy. The second time Colleen ran into him though, was at a BuildBlock training session, which he coincidentally was attending as a brand new BuildBlock dealer. Very excited at the prospect of working with someone we both liked using a system we were both fond of sealed the deal, and we quickly elected to let Builder Dale handle the overall construction.

ICFs have proven to be strong, durable, and to provide a fantastic thermal mass that we've seen reflected in how well the house has maintained its temperature over the winter since construction was completed. I've had the heating system turned completely off for days at a time and the house has maintained a steady temperature with only sunlight shining through the windows during the day. The walls are razor-straight and extremely solid, providing for a quiet and draft-free interior that you just don't get in a standard “stick built” house. Tanglewood simply “feels” strong and solid, like it's a part of the hillside rather than something sitting ON the hill. ICFs are simply an amazing way to build a house, and I'd recommend them to anybody. They're well worth the slight premium over a stick-built house.

Building with LiteDeck Was a Particularly Good Idea

The LiteDeck floors came out amazingly well, I thought.

When we were originally working out Tanglewood's design with Architectural Engineer Scott, I honestly hadn't given a great deal of thought to the flooring of the house, particularly between the first and second floors. When he began asking me about it though, and tossed a couple of flyers for LiteDeck at me, I did a bit of research, quickly deciding that this kind of product (basically ICFs laid on the side) was exactly perfect for the house. The flooring would be thick and solid, with the radiant heat tubing embedded directly into the concrete rather than resorting to the staple-up that comes with trusses and wood construction.

Mind you, the design changed considerably once it met the builder. The original plans called for a floor about 4” thick, using the main fireplace as an anchor and support for the upper floor. Once Builder Dale and Engineer John got a good look at those blueprints, however, they quickly decided they did not like this idea. For one, it meant tying the fireplace to the main house footers—an increase in both cost and work—and in making the fireplace a support element, it meant that I couldn't easily change elements of it down the road. It also complicated the main stairwell and put the radiant tubing (which is nominally buried about 3” into the slab) dangerously close to the “bottom edge” of the second floor (or the ceiling of the first floor). They quickly ran some numbers and came up with a floor that while considerably thicker—we ended up with a 17” slab—was strong enough to support itself without relying on the main fireplace, and which would isolate the second floor radiant from the first floor.

The biggest benefit, though, is the amazing solidity of the thing! When you're on the second floor you don't feel like you're walking around on a second floor, if that makes any sense. The floor is solid as a rock (literally, I guess) and you have absolutely no feeling that you're on anything other than the ground floor until you look out a window. Builder Dale remarked at one point that I could “park a tank” on the second floor if I had a mind to, and I absolutely believe that—the earlier worries I had about putting a lot of dead weight in the form of books and arcade machines in the library have been utterly banished. This puppy is solid.

It's also dead quiet, a fantastic sound and heat insulator. I'd originally worried about putting the media room on the second floor due to concerns over sound propagation through the floor to whatever rooms were below, and because of that had arranged the design to place it over the garages (it was initially directly over the kitchen where the library is now). With the floor being so thick and comprised of a mix of Styrofoam and concrete, absolutely no sound gets through it at all, and the radiant heat goes up into the living area rather than being dispersed into the deeper areas of the flooring. I've had radios blaring upstairs and not been able to hear them at all downstairs unless they and I happened to be near the stairwell. It seems very clear that once the house is fully occupied and there are TVs and radios blaring all over the place that there won't be much 'cross talk' between areas.

Now all of this extra concrete did add to the cost (and frankly the LiteDeck wasn't exactly priced at a discount even with the amount we bought) but it was well worth it. Engineer John was very pleased, saying he wished more people would use LiteDeck (or one of the other similar products such as InsulDeck) in their construction. Colleen was happy, because it gave us a “safe area” if a tree should ever fall over onto the house—it might crush the roof and attic, but it would be unlikely to make the first floor uninhabitable. I liked it because it just made the whole house “feel” more solid.

One tidbit that was a bit amusing to me cropped up shortly after the upper floor was poured. Turned out that for a few months Tanglewood was the largest single installation of a LiteDeck in a private residence west of the Mississippi. It only got beat out when a millionaire in Texas (I believe) elected to use it for every floor (including his ground floor) in a house he was building. Kinda neat.

Using LiteDeck was a pricey option, but has proven to be well worth the added cost.

The Fireplace is Spectacular

While not really quite what I'd expected, I must admit that the main fireplace is spectacular.

We'd always intended for the main fireplace to be a focal point of the great room. With two stories of height, it could hardly be anything else, so I worked with that to make it as massive and imposing as I could so that it would be a prominent feature. I selected the largest fireplace I could reasonably find short of a custom build (which is an option that lends a whole new meaning to the word “expensive”) and crafted the fireplace to as massive as possible while still giving you room to get around the thing. So as to not throw off the focus of the room, I had insisted that it be centered at the far end opposite the main door.

There were problems of course. Early on, the builder's engineer wrestled with how to tie the fireplace slab into the house footers so that they would all move as a single unit if the house should ever shift (perish the thought!). Later when the first floor slab was being poured, we ran into a problem with the steps down from the main level (across the kitchen and garage) into the great room proper—the concrete folks very nearly left out the steps which would have greatly increased the amount of concrete necessary (and probably have screwed up the radiant heat out there since it would have been too deep to work well). Once we started building the stack, two more problems emerged—Builder Dale suddenly discovered that the Tempcast unit I wanted wouldn't be available in the necessary time frame and the fireplace chimneys wanted to go right through the main trusses of the roof. We solved both problems relatively quickly (I settled for a lesser, more conventional fireplace called a MagnaFire, while the crew constructed balustrades to route the chimneys around the trusses).

The most expensive part though, and one I insisted on throughout construction, was the rock facing. I wanted the fireplace to really stand out and a stone facing seemed the best way to do that. Of course it was an expense and one we talked about cutting at one point, but I was certain that to really make it work it needed to be stone. I elected to use the same stone I had picked for the outside of the house, in essence bringing some of that “inside” as a form a continuity, and it was an excellent choice. As soon as Stonemason Jeremy began the work, we all agree that this was the 'right look”, and we only got happier with the fireplace as more stone went up.

A nice and unexpected touch came to us on the kitchen side of the fireplace, courtesy of Colleen. While the great room side makes for an imposing edifice rising two stories into the rafters, the kitchen side has almost a “cozy” feeling that seemed perfect for a couple of easy chairs and a reading lamp. The missing element (not originally in the design) was that we needed a mantel for that side of the fireplace, and Colleen had the perfect solution—a massive oak plank that her grandfather had found while renovating the family cabin a few years before. Stained and mounted above the kitchen side of the fireplace, it provides the perfect touch to the coziness of the area, and a fitting adjunct to the nearby kitchen.

The fireplace is pretty much everything we'd wanted—massive, solid, imposing. The great room side fills one end of the room and immediately focuses the eye when you enter the room. The upstairs fireplace (which sports a propane unit built into the same stack) looks magnificent with the balustrades bracketing it and forms a fine backdrop to the library. The kitchen side is cozy, inviting, and friendly; a perfect place to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate and a good book in front of a roaring fire.

I'm very pleased with the fireplace.

A Big Garage is a Big Plus

I had always wanted the garage to be a large one, having lived in two houses with garages that claimed to be large enough for two cars, but which barely fit one realistically. In both, the garage ended up being half parking and half storage, with barely enough room for one car much less two.

I did not want that to happen at Tanglewood, and so I deliberately designed the garages to be large. The depth was driven by the size of my Suburban, 1973 monster that was just about as big as they made them. I sized the depth by simply measuring the length of my Suburban and adding four feet so that I might be able to park it and walk around it comfortably, and this in turn drove the size of that “wing” of the house. The length was driven by a combination of wanting to provide sufficient space on either side of each car to be able to open their doors without smacking the next vehicle over and a desire to have a reasonable separation between the main house and the apartment. I felt it was important that whoever was in the apartment (in this case my mother) felt independent and autonomous, while still being part of the house and able to travel between the two without venturing outside.

I also wanted a large amount of storage and room for tools and whatnot. To this end, I made sure to install a bunch of outlets along the rear of the garage, where I will eventually put workbenches and the like to create numerous areas for projects, tool storage, and the like. Shelving hanging from the ceiling combined with storage cabinets will provide lots of storage that will prove warm and dry, since the garages are built exactly like the rest of the house—this was no add-on or attachment made after the fact.

Another lesson learned from other houses was that I wanted the garage to be both heated and to have built-in drains. Having lived in houses without drains, both Colleen and I have gotten very tired of parking a car covered in snow and ice only to find huge puddles of mushy mess all over the floor the following morning. A drain would fix this problem handily, taking any water that might drip from the car out of the garage and away from the house. Similarly, the luxury of a heated garage was one that I simply couldn't overlook, especially at 8,000 feet in the foothills. There's a huge difference between getting into a car that's been protected overnight and kept even at a relatively chilly 40oF and a car that's been sitting outside in wind and snow and -10o F temperatures!

The result was generally better than I'd hoped. There's a huge amount of space along the back wall and opposite most of the car ports (only the Suburban will come close to filling its spot) for a variety of workbenches and some larger tools like air compressors and the like. I will eventually put shelves up, though that's going to be an ongoing project, and of course there's room reserved in one corner for the (eventual) central vac installation. The apartment garage is slightly cozier given the size of the car that will be there, but I think there's enough room for a row of shelving along one wall. The heating for the garage is operated by an entirely different manifold (located under the stairs) so I can keep the area at a lower temperature than the house interior—after all I'm not planning to live in there, I just want my cars to be not freezing. We made sure that the drains are large pipes with very straight runs that daylight out beyond the driveway, avoiding any ice sheet problems that might come from successive waves of melted snow.

The garage is the largest single space in the house; I like the way it came out.

The Media Room Looks Amazing

From the very beginning I was insistent that Tanglewood was going to have its own media room—I place I could devote to movies and games where I could crank them up as loud as one might want without possibly bothering anybody else. Overall I'm quite pleased with how it came out.

Locating the media room was something of a challenge. Originally my thought was that it would be central to the house, locating it directly above the kitchen in a “core axis” that focused on my main activities of the day—eating (the kitchen), entertainment (the media room), and computing (the tower). I quickly abandoned that idea, though, when I realized that locating the media room above the kitchen prevented sealing it up against light and noise (since the main stairwell was right there) and if both the computer room and the media room were in use, you'd have people transiting the area—not a good layout. I was also somewhat worried about the possibility of noise from the media room making its way into the kitchen below, disrupting conversation and (inevitably) leading to yells to “turn that thing down!” at some point.

Moving it over the garage seemed the natural solution. It's the area most likely to be empty and unoccupied at any one moment, and so any sound penetration that might happen wouldn't bother anybody. Better yet, it was a natural extension of the upstairs layout in the only direction we had left to go, since the library and the upper deck had eaten up the room in that direction and putting something over the great room was a big no-no. I could also make it as large as I wanted, since I had the entire length of the garage to work with; my only restriction there was that I didn't want to put any part of the room over the apartment (since that might lead to the same noise complaints as having it over the kitchen).

(Of course all of this was before we got the 17”-thick floors instead of the original 4”-thick ones. My guess now is that you couldn't hear anything unless it was turned up to max volume and facing directly down onto the floor!)

Once the location in the layout was selected, the rest flowed relatively easily. We had a small bumpout area due to the way the hall wrapped around the room that created a natural galley kitchen in the back of the media room, and that meant you could keep snacks up there rather than having to haul them back and forth from the main kitchen below. There was plenty of room for a raised area to make staggered seating possible, and the wall at the far end of the room made for a natural and obvious projection surface. LED lights (the same style I put on the main stairs) provide a low-illumination guide as to where the steps for the platform are, so accidental missteps should be avoided. Since I had insisted on no windows, I had to have a vent from the main house vent installed, but it's not noisy and shouldn't be a distraction, which was my primary objection to the idea of a window. This is also one of the few rooms in the house that I allowed to be carpeted for sound-control reasons and while I'm not a big fan of the stuff (I think it gets too dirty) it works well here.

My goal was for a snug, warm, tidy room that you could make as dark as you desired to watch TV and movies and maybe make a little snack as you were doing so. The media room came out just about perfect. It should serve quite well in this capacity.

Solar Siting is Excellent

We honestly never really set out to build an off-the-grid house. I think early in the process both Colleen and I figured we'd have some kind of power to supplement the grid-supplied juice, but it wasn't a goal per se—just something that seemed good to have when you're five miles into the foothills!

Those five miles proved to be significant, however, when it came time to start looking at how to get electricity run back to Tanglewood. The county was perfectly willing to do this and there's even a state law that makes them pick up part of the cost—the first half mile, that is. (The law is intended to make it practical to run power to ranches out in the middle of 300-acre spreads.) Their estimated cost for running a power line to Tanglewood was ~$500,000, and we got to spring for all of it up front. (They allowed as how we could get proportional rebates added back as credits against usage later on if our neighbors decided to hook up to the grid too—wow, what a deal!) Of course given its location if there ever were a break in the line during a storm, we'd likely be the lowest priority in the county for any repairs too.

Wow... what a deal!

So we did like our other neighbors and decided that we'd just make our own power, thank you very much. Most folks in the canyon just make their own power as they need it with a generator, since their cabins and homes are primarily used over the summer. Since we planned to actually be living up there (only one other couple had done this by the time we started building) we looked at both wind and solar as options. (My preferred third option, a fuel cell generator, simply wasn't far enough along in deployment or cost reduction to be feasible and still isn't even as I write this.) We ruled out hydro power off of the creek simply because it doesn't run all year—when it does run, it provides an excellent stream and in time tapping that might be a good idea, for but year-round use it simply wasn't an option.

Early on I was a big fan of wind and it even led to my buying a Davis Weather Station so I could put together some wind numbers for the site. Wind has the ability to provide power 24/7 rather than just when the sun shines and that appealed to me a lot, since (reasonably) I would be using power 24/7 too. Unfortunately, there aren't really any good wind sites on the property—the best site is atop a ridge a good 600 feet from the main house, very difficult to reach on foot much less with motorized equipment. The second best location was a bit closer (500 feet) but too close to the property line; there's a rule in our county that wind turbine towers must be located so that if they fall they can't fall onto a neighbor's land. I also would have had to cut down a lot of trees to clear a large enough area around the turbine (they want to be at least 50 feet higher than anything else around them to prevent air turbulence) and that just wasn't an appealing option.

That's what led me to solar and the need to identify a site. The “traditional” way to deploy solar panels is usually on the roof of the house, but I didn't want the panels located on Tanglewood's roof for a couple of reasons:

  1. I didn't fancy the idea of any kind of roof penetration, the typical mounting method;

  2. As neat as I think solar panels are, they didn't fit the “look” we were trying to achieve with Tanglewood's “castle ski lodge” architecture.

  3. Honestly, the house site itself doesn't have great sunlight. In order to increase the amount of light getting to the panels, I'd have to take down a lot of trees and that did not appeal, since there's a reason we're living in a forest, dang it!

The site I'd previously scouted out as a possible wind turbine location, though, was perfect for a ground mount solar system. Overlooking the valley it has a fantastic exposure to the sun, getting over 6 hours of good (strong partial) or fantastic (direct exposure) light—and that's during the winter months. Summertime should prove even better, as the sun moves more slowly and more directly overhead. The slope gave us a natural deployment angle that was nearly perfect for the latitude and helped me avoid taking down as many trees as I would have had to cut on a flat area; as it happened I only had to trim out a few trees to open up the site to full sunlight.

There were problems of course. I thought we'd never get the holes for the ground mount piers drilled, and the cost of the main supply line that I had to buy to get the power to the house proper (500 feet of triple wound 4/0 wire) was astonishingly high. By comparison, the excavation itself was relatively inexpensive, though it destroyed the road for a couple of weeks and at times I wondered if we'd ever get the whole thing back to normal.

But the final result has been fantastic. I'm getting superb light throughout the day, more than I frankly had a right to expect, and I have room to expand the system down the road when I chose to do so. The solar shed (where all of the inverters and whatnot live) is well sited and has worked out better than I'd expected. There's plenty of room for adding a whole house backup generator down the road too, which any good off-grid system should have of course. I don't have enough batteries—this was an oversight that can be traced back to the initial bid, I'm afraid—but that's easily rectified and will be before the next winter.

It's just about everything I'd hoped that I would get out of an off-grid system—and no more utility bills!

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