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

Now for the negative part of the assessment—what went wrong.

Again, lest any reader feel I'm picking on anybody in particular let's be very clear that I'm not. Individuals from Builder Dale to Architectural Engineer Scott, to Colleen and Engineer John, to Solar LeRoy and Electrician Brett and the dozens of others who worked on Tanglewood did a great job in rough and sometimes unpleasant conditions to build this house. It was a difficult project with way more things going right than went wrong, and I don't believe anybody who set foot on the site did so with bad intent in mind.

And yet there are some things that just didn't come out right. Most of these ended up costing me money (which naturally makes them particularly memorable) and some subtract from what I think Tanglewood “should have been”. There were also some memorable fights about all of them which, sadly, seems to be part of the construction process—understandable when emotions naturally get invested in such a large and complicated project.

Here are the major things that went wrong:

Relying Too Much on Others to Control Costs

Let's be very straightforward here—Tanglewood was just plain more expensive to build than we ever thought it would be. I knew that it would be going in, and that part didn't surprise me.

What did surprise me, though, was how little insight I had into exactly where the money was going or what the schedule for getting things done was going to be. I got a basic budget outlining the gross items early in the process and never saw another one after that. The project seemed to have a life of its own at times that resisted my attempts to understand or influence it—I just showed up on weekend to do what I could do.

A good example of this lack of control was when I asked why I was spending good money to plow roads during the winter (early 2010) when we could stand down construction instead. I never got a satisfactory answer during this phase that actually explained anything—it seemed more important to keep the crews working than to keep them working effectively. This same philosophy carried through the entire construction process, with poor and incomplete explanations for costs and last-minute “emergencies” (inevitably requiring sums of money immediately) a continuing problem. I was never able to build up a good stockpile of cash just because of these ongoing, unplanned, poorly explained items. I could get explanations and had alternative ideas listened to when I put my foot down, but the emotional toll when I did this was considerable. I maintained a loose budget on my own, but could only track those items I pursued or had direct input to—this helped but it wasn't nearly enough. We seemed to lurch from milestone to milestone, with large amounts of time being spent on things that should have been quick (such as stacking the ICF) and then dealing with what seemed to be arbitrarily short time lines for other things (such as laying in the radiant heat tubing).

Later towards the end of construction, Colleen offered that they'd kept construction going even during the winter months to prevent any problems with the bank, who wanted to see progress each month. That's certainly reasonable enough, but I'm pretty sure we could have worked out something with them—after all they're out of Pueblo and they certainly understand the issues associated with building in Colorado.

I should have insisted on a more solid budget and a real schedule before we began building, and then sought hard explanations for any deviations. This was fundamentally my fault for not keeping a firmer hand on the project... if I were to build another house I wouldn't let this happen again.

Insufficient Contractor Oversight

Closely related to the first item, I relied far too much on others to make sure the contractors were working efficiently and effectively.

Most of this came from my need to be at work earning money rather than on the sight every day, which unfortunately led to Colleen having to work with the contractors alone. She did a very good job—let the record show this without ambiguity—but she was new to the management game and that contributed to what sometimes seemed to be a glacially slow progress. I think the slow progress led to some of the other problems noted too (sloppy ICF work, bad scheduling). Builder Dale had at least three other projects going at the same time and they frankly weren't moving along as smoothly as Tanglewood, and that prevented him from riding herd on this project as closely as I think he might have preferred as well. He relied on daily reports from Colleen and the contractors, and I don't believe the contractors always gave him the full story.

A part of this completely outside of our control was the state of the industry in general during this time frame. With the housing construction industry in full meltdown during the period of construction, this was very nearly the only game in town, and I think the crews probably worked slowly because there simply weren't other jobs in the queue. The crews were balancing a desire to get the project done with a desire to have a job in the first place, and that reflected on their overall speediness. I know that the economy also definitely had an impact on the bids I and Builder Dale received for various jobs, and not in a good way. Rather than trimming their rates and offering a better “bang for the buck” as one might expect in a downturn, it seemed as if the weaker companies died off and left the stronger ones as the only game in town—and they charged accordingly. I suspect that in a more “up” economy (and especially if we hadn't insisted on building during the winter months) that I wouldn't have had this problem.

Let's be very clear—the site was not easy to access or easy to work on. The altitude and the slope of the ground everywhere but on the house site itself led to a lot of problems, delays, and incidental issues that slowed down construction considerably. My failure here was in delegating too many decisions to others, and in not watching the construction process more closely.

It's the Wrong Fireplace

This was my single biggest disappointment with the entire build and one that I'll probably end up spending a lot of money on to fix down the road. I simply do not find that the reasons Tanglewood doesn't have one to be acceptable.

From the very beginning, I wanted a Tempcast masonry heater as the primary wood burning fireplace in Tanglewood, and this was clear to all involved. Placed in the center of the house (between the great room and the kitchen) and generating around 30,000 BTUs/hour, I knew this would be a clean, efficient way to supplement my radiant heat and to provide a cozy atmosphere that fit the “castle style” I was going for. The entire mass of the fireplace (which I'd always planned to be stone) would absorb this heat and release it slowly throughout the day, providing a warmth and atmosphere that I was greatly looking forward to. The best part of all was that these units come with provisions to build in a bake oven, and I was looking forward to baking pizzas and bread and all kinds of treats in this oven without having to touch my (much more precious) propane supply.

At the beginning of the summer of 2010 Tempcast was having a sale and I opined that this was a good opportunity to get my unit ordered, since we'd be installing it (I thought) by mid-summer. By the time mid-summer rolled around I started to inquire as to whether or not the unit had been ordered but had a difficult time getting an answer—Builder Dale was having trouble contacting Tempcast by phone. The line would ring and he'd leave messages, but nobody called him back—it was like the entire company had gone on vacation or something. This went on for several weeks and then, with the original construction deadline looming, we finally got some information...

...and it wasn't good. That sale Tempcast had held at the beginning of the summer had completely depleted their stocks and there were simply no units to be had, in any warehouse, anywhere. We called everyplace we could think of within driving range, reasoning that a road trip to pick it up in person was preferable to not having one at all. But there were simply none—and Tempcast wouldn't have any more for at least four weeks.

That was too late for our schedule, though. The initial construction schedule had us finishing up in mid-October, and it was already mid-September; we had to get the fireplace stack started soon if it was to be complete in time for everything else. If we wanted a fireplace, we had to pick something else—and so with great reluctance and not much enthusiasm I selected a Lennox MagnaFire instead.

And then, just for good measure, once the MagnaFire was ordered and the installation had started—we extended our construction schedule. Mind you we had to extend it, as there were just too many things left to accomplish and that was the right thing to do, but it put the whole Tempcast/MagnaFire issue into sharp and tragic focus. There probably would have been time to get a Tempcast in with a bit of juggling... but it was too late. I was stuck with this thing.

I'm not at all a fan of this fireplace. It looks nice enough, but it's nothing special, and its heat characteristics are (to me) abominable—I thought it did a poor job when we were running it back in November and didn't seem to provide much more than a flaming background to the room. The only thing it's really got going for it over the Tempcast is its size (nearly four feet across). I like this well enough when it's blazing away, but what you see is what you get—when the fire dies down it's just a regular fireplace, with no special heat-production abilities at all. Even worse because it's not a masonry unit, the fireplace stack isn't filled with the twists and turns that extract all of the heat from a fire that a masonry fireplace does—they had to be empty shells around exhaust stacks that end up pumping most of the heat generated by the wood right to the outside. What a horrible waste.

AND I didn't get a bake oven either. I was probably looking forward to that more than anything else... and now all I've got is a big rock face where it ought to go.

This was a critical and disastrous failure on the part of all involved, and one which I think leaves a huge black mark on the other mostly excellent construction record of Tanglewood. Even if I couldn't have a Tempcast, this house clearly calls for either a masonry unit of some kind or a fireplace that's so huge you could roast an ox in it, and frankly I don't see much need for a roasted ox. It's not going to be right until I fix it a few years from now, and that will involve ripping apart the stack to rebuild it the right way with the right kind of fireplace.

An inexcusable outcome—the greatest failure of the entire construction.

Sloppy ICF Work

While this didn't really affect the stability or intrinsic structural strength of the house, it drove me crazy how sloppily the ICF work was done.

Take a look at any ICF site... BuildBlock, PolySteel, Greenblock, you name it. In and around all of the ads and testimonials, you'll see lots of pictures of gorgeously stacked, zero waste, perfectly aligned houses and walls. The windows are exactly on even divisions that are natural lengths of whatever brand of block apart, doors reach to the top of some whole number of full-height forms, and corners and T-blocks are used throughout as needed to make for a harmonious, picture-perfect stack. If there are any cut blocks at all, they have clean edges and fit together snugly, with virtually no scabs to patch up holes or breaks of any kinds.

These pictures are completely false—or at the very least those buildings were not put together by real world crews (which is probably the better explanation).

It quickly became apparent once the ICF stacking began, that the methods carefully taught at the BuildBlock and PolySteel classes were seemingly completely ignored by the actual construction crews doing the work. They stacked blocks atop each other without any consideration other than a basic fitting together, not taking time to make sure the fits were tight and solid throughout. Corners came out a bit better, but if one end was too long, they didn't fix the wall so that the corner would be solid—they hacked at the extra length of the corner to make it fit instead. We didn't order any T-forms, since they are (apparently) insanely expensive compared to the regular forms—the crews instead jury-rigged T connections by cutting gaps into existing forms and then foaming them together. This made for a connection that was “mostly” square “most” of the time—and when it wasn't, they didn't bother to fix it; they were too busy moving on to the next one. They didn't seem to be very careful about handling them either—large sections of the connecting teeth were knocked off regularly and there were so many holes because of the forms being tossed around that the crews had to apply a lot of plywood scabs to seal them up and hold the forms securely into place.

The forms themselves were also chopped and cut with apparent abandon. The standard BuildBlock form is a useful four feet long and 16 “ tall, and I'd carefully designed Tanglewood's walls to make cutting forms theoretically unnecessary. Imagine my surprise then to see crew taking fresh forms off the pallet and cutting an end off before they even bothered to put them into place---they seemed to prefer running five 3-foot forms over using three 4-foot forms and one cut-to-fit. I never did get a good explanation about this either—clearly the walls were structurally sounder and presented fewer opportunities for blowouts if there were fewer joins, and taking time to cut a form wasn't remotely faster than just stacking the things would have been. And of course, all of the waste meant that Colleen and I had to keep fetching more forms as they always seemed to be running out—until we got to the very end of the stack, however, when I suddenly found myself with a good 50 or so leftovers!

And the foam—good grief the foam they used! Every ICF brand markets some kind of heavy duty “gluing foam” that's rather like the insulating stuff you can buy at the home supply centers for joining together problematic connections, or to apply scabs of plywood as patches where there are holes or whatnot. This particular crew, though, seemed to think this stuff was part of the basic construction... they used so much in fact, that Builder Dale came down on them about it and refused to supply any more out of the construction budget (yay!), arguing that they were using it where it wasn't needed. My thought was that if they weren't chopping perfectly good forms every few feet that they wouldn't feel the need to use the spray foam as a reinforcement.

It. Drove. Me. Crazy.

Let me be perfectly clear that none of this particularly affected the overall strength or insulating properties of the house at all—it's solid as a rock (literally) and the walls are razor straight (the crew had a really neat system of embedding wire in the forms to use to pull them straight as the pour was happening—it was amazing to watch). But the amount of waste was incredible for a construction technique billed as “green”--the only reason all of that Styrofoam didn't go into a dumpster is because Colleen and I made sure to collect it and route it to a local recycling center.

I honestly don't know how or even if I could have prevented this kind of sloppiness. Experienced crews doubtless would have taken it poorly if a guy with one class under his belt lectured them on the right way to do something, and I doubt they would have done it any longer than I'd been on the site anyway. I view this primarily as a training shortfall in the ICF construction industry as a whole—if the industry is interested in more people (particularly Eco-conscious types) taking them more seriously, they need to clean up their act here.

Underestimating the Solar Battery Needs

One of the most surprising and unexpected problems that cropped up very late in construction was the severe underestimating of the number of batteries needed for my solar power system.

It didn't take long after we got the system up and running in late November for us to realize that something was just not right. The power was regularly shutting off overnight, usually around 3 AM or so, and we didn't have anything other than a few lights running at that time frame. After a great deal of investigation, Solar LeRoy and I figured out that something was funky with the way the inverters were set up to work in a master/slave configuration and turning that off helped immensely, but the power still wasn't staying on for long periods of time. If we had any cloud cover or interference with a full charge, they almost always died the very next night. For the longest time, I thought the problem was the space heaters I had in the shed to keep the batteries at a good temperature, but once I swapped out the larger and more inefficient ones, the problem got “better” but still continued.

It took me some time to figure out that I simply didn't have enough batteries to provide the amperage I needed for even the very light load that Tanglewood was using in the post-construction time frame, and that in turn meant that the estimate of how many batteries I needed was wrong. By my calculations, I need at least twice as many batteries as I presently have to reliably get through a long night after a bad day of charging, and it actually appears that I have enough panels to triple the number of batteries and reliably fill them most of the time (statistically we have between 245 and 300 days of sunshine a year depending on who you believe) and provide some true autonomy without having to resort to a backup generator.

How did this happen? I'm not exactly sure, but after I figured it out, I examined the various bids I'd received on the solar installation and found that nearly all had this same flaw (though the battery counts and voltages varied so widely that it made direct comparison difficult). I recall that when I was getting the bids that it seemed to come as a great shock to the various bidders that Tanglewood is truly 100% off-grid, and perhaps that's the source of the problem—most companies seemed so used to having grid power as a fallback that their calculations were maybe a bit sloppy when it came to being completely self sufficient. I think a couple also assumed that I'd be okay if I ran the generator a significant amount of time and perhaps I didn't make that as clear as I should have—running the generator means using propane, and I'd much rather use a free fuel (the sun) than one I've got to buy every so often.

Still this was a deeply disappointing fly in the ointment for what is otherwise a high-tech and impressive installation. At least it's easily fixable (by expanding the size of the battery stack) and as problems go, that makes it a small one.

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