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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 7/23/2009

We got a draft floorplan from the architect. It was disappointing. Since I’ve never done this before, I’m not sure if what we got is a typical first-round result, or if we’re on the road to ‘this isn’t going to work’. I tried to keep an open mind as the architect showed me this initial plan. I tried hard to see the project from his POV and really consider what he was bringing to the table in terms of design.


Getting to this point (initial floor plan) has taken many weeks of waiting – which is another facet of my disappointment. Overall, the architect spent about 13 hours so far. That includes both prep (three-hour site visit, reviewing our written notes, two one-hour phone calls with me) and actual design/drawing. I’m okay with the amount of work produced in those hours (e.g. the concept floorplan), but I’m not okay with that fact that it took so many weeks to get in just 13 hours of working time. He says he spends a lot of time off the clock (unpaid) thinking about a project, so maybe that accounts for some of the in-between time in terms of calendar days – but the pace still seems slow to me.


One drawing, on a topographical map I had given him, shows a hand-sketch site plan for the driveway, house/garage, ag-building and small barn. The other drawing shows a floorplan of the first and second floor with some furniture for scale. We had previously agreed that he would do only this initial work and then we would meet – so his scope of work was on target. I’m glad we did it this way. If he had done elevations and construction details for this floor plan, it would have been even more disappointing due to all the extra money spent on something that won’t work for us.


So, what are the problems with the design? Well, to be fair the architect did accomplish some of the things we had asked for, and that was good to see. But in my opinion, the day-to-day functionality of the house was not good at all. I’m not talking about tweaking the size of a room here or there, but rather of the relationship of one space to another and the relationship of the house to the site. I’m not going to make this post too long by going into all the details. Suffice to say, if this house in this orientation had existed on the land prior to our buying the property – I would not have wanted to purchase it!


Our agreement with the architect is straight hourly work – we can pay the bill and walk away at any time. And with about 15 hours into it, I’ll feel okay if we have to move in a different direction – in terms of actual money spent (lost). It’s disappointing, but sometimes despite your best efforts at hiring, things just don’t work out. I feel a lot less okay with the time lost. Whether we continue with him, hire someone else, or go it on our own (design our own home) – the time lost can not be recovered. I think the real question is whether or not, through continued effort, back-and-forth discussion and revisions, we can work toward a really good design that makes best use of the site, fits our lifestyle, and stays in our budget. Or is this initial concept a serious red flag, and we should end the working relationship in a professional manner and move on. We’re thinking it over and exploring some options before we get back to the architect.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 7/16/2009

The subdivision plan for our property lists a limitation of 10,000 sq. ft. of impervious surface for the principal use. According to township zoning, impervious includes buildings, paving and gravel roads/driveways. Bummer - our proposed house site requires a 950 ft. driveway. At 10 feet wide, that’s 9,500 sq. ft. of impervious gravel before you even get to the buildings! John joked that we could put in a driveway with a tent at the end of it and while that might suit him just fine, I was hoping for a bit more in terms of housing comfort. So, off to try to find a solution.


Several weeks passed with me reading a text on pervious paving (very interesting BTW) and getting comments from a discussion thread on this board. Then we had the good fortune of a chance meeting with a civil engineer working in the area. As it turns out he was a wealth of information on the issue and he was very generous in sharing his knowledge and experience. He described some other projects in our area where the owner got a county waver on the limitation in exchange for construction infiltration pits. I can’t say I was thrilled to hear that, but at least I learned a lot from the conversation.


So, we were pondering the options when we had dinner with some family members who have experience in road building, including working for the township. They suggested I meet with the township zoning guy before settling on any plan. It was a good idea - I guess I’m somewhat biased against regulatory departments, and have read some nightmare stories from other O-B's… But in thinking about it in a more businesslike fashion, meeting with the zoning guy really did seem like a common sense approach. And now having had my meeting with the zoning guy I can wholeheartedly report that he was extremely helpful and provided us with the best solution of all!


He explained that the 10,000 sq. ft. limitation on impervious is a county subdivision issue, and does not include the driveway or farm buildings – only the house and garage. The definition of impervious that I had read in the township zoning regs does include driveways, but doesn’t apply in our situation. So, we’re good to go with our proposed house site and 950 ft. standard gravel driveway. Yippee! During the meeting we also covered a few other topics so all in all it was really productive.


Lessons Learned:

- Before attempting to find a solution, make sure you understand the problem. (duh).

- With respect to county regulations, township regulations, conservation district regulations and specific deed notes; when in doubt ask the ones in the know, the final deciders (e.g. zoning guy, inspector guy/gal, and so on). At least start there, as it is likely to save time in the long run.


I’m hoping to do the driveway this fall. Fun, fun, we’ll finally get to actually move some dirt!

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 7/12/2009

John and I met the architect at the site - this was actually a little while back - but I fell behind in posting. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I sure was looking forward to it.


We tromped around a good bit and showed him what we thought were two potential house sites, both with their own pros and cons (from our POV). I had brought copies of the topo maps we had left with him at the first meeting. The maps showed some of our ideas on location (driveway, house/garage, two ag-related buildings, large garden). We’re familiar with the land, views, prevailing winds, etc., but for the architect, this was his first (and likely only) exposure to the property. He seemed pretty focused on trying to take it all in. After looking at both sites and some discussion, we all felt that one site was the clearly better choice. It is located roughly in the center of the property, on a knoll with decent views all around. The downside is that this site will require a driveway roughly double the length of the other site. We discussed issues associated with the driveway and agreed that I needed to do some additional research with the township to better understand any restrictions (such as the amount of impervious). I would then get back to the architect with the info I gathered. But overall, we agreed to move forward anticipating the site on the knoll would be the one.


We talked about the conditions of the site - as I wanted to make sure he understood what it was like out there in February, with a 30 mph wind whipping across 15 open acres before it hit the house. We need to make best use of placing the buildings to create usable outdoor workspaces. We need to place the driveway to make it as easy as possible to maintain, in all weather. These things aren’t glamorous – but in my view – are the difference between a pleasurable place to be and work and a place that makes you wish you could go to Florida for the winter! I know we’re not goin’ to FL – so let’s do a good job on site planning.


At one point, the architect asked what kind (i.e. style) of house we wanted. I had provided some written notes and photo ideas in the packet we left with him during our first meeting - but as it turned out he hadn’t read it yet. A bit surprising - bummer. So we discussed housing styles, and I repeated what was in my notes - my desire to build a house that took advantage of the views and that also looked as if it might have always been on the site. I didn’t want a house that looked as if it had been ripped out of the nearest subdivision and plopped down in the middle of 30 ac of pasture, among the neighboring Amish farms. Now I’m not saying I want to attempt to recreate a historical house - for one thing the budget wouldn’t allow it. And unless very well done, IMO they often don’t pull it off (you can tell they’re not old). What I wanted was a house that was reminiscent of the history of the region, while accommodating a modern lifestyle and incorporating some basic green ideas (e.g. orienting the house for best advantage of passive solar).


In total we spent three hours at the site. I hope it gave the architect a good feel for the property, and a little more understanding for what we’re are looking for in our house and site.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 7/4/2009

I stopped by the property to check on the grass and the need for mowing (aka weeds). I already mentioned about converting our land from (rented out) corn and soybean to a variety of pasture grass. Well we’ve gotten our first hay crop from one portion of it - a milestone of sorts. A neighbor is cutting and baling it for his own use. He was such a great help last year by lending his tractors to us for mowing - and since he didn’t know us very well at all it was quite a neighborly thing to do. So this year he’s getting some hay.


I know this board is more about houses than hooves, so I'll just end with a few pics showing a bit of the process.


March, 2007. Looking east, after corn, before planting pasture.
March 07: Looking southwest (compare to same view in 6/22/09 post below)
June 08: After planting, before germination, weeds already. My first experience with tractors, 1940 Ford and 8 hr. session on hottest day so far that summer. Fun.
July 08: Giant ragweed overtakes seedlings, and John too. John escaped, we weren't so sure about the pasture though. Lots more mowing.
May 09: What a difference. Still mowing to control weeds - but ain't that purty!
June 09: First fist full of hay. :-) Nice!

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 6/29/2009

On a cool rainy afternoon John and I met with architect #3 at his home/office. He lives in-town in an older, smallish house… and over many years he completely transformed the interior. Really, I can’t do it justice in a verbal description. In both creativity and craftsmanship the house was beautiful. He created useful, pleasant living spaces without having a massive interior space. We spent several hours there seeing his home and a few photos of his other work and discussing design philosophy and work strategy.


I liked that he was keen to work on smaller spaces, a smaller project. And he said that since he had done the work himself on his own house, he had a good feel for just what was required on construction drawings to really guide work on-site... without detailing things that were not required. He described himself as an architect who had years of hands-on experience in all phases of home construction. We reviewed his typical drawing package and John spent a good bit of time looking through a set of drawings. The Architect emphasized that he likes to be really efficient in his work and spend his time in design and drawing rather than being stuck in researching, emailing, and administrative paperwork. As a bit of a surprise, he is traditional in his approach to building techniques. I’m not sure how I feel about that – is that a good thing or not? For example he says that for the $ spent, a well constructed 2x6 instead of SIP or ICF is the way to go (in his opinion). While we’ve looked at ICF and are interested in it, we’re not married to a particular envelope technology and will likely look for good quality and good $ value.


I brought a little packet of info on our project: functions we needed in the house, target sq ft, topo maps noting best views & prevailing winds, and photocopies from books and magazines showing exterior styles that we liked, and a few that showed what we didn’t like. We didn’t discuss our project much during this meeting... it seemed more about him talking about his work and experience – which was fine. I left the packet of our project with him.


After the meeting, John and I discussed architect #3 vs. architect #2. I felt like I really hit it off personally with architect #2 (see previous post) and felt I would likely have more ‘fun’ working with her (based on the initial phone call). If budget were no issue, I likely would have pushed to at least meet with her and see where that went.


But this is the real world, right?


Architect #3 (the one we met with) seemed to have a good match between his typical scope of services and what we really need and can afford. And he had a proven record of designing, constructing and living in smaller spaces (e.g. his own home, under 2,000 sq. ft.). Since we want a smallish, well-designed house to meet our needs and fit the site - it seemed like a good fit. So, we decided to go with architect #3.


Now comes the fun part… Road Trip…SITE VISIT!

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 6/24/2009

From my list of potential candidates, I phoned two designers and three architects. The sequence of Q&A varied, but in the end I felt I was able to come away with a good feel for what each had to offer. In my mind, it’s not just what they can do (design-wise), but also how well their services/prices match our needs/budget. Here is how it broke down:


Designer 1: Reasonable cost, likely would not offer the creativity and had little interest in doing site plan. No services beyond delivery of the design/construction drawings.


Designer 2: Emphasized his experience with custom homes, but had seemingly unreasonable (?) fee schedule... 50% non-refundable upfront based on anticipated sq ft, the balance as we work through. They own the drawings. Overall, I just didn’t think I would like working with him.


Architect 1: Only minutes from our rural building site and recently struck out on his own from a larger firm. He either didn’t have the skills to articulate his strengths/areas of interest (in terms of design) or he hasn’t figured them out yet... seemed generally unenthusiastic about the project.


Architect 2: Located about two hours away in upscale area, specializes in residential. I saw some of her work on her website and really like it. She offers (as a package) design AND construction management (CM) for best control over end results (when using a GC). Her typical clients are in the $850K+ range... way, WAY above our budget. We had a lengthy and interesting discussion. We were both able/comfortable challenging each other - in a good way (maybe challenge isn’t quite the right word here). For example, she asked alot of Q about our intention to O-B and I asked about her desire to work on a smaller project, with a much smaller budget than what she was used to. She wanted to meet with us to further discuss the project. While I was interested in her skills, I did feel that there was a wide gap between her typical high-end projects and what we planned... would she have trouble with us doing the GC? Or budget-shopping our finishes? Or selecting less 'green' options in deference to the budget? Although I didn’t set a meeting during that call, I told her I would definitely contact her to let her know our status, or set a meeting.


Architect 3: Recommended by a knowledgeable friend, lives and works close by, does residential and commercial. Our phone conversation was fairly good. He charges in a straight hourly way (and at a very reasonable rate), would do a site visit, help in site-planning, the design/construction drawings and phone consulting during construction, but not on-site supervision. His set of services and fee structure fit well with our needs.


I set up a meeting with architect #3 to see some of his work (including his own house). I figured we would meet with him, and if all went well, go with him. If there were still some question, we would also meet with architect #2 to investigate that option. So architect #3 is up (face-to-face meeting next) and architect #2 is on-deck. And for now, there are no designers in the bullpen.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 6/22/2009

I’ve been interested in the architecture for a long time and I’ve been reading and studying everything I could on architecture, specifically residential design, for several years. For me, it’s a fun and interesting topic. So naturally, I thought I would do the floorplan design for our house. My plan was to do the initial design/layout and then use a professional’s skills to get feedback and refine it. After all, how hard could it be?


Well, as it turns out, harder than I thought! I’m beginning to think that’s going to be a good refrain for every verse of this project. :-)


I ‘hit it hard’ and spent several weeks diligently working to come up with a site plan and floor plan for our project. The site plan needs to account for the house and garage (with large garden and several fruit trees), as well as a farm shop building and a small barn/run-in shed for a couple of horses, turnaround area for trucks, and using buildings and landscape to create usable year-round outdoor working areas (i.e. break the harsh winter wind from the West). Meanwhile, the house floor plan needs to meet our functional requirements (which we had previously documented), do it in a minimum amount of space, and incorporate passive-solar design concepts.


I kept encountering roadblocks in my designs and I wasn’t sure which compromise (for certainly there had to be compromises on some issues!) was the best solution. I think getting an appropriate and well-crafted site plan and design is a very, very important facet to the enjoyment of the end result.


I won’t bore you with all the details, but after several weeks, I decided to get professional help… um, that is… for the site and floor plan. We’ll still be actively involved but I’m glad we’ll have an experienced person to help move the project along. So once we decided to use a professional for the design, the next issue became who to hire. I read the resources in the O-B forum and articles regarding selecting and working with designers and/or architects. I searched the Internet, and consulted with friends and developed a list of potential candidates. Next up, phone 'interviews'...


P.S. - Not entirely related to this topic, but two recent pics from a visit to the property.


Looking east. Trees mark south boundary w/ road behind them. In front of trees is a depression (bowl) of about four acres. Love that new grass!!!
Looking southwest from proposed building site, across 'bowl' to road. LOTS of good local trail riding - Nice! You can see from location of car, driveway will be a long one.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 6/18/2009

So what is 'small'?


Using our current house as a point of reference, at 1,400 sq. ft., I don’t think it would be considered large by today’s standards. But then I suppose one man's shack is another man’s mansion, right? ;-) I’ve spent some time reading up on ‘living small’ and looking at a LOT of floor plans – ranging from 600 to 3,000 sq. ft. Yeah – that’s quite the range! And I talked with several builders at the Harrisburg Home Show back in 2006. I should say I tried to talk with the builders – because I was consistently told “Oh, we won’t touch anything under 2,500 sq. ft. and really 3,000 sq. ft. and up is our area of interest.” In fact, it was that experience of professional builders brushing-off my project that first led me to the idea of owner-building. And of course once I realized the advantages of an O-B house, well there was no turning back. But I digress – back to the size issue.


We’ve decided that we want to keep the house on the small side. We both have interests outside of the house (on our property) that will take some of our overall budget and our time (after the house is done). We don’t want to spend excessive amounts of time cleaning and maintaining a big house or showplace. For us, the house design is about a quality structure that is comfortable and functional, affordable to build, and efficient (economically and energy-wise) in the long term.


Our current home (1,400 sq. ft.) feels like it has plenty of space for the two of us. In truth, it’s got a good bit of wasted space for the way we live. For example, it has two bedrooms that are seldom used as actually bedrooms – but we do use the closets in both of those rooms. Our home has the traditional two eating areas (kitchen and dining room) – although we only ever use one. We would gladly trade the space in one of the extra bedrooms for a dedicated office area for each of us – that we don’t have to clean up when guests are over. And a few new spaces would be great, such as a mud room and a second full bath for out-of-town family visits.


For over a year we’ve been really thinking about how we live day to day, and on those occasions when we have dinner guests or out-of-town visitors. Anytime we come up with a hassle in our current house (like tripping over boots at the front door, or scurrying to clean the bathroom before my Mom and Dad arrive), I make a note of how that could be better in the new house. As a result, I think we’ve come up with a list of functional spaces for the new house. Mind you, this is a list of functions – not rooms. We’re okay with one space in the house serving more than one function, as long as it works day-to-day without a lot of hassle.


So, what is small? Who knows! For us, we’re shooting for under 2,000 sq. ft. and really the smaller the better, as long as it meets our functional needs.


Next Up: Map the functional spaces into a workable floorplan for both us and the site.

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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 6/11/2009

The property is essentially a long rectangle (30 acres) located in a rural farming area of PA. The property had been rented out to a local farmer for corn and soybean crops until December, 2007. It has been farmed for many years, and except for a tree line on a portion of the south property line, it has no trees or shrubs.


In the spring of 2008 we planted pasture grass. That was a research and subcontracting effort all its own! Now that the grass is in its second season, it’s wonderful to see it coming along. Weeds were a major issue last summer during establishment and since we didn’t have a tractor at the property, it was a challenge. We patched together as best we could by hiring out work and borrowing tractors from a very gracious neighbor. This year it’s going a bit easier, now that we’ve made some contacts in the neighborhood and also since the pasture grasses are better able to compete with the weeds... although the weeds will be a battle that will go on for several more years, I'm sure.


Since we are no longer renting out the property for commercial crops, we can have year-round access. We’ve planted a few saplings that my father-in-law had carefully nursed along for us. And we’ve transplanted a few blackberry plants into the tree line. But overall we’re waiting on any significant tree planting until we get more firmed up on site planning.


There's a Google pic of the property below. I've included a few notes to try to give the lay of the land. It's no doubt that building our home is an exciting project - but for both John and I - our interest in the land and its stewardship is every bit as interesting as the house. We feel very blessed to be able to own this piece of land - for both of us - it is a dream come true!


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Posted to OurFarmstead by Mary in PA on 6/10/2009

Our farmstead project has been underway for quite some time, in some ways for years. And we’ve yet to break ground, pull a permit or even settle on a floor plan. Nonetheless, we are in active planning, perhaps what would be termed as the ‘early-late-middle planning stage’... and getting jitters that planning isn’t going fast enough to make it to the target groundbreaking in 2010. I’ve learned a lot (and have been inspired!) by the others who’ve posted here, both in the journals and in the other forums. I figured I would try to contribute our little bit, share status with family and friends and also document ‘the journey’ for myself and the hubby (John).


Getting to this point certainly hasn’t been a straight line and it’s too long a story to tackle all at once. So I’ll just start with where we are…

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