Saturday, May 31, 2008


You can tell our age and priorities in life by the fact that the most exciting part of our Friday night plans was a trip to IKEA. Yep, that’s where we’re at these days.

Our plan is to lay for FLOR carpeting and install closet organizers in both kids bedrooms this weekend. I had spent several nights this week debating and determining the appropriate closet system for both kids’ bedrooms. IKEA has several options, including the Antonius system and Stolmen. We had settled on Antonius primarily based on cost. It’s a simple system compromised of metal wall standards, brackets, hanging rods, shelves and other various accessories. With help from the IKEA website and a pamphlet on the Antonius system parts, I had designed each closet and had a spreadsheet listing all the parts needed. Armed with my spreadsheet, we had a family IKEA outing. Much to my dismay, the wall standards were on backorder. Without these standards, you have nothing- they are the backbone for the system. When I inquired about how long it might be before they receive them, the answer was 8-10 weeks! Holy cow! I’m amazed that IKEA could not have the major component for their most popular shelving system. I guess when you can get a system like this for such a cheap price, you expect everything to always go your way. It’s the whole beggers-can’t-be-choosers thing.

We’re likely going to have to switch to the Stolmen system. This is a much more expensive system that is compromised of floor-to-ceiling poles that have attachments to add on shelving, cabinets, clothes rods and other accessories. To compare the cost to Antonius, the Antonius wall standards are $4 each. The Stolmen poles are $30. It may be a more sturdy system, which is good- but we’ll have to just do with less accessories and shelves for now.
We headed out of IKEA frustrated and empty-handed. It was raining and the sun was shining and we saw the most amazing rainbow we’d ever seen. It was a brilliant, full rainbow with a slight double rainbow that was ending in front of the Mall of America. The kids were enthusiastic about heading over to find the pot of gold. But with our luck, I’m sure someone else found it first

Sunday, May 25, 2008

House #s, Stair Carpet and Roller Shades

It seems like every night, I’m researching and debating another choice for the house. It’s been fun, but also a lot of work. This week I made a few decisions on a variety of items.

House Numbers
A small, but important item is house numbers. It's part of that whole first impression thing. We saw a couple of nice options on sale on the Design Within Reach website, including the orange numbers above. For $9.99, these options seemed like a great idea. However,we need a number 2 and it must be the most popular number, as there were no more 2s for any of the sale options. The Neutra letters shown below are great, but at 75 bucks a pop, they are not as within our reach as we’d like.
I then went back to my original idea of ordering them thru WestOn Letters. They have a great number of options of fonts, sizes and finishes. I decided to go with 5” aluminum letters in the Roffe font. I love the clean simple lines- no serifs, no fuss. The price for 4 letters- $136.

Stair Carpet.
If we were designing this house from scratch, we would have likely had an open stair, or made the stair a design element. Unfortunately, the existing stair has bearing walls on either side, so we were left with few options to change it. We added a light, but beyond that, I was a little worried about the blandness of this stair. The existing stair runner needs to be replaced, so I went in search of a great runner- something that could add some life to the stair. What I found is not really a carpet runner, but individual stair rugs for each tread. Liza Phillips Design carries these Alto Step designs that have some great colors and modern designs. They are high quality rugs- either hand-knotted in Nepal, or a tufted option from New Zealand wool. There were a few unique sets on sale and I wanted this one called “Spring Bubbles”. The only issue I was concerned about was the existing treads on our house might be a bit to narrow. When I called Liza, she was great to work with, she measured the rugs for me and was willing to put together some other options on how to make them work. I was really excited to find this option and placed my order.

Window Treatments
Architects hate to think about window treatments. We lived in our current house for years before we bit the bullet and decided we needed a bit more privacy at times. We used 2” wood blinds and have been fairly happy with them. For the new house, we’ll likely go thru the same deliberations and delays. However, for Kerstin’s room the large window wall on the south side will have to be addressed sooner rather than later. During the summer, the maple tree in the front of the house will provide some privacy, but we’ll be cutting this back, as it seems to be taking over the front corner of the house.

The shades in this room will need to look good from not only the inside, but the outside of the house. I first got a tip from my friend, Fiona from Scotland on these new type of panels. They work like a vertical blind, but are in larger panels. I love the look of these, but was concerned about the stacking space blocking the window. I wanted to be able to have the window treatment disappear and be able to be totally open.

Because the windows are wall to wall, the only way to have a wide-open window would be to have shade mounted on top. I found these great patterned roller shades from The Shade Store. They come in a variety of patterns, from bold to subtle. I am still debating the pattern- whether it should be bold like this:
Which looks like this when putting multiple shades together:

or more subtle like this:

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

In Search of the Money Tree

Yesterday we received notice of our “Economic Stimulus Refund” from the good ol’ government. Now, we’re usually of the opinion that when we get a windfall, however small, that we should save it. However, this time, with the timing of our house project, it’s going to be spent within minutes of receiving it. In fact, we’ve probably already spent it. That is the scariest part of doing this kind of house project- you can spend money at rocket speed.

So far, we’ve been very good about sticking to our budget. We’ve made some tough choices-when we’ve added something, we’ve cut back on something else. But as we get towards the end of the project, we’re finding there is nothing else to cut back on and plenty to add. This week has been particularly hard (and it’s only Tuesday). We feel thoroughly beat up. We’ve had several issues with subcontractors/suppliers that have proven customer service isn’t what it used to be and will likely end up costing us additional money. We hope to work these things out, but we’re not happy about it. More on that later…..

One of the things that seemingly always gets left to the end of the project (after the budget is gone) is the landscape. This project is no different! Today, we met with our landscape architect, Matthew Fair Jones and his colleague, John Workman. Matthew is an old friend and colleague from our HGA days and now works on his own. He is in tune with our ideas about sustainability and has come up with an initial conceptual plan. One of the major challenges of our site is to deal with drainage and water. In this part of Highland Park, the slope is all towards the river and one yards typically drains into the next. Add a very active sump pump, clay soil and an alley sloping into your back yard and you can have a sloppy, soupy mess. One of the strategies we have to deal with the water is by using “rain gardens”. A rain garden is a planted depression that is designed to absorb rain water. It is planted with native plantings that are specifically chosen to tolerate either very wet or dry conditions. The rain garden is sized to absorb the excess water and allow water to soak into the ground in lieu of draining into your neighbor’s yard.

We will need to do quite a bit of re-grading in our yard in order to get positive drainage away from the house. The rule of the thumb is to get 6” of vertical drop in a distance 10’ from the house. In some areas, we’re going to have to remove quite a bit of earth in order to achieve this slope. We’re also planning on using some underground drainage piping to prevent the creation of a swamp in our backyard.

One thing we’ve manage to ignore up to this point is the existing fence. It’s a June and Ward Cleaver white picket fence that was a perfect match for the existing Cape Cod, but is not such a great fit for the new Haus. While we were thinking it would be fine to keep for awhile, the more we look at it, the less we think we can live with it. We wish one of the existing trees in the yard was a money tree that would enable us to replace the fence with one that fits better with our house. Unfortunately, we haven’t found any money trees yet, but perhaps the earthwork will uncover a buried pot of gold?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Exterior Siding Progress and Sunshades

The work on the exterior siding is progressing nicely this week. It's rewarding to see it all coming together and so far, we're happy with the results. During the design, we debated long and hard on the exterior material palette. Our criteria was pretty simple:
- We knew that we wanted durable materials that would be as low maintenance as possible.
- We wanted a clean and simple esthetic.
- We were concerned about proportions and minimizing height.

Early on, we decided to go with a corrugated metal panel and some sort of cement board. Cement board can come in a variety of forms such as flat panels (4’x8’ sheets and larger), shingle style and lap siding in various thicknesses. HardieBoard is one common manufacturer of cement board products.

There are many sustainable advantages to cement board siding. Cement board is composed of natural materials- wood pulp, cement, sand and water. There are multiple manufacturing plants throughout the country, so it will likely be produced regionally. It’s a very durable material with a 50-year warranty. Cement board resists damage from insects and flame spread. You can get the product in a pre-finished baked-on paint (limited colors) that has a 15-year warranty or you can paint it. Paint holds on to cement board much better than wood, so it means very little maintenance.

Like most products, along with all the good points, there are a few drawbacks. Cement board is very dense and quite hard to cut. Manufacturers will have cutting recommendations, as the dust produced by cutting cement board contains silica. All silica-containing products can produce small, respirable size particles when cut, drilled, ground, sanded, or otherwise abraded. Inhaling excessive quantities of respirable silca dust can cause silicosis (lung scarring) and other serious lung-related diseases. In other words, you need to make sure you’re protecting your lungs when cutting this stuff.

Although we liked the look of the flat cement board panels, with open joints or with reveals, we were a little nervous about this system in that it is so dependent on properly detailing the rainscreen system. Although it can look great, the panels don’t always lie flat and if not properly detailed or installed, it would not hold up over the years. Durability was a major requirement for us, so we decided to go with the cement board lap siding. This is a simple, proven system and requires no special detailing. Visually, it will provide us with the horizontal lines we wanted and recalls the vernacular style of the existing house.

We also debated quite some time over whether to put the metal siding at the base and the lap siding above or vise versa. In addition to the esthetics, we decided to put the lap siding at the base, so when we need to paint it in the future, it will be easy. (Important criteria for Kevin, who has had a bad ladder experience that resulted in a back brace for 6 months a few years back!).

We are using Hardie Panel at accent areas and between some of the windows on the upper floor. This helps to visually make the window openings appear larger, to unify the openings in the fa├žade and to break up the scale of the metal. The HardieBoard lap siding is used in two manners – although they will each look the same. On the new wall construction where we have spray foam insulation and high r-values, the lap siding is nailed up tight against the drainage plane and sheathing (Tyvek Drain Wrap) with flashing and caulking as needed. Just like any other well built wall. However, on the old walls where we used a blown in cellulose insulation, we used a building wrap/drainage plane with a reflective surface (Tyvek thermawrap). We then used a “dri-side” clip system that provides a 3/8” air space between the back of the siding and the drainage plane – this enables the siding to behave like a rain screen and the air space traps warmth –thereby improving the walls’ overall R-value. This additional R-value helps the existing walls with less insulating value behave more like the new walls with higher r-values and so balances out the performance of all the walls, making the house more consistent. This way, negative air pressure and temperature draw is not significantly pulled to the lower performing walls hastening temperature loss which helps improve energy efficiency as a result. That means lower utility bills. That means more beer and pizza for us. And tell me, who wouldn’t rather spend their money on beer and pizza instead of heating and cooling their home?

We're excited to see the IPE sunshades. They are gorgeous and add warmth to the exterior.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Top Five Reason for Daily Site Visits

Yesterday I stopped by the house on the way home from work to look at a few things that we have to make decisions on. At this point in the project (about 1 month from completion), there is so much daily progress being made, it’s really a good idea to stop by often.

Here’s my Top 5 Reasons for Daily Site Visits:

5. To pick up the mail.
Despite the fact we’ve haven’t lived in this house, we still get a lot of junk mail.
4. Its fun to see the construction progress made during the day.
At this point, the project is cooking and a lot of progress is being made every day.
Kitchen cabinets, solar hot water panels, hardwood floors at office refinished, ceramic tile on site & ready to start and trim has been painted. See below for progress photos.

3. To catch errors before it’s too late.
The wrong refrigerator was delivered. No worries on this one, as there is still plenty of time to order the correct fridge and have it delivered prior to move-in.

2. To talk to the neighbors.
We continue to be amazed at how nice our neighbors are to us, despite the fact we have caused quite a bit of disruption to the quiet street. We understand that there is quite a bit of curiosity as to what the inside of the house looks like, so we’ll be sure to have an open house when we get settled in.

1. To prevent disasters (in my case yesterday, to stop the basement from flooding)
I heard a gushing from the basement when I entered the house yesterday, but thought it was just the very active sump pump. After a bit of time in the house, I decided to go down to the basement (which I rarely do on a visit) and found a watery mess. Someone had left a valve to the water heater open and had attached a hose into a very small bucket. It probably only took 20 seconds to fill the bucket, so the water was gushing out onto the floor. Luckily, there is a floor drain not too far away, so only a portion of the basement was wet. However, it could have been a much bigger mess, had I not stopped by.

Overall, we haven’t had too many disasters or major problems with the construction. We are lucky, we have a great contractor and excellent architects (oh yeh, that’s us!). The biggest issue was with the bad soils, which was no one’s fault. There were a few unexpected issues (existing bathroom plumbing and stair location causing us to lose a bedroom closet) - but overall, this project has gone pretty smoothly. Our schedule to move in mid-to late June has just gotten more real, as we have a signed offer on our existing house and need to be out in July. We’re crossing our fingers that the next month will go as smoothly……………..

See the solar hot water panels on the roof. They are pretty visible from the alley, but they are hard to spot from the front, street side of the house.

Here's the view of the solar panels from the roof. Notice the stack of Solar PV panels waiting to be installed just to the right. I can't wait for this roftop to start making energy. The white TPO reflective membrane helps reflect heat back away from the roof - helping to keep our house cooler in the summer.

The exterior sunshades at the south facing windows are being installed. These look great (stained ironwood), and help keep unwanted solar gain out of the house in the summer but let it in during the winter. They work, the kitchen was getting no direct sun after these were in place.

Some more progress on the kitchen cabinetry. Countertops were measured for and we had to make decision on the countertop details.

Hardware pulls were added to the cabinet faces. They are looking great- well aligned and flush. I love the self-closing drawer hardware. Kudos to Eastvold so far!

The fir floor in Kevin's office was sanded and finished with a clear sealer.

The profilit glass channels were added today along the "bridge" from the master bedroom to the master bath. This is the view from the kitchen. Grazie molto to W.L. Hall for this great looking product!

This is the view from the master bathroom looking towards the master bedroom. The inspectors are making one final check before approval.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Progress Photo Essay

I realized that if I wait for the time to actually write a decent blog, it might not be for awhile. It's been a few days since we've updated and a lot of progress has happened this week.
So here is a summary of progress and photos.The grey metal panel siding at the upper level was completed. The lower portion will be white HardiBoard lap siding. Sunshades above the windows on the south side will be added soon. A lot of flooring work was completed this week. Above is the existing living room, which was sanded down and is waiting for that very dark stain.The hallway at the upper floor is looking good. This is oak flooring that was salvaged from some of the bedrooms and other places in the house.

The wood oak floor cleaned up very nicely. No dark stain at the upper floor, just clear sealer.

No more sand pit at the dining and living room! We have a concrete floor now. It instantly feels less like a construction zone, but the kids are disappointed the sand pit wasn't permanent.

Casework installation started this week. Eastvold Custom Woodworks was there all week working on the installation. Above is the vanity for the shared bathroom.

Here is a good view of the rosewood veneer that will be used below the bar counter.

Kitchen- The refrigerator will go in the casework tower to the left.

View from the dining room to the kitchen. There will be some open shelving at the end of the bar counter.

The casework tower on the right will be for the wall oven and microwave.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Bamboo, Cork and Some Really Dark Wood

This weekend was the Living Green exposition at the State Fair grounds in St Paul. This annual event features over 200 exhibitors who offer a variety of services, products and ideas about improving environmental and social impacts of day-to-day life. There were 22,000 visitors in 2007 and I’m sure the 2008 numbers will beat that, based on the crowds waiting for it to open Saturday morning.

One thing that was very apparent from the exposition is all the great sustainable flooring options out there. In addition to FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified woods, there are some new engineered options out there that are quite interesting. Natural Built Home’s booth was right next to EcoDEEP’s and I was drawn to the various wood flooring samples. Wood from bushes, scrap wood and other typically-unusable wood is combined to create some very visually interesting and unique planks. They also carry a line called “Wood from the Hood” that is made from Elm trees in Minneapolis that had to be downed because of Dutch Elm Disease. Pretty darn clever.

Bamboo and cork continue to be popular flooring choices and are considered “rapidly-renewable materials”. Bamboo looks and functions similar to a hardwood floor, but bamboo is a grass and not a tree. A bamboo plant takes about 5-6 years to mature and after harvesting, it will regrow again and again. Bamboo flooring is commonly sold in two color tones: a light blond (bamboo’s natural color) and a darker hue, often described as “carbonized.” The darker color comes from heat-treating the bamboo, which actually caramelizes the sugars in the fiber. Teragren is a manufacturer I have used before. Although they are located in Bainbridge, Washington, they get their bamboo from China.
Another rapidly-renewable flooring option is cork. The bark from cork trees is harvested every 9-12 years, without any harm to the tree. Portugal is the largest producers of cork When we traveled in Portugal years ago, we were fascinated by the cork tree forests and how becoming a cork farmer would be a great gig. Imagine having to stop drinking vinho verde long enough once every decade in order to cut some bark off a tree. We currently have cork floors from Unicork in our kitchen and a plank cork product in our family room. Overall, we’ve been extremely happy with the Unicork product. Kevin laid it and finished it himself and it’s very easy to maintain. The best thing about this product is that our kitchen floor really never looks dirty. This can be a pro and con, as we probably don’t clean it nearly as often as we should. This cork naturally has a lot of texture, so if it is damaged or dinged, it’s not apparent. Another great advantage of cork is the cushioned surface it provides. This eliminates the need for a rug in the kitchen and it’s forgiving to dishes that may get dropped. We haven’t had any problems with the Unicork product denting or being damaged and it’s been installed for about 5 years. One caution is that floor imperfections may telegraph through if the cork pattern is too regular. The pattern we had selected is very patterned and it masks floor imperfections.

The floating cork plank floor in our family room has a thin layer of finished cork on top of a thicker cushion of cork. It’s a tongue and groove product with gaps at the room edges to allow for expansion. It does add insulation value to our slab on grade floor, which is the main reason we chose this product.. The one downside is that it can be damaged by heavy objects. We had a extremely heavy, ancient couch sitting on it for a couple of months and didn’t realize that a furniture pad had come off one of its skinny legs. It left a series of small dents that never really sprang back.

We were very tempted to go with cork in our new kitchen because of the great experience we’ve had with it in our current house. We did, however want to create a consistent flow from entry to hallway to kitchen- so we decided to go with a locally harvested FSC red oak floor.

Our flooring contractor (and neighbor), Greg of Chelsey Flooring was busy working on it this weekend. On Saturday, Greg was working on finishing the edge details and sanding the floor to an ultra-smooth finish. The adjoining existing wood up to the entry was also sanded. On Sunday, I stopped by the house and Greg and Tonya were panicking as they started to lay down the stain. We had approved quite a dark, rich coffee color sample. The stained wood was such a huge contrast with the existing floor that they weren’t sure we would like it. I did match what we had approved and was achieving the consistency in tone that we were after. Oak is not one of my favorite woods and I generally don’t care for the grain patterns. A dark stain is able to even out the grain patterns and creates a strong, solid base. I think it will be great when complete. It’s definitely making a bold statement!

A few notes about our wood floors - We salvaged much of the existing oak flooring upstairs and are re-using that in the hallway and guest room. More information about that in a future post. For the new wood in the kitchen we were able to obtain FSC certified red oak from one of our great local suppliers - Hovland Lumber in Mora, MN. Eric Hovland hand picked and milled the wood himself and it is of exceptional quality. Hovland Lumber is part of the Upper Minnesota Certified Forest Products Group - see Resources for link. The group has a lot of high quality woods unique to nothern Minnesota and manages their forests in a sustainable manner. Greg Fisher (our flooring guy) drove up to Mora on a Saturday to pick up the wood and get it inside the house so it could acclimate to the conditions of the house for a few days before he started installing and finishing.