Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The first walls & the new stairwell

The General Contractor (Merlin Scott with LCB Construction) is doing a great job on the project. Between all the 'green' materials, systems, and strategies, along with having to re-use salvaged materials and create as little waste as possible, it has been a learning process for everyone. He was already very efficient and he can now really pride himself on his economy of means. As you can see in the picture below, he is neatly stacking (and keeping dry) all the scrap wood on the project which he plans on using in other parts of the house later on. The basement has become lumber storage, housing all the old Heart Pine floors and extra timber joists that have been carefully removed and cleaned up. So far there has been very little waste and any non-useful construction debris has been taken to the recycling facility.

The first floor perimeter wall is now built. The view from the kitchen to the back yard is going to be great - about 10' wide of glass (all operable casements). Also, the existing location of the stairwell has been moved to it's new location. We needed to cut out some existing timber floor joists but the contractor was able to use the beams to replace other beams that had some termite damage. The old floor was fairly 'out of level' and most of the joists needed to be adjusted. Everything is looking great and we can now begin to get a feel of how big this level of the house is going to be. At almost 15' clear width by about 38' clear depth and 9' high ceilings, for a row home, the space is feeling very open and airy.

LEED for Homes Certification

We have decided to pursue the LEED for Homes certification for this project. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. We always intended to build a very sustainable home, but it was only recently that we decided to check into the possibility of getting LEED Certified. For anyone who is not familiar with the LEED process or the USGBC (United States Green Building Council) , you can read all about it at the website: www.usbgc.org. In essence, the USGBC (a non-profit organization) created what is now a nationally recognized rating system that measures the level of sustainability (or 'greenness') of a project. It is a point-based system with four levels of achievement: Certified, Silver, Gold & Platinum. Anyone building a residential project who wishes to pursue certification must work through what is called a LEED for Homes "Provider". In PA, the provider is the ECA (Energy Coordinating Agency). A lot of acronyms, I know!

We (along with our contractor) met with the ECA recently to discuss the project. Before we met, we had downloaded all the information on the rating system, including the point checklist, in order to familiarize ourselves with the LEED for Homes rating system (which is slightly different than the rating system set up for commercial work - which I do have some experience with). We went through the entire checklist and compared it against what we were already intending on doing in the project. At that time, it appeared that we might be able to achieve a Gold rating. After meeting with the ECA and walking them through our project, they seemed very enthusiastic about the project and our chances of getting a good rating. Needless to say, this was extremely encouraging. In the end, of course, it doesn't matter too much what rating level we achieve. We would be happy with any of them. For us, it's mostly about designing a home that is beautiful and sustainable along with efficient and economical. The LEED rating system has received much criticism for the fact that it doesn't take "design" into account. But, from what I can see, the LEED for Homes system is very appropriate and does not appear to compromise good design. I think it comes down to the fact that there should be no difference between "sustainable design" and just "good design".

One of the best things we discovered about LEED for Homes was how beneficial it is to simply be building a project in the city. It makes a lot of sense, since one of the most sustainable things people can do is live in dense populations that have been previously developed and where all of the infrastructure is already in place. One of the best ways to achieve almost all of the points in the "Sustainable Sites" category is to simply do a project similar to ours. In fact, they even encourage 'building small' and offer what is called an "adjustment factor" that is based on the number of bedrooms you have relative to the square footage you have. For instance, we have 3 bedrooms in 1,600 SF. Due to the fact that this is a fairly efficient ratio, we were able to achieve an adjustment factor of -5. This means that however many points we need to achieve a certain rating, we can subtract 5 from that, which makes it easier. It also works the other way. If you intend on building 3 bedrooms in 3,000 SF, you will be adding close to 10 points to the total needed, thus making it more difficult. USGBC provides a chart that shows all the incremental factors.

Another reason we decided to pursue a LEED rating was for marketing purposes. As an investment property for our green development company (Southern Liberties, LLC) we are indeed doing this to make a profit. There are thousands of residential projects registered for LEED right now but, I believe, there are only about 500 homes Certified nationwide and only one Certified home in the city of Philadelphia: the Berks Hewson Twins (by Onion Flats) up in Fishtown (NE Philly). As far as I know, ours would be the first LEED Certified home in all of Center City and South Philly. Of course, this statistic may change by the time we actually complete the process...but it's a good start. We see this as a highly marketable aspect of the project. There is a cost involved in getting the home Certified but we feel these costs will easily be made up in the sale price of the home, especially if we can achieve a Gold rating.

We are very excited about all the possibilities related to the LEED Certification process. I will try to keep the blog updated with all the progress and hopefully it will be helpful (and encouraging) to anyone else who might be interested in designing and building a LEED Home someday.

First Floor framing at rear addition

The slab at the crawl space is now poured and the first floor framing and plywood sheathing has been installed. The perimeter wall of the addition is ready to be constructed. The space you see here is basically the kitchen (which includes the access path to the back yard.) It feels much bigger than we originally imagined, which is a great! There has been some rain recently so the GC is keeping the back of the house covered up.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Foundation work continues & the 1st lumber order arrives

The mason has poured the foundation footing at the rear addition and laid the CMU that the wood floor joists and exterior stud wall will rest on. The slab under the crawl space (what is called a 'rat' slab) is to be poured today. The elevation of the slab will be about 2 feet below the bottom of the floor joists. This will give the subs adequate space to work in (kitchen plumbing, insulation, etc) along with a nice clean, hard surface to move around on. Closed-cell 'Bio-Based' spray foam insulation (made from soy) will ultimately be placed between the floor joists to insulate as well as create a vapor barrier between the crawl space and the interior of the house.

Also, the first order of FSC (Forest Stewardship Council: http://www.fscus.org/) certified lumber (2x4s, 2x6s, and T&G plywood), along with the engineered floor joists, arrived this morning. All of the lumber in the project will be FSC certified and sourced through Green Depot
(http://www.greendepot.com/) in north Philly. The GC (who will be framing the house) will have the first floor joists in place and the plywood decking laid down for the addition by the end of the day today!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Foundation, 1st Floor Framing, & Brick Salvage

The contractor began pulling up all existing floor boards. The planks that are in good shape will have all the nails pulled and will then be stacked in the basement for later use in the project. The mason also began the rear foundation work for the addition. The footing was dug and the reinforcing steel tied in place. Also, the salvaged bricks have been cleaned and neatly stacked in the back yard. These will later be used to help finish out the patio in the back yard. Lastly, "construction inspector" Nicholas (shown here w/ mom) paid a visit to check on the progress. He says everything is looking good. ;)

Construction Begins

The rear brick wall was dismantled today. All of the bricks were separated into two piles: one pile of unbroken bricks (to be cleaned and reused) and another pile of broken bricks (to be recycled). The mason made a vertical saw cut all the way up the wall in order to keep a portion of the existing wall in place. This remaining portion will help stabilize the brick masonry wall that runs along the side of the house.

Montrose House - A Sustainable Strategy

Environmentally-friendly Building Features:

· salvage existing structure- the “bones” (the brick masonry walls as well as the floor joists) of the existing row home will remain intact and will simply be strengthened with new wood members. This salvage effort will prevent unnecessary landfill debris, limit the amount of new material needed, and ultimately preserve some of the historic character of the home.

· deconstruction/salvage & construction waste management- the demolition (or deconstruction) of the existing structure will include the careful removal of any items that can be salvaged and the separation of the remaining material for recycling. The remaining materials from the demolition process will be either re-used in the project (wood floors will be planed down and reused, bricks from the fa├žade will be used to create the back yard patio, etc), crushed for fill, mulched for landscaping, or recycled. During construction, the project will adhere to the latest waste recycling standards in order to reduce impact on local landfills.

· vegetated (or ‘green’) roof- an 'extensive' vegetated roof system will cover virtually the entire roof. Consisting of a variety of sedum plants, this roof will help with storm water management, provide additional insulation, help reduce the 'heat island effect', and last but not least, provide the resident their own private 'park' to enjoy.

· water management- in addition to the benefits of the vegetated roof, the paving at the rear patio will be laid in such a way as to remain pervious. This will reduce the amount of storm water leaving the site. A rain barrel will be located at the base of the downspout at the rear in order to capture rain water run-off that can be used for irrigation. Overflow from the rain barrel will spill into a rain garden consisting of wetland plants. Lastly, a stormwater planter will be constructed at the front of the property where the sidewalk meets the street. This planter will capture street and sidewalk rainwater as well as run-off from the building facade and allow it to infiltrate and recharge the ground water system.

· natural ventilation- while the building will include a high-efficeincy central HVAC system, operable openings on three sides of the residence, along with ceiling fans, will encourage natural ventilation to occur in moderate months. The continuously open, three-level stair will have an exhaust fan at the highest level which will help remove excess heat from the residence during the summer months in addition to increasing air circulation throughout.

· day lighting- introducing daylight into the center of the building through openings on side of the building will reduce the need for artificial lighting during the day, reducing overall energy needs and promoting a healthy environment.

· Non toxic and zero-VOC paints & stains / No carpet- reduces emission of chemicals and improves indoor air quality.

· woods and metals- new wood to be used in construction will be FSC certified and all metal will have a minimum standard amount of recycled content.

· reclaimed materials- the use of reclaimed material, such as old wood planks and floor joists, reduces the need to cut down additional trees and prevents material from ending up in the landfill. It also adds a unique character to the home.

· recycled material & finishes- rapidly renewable materials and materials with recycled-content (such as crushed quartz and recycled glass & cement countertops) will be used throughout.

· building insulation- closed and open cell, bio-based (soy) spray foam insulation will be used on all exterior walls. This provides a greater R-value than typical insulation and helps reduce air infiltration.

· low-flow plumbing fixtures- all water closets will be tank-type low-flow and/or dual flush. Faucets and heads will be low-flow. Reduces daily water consumption.

· energy efficient (Energy Star rated) appliances and equipment – high-efficiency appliances and HVAC equipment reduce electricity consumption.

· energy efficient windows- solid wood interior/aluminum clad exterior windows (low maintenance) with double-insulated, low-e coated, argon-filled glazing units (reduces HVAC consumption).

· compact fluorescent lights- reduces electricity consumption while providing higher-lumen output and lasts much longer thereby reducing replacement costs.

Initial Design-SOSNA-ZBA-Redesign

Early in March 2006, we decided that it would be good idea to buy some real estate in the city and pursue a redevelopment project. We approached this with the old adage of, “Hey, let’s buy an old row home, gut it, fix it up and then sell it.” Easy, right?!? One reason we decided to get into this in the first place was the disenchantment we felt throughout the search for our own home when it was time for us to buy. Unfortunately, we did not have the luxury of time nor money to go about a gut/renovation at the time. And we certainly did not want to live in it while we did it. Been there, done that. No thanks.

Day after day after day of constant searching (which was essentially us riding our bikes up and down the streets of our neighborhood looking for 'For Sale' signs), we finally found what appeared to be an ideal property. We had already found an interested party to invest with us in the project and now we just had to 'sell' them on idea that this was the perfect property to pursue our venture.

There were some aspects to this particular property that we thought made it especially appealing:

First, the 1500 block is definitely one of the nicer blocks of Montrose: a narrow street with numerous trees, some newly renovated homes, north of Washington Ave and only one block off Broad St.

Second, even though the house is not at the end of the block, it is an end unit in the string of row homes that front Montrose, so there is a 4 foot wide access alley that runs along the west side of the home between this property and the rear yards of the houses that front S. 16th St. Thus, counting the yards, there will always be at least 15 feet or more of open space next to the house. This presented the possibility of adding windows on the side of the house, which is a rare opportunity in row homes.

Third, there are a few other homes on the block that have already added third floors to their properties. You see, the 1500 block of Montrose is mainly two-story row homes but with the recent renovations, some people have added a third floor, bringing the area up to a more reasonable size for a family. We felt this would be to our benefit if we too desired to add a third floor. In this neighborhood, Zoning allows a maximum building height of 35 feet above grade.

Fourth, Montrose St runs east-west and this property is on the south side of the block. This means that the rear facade of the house faces south (the side of the house that gets the most light and also the side of the house that we can have as much glass as we like.)

And lastly, yes...it is very old, more than 100 years old, but the "bones" of the house appeared to be in good shape. It was not falling down like some others we looked at but it had also never been completely renovated, so some of the original aspects of the house remained. All signs pointed to the fact that this was great opportunity with a lot of potential.

All parties were interested in the Montrose property. We decided it would be best to form an LLC in which to buy the property and pursue the renovations. We formed Southern Liberties, LLC (for those of you not from Philly, this is a play on Northern Liberties, a hip neighborhood northeast of downtown). After successfully closing on the property, it was time to get started on the initial design.

As the owner as well as the designer, we had a number of objectives we wanted to fulfill with this venture. First, we wanted to utilize our talents as architects to take great care in the design of the home - from a quality standpoint as well as a sustainable one. I guess we are what most folks would consider “Modernists” and one of the first things we wanted to do was really open up the plan so all the spaces (inside and out - vertically and horizontally) could meld together. Another concept that we felt very strongly about was bringing natural light into the interior of the house. This a common problem with row homes since the streets are usually narrow and you have a house attached to either side of you.

With the building orientation already well-established, one of our first design tasks was to tie down the program. How many bedrooms / bathrooms and how big (SF) was this house to be? Should we maximize the lot to the fullest depth and the height to the highest limits of what is allowed? Well, seeing that the lot was only 15 feet wide and about 52 feet deep for a grand total footprint of less than 800 SF....I'd say that we were all in favor of trying to fit as much house on there as possible. A quick calculation let us know that, by maximizing our limits, we would be able to build a 1850 SF home at most. This size was plenty for us to fit the 3 bedrm / den/ 2.5 bath that we decided would be the ideal scenario.

One of the first design opportunities we wanted to explore was the idea of having a "switchback" stair towards the rear of the house opposed to the standard "straight-through" stair that you typically see in row homes. Our thinking was that by doing this we could have the main space of the house be free of any circulation and have more open area at each floor. Another option we wanted to explore was adding more windows on the west (side) facade. After some code research we determined that, due to the fact that we had a 4' wide alley between our property line the next, we would be able to have 25% of the surface area of the facade be windows (this is allowable if you are between 3 -5 feet away). The other caveat we discovered was that if we were greater than 5 feet away we could have unlimited glazing. Thus came the idea of "stepping" the exterior wall at the stair landing in about 2 feet, therefore allowing us to have this wall essentially be a continuous "window wall" from ground to roof.

Below are the initial plans we came up with. The stair would be very transparent with an "open risers" and cable railings. This would allow a visual connection between the living/dining space and the kitchen and back patio.

There are two zoning code regulations in Philadelphia that we were breaking here and would thus need to go for two separate variances. First was the fact that, by code, the minimum open area on a residential lot needs to be 30% of the total area of the lot (20% for corner lots). Second was that no part of the structure can rise above 35' from grade. One can attempt to acquire variances from the Zoning Board of Adjustment for these two items. For the rear yard, the minimum depth the City will allow is 9'-6". In regards to the height, its basically open to whatever the ZBA allows (typically, people are only asking for about 7 to10 feet in order to have the roof access stair.) Also, you might notice the "Green Roof" note on the Roof Deck Plan. This was one of the many sustainable strategies that I'll discuss later on.

We decided to go before the ZBA in order to acquire our variances. Since we were and LLC (and officially a 'corporation') we needed to hire a lawyer to represent us in front of the board. There is one thing you must do before you go before the ZBA and that is present to and get approval by your neighborhood association. Ours is SOSNA (South of South Neighborhood Association). Our presentation to SOSNA went very well. They were extremely enthusiastic about project and excited about all the green aspects. It went so well, we actually got a standing ovation (a rarity amongst neighborhood association meetings).

Unfortunately, the ZBA was not so enthusiastic. We never even got to the point of discussing the variances we were seeking because they did not want to get beyond the fact that they didn't think we should be building a 3-story house on this block of Montrose (predominantly 2-story). We tried to explain that we are totally within our rights to build the third story and that others are beginning to add third stories too AND that this was not what we were actually here to discuss. The ZBA wanted to hear nothing of that nor did they seems to care that we were building a 'green' home that will be a model that others can follow. Needless to say, we were denied our variance and were told that unless we stepped our third story back far enough so that you could not see it from the street, we would never get our variance. I was already aware that this would not work. We would have to step back about 15 feet from the front. With such a small lot, there was not much left of the third floor and would not be very cost-effective. I walked out furious and determined to never go through that again. We decided to redesign the entire layout and move forward with a "by-right" scheme (no variances needed). This option involved moving the stair back to the "straight through" position and cutting about 200 SF out of the house.

After a few months of redesigning and re-documenting, we submitted and got approved for building permit. It was during this time, though, that we bid the job out to about 5 different contractors. No one seemed to be able to match our price point...except one. After going to see a few of this "low bidder's" past projects, we were convinced that he was the right guy for the job. he did high quality work and was genuinely a nice, upstanding guy. This is very important.

I will discuss the pros and cons of the bidding process in an other post at some point.