Friday, February 25, 2011

Lawyers, Paperwork, Permits, Ptooie!

Feb. 11

Sam and I went to the lawyer today to work out an agreement that would protect us both during the construction process. When the lawyer saw the plan of the Octagon he looked at Sam and asked, “Are you sure you want to build this house? He went on to explain that value was determined by looking at the sale of houses of comparable kind in a geographic area, and that something this unusual might be hard to put a value on and hence to sell. I looked at Sam and smiled. I later explained that this is how someone who has spent their adult life as a lawyer sees the world. Everything is about the money. Aesthetics won’t pay the rent. I’ve known this particular lawyer since he was a boy and he is used to my eccentricities. He shakes his head at my lack of concern for the commercial value of things, for the normal way of doing things, but he also knows me well enough to know that his form of realism will fail to persuade or dissuade me. It runs in my family, he thinks. He will draw up the required legal arrangement and chuckle at my naiveté in the ways of the world.

Feb. 26

Today was the meeting with city hall about the permitting for the Octagon. I had spent several weeks working out R- values and u-factors and lots of other arcane necessities in order to comply with the universal building codes. Any number of things in this process amazed me. Houses now are required to be almost hermetically sealed, and then the state requires an active or passive air exchange system to bring fresh air into the structure…often at below zero temps here in Minnesota. How does that make any sense?

Windows need to have a minimum u-value of .35 (The lower the number, the better the insulation value). No one could give me a u-value for the traditional wood-framed double hung window with a simple single glazed storm window…long the standard in home construction. I was shocked to learn from an obscure government web site that the old style windows had a u-value of .44 , making the new window requirements only slightly better than the previous style. By increasing the wall insulation above the necessary r-19, I was given permission to use historical windows on the front side of the house because the total thermal envelope would exceed the requirements. What really seemed spectacular to me was the fact that the same State that put these energy rules in place for home builders, just this week heated the Humphrey Dome and its collapsed roof, thousands of square feet of space, to a balmy 85 degrees in order to melt all of the recent foot plus snowfall off the roof. This would be enough energy to heat the modest 1900 square foot Octagon house for, oh, maybe a thousand years? Penny wise and pound foolish?

After meeting for 45 minutes, all the paperwork was examined and passed by the city officials, paving the way for a spring permit without a hitch. Because I have had experience with the city, having reconstructed two historical houses already, I had some credibility. I thought of Sam. What if he had approached the same group with the same plan on his own, at 22, without a track record? Would he have received the same reception to the idea? I often feel that all the regulations which are there to protect us against the unscrupulous, really serve to stifle creativity and the building of the unique and unusual…part of the reason that our cities and suburbs look so ugly? Not a single Italian hill village or thatched-roofed English cottage would pass any codes I am aware of in this country. A homeless man cannot live legally in new construction that has no proper egress window of the right size and the right height off of the floor, but that same man in a homeless condition can live under a local bridge. Were you to live on 60 acres in the country and dig a pit toilet for one person and be found out, you’d face a significant fine, but on the same 60 acres 2, 000 pigs can shit in an open pit and, NO problem! Go figure.

Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles nowadays in many communities is the requirement to complete a structure or a project within a specific time frame…usually six months to one year. This almost precludes an individual building anything by themselves. Stonework takes time, especially when done by hand. The reconstruction of an 1850’s two story stone house I completed some 20 years ago took over five years. (That was before current regulations) How can anyone on their own complete anything interesting or even remarkable under these time restrictions? Maybe the better question is where did this idea of a time limit come from anyway? The answer lies with middle-class suburban women. Today we have covenants in some jurisdictions that prevent people from parking boats or R V’s in a driveway or in some cases even from hanging laundry out on a line. It seems it disturbs some peoples’ ideas of a perfect world. Have you ever seen a house that looks like a furniture showroom on the inside? Do you know any man who lives part-time in a garage because his house is off limits for any activity except those which don’t mess up his wife’s ideal of a well-ordered and clean home? During my last project this became clear to me when one morning I went out to the worksite.

City rules are often as not in place to avoid staff having to field complaints (usually from one of these women) about a neighbor’s property. So, a project that takes time to complete becomes an impossibility and we end up with bland plastic subdivisions where every house is completed within the time limit and every house is the same bland non-entity. Every house is gray, every lawn is mowed, every shrub is manicured, and no “mess” is tolerated!

When people complain about government intrusion I don’t think they are always talking about the big stuff. It is the nonsensical local requirements and crazy rule-making that drives some folks nuts. But all that is past for Sam and me. Permit almost in hand, we are on our way. All that inhibits us now is melting the 5+ feet of snow we’ve had this winter, spring flooding, road restrictions and the possibility of $5.00 a gallon gas should the mid-east remain volatile, and, of course money!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sam and I Decide to Build an Octagon House

At 63 I have agreed to help a 22 year old build an 1850’s style Octagon house. I have read Fowler’s book, visited several period octagons, and begun preparing plans. The lot has been selected and awaits spring for clearing and digging a foundation and installing a sewer and water line. Sam (the young man who will eventually build and own the house) and I this last fall began to gather supplies. We removed the fir flooring from four rooms of a soon to be dismantled farmhouse and it is stowed away. I have begun to build the window frames for the house, utilizing some fine old Victorian sashes salvaged from a house that was being updated. The cedar sills came from cedar telephone poles rescued from a local farmer and sawed into one and a half inch slabs and later run through the planer here. Sam will have to strip and in some cases re-glaze the windows sashes themselves when the weather warms. We are currently discussing putting colored glass in the corner panels of the upper sashes and what colors they should be. I’m partial to different colors for different rooms, but we’ll have to see what Sam decides. He’ll be the one to have to live with them. There will be a total of 17 windows to construct but with the salvaged sills and sashes, the cost for each will only be about $15 each, not including the eventual storm windows.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Winter work

We have made great strides in collecting materials for the octagon house to come. Here is just a small sampling of the fir, maple, and oak flooring that we have been able to gather. A friend of ours was going to demolish their 1920s farm house. They said we could have whatever we wanted. The flooring was a dirty and dusty chore to take up, but an experience nonetheless. A great task to take up the flooring on a cold winter day. Once this is laid and sanded it will look marvelous in the second floor.