So far, this week has been a pretty normal week for me, but it contains a GIGANTIC mile stone for my friend and co-worker Gina. After the upcoming weekend, she and her husband will be at the end of a process that has absorbed a significant portion of their lives, and practically all of their savings. If all goes well, it will come in the form of a hotly coveted Occupancy Permit to their new house, built to their specifications, on a wooded lot in the magnificent Columbia River Gorge. Gina and Raul knew early on in their relationship that they wanted to move outside of the city. About seven years ago, or so, they found the perfect lot – 5 acres of forest with a creek running through it.
For a while, they poured over house plans, comparing, combining, tweaking, until they had found the right configuration for their highly energy-efficient dream house. Then came the arduous process of shopping for contractors. They settled on a Portland company called Coho Construction Services Inc. – a company which prides itself on environmentally responsible construction. So far, it sounds pretty dreamy, right? After spending a lot more than planned on a building permit (it apparently costs a lot more to build in the Gorge than in the city) they worked out the details with the owner of Coho. They had enough money for the foundation and to erect the shell, he said, and so it began. After the foundation was in place, Coho packed up his stuff and left. They were out of money, he claimed. So, instead of the promised shell, they now had about 1/3 of what had been agreed upon, and an empty bank account.
UPDATE: One of Coho’s subcontractors – JRA Green Building was instrumental in helping them finish the shell after the GC left them stranded. After Gina read what I had written, she wanted me to add a big shout-out to JRA, so here it is… Per the happy couple, James Ray Arnold is the guy you want. Check out his website – if you are bucking the current Portland trend of crappy housing development – he is definitely worth considering. A certified Passive house consultant, and with Living Building Challenge credentials to boot, I would have to agree – he sounds very much like my kind of people.
This was back in 2011, and this is where it all slowed down. Since then, they have juggled two mortgages, and spent just about every penny and available moment on-site, building their dream themselves. Everything else were set aside, as all efforts went into The House. Building permits come with expiration dates. Soon after I got to know Gina, I learned that the time for the original permit was up, and they were applying for an extension. It was granted, but if they were to not have received their Occupancy Permit by September 21, 2015 (i.e. next Monday), they would have to reapply for an entirely new building permit, thereby being forced to comply with any and all changes that had been adopted by the code since the last one was issued. (Under their old permit, they would be allowed to squeak by without making the changes.)
Through all this time, they have managed to not only staying together, but also kept their eyes on the goal. They have not compromised on their high standards. Building is expensive enough as it is, and building to this level of energy efficiency costs even more. Granted, with rising energy costs, those extras will soon pay for themselves. Gina and Raul essentially built themselves a Passive House. A Passive House is a house that is so well insulated that it does not need a heating system. It is heated by its inhabitants, and by appliances. It’s pretty amazing – you can read much more about Passive Houses here.
If you build a Passive House in the US, you may apply to have it certified so by the PHIUS (Passive House Institute – US). To get this certification, certain criteria have to be met, both in terms of design, construction and site orientation. One of the main reasons their attempt at certification was denied, was that they didn’t absorb enough solar heat through expansive south and west-facing windows. This is one of those things that bother me with these certifications – certain aspects of them are so unforgivingly irrational. Having sufficient solar gain designed into a project presupposes that you are on a lot that enables that. It’s not really going to be all that realistic when your house is in the middle of a forest. But, as I said in that Passive House post from so long ago – the certification itself might be fun to have, but in reality it doesn’t really mean jack. What really is important is that we all try our best to make sustainable choices, tread lightly on the planet we all share, and try to remember that we are not the last generation on Earth. I’d be the first to tell you that most of us – including me – could (and should) do a lot better. People like Gina and Raul inspire me. They have put their all into this house, and I want to see them succeed. So, let’s take a look at what they have done, shall we?
Around Midsummer, when the daylight lasted as long as possible, they invited us to come see The House and the property. William, I and my husband John drove out together after work.
They had hoped that the final electrical inspection would have been completed and over today, but when I left work today, he hadn’t yet showed. I decided to go home and write this long overdue blog post about it, in the hopes that it would shake up enough good will and karma from the universe to make it all fall into place tomorrow. I hope the inspector comes early tomorrow morning, and that the Occupancy Permit can be issued in the afternoon, or Friday at the latest. In the state of Washington, the two fall under different agencies, and ne’er do the two align… No seriously, the hope was that both would be concluded before the weekend, so just in case there was anything that needed remedied, they could have the weekend to get it done before the big day on Monday.
Nerve-racking as this may be, I honestly think it will all go without a hitch. Both Gina and Raul are freakishly thorough, have sacrificed just about everything else to make this happen, and have done a completely fantastic job. They have worked so hard and they are exhausted. I’m in awe of what they have accomplished – they are SO close to realizing their dream… Won’t you join me in sending them all the good Karma in the world their way for their big, big day? I will send you good Karma back, in gratitude!