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.
Our hosts, meeting us in the driveway.
The first thing we did was walk around the back. This is the floor of the Sunroom to be. Eventually, it will be glazed in, and it will house an aviary. Both Gina and Raul are avid bird lovers. You may wonder what that thing snaking through the concrete is. It is a river which will be filled with all the agates collected by Gina’s grandmother and great grandmother during their entire lifetimes. She is cementing them into the floor! This summer, during the worst of the heat waves we had, bees from a neighborhood beekeeper gathered to cool off in the water that had gathered in the river. It must have been quite the sight…
Here is another view of the river, seen from the glass doors that lead into the kitchen and the large, two-story living room. I love how this is not just a house, but how all the thoughtful details are incorporated to commemorate loved ones, and celebrate memories. No one else can live in this house – it is so intensely aligned with its owners – it truly is their forever home. Of course there are plants everywhere, waiting to go in the ground, when all this is over, and they can breathe again.
A better view of the Sunroom. This is where we had dinner after walking through the property – a wonderful salad Gina had made.
Adjacent to the Sunroom, down on the ground is something wonderful…
… the sump where all the water run-off from the roof is collected in underground tanks. There is also a pump which will pump the water uphill to where Gina’s garden will be. So cool – from up there, she can let gravity do the watering.
This is the top of the field where Gina plan to have her fabulously irrigated edible garden.
The generous sleeping porches that stretch along the side of the house are perfect for napping.
They had some issues with birds nesting in the eaves, so they put rolled up gutter netting in there to prevent them. But, nice as they are, they built a little shelf for them to nest on instead. 🙂
Gina’s rain chains – made from these cute little metal buckets she bought from an online party supply store.
By now, a kitchen has been installed behind that arched stud wall.
See how thick the walls are? Not counting the siding, which is not installed yet, they measure about 15″. They used Faswall blocks to construct this house. Faswall are stackable wood chip and cement blocks with exceptional thermal properties. Very cool – check them out here!
There is an upper level, but for now, it will be used for storage.
The roof was made with SIP panels (Structural Insulated Panels), and the insulation on the inside is made from recycled materials – I forget exactly what kind it is.
Raul (who is an engineer) did all the electrical wiring himself. Check out those wires – holy moly – they are so straight I bet you could use them as levels!
I bet the electrical inspector was duly impressed! They had just passed the rough-in inspection when we visited. I can’t imagine they would have any trouble passing the final one too.
Looking out toward the many windows that let the forest and the wildlife in. The super-insulated fiberglass windows were ordered from Canadian company called Accurate Dorwin, and are triple-pane with argon gas. Note the wood stove… I bet you they won’t have to use it much.
The upper windows have decals – to deter birds from flying in to them.
Everything is so neatly done – labor of love, indeed!
Until the sunroom walls go in, this will be a fantastic place to sit long into the evening and listen to all the Gorge sounds.
There is a little bog pot with Carnivorous plants too, to admire…
… and another planter with mini water lilies. Every time they go out to The House, they bring things from their current garden. Gina is wise – she knows that if they don’t bring them now, by the time they have emptied the house, the last thing they’ll want to do is move the garden. So, the garden is moving now – one or two things at a time.
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!