Thursday, July 26, 2007

*That* Goes into the Sales Brochure

The concrete guy, who will be doing the T-Mass work, has been slightly delayed because he was pouring T-Mass walls at the new penitentiary.

Monday, July 23, 2007


There's many a ton of concrete in this beast (in polite company around town it's called "the concrete house"; I don't want to know what other, more judgmental labels have been attached to it). That's a lot of gray.

So we're going to break up the gray concrete walls with siding, gray siding. Darker than the concrete--pretty much a charcoal gray.

I'm toying with more of a barn red, which has caused long conversations with my architect. He's not 100% against it, mind you, but also isn't sure it makes sense. During the discussion, he pulled out a photo of a Steven Holl (one of the reigning starchitects) building that's all red (bright red). He terms this choice "intentional", which on reflection hurts a little--so my choice is random?

So, time for more input: charcoal gray or barn red. Remember, this siding lasts for 40 years.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Many contractors; I feel important.

The out-of-place Bimmer is mine, but will someday feel at home with the kitchen guy's Mercedes wagon (hmmm).

Barry, the general contractor, invited the key trades to meet with me and the architect, and with each other. The concrete guy won the show-and-tell award with a four-foot square sample of the T-Mass wall construction, with the Pella windows guy coming in a close second with donuts.

Kidding aside, having this kind of a kick-off meeting was a terrific idea. We caught all kinds of minor inconsistencies and omissions, and might have saved a couple bucks of rework and change orders in the process. Everyone now has a face to associate with a name, and for those that stuck around, I bought lunch at the local restaurant and cheese emporium.

I have a big hole

I guess I'm committed. There's a big hole in the ground (about 60' across) and, I'm embarrassed to say, several old Oak trees that are going to make some wonderful flooring for someone.

Some of those trees had some big rotted areas inside, so they were due, and they blocked the light from many of the younger, struggling trees, so it's not as bad as it may seem, I hope.

To get a sense of scale, double-click on this picture to see Ted, the architect, taking a picture of the Oak we really want to save. This one will stand right outside of the kitchen and provide shade during dinner prep, and frame the right side of the view to the West.

You'll also notice a fair amount of rock below the thin coat of soil. It made for tough digging, but at least there's no clay, so we're expecting few water problems. And check out the roots that have penetrated the rock.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Modern Expectations in a Traditional World

How do you know when you're on the same page with your collaborators (architect, contractors, subs)?

For some things, where you can say "I want the Kohler faucet #12345 in Satin Nickel", you're done.

Try doing this with concrete. For this house, much of the exterior wall is unfinished concrete, as mentioned previously. Concrete is a wonderful material, but it's not like picking out a faucet. How do you agree on what "light, warm gray, but no brown or beige tones, natural-looking, without too many defects" looks like?

You can't.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Program

"Programming" isn't what you think; in architecture-land, they talk about "the program" instead of "requirements" or "the brief".

In a nutshell, the program for this project is:

  • Create a getaway house that is as different from the client's (hey, that's me!) vintage condo (in Chicago) as possible. This means modern, airy, secluded, no brick, lots of glass.
  • Organize the structure so that friends can visit, socialize and then, when they're tired of socializing, go somewhere private.
  • Give the owner (me) the same option, and isolate my private space so that people can visit and not intrude on my private space.
  • Give me a place to work, but again, isolate it from the public spaces so that it's out of the way when entertaining or relaxing.
  • Get lots of light, but avoid being hot. The architect loved that one...

Concrete Momentum, and Panic

Momentum is the force that gets difficult projects done and keeps people from changing their minds. It breathes life into all sorts of undertakings ("Relationships are like sharks, they need to keep moving forward to stay alive. What we have here is a dead shark." --Woody Allen in "Annie Hall.")

This project ("Chartier Hermitage") has been in the works for a couple years now, and almost got built last Fall, but it lost steam when we couldn't resolve some key issues. The biggest decision was how to build and insulate the concrete walls. Concrete has essentially no insulating value of its own (although it acts as a thermal mass, like a stucco wall), and there a few ways to keep out the cold:

  • Conventional insulation on the inside--frame a wall against the inside concrete surface and fill the openings with your favorite insulation material.
  • Insulated concrete forms--the concrete is poured between forms made of a rigid Styrofoam sandwich. Called "ICFs" in the trade.
  • The "Thermomass" approach--another sandwich, but the reverse of ICFs. Concrete makes up the bread, and Styrofoam insulation is the filling. The two concrete walls are held together by plastic ties that don't conduct heat.

You guessed it, we're going for the third approach. This means that there can be a bare concrete wall on both the inside and outside, so the structural material is also the finished surface. ICFs force you to add another couple of layers to the wall on both sides, This has a lot of appeal for modernists, and, given that I'm paying a ton of money for this T-Mass approach, you're gonna see every inch of that concrete.

It also creates its own set of concerns:

  1. Not many foundation contractors have experience with this technology.
  2. It's a proprietary technology, so there's no price or product competition
  3. It's therefore not cheap. How much "not cheap" is difficult to say, because of #1, not many people do this. We couldn't get a true apples-to-apples comparison to the conventional approach because we couldn't find two T-mass foundation guys. So, while this project is in southern Wisconsin, our concrete guy is coming from Minnesota.
  4. The finish of a concrete wall is somewhat of a crapshoot. You can clean the forms so they shine, use the right release agent, spec the concrete recipe precisely and use fancy admixtures, but there's no guarantee that it'll come out the way you wanted.

Hence the panic. We start pouring in 10 days; until then, I'll be dreaming about concrete...