Saturday, February 9, 2013

Life is Too Short, or How I Hired A Builder

Building your own house is a powerful thing. You get to make it just the way you want, and if the bathroom is too small to fit in that beautiful tub you found online, all you do is ask your architect, "Why don't we just make the bathroom bigger?" Which you can't do when you remodel or renovate. I've done plenty of both, and now for the first time ever, I'm looking at plans that are completely fungible. It comes with its own set of constraints, of course (the size of the lot, and the buildable square footage on that lot, what's practical and what's not), but in general, building a house from scratch is a very liberating experience.

I began this project with a 1-page wishlist of all those things I thought I couldn't live without (more on that later). In particular, I was determined to build it myself, to act as my own general contractor, which in Oakland CA is legal without a contractor's license. I wanted a single-story dwelling with 2 bedrooms and 3 full baths, rainwater catchment, wood floors, gray water, 100%+ solar, hot-water roof pre-heat, hydronic heat, and all of my favorite kitchen appliances. That meant I needed to know about and fundamentally understand all the latest technology about all those things, how they work together, and then I needed to be able to find reputable subcontractors who can build those interconnected systems.

For example, my first drawing of the schematic of the plumbing system, incorporating a rainwater system, with holding tanks, filtration, and pumping, plus a city system for potable water (believe it or not, rainwater isn't potable in Alameda County!), plus a gray water holding system, and another plumbing system for the hydronic-heat floors, was the most complicated mechanical system in my house. I did not want to mess this up, or have to build it more than once.

I learn quickly, and well. And I am not afraid to tackle big projects. But as I began to study, almost immediately I realized that my best learning was going to come from experts in conservation, green building, and resource management. And I could spend a year learning about systems, and then another year finding the right people to build them for me, or . . . or I could hire an expert, who would point me toward other experts.

So I consulted with my FA (Fabulous Architect, or Favorite Architect, or Famous Architect, whichever suits) and after some chatting, I did the smart thing: I decided to hire a builder to construct the "shell." That's the house itself, minus any interior finishes. It can't be lived in, but it doesn't leak, and it contains all the energy and mechanical subsystems.

Introducing Drew Maran, of Drew Maran Construction. Besides being very well-organized and techie, which I greatly admire, Drew comes with a wonderful recommendation: he has built a house with Lindy before, and they still like each other. More than that, Drew has been building eco-friendly houses since way before that was fashionable. Between Lindy and Drew, I have managed to accumulate in a mere 4 weeks the best and brightest consultants on the west coast for energy, mechanical, structural, landscape, and water resource design.

We are meeting for the first time on Monday.

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