Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Tiny Custom Build

I come from a career world where building “stuff” entails worrying about how much that stuff weighs, how much power it consumes, how large a space it requires, how often it breaks, and how to repair it without access to the local hardware store, much less plumber, electrician, IT specialist, etc.
I come from a life history that involves multiple “homestead” moves, both as a renter and a home “owner”.  I’ll always remember my first home “ownership” (i.e. mortgage)—a small two bedroom patio home with one car garage.  After years of dorm life and apartments, that patio home was a heavenly mansion.
Each homestead move had its own unique set of “requirements” to turn a “house” into my home.  The patio home was a very minor remodel--repainting walls and replacing carpet before moving in with the beginnings of “my furniture” that has moved around with me these thirty-something years.  I still give thanks for my dear friend and mentor (Jan) who wisely steered me to this simple patio home “remodel”, knowing I was young, inexperienced, and definitely on a limited income. 
My first new home was in a developing track-home neighborhood where you walk through the builder’s series of model homes and select a specific, predefined floor plan (with a fancy name), and make a limited set of decisions related to light and plumbing fixtures, brick color, flooring type, etc.  Still a lot of decisions, but not on the level of:  “Where do you want to put the toilet?”
My more recent homesteading experience involved gutting and completely remodeling an older townhome.  And when I say gutting—I mean gutting:  down to concrete foundation and dry wall (and in some places, studs).  Almost six months were involved with a prime contractor team to remodel 1800 square feet—that “time per square foot” pretty much frames the “joy” of the experience.  

Or put another way, I told a friend:  “never again”.  But I would be remiss to not mention everything (almost) turned out beautifully—i.e. to our liking; but still, never again!  And even though we completely gutted the master bathroom, replacing a shower stall with a soaker tub, the new toilet went into the same location as the old.
A year and a half after townhome remodel completion, I would have laughed if you’d suggested I was going to take on a custom build of a new home, no matter how small.  And yet on January 3rd, 2011, I found myself in the RGV (Rio Grande Valley) staring at a grassy lot, 45’ x 93’, with schematic in hand that showed the footprint plan for a  30’x74’ concrete pad, with 12’ x’ 24’ of the concrete allocated for a CoachHouse foundation.  The builder’s representative turned to me, as we stood looking at the grassy lot, and said:  “Pretty much the first thing you need to decide is where you want to put the toilet, as well as other plumbing.  Also you need to decide where you want to run the conduits for electrical and data lines, because all of those decisions must occur before the concrete pour--and concrete pour is planned early next week.  And of course the next big decisions you want to make are where to place the door and windows, as the framers for the CoachHouse will start as soon as the concrete has cured.”
Without CAD software, it was somewhere around revision 20 of my hand-drawn CoachHouse floor plan that became the “build to” schematic.  Drawing these schematics became my nighttime work, after each day of discussions with the builder, and advice and examples from others in our new neighborhood.  

In former career years, I’d encourage those in my work environment to try and approach me with technical challenges before 3pm, when my brain seemed to work its best.  Budget and management challenges I could tackle late afternoon, but please bring me the design stuff early.  

So here I found myself in this new winter-time place, 8 p.m. until 2a.m. and I was hand drawing, to scale, a floor plan for a CoachHouse to include bathroom, kitchenette, laundry and living space—learning about the footprint requirements of internal walls,  doorways, recessed lighting, plumbing, vents, etc.  The following day I’d meet with the builder, make notes on the drawing, and start another revision that night.  I still can’t decide if I loved it or hated it—but I learned a lot. 
Don’t get me wrong, the positives of the build flexibility are enormous: within a 12’x24’ space (subtracting 4”for front and side walls, and 6” for the back wall) we were free to design anything we wanted—a complete custom build, within reason and a few obvious constraints.  I’ll write a future blog on some of the creative and innovative designs I’ve seen from neighbors’ CoachHouses, not to mention all I’ve learned.  But, starting with “where do you want the toilet” introduced me to a crash course on not only designing a home, but designing a home where every square inch is a trade off.
I want to mention the amazing “neighbor helping neighbor” support I received during this time.  This is an active community of retired WTs (Winter Texans), many having owned or managed some form of manufacturing or construction business during their career. Many are “finishing” their CoachHouse with their own hands, rather than creating a schematic to hand over to a prime contractor.  

And so when word spread through the village that I’d arrived and backed in a 31’ Airstream and unhitched it by myself (into the corporate CoachHouse lot provided to new owners until their CoachHouse lot is ready for occupancy)—well, it seems I’d earned the support of the knowledgeable and experienced of the neighborhood.  So they began the patient, daily tutorials to teach me about plumbing lines, conduits, and the multitude of design trades for a fully functioning CoachHouse, none of which  I’d learned from watching “This Old House”.
But I also can’t emphasize enough the challenges of a design that is constrained to such a small space:  forget having space for a side by side washer/dryer; realize that if the toilet placement is a few inches off, the sink vanity size will disappear; understand that hot water heaters and their maintenance access requirements take up a lot of space, so over-sizing hot water needs will cost valuable living space, but under-sizing hot water needs will be a long term annoying mistake (And electric tankless tanks won’t work when the entire CoachHouse is 125 amps. 

CoachHouse lots are plumbed for water, electric, and data, but not natural gas—so bring your own LP if you want to use gas appliances, and some innovative owners did). It was about revision 5 of my schematic when I realized that the space requirements for the bathroom door are not a nicely drawn 30”, for there are at least 6” of framing space needed-- not to mention “doorway” space regular homeowners call a “hallway”!  And so my former career comrades can picture me with amusement, as here I was with the CoachHouse requirements and design life cycle phases squished together, inside a week schedule, with no PDR or CDR, much less SRR—except for the wonderful knowledge and experience of neighbor helping new neighbor.
And so FINALLY follows the beginning of the “pictures are worth a thousand words”:
Placement of the plumbed toilet, tub, washer, bathroom sink and kitchen sink, as well as conduit for breakerbox, with fresh concrete in place--no changing now! 

My last blog showed the externally finished CoachHouse, with rick-man, myself and Airstream moved onto the lot, but I thought I'd include one photo of the CoachHouse external build, as I watched window and door placement occur.

This past week began the internal finishing:  carpentry framing of ceiling and internal wall on Tuesday to allow installation of the plumbing lines Thursday, and the 10 hour  electrical work Friday, continuing tomorrow.

The carpenter created a beautiful raised ceiling in the living/kitchen area (another design decision), based on my verbal descriptions.  He and his assistants were the wonderful example of people who take pride in their work.

The below photo shows what will be the kitchen cabinet wall, with bathroom/laundry room door on the right side.  On the left, an innovative, space saving design (thanks to neighbor Bill!): the placement of a "shorty" hot water heater hidden behind the refrigerator; roll out the fridge and there is the hot water heater for easy access or replacement!

Plumbing lines and recess lighting boxes, oh my--the lessons continued! "IC" (insulation contact) boxes for new construction allow placement of the insulation directly on the metal box without fire hazard--but the available space  limited us to a 4" IC box, which limited the recessed lighting to a 45W bulb. The trade to use a 6" non-IC box would allow more wattage, but there was not enough space to build protective boxing for insulation.  With insuation the higher priority, the 4" IC was the decision.  And yes, the plumbers returned to moved the plumbing line:

A bathtub, 33" space for toilet, and a window--a learning experience!  :-)  (looks different than first picture in wet cement!)

10 hours last Friday, plus all day tomorrow (and maybe more) with the electricians-- deserves its own next blog, because I've learned why "Electricians don't use hammers".

Not birding yet, but a pretty special place where you wake up listening to the "crying" of Great Kiskadees.

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