A Homestead Without A Home

What’s a homestead without a home?

We have been working for two years… TWO YEARS, trying to get our architect and engineer to produce working and legal house plans.

Here’s the backstory.

Ray and I purchased five acres of mountain property fifteen years ago and have slowly developed it over the years, while we lived and worked in our home in the Sacramento Valley.  First was the septic system, then came the well.  We blazed a driveway through our property and brought in four truckloads of gravel. We planted our orchard.  We prepared a nice place for our travel trailer (you can see that post HERE), since we would be living in it while we were building our new house, and beefed up the solar system (see that post HERE) to minimize the need to run a generator, lessening our dependence on fossil fuels.  The house site has been graded and leveled for more than a year now.

This is our nice, level building spot! The orange tape on the stakes indicate where the septic tank is. This picture was taken in April of 2016 and our building lot has remained empty since!

We also built our beloved outhouse.  We built the outhouse for many reasons, some of which you can read in a previous post about the outhouse HERE.

how to build an outhouse

Our outhouse.

The summer before Ray’s retirement, we had a 20 foot long cargo container (read about that HERE) delivered to our property, to store the household items that we were keeping, and over the next ten months we decluttered our house, spruced it up and started filling up the container, getting ready to put our house up for sale upon Ray’s retirement.

Well…

We must have done a good job, because we put our house up for sale by owner before Ray actually retired, just to feel out the market, and sold it sooner than we expected.

Fortunately, we were prepared, the escrow went very well, Ray finally retired, and we moved up to live on our property permanently in late March of 2015.

The family room of the house we sold so that we could build a new home on our mountain property. Oh how I miss that house!

So, that’s the backstory.

We have planned to build the outside walls of our home with Faswall ICF (insulated concrete form), which is a mineralized wood product formed into what looks like a very large concrete building block. These are stacked much like Legos and then the voids are filled with rebar and concrete.  After studying several ICF systems and weighing the pros and cons, we felt the Shelter Works Faswall was a superior product and decided to contract with them.

This is a screenshot of an e-mail I sent to our architect, dated February 6, 2015. You can click on the picture to make it bigger and easier to read.

We were referred to an Engineer, Don Sherman (whom we will now call Engineer), who was familiar with the Faswall system and, although he lived in Oregon, had a California Engineer’s license.  In several e-mails we told Engineer that we were DIYers and were wanting to build on a limited budget, as we did not want to have a mortgage.  He assured us that this was definitely a DIY project and that in the long-run, the house would not cost more than a house that was stick-built.  He also said that his costs would be very reasonable.  But first, we would need an architect to actually draw the plans, and Engineer referred us to Jack Scovel (now called Architect), also out of Oregon, to draw the plans.  Architect does NOT have a California license, but Engineer assured us that it was okay, because his California license would cover everything.

So, we signed a contract and sent a deposit to Architect TWO YEARS AGO this month.

This is the main floor plan I sent to the Architect, so that he could convert it to easily build with Faswall Blocks and also to bring it up to California Code.

I sent the house plans I had been working on for several years using a software package I had purchased at Staples. All Architect had to do was make them fit with the Faswall system (each block is four feet long) and make sure the plans passed California Building Codes.

In fact, other than the final dimensions, his preliminary plans almost exactly mirror the plans I sent him. Again, we emphasized to Architect in e-mails and phone calls that we wanted to build as cheaply as possible, and that we were planning to do the bulk of the work ourselves, though we were NOT licensed contractors!  Thank goodness we saved every single E-mail, in case this ends up going to court.

This is the plan the architect came up with. Not much different than mine, is it? So, why in the world would it take so long to come up with the final plans?

FOURTEEN months later, they finally had everything necessary to submit our building package to the planning department for inspection and review.

Why would it take so long?  We wish we knew!  We begged, we nagged and we pleaded, to no avail.  Is it because we made a lot of changes to our plans?  NOPE!  We had Architect remove two windows on the second story that HE put in and we didn’t want, and I had him flip flop the shower with the toilet room in the master bath on the preliminary plans.   That’s it.  Seriously!

Why am I naming names? Because these are the cold, hard facts.  I am not worried about slander, much less libel, because I am telling the truth, as hard as it is to swallow.  I have saved all our e-mails, and our local county personnel will back me up on all of this, and so since I refuse to sugar coat anything, I am naming names.  Perhaps I can prevent someone else’s heartbreak.

When we finally submitted the plans, we got the results of our first review back from the “plan checker”  within two weeks.  There were pages and pages and pages of things that were missing, incomplete or just plain wrong in our house plans.

🙁

UGGGGHHHHHHH!  This was in late July of 2016.

http://www.clipartof.com

In the meantime, we had a bunch of contractors up to our property to give us bids on the foundation work.  That was one of the only things we were not planning to do ourselves (besides the roof), because we wanted to have a good foundation to build on!

Contractor after contractor told us that just the basement alone was going to cost between $50,000 to $60,000.  Holy @%$&

WHY?

Because our home was essentially three stories (basement, first floor, second floor) some of the footings were to be seven feet wide!  And one of the basement walls had to be a solid concrete wall (filled with rebar) 35 feet long, 10 feet high and eight inches thick, to hold up the house above.

Did someone forget all the e-mails about this being a DIY project with a reasonable cost?  Why did they ignore our requests and communications?  Were we speaking Chinese?

You hire professionals to work for YOU, to listen to YOUR problems, to understand what YOU need and to provide that service!  Wouldn’t the Architect and Engineer know that the basement with the huge footings and that concrete wall were going to be extremely expensive and certainly NOT a DIY project?  If one of them had warned us of that in the preliminary stages, we would have nixed the basement right away! But after the preliminary plans were done, there was very little communication, other than the bills they sent us.

Which we always paid with a week of their receipt.

So, after realizing that a basement was not worth a huge chunk of our budget, we asked the architect and engineer to remove it from our plans, along with correcting the pages of errors the plan checker had sent.  Oh, and we added a small retaining wall across our back patio and removed the fireplace.  It took more than six months for them to do this.  SIX MONTHS!  Because of that, we missed out on another building season.  And then they had the audacity to charge us thousands of dollars more!  Oh, and I forgot, since Oregon does not require electrical or plumbing plans (apparently those inspections are done in the field), Mr. Architect and Mr. Engineer refused to do ours. But wait…  we were assured by Mr. Engineer that since he had a California license, he would make our plans California compliant.  I have that in an e-mail and told him so, but they still refused. So, we had to hire a house planner who is licensed here in California to do this! 

Do you see a theme here?

We finally were able to turn in everything for our second review in February 2017.  Were we good to go?  NOPE.  Again, errors and omissions. To top it off, now WE have to pay more than $160/hour for the next building review (the third), for mistakes and omissions our Architect/Engineer are responsible for!

What a scam.

This past winter was brutal.  If you have been following this blog for very long, you know that we moved from our travel trailer into our “cottage” over a year ago.  See the post of our cottage HERE.  Travel trailers are not meant to be lived in 24/7, and we were burning way too much propane just to keep warm.  We were having to drive 45 minutes to get to town just to buy more propane!  It was insane!  Hey…  that rhymes.  😉

Living in a tiny cottage

Our saving grace this past winter has been our tiny wood stove.  Thankfully, it heats our little cottage really well…  sometimes too well!

Anyway, this past winter here in Northern California was the fourth wettest since recording began.  While living in the cottage to stay warm, every time I had to use the bathroom, I had to go out into the cold rain and sometimes snow. We were still showering and cooking in the trailer, so I was having to constantly go back and forth between the cottage and the trailer, oh, and the outhouse.

In the rain.

And snow.

The truth is, this is not what we signed on for.  I thank God that Ray and I are best friends, because this has really been a strain on our marriage and I wouldn’t wish this situation on our worst enemy.

So far, we have wasted two precious years, our retirement years, waiting for Mr. Architect and Mr. Engineer to do their jobs. When Ray sent ANOTHER e-mail to them to see what the status of our plans are, essentially they responded that they were working on them.

Yeah.  Right.  If you believe that, I have a bridge in Taiwan I will sell you cheap for $10,000!

We need a house.

One that we can call home.

If it takes any longer just to get plans to build a Faswall home, it’s not going to happen and we are truly heartbroken!  The Faswall folks have had our money for the blocks for a year and a half now (we made our final payment December 2015), and we will be asking for a full refund.  Luckily, Faswall won’t lose one cent, because they don’t manufacture the blocks until arrangements have been made to pick them up.  The truth is, they probably MADE money through interest over the past year and a half!  Luckily, our contract with Faswall states that if we don’t get a permit to build, and we haven’t (through no fault of our own), we will get a full refund. We are talking almost $24,000 here, folks!

We are also considering whether we will sue Jack Scovel and Don Sherman.  We have contacted quite a few architects in the area, and have been told that two years for a residential house (nothing fancy here, just a normal, everyday house) is not even fathomable…  It’s insane!  It’s unheard of!  In fact, ONE year (according to EVERY contractor we asked) is crazy!  So, I don’t think we will have a problem winning that one.

If you have made it this far in the story, I would really like to have your opinion.  You, my faithful followers, have given me great advice in the past.  What do you think?  Should we give Mr. Architect and Mr. Engineer another month to get the plans right and hope to get our Faswall dream house, knowing that it will be ANOTHER year before we can get started?  Or, should we cut our losses (time), go to court to get all of our money back, and start again from scratch?

Getting Ready to Build!

http://www.clipartof.com

http://www.clipartof.com

We have been working with an architect and an engineer to design our house plans, and were finally able to submit the plans to our building department last month.  They wanted a small fortune in building fees, but our biggest shock was the $8,500 + impact fee to our school district.  Holy cow, I think we just paid for half a classroom!

In the meantime, we have been getting bids for the final excavation and foundation work.

Wowza!

The estimates are much, much more than we anticipated.  The problem is that we are essentially building a three story structure, so the foundation under the basement is requiring 7 foot wide footings and a poured in place concrete wall 8” thick and 35’ long!  Holy Cannoli – we can’t afford that!  Especially since the concrete trucks are tacking on a premium to bring the concrete up the mountain to our property.  (Some silly thing about diesel costing a lot 😉 of money)

This is one version of the main floor of our house plans. I can't wait to live in this house!

This is one version of the main floor of our house plans. I can’t wait to live in this house!

Hmmmmm…  So, we thought long and hard about this.  Why do we want a basement?

  1. The back third was going to be walled off and turned into a root cellar.
  2. Storage – canned goods, household stuff and, of course, junk.
  3. A cool place to sit on a hot afternoon.

We decided (no brainer) we can always build a root cellar elsewhere.  Also, going up and down stairs when I am 85 years old to get my canned goods and stuff – well, let’s just say it’s not something I am looking forward to!  Besides, this is supposed to be our final forever home, and we need to have everything required for everyday living on one floor!  The upstairs only has two bedrooms and a bathroom, so I will only need to go up there when we have guests!

Therefore, we decided to send the plans back to the architect and engineer and nix the basement.  Besides, they had LOTS of changes to make for the county plan checker anyway. Let me tell you – California has some crazy codes that we must adhere to!  More about that later.  Now, if you look at the floor plan above, maybe we could turn the area where the stairs going down to the basement would have been into a nice long pantry? What do you think?  We will see what the architect says.

People warned us that this was a very long, frustrating process, and let me tell you…  they were so right!

This is what the Shelterworks Faswall block looks like.

This is what the Shelterworks Faswall block looks like.  You can see lots of beautiful homes built with these blocks on their website – which is also where I got this picture!  🙂

In the meantime, we have already purchased the Insulated Concrete Forms, or ICF.  We decided to go with a company called ShelterWorks and their product called FasWall.  We have done a lot of research for a few years now, and these FasWall ICFs are probably the easiest to work with, the most insect and fire resistant, and breathable insulated forms on the market today.  FasWall is also easier to build with because regular carpenter tools are used and, unlike the plastic ICF, you can actually screw or nail into the form at any place.  One more reason we were sold on FasWall is that the wood used in the form is made from mineralized and recycled shredded wood from old wooden pallets.  The ICFs are stacked together like Legos, with rebar placed vertically and horizontally within the cavity of the ICFs, and then concrete is poured into the cavity.  Essentially, this makes a waffle grid of concrete within the walls, and gives the effect of superior insulation and stability.

Doesn’t that sound fantastic?

It does cost a bit more (5-10%) to build a home with these forms than it does a stick built house.  However, the payback comes with the energy savings.  The houses built with these forms are solid, very energy efficient, almost sound-proof, and essentially pest (think termite, carpenter ant, mouse) proof!  Also, the fire resistance of these ICF walls is important when you consider that we are living in the middle of a forest here in Northern California, where wildfire is not at all uncommon.  We have been working with Paul Wood, one of Faswall’s representatives, who has been very helpful in getting our building plans moving forward.

This big old Douglas Fir just had to go. So sad. We wanted to use the wood in our house, but California code required that it be graded and certified by a professional - timely and costly. Yet another one of those "codes" run amuck!

This big old Douglas Fir just had to go. So sad. We wanted to use the wood in our house, but California code required that it be graded and certified by a professional – timely and costly. Yet another one of those “codes” run amuck!  Grrrrrrrrr…

In the meantime, we have been getting our building site ready.  We had some beetle killed trees that needed to come down, and a couple other smaller trees that were right where our living room will be, so they all had to go.  We had a massive Douglas Fir that we wanted to save (above), but sadly, after some excavating and figuring right where the house would go, we realized that it was going to be too close to the house for fire safety.  Not to mention the fact that it was leaning right toward where our master bedroom was to be.  Since the tree was too big for Ray’s chainsaw, we called in Clyde, a Professional and Licensed Logger to drop the tree for us.

The beginning of excavation to make a flat building site - first you have to remove the tree stumps!

The beginning of excavation to make a flat building site – first you have to remove the tree stumps!  These guys made it look too easy.

The initial excavation has also been done.  The excavators popped out the tree stumps we had cut, scraped the lot clean of brush, and then cut into the hillside a bit so that the land would be level.  They were wonderful to work with and very respectful of our property, keeping clear of the septic tank so they wouldn’t damage it.

All of the brush was piled into a huge pile, so later Ray and I burned most of it, and cut up for firewood what was large enough to bother with.  It took us several days to get that accomplished, and we were able to get the brush burned before our burning permits were restricted for the fire season.

This is our nice, level building spot! The orange tape on the stakes indicate where the septic tank is. We have been busy burning duff and forest debris, trying to get the house site "fire-safe". It sure is a lot of work!

This is our nice, level building spot! The orange tape on the stakes indicate where the septic tank is. We have been busy burning duff and forest debris, trying to get the house site “fire-safe”. It sure is a lot of work!  The ashes are about where the kitchen will be, and the trees will be the view looking south-east out our front windows!

We are also busy raking up the forest duff, pulling out small bushes and trees, and laddering up the trees that will remain, so that the immediate area thirty feet around our house will hopefully keep a wildfire from getting too close to our house, and help firefighters to defend it.  Nancy, from our county fire department, will be up soon to tell us how we are doing and what else we need to do to make our home fire safe. Unfortunately, getting homeowner’s insurance in our neck of the woods is nearly impossible, so we want to make our home as fire safe as possible!

So, wish us luck, send good thoughts, or even a few prayers that our architect and engineer don’t take too long to get the changes and corrections made to our plans!  I would really like to at least have our foundation poured this year – God willing!

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Here are some parties I attend:

Thank Goodness It’s MondayClever Chicks Blog HopGrand SocialMix It Up MondayCreate, Link, Inspire;  Amaze Me MondayMotivation Monday;  Homemaking Mondays; Show & Share TuesdayThe Gathering SpotTuesday Garden PartyBrag About ItTuesdays with a Twist;The ScoopTwo Cup TuesdayTweak It TuesdayInspire Me TuesdaysTuesdays at Our Home;   Lou Lou GirlsParty In Your PJ’sYou’re Gonna Love It  Make, Bake and Create;  Wicked Awesome Wednesday; Wined Down Wednesday;  Wake Up WednesdayFluster’s Creative Muster;  Homestead Blog HopWow Us Wednesday;  Wonderful Wednesday Our Simple Homestead; Share Your Cup Thursday;  Home and Garden Thursday;  The Handmade HangoutCreate it Thursday;  Think Tank Thursday;  Homemaking PartyTreasure Hunt ThursdayThis Is How We Roll; Inspire or be Inspired;  Inspiration Gallery;  No Rules Weekend Party  Freedom FridaysFriendship FridayFrom The Farm Blog HopFriday Flash Blog PartyWeekend re-Treat;Family Fun FridayFriday’s Five FeaturesReal Food FridaysShow Off FridayCraft Frenzy Friday;  Awesome Life Friday Simply Natural Saturdays;  Saturday Sparks;  My Favorite Things;  Dare to ShareScraptastic Saturday;Share It One More Time  That DIY Party;  DIY Sunday Showcase;  Snickerdoodle Sunday;   Best of the BlogosphereSmall Victories Sunday

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