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Things are really starting to shape up, we finally have walls! It’s been really interesting seeing the progress over the last couple of weeks. First there was nothing, then a foundation, now walls. We’ve been a little surprised how tall the foundation was (we had to have a raised one to appease the Historic Design Review Commission) plus the fact that we are on a hill makes the house looks tall overall. Now that we see the 10′ first floor walls going up, the whole house will probably be a bit bigger than expected but we still love the design. Anyways, enough talking here are some pictures!


Here is the temporary table they are using to get a good luck at the plans as well as hold their tools.


Here is a good view of the block, to give you perspective the block is about 10″ thick. It is made out of a mixture of styrofoam (about 75%) and concrete which gives it a high insulation value. The holes in the block will have rebar and conduit added for the electric and then filled with concrete.


Finally, Foundation Fun!



So for all my complaining about how long this process has taken, things are finally beginning to happen. No one expected anything to happen as fast as I would like (since patience is not my virtue), but in my opinion it’s even slower than I’d expected. I try to be calm, but I can’t wait to move. That said, it is gratifying to drive by and see very visible changes.

First, we saw the lot cleared. The uneven ground was leveled and some of the trees, which needed to be removed, were bulldozed out and left at the back of the lot. I admit, I’d hoped for something truly interesting and historical to be turned up during this process – Dignowity is, after all, the oldest suburb of San Antonio. Nothing, unfortunately, came to light except for a couple rusted old cans and some miscellaneous car parts.

Form 1

Next, the form for the foundation was built – the plywood box, held up by 2×4 framing. This was a quick job, and for the first time really made it possible for us to understand the scale of the house (which is much bigger than I personally expected). We decided at this point to celebrate with beer, since we’re quite prepared to celebrate every step in the process. This felt much bigger than it probably was. After the form was in place, it had to be inspected to make sure that it was the correct distance from the property line on one side and the setback in the front.

Drainage Pipes

When this inspection was complete, the waste water pipes were dug into place. This let us see where the downstairs half-bath and the kitchen sink would eventually be. Like the forms themselves, the pipes also had to be inspected, and we found a green form attached to one indicating the seal of approval. One interesting thing we did see when the pipes were dug into place was a section of the original waste pipes, which were made out of terra cotta.

Inspection TagOld Drain Pipe

Next, they dug out the foundation and filled it with sections of aggregate. The Historic Design and Review Commission required us to include a foundation which matched the height of other pier-and-beam foundations in the neighborhood, so the aggregate was used to add volume and increase the height. There was one trench in the midst of the aggregate sections running the length of the house and several running perpendicular to that one. Another trench ran even deeper all around the perimeter next to the plywood forms. Interestingly, there was a layer of bricks several feet below ground level, which we assumed had been part of the original foundation.

Aggregate and drain pipes

Old Foundation Bricks

Over and around the sections of aggregate, then, went the rebar. This took two days to complete. It filled the trenches and crisscrossed the surface of the aggregate sections. The rebar made it much more difficult to walk around the site, but that didn’t stop us, especially when we felt the need to give someone the “grand tour”.

Since the rebar has been done, we’ve seen a water pipe go in through one of the outside trenches. The temporary electricity is also being put in, and the structural engineer must come out one last time to make sure that everything has been installed according to his plans. The pour should happen sometime in the next week, and the walls should start going up a week or so into September. Again, not as fast as I would wish, but not bad.

Building has started!

It’s been a long time since we updated, but a lot has been done. We had some snags in the beginning.. Needing to get the plans changed for our blocks, which required some rework for the structural engineer, plus some extra time for permitting, and being on vacation when they wanted to review the lot clearing. But we’ve finally started! The foundation form is in and they connected the drain pipes to the city yesterday. The foundation is supposed to be put in next week, which we’re very excited about.

greenboroGreenboro is our builder. We’ve been very happy with them so far. I think I’ve said before the main reason we went with them is that it felt like a partnership from the very beginning. They sat with me and went through the plans, suggesting things to help fit our budget and style. They were also accommodating with the blocks, helping identify key partners and doing a lot of research for us. They’ve also won some awards and have done some infill projects closer to the Alamodome. More to come as we go through the process with us.

As for the actual construction, that is coming a long way. We were really surprised how much was done between Thursday and today. As the builder has told us, the next month or so will seem to go really fast and then it’ll slow down as they move to the finish out inside. The overall foundation size will be about 1300 square feet, with 250 of that being a back porch.

wastewaterHere you can see the waste water connection, luckily they didn’t have to tear up the sidewalk to get to it. You can also see the foundation form that they’ve put in, it’ll be ready for the pouring next week hopefully. Can’t wait!

As things start to pick up we will be posting more and include a lot of pictures 🙂

Sinks and Doors and Restoration, Oh My.


So it’s been quite the interval since our last blog post, but in the interim quite a great amount has happened. We’ve finally obtained the final draft of the plans (using the correct building material – a polystyrene-concrete block that my significant other will doubtlessly write up shortly) and all that’s left is for the builder to obtain permits and begin.

That said, it’s high time. We’ve been collecting bits and pieces of the house since we settled on the idea of constructing. Needless to say, there’s no excess room in the condo to store the makings of a new house – the flotsam and jetsom of our imagined creativity, which will hopefully someday form a cohesive whole. Sometimes the list of projects seems overwhelming, but the idea of each jigsaw piece falling into place makes the process worthwhile. To date, we’ve collected a pot filler (at my instigation), a kitchen faucet to match, 2 ceiling fans, 2 bathroom faucets, a sink, a front door, and some random glass fixtures or fixtures-to-be, pending the level of our dedication to uniqueness. Add to this every piece of dinnerware waiting for a shelf to live on, every piece of art waiting for a wall on which to hang, and… well, you can start to imagine what the “craft room” of our current residence looks like.

The front door and the sink are special projects. I say special, my significant other may choose other vocabulary. These are items which (again, on account of those visions of perfection dancing in my head) we’ve purchased in what you might call a raw state. Because, you know, we’re fixer-uppers par excellence. Or hope to be.

The door we purchased from a fantastic establishment called the Old Door Store, near the junction of Blanco and Hildebrand. We found out that though the sign suggests that the store is open 10:30 AM to 5:00 PM Monday through Saturday, appointments are also available. This also prevents one from running into other pesky shoppers while perusing the aisles of… old doors.

But the nice part about old door hunting is that it turned out to have been something that my love and I could agree on. Now that may sound unspectacular, but there are surprisingly few things about which there hasn’t yet been a protracted (and sometimes unresolved) conversation (my word – his would be dispute). Seeing the old doors in their antique and unfinished, freshly-salvaged states, however, was able to simmer the creative juices in both of us, however, and we generally agreed on the styles of door we preferred. We had both agreed that, as the front door would be our future guests’ first experience of the home, it should be a door that added some individuality – something that reflected our style, not simply a builder-grade mass-produced door. I didn’t calculate cost into this aspiration.

After a considerable amount of deliberation (I should mention here that we had looked at doors elsewhere and been generally unimpressed) we settled on our 39” wide, craftsman-style door with 3 lights. The size, we presume, will add an appropriate grandeur, and the windows, while larger than those of other doors of this type, aren’t large enough to pose a real security risk or compromise our privacy.

After deciding that this was the door we’d adopt (and rushing to the nearest ATM while the kind owner of the Old Door Store, Mr. Raetzsch, waited patiently for us), we gingerly loaded it into the back of my truck and proudly drove away. Not far away – to have a drink with some friends at Barbaro, on McCullough. All the while praying and crossing our fingers that no passing door-thief would see the not-insignificantly-priced opportunity waiting in the back of my truck, which I had oh-so-purposefully backed into a parking space, so as not to make our goods evident.

The door survived, and we kept it in the “craft room” (again, my name, not his) of our condo until we decided to crack the proverbial eggs and start working on our omelette.

The sink, which was stored for a month or two in the back seat of my pickup rather than the “craft room” (at my love’s insistence), was similarly purchased. Now, we easily agreed that we ought to have a front door with character. The sink was a harder sell. It stemmed from my fear that a home made from entirely modern, builder’s grade (or better) fixtures would end up looking rather like any cookie-cutter box of a home in some development in outer suburbia. (You know the type. They all look exactly the same from the outside and -let’s face it – also from the inside.) Thus my decision that we ought to use as many re-purposed, re-finished, re-used, or up-cycled finishes as possible. But that will come later, perhaps.

The sink we found at a lovely shop in Dignowity called Architectural Antiques. Now not everything sold there changes hands at rock-bottom prices. This I admit, but there are many, many things to be said for this lovely store. They offer the service of re-finishing doors bought elsewhere, have many unique pieces, and offer a store owner with a fantastic amount of expertise. Mrs. Rusler, I believe, seemed to know impossible details about the finishings she offered when I struck up a conversation while browsing after school one day. (Yes, I went shopping for antique hardware after school one day. It’s my joy.) “Those hinges, the strap kind, never really caught on in the South. They come from up North. These things in this case were window pulls for double-hung windows, but now people use them for pocket doors because they mount flush.” Details I’d never have either known or thought to ask about.

Anyhow, my love capitulated to my idea that the downstairs half-bath should have a vintage sink. I offered to do the refinishing myself, since I’d priced professional refinishers and wasn’t willing to spend $275 on one sink, which wasn’t even mounted yet. (This price was quoted to me several times.) So we found the perfect sink – a wall-mounted cast-iron gem (in my eyes) with a bit of rust around the drain and a considerable amount at the overflow holes. The professionals had advised that these would have to be closed up, as attempting to refinish the sink without doing so would just allow the rust to creep back in a few years. I’m far too perfectionistic for that.

Thus, with these two projects in tow, we took over my parents’ lovely backyard for one day of our spring break staycation. The refinishing will come in a later post.

As for our sourcing:

Signing my life away.. Construction financing!

So, we have great plans and an awesome builder. Now we just have to find a way to pay for it. I’m a total finance geek, so this has been kind of fun for me and I figured I might as well share my experience in case someone else is going through this.

I actively started looking at options about 6 months ago and started narrowing it down late last year. Let me start off with a little bit of background on construction financing in general. There are really two types of residential construction loans. 1x Close and 2x Close. There are pros and cons to both, I decided to go with the 1x Close option. Here’s what I see as the pros and cons:

1x Close–you have one loan the whole time, usually you pay a higher rate, but you are locked in

  • Pros: Only pay one set of closing costs, if interests rates rise during construction you are already locked, no worry about getting approved for a second loan
  • Cons: Can take longer to close initially, stuck with the higher initial interest rate, less banks do this (less competition)

2x Close–you actually have two loans, one interim loan for during the construction and then a second permanent loan that pays off the first one (the second loan is really just a “normal” loan)

  • Pros: More banks do this, if interest rates stay the same or get lower you get lower interest rates long term, typically shorter close times
  • Cons: Pay closing costs twice, interest rates can go up during construction, could be in a bad situation if house doesn’t appraise or you have approval problems

I’m pretty worried about interest rates rising in the next year, so I was already leaning towards a 1x Close. When I started my research I also found a bank that offers a “float down” option and a 1x Close. They do this by charging a quarter point penalty if you exercise the float down. So here’s how it could work, all these numbers are theoretical. Let’s say I started the loan with a 5% interest rate. No matter what the max rate I will have over the life of the mortgage is 5%. If, by the time the house is completed the prevailing interest rate is 6%, nothing happens, I still have the 5% rate. If the rate is at 4.75%, I still would do anything because with the .25% penalty I’d still have a 5% rate. However, if the rate drops below 4.75% I could decide to float down to the current rate plus .25%. I’m pretty excited by this because I feel like it’s kind of getting the best of both worlds. The only drawback to this bank is that it takes slightly longer to close than some of the other 1 and 2x Close options.

Here’s some things I learned while going through this process:

  1. There aren’t that many banks that do construction financing–make sure to include looking at local banks they are more likely to do it
  2. The financing for construction lending is more restrictive than regular financing because it is more risky
  3. The lender has to approve you and the builder, so make sure you pick a builder that can get approved
  4. Ask for Good Faith Estimates (GFEs) when comparing the loan options, it can really help you compare the different fees and costs between builders
  5. Lenders are crazy different when it comes to construction financing, almost all require 20% down, which is what I was planning on doing anyway, but some require 40% down with a 10% cash contingency (wow)
  6. You’ll need to have a signed contract from a builder to start the application process but you will definitely want to do your research before this as usually the builder will require you to apply within a short time after the contract is signed so you don’t want to limit your research time by waiting until the contract is signed

We signed a contract!

We officially have a builder now and decided to go with the Eterna Building System! I’m really excited about both of these developments.

First, the builder.. We decided to go with Greenboro Homes who have really been great so far. Throughout the entire bidding process, Jim Leonard was great. He really helped me understand the different choices and options and put a lot of time and effort into presenting them all to me. Another great part is that he’s willing to work with us on some of the things we want to do with the project. For example, we wanted to use Ikea cabinets and Mike’s brother is going to help with the AC. The biggest selling point, though, was the fact that he really invested in understanding and working with the alternative materials. Speaking of..

The Eterna Building System! From the very beginning, I’ve been very interested in green building materials. I was really excited when a local engineering company suggested we look into these. They sounded really great from the very beginning with the biggest downside being the cost, which initially came in WAY above 2×6 construction. However, we were able to negotiate that down a bit. It’s still quite a bit above with 2×6 construction costs, but it was really something I wanted to do so I’m excited to say we’re going with them. In addition to the blocks we’re planning on doing some other “green” things with the house. We’re using a mini-split AC system, prewiring for solar, using high efficiency appliances, and thinking about a rain water catchment system for the lawn.

So, what’s next? Financing. I started that process and expect it to take about two months. I’ll talk more about that process in the next installment.


Bids in and the Eterna Building System

Bids in and the Eterna Building System

So the bids are coming in! I asked 3 builders/general contractors to bid out the project based on architectural drawings we finalized a few weeks ago. As you probably know, I’m a bit obsessed with green building materials and really wanted to go with something other than stick construction. I was very interested in Cresco Concrete products but couldn’t find a builder and structural engineer to work with them for a reasonable amount. I did find a similar product though.. the Eterna blocks. A local engineering firm has worked with them before and has a concrete person who builds exclusively with the blocks. I’ve gotten the bid in for 2×6 R19 construction from all three builders. I’ve gotten 1 bid in for the block system and hoping for another early this week. From talking to the engineer and concrete person, the pricing is somewhat competitive so I’m interested to see what it really comes out to. None of the builders seem too interested to work with them (mostly because they are unfamiliar) but I like them for a couple of reasons.. Insulation (for heating/cooling reasons and sound), they don’t really burn, resistance to termites, and ease of applying stucco. The big downsides are cost, lack of options for people who work with it, and lack of general information available.

Hopefully there will be more news coming soon!