Saturday, September 24, 2011

How to design your own house

Did you know that you could buy software that facilitates creating the blueprint of your house without the help of an architect?  You can.  That's how Mark and I designed the addition to our house in the winter of 2005.

We discussed the pros and cons of a major renovation/expansion project.  Can we take this project on?  Should we tear down the house and start over, or can we work with the existing structure?  How much extra space do we want to add?  Should we use the land on the south side of the house to add square footage without sacrificing our backyard?  What's our budget?  How much of the work can be done ourselves?  How long will it take?

During the Summer of 2005, our next-door neighbors, whose house was the identical twin to ours, put a major addition on their home.  They worked with a local general contractor to design and build the house.  We watched carefully, and Mark asked many questions, as the contractors built a full story upstairs and converted a main level bedroom into their dining room.

We were fortunate that our neighbors took on this project just before ours got underway.  Mark could learn more about the building codes and regulations affecting renovated homes in Minneapolis, and we could borrow ideas from their choices.

Our project would include a 32' by 10' addition on the side of our house for an expansion to our basement, a new kitchen and dining room on our main level, and a master bedroom and living room on the upper level.  The half-story would be dismantled and in its place, a full second story, including the expansion on the side of the house, would be built.

The biggest challenge was the layout of our new kitchen.  We knew we wanted a half-hexagonal breakfast nook off the back of our house and a mud room and pantry where the existing kitchen was.  Apart from that, we were stumped.  A board member of the nonprofit where I worked was an interior designer, and she told me of a special event through which you could have a free 45-minute consultation with a designer.  I signed up right away.

Mark and I met with the designer regarding our kitchen space.  Those 45 minutes were invaluable to us.  She sketched a few options for us, helping us to visualize the space available and see how an island could help us maximize our counter space.  We then took the plans to Home Depot and worked with a designer there to insert our chosen cabinets and countertops into the space.

We discussed many options for the layout of the second level.  We knew we wanted a master bedroom suite, two additional bedrooms and a laundry room on that level.  Planning the space while accommodating the existing staircase and maximizing the use of existing plumbing lines for the laundry and bathrooms upstairs was tricky.  But we worked it out and are happy with our plans.

Once we settled on the plans for our house, we worked with a drafter to ensure that the official house plans that Mark would submit to the City of Minneapolis for approval contained all the necessary documentation.  The drafter was straight out of the 1970s, even resembling Greg Brady from The Brady Bunch.  He chose to draw the plans up by hand, rejecting the advances of technology in his field.  But his final product was accurate, detailed, and exactly what we needed to get our approval from the City.

Mark was pleasantly surprised when he took the plans to the City.  The project was approved on the spot and he could start building that day if desired.  Apparently in Australia, these projects can be delayed for months by the government.

Anyone who's taken on a major project like this knows that no matter how much you try to plan and how many delays to anticipate, there will always be setbacks you didn't predict.  Mark put together a careful timeline for the work to get done and we finalized our budget for materials and labor.  We felt prepared for this major undertaking.  But we learned quickly how timelines and budgets become obsolete!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Want to see some pictures?

 Here's the back of the house.  Notice the nice green lawn.  This picture was taken before the Bobcat incident.  The roof of the screened-in porch leaked, but otherwise it served as a nice dining room during summer and a little bit of fall.
 Here's the front of the house.  The skylight was nice, but it leaked.  It's unfortunate that an electrical outlet was placed just under the skylight, right where the rain dripped down.  The house came with no landscaping.  A blank slate.  I'm still working on that.
Here's the color we used in the kitchen and living room.  Our new kitchen and living room are still that color, and I am still glad we chose it.

Here's a photo of the half-story upstairs.  Notice the sloped ceiling.  Even I, at barely 5' 1" could hardly stand up straight there.  How did a family of five reside in that space?

Many of our early photos weren't digital, and I haven't taken the time to scan them, so I don't have much more to show of the early days.  I will post more photos as I start to tell about the major addition we put on in 2006.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

For the love of Bobcats

Fast forward several months to Summer 2005.  Mark and I had gotten engaged in February and planned a July 29 wedding.  His father, brother and a couple close friends would be traveling from Australia to witness the wedding.  But that's not all they'd be doing.

Mark decided to take the opportunity for free help to install pavers in our gravel driveway.  He and the other Aussies were delighted to learn that one could rent a Bobcat in the States and operate it without a special license.  They couldn't wait to take turns driving the Bobcat.

Before his family and friends arrived, Mark measured, planned and ordered materials so that they could get right to work and finish the job before we hosted about 40 people at our Rehearsal Dinner in the backyard.  They got an early start the first morning, ready to get started digging just after the eagerly-awaited Bobcat was delivered.  Soon enough, the driveway area had been dug out deep enough to put down the base layers of sand and gravel. The Bobcat wasn't going to be picked up, however, for hours.  Rather than waste those hours with the Bobcat sitting still, Mark and his helpers decided to re-grade the soil around the house to improve water runoff.  Apparently, the only way this project could be achieved was to tear up most of the backyard lawn.  Two days before we hosted family and friends for a Rehearsal Dinner.  I had not anticipated this side project.  I was not pleased when I returned home from work that day.

I admit, the results of the paving project were great.  Gone were the messy gravel and weeds we had driven on over the past year, replaced with a level, smooth driveway paved with paving stones.  Shoveling snow would be a lot easier that winter!

I was still a little annoyed when we set up tables and chairs in our backyard for our guests, but we had a nice dinner party with family and friends who came not to judge our lawn care skills, but to enjoy the company of others and congratulate Mark and I on the occasion of our wedding.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

What was he thinking?

Most people, when moving into a home, find a couple quirky features that leave them scratching their heads and wondering, "What were they thinking?"  Maybe it's the odd shade of chartreuse paint in the bathroom or the haphazard shelving in the closet, or carpet that wasn't expertly installed.

Well, we had a lot of those moments with this house.  Our favorite was the absence of doorknobs on any internal door in the house, with the notable exception of the bathroom (we think it had been recently added).  There were doorknob-sized holes where a knob would generally have been installed, but instead, a piece of yarn was tied around the hole to make opening and closing easier.  What happened to the doorknobs that we assume once were there?

The man who owned the house for over 30 years was a heavy drinker.  According to the title, he and his wife bought the house in the 1970s, but were divorced years later.   We suspect that those absent doorknobs, likely to have been worth some money if they were the original knobs installed in the 1940s, were sold to buy liquor or pay the bills.  But that was just a guess.

Another odd feature was the kennel attached to our garage, complete with a doggie door and an enclosed space inside the garage.  As far as we knew, no dog had lived in that kennel for many years.  Why was the kennel still there?

The unfinished basement was mostly empty, apart from the huge heating system.  One small room was sectioned off in the basement, complete with carpet and paneling for walls.  Why did they choose to enclose the heating system inside that small room?  Was it a bedroom?  Could someone sleep with the heater running right next to him?  Is that even safe?

We knew that the previous owner had regular, transient tenants living in the half-story upstairs.  Most of our utilities are split into apartment 1 and apartment 2.  Neighbors told us that at one point a family of five lived up there.  It couldn't have been a very comfortable arrangement, as that level had only one room, few adults can stand up straight due to the slope of the roof, and the entire home had only one bathroom (located on the main level).  We still can't convince the cable company that we do not live in an apartment building.

The most notorious story about the previous owner was one that our neighbors decided not to tell us until a couple years after we moved in:  that a man living in the upper story had fallen down the stairs and died one night.  I learned of it while looking through the title and seeing the lawsuit that was filed against the homeowner.  The details are a little shaky, but apparently the man was an alcoholic and was nervous about his daughter's upcoming visit from Hollywood.  The homeowner came home drunk that night and saw the man on the floor at the base of the stairs but thought he was passed out.  When he woke the next morning, he realized the man was dead and ran outside the house yelling that he was in trouble.

The man's daughter arrived in a Jaguar with an entourage (not common to our neighborhood) to collect some belongings, all of which allegedly fit into a small box, and decided to sue the homeowner for negligence.  Realizing that he had few assets and very little equity in his home, she backed down.  But this event prompted the homeowner to put the house on the market.

After I learned about the death in our home, I picked up some sage to burn throughout the house to cleanse the area of bad energy (I thought it couldn't hurt).  I also used the sage around the perimeter of the property, just in case.  Mark was a good sport through this exercise in removing bad karma from our property.

Eventually, doorknobs were added to our internal doors, the kennel was dismantled, and the makeshift room in the basement was torn down.  But the house didn't feel like our own until we started planning our addition.  That's when the big projects began.  Stay tuned.