Thursday, December 19, 2013

Buy vs. Build

I had a comment on my previous post wondering why we chose to build over buying and what we wanted in our design, so I figured I’d go more in depth and explore these questions a little bit. It's an interesting exercise to go back and remember how this all came to fruition. I’m going to split this up into two posts so I can discuss each question in depth. Both are really great things to think about if you're looking to own your own home.

So, build versus buy. There's no question that buying over building is the most environmentally friendly option. You aren’t using up land that might otherwise be used for farming or left as open space, and you aren’t creating additional waste from new building materials.

An empty field, waiting for a house
The thing that really drew us to build new was these two people, also known as my parents.  First of all, they built their house by themselves back in the late 70s, so I guess you could say this whole thing runs in the family. But the main reason comes down to the fact that I am an only child, I am therefore their only caregiver, and they can’t live in their house if they are at all handicapped. I want them to be able to live on their own for as long as possible (and they want to, too), and since they can’t live in their house when they can no longer climb stairs, the idea came to John and me that we could do some sort of house swap. We'd build a house that they could live in all on one floor with no steps, and when the time came, they'd move into our house and we'd move into theirs. Our house is literally right next door, so for the time being, we can help them with things like plowing their driveway if they can’t do it. This whole plan is a long way down the road, so in the meantime, it'll be great to be next door if we ever have kids, if they need help with something, and of course just to visit. I mean, my parents are still very able. They were climbing ladders right along with us all summer long.


I grew up with both sets of grandparents living far away, while John grew up with the opposite. I missed having my grandparents around for special things like school concerts, or even just everyday things. John was lucky enough to have his grandparents right next door, and we want that not only for any kids we might have, but also for my parents.

In short, being close to family was our main reason for building versus buying, but we were also concerned about the overall health of an existing home. You never know what you might uncover. We definitely would've purchased an older home that needed some work and would then have run the risk of encountering things like lead and asbestos. Those can be costly to remediate, and if not dealt with properly, could greatly impact our overall health and well-being. Many older homes aren't insulated, and in our climate, that's a huge waste of energy. We briefly thought about buying a beautiful old farm house that was for sale for practically pennies . . . until we found out it wasn’t insulated at all. Nothing. Nadda. Zilch. For a house of that size, bringing it up to current insulation standards (or better) would've been a huge cost in addition to all the other upgrades the house needed, never mind hazmat remediation. My advice is to do your homework if you're thinking about buying an existing home and prepare for the unexpected. Buying an existing home is a great option and I'd encourage people to explore that first, but even newer homes need repair and upgrades for health threats like radon.

There are a lot of things to think about when deciding to make the jump to own your own home. You need to look at all possible variables, but realize that there is no perfect option. There are trade-offs and things you sacrifice in both scenarios. If we had bought that old farm house, we would've been much closer to work, but father away from family, which ties into our driving habits. Yes, the house needed a lot of renovation, but we wouldn't have created as much construction waste or disrupted open green space. Regardless of what you decide to do, there are always ways to minimize environmental impacts. I think that continuing to educate people on the impact our homes make on the environment and by teaching people about natural building methods and how they can be incorporated into existing homes as well as new, we can radically change the way our homes impact the earth and ourselves.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Foundation, Part 2

Last I left you, we went from a foundation to a house shaped house. So what about the bits in between? I have to say, it wasn't easy. I may have lost my cool more times than I care to admit. There may have been a few walls that were taken down and put back up multiple times, but we kept going because there wasn't any other option. It was exhausting at times, working a full time job, coming home, working on the house, eating dinner, showering, then going to bed, only to do the same thing the next day and the next . . . weeks really mean nothing to me now. Friday? Oh, Friday is not what it used to be. Friday is the transition day before a full weekend of working on the house.

I don't mean to sound like I haven't enjoyed my time. I have, most certainly. Sure, it's been hard, and I knew it would be, but there's also something amazing about working with your hands and actually accomplishing something tangible. It's so satisfying to look around after you've hit a major milestone and realize that you did this. You. Well, a few other people, too. But mainly you.

So anyway, here's what happened after our footers were poured. The foundation contractor poured the walls after the footers had cured a bit. Then the forms came off the walls bright and early on the Fourth of July. It was pretty exciting, I must say, to come home and suddenly have walls in this big hole in the ground. They really did a great job despite the fact that the walls are 6 inches taller than they are supposed to be. But we can make the height thing work.

Foundation poured, with the forms still in place
Admiring our freshly exposed foundation
The next step was to waterproof the walls, which has definitely been my least favorite job to date. Imagine being in this damp, hot, narrow alley between a concrete wall and a wall of dirt. Then imagine dipping a giant roller in asphalt, which smells horrible, and then rolling it on the wall, all while trying not to sink into the ground, fall into the dirt, or worse, fall into the asphalt-covered walls. And good luck not getting it all over yourself. We may have just thrown our clothes out after this job was done. Oh and then times two coats. It was not fun, but it was necessary so that our basement stays dry.

The narrow "alley" with the forms still on
John waterproofing
After the asphalt dried, we put the foam up on the outside of the foundation. This was really easy given that our walls are eight feet tall and the sheets of foam are also eight feet tall. We just globbed on some adhesive and lined them up on the wall. Some of the adhesive did let go because the asphalt was a bit tacky from being in the sun, but we stuck the sheets back up and once everything was backfilled it wasn't a problem at all since the stone helped to hold everything in place.

Waterproofed and ready for foam

Backfilling with stone. There's also a drainage pipe under all that stone
so everything stays nice and dry (we hope).
Thanks for reading! I'm hoping to keep this blog updated with our current progress as well as with what we've done. There's a lot to catch up on!