Friday, November 27, 2009

About Water- Part 1

The balmy climate of Southern California has been attracting people for over 200 years. A sunny day is guaranteed at about 300 days a year, and rain only occurs during a few winter months. And although that’s one of the main attractions of the region, it’s also one of the main problems:
The city of Los Angeles receives about 14-15 inches of rain throughout the year- approximately the same as the city of Denver- but while Denver gets it more evenly spread throughout the year, we get it in a few short months. When the region was still largely unpopulated, this was not an issue- Rain fell on the ground, soaked the soil and eventually made its way into the many seasonal streams, such as the Arroyo Seco or the Los Angeles River. Those rivers were dry at the surface for most of the year- maintaining only an underground flow- but transformed themselves into raging streams during the rainy season.

With the increased development of the LA area, percolation surface became rare- the roofs of houses, streets, parking areas and walkways have been taken away from the percolation area and transformed into water collectors. City codes require roof water to be conducted to the street and the storm drain system and diverting a significant amount of rainwater from the land to the ocean.
Now, with out cities almost built up, not a lot of open percolation area is left. Every drop of water that hits a roof goes to the ocean. We’re running out of ground water, because we directed it into the salty Pacific. At the same time, the patchy storm drain network, especially in hillside areas, directs the flash-flood like water volumes in many places from the streets into earthen canyons, undermining roadways, homes, infrastructure and causing millions of dollars in property damage that would be avoidable.

Therefore, any sustainable home design approach needs to address the issue of rainwater retention and its use on site. Slow infiltration locally will lower the demand for imported irrigation water and reduce the cost of repair for erosion damaged roadways and foundations, thus saving millions of dollars for already strained municipal budgets.

The Nob Hill Haus will take on this challenge on all levels by reducing the amount of water needed to operate the house and garden while at the same time reducing the amount of water released to the strom drain system and increase safe on-site percolation.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Breaking Ground

Today, we broke ground on our house. The photo shows the result of the contractor's first day of work with heavy equipment on site. For the next couple of weeks, excavation and the foundation placement as well as the basement slab and walls are scheduled.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Material World

We also started a while a go to think about the materials we wanted to use in the Haus. First of all, we wanted the materials to speak with their own inherent color rather than paint finishes- We'll have wood floors with gyp board walls in white. For the bathrooms, we wanted to go with natural and manufactured stones -given the fact that tiles currently are more expensive than stone.

But aesthetics is only one aspect of selection- they need to be "fit for duty" in the locations we want them to use and -of course- reasonably priced.
So we started extensive tests with a number of typical household chemicals and tools to simulate the wear & tear. Scratching with knives, car keys and exposing the stones to red wine, port, vinegar and toilet bowl cleaner. The latter was particularly destructive on dark marbles and -totally unexpected- basalt. We got a big white acid stain on the black piece of stone that had become one of our closer considerations for the floors- well, not any more.

So the search continues and so does the testing....

GREEN- yes, but do you need it in writing?

Since there's a lot of hype about green homes- and in our opinion, we certainly would qualify for that description, we were thinking about getting our work certified- kind of an outside confirmation that we passed the green threshold.

But after a closer look at the different rating systems, we started to hesitate. There's just sooo many different green rating programs out there- and typical for our market economy- the bigger the brand name, the bigger the price tag.
The most expensive and most widely known one is USGBC's LEED- Grit and I are both accredited professionals and have seen the program from the designer's point of view: A lot of legwork, assembling fact sheets, photos and uploading them to a website for review. The problem is the price tag- LEED for Homes for certification runs at approximately $5,000- quite a chunk of money.
Then there's the GreenPoint system by Build it Green- a program widely spread in the bay area and much easier to work with, since it goes by a standard checklist and doesn't require a lot of consultants to calculate things. The price tag is also considerably cheaper- below 2,000 for a single family home.
But there are also ideological problems with rating systems- Many points don't make sense. There might be disagreement about what is rated and how much it is weighted in to the whole equation. So, for example, LEED for Homes requires that bathroom fans run constantly- to prevent moisture build-up and mold in bathrooms- but a waste of energy in our eyes.

So for now, we're not sure if we are going to pursue any certification- or use the money for a real green feature- solar panels for example- rather than a piece of paper.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Getting ready to break ground

Yesterday, we met with the contractor and the surveyor on site to discuss the staking out of the site. There's trees that would needto be removed, before the building corners can be set- and that all has to be done prior to breaking ground. In addition to that, we had to obtain another permit for a temporary power pole (Anyway, L.A. seems to be THE permit city- there's a fee for everything you do- weren't we supposed to live in a FREE rather than a FEE country?)

On Monday, we will officially break ground-

The clock is ticking.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Permit pulled

On Friday, we finally got our permit- The photo shows Grit right after leaving the Department of Building and Safety with the freshly stamped and approved plans.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Designing the Haus

The desgin portion of a project is probably the shortest, yet most important phase. Every desision made here will have an impact on the remaining life of the house- if something is places in the wrong spot, we'll be annoyed with it forever and always wish, we had done it differently.
But it's also the most fun part, since we can experiment with different approaches and ideas.
Now, what do we want from the house?
Let's start with a shopping list:

1. The house should be modest in size- 3 bedrooms on a private level.

2. The house should have a room for a home office/ workshop- Our old house had a big studio in the back which we used for furniture making, as a painting studio and home office. An awesome space which we are missing every day.

3. The indoor-outdoor relationship has to be very strong. We live here in a subtropical climate that allows to use the outdoors for most part of the year as an extended living space. And since we had lived many years in Europe, where blue sky can be a scarce commodity, we wanted to maximize the windows area.

4. The house should reflect the architectural language of it's time -the 21st century. We don't want a fake Tuscan Palazzo, because you can try to only imitate the shape of it, but you'd never capture the spirit and interior climate with a wood framed building. Anyone thinking different should spend a vacation in Tuscany (an awesome place)and find out for themselves before making their decision about style.

5. One of the most important aspects about the design is to incorporate the particularities of our climate. Los Angeles is located in a semi-arid environment. We are receiving 15 inches of rain per year- the same amount as Denver does. But while Denver gets it's percipitation over a 12 month period, we're getting it in only 3 months. and we need to account for that by storing as much as we can on site for irrigation in the dryer months. We therefore decided to incorporate a rain water harvesting system in the design.

6. We also wanted to recycle the water from tubs, showers and washer by installing a graywater system. As we learned, no one so far has managed to get a permit for that- so we'll be probably the first ones in town to get a permitted graywater system- if we succeed. But more on that later.

7. Another climatic aspect is sun. While we have more than enough of it in summer, winters can be a bit chilly- although barely below freezing. So we need to provide protection from the summer sun, but let the winter sun in- provide enough insulation but use the sun to heat water- maybe even photovoltaics, if we can afford them. Our goal is to use as little A/C as possible- only as a backup system. To achieve that, we have a central stairwell with openings at the top, that allows us to draw in air through the windows and use the stack effect of the stairwell to draw it up and vent it out. We also provided openings in the direction of the prevailing winds to flush out the house. On the roof, we intend to use metal panels and/ or refective roofing material to reduce heat gain and on the upper floor walls we want to experiment with a rainscreen facade system to cool the exterior building walls in summer.

8. Most important, we also have a strict budget that cannot be exceeded. We will design the house in standard modules, use standard size doors and windows and won't be using structural steel, since this is expensive, will cause delays in coordination and delivery and is also quite a waste of energy.

Quite a challenge, I'd say. But that's the fun of designing anyway, isn't it?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Finding the right spot

Contrary to it's built-up neighbors, Mt Washington and Glassell Park still have an abundance of vacant lots- there's always something on the market. But to find a really suitable spot is a whole different animal. Before making a selection, we looked into a myriad of requirements that the lot needed to fulfill: It needed to be on an improved street with sufficient width for fire department access and the slope should be still manageable- preferrably less than 3:1 (many hillside lots are simply too steep to integrate the outdoors into the design- we'd end up with a condo in the sky with no access to the garden). Moreover, it should have a view of some sort, it should not be in an area prone to mud- and landslides and utilities should be already in the street. These criteria alone eliminated many of the properties on the market- and we found our lot by accident. Actually, we've been in negotiations with another seller over another lot when we got approached by someone else who heard of our project. It was not after those negotiations finally stalled that we took a serious look at the lot- and suddenly we were glad, we didn't pick the other one! The lot is located on a quiet loop street, on a North facing downslope with a grove of trees at the bottom and a view towards the San Gabriel Mountains with Mount Baldy in the distance (snow capped in winter!).
After brief negotiations, we acquired the lot and started the design and planning process.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Why Mount Washington?

My wife and I moved to the hills of Mount Washington and Glassell Park in 2004 and fell immediately in love with it. Contrary to the the other hilside areas in North-East LA, such as Eagle Rock or Echo Park, this one is not so densely populated but has rather a lot of green between homes. Narrow winding streets offer vistas into deep, vegetated canyons, rolling hills or the highrises of the city in the distance. It feels like a small rural mediterranean enclave- far from the city and yet, only minutes away from it.
Yes, that is exactly the place where we wanted to build our house!