Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Kitchen

One of my absolute favorite home design sites is Houzz.com. If you ever have a few free hours on your hands, this is a fabulous site for dreaming and drooling. The basic set-up is that designers, architects, builders and home owners upload photos of all things house. Once you set up an account (it's free), you can create an "idea book" where you can save photos of your favorite things. Not only that, but you can make a comment to describe what appeals to your about that particular item. And if you know the source of an item, you can tag it, and link to the supplier. Brilliant! Anyone with an account can create an article to share, like "purple doors," "walk-in pantries," "wall art with trains," to mention a few I've searched or read. I just picked this one off the home page: "Eight Great Uses for a Lonely Corner." Really, there's nothing you can't find on this site.

Since we've been thinking about building for a few years now, we have a pretty good general idea of what we want to do with our house, but there are a few design elements that overwhelm me. Specifically, the backsplash. Because of my brain injury, a lot of the popular backsplashed out there are really too busy. I'd rather my brain focus on what I'm cooking that trying to keep my vertigo in check! At the same time, I'd like to find something subtle, with a bit more color than the classic subway tile. A pattern can be okay, as long as there's an order to it. Our cabinets will be maple espresso and our counters will be a white quartz, so a little punch of color is welcome. The backsplash is the least expensive way to experiment--other than paint, of course. Our kitchen is also pretty open, so we wont' need a lot of backsplash, which means it's one area I could splurge in, if I found something I really loved.

Guess what? I found something I really, REALLY loved. Step into my dream:

I was on a Houzz idea book bunnytrail when I saw THIS! These are our cabinets, in our color, with our exact hardware. We'll have similar white quartz countertops, too. The main difference is that we'll have blonde cork planks for the flooring, which is soft and quiet. (My brain cannot wait to ditch these hardwoods!)
What really drew my eye is that even though there's quite a lot going on, there is order with the columns, and from a distance (like the first picture), it's much more subdued than other options out there, without being completely solid colored.
The generous architect who designed this kitchen was kind enough to upload this pictures as well:
BEST of all, some kind person tagged the photo so I could learn that the tile is Matchsticks Mosaic by Ann Sacks. I'm not a big trend girl, but I know enough to know that if something has a full name attached to it, it isn't on the bargain bin. Niels and I found a shop that carries it, so we went off to see how insanely expensive it is, and if I hate it in person.

I didn't hate it. I absolutely LOVE it. It looks blue online, but it's actually a gorgeous green that goes beautifully with the rest of the green (and plum) accents we have in our great room. It is on the high end, but we'll price it out and see where we land. I do have some fall back options, but for now, this is my backsplash.

Making changes to your design / floor plan


Current Elevation


Original Elevation

As we speak, our designer is putting together the final plans for the house. Even though we had a very good idea of what we wanted when we first met with him, we still made numerous changes and after every change we thought we had the plans done. Good thing plans need to be submitted to the local authorities to get the proper permits now, or otherwise we'd probably be making more changes still.

Don't get us wrong. We didn't make our designer go back to square one with each change. More like tweaks. It sure is nice to be working with a custom builder that helps you create the house that fits your family's unique needs, and then gives the flexibility to make those changes. FOr example, last night, Jen and Sue (Charis' interior designer) were talking up a storm as Sue was helping Jen visualize how she would use her kitchen and pantry to make sure the layout makes the best sense.

The changes we made were mainly minor tweaks on the inside of the house, but we did change the front stone facade to a more contemporary craftsman facade, and are now changing the smaller screened porch with composite wood to a larger covered stamped concrete patio that stretches from the dining area to the end of the house and giving the in-law suite direct access to the patio as well.

Because our dream house is in a very lively neighborhood with lots of kids and very social neighbors, we wanted to incorporate a nice 'outdoor living space'. With the change of the front facade we already have a nice front porch and this last change will give us a large outdoor space in the back of the house as well for lounging, grilling, outdoor dining and outdoor socializing (while the kids are playing in the big, open back yard).

Later today or early tomorrow we'll add the full set of (final) plans to the blog. Getting closer to putting the first stakes in the ground. Maybe as early as 2 weeks from now...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why Universal Design on the First Floor

***once again, this is Niels' accidentally posting under Jen's account."

In a world where most people live longer, more people will live with certain ailments that could lead to disabilities. Or, as in Jen's case, one day a simple accident will change your life. Also, with the economy the way it is, more and more houses seem to hold (are made able to hold) multi-generations. With this in mind we have designed our first floor to comply with universal design principles where the budget permits it.

What does this mean?

Universal design refers to broad-spectrum ideas meant to produce buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to both people without disabilities and people with disabilities. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Design)

So we had our architect come up with a design that has 36" width doors on the main level, an in-law suite on the main level with an accessible bathroom. That means room for a wheelchair to turn, touch-operated faucets, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant shower gear, no barrier shower pan, ADA compliant toilet, grab bars, low-resistance flooring (in both the in-law suite and bathroom), rocker light switches, pocket doors and for regular handles we will use door levers as opposed to door knobs.

Furthermore, the kitchen cabinets feature pull-out drawers with easy to grab handles versus regular cabinets doors with knobs. The cork floor we're installing is sound-absorbent to help Jen with her brain injury since hardwood floors are very loud. (In our current house we have hardwood throughout the main level which means Jen can be pretty anti-social when we are socializing). We don't have a lot of upper cabinets, but we have a very large walk-in pantry, island and bar. We won't hurt for space. The end of our island is lower and open underneath, which will make baking easier for Jen--she won't have to knead on her tiptoes, and also allows seating for a guest in a wheelchair. Lastly, we're going with Quartz versus the more popular granite since the patterns are usually a little more subtle.

We also try to stay 'green' so the ADA-compliant toilet is also a low-flow, WaterSense toilet that only uses 1.28gpf (gallons per flush) as opposed to the standard 1.6gpf. The ADA-compliant faucet and shower heads, max out at 1.75gpm (gallons per minute) as opposed to the standard 2.5gpm and for the in-law bedroom floor we are leaning towards cork (same as in the kitchen) since carpeting isn't as easy to get around on in a wheelchair (and that is even if you have decent hand strength). Ultimately we would have loved to reserve space for an elevator shaft, but after looking at the budget, we put that money (and space) towards a more accessible main level. That being said, directly above the pantry is the laundry room so both of those rooms could be sacrificed if the need arises.

Hopefully, more and more houses will be built or retro-fitted with universal design so in the future, your house will be one less thing to worry about when your abilities start to fade...

And now a shameless plug alert, but if you do find yourself in need, my sister and her husband own Accessible Homes, who build & remodel homes to make them accessible for people of all abilities. Please check 'm out at: Accessible Homes, LLC (located in Minneapolis/St. Paul, now serving MN and WI).

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Jen's Side of the Story

Niels did a good job of starting this blog. I thought I’d add a post about how we came to decide to build in the first place.

One of Niels’ criterion for our current house was that it was on a big lot. Land is hard to come by in the Netherlands--where he's from--so he was quite keen to have some of his own. (Our house is on 1.36 acres). Of course, all that land is less appealing now that he understands how much time a 37-mile commute, a brain-injured wife and an active toddler takes!

The other thing Niels (and the rest of the world) really wanted was hardwood floors. What I didn’t realize before I moved in was how LOUD hardwood is on a daily basis. As someone who lives with a nearly-constant headache, it didn’t take long to realize that hardwoods are not brain-injury friendly.

These two realizations started us thinking about building a dream house…someday. It was a little something we’d talk about as we noticed things in other houses we liked. “That would be great in our dream house…”

Many of our friends and all of our family live hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from us. If they visit, it’s not a quick stop for dinner. They stay for up to a month at a time. Our house accommodates guests quite well, although the layout is not ideal.

Shortly after their first visit to see us, Niels’ dad called to say that he found (online, of course) a lot of land near us that was for sale. He thought maybe it would be a nice place to build a guest house for them. Niels checked out the lot in person, and quickly decided that it would NOT be a good place to build (plus we really didn’t want two properties to care for six months a year). That led to a discussion of building a guest house on our land. We quickly ruled that out due to the lay of our land. Another conversation involved adding on to our current house. Again, the nature of our lot ruled out that idea. We started to think maybe building our dream house would happen sooner rather than later...like before my in-laws retired in three years.

During their next visit to Ohio, we visited several models. One of them belonged to Charis Homes. We also visited models by all the other major builders in the area, including one three-month old model that already had a large crack across the ceiling. YIKES! We saw some beautiful homes, and had great discussions about what would work for us, and what would work for them. They realized it was our house, ultimately, but we wanted it to be a place that they would feel comfortable and welcome, too. Plus, we (I!) had a lot to learn about international ideas of housing.

American and Dutch housing trends are very different. In general, because land is at such a premium, houses have a smaller footprint, and are built up, not out. Three stories is quite common. Trends tend to be more practical and less fickle than here in the States. In fact, Niels’ parents renovated their kitchen 15 years ago…with a style that is just now showing up in the States!

But the most important difference between building in America and building in Holland is the type of construction used. Here in the US, most houses are wood framed. In Holland, you will see a lot of concrete and brick frame. The latter makes for more study houses, as well as greater energy efficiency.

When we walked into that Charis Home, Niels and his dad got all excited about the insulated concrete form (ICF) construction. To be honest, I wasn’t overly impressed with the house because I didn't understand why that was important. I have a hard time visualizing things, and this house was a ranch. I definitely wanted a two story. (I have gotten much better at looking at all kinds of houses for ideas).

It didn’t take long for me to embrace ICF. In addition to reducing energy bills (the house conserves energy much better than wood framed houses), ICF homes block most allergens from seeping into the house, and are mold and termite resistant. SOLD!

Being married to a non-American can open your eyes to things you wouldn’t otherwise see. In particular, our family has a more global approach to our everyday life. It is sobering to think how wasteful Americans can be. Granted, building a new home doesn’t really help against that statement, but we do hope that our home will be the kind of more energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly house the future needs.

Over the last four years, we have spent many hours touring models and talking to builders. Once we settled on a neighborhood (with sidewalks!), we started taking walks there and meeting the neighbors. We asked them about their houses: who built them, what they loved, what they would do differently. In those three years, we never once heard a single bad word about Charis Homes. When we saw how excited they are about green building, and energy-efficiency, and universal design, and building right, not just trendy, we knew we had found our builder.

My sister and brother-in-law own a company in Minnesota called Accessible Homes. We talked to them quite a bit about building a house that makes my life easier as a (high functioning) brain-injury survivor now, but can also accommodate my needs as I get older, and as friends and family of all abilities visit us. We made a goal to use as much universal design principles as possible on the first floor. We’re using levers on our doors instead of knobs, a touch sink in our kitchen, drawers instead of lower cabinets, dimmers instead of switches, wider doors and entries to accommodate a wheelchair, etc.

For me, a brain-injury friendly house includes attention to sound-proofing and d├ęcor. Cork floors are quiet AND green. In the kitchen, which is MY room, we’ll use more solid colors for the counters and backsplash and away from patterns tend to exasperate my headaches and vertigo.

I love to cook. Planning and making healthy meals makes me feel like I am contributing to my family. My brain injury prevents me from working, but cooking gives me a sense of accomplishment each day. My big splurge is a walk-in pantry to house all my bulk goods, upright freezer and smaller appliances. We have a lowered counter for my baking center so I will no longer have to stand on my tippy toes to knead dough! I am SO excited for my new kitchen.

As much as possible, as we make choices for our new home, we want to consider the most energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly choice. It won’t happen for everything—we do have a budget!—but where we can, we will.

Niels will make most of the posts on this blog. He understands the process much better than I do, and can better explain the important choices that often go unnoticed. I’ll chime in on the things that are important to me, and help with the basic design of the site.

While we started this blog really just for my own memory of the process (so ten years from now when I saw, “Why did we pick this ______?!,” I’ll know. But since I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading through blogs showing the progress of other dream homes, I hope our decisions help others considering their own home building project.

Why ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms)

The vast majority of US and Canadian houses are wood-framed using 2x4, 2x6 or 2x8 framing to build the above-ground exterior walls and cinder or cement blocks for the basements. This is not the most efficient method of building since you are not creating a truly solid wall but are 'constructing' a wall made out of separate pieces. Insulating Concrete Forms (or ICFs) create a structural concrete wall (either monolithic or post and beam) that is up to 10 times stronger than wood framed structures. There are plenty of other benefits (see the Wiki link on the title for an extended list) but the two that sold us were the aforementioned rigidity and the far better insulation value of the wall over the wood-framing.

It's constructed a lot like hollow lego-blocks that are dry-stacked together to form the wall frame. Rebar is added for additional horizontal and vertical strength and then back-filled with concrete inside the frames. As opposed to regular concrete walls, the blocks are NOT removed and will enhance both the thermal and noise insulation value of the wall.

Since it is concrete it is vitally important that you know before construction where you want windows and doors placed since cutting through 6 inches of solid concrete and rebar to add a window is a real pain (and not to mention, expensive). Talking about expensive, ICF construction will add a few dollars to your square foot price (usually between $1 and $4) but that will easily be recuperated through lower energy bills and a more silent, clean and rigid house.

If you are not convinced about the concrete, but do understand the energy-inefficiency of wood framed houses, other construction options are available such as SIPS panels, earthen walls or other more 'green' options.

Overall, the benefits of ICF outweigh the negatives for us and with Charis Homes specializing in ICF construction we went for it.

Update 5/24/2011: With all the tornadoes we had in the States these last couple of days - and some confirmed TDs even here in North-East Ohio - we are very glad to be building with ICFs. We've seen many a picture of where ICF houses were the only ones standing with all surrounding houses gone. That is one of the reasons why ICF is one of the few FEMA-rated construction methods... It also saves you on your home owners insurance as well (we already have proof of that...!) Consider this: a log hitting an ICF wall at close to 100mph will still simply shatter on that wall where it would simply go through a wood framed wall.

Note: for those interested, our ICF house will use ARXX Edge blocks (formerly known as ECO-Blocks)

Update 6/22/2011: More reasons in the follow-up post

Why We Chose Charis Homes As Our Builder

Posted by Niels - no matter what Blogger will make you believe ;-) Jen's recollection is posted here

One of the major decisions is the choice of which builder / general contractor to use to build your house. There are large national builders (think of Ryan Homes and Drees Homes), local builders and everything in between. Then there are specialty builders, those who build according to specific standards.

We started by looking at houses when my parents were here in the States about 6 months after we were married. We looked at a couple of Ryan home models and were impressed by the initial looks and price. We quickly noted some serious construction issues - even in the models - with considerable cracking, cheap products and overall shoddy craftsmanship. A quick Google search at home after touring the models confirmed those visual findings and we quickly eliminated Ryan Homes from our list.

The next house we went into was a ranch (not our style, but we went in anyway) that looked a lot sturdier. After talking with the builder he explained he uses poured, reinforced concrete with insulation instead of cement blocks and 2x4s. With my parents and I coming from Europe that was a very appealing option since European houses are rarely, if ever, wood framed. But since it was a ranch we left and didn't think too much about it for a while.

The next builder on our list was Drees Homes. It is a Dutch/German name so naturally -with me being Dutch - that was a nice ice-breaker. We were very impressed with their models and saw none of the issues we saw at the Ryan Home models. We even had our basic model / floor plan already picked out and had some generic pricing drawn up.

Then God intervened...

Driving around one afternoon we saw a sign for Charis Homes and with 'Charis' being Greek for 'Grace' which is Jen's favorite word we toured the house. The builder immediately recognized us and at that point we realized it was the same builder as the ranch we toured a year or so before. We looked at the solid construction of the house and were impressed by the knowledge of the builder on 'green' topics and energy efficiency as a whole. In our minds we kind of decided that maybe Charis was the better fit for us.

Over the course of the next three years we toured (almost) every home they built, talked with all the home owners and some subcontractors and haven't heard a single complaint. They all love the work Charis did for them and/or how they got treated in the process. That basically closed the deal.

One other thing that sold us was their 'dusty shoe' open houses where they allow the public in to houses in various stages of the building process. You see the framing, you see the piping, you see the drywalling, you basically see the whole process. This in turn means there is pretty much no 'hiding' or 'covering up' potential issues since you'd see them. Furthermore, the fact they are solid Christians is only reinforcing our belief that good builders are still available and you really don't have to settle for anything less than what you want a builder to do for you.

I'm sorry if the last couple of paragraphs kind of sound like a Charis infomercial, but we truly feel we have found the right builder for us and will highly recommend them to any of our friends and family.

They may not be the cheapest builder on the block, but their product is a couple cuts above the national builder level. Plus, with their houses being HERS rated around 50 or lower, you know that the low energy costs will more than off-set any higher construction costs and will leave you with a quality house for years to come.

Decision to build a new house

Why building a house when there are literally thousands of houses on the market at the moment for rock bottom prices? It is not a decision we made lightly and Jen has seen some of the consequences when things don't turn out the way you want them to. We came to this decision because of the following reasons.

  1. We can't find a house on the market in a good school district that is energy efficient and has two master suites.
  2. We are not DIY people and renovating existing houses to bring those houses up to exactly what we want will require a lot of extra time (and extra surprises) plus require us to hire a builder/general contracter anyway.
  3. Knowing the entire life cycle of a house is a very comforting thought for us.
For those in the decision making process, please keep the following things in mind:
  • Building a house is more expensive. The market value of your house is probably lower than your building cost for a little bit. Make sure you have a good chunk of money to put down (min. of 10%, more is advisable) and don't expect to move for the next 10 years.
  • You need a credit score of at least 730 to 750 to even qualify for a construction loan.
  • You might need to move twice (if your current house sells before you take possession of your newly built house).
  • You have to be ready to make a LOT of decisions. Do your homework and agree upon the basics of your new house BEFORE you talk to designers and/or contractors.
  • You have a solid relationship with your spouse/significant other since building a house will create a higher stress level in the relationship since you need to make a lot of decisions...
So, with all that said, we decided that we were ready to build a house. Let the fun begin!

Blog entry from BlackBerry

Just a little nerdy test. We both have BlackBerry's and Blogger allows you to create a blog entry by simply emailing the text. This will come in handy for those times where you simply don't have a computer at hand...

de Jong Dream House Journey Begins...

This blog is about the de Jong Family building their dream home...

Another blog. Aren't blogs a bit passe nowadays? Maybe, but for us having family literally all over the world and a wife with a brain injury a little diary-style on-line memory and information sharing is still a very helpful tool. Sure, we're on Facebook more and update that more frequently but it's not the place for explanations as to how we came to certain decisions. And with many decisions to make in the next 6 to 12 months...

We are building an ultra-energy efficient, 2-story, full ICF, double-master, all EnergyStar, all WaterSense, 3000 sq. ft., brain-injury friendly, mostly ADA compliant, fully custom dream home in a kid-friendly neighborhood  in Northeast Ohio

We're planning on making frequent updates on the status of the build, with pictures and some of the choices we made and why we made them. Hope you'll check back often to join us on this exciting new chapter in our life.

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