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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Awards, Recognition, What-have-you & Green Building Rant Retraction

Some big honors came our way here at Catskill Farms recently - The River Reporter readers who voted us "Best Builder" and "Best Green Builder" and New York House editors named us (actually me) one of the ten 'Faces of Green Building' in the Upstate NY/Hudson Valley region, coupled with the likes of the Durst Organization and other big hitters.

Little ol' us - keeping it real by keeping it small, affordable, unique and creative.

New York House is a pretty substantial magazine so to be included is cool. I've included the cover page and here is the link to the magazine- the shout out is on page 19.

Which brings me to my point I guess. I few weeks ago I ranted a bit about the value of some of the green measuring sticks (LEED, etc...) because they weren't being asked to evaluate their buildings on their final performance and I thought what is the point of all the inspections, paperwork and cost if in the end you weren't proving that all that effort wasn't resulting in some sort of energy and cost superiority.

I guess, in retrospect, I got caught up in the the hysterical media technique of present day - where everything is black and white and you got to shout it.

The point being, even if there is a lot of baloney in the green movement, even if LEED certification in residential construction is mostly a bull-dung process of paying and massaging your LEED representative (I think LEED in commercial construction presents many more opportunities for real energy-reduction), the fact that the entire design/development/construction industry is now building better and keeping it's eye on the ball in terms of 'cost of ownership' and energy loss in homes and structures.

A lot of it is simple - pay attention to where energy leaks from a house, tape your ductwork good, use better insulation. Even production builders are focused a least minimally on 'greening' their homes. So no, homes being built aren't all of a sudden 'zero-energy' efforts spinning the electric meter backwards, but I would guess a lot of new construction is a lot more energy efficient than it was 4 years ago.

And that's progress. It's still true that a lot of the companies that are positioning themselves as 'save the earth, buy our homes' are probably in for a long slow slog of lackluster and unenthusiastic customer reaction, but nevertheless homes are becoming smaller, more efficient, and overall, greener.

My beef has not been with the industry and serious professional that have popped up around this movement, that will be around for quite some time. It's the charlatans, bull-shitters and marketeers that have twisted some good ideas into hard to value green initiatives, confusing the marketplace and placing a shroud of cynicism over the entire green field.

For instance, very few green builders say what we say or what we don't say - we don't say 'green', cause I'm not sure what that means. We say we are doing our best to build the best home we can for the money we are charging - and by best I mean the qualities of purchase price, cost of ownership, attention to uniqueness/aesthetic - in a word, Value.

Value sells. Green doesn't. It's a hard lesson.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Farm 14 Sold

Sweet Farm 14. An interesting project for Catskill Farms and a real sign of the times, and perhaps instructional to other builder/speculators. Farm 14 was started by someone else who didn't have the mental, financial, spiritual, emotional wherewithal to finish it up (the vodka bottles we found about probably didn't help). But they did several things right, first and foremost placing the home absolutely perfect on the property. The property consists of 2+ acres, but it is more private than many substantially larger parcels. And the fact that you climb a slight grade to the proud-standing house, just helps matter considerably.

Also, the work that was done was done well. Not necessarily the interior layout and design choices, but definitely the quality and structural attention to detail was fine.

So it was a go. And we ripped out a lot of finished sheetrock and opened the whole first floor up for a better flow and replaced all the interior doors with solid-core doors, and replaced all the trim, and flooring and moved the fireplace and redid all the siding and pimped out the porch and re calibrated the stairs, and retiled the bath and installed a cool countertop and black cast-iron sink, and really did up the perfect mudroom, as you can see below.

Sliding barn door, powder room, great stone floor, radiator to hang your wet socks and gloves off of, and board and batton siding to give it some real character (oh, and the bucket light works it's whimsy well). Detail and uniqueness over detail and uniqueness.

We have diverse clients - not just the bankers and rock stars and a-list comedians and alternative magazine founders or broadway musical directors, or levi's creative directors or OMD digital media pros or executive assistant to billionaires or south american shipping magnets or clothing pros or cops or naturalists or lawyers or art gallery insurers or art gallery owners or tastemakers across industries or doctors of chemistry or accountants or wealth managers or moma curators or picture frame artisans or just otherwise accompliced City execs - Yes, we have diverse clients, but what we also have are diverse and personal and real decisions of why people choose us (Catskill Farms).
This group of two sisters and a mom and dog (barkley) who have big plans for this house, at the same time we are building for a woman, her brother and her mom. And the man who plans to marry his girl, we are building for them. And the two guys at Cottage 31, and the couple who just finished closing on our new Micro cottage.

That wasn't really fair though, when I took Sarah and Jeff out in my wife's new 2010 Subaru Outback. She was busy, so I had Lucas and Sarah and Jeff got in the car with me and Lucas and you know young children have a serious mojo about them - they sort of take up some space with their presence - and it's not just that they are cute - they just have something about them that is more compellingly nuanced than an adult, especially for people who don't have kids. It's kind of like standing in the woods listening to the ocean of tree branches. It emotes, for sure.

So Lucas made it happen and Sarah and Jeff made a commitment to Micro 2 and closed on it on this past Monday.
Anyway, like I was saying, the stories of our customers are serious and heavy and aspirations for the home are lofty and expandable and a palette - and they entrust it to us.

People ask me how I do it - how I bucked a historic real estate crash that should have spontaneously combusted us quicker than one of those amazing stories on that old show "That's Incredible" - well, to be honest, how we did it was sort not super cool - we were earnest, and hard-working, and honest. Irreverently earnest, hard-working and honest, but all of those things nevertheless.
One of the best gifts we got was the '2nd chance' - my god, the learning curve was step and the obstacles nearly not comprehensible - horrid and not entertaining, but lessons nevertheless and the guy left standing has a chance to avoid and prosper from the wince-able travails that make up half the path of progress.

Lisa and Lucas are down in Lancaster Pa so it's just me and Jake and Ruby (the cat) and Tiger (the other cat) and that damn dirty snowman in the front yard and my frozen pizza in the oven.

This old Farm 14 has a lot of class and was a real testament to the bubble we here at Catskill Farms live in. So here I undertake this incredibly speculative project and remodel and renovate and market it and maybe it was on the market fully completed for 4 months and everyone is giving me sideways glances and asking me what's wrong and did I lose my touch of magic and so and so forth.

I guess that's the problem with setting the bar so frickin' high that only some real tall person can touch it. I could have held onto this house for a year without being personally slighted - it was a great show piece and sold a few other homes - a model home, something you want when you don't have it and definitely think twice when you do.

Anyway like I was saying, the house is hot with details galore and comes in at just about 2000 sq ft with a basement larger than 1/2 of our homes.

It was fun showing this house and really getting reinforced about who we are - we are the small house guys and most of the people we showed the house to just wanted something a little smaller, a little more modest. And then think about it - this house is 20% smaller than the average American home - which I think says more about them than us.

Boy I can smell the pizza cooking, and in a move I'm not so confident about currently, I followed the directions on the box which stated to place the pizza directly on the oven grill and in my mind's eye (and my nose) I'm picturing a lot of processed cheese dripping down all over the inside of the oven.

I don't get away with much, which is why Lisa says I'm so honest, cause I can't pull much off if I don't believe it and I lie about as well as my dog Jake talks. One time in a house that wouldn't sell (which were most of my first few homes ) I rented it out to my friends Steve and Bruce and they kept some killer treats in the pantry and I would sneak over, through the basement, during the week when they weren't around and swipe a yoodle, or a oatmeal creme cookie, or a cup of pudding. Thing about it, when you enter a basement, sneak up the stairs in your socks, your socks are all dusty especially contrasted with a dark stained clean floor - so what you had were some pretty incriminating footprints leading from the cellar door, to the pantry and back out.

Well, need to go eat my pizza - it's not everyday you get to indulge like this.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cottage 31, Sold

It's been a wintry week up here with schools closed twice and delayed 2 hours once. Icy rainy mix one day, then a real soft fluffy snow Thursday night.

It's the 2nd time in as many weeks where we had a closing scheduled and then a snow storm sneaks up and tempts the hand of fate. Thing about closings is that they take a lot of coordination among a lot of people. Typically there is a mortgage lock rate deadline breathing down everyone's neck, then we have to get the Certificate of Occupancy, send it off to the buyer's bank, then wait for the bank to give us the Clear to Close, meaning the 27 documents necessary to complete the loan are in order.

Then my attorney, the buyers, the buyer's attorney, the bank, the title company and I'm probably forgetting someone - everyone needs to get on everyone's schedule, which isn't so easy considering the massive amounts of refinancings the banks are processing.

So to have a snow storm sneak up and upset these nicely made plans sort of sucks, not to mention I'm out my couple of hundred grand. It's not like you just say, 'let's do it tomorrow'. You got to start all over with coordination.

Like I said, when we closed on Cottage 33 last week we had a storm, and now the night of Cottage 31 we had a storm.

And for some reason, everyone has gotten a lot more touchy about a little snow. I've had to push the issue and reassure everyone that I'm sure we can all make it to closing in spite of a little snow. This past closing the buyer's attorney was trying to cancel the closing 4 days ahead because of a snow warning - that definitely didn't fly. We do, actually, live in a snow prone region kids.
Cottage 31 is great. Some clients like Erin come up once, never before looked at real estate, never really thought about buying, and end up buying Ranch 2 the first time up. Others, like Van and Eric of Cottage 31, travel around the state for months or years, getting a feel of the lay of the land, different regions, different areas and terrain. I can emphasize with both processes, having gone through both in the several houses I've lived in. Both the common denominator is Catskill Farms - both scenarios and the ultimate motivation for choosing southern Sullivan County - and perhaps pulling the trigger period - were the efforts, designs, history and ability of Catskill Farms and our homes - our creative process, our serious commitment to scheduling and getting it done, our no-nonsense approach to bringing the whole thing in for a soft landing and a quick closing.

Cottage 33, by contract, was set to close on January 15, date set in September. We closed a week before. Cottage 31 was set to close by contract in mid-January - we closed on the 21st.

It's a process without excuses - come snow, holidays and what have you.

Cottage 31 was a design that kept on evolving from something in our portfolio, to something that merged successfully with what Van and Eric had in mind. Cedar shake siding and arts & crafts stoned columns define the front elevation, with the large roof overhang protecting the 2nd floor bedroom deck.

The home has some views north west and in the spring we will probably screen in this side porch. Presently the porch is all spindled in with a gate to keep the dog in.

The stone mason did a nice job on these big oversized stone columns and tapered wood tops.

The entry way has a 12 light front door, and some local square stone. These guys liked the house of Dean a lot. If you remember Dean of Cottage 13 fame, he also is one of the creative directors for Levis. His home has inspired lots of people and design choices. The grays and angular stone set the tone for this one - plank ceiling, crown molding.
Walking in the house opens up, with open stair treads, cable rail, and lots of well-placed windows opening up to a good western view. Their friend called it a 'fairy tale' - I like that almost as much as when Sasha said our homes 'feel like a big hug.'

Some of the defining aspects of this home are the salvaged posts, recycled from some carefully dismantled barn.

Straight from the front door, past the steps, is a sunken living room with radiant heat and lots of windows, a fireplace, super high clerestory window pop-up and 4 symmetrical schoolhouse lights.
From the living room corner, looking up towards the front door. Significant fireplace, nice beam, couple of random stone accents and a stair case that obstructs nothing.

I think that's an early american stain on the floor. An interesting design decision that in retrospect was very smart. Instead of the no-brainer set of double french doors/sliding doors, we kept the view path just windows and situated the porch door off the the side, which worked out terrifically. That appears to be a dutch door, with the top leaf and bottom section opening independently of each other. One of our most common requests.

Down below is our woodburning fireplace and irregular hearth stone, perched up 7" and a little oversized in order to allow for some close fire perching.
The kitchen is a study of not just a good use of space, but also a good use of budget. We used some salvaged distressed red wood siding on the wall behind the sink cabinets, and a big 'island'.

One of my favorite countertops, birch plywood stained and epoxied. It's really not only a great looking countertop, it's affordable - one of those perfect marriages/blends of price and product.

From the kitchen looking out. 3 doors, from right to left - bedroom, closet, and bathroom.

The bathroom is a simple clean use of dark paint, rectangular stone, clawfoot tub, fast toilet and wall hung trough sink.

Going up the stairs where a full bath and large bedroom reside - duel sliding barn doors offer privacy and detail. The light has a story, of which I can't recall the exact narrative.

Looking past the rail out the view and into the living room space below.

Lots of light and lots of openness.

The bedroom is large, with pitched roof and salvaged beams.

And some of the details -

Trough duel sink, plank horizontal wainscoting.

Modern duel flush toilet.

5 panel solid core doors with a classic porcelain door knob.

A kitchen scone on salvaged red barn wood.

A barn light electric style galvanized ceiling mount fixture.

And that's it. James and I spent a lot of time with Van and Eric and I think the final product really shows the effort.

Just got done with a final walk-thru at Farm 14 which closes tomorrow. We are also closing on Micro 2 - added up, sums up to 4 closings in January. Then we got one scheduled in March, one scheduled in April, and we have just closed the preliminary deal on 3 starts in the spring, pre-sold.

Looks like another big year for the Catskill Farms operation. Sooner or later I'll stop thinking that my luck will run out and sales will slow - at this point, it's hard to attribute it to luck.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Not That Handy

There's this mistaken impression that just because I'm in charge of developing, designing, building, marketing and selling a lot of hot little houses, that somehow I'm 'handy', and 'mechanically-inclined'. Some people are even quite put off that I'm not Norm Abrams reinvented, or some other TV carpenter pro.

Let's just say that half my customers have more carpentry talent than I do. And luckily that's the case or else I would have been too busy pounding nails than to keep visualizing and dreaming about how to provide new and dynamic housing opportunities for the NYC fast set.

Take my new plow truck, for instance. It's new, it's fancy, it's loaded and cost about twice the average Sullivan County annual salary. It's a great example of a gov't incentive program that really motivates real life small-business decisions - call 'accelerated depreciation', I can write off the total purchase price in year 1, instead of depreciating it over multiple years, helping to reduce my taxable income. These capital purchase incentives accelerate purchases and spur the economy - exactly what its supposed to do.

But, jeez, even though I've been plowing now for a few years in order to save money and keep our drives open, I would never call myself a 'plow master'. My previous 1990 plow truck kept high expectations at bay so when I would take out a stone wall, or get stuck at 5:30am, or clip a house - it was understandable since the machinery made a difficult job harder.

Now I got a truck with a plow so accurate you could pick your teeth with it. It's the V plow, with a hinge in the middle so both sides move independently. It does everything but wash the dishes, and based on what I've been discovering, it probably can do that.

In the cab we have the dump bed controller, the plow controller, and the street sander controller - 4 wheel drive thingee and a few other knobs and buttons.

It's even got a built in tarp to keep things dry or from flying out the back of the dumper.

So, the litany of issues with this new-fangled truck are countless - my neighbor (whose driveway I plow for free, btw) gives me a hard time as I hit her aged stone wall and knock loose her wishing well. The highway guys are judging my plowing accuracy and efficiency, and to make matters worse, I spent like 30 minutes last night trying to figure out how to turn the plow lights on. The regular headlights get blocked by the plow, but I couldn't figure out the plow lights, so I just drove home last night with the plow real low the ground so the regular lights would partially work. Then I spent some more time in my driveway in the dark trying all the buttons, and while I couldn't get the plow lights on, by the time I was done, I couldn't get the interior truck cab lights to go off. So at first I thought they were on a timer, but no, they weren't. So I spent another 10 minutes trying to turn the cab lights off.

By the time I found the cab lights, I also found the plow lights, so no more worries of the local snickering I am sure was following me and truck around.

Then James and I were tooling around and believe it or not, a frickin' stone got caught between the dual wheels in the back and we had to call Curtis to hook up a strap and pull the damn stone out of the wheel space, that's how tightly it was lodged in there.

Anyways, I aspire to be the plow master, and feel I am making significant strides towards that lofty aspiration.

Here's our house, with the front porch callick (yes, that is how callick is spelled), after the rainy icy storm.

And looking down our street Thursday Morning.

Our old dirty snow man who has seen better days, although it is impressive he has now been figure of our front yard for 20+ days.

That's it. Final Walk-thru for Cottage 31 tonight at 6 with Van and Eric. Closing scheduled for tomorrow at 9am. Two more closings on Monday.