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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

FH20 Guy - Final Post

So, FH20 Guy has a post for you all after a long absence. I don't know if his camera ran out of film but it's a little light on photos - but hey, who I am and what do I know?  (besides the guy who constantly brings these upstate dreams into drama-free reality!!)

So, I will be writing in the Courier font with parenthesis in order to correct a few facts, but other than that, it's FH20's show.

FH20 Guy - Final Post

Writing this final blog piece was a lot harder than I originally imagined… it took longer, I went back and changed things only to change them back – and then delete them altogether, and I kinda dragged my feet finishing it.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it.  I think it was because this part of the journey was coming to a close.  It was a weird feeling because I have really, truly enjoyed this part of my EcoFarm project and almost didn’t want it to end.

When I finished post 3, we were just wrapping up the land closing and hammering out a construction schedule.  We ended up “mirroring” our original floor plan and choosing a true South orientation for the barn/garage for a future solar PV installation.  One thing that surprised me a bit was how much it costs to actually “site” the house for construction – I guess this includes clearing trees and brush, digging holes, laying out a driveway rock foundation for construction vehicles, and burying cables.  But it’s totally worth it.  I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but all of Chuck’s houses have buried conduits, very “clean” looking power transformer pads, and other discrete systems.  You have all the 21st century luxuries but don’t see much of it… it just works.  I love that.  My piece of property had neighborhood power/phone at the road so these guys had to bring all that stuff to the final construction site which was probably 100 or so yards in.  (We found another really nice potential home site about 250 yards deep but the additional driveway and power costs were too great to justify.)


Discrete power transformer and meter (look ma, no wires!)

Anyways, before we knew it, we were motoring.  I never got to see the cool, really big diggers and such in action but it must have been pretty amazing.  An acre of trees gone, foundations and footings in place, basement slabs poured… it was moving at too fast a pace.  If I could do one thing over it would have been to place one of those time-lapse cameras high up on a tree to document the whole thing (you know, when a camera takes a photo every minute or so and stitches months of construction into a five minute video?)  I eventually got one of those cameras for myself – and one for Chuck too – and hope to see a new construction Catskill Farm video shortly. (good idea in theory, but I really don't want to know what happens on my job sites every minute - I have enough stress in my life. But, seriously, the camera idea is cool and a great gift - we had one running when we did the blog cabin for diy a few years back).

Seeing the cleared land and the initial foundation and footings going in was completely different than walking around the property through trees and brush.  I couldn’t see it at the time, but that farmhouse and overall layout was almost “growing out” of the landscape.


The house “growing out” of the cleared landscape…

In addition to the amazing speed of construction, another unusual thing was I basically stopped interacting with Chuck.  I’m not sure if it’s because he’s the “front-end” part of the process, or if he was moving to other things, or if that’s just the way they operate the firm, but all my actual construction interaction from that point forward was with a gentleman named James Karpowicz.  James is a pretty cool guy… genteel, local, highly experienced with all the construction aspects, and actually also an artist!  I enjoyed working with him immensely.  We would visit the site about once every three or four weeks and “walk through” with James, discussing various design aspects, tweaks, and other selections.  He not only made it very easy, but I noticed that he would constantly spot little things that required correction (sliding door should go this way, not that way... it’s better if the radiator hose goes here, not there…  high-voltage switch or outlet needs to be here, and so forth.)  There’s no substitute for a good eye for design and a lot of experience, and I was immediately comfortable with this transition from Chuck (the search, the dream, and design) to James (the actual nitty-gritty construction). (Not quite right, I stay fully involved in both construction and design all along the way, I just let James deal with the clients, the design meetings and the construction administration - he is very good at it, and people tend to respond better to him than me - hurtful fact I know, but hey, it is what it is.  I'm just in the background kicking the day to day ass to keep it rolling.)

Looking back, it’s amazing how many things we changed over time:

·         Roof – we went with a metal roof on the barn/garage instead of traditional asphalt shingles for durability and care-free maintenance.  We had hoped to install solar PV panels but kinda ran out of money… you don’t want your panels (30+ year lifespan) outlasting your roof.
 HVAC – originally we thought about a ground-source heat pump but I couldn’t really get comfortable with the local install experience.  Sure, contractors have done a few installs in the area here or there, but we didn’t really find a company that installed geothermal systems for a living… these things may look great on paper, but if you have a suboptimal install you end up giving yourself a bigger headache than it’s worth.  We then moved on to these Japanese mini-splits which are fantastic (I had them when I lived in Tokyo).  They’re super-efficient, provide both heating and cooling, don’t require central ducting, can give you instant zoned, automated temperature control depending on where you place the head units, and you can forgo a propane tank and keep everything electric.  Alas, the models we needed (which could still heat in -4°F ambient temperatures) required 3-phase electric power when only 2-phase power was available in our rural area.  Drats.  In the end, we went with the old standby… a propane-fired boiler to heat water for radiators, and central air for cooling.  Yeah, it’s not the greenest solution but it works, and in a super insulated house (more on that later), it works fairly well – at least the heating does, which is the only thing we’ve used so far.  We get forced-air heat for “free” as a secondary system, but so far I prefer the look and feel of those old-school cast iron radiators.

·         Barn/garage – James was kind enough to suggest wood shelving in the barn’s greenhouse (modeled after his own greenhouse!), slop sinks in the garage and basement for general use, and other homeowner comforts you just don’t know about since you probably spend most of your week in a cramped NYC apartment.  There’s really no substitute for experience… both in their own lives and houses and the requests of their many Catskill Farm-building clients.  I think that’s one of the main aspects that made this project so appealing and enjoyable. (Probably one of our leading competitive advantages - both our 100 2nd home experience, and our ability to get on the same page, intuitively, pretty quick, with our diverse clients).
Smart Wiring – both Chuck and James made fun of me for this one, (little does he know that's just the beginning of making fun of him - haha, just joking FH20 guy!)but I wanted to run wiring everywhere before the drywall went up.  When I say wiring, I’m just talking about low-voltage Cat6 and coax cabling (we chose a structured wire solution with two Cat6 and one RG6 cable).  You may ask why in the world we need such cabling at our EcoFarm, especially when the wife has already banned television, and I wouldn’t have a great answer for you.  But I figure in addition to the obvious devices (regular phones, Ethernet to TVs, computers, or other devices, wireless routers and access points, network cameras, home automation, etc.) you’re better off having the wiring in place since it’s such a pain to poke holes in the walls later.  From Catskill Farms’ perspective, no problem… you want it, we can put it in.  (The guys at East Tek Security, who also installed and monitor the security system, did a great job.) (I'll pass along the kind words).

·         Generator – after our Hurricane Sandy experience, the wife made the call… let’s put in a propane generator (since we now have that propane supply) with automatic transfer switching.  Again, no problem. (Smart move, will definitely keep the wife happy.)



In the initial design phase when we were bouncing ideas off of Chuck, I described the type of bathroom I had when I was living in Tokyo.  The Japanese take their bathrooms and bathing very seriously.  I mean, these are the folks who designed toilets with heated seats that automatically raise/lower, washlets that clean your bum, or even air jets that dry you and automatically spritz a perfume when you’re finished with your business.  (Check out http://priceonomics.com/toilets/ to get familiar).  But enough about the toilets…  I was more interested in replicating the bathroom design.  Traditional Japanese bathrooms are very different than American or “western” types.  We typically have a bathtub – perhaps doubling as a shower – along with a sink and toilet as separate, distinct areas of the bathroom.  You have curtains, for example, to keep water localized to the bathtub so you don’t flood the rest of your bathroom.

A traditional Japanese bathroom will have a “wet” and a “dry” area.  The dry area is exactly that…  a place where you change clothes, use the sink, sit on that amazing electric toilet, or whatever.  The wet area typically contains both the shower head and a soaking tub, since people soap off and clean themselves first in the shower and later soak in a deeper, hotter tub than our longer, shallower western-style tubs.  (Families often share and reuse the hot water in the tub for soaking since electricity/heating is expensive and the water is clean.)

I found this Japanese setup far more relaxing and usable… who cares if you splash water around in the wet area, and how awesome is it to easily transition from shower to tub whenever you want?  (A picture of the bathrooms at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo give you a rough idea… check out http://tinyurl.com/cl5dmpl)

Anyways, as I’m describing this, Chuck is listening intently and replies “yep, we can do that.  It sounds like a pimped-out Japanese bathroom.  Yeah, we’ll call it a POJAB.”  It was amazing seeing that POJAB take shape. (Actually, to account for the "A', its Pimped Out Japanese American Bath - pretty clever, I know).

These guys nailed it… that photo shows the “wet” area before they put in the glass.  Notice the cross handle is deliberately off-center (not directly underneath the shower head) so you don’t have to get wet turning on the shower.  The soaking tub on the right is western style (longer/shallower) but that’s just fine… there are big windows you can just stare off into nothing.  The whole area is tiled up and waterproof, and the windows open and there’s a vented ceiling fan for proper circulation.  Now that’s a proper POJAB.

Wrapping Up

Well, that’s about it and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my adventure.  It all started with a dream, and these guys made the rest pretty easy so far.  We’re still furnishing the new home and bringing in knick-knacks, and I’m sure we’ll discover and learn many new things over the following months.  There are still a few things James and crew will finish when the snow melts and the weather finally clears up, so maybe I’ll drop by again in six month with an update on how great country living is in our Catskill Farm!

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