Completed Construction - Modern Home And Lessons Learned

toddaoMay 7, 2012

It's been 8 months since we completed construction and moved into our new home. I followed this forum closely during our build and as a first time (and hopefully last time) home-builder felt like I got a lot of good information here. So, in the hope of helping those who come after me, I've finally been able to gather my thoughts and write down some things that others may find helpful in their builds. Our total process took nearly two years. We began with a builder and his architect to modify a plan that he had built and that we liked. Our goal was to build our forever house as energy efficient as possible, including geothermal HVAC and building to Earthcraft standards. During this process, it became apparent to us that this builder was not comfortable doing what we were asking and we finally had to part ways after several months. The good news was that he introduced us to an interior designer who we ended up using and through whom we met and hired our incredibly talented architect. Our inspiration was Frank Lloyd Wright and Prairie Style design. In our previous house we loved having coffee in the morning watching the birds in our backyard through our bay windows, so we wanted to ensure that we maximized our views into the heavily wooded 1.2 acre lot that we were fortunate enough to find in the city. Bottom line is that the architect and interior designer added a great deal of value to our project in ensuring that our home suited our needs and vision and I would not start the process with a builder if I had it to do over again.

We ultimately found a builder that we felt comfortable with and then we had to get through the contract process. We went with a cost plus contract with a guaranteed maximum price and used an AIA contract. We also added a cost savings clause that I personally would not do again if I had it to do over. This ended up being the biggest source of contention between us and our builder. Despite spending a lot of time with our specs there are invariably still too many variables that are open to interpretation. For example, we specified a full masonry fireplace. We had no idea that this did not include the flue, and since we didn't specify a full masonry flue (which we indeed wanted), he believed we should accept that cost. This may not be the best example, but suffice it to say that no matter how much time and effort we had put into the most detailed specs, this was still a problem. Thankfully, we were ultimately able to resolve things amicably.

The other thing we learned is the importance of carefully reading every line item of what you are purchasing and not to leave this to the builder or architect. One of the first major purchases we had to sign off on was the windows. We received a 20 page pdf file full of abbreviations that we didn't check thoroughly enough. Our builder and architect didn't pick up the fact that the sales rep included shiny brass hardware on our sliding windows and doors. We had no other shiny brass anywhere in our home. I posted on this during our build, and won't belabor the point, but it ended up being an expensive mistake for us that the vendor was not at all customer friendly about helping us resolve. Lesson learned.

The only other important thing we learned that is more specific to modern architecture is the importance of the quality of the trim laborers and framers. With modern architecture, the trim is minimal and quite precise. There are no big pieces of molding to cover up sloppy framing. We felt that the quality of trim work we received could have been better, and if I had it to do over again, I would have specified who was going to do the trim work.

In terms of the geothermal HVAC, in case anyone is interested, so far we are pleased. Between the federal tax credit we got and the savings in our energy bills, I believe we made the right decision for our forever home. We also love not having the outside noisy compressors.

Another lesson I learned was not to let my short term financial fears get in the way of picking something you will be living with for a very long time. A good example is the walnut paneled wall in our living room. This came at the end of our build when finances were very tight. I was ready to abandon this wall, and I now realize how short-sighted that would have been. The wall is the focal point of our living room.

I also didn't realize how much I would love our floors. They were a splurge (6" American black walnut), but we absolutely love them and are so grateful that we did this.

Ultimately I feel incredibly fortunate that we now have a home that we truly love. I'm also grateful that in the current economy and real estate market we are told that our home's value is probably slightly higher than our cost. We don't plan on selling but it's nice to know that we're at least not underwater financially.

In case anyone is interested I've documented our build on my website at and recently added some completed photos.

Best of luck to all future home builders.


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Wow! That is a fantastic home! Thanks for sharing!!!
Todd, how much did the demolition of the existing house add to your cost?

    Bookmark   May 7, 2012 at 8:39PM
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Thanks for posting a link to your pictures. It is nice to see another, non-traditional style house. Is that a Clopay Avante garage door?

    Bookmark   May 7, 2012 at 8:40PM
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Farmhousegirl...demolition was $8,000 complete.

Dekeoboe...The garage door is Clopay.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2012 at 9:10PM
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It's a beautiful modern style home. Thanks for sharing your photos!

    Bookmark   May 8, 2012 at 8:32AM
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A very thoughtful project with some excellent details -- thanks for sharing!

    Bookmark   May 8, 2012 at 9:58AM
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toddao on Mon, May 7, 12 at 20:24 wrote:
"We ultimately found a builder that we felt comfortable with and then we had to get through the contract process. We went with a cost plus contract with a guaranteed maximum price and used an AIA contract. We also added a cost savings clause that I personally would not do again if I had it to do over. This ended up being the biggest source of contention between us and our builder"

Can you elaborate a bit on why the contract as you structured became an issue?

    Bookmark   May 8, 2012 at 10:40AM
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great looking, unique house! Congrats on doing your own design and not fitting in with your surroundings. I see your neighbors are a lot more traditional. Has anyone given you any fuss about your design?

How do you like your Kolbe windows?

    Bookmark   May 8, 2012 at 12:45PM
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Looks great.....and good call to keep that walnut paneled wall....gorgeous!

    Bookmark   May 8, 2012 at 1:00PM
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Very cool! Thanks for sharing. I've said this before, but I like the completed home threads better than the construction photo threads. I hope everyone will share their completed homes in a separate thread because it gives potential builders ideas.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2012 at 1:21PM
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I love FLW and prairie style, too. I like the wide overhangs and low roofing of this style, and the abundance of windows. Your home is quite contemporary, but fabulous! What a joy for you! We also have geothermal (with radiant in-floor heat) and are very pleased. Yes big up-front cost, but those low utility bills (forever) are an added bonus. Thanks for posting the link.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2012 at 2:23PM
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Thanks for the kind comments.
pbx2...Our contract was structured such that any cost savings would be split 60/40 Builder/Owner. The important thing if you intend to go this route is to ensure that all parties understand and agree to how the cost savings will be calculated. Since we had very few change orders we assumed that the we were coming in very close to the guaranteed max price. Our builder felt like we were coming in much lower since some of the materials used he considered upgrades. Kind of complicated, and we wanted to stay on good terms so he would continue to take care of us, so we were able to come to a compromise that all parties agreed on. But there was enough stress involved that I would not go through this again.

Izerac - In terms of the Kolbe windows, we have had no issues with them so far. Our builder was a bit surprised that the Kolbe rep did not come to the construction site during the installation. He told us that this is pretty routine for a large installation with the size windows we were installing. Ultimately, there was some difficulty with the living room slider and fixed window panel above such that our builder specifically requested that the rep come to the site to help with the installation, and thankfully, it went fine. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for our customer service experience with Kolbe corporate who we were told by the local distributor were considering suing us over my posting during our build. I only hope the customer service experience is better if/when there is any problem with the windows. Ironically, we chose Kolbe because of our research that suggested great customer service. I hate having to say this but I doubt our builder will use their windows or the local distributor again.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2012 at 4:34PM
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Todd - your house is beautiful. We, too, used Kolbe and love the aesthetics and quality of them. We had a similar issue with the windows - all casements were sent inoperable, when the interior casements (only 3 windows) were supposed to be operable, and the exterior casements (two small ones in garage storage areas and two small ones at top of screened porch vaulted ceiling) were supposed to be inoperable.

This was remedied by our builder, without our involvement. I am not sure if the order was wrong or it was shipped wrong (like you, I couldn't understand the order!) but we sat down (builder, salesperson and I) and went through every single window in the house. I remember saying which ones should operate and which should not.

Hardware was ordered to turn the casements operable and we didn't pay for it. Not sure if it was the builder who paid or the vendor (I am sure we used the same one as you).

We are still in the midst of our build (winding it up!) so I hope in a few months it is a distant memory!

    Bookmark   May 8, 2012 at 4:37PM
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Izerac...about the neighbors. We are definitely the house that is not like the others. It was interesting on Halloween when all the parents of the trick or treaters came to our door because they wanted to see the inside. But most of the responses have been very positive. Luckily we don't hear about too many of the negative ones, but we've heard our house has been called the Doctor's office and the prison. We've also had two offers to shoot TV shows in our house so far which we have politely declined.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2012 at 7:52PM
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Todd, love this house. It really is quite fantastic. I can tell a lot of time and attention to detail went into it's design and decorating.

Quick question on your pool. What is the elevated, shallow portion of the pool called and is it there for functional purposes(i.e., is it for aesthetic purposes or is is a wading pool)?

    Bookmark   May 9, 2012 at 11:40AM
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It looks like a spill-over spa.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2012 at 12:01PM
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Todd - not sure where your build was located - but weather wise:
- how did you & the contractors handle that generally?
- Were there days when things just didn't happen?

Appreciated any details of your weather related experiences.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2012 at 12:29PM
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The idea for the shallow pool was to be a place to sit on a beach chair and read a book. Because of the slope on that side of the house it would have required much higher retaining walls to have the main pool in that location. The aesthetic goal was to be able to see water upon entering the home. Since we also wanted the sound of the waterfall this is the solution our landscape architect came up with. We didn't want a hot tub. The main pool is 3.5 feet deep on either side and 5.5 feet in the middle. We didn't want a deep end since in our previous home everyone always congregated around the shallow end.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2012 at 3:07PM
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Stunning! Simply stunning! I wish I could come over for a tour, but seriously congratulations on building something that has character and ties interior to exterior seamlessly.

Could you share your details about the stainless terrace railing? Are you happy with it, does it have a brand or was it fabricated locally?

Also this is a really pitiful request because everything about the house is so sublime and this is the "building" forum, but on the interior decor front, where did you get those awesome barstools?

    Bookmark   May 9, 2012 at 6:54PM
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Thank you gbsim. The stainless steel terrace railing was done by a local craftsman and we love it. He also did the stainless steel exterior cladding on the overhang of the front and rear of the house. We used a different local craftsman on the interior steel.

The barstools we found at West Elm and they are actually quite comfortable.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2012 at 10:45PM
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Your house is amazing. The only thing left to do is to figure out the best place to put the hummingbird feeders. Ahhhh.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2012 at 7:21PM
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Gorgeous house! Love it!

Would you tell me about the stone siding? I love the balance of the structures and different stone (a beautiful composition with the windows).

Would love to see more pics too! How did the master bath with the great limestone turn out?

Congratulations, what an accomplishment.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 3:11PM
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very nice house.
How much extra was it to add the pool?

    Bookmark   May 13, 2012 at 2:41PM
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