Having trouble making pieces into a whole

Alex HouseJanuary 31, 2012

I have a topic that falls under two categories, building a home and small houses, so I'd be very interested in the perspective that small house fans can bring to the issues I raise in this thread over on the Build sub-forum.

I love small houses and I feel pyschologically less comfortable in big sprawling homnes. I've lived in these but I've found as I got older than I feel more at ease in a cozy small home. That said I'm not looking for a home design that is pure vanilla and this misunderstanding got me off on the wrong foot in the other thread.

If you do read that thread would anyone who understands what I'm trying to say please pipe in here! I just want a quick and dirty sanity check - am I really that much of an oddball? I don't run into many people who feel like I do about home size but if they're out there this is probably one of the best places to find people of a like mind. I hope.

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Welcome AlexHouse. I think I understand though your plans don't look like small house to me. But if I understand right, you want a lot of parts from a large house but leave off a lot of the rooms that are typically on those houses (like media room)? I think it's doable, and what popped into my mind was the house from the movie House Sitter. That house lived large and gorgeous on a smaller scale.

    Bookmark   January 31, 2012 at 11:30PM
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Alex House

The square footage ranges between 1250 and 1330 on the first floor footprint and the way the design program is calculating that is definitely not based on inside room dimensions. A sizeable portion of that calculation is taken up by my exterior walls which are nearly 1 foot thick (double way construction with an air gap between the walls) so my usable square footage is much lower. For instance, a square box with interior dimensions of 20x20 is calculated as 484 sf of living area. I haven't actually calcuated the real liveable area of the plans yet. The upper floor is 800-1,000 sf. The basement is mostly empty so I'm not sure if that is counted in how small houses are calculated.

Yeah, the Housesitter house is a good example and close enough to the square footage of my design(s) and is embellished with design features.

    Bookmark   February 1, 2012 at 12:14AM
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Oh, I saw one of those double wall construction homes, a few years ago. The window sills were so deep, it felt like an english cottage. Very charming and lots of savings on heating/cooling. Great idea :)

    Bookmark   February 1, 2012 at 1:35AM
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Alex House

The window sills were so deep, it felt like an english cottage. Very charming and lots of savings on heating/cooling. Great idea :)

In the grand scheme of things, lumber is pretty cheap. Deep window sills open up a number of design options.

I'm still debating whether the sill should be on the inside, the outside, or a bit of both.

    Bookmark   February 1, 2012 at 3:07AM
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I would not do the sill on the outside as it will gather water and could cause rot. We had 7 inch sills when we built a log home. Was great. Nice place for plants and the kitties loved to sit in them.

Loved the little house on the link from the movie.

Alex house I do not have suggestions for you but I like your thinking and am sure you can get this to work.

    Bookmark   February 1, 2012 at 10:40AM
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You are something of an oddball, yes. But I think you know that and embrace it. nothing wrong with that. I find the typical "small home person" to be one who embraces simplicity and economy, in both style and cost. Not that there aren't some beautifully crafted small homes out there that cost a pretty penny, or others that include picturesque details that might be considered superfluous in a Susanka-type mindset. But requiring vestibules at each entrance, a striking curved staircase and an elevator definitely puts one outside the norm of the typical small house builder. Again, not that there's anything wrong with that. I just think you might be at cross purposes with yourself by trying to be so very individualistic in your design and at the same time lamenting a ready acceptance from those more accustomed to typical building issues (your linked post). All that being said, I think you're going to have an interesting house when you get it sorted out.

I read the feedback you got on the other thread, and while you took issue with the bulk of it, there were some valid points made. Perhaps if you could restate your particular questions here, we could be of some help. my first thought would be that if you are wanting to have an unconventional front facade (curved in some plans, angled in others), I would fill those curves/angles with the staircase. That way you kill two birds with one stone. I would also try to keep the dining room in the curve of the staircase. That would make good use of that space, particularly with a round table.

It would also help to know a bit more about your location.I'm assuming cold winters. Is there a view? If so, in which room do you want to have the view?

    Bookmark   February 2, 2012 at 12:10AM
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the thick walls/deep window sills remind me of an adobe house.

think about searching santa fe style homes and adobes and how they incorporate the curved stairs and fireplaces into /around a room. Might get some good ideas there.

I'm not sure why you decided to do away w/a 1st floor bedroom tho - the upstairs does not need to cover the whole of the 1st level. having that bedroom would do away w/figuring how/where to put an elevator. It could also be used by you should the need arise and a parent is not using it.

Figure in wider hallways and doorways for walker/wheel chair access.

Is the main stairway to be open underneath it? the bannister / posts can make an incredible design statement - in wood or metal.

I totally understand your desire for smaller spaces. Recently watching the Spelling home on hgtv spooked me out - humongous! I wouldn't even want to tour that house! I find it difficult to even call it a house... a coliseum would be more like it! And being disabled now I sure wouldn't want huge spaces to walk thru to get to another space. Those are nice when you have kids and their friends running around - btdt!

My place has about 1400 sq ft on 1 level and I'm arranging things so that when needed i won't have to even use about a 1/3 of it. The only large room really is the LR/DR combo - about 13 x 24 I think. It won't seem that large when furniture is in it. I won't have to train the puppy to walk in single file...lol! My girl knows how to walk backwards (well, she doesn't do that anymore at her age), or walk 'thru' my legs when there isn't enough room to turn around easily. These days I often just pick her up and turn her around... a bit more room than where I am now will be nice (the new place).

With today's energy costs it is also wise to think about heating and cooling wasted space. The thick walls will help there too.

I do like the LO w/ the kitchen lined up behind (above) the DR. Using under the stairs (if it is to be open) for DR volume.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2012 at 3:49AM
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Alex House

I found that the time that I spent on writing about the process and the mental design roadblocks helped me refocus on the what I thought was working and what wasn't and I went back to the drawing board and fiddled around. The process of moving a wall over a foot, copying and pasting from one design to another, modifying to make the new feature fit, and so on yielded a new variation on the theme (I mean, really, there are only so many ways that you can glom a lR/DR/Ki together) and, for the first floor at least, the arrangement and traffic flow works well and I've found solutions to the problems that were bugging me.

Here's the lowdown:

Here's a shot standing at the solarium exit:

To the points that you guys raised. I tried mightily to put the staircase into a curved wall but that created some problems elsewhere, for instance, the basement stairs running underneath would conflict if they had a straight run and the way I live my life, I'm often careless enough about going into the basement with the light on the stairs off - it's just quicker to zip down and back up. Yeah, I know, how much extra time does it take to flip a switch at the top of the stairs and then flip it off when I'm down below or when I come back up, so with straight stairs my risks are minimized. That was just one problem with the curved wall.

However, as you see I did manage to salvage the curve but I put it at the entrace. Here's why I think it works for me. That semi-circle entrance gives me depth-space right in front of the door, where I want it, and severely reduces wasted space on the sides of the door, where I don't find it particularly useful. If I was dealing with a rectangular shape, the the room size would be determined by the space I wanted directly in front of the door and I'd have to contend with more closet space or seating space that I needed. This way I have room for a small coat closet on the left and a small seat next to a built in on the right. Plus I get the privilege of paying more for a curved foundation/wall right at the entrance. Another bonus I get is that a.) I get the artistic benefit of a curved wall and b.) I don't have to contend with the awkwardness of dealing with a curved wall in my living space.

The wall that separates the vestibule from the living area kills two birds with one stone - it allows me to have an expanse of wall where I can have a.) a built in and b.) a wall expanse where I can hang the TV, without a.) having the built-in diminish the insulative capacity of the wall and b.) without sacrificing window space while still maintaining an open feel. Perfect.

The hallway space abuts the LR/DR and adds to the room size, making the rooms feel a bit larger (aesthetic criteria) while giving a 4'+ clear walking path (functional.)

At the bottom of the stairs there is ample room for beginning and ending the journey without running into obstacles. The space to the right, at the bottom of the stairs, can be used for another built-in, or shelf, or table, and the wall above can be used for decoration. The corner between the wall and the stairs, midway up, can be a decorative nook, a place to put a plant stand, while underneath I have room for a straight stair run into the basement.

The open space in the middle of the curve will be filled with a built-in masonry bench with heating tubes running from the masonry heater. There is nothing like laying down on a warm bench that is radiating gentle heat and reading or socializing or quickly warming up your frigid bones when coming inside during the winter. So, basically, a comfy little nook. See below for two examples:

The wall of the powder room that is facing the front entrace will have the masonry heater wrap around and it will also have rock facing going up into the 2nd floor - behind which will be the structural skeleton of the house - the central masonry core, part of which is needed for the fireplace, also serves as a load bearing foundation upon which I can anchor the 1st and 2nd floor girders.

The solarium is now facing due South and the exterior rock wall can now soak up and store the solar gain. The heat can be admitted in a controlled fashion by use of the exterior door leading into the solarium. What I sacrifice here is is direct sunlight path to the high mass masonry heater, which is now a bit further away from the windows but at least it doesn't bisect the living area.

A bonus that develops from repositioning the masonry heater a bit off center is that the 2nd floor doesn't have the obstacle of the heater core/chimney to contend with smack dab in the middle of a bedroom. Now that masonry is in the hallway, near the stairs, which gives two bonuses, 1.) more space to divide without having to deal with an obstacle and 2.) the heat from the unit is now isolated into the central hallway and can move outwards to the bedrooms rather than being concentrated in one bedroom, hidden behind walls, and thus not transmitted as efficiently to the other bedroom.

A planned bonus is that the pizza/bread oven is now only 4-5 feet away from a kitchen countertop and same with the woodstove cook surface where I have the choice of cooking with wood or keeping things warm as a byproduct of the heat contained within all the mass of the heater. Now I have to sit down and get to work on designing a real masonry heater rather than just using that stand-in model.

To desertsteph's question of keeping the bedroom on the first floor and having only one bedroom up on the 2nd, I thought about that, but felt that it created too much of an imbalance in the house, to my tastes at least. There is just something about space inefficiency that bugs me :) Having all that attic space being unused on top of a large 1st floor footprint doesn't sit well with me. The plan I have now, with bedrooms on the 2nd floor, makes better use of the vertical space, it helps justify my desire for the staircase, it helps fill the volume underneath a steeply pitched roof (which I also want) and it minimizes the building footprint. I buy all of these positives (by my standards) at the expense of a wasted 25 square feet on the main floor which is set aside for a possible future elevator and which can be used as a closet/panty until such time as it repurposed.

OK, now the time comes for you guys spotting flaws or suggesting improvements. Do your eyes see things that mine are missing?

    Bookmark   February 2, 2012 at 7:24PM
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Totally lost on the specifics but I LOVE that curvy seating white with turquoise warming bench. I forced myself to read through your post leaving that for desert. OMG could I bling that baby up. Course what you already have drawn is Gorgeous.

I think you need to build what you have in your heart and feel you have thought it through very carefully. A few things we did here were frowned upon by several but it is what makes our house livable for us.

We had a little log house we built years ago with the wood stove at the edge of kitchen just across the front door way four foot ish. I used it so often for cooking warming raising bread.I actually used it more then the electric stove in the winter when we had the wood stove going. Was a wonderful feature. If you can keep your pizza oven close do so by all means you will love it.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2012 at 9:23PM
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Alex House

Regarding the cooking aspect, this is the type of thing I'm going for:

But not quite as massive as this unit:

Both units have a main heater unit that you fire up once a day. The heat travels past and surrounds the bake oven, meaning that you get good steady baking level heat for a few hours per day, and you get a low level heat on the cooktop but if you want to actively cook something you can build a fire in a separate firebox and the residual heat produced from that also sinks into the mass of the masonry heater and is slowly released over the course of the day.

Home heating + pizza/bread oven + cooktop + warm bench seating = plus, plus, plus, for me anyway. I'm glad that you found your oven useful for that just bolsters my decision to go this route.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2012 at 12:27AM
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Actually it was just a plain old Earth wood stove. But it cooked many meals. I used flame trols to help control the hot spots under the pots. And WOW mine did not look nearly as good as this one does Mine were well used.

We had other houses with wood stoves for heating with flat tops I could cook on but they were further from the kitchen and I did not use then as much because it just did not fit into my cooking plan. Too far to go with hot pot or to stir. so if possible do keep the stove close to your cooking space.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   February 3, 2012 at 12:59AM
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I do agree you should do/ put in things that you want. sometimes others will try to discourage you on them - but it isn't their 'vision' and they won't have to live with it.

have you thought about using that little piece of RE you now show lined with yellow in the vestibule that backs to the LR as a 'set in' area for your tv? it would be visible in LR/DR and kitchen there.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2012 at 3:15AM
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Curious. Was wondering what that is in the dinning room? In corner by door. A riding vacuum or??

    Bookmark   February 3, 2012 at 8:37AM
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LOL Shades. I wondered too, and thought it might be a rowing machine.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2012 at 1:32PM
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Alex House

It's an exercise bike. It's placement allows me to get some exercise as the bike energy grinds wheat at a wheat mill on the counter. In the cabinet under the isle is an electric motor for any mornings when I'm not feeling particularly active.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2012 at 7:03PM
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Have you posted your kitchen plan on the kitchen forum? I can't read the image posted here. You might want to post a large image over there.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2012 at 4:46PM
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Just time for a quick remark here. I like Jakabedy's idea about making the curved front exterior shelter the curving staircase, and have a dining area in that area. It would be a very high ceiling, and then placing a really great chain-hanging super chandelier in that space, it would be visible from upstairs and down every step all the way to the bottom. It should be knock-em dead gorgeous piece of art.

I know my brother was needing an elevator for his raised house, but with the area flooding so much, he had both knees operated on, rebuilt his exterior stairs to a gentler rise, and added a "dumbwaiter" for bringing his groceries upstairs. So, an elevator is not the only solution to a problem if you have mobility issues.

I'm surprised about the alignment of the living area and dining area into neat little square boxes; sort of negates the iconoclastic free spirit temperament you subscribe to. In my time, I've been the same as you. Only now, as I am older, I find comfort uppermost in my mind. And safety too.

What Steph says about looking at the adobe building features is right on. Very thick walls there. Much thicker than a foot, actually. And I have friends in Iowa who built a workshop for her textile machinery (she is a pro) that is hay bales with cement over it. The insulation factor is outstanding, and it keeps the equipment quite safe from environmental damage. They also built a big parrot sanctuary which is earth covered except on the southern exposure, and those tropical creature are very happy residents.

I think the average Small Home forum follower can be full spectrum about the WHOLE house, the WHOLE package. Multi-function is where it's at, much more so than multi-room. We are more accustomed to making a smaller space perform like a bigger space. Like Clark Kent going into that tiny phone booth and coming out SUPERMAN. We think of our homes as phone booths that THINK BIG.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2012 at 10:37PM
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Just a thought I had for your second bedroom. Maybe you could design a flex space sort of bedroom on the first floor. Design a den (we call it an away room in our family) with a murphy bed that is close enough to the downstairs bathroom that it can be closed off and made into a guest suite, when/if the need arises.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2012 at 9:12AM
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Alex House

One of the principles guiding the design is to minimize floor/foundation space - I've got TOO much space up on the 2nd if I use the space above the garage. Scratch that, both of my master suites are actually larger than I think is optimum but if I make them smaller, the left over space can't really be consolidated into a central additional room and even if it could, I don't really have a need for another room.

There is something odd about my personality - I just can't stand the thought of wasting cheap 2nd floor space when it comes to the 1st versus 2nd floor layout process. Putting more space on the main floor will involve foundation and roof expenses. When I pay for foundation and roof, I want to squeeze 2 floors out of that investment which means that it irks me to only get 1 floor for that roof and foundation. Now what makes this quirk particularly funny is that my roofing is going to be high pitch and metal, which means very expensive, but for some reason the idea of spending money there doesn't bother me. Your idea of first floor flex space with nothing above it or below it, just slab and simple roof, would probably cost me less money than doing what I'm doing which is trying to squeeze maximum use out of space.

All I really want on the 2nd are two bedrooms and 2 full baths. I've actually solved the layout problem by rejigging the roof lines- very steep pitches and gables allow me to treat the spacious attic as a complete 2nd floor, almost, while still maintaining the look of a 1.5 story, and because of the high pitches, I'll actually have attic space above the 2nd.

My 1st floor is 1,100 sf and my 2nd floor is about 1,000 sf. The 2nd consists of the open stairway, hallways, elevator, 2 masters, 2 master baths, and 2 walk in closets. All pretty spacious and there are some interesting ceiling lines where the roof intersects into the living space.

My latest conundrum is whether I should do something with the 600+ sf above the garage. I've laid out the 2nd floor so that a hallway leads to that space, rather than simply incorporating the hallway space into a room, and this is my concession to a.) keeping my options open and b.) thinking about some future buyer - it would be easy to fit 2 more bedrooms into that space with only some modest renovations. The thing is though I really don't know what to do with that space right now. I'm giving serious thought to walling it off but then, as per above, I'm peeved that the garage space is not being used to its highest potential. Oh, the problems of being ME! Not using that space bugs me but I don't know that I need that space so building more livable space than I need or want bugs me too. I don't know which is the lesser evil.

    Bookmark   February 13, 2012 at 9:26PM
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Why don't you make it an exercise room and move the bike up there? Maybe combine it with a hobby or game room? Just an idea...

    Bookmark   February 13, 2012 at 10:27PM
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Alex House


Thanks for the suggestion. Keep 'em coming. The idea of an exercise room doesn't quite work that well. The bike is next to the kitchen so that a.) I get exercise while I mill my flour, b.) I've got plenty of light and can watch TV while peddling and c.) I'm in the midst of the living areas so right after exercise I'm only steps away from "doing something."

Besides, there'll be an Endless pool and steamroom down in the basement, so if I need more room for exercise equipment that would seem to me to be the most logical place for it.

I've got a metal/wood shop in the barn. I don't have any hobbies would require a dedicated room. I used to have a billiards room in a previous house but found that I rarely used it after the novelty wore off.

I'm going back and forth on whether I should incur the expense of building guest rooms in that space - I don't really have many stay-over guests who require a separate room. For the foreseeable future this will be a one-person home, maybe always. Until, or if, a parent moves in, the 2nd master would serve as a guest bedroom. In terms of resale value, a 4 bedroom house probably has broader appeal than a 2 master suite home with a bonus room or undeveloped space over a garage. I'm thinking that it would be cheaper to finish the space during construction than to leave it empty and finish it during a renovation. On the other hand what am I going to do with 3 unused bedrooms? I'm still undecided.

    Bookmark   February 13, 2012 at 11:13PM
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How are you handling the excess humidity from the pool and steam room in the basement? Just curious because we were considering a SwimEx pool, but decided if we do one we will put it outside of the building envelope so we don't have to deal with the excess humidity in the main house.

Oh, and what part of the country are you building this house in?

    Bookmark   February 14, 2012 at 7:44PM
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Alex House

I'm in a northern climate, hence the double wall construction and the pool in the basement. I think that I would enjoy the pool more on a dark December day than on a bright July day because there are more alternative recreation and exercise alternatives in the summer, so putting the pool outside wouldn't work for me. If you're in California, Arizona, etc where a year round pool is plausible, then avoiding the extra construction and venting costs by building outside is the way to go, however if you're looking at a seasonal pool, then I'm not so sure that the decision is clear cut. The outdoor versus indoor temperature differential in the fall/spring meaning higher heating costs, less venting costs, and your pool is unattractive to use during inclement weather - I'm sure that you can go for a swim during a wind/rain storm or hail storm, and have the water be nice and warm, but I'd rather do that indoors. I'm paying for the 24/365 convenience and all-season availability. Humidity can be dealt with, it just takes proper construction and venting. A pool cover helps tremendously, or so I hear. Also keep in mind that the volume of water in these pools is a fraction of what is seen in traditional pools, which means thats the humidity remediation strategy is also downsized.

Here's a nice setup

Here's one with venting and pool cover shown:

    Bookmark   February 14, 2012 at 10:05PM
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a 'yr around' pool is only that if you're a crazoid! lol!
it does get cold here in AZ in the winter. It's cold here now. and damp. I've been wearing sweats all day (most days and nights). I also wore a filled jacket (don't know if it's down filled or what) when i ran down the RD to W earlier. That was around 5pm. I knew then I had to pull out some socks again (haven't really needed those for a few wks).
It might work if it's heated...and at least partially enclosed.

Our first yr out here the kids got in in March (crazy - I told ya!). I didn't get in til we had 2-3 wks in the triple digits. just too cold! and after mid Oct it's too cold unless those triple digits carry into Oct - which they often do.

It's amazing that even tho it can be fairly warm daytime, at night it gets very chilly (even cold enough to freeze my outdoor water pump - yeah, I forgot to cover it). Even in the summer a dry heat makes it chilly when you get out if the sun isn't blazing down on you. I remember my nephew visiting and we got in about 1am... when I got out I had my winter chenille robe waiting for me. a full length one! It was very needed as I was 'chattering' by the time i got the few ft to it!

The 2nd yr here on a hot late May/early June Saturday about 10 a.m. when my then 13 yr old son came into my bdrm for something (I was sleeping in) and I asked why he wasn't out in the pool... his reply? 'It's only 105 out!' lol!

    Bookmark   February 14, 2012 at 11:46PM
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Alex House

Having to wear socks and sweats during winter, oh my, how you suffer. :)

Those temperature swings that you mention are what I was talking about in my comment - an indoor pool doesn't suffer through that range of temperature and it's placed within an insulated shell so the heating costs, I think, would be less, averaged over the span of a year, even though it isn't getting free heat from the sun shining on the pool surface, though with solar thermal apparatus on the roof, you can pump solar heated water all year round down to the basement pool.

In terms of trade-off, I'd love to have what you have - the feature of lazing and playing and splashing and swimming under the sun but putting the pool into "storage" for six to 8 months of the year doesn't seem worth it.

    Bookmark   February 15, 2012 at 12:16AM
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I didn't mean an outside pool, I meant one in a separate building or one with an enclosure attached to the house, but the pool is still outside the house's building envelope. We are building a very tight house, hope to get passive house certification, so we want few penetrations in the envelope. Venting would mean another penetration and would further complicate the ERV installation.

    Bookmark   February 15, 2012 at 12:10PM
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AlexHouse that pool area is Beautiful.

    Bookmark   February 15, 2012 at 2:26PM
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