Thursday, March 31, 2011

Inspired by the Doers

It feels quite remarkable and rare to have such easy and immediate access to innovative, creative, industrial minds all around me.

I met today with one of the authors of this Oregon DEQ report that found that the single most important variable to reduce the life cycle impact of residential construction is the size of the house. We discussed the smaller housing, ADU's, regulatory hurdles, costs, and material selection.

It was a great meeting of the minds, and I hope to continue to think through the overall strategy of this ADU with him further. He constructed a gorgeous, timber frame detached bedroom in SE Portland.

My girlfriend has lived in two cabins that she has renovated. Her cabin in Portland is a refurbished garage; while not a legal ADU, it is an ADU nonetheless. And, I might add, it the most gorgeous ADU I've seen to date. From the outside though, you would think it was just a plain garage. She renovated it on a budget of $20K. It seems me that a good rule of thumb may be that complying with building codes doubles the cost of design/build.

Two of her and my good friends in NE Portland are in the early stages of converting their garage to an ADU, though they are still trying to assess whether their $40K budget is sufficient for the job.

My mortgage broker has an ADU that she is renting out. She built it for $50K. My Realtor intends to build one over her garage. My "Phase I" builder is hoping to build one at him home in NE Portland down the road.

My architect took on the challenge of packing a lot of function into a small space with vigor. He was extremely knowledgeable and generous with his time. I have no doubt that he put more time into this design than he would on most projects, and for a relatively modest sum. I'd recommend him to anyone.

I am taking a class with Stephen Aiguier, the founder and president of Green Hammer. He is the most knowledgeable person I've met on green building issues. Incidentally, he seems to be increasingly focused on Passivehaus construction. What I respect most about Stephen is his deep understanding of building science, and his pragmatic and driven idealism. Learning from him is humbling.

My immediate neighbor is a craftsman and fabricator who specializes in reusing material, next door to me is the owner of a custom bicycle construction shop.

The ADU concept is ablaze in my circles in Portland. That is due in part to incredible range of needs and purposes that ADUs serve, but it is also a testament to the fact that here, in Portland, they are legal to build.

And that is rare. I'll discuss this much in more detail later.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Permit

Two weeks ago, my architect submitted the drawing to the City of Portland for review. Two weeks later, we got our plan review meeting. I asked my architect and builder to both be there. I told them I would keep my mouth shut for fear that I may something stupid. The architect was to take the lead, since they were his drawings and he knew them better than anyone. My nerves caused me to shake.

This meeting was three months and $3,500 in the making. I probably shouldn't have been so nervous. If there were problems, we only had to address them in a permit revision to be approved. Nonetheless, I felt nervous.

The lead planning reviewer had first reviewed the permit that morning. Having had them for two weeks, I  had thought that everyone would have already reviewed them. But, the plans couldn't be reviewed by the structural engineer until the planner signed off on them.

At 1pm, we sat down in with the reviewers, who ushered us in; no smiles. The planner reviewer looks over the brims of her glasses, and said that the ADU was 860 sq ft. It needed to be downsized to 800 sq ft to pass her planning review.

In describing their math, she mentioned quickly that the stair space was counted twice, once for each floor. I had to open my mouth to ask whether I understood her correctly. She confirmed what she had stated. To this, I explained that we had been told differently. My architect then said that he had an email from a planner stating that stairs were not counted twice. He seemed to brush off the critique.

Though she found this apparently glaring error, she said that she saw no other problems with it. This was a relief, because I felt pretty confident that we would be able to prove that the structure was very deliberately designed to be under 800 sq ft according to the stated rules.

Next, if/when the plans past planning, they still needed to be reviewed by the structural engineer. Once they're through structural, we'll get the permit.

So, it had been two weeks already, but even if we had passed planning immediately right then and there, they would still need about ten more working days to complete the permit process. We hadn't gotten a straight answer about that one, so this was news to us. I had assumed that we could potentially walk out of there with a permit in hand, but this wasn't the case.

That evening, last night, my architect sent out a brilliant, humble and short email with a dimensioned drawing to show the sq foot calculations. He attached the email that he had received from the city stating that the stairs would not be counted twice.

This morning, the planner replied to my architect in a e-mail, "I concur with your measurements", she wrote , "So I can sign off on the permit."

It was music to my eyes.

Structural, Bring it. :)
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