Friday, May 30, 2008

Some good news for building a house...


The continuing decline of home prices and the long average time on the market has me a little concerned about selling our current house next year, but at the same time construction material costs are coming down quite nicely. This is good news as it will hopefully offset any decrease in selling price of our home. Here's a great article on why this may be a very good time to build a home.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Kitchen Design


Molly and I have spent many hours staring at the IKEA HomePlanner software we downloaded to do the kitchen layout, and spent 4 hours at the IKEA store in Bloomington, MN tweaking the design with the help of store associates, and after all that (and a few late nights on my part to add notes and dimensions that weren't labeled by the software) we just e-mailed the final plans to my brother for inclusion in the construction drawings. It's exciting to be able to visualize this important aspect of the house, and especially exciting for Molly as she can visualize her "home office".

Here's the way the kitchen was informally laid out on my brother's initial floorplan (click to enlarge):

And after lots of back and forth, usability evaluations, and Molly's significant input, here's the actual plan (click to enlarge):
A couple things to note in terms of differences from the original floor plan. First, we had to eliminate two windows on the north side due to the fact that there wasn't enough wall space for cabinets and the double oven, though we maintained the balance of the windows and minimized upper cabinets to maintain an open, airy feel with lots of views to the outside. Second, we ended up putting the refrigerator in the spot that my brother had designated for a small pantry, and used the area next to the the fridge as an expanded pantry that we can cover with a curtain or sliding door.

By the way, the two cover plates that are out of position on the sides of the island are due to a bug in the software. No matter what we did we couldn't get those to position properly. Also, the countertops will be concrete counters done through an IKEA supplier, and those are yet to be designed (so they don't show up in the detailed plan).

Also, just in case you are interested, we went with a double farmhouse apron sink from IKEA and I ended up getting the take-no-prisoners faucet that I wanted! (See here). We always planned on a farmhouse sink, but they run on the order of $1,000. The one from IKEA? Around $300. We had to compromise on styling a little, but for this price we had to go for it (and the sink saves on countertop cost as well, since you don't need to create a countertop area behind the sink, it goes all the way to the wall).
Oh, and by the way, the bar sink in the island won't actually be as shown above in the layout, it will actually be this one:
Price? An unbelievable $26!

Overall, typical guidance for kitchen budget as a percent of total home value is 8-18%. Through IKEA, ours is going to be about 5%.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

We'll be "SIPping" energy in our new home...


An odd post title, and a really bad pun, but hopefully you'll understand the pun in a few moments. The vast majority of homes in the U.S. are constructed with timber framing, i.e. the traditional stick frame that has regularly spaced wall studs and insulation filling the spaces between the studs. There's a lot of issues with this method of framing homes, most notably the fact that it can take intense labor to frame the home, much of the home must be constructed on site, and insulation is hampered by the fact that thermal loss can travel straight through the studs (I've seen thermal imaging pictures of cold spots in stick-frame walls every 16 inches, or at every stud).

But, there is another option, and after much research, it's the one we're going with: Structurally Insulated Panels (SIP's). SIP's are a sandwich of oriented strand board (OSB, a form of structural chip plywood) and insulating solid foam. The OSB and foam are connected by adhesive, forming a panel. See the example pic below.
The panels are pre-fabricated off site and delivered to the construction site like giant jigsaw puzzle pieces, each piece designed to fit snuggly with the next, and with all of the window openings and electrical wiring chases pre-cut into the panels. The framing crew fits all the panels together to form the envelope of the home.

There are a number of huge benefits to building with SIP's. The two biggest in my opinion are the reduction in time it takes to fully frame and enclose a home (typically around 4 days, which is amazing) and the energy efficiency of a SIP home (typically heating and cooling costs are reduced by 50%, and the cost savings are obviously continuous throughout the life of the home). SIP's generally cost more in materials, but typically make up for that in labor savings due to the reduced framing time. So SIP's, on balance, generally run about equal with conventional stick framing cost (maybe 5% more in total), and then there are significant savings reaped in energy cost throughout the life of the home. Not only that, but SIP's allow easy construction of vaulted ceilings like we're having on our second floor (there's basically no extra cost to a vaulted ceiling), they are very strong, they reduce construction errors as they are almost perfectly straight, and the home is actually quieter. And, no more stud finding, you can hang pictures wherever you want, and even drywall hanging is less costly during home construction. Since SIP's are pre-fabricated off site and delivered, there is also almost no construction waste (quite the opposite of stick-framing).

Here's a link to a very informative 5 minute video on SIP's showing them being assembled: Link

And here's a great PDF brochure explaining all the considerations that must factor in deciding whether to go with SIP's for home construction: Link

There's also a lot of resources to help the architect or builder avoid pitfalls with specifying SIP construction, especially if they've never worked with them before: Link1, Link2, Link3, Link4.

In my opinion, this is the way most homes will be constructed 10 to 20 years from now. SIP's are definitely a trend in architecturally designed homes and environmentally conscious construction, but eventually they should be very widely used. For us, a little SIP's research and planning will pay off in cost savings and an extremely well-constructed home! (Any engineer's dream!)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A new Rennaissance in Church architecture?


I think it's happening. Cases in point (all currently under construction): The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lacrosse, WI, St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Farragut, TN, and Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA.

Check out the links I attached to each name above, you'll be amazed and encouraged. Each link has some very recent pictures of the construction of each church; I love these pictures! All three of these churches prove the point that "it" can still be done today (that is, truly beautiful, sacred, awe-inspiring, and catechetical church architecture).

I am most partial to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, as it is relatively close to the Twin Cities and I CANNOT WAIT to make a pilgrimage there with the family. And, even better, Anthony Visco, whom I've previously featured on this blog, and is an e-mail pen pal of mine, and whom we are eventually having create a sculpture for our chapel, is creating almost all of the sacred art for the Shrine! He's e-mailed me pictures of what he's done on a regular basis, and it's amazing. This one church has the potential to reignite interest in, and patronage of, sacred art and architecture for the Catholic Church in America. Praise the Lord!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Chapel conundrum...


Lately my brother and Molly and I have been reviewing proposals for ways of bringing natural light into the chapel. This is really the design question of the moment for the chapel, since we almost certainly won't be completing the interior right away. Finishing the interior more slowly over time will save on initial cost attached to our mortgage, and I also think it's the right thing to do in order to ensure we end up with the chapel we really want. Statues and other art and iconography take time and money to obtain, and we don't want to be rushed to design the interior and regret it later.

But, in order to build the enclosure we need to know where any windows will be going. This does have to be done now, and it's been an interesting discussion. We definitely want natural light to come into the chapel, but I also had strong feelings about not wanting to be distracted by outside views. I think having light come in from "up above" not only raises our eyes toward heaven, but the absence of outside views at eye-level concentrates the mind and makes a statement that the chapel is not a "sun room" where one goes to enjoy the views. It's a room for prayer. Molly and my brother agreed with this and so at least this point is very consistent in all of the options. But the options themselves are very different. We can go through them briefly and I'm sure you'll have your own thoughts and comments.

Here are my brothers' initial proposals...

Option 1: Clerestory windows offset in plan

First, before getting into this too much, here's a really interesting Wikipedia article on exactly what is meant by the term "clerestory window". The article is quite good. And by the way, it's pronounced "clear-story," something I screwed up. Anyway, my brother explained that a vertically oriented window would be good for ensuring that water leakage wasn't a major issue, and it is fairly easy to install, and I agree with that. It's also a good way of indirectly getting light into the space. But in this case, for one we thought the windows were too big. My brother wanted to continue the rhythm of the windows on the upper floor of the home across to the chapel, but it looked like the windows were almost floating in space. Another concern was that it felt like the windows should not be the tallest item on the roof of the chapel, and that they should come down towards the outer wall. This kind of inversely-pitched dormer also is kind of a novelty of some modern architecture (often called a "light scoop") and while it may work on some non-religious buildings I don't think it works on a chapel or church. It looks like the chapel is unnecessarily trying to call attention to itself.

Another rendering of the interior shows an idea my brother had of filtering light into a pushout area for the eastward facing altar...
Light is brought in from an exterior window of some sort (that is kept out of direct view). He said that certainly other geometries could be done too, like a rounded top or triangular. We definitely liked this idea.

Option 2: Clerestory windows symmetrical in plan

This is basically the same idea as Option 1, with the clerestory windows aligned on either side instead of staggered. Again, our thoughts and feedback are pretty much the same as those for Option 1.

Option 3: Clerestory windows symmetrical in plan with exposed scissor trusses

This option is the same as Option 2, but here exposed cross beams are added. My brother noted that the dimensions of the room are such that these beams would not be needed to support the structure, and given that alone, we didn't think we would go with them (for design honesty and to save on cost). Also, it tends to make the room feel a little shorter than it otherwise would, and we definitely want to emphasize the verticality of the room.

Option 4: Longitudinal skylight at peak of roof, with rose window

There's a lot going on here. First, the longitudinal skylight. My first question was whether the structure could be supported with such a window in place, and my brother did say that some small supports may have to be added that span the window. This window seemed costly, and again it doesn't really fit with any Catholic architectural tradition, and seems more oriented toward a generic "spirituality" instead of a purposefully Christian one.

Second, what's shown here is a barrel vaulted ceiling, which I personally would love to have, but I know they are extremely expensive. I'm glad it was shown here though, because I think it does take away from the verticality of the room a little bit, so I'm not sure I would want it even if we could afford it.

Lastly, the rose window we definitely like. This was a suggestion of mine before my brother did the renderings, that we should have a window on that wall somewhere to take advantage of the "ad orientem" ("turned towards the Lord" or to the east, towards the rising sun) orientation of the chapel. It would be great to have a window that floods the space with light as the sun rises, as this is extremely aligned with Christian tradition going all the way back to the church fathers.

So, at the end of all these options, where we stood was that we definitely liked a pushout in the east wall of the chapel for the altar, we definitely liked a circular rose window on the east wall, we definitely liked the clerestory window concept, but still weren't satisfied with how the clerestory windows looked. Given this, and my ability to do some modeling with Google sketch-up, I decided to look at a different option for the clerestory windows on my own, just to brainstorm.

Brendan's Option 5: Clerestory windows formed by shed dormers

A shed dormer is the simplest, most inexpensive dormer style, and consists of singled-planed roof with a shallower pitch than the rest of the roof near the window. This would still allow a vertical window, but would allow more of the light to contact the ceiling, and would preserve a design more oriented with tradition. The pushout in the back I modeled as rectangular from the outside (for lowest cost) but from the inside I made the top rounded to align with the circular window. The exterior look of the push-out could be different, this is simply the way I modeled it. I like the pushout idea because in essence it adds a small sanctuary to the chapel, which is really cool. And though a rose window is typically located on the front wall of a church, I like how the circular window recalls a dome above a typical sanctuary in a cruciform church. Consider the bottom picture above, and this picture below of Coutances Cathedral in Normandy, France:
The really cool thing about a circular window on the east wall is that later we could overlay a stained-glass window on the inside. The exterior window would protect the stained-glass window from the elements and provide thermal insulation. I wanted to understand the look of this, plus actually add in an altar and a crucifix in it's likely location, and here's what I came up with (click to enlarge):
I found an image of a circular stained-glass window of the Holy Family and was able to overlay it onto the circular window in Google Sketch-Up. I added a marble-clad altar with a crucifix in the pushout area. The effect you don't get here is lighting, as there would be light coming through the stained-glass window, and the altar area would be more bathed in light than it shows.

My brother liked these ideas, though we all agreed to more thought on the shed dormers. One thing he suggested was that we could extend the interior cut-outs from the windows downward into the wall for placing statues. That seems like a cool idea.

So we're not done yet, but we're making progess.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Options for detailing the upper floor ceiling...


My brother recently presented us with an number of options for supporting the upper floor ceiling, and ways of exposing or concealing this support structure. For him and me both, we'd rather go for the "truth in advertising" and not conceal structures unnecessarily. But nonetheless, it's fun to look at all the options. Here's the way the options look with some quick renderings he did of the master bedroom (some windows were left out, and the renderings aren't high resolution). -- click any of these to enlarge

The top and bottom set of pictures represent two options in essentially the same theme. The pics on the left are looking to the east in the master bedroom, with exposed and painted cross-beams. It may not look like it, but the beams are symmetrical and cross in the center of the room. The pics on the right are views looking to the west in the master bedroom to the small hallway that serves as the entrance to the room. These are small sections of other cross-beams, while the rest is embedded in the wall. The difference between the top and bottom sets is simply that in the bottom set some other support beams are partially exposed in the ceiling. By the way, cross-beams could also simply be left as natural wood instead of painted, though that may be more expensive. Higher quality beams would be needed in order to leave the wood exposed, and a lower cost option is to use lower quality beams and paint them.

Here is another option, with smaller exposed beams that are further up.

And here's an even more understated option, though I would question whether these single beams up so high are providing the support to the roof that is necessary. In any case, we didn't like this option as much because it seemed like you wouldn't even need the beams.

These are both options for actually concealing any beams, with the one on the left being a concealed version of the small beams from the previous option. The shape of this ceiling essentially mirrors that attic room that myself and my two brothers had growing up, and for this reason I wasn't really big on this option as it would be nice to have a little something different. The option on the right is another variation, where the supports are concealed but the ceiling still comes to a point at the top.

Molly liked these because she thought they evoked barn-style architecture, which they do. In the end though, we thought concealing the support beams was kind of lame since it seemed so much more interesting to expose the structure. It gives a more direct visual connection to the roof overhead, and it provides a kind of contemporary farmhouse feel. Our choice out of all of these was the first set of pics at the top of the post, the exposed, low cross-beams with a smooth ceiling. These supports will also be in the kids' rooms, not just the master bedroom. I have already guaranteed Molly that Aidan will eventually find a way to climb up and hang from the beams. Molly thought that was unlikely, to which I immediately replied that it was most certainly likely, and that if I grew up in this house as a kid I definitely would have done that! :-)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Papal mass pics from my sister...


Ugh, sorry for the long delay and infrequent posting, I've been extremely busy both at work and home.

As I noted before, my dad was invited to be a minister of communion at the papal mass in Washington, D.C. (what an honor!); he's a permanent deacon at St. Rita's Parish in Cottage Grove, MN. He told me the experience was wonderful. He was up in the first or second row of the upper deck during the mass and distributed Holy Communion there. The deacons actually processed in roughly an hour and a half before the Pope did as part of the mass.

Since my dad was invited, he also got a ticket for another person to attend and luckily my sister, Allison, works at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. (perfect!). So she got to go and had a really good seat in the lower deck with a good view. She took a few pictures, and had some captions that I have now misplaced (I'll try to remember a few of them, or do my own :-).

Allison got to the stadium really early!

Pope Benedict in the "popemobile."

The Pope processing in for the mass

Sea of priests!

The consecration

Placido Domingo singing Panis Angelicus

The Pope recessing from mass

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis officially has a new archbishop!


Archbishop Harry Flynn, who is celebrating his 75th birthday today, received a birthday present from Pope Benedict... his request to formally retire has been granted. Archbishop Flynn has done a good job shepherding this archdiocese, with the foremost of his accomplishments being the amazing job he has done fostering vocations to the priesthood. The surest way of evaluating the health of a diocese or parish is to look at the number of vocations being produced. St. John Vianney minor seminary at the University of St. Thomas (in Minneapolis, MN) has so many young men now discerning the priesthood that they are building a new dorm building to house them all! Archbishop Flynn will continue to be in our prayers as he enjoys his retirement, thanks for all you have done and all those you have served!

This also means that as of 5am this morning we have a new archbishop! Archbishop John Niestedt now has the full reins (he has been coadjutor of this archdiocese as of last year, appointed by Pope Benedict), and we look forward to his leadership. Our prayers and support are with you! I think he would appreciate the prayers of all the readers of this blog as well, his leadership and fidelity to the teachings of the Church, and his focus on proclaiming the Gospel and articulating the Church's teaching on moral issues such as abortion and so-called homosexual marriage, have already earned him the ire of the media here.
Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Most Reverend John C. Nienstedt

The Cathedral of St. Paul, in St. Paul, MN