Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Another low-cost (high labor) gift...


A present for my Dad for his birthday, January 21st...
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, graphite and white chalk on grey/brown paper, 8x10"

Friday, January 25, 2008



So, thanks to Molly, I have discovered the wide variety of home construction books at our local library. We went to the library early this week and I checked out roughly 15 huge books on custom home building, working with contractors, designing for affordability, etc., etc., etc. Molly calls me a "datahead," and it's true that for stuff like this (or drawing or painting or apologetics, whatever I get passionate about) I have a voracious appetite for information and will mentally devour books in short order.

The issue with these books is that I am overwhelmed by what our next year will be like planning this house, and even more overwhelmed that in many ways a lot of the work will have to be in the next six months. The following book is a MUST READ for anyone looking to build a custom home of any kind. It's like the custom home-building manual.
Now, I borrowed lots of books from the library, and some of them were of the "Well, I don't think I'll read this, but might as well check it out anyway" variety, and this was one of those. Judging the book by its cover (which of course we're not supposed to do) it looked like some sort of tabloid-style book with no real meat in it -- something that would be offered for "one easy payment of $19.99" on TV. I've rarely been more incorrect on a book. This book is amazing, very detailed, goes for the highest level of information, is written by a complete expert, and on and on (they need a different cover design). I'm going to have to buy a copy simply because it does act as a manual for every step of the process, and it assumes that you are building a unique, even architecturally-designed home, which was very surprising to me. The main reason anyone looking to build a custom home should read this book is that it is very heavy on information regarding contractors -- how to interview them, how to bid out a contract, how to manage them, etc. I'm not referring to trying be your own general contractor, but to the more standard method of hiring a general contractor and working with that person and your architect to build the home. Long story short for us: if we are going to bid out the contract for our home, we have to have as many details as possible picked out as soon as possible (fixtures, lighting, flooring, etc.), have our construction documents done, and any detailed specifications finished all PRIOR to asking for bids. This was a shock to the system, as I was not planning on this. So we're going to have to work hard to try to be ready to bid out our home construction by late summer or fall.

The second book I recommend is this...
I know, I cringe when I see most of those "Dummies" books too. Except for most topics, if your read them, they are actually quite helpful. I again expected this one to kind of pander to the lowest common denomenator, and it does for a lot of the construction details, but it is REALLY useful for explaining construction loans (another necessity if you want to build a custom home). Construction loans are very complicated, and this book is co-authored by the CEO of a financing company that specializes in construction loans. The book has four chapters just on the construction loan process, and I learned a lot. One caution is that the book (rightly) talks about having a lot of cash on hand to build a home, which can be scary for those of us who don't. But then when you discover that the authors consider the equity in your home to be "cash" and even the money in your 401k or IRA to be "cash reserves," then the big numbers they throw out can be taken with a few grains of salt. But the importance of knowing if you can fund your project is highly emphasized.

All this learning is just in time to interview contractors next week!

On a totally unrelated note, I wanted to pass on this picture that I found of a home recently built in Woodbury, MN (where I grew up) with a home chapel (click to enlarge).
Actual pictures of the interior of home chapels are rare, so I was happy to find this. I very much like the altar and the built-in cut-out behind it, it seems like a cheaper way to create a "sanctuary" type feel around the altar without having to alter the rectangular nature of the room (which keeps costs down). For some reason this seems to double as an office though, which I don't quite understand. It takes the focus away from the room being a chapel, so I don't like that part. But it looks like a beautiful room, and the family is solid. I see the Liturgy of the Hours opened on the desk, and it looks like they've invested in beautiful artwork. Not a fan of the St. Michael the Archangel statue (there are far more interesting poses out there). He looks a little bored with his job of leading the Church triumphant against Satan and his minions. Anyway, have a nice weekend!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Never underestimate a good light bulb...


I can't say I've considered light bulbs for our new home, but we all know they can matter quite a bit in how a room feels (at least subconsciously). I kind of figured we'd go with newer compact fluorescents since they save energy and last MUCH longer than regular incandescent bulbs (I'm partial to the latter; I HATE to change light bulbs, especially when one is going out somewhere in the house just about every week). But, looks like one should be careful in choosing compact fluorescents for lighting, lest you give your home the feel of a sterile hospital ward or a government office building. Check out this article in the New York Times, if you are interested in compact fluorescent lighting. They tested at least 15 different light bulbs (see below), with interesting results. Most compact fluorescents are very poor in terms of meeting the innate human need to feel warm and comfortable in our homes.
(click to enlarge)
Here were the more specific rankings (click to enlarge)...
I always find it fascinating how something so seemingly unimportant as differences in light color and feel can have such an affect on our mood. One thing's for sure, if we're going to build an architecturally designed home we might as well not screw up the feel of it with bad light bulbs. Every little thing counts in good design.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Another article found on home chapels...


This article was in USA Today in 2003. It's very interesting, despite the general rarity, to see the breadth of home chapels across all of Christendom (though apparently one Christian family had a person design their chapel who has her own Buddhist chapel in her home... not recommended, but I digress). Hopefully the people profiled in the article understand that a home chapel should never be a replacement for worship with the larger body of Christians. Christianity is not a private religion. But it does seem there is a growing consensus that we need to make places in our homes, even just a small corner, that allows focusing on prayer both as an individual and a family.

There was also one comment that a Catholic would typically not celebrate the Eucharist in a home chapel, which is definitely true. On the one hand, it's kind of obvious since you need a priest to do so. However, if there is a priest available, celebrating mass on occasion in a home chapel is not prohibited provided the purpose of doing so is not to establish a replacement for one's parish in their home.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Vocations awareness week is Jan. 13-18!


The new US Conference of Catholic Bishop's inspirational DVD on vocations to the priesthood, Fishers of Men, should be required viewing at every parish this week. See what people are saying about the video. Better yet, purchase a copy for a youth group, class, or a young man you know.

Here's the trailer (below)...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Domestic Church: Are large families harmful to the environment?


From the outset, I'd like to state that care of the environment is a Christian responsibility. We all must be good stewards of God's creation, and concerted efforts must be made to ensure creation is passed on to future generations in the same or better state in which is was passed to us. Living in moderation, and avoiding conspicuous consumption, are not only good for the environment, they are integral parts of seeking holiness and detachment from worldly things.

That said, the biggest issue with many "environmentalists" today is that they have turned advocacy for the care of the environment into a secular religion. A hallmark of this movement is placing a greater importance on the environment, or animals, than on the welfare of human beings. This type of "extreme" way of looking at care for the environment isn't so extreme anymore. It is slowly making its way into mainstream thought, and large families are at the forefront of those who have been, and will increasingly be, bearing the criticism and disdain of society.

For instance, let us consider the following article, entitled "Meet the Woman Who Won't Have Babies -- Because They're Not Eco-Friendly", and its main subject, Toni Vernelli. Toni believes the most environmentally responsible thing we can all do is to have no children. She has been sterilized to prevent herself from ever becoming pregnant, and very sadly had an abortion when she became pregnant prior to her sterilization, all because of her strong beliefs about the environment. Some quotes from her:
"Having children is selfish. It's all about maintaining your genetic line at the expense of the planet," says Toni, 35.

"Every person who is born uses more food, more water, more land, more fossil fuels, more trees and produces more rubbish, more pollution, more greenhouse gases, and adds to the problem of over-population."

"We both passionately wanted to save the planet - not produce a new life which would only add to the problem."

"I didn't like having a termination, but it would have been immoral to give birth to a child that I felt strongly would only be a burden to the world.

"Every year, we also take a nice holiday - we've just come back from South Africa. We feel we can have one long-haul flight a year, as we are vegan and childless, thereby greatly reducing our carbon footprint and combating over-population."
More about the supposed problem of overpopulation in a second. The article goes on to interview Sarah Irving and Mark Hudson, the latter of which got a vasectomy to ensure they never had a child due to environmental concerns. Some quotes from them:
"I realized then that a baby would pollute the planet - and that never having a child was the most environmentally friendly thing I could do."

"I'd never dream of preaching to others about having a family. It's a very personal choice. What I do like to do is make people aware of the facts. When I see a mother with a large family, I don't resent her, but I do hope she's thought through the implications."

Mark adds: "Sarah and I live as green a life a possible. We don't have a car, cycle everywhere instead, and we never fly. We recycle, use low-energy light bulbs and eat only organic, locally produced food. In short, we do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint. But all this would be undone if we had a child. That's why I had a vasectomy. It would be morally wrong for me to add to climate change and the destruction of Earth."

"Sarah and I don't need children to feel complete. What makes us happy is knowing that we are doing our bit to save our precious planet."
However disturbing, this type of fanatical viewpoint isn't going away. Half-way around the world, in Australia, we also have Dr. Barry Walters alarmingly telling the Australian public that a baby tax is needed to save the planet.
Writing in today's Medical Journal of Australia, Associate Professor Barry Walters said every couple with more than two children should be taxed to pay for enough trees to offset the carbon emissions generated over each child's lifetime.

Professor Walters, clinical associate professor of obstetric medicine at the University of Western Australia and the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Perth, called for condoms and "greenhouse-friendly" services such as sterilisation procedures to earn carbon credits.

"Every newborn baby in Australia represents a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions for an average of 80 years, not simply by breathing but by the profligate consumption of resources typical of our society," he wrote.

"Far from showering financial booty on new mothers and rewarding greenhouse-unfriendly behaviour, a 'baby levy' in the form of a carbon tax should apply, in line with the 'polluter pays' principle."
Dr. Walters is proposing a tax of $5,000 per child for every child more than 2 in a family.

Instead of worrying about whether "breathing" human beings will tank the planet with their "carbon footprints", officials should be finding ways to convert technologies to clean energy (as many are), which offers a far greater potential to reduce carbon emissions than having less children. But this isn't really about carbon emissions. Couched behind all this is the notion that the world is overpopulated and that we won't have enough room to hold us all on this planet, nor enough resources to feed ourselves or run our societies.

Far from the certainty which pervades every claim of overpopulation, the "population bomb" has been debunked as a myth. This article, by Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), gives an inside look at the UN agency that perpetuates this myth (the UNFPA), and the other UN agency (the Population Division) that shockingly refutes them. Money quotes:
UNFPA, which is in charge of U.N. programs for population control, asserts that as a result of uncontrolled population growth, billions of people are poor and hungry. They also fully expect just about every animal species to be skinned, gobbled, or stuffed into extinction by the great hordes of humanity.

The problem with the UNFPA report, however, is that it is flatly contradicted by a more credible U.N. source — the Population Division, the official U.N. number crunchers. The differences between the two reports were so stark and so embarrassing that Population Division chief Joseph Chamie announced that UNFPA's report amounted to little more than propaganda. "The relationship between population and the environment is very complex," he said. "UNFPA is a fund; they have an agenda."

UNFPA claims that population growth has led to intractable poverty, and that "poverty persists and, in many parts of the world, deepens." The Population Division disagrees. "From 1900 to 2000, world population grew from 1.6 billion persons to 6.1 billion. However, while the world population increased close to 4 times, world real gross domestic output increased 20 to 40 times, allowing the world to not only sustain a four-fold population increase, but also to do so at vastly higher standards of living." The Population Division adds that "…even many low-income countries have achieved substantial improvements in the quality and length of life."

According to UNFPA, "In many countries population growth has raced ahead of food production," and as a result "some 800 million people are chronically malnourished and 2 billion people lack food security." The Population Division, by contrast, contends that "Over the period 1961-1998 world per capita food available for human consumption increased by 24 per cent, and there is enough being produced for everyone on the planet to be adequately nourished."

...the Population Division began a drumbeat in 1997 to the effect that, far from facing a population explosion, the world risks a population implosion, and a demographic shift with truly catastrophic consequences. Indeed, in the past three years the Population Division has hosted two expert group meetings at U.N. headquarters where demographic experts from all over the world have agreed that the current downward fertility trajectory will bring about population decline, intergenerational financial warfare, and a pension and health system meltdown. They concluded that, without massive immigration, the developed world faces a future of economic crisis.

UNFPA is looking to use the threats of environmental degradation, poverty, sickness, etc., to advance the spread of its favorite things: contraception, sterilization, and abortion. UNFPA's tired argument is that people are the problem, and so the fewer of them, the better. UNFPA is therefore ideologically unprepared to recognize the gravity of the real population problem — fertility decline in the developed world — let alone to address it.
The developed world, including the U.S. and especially Europe, Russia, and Japan, are heading into a population crisis in the next 50 years... a crisis of not enough children. Populations in much of Europe will begin falling within the next two decades, and by mid-century the economic consequences will be disastrous without mass immigration (which would mostly be accomplished by muslim populations). The U.S., Europe, Russia, Japan, and others desperately need more children. Vladimir Putin has started offering cash payments for couples to have a child, and even days off from work to try to conceive a child (!). Consider this from the wonderful John Stossel of ABC's 20/20 (the "give me a break" guy), who included the overpopulation myth in his top 10 "Media-Fed Myths" (you can almost hear his distinctive voice reading this):
We've heard protests about this for decades: News articles warn of "the population bomb," and "a tidal wave of humanity," and plead: No more babies.

The world population today is more than 6 billion. It seems like so many people. But who says it's "too many?"

There are lots of problems all over the world caused by too many people

But there's no space problem. Our planet is huge. In fact we could take the entire world population and move everyone to the state of Texas, and the population density there would still be less than that of New York City.

But, you might wonder, won't we run out of resources, like food?

Paul Ehrlich wrote the book "Population Bomb," and warned 65 million Americans would starve in a "Great Die Off" in the 1980s. The 1973 movie "Soylent Green" predicted food riots would erupt in the year 2022 but it doesn't look like that will happen.

According to media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner, population growth is "a time bomb waiting to happen." If it continues, at the current rate, according to Turner, "Eventually you stand around in a desert with nothing to eat." But that too is a myth. We see the pictures of starving masses in populous places, but the starvation is caused by things like civil war and government corruption that interfere with the distribution of food.

With more people, we also have more smart ideas. Every year we learn how to grow more food on less land. Thanks to improved technology, the United Nations now says the world overproduces food.

About 15,000 babies are born every hour. But they are not a burden, they offer more brains that might cure cancer, more hands to build things, more voices to bring us beautiful music.
I could not possibly have said it better. Even developing countries need lots of children, to innovate and solve problems like hunger and lack of medical care. As John Stossel noted, a far greater cause of these tragedies in developing countries is civil war and corruption, preventing abundant aid from being used wisely and economies from getting on their feet, not a supposed problem of too many people. Children are our greatest resource and our greatest blessing. The notion that the world is overpopulated, or that the world's "carbon crisis" will be solved by eliminating human beings is not only irresponsible, it's root lies in evil itself.

So, all large families out there, and all those considering them, to quote our Heavenly Father in the book of Genesis: "Be fruitful and multiply"! Know that you are doing the world a great service in welcoming children from the Lord with generous hearts, even if the world doesn't realize it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Great reference for homeschoolers and families who teach their kids the faith...


I was extremely excited to see a brand new web site put out by the Vatican that has Scripture and almost all Church teaching documents in one place and, in a very easy-to-use, searchable, well-designed format (not a small thing for the Vatican in terms of web design -- their main website could use a little work). The site is called Biblia Clerus, and I highly recommend it. Just another indication of how homeschooling in particular will continue to have amazing technical resources that will assist in teaching the faith!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Not So Big House

This is one of my favorite times of the year, because I always ask for lots of books for Christmas (or money for the purchase of books) and in January I get to read them! One of the books that I got from my Mom for Christmas was The Not So Big House, by Minnesota architect Sarah Susanka. You've probably heard of it. When it was published around 1998 it was so popular that it has now ballooned into a whole series of "Not So Big" themed books (almost 10 of them). For instance, check out this search on Amazon. One tip: I would stay away from her The Not So Big Life; it's about simplifying, which we all can do and is laudable, but she has a rather new age and synergistic spirituality (i.e. generic spirituality) which isn't really compatible with the Catholic faith. In regard to her original book, The Not So Big House, I was skeptical about it prior to reading it because I figured it was just another "pop architecture"/Better Homes & Gardens style book that wouldn't really be that relevant to our home project. Instead, after reading it, I was very impressed and can say that it's an excellent book for anyone who owns a home, is thinking of remodeling, and especially anyone who is going to build a home.

The title of the book is kind of a misnomer. Most of the homes shown aren't really "Not So Big" at all, they just contain lots of detailing and were designed by an architect, with a mix of smaller and larger spaces. The title would make more sense if it said something like, "The Well-Designed Home." And there are few other minor problems with the book. For instance, for some reason she seems to define her audience for the book as those who are very wealthy, and would otherwise build a generic McMansion, who should consider her message and build just as expensive a house but smaller and more cozy and detailed. This is kind of an unnecessary constriction of her audience, because there are lots of concepts in the book that would benefit people of any budget. The main thesis applies: Americans build huge, non-descript, poorly designed, cheaply built homes as status symbols and "because they can" rather than doing what we as humans really desire -- spaces that are cozy and welcoming, well-designed, and say something about who we are. In some respects, her message caused me to re-think some things about our own home.

For instance, right now our library/sitting area is quite open to the family room (see below). There actually is no completely private space (other than the chapel) on the first floor. I have a men's group, and Molly is part of a women's group, and it got me thinking, "where would we meet that would give the necessary privacy and insulate from the noise of the rest of the home?" Also, "is there a place to go in the home (other than the chapel) to get away from all the commotion and read a book or relax?" (Susanka calls this an "away room"). The library area would definitely serve these purposes, but again it is open to the family room. So I suggested to my brother we look at adding a wall between the fireplace and the South wall of the home that would further enclose the library, and potentially a sliding door on the North side of the fireplace that would allow for some acoustic insulation when necessary. This would bring more into balance the amount of open spaces on the ground floor private spaces which are good for family life. So, he's taking a look at this right now.

Additionally, the real strengths of The Not So Big House are in the second half of the book, where she goes through a rather thorough list of how one can build an economical home that is still well-designed. I've never come across a book that does this so well, and it has vastly improved my knowledge about how we can keep the cost down for our home (especially as we start to talk to general contractors). I went through the book and documented some suggestions for my own reference, and for anyone else who is thinking about building a home but worried about cost. I recommend you buy the book and read it, but this will give some useful tidbits of information that are very interesting (I've included page number citations in parentheses).

Tips for keeping construction costs down

  1. Quality-Quantity-Cost triangle – all are related and interdependent. (136)
  2. Keep the form or shape of the house square or rectangular. (138)
  3. The outer “skin” of a building is typically the most expensive component of the house. (138)
  4. In general, the fewer corners you have in the exterior perimeter, the less expensive the house will be. (139)
  5. Keep ceiling heights to the typical 8-ft. or 9-ft. height (materials are being made more readily available to easily assemble a 10-ft. height, which can be an option). (140)
  6. Use drywall for walls, which is readily available in sizes that fit standard wall heights. (140)
  7. To make an 8-ft. ceiling, typically use a 92 5/8” pre-cut wall stud. This dimension, with one floor plate below and two horizontal plates above, results in a wall height of 8 ft. after ceiling and floor finishes are taken into account. Pre-cut studs are also available for 9-ft. ceilings. (140)
  8. A common mistake for the inexperienced is to order 8-ft. studs, which result in an 8’ 4” ceiling height, which is a non-standard ceiling height. (140)
  9. The most common floor joist is the 2x10, which has a maximum span of 15’ 6” when installed at the conventional 16” on center. Large floor areas uninterrupted by walls or supporting columns generally require something other than the standard floor joist, such as pre-engineered floor trusses or manufactured floor joists. The longer the clear unsupported span, the more you pay. (140)
  10. For foundations, 12” concrete block is typically used for basement areas (8” or 10” block is sometimes used in other areas, such as beneath a garage). Multiple corner offsets, changes in elevation, and curved forms require more work and consequently more cost. (141)
  11. If you want to make a vaulted ceiling in the roof area, or otherwise make use of the space within a pitched roof, you need to use an engineered “scissor” truss. This costs more than a standard pre-fabricated truss. (141)
  12. Houses in cold climates require frost footings, which on a flat piece of land would create a basement level and it wouldn’t cost too much more to convert this to a basement or finished living space. (148)
  13. A two-story high space is equivalent in cost to almost double the square footage of the floor (almost equivalent to having the second story of space finished with a floor, etc.). Avoid these if possible. (154)
  14. Materials, fixtures, and finishes are the most common items that can increase the per square foot cost of the home. (159)
  15. Any angle or curve in a ceiling increases the cost (including vaulted ceilings) because it takes more planning and work to finish. The standard rectangular box is always the least expensive. (162)
  16. If you use horizontal siding on the exterior, vertical corner boards can significantly reduce the cost because the carpenter doesn’t have to miter the corners to fit together seamlessly. (163-164)
  17. Brick costs significantly more than wood siding. (165)
  18. Higher ceilings inside can require other items such as more trim, transom windows, or more cabinets that can significantly add to the cost, just in order to make the room look right (166)
  19. Use standard size windows to reduce cost. (168)
  20. Pre-wired sound systems, intercoms, etc. increase cost and may be obsolete within a few years. Design to have such systems easily replaced or leave them out.
  21. Any large expanse of interior wood, such as a wood ceiling instead of drywall, can significantly increase cost. (160)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

We're back!


Posting will resume very soon! Here's some pics from our trip...
Happy new year!