In the best of times, it is difficult to find a quality builder. And we are not in the best of times. Given the challenges of building on a small island, this crazy covid building boom, material shortages and price fluctuations, and a unique project like mine, finding the right builder may take a miracle.
The idea of living in a greenhouse started almost two years ago after seeing videos, and then reading stories, about the handful of these houses elsewhere in the world. Although those projects were in places with very cold winters and snow that I wouldn’t have to deal with, my project is on a small island with limited ferry service that would complicate the building process. I’ve been through three major home construction projects, with varying success with the builder, so I recognized how critical it would be to find not just ‘a’ builder but the ‘right’ builder.
My first home construction project was starting from raw land adjoining the slope at a downhill ski resort about 55 miles from Seattle. This was to be one of the first full-time residences at the ski area. At approximately 2,600 square feet, with 3 bed/3bath, a 2 car garage, and internet service, it was substantially larger than the existing 30+ year old weekend vacation cabins. We lived year-round in one of these cabins within walking distance before and during the construction.
From this project I learned the difficulty of getting a construction loan for a unique project. There were no ‘comparable’ homes within 30 miles on which to base the loan-to-value assessment so it took many months to get an appraisal high enough to qualify for the loan amount we needed. It required hiring multiple appraisers and learning how to describe our project to be able to find the right near-comparables. In the end, the local small-town appraiser could not see past the fact this house would be substantially larger than anything else in the area at that time. The Seattle-area appraiser, however, was used to appraising homes of that size and substantial second or vacation homes. He saw immediately that this was the start of a trend toward full-time mountain residences with the additional value of being one of only a few dozen alpine ski-in/ski-out parcels in the United States.
From this project I also learned the additional challenge of building in a remote location. There, the building site was remote in terms of distance from everyone who would be working on the house and the materials to be delivered to the site. It was also a very short building season. In a good (for skiing) snow year, the ground may be clear to begin excavation in June and start snowing again in October with the roads impassable by November. For this reason it was common to excavate and pour the footings in one year and then build the foundation and house the following year. There was only one reputable builder within 10 miles and he was already booked for the entire building season so we had to find a builder from ‘the flat lands’ whose usual sub-contractors were also far from our site. Fortunately the framers rented a condo at the ski area so they could walk to work each day and start at 7am. Unfortunately the roofers didn’t understand their 4-wheel drive truck would be no match for the 4’ of snow that accumulated while they left mid-job to finish another project. The delay from that mistake proved to be inconvenient for them but extremely costly for us.
This project also taught the difficult lesson of dealing with banks, inspections, loan draws, and the logistics of storing materials on site. Typically there are several pre-defined times during construction when a milestone is reached and the contractor is to be paid for the labor and materials for that portion. You can’t take a draw on the loan to use as a deposit for future work. In our case, once the road was closed due to snow, we wouldn’t be able to bring in materials until the spring thaw. Which meant, as soon as the house was water-tight, we had to order and receive all materials to finish the house. Even then, due to the roofer’s delay, we had the extra cost and effort to keep the road open enough to bring in some materials. This meant the entire ground floor was packed full of lumber, insulation, drywall, tape and mud, boxes of screws and nails, kitchen and bathroom appliances and fixtures, lights, rolls of carpet and padding, etc. In other words, almost the entire cost to finish the house was due months ahead of when the bank would allow the draws for those materials. Not to mention having to work around (and protect from damage) all those materials.
My next major home construction project was, technically, a remodel but in reality left only one wall undisturbed from the original house. The original house was a typical mid-century one-story L-shaped rambler on the top of a small hill, on a suburban corner lot. For this house we had two requirements that made it unique and therefore challenging for our builder. First, it had to be wheel-chair accessible so instead of stairs we specified an elevator. Second, it had to have a totally sound-proof and dark media room. Being on a corner lot meant that we couldn’t increase the house’s footprint and stay within the set-backs. Instead of adding a second floor on top of the existing house, we cut off one wing of the house, dug into the hillside, put the media room, garage, and utility room underground, and rebuilt at ground level above it. We lived in one bedroom and bathroom during the entire construction except for a few weeks when the utilities were cut over and the bedroom and bathroom were redone.
This project gave me the experience of living in a construction site with the challenges from distraction, dirt, noise, interruptions, lack of privacy, and navigating around ever-changing piles of materials and debris. It also caused additional work and stress for the builder that I’d been forewarned about but didn’t really understand until we were into it.
From this project I learned that I can tolerate all the discomforts of living inside a house under construction if need be, but better to live in a separate unit on site or nearby. Also to have better communication with the builder about our mutual requirements and preferences, ahead of time, to avert (or at least minimize) some of these issues.
Applying These Lessons
When I decided to build a greenhouse enclosed home, I knew I wanted to live on this island but had not acquired the specific lot yet. Because I had lived on the island for some years already, I was familiar with the ferry and some of its limitations that might impact the ability to get workers or materials delivered. I assume the greenhouse package will be the longest materials delivered so I checked with the greenhouse manufacturer about how the greenhouse package will be transported and the vehicle length and weight. Although the ferry is long enough to carry that tractor-trailer, the ferry only holds 21-22 vehicles per trip so a delivery truck may have to wait extra trips to fit within the space left after the cars ahead of it are loaded. The ferry crew takes a 1.5-hour lunch break so if a delivery misses the last boat before lunch, then they have to wait and the day’s construction plan is thrown off. Even local retailers who provide ‘free delivery’ may charge a delivery fee due to the extra ferry wait time and its impact on how many deliveries they can make in a day. Then, extremely low tides sometimes prevent loading heavy trucks that could cause the ferry to bottom out.
And finally there are the 3 to 6 weeks the drive-on ferry is out of service for maintenance and is replaced by a walk-on only ferry. Although a barge service is available, it adds a level of planning, complexity, and cost that many builders and sub-contractors aren’t used to dealing with, and don’t want to deal with.
When the plan is to design and build a custom home, there are options for how to acquire those services. One option is to work with a designer/builder who provides both services within the same company. Another option is to work with an architect/designer and the builder is a separate hire. The latter is how my previous projects were done and experienced many of the miscommunication inherent in that process. So I decided to first look for a custom home designer/builder.
Since my project is the first of its kind in the United States, I knew I wouldn’t be able to find a designer/builder with experience in my specific requirements of a tiny home enclosed in a greenhouse. However, the greenhouse manufacturer offers an optional installation service so I also held out the possibility of separating the projects if I couldn’t find a builder for the entire project. That said, I wasn’t even sure if a custom home builder would be interested in a tiny house, without the greenhouse, as they usually build much bigger homes with much larger budgets. Add the need to run new utilities to the trailer and cabins and my project was turning into the worst parts of a custom build and remodel. But I decided to at least try to find a designer/builder so I started with a list from Google of custom home designer/builders within a 10 mile radius, plus the builder on my island. I sent an introductory email giving a brief description of my project and asking if they were interested. One builder did not reply and one replied it was outside his interest. Of the two who replied they were interested to hear more, I was overjoyed that one was the builder on this island who has an excellent reputation.
We met to go over the project and he was still interested (yea!) for its uniqueness and challenge. He does not offer, however, a design service so referred me to a local architect with whom he has worked well on prior projects. The architect was also interested in the challenge. Both the builder and architect understood I was committed to a house inside a greenhouse. I’d worked with licensed architects on my mountain house and a non-architect designer on my city remodel so I was cautious of doing it again. I was pleased neither the architect nor builder tried to talk me into something more ‘maintstream’ for ‘resale value’ like more bedrooms, more bathrooms, or more square footage. I was pleased, again, that neither tried to talk me out of the lap pool and natural regeneration ponds as a use for the space on the north side of the house.
Construction Loan and Appraisals
I’m fortunate to have had the lesson from the mountain house of needing a minimum appraisal amount to be able to get a construction loan so now I understand the challenge with this project and do not have false hope for a loan. Although I made a few inquiries with banks, credit unions, and private money lenders, having no expectation of being able to get a construction loan means I have not been disappointed, nor had to change my plans, due to not getting a construction loan.
For home insurance, and possibly a mortgage, my plan is now to wait to get an appraisal after the construction is done, the landscaping is repaired around the property, the greenhouse planting area is tidy, and the house’s interior is furnished and decorated. This will give me time to prepare how to position the property for near-comparables and the appraiser won’t have to use their imagination to envision the property.
The lesson regarding material delivery and storage logistics due to snow that I learned from my mountain house is coming in handy with this project during this time of covid-caused supply chain challenges. Availability and delivery times are uncertain for materials, appliances, furniture, and fixtures. I’ll order the greenhouse as soon as my building permit is approved and will need to be ready with space to receive and store or erect it whenever it arrives. My building permit application was submitted the end of January, 2021 and best case is it will be issued sometime in September. There are a few silver-linings from the delay that I try to stay positive about – lumber prices are coming back down after being quadruple the pre-covid price earlier this year. Also, my builder was delayed finishing his previous project so I did not lose my spot in his line-up, nor have to wait with my permit in hand, for him to come available. Also, the wait provided additional time to fine-tune the greenhouse heating and cooling plan.
Finally, the permit delay has provided time to become more familiar with lead times for various materials so we know which to order early. I’ve also had a space cleared on the property for a shipping container to store materials so that we can receive them whenever they’re available.
Living On Site
I learned my lesson about not living in the construction site but staying close enough to be available for questions and decisions. Plus, I need to be around during constructions to shoot video as I intend to begin publishing videos to YouTube once ground works starts. Although the trailer’s power, water, and internet supply will be replaced, and part of the existing deck will be demolished, I can be self-contained in the trailer for several days during the cutover. Fortunately the builder is amenable so far but I’m staying flexible and prepared to move off-site if necessary.
Ultimately, one of the hardest challenges of custom home construction – finding a builder on a small island – has turned out to be great!
I feel like I won the builder lottery!
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