Thursday, December 1, 2011

Dwelling in Possibility: Building Community

Friends, things are moving very fast on the Austin Pocket Neighborhood front. We modified our original vision of trying develop three acres of land and are instead seeking adjacent lots within a pre-existing neighborhood. That way, everyone can buy their own plot and build their own house, but we will still have shared communal space and an overarching intentionality to our little "neighborhood."

Things are moving quickly because we've found an appealing piece of property. I wasn't even going to start looking for land until we sold our house, but you know me. I love to plan. I really couldn't help myself.

So now we're trying to see if we can buy the land as soon as our house sells and start building a house (which would take approximately six months). In terms of next steps, I need to talk to a lender to find out what we could qualify for. We're also working with a realtor to put together an offer.

As for the "community" piece of it, we think that 3-4 of the 7 lots are buildable (due to set-backs from the road and creek bed, as well as flood plain issues). Matt, Henry, Hoss and I will take one of the lots, and we have one other committed person. If we can't find people to commit before it's time to buy the land, then Matt and I will have to buy 6 of the plots. If we do that, I'm not sure we'll be able to build right away (or afford rent, for that matter!).

There are a lot of moving pieces right now. The land might not actually be buildable at all due to flood plain issues. Matt and I might not qualify for the loan we need, since we only have one steady income. Someone else might put an offer on the land before we do.

But it's fun. I spend my day-dreaming time thinking about the kind of house we want to build.

Here are some of our thoughts right now. We want:
  • A completely open kitchen, dining area, and living room (like one big rectangle with the kitchen at one end, an island that faces a long dining table, which faces the couch and chairs in the living area)--with a whole wall of windows and sliding glass doors!
  • I want the kitchen to have an island with stools, but I only want it to be waist-high with no backsplash, so that the people working at the island (which will hopefully have a sink and a dishwasher--is that possible?) can easily see the people sitting on the stools and the people sitting at the dining room table.
  • A little flip-down drawer under the sink to hold a sponge
  • A beautiful piece of furniture that encloses the TV, so it's not the center of the living room (we have no TV right now, but we want to get one so we can institute a Friday night movie + pizza ritual when Henry is older)
  • A giant sectional couch (by the way, does Bitter Apple work to keep stubborn dogs off comfy couches?)
  • Geothermal heating and cooling + solar panels to make the house net zero
  • A convenient place in the kitchen to plug in cell phones inside a drawer so they are out of the way while charging
  • A whole-house stereo
  • Natural light in every room (including bathrooms)
  • An area for a slide-out trash can in the kitchen
  • Kitchen drawers that slide out to hold pots and pans
  • A built-in soap dispenser in the kitchen and a spray sink

Any thoughts about those wish items? Feel free to poke a hole in my fantasy balloon if one of my ideas is impractical.

Anything you would add if this were your list? Please, please share! This process is a little overwhelming.

The image is courtesy of ma modular, the builder we are considering

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Ellie said...

So my husband and I went and checked out this year's Solar House exhibit as part of the Solar Decathalon, and you might want to check out some of those houses for ideas.

The first thing that occurs to me is that you can save a lot of space, and money, by just buying a projector instead of a TV. You wouldn't have to worry about furniture, you can do movie night in an even cooler way, and the TV won't feel like the centerpiece of your living space.

I grew up with a bathroom with massive windows (six 3ft triangular windows up high, so nobody could see in) and it didn't occur to me until I was older that most bathrooms don't have windows, since my parents put windows in every bathroom. As long as you have a nice curtain, you can definitely do that.

My sister in law just bought a really nice kitchen "island" cart with a flip up counter for stools, as well as slide out cabinets for pots and pans, which I think is a great way to get extra storage and eating space without the crazy expense of an island (you can put a dishwasher and sink on an island instead, and it's probably more economical to do it when you are building, rather than renovating.

My list includes double ovens, a big open floorplan with the kitchen/dining room/living room all in one big space, double sinks in the bathroom (or a jack and jill bathroom so I get my own), built in bookshelves, a walk in closet, my own dressing room/area, a big finished basement for the kids to use as a playroom, and a garage to use for building projects.

cicile said...

May I suggest this sofa solution :

you can gather severela piece to make a long sofa. We have them at work and the nicest thing about them : they are washable. WITH A SPONGE.

Whenerver someone stains it with coffee, you just have to wash the stain with a sponge. How pratical is that ?

Sarah said...

My parents' house has a bonus room upstairs that was just used as storage when it was a model home. When we moved it, I asked for a bookcase door to be built, and it was pretty awesome. We called it the 'secret room' and I lived there all through high school. It was sort of neat to have... Ours was on a piano hinge and opened like a door, but another option is to have it on a pole where it pushes/spins open. Anyway, I think that's a cool addition to a house that's being built, a sort of secret space.

Kelsey said...

So exciting! We have a similar “great room” set up in our house that I love. I know some people don’t like the open kitchen concept because they don’t want people to be able to see dirty dishes, etc but it’s been great for us. We have an island so if I’m at the island cooking I can see our television which is nice if I’m home alone and want to watch a movie or if Chris wants to watch a football game on Sundays I can be cooking in the kitchen and we can still talk and be together. I really like having such a multi-functional room. Plus, I think it is a great set up for parties since it’s easy to get drinks/appetizers since everyone is usually around the island. If I could have my dream kitchen I would definitely have roll out shelves in my cabinets and pantry and a big farmhouse sink. Have fun dreaming!

Kristy said...

Wow. So exciting that you are moving fast on this goal! Your list sounds pretty do-able. My only suggestion (not bursting your bubble though) would be to do more research on whether geothermal is your best option for going net zero. I know there is a lot of debate over the pros/cons and over the price tag and payback. Double ovens and the farmhouse sink would definitely be in my dream kitchen as other have mentioned. Also - did you think about what kind of a pantry you might want to have since you mentioned wanting to do a lot of canning/preserving. Will you have a second floor? If so, having laundry on the same floor as the bedrooms is REALLY convenient.

- said...

On a day you are looking for motivation and inspiration, you should totally check out Tres Birds Workshop. They are remodeling the building that my office is going to move into in Denver. I am totally inspired by their work and their philosophy.

Lots of reclaimed local/regional materials, keeping materials in their natural state, avoiding materials that will majorly off-gas, natural light in every space, net zero, fresh air.

Allison Campbell said...

Hi Sarah,

Have you looked into solar thermal water heating instead of geothermal? I don't know what the geothermal potential is in Austin, but I don know that solar thermal hybrid systems (gas/electric/geothermal? backup) can be very cost effective.

If you have any specifications, I can help you price spec solar thermal when the time comes - amw (dot) campbell (at) gmail

Shawn said...

Ooh, this house dreaming is so much fun! I think on my list would be an undermount sink, a big pantry and good shower water pressure. Also, living in southern California where basements don't really exist, I've always thought how great it would be to have one. We would use it as a music and dance center - I would love to have a big mirror with a ballet bar, a stage, a drum set and a piano and a dj and karaoke area. But that's what is so fun about house dreaming - the thought of designing it in a way that honors what you would want to be able to do as a family.
I'm also in love with the idea of this table and thought you might like it, too.
Best of luck to you!

Jennie said...

Have you seen those toilet modifications that turn the lid of the toilet tank into a sink for hand washing? Then the used hand washing water goes into the toilet tank and is used to flush the toilet. I've always wanted one! Such an easy way to save water!

chantelle said...

This is great - enjoy the dreaming and planning!
A little note on natural light in bathrooms - go a skylight! We have one on ours (which has a high sloped ceiling) and it gives the room terrific light without any other windows. We never use electric lights there till it's dark outside.

Faye said...

Hi Sara - I love your blog! Just wanted to tell you though, that I lived with pan drawers for a year in a rented house, and I hated them with a passion. You have to get them all out just to get to the wok! Nightmare, unless someone has designed clever storage solutions for them since. Loving the idea of the sink/toilets. Just brilliant!

V. Wetlaufer said...

Wow, six months to build a house is so fast! All the adults in my family have built houses (grandparents several times, aunt, parents, brother), and it's always taken well over a year!

My mom LOVES her pot & pan drawers.

Also, you don't know how much I wish I could be a part of this with you. Seriously. I wish I had money and was at a point in my life where I could move to Austin and do this. This is totally a dream of mine, too. Maybe you'll still have space in a few years.

Nina said...

My biggest recommendation is to guard your heart a little more. If everything works out as you hope - great! But your description of the situation sounds like you may end up dissapointed within your first few meetings with the Planning Department, Land Owner, Architect, and Bank.

Maybe things are waaaaay different in Texas, but out here in California it takes a lot longer than six months to get this done, and a much larger budget than you're hinting at. You need to hire an architect, have them produce the plans (3-4 months), go through a negotiation phase with the planning department before they'll be willing to issue the plethora of necessary permits (because they'll hate your plans the first time, and nitpick them to death afterwards). That'll take another few months, depending on how responsive the City or County planning department is). You'll probably have to go through the local Planning Commission, which shouldn't be too bad but you'll have to wait to get on their agenda (1 month or so). And only then can you start construction. This isn't counting the task of negotiating the land sale or the construction loan with the bank (because remember, you'll probably need two loans: one to buy the land and one for the costs of constructing your home). Each loan will likely require 20% down. The banks will likely not consider the equity from your current home until it's actually liquid - aka, until you've sold it - because they won't want to gamble on how much you'll actually end up selling it for. Another thing to consider is that, while the price of land and built homes have decreased dramatically due to the housing bubble bust, the costs of construction haven't gone down at all.

Please don't think I'm trying to be a big meanie. I love your dream and your idea: and you sound so overjoyed at all the possibilities! -- I just think it might be helpful to think in terms of a situation-that-is-worse-than-you-currently-expect (not a worst case scenario, because the situation I've described above is average, not worst case!), so that you're not shocked with disappointment if your dreams don't become true as fast or as affordably as you hope...

I know you love planning, so allow me to suggest that you throw your planning energy at planning the finances and the logistics of this (very complex) transaction, instead of designing your dream home just yet.

Sara E. Cotner said...

I appreciate your perspective, Nina! I do feel myself being overly optimistic about all of this. It's a fine line between dreaming big and being delusional. Oy.

A couple things:
1. The modular company we are working with is a one-stop shop kind of thing. They have a realtor, they have a lending partnership, they have an architect, they have structural engineers--etc., and they do all the hand-holding when it comes to permitting. Their structure and approach simplifies this a ton.

2. I am focusing on some of the not-so-fun logistics you mentioned. But it's much more fun to share the house design part!

Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective and experiences!

Caroline said...

I love house dreaming. Some of the things I really want in my some-day house.
A kitchen which is open to the dining and living room space, and which has either an island or a peninsula or some other way for folks to sit down, put drinks down and chat with the cooks while being out of the way.
Hanging pot racks in the kitchen: If you have beautiful pans, there is no better way to store them.
A larder (naturally cool pantry) for making sausage, cured meats, storing sourkraut.
The yard is of utmost importance to me.
Lots and lots of built in bookshelves. By preference, at least a shelf or two's worth in the kitchen, some in the bedrooms, and lots in the living room.
Light, airiness, and cozy nooks.
I love the idea of putting the TV away. We don't have a TV, but if we got one someday I'd like it not to be the focus of the room.

Anonymous said...

I'm so excited to have run across someone actually pursuing this type of living and community situation. For the past year, we have been discussing a community living arrangement with friends. It's always been hypothetical, but in the next few years, I think everyone will want to start considering the reality. Can't wait to follow your adventure and (hopefully) emulate your successes. Best of luck. Can't wait to hear what the future has in store!

P.S. I love drawers for pots and pans.

Ivy said...

I was just playing around over here because I felt like dreaming up my dream home before we make a big move from CA to NY- and I remembered your beautiful intentionality around the pocket community. So, I just want to say- 1) if we were in a place to have done that, we totally would, 2) sharing the process and the challenges is helpful in learning what we can manage in the future, 3) Hey, going in on a communal vacation home sounds like a pretty great back-up dream.

As always, thank you for your beautiful soul and sharing. I wish I could meet you, since I've been following you on your various projects for so many years, but just know that you've got a kindred spirit on other sides of the country rooting for you and grateful for you!

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