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Building a Dream


Building a Dream by Greg Lowitz. Photo of the author's home. Rusty nails
Musty smells
What lurks behind
These aging walls?

Pipe clot, dry rot,
Old builder’s glue
Termite heaven,
frayed wires too

I hate to think
What else could be
Inside these walls
That we can't see...

Building for Peace of Mind

Peace of mind is what a well built home is all about. When seeking a comfortable place to live, I'm talking about a home that's built to last -- a home that blends character and timeless beauty with the kind of quality materials and workmanship that conjure up a great sense of satisfaction -- a satisfaction that helps me sleep at night. I'm talking about a home that stands up to sun, wind, rain, snow, and inevitable Acts of God like earthquakes and hurricanes. I'm talking about a home that's engineered to provide years of trouble-free living. I say engineered because a well built home doesn't just happen. You must design and build it that way from its inception. Uncommon attention to detail with great foresight into potential problems is just the start. For many, a well built home is the great all-American dream.

For others, home ownership is a nightmare -- so bad that moviegoers empathize with homeowners who dump their life savings into the proverbial "Money Pit." Despite this comic relief, what could be worse than watching your investment deteriorate before your eyes? What you thought was going to be your retreat from the world suddenly becomes your worst enemy -- stalking you in the night, surprising you with costly repairs causing mental stress, financial hardship, and other untold side effects. If this sounds dramatic, guess again. Few of my friends and colleagues have trouble-free homes.

It wasn't until an extended drought subsided that one couple discovered their home was built on an old riverbed. After a weekend deluge, water filled the crawlspace, kissing the first-floor girders and flooding the heating ducts. Still, others have stories of foundation settlement, leaky roofs, noisy plumbing, and poor drainage. Sure, no home will ever be maintenance-free. But with attention to detail and sound engineering practices, many should be much better than they are. Following the principles of this book will help you build that trouble-free home.

Our First Home

I think back on our first home. What seemed like a two-bedroom two-bath castle (1,500 square feet plus garage) set us back $172,000 during the 1980’s -- complete with creeping Bermuda Grass and an undersized hose bib for a sprinkler system. In California vernacular, that was a steal at the time for a detached home in the Silicon Valley suburb south of San Francisco. What more could we have asked for? It was a distress sale. The owner -- an architect -- was getting divorced and leaving town. He wanted out. Our real-estate agent was quick to point out "comparable" homes in the neighborhood selling for more.

The house looked and felt like new. Even the building inspector we hired gave it a clean bill of health. In years prior, the seller had creatively gutted the structure to its original redwood studs and turned it into a little jewel with a Southwestern flair: big sunny windows, skylights galore, desert-sand stucco exterior, 12-foot-high beamed ceilings, imported Italian terra-cotta tile floors, and a Karastan berber carpet -- all deserving of a Sunset Magazine cover. With new electrical and plumbing throughout, we were on top of the world. Ten-thousand dollars later the landscaped yard was in full bloom -- this time sporting an automatic sprinkler system. As summer drew to a close and fall crimson colors dressed the trees, we had no idea of what was to come.

It was the night of the first fall rain when we experienced that sinking feeling you get when you just made the worst decision of your life. A hidden crack somewhere in the roof sucked water into the attic causing the ceiling to sag over the master bedroom. Eventually it collapsed into soggy pieces of pasty gypsum all over our bed and floor. It was a driving rain for sure. But it wasn't anything unusual for a good Pacific storm. We could hardly believe our eyes when we turned on the light. It was frozen in our minds like the black and white pictures we had seen from the great San Francisco quake of 1906.

At first we felt paralyzed. Then we felt an ineffable combination of nausea and breathless anger - as if someone had knocked the wind out of us, stolen our life savings, and vanished into nothingness. "Is this what home ownership is all about?" I muttered as the pounding rain droned in the background. No sooner had the storm passed, we tried to cope in the wake of our first disaster.  "Thank goodness for insurance," I mouthed voicelessly as the State Farm Good Neighbor jingle replayed incessantly through my head.

It wasn't until we repaired the roof and subsequent storms had come and gone that we realized a leaky roof was to become a permanent feature of our home. No sooner had we put the finishing strokes of paint on the ceiling and replaced our mattress, the water began to cascade down the wall like special effects in a sci-fi movie. Could it be? Another leak? Sure enough, a quick poke through the ceiling with a screwdriver was enough to drain the murky water from the ceiling into a bucket, like rancid oil from an old junker.

Expletives later, I was on the phone to the roofer to whom we had paid several thousand dollars to re-roof the entire house. At that point, the roof warranty didn't mean much to us. "We don't guarantee it won't leak," he trumpeted. "We just promise to come patch your roof if it does leak." Needless to say, the cycle of repair and patching went on for several seasons.

At first, contractors had mixed opinions as to the problem except to say that a properly installed roof should have at least a ten to fifteen year life, if not more. And from every visible perspective, I confess it appeared that the roof was installed with reasonable care and workmanship.

But the story didn't end there. Other recurring problems surfaced over the years. Water pooled in the crawlspace during rainy months. Condensation dripped on the inside of the windows from November through March. Even the central heating seemed unbalanced, leaving some rooms cold and clammy and others hot and stuffy. Sometimes the doors would stick, making them hard to close. Even superficial cracks in the drywall seemed to come and go with the seasons.

Learning the Hard Way

It was only after months of research, probing, and consulting with experts that we began to piece together a very complex puzzle of cause-and-effect relationships -- relationships that form the very cornerstone of this book. And that's because they go back to fundamental engineering principles of home construction that all too often are hidden by dazzling cosmetics or passed over by unwitting inspectors.

It turned out that most of the problems in our first home were interrelated:

  • Expansive clay soil caused foundation heaving and settlement, accounting for the sticking doors, cracked drywall, and an intermittent leaking roof.

  • Lack of foundation drainage and improper exterior grading caused under-house moisture and standing water.

  • Modern weather stripping and heavy insulation -- coupled with insufficient attic and crawl-space ventilation -- trapped high indoor humidity, causing window condensation during cool months.

  • The poor balance of indoor heat was simply a crimped heating duct, forced through a roto-hammered opening in the foundation half the size it should have been.

In hindsight, it all seems so logical now. At the time, though, even experts couldn't agree on all the causes and complex inter-relationship of these problems. For example, with proper drainage, the soil might not have swelled so much during rainy months. Without the soil swelling like a wet sponge, load-bearing partitions wouldn't have forced the roof membrane to rupture at the seams in the parapits. An old foundation with its share of cracks didn't help much either. Without a ruptured roof, it wouldn't have leaked. And with proper ventilation throughout the structure, high indoor humidity would have been largely eliminated, reducing greatly any likelihood of interior window sweating during cooler months.

The cause-and-effect relationships go on and on. The most frustrating aspect was the building inspector's failure to identify clues to these problems that should have been evident. Only the previous owner and perhaps his real estate agent could have known with certainty that such problems plagued the home. Indeed, an out-of-court settlement followed, becoming the catalyst for the greatest adventure of our life: building a new home. Building a Dream. The compounding effects of these chronic design problems were largely beyond repair, at least cost-effective repair. Considering the range of problems and the age of the original structural frame (circa. 1920), it had seen better days. The property was probably a weekend getaway for respite-seeking San Franciscans during the early days. Over the years, subsequent owners added on and remodeled piece by piece.

Given the staggering land values today in the San Francisco Bay Area (nearly two million dollars an acre) and the annual tax implications of moving into a new property, we ultimately decided to bulldoze the entire structure and rebuild from the ground up. It was the only logical choice if the problems were to be resolved once and for all. As I wrote this first chapter, our new home was well under construction.  Little did we know at the time the many surprises that awaited us.  However, by learning from our experiences and sticking it through, we were confident that the end product would stand proud, with few problems to detract from our happiness and peace of mind in the years to come...

Copyright Notice

© 1999-2012 Greg Lowitz, Builders Websource. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this may be reproduced, copied, or served in print or electronically without express written permission from the author.

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