On the agenda of the Zoning Board of Appeals

The ZBA has put our plans on the agenda for review in April. Our architect says the process should be smooth, since we are not in violation of anything but what’s grandfathered in and can’t be changed (such as the corners of our house extending into the setbacks).

After seeing so many postcards with other homeowners’ changes announced, it was fun to see our names on the postcard this time!

ZBA neighborhood notice of our requested permit

The ZBA notifies all homeowners within a certain distance of our property that we have asked for a permit to renovate.

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Where do the cars go?

We’re looking at alternatives to the initial driveway design and extra car parking spot idea.

Design idea for parking a car out of sight

Warm weather parking spot has a vegetative screen and fits into the notch in the corner of the house.

A semi-plan view further illustrates the idea:

Plan view of corner parking spot idea

Shubs and small trees screen the corner parking spot from our neighbors' view.

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Driveway redesign

We look forward to eliminating a large part of our existing driveway.  Here are our architect’s first plans for how that might look.

Our own initial idea was to park the car inside the screen porch during the cold (and snowy) months, and to park it outside during the warmer seasons.  We don’t want it to obscure the view of the backyard, so thought of nestling it along the side of the house, out of view of the kitchen windows, as shown in the below drawing.

Back driveway perspective drawing

View of potential side parking pad beside Northwest corner of the property

We also experimented with putting recycling and bicycles along that side of the house.  The plantings aren’t modeled yet, and might also be challenging to fit in well.  This part of the house and yard is the most difficult so far from a design standpoint.

The next view is the existing driveway in the context of the property boundaries and setbacks:

Demolition site plan

Architectural demolition site plan to support surveyor's drawings for ZBA review

The last view is a possible new driveway layout, including a slot for a second car.  I favor putting a second car parking spot in the front yard, on the corner where the driveway enters the properties, similar to our next-door neighbors’ extra parking space, which doubles as a cobblestone entry walkway.

Site plan

Proposed architectural site plan illustrating new driveway dimensions

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Preparing for the Zoning Board of Appeals

The existing house doesn’t comply with the zoning bylaws. When built in 1910, the setbacks from the property line must have been narrower than they are today, because two corners of the house extend into them, most significantly on the Southern corner. If you want to make any changes to an existing nonconforming property like ours, you need to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA).

The process takes time, but our architect is hopeful that there won’t be any major issues, because we only need a special permit and not a variance. To get a variance you need to prove you’re suffering from a hardship of some kind, but special permits generally just require that you go through the process without providing any reasons for the construction.

The ZBA needs to see a surveyor’s drawing of our property that shows both the existing structure and the proposed changes relative to the parcel boundary and setback.  Here’s our assessor’s initial drawing:

Site plan for review by the zoning board

Surveyor's site plan of proposed changes for zoning board review

The drawing shows the existing common driveway and its extension into our property. We plan to remove most of it, so the surveyor will modify this draft of the drawing to include the new driveway dimensions once we have a design for them.

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Renovation elevation drawings on three sides

The architectural elevation drawings are ready!  They show the vertical views of the three sides of the house that will change during the remodel.

That odd notch you see on the back (South-facing) corner is necessary for getting through the zoning approval process.  The setback on our property runs very close to the house here — in fact, the corner of the notch closest to the driveway violates the setback line — so our house will be unusual (perhaps special?) in that it won’t be a perfect rectangle.

Driveway side elevation

Architectural driveway side elevation

Rear elevation

Rear elevation

Dining room side elevation

Architectural dining room side elevation

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Four levels of architectural plans

After a month of consideration and discussion with our architect, we have worked out the majority of the circulation and layout (what designers call the “plan view”) of all four floors, from basement to attic.  The following drawings are created in a Computer Aided Design (CAD) program to ensure accurate measurements and enable quick updates if designs change later.

Here they are from bottom to top (with dark black indicating existing walls that will not be demolished):

Basement plan

Architectural basement plan

First floor plan

Architectural first floor plan

Architectural CAD drawing of second floor

Architectural second floor plan

Attic plan

Attic plan

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Three Eastern White Pines

A stand of three mature and stately Eastern White Pine trees watches over the back lawn, driveway and woodlot (shown here in the context of the garden shed). The lowest branches are about thirty feet from the ground, so even with my 28′ ladder, it would be tricky to climb any of them safely, tempting as that may be.

The largest of the three is dropping what seems like an excessive amount of sap onto the ivy surrounding its trunk.  Hardened drips of sap cover the Southeastern branches as far up the tree as I can see. Does the tree have some damage that’s causing such a big flow of sap?

Hardened white sap on ivy below an Eastern White Pine

I climbed up my ladder hoping to get a better view of the upper reaches of the tree, but only surprised what may have been a White Breasted Nuthatch. This bird may be nesting in the tree or using it to store or crack acorns. Maybe there’s a connection due to drilling done by this bird and a wound in the tree? The trees drop needles that acidify the soil below their crowns, which stunts the back lawn grass growing below that needle-drop.

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Sizing a rainwater cistern

What dimensions would a rainfall cistern need to be to (a) hold all the rain that falls on the roof over the average year, and (b) satisfy all the indoor water use of a family of four for an average year?  I ended up estimating that a tank capable of storing about 50,000 gallons would hold all the rain for an above-average year, and if it filled up over time, would cover the entire family’s water use for a year.

Here are my calculations:

First, I measured our roof area, ignoring the slant.  The main roof and first floor roof lengths and widths yields approximately 31 feet wide by 50 feet long, which totals 1,550 square feet.  That’s 372 x 600 inches, or 223,200 square inches.

The roof covers a rectangle 31 feet wide and 50 feet long.

In our region, the average rainfall is 45.45 inches.  If that much rain falls on a 223,200 square inch area, the volume of water running off will be 223,200 x 45.45 = 10,144,440 cubic inches.  There are 0.004329 gallons per cubic inch, so that’s 43,915 gallons per average year of rainfall hitting our roof.  (And, suppose it’s a very wet year — with 20% more rain, the volume could rise to 52,698 gallons.)

So, that’s how much water we could harvest, but how much are we likely to use? According to The Integral Urban House, typical indoor water use per US person is 67 gallons per day.  The book also estimates a conservationist’s indoor water use to be as low as 20 gallons per person per day.  So, for a family of four, indoor water use falls within a range of 97,820 to 29,200 gallons per year (e.g. for typical: 67 x 4 x 365 = 97,820).

That means there’s more than enough rain in the average year to cover all of our indoor water needs if we conserve, but not enough if our usage is “typical” of the patterns cited in The Integral Urban House.

How big would our cistern need to be to hold all the rain that falls in an above-average year?  Suppose we figure that some years there will be more water than we can use, and we want to store that leftover water for a future year (or just to water the garden)…  A cylindrical cistern 10 feet deep with a 15 foot radius would hold 7,068 cubic feet (radius2 * pi * depth).  There are 7.4805 gallons per cubic feet, so this tank holds 7,068 x 7.4805 = 52,875 gallons.

In the context of the house, that’s an enormous tank, as shown here:

A 15-foot radius cistern in the back yard looks pretty big!

Maybe a series of smaller cisterns located around the house would be better than one?  But then would we need multiple pumps?  Need to think about it some more!

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Dreaming of metal roofing during Hurricane Irene

As Hurricane Irene knocks wrist-thick branches from the trees around our house onto the roof, I can’t help thinking of Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, and his observations (p. 114 – 118) about maintenance based on choices of building materials:

A seldom-utilized but highly important roof element is color, the lighter the better.  With a white or silvered roof reflecting away the sun’s heat and destructive ultraviolet rays, the building will be far more comfortable and energy-efficient, and the life of the roof material will be doubled.

Representing some 70 percent of a building’s exposure, the roof has to take extreme punishment – from rain, snow, and ice, from freezing and frying (and the contracting and expanding that go with them), from wind, from chemicals in the air, and from constant molecular breakdown by the sun’s ultraviolet rays. The side of a pitched roof facing the weather (sun or wind, whichever’s worse locally) will need new roofing in half the time of the protected side.  If ever you want to do a building a favor, buy it a new hat.

A hat made of what?  The choices are:  wood shingle, asphalt composition shingle, built-up roof, single-ply membrane, lead, tile, slate, and metal.  Wood shingle looks nicely weathered in just a year, but it only lasts about fifteen years, if fire doesn’t get it first.  George Washington had to replace Mount Vernon’s shingles six times.  Composition shingle is cheap and comes in colors, but it lasts only fifteen to twenty years.  The single-ply membranes are still too new to gauge their longevity, and built-up roofs are known for short lifespans of ten to twenty years.

The 100-year-plus materials are lead, tile, slate, and metal.  When lead finally crystallizes after a century or so, it needs to be completely replaced.  Tile and slate are heavy, expensive, and sometimes breakable, but they are fireproof and beautiful and they will last the life of most buildings (often much longer, since they can be recycled).  New concrete tiles are not as attractive as traditional clay tiles – a 12,000-year-old technology—but they cost less.  Slates are soulful.  However they don’t hold up in sunny climates quite as well as tile (ultraviolet rots them), they need steeper pitches to reduce moisture damage, and they require stainless steel or copper nails if you want the fasteners to last as long as the slates.

Metal roofs have become tremendously popular since architects began getting sued for leaks.  The best of all is standing-seam terne-coated stainless steel or copper.  It is light, nonflammable, moderately  priced, good looking, nearly maintenance-free, and waterproof (it also sheds snow, branches, and prowlers).  In The Low-Maintenance House, Gene Logsdon reports, “Every roofer I ask says that metal roofs today are the best buy for the money of any kind of roofing.”  Len Lewandowski concludes in Preventive Maintenance of Buildings, “The standing seam roof offers the lightest weight, lowest maintenance, and most cost-effective roofing solution available today.”  Survivors of hurricanes in the American southeast say that metal roofs should be fastened with screws rather than nails – stainless steel of course.

After the roof, the most vulnerable part of a building’s exterior is the windows.  Like people, buildings would have far fewer upkeep problems if they had no orifices.  Water dampens and sun toasts the horizontal surfaces, and decay blooms in the cavities and crevices.  Condensation collects on the inside of the glass.  The moving parts undergo wear and tear.  And even more than the rest of the building’s skin, windows obsolesce quickly from fashion swerve and technology advance.  Most won’t last twenty years.

When it comes to walls, one of the great cautionary tales of maintenance is the siding question.  Exasperated home owners are offered a shortcut:  Just put up aluminum or vinyl siding and quit worrying forever about peeling paint and decayed wood and all the rest of it.  Aluminum eventually dents, and its paint can scratch off, but vinyl (available since 1963) has neither disadvantage.  At the cost of three paint jobs, put it up and your problems go away, right?  Wrong.  Where your problems go is out of sight.  Vinyl siding is a vapor barrier chilled by outside cold.  Any moisture behind it, whether from leaks or condensed house humidity, is trapped to do its damage invisibly for years.  The damage can be structural.

The question is this:  do you want a material that looks bad before it acts bad, like shingles or clapboard, or one that acts bad long before it looks bad, like vinyl siding?  A whole philosophy of maintenance falls one way or the other with the answer.  What you want in materials is a quality of forgiveness.  Shingles and clapboard expand and contract comfortably with temperature extremes, they let water vapor through, they show you when they’re getting worn, and they’re easy to replace piecemeal.  The same is true of British tile-hanging on exterior walls, a weatherproofing practice worth importing to the US.  Remodelers love shingled and tile-hung walls because changes are so easy to make and then hide.

The attraction of traditional materials such as shingles and clapboard is more than just aesthetic.  Their whole use cycle is a highly evolved system of trade skills, reliable supply sources and routes, generations-deep familiarity, and even a market for reuse of durable materials such as slates, tiles, bricks, and timbers.  The problems of traditional materials are thoroughly understood, and the solutions are equally well known.  Maintenance is no mystery.  In some cases maintenance can be a matter of steady improvement, as with the now unfashionable use of whitewash on masonry or stucco walls.  In the days when medieval castle walls were routinely brightened in side with fresh whitewash, it was said that the whitewash “fed the stonework”.  It did, and it does so to this day on the dazzling rubble-and-stucco buildings of the Greek islands which are required by local law to get a new coat of whitewash annually.  The lime or chalk in the whitewash fills hairline cracks before they expand and helps keep water out.

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A shade model of the whole property

After several false starts with handmade terrain and paper plot plans, I’ve discovered Google Earth Terrain.  Downloading this data for my neighborhood has enabled me to adjust the model so the parcel boundaries, fences, trees, roads and neighboring structures all match up with reality, as evidenced by the shade model.  When I set Sketchup’s shadows for a particular date and time, they fall exactly where the real shadows are falling that day and time in the yard and inside the house.  For instance, here are the shadows for June 11, 2011, at 9:48am (Eastern time zone).

This in turn has confirmed how much sunshine falls on different parts of the property over the course of the Summer.  On that basis, we’ve planted a small garden along the fence, near where our driveway enters the backyard.  The vegetables are growing fast — we can hardly keep up with all the salad greens and Arugula!

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