Breaking Ground

344 days ago, I bought my first house. Today, I began demolishing it. You can view the live cam of the progress on the newly installed House by the Park Live Cam here.

Picture of current house

Before: A charm-free 1953 house that’s never been updated, on a great plot of land.

Rendering of future house

After: A rendering of what the new Northwest Modern house will look like.

It’s been a long but fun road getting to this point, and both my design/build firm — Build LLC — and I are extremely happy to be breaking ground. Throughout the design and construction process, I’ve kept Mike Industries mostly free of updates, instead opting to chronicle everything on A House by the Park. After all, I don’t want to stray from this blog’s laser focus on web design, remixed infomercials, and tasty beverages. So far, it seems that decision has been a good one, as Mike Industries averages about 10,000 RSS subscribers while HBP has only 547. It is not surprising that most people are uninterested the ins and outs of homebuilding.

That said, the design and construction process — and the in-situ documenting of it — has been extremely educational to me and I want to share a little of what I’ve learned so far:

The site itself: A House by the Park

I am not building the best home in the world and I am not the greatest writer in the world, but I honestly believe that HBP is the most complete and useful first-hand journal of custom homebuilding online today. There are updates on every aspect of the process, from finding the property, to negotiating, to choosing an architect, to homing in on a design, to the difference between a G.C. and a C.M. Every step of the process is in there, with costs attached. The cost thing is a bit controversial and several people have asked me why I’m exposing how much I pay for everything. The answer is simple: costs are the murkiest aspect of design and construction and if I’m going to demystify the process of building a home, it is essential to expose them. There is no sense in detailing interesting things for other perspective home builders only to leave them in the dark about what something similar might cost them. This blog is about transparency, and everything I can reveal, I will reveal.

HBP is also a great marketing tool for people and businesses involved in my project who do a great job. I plug Build all the time because they deserve it, and I also mention and/or link to contractors, consultants, and others who help along the way.

The economy

When the economy dropped off a cliff last October — right in the middle of design stage — I wavered as to whether or not I wanted to go through with construction. While mostly (but not completely) out of the market at the time, a sinking feeling that the U.S. financial system was about to implode got me briefly curled up in a ball like the rest of the country. I contemplated delaying the project until the economy recovered (if it ever recovered) both for my own mental well-being and because with real estate values plummeting, it seemed like a bad time to be investing more in real estate.

I jumped back and forth between wanting to build and wanting to delay, but in the end, what got me over the hump were a few things:

  1. This is the house I want to die in. I never want to sell it, so its paper value means less to me than its intrinsic value. This fact lessens my interest in turning any sort of profit and heightens my interest in getting it done as quickly as possible so my girlfriend and I can enjoy it before we are old and decrepit.
  2. The best time to build is when everyone’s business is slowing dramatically. If you build on the upswing, contractors’ bids and availability reflect the fact that they are in high demand. If you build at the bottom, many contractors and subs have already gone out of business so the labor pool has shrunk to match demand. But if you build on the downswing, the available pool of contractors is gigantic and the rates are lower as a result. So far, we are getting extremely competitive bids… a rarity in recent times, I hear.
  3. I feel a certain patriotic pride that I am helping put people to work at a time when our economy needs it most. My architects told me I’m one of the few who have “gotten out from under the covers” and I feel good about that. I feel we overspend quite a bit as a nation, and I don’t think people should just go out there and spend willy-nilly to stimulate the economy, but if you have the means to make a purchase right now, whether house, car, education, or other things, there’s never been a better time to do it.

The people

The number one thing that will determine whether or not a home building project is a success is what group of people you choose to work with. You can hire the greatest architect in the world, but if you aren’t on the same wavelength as him or her, your project will turn out horribly. Similarly, even if you make it through design stage with flying colors, the wrong contractor can bring the project in well above your budget level. When I interviewed two general contractors before moving forward with Build as my construction manager, one of them provided me with a “low estimate” and a “high estimate” to account for if things went well or poorly. Their low estimate was almost twice the total cost of the project when going the design/build route, and the high estimate was almost three times! An uninformed client would be out several hundred thousand dollars or more with the wrong decision there.

So far I have not hired a single person on this project that I regret hiring. Everyone’s been great and that has contributed to an ultra-low stress level for me.

Cost structures

I am procuring flat fee bids for every service I possibly can. Build charged me a flat fee for design and a flat fee for construction management. The electrical, plumbing, framing, and other bids are all flat bids as well. As a client, I love the flat fee system because I know exactly what I’m getting and I know exactly how much I’m paying for it. I don’t care if it takes someone longer or shorter than they estimated. I just want the work done and I want to pay a certain amount. As a designer, I also prefer this system. If someone wants a logo designed, I’d rather charge $5000 up front and agree to spend as much time as it takes to get the job done. If I kick ass and produce a great logo in a few hours, woohoo for me. If it takes me longer than expected, my effective hourly rate just decreases a bit. Not a big deal.

Anyone who agrees to pay an architect 15% of the cost of construction should think twice about how their interests are aligned. If the architect makes an extra 15% if he or she convinces you to use a material that is more expensive but not that much better than another material, how is that good for you? I’m not implying any sort of dishonesty here… just misalignment of interests. If I charged that way, I would also naturally gravitate towards the most expensive items my clients could afford.

I have a huge amount of respect for the fields of architecture and construction. I just want to be charged in a way that aligns my interests with my providers’.

Being green

The easiest way to “be green” is to live in a windowless, heavily-insulated, unlit, underground bunker. You’ll barely suck any energy from the grid and you can brag to your friends at parties that you have less of an impact on global warming than Ed Begley Jr. Of course if you do this, you will eventually complete your transformation into the Unabomber and not be allowed at parties — let alone in society — anymore.

The best way to think about building green is to figure out how to have as little of a negative impact on the earth as possible, whilst maintaining the reasonable level of comfort that an atmospheric parasite such as yourself is accustomed to. Does this mean giving up your beautiful west facing view for the sake of completely eliminating solar gain? No. But it means making other smart decisions along the way.

For me personally, it meant donating nearly 55 tons of material such as sandstone and teak to The Re-Store so it can be re-sold instead of shoved into a landfill. It also meant building a smaller, better insulated house than what is currently on the property. And finally, it meant not blowing $100k on environmentally questionable photovoltaic panels or drilling into my hillside for geo-thermal energy, but pre-wiring my roof for 5 or 10 years from now when we can unroll solar panels like beach blankets.

Tumbling as window shopping

I created a Tumblr at to clip all of the interesting things I see on the web which may work well in the house. From appliances, to siding materials, to furniture, it’s a great place to store stuff you want to remember later. No more “where did I see that cool lamp?”. It’s all on the Tumblr. My architects can also monitor the Tumblr to get a feel for what sorts of things interest me and what they may have to design for along the way.


Almost a year after beginning phase one, we now move onto phase two: construction. Phase one may be the make or break phase for curb appeal, but phase two is where bank accounts go to die. I don’t expect more than a small percentage of Mike Industries visitors to follow along, but if you’re interested, head on over to HBP and help shape decisions along the way.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

10 comments on “Breaking Ground”. Leave your own?
  1. First of all, I have read every entry at HBP (I was first a Mike Industries reader) and have loved every word of it. I am not in a position to build now, but plan to be in about 10 years. So THANK. YOU.

    The cost thing is a bit controversial and several people have asked me why I’m exposing how much I pay for everything.

    I think this is one of the greatest parts. But then again, this is coming from a guy who posts his taxes to his website every year.

    I feel a certain patriotic pride that I am helping put people to work at a time when our economy needs it most.

    It is true and you should feel proud. My dad (who just did a very large remodel) said the same thing. At first he felt guilty, but then thinking further he realized how it was helping these people out. Capitalism isn’t a bad thing. Greed and materialism is. But throwing out capitalism (especially in a poor economic time) is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    Of course if you do this, you will eventually complete your transformation into the Unabomber and not be allowed at parties — let alone in society — anymore.

    Hilarious! And probably true :)

  2. Matt Savarino says:

    Curious – how are you powering and connecting the cam from across the street?

  3. Mike D. says:

    Matt: It’s a Panasonic megapixel power-over-ethernet cam with a server built right into it. This one. My across the street neighbors were nice enough to let me mount it on their property and it’s just got one line going into a dedicated DSL connection.

  4. Chris says:

    I must not be reading Mike Industries enough since this is the first I’m hearing of your house plans and your other blog. I can’t wait to catch up on the whole process. Congrats!

  5. The easiest way to “be green” is to live in a windowless, heavily-insulated, unlit, underground bunker.

    Not necessary Mike :) We have a very big window (+ 5 meter/2.5 meter high) situated southwards and we don’t need an AC to cool the house or anything. The glass itself has protection built in against heat but to be honest that isn’t enough when they are that big. Our house has good insulation but not like a passive house. We installed a sunscreen and now everything stays cool to be enjoyable even after serveral days of severe heat and warm nights. Couldn’t miss my window anymore as I love the light even on a very grey day!

  6. Just finished reading the article and wanted to say good luck to you. Big leap your taking but sounds like you’ve really worked this one through. I look forward to seeing the finished product. Cheers.

  7. David Robarts says:

    Veerle is absolutely right when she sais that windowless is not the easiest way to be green. In fact glass facing the equator in temperate climates is great because you can protect the glass from high sun in the summer while allowing solar gain to heat the house in winter. Of course dual or triple plane glazing is important for insulation and various coatings are available to control how the windows perform for non-visible radiation.

    In most large buildings the heat generated from people, lights, and equipment is so much that even in some cold winter climates, air conditioning is used to keep the interior of the building from overheating. One important way to be green is to use as much natural day lighting as possible, not only do you no longer need to power a light, but if the lighting can be achieved without direct sun on the glass the heat gain due to lighting is lower than that of fluorescent lighting (let alone incandescent and halogen). I’m not sure if this is still true if the lighting technology is LED (LEDs use even less enregy than fluorescent).

    Unfortunately for Mike, taking advantage of western views is not compatible with passive solar design because the heat gain cannot be controlled to occur only when it is desirable. Even in winter the heat gain in the afternoon is not always desirable because the outside air is reaching the daily high at the same time the sun starts baking your house. I’d recommend planning an easy to use window covering that will allow you to block the solar gain when you aren’t admiring the view. No point in letting the sun bake your house on summer afternoons while you are at work. Also it was wise of you to make sure early on that ventilation was provided with the glass – I imagine most days in Seattle you’ll do just fine if you can let the heated air out and cool air in.

  8. Mike D. says:

    Veerle and David: Definitely. I was being a bit facetious about the bunker. What I really meant was “if all you’re interested in is being green, there are all sorts of non user-friendly ways to achieve that very easily”. To deal with the west glazing issue, we’re going with a motorized exterior shade system that can automatically raise and lower with the sun angle and a few other factors. Hopefully it helps keep gain low during the summer and high during the winter. Thanks for the comments!

  9. Brade says:

    Mike, definitely appreciate the thorough documentation of the whole process, including costs. Building my own place is not currently on the radar, but I’ll know where to look first when it is.

  10. Eric Rogers says:

    Great post, thanks for sharing. It’s been very helpful to have such an honest and straight-forward journal of the home building process.

    As for sustainability, the biggest impact isn’t solar panels or insulation, it’s the location chosen for the house. Transportation is the single biggest impact that most of us have on the environment. Does the location allow you to access work, stores, school, etc. via transit, bicycling, or walking – or does the location require you to drive everywhere. An off-the-grid Dwell house perched on a remote cliff isn’t sustainable if the residents have to get in the car just to get a gallon of milk.

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