The site this weekend… almost indistinguishable from the site a few weeks ago, except for those water tank inlets sticking up waiting to have downspouts trenched to them

It was a very quiet week on the build site… too quiet

After a parade of excavation equipment, excavating out large quantities of dirt, piling it up in a huge pile, bringing it back bit by bit, compacting, installing a water tank…. the site now looks identical to how it looked 3 weeks ago…  we were warned, but is still hard to look at it and feel like a whole lot of progress was made – but, and it is an important but, the ground under where the house is going is now solid and uniform, and when we pour a slab on it, it hopefully won’t settle unevenly and crack.

That was, after all, the whole point.

Loki tries to stow away to Korea

Next week while Catherine is in Korea, the footings will be dug all around the perimeter, and it will start to look like a construction site again.  In about 3 weeks we should have the foundation ready for framing… then it might actually start looking a bit like a house.

Leaf imprints on the concrete

Truth shall spring from the earth….The excavation for the foundation started this week.  The first step was to break up all the remaining concrete driveway around the perimeter.  While climbing around on the pile of broken concrete, Natalie found many leaf imprints which had been made on the underside of the concrete driveway when it was poured – an excellent find for a budding paleontologist.  We found and matched leaves from the local trees to as many of the imprints as we could.  Strange stuff keeps getting found during excavation, like mysterious

Natalie wishes she could find the keys

underground wires, large ancient tree roots for trees cut down more than 50 years ago, and old septic tanks, but these mysteries simply get stacked off to the side, and work continues.

After breaking up and hauling away the concrete, the footprint for the house plus an extra five foot perimeter was excavated down 2 feet below final grade, and the dirt was piled up in a new big pile. Then the dirt was brought BACK in to be compacted layer by layer so that it would have just the right characteristics… then on Thursday afternoon, the excavation guys panicked because it wasn’t compacting correctly.

Paul and Natalie play excavation

So we called the soil engineers who had specified this whole overly labor intensive and complicated process in the first place, and their solution was water – the ground was too dry, so we needed to water it to get it to compact properly!

So…. remember that last blog post about how precious a resource water is, and how much we need to preserve it, etc. etc.?  All out the window.  We had sprinklers going, watering the dirt to make nice compactable mud.

At least Natalie got to get niiiiice and muddy

Natalie’s field of mud

while skipping around in the mud field that one day will be a compacted enough pad to pour a foundation on.  And hopefully because we have done all of this, the foundation won’t crack nestled on all that nice and compacted dirt.

At some point, there will be actual building going on.  Promise.

Rainwater cachement tank

This week we put in a 9000 gallon rainwater cachement tank. It is quite a business putting in a tank this big. First, a huge hole must be dug, then the tank is brought in (random people on the street asked if it was a submarine…), a huge crane lowers the tank into the hole, and it gets back-filled with pea gravel before you bury it again under some of the dirt that you just excavated just so you can have a big fiberglass lined hole in the ground. Why on earth bother with all of this? In a word: irrigation.

Although you can’t drink it (yet), rainwater collected off the roof can be used for watering the yard and in arid climates, watering lawns and yard plants is more than half of the water consumption in an average household. In the United States, the domestic water consumption is 572L (about 150 gallons) per person per day. Those of us living in a climate where it only rains part of the year — the numbers tend to be higher than average. An efficient house with lower water use appliances can get water use down inside the house, but unless the water monster in the yard is tamed, installing low flush toilets is making just a small dent.

With a 1/3 acre lot, we were looking at a relatively large chunk of land, the needs of which could easily overwhelm any efficiencies we managed in the house. If we left the 3000 sq ft of lawn that had been there, and we watered according to the standard recommendations (1.5 – 2 inches per week in the hottest months, 1 inch per week in spring/fall), over the course of the dry months, we’d apply about 57 inches of water spread out over 9 months to the lawn (keep in mind, we get 15 inches of rainfall in a good year around here). Add that up over the area, and we’d be looking at over 100K gallons of potable domestic water irrigation spread on the grass alone just to keep it green, in other words, 280 gallons a day on average on that lawn – almost 100 gallons a day for each person in our 3 person household.

The solution for us was no lawn. We read up on California native plantings and figured that with a native garden (and our grey water system when in place), we can cut our water usage for the landscaping dramatically. So dramatically, that we thought we might be able to go municipal water independent for our plants… which brings us back to the tank.

That 15 inches of annual precipitation comes in just a few months, but if we catch all the water that comes off 1500 sq ft of roof, that is 1875 cu ft of water, or 14K gallons a year. Since we have a 9K gallon tank, even in a 70% rainfall year like we’ve been having for the last few years, it will still fill the tank. And 9K gallons is enough to keep our non-native fruit trees, our vegetable garden, and our little pond and stream environment watered (we hope!). In years with hot fall months, or late rains, we’ll probably be using municipal water by October or November — but maybe not.

Does it make sense financially? Um… no. At today’s ridiculously low, heavily subsidized water rates, the rainwater we store in that tank isn’t going to save us much money. There are simply no meaningful financial incentives in place to encourage any kind of conservation. You can’t even make back the cost of a low flow toilet in the lifetime of a house. But we decided to do it anyway. California is rapidly running out of water, and the fee structures will have to change if there is ever to be any real conservations solution. In Australia, rainwater cachement is mandated for all new construction, and at some point California will have to grapple with how to solve this problem. If rates go up dramatically, well, then it will look like a good financial investment, but we’re not holding our breath.

Some interesting numbers from a World Bank 2005 report on fresh water:

The US consumption of water for domestic uses is 572L (150 gallons) per day per person.

Our industrial and agricultural use completely dwarf those numbers at 1,980 L/person/day and 1,643 L/person/day respectively (totaling 4,195 L/person/day!)

We have a sustainable 2,350L/person/day available in the US, so 1,850L/person/day of our use is considered unsustainable, or “excess” use.  What is going to happen as we enter a period of unpredictable climate change, and our population keeps growing?

Pink stakes

LIttle pink stakes are all around allowing the excavation team to triangulate to each of the corners of the house. Because they are about 5 feet outside the perimeter, the house footprint looks huge.

Not much visibly changed on the lot this week, but two important things happened.  The first is we got our replacement power pole.  Apparently the first one initially was the wrong kind, and the city didn’t like it, then it wasn’t braced correctly and PG&E didn’t like it.  Now hopefully, the new one is one that everyone will like.. and, more importantly, connect to the grid, as it really would be useful to have power on the site again.  You’d think the guys installing the pole would have known what was acceptable…

Power Pole

Hopefully this is now a properly braced power pole

The second thing that happened is the surveyors came in and put up the pink stakes everywhere showing where the corners of the house would be.  The excavation team had promised to show up “as soon as the stakes were in”, but the stakes were in last Monday… and they ended up essentially saying “um, just kidding, how about next Monday instead?”

When they do show up, a lot of dirt is about to start getting moved around, and they have to get going, because next Friday a crane is showing up with a 9000 gallon water tank, and there needs to be a big hole in the ground for it to go into.  The topsoil is going to be scraped off and set aside, and then the excavated dirt piled in the back yard for use in landscaping.  We did a lot of weeding this weekend so that the topsoil wouldn’t be full of weeds (but unfortunately it will be anyway)

3D Model of House

Paul’s Google SketchUp Model of the House

The architectural style of the house is “Zen Modern”.  You won’t find that style described in an architecture textbook, but there is a bit of talk about it in architecture circles as possibly a new “home grown” architectural movement in California (like the Craftsman).  So, we’ll either have a house that in 20 years is an example of early Zen Modern, or, more likely, no one will ever have heard of Zen Modern.

We didn’t go to our architect saying that was the style we wanted, but when we started describing open floor plans and rows of wooden framed sliding doors that let you live both inside and outside like Frank Lloyd Wright’s prarie and usonian architecture, use of stone and natural reed and wood like one finds in some Asian architectures, and a modernist line with minimal ornamentation (no crown moulding, no frames around windows, no baseboards), and a dramatic circular staircase…he said this was sounding Zen Modern.  Especially with our plans to have an informal California native garden with rocks (he initially proposed the pond, which has now become a pond with a seasonal stream with big rocks too!)

We will have lots of natural wood, polished concrete floor downstairs, wood floors upstairs, and smooth, but not shiny stone tile or counters throughout the house.  The inside doors will most likely have translucent panels with embedded reeds in them  (

View from front door

The view coming in through the front door


Reeds implanted in the door glass

We like the juxtaposition of the “clean” lines of more modern architecture with the relaxed lines of the natural materials.  After all, we live too cluttered a life to really live in a spare modern house.