Feb 4, 2021

Modern Prefab House Construction Update And Off-grid Prefab Homes As Rentals


First, I hope you are well.
I have an update on one of our modern prefab homes on the West Coast, and a question to answer from a potential client, which prompted me to write this, in the hopes it might help others. 

Prefab House Kit Update: The Dogtrot Mod Modified In the Pacific Northwest: Wolftrot Update!

The client, an engineer, wrote in spring that they had not yet moved in but were doing well.

"The SIP building contractor just managed to complete and weather proof the house shell before he cleared off for Xmas, leaving a few still uncorrected minor issues, such as missed caulking in places around the siding.  

We ended up switching to Hardie Products cement and fiber-based siding as the contractor screwed up ordering the siding and the house weather proofing would have been not possible until probably around now!  

And of course it's unpainted so we'll be doing that ourselves.  We've been quoted prices between $4K and $7K but we're not impressed with how houses get painted around here.  Spray guns don't do an adequate job filling crack or tight gaps and you can't tell afterwards for some time if you got ten microns or a tenth of an inch coverage.  It will cost us less than $500 using the best paint available and we'll be comfortable it's well done.  I might have to rent some trestles as mine are too low but, what the heck.

We pretty much ignored the house until a few weeks ago, taking a break from construction stress that was as you noticed getting us down.  Things picked up when thought we'd finally found an electrician we could work with.  The Utility wanted $14,100 to excavate and install a conduit for the power to come from a pole at the top of our lot down to the meter at the house.  I tried to get solar and off the grid contractors to respond with alternative power sources, i.e. solar, batteries and standby generator but I think they only exist in glossy architectural magazines.  No one was interested here in X, particularly in X.  There was one that looked a possibility, a two-woman business located on the X side of X, but they declined to bid.  

So we've bought a tractor with a front loader and a back hoe.
The used 2015 Kubota tractor came from a rental company in northern California.  It cost $13,500 plus another $600 to get it transported up to us.  It took another $100 for minor parts to fix silly problems the rental company was too lazy to correct, but it took a month to get everything sorted.  But we're ahead as the tractor will resell for what we paid for it and we now have a 'free' tractor to use grading and clearing the lot.  Oh, I also added a 'thumb' to the backhoe stick so I was able to pickup large logs and relocate them out of the way.

So after grading the lot down to the anticipated final 'landscaped' level where the trench for the conduit needed to go, I have now been able to excavate the required 40" deep trench.  It extends from the pole to the house where the meter will be installed, a distance of 210', which I calculate amounts to around 30 tons of material just for the trench, let alone all the grading before hand.  The Utility came and replaced their old, weak pole with a taller, stronger one with the necessary transformer atop it almost as soon as I told them I'd bought the tractor.  Now the electrician, that was was supposed to be available last Friday to complete the process is "unavailable' until April 28th!  Now I may just order the Siemens distribution and meter boxes and install them myself while I'm waiting.  I'm under the impression that an 'licenced' electrician has to sign off on the electrical work before a building inspector can sign off as well but ...  I'm begining to have my doubts about that.  I'm told that here in Oregon a home owner can do any work on a new home or remodel themselves.  They do need to get a building inspector to sign off each critical feature but I'm told they will do that for a 'civilian' constructor.  I'm now researching that heavily.

I've always hated electrical outlets that result in electrical plugs protruding so furniture can't be placed close to walls.  So, for that reason, and to eliminate having to cut holes into the SIP insulation, except where it's required for water intrusion safety (bathrooms, toilets and the laundry) I intend to install recessed, flush mount electrical receptacles in the floor wherever we would otherwise have wall sockets.  The ones I plan to use allow two plugs to be inserted below the flush floor level, leaving just the wire coming out through a small opening.

Lastly, for now, I did manage to get a framer to come and build out the interior walls for us.  I could do that myself but the alignment of walls has a huge effect on the internal appearances if I were to screw something up.  Besides, he helped with the SIP framing and we were very impressed his workmanship then.  He came and installed the front decking last week (I'll be doing the rear decking myself) and got started on the interior before he left Friday.  He's back now and expects to complete the entire interior structures this week.  Pictures of that to follow.

I have to say that despite the stress we're enjoying the results so far.  It's fun to refine the design as we go along, within reason, as we better understand just how we want "our" house to be."

Thank you Wolftrot for your update! I appreciate it very much!!!

Maintaining An Off-Grid Prefab House, Away

No way around it, if you are planning to be off-grid, yet away during the day, during the workweek, if you are thinking about using our prefabs for an off grid house rental business... you will not be able to do so comfortably on "a bare minimum solar system + wood heat."

Good news is that our prefab homes start you on the path to off-grid success: a passive solar design to embrace the winter sun (and keep its direct rays out, in summer), the energy-efficiency of the SIP in the prefab house. 

But when temperatures plummet, that wood stove needs to be fed.
If you can work from home like I, that's easy! 
The stove gets the house toasty, the foundation warms, the SIP hold in the heat. 

But if I leave? 
Albeit slowly, the temperature will drop.
The slab will cool.
It takes effort and time to regain heat, lost.

You will need a much larger solar system, to power thus heat your house.
Like so many off-gridders, you might embrace a (usually propane) gas solution, not a great off grid method if you want to truly be independent.

And: adding smart home devices to monitor and notify you of failures today is a given. 

If you are considering a prefab house (or any home) as an off-grid rental, I would absolutely consider the liabilities of letting renters work with indoor fire. It's not that it's not done. But you should certainly have that as a secondary, minimal reliance heat. What I experienced myself when we rented a cute cottage years ago at the Greenbrier is that we were forbidden to light the fire, but could add to it via a small stack of wood. 

If *I* were to rent our off grid prefab house during winter, at a minimum I would...
  • similarly forbid the lighting of the fire, because who knows WHAT they would do ("Hey let's toss gasoline on, that'll start it, quick!")
  • provide a sign, conspicuously posted, AND give a personal demonstration of the flue / lifting the lid to access the firebox, "dos and don'ts"... even then, imagine someone mistakenly dropping your firebox lid and it breaking! Eeep! How would you even fix that, locally? If you're gonna mess with wood stoves, you'd better have "oops" plans ready!
  • only have smallish to small-medium pieces of wood, stacked, with big lectures of not stuffing the firebox and when it's okay or not ok to add wood ("Please do not add wood if the oven is above 350, as that might jump the firebox exceedingly." I mean, WE know what is safe / how much is safe to add at 350, but they don't, do you want to chance it?).
  • schedule a "Good morning we are here to re-light your fire" visit for them each morning.
What are your thoughts? How might you handle this? Would you take it on?

Back To Our Own Prefab House And Life Off-Grid... 

Ahhhhh this… year.
Annually, I make a Christmas calendar for the grandparents, snapshots of family moments over the year. By Thanksgiving I am *panicked* and frantically trying to pull it all together, sifting through thousands of photos to paste together one collage for each month.

Any year, it’s hard.
This year?
Would you?!?

I obviously decided not to do it *this* year.

But Handsome Husband asked how it was going, as he does annually,
and when I broke the news 
right before the holidays
that *maybe* this was the year to simply purchase a gift, 
he flipped.

I began
the Christmas calendar.

Know what?
as I went through every month
to my surprise
there were 
Enough of them.

In Closing, On Our Own Prefab House from Green Modern Kits Project:

We are nearing 15 years since our own prefab house construction, and with this beautiful snow I'm noticing how beat up and muddy our doors and some areas of the cladding are... hey, we play rough in this family! 

I'm thinking maybe in spring with the kids now older I will repaint doors, do some landscaping, and spiff up the exterior a little. 
To be, always, continued!

Feb 11, 2020

Modern Prefab House Project Construction Update With Our Own Off-Grid Prefab Home Notes

Enjoying winter in our modern off-grid prefab home.
Greetings from our modern Off Grid Prefab House!

Prefab House Construction Update on the Wolftrot- A Modified Dogtrot Mod from Green Cabin Kits in the Pacific Northwest!

If you recall, they heavily modified our Dogtrot Mod from GreenCabinKits.com, from this...
...to this:
The husband is an engineer, and here are his words.
"We are making progress on the house, through at times it goes in fits and starts.  Last time I wrote we had the basement in place.  The floor quickly followed and then it rained.  A lot.  Then the crew put the SIP walls up.  And then it rained.  A lot more, to the point where we now have WolfTrot Pond in front of the house.
Copeland's note: Ok not this pond. This is the lake in front of their house, the real lake.
When the builders needed more dirt to complete back-filling around the stem walls I said they could take more from beyond the level area we'd made anticipating a garage being sited there.  The plan was for them to increase the size of the already level area.  Of course, they cheated and took more where I suggested but cut deeper, leaving a shallow area where rain water collects.

Putting together the SIPs!
The SIP roof was installed and the builder decided we needed a 'cool roof' under the metal roof as the slope is 1:12.  This entailed completely covering the SIP OSB surface with waterproof material, then installing battens with more sheets of OSB layered on top of that, followed by more waterproof covering material.

Now the entire house shell is completed and as I write they are finishing installing the metal roof.
Roof is on! Now for windows and doors!

We had originally intended to use steel siding for the walls but that has had to be dropped.  The original metal roof supplier that our builder was familiar with offered steel siding too but we found it was really roofing panels that were mounted vertically on walls which we felt looked too industrial.

Our builder was recommending Hardie Planking which I felt was not ideal despite their being considered recyclable materials.  Cement and fiber may be recyclable but are not CO2 friendly.  I searched around and found that there is a dearth of steel siding available but succeeded in eventually finding a source here.  We decided to use their roofing panels as well as the Dutch Lap siding.

But all told, we're okay with how it's gone in general.
We're looking forward to this stage being completed(...).
Then we can get down to construction the remaining interior stud walls and installing the plumbing and wiring.  At this moment I'm anticipating doing much of that myself.
Beautiful M!!!!

We've been waiting for the local utility company to come and install a new power pole where they want to situate the transformer for our property.  The request was made over three months ago and we're still waiting.

If I thought we could still afford it I'd go straight to a solar configuration but that will require a standby generator and batteries too.  There is no natural gas supply nearby so I would have to either install a propane or diesel tank for fuel for the generator.  Propane pricing can be more volatile that diesel and diesel is more energy efficient but the generators cost more as well.

Windows going in on the passive solar modern prefab house!
I scheduled a visit by a solar contractor but he never showed up!
He also never returned my calls after that.
(...) 20-30 years ago you could get anything done with a few phone calls.  Today it seems like pulling hens teeth to even get someone interested in doing anything.  I estimate that less than 10 percent of the contractors I asked for quotes have even bothered to respond.
And that's the latest from Wolftrot, a Dogtrot Mod heavily modified in the Northwest.

I am deeply grateful when clients send updates, as it seems, more often than not, that they don't.
HOWEVER I understand all to well these days writer's block and the reluctance to type out anything!
I resolve to check back with others soon.
I do know that the Austin project has sold her lot, but don't know if the project is in hiatus or for a better location. This winter the architect made a round of changes, but I have not heard more.

So back to our own life, off-grid, in a modern prefab house from Green Modern Kits.

Ugh, right now we all have colds.
No one feels like doing anything, going anywhere... which is a great time to talk about off-grid food storage. Because who wants to drive down the highway 30+ minutes just to get to the grocery store?

Plus, when you're sick, ethically, you shouldn't.
Stay in bed!

So. After I publish this post, I'm going to crawl back into bed and let the kids take over awhile. At least we don't have to drive, we have everything we need, here.

How much food do you have on hand? A week? 
Why not three months?

As uncertainty nears (like snow/hurricanes / weather systems, for example) I make sure we not only have our usual stores but double check to have extra, for extra weeks... and to not forget to store up food for our animals, medicine, extra toothpaste / deodorant / shampoo / detergent... and TOILET PAPER...

Likewise, this time of year especially I always have a "living off-grid with the flu" plan: it may be unsightly, but that pile of wood by the back door ensures that if I get ill (although now, with teens, they could certainly keep the house running, but what if we all get sick?), I don't have to travel to the woodshed for wood and have three days to rest before having to head out.

So during approaching weather/flu season, ask yourself: do you have enough on hand where you can then just allow yourself to go to bed and be sick? Or if the hurricane fells trees across the road and you're stuck? (Pro tip: Country people put chain saws in their cars before heading out after storms.)

We continue to make a farm kid out of the "I'm From The 3rd Largest City In China" teen.
The two other teens
played a joke on him
which somehow involved
a chicken.

An introduction to chickens, and chicken handling, followed.
But not in the HOUSE, kids! Geez.

At the Amish auction, he learned to load hay.
He learned the beauty of
all kinds of junk food in country stores.
To my organic chagrin.

Over winter, we headed back-and-forth into the city, and I did my usual temperature comparisons of outdoors vs. indoors-in-the-prefab-house-that-hadn't-been-heated-in-days.

In Virginia, our average temperatures in winter are in the 20s-40s. I have never arrived, after days without heat, to the interior of the prefab house in the 40s.

Usually in real winter weather, when I arrive in the prefab home after night after night in the 20s, I find it in the mid/high 50s. I fire up the cookstove, and it takes awhile, I don't turn on the radiant heat or fans to blow it even or anything; but the temperature rises to cozy soon enough.
So this is what I arrive to, after nights in the 20s with highs of 40.
When I arrive, I like to walk around the prefab home with my little laser temperature reader and sniff for any indication there are leaks in the door frames or windows. So far, after all these years... no.

In the following pictures, I fell asleep super early and let the cook stove burn out for a night when it was 14 degrees.

If you fell asleep in YOUR house tonight, with no heat, and it was 14 outside, to what temperatures would *you* wake? 

I like to walk around the prefab with my little laser temperature reader after nights like this and see. It's certainly not toasty, but it's certainly not cold. (After this I lit the fire and then I was toasty with hot coffee and a beautiful day!)
Look closely in these pictures and you'll see the laser point on the wall.
Laser pointer on the art, now. Temperatures in this test were 59-64 I think.
Fluctuation due not to insulation
but to what rooms were semi-closed / height
(I did not have fans running, either.)
Did I mention it was 14 degrees?!?

Winter at the off grid prefab house has been pretty gray this year.
Lots... and lots... of gray.
Keep it colorful with friends!
That's why this time of year is Visitin' Season.
When it's gross and gray, I make a big pot of stew and invite friends. As much as I want everything in place and tidy at the prefab house, these concrete floors were made for friends and dogs and romping...

Happiness is a sink full of dirty dishes after a great evening.
A messy kitchen = remnants of good times.

for now
from the off-grid prefab home.