Introducing the CHouse Modern

March 3, 2014 — 27 Comments

First off let me acknowledge that I need to start working on better names for my projects … first it was the ‘KHouse Modern‘ and now we have the ‘CHouse Modern.’  … Pathetic really for someone who considers themselves to be a creative person.

Anyways …

We have a project that broke ground a few weeks ago and I decided that I would cover here on the site. Normally I only focus on one project at a time but there are things about the CHouse Modern that I think will make it worth exposing to people who visit this website. This project will be constructed using SIP’s (Structurally Insulated Panels), we are using a post tension structural slab, the owner will be extremely active in the construction process, and we are targeting a total construction cost somewhere in the $200 per square foot range.

See? Could be pretty interesting.

We build a lot of physical models in my office – and I am really glad that we do. There is no doubt that our clients love them, but that’s not the only reason why we build them. Clients respond to these models in a very different way than when we just show them 3-dimensional computer images of their projects. So without any more prattling on by yours truly, let’s get to what this house actually looks like ~

CHouse Modern Model Pool Aerial 01

This house sits on the extreme point of a circular street, which means that all but one side appears as a front yard. The view above is technically the most public view from the street. We are building on top of a hill where the previous house occupied and the site falls off in all directions except one. Eventually I’ll include some plans of the project, the owner has given me permission so as soon as I get someone else to get into the system and clean them up for me for presentation you’ll get to see them. There is a pool in the front yard with all the main living spaces and Master Bedroom looking out into this area (large windows on the right). The wing to the left is a Dining Room and an outside attached pavilion and grill area.

CHouse Modern Model Pool Elevation Aerial 01

The second floor has all the extra bedrooms and bathrooms – each bedroom space has a light monitor in the ceiling. You can start to see how the grade falls off around the house – the site is covered in trees and sitting on this elevated plinth feels like you are in the treetops.

CHouse Modern Model Rear Sideyard

This view of the house is the one side that isn’t particularly visible to the public and eventually there will be pool equipment and air-conditioning compressors located to the far left (by the garage).

CHouse Modern Model Rear Side yard

This is the entry to the house and the garage (shown to the right). There is an architectural covered trellis on the front of the garage to help visually soften the appearance of the garage. If you want to know how this trellis might look, here is the basic concept [Modern Trellis] that I covered on the site April 2012 – which turned out terrific.

CHouse Modern Model motor court 02

The driveway from the street leads into a motor court just off the front entry. You can see that we are cutting into the hill a bit (look for the retaining wall on the right hand side in the model view above.) The first level of the house will be primarily a dark iron-spot brick with the second level switching to masonry stucco. The “boxes” you see around the windows are envisioned as aluminum or steel plate – the geometry of this project is fairly rigid and we are accentuating the openings by designing a protruding enclosure around each penetration into the main volume of the house.

CHouse Modern Model plan view

Thought I would include a plan view of the model … and for the OCD observant among you, that’s a chimney stack coming out of the roof, not a tree.


Construction on this project just started and we have begun the construction observation period of the project. Our first visit out to the site was two weeks ago as the foundation was just beginning.

CHouse Modern site work

This is looking down the site towards the curve in the street. There is a 16′ drop from the front door to the street elevation at the bottom of the site, so the views looking out really are looking into the tree tops.

CHouse Modern site work drilling piers 02

Rough grading of the site with the foundation form boards laid in place. Today the contractor is starting the process of drilling 56 piers on site.

CHouse Modern site work drilling piers

CHouse Modern post tension slab cables

We have a post tensioned structural slab foundation on this project and these are the post tension cables. Post tension construction was introduced in France in the 1930’s and was first used in the US some time starting in the 1950’s. Concrete shrinks as it cures (hardens) and the result is typically cracks. One of the positives to using a post tensioned slab (other than it’s relatively lower cost over pier and beam foundation) is that the tendons (the blue cables shown above) compress the concrete and the formation of visible shrinkage cracks can be greatly reduced. Without getting to technical, the tendons are placed in the slab prior to pouring the concrete. After the concrete has cured, tension is applied to the steel cable on one side that puts the steel under tension and the concrete under compression, and then the cable is permanently anchored in place.

Since the CHouse Modern has an exposed (polished and waxed) concrete floor, how we decided to structurally build the foundation led us to selecting a post tensioned slab. This is actually the first project that I have done construction administration on that uses this type of construction method and so I am keeping a close eye on how things come together.

CHouse Modern plumbing install under slab 03

We have an extremely hands-on owner for this project – which I am on the record as stating that I love it when I have a heavily engaged client. When we were on site last Friday, I found out that she had been reading ‘Life of an Architect’ prior to moving from Colorado and deciding to start this project. Needless to say, we both think that is pretty cool and she is excited to have the construction of her project featured.

CHouse Modern plumbing install under slab 02

All of the work that is coming up through the slab needs to be in place so before the concrete can be poured, the electrical and plumbing rough-in needs to be completed. This is a crucial step because of the accuracy of the rough-in needs to be as exact as possible – we don’t want to have to move a bathroom wall a few inches to hide a pipe that should be hidden in the wall but isn’t … that would suck.

CHouse Modern digging trench for sewer

We are going to have weekly job site meetings for a while, getting the slab right will go a long ways towards keeping things right as the project is built. This next week – weather permitting – the electrical and plumbing rough should be completed and form boards adjusted and set to prepare for the actual concrete pour. There will probably be lots to show here in the beginning, particularly when the SIP’s start getting installed – I know I am looking forward to that.


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  • Akhila

    Hi Bob, firstly im a big fan of your writing. just something i relate to very closely. im a non practicing architect and interior designer. dodging the hectic 9-5 desk job. i took to teaching at a very early stage in my career. i teach history of architecture and theory of archi in various institutes in india. im from india. bangalore! and now im petrified to enter an office cos im scared of women bosses. anyway that apart. im planning to take the LEED Green Associate exam. cos in the likely chance i move to America after my wedding. i wanna still be able to pursue a career. but not a hardcore architecture office job yet very related to my field. since im pretty sure i dont qualify to teach in the USA, i wanna do something that is globally recognised. i will value your advice. i dint know where to discuss this matter. just randomly hit your site today… and here goes…. write back to me! cheers!

  • Robert Rockefeller

    Bob, my first post on your blog. I actually found your site months ago when we (myself and wife) were in the design process for our own house. Your articles on selecting a contractor/builder and contracts helped with our decisions. Thanks. I just rediscovered your site when doing some additional research.

    Relative to this story please help define what you mean by “the owner will be extremely active in the construction process” and “an extremely hands-on owner.” What are the pros and cons of this type of situation. Is there a point when the “owner,” the one paying the bills, is too involved (detrimental)? Sometimes I wonder if we are too involved and hurt more then help. What’s the right balance?

    • Hi Robert,

      Found this comment in the “spam” folder so sorry I am just now getting it up on the site and responding to it.

      You ask a good question but a tricky on to answer. This particular client will be acting as a co-contractor on the project along with another contractor in an effort to reduce some of the construction costs. That’s pretty hands on.

      I can’t say that I generally love this sort of situation, but this particular owner is incredibly savvy and clever …. and we really like the clients in a personal way. There are times when the lack of practical knowledge can get in the way of making fundamental decisions – like when to hit the brakes to solve a problem that’s coming 10 steps down the road. An experienced (and skilled) contractor knows when to do this and the well-intentioned homeowner does not – they are generally only thinking what happens next.

      Hopefully this answered your question – if not, send me an email.


      • Robert Rockefeller

        Thank you. Yes that generally answered my question. I guess we are “extremely” involved because we contracted some of the work (demolition and excavation) out side of the contract with the builder. Our architect pushed us to do this in order to save and achieve our dream home which otherwise would not have happened. It all started with just purchasing windows/doors and some fixtures and grew from there. Fortunately our builder is very flexible/understanding and went along with all this. We are building a modern/industrial house for about $180 SF which I believe is in the “affordable modern” zone.

        Not wanting to hold the project schedule up, we tend to be paranoid and think further ahead than the architect (construction management) and the builder. Maybe this is where our balance is off. We are starting to settle in (calm down) as the project moves towards framing completion. It’s a little bit hard (lots of learning) as the owners even with coaching from our architect. We have never done this process before and you only get one shot.

  • lardavis1951

    Plinth – learned that several decades ago, in regards to the base of my turntable. Harris’ architectural dictionary is a good source for the arcane bits, with pictures!
    Post-tensioning – used that on a parking structure (six floors), that allowed us wide spans with only 6-inch cast-in-place concrete. Only issues are potential of explosive blowout (up) during the tensioning, if the ties or concrete pour are not consistent. Never let anyone stand on (or under) a slab that’s being tensioned!

    • Amen to that! I have very happy to say that the concrete sub on this project is one of if not the best in town. I am excited to get on site just to see how the actual layout and pout happen.

  • Steve Tracy

    I am one of those interested to hear your take on SIPs. I design timber frame homes, typically wrapped with SIPs, so I am can’t wait to hear your about your experience with them and see the house take shape. I ama big fan of your blog and your work. Thanks for putting in all the time you do.

    • Thanks Steve – the process has been pretty straightforward so far, we seem to be working with a good SIP provider as they have been working in some unusual conditions (the project wasn’t originally designed to be SIP) and the contractor switched out some custom door sizes to use off the shelf sizes and we almost didn’t catch it in time (thank goodness for shop drawings!)

  • Guest

    Bob, please don’t limit your architectural vocabulary at all. My comment wasn’t a complaint at all. If it came off that way, my apologies. I like running into words I have to look up; it always means I’m going to learn something. No such thing as a former teacher, dontcha know. Plus you get a lot of architects, students here who DO understand the terminology [up to us “amateurs” to adapt]. Well-acquainted with the Francis Ching book. Nearly bought it about 20 times. Just hoping to find something almost-as-good at about half the price. But you were right about “A Field Guide…” so I think I’ll pop for it. It is SO comprehensive. Thanks for the link. :>)

    • I didn’t take it that way – no worries. I still try and avoid trade jargon, architects already have the perception as being elitist and it’s not something that I want to add to

  • AlmostJane

    Plinth. Today’s new word. At least for this non-architect. FYI – been accessing my MacBookPro dictionary regularly since I started reading “Life of An Architect.” As a matter of fact, I’ve been looking for years, on and off, for a good book that illustrates the myriad parts of a house and/or building. A kind of architectural picture dictionary. Gotta be one out there somewhere. PS – that lucky owner is going to have one gorgeous home up on that hill. What a spot! It even looks pleasant in late Winter. Looking forward to watching CHouse Modern go up.

    • You are in luck! One of the very best graphically illustrated architectural dictionaries was created by Francis Ching – A Visual Dictionary of Architecture (here’s a link )

      I suppose plinth is sort of an insiders word – I try and limit my use of trade jargon but every now and then, one slips through.

      I haven’t been to the since when the leaves were still on the trees, I would imagine it will be terrific. Most of the trees on the site are Bur Oaks – very sculptural trees.

      • AlmostJane

        I screwed up. The “GUEST” comment above is actually supposed to be here, as a reply. Sorry – not enough coffee today.

        • go it … but I responded above as well 🙂

  • Gunther M Liedl

    Looks and sounds interesting in every aspect. I do enjoy your posts, while I’m working primarily on Government/Commercial project, still enjoying the residential architecture from the sideline.

    • Hi Gunther,
      I’m so glad to hear that you enjoy the posts – it’s nice to think that I am adding something of value that is actually enjoyable to others (at least I hope it’s of value …)


  • That is interesting. I keep hearing about post-tension slab (or floors in a multi-story building), so this will be a fun project to watch.

    • I hoping on the fact that we can keep this interesting. I think a lot of people will be most interested in the SIP’s – but that will be it’s own, very special post.

      Thanks Bridget

  • Jane

    Hi Bob, I was wondering… since I will be graduating soon.. how often do architects continue to work with models post school? Perhaps a dumb question, but I am still picking my jaw up off the floor after seeing this incredible model and wondered how you constructed it, and how often modeling is in the “real world” of architecture.

    • not many small firms still use models – the trend is towards computer modeling since the software we use to prepare the construction drawings can take on double duty by creating the 3d images. We still like them and almost all of our residential projects get a physical model built at some point.

    • Travis Schneider

      Hi Jane; I’m Travis, and I was one of the two interns who built this model last summer. It’s made of museum board, basswood, and tacky glue. We printed same-scale (1/8″ = 1′) Revit plans and elevations, and traced them to make the topography. For the house itself, we referenced the drawings for measurements. Everything was cut by hand with x-acto blades, and we drilled holes into the topography for the trees. It all came out to about 32 hours of work, over one week.

  • Radu Mircea Giurgiu

    Hi Bob,

    I am a landscape architect from Romania and I have started following you since the Novedge Hangout, some months ago. Even though I am in a slightly or entirely different domain(depends from what point of view you are looking), I find your posts interesting and helpful.

    I was meaning to ask you long time ago, but I guess on this post it’s the best moment: are you working with any landscape architect in your projects? This in particular, seems to me, that is having a lot of potential, from this point of view.


    • We do work with landscape architects with regularity – I am a big fan of getting other design trades involved. More times than not, it is the owner who makes the decision as to whether or not they want to take on the financial responsibility of hiring consultants (like a LA) and it seems as often as not, that decision is made a little further into the project. When it happens, I’ll make sure to cover it on the site here as part of our progress updates.

      • Radu Mircea Giurgiu

        Thank you! I’ll be following your process:) Good luck with everything and here in Romania, we have a saying that i don’t think it has any equivalent in other languages: “spor”; it means have a great mood for working!

        Have a nice day,

  • Anthony

    This is very exciting! Terrific and brave that your client is happy to share her experiences – this’ll be really interesting and informative. (I can’t wait to see some plans!)

    • HI Anthony – I’m pretty excited about it as well. Hopefully the plans will be up before too long.