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CA Desert House

by Chas. Schwartz last modified Apr 14, 2006 10:40 AM
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CA Desert House

Posted by Chas. Schwartz at February 24. 2006

As some of you have heard, we're building a small (1175 ft) vacation house in California's high desert. Not to sound too much like President Clinton, but whether you could say we're building it depends on what you mean by building!

Right now, we've bought a terrific piece of land (after a LONG LONG search, and yes, it has water and power) and we're in late stages of design, getting ready to submit the final drawings for a building permit. We already have a pre-building permit. In order to get the permit, it seems we also have to get a fire department permit - and one of the requirements for that (if this doesn't sound too circular) is that we have to get some kind of paperwork showing we've submitted our plans to plan check. So, to get the permit, we need to have a fire permit, but to get the fire permit, we need to first submit our plans! I guess that's to show we're serious.

Our land is in a great spot that is not in an incorporated city or town, so we need to conform to the codes of CA and the County of San Bernardino. Local Builing and Safety told me it usually takes 6 - 8 WEEKS to get a permit (or orders for revisions) after submitting plans. This was a surprise to me, as in Los Angeles, where I've done this before, you make an appointment with the plan checker, and sit down and roll out the plans to hear their complaints on the spot.

After a month's-long design phase (I am the designer, ah-hem, but of course work with a real AIA architect and a structural engineer), we have a workable design. Some would call it a modern house. To me, it is a desert house in 21st Century America. But, it is not an immitation of a colonial plantation, a New England Saltbox, a Tuscan villa, a long house, a teepee, the Hotel de Ville, Fort Knox, or a hamburger stand, so I guess you'd have to say it's modern!

100% of the living people I consulted on the design warned me away from my initial inclination to build a steel framed building. The only one who supported my idea was the great, now-deceased architect Pierre Koenig (famed for steel-framed houses), who was a very nice guy and very encouraging when I happened to meet him at his house in LA on a tour of architects' own houses.

Finally, the architect and structural engineer ganged up on me and persuaded me to agree to a wooden frame and I am now awaiting the drawings. Let's see if they can make it work in wood as I drew it in steel! Film at 11 on that.

BTW, I agreed that the steel framing would initially cost more than wood, but my contention was that subsequently there would be less and faster building and I would more than make up for it on labor costs. For those not in CA, there are MANY MANY things you need to buy and build on a standard balloon-frame or post-and-beam wood house you can dispense with on a steel structure, such as shear or bearing walls for seismic safety.

This is going to be such a minimal house that we sometimes call it the No House, for all the conventional things it will NOT have. For example, NO flooring, NO casing, NO bathtub... I wanted to make it NO shearwalls and NO bearing walls, but NO such luck! However, it will have a few unconventional items, such as solar electricity fed back into the grid to offset our energy use.

Re: CA Desert House

Posted by Diane Huff at April 14. 2006

Keep us posted on how the project is going. I also live in the CA high desert and would love to eventually build a small simple modern home. I am curious if you have found a reliable builder yet. I have heard stories of how difficult it can be to find a qualified contractor in the area. Have you figured out how long it will take to recoup the cost of the solar?

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