Synergy Building in The Chapel Hill News!

Check out the article in The Chapel Hill News, September 27, 2009, on the front page of the Real Estate section. Correspondent, Sally Keeney, has written a wonderful article about Tom Howlett's new house.

Hacienda Under the Oaks: Bold colors say ‘bienvenido’ at builder’s personal residence By Sally Keeney Correspondent

If you’ve ever tasted the mango salsa at Flying Burrito in Chapel Hill, then you know the intensity of flavors is matched only by the colors of mango chunks against fresh cilantro and sun-drenched tomatoes.

I had the same sensation when I stepped inside the southwestern/Mexican- inspired house of Tom Howlett. Wow! The great room pops with mango yellow walls, sun-dried tomato counters and an etched concrete floor with sunset swirls thanks to Chris Maestro of Classic Concrete Designs. Turquoise, sand-stone and adobe reds color the walls of bedrooms and baths.

The interior colors are all the more intense against the pale gray stucco exterior. Up the gravel driveway, tumbled glass serves as mulch in the xeroscape garden beds designed by Jonah Roberts of Lael Landscapes of Raleigh. Vines will soon cover the back patio pergola, providing shade in summer and sun in winter. A bank of wild flowers, drought-resistant plantings and ground covers will make “mowing the grass” somebody else’s problem, because there won’t be any at Howlett’s hacienda under the oaks.

“The whole idea of this house is ‘small is beautiful”, said Howlett, who is co-owner of Synergy Building Co. “My dominating intention is to keep the costs low and build this as affordably as I can”.

Howlett’s company has built many affordable homes for Orange County’s Community Home Trust. Cost savings on his own hacienda began with its size – 1800 square feet instead of the average 2,629-square-foot house being built in the second quarter of 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The one-story, three-bedroom/two-bath house has a passive solar design and south-facing orientation. The house has 9-foot, 4-inch high ceilings, wide exterior overhangs to minimize heat gain in summer, and a sealed attic with Icynene spray foam on the roof deck.

The long-run savings will be in energy use. Howlett chose a radiant heat slab on grade instead of a crawl space and Autoclaved Aerated Concrete block as his building material. AAC is a lightweight, precast concrete building material (sometimes called Autoclaved Cellular Concrete or ACC). It is one-fourth the weight of conventional concrete and superior as a thermal and acoustic insulator. It is also fire and termite resistant.

Howlett calculated his home’s AAC walls installed cost just under $7 per square foot ($9 if the square footage of windows and doors are deducted). Those prices include the cost of the block, labor, special thinset mortar, steel rebar and concrete (used to fill the core block and bond beams as well as the final top U-block course).

AAC is unlike many other concrete products because it can be shaped using conventional carpentry tools. But don’t let its light weight and versatility fool you. Anybody who wants to build an AAC block house should have experienced masons do it, Howlett cautions.

“It is a little tricky to do it right”, Howlett says. For a step-by-step look at his house as it was being built, log onto www.synergybuilding.com and click on “ Energy Efficient home, AAC block” at the bottom of the screen. Howlett used stucco on his exterior walls and drywall on the interior. “We glued and screwed the sheetrock to the block”, Howlett explained. Then, instead of typical straight-edged metal corner beading, Howlett used plastic, rounded, bull nose edge beading which gives arches, doors and window ledges that soft, southwestern look.

“I wanted to build as comfortable and affordable a house as I could,” Howlett said. “I have an aesthetic that would like nicer things, but want and need to buck the trend and go simpler.”

With that in mind, Howlett negotiated costs whenever possible. He says he saved at least $4,000 by choosing less expensive double-hung insulated glass windows. He also minimized glazing on windows on the north side of the house where weather isn’t as intense as other exposures.

He installed a truss roof instead of a stick-frame roof, which saved him about 20 percent of the roof cost. He chose 30-year architectural shingles as opposed to a metal roof, saving another $7,000.

The bathroom is an important room for Howlett. “I call it my de-stress room,” he said. “I have learned over the years – just a good long soak in the tub relaxes me completely.” He’ll smile every time he turns on the water and thinks about how he found a beautiful spout for his soaking tub at the Habitat Re-use Store. The spout cost $45 and had a few missing parts that he bought for $100 at Wilkinson Supply in Carrboro. Retail, the spout would cost $550, he said.

He also recycled beautiful wood kitchen cabinetry from the Re-use Store and had cabinet makers match fillers where needed. He found granite remnants for vanity tops.

Eventually the radiant slab heat will be backed up by solar, but he has deferred building solar collectors ($6,000 savings) and a detached carport. The house is all-electric because natural gas lines don’t run to his property and he doesn’t want the expense of propane.

Despite these cost-saving measures, creating a small house that lives big, green and easy, has cost Howlett $200,000-plus so far, and that doesn’t count his time as general contractor. Nor does it include the extra landscaping elements he and Roberts have planned.

Eventually Howlett wants to distract mosquitoes by berming and back-filling an area to create a running waterfall using recycled water. But until then, there’s always the soaking tub for relaxation.

                             See pictures here!  

Moving Day!

Move-in was on the 15th and it went well. Being in feels very good. The colors work. The floor finish is impressive. The stained finish on the interior doors is beautiful. The kitchen countertop goes very well. It’s been neat starting up all the new appliances. I’ve cooked several meals already. The Zephyr range hood is striking. The built-ins by the fireplace, after getting the books and handicrafts on the shelves, lend that homey feeling.

kitchen-384x2881 There’s a long list of things to do and I’m going to pace myself. Life has been stressful and I’m going to find ways to relax. The landscape infrastructure is unique with gravel pathways bordered by site-made curbs in which tumbled glass found at the landfill got embedded. Site-made stepping stones are at every entryway and pathway. They’ve got embedded river stones and are colored to match the color of the exterior concrete slabs. River stone is also acting as mulch in the raised beds my son and I built. Down the road in a couple of months we’ll start putting in some plantings.

front-path-1-288x3841 stepping-stones-288x3841 Clearing a lot and building from scratch means you sacrifice a mature landscape. Going into an older neighborhood and remodeling a house has its attractions. But this is out of town in the county. So I’ve got an energy efficient house in which I’m looking forward to experiencing the radiant floor heat. There’s also a wood-burning fireplace and the heat pump for backup. The 9’-4” ceiling height, open floor plan, large south facing windows, all give a spacious feeling to the 1800 sq.ft. of living space. All in all it’s unique, special, creative, comfortable and enjoyable.

For a slide show of the construction of this home click here. living-room-384x2881 To read more about this post click here!

Finishing issues with AAC Block

The septic tanks are in. There are two tanks, this being a pumped system in which the septic field is in the upper part of the property. septic-tanks-1 The stucco is on and looks fabulous.  Jose was a perfectionist.  He started with a skim coat of portland cement and sand.  That was necessary to smooth out the imperfections of the AAC block work. Then the base coat was put on.  We used a product by MasterWall, Inc. It came in bags and got mixed with water.  The finish coat by MasterWall is a pigmented acrylic polymer.  I picked out a color that was easily mixed in and put into buckets ready to apply. But Jose wasn’t familiar with the product and that’s where I had to bring in an expert to help.  We rounded the corners of the house. stucco-skim-coat-1 Once Jose and Mike started to trowel and float on the finish, they had to boogie to do the entire wall and continue beyond that corner to a break point. stucco The concrete slab floor was finished last week. The process we did is not for the faint-hearted.  The final result is dependent on the concrete itself and the installation of the concrete months ago.  It is unpredictable how the final finish will turn out.  I went along with the recommendation from the subcontractor.  First was a complete cleaning of the slab, which was tricky since this house doesn’t have a baseboard. Then the floor got stained with the dye.  Following that were two sealant coats and lastly were four coats of wax.  The result is unique. The drywall came out very well.  We glued and screwed it to the exterior AAC block walls.  Bullnose corner bead went everywhere:  at the windows, doors, arches, and passageways.  What I didn’t anticipate was the interior door openings narrowed due to the bullnose corner bead being attached (with adhesive) directly onto the door jambs. The sheetrock mud on it not only narrowed the openings but covered the hinge mortises on the jambs.  Consequently, we had to rip the poplar doors in order to fit and I hung them by securing the hinges directly over the bullnose finish.  In other words, we didn’t mortise for the hinge but it made for easier hanging and the effect is fine.  I am looking forward to putting a stain on these interior doors and a luxurious red on the outside of the exterior doors! Next week the countertops are going in.  The kitchen gets laminate with a wood edge.  There’s so many interesting finishes on laminate I have no problem going with it in the age of granite and solid surface.  I like saving money there.  The vanities will get granite, however.  I found remnants for $25/sq.ft.  And for the built-ins next to the fireplace, I had wood tops made that have been painted the same luxurious red that’s going to be on the exterior doors. The ceramic tile is in.  I did something different with the master shower.  I put a rust-colored metal edge on in lieu of bullnose tile.  It looks real good. We ordered the appliances and plumbing fixtures this week, both within budget.  Shopping was made easier by setting up times with salespeople I know and trust.  The time was well spent and very helpful.  And I got some good deals.  Again, I hold the intention to stay within budget.  In these areas, as in so many areas of construction, you can go crazy spending money.  There’s no substitute for a good salesperson working for a reputable supplier. Interior painting has started.  I got help picking colors from my artsy friend.  I had my own idea of what I wanted but it’s her eye that I needed.  I definitely am not playing it safe.  I really don’t know how it will all turn out but I’m feeling confident. Landscaping is starting tomorrow.    We’ll start with the infrastructure and wait for the plantings until later in the Fall.  We’re going to have to get creative to find a way to accomplish the water element inexpensively. To read more about this project click here!

Worry free Building

chnewspic Progressive Construction Company places Emphasis on Enviroment-friendly and Budget-friendly Living Spaces By Benji Cauthren, Correspondent CARRBORO -- Some of the best houses Rick Allen and Tom Howlett build begin on cocktail napkins rather than as architect's blueprints. That's because Allen and Howlett get just as much of a kick out of the creative process as they do watching the actual bricks and mortar building. This is why they encourage customers to bring in ideas, no matter how raw they may be, even if they haven't decided on a set design for their dream home just yet. "Half of our customers come in with plans they had an architect draw up," Allen said. "The other half of our customers have a specific need, whether they need to re-do their kitchen or design a basement space. But they don't know where to start. We try to help them come up with a preliminary design in this case." Allen and Howlett have run Synergy Building Company, the Carrboro-based general contracting company that has been constructing homes in and around Orange County, since its inception in 1996. The company has built a reputation for encouraging customer involvement in all phases of the building process. Allen knows how stressful an experience this can be for most homeowners, a reason he seeks to make the time as worry-free as possible. "Typically, the less surprises for people, the better," Allen said. "There are lots of day-to-day issues in the meat of the process, and people want to know 'when will the guys show up and start banging on my wall, when is my power going to be cut off?'" Credit Allen's background in social work for his eagerness to make customers comfortable. He moved to the area from Illinois, working with the Chapel Hill Police Department before starting Synergy and later teaming up with Howlett. Howlett came to Carrboro from California, a place he credits with shaping his philosophy on construction. Howlett helped run a team of self-described "hippie contractors" in Berkeley during the 1970s who taught locals how to build their own homes. "We would go right from the classroom to the building site and start framing and putting up Sheetrock," Howlett said. "It was an effort on our part to engage people and experience housing on a visceral level." Howlett's outlook on building also was influenced by years spent living in Third World countries in Latin America, as well as Africa, Russia and India. "It gave me a global perspective of how people build their homes and what other cultures are able to get by on," Howlett said. "Cultures throughout history have been able to build their own houses relatively simply without putting themselves in debt for 30 years." Howlett has noticed trends in housing shifting toward smaller, more intimate living spaces. He said that since the tech bubble of the late 1990s burst, people are re-evaluating certain consumer-driven attitudes and shifting their behaviors as they did during the oil crisis of the 1970s. "The cost of oil is high," Howlett said. "People are thinking about downsizing and turning their homes toward the sun, and there's more focus on making high-quality and environmentally friendly and budget friendly living spaces." Allen and Howlett's emphasis on maximizing comfortable, but not necessarily massive, homes is the reason Synergy has a reputation for energy-efficient designs and employing alternative energy sources with environmentally friendly standards. Eliminating mold in crawlspaces has been the most recent effort the company has tackled. Allen says many homeowners mistakenly let in humid air that contributes to mold by attempting to recirculate fresh air in their crawlspaces. "Mold freaks people out, and rightfully so," said Allen. "The Southeast is a hot and humid place, so the conditions for mold exist." To combat the problem, Allen says they are sealing crawlspaces with bio-based foam insulation. This blocks vapor transmission between areas, and is less harmful to the environment and inhabitants of the house. Synergy also is working with a manufactured concrete product called "superior walls," which serves as an alternative to poured concrete. It allows builders to carry concrete on trucks and cranes and build a basement in as little time as one day. "It's such a quick process, and it enhances the ability to insulate for a nice, tight basement," Allen said. James Carnahan, board chair of The Village Project Inc., and member of the Planning Board for the Town of Carrboro, believes that more builders should raise awareness of the need to conserve energy and design more closely knit communities that reduce the need for automobiles.