Things Are Looking Up (Maybe?)

The last three months have been anything but pleasant for Dave and I, but I do believe we are coming out on the other side… at least I hope we are.

First – the easiest good news. We found a builder!

Amaris Custom Homes is a husband and wife team, Ray and Lolli. Ray does all the build stuff (I’m sure there is a more formal name for this), Lolli does all the finishing stuff. We found Ray and Lolli through Dave’s expert Google search capabilities. They immediately caught our eye due to green focus they put into the build structure itself – e.g. thicker walls, heavier focus on air tight construction, etc. We met with them and the stars started to align. Here were some of the factors that guided our decision:

  1. They are focused on green building processes – we know the quality of the structure will remain the #1 priority.
  2. They are super transparent in their processes. For example, we have learned that many builders make their fees + secret fees through not passing on materials discounts they receive. Ray and Lolli provide us with a PDF file at the end of each month with the invoices for everything purchased for the project. E.g. No attempt to make extra cash monies on the side.
  3. They have selected finishes with a eye towards sustainability. Therefore, we know we are selecting from well-constructed and engineered products.
  4. They have an opening in their schedule!(!!!) They have two projects going right now in early design phase, but because we are further along, we’ll be able to potentially sneak our build in before those break ground, which is huge.
  5. They seem much more optimistic about doing what we need done within our budget. A huge relief.
  6. They are simply good people we can see ourselves working with over time.

Just like we were excited to partner with Locus for the design of the house, we’re excited to find a like-minded builder to partner with on the next phase. All good things…

Second – The Heritage Preservation Committee

One of the things Dave and I really love about this neighborhood is that it is architecturally not boring. Every house has some sort of unique feature or detail to it – they are beautiful. The struggle with building a “new house” in this neighborhood is that uniqueness is not welcomed. Most (all, except ours for the last three years?) that have been approved have literally nothing interesting about them. They are all perfectly symmetrical, which isn’t common in the neighborhood, and frankly, perfectly boring.

There is a clause, D-3, in the guidelines that states: All buildings, structures, and sites shall be recognized as products of their own time. Alterations that have no historical basis and which seek to create an earlier appearance shall be discouraged.

And so we set out on those two facts – don’t attempt a period piece (be true to your time) + make sure there are some architecturally unique elements to the build. Those were our guideposts and we moved forward.

 A Summary of our HPC Journey

First step (in hindset, a huge miss-step): let’s see how far we can stretch the guidelines of the HPC. We are going to come in with something that we love but that is breaking some rules – but it’s also keeping character in the neighborhood. We got a ton of feedback during that pre-approval meeting, mostly helpful. We also may have accidentally focused attention on our project – not our intent.

House 1

Second Step: We’ve made drastic changes to our plans based on the pre-approval meeting. We can go back again for a pre-approval design review, but that adds months to our build process and living with a toddler in a one-bedroom condo, that is too long. We decided to go in for approval with our plans (misstep #2). This is where things turn south…

At this point, we’ve made changes to 14 of the 17 things requested by the HPC. Apparently, the double story window feature in the front still was not sitting right with the HPC commissioners.  It is important to me because it is south facing and the main source of natural light into the living area, which is why we had not changed it. But it wasn’t going to fly… 2 votes for approval, 6 votes against, and 1 abstention. The hardest part of this meeting, to be completely candid and vulnerable, was a set of neighbors who showed up to object to the plans – one in an extremely aggressive way. Seriously – an asshole. There is no other word for it. Super excited to live next to this guy (sarcastic Kari).

I’m really upset with myself in how much I let the neighbors get to me after this meeting. I lost copious amounts of sleep, I cried, I learned. Dave reminded me that in 1 year, 5 years, and 50 years, we’ll still be in the new house in the neighborhood. We need to be okay with that. He also reminded me that I need to care less about what others think… And that everyone has asshole neighbors, and they are always the loudest… It’s just the way of the world. Good coaching from the man-friend.

After that meeting, our relationship with the HPC staff shifted. For some reason, now attorneys are involved (on their side, not yet ours) and we are getting very little direction and support from the HPC Staff.

Now what?

We are starting to understand why the people that owned the lot before us gave up on the HPC process and purchased a lot on the other side of downtown Saint Paul. Because we did not go with a typical design/build firm – our attempt to keep character in the neighborhood has cost us a lot of money in rework. But dang it, we love this neighborhood and we will not give up quite yet.  We instructed our architect to not only make the changes the commissioners requested after the second meeting, but to go above and beyond and do things not yet requested, but may not sit well with the staff or commissioners. Since we now have little feedback, we can only guess from here.  We now have a house that in every way I can imagine matches the style of the houses on the block. We finally built the period piece they were looking for…

The meetings work like this – staff writes a report where they either recommend approval or recommend declining approval. That recommendation goes a long way with the commissioners. So although we are not officially approved yet, we have gotten staff to say they are recommending approval for these plans – which is a huge first step. Our approval meeting is July 13th.

A Reflection

We have not done everything right in this process. We started this by saying we should build a mullet house, which matched the historic character of the neighborhood from the street view, but had uniqueness in other places. We got away from that and it cost us.

We also gained one improvement to the design through the process. Because we needed to change the pitch of the roof on the east side of the house front,  we now will have a fun vaulted ceiling in our master bedroom, which will be great.

We lost a lot of things we loved in the compromises as well. Notably, the ones I hate the most are:

  • They are not going to approve Tesla solar shingles, which means we’ll need to do a regular roof + solar panels. Yuck.
  • They asked us to move the front porch steps to go down the front instead of the side of the porch. A small change, but one that means we lose all seating in the front of our house. We are social people and we hate that our outdoor living space in the front of the house was compromised.
  • We had to center the living room windows instead of having a corner window. I really liked the idea of the corner window and what that would have done to open up the main living space in the house.
  • We lost our future living space above the garage. Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) are not yet approved in our area of Saint Paul, but we anticipate it coming in the next five years or so. We didn’t want to rebuild everything at that time, but it looks like we’ll have to make major modifications.

Ugh. July 13th. We at least have some hope… Think of us, please.


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