Tag Archives: house hunting

Insulation – how it started

Our two key goals are super-insulation (high R-value) and air-tightness (elimination of leaks and drafts). Simple enough, isn’t it? To my surprise, this issue got me deep into rocket science. There was a very steep learning curve and my ideas and aspirations on insulation options had changed several times over the past year based on emerging facts and realities.

While we were house hunting, we were only considering buildings with a masonry shell for the structural and longevity aspects (see also “Dream home wish list” post). Another idea of mine was to use the masonry building shell as thermal mass by leaving it exposed to the interior and applying the insulation on the outside.


Fast forward. We now own our house with typical Chicago common-brick side elevations and an ornate front elevation. Our dream of exposed interior brick walls radiating warmth appears to materialize. To get there, we will need to super-insulate the building from the outside. I began to research our options, and ran into a brick wall (pun intended).


Do we really want to hide our ornate front elevation behind insulation? Of course not! We would insulate the front from the inside – and would be left with big thermal bridges to the left and right. Not good.

Then there is the dimensional issue. Portions of the west side of our building are almost on the property line. We would encroach into our neighbor’s property if we began to insulate on the outside of these wall sections.

How about insulating portions on the outside and others on the inside? Not only is this getting really complicated, but I end up with a whole bunch of thermal bridges that would defeat our insulation goal.

And, of course, there are code issues to contend with. Chicago common brick has an excellent fire rating. Whatever I would use to cover the outside insulation will have to meet the one-hour fire rating requirement.

Most innovative ideas start with an uphill struggle. If we really pushed it and worked long and hard, we possibly would find a way to make it work. The question is: Is it worth it?

I talked with a lot of friends, contractors and green building professionals and did not receive any encouragement for my idea – absolutely none. Nor did I find any supporting clues in my research. The consensus was that insulating our building from the outside was too resource intensive and expensive to justify any thermal mass benefit in the interior – thermal mass we may not even need with a super-insulated and airtight envelope.

Time to hit the reset button! How about insulating the shell from the interior? But what would be the best material choice? And how can we do this without compromising the integrity of the 100+ year old Chicago common-brick walls?


Stuck in workshop preparations

Coming from the design profession, I am a strong believer in the effectiveness of design workshops.

To kick off the design and engineering process, I had planned for a design workshop with architects, contractors and green building professionals (the so called green team). The intent of the workshop was to figure out how we would put everything back together and how to integrate the most appropriate and efficient sustainable strategies, systems and materials. The cumulative expertise and creativity of the workshop participants was to help us to organize our ideas, make sure that various wish list items are compatible, and make sure we accomplish our project principles.

A rehab is not a cheap undertaking, nor is a sustainable rehab. If we spend all this money, I would like to make sure that we get things right the first time round and that we can count on a reasonable payback and/or effective environmental footprint reduction. The workshop was an investment that will help us in this regard.

I developed a list of items to discuss and resolve in the workshop:

  1. Cathy and I very much liked the layout of the building. We now have floor plans of the existing conditions that include some of the original building features we discovered during the deconstruction process (see also 06/13/2009, 06/15/2009, 06/17/2009 posts). We would like to restore some of those original items and, in some instances, change their function – for instance turning the former pantry into a half bath room. I would like to review the floor plan with the green team to see what other ideas may emerge.
  2. Insulation is a very big, and as it turns out, complicated topic. It has a significant impact on many of the other systems we will need to operate the building. What kind of R-value do I really need? What kind of insulation would suit our project best? What kind of windows would go hand in hand with the insulation?
  3. I needed some input on space heating and domestic hot water. We favor a solar hot water system. But what would be the peak load the system has to meet – after we insulated the building? What kind of heat distribution system would work with solar hot water? We would like a biomass furnace as a backup for cold and cloudy days, but is this realistic?
  4. We plan to create an airtight building envelope (stop the building from leaking air in our out). That will, by definition, require a good ventilation system to keep the indoor air healthy. Can we rely on passive ventilation or do we need an active system (fans and ducts)? Does a heat or energy recovery unit make sense? How do we size the ventilation system and how much energy would it need to operate?
  5. The findings from the insulation, heating and ventilation discussion would bring us back to the floor plans and layout. Where should we place the various utilities and how much space would they take up? How could we route things (like ducts or pipes) in effective ways? Would our ideas require changes to the floor plan after all?

I put these items into a draft workshop agenda and ran them by my friends John Edel and  Ted Krasnesky (Pepper Construction). Both pointed out that I was missing baseline data on basic energy needs. That data would be the foundation for the workshop discussions (i.e. how well would the insulation work and how much heating do I really need?).

I needed an energy model. More importantly, I needed to find someone competent who can run that energy model for me – quickly. Never mind the bad economy. Energy consultants in the residential green building business seem to be extremely busy.

A visit to Chicago Green Drinks earlier this year got me out of this rut. I remembered a presentation by Corbett Lundsford (Green Team Group, LLC) about energy audits and modeling. Corbett was kind enough to squeeze me into his schedule. He ran a REM/Rate energy model for me based on the floor plans and building performance parameters we discussed. Thank you Corbett!


Buying a foreclosure – Part 8

The closing, which we could not finalize (see also 04/14/2009 post), was on Thursday. We were hopeful to complete the deal on Friday. All we needed was the adjusted and signed HUD-1 from the seller (the bank that has ownership over the property). The closing agent called at 5:00 pm to let us know that she had contacted the seller by phone, fax, and e-mail, but they had not yet signed and sent the HUD-1. There was no escape. We had to go into the weekend not knowing if—and when—we would own our little two-flat.

Why is this such a big deal for us? Well, we have been researching, planning and house-hunting for over a year. We have been after this particular two-flat since August 2008 (for 7 months now!). We just want to be done with it, own it and start the cool part—the green rehab.

The weekend passed quickly. We both kept very busy, which distracted us from waiting for Monday. Cathy called the closing agent midday Monday to inquire about any news. The agent answered the phone quietly; she said she’d seen on her Blackberry that an e-mail from the seller had arrived with an attachment! She had not yet been able to look at it because she was in the middle of another closing.

Cathy got a call back a couple of hours later: “The seller signed and returned the wrong (the old) HUD-1!” Yep, this was sort of expected. Why should they have gotten it right this time ‘round? The closing agent was very helpful and got right back on the phone. Believe it or not, the correct and signed HUD-1 form arrived only one hour later!

The closing lasted 98 hours! But finally— this is it. We are owners.

We cracked open a nice bottle of champagne (that Cathy had kept hidden in the fridge since last Wednesday) and celebrated. That said, it still has not quite sunk in. I am still thinking and waiting for the next shoe to drop, for the next road block to be tackled.

Related posts:

Buying a foreclosure – Part 7

We have read a lot and had numerous discussions with friends who have bought houses. Everybody has a story how something goes astray last minute. We are no exception – and just in case you are interested – here is our account of how our resolve got tested:

3 days to closing

We really need to get the mortgage commitment letter from ShoreBank so that we can formally schedule the closing that has been set for this Thursday (see also 04/13/2009 post). I started to poke around and finally found out that nothing is moving or happening because ShoreBank had no proof of insurance and no loan approval.


Didn’t I just send our proof of insurance (see also 04/13/2009 post)? It turns out that the preparation of closing documents is passed from Phil (our banker) to a different person (Pat) in a different ShoreBank branch office. Resolving the proof of insurance issue is easy: I just e-mailed Pat the documents.

2 days to closing

I receive an e-mail from Joe Ziccardi (our attorney) that the proof of insurance has to be re-issued. ShoreBank needs us to change the mortgagee information on the document and also a copy of the receipt as proof of payment. I scrambled to get the insurance broker to re-issue our proof of insurance and e-mailed it with receipt of payment to ShoreBank.

29 hours to closing

The loan approval is still missing! I am back on the phone to find out that it got somewhere stuck in the transfer from Phil to Pat. The seller told us in no uncertain terms that closing would not be delayed again and we are still fussing around with a critical document lost in transit. Phil was very apologetic and went personally after the documents to make sure they arrived at Pat’s desk. Finally, the mortgage commitment letter went out.

25 hours to closing

We receive good news from Joe . We have our closing scheduled, with confirmed location and time. We will still close on Thursday – hurray, no further delays!

20 hours to closing

We stop by the two-flat to have a last look before we purchase it. Everything seems normal until I notice that the front basement door is not closed. The locks are busted! Thanks God I have the tool bucket in the car. Cathy and I are able to barricade the door and have the property secured again. Not how we wanted to spend the evening.


16 hours to closing

Back home, we had the HUD-1 settlement statement and other paperwork in our inbox for us to review. We e-mailed a couple of questions to Joe.

What is a HUD-1?  (HUD – U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

“The HUD-1 Settlement Statement is a standard form which is used to itemize services and fees charged to the borrower by the lender or broker. The borrower has the right to inspect the HUD-1 one day prior or day of settlement. The form is filled out by the settlement agent who will conduct the settlement. Borrowers may compare their Good Faith Estimate to the HUD-1 Settlement Statement and ask their lender or broker about any changes.”

Source: Wikipedia
Other resources: HUD1 Settlement Statement form

14 hours to closing

I had a few beers to calm me down, and am pleased to report that this proceeded without any delay or glitches – which was very refreshing indeed.

7 hours to closing

We got a prompt, first thing in the morning and straight forward response from Joe on our HUD-1 questions. This is what we love about Joe: very responsive, extremely reliable, and really good at explaining things.

2 hours to closing

Michael (our Realtor) called: The seller’s Realtor does not have the earnest money! Well, we are confident that they received the earnest money, but probably misplaced it – which would fall right into the pattern they displayed in the past (see also 04/08/2009 post).

OK, let’s assume that, for whatever reason, they did not receive the earnest money. Why on earth are they noticing 2 hours prior to the closing? I can’t believe they are still in business, operating like this…

We resolved the issue by agreeing to bring another cashier’s check to the closing table to cover the missing earnest money.

1 hour and 30 minutes to closing

Cathy is back from the bank with the earnest money cashier’s check. She also made sure to stop payment on the original earnest money check.

1 hour prior to closing

Departure to the title company office for the closing.

At closing

I have to say that I had imaged the pile of paper we needed to sign to be much more intimidating and big. It was not that bad at all. There was not one document that we did not expect or did not know about.

In addition to that, Joe did an excellent job walking us through every document, explaining it, and making sure we understood the legal jargon and knew what we were signing. We also took our time in reading through some of the less familiar documents.

1 hour and 30 minutes into the closing

S. O.  L.! Because of the missing earnest money check and having to replace it with a cashier’s check, our HUD-1 has changed: the line item for the earnest money needed to be removed to reflect the fact that we were now bringing it to the closing table. To finish the closing process, everybody has to sign the new HUD-1, including the bank that owns the property – that bank that has been so unbelievably elusive. “May be we’ll hear back from them today, if not hopefully tomorrow…”

We have to leave the closing table without completing the deal, without any keys. Actually, there were no keys anyway. The seller’s Realtor, who misplaced or lost our earnest money check, did not show at the closing. So we will have to go to the property and retrieve the key from the lock box – once we have the signed HUD-1 back from the seller… Can it get any more anticlimactic that this?

Related posts:

Buying a foreclosure – Part 6

Will our loan application be approved? (see also 04/12/2009 post) Next Thursday’s loan board meeting by ShoreBank was still a few days out. I decided to use the time effectively and get the mandatory homeowners insurance.

I’d met with our existing insurance agent at the two-flat for an inspection and to get the home owners insurance process started. Our agent was very polite and diplomatic. He did not laugh at us when he saw the property, but informed us that it is very unlikely that we would get conventional homeowners insurance, considering the conditions this property was in.

He referred us to another broker that specializes in policies for vacant dwellings, a policy that is often used by builders and developers for their properties that are under construction. We got quotes and shared the details with ShoreBank to make sure the policy would meet their requirements.

We can buy vacant-dwelling insurance for three-month terms. This kind of policy is a little more expensive than your typical home owners insurance. Our hope is that we renew once. We would like to be far enough along in the green rehabbing process after six months to switch to a regular homeowners insurance policy.

I prepared the policy application, took it to the broker’s office to get the last details ironed out, paid for the policy and left with the magic ‘proof of insurance’ in my hand. I forwarded the document immediately to Joe Ziccardi (our attorney) and ShoreBank.

The magic Thursday, the day of our loan application review, came along and we received a phone call from Phil (our banker) that our application was approved. So we passed another milestone and are one step closer to closing.

To schedule the closing, the seller requires a written mortgage commitment from ShoreBank (our lender).

Mortgage Commitment: “Written confirmation from a buyer’s bank to a seller of a property that the bank will advance the specified sums (usually as a mortgage loan) enabling the buyer to complete the purchase.”

Source: BusinessDictionary.com

We need to get that commitment, and we need to get it fast, because closing is next Thursday – in 6 days already!

Related posts: