Diaries - Travel

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Between House And Barn Projects
The Diary of Our House And Barn Projects

June, 2005



June has been the month things started happening. Before this, it was all paper and spray paint. From mid-June on, it would be real construction - we hoped.


June 1 - Axel call

Axel called in a report today. He had been at the house inspecting walls and discovered that several exterior walls had a second layer of bricks on the inside, with a small air gap to the original outside wall. This thin inner wall is the source of much of the visible wall cracking, so it means the bricks have to come out and the outer wall resurfaced. Doable, but an unexpected cost. He also reported on the estimate for removing the chimney we will not use. Again, doable but too expensive. Overall, the plan is to request bids on Friday for demolition and basic construction (bury pipes, new concrete sub-floors, etc.) The bid process will be our first real test of what this project will cost and the work itself will set the stage for all the subsequent improvements.

June 2 - Another Axel call

Another phone report from Axel. The Burgermeister has given his unofficial approval and all that remains is formal posting of the work in this week's public announcements.

The afternoon news was a fax with costs of some of the changes we had blithely talked about over the last month. Ouch! It seems to Marianne and me that all our contingency has already been committed, even before ground has been broken. We really want to avoid needing a home loan to finish, but I am already beginning to get the feeling that's not going to work out. We sent a strongly-worded email back to Axel, saying we are bothered that we no longer have a reliable total cost estimate.

June 3 - Axel meeting

I discussed the new costs with Axel. At times, the conversation veered into a fault-finding discussion, but I really wanted to avoid that, because no one wins such a discussion. We ended up still friends (I hope) and agreed to discuss this in person the next weekend. This episode was a reminder that the relationship between an owner (us) and the major contractor (Axel) is very important and we need to work out how to settle difficult matters, not just the easy ones. This is where it is particularly frustrating working in a different language, within a different culture. But that's part of the challenge. (ps: The 15-page "Request for Bids" did go out for our basic contractor, with four potential bidders.)

Marianne and I also had an interesting experience researching stoves. We had settled on an Italian model ("ILVE") after seeing it in a local kitchen store. Being modern consumers, we also searched the internet for suppliers of this same brand and we found "Gastro-Planet", right here in Frankfurt. When we emailed both our local store and Gastro-Planet for quotes, Gastro was over a thousand euros cheaper. This we had to investigate, so, Friday afternoon, we drove to the address and tried to find the place. No luck. We asked people in the nearby stores if they had ever heard of Gastro-Plant and no one had. Finally, Marianne called the phone number we had and, Lars, who had signed the emails, answered.

Lars said he'd meet us in a minute on his motorcycle. (Huh?) Sure enough, up drove a young man on an orange trail bike and said "follow me". He lead us into a plain office building and into rooms filled with computers, knives, and cutting boards but no stoves. Gastro-Planet is only internet. We asked Lars rude questions, such as "How can we trust you will stay in business?" We were impressed that he has a six-year old business that has managed to bypass the high overheads on German retail. Despite the motorcycle grease on his shirt, he struck us as a serious representative of a new class of retailer, a class that might shake up business-as-usual in staid old Germany.

June 6 - Archeologist

Axel met with the local archeologist today. Good news, bad news: no buried treasure but no precious artifacts either. This was apparently the last step in our building permission research process and, according to Axel, it's the fastest he's ever experienced. (They REALLY want us to fix this old relic!)

June 11 - Axel meeting

We started the day with a meeting in Axel's Bamberg office. It was a full meeting, clearing up some past misunderstandings and hearing about a whole bunch of progress. We are still learning about our German architect and he is still learning about his American customers. It's new territory for both, and the start of our project is a difficult time. We felt we were getting too little information on price and schedule and he felt we were unreasonably pushing him to provide impossible details. As usual, both sides were right. In the end, we agreed to continue getting along. I believe it is success that makes getting along easier, and our architect/project manager had had a successful week.

He'd received one bid for the "constructor", a contract that covers many of the things a general contractor would do in the States, such as providing power, water, and toilets for the other contractors. Our constructor will also do most of the demolition and digging, including burying our natural gas tank and all the services coming into the building. Then, the constructor will pour new concrete sub-floors and lay drain tiles on the outside. This will be one of three or four relatively large contracts and, of course, we were worried about his cost and schedule. Three bids are expected, but at least one seems to be within expectations for both cost and schedule; very good news.

Alex had also received an estimate from our carpenter for doing or redoing the wood floors, the stairs, and the doors. Again, Alex's earlier estimate seems to be holding up. The carpenter also gave a price for kitchen cabinets, but we may still go the route of true Europeans and go to IKEA and do-it-ourselves. Basically, we'd save a couple of thousand euros and I would have a task that could be my contribution, besides just writing money transfers. But, the final decision is still months away on this one.

We received the formal approval letter from Dr. Dummler, the head of the "Department to Protect Monuments". Everything was pretty much as expected, with mostly agreements and a few points of required historical preservation. Fortunately, our place is a real mess and he granted permission to tear out the mess and replace it. Apparently, that's not always the case, so Alex was breathing a lot easier

After three hours, we left the office for "the field", stopping first for a quick Chinese lunch. (Chinese restaurants are available world -wide!) This story, we'll tell with pictures:


Axel and Herr Fritsch in our downstairs bathroom. They pronounced this a successful hole, since it hit sandstone after only an inch of ancient paint and plaster. The plan is to remove any old stuff that isn't in very good shape.
The plan is the same outside, remove and replace.
Inside, this was a significant problem find. The walls are all doubled, with a thin brick standing about an inch away from the real stone walls. Alex thought this was a modification done sometime in the past ages but not original. No matter what, it's cracking and unstable so it will be replaced with modern "light" concrete blocks.
Here's the rest of the hammer-swinging duo's explorations. Nothing seemed to bother these guys, so we just have to have faith that all is well -- or will be in another eight to ten months.



June 16 Another call from Axel.

Two of four bidders for the "contractor" work failed to submit bids. This seemed strange, in a country with 11% unemployment. Axel also sent some more sketches of the upstairs bathroom and of the second floor windows on the back side. These were details that we couldn't really figure out. We also got the price to relocate the power. The original location was just tacked onto the front cornet of the house and this seemed pretty tacky, so we will move it closer to the back side of the house. Because all the workers need power, this turned out to be the critical path for the start of serious construction.

I left for the States the next day, so any new developments would be dealt with by Marianne, at least until the end of next week.

June 17 and 18 Marianne and Axel talk about details.

In this design session, the upstairs bathroom got simplified. The plan for the downstairs bath happened relatively quickly and when we saw it and when Alex saw it, everyone said "yes, that's nice". The same size room upstairs was a struggle. The other upstairs design difficulty was the window above the stairs. Currently, there is a strange window that is partially hidden by the kitchen roof. That had to go but i was not not obvious how to replace it. Finally, the design team settleld on just a single square window, roughly matching a pair of small windows on the back side of the kitchen.

Some construction details were also worked out, such as power supply. European standards for the amount of electricity brought into a house (35 amps at 230 volts) seem puny by American standards (200+ amps at 110 volts) so we wanted it up it a bit "on principle". Axel had two bidders each for basic construction, electrical, and rough plumbing. He also continued to negotiate the (almost-chosen) carpenter to accept a lower price for repairing upstairs floors. Axel also promised to show us some tiles and electric switch samples for our next conference. For both of these details we want an old look but modern function.

June 25 - Another Saturday meeting with Axel

His list had fourteen items. We had to decide on most of the contractors: demolition; basic construction; carpentry; heating; plumbing; electricity; stucco & plaster. We now have enough real bids to see that the original estimate is holding up, that's the good news. The act of deciding on several contracts worth tens-of-thousands of euros is still daunting.

We received originals of the permissions from the village of Pommersfelden and from the monument building people. That's the last of the required permissions. We also learned that we can not drain our roof drains into our well so rainwater re-use will require a new plan. We'll see. The report on the outer wall of the "hof" (between the barn and the street) was positive. It may be leaning a bit but at least one contractor said it'll stand another hundred years. As for the roof over the kitchen, the story is not so good. There does need to be some rebuilding and we still need an estimate whether it is better to reinforce it from the bottom or just take all the tiles off and rebuild, adding enough beams along the way. This reconstruction may slip onto the critical schedule for closing in the building before winter.

The rest of the list was just more of the details that are piling up: patio design, cash flow, chimney removal, bath design, light placement, drawing format, etc., etc., etc. The good news about meeting just every week or two is that we have lots to talk about. The bad news is that it's all pretty tiring and I hope we don't gloss over important points.

Later in the day, we met with the carpenter and tried to select floor material. He will use just natural wood with an oil and wax finish so color selection doesn't seem possible. We are not too sure we like the result, but we'll think about it and, meanwhile, he will work up a sample for us. We also signed his contract, our first of many.

June 25 - House inspection with Marianne's Mom.

This part of the show is illustrated, so we'll let the pictures show the story.

The house looked so bad it was even accumulating posters for a rock concert.

Marianne and her mom were the first to use our new front door. The house continued to look worse and worse and now all the doors and most of the shutters were gone. Mr. Spoerlein, the carpenter, had taken them away for reconstruction.

Inside, even some of the door frames had been removed. Seeing how much effort was going into rebuilding all the wood pieces, we understood why the carpenter bill was what it was.

Meanwhile, the back yard was becoming a real jungle. The wildflowers were pretty, but we HAD to get this under control. Mr. Dorn, one of our neighbors, even asked about it when we ran across him at lunch: polite, but making us aware he was watching.


June 27 -- Real groundbreaking.

The universal sign of serious remodeling is a dumpster. Finally, we got our dumpster.


Inside, the living room was disappearing, layer by layer. The "modern" brick layer had been removed and, underneath, were the images of the original stencil decorations and the wall painting. Now we felt like archeologists discovering an old tomb. I wondered where the treasure was buried?


But, mostly, it was just destruction!

June 28 - Granite and an old picture

This was our last day to work on the project for a couple weeks and our to-do list was long. We started with a visit to Weichert & Meyer, stone dealers. Mr. Meyer showed us a variety of samples and, true to form, we ended up liking the most expensive. Despite that, we continued to look at more reasonable pieces and settled on a Norwegian granite with plenty of blue and silver highlights.


After this, it was back to the house to meet with Axel and Herr Markl, the tile and tile-oven supplier. A couple days earlier, we had looked in the tile store to see what tiles we could use, inside and out. Markl guided us through some samples and then told Axel it would be best to join us at the house, to see the ambiance. (= mostly dirt and disaster, but he seemed to have vision beyond that.) Somehow, Herr Markl is also involved in the store in Bamburg that sells fireplaces and tile-ovens (kachelofens). For the oven/ofen, Herr Markl's imagination was pressed even further since the place for the wood heater was currently occupied by old walls. Still, he looked and then promised to send a sketch or two.

Our last stop was at a garden center, two actually. The first one was on our way back to the autobahn home so we figured we could get some quick information on how we could get a lawn installed. This store said they didn't do such installations but Baumschule ("tree nursery") Schlierf, a few villages distant, could be recommended. Twenty minutes and several villages later, we found a huge nursery, almost as big as many of the villages! The good news was that Schlierf could handle anything but the bad news was that the boss was showing a bus load of garden fans around his place. We'll have to make this another visit.

So -- that was June. Pretty busy. We'll end the story with an old picture of our dream house, and a close-up of earlier owners.


Plan (as of June 25)

July 11 : Earliest date for bringing in new electric power and start of major digging

August 19: Complete basic prep work, including foundation!

August 16 & 17: Pack up Frankfurt apartment. Move to Giessen and Pommersfelden.

End of October: Closed in. New windows installed. Outside stucco done. Should look pretty good!!

November - January: Interior work. Doors, walls, trim, baths, kitchen.

February, 2006: move in


Diaries - Travel

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The Diary of Our House And Barn Projects