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

March, 2008



Dear Families and Friends,


The plan was for March to be the beginning of more detailed planning: floor material, construction schedule, contractor selection, and, by the way, final approval from the authorities. Not exactly how it worked out.


March 15, Meet with Axel

This is a Saturday meeting with Axel, up in his Bamberg office. His office/home is in a great old building and we enjoy the excuse to visit one of our favorite towns. Today, we are moving on to details:

-- Contractor responses:

-- -- Our plumber is still saying his estimate is fine, even though he's over a thousand euros above the competitor. Tough call, because he is local, but that's real money.

-- -- The plaster and paint contractor from the house is being asked to make repairs to the house, but only after the barn gets done

-- -- We have settled on Mr. Einbecher for the rough construction. His competitor, literally our neighbor, still has higher estimates and higher rates. Again, cost wins out over neighborliness. Besides, we've worked with theEinbecher folks before.

-- -- Our local window builder has confirmed that higher quality wood, for west-facing windows, and low noise glass, for those facing the street, will only add about 5% to the overall cost. Mr Löhr remains one of our most reliable suppliers.

-- -- Mr. Voit is preparing a bid for our main staircase. This is one of the larger single items on our cost list, so we are anxious to see what he says.

-- -- Mr. Berlenz, our terrazzo craftsman for the house, has been consulted on some minor pitting. He says a bit may be normal, but otherwise the surface will last for hundreds of years. Nevertheless, we are not tempted to go this routs for the barn. It is just too expensive.

-- -- Finally, we got an update on the plans of Mr. Nehr, our "room builder" and our largest contract. He has set aside three or four weeks of April and May to do our project. His job will be to remove everything above the stone walls and replace it with a new building, kind of like building a house from scratch, but fifteen feet in the air.


-- Other details

-- -- We seem to have settled on hemp insulation. It is about 30% more expensive than fiberglass, but there is a government rebate program endorsing "natural" products and that will recover the extra cost. Besides, it might give the place a nice aroma.

-- -- We settle on covering the loft floor with linoleum in the form of interlocking, wood-backed "tiles". It seems doable for a do-it-yourself task and we will be able to be creative. Besides, linoleum is a "bio" product, made up wood scraps and linseed oil and historically accurate, since it has been made for over one hundred years. .After lunch, we went to a local ecological building materials store to check out some examples.

-- -- We also look at wood samples to get an idea on the staircase material. Oak is out as too expensive. We will probably go for birch, the least expensive hardwood, although acacia has a nice color and grain, for "just a little more". (A phrase I do not like!!)


All in all, things seem to be going well. However, as an afterthought, Axel does mention a bit of disquiet coming from the building permit folks. It seems we may need to get approval from the infamous "BLFD", roughly the "Bureau for the Protection of Monuments". Our barn, a "monument"? It can not be!

March 17, Authorities and financing

Axel and the BLFD

At the end of the day, just as we are starting a conversation with our financing people, Axel calls in a panic. It seems the BLFD person, Frau Doctor Puffkes, will not allow us to build as planned. The half-mansard roof is not traditional for the area and she believes our barn (and pigsty!) are part of the "historic ensemble" of house, barn, and sty. Historic barns have simple, pointed roofs, with the ridge parallel to the street. Such a change will cut the useable space in our loft by almost a third and was an option we threw out months and months ago. With that bad news, Axel hung up to try to think through better options.

Original "Half Mansard"

Frau Dr. Puffkes preference

Axel's option


More financing

Promptly at 7 pm (German business meetings are ALWAYS punctual), our financial team shows up to talk about a new loan. Mr. Pikle has selected a "regular" loan, one that has no connection with the various government programs that float around. He said that each comes with restrictions and, in the end, offers very little differences in interest. Having heard our condition that we wanted a loan we were flexible about paying early, he had come up with an arrangement that I still don't fully understand.

The loan would nominally be for 10 years but with an initial repayment rate higher than in later years. This matches our presumed change in income as I will, someday, shift from working to retired. As for paying things off early, that has its limits here in Germany. Our loan does have a special clause that allows paying off an extra five percent each year, but not more. Paying loans off early is not encouraged, especially if the interest rate has gone down. Even if we win the lottery, we will need to keep making payments I guess. Oh well, probably won't win anyway.

In the end, it seems reasonable. About 5% interest and terms we can live with - on the assumption we will be here for a long time, always our assumption. (Ignoring the fact that my visa has only a few more months on it.)

Now, if we can just get permission to build something we want to build.

March 18, Our three choices

In the morning, we emailed Axel our three options:

1) As currently planned

2) As requested by the BLFD, if we can somehow recover our lost space and if the BLFD will pay for any cost increase.

3) Forget it. Since the US dollar was dropping like a stone currently, this third option seemed pretty good.

Thus armed with his own ideas and the demands of his clients, Axel carried forward the fight with German bureaucracy.


By the end of the day, we hear back that option #1 will never be accepted and any hopes of money from the BLFD are also lost. Axel was working on two variations of a "traditional" shape, but was pretty discouraged about having an acceptable result.

March 19, More emails and fewer choices

Again we start our morning out with a fax to Axel. We reiterate option #3, the forget-it option. We also offer a couple ofconcepts for using traditional shapes, but with modifications to recover some of the floor space.

Axel heads off to confront the good Frau Doctor. By now, he has consulted with his architect community and has confirmed that the BLFD can indeed stop the building. Puffkes has already gained a reputation as a hard-liner by stopping expansion of the football stadium in Nuremberg and a number of other, smaller projects. However, he has also learned that there is no law against simply destroying a barn, whether it is part of a self-termed "historic ensemble" or not.

Axel officially presents three options: the original shape, a traditional shape, but oriented with the flat side toward the street, and a semi-traditional shape that appears historic from the front but isn't from the back. His ace in the hole is the threat to simply tear down the barn and start all over. (Not an idle threat, since it probably would be cheaper.) Puffkes grudgingly allows the traditional shape, flat side toward the street. It's not a great solution, but it may be good enough.

March 20, Meet with Axel and decide

On Thursday morning, Axel comes over and we discuss options. In theory, the forget-it option is still on the table, but we find ourselves working up enough enthusiasm to compel us to go forward. This rebuilding business is as addictive as any drug and I can see why Axel is in the line of work he is. So, in the end, we decide to proceed. We will have to plan a little smarter, maybe even add a small sleeping deck in our loft, but we agree, we are on our way again.

Besides, Mr. Voit has sent in a bid for the staircase that is a well under our budget. A good, albeit rare, omen.

March 21, The new design

Officially, it is a holiday here in Bavaria. Good Friday is the beginning of a four-day break enjoyed by both religious and secular Germans. Axel, however, works overtime to get some new drawings so we can get the project back on schedule. By evening, he sends what he has.

March 23, Comments on the new design

We realize that there are several small parts of the new design that we don't like and we realize that we now must comment on everything in days, not over several months as before. So, while Axel is taking half of the four-day break, we send him a list of a dozen or so changes that we are suggesting. Move the entrance, change the staircase, move the "kitchen", add a window, where's the fireplace, etc., etc. On days like this, perhaps Axel wishes he wasn't an architect, or at least he wishes he had more passive clients -- and clients who don't force him to deal in a foreign language!

Meanwhile, the weather is rotten for building, so we may recover: if we can get the approval back on schedule and if we can arrange money in time and if we can keep our contractors "in the boat" and on schedule and if the weather improves in April and ...and...and.

We'll see what the week brings.

March 25, A rush conference with Axel

With the long Easter weekend over, it's back to work for Axel and, it turns out, for us. He needs a conference ASAP in order to turn our emailed list of comments into the next round of design ideas. It's a good thing Marianne is retired and that I have a job where I can move around when and where I do what I normally do (= email & make phone calls to America.) We are at Axel's office by 2 pm.

We use our comment list to organize the conversation, more or less. This is a creative process, and "organize" might imply more structure than was present. We do get across all of our concerns, however. There are easy ones (extra window, yes there will be a fireplace, four windows on back side, extra support posts go away) and some harder ones.

Key among the hard ones is the difficulty in making use of the space left by the traditional A-frame design. It would be OK if we were all about five feet tall, but we aren't. In the end, our architect agrees to talk with Mr. Nehr, his room builder, to see what can be done to add a bit of vertical wall between the floor and the start of the sloping roof. Getting that conversation to happen is the best we could hope for.

The second "hard challenge" was getting the staircase to be less intrusive into the main room by moving more of the stairs down to the entrance level. (This is hard to describe in words, but the scanner is broken so I can't show a sketch. Later.) In this case, we make progress and it does seem that, by moving the entrance door, we can end up with much less lost space upstairs. Coming up with a drawing ends up as Axel's second homework task.

Finally, we talked about use of the room generally. In this case, I think we just wandered around a lot: the "creative" process, you understand. A lot ends up depending on how well the conversation between Mr. Nehr and Axel turns out. Arranging the interior depends greatly on what the interior looks like! In any event, Marianne and I take home our task: study what we want. Again.

The plan is to have enough of the decisions made to be able to turn in the modification of the permit application by the end of the week. We need to focus on the outside appearance, as that's what shows in the permit drawings. The new re-application date implies that we will NOT be getting the permit on April Fool's Day, but we hope the delay is only a week or two. Once again, "we'll see".

March 26, A another daily discusson

Axel did his homework and came up with a modified floorplan. Now we need to make comments, our homework. Mostly, we think this is pretty good as it stands, and our comments address where each function gets placed. For example, we moved the "kitchen table" toward the back windows, despite the fact that this increases the distance to the little kitchen on the "front" (lower left) wall. The whole place isn't big enough that this matters, and the table will be more for sitting and talking than for eating meals prepared in the little cooking area.

Hopefully, Axel can get some exterior drawings today. We don't expect much feedback on these, as earlier designs were OK, except for a window or two. We'll see.

March 27, Axel report

Axel called in with a report and, after reviewing what he said, it seems we are back to the beginning. He had discussed the potential for increasing the sidewalls with Mr. Nehr, the "room builder". There does seem to be a way for gaining 40 centimeters, not much, but perhaps a help to make the A-frame more useable. Axel also wants to lower the pitch as he struggles to keep the height of the barn below the height of the house. He will have to work on the weekend to get the permit drawings done, since he has a meeting with the authorities, Mr. Reindel and his team, at 9am on Monday.

He has to replace essentially the whole application package including, as it turns out, the signatures of our neighbors to show they have no objections. Again, we would expect no particular problems, except he reportedly needs the signatures of both the husband and the wife of the Denslers, our nearest neighbors, and Mrs. Densler has had to go to the hospital. Axel will ask Mr. Reindel if we can proceed without disturbing the hospital patient.

It was at this point that I understood that we had almost started all over again: new drawings, new neighbor agreements, new appointments with Mr. Reindel. The Monday meeting will define better, but it looks like we are three or four weeks behind schedule before we even break ground. Oh well, it's not like we can't live without the new space.

March 28, Money

This evening we had another meeting with Mr. Pickel, our financial contact. We had already decided to go with the program he had outlined, in part because we could not determine what options really were possible. For example, he noted that the interest rate had gone up slightly since our earlier discussion. When Marianne asked a question about that, Mr. Pickel simply said "We could try the lower rate" and he filled out the paperwork at the original interest rate. Apparently, he designs a package and it is up to the bank loan officer to decide whether the loan is acceptable to the bank or not. Who would have thought we could change the interest rate just by asking?

In the end, we have a fixed-interest-rate loan, with the ability to lower the repayment rate in the future, nominally when I retire. The plan is to pay more now and less then, but, in any event, we now have a commitment for 10 years, despite only having four months left on my visa. This whole process gives new meaning to the phrase "in a pickle".

March 29 (Saturday), More sketches

Axel did work the weekend, as he had promised. The new outside drawing shows the barn with a slightly shallower roof, with the angle starting a little bit above the floor level. There is an upper window on the front side, both for light on the sleeping deck and as a way to access the winch that we should have for hauling things up into the loft.

I look at the outline and feel a disagreement with our favorite architect coming on. He keeps working to reduce the height of the barn, to not overshadow the house, and I keep hinting that this is not important to me. What is important is that the barn be functional and well-proportioned. On both counts, I like the steeper slope we had a couple days ago - or even steeper and higher. My theory is that, around here, barns are generally taller than the houses. We'll look around the neighborhood on Sunday to see if this theory is right before I send Axel back, yet again, to the drawing board.

March 30 (Sunday), Barn research and even more sketches

Sunday morning, we went out into the neighborhood to look at barns. We looked at LOTS of barns. (See slide show.) Our conclusion was pretty clear: Old barns have steep roofs, newer ones have relatively shallow roofs. This confirmed the correctness of our disagreement with Axel, so we went home and fired off our email.

Unfortunately, Axel was working hard, even on Sunday, and had completed more of his homework before we had a chance to send in our objection on the roof pitch. He had sent us details of the new roof layout. I felt bad because his drawings for both Saturday and Sunday would need to be re-done before proceeding with the building permit. I was actually worried about the "confrontation" we might have, as Axel was getting squeezed between the complaining customer (me) and the date with officialdom Monday morning, 9am.

Sunday evening, Axel did call back. True to form, he simply said "Sure, I'll change the slope back to the 53 degree slope we had before. No problem." And then he went back to working.

Now we should have just one more diary entry for March: the results of the conference with Mr. Reindel and Axel. Hopefully, we'll hear the building permit is just around the corner. Or??


John and Marianne


Diaries - Travel

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