House Diary #9: Permit Obtained

Sneak peek of our kitchen and dining area

Okay, I’ll admit it, I shed a tear when I finally held the permit in my hands. After months and months of delays, whether it was waiting for grading to finish (they were completely backed up) or finding a truss company to give us an estimate in order to submit the permit (we ended up ditching trusses and switching to dimensional lumber), for a while it felt like it was never going to happen. But after three years since we first began the process of building our own house, we finally have a permit!

Over three years ago, we met our real estate agent to start the search for a plot of land to build our house. We wanted to stay in our current neighbourhood because we love the walking proximity to shops, nature and public transportation. It took over a year of searching, making and losing offers to settle on something. The real estate prices in this area were already blowing up pre-pandemic, with big developers outbidding everyone else who just wanted to buy a house to live in. Most plots were zoned 2-3, meaning they could subdivide the land to build semi-detached dwellings prevalent in this area. More houses per plot means more $ for developers. We lucked out on a street that was miraculously zoned 1. It also happened to be on a dead-end street, so even though we were within minutes from shops, the street itself felt quiet.

After closing on the land, we set out to find an architecture firm. We really only interviewed 2 firms because frankly there weren’t many firms in Ottawa building the sort of houses with the sensibility I was looking for. I was looking for a firm that wasn’t just building cookie-cutter McMansions with massive front-facing windows you see everywhere these days, but that was building truly bespoke homes tailored for the family and the environmental context. We ended up choosing one over the other simply due to ~vibes~. It was important, beyond the work they do, that we felt we could express what we wanted. And so far, it’s been great.

So in the winter of 2019, we signed a contract with PlotNonPlot to kickstart the design process. It’s hard to know how things would have turned out had we not gone into lockdown in March. We only met maybe 1-2 times during the design process before everything went virtual. It was at times difficult to convey what we were thinking and I’m sure vice versa. But we did manage to load a WIP SketchUp file into a VR headset and walk around in the house. Mind you, I got dizzy after 5 minutes but it was surprisingly useful. 

A year into the design process, we signed a contract with a General Contractor in the winter of 2020. Choosing a GC took a few months – from interviews, to reference checks, to waiting for a rough budget to come through. On the GC side, they were waiting for their subcontractors to get quotes back to them and, you guessed it, the pandemic caused a lot of delays. But we ended up choosing a Crossford who understood our vision and again it’s been great.

We had originally planned to start the demolition in the spring of 2021 (with a budget that was about half of where we are now) but alas the pandemic affected both our timeline and cost. 

And that brings us to the present day. With the permit in hand, our General Contractor jumped into gear in record time. Demolition happened a week after, followed by excavation a few days later. And in a few more days, the foundation will be poured. 

When we started this house journey, we didn’t think we’d be starting the build at the same time as welcoming a newborn into our lives. But in a way, it’s not a bad thing as we will be able to better anticipate the needs of parenthood and children into the design of the house. Even the lockdown has helped us reconsider our relationship with our house. Making room for his and her offices and the lived quality of the interior has become ever more important and sacred to us. 

And if I’m painting a pretty idyllic picture here of the process, let me assure you there were many hurdles and surprises. I’ll list a few below just to give you a sense:

  • There was a little cottage house on our property that we had originally wanted to rent for a year. Halfway through the lease, our tenant stopped paying rent and abandoned the property. It was lost income we had budgeted to cover the building cost. 
  • Pandemic induced lumber shortage/price surge. Did I mention our cost has almost doubled? 
  • So many soft costs we just did not know were coming. For example, to demolish a house, we had to call the city to shut off the gas. The process costs $1400. The permit also ended up costing $2000 more, along with paying extra for our structural engineer who had to change our truss layout to dimensional lumber because truss companies were completely backed up. This is just in the last few weeks. On their own, the extra costs are manageable but they add up quickly. Just last week, our GC told us they found imported soil on our land, meaning it was unsuitable for bearing the footings on. So $1300 more to replace it with engineered gravel. And I anticipate that there will be many more surprises to come. 
Samuel standing in front of our plot on demo day

More updates to come!