Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Salvaged Materials

We at Istockhouseplans dig reusing materials.  Production builders may not find it to be as advantageous given their needs for larger quantities of stock.  But for the one-off builder and the devoted salvaged materials can lend a certain flavor to a home.  One need not be all or nothing either.  You reuse of materials can be as simple as finding a beautiful old stressed beam to use for a mantelpiece or some columns from a torn-down church to be used as decorative detailing in a dining room.  Old-style farmer's sinks can fetch a high price at salvage yards

Pure Salvage Living is decidedly devoted to salvaged materials as well as small housing.  We find this to be a perfect mix of styles.  Your options for reuse are much greater when you don't need 100 of something.  Check out the gallery especially for some beautiful ways to reuse what would otherwise be discarded materials.

And then check out our catalog to find a home to use your ideas in!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Our Technological Toolbelt

Contractors carry a toolbelt (or drive a truck) full of useful tools for building a house.  We at Istockhouseplans wear a little different utility apparel. Ours is less physical and a little more electronic.  In fact it weighs hardly anything at all (which makes us quite portable without an F-350).

The most important tool we use is AutoCAD LT.  Without a digital drafting tool, we would be relegated to the physical tools of our forebears, that of a pencil and triangle.  Though be not deceived.  We have a great respect for those that still practice this dying art.  AutoCAD can be a little spendy for the weekend warrior.  The LT version is slowly approaching $1000 in price while the full version can be $4000 or more.

If you're just looking for a cheap tool that can still get the job done, we recommend A9CAD.  This free tool has all of the functionality we need except for colortables.  If we didn't have to print pretty pictures, we'd probably be using it.

DoubleCAD is another free product that has much more functionality, about as much as AutoCAD itself.  The look and feel is a little different.  DraftSight is another program we've found that almost perfectly replicates AutoCAD.  It does tend to have a bit of a lag though.

Sometimes we'll play with 3-D imaging.  Rather than pay the several thousand dollars to get the full version of AutoCAD, we've found the ever popular SketchUp from Google.  Sketchup is clean, intuitive, and (like AutoCAD) has several different ways to do the same thing.  We've found the basic version to be enough for our needs though we sometimes crunch the numbers to see if we could afford the $500 upgrade to Pro.  Pro allows more functions including creating your own Dynamic Components.  This means you don't have to create a 2x4, 2x6, 2x8, etc.  You just create a joist and then before you insert, drop down menus allow you to choose width, height and length.

When you order a paper plan from us, we send the file to the printshop as pre-printed PDF sheets.  They print the PDF sheets, bind them, and your plans are born.  There are several ways to create a PDF.  We've tried a few and the best one we've found is CutePDF.  This application installs like a printer in your computer system.  When you're ready to create a PDF from any program, go to print, and then select CutePDF as your printer.  A myriad of paper sizes are available.

The images of our plans that are posted on the website are created through a two-step process.  Unfortunately the quality of jpg and png that AutoCAD spits out are unacceptable.  We've found that we get much better quality from a pdf.  So we'll print the pdf (as mentioned above) and then open it up and export a jpg or png from the image.

Sometimes we'll further manipulate these images to get the size and contrast we want.  For this we use Irfanview.  Irfanview is another free program that does a bang-up job of manipulating image files.  We have used it to crop images, manipulate size and resolution, glue images together and much more.

Our images are then uploaded to Picasa Web Albums by Google.  The images on our website are referenced from Picasa as static images.  You can link to your images so that they are clickable or not, have a border or not, and control the size that the viewer sees.

Our blog is hosted by Blogger, another Google company.  The decision to use Blogger was merely one of convenience.  Rather than have several different log-ins for several different web portals, we decided to keep everything with Google that we could.

To continue the Google theme (maybe we oughta buy stock?) we use Checkout for our shopping cart, Analytics to get a look at our pageview trends, Docs to create release letters, and Maps for our mapplet.  Google has severely limited their Checkout feature so it's back to Paypal.

Our website was created with Google Page Creator.  We were very pleased with the look we had built.  A couple of years ago Google decided to close out Page Creator in favor of a program called Sites.  Our website was converted to the new look and looked just awful.  So we downloaded our coding from Page Creator and had it hosted privately.  This has worked well but it means that when a change needs to be made that we have to manually log in and make the coding change ourselves.  A small price to pay for having that much control.

Our website is now hosted on Google again. We switched to GoDaddy several years ago after reviewing their pricing structure.  But personal decisions have led us away from there as well as their difficult to use page editor.  Namecheap now has our URLs.

*edit: date of this post has been updated.  Sorry for the repeat in your feeder!

*edit: some of our services have changed.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Water Heater Update

Back in December of '09 we reviewed a couple of water heaters that we thought were pretty stylish.  The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has created a chart which looks at operating efficiencies and lifetime costs for nine different types of water heaters.  We promoted two types of water heaters, one being the high-eff. electric storage, the other being a heat-pump water heater (HPWH).  We were impressed by both.  The ACEEE study shows the HPWH to be the most efficient unit as well as having the lowest lifetime operating cost.  (N.B. that ACEEE lists $190 as annual operating cost while Ruud lists their unit as costing $234 per year.  Comparisons made with the average of $212/yr).  In fact, compared to a standard electric water heater, the HPWH has a payback period of a little over three and a half years.  Even the high-eff. electric has a 3 year payback period over the standard electric tank.  After that, though, the HPWH will be ten times cheaper to operate than the high-eff. over the standard electric tank.  (Payback period calculated by taking difference of installed costs and dividing by the difference in yearly energy costs.)

Note that if you currently use an oil-fired boiler, you almost can't afford to NOT switch to a new water heater.  Even a minimum efficiency electric heater will have a 4 year payback period.  If gas is available in your area and you prefer it in case of an electric outage, payback period is about 3 years for a conventional gas heater.  Even a HPWH will pay back in 4 years.  (Payback period calculated by taking installed cost and dividing by the difference in yearly energy costs.)

Of note is that some state and federal tax credits will offset the cost of a high-efficiency water heater even further making your payback almost immediate.  The federal 30% tax credit for energy efficient improvements brings the payback period of a HPWH to less than two years (20 months) compared to a standard electric tank heater.

Istockhouseplans doesn't always designate a space for a water heater within the house (and attached garages in our designs are rare).  Therefore we are pleased to see that the HPWH is a high contender for cost and efficiency.  These types of units can be put in crawlspaces, basements, and even outside in a milder climate.  For colder climates a little attached shed on the side or back of the house would suffice fine.  As always, check with your local codes, etc, etc.