After ten months of seemingly nonstop work through days, nights and weekends—except for a pause to heal a broken shoulder blade—homebuilder Eric Rabesa felt as if he needed to reintroduce himself to his two young kids.
“Hi, I’m your Dad,” he joked, as he pretended to lean down and shake hands.
Of course the reintroduction was unnecessary, but family sacrifice is common when building professionals bring their work home. For Rabesa, president of Rivertree Custom Builders in Steamboat Springs, that homework meant reconstructing a 1946 old town bungalow into an energy efficient three-level family home. Eric’s wife, Samantha, who works as the office manager and interior design assistant for Rivertree, describes their rebuilt home as a modern farmhouse. Working for themselves, the Rabesas were able to follow their environmental moral compass as far as financial compromise would allow, which led to a balancing act between cost, efficiency and design.
“Our goal was to use less energy and resources,” Samantha said of the family’s highly insulated home.
Despite prevailing trends to scrape old lots clean, the home on Park Avenue was deconstructed, not demolished. Not many home building clients would have gone to the trouble the Rabesas did to reuse resources.
The roof was removed and repurposed. A majority of the cinderblock walls were saved. The original over-sized garage was protected. In total, reusing and repurposing saved the family some $90,000.
During deconstruction, a 40-yard container of useable building materials was saved and donated to the Milner Mall at the Milner Landfill. As the house was taken apart, the builder found wood that was already in its second use.
“I kept finding reused products in the house, and that kept inspiring me to keep reusing,” Rabesa said.
Existing metal roofing became new outdoor wainscot siding. Original Douglas fir wooden floor boards were reworked to become the new exterior deck. Existing wood sheathing boards from exterior walls and the roof as well as aspen wood paneling from the interior basement walls were repurposed as exterior siding. Appliances and cabinet pieces from past Rivertree remodels were incorporated.
Digging into 1940s construction led to some surprises, including the collapse of the southwest corner of the walls when workers removed the rafters. The previous small basement had no safety egress and had to be dug out larger while not damaging the walls.
The Rabesas fell in love with the downtown lot several blocks from Soda Creek Elementary two years ago. The family of four plus their large dog lived in the house with its small rooms and one bathroom for a year while they formulated a plan and budget.
“It was a valuable experience as we bonded with the property and gained a respect for the house and building site, uncovering potential such as the rooftop deck, and character such as the mandalas on the interior trim, which we later paid tribute to by using them to imprint the concrete piers for the porch,” Rabesa said.
One of the biggest challenges was the decision to reuse the cinderblock walls, none of which were straight, square or plumb.
“Some cells of the cinderblocks had to be filled with concrete and steel rebar for structural support,” the builder said. “Then instead of using vermiculite as the original builders did to insulate the void created by furring strips, we used closed cell foam sheets, which we ordered custom cut to the thicknesses needed for the varying cavities created by the uneven walls. Some foam ended up being 5 inches thick.”
With help from architect Ian Wagner (Wagner Design Studio) and structural engineers from Steamboat Engineering & Architectural Design (SEAD), the Rabesas got creative.
The original 7-foot walls were secured with a horizontal bond beam of concrete and steel, then three courses of reinforced masonry were added on top. The southeast corner of the original foundation sits slightly outside the lot’s allowed side setback, so the new stairwell was sloped 4 degrees inward so the new wall and roof overhang is within the building setback to avoid a variance process, explained Jake Mielke with SEAD.
“That added a neat piece of character to the house,” Mielke said.
A rooftop deck was built over the enclosed rebuilt breezeway between the main house and the garage, so water drains through the deck and onto the roof.
Architect Wagner created a computer model showing the solar exposure so the Rabesas could decide on roof overhangs and window locations for optimal lighting as well as solar shading. Wagner noted one unique difference in working with a builder planning his own house is the ability to produce a light builder’s set of drawings so the family could incorporate professional design services despite affordable budget concerns.
“We were able to work real closely with him to dial in his needs and concepts without a lot of unnecessary design process,” Wagner said.
As the son of a mason and grandson of a mason and general contractor, Rabesa was happy to do as much work on his own home as possible, for both cost savings and enjoyment.
“In my day-to-day life of running Rivertree and managing projects, clients and designs, I rarely get to ‘wear my bags’ anymore,” said Rabesa, who helped with construction projects beginning in middle school living at his family’s campground in northern New Hampshire.
The builder and University of Colorado environmental studies graduate completed much of the framing and rough-in wiring, served as the plumber’s helper and installed heating tubes and supply lines for his home. As his own general contractor, Rabesa also staged the work to be able to complete a detailed air sealing test with an energy rater. After all the insulation was installed and the ceiling drywall hung, Rabesa and rater Chad Feagler of Mountain Energy Consultants worked together to troubleshoot and seal any leaking areas that were exposed by the infrared camera images.
The Rabesa family previously tackled an extensive retrofit and remodel at their home in the Fairview neighborhood, so they knew what was in store when they searched for their next project.
“Samantha probably drew a dozen house plans for properties we never even put an offer in on. This process was fun for us, and it helped us have a priority list in place,” Rabesa said.
Concessions are necessary for a builder’s family building their own home.
“You need to be ready for sacrifices because it’s hard to keep everything balanced,” Rabesa said. “We needed to lick our wounds for two or three months after and relax.”
After their demanding rebuild was complete in February, the urgency of construction reverted to the greater priority of family fun projects such as planting a backyard garden and raising chickens.