Featured Posts

  • Castle Wall Stone Options

    One of the main reasons to build a castle is because you like the way castles look, obviously. Otherwise you wouldn’t take on such an ambitious building project. One of the key components to how they look is the exterior stone cladding for your walls, and that can also be a significant budget expense. I’m… [more...]

    Castle Wall Stone Options
  • Exciting Day: First Looks at Castle Exterior

    After dreaming this place up at least a decade ago, putting it in the “what if” and “maybe someday” category, gradually moving it into the “possibly” category, then the “probably” category, and now hopefully in the “definitely” category.  After over a year of finally getting down to the nitty gritty and nailing down the interior… [more...]

    Exciting Day: First Looks at Castle Exterior
  • An Energy Efficient Castle

    We’re building with concrete, for a number of reasons. It is strong, it can survive hurricanes and tornadoes, it is thick, giving us the wall thickness we desire, but also it is incredibly energy efficient, and I wanted to build an energy efficient castle. Concrete has immense thermal mass which allows it to only slowly… [more...]

    An Energy Efficient Castle
  • My Modern Castle Design Philosophy

    I am not building a time capsule. It is not my desire to recreate a castle as it existed back in 1350. I am aiming for a more evolutionary structure. Conceptually with the idea that the castle may have been originally built many hundreds of years ago, and the bones of the structure would be… [more...]

    My Modern Castle Design Philosophy
  • What Makes a Castle a Castle?

    Sometimes a castle may be hard to define, but like the courts with obscenity, you know it when you see it. Or rather, you know it when you do not see it. I have a pet peeve about people calling non-castles castles. Some people think you can put stone on the outside of something and… [more...]

    What Makes a Castle a Castle?

Footings being poured

For the last 10 days or so they’ve been continuing to work on footings, including pouring the first concrete of construction. That is sorta a big deal, before it all was digging, it wasn’t permanent, now there is concrete up there, and the footings all told I think are going to take something around 30 full truckloads of concrete.

Right after the footings are done, the same company, Landmark Concrete, will be putting up poured concrete walls for us around the pool area. Then the separate ICF (insulated concrete forms) will come in and start pouring the walls for the house.

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First Concrete Being Poured

First Concrete Being Poured

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How We Found Our Land and Why We Picked Chattanooga

I was asked this question in a comment, but it is a good question, and so I thought I would answer it as a post.

My wife and I have always liked mountains, mountain geography and castles just seem to go hand in hand. We however have always preferred the Appalachians over the Rockies, we like the green.

We’re also both flexible in that we could live and work anywhere, so we started out trying to find where we wanted to live. It is a big decision, a decision many people don’t get to make. Deciding where to plant your family flag, think of all the little things that changes. My children’s first girlfriend/boyfriend will be from Chattanooga, odds are higher their eventual spouses will be, odds are my grandchildren will be raised in the area. One day my funeral will be held here. My wife’s family is largely moving down as well, so our decision on Chattanooga has affected their lives as well, and I’m constantly lobbying to try to get one of my brothers to move here too.

It really was a big decision, but Chattanooga was not always our goal.

We knew we wanted the Appalachians, and Tennessee was high on our list, because my wife had taken family trips there and enjoyed it. I had never been, except to drive through at night on the way to Florida. But we essentially looked all up and down the mountains, upstate New York and Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Northern Georgia, and we even considered Austin Texas for a time, even though it didn’t have the same terrain.

For a long time Knoxville was very high on the list, as well as Asheville North Carolina, but before too long we narrowed down on Tennessee because it had the cheapest land and lowest cost of living. We tended to gravitate toward medium size cities, we didn’t want too big, but we wanted big enough to have everything we needed. So once we chose Tennessee we looked at Bristol and the tricity area in the NE, Knoxville, Sevierville, and Gatlinburg, then Chattanooga. I sorta of worked my way down from top to bottom, we spent a lot of time looking at the Bristol area, it would be cooler up there, but ultimately I never really found good land I liked. There are some areas of Bristol with private property surrounded entirely by national park, and that was attractive, but it was pretty far out of town.

We looked in the greater Knoxville area for a long time, including strongly considering an island on Douglas Lake, which wouldn’t be a mountain lot, but come on , an island! The problem was Knoxville itself had amenities, schools, and things we would want, but the city was quite a drive from the mountains. The Sevierville or Gatlinburg or Pidgeon Forge areas east of Knoxville have absolutely beautiful views, and I looked heavily at some of those areas, even having realtors go out and look for me, but ultimately the traffic of actually getting into Knoxville was going to be a major annoyance.

When Knoxville wasn’t looking too hot I started looking further south to Chattanooga. I knew nothing about Chattanooga, absolutely nothing. I knew there was a country song about it in the 90s, and that is about it. So I started looking at it, I started looking at pictures, and wow, the mountains were pretty close to town. So that was a good thing, I checked the availability of good schools, and one of the best private high schools in the entire country is located in Chattanooga. So that all checked out. There were hospitals for my wife to work at and there was no reason why I couldn’t move my business there.

But would it have land for me? I looked, and looked, and looked. I’m really big into gardening and wanted a large lot, finding a large mountain view lot was nearly impossible. They were small lots, big houses, not a lot of yard. There were some larger lots available on Elder Mountain, but they have a very restrictive Home Owners Association, still, I wasn’t building a pink trailer, I was building something architecturally beautiful. So I tried, and I was told I could get exceptions, but I needed to pay full asking price for this land, which was listed at over a million dollars. I think it was overpriced, it did have an amazing gorge view, but was only 5 acres or so and rocky and there was another house up there for sale at the time, 17,000 sq/ft in the 2-3 million range, this house had even a better lot a better view, doing some simple math, unless you believed this incredibly luxury home was worth a very small amount per square foot, that land really wasn’t worth that much.

I found this lot down in the valley on top of a foothill. The plus is it was the peak of that foothill, the downside is the total elevation wasn’t much, and the site prep making a flat enough area to build the castle would be super expensive, and all told the neighborhood wasn’t so great.

Finally I found the lot I eventually bought. After we had narrowed in on Chattanooga I started using the Hamilton County Online GIS Map, which is like Google maps but showing high resolution aerial photography (from planes not satellites), property lines, ownership information, and terrain/elevation. So I was looking and next to Elder Mountain is the Raccoon Mountain Pump Station, which is the world’s biggest battery and is all owned by TVA (State electric authority). On the far side of Raccoon Mountain is this ridge that comes down off it and then goes back up, this ridge is the only private property located up high on Raccoon Mountain, many locals did not even know it existed up there. At the very end of this road someone had bought and combined 4 5 acre lots to make a single 20 acre parcel, and it including the peak of this ridge. What is more though, it wasn’t very steep, the high point came to a gradual height, a gentle slope, very buildable. It was all forested as well, the owner lived in Florida, and there was no building on it, and no HOA that I could find.

I used Google Earth then to park my camera over this spot and try to guess what the view might be like and it was amazing. I could see Lookout Mountain, the City, Moccasin Bend and the River, and, according to Google earth, when it is built and I’m up on the tallest tower I might have a view of the gorge to the south, which is interesting, in that I would have a view of the Tennessee River to both the North and South.

I sent the owner a letter, made her an offer, she said no, we negotiated, she said yes, my offer was contingent on boots on the ground, so 3 years ago in April we took a trip down. Chattanooga definitely impressed us, the newer family friendly riverfront and downtown, and beautiful mountains framing the city. We drove by the schools we liked, we met with a CEO of one of the hospitals for my wife’s future employment, and of course we checked out the land, and it was better than I could have imagined. Nothing but huge oaks and hickories, hardwood forest (the best kind) all over. Gorgeous views, and very private… and yet… 10-15 minutes later we could be downtown, and it is just about the prettiest drive you’ll find. Our lot was still in the city limits in fact, 20 acres of forest with deer and turkeys bordering state land and it was in the city limits. Truthfully, I’d rather it weren’t, I’d rather it be under the county and not the city, but oh well.

In the meantime we had done more work and research on Chattanooga, finding out it had the fastest Internet in the Western Hemisphere, learning it had been consistently voted one of the best cities to live by various magazines, everything kept coming up golden. So we made the final decision, and bought the property 3 years ago in July. I wanted to get the land for less, but I feel like I got a steal. I have like a quarter mile of brow view frontage, in a mountain area that is equivalent to lake frontage. It is very very impressive in person, especially now that the land clearing is done. It was so forested before you couldn’t see anything when standing on the highpoint, but I (and Google Earth) had the vision to know the view was there, and it is the highpoint, the ground slopes away from the house on every side, which is good for a whole host of things. You can’t see another house from my property, not without binoculars looking across the valley to Lookout Mountain, where they measure brow view frontage in feet and the homes are crammed in like sardines.

I have enough land to garden as much as I want, to allow my children to explore the forest and build forts, and to raise a small amount of animals. I have more land than I need honestly, my lowest 5 acres has what I call the best undeveloped view of Chattanooga, and I’d sell it for the right price. It is down the front side of the slope facing the city and Moccasin bend. If someone built on it I wouldn’t even see their house, so I’m happy selling it one day. Most of the land bordering my property is state owned and will never be developed, other has such challenging geology it is highly unlikely to be developed.

My overall impression is I really lucked out with the land. The pictures I can post here really don’t do it justice, when the view fills your entire frame of vision, it is really something.

Finally Footings

They’ve started on the footings up on the mountain. Almost 2 months after our loan closed the first dirt is dug. That is very frustrating, it took forever. It had been so long and our job was so stale that everything had to be revisited, none of the bids were current for anything. People gave up hope we’d ever get funded. So firing that all back up took time, and that is really unfortunate, because after delaying a year, another 2 months is like a dagger. I want to be living there already. My original plan, way back was to have the castle done and finished by August of 2015, back when I started this process in, I don’t know, 2010 or 2011, I thought it was doable. We may have the 3rd floor framing done by then, maybe.

So, at least now they’re starting the footings. What are footings? Well, they’re the feet of your building. You always dig down into the earth a ways (how far depends on a lot of factors, including your climate) to put in your footings. You put in steel, or a lot of steel as in my case, and pour concrete into these trenches. Then you have a firm level base on which to build your walls. I’m told this will take a couple weeks, then we’ll put up our pool patio basement walls, then the ICF main house basement walls, they will start on the 1st floor in June, then maybe 2nd floor in July, 3rd floor in August. Maybe we’ll get closed in then by Halloween.

Footing Work

Footing Tower

Footing Work

Partial Tower Footing

Footing Steel

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Excavation Time Lapse Video

They started this week doing footings finally up on the mountain, I’ll post more about that when I get some better pictures, so the ball is rolling now, and hopefully it doesn’t stop.

We swapped out the memory card on the time lapse camera we installed so I pulled out the excavation work that was done last summer. It doesn’t quite start at the very very beginning of the dirt work, but fairly close. You can see them dig us a hole. The little nub they leave is for the pool.

Castle Great Hall Feast Table

I have ordered the top for my table. I have always dreamed of have a big slab table, and I love walnut, how you get the different colors between the sap wood and the heart wood, so it was always going to be a walnut slab table top.

Walnut Slab Today, Great Hall Table Tommorow

Walnut Slab Today, Great Hall Table Tommorow


I got this from Goby Walnut. I’m sure there are other places one can buy a giant walnut slab, but I have not found them. This slab is 4 and a half feet wide and 14 feet long. It should sit 16 people, possibly more if people get friendly. One of the dreams I’ve had is being able to host my whole family for a holiday, parents, in-laws, brothers (I have 3) with their families. Getting everyone around a single table would be special.

14 feet is just about the perfect size for my great hall. Currently in my existing house we have a semiformal dining room (I hesitate to call it formal considering what the kids do to it) and we have a nice 6 foot mahogany inlaid table that can grow with the aid of leaves to 10 feet, and it barely fits with the leaves but it is nice for parties, this slab will be both longer and wider, and it’ll not feel crowded because the room is so large in the castle. It will also be heavy, so heavy it is unlikely to ever be moved. The top itself is 800+ pounds, once the legs are on it’ll go up more.

Sometimes you see these slab tables and they’re finished with a very modern sort of look, ultraflat, ultrasanded, etc. I’m hoping to achieve a more rustic finish, some degree of unevenness on the top (not so much though that cups will be spilled). I am not sure how we’ll finish it, other than not polyurethane. Possibly a penetrating oil of some sort so that the wood continues to wear and age and get character, or maybe a shellac. I like natural wood finishes, polyurethane and similar finishes never look authentic.

I as of yet have not picked out chairs for my great hall. I sort of like these beefy rustic chairs but I could also see going with something fancier like this but in a different color of course. Whatever I choose I am going to need like 20 of them so it will not be a small purchase.

Castle Interior Design

I sometimes get questions about what our castle will look like on the interior, and coincidentally I just saw an ad in a magazine that epitomized it pretty well.

Castle Interior

You could call it “mountain rustic” or ever a variation on log cabin or western styles. There are three key elements.

1. Exposed grey stone
2. Dark wood
3. Plaster-like walls in an antique white.

That is the color pallet, grey, dark brown, and antique white. This is very similar to western or log cabin styles except our wood stain is darker than those styles typically use, and instead of western motif decor we’ll have gothic or celtic style decor.

What is important to understand is that I am not building a time capsule. Some people like to do that, and that is fine, but that is not my taste. I am not trying to pretend I’m living 500+ years ago, I’m trying to pretend that my house was built 500 years ago, but it has been lived in continuously, and has evolved over that time period.

So on the first floor we’ll have exposed “bones” of the house where you’ll see exposed stone and wood beams and the like, but also there will be parts that look like they were done maybe in the 1920s (such as, electric lights). Public areas of the 2nd floor will be similar, but with less stone, and on the 3rd floor or above it will just be house, no specific style. Nice oak trim through out, but just regular drywall, nothing too special.

In designing the house, the overall shape of the house was dictated by my desire for a castle, but the interior was nearly 100% dictated by what I though would be the most comfortable configuration for our lifestyle. I tried to envision my family living there, how we would function, and designed the house to that purpose. I located things like stairways and bathrooms at locations I thought that would be most convenient to us. So inside, the decor will have this unique old character to it, but the layout itself is very modern. Open flowing rooms, pretty much the entire 1st floor is one giant room, it is sorta bifurcated by the central staircase, into maybe two big rooms, or one giant doughnut of a room, depending on your point of view. The rooms on upper floors are also all typically larger, which is of course not typical in older houses.

There will be very little “fancy” in the castle. We are not “fancy” people and we are not building a palace. No hand inlaid italian marble murals. No custom curving mahogany stairways. The flooring we want to use should look like it came right out of an old pub, very well worn. Many of the other wood elements will have rustic finishes on them. Most of our light fixtures are wrought iron. Rustic really is the key word here. In that respect we’re sticking to a more traditional castle interior, not a later manor house or palace that can be called (erroneously in my opinion) a castle. Castles were military installations, and derived their architecture and other features from their needed function, not any aesthetic desire. The exception will be the master bathroom because, come on, its the master bathroom. The most private room in the castle, and we’re making it fairly modern and fancy. Otherwise the only thing potentially fancy will be the stained glass in the windows, because I love stained glass.

Castle Loan Details

So I guess the loan is real, I have the paperwork, signed, sealed, delivered, no backing out now. I guess I can safely talk about it without jinxing anything.

I thought, all along, that I would provide a litany of the banks that said no, but we’d be here all day. Pretty much, you can assume that if the bank exists, at some point they said no to me. I probably spoke with 30 banks all told. Some told me no straight off the bat, they either didn’t do construction loans, or didn’t want to do one this large. Others lead me on for awhile before saying no, some loan officers tried really hard but ultimately could not get the approval.

A few of them said they would loan me the money, but only if I deposited a nearly equal amount with them first. Some said they could do it, but at half the required amount. Many blamed federal regulations making it too hard for them to do it. Many told me the problem was the appraisals, our appraisals were high enough, but they were nonconforming to regulations because our comparables were too old and too far away. It has to be sometime like sales within 90 days within a mile – so good luck if you’re out in the country. There are many places where you’d never find 3 homes that have sold in the last 90 days similar to yours within a mile of yours. Then of course, many simply thought that if I was building a McMansion it would be okay, but they worried that, even with my 50% down payment, they would take a loss on it in the (inconceivable) event of a foreclosure, because, who wants to live in a castle? I mean, yuck, right?

Ultimately I actually used some website, because I thought, what could it hurt? To get “multiple loan offers” blah blah, I’m sure you’ve seen the ads for sites like it. Through this site a mortgage broker out of Florida contacted me. He said he thought he could get me a loan, he worked on commission, 2% of the loan. That is pretty steep, but I didn’t have a lot of options. So I said okay. I was still free to keep looking for banks, but if I went with one he referred I’d owe him 2%. Ultimately, he got me back in with two banks that had told me no before already, Sun Trust and BB&T. Sun Trust sort of dragged their feet and while their initial offer was really nice, it was hard to work with them and they didn’t respond very quickly, and we’re already about 9 months late on starting. BB&T worked steadily through the underwriting and ultimately approved the loan and I went with them. I got a $2 million construction loan that converts to a permanent 30 year mortgage on completion. The rate floats within a range for now, Sun Trust was going to lock a rate in the low 3s which I would have preferred, but like I said, they were taking awhile and their approval was not guaranteed. So now I owe the mortgage broker $40,000.

What? I mean seriously, I want to be angry at him, $40,000 for a phone call and an email? Nice work if you can get it. Just for “selling the sizzle not the steak” as he said. But I can’t be angry at him, all he did was exactly what he said he would do, and I agreed to it, and ultimately without him I would not have this loan. So I can’t be angry at him, and as much as I’m going to dislike writing that check, that is his money. I can be angry at the banking system overall for forcing me to use him. I should be an ideal borrower, wealthy, well employed, large down payment, excellent credit, and our banking system was hard for me to use. No wonder the middle class is still hurting. Our government has this habit of gross overreaction. So we had a banking crisis largely caused by poor regulation, and the solution is more poor regulation swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction. When what we needed was not more regulation, merely smarter regulation. So now, instead of being too easy to get a loan, it is too hard. One option presented to me was to put my home into an LLC and then I could have gotten a commercial loan on it because the regulations were more lax for those so they could get it done.

So BB&T is the winner, but even then it wasn’t a perfect situation. They had to charge a slightly higher interest rate because the loan wasn’t going to be underwritable enough to market it as a security or ever sell it. So BB&T was going to have to keep it in-house no matter what.

So now, I think, I can take the banking stress out of my life, and instead replace it with building stress.

Facts & Stats

I had to just add some stuff up to help some bids get put in, and I thought I would share.

The castle has a total of 10147 square feet conditioned above grade that you can stand on. I phrase it like that because we have some double height ceilings and some people count that as double square footage, but you can’t stand on air, so I don’t. Additionally there are 2632 partially finished partially conditioned basement square feet, 1035 unconditioned basement square feet. Then there is an attached unfinished unconditioned bare concrete floor/wall/ceiling patio basement (an artifact of the bedrock, slope, and position of the house) essentially a parking garage, that is 3544 square feet.

We will have 9 bathrooms. It seems like a lot, what governed our decisions on bathroom placement was making sure one was accessible without you having to walk halfway across the house or up or down a stair. You have to plan for things like the pool, do you want people to have to walk, dripping wet, across the house to use the bathroom or do you add one near the door to the pool? Many of these bathrooms are just half baths though. There will be 8 bedrooms, though not all of them will be used as such.

There will be a total of ~179 light fixtures, including things like fans and garage door openers. The kitchen is 314 square feet, which is just 3% of the conditioned total, and even less of the gross total.

Our total acreage is 20, and most of that is wooded forest.

I Have a Loan

After dealing with banks for a solid year, I’m happy to announce I finally have a loan. We could close as early as Friday, construction will start soon, I’m really happy, though now that it is finally real I am also a little anxious. In the time that has passed there has been some material inflation but I hope it isn’t too bad. I’ll post more details after we close, I don’t want to jinx anything.

I visited last weekend to do some business related things and took some more pictures of the lot. This was after some of the final grading was done and some rocks were moved around. It was also right after what Chattanooga called Snowmageddon, but as I’m from Michigan I found that adorable. The whole property was covered with snow on Friday and Saturday, but gone by Sunday.

My Builder and I.

My Builder and I.

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Then I thought I would include this picture, what I call the best undeveloped view of Chattanooga. This is the lower 5 acres of my property, you can’t even get the entire view in the picture, if I had panned to the left you’d see more of downtown as far as Veterans Bridge, so essentially it is an unobstructed view of everything between Veterans Bridge to Lookout Mountain, and as low as Moccasin Bend. I’ll sell it one day or put cabins on it or something, I prefered the larger building site up higher for my own build as I like land and gardens, this is more of a brow spot, but it sure is a nice view.

The Best Undeveloped View of Chattanooga

The Best Undeveloped View of Chattanooga

Not Much to Report

Do I have a loan? No. I have three banks working on it, I’ve paid for more appraisals. The most recent appraisal was the highest yet, putting my loan-to-value (LTV) at 44%, and yet still no finalized loan. I do have “preliminary approvals” at two banks but I’ve heard that before.

Business is doing good to the point where I’d almost be there to just self finance, and I think perhaps in another year (maybe two) I could indeed to do that, not need a bank at all, but I don’t want to wait, still, you’d think with my strong financials getting a loan would be the least of my problems.

I have however recently done two interesting things. The first is I found a coppersmith to make me a custom copper sink. I found them on eBay actually and I asked them if they could customize one of their designs. I’m really pleased with how it turned out. It is a large copper farm house style apron sink with two bowls and 5 square quatrefoils on the front. There is a slight concavity to the front face, which will allow it to blend in nicely with our countertops, which are curved along the outside wall of one of the towers. See the kitchen post. This was $1500, which if you’ve ever priced out as sink like this is a great deal, of course I bought it direct from the fabricator, not from a middleman.

My Custom Copper Sink

My Custom Copper Sink

The second thing I bought is a sconce. This is also a custom design. I saw this light fixture at Disney world hanging off Cinderella’s castle and I had to have it. Of course that one was maybe 6 feet tall, mine is half the size, but it has all the style. What I particularly liked was that it didn’t have a fake candle. I’m not a big fan of fake candle light fixtures, I like the light bulb to be enclosed in shaded glass or something (in the case of my sconce it is mica, which is technically a rock, just a sort of flexible rock crystal they can cut so thin as to make it pliable). Glass shades give you greater flexibility in bulb types as well. I also liked how the metal came up and formed a basket around the glass. Finally, and importantly. I liked the angle of it. I see a lot of “torch” sconces where the torch is held parallel to the wall, but I don’t think that is period correct and I simply also prefer the look where the torch angles away from the wall. This thing is custom made in Texas, is solid steel, 3 feet long, weighs a good deal, has a nice antique finish on it. $380, I am getting a little bit of a discount because I’m buying in bulk. We’re going to need a bunch of these sconces all around the 1st floor interior. Neat huh, and I also think it is a good deal.

This is my sconce, there are many like it but this one is mine.

This is my sconce, there are many like it but this one is mine.

My Sconce, Front View

My Sconce, Front View

My Sconce, Side View

My Sconce, Side View

The inspiration for my sconce, see on Cinderalla's Castle at Disney World.

The inspiration for my sconce, see on Cinderalla’s Castle at Disney World.

My sconce was done by Iron Gallery LLC, I shopped around and they gave me the best deal and all told I’m super impressed by the quality of the work. In addition to doing lighting they do other things like doors, and I tell you what it is really hard to find giant metal 10 ft x 4.5 ft gothic arch castle doors on the shelf at home depot, and we plan to use this same company to do both some of our other light fixtures (like the ginormous one in the great hall) but our custom doors as well. Actually one of the doors I picked was one of their stock doors, if you browse their site maybe you’ll find it, it is square but with a gothic arch window.

One of the goals I have with my blog is to reputationally reward the suppliers used on the build. For two reasons, one because people who do good work deserve credit, and one because I know how hard it is to find some of this stuff and I hope to be helpful to any future would be castle builders. So I plan to plug the vendors contractors and everyone else I use as I use them so long as they continue to perform and provide me deals and do good work and all that jazz. If I wanted to be funny I could say it is like reverse product placement, instead of them paying me, I pay them. I really need to figure out how to do it the opposite way…

So that is all, when I do have a loan, which could be by the end of this month if I’m lucky, or by Valentine’s day, or maybe not until this Summer if I’m really, really, really unlucky, I’ll post here first thing.