Bloggin’ Like Crazy

Several friends and acquaintances of mine from the group, See Jane Write Birmingham, are participating in a month long “blog like crazy” challenge, led by Javacia Harris Bowser.  The challenge is to post meaningful content once a day for a whole month, which is definitely a challenge since normally I post more like once a month! Partly because it takes me so friggin’ long to write a post; I’ve written and re-written this paragraph about 8 times!   I’ve also been unsure of the direction I’ve wanted to take my blog, which along with being so busy, is another reason I don’t write more frequently.  I love sharing my struggles and triumphs because it helps me see where I’ve come from, and it helps me connect to myself and other people. After some out of town friends left this morning, I felt intensely lonely.  But as I sat down to write, the loneliness faded.  By writing and being part of this challenge, I feel connected to a whole community of women out there, many of whom I’ve never met.

I also know how much it’s helped me to read other people’s stories at moments when I’ve really struggled.  Today I am a pretty happy girl.  Most days I really do feel peaceful, content and centered.  I struggle with how to concretely create the life that I truly want, but I no longer live in a dark, depressed and hopeless world.  For many years, I wished that I had never been born.  Life felt like too much of a struggle, and I saw myself in a hole that I didn’t think I would ever climb out of.  But there were a few key people around me, one woman in particular, that consistently and lovingly held up the possibility of hope when I couldn’t believe in it myself.  And that was life changing for me.  It wasn’t a fast process, and I didn’t get out of that darkness as quickly as I wanted to, but I’m so happy now to not live in that state of constant misery.

I want to be a beacon of hope for people who can’t quite believe in it for themselves right now.  Because I truly believe that if we keep walking, if we keep putting one foot in front of the other, we’ll get where were going.  There have been many times in my life where it took everything within me to keep walking.  And I’m so glad I did, because now the peace and meaning I’ve found in my life is more than I ever could have hoped for.

I know this blog is about building a Passive House, and sometimes it feels kind of strange to one day post about such personal things and the next day write about how to build a super-insulated, air tight wall.  It might make more sense to have 2 separate blogs, but it’s about all I can manage to keep up with one.  So for now, I guess my techie construction friends will have to put up with some painfully introspective posts, while my other friends endure the occasional post about  ventilation systems and green building.  It’s a testament to me really because I’m all those things.  If I had a blog about only one thing, it would almost be hypocritical given how much I love variety.  It’s probably the thing that I love and hate most about myself.  The diversity of all that I do and the people that I’m around bring a true richness and excitement to my life, and it’s also what makes me feel scattered, overwhelmed and lacking in focus. That’s my journey, trying to live a life full of variety and meaning without being too stressed to enjoy it!  So I’m giving the blog like crazy challenge a shot.  I love the idea.  I’m not going to pressure myself into writing every day if I don’t have the time or don’t feel inspired.  But I’ll challenge myself to write more frequently this month.  Thank you for reading, and thanks for the inspiration, Javacia!

A Few Steps Back

There hasn’t been much happening in the way of Passive House lately and the peaceful life thing kind of comes and goes.

I should really quit proclaiming with such confidence what my next step will be. I’ve felt some sort of pressure to define where I’m headed and then follow through with it. I think I’m scared of looking like an idiot for starting a whole blog about a Passive House that isn’t being built.

But the larger message of this journey and project is about creating a life that’s more in line with my deepest values and the life I want for myself.

I believe that this house will be built someday, but I don’t know that for sure. And if it does happen, I don’t know when it will happen. The truth is I don’t know anything. Although I can hedge my bets on what tomorrow will bring, I NEVER truly know what the next moment holds. A minor car accident, a busted sewer line and a broken air conditioner within the last few weeks have been good reminders of that.

For the moment at least, I’ve taken some pressure off myself. The number one thing I know is that I’m tired. I need to rest, and I need more time and energy for me, and my patience for riding out the uncertainty of all this is waning.

I’ve enrolled in some certification programs to learn more about some things I’m passionate about and want to make part of my professional life, but I need more space and less responsibility in my life to dive in fully and really make those changes.

I had planned on building the garage first and possibly living there while I built the rest of the house. But the city gave me a big huge NO on that one. Then I decided to finish my basement. I was going to rent it out and create more income that way. I had started gathering materials and checking out thrift stores, getting prices from subcontractors and was just waiting on the carpenter to get started.

Then last Thursday, I got a call from a realtor that handles corporate relocations. He thought he could easily find people who would be interesting in renting my property. Based on the monthly rent he quoted me, I decided that was a good option. He listed the property on his website and a couple is going to view the house today. Who knows if they’ll rent it, but when I looked at the numbers, this option really does make the most financial sense.

So that’s the idea of the day! I’ll lease my home, live with my mom for a while, and take some time to myself to figure out what I can achieve professionally and personally, some time to focus on me without having to take care of anything else, just existing and exploring!

I’m sure by my next blog post, I’ll have a totally different strategy, but I’m trusting myself, one tiny half step at a time and seeing which doors aren’t dead bolted shut.

And those are the doors that I will walk through. Sometimes I walk up to a beautiful door that I REALLY, REALLY want to open, so I turn the handle, but it’s locked.

Then I knock really loudly and even yell to see if there’s someone inside who could let me in. When that doesn’t work, I pull out my sledgehammer and try to beat the door down.

But when that iron door still doesn’t budge, that’s usually when, exhausted, I take a step back and ask myself if maybe there’s another door that I could open with a little less effort ☺.

Trusting myself is something I’ve talked about in theory for a long time, but I’m really just beginning to understand what it means to live that way. And that’s the most valuable and rewarding thing this project could bring me.

Most of my life I have longed to feel passionate about something, anything. I would think to myself, if I just knew what I was passionate about, then, I would gladly pursue it.

It’s hard for me to believe, but I now have an inkling about the kinds of things I want to spend my life doing. I still have a lot of fears and doubts, but it’s like I’m standing on one side of a raging river and the fog has finally cleared enough for me to see through to the other side. Now I just have to figure out how to build the bridge to get there.

It’s pretty amazing to live in a world where it’s possible to fine tune and tweak my deepest desires and longings. I have enough support and security to move beyond survival mode and create my dream life.

I believe it more than ever, I believe that I can create a life full of fulfilling relationships, and professional and financial fulfillment, no excess, just bountifully, beyond my wildest dreams enough.

(As far as concrete progress with the house, the city did approve the variance for the garage, so that’s good news! I turned the garage to take up a little less space in the setback area. Here’s the visual if you’d like to see the updated site plan. I like how it frames in the back yard. Site Plan 2_070212)

Exterior Images, Variances, and Gas Leaks

In Avondale, the zoning regulations say that a detached garage can’t take up more than 30% of the back 25 feet of a lot, but since there’s no alley access and my lot is so narrow, a 2-car garage would take up about 40% of that area, which means I have to apply for a variance. Here’s a link to the site plan if you want to see a visual of where the garage sits on the property. (You can also see the first floor plan; we angled the back wall of the master to create a little more space in the bedroom without encroaching on the driveway!) Site Plan_062012

I spoke with the variance guy at the city today about getting the approval, and apparently the deadline for their July board meeting was yesterday, but he said if I got him the paperwork today, he could try to squeeze me in. (I swear it feels like there’s some unwritten rule saying that every tiny step of the building process must take a minimum of six weeks!)

So I rushed to get everything together and ran down to city hall between appointments.

I walked in, and the building was vacant. It seemed strange, but I looked around and tried to walk through the metal detector. At that moment, a guard appeared and said I would have to leave, the whole building had been evacuated because of a gas smell that has been permeating the city of Birmingham today.


So I called and left variance man a message. Hopefully he’ll still take my paperwork on Monday, and hopefully, they’ll approve it in July! That’s the first hurdle to getting the building permit.

If the variance gets approved, I should be able to take my elevations, color rendering, material samples and landscape design to go before the historic design review board in July. Once we have their approval, then we can finalize the construction documents and start building!

I did get some disappointing news last week when I talked to a city official. Things seem to change according to who you talk to, but when I went in person, they told me I wouldn’t be able to get a permit for the garage alone. I’ll have to get the permit for the house and the garage at the same time. Because the garage is an accessory structure, you can’t get a permit for the accessory structure unless there’s a primary structure that’s already built. I’m still hopeful that I’ll be able to move along more quickly with the garage, so that I can use it for storage while I build.

Here are some images of the exterior elevations, so you can start to get an idea of what the outside of the house will look like!

I’m working on a color scheme right now, but I’m leaning towards an old looking Bessemer like red brick for the foundation, the brick columns, and the partial brick walls of the house, then a blue/green/ grey color for the siding, chocolate brown on the window trim and eaves, and a bright red for the doors and window grids!

Any thoughts?


On the Road Again

It’s been a traveling month!

I spent a week near San Francisco, exploring the city and attending a retreat where we worked on our inner selves for a few days.

Then last week, I took a road trip up to Virginia for my friend’s baby shower. I couch surfed at a community house in Asheville that focuses on sustainability. They capture their grey water in buckets and use it to flush the toilets. They dumpster dive outside of a local natural foods store and bring home the slightly damaged packages of food that get thrown away. The have earth paint on their walls, make their own mead, live without air conditioner, and capture their rain water and compost for their organic garden. Their mosaics on the shower walls were made from found broken pieces of tile. It was inspiring to see all these guys were able to achieve in real life. It pushed me to think a little deeper about what other things I could be doing in my own life. It also helped me realize what things I wasn’t interested in, like crapping in a box to make my own biogas!

After leaving the precious historic town of Lexington, VA, where the baby shower was, I worked my way back home.

I headed to Damascus, Virginia to bike the Virginia Creeper Trail and spent Sunday night at the Hiker’s Inn, which is a cozy little inn/ hostel that provides a hot shower and a comfortable bed for the thru hikers that are walking the 2,000 miles of the Appalachain Trail, a footpath that goes all the way from Georgia to Maine.

On my way to Damascus I thought to myself, “I’m really glad I’ve gotten over the urge to hike the Appalachain Trail myself.”

But of course, all it took were five minutes of talking to the hikers, and I was ready to just abandon everything and follow them down the trail!

It’s a strange desire that’s hard to even articulate, but I have such an intense longing for the ridiculous simplicity of carrying everything on my back in the middle of nature with nothing but what I need to survive. It’s rugged and dirty and there’s no pretense. It can be lonely, scary and incredibly uncomfortable, but something about it feels like home. I miss Chris and other people/comforts while I’m gone, but I come home and after a few days, I’m ready to be back in the woods!

It brings the rest of my life into focus, magnifying the things that matter most to me while encouraging me to let go of the things that don’t.

So I guess it’s partly about the experience itself and partly about the contrast that allows me to appreciate all of life a little more.

As one of the hikers from the inn mentioned, “Being on the trail is like life in a capsule.” He said, “In the last six weeks, I’ve been extremely happy, intensely depressed; I’ve gained and lost friends, and I’ve had a relationship that lasted two weeks, but felt like a year! “ And I thought, yeah that makes perfect sense! Six months on the trail is like a metaphor for a lifetime.

Since I’ve been home, it’s become crystal clear to me that I have to make some changes in my professional life. I feel like I’m underpaid and under functioning. I have to find a way to increase my income and create a professional life based more on the things that I enjoy most, or else I will always feel trapped.

My hope is to slowly work on creating a business that helps people live happier, healthier, more sustainable lives! There are some certifications that I’ll be working on this year. One is the training to become a Passive House consultant.

I’m terrified and excited. I don’t know how I’ll work out all of the logistics yet, but I’ve started doing some research and am excited to have some direction.

We’re also making headway with the house! The elevations are done, and I’ve decided to go ahead and start building the garage.

Very few people have looked at my house in Hoover, but I can afford to build the garage even without selling my house. That’ll give me lots of storage space and an upstairs office above the garage where I could occasionally sleep while the main house is being built! That means only having to move once!

Rebecca suggested the idea, and I love it. It helps me feel like the project isn’t becoming stagnant.

It will also be great practice; I’ll get a chance to try incorporating all the Passive House techniques on a smaller scale without the pressure of having to get the structure certified.

The plan is to go before the design review board to get the neighborhood approval for the house and the garage on July 11. I have to apply for a variance because the garage takes up more than the allowed space in the backyard, but I’m hoping that won’t be too much of a hurdle. The goal is to break ground on the garage in August, and then start on the house as soon as the garage is finished, which will probably be the first of next year. It’s nice to have a concrete plan for the house and my life!


I haven’t written much lately because there hasn’t been much to report. Rebecca is working on the elevations and the exterior of the design while I try to sell my current home.

At moments, the process has felt painfully slow. But overall, I’ve felt surprisingly patient with everything (except for feeling terribly rejected every time someone comes to see my house and doesn’t want to buy it!).

I think part of my patience comes from feeling really comfortable where I am. I love the trees that I can see through all the windows of my house. I love the spaciousness of my home and the backyard that my dog can play in, and I feel very safe and protected here.

I’m not really looking forward to the hassle of moving and renting or living in a tiny space while I build. I’ve kind of been just waiting, taking one step at a time while I see how things unfold.

I know from past experience that worrying doesn’t help anything, and it would keep me from enjoying all the things I love about my current situation. I’ve put a lot of myself into my home, and I’ll be sad to leave it. The place where I live starts to become a part of me and of how I see myself. I associate it with comfort and familiarity.

I also know that almost without fail, things tend to evolve in a totally different direction than I expect them to. So it seems rather pointless trying to obsessively plan my next step, when I know there’s no way to predict the outcome.

I don’t know where I’ll live when (or if) my house sells. I could live with my mother and save some money, which would be a lovely option if she didn’t live 10 miles down highway 280. We get along great, and it would be nice to be in such a comfortable space for a while. But I’m not sure what I would do with Stevie, my pup, and I wonder how my patience would hold up fighting that traffic everyday.

I could also rent a home with a backyard and try to find a roommate. Or I could find a tiny apartment or a carriage house near downtown! So many options. The main thing is that I want it to be affordable (and by affordable I mean cheap) because I want to put every dime into the construction of the new home.

I’ve also been going back and forth about whether to start construction if my Buttercup home hasn’t sold yet. We still have a few months left in the design phase. Once we finalize the drawings and construction documents, I will have to set up a meeting with the neighborhood association and the historic board to see if they approve the plans before the city will issue me a building permit. I also want to bid out the entire project before I get started to see if I’m anywhere close to my budgeted amount.

So there are still a few months left of planning and permits before I could break ground, but my current sentiment is that I might go ahead and start even if I haven’t sold my home. I can at least get the foundation done with the savings I have, and then maybe I’ll find some creative ways to continue financing the project.

Who knows, we’ll wait and see!

I’ve been reading a book called Enough by John C. Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, a great book and one I’d highly recommend.

Here’s an excerpt from the first paragraph of the introduction:

At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have… enough.”

That paragraph struck me because it’s so true. It’s sad that so many of us, despite all of our wealth and comforts, will never experience what it’s like to feel like we have enough.

So in the meantime, while I wait, I’m experimenting with what “enough” could look like in my own life.

(I’ve also been working on the interview I did with Rachel Rhinehart from Jones Valley! I’ve nearly finished transcribing it, and it’s no less than 10 pages long! So now I’ll start editing, to get it down to a length that some of you might read. But I promise to get that out soon while the information is still relevant 🙂 )

The Mighty Magnolia Tree

There is a magnificent magnolia tree on the corner of my lot that’s at least 80 years old. My neighbor said he has a photo of his house from the 40’s that shows the tree as pretty large at that time. That tree is part of the neighborhood’s history!

The lot is already small, and initially I didn’t think we could save it without destroying its roots and ultimately killing it during construction. But Rebecca, my architect, went out to the lot to take measurements, and she thinks that if we do a partial porch on the front of the house, we should be able to save that beautiful tree!

When she mentioned this, I was hopeful but skeptical. This whole project is about not causing more damage than necessary, and it would break my heart to tear it down. But I knew from experience that it could be very costly if the tree didn’t make it. There was a tree about 5 feet from my current home that I desperately wanted to save. And against the advice of Shannon, the builder that was mentoring me, I decided to leave the tree. Within a year, it had died from the trauma to its roots during construction. I finally had to pay to have a 50 foot tree taken down, and with a house 5 feet away, a fence and air conditioner another few feet away, it was a difficult and expensive task.

After I talked to Rebecca, I called David to ask his opinion. As well as being a licensed builder, electrical engineer and all around good guy, he’s also a certified arborist. We met out at the lot and spoke with my neighbor, who’s a landscape architect to get his opinion.

David agreed with Rebecca. So unless we run into unforeseen obstacles, the tree shall be saved! It will have to be trimmed by a certified arborist, and the tree will be very close to the house, but it will provide really nice shading on the southwest side of the house, while preserving the beauty and history of the property!

I had planned on using an insulated concrete slab for the home’s foundation, but to make sure we don’t cause too much root damage, I’ll have to use helical piers and an insulated crawl space as the foundation. I’ll also have to be extra diligent at keeping all construction equipment off of the trees roots.

The front of the house will have a partial front porch, which I think really adds a lot to the exterior of the home. It adds some complexity and uniqueness to the architecture. Here are some rough sketches in the works for the exterior. I love the sketch on the middle left! I can see it all coming together!


Rebecca, David and I are meeting all together for the first time tonight to discuss the latest version of the house plan and to learn more about the overall Passive House concepts. I’m really looking forward to them meeting each other and moving forward with the design. I was hoping to be further along by now, but I’ve learned that anything in construction usually takes about three times longer than I expect, and I haven’t wanted to rush the process!

Here’s the latest version of the first floor that we’re working with: FIRST FLOOR_VS 2._013012

I wanted to add additional square footage to the office/ flex room, so that it could also double as a bedroom or TV room, and I felt like I didn’t need as much space in the kitchen. So we bumped out the office wall two feet into the porch and brought the back kitchen wall in 2 feet. We shortened the island from 9 feet to 7 feet, put french doors at the back and a pantry along the wall in the kitchen that is shared with the master bedroom. This also created the extra storage that I felt like was missing in this scheme.

Overall, I’m happy with the design. The living/ dining area is open to above. The office will be two-story as well. The second floor has a large loft area for dancing, two bedrooms and a bathroom.

There are two things that I’m still a little concerned about. One is the thermal envelope. When building a Passive House, you have to create a thermal barrier, and the more corners you have, the harder it can be to create that barrier. I may need to sacrifice the two feet in the office and bump the kitchen back out two feet to create more of a rectangle, which may work better aesthetically, too. That’s one of the things we’ll discuss at our meeting.

The other concern is cost. My hope was to get the house down to 2,000 square feet or less, but I’m realizing that’s not very realistic based on everything I want in it. Currently, we’re at about 2,230 feet (330 feet is for the dance area!) It’s still a relatively small house, but I’m worried about how expensive the actual building costs will be. It’s difficult to build a home from the ground up and fight the temptation to have the best of everything.

But since one of the main goals is to drastically reduce my expenses, I don’t want to over build. I also want the home to fit in well in the neighborhood. Once we finalize the design, I’ll start bidding out the project to see how close I am to the budgeted amount!

Eat your veggies! (and fruits and whole grains)

I recently watched the documentary Forks over Knives, about how food can be our most important medicine. It’s a GREAT documentary, and I was reminded of how important what we feed ourselves is to our own health and the health of the world around us.

Sustainability is so interrelated. There’s no way to talk about sustainability in construction or any other area without including the rest of our lives. Such as where our food comes from and how it affects us.

Food is such a universal thing, kind of like breathing! It’s relevant to everyone, and I’m a big fan of talking about things that are fundamental and go beyond any cultural, geographical, political or religious barriers.

The documentary was great because it addressed in depth the scientific findings that two different doctors had found (without wanting to find them) regarding how bad our Western diet is for our health. We have become so accustomed to treating the symptoms of our problems rather than the root of our problems, and our diets are often at the root of our diseases.

The two doctors, completely independently of each other and over the course of decades, consistently found that diets high (20% or more) in animal protein, were actually turning on our cancer genes. They also found that plant-based, whole foods diets with 5% or less of animal protein could actually reverse cancer growth and heart disease that had been activated. And aside from the effects on our health, meat production requires 10 times more energy than plants (not to mention that our animals are now being mass produced as if they were plastic bottles instead of living creatures!).

The doctors’ findings were really fascinating. I won’t go into more statistics or details in this post, but if you get a chance to check out the film or the book, The China Study, that the film was based on, I think it’ll really make a difference in how you see nutrition and modern medicine.

This is old news, but with Alabama being second in the country in childhood obesity and other diet related health problems, it’s so important for us to have better access to fresh, healthy food and to educate ourselves about how to use food to enhance our health, rather than using it to slowly poison ourselves.

(Which is sometimes easier said than done! Chris and I decided after watching the documentary that we would try eating a plant-based whole foods diet for a month and see how we felt. It wasn’t too far of a stretch from what I was already doing, but the next day all I could think about were French cheeses and Milo’s hamburgers. So I still eat meat occasionally. I have to listen to my body and find a way to balance my rebellious psyche with my health!)

When it comes to education and fresh, healthy food, Jones Valley Urban Farms is one community garden that has been a front-runner in this movement. Their current mission statement is “helping Birmingham grow organic produce and healthier communities through urban farming and education.” Since the garden’s beginnings 10 years ago, they have had an unwavering commitment to reuniting our communities, reconnecting people to food, educating our families on the importance of health through nutrition, and encouraging sustainability through agriculture that actually revitalizes our land instead of destroying it.

I was fortunate enough to interview Rachel Reinhart, the program director at Jones Valley regarding the role that she sees the garden playing in the community, the programs they offer, why she thinks it’s important, and what we can do to help.

I really appreciated her insights, and soon I’ll be sharing the interview with you! But in the meantime, eat your veggies!