Gettin’ Techie with It

We’ve made a lot of progress with the house, although most of it has been in my head!  After the Passive House training, I had some important decisions to make before we could move forward with the design.  So I spent a couple of months mulling over different options and comparing prices.

I’ve decided to square off the house and remove the two bump outs that we had in the master bedroom and bath.  This will make it much easier to create a continuous air barrier and continuous insulation without any thermal bridging.

And it breaks my heart to say this, especially after writing a whole post about saving it, but after much deliberating and weighing options and prices, I’ve decided to take down the magnolia tree.  We were planning on putting the house on piers in order to not disrupt the root system of the tree.  The tree would have to be trimmed significantly either way, so the house could fit under it.  But I talked with a foundation company regarding the price, and the piers themselves would cost around $7-8,000, and on top of that we have to get a structural engineer involved, then pay for lumber for the floor joists and the cost of a finished floor.  All of which could cost three to four times more than using an insulated slab for the foundation.  Because the slab will be insulated, we can also use the concrete floors as our finished floor; it creates a cool, industrial look!  And we get the benefit of being coupled with the ground, which can help on heating and cooling costs since the ground is cooler than the air in summer and warmer than the air in winter. And unfortunately because of how far down we have to dig for the slab foundation, I don’t think the tree would survive the trauma to its roots.

A few weeks ago, I was at a gas station pondering my tree decision.  I looked over to my left and saw a big truck that said “Gil’s Tree Service.”  I remembered that they had taken a tree down for me when I was building my first home.  I stopped Gil and asked his advice on the Magnolia tree.   He went and looked at the tree and thought it would be a good idea to take it down.  AND he has a sawmill and can mill the wood from the tree so that I can use it in the interior of the home, either to do some cool trim details or possibly a whole wall of magnolia wood!  Knowing that helped me feel a lot better about the decision!

Another difficult decision has been deciding on the best option for domestic hot water.  The Passive House standard has mostly been used in cooler, dryer climates, so the challenge we face with building this kind of house in the deep south is heat and humidity.  We want the Relative Humidity in the house to stay between 40-60%, and some of the Passive Houses in the south have struggled stay in that range in the summer time.  The Energy Recovery Ventilator and the heat pump mini-split haven’t been quite enough to keep the homes cool and deal with the humidity in the middle of summer.

I’m hoping that I can use a heat pump water heater to help with that.  A heat pump water heater pulls heat and humidity out of the air and uses it to heat the water.  It’s kind of like a water heater and an air conditioner in one because once the heat has been removed from the air, it blows cold air back out into the space around it.  It can be 2-3 times more efficient than a standard electric water heater because it’s much more efficient to transfer energy or heat than to generate it.  And if it’s really cold in the winter, you can change it to electric resistance mode.  Currently the price of these water heaters is around $900, so it’s a pretty affordable option.  The question was then where to put this water heater. They recommend about 1,000 cubic feet of space, which we didn’t really have with our current design!  Originally the office on the first floor was going to be open to above, but we’ve decided to place a floor above the office space and use that as our mechanical room.  We can have the ERV, hot water heater and possibly the electrical panel in that room.

My hope is that the ERV and the mini-split, together with the heat pump water heater and the concrete slab coupled with the ground, will be enough to keep the house cool with the humidity levels under control in the summer!

For the insulated slab, we use a couple of inches of foam underneath the slab.  The foam acts as the form that you can pour the concrete into, and then the foam just stays in place after pouring and doubles as insulation!  We have a layer of poly that runs under the slab and comes around to be taped to the outside of the OSB sheathing, creating a continuous vapor barrier and an air barrier.

The wall that I plan on using for any construction geeks out there is a 2×6 stud wall on 2 foot centers, with dense packed cellulose in the wall cavity.  The OSB will be the sheathing that attaches to the outside of the 2×6 wall.  The OSB is then sealed with a liquid flashing called Prosoco, which creates an air and vapor barrier.

Attached to the OSB, we’ll have 3-4 inches of exterior insulation, probably Rockwool, which is made from industrial slag.  It’s a pain to install but it’s non organic, so it handles moisture well and doesn’t attract bugs because there’s nothing for them to eat! It can also be obtained locally because we have a manufacturer in Leeds!

On top of the Rockwool, we’ll have furring strips, (which are wood strips) that attach through the Rockwool to the studs, so that we can create a rain screen or drainage plain. At the bottom we’ll have a screen to keep insects out and towards to top of the wall, we’ll place another vent so that the air can circulate and dry out the area.  The hardi-plank siding will be attached to the furring strips and that’s it!

So next we have to figure out how to tie the roof into this wall system without raising the overall height of the house too much.  We could do an unvented roof, which means we just have to be extra careful about condensation issues.  We have to make sure that our dewpoint won’t happen on the interior of our house, creating a moisture problem. J

Rebecca is currently working on the window schedule, which is a list of windows and sizes that we’ll use in the house, so that I can get window pricing. I’m comparing prices with a few different window manufacturer’s. She’s also making the changes to the elevations and floorplan, so we can begin inputting all the data into the Passive House Planning Package software to make sure we’re on track with the Passive House standards!

Here are a few pics of some Passive House projects we saw when I went out to the Passive House conference in Boulder last month!  More to come soon!

 

One Year Later

At many times a long the way I’ve wondered if change was possible. Sometimes my old beliefs and habits can feel so ingrained, that it’ll make me question whether or not humans are truly capable of change.

When I started this blog about a year ago, I was hoping to have my new home built by now, but more importantly I was searching for a shift within myself and a different outlook on life.

And a year later, I can honestly say that a lot has changed. My life has become less frantic, and I take time to do things that truly nurture me. I’m saying “no” a lot more, and I have a new overall commitment to my own well being. I cook healthy meals for myself. I take my lunch to work. I’ve reduced the amount of clutter and waste in my life. I take time to write. I spend time most days doing stretches and exercises that help me realign my posture and stay out of pain.

It’s amazing how good I can feel just by taking care of myself.

It’s very different than trying to force myself to live a “healthy” lifestyle or “be good” or “save the environment.” It really comes from a deeper place of wanting to truly live my life in alignment with what’s best for myself and the world around me. And I really don’t believe that those are two separate things. Of course I don’t do it perfectly (not even close!), and I don’t think I would want to. But I’m grateful for what this project is bringing me, and I hope to be able to continue sharing the things that are changing and the ways I hope to shape my professional life to line up with that vision as well.

I watched a you tube video this past week about a family of four who manages to only have one tiny bag of trash every few months. Here’s a link if you’d like to see how they do it.  They say that some people have criticized them and called their lifestyle extreme but that they are truly happier and healthier and their expenses have been reduced significantly by living this way!

Like with so many things, I don’t think it has to be all or nothing. I try to continually, gently incorporate smaller things into my life and see what habits I can gradually change. Things that feel really awkward at first, can become second nature over time. The last time I went to the grocery store, I looked at the conveyor belt and saw how nearly everything I was buying came in a package. So I’ve been saving my packages and buying more in bulk, using cloth bags to put the bulk items into. I keep a couple of tupperware containers in my car or purse to use as to go boxes at restaurants and take my water bottle at work, so I don’t have to use disposable cups. It’s fun; remembering is the hardest part! I’ve also been more conscious about only bringing things into my home that I really want or need. So just a few small changes at a time, that hopefully over a lifetime can make a difference!

Later this week I’ll write more about our progress with the house! I’ve been working on a few construction projects lately, so here are some photos from a Homewood bathroom remodel I just finished, and a screened in porch we tiled in Mountain Brook. In the bathroom, we used a low flow toilet and plumbing fixtures, an LED light fixture over the vanity, low VOC paint on the walls and ceiling, and we re-used the medicine cabinet over the vanity and painted it to match the vanity wood! All of these options were comparable in price to their conventional equivalent.

Here’s a link to my first post around this time last year if you’d like to read more about what this project means to me!

Why Passive House?

Affordable Passive House in Urbana, IL, built for $110/ square foot. The trellis is designed so future vines can provide shading for the south facing windows.

The Passive House builder’s training last week was more than I could have hoped for! I met some wonderful people, learned so much, and now feel more confident in my understanding of what it takes to build a Passive House.

I have a newfound respect for the amount of attention I will have to pay to the details of the construction of this home and for the amount of time and energy I will need to invest in convincing people that we can do this, especially here in Alabama.

I’ve gained confidence and fear at the same time. Building such an air-tight envelope makes for a more energy efficient building, and the intentional ventilation creates superior air quality and comfort within the home, but it also means the building is less forgiving if mistakes are made during construction. If the walls aren’t designed well or the windows aren’t installed correctly, you can create a situation where water can accumulate in your walls. And with airtight walls it’s much more difficult for the building to dry itself out.

Up until now, I’ve relied a lot on my experienced subcontractors to educate me about their trades and best building practices. But in order to make this project happen, I will have to be able to communicate and demonstrate how to do a lot of the construction details to my subs. I think many of them will be open to it, but some will probably fight it.

Building a Passive House, in many ways, is like turning conventional construction on its head. It will be an uphill battle talking with inspectors and subcontractors, to convince them that this new way of doing things is going to result in a better building.

Essentially, Passive House is a building that won’t become obsolete in 20 years. The goal is to create a super-insulated, airtight, thermal bridge free envelope that uses balanced ventilation through efficient mechanical systems, high performance windows and doors, and passive elements to create a comfortable, durable building that’s renewable ready!

On the first day of training, we looked at some graphs that showed our projected increasing energy demands over the next few decades. With a growing global population and technology reaching parts of the world that have never known things such as air conditioning, the only way we’re going to meet the rise in our global energy demands is through energy-efficiency.

In the U.S., 40% of our energy consumption comes from the operations and maintenance of our buildings. Buildings built to the Passive House standard consume approximately 90% less energy than conventional buildings, so imagine how much energy can be saved if all of our buildings were built to this standard!

I often hear the argument that renewable energy is too expensive, out of reach, but that is largely due to the fact that our buildings are inefficient, so it requires a lot of renewable energy to operate the building. If we make our buildings 90% more efficient, then renewable energy, such as solar, starts to make a lot more sense.

Currently it costs around 10% more to build a home to Passive House standards, but a lot of people are working to show that it can be done affordably. One of the Passive homes that we visited in Illinois was built for about $110 per square foot, which is pretty cheap! And as the construction standards and some of the materials used become more widely known, it will become even more affordable. As Adam, one of our instructors at the training says, with a Passive House, your monthly payment, when you add up your mortgage payment and your energy bill, will be equal to or less than your total payment with a conventional home. What doesn’t make sense about that?! And then you’re putting your money into the quality and equity of your home instead of giving it to the power company!

The Passive House standard is based on the performance of the building. For example, to meet Passive House certification when the home is tested under pressure with a blower door test, there can be no more than 0.6 air changes per hour, compared to 7.0 allowed by code! But the specific way the building is built depends entirely on the climate of the area and the availability of materials. So each project has to be evaluated individually to come up with the best system and materials to use on the house.

The learning curve on all this is steep, which is why it’s taking me so dang long! The other houses I’ve built were designed and built in about 9-12 months total, and I think we’ve been in the design phase with this house for about 9 months now. We probably have another 3-6 months to go just to finalize the design, to enter all the data in the Passive House Planning Package Software, estimate the costs, and submit the project to the Passive House Institute for pre-certification. I’m hoping to have every construction detail drawn and planned out before we start building, and I’m guessing that once we break ground, the actual construction will take a year or so.

I’ll write another post soon for any construction geeks out there that want more information about how I plan on building the walls of this house and an explanation of the ventilation system that makes Passive House possible!

From Alaska to Illinois

I’m headed to Illinois tomorrow for my first Passive House builder’s training. It’s their inaugural builders training and takes place in a college town called Urbana, “the heartland home of superinsulation, air-tight envelopes, ERV, and solar gain principles that underpin the modern passive house movement.” The US Passive House Institute is located there and 8 Passive House projects have been built there in the last 10 years.

The training focuses on general passive house principles, hands-on field focus on the building envelope, HVAC considerations and cost optimization and bidding. I’m really excited about the training and learning more about how to actually build a Passive House (and a little nervous that I’ll be totally under-qualified). Hopefully, I can post some pictures of the Passive House projects there that have already been built!

It’s also fun to be in a hotel for a week where there’s nothing but me to clean or take care of! It’ll be quite the contrast to the tent I was sleeping in last week in Alaska.

Last week, eleven of us spent nine days in Alaska through UAB’s Outdoor Pursuits. We spent a few days in Denali National Park, backpacking in the Denali wilderness, hiking on tundra, which is actually a plant and not a place like I thought.

The views were amazing, and I didn’t suffer nearly as much as I expected. The weather had gotten cold enough to take the mosquito level from intolerable to just annoying. And we were among the lucky ones that were able to see Mount McKinley, all 20,328 feet of it!

The mountain spends most of its time hidden behind the clouds and only about 30% of visitors get to see it in all of its glory. If you get to Wonder Lake on a cloudy day, unless someone told you, you’d never know a giant mountain existed behind the fog. Josh, our trip leader woke us all up at 5:30 one morning when he saw that the mountain was totally exposed.

Early morning Mt. McKinley

In the backcountry part of our trip, we got caught in a freezing 12-hour windy rain storm, which made for a cold, uncomfortable day and reminded us that tents are only water resistant and NOT waterproof! But it also made for some quality time with Xuan my tent partner and made clear sunny days seem like heaven!

After climbing out of the wilderness, we headed south to Valdez, where we spent a day sea kayaking up to the Shoup glacier. It was absolutely beautiful. I even swam in glacier water, and if you know how much I hate the cold, I’m sure you’re really impressed!

We saw every kind of wildlife we hoped to see, from grizzlies to moose to wolves to loons, luckily most of it was from the safety of the park’s camper bus and not on the trail! The landscapes are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and I hope to venture back some day to do some more glacier hiking and ice climbing.

No matter where you are in Alaska, it takes 8 hours to get somewhere else. It’s one of the few places in the US that has been kept truly wild. And especially in the national parks, they’ve worked really hard to keep it that way. Other than social trails that people have created, there are no trails in the Denali wilderness. No private vehicles are allowed on the park road, and the park rangers work incessantly to educate people on how to respect wildlife and “leave no trace” as they explore the park.

Kayaking at Shoup glacier

So from Alaska to Illinois, it’s been a happening month. I’ll have to miss half of Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival this weekend, which breaks my heart. But I got an early morning flight back on Sunday, so that I could at least catch some of the Sunday films. Sidewalk is one of my favorite local events!

My home hasn’t leased yet, so if it doesn’t happen in the next few weeks, maybe I’ll start working on finishing the basement. David has the house drawings and the climate data for our region and is working on entering the data to run all the Passive House numbers for the Avondale house. Once we’ve entered all the data, we’ll know if we need to change any window or door sizes or anything else with the design before we finalize the drawings to meet Passive House standards.

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!

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!

Scheme 2! The first floor house plan

We’re so close to getting the schematic first floor plan finished. I’m hoping Rebecca doesn’t disown me by the time this is all said and done. I’ve changed my mind and contradicted myself a thousand times since we started. She’s incredibly patient!

Last week she sent me the scheme 2 she had been working on. I told her I was secretly hoping that I wouldn’t like it, making my decision easier. But unfortunately I liked it A LOT. Check out the image of what she sent me here: FIRST FLOOR Scheme 2 version 1

I really like how different this scheme is. I like the placement of the stairs and having the kitchen at the front of the house with the master at the back. It is also cool that you walk in under the stairs and on the second floor there is a catwalk that overlooks and frames the kitchen and dining area below.

But when I spoke with David about the design, he didn’t think it would work well with the Passive House standards. There are still several concepts that I’m understanding as we go along, but with the Passive House, the exhaust is in the kitchen and bathrooms, so it’s best to have the kitchen and bathrooms towards the middle or back of the house. We’re creating passive solar heat gain on the south side of the house through the windows, so we want the exhaust to be further away from the front of the house so that we aren’t exhausting the energy before it has a chance to circulate throughout the whole house.

After David and I talked, Rebecca flipped the kitchen to the back of the house, bumped out a wall to add a few inches to the master bath/shower, and put pocket doors everywhere. With the latest version of this scheme, you can now access the laundry from the master closet, so my future roommate won’t have to watch me run naked across the house in search of clean clothes! 🙂 It’s been a touch decision, but I still think I prefer this design over scheme 1. There’s a little less closet space and a little more square footage in scheme 2, but I think the living space flows nicely, and again, I really like having the master at the back. We’ll have to use sound batts to buffer the noise from the kitchen in the master.

Here’s the latest version of scheme 2 with the kitchen at the back: Scheme 2 version 2

If you’d like to compare it to the latest version of scheme 1, here’s that image as well: FIRST FLOOR Scheme 1

I’d love to hear any thoughts you have! There a few small adjustments left to make, but we’re really close to finishing the first floor schematic, which I think is the toughest part of any design.

‘Tis the season to be excessive

Like a friend of mine once said, unless you’re living in a tree and eating nuts, you’re contributing to global warming. I probably won’t be living in a tree anytime soon, but whether or not global warming is real, or caused by us, it just makes sense to take care of what we’ve got and not destroy things unnecessarily. And to not cram more of anything into our lives if it doesn’t somehow add to our happiness or well-being.

In some ways, I’m the world’s best green hypocrite. It could seem as if I’m a fanatic, since I started a blog about going green. I don’t take bags from the grocery store, I buy organic veggies and try to reuse and recycle; I use fluorescent light bulbs, and my roommates often trip if they get up in the middle of the night because of my energy-saving darkness.

But I also travel, live in a big house, take long showers, and drive an SUV. Those aren’t exactly the greenest of things.

The point isn’t to buy into a trendy eco-friendly movement or to deprive anyone of the comforts and luxuries that life can afford us. I think those things are wonderful if we truly enjoy them and approach them with awareness, which is part of a new strategy that I’m trying out. I’ve decided not to be afraid of spending money on things that really make my life better (as long as I have the money!). At times, by trying to be frugal, I’ve made things more expensive in the long run. That’s why last week I ordered a new Mac book pro, and I’m thrilled! After three years of fighting with this wood-burning computer box (as my boyfriend calls it), I’ve decided that as much time as I spend in front of a computer, I should have one that works!

But when I realize I’m not enjoying things that are supposed to be fun or luxurious, it’s a good time to ask myself: “So what’s the point?”

Our lives have become filled with so much excess (especially this time of year) – excess stuff and debt, excess eating, excess distractions and social activity- which all seem to diminish the quality of our lives. It’s like we’re hoping that buying one more gift, eating one more cookie, finally getting out of town, will be the one thing that finally brings us lasting happiness.

But there’s nothing fun about parties we don’t want to go to, stuffing ourselves to the point of discomfort, or having a cluttered house full of stuff we don’t use. We spend extra hours working to pay for stuff that actually decreases our happiness! It’s crazy, but we do it over and over again every year (myself included). While I definitely understand the fun in giving and receiving a meaningful gift from a loved one, we’ve taken it to the point of suffering.

It seems that the cliché is true! Living on less, often actually makes for more happiness. Gradually, I’ve reduced the things in my life that I spend money on. I’ve discovered that I often have more fun camping in the woods (as long as it’s above 40 degrees) than going on a luxury vacation. And I often like the food I make at home more than restaurant food. It helps that I’m surrounded by starving artists, but I’ve had fun seeing how little I can live on, while still feeling like it’s more than enough!

The building industry is no exception to the excesses of our society. It didn’t take long after I started building houses to see what an incredible amount of waste there is in a construction project. Even the term green building is kind of contradictory because there’s nothing very green about new construction.
I think the overall challenge is to do as little damage as possible to ourselves and the world around us, while still creating comfortable lives and living spaces. With traditional building practices, there’s still a lot of room for improvement in those areas.

With each project, I’ve tried to incorporate more concepts of energy-efficiency and sustainable practices. While the Passive House takes “green” and energy -efficiency to another level, there are some smaller very affordable things I’ve done along the way that I’ll write about in the next post. I’ll show you the green parts of my Buttercup house with pictures and all!

David and I met last week to review the current version of the first floor layout. It seems like we’re on the right track. So far, there doesn’t seem to be anything about the design that isn’t compatible with the Passive House, so that’s good news!

Plan Progress

Rebecca and I have worked hard over the last several weeks on the development of the house design, staring at plans, piecing things together. She’s done an awesome job of showing me different design options while still incorporating all of my ideas!

We wanted to get the first floor finished before we worked anymore on the upstairs or exterior. We’ve gotten one scheme mostly finished, and I really like how it has evolved. Rebecca’s currently designing a second scheme just to make sure we come up with the best of all possible worlds. You can click on the link here to see the most up to date version of scheme 1: FIRST FLOOR_Vs 1.b_120511

With this scheme, a porch runs the length of the house across the front. You walk in to the two story great room that opens to a loft above. The stairs are open, so you can walk underneath them into the vestibule to access the powder bath or master bedroom. The powder bath can be accessed from the master bath, which saves on space and plumbing fixtures! We made some other changes to the master bath and closet area that I’m really happy with. I initially wanted to incorporate two master closets, but it was difficult to squeeze two doors in. With this design, there is a small dividing wall that creates 2 separate areas with only one door. That also allowed us to fit in a small linen closet. I also like being able to see the shower as you walk into the bath. That makes for an opportunity to do some cool tile detail.

The master closet opens to the laundry area. The laundry is a little bigger than what I need, but it is nice to be able to access it from the master.

For the kitchen, we tried a few different layouts, but so far I like this one the best. It creates a very linear, modern feel and keeps the kitchen at the center of things without breaking up or closing off the space. We’re talking about doing a refrigerator with a cabinet face on the wall behind the stairs, which I think would look really awesome.

The dining room is at the back of the house with a door opening to the backyard. On the back side of the laundry room is a flex room that I’ll probably use as an office/ TV room, but it’s also big enough to serve as a nursery or small bedroom in case someone were to stay with me that couldn’t go upstairs. Part of green building is creating spaces that can provide for a variety of needs and situations, which means they’re more likely to be functional long term without having to remodel or rebuild.

So far, we haven’t cut down on the square footage. I feel like there’s a little more space than I need in the great room and kitchen, but design wise, it may work out best to leave them as they are. I want to cut down as much as possible on the square footage, but I also want to make sure that the house will work for me long term. So I’d rather be slightly over than cursing my lack of space in a year or two!

I’m still trying to decide whether to leave the master bedroom on the front of the house or flip it to the back, putting the office at the front of the house. It would be nice to have it at the back for privacy reasons, but it could also be nice to have the office back there. So many decisions! This drawing shows a two car detached garage. Because of the space needed for a turning radius and parking pad, it still takes up a big chunk of the backyard. I haven’t decided yet whether to leave a two car garage or to have a longer, narrow, one car garage that could have space for storage or a workshop at the back.

Before we get too far along, David and I are going to meet to make sure there’s not anything about this design that won’t work with Passive House standards.

I’ll keep you posted as things progress!

CBS Sunday Morning and House Plans

Today has been a marvelous fall Sunday. Fall is my favorite time of year, and it was such a pretty day. The time change made it easier to wake up and catch CBS Sunday morning, a lovely show that always leaves me with a feeling of hope! Andy Rooney from 60 minutes died yesterday. RIP Andy. I’d never heard of him before today, but after I watched the tribute to his life, I was sad he was gone. There was a great line from one of his bits: “I wish there was something we could take that could cure us of stupidity!”.

I grabbed brunch and then headed to the gym for some exercising and swimming. I don’t believe exercise should ever be punishment, but I had to push myself to get going today. Once I was there, I loved it, but beforehand it was like talking to my five year old self saying, “Sunshine, you’ve spent 8 days straight in front of a screen, and it’s time to move!” With any project that I’m passionate about, it’s easy to let myself be totally consumed by it. So part of the challenge is going to be taking care of myself and maintaining balance in other areas in my life as I work on this. Probably easier said than done!

There’s been a lot happening this weekend. The Avondale Brewery opened for business, the Moss Rock Festival was Saturday and Sunday and the uber important Alabama-LSU game last night (poor Alabama).

We checked out the fun Moss Rock festival yesterday. It takes place on the common green areas of a development called The Preserve in Hoover. My mom’s boyfriend, Carl, says they name developments after what they used to be, which is definitely true in this case. Moss Rock is a nature preserve that, up until about 12 years ago, was 650 acres of forest. 400 acres of forest were cut down and developed to create the 680 homesites in The Preserve. Luckily, the city bought 250 acres, leaving them mostly intact, and created an official nature preserve. This protected the area with the boulders that climbers love and some beautiful waterfalls and hiking trails, although it’s not nearly as pristine as it once was. Now there are silt fences and cleared areas along the trails and often there is construction happening at the trail head. That seems to be the backwards way we do things, cut down 400 acres, develop it, name it The Preserve, and then have eco-friendly festivals there. Even so, Moss Rock is still one of my favorite places to go hiking with Stevie-D (my loyal pup). It’s only a mile or so from my home, and after a rain, the waterfalls are gorgeous. The festival is also a great annual event with some talented artists and vendors with green products.

I ran into Stephen Guesman at the festival. He owns a company called Greenworks Design/ Build that helps people make their homes more energy efficient. He worked with me on the design of my current home and will likely contribute some to this project. He lives in a modified yurt off the grid in a community called Common Ground in Blountsville, AL. His house is powered completely by solar, and his water comes from a well on the property. A few weeks ago, they had the annual solar tour at Common Ground, and I was happy to be able to make it this year. I got to see some really cool possibilities, and soon I’ll write a more in-depth post about everything I learned with photos of the different homes we were able to see.

Tonight, I’m hanging out looking at house plans. After a while, my brain feels like it might to break, but I love it still. It’s like trying to piece together a puzzle. The biggest decision I had to make before we could move forward was about the garage. The lot is narrow,(50×126 feet) and there is no alley access, which makes a garage difficult. Initially, I wanted to have an attached garage, so the first design we worked on with Rebecca, my architect, had a drive along the right side of the house and then you turned left across the back of the house into the garage. Once I saw it on paper, I realized how much that separated the backyard from the rest of the house. With that scenario, I would only have about 25 feet of backyard and would have to cross the driveway to get to it. Rebecca had some really cool ideas to provide other outdoor spaces on the side of the house, but I think I’ve decided that I can handle walking a few feet to get to a detached garage. The easiest most affordable option would be to have the garage on the front of the house, but since the lot is in a historic district, I don’t think the historic review board would go for it. I didn’t want to finalize all the plans and then have them not approve the design. You can’t go before the board until you have drawings with all the elevations, renderings, and actual material samples, and by that point, the plans would be nearly finished. So I’m going to choose my battles and save everyone some time. A detached garage it is! The backyard will still be small, which is good because I don’t want more than I can take care of, but at least now, there’ll be an area of about 50 feet by 30 feet for a patio off the back of the house, a small veggie garden and plenty of room for Stevie-D to run around!

I’ve attached a photo below with a picture of the initial drawing, so you can see the visual of where we started. Rebecca and I are meeting again this week to work more on the design. I’ll keep you posted on the progress, as well as officially introduce her to you!

Also, a big thank you to Keith Gugliotto for helping with the website yesterday and for making computers seem a little less scary 🙂

Hasta pronto, amigos!

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