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!

 

Getting Ecologically Friendly

9 tips about a few small things that have worked for me:

1. Home garden

We’ve eaten lots of collards and cabbage this winter from the backyard garden. Collards grow so well here, and the bugs don’t touch them! The herbs have also done great. We had a crazy surplus of basil and parsley this summer. We also had some thyme, and the cilantro does well during the cooler parts of the year.

Cabbage and Collards

We didn’t have quite as much luck with our tomatoes this summer. I think we ended up with eight wee tomatoes, enough for one veggie sandwich! But it’s so fun to cook with things that come from your own backyard.

It makes sense on so many fronts. I use the water from the rain barrels to water the garden. (The hardest part is making myself walk down the deck stairs to the garden!) We grow the veggies organically, so there’s no pesticides used. There’s no energy wasted in the food being transported, and I don’t have drive anywhere to pick it up. Plus it costs pennies to buy the seeds and organic fertilizer, compared to the cost of the produce itself.

I know the idea of a garden can seem like an overwhelming amount of work, but if you do it on a small scale, it really doesn’t require much maintenance. Some things like herbs, lettuce and tomatoes can even be grown in pots on your porch!

Parsley from the backyard

2. Chemical free lawn

I don’t use any chemicals to treat for weeds in my lawn. The chemicals get absorbed into our groundwater and are found in the runoff that goes to our lakes, rivers, and streams, compromising their delicate balance and biodiversity, and ultimately ending up in our drinking water.

Zoysia is a very dense, shade-tolerant sod, making it difficult for weeds to grow through it. I put zoysia sod in my backyard over the summer. It’s a little more expensive on the front end but can make for less maintenance in the long run. I’ve also found some natural weed killers that I’ll use occasionally in natural areas, but they can be pretty expensive if you’re trying to cover large areas. Vinegar and water is another suggestion that I’ve heard, but it didn’t bother my weeds a bit.

My lawn doesn’t look perfect, but it’s nice enough, and I’d rather have a less-than-perfect lawn than to unnecessarily put more chemicals into the ground.

3. Sentricon termite bait system

The soil of most homes is pretreated during construction with hundreds of gallons of chemicals to prevent termites. I opted for a system called Sentricon. Sentricon is a system of small baits placed around the house that are monitored quarterly by your pest control company. If any termites are found in the baits, then they treat for termites.

Sentricon Bait Station

I use Wayne’s Pest Control, and the only downside to this system is that is costs $75 quarterly for the monitoring and termite bond, but there is no upfront cost. And again it’s worth it to me to avoid having all those chemicals pumped into the ground.

The blown Cellulose insulation that I mentioned in a previous post can also be a deterrent for termites and other critters. Since I’ve been in my home, except for the occasional roach, I’ve had very few bugs, so maybe that’s had something to do with it!

4. Mohawk SmartStrand Carpet

Mohawk has a carpet made partially from corn fibers. It is made from 37% renewable resources, requires 30% less energy to produce, supposedly releases no VOCs (volatile organic compounds found in paints and carpets that can be toxic to humans), and emits 63% less greenhouse gas in production.

Aside from these environmentally friendly things, the quality is superior, even though the cost (when I built my house in 2007) was comparable to other medium grade carpets. It’s naturally stain resistant and never loses its texture. Mohawk installed this carpet in the rhino enclosure at the Birmingham Zoo for two weeks, and after being cleaned it looked as good as new! I’ve been in my house for 4 years now, and it still looks new, even after spilling red wine on it!

Mohawk Smartstrand Carpet

5. Low or no VOC paints.

Low VOC paints have come a long way in quality and affordability in the last few years. Lowe’s, Home Depot, Sherwin Williams, and Benjamin Moore all carry affordable versions of a LOW to no VOC paint. When we first used them about 8 years ago, there was a noticeable difference in how many coats we had to apply and in the quality of the paint. But that’s not true anymore. You can save yourself some exposure to some volatile-ly organic compounds for a comparable price!

6. I-beams

I-beams/ I-joists in my basement

A timber I-beam or I-joist uses one-sixth the wood of a conventional joist for the same strength. They are made of wood composites so can be made of younger, more sustainably sourced woods and they’re lighter and easier to cut. They’re stronger than regular lumber, keeping your floors level over time, and also allowing you to span larger distances or create more ceiling height. When I built my home, the price of lumber had gone up, and I also had large, open spaces on the main level that needed to be supported, so in my case, it cost about the same as regular lumber to use the I-beams in construction.

7. Change out yo’ light bulbs

A Virginia Tech professor, Tamim Younos, and undergraduate student Rachelle Hill carried out a research study on the water-efficiency of some of the most common energy sources and power generating methods. For one part of the study, Hill calculated how many gallons of water are required to burn one 60-watt incandescent light bulb for 12 hours a day, over the course of one year. She found that the bulb would consume between 3,000 and 6,000 gallons of water, depending on how water-efficient the power plant that supplies the electricity is.

“The numbers are even more staggering if you multiply the water consumed by the same light bulb by the approximately 111 million U.S. homes,” said Hill. “The water usage then gets as high as 655 billion gallons of water a year.” By contrast, burning a compact fluorescent bulb for the same amount of time would save about 2,000 to 4,000 gallons of water per year.

And with LEDs becoming more and more affordable, the amount of money, energy and water you can save just by changing your light bulbs is incredible. Here’s a link to a great blog, The Simple Dollar, where you can find more specifics about how much you can save. With the current cost of LEDs, over 10,000 hours of usage for 12, 60 watt bulbs, you could save about $750.

8. Reuse

me and my jar

I try to reuse and repurpose as many things as I can. Especially glass jars! People at work freak when they see me eating cereal out of a Tostitos jar, but why spend money on Tupperware, when we can just wash our salsa and spaghetti jars and reuse them! We also save ourselves from being exposed to toxic chemicals that can be found in plastic.

Chris and I also bought a glass bottle-cutter online and have cut some of our wine and beer bottles to make drinking glasses and vases. It was more work than we imagined, so the whole mass production of artsy, upcycled drinking glasses didn’t quite work out. But it’s a fun way to never buy drinking glasses again!

9. No bags at the grocery store

People in the check-out line get bewildered when I say that I don’t want any bags for my groceries or other purchases. Within the last couple of weeks I’ve heard, “Well, they might think you’re stealing that.” or “I’ll just feel weird if I don’t put this in a bag.” Those were really cute responses, but it just amazes me sometimes how attached we are to our way of doing things. If I remember, I try to carry a reusable shopping bag, but if not I just put stuff directly in my car from the buggy and then grab the bags when I get home. I’m sure this could be more of a challenge if you live on the third floor of an apartment building!

Just a few ideas that have been easy for me to incorporate!

Next week Rebecca, David, and I are meeting all together for the first time to finalize the schematic design of the home. David’s going to help us understand the Passive House concept in more detail, so we can keep that in mind as we work on window placement and other final design elements. I’m really looking forward to it! I’ll post the latest version of the floor plan before our meeting and then keep you posted about our progress.

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Get Yo’ Self a Rain Barrel

The more water we save, the more energy we save and vice versa! We need energy to get our rain and waste water to the treatment plant, more energy is then used to treat the water, making it potable, and then it has to be pumped back to our houses. The water for our lawns doesn’t need to be potable, so why not collect it in a barrel from your gutters and save it a trip all the way to the filtration station and back! While saving yourself some money in the process! It’s also a small step in reducing run off and erosion, keeping unwanted things out of our lakes, rivers, and streams.

The Alabama Environmental Council offers rain barrel workshops that I believe cost $30 including all the needed supplies. They also offer DIY instructions on their website www.aeconline.org or already made barrels at the center for $60. I attended one of the workshops and made two barrels. Chris helped me spray paint them brown, and then it took me 6 months to get around to installing them! I broke a hacksaw in the process, but once I finally did it, overall the installation was pretty easy. I used some rocks as a stand to raise the barrel a couple feet off the ground, so gravity would help with the water flow. I set the barrel to one side of the gutter and then cut out a section of the gutter that was higher than the rain barrel. I attached a 6 foot piece of brown flex gutter to the top gutter with screws and then placed the other end of the flex gutter over the wire mesh in the opening of the barrel. The barrels have an overflow hose, and I was too cheap to pay $50 for a diverter that redirects the water back to the gutter when the barrel is full, so Chris had the brilliant idea of placing the overflow hose in the bottom part of the gutter which made for a homemade diverter! You can see the pics below.

I love watering with the barrels. There’s something very fun about knowing that I did something to capture that water, and it’s a good reminder that water is not an infinite resource.

If you have any questions, or would like help installing a barrel yourself, feel free to shoot me a message!

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Going Green on Buttercup

Not too long after I got into homebuilding, I became interested in how to create more efficient homes with less waste and toxic chemicals. I had been to a few green building workshops, but most of what I learned came from books and magazines. There are a few very affordable things that I picked up and incorporated along the way.

Stephen Guesman, from Greenworks Design/ Build who I mentioned in an earlier post, suggested that I use blown cellulose insulation instead of fiberglass in my walls. Blown cellulose is made from recycled newspapers and because of its density, reduces air filtration and can make the home 25% more energy efficient. The cost is basically the same as fiberglass, so I think it’s a great, greener alternative that any insulation contractor should be able to install.

A very important factor in indoor air quality and energy efficiency is how tight the building envelope is. As they explained at one Southface workshop I attended, you want fresh air intentionally coming into your house through a ventilation system, not through leaky windows and other leaky areas. Because then your air quality is affected as air is pulled through construction materials that often contain harmful chemicals and your heating and cooling system has to work a lot harder to do its job.

I used blown cellulose in the last two homes that I did, and the family living in the second home, says that their energy bill has decreased significantly, even though their previous home was much smaller than the newer home.

If you are doing a remodel or new construction, it’s amazing the difference it can make just to use blown cellulose insulation in addition to using cans of spray foam (can be easily found at Lowe’s or Home Depot) around the windows and doors and sealing air duct joints using a product called mastic. Mastic is a sticky gooey material that can also be found at Lowe’s or Home Depot. You apply it using a putty knife or paintbrush to the “thickness of a nickel,” and it keeps conditioned air from escaping into unconditioned areas where ductwork is usually located. They also make little foam gaskets that can seal around electrical outlets, another place where air can sneak in.

Although I don’t have the exact statistics and it depends a lot on how bad things were before, I would estimate that just those things combined with using fluorescent or LED lights could cut your energy bill in half (or more) for an investment of probably no more than a hundred dollars and a few hours of labor! And if you aren’t doing a remodel or new construction, just changing out your lightbulbs to fluorescent lightbulbs or LEDs and using the mastic on your ductwork could make a huge difference!

More to come this week on other small, affordable changes that I’ve incorporated in my Buttercup house! 🙂