P-p-p-p-plans!

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!

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! 🙂

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!

Quieting the mind

My other posts have focused more on the house and green building ideas, but in this post, I wanted to write about the other side of this project, which is more about the personal search for a simpler life.

I heard a quote several years ago that said something like integrity happens when what’s on the outside matches what’s on the inside. That really stuck with me and became something that I aspired to, because for so long, I felt that what I was experiencing inside was so drastically different from what the outside world would see of me. I guess it was a form of self-protection. Somehow I believed there was something more fundamentally defective about me than the rest of the human race, and I needed to keep hidden. But it was such a miserable way to live. I didn’t believe that love, happiness or peace were possible, or at least I didn’t believe they weren’t possible for me. I thought that the people who had found those things were delusional and that the universe was a metaphysical black hole of meaninglessness that would destroy me if I got too close. So I created a life full of distractions hoping to avoid coming face to face with my defective nature and futile existence.

But at the same time, I wanted so badly to believe that I was wrong, that happiness was possible and that there was something that made life beautiful and worth living, so that tiny glimmer of hope kept me writing, exploring and seeking support to find a different way of life. I’ve spent the last several years going back and forth between distracting myself with relentless activity and different self-destructive behaviors to taking time to deal with the beliefs that keep me caught in patterns of suffering.

And I’m happy to say that now, most days I believe I was wrong. I have learned to see myself as pretty normal (sometimes even great!) and to see pain as something manageable. I believe we can handle intense feelings of grief, loss, and anger without being destroyed by them, as long as we aren’t carrying around the impossible burden of seeing ourselves as irredeemably flawed.

Interestingly enough, the further I explore the depths of my being, instead of misery and hopelessness, I find more peace and contentment. I still have days where I revert to old ways of thinking, and there are still many remnants of old beliefs remaining. Sometimes my insecurities take over, and it feels easier to crawl under the bed and hide than to deal with life at the moment, but overall, I feel so much happier and more comfortable in my own skin than I ever thought possible. I’m working on projects that I love, and my life is full of wonderful people. I’m no longer caught up in a full blown war with myself.

But just like with anything, the layers are endless. The more I see, the more there is to see. And that’s the peaceful life part of this project. I still spend a lot of my life distracted, worrying about money and fitting it all in. These are more of the same limiting beliefs that aren’t based so much in reality as they are in my past and the reality that I create, so why not try to change them?

Pema Chodron, one of my favorite teachers says that “anyone who has ever meditated for even one day figures out that we are almost never present.” That has become so apparent to me in my life; being present is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do! My mind never stops. I’m at a yoga class, where the whole practice is about being present and all I can think about is when it’s going to be over and the glass of wine I’m going to drink when I get home. Or how I can pay a mortgage off in 8 years instead of 30 years. Interesting stuff. But fast forward to me at home with the glass of wine, and I don’t enjoy it because I’m already thinking about the next day’s plans or what I should be doing instead!

My boyfriend might not be thrilled about me publicizing his sensitive side, but occasionally I’ll notice him looking out the window, staring at the birds and the trees. Sometimes he’ll stand there for several minutes just watching. And while the frantic part of me wants to scream “how can you just stand there and look at the birds when there’s so much to do?!”, the bigger part of me realizes what a beautiful, rare thing that is. He’s managed to hold on to a piece of childlike innocence and wonder that allows him to appreciate the simple things around him. And I realize how much I long for that in my own life. I really miss that part of myself. I can no longer relate to being a child and being totally consumed by every moment with no concept of the past or future, and that breaks my heart.

I don’t want to live the rest of my life distracted. I want to stop missing out on the life that’s right in front of me. I want to be able to leave work and remember where I parked my car in the parking deck and reduce the number of times per week that I leave my phone in random places!

Pema goes on to talk about an analogy that her teachers use. They say we are like small children with scabies who are old enough to scratch but not old enough to understand that scratching only makes things worse. So by scratching, we get very short term symptom relief, but the itching gets worse. So as hard as it may be, the only real solution is to stop scratching. Which I guess for me means slowing down, putting down my phone, taking a few minutes a day to quiet my mind, and paying attention to my feelings and what’s around me.

In middle school, I read the book Cheaper by the Dozen about the Gilbreth family. The father, Frank, and his wife, Lillian, were masters of efficiency. They came up with a system where each unit of time was called a therblig (Gilbreth spelled backwards), and they worked constantly, at work and at home, to perform tasks using as few therbligs as possible, which I guess is kind of necessary when you have 12 kids! I was fascinated by the idea, so I would go home and try to clean my room with less and less therbligs!

But now it feels like they’ve crept into every corner of my life, and I can’t get rid of them. I’m ready for my therbligs to have an on and off switch. I love efficiency, and I love businesses and systems that work well, and I want to use that part of myself for what it’s good for, like building houses or organizing events. But I don’t want my relationships or the fun in my life to be about efficiency. It makes for an exhausting life, and I’m ready to give up the incessant quest to get somewhere I’m not.

I seem to be good at noticing these things about myself, but it’s a lot harder to follow through with what I need to do to change it. Just like with anything, it takes work, practice, focus and dealing with parts of myself that I’m not so fond of.

So far, meditation is the best technique that I know of to work with my mind. Although it is a spiritual practice, I don’t meditate for the sake of any religion. It’s just a way to reconnect with myself, to increase my awareness about hidden beliefs that I may have and to notice what I spend all day trying to get away from. I want to reshape the limiting beliefs that I have, the beliefs that keep me trapped in my small little world.

But unfortunately, meditating is usually the last thing I want to do. Trying to sit down and meditate for me is like trying to drag my dog to the vet. He doesn’t know exactly what they are going to do him when he’s there, but he knows from the moment we get out of the car that it’s not a place he wants to be!

There’s nothing exciting about the idea of sitting still and breathing. It represents a whole lot of empty space, and that’s something I’m quite afraid of. In the past, empty space has meant depression, isolation, boredom. So whenever I try to sit and do nothing, there’s an alarm that goes off inside of me. It screams at me, trying to protect me, trying to keep me from returning to that place of pain, loneliness and unhappiness. But the more I try to escape from it, the louder it screams, and then the harder I have to work to distract myself from it.

So I’ve decided for the umpteenth time, that I have to quit running, to stare my feelings in the face and listen to what they’re trying to tell me. And then learn to see things differently. To learn to appreciate the calm and not equate it with misery. To trust that being present doesn’t mean returning to the life of my past.

Because all I really want is to know myself, to stop running, and to know what it’s like to truly rest. The brief moments when I experience those things, it’s more than enough, everything else is just extra. But when I don’t have those things, there’s no person or house or amount of money that could ever be enough.

Sometimes the process can feel painfully slow. It takes micro steps of kindness and patience and not beating myself up if I don’t do it perfectly. But I believe it’s worth working on over and over again, because as another one of my favorite teachers says, “what you pay attention to grows,” and my iphone definitely doesn’t need to get any bigger 🙂

When I notice that I panic about all there is to do and how little time and money there is, I remind myself that there’s enough time and money in my life for me and for the things that matter the most. And maybe a couple of decades from now my mind will be a little quieter, and I’ll be the one staring out the window at the trees!

Lauren, the home builder?

As a child, I never would’ve imagined that I’d be building houses someday. People would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up and my answer was always, “not work full-time”! So how did I end up with three different jobs and a home builder’s license?

It started in late 2004. My ex-husband and I owned a painting business together and through the business, I became very interested in homes. I loved helping people with colors and design ideas, and I would spend my weekends driving around to different open houses, looking at floor plans and homes under construction.
One weekend, we were advertising our painting company at the local Home and Garden Show, and I met a guy named Shannon Pate. Shannon was an experienced home builder and owned a company that helped people build their own homes; he was also advertising at the show. I spent a couple hours interrogating him about the process, trying to understand how things worked. Shannon worked as a consultant, providing the owner builder with a list of subcontractors, a construction calendar, and all the information, literature, and support they needed to build their own home. He would then be available 24-7 during the whole planning, estimating, and construction process for site visits, phone calls or to help with all the inevitable obstacles that would surface along the way! He would charge a percentage of construction cost as a consultant’s fee that was significantly less than it would cost to hire a builder, and the homeowner would still have a builder’s expertise while designing and having control over how their home was built.

I loved the concept because I loved the idea of building a home but knew I couldn’t do it on my own. So a few months after the show, things in the painting and the interpreting world were kind of slow, and I started thinking about other ways to create income while doing something I enjoyed. I called Shannon and asked if he would be willing to work with me if I were to build a spec home. (Spec stands for speculation and just means a home that is built with the intention of selling it). I kind of expected him to say no or to tell me that I was crazy, but he said sure, his fee was the same either way. But he did say that I would have to get my home builder’s license because the law requires you to have a license unless you’re building your personal home. I said ok but still don’t think I knew what I was getting myself into. I ordered the books that I needed to study for the exam, studied for a few months and luckily passed the exam.

In the meantime, I had already begun working with Shannon to find a piece of property, pick out house plans and bid the job to different subcontractors. I found some stock plans that I liked, made a few changes and purchased them from a local architect. After driving around for several weeks looking for property, I found a piece of property off of Al Seier Road in Hoover. It just so happened that Shannon’s dad was the owner of the lot! It was a large lot in a great area, located across from the new Preserve development. There had formerly been a house on the lot, but it was in such bad shape that they decided to tear it down and divide the property in half, creating two lots that measured 80 feet by 160 feet with a small creek at the back. I later realized that a good friend of mine from Costa Rica had lived in the house that they tore down. We had been to several parties at that house!

I signed the contract to purchase the lot, and Shannon’s dad, Milton, waited patiently as I tried to figure out how to pay for it! I naively thought I could just walk into any bank and they would gladly give me a loan to build a house. It turns out that they wanted me to have some experience first. Crazy! After unsuccessfully attempting to get a loan from several different banks, finally I was able to get financing through connections that Shannon and his dad had with a local banker. Had it not been for that, I may never have built my first home. I had to get my mom, dog, and cousin to co-sign on the loan, and they only loaned me a portion of the price of the lot. So Milton agreed to hold a mortgage on the remaining balance until I sold the house.

As I had gathered more information from different bankers, one banker suggested that I form an LLC (Limited Liability Company). That way I wouldn’t be personally liable in case there were any lawsuits, which are pretty common in the construction industry. It would also mean that the loan wouldn’t show up on my personal credit report, although I would still be personally responsible for the loan. My accountant, Jessie Ellis, helped me with the paperwork, and my company was formed! I couldn’t think of any fabulous name at the time, so we just used my initials and called it LAN Homes, LLC!

With Shannon’s help, the process went really smoothly. Of course, there were obstacles along the way, but nothing major, and I learned SO much (mostly about how much I didn’t know). It also taught me that most problems, no matter how terrible they seem in the moment, have reasonable solutions. I spent several months feeling constantly stressed, and worried that I had forgotten some crucial detail, but I loved being out on the jobsite, talking with the workers. Many of the subcontractors were people that had worked with Shannon for 10 years or more, so they were experienced and knowledgeable. Shannon and the subs were very patient with me and my many questions! I was constantly asking things that showed my ignorance. Occasionally someone would playfully laugh at me, but mostly they would help me make decisions along the way and were more than willing to share their knowledge!

The house was mostly built in about 4 months, and I had a contract for a couple to purchase the house a couple of months after it was finished. I was thrilled! I’ve attached a tiny photo below. It turned out to be a pretty house with about 2400 square feet of finished space, 4 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, 3 car garage and a great backyard. I loved the grey/ brown brick and the 8 foot arched mahogany door on the front.

After selling the first home, I bought the second lot next door and started making plans to build a home there. Martha and Milton Pate, even though they had other offers, graciously kept the second lot for me until I had sold the first home. The second time around it was much easier to get financing! I finished the second home and sold it in April of 2007. With each home that I sold, I would use the profit to put a down payment on a small rental property, thinking that over the course of 10-15 years I could pay off the homes, and it would make for a solid retirement plan.


Before finishing the second home, I had found the lot where I currently live on Buttercup Drive. I was looking for a place to build a home where we could live and have storage space for all our ladders, painting equipment, and work vans. We were living in a townhome off Hwy 280 with very little storage and a tiny backyard. I wanted to be closer to downtown where I did most of my work, and the lot was in a great location, less than .5 miles from 31 in Hoover. So I bought the lot and worked with a designer to design the floor plan.

Right after I began construction, my marriage fell apart, and my husband and I separated. I decided to put the house on the market, thinking that I could nearly pay off the loan on my 280 townhome with the profit. The townhome would be the perfect place for me by myself, even though I had grown tired of fighting 280 traffic. But a couple of months went by and the Buttercup house didn’t sell, so instead of making two house payments, I asked my friend, Gloria, if she’d like to be my roommate. I rented out the townhome and moved to my house in Hoover. I love the house and have loved living there for the past 4 years. It’s been really fun having dance parties in the basement, Stevie-D loves running around in the backyard, and there’s an awesome kitchen and more storage than I could ever use! But I always knew that at some point it would be more than I could afford and maintain. The bank allowed me to keep my construction loan in place for a couple of years with an interest rate that kept dropping. So the first few years I was there, the home was more than affordable with a roommate. But last year I had to restructure the loan and put it in my personal name with a higher interest rate, which increased my payment by over $600. I’m still able to cover my expenses, but I just have to be more frugal and work a lot harder than I’d like to do it.

I’ll miss my Buttercup home, but I feel like the Passive House project in Avondale is definitely a better fit for me! And I hope there’s a family out there that will love living on Buttercup as much as I have.

Shannon Pate has agreed to be available as a consultant for the Passive House as well in case we need another set of eyes to look at plans or problem solve along the way. I have always been more than grateful to Shannon and his family for all the ways they helped and supported me along the way, and I’m happy that he’s willing to be a part of this project. Shannon’s knowledge, experience, problem solving skills and willingness to explore and incorporate innovative ideas make him an excellent home builder that really cares about building a quality home. I’ve always seen him go above and beyond to act in the best interest of his customers and workers. If you’d like to see Shannon’s contact info., bio, and photos of homes that he’s built, you can go to his website at www.asphomebuilding.com. He no longer works with owner builders, but he is still building custom and spec homes.