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!

‘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!

David Lee

David Lee is a knowledgeable and experienced local builder who has graciously offered to work with me on this project. He is currently the only builder in Alabama to have completed the Passive House training, and I’m incredibly grateful for his help. If it weren’t his expertise and assistance, things would be significantly more difficult, and I would feel much less confident in my ability to build a certified Passive House.

David and I met in January of this year at a Southface green building workshop that was offered at the old Alabama Power building in Birmingham. Southface is a non-profit organization based out of Atlanta that promotes energy-, water- and resource-efficient workplaces, homes and communities throughout the Southeast. They’re a great resource and have been very active in educating professionals, as well as the public, about sustainable design and practices. They offer tours of their eco-office in Atlanta and also provide support and consultation for anyone who wishes to implement sustainable ideas into their projects. Check out their website at:

Not too long before the Southface meeting, I had seen a blog by a couple who had built the first Passive House in Utah. You can see their blog at I loved the idea and their home was beautiful, so I contacted the couple to get more information. They were very responsive and told me that their architect had been the main person responsible for the Passive House design. I inquired about the training but never heard back and felt for the moment that it was a little out of reach due to the time and cost involved.

So when I ran into David at the Southface workshop and he mentioned that he had completed the Passive House training, I was very excited. It took me a few months, but eventually I contacted him, and we met for lunch to discuss ideas and the different projects we had each worked on. David was very open and willing to include me in any design meetings for projects that he and his partners were working on.

At the time, I had begun looking for a property to build another home for myself, but I had no concrete plans in the works. I knew that my current home was more than I could afford and maintain long term, but I wasn’t sure how things would play out.

Several months earlier, my friends Casey and Andres Azuero told me about a property that was available in the Avondale area. I looked at the property but wasn’t sure that it was an area where I wanted to live. I kept an eye on it, though, talked with several of the neighbors, and eventually decided that it would be a great fit for me. It was a small, reasonably priced lot, which meant I wouldn’t have too much to take care of, and it was within biking, if not walking, distance of nearly all aspects of my life.

David and his business partner, Gary, went to look at the lot with me, and we talked about the possibility of building a Passive House on the lot. After doing all my due diligence, I decided to make an offer. We negotiated a little on the price, and I bought the property in June of this year, using a home equity line of credit that I have on one of my other homes.

Needless to say, I’m thrilled to have met David and appreciate that he is so willing to work with me and include me in his endeavors. Here’s a short bio about him and his background:

David Lee began his career as an engineer and later went on to commercial construction, building schools and hotels. In the early 1990s, he found his true passion in historic restoration and the design/ build of custom homes. He had been a proponent of energy efficient buildings since the 1970s and became intrigued by the comprehensive results of the Passive House concept. He participated in the Passive House certification program and is currently working on two Passive House designs. His company is Casey/Lee Builders a subsidiary of Conroy Road LLC. Feel free to contact him with any questions or inquiries at or 205-229-1245.