Lessons Re-Learned

I’m grateful to be feeling good again. Life has been pretty great over the last few weeks, and I’m ready to dive into some new projects. I’m playing with the idea of balance as things start to get a little busier.

Here’s a list of a few things I’ve learned (or re-learned) over the last few months:

1. The need for the tension of the opposites is an important thing to accept.

I had plenty of free time when I was sick. I got lots of much-needed rest, but the more time I spent at home, the more miserable I felt.

I learned that although I need love and support, I don’t really want other people to take care of me. I don’t want all the free time in the world- and this was a huge thing for me to experience. It’s allowing me to accept the tension of the opposites that Jung talks about. Because even though I don’t like it when I have to wake up to be somewhere at 7- I also don’t like not having a reason to wake up.

I would often think about how fun it would be to be suddenly wealthy, so I could be totally free to pursue my creative interests. And even though I’m sure I wouldn’t turn down a million dollars, turning it down could be the better choice! Because I want to create my own success – there’s something so satisfying about that. And I want to have plenty without having too much. It reminds me of a quote I heard somewhere that said, “Give your kids enough money to do something, but not so much that they can do nothing.” Creating new businesses involves hard work and uncomfortable risk. I was hoping for a natural, effortless evolution as I transitioned into a relaxed, prosperous new business. But I’m realizing that I’m just going to have to dive into some things that are hard and that terrify me! I’ve just gotta close my eyes and jump! There are going to be some things that I don’t like or even hate, but I can accept that and work hard while I still take time to rest and care for myself.

2. Our beliefs about life and ourselves are inseparable from our physical health and well being.

As I was sorting through my health woes, I ran across a book by Louise Hay called, You Can Heal Your Life. The book talks about how our lives are a manifestation of everything we believe- be it our health, our relationships, our work. Louise was diagnosed with vaginal cancer, and she decided she was going to heal her life with nutrition and healing beliefs and exercises. And it worked for her!

I’ve always believed that our belief system can keep us limited, but I didn’t quite know to what extent. I listened to a talk by Deepak Chopra last night that said our bodies renew themselves by 98% every year, which means there’s only two percent of my physical body that’s left from this time last year! In my mind, that creates an amazing possibility for healing.

So I started to experiment. I could feel myself starting down this lengthy road of spending thousands more dollars, chasing a medical diagnosis, feeling awful and sorry for myself. If I looked hard enough, I’m sure I could have found something that was wrong.

But I also believed that I could choose to get better, and I refused to accept that I was going to feel weak and sick for the rest of my life.

So I decided to go kayaking one Saturday, regardless of how I felt. I felt sick during the first half of the trip, but then I felt pretty great. And it’s been mostly better since that day. When I’m tired, I think, “Oh, I’m tired today.” Rather than, “oh, god, I’m exhausted, what horrible illness is this a symptom of?” When I start to hurt, I stop and take a few breaths. Letting go and believing that my body can heal has been a really powerful experience for me.

I don’t say that to discount the pain that so many people are experiencing. I think that pain is very real, and I don’t pretend to know to what extent our beliefs contribute to all pain, tragedy, and illness, but I thought it was worth trying in my own life.

3. Self-loathing often gets disguised as self care.

Another thing I’ve learned is that I was still trying way too hard. I still had an agenda of wanting to “fix me”.

When I first started feeling bad, I didn’t want to see a doctor. I thought, “fuck, I’m already exercising, eating healthy- I don’t have time for anything else related to my health. “

Pete Egoscue, the founder of the postural therapy method I practice says, “Pain is your body’s voice. Listen to your body.” My body was trying to communicate with me, and honestly, all I wanted it to do was shut up.

At times there’s an underlying aggression that permeates the things I do in the name of “self-care”. Self-loathing can easily get disguised as “self-care”. We say we’re going on a diet to be healthier, or we’re going to exercise for our health. When what we really feel is that we are disgusting, over indulgent slobs who need to punish ourselves into shape. But we rebel against that because something at the core of our beings refuses to believe that we’re defective or horrible.

Something within us says I won’t give up until you see the value in me- the value in me just as I am. And I will continue to rebel until you love me, listen to me and pay attention to what I’m saying.

We talk ourselves out of our feelings and desires, we wish we could cut off half of the fat on our bellies or erase the wrinkles from our forehead because some ancient voice is yelling at us saying that life would be easier if we didn’t have feelings, desires or imperfections. If we could just fit perfectly into the mold that our parents or society have set out for us, then our existence would be validated. Then we wouldn’t blame ourselves anymore for the problems that were never ours to begin with.

4. Complete self-reliance doesn’t work (nor does it exist)- I believe that healing is impossible without the support of other people.

I was trying to be way too self-reliant. One of the main reasons that I got certified in Postural Therapy was so that I could treat myself. I thought getting treated was too expensive, so if I was certified, then I would never need a therapist again! But I’ve learned that there is no substitute for having another human being to help us heal and to support us in our suffering. We weren’t meant to live in isolation, and as much as I would like (at times) to avoid the messiness of needing other humans and relationships, it doesn’t work for long.

5. If I try to use my head to make sense of everything, I go crazy.

This health drama has reminded me of a religious quest that I went on in college. After some events in my family caused me to question nearly all my beliefs, I set out determined to find the ultimate truth and to live my life according to that truth. So I obsessively read books, took religion courses, had discussions with friends, and the more I sought out concrete answers, the dizzier I became. When I finally gave up and quit trying to figure it all out, I found the freedom that comes with accepting the paradox and mystery of it all.

And I think I’m learning that lesson again now- if we can humbly exist and rest in the complexity of life that can never be fully understood with our intellect, then we find peace and freedom. As soon as I quit trying so hard and relax into my experience, then I usually feel pretty good. If I can do things that are fun, that’s the best medicine I’ve found. I don’t remember the last time I was hurting while having an awesome time!

So I think it’s been a combination of all the things I just wrote about that have helped me feel better: the shift in my belief system and attitude, the nutritional changes and supplements I’m taking, the love and support of the wonderful people in my life, treatment from some really great doctors and therapists, meditation and relaxation techniques that help me slow my mind down and sleep, remembering to have fun, and listening to my body with kindness instead of yelling at it to shut up. I hope to have internalized these lessons a little more over the last few months, and hopefully they will continue to shape my life and my actions.

I’ve started working with people in postural therapy again, and so far the results have been pretty great. I have a cute little therapy space in my mom’s building in Cahaba Heights. I’m still happy to work with anyone who is interested. Right now, I’m seeing people on a pay what you can basis. I need to cover some basic expenses, but I also want it to be accessible for anyone who is interested. So feel free to shoot me a message if you’re interested- I’d love to work with you! Here’s a link to the post explaining more about the Egoscue Method and postural therapy, if you’d like to read more about it! And I’m planning to start teaching a posture class one evening a week sometime in the next few months.

I’m also dreaming about some Passive House projects. I don’t think it’s the right time to start building my Avondale house. But I have been thinking of building an affordable Passive House on a different property to sell. I’m hoping to find some existing Passive House plans that I like and modify them a little, which would make the process much shorter. I’ve also started looking at some historic properties in Norwood and Roebuck Springs, to see if I find something there that I could renovate.

So we’ll see where all this takes me, but thank you again to everyone who let me know they were thinking of me. And to everyone who shared their own stories of similar struggles. It really meant a lot to me.

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!

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! 🙂