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.

Rebecca, the architect

Rebecca Alvord Lazenby is my oh-so talented friend and architect who will be working with me on the house. Rebecca and her family moved to Alabama our senior year in high school, and we quickly became friends. I always enjoyed her company and loved watching the different artistic projects she was working on. Her talent and creativity have always impressed me. I remember a self-portrait she painted made up of tiny little squares, and each square was a drawing in itself. She even won first place in the 6th district congressional art competition with an all expense paid trip to DC. Her artwork hung in the underground tunnel that the Congressmen walk through.

A few years after high school, we lost touch but reconnected at our 10 year high school reunion! After the reunion, we would occasionally meet for dinner and throw around the possibility of someday working together on a project. But it seemed more like an abstract notion than something that would really happen. So I’m very excited to have found this opportunity to work with her. She challenges me to think differently and more creatively about design possibilities. The homes I’ve built have been more traditional, but with this house, I hope to incorporate a mixture of traditional warmth with the simple clean lines of modern style. The outside, to fit in with the neighborhood, will be more historic in design, but the interior can be whatever we’d like!

We met at Rebecca’s house last Thursday to further discuss the layout of the house. I got to meet her adorable, feisty red-headed little boy and was reminded of how beautiful her house (that she designed) was. She did a wonderful job incorporating modern and vintage elements and the exposed beams throughout the house make it really cozy! I’ve included a few photos below of some of the cool details of her home.

After dinner, we discussed some of the changes we wanted to make to the first design. At the end of the CBS Sunday morning and House plans post, you can see an image of the first floor initial design that Rebecca drew for my house. I’ve opted for a detached garage instead of the attached, and we’re going to shrink the overall size of the house a little. The home will be 1 1/2 stories and currently the square footage is about 2100 square feet. We’re going to try to get it down to around 1900. I love the linear design, the side patio, the powder bath and many other aspects of the initial drawing, but there are some rooms we decided to regroup to save space, bringing the great room closer to the kitchen and the master closet closer to the master bedroom.

Once Rebecca and I have finalized the schematic floor plans, then we will both meet with David to see if there are things we need to adjust to comply with Passive House standards.

Rebecca is a great friend and architect, and I’m very grateful for her expertise and willingness to form such an integral part of this project. Here’s her bio and contact information:

Rebecca Alvord Lazenby graduated from Auburn University with a Bachelors of Architecture from the College of Architecture, Design, and Construction and has over 10 years of experience in the professional practice. Rebecca’s participation at the Rural Studio and the study abroad program, while at Auburn, shaped her education and continues to inspire her as an architect to balance affordable and practical design solutions with innovative modern ideas. She strives to create contextually appropriate designs with all of her projects, so that contemporary architectural expressions blend seamlessly with the built and natural environment.

Rebecca has a broad range of commercial and residential architecture experience from Atlanta firm Thompson Ventulett Stainback & Associates, as well as, HKW, Lathan Associates Architects, and Williams Blackstock Architects in Birmingham Alabama, where she is currently employed. Rebecca is a member of the American Institute of Architects, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, and is a licensed architect in the state of Alabama.

Contact Rebecca at ralstudio@gmail.com or 205.601.6788 for inquiries on design services.

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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:

www.southface.org

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 www.ourpassivehouse.org. 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 leeconsult@mindspring.com or 205-229-1245.

Aggressively Passive (house)

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The Avondale property in Fall

Aggressively passive (according to urban dictionary): when someone goes out of their way to be passive

I pondered for some time what the title of this blog should be. I wanted to document the process of building a Passive House on the lot that I recently purchased in the historic Avondale neighborhood of Birmingham, AL. As I did more research, I was surprised at how simple and affordable it could be to incorporate sustainable practices into our buildings and lifestyles, so I thought I could share those ideas with other people as I learned more about them myself. I wanted the blog to serve as a resource for people who were interested in applying these principals to their own projects. But I also knew this project was symbolic to me in ways that went beyond the actual building process, so I wanted to encompass what it meant to me personally as well.

For years now, I’ve wanted to find ways to live a simpler, more peaceful life. On one hand, my life is secure, fun and adventurous with exponentially more comforts and opportunities than many people throughout history. I’m surrounded by many loving and supportive people, and it’s important for me to remember how fortunate I am.

But I also realize that, ironically, in search of simplicity, I’ve made a rather complicated life for myself. I work full-time as a freelance Spanish interpreter for different companies and hospitals. I also manage 4 rental properties, own a small (tiny) construction business and teach a weekly swing class. So by the time I do those things, take care of my own house, try to maintain a social life and contact with loved ones, and then somewhat take care of myself, there aren’t nearly enough hours in the day (which I’m sure is quite a common experience!). I’m a professional multi-tasker that runs around setting things in motion and then tries to play catch up. I often feel an undercurrent of anxiety pushing me frantically towards some unknown destination, and I’m tired of trying to keep up.

So the more I thought about it, the more this title applied to both my house and my life in general. I hope to be proactive about creating a comfortable, relaxing life, full of things I love with very few I don’t. I want to work efficiently and smarter, making money in ways that embody what I value most, increasing the amount of passive income that I have, and doing it in a way that benefits the world around me. Money is important only because of the freedom and security that it brings me. Freedom, security and love are the most important things to me, and it’d be great to know what it’s like to have plenty of those things and more, including time.

It’s a lofty ambition, but I believe it’s possible. Up until now, I have lived thinking that the only way to be successful was to work crazy hard, under a lot of stress. I live based on the self-limiting beliefs that there will never be enough time or money. So I’ve set out to prove myself wrong. As Marc Allen suggests in his book The Millionaire Course, I’m going to “make a compromise with my doubts and fears”, make my life the subject of my own experiment, and see where it takes me.

Building this home is one step in that direction. I want an extremely energy efficient, well-built home that is also beautiful and comfortable, providing everything I need and enjoy on a regular basis without anything that doesn’t matter to me. I want to build with an understanding of the interconnectedness of things, without unnecessarily depleting natural resources or damaging our environment, recognizing that it’s all part of something larger than myself.

I’m estimating that it will cost about half as much as my current house to build, and my utilities will be about 1/3 of my current utility costs. I will also be less than two miles from Children’s hospital where I do most of my work and only a mile or so from most of my social life, which should take about another $150 off what I spend in gas and decrease car maintenance costs. These things combined should cut my total monthly expenses in about half, which means I could work half as many hours, leaving more time for other things that matter to me!

I’ve started working with an architect, who is a wonderful and talented friend of mine. We’re working on some schematic floor plans right now, and soon I will start posting about the different design options.

The home will be based on the specifications established by the Passive House Institute. It’s the strictest standard on the market for energy efficiency, and as far as I know, this will be the first Passive House in Alabama! Here’s a link if you’re interested in learning more about the Passive House Institute. You can click on What is a Passive House? for a complete definition. I’ll also elaborate more on the details of the home itself in future posts.

www.passivehouse.us

Energy efficiency is only one aspect of green building, so I plan to incorporate other aspects as well, such as the use of sustainable building materials, water conservation, rain water collection, and protecting the indoor air quality.

In the next few posts, I’ll be talking more about my background and introducing you to the marvelous people who will be working with me. I will also be looking for salvage and reclaimed materials and people who are interested in participating in the project. I hope to have a story published on the house and would love to find any companies or individuals willing to provide materials or services at a discount in exchange for advertising and exposure. So if you know of any resources, I’d love to hear about them!

There are still many unknowns, and I’m not sure yet how they will resolve themselves. Financing could be a challenge. I need to either sell my current home, or find a way to raise $120,000. It’s difficult to get bank financing right now, so if you see me on the side of the road with some Krispy Kreme doughnuts, stop and buy a few boxes!

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