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.

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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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!

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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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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