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! 🙂

‘Tis the season to be excessive

Like a friend of mine once said, unless you’re living in a tree and eating nuts, you’re contributing to global warming. I probably won’t be living in a tree anytime soon, but whether or not global warming is real, or caused by us, it just makes sense to take care of what we’ve got and not destroy things unnecessarily. And to not cram more of anything into our lives if it doesn’t somehow add to our happiness or well-being.

In some ways, I’m the world’s best green hypocrite. It could seem as if I’m a fanatic, since I started a blog about going green. I don’t take bags from the grocery store, I buy organic veggies and try to reuse and recycle; I use fluorescent light bulbs, and my roommates often trip if they get up in the middle of the night because of my energy-saving darkness.

But I also travel, live in a big house, take long showers, and drive an SUV. Those aren’t exactly the greenest of things.

The point isn’t to buy into a trendy eco-friendly movement or to deprive anyone of the comforts and luxuries that life can afford us. I think those things are wonderful if we truly enjoy them and approach them with awareness, which is part of a new strategy that I’m trying out. I’ve decided not to be afraid of spending money on things that really make my life better (as long as I have the money!). At times, by trying to be frugal, I’ve made things more expensive in the long run. That’s why last week I ordered a new Mac book pro, and I’m thrilled! After three years of fighting with this wood-burning computer box (as my boyfriend calls it), I’ve decided that as much time as I spend in front of a computer, I should have one that works!

But when I realize I’m not enjoying things that are supposed to be fun or luxurious, it’s a good time to ask myself: “So what’s the point?”

Our lives have become filled with so much excess (especially this time of year) – excess stuff and debt, excess eating, excess distractions and social activity- which all seem to diminish the quality of our lives. It’s like we’re hoping that buying one more gift, eating one more cookie, finally getting out of town, will be the one thing that finally brings us lasting happiness.

But there’s nothing fun about parties we don’t want to go to, stuffing ourselves to the point of discomfort, or having a cluttered house full of stuff we don’t use. We spend extra hours working to pay for stuff that actually decreases our happiness! It’s crazy, but we do it over and over again every year (myself included). While I definitely understand the fun in giving and receiving a meaningful gift from a loved one, we’ve taken it to the point of suffering.

It seems that the cliché is true! Living on less, often actually makes for more happiness. Gradually, I’ve reduced the things in my life that I spend money on. I’ve discovered that I often have more fun camping in the woods (as long as it’s above 40 degrees) than going on a luxury vacation. And I often like the food I make at home more than restaurant food. It helps that I’m surrounded by starving artists, but I’ve had fun seeing how little I can live on, while still feeling like it’s more than enough!

The building industry is no exception to the excesses of our society. It didn’t take long after I started building houses to see what an incredible amount of waste there is in a construction project. Even the term green building is kind of contradictory because there’s nothing very green about new construction.
I think the overall challenge is to do as little damage as possible to ourselves and the world around us, while still creating comfortable lives and living spaces. With traditional building practices, there’s still a lot of room for improvement in those areas.

With each project, I’ve tried to incorporate more concepts of energy-efficiency and sustainable practices. While the Passive House takes “green” and energy -efficiency to another level, there are some smaller very affordable things I’ve done along the way that I’ll write about in the next post. I’ll show you the green parts of my Buttercup house with pictures and all!

David and I met last week to review the current version of the first floor layout. It seems like we’re on the right track. So far, there doesn’t seem to be anything about the design that isn’t compatible with the Passive House, so that’s good news!

David Lee

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

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


Not too long before the Southface meeting, I had seen a blog by a couple who had built the first Passive House in Utah. You can see their blog at 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.

CBS Sunday Morning and House Plans

Today has been a marvelous fall Sunday. Fall is my favorite time of year, and it was such a pretty day. The time change made it easier to wake up and catch CBS Sunday morning, a lovely show that always leaves me with a feeling of hope! Andy Rooney from 60 minutes died yesterday. RIP Andy. I’d never heard of him before today, but after I watched the tribute to his life, I was sad he was gone. There was a great line from one of his bits: “I wish there was something we could take that could cure us of stupidity!”.

I grabbed brunch and then headed to the gym for some exercising and swimming. I don’t believe exercise should ever be punishment, but I had to push myself to get going today. Once I was there, I loved it, but beforehand it was like talking to my five year old self saying, “Sunshine, you’ve spent 8 days straight in front of a screen, and it’s time to move!” With any project that I’m passionate about, it’s easy to let myself be totally consumed by it. So part of the challenge is going to be taking care of myself and maintaining balance in other areas in my life as I work on this. Probably easier said than done!

There’s been a lot happening this weekend. The Avondale Brewery opened for business, the Moss Rock Festival was Saturday and Sunday and the uber important Alabama-LSU game last night (poor Alabama).

We checked out the fun Moss Rock festival yesterday. It takes place on the common green areas of a development called The Preserve in Hoover. My mom’s boyfriend, Carl, says they name developments after what they used to be, which is definitely true in this case. Moss Rock is a nature preserve that, up until about 12 years ago, was 650 acres of forest. 400 acres of forest were cut down and developed to create the 680 homesites in The Preserve. Luckily, the city bought 250 acres, leaving them mostly intact, and created an official nature preserve. This protected the area with the boulders that climbers love and some beautiful waterfalls and hiking trails, although it’s not nearly as pristine as it once was. Now there are silt fences and cleared areas along the trails and often there is construction happening at the trail head. That seems to be the backwards way we do things, cut down 400 acres, develop it, name it The Preserve, and then have eco-friendly festivals there. Even so, Moss Rock is still one of my favorite places to go hiking with Stevie-D (my loyal pup). It’s only a mile or so from my home, and after a rain, the waterfalls are gorgeous. The festival is also a great annual event with some talented artists and vendors with green products.

I ran into Stephen Guesman at the festival. He owns a company called Greenworks Design/ Build that helps people make their homes more energy efficient. He worked with me on the design of my current home and will likely contribute some to this project. He lives in a modified yurt off the grid in a community called Common Ground in Blountsville, AL. His house is powered completely by solar, and his water comes from a well on the property. A few weeks ago, they had the annual solar tour at Common Ground, and I was happy to be able to make it this year. I got to see some really cool possibilities, and soon I’ll write a more in-depth post about everything I learned with photos of the different homes we were able to see.

Tonight, I’m hanging out looking at house plans. After a while, my brain feels like it might to break, but I love it still. It’s like trying to piece together a puzzle. The biggest decision I had to make before we could move forward was about the garage. The lot is narrow,(50×126 feet) and there is no alley access, which makes a garage difficult. Initially, I wanted to have an attached garage, so the first design we worked on with Rebecca, my architect, had a drive along the right side of the house and then you turned left across the back of the house into the garage. Once I saw it on paper, I realized how much that separated the backyard from the rest of the house. With that scenario, I would only have about 25 feet of backyard and would have to cross the driveway to get to it. Rebecca had some really cool ideas to provide other outdoor spaces on the side of the house, but I think I’ve decided that I can handle walking a few feet to get to a detached garage. The easiest most affordable option would be to have the garage on the front of the house, but since the lot is in a historic district, I don’t think the historic review board would go for it. I didn’t want to finalize all the plans and then have them not approve the design. You can’t go before the board until you have drawings with all the elevations, renderings, and actual material samples, and by that point, the plans would be nearly finished. So I’m going to choose my battles and save everyone some time. A detached garage it is! The backyard will still be small, which is good because I don’t want more than I can take care of, but at least now, there’ll be an area of about 50 feet by 30 feet for a patio off the back of the house, a small veggie garden and plenty of room for Stevie-D to run around!

I’ve attached a photo below with a picture of the initial drawing, so you can see the visual of where we started. Rebecca and I are meeting again this week to work more on the design. I’ll keep you posted on the progress, as well as officially introduce her to you!

Also, a big thank you to Keith Gugliotto for helping with the website yesterday and for making computers seem a little less scary 🙂

Hasta pronto, amigos!


Aggressively Passive (house)


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.


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!