We're currently at the "Yikes!" stage of construction: we're getting a lot of big bills and high estimates and wondering just how expensive this house is going to wind up.
It's an interesting/alarming phase because we're now making decisions about the non-envelope parts of the house. We refused to cut corners on the windows and insulation, as well as other things that will affect energy performance. But now that the costs are mounting up ("Curse you, sloped and ledgy lot!"), we're looking around for corners to cut.
But which corners? Part of me says it's much more important to install a solar hot water system than it is to upgrade our kitchen cabinets. The cost difference between IKEA cabinets and the least expensive plywood cabinets is about $5,000, which would cover most of the cost for a solar hot water system. But IKEA cabinets are made from particle board and would therefore introduce formaldehyde into our nice tight envelope. Most people poo-pooh this dilemma, since particle board is ubiquitous, but lead paint and asbestos were once ubiquitous, and the evidence is mounting that no amount of formaldehyde is acceptable indoors.
[Added on 2011-08-18: It looks like cabinet manufacturers have backed off from adding urea formaldehyde in recent years, so I think we'll be OK with MDF doors after all.]
Note that I'm talking about the least expensive plywood cabinets, which still have doors and drawer faces made from particle board (the cabinet boxes are made from plywood). If we want to eliminate particle board altogether, the price doubles.
And then there's the question of countertops. Granite countertops are the (painfully hard) punching bags of the anti-consumerism crowd. No unsustainably-built McMansion is complete without granite countertops! If I were a real friend of the earth, I'd opt for tile countertops and virtuously accept the ugly grout lines. But I don't like grout lines, and I don't want to have to use nasty cleansers to keep them from mildewing up, plus it would crack under the abuse we and our guests would likely inflict upon it. I'm not opposed to formica, but I can't shake the image of the torn-out countertops in a dumpster 15 or 20 years from now when the next owner rips them out.
So I'm very tempted by granite, in spite of the high price and the high embodied energy. A better choice would be local soapstone or slate, but that's even more expensive. I could cut a different corner by using an asphalt-shingle roof rather than metal, but I'm once again haunted by the image of seeing it all torn up in a dumpster 15 years from now.
One big and easy corner to cut would be the solar electric system. And we may just have to cut it, if the framing and insulation costs are as high as I expect them to be. We would at least put conduit and pipes in place, allowing us to add solar electricity and hot water down the road, but it's still embarrassing to say we chose expensive cabinets and countertops over renewable energy.
I've often joked that I'd gladly install counters made from plywood and contact paper. But we need to get a mortgage on this house as soon as it's complete, and I don't know how strict lenders are about cheesy hacks like that. Perhaps not at all.
One thing we boldly/foolishly did not skimp on is the staircase. I placed the order last week for a gorgeous curved staircase, custom made in Maine. We even paid extra for cherry wood rather than oak. Bad Andrea! But this will be the aesthetic centerpiece of the house, and we decided to just go for it. If we're lucky, maybe it will distract the appraiser from the contact-paper countertops.
[Added on 2011-08-18: Ted and I talked budget after I posted this (he had been leaving matters in my overly-conservative hands), and it looks like we're in better shape than I thought. We are still planning to go ahead with PV, solar hot water, and moderate upgrades to the finishes.]
Occupant behavior can make the difference between an efficient house and a wasteful one. Notorious energy hogs include plasma TVs, old refrigerators or freezers, ice-makers, and dehumidifiers. And don't overlook sneaky items like DVRs, always-on computer and entertainment equipment, etc.