A question of cost

Submitted by Andrea on August 2, 2011

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.

Fancy staircaseOne 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.]

Thanks for the tip about Ikea cabinets and formaldehyde. It appears they're not as noxious as I feared.

And I didn't know you could get no-formaldehyde substrates for formica. What brand are yours?

The laminate itself is standard Formica or Wilsonart.

The substrate is MEDEX MDF. That's the part with the no urea-formaldehyde. Our lumberyard could get it as a special order from the place they ordered countertops from.

Here's the medex spec sheet:
(second section on this page)

Here's another countertop brand we considered

I guess the problem with all of this is the price. When factoring in installation (and delays/hassles), it started approaching that of a local shop that would sell you Corian (acrylic solid surface) countertops with a fixed price and do it next week.

Submitted by Len Tower Jr (not verified) on August 2, 2011


hi andrea + ted

you might see if any of these have cabinets etc you could use
Pittsfield, MA seems to be the closest,
but I don't know how far you two meander

might be something like
local. both a coop and/or a reuse center

might ask on your local craigslist and elsewhere on-line
for what you need

some local dumps have a reuse area

best -len

Submitted by Len Tower Jr (not verified) on August 2, 2011


have you considered putting the solar panels on the ground
near the house?

you can get asphalt shingles that are rated for more than 15 years.

best -len

ps: the stairs are awesome. aesthetic loving andrea!

Re: Solar panels on the ground... unfortunately the lot is too shaded for that to work well.

As for the roof, it turns out the 3/12 pitch makes asphalt shingles a not-so-good idea. The good news is that the crazy-simple layout and lack of penetrations will make a metal roof somewhat cheaper than it might otherwise be. We might also investigate cheaper metal options such as R-panel or U-panel rather than standing seam.

Hi Matt,

A well-done concrete counter is certainly attractive, but I want to avoid having concrete in our building envelope. A canary-in-a-coalmine friend of mine says it's just a matter of time before they discover that interior concrete is very bad for air quality.

I know this is unscientific and I'm sure we're using all sorts of other dubious materials, but my friend is someone I trust and who has been right before, so I'm inclined to follow his advice here.

Thanks anyway for the suggestion -- I would certainly have considered concrete otherwise.


Submitted by lance (not verified) on August 10, 2011


having gone through a similar decision, can relate and offer some post-observations

-although the cost of solar systems continue to go down (!) being roughly 1/3 the cost of only 6yrs ago, i would say to bump up the priority of getting PV. This is one thing that will start paying back the day it becomes operational. Cant say that about granite :) Also, it may be easier to roll the cost of PV into your mortgage now as opposed to setting up financing later on. Also Federal tax credits for PV expire in 2016(dec31) and although that seems quite a ways off, it does creep up on you.

-i would tend to not skimp on the kitchen just because thats probably the one room that you see & use the most on a daily basis. So to have a pending upgrade on such a space would be a super hassle down the road and if it were my kitchen it would probably never get upgraded :)

-we chose fiberglass shingles over a metal roof, we got our PV array, we got our soapstone counters....

Thanks for the wisdom of hindsight, and good point about PV earning its keep right away.

Ted and I had a long talk and crunched some numbers and decided not to skimp. So we're still moving ahead with PV and solar hot water, and we'll probably do mid-tier cabinets and a very nice countertop (granite or slate).

The good news is that some of our bids came in lower than expected, so that will give us a bit more wiggle room.