Back in 2009 when this project was born, Ted and I had every intention of building the house ourselves. Ted didn't have a whole lot of building experience and I had none, but Ted thinks like an engineer and was eager for the construction challenge. He works remotely as a computer geek and has a very accommodating employer, so we had a rare opportunity to build a house without sacrificing income.
My main attraction to do-it-yourselfing was to save money. We had a good chunk of starting equity, thanks to an inheritance from my grandfather which survived two prior bouts of home-ownership. I cheerfully believed we could build our house without borrowing money and wind up owning an Almost Passivhaus free and clear.
I should pause and thank my parents, who only occasionally pointed out that things might not go as planned. My mother quoted the Yiddish proverb "Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht" ("Man makes plans, God laughs") a few times, but that was it. If she laughed and rolled her eyes at me, it was only behind my back and with great affection. When it became clear that our equity would not nearly cover the construction costs, they gave us access to the family business's line of credit, freeing us from the constraints of a standard construction loan. We'll repay their commercial lender by taking out a mortgage once the house is complete.
But I digress. The first thing that drove up our costs was the difficulties of our building site. We chose it in haste, partly because Ted wanted to start a three-year meditation retreat at the end of 2010 (in sync with our friends and teachers in a three-year retreat in Arizona). The lot is relatively secluded (good for meditating) but still very close to town. It's also close to Ted's parents, who he hoped would visit during those three quiet years. But it became clear that we couldn't possibly have a livable house in time (we don't have one a year later!). This and other considerations prompted Ted not to do the retreat.
We described our site and its challenges in a post six months ago. It is neither flat enough for a slab foundation, nor is it steep enough for a walk-out basement/garage. (The slope was hard to discern when we bought the property, because it was covered with dense brush.) And the site is riddled with ledge, which makes excavation slow and expensive.
If we had been willing to sacrifice passive-solar performance we could have sited the house more cheaply, but to us that was non-negotiable. In our land-buying haste, we didn't accurately pinpoint which way solar south was. This sounds idiotic, and perhaps it was, but our street is very twisty, and cheap compasses are not at all precise. Furthermore, solar south is 15° west of magnetic south at our latitude, and daylight saving time is the work of the devil.
It's embarrassing to talk about this publicly, since I'm opening myself to derision from the green building digerati. Building science geeks are exceptionally bright and perhaps a little touchy about not being appreciated or understood by the mainstream, which means they're occasionally catty about projects that weren't as well managed as their own. I follow a number of green building Twitter feeds, and my feelings will be hurt if any of them link derisively to my site as an example of What Not To Do. That said, we invite people to link non-derisively to this site as an example of what not to do (as well as what to do). Ted and I feel there's value in sharing our mistakes as well as our achievements.
Anyway, as I was saying, the complexity of our site and foundation dealt one blow to our DIY dreams, and the switch from 2x6 framing to I-joists was another. Our second/current structural engineer prescribed I-joists for better wind resistance and then promptly told us there was no way we'd be able to maneuver them ourselves. Until then, everyone had humored our DIY intentions, but Ben told us flat-out that we needed help and lots of it.
He was right. It took several months for Eli's highly-experienced crew to get our house enclosed and under roof, and the complexity never seems to let up. The current challenge is the exterior window trim. We'll probably share those details later, but they are an oddly costly and complicated 3-D jigsaw puzzle of rigid foam insulation, lumber, and AZEK.
We hoped at least to build the garage ourselves and also do a lot of interior carpentry, but then Ted broke his collarbone, requiring surgery. This was truly the final insult (excepting any future insults). Ted's deep yearning to build his own house and my vain wish to keep our costs down were thoroughly squelched.
It is dishonest to call this a DIY project (something we haven't actively claimed in many months). I have therefore replaced the little lemon-shaped DIY badge on the website's logo with a VT sticker. We may have failed to build this house ourselves, but by golly, it's still in Vermont!
The last time Ted and I built a house, it was in an energy-efficient subdivision in downtown Tucson, and all we had to do was pick out finishes and fixtures. It seemed like a big task at the time: we had to go to the plumbing, lighting, kitchen, and tile showrooms and make all sorts of decisions, with the help of the design staff of course. The low point was when I found myself studiously comparing toilet seats late night on the internet. (In case you're wondering, here's what I picked.)
In retrospect it was a piece of cake, like coloring within the lines of a coloring book. Picking out a few fixtures for a house that somebody else had designed and was building? No problem! By contrast, I've been actively planning our current house for two years, and only now am I picking out fixtures. After overseeing a foundation and envelope, e-combing North America and Europe for windows, sourcing commercial-depth roof joists, and frantically ordering expanding foam tape and air-sealing gaskets, the task of picking out faucets and tiles is but a frivolous afterthought.
And yet I wish I'd been frivolous enough to start doing this sooner. If only I'd whiled away the hours last winter bookmarking light fixtures and plugging them into my SketchUp models! Because now I'm frantically scouring the web for ideas, and I'm also running around to plumbing and appliance showrooms trying to get quotes in a hurry so my subcontractors can get to work.
My insane level of attention to detail is both a blessing and a curse. It means I have a good eye for design and user interface, and I think carefully about how everything will come together. But it also means I can't just relax and pick things haphazardly, because living with a bad choice will positively drive me nuts. I haphazardly selected our ceramic floor tiles in Tucson, not noticing until after they were installed in every room of the house that they had a rustic-looking dirt pattern baked right in. A friend helpfully pointed out that you wouldn't be able to tell when the floors were dirty, but I replied that you also couldn't tell when they were clean.
Obviously I can't anticipate everything, and I'll have to be philosophical about whatever bad choices we make, but I know a lot of eyes are on this project and I don't want to let down the team.
The biggest challenge is probably the lighting. So many different fixtures and setups to choose! I see why a lot of builders just give up and litter the ceiling with recessed cans, but we are scrupulously following Martin Holladay's Ten Rules of Lighting and avoiding recessed cans like the plague. As Holladay points out, it's better to illuminate the ceiling than the floor. With a white-painted ceiling, the light will bounce off it nicely in a way that mimics the natural world (bright sky, darker ground). Recessed cans, however, cast weird shadows and call undue attention to the floor (including those pre-dirted ceramic tiles).
His slideshow included a great-looking T5 fluorescent luminaire by Delray Lighting:
T5 tubes are have a much smaller diameter than the old schoolroom fluorescents we're all used to: 5/8" as opposed to 1-1/2". They produce an impressive 100 lumens per watt, which means lots of bang for your electricity buck. And this fixture embraces the stark look of the tube, meaning that all the light is illuminating your house and not the inside of a shade.
We'll probably use a lot of T5 fixtures, but we'd also like to use LEDs where we can afford to. One way to do this, ironically, is to buy Edison-style fixtures and then screw in LED bulbs. Today I boldly (foolishly?) ordered some sale-priced pendants that take a standard candelabra bulb, which I can then turn into LED fixtures by installing LED replacement bulbs. I'll let you know how that works out.
I've put Ted in charge of researching LED strip lighting, which we plan to use liberally. For example, we want a "late-night glass of water" switch in the kitchen that will turn on red lights rather than white ones (to keep the sleepy wanderer's pupils from contracting), but I'm concerned that red lights in the kitchen might convey the wrong message.
We're also choosing appliances, which will likely include a relatively inexpensive top-freezer refrigerator, a mid-tier induction cooktop, and some crazy fancy dishwasher (Ted imprinted on an ASKO from Sweden the other day). Indeed, if anything prevents us from reaching net-zero performance, it will probably be our deep love of automatic dishwashing. They make energy-efficient dishwashers in America, but Ted is quite opinionated about dishwasher rack configurations and so far only likes the ASKO. I'll let him win this round, though, because if Ted doesn't like our dishwasher he might feel less inclined to load it (which he is generally quite good about doing.) I confess to being conniving in this one small way.
That is really just the tip of the shopping iceberg, and writing this post has been a nice break from the endless online browsing.
In other news, we got about 18" of snow last night (yes, in October). The roof installation isn't yet complete, but the unfinished parts are tarped and/or tri-flexed and should therefore be unharmed. Ted and I drove up this morning and saw that the solar awning to the south had already shed most of its snow (yay!) and that the north drip-edge was working nicely. We're hoping the snow will melt quickly and that work can resume without delay.
It's been a busy couple of weeks on our building site, and I've been fearfully remiss about blogging. I will now right that wrong.
After weeks and weeks of downright biblical rain, we had great weather on October 5 and 6 for the crane. It was no ordinary crane -- due to a last-minute switcheroo from the equipment company we wound up with a 165-ton crane, practically the largest in New England. This was a fortunate switcheroo, because our building site is awkwardly shaped and the pre-constructed walls would have been hard to lift and place with an ordinary little crane.
Here's what our site looked like at the beginning of the day:
The north wall is raised:
Behold our lovely 24" framing:
They braced it from behind:
The west wall:
Nothing warms a homeowner's heart like seeing a crew member wield a level.
A woolly bear caterpillar turned up, prompting a conversation with Milt the crane operator about what kind of winter its coloring foretells (answer: no clue).
Speaking of the crane operator, here's the ginormous crane:
The following day they used the crane to place the 24"-deep roof joists, shown here from the second floor.
They also placed the timber-frame awning, which will hold up the solar panels. It was definitely two dramatically productive days!
Eli's crew has been busy on-site ever since then, but the time for Ted's and my DIY phase had arrived. Last weekend Ted used a laser level to start laying out the interior walls (note autumn foliage in the background).
But our DIY plans hit a major obstacle the next day when Ted had a bicycle accident and broke his collarbone :-(
He's scheduled for surgery in a few days, and he'll be unable to swing a hammer for a solid six weeks.
But work continued, culminating yesterday with the arrival of our windows. Eli and I worked all day Tuesday preparing the rough openings with Vycor, flex-wrap, and flashing tape.
Eli overhead Patrik and Tomas from European Architectural Supply say that we had the best-prepared rough openings they'd ever seen. They even took photos, presumably to shame their other clients.
It was a marathon, but the EAS team and Eli's crew managed to fully install the windows and the front door in a single day. The first one (on the north wall) peeks out into some lovely woods:
So at last we have a weathered-in house! No insulation yet, but it's already warmer and more comfortable than our drafty apartment.
Ted and I visited several houses today in the NESEA Green Buildings Open House Tour. A bunch of homeowners in the northeast kindly opened their doors to nosy strangers and showed off their eco-upgrades.
Many of the houses had solar electric or hot water systems, and others had superinsulation, high-efficiency heating systems, green building materials, etc. All the houses we saw were optimized for passive-solar performance. We enjoyed meeting other nutjobs green building enthusiasts, and when we paused to shut up about our own project we learned quite a lot of useful stuff.
One house was a brand-new net-zero house, which the owners moved into only last week. In addition to many energy-use upgrades, they used LEED-friendly materials such as PaperStone counters and Marmoleum floors. I was particularly interested in the floors, because Ted and I haven't yet decided what to install in the rooms where hardwood floors would be impractical. I'd been considering linoleum (which is what Marmoleum is), but it was a non-starter because of Ted's sense of smell.
Whenever I mention "Ted's sense of smell," you should imagine that the words are followed by a thunderclap or a horse whinnying. For me it's an ominous, implacable force that must be appeased. I have a fairly strong sense of smell myself, but Ted's is bizarrely strong and offended by things I can't even detect. Many times have we walked into a hotel room that seemed just fine to me but was promptly declared "reekitudinous" by the sensitive Ted. We have definitely pushed more than one hotel clerk to the limit of their "customer is always right" patience.
When I suggested linoleum floors in the kitchen or laundry room several months ago, Ted's sense of smell (speaking through Ted) nixed it, citing some stinky floors in the house where he grew up. I was under the impression that Marmoleum and its ilk are actually quite benign, but Ted wasn't interested.
So when we toured that net-zero house, and the chatelaine pointed out the Marmoleum floors in the laundry room, I ordered asked him to get down and sniff it. And lo, he declared it odorless! I should contact the homeowner and ask if it was the edge-locking Marmoleum Click or the Marmoleum tiles that need to be glued into place. But at least I can put Marmoleum back onto the list of flooring options.
This may not be the last time I make Ted sniff flooring or paint; as we start choosing interior finishes his nose's advisory role will only grow. For the moment I will resist adding it to this website's tag cloud, but I make no promises for the future.
My quest for attractive and inexpensive light fixtures has begun, and my old friend the Internet is ready to help. I have no intention of turning this website into an interior design blog, but I couldn't resist sharing my bright idea.
I quite like this light fixture, but I wouldn't dream of sullying our Almost Passive House with an egregiously incandescent bulb:
However, I think it would look smashing with a Plumen CFL, don't you think?
Yes, Plumen bulbs are pricey ($30 USD), but the fixture itself isn't too outrageous ($119), so I think this could work. Not sure where to put it, but I'm sure we'll come up with something.
The time has come, the Walrus said, to start deciding on interior fixtures and finishes. I've been focusing for so long on things like the foundation and the building envelope that it feels weird to focus on mere fripperies, but I can put it off no longer. Admittedly, I picked out my kitchen faucet years ago (I installed the same one in two previous houses), but I'm in a fog when it comes to interior lighting.
Ted had the clever idea to use LED strip lighting to give rooms the ambiance of a dorm room lit by Christmas lights. It's a soft, friendly sort of light, which is all we'll need when we're using our laptops (i.e. 90% of waking hours). Furthermore, we could use RGB controllers to change the light color, which would look pretty darn excellent. And of course we'd have some bright overhead fixtures for times we want to actually see things and not just pass the bong around. (I'm speaking figuratively, not literally — Ted and I are utterly and perhaps boringly substance-free.) LED lighting: Energy-efficient and mighty slick.
Alas, I've found no examples online of what we want to accomplish. I've found a lot of McMansiony-looking LED cove lighting, which is not our style at all. I'm imagining LED strips tucked behind curved moldings but not so close to the ceiling. Ideally it would bathe the wall in weird indirect light and look really cool.
But I have no idea if this would work. I suspect you need something above the LED strips to reflect the light back down. Furthermore, there are heaps of LED vendors online but I've heard there's a lot of junk out there. So today I called a lighting consultant recommended by Eli to see if he can help me navigate this bright glowing sea.
We spoke briefly on the phone and he warned me that LEDs are currently more expensive than conventional lighting (sigh). He confirmed that most of the LEDs available online are crap (and no, he doesn't sell anything himself — he just provides recommendations). We'll probably set up a meeting with him to discuss our wild notions and to see if we're heading in the right direction.
I have a sinking feeling that LEDs are not quite ready for prime time, which is frustrating because they surely will be within a few years. And of course they use a mere squeak of power compared to incandescents, and they are less flickery and annoying than CFLs.
Words of lighting wisdom are welcome!
[Added on 2011-09-18:Erik Haugsjaaemphatically pointed out that GU24s are best suited for landlords or developers who want to force residents to use energy-efficient bulbs and that they're actually a terrible choice for us, given the lack of fixtures available. So we'll go with good old Edison overhead fixtures instead.]
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.