Due to some prior commitments, Eli pulled his crew from our job for much of November and December, and the pace of our construction slowed down accordingly. Eli already had a busy year lined up when we first called him last spring, but he couldn't resist the lure of building southern Vermont's first (almost) Passive House. He was able to pull it off thanks to a lot of schedule-shuffling, and once we were weathered in it was our turn to be shuffled.
Fortunately, I am such a sporadic blogger that I still have heaps of photos to share. And things are swinging back into high gear, so there should be more rapid and dramatic progress soon.
Let the photos commence! Our solar panels went up in November — 3.96 kW of DC goodness. We're not hooked up yet, but that will happen by the end of this month.
The plumbing work began — I suspect a lot of rough plumbing looks like something drawn by M.C. Escher, but ours is pretty over-the-top:
With Eli's team off in Guilford, we hired a pair of building pros to put up our exterior polyiso (rigid foam) insulation , housewrap, and strapping. We probably won't put up the siding until spring, which means our house will have that classy Typar look for several months. Eli once mused that they ought to sell housewrap printed to look like painted clapboards, but that most Vermonters would then never bother putting up real siding on top of it. I concur.
Anyway, here's the polyiso going up the north wall:
I am pleased to report that Ted's collarbone surgery was a success and that he is recovering nicely. This means that he is back in the DIY saddle, and for the last week we've been busy constructing the two loft spaces.
Ted at the chopsaw:
Before sharing the photos, I should explain the two loft spaces. We haven't built any of the upstairs interior walls yet, because we want to install the ceiling drywall all at once, creating a nice uninterrupted vapor-barrier. But we can't put up drywall until the roof insulation goes in, and it's hard to do any of that with a ceiling that's 25 feet high in spots (above the staircase and the two-story dining area).
Ted and I therefore decided to build the two loft platforms — one is a utility loft over the upstairs office area (it will house the PV inverter and the heat recovery ventilator), and the other is a cozy space we've dubbed the "manatee cave." Ted and I are inordinately fond of manatees (especially dwarf land manatees), and we thought that a manatee cave was much more original than a mere man-cave.
Anyway, here's the upstairs before we started building the lofts:
And here it is afterward:
The manatee cave is on the left, and in the foreground you can see the utility loft. Today we built a temporary platform connecting the two lofts (to facilitate the insulation and drywall work), and tomorrow we plan to build a platform between the utility loft and the west wall, which is where the curved staircase will go (the current staircase is merely temporary).
This last photo won't be very exciting to anyone but a building science geek, but it is very exciting to us. It's the readout from our first blower-door test, taken in December. A blower-door test quickly measures how much a house leaks. If Ted and I want to achieve Passivhaus certification, we need to build an insanely tight house (0.6 air exchanges per hour when pressurized to 50 pascals, roughly equivalent to 0.04 air exchanges per hour in a non-pressurized house).
We had no intention of running a blower-door test this early, because we haven't begun to seal the obvious leaks. The walls and roof are already very tight, but we can still see daylight at the window corners, and the exterior subfloor is completely absent (we need to finish the rough plumbing and electrical work first). But we wanted to insulate the roof so we could put up the ceiling drywall and build the interior walls, so we arranged a preliminary blower-door test to check for leaks around the roof (much harder to fix once the insulation is in). We taped over some of the gaping leak points to prevent them from wrecking the test altogether, but otherwise we haven't done any post-construction sealing.
We weren't expecting a result anywhere near the Passivhaus requirement. So we were quite happily gobsmacked to discover we're very nearly there:
The readout shows that the pressurized house is leaking at 227 CFM, which in our house converts to 0.65 ACH@50Pa. Which means that before we've even insulated or added the ZIP-sheathing subfloor, we are within spitting distance of the rigorous Passivhaus requirement. The test was run by Bill Hulstrunk of National Fiber, and he said that of the thousands of houses he's tested, this was the tightest house he'd ever seen. I am too superstitious to remove the "Almost" from the name of this website, but things are looking good in that department!
Work is now kicking back into high gear — in the near future we hope to get roof insulation, ceiling drywall, rough electrical wiring, and a garage. Our winter has been largely snow-free, a fortunate circumstance I attribute to Ted's and my purchase of a heavy-duty snowblower and season lift tickets at Stratton and Okemo. So I hope to have lots of thrilling new photos soon.
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.
Before installing solar panels, get a home energy audit to find out where you're wasting the most energy. Your house will be more comfortable if you seal leaks and add more insulation, so don't just slap solar panels on the roof without curbing energy use.