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.]
It's been a very hard couple of days for Vermont. Not so much for Ted and me — our apartment and our building site are both well uphill of any flooding. But it's been painful to see all the damage, both nearby and throughout the region.
I don't know how much rain fell on the building site this past Sunday, but there was hardly a trace of it when we went up the next day. Much of the credit goes to Wayne Corse, owner of Corse Excavating, who graded our site. A small amount of water had pooled in the gravel bed under the house, but nothing of concern, and there was no evidence of run-off into the road. Eli's team was rather impressed by the lack of erosion, and so were we.
But we weren't entirely surprised — we've been delighted with Wayne ever since we met him. He has just the right blend of time-tested know-how and openness to new approaches. We talked to another excavator who mostly wrinkled his forehead and shook his head at our crazy notions. But Wayne has a can-do outlook and a flexible mind that likes to find the right solution to the problem. In fact, I think his attraction to doing things right is what makes him ideal for our crazy project.
He also worked hard to fit into our schedule, even though he's been flat out busy with other jobs since spring. We had talked with him last summer and had him do a little scraping, and apparently this was sufficient to make him feel like he ought to follow through and finish the job even though he was swamped. Eli had heard good things about Wayne but had never worked with him before and was skeptical that Wayne could fit us into his tight schedule, but Wayne kept his word and managed to get work done as we needed it, even if it meant coming out on a Saturday morning and operating the big machines himself.
Which brings me to another Vermonter, Eli Gould. Eli already had a solid schedule when we first called him in late April. But he couldn't resist the lure of a super-efficient house and somehow used a time-turner to design and build our crazy foundation.
Eli is a different model of Vermonter than Wayne. Wayne's family has been in the state for centuries, whereas Eli is the son of back-to-the-landers and grew up on a commune in Guilford (just down the road from the commune where a wee Ted ran around while his parents sang and performed). He went to Yale and had to convince the administration to let him double-major in Forestry and Architecture, a perfectly logical combination hereabouts but a little weird for the Ivy League.
He has been working in construction since he was a teenager, and unlike most elite college grads he skipped the 20-something urban bar scene and got right back to work in VT. The result is that he's not yet 40 but is an established expert in timber-frame construction, has his own saw mill, and employs a crack four-person crew. He and his wife (a 7th-generation Vermonter) have three children and live just up the road from his wife's family's organic farm.
Wayne and Eli are undoubtedly swamped right now. Eli was already driving around helping people with his generator and sump pump on Sunday afternoon as rain was still falling. He sounded a bit frazzled when Ted spoke to him today, presumably because he's been working like mad to help his neighbors, all while keeping our project on schedule (mostly to keep his crew fully employed). And I can hardly imagine how busy Wayne must be now, trying to replace all the structural dirt that's now gumming up the Connecticut River. If Wayne was already flat out before the storm, I suspect he'll be working non-stop until winter rolls around and it's time to start plowing.
And there's a hell of a lot of work to be done. Vermont is in bad shape. Many roads are impassable — for example, a waterway has changed course and is now running through Route 9 (the major east-west road in southern Vermont). Many towns are hard hit, and contrary to what you might think based on the ski resorts and the crazy house we're building, there's not a lot of money here.
Fortunately, there are a lot of people like Wayne and Eli: people with deep ties to the community and an unhesitating desire to take care of the people around them.
I hasten to add that Vermont's natural beauty and the charm of its towns are entirely intact. The news coverage of Brattleboro, for example, shows a torrent where Whetstone Brook used to be and a waterlogged panorama on Flat Street, but that's only a small part of downtown. The rest is undamaged and humming with activity. So if you're looking at photos online and thinking "So much for Vermont," you are quite mistaken.
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.]
Our building site was relatively quiet last week. Concrete is curing, and our electrician set up the main panel and meter in anticipation of CVPS turning on the electricity this week. Ted and I also spoke with several solar installers to see about getting some PV panels at the roof ridge and also a solar hot water system. More on that as it unfolds.
The biggest news is that we recently partnered with Efficiency Vermont to pursue Passivhaus certification [follow the link to read their "About Us" page]. The cool part is that our house will be part of a research project to evaluate the suitability of Passivhaus construction for Vermont. They'll install monitoring equipment in our house and closely study its performance.
Peter Schneider, Efficiency Vermont's Passivhaus consultant, was particularly interested in studying our house because it has several unusual features: a pier foundation and partial shading. Vermont's abundance of sloping, ledgy lots makes pier foundation a tempting solution, and of course trees are rampant hereabouts. So hopefully we'll provide useful data for would-be Passivhausers in North America.
Peter was on vacation last week, so he hasn't gotten farther than the first few rounds of PHPP tweaking, but Marc helped pick up the slack. This will all probably change this week, and I'm probably jinxing things just by typing this, but so far it looks like we can pull off Passivhaus performance with the following general specs:
11-7/8″ I-joist floor deck (16 oc), stuffed with dense-pack cellulose and with 4″ of polyiso underneath.
9.5″ I-joist wall framing (24 oc) filled with dense-pack cellulose and with 4″ of exterior polyiso.
Schuco SI-82+ windows, which we ordered this week from European Architectural Supply in Lincoln, MA. The windows are PH-certified and made from uPVC. Yes yes, PVC is evil, but this is unplasticized PVC which is apparently a bit less evil. It's made without phthalates and can be recycled, at least in Europe. But hopefully the windows won't need recycling for a long long time.
Climatop Max and Climatop Ultra-N glass. The glass offered by Schuco is pretty darn impressive. For the south windows we upgraded to Climatop Max, which has a SHGC of 0.6, but for the rest of the house we went with the Climatop Ultra-N, which has an SHGC of 0.5. All the glass has a Ug of 0.105 (which PHPP callously rounds up to 0.11).
We haven't decided for sure on the HRV yet, but we'll probably either do the Zehnder ComfoAir 350 or the Paul by Zehnder Novus 300. The latter adds about $1,400 to the already formidable cost, but the efficiency is 93% as opposed to the ComfoAir's 84%, which would win us quite a bit within PHPP. Another knob to turn would be to add more polyiso under the floor or use larger I-joists — we'll hopefully do the cost-benefit analysis this week and reach a verdict.
It seems like the biggest advantage in our design is the ludicrously simple house shape. We're basically building a shoebox with a shed roof, which means there aren't many corners or thermal bridges undermining our envelope. Marc, Ben, and Eli already minimized thermal bridging before we decided to go for Passivhaus certification, so we're picking up a lot of PHPP points without having to change our plans.
We're waiting on a few more details, though, including some THERM data Peter is confirming with PHIUS. Hopefully that won't kick us back out of the ballpark, but as I said we still have some knobs left to turn.
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.