Conventional "wisdom"

Doing things right

Submitted by Andrea on January 21, 2012

One of the many things I like about building websites is how easy it is to change things later on. Want to change some wording or add a new photo? Piece of cake! Need to change something complicated like the page layout? That's a bit more work but 100% doable — change a few settings and template files, and you've got a new layout.

Changing a building? Not so easy. You can't just edit the source files and hit "Reload." Nope, changing a building involves crowbars, debris, dumpsters, and a whole lot of work and expense. My sole consolation about building a house from scratch is that it's apparently less painful than trying to remodel, so we're making every effort to do things right the first time around.

This has meant paying constant attention to detail and making sure we're designing for longevity. The idea of doing things right is so deeply ingrained that we don't even ponder the alternative, and so we often forget how unusual it is.

For example, Ted recently shared some photos of our garage on Google+ and received unexpected praise for the generous overhangs:

I designed the garage myself, and when it came to sizing the overhangs I simply asked Eli what he recommended and went with that. It didn't occur to me not to have overhangs, or that sizing them properly was unusual enough to attract praise.

And yet it is. When people with building experience come visit our house, they're astonished by how well-built it is and how little we've compromised. The most recent was Russ, our new rep from the building supply yard. He said he's worked with lots of customers who initially intend to build a super-insulated, passive solar, [insert eco-adjective here] house. But then they see the price for all those green-building features, and they scale it back until they wind up with a house that's only marginally more "green" than a conventional house.

Russ told us what a thrill it is to see a house where this hasn't happened. Quite the opposite — our original target was an almost-passive house, and yet here we are building what is now likely to be a certified passivhaus with solar hot water and a 3.96 kW photovoltaic array. I honestly can't think of a single corner we've cut with regard to the building's performance.

We've certainly trimmed some other corners. Heck, we lopped about 500 square feet from the original floor plan. The bathrooms are small and simple, the bedrooms have ordinary (not walk-in) closets, the kitchen cabinets are stock rather than custom. But we can't bring ourselves to install anything we'll want to rip out and upgrade in a few years. Hence no formica counters, vinyl floors, or any of the other money-saving standbys.

Alas, there is a reason so few people build this way. It's really expensive! I know I've posted about this before, but it's such a big part of our building experience that I can't help repeating myself. Nearly every estimate we receive is like getting the wind knocked out of me — it seems impossible that construction could be this expensive, and yet apparently it is.

One of the hardest parts is how often I feel ashamed or that I've somehow failed. When I started this blog, I really wanted it to describe how we built an almost-passive house for some cute number like $100 or $125 a square foot. But we've sailed past $200 a square foot, and I don't yet know what the final number will be. I'm not looking forward to taking out that mortgage, nor do I relish the possible eventuality of selling the house for less than we put in.

Ted suspects that a lot of our costs are because this is a custom home. Yes, all the eco-bling is adding a lot, but not as much as the general costs of building a distinctive home on a challenging site.

Perhaps this blog will help illustrate the need for production-scale passivhaus construction. Such construction is common in Europe, and it's beginning to take off in North America. Builders of modular homes are getting in on the game as well, and perhaps very soon it will be possible to get a house like ours much more easily and cheaply than we are. I certainly hope so, because I wouldn't wish this process on anyone, and yet I definitely want more people to have this kind of house.

If you could design your dream window, what would it be?

Submitted by Andrea on April 24, 2011

Marvin Windows is currently running magazine ads asking well-known designers this question and showing pictures of the pretty windows they came up with:

Marvin Windows magazine ad

I really wish they'd ask a few American green-building gurus this question, because I'm sure they'd get an earful:

  • Whole-window U-values lower than 0.17, and glass U-values around 0.10 (the window in the Marvin ad has a U-value of 0.30, which is totally lame)
  • Solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) greater than 0.50
  • Visible transmittance (VT) greater than 0.50
  • Tilt-turn operation with inward swing
  • Geeky details I won't bother explaining, such as 4/16/4/16/4mm triple-glazing and a plastic warm edge spacer of Psi=0,038

In Europe, dozens of manufacturers make windows like that, but in North America hardly anyone does. The best North American window vendors are making a reasonable attempt, but they all fail on at least one of Ted's and my requirements:

  • Serious Windows' highest-performing windows are casement, not in-swing, which means they open outwards with a little crank at the base. This is mechanically inefficient, and it also limits the size of windows they can sell. We have some gloriously big south-facing windows in our dining area, and we don't want to make them smaller. Also, their best SHGC is 0.42, which is not as good as the standard Passivhaus windows from Europe.
  • Canadian companies Accurate-Dorwin and Thermotech Fiberglass didn't sell in-swing windows last time I checked. My main complaint about out-swing windows is that the screen is inside the window, which I simply don't like. And yes, I know about retractable window screens, but I'm still not jazzed about opening a heavy triple-paned window with a crank.
  • Inline Fiberglass makes a tilt-turn frame, but they still aren't big enough for our front windows. They offered to sell us a modified doorframe full of glass, but c'mon! Also, their best windows use Serious glass, which has slightly lower SHGC and VT than the European glass.
  • I could list a few more North American vendors, but they are mostly using Inline frames and Serious glass, whose shortcomings I listed above. And you'll notice I didn't mention the big-name American manufacturers -- as far as I know, Marvin, Pella, and Andersen aren't even trying to build Passivhaus-worthy windows.

    Ted and I are therefore likely to order windows from Europe. If money were no object we'd want something like Optiwin's Passivhaus-certified three-wood window, but sadly we are on a budget, and ever-plummeting dollar doesn't help. But the high-end American windows I listed above aren't cheap either, and there's enough variety and competition in Europe, particularly from the former Eastern bloc, that we can get something good for an acceptable price.

    We haven't made our final decision yet, but we're likely either to get German windows manufactured in Slovakia or Polish-made windows. We rejected some Lithuanian windows, not because we have anything against Baltic states but simply because the importer is based in DC and we want to work with someone more local. If we're handing someone a five-figure check just to place the order, we want to be able to drive over and hassle them from time to time.

    We're still waiting on a couple more estimates, but once we make our decision I'll post all sorts of titillating window specs and diagrams for your perusal.

    [Added on 2011-10-03: It's possible I've been a little too hard on North American glass manufacturers, since there's apparently some difference in how they test glass performance in Europe, but I stand by what I said about tilt-turn vs. casement operation.]