Expensive mistakes

Doing things right Andrea 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.

The DIY Thing

Submitted by Andrea on November 27, 2011

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!

Hopping off the freight train

Submitted by Ted on May 21, 2011

In the process of trying to make the transition from planning to building, Andrea and I have been having some serious conversations with a local green builder, Eli, about how to turn our dream house into an actual house. I'm not going to go into too much detail about the actual conversation. I think Andrea has plans for that. But I do want to talk a bit about the thought process that followed, because I suspect this is a thought process that anyone trying to built a house might wind up going through.

During the course of planning this project, a number of people have made the same observation: that wall to the north is awfully tall. The first structural engineer that we talked to was concerned that the foundation was going to be imposing. The excavation guy had some suggestions for how to conceal it artfully. The landscape architect we consulted had some plans as well. The second structural engineer compared it to the wall of a Shogun's castle.

Himeji CastleOn Thursday, Eli got a bit stern with us about it. He pointed out that with the roof rising almost 40' above the terrain, lots of things that would otherwise be cheap get more expensive. Even putting siding on becomes a serious challenge, to say nothing of insulating the roof and putting on roofing. Furthermore, with the land sloping away to the north, having the roof rise above it means that rain will be falling off the roof on the uphill side, where it will want to run back under the house, instead of on the downhill side, where it will naturally run away from the house. Of course we want to control rain with gutters anyway, but gutters in New England live difficult lives.

The bottom line was that we were going to wind up with a house that was quite a bit over budget, without getting much for the extra money.

So with this reality check in mind, it was time to revisit our goals. Why did we want the roof to slope down to the south, rather than to the north? Why did we want to have a recessed entryway? Why did we want to have an attached meditation space? What exactly are we trying to accomplish with this house: are we really building the house we want to live in, or some other house?

When we originally set out to build this house, I had been planning to do a three-year meditation retreat in an attached retreat area inside the house. We also wanted the house to be something Andrea could be comfortable in during the retreat, and we wanted it to be a place we'd want to live after the retreat was over. We wanted it to be energy-efficient. We wanted it to be attractive outside, and pleasant, welcoming and interesting inside.

The first question is why we were attracted to the Passivhaus style of building. I grew up in Western Massachusetts. Andrea grew up in the Chicago area. So we've both lived in cold climates, and we've lived in houses that were, frankly, poorly suited to cold climates. You can build a house, enclose the walls with sheathing and siding on the outside and plaster on the inside, put in a massive furnace, and be warm all winter. You will be getting a visit from the oil company every month, and it'll be an expensive visit, but you'll be warm.

What you won't be is comfortable. Andrea and I moved from Chicago to Tucson in 2004. We had been living in a brick apartment building in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. It was an old tenement building, with lots of thermal mass but not much insulation, so the walls were cold in the winter. The heat would come on, the air would warm up, the heat would go off. We'd be too warm. Then over the course of ten or twenty minutes the air would cool down to the point where we were too cold. Then the heat would come on again, and the cycle would repeat.

So there was a period of about a minute out of every twenty when we were actually comfortable. Except of course that with all that heating, the air was very dry. So we were really never comfortable. We weren't freezing, and we were certainly better off than most people have been in the course of history, but we were spending a lot of money to get a pretty marginal result. I suspect that our apartment would have showed up in an infrared picture as a glowing menace, with the outside walls well above the outside air temperature.

Whether you're an environmentalist or not, it's hard to get around the fact that wasting this much heat is dumb. Energy costs money. So when we moved to Tucson, we were adamant that we'd live in an efficient house; one that didn't use more energy than necessary to stay cool in the summer, or warm in the winter. We went with a design that had a ton of thermal mass, which is a good thing in Arizona, and was insulated on the outside to keep that mass isolated from the environment.

This worked out pretty well. The house was usually pretty comfortable inside. Granted, it was dry, but that's more because Arizona is dry than because we were heating too much air. Our heating and cooling bills were quite modest, and if we turned off the air conditioning and left for a month, which we did from time to time, we'd come back to a house that was still more comfortable inside than out. So when we moved to Vermont, we didn't want to lose that.

It was the process of searching for a housing envelope that would give us the kind of thermal stability we had in Tucson that we stumbled across the Passivhaus concept. Passivhaus is efficient, but that isn't what sold me on it. What sold me on it was hearing that in a Passivhaus the temperature at the top of the room differs very little from the temperature at the floor. That the walls are not cold. That even the windows are not cold. That the thermal cycle is a few degrees, not ten degrees. That so little heating is needed that the air doesn't dry out.

But here's the thing: once we started going down the Passivhaus path, we started to think of ourselves as building a green house, rather than building a comfortable, efficient house. So despite the fact that our lot is fairly shaded, we wanted solar, because that's green. If you look at solar as a value proposition on our lot, it's not a very good value proposition. Our lot is not the best place to generate solar power.

But we were strongly attached to the roof facing south, which is necessary to generate solar power on our lot, because we had gotten into the mindset that we were trying to build a zero-energy house. And so we were about to spend a significant amount of money to create a roofline that was going to get us the solar we "wanted," and there was no way this was ever going to pay off.

The other thing that kept us focused on the south-sloping roof is the picture that used to be on the front page of the site. It's quite a handsome facade. If you turn the roof around, it's not as handsome. This matters to us. You can call me shallow if you want, but I think aesthetics matter. I want the house to look good. And we've put a lot of effort into keeping the facade the way it is in that picture, as the project has become more concrete and less abstract.

So when Eli strongly suggested we slope the roof the other way, our tendency was to resist. When he said to shorten the footprint, our tendency was to resist. And our reasons for wanting to resist are not bad reasons. But they are not central reasons. The house is going to be a comfortable, energy-efficient house whether the roof slopes north or south. We'll figure out a way to style the facade so that it looks good.

The other problem is that the house was quite long, and our lot slopes in the long direction. Because we wanted the retreat space to be available at the same time as the rest of the house, so that I could start my three-year retreat, the house length was non-negotiable. But I'm not doing a three-year retreat anymore. We don't need that space right away. I'm actually kind of interested in building a Tiny House. A tiny house would be fantastic for a month-long retreat, and there is plenty of space on our lot to site one. Heating constraints aren't as severe, because it doesn't need to be inhabited year-round.

So the tiny house plan is something that would solve our long-term retreat cottage needs in a way that I would actually prefer over the monolithic house we'd originally planned. By urging us to shorten the house, Eli forced me to revisit my motivation for building the long house, and it was immediately obvious that we didn't need to make it so long. Shortening it gives us a lot more flexibility in terms of where we place it, so that it can nestle into the terrain a bit rather than jutting out over a long drop.

It's difficult to let go of the mental freight train barreling toward the finish line that was the plan we had before we met with Eli. If we ignore his advice and build the long, south-sloping house, I think we'll be happy with the results. But we'll have a much bigger mortgage, and having a big mortgage tends to be incompatible with doing retreats. It also seems like a bad idea in these challenging economic times. If we make the changes Eli proposed, we have to let go of our emotional attachment to a few cars on that freight train. But the pieces of the house that we really intend to use—that really matter to us—we get to keep. So at this point we're pretty seriously considering taking Eli's advice.

Tag cloud bummer

Submitted by Andrea on May 9, 2011

Today I added a tag cloud to the website. That's the list of tags in different font sizes in the right sidebar -- the font size reflects the relative frequency of posts with that label. I added the tag cloud in honor of today's post with the unhappy label "Expensive mistakes."

I would love not to share this story, but it's been a big part of our pre-construction process, and it would be disingenuous not to talk about our mistakes as well as our accomplishments.

I'm going to describe our unsuccessful and expensive collaboration with a structural engineer who wasn't a good match for us. It's not Ted's or my goal to criticize anyone here other than ourselves -- I certainly don't want to malign an honest and qualified professional simply because we weren't on the same wavelength. My hope is merely to share our experience so that other owner-builders might learn from our mistakes.

Things might have gone better if I'd had a clearer understanding of what a structural engineer does. I thought structural engineering was simply about doing load calculations and making sure that we're not building something that's going to fall down. Our design has a few tricky bits, including an interior cantilever around the main staircase, and I thought that was the main sort of task a structural engineer performs.

I failed to realize that we needed a structural engineer who is every bit as obsessed with energy-efficient construction as we are. The engineer we hired is very experienced and highly competent, but he is firmly planted in the world of conventional building. This was an unfortunate oversight because structural engineering is heavily concerned with the building envelope and the foundation, which are probably the two most critical aspects of Passivhaus design.

It didn't help that our foundation is turning out to be very tricky indeed. Our building site slopes downhill from west to east and our house design is oblong, but for optimal passive solar performance we want the long side to face south. The engineer warned us multiple times that it would be more difficult/expensive to orient the house that way, and we assured him repeatedly that rotating the house was not an option. He therefore suggested we pay a landscape engineer to do a grading plan, which would detail all the earthwork required to build a frost-wall foundation.

In hindsight, someone should have proposed we build the foundation on piers, since this would minimize the amount of earth-moving and keep the overall cost down. (Also, a foundation on piers would look really cool!) But this never happened, and we instead paid for a grading plan and then a foundation plan that will require heaps of concrete, overzealous bulldozing, and masses of expensive compacted fill.

Was our engineer wrong to propose this? He had suggested numerous times that we reorient the house along the milder grade, and we repeatedly told him that solar orientation was more important to us. It was not ridiculous for him to think that we were prepared to foot the bill for our obstinate tree-hugging ways.

We knew when we hired him that he wasn't experienced with super-insulated construction, but Ted and I thought we might be able to educate him along the way. We were willing to pay for a few extra hours of his time if it would leave him with energy-saving strategies he could use on other projects. Unfortunately, "a few extra hours" ballooned into a lot of revisions when he didn't see the logic of our requests. And to be fair, a lot of our questions and proposals were pretty loopy, so I don't entirely blame him for ignoring our occasional valid points.

Our energy guru Marc met with him last August to discuss the project, and Marc immediately told us that he didn't think we'd hired the right structural engineer for the job. But by then we felt it would be expensive to change course and hire someone new. I suppose this was the "good money after bad" threshold. Sigh... lessons learned.

Other than the grading plan, not much engineering work happened over the winter, and by spring we decided to bite the bullet and find someone else. Marc hooked us up with someone who seems to be a much better match, and we may have a viable and affordable foundation plan before too much longer (blog post forthcoming).

We are wrapping up work with our old engineer, and hopefully there won't be hard feelings on either side. It's been a blow to my pride to discover I'm not immune from making mistakes, and of course it's been a blow to our budget and schedule as well. But we will recover, and if this is our biggest expensive mistake we will be lucky indeed.

Here's hoping that font size in our tag cloud stays very very small!