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.
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.
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 Slovenia (or possibly 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.]
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.