My husband Ted and I are building a house in southern Vermont. We actually plan to build it ourselves, with only the occasional subcontractor. Ted comes from a family for whom this sort of thing is normal, but in my family we consider it a big accomplishment to hang a picture successfully, so this will be a wild new experience for me.
Which is why I'm overthinking it and creating a website! I'm a freelance web designer so I throw together new sites all the time, and I'm hoping this will be a good place to organize my thoughts and ideas. I'm also posting all the construction tips and tricks I pick up from books, online, and on selected home-improvement shows, just so I can remember them when the time comes to put hammer to nail or whatever I'm supposed to be doing.
Oh, and we're not building an ordinary house — our goal is to build something resembling a Passive House. Passive Houses, which originated in Europe, use 80-90% less energy for heating than conventional houses do. Here's an overview of the approach (adapted from Homes for a Changing Climate):
Eliminate thermal bridges: Thermal bridges are the path of least resistance for heat to flow out from a house. They occur when an element in the house has higher heat conductivity than the surrounding materials. For example, a balcony slab that isn't thermally isolated from an interior concrete floor can suck the heat right out of the house.
Make it airtight: This is done partly by wrapping an intact, continuous layer of airtight materials around the entire building envelope.
Promote indoor air quality with mechanical ventilation: Because passive houses don't "breathe" the way a normal leaky house does, an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) is used to exchange indoor and outdoor air. Heat loss is often minimized by passing the air through an "earth tube," which is roughly 130 feet (40m) of 8-inch tubing buried 5 feet underground (this minimizes cold-air loss during summer as well).
Use high-performance windows and doors: Triple-paned, low-E, etc.
Use passive-solar principles when designing and orienting the house.
We aren't currently striving for full Passive House certification — mostly because the calculations and approval process would eat up too much of our budget — but we hope to build something that functions just as well. We are getting help from a first-rate green building consultant and other local experts, plus we're reading everything we can find on the topic.
Our secondary goal is to demonstrate that building an energy-efficient house is not impossible for laypeople or insanely expensive. Ted is convinced it can be done; I am skeptical but not entirely without hope. Keep reading and we'll see how it goes.
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.