My parents came to visit this weekend, so I borrowed my dad's camera to take some interior shots (the wide-angle lens on my iPhone is a bit sub-par).
Yes, the house is a mess. We just moved, after all! If my mom could handle it, I'm sure you can.
Here's the main downstairs view, just after you walk in the front door. The curved staircase is from York Spiral Stair in Maine.
And here's the same view from one floor up. It's a little hard to see in the photo, but the ceiling vaults upward toward the south windows. The closed-off area on top is a utility loft containing our solar inverter and heat recovery ventilator.
The 2x4 barnyard-style railing around the atrium is temporary — the eventual railing will match the stair railing and balusters.
Below is the opposite view, taken from the office area below the utility loft. The windowy area on the right (with the uninstalled door) will be an indoor garden space, taking advantage of the eastern and southern exposures. The clerestory windows along the hallway will bring south light into the guest bedroom.
Here's a view from the bedroom at the end of the hall, looking south at the indoor garden area. The two rooms will be separated by glass doors, bringing south light into the bedroom. (I kept the north windows quite small.) The loft space above the garden area will be accessible by a ladder. Ted and I dubbed it the "Manatee cave."
Back downstairs, here's a peek into the kitchen. My mom is doing an admirable job ignoring the huge mess everywhere!
Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about you construction geeks out there. Here's the hot water heater (hooked up to a solar collector), in the utility room near the back door:
And behold the mighty HRV ductopus in the utility loft upstairs:
Finally, a photo of the elusive Andrea (me!) in front of my treasured 1938 Deagan Imperial marimba, out of storage at last:
Andrea and I started sleeping in the house two nights ago, so some things that I've been noticing about the heating profile of the house are starting to become clear.
When we finally got the HRV running a few weeks ago, I was disappointed to notice that we don't have the kind of evenness of temperature between the upper and lower stories of the house that we were hoping for. My first panicked theory about this was that the HRV wasn't working. Panicked, because the tubes are all nice and snug behind walls now, so if we got it wrong, it's going to be a real pain to fix. The good news is that I don't think the problem is the HRV, although I'm contemplating one tweak to the vent layout which we could do without any wall surgery.
When we talked with Peter Schneider about overheating, he reported his experience with some of the houses that Efficiency Vermont has designed up in Charlotte, Vermont. These all have lots of south-facing windows, and Peter hasn't seen problems with overheating in the summer. Based on Peter's reports, we were kind of hoping to get away without doing one of the features we've got on the plan: active shading on the south-facing windows.
If you look at the drawing of the house at the top of the blog page, which is a view of the south face, you'll see that the lower windows have what looks like louvers on them. These are part of the solar shading plan—the idea is to install them in spring and keep them around until fall, and then take them off and stash them for the winter. These louvers will prevent high-angle light from making it through the window in the summer and heating the interior space. By installing them on the outside, we minimize heat gain inside—hopefully most of the heat that is generated when sunlight is absorbed by these shades will re-radiate into the outside air, rather than heating the inside of the house.
Why is Peter seeing different results? I don't know, but I have a theory. I think the windows in the houses in Charlotte may not have the same solar heat gain coefficient as ours, and may reflect more high-incidence light, while letting low-incidence light in, so that they gain more heat in the winter than they do in the summer, even if the same amount of light is hitting them.
The way our house is set up, we have a heat pump indoor unit on the wall downstairs, right in the center of the house. We have nothing upstairs. So the reason I was worried that the HRV wasn't working is that one possible interpretation of the data is that we're cooling the house adequately, but the HRV isn't doing its job in redistributing the heat evenly throughout the house. If that's the case, it's kind of a big problem.
But having just spent the morning sitting down next to the windows with the heat pump off, I have a different theory. For most of the morning, it was nice and cool downstairs, but as more sun came in and the day went on, it started to get hot, just as it is upstairs in the afternoon. In other words, the heat coming in from the windows is heating the upstairs and downstairs evenly; the reason that it feels hotter upstairs is because the cooling effect of the heat pump completely counteracts the heating effect of the windows. I've confirmed this by turning the heat pump back on.
So this gives me some real confidence that when we get around to building and installing the louvers, we will stop experiencing overheating in the south part of the house. I'm still a little tempted to add one more supply vent on the south side of the house upstairs, but that's something I'm hoping to have a chance to debate with the guys at Zehnder. If it needs to be done, it's a really easy fix, because I can do it up in the utility loft, which doesn't have a finished floor.
Due to a last-minute change in roof pitch (my fault), we wound up with a structural beam at perfect head-bopping height at the top of our garage stairs. But today it was fixed!
Eric (6'-3") and Eli (5'-7") plan out the surgery:
Don't worry — we didn't carve out an LVL without checking first with a structural engineer. Eli consulted with engineer Ben onsite several months ago, shortly after the garage was built. Ben had a good laugh at our error and told Eli where he could safely cut.
"What's the problem here? This header height seems fine!"
(At 5'-6", I wouldn't have had a problem either. But I would not have enjoyed seeing Ted bump his head several times a day.)
When Ted and I started this endeavor in 2009, I didn't know the slightest thing about construction. I couldn't have told you how a stud wall is built, or even described with confidence what a 2x4 looks like.
My how things change! Just last night I dreamt I was quizzing a contractor about air barriers and external insulation, while harboring deep suspicions that he hadn't properly managed the vapor barrier on the 2x6 walls of the house he was rehabbing. I was gearing up to explain why polyisosyanurate was a better choice than extruded polystyrene (XPS) for above-grade rigid insulation, since the blowing agent used to produce XPS has a much higher GWP (global warming potential) than the one used for polyiso... but then I woke up.
I honestly never intended to jump into the deep end of residential construction theory! We simply wanted to build a comfortable and energy-efficient house, which led us to Passivhaus, which led us to our energy guru Marc Rosenbaum, who opened my eyes to the rough and tumble world of building science.
I have a problem with the Passivhaus people, because they are building ugly freaking boxes. The only way to get a building to last a long time is if the building is maintained, and people have to want to take care of it. People do not take care of ugly things.
Ouch! That one hurt a bit, probably because I sometimes worry that our house is an example. The exterior is nowhere near as bad as some passive houses I've seen pictures of, but it is not quite as handsome as I would have liked:
I should mention that this is the house's least flattering angle, and it looks particularly odd without the solar collector that will attach to those two white strips on the facade (probably making the house look even odder). I'll post more flattering and accurate photos below, but you can see that we have indeed built a big freaking box.
The house didn't start out like this. We got invaluable advice from our friend Camilo, an architect in New York, and he designed something a lot more stylish:
But reality intervened, and we had to stray far from his plan. Our building site is both sloped and ledgy (i.e. lined with bedrock), so a stem-wall foundation was impractical, and we needed to shorten the house from 58' to 46' to keep the lower piers from rising ludicrously high. This meant lopping off some space (which we probably won't miss at all), and it made it easier for us to reach Passivhaus numbers, but it also made the house more boxy and less "architectural."
We were very sad to have to reverse the roofline, since it drastically reduced the amount of space for solar electric panels. We therefore added the overhang to the top of the south wall, which turned Camilo's dramatic design into a stark-looking quasi-saltbox.
That said, I don't think our house is ugly enough to invite future neglect. In real life, it looks a good deal better than that first photo would suggest. You can't really see the garage in that photo, and the garage's south-facing roofline complements the house nicely:
It looks even better from the road (which of course is how most people will see it):
And the best part, frankly, is the interior. While we mercilessly chucked most of Camilo's exterior design, we consulted him regularly about the floor plan and followed his advice even when it would have been cheaper or easier to ignore it. We refused to replace his vaulted ceiling with a standard attic, which meant we had to find joists that were deep enough for Passivhaus insulation and also strong enough to bridge a 26' clear span. We also sacrificed upstairs floor space to preserve an atrium-like expanse above the dining area. I spent countless hours in SketchUp tweaking and tuning the interior, and now that the house is drywalled I can see that my time was not entirely wasted. It really is a cool space, and it doesn't feel generic or boxlike at all.
We all knew this time would come. I've shared way too many details of our construction process, so it can't come as a surprise that I'm going to tell you this one as well. So sit down, relax, and read all about how we chose a toilet.
First some background: Ted grew up about 15 miles from Brattleboro and I'm from the Chicago suburbs, so we both consider northern climates the norm. But we spent much of the last decade in Arizona, which radically skewed our definition of normal. In Arizona it can go months without raining—the so-called rivers are just sandy washes that occasionally flow with water after a heavy storm. Summer enters full swing by the end of April (daily high temps in the 90s, surpassing 100° in May), and it doesn't really cool off until mid-October (highs in the 80s). The hardest part for me was the lack of shade, since desert trees have very tiny leaves and don't grow especially tall.
This developer clearly had a sense of irony
But in 2010 we moved to Vermont, and after six years in Tucson (plus a year and a half in rural Cochise County) we felt as if we'd returned to Earth after living on a poorly-terraformed planet. Seasons! Tall shady trees! Plants that don't puncture you! Rivers with actual water!
It therefore seemed unnecessary to keep worrying about water conservation. Indeed, we had a dramatic excess of water last summer, and installing low-flow toilets seemed like a low priority. But my friend's recent blog post about toilets made me realize I wasn't actually off the hook, so I turned once again to the folks at BuildingGreen for some advice.
They told me that water conservation is, in fact, quite important hereabouts. Wet regions like New England are uniquely vulnerable to drought simply because we have so much to lose. Reduced rainfall could seriously change the ecosystem here, harming numerous existing plant and animal species. After a dry month or two, spring-fed wells can dry up, sometimes forcing homeowners to drill deeper at great expense. So we mustn't get complacent about water use, even though it's rained nearly every day for the last few weeks (not that I am bitter).
Ted and I therefore reevaluated which toilet to install in the house. Last fall we had followed our plumber's advice and selected the American Standard Cadet 3, which uses either 1.6 or 1.28 gallons per flush (I honestly can't remember which version I chose). But I hate the idea of flushing away 1.6 gallons of pristine water every time we urinate, and Ted's sense of smell prevents us from being an "If it's yellow let it mellow" household.
I thought our best alternative would be a dual-flush toilet, but Peter Yost recommended the Niagara Stealth, which he installed in his house more than a year ago. The Stealth ($300) is a single-flush, vacuum-assisted toilet that uses a mere 0.8 gallons per flush (most dual-flush toilets use that amount for only the small flush, and more for the big flush). It's very quiet (Peter let us test his) and by all accounts works great. We even asked a disinterested plumbing supply rep about it, and he told us that a customer with multiple rental properties is gradually buying them for all his units because it's saving him so much on water, and the tenants haven't had any complaints.
I obviously won't be able to fully endorse the toilet until we've been using it for a while, so if you're interested please remind me to post an update next year. And let us all hope that my tendency to overshare does not make you wish you'd never asked.
Ted and I were all set to install LED strip lights, as described in my recent post about choosing LED lights. But then we spoke with my father's friend John—a major techie at a major technical manufacturing company—and he suggested we wait a bit longer.
He said that for the next two years or so, the best LED products will be Edison-style replacement bulbs that use remote-phosphor technology. LEDs do not produce a wide spectrum of light on their own, but when LED light strikes a phosphor, the phosphor emits a wider range of colors. You can see this in the Philips LED replacement lamps: the unlit bulbs look yellow, but the light that comes off them is a nice warm white.
Those kind of replacement lamps are the best short-term approach, but the longer-term approach will be multi-string ("but not RGB"). He said, "They will be phosphor-shifted blue LEDs picking up green-yellow (called BSY), with some combination of red/orange/amber LEDs at the longer wavelengths."
He added, "CRI is only a start at analyzing the problem. It's very outmoded, made a lot more sense in 1950 than today. Doesn't measure reds well (which are very important to human perception), and the spectral absorption are too broad-band." This confirmed our experience of CRI — the lights we were going to buy had a good CRI (85) but was noticeably weak in the red part of the spectrum. Ted looked OK under our test lights, since he has fairly rosy cheeks to begin with, but they made me look a bit more wan than usual.
Our informant likes two lighting models right now:
CREE LR6 (BSY/orange two string) — "This dims well, but the color changes a lot"
One thing he likes about these models is that neither has 120Hz ripple, admitting that not everyone is sensitive to this, but that it drives him nuts. He also notes that efficacy is approaching 100 lumens per watt, "which is a good benchmark for a warm white bulb."
He suggested we wait at least a year before installing LED strip lights for the following reasons (direct quotes):
The models that you're looking at don't actually use DC, but rectified high frequency AC that tracks the input line (120Hz modulated 25kHz). This means a lot of flicker.
They are also are "local phosphor single string", which means bad color.
The efficacy with transformer is probably about 50 lumens/W, not awful, but not good either.
Our new plan is therefore to postpone installing the strip lighting, but to leave all the rough wiring in place. We'll make do with floor and table lamps for a year or so and then install strip lights once they've improved the color rendering and efficacy.
I told him that most of the light fixtures we're buying take regular A19 lamps (Edison standard), but a few will take B10 lamps (Edison candelabra bulbs). He warned that it's harder to make good replacement lamps for smaller bulbs because there's not enough mechanical volume to make a good LED ballast. I asked whether CFLs at that size are any good, and he said, "Most of the fluorescent at that size are CCFLs, which have good life, but won't dim well, and have lower efficacy than larger CFLs. There's a effect called cathode drop which fundamentally decreases the efficacy of these small lamps."
He concluded, "Maybe this gives you something to think about. A lot is going to change in the next few years."
Occupant behavior can make the difference between an efficient house and a wasteful one. Notorious energy hogs include plasma TVs, old refrigerators or freezers, ice-makers, and dehumidifiers. And don't overlook sneaky items like DVRs, always-on computer and entertainment equipment, etc.