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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 1/9/2011

Well... I went through a divorce last year, and had to put the land we bought up for sale as part of the division-of-property process. Considering the high rate of divorce during building, I guess I am lucky that it fell apart BEFORE we started.

I still dream of owner-building some day in the future. May take me a couple of years more to financially recover from the divorce, but I still have my dreams. But I will probably completely start over planning, because there are just too many ghosts in that as yet un-built house we spent so much time planning together. And, besides, a house should be designed to fit the lot that it is going to be built on. Regardless, planning was half the fun!

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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/4/2009

I haven't posted in a while because my project has been largely put on hold. Much of my planned equity is liquid, tied up in properties that I cannot sell. We have a family property LLC that I may choose to roll the rental properties into, to at least get the mortgage payments off of my personal credit report. If I can refinance the properties in conjunction with such a transfer, I'll try to pull out at least part of my equity in the process. But as "investment" properties, I'll be required to leave a substantial amount of equity in them as collateral for the loans. Any way I look at it, I no longer have as much available cash equity to put into my new house as I had planned. Properties just aren't selling, and I don't see my properties as any exception to that rule.

The land is paid for. As I have previously posted, I "stole" it for $45,000, whereas the property tax appraisal on the land is over $85,000 and the original planned selling price was around $100,000. Land around here has not suffered much depreciation, because we never had a "bubble." Unfortunately, whereas the final appraisal of the finished house will reflect the true value of the land, the banks only want to give credit for the O-B construction loan based on actual cash out of pocket (i.e. $45,000). And with the banks wanting 30% of the construction cost in down payment, and I'm looking at financing over $400,000, that means they will want cash or equity as previously paid in cash of $120,000 to approve the construction loan. With all my other real-estate equity illiquid at the moment, that will now be difficult to achieve, even with the $40,000 my father plans to pay me back.

Once my father pays me the money he owes me, I'm going to start seriously looking at my options. One option I have begun to consider is to have our company, which has an Alabama's contractor license, actually build the house for me as the general contractor. My company won't charge me a GC fee. With our bonding capacity, insurance, etc., the banks will treat us like any other homebuilder, even though I will still be managing the home construction myself and hiring in subs to do most of the work. Then I can potentially look at 10% equity down for the construction loan, and that would mean the land will more than qualify for the required equity. My $40,000 cash from my father can be cash flow beyond the construction loan for managing the project, and a home equity line of credit on my existing home can be tapped for at least another $40,000 as needed, in addition to charge accounts with Lowe's and Home Depot as needed. In other words, I should be able to cash flow at least $100,000 "as needed" above and beyond the construction loan bank draws. 

Once the home is complete and I purchase it with a bank loan, it should appraise for significantly more than the maximum $417,000 loan I will request (to stay within the Fannie/Freddie limit). With the land value of at least $85,000, $40,000 worth of cash equity, and hopefully at least another $30,000 squeezed out of my other real estate holdings, that effectively gives me $577,000 cash value. Assuming I "conservatively" earn 20% sweat equity for being an O-B not paying a GC, then I should be able to build a house that will appraise for almost $700,000. If that happens, then I will be sitting on almost $283,000 equity after having invested $115,000 cash. With around 40% equity, the interest rate will be excellent. That will also result in a $168,000 net worth gain for my O-B efforts.

Right now, I'm waiting on the $40,000 from my father, and then I need to access about another $30,000 cash. If I can't get the other $30,000, then I'm going to have to scale back my plans and delay finishing parts of the house plan until I can sell some investment properties in the future. With a $547,000 cash value, I can build about a $656,000 appraisal home. If that happens, I will be sitting on around $239,000 equity after having invested $85,000 cash. That will give me around 35% equity which should still get me a decent interest rate.

Last week, my father says he's looking into ways to pay me what he owes me, so I find myself back here on the website again thinking and planning. <grin>


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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 3/14/2009

Well, my wife and I talked for several hours today about our house-building plans. With the economic collapse and the freezing up of real estate markets, a lot of our equity that we planned to use is currently "untouchable." Houses aren't selling at the moment around here. So we aren't likely to be able to access the $40K or so of (legitimate) equity in our current home. We also can't access $20K or so of (also legitimate) equity we had hoped to get out of some of our investment real estate, and my father was planning on paying me back the $40K or so he still owes me by selling one of his commercial properties, and that is "iffy" in today's market as well. So we are less $100K of equity we had planned on using and that means we can't build our SouthernEcoHouse "dream house" (I think I want to rename it the "Passive Plantation House") without getting above the Freddie/Fannie mortgage limit and paying over 7% interest instead of 5% or less. It really changes the numbers on us...

As a result, we are thinking about forcing ourselves to be patient and follow Mark's OBB step-up program instead. We have two adjacent lots for a total of three acres. We had planned on enjoying the extra space with a large one-acre Japanese garden. I hate to give up that part of the dream, and I hate to lose part of our "privacy buffer" but... we have just about decided to build a smaller-scale "step-up house" (3,500 sq. ft.) on the lesser of the two lots (where my Japanese garden was going to go), and then sell it after we have lived in it for at least (and hopefully only) two years. 

The neighborhood minimum is 2,500 sq. ft.  We'd build it one-story with a daylit basement to prevent obstructing views from our other lot (and also to prevent views from the step-up house into the backyard of the other lot) where the Passive Plantation House will eventually go.  We will have a walk-out basement in this first house as well that will be capable of being inexpensively finished for additional space before selling the property. This is the houseplan we are considering...

We would lengthen the garage to a three-car garage and finish the subsequently-larger bonus space (and include a bathroom up there) along with a couple of other changes which will take us over the 2,500 sq. ft. neighborhood minimum. After we move in, we will earn more sweat equity finishing out a two-bedroom guest apartment with kitchenette/den/two BRs etc. in the daylit basement. With a total finshed space of over 3,500 sq. ft. and 6BR/6-bath by the time we sell it, and a lot and landscaping easily worth $50,000, we think the house would then easily sell for around $350K, and likely more. That's getting a little expensive for a truly easy sell in these parts, but still viable to sell (we don't expect to ever be able to sell the 'Passive Plantation House' once it is built; there just aren't many salaries in this area capable of such a purchase). With two years of "proven" energy-efficiency by the time we sell it, the step-up house should be one of the "best" houses in its price range when it does go to market. Besides, when we sell it, it will be next door to our new house that will be worth over $600K and other houses down the street worth nearly $1 million. This "step-up house" will be one of the lower-end houses for its neighborhood.

We are quite certain we can "high-end" GREEN and energy-efficiently finish out the 2,500 sq. ft. step-up house for under $100/sq. ft. (current GC "high-end" homes around here are being built for about $70 to $75/sq. ft. and I'm actually only expecting a 10% to 20% premium for my desired "upgrades" and I hopefully will actually recoup some of that as an O-B), for a maximum mortgage of $250K. We can then spend two years finishing out the additional 1,000 sq. ft. in the basement for probably no more than another $20K from cash flow (with the space pre-wired, pre-plumbed, and framed, as part of the original mortgage costs). That could easily give us $80K of additional equity, but we need to subtract the lot's current extra equity value of ~$30K as part of the other lot... so after about three years, we'd have at least $50K more equity contributed by the step-up house than currently available, and hopefully have found a way to cash out some of our other property's equity in the interim, as well.

If the economy gets worse and our future dream "Passive Plantation House" has to be put on hold longer, at least we will have a comfortable and energy-efficient home to live in in the interim. The step-up house likely won't come close to being a passive, near net-zero energy home like the plantation house was intended to be, but the utility expenses will likely be lower than any other comparably-sized house currently in our town. The roof structure will have limited space for good solar hot water panel exposure, but PV on the roof probably won't ever be "ideal" on the step-up house. I guess the other good thing is there will eventually be two side-by-side houses that can be opened as part of the annual ASES Solar Home's tour.

With 6 bedrooms and 6 baths (once the basement is finished), the step-up house will still be "sufficiently" big for our family for the holidays. The floorplan also seems to have good "flow" for large gatherings. 

Another bonus is that I'll also get to begin my landscape plan on the adjacent lot, and parts of the landscape will have some time to mature before we even build our "Passive Plantation House". We think building the step-up house on the adjacent lot is probably the smartest route for us to go. I'd love to get pros and cons feedback from others. The future of the economy is difficult to read. I am a little concerned that if we don't build the plantation house now, that it may never get built. I'd sure miss the planned solar sauna! The step-up house just isn't oriented well enough to make a solar sauna feasible with this floorplan.



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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 10/17/2008

The front of the house will face north. I intend to have window wells in the north basement wall heavily shaded by landscape plants.

The belvedere should act like a solar chimney, and cause hot air to rise and exit the open cupola. I will mount a weather vane on top of the cupola to identify prevailing-wind directions. This way I can only open the windows that will encourage air flow out of the house. With all other windows and doors in the house closed, the replacement air should be pulled into the basement through the much cooler north-side window wells. The air entering these windows will go through a HEPA filter before entering living space. The basement room this air enters will likely be equipped with an energy-efficient dehumidifier. (I hope they will someday commercialize the solar-recharged-dessicant-dehumidifying waterfall used in the University of Maryland's Solar Home. Such a dessicant waterfall would be ideal for this room.)

I am hoping that with cool air entering the basement, and hot air rising, that it will not only passively cool my house. but also help passively dehumidify my house as well. Antebellum architects relied on this solar-chimney effect to passively cool and dry southern homes. The rising and exiting hot air holds more moisture than the entering cooler air. The net effect was supposed to be a reduction in indoor humidity as compared to outside.

The house has an open air-flow path along the center of the house from the north main stairwell through to the south and all the way up to the cupola.

During the winter, I can close off the doors separating the north part of the house from the south part of the house on the first and second floors, and allow the solar-heated south-side air to rise to the attic and the north-side cooler air to fall down to the basement, creating a natural-convective air flow through the house to more evenly "passively" distribute the passive solar heat gathered in the solarium.

The primary daytime living spaces are in the well-daylit and passively-winter-heated south side of the house. The northern rooms are rarely used special guest rooms (dining room, parlor, and foyer, and the sleeping areas of bedrooms. The west wall of the house is buffered with a garage, laundry, mud room, pantry, and with one of the master closets. The north and east walls of the house are buffered with wraparound porches. And the south wall is buffered with a screened-in porch in the summer, which becomes a glassed-in solarium in the winter.  The second-floor screened porch should make a very comfortable, "traditional southern" summer-sleeping porch as well.

I want an extremely tight and energy-efficient envelope with an ERV system with humidity controls. If the energy calcs show I need supplemental "active conditioning," I will be very careful not to oversize my HVAC unit(s). Ideally, the house will behave like a large scale Passivhaus and the ERV system can have supplemental heating and cooling built into it, with no additional need for a full-scale HVAC, but maybe I'm dreaming...

I don't plan on cooling the basement, but merely dehumidifying the air. The north wall of the basement where the window wells will draw in air for the solar chimney (when the cupola is open), will be an empty basement-storage room, where I hope to add the dehumidifier and any required HVAC equipment. When all the windows are closed, doors can be strategically closed and opened to cause the cool north-side air to drop into this "conditioning chamber" for dehumidification prior to recirculating across to the south side of the basement, and then rising back through the house in the planned, natural convective air flow. 

If I have to have an active HVAC system with forced air that is separate from the ERV, then I am considering having the cold air returns dump into this basement conditioning and utility room for dehumidification prior to entering the HVAC for cooling and forced-air recirculation through the house. 50% of the energy cost of cooling a home in Alabama is dehumidifying the air. There are cheaper ways to dehumidify air than using an HVAC compressor to do it! Additionally, if the humidity is controlled separately, the frequency of HVAC cooling becomes less critical to the health of the home.

I am considering putting radiant PEX flooring in the south end of the basement slab, and out in the pool-patio slab as well (eventually I will add a retractable pool enclosure which will increase my winter solarium effect). I will pre-plumb the pipes and possibly add the manifolds and SHW heaters for the radiant-floor system later. This radiant-floor heat in the basement can help further drive the convection cycle of hot air through the home when the house is closed tightly. 

Note: I will have to carefully ensure the comfort of the theater room without overheating the air and thereby disrupting the natural convective flow. The theater room's radiant floor definitely needs to be zoned, so that I can carefully control the temperature of this room to prevent the convection cycle from stagnating or reversing back up into the foyer. When the basement north window wells are opened as replacement air for the "solar chimney," the theater room will also be the first room to circulate exterior air brought in to passively cool the house. Will the theater get too cold in moderate weather months, when the cool air is being pulled in by the solar chimney in order to flush heat from other parts of the house??? 

Thinking about this, the basement theater room will likely be the hardest to keep passively comfortable. The south-side attic bedrooms may also have a tendency to passively overheat. I think I can keep most of the rest of the house passively comfortable.

The ERV's will suck air from the bathrooms, precondition the replacement air with the energy from the exiting air, and blow that air into the nearby bedroom closets to then circulate into the bedrooms and out to the center hall of the house. The replacement air for the bathrooms will be sucked from the center hall of the house. With a bathroom adjacent to every "closed" room in the house, and jumper ducts from each "closed" room to the center halls, there will be no room in the envelope of the house subject to stagnant air, nor any unconditioned space.

I am considering installing a direct fresh-air-replacement supply line (with its own HEPA filter) positioned next to the powerful kitchen downdraft fan mounted in the island in order to prevent it from causing negative pressure on the nearby fireplace. With the downdraft fan pulling high volumes of air out of the kitchen, this outdoor "fresh", but unconditioned air, should mostly be sucked back out of the house to limit energy losses. To limit the use of the powerful downdraft fan just to usage while cooking, I am also considering installing a separate lower-volume ceiling-vent fan to purge remaining IAQ issues from the kitchen after the cooking is over and additional humidity is not being actively added to the room. This secondary ceiling vent would be operated with a timer, so as to limit "wasting" conditioned air.

Likewise, I want a humidistat-controlled ventilation fan that is separate from the ERV in the most commonly-used shower enclosures to limit the amount of humidity that is released into the envelope of my home.

The other principle source of IAQ problems is the laundry room. Ideally, the laundry room should be in the garage outside of the conditioned envelope. However, my wife and most other comfort-obsessed homeowners prefer doing their laundry from a laundry room conveniently within the conditioned envelope. So, I've designed a compromise. I'm building a tightly-sealed laundry closet inside my laundry room, with an air intake from outside to provide make-up air for the dryer exhaust, so that I won't be wasting conditioned air. We have Energy Star, very-efficient front-loading washer and dryers. 

But I'm also considering the possibility of building a "drying closet" (at least once solar-recharged dessicant systems get commercially available and affordable). As dry as an efficient front loading washer gets clothes, they can be hung afterward on a clothesline, and they actually dry quite quickly... but no one wants to go outside to hang a clothesline, and quite frankly my neighborhood restrictions "ban" clotheslines. But what if the clothes are hung up damp inside a drying closet with a dessicant dehumidifier and a basic fan to circulate air? Presumably, within a few hours the hung clothes would be dry and ready to take to the bedroom closet without the higher energy expense of a dryer. (I'm thinking ahead to when I convert my house to a grid-tied but net Zero-Energy Home [ZEH].)

I also hope to design a fresh-air intake into the basement conditioning room to replenish the lost air from showers, the kitchen, and possibly losses from the laundry room; this intake will be designed to always maintain positive pressure in the home. I'm thinking that a pressure monitor could be the "switch" to turn the fan on... pressure tends to stratify in a closed house with the highest pressure in the attic, and the lowest pressure in the basement. If sustained negative pressure were to occur, it would generally be measured in the basement. I want the fresh air intake into the basement conditioning room to kick on automatically when the measured pressure drops below a pre-set... this would keep the house always under positive pressure and would also actively assist the desired air flow when the solar chimney is in use...    

One last thing about interior air flow... I also intend to install a whole-house attic fan in the cupola, to help actively flush the house with cool evening air (when the solar chimney effect doesn't work as well)... I want a hygrometer measuring the outdoor and indoor humidity levels, mounted next to the attic fan switch so that it isn't turned on in unfavorable conditions. [Note: flushing with cool evening air is only a good idea if it is also not high-humidity air! Otherwise, the energy consumed to dehumidify the air back to desired levels may be greater than the energy that would have been consumed to merely cool the house.]

The whole-house envelope (walls, slab, roof, doors, and windows) will be carefully engineered and selected as investments in energy efficiency. 

For energy efficiency and as preparation for becoming a ZEH (or at least near ZEH) home, I want to use all Energy Star appliances and the most energy-efficient ones I can afford. A conduction electric cooktop will be used to limit unnecessary heat from escaping into the home during cooking. Likewise, the microwave will be sized as a primary cooking oven, because it releases less heat than a wall oven. I will still have a full-sized oven for occasional use, but will get the rapid-cooking version.

I will have solar water heaters for domestic-hot-water use, as well as for radiant slab heating in the basement. If I end up with an active HVAC system, it will likely only be for a short period of supplemental cooling use each year. I will strongly consider a geothermal heat pump (but with our other energy efficiency investments, the opportunity for a payback on a geothermal heat pump becomes significantly lower...), if I can make the numbers work. With the reduced loading requirements from the tight envelope and from a properly designed ERV with humidity controls (hopefully resulting in Passivhaus performance levels), the smaller-sized HVAC requirements (if any are actually needed) may still make the heat-pump cost affordable. We shall see... if I have a geothermal heat pump, I will also consider a heat recovery unit tied into the hot-water system.

Eventually, I will add PV panels which will make sense as panel costs go down with volume and with technology advancements, and as utility rates increase with rising energy demand. The day will come, and probably not to far down the road, that PV will be a financial no-brainer, even in Alabama. In preparation, I am pre-wiring for PV, and I intend to install a 16" standing-seam metal roof at an 8:12 slope for quick and easy addition of PV panels in the future. I can either go with roll-and-stick PV sheets in the troughs, or I can simply clamp higher-capacity panels directly to the standing seams. I will design the roof to handle PV panel loads and SHW loads as potentially needed.

Depending upon budget constraints, I am considering adding earth tubes from the basement conditioning room to the heavily-shaded ravine or creek areas. With the long distance from my house to the ravine, the air should further cool and somewhat dehumidify before entering the house. Additionally, with the steep slope, the moisture should naturally condensate, drain, and keep the tubes clean and healthy. They could be easily flushed and disinfected regularly when in use. If budget doesn't permit at the time of construction, this is something I can add later with minimal disruption and relatively-minimal additional costs using trenchless pipe-installation methods. With the earth tubes further enhancing the passive cooling and passive dehumidification, PERHAPS an active system beyond the ERV and dehumidification won't be needed. At any rate, on the few "unbearably hot" weeks a year, if the thermal mass and ERV system can't keep the house sufficiently comfortable, the basement would still be comfortable with only dehumidification.

The upshot is, this house will be capable of "passive survivability" with relative comfort, regardless of public utility failures. 

I've got lots more thoughts on this, but I'm out of time for now.

I'd love to hear some constructive criticism regarding my theories and how to improve my plans to achieve my goals.


The inspiration and concept...

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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 10/10/2008

One of my good friends from our high-school days is an architect. I've watched his career progress and I like his work. He lives on the other side of the country now, but he was in town for his 20-year high-school reunion this weekend and we met for breakfast.

I showed him my house-design plans and I will be emailing them to him. We walked my three acres and discussed my landscaping and design ideas. He had some great suggestions on how to accomplish my goals, and our friendship translated well into an architect/client relationship.

His parents still live here, so working on my project will give him a "business reason" to visit home a little more often (it already gave him a "business reason" to come to his high-school reunion). Also, I told him that if he helps me get this house built affordably, we will have plenty of space to host he and his wife and 8 kids, when he wants to visit his family here in Alabama <grin>. 

As I won't break ground for about 18 months anyway, I suggested he only needs to work on my project when he doesn't have other billable projects taking priority... he can fill in his otherwise-unfilled billable hours with my project as gaps develop. Needless to say, with all of the advantages the project provides to him, and our longtime friendship, I'll be getting a good rate. It won't cost me much more than hiring a draftsman and I will be getting an exceptional architect and get to work with a friend. 

Additionally, there is a retired general contractor in my area who works as a draftsman and as a consultant to owner-builders in finding good subs. My architect friend and I plan on striking a relationship with him to draft the plans at a lower rate than my friend's firm can charge, and we will utilize the local draftsman's contacts to help me O-B. 

During the ASES Alabama Solar Home Tour, I met up with a solar consultant with very reasonable rates and extensive local experience, who we also intend to have assist with the solar-hot-water-system layout and the pre-planning for the future PV system.

In other words, I've just found my architect, and as soon as the proposal is official, he'll be hired.



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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 9/25/2008

Alabama is currently recovering from a 100-year-record drought. My property is up on a ridge and apparently the lowered water table has distressed many of my trees. A Sourwood (comparatively shallow tap root) at the highest elevation on my property died early into the worst of the drought. I knew what was coming, but didn't know how bad it could get. Trees will continue to die for three years or so after a drought. Another Sourwood slightly down the hill from the first to die, almost died this year. All of the tops are dead, but the trunk is vigorously sprouting new branches and I am going to try to save it. Another 50-plus-year-old Oak across the yard from the Sourwoods has also died, along with quite a few scraggly Red Oaks of 40 to 50 years old that I didn't really mind losing.

Somewhat surprisingly down in the dale by the creek, I am also losing trees. My historic Indian Marker tree died during the last month. It's companion next to it, a 100-year-old or so White Oak my granddaughter calls "the potty tree" (it used to have a twin trunk that died decades ago and has left a hollow toilet-bowl-shaped stump attached to the tree) is also dying and will be removed at the same time. Another 100-plus-year-old Oak in the general area has also died...

Whether drought or construction trauma to roots, you never really know which trees are going to die for about three years afterward...



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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 9/24/2008

With the current thread about the kitchen design in the Planning Forum, I thought I'd update my floor plan here in my Journal.

Most of the changes have occurred in the attic and basement areas. I'm still trying to determine the best floor plans for the various bathrooms. I want to reduce plumbing costs by lining up the bathroom plumbing, but it ain't easy!

Among the updates, we've eliminated the dormers on the sides of the house. At the request of my wife, I have added an attic level loft above her master closet with a ladder for access.

I am toying with widening the center dormer, but can't decide if it unbalances the house and looks bad, or not... it would allow a pass-through to a balcony play area in the dormer essentially three stories straight down to the foyer below! The older grandkids will love it!


Attic [To be finished post-CO] [Note: I intend to put a "green roof" over the garage structure. The vine-covered trellises will help add backyard privacy from the tall house to the west.
Basement [To be finished post-CO]
First Floor [Garage may be added post-CO if budget requires]
Second Floor [guest house above garage to be finished post-CO]

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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 9/6/2008

Are Zero Energy Homes Possible? Practical? And do they provide a payback?

A LinkedIn Discussion group [Energy Priorities "Thought Leaders"] posted the above question and I thought I would share my answer here, particularly since I referenced this website.


ZEH is possible. The biggest key is actually not the on-site energy production part of the equation, but energy conservation. However, even with the highest energy efficiency possible, ZEH does not have a direct monetary payback in most parts of the country. Distributed energy costs are still lower than on-site production.

It does pay to build a home capable of becoming a ZEH home, however. The energy savings of a high efficiency, "near ZEH" will have a monthly payback, as well as being a naturally more comfortable place to live. Additionally, the majority of the cost of living will be "fixed" into the mortgage payment allowing the homeowner to secure their standard of living into retirement, without having to fear future changes in the cost of energy. Such a "near ZEH" can be built today with a lower monthly cost (mortgage, insurance, taxes, and utilities) than for a less comfortable traditional home.

I am designing a high-efficiency "near ZEH" with a tight envelope and high solar mass. I am incorporating solar tubes for daylighting. I will be using CFL fixtures and the MOST efficient "energy star" appliances. I will be installing solar water heaters (a solar technology that provides payback today). I will be using a "home run" PEX manifold system to further conserve hot water (despite the essentially "free" solar hot water) and water, in general. I hope to also install a grey water system and a cistern for irrigation water. I also intend to rely heavily upon xeriscaping principles to control life-cycle costs of the landscaping. Additionally, I am considering using pervious paving to reduce the stormwater impact of impervious surfaces.

I am going back to antebellum architectural principles with a wrap-around porch and a belvedere and cupola. Antebellum architects here in the south knew how to make a house as comfortable as possible with minimal energy consumption. Combined with modern advances in tight construction and humidity control, antebellum design can lead to exceptionally energy-efficient homes today.

The belvedere (above the living areas) will have windows on all four sides to intentionally heat the air and cause it to rise out of the cupola. With all other windows in the house closed, this "solar chimney" will pull air in from the cooler north basement wall windows and circulate the air throughout the house for passive cooling. I will also install an attic fan at the base of the cupola to actively flush heat from the house during cool summer evenings. (One word of caution about such passive cooling and ventilation with exterior air... air quality concerns can frequently override the reduced cooling load benefits. Exterior humidity levels and allergen concentrations must be considered prior to "open" ventilating with exterior air.) Such passive-cooling measures will significantly reduce the total number of active-cooling days for my climate.

The south side porch of the home will shade the interior during the summer as a screened porch (windows opened), and will be closed in the winter to function as a solarium (passive-solar thermal collector). I've designed the air flow of the house to permit natural convective air circulation when all of the windows are closed. This will cause cool air to be pulled from the basement as the solarium heats air on the south side causing it to rise. Replacement air will be pulled back into the basement from the relatively cooler air falling on the north side of the home. In this manner the thermal energy collected on the south side will be able to naturally, convectively circulate to the whole house. The solar mass in the home will help moderate the temperature (prevent uncomfortable temperature swings) and reduce maximum required cooling and heating loads when active conditioning systems need to be used.

While I am incorporating passive heating and cooling design, here in the southeast, humidity control will be my biggest energy consumption obstacle. 50% of the cooling loads of a home in the southeast can be attributed to dehumidification of the air. To avoid mold and mildew issues from high interior humidity, systems must be sized to run long enough to control humidity. Also, once air is dehumidifed, you don't want to let in high humidity air. Even if the evening is cool, it may actually cost more conditioning dollars to open the windows to let in cool night air, that also happens to be high in humidity. You really have to put some thought into it before you use the whole house attic fan if you are trying to save money. Often, it is actually cheaper to leave the conditioning system running and keep all of the windows closed and the house sealed even if it is a "comfortable temperature" outside. Only when the conditions outside are favorable for extended periods (weeks or months) may it make sense (cents) to turn off the conditioning system and open up the house.

Unfortunately, even with efficient passive cooling design, humidity control (which is required for a healthy living environment) in the south still demands active energy-consuming cooling systems. This is our biggest obstacle to achieving a cost-effective ZEH in the southeast. Dry climates such as the southwest can have significantly lower costs for climate control, and can more readily take advantage of favorable ambient air temperatures which makes such climates more practical today for achieving a ZEH. Many areas of the southwest and the coastal regions also have abundant (and relatively cheap) wind energy and/or geothermal energy available. The southeast only has solar energy, and that requires careful siting; taking into consideration our obstructive rolling hills and forests.

With the rising hot air, which exits out of the cupola and which holds higher moisture content than the cooler entering basement air, I will receive some passive humidity control, particularly in the summers. (Antebellum homes were not airtight and many were designed to pull cool (lower humidity) air from the crawlspace which would warm up and exit out of the attic cupola taking additional humidity with it. The high air-infiltration and air-exchange rates of these older homes thereby helped to control humidity and provided healthier interior air. Many an antebellum home has been ruined by insulating and sealing it in the name of energy efficiency. Many "modernized" antebellum homes have had to contend with rot, mold, and mildew caused by resulting higher interior moisture content.)

I'm hoping the new solar thermal recharged-desiccant waterfall technology (University of Maryland research project) will advance sufficiently before I build to provide a commercial, near zero-energy solution to the humidity problems we face here in the southeast. With such a system, a ZEH would become almost as practical in the southeast as it can manage to be in the southwest. (Although we still don't have as many on-site energy production options as the southwest.)

I am considering pre-plumbing a PEX radiant heating system into my basement slab and into other floors as practical. Pouring a stamped concrete floor instead of using stone tiles may make the poured concrete flooring cost-beneficial to enable the radiant floor. My house design has plenty of south facing roof to enable solar thermal collectors to heat my radiant floor system. While heating loads aren't as critical as cooling loads in my climate, every bit of energy savings is a plus in a grid-tied home. Unfortunately, on-site energy production will still need to be sized for the controlling cooling loads in my climate, so additional heating-load savings won't reduce the expense of on-site energy production needs.

My house will be rear southern facing with an 8:12 roof slope (ideal for solar collectors in my region). I will install a metal SIP roofing system with a 16" standing seam metal roof. I will pre-wire for photovoltaic panels, even though I won't install them at the time I build. Power here in the southeast is still among the cheapest in the nation and the payback isn't there for installing PV today. (In locations where wind power is available, wind energy can be surprisingly competitive. Unfortunately, we don't have adequate wind resources here.) However, with the roof at the proper slope and the house properly oriented to an open southern exposure, I can adhere a sufficient number of PV sheets to the standing seam metal roof in the future to handle most of my on-site electricity generation needs to someday make this a zero energy home. While the standing seam metal roof will cost more initially, it will have a lower life-cycle cost than most other roofing systems, and the relatively inexpensive future mounting of PV sheets versus expensive racks with heavy PV panels, makes it a wise upfront investment in my opinion.

Because my home will be so energy efficient in its design, the payback for super-high efficiency systems such as a geothermal heat pump and an energy recovery ventilator will be even longer than for a normal home design. I have yet to decide if the cost/benefit will be there over the life of the home. If I intend to someday make it a ZEH, then the resulting smaller on-site energy production costs will more than pay for the higher costs of such energy saving features.

One thing I am discovering is that general contractors charge a premium for the "learning curve" for doing such non-traditional construction. Building such a home, being an Owner-Builder pays even bigger equity dividends than with typical construction. I am looking at using highly engineered, pre-manufactured systems that provide greater quality control and reduce on-site labor costs. I am considering Owner-Builder friendly technologies that simplify residential construction project management. So far, I like either TF Systems' vertical ICF or All Wall systems for my exterior walls. I like metal SIPs for the roof. These systems can be pre-assembled (and better quality controlled) in a warehouse and rapidly constructed on site.

In certain states with significant government incentives for investing in renewable energy the homeowner's return on investment for a ZEH can at least come close to happening today (but this is via a government subsidy and not reflective of "true cost," but then again the "true cost" of our distributed energy is also government subsidized!). Unfortunately, my state has no incentives beyond the national incentives that may be expiring soon.

I know of several owner-builders on the website who have already built near ZEHs that could easily be converted to ZEHs once the payback is there for investing in on-site energy production. The OBB website also has a handful of owner-builders who built ZEH homes in off-grid sites where the "payback" and "practicality" of ZEH wasn't the biggest consideration. In their case, gaining access to distributed energy would have cost more than investing in on-site energy production.

So to summarize a very long comment... Yes, ZEHs are possible today. They are currently only practical in a few select environments. But it is immediately practical to build a house so that it can be converted to ZEH when the payback begins to make sense as energy prices continue to rise. Energy efficiency has payback today and makes future conversion to ZEH practical. (For every dollar spent in improving energy efficiency you save multiple dollars in the cost of on-site energy production needs.) Besides, energy efficiency is already environmentally preferable and has additional immediate indirect benefits for all mankind. But building such a home takes a personal commitment and a somewhat impractical learning curve and significant owner-builder involvement and oversight, unless you can afford to reduce your payback by paying a premium to have an expert do all of that for you. Unfortunately, the average architect and general contractor are not prepared to design and build such a home. I've had to do most of the research and design work myself. I couldn't afford to pay someone else to do it. It is understandable that not everyone would have the time or commitment to invest in learning such things the way I have. It has become my most time-consuming hobby.

I hope to break ground within 18 months. I will be meeting with my architect in October. I will get a return on my initial investment immediately [a much higher appraisal than cost to build, a lower composite monthly expense (for mortgage, insurance, taxes, and utilities), a rising resale value as the energy efficiency is proved out with annual energy bills, and additionally the payback of an extremely healthy and comfortable home], and do not plan on adding PV to make it a ZEH until I am able to get a comparable return on that investment as well. So yes, I will see a return on investment from my house from the day I build it, and I expect my ROI to continue to grow into the future.

Society needs to understand that more can be done to conserve energy via energy efficiency in our homes and buildings, than by energy efficiency in our cars! Energy-efficient homes are a much smarter investment for consumers and for the environment than the much-hyped hybrid and alternative-fuel cars. Most greenhouse-gas concerns are driven by increasing coal consumption, which is largely for architectural energy use. The principle means available to solve the energy and climate crises is architectural energy efficiency. It's time we all stop building energy-gluttonous McMansions that will be unlivable within 50 years, and build for sustainability and energy efficiency.


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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 9/5/2008

An O-B, such as myself, who is financing a project through a construction loan should do everything possible to control labor costs. And even an O-B whose out-of-pocket finances is subject to lost-opportunity costs when they "waste" their own labor to save up-front material costs.

How much additional equity can you "create" with your own labor without having it eroded away by financed "time?" In contrast, how much equity can you "build" by managing the labor of others? There is a real reason why managers generally make higher salaries than laborers, and the reasons hold true for O-B'ing as well. If you can "build" a comparable house in 6 months with hired labor and then immediately leverage the equity you have created to generate more wealth, versus taking 18 months to construct as a DIY laborer, can you ever really regain the lost-opportunity cost of the extra 12 months?

Labor costs, hired or DIY, have embedded "time expenses" including additional financing costs (or lost-opportunity costs), project-management costs, mobilization/demobilization costs (including daily arrival and departure costs of construction workers). Labor costs also include an hourly percentage to cover payroll taxes, benefits, and insurance costs.

Furthermore, labor costs are also subject to the most uncontrolled "cost creep." Weather delays, supply/delivery delays, equipment breakdowns, difficulties controlling productivity, etc. can cause labor costs to escalate. Labor "just-in-time" availability is also difficult to project manage. There are frequently "down days" that cost financing time as a result of labor unavailability. And perhaps most importantly, the "hired labor" requires additional inspection for quality control (and depending upon the DIY'ers skill level, so does DIY'ing). 

I see value in "designing" my house to limit the influence of "labor" as much as I can.  Comparatively, material costs are relatively fixed and will actually go down if you find an unexpected bargain. Controlling quality with pre-manufactured materials rather than relying upon on-site construction, also enhances construction quality assurance.

Unless a labor-saving technology is outrageously expensive, the added material expense will generally pay significant dividends towards O-B equity. If the O-B is financing the project with a construction loan, then the added material costs will generally even be worth saving the DIY'er's time. Time really is money when a project is being financed. In many cases, DIY'ing can cost you more than hiring a pro who can get it done faster and thereby save you all of the "hidden" costs.

Where I am qualified to consider to DIY'ing the labor, I intend to balance saving direct material costs with saving the "hidden" time costs. Even if I am hiring laborers at a fixed project cost, it is frequently worth investing in materials that provide better quality control (particularly if it is a home you plan on keeping for many years, as is my case) and that reduce labor costs. A higher percentage of material costs will be reflected in the ultimate appraisal and homeowner equity, and higher-end materials and enhanced quality will only improve the appraisal. In contrast, the appraiser doesn't care if I paid less for labor or more for labor costs than someone else. They only care what "comparables" in the area cost to build.

Since a high percentage of labor costs are indirect expenses that don't directly improve the quality of the property (i.e. payroll taxes, insurance, mobilization/demobilization, daily travel, equipment depreciation, etc.), paying for labor doesn't get as high of an equity return as does paying for materials. Thus, when I have the option, in my opinion, quality materials are almost always a better investment than labor.

Whether it takes 6 months to build or 18 months to build, the time expenses are completely lost and do not reflect in the appraisal, but time expenses significantly erode homeowner equity. I want to "design" with materials that will allow me to build as fast as possible, get my COA, and rollover into a permanent loan.

Thus, I am considering the following:

A FASTFOOT foundation from Fab-Form goes in faster with less waste material and higher quality control. Relatively unskilled labor can properly prepare the fabric forms. For any structural columns, I would also consider using their fabric forms for columns.

Alternative-envelope construction technologies frequently improve quality and reduce labor costs. Where non-specialized labor can be used to construct these alternative envelopes, the labor savings frequently recoup the increased material costs. Where these alternative envelope technologies are more energy efficient, the monthly cost of ownership (mortgage, insurance, taxes, and utilities) of such a home is generally significantly lower than a traditional "stick-built" envelope. SIPs are definitely a viable technology. However, I am wanting to achieve the thermal mass effect in my wall system, therefore, I am considering All Wall, ICF, and Omnicrete. Some ICFs are more user friendly (require less skilled labor and less technical oversight) than others. As far as ICF's go, I like what I've seen with the BuildBlock method and the TF "vertical" ICF method.  The vertical ICFs provide standard vertical attachment beams to make other subsequent trade work more "standard." I believe this is likely a HUGE advantage in dealing with a smaller learning curve for subcontractors. 

I also think the All Wall system is well-engineered and should be very user-friendly. I like the more "accessible" thermal mass on the interior. I am a bit concerned regarding the difficulty of retrofitting All Wall in the future. ICF's can have conduits and wires embedded in the foam insulation at any time in the future. All Wall requires pre-installation inside the wall prior to pouring the concrete. This means investing in a comprehensive-wiring conduit system to enable easy future upgradeability of wiring. And heaven forbid everything wasn't right before the concrete is poured. With All Wall I'm afraid that fixing a mistake won't be easy after the pour! As a newbie O-B, I'm a bit too afraid of missing details and having to correct mistakes.

Premanufactured I-joists make sense to me, because they save considerable time and greatly enhance quality control. Look for I-joists with trimmable ends and which will be easy to put in mechanical, electrical, and plumbing.

Whereas I am likely to pour a concrete wall, pouring a concrete roof is exceptionally expensive. Instead, I am looking at metal SIPs for the roof. The metal SIPs are light-weight thereby reducing labor and equipment requirements (and injury risk) for hoisting them up to my very high roof. Additionally, the metal SIPs are sufficiently structural to form a cathedral ceiling making finishing my attic much easier. Although not a beautiful finish, the metal SIPs need no additional finish on the ceiling. This means the metal SIPs can provide a cathedral porch ceiling with no additional finishing expense required. Unless I want to add additional insulative value, I may not even sheetrock the ceilings in the attic, as these will not be primary living space (grandkids playroom and grandkid guest bedrooms), nor will the finish have as much impact on my appraisal value, since I won't be finishing the attic as part of my mortgage anyway. 

The biggest key is the metal SIP roof will go up fast allowing quick dry-in and significantly reducing on-site labor costs, weather delays, etc. The metal SIP roofs are also wind rated comparable to my walls. Research is currently underway to determine the most secure method of connecting a SIP roof to an ICF wall. By the time I'm ready to build, the academic consensus should be in. With the roof and the walls fire and storm rated, I will achieve additional savings on my homeowner's insurance. With the higher insulative value of the metal SIP cathedral roof, I will also achieve reduced energy bills.

I haven't done the cost/benefit analysis yet, but I am likewise intrigued with Speedfloors.  It seems like a very efficient way of pouring a suspended-concrete floor. I'd love to install a Speedfloor above my basement. I definitely want thermal-mass flooring in the southern half of the first floor and on the southern (rear) porch/solarium (I intend to use cork flooring in the kitchen and bamboo flooring in the dining room, foyer, and parlor.) Stained and stamped concrete might be a suitable alternative to a stone floor. Saving the cost of the installation of the stone floor and the flooring on the wraparound front porch may make the cost of the Speedfloor make sense. As an added bonus, I can pre-plumb the Speedfloor for a PEX radiant-floor heating system. Regardless, the significant thermal mass across the whole first floor will help stabilize temperatures in the home and reduce the maximum cooling and heating loads for the house.

Few O-B's can frame as fast, as efficient, and as plumb, square, and flush as a professional framing crew. This is one of those areas where it almost always seems to make sense to bring in a professional framing sub with a large and fast crew. I have a brother-in-law who used to supervise framing crews at a pre-manufactured home facility, but despite the expertise among friends and relatives, I will probably still hire a sub to mobilize more people and get this time-consuming job done faster. The framing sub can generally also hang and properly seal the windows and exterior doors. It is critical to ensure that the envelope is properly sealed. If you are not an expert in hanging windows and doors, this is not a DIY project. Too much risk to the house health and integrity if improperly installed and leaking. Pre-hung windows and doors provide manufacturer quality assurance and faster installation. IMO, this is worth the money! Provide extra special attention to the quality control of the framing. All subsequent finish work will be more time-consuming and expensive if the framing crew does a lousy job. Also, framing that is not flush can cause seam cracks in the surface finish over time causing a lifetime of maintenance hassles.

For those financing their build with a construction loan, getting to "dry-in" allows a significant "draw" to occur.  The roof, walls, windows, and doors are a HUGE percentage of the house value.  Quickly "drying in" reduces weather delays and the significant risks caused by moisture entrapment in the home. You want to get to "dry-in" as quickly as possible. 

For this reason, as well, I will hire professional crews to QUICKLY put on my roof, and to install my windows and doors. While a DIY O-B can stack ICF blocks themselves over a period of time, hiring laborers to get it done faster saves numerous hidden costs. One of the reasons I like the TF vertical ICFs and the All Walls is that I can use laborers to pre-fab the walls with the window and door cut-outs in a warehouse, if I so choose, and not be subject to weather delays or excessive moisture exposure prior to dry-in. Instead, I can efficiently pre-fab the panels at our equipment shop (without extra men standing around waiting to do their part), assemble quickly on-site, pour the walls, and then quickly put on the metal SIP roof and install the doors and windows. Dry-in is achieved quickly and the suppliers and subs are able to be paid quickly and kept happy. Furthermore, the time of the construction loan is significantly reduced, saving me equity eroding interest! 

So far, this plan sounds exceptionally logical to me. Maybe as I continue to research I find compelling reasons to do it differently...

I haven't done the cost/benefit analysis yet, but I am likewise intrigued with Speedfloors. It seems like a very efficient way of pouring a suspended-concrete floor. I'd love to install a Speedfloor above my basement. I want thermal-mass flooring in the southern half of the first floor and on the southern (rear) porch/solarium. Stained and stamped concrete might be a suitable alternative to a stone floor, if my wife agrees. Saving the cost of the installation of the stone floor and the flooring on the wraparound front porch (which also must serve as the roof for part of the basement) may make the Speedfloor cost make sense. As an added bonus, I can choose to pre-plumb the Speedfloor for a PEX radiant-floor heating system.

Plumbing labor costs are VERY EXPENSIVE. This is one area where DIY frequently makes sense. PEX manifold plumbing systems are exceptionally DIY friendly and go in very quickly. A significant savings can be achieved by an O-B DIY over a weekend without slowing down other trades and creating "hidden costs." The drain traps, drain pipes, back-flow prevention, and drain vents will still need to be installed the "old fashioned way" with PVC pipes and fittings. This is a little more complex for the DIY'er because slopes and angles are critical and fittings must be properly sealed. Although I know "how" to do these things, I will hire in the drainage plumbing work, because a professional can install it so much faster than me and without having to constantly double check every detail of code compliance regarding the layout of the pipes.

As long as an O-B is installing a PEX manifold water system and pouring concrete anyway, consider the relatively minimal added expense of putting in PEX tubing for a radiant-heat system in the poured-concrete floors. As I see it, the PEX tubing is not that expensive to pre-plumb, even if I don't plan on installing a functional radiant system at the time of construction. Radiant-hydronic heat can be exceptionally energy efficient and even "fueled" by solar thermal systems. It may not make sense (cents) for the whole house, but why not at least pre-plumb the basement slab? If I do my first floor with Speedfloor, then I will probably also pre-plumb the first floor and solarium with PEX radiant tubing. I'd love to also install PEX radiant in my master bathroom, but may settle for an electrical-radiant-supplemental-heat system, if the Speedfloor cost doesn't make sense on the second floor.

Hanging electrical boxes and pulling wire can also be done by a DIY O-B over a weekend without slowing down other trades and creating "hidden costs." Grunt labor can be hired to assist as needed, and can also help pre-connect simple outlets and single-pole switches. DIY'ing will enable better placement of outlets and fixtures to suit our needs and will make putting in excessive-outlet convenience affordable. I will bring in a skilled electrical tradesman as needed to double check the work and to make more complex electrical connections. I just don't want to pay an electrician to pull wires, drill holes, and use a screwdriver! Their time is too valuable for that.

That's enough of my musings for tonight...



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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 9/1/2008

Bad news! I went out to my property for the first time in a month to show a visiting friend my Indian Marker tree.

Unfortunately, sometime since last month, the tree has succumbed to its own weight, split at the 45-degree angle where it goes skyward, and died. I guess I'm going to get to count the rings and find out exactly how old this tree really was, but it is unfortunately lost to posterity. 

Now, I'm not half as excited about building on this property one day. I am REALLY going to miss this tree!



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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/11/2008

I finally managed to scan in the picture of the house that inspired me. Just in time, too. As you can see, the picture won't survive much more abuse from my grandchildren...


The inspiration for my "dream house"

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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/8/2008

I'm attaching a Google Earth image of my land and the surrounding neighborhood.

I have the two empty lots at the end of the circle visible in the bottom right corner of the picture.




My three acres
The lots

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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/3/2008

Walk-Out Basement. The Walk-Out basement will eventually be the social center of the house.

The basement will have a two-car garage with counter space for projects such as gift wrapping and bulk food storage preparation. The food storage room will be surrounded with shelves and will have a dumb waiter that transports food to the kitchen area. In the northwest corner of the basement, I will eventually build a home theater. There will be a basement egress window up to the western yard of the house. I will have two bedrooms in the basement each with a fireplace sharing the same chimney as the breakfast nook, and masterbath fireplaces.

I may put a basement egress window in the west bedroom, whether or not code requires it with such easy access to the walk-out basement area. (With a walk-out basement are egress windows required for bedrooms??? I wouldn't think so from other houses I've lived in that had walk-out basements, but codes may have become more strict in recent years.)

During initial construction I will finish at least the basement bathroom that has an external door, so as to provide a bathroom for visitors. I will pre-plumb/pre-wire for the second bathroom. I will pre-plumb/pre-wire for the basement kitchen/bar, but will wait until later to finish.

The downstairs family room will be large and wide open prior to adding the future kitchen.  I'll leave it like a garage when we first build but will eventually finish, paint, and make it a nice room. With the garage door opening to the pool patio, the inside and outside should be married very well for parties and family gatherings.

I hope to be able to budget to build the pool, the waterfall, and the sunken outdoor kitchen during the initial construction, but we will see how much money I can save up prior to building... I don't want to have such a large mortgage payment that we become financially strapped! And I'd rather wait and do it right if need be.


Basement draft concept
Basement draft concept (cropped)

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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/3/2008

Third Floor. The third floor may not be finished at the time of construction. I need to determine whether it is more affordable to finish bedrooms and bathrooms in the basement or the attic. With the complex angles of the ceilings in the attic, the basement should be cheaper. Besides, I may construct most of the basement walls from All Walls which would make wall finishing quite inexpensive in the basement. 

I will close in the various rooms and finish the hall and the belvedere balcony.

At any rate, I will rough out and pre-wire and pre-plumb the rest of the attic for easy finishing later.

I need enough bedrooms and bathrooms finished at the time of the certificate of occupancy that I can get an appraisal higher than my mortgage requirements to avoid PMI. But to keep my taxes as low as possible, I don't want to finish additional rooms until AFTER my tax appraisal. I figure I'll get my tax appraisal, move in, and then finish additional rooms with sweat equity. After I've done all I can afford to ultimately make mortgage payments on, then I will get another appraisal on the property to establish a standing equity line of credit. As needed, I will temporarily draw on the equity line to pay for the additional improvements I've completed. As I pay down the equity line, I'll do additional work on the house and pay down again...

The view from the belvedere should be AMAZING. With 10-foot ceilings in the basement, first, second, and third floors, and at least an 8-foot belvedere, the view from the belvedere will be more than 40 feet above the current ground level. I will be high enough to see over the hills to the south of my property as well as the view of Chimney Peak to the east. I may also be just high enough to see over the houses across the street for an almost endless view of rolling hills to the north as well. There are very tall houses on the hill to the west of me, so I can never have a west view.


Attic/third floor draft concept
Belvedere draft concept
Attic/third floor draft concept (cropped)
Belvedere draft concept (cropped)
Let's try this again... sorry!

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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/3/2008

Second Floor. The second floor is dominated by the master bedroom and master bath, along with an office and an attached bath to the office. The southern part of the second floor has a balcony overlooking the den and breakfast nook below, with a "bridge" over to the second floor wrap around porch. The foyer is open all the way to the attic floor...

With the foyer and den areas open below and with the hallway and stairs providing an open space in the middle, the air should be able to develop a natural passive convective flow through the house.

The second floor of the garage will eventually be finished with a two-bedroom and one-bath apartment and will be roughed in and plumbed at the time of construction. (I need a two story garage to have a high enough roof to block the neighbor's sight line to my planned pool area.

A sauna extends off of the southwest corner of the wrap around porch. The sauna is passively pre-heated by a trombe wall and glassed in space that extends three stories from the walk out basement below up to the 2nd floor.

I will use the porch off of the master bathroom for my exercise equipment area.

The southern porches on the first and second floors will be utilized as a screened in porch (with windows open) during the summers, and with the windows closed as a solarium providing passive solar gain to the house in the winter.


Second floor draft concept
Second floor draft concept (cropped)
Let's try this again! Sorry...

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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/3/2008

Attached is a rough drawing of my concept for my "dream house" first floor.

This has not yet gone to an architect or designer to "clean it up."

If anyone has any recommendations on how to make it better, I'm open to suggestions.

The wraparound porch will have a ramp onto the west front side for handicap accessibility.

The yard slopes down from the west to the east and from the north to the south. 

I intend to make the west side of the house roughly level with the first floor with some earth moving. 

There will be retaining walls on the east side of the property and running south from the middle of the rear of the house.

The front yard will be gently sloped from west to east with some infill dirt provided along the eastern retaining wall. A few stairs will go up to the main entrance on the front porch. I'll probably have a water fountain between the street and the house.

The front door will be a double door with glass and leaded glass lites on each side of the double doors and a transom lite above.

The dining room and a parlor that can also function as a bonus bedroom are off of the foyer.

The south of the house has the den, breakfast nook, and kitchen. A LARGE pantry sits off of the kitchen on what would have otherwise been part of a complete wraparound porch. A small, covered west entrance is provided. The laundry room is also on the south side of the house in what would otherwise have been wraparound porch area. The laundry room will function as a mud entrance for the family.

One question I have: "Can I make the garage level with the house entry to avoid a handicap ramp, or does code require a garage to be lower than the house entrance?" The USDA spec language for homes says the following:

"Garages: The garage, if provided shall be separated from the residence and its attic area by taped 1/2" gypsum board applied to the garage side. Garage O.H. door jack studs are to be treated lumber if in contact with concrete. Provide a window in garage wall or door. Slope garage floor 2" from rear to overhead door. Provide a steel insulated or 1 3/8" solid wood door between the house and garage. Garage floor to be 12" higher than street or have special design allowing for run-off. Garage floor shall be 4" or more lower than finished floor areas. Garage floor to be 1" higher directly behind door to prevent driving rains from forcing water into garage."

I really hate to have to create a ramp for the four-inch difference in the garage floor from the finished floors!

I found the answer to this question:

The IBC changed the codes in 2003 to allow zero-step entrances into houses, particularly from garages. Not all local codes have been updated to reflect this change. Older codes generally require a minimum of one step between a house and a garage.

I downloaded an excellent primer on making a house accessible to those with ambulatory impairments and am attaching it. It is read-only and copyright of the authors.


FIrst floor draft concept
FIrst floor draft concept (cropped)

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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/3/2008

The American Dream...

I'm going to get on my soapbox for a little bit.

When America was founded, the American dream was understood much differently than it is today. To the founders of our nation, the American dream meant that social castes were no longer unchangeable. People could come to America, no matter who they were (that was the dream that took the civil-rights movement to more fully realize!), struggle, toil, and sacrifice, and as a result their children could have a better life than they had. Part of that dream, but only a part of it, was building and actually owning their own home...

As part of the broader American dream, Americans invested in long-term infrastructure that would benefit future generations. Sanitation infrastructure was built in a manner to last for 200 years or more. Our foreparents invested a little extra beyond their own immediate needs in order to benefit the future. Public buildings like capitol buildings were built with the expectation to last essentially forever. Our foreparents invested in public parks, bridges, and other social infrastructure meant to be sustainable and last forever for the benefit of posterity. Those with the resources to do so also intentionally built their homes to benefit future generations, as well. The American dream was always actually about making things better for future generations!

Somewhere after about WWII, the American dream was mutated beyond recognition...  Americans stopped caring so much about the future. [Perhaps seeing life end prematurely all around you causes one to think less about the future and more about living life to the fullest today???] We started consuming everything those who went before us left to us without any plans to replace it. We started changing our design standards to only build for our own benefit. Long-life infrastructure standards went from 200-year design down to 50-year design in order to achieve a cost-savings of typically no more than 20% upfront cost difference. But the life-cycle cost difference becomes four-fold upfront, and with present future value analysis, the life-cycle cost difference is probably 10 times higher. The attitude became "Who cares if future generations will benefit as long as we reap the rewards today?" These days ask the average American what the "American dream" is and they will start spouting off a high personal standard of living that amounts to nothing more than selfish dreams... this isn't what the American dream started out as.

We stopped investing for the benefit of the future. We used up everything that was left to us without planning for its sustainability for the future. And we began deficit spending using up the wealth of the future. Why? So that we could selfishly enjoy the greatest standard of living the world has ever known and probably will ever get to know.

What does this have to do with O-B's and why isn't it off-topic? Because many of us here have a different vision. We don't want a "McMansion" with its shoddy construction standards and "planned obsolesence." Many of us actually want to build houses that not only benefit us, but benefit future generations as well.

For a 20% increase in upfront construction costs we can select materials that will last 200 years or more, versus materials that will only last one lifetime, if we are lucky. We can also incorporate energy-efficient design and green-building principles to conserve resources for future benefit. For many of us, the only way to get a house built this way is to owner build. Contractors in my rural community just don't build houses this way on their own, because the average American simply doesn't care whether their house lasts beyond their own lifetime.

I, and many others in this forum, are going to spend a little bit more to leave something for the benefit of future generations. Many of us don't have that "little bit more" to spend in cash, so we are spending it via sweat equity. Most importantly though, we are recapturing the real meaning of the American dream. It's not just about building a home for ourselves; it is about leaving a multi-generational legacy that benefits the future as well as the present. Its about building houses that will last and that will conserve precious resources so that future generations can add to what we have left them, so they can continue making an even "better" life than we currently enjoy.

When building our own homes, we have a unique opportunity to contribute to the "real" American dream and leave a legacy that future generations can have the privilege of continuing to build upon. If the values and principles that America holds dear are to be preserved for the benefit of all mankind, then we must return to the true American dream. Build a house that will benefit the future as well as your own present and America will remain stronger because of your contribution.



[NOTE: A PBS documentary entitled "Liquid Assets: The Story of Our Water Infrastructue" will be released nationally in October. I provided the initial concept development, helped pitch it to Penn State Public Broadcasting, and helped make it happen. One of the themes is the criticality of ensuring the sustainability of our sanitation infrastructure. I encourage everyone to watch it.

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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/1/2008

Okay, getting away from my eccentric ideas and down to perhaps more practical and common modern construction practices, I intend to incorporate the following energy-efficient and value-added design concepts: (note: I don't have my budget or cost-estimates yet... this is just my "pie in the sky" list of dream features for my home that I still need to prioritize and make compromises where necessary...)

Geothermal Heat Pump. If the groundwater volume allows, I may use an open-loop water well heat pump, and allow the water to help "feed" my planned 30-foot waterfall at the back of my property. (We have unusually plentiful water in this area that is recharged by underground river systems so I won't exactly be deplenishing an aquifer.) I will probably use a thermal-conduction interface between the water and the heat pump so that the non-recirculating system doesn't foul my heat pump and cause maintenance problems. I'd love to hear how others have done similar things, because I am just learning about this.

CFLs. Compact fluorescents are going to be used everywhere feasible in my house. While LEDs have lower life-cycle costs, as I understand it they actually consume more electricity than CFLs.  I may use some LEDs in strategic locations in the house such as hard-to-reach areas where I don't want to change bulbs as frequently.

Energy Star Appliances. All appliances (even big screen TVs) are going to be Energy Star rated and energy efficient. Energy and water-efficient front-loading washers and dryers will be used along with the most energy-efficient glass-top ranges, dual ovens, dishwashers, etc.  Noise pollution will also be considered and controlled with appliance selection.

Airtight Construction. The house envelope will be blower-tested for tightness, which shouldn't be much of a problem with the All Wall System combined with proper sealing of any penetrations, and potentially foam insulation under the roofing (assuming a steel SIP roof doesn't work out). I'm still studying the best way to insulate under the roof deck. I will have a finished attic, and will have no unconditioned space.

Siding. Well-insulated white (to reflect most heat) siding will be attached to the exterior of the All Walls (While cement fiberboard is otherwise attractive, but it has very high embodied energy and must be painted. White vinyl siding will be lower maintenance and its light weight greatly reduces embodied energy). No vinyl will be used in conditioned spaces. The exterior of the All Walls in the enclosed southern porches will be finished with low-VOC stucco.

Roof. I'm considering using steel SIPs for the roof, but others have raised concerns about using SIPs with hip roofs, and I will also have dormers. I don't like wood SIPs, because they weigh more, making positioning on multi-story houses more cumbersome and dangerous, and I still don't trust glued chipboard to provide long-term performance. I also like the steel SIPs, because I won't necessarily have to do any finish work on the ceiling of the wraparound porches. However, the industry is still researching how best to attach SIP roofs to ICF or All Wall walls (research being led by the Portland Cement Association) and I am not sure that I am satisfied with the answers that have been provided so far (pour straps and anchors into the top of the wall). This requires further research and I welcome ideas, experiences, and input on this issue particularly.

I intend to use Energy Star reflective metal roofing (cool roofing) in conjunction with extra-high R-value foam insulation. I will likely use a white roof along with white porch columns and white vinyl siding, (with stone on the exposed foundation walls) I also want the roof secured to the foundation walls in such a way as to withstand high wind uplift and sheer forces.

Dormers, Belvedere, and Cupola. If I use steel SIPs for the roof, then I will likely also use steel SIP walls for the dormers, belvedere, and cupola, particularly to reduce the weight of the belvedere and cupola. I really prefer SIPs over stick construction because of the reduced construction waster. 

The belvedere will have to be supported by anchored poles on two corners, and the cupola will be merely secured to the roof of the belvedere. Strength to acceptable weight, I think I can generate higher wind-load resistance with steel SIP construction in these particular applications. This requires further study.

Exterior Walls

The All Wall System will be used for all exterior walls. However, the feasibility of the All Walls for the belvedere and the cupola need further study. I may choose to use a metal SIP system that integrates with the roofing system for those walls. Because poured concrete walls dry slowly and can carry thousands of pounds of water, I understand that it is important to let the poured concrete of a new home dry for several months before finishing the walls. The walls need to dry in both directions, and a vapor barrier should not be used to impede drying. Waterproofing technology has come a long way in the past decade, and poured walls are best for keeping water out. I will time the installation of a vapor barrier and the installation of interior surface sealing and the vinyl siding so as to allow the concrete adequate time to cure and dry properly.

Interior Walls. On the interior of the All Walls, I am considering using lime plasters, which have slightly lower embodied energy than Portland-cement-based plasters, and they don't include petroleum-based ingredients, as acrylic plasters do. Integral natural pigments obviate the need for painting. Natural lime plasters and wall coatings made from ingredients such as clay, sand, and cellulose are particularly environmentally friendly.

Where painting is required, I intend to use low-VOC paints. (The downside is the color choices are not nearly as vibrant.) Although the VOC content of paint is often considered for indoor environmental reasons, the vast majority of VOCs are released by the time the paint is dry. There is no significant long-term off-gassing from most paints. Low-VOC paints/polyurethanes, and stains will be sufficient to maintain IAQ. I feel that zero-VOC paints are going farther than necessary.

Where sheetrock must be used, it should have no paper backing, so as to avoid mildew, or at least mildew-resistant backing if the treatment doesn't create VOC problems.

Flooring. All flooring will likewise be limited to low-VOC materials. Materials that off-gas for more than a couple of months will not be considered for use.

The south-side floors (including south porch/sunspaces) should have 3" to 4" of thermal mass. I will probably install some kind of stone or concrete floors in the southern spaces. The den and breakfast nook will likely have a dark matte stone or uncovered concrete surface. I'd like to match the surface of the porch sunspace to help bring the outside in and the inside out. 

Formaldehyde-free bamboo flooring will be selected instead of wood floors. Bamboo is RAPIDLY renewable and therefore very "Green", even if it is frequently shipped all the way from China. I personally like the look as much as hard wood, and it definitely makes an environmental statement that I want our community to hear... people need to be thinking about resource conservation.

Cork flooring will be used in the kitchen, and possibly limited applications in bathrooms. With arthritis already beginning to hurt our joints, I like the idea of the slightly softer floor surface for long periods of standing. Hard surfaces such as stone and concrete make my hips hurt after a while. Cork is a renewable and affordable resource, and I like the available textures. Cork is not yet common here in Alabama, and will make a nice conversation piece.

I will likely use gravel under the basement slab, and will not use slag due to the reported incidences of oxidation and swelling of slag leading to heaving of the slab. (I'll stick with the tried and true on this one... ) A termite-proof moisture-barrier system will be provided under the basement slab and sealing below grade walls.

Where adhesives are required, I will try to use manufacturer-recommended low- or zero- (if long-term off-gassing is a concern) VOC, water-based and solvent-free products compatible with the flooring.

Foundation and Basement Walls

A gravel (I won’t use slag: grade base that is 1.5 to 2.5 feet deep. 4” insulation on top of the gravel. A waterproof membrane will be placed under the slab (I want to learn more about this). Use a fiber-mesh reinforcement in the concrete instead of rebar [Note: Be aware that it can mildly accelerate the setting/workability time of the concrete and take that into your slump specifications/grade prep., etc.]. Include removing fibers that stick out of the concrete as part of the required finishing.

The edges of the concrete slab will be three to four times the slab thickness. The slab height is to be a few inches above the walkout basement height. Rebar is set into the floor slab to protrude up into the All Wall System walls. Floor drains are to be included in the bathrooms, the garages, and in the laundry closet that are on the slab. Floor drains will be fitted with non-return valves, and removable sealing caps. The basement floors will be sloped towards the drains. The basement walls will be moisture sealed with an exterior waterproof air-gap membrane/foundation wrap (perhaps Tremco's Paraseal membrane or DMX FlexSheet). The basement walls will be a MINIMUM of 9’ and I’d like to go as high as 12’ [The higher the basement walls, the lower the pool will sit in my landscape (the neighbors have a three-story window and I'd like to get the pool out of their line of sight), and/or the better the view (our lot is in a low spot of our ridge... if I get our house high enough, I will be able to see over the houses across the street from the belvedere and see all the way into the next county!]. A drainage system will be installed at the base of all basement walls, and a rigid fiberglass self-draining insulation will be attached to the outside perimeter of the buried basement walls to collect water and drain it down to the drainage tile (determine best brand). The floor drains and the exterior drainage system will drain into the gray-water system. 


I want my paving spaces to be porous to reduce rain runoff. I will likely use porous concrete for the driveways and patios with cobblestone edging and inserts. I may choose the expense of full cobblestone on sidewalks if a wheelchair can roll over it easily enough.

Cobble Systems has an interesting product: Also

Radiant Heating. I will only install radiant heating in the primary bathrooms. Since a forced-air system will be used to cool and heat the house, supplemental radiant heating in the bathrooms will likely be provided by inexpensive-to-install electric (but expensive if operated too much) heating, with timers to prevent overuse. (If I don't have a home automation system to handle it, I may also put an "on switch" next to the bed, so that the bathroom can be pre-heated before getting out of bed.) 

My MBR will have a large stone fireplace, stone floors, and a stone shower, in addition to the thermal mass of the All-Walls. I'm going to have to be careful to ensure the temperature can be elevated in a timely manner with so much thermal mass. I am investigating underfloor electric systems as well as solar-heated hydronic systems. I will also consider the wall-mounted radiant heaters that pull double duty as towel warmers.

Water System. I will use solar hot-water heaters assisted by the most energy-efficient electric hot-water heaters I can afford. The waste heat from my geothermal heat pumps can also supplement my hot-water needs.

I'm studying two types of piping systems and wondering if the best attributes of each can be combined... I really like the PEX manifold systems with the "home run" piping for energy efficiency and to avoid water wastage. Of course, hot-water recirculation also makes a lot of sense, and I really like the TACO system for recirculation. Can the TACO system for recirculation work in conjunction with a PEX manifold system for distribution? If they can be combined, would the additional savings ultimately pay back the added expense of combining the technologies?

At this point I feel pretty much sold on the PEX piping systems. Copper stub-outs appear to be the way to go in conjunction with the PEX piping. As an O-B, the hardest-to-control cost of construction is labor. I'm willing to invest up front on the "technology side" because I can draw and pay for "materials" relatively quickly versus the much slower cash turn of labor expenses and the much more difficult to predict, budget, and control labor expenses. (This is also why I think All Walls, ICFs, steel SIPs, or wood SIPs should be "no-brainers" to owner-builders.) So, if I am going to use an energy-efficient PEX manifold system, is it possible and does it make sense (and cents) to combine it with a recirculation-control system?

I will use a minimum of 1" insulation on all hot-water pipes in the house.

I also intend to look into the economics of installing a drain-water heat-recovery system.

Plumbing Fixtures. I will use low-flow, Venturi-effect or aerated fixtures that "feel" higher flow without wasting water. I will also use "quiet" pressure-assisted low-flow toilets with dual-flush capability. Depending upon budget constraints, I may use lower-cost, less water-efficient toilets and sinks in infrequently-used guest areas. I will not skimp on shower heads.

I am considering using pedal- or motion-sensor-activated faucets on sinks for hand washing where I am concerned about water waste... with grandchildren visiting and using bathrooms, we hardly ever step foot into, I want to make sure that they are turned off completely. Motion-sensor faucets or pedal faucets can help control water wastage. (Likewise, I am considering occupancy-sensor controls for the lights in such rooms and their closets as well.)

Windows. When I specify my windows I will specify "whole-product performance values" for U-factor and SHGC, NOT potentially more favorable "glass-only" values. As best as I can afford, I want windows and doors to have insulated-fiberglass frames. [If I have to skimp on budget, I really don't want to skimp on the house envelope, because it has one of the greatest return on energy savings over time (along with Energy Star appliance selection) and is one of the biggest factors in comfort inside of the home. I'd rather replace things in the future that legitimately "wear out" or go out of style, than ever replace more "permanent" windows and doors.]

The following are the window-performance specs I am considering using:

High (>70%) Glass Visible Transmittance on all windows to assist with daylighting.

Low SHGC windows for "HOUSE" windows facing south, east- and west; [Ideally "High Efficiency Low-E (such as Solarscreen 2000 VEI-2M™ by Viracon)" because it provides high daylighting and low heat transfer. (Visible transmittance 70; u-factor 0.29; and Solar Heat Gain Coefficient of 0.37)]

Standard glazing is acceptable for north-facing windows. [Ideally "Double Pane Insulated Glass" (standard clear) VT 79; UF 0.48; SHGC 0.70 (not much solar exposure on the north to generate much heat gain... )]

All SAUNA windows and south-facing enclosed "PORCH" windows are intended to capture heat and not lose it in the winter and should therefore have high SGHC values coupled with low U-factors [ideally "Pyrolitic Low-E Double Glass (LOF Clear Low-e®)" VT 75, UF 0.33, SGHC 0.71; or alternatively "Double Pane Insulated Glass" (standard clear) VT 79, UF 0.48, SGHC 0.70 ] for passive solar gain.


I want to take a closer look at Bilco ScapeWell safety egress window from the basement bedroom. When are they required by code? See:

From comments read in these forums, I will give a serious look at “Marvin Integrity fiberglass windows”. I will also look at Pella, Andersen, and Milgard. With differences in what stock needs to be cleared when, and differences in shipping costs between manufacturers in different parts of the country, I don't put much faith in others' experience about what is most economical.

[Note: I'll explain my eccentric solar-heated sauna in another post <grin>.]

Porch Design. My house has a wraparound porch. In the summer, the 10-foot wide 10-foot high porch roof will shade the house from the sun. In the winter, the porch windows will be closed to create a sunroom to provide passive solar heat gain to the house. The house windows and doors will be opened to the enclosed porch during the day to let heat in, and closed at night to keep the heat in, with the enclosed porch helping to further buffer the temperature of the house. The stuccoed All Wall on the south porch will provide thermal mass to further buffer the space. 

Essentially, the windowed/screened south-facing porch functions as a de facto solarium. The solarium acts as a THERMAL BUFFER ZONE – at moderate temperatures that are typically between interior and exterior temperature extremes. The south wall of the house opening to the solarium has a lot of well-insulated glass that divides the Solarium/Greenhouse space from the interior of the home. Instead of having only one wall between the interior and outside temperature extremes, the house has TWO layers of glass. The engineering principle is that TWO SMALL TEMPERATURE DIFFERENTIALS PRODUCE MUCH LOWER HEAT TRANSFER THAN ONE LARGE TEMPERATURE DIFFERENTIAL.

In the summers the "screened" porch functions as a cooler, shaded area. In the winter when the porch windows are closed, it functions like a greenhouse collecting solar heat gain for the house.

Skylights.  Typical skylights let in too much heat when the sun is high and let too much heat escape when the sun is down. I will not use a traditional skylight for daylighting... However, there are a new breed of skylight that do an excellent job at daylighting without the loss of cooling/heating energy efficiency. I intend to use Solatubes or SunPipes for additional daylighting in commonly-used rooms and to make basement areas more "livable."  Some brands to look at:

Roof. A reflective white-metal roof will be used. A metal roof can handle the higher roof temperatures that come with the lack of an attic space (many shingle companies won't warranty their materials when used with under-roof-decking insulation). Additionally, you can directly adhere certain solar panels to a metal roof without expensive racks, providing a potentially large cost savings if/when I add PV in the future. [I will provide wire conduits to the roof at the time of construction for the possible future addition of PV]. The roof will be sloped specifically for ideal PV angles (between 25 and 35-degree pitch for PV panels, up to 45-degree pitch for solar water heaters where I live in northeast Alabama). Although a lower pitch provides better year-round solar exposure, a higher-pitched solar water heater will be less likely to overheat in the summer, and have better efficiency in the winter when it needs it the most.

A double roofing system is inadvisable because of noise issues with a metal roof. Instead, insulate and completely seal the attic with foam insulation up to an "effective fiberglass-equivalent" R-value (foam insulation has no gaps of coverage unlike fiberglass, so an R-16 foam provides a much higher "effective" R-value as compared to R-16 fiberglass) of ~52 above living areas. Any attic space above living areas should be conditioned space.

As mentioned previously, I am considering using SIP panels for the roof structure. They will be relatively soundproof and provide excellent insulation, while further structurally reinforcing the home. Time of construction will also be enhanced.  Steel SIP panels seem to have several advantages as a roofing system, including being easier to handle:

With the majority of my "roof" having the underside exposed on the porches, the following advantage seems huge: "The underside of the roof panel automatically forms an attractive finished soffit overhang or exterior porch ceiling." The roof will still need standing-seam metal to take the abuse (hail, etc.) and prevent damage to the decking "structure," which I don't ever want to have to replace.

One question hanging out there is "Is a steel SIP roof REALLY viable for a hip-roof design with dormers? From what I understand, getting the hip roof to perfectly line up with the walls below "as constructed" can be extremely challenging. There apparently is even the potential for the premanufactured roofing panels to not fit at all, if the wall construction doesn't meet the exact dimensions. Modifications of the SIP roofs on site is a job that presumably takes significant experience. I'd love to hear from others on this, because I really would prefer to use steel SIP roofing, as long as I am not creating a financial risk by doing so with my particular house design. What questions should I be asking steel SIP roof vendors, before ruling them out or before specifying them?

The other big remaining question is "How do you provide a structurally-stable connection between an SIP roof and an All Wall System (or comparable connection with an ICF system)? Apparently, as I Googled this topic, it appears the industry itself is doing research to come up with an answer.

[Combining ICF & SIP:]

Overhang Eave Design.

The formula for calculating south-facing overhangs is here:

From my best efforts to use the susdesign animation linked above.

At my location, 8' south-facing windows should have overhangs 2' above the windows, and the overhangs should be 3.5' long to maximize summer cooling of the porch while still enabling winter solar-heat gains. The south porches will be well shaded, except for August and September, and will have excellent solar-heat gains throughout the winter, except for the end of March and into April.

The porch itself is a complete-shading overhang in the summer, so we won't worry about the lack of an overhang over the lower porch, and I can easily stand to have a shorter eave if I financially need to, because shorter eaves will only cause heat gain on the porch and not the house. When the windows are closed, a shorter eave will help increase solar heat gain in the winter. So, 3.5' eaves or not? I haven't decided yet...

I'd love to hear the thoughts of others.

Doors. Windows and doors are to have insulated fiberglass frames. Fiberglass-clad doors (R-18 or higher); same window specs as above as appropriate. Sliding-screen windows. Expanded-foam caulking between the door frame, rough opening, and threshold. Weatherstripping (no storm doors; they won't add much insulating value to a modern door.)

Garage Doors. Garage doors with polyurethane-foam insulation (R-18 or higher), thermal break and air seal, bottom AND perimeter weather seals. High-quality rollers, hardware, counterbalance springs, and adjustable tracks to reduce the noise. Pinch-resistance joints for child safety. Because the house is so noiseproof, I may install a notification light for when someone pulls into our driveway, so that I know when people get home. I don't expect to be able to hear the garage door open anymore...

Electrical and Wiring. I am considering using 12-gauge wiring to my heavily-used outlets (kitchens, bathrooms, computer desks, TVs, entertainment centers, shop/power tools, charging stations, etc.); and 14-gauge wiring for typical lights, fans, and lightly-used outlets; and 10-gauge wiring only where needed, such as for 30-amp appliances.  

I don't see going to all 12-gauge wiring, and from what I've experienced, 10-gauge wiring is difficult to work with inside electrical boxes.

I will embed a PVC conduit up each of two walls in every room to make pulling new cables from the basement to the attic easy. I want to be able to keep media wires separated from electrical wires to avoid interference. I want to provide access to the conduits at the ceiling in the middle of the house (this will provide ease of wiring for all four floors) so I will probably put easy-access junction boxes in the conduits above the ceiling of the first floor. 

Is there a better way to get access from an embedded wiring conduit at all four floors?

I intend to over-wire with 8 pairs of CAT6 cable to all computer and media centers in the house. I can always use CAT5 connectors as needed, and change out to CAT6 in the future, giving me an easy upgrade path for the future.

I intend to install an outdoor WiFi repeater, since I expect that the WiFi signal may be dampened by the dense walls of the All Wall System.

Does anyone with an ICF or All Wall house have experience with WiFi use and how badly the signal is dampened?

I intend to prewire for a DIY home-automation system to be added after construction completion. 

The Elk M1 Gold system looks interesting to me:

What home automation system would you recommend?

AIR FLOW. The house will be sealed, slightly pressurized, and have an air exchanger. Pressure balancing will be primarily accomplished with jumper ducts from the rooms to the central hallway.  Where used, air-transfer grilles will be baffled, sized larger than the inlet grille, and positioned in closets if possible in order to reduce noise impacts.

Almost all houses must have a whole-house mechanical ventilation system rated at 7.5 cfm per occupant, plus one cfm for every 100 square feet of floor area that can be occupied:

With models from 75 to 450 CFM, ALDES Residential HRV models can meet the general ventilation requirements of homes from 1,100 sq. ft. to 8,000 sq. ft. based on ASHRAE 62-1989 (0.35 air changes per hour).

Ideally, I would like to have a whole-house ventilation system, as part of that, bathrooms and kitchen are to constantly vent externally [an energy-recovery ventilator (ERV) will provide replacement air], so as to remove most moisture and pollutants from the house. There will be no air returns from the bathrooms and kitchens to prevent odors and moisture from circulating to other parts of the house.  Bathrooms and kitchens will be passively heated/cooled by drawing air in from adjacent actively heated/cooled rooms. Supplemental radiant heating (on a timer to ensure turn-off) will be supplied in the bathrooms: <> Exhaust fans will not have a sone rating higher than 1.5 to ensure quiet operation, but will have a light showing their operational status. Potty closets will have their own continuous-vent inlets.

Kitchens shall have a mechanical exhaust system rated at five kitchen air changes per hour, thereby enabling the use of unducted range hoods as needed. Bathrooms must have mechanical exhaust; the minimum requirement is a user-operable fan that exhausts at least 50 cfm (25 L/s). Mechanical exhaust is not required in toilets, laundry rooms, lavatories, and utility rooms.

The vent fans in the kitchens and baths will remove air and the ERV will provide makeup air to the recirculation air at an increased rate from its typical design value of 0.5 to a range of 0.7–1.3 in order to reduce indoor VOC.

PASSIVE AIR CONDITIONING. Install a whole-house fan in the cupola.

I may use gray water to supply misters on the roof of the house for relatively inexpensive exterior evaporative cooling. A cooler roof deck should lower energy consumption inside the home. The dropping cool air should help cool the porches. Any condensation will recirculate through the rain gutters back into the gray-water system. A similar misting system can be used on the hardscape of the pool-deck area.

Earth tubes do not appear to be economically feasible; there is also the consideration of moisture issues from condensation in summer. If I were to do it, here is what I would consider doing. 4" earth tubes (thin wall SCH 2729 PVC: thinner than DR35; or if safe from mold/mildew, a heavy-wall 4" or 6" clay pipe), buried with a significant slope (to easily flush and to drain condensate) and between 6' and 12' deep and six feet apart from each other, will feed intake air into the basement passive conditioning chamber [a portion of the buried basement on the north side of the house under the front porch that is not actively conditioned, and is isolated from the house and the rest of the basement. Intake air for the ground-source heat pump will come from this room. When the ground-source heat pump is not running, intake air for the solar-chimney-generated passive air flow through the house will enter through the earth tubes (if installed) and/or the basement window wells on the north side of the house. Hopefully this passive conditioning chamber can pre-cool the air at least 10 degrees, as compared to the ambient temperature during the summer.] 

The inlet to the earth tubes and the window wells will be protected from intrusion with a grate and window screening, and will angle downward to prevent clogging and blockages. The earth tubes will be sloped to the heavily-shaded ravine, in order to intake the coolest possible air and so as to allow condensation to flow out of the pipe. The slope MUST be sufficient to prevent moisture build-up within the pipe so as to prevent causing mold, mildew, and fungus issues. The earth tubes may need periodic active flushing to keep the air healthy. I'm also considering putting a gray-water-supplied outdoor mister on the hill above the ravine to further cool the air in the ravine through evaporative cooling. (The cool air should drop and moisture rise with the rising hot air.) Due to heavy hardwood and shrubbery cover along with favorable shading from hills, the ravine stays about 10 degrees cooler than on top of the hill.

Once it becomes commercially available and affordable, a solar recharged dessicant system may be used in the conditioning chamber to further dehumidify the air. Hot air holds more humidity than cold air, thus hot air rising out of the solar chimney should further assist with dehumidifying the home. Keeping the home sealed and conditioned with the geothermal heat pump may consume less energy than trying to actively dehumidify the air. Therefore, unless a passive dehumidification system is ever affordable, passive cooling is probably not viable on days where humidity will be higher than 50% after cooling to household temps.

Passive airflow within the earth tubes will be assisted with four-inch axial fans (12 VDC computer-cooling fan) in the upper end of each earth tube pipe to help pressurize the house. (The number of earth tubes will match the number of active vents from the house (i.e. "always on" bath and kitchen vent fans) +1 extra fanned tube, and +1 extra non-fanned tubes to match the volume of the open cupola.) All earth tubes will terminate in a junction box in the cooling chamber. The junction box will be fitted with a standard furnace HEPA filter. The air intake from the passive conditioning chamber into the home will also be fitted with a standard furnace HEPA filter.

Relative humidity above 50% encourages mold growth. Because the average ground temp is above the dew point, the humidity will not condense out. The hot, humid summer air in Alabama when cooled to household temps will inevitably be above 50% humidity; this could encourage mold/mildew in the ground tubes. Hot humid climates REQUIRE the temperature AND humidity to be significantly lowered by some means, 24 hours a day for most of the summer (and beyond). This requires active conditioning.

By building in solar mass, much of the annual heating and cooling loads can be passively achieved during the day and overnight respectively. Combined with an energy-recovery ventilator, and smart-ventilation practices, active energy consumption can be controlled to bare minimums, and we can avoid allowing excess humidity into the house. However, if the heat pump is not running enough to automatically control the humidity, moisture problems can develop in the home.

ACTIVE HEATING/CONDITIONING SYSTEM. Even though I'm trying my best to create a viable passive-cooling system for our hot/humid climate, we will install an Energy Star rated (an efficiency rating of at least 2.8 COP or 13 EER) ground-source (geothermal) heat pump equipped with a more efficient scroll compressor (as compared to piston compressors), and equipped with a multi-zone damping system (I found an excellent primer on zoning: I will likely select up to 6 zones controlled by up to 6 separate thermostats (with humidity controls and compressor-protector function if possible/applicable), with probably two separate units to prevent having to go to a less efficient larger-scale unit. As I currently envision it (prior to consulting with an HVAC expert) the south side of floor one (den, breakfast nook, kitchen, laundry, pantry) will be the first zone. The north side of floor one will be the second zone (parlor, foyer, bathroom, and dining room). Floor two will be the third zone. Floor three will be the fourth zone. The basement will be a fifth zone. And when finished, the guesthouse will be a sixth zone. Zones one, three, and four will use one primary unit. The less frequently used zones two, five, and six will share a second unit sized primarily for the much lower cooling loads. [Zones two and five (north side and basement) should be naturally cooler than the rest of the main house. Zone six will only be heated/cooled when in use;  zone two will receive some heat from natural convection cycles and the high solar mass; zone five can be supplementally heated by the fireplace in the basement and by natural convection cycles circulating warm air and its high solar mass. Zone six will be built with lower thermal mass so that it can be conditioned relatively quickly upon the arrival of visitors.]

I intend to spend the money to get the highest viable efficiency rating on our HVAC system, because it will be the highest lifetime energy consumption of the home. (Although payback in a very energy-efficient home will take longer...) I will work with an HVAC expert to specifically size the system for the expected cooling load of this extremely energy-efficient house design and supplement any needed heating load with passive-solar gain, and the fireplaces. 

A system using horizontal ground loops will generally cost less than a system with vertical loops.  However, if we drill a well for irrigation water, we can use the well shaft for the more energy-efficient vertical-loop system at lower cost. [Note: as the depth to water becomes more shallow, especially in unconfined aquifers, open-loop geothermal systems become less and less desirable. A depth to water of 35 to 40 feet is usually adequate, and considering the ridge I'm on where the seasonal creek is at least 40 feet below where we will be drilling, an open-loop system should be fine.] If the water source is sufficient, I think I will use the less expensive open-loop system, and discharge the used water into the gray-water irrigation system, with any excess being discharged to the creek via the waterfall. The average system will use 1.5 g.p.m. per ton of capacity while operating. The only additional costs to the well will be an enlarged pressure tank or modified plumbing to supply adequate water to the heat pump. With multiple gallons per minute, the waterfall will always at least have a trickle without needing a pump. 

[Note: Water-source heat pumps have a life expectancy of 19 years. The life expectancy of the ground loop is from 25 to 75 years. Can I use a thermal exchanger to prolong the life of the heat pump by not putting it into direct contact with the well water, but only in contact with closed conditioned fluids as is the case with a closed-loop system?] So I want to consider using a heat exchanger between the well water and building distribution system to lower maintenance costs by precluding ground-water minerals from potentially fouling the heat pump. (This could potentially also be an interface for the solar swimming-pool heater to supplement the heating loads of the geothermal heat pump and thereby increase its efficiency in the coldest months when I can't use the pool anyway.  Perhaps I can also increase the cooling efficiency of the heat pump by dumping heat into the swimming pool in the summer?)

Use silent air duct dampers and ensure that they are properly positioned to pressure-balance the home. As I understand it so far, electrically controlled dampers tied into a multi-zone control system can direct airflow as needed to keep consistent, comfortable temperatures around the whole house. The heat pumps will be equipped with variable-speed or dual-speed motors on their indoor fans (blowers), outdoor fans, or both. A desuperheater will save the waste heat from the heat pump to help heat the hot-water system of the house. Is this worth doing when I will already have a solar hot-water heater supplemented with a highly energy-efficient electric hot-water heater?

When the geothermal heat pump is active, the intake air will be drawn from the passive conditioning chamber. A heat-recovery ventilator will be used along with a whole-house electronic air cleaner (rather than a media air cleaner which is only 85% efficient) instead of a simple filter, which is not very efficient at all. I want to add a wireless filter-change reminder, because this is a maintenance function I almost always forget to do on time. Air-quality control is a critical issue to me as I am highly sensitive. I am specifically seriously allergic to formaldehyde. I am interested in "investing" in an excellent air quality control system and want to control not only outdoor allergens, but also Radon/CO2/VOCs/Dust, etc.

I found the following interesting and want to research it further: "...the energy-saving thermostat kept the compressor continually cycling, not allowing the evaporator to run for the ±2-3°F period required to remove humidity from the air. Replacing the existing energy-saving thermostats with the mechanical type is not a valid solution because the lack of control of the lower temperature limit will sharply increase energy consumption. A better solution would be to research an energy-saving thermostat that provides at least ±2°F of tolerance between cycles." 


As I understand this, I should therefore, only use an energy-saving programmable thermostat IF I have otherwise controlled the humidity in the house through means other than the geothermal-heat pump. If the geothermal-heat pump cycles on and off improperly, humidity in the home can rise to unhealthy levels. If I want to save energy, properly cool the home, AND prevent moisture problems, then the BEST SOLUTION may be to somehow, cost-effectively dehumidify the intake air. An energy-efficient pool-house moisture-control system may be a viable option... if I am forced to go to active dehumidification.

I will definitely have sealed fireplaces with energy-efficient blowers in all but the master bath. For ambiance reasons, I will probably use gas logs in the MBR. In any case, "install a sealed-combustion gas fireplace or a wood-burning fireplace with gasketed doors."

SOLAR. Glass to Mass Ratios: Each design starts with 7% south glazing (net). To increase beyond 7% we must also add thermal mass, usually starting with floor mass and then walls. It does not appear that I will be lacking sufficient thermal mass, despite the extensive glazing I plan on using, and besides, most of my glazing will be shaded from the summer sun by a 10-foot-wide and 10-foot-high wraparound porch during the summer...

The rules of thumb that I have found are an additional 1 sq. ft. of south glass may be added for every:
5.5 sq. ft. of sunlit thermal-mass floor *
40 sq. ft. of floor not in direct sunshine
8.3 sq. ft. of thermal-mass wall
* The maximum amount of sunlit floor is 1.5 times the south window area.
The recommended maximum amount of south glass for direct gain is 12-15%.

A simpler estimate is said to be provided as follows:

Every one square foot of south-facing glass must be accompanied by three square feet of four-inch-thick masonry and with the two south porches each having 18 sq. ft. of glass, the house needs a minimum of 108 sq. ft of 4" thick masonry. The porch, itself, is 10 feet wide and provides more than 6x the required solar mass with a 4" masonry floor. The porch will also have the All Wall thermal mass on the house wall...

Solar Hot-Water Heaters. For the main house, these will be placed above the sauna at the best winter angle (~44 degrees -- or even 50 degrees), since we want to avoid overheating in the summer. An average family of four uses 80 gallons of hot water each day. Each gallon of water requires roughly one square foot of solar collector area for heating. Using this estimate, a family of four needs two 4’x10’ collector panels connected to an 80-gallon storage tank. Ensure the system has freeze protection. I may use two separate solar hot-water systems with backup energy-efficient electric water heaters for the main house. I'm thinking that pipes to these solar hot-water heaters should travel through the trombe wall to help preheat the water. 

These two solar water heaters will likely be tied into the swimming pool as well (heats the swimming pool in cool months and cools the swimming pool overnight in hot months). A solar hot-water system may also be installed above the garage guesthouse to be the primary heat source for the hot tub. Perhaps this solar water heater should be the hot-water supply for the rarely used guest baths? When guests are visiting, the hot-tub heater might have to work slightly harder...


Since the sun is higher in the sky in the summer than in winter, the optimal pitch depends on the season in which the solar installation is mainly used. During the long days of summer, for instance, photovoltaic installations generate the highest yield. As a rule of thumb, the latitude (33.813N) less 10° is used for the installation angle for use in the summer, and for main use in winter the latitude +10°.

Not counting the roof space above the sauna, on the south face of the main roofline, I can someday fit between 500 and 600 sq. ft. of PV panels. I might manage another 200 sq ft on the roof of the garage. 

I'm thinking I'd like to assist the geothermal heat pump by pre-heating the groundwater with the solar hot water. This may be an excellent way of utilizing the solar hot-water pool heater during the coldest months when the pool can't be used anyway, and when the geothermal heat pump could use some extra help to reduce heating costs... perhaps I can use the solar hot-water panels to boost the temperature of the open-loop well water by incorporating a heat transfer system?

WATER. A whole-house water filtration system will be installed and connected to the city water supply. Any recommendations on brands and techniques? I haven't researched this one much yet.

A well will be drilled for the open-loop geothermal heat pump and for irrigation needs.

IRRIGATION. A rainwater harvesting system will be tied into an overall gray-water system. Gutter downspouts, neighborhood stormwater (the street stormwater drain dumps into the middle of my three acres... I'm going to take a negative and make it a positive!), and certain household gray water will feed into the system. Pumps will tie the system to the irrigation system. Look for high-tech, permanent irrigation systems that monitor soil and atmospheric conditions to save a great deal of water simply by not running when irrigation isn't needed. Any suggestions on such "smart" irrigation systems? Drip-irrigation systems release measured quantities of water directly to the soil surrounding the intended plants instead of spraying an entire area, using water more efficiently and greatly reducing evaporative loss. I will look for products with intelligent sensing, long warranties that indicate good durability, and such environmental features as recycled content.

Some specific performance criteria I found:

"Low-volume, non-spray irrigation system installed, e.g., drip irrigation, bubblers, drip emitters, soaker hose, stream-rotator spray heads:
4.1.8 Irrigation system zoned separately for turf and bedding areas
4.1.9 Weather-based irrigation controllers, e.g., computer-based weather record
4.1.10 Collect and use rainwater as permitted by local code. (Additional credit for distribution system that uses a renewable energy source or gravity)

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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/1/2008

For the past 1.5 years I have been developing my dream house plans in a CAD program. Unfortunately, I got mugged in NYC early this year and they stole my laptop bag with my laptop AND my back-up hard drive (I backed up to protect from a crash, not theft)! So I had to sort of start over on the CAD drawing...  I still haven't redone the site elevations and the GPS location of the trees I'm going to keep.

The house style is a progressive take on an antebellum plantation house. I am using a belvedere with a cupola on top to act as a solar chimney to help generate passive air flow through the house when the cupola windows are opened. I am likely going to use the All Wall System for a perfectly tight and tornado resistant envelope, that also allows the inside of the house to take advantage of the significant thermal mass (unlike ICF, no insulation of the concrete from the inside of the house!). With a tight house, I can control the source of the replacement air when heated air exits the cupola, and that will be sunken basement windows on the north side of the house, further shaded by the landscape plantings. In the antebellum days, they would have open crawl spaces under the house from which the replacement air would be primarily drawn as the hot air exited the cupola. This was a fairly effective means of passive cooling during the hot southern summers, prior to air conditioning. It would at least keep the house 10 to 20 degrees cooler than outside.

However, antebellum homes were very leaky, and that was a good thing, since they were constantly bringing in humidity with the "as designed" passive air flow. If a modern, tight-constructed house constantly brings in and cools high humidity air, moisture accumulates and causes mold and mildew problems. Several antebellum homes have been destroyed by well-meaning renovations that tightened and insulated the walls thereby causing moisture, rot, mold, mildew, and termite problems that previously hadn't occurred for over 100 years. So, to take advantage of antebellum technology for passive cooling combined with modern "tight" construction, we may have to add a humidity-control system to ensure proper conditioning of the air. One of the biggest benefits (and biggest costs, as in 50% of energy consumption) of an air conditioner is dehumidification. If a house in a highly humid environment is kept cool AND open to outside humid air without having the air conditioning need to run, the humidity levels will become unhealthy. (As I understand it, this is one of many reasons you don't want to oversize an air conditioner. You want it to run fairly frequently in order to keep the humidity levels in check.)

Because my house design is going to be high thermal mass, very energy efficient, tight (and because the geothermal heat pump may not naturally run enough to control the humidity on its own if I frequently allow unconditioned exterior air into the house) I will need other additional means of humidity control. I wish the University of Maryland would quickly commercialize their passive-solar recharged, liquid-desiccant dehumidification system, but I am not counting on it. Until such an energy efficient dehumidification system is available at an affordable price, it may be less expensive (or at least healthier) just to keep my house closed from external humidity and run the geothermal heat pump to keep the house cool and keep it in the healthy 40% to 60% humidity range.

I'm thinking that I'll only open the windows for passive cooling when the outdoor RH is below 60%. Thus, my fancy passive-cooling system may have to have the windows of the belvedere and the cupola shaded for several years before it will make sense to use it regularly. (Although I do wonder if the passive flow of hotter air out of the house, which hotter air will absorb and carry greater humidity, won't provide some passive dehumidification, anyway??? I'm not counting on it, but I will certainly experiment with it to find out!) [Note: This is a much different ventilation process than cross ventilation or an attic fan system. Cooler air is entering the house, and the air inside the house is intentionally heated in the "solar chimney" to exit the house. Theoretically, that exiting hotter air may take more humidity out with it than the entering air brings in...] 

I'd love to get people's thoughts and experiences with this. Much of the wisdom of the antebellum architects has been lost. If we want to someday get away from active cooling systems, I believe there is much to learn from the passive-cooling systems developed by antebellum architects.



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Posted to SouthernEcoHome by Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/1/2008

At this point, my dream house is still just a dream awaiting its creation...

I have bought and paid for the three acres we will be building on. I stepped into a lot of equity on these two lots. The developer had significant personal reasons to get his last two lots in his development sold, and I gave him a very low offer that he was pleased to accept. The tax appraisal on the property is almost twice what I ended up paying!

I used the equity from a previous "fixer-upper" that I flipped to pay for the land. I got lucky on that one... Walmart decided to build a Supercenter across the highway from our property and I was able to subdivide and sell the front acre separately as commercial property.

We will also contribute equity from the house we currently live in. It was an investment property. We bought it off of the courthouse stairs for the minimum bid requirement and walked into about $45,000 worth of equity. We moved into this house while we were renovating our sold "fixer upper." We have since remodeled this house as well, and raised its property appraisal by an additional $30,000. At just under 2,000 sq. ft., we feel really "cramped" in this house when we have visitors.

The three acres we purchased has some well-placed mature hardwoods (hickory, oak, sourwood, and maples) on the rear southern exposure and some very large pine trees on the front northern exposure. To the west is a peak of the Appalachian foothills (3rd highest point in our county), with over 120 acres of public land that is intended for a future arboretum and hiking trails. The lot gently slopes from west to east and from north to south, and then has a 30-foot drop at the rear of the property to a seasonal creek. 

The lots are part of a higher-end covenant-restricted neighborhood with curbs, gutters, streetlights, and all utilities buried underground (but unfortunately no sidewalks). The neighborhood is up on a ridge that is one of the highest areas having municipal water supply. Currently, no neighborhood in the city is higher elevation. The houses built so far include two ~10,000 sq. ft. houses, a few ~7,000 sq. ft. houses, a few 4,000 to 5,000 sq. ft. houses, and only one 2,500 sq. ft. house so far, which is the neighborhood minimum allowed. In addition to my unbuilt lots, there are only four other lots left to be built on in the neighborhood. Like me, several owners bought multiple lots for the single residences.

I intend to build an approximately 4,500 sq. ft. "main" house initially, which by finishing the walkout basement and attic over time, I can complete to about 7,500 sq. ft. I may also add an apartment above the attached garage for an eventual total of about 9,000 sq. ft. I also have plans for an earth sheltered guest house (not visible from the street) on the second lot, if it ever makes sense to build. We want to be able to host the whole family for holidays and reunions. (We have five grown kids, just had our 7th grandchild, and will likely have many more grandkids to come as my wife and I are still in our 40's.) Honestly, the neighborhood is a bit higher-end than I would have selected had the lot not been SOOOO perfect. While all of the adult neighbors I have met are down-to-earth, friendly and nice people (and surprisingly most are roughly our age), my childhood experience of growing up in a similar neighborhood was that the children were more materialistic than their parents. I don't want my grandchildren becoming materialistic like that.

On the southeast corner of the property immediately adjacent to the seasonal creek is a likely ~150-year-old white oak tree that rises 20' into the air before descending in a rainbow-like arc to a few feet from the ground and then shoots skyward again at a 45-degree angle. This tree is believed to be an Indian marker tree. The 30-foot hill behind it is covered with mature 6' and 7' mountain laurel bushes. This tree will be the centerpiece of my shade garden that I intend to plant thickly with ferns, hydrangeas, etc. I intend to build a small pond near the Indian tree and create a waterfall down the 30' hill into the pond. [Note: I will be building my house on the Northwest corner of the property (the other side of the other lot) far away from the likely "sacred" Indian tree site, which I intend to respect.]

The water for the waterfall will either be supplied by a pump from the pond below, and/or perhaps by the water from an open-loop well source, geothermal heat pump for the house above. The neighborhood storm water "dumps" into the middle of my two lots and I intend to capture that high volume of rain water along with gutter rain water in a cistern for landscape-irrigation use. I will create a combination of underground storm pipes and dry creek beds to channel the excess storm water to the waterfall so that it can exit my property via the seasonal creek. 

Above the Indian tree, the middle of the lot has a relatively deep ravine, which I someday intend to turn into two koi and turtle ponds with a moon bridge and waterfall between the two ponds. These will be the center of my ~one acre Japanese garden on that "extra" lot. If I ever build my earth-sheltered guest house, it will open up onto a rear southern deck at the upper mouth of the ravine with the deck overlapping and floating a couple of feet above part of the upper pond. I hope to use a modern Japanese architecture blended with the feel of a Japanese tea house for this future guesthouse.

But alas, such landscaping is part of a 20 year plan for the property and for now, that really is nothing but dreams...




The "cool tree" as my soon to be 6-yr-old granddaughter calls it...

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