Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Suzi Gardenia goes live

Suzi Gardenia, the alter-ego of my loving wife has gone live with her own blog. Check out:     In it, she plans to chronicle her exploits in the yard as we build out our homestead.  Since home gardening can be such an integral part of a sustainable life style, we've planned all along to build and grow gardens and orchards all over our 3-1/4 acres.  In fact, back during the design stage, we hired some really talented and committed tree-hugging architects to "Master Plan" our gardens for us.  Daughter #2 and her colleagues at Grounded Design Studio in Chicago designed a site plan based on the principles of "Permaculture".  She then gave me a copy of one of the bibles of the permaculture movement; Gaia's Garden.

As we've finished the house build and moved into the garden and landscaping phase of our adventure, progress slowed considerably.  We're doing all this work ourselves and more than once we've asked "What were we thinking?  3-1/4 acres of garden and orchard... and in our 50's"?   It's a LOT of work, but it also is great Therapy after dealing with the corporate world all day!  So far, we have berries in the ground and the Trellis built, three raised beds in the main garden area and a couple more close in to the kitchen door for herbs.  We've got 4 apples and 4 pears planted. One peach is in the ground(that's already borne fruit last year) and we'll plant 6 more this winter.  Check out Suzi's blog for pictures of the winter crops we are enjoying from our hoop house.  In just a few short weeks, we'll get the jump on spring and plant fresh new greens in the hoop house and start the seedlings in preparation for warmer weather. Subscribe to Suzi's blog if you wish to keep up with our progress.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Passive Solar Works

It's been a long time since I posted here, but we've been busy enjoying our new green home!  Here is an illustration of why we did this.  This morning I wandered back into the bedroom to discover this inviting image.  I laid back down on the bed and was warmed by the rays and reminded of how effective good passive solar design can be.  It's 8:30 AM on a crisp November morning.  It's 39 degrees outside but a comfortable 69 and climbing inside.  The heat pump came on at about 5:30 AM but has already reached the setpoint and turned itself off; letting the sun do its thing.  The sun streaming through our 175 sq ft of southern facing low e, Argon filled glass is all the heat we'll need until late this evening!

I plan someday to graph our energy use and post the data.  The short version, however, is "it's all good". We are pretty conservative with our heat and cool settings, and so never had the highest bills you've heard of.  Still, even compared to OUR modest heating and cooling bills of our past homes, this house ROCKS. Our heat is All electric (and solar). Through two summers and last winter, our HIGHEST electric bill was $131/mo.  We have 3400 sq ft, and can heat it for merely $131 in the coldest month all year long.  I love it!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Appalachian Sustainable Hardwoods

Deciding on the flooring choices was one of the more daunting tasks we've had. We, of course, wanted it to be natural and beautiful. Still, within that qualification there are a range of choices.

We looked at reclaimed heart pine; beautiful, green, but VERY pricy. We considered tile and polished concrete; logical choices when working with passive solar designs due to their thermal mass. Since the main living space will be on a second floor, however, we decided not to put all that mass (thermal and otherwise) up in the air. Typical big box store hardwoods are pretty, inexpensive and natural feeling, but we couldn't satisfy ourselves that any of them were a responsible choice when considering forestry stewardship and the embodied energy of manufacturing and shipping from somewhere halfway around the world. Knowing of our green leanings, Beth Eason told us about Appalachian Sustainable Development and their hardwood products, so we checked them out.

Although not the cheapest flooring material we could find, this stuff was among the most beautiful so we decided to bite the bullet and go with it. The down side of working with Sustainable Woods like this is you can't go feel and see the wood till you've fully committed. So... we went all in. We've settled on 1100 sq. ft. of Red Oak.

According the Kevin Rowe who runs the forest products program for ASD, random width, 3", 4", 5" #2 common is the "gold standard" for sustainability! That's because you get to use more of the tree (waste less) and the trees don't need to be so selectively harvested as to get "select" grade or #1 common with less "character" (knotts and checks and burls). The wood was harvested in Northwestern North Carolina, milled in Southwest Virgina (Abingdon) and made ready for us to pick up ourselves. These boards are about as local (regional) as you can get here in East Tennessee.

The picture above is of Dave, our installer as he sorts through the bundles and lays the random widths out in a consistent 3, 4, 5 pattern. He's a very experienced local tile and hardwood installer who came highly recommended. As the work progressed, Dave repeatedly said "this is really nice to work with" or "this is nice stuff" and "wow, this is beautiful wood". We were growing more comfortable with our decision. We selected "Early American" Min-wax stain and Dave went to work. By the time he had finished the second coat of varnish, we were clear. This was one of our best decisions in the project so far. The floors are beautiful!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Energy Star

The first priority for anyone building a green home is energy efficiency! Almost anything else you do to "green" your home pales by comparison to the impact you can have with energy efficiency. One of the measures of how we're doing with our energy design is our HERS rating. The Home Energy Rating System (HERS) is a numerical reference number that compares a home's energy design to a "reference" home that rates 100. To gain an "Energy Star" certification, a home must beat the reference standard by at least 15%. That is, when our home's design is audited, we've got to score an 85 or less.

We hired Bruce Glanville of the Knox Housing Partnership to rate our home. The image here is Bruce conducting a "Duct blaster" test to determine how well our HV/AC duct system is sealed. It's a measure of how much of the air conditioning and/or heat leaks out into the unconditioned attic. The HERS rating also looks at the insulation system, the heating system selection, the amout of glass and its emissivity (E-factor), the solar gain, and the efficiency of appliances. At the preliminary rating estimate in November we scored a 62. That's a darn efficient design! Sweet! This preliminary rating was also very timely.
We've agonized a bit lately over the insulation system to choose. Our spec has called for open cell foam insulation throughout, but that is a very expensive choice. Our builder has proposed a hybrid "flash and batt" system where we use a thin layer of foam to seal the entire building envelope and provide a bit of insulation (R= 7), but then fill the rest of the wall cavity and attic with conventional fiberglas batts and blown cellulose. The flash and batt proposal will save us over 60% of the insulation cost. It turns out... the full foam system, while exotic and fun to talk about, doesn't really gain us any energy efficiency to speak of. Our projected HERS rating doesn't change at all with the more expensive insulation! Well... suddenly, the decision was made easy. Flash and batt started the next day at a savings of almost $14,000!

Once I find my camera, I'll post a few images of the insulation system being installed. It's pretty cool.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Structural Insulated Sheathing (SIS)

Once I learned that Dow Chemical (my old stomping ground for a few years) had last year reformulated Styrofoam to reduce the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of its blowing agent, my appreciation for the newer building products from Dow really came around. One other recent decision that was made easy has to do with the Sheathing we used.
Traditional construction around East TN uses OSB (Oriented Strand Boasd - basically, particle board) sheathing and an overlay vapor barrier of Tyvek house wrap. You've all seen these houses. They look like a house wrapped in white paper until the outside siding is later added. (One house being built near our rental still has only the Tyvek house wrap after over a year... I'm guessing they ran out of money when the wheels came of our economy). Tyvek makes a good vapor barrier and has been a staple of the building industry for years. Our specification for this house even calls for a conventional house wrap. Rick Hessick of BR2, our builder, suggested we look at SIS and with my new-found appreciation for styrofoam, we looked closely. It's a great idea! SIS replaces the OSB, and the tyvek. PLUS, it's got a better vapor barrier performance
because it can be sealed better AND it's got the insulating properties of 1/2" of styrofoam. Since we already planned to use foam for our insulation system, this product just adds to the R-value in our wall system. To top it off.... it's a real pretty blue :)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Waste Management Plan

A couple years ago, while we were in the very early stages of planning, I ran across a great, easy read called Your Green Home, A Guide to Planning a Healthy, Environmentally Friendly New Home. The author is Alex Wilson, a pioneer and leader in the green building movement. It has influenced many aspects of our plan, probably more than any other resource. Chapter 11, Dealing With Construction Waste presents several opportunities for our builder to learn new tricks.

Typical practice in East Tennessee involves growing a huge pile of all manner of construction site waste which is then burned on site. Too often, construction rubble is just pushed into a big hole on site, covered with soil and left to rot and/or poison groundwater. We had such a bury hole in the back yard of our last house; a Shore built house on Southcliff Drive. I worked for years to remove junk and fill the hole as it rotted and sunk into the yard. It really pissed me off and I vowed to never have another house that that builder or his sub's were involved in.

Among the new tricks we are executing on this build: A Waste Management Plan is required by the contract. The point of it is to be sure the builder looks for every opportunity to REDUCE, REUSE and RECYCLE. Our plan includes things like; On site segregation and use of recycle bins for plastics, metal wastes and paper/cardboard. Removal of nails and stacking of lumber scrap. We'll encourage reuse of usable timbers that way. Untreated scrap that's too short, split or odd shaped to reuse will be stacked for our use as kindling. (We also plan a few bonfires as cool weather rolls in. I understand Krispy Kims are yummy off the camp fire). Scrap wallboard is usually a landfill filler around here. Not on our job! We'll collect it, pulverize it with a brush chipper and use it as a soil amendment in the garden. After all, it's just gypsum (Calcium Sulfate) pressed between two layers of biodegradable paper. Gypsum is a prised soil amendment in Tennessee Red Clay soil. I think we'll even want more than we can make from the waste drywall.

I've already taken one load of recyclables the the recycling center. BR2 now has built these nice big bins and begun to use them. It's clear we've still got some educating to do, but its a good start. This treehugger is happy!

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Where, exactly, is that greywater collection system?

There is value in being able to stop by the build site almost every day. The plan for this week was to finish the underslab rough-in plumbing and be ready to pour the slab on Monday. Not so fast my friend!

The plumber did his thing and was awaiting a building inspector when I stopped by Wednesday evening. Upon my review, I noticed that there was only one drain system, just like a conventional home. As the most causal reader of this blog knows, however, we aren't building a conventional home. OUR plan calls for segregation of "black" water from "grey' water (i.e. toilets, kitchen sink, dishwasher etc. separate from showers, tubs and laundry) so that in drought-like times we can treat the greywater and keep landscaping, garden and orchard alive. This water conservation technique hasn't been considered much in East TN because of the amount of rain we get in normal times. Have you noticed...these are not normal times! Although we do not plan to install a greywater treatment system now (due to budgetary constraints), we DO plan to have the segregated piping installed in the floor and walls to make future treatment easily available. When/if climate change driven prolonged drought comes to Tennessee, we'll be ready.

Our builder is now in contact with the County inspector to get them on-board with our plans. The inspector has NEVER encountered greywater collection so we'll have a few days delay while he figures out what to be alert to and/or concerned about. This is but one example of the type delays we expect. This is why, when the builder says 6 or 7 months to build, we've assumed 9 or 10. We don't want to rush past the opportunities to build it right! Remember the old addage; "GOOD, FAST, or CHEAP; pick any two"! We'll go with Good and Cheap, not fast. Sooooo... we take a few days delay; let the plumber rework the drain lines and the County get comfortable with it all. We can wait.

There are lots of resources on the web about this stuff, mostly originating the the arid Southwest (California and Arizona). One such resource can be found here: