Saturday, December 29, 2007

Getting green building certified

The Austin Green Home Meetup group (of which I'm no longer the organizer, due to my crazy schedule) passed this information to me. There is now a way to become "Green Builder Certified". The Green Builder College is offering online courses for homebuilders and . Here's a snippet from their site:

"Green Builder® College is an educational program focused on one of today’s most pressing questions: What is Green Building?

While green building rating systems throughout the country have done an excellent job of certifying building projects, Green Builder® College is the first educational program to offer certification and continuing education to individuals in the homebuilding professions. This program augments the information provided in existing project rating programs so homebuilders and their employees can learn the science behind high-performance, resource-efficient construction."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Building in art in your home

It's been awhile, but I've been swamped with work as a Tech Writer, building our house, and also working the Keep Austin Bizarre Christmas Bazaar selling my Scandinavian wares. It's been slow sometimes, but I'm sure it will pick up! Besides, everyone here is so friendly and fun, so we're really enjoying ourselves. There's a lot of unique gift items and stuff for the house.

Anyway, I've talked to a couple of vendors here that would be interested in doing some art projects for our house. For instance, we wanted some art of different mediums that would really make our place look like an art gallery. This guy, Darren Minke, said he could integrate these lovely stained wood pieces into our walls to give it a very unique look.

And here's a sample of his digital artwork:

Another artist that speaks to me is Rassouli, who makes very positive and spiritual images of women. I love his use of color and the radiance his paintings evoke to me. Here is a couple of samples of his work:

Also, I found a guy that will make some outdoor benches for us here in cedar mixed with some very cool New Mexican tiles :-). It will be certainly eclectic and interesting.

I think it's always great to surround yourself with art or objects you love and admire, as it brightens your home and your spirits!

P.S. I am taking it easy until '08 before beginning up again on the house. It will be crazy busy with everything during the holidays.... talk to you next year and have a happy holidays!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thinking outside the building box, some sources

My hands have been on this keyboard for 100s of hours now, researching these last details of our house. Since most of the materials, applications and fixtures are not normally used in residential applications, I've had to swim through oceans of information to find these items with the help of my architect. Jan says that most of the residential norms are crap, so we HAVE to research every little corner and crevice for the ultimate THING. Most of the stuff we want has primarily been used in the commercial sector or green building, and as Ted says, it's because those things are built to last and simply are better (sigh!)... so here we go, I am freakin' tired, but am grateful that the Internet was invented in my lifetime.

First, insulation. Yes, we are using SIPs for most everything. But because our 2nd story cantilevers (overhangs) out above our pool, we have to use something other than our beloved SIPs. So, Ted suggested using batt on the floor of our 2nd story overhang to save money, but now I want to look at this natural fibre insulation that's safe, environmental because their made with post-industrial waste (recycled blue jeans!) and they are good quality for not too much money. The advantage is that even though they are more expensive per square foot ($0.39/sf batt insulation vs. $0.89-1.09/sf natural fibre insulation), you will save in labor costs because batt has to be stapled in and handled with care because of the itch and fiberglass irritation. This stuff can be put in by hand and don't need to be stapled in, so they are quickly installed and safe to handle as you can see with the baby below.

I found this company:
Bonded Logic at

I couldn't resist posting this adorable photo:

Then on to ventilation ducts. We learned of a system that removes humidity from our bathrooms that can be planned with fewer punctures through our roof because they share the same vent to the outside. They are quieter & better designed so that you can control 2 or more bathrooms with the same ventilation duct.

Here's some information on them:
Fantech at
and there's even this nifty timer that can clock the amount of time the vent fan should run (it's recommended that you run it for at LEAST 20 min after a shower):

As for our roof, since we're doing rainwater collection, we had to find an application that would make our flat roof design safe for drinking water. It had to be both ANSI/NSF Standard 61 approved and be able to waterproof our flat roof. We found ONE solution! It's called Hydrostop, and it's mostly used in commercial buildings.

Also, under our stucco, we had to find a plastic rainscreen that will draw water out so that it drains down in channels called Mortairvent. It is not commonly found in stucco applications, but of course we had to have it :-). According to the website, "Current construction designs call for manufactured stone directly against the metal lathe, which is placed against the plywood sheathing and housewrap. This allows moisture that penetrates the exterior cladding to become trapped between the exterior cladding and interior plywood sheathing. In time, this trapped moisture will cause rotting, mold and general deterioration of the plywood sheathing. Rainscreen technology should be used to allow this trapped moisture to drain." So that's why.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Windows and doors, who knew

It's been a while since I posted due to me constantly having to attend to my bids on the house. We have been getting some extreme prices on certain subcontractors, so it's a matter of checking 2, 3 or sometimes more bids to see that you get a reasonable price! It's an art in itself.... but anyway, I wanted to post about windows and doors, since I learned more about them. I didn't realize the complexity, but they are a crucial part of the house and affect your energy efficiency, structural integrity, not to mention your personal style.

There are a number of different frame and door materials, and costs vary greatly. Our architect wanted us to get fiberglass windows (vs. wood, aluminum or vinyl) and I wanted to know why and what the differences were. Here's what I have found out:

Dimensionally Stable

Fiberglass expands and contracts at similar rate as glass (1/3rd the rate of aluminum & 1/7th rate of vinyl)
  • Less torsion and stress between glass and frame in cold weather
    • Reduced air leakage
    • Decreased stress on locking mechanism

Graphic: Unrestrained Thermal Bow

Thermally Efficient

  • Fiberglass is an insulating material
  • Does not require a “thermal break” as do aluminum windows
    • Even with thermal break aluminum windows not as in same category as fiberglass
  • Does Not require steel/aluminum STIFFENERS as many vinyl windows do


  • Fiberglass is a structural material that will maintain its strength in every climate
    • Strength allows slim sightlines – especially in the casement and awning
    • Larger glass areas
  • Unlike wood will not rot or warp
    • With today's higher indoor humidities wood windows often rot or at least discolor from the inside
  • Unlike vinyl will not shrink, sag or crack
    • Over time even when not painted a dark color vinyl can shrink, sag and embrittle

Although fiberglass windows and doors are not new and have been on the market for more than 20 years, they have slowly been introduced into the construction industry, due to the industry's notoriety for resisting change. The problem for us was that not all the window styles were available in fiberglass. Our second choice would be aluminum windows, but they aren't as eco-friendly because of the fact that it takes a lot of energy to produce aluminum. Vinyl windows are a lot cheaper, but then you get the warping problems detailed above. So, we have had to compromise by doing mostly fiberglass and then having certain windows in vinyl (for example, the casement windows that open like doors). Since our casements don't see sunlight (under the cantilever of our 2nd story of our house), it doesn't matter too much.

As for our doors, we are opting to do solid wood. Although we will have to probably replace or stain/paint them every so often, we wanted to keep a certain look. It's probably a small concession in the whole scheme of our green home, but I think it will be worth the extra trouble! Anyway, I finally found a cool front door and mudroom exterior door that fits our style. It wasn't easy because the internet and building supply places are FULL of those horrendously ugly beveled doors, but I guess this is a subjective topic. :-)

Here are a few pics of mid-century design doors that are made in Austin at Crestview Doors (but you can also order them online line and they deliver nationwide):

I was so happy to find these doors, as they're not too overly priced (between $1000-1500) and all the modern ones we saw were in the $6K and up range, like this fancy stainless steel door from Neoporte (which I love, but can't afford right now):

And here's a pic of our garage door that we're going to get from BP Glass Garage Doors:

Monday, October 29, 2007

Greenest building in the WORLD....

This is the highest LEED Platinum rated building on the planet, called the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center. Now for some nice news, this building uses SIPs! :-D

As if I haven't cheered loudly enough about SIPs.

"Considered by many as the father of wildlife management and of the United States’ wilderness system, Aldo Leopold was a conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator, writer, and outdoor enthusiast," according to his site.

Read about this extraordinary building at:

It uses 71% less energy than a building just built to code. That's a huge difference!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Permits approved, bids getting worked on, and more about how owner building works...

After some leg work, I got all our permits approved!!! :-) Celebrate! We can actually start building once we get our bids for the various parts of the house (foundation, framing, materials, plumbing, electrical, etc.). We have been working really hard the past 3 weeks getting our houseplans and structural engineering plans printed and distributed to all the various subcontractors. You have to be on the phone a lot and do a lot of follow up calls!

Since we are owner builders, we can opt to choose U-Build It's contractor list or get subcontractors of our own (or pick and choose which ones we want to get on our own), which is great because we can vet the people ourselves and put more money where we want to. This is the biggest advantage of being an owner builder since you can control costs and quality much more closely than if you rely on a builder to do it. I have heard horror stories of people who give too much trust in their builder and that builder turns around and cuts corners where you don't want them to. In some instances, you're paying them 20% of building costs to basically just write out checks and little more than that.

Here are the categories of contractors. You may have more or less than this list:
  • Foundation
  • Materials
  • Framing
  • Windows
  • Electrical
  • Structured Wiring
  • Garage Doors
  • HVAC
  • Plumbing
  • Roofing
  • Roofing Supply
  • Drywall
  • Paint
  • Cabinets
  • Flooring
  • Glass/Mirror
  • Front Door
  • Masonry/Stucco
  • Stairs
  • Pool builder
  • Steel fabricator (for stair cable railing)

After getting our bids, we have to decide which subcontractors to go with, create our budget and then submit that to the lender doing our construction loan. We, by the way, haven't selected our lender. You will have to prepare documentation for your loan (called "full doc"), such as pay stubs, tax returns, stock/bonds and account/retirement statements. In today's market, you have to do "full doc" to get the best rate possible. Banks and lenders are being more stringent in lending out money than ever before.

When you owner build, part of what you pay for when you sign up with an owner builder program is the support you get when obtaining a construction loan. I believe there is a law in Texas that says that you have to be a registered builder to do your construction loan, and so that's why we had to sign up with U-Build It. The lender (whom we haven't decided on yet) will then get an appraiser to look at all our plans and do a house appraisal. Based on the house appraisal, credit history and income, we will get approved to loan a certain amount for the construction loan.

During the construction of the house, you will get guidance by U-Build It's consultants and their builder's manual on how to schedule the construction project. You write the checks, you decide the subs, and you must do daily site visits, as you are replacing the builder's (a builder is also called GC for General Contractor) Building Supervisor. You will have plenty of inspections (by the structural engineer for the slab, third party inspector, bank inspector, and owner builder inspector) at various phases of construction and THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. Make sure the appropriate inspections are done at the specified time, especially before and after slab pour (your foundation). This is all detailed out in your builder's manual, which is provided to you by your owner builder program. Even if you were going with a builder, it is still good to know these details, as you need to keep an eye on your GC and make sure s/he's doing these steps. It's always good to "trust but verify" as Reagan says, probably the only good Republican quote I'll ever use :-).

It does seem like a lot of trouble, but is worth it to us, because as future home owners for our first house, we want to be totally involved, probably much more than most. It's always good to be ahead of the game, as well as always well informed, whether you go with owner builder or a GC (builder).

During construction, you are paying a higher construction loan interest on the money you draw. Usually, this term is up to 12 months. Once construction is over, your construction loan gets converted to a mortgage loan. As far as we're concerned, we want to shorten the construction as little as possible. We have been told that our house can be ready in 6 months, even faster because we are going with SIPs that can be prefabricated at the manufacturer's. That would be great, as the pool can be ready for the summer time! We hope to break ground end of November/December. As always, I'll keep you posted!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bunch of backwards, good ol' boy contractors (ARGH!)

This is not a nice post. But, learn from my grievances. I am steamed with Never have I met such unprofessional, backward, good ol' boy mentality contractors that live in plastic bubbles. Don't go there, as you'll be told by a lot of unprofessional folks WRONG information. These are people that believe global warming doesn't exist, and their most famous argument "I've been working with building for 30 years, and we know better than you about building" is meritless, they only look at bottom line dollar figures, and call me a zealot because I like SIPs. They try to call you names like hippy, tree hugger because you want to see change in the industry. When all they are doing is covering up their ignorance and closemindedness with name-calling and irrational arguments.

Never have I been treated so poorly by a company site. I am very level headed and don't name call, but I was basically kicked off for having such progressive views in building. These guys will try to talk homebuilders out of building green because they don't understand these green concepts or they will say they'll do it cheaper going stick built. It is a very very closed minded, conservative way of living, which I highly disapprove of. It's either take the bus or stay behind, and there's a big ass group of them back there picking their teeth and holding their precious dollars until their hands bleed.

Industries change and improve, and these people will never understand that. These people are afraid of progress and don't want to even investigate improvements in methods. They would rather be stuck in their own little worlds, defending themselves with their semi-automatics and sit on top of their precious tax money. They don't invest in their surroundings. They say bottom line, you have to pay more. Well, I always look at it as a living investment not just what I save NOW. I believe you have to pay for the society you want to live in, not let everything go haywire around you while you live in your gated community with guns under your pillows. Jan and I are wealthy beyond the $ signs, with a consciousness of both our wellbeing and society's wellbeing, and that's much more important than fending for yourself and keeping your money.

And this infuriates me to no end - they think "Humans first, fish and birds second" (yes, I kid you not, some Republicans in Texas actually had this slogan going against environmental rights). It pisses me off to no end how unreal their minds work and how short sighted they are about stuff happening around them.

I've actually lived in Sweden, where you have the right to camp/travel across all natural areas (even people's backyards), free health care, free college tuition, free school lunches to highschool, child stipends, 1 year maternity leaves (with 80% of your pay during this period), and where I gave 40% to taxes. However, I have never been so stressless and relaxed as I was there. People don't worry as much about money and health as they do here. Besides, you pay your money to SOMEONE here in the U.S., if not to taxes. I know for a fact that health insurance can cost $1000/month for a family of 4, and that's a lot of money! Please don't give me the "high taxes" excuse BS, I know how that works since I lived in both worlds!

Whew... I had to rant, and since this is my blog, I guess I can say what I want. I don't normally talk politics on here, but it has a lot to do with your life here in the U.S., and I have pretty strong beliefs. Ahh, I feel better now! :-)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Foliage plants for removing indoor air pollutants from energy-efficient homes

My husband Jan found this interesting paper on using foliage plants to remove pollutants from air-tight energy efficient homes that will be useful to many of us homeowners. It is important for the house to not only be eco-friendly and energy efficient, but to also be healthy. Even though our foam SIP walls (EPS sandwiched between 2 OSB boards) won't offgas, the furniture you may have can "leak" formaldehyde and other pollutants. Plants are a beautiful and economical way to cleanse the air of your house.

Here is a snippet from the paper written by B.C. Wolverton, McDonald and Watkins, Jr.:

"Under conditions of this study, the spider plant proved most efficient by sorbing and/or effecting the removal of up to 2.27 microgram formaldehyde per cm2 leaf surface area in 6 hours of exposure. The immediate application of this new botanical air-purification system should be in energy-efficient homes that have a high risk of this organic concentrating in the air, due to outgassing of area-formaldehyde foam insulation, particleboard, fabrics and various other synthetic materials."

You can download the paper here:

Or go to these links to look at the following studies on plant effects:

Saturday, October 20, 2007

More SIPs cheering and info on proper installation and flashing of windows

We just came back from a very informative and intelligently put together SIP class at EH Systems. They are a SIP manufacturer that we are definitely considering to buy our panels from, as they offer great customer service, are within a 100 mile radius of Austin (so I can knock on their door if I need to), and hopefully will have prices that are reasonable.

If you're STILL not convinced that SIPs aren't the best way to go, please research and read up on the SIPA website and Oak Ridge Laboratories (government agency). There are tons of articles and technical information for you skeptics, proving its energy efficiency, structural integrity, superiority and payoffs. Yes, they cost a little bit more to build than conventional stick framing, but you can get your money back after 4-5 years of energy savings on your electric bill!!! As I've said many times before, green building costs more upfront, but the money comes back to you in several ways. You are putting your money in your house rather than utility company's pockets, you are saving on electric bills and you are more comfortable in your house, period. Just read about my raves on the Owner Builder Book's forums, you'll see I'm quite the SIP activist :-).

Anyway, the class was free and we got a free hot (and delicious!) lunch and a tour of their plant where they build the SIP walls and roofs. Here's a pic of Jan (who is 6'1" but looks short here!) at the SIP plant with all the panels stacked.

I learned a lot about SIPs, and how they are put together and framed. As a mechanically challenged female, it seemed pretty easy! It sort of goes in like LEGOs. I guess all that practice putting together IKEA furniture paid off in some way. :-).

One of the most useful tips we learned today is about properly installing and flashing windows using ProtectoWrap and Tyvek wrap. This method can be used on any wall system, but is the way that windows SHOULD be installed to allow proper water sealing and drainage. This is especially important on SIP panels because you will not be able to know about water damage as easily, and rot can still happen under your masonry if things get wet and aren't channeled for water drainage.

I have a few pictures of how it was done, but the step by step manual can be downloaded from here:

See "Dupont Flashing Systems Installation Guide" and go to pages 4-8.
or download here from my site.

It's not easy to find this information yourself as a homeowner or owner builder, so we appreciated getting information like this at the SIP class. The guy doing the window demo said you might get resistance from the window installer (usually your framer subcontractor), but MAKE SURE YOU DO IT THIS WAY because this is the official and best way to install and seal your windows. You don't want to get rot and it's very expensive to fix these problems at a later point !

Here are a few pictures if you need to see more than the diagrams in the installation guide.

First, you should do an upside down martini glass cut on the Tyvek wrap where the window opening is, NOT THE TYPICAL "X" FORMATION, and fold the Tyvek around the window opening and secure with nails.

The guys are using Protecto wrap at the bottom of window opening to create a sort of "shower pan" sealing of the bottom, then the window is placed in the hole.

Once the window is set in, you put Protecto Wrap on the the other sides on top of the window edges and Protecto Wrap on bottom of the window so that it is completely sealed from moisture. The Tyvek you see left at the top sticking out is to allow for the run off to go outside the ProtectoWrap.

This entire demo took about 15 minutes to put in one window this way. So, you can safely calculate this number x number of windows for time estimatation purposes.

By the way, we are of course going to be getting low e, argon filled dual pane windows which are very energy efficient. Right now, we are deciding to get fiberglass windows and aluminum windows for a few awning type windows. We haven't decided yet.

Yeah, it was great to learn some new things. Also, I met some great new contacts, and that's always a plus!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Updated floorplans and elevations!

These actually have measurements on them! And by request of my architect, I toned down the colors a bit :-), so it will be more of this dark slate colored concrete (believe it or not, it looks beautiful in reality with the wood and stone accents). Actually, we will not treat or paint the stucco so the concrete will be its natural color.

I've included a description of our plans to give you the background of why we designed it the way it is. A lot of it is for practical reasons!

Here's the site plan of our 3 acre, Hill Country lot, 8 miles W past Bee Cave on 71W. We're practically Willie Nelson's neighbor :-).

Downstairs features a guest bedroom almost completely separate from the rest of the house. We did this on purpose, as this would be convenient for my elderly parents (no climbing of stairs). Whenever guests stay over, they have a more private area and a beautiful patio area where they can sunbathe nude if they want to :-D (there are big bushy trees surrounding the guest patio). The living room is open to above and has an open layout, combining the living, dining, breakfast nook and kitchen. We wanted to avoid walls, as I don't like having a very compartmentalized house. Also, we used a spiral stair to conserve space for a stairwell. The kitchen will be made of IKEA cabinets and have a hidden large pantry to hide ugly appliances. We will have only drawers there, as cabinets are impractical (ever try to get something at the back of a cabinet?). One amazing experience, as Ted calls it, is that when you look down the countertop, it goes from inside to out in one continuous countertop material (probably concrete). There is an exit to this floor in the mudroom that leads to the separate garage port. Our utility room is very large to accomodate for the geothermal system and a laundry room with Jan's little private "dirty" work area and my work storage. Our chem-free, Eco-Smarte swimming pool is made out of fiberglass for low maintenance and will be 16' wide by 40' long. I intend to use it a lot for exercise and cooling myself off in this heat! Notice that the green area is how the 2nd story is placed above the first story.

One of our wishes was to open the door to an indoor balcony, and this moderately sloping lot calls for a catwalk to lead into the 2nd story of our house. When you open the door you are lead to the indoor balcony that overlooks our open living room. When you look to your left, you will be greeted by our roof garden where we'll grow lots of organic vegetables and herbs. Our masterbedroom is modest sized, but has a parting divider to our master bath (the wall doesn't go all the way up to the ceiling, and is only 90% up). We plan to have all showers in the guest bathrooms (who uses those rinky dink tubs that get so filthy anyway?) and in our master bath, we want to do a "slate" tiled shower/japanese style soaking tub. There will be sliding doors to the 2nd bedroom for when a little one comes and we can opt to remove the door and make it into a separate room. The exercise (or bedroom 3) and office (or common area) are separated by a chic sliding door wall divider. The remarkable part of this 2nd story are the two balconies, both north and south that are nice when you want to get some fresh air.

The catwalk leads to the 2nd story of our house (see purple door) and you see a view of the master bedroom's balcony.

Here you see the side of the house where the roof garden is located and a large trellis where the guest suite's private patio is. Feels like a B&B. :-)

Here's the back side of the house where you see the 2nd story overhang the pool lounge area. The balcony shown on the 2nd floor here belongs to the common area/office.
Here's the other side of the house which shows the side where the swimming pool and pool lounge are under the 2nd story overhang of the house.

The exterior uses stucco, wood siding and gabion walls (wire baskets that contain stone). This style is called a Hill Country Contemporary home, which is beautiful against the landscape of the surrounding area. Here's a pic of a gabion wall with bench. I like this idea a lot:

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Keep your house clean & green with flooring, products

Yet another fabulous shopping weekend looking at eco-friendly products for the house. We discovered the Eco-wise store, which got the Best of Austin 2007 award for the most eco-friendly, green store. Good for them!

We met a very animated, yet friendly sales guy giving us the scoop on eco-friendly/sustainable flooring, countertops and rainwater collection.

Basically, there are several types of flooring that are "in" nowadays:
  • Bamboo flooring, which is a fast growing type of grass that is easily grown and harvested, but shipped from China. Bamboo is hard, resilient and can be made into many different beautiful patterns. There's a variety of quality, so be careful what you pay for!
  • Cork flooring, which is made from the bark of cork oak trees, and when stripped, does not destroy the tree. Advantages are that they are softer on the feet, especially in an area where you stand a lot (i.e., kitchen), and are recycled and have no VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
  • Linoleum flooring, which is an all natural, non-toxic flooring made of linseed oil, produced by pressing seeds from flax, an easy to cultivate and abundant plant. They are usually warm and softer on the feet than cold tile flooring and come in a variety of colors. The problem is the look of it, in my opinion, as it has that 70s retro look that doesn't evoke beauty to me, but hey, beauty is the eye of the beholder :-).
  • Local or reclaimed wood, specific to your area. Check out wood that has been taken from buildings that were demolished. You can sometimes find great deals in reusing it for your flooring, banisters, ceiling beams, etc! We are checking out using hickory, which is a near diamond hard wood that is found in Arkansas and milled locally in the Hill Country. It is a beautiful wood that can be stained to your desired color and will last decades.
  • Stained concrete with fly ash, which is basically the mineral residue resulting from coal plants and when mixed your concrete, greatly reduces cement production and therefore eliminating much of the carbon emissions. They are quite fashionable in homes nowadays, as it can make your home look very modern by staining or creating patterns in the concrete. It also provide a large thermal mass for your home. A thermal mass is some sort of structure (i.e. stone) that keeps a constant temperature and thereby positively affects the temperature in your home. Concrete floors are relatively cheap, as they can be part of your foundation, and you can then stain it, and then instantly have your floor ready. You can easily repair them if they crack and are durable, but the only problem is that concrete can be hard on the feet and unforgiving if you drop something on the floor.

We also looked into concrete countertops with varying degrees of recycled glass in them or using sorghum or bamboo as a countertop as opposed to concrete. There are even countertops made of recycled paper that are even stain, scratch and heat resistant! You have a lot of options to create the look you desire.

Then you must also remember to keep your sealants and paints healthy and VOC free. Off-gasing is the culprit, and you don't often see or smell these toxins anymore, as people forget that they are even around, but unfortunately always attack you. Ever wonder about mysterious allergies or the seemingly healthy/athletes that get cancer?? I personally believe that a lot of it is in your house environment. The Eco-wise salesguy mentioned that if you're on a budget and are ever going to "green" anything, you should start with your bedroom and work your way to every room in your house. That includes paint, adhesives, light bulbs, cleaning products, flooring, sheets, mattresses, etc!

We also looked at smaller barrels for rainwater collection for the roof garden of our house. A 55 gallon rain barrel costs about $55 and is terrific for watering your plants. These are some of the things you can add to an existing home that will help you start conserving without investing huge amounts of money. If only everyone can do something, even no matter how little it is, things can change drastically overall.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Our project estimate - do you really want to know?

I have created a spreadsheet of our house construction costs for those to see. It's still just a ballpark estimate, but you can see where we are putting our money into (Note: IKEA kitchen and bathrooms vs. rainwater collection, geothermal HVAC, swimming pool and SIPs).

The total comes out to $527K, but note that includes our soft costs, lot and swimming pool. We may decide to swallow designer fees (pay it out of our own pocket), as we are trying to get close to $500K as much as possible.
(4/3/08 - updating our budget right now)
I will update this when we get real numbers in and see if this number rises or falls!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Details and photos of residential flat roof in action

Some folks have asked us how the roof will be constructed, since there aren't too many of the flat roofs on houses around here. Well, you actually do see them everywhere, but they are found on commercial buildings and according to the roofer guy we talked to (Pepe at Pro-tect Roofing Services), they are much better made and last 5 times more than the conventional, heat absorbing dark gray asphalt tiled roofs. They are a little more expensive to build, but not enough to offset the energy efficient and durability benefits of this roof. I will post prices once I get them from Pepe.

I was lucky enough to be able to get on top of a roof while it was being done. Pepe let me see his work and he's a prospective roofing sub that we want to hire. He was very knowledgeable, as well as nice and helpful and not condescending like many of them can be - especially to a female. He wanted me to witness his workmanship in person, which says a lot about him. Anyway, I took some photos to help you understand how this will be done (and it WON'T leak!). I took some pictures of the roof he's working on (not our house in these pics, sorry!). This is called a commercial grade, residential flat roof/low slope taper roof system using a single-ply membrane:

First, our roof will be an 8.5" SIP panel (foam sandwiched between OSB wood boards, see earlier post about this), then styrofoam wedges (see A) are attached to the SIP that will give a pitch or slope (see B).

The Tyvek house wrap goes above and over the parapet wall (see C). Then the single-ply membrane is rolled over the styrofoam wedges and attached using screw attachments (see silver round attachments in D-E). Pieces of the membrane are layed up on top of the parapet wall (see H on the left parapet wall) and also cover the screw attachments (see E) and then roofing adhesive is used to adhere the membrane to the parapet (see F-H). Finally, all edges and seams are heat-sealed using this hot melding tool (see I, sorry, I don't know the official name of this thing!).

It has a 1/4" slope for every foot, so it's VERY gradual, but enough to drain out the water on the roof. Since we are doing rainwater collection, this is very important and the single-ply membrane must be safe for drinking water. We found a really good brand called Duro-Last that is a reinforced polyvinyl chloride polymer and comes in 40 mil and 50 mil thickness, which is safe for rainwater collection. If you go on their website, there is a lot of technical specs for those that need to know the chemical makeup and information on finding a contractor near you.

If you look carefully at the far edge (click on the picture to enlarge), you can kinda see the low slope in the following photo. Also, we will have a much higher parapet wall then this house, but it gives you a good idea:

Pepe says this is a superior construction to using tiled roofs. The ceramic tiles you see on Mediterranean homes are VERY expensive and high maintenance, and this one in comparison is very low maintenance and lasts 5 times longer. Not only that, but the foam adds added insulation to your roof (even if not using SIPs) and the white or light colored single-ply membrane reflects a lot of heat giving you a very sweet, energy efficient home.

Here's a pic of how it looks on the side of the house (see A) and see how nice and clean it looks, as you don't see an ugly roof when you look at the house (I am biased towards not showing roofs, and don't care for the A-line/many gables look). Also look at how creative you can be with the underside (see B) of the roof, by adding lights or wood siding to give it an architectural element.

You can also mount solar panels on here as well as have rain water collection, adding to the greenness of your home. Note that if you do add solar panels, make sure a professional roofer is on hand with commercial experience to seal the attachments of the solar panels with the same method explained above with the parapet wall. You don't want your single-ply membrane to be punctured or damaged!

Natural stucco, wood siding, our masonry...

We went to a house on the Austin AIA's Homes Tour, and we actually picked a SIP home that has an exterior similar to ours. The stucco on this house is not colored or treated, so it has a natural sand color. We think the stained wood and this stucco look beautiful and very organic. The effect looks like this:

You don't see this of course, but the wood panels and stucco is set over a gap to allow for venting and water drainage.

Later, I will write more about roofing, rainwater collecting and more details and pics of our project.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

My Fabulous (Window) Shopping Weekend & My Favorite Part of Houseowning... FURNITURE!!!!

This weekend was really my weekend, as I love to window shop and Jan was even willing to look around for furniture. Jan is working on a model of our house and we are needing to check to see that all the furniture we desire fits in the rooms. It's so much fun! I'm totally in my element right now.... too bad that I have extremely expensive taste in furniture. :-) I can't help but love my Danish, Italian and French design.

We discovered this fabulous store called Motif in (of all places) hickville Kyle, TX which is 15 miles south of Austin. It really has awesome, affordable and modern furniture that definitely fits our style. They even deliver all over the U.S.!

It's difficult to find modern furniture that doesn't look like that cheezy, Nagelesque 80's zany modern look that is so distasteful (nice modern stuff is NOT black lacquer with gold trim, sofas shaped like lips, frosted glass with aluminum legs, etc.). This stuff looks like high quality stuff, but at half or more of the price! Here are a few pics of some of my favorite pieces that I want to get:

Love this oh so chic bed, and looks very zen-like to me, and not bad at $999 for a King...
This sweet little sofa is on sale for $599!!!

Also, I totally dig this square dining table where you can converse with everyone at the table ($999):

.... And debating whether to get this sofa at $1799???
or this Italian beauty at $7200 at the Nest store (which I absolutely love love love, but need to choose between it and another car :-) hehe.... YES! ;-)

I am totally into that firm and very tight fabric over chunky, cubic sofas, as well as oak colored woods at the moment. I just enjoy the clean lines and minimalist design that go with our lifestyle and attitudes of life. And while I would love to buy all eco-friendly furniture to go with our green home, at the moment it is still very much out of our price range, unfortunately. For example, sofas made of organic cotton and formaldehyde-free binding is still in the $4000 and up category. We saw some really nice ones that you can order online at Vivavi. Maybe we'll build up our eco-friendly furniture slowly....

Take a look at this beautiful side buffet made of this interesting sustainable wood called Kirei. The kirei doors are made from the reclaimed stalks of the sorghum plant and made using a formaldehyde-free adhesive. People are also using it as wall or accent wall treatments. It's gorgeous and has a much more interesting pattern than bamboo....

And even rugs made with Finnish paper! It's very tough, stain resilient and eco-friendly, and I may even sell it some day on my online Scandinavian store, Check out Woodnotes:

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Renewable Energy Roundup Thoughts & Lots of Green Goodies

Yeehaw, that was a great roundup in Fredericksburg! I didn't bump into anyone I knew, but I met some people and learned a lot in the 2 short days there. It went fast and furious, and the people were very interesting. I was overall impressed by the level of advice and amount of information that was presented for so little money ($20 for all 3 days!), which is very much what we believe in. This information should be had by all! We also felt the hippy vibe there, and everyone was friendly and really wanting to share the information in true Texan spirit.

Here are some highlights of the event. Jan and I tried to split up and cover as much ground as possible. He leaned towards the highly technical parts and landscaping lectures, and I towards the more understandable and design lectures :-).

  • The LEED program - (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) A non-profit agency created to rate your home based on a number of criteria such as location (how and where you build, close to public transit, amenities, agriculture areas?), sustainability (site stewardship, landscaping, non-toxic pest control, surface water mgmt.), water efficiency (water reuse like graywater and irrigation system), indoor environmental (humidity control, combustion venting, no VOC paints), energy and atmosphere (Energy Star home, light fixtures), materials and resources (home size compared to number of inhabitants, local sources of building materials, material efficiency), and site recycling and reuse (materials that can be reused for landscaping, driveway sidewalks, building materials). It costs a few thousand dollars to be LEED rated and the criteria can be tough, but it might raise property values or make it more desirable to prospective home buyers since you are getting an official "stamp" on your house for green design building and sustainability.
  • Sizing the A/C in your home properly - 30% of all homes in the U.S. have airconditioning units that are oversized for its home. ACCA studies have shown that the average A/C installed is 150% bigger than what it should be. When you shop for an A/C unit, the "normal" standard A/C guys will quote you is 300-400 sf of your airconditioned space in your house per ton (A/C units go by number of tons, for example, 3 ton A/C unit), but depending on your windows, insulation values, etc, you can sometimes go 600 and up sf/ton of your home or even 900-1200sf/ton for a foam home. Our home will be made of SIP walls and roofs and have low e windows, so we can get away with probably over 900 sf per ton!!!! You should always do a manual J load calculation, a software program that is used to measure your A/C load and has a built in 15% buffer. This means that you shouldn't round up too much. Also, the main reason you don't want to purchase too big of an A/C unit is that it will not dehumidify the air properly if it shuts off too quickly. The A/C unit must run for at least 15 minutes before it can properly remove moisture from the air. If your unit is too large, it will cool and shut down too quickly, not allowing the time to dehumidify. Moisture is a big no-no, because it can be uncomfortable, inefficient and cause mold in your home. The big misnomer in A/C design is "bigger is better" but its simply not true. Even A/C installers don't know or don't want YOU to know about this. One other thing to check for is duct leaks, because 25-30% of the air can be escaping from leaks in ducts. This will also lower the A/C efficiency by a considerable amount. The lecturer, Doug Garrett, highly recommends you go over seals, seams, and joins with MASTIC tape, not duct tape. You should try your hardest to have a tight home and good ventilation to greatly improve energy efficiency and lower bills.
  • The Unforeseen movie, directed by Austinite Laura Dunn and produced by Robert Redford, this film is a moving and beautifully filmed story about the rise and demise of Austin developer, Gary Bradley, and how his development detrimentally impacted a natural spring, Barton Springs, and the areas around Austin. It showed how the laws were changed and how development encroached on a simple farmer who wanted to be in the country but found himself in a suburban jungle. What was also shocking to see was people marching for property rights who don't want to follow the protection laws of natural preserves and this ridiculous woman saying "human first, then birds, then reptiles". DUH.... I felt our evolution cycle back a few hundred years when I heard that one. >:-( Then the icing on the cake was to see Baby Bush lift the law that says that developers can basically build whatever and wherever they want and can grandfather back in order to circumvent the current environmental laws. Argghhh... that's FRUSTRATING!!!!!
In addition, we visited booths covering everything from German rainwater filters to creating a wildlife habitat in your own backyard to a SIP manufacturer to looking at chem-free products to viewing eco-friendly and healthy materials and seeing cars that run on corn oil or electric. They also had all natural/organic food and drinks and cooking presentations. There were a few bands playing music too. It felt like a county fair there but much more informative! We got a chance to find a good metal roof for our garage port, which is safe for drinking water and rainwater collection. Also, they displayed the latest in LED lights (that use VERY little energy and last forever), where they now come with dimming options! There was also a Geothermal guy there that seemed smart and will be giving us a quote on our system. We covered a lot of what we need for the house, so I'm very happy.

Ted, our architect, also came with us, so he was able to help guide us to some great lectures. We ate dinner at the Nest, which seemed like a perfect ending to a very glorious day.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Getting it together for the ACC and what to do next!

It's been a rough few weeks, with getting everything done and together and then having work and family calling our attention, it's great that we were able to finally submit our houseplans and forms to the Architectural Control Committee (ACC).

For those unfamiliar, all the hard work you put into the design, your lot and specifications now lies in the hands of the architect who was hired by your neighborhood homeowner's association (HOA) to review your plans and elevations to approve it for the subdivision or neighborhood where you will build your house.

First, we submitted our permit applications for the building, septic and driveways to the county office (Travis). Then, we had to take copies of these receipts, our completed houseplans (not the structural engineering), and forms from the HOA to the architect hired for the ACC. Every month they have a meeting to discuss houseplans of houses that will be built and will either approve or disapprove your plans and make recommendations.

Simultaneously, our structural engineer is working on the structural plans. Once those are all done, we can submit all our plans to the U-Build It guy who will go and get a preliminary bid for us from sub-contractors they know are good and use frequently. It is completely optional to use their sub-contractor bids or get our own bids for subs. We might get a few extra bids for a few line items (for example, plumbing, SIPs installation/framing, etc.) , but might keep some bids from our rainwater collection and geothermal system which have a lot fewer subcontractors.

Next, the financing begins, and in order to do that, you have to get your bids/budget for the house done, get your documentation together (like your paystubs, tax forms, etc. if you go for a full doc loan) and make sure your credit is repaired or already good so that you can get your construction loan. The construction loan will be modified at the completion of the house to a mortgage. It's a slightly different process, which will be explained in greater detail in a future post.

Overall, things are going smoothly! I am going to update the houseplans with dimensions for those interested. Also, we are just waiting to get our permits, financing and then we are ready to go! I plan to also document everything in better detail for an e-book that I've decided to make more affordable since I am going to base it off how things are in Austin. But feel free to get it to get an idea of costs, as well as our trials and tribulations! I think it will be an overall happy journey!!! Can't wait :-).

P.S. I just read on Yahoo News that Austin is the 2nd largest Green city!!! Hurrah!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Green screen used for climbing plants, trellis, possible pebble wall use

I happened upon this great looking Green Screen wall that can be used for climbing plants, trellises and possibly even a pebble wall. The best part is that they are made of recyclable material. They would look terrific on our landscape, and we're hoping they are affordable. I'll call them up and see then will post prices on my blog. Here's the link and photos below:

I love the look of climbing plants, giving a "soul" to the house. Here are some preview pics:

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Good Questions on SIPs and using a Designer/Architect

Sorry it's been awhile since I last posted, but I'm about to start a flurry of new posts because of all the activity happening with the house. Add that to the fact that I've been swamped at work. Anyway, no more excuses! :-) I am about to get this party started, and we're so excited!

A gentlemen here in Austin wrote me with some good questions on SIPs, so I thought I might post with my answers. He and his wife are wanting to custom build their home, and I thought to give them my unbiased take. Remember, costs and the permitting process information mostly applies to the Austin area, but it still gives you a good idea (I'm not afraid to post costs for things, as I like getting and giving the idea of what you'd be getting into cost-wise).

Q: We took a 6 week class offered by the Owner Builder Network at ACC and were thinking about going with them. Why did you choose U-Build It program over OBN?
A: We researched Owner Builder Network, Owner Built Custom Homes, and U-Build It and found not only was U-Build It the most professional, organized, and responsive, but they were cheaper fee wise. They charge by only the A/C square footage and don't count patios, decks, garage ports etc. More details at this link. Not only that, but the classes we found to be unnecessary. We thought the most important factors were the support, the fact that we don't pay the entire fee up front but in installments and the 20 site visits.

Q: Did you get quotes on what the cost difference was between traditional framing and SIPs?
A: Yes, we certainly did a cost analysis, and basically, 2x4 or 2x6 stick built wood framing costs approximately $5.50-$6.50/sq ft for labor+material versus SIPs that would cost about $9-10/sq ft. HOWEVER, if you were to at best save 50-60% on your cooling costs, through time, SIPs pay themselves off and are cheaper to maintain, as well as extremely energy efficient. Basically, much of green building is a higher upfront cost, but cheaper in the long run in use and maintenance. Besides, we all need to think about global warming and our planet! :-) When deciding on a getting a SIP home, you are investing in more than just your house value, but in a legacy home that will last forever and be cheaper to maintain for years to come.

Q: We like the flat roof idea. Do you have any details on how much weight a SIPs roof support?
A: One of the videos we saw about SIPs has a huge pick up truck on top of a SIP roof to show their strength and they really are that sturdy. They are the choice material to use in hurricane prone areas, because they have actually shown several SIP homes that have survived against massive hurricanes while their stick frame counterparts were obliterated. SIP design meets or exceeds windstorm code which means its design withstands a 5 times stronger windstorm than a conventional new home. All the information about SIPs can be found here: When getting a flat or low-slope roof, make sure you get a COMMERCIAL grade flat roof, lined with a single ply membrane up to and including the parapet wall. And don't let anyone tell you they will leak! They won't if you design them correctly and to commercial grade. If you will notice, 99% of all commercial buildings have flat/low slope roofs, so if they don't leak, yours won't either.

Q: I noticed that your designer is based in Houston. Do you feel like this distance was in any way a drawback to the process?
A: Honestly, yes, it was a bit of a drawback but not too bad because my parents live in Houston and our designer allowed us to see him on the weekends. I'm a telecommuter, so I work on the computer by trade, and it was easy to get stuff via computer from him, which I'm used to.

Q: Why didn't you go with a designer in Austin? Which ones did you look at?
A: We searched far and wide for a designer who would design a "SIP-friendly" home, and the closest SIP designer was in Houston. I found Ted through the SIPA organization directory. We were determined to get one who had SIP experience and was amiable towards this alternative building method. He fit the bill. The one remarkable thing about him, is that he's VERY frugal and has suggested ways for us to cut costs without compromising quality and the look we are after (like the flat roof design).

Q. In your research, did you get a sense for what the average cost per sq/ft one would pay for the design?
A: A designer/architect can cost about $8-10/sq ft to custom design your house. Depending on how many projects are going on for your designer/architect, it can take 6 mos. to a year to properly design it according to your lot and your specifications. You could also opt to buy a "stock plan" that can range from $1500-5000 which are all over the Internet, however, I don't recommend it because it's not the same thought and process that goes into doing your own design. The advantage is that you can place things in a more space, energy or sound efficient way, tailor the plan to your lifestyle, and get cost saving tips from your designer/architect during your building process. Believe it or not, it actually is advantageous that your designer/architect is independent from the subcontractors or builder (General Contractor) you work with, because your designer/architect can act as your personal consultant, letting you know if something isn't built or done correctly as opposed to your GC "hiding" imperfections or cutting corners you don't want cut.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Cheap information - 8th Annual Renewable Energy Roundup in Fredericksburg, TX (1.5 hours west of Austin)

If you find yourself in the Texas area end of September or are lucky enough to already live here :-), make sure you come to the 8th Annual Renewable Energy Roundup at in Fredericksburg, TX September 28th-30th in the center of Texas Hill Country.

It's $10/Friday, $12/Saturday or $20 for all three days! That's a bargain for the amount of information you can get on these hot topics:
  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Geothermal
  • Water Use & Reuse
  • Energy Conservation
  • Rainwater Harvesting
  • Green & Sustainable Building
  • Organic Growing
  • Alternative Transportation
  • Straw Bale Construction
And there will be:
  • Exhibits
  • Free Guest Speakers
  • Natural Food
  • Family Activities
Come and learn something new or meet contacts in the green field. Besides, it will be a fun trip and nice drive over there, as you'll pass some beautiful areas, and the historic town of Fredericksburg with its German influence and charming old west appeal.

Our architect and I might exhibit there and advertise our blog and my upcoming e-book. Let us know if you live in the Austin area and want to carpool! Thanks to Maverick for passing this information along!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

About SIP walls and a residential flat roof, logic behind these alternative building methods

As our design is coming together under our structural engineer, Green Earth Engineering, I thought I should explain how and why we chose SIP walls and a residential "flat" roof design. They are
mostly because of cost-effective and energy efficient reasons, and I'll explain why in layman's terms.

First, SIPs are a composite building material. They consist of a sandwich of two layers of structural board with an insulating layer of foam in between. The board is usually Oriented Strand Board (OSB) and the foam either expanded polystyrene foam(EPS), extruded polystyrene foam (XPS) or polyurethane foam .

They are not commonly used in the building industry due to knowledge or resistance to trying new methods, which is very unfortunate, because they are superior to conventional stick framing and pay themselves back in cost due to energy savings.

So here's a breakdown of why we chose SIPs pulled from my architect's website:

Benefits for homeowners
* Extremely strong structure. There is considerable evidence that homes with SIP wall and ceiling panels have survived natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, straight-line winds and earthquakes better than traditional stick-framed homes right next door.
* Lower energy bills. Discounting the "human factor"-thermostat settings and so forth-a number of side-by-side tests show that between 15% and 40% less energy should be needed to heat and cool a home with SIP wall and ceiling panels. In tests by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, SIP walls outperform fiberglass walls by over 50%.
* Improved comfort. Thanks to extra R-values and tight construction, the wall and ceiling surfaces in a SIP home will stay warmer than in stick-framed homes. The warmer those surfaces are, the more comfortable the home is.
* "Freeze proof." What happens if the power goes down? During the late 1990s, several New England SIP homes survived over a week without power or a wood stove and never came close to freezing.
* Indoor Air Quality. While there is no guarantee here, most homes built with SIPs are tight enough that builders can't ignore upgrading mechanical ventilation compared to that found in a standard home. In many studies in North American housing, the best indoor air quality is found in homes that are tight and equipped with upgraded mechanical ventilation.
* Green building product. On a life-cycle basis, a more energy-efficient house built with SIPs will be less damaging to the environment, in terms of overall resource consumption. Much less dimensional lumber is used in a SIP home than in a traditional framed structure.
* Interactive systems benefits: For example, a more energy-efficient home may cost slightly more to build but in turn can be heated and cooled with smaller equipment that costs less to install.

Benefits for construction
* Speed of construction. You can order the panels with all pre-cutting performed in a factory. They show up on the jobsite all pre-numbered, ready for assembly.
* Fewer framers. A crew can consist of one lead framer assisted by minimally skilled helpers.
* Shell installation option. If you're having a tough time locating skilled carpenters, a growing number of manufacturers have regular crews who will install a shell on your foundation for you to finish.
* Rigid frame. It's easy bracing SIP walls. In fact, once you have two corner panels up, you can lean a ladder against the panels when needed.
* Less jobsite waste. If you've ordered a set of panels with all rough openings for windows and doors pre-cut at the factory, the only true waste you'll have is taking a few cases of empty tubes of adhesive caulk containers to the dump.
* Less theft. While 2x4s and 2x6s are prone to "walking off" unsecured job sites, panels are too specific to the site's building system to be worth hauling off somewhere else.
* Cost competitive. While most builders say they pay a little more for SIPs than for the comparable framing and insulation package in a stick-built home, as a group they believe the benefits are worth the costs. The amount extra they pay varies; while a few say it costs them an extra $1 per square foot of finished floor area, the amount may be higher when roof panels are used. However, when roof panels enclose extra living space in a loft, the price per square foot is surprisingly competitive. If at the design stage you optimize a structure to use panels, the most experienced SIP builders then say a house framed with SIPs should cost about the same as a house framed with comparably sized dimensional lumber, and maybe even a little less.
* Easier to hang drywall. There is solid backing for all drywall against exterior walls, which means there is less cutting, faster attachment and less waste material.
* Fewer framing callbacks. Wall panels go in plumb, square and straight. Once in place, a SIP won't warp, twist or check.

As for our "flat" roof design, our architect advised us that a good way to SAVE MONEY is to get a commercial grade "flat" roof because you don't have to pay for those beautiful Spanish ceramic tiles found on Spanish/Mediterranean style homes, which can get extremely expensive. Besides that, the flat roof goes wonderfully along with our design aesthetic, it being modern and clean-lined. Now, many modern homes use metal roofs with overhangs, which are equally as nice, but we chose this design for cost reasons, having to be "cheap" but not compromise a good quality structure.

The way our roof will be designed is it will first be a SIP panel, then styrofoam wedges to give the roof a 1 to 12 pitch for rainwater drainage, then a thin membrane lining. There will be a parapet wall (wall that goes higher than the roof line) as shown below:

The reasoning behind the parapet wall is to both protect and "cover" all that is ugly on top of the roof. We will also prepare our roof to be solar panel ready.

As you can see in this design, we will not have a truss or attic space under the ceiling as the interior will soar all the way up to the SIP panel, creating a spacious looking living room with extremely high ceilings! High ceilings make any room look bigger, which is the effect we are after. The duct work from our HVAC will be in the floor of the 2nd story, thereby not needing an attic or truss at the ceiling.