Thursday, January 31, 2008

And the winner of HVAC efficiency is...

...Us! We did a manual J calculation of our SIP (Structural Insulated Panel) home and found out that our house was very efficient at 941 sf per ton! The average HVAC contractor normally sizes HVAC units at 450-550 sf per ton.

What does the ton mean? Your HVAC (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning) system is sized by the ton. Typical sizes for single family residences are between two and five tons. Each ton equals 12,000 Btuh. Basically, it means our house is so air tight, insulated and efficient, it would take a 3-ton HVAC unit to cool our SIP house compared to a 5-ton HVAC unit to cool a stick built house that is the same size as our SIP home.

Our future house, a 2419 sf home, is the most energy efficient home that our green architect has ever designed. :-) Sorry to toot our own horn, but it makes us a bit proud to know this.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bush's stimulus plan actually making us happy?!

This is maybe the first thing EVER from Bush that has actually made us HAPPY. With the stimulus plan, they intend to increase the jumbo loan limit to $625,000 for 12 months. You see, anything under the jumbo loan limit gets a much lower interest rate than above that limit. Before it was around 417K which would have caused us to get a percent or more interest rate higher because our loan would have been around 575K. Here's a quote from the news:

"For instance, the interest rate difference between loans that fall
within the cap limit and jumbo loans was more than 1 percent on Thursday
-- 6.39 percent compared with 5.30 percent, according to
On a $500,000 mortgage, the difference is about $350 a month."

Below is the full story:

Friday, January 25, 2008

Duct, duct, goose!

I'm glad I'm not Mrs. Cheapo, because my husband is insisting on metal ductwork for the house which is the most expensive way to go for your HVAC (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning) ductwork. My husband, the typical Swede, is so quality driven that he absolutely insists upon it.

From what I've learned, there are a few good reasons. We talked to several geothermal, HVAC consultants and took a couple of classes where they have said the same thing - Metal ducts are better. Metal ductwork lasts longer, is easier to clean, doesn't get particle buildup as easily as flex duct and the air flows better (less possibility for restricted airflow, which causes A/C inefficiency!). A/C usage and inefficiency accounts for a lot of Texan's house bills, so this is pretty darn important. You must insulate the metal ducts on the exterior to keep it from sweating if it's cool air or losing its temperature if it's heat. The only disadvantage I can see besides the expense, is that there have been cases where sound travels through the metal ducts to other parts of the house. There are solutions to fix this (duct liners), but I don't know what that does to the efficiency of the ducts (which will defeat the purpose of the metal ducts!).

The alternative has been to get flexduct (the most common in new homes) or fiberglass ducts (made with a rigid fiberglass duct board). The advantage is that it's way cheaper and already insulated. The problem that occurs is that flexduct bends, restricting airflow and being a lot more inefficient. They can also bust open (some guy found a little rat's family home in one once!EWWWWWW) if little critters can get in, and they are difficult to clean.

Also, you will want to clean your ducts periodically, as there is always a danger of getting fiberglass particles, mold or dust in the ductwork. You do NOT want to breath fiberglass, as that is super dangerous to your lungs, which is why you always need a mask when putting in batt (fiberglass) insulation. With metal ducts, it is easier to clean very thoroughly with a brush. Another tip is that if you are sealing your ducts, always use MASTIC tape not DUCT tape, as mastic tape is better quality and does not wear out as easily as duct tape.

Metal ductwork will cost us about $4,000-5,000 more than using flexduct or fiberglass. But again, my husband says it's worth it! (*sigh*). I guess we're going to have to wait a little longer to get another car :-).

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Localvores... a growing trend that's good for us

With all the talk of building and buying green, how about eating green? There's a growing trend (or maybe I'm just late) of people who only want to buy local or nearby food and produce. They are called "localvores".

According to a Canadian researcher named Vicky Blatt, "If you’re buying green, you should consider the distance food travels. If it’s travelling further, then some of the benefits of organic crops are cancelled out by the extra environmental costs."

We try to buy at minimum 90% organic, to make sure that we're not putting dangerous chemicals in our bodies, but this localvore concept adds a whole other layer of awareness that's important too. According to and the guy's relentless research, organic produce is "racking up" more miles than conventional produce in many cases.

So, what do you do? Whatever you can, really. Awareness is always the first step. Read signs in your produce department and buy things in your state as much as possible. It supports the local farmers, economy, and reduces your carbon foot print. What better way? Also, if possible, try to get at least these fruits/veggies as organic, as they are the most pesticide ridden of the bunch. Known as the Dirty Dozen, conventionally grown peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce and potatoes contain the highest levels of pesticides, according to the Environmental Work Group (EWG), a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C.

Also, try going to your local farmer's market! They are a joy to go to, reminiscent of how people used to shop in the old days. Produce is fresher and mostly organic. We have 3 great farmer's markets here in Austin where they sell other wares, baked goods, hormone-free, grass-fed meat, raw or low pasteurized milk, cheeses, as well as the vegetables at usually way less than Whole Foods (in Austin, where they were founded, there's a local motto for them, "Whole Foods, for the healthy and the wealthy").

Besides making our own garden for our consumption, there's still something you can do to be as green as you can!

And something interesting to know for you carnivores, have you ever tried grass-fed meat? I'm a foodie, and its out of this world. You see, cows by nature like and want to eat grass. That's what they are supposed to eat until farmers started feeding them grains and hormones to fatten them up. Cattle aren't even designed to eat grains (who knew!) and also aren't supposed to be fat creatures! Look at these lean guys.

Even organic meat isn't as tasty. Because even though they are eating organic grain feed, it's still GRAIN FED. And not only that, grass-fed meat has more Omega-3 fat and is naturally more lean too! I just made tacos with grass-fed ground beef, and couldn't believe the taste difference.

The best would be to get grass-fed, no hormone/antibiotic free beef. Trust me, you'll never go back. More information on grass-fed beef, go here.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Understanding what a geothermal system is...

As you can see from our green features list, we are going to use a geothermal heat pump for the heating and cooling of our house, as well as for our swimming pool. It is an extremely effective system that can be up to 2.5 times more efficient than a normal HVAC 12 seer system and uses very little electric. Add that to an air tight, well insulated SIP home, and you'll save yet even more money on cooling your home, probably 75-80% of what a stick frame/batt insulated/regular HVAC home would do.

There is one guy we talked to, J.D. Holt, who owns a 1650 sf SIP home in Austin, TX with a geothermal system to cool his house. In the summertime he pays about $60/month without being conservative with airconditioning. That is rather significant!

In Austin, there are only a handful of geothermal subs that can install geothermal. It is also a very effective system in cold weather climates. In Sweden, it is commonly used for heating, especially large apartment complexes.

At first, I had a hard time truly understanding the science behind a geothermal system and even harder to time to explain it to other people. :-) I copied a Geothermal FAQ from one of the subs we're considering as well as included a link to a video presentation:

Q: What is a geothermal heat pump?
A: A Geothermal Heat Pump is an electrically powered heating air conditioning system that uses the natural heat storage ability of the earth. In Texas the ground temperature 6 foot down stays a constant 68 to 72 degrees.

Q: How does it work?
A: Like any type of heat pump, it simply moves heat energy from one place to another. Your refrigerator works using the same principle. By using the refrigeration process, a Geothermal heat Pump removes the heat from the home and transfers it to the ground.

Q: How is heat transferred between the earth and the home?
A: The earth has the ability to absorb and store heat energy. To use that stored energy, that constant 68 to 72 degrees temperature is extracted from the earth through a liquid medium (water) and is pumped to the heat pump or heat exchanger. In the winter, the heat is used to heat your home. In the summer, the process is reversed and indoor heat is extracted from your home and transferred to the earth throughout the water.

Q: You mentioned heating and cooling. Does it do both?
A: One of the things that make a heat pump so versatile is its ability to be a heating and cooling system in one. You can change from one mode to another, just like you do on a conventional heating and air conditioning system via a thermostat.

Q: What types of loops are available?
A: There are 2 main types of loops: open and closed. The closed loop is the most common in Texas. The same water is circulated throughout the entire system. An open loop is used when a water table, such as a river, lake or a pond is used for the water source.

Q: Which loop system is best, open or closed-loop?

A: The net results in operating cost and efficiency are virtually the same. It all depends on whether you have an adequate groundwater supply and means of disposal.

Q: Where can the loop be located?
A: That depends on land availability and terrain. Most closed-loops are drilled vertically about 250 to 300 feet deep. One hole per ton of air conditioning and about 4 1/2 inches in diameter.

Q: How many pipes are in a hole?
A: Actually, two. Polyethylene pipe in the 3/4 inch (one inch in South Texas) size, one down, a short over, then back up. Then the hole is almost filled with a type of grout called bentonite. This acts like a radiator in the ground for heat extraction and rejection.

Q: how long will the loop pipe last?
A: About 50 to 75 years. Polyethylene is inert to chemicals normally found in soil and has excellent heat conducting properties. PVC pipe should NEVER be used under any circumstances.

Q: How efficient is a geothermal heat pump?
A: Geothermal heat pumps are more than 3 times as efficient as the most efficient gas furnace, and more than 2 1/2 times more efficient than a 12 SEER air conditioner.

Here's a video presentation that will give you a visual on how it works:

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Picking subs and feeling the housing crunch...

We're still picking the subs (aka subcontractors) for our house project, and it's not as easy as one thinks. You shouldn't always pick the cheapest, as I've heard time and time again. So, what are my tips so far?

- Always rely on your conversation with the sub. I have found that not only do I use my gut instinct to see who I like to work with, but I also like to get an idea of how the sub thinks. I try to see if he (sorry ladies, 99% of them are Hes) think outside the box or is open to new methodologies (like anything green!), that scores a lot of points with me. You know, great minds think alike :-)... my hubby is pretty darn smart, and he can usually tell when a guy is bluffing with the tech stuff and if the sub can understand what we want to accomplish. In the end, we usually will think he is worth the extra bucks if he's of sound mind.

- Follow the "He's just not that into you" tip. If the sub doesn't seem that enthused over your project, then I think they wouldn't put as much extra effort or give you any innovative tips. It's definitely a turn off to work with people who don't have interest in what you want to do. Also, it's always nice when they have the same sense of style as you. Most of our subs we chose like the modern style and want to do something different from a conventional home.

- Always check the LAST THREE references. Any hesitation on the part of getting these references is a huge red flag. I got one "excuse" the other day from a sub who said that those references probably aren't living in those houses any longer and that he didn't have any contact with them. He avoided giving me their contact information, so it lead me to believe that there was something wrong.

- Beware of rushed, impatient or temperamental people, whether with you or with other people. Your sub's emotions are contagious. If he is stressed and angry, it will make you stressed and angry. We have found that even-keeled, patient and calm people are what make your project easy to deal with and harmonious. We lucked out. All of the guys we have talked to so far seem helpful, patient and jovial. That's what you need when you are creating your baby.

- If someone's a LOT more expensive, compare bids by seeing how much detail is in them. Usually, the person with the most detail is probably the most accurate bidder and won't shock you in the end. Therefore, it is less likely you'll be surprised with a change order or additional costs. If someone is cheap, make sure you get him to detail what is included in his quote, that way you know what you're comparing.

- Check his response time. If he responds in a reasonable amount of time or responds to all your messages, then it's a good sign. Otherwise, you should really ask yourself if he's flaky now, what about when the building starts?

- Realize that you're a "one home" show and he may prioritize a bigger home builder over you. If this is the case, I would be cautious of working with him. Make sure you feel like you're taken care of! You're important too, as you have a mouth that can spread the word!

I've got more probably, but I can't think past these. Also, lately I have been feeling the housing crunch as more and more subs are calling me instead of me chasing THEM around. This is good, as I can get more competitive bids. The only thing is the cost of transportation (thanks to oil prices) and materials have gone up significantly, even though labor is easier to come by.

Hope this helps. I know some new owner builders are nervous about this whole thing, but it's nothing too difficult.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Budget meeting and the next step... financing!

I just updated our budget for those curious eyes who want to see how the costs are stacking up. Well, they stacked up pretty high, but that's how it goes with green building! Anyway, tomorrow, we are meeting with U Build It to go over this budget and make any tweaks and adjustments. They have a list of subs that we may go with in exchange for ones we have gotten bids for. Also, we went through this spreadsheet for any line items we can do ourselves (marked DIY). For example, painting came in at about $3,400 labor only, but we opted to do this ourselves. The cost of paint can also vary depending on what you get, but we are getting the No VOC paint, so we want to select it ourselves.

The hard part was trying to find and budget for all the little stuff, which can add up! For example, door hardware, tiles, track lights, etc - you would put it in the spreadsheet as allowances, because you don't know exact costs just yet. You just need to be a good shopper.

The next step is to find financing for the construction of our house. Because we are owner builders going through U Build It, we have limited choices as to who will finance us since we need to get a construction loan first and then it will convert to a mortgage loan. We are trying to do a Loan to Value ratio so that we can get 100% financing. Here's how we will do it (simplified version, as I'm not a Finance person :-)):

1) Once the bidding is done, you have to choose the subcontractors you want to go with and input their costs in a budget spreadsheet.
2) This budget spreadsheet will be simplified by consolidating some line item costs for the lender to view the costs.
3) The lender needs the budget, all the architectural plans, your credit history and income to appraise your house and determine a construction loan amount that they can offer.
4) In order to get 100% financed, the total costs should be at minimum 80% of the appraised value of the house and lot. For example, to get a construction loan of $480,000, your house and lot needs to be appraised at least $600,000 by the lender's appraiser to get 100% financing.

The tricky part is to get an appraiser that can appreciate and not undervalue green building methods, as they are more expensive up front. Also, they have to realize that you save money in the long run. This is probably our greatest fear right now, that our appraisal won't come in at a sufficient amount, but we think we'll make it! Our lot has appreciated a great deal and we will do a lot ourselves, so I want to stay positive!!!