Sunday, December 27, 2009

Meeting in the Mountains

As I write this, my other half is on a multi-day backpacking trip. He and five of our friends camped out on our land before the start of their adventure. A quick phone conversation revealed that the roof is enclosed and the rooms in the house are framed! There’s even a ladder leading up to the loft—at which point I tried (unsuccessfully) to convince him to sleep in the “master bedroom.”

When I asked how everything looked, “small” was the answer I received. Yikes! I was reassured by others, however, that even the biggest houses look disproportionate at this stage of the game. Let’s hope so. There’s not even drywall up to close off the rooms yet!

Yours truly will be joining her other half later in the week. He’ll be coming off the mountain the day we meet with our builder, finalize some changes and (I think) walk through the house with an electrician.

I’m so thrilled with the way the house is coming along, despite the snow and now rain New England has received. Expect lots of progress pictures when I return.

Best wishes for you all in 2010!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Why We Chose a Small Footprint

Early on in our home building process we worked closely with an architect firm to design the perfect home. For us, that meant a home that was efficient and affordable. One of the easiest ways to achieve both of those things was to reduce the size of our home’s footprint. Our reasons for doing so were plentiful:
  • It would take less energy and effort to build;

  • There would be fewer building materials used;

  • More earth would be left undisturbed;

  • Once it’s complete, our home will use less energy to operate;

  • And less energy means more savings each month for us.

Plus, we strongly opposed building rooms into our home that would go unoccupied. So, there won’t be multiple rooms that serve the same function (i.e., family room and living room). By including only necessary square footage, we won’t have to heat, clean and pay taxes on rooms that are used minimally—or not at all—throughout the year.

We are also on a mission to lead a simplified life, where people and experiences trump possessions. And we hope a small home will force us to cut back on the desire to purchase material things that are just that—things—and help us to focus on what’s important. We try hard to make our (few) purchases serve a purpose, or allow us to experience life in a different and exciting way. We know not everyone subscribes to that theory. But we’ve found more happiness in gifting each other a weekend hiking in the wilderness, than giving each other the latest gizmo.

There will be no clutter in this home!! (Yeah, right…)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Progress Report: The Ridge is Up

Our dedicated construction crew is working so hard to make our dream home a reality. And we are so thankful. The snow is now falling—and the temperature is dropping— in New England, but we’re close to having our house enclosed and roofed in. Things are getting exciting—take a look!

After framing, the walls will be constructed and insulated with spray foam to make the house as air tight and efficient as possible. For us, spray foam was a more cost-effective alternative to SIPS.

A close look at the photo will reveal our steep and low hanging south-facing roof that will house the photovoltaic panels and solar hot water collectors.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Finding Furniture & Fixtures

As mentioned in a previous post, we are purchasing reclaimed furniture for our bathroom vanities. Well, we found our first floor bathroom vanity tonight! A listing on Craigslist for an Ethan Allen dry sink read:

“this is an old drysink, not sure if it is considered an antique or not... i inherited it from my grandmother, who has had it for as long as i can remember…asking $200 or best reasonable offer.”
We answered the listing with an offer of $150—and made plans to pick up this beauty on Friday evening!

We plan to put this 15-inch white vessel sink on the right-hand side of the vanity (courtesy Lowes):

We’ve also been busy picking out lighting fixtures and ceiling fans. This is what we are leaning towards…

…for the bathrooms (courtesy Lowes):

…along our 40+ foot back deck and beside our front door (courtesy Lowes):

...over our kitchen island (courtesy IKEA):

…throughout our house (courtesy Lowes):

And, yes, in case you were wondering, we're going to use outdoor lights inside our home. Because we can.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Change is Good

At least that’s what I keep telling myself…because the past couple weeks have brought plenty of changes. There have been changes to our wood stove venting, and therefore our solar panel layout; our kitchen appliances; our first floor bathroom; our flooring; and our well allowance.

Wood stove venting- By order of the fire marshal, our interior wood stove vent cannot bend twice at 45 degree angles before exiting the home. It’s too hard to clean and you can’t have more than 15 degree angles inside the home. Venting needs to run straight up and out. This modified design also throws a wrench into our solar panel layout.

Solar panel layout- Solar Wind Electric had sent us a clean-looking solar design that accommodated all 12 panels and positioned them in a way that made brushing off snow a bit easier. Because our wood stove vent will now run straight up the south wall and exit the roof lower than we planned, our panels will have to be reconfigured away from the heat source.

Kitchen appliances- Originally, our U-shaped kitchen layout called for an electric slide-in range facing south. I fell in love with the idea of cooking meals while admiring the mountains. Really, just being able to glance at the view from anywhere in the kitchen! Alas, our home is so air tight, it’s highly recommended we vent our stove. I hate the idea of a huge hunk of metal obstructing our view. Instead, we’re opting for a stove that has a built-in downdraft. Unfortunately, we found no induction stoves with this option (which crushed my soon-to-be husband’s dream of being the coolest kids around). In fact, there’s essentially only one kind of slide in range with a downdraft: Jenn Air. And from what we’ve seen, they’re never on sale. Our only option at this point is to buy a cook top and wall oven as two separate appliances. The cook top will remain at the south end of the kitchen, but because of the downdraft venting, the wall oven won’t fit underneath. After much arranging and rearranging our kitchen plan, we came to the conclusion that the north wall is the best (really, only) spot for it.

First floor bathroom- When we designed our home, we thought it would be practical to have two full bathrooms—one shower upstairs next to the master bedroom, one shower downstairs next to the guest bedroom. What we didn’t think of at the time was accommodating children. And children take baths, not showers. Our first floor bathroom is now a standard tub shower.

Flooring- We got the quote back for our flooring options, and it’s over budget…by a fair amount. Our first floor has a pretty big area that will be slate, which is driving our price up quite a bit. But because it will work so well with our passive solar design (not to mention look nice!), we’d like to keep it in the plans and compromise somewhere else. Perhaps we’ll forgo the bamboo flooring on the second floor in favor of cork.

Well allowance- The original quote for our home included a $7,000 allowance for digging a well. Nobody realized we’d need to dig to China to strike water. Really, our well is 600-feet deep! And $4,000 over budget.

Fortunately, we saved $4,000 by switching from Marvin to Pella brand on certain windows. (Windows that didn’t compare spec by spec were not changed.) We also saved $500 by switching the first floor bathroom to a tub instead of shower. We’re crossing our fingers that the hearth quote comes in low, so we can save money there as well.

It comforts me to think that all home builders likely go through this same process and share our stress. I don’t want to sound callous. I just want to know that we’re not the only ones juggling money and making compromises!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Progress Report: We Have Walls!

Presby Construction continues to make strides on our home and recently sent us this photo. Look at those walls (and view)! Anyone up for a night of sleeping under the stars?

So far, New England has seen a pretty mild winter, likely due to this being an El Nino year. The lack of snow has helped keep the construction of our home on target. Hopefully winter waits a bit to visit the White Mountains—well, at least until we have a roof!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Why We Chose an Open Floor Plan

Making my way (ever so slowly) down the “About Our Home” list, I’d like to highlight now why we decided on an open floor plan for our home.

Let there be light. As mentioned in an earlier post, we built our home with a passive solar design in mind to take advantage of the sun’s natural light and heating capabilities. Our open floor plan compliments this design as fewer interior walls means more light reaching rooms on the North side of the house. Minimizing walls will make our space bright and open—and will maximize every inch of space. A good thing, since those inches are limited in our small footprint!

Air it out. We won’t have a need for air conditioning—our super-insulated home will work wonders to keep cool air in during hot summer days. At night, and on cooler days, an open floor plan will allow wind currents to bring fresh air into our home via strategically-placed windows.

Heat it up. According to Wood Heat Organization Inc., houses with an open floor plan and fewer separations between rooms can be heated entirely with a wood stove (depending, of course, on their size and energy efficiency). To maximize our stove’s highest performance, it will be centrally located in the middle of the main floor with the flue pipe running up and out of the roof. Heat will easily flow to the main living area, kitchen and loft above with this set up. A warm house in a mountain town that boasts more than 200 inches of snow a year? Yes, please!

Some home magazines point out a few disadvantages to having an open floor plan, namely inefficient heating and lack of privacy. As mentioned earlier, we plan on using our wood stove quite a bit during winter months, and our open floor plan will actually increase the efficiency of our heating. Lack of privacy doesn’t concern us either. Bathrooms and bedrooms (excluding the Murphy bed on the second floor) all have doors.

It’ll just be up to us—and any visitors—to shut them!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Active Solar Energy

Well, we originally thought we’d need to wire for photovoltaics now and add the panels in the future due to our budget constraints. Not so! We are thrilled to report that that we can afford 12 Sharp 230-Watt photovoltaic (PV) panels right from the start to help power our home.

PV systems are a pollution-free energy source that reduces our dependence on fossil fuel-based energy production. And after federal and state rebates, our system will cost us approximately $7,500. Certainly not a drop in the bucket, but after saving a significant amount of money elsewhere in our home and setting aside some funds, we can afford to install it now.

Our 2.7 kilowatt system will aid in providing electricity for lights, appliances, radiant heat and anything we plug into an outlet. Our PV system will be grid-connected—meaning it will use light from the sun to provide power to our home when possible, and will use utility-generated power at night or on cloudy days. Any energy that’s generated by our PV panels, but not used by us can be sold back to our local utility provider through net metering.

Solar Wind Electric in Bradford, VT, will be providing and installing the system for us. In total, they will install:
  • 12 - Sharp 230-Watt panels (2,760 Total STC Watts;

  • 1 - Solectria 3000 Inverter;

  • 1 - Unirac Solarmount Flush Racking System (to mount panels to south-facing roof);

  • 1 - DC disconnect & AC disconnect; and

  • 1 - Production meter.
Our south-facing roof, showing the 12-panel PV system and two hot water solar collectors.

Based on the size of our system and our average monthly electric bill, we expect to be repaid in less than ten years.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Progress & Green Flooring Options

Believe it or not, our weekend in New Hampshire was ridiculously productive. Well, believe it. Here's a rundown of what we accomplished in a few brief days.

We spent all day Friday with our builder to make the final decisions on all of the exterior options. In no particular order, we will have:
  • HardiePanel Cedarmill® Siding with batten strips in "Heathered Moss”

  • Window, door and roof trim in "Navajo Beige”

  • AZEK decking in "Fawn"

  • Ideal brand Americana series metal roof in "Tan"

We also finalized the location of our sun tunnel in the master bathroom. The rest of the day was spent visiting a lumber yard, flooring showroom and an eco-friendly home store. We are now fairly confident our flooring will consist of:

Living and Dining Room (south facing): Vermont slate (shown below)

Kitchen and First Floor Bedroom: “Mache Style” Cork from Eco Friendly Flooring (shown below)

Stairs, Master Bedroom and Second Floor Bedroom: “Natural Fiberstrand” Bamboo from Eco Friendly Flooring (shown below)

First Floor and Second Floor Bathrooms: Vermont slate

Why are we choosing cork (source: Interiors Green)?
  • It’s natural- Most of the benefits of cork are derived from its specialized cellular structure. Cork has a honeycomb cellular structure and each cubic centimeter contains roughly 40 million hexagonal cells.

  • It’s durable- The softness and give of a cork floor causes less of a grinding action to occur with normal foot traffic than on harder surfaces such as hardwood floors. Cork flooring has a very long life and can be repaired if damaged.

  • It’s soft- The air contained in the millions of cork cells provides a cushioned feel underfoot. It provides noticeable relief for those who stand on their feet for many hours—making it ideal for kitchens.

  • It’s thermally insulated- Cork reduces heat loss in rooms and even body heat loss through the feet. Cork naturally maintains a comfortable median temperature, never getting very hot or very cool. Walk barefoot on a cork floor and the warmth is immediately apparent.

  • It’s anti-allergenic and insect resistant- Bugs, mold, mites and even termites are repelled by cork due to a naturally occurring substance in cork called Suberin. This waxy substance also prevents cork from rotting even when completely submerged under water for long periods of time.

  • Why are we choosing bamboo (source: Interiors Green)?

  • It makes sense. By using bamboo, hardwood forests that have taken decades to mature are not diminished. Bamboo produces new shoots each year and individual stems are harvested from controlled forests every three to five years. If bamboo is not harvested after five years it falls over, unable to continue growing.

  • It’s durable- Bamboo is an average of 13 percent harder than maple. It is 27 percent harder than northern red oak and expands and contracts 50 percent less.

  • It’s made sensibly- After at least three years of growth the bamboo's hollow round shoots are sliced into strips, which are boiled to remove the starch. The strips are dried and laminated into solid boards, which are then milled into flooring boards.

  • I should also mention that I was impressed with both the look and feel of the Vermont slate available at the local flooring store. There was none of the flaking and chipping I’ve seen on the slate at large retail stores. This was a natural, local stone that won’t snag your socks if you walk around shoeless. In winter, thermal mass in the Vermont slate will absorb radiant heat from the sun. During the night, the heat will be gradually released back into the rooms as the air temperature drops, reducing the need for supplementary heating during early evening.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

'Tis the Season for Survival

We’ve been incredibly busy these past few weeks. Who knew building a house (and working a few different jobs) could be so time-consuming? We really started feeling frenzied when our planned meeting with our builder and lender loomed closer and closer. Well, now that that’s behind us, things have calmed down.


Before I give you a detailed account of all we accomplished this past weekend, I’ll give you a peek at some of the life we found surviving despite the wintry temperatures New England is known for this time of year. Enjoy.

Looks like a woodpecker found a nice home!

Beautiful moss covered fallen log.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Progress Report: Spray Foam Insulation

I'm happy to report that things are moving along quite nicely! Presby sent us more pictures last week of our home’s development.

In the picture below you can see our foundation is now standing without help from the preset forms. Click it to make it larger, and you'll see our view to the Southeast: "downtown," Cannon Ski Mountain, and Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette in Franconia Notch State Park.

Look beneath this paragraph to see our foundation coated with two inches of spray foam insulation. Spray foam is able to fill the tiniest cavities—giving it twice the R-value per inch than traditional batt insulation. Our two-inch insulation will provide us with an additional R14 value. Our interior basement walls will be framed and insulated as well. (For those who don’t know, the higher the R-value, the greater the insulating effectiveness.)

Friday, November 13, 2009

What Is A Passive Solar Design?

See that list on the right? The one titled, About Our Home? It’s pretty much the essential aspects we’ve chosen to make our home considerably more environmentally friendly than the average newly-constructed home. And I haven’t addressed anything on that list in detail yet. But that’s changing with this post. I think it’s important for you all to know a little bit more about each of these features, why we chose them and how they work to “green” our home. So, I plan on working my way down that list.

We are building based on a passive solar design, which means we kept the sun in mind at all times when planning our home. Our home is rectangular in shape and its long axis runs east/west. Our long wall will face within 30 degrees of due south. We will maximize the glass area on this south-facing wall to take advantage of the sun. Why?

Because sunlight offers us natural light. With our passive solar design, we’ll be able to rely entirely on sunlight in certain rooms for interior lighting during the day. The large, south-facing windows will allow a generous amount of light into our living and dining room. With our open floor plan, our kitchen should also receive ample daylight.

Because sunlight offers us natural heat. Solar radiation can directly penetrate our home via our south-facing windows and store within our living space (direct gain). It can also collect, store and distribute by way of a thermal mass (indirect gain). Thermal mass—or carefully-chosen materials that store heat—are key to a passive solar design. An example of thermal mass will be our flooring. A natural stone floor, such as slate, will be warmed passively by the sun during the day. At night, heat that is stored in the floor will be released back into the interior.

Because sunlight offers us natural cooling. The sun rises higher in the summer than in the winter; therefore, properly-sized window overhangs can create shading during warmer months and help to cool our home. (These overhangs are angled to permit sunlight through the windows in the winter.) Opening upper-level windows should allow naturally-rising warm air to escape as well. These elements, along with opening windows at night to let in cooler air, and closing the shades during the day, will reduce the need for supplemental cooling. In fact, we don’t plan on having a mechanical cooling system (or the energy bills that come from operating one!).

Here’s a quick run-down of passive solar design strategies (to maximize solar heat gain in winter and minimize it in summer) from the U.S. Department of Energy:

✓Start by using energy-efficient design strategies.
✓Orient the house with the long axis running east/west.
✓Select, orient and size glass to optimize winter heat gain and minimize summer heat gain for the specific climate.
✓Consider selecting different window sizes for different sides of the house (exposures.
✓Size south-facing overhangs to shade windows in summer and allow solar gain in winter.
✓Add thermal mass in walls or floors for heat storage.
✓Use natural ventilation to reduce or eliminate cooling needs.
✓Use daylight to provide natural lighting.

It takes a lot more thought to design with the sun. While our home design itself isn’t complex, it’s smart—and we owe it all to the experts. Our architects. Their knowledge of local climate, solar geometry and window technology, among other things, was mind-blowing. We learned so much just by talking with them. And I’m sure their wisdom stretches far beyond our conversations. We are forever thankful for their imparted knowledge and advice.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Progress Report: Pouring Foundation

Last week, Presby made giant leaps with our home construction. Say goodbye to our vacant "camping spot" and hello to our future basement walls!

Since our lot is steeply sloped, the week started with building a ramp for the concrete trucks to sit on while they poured the concrete.

On Friday, concrete was poured into the forms that were set earlier in the week.

Below, the Presby crew supervises the concrete as it travels down the trough into the preset forms. The line you see off to the left side of the photo will be the height of our first floor, deck and a majority of windows that will capture the low-hanging winter sun.

In the pictures below, the crew is moving the concrete down the wall in the forms as far as they can.

Once the foundation is poured, the exterior walls will have spray foam applied--the first step to making our home super-insulated.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

First-Time Homebuyer Credit – EXTENDED!

Last Friday, Nov. 6, 2009, President Obama signed into law the Worker, Homeownership and Business Assistance Act of 2009. This extended the deadline to take advantage of the first-time homebuyer credit—to April 30, 2010! Under the previous Act, homebuyers had to close on their home before December 1, 2009 to be eligible for the $8,000 tax credit.

Initially, the first-time homebuyer credit was what motivated us to start making our dream home a reality. We were at the appropriate age and point in our lives where buying our first home was feasible. Plus—who could pass up $8,000? (Unlike previous years, this tax credit does not have to be repaid!)

At the beginning of this past year, we started taking steps to make it happen, namely driving through areas of the state we found appealing and stopping at lots that were for sale. We also signed on with a realtor to help us search for land. Around the same time, we met with our architect for the first time. Even though we requested our house plans to be finished on an accelerated timeline (which ended up being four months start to finish), we started sweating the Nov. 30 deadline. We still needed to research, meet with and get quotes from builders, and visit banks that had the best construction loan rates. Mind you, these sources were in New Hampshire. And we weren’t.

It was late September before we chose our builder. We knew the Nov. 30 deadline wasn’t feasible and were given a March 1st end date. We chose to look at this “setback” positively. We’d be able to save more money before our house was built.

Needless to say, we are beyond thrilled with this new law. We’ll be able to both continue saving money and take advantage of the tax credit—the same credit that encouraged us to stop dreaming and start building!

P.S. In case you were wondering, new construction homes are eligible for the tax credit, just as if you bought any other home. From the IRS:
Instead of buying a new home from a home builder, I hired a contractor to construct a home on a lot that I already own. Do I still qualify for the tax credit?
Yes. For the purposes of the home buyer tax credit, a principal residence that is constructed by the home owner is treated by the tax code as having been “purchased” on the date the owner first occupies the house. In this situation, the date of first occupancy must be on or after January 1, 2009 and on or before April 30, 2010 (or by June 30, 2010, provided a binding sales contract was in force by April, 30, 2010).

In contrast, for newly-constructed homes bought from a home builder, eligibility for the tax credit is determined by the settlement date.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Progress Report: It's a Dirty Job

More progress on the home front! We received a few pictures from Presby detailing the work that has been done so far. Some of the ledgerock has been removed and they started to rough out the foundation area.

Did I mention our lot was a little rocky? The two pictures below are of the hammered-out rock.

And take look at this—it’s the perfect camping spot!

Sometimes I find myself in disbelief that someone somewhere is building our home. It’s been a fantasy for so long that, at times, it’s difficult to comprehend our home will one day exist outside our dreams. Pictures like these are a reality check.

It may be real. But we’re still on cloud nine.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Green Siding Options

Lately, we’ve found ourselves scouring the web for eco-friendly siding options for our home. Our original plans call for eastern white cedar siding with a clear protective finish. We’ve come to learn that solid wood siding requires frequent maintenance…and it’s not exactly green. Well, it can be if it’s FSC-certified or made from recycled wood.

Unfortunately, this gets expensive. And we are limited by our budget. Yet again. We can’t have our pretty wood siding and certify it too. And call it a hunch, but I don’t think we can meet the expense of a whole house swathed in repurposed wood siding.

During our research, we stumbled across fiber-cement siding. It’s a material that looks just like wood, but is composed of cement and wood fibers. The leading supplier of this type of siding is James Hardie. It’s durable—the site notes its ability to resist “impact damage from wind and hail…and cold windy climates…” It’s relatively inexpensive. And many siding options come with notable warranties. Though the wood fibers are obtained overseas, many green builders are using James Hardie fiber-cement because of its reasonable price and expected lifespan.

I think this option makes the most sense for us, given our expected harsh climate and our budget. The vertical siding—which we love—is protected by James Hardie's "strongest warranty ever"—a 30-year nonprorated, transferable, limited warranty.

I think we're sold on the HardiePanel Cedarmill® Siding in “Heathered Moss.” A color that, unfortunately, looked more gray than green when posted here. This photo (below) shows the design. Not the color of choice.

We’re hoping to achieve a traditional board-and-batten look like this when it’s all said and done.

Imagine that—our “green” home will likely end up being green in color too!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

New England Foliage

We received an updated photo of the mountains last week—taken from our driveway. (Yep, they are dusted with snow already!)

I hope Monday mornings aren't so difficult when you wake up to this view!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wind Power

Growing in popularity and shrinking (sort of) in price, wind power is becoming a viable option for homeowners today.

How does it work? Through use of a wind turbine, wind energy is converted into a useful form of energy, like electricity. And like solar power, wind energy—in the form of residential wind turbines—offers homeowners a list of appealing benefits:

They’re clean- Small wind turbines use wind energy to produce emissions-free power. In fact, wind power actually offsets pollution that would have been generated by your utility company. (American Wind Energy Association)

They’re energy saving- One will require less electricity from the electric company because the energy generated from wind turbines will help to power home appliances.

They’re money saving- Wind power allows homeowners to generate their own power and reduce energy bills.

The American Wind Energy Association estimates that a small residential wind turbine can offset about 1.2 tons of air pollutants and 200 tons of greenhouse gases over its lifespan.

Residential wind turbines exist in at least 47 states in the U.S. The majority have been installed in the Northeast and Midwest. And we won't be far from the highest surface wind speed ever recorded.

We were thinking of installing a grid-connected system. This type of wind turbine would provide no power if there wasn’t enough wind to spin the blades. However, as wind speeds increase, the turbine power increases and decreases the amount of power purchased from a local utility. If the turbine were to ever produce more power than our house required, many local utility providers offer “net metering”—where additional electricity is sold to them. (Yep, we could theoretically sell our extra power to the utility company so other neighbors could use it!)

We researched the wind patterns in our area by using this interactive map. However, wind speeds vary greatly and it is suggested you get in touch with a professional to measure and evaluate the wind.

We contacted Solar Wind Electric—a company based in VT that specializes in renewable energy and sustainable living—for this service. A few weeks ago they came to our site to evaluate the wind speed. However, they requested that we take wind measurements on our lot over the next year to get a more accurate reading. According to the American Wind Energy Association:

In very hilly or mountainous areas, however, it may be best to collect wind data before purchasing a system to ensure that your site is not in a sheltered area.
So, we wait.

If you’re thinking about installing a wind turbine, be sure to take advantage of the 30 percent federal tax credit available to small-wind consumers.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Solar Hot Water

Using the sun to heat water is an idea that has been around for years. And we’re going to put the tried-and-true warming method to work in our home.

How solar water heaters work: the sun’s energy is used to heat water either directly or indirectly. When heating indirectly, a fluid (such as antifreeze) is heated by the sun, which then heats the water through a heat exchanger. This solar-heated water is stored for use as needed.

Solar hot water systems offer homeowners a host of attractive advantages:

They’re nonpolluting—Fueled by the sun, solar hot water systems don’t emit greenhouse gasses; therefore they don’t contribute to global warming.

They’re energy saving—Solar water heating systems can decrease the amount of electricity to heat water by 80 percent. (U.S. Dept. of Energy)

They’re money saving—On average, homeowners spend about 25 percent of home energy costs on heating water (U.S. Dept. of Energy). Solar water heaters use free solar energy and can save hundreds of dollars per year. It’s estimated that solar hot water systems pay for themselves in four to eight years.

Sure, it’s cloudy in the White Mountains (that is how they turn white!), but we’re not worried. Our system will be mounted on our south-facing roof, and even on the grayest days, the sun can provide at least 50 to 60 percent of a household’s annual water heating. (Solar water heating systems installed in San Francisco can produce enough energy to provide about 50 to 80 percent of a typical household’s annual water heating needs.)

During extended cloudy days, and during the coldest winter months, we will have a backup conventional electric hot water heater that will kick on.

All Energy-Star solar water heaters qualify for the government tax credit. As stated on the Energy Star website:

Tax credits are available at 30% of the cost, with no upper limit through 2016 (for existing homes & new construction) for: solar water heaters
We are buying an Enerworks (Canadian) solar hot water system.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Salvaged Kitchen Sink

While searching the Internet for an apron front farm-style kitchen sink recently, we came across a deal on Craigslist that we couldn’t resist—a soapstone kitchen sink for $100. After e-mailing the seller, we found out the sink had been salvaged from a local renovation project. Needless to say, we made an appointment to see it the next day.

The Alberene Soapstone Company—“America's only source of this remarkable stone”—created this work of art and bills itself as the stone of choice for chemistry lab counter surfaces for over 120 years (because of its chemical resistance and ability to be refinished in place).

We fell in love with the look and the story of the sink. It was taken out of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine during a recent renovation of the osteopathic manipulative medicine and anatomy labs. It’s got some scratches and some dings. But we just call that character.

You can find a full history of the school here.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Shopping for Salvaged Goods

This time last month we went up to visit our site—and we got a lot accomplished in the three days we spent out of state. Namely, signing a contract with our builder, visiting area banks to chat about construction loans (different than mortgages!), and visiting a local salvaged materials store. The latter, of course, being my favorite stop of the weekend!

For those who may not know, a salvaged materials store is THE place to find used wood, stone, tile, doors, windows, mantels, hardware, furniture, etc. As old buildings are demolished or rebuilt, these materials make it out of the house and into one of these stores—before they make it to a landfill. Heaven on earth for any green homebuilder.

We are considering using salvaged materials in a few areas of our home. In particular, we have in mind some sort of large windows we could use to close off our master bedroom in the loft. The entire second floor has a railing open to below, except our bedroom which has a half wall. We’d like to build windows in above the half wall to create a bit of privacy when company is in town. Our thought is that these windows would be able to hinge open during the day or when it’s just us in the house. We found lots of beautiful windows, but not many that fit our criteria. (Shutters are another option we’re considering for this space.)

We are also looking for a wash table to use as the base for a sink in our first floor bathoom. Our thought is to place a simple sink bowl on top of the wash table and use a wall-mounted faucet, an idea we adapted from one of our most frequented blogs. We found a wash table we liked, but it was a bit out of our price range.

As we visit more recycled building materials stores, we’ll also keep an eye out for kitchen cabinets and a sliding barn door (to use as the master bedroom door).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What Makes it Green?

Often, products are used that are not green by themselves, but are used to help decrease the environmental impacts of the building as a whole. (Our air-tight windows would fit into this category.) On the other hand, people can use products already considered “green” in foolish ways that end in environmentally-irresponsible buildings. (We don’t want to be one of them!)

So, how do you know which material is better to build with from an environmental standpoint? Below is an abridged list from Environmental Building News which discusses the standards for making a building product green.

“In a well-thought-out building design…substituting green products for conventional products can make the difference between a good building and a great one,” the article notes.

We plan on incorporating into our home green aspects from each of these areas:

1. Products Made with Salvaged, Recycled, or Agricultural Waste Content
The materials used to produce a building product—and where those materials came from—is a key determinant of green. Look for salvaged products, products with post-consumer recycled content, products with pre-consumer recycled content and products made from agricultural waste material.

2. Products That Conserve Natural Resources
Aside from salvaged or recycled content, there are a number of other ways that products can contribute to the conservation of natural resources. These are products that reduce material use, products with exceptional durability or low maintenance requirements, certified wood products and rapidly renewable products.

3. Products That Avoid Toxic or Other Emissions
Some building products are considered green because they have low manufacturing impacts, they are alternatives to conventional products made from chemicals considered problematic, or they facilitate a reduction in polluting emissions from building maintenance. Incorporate natural or minimally processed products, alternatives to ozone-depleting substances, products that reduce or eliminate pesticide treatments, products that reduce impacts from construction or demolition activities and products that reduce pollution or waste from operations.

4. Products That Save Energy or Water
The ongoing environmental impacts that result from energy and water used in operating a building often far outweigh the impacts associated with building it. Try to include building components that reduce heating and cooling loads, equipment that conserves energy and manages loads, renewable energy and fuel cell equipment, and fixtures and equipment that conserve water.

5. Products That Contribute to a Safe, Healthy Built Environment
Buildings should be healthy to live in and around, and product selection is a significant determinant of indoor environment quality. Green building products that help to ensure a healthy built environment can be separated into several categories: products that do not release significant pollutants, products that block the introduction, development or spread of indoor contaminants, products that remove indoor pollutants, products that warn occupants of health hazards in the building, products that improve light quality, and products that help control noise.

Source: Environmental Building News. (2000). Building Materials: What Makes a Product Green? Retrieved from the World Wide Web,


We received great news over the weekend—Presby Construction broke ground! These photos were taken last Wednesday, the first day they started work, and are courtesy of Presby. Take a look at all the pretty fall colors:

We asked Presby to keep any usable firewood from the property so we can burn it in the wood stove later, and mentioned that any sizable boulders that can be used for landscaping/grading would be great to have as well.

Apparently this was later than Presby wanted to start excavating, as it's been raining a lot. It even snowed last Tuesday already! Nevertheless, I'll keep you up to date on the progress with pictures sent to us and ones I take. We plan on taking a trip to the site within the next few weeks. I can't wait!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

What to Ask a Reference

Before we signed the contract with our builder, we visited a home they built that was similar to the style we liked (and could afford!). And we absolutely loved it! We also asked for the contact information of a few references. Any reputable builder should be able to give you names of homeowners they’ve recently worked with. Once you get a reference on the phone, don’t be afraid to ask them lots of questions.

Here’s what we asked:
  1. How long did the project take? Was that on par with what you were told?

  2. What aspects of the project did the builder do really well?

  3. Was there anything in the process that could have been handled differently or improved upon?

  4. Was the builder mindful of your budget until the end of the project?

  5. Before construction began, did you meet one on one to discuss plans and budget?

  6. Throughout the project, did the builder give you regular updates on the status of the project, both in terms of construction and keeping to the budget?

  7. How often did you communicate with the builder during the building process?

  8. Did the builder explain a change order process, in case you wanted to make changes to the home during construction? If so, how did the process work out?

  9. Was the quality of the builder’s work to your satisfaction?

  10. Have you had any problems with the workmanship since your house has been completed? If so, was the builder willing and able to fix any problems that you’ve encountered?

  11. Would you work with the builder again?

  12. Since this is our first homebuilding experience, do you have any tips or suggestions that worked well for you or things you wish you would have done?
All the references we contacted spoke at length about their experience with the builder, and their homebuilding experience in general. None were too busy to talk. None were fazed by our never-ending list of questions. And I gained a bit of confidence when I learned that they all lived out of state during the construction process too.

We shelved our anxiety and drove up to New Hampshire soon after making these phone calls. We were on our way to signing a contract!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Choosing a Builder Who Saw Our Vision

Once final house plans were in hand, we needed to pick a builder to get the project rolling. Initially, we combed the internet for anyone with previous LEED-certified or green building experience. We wrote down the names of the couple (really, just two!) builders we found and asked our realtor for other recommendations. When he came back to us with a list 10-deep, we researched some more, called around, then met in person with four builders and corresponded via phone and e-mail with another three.

Why did we end up speaking with so many people? Believe it or not, we actually had some builders “drop out” once they heard of our green house plans and budget. We’d meet or talk with someone, and then as soon as we mentioned our eco-conscious approach, they had reservations. Never mind that building green is here to stay and demand will continue to rise in the next few years!

This was another frustrating experience for us. It was difficult to convince someone who had built a certain way all their lives that building an out-of-the-ordinary home would put them on the map. Especially when the builder didn’t want the “hassle” of dealing with a third-party certification program if we pursued LEED certification. I was shocked at the lack of desire (of some) to take on a project that was different, yet would certainly help secure future business. As you could have guessed, this also affected us receiving many and varied quotes for the project.

But our experience ends on a positive note! The builder we ultimately chose to do business with sees the future in green too. They’re actually working to build a biodiesel plant (a nontoxic renewable fuel made from natural sources such as vegetable oils) and were eager to tackle our green project. They said they’d go through the LEED process if we wanted to pursue it and appointed a professional to deal specifically with the green aspects of our project.

We’re excited to call Presby Construction our builder—and we haven’t even broken ground yet!

Hiring a ‘Green’ Architect

Well, we decided to buy the red Vermont Castings wood stove! Our good friends in Maine—and their family—are going to help us with pick up and storage. Thank you! I should note we can only afford this model because we are buying it at half price. (We ARE on a budget!) And now I must drag you back into the past these next couple posts, because it took a while to get to the point of picking out wood stoves.

Because of the green design we had in mind, we couldn’t hire just any architect. We required a professional who was well-versed in the latest green building practices in order to build our home the right way.

As luck would have it, a friend of a friend was a nationally-recognized leader in sustainable design. His architecture and planning firm is dedicated to re-establishing the balance between natural and built environments. What’s more, he has worked on more than 100 LEED projects around the nation. (More on LEED at a later date.)

As you may have guessed, working with such caliber wasn’t inexpensive. And it’s probably the first time we realized that building on a budget could be limiting—in terms of the amount of services we got from the architect and what aspects of our dream house we’d have to scrap.

Fortunately, our architect was willing to work on an hourly basis at a (much) lower fee than he typically charged well-to-do commercial clients. I can only assume he took pity on us and possibly even found designing a sub-2,000-square foot home on a budget to be challenging—in a good way.

In our first meeting, we received some great constructive criticism regarding our original small, open concept house plan (drawn by hand on grid paper!).
We were a little sad to scrap our vintage house plans...

In our subsequent meetings, our architect suggested a lot of green aspects to add to our ideas. Among other features, we kept our home to four walls (another consequence to building on a budget), strategically placed windows along the south side for optimal solar gain, positioned light tubes and interior transoms where windows weren’t an option, and incorporated roof pitches with such precision that they would allow sun in during winter months (when the sun hangs low) and shade the windows come summer (when the sun sits higher).

For our fee, we received:
  • Four face-to-face meetings;

  • Three plans- we combined what we liked from all three to come up with our final plan;

  • Final plans and specifications designed to meet LEED certification;

  • A booklet for our builder to reference regarding how to build green;

  • Rushed services (at the time, we were aiming to qualify for the 2009 First Time Home Buyer Tax Credit)

  • A contact when questions arose down the road;

  • A wealth of “green building” knowledge.
If you’re working with an architect now, or will be soon, I have some advice:

1. Look for green building experience. Can you flip through a portfolio or talk with references?
2. Verify green building research. Are there books, pamphlets or samples of green products in the office? Does the architect have subscriptions to green resources?
3. Don’t take anything for granted. Check in regularly and ask lots of questions during the design phase.
4. Make sure he walks the walk. Is there recycling in the office? Are green building practices (i.e, lighting, flooring, etc.) apparent?
5. Build green concepts into the contract documents. Specifications are considered a legal document. Have your architect explain the specs to make sure they cover all the bases.
6. Communicate effectively. Make sure your voice, ideas and requirements are heard.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Wood stoves

I’ve been talking about soil, land and neighbors lately because I want to give you a background of how we got to where we are today (waiting to break ground any day!). But I need to revert to the future for just a moment. We will be heating our home with radiant heat, and supplementing with a wood stove. Wood is a renewable energy source that, when used effectively, is a first-rate fuel when compared to fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal which lead to global warming. (Here is an enlightening article if you’d like to do some further research.)

Though we haven’t started construction yet, we were recently told by our builder that we must choose which wood stove will heat our home. I couldn’t wait! We researched a bit and called around to local New England suppliers. Here’s what we narrowed it down to—the J√łtul F 3 CB, Morso 2110 or Vermont Castings Encore 1250 in RED!

Since our woodstove will be our main source of “entertainment”—we’re not having a T.V. for various reasons—I’m leaning towards the red Vermont Castings Encore. It’s striking, yet classic, and will hopefully stir some conversation.

It has a spark screen for open door fire viewing, a griddle for stovetop cooking (for use during power outages…or whenever!), and a HUGE plus—it boasts the lowest emissions in the wood stove industry! From the website:

We call it the EVERBURN System and it’s designed to deliver cleaner emissions and longer burn times, similar to a catalytic system. Our state-of-the-art design enables Defiant and Encore stoves to burn more steadily and longer on a single load of wood compared to other non-catalytic stoves.

We know two people who have this stove and love it. What do you think?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor

I’d like to note that searching for buildable land was not easy. In fact, it’s one of the first times during our homebuilding experience we felt a bit overwhelmed. We were starting from scratch in every sense of the phrase—and we didn’t know who to turn to when we had questions about the lot. Our realtor (as nice and informative as he was) might be biased, the seller would likely say anything to promote the property and we didn’t personally know anyone in the area that built their home.

Just as we were about to leave the site one weekend to head home, we realized who could answer our questions better than anyone else: the next-door neighbor (whose home was for sale). Hopefully he’d tell all—we needed to hear it! This was going to be our biggest purchase to date by far and we didn’t want any regrets. We dropped a note in the mailbox with our phone number and received a call the next week.

Here is what we asked him:
  1. How long have you lived in the area?

  2. Why are you moving?

  3. How tough was it to build your home?

  4. How much fill did you need to bring in?

  5. Did you have a problem installing your septic system?

  6. Please explain the covenants and how they are enforced.

  7. Did you have any problems digging your well?

  8. How deep is your well?

  9. How long did it take to build your home?

  10. Do you like the area/street?

  11. Is the lot we’re interested in listed for more money now than it was six years ago?

  12. Do you have air conditioning? How hot does it get in the summer?

  13. How often does the street get plowed?

  14. Was your architect in or out of state?

Before we contacted the neighbor, we called the zoning chairman and the town selectmen’s office and asked:
  1. When was the land previously bought and sold?

  2. Were there any pre-existing facilities or plants on or close to the property at any point?

  3. Are there any restrictions we should know about?

  4. Is there anymore information I should obtain as a first-time homebuilder?

  5. Did you have a problem installing your septic system?

  6. Are there any height restrictions if we wanted to install a residential windmill?

  7. Is it mandatory that homes have a septic system, or can they have composting toilets?

  8. Why has the land been vacant for so long?

I encourage anyone else in this process to reach out and make contact with everyone you can. We gained priceless information from every person we talked to. And after we talked to our future neighbor, we realized that building a home is complicated—but not impossible. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. (We had some who did.) Most people don’t build their home, so respect their opinion, but don’t dwell on it.

When we were certain the lot met all of our requirements, we made an offer. And not too long after, though it felt like a lifetime, we learned that it was accepted!
On our way to living where the blacktop ends.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Once we knew what state and town to live in, we ultimately fell in love with a single lot—seven acres of green pine and white birch trees, south facing and sloping, with a “million-dollar view” of the Franconia Range. We were in heaven. But crashed back to Earth when we realized we had to make sure the land we wanted to build on was, in fact, buildable.

Here’s the checklist we used to make sure the plot was up to par:

Soil composition – Could the soil handle sewage and support a foundation? A perc test result proved it could handle sewage, and the custom-built homes nearby told us a foundation was possible.

Gorgeous grime.

Drainage – We steered clear of low laying areas and flood plains. The site we ultimately chose was in danger of neither.

Orientation - It was essential that the land face south for optimal solar gain (have I mentioned that yet?), and if it didn’t, our home needed to. We got lucky. The lot (and view!) faced south. In addition to a compass, we used a Solar Pathfinder provided by our architect to determine this.

The compass showed us where south was:

The Solar Pathfinder showed us a full year’s worth of solar radiation data on the spot. We could tell what time of the day each month our house would be shaded by trees, obstructing our solar gain. The trees you see on the Pathfinder in the image below are second generation. They can easily be cut down and used for fueling our wood stove.

We used a Solar Pathfinder for solar site analysis.

Access – The proposed building site would be right off of a road—perfect for bringing in supplies and equipment.

Utilities – Electricity and phone hookups were available, but it would be up to us to dig a well and septic system.

Easements – The lot had no easements that would affect our utilities, rights-of-way or views.

Topography – A steep hillside, boulders, trees and other natural landscape can hinder construction. The lot featured second generation trees, rocks AND a steeper than normal grade! (You can’t win them all.)

Just a few pebbles on the site...

Restrictive covenants – The lot did come with covenants. The only sections in the covenants that were of any concern to us were building square footage and house color. After a closer reading (you can’t paint your house bright red…OK, we didn’t want to anyway!), and better understanding of how “covenant rules” were enforced, we were no longer concerned.

The lot passed the test!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Well, I had a whole post written up about dirt (mmm hmm, just wait!), but I’ve misplaced my thumb drive at the moment. So, instead, I’ll stop rambling and show you what we discovered living on our property during our last visit. Enjoy the silence.