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.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Picking the Perfect Spot

When building a home in an unfamiliar area, it’s generally a good idea to rent a place before buying land. This way you get to know the surrounding community firsthand. You’ll stumble across sections you like, sections you don’t like and sections you likely wouldn’t have found save for your new neighbors’ enthusiasm to tell all.

I say renting is “generally” a good idea because it doesn’t work for everyone. Truth be told, it didn’t work for us. Yes, we had a good amount of money saved up from living at home a few years after college—but we weren’t about to waste it on rent. In our minds, we had a good thing going and wanted to save as much money as possible before we started construction.

So how did we decide precisely where to place our home? We visited the area as much as possible ourselves (note: without a realtor). We searched out schools, investigated lots for sale, drove down main streets, wandered into cafes, chatted up locals and biked rural roads. We narrowed our search for the perfect town by what others told us, what our hearts told us—and what our budget told us!

When we signed up with a realtor, we already had a few lots in mind…some we had driven past, and some we’d run across online. Since we currently live out of state, our realtor was an invaluable source in telling us which lots were a rip off, which ones were a good deal, which ones might be unbuildable and which ones had a highway next door.

He also shared the pros and cons of each small town—something we probably wouldn’t have found out until after our move. One town had a “hidden” junk pile (he drove us by it), one had a terrific school district, one had a downtown revitalization planned, etc. Towards the end of our search, we began only looking for lots in a small town.

We told our realtor that we desired a south-facing and sloping lot, so he would better understand our needs. (If built the right way, a south-facing home can provide warming sun in the winter and cooling shade in the summer—making your home work less for a comfortable temperature, and cutting your heating/cooling bills substantially!) Telling him a little bit about our house plans also helped us save time when we visited the area. We didn’t waste the limited time we had (usually just a weekend) driving to lots we knew wouldn’t work with the passive-solar design we had in mind.

Perusing the Internet one day, we ran across the headline, “Million-dollar views.” The listing looked perfect. And it wasn’t a million dollars (Phew!). We tried not to get too excited, called our realtor and never imagined that we were far from “done” settling on a piece of land.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Love Your Mother (Earth): Why We Went Green

Why build a green home? Because it makes sense. If that's too short an answer for you, allow me to elaborate.

Buildings (residential, commercial, school, etc.) accounted for 39.4 percent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2002. Residential buildings—built at a rate of more than 1.8 million per year—accounted for 54.6 percent of that total.

What’s more, buildings in the U.S. produce 38.1 percent of the nation’s total carbon dioxide emissions, 20.6 percent of which comes from the residential sector. They also account for 12 percent of the total water consumption and 68 percent of total electricity consumption, says the Environmental Protection Agency.

Clearly, buildings have an unhealthy impact on the natural environment. But building green can lead to myriad environmental, economic and social benefits, such as protecting ecosystems, improving air and water quality, conserving natural resources, enhancing occupant health and improving quality of life.

For me, a home’s impact on its occupants’ health is just as important as its environmental impact. Especially since Americans spend about 90 percent or more of their time indoors. (I calculated my own time indoors and was appalled to learn I was approaching that statistic!) I want to make the inside of my home as healthy as I possibly can. This means eliminating as many sources of indoor air pollution as possible. From the EPA:

There are many sources of indoor air pollution in any home. These include combustion sources such as oil, gas, kerosene, coal, wood, and tobacco products; building materials and furnishings as diverse as deteriorated, asbestos-containing insulation, wet or damp carpet, and cabinetry or furniture made of certain pressed wood products...central heating and cooling systems...

Who wouldn’t want to improve the indoor air quality in their home after learning that immediate effects include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness and fatigue? Respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer crop up in the long term. We’ll be making decisions on furniture, flooring, cabinets, even paint with these facts in mind.

So, there you have it! That’s why when we decided to build our home, we knew we had to build responsibly—for our earth, and for ourselves.