kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Net Zero Energy + Permaculture Yard

Permaculture: 3rd Year

2

More Mulch

In October, 2019, we began to add more mulch to our backyard. The following spring, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold, and schools and businesses went remote, we decided to move ahead and complete this additional layer of mulch.

As things turned out, it was an excellent way to get outdoors and get some exercise when most activities were off-limits due to the shut down.

Adding wood chips to the hügelkultur bed the previous October:

With weeks of online working and learning ahead of us, escaping into the yard at various times of the day proved to be a welcome source of respite, one that we were extremely thankful for. With so much uncertainty in the moment, the yard was a nice escape where there was always something new to see and learn, and genuine excitement around watching plants show new growth and development. Just quietly observing while walking through parts of the yard was an opportunity to register what’s different, what’s working, or noting details that may require a slight revision or even a radical change.

In terms of goals for the yard, after the new wood chip mulch layer was added the plan was to incorporate more ‘base’ plants such as ornamental grasses, additional fruit options (tree, shrub, and vine), along with more flowers beyond what we planted last year.

As noted in an earlier blog post, our experience getting wood chips (recently mulched trees and shrubs) from a local tree service has been hit-or-miss. After getting a couple of loads this way, the remainder was ordered from a local mulch supplier who offered wood chips supplied from various tree service companies. Even though the texture and particle size does vary quite a bit by the individual load (even within a single load), overall, we’ve been very happy with the quality of the material.

We were typically receiving about 10-15 yards with each delivery. Essentially the limit of what our driveway and staging area in the front yard could easily handle at one time.

This early in the growing season the front yard was looking pretty grim, as most perennials had yet to reemerge from the cold:

Some sections of the wood chip pile were close to the size and texture of particles normally found in a typical double ground hardwood mulch. In many other parts there was significant variation in the size and look of the chips, varying from thoroughly chopped to chunky, including smaller branches that were mostly still intact. Even so, as noted in the earlier post, after a couple of months the pieces fade to a mostly uniform color while the individual pieces themselves slowly weave themselves together like they would in a more typical mulch. Having now gone through the process, the significant price savings associated with wood chip mulch makes this interim period well worth enduring.

Although there are any number of benefits associated with a thick mulch layer, one unanticipated benefit is how spongy and comfortable it is to walk on. I was looking forward to putting down some flagstone as part of a path, at least on the south side of the house, but once we realized how nice the mulch is to walk on, we’ve since dispensed with the idea. A big advantage the mulch has over any hardscape material is that, regardless of age, should someone take a fall, or even go down hard on a knee, the sponginess of the mulch is forgiving. It does harden up during the winter, but still nothing like asphalt or stone.

In addition, the mostly larger overall particle size of the wood chips means it will take longer to break down than a shredded aged hardwood mulch. In the photo below, the mixed, slightly random look of the material is evident:

Included in the mix of materials are larger chunks of wood (similar to chopped up 2×4’s), shrub foliage, smaller limbs, or even complete sections of conifer or willow branches, along with a range of stick sizes. Even so, by the end of the summer it looked pretty much like typical mulch, including the graying out in color that normally occurs from sun exposure.

Out of curiosity, before putting down the new layer of wood chips, I pulled back the existing mulch in a few areas to examine the clay below. I did this in a variety of spots in the yard. In addition to obvious signs of life in the mulch layer — earthworms, spiders, and various insects — it was interesting to observe that in some areas the sheet mulching cardboard had completely disintegrated, while in other areas, where the clay was pretty solid, the cardboard had remained mostly intact.

“No scientist before Darwin had taken such an interest in the creatures living underfoot. Earthworms were still largely considered a garden pest that damaged plant roots and spoiled clean green lawns with their castings… Worms were simply overlooked, ignored, misunderstood — and their impact, their importance to the soil and to the ecosystem as a whole — was far greater than anyone could have guessed.”

— Amy Stewart, The Earth Moved

If this base layer of clay had even a small amount of black soil in it, the cardboard was mostly gone. In contrast, those areas where the clay seemed monolithic the cardboard didn’t appear degraded much at all.

Backyard still looking mostly like a mulched moonscape at this point:

Even though our initial mulch layer was only about a year old, it was interesting to see the varying rates of decay. In most areas, even if it was a little thin, the original mulch material was mostly intact. In parts of the yard that retain more moisture, however, the process had accelerated, in some cases to the point where the material resembled aged compost more than it did the original, rough-textured mulch.

Below, around our side stoop off the kitchen, I pulled back the mulch at the edges to ensure as thick a layer of new wood chips as possible:

Getting the wood chips to the backyard required a lot of trips with the wheelbarrow, so we were excited to finally reach the south side of the house. From this point, we were able to get the wood chips in place at a much quicker pace. Thankfully the wood chips (or any wood-based mulch in general) is relatively light and easy to move around, especially when compared to top soil or gravel.

Probably the one area, besides uniform color and particle size, where hardwood mulch outshines the wood chips is at the edges of our property that meet with our neighbors’ lawn grass. Where the hardwood mulch can be compacted to form more tightly held together mounds (when necessary), the wood chips remain looser, tending not to hold their shape quite as well.

New layer of mulch on the south side once complete:

Here, below, we’re reaching the edge of the front yard. This gives the best sense of how deep we were going with this new layer of material. And, again, a variation in particle size is clearly present:

Below, in this photo of our front yard, various permaculture elements are in place even though there are still plenty of voids in which to explore options. For instance, off to the left, there are various strawberry plants (mostly second year), small blueberry bushes, an apple tree, a few lavender, and then the many perennials in the culvert just out of view. In the middle is another young apple tree, Miscanthus giganteus just starting to emerge, more blueberries, and then the staging/green manure area. To the right, mostly out of view, a third apple tree, Russian comfrey, more blueberries, and more lavender. Along the back, our still undersized assortment of shrubs that one day will be our ‘living fence’. Many of the basics are in place, it’s just early days in terms of their eventual development:

For many of the outdoor projects we’ve been able to get our daughter involved. In spite of the perceived monotony, moving wood chips around was a good mental break from countless hours of online learning indoors. Loading up the wheelbarrows is mostly enjoyable, messy fun:

The Beast on her throne of wood chips:

As we began to enter the front yard, rocks had been strategically placed to either mark a pathway, reduce erosion, act as a mini heat sink to extend the growing season of nearby plants, or else just act as a guide for the garden hose as we move it through the yard trying to avoid damage to any of the plants.

Below, off to the left, there are a series of small, second year blueberry plants, more Russian comfrey, and then the series of shrubs along the south edge of our property.

In the lower right, a mix of apple tree and more Russian comfrey in the foreground, with the series of perennials around the front entry behind.

The beginnings of a well-worn trail in the mulch from all the trips with the wheelbarrow will be covered by the new layer of wood chips. As plantings mature, this ‘path’ will continue to disappear:

At first glance, not much is going on in the photo below. Nevertheless, some building blocks are in place. In the background, for instance, is a second year Illex Winterberry shrub, while the red-white-blue roundel is a stump from a former peach tree. The peach tree had clearly been struggling for some time, so I tried to coppice it our first spring, hoping to generate new and healthy growth, but I may have removed too much of the tree at one go, so it unfortunately never recovered.

Around the stump are newer strawberries, a deep layer of wood chips, along with a mushroom in the foreground. To the left and right, just out of the shot, are some of the shrubs for our eventual ‘living fence’:

Below, our front yard once the new layer of wood chips has been completed. At this point, the plants are just emerging from their long winter slumber.

Some of the young plants in the foreground: daylilies, lavender, peppermint, shasta daisies, sedum, aster, lamb’s ears, and bee balm.

Progress and New Plantings

As always, when we go to plant something new we first dig down to the soil under the mulch (in most areas of our yard this is some version of clay). After adding soil (usually a top soil/mushroom compost mix), we place the new plant into position before pushing the mulch back and watering it in.

Below, we’re getting ready to plant a series of flowers around one of our downspout rain gardens. With the palm sedge already in place and doing well, we added yarrow, Russian sage, stachys hummelo, and echinacea for their variation in size, texture, and color:

With soil in the hole, a new plant is ready to go in:

Ferns in the shady far south-west corner of our yard; one of the first perennials to emerge in spring:

More signs of spring:

First time we’ve seen flowers on our privets:

The privets are gaining some bushiness, but not a lot of height or width yet.

The flowers in the front yard are producing some significant color for the first time. Instead of our yard being just mulch and green foliage, the bright and varied colors of the blooms are bringing in the pollinators and the beneficial insects.

Sump discharge side of our culvert with some color this spring:

This is the first year that the irises have bloomed. Their light blue flowers complement the riot of pink displayed by the Lychnis ‘Petite Jenny‘. Even though the irises haven’t been strong bloomers so far, they are happily spreading out in the flowerbed. Hopefully this is a good sign for next year’s blooms.

In addition to the new red scabiosa (pincushion flower), around the mailbox we’ve planted catmint, Tennessee ‘Rocky Top‘ Echinacea, and Blue Lyme grass (‘Blue Dune‘). In between the scabiosa and the flowerbed around the mailbox is a second year Russian sage.

The ‘Rocky Top’ is my favorite variety of Echinacea. When it’s happy, it produces an abundance of beautiful pink flowers, which also work well as dried flowers.

The Blue Lyme Grass is aggressive, spreading by rhizomes, so it can fill up a space quickly. We chose it for this small area to add texture and color. The stiff, upright habit, with sharp-edged leaves and wheat-like flower stalks contrasts nicely with the softer mounding habit of the catmint and the color and texture of the Rocky Top. Using the Blue Lyme Grass does require some discipline in order to prevent it from completely running through and taking over a flower bed or a nearby yard. Every couple of weeks I go looking through the bed for new stalks trying to pop up. Once found, they’re easily removed by pulling them up back to the main plant where they’re then cut. Apart from slightly disturbing the mulch, their color and texture is well worth this added bit of work to control them.

Even so, I would likely not plant them in a wide open growing area. Here, around the mailbox, their ability to spread is somewhat curtailed by the nearby road, driveway, and stone covered culvert. Used in this contained manner, they can be much easier to deal with. Growing in a hot, dry area with clay soil, as they are here, is also said to help better control their spread.

Last year we planted several small Rose of Sharon Hibiscus ‘Purple Pillar’ shrubs. They started out tiny, in 5″ pots, so their growth has been minimal to date. Even so, we did get to see some blooms this year, which better helps us understand their potential to deliver some stunning color for our garden in future summers.

Out at the street, around the south end of our culvert, we’ve planted a series of plants that can deal with periods of hot, dry weather, while also enduring weeks covered by snow and road salt from plows in winter. In addition to the shrub base layer — Little Devil ninebark, three Fire Chief arborvitae — there are daylilies, shasta daisies, sedum, echinacea, Russian sage, asters, monarda ‘bee balm’, lavender, peppermint, and native grasses. An addition from last year, Kniphofia ‘Red Hot Poker’, is settling in and producing some vivid flower stalks. We have these on both sides of the driveway and mixed in along the southern edge of our property with the series of shrubs we’re setting up to be our living fence. Some of these shrubs are in the background. Most of them have taken on some bushiness this year, although their height remains undersized:

As with the Blue Lyme Grass, the peppermint will take over a flower bed if not kept in check. Every few weeks my daughter helps me go through and pull out the extensive runners that spread out from the main plant. Since the runners are near the surface this makes quick work of pulling them up. It’s the most enjoyable kind of weeding — easy to pull while delivering the fresh scent of real peppermint.

Last summer our street was resurfaced and, because of some poor execution of the details, we ended up with excessive water in this area that led to a stagnant pool of water at the bottom of our culvert (this quickly became a haven for mosquitoes). In the short term we addressed the problem by adding significantly more rocks and gravel to the area. Ultimately, it was only when the city came back to properly address the situation that the stagnant water problem was resolved. We’ve kept the rock in place since it adds a nice decorative dry river bed effect to this side of the culvert:

In our current garden, as well as our last one, we incorporate any number of native plant species, but we don’t worry too much about using non-native varieties, especially if they can offer a unique flavor, scent, texture, or flower color, so long as they don’t threaten to take over an entire area. The Kniphofia would be one example in this regard. Although native to South Africa, they do quite well in our climate zone 5, Chicago suburban site next to the driveway. Even when not in bloom, the foliage is a nice alternative (even though similar) to grasses or daylilies. Here are two in their first season:

Kniphofia flower in bloom, opening from the bottom up:

For the north side of our driveway we started with a series of native grasses (e.g., palm sedge, Long Beaked carex, pennisetum) and flowers (e.g., Rocky Top echinacea, agastache ‘Ava’, hyssopus officinalis, gaillardia, and Purple Poppy mallow), before adding sedum Angelina and more Kniphofia.

Along with the plants directly around our culvert out at the street, this side of the driveway has gotten very little supplemental water, even under drought conditions, yet it thankfully continues to thrive:

As the Russian sage reaches its full size, it’s covered in pollinators when in bloom. The sound of their work is clearly audible, making it enjoyable to just stand nearby and listen to the hum.

This is the first year that our green manure bed has finally taken off. With a base of hairy vetch, field peas and oats, we also added sunflowers, zinnias, dahlias, and a variety of other wildflower seeds. To see such thick, healthy looking vegetation in this once mostly bare site makes me believe we could eventually convert this spot to more fruit tree guilds, or just a wide variety of small shrubs and flowers:

Sunflowers are easy to grow, and they’re a joy to have around for cut flowers as well as yet another haven for pollinators and beneficial insects. In addition, their substantial stalks and leaves make useful biomass for mulching:

Zinnias in amongst the hairy vetch:

Blue cornflower fights its way up through the mat of green manure plants:

Dahlias are mostly a guilty pleasure. Unmatched as a cut flower, they do require more attention than anything else we grow. For the most part, this means consistent watering, so we plant them fairly close to the garden hose to make this chore easier. Although ‘chore’ may be a misnomer, since watering the dahlias allows me to observe the health and progress of the dahlias, while also keeping an eye on nearby plants as well:

Below, a view of our front entry in summer. Near the front door everything is growing and filling in nicely. Closer to the driveway, the perennial grasses (prairie dropseed and pennisetum), and the butterfly bush are struggling a bit; again, we believe because this area saw a lot of abuse and compaction during construction. Even the Miscanthus giganteus in the front yard are trailing behind the development of those in the backyard (i.e., fewer stalks and less height). In the background, the shrubs near the property line are beginning to show signs of filling in:

Thankfully, we haven’t experienced a lot of pests in the yard, either in the form of insects, small rodents, or harmful fungus. To date, we’ve only really had Japanese beetles (mostly on our ‘living fence’ shrubs), some aphids, and a few leafhoppers in late spring to early summer. We think this is due to the combination of no chemical treatments (even when we do see pests present), and a wide variety of plants that help maintain a natural balance between pests and their predators.

“The trick to maintaining populations of these natural pest-control agents is to provide food for them. Even predators and parasitoids have to eat…. all feed on pollen or nectar… In other words, a weed-free, wall-to-wall monoculture cannot support them… A diversity of plants supports a diversity of ‘beneficial’ insects… When plants are attacked by herbivorous insects, the leaves release volatile compounds into the air, which waft out from their tissues like distress signals. Predatory and parasitic insects can pick up these chemical messages (or smells) and interpret them, perhaps even to the extent of identifying the species of plant-eating insect that is present. If the predator or parasitoid catches the scent of an edible insect or a prospective host, it will home in on the signal and attack, thereby protecting the plant from extensive damage.”

— Candace Savage, Prairie: A Natural History

Below, another view of the culvert, this time looking north. The yard is beginning to take on some of the characteristics of a cottage garden, even a native habitat sanctuary or prairie. We’re looking forward to seeing it mature over the next several years:

Some new additions in this area included more native grasses, for instance, ‘Blackhawks‘ big bluestem and ‘Shenandoah‘ switch grass, along with flowers, including bee balm and several more agastache ‘Ava’ (another long-blooming flower favorite for us):

First flowers on the hibiscus:

View from our front door just after a rainstorm. The rain and heavy cloud cover help bring out the many shades of green in the neighborhood vegetation:

Below, our front entry with lavender in bloom and the surrounding grasses at their full height. We’ve always enjoyed the happy look of shasta daisies mixed in amongst grasses and more vividly festooned flowers:

View from our front walkway looking up at an ornamental grass and a gaura as it leans over the concrete. The gaura, much like the agastache, looks fragile but is a surprisingly durable perennial — another favorite from our last house that we’ve carried over into our current garden design:

A hawk sits atop a nearby lightpost, overlooking our front yard. As the yard continues to come alive, we get more and more visitors like this:

Beyond biological diversity, a secondary benefit to a wide range of plants in the garden is more colorful bouquets for our kitchen island:

One of the more common insect predators in our yard is the crab spider. Here, he’s managed to catch a ride into the house on a basil leaf. They especially enjoy hanging out on our shasta daisy blooms, hiding on the white petals in wait for a pollinating insect:

Later in the summer, with an even wider variety of flowers in our endless bouquet:

From the right perspective, the front yard is looking much fuller than it actually is. Hopefully a preview of future summers when the yard grows thick with an abundance of vegetation:

Below, from the corner of the garage looking east, the strip between the driveway and our neighbor’s lawn is beginning to noticeably fill in. We’ve only just started planting around the downspout, in this case with palm sedge and some lamium as a future groundcover. The overhang of the garage has proven to be a hard drip line, meaning nothing grows directly below it since this area sees such little rain. In the future we’ll keep plants on the outside face of the hump that drops down to our neighbor’s lawn. Directly under the overhang we’ll maintain a mulched walkway, perhaps even adding some decorative flagstone.

One of the many benefits of having so many ornamental grasses in the garden is the cuttings from spring cutback, which can be used for self-mulching in the immediate area or taken elsewhere (in most cases, to the hügel bed) for some free mulch.

As the yard fills up, we’re hoping in the future to only need additional mulch or wood chips for edge and border areas around the perimeter of the house and out at our property lines.

Looking west from the second garage downspout, we’ve put down quite a bit of stone, in addition to more grasses and lamium. The remainder of the north side will have to wait until next year.

In the background, you can see three smoke trees that we planted earlier this year. Although small at the moment, we look forward to when these will be part of a second section of ‘living fence’; in this case, helping to close in our north side.

Spring from the south-west corner of our house. It’s still early in the season, so the perennials are just getting started. This view also shows the dappled afternoon shade enjoyed by the backyard plantings, especially in the heat of June and July:

The view from the same corner, this time looking back to the east, towards our series of ‘living fence’ shrubs:

Same spot, later in the season, after the perennials have had a chance to fully leaf out and, in some cases, experience new growth. We planted five goumis to the left of the hügel bed, in an offset pattern of male and female plants. Off to the far right, in the distance, two of the three young smoke trees are visible:

Same view again, this time in the heat of summer. The perennials and annual veggies around the hügel have had a chance to take hold and spread, and our ‘living fence’ of Miscanthus giganteus and Maximilian sunflower in the far back corner is filling in nicely. In addition, we’re seeing the strawberries spread out this year, although there still hasn’t been many flowers or fruit. Shade is just beginning to fill the backyard at this point in the day. And the downspout rain garden finally has some vegetation to better absorb excess water:

A view from the far west back of our garden, looking towards the house. This was late spring, so things were just getting started. Note the small teepee structure off to the left, made from cuttings from the Miscanthus giganteus, which closely resemble thin sections of bamboo, excellent for staking or more decorative projects like this.

This is another example of the late afternoon – early evening, dappled shade in the backyard. Once it’s a little lower, the sun will reenter the backyard for one final blast of light before fading into sunset:

We enjoyed our first significant harvest from the hügel bed this summer. In addition to tomatoes and peppers, we also tried ground cherries and a new variety of basil. Because of all of our basil, chicken pesto has become a summer favorite for lunch or dinner.

Our daughter has taken to harvesting whatever she can find around the hügel. It’s been fun to watch her evaluate the ripeness of tomatoes and peppers as she makes her way around the hügel bed. Here, she’s waiting for some bees to move on before picking a tomato. We keep preaching all the benefits bees afford us, but she’s not entirely convinced it’s enough to offset the risk of being stung:

Since we’ve tried to involve her in all stages of the yard’s development, I’m hoping it leads to a lifetime interest in plants and nature more generally. For me, gardening came into my life in a roundabout way. Hopefully she can take an interest more immediately than I did since her exposure has been more direct and wide ranging. Whether that means a small collection of garden herbs in her kitchen, a more elaborate fruit and vegetable garden, or just an assemblage of house plants that she dotes on — we’d love to see her engage in the caring of plant life in some form.

“…If children have the chance to grow up around nature, then they will be able to learn from it. It is incredible how much there is to discover. Intensive observation will inspire them with ideas that they will want to implement straightaway. Learning begins and success will follow. Children do not give up easily, they are curious and they have special access to nature. Their urge to discover motivates them to try again and again if they do not succeed the first time — that is the most important thing: to never give up and to learn from your mistakes.”

—Sepp Holzer, Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening

In terms of perennial food sources, this year we’ve had the chance to add more blueberries, red currants, raspberries, and our first blackberry bush:

Our first blackberry flowers:

We also set up a handful of asparagus crowns. We didn’t get much growth out of them this first year, but we’re hoping we can grill a few in a couple of years:

Some of the new flowers added this year included: ‘Moonshine‘ yarrow, meadow sage, some salvia, and several kinds of gaillardias (another flower we’ve continued to enjoy from our last house).

In terms of shrubs, in addition to the goumis, we also added three types of willow to the backyard: one with variegated leaves, another with herbal-looking leaves, and traditional willow at the back of our lot to add to the ‘living fence’ look we’re beginning to establish with our tall grasses and perennial sunflowers:

We had another good year for lavender, which we dried and gave away in small cotton satchels to family and friends.

There was also sage to be collected, which we used all winter, especially in homemade chicken soup:

Another view of the backyard in late summer: the back of the yard and the south end, to the left, is filling in nicely, while the hügel thrives and the goumis (down the center) take on some first year growth:

More Structure, Function, and Accents

Along the way, we’ve been adding decorative accents (sometimes they’re functional too, for example, preventing erosion or retaining heat), such as rocks, boulders, bricks, pieces of metal — a variety of detritus picked up from the Chicago lakefront, cast-offs from arts and crafts projects, and otherwise ‘found’ items we’ve come across in the last couple of years:

In addition to the cuttings from our Miscanthus giganteus, propped up in teepee form, these collections of items should, over time, offer areas of shelter for smaller forms of wildlife that wish to take up residence in our garden.

This year we also noticed the birds starting to use the various shrubs as landing sites, or even shelter when a hawk dive bombs the yard looking for prey around our bird feeders.

Another project was creating a structure to contain our compost pile. Utilizing leftover pieces of cedar and shou sugi ban, my daughter helped me put it together and position it in the backyard:

With a little bit of added structure, it took on the look of a wishing well while also creating more space for additional bird feeders:

A view from our bedroom window as the summer progressed. While some areas are lush with growth, many others are just settling into their sparse, first year acclimation period:

Mushrooms

We had an exciting year in terms of mushroom varieties. In addition to the wide selection, they popped up in nearly every corner of our yard, regardless of sun exposure or moisture levels.

As the mulch and wood chips continue to break down, the network of mycelium should be branching itself out across our entire garden, upping our overall soil fertility while increasing the ability of our plants to fend off pests and disease.

Mushrooms popping up around our veggies on the hügel:

They continue their slow work, breaking down the large logs from our neighbor’s fallen tree:

In some instances, they blend in so well with the mulch that they are easy to miss if you’re not actively looking for them:

Right after a good rain is the ideal time to go looking for new upstarts:

Below, the stinkhorns that showed up around one of our downspout rain gardens made themselves known with a strong visual, as well as olfactory, presence:

The sheer number of varieties that we’ve seen pop up in the yard, just in our first two years, has been exciting to watch:

It will be interesting to see if the fruiting continues, or tapers off, as our existing mulch layers breakdown over time.

“Wabi-sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes… to experience wabi-sabi means you have to slow way down, be patient, and look very closely.”

— Leonard Koren, Wabi-sabi

This one, below, was particularly easy to miss, as it hugs the ground with a fibrous-looking body reminiscent of a cracked open peach pit:

Wildlife

As our garden develops, we’ve been able to observe an increasing number of creatures paying a visit, both in quantity and kind:

Rabbit hutch spider stops by while we’re painting in the garage:

Our last house was near large ponds, so every spring and summer our backyard and basement window wells saw dozens of frogs and toads. In our current home, there have only been a handful of visitors who have managed to fall into our stone basement window wells.

Below, a large bullfrog has managed to fall in. We gently collected him and placed him at the base of one of our arctic blue willow shrubs, allowing him to hide out at the base of the dense foliage:

In addition to earthworms around the base of plants and above ground after heavy rains, spiders are the most common creatures we see in the yard — on plants, on the mulch, and in the leaf litter:

Funnel web spider:

A few weeks after painting and helping me place a series of decorative logs in our backyard, my daughter realized there was an active carpenter ant nest underneath one of them:

Once discovered, she returned each day to monitor the nest’s progress by gently rolling up the log to expose the constant activity below:

Below, a toad explores our tomato patch on the hügel:

Initially registering as a random flying insect inside the garage, the following day this large stag beetle showed up on the garage floor, expired:

We’ve seen any number of beneficial insects in our garden, including many lacewings. Their stick-like eggs show up occasionally on our black siding to vivid effect:

A Fowler’s toad on the move around our lemon balm and vegetables:

We’ve had any number of paper wasp nests around the house. Each one has been relatively small and out of the way, so we’ve been able to leave them alone as they go about their business in the garden:

Paper wasp on our basement window:

There’s been no shortage of spider varieties around the house. With all the Passive House air sealing we did for the shell of our house, few insects have managed to gain entry into our home. Typically, only a handful of small spiders each year manage to get through the gaskets on our basement windows.

Frogs and toads showed up throughout the summer to enjoy easy pickings around our exterior lights:

Spiders, too, took advantage of all the insects congregating at our exterior lights. The spider webs on black siding proved to be ideal, if unplanned for, Halloween decorations:

Below, just before I took this picture there were three other sparrows on the window screen (unfortunately, before I could get to my camera). We’ve seen sparrows more than once take advantage of the shelter provided by our ‘innie’ window placement during rainstorms. Even in the heaviest wind-driven rainstorms, the top third of our window glass remains dry, offering added protection to this portion of the windows from water intrusion:

Even a Praying mantis has enjoyed the view from our window screen:

Orb spider with beautiful markings on our siding:

We almost stepped on this silver-gray metallic toad as it hid in the mulch and leaf litter under our cherry tree next to some Russian comfrey. It was quite the year for frog and toad sightings in our garden. As our vegetation spreads out, growing together, knitting itself into an undulating blanket of foliage and flowers, it should make it easier for more visitors to explore and find refuge in our yard. Eventually we hope to see even some snakes and salamanders:

Wandering through our Maximilian sunflowers and Miscanthus giganteus, we came across a large Praying mantis (nearly a foot in length), hanging out on the towering blades of grass:

Fall Color

Heading into our second fall, we were excited to see how the Maximilian sunflowers would perform. Both the Miscanthus giganteus and sunflowers were reaching something close to their mature height in their second year. Much taller and fuller than what they achieved in their first full year.

Most of the ornamental grasses have reached their full development, but almost everything else in the yard was at least a year or two away from full maturity.

During spring and summer, my daughter enjoys monitoring the progress of the fast growing Miscanthus giganteus and the sunflowers.

Apart from the privacy screening they provide from mid-summer through most of the winter, both plants will produce a substantial amount of biomass for self-mulching around the base of these plants, or for elsewhere in the yard:

As they gained height over the course of the summer, both the grass and the sunflowers took on the lush tropical look of bamboo, making for a nice visual complement in terms of their distinct growth habit and texture:

It’s only in late summer that the sunflowers really begin to stretch out in preparation for their massive show of blooms.

Standing at the back corner of our yard, they begin to block out the view to our house:

By late summer, they’ve woven themselves together into a sea of green, making for a thick privacy screen.

The Tiger’s Eye Sumac in front of the grasses and sunflowers always start strong in the spring but struggles, even dying back some, under the heat of summer. We hope it’s nothing serious, and only just a symptom of getting acclimated to site conditions. Next summer we may try some supplemental watering during periods of hot drought. If we can get them to their full height, their chartreuse color combined with the blue of the catmint in front of them should make for a nice combination with the grasses and sunflowers:

Once they’ve stretched out, the Maximilian flower buds create a strong silhouette with blue sky behind them:

In the photo below, late summer at this point, the grass-sunflower combination has realized its full potential, with the jungle-like appearance a stand of bamboo can produce. At this point, the combination has entirely occluded the view of the house:

As the flower blooms develop, they take on a spidery look:

It’s a touch bittersweet to see the blooms coming on. A sure sign that fall is in full swing and winter is close at hand:

The Maximilian blooms also make excellent cut flowers for full, overflowing bouquets. Opening from top to bottom, it’s easy to slowly trim them down the stem as buds fade and the ones lower down start to open up:

As good as they look indoors, the real show remains outside when they reach their peak:

In the photo below, the yellow fireworks are just beginning their show:

Currently, the only other plant in our garden that can compete with this burst of color in the fall is a small, undersized maple shrub (Bailey Compact Amur Maple), located in our front yard. In contrast to the Miscanthus and Maximilian, the maple shrub has struggled during its first two years. This was the first season it spread out a little, and the first year it was able to produce bold fall colors. A good sign that it, along with many other plants in the yard, may take a big leap in growth and production next year.

In addition to the compost bin that we installed in the backyard, we also added a few bird feeders using some gas pipe for the structure. Inviting the birds into our yard was one of our main goals in terms of Permaculture design.

“It is a general rule that, when the bird fauna stays intact, so does the rest of the fauna and flora.”

— Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia

Although our ‘living fence’ series of shrubs on the south end of our property line are not substantial enough yet for nesting sites, this is the first year where the birds have taken any interest in them, using them for temporary landing sites before taking their turn at the feeders. They also appear to be looking for insects on the shrubs, which is another hopeful sign.

Driveway Stencils

The bulk of the heavy work in the yard was finished before summer even began. With most of these garden ‘chores’ completed, we turned our attention to any number of arts and crafts projects (e.g., furniture pieces and artwork for the interior walls) and sealing our driveway. After its first couple of years, the surface of the driveway was already noticeably faded, so it clearly would benefit from a fresh coat of sealer:

Instead of just sealing the surface, we decided to add some color to the driveway with stencils and paint.

The first design hurdle was settling on an attractive pattern. Since so much of our house utilizes asymmetry and curves (this is especially true in the yard), we decided to maintain this more natural theme by utilizing a curvy line out by the mailbox to our front sidewalk:

The next question was what color(s) should we use. We wanted a mix of colors, so we thought a good option would be to use parking lot paint, which typically uses white, yellow, and blue. Also a nice metaphor for the occupants of the home — one unique stencil per person.

With the driveway sealed, we proceeded with the first few stencils, starting out by the mailbox:

To avoid things getting messy, we decided to do just one stencil a day, which allowed each stencil to completely dry before moving on to the next one. It also meant that we only had to monitor a small area of wet paint as it dried. This was helpful since we were simultaneously working on several different projects at once, both inside the garage and on the driveway.

Below, my daughter is almost at the halfway point for the driveway:

The big curvy line of the pattern definitely tries to maximize the visual interest, regardless of one’s point of view of the driveway. It was also intended to playfully mimic the flight pattern of a busy pollinator:

The paint for the stencils has proven surprisingly durable. So far, no fading or peeling has occurred (even after two full seasons of weather).

Below, note the plants in the background, on the north side of the driveway. The grasses are in their second summer, so they’ve mostly reached their full size. Around them are any number of groundcovers and flowers that are only getting started:

Below, a wider, fuller view of the pattern from our front walkway:

Below, one final view of the pattern from the street:

Even though the right side (north) of the driveway is filling in, most of the plants in this area are still young and undersized. Note, too, halfway up the driveway on the left, the green manure bed that’s finally looking full and vibrant for the first time.

Below, a panoramic look at the front yard. Most of the hard work is complete. In the coming years we can play around with how we’d like to address the remaining gaps:

In addition to utilizing divisions of existing plants, we can also add new plant varieties or even decorative accents in the form of art pieces, or more functional components such as seating areas to take in specific views of the garden. There frankly hasn’t been much time to just sit and enjoy the garden yet.

Robins still enjoy the crabapple outside our kitchen window:

Going into our fourth growing season, the main goal will be adding color to the garden. After the first year of sheet mulching, creating our hügelkultur bed, and establishing our ‘living fence’ shrubs, we’ve been busy ever since with adding a base layer of fruit tree guilds, our alternative bamboo stand in the backyard, a wide variety of ornamental grasses, groundcovers, smaller shrubs, and fruiting vines.

With most of the main structural elements in place (both in terms of permaculture design and visual interest), for the next couple of years we look forward to playing with color in the yard to complete our garden quilt.

Urban Rustic: Second Bedroom and Bath

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Bedroom Details

For my daughter’s bedroom, I wanted to do a couple of murals on the two largest opposing walls. The remaining walls would continue the neutral gray we would utilize throughout the main level.

The first mural would be multi-colored, inspired by Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat guitar:

Although I would change up some of the original colors, the overall layout would be roughly the same.

The mural started with a base coat of blue. Once this was dry, I applied painter’s tape to set up most of the striping that was based on the guitar:

With the tape in place, I could begin applying the finish coat of pink:

Once the two coats of pink were dry, I slowly pulled the painter’s tape to reveal the blue lines just below the surface:

The final step was setting up and painting the white stripes, including some ‘torn’ or ‘frayed’ ends:

The second mural would be a more subdued, but stark, black and white color combination.

On this larger, opposing wall I wanted to try recontextualizing (i.e., appropriation) an iconic but infamous piece of graphic design. In this case, the World War II era Imperial Japanese flag (or Rising Sun flag), so it was important to undermine and invert the intent, or at least the associations, of the original design, rather than, for example, trying to undermine it with humor. In effect, steal some of the thunder inherent in the power of the original layout but for wildly different goals.

Much of the fascist iconography (in all its variations), while undeniably effective in terms of ‘branding‘ when it was on the rise during the WWII period, is also ripe for satire and deflation:

An American artist, Ron English, does an excellent job in this regard, similar to The Simpsons, when it comes to satirizing or ridiculing marketing and pop culture icons and logos:

Where the original Rising Sun flag personified a ‘might makes right’ ideology, one rooted in racist ideas about cultural superiority, I wanted to undermine this ‘logic’ without losing the visual impact of the original design.

Alongside Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, of course, produced some of the most notorious symbols and imagery of the WWII era (the power of these symbols and images resonates to this day, showing up in some pretty unlikely places):

In terms of the Rising Sun flag, the power of the design begins and ends with the circle or disc at its center.

“If the square is bound up with man and his works, with architecture, harmonious structures, writing and so on, the circle is related to the divine.”

— Bruno Munari, Design as Art

In addition, the 16 equally sized bars or ‘sun rays’ in the original only strengthen the effect, encouraging our eye to land on and remain focused on the red disc.

“The eye is attracted by the dark disc and has no way of escaping. It has to tear itself away… The eye is in fact accustomed to making its escape at the points or corners of things, at the head of an arrow for example. A triangle offers three escape routes, a square offers four. A circle has no corners, and the eye is forced to go round and round in it until it tears itself away with an effort.”

— Bruno Munari, Design as Art

A twisted irony considering that this rising sun motif (traditionally a sign of hope, e.g., marking the end of bad times) is so strongly associated with the darkest period in Japanese history.

With a base coat of pure white, the black circle, after being laid out in pencil, was handpainted. When dry, I then laid out the black sun rays using blue painter’s tape to establish the exact thicknesses and angles:

Instead of using the red and white combination, I chose to go with a more stark, even absolute, color combination of black and white (i.e., all of the colors combined with an absence of color). Additionally, I broke up the 16 ‘sun rays’ into only 12, while also playing around with their individual sizes, ensuring variation in the final layout. In a similar way, the intent was to reflect the difference between a square (fascist overtones, man-made) and a circle (divine, natural). Where the original 16 uniformly sized and spaced ‘sun rays’ suggest conformity and submission of the individual to a system of authority, rooted in strict hierarchy (e.g., the sun, like the Emperor, at the center of power), having fewer, thicker ‘sun rays’ in various sizes suggests not just imperfection but also playfulness, while hopefully retaining much of the power in the original design. Because of the wall layout, it also meant more variation in the length of the individual ‘rays’, particularly having one spill across the door opening to the walk-in closet, even ‘ending up’ on the back wall of the closet where it helps to set-off a framed series of portraits:

Since so much of the Fascist movement utilized language to achieve its aims, especially in the use of sloganeering and euphemisms, the black circle seemed the ideal spot for the placement of some poetic language. My daughter helped me stencil in a line over the ‘black sun’ from a Bruce Cockburn lyric, which is quoted in a U2 song:

Repeating the logic of the ‘imperfect’ sun rays, the layout of individual letters was intended to highlight their fragility — some opaque, some appearing slightly faded, running above and below an invisible line — as if struggling to stay on the wall.

Having a vivid mural near a doorway definitely makes for a strong visual statement:

We let the black ‘spill over’ into the walk-in closet as an accent wall — a stark background for some framed superhero portraits:

With the two murals complete, I could turn my attention to making some new furniture pieces, including a bedframe and a dresser.

For the bedframe, I utilized framing members (sticking with our Urban Rustic theme), including 2×6’s, 2×4’s, and the 1×4 furring strips:

Keeping the wood natural, combined with lag bolts in the corners, I finished off the bed frame with some racing stripe hash marks and our daughter’s nickname stenciled on the side:

With the bed frame in place, I added a bunch of throw pillows with interesting designs or patterns along the two interior walls:

After our extended build, which included a few moves along the way, it was finally time to come up with at least a semi-permanent dresser for my daughter.

Wanting to keep things playful (as opposed to formal), it seemed like a good opportunity to do something over the top, for instance, using bold colors while having it be oversized in terms of its structure and footprint.

In the photos below, the initial carcass and then the drawers being put together. I decided to go with deep, overlay drawers to maximize the opportunity for storing bulky items like sweaters, hoodies, and jeans. I also just liked the proportions:

For the top, I found a couple pieces of mostly clear hickory, which was combined with a deep pour epoxy in a bright pink ‘river’ table top:

I tried to incorporate as many decorative swirls in the pink epoxy as possible, giving it a slight retro hot rod flame look:

We kept a high gloss finish, which seemed in keeping with the child-like quality we were aiming for. In addition, although the hickory was mostly clear in terms of the wood grain, there was one large knot that allowed us to incorporate a couple of bright metallic blues:

Oversized dock cleats were used for the drawer pulls, which are surprisingly ergonomic in terms of daily use:

The bright pink epoxy reminds me of hard candy like Jolly Rancher pieces with their preternatural shine:

The whitewashed 1×4 furring strips serve as a rustic visual counterpoint to the more over the top epoxy:

The blue on the drawer fronts consisted of a couple coats of thinned paint, which produced a nice water-like blue effect. The paint was then protected with a couple coats of Osmo Poly:

The pink, blue, and white of the dresser were also a nice visual echo of the Van Halen mural:

Some of my online Urban Rustic finds ended up in the bedroom, including the vintage theater marquee question mark (above), along with a ‘Chicago’ eye bolt welded to an oversized nut used as a doorstop:

The bedroom door itself utilized some leftover 2×6’s from framing, pocket screwed together. The bright, vertical pink stripe continues the ‘racing stripe’ motif that began with the siding. The door handle matches our Roto window and door hardware. With only two real doors in the whole house, apart from our two exterior doors, it seemed like a nice touch to be able to maintain the same aesthetic throughout:

When the door is closed, the vertical stripe, especially next to the blue accent wall and the large, black barn door, makes for a bold, pleasing collection of design elements:

I also sprinkled in some smaller framed art pieces, combining visuals with text.

“It is far more fascinating to come into a room which is the living expression of a person, or a group of people, so that you can see their lives, their histories, their inclinations, displayed in manifest form around the walls, in the furniture, on the shelves. Beside such experience — and it is as ordinary as the grass — the artificial scene-making of ‘modern decor’ is totally bankrupt.”

Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

Below, a framed set of Ani Difranco lyrics is paired with a vintage railroad signaling light:

The black “LOVE” epoxy was added to the mix sometime later:

The black epoxy is a nod to an underrated Afghan Whigs album:

After letting my daughter create a painting using red, pink, and silver pigments, we dropped her blue-covered hand onto the canvas as a fun, messy way to mark the passage of time:

In the walk-in closet, for storage we went with a combination of 2×10’s and gas pipe for some open shelving. We would utilize this combination elsewhere on the main floor — including a linen closet, the pantry, and even in our kitchen. Sometimes we would use 2×8’s, depending on the items being stored on the open shelving:

The open shelves were an excellent place to store books, board games, as well as a spot to sneak in some more artwork:

The Björk piece was inspired by this performance:

In order to use clothes hangers, I also added an industrial looking clothes bar:

To keep my daughter’s jewelry contained, but also easy to access, I made a storage spot out of a glove factory hand mold, painted black and mounted on a decorative concrete base. The base, made with Buddy Rhodes concrete, is accented with red decorative glass. While the top is polished, to bring out the shine in the glass, the bottom and outside edges were left raw to emphasize the difference in final finish.

Using another piece picked up from Great Lakes Yard, I created a bench for just inside the bedroom. A convenient spot for books, homework, or the next day’s outfit. In an effort to hold onto its original roughness, much like the piece in our main bedroom, I only lightly sanded before patching nicks, gouges, and other damage with black and silver epoxy. Also matching the dresser top, a flood coat of clear epoxy is the final, durable high-gloss finish:

Close-up look at a damaged area, filled with metallic silver epoxy prior to the flood coat:

Bathroom Details

In this second bathroom, we opted for white hexagon tile for the floors, including inside the shower. For the shower walls, we used vertically oriented oversized white subway tile with blue glass accents.

Matching the main bathroom, I repeated the use of our charred cedar with lag bolts and washers, combined with a vessel sink and our quartz countertops. With a vessel sink, the taller backsplash helps to keep excess water off the walls. We also continued with our 1×6 poplar base and 1×4 poplar door casing here in the bathroom area.

The bathroom starts with our base gray color for most of the walls — except for two walls, one directly in the bathroom; the second, making the transition to the bedroom. Here, our basement floor combination of blue and green shows up again:

Heading into the bathroom area from the main living area (kitchen and family room), our monster theme begins with a portrait of Dracula, based on the original Bela Lugosi portrayal (the joke here with the monster theme is that nothing good happens in bathrooms — the sights, the smells, the shaving, the plucking, the scrubbing, etc.).

Instead of relying on vintage, original posters, or even stills from these classic movies, I opted for portraits that had a more modern take on these iconic creatures. It also marked a fun transition, incorporating one of my daughter’s nicknames, from bathroom to bedroom:

It’s a whimsical, detailed portrait of one of the great movie monsters:

I love the vivid pinks and reds in this King Kong poster:

Above and behind the toilet seemed an ideal, menacing perch for Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman:

This modern, graffiti-inspired take on Boris Karloff’s iconic Frankenstein’s monster is rich in colorful details:

An added touch was positioning him on the green accent wall so that he’s clearly visible in the mirror above the sink, which, with its delicate butterflies, hints at the tragic lakeside scene with the little girl and her flowers from the classic James Whale movie:

For those at the sink who take notice, the monster is watching their every move:

For the bathroom door, I repeated the bedroom door’s use of 2×6’s, pocket screwed together, painted white, with a racing stripe. I also used the same door handle, once again mimicking the Roto hardware on our windows and doors, while also adding a cute, but also highly functional, Schlage VACANT/ IN USE deadbolt lock:

When we were collecting design elements for our house in the pre-construction phase back in 2015, these were just starting to show up in restaurant bathrooms in our area. They seemed equally useful in a residential setting:

Instead of using a screwed-on door stop attached to the baseboard, the bottom of the door, or even the floor, this colorful bag of coffee does the same job admirably with a nice pop of color:

For a toilet paper holder, I opted again for a custom-made option — pared down, sleek, and functional:

Exiting the kitchen, on the way to the bathroom, reveals a linen closet area. Here, I again opted for open shelving, with 2×10’s and gas pipe. The advantage of the open shelving is always knowing what you have and when to order or buy more. The downside, of course, is that there’s no place to hide from dust and clutter if things are allowed to get out of hand.

The ‘Crap’ and ‘Fur’ decorative boxes help contain the worst clutter-prone items — miscellaneous medicines, first-aid products, and hair care tools:

One final monster, just to the left of the bathroom sink, started with an Ed Hardy poster (n.b., Art for Life is a beautifully illustrated overview of his work in tattoos and on canvas):

His ‘Surf or Die’ piece captures the energy and playfulness I was after with our monster theme:

Using the same finishing process as the artwork in our main bedroom and in our basement, I mounted the image first on plywood before later doing an epoxy flood coat.

“… what we call a home is merely any place that succeeds in making more consistently available to us the important truths which the wider world ignores, or which our distracted and irresolute selves have trouble holding on to.

As we write, so we build: to keep a record of what matters to us.”

— Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Since it’s so close to water at the sink (and things like toothpaste spray), I decided to leave it with a high gloss finish for easy clean-up:

In addition to the colors in Hardy’s painting complementing the colorful butterflies surrounding the mirror, the painting itself is a nice surprise for first-time visitors as they exit the bathroom.

Urban Rustic: Main Bedroom and Bathroom

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Design Elements

To create a warm, inviting bedroom and bathroom we knew we wanted to incorporate the same basic Urban Rustic design elements that we intended to use throughout the house. At their most basic level, these elements include wood, metal, and concrete (or stone). These show up at the largest scale in our hickory wood floors, our ‘stained’ concrete porcelain tiles, and our quartz countertops (kitchen and bathrooms). On a much smaller scale, these elements show up in variety of decorative objects that we have carefully curated, placing them throughout the house.

The overarching goal was a mix of sleek and modern with aged but beautifully worn. Whether for the exterior or the interior, the visual cues were rooted in a motif of early 20th century artisan workshop and small farmhouse.

“Successful modern reinterpretations of traditional architectural styles move us not only at an aesthetic level. They show us how we, too, might straddle eras and countries, holding on to our own precedents and regions while drawing on the modern and the universal… Without patronising the history they profess to love, they show us how we, too, might carry the valuable parts of the past and the local into a restless global future… [succeeding] in succumbing neither to nostalgia nor to amnesia.”

— Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

On the exterior this is achieved with a blend of black charred cedar, or shou sugi ban (aka yakisuki), and a restrained use of natural cedar highlights:

The rustic siding and overhangs are then complemented by the modern, sleek, metallic windows, doors, and even the gutters and downspouts. These visually heavy, and mostly dark, elements play well with the surrounding landscape: in summer, contrasting with the vibrant green vegetation and bold flower colors; in winter, our black box stands out in the surrounding white blanket of snow.

Heading indoors, we knew we wanted to experience the inverse of what we established on the exterior.

“… the balance we approve of in architecture… alludes to a state that, on a psychological level, we can describe as mental health or happiness. Like buildings, we, too, contain opposites which can be more or less successfully handled… we instinctively recognize that our well-being depends on our being able both to accommodate and to cancel out our polarities… Our attempts to harmonise our different aspects isn’t generally helped by the world around us, which tends to emphasise a range of awkward antitheses. Consider, for instance, the truisms which hold that one cannot be at the same time both funny and serious, democratic and refined, cosmopolitan and rural, practical and elegant, or masculine and delicate.

Balanced buildings beg to differ.”

— Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Where the black siding absorbs sunlight, creating a brooding, deeply rooted in place black box, for the interior we wanted to make sure we flipped this dynamic, with a mostly neutral baseline, allowing us to then accent this bright and light foundation with vibrant pops of color. Where the exterior is dark and bold, we wanted the interior to be light-filled, warm, and inviting.

As a backdrop, we went with clean white ceilings and basic painted wood trim details. With light gray walls as a neutral canvas, it allowed us to play around with colors and textures, both for artwork and in terms of furniture or decorative objects. With this basic palette of colors and materials, we knew that the bold artwork that we wanted for our walls would really pop and have a long lasting visual vibrancy over the widest possible range of the color spectrum.

Going with basic painted white trim also meant we could contain costs while also keeping the main focus on decorative elements like flooring, wall art, and miscellaneous decorative objects.

For the baseboard, we went with 1×6 poplar, which we had used previously in our last house:

Around exterior doors and windows we chose to utilize drywall returns rather than more elaborate wood trim details. The exception was for our window stools. Here, we went with 8/4 poplar. The thicker material goes well with the chunky profile of our passive house doors and window sashes, particularly noticeable when the units are open.

Below, testing out a piece of the poplar stool in our Pantry-Laundry Room, trying to figure out how far beyond the window opening to go with the horns:

To create a more rustic, informal look, in addition to the thickness of the material, saw marks on the outside edge were mostly left unsanded. The face of each stool was given a gentle, rounded-over edge by hand, while being careful to sand — only minimally — on and around the surface of the saw marks.

Even though I was a little worried about not sanding this face sufficiently, it turned out that we ended up with a nice balance. In the right light, typically morning or afternoon raking sunlight, the saw marks are evident, even prominent, through the layers of primer and paint, offering up interesting shadow lines. At other times of the day, or under the glow of artificial light at night, these saw marks mostly disappear:

Opting to forego an apron trim piece below the stool we felt produced a simpler, cleaner look, although it did require some drywall patching below each rough window opening to more easily close the gap between stool and drywall with a high quality caulk.

We wanted the visual heft of the stools to stand on their own. Using any style of apron may have softened the look we were going for. The downside to a more minimal look, of course, is that there are fewer places to hide imperfections.

We really like the balance between the more formal white paint and the size and texture of the stool itself.

Main Bedroom

In the bedroom and bathroom we started with a white ceiling, white trim, and gray walls. Instead of using an accent wall, we opted for ‘blocks’ of color on two walls, on display upon entering the bedroom:

A dark, rich gray for the headboard wall is offset with a barn red for the long wall that connects the bedroom to the bathroom. To keep the space feeling as open as possible, we opted to go without doors for the bathroom or the walk-in closet. We realized this was an option based on our last home where these two doors were never used, remaining in the open position for the ten years we lived there.

Below, the point where bedroom meets bathroom, and where the richness of the color palette is fully realized:

The combination of ‘weathered concrete’ porcelain tile with the warmth of the hickory mimics the contrast between dark, cool gray and rich red on the adjacent walls.

The same area, looking up towards the ceiling:

With the paint and trim complete, we could finally get some artwork on the walls. We decided to give away most of our wall art from our previous house to family and friends. This allowed us to personalize our new home, particularly since we were opting for a DIY-heavy approach. It also meant our daughter could be involved in anything new that we created.

Below, this framed reproduction of Magritte’s ‘Empire of Light‘ is one of the few items that carried over into our new house:

Note the thickness of the profile on the open window sash with the thickness of the previously mentioned window stool:

A significant percentage of our construction budget went to Passive House details like air sealing, insulation above building code minimums, an ERV, and high performance windows and doors, not to mention our solar panels. Consequently, when it came to interior design, we were happy to commit to a DIY approach:

Apart from any potential savings compared to items bought off-the-shelf, we also find it more fun and rewarding to come up with our own bespoke self-designed handmade items. We’ve also found that custom made items tend to endure and stick around far longer than mass produced items, regardless of their price tag (typically both in terms of durability and enduring affection).

“‘Decor’ and the conception of ‘interior design’ have spread so widely, that very often people forget their instinct for the things they really want to keep around them… people have begun to look outward, to others, and over their shoulders… and have replaced their natural instinctive decorations with the things which they believe will please and impress their visitors… [Decor] is most beautiful when it comes straight from your life — the things you care for, the things that tell your story.”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

For the bookend space to the left of our bedroom window we used a rust technique on some sheet metal. In a bath of white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, and salt, we soaked each piece of metal until we achieved the heavily scarred surface we were aiming for:

There is some latitude in controlling this chemical reaction as the metal rusts. Minimizing the time of exposure can allow some of the original bare metal color to remain. With a longer soak, and some brushing of the liquid repeatedly over the surface of the metal, a much deeper, all-encompassing level of damage can be achieved.

This sample, pictured below, shows a blend of rust and bare metal, prior to being sealed:

After the rusted steel sheets had a chance to dry, we used a low VOC sealer from AFM Safecoat to bind the rust and prevent any ongoing ‘dusting’ (similar to the strategy we employed using tung oil on our charred cedar).

The four individual panels were then mounted on a sheet of plywood. The plywood had been attached to 2×4’s, making it simple to hang the piece on the wall:

The white letters were painted on prior to the seal coat because I wanted some of the rust to bleed through the paint for a more weathered effect to match the level of rust:

To maximize the overall bare-bones look, the 2×4’s and plywood, clearly visible on the sides, was left fully exposed:

The phrase itself is from The Doors song ‘When the Music’s Over’, part of which has an environmental message that blends well with our rock ‘n’ roll theme.

With our blue porcelain frog sticking to the window header, our vignette with a nature theme is mostly complete, framing the view to our backyard, which, at this point, was still little more than a mulched moonscape.

Mid-morning, in the photo above, with sun entering through the open doorway from the left (south).

The authors of A Pattern Language strongly advocate for east-facing main bedrooms:

“The sun warms you, increases the light, gently nudges you to wake up — but in a way that is so gentle, that you will still actually wake up at the moment which serves you best…”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

Below, the sun just before the winter solstice, almost reaching directly into the bedroom (just over 16′ from the south-facing windows). This was part of our passive solar strategy for the house:

Although our bedroom technically faces west, because of the size of our bedroom and family room windows (4.5′ x 9′), and the oversized door opening to the family room that faces south, we end up with a flood of morning light regardless. The intensity of the light is far less than direct east-facing, but the overall effect is similar. On paper this shouldn’t really work, but reality shows otherwise. Something to consider for those in the design stage of their own build.

The next project for the bedroom was to add some seating below the window.

To get started, we picked up some reclaimed lumber from Meeghan, at her shop Great Lakes Yard.

The piece on the left, below, has been epoxied and sanded, ready for its final clear coat. The piece on the right, destined for the family room, is finished, waiting for legs to be attached.

The epoxy was serving both decorative and structural functions. These pieces, particularly the one on the left, were in pretty bad shape in terms of structural integrity. The epoxy was filling cracks, crevices, and also allowed me to rebuild some of the badly damaged outside edges. We chose a blue metallic pigment since it offers an almost water-like iridescence.

Building up some of the outside edges not only added to the visual effect, it also helped stabilize what would’ve otherwise been a piece on the verge of falling apart. This section of wood was a structural framing component during its working life. I left some of the larger holes empty (these look like they were for conduit), while concentrating on the smaller voids. In addition, the mortise pockets benefited from some of the blue epoxy, giving these areas a look of pooling water while also making these spots easier to dust and keep clean:

The built-up outside edges have a nice shimmering water look to them:

Some doubled up 2×6’s painted black with some nice metal hardware completes the look. The original level of wear in the piece can be read in the front vertical face as it changes in thickness from one end to the other.

Having large windows in the bedroom makes a bench like this ideal for a quick sit to take in the evolving flow of life in the backyard as the seasons develop and change. The rest of the time it’s a structural framing member that has been transformed into what we hope is a deceptively unique decorative object:

For our new dresser we decided to go full-on rustic with reclaimed wood and vintage fruit label drawer pulls. The warm wood tones help balance the fiery red accent wall while echoing the color variation in our hickory floors. The aged wood would also serve as a warm, neutral backdrop, helping to put emphasis on the pieces that would soon sit atop the dresser.

My daughter helped me apply tung oil to the ‘box’ and the drawers, giving the dresser a warm, natural matte finish. After a final sand and wipe down, the tung oil brings the old, dry looking wood grain back to life:

Whether it’s searching for interesting reclaimed items or just unique decor touches, I’ve had better luck looking online than with brick and mortar stores. After trying several locations in the Chicago area, as well as various shops when we’ve been out of town, I always come back to shopping online, largely because the pool of options is so much greater than at any one store. We’ve gotten lucky buying a couple of items locally, but the overwhelming majority of what we purchased came from online shops.

Although time consuming, browsing sources like Etsy almost always proved more fruitful in the end.

In the case of the drawer pulls, I found these vintage fruit label ones on Etsy:

Even when it comes to having items framed, we had better luck developing our own technique than using the more traditional frame (wood or metal) with glass approach.

We start by mounting the image to some smooth plywood that’s been previously sanded and dusted. We mount the image using a spray on adhesive. As the glue sets up, we do our best to squeegee out any air to ensure good contact between the plywood and the photo. Once the glue has fully dried, we do an epoxy pour, a flood coat, allowing it to spread over the entire surface, including falling over the edges.

With the initial pour allowed to dry for a couple of days, if a high-gloss finish isn’t ideal, I then sand the epoxy before applying a hardwax oil coating of Osmo Polyx, typically in a satin finish, although the matte finish makes for a nice, subtle velvet-like finish as well.

This technique is roughly the same deployed for river tables, or any project with wood, epoxy, or wood-epoxy combination:

In our case, to experiment with this technique we started small, with a Blondie and Pat Benatar concert poster, before moving on to much larger images:

The trickiest part is making absolutely sure the outside edges of the image are fully adhered to the plywood. If not, when the flood coat of epoxy is applied you risk having the image lift, which is virtually impossible to fix after the epoxy has been poured.

For our red accent wall I decided to use an image of our daughter playing on the Chicago lakefront at sunset. The rich blues in the failing light accentuate the water theme I was after:

In addition to the image, we added a slightly tongue in cheek family altar with a small slab of decorative white concrete as its base.

Below, afternoon sun breaking across the photo and the red accent wall:

For our headboard wall we started with a print by Nikki McClure. We really enjoy the playful vibrancy in her work. The print was mounted and finished with epoxy and then the Osmo as outlined above.

With a base frame made of 1×4 furring strips, I attached the print and then surrounded it with additional 1×4 furring strips to create the finished surface:

Using the furring strips was in keeping with our Urban Rustic design goals, in this case utilizing underappreciated framing materials to show off their inherent beauty and utility in a new context.

After completing a light sanding, trying to hold onto the grading stamps as much as possible, I then whitewashed the 1×4’s to complete the rustic look. The goal was a weathered look:

This was amplified by using the Osmo to seal-in the whitewash since it adds a slight amber, or yellowing, to the surface of the wood, increasing the aged effect. It was a relatively light whitewash application, which allowed some of the original wood color to come through the final finish:

For my nightstand I started with 1/2″ Purebond plywood for the carcass. The dimensions are larger than what’s typical, but I wanted it to look short and hefty.

I made deep drawers, using Blum drawer slides to help support the weight of anything put in the drawers, especially books. We used them for our kitchen drawers and we love the smooth function and soft close function. They’re not the cheapest option, but their quality is hard to match.

I wrapped the carcass with 1×4 furring strips, just like the headboard piece, and then used 1/2″ plywood for the drawer fronts, painted a vibrant red to match our red accent wall. Both the carcass and the drawer fronts were sealed with the Osmo.

The black drawer pulls I found online. I didn’t try to refinish them, instead I just applied a couple coats of sealer to prevent further rusting. I then attached them to the drawer fronts with some lag bolts. This combination epitomizes the Urban Rustic aesthetic: sleek, modern red and shiny steel with rusted, worn and peeling hardware.

For the top I glued two sheets of 3/4″ Purebond plywood together for a chunkier look, using Timbermate putty to fill and smooth out the exposed edges.

With a slightly rounded over edge created using a router, it was time to have some fun applying stickers. Starting with a Vespa Italian roundel and striping, my daughter and I added various other famous high-performance Italian industrial design brands, partly inspired by the work of Bruno Munari.

As with the wall art photos, first we did an epoxy flood coat before sanding and applying a final couple coats of Osmo satin, which produces a nice combination of hard-wearing with a subtle shine.

The stickers were a fun homage to high Italian industrial design:

The little tank of a nightstand is a nice mix of urban and rustic elements:

For my wife’s nightstand I started with a mini river table.

With the mold complete, I could get the two pieces of walnut in position to better evaluate what would be the final look:

I thought about using a white metallic epoxy, but anytime I’ve used a white pigment with epoxy it’s always yellowed to one extreme or another over time (typically within the first year). Instead, I opted for a metallic black, which also had some metallic silver mixed in.

Opinions vary on the enduring charm of river tables, but it’s probably a safe bet that a more subdued pigment choice, like black, will have a better chance of being appreciated and loved well into the future.

Below, the black epoxy complete, and the planing mostly done:

Below, after sanding, routing the edges, and an initial coat of Rubio Monocoat:

Below, after a second coat of Rubio has been done. Although it belies the name, I usually end up with better results after a light sand and a second coat of Rubio has been applied:

I’m hoping the variation in color tone doesn’t mellow too much with age. The stark contrast between light and dark woodgrain adds to the beauty of these pieces.

Close-up of the walnut surface:

The wide color variation is incredibly beautiful. Moreover, the black epoxy adds to the wave effect visible in the woodgrain, reminiscent of flowing water.

For the body of the nightstand I used the Purebond plywood for the carcass, leaving it exposed as the final finish for the sides. In combination with the face frame, I opted for inset drawer fronts, painting them gray to match the headboard wall color. The pulls are actually dock cleats, offering a heavy-duty look for a component that’s usually more delicate in appearance.

Like the ‘Mother’ wall art piece, I used a whitewash finish on the face frame and the sides, sealed once again with Osmo. I used the Blum slides for the drawers.

Below, the nightstand complete:

Main Bathroom

Design for our bathroom started with our floating vanity, which is accented with a combination of charred cedar and lag bolts, and completed by the quartz counters and the porcelain vessel sinks. This combination reflects our Urban Rustic building blocks of wood-metal-stone.

In addition, along with the toilet paper holder, it gave us an opportunity to bring the charred cedar indoors. We would do this with several decorative elements throughout the main floor, using the charred cedar as an accent rather than as a main feature like it is on our exterior.

With oversized subway tile and red glass accents, the shower plays well with the more rustic and handmade items in the space.

The bright yellow painting references lines from a Pixies song:

Struggling to find a unique toilet paper holder, I came across this one on Etsy: Wrench

This well-worn industrial sign adds a whimsical touch:

The toilet paper storage box works well in terms of function, and the charred finish adds some nice color and texture:

For the red accent wall I wanted a piece that would start in the bedroom and carry through to the bathroom, where only then it would reveal its dramatic punch.

It also makes for a nice companion piece to the ‘Mother’ headboard wall art:

As with the ‘Mother’ piece, I tried to hold onto the lumber stamps as much as possible. I also tried to select the individual pieces of 1×4 for their color, wood grain, and knot pattern. This was more important for this piece since it was left ‘natural’, with only a couple coats of Osmo for some protection and for a slight ambering effect. The natural tones of the wood and the inky black in the artwork make for a nice combination with the intensity of the red on the wall:

We picked up this second Nikki McClure print from Anthology in Madison, Wisconsin, a cute shop with a nice range of products. My wife and daughter, along with some extended family, love going here every time we’re in Madison.

Despite their many imperfections, the 1×4 furring strips make for a unique, rustic decorative touch. On a job site they don’t get much respect, typically kept hidden behind finished surfaces like siding in the case of a ventilated rainscreen.

It’s been fun devising ways to let them shine in their own right.

Sunlight from the west, entering the bathroom around midday:

In addition to the building science we incorporated into the structure of our build, collecting and executing the design elements for our interiors has made crafting and building our own home one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives.

“When the objects we use every day and the surroundings we live in have become in themselves a work of art, then we shall be able to say that we have achieved a balanced life.”

— Bruno Munari, Design as Art

Permaculture: The First Two Years

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Observe and Change

Growing up, my parents always had a garden plot of vegetables in our backyard. Pulling weeds in the hot sun is my strongest childhood memory of these gardens. Needless to say, the memory is unpleasant. Growing vegetables seemed like a sweaty, tiresome chore. More to the point, it seemed entirely unnecessary since we had so many grocery stores in our area.

It was only many years later, after living in our first house for awhile, that an interest in plants, of any kind, was sparked. My wife and I were living in a fairly standard suburban tract-home subdivision. Most of our neighbors had foundation plantings around their homes; some even had additional flower beds carved out of their well-kept lawns, although these were the exception. Apart from these plantings up close to each home, the subdivision was almost entirely a repeating pattern of roads, homes, and then their individual patch of green lawn.

In an effort to improve our curb appeal (we had zero plantings and only lawn grass), we started with some basic perennials like ornamental grasses, flowers, and some small shrubs around the front entry.

After realizing how much fun it was to plan out and arrange these plants, the border edging, and even the shape of the borders themselves, each subsequent spring meant carving up more patches of lawn in order to develop our plant varieties and combinations.

It was during this period that I began reading Mother Earth News, Fine Gardening, and ordering online from suppliers like Seed Savers Exchange and Johnny’s Seeds.

After starting out copying what I had seen my parents do — using store-bought chemical fertilizers and pesticides to manage plant health — we quickly moved in the direction of organic solutions. Not only were they less dangerous to handle, they were also less detrimental to the overall soil food web.

“Think of scooping up a handful of soil and leaf litter and spreading it out on a white ground cloth, in the manner of the field biologist, for close examination. This unprepossessing lump contains more order and richness of structure, and particularity of history, than the entire surfaces of all other (lifeless) planets. It is a miniature wilderness that can take almost forever to explore.”

— Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia

Initially viewing the soil in our yard as a lifeless medium requiring endless varieties of supplements in order to achieve the results we were looking for, as I read and learned more, we began to focus on the soil as our main building block for everything we wanted (vegetables, shrubs, flowers — even a healthy lawn).

In fact, an early prod to trying something unconventional occured after realizing our lawn care service had only one solution to every problem that cropped up in the yard: using either larger quantities of chemicals, or just different varieties of chemicals. There wasn’t any concern for site conditions or causes; the only emphasis was on treating symptoms, namely, weeds.

“… how chemical companies have always handled the problem of pest resistance: by simply introducing a new and improved pesticide every few years. With any luck, the effectiveness of the last one will expire around the same time its patent does.”

— Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire

At some point, after we had a couple of growing seasons with mixed results, I came across Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One Straw Revolution and Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden. Each, in their distinctive way, advocated for a ‘nature first’ approach when gardening or farming, emphasizing the importance of setting up structures and plant relationships that would allow nature, over time, to do most of the work for us.

“Nature, left alone, is in perfect balance. Harmful insects and plant diseases are always present, but do not occur in nature to an extent which requires the use of poisonous chemicals. The sensible approach to disease and insect control is to grow sturdy crops in a healthy environment.”

— Masanobu Fukuoka, The One Straw Revolution

After my daughter was born, and my wife grew tired of her hour-long commute, we decided to sell our home and move closer to her work. By that time I had also learned about Passive House and Pretty Good House, in addition to Susanka’s Not So Big House series of books — homebuilding design strategies that were defiantly moving away from conventional norms (not unlike Permaculture).

The more we thought about what we would want from our new home, the more this combination of Passive House and Permaculture design principles appealed to us.

Here’s one example of what can be done on a suburban lot:

In terms of the Permaculture, we knew we wanted to experiment more with growing our own food, to the extent that’s possible in our Climate Zone 5 region, here in the suburbs of Chicago. After trying to grow a whole host of veggies our first few years gardening — thumbing through any number of seed catalogs in winter became a favorite pastime — we slowly learned what we enjoyed growing and what we thought was more hassle than it was worth.

Here’s another example of what can be achieved in the suburbs:

Short of an end times scenario, in which every calorie we consume would first need to be harvested from our yard, we whittled a potential list of food options down to a workable number of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. With its focus on soil health, a side benefit of setting up a Permaculture-inspired landscape is that a patch of ornamental flowers or grasses can be quickly converted to food production, in most cases within a single season.

Although we were excited about trying new fruit varieties (whether in tree, shrub, or vine form), our main design goal was to be largely ornamental in focus — especially at first glance to any passerby, with food items woven in amongst the bold mix of colors and textures.

Permaculture is still a new idea in most parts of the US, so we felt more confident that our neighbors would be supportive so long as things looked ‘pretty’ for most of the year. We were also confident that, with the right mix of plants, we could welcome in the local wildlife, no matter the scope of our overall food production.

Here’s an example of what time plus significant acreage can produce:

Regardless of the name applied to its specific scale or form — Permaculture, Agroforestry, Edible Landscape, Food Forest, Regenerative Agriculture — we knew that our design would begin with a foundation of thick mulch (similar to the Ruth Stout method).

In addition to going lawn-free, here are some of the other main goals for our yard:

  • Avoid digging (e.g., no seasonal plowing of the soil for growing vegetables)
  • Avoid outside inputs; as much as possible, create a closed loop system
    • e.g., no synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides
  • Xeriscaping techniques
    • plant selection and placement based on water needs
      • limit plants that do require more water to those areas where water tends to sit, or else plant close to the house for easy, quick watering (e.g., dahlias)
    • leave no bare soil exposed
    • no dedicated irrigation system
      • occasionally hand water new plants for the first year until established
      • water vegetables, and flowers like dahlias, infrequently but deeply
      • use sprinklers only after prolonged period of drought and plants are visibly stressed
    • use thick base layer of mulch to retain moisture and even-out temperatures seasonally, in addition to building long-term soil health
    • encourage rainfall to stay on site and be absorbed rather than allow it to run-off
  • No waste
    • dedicated compost bin (for plant-based kitchen food waste)
    • compost or ‘chop and drop‘ cuttings in situ (e.g., Russian comfrey, shrub prunings, perennial cut-back in spring)
    • again, the goal is a mostly closed loop system
  • After getting soil and plant relationships established, mimic Fukuoka’s ‘do-nothing‘ approach

When confronted with a problem in my first years gardening, it’s easy to recall the immediate impulse to reach for a chemical solution, or to look online for a quick (typically industrial) fix of some kind. This knee-jerk reaction ebbed over time, particularly as I learned more and I experimented with natural or even ‘hands-off’ ways of reaching the same solution.

Many of the ideas associated with organic or Permaculture-based growing become obvious, even second nature, once they’ve been adopted and the subsequent positive results speak for themselves. Even so, it does take some time for this change in perspective to fully develop (again, the same is often said of Passive House building principles).

An anecdote from Sepp Holzer regarding voles illustrates this change in mindset — working with nature to get what you want, rather than engaging in a pitched battle of costly resistance:

“… If I fight them (with poison, gas or by catching them), the territory will only become free for others. The lower population density will be balanced out by more and more empty territories. Voles will produce more offspring or even just produce more males. Instead of catching, poisoning or gassing pests, it is better to consider the cycle of nature. If I let the voles work for me, I will have aerated, loose and well-drained soil and also lush, diverse vegetation. The vole will no longer appear as a cause of damage. Moreover, poisoning and gassing will contaminate the soil… The energy required to repair damage to the soil is much greater than the supposed damage caused by the voles eating crops. It is important to make sure that there are always enough decoy plants available to them… If there are enough available, the voles will leave the fruit trees alone. It is not a question of what I can do to fight the ‘pests’, but what can I do for them, so that they will not cause damage and even work to my benefit [emphasis added]. “

— Sepp Holzer, Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening

As Permaculture advocates are quick to point out, in many cases ‘the problem is the solution‘. This approach to problem solving requires imagination and a willingness to question assumptions while also thinking through potential unintended consequences. Far different from the normal way of doing things, rooted in a ‘better living through chemistry’ approach, one that assumes a fix must already exist, so it’s on a store shelf somewhere and you just need to find it.

Rather than attempt a deep dive on the science and design principles associated with Permaculture, what follows is more of an overview of our experience setting up the basic foundation and structures of our design, with commentary on what we find works and where issues have come up for us.

Please consult the many excellent resources outlined above for a more in-depth look at all the possible techniques and plant relationships, and how they can be organized to fit the scale of your own project (from patio to homestead).

For some additional options, go here: Resources

Getting Started

Our lot is roughly 60′ x 190′, so about a quarter of an acre. It was an infill lot that had been sitting idle since at least the subdivision was first developed.

Except for a single, large elm tree, with its open southern exposure the lot was mostly ideal for Passive House (e.g., passive solar heating and rooftop solar panels) and Permaculture design goals.

“We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.”

Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Unfortunately, the large elm tree needed to be removed since it would’ve been right outside what would become our kitchen door.

Thankfully, none of it went to waste. The mulch would be used up fast once we neared the end of construction and could begin to concentrate on landscaping. Even the larger logs, along with some additional logs donated by a neighbor after one of their trees fell down, would be kept towards the back of our lot. In this area they would serve as excellent mushroom food, a break between our yard and the utility easement, and a fun spot for my daughter to run and jump from log to log.

As far as soil conditions, after testing we learned it was ideal for our basement foundation. However, below the first 6-12″ it was predominantly clay.

“The great issues facing our environment — both locally and globally — are linked to the innumerable organisms that live underground. The health of our soils and gardens and fields have suffered from a dependence on chemical fertilizers and a lack of appreciation for the contribution to soil fertility of the myriad creatures that labor underground. Their interactions below ground result in a balance between the processes of growth and the processes of decay. The humus that these creatures generate during the processes of decay is essential to fuel the processes of growth. Without humus, mineral nutrients from fertilizers are soon lost from the soil, along with the pore spaces that hold the moisture and the air that make a well-structured soil so productive and fertile. Countless reciprocal interactions between life belowground and life aboveground shape the world in which we live.”

—James B. Nardi, Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners

This became readily apparent once excavation began and the soil horizons were exposed:

Without much attention or care (apart from regular mowing), at least in the conventional sense, the lot had flourished without any chemical inputs or irrigation for years. Although not exclusively lawn grass, any number of ‘weeds’ were growing happily alongside one another in a thick, healthy green turf. Unfortunately, once construction began, much of this fertile top layer would end up being disturbed or damaged.

Design Plan for the Yard

A quick overview of conditions on our lot:

Our house runs mostly east-west along its longest axis. Even so, our north side, beginning in spring and going until fall, gets a significant amount of early and late afternoon sunlight.

In the backyard, which faces west, the neighbor’s imposing trees offer ample shading beginning around noon, before the sun breaks through once more, briefly, in the evening as the sun sets.

In terms of grading, most of the yard is sloped towards the north, although there’s a small section near the very back of the lot where the pitch reverses itself (thus, the far south-west corner is always the wettest section of our yard; here, water can collect and experience mostly shade conditions).

“Consider the site and its buildings as a single living eco-system… People always say to themselves, well, of course, we can always start another garden, build another trellis, put in another gravel path, put new crocuses in the new lawn, and the lizards will find some other pile of stones. But it just is not so. These simple things take years to grow — it isn’t all that easy to create them, just by wanting to. And everytime we disturb one of these precious details, it may take twenty years, a lifetime even, before some comparable details grow again from our small daily acts.”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

Once we purchased our lot and had some sense of the size of home we would be building, I could start planning the layout for Permaculture design ideas.

One of the first elements for our yard would be a deep mulch layer. While suppressing weeds, it could also help break up the clay just below the surface, while also improving drainage (soaking up large quantities of water like a sponge) as it slowly decomposes to make ‘black gold’ or compost (acting, essentially, as a slow release fertilizer).

In lieu of fencing, we thought a wide variety of shrubbery (height, width, color, and texture) along the southern edge of our property, with additional shrub layers to parts of the north and west, would be an excellent way to gain some privacy while also maintaining mostly open views. As these various shrubs matured, they could offer excellent shelter and nesting sites to birds in the area. One of our main defenses against insect pests would prove to be welcoming in the birds.

“… creating ideal conditions for wildlife by permitting fencerows to grow up, by the establishment of multiflora hedges, and even ‘islands’ of undergrowth or multiflora in pines in large open fields. Even the unpopular house sparrow makes a contribution in keeping down insect populations, a contribution far beyond that for which he is given credit… I have seen the house sparrow in our gardens stripping every green aphid from the roses…

The hedges, the birds, are merely a part of a general pattern based upon natural checks and balances in the operations of nature and have contributed enormously to the material welfare of Malabar Farms, as well as to the pleasure and beauty contributed by the hedges and by the presence and increase of bird life of every sort.”

— Louis Bromfield, From My Experience

These shrubs could also offer us some protection from wind once they mature. In effect, we would be setting up a fairly traditional hedgerow, with many of the same benefits enjoyed by pre-industrial farms.

Out at the street, a mix of perennials, flowers, grasses, ground covers, and smaller shrubs could handle some neglect away from the house, while also surviving winters covered by plowed snow and salted roads.

The north side of the driveway would be a mix of mostly shorter perennials, mainly chosen for their color and texture. Since this area would experience run-off from vehicles on the driveway, we thought it best to avoid growing any food here.

The remainder of the yard, meaning most of the front and back, could be used to grow a variety of food items, while also affording us the opportunity to play around with a wide range of plantings to boost visual interest and biological diversity.

The north side, we always assumed, would be a blank slate until most of the yard was started. As we experimented in other areas, we could incorporate what we learn on this side of the house.

Some of the ideas for our house and yard that were eventually dropped due to budget, time, or site specific constraints included composting toilets, a gray water system, and on-site water storage such as cisterns or above-ground tanks — ideas that are well worth exploring whenever possible.

“Our current ways of getting rid of sewage poison the great bodies of natural water, and rob the land around our buildings of the nutrients they need… Almost every step in modern sewage disposal is either wasteful, expensive, or dangerous.”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

As a basic overview, this framework would serve us well when the time came to begin purchasing and placing plants on site.

It was only as we headed towards the tail end of construction that we could even begin to address the site conditions in preparation of our Permaculture goals.

Since we wouldn’t be putting down grass seed or sod (going lawn-free was one of our earliest design goals), the first priority was to address water management, in particular those areas of the yard that were most under pressure from soil erosion every time it rained.

First batch of plants for around our front yard culvert:

In addition to the perimeter of the house and garage, it was also important to get mulch, stone, and plants set up around our culvert out by the street. This culvert was under typical pressure from direct rainfall, but also my neighbor’s sump pump and gutters, as well as water from our own sump pump.

Along with purchased stone, we also scavenged chunks of concrete from the job site:

To decorate the termination point in the culvert for our sump pump discharge, we decided to go with a combination of decorative stone and a variety of plantings. The usual suspects — Luke, Eduardo, and Jesus (not pictured) — were back to help us set up the culvert along with the border around our house.

The soil directly around the house had been visibly damaged by equipment and foot traffic during construction, so we decided to heavily mulch these areas without putting down cardboard first for sheet mulching, as we would later do for the remainder of the yard.

Our excavator was back for final grading:

With the final grading complete, we were ready to put down an initial layer of hardwood mulch. Here, again, the dingo proved its worth, as my wife used it to carry loads of mulch to the backyard.

South-west corner of the house as we put down an initial mulch layer:

Even with a shortened growing season, our new plants around the culvert were heading into their first winter happy and healthy.

Another view of the front yard after final grading and an initial layer of mulch has been put down.

Black and yellow garden spider:

Even with all the disruptions of construction, wildlife — of various sorts — was making itself known on site.

The mulch was down for only a few weeks, but it was long enough for some mushrooms to show up in various spots around the house. We were looking forward to seeing mushrooms sprout as the mulch breaks down. So far, we’ve been happily surprised at how quickly and consistently they began to appear.

As I dug out some clay soil in preparation for decorative gravel along our front walkway, this reddish spider showed up on our front steps.

Woodlouse Hunter Spider:

We were excited about building attractive habitat for local wildlife, so these early signs of life were encouraging, particularly since so little had been put in place up to this point.

Drywall and interior finishes were next up for the house. This work would occupy us through the winter.

In spring, we could look forward to sheet mulching and getting some basic structural elements of our Permaculture design in place.

In the meantime, we put the yard to bed for the winter as best we could, and, with the help of countless plant catalogs, began making our plans for next year.

First Spring: Sheet Mulching and Hügelkultur Bed

Sheet mulching a quarter acre suburban yard requires large quantities of cardboard. Luckily, a source near us, ABT Electronics, is happy to give it away in the form of appliance and mattress boxes. These thick, oversized boxes make relatively quick work of large spaces, which speeds things up when you’re trying to cover a lot of area fast.

After calling ahead to schedule a time to pick up the boxes, my daughter and I showed up in a rental van to load them up.

Once unloaded at home, we worked our way through the boxes, removing as much plastic shipping tape and staples as possible.

The boys and I began laying down the cardboard boxes just a few at a time, careful to overlap all of the edges by a few inches (this makes it tougher for weeds to fight their way through to the surface). After soaking the boxes with a garden hose, we then began putting down a thick layer of mulch over the top of the boxes.

At our previous home, I was used to putting down 2-4″ layers of mulch. Here, we were putting down 8-10″ of mulch, which seemed like a lot at the time. If I had it to do over, however, I would’ve gone even thicker, with a solid foot as a goal. Because there’s some settling that occurs once the mulch has been in place for awhile, and because it’s difficult to get a perfectly uniform layer across an entire lawn, I wish now we had gone thicker.

Looking back, another option, at least in the backyard, would’ve been to cut what remained of the existing turf at the back of our lot as low as possible, and then seeded the area with green manure, in the hopes that these plants could outcompete the existing ‘weeds’. If successful, then it would be possible to eventually cut down or remove the green manure plants in order to transition to fruits and veggies, or more ornamental options. If it worked, it would doubtless be less expensive than sheet mulching (time and money). Perhaps worth trying in a small area before expanding over wide expanses.

In terms of keeping costs down, one option is to call around to tree service companies in your area to see if they’d be willing to deliver wood chip mulch from felled trees and brush. Because this material is often destined for a landfill, which require disposal fees, companies will sometimes prefer delivering to your home for free.

In our case, we had mixed results pursuing this. When the timing was right, we managed to get a handful of deliveries from a couple of local companies, but it wasn’t always easy to match demand with supply (companies are unlikely to drive very far out of their way to deliver to your home).

With a good portion of the backyard complete, we moved on to creating our hügelkultur bed. The basic structure was formed using portions of our remaining elm tree, branches, twigs, and random pieces of bark. On top of this we placed a layer of topsoil mixed with some mushroom compost.

As with the mulch, we wish we had gone bigger with the hügelkultur bed. Even so, we used up every scrap piece of wood that we had on site, so if we had gone bigger it would’ve required that we bring in additional material.

If you look around online, you can see some impressively massive hügelkultur beds. Some so large they act as effective windbreaks.

A wider view of the backyard:

Note the diminutive shrubs off to the left. The purple sandcherry and dwarf blue arctic willow won’t stay tiny for long. While buying smaller plant options requires some patience, it makes meeting budget constraints easier, even as it allows you to purchase a wider variety of plants.

For the most part, I’ve been able to avoid designing-to-death every square inch of space in our yard. By adopting a more generalized idea of what I think can work in a certain area, it’s allowed for much more happy and successful outcomes, even the occasional happy accident.

This also helps when getting ideas down on paper, or even after plants have been purchased and you’re ready to put them in the ground. By being more open to various arrangements and combinations, the outcome tends to be more interesting, both aesthetically and even in terms of function.

Below is one area of exception. Pretty much everything shown was purchased and planted. In the case of these various shrubs, the idea was to create a living fence, one that offered privacy to my neighbor to the south, but also an opportunity for wildlife to have access to flowers, shelter, nesting sites, and even some fruit. By varying the heights and shapes of the plantings, we’ve tried to create more visual interest while avoiding the soldiers-standing-at-attention look that sometimes happens when the same plant is used down a long line to mark a border, as a windbreak, or for privacy.

Included in the list are dogwood, almond (they didn’t survive — we were pushing it in terms of climate region), purple sandcherry, a maple shrub, shasta viburnum, several privets, a weeping cherry, and a crabapple.

With the back and sides of the house mulched, we were able to move on to the front yard. With the house almost ready for us to move in, it was exciting to get plantings arranged by the front step.

As with much of the yard, we started with basic structural elements. For instance, a rain garden next to the downspout, with ample amounts of rock and what will become robust ornamental grasses. Also added into the mix are colorful favorites like echinacea, shasta daisies, penstemon ‘dark towers‘, and a few lavenders. Keeping the lavender next to the concrete steps, where we’re sure to brush up against it, will make easy work of collecting the spent flowers.

With a few adjustments over time, this setup easily manages the sometimes heavy flow of water from the nearby downspout. The first year saw some erosion in the mulch layer, but after adding some more stone as the plants had a chance to get established, this area has subsequently been issue-free and, arguably, one of the most cohesive and well-developed areas in the yard.

“Most of our job in relation to water is to intercept and direct its flow into a variety of storages — tanks, ponds, swales, rain gardens, livestock, plants, the soil — and only release it once it has done a whole series of duties… If you store water, you must also provide for its release and continued flow. You can only slow water down. You have a right to use it, but you don’t own it. All of it must sooner or later be released, if not to the stream, then to the soil or the air.”

— Peter Bane, The Permaculture Handbook

Boulders, gravel, thick mulch, and a variety of plants work together, encouraging water from the downspout to infiltrate rather than run-off. Over time, we’ve implemented this strategy at each downspout, even on the north side where there’s only a few feet to the neighbor’s property line. Even in this case, the goal is to encourage as much of the water exiting the downspouts to infiltrate into our yard, rather than escaping to the neighbor’s property. While the rocks and stones help to slow the water down, the thick mulch and plant roots are able to absorb surprisingly large quantities of water.

In theory, this strategy can even help recharge aquifers. If the infiltration is slow and consistent, it can encourage water to remain on site where it can be a source of water that some plants can call on during severe drought conditions. Instead of looking at water as strictly something to be gotten rid of (this is the case when it comes to the structure of our house), in permaculture terms it needs to be cultivated and managed in a way that’s beneficial to the plants and soil.

Out front, by the street, we added a parkway tree, some additional stone, and a handful of new plants.

Below, the view of the north side of the house and yard shows very little planted, and not much around the downspouts at this point. Because the north side is the smallest area in the yard in terms of square footage, and it gets minimal foot traffic, we decided to hold off on addressing it. It also gives us more opportunity to figure out exactly what we’d like to see on this side of the house.

The stone-filled culvert where water from our sump pump exits is both functional and slightly improved with the addition of mulch and a plant combination of Lychnis ‘Petite Jenny’ and blue iris where the water eventually passes out of the culvert and into our neighbor’s yard.

In the backyard, around the hügel bed, my daughter helped me plant a series of bare root fruit trees. Utilizing Ann Ralph’s techniques, laid out in her small tome, Grow a Little Fruit Tree, we cut these back hard right after planting. The goal is to keep these fruit trees compact but fruitful (ideally under 6′ tall to make harvesting easy).

“Ask yourself what seems best, listen to your own good opinion, and cut something out. These choices are entirely up to you and not nearly as consequential as you fear.

The tree responds. You watch what happens. You learn. The tree grows and creates new choices for you in the form of new branches. You can always make adjustments and corrections next time.”

— Ann Ralph, Grow a Little Fruit Tree

On the hügel itself, we planted a series of herbs, including sage, basil, and lemon balm, along with a series of strawberries. Later we would add some tomatoes and peppers. We also planted some potatoes that we’ve yet to dig up (the vegetation and flowers continue to come up each summer).

The trees in the backyard were a mix of nectarine, peach, plum, and cherry.

“In the climates where fruit trees grow, the orchards give the land an almost magical identity: think of the orange groves of Southern California, the cherry trees of Japan, the olive trees of Greece. But the growth of cities seems always to destroy these trees and the quality they possess.”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

In the front yard, we did a mix of red apple and Granny Smith (hopefully for apple pie one day).

In addition to fruit trees, we also planted a series of blueberries and strawberries, spreading them throughout the front and backyard, in the hopes of upping the quantity and variety of food available in each successive growing season. In the case of strawberries, we’ve opted for everbearing varieties.

Marking Progress

In the photo below, even though things look pretty thin so far, there’s actually a foundation of plantings that have been put in place.

For instance, in the back, off to the left, are the logs donated by a neighbor after their tree fell during a storm. Also, in the far right back corner, there’s a mix of Miscanthus giganteus and Sante Fe Maximillian sunflower, along with three ‘Tiger Eyes‘ Sumac and some ‘Walker’s Low‘ catmint. The Miscanthus and Maximillian sunflower (which is perennial) are our attempt at a bamboo alternative.

When fully grown, these plants range in height from 8-15′, offering the size and dense layering associated with bamboo (it takes 2-3 years for these two varieties to really get established).

The Sumac and catnip are complements in terms of height, flower color, and texture. The small yew evergreen will eventually be our perennial ‘Christmas tree’ once it matures (and gets wrapped in solar powered lights during the holiday season).

Immediately around the hügel are the fruit trees, matched with Russian comfrey (a favorite in Permaculture design) for added mulch and nutrients. We’ve had good luck with the comfrey — it’s easy to ‘chop and drop’ under each fruit tree several times each growing season. When it’s happy, comfrey produces large, vivid green leaves with dainty lavender flowers that bees love to visit.

Between the hügel and the back corner, there’s a mix of wildflowers and ornamental grasses. We’ll need to add to this area over time, as there’s still plenty of open space available.

There’s also been some erosion in the mulch layer after heavy rains. As the summer progressed it was clear that some areas, especially in the backyard, were showing signs of having thinned out. It was significant enough that we even had some weed seeds show up in a couple of areas.

Overall, the sheet mulching was incredibly effective at weed suppression. To date, the only ‘weeds’ that have managed to survive are Virginia creeper and some bindweed. The Virginia creeper is concentrated towards the back corner of the yard, intermingled amongst the Miscanthus and sunflowers. The bindweed pops up along the entire northern edge of our property.

Both weeds are sparse, emerging in only limited areas. They are easy to pull once they get a few inches up above the mulch. Unfortunately, this is the best option for controlling them, as any herbicide is unlikely to kill the entire plant. Clearly happy to grow and spread beneath the mulched surface, even if you managed to kill it in one spot, they’d likely pop up elsewhere.

Utilizing this disciplined approach of constantly pulling it as soon as it pops up was effective against a patch of chufa, or nutsedge, at our last house:

It took time, 2-3 summers in fact, but eventually the constant pulling seemed to exhaust the individual plants and they eventually disappeared. We’re hoping for the same result with these weeds. Worst case may be controlling rather than eradicating them altogether.

Interestingly enough, the lawn grass of our neighbors to our north and south is easily the most relentless invader, spreading by rhizomes, relentlessly trying to invade our mulched border. Several times a year we cut a groove into the line between our mulch and their grass, pulling up the grass that’s trying to get established in our mulch. It’s relatively easy work, but absolutely necessary in order to avoid being overrun.

As we put in new plantings we were always careful to pull back the mulch until we had dug down to the clay layer so that we could add actual soil before setting the new plants in place.

In many spots the cardboard hadn’t disintegrated yet, although there were a couple of areas where it was mostly gone. Presumably, in another year or two, it will be gone.

Digging down 8-10″ past the mulch layer to expose the original clay soil:

While putting in the new plants, we also saw evidence of white mycelium developing just below the surface of the mulch, along with plenty of earthworm, spider, and insect activity. All hopeful signs for the future health of our yard.

Apart from the decorative stone throughout the yard, the shrubs, ornamental grasses, and sunflowers are the basis of our structural layer (in visual terms) up to this point.

Later in the summer a couple varieties of basil pretty much took over the top of the hügel. To the left, a tuft of new leafy growth is visible on the fruit tree. In the background, near the house and downspout, the first year of growth on the Helenium ‘Dancing Flames‘ and the beginnings of a rain garden are visible, even though at this stage it’s still mostly just stone slowing down the water in this area.

A view of this same area, but from inside the house:

Erosion in the mulch layer is clearly evident in the many tiny gullies formed as water moved away from the downspout. Nevertheless, the stone and plants are in place to at least establish the beginnings of a rain garden.

During construction, when the ground was pretty much bare, our sump pump ran almost continuously during every rainstorm. With a heavy layer of mulch and the rudimentary beginnings of a rain garden at the mouth of every downspout, the sump pump ran noticeably less often, even during the heaviest of storms (in one case, 3″ in about an hour).

View from the south-west corner of the house: shrubs and grasses, just off the kitchen door, slowly getting established; the hügel and plantings in the backyard taking shape.

From left to right: four privets, Karl Foerster feather reed grass, Shasta viburnum, more grass, and then a crabapple barely in view.

In just a couple of years the privets and the viburnum will completely dwarf the grasses.

Another view of the backyard, this time from the far, south-west corner. In the foreground is a mix of perennials (flowers and grasses), beyond them is the hügel, and then, running along the southern edge of our property, the series of shrubs that one day should grow together into a living fence.

In the front, many of the perennials, especially the grasses, have enjoyed decent growth, and even the shrubs have leafed out well and taken on some new height. The area just behind the pile of stones was used extensively during construction as a staging area for building components, thus suffering a lot of abuse.

The soil in this area has compacted, and it’s been a struggle to grow much of anything so far.

To help this area recover we’ll try mostly a green manure mix, and then transition eventually to mostly flowers in order to add more color to the front yard.

Post-construction, this area has continued to be a staging area for materials, including gravel, decorative stone, topsoil and mushroom compost, and, of course, many yards of mulch.

If we can loosen the compaction in this area sufficiently, we could probably even sneak in at least three more fruit tree guilds.

First Harvest

In our first full season of growing we’ve had some nice development, although much of what we’ve planted is nowhere near maturity, remaining undersized and often wispy in appearance. This is to be expected so early in the process. The main goal, so far, has been to establish a base; both in terms of visual weight and in the long-term sense of function.

Even in the photo above, the rough outlines are present. For example, out at the culvert a series of plants are in place to absorb heavy rain events while also being resilient enough to survive periods of extended drought. The goal is to avoid having to water anything that far away from the house. Apart from last year, when the first plants went in, we’ve been able to let things flourish on their own. The thick layer of mulch does wonders in this regard.

They’re hard to see at this stage, but there are also apple trees, strawberries, and some blueberries planted in amongst the shrubs and perennials. They’re all just getting started.

Even though it’s early days for the yard, we’ve still managed to garner a decent harvest this first summer. From the backyard we’ve enjoyed a fair number of tomatoes, peppers, and basil. From the front, it was exclusively lavender and some peppermint.

Lavender we’ll use in satchels to go next to pillows or inside drawers for aromatherapy:

During our first full growing season we also managed to bring in our first flower cuttings, including two plants that have been a mainstay for us since our last house: agastache ‘Ava’, one of the more durable and long blooming flowers in our yard (loved by pollinators and hummingbirds alike); and Russian sage, an equally impressive magnet for pollinators. Also, one of our favorite perennial ornamental grasses, Palm Sedge, which helps to fill out and add texture to a bouquet.

In the fall, the hügel bed finally filled up a little. The fruit trees, which had been aggressively cut back in the spring, had taken on a nice flush of leafy growth. In the far back corner of the yard, our Miscanthus giganteus and Maximilian sunflowers were doing well, even if they were stunted in their first year as they acclimate to their surroundings. We look forward to next year when they grow together in a thick wall of leafy green, mimicking a stand of bamboo.

At this stage the yard is, admittedly, still looking mostly like a mulched moonscape. A small price to pay in order to patiently and methodically decide how we want to fill in all the remaining gaps. It was tempting to purchase enough mature, or at least semi-mature plants (at much greater cost, of course), to fill the entire yard and then hope we had guessed right in our placement and mix of sizes, colors, and textures.

Our approach, although it requires more patience, should allow us to experiment and observe seasonal changes as plants develop and grow together. And we’re certainly not afraid to remove or move things around to improve the relationships between plants.

In addition, the wildlife is still showing up, be it ever so slowly. Even with relatively few flowers, we’ve still managed to have our share of bees and wasps, hummingbird moths, and even a single hummingbird.

The dragonflies have taken notice of the yard, too, even showing up on a window screen to dramatic effect:

We had our share of mushrooms again this year, although not as much as we anticipated.

We even had a moth show up on our soffits, presumably to enjoy the breeze coming from air entering the vented attic.

More Mulch

Although we didn’t get to enjoy the yard as much as we would’ve liked (there was plenty of work to finish up on the interior of the house — trim, cabinetry, painting, and storage), we still had a lot of fun watching the yard come to life this year.

Even so, it was apparent by the end of the summer that most of the yard could benefit from a deeper layer of mulch. Our options seemed to be either wait a couple of years and add more mulch, or just do it now and hopefully be done with mulch for the foreseeable future. In the end, it seemed like it was easier to commit to mulching now rather than later, mainly because so much of what we had planted was still undersized, with plenty of gaps remaining between plants. If we waited even a couple of years, the plants would begin to fill out and knit themselves together.

When a tree service was working near my daughter’s school, and they agreed to drop off a few loads of wood chips, it seemed too good to pass up.

The wood chip mulch encompassed a wide variety of textures, particle sizes, and even the occasional clump of grass and dirt. Once it was down, it didn’t really look all that different from hardwood mulch. Initially it was more pokey, and just generally messy, but with some rain and time it flattened out and began to weave together into a carpet, similar to a quality hardwood mulch. By the following spring, after the sun had a chance to bleach the color to a mixed brown-gray, it was indistinguishable from the substantially more expensive hardwood mulches.

For the hügel bed I tried to build the mulch up in layers, giving it a terraced look. Over time this would mostly disappear, but it did seem to help with erosion on the mound.

With the first couple of loads I made sure to increase the depth of the mulch in the far back corner of the yard, around the Miscanthus and the sunflowers. After that area was covered, I worked my way up the north side of the yard towards the house.

Around the boulders in the photo above: at right, there is a mix of native grasses (in this case, palm sedge), and then between the two rows of boulders there is a combination of stachys hummelo and creeping thyme that is just beginning to take root. We hope the thyme will eventually spread out and spill over and around the boulders.

It was nice to at least get started on all the mulch that would need to be put down next spring. The cooler fall temperatures made it an enjoyable task.

Overall, things were progressing nicely and, even in this early stage, a yield was being produced (even if it wasn’t always for us).

Robins have discovered the crabapples outside our kitchen window:

Winter can test even the most celebrated gardens with deep, lingering snow, extreme fluctuations in temperatures, and harsh windstorms. Moreover, the structure of various plants is on full display, unable to hide behind lush foliage or showy flowers. Even though we have managed to fill some of the voids in our yard, the visual interest isn’t quite where we’d like it to be yet. But, then, that’s what ‘next year’ is for.

The front yard has only the beginnings of some structure, although, in this case, our ‘little black box’ in snow helps to improve the view.

One last look back at summer…

Our Energy Bills

4

The Logic Behind the Effort and Added Cost of Passive House

Passive House, as a building strategy, requires meticulous air sealing, along with ample amounts of insulation, carefully placed to eliminate or reduce the impact of thermal bridges through the building envelope. Once the air barrier of the building has been established, it requires mechanical ventilation to meet IAQ needs, along with high performance windows and doors to avoid undermining all of the air sealing and insulation.

Air sealing, water proofing, and thermal elements come together around one of our high performance windows.

All of these elements together, if successfully managed and implemented, should achieve a building that requires significantly less energy to operate and maintain at comfortable temperatures than any conventionally built structure of similar size and shape.

The Visitor enjoying some early morning solar heat gain through our kitchen window.

With a ‘conservation first’ approach (i.e., extensive air sealing and insulation), the goal is to reduce total heating and cooling demand as much as reasonably possible (while maximizing occupant comfort), with the possibility of adding renewables like solar or wind as mostly an afterthought to further reduce, or eliminate entirely, the remaining energy demand of the structure. It also typically means going all electric, so in our case it meant no natural gas (the normal fuel source in our area for a furnace and a hot water tank).

So far, our 11 panel 2.9 kW system has been averaging between 3,500-4,000 kWh of solar production per year.

A Passive House structure, by design, should use significantly less energy than any conventionally built counterpart of similar size and shape. This includes lighting (normally assumes only LED fixtures will be used) and other plug-in loads (e.g., Energy Star appliances), as well as hot water (typically a heat pump hot water tank, or a newer product like Sanden or Chiltrix).

Unfortunately, these loads are relatively ‘baked-in’, even for an existing, conventionally built home. For instance, a hundred year old home could switch all of their light fixtures to LED bulbs, replace old appliances with new Energy Star rated models, and change out a gas-fired or a conventional electric hot water tank to a high-efficiency heat pump model. In effect, they’d have pretty much the same reduction in energy use as a brand new certified Passive House of similar size and layout for these particular sources of energy demand. As a result, the real opportunities for driving down energy use in a Passive House are in the heating and cooling loads (mainly due, of course, to the extensive air sealing and insulation levels).

On most days the 15,000 Btu head in our kitchen and family room handles all of the heating and AC needs for our entire house. We have two additional heads in our bedrooms (9k and 6k Btu respectively), but they’re rarely used apart from the coldest and hottest days of the year.

Although there has been some moving of the goal posts as the Passive House programs have evolved over time, they remain challenging targets to meet.

Here are the current PHI requirements according to Passipedia: Passive House Checklist

In the case of PHIUS, the requirements have gone through several iterations, for instance, PHIUS+ 2015, PHIUS+ 2018, and most recently a fairly dramatic change to a prescriptive track to seek certification with far less onerous levels of paperwork and data collection required.

Overall, regardless of which model is pursued, PHI or PHIUS, the intent is to dramatically reduce the overall energy use of buildings by emphasizing the importance of air sealing, insulating to levels that exceed current code requirements (in most cases), along with quantifying things like thermal bridges, heating and cooling demand, and peak heating and cooling demand. The issue of energy demand or energy use is further complicated by the distinction made between Primary/Source and Site Energy.

Additionally, there’s been a growing consensus regarding the need to incorporate renewables in these building strategies, both in terms of financial feasibility and in terms of further reducing (or even canceling out altogether) net energy demand. And while it’s true that Net Zero is fairly straightforward to achieve (assuming needlessly large PV arrays are not utilized as a short-cut), it does require a commitment to meticulous air sealing and quantities of insulation that, along with the in-depth energy modeling, unavoidably add cost to any construction budget.

Zehnder ERV, Rheem HPHW tank, radon pipe with fan, and battery back-up sump pump. Elements that support proper moisture management, IAQ, and HVAC needs.

The opportunity for significant energy reduction also correlates with the size of the project. Because of form factor ratios, the larger the project (assuming a compact form is mostly maintained) the more energy a structure stands to conserve. This is why larger institutional, multi-family projects, or corporate-sized projects stand to be the biggest winners when it comes to the purported benefits associated with Passive House energy conservation.

Outdoor heat pump compressor after the snow, but before the worst of the 2019 Polar Vortex.

If executed properly, low energy demand will mean considerable financial savings. These savings are cumulative, year after year, rather than just a one-off initial price break, with the added potential to increase should energy costs go up.

In addition, there is the potential for less upfront expenditures for HVAC equipment (less heating and AC demand — at least in theory — means smaller and more cost-effective equipment required). In our case, in climate zone 5, where we get cold, dry winters and hot, humid summers, this didn’t prove to be the case. Combining the cost of our heat pump and ERV reflected roughly what we would’ve paid had we built a conventional home with a high efficiency gas furnace with a humidifier attached (fairly typical system in our area). Either way, it would constitute roughly a $20,000 expenditure for a house under 2,000 square feet. The level of indoor comfort, however, should be vastly different between a conventional and a Passive House build.

Even though occupant behavior can derail some of these projected performance outcomes, assuming that homeowners or tenants are reasonably educated on the best way to enjoy and benefit from the Passive House details, especially the HVAC systems (normally this means commissioning units and then mostly leaving them alone in terms of settings), this should not be a stumbling block for most builds.

While all of this becomes more challenging with a smaller, more compact build like our 1,500 square foot single-family home, the possibility of significantly lowering energy demand is no less real, along with the cost savings. Not to mention the level of occupant comfort, which I personally feel is the main selling point of the Passive House building principles.

Some Background Information on Our Home

A quick summary of our build would include our blower door score of 0.2 ACH@50 (106 cfm@50), along with the following R-values for the structure:

R-16 Below the basement slab

R-20 Exterior of the basement foundation

R-40 Exterior walls

R-80 Attic

In 2019, our first full year of occupancy, with three of us (my wife, daughter, and myself) we had a total of just over 11,000 kWh of energy use. This included lighting, all other plug-in electricity demands (appliances, TV, computers, charging cell phones etc.), along with our HPHW tank and all of our heating and AC needs. It also included countless hours of power tool usage as I finished up interior trim, doors, along with some shelving and storage projects after we moved in. Record low temps during a Polar Vortex event in late January and into early February added to the total as well.

For 2020, a substantial increase in overall energy use might have been the expectation after the outbreak of COVID-19. Yet even after subsequent stay-at-home guidelines that began for us in March, we actually ended up at 10,446 kWh, a slightly lower annual number compared to the previous year. This lower total happened even with all three of us being home most of the time, with no breaks even for vacation time, outdoor activities that require some travel, or normal visits to family out of town.

If there’s a payoff in pursuing Passive House, it has to be in the combination of lower energy costs and increased occupant comfort when compared to a similar, conventionally built home or structure.

This lower number was in keeping with our usage during our first nine months (April-December, 2018). If the Polar Vortex was an anomaly (everyone hopes that it was), then most years going forward should be around 9,500-10,500 kWh for total annual demand. In part we think going over 11,000 kWH our first full year reflects just how significant a colder than normal winter can be on overall energy use in a Passive House, not to mention heating demand more generally (whether it’s a Passive House or not).

Moreover, for a family of three and a structure of this size with similar performance specs, it seems to suggest that our 3-4,000 kWh of annual usage per person is mostly ‘baked-in’. Meaning, in terms of occupant behavior, there’s not much we could do to further lower these numbers. Perhaps we could take fewer showers, cook less at home (stove and dishwasher), do less laundry, only ‘live’ from dawn to dusk (to avoid using artificial lighting at night), not do any woodworking or other DIY projects (use power tools off site?), and heat the home to only 60º F in the winter and cool to only 85º F in the summer. Obviously, these would be rather extreme measures to chase after the last final few kWh of energy use and, arguably, it wouldn’t be particularly meaningful apart from bragging rights should we end up with a lower annual total.

After all, it’s fair to ask what’s the point of the air sealing, insulation, and triple pane Passive House windows and doors, if it doesn’t produce a much more comfortable day-to-day living experience for those living inside the home or building? If simply chasing energy use were the main objective, reducing it no matter the consequences, then removing all the windows and doors and replacing them with continuous R-40 walls would be a good place to start, but hardly worth considering for obvious reasons. If there’s a payoff in pursuing Passive House, it has to be in the combination of lower energy costs and increased occupant comfort when compared to a similar, conventionally built home or structure.

In terms of unexpected surprises, really the only unanticipated energy use was the need for dehumidification on the hottest and most humid summer days of the year.

After our first summer in 2018, when part of the excess humidity was likely due to new construction moisture present inside the structure, we’ve been averaging about 30-40 days a summer, including a few random days in spring and fall, when the dehumidifiers are running intermittently. We set the units to 50% relative humidity, but normally they shut off around 55% based on gauges placed around the house. We try to keep the house under 60% RH. The risk for mold increases above 60%, but it’s mainly at that point when humidity levels make us feel noticeably uncomfortable.

Also, we didn’t think about the energy use associated with power tools for woodworking and arts and crafts projects. Without tracking it, we can only guess that it represents a few hundred kWh a year, rather than something in the thousands. We’ve been doing plenty of projects around the house our first three years, but still far less than what a full-time woodworking company would require. Even so, along with the potential for a EV charger, it’s something to think about when designing a new home or retrofitting an older one, especially if renewables are part of the equation and you’re trying to establish likely annual demand.

Actual Energy Use: Demand and Costs

The breakdown is as follows:

Based on our first 2.5 years in the house, we can expect 10-11,000 kWh of total energy use per year. Again, for some context, this is for a family of three, in a 1,500 square foot single story home that has a full basement.

In our first full year, 2019, we exceeded 11,000 kWh mainly due to the Polar Vortex. Compared to our first winter, along with numbers for this current season, it looks like the Polar Vortex added nearly 1,000 kWh of demand above a more typical January – March time period.

Over the course of our first 2.5 years (our first year was April-December), the numbers have been surprisingly consistent across seasons and month-to-month, regardless of our level of activity in the home (e.g. guests staying over, vacations away from the home, power tool use, etc.).

For instance, even in our first June, back in 2018, when the house was still drying out from new construction related moisture, and we felt compelled to start using two dehumidifiers to control excessive humidity (one in the kitchen and one in the basement), total energy use for the month was 616 kWh.

The following June, in 2019, we ended up with an even higher number, at 786 kWh of demand.

For June of this year, even with stay-at-home restrictions for COVID-19 in place, so a reasonable expectation might be for still yet higher demand, we actually ended up at a lower 605 kWh of use.

On a side note, it’s probably reasonable to assume COVID-19 had some impact on overall energy use for 2020, but after going through the numbers, it just seems unlikely that it contributed more than 500-1,000 kWh to our annual usage. We should have a better idea of its full impact once winter is over.

Presumably, without a granular study of day-to-day conditions, including day and night temperatures, along with relative humidity data, not to mention minor fluctuations in how we used the AC or how much laundry we were doing over these same three periods, it’s hard to explain this deviation with any level of certainty. Suffice it to say, we can expect June usage to normally be in the 600-800 kWh range. Obviously, a June in the future that experiences a heat wave like the one Chicago experienced in 1995 would likely drive the final number well over 800 kWh, but hopefully that remains a singular event rather than a more normal June.

In other words, even in a year where the weather remains milder than normal for a full 12 months, and we’re all exceedingly busy and rarely at home, our total energy use for the year, at best, will likely still end up in the 9,000-10,000 kWh range. And even if there was just one person living here, it’s hard to imagine they could keep total energy usage much below 4-5,000 kWh on an annual basis since so much of the demand is ‘baked-in’, as previously noted above.

Here is the monthly breakdown of energy use for the first full year we were in the home for 2019:

January: 1,738 kWh (includes 2019 Polar Vortex; following January was only 1,374 kWh)

February: 1483 kWh (the following year was 1,237 kWh)

March: 837 kWh (following year was 561 kWh — clearly a bitterly cold winter)

April: 681 kWh

May: 473 kWh

June: 786 kWh

July: 612 kWh

August: 608 kWh

September: 630 kWh

October: 812 kWh

November: 1,166 kWh

December: 1,237 kWh

Total energy use for 2019 was 11,063 kWh.

In this same period, our solar panels produced 3,863 kWh, so net demand for the year was 7,200 kWh (this requires some math using the billing statements from our utility company and the Enphase Enlighten solar app).

Our monthly bills for electricity in 2019 totaled: $1,075.89.

Because of our SRECs, which for us totaled $848 for the year (paid via quarterly checks), our net energy costs for 2019 were $227.89 (an average of $18.99 per month).

For comparison, numbers for 2020 were: 10,446 kWh of demand, while solar production for the same time period was 3,675 kWh, for a net energy demand of 6,771 kWh.

After SREC payments (again, totaling $848 for the year), our net total cost for 2020 was $189.36 (an average of $15.78 per month).

The SREC payments (these are based on a 5 year contract) reduced our annual cost by $848 each year, with a net average cost for our first two years of just $208.63 per year for all of our energy needs (a roughly $17.39 per month average).

Without any solar panels or SRECs, our electric bill would be roughly just under $1,500 per year based on current rates. By way of comparison, a new code-built home of the same size would likely pay more than twice this amount — an older home still more, assuming less air tightness and insulation, combined with a less efficient gas furnace for HVAC and domestic hot water.

It’s worth noting that as building codes tighten up their performance metrics, the difference in total energy demand between code-built and Passive House homes should continue to shrink. This assumes, however, that any number of ‘ifs’ are successfully overcome. For example, if air leakage is accurately measured (is there enforcement should the structure fail?). If a proper Manual J has been completed. If HVAC ducts are sized, installed, air sealed, and insulated properly. If insulation has been properly installed in appropriate quantities throughout the exterior walls and roof. If thermal bridges are avoided. If moisture (bulk and water vapor) is appropriately addressed and managed. This is a lot to get right, and it’s easy to get any number of things wrong, even with inspections and third party verification.

As pointed out earlier, since we’ve moved in we haven’t aggressively pursued trying to lower our energy demand. Instead, our approach has been to live ‘normally’, enjoying the benefits of the air sealing, insulation, and our HVAC set-up. We set and mostly forget our heat pump at 70º F in winter, 75º F in summer, in order to try and better understand ‘real world’ energy demand in a tight, well insulated and appropriately ventilated home of our size.

Hopefully some of this information can benefit others in the planning stages of their own Passive House, or Pretty Good House project. Moreover, in addition to WUFI analysis and PHPP, BEopt is another modeling option for figuring out energy demand and cost-effective design elements for a structure (new or old). The new calculator from PHIUS would also be a good place to start: PHIUS+ 2021

For anyone who wants an easy, initial test of their current home’s energy efficiency (EUI), a calculator like this one may be helpful: Energy Smart

Numbers for Heating and Cooling

In spring and fall when there’s less demand for heating or AC, our baseline monthly energy usage is below 500 kWh (this has been fairly consistent over the course of our 2.5 years in the home, even during COVID-19 when the three of us were home most of the time).

If this low demand could be maintained for much of the year, as it is in milder regions of the country like in parts of California, our annual usage could be cut by more than half (it wouldn’t require R-40 walls or R-80 attics to achieve either). Moreover, in these more temperate regions of the country with reduced insulation needs, and therefore less demand on HVAC systems, ‘green’ building programs like Passive House and Net Zero become even more attractive since they’re far more cost effective and easier to achieve.

In our case, summer months typically run about 600-800 kWh of actual usage, dependent on the number of days above 82º F when we typically find that we need to turn on the AC. Even on these days we will turn it off if there’s a sufficient drop in outdoor temps overnight, which allows us to open the windows (dependent on outdoor humidity or rain).

It might be worth noting that even though we thought we’d regularly open our windows whenever the weather was remotely nice, this hasn’t turned out to be the case. Between having to monitor indoor humidity levels, and the ability of our ERV to deliver continuous filtered fresh air (it’s shocking how quickly our fresh air supply filter turns black — within a month or two at the most), apart from the few days a year when the weather is perfect for opening windows, they mostly just stay shut. Much like Jim Gaffigan’s quip on seasons here in the Midwest, “Spring, that’s a fun day,” because the weather tends to be so mercurial there just aren’t that many days or nights when we feel comfortable leaving the windows open for extended periods of time.

On the plus side, it’s not uncommon for us to wait until there are 2-3 successive days where temperatures rise above 82º F before we feel the need to turn on the AC. In other words, there is some truth to the idea that Passive House buildings take some time to heat up or cool down based on outdoor conditions, although this can be quickly undermined by an ERV/HRV that’s set on high or in boost mode for long periods of the day (lots of cooking or showering, particularly relevant in the case of larger families, would make this a necessity) .

“Heating and cooling energy – that which is most reflective of the efforts of the design and construction process – is a small percentage of the total energy usage. As Andy Shapiro says, there is no such thing as a net zero house, only net zero families. Occupant choice matters hugely.”

—Marc Rosenbaum‘s report on South Mountain Company’s Eliakim Net Zero Energy Project

During the heart of winter, our total energy demand is in the range of 1,000-1,500 kWh per month. Even in January of 2019, with a Polar Vortex event, our bill still managed to stay below 2,000 kWh for the month. During this same week, however, we saw minimal benefit from our solar panels since they were covered by several inches of snow during the sunniest (and coldest) parts of the billing period.

These elevated kWh numbers during winter reflect just how much harder our Mitsubishi heat pump system has to work in order to maintain indoor comfort because of the Delta T between outdoor and indoor temperatures. And we can hear the difference: while in summer the system is virtually silent, in winter, especially as temps head towards zero, we can hear the compressor outdoors working to keep up. Compare this to summers: 75º F indoors vs. 95-100º F outside on the hottest days of the year, even though it’s significantly cooler for most of the summer, thus helping to explain the lower overall energy demand for AC usage in comparison to heating demand.

Cooling, unlike the demand for heating, is relatively comparable to what it would be in a conventional new build. In summer, the Passive House ‘thermos-like’ structure is mostly a hindrance rather than a benefit to keeping the interior comfortable. All the ‘free’ sources of heat in winter, e.g. south-facing windows on sunny days, body heat from the occupants, heat given off by computers, TVs, appliances, and even LED lights or our heat pump dryer, either thankfully don’t exist (in the case of south-facing glass because of sufficient overhangs) or they actively contribute (however small in some cases) to the overall cooling load.

In addition, because cooling loads are relatively low, and the efficiency of the mini-split heat pump is so high, even as the multiple indoor heads have no issue maintaining comfortable temperatures (we rarely notice the system — wall units or outdoor compressor — running in summer), it leaves us with a latent load that we need to address with two stand-alone dehumidifiers, indirectly adding to the overall cooling load.

So of our roughly 10-11,000 kWh per year of total demand, without an actual energy use monitor like TED on our main panel to establish exact numbers (a review of similar product options: here), it looks like just over 3,000 kWh is used for heating, with another 800-1,000 kWh used for cooling needs (at least in a typical year). In years where there’s a significant Polar Vortex event, or should a summer in the future experience an extended heat wave, then our numbers for heating and cooling are likely to hit 5-6,000 kWh of demand. With climate change, these numbers are invariably going to fluctuate or even grow depending on just how severe weather patterns become over the ensuing years and even decades.

Notes on Designing a Heat Pump System for Passive House

An issue worth considering, especially for those in the design stages of a build, is the added efficiency of a 1:1 set-up for heat pumps, meaning one outdoor compressor for each distribution head indoors (or air handler). There appears to be a growing consensus that this layout will offer added efficiency because of improved modulation over what has been a more typical set-up, like ours, which is a multi-zone system that has multiple distribution heads on a single compressor. It’s hard to imagine, at least in our case, that this impact could be more than a few hundred kWh per year, but worth exploring when having someone do a Manual J and S.

Additionally, we haven’t experienced any issues with the distribution heads in the two bedrooms (9k & 6k Btu’s respectively), either for heating or cooling, although concerns about the effectiveness of these undersized units in smaller bedrooms often comes up in discussions on how best to design and layout a heat pump system on Green Building Advisor.

When designing our system, I don’t remember this issue of 1:1 vs. multi-zone heat pump set-ups being discussed in any of the information I was able to hunt down, either in Passive House related books, or even online resources. I also didn’t come across discussion of the need for active, separate dehumidification while designing our build in 2016. These are just two examples demonstrating that Passive House is still actively evolving as a ‘green’ building program (potential overheating in winter and shoulder seasons would be a third example).

A cautionary tale for designers, as well as building owners, to guard against hubris as the construction drawings develop or when the details are finally executed on a construction job site. Other issues may arise with Passive House builds in the coming years, so it’s worth considering potential unintended consequences before finalizing details. Today’s solution may be someone’s costly headache tomorrow.

Additional Solar Panels to Achieve Net Zero?

Based on what we’ve been paying for energy in these first 2.5 years, we don’t feel compelled to add more solar panels at this time. Should the SREC’s dramatically fall in value with a new contract, or disappear altogether, it might encourage us, at that point, to purchase more panels for the roof. But even so, at less than $90 per month, even without the SREC’s, it makes our energy bills a relatively painless expenditure (roughly equivalent to one nice restaurant dinner for the three of us, or still less than what we pay on a monthly basis for things like coffee, breakfast cereals, and milk). Put another way, averaging around 3,500 kWh per person of demand, whether with or without the solar panels and our SRECs payments, our monthly energy bill is typically cheaper than a single visit to the grocery store.

Because of the effort and money expended upfront for air sealing and insulation, all while trying to carefully manage window placement and HVAC layout successfully, we’ve managed to whittle our energy costs down to something highly affordable and resistant to significant cost increases. This should remain true, regardless of what’s happening in the market in terms of prices for natural gas, coal, or nuclear power (i.e., the major sources of power in our region, here in the Midwest). Worst case scenario, we add additional solar panels to get to Net Zero or even Net Positive in order to cancel out what remains of our monthly energy bill. This would require an additional 7-8,000 kWh of annual solar production, or roughly three times what our current system produces.

In our specific case as a household — averaging between 3,500-4,000 kWh of solar production per year (this amounts to nearly 40% of our annual demand), combined with SRECs — we nearly end up at Net Zero, at least in terms of total cash spent for energy (arguably the most important — maybe the only — metric that homeowners ultimately care about; whether it’s the total cost to build a new home, or in terms of the annual energy bill). As a result, there’s not much financial incentive to purchase additional solar panels to achieve absolute zero energy consumption (this is in site energy terms only). The fact that this all comes with a house that’s extremely comfortable and quiet to live in, regardless of season or room, makes our home only that much more valuable to us.

Passive House + Net Zero?

In addition to designing for Passive House, there is the question of Net Zero or even Net Positive buildings. While Passive House strategies eliminate a significant portion of overall demand by requiring a significant outlay of upfront funds for air sealing and insulation, once this pill has been swallowed, it’s normally cost-effective to incorporate renewable energy of some kind to cancel out the expense of the remaining energy bill.

A quick side note: An excellent resource, one that I found only as our build was coming to an end, is William Maclay’s book The New Net Zero. It contains a wealth of information, but, in particular, many specific construction details vividly illustrated. This is especially valuable for DIY builders, or even seasoned professionals, when evaluating all the possible elements of roof-wall-foundation assemblies.

Also worth noting, if this approach (Passive House + Net Zero) were adopted on a national level, including renovations, it would eliminate a large portion of aggregate energy demand, thus having a meaningful impact on greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change (up to 40% for construction and existing buildings).

Based on what we know at the moment, a combination of approaches — including Passive House building principles, Zero Carbon goals, and the use of renewables — could be the way out of the climate crisis over the long haul. In addition, if adopted as part of building codes, it could mean properly training the next generation of tradespeople (like European-style apprenticeship models, thereby also improving the build quality) while also being a tremendously effective jobs program.

Beyond Net Zero, or even Net Positive, in regards to energy demand, there is increasing awareness about carbon emissions more generally, and the variety of ways to radically reduce or sequester it, including the choice of building materials (for new construction or retrofit projects) or even how we decide to landscape our yards.

Passive House Cost Premium

Unfortunately, due to relatively inexpensive utility rates here in the Midwest, even though Passive House (or Pretty Good House) offers a significant reduction in energy costs if done well, when considered as a percentage of household income the numbers may appear much less impactful or motivating when faced with line items in a build budget for things like air sealing and levels of insulation that far exceed building code requirements.

In our case, the annual energy savings compared to something code-built would likely be in the $2-3,000 range. Fairly significant, but if the purchase price of the home is $500,000 – 1,000,000+ (fairly typical here in the Chicago suburbs for new construction) then even a $100,000 savings over the course of a 30 year mortgage may not convince someone to move beyond conventional construction practices (particularly if they have their heart set on a long list of high-end finishes and appliances). The upfront costs associated with meticulous air sealing and added levels of insulation — if not viewed as an investment in build quality — will likely appear frivolous to the average consumer.

“One of the issues we face here is the fact that energy is cheap, like most things in the Midwest. We don’t have the financial burden placed on us that the coasts do—real estate-wise and energy-wise. So there is not much enthusiasm around green building on a financial level; it’s almost always an ethical issue. The people who are interested want to do a good thing for the environment, as opposed to saving money on their utility bills. Another thing is that people are accustomed to discomfort—we have drastic and frequent temperature swings. It’s really humid in the summer and freezing in the winters, when drafty windows are just accepted. They are used [to] it, so it is hard to sell them on high-performance windows to be more comfortable; or taking measures to keep a basement from being wet—they just aren’t concerned about it. There’s a complacency that we fight against; there’s not enough financial gain to incentivize making upgrades.”

— Travis Brungardt, GBA Q&A

Looking solely at upfront costs is likely to discourage most prospective homebuyers from pursuing Passive House (or even Pretty Good House in many cases), whereas looking at the cost of ownership, including the cost of monthly utilities, produces a more accurate comparison (note, however, this assumes the homeowner can stay put for at least the next twenty to thirty years).

A cost of ownership calculation should also acknowledge less maintenance costs year-to-year since, if the structure is detailed well, it should experience far fewer issues (none ideally), especially damage caused by bulk water intrusion, mold, or even air leakage. Granted, it may take a decade or more before this kind of damage is found in a conventional home, but when it is, it’s rarely (if ever) inexpensive to properly correct.

Hard Choices

As a culture, we have been in a similar place before. One quick example would be automotive engineering applied to car safety. In terms of perspective, if you get the balance between cost and safety wrong when evaluating value, then seat belts, air bags, and better designed bumpers might seem like misspent dollars.

“Nader argued that Detroit willfully neglected advances in auto safety, like roll bars and seat belts, to keep costs down… But using [seatbelts] was strictly voluntary. And many Americans didn’t want to.”

— Daniel Ackerman, Before Facemasks, Americans Went to War over Seat Belts

In a similar vein, the American consumer has been taught by the market, realtors, and builders to believe cost per square foot is the gold standard of value. As a consequence, little emphasis is placed on building science basics such as air tightness, proper moisture management, thermal performance, or indoor air quality. In layman’s terms, this means the average American home is leaky, parts of it have likely been damaged by bulk water or mold, and it’s uncomfortable in terms of indoor temperatures and humidity, all while delivering subpar air quality to its occupants.

In terms of quality construction and ‘green’ building (Passive House or not), the hard truth is there really is no free lunch (not even renting: rentcafe). Quality, of any kind — finishes, proper moisture management, occupant comfort, even reduced energy bills — has its price, but only those who recognize its value will be willing to pay for it.

Regardless, as homeowners we either pay upfront for the air sealing and insulation, along with high performance HVAC for better IAQ, or we pay monthly (and perpetually) in the form of higher energy bills (this normally comes with less occupant comfort) and far inferior IAQ. Either way, the money is going to be spent, it’s just a question of when (upfront vs. long term month-to-month) and for what (air sealing and insulation vs. mediocre systems and underwhelming outcomes that require costly maintenance over time).

As with car safety in the past, depending on one’s point of view, the answer to these kinds of construction and homeownership options are either obvious or nonsensical. Nevertheless, regardless of the path taken — conventional construction or some version of high performance — no one’s wallet will remain closed for long.

Passive Solar: The Beauty of Light

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Does Passive Solar Design Still Make Sense?

Our ‘green’ building adventure began in 2013 when I came across various Passive House and high performance projects in Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid by Sheri Koones. The red house featured on the cover and built by GO Logic, in particular, seemed like a striking departure from conventional homebuilding as practiced in the US.

In its overall shape it echoed an earlier project that I only became aware of later, the Smith House in Illinois by Katrin Klingenberg.

Arguably, in both cases, these homes have too much glass on their south elevations, both in terms of potential overheating of the interior and in purely aesthetic visual terms. Nevertheless, using south-facing glazing to bring in the sun during the winter months while getting some Btu’s of free heat made a lot of sense to us, especially in a heating dominated climate like ours here in the Chicago area.

“…treat the presence of natural light as an essential — not optional — feature of indoor space…”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

By the time construction began, we had settled on what seemed like a significant amount of windows and a kitchen door for our south elevation. We felt the layout would be an appropriate amount both in terms of passive solar heating and aesthetics, in addition to daylighting needs.

Moreover, by addressing the main weaknesses of the original Passive Solar movement of the 1970’s, namely the lack of air tightness and sufficient levels of insulation, we hoped that we could strike a balance between enjoying the seasonal movement of the sun in and out of our home while mostly eliminating the risk of overheating, even during shoulder seasons (spring and fall).

Since our build, however, there appears to be growing concern about just how effective this design strategy really is for Passive Houses, or high-performance homes more generally. In effect, are the potential savings on a heating bill really worth the risk of temporarily overheating interior spaces?

Joe Lstiburek, of Building Science Corporation fame, puts it bluntly when quoted in a GBA article regarding the use of high SHGC glass:

“Don’t bother with the passive solar. Your house will overheat in the winter. Yes, you heard that right. Even in Chicago. … You should go with very, very low SHGCs, around 0.2, in your glazing. If this sounds familiar to those of you who are as old as me, it should.

“We were here in the late 1970s when ‘mass and glass’ took on ‘superinsulated.’ Superinsulated won,” Lstiburek continued. “And superinsulated won with lousy windows compared to what we have today. What are you folks thinking? Today’s ‘ultra-efficient’ crushes the old ‘superinsulated,’ and you want to collect solar energy? Leave that to the PV.”

Clearly, he’s not entirely wrong, especially when some of the early failures in the Passive House movement revolved around this very issue of overheating. If you were an early adopter of the Passive House concept, especially if you were the homeowner, and you ended up with comfort issues because of too much glass on your southern facade, it certainly would make you doubt the purported precision of the Passive House energy modeling.

Nevertheless, with careful planning, it is possible to avoid this issue of overheating while still getting to enjoy most of the benefits associated with passive solar design. In our case, this meant limiting windows on the north side (net energy losers) to just our daughter’s bedroom, while glazing on the east side shows up only in a small area of our front door.

Small amount of glass in our front door offering some daylighting benefit for our entry area.

In addition, we avoided any potential for overheating from our west-facing windows by using self-tinting Suntuitive glass in our master bedroom and family room. This glass can fluctuate in its SHGC between .08