kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Zero Net Energy + Permaculture Yard

Category Archives: Exterior Design

Solar on the Roof

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After deciding to pursue a combination of Passive House and The Pretty Good House concepts, which entail careful planning and attention to air sealing, along with a significant amount of insulation, we knew we could have a shot at Net Zero, or Zero Net Energy (ZNE) — meaning we could potentially produce as much energy as we use by utilizing solar panels on the roof.

To find an installer in our area, we utilized the website Energy Sage. In addition to useful articles and information about solar, they also work with installers who can provide consumers with competitive bids. It didn’t happen overnight, but in about a week or two, we ended up with 3-4 bids before deciding to go with Rethink Electric in Geneva, Illinois.

laying out the solar panels pre-install

The guys from Rethink staging the panels on the garage roof.

 

 

The System

Based on the suggestions from Energy Sage and Rethink, we ended up going with the following system:

  • 2.915 kW DC System
  • 4,059 kWh of system production
  • 11 Canadian Solar panels
  • 265W Module Enphase M250 (Microinverter)
  • Also includes web-based monitoring of the system’s production

In theory, this system could produce more energy than we use (it’s just my wife, my daughter, and myself who will be living in the house), particularly if we stick to all LED lighting, use Energy Star rated appliances, the heat pump water heater works as advertised, and we’re careful about avoiding using electricity when it’s unnecessary (e.g. turning off lights after leaving a room, or trying to address phantom loads).

Anthony putting self-adhering gasket over solar conduit penetration

Anthony, from Rethink, air sealing the penetration through the Intello, our ceiling air barrier,  with a Tescon Vana – Roflex gasket before sending his 3/4″ conduit into the attic.

Based on other projects I’ve read about, even homes initially built to the ZNE standard sometimes fail, in terms of overall performance, based on actual occupant behavior, so only time will really tell what impact our solar array will have on our utility bills. It looks like worst case scenario would be needing to add 4-6 more panels to get to ZNE or even carbon positive.

conduit for solar in the attic before gasket

Anthony’s conduit entering the attic, sealed with a gasket from below.

Installation by Rethink went really well, and they were happy to work with me on properly air sealing the conduit that runs from the basement at the main panel before going up into the attic, where it eventually terminates on the roof when connected to the panels.

conduit for solar in the attic after gasket

3/4″ conduit sealed for a second time on the attic side of the Intello.

 

solar mounting system being installed

The guys setting up the racking system for the panels.

 

Rethink guys on the roof

Anthony, Dan, and Cherif completing the install on the roof of the house.

 

close up of solar panels being installed

The low profile racking system has a very sleek look.

Marking another big leap in the progress of the build:

solar panels on roof

The view of our 11 solar panels from our neighbor’s driveway.

 

solar panels installed on the roof.jpg

Another view of the solar panels installed on the roof.

It was only after the installation that I realized what’s wrong with the following picture:

solar on:off against Zip sheathing #2

My screw up.

I was so worried about getting the air sealing details right on the interior, from the main floor to the attic, I completely forgot to let Anthony know about extending out his disconnect box 6″ to what will be our finished surface (once two layers of Roxul and two layers of 1×4 furring strips, along with cedar siding are installed). The day after they installed, I came walking around the corner of the house, saw this, and literally slapped my forehead (while spitting out a few choice expletives), as I realized my screw up.

Thankfully, Anthony was able to come back out and make the necessary adjustment:

corrected solar on:off

 

 

The Cost

Here’s the cost breakdown on our system (if trends continue, a similar system should be less expensive in the future):

$12,519.50  Initial Investment
$(-3,755.85)  Federal Tax Credit (ITC) 30%
$8,763.65  Net Cost of First Year
$(-3,816.00)  Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SREC’s)
$4,947.65  Net Cost After All Incentives

It will be interesting to follow the performance of the solar panels over the course of a calendar year or two, just to find out exactly how well they perform. I’ll come back here and post monthly utility statements, noting output of the panels and our use, to give people a better sense of actual performance — hopefully this will help others in the planning stages of their own project to decide if solar (and how much of it) is right for them.

Roof Details (Air Sealing #3)

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Top of Wall and Roof Connection

Once the wall assembly details were figured out, and our ceiling set-up detailed, the transition between the two became the next challenge. In other words, how to carry the air barrier over the top of our exterior walls.

I found this helpful article by Chris Corson from The Journal of Light Construction:

An Affordable-Passive-House  (pdf)

Using a waterproof peel-and-stick membrane to wrap over the top of the wall (going from exterior sheathing — in our case 7/16″ Zip sheathing — to interior side of the top plates) seemed like the easiest way to maintain a continuous air barrier at the wall-to-roof junction. The membrane would also have a nice air sealing gasket effect after the trusses were set in place.

I also found this excellent Hammer and Hand video on YouTube (one of their many helpful videos):

Wall-to-Roof Air Barrier

Also, by being able to carry the Zip sheathing up above the top plate of the wall, hugging the bottom of the trusses, meant our 4″ of Roxul Comfortboard 80 over the Zip sheathing would rise above the top of our walls, so that thermally we would be protected going from the exterior walls to the attic, which will be filled with 24″ of blown-in cellulose — making our thermal envelope continuous for the whole house: under the basement slab – exterior of foundation – exterior walls – attic (except for one small gap at the footing-slab-foundation wall connection, which I talk about in a separate post: Foundation Details).

A high R-value wall meets up with a high R-value attic, with no thermal bridging, making our thermal layers continuous. When this is combined with an equally air-tight structure, conditioned air cannot easily escape — resulting in a significantly lower energy demand for heating and cooling (and therefore lower utility bills), and added comfort for the occupants.

Here’s a nice diagram from Fine Homebuilding magazine showing a similar set-up:

021221072-2_med.jpg

Diagram from Fine Homebuilding magazine.

I tried using rolls of conventional peel-and-stick window flashing membrane, purchased from Home Depot and Mendards, but they performed poorly, even in unseasonably warm temperatures for February in Chicago.

I then switched to Grace Ice and Water Shield, normally used as a roofing underlayment along the first 3-6′ of roof edge.

grace-ice-water-shield

Purchased this box at Home Depot.

Since it came on a long roll about 4′ wide, my wife and I cut it down to a series of strips that could more easily be applied to the wall-top plate connection.

While the sun was out, the Grace membrane worked fairly well, especially when pressure was applied with a J-Roller.

grace-vycor-in-the-sun-ii

Grace Ice and Water Shield applied to the top of our wall — covering the Zip sheathing/top plate connection.

Unfortunately, the sun and warmer temperatures didn’t stick around long enough for me to finish.

sealing top of wall w: Grace Vycor in sun

Using a J-Roller to get the Grace Ice and Water Shield to stick better.

 

grace-vycor-in-the-sun

This Simpsons sky didn’t last long. In a matter of hours it was back to rainy, gray, and cold — typical Chicago winter weather for February.

When the weather went gray and cold again, we started to use a heat gun to warm up the Grace membrane, which had turned stiff and nearly useless in the cold.

wagner-heat-gun

Wagner heat gun for warming up the Grace membrane.

After wasting a lot of time and effort trying to pre-heat the Grace membrane before installing it, I finally relented and switched to the much more expensive (but also much more effective) Extoseal Encors tape from Pro Clima. Where the Grace membrane lost virtually all of its stickiness, the Extoseal Encors stuck easily and consistently, with the J-Roller just helping it to lay flatter and more securely.

extoseal-encors-as-gasket

Pro Clima’s Extoseal Encors available from 475 HPBS.

It was a case of trying to be penny wise but ending up pound foolish. Looking back, I would gladly pay an extra $300 in materials to have those hours of frustration back (including the time it took to run to the store and buy the heat gun, which turned out to be ineffective anyway).

installing Extoseal Encors on top of wall cloudy

Finishing up the top of the wall.

After finishing sealing the Zip sheathing-top plate connection on all the outside perimeter walls over the weekend, it was time for the trusses to be installed.

 

 

Trusses

first-truss-swinging-into-place

First truss swinging into place.

Zach let me stand by the front door rough opening and give the crane operator hand signals. It was a fun way to watch the roof take shape.

trusses-going-in-from-inside

Sammy, Zach, and Billy (out of view to the right), landing and setting the trusses.

Once the trusses neared the front door, Zach could signal the crane operator himself, so I was able to get some shots from just outside the construction fence.

 

starting-garage-trusses

Sammy, Zach, and Billy landing trusses on the garage.

 

long-view-of-crane-and-house-east-side

Setting the trusses on the garage — the basic profile of the house comes to life.

Once the trusses were on, and the guys had a chance to install the final top row of Zip sheathing (up to the bottom of the trusses on the exterior side of the wall), I could move inside to seal all the connections from the interior.

 

 

Top of Wall (Interior)

Because of the cold, the Grace membrane was beginning to lift at the edges in certain spots, so just to make sure it had a nice long-term seal, I went around the perimeter of the house and used a layer of Tescon Vana (3″ wide) tape to seal the edge of the Grace membrane.

sealed top plate from interior

Trusses sitting on Grace and Extoseal Encors (other sections of top plate), with the final row of Zip sheathing sealed to the trusses with HF Sealant.

The picture below shows all the connections involved: top of Zip sheathing meeting the roof trusses and the top plate of the outside wall:

sealed top of wall from inside

HF Sealant helps to air seal the Zip-truss and Zip-Grace/Extoseal Encors connections.

 

view of top row of Zip sheathing 1

Looking up at the top row of Zip sheathing attached to the outside edge of the raised heel trusses.

 

 

 

Shingles

We had to wait for shingles for quite some time. First we had to fire our GC’s, and then I had to find a roofer and a plumber (to make penetrations through the roof before the shingles went on). But before the plumber could even start, I had to get the Intello installed on the ceiling. And even before that, I had to figure out the insulation baffles, which I’ll talk about in a separate post.

It took awhile to find a roofer since they would have to make three separate trips for a relatively small job. The first trip was just to set down the Grace Ice and Water Shield at the edges of the roof, along with a synthetic roof underlayment (the consensus was that typical roofing felt wouldn’t hold up to long term exposure). As it turned out, it took weeks before the plumbers made their penetrations through the roof sheathing (literally the day the roofers showed up — a long, horrible story in and of itself that I’ll save for later).

synthetic underlayment at roof peak

Synthetic underlayment covering the ridge line until the shingles and a ridge vent can be installed.

The second trip out was to install the shingles on the roof of the house, while the third trip to install shingles on the garage roof could only happen after the Roxul on the exterior of our Zip sheathing was installed (in order to make a proper sealed connection between the wall of the house and the garage roof).

There weren’t many roofers willing to work with our unique Passive House sequencing, but Peterson Roofing was kind enough to take it on.

Grace ice and water shield rolling up after wind

Grace Ice and Water Shield rolling up on itself after the wind got ahold of it.

Unfortunately, the day after the guys installed the Grace membrane and the synthetic underlayment, we had a cold, blustery day. Once the wind grabbed the Grace membrane, the membrane rolled up on itself, turning it into a real mess.

Because of our recent past bad experiences with general contractors, I just assumed I was on my own, so I spent a couple of hours putting down new layers of the Grace membrane. When Peterson roofing found out, they were shocked I did it myself, and assured me I could’ve called them and they would’ve come back out. We were so used to people not following through, that low expectations meant it didn’t even occur to me to call them.

We initially were going to use Certainteed’s Landmark TL shingle, which mimics a cedar shake shingle profile, but Armando from Midwest Roofing Supply in Schaumburg, Illinois was kind enough to take the time to walk me through the options available, and explained that because our roofline isn’t steep, only the neighbors from their second story windows would get to appreciate the effect. He recommended we save some money, while not giving up on quality or durability, and go with the Landmark Pro product.

shingles being installed w: vents

Shingles going down on the roof of the house.

The shingles went on quickly since we have a relatively small and simple roof. In addition to the aesthetic leap the shingles made on the appearance of the structure, it also meant I didn’t have to go around cleaning up the subfloor every time it rained.

Although the synthetic underlayment worked pretty well at keeping the rain out, if there was significant wind combined with rain, the water easily found its way under the underlayment where it could then drip and fall on the subflooring below — pretty depressing showing up to the job site after a hard rain knowing I was going to spend the first hour just cleaning up and looking for leaks.

roofers shingling south side

Seeing this felt like a tremendous amount of progress was being made. It also meant an end to our roof leaks on the interior.

 

shingle installation progressing

Shingles going on quickly.

After they cut the opening for the ridge vent, but before it was installed, I managed to get this shot from inside:

attic just before ridge vent installed

Attic as cathedral.

 

 

Stone Basement Window Wells

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The Design Goal

We always wanted a basement for our new house. The idea of building a new house on slab without one was foreign to us. Both my wife and I grew up in homes that had very active basement areas, with fond family and friend-related memories.

For both of us, basements were places to go for various games (board games, ping pong, pool, etc.), watching TV with family, a place for bulky exercise equipment, or just respite from hot summer sun.

And to improve the basement’s “livability”, we wanted it to have a 9′ ceiling height (we felt it made a big difference in our last house over a 7′ or 8′ ceiling), and large windows facing south.

We also thought that window wells that were more open and expansive could help draw in the sun, hopefully making the space feel less like a dungeon and more like normal living space (the window wells should have an additional side benefit, but I’ll explain that later).

After exploring the options, including this line of products:

Spycor window wells

We decided to go with real retaining wall cement blocks.

The Execution

In researching the Versa Lok product , I came across a series of interesting videos by Dirt Monkey on YouTube about retaining walls:

We like the long-term structural stability of the Versa Lok product, and it helps us achieve the Urban-Rustic look we’re going for.

We received several estimates, but decided to go with Poul’s Landscaping & Nursery since they had previous experience building these stone basement window wells. We paid a slight premium to do so, but part of that premium reflected their recommendation to use a concrete footing that would be tied into the foundation with rebar. Without it, they had seen too much movement on previous projects, creating future headaches and costly repairs.

Candido and Felipe excavating hole for wdw well

Candido and Felipe begin excavating the hole for the first window well.

 

carving outline of window well

They carve an outline for the dimensions of the window well.

 

shaping the hole for the window well

Felipe and Candido continue to dig out and shape the hole.

 

holed carved and shaped - ready for stone

Hole prepped for footings.

 

Candido putting down crushed stone for footing

Candido spreads out the crushed stone before setting up the form for the concrete footing.

 

Felipe and Candido prepping for 1st footing

Candido and Felipe set up the form for the concrete footing — got lucky with the timing of this shot — note the flying hammer and speed square.

 

prep for footing: crushed stone-form-rebar

Corner of the form for the footing with rebar.

 

close up of rebar going into Roxul for wdw well footings

Close up of the rebar going into the 5″ of Roxul and the foundation.

After the guys set the rebar in the foundation through the Roxul, I stuffed the holes as much as possible with pulled apart Roxul Comfortboard 80 before they did their pour for the footings.

first wdw well prepped for first row from basement wdw

View through basement window buck before they started building up the first window well.

 

first blocks for first row

First row being set on the footing.

For color, we wanted a basic concrete gray, which we thought would complement our overall Urban-Rustic design look, in particular the eventual charred cedar siding.

Since firing our builder (there were two of them) in February, the job site has been quiet as I work alone, but then all of a sudden…

ComEd shows up with a new pole for our electric service, just as pallets of Versa Lok retaining wall block are delivered to site. The job site went from relative silence to hyperactivity — stressful, but also extremely exciting to see after such an extended delay.

Candido leveling 1st row on footing

Candido leveling the first row.

 

Felipe and Candido starting first wdw well

Candido and Felipe trying to protect themselves from forecasted rain.

The first wall begins to rise:

 

washed gravel to backfill around window wells

Piles of washed gravel for back fill behind the walls of the window wells.

 

wdw well tools of the trade from above

Tools of the trade.

 

slowly rising wall w: landscape fabric and washed gravel backfill

Washed gravel installed behind the growing wall.

 

Candido applying adhesive to block

Candido applying adhesive before setting the next block.

 

Felipe and Candido double checking their work

Felipe and Candido double checking their work.

 

geotextile fabric

Geotextile fabric being installed for soil stabilization, and to improve the overall integrity of the wall.

 

Felipe prepping for capstones

Felipe covering up the fabric in preparation for the last couple of rows of block.

 

close up of capstones

Close up of capstones on the pallet from above.

 

capstones going on

Capstones being installed on the first wall.

capstones complete #2

First window well complete before backfill.

 

Spring sun peeking into basement window

Spring sun sneaking into the basement window.

 

basement window letting in light

Light pouring in one of the two basement windows.

 

Candido building up the 2nd wdw well

Candido building up the second wall.

 

finished window well (west)

Completed second window well.

Views of first completed window well from inside the house:

On the next to last day, Felipe and Candido could’ve rushed to finish, but instead they came back for a few hours the following day to complete their work while also doing a really nice job of cleaning up — which we noticed and really appreciated. They even took the time to put back scrap plywood sheets that ran from the driveway to the front step so I didn’t have to.

Felipe has been working for Poul’s for 40 years (the company has been around for 50 years). Putting that into some kind of perspective, that means Felipe’s been doing this kind of work since the Jimmy Carter administration — that’s astounding.

Candido and Felipe make a great team: they seemed to really enjoy working together, they’re both diligent and conscientious, and it was fun to watch them do their thing — a mixture of back-breaking labor and skill.

Candido and Felipe finishing up

Candido and Felipe — thank you for doing such a nice job!

Oiling Charred Cedar Siding

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Shou-Sugi-Ban with Tung Oil

The oil I see used most often on charred wood is Penefin, which is available in many of the big box stores. Another one I’ve used in the past is Sikkens. Cabot is yet another brand I’ve used (mostly for decks).

Any semi-transparent wood stain should work. If you go with a brushed char finish, you may want to experiment with color options to see what kind of effect it may have on the final finish (the semi-transparent stains typically come in a range of subtle color choices).

In our case, we decided to use Tung Oil mixed with Citrus Solvent (available from: realmilkpaint.com). Having used it previously on arts-and-crafts projects with good results, and because it’s considered No VOC, we felt it was a good choice (although not the cheapest option). We’ll also be using the same combination of products for our hardwood flooring.

tung-oil-citrus-solvent

Tung Oil & Citrus Solvent. We use a 1:1, or 50%-50% mix that combines the two products together.

We used a 1:1 mixture of Tung Oil and Citrus Solvent (they even sell it this way, pre-mixed, if you don’t want to deal with combining individual batches together). The Citrus Solvent acts like a traditional paint thinner (without the VOC’s or strong chemical smell), diluting the Tung Oil so it can more easily soak into the wood (it also smells great since it’s made from orange peels). The Citrus Solvent is also used for cleaning up tools, equipment, and any spills of the tung oil (also works great as a general purpose degreaser — especially above and around a stovetop).

USE CAUTION! — Although natural and safe, the Citrus Solvent can irritate bare skin. I always use either Latex or Nitrile gloves (readily available at any hardware store).

If you try using the Tung Oil alone, the difference in performance is obvious (the oil will mostly just sit on the surface, with little of it soaking in — a frustrating waste of time and money).

I decided to use a trough for dipping each board based on a project I saw online:

SONY DSC

Spartan & Hannah’s Home: zeroandbeyond.com

Their house and blog caught my attention early on, when we were just beginning to think about building new. Their project, along with several others, really got me excited about the possibility of building “green”.

Here’s a couple more:

Four Thick Walls (blog)

GO Logic (Red House project, featured in the video below)

Spartan and Hannah’s home (zeroandbeyond.com) is an excellent example of the Pretty Good House concept, and it’s definitely worth checking out, especially under the heading of Presentations: How to Build an Affordable Net Zero / Super Energy-efficient Home (pdf).

A lot of great information to get you thinking about exactly what it is you may want to build, and how to financially pull it off. They also have a lot of thoughtful and inventive design elements (love their granite floor built with cut waste from various countertop jobs — a very creative idea with a unique look).

Anyway, back to the trough: It’s much faster than trying to use a brush or roller, and it guarantees full coverage (many thanks to Spartan & Hannah for posting this simple, but time saving idea).

Below is my version of the same thing:

trough-long-view-from-side-up-drive

Made from scraps with 1×12 pine for the sides, and then 3/4″ plywood on the bottom. There are also 2×4’s underneath for structural stability. It’s about 1′ longer than our longest board, making it easy to get boards in and out (roughly 17′).

 

trough-long-view

Inside the trough, and to the right, I used cut ends of 2×4’s to create a ledge to rest the piece of cedar on while wiping it down with a squeegee. On each end of the trough I added a 2×4 to make it easier to lift and move around.

 

trough-looking-in-and-down-w-tung-oil

Once built, I went back and caulked all the seams, and any deeply set screws. We fill the trough with 6-8 gallons of the Tung Oil & Citrus Solvent mixture. It lasts quite awhile (and it’s fun to soak the boards).

Once in the trough, we would let each board sit for about 30 seconds in the Tung Oil and Citrus Solvent bath, before pulling it up and resting it on the 2×4 ledge. Seated on its perch, the board would get wiped down initially with just a squeegee.

board-in-the-trough

Soaking for 30 seconds.

 

sitting-on-the-edge-for-squeegee

Resting on the 2×4 ledge for wiping down the rough side.

 

squeegee-back-side

Board flipped, resting on the ledge, wiping down the smooth side.

 

on-the-ledge-ready-for-drying-rack

Board wiped on both sides, now ready for the drying rack.

At this point, we would walk it over to the drying rack.

drying-rack-wide-view

 

drying-rack-end-of

Picked up these inexpensive sawhorses at Home Depot. The 2×6 is screwed to the horse from below. We used 6″ screws to make our rows.

Once on the rack, we would use a brush to apply an additional coat of Tung Oil and Citrus Solvent, but only to the rough side, since it will be exposed directly to the elements.

close-up-drying-rack-w-screws-brushed

A board on the drying rack, just after being brushed with the Tung Oil. Spacing out the 6″ screws gives enough room for 10 boards.

After about 20 minutes on the drying rack, we would wipe down both sides of each board (the most laborious part of the job). Usually by the time you’ve placed the tenth board and brushed it, the first board is ready to be wiped down. We found that dust free cotton rags are the best option for this.

Typically, there’s not much oil left on the surface, as most of it has soaked in. The wiping just removes any excess that could cause an unwanted film to form on the surface of the wood (not attractive).

oiled-board-mostly-dry-ready-for-wipe-down

Board ready to be wiped down after resting for at least 20 minutes on the drying rack — most of the oil has visibly soaked in.

The only real down side to the wiping (apart from the time, energy, and the cost of the rags) is that it makes the boards more uniform in appearance — in other words, some of the texture in the gator look is lost due to the wiping. Nevertheless, this comes with an added benefit, namely, removing any char that might otherwise flake off in the first couple of rainstorms.

When the boards are finished and completely dry, the finish looks very durable (and sleek).

oiled-charred-boards-on-the-stack-to-dry

Oiled boards.

 

oiled-stack-begun

Oiled boards being stacked for drying.

Depending on temperature and humidity, it takes roughly a week for the boards to be dry to the touch.

monkeys-helping

My helpers. This is the fun part: applying Tung Oil to new boards — the change in appearance is immediate and dramatic.

 

natual-cedar-oiled

Oiled  “natural” cedar, waiting to be wiped down.

 

natural-and-charred-together

Natural oiled cedar next to charred cedar. We’re going to keep some boards natural as an accent.

It’s the wiping down of each board that requires some real elbow grease – no surprise my daughter disappeared at that point in the process (can’t blame her, it’s tedious work).

As long as you have at least two people working together — pulling boards, dipping, transferring to the drying rack, and then wiping down — the process isn’t too bad. Going solo would get old very quickly. It’s even better if you have a couple of people just setting up the drying rack and wiping down while a third person pulls boards and dips.

There’s no question the process takes time and effort, but the results are unique and, we think, very beautiful.

bee-on-charred-cedar

The last bees of the season keep showing up as we oil the boards. They can’t resist the citrus solvent. It’s always sad to see them go at this time of the year.

Cedar Siding Delivered…

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… LET’S BURN IT!!!

charred-cedar-burn-and-natural

Charring a 1×6 piece of cedar. This will likely end up as either a window or door surround.

For our siding, we’re using an old Japanese technique for preserving wood called Shou-Sugi-Ban (aka: charred cedar — although any number of species of wood could work).

You can check out a series of helpful DIY videos here: Starting Over…

There’s some flexibility in exactly how it’s done, and there are various looks that can be achieved. We’re going for mostly a “gator” finish, meaning the cedar will have an alligator skin-like appearance. This is considered a heavy burn.

An alternative way of doing it would be to “gator” it first with fire, then scrape the excess char off, leaving behind a smoother, lighter, but still charred and protected finish (see video below).

Video of Brushed Charred Cedar: Dry vs. Wet Brush

Here are a few pictures that highlight the difference:

charred cedar samples on driveway

2 boards on the left: gator finish / 3 boards on the right: brushed finish.

Once the charred wood has been oiled (whether it’s with a gator finish or a brushed finish), it will look something like this:

charred-board-gator-to-brushed

Scrap board showing gator and brushed finish after oiling.

 

charred-w-gator-finish

Close up of gator finish after oiling.

 

charred-w-brushed-finish

Close up of brushed finish after oiling (cloudy day). In sunlight, the red tones of the cedar become more pronounced.

There are companies in the US that are exploring the limits of what can be done with shou-sugi-ban, including the use of various species of wood, a range of options in the level of char, and potential areas for its installation:

Delta Millworks (Texas)

reSAWN TIMBER co. (Pennsylvania)

charred-cedar-small-pile

The beginnings of our stack, using 1×2’s to give the wood support and plenty of space for air circulation (this becomes more important after we apply the oil finish).

Either way, the char doesn’t go very deep into the wood, and it doesn’t have to in order to be effective — either for looks or durability.

For instance, once the wood has been charred, it will be fire resistant. The charred surface actually protects the wood from further burning. I had to see this to believe it, but if you char a piece and then hold the torch in one spot it really does resist burning (you can eventually reduce the wood to ash, but it takes a surprisingly long time).

The charred wood will also be unappetizing to insects or rodents, and once covered in its attractive black armor, the surface can face decades of sun and rain (80-100 years is the usual claim for its longevity) with little or no maintenance, apart from an occasional fresh coat of oil (every 15 years or so?).

Our wall assembly will utilize a fairly substantial rain screen, meaning there will be significant air movement behind the siding, so one could argue it should be unnecessary to char the back of each piece, but we’ve chosen to do so for the added peace of mind (and not a really significant amount of additional time — and the charring is fun to do anyway).

For cut ends and mitered joints, we will use tung oil to help seal these areas (similar to painted wood siding that gets a swipe of oil based primer in these same spots just before installation).

charred-cedar-small-pile-low-angle

Most of the siding will be 1×6 tongue and groove. The remaining 1x material will be for areas of trim.

Once charred, the wood can immediately be installed, or, as we’ve chosen to do, you can oil it first. After experimenting a little back in 2015, applying an oil finish seems to bind the char to the wood better than leaving it just “as is” (regardless if the level of char is light or heavy).

Also, if you don’t oil, then the surface remains like a charcoal briquet, so any time it’s touched some of the char will rub off — just imagine the reaction of friends or family the first time someone leans against the siding, or if you have kids running around and they touch the char. It could be a real mess.

In addition, if you choose not to oil, then every time the charred wood is cut during installation black dust will go flying (whoever does the installation will not be pleased when their hands, bodies, and lungs are covered in a layer of fine soot — picture a 19th century Welsh coal miner).

So for durability, looks, and ease of installation, we’ve decided to take the extra step of oiling each piece as well (more about this process later).

…Our stack of completed boards grows…

charred-cedar-texture-long-view-of-pile

The stack as the sun begins to set.

 

charred-cedar-close-up-gator-2

An alligator (or just ‘gator’) finish with the knots still showing through.

 

charred-cedar-close-up-%22gator%22

The charred wood, depending on the angle and level of light, can take on silvery tones (although, in our experience, this mostly goes away once the wood has been oiled — producing a uniformly black appearance).

 

charred-cedar-close-up-lighter-version

A board with a lighter char.

There is a range in the level of char we want to achieve. While most boards will have the gator finish, much lighter boards (a few even lighter than the one pictured above) will be part of the mix as well. We think this will make for a more interesting overall look, but it also takes the pressure off, slightly, if you have more than one person doing the charring (each person will have a slightly different definition of ‘gator’).

We’re also curious to see how the lighter boards will age with time: Will the lighter undertones of raw cedar turn gray and blend nicely with the char? Or will the natural color, peeking through the black surface, stick around longer than we think?

As far as the tools involved, the following have worked for us:

inferno-torch-full-shot

Found the Inferno torch on Amazon.com and at our local Home Depot.

 

inferno-close-up

So far, it’s been a real workhorse.

 

inferno-w-various-tank-sizes

The inferno will work with almost any size tank.

 

100-tank-from-tebons-gas

100 lb. tank from Tebon’s Gas Service in Niles, Illinois.

We were planning to use the typical 40 pound propane tank that’s used for grilling. Fortunately, my wife was smart enough to look around online for us, and she found these 100 lb. tanks instead.

These 100 lb. tanks have worked out great — no trips to a big box store for refills on the smaller tanks. And by buying the gas in bulk, they’ve also saved us some money as well.

100-tank-w-condensation-full-shot

You can follow the level of the tank by looking for condensation. The only down side to these larger tanks is once they hit this level, about 1/4 full, pressure drops significantly, so it takes twice as long to burn a board.

Here are some of the key connections involved:

hose-to-tank-connection

 

hose-to-hose-connection

10′ hose combined with 25′ extension hose.

 

hose-to-torch-connection-1

The long silver component is the throttle for the boost function.

The Inferno comes with a 10′ hose, which works okay, but we bought a 25′ extension hose on Amazon that definitely makes life easier by allowing you to get further away from the tank for a wider range of motion.

sealant-for-hose-connections

If you decide to use an extension hose, you’ll need this sealant to make proper, sealed connections. If you’re lucky, someone in tool repair at your local hardware store will do this for you.

In terms of safety, in addition to a pair of sunglasses or construction safety glasses, proper hearing protection is a must. If you’re doing just one or two boards, the noise level of the torch isn’t a big deal. However, if you plan to do dozens of boards at one time, we would definitely recommend some kind of hearing protection. The torch is undeniably loud (we’re lucky we have patient, forgiving neighbors).

Welding gloves have also been a real help. On windy days, the boards tend to stay lit longer, but it’s easy to just pat or rub out the small areas of flame with the welding gloves. And they’re a must for moving the boards around right after charring.

welding-gloves

We found these in our local Home Depot tool department.

We also keep a couple of 5 gallon buckets around, only partially filled, so it would be easy to toss it at someone who’s just burst into flames (let’s hope this never happens).

In addition, we have a 6′ step ladder set up as a station to hold the torch when not in use, and it’s a convenient spot to drape a garden hose with a nice spray nozzle, so it’s in easy reach if something should go wrong. We also occasionally spray down the concrete, hoping this discourages any stray embers from landing and then floating away to ignite something in the surrounding area.

To be honest, the only time I got myself in trouble was when the 100 lb. tank was 1/4 full and the pressure had dropped. Normally, we barely have gas running through the hose and coming out of the torch because the boost switch on the torch is so effective. Because of the pressure drop, I turned up more gas, hoping it would counteract the loss of pressure, but instead I just managed to catch my jeans on fire at the knee (momentarily, thanks to a handy 5 gallon bucket of water). I was extremely lucky, and lesson definitely learned.

Right as the sun is going down is the most exciting time to burn — the flame becomes vivid, and it’s really fun to watch as it dances across the surface of the board.

torch-evening-flame

 

charring-1x8-cedar-2

That left hole in the knee is the one that I managed to catch on fire — notice I’m keeping a safe distance from the flame.

 

lions-head-in-flames

Playing with fire: Do you see the lion’s head?

 

head-of-a-cardinal

Head of a cardinal?

Videos demonstrating the charring:

Video 1: Charring 1x Material

Video 2: Charring

The 1x material, whether 1×6 or 1×8, takes longer to burn since we found it impossible to get the face and the edge all in one pass. You can definitely pick up more of a rhythm with the 1×6 T&G boards. And we haven’t gone for a gator appearance on the back (smooth side) of each board, instead going for a lighter char, which also helps to speed things up for each board.

How much will all this cost?

How long will it take?

For our single story, just under 1700 sq. ft. house (outside dimensions), with an attached 2-car garage, these are how our numbers break down:

  • Time to burn (per board): about 1-2 minutes a side
  • In 6-8 hours, 40-80 boards is realistic (depends on level of char, and if it’s 1x or T&G)
  • Total time to burn all the boards we should need: ±80 hours
  • For torch, hearing protection, welding gloves, extension hose: $100-150
  • Per 100 lb. tank: $80-90 (8 total tanks to finish).
  • 1×2’s, or similar material, for stacking the completed boards: $100-200
  • #3 or better Cedar (1×6 T&G, 1×6, and 1×8): approx. $8-10,000

Keep in mind, this doesn’t include the time or expense required to oil each board (again, more on that later).

One final, additional challenge was getting quality boards.

Our first order of cedar, via a big box store, came from Mary’s River (they’ve either gone out of business, or their manufacturing plant burned down — depends on who you ask). Their rate of waste was about 10-15%, so not bad at all. It felt like I had to go looking for bad boards (board bends to the left or right at the end, U-shaped from the middle, broken or missing tongues/grooves, or cracked/split boards).

In subsequent orders, with a company called Tri-Pro, the rate of waste was about 40%. Luckily, the big box stores are okay with returns, nevertheless this gets frustrating.

And even with the big box stores themselves, there can be significant differences in quality from one location to another. Our first couple of orders were poorly packed and just wrong. Then, after going to a second location to order, in Long Grove, this showed up:

charred-cedar-neatly-packed-pallet

A neatly packed pallet — when you’ve dealt with a messy one, this is a thing of beauty.

 

charred-cedar-neatly-packed-pallet-broken-down

Deconstructing the pallet. The plywood really makes a difference in protecting the wood.

 

pallet-from-menards-paperwork

“We are proud of this pallet”… and it clearly shows. Thank you!

I can’t tell you whether the person (or persons) who put this specific pallet together actually enjoys their job, but what I know for sure is that they give a shit (to be perfectly blunt).

Unfortunately, this level of quality and pride in workmanship is exceedingly rare — anywhere, in any occupation — so when you see it, it can’t help but stand out and grab your attention.

charred-cedar-putting-the-weasel-to-work

We even got the Beast involved — pulling labels, tags, and staples.

“How did I get here?…”

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So Why Build an Eco-friendly “Green” Home Anyway?

In the summer my wife and I teach a class together, called Excel 2, which is one small component of a larger, overall Excel Program (my wife is a high school Social Studies teacher).

Typically, Excel students come from first-generation immigrant families. They are college-bound students who have exhibited great potential, but who are in need of some encouragement, particularly in regards to taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses (huffington post). For most of our students, they will be the first ones in their family to attend college, so it is understandably an intimidating prospect in any number of ways.

The course itself is three weeks in the summer session, its focus on developing reading and writing skills by utilizing non-fiction reading assignments. We emphasize the importance of correct spelling, proper grammar usage, and attention to detail by requiring multiple revisions to several thesis paragraphs, which are themselves based mostly on college-level reading assignments.

You can imagine how well this goes over with incoming high school sophomores and juniors — especially in summer. We’ve tried to overcome this dilemma (how to motivate young high school students to tackle a course based on rigor when many of their friends are out enjoying summer break) by delving into topics they are intimately familiar with, but hopefully in ways they have not yet confronted.

IMG_9702

Some of our Excel students with my wife, Anita: (front row) Aubrey and Imani, (back row) Eduardo, Anita, Cecelia, and Karen. 

As a whole, 50% of the students attending Palatine High School qualify for free and reduced lunch. Not surprisingly, then, the Excel students face some unique, if not daunting challenges, both in and out of the classroom. In addition to the normal stresses associated with being a teenager, many of them deal with balancing school work with long work hours at low-paying jobs (helping their families make ends meet), social pressures to stray down the wrong path (in any number of ways), and even (most heart-breaking of all) confronting what researchers term being food insecure — in plain English, not always knowing when or where they will get their next meal.

We present the class to the students as an opportunity to test themselves, to really see where they are, currently, in terms of a whole host of skills. The main goal of the Excel 2 program, therefore, is to really challenge their abilities, not just in terms of reading and writing skills, but also soft skills such as interpersonal communication, the importance of body language, time management, and self-discipline.

Essentially, we try to give them a college-level course experience, hoping it better prepares them for the eventual reality. In other words, we’d rather they struggle in high school with us than have it happen when away from home for the first time, off on their own, at college  (atlantic)  (newsweek)  (washington post).

Here’s an example of our ever-changing syllabus:  Excel 2 – 2015

As you can see from the reading assignments, we encourage our students to start asking questions about everyday things they may be taking for granted. We hope this sharpens their critical thinking skills, but we also hope it encourages them to be more active participants in their lives, rather than just sleepwalking through their days as passive consumers.

Consequently, when it came time for us to find a new place to live, we saw it as a good opportunity to practice what we preach:

  • What exactly do you want from a new house?
  • If you’re going to buy a house (and you’re lucky enough to even contemplate doing so), what should it look like? A condo? A townhouse? Or a single-family residence?
  • In which neighborhood are you going to buy?
  • How many square feet do you want (or need)? How many bedrooms? Do you want (or need) a formal living room or dining room? Do you want (or need) a basement?
  • What architectural style appeals to you?
  • How are you going to furnish the interior?
  • Should you care about indoor air quality (IAQ)? And if you do, how do you protect it or improve it?
  • What do you want in your walls and attic for insulation? How much do you need?
  • How much will utilities cost? Are there cost-effective ways to reduce those costs?
  • Are renewables — solar, wind, or geothermal — worth considering? How long is the payback period?
  • Do you want your house to be environmentally friendly — and what does that mean anyway?

Instead of moving into the typical, leaky, not very environmentally friendly suburban condo, townhome, or house (we were leaving behind the latter), we thought it would be more interesting to see just how “green” we could make our next house.

Because we wanted a yard to do plenty of landscaping and gardening, we narrowed the choices down to a single-family house. And, instead of tackling the challenges that come with a retrofit, we decided to try building new.

Much like hearing Jonathan Ive talk about an Apple keyboard, we appreciated the detail required to meet the certified Passive House standard. At the time (summer 2014), this seemed like the way to go.

After the experience we had with our original builder (2015), and then subsequently trying to learn as much as possible about the Passive House standard, in addition to discovering the Pretty Good House concept along the way, our house plans have evolved into a kind of 3-headed hybrid: Passive House science + Pretty Good House + Net Zero (Zero Net Energy: ZNE).

The goal of all three is to dramatically reduce the energy consumption of our house as much as possible (especially our dependence on the energy grid). We also want to do a significant amount of planting and growing in our yard, mostly xeric plants that require little additional watering, in order to combine house and yard into an eco-friendly system of sorts.

Our last home (approx. 2800 sq. ft.) was a fairly typical suburban tract house. It had builder-grade windows and doors (most of which had to be replaced after just a few years), very little insulation in the walls (the switch for the back porch light would actually ice up when temperatures fell below 20° F), and it had a great deal of under-utilized space (e.g. a two-story foyer, a formal living room and dining room, and a fourth bedroom, all of which saw little use).

With our new home (just over 1500 sq. ft. of living space), we’re trying to turn all of this on its head so we end up with something we really want and will enjoy. To paraphrase Kevin McCloud: ‘maybe it’s better to have a little bit of something special than a lot of something mediocre’.

An oft-quoted statistic (1)­ suggests a significant amount of our greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to our structures (typically the figure is in the 40-50% range) — including residential, commercial, industrial, and governmental — so maybe change really does begin at home (SA) (greenbelt movement).

 

(1) According to a recent Fine Homebuilding article, “Better Than Average”, by Brian Pontolilo: “It’s not clear how much our homes contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions and to climate change. The most recent data available from the Department of Energy is from 2009-2010. Outdated as it is, this data indicates that residential buildings contribute around 20% of total U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. This includes fossil fuels used on-site (e.g. natural gas for cooking and heating) as well as electricity.” (September, 2016 issue, p. 64)

 

And if you’re wondering about the quote in the title of this blog entry, it’s a line from this song:

Starting Over…

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Some basic design elements for our new house

 

Wood: (including Charred Cedar)

Some really helpful videos that gave me the confidence to try this:

 

 

 

 

charred cedar samples on driveway

Some charred cedar boards I did last summer. The first two on the left have an “alligator” finish; the three on the right have been “brushed”, allowing more of the red in the wood to show through after much of the char has been removed.

 

charred cedar sample board with natural

A sample board showing the charred cedar in combination with “natural” oiled cedar. Still working on the exact layout and combination of the charred and “natural” boards. We will want to try something more adventurous than the basic layout you see here.

The charring is surprisingly easy to do with a little practice. If, however, you’re not up for it, but you’d still like to use it on your own house, here are some companies that will do it for you:

deltamillworks.com  (featured in the Risinger video above)

charredwood.com

resawntimberco.com  (they have a lot of cool options — even flooring!)

 

realmilkpaint.com

 

realmilkpaint.com

I use their Tung Oil and Citrus Solvent products to finish the cedar, and it works great on concrete or stone, especially when going for an “aged” effect. We’re also going to use it for finishing our wood floors — produces a fairly durable, easy to touch-up, slightly ambered matte finish. It is also very easy to work with.

 

Concrete

buddyrhodes.com

buddyrhodes.com

I really like their Craftsman mix — great for decorative pieces, easy to work with, and it produces really great results (and it’s easy to add glass or pigment to the mix as well). Their Bone Paste slurry mix is also fun to use, and great for creating dramatic highlights when filling voids.

homemade-modern.com (they have interesting projects, with easy to follow instructions)

Concrete is usually thought of as oppressive and ugly, but there’s actually a lot of interesting ways to use it that bring out its potential as a decorative element.

Below is a concrete piece using Buddy Rhodes with real coffee beans embedded in the concrete (the beans were on the bottom of the form before pouring the concrete over them). I used the Dark Tung oil product from realmilkpaint.com to give it an added “aged” effect:

coffee bean concrete mold

 

Metal

ALIVE rust blog photo

I’ve learned how to prematurely rust bare steel, so some key spots will have this.

 

charred bench leg idea

There will also be metal hardware involved.

 

charred bench side view of legs

Unfinished charred bench from last summer.

 

towel bar idea

We will be using gas pipe for shelving and storage elements.

We’re going for an urban-rustic look and feel, so there will be some factory/farm tools, with a variety of similar objects around as well — either partly reconditioned, like below, or re-contextualized in some fun way:

rusty red wheel