kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Net Zero Energy + Permaculture Yard

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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…

Flooring: 3/4″ Hardwood

4

Hardwood vs. Carpet

In our previous home we made the decision not to use any carpet. Not only did we prefer the look of combining tile (for wet areas) with hardwood (living areas and bedrooms), we also knew these surfaces would be easier to keep clean than carpeting. Although I grew up in two homes that both had mostly wall-to-wall carpeting, it was only after having to rip up several rooms of carpet that I realized just how much dirt and general detritus gets trapped below the surface.

There does seem to be an element of generational change (some would argue even social class) involved in this choice between carpet and hardwood. For example, my parents, who grew up on farms in the 1940’s without carpet, were shocked that we preferred hardwood flooring since having wall-to-wall carpeting was a big deal for them when they moved to Chicago in the late 1950’s. To them, hardwood flooring signified the outdated past while carpeting was the future.

Having lived with both, I don’t think I’d ever choose to go back to carpet. In addition to being much more visually interesting, I find hardwood flooring not just easier to keep clean but much easier to fix or repair should damage occur.

Which species of wood?

For our last house we went with pre-finished 3/4″ x 5 1/4″ wide plank Australian Cypress. Even though we loved the look of the Australian Cypress, it was more expensive than other species and it seemed to dent more easily than its Janka hardness score would suggest.

Oak is, by far, the most popular wood species for flooring, seen in countless stain color variations, but we wanted to try something with more natural color variation from one board to another.

For our new home we knew we still wanted to go with only hardwood and tile, even though there are now more eco-friendly and sustainable carpet options. We also knew we’d have to utilize a low or no VOC finish for the wood flooring in order to maintain a high level of indoor air quality.

Another option to consider is engineered vs. 3/4″ solid hardwood flooring. Because of the additional wear layer, and because I’d previously worked with a solid hardwood in my last house, we opted for the 3/4″ solid.

Also, since we went with a prefinished hardwood last time, this time we decided to try a traditional install, meaning sanded and finished in place.

The only real gripe we had with the pre-finished flooring in our last house was the beveled edge between boards, creating grooves that can trap dirt. Also, we felt it was slightly less visually appealing than a traditionally finished floor. Nevertheless, we would consider pre-finished flooring to be a viable option, especially if you’re having to work under severe time constraints and you need a room or whole house completed quickly.

3/4″ x 4″ Hickory

After considering various wood species, we settled on Hickory since it can look similar to the Australian Cypress, while its Janka hardness score is slightly higher, giving us some added durability. It’s also harvested and shipped from within the US, so it cuts down on shipping costs and total embodied carbon emissions.

Looking around locally, including our local Floor & Decor, I could only find manufacturers who packaged their flooring in boxes of shorter boards (the longest boards typically in the 4′-7′ range). Using shorter boards tends to produce a choppy look, reminiscent of a brick running bond pattern.

Online the options seemed much better, although shipping costs had to be factored in. It was also difficult to find the color variation we were after since much of the Hickory that’s available would be classified as clear or select (NWFA). In the end, we used Countryplank, ordering their Old Growth Hickory in random lengths (2′-10′).

After initially receiving someone else’s order in an entirely different species, Mark from Countryplank quickly took care of the problem and got my correct flooring to me the following week. Once it showed up on site, the boys were back to help me carry it in the house — as always, many thanks to them for helping us out with the grunt work.

unloading wood flooring
Smitty and Ricky helping us unload the truck.

Of course when the flooring was being delivered it turned out to be one of the coldest days of the year with plenty of snow around. Thankfully, with the guys helping us, it went pretty quick.

Installation

Before installing the Australian Cypress in my last house, I used a book from Don Bollinger as a helpful how-to guide. The book came with a video companion, which I’ve since lost, but much of the footage has shown up on YouTube:

And there are many other helpful videos available as well:

After clearing a room of tools and other construction related items, I set to work prepping the Advantech subfloor.

family rm b4 wood floor
Setting up to prep the family room subfloor.

Although the Advantech is said to resist moisture better than other OSB or plywood subflooring, because of the delay in construction after firing our pair of GC’s, the sheets of Advantech saw more exposure from the weather than is ideal.

Nevertheless, apart from having to grind and sand down some edges that had expanded due to moisture, the Advantech held up incredibly well. In addition, since the framers used nails to fasten it to the floor joists I went through each room adding decking screws to help stiffen the floor even more.

Once this was done, I was able to put down some red rosin paper. In my last house I had used 15# roofing felt, but since it’s embedded with asphalt I decided, for the sake of indoor air quality, that the red rosin paper was the better option. Rather than using it to control moisture, it’s mainly helpful in keeping a neater workspace as the flooring goes down.

mbr red rosin
Red rosin paper going down in the master bedroom.

With all of the red rosin paper down, it was time to bring in the tools and to start arranging piles of wood flooring based on length and color. As I unwrapped each pile of boards I went looking for the longest and darkest boards, making sure to have them nearby as I tried to use the longest boards first, and then be selective about how to place the darkest and most attractive pieces. When all the rooms were complete, I wanted the leftovers to be mostly shorter and lighter colored pieces.

family rm prepped 4 wood
Family room prepped for hardwood flooring.

The only other major decision before beginning to install the flooring was orientation. Most homes utilize the longest wall in a space as a guide, installing the wood parallel to this wall. Ideally this would also mean the flooring runs straight from the front door entry area to the back of the house in bowling alley fashion. This assumes the floor joists are perpendicular to the direction of the wood flooring. In our last home, and in our current Passive House, we could have oriented the hardwood flooring in this ‘straight’ pattern, but after trying and loving a diagonal pattern in our last home we knew we wanted to stick with this angled pattern. The only significant downside to the diagonal pattern is additional cuts are necessary so, therefore, more wood is required.

family rm wood going down
Arranging pieces before getting started.

The use of spline pieces, or split tongue, was helpful when making a change of direction, or establishing the border where the hardwood flooring met the tile in the kitchen, utility room, entry, and bathrooms.

kitchen outside corner w: router
Finishing up the family room. Note the shorter pieces of spline on the tile, and the router used to make a connection between the main pieces and the wood border next to the kitchen tile.

When I needed to create a groove I used a groove bit with the Bosch router before gluing and installing a section of spline. This was especially helpful where the wood met up with tile and I needed to first create a border piece.

First, using a table saw I would cut off the tongue side of the board, facing this side towards the tile. Now with the groove side exposed I could cut to length the piece I needed to butt up against this border piece against the tile. Once it was cut to length I could use the router to make a groove on the end that would be in contact with the border. With the border piece and the field piece now having grooves it was easy to add the spline in between, making for a tight, durable connection between these two pieces with some wood glue.

family rm mostly done
Done with the family room and ready to head towards the front door.

The diagonal pattern also means that the flooring nailer runs out of room before you get to the wall because of the angle involved. For these last few inches I utilized a trim nail gun, shooting into the tongue and face nailing a couple of nails at the outside edge. Even though these nails are significantly weaker than the flooring nails, we haven’t experienced any gapping or other issues at the perimeter of our walls. This may be due to the fact that we don’t see wide swings in the levels of indoor humidity (typically the house stays within 30-55% relative humidity; most of the year hovering around 40%) because of the air tightness and high levels of insulation required of a Passive House.

It probably also explains the lack of floor squeaks. When there are wide swings in outdoor humidity we sometimes get a couple of ‘pops’ from the wood flooring itself, but we’ve never had an issue with the floor joists/Advantech connection squeaking. In our last home, a conventionally built tract home, similar changes in humidity made our wood floors sound like they were in a hundred year old farmhouse, popping with almost every step until the humidity and the wood itself had a chance to stabilize.

One of the best tool purchases for the entire build was this Powernail ‘persuader’. Whether at walls, or out in the field, this tool works exceptionally well at closing unsightly gaps that would otherwise need to be filled with wood filler.

powernail persuader
The Powernail ensured a much tighter floor installation.

And the Powernail was an excellent guide for identifying bad boards — if it couldn’t close gaps on a particular board, it meant that board shouldn’t be used.

For spots or areas that would need some extra attention during sanding, I marked these with a pencil, either with an X or a circle.

marks for xtra sanding
Spots requiring careful sanding marked with X’s or circles.

Before sanding I also went around applying wood filler to all of the nail holes, any voids in the many knots, and to any remaining gaps between boards (mostly where the ends butt together). For the deepest voids in the knots I made two passes with the wood filler, sanding in between coats. In the end this produced a much smoother finish.

I found the Timbermate brand online, and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to work with and how well it’s performed over time. I started out with half a dozen different colors, but eventually narrowed this down to just two colors: Beech/Pine and Chestnut. In effect, these two colors spanned the wide variation in color from light to darker boards.

Although it claims to be zero VOC, it does have a distinct and slightly funky smell as it comes out of the jar. This odor completely disappeared once it was sanded down and the floors were sealed with tung oil. The Timbermate is also very easy to sand smooth.

wood putty for floors

Sanding the Floors

Thankfully, the flooring didn’t require a lot of sanding, nowhere near the amount typical in strip oak flooring. Overall, the flooring did seem to be precision milled and I ended up with very few completely unusable boards.

not much sanding
This was about as bad as it got. Most boards came together much better than this.

I could’ve rented a traditional floor sander and edger, but after reading about Festool’s orbital sander and then a similar sander from Bosch, I decided to try the Bosch out and see what it could do. I started in a smaller room, my daughter’s bedroom, just to see how long it would take to do a room-sized amount of sanding. Starting with 40 grit for the worst areas, I slowly worked my way through increasing grits, ending at 150 for a smooth finish ready for tung oil.

Since I was able to work through the various grits in just over an hour, I decided to keep using the Bosch sander for the duration of our project. Again, if I was sanding conventional oak strip flooring purchased from a big box store, I definitely would’ve rented the normal sander/edger combo.

bosch sander
Bosch orbital sander.

Since I was installing and finishing room by room (we had a lot of construction ‘stuff’ to maneuver around, but that we wanted to keep onsite), renting the equipment, in addition to being more expensive, would’ve meant a lot of back and forth between home and the tool rental center. Also, once the flooring was done, I still owned an excellent sander. It’s easily the best sander — palm or orbital — I’ve ever owned. The lack of vibration compared to comparable sanders makes working with the Bosch a real pleasure.

bosch sander ready to go
Utility room ready to be sanded.

Hooked up to a shop vac with a HEPA filter, the sanding dust was kept to a bare minimum, making the house pleasant to work in, regardless of the amount of sanding just completed.

Just before starting the wood floors my Fein shop vacuum died on me. I picked up a Ridgid brand vacuum from Home Depot mainly because it was the quickest option, fully expecting to be disappointed by its performance. To my surprise, it worked even better than the Fein vacuum and at a much lower price point.

rigid vacuum
I was surprised how well this Ridgid vacuum effectively contained the sanding dust.

Once the floors had been sanded down, it was finally time to start finishing with tung oil.

wood entry tile
Front entry transitioning to hardwood flooring.

Finishing the Floors with Tung Oil

Before we started the tung oil we made sure to tape edges where the wood met tile, mainly to keep clean-up to a minimum, but to also protect the grout from being darkened by the tung oil.

wood tile tape b4 tung
Utility room ready for tung oil.

Real Milk Paint, the company I purchased the tung oil from, has an excellent how-to video on doing wood floors:

We used close to a 50/50 mix of tung oil and citrus solvent, with just slightly more citrus solvent added to encourage deeper penetration of the tung oil.

My ‘helpers’ enjoyed doing the first coat with me in each room since there was such a dramatic color change as the tung oil initially went down. The tung oil really makes the grain and all the color variation in the wood really come to life.

First, we brushed in from the perimeter edges several inches, before rolling the rest of the floor with a lambswool roller connected to a paint stick. We were careful to not get too far ahead of the roller with the cutting in, hoping to avoid any ‘flashing’ that could show up where these areas meet up once the floor was completely dry.

family rm 1st coat
Anita brushing in the edges before rolling out the remainder of the floor.

It was always exciting to watch this dramatic transition from light and dusty to amber, dark, and stunning.

starting in br closet tung
Beast helping me start in her bedroom closet.
tung oiling s's br
Making our way across her bedroom floor.

Close-up of the hickory as the tung oil is applied:

dry tung
Dramatic change in color as the tung oil is applied.

Making progress across the family room floor:

dry tung family rm
First coat of tung oil going down in the family room.

Once the floor had a full coat of tung oil applied, we waited about 45 minutes before looking for areas where the oil had completely soaked in — this was especially pronounced around the many knots in the wood.

kitchen wet stay wet
Family room coated with tung oil.

After waiting an additional 45 minutes, we hit these ‘dry’ spots again. Once another 45 minutes were up we then wiped down the floors with cotton rags, available in 20 pound boxes from a local paint store.

s's br just tung oiled
Floor rolled, waiting for the tung oil to soak in.

Typically the floors were completely dry within 24 hours, but sometimes we waited one more day before repeating the same process a second and final time.

br entry after tung
Following morning after first application of tung oil.

After two separate days of applying the tung oil in this way, the floor was finally finished and I was ready to move on to the next room.

s's br after tung
2nd bedroom ready for baseboard.

It does take quite a few rags to wipe the floors down properly. It’s also worth noting that we were extremely careful once we were done to dispose of the rags responsibly in order to avoid a fire from the oil-soaked rags — a more common occurrence than most people realize.

final wipe down in mbr
Anita doing a final wipe down in the master bedroom.

In fact, when we thought we were done wiping, we’d go back one last time, walking the floor with rags under our shoes to get the last bit of tung oil that was inevitably still oozing up out of the hickory.

kitchen family rm after 1st ct tung
Family room ready for second day of tung oil application.

Here’s a close-up after the first coat color change next to the kitchen tile. We really like the contrast between the warmth of the wood and the cool gray of the tile:

kitchen wood connection after tung
Family room meets kitchen tile.

We also used this tung oil process on our basement stairs, which had hickory treads, along with a landing covered in hickory installed diagonally like the rest of the flooring.

Paul, from Signature Stairs, was the salesperson for our basement stairs. He made measuring and ordering what we wanted very easy, and he even took the time to stop by right after the stairs were installed and immediately took care of a minor touch-up for us. We’ve been extremely happy with the stairs. In fact, they were so well built we’ve yet to have even a single squeak, which, when compared to our last home, is extremely impressive.

base stair steps after tung

Because of the amount of variation in the wood, it was a lot of fun playing around with how best to show off the darker pieces. I always tried to keep in mind where furniture would end up, saving the most dramatic pieces for those areas that would remain out in the open and highly visible.

mbr b4 tung
Main bedroom ready to be sanded.

And it was always exciting to see the transformation from unfinished to very rich looking as the colors in the wood popped after the application of the tung oil:

mbr after tung
Main bedroom after tung oil.

We really love the color variation from one board to another. The range of colors and textures in the grain is stunningly beautiful. Visually the floors run the gamut from what looks like pine, walnut, tropical hardwood, oak, maple, birdseye maple, some boards with insect damage and staining, to of course clear hickory.

“There are trees with gnarly barks and unique shapes that represent some of nature’s most engaging sculptures, for they are the perfection of imperfection.”

— Andrew Juniper, Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence

This wide variety of colors and textures celebrates the full breadth of what the wood has to offer (as opposed to just clear grade), and it nicely adds to our overall Urban Rustic and wabi-sabi design aesthetic for the house.

Here are some close-ups of individual boards showing this wide variation in looks:

tropical
Some of the darker boards look like walnut.
orange w: insect
A few boards had this insect or worm hole damage, including some attractive streaking.
lighter almost pine
Waves reminiscent of end grain Douglas fir.
light w: staining
There were several boards with this dark streaking over a much lighter background, as if the wood had been exposed to fire.
brown light red
The darker colors ranged from this walnut brown (at left) to a much redder, almost exotic tropical hardwood color (on the right).
lightest
The darker pieces were nicely balanced by many other lighter, more natural toned boards.
close-up knot w: staining
Even the knots themselves can be quite dramatic in terms of colors and smoky looking swirls.
beetle pine
There were even a couple of boards that look very much like beetle kill pine.

The orientation of the flooring was installed going with the main direction of foot traffic so that it feels like you’re almost always moving with the pattern in the floor rather than against it. In order to maintain this feeling throughout the house, it required changing direction in a couple of areas, for instance, where the kitchen and family room transition to the bedrooms. In these areas I used a transition piece in the door jamb of each bedroom to mark the change in direction.

mbr cu floor color variation
Main bedroom complete. Ready to change direction into the family room.

When the flooring changes direction it makes for a dramatic visual accent as the contrasting angles meet up. Below is the same area shown above, now with the family room flooring installed (but unfinished) next to the tung oiled main bedroom flooring:

family rm mbr wd flr meet
Change in direction from the family room (on the left) to the main bedroom (on the right).

Living with Oil-finished Hardwood Flooring

The tung oil finish is definitely softer and more prone to damage when it is first put down than a floor covered in a clear coat would be. After move-in day, I definitely noticed some scuff marks but no major damage. Since then, the tung oil finish has been holding up well.

Granted, we take our shoes off when entering the house, which definitely helps to keep dust and dirt under control, particularly the grit that can scratch wood floors. It also helps that we keep all food and drink in the kitchen. But this would’ve also held true had we gone with a clear coat finish on the wood, so there was no change in our behavior required from our last house to this one.

There’s only been a couple of times that a significant scratch or dent required getting out the Timbermate wood filler, the orbital sander, and the tung oil. In these cases, it was much easier to repair these relatively small spots than it otherwise would’ve been had the same damage occurred under a clear coat.

Overall, the main advantage a natural oil finish has over any clear coat is the amount of texture in the wood grain that’s allowed to come through (especially when viewed on an angle), combined with a matte finish, so the wood tends to look much more natural and warmer looking than it would if covered by multiple coats of clear finish.

mbr bath wood transition
Transition between the main bathroom and bedroom.

Nevertheless, I don’t think I would use an oil finish if we had a large dog, or if we preferred to keep our shoes on all the time. Under those circumstances, I’m guessing you’d have to commit to an annual spot sanding and tung oil application, at least in high traffic areas, to keep up with the damage so that it didn’t become too unsightly.

Hickory meeting kitchen tile.

Whether using a natural oil finish, or a more common clear coat, it’s worth exploring the options, including coming up with a few sample boards just to make sure you’ll be happy with the final look. A website like Green Building Supply is especially helpful in this regard, as they offer several brands of each kind of finish in low or no VOC products.

finished floor variation

It’s also worth noting that the initial wide contrast between the lightest and darkest boards has mellowed over time, so although the contrast is still evident it’s not quite as dramatic as it once was when the tung oil was first applied. Even so, we’re extremely happy with how our wood floors have turned out, and we have no regrets in terms of our choice of wood species or the use of an oil finish.

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.

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.
close up solar base
Close-up of the base that’s holding the solar 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.

{January, 2021 Update: For actual energy demand and costs, please check out this post: Our Energy Bills}

Ceiling Details (Air Sealing #4)

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Installing Intello

We thought about using the Zip sheathing as our air barrier on the ceiling, attaching it to the bottom of the roof trusses, something I had seen on other builds, but after learning about Intello we decided to use that instead:

Floris Keverling Buisman, from 475 High Performance Building Supply, did our WUFI analysis for us, and he suggested the Intello would be a better fit for our project. The Intello is a smart vapor retarder, so it can expand and contract when it’s needed, and it’s obviously less physically demanding to install than the Zip sheathing.

Once the air sealing was complete around the top of our outside perimeter walls, and the insulation chutes had been installed, we were almost ready for the Intello. At the gable ends of the house, one last detail needed to be put in place, circled in red in the picture below:

2x6 on its side
2×6 on its side, circled in red.

By adding this 2×6 on its side, which is in the same plane as the bottom of the roof trusses, it makes it possible to carry the Intello over the transition from the ceiling (under the roof trusses) to the walls (top plates). This is one of those details that is hard to ‘see’ when in the planning, more abstract, and two dimensional phase of designing a structure.

another angle of 2x6 on side
Another view of the 2×6 lying flat in the same plane as the bottom of the roof truss (far left).

Once the trusses were placed on the top of the walls and you start picturing how the Intello will be attached to the ceiling, it becomes much more obvious that something in this space at the gable ends of the house is needed in order to accomplish the transition from the ceiling to the walls.

long view w wdw to front door framing
Marking progress: Ceiling ready for the Intello.

After reading about so many other projects that utilized Intello, it was exciting to unwrap the first box.

unwrapping first box of Intello
Big day: opening the first box of Intello.

The directions are pretty straightforward, and the product is relatively easy to install as long as you don’t have to do it alone.

Intello instructions
Reading through the instructions one last time before starting.

I didn’t get a chance to touch and feel the product before ordering (always fun to do with any new product), so here are some close-ups of the Intello to give you some sense of what it’s like:

Intello close up front side 2
Front: shiny side of the Intello — this side will be facing the living space.

I was curious about its strength and tried to tear it with various objects, including the cut ends of 2×4’s and the brackets we eventually used to help establish our service core. The material is surprisingly tear resistant, but a utility knife, or a stray sharp edge will cut through it (as our first plumber proved to me with his careless actions — a story for another post).

close up Intello back side
Back: matte side of the Intello — this side will be facing the attic.

Having never used the Intello before, I decided to start small and began by experimenting with it in a corner. Getting the corners fully covered while getting the material to sit flat before applying the blue Tescon Vana tape proved to be the most challenging part of using the Intello.

experimenting w: Intello in corner w: chutes above
Starting in a corner to get a feel for how the material will work.

Here’s two more pictures of the flat 2×6 helping to make the transition from the ceiling to the wall on the gable ends of the house:

In order to attach the Intello to the bottom of the roof trusses, we used the staple gun shown below. Loading it is kind of counter-intuitive (online reviews complain about it not working out of the box, but my guess is — like me — they were trying to load it improperly), but once I figured it out, it ended up working really well, almost never jamming, and it’s very comfortable to hold because it’s so lightweight. It should work with any standard air compressor. It was available on Amazon, and in Menards (a local big box store here in the Chicago suburbs).

staple gun
The staple gun we used to attach the Intello to the underside of the roof trusses.

We started with these staples:

close up Arrow staples

But we ended up going with these instead:

close up heavy duty Arrow staples

They seemed to grab better (presumably the sharp ends make a difference), and they sit flatter on a more consistent basis (less time having to go back, or stop, to hammer home proud staples flat).

stapling Intello to ceiling

As we rolled out the Intello, it took some practice to get it to sit taught and flat before stapling.

The dotted lines near the edges of the Intello help you keep the rows straight as you overlap two sheets and progress from one row to the next. The lines also make it easier to maintain a straight line with the Tescon Vana tape (don’t ask me when I realized this latter detail — too embarrassing to admit).

taping Intello along dotted line
Follow the dotted line…

We checked our initial row from above in the attic:

first row of Intello from attic
View from the attic as the first row is installed.

Working our way through the interior walls, especially the bathrooms, was more time consuming and took more effort (I grew to hate those interior bathroom walls — first the Intello, then the service core details described below), but once we were out in the open the Intello was fairly easy to install.

Intello covering ceiling, chutes in bg
First three rows of Intello as they approach the basement stairwell. Note the insulation chutes in the b.g. in the attic — they took up so much time and effort, and now they slowly disappear (just like most important aspects of infrastructure).
northwest corner of air sealed attic w: Intello
View of the Intello from a corner of the attic — note the 2×6, far left, lying flat, that helps the Intello transition from the ceiling to the top of the walls.
Intello from attic at outside corner
Another view of the Intello from the attic after installation.

As Eduardo and Jesus rolled out sections of the Intello I followed, pulling on the Intello a little to help make it sit tight and flat before stapling it in place.

Eduardo and Jesus helping me put up Intello on ceiling
Eduardo and Jesus giving me a hand installing the Intello.

There were a couple of sections, some of the first ones we installed, that I managed to wrinkle (one, in particular, became problematic during our first blower door test — and, of course, it was in a tight spot around the bathroom shower area), but overall, the installation of the Intello went pretty well. Like most things you do for the first time, we got comfortable and good at it just as we were finishing up.

Eduardo Jesus and full moon night sky in b.g.
Eduardo and Jesus helping me finish up the main areas as a full moon makes the night sky glow outside in the background. It was a long day — longer still for Eduardo since Jesus was talkin’ trash and nonsense all day (they’re football teammates). Needless to say, Eduardo has the patience of a saint.
Intello from attic w: insulation chutes in bg
View of the Intello from the attic — offering up its 2001: A Space Odyssey glow.

After learning about a project on the 475HPBS website…

Masonry Retrofit

… we decided to use the Tescon Vana tape to cover the staples, as well as all the seams, in the Intello. I have no idea what actual impact covering the staples has on air tightness, but visually as you tape over the staples you can see how, if nothing else, it will help the staples resist pulling out under pressure from the eventual blown-in cellulose in the attic.

Even as the build progresses, it’s interesting how details like this pop up, making building “green” a never-ending process of learning something new — someone’s always coming up with a new product or a new way to do things better, faster, or less complicated — which makes the process itself very exciting.

OB applying tape
OB — the Palatine High School legend — the man, the myth, helps me tape over the seams and staples in the Intello. One of the many jobs he’s been kind enough to help me get done. We’d be so far behind schedule without all of his help.
on plank
View from above what will be the basement stairwell while installing the Intello on the ceiling.
installing Intello on the ceiling around the basement opening
Almost finished installing the Intello — saved the hardest part for last.

This was a nice moment, being able to look back and see the Intello completely installed. It’s almost a shame that we have to cover it with drywall.

Intello on ceiling long view
Intello installed and taped.

2×6 Service Core

A design goal for the ceiling was to keep mechanicals, like HVAC and electric, on the conditioned side of the ceiling air barrier. By doing this, we avoid having to insulate any ductwork for HVAC, or air sealing and insulating around ceiling lights. In effect, we completely isolate the attic, making its sole purpose (apart from ventilating our “cold roof” assembly) holding our blown-in cellulose insulation (this set-up makes it much easier to air seal the ceiling and get the insulation right — at least based on the projects I’ve read about). In order to do this, we created a service chase, or service core, with 2×6’s:

service chase w: first couple of 2x6's
First couple of 2×6’s going in.

In addition to serving as a space to safely pass mechanicals through, the only other job for the 2×6’s is to hold up the ceiling drywall. The roof trusses, directly above each 2×6, are still carrying the load of the roof and stabilizing the perimeter walls.

Simpson L-Bracket w: fasteners
Simpson bracket and fasteners we used to attach the 2×6’s to the underside of the trusses.

Here’s what the 2×6’s looked like with their brackets once everything was installed.

close up service chase w: bracket-screws
Service core 2×6 with bracket and Simpson SDS bolts.

OB and my wife were invaluable as they helped me cut and install all the 2×6’s.

We installed the brackets first, before raising up each individual 2×6 to fit against the brackets.

jesus helping me install 2x6's
Jesus helping me install the 2×6’s.

Since the brackets were directly attached underneath a roof truss, we were able to keep the 2×6’s fairly straight, even when an individual board itself was less than perfectly straight.

service chase w: just brackets
Brackets installed before the 2×6’s go up.

A feisty Robin kept trying to set up a nest on our partition wall (our windows and doors aren’t in yet). Apparently she believed we had created an elaborate bird house just for her. It took almost a week before she finally gave up — but not before starting multiple nests in multiple spots along the wall.

bird nest
Robin making one of her many attempts at a nest on our partition wall.

Along the outside walls, at the top of the wall assembly, there was a gap that we utilized for maintaining continuous insulation. This meant there will be no break in our thermal layer going from the blown-in cellulose insulation in the attic to the monolithic layer of Roxul Comfortboard 80 (2″ + 2″) that will be on the exterior side of the Zip sheathing.

trusses - Intello - Roxul
Adding Roxul at the top of our wall.
layer of Roxul at top of outside wall
Close-up of the Roxul going in on top of the top plates.
Intello - Roxul - wall
Another view after the Roxul has been installed.
long view from west window w: service core complete
Marking further progress: Intello and 2×6’s installed.

Once the 2×6’s were up, we had to install our pieces of 1×4 in order to prevent the 24″ of blown-in cellulose that will be going into the attic from causing the Intello to sag.

The plans called for the 1×4’s to be installed right after the Intello but before the 2×6’s, which would have been a lot easier and quicker, but, unfortunately, the GC’s we fired installed the interior walls too high, making this impossible.

Here’s what it should’ve looked like if we could’ve done Intello and then the 1×4’s (photos courtesy of 475 HPBS) before installing the 2×6 service core:

Having no choice but to methodically cut each 1×4 to fit between each set of 2×6’s, OB was nice enough to help me get it done.

close up of partition wall w: service core and 1x4 cross battens

Installing the 1×4’s between the 2×6’s began with some experimentation:

service core w: cross battens and L-brackets
Using L-brackets at first —  it proved too time consuming and expensive.

After experimenting with a finish nailer (too easy to miss and penetrate the Intello), we eventually settled on Deckmate screws. It was definitely a laborious process, but eventually we got into a rhythm and got it done, although we wouldn’t recommend doing it this way — way too time consuming.

ceiling w: 1x4 battens
Completing our service core.

We tried to keep the 1×4’s about 16″ apart, which should prevent any significant sagging in the blown-in cellulose from occurring (I’ll post photos once the cellulose has been put in the attic).

A lot of blood, sweat, and tears have gone into completing this house.

Here’s some proof:

screw got me
A decking screw got me.

In trying to avoid puncturing the Intello, I would hold a couple of fingers on the back side of the 2×6, feeling for any screws that would come through on a bad angle. A couple of times I drove a screw too quickly and paid the price.

looking up at Intello and service core from basement
View of the service core from the basement. Installing the 2×6’s and the 1×4’s also required walking the plank a few more times.
installing ceiling w: OB
OB making my life easier as I work on the plank installing the 1×4’s.

Maintaining the Intello After Installation

Unfortunately, there was a delay in getting shingles on our roof, due in large part to our first disorganized and incompetent plumber (again, more on this later). Consequently, we were in the awkward position of having our ceiling air barrier and service core all set up but every time it rained we still had a leaking roof. In most areas it wasn’t a big deal, but in about a dozen spots rain would collect and, in some cases, cause a bulge in the Intello as it held up the weight of the captured water. To relieve and ultimately to avoid this pressure, I cut small slits in the Intello where the rain would consistently collect.

small hole in Intello for rain before shingles
Slit in the Intello to allow rain water to fall through, marked with a red marker for easy identification later.

Once the shingles were finally on, I went back and found all of these slits and taped over them with the Tescon Vana.

Tescon Vana covering hole in Intello
Hole in the Intello covered and air sealed with the Tescon Vana tape.

We also found a couple of weak spots in the Intello as we installed it, and even later, during the installation of the service core. These spots were marked as well, and they, too, got covered with the Tescon Vana tape just for added insurance against air leakage.

imperfection in the Intello marked for Tescon Vana
Weak spot, or imperfection, in the Intello. This got covered with Tescon Vana as well.

After having to fire our GC’s, we couldn’t have kept the project going without the help of family and friends. As awful as some aspects of the build have been, it’s been heartwarming to find people willing to help us see the project through to the end (much more on this later).

2 Cheshire Cats
Couple of Cheshire cats — clearly up to no good — helping us to keep the job site clean.

Insulation Baffles vs. Insulation Chutes

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Our structure was designed with a “cold roof”, or ventilated roof assembly. By having continuous ventilation in our north and south soffits, with a ridge vent on the top of our roof, outdoor air can freely enter the soffits and exit out the roof’s ridge vent. The benefits of this set-up are explained in these comprehensive articles:

BSC – Roof Design
All About Attic Venting
FHB Roof Venting

Here is the product we’re going to use in the soffits:

Cor-A-Vent

In order to make this kind of roof assembly work, insulation baffles or insulation chutes are necessary, especially if the attic is going to have any kind of significant amount of insulation, in particular blown-in insulation that could potentially move around and block off the soffit ventilation from the attic, thereby short circuiting air flow from the soffits through the roof’s ridge vent.

When it was time to install the insulation baffles, I assumed I could just go to one of the big box stores and (thankfully for a change) just buy something off the shelf. It didn’t work out that way.

At Home Depot they had Durovent (a foam based insulation baffle) and an AccuVent baffle (black plastic). Both were a disappointment.

I didn’t buy the Durovent — even just seeing it on the shelf and handling it in the store, it looked cheap and unimpressive. It was hard to imagine it holding up under the pressure of any significant amount of blown-in insulation pressing against it.

The AccuVent product Home Depot carried only worked in a straight line (no curve to wrap over the back of the Zip sheathing at the top of the wall assembly), ideal for a cathedral ceiling application. After looking around online, I found this other AccuVent product:

Seeing the video made me think it would be an easy installation, but once I had the product on the job site and tried to install one, the realization hit that they would be a pain to properly air seal, and again, I had concerns about blown-in insulation pressing up against it for years.

AccuVent out of the box
AccuVent on the job site. It’s hard not to look at these foam/plastic baffles, regardless of brand, and not think: “flimsy”.

Here’s the specific product info:

AccuVent label close up

And here are the installation instructions:

AccuVent install label

When I realized the AccuVent wasn’t right for our project, it was a moment of, “Uh-oh, now what the hell do I do?”

I assumed there must be a sturdier plastic baffle, but I never found one. Instead, I came across this article:

Site Built Baffles

As usual, GBA — had already addressed the issue.

It was nice to have a solution, but I also knew it would be time consuming and back breaking (also neck straining) — the only thing worse than working with sheet goods is working with sheet goods above your head on a ladder. Nevertheless, I would sleep better knowing it was panels of OSB rubbing up against 2 feet of blown-in cellulose insulation rather than sheets of flimsy plastic. Long term solutions do wonders for peace of mind.

first chute installed and sealed
First insulation chute installed.

I used small, cut pieces of 2×4 (six per OSB sheet) as a screwing base (visible in the photo below) to install each insulation chute  — screwing the blocks first to the roof trusses, then, after putting the OSB into place, screwing through the OSB and into the bottom of each 2×4.

close up looking down chute before sealing
The blocks were first screwed to the trusses, before each sheet of OSB was attached to the 2×4 blocks from below.

Then, after installing each sheet of OSB, I went around the perimeter sealing all the gaps. Here’s the product I used for that:

close up Quad Max product label
The OSI sealant I used to cover the gaps.

Here’s what the chutes looked like once they were installed on the south side of the house:

insulation chutes long view

And this is what the chutes looked like when completed at the top of the Zip sheathing:

sealed top of wall w: sealed insulation chute

There weren’t always sizable gaps where the OSB chute met the top of the Zip, but when there were, this was pretty typical:

unsealed warped chute before sealing w: small piece

Same area after adding a thin piece of OSB to help cover the gap, and then sealing the area with the OSI sealant:

sealed small piece at bottom of chute

Looking down a chute before sealing with the OSI:

close up looking down chute before sealing
Gaps visible at the edges before sealing them up with the OSI.

Same view after sealing up the gaps:

close up looking down sealed chute

I showed up on a rainy morning to continue installing the chutes, and this picture shows the dramatic before and after view of without chutes and with chutes installed and sealed:

blue glow before and after chutes
On the left: no chutes and light visible through the soffit. On the right: chutes installed and  completely sealed.

Here’s a long view of the chutes:

epic long view of insulation chutes
49 installed with one to go (far left corner).
insulation chutes in corner
Final chute installed and sealed.
insulation chutes from outside
View from outside showing the ends of some of the OSB chutes peeking over the edge of the soffit.
close up of OSB insulation chutes from outside
Closer view of the top of the Zip sheathing meeting the OSB chute.
Intello from attic w: insulation chutes in bg
In the attic with the insulation chutes in the background, after the Intello was installed on the ceiling below.

Once the chutes were installed, I was finally ready to put the Intello on the ceiling, which thankfully I didn’t have to install by myself.

[December, 2020 Update: If you’re trying to avoid the time and materials associated with installing site-built plywood chutes, a newer (at least to me) product like Smart Baffles is probably worth considering:

https://dciproducts.com/smartbaffle/

Although, as with any new product, it’s worth the time and effort to do a mock up, in this case with a roof assembly (much like the one shown in their video), along with a partial wall assembly, in order to see how the product works (evaluate the durability of the product, ease of installation, final fit, etc.), especially where (and how) the baffle will meet up with the top of the outside walls. With a mock up, you can avoid (or work through) any issues with the product before you’re on the job site actually installing them (when time and money really matters).]

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 illustration from Fine Homebuilding magazine showing a similar set-up:

021221072-2_med.jpg
Illustration 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

Zach asked me to 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.

first-truss-swinging-into-place
First truss swinging into place.
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 silhouette of the house starts to come 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, top 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 our roofer 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. Only two penetrations through the roof — main waste stack and radon.

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.

Wall Assembly

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Or: Dude, what’s in your walls?

When choosing what to put in our walls, we knew we wanted to try and balance high R-values (well above the current building code) with a limited environmental impact.

Here are three articles that address the issue:

Best Wall Choices
Without Foam
Twinkies

After evaluating various materials, including sheep wool,

goodshepherdwool.com

blackmountaininsulationusa.com

we decided to use many of the following elements employed by Hammer & Hand:

madrona-wall-assembly-914x1024-e1459377577722
Hammer & Hand wall assembly for their ‘Madrona House’.

In terms of materials, there are any number of options for putting a wall assembly together. For instance, we really wanted to use the sheep wool, but cost and worries (unfounded or not) about availability, led us eventually to Roxul (the Hammer & Hand videos below proved especially helpful in this regard).

After seeing the wall assemblies Hammer & Hand has been using, and how they’ve evolved over time, we felt the Madrona House set-up represented a good balance between cost-environmental impact-availability-ease of installation. We will also be following their lead by using the Prosoco R-Guard series of products to help with air-sealing our building envelope.

Nevertheless, we did make a couple of changes to the Madrona House set-up. For example, we’re using 4″ of Roxul Comfortboard 80 on the exterior side of the Zip sheathing (based on our colder climate zone), and we will be using Roxul R23 batts in the stud bays, along with the Intello vapor retarder, stapled and taped to cover the stud bays. Otherwise, we will be sticking pretty close to the Hammer & Hand Madrona House wall assembly.

So from drywall to exterior siding (interior – exterior), this will be our wall assembly:

  • 5/8″ Drywall
  • Intello Plus vapor retarder (475 High Performance Building Supply)
  • Roxul R23 Batts in 2×6 stud bays (24″ o.c.) (roxul.com)
  • Zip board (for structural sheathing and WRB; seams covered w/ Joint and Seam Filler)
  • 4″ of Roxul Comfortboard 80 (two layers: 2″ + 2″)
  • 2-Layers of 1×4 furring strips (aka battens or strapping) as a nailing base for the cedar siding
  • 1×6 T&G Cedar (charred and oiled with a few boards left natural as an accent — most of it oriented vertically, hence the need for a second layer of furring strips).
wall-assembly-color-coded
A crude rendering of our wall assembly using my daughter’s colored pencils.

A collection of helpful videos explaining the various elements we’re going to use, and why they’re effective:

Without the information available from sources like Building Science Corporation (they have a lot of interesting research documents) and design-builders like Hammer & Hand (not to mention Green Building Advisor and similar sites and forums that allow consumers to Q&A with expert builders and designers in “green” architecture), trying to build structures to such exacting standards (e.g. Passive House – Pretty Good House – Net Zero) would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for those without previous, direct experience in this type of building program. I can’t express how thankful I am that so many individuals and businesses like these are willing to share their years of experience and knowledge with newbies like myself.

Here are the Hammer & Hand videos that initially sparked my interest in using Roxul rather than foam:

Instead of using tape for exterior seams, we are going to use the R-Guard series of products from Prosoco:

For various interior seams and connections we anticipate using the Tescon Vana tape, or an appropriate gunned sealant.

GBA (Green Building Advisor): Building Green (Starter Q&A)

GBA: Article on minimum thickness of exterior foam by climate zone

GBA Question: Foam vs. Roxul

GBA: 10 Rules of Roof Design

GBA: “Greenest”

GBA: Passive House Design (5-part video series) Requires membership after Part I, but well worth it.

BSC (Building Science Corporation): Perfect Wall (pdf)

BSC: Hygrothermal Analysis of Exterior Rockwool Insulation (pdf)

BSC: Moisture Management for High R-Value Walls (pdf)

BSC: Cladding Attachment Over Thick Exterior Insulating Sheathing (pdf)

GBA: Mineral Wool Over Exterior Sheathing

Passivhaus Trust (UK): how-to-build-a-passivhaus-rules-of-thumb (pdf)

Also worth considering:

GBA: The Pretty Good House

GBA: Passive House Certification: Looking Under the Hood

“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 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: 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)

The title of this blog entry was lifted from a lyric in this Talking Heads song: