kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Net Zero Energy + Permaculture Yard

Tag Archives: Passive House

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}

The Passive House Nightmare: Part 3

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This can’t be happening again…

It is February of 2017 as I write this.

This project began for us back in the summer of 2014 — nearly three years ago — when we first sat down with Brandon Weiss in what was then his new office in Geneva, Illinois. As detailed here…

The Passive House Nightmare

…things didn’t go well for us with Brandon and his company, Evolutionary Home Builders.

After we decided to move forward and try to complete what we started, the question became:

Who do we hire as our next builder?

After our interactions with Mark Miller and Katrin Klingenberg, detailed here:

The Passive House Nightmare: Part 2

PHIUS (Passive House Institute US) did not seem like a resource we could utilize — the Passive House world is small, smaller still when you reduce it to a single geographical area like Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. And the thought of interviewing conventional builders, and trying to convince one to take on the detail required in a Passive House level build, seemed overwhelming.

As a result, we decided to go with two guys close to home who have conventional building experience.

The logic underlying the relationship was that they would GC the build, taking care of all the conventional building details, while I took care of all the Passive House details.

Unfortunately, this proved fruitless.

flooded basement

Events revealed they didn’t have the requisite skill set necessary to complete the job, and we have subsequently taken over the project ourselves. It’s taken weeks to get things back on track, hence the delay in posting anything new regarding the progress of the build.

job-site-shut-down-west-side

When the build is complete, I’ll return to this matter, offering more details that will hopefully help other consumers who want to build a new house avoid our unfortunate experience.

new beginnings
New beginnings.

The really sad thing is there are quality people who make a living as general contractors, but unfortunately it remains a minefield out there for consumers without meaningful connections. If you don’t already know the answer to the question ‘Who should build our new house?’ before you start the process, then it’s truly a case of caveat emptor. And if things should go poorly, you will feel like you’re on a very lonely island.

relentless
Relentless.

Details to follow…

Cedar Siding Delivered…

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… LET’S BURN IT!!!

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

charred-cedar-burn-and-natural
Charring a 1×6 piece of cedar. This will likely end up as either a piece of window or door trim.

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

Starting Over…

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

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

Video of Brushed Charred Cedar: Dry vs. Wet Brush

Here are a few pictures that highlight the difference:

charred cedar samples on driveway
2 boards on the left: gator finish / 3 boards on the right: brushed finish.

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

charred-board-gator-to-brushed
Scrap board showing gator and brushed finish after oiling.
charred-w-gator-finish
Close-up of gator finish after oiling.
charred-w-brushed-finish
Close-up of brushed finish after oiling (cloudy day). In sunlight, the red tones of the cedar become more pronounced.

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

Delta Millworks (Texas)

reSAWN TIMBER co. (Pennsylvania)

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

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

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

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

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

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

charred-cedar-small-pile-low-angle
Most of the siding will be 1×6 tongue and groove. The remaining 1x material will be for areas of trim.

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

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

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

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

charred-cedar-texture-long-view-of-pile
The stack as the sun begins to set.
charred-cedar-close-up-gator-2
An alligator (or just ‘gator’) finish with the knots still showing through.
charred-cedar-close-up-%22gator%22
The charred wood, depending on the angle and level of light, can take on silvery tones (although, in our experience, this mostly goes away once the wood has been oiled — producing a uniformly black appearance).
charred-cedar-close-up-lighter-version
A board with a lighter char.

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

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

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

inferno-torch-full-shot
Found the Inferno torch on Amazon.com and at our local Home Depot.
inferno-close-up
So far, it’s been a real workhorse.
inferno-w-various-tank-sizes
The inferno will work with almost any size tank.
100-tank-from-tebons-gas
100 lb. tank from Tebon’s Gas Service in Niles, Illinois.

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

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

100-tank-w-condensation-full-shot

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

Here are some of the key connections involved:

hose-to-tank-connection
hose-to-hose-connection
10′ hose combined with 25′ extension hose.
hose-to-torch-connection-1
The long silver component is the throttle for the boost function.

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

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

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

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

welding-gloves
We found these in our local Home Depot tool department.

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

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

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

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

torch-evening-flame
charring-1x8-cedar-2
That left hole in the knee is the one that I managed to catch on fire — notice I’m keeping a safe distance from the flame.
lions-head-in-flames
Playing with fire: Do you see the lion’s head?
head-of-a-cardinal
Head of a cardinal?

Videos demonstrating the charring:

Video 1: Charring 1x Material

Video 2: Charring

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

How much will all this cost?

How long will it take?

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

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

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

One final, additional challenge was getting quality boards.

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

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

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

charred-cedar-neatly-packed-pallet
A neatly packed pallet — when you’ve dealt with a messy one, this is a thing of beauty.
charred-cedar-neatly-packed-pallet-broken-down
Deconstructing the pallet. The plywood really makes a difference in protecting the wood.
pallet-from-menards-paperwork
“We are proud of this pallet”… and it clearly shows. Thank you!

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

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

charred-cedar-putting-the-weasel-to-work
We even got the Beast involved — pulling labels, tags, and staples.

Architect vs. Client

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Can they both be right?

During the design phase of our build, a clash of ideas occurred over a relatively small detail in the plans. I thought revealing it here might prove helpful to other homeowners about to embark on the design phase of their own build or renovation.

Our overall floor plan is divided down its long, East-West axis, separating the public (kitchen and family room) from the private (bedrooms and bathrooms). This is straightforward, and nothing that hasn’t been done countless times before by other architects and builders. Sounds simple enough, but debate arose over how to transition from the public space to the second bedroom and bathroom, which are both just off the kitchen.

This is what our architect initially proposed:

2016-08-17 21.58.01

Our architect was clearly going for maximum efficiency in terms of space planning. In addition to a straight, open line from kitchen to bathroom, this design put the doorway to the second bedroom just around the corner, mostly out of sight. The architect believed, and rightly so, that this was the most efficient use of the limited space in this area.

Nevertheless, in my own head, I always assumed that there would be a “jog” (we worked hard to eliminate as many hallways as possible, but I suppose there’s no denying that’s what we’ve ended up with here).

This is what I was picturing:

bathroom - bedroom version 2

As a result, I argued for the second design, believing the jog/hallway offered a level of privacy to those using the bathroom lacking in the original drawing. This is a polite, civilized way of saying it. A friend put it more bluntly: “Why do I wanna make eye contact with somebody who’s just taken a dump?”.

Crass, to be sure, but his comment does get to the heart of the matter: If you’re standing in the kitchen as someone exits the bathroom, won’t this be an awkward situation for everyone? And how uncomfortable will it be for the person in the bathroom if they have the “bubble guts” when they know people are congregated in the kitchen?

Why not, as depicted in the second version, move the wall between kitchen and bathroom a little to the right, thereby eliminating any direct sight lines from the kitchen into the bathroom? Doesn’t this layout afford someone in the bathroom a much higher level of privacy and, therefore, comfort?

If the client (in this situation, or one like it) can acknowledge that the second layout is a less than ideal efficient use of the space, should the architect (in this situation, or one like it) acknowledge that the trade-off — between efficiency and privacy — is worth it? Or should efficient space planning be understood as an absolute and be applied accordingly?

It would be interesting to know what decision other people would make in this situation. In addition, if clients (or architects for that matter) have struggled with similar situations regarding a balance between space planning efficiency and other needs or wants — and how they resolved the problem.

In our case, we’ve opted for privacy, but we don’t pretend our choice is perfect. This raises the question: Can architect and client both be right (even if it’s for different reasons)?

What do you think?

Places Journal (Client and Architect)  

Life of an Architect  

Reasons to Employ an Architect  

Coffee with an Architect

Postscript: 

There were also selfish design reasons for the jog/hallway — e.g. artwork that will be featured on the hallway wall (seen as you exit the kitchen and head for the bedroom or bathroom), in addition to artwork that can be viewed as you exit the bathroom sink area (on the new wall between the kitchen and the bathroom). I also thought that by not being able to see directly, or easily, into the bathroom and the bedroom from the kitchen that it might add a little “drama” to the floor plan, if only for first-time visitors — ‘Hmmm, wonder what’s back there?’ At any rate, I think I’ll always enjoy this effect (along with the added privacy).

“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:

The Passive House Nightmare: Part 2

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Our original builder decides to settle, then disappears…

Back in early March, 2016, Brandon Weiss (owner of Evolutionary Home Builders) contacted me via voicemail and email letting us know he was interested in settling our dispute with him. This occurred — we believe not coincidentally — after he learned I had been in contact with his former clients, the Illinois Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud Bureau, and Katrin Klingenberg (founder and Executive Director of Passive House Institute US), in addition to leaving a review of EHB on the Houzz website.

He claimed he was willing to meet all of our terms — the same terms, in fact, that we had offered months ago — a partial refund of $15,000 (of the $30,000 we initially gave him), release of the copyright on our drawings, and releasing us from the contractual demand that we not build with any other contractor on our own lot for two years.

It became clear, after some back and forth, that Brandon was willing to settle, but only if we were prepared to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and only if we met with him in person. He was insistent on this last point. Brandon claimed it was because I had made public our exchanged emails and other documents pertaining to our case. We believe, however, that his intentions were to get us in a room in the hopes of intimidating us into accepting altered terms, or pressuring us to immediately sign an agreement without the benefit of review by our legal counsel.

After our lawyer asked Brandon to provide verbiage, meaning ‘what exactly do you expect us to sign’, prior to our meeting, Brandon disappeared — ceasing to respond at all — which, once again, only confirmed our suspicions regarding his real intentions all along.

Why disappear after we requested something as straightforward as seeing the document prior to our meeting? What’s in the language that’s so objectionable that we can’t see it beforehand? Who would be willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement without having their lawyer look it over first? Why do we have to sign it immediately, without ample time to review it? If normal real estate transactions can occur with only a client’s lawyer present, why not in this case? We feel Brandon has been less than transparent or fair with us, so why would we want to sit down with him ever again?

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Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

Our original lawyer gave up on this as a lost cause, so we hired a second lawyer to contact Brandon one more time. Brandon’s response: ‘same terms — and, no, you can’t see the document beforehand’.

Why not meet our terms, which are pretty basic and more than fair, and move on? Why, instead, does he continue to take such a hyper-aggressive stance? Why be so ruthless?

Furthermore, if Brandon is so sure he’s done nothing wrong, why is he so afraid of the paper trail documenting our experience with him and his company? Why the lack of transparency and obsession with secrecy, and insistence on the need for a non-disclosure agreement if Brandon, Patrick, and Eric have nothing to hide?

Even in terms of construction related information, they act as if they’re doing something that has real proprietary significance (hence, the claim of intellectual property regarding the budget numbers), but they’re not. Virtually everything they do — the products chosen, the process of putting them together — is open-sourced on the internet, in books and magazines, and even in free videos on YouTube.

It’s always been my understanding that the Passive House community (and the larger Green Building Movement generally) prides itself on exactly this kind of openness since it’s supposed to benefit builder and client alike (e.g. Green Building Advisor, Proud Green Home, Building GreenMatt Risinger, GO Logic, Fine Homebuilding, along with countless other sites and forums).

…if Brandon’s original build budget numbers were accurate, then the premium to build to the Passive House standard is at least 25-30%, in which case PHIUS needs to stop telling consumers it is only 10%. If Brandon’s numbers, on the other hand, were less than entirely honest, why defend him?

In addition, if you compare Brandon and EHB’s attitude towards construction related information with another Passive House builder, Hammer and Hand, it’s hard to imagine how the contrast could be any more stark (think North Korea vs. South Korea). In Brandon’s case, he seems to treat virtually everything as intellectual property, while Hammer and Hand is busy giving away information through countless job site videos and their Best Practices Manual. Based on this alone, who would you trust to build your new house? Who would you entrust with your life savings?

It’s not as if Evolutionary Home Builders are Coca-Cola or KFC — there’s no secret recipe or formula for what they do. Even more to the point: What information in their possession is not readily available from any number of other sources? The IP claim is so weak that even if they broke down the construction budget by components and every phase of the build, with a dollar amount assigned to each one, it would still be a case of ‘so what’. No one, even at that point, would know how much of each dollar amount is profit or overhead, so the information is virtually meaningless.

Knowledge is nice to have, to be sure, but it means nothing without proper execution — as any venture capitalist in Silicon Valley will calmly explain before refusing to sign a start-up’s NDA. In other words, if you’re a Passive House builder, for example, put your time and effort into building high quality structures at a fair price that your clients are thrilled with (so your clients will sing your praises), rather than wasting time worrying about protecting information that’s so easily accessible anyway (via the internet, books, magazines, etc.).

Put still another way: If the sum total of what you believe is your intellectual property can be revealed and then successfully copied by others when simply written down on a piece of paper (e.g. budget numbers), then there probably isn’t much to protect to begin with. Isn’t this the implicit message sent by any number of builders, including Hammer and Hand, when they are so open about the details of how they build?

Consequently, it doesn’t seem to matter from which angle you approach the claim of intellectual property — product, process, or even how they price out a build — the claim itself rings hollow. All of which leads to the obvious question: If it’s not intellectual property that they’re trying to protect with a non-disclosure agreement, what is it that they want hidden from view?

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Words by Lewis Carroll. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

The response to our situation by Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) also proved to be a disappointment. We have reached out twice now — originally to Mark Miller, and, most recently, to Katrin Klingenberg — yet, in each instance, our request for help was soundly rebuffed.

For example, after our budget meeting with Brandon and his team in late November, 2015, we contacted Chicago architect Mark Miller in early December, having found his information on the PHIUS website as a Certified Passive House Consultant and a Certified PHIUS Builder. Here is how that exchange went: emails.

What gets interesting is comparing the dates of our initial email exchange with Mr. Miller with Brandon’s email containing the bizarre offer (12-9-15 email) to send us to Belize. It doesn’t take a master detective to deduce what happened during that twenty four hour period between the 9th and 10th of December:

After Mr. Miller contacted Brandon or Patrick on the 9th to find out about our project, and one or both of them portrayed us in a negative light, that very same day Brandon sent us the Belize invitation — no doubt his lame attempt at soothing what he perceived to be our ruffled feathers. It was obvious what had transpired, so it wasn’t all that surprising to get Mr. Miller’s final, patronizing reply the next day on the 10th.

As to Mr. Miller’s points, specifically:

  • “… may not have been for a well-defined project…”  Our project has remained the same going back even before our initial meeting with Brandon: approximately 1600 sq. ft. single-story home, insulated well above code, with high-performance windows and doors, 2-BR, 2-Bath, main kitchen/family room area, a 9′ unfinished full-basement, charred cedar for the exterior siding, and we’ve kept the same flooring selections we originally started with, along with a basic door casing and baseboard trim package.
  • “… reduce costs to better help meet your budget.”  Only after EHB went way over budget. Only after we made it clear we were walking away. No doubt they would have been happy to see us just accept the $500,000 price and move forward with the build.
  • “… wish list items…”  What wish list items? The only thing we added after the preliminary budget was 66 sq. ft. of construction space (original 40′ x 40′ structure changed to 49′ x 34′ structure). We’re going for a pared-down design aesthetic based on our tastes, but also to save money, so there is no crown molding, chair railing, wainscoting, coffered ceilings, an oak-lined office, or master bathroom wrapped in Carrara marble. Clearly this is why the only “solutions” Brandon and his team came up with for cost savings during the November, 2015 budget meeting included dramatic structural changes, not altering or deleting extravagant interior design choices.
  • “… PH plaque…”  Mr. Miller refers to this twice, so I can only assume Brandon or Patrick put this in his head. To hint that our attitude was “Passive House certification or bust” is particularly grating since we asked if pulling back from the standard could produce meaningful savings in our May, 2015 meeting with Brandon and Patrick, to which they responded, “No, this is the way we build.”
  • “… wish list items…compromise somewhere… shift perspective… PH plaque… brag to your friends/family…”  It’s pretty obvious that Brandon or Patrick painted us as wildly unreasonable clients who wanted the world for a steal. I would argue the emails between Brandon and myself draw a very different picture.
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“Curiouser and curiouser!” Lewis Carroll. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

In Mr. Miller’s defense, we were not his clients, and he was basing his response to us on what Brandon or Patrick told him. Nevertheless, we were asking for help, and we did offer to show him everything related to our project, but unfortunately he ignored the offer.

When we reached out to Ms. Klingenberg, we fared no better: emails.

We were not expecting her to act as judge or jury, we were genuinely asking for help in the form of guidance:

  • Why were the numbers of the build budget so different from those outlined in the PSA?
  • What did Brandon mean by “additional Passive House components were necessary” (because he never told us, even though we repeatedly asked)?
  • What could we have done differently?
  • Since the Passive House community is so small, who could we trust, moving forward, to not have a conflict of interest with Brandon? Is there an architect, a general contractor, or Passive House consultant in the Chicago area that they thought we could reach out to?

Instead we got the more polite equivalent of: ‘Shut up. Go away.’

Why is their first impulse to try and put me in my place, to try and squash me? It must be said, the arrogance on display throughout this process has been startling. Is it really so difficult to be nice to other people — especially when they are asking for help?

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The Queen of Hearts. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

Regarding Ms. Klingenberg’s response, in particular, what is[Brandon’s] side of the story”. She doesn’t choose to share it with us. And what exactly justifies any builder taking $30,000 from a client and then giving them nothing in return?

As to her suggestion, “the next steps are outlined in your contract,” does she really believe, quoting the PSA now, that “[forced] arbitration before the Northern Illinois Home Builders Association” is the best setting for us to get a fair hearing? This is like suggesting that if a customer had a dispute with ExxonMobil it would make sense to ask the American Petroleum Institute to act as referee.

And I’m certainly not alone in believing forced arbitration to be an overly business-friendly, Kafkaesque joke ( Bill  /  Study Shines Light  /  Part I   /  Part II  ), with serious consequences for consumers, and even for the overall health of democracy in America (#ripoffclause). In fact, there is a growing movement in the US pushing members of Congress to prohibit forced arbitration clauses altogether. When people with authority (the arbitrator) have the option to take the side of the strong against the weak, regardless of the evidence (after all, it’s the companies who pay for the arbitrator), justice is rarely going to be the result.

It’s also surprising, even reprehensible in my opinion, that PHIUS not only tolerates but apparently supports forced arbitration. As an institution they portray themselves as enlightened and forward-thinking, so how can they allow their certified members to utilize such deeply flawed, even reactionary, language in their contracts with clients?

Where do Ms. Klingenberg’s loyalties lie: with the certified members, or with the homeowners? If the honest answer is with the certified members, then this is useful information for any consumer weighing the costs associated with a certified Passive House build.

If the construction industry is serious about cleaning up its reputation (and make no mistake about it, its current status is horrific — e.g. when we tell anyone that we’re building a new house the typical response is roughly: ‘why would you want to put yourself through that?‘), then getting rid of forced arbitration clauses in contracts would be an excellent place to start.

Which prompts several questions:

  • Why isn’t PHIUS out front leading on this issue?
  • If not PHIUS, then who? It’s a certainty that The National Association of Home Builders won’t be leading the charge.
  • Why doesn’t PHIUS require their certified members to eliminate all forced arbitration clauses from their contracts? 

If their answer is: ‘it’s current industry standard’ — well, so is building to code, but they don’t tolerate that. PHIUS holds their members to a higher standard when it comes to the structure, so why give them a pass on how they treat the human beings who have to pay for them and live in them?

Maybe more to the point: Why are they using forced arbitration as an excuse to ignore Brandon’s behavior?

“…as a 2009 Economist editorial put it, ‘You cannot claim that your mission is to ‘educate the leaders who make a difference to the world’ and then wash your hands of your alumni when the difference they make is malign’.”

Isn’t a PSA document like the one used by Brandon and EHB a license to defraud clients? By including language such as a non-refundable deposit, and insisting on forced arbitration before an industry paid-for arbitrator, a client has no meaningful options should a dispute arise.

And if, in fact, Brandon baits potential clients with a reasonable sounding preliminary budget in the PSA (this is what we believe he did to us), taking a hefty down payment at signing, and then switches that budget number significantly, and without cause, when presenting a build budget (again, what we believe he did to us), by definition the client has no effective means of defending themselves. It’s a case of Hobson’s choice –— take what’s offered (a ridiculously exorbitant budget) or get nothing at all (again, what we believe happened to us).

Moreover, when Ms. Klingenberg suggests, “We can try to help with advice during the certification process…”, it sounds like she’s more than happy to take our money for certification, but she otherwise can’t be bothered to address what Brandon and EHB have done to our life savings, the time we have lost, or the needless stress that has been inflicted — even when, in large measure, it was their PHIUS stamp of approval (via certification) that encouraged us to pursue a build with Brandon and EHB in the first place.

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Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

Mr. Miller’s and Ms. Klingenberg’s replies exhibit a total indifference to the facts at hand. Apparently they would prefer to close ranks around Brandon and EHB rather than confront what Brandon has done to me and my family — taking $30,000 of our life savings and giving us, quite literally, nothing in return. If their responses are any barometer, then clearly PHIUS believes this to be a fair exchange.

Also troubling, if the Passive House concept is ever truly going to be a mainstream idea, rather than perceived as a niche design option for the wealthy, doesn’t PHIUS and its certified members want people like my wife and I — a high school teacher and a stay at home parent — to pursue and even celebrate the Passive House standard? After all, they have a tab at the top of their website soliciting donations for the cause: “Help Make Passive Building Mainstream”.

Moreover, if the premium to build to the Passive House standard is really only 10%, then, considering our own experience, what other conclusion is there but that the fix is in? In other words, if Brandon’s original build budget numbers were accurate, then the premium to build to the Passive House standard is at least 25-30%, in which case PHIUS needs to stop telling consumers it is only 10%. If Brandon’s numbers, on the other hand, were less than entirely honest, why defend him?

Where do Ms. Klingenberg’s loyalties lie: with the certified members, or with the homeowners? If the honest answer is with the certified members, then this is useful information for any consumer weighing the costs associated with a certified Passive House build.

As Martin Parker notes in a Guardian article regarding Business Schools and MBA Programs and their propensity to dismiss critics when things go horribly wrong in the economy, “That’s a tricky position, though, because, as a 2009 Economist editorial put it, ‘You cannot claim that your mission is to ‘educate the leaders who make a difference to the world’ and then wash your hands of your alumni when the difference they make is malign’.”

In addition, and rather pointedly, doesn’t Ms. Klingenberg’s response represent a dramatic failure of leadership? What should a person in a leadership role do when bad news comes their way: Confront it, work through it, and then move on? Ignore it? Or — worst option of all — should they try to bury it?

How can she (or Mr. Miller, for that matter) offer such flippant responses when someone else’s life savings are on the line? Do certified PHIUS members really believe this is an appropriate way to respond?

Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

Furthermore, why are they so quick to take Brandon’s side? In the case of Mr. Miller, without even examining the evidence I was willing to offer. In Ms. Klingenberg’s case, is it because Brandon successfully achieved the Passive House standard on several projects? Doesn’t it matter how he achieved the standard? For example, you would think they might be interested in what Brandon’s previous clients have to say regarding their own experience building with him — e.g. pricing, timeline, job site conditions, the cost to build vs. an actual real estate valuation, etc.. Or does none of this matter?

More importantly, why not make customer satisfaction a component of the Passive House requirements? After all, what is the point of meeting all the stringent guidelines for Passive House certification if the result is a homeowner who feels beaten up by a design and build process that forces the conclusion that they have been financially exploited?

Does PHIUS only care about boxes and how they perform, or do they have a genuine interest in the people who live in them? If the answer is both, then why are they not actively evaluating the experience of homeowners along with the performance of the structures? How can a certified Passive House structure that contains an owner who is now cynical about the build process not be considered a failure?

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Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

Moreover, as an institution, does PHIUS have policies in place to censure, or otherwise hold to account, its certified members should they behave unethically or even criminally? If such policies exist, have they ever actually been enforced? Or, are we to believe all of their members are morally and ethically perfect?

For a certified PHIUS member who is in good standing, who treats people the right way, it would certainly be irksome to know Brandon and his team get to be listed next to them without even an asterisk to note the difference. Don’t certified members want there to be clear-cut guidelines regarding how architects, builders, and consultants should conduct themselves, and shouldn’t there be serious consequences for those who choose to contravene those guidelines?

“Nonprofit executives and board members also should be willing to ask uncomfortable questions: Not just ‘Is it legal?’ but also ‘Is it fair?’ ‘Is it honest?’ ‘Does it advance societal interests or pose unreasonable risks?’ and ‘How would it feel to defend the decision on the evening news?’ Not only do leaders need to ask those questions of themselves, they also need to invite unwelcome answers from others. To counter self-serving biases and organizational pressures, people in positions of power should actively solicit diverse perspectives and dissenting views. Every leader’s internal moral compass needs to be checked against external reference points.”

— Deborah L. Rhode & Amanda K. Packel

But then expecting even a modicum of objectivity from Mr. Miller, Ms. Klingenberg, or PHIUS was probably expecting too much:

2015 Passive House Projects Competition

2016 Passive House Projects Competition

Should the leader of an organization sit on a panel with other judges handing out awards to that organization’s members? It seems like this would be an excellent time to recuse oneself, if only to avoid even a hint of favoritism or undue bias. As a Law School Professor might frame it: ‘It’s not enough to refrain from unethical behavior, you need to avoid even the appearance of unethical behavior.

Yet, as a consumer, I’m expected to believe Ms. Klingenberg examined the evidence I sent her with an open mind, and that she reached an impartial determination as to what transpired between my family and EHB [?]. One wonders, did she even bother to contact any of Brandon’s former clients to ask about their experience building with Brandon and EHB? She didn’t take the time to sit down with us, or even ask us any questions via email, to establish whether we were just irrational cranks or if we had legitimate points to make. Apparently Brandon’s say-so that he had done nothing wrong was good enough for her.

It bears repeating what was at risk here: a family’s life savings. It’s also worth noting that it’s not enough for PHIUS to proclaim progressive values, those values should be reflected in the actions of individual members, as well as the actions and policies of the institution itself. Based on our own experience, we feel PHIUS is just one more institution that consumers and citizens cannot depend on to do the right thing when it matters most. But maybe to them this is all simply a case of: ‘it’s just business’.

It is undeniable that institutions have a nasty habit of closing ranks around their members, even the ones who clearly misbehave. If the member in question turns out to be a bad actor, however, then it is also true that this unquestionably reflects poorly on the institution’s integrity. Consider the recent history of the Chicago police department: Code of Silence  /  Laquan McDonald’s Shooting  /  Brutal History

What will Mr. Miller, Ms. Klingenberg, and PHIUS do as individuals and as an institution when this happens again (inevitably — when you consider the whole ‘leopard and his spots’ brand of folk wisdom)? Before protecting Brandon and EHB so forcefully, maybe they should make sure he is telling them the truth.

“If the existing order were a model order, and just and right in every respect, I naturally would have no objections to it. Since, however, it is a mixture of much that is good and much that is evil, unjust, and defective, to be called a friend of the existing order often is to be called a friend of what has outlived its usefulness and is principally evil. Progress is unceasing. Society is constantly changing. Institutions which at first suited the conditions under which they originated may become criminally unjust a half century later.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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In light of the ever-quickening pace of our modern world, perhaps Goethe’s suggested timetable should be halved, in which case the Passive House concept is ripe for fundamental reform — going well beyond adjustments for climatic differences. History, it should be added, suggests those who currently hold positions of authority in the Passive House movement are unlikely to make the hard choices, or have the stomach to execute a meaningful overhaul.

For more details on how this all got started, check out these posts:

The Passive House Nightmare
“How Did I Get Here?…”