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Passive House + Zero Net Energy + Permaculture Yard

Tag Archives: urban rustic

Dressing up the Basement: Steel Beam and Concrete Walls

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With the Zehnder and the Mitsubishi systems installed, I had some time to kill waiting for the siding guys to start, and for my first blower door test to take place, so I moved on to painting my structural steel beam and the exposed concrete walls in the basement. Apart from a couple of walls for my wife’s office that would eventually be drywalled and painted, and a decorative finish for the concrete floor, these were going to be some of the limited finished surfaces in the basement.

We’re glad we decided to leave the basement ceiling unfinished. In doing so, not only did it mean a more straightforward installation process for mechanicals, it also means if any issues develop in the future we’ll have easy access to identify and solve any problems.

I debated whether or not to spray the basement ceiling — the floor joists and the underside of the sub flooring — but decided the color change (some shade of gray?) wasn’t worth the effort.

Although obviously not to everyone’s taste, we like the unfinished look of the ceiling, especially when combined with the texture of the painted concrete walls and our painted steel beam (not to mention the eventual decorative finish for our concrete floor slab — I’ll go through the details in a future blog post since it was applied much later in the build).

For the beam, I first used a wire brush and some sandpaper to remove any loose and flaking rust. Using a Sherwin Williams primer, their All-Surface Primer tinted gray, I applied a heavy, uniform coat to help prevent the return of any rust in the future (keeping humidity in the basement under control should help a lot in this regard).

beam w: primer and rusty red

After wire brushing off loose rust, priming the beam in preparation for paint.

After priming, I then applied two coats of a Safecoat product, their semi-gloss in Patriot Blue.

Safecoat semi-gloss Patriot Blue for steel beam

Patriot Blue for the steel beam.

If I could do it over, I think I’d use Safecoat primers and paints for almost all of the interior surfaces. For the sake of convenience, since they have stores near me, I mainly used Benjamin Moore’s Aura Matte and Satin for walls and trim, and ended up mostly disappointed with their performance — hiding is pretty mediocre, flashing when you try to do spot touch-ups, and over-priced for the level of quality. Benjamin Moore does a great job with their marketing materials and with the look of their labels, I just wish the same level of thought and attention to detail went into the quality of their finishes.

Safecoat is available in various stores in the US, but unless you want a stock white, tinting may happen at Safecoat headquarters before shipping to individual stores, so there can be a wait involved (check with your local supplier for details). I had good luck ordering from Green Building Supply in Iowa. After ordering online, the products are shipped directly to the job site or your home. And it gives you access to high quality no or low VOC products that, at least in my case, are otherwise unavailable in local hardware or paint stores.

Unfortunately, they can’t ship during cold spells, since the paint could freeze and be ruined. When it was cold and I needed product, I found Premier Paint and Wallpaper just outside of downtown Madison, Wisconsin (about a 2 hour drive for us). They’re a family-owned shop, and it shows. They have a nice selection of Safe Coat products. In fact, their wide range of products from various brands is impressive, and the people who work there are really helpful and just easy to work with. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a similar paint store in my area. Around me, Benjamin Moore (aka JC Licht), Sherwin Williams, and Pittsburgh Paint stores dominate the market. The smaller mom-and-pop stores, for the most part, don’t really exist anymore, which is a shame.

beam w: primer and paint

Paint going over the primer.

The Safecoat products that I’ve used typically have some odor, but what little smell they do have tends to dissipate rather quickly (this is particularly noticeable if you change back to a more conventional coating with more VOCs that may take weeks before its distinct odor finally disappears).

painted beam w: zehnder and hpump

Finished beam.

It’s a shame that so many structural beams end up covered over, normally considered too humble (i.e., ugly) to be left alone. In keeping with our Urban Rustic design aesthetic, we think that if they’re given even just a little bit of attention and care they can prove to be a real visual asset to a space, especially in a basement if a more relaxed, informal look and feel is acceptable or even ideal.

cu paintd beam in basement

Close up of the painted I-beam.

Leaving the spine of the house exposed like this with a bold color emphasizes the job it’s actually doing, and it honors the material by making it front and center visually in the space, rather than trying to hide it away behind drywall or wood. After all, beams like this are helping to keep the house upright.

basement walls primed

Another view of the beam, and the recently primed concrete walls.

Once the beam was completed, I moved on to priming the exposed concrete walls.

beast helping me prime basement

Getting some help priming the concrete walls. She lasted about 15 minutes, at which point it clearly turned into work.

Paint color can be a finicky thing. After priming the concrete walls, I used a Benjamin Moore color, Jute, as the finish coat. In the basement it looks great, exactly what we were looking for: a nice, warm neutral khaki color. Upstairs, however, when I later did a test swatch on the new drywall this same color looked horrible, taking on pinkish flesh tones, so we ended up having to use a different color for most of the first floor. Testing out colors, even in relatively small areas, can save a lot of time, money, and headaches later on.

painted basement walls

Concrete walls painted.

With a good chunk of the basement complete, it was time to move outside and get some work done before the siding began, and before we had our first blower door test.

Stone Basement Window Wells

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The Design Goal

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

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

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

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

After exploring the options, including this line of products:

Spycor window wells

We decided to go with real retaining wall cement blocks.

The Execution

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

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

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

Candido and Felipe excavating hole for wdw well

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

 

carving outline of window well

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

 

shaping the hole for the window well

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

 

holed carved and shaped - ready for stone

Hole prepped for footings.

 

Candido putting down crushed stone for footing

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

 

Felipe and Candido prepping for 1st footing

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

 

prep for footing: crushed stone-form-rebar

Corner of the form for the footing with rebar.

 

close up of rebar going into Roxul for wdw well footings

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

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

first wdw well prepped for first row from basement wdw

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

 

first blocks for first row

First row being set on the footing.

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

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

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

Candido leveling 1st row on footing

Candido leveling the first row.

 

Felipe and Candido starting first wdw well

Candido and Felipe trying to protect themselves from forecasted rain.

The first wall begins to rise:

 

washed gravel to backfill around window wells

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

 

wdw well tools of the trade from above

Tools of the trade.

 

slowly rising wall w: landscape fabric and washed gravel backfill

Washed gravel installed behind the growing wall.

 

Candido applying adhesive to block

Candido applying adhesive before setting the next block.

 

Felipe and Candido double checking their work

Felipe and Candido double checking their work.

 

geotextile fabric

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

 

Felipe prepping for capstones

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

 

close up of capstones

Close up of capstones on the pallet from above.

 

capstones going on

Capstones being installed on the first wall.

capstones complete #2

First window well complete before backfill.

 

Spring sun peeking into basement window

Spring sun sneaking into the basement window.

 

basement window letting in light

Light pouring in one of the two basement windows.

 

Candido building up the 2nd wdw well

Candido building up the second wall.

 

finished window well (west)

Completed second window well.

Views of first completed window well from inside the house:

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

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

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

Candido and Felipe finishing up

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

Cedar Siding Delivered…

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… LET’S BURN IT!!!

charred-cedar-burn-and-natural

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

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

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

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

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

Video of Brushed Charred Cedar: Dry vs. Wet Brush

Here are a few pictures that highlight the difference:

charred cedar samples on driveway

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

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

charred-board-gator-to-brushed

Scrap board showing gator and brushed finish after oiling.

 

charred-w-gator-finish

Close up of gator finish after oiling.

 

charred-w-brushed-finish

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

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

Delta Millworks (Texas)

reSAWN TIMBER co. (Pennsylvania)

charred-cedar-small-pile

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

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

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

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

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

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

charred-cedar-small-pile-low-angle

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

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

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

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

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

…Our stack of completed boards grows…

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

The stack as the sun begins to set.

 

charred-cedar-close-up-gator-2

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

 

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

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

 

charred-cedar-close-up-lighter-version

A board with a lighter char.

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

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

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

inferno-torch-full-shot

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

 

inferno-close-up

So far, it’s been a real workhorse.

 

inferno-w-various-tank-sizes

The inferno will work with almost any size tank.

 

100-tank-from-tebons-gas

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

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

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

100-tank-w-condensation-full-shot

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

Here are some of the key connections involved:

hose-to-tank-connection

 

hose-to-hose-connection

10′ hose combined with 25′ extension hose.

 

hose-to-torch-connection-1

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

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

sealant-for-hose-connections

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

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

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

welding-gloves

We found these in our local Home Depot tool department.

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

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

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

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

torch-evening-flame

 

charring-1x8-cedar-2

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

 

lions-head-in-flames

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

 

head-of-a-cardinal

Head of a cardinal?

Videos demonstrating the charring:

Video 1: Charring 1x Material

Video 2: Charring

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

How much will all this cost?

How long will it take?

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

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

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

One final, additional challenge was getting quality boards.

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

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

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

charred-cedar-neatly-packed-pallet

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

 

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

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

 

pallet-from-menards-paperwork

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

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

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

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

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

Vivian Maier and the Search for Rust

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I can still remember seeing the striking cover of Vivian Maier: Street Photographer for the first time. The image hints at the story of her life — the mystery surrounding a great talent who went unheralded while alive, but who is now universally recognized and celebrated — while remaining dramatic all on its own.

The documentary about the discovery of her cache of photos, her life, and the work, is equally compelling.

There is something oddly electric about walking the streets of a large city and capturing life as it happens in beautiful photographs. There is an intensity in the captured moment that would otherwise go unseen if not for the skilled and curious eye of a photographer like Vivian Maier. To be able to see the world through someone else’s eyes is always a gift, but especially when the outcome is such mesmerizing images.

After the initial interaction (whether positive or negative), the real test for art, it seems to me, is: Does it compel you to come back again and again? On this basis, Vivian Maier’s work is one of my personal favorites. I never find the images boring, or find myself hurrying past some images to get to others. Her photos almost force you to slow down and really take in what she’s looking at.

Portfolios: Street 1

Portfolios: Street 2

Portfolios: Street 3

Portfolios: Street 4

Portfolios: Street 5

Portfolios: Color

Since my daughter was already showing an interest in taking photos (i.e. taking advantage of a moment’s distraction to snatch our smartphones and go directly to camera mode), we decided to go on an adventure into Chicago to take some pictures. Using Vivian Maier as our inspiration, we headed into the city with cameras ready. Instead of people watching, we went looking for a particular subject matter, having narrowed our focus down to rust.

The challenge would be to find areas of rust that we thought could make compelling photographs (the real challenge was editing down the hundreds of — mostly forgettable — photos we ended up taking):

2016-06-14-00-35-03

 

fire-hydrant
rusted-bolt-chipping-paint
electric-cover

 

elevated-tracks

 

park-here

 

switch

After spending the better part of a day in the city looking for rust, one side-effect was we saw intriguing areas of rust everywhere we went for days afterward. For instance, the last photo above was taken at a farm near us. Even now, if we’re out walking, my daughter still points to interesting examples of rust. It’s amazing how well the human brain can focus if you tell it where to look.

Part of the ulterior motive behind our day of photography was to start thinking about rust as a design element for our new house. Since we will have an Urban-Rustic theme, we knew what the basic elements were going to be:

  • Wood
  • Concrete
  • Metal

For metal, I knew it would include exposed lag bolts, washers, and nuts, along with some industrial/farm tools, in addition to a couple of areas dedicated to rust. But incorporating rust in a dramatic, yet limited way would prove more challenging, and time consuming, than I first imagined (more on this later).

#rustisbeautiful

photo-bomber

Our little photo bomber.

 

 

 

 

“How did I get here?…”

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_9702

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Rock ‘n’ Roll Theme

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I want to try a rock ‘n’ roll theme running through the house (my wife isn’t all that excited about this idea… wait ’til she hears about the monster theme!).

The challenge will be avoiding something that’s overbearing, while still having some visual impact moving from room to room.

It should be a fun challenge.

I’d like to incorporate some of the following musicians and bands:

 

The Julie Ruin

 

 

 

The Rolling Stones

 

 

 

Björk

 

 

 

Prince & Tom Petty

 

 

 

The Afghan Whigs

 

 

 

The Pixies

 

 

 

Valerie June

 

 

 

PJ Harvey

 

 

 

The Doors

 

 

 

Sleater-Kinney

 

 

 

The Kills

 

 

 

The Who

 

 

 

The Pretenders

 

 

 

The Clash

 

 

 

The I Don’t Cares

 

 

 

Best Coast

 

 

 

Van Halen

 

 

 

Mark Lanegan

 

 

 

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

 

 

 

AC/DC

 

 

 

Art of Noise

Ok, that last one was mostly a joke. I remember when the video first came out and hating it, but then eventually being mesmerized by it — like a dog that’s so ugly it’s cute. If you made it to the end of the video without turning it off, good luck keeping the tune out of your head now. You’re welcome.

In our last house, we used one bedroom as an office. We did a “British” theme that included a mural of the Union Jack…

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… so The Who may not make the cut this time (that mural took three days and a lot of blue painter’s tape — not to mention a whole lot of cussing).

I would like to do a mural in the new house, but still working on what it will be.

 

Starting Over…

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Some basic design elements for our new house

 

Wood: (including Charred Cedar)

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

 

 

 

 

charred cedar samples on driveway

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

 

charred cedar sample board with natural

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

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

deltamillworks.com  (featured in the Risinger video above)

charredwood.com

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

 

realmilkpaint.com

 

realmilkpaint.com

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

 

Concrete

buddyrhodes.com

buddyrhodes.com

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

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

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

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

coffee bean concrete mold

 

Metal

ALIVE rust blog photo

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

 

charred bench leg idea

There will also be metal hardware involved.

 

charred bench side view of legs

Unfinished charred bench from last summer.

 

towel bar idea

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

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

rusty red wheel