Sunday, July 5, 2020

10 Year Check-In

Charlie excavating on either side of the bulkhead

We have a semi-vauge sense of when we "built the house" or "finished the house" because parts of the process lingered on for a good while--I'm thinking the exterior painting which feels like the last significant project to happen. Anyhow, it's been more or less 10 years since the house was under way and that's a nice excuse to check in.

I still think of the house as new, but in fact its gone through that first blush of newness and there are a few bumps and scratches here and there, nothing really big, but the usual wear that comes with use. 

One actual problem that's been on the list to deal with for a while is the retaining walls on either side of the bulkhead in the rear of the house. Joe and I built these early in the building process and I'm not sure what plan or experience we were working from, but within a few years of being built, the walls started to curl in towards the bulkhead. Whatever retaining system we schemed up really didn't work and it's been kind of an ugly mess for the last bunch of years. The prospect of excavating the old walls and deadmen was daunting enough that I kept putting it off until this summer when we finally bit the bullet. 

We hired our neighbor Charlie to come over and take care of a list of small excavation projects that we'd been wanting to do for a while. 
-Some settling had occurred in the back of the house along the foundation and water was pooling against it 
-The flow of rainwater on our property directed water straight into our garden, so we had some major swaleing done to redirect the water around the garden. When the original site work was done we still had the yurt right next to the garden, so it wasn't possible to do any work in this area 
-Our driveway was in need of a refresh
-We wanted to relocate our sugar shack/garden shed. 

This Spring has been unusually dry and the timing lined up for the work to happen, so we hustled to get ready before Charlie arrived, moving perimter drainage stone, pulling away the old retaining walls, getting the shed clear for moving, etc...

The first two layers of structure. I built, filled, packed and then repeated until the walls were completed
Charlie dug out the old walls and I was surprised at how little there was supposedly holding the walls in place against the frost. I then spent the next week or so building a super-robust double wall retaining structure out of PT lumber. It was a lot of heavy work but I'm confident it'll do it's job well for a long time to come. 

Nearly done

In the photo above you can see how the earth has been carved out to the left and in front of the garden. Water used to enter at the corner and now flows in the valley made by the swale.

Along with regrading the earth against the back of the house we took the opportunity to clean and reinstall the french drain system. Dirt and debris tend to settle in the stone over time and a little maintenance goes a long way. The whole back of the house drains well and looks sharp and functions well now. Its very satisfying to see the water in a rain storm go AROUND the garden, rather than through it, and it's been great to have some extra fill to level out spots around the property. 

This is where we had pooling against the foundation. We pulled off all the crushed stone, filled, packed and graded the soil to flow away from the house and then rebuilt and reinstalled the perimeter stone drainage. Its so much better now!

Monday, October 21, 2019

Let the Sunshine in!

Wow. Its been FIVE years since the last House blog post! I suppose there have been few changes that have quite risen to the level of blog-worthiness, but that's not really true. In 2016 we were lucky enough to get a solar electric system installed on the house.

Through a long chain of events we found ourselves committing to a solar electric system. I always figured we'd invest in solar hot water first, since that is our single largest utility cost, but when we were presented with the metrics and cost of having a grid-tied solar system installed we decided we liked the prospect and decided to go for it. That's not to say we won't augment our propane/hot water costs at some point, but we've taken the solar electric plunge.
Having built the house I'm always a bit proud to account everything that I, or Joe and I, did ourselves. The exceptions being the earthwork, the concrete, the sheetrock, much of the electric, and significant parts of the plumbing/hot water stuff. Well, I can add "solar" to the list. The crew from SunCommon did a great job and I did virtually nothing other then confer on a few decisions as needed. On one hand it goes against my nature to have others do things I could do myself, while on the other its super nice to see the work done efficiently and professionally, so I'm not complaining.

The funny thing about suddenly having a grid-tied solar home is that PRESTO! nothing is noticeably different. The change comes over time as we recoup our investment and eventually see our electric costs subside to as-needed maintenance, and that's proved to be the case. We have a negative balance on our electric utility bill--just what we were expecting. All concerns about clearing off the snow or worrying about cloudy days are forgotten. The system is sized to generate a positive flow over the course of the year and it has been successful. The joke around our place now is "only use the lights during the day!" since that is when we are sending our extra power back to the grid and not purchasing it from the utility.

Our home was always envisioned as a net-zero design, and installing this system is a major step in that direction. It feels good to both invest in long term savings and know that we are disinvesting from dirtier forms of power consumption. We're grateful to have this opportunity.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hood Hook Up

The completed project. We're liking the effect of the lowered hood

Long on our list of things to do to complete the house is hooking up our kitchen vent hood. I've dragged my feet on doing this for a couple of reasons: First, I always picture the vent duct as a big hole in our house where all sorts of energy loss will occur. Secondly, not having the hood hooked up has not seemed to cause much trouble in terms of either air quality or residual cooking build-up.

The opening through the wall

I mentioned this during a presentation I recently made to the Super Insulation class at Yestermorrow Design/Build School.  It was suggested by John, one of the instructors, that I really should complete this project because it has notable effects on home air quality. Just because I'm not aware of it doesn't mean its not there.

This shows the hood before I lowered it. The duct connections are partially in place

The hood with the ducting complete and the hood lowered

Feeling nudged in a way I needed to be, I spent the next day completing the hook up. This was straightforward since I'd installed the main parts during the construction of the house. The remaining work was completing the duct connection from the wall to the hood itself. Taking this on became an opportunity to lower the hood about ten inches to better capture the cooking smoke, steam, and particulate. When we first were putting the kitchen together I was concerned that the hood would look awkward suspended down in front of the window, so I hung it at the level of the top casing and it has sat there since, acting primarily as a light source for cooking.

The duct vent on the outside of the house. Its neatly tucked away, so you really need to look for it to see it. 
Time will tell if its going to create residue on the outside of the house

To our satisfaction, lowering the hood has had the nice effect of making things cozier in the cooking area. It creates a lowered ceiling and doesn't detract from the overall feel or the view out the window.

The hood is still a little higher than it should be, so I will work on it some more sometime soon, but for the moment I am glad to have the whole thing operating. We've been using it whenever we cook and I find myself suddenly sensitive to the potential harm of particulates in the air.

Incidentally, the hood came equipped with incandescent bulbs and this has always bugged me. I've wondered if I could replace the bulbs with fluorescents but never got around to checking. To my satisfaction I found it was super easy. I was a little uncertain because the bulbs have candelabra screw bases and I'd never had reason to see if they make fluorescents with them. They do, so it's no big deal. The switch is made.

The hood light with new fluorescent on the left and the stock lamp on the right 

Nance and I also discussed creating a housing to enclose the duct work, so we may make that happen too. I don't mind the metal tube look, but I think I'd enjoy a wooden enclosure as well.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


I recently gave a presentation to the Super Insulation class at Yestermorrow Design/Build School about building and living in our house. This presented a convenient opportunity for me to take stock of the building process, consider our experience living in the house so far, and to put together some performance numbers. We've been in the house just under two years and have established a track record for firewood consumption and are starting to get some reliable numbers on our propane and electric costs.

When our home was completed Efficiency Vermont (the state energy conservation organization) tested and evaluated our house for energy performance and determined a HERS number, which was presented as a part of their evaluation. HERS stands for Home Energy Rating System and is the standard methodology for comparing performance across buildings and regions. Many factors go into the rating system, including air-tightness, window performance, efficiency of the appliances, lighting and heating systems, as well as design specs like insulation R-Values and so on. The rating is adjusted for climatic conditions in a given location.

This is a generic chart showing the HERS rating scale. The "This Home 65" has nothing to do with our home.

In the above chart, 100 equals the energy use of a new home built to conventional standards in 2006. This is used as a base line by which to evaluate the spectrum of performance across buildings.  A rating of zero means the house requires no energy at all, while a rating over 100 means the house is sub-par in relation to current norms.

Our home earned a HERS rating of 38, which is a "5 star +" in the star rating shown below.  The scale somewhat curiously goes from 1-5 stars and then has a + category.  (Maybe they needed to add a new category as more efficient homes are being built -- I don't know.)

The HERS rating laid out estimated energy use predictions for our home as follows (calculated in 2011):  
             26.6 MMBtu heat  $990
             10.1 MMBtu hot water  $375
             17.9 MMBtu lights & appliances  $704
             HERS estimated annual energy cost:   $2,188

Based on our actual usage, these are our costs:
           $100-$150/yr firewood
           $750 propane hot water/cooking
           $768 electric

           Our actual annual energy cost:   $1,668

In the nearly two years we've been living in the house, we have only heated by wood. There is the radiant system in place should we ever choose to use it, but for now we like heating by wood; it's easy and feels good.

Although we know from experience that our heating expenses are tiny, it is useful to see them laid out together with the other home energy requirements. We plumbed the house in preparation for installing a solar hot water system, and seeing these numbers is a good motivator for costing out the completion of that project. It would feel good to bring the hot water energy numbers down. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Wood Update

 Our stack in November 

Where we were a week or so ago

We did a little wood calculating recently.

Back in November we loaded up 42% of a cord onto the porch, calculated in cubic inches. I remember thinking at the time that we should have loaded up an even 50% so that we'd know where we were once we'd burned through it. In any event, I took a picture back then and just now went back and recalculated based on what we stacked. The calculation from the photo matched my memory of what we figured back then: to get up to a full 50% would mean moving 13 cubic feet of wood (which is easy for us because all our wood it cut to 12") from our long term storage over to the porch. We did this today and here is the remaining portion of a half-cord stacked on the porch.

February 3rd

We won't know for a another good month or so where we'll end up, but it is looking like we'll burn somewhere between one-half and three-quarters of a cord, which would make sense. Last year we burned just about a half cord for the season, but it was a reasonably mild winter.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The stone walkway

Loading the cart

Unloading. Why the cycling jacket? Its hunting season.

Waiting to be placed in the ground

During construction of the house, we put aside a really nice big flat stone. Sometime this summer I got around to setting it in the walk as the first in a series that will become a stone walkway to the driveway. The stone is lovely and it is a really nice first "step" on this little project.

Nancy and I frequently take a walk through the most beautiful wooded area that happens to just be out our back door. It has dramatic rises and falls, an impressive brook running through it and portions of gentle wooded paths. Part of this walk is on my parents land and over time we've noticed a few choice stones that would make welcome additions to our evolving stone pathway. The challenge is that these heavy stones are out in the middle of the woods and how would we get them back up here to the house?

Luckily we have the most amazing hand cart built to plans created by David Tresemer. We are fortunate that the rocks were located uphill from an access way that we were able to back a truck into. I easily walked the cart down through the woods to the stones and then Nancy and I were able to muscle them into the cart and roll them down to the truck. More effort got them into the truck bed and they are now laying on the ground waiting to be laid in the pathway.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Stair Railing, Pt. 2

I started off wanting to install a railing down the stairs from the second floor to the first, but was delayed slightly by needing to rebuild a section of upstairs railing before I could start to piece together the actual stair rail. With that now complete, I spent some time crafting the railing.

First off I needed to pencil  the height of the completed rail on the wall and then mount the handrail brakets that the railing will sit on when installed. We purchased some nice vintage reproduction brackets from Lee Valley.

One of the rail brackets. I find them really beautiful, but as is the lot of a rail bracket, it is mostly hidden from view behind the railing itself

With the brackets installed I then built up the rail pieces themselves. I had planned to continue the railing detail around the opening on the second floor down, but Nancy said it was way too big.  I then  sized the whole assembly down and it is much better now--easier to grasp and a gentler profile all around.

The junction of the two runs of rail where they meet at the landing

This is where the (newly extended) section of stair opening railing meets the rail that goes downstairs. I'm still not sure how these two are going to connect

The intersections where the railing sections meet are the challenging part since they are coming in at an angle and then making a turn or (in the case where the upstairs railing meets the stair rail) turning, dropping, and then turning again.  I knew the only way I'd be able to work this out was to build everything long and then make fitting decisions where I could actually see the relationships.

That is the next step: work out the connections between the two runs of rail and then sort out how I want to finish it where it enters out into the living room on the first floor. Should it be simple and unadorned and just end at the opening? End in a decorative curl atop a post? Hmm... I enjoy visualizing this kind of thing.