Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pre-insulation and other news

Stops in the rafter bays. These are meant to create smaller compartments into which we'll be blowing in the cellulose. The smaller spaces help to avoid settling in a really long uninterrupted bay

Joe installing the fabric stops

Expanding foam installed between the window frame and the framing

Checking to see what sun is available when. The solar hot water panel will be placed at the upper right hand corner of the roof on the right. The key hours for solar activity are between 10:00 and 2:00. We'll be in good shape with this location

Like the first few raindrops before a shower, there is tangible evidence of our being very close to insulating. I've been spending time installing insulating foam around the windows, Joe has been installing fabric stops in the roof framing cavities, I have the cellulose blower on site, and our supplier is due to deliver 450 bales of cellulose on Thursday. Yes, 450.

We are busily checking off the last few items that need to be taken care of before we start sheathing the walls with Insulweb fabric, which is the first step in the insulating process. Its felt like we've been so close to ready for a while but there are seemingly always a few more things needing to be cleared up.

In other news, we have done some research and have now worked out the arrangements such that we'll be able to install a hot-water solar panel on the roof. This will supply hot water to our boiler so that it does not need to heat the otherwise cold water all the way from cold up to hot. With the collector in place there may be times when the boiler does not need to heat the water at all.

We are really excited about this development, thinking it would be something we'd plan for in the future but couldn't do now. Knowing we wanted to do it eventually, I installed the necessary copper lines so we wouldn't have to open up the walls later on. As I was doing this work it seemed like maybe we should just see what it would take to do it now, knowing it would save some headaches later on. One thing led to another and with the Federal credit it looks like its going to work out.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Super-Insulation Symposium

Last night Joe and I rode bikes down to Yestermorrow Design Build School to attend a "Super-Insulation Symposium", held as a part of the Wednesday evening lecture series.

There was a panel of speakers who all gave brief presentations about their experience with super-insulated houses. I noted at some point that I went with a hair of apprehension that I might hear some bit of information that would up-end some critical aspect of the project or otherwise cause me to doubt some part of the house design. I'm glad to say that on the whole the information presented was a ringing endorsement of the choices we've made, and in fact I felt really proud and grateful that we have the opportunity to be doing this project in the manner that we are.

Among the panelists were Alex Wilson, of BuildingGreen, who moderated; Andy Shapiro; Robert Riversong, a builder and designer who I worked with two years ago building Larsen Truss-style super insulated house; John Ungar-Murphy of Cell-Tec insulation; Peter Schneider of Vermont Energy Investment Corp; and Bill Maclay of Maclay Architects and Planners. On hand as well was Bill Hulstrunk of National Fiber, a cellulose manufacturer, who has been generous in helping me along the way with questions and advice.

We spend lots of time toiling away on this house project and a lot of thought, planning and consideration has gone into making it as high-performing in terms of energy-use as possible. It was great to get away from our project to see and hear from others who are working very much in the same vein. It reminded me that we are really doing something unique and, I think, important.

Of particular interest was the concept of a thermal solar storage unit as a heat resevoir for over-capacity solar hot water energy. The basic idea is that you have this delivery van sized extra-super insulated cube buried in the ground which becomes a thermal mass heat "battery" that gets charged any time the sun is out and the solar hot water collectors are active. I'm not doing a great job describing it, but the idea is potentially significant step in the quest for creating affordable zero-energy buildings. If this pans out, I could see this being something we'd give serious consideration to down the road.

Here's a kooky video about the TSS concept.

Punch List

Joe, piling up the exterior window frames

A particularly fancy doorway in the village

Our phone line nexus point. Yes, that's a braid

An air-sealed electrical box mounted on the exterior of the house

We're taking care of all the odds and ends that need to happen before we literally wrap up the interior with a fabric called Insulweb in advance of insulating.

Joe's working steadily on the window frames and will soon have them all set to go up. Having Joe working on the window casings has caused me to realize that I haven't spent any time yet thinking about what the exterior trim detail around the doors will look like, so today I did a brief tour of various house doors around the village. Most of them are more ornate then where we'll go, but I had a few ideas.

Otherwise we are working on lots of things like electric wiring, phone lines, duct perforations for the kitchen hood, sealing up air holes in the house, etc...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Summer Solstice

The shadow at roughly 12:10 on June 21

The shadow at 12 noon on June 21

It was with great excitement I awaited the noon hour on June 21 to observe the way the sun fell upon the house. In particular, I was anxious to see how the sun lay upon the sunburst pattern on the south gable of the house.

To my minor disappointment the sun at high noon was just slightly off from dead center on the triangle, but what made me quite happy was that at roughly 12:10 the shadow was centered on the roof, but also that the only aspect of the sunburst not in shadow was the sun shape itself. I couldn't have hoped for a better outcome. It thrills me that without aid of a calendar I could, in essence, look up at the house around this time of year and tell you when the longest day of the year has been reached.

I suspect that the reason the shadow is not centered at noon is because the house is not dead-on south. Does anybody have any perspective on that? I'd be curious to know.

Any guesses as to where the shadow will fall at the winter solstice?


I received this from my father-in-law Lou, who is a former physics and astronomy teacher:


You should not expect the sun to match your triangle at exactly 12 noon because in the eastern time zone it is 12 noon everywhere from Boston until almost Chicago. The sun cannot be due south in Boston and Chicago at the same time. You are in the eastern part of this time zone, so I would expect the sun's peak on your house to match your triangle peak before 12 noon. My memory is that the match occurred at 12:10. This surprises me. Do you know with certainty that that side of the house faces due south? How accurate is your watch?

It is a mystery worth solving.


My reply:

I'm sure my watch was accurate, at least within a minute or so. I suspect the issue is that the house is probably not on in alignment with the north-south axis. It'd be interesting to find out how far off it it is. When I did the foundation layout I referenced south with a hand-held compass that gave me a general sense of the line. While doing the layout I was also trying to take into account the axis of our garden which is very close to south, so I probably tweaked the line a bit to make it a compromise between the two factors.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Today was a milestone.

Thanks to the work of our plumbing contractors, the boiler was installed, providing us with both heat (in the form of radiant heat under the floors) and hot and cold water. We've been waiting a long time for this and it was a moment of joy to witness the cascade of water pouring out of our garden hose hook-up on the side of the house. We now have the potential to hook up any old fixture we want and will be thinking about how we may do that, and when.

Meanwhile, Joe has begun work on the exterior window trim project. He's set up a work station and begun cutting the pieces. It'll be really satisfying to see the outside start to transform from green Zip-system to finish trim and clapboard.

I've been busy wrapping up the seemingly endless details before we begin insulating. I expect we'll get going on it next week.

All in all a good week of progress.

Glass of water anyone? Here, let me get you one.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Today felt like a bit of a turning point.

I completed some long running plumbing projects, pressure tested the hot water supply lines (they're good), and re-arranged some electrical stuff while Joe continues to make great project on all the pre-insulation blocking work.

I also had a little fun with the water supply configuration. I needed to make another block to keep the upper horizontal copper manifold held off the plywood. Why not make the blocks fish? Of course I got totally excited at the idea and had to do it, and I'm glad I did. I live for that sort of thing.

I also went outside at 12:00pm to see where the sun landed. Unfortunately just as it hit noon the clouds came over. It wasn't for about 10 minutes until it cleared again. In any case, it seems --to my sublime pleasure-- that the sun pretty much lines up with the point of the triangle at noon. What varies is the angle of the sun in an up or down manner depending on the proximity of the solstice or equinox. I couldn't be more pleased about this. Its like an homage to the sun, a recognition of that which is so much greater then everything else we know. It also will stand as a testament to that greatness long after you or I will cease to be, provided the house remains as it is.

On a more earthly note, we have hired a plumbing contractor to install the boiler which will provide the radiant hot water and domestic (drinking and washing) hot water supply. They will also install the pressure tank. This is starting tomorrow morning, so I expect that we will have the availability of running hot and cold water within a week. We've been waiting a long, long time for this.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Shed Move

The original arrangement--shed on right, doors facing up the driveway

A similar view showing the shed turned and cars parked next to it. The shed still had a little ways to go before being turned all the way
View near the porch looking up the drive

Last week I took a day off from the house proper to move the small shed we inherited with the property. We have used it primarily as storage for the riding mower, but also for skis, bee equipment, tools and various other stuff.

In an attempt to tuck the cars a little out of the main view, we decided to rotate the shed 90 degrees and move it slightly closer to the house, allowing the cars to slide in where the shed used to sit. The ground where the cars will be parked is still rough, but so far the plan is working quite nicely. We can drive down the driveway and then back into the new space without having to use our neighbor's turnaround.

The move itself was a study in crude physics. I jacked the building up enough to get rollers underneath and then I either pulled the building around with a chain attached to the car or with a winch attached to a tree. It was a bunch of work but in time I was able to manoeuvre it to where I wanted it.