We have always been an ecologically-minded,
environmentally responsible family. When it came time to move, we
decided to attempt to build a house that would reflect this. We
researched all the various methods of building for 4 years before we
decided on how to build ours. In our research, the most intriguing
building technique we came across was to use straw bales, but living in
the Midwest, a traditional part of the country, made this nearly
impossible back then. No one knew how to build that way in our
area at the time and since we are so damp and humid much of the year it
seemed as though the house would need to go up fast so we couldn't
possibly do it ourselves. Plus where we wanted our house situated,
it was highly doubtful straw bale would be approved since we live in a
fairly major metropolitan area with strict building codes. We
threw out building a cob house or any other alternative method for the
same reason. We thought seriously about SYP construction (Structural
Insulated Panels) and actually went so far as to get an estimate for
building. Unfortunately the cost for the shell of the house was
virtually 100% more for SYP construction as for regular stick framing,
putting it completely out of our reach financially. We had to
settle for something a little less than what we had hoped and picked
traditional stick framing with thicker walls and higher R-values.
In the end what we chose had a higher R-value than any of the
alternative ways of building so we were quite happy.
Another goal was to enable this house to have as little impact on the
environment as possible. We wanted to use environmentally
responsible building materials wherever we could. We also wanted
to build the house so it would need as little fuel to heat and cool as
possible by using tight construction with high R-values and a heat
source that was as efficient as possible. We also planned to add
photovoltaic panels each year until we had enough to supply our own
electric needs. And finally we wanted to situate the house on the
lot and choose a plan that would use the sun to heat it some of the
time. This prevented us from fully designing our house until we
had found our lot. We carefully designed our house to suit our
needs and refined the design many times over a couple of years.
Once the lot was found and purchased (see the Our Lot page) we put the
finishing touches on the design (see the Floor Plans page). We
then searched for someone to draw up our plans--someone who was trained
in designing ecologically and environmentally sound houses and also
trained in sound engineering. We found that someone in John
Robbins (www.queencity.com/people/jrobbins) and worked with him for 4
months while he drew up the plans for us. Once the plans were
drawn up we began our search for subcontractors.
Our lot is on the north side of an east/west street, therefore, we put
most of the windows on the front of the house--the south side.
Only 2 small windows and 2 doors are on the north side--the back of the
house, and some windows and doors are on the east and west sides of the
In the end we chose to use 2 X 6 framing for the exterior walls, 24 O.C.
(on center) and 2 X 12 for the roof. The wall and roof cavities
were filled with cellulose. To make the R-values higher for our somewhat
cold and not-so-sunny location (near Cleveland, Ohio) we added 2 inches
of foam on the outside of the exterior walls and roof. The
exterior walls should perform at close to R-33 or higher. The roof
at close to R-55. Over the rafters/collar ties, there is an
additional 16 inches of cellulose bring the R-value at the peaks of the
house to around R-65. Special construction methods, including
spraying expanding foam, were used at joints to make the house as tight
as possible. Although I hate the use of any plastic, I also love
the extra R-value the foam insulation brought us and have hopes our fuel
use will be so much lessened it will compensate for the negative
ecological impact of using a plastic (the foam) in the construction of
our house. The cellulose insulation was installed by A.B.C.
Insulation. The foam was installed by the framer.
Windows are aluminum clad wood Andersen windows
(www.andersenwindows.com), double glazed and argon gas filled. Exterior
doors are insulated metal except for our front door which is a
fiberglass clad steel door. We wanted a special front door and
just could not afford a solid wood one which was over $2,000 versus the
$700 of the one we ended up with. So we settled again. All
our exterior and interior framing, setting of windows and doors, plus
installation of stairs and upstairs flooring was done by builder, Paul Jackam.
For our siding and trim we decided to go with fiber-cement
siding--horizontal planks which are already primered. We
eventually decided on and used Hardi-plank (www.jameshardie.com).
Paul Jackam, our framer, installed the siding and trim of the house
also. Later we used a Superduck product especially made for
fiber-cement siding to 'stain' the house. This is a spray-on
two-step process and when finished it looked amazingly like wood!
It has been over 9 years since it was sprayed on and it looks as good as
the day it was finished.
For our roofing material we decided on steel roofing. Our framer,
Paul Jackam, produced a subcontractor to install the roofing. Our
roof is the thing most people notice when driving by the house!
The steel roofing was manufactured by Everlast (www.everlast.com).
All excavation, backfill, driveway, foundation digging, trenching for
electric and cable, septic tank installation and laying of water line
was done by Marks Excavating. They also put in our lawn and a
couple of extra yard drains.
Our foundation is a poured wall foundation with 2 inches of foam on the
inside of the walls and was done by Atlas Walls. We tried to get a
company to install a foam/cement foundation but they were too busy to do
our house on schedule so we had to pass on them. Next time will be
different. The perimeter foam insulation was installed by us!
We dislike basements, so this is a slab-on-grade home.
After lots of research we decided on in-slab radiant heat, deciding this
delivered the most heat for the least amount of fuel usage, as well as
the healthiest type of heat. We are
fortunate to have several experienced plumbers in this type of heating
system in our area and chose Schaefer Plumbing to do the job. We
used the Wirsbo radiant heat system. The heated water is being
supplied by a propane-fired, tankless boiler by Rinnai
(www.rinnaiamerca.com). This boiler is installed into the exterior
wall of the house saving space inside the house. There is a second
tankless water heater--also a Rinnai--installed to produce our own hot
water. This was also installed into the exterior wall of the
house. Schaefer also did all the plumbing for the house.
They also installed a whole house Honeywell heat recovery ventilator
Heat for the upstairs, if needed, was to be supplied by radiant heat
panels which the house is wired for. The city was a bit hesitant
to allow us to not install them at first but it worked out very well.
We have 3 open areas to the upstairs and have never needed any extra
heating. The wiring was only for the city's benefit!
For our downstairs flooring we decided to use our concrete slab for a
good portion of it. The slab was insulated underneath with a
radiant slab insulation material that is somewhat like a bubble plastic
with foil. It is made by rFOIL Insulation Products
(www.radiant_barrier.net) and performs equal to 2 inches of foam.
The slab was tinted a taupe color, saw cut on 2 foot centers in some
rooms to look like large tiles, grouted and sealed. Some of the
smaller areas were not cut on 2 foot centers but were cut evenly.
The slab work was done by 880 Construction. Part of the floor was
covered by a prefinished Junckers hardwood flooring (www.cpninc.com).
This solid hardwood flooring is designed for installation over in-slab
radiant heating and is connected by metal clips. Other parts of
the slab are covered by ceramic tile.
Our upstairs flooring is 2 X 6 tongue and groove spruce flooring.
This flooring was sanded and finished by Falcon Flooring. Several
of our rooms downstairs have open ceilings.
All interior doors are stained flush birch, except for a few solid oak
doors we purchased at an auction. Closet doors are bi-fold stained
flush birch. All interior trim is 1 X 4 pine from Sweden.
All staining and installation of doors and trim was done by Ed Hetrick.
Staining was done with a Benjamin Moore no-VOC clearcoat. Our
railings were made from 4 X 4 posts, regular 2 X 4s, and chrome grids.
We have two kitchens. The main east kitchen has Kraft Maid kitchen
cabinets. The countertop is a 12 X 12 ceramic tile countertop with
pine trim edging. The refrigerator and stove were brought over
from the previous house. Eventually they will be replaced with
more efficient models. The tiny kitchenette/bar area on the west
side has birch kitchen cabinets made by IKEA--an environmentally
conscious company (www.ikea.com). Their cabinets are made with a
board that is very low in formaldehyde and all finishes are formaldehyde
free. Outgassing is very little. The countertop of the
kitchenette is made up of 12 X 12 granite tiles and is also edged in
pine trim. The kitchenette has a Samsung combination
microwave/oven on the counter with a two-burner propane stove made by
Suburban. The refrigerator is a stainless steel Conserv (see
www.conservrefrigerators.com). In the end the hall bath ended up
with two solid birch, open vanities with stainless steel shelving and
towel bars--from IKEA again. We used an IKEA bathroom sink--the
countertop is ceramic tile. We splurged on this bathroom and had a
whirlpool bath installed. Although many people told us we would
quickly stop using the whirlpool bath--6 years later we still use it at
least 3 times a week. It is the one thing I am most thankful I
decided to include!
Our downstairs bathroom walls and the utility room walls are partially
covered with ceramic tiles. The Master bedroom bath has a
wheelchair accessible tiled shower stall. All toilets are
Caravelle Caroma from Australia (www.caromausa.com), a dual flush toilet
using 1.6 gallons for the full flush and .6 to .8 gallons for the
half-flush. The Master Bedroom Bath has an oak vanity with a glass
vanity sink/top. Moen faucets are used for nearly all rooms.
All electrical work was done by Troy Thomas. It is standard 200
amp and includes cable, surround sound wiring, telephone, etc. All
light fixtures are fluorescent types--except for a couple of exterior
lights which are halogen. All bulbs used inside are fluorescent.
Our washer and dryer is the Whirlpool Duet front load washer and dryer
and is stacked in the Greenhouse area. This is so we can hang
clothes in the Greenhouse and Sunroom in the winter if we wish to do
so--letting them air dry. This is another one of my favorite
choices. Our clothes come out just as clean--if not cleaner--than
with any other washer, but the entire process is SO much faster!
The washer spins longer and faster than regular washers getting out much
of the moisture. The dryer therefore doesn't take nearly as long
to dry the clothes.
The greenhouse and sunroom have multiple uses. We grow vegetables,
mostly salad type, in the winter. The outdoor organic garden is
right outside both of these rooms. We grow quite a few of our
vegetables organically year around. We are still learning.
The rooms are also used as heat collectors for our house in the winter.
In the summer we close the rooms off to the rest of the house preventing
quite a bit of the heat from entering the main part of the house.
There is an overhang by the living room to prevent excessive heat
accumulation in the summer but we needed it wide open for our growing
areas. We have shades that insulate somewhat--from both heat and
cold--on the greenhouse and sunroom windows.
Our entryway has been planned to avoid heat loss from our house.
There is a door into each side of the house for this purpose--sort of
like a large air-lock. The living room has a small electric
fireplace and eventually the family room will too. Amazingly the
electric fireplace can heat the living room enough that it could almost
be used solely to heat that entire side! And to think we wanted
small propane fireplaces at one time. Our builder talked us out of
that one--he said it would heat our house to 100 degrees in no time and
with the insulation we have it might take 24 hours for it to cool back
down to 70!
The upstairs is mainly a finished attic with sloping roofline. One
side is a large open hobby room with attic storage area on the north
side behind the walls where the roof gets too low. The other side
has two bedrooms, a half bath, a small sitting/tv room and a tiny guest
area. Nothing fancy but everyone seems to love the upstairs the
best. It has lots of character.
It was hoped that we wouldn't need heat except on sunny days below 20
degrees and non-sunny days below 40 degrees. This has turned out
to be much the case. See below
This is our way of building to save our planet.
THE REST OF THE STORY
We have now been in our house for 6 years. Our hope that we won't
need air conditioning has panned out well for us. No matter how
hot it is outside, the inside has never gone above 80--the main house
never above 76--amazing with all the mostly unprotected windows on the
south side of the house. Nights--even 70 degree plus ones--are
very comfortable inside the house. When you walk in the door from
outside it truly feels as though it is air conditioned. Everyone
thinks it is!
We have finished all the planters for our outdoor organic garden.
We have been successfully growing much of our vegetables there and are
starting to grow berries now. We have never seen anything grow
like it does in this garden!
For the longest time that first year we thought our radiant heat system
did not work because it never turned on! Finally towards the very
end of December it got cold enough outside for it to turn on. We
love having the radiant floors and the better indoor humidity levels.
It has never dropped below 50%--no more dry, cracked skin in the winter!
We do not need heat for the upstairs--it stays only 2 degrees cooler as
compared to downstairs. Even through a few brutal winters, our
system does not turn on until it is below 40 degrees outside and if
sunny, often not until it is below 20 degrees! The only problem
with this is our 'radiant' floors are not often warm except in the deep
winter--since the system isn't 'on' until then. By mid-March we
don't have to turn it on any more and rarely do we need to turn it on
before mid-December. Since all our hot water is propane-fired we
are not sure how much we use to heat our house, but as near as we can
tell we use about two tanks a year for just our hot water heating and
cooking. Since we usually fill up only 3 times a year, we estimate
we use only 1 tank of propane a year to heat our
3500+ square foot house. We have the smaller, 250 gallon tank, so
it does not take much to heat this house.
THE END OF THE STORY
The children grew up and my
mother passed away. I was alone, working a lot of hours, and
finally 3500 square feet and 3 acres was just too much for this 60
something! I ended up selling the house (finding out people were
TERRIFIED of the radiant floors) and moving into a conventional house.
It has been a LOT easier to keep up the house and the yard, but I have
suffered with dry skin, allergies and such in a much dirtier
conventional type home. I am slowly changing the home over to a
more ecological home but it will take a few years. I am now
heading in a direction of helping builders understand how little money
and thought goes into taking a conventional house and changing it over
to an ecological house that will take a lot less energy to run.
All it does is take a redirection of thinking and applying it.
Removing excess space such as hallways and a bit of smart thinking will
enable builders to build a house with just as much useable space that
will use a lot less energy and cost about the same amount to build.