Thursday, July 31, 2014

Timeline - Annualized GeoSolar (Cont'd)

This is the second in a series of posts on Annualized GeoSolar, the passive system for heating and air conditioning that we will use for our energy neutral house.  To check out the first post, go to Annualized GeoSolar.

I became acquainted with AGS 7 years ago when stumbling upon an online paper by Don Stephens*.

The Father of AGS
Before discussing AGS, I would be remiss if I failed to give credit to John Hiat who, in my opinion, is the father of AGS-like concepts.  He self-published his spiral bound "Passive Annual Heat Storage -- Improving the Design of Earth Shelters" in '83. Stephens subsequently improved Hiat's PAHS and called it AGS but his detailing of the whole system is much sketchier than Hiat's. In fact, I think anyone contemplating building or buying an earth shelter would be remiss in not reading two books -- Hiat's book and that of Carmondy and Sterling, "Earth Sheltered Housing Design", (Hiat gives much credit to the latter in his book). (Both books are out of print but, as of this writing, were available on EBay.)

Hiat's Influence
Until Hiat and Carmondy/Sterling came along, I am pretty sure passive solar heating was universally synonymous with solar energy from the winter sun (irrespective of earth sheltering). Stephens refined their work and named it AGS to differentiate its year-long cycle from the spasmodic daily, or even hourly, cycle of conventional passive solar heating that depends on the whims of winter sunshine.  
Hiat's iteration of the insulation/watershed umbrella

How do PAHS and AGS Work?
Both writers advocated using concrete for at least the floor of the house, installing lots of south-facing glass and earth sheltering the roof as well as most of the west, north and east walls. Both advocated keeping the soil around and under the house dry and insulated by extending waterproofing and insulation horizontally from the house below 
grade and outward twenty feet in all directions, thereby maximizing the thermal mass available to absorb, hold and dispense heat.  I have chosen to adopt Hiat's terminology for the horizontal insulation and waterproofing --  "Insulation-watershed umbrella".
Solar collector (blue), conduit (red), solar chimney (green)

Stephens' important upgrade was to use a homemade solar collector downhill from the house with conduits, tilted slightly upward, running under the house and exiting to daylight behind the house in a solar chimney.  The collector is designed to maximize solar gain from the summer sun and the conduits are designed to carry heat passively to the soil under the house before exiting via the chimney.

Managing the System
When cool weather approaches, the chimney is closed so that cold air does not drop into the conduits.  The heated thermal mass (concrete floor and walls plus the soil beneath the floor, under the umbrella and behind the earth contact walls) then maintains an even temperature within the house during the winter, independent of passive solar gain through the windows. Spring arrives, the chimney is opened and the collector begins to recharge the system before enough heat has escaped around the edges of the horizontal insulation to lower the temperature in the house more than a few degrees, if any.

Year-round Comfort
The year-round temperature can be slowly (over a couple of years) adjusted to, and then maintained at, any desired temperature, say 74 degrees, plus or minus two degrees. In addition to providing heat during cold weather, the massive heat sink plays the role of air conditioning by absorbing any summer heat penetrating the envelope of the house and storing it for the next winter.

CLICK HERE to access the last post on AGS
* Stephens has taken his paper private -- -- it can be accessed at Stephens' definitive paper

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Timeline - Annualized GeoSolar

Six Years Ago

This is the first of three posts on the subject of Annualized GeoSolar  that, according to Wikipediamakes our green building project almost unique for the US .

Vacation with a Hidden Agenda
Early in my research on earth sheltering, I came upon a posting by Don Stephens* describing what he called "Annualized GeoSolar (AGS), which was incredibly intuitive and a game-changer for us.  So much so in fact that, about six years ago, we deliberately vacationed in the northern high desert in hopes of wrangling a visit to a house he had designed.

Fortunately, Don arranged a visit to an earth sheltered home just south of Spokane that he had designed for a retired veterinarian and his wife who built it themselves.  The unique feature, in addition to being a straw bale house and fully earth sheltered, was that it harvested the heat from the summer sun for its year-round comfort without conventional heating or air conditioning or depending upon passive solar from the winter sun.

Concrete structure with earth roof; no A/C but notice the chimney
Broad Picture of Earth Sheltering
My current understanding of earth sheltering is that, by the time of our visit out West, most of earth sheltering was still 1970ish concrete walls with either concrete or wood for earth contact roofs, sophisticated waterproofing and insulation fastened to the outside, passive solar during the winter supplemented by non-fossil-fuel heating such as wood, corn or pellet burners -- usually stoves, furnaces or masonry heaters. Actually, there were even many "earth homes" left over from earlier times that had little or no waterproofing and sometimes less-than-sophisticated insulation if they had any at all. Even the 1970ish homes had several drawbacks in varying degrees that gave us pause: (a) being at the mercy of 50 to 60 degree ground temperatures in winter, (b) in humid areas such as ours, condensation problems in summer, and (c) water problems during the wet season. However, with or without insulation and waterproofing, they still had a leg up on conventional homes with respect to energy conservation.  In summer they needed little or no air conditioning and in winter they were easy to heat so long as the occupants did not mind cold floors.

The Mueller Earth Sheltered Home Was Different
Here in the high desert we were standing in a house in a cold 6,000 heating degree zone with less mean percent of possible sunshine than we have in our less-than 5,000 heating degree zone in Metro St Louis.  It was a house that had not yet required help from its back-up electric baseboard heaters in the three years that Marilylenne and Joris Mueller had lived in it and a house with pleasantly warm floors during their long winters.

The Mueller's construction methods, which faithfully followed Stephen' recommendations (a summary paper by Stephens), gave new meaning to "minimalism" and "sustainability", which is to their credit but also contributed to their misfortune. Their iteration of AGS included a tad more minimalism than was good for long-term thermal performance of the AGS system.  They used straw bales for the insulation in their insulation-watershed umbrella (which we will soon define), some of which got so wet and non-insulating as to necessitate a wood burning stove.  In our view, their misfortune is not a knock on AGS but is a warning not to get too simplistic with it.   (The Muellers' "Mica Peak Residence" is the first example in Stephens' paper.)  

CLICK HERE for the second post on AGS.

CLICK HERE for the third post on AGS.

* Stephens' original paper -- -- is no longer available on the web.  However, it can be accessed in a round-about way via Stephens' original detailed paper .

Monday, July 28, 2014

Realistic Assessment of Our Environmental Impact

The book, "Eco Architecture", is one of the Opposing Viewpoints Series published by Gale Cengage Learning and has 21 contributors.  It explores the pros and cons of the green building movement and sustainability/environmentalism in general. A recent re-read of the book reminds me that we need to keep our project in perspective, especially now that we are out front blogging about it.  

Why are we doing it?
The reasons fall into two categories.  The first is simply economic -- to save money on the construction of a customized home and on future energy costs.  This reason would hold more water if we were younger, but at our ages, only the savings on construction is a factor; future savings on energy not so much.  So there must be other more transcendent reasons.  

Salvaged lumber will help to minimize carbon footprint
Build vs. Remodeling
However, thinking that we are having a significant direct positive impact on the environment is not one of them.  As far as a carbon footprint during construction is concerned, we could do more for the environment if we were to buy an existing house and remodel it.  Pouring 
A view from below the stacks
a concrete floor for our house will probably release more carbon than whatever we would do to remodel an older home whose carbon has already been sequestered.  This carbon imbalance would especially be true if we were using conventional building methods.  However, because we are intentionally using non-standard methods and materials, our effort may have a small positive impact on the environment over remodeling.  The real benefit to the environment, though, will be through little or no energy consumption over the life of the house to an extent not possible with a remodel or with standard new construction.  But even then, we have no illusions about our minuscule contribution to sustainability.

Demonstration Site
As a dental educator, I always felt that I had a greater impact on dental disease than would be possible by merely practicing dentistry.  In the same vein, when we blog about our home and open it to anyone who is curious, there is a potential for a greater impact on the environment than we could have alone.  To quote Jo Scheer in "Eco Architecture", "Though extreme eco-architecture may not be a solution to a thoroughly sustainable building industry, it certainly provides ideas.  It is a model of ideas and concepts that beg to be assimilated".  

Cutting-edge High
The 40 years I was in dentistry was a unique time.  I was fortunate to have gotten in early and ridden the cutting edge of a new discipline until it matured into a sub-specialty.  We were often pushing the envelope to an extreme and sometimes uncomfortable degree and made a few bad choices.  But we also got an undeniable, reinforcing high from our preponderant successes.  I will have to admit that this past experience has made me eager and confident to be an early adopter in another arena. I know that not all of our non-traditional and untested methods and materials will be entirely successful.  But I also know that our diligent planning and preparation, combined with a ridiculous amount of perfectionism during construction, will lead to a successful outcome overall that might influence mainstream eventually.  (Recent update:  As if the end of 2016, the number of visitors to our blog surpasses my fondest dreams -- running at about 6,000 per month and increasing rapidly.  So just maybe, its impact could be considerable after all.)

Bucket List
Long before I began to think environmentally, I had the totally impractical itch to take a year or two off and DIY a home.  Well, late in life when I finally got the opportunity, Dottie made the mistake of saying "yes".  All of the foregoing reasons for doing our project are worthy, but without sticking so tenaciously to the bucket list, I doubt is would have happened.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Odds 'N Ends - Dottie's Garden

Critter Problem
Our property lies in the heart of the Mississippi River bluffs.   Not many streets in our town are continuous for more than a few blocks due to a network of ravines and "hollers" that are characteristic of river bluffs.  (In fact, rumor has it that Collinsville holds the worlds record for "No Outlet" and "Dead End" road signs.)  The ravines are forested with typical edge cover between peoples yards and the trees -- perfect wild animal habitat.  And living with wildlife is great except when it comes to gardening. Ground hogs, rabbits and deer are the four-legged critters that can be most destructive but can be deterred by a proper fence.  Insects, birds, squirrels and raccoons are another matter, although the latter two so far have not been a problem.

Critter-proof fence
We installed a typical 5' livestock woven wire fence around the 30' x 50' garden. Under the bottom of the wire, we buried pressure treated 2 x 6s on edge to discourage moles, gophers, ground hogs and digging rabbits.  Next we attached rabbit fencing along the bottom of the woven wire fence and stapled it to the tops of the 2 x 6s as further rabbit proofing.
Obstructions and torturous pathways to discourage jumping deer.

Outwitting the Deer
But what to do about the deer who have no trouble clearing a 5' fence from a standing start?  As a result of surfing the internet, Dottie laid out the pathways and plantings in mini-maze fashion so as not to give jumping deer clear-cut landing areas.  But just to make sure there were no safe landing areas, she hauled in all matter of junk metal, such as bed frames, rebar and big things that defy 
description, and positioned it in such
a way that no self-respecting deer would risk a broken bone or a concussion by jumping in.  Then she strung brightly colored streamers from the tallest piece of junk outward to the corner fence posts.  Finally, she strung heavy translucent fishing line from post to post 6" or so above the top of the woven wire. Apparently, curious deer are repelled by contacting the line with their noses at night. Judging by the fact that the line has been broken a couple of times with no signs of deer in the garden, either the junk or the line or both are working.  Or maybe they are repelled by the dill plants around the periphery and the Marigold plots within -- both reputed to be offensive to deer and other invaders.
Junk appears soon after the initial tilling 

Insect Patrol
Dottie grew up in a big rural family that depended heavily on its garden. Being the eldest child and, as such, a surrogate mother to her younger sibs, she was only too happy to spend time gardening in order to get some personal time. Hence, her green thumb today.  Those of us who have never gardened fail to appreciate its nuances beyond tilling, planting, weeding and harvesting.  Insect patrol is one of these.  I swear she can spot an aphid from 20' away.  She opens into the squash stems to excise a borer that kills the plant otherwise.  Her major effort last year was against the Egyptian beetle (stinkbug) that bloomed in these parts.  The methods she used are too complicated and off-the-wall to address here except to say they did not involve store-bought insecticides.

The garden was tilled initially to kill the turf.  Since then, it has been no-till which not only cuts down on the amount of work but is more sustainable.  She starts saving cardboard boxes in the early Spring.  When planting season arrives, she flattens the boxes and covers the ground with them.  To plant seeds in a row, she cuts a narrow strip out of the cardboard or leaves space between boxes and plants through the hole.  With plants, like tomato plants, she makes an "X" shaped cut, folds the flaps back, plants the plant and closes the "X" around it.  Then she covers the cardboard with wheat straw.  The cardboard keeps the weeds from sprouting and keeps moisture from evaporating from the ground.  The straw also helps hold in moisture but, to my way of thinking, it covers up the ugliness of the cardboard until the plants get tall enough to hide it.  (So far, the neighbors have been very understanding about the junk, the streamers and the cardboard, although it probably helps to have shared the veggies with them.)

Dottie's farmer-brother-in-law accumulates an obscene number of PVC 2 gallon containers after mixing the surfectant with his Roundup for crop spraying. He suggested we drill a holes at their bases, fill them with water and set them next to plants needing irrigation.  Accordingly, by trial and error, we found that a 1/16" hole will require 2 hours for 2 gal of water to irrigate the base of a plant.  Also at his suggestion, we covered the bottom of each container with an inch or so of pea gravel to stabilize against the wind and, in case the can does not set level and some water is retained, to keep from breeding mosquitoes. The containers kept us from loosing bare-rooted seedlings during the 2012 drought and since have come into play in the garden, for new seedlings and for the new blueberry patch.

Native Plants and Therapy

Amongst the veggies, Dottie is growing several varieties of wildflowers that will eventually to be part of the native landscaping after the house is built.   Meanwhile, they add interest to the garden and are safe from construction activities.

The garden is Dottie's sanctuary -- her relief from her multitasking world.  And it is a great way for her to squeeze in some strenuous exercise that's good for her sciatica.

September 2015 Update
We are happy to report that the deer still have not invaded the garden but the groundhogs have.  Dig under the fence, you say?  Nope, they climb the fence high enough to get over the secondary rabbit fencing then jump off.  As bulky-looking as they are, who would have thought that they could squeeze through a woven wire fence?  Japanese stink bugs wreaked havoc last summer but have not been a serious problem this year.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Timeline - Education on Earth Sheltering (Cont'd)

About 7 Years Ago

This is the second of two posts on the subject of Education on Earth Sheltering. The first post can be found at first ES post..

A Game-Changer
Even before latching onto the Carmondy and Sterling's book, "Earth Sheltered Housing Design", I ran onto a web posting that made overwhelming sense despite my limited understanding of earth sheltering at the time.  I put it on the back burner but kept going back to it.  The posting was by Don Stephens, an architect from Spokane. The long title was ""Annualized Geo-Solar Heating as a Sustainable Residential-Scale Solution for Temperate Climates with Less Than Ideal Daily Heating-Season Solar Availability". Unfortunately, all of Stephen's postings -- such as --  appear now to be  inaccessible.  However, the following link is a round-about path to the Original Paper.

Annualized GeoSolar
I will have at least three posts upcoming regarding the details on  AGS.  (Recent update: You can now click on the "Featured Post" in the column to the left to access the three posts).  At this juncture, just a brief description should suffice.  Instead of typical passive solar heating that depends upon the whims of winter sunshine, AGS uses a homemade solar collector to harvest heat from the summer sun and pipe it under and around the house for storage in the earth for wintertime heating and summertime cooling.  And, unlike the Rob Roy type house, the waterproofing and insulation are not in intimate contact with the house but are laid horizontally a couple of feet below grade, thereby keeping dry and warm a thermal mass that is much larger than the footprint of the house.

Passive Annual Heat Storage
As it turned out, Stephens was merely improving on the groundwork laid by another out-of-the-box thinker, John Hiat, who had established the "Rocky Mountain Research Center" and self-published a spiral-bound book, "Passive Annual Heat Storage -- Improving the Design of Earth Shelters".  As he says on the cover, his concept "takes solar energy out of the dark ages".  Unfortunately, the book is out of print; I checked it out through our inter-library loan then bought one on EBay.  I would give anything to talk to John Hiatt before we start our project and but my attempts to connect with him have failed.

Just like AGS, PAHS is earth sheltering protected by the horizontal waterproofing and insulation but does not use a solar collector.  The thermal mass under and around the house is more gradually heated to a year-round stable and comfortable temperature by summer and winter solar gain through windows as well as heat generated by merely living in the house such as water heating, cooking, clothes drying, light fixtures, even human body heat.  

Our Commitment to AGS
Stephens writings about AGS are not loaded with how-tos whereas Hiatt's book is all about them, without which I would probably be reluctant to go with AGS for us.  (His book, in my opinion, is a must read for anyone contemplating building or buying an earth shelter and Carmondy and Sterling's book is a close second.) In a sense, Stephens planted the seed for us and Hiat and Carmondy and Sterling did the fertilizing and watering to the extent that I feel like we can follow, with minimal deviation, the prescription for AGS-PAHS and get it right the first time.

Later, when discussing AGS in detail, I will tell about an interesting visit to a home near Spokane that Stephens designed.  Google searches have not turned up any other homes that followed Stephens' design precisely -- most of the chatter is about modifying and adapting it instead of buying the complete package. There is one mention of a couple of homes that seemed to have faithfully followed Hiat's design: PAHS in Missoula.  (Recent update: The latest description of AGS in Wikipedia references two current projects in North America -- Drake Landing in Canada and our project in Collinsville, although its link to our blog doesn't work.)  Unlike that of Stephens and Hiat, earth sheltering for our iteration will be limited to the story-and-a-half back (north) wall and half of the west wall instead of the roof and east wall being sheltered as well.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Timeline - Education on Earth Sheltering

This post is the first of two on the subject of Education on Earth Sheltering.

Early Influences
One of the first purchases after we decided to build an "off-the-grid" home was Rob Roy's informative book, "Earth Sheltered Houses". Although our ultimate design for earth sheltering is far removed from his, the take-away for me was that I could easily do the construction myself with very little professional help.  Also, it was the first time I had heard of a technique for building concrete walls -- dry-stacked cider blocks -- that I later considered several different times as I looked for ways to prune costs. 

However, I was totally turned off by a couple of things (a) his battle against water, both surface and ground water, using
increasingly sophisticated waterproofing systems applied to roofs and earth contact walls and (b) the probability that, in our climate, termites would feast on the wood decking supporting the soil on the roof.

Also, early on, I ran onto the works of a true pioneer in earth sheltering, the architect Malcolm Wells, who self-published a couple of handwritten manuals.  The take-away from him was that earth sheltered homes do not have to look like south-facing caves. He also advised against making the earth contact roof continous with the earth contact walls.

Hell-bent on Earth Sheltering
Being hell-bent on earth sheltering but still confused, I was elated when a friend gave me the 1st and 2nd editions of "Earth Sheltered Housing Design" written by Carmondy and Sterling at the University of Minnesota Underground Space Center (out of print).  It is a scholarly look at earth sheltering and provided a basis for evaluating information from other sources.

Most of the other references I found were scattered about on the web and were largely posted by companies selling concrete earth shelters or were talking about some unique and sometimes cool modalities such as Earthships ( whose earth contact walls are constructed from rubber tires filled with compacted dirt, which is certainly sustainable and adequate for the western high desert but unsuitable for our high water table and termite susceptibility.

State of Most Earth Sheltering Concepts Today - Not Good
Earth sheltering seems to have gained popularity after the oil crises in the mid-70s. With the exception of Earthships, most iterations seem to have been done along the lines of Rob Roy's homes.  The earth contact walls and roof (wood or concrete) were waterproofed with self-adhering elastomeric materials and insulated on the outside with sheet foam before backfilling. 
Southeast facade showing windows and deciduous shade trees.
Both my research and personal experience tell me that there are also many "earth homes", perhaps predating the '70s, that lack adequate waterproofing, have no insulation and often do not even face south.  The home pictured nearby is a good example.  Its structure is a large corrugated aluminum half-tube with at least three feet of soil on the roof and a mortared rock front and back walls.  It faces southeast with fewer sun-gathering windows than most passive solar homes of its size.  There is no insulation or substantial waterproofing between the metal and the soil.  It uses about 300 gal of propane a year but does well without air conditioning.  The owners are quite happy disappearing into a landscape which includes dozens of recently-planted trees and enjoying lower energy bills than most folks.
Northwest exposure.  The corrugated metal structure is exposed between the rock wall supporting the electric meter and the curved rock retaining wall above it that buttresses the soil on roof. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Odds 'N Ends - An Alienating Home

A Generational Difference
The phrase "An alienating Home" comes from David Pearson's, "The New Natural House Book" as a way of describing how much different we live than our parents did. Except in the early urban environment, where solid masonry, flat roofs, hot pavement and no trees prevailed, our parents were more in tune with "climate, land, indigenous materials and traditions". Simultaneous with the migration from country to city was a dependence on fossil fuels for year-round comfort and a shift in culture from "being" to "having" whereby one's "identity and status is through material wealth".

Pearson's words speak loudly for me as one who has been there and done that and is now "retrogressing" to a simpler lifestyle more in tune with my upbringing.  So much so, I am repeating his words verbatim for the remainder of the post on the chance that they will resonate with you as well..  I only wish that I had a few decades left to enjoy the new lifestyle instead of only a few years.

Loss of Individuality
The home can become a microcosm of this new society, displaying all of its alienating tendencies.   At the extreme, it can become merely a repository, a place of status; a place where the kitchen becomes the end processor of convenience foods; the living room a furniture showroom with TV and stereo.  And a garden can come to represent a ritual weekend tidying of nature with noisy polluting machines and the destruction of wildlife with a barrage of pesticides and herbicides.  

Each room in an alienating home is a sterile space filled with mass produced furniture and standardized objects that lack a personal history and increasingly are made of "dead synthetic materials".  Of the origins of these objects and of the people who make them we know less and less.  The influence of media advertising and current trends and fashions are so strong that our own needs and preferences are suppressed.  We have little time or inclination to create anything for ourselves and the loss of confidence in our own abilities to make and do things is also a loss of individual power. Relinquishing creativity in designing and furnishing our homes "to experts" diminishes and weakens us to the extent that our homes are no longer expressions of ourselves - no longer homes at all.  

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Timeline - Goals for Our Project; Preliminary Design Stages

Primary Goal for Our Project - Energy Independence
Our primary goal for our house project is to break even with the utility providers and be free of energy bills.  If there is one phrase that characterizes the kind of home we will be building it is "super-insulated passive solar".  A year before starting construction, we moved into rental property close to the building site and, as is common with rental property, we have gas available only for forced air heat and heating water.  We are forced to use electricity for everything else, including cooking and clothes drying. Nevertheless, our electric consumption for the year has been a little less than 6,400 Kilowatt Hours. One author, that I will reference several times in future posts, estimates that a well thought out passive design can reduce the thermal load by 90%. If we hit even a 75% reduction on our current usage, we will be using only 1,600 KwH/yr of electricity which can be made up with a very modest investment in solar cells.  And, If we were moving into our house as an average electric consumer in our area (13,000 KwH/yr), the cells would pay for themselves in less than three years despite the fact that our electric rates are among the lowest in the country. 

Our Other Goals
Our second goal is build as green as possible in order to conserve finite resources. Our third goal is to build a home that is complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act so we can age in place.  Our last goal is to make our home available to the curious as a demonstration site for low-cost do-it-yourself green building.

Five Years Ago

Preliminary Plans
Learning to use architectural design software seemed unwise.  I surmised that the dumbed-down software I could reasonably expect to master for one project would not accommodate the atypical designs we were sure to use.  Fortunately, I fell heir to a drafting table just when it was time to commit our random thoughts and odds-and-ends sketches to scaled drawings.  It was amazing how impractical our imagined designs were when scaled out on paper.  For instance, the floor plan that we justified as improving resale value was too large for serious sustainability.  And, at our ages, was resale value really important?

Earth SHELTERED home that we visited early on

Earth Sheltering
I had been interested in earth sheltering (earth on the roof) as opposed to earth berming (earth against the walls only) and passive solar for many years but it wasn't until we decided to do our project that we actually visited some earth shelters and began thinking about a design for us.  Our early drawings then assumed that we would find a gentle south facing slope that facilitated earth sheltering and passive solar heating. 
Earth BERMED home that we also visited early
We assumed that the north wall and the north half of the roof would be earth sheltered and probably most of the west wall as well.  As we will see in future posts, all of these assumptions proved correct except for amount of earth sheltering necessary to achieve the desired thermal performance -- we ended up with little more than the north wall in contact with earth..

Three Years Ago
Semifinal Plans
By three years ago, we had acquired property and had tweaked the design enough to be confident in bypassing an architect and going straight to an engineer with cad-cam experience.  We were impressed with Steve Rehagen (Imperial Design) whom we had met at a timber framing/log home show a couple of years earlier and thought he would be perfect for our needs.  At the time, we thought we would need timber framing 
and he had designed both log and timber framed homes.  Moreover, as a management engineer, he had worked with an architectural firm as its cad-cam guy. We reestablished contact with Steve and said we would look him up in the near future.

Timeline - Education Materials, Land Search, Regulatory Environment

Educational Materials
Once we decided to build an energy neutral home, I began doing something I enjoy a lot -- researching.  I first combed our local library and its inter-library loan system for all available books on green building design, carpentry, plumbing, wiring, concrete work, dry-stacking cinder blocks, drywalling, insulating, greenhouse design, structural insulated panel construction, timber framing, cabinet and furniture making and building codes.
Green building "library"

I then bought select books that I had seen at the library or heard about from other sources, some of which were out of print.  I subscribed to publications, collected downloads, bookmarked websites, contacted manufacturers, attended home and garden, timber frame, log home and green building shows ad nauseum, vetted potential consultants and vendors and filled a filing cabinet with copies,clippings, downloads, technical manuals, handouts, advertising materials and notes.

Land Search

The search for land proved a struggle.  We wanted to move to one of the counties across the Mississippi River from downtown St Louis in order to be closer to Dorothy's large close-knit family.  And we needed a south-facing slope that would be suitable for earth sheltering. While hills are abundant in Missouri, they are hard to come by in glacier-leveled Illinois.  The hills there tend to be overlooking creeks where a high water table might be problematic for earth sheltering or they are Mississippi River bluffs that are already over-built, although that is exactly where we ended up.

After kissing a lot of frogs over a five-year period, we lucked onto a good find in one of the most unlikely places -- in the old section of Collinsville, IL almost directly across from and 10 miles east of the Gateway Arch.  We have three and a third acres nestled in the bluffs with a south slope facing the street, which is perfect for an earth sheltered home. Most of the remainder is the level top of a bluff which is convenient for storing, overflow parking, recreating and growing things.

Regulatory Environment
The regulatory environment in Collinsville is favorable for do-it-yourselfing.  I will be able to pull permits and do as much of the work myself as I choose to do as long as it meets code.  Before buying the property, we shared our intentions with the Building Director who is the permitting authority.  He has been especially accommodating and patient with me as I included him in the numerous pre-construction fits and starts that are the grist for future posts.  He actually seems excited about being involved with the first green building in Collinsville.

One of the reasons for owner-building are based partly upon the satisfaction of DIYing. (For a perspective on this viewpoint, visit another post about DIY building.  The other reason for DIYing is our impossibly low budget. Consequently, it was never a choice between DIYing or hiring a professional -- it was a choice between doing the project ourselves or not doing it at all.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Our Journey Begins

Unexpected Mutual Interest
Shortly after Dorothy and I were married in the early 2000's, we realized that we had a mutual interest in energy conservation.  She and her late husband had belonged to a solar greenhouse interest group and considered adding a two-story greenhouse to their 19th century farmhouse.  I had been following the "earth home" movement from afar, not ever expecting to become a part of it.

Dottie tutoring in one of her RSCs
Dorothy Follows Her Passion
About six years ago, Dorothy wound down her rep agency for educational materials and used her PhD in Education and business acumen to satisfy her passion for tutoring. She started the non-profit "Reading Success Center" which helps other non-profits establish programs for underachieving readers.  Growth of the Center has exceeded all expectations to the extent that Dorothy is now into an all-consuming 24/7 situation and loving every minute of it.

Yours Truly Goes Crazy
When my interest in sustainability and energy conservation got totally out of control and morphed into "let's go build an energy neutral home for ourselves", Dottie was only too happy with her schedule to delegate the project to me........but with one proviso.

Modest home in St Charles
Strict Budget
Both of us had already downsized considerably, especially when we bought our house in St Charles, MO, a northwestern suburb of St Louis (the first capital of Missouri). And we agreed that, since our house was paid for it made no sense at our ages to rob other assets or borrow money for a new house.  Our construction budget, after selling the St Charles home during the great recession and paying for land in Collinsville, IL, turned out to be $72,000 and our final design turned out to be 2,100 sq ft. Do the math and we are talking an-unheard-of $34 per sq ft which is about 25% of contractor prices in our area.  

Accept the Challenge 
My early thoughts were that the budget was doable, primarily because I intended to use mostly lumber that I would salvage from tear-downs and most of the labor would be free -- mine and volunteers.  However, it did not take long for reality to set in. Since the budget was firm, reality dictated that we choose between building smaller and/or finding alternative strategies.  As you will see if you stay with us, it was mostly alternative strategies that won the day -- such as limiting the amount of earth sheltering to one wall, thus eliminating the need for timber framing, and using truss walls filled with rice hull insulation for the stick-built exterior walls in lieu of structural insulated panels.

Energy Neutral Home - Mini-Description

Breaking Even With the Utility Company
So often an "off-the-grid" home is equated with merely replacing utility power with wind or solar.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The keys to utility-free living are in the unique design of the house, attention to details during its construction and its complimentary furnishings.  Then, when a photo-voltaic array or a wind turbine is added, its role is relatively small compared to what would be the case for a conventionally-built house.  

For Example.........
The average home in the St Louis area consumes around 13,000 kilowatt hours/year. Our consumption now is 6,400 KWH/yr and will drop to about 1,600 KWH/yr in the new home. The investment in a PV array sized for us to break even with the utility will pay for itself in 4-5 years. However, if we were the average energy consumer at 13,000 kilowatt hours/year moving into our house, the return on investment would be only a couple of years.

Small Budget-Big Plans 
Our goal is to use a budget that doesn't exceed the proceeds from the sale of our 1,400 sq ft home to build a certified 2,100 sq ft green home that is architecturally more interesting and in harmony with nature and with our lifestyles while minimizing future costs for energy, upkeep and senior care.

Unique Design
Our project utilizes many non-standard features to save energy and preserve finite resources.
  • No conventional heating or air conditioning
  • Heat gain from the summer sun stored in large thermal mass for winter heating and summer cooling
  • Super-insulated walls and cathedral ceilings
  • Truss-walls with rice hull insulation
Lumber salvaged from tear-downs
  • Construction lumber salvaged from tear-downs
  • Blower-door testing for air infiltration
  • Airlock between outside environment and living quarters
  • Partially earth-sheltered
  • Frost protected shallow foundation
  • Metal roof and siding
  • Fiberglass windows and doors
  • Screened porch next to kitchen
  • Locally harvested walnut and oak for cabinets, built-ins and casework
  • Fly-ash concrete
  • Materials and finishes with no VOCs
  • PEX water lines
  • Radon mitigation
  • Landscaping with native plants
  • Eastern red cedar windbreak -- west and north of house
  • Rain gardens, vegetable garden, berry patch and fruit trees
  • Retaining walls and maybe driveway from recycled barn foundation stones
  • Compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act 
  • In-fill location close to community infrastructure
Locally-harvested red oak for interior casework
  • Energy recovery ventilator
  • Tank-less water heater
  • Low-flow faucets; dual-flush toilets
  • Energy Star, or better, appliances and ceiling fans
  • Mostly LED task lighting and dim-able, motion-activated switches for LED general lighting

About Dorothy Young

Education and Career
Dorothy waited until her three kids were older before beginning her college education, which culminated in a PhD in Education from St Louis University.  She taught in the Education Department at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville for five years. Then her career swerved from education to entrepreneurship when she established a sales agency for educational materials.  Initially, the materials were books, maps, globes and laser discs but soon morphed almost entirely into instructional software. Dorothy's specialty was reading software.

When Dorothy and I met in '99 after losing our spouses a couple of years earlier, I learned that her dream was to retire someday and tutor kids.  So, about six years ago, indeed, she wound down her agency and chartered a non-profit called "Reading Success Center". She spent three years developing a model at the Boys and Girls Club in St Peters that could be successfully duplicated and turn-keyed.  Now she spends most of her time finding and vetting new reading remediation sites then training site directors and volunteer tutors.  Her love of teaching nevertheless keeps her in the classroom as site director in hometown Collinsville. 

As of mid-2014, the RSC has helped half dozen non-profits establish their own independent centers -- such places as the Boys and Girls Club in St Charles, Slay Boys Club and Mathew-Dickey Boys Club in St Louis, Christian Activities Center in East St Louis and St Johns Evangelical UCC Church in Collinsville (sponsored by the Women's Club of Collinsville)
 in addition to the original St Peters location.  Using virtual software simultaneously for most of the centers, hundreds of under-achieving readers are now being tutored daily year-round, mostly kids in K thru 4.  The need for reading instruction is immeasurable, particularly among the economically challenged and among the growing number of special students (think autism, ADHD and dyslexia) whose needs are not well met in the traditional school setting. At the time of this writing, Dorothy and her Board had several additional centers on the drawing board and were making long range plans for more software licenses and many more centers throughout the St Louis area.  

Do-It-Yourselfer and Gardener
Unfortunately, all this activity leaves Dottie with little time or mind space for building a house, including blogging about it.  Over the years as a single-parent rental property owner, she developed many handy-person skills that would be useful for our project but, be that as it may, she feels that is best to opt out of the building project so she can use her real talent in the service of needy kids. 

However, Dorothy does carve out time for a parallel passion -- gardening.  She has been gardening since her childhood in rural Horse Prairie (a crossroads near Redbud, IL).  As detailed in the post about Dorothy's garden, she still makes time for vegetable a gardening on a large scale and more recently landscaping with native plants.  

Update September 2015
Since the original post, Dottie has branched out.  She has been instrumental in the formation of a 501c3 for a loosely affiliated group of African Americans in St Louis who came to this country a few decades back as sponsored refugees from war- and apartheid-torn countries in Africa.  When one of the refugees faced prostate cancer on limited resources, Dottie guided him to proper treatment.  When the same individual formed an Advisory Board for taking an invention to market, he tapped Dottie as a member.  

We have been long-time members of the  St Louis chapter of Wild Ones, a national organization that advocates for landscaping with native plants and eradicating invasives. When the STL chapter membership grew to an unworkable number and a few members lived east of the Mississippi River in Illinois, Dorothy and I volunteered to start a new Metro-East chapter.  But, guess what, it was Dottie that got'er done. At the time of this writing, we are 20+ members strong and celebrated our first anniversary in August, 2015.

I have always said that Dottie was not hyperactive but she is not normal either!

Why This Blog?

Brief History
We have spent eight years designing an "off-the-grid" home that will utilize materials and methods that are not typical.  In preparation, we have spent countless hours researching books, magazines, websites, technical manuals, manufacturers' literature, trade show handouts and interacting with like-minded individuals.  We have accumulated a small library, filled a filing cabinet and bookmarked many websites.

This blog launched in the summer of 2014.  At that time, we were in the final construction drawing stage and planned to break ground later that summer.  Dorothy has collaborated from the beginning but, due to her busy schedule, designated me as the sole blogger and do-it-yourselfer builder.  (For more on Dorothy, particularly her incredible impact on non-readers through her Reading Success Center, go to About Dorothy.)

Our first goal is to share the extensive information we have gathered and filter it through our opinions, biases, compromises, frustrations and preferences.  We will walk you through our design evolution, land acquisition, consultant and vendor vetting, estimating costs, stockpiling salvage materials, gaining construction experience, accumulating tools and equipment and getting our project certified.  We are hoping that, by virtue of my being a do-it-selfer, the spin we give the topics will be different than a professional would give you. 

Keith and Dawn's house in an early stage; Dottie in
 the middle, Keith at the right. friend, Jerry, on left
Our second goal  is to have a running dialogue while we are building the house. Based upon the time it took us to build a house for Dottie's son, Keith and his wife, Dawn, ours will probably take at least four years.

Our third goal is to report in ensuing years on the success of the project -- its good outcomes as well as any bad -- particularly with regard to its thermal performance and energy efficiency. Presumably by that time, I will also be able to share hard-earned tips, especially about energy-saving strategies and working alone during construction.

Our fourth goal is to detail the reasons for our inflexible and stringent budget and how we priced the costs ahead of time before committing to the final drawings.  And we will report throughout construction on how we are doing with staying on budget. We would like to discredit the common notion that green building costs a lot more and and doesn't pay off fast enough..

Green building for professionals
Our last goal is to persuade others to embrace sustainability and green building, even as DIYers.  I have heard that, when it comes to new ideas, it takes 20% early adopters before mainstream even notices. We want to be among the twenty-percenters moving green building into the mainstream, not just with the public but with professionals as well.  In keeping with this goal, we will make our home available as a demonstration site.

To Teach is to Learn
After blogging a short while, the old cliche, "To teach is to learn" became real.  Sharing my thoughts in a blog and wanting to present the best face in doing so has made me research, organize and self-vet way more than I would have done otherwise, resulting in heightened clarity that will enhance the quality of the project and improve chances of staying on budget.  And as the blog matures and reaches more interested folks, I look forward to comments that make things even better.

            *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Update - Fall of 2016
This post was one of the earliest to the blog.  At the time it was written, I had no idea as to the number of viewers to expect but felt that its impact on sustainability would be directly proportional to the number of visitors.  Viewership began at a snails pace -- it took 26 months to reach 10,000 visitors but then only one month to surpass 15,000.  In the beginning, about a third of hits came from outside North America but now foreign hits have stayed steady while North American hits are increasing rapidly.  Hopefully, the sudden increase in readership means that our "early-adopterism" is starting to have more impact than I originally could have imagined.