Friday, July 11, 2014

Introduction - 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.

Introduction - 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

Introduction - 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!

Introduction - 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.

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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.

Introduction - How This Blog is Organized


This blog, as we envision it going in, will have five major sections.  
  • Timeline
  • Design
  • Construction
  • Performance
  • Odds 'N Ends
Section I:  Timeline
Our journey into sustainability and green building began eight years ago.  This section recaps the important milestones leading up to the actual construction of the house. Most of the posts explain the pros and cons of various green building options and why we chose the ones we did.  We were able to follow through with most choices but did have to alter or substitute for others at the time of construction.

Section II:  Design
This section describes the final design of the energy neutral home that we will start building in the summer of 2014.

Section III:  Construction
This section takes root in late summer of 2014 and will discuss major accomplishments, problems, solutions, frustrations, surprises, disappointments and who knows what else in conjunction with building a house and working largely alone.

Section IV:  Performance
Since construction will take between two and four years, this section will likely commence sometime in 2017 or 2018.  Our intention is to report on the positive and negative outcomes of our non-standard design, particularly its thermal performance over a period of years.

Odds 'N Ends
This is really not a "section".  Interspersed throughout the blog will be posts covering topics that do not fit nicely with the other sections.

After several dozen posts, it became apparent that a quick link to Annualized GeoSolar, on which our passive solar build is based, would be helpful for the casual viewer and for easy referencing in future posts.  Consequently, the addition of............
Featured Post
In the right column of each post, there is a heading, "Featured Post".  The most unique feature of our project is the use of Annualized GeoSolar conditioning in lieu conventional heating and air conditioning.  A click on "Timeline - Annualized GeoSolar" under "Featured Post" is the quickest pathway to the posts that explain AGS.

My overarching goal is to contribute to the dialog on sustainability.  My secondary goal, in light of the lack of information on earth sheltered passive solar construction, to offer a resource for other green builders.  Therefore, I am writing the blog as if the reader is seriously considering a passive solar build.  I want to share the thinking that goes into even the most minor decisions and explain what went well and what did not.  I want to detail construction so thoroughly that anyone can emulate it to whatever degree deemed useful. The downside to this level of detail is that it will be overkill for the casual viewer.  But I am hoping that even quick and infrequent page-viewers can become ambassadors for sustainability.