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.