It has been a busy winter and spring, wrapping up construction. Work on the house and carport were essentially complete in March; however, delays in locating the pervious pavers and an installer for the pervious concrete kept us from completing the site work until mid-April.
We wrapped up landscaping and received our Certificate of Occupancy on April 29th.
The finish stages of the project went much more smoothly, if a bit slower than the rough phases. I hired an excellent carpenter for the interior trim, and he did a terrific job with the poplar finger-jointed moldings and doors. I am fussy about my trim work and it met my expectations.
Our custom cabinet shop was equally skilled, providing us with well-crafted cabinets with excellent low-VOC finishes. We ended up with soapstone counters in the kitchen and bathrooms with a walnut butcher block island. I sought out local stone for the counters, but there was none available – primarily due to the cost. Few vendors bother to stock domestic stone slabs since the imported ones are significantly less expensive and provide more choices.
We hired a closet company to fit out our storage shelving. Having had a bad experience with high urea formaldehyde content in these products in the past, I insisted on material documentation on the selected products. We ended up working with the installer who provided a CARB 2 compliant laminated composite board, with no detectable odor when installed.
I have not done any indoor air quality testing, but I am comfortable that we have kept product pollutants to a minimum. Walls and trim were painted with Sherwin Williams Harmony zero-VOC paints, floors were finished with water-based Bona Kemi Traffic. We looked at low-VOC stains, but unfortunately were unable to find a color that satisfied our taste, so the stain was a higher VOC content than I would have preferred.
Once all the interior finishes were installed, we did a thorough flush of the house over an entire weekend with windows open and fans on, which did a good job clearing out any remaining VOCs indoors (and picked up some credits for green certifications).
Lighting was a combination of integrated LED fixtures and standard lights with LED lamps. Even though I have said they are evil, I did ceiling fans, all . They aren’t inexpensive, but I love the design as well as the efficiency. Several of them have built-in LED lights, and all are operated by remote control, and some even by iPhone if you want.
Water, water everywhere
I worked hard to design a hot water distribution system that was simple and efficient. Starting with a centrally located Marathon tank water heater, I had the plumbers site build a PEX manifold with ½-inch insulated hot water lines run as directly to each fixture as possible. And it worked! Every fixture gets hot water within about 15-20 seconds, wasting no more than a half gallon of water (or less). I probably could have had them run 3/8-inch lines instead and done even better, but I’m good with the results.
We installed and plumbing fixtures throughout, all Watersense-certified. We specified dual flush toilets and 2 g.p.m. shower heads. Given the cost of water service these days, we’re expecting to keep our bills in line.
Laundry equipment is all Energy Star compliant from , including a condensing dryer. Although it takes a little longer to dry clothes, it is both significantly more energy-efficient than a traditional dryer, and it eliminates the need for an exhaust duct. In a house this tight, the dryer exhaust would have risked significant depressurization, probably requiring some form of makeup air.
HVAC installers had some issues
We are conditioning the house with three ductless minisplit heads: one over the front door for the entire first floor, one for the master suite, and one in the upstairs hallway for the remainder of the upstairs.
Each is controlled by a . The initial rough-in went well; however, after drywall was installed, I had the indoor heads installed, in order to avoid any problems after paint and trim was complete. Unfortunately, the installers had roughed-in the linesets in the wrong place on the units, so they had to remove drywall to relocate them, requiring some extra patching.
Annoying, but manageable at the time. But the problems continued.
When the installers returned to complete the installation, they screwed the wireless transmitters to the side of the minisplits with exposed black wires, a truly unfortunate decision. With a bit of coaxing, they agreed to relocate the transmitters to the top of the units where they are much less visible.
So everything is wired up and running fine. I think I’m over the hump, and my third-party inspector for National Lakesideca Standard certification is comparing the equipment to the design and discovers that they swapped two of the heads. They installed a 6-kbtu unit where a 12 was supposed to go. This required, yet again, tearing out drywall to reconnect linesets, this time after all the paint and trim was complete.
It is not easy to patch drywall in a tight space between a minisplit, trim, and wall corners, but my painter managed to do a nice job under tough circumstances.
I don’t mean to beat on the HVAC contractor, because they generally did a very conscientious job, but they really screwed the pooch on a couple of issues.
Now that the installation is up and running, I can say, so far, so good. The building envelope is so tight (.88 ach50) that the house is comfortable and consistent without duct systems. The thermostats have a smart phone interface which allows me to change settings from anywhere – out of town or laying in bed.
The thermostats do limit the unit fans to two speeds instead of fully variable, but they also power down the minisplit heads when not calling for conditioning, unlike the supplied remote controls which require manually turning the units on and off unless you want the fans running constantly.
So far, keeping doors open keeps the house comfortable. We have a 190 cfm exhaust fan located near the upstairs hall unit, ducted into the two front bedrooms, wired to turn on whenever the mini split is running, that will provide enough conditioned air to those rooms when the doors are closed. I installed an override switch to turn off the fan when not needed, which ends up being most of the time. We will use it when guests are in those rooms and keep the doors closed, and possibly in the brief periods of severe cold we see around here.
A provides outside air and assists in circulating air around the first floor. Setting up the controller was a bit of a challenge as the instructions weren’t very clear. I ultimately decided to run it full time in circulation mode with 20 minutes of outside air every hour. So far, so good. However the damper for the outside air is louder than I would have expected. It took me a few days to figure out what the periodic “thump” I was hearing came from, but now I am used to it.
Humidity has been a bit of an issue, particularly on the frequent days when the temperature is moderate and the humidity high. In retrospect, I probably would have been better off with a venting dehumidifier instead of an ERV to avoid having to run air conditioning when all I need is dehumidification, but that will be for the next house (which isn’t going to happen — I’m done building).
I installed condensation sensors on all the bath exhaust fans, and haven’t figured out how their little brains work. They seem to turn on and off whenever they want to, with no relationship to the humidity indoors. I’ve played with the settings with no success. An ongoing project.
The turned out well, allowing us to create very traditional details with their resawn lap siding, flat stock, and beadboard tongue-and-groove materials. Exterior wood was limited to bed molding, soffit lookouts, and the entry porch, as well as the acetylated material used for the porch floor and rails.
The carport trellis was made from additional Tru Exterior ripped into narrow strips on which we are considering growing vines in the future. The thin brick applied to the foundation turned out well, and was a good match to the solid brick used for the front stoop and rear planter.
Due to site coverage requirements, we had to install pervious paving for the entire driveway. Concrete pavers were installed over a 9-inch bed of 57 stone which was laid on top of a geotextile fabric, the gaps between the pavers allow for drainage into the sub-base. The pervious concrete driveway was installed on the same base.
Locating a pervious concrete installer was a challenge, taking much longer than expected, delaying the entire project for several weeks. Luckily we located a very skilled installer who, while a little temperamental, did an excellent job. Watching pervious paving drain instead of run off always amazes me. I’m not looking forward to the maintenance, including regular removal of debris and period vacuuming, but it will keep the drainage working properly.
Our landscape includes no turf grass, and all plants are native or drought-tolerant species. This design requires lots of mulch, and we (or our landscape contractor) will need to do a lot of weeding until ground cover is well established over the next few years.
Since this is an all-electric house, we opted for an induction range. I had always heard great things about them, and they live up to their reputation. The heat is fast and very easy to control. The most amazing feature to me is the speed boost which can boil water in about 2 minutes.
My personal favorite feature in the house is the Broan exhaust hood over the Big Green Egg on the porch. In my last house I learned that grills on porches lead to very greasy ceilings, so I opted for a hood this time.
We are certified
Our first certification was EarthCraft, primarily because it is required in Decatur to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy, and it was the one we could achieve the quickest. The project is currently certified at Gold level, although I believe we will upgrade it to Platinum once we resolve the Watersense certification requirement.
The next certificate was NGBS Emerald. We were surprised and pleased to find out that this is the . NGBS had a bad rap early on from green building purists as being too easy, but it is getting tougher, and hitting Emerald level was a big challenge.
The house was also certified as Zero Energy Ready, even though there is no solar exposure — the DOE allows a waiver for projects with this condition.
We are seeking LEED Version 4 Platinum certification. Final inspection is complete and project is submitted for review. Based on past experience, this will take a couple of months, so I’m not holding my breath.
As an added bonus, the City of Decatur Historic Preservation Commission presented the house with their . We apparently finished just in time for this year’s presentation.
The house is occupied. We are enjoying the fruits of our labors. My stress level is lower and I’m sleeping better. We still have lots of pictures to hang, window coverings on order, and some furniture to rearrange, but it’s good to be in.
Looking forward to seeing how it performs through this summer and next winter. Here’s hoping for very low power bills.