Archive for April, 2012
My last post showed how our PEX tubing was installed. That happened on Monday. On Tuesday Mike Flynn arrived with his crew to bury it in 4 inches of reinforced concrete and create our basement floor.
Doug wanted me to get one more photo of the bracket that held all the PEX tubing in place below the manifold, and I thought I was in plenty of time, but as I came to County Highway H, the concrete truck sailed past me and I had to follow it up our driveway. By the time I got my camera out and ran to the house site, the concrete shoot was already in place and ready to pour. But they held up long enough for me to tip toe across the Styrofoam, being careful not to step on any PEX tubing, get my shot, and hotfoot it back out of the way. Then the shoot began to vibrate and a deep, gravelly rumble filled the air. The concrete was flowing!
I watched as Mike and his crew moved calmly and deliberately, wading through the concrete slush and spreading it out. They had marked a red line all around the wall as a guide, and they had placed several rods in the middle of the floor, laser-leveled to the same height.
The ground around the house is pretty spongy because it’s covered with freshly-excavated dirt from digging the basement, so Mike had the concrete delivered in two half-full trucks. That ensured that neither truck would get stuck somewhere just out of reach of the far corners of the basement. The second truck pulled up as the first was emptying.
I was a little dismayed to see the crew walking around on top of the PEX tubing, but Andy, the Full Spectrum engineer who had carefully laid out and stapled down the tubing the day before, had told me it was strong enough to be stepped on. And they really didn’t have a choice. There is a lot of manipulation to get a concrete floor smoothed out.
Within a few hours, the concrete was hard enough to walk on, and they spent a few more hours moving around with a big device that looked like a giant buffing machine. It had paddles, which they gradually raised, and each pass brought more of the finest particles to the surface in a process known as creaming, to make it smoother and smoother.
It will continue to cure for years, but will be hard enough to work on in days.
Speaking of how the concrete is hardening, Prairie and Brad nailed Styrofoam panels on the outside of the east basement wall today. They had put Styrofoam on the other walls about a week ago. They both commented that it was much harder to drive the nails into the concrete this week. Though it looks exactly the same, it is getting more rock-like every day.
Last night, Doug and I entertained our first guest in our new “home” when my best friend Susan Krause dropped by. We grabbed some of the white plastic lawn chairs I have been rescuing from Madison curbsides , opened three bottles of local beer and had a good gab on the new slab.
It felt like home.
We have been working for months with Full Spectrum Solar, to plan the heating system for our house, and Monday it started coming together.
Underhill House will be heated by three mechanisms:
- Passive solar
- a wood burning stove
- infloor radiant heat from solar panels with propane backup.
The PEX tubing for the infloor heat was laid out today in the lower level. The name PEX comes from the term polyethylene, cross-linked. Cross-links are bonds that link one polymerchain to another. This high-tech plastic is put through several processes to make it more durable in the face of repeated heating and cooling cycles, and it does not corrode, which means it can give the much more classic, but costly, copper tubing a run for its money.
The development of PEX tubing made infloor heating attractive. When you combine PEX with improved insulation, and sophisticated controls, radiant heat and solar heating systems become an ideal choice to keep your toes toasty within a small carbon footprint.
The downside is that this stuff degrades quickly in sunlight, but as we are burying it in concrete, it should be pretty safe. How long will PEX last in concrete? I’ve seen figures ranging from 50 to 200 years. The 200 years figure is a wild guess, but so far it has been in use since the 1970s, and it’s holding up well.
Andy DeRocher, our project engineer at Full Spectrum, has prepared a meticulously thought-through plan for laying our PEX. And it’s beautiful too. When I saw the plan above, I wanted to frame it and put it on the wall.
Before he and Mark O’Neal (co-owner and master plumber at Full Spectrum) could install the PEX, they went over the floor plan once more with our construction manager Bryan Dalstrom, who drew out exactly where all of the basement walls and doorways will be. Then Mark sketched the exact map for the PEX.
Mark and Andy guided tubes of PEX along the sketched lines, and Andy fixed the tubing to the Styrofoam with a giant specially made staple gun.
By design, no tubing will run under wall locations. This ensures that no wall anchors penetrate the tubing during interior wall framing. As a result, the tubing was snaked from “room” to “room” through the doorways, tracing out the pathway that we will walk through Underhill House time and again once we take occupancy.
Doug noticed a blank spot in the floor plan and asked why there were no PEX tubing there. Andy pointed out that is the spot where our chest freezer will sit. It would be counterproductive to heat the floor under the freezer. (Nice, Andy. Very nice! – It’s that kind of attention to detail that makes us feel like we are getting the perfect solar infloor heating plan.) All the tubes are now connected to a manifold against the mechanical room wall, where controls for the system will be added at a later point in the construction.
The last step of the day was to temporarily seal off and pressurize the system to check for any leaks. A pressure gauge was installed to hold the system at 30 psi, but much to Andy and Mark’s surprise, nothing registered on the gauge when the line was pressurized. Doug had just arrived after teaching all day, and and it must have been doubly troubling for Mark and Andy to wonder what the problem was with the home owners looking on. To think there could be a leak in this spaghetti bowl of tubing Yikes! But after several minutes of checking every possibility, it turned out that the pressure gauge itself was malfunctioning. Andy and Mark both agreed (to their chagrin) they had never had that happen before but after a fresh gauge confirmed everything was pressurizing properly, today’s job was done.
The system will stay pressurized until the concrete pour is complete to ensure that no inadvertent puncture occurs during the process. It would not be a fun surprise to find that a line got pinched or cut after the concrete has cured!
Tomorrow this entire work of art will be covered in 4 inches of concrete. It’s kind of like Buddhist Butter Sculpture. Now you see it – now you don’t.
But what is going to look like a Clark Kent concrete slab will actually be a Superman high performance radiant floor that will maintain comfortable temperatures in the rooms above it with minimal use of fossil fuels.
Full Spectrum Solar is designing and installing the solar domestic hot water and in-floor heating system for Underhill House. They celebrated their Ten Year Anniversary with an open house today that was part of the Commercial Sustainable Showcase – one of the ways Madison WI is whooping it up for Earth Day.
Doug and I have been at Full Spectrum several times now. First when we were interviewing five different companies to select our solar provider. We picked Full Spectrum because they had clear expertise and also the willingness and flexibility to work with our unconventional, natural-built plans.
We have put our heads together with one of their project engineers, Andy DeRocher, several times as he has planned and refined our system. Andy has been meticulous in customizing our system. He is a civil engineer, master plumber, NABCEP certified solar heating installer and Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) solar electric instructor.
When we visited today, we learned that there are even more reasons to like Full Spectrum. Their building is walking the solar walk. The offices are heated with in-floor heat and they generate 1.4 KWH of electricity with a photovoltaic array, They also use several electricity-saving devices and methods as well.
Even their sign on the street highlights a desire to conserve energy. Madison, like many municipalities has regulations about how much light business signs can emit. When you see those big boxes outside businesses that are lit from within, you are seeing a lot of wasted energy in most cases. They have one light source, which must shine a lot of light to make the words bright. Co-owner, Burke O’Neal was unwilling to use the 400 watt bulb required. Instead he came up with a system of LEDs that illuminate the sign with only 100 watts.
Their building also has:
- High-efficiency boiler system with radiant heat
- Motion activated on-demand hot water recirculation system
- Natural daylighting of office area
- Nighttime ventilation system for summer cooling
- Super-insulated walls and ceiling
- Carbon-dioxide regulated ventilation
- Reused office furniture and light fixtures
- Salvaged bamboo flooring from Habitat for Humanity
They not only walk the walk–they ride the ride:
- Their diesel utility vans are mainly dodge Sprinters, with 40 to 50% better than mileage than standard gas-fueled vans.
- They just leased a Chevy Volt.
- For short trips around town they ride a solar-charged hybrid electric bicycle.
While we were enjoying the open house, we joined Andy at his desk to make a few final tweaks to the plans for installing the pecs tubing for our lower floor. Weather permitting that will be installed on Monday April 23. Three guesses what my post will be about Tuesday.
Much of the inspiration for the home we are building has its roots in the 300-year-old farmhouse we lived in while Doug was doing his postdoc in the Netherlands about 25 years ago.
We were particularly open to the idea of building a whole-tree, unmilled timber frame house because we’ve already had the good fortune to live in a house held up by wooden supports carrying the individual character of the trees they came from. That’s me, having my morning coffee in our Dutch dining area, which was in a part of the house that had originally been a stable. The house would be called small by American standards, and yet it was both house and barn for its first century or so.
Another feature of the house was a small plaque by the front door with a Dutch word, “Warmoe,” we could find no translation for. We asked our neighbors. They said it was just the name of the house, and it went back beyond anyone’s recollection as to what it meant.
I don’t think everyone in the village knew the name of our house in the 1980s, but I’ll bet the villagers did 100 years ago. It was probably used to give directions. Street numbering was instituted by an act of Parliament in England in 1765, and the Dutch probably started numbering about the same time. Before that, named houses would have been a big help in giving directions and finding your way.
It occurred to us a few months ago, that our house needed a name.
Since we’re hoping that this will also be a building that provides direction toward more mindful construction materials and practices, a name makes sense. Remembering the mysterious name of our Dutch house, we wanted to pick something that would not lose its meaning. We considered names that might indicate its passive solar design or some other construction feature.
What finally resonated with both Doug, me and our architect Della Hansmann is Underhill House.
Ever since we started looking for land, we were always seeking a place where we could build into a hill with a southern exposure to take advantage of all the passive solar and earth sheltered potential a site like that provides. It was no accident that one of the reasons we fell in love with our 44 acres, was that it had a reasonably practical building site on a south-facing slope. The choice of a sod roof that slopes down from the northeast to the southwest, reflecting the hill itself, was the capper for choosing the name. Draped in dirt, we think our house will appear to have risen up out of the hill ready to capture the morning sun, and yet still be grounded under an earthy crown.
The Driftless Area escaped being ground flat by the past three glaciers that passed over this area, and is incongruously rugged. There are plenty of south-facing hills. But if you pick a hill that’s too steep, you run into a lot of building challenges, and surmounting those challenges is not exactly green.
Even our reasonably gentle slope has already cost us and the environment. Because the ground was sloping and soft and sandy, we had to use a pumper truck, which could park safely below and push the concrete for the foundation high into the air. But we anticipate that the energy equation will come to rest well on the sustainable side as Underhill House soaks up decades, we’re hoping centuries, of energy savings.
So, before it has walls or a roof, our house has a name. Underhill House. I have gazed at that slope so many times as we planned our house, hoping to build a home that will seem almost to be a part of the hill it is nestled under.
Those Tolkien readers among you will detect a familiar reference. That small resonance with Bag End, added to our fondness for the name. (I’m not going to tell you how many times I’ve read Lord of the Rings, but it is less than 20 – probably.)
I like this name.
If you want to build a sustainable home, follow the path to Underhill House and then keep on going.
What do you think about naming houses?
What are the coolest house names you’ve heard?
The Xerces Society has just released the report, Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees? A Review of Research into the Effects of Neonicotinoid Insecticides on Bees, with Recommendations for Action.
According to a report from Penn State, The neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticides that impact the central nervous system of insects. They act either as contact insecticides or applied to plants, they are translocated throughout the plant tissue, making all parts of the plant toxic to pests that feed on the plants.
Their use has increased dramatically over the past few years and they are now the most widely used group of insecticides in the US. Their uses include: seed treatments for corn, cotton, canola and sunflowers; foliar sprays of fruit, nut and coffee crops; granular, and liquid drench applications in turf, ornamentals, fruit crops and in forests.
A report by the National Potato Council states that it is used on more than half the potato crops in this country and that the pests they are trying to kill are starting to develop resistance already.
Neonicotinoid (so named because it is similar to nicotine) hit the market in the mid 1990s and were popular because they are absorbed into the treated plant and protect it from insects who suck its sap of chew on it.
They have been promoted as being safer for wildlife because they were less toxic to birds and mammals than previous classes of insecticides. Neonicotinoids are sold at garden centers and agricultural supply stores, and millions of acres of farmlands, gardens and city yards have been treated.
That’s too bad for pollinating insects who are poisoned by the neonicotinoid present in nectar and pollen of treated plants. That includes bees, butterflies, beetles and flies. And Unfortunately the bees, butterflies and other pollinators don’t seem to be bouncing back as well as the Potato Beetle.
Some of the major findings of the Xeerces report include:
- Several of these insecticides are highly toxic to honey bees and bumblebees.
- Products approved for homeowners to use in gardens, lawns, and on ornamental trees have manufacturer-recommended application rates up to 120 times higher than rates approved for agricultural crops.
- Many neonicotinoid pesticides that are sold to homeowners for use on lawns and gardens do not have any mention of the risks of these products to bees, and the label guidance for products used in agriculture is not always clear or consistent.
- Neonicotinoid residues are found in pollen and nectar consumed by pollinators such as bees and butterflies. The residues can reach lethal concentrations in some situations.
- Neonicotinoids can persist in soil for months or years after a single application. Measurable amounts of residues were found in woody plants up to six years after application.
- Untreated plants may absorb chemical residues left over in the soil from the previous year.
- There is no direct link demonstrated between neonicotinoids and the honey bee syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). However, recent research suggests that neonicotinoids may make honey bees more susceptible to parasites and pathogens, including the intestinal parasite Nosema, which has been implicated as one causative factor in CCD.
If you want to avoid contaminating the world with neonicotinoids, here are some of the brand names it is sold under:
Actara, Platinum, Helix, Cruiser, Adage, Meridian, Centric, Flagship, Poncho, Titan, Clutch, Belay, Arena, Confidor, Merit, Admire, Ledgend, Pravado, Encore, Goucho, Premise, Assail, Intruder, Adjust and Calypso (This list was generated by The Senior Extension Associate at Penn State)
This Saturday, anyone living near Madison WI will have a chance to get up close and personal with science.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison takes sharing its research with its citizens very seriously.
I’ve written about the amazing accessibility of the science on this campus in the past. (see Twinkle, Twinkle, UW-Madison )
This Saturday, the 10th annual Science Expeditions will offer a bigger, better opportunity to learn about science and get to know the labs, museums and researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The 2012 version of Science Expeditions, will open to the public more than 40 hands-on science exploration stations at two dozen different venues around campus – all connected to each other and free parking by a trolley that will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“Last year, we had thousands of visitors who met and learned from the people who work here,” says Tom Zinnen, a Science Expeditions organizer and outreach specialist at UW-Madison’s Biotechnology Center. “It’s all about those people. I love going to science museums, but science museums are primarily about exhibits. The great thing about coming to campus is that you get to talk to the scientists.”
That’s a key opportunity for the public, which funds research at universities around the country with billions of tax dollars.
“The people we’re inviting to campus aren’t just visitors, they’re patrons,” Zinnen says. “We have a stake in them, they have a stake in us – even if they never set foot on campus.”
Those that do set foot on campus or Science Expeditions will have more to do and see than ever before.
The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, 330 N. Orchard St., will serve as a hub, providing tours and hosting up-close encounters ranging from live reptiles to the science of chocolate. A series of Science Spectaculars will showcase physics, chemistry, astronomy and ever-popular dinosaurs in buildings near the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery from 10 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.
Among Science Expeditions’ many new venues are:
- The newly refurbished Biochemical Sciences Building, 440 Henry Mall, will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for Biochemistry Outreach Day, with tours of new facilities given by the scientists who work in them.
- Birge Hall, 430 Lincoln Drive, home to the Botany Department and Wisconsin State Herbarium, will let visitors see with the eyes of a botanist at its Plant Imaging Center from noon to 2 p.m., offer guided tours of the Botany Greenhouse every 45 minutes starting at 10 a.m., and send people away with plant seedlings for at-home experimentation.
- The Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Ave., is planning a tour on the science of art conservation at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., and another, “Bountiful Beauty: Fruit in Art,” at 1 and 2:15 p.m.
Also open for tours, presentations and other activities are Allen Centennial Gardens, UW Arboretum, the Botanical Gardens, Geology Museum, the Ingersoll Physics Museum in Chamberlin Hall, Chemistry Building, Madison Children’s Museum (where admission is charged), Genetics-Biotechnology Center Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, Microbial Sciences Building, the Stock Pavilion, D.C. Smith Greenhouse, Science House, the Zoological Museum, Steenbock Library, Babcock Hall Dairy Store, the Primate Center’s Learning Lobby, and the Dairy Cattle Center’s afternoon milking from 4:30 to 6 p.m.
This is your chance to learn more!
For a full schedule and information on parking, bus routes and the circulating trolley, visit the Science Expeditions website here.
If you don’t live near Madison, what are the science learning options available to you? How do you like to keep up on the scientific research that affects all our lives in so many ways?
Foundations are not for the faint of heart.
They are a commitment.
We hope ours will last for 500 years.
That becomes doubly difficult when you have a walk-out basement, and you need to frost protect the footing in multiple ways. In our case, we have three different components to our footing.
- The slab-on-grade portion of the first floor has its own footing, supporting a fairly traditional 3’9” below-grade frost wall.
- Most of the basement concrete wall, being earth sheltered, will sit on a separate footing, dug into the hill 8’8” deeper than the first floor footing.
- The walkout portion of the basement will sit on it’s own 3’9” below-grade frost-protected footing.
We have every reason to believe that we are doing things right, in a manner that should last. To top it off, all three wall components, including the two frost walls and the buried basement all were made with a single pour.
There will be rebar joining all three together in a steel-reinforced network. No cold joints: where fresh concrete is poured against an already- cured wall. Hopefully, Underhill House will be as solid as the rocky hill it is dug into.
The details of this foundation were not written in stone in our building contract. We witnessed a heartfelt battle in the design between our architect and our concrete guy, Mike Flynn. The resolution was a compromise that we think will be better than either competing plan.
When you step away from conventional building techniques, you need a pioneer’s innovative approach to problem solving in new territory, forging new plans on the fly.
It was a fascinating process to watch as the forms built the day before filled with a porridge-like substance that will turn to rock.
Finally, and suddenly the shape of our house is defined.
There is no going back.
Full speed ahead.
Foundations are forever.
Underhill House is going to be the site of a number of natural building workshops during its construction, and the first four are now scheduled. I’m happy that workshops will be part of our house. Doug and I have participated in workshops in the past on cob building, straw bale walls, plastering straw bale walls and building with unmilled timbers.
We have learned a ton at workshops, and they helped us gain the confidence to step off the conventional building path.
Now I am glad to pay that back by letting interested people try their hand at some sustainable skills and learn more about natural building on our house. I’m a little nervous about having newbies making part of our home, but in the workshops I have been a participant at, everything seems to come out well, so I’m going to trust to fate on this.
The workshops are being offered by Driftless Folk School, a dedicated nonprofit that offers experiences in farm and garden, alternative energy, building and woodworking (that’s where we come in), and courses like cheese making, wild edibles of early spring and backyard astronomy, blacksmithing and lots more.
Here are the four workshops coming up at Underhill:
The courses will take place at our land outside Ridgeway, WI, and each costs $60 for a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. day of hands-on learning.
If you want to join the fun, you can register at the Driftless Folk School site.
Slip Form Masonry with Tom Spicer April 21, 2012
Learn the art of slip-form masonry and how to create beautiful, rustic and economical walls for your next project. This workshop will create a slip-form masonry knee wall for a new sustainable house near Ridgeway Wisconsin. The class will begin with a rundown of the slip form process, materials and technique and quickly become hands on. Learn the simple three step process: set up form-work, arrange stonework, and then mix, pour and properly reinforce concrete. This workshop will create one “course” of wall as a knee wall base for a straw bale wall system but the same techniques apply to creating a full height wall.
Round Timber Framing with Bryan Dalstrom April 28, 2012
This workshop will cover the basics of round timber frame construction. The location at Underhill House– a straw bale, round timber-framed residence, currently under construction – will allow for a thorough exploration of the technique. Discuss the reasoning behind the owner’s choice to build with round wood and tour the woods which supplied the entire timber stock. Follow up theory with practice in an afternoon of hands on tree peeling and observe the construction of basic joints. Tools used and wood sourcing will be discussed. On site camping available.
June 30, 2012
This workshop will demonstrate the art of straw bale wall construction. Begin with a morning discussion of the history of strawbale, its uses and benefits as well as a tour of the ongoing construction of Underhill House. Transition to a hands-on afternoon demonstrating basic straw bale construction techniques with plenty of time for dialogue about the process. Learn how to prep the bales, what they sit on and how they connect to each other, the windows, doors, ceiling and roof. Learn straw bale construction on the go as part of a residential construction project.
Plastering Stawbale Walls with Krome Burke-Scoll August 4, 2012
This workshop will demonstrate the art of plastering a straw bale wall. Begin with a morning discussion of the history of plaster, its uses and benefits as well as a tour of the on-going construction of Underhill House. Transition to a hands-on afternoon demonstrating plasters techniques with plenty of time for dialogue about the process. Learn how to prepare the plaster, how it’s applied and how to treat and protect it. This workshop will apply a scratch coat to existing straw bale walls. Hopefully time will allow for some brown or second coat as well. The final layer will be completed after the workshop. Learn plastering on the go as part of a residential construction project. Camping is available on site.
Have you had any great (or not-so-great) experiences with building workshops? Let’s hear about them.
What do you think about the concept of building workshops?