Posts filed under ‘Eco architecture’
January 6 was the coldest day in the past 10 years here in rural Ridgeway.
A newly-named weather phenom, known as a polar vortex, had descended on the Driftless Area. In downtown Dodgeville, -22F was flashing out front of the Wells Fargo Bank – and a brutal wind produced a plummeting wind chill as the day dawned.
It warmed very little during the day and got almost as cold the following night as the wind began to die down.
Saturday and Sunday we hastily sawed and split extra firewood, and jamming it under the loft ladder next to our wood-burning stove. Though we’ve never had a fire for more than an hour or two in the evening, we feared that we might have to burn wood constantly – as opposed to our usual hour or two in the evening.
We watched the temperature drop and went to sleep listening to the cold wind howl. Monday morning dawned clear, but before the sun rose over the hill, we both had to venture out. We wanted to experience the coldest air we’d known in a long time, and we had chores out there.
Doug made an early morning foray out to the barn and two hikes down to the highway to put out the garbage and recycling. We weren’t actually sure it would get picked up in such bitterly cold weather, but our intrepid trashmen came through.
Meanwhile I ventures out on a mission of mercy for the birds. Doug and I decided last summer that we would not put out bird feeders this year and work instead on turning the land around our house into the best bird habitat we can. We are planting various dogwoods, viburnums and other bird-friendly shrubs to provide natural food and shelter.
However, the day before the cold set in, I began to fear for my feathered friends and determined they could use a little immediate help finding fuel in this intense cold, so we made a last-minute trip after dark for sunflower seeds and suet. So there I was in the first light, shoveling an area to spread seed and trying to wire up a suet feeder without taking my gloves off – that proved impossible, and my fingers immediately began to burn. I got out my phone to take a photo of the sun rising, and it immediately froze.
Less than half an hour out there gave me a great appreciation for those creatures who find their winter shelter and food where they can. ( All day, we saw no creature of any kind venture out into the teeth of the windstorm. In fact, it was a couple of days before the animals began to appear.)
We came in and warmed up with hot tea and steaming porridge, but we held off lighting the fire. The sun was just hitting the solar panels and starting to spread out on the surfaces inside our house.
We designed this place with:
- Straw bale insulation
- Passive solar design
- Over-insulated foundation walls
- Thermal mass
- Solar hot water infloor heat
We wanted to see what Underhill House could do.
The backup propane boiler turned itself off at 9 a.m. — almost as soon as the brilliant morning sun started to shine through the windows. By 10, the solar hot water panels were replenishing the heat in the 160-gallon storage tank in the mechanical room.
By lunch time, we were down to t-shirts as sat in our loft watching the snow glisten and the trees toss. On many a sunny winter day, Underhill House has warmed us to t-shirt temperatures with its one-two punch of passive solar heat pouring into the house through the windows and the heat collected in the solar panels coursing through our concrete floors, but we weren’t sure it could kick such extreme cold.
No propane use, no wood stove fire – indoor temperatures near 70, and water coming off the panels and into our basement storage at 130 degrees.
We didn’t start a fire in the wood stove for almost two hours after sunset, which allowed us to coast comfortably through the evening on the main floor. Meanwhile the stored heat in the tank kept the downstairs (which receives little passive solar input) in the low 60s. We let the fire die down and went to bed about 11. The residual heat from the day’s sun and the wood fire kept the upstairs thermostat above 60 all night long – except for our bedroom and the front hall, which we keep cooler.
The only propane we used, heated our downstairs offices starting about midnight.
Bottom line? We had a 5-hour-long wood fire and perhaps 7 hours of propane used to heat less than a quarter of our living space in the coldest 24-hour span in the last decade.
No compromises. We were cozy through the bitterest cold our climate is likely to throw at us.
Cozy and a bit bemused by the whole experience.
There are many trees holding up our house that I remember with the same detail.
Where they stood, why we selected them, working on finishing them, watching them come together into the timber frame of Underhill House.
It’s easy to forget how much we rely on these amazing plants. The trees we depend on for so many aspects of our lives are usually ground down and reconstituted to the point where they no longer seems like something that grew and lived. It seems like a commodity that you just order, and it appears. That’s a very short-sighted notion.
I love how Underhill House constantly reminds me of what we owe to these stalwart creatures.
One of the unexpected outcomes of building Underhill House was the bond that formed between our building crew members, and Doug and me. For some of the crew our project was the first time they’d worked together. This amazing team generated lasting friendships.
Getting together this weekend to help Prairie and his partner Lindsey raise a timber frame addition to their farmhouse was like old home week. Everyone from our project plus many more friends and relatives gathered to lend a hand.
One of the biggies on our list of things to finish Underhill House this spring was seeding the roof. We got about 20 tons of screened, topsoil up there and planted see my post Planting Our Roof – A Prairie in the Sky http://digginginthedriftless.com/2013/05/21/planting-our-roof-a-prairie-in-the-sky/ about a month ago in mid-May.
That was intense, with the soil being hauled up in giant bucketful’s by crane, and then evened carefully out to be at least 3 inches deep everywhere on the undulating surface of our roof.
We seeded in two kinds of prairie grass that we were assured could make a go of it on a roof by the knowledgeable and helpful Prairie Nursery .
My experience is that prairie plants can be wonderfully tough – once they are established. But getting them to germinate and beat out the weed seeds in any soil they are inserted into can be tricky. Usually you nuke any bit of ground you want to turn back to prairie before planting the prairie seeds using an herbicide like Roundup.
We didn’t have that opportunity on the roof. The seed had to go into the soil and be covered with erosion mat the same day the soil was hoisted up otherwise it could all be blown away in the next big wind followed by a few dry days.
The two grasses planted are Sideoats Gramma Grass and June Grass.
Sideoats Grama Grass, Bouteloua curtipendula, is a good choice because it is one of the shorter prairie grasses and has a fibrous root rather than the downward torpedo root of so many prairie grasses. It’s drought tolerant. If it gets too dry, it will go dormant and perk up again when rain comes. It’s a warm season grass, which means it grows during the warm months of the summer. It’s also quite lovely. We’ve introduced it into our restored prairie. It can be shaded out by taller grasses, but that won’t be an issue on our roof.
Junegrass, Koeleria macrantha, another short fibrous rooted grass makes a good roof partner for Sideoats grama. It produces lustrous silver-green seed heads in early summer and grows actively when soil temps are cooler in spring and fall.
The sideoats gramma grass seeds were quite big, while the June grass seeds were extremely tiny, so I assume that the first grass up was sideoats grama. Over a week later, tiny, delicate spears of grass began coming up among their larger, earlier sisters.
Now both seem to be well established.
As to weeds, we have a few of those too, so about every week, we take a bare-foot stroll about the roof and pull out the broad-leafed interlopers.
It’s starting to look like a living roof, and that is so exciting.
There are some spots were germination has been light. Two big patches are the obvious spots where the soil was compacted by a tarp covered with a load of clay, which was carried to the roof by mistake. But there are some other thin spots too. And of course, nothing will be growing under the stones we placed along the edges to make sure the erosion mat didn’t take to the sky like a giant fibrous kite during some of the big winds we had right after planting.
It’s been a year since we framed up Underhill House. We spent the year before that selecting and preparing those timbers. Watching them come together and sketch the shape of our home against the sky was beyond thrillling.
So here’s a photo replay of some of the most amazing days of my life.
Tuesday morning we woke up earlier than usual.
And that was a good thing.
I was very glad we were already awake (if not actually up and dressed) at 6:30 a.m. when our excavator, Bruce Lease, rolled past our bedroom window in his back hoe.
I scurried into the bathroom with my gardening duds before he came back the other way with his first bucket full of sandstone from the back of the house where we are digging in for a root cellar.
Root cellar underway – bright and early. Yay!
Underhill House gets its name from being built into our hill, but the reallio, truelio Underhill House will be the root cellar.
By mounding up the ground on top of the root cellar just a little, we can guide the rainwater rolling down the hill at the house so that it will flow away to the south toward the pond or to the northwest toward the site of the future garden – leaving our basement dry.
Doug and Bruce plan to set the floor of the root cellar at about the same level as the house. Then Bruce will sculpt the earth between the house and the hill into a gentle swale so any water that gets that close to the house will also head for the pond and not our lower level.
As soon as he is free from other jobs, Mike Flynn who has poured all the concrete for Underhill House will pour us the walls and roof for the root cellar.
In the meantime, we have an amazing cross section view of what is going on beneath our feet on the hill behind us.
The soil is deep and rich from being covered with trees for since European settlers arrived and stopped the burning of the prairie that used to cover this part of the world. Its steep angle has saved it from the farmer’s plow.
What a treasure good soil is.
Everything depends on it!
We bought 21 yards of screened topsoil for the roof. And we had another truck of regular top soil delivered this week to use when we can finally start repairing the poor, beaten-up land around the house.
What I can’t understand is – who is selling this topsoil to our suppliers? It feels like selling your first born to sell the topsoil off your land. It is irreplaceable.
Who actually strips and sells their top soil?
It’s impossible to fathom.
Have you ever bought or sold top soil?
Our first-choice heat source at Underhill House is a combination of passive solar and the solar hot water panels that warm our floors and thermal mass interior wall. This dual-solar supply is comfortably providing all the heat we could want during even the coldest days that this not-particularly-cold winter has exposed us to, as well as almost all of the following nights. But the sun does not shine every day.
We have over 20 wooded acres to maintain on our 44 acres of land, and its ecologically-sensitive upkeep will always generate a renewable source of heating fuel. After a tree dies, the carbon it has sequestered will be released whether it decays or burns, so burning a small amount as efficiently as possible seems like a reasonable way for us to supplement our solar sources.
We didn’t really have time to put up firewood this fall while we were in the midst of our building project. Doug and I did take the time last spring to saw up the small branches left on the ground when several oaks that succumbed to Oak Wilt were felled for timbers in the house. We stacked them up on the far end of the drain field where they lay, and now we snow shoe over and grab a few arm fulls every few days. I think we will make it till things brighten up a bit and we can get by on direct solar heat.
We chose a Regency F-1100 stove because our house is small and very well insulated and we don’t need to generate much heat to warm it. Most wood-burning stoves would be overkill for us. Many cast iron stoves and those with soapstone insets are designed to absorb heat from their fires and release it slowly. Masonry stoves are the king of slow release. But we don’t need a slow release stove. Our concrete floors and thermal mass wall can hold and release heat.
What we want from our wood-burning stove is a quick fix to fill in when the sun hasn’t been shining for a few days. That’s why we liked the steel-walled Regency, which passes its heat along to the room as soon as the wood is burning.
We have also learned that Regency plants a tree for every stove sold. That doesn’t seem like a lot – I would rather they plant the equivalent number of trees to provide heat to a small house for a winter – but every little bit helps.
All Regency wood stoves have been certified by the EPA because they have a firebox designed to create airflow around the wood so it burns completely with very little ash or polluting smoke. It is supposed to burn with up to 77% efficiency and meets the DEQ Washington Phase II Clean Air Standard of 4.5 grams/hour or less.
Catalytic versus Noncat
A lot of wood-burning stoves use catalytic converters to get a clean burn. Smoke normally needs to get really hot to combust – about 1100º F. A catalytic converter gets around this by passing smoke through a ceramic honeycomb that burns smoke at about 500-550º F. This gives you the option of burning a long, slow, overnight burn and still combusting the polluting smoke.
Non-catalytic stoves use an air injection method. The draft pulls hot pre-heated air into several tubes running across the top of the fire-box. Each tube has rows of tiny holes. Heated air squirts through these holes, creating jets which fan the smoke into very active, beautiful, secondary flames that hover above the burning logs.
Regency uses this non-catalytic technology. They claim that with durable air tubes and baffles that encourage total combustion and low emissions, the Regency non-catalytic appliances burn cleaner and require less maintenance than stoves with catalytic combustors. The downside is that they don’t work well for an overnight fire, which we don’t need because of our well insulated walls and heat retaining floors.
The EPA has created a consumer information sheet on how to reduce air pollution from residential wood burning. Check it out here.
The timbers that hold up Underhill House were cut from trees on our 44 acres. We were looking for trees that had the right dimensions, interesting forking patterns and were too close to their neighbors or not doing well for other reasons. These “weed” trees made great timbers, but the part we wanted was often 20 or 30 feet in the air atop a rather thicker trunk.
We had a good use for the trunks too.
Later they were moved to a nearby solar kiln for further drying.
Then they were brought home and stored in the barn till we were ready to use them as window trim and sills, bathroom counter tops, kitchen counter tops and a set of shelves for the kitchen. We have oak from trees stricken by oak wilt, some fine elm from an elm tree that was just succumbing, as most elms do by a certain age, to Dutch elm disease. We had some black walnut that was just growing too closely and some amazing cherry from a large tree that forked almost at the ground. A year ago, one side of it went down, tearing away from it’s twin with a disastrous gash. It feels good to salvage pieces like these.
Putting together the elm slabs into counters and shelves has been a particular joy. We decided not to put cabinets on the corner wall because they would cut off the view for people working in the kitchen beside them. Instead, Michael Donovan, one of our carpenters, has shaped some really gorgeous shelves where we will store our plates and bowls and drinking glasses.
How we finished these slabs
We considered several finishes for all the horizontal slab wood in the house. We explored oils and various water soluble finishes and settled on Ceramithane.
Our paint dealer, Phil at Premiere Paint in McFarland, WI, said he used Ceramithane on the counter in his store, where he has been sliding gallons of paint across it for three years, with no ill effect.
It is really neat stuff!
Ceramithane is a water-borne acrylic-urethane finish that cross-links, which is a chemical process that forms a very hard, durable coating. It’s made by Graham Paint, a small company in Chicago. Ceramithane contains ceramic microspheres that turn it into a hard finish. We are also using it on the wood floor in our loft and on our stairs.
It is really bringing out the grain in this cherry slab. It is self-leveling, which means the brush strokes are supposed to wmooth out and disappear. They do, however sets up pretty fast, after which the self-leveling feature no longer functions, so it’s a little tricky to apply, but I spent a very enjoyable weekend finishing our kitchen shelves. That was before Jacob Williamson of Alchemy Painting showed me how to minimize brush strokes more effectively.
Any water-based acrylic will raise the grain in wood, so the makers advise that you wipe the wood first with a damp cloth then let it dry. Sure enough it will feel rougher. Before putting on a coat of Ceramithane, sand the wood lightly till it is smooth again. With each coat, the wood grain will rise a bit more, so each coat needs a light sanding after drying.
We started with 2 coats of the high gloss Ceramithane because that is the hardest form, followed by a coat of satin Ceramithane because we didn’t want such a high sheen. Because that still seemed a bit glossy, we rubbed in gently with fine steel wool.
Then Michael mounted them to the wall, which was also tricky. He used wooden cleats against the back wall and steel rods driven into the timbers to support the bottom shelf and the highest shelf, which will be used to support a stereo speaker.
Those in between are supported by cleats and metal tubes which were actually the same tubes used to cover the wires of our kitchen pendant lighting. We ordered a few moer. We thought they would look good, and they are much stronger than necessary.
On Friday, the shortest day of the year, our solar hot water panels began to pass sun-soaked heat to the floors of Underhill House for the first time. The system awoke to a sunny, cold morning and began to circulate a steadily-warming glycol solution between the panels and our basement storage tank through an underground conduit.
The panels have been in place for a few weeks, but they could not be plumbed to the house until we had a working hot water faucet downstream to facilitate the flushing and filling of the system. A temporary faucet was plumbed into the downstairs bathroom when Gerry Thule stopped by last week to install a hose spigot for the plasterers. Once that was complete, Mark O’Neal from Full Spectrum Solar came out and connected the pipes running between the four 4×10 ft back yard panels and the 160 gallon basement storage tank..
At that point, the panels were ready to produce heat, but they needed one last thing – sunshine. The final installation took place on a dim day with threatening clouds.
The timing was actually a good thing.
Mark said that if they tried to connect the panels on a sunny day, they would be dealing with water so hot it would produce steam in the storage tank. When circumstances dictate a sunny day connection, they have to cover the panels to keep from being burned.
So the panels sat, filled with below freezing fluid, for the next several days as everyone hunkered down for the massive blizzard that swept over Wisconsin Wednesday night and all day Thursday.
Friday dawned sunny with the typical distinct chill and deep, blue sky that follows a winter snow storm, and we were out at the land soon after dawn to get the work area cleared of snow for our gallant crew, who worked on the porch rail in 15 degrees F temps with a serious wind chill.
What was not cold was our solar panels. Doug swept as much snow off them as he could and then we stood back to watch. The snow was soon sliding down the warming panels, and the thermometer that registers the temperature of the fluid as it enters the house began to rise.
Unfortunately, I was taking photos of the winter beauty with a rather low battery, and my camera balked before I could get a shot of the clear, hot, black panels pulling solar energy out of the cold air and piping it to the house.
Until now, Underhill House has been heated by passive solar energy captured from its design and a significant assist from a very efficient propane boiler.
It feels wonderful to be collecting solar heat and storing it in our well-insulated water tank the concrete floors and the thermal mass interior wall for helping to heat our house not only when the sun is shining, but well into the nights and cloudy days that may follow.
Trying to build as greenly as possible means constant decisions.
1. What company to go with?
Then, as we prepared to paint the interior walls of the house, our plasterer, Krome Burke-Scoll pointed out that Hallman Lindsay paints are produced here in Wisconsin, making local paint a possibility. But the closest dealer is in Madison, some 30 miles away. Meanwhile we could get Benjamin Moore paints from a local dealer in Dodgeville, which is only 10 miles from Underhill House.
I decided to go with Hallman Lindsay, which has a good reputation and is manufactured nearby, even though I have to drive a little farther to pick up paint. I try to include paint runs with other nearby errands and keep the miles down as much as possible.
2. How about VOCs?
When you open a can of paint, what are you looking at? What are you about to put on your wall?
That can is full of \
- Pigments – powders that give paint its covering power and its color
- Binders – that hold the powder together
- Solvents – that make the paint liquid when brushed or rolled on, then evaporate leaving a colored film on the surface
It may also contain
- Thickening agents
- Antisettling agents
If it is an oil-based paint, it will use a binder derived from a drying vegetable oil like linseed oil, which sounds harmless, but the oils are diluted with thinners like turpentine, and metallic salts that increase the rate of drying.
If it is a latex paint, the particles are bound together with acrylic or vinyl. Latex paints are durable and pretty color fast and the equipment can be cleaned with water, which makes it seem so much less toxic.
But even latex paints have been a source of VOCs – volatile organic compounds. Pigments and binders can also contain VOCs.
VOCs evaporate into the air and become a menace. They can react with other elements to produce ozone and may cause cancer.
As paint dries, these nasty VOCs are at least 10 times higher than outdoor levels and can be up to 1,000 times higher right after painting. They’ll keep seeping out into the air you breathe for some time. Only about 50 percent is released in the first year.
Paint-related products are one of the worst environmental offenders. They’re the second largest source of VOC emissions into the atmosphere after automobiles, responsible for roughly 11 billion pounds every year, according the U.S. Green Building Council’s Green Home Guide
According to Consumer Reports, Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of the American Lung Association, says studies suggest an increased prevalence of respiratory problems consistent with higher VOC levels in freshly painted homes. “Generally speaking less is always better,” she says.
But, those VOCs were there for a reason. When you remove them, you are removing features you may want in your paint.
The salesperson at Hallman Lindsey assured me that their no VOC paints will perform well on the wall. The difference he warned me about is that the new paints won’t last as long in the can. It can go bad, and he did not hazard a prediction of how long it will keep on the shelf. That’s a little unnerving, but a trade-off I’m willing to make.
We are using low and no-VOC paints in Underhill House. Time will tell if they are as durable on the wall as their more toxic predecessors.
What is your experience with no-VOC paints?