Salvaged Moments

From the beginning, I knew I really really wanted to incorporate some element of locally sourced, vintage or salvaged materials in my new build.  Saving something (anything!) from a landfill would make the house just a little more earth-friendly.  Hopefully it would add a bit of charm and character to the new house as well so it didn’t look so, well, new.  The contractor nixed my idea of using salvaged doors (too much work to retrofit an irregular old door into the perfectly squared new door frames).  I also didn’t want to go too crazy ’cause that’s too taste-specific and I want to sell this puppy someday.  So, perhaps creative tile design in the spare bath?  A lighting fixture?  A random fabulous find?  That sounded perfect.  Here are a few salvaged moments in the new house:

1)  Spare Bath:  Tile Surround 

There is a building salvage and surplus material store in Pittsburgh called Construction Junction (http://constructionjunction.org/ ).  For months I’d been eyeing this giant box of yellow tile that apparently no one else wanted.

 

yellowtile

 

I was in love with this gorgeous shade of yellow, but had no use for it until my new build — I needed tile for the second bath and this was gonna be it.  It’s actually funny – the boxes were all in Italian, but I’m pretty sure “ceramica” means “ceramic” and they were all irregular – definitely not an even 6×6.  My design idea was to marry this simple classic yellow tile with a hipper, younger version:  the small square glass tile.  This old/new juxtaposition works well as a general design principle, I think.  So I bought new gray glass tiles as an accent, used gray grout, and here is how it turned out:

yellowtiledesign

 

Add crisp white shower curtain and fresh yellow flowers to make a clean, happy place for guests to get ready in every morning!

 

 

 

 

 

2)  Kitchen:  Vintage Light Fixture

Anyone who has flipped through a builder’s options for light fixtures realizes that this is where they skimp.  Perfect excuse to forego the builder option and go huntin’ for a unique, personalized find.  I wanted a fabulous light fixture for the kitchen island, especially ’cause it’s one of the first things you see in the open floor plan.  I found mine at a local lighting store called Typhoon  (http://www.typhoonlighting.com/ ).  They have a great selection of refurbished vintage fixtures as well as new ones.

My find is a vintage fixture from the 1970s – I love that it’s not frilly, it’s perfectly gender-neutral, and I’ve never seen anything like it.  I also love how the round globes break up the square angles of the space in general.

DSC02835

 

3)  Kitchen Island:  Door Slab

I totally lucked out on this one and found a flat door slab made of walnut veneer – the color and beautiful walnut grain were perfect!  (Rather, I could foresee its perfection under layers of dust while it was sitting at Construction Junction).  A light sanding and couple of coats of polyurethane later and it was ready for some legs, which I got at IKEA.

DSC02837

I later found vintage door hardware to install over that hole in its side, too bad I didn’t snap a pic of it!

And this is how the old and the new came together:

DSC02837

 

4)  Master Bath Storage:  Vintage Bar Cart

This is one my favorite finds.  Not from an aesthetic standpoint, but from a functional standpoint.  I needed storage in the master bath, and it needed to be open or glass front storage (anything that wasn’t would be too bulky for the small space).  Browsing around one afternoon at a vintage store right down the street (Who New Retro Mod Decor https://plus.google.com/101047611571828010022/about?gl=us&hl=en), I found this bar cart:

DSC02830

This bar cart has a fabulous feature:  the entire top is an appetizer warmer that heats up!!  So, guess what I use it as?  A towel warmer!!  Not only does it store linens, but it gets towels nice and warm very quickly.  Just turn it on, hop in the shower, and end with a warm toasty towel 🙂

Is My House a Pretty Good House (PGH)?

Green-BuildingThe Pretty Good House (PGH) concept is an idea developed by the green building adviser gurus in Maine.  It really addresses the question, how green is green enough?  Those familiar with energy-efficient and eco-friendly construction understand the whole wide spectrum, which ranges from homes built to current code all the way to net-positive houses that actually generate more energy than they use.  An entire house could be constructed and furnished with recycled, salvaged, and  vintage materials if one puts their mind to it.  But as living “off the grid”, “Passivhaus” standards and “LEED” certifications are generating all the buzz in green building, the average person asks oneself — geez, is all this really necessary in order to be good for the environment?  If you agree with the PGH concept, the answer is NO.

PGH

I talked about this concept in a previous post (https://rooftoptales.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/317/ ).  To recap, A PGH has the following:

-Use of local labor and locally produced/available materials

– minimal and reasonable annual energy cost of $500-700 per year

– prescribed insulation levels of R 10-20-40-60 (R-10 under the foundation slab, R-20 on foundation walls, R-40 in exterior walls, and R-60 in the roof)

– reasonably sized home (1000 sqft for an individual, 1500 sqft for two, 1750 sqft for 3 and 1875 sqft for 4 and greater)

– pre-construction energy modeling to ensure all mechanical systems are sized efficiently

– air leakage rate of no greater than 2 ACH50

– mechanical ventilation since the house is so air tight

– good design (preferably universal design)

– comfort (no drafts)

– and an owner’s manual.

I added my own list to the PGH concept:

– Non-toxic materials (e.g. low VOC paint)

– some element of recycled or salvaged materials

– at least one renewable resource (e.g. solar power)

– and efficient space planning.

HERSNow that my house is complete, the energy ratings are in!  So here’s how it did:  Insulation levels are R-12-30-27.5-80 (R-12 under slab, R-30 foundation walls, R-27.5 above grade walls, and R-80 for the ceilings).  The estimated annual energy cost is $960/yr (avg $80/month), air leakage rate of 108 CFM 25 ( I never did look up how to interpret this ;), about 1600 sq ft for 4 people, and it has mechanical ventilation.  It received a HERS score of 36, which means it is 64% more energy-efficient than a house build to current code.  I did use all local labor and materials, low VOC paint, sustainable flooring, water conserving fixtures, solar power, large built-in storage, and vintage/re-purposed elements.

Is my house a Pretty Good House?

Green-Home

Solar Panels and New Construction: 3 Considerations

This post was going to highlight all the benefits of solar panels before I decided to get off my green high horse 😉 because yes, the initial cost of the panels and the installation is not cheap.  But I need to write about something related to solar panels — they were installed last week!  Alas, I will have to wait a while to watch the meter run backwards since Pittsburgh’s dreary winter weather has already begun to set in…

Snowy day in Pittsburgh

Snowy day in Pittsburgh

So, I will talk about my solar calculator.  Here it is: 

My solar calculator

My solar calculator

And do you know how long I’ve owned it?  23 years and counting.  It was a required purchase in 9th grade to complete math assignments and I’ve had it ever since — never changed a battery, never malfunctioned, and never needed to be replaced.  What has this little calculator proven to me?  That solar power works, is free, and will provide free energy for a lifetime.  That is why I chose to install solar panels on my new build.

So, here are 3 things to consider if toying with the idea of solar panels for your new construction project:

1.  Cost

This refers to the cost of the panels and installation because the electricity it generates from that point on is, guess what?  Free.  Free electricity for a lifetime.  In fact, any surplus energy your panels produce go back into the grid and the utility service pays you for the electricity you’re providing them.

Initial cost depends upon the number of panels required to generate enough electricity for a home of its specific size.  Average cost = $1500 – $2000 per panel including installation.  My house of about 1600 sq ft required 7 panels, to give you an idea.  This will vary depending upon climate and location.

2.  Financing

Cost is not as prohibitive, particularly for new construction, as one would think.  Here are some options:

Energy-efficient mortgages:  buyers qualify for higher loan amounts if the new home is energy-efficient.  The cost of solar panels can be rolled into the mortgage, which translates into a slight increase in your monthly mortgage payment.  For instance, if the house costs $200K without solar panels and $215K with the panels, the increase in monthly payments for a 215K mortgage versus a 200K mortgage is less than $40 per month (ballpark average).  This increase in monthly payments will likely be less than your monthly electric bill without solar panels, so you’re still saving money each month.

 http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=mortgages.energy_efficient_mortgages

– Solar energy lease options:  yes – you can lease solar panels, just like you lease a car.  Your electric bill is made of a fixed monthly payment for the panels themselves (about $100/month) plus your electric bill (which is substantially reduced due to solar panels).  Most people say that this combined cost adds up to less than their electric bills without solar panels.

http://www.solarcity.com/residential/solar-lease.aspx

– Tax incentives:  there are several state and federal tax credits this year for installation that add up to about 30% reduction in the initial cost.

http://energy.gov/savings

http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/grants_loans_tax_credits/10395/PA_Sunshine_Solar_Program/821790

3.  Environmental Impact

Priceless!  Think about how we currently produce our electricity.  Over 40% of electricity production in the US is from coal.  Coal combustion contributes to about a third of this country’s greenhouse gas emissions.  Not only that, it pollutes the air with sulfur dioxide and mercury. Natural gas produces over 25% our electricity and it too releases greenhouse gases such as methane into our environment.

U.S.-Electricity-Net-Generation-By-Fuel-2012

The only way to improve the air we breathe and slow down global climate change is by thinking in terms of long-term good.  If solar energy is free, lasts a lifetime, and has no harmful impact on the environment,  then why not?  Especially if you’re building a house from scratch, strongly consider putting today’s technology in today’s home.  This will have a positive, long-term impact on the earth and future generations as well. ..

My solar panels

My solar panels

Low VOC Paint

This is a little blurb on VOCs – what are VOCs and why do they matter?

English: Preindustrial and contemporary VOC em...

English: Preindustrial and contemporary VOC emissions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are molecules containing carbon that easily evaporate under typical indoor/outdoor conditions.  The list of chemicals that fall under this definition is vast.   In fact, many VOCs occur naturally in the environment because they are made by plants – they’re supposed to be there!  However, it’s the man-made VOCs that have become synonymous with the bad-VOCs.

How toxic each one is depends on which one it is and its dose, frequency, and duration of exposure.  When it comes to negative impact on the earth and human health, they generally fall into 3 categories:  Outdoor VOCs that harm the ozone layer, Indoor VOCs that harm humans directly, and Neutral VOCs that do no harm that we know of.  The federal government (Environmental Protection Agency) regulates outdoor VOCs to an extent (you may remember the buzz about chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs many years ago!).  However, indoor VOCs are not regulated federally, in part due to insufficient data to really know how bad indoor VOCs are for a person’s health at typical indoor concentrations.  There are many sates, however, that do regulate certain indoor VOC concentrations (California in particular).

Ball-and-stick model of the propane molecule, ...

Examples of harmful VOCs include propane, butane, acetone, ethanol, isopropyl alcohol (this is rubbing alcohol!), pesticides, fire retardants.  Other VOCs are known carcinogens, such as benzene, formaldehyde, perchloroethylene, and methylene chloride.  They are in many common household products including paint, paint strippers, aerosol sprays, cleaners, disinfectants, air fresheners, fuels, automotive products, hobby supplies, and dry-cleaned clothing.  They may cause mucosal irritation, asthma exacerbations, headache, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness particularly with acute exposure, like stripping paint in an unventilated room.  By the way, whenever a product states “work in well-ventilated area” it’s because that product contains harmful VOCs.

English: A green warning construction sign.

While renovating or building new construction, most people consider the effects of VOCs on indoor air quality.  Examples of typical building materials that contain VOCs are new carpeting, floor tile, primer/paint, caulk, adhesives, wood stain/sealers.   That “new house smell” is primarily due to VOCs!!  Once these materials are used, they continue to release VOCs into the air over time, hence the term “off-gassing.”  In fact, the highest concentrations of indoor VOCs are typically found in new construction homes.

When it comes to evaluating products labelled as “zero VOC” or “low VOC”, there are a few things to keep in mind.  First, what compounds are they classifying as VOCs — this is where companies can fudge the data and here’s why:  the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a list of VOCs it regulates but only for the purpose of protecting the ozone layer.  If a VOC does not harm the ozone, it is “exempt” from this list, even though it may be harmful to humans.  So, a company will say zero or low VOC, using the government’s list of VOCs, but they neglect to mention that their product contains exempt VOCs that are known carcinogens like methylene chloride.  Secondly, what is the concentration of VOCs in the product.  Some may call 200g/L low but others have stricter standards and call < 50g/L low.

As I mentioned earlier, there are no federally regulated standards for indoor VOC concentrations.  However, Americans are pushing to create standards of their own.  Similar to the Energy-Star label or the Water-sense label, there are Eco-labels that independently verify a product’s claim that it is low VOC.  The Greenguard label is a big one for building materials.  Look for this label on low VOC products, and you can at least be confident that the product’s claims were evaluated independently to earn that seal.

GREENGUARD_NoTier_TEMPLATE_RGB

As I was researching this topic for this blog, I learned something new about my own behavior that increases the amount of VOCs leached into my home:  my cleaners.  I actually do not buy “green” cleaners because, well, I love the way other products clean.  What I learned is that most cleaners have high VOC content and unless stored in air-tight containers, some amount of this gas will continually evaporate into the environment.  Similar situation for other stored products e.g. left-over paint…

The paint I used in The Project was Sherwin-Williams Harmony paint, which is a low-VOC, Greenguard labelled product.  There are many other low VOC paint brands out there (in fact consumer reports took a look at them and rated them.  What they found was large difference in the amount of VOC in each “low-VOC” product.   http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine-archive/march-2009/home-garden/interior-paints/overview/interior-paints-ov.htm

Harmony

Take Home Points:

  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) is a very broad category of carbon-containing molecules that easily evaporate under typical indoor/outdoor conditions.
  • Many VOCs are harmful (hence the hype), but recognize there are many VOCS that do no harm.
  • Certain VOCs destroy the ozone layer, are carcinogenic, or cause nausea, headache, vomiting, light-headedness, rash, asthma exacerbations.
  • Improving indoor air quality by using low-VOC building products is one way to have positive impact on overall health and the environment.
  • When evaluating a product labeled as “Zero-VOC” or “Low-VOC”, look for a GreenGuard or other independent party eco-label that verifies that claim.
  • There a variety of ways to measure VOCs in a product and variable definitions of zero/low-VOC so also realize there is no industry standard.

References:

http://www.epa.gov/iaq/voc.html#Health_Effects

http://www.epa.gov/iaq/voc2.html

http://www.greenguard.org/en/CertificationPrograms/CertificationPrograms_indoorAirQuality.aspx

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volatile_organic_compound

Light bulbs: Compact Flourescent Lights (CFL) versus Halogen

Light Bulb

I came home late last night and flicked the hallway light on.  Instead of being greeted by a warm cozy glow, there was a harsh, dim, blue-white light…  that got brighter and harsher a few minutes later once it kicked in.  What the heck?!

I’d just replaced my hallway lights with new CFL lights and at that moment was sorely disappointed.  Yes, they’re supposed to be highly energy efficient but why do they have to cast such an ugly light?  And take so long to kick in?

But.. since I’m growing an even bigger eco-conscience these days … it told me to give the CFL another chance.  So what is a CFL and why do “green” builders have it on their proud list of things that make their product green?  (It also happens to be on my own list of things that are making my new small house extremely energy-efficient, too).

PROS

English: Compact fluorescent light bulb

– The compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) is different from the halogen bulb in one major way:  it requires almost four times less electricity to produce the same amount of light.  In terms of physics, the energy efficiency of a light bulb is measured in lumens per watt – meaning, how many watts of electricity does it take to produce x lumens of light.   A 75-watt halogen bulb produces 1100 lumens of light.  However, a CFL bulb requires only 22-watts to produce 1100 lumens of light and is therefore more energy efficient.

– The CFL also produces much less heat.  The old fashioned halogen bulb takes electric energy and uses only 10% of that energy to produce light.  So what does it do with the other 90%?  It turns it into heat.  So, I did a little test that goes against everything you learn as a kid:  do not touch a burning light bulb.  Well, I touched the burning CFL in my bedside lamp after it had been burning for an hour and guess what?  Ok, it was still hot, but definitely not scorching.   The CFL converts 70% of electric energy into light, and only 30% to heat which is why it is much cooler.

– the CFL lasts 8 times longer (8000 hours vs 1000 hours).  This translates into far less replacement cost and also eight times less that you’ll be getting up on that ladder to change light bulbs (or eight times less you’ll be nagging hubby to do it 😉 )

CONS

Halogen incandescent light bulb

– So what about the color?  This is where the halogen light bulb wins.  While certain CFLs labeled as “soft white” have a warmer glow than the others, it’s still not as warm and fuzzy as the halogen bulb and definitely not as warm and fuzzy as the standard incandescent bulb.

– Another con to CFLs is the start-up delay with certain types (those packaged as flood lights, for example).

– Lastly, they contain enough mercury to require hazardous waste collection.  Do not just throw a used CFL out with the regular trash.  Call your city’s waste management department and ask how they collect residential hazmats. Broken CFLs can leach mercury into landfills.

So what do I think?  I think CFLs win hands down, purely because of their superior energy efficiency.  Plus, I found a CFL that actually does produce a warm glow (it was top rated in finehomebuilding.com by a guy who’s job it was to test all these light bulbs and report on the best ones).  That one is the GE Reveal Spiral CFL.  Try it out!

 

 

References:

http://homeguides.sfgate.com/energyefficient-bulbs-halogen-vs-fluorescent-vs-incandescent-78832.html

DeGroot, Paul.  Energy-Saving Light Bulbs. Fine Home Building.  Winter 2013: 86-91.

Modular Construction: Green and Pre-fabulous

What is a modular house?  “Modular” or “mod” sounds pretty cool, on par with the “mod” aesthetic.   This term conjures images of flexible furniture, like small little square tables configurable in lots of different ways.

While a modular house is not that flexible, it is made of different parts attached together like Legos.  Seriously.   The modular house is constructed inside a factory, rather than on the lot itself.  It is then transported in pieces from the factory to the lot.   The pieces are then attached together onsite.  The finishing touches are completed on site and voila!  A house.

prefab-method-homes

Source:  Method Homes

This construction method piqued my interest.  Here’s why:  small houses can be constructed in one to two pieces, the design aesthetic is simple yet complete, plus weather delays are completely avoidable!  But are these houses solid and well constructed?  Are they visually appealing?  How flexible are the design and floor plan options?  Will they look and sell like their site-built brothers and sisters?

The answer to all these questions is *yes.*.  Here is why modular construction is green and pre-fabulous:

#1   Modular construction takes about half the time to build compared to on-site stick contruction.  The average construction time is 3 months (versus 6 months for on-site construction)  Reason?   While your house’s foundation is being formed on-site, the construction of your house has already started simultaneously in the factory.  There are zero weather-related delays because the home is built inside in a controlled environment.  This is particularly appealing if you don’t want to delay construction waiting for winter to end.  It is also very appealing if you, like me, do not want to have to pay regular visits to a construction site for 6+months.

#2  The factory build process is green and eco-friendly by nature.  Building material is not wasted because it is recycled within the same factory.  Lumber isn’t ruined by a rainy day.  There are no gas costs associated with daily transportation of “stuff” back and forth to your lot during 6 months of construction.

#3  The construction is more precise.  Programmed cutting devices and the controlled factory environment make it easier for assembly, measurment, air-sealing,  and quality control measures.

#4   There is minimal disturbance to the neighbors and the physical environment.  Most modular homes arrive on site 80-90% complete.  That greatly reduces the length of time workers are on-site  and minimizes just general trashing of the environment with construction debris and noise.

#5  There is improved site security.  Once the prefab house is set, it can be locked and secured immediately, whereas an open contruction site is vulnerable to theft and vandalism .

#6  Modular houses are built to be stronger than traditional stick-built homes because they need to stand the stress of transportation.   FEMA constructed a study of a hurricane devastated area in Florida, and found that modular homes suffered significantly less damage than traditional stick built homes.  Ref: http://www.fema.gov/library/viewRecord.do?id=2765

#7  Most modular builders can custom design a floor plan.   Design possibilities are endless, with a caveat that the more extravagant the design, the more expensive the house.    Modular builders can work with you and/or your architect to design any home.  In other words, you are not limited to glorifed rectangles and squares 😉

Exterior of a modern modular home with cedar o...

Exterior of a modern modular home with cedar option (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

#8  These homes are appraised and have a resale value equal to that of their traditionally built counterparts.

Here are a few caveats to keep in mind:

–  Modular construction is not less expensive.  The reduced cost associated with less build time and less surplus material is offset by transportation cost or “freight”, the cost of the cranes to set the house in place, and in the city the cost of redirecting traffic for a few hours while the house is being set.

–   Not all modular homes are equal.  Cars are built in factories as well, but there’s a huge difference between a Porsche and a Kia (no offense to Kia drivers out there).  You have to choose a modular builder with a track record of quality and success.

If you decide modular construction is a strong option, here is  how to choose a modular builder:

– find one within a 100 mile radius to reduce freight costs.

-If you value energy-efficiency, sustainability, and green construction practice, find one who shares the same values and demonstrates it with his/her end-product.

-Visit the factory and watch their process.  Get a tour of one of their homes already built and on-site.

– Ask if there is a third party independent rater of the final product.

–  Make sure your personalities mesh as you will have to work together closely.

One parting thought – prefabricated homes  have been a long part of the American dream.  “Kit homes” were very popular from 1910-1940s, with Sears and Aladdin Homes as leading manufacturers.  They shipped lot owners  a “kit” that consisted of numbered/marked pieces of lumber and other building materials.  A  75+page assembly instruction booklet were provided, which homeowners used to assemble their kit and  build their dream home.  The ultimate in DIY house building.  I predict that the factory built method will undergo a renasssaince as we realize its advantages!

http://inhabitat.com/green-guide-to-prefab-the-history-of-the-kit-home/

kit home