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 ūüėČ 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 Р$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.

РSolar energy lease options:  yes Рyou 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.

–¬†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.

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.


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


The Basement Foundation

I’ll admit that a basement foundation was not my first choice.¬† In fact, I got talked into it kicking and screaming.¬† Why?¬† Because it took away from my small house concept.¬† My little house, originally planned as a shade over 900 sq feet,¬†ballooned out to¬†1600 sq ft because of the¬†additional square footage.¬† Not technically a “small house” anymore and I¬†can’t help but feel sad about that.¬† However, given that a) my lot is sloped ¬†b) I wanted covered parking and c) this is a cold climate area, the basement foundation was the most cost-effective option.¬† It¬†allows for¬†an integral garage, which is tough to live without in the Pittsburgh winter.¬† (or once you’ve had one, it’s hard to go back is probably a more accurate statement¬†ūüôā¬†¬† I¬†did find one way to work with the basement and¬†remain true to my small house¬†vision, but more¬†on that later.¬† Let’s talk a little about the basement foundation that’s being used for this house:¬† the superior walls Xi foundation system.¬†

Below is a cross-sectional view of its components.


This foundation system is a solid representative of green construction and building practice.  Here are some of its mother earth loving features:

Environmentally friendly:

– it is produced in a factory with precast concrete walls …”eliminating any on-site soil contamination from such as the form oil used for poured walls. And because dampproofing¬†is built into our walls (ESRs¬†1553 & 1662), no on-site sprays or bituminous coatings are required to make the walls dampproof.”¬†¬†

– it arrives to the jobsite ready to install, producing almost zero on-site waste

Energy efficient:

– there is a¬†continuous layer of insulation bonded directly to the concrete walls, which improves the¬†energy¬†efficiency.¬† 2.5″ of insulation creates a wall with an¬†R-value of R-12.5, prior to drywall installation.¬† It leaves enough room for insulation up to¬†R-50+ if desired.¬† (Just as a reference point, a basement wall built to current code has an R-value of¬† R-10)

It is also an NAHB Green Approved Product

NAHB Certificate

If you’re thinking of building a house with¬† energy star or LEED¬† certification, this is definitely a product worth looking into.

Back to my project:¬† my basement will be finished, with an R-10 under the slab and R-20 in the walls.¬† This meets the PGH¬†(Pretty Good House) standards!!¬† One tic next to that item on my PGH checklist ūüôā

Small House Design: 3 Houses with Big Impact

I’m going to take a moment here to highlight 3 houses which had a huge impact on my own small house.¬† As I look back to almost a year ago when the notion to build a small house was just a speck of a seed, these ideas watered that seed and let it grow.¬† I want to give credit to these little inspirations:

This first one from Arkansas had the largest influence on my personal small house design.¬† The ultimate final floor plan of my house looks more¬†like a distant cousin of the Arkansas house¬†rather than its twin…¬† In the design world, this¬†distant resemblance is¬†labeled “inspired by. ..”

1)  Arkansas House:  1BR + 2 lofts, 1 Ba.  600 sq feet (not including lofts).  Favorite features:  exterior color scheme (I want an orange door!!), ceiling planks, full view of loft right upon entering (the wow factor).  Also, not pictured, is a sunroom at front of house which could function as a second bedroom or home office.

Whidbey Whidbey2 whidbey3 whidbey4whidbey5

2)¬†¬† Laneway¬†House:¬† 1BR, 1Ba, 500sq¬†ft.¬† Also called accessory dwelling units, these¬†are¬†constructed on a¬†single family lot in the backyard somewhere.¬† I love the idea of using previously unused real estate ( i.e. defunct garage) and turning it into an income suite.¬† My favorite about this one is how it packs simple style into a tiny 500sq ft punch.¬†¬† The finishes and fixtures in this space are¬†clean, simple and beautiful.¬† The white¬†subway tile surround in the bath — gorgeous!

Laneway1 Laneway2 Laneway3  Laneway5Laneway4 Laneway6

3)¬† Arado¬†WeeHouse:¬† This house gets the credit for introducing me¬†to¬†modular construction.¬† I found it¬†searching for floor plans for my narrow lot and when I saw the house on the crane, was like “what is this?!.¬† ¬†The Arado is 14′ wide and 336 sq ft total.¬† This particular one has no bathroom¬†and there is no mention of where its occupants bathe or use the facilities (intentional omission?).¬† My favorite feature in this one is the floor to ceiling windows on both sides which¬†visually expand this narrow house.¬† As an aside, these one level floor plans contain great ideas for space planning if you plan to convert¬†an¬†existing basement¬†or attic into a separate income or in-law suite (though please don’t forget to add the bathroom).

arado5 arado1 arado2 arado3 arado6 weehouse6


Resale or sell-out?

I felt like a deflated balloon.¬† “Have you thought about resale value?” asked my real estate agent.¬† Well, no, I hadn’t.¬† I’d thought about lots of other practical things like location, lot size, slope, access to public utilities, and all the different ways I could utilize my small house but had not thought about resale value.¬† “In Pittsburgh, people want big.¬† They want at least 3 bedrooms.”

I know this.¬† Of course I know this because four years ago I¬†was That Girl.¬† That Girl¬†who was tired of renting and wanted to move up.¬† And moving up meant a space larger than my 1 bedroom/1 bath tiny apartment.¬† It meant space where guests didn’t have to walk through my bedroom to use the only bathroom (which was awwwkward!!).¬† It meant a space where my living room wasn’t also my gym, home office and guest bedroom.¬† I needed a 3 bedroom house!

Apparently, the rest of Pittsburgh does as well.

According to Trulia, the number of 3 bedroom homes sold in Pittsburgh¬†is 10 times higher than the number of one bedroom homes sold.¬† I can’t say for sure, but I’m wondering if those 1 bedroom homes¬†are actually condos.¬† Meaning, those people buying one bedroom¬†properties¬†are also those looking for hassle-free¬†living in secure¬†high-rise buildings.

As I’m digesting this info, hundreds of thoughts are running through my mind.¬† What about my vision of adorable small houses dotting the Pittsburgh landscape?¬† What about my newfound conviction that smaller is better?¬† What about¬†all the planet saving energy efficiency of a small home?¬† Is there any one out there who would buy¬†my small house?

I contemplated and contemplated.  Resale value is important.  I do not want to be a landlord forever.  I want to create this sumptuous, eco-smart living space and eventually pass it along.

One, kinda self-ego boosting thought occurred to me.¬† Perhaps people¬†in Pittsburgh¬†aren’t buying one bedroom homes because nice one bedroom homes don’t exist.¬† The ones that do¬†are over a 100 years old (seriously)¬†and in need of major work, or they’re one level condos.¬† There really is nothing here¬†like the small house I want to build.¬† Perhaps if I build it, they will come ūüôā¬†¬† I had my answer.¬† I was not going to sell-out to resale.