Archive for the 'Design' Category

2014 Zero Net Energy Building Award

poster in lobby

We won! Thanks to the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) for awarding us the 2014 Zero Energy Building Award at the Building Energy Conference (BE14) in Boston this week. Gina McCarthy of the EPA gave a rousing keynote, and shortly after Jill and I were called onstage to receive the award.

At the afternoon lunch panel discussion we gave a short presentation about the house along with a few other contestants including Carter Scott. It was a great crowd with good questions.

But the best part was getting to meet a few of my energy heroes.

Marc Rosenbaum

Marc Rosenbaum

Marc Rosenbaum is EnergySmiths and keeps a great blog at Thriving on Low Carbon. His name always pops up on interesting projects around New England and he knows his data, particularly when it comes to heat pumps. I’ve followed his writings and work for several years now. It was a pleasure to meet him in person.

Carter Scott

Carter Scott

I was also fortunate to meet Carter Scott of Transformations. I was still considering large masonry stoves, radiant floors and solar hot water in late 2009 when Jill and I were kicking around plans and researching different heating strategies. Then I found an article in Solar Today (2008) about a house Carter Scott was building for the Zero Energy Home Challenge in Massachusetts. This is also how I found Mike Duclos and our energy consultants, DEAP Energy Group. These houses featured double stud walls packed with cellulose, an air-source heat pump and solar PV. I was sold on the idea.

Selfie with Warren Coolidge

Our contractor, Warren Coolidge

And speaking of heroes, I also want to thank our contractor Warren Coolidge. He took time out of his busy schedule and made the long drive to Boston to join us at the conference. Warren listened to all my crazy energy ideas and found ways to help us build the house, and keep it on budget (most of the time).  He is a true craftsman and I very much enjoyed working with him. I don’t sell anything on this site, but if you want to build a net zero house in Washington County, New York, hire this man. You won’t be sorry.

We’ll be opening up the house again for NESEA’s Green Building Open House tour in October. See the house, the goats, chickens and turkeys. I’m sure Jill will also have some home-made cheese available. Mark your calendars and come visit us!

Permit plan set

Plans submitted for permit

We’re applying for our building permit this week. We finally have the plans updated and the documents ready. We have to submit them to the local town first for a general approval, to make sure we’re following any local ordinances, then its off to the county inspector for review and approval. With luck we could have our permit by the end of next week. I’ve included the final plan set that we’re submitting for the permit. Enjoy.

June Updates

Much has happened in the last few weeks. The roughed in driveway was completed last week. We seeded and mulched all the exposed areas. The surveyors finished the property adjustment survey last week. The brush was moved into one big pile. The excavator made a cut behind the house site to level off the house site and provide drainage from the area above the house. He used some of the cut to fill in front of the house site. We also marked and cleared the location for the well.

After being stalled by spring rains, yesterday (Tuesday) we finally got word that it was a good day to dig! So they dug the hole for the foundation. They were curious to see if there was any ledge where the foundation would go. None. I told them it was a good spot. (After they cleared the site, we moved the house over about 20 feet, hoping to steer clear of a chunk of ledge. It appears that was a good decision.)

We also hired an engineer last week. I had just enough non-standard details that it was making my contractor and inspector nervous. I thought it would be money well spent. He is based in Massachusetts but is licensed in several states including New York. He will size all the structural members and do a code check on the drawings. I found him through my energy consultants.

And speaking of energy consultants, Warren and I took a trip to Newton about 4 weeks ago to go over the preliminary calculations and discuss how to improve the details. They estimated that the house would require 11,900 BTU/sq. ft/year for heating. If you multiply that by the heated area (roughly 1200 sf), you get approximately 14.3M BTU/year. I estimated approximately 13.9M BTU/year using my rough calculations. Not bad!

With the improvements we’ve since made, including insulating the basement to R40 values, adding sun shades for the first floor, Canadian windows, etc, I’m hoping to get well below the 13M BTU/year estimate. As soon as the plans are complete and ready to be submitted for the building permit, I’ll be able to get the final energy calculations for the house. I’m very confident that we will be able to hit net zero with our budget. More on this as the numbers get finalized.

We should be ready to submit the house plans for a building permit within a week or two.

April Update

Lots of updates this week. We have updated house plans. We received window estimates. We hired energy consultants and a land surveyor. We have estimates for the driveway and getting electric service to the site. It has been a very busy two weeks.

First the house plans. No big changes. Most of the work these days is in the framing details, but it’s coming along nicely. See for yourself.

House plan set

We hired an energy consulting company called DEAP Energy Group out of Newton, Massachusetts. I found them through a project featured on ‘Renovation Nation’ on the Planet Green Channel. Nice guys and very knowledgeable thus far. They specialize in PassiveHouse and Net Zero housing. They are  using the PPHP software to model the energy use and gains of the house throughout the year. Energy use includes space heating, ventilation, water heating, appliances and lighting. Energy gains include solar gain through the windows. Although we’re not aiming for PassiveHouse or Net Zero certification, we are shooting for a ‘Near Zero’ home–as close as we can get to net zero while staying within our budget. I’ll keep you posted on their findings and recommendations.

Windows! We knew the windows would be a big expense. It would be so much easier if American window manufacturers had a brain. They have finally started to produce very low U-value windows (SeriousWindows), but they also block much of the heating capacity of the sun, expressed as the Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) value. While it still earns them and the homeowner an Energy Star rating, it sacrifices free heat energy from the sun. Why would you give up free heat? (See a couple of great articles, Windows that Perform Better than Walls, and Choosing Triple Glazed Windows at Canadian windows with really low U values and high SHGC values cost 1.5 to 2 times the price of really good American made windows. We got estimates from 3 makers of fiberglass windows. Marvin Integrity (all Ultrex line), our only American manufacturer, has a low U-values but unfortunately low SHGC values. Marvin is our fallback option. The two Canadian window manufacturers, AccurateDorwin and ThermoTech Fiberglass both have low U-values and high SHGC values. AccurateDorwin came in 1.5 times more expensive. ThermoTech was more than double the Marvin Integrity windows. But with the higher SHGC factor, these windows should pay for themselves over time. I’m looking to my energy consultants to help show the expected payback period for each of these types of windows.

Driveway update! The local soil conservation representative gave us the thumbs up for our proposed driveway path. Actually he recommended a slightly different path, but we opted to stay with the original logging road path. We have the OK from the town to redo the culvert connection to the road. And we have a preliminary estimate from the excavator for the driveway. Another part of the driveway effort is the property adjustment. We are swapping land with our neighbor so that we can take the easier path to the house site. The town has already approved the adjustment. All that is needed now is to do the survey and submit it to the town planning board. Then hire a lawyer to amend the property deeds so we can submit to the county. We met and hired the surveyor last weekend. And you thought this would be the easy part? As soon as we get some dry weather, we can begin the driveway!

We also received an estimate from the electric company for running a power line up to the house site.  The big decision here is whether we want to go above ground or bury the power cable. We’re leaning toward the above ground option because it’s looking much cheaper than trenching along side the driveway. And that’s not even taking into account extra expense of having to pound or blast through any ledge we encounter. Almost a certainty in our area. Unfortunately, going above ground means we have to carve a larger swath through the woods to make room for the poles and the power easement. We would prefer to go underground, but it’s looking like it may be shockingly out of reach.

And of course the site clearing continues…

Change in schedule!

Link to first draft of plans (PDF 1.2M)

After a bit of soul searching and with a generous construction loan from a family benefactor, we have decided to start building our house this year. All those decisions yet to be made and posts unwritten, are now upon us. We suddenly have a long list of things to do rather quickly.

One of my first tasks is to finalize the plans. I started working with LayOut, the add-on to SketchUp that lets you easily layout presentation drawings. It’s not really well suited to creating working drawings, but it is easy to learn and not half bad. Click on the image above to view a quick PDF (1.2M) I put together last night to send off to the prospective energy consultants to get their thoughts on what it would take to get us to net zero status.

The plans are important because we need to submit an application for a building permit quickly. They are also used to get estimates and bids on the build components. Luckily I did my own high level estimate using Means data last month, which helped me understand the different components and general costs. Now it’s time to see how close I was.

Other tasks include getting the driveway path, house, well and septic locations surveyed and finalized.

It’s so exciting to get started now, and terrifying. But I don’t think it will really kick in till we see a bulldozer moving dirt around.

New house design

I’ve been doing  lot of reading lately about super-insulated net zero houses and passive solar houses. Not so different than what we had been planning to do in earlier designs, just with thicker walls. We were planning a <1400 sf passive solar house with radiant heat floor and masonry stove. But super-insulated houses with a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) only need a hair drier and a few light bulbs to keep them warm on the coldest nights. And that doesn’t take into account passive solar.

As the articles say, why spend tens of thousands of dollars on a heating system when you only need to spend a few hundred a year. If you super insulate, it makes sense to incorporate a right-sized heating system. So out with the masonry stove (sadly, I really like them) and the radiant floor (again, sadly). In with the small wood stove and some other small backup space heating system, yet to be determined.

One other major change was moving the bathroom upstairs, which allows us to organize everything under one simple roof and over one simple foundation. The walls are 12 inches thick, using double 2×4 walls with a cavity, all filled with 2 types of foam or dense pack cellulose, for an R rating of 40-50. The cold roof will have an R value of 60 to 70. We still have 4 inches of concrete on the first floor to absorb and temper the solar heat being generated by the south facing windows.

There’s still lots of work to be done. I’m studying up on all the energy calculations that I learned a long time ago in school, and I’m hoping to try out some the free tools online, like EnergyPlus. I want to make sure we don’t overheat in the winter when the sun is out, and that we can get by when there’s a few weeks of clouds. The roof overhang and thickness of the walls should keep out most of the sun in the summer.

We’re also exploring off the grid options. I want to have a ballpark number in mind for a solar power array, battery storage and generator backup, in case the estimate for getting power up to the house site is prohibitive.

House design

Its been some time since our last house posting. The current design came together back in March and I’ve been tweaking it for a while.

The massing shows a primary box shape that holds the study, dining, hallway, stairs, and bath on the first floor. The second floor contains the bedroom and office. The front attached volume is the living room which steps down the hill a bit, and the second attached volume is the kitchen. The back shed volume is mostly storage and shares space with the entry and dining.

All living spaces face south, storage to the north, and a strip of circulation is sandwiched between.

The long side of the house is oriented due south for maximum sun exposure in the winter. Overhangs provide shade in the summer. Lots of south-facing roof surface for solar hot water and voltaics. Attaching the living, kitchen and storage areas helps give the volume a rambling roof line and varied ceiling heights and spaces. The masonry heater intersects the study and circulation space and provides a centrally located heat source.

In past versions the location of the masonry heater and entry always seemed forced and unresolved. The current design seems to accommodate the program well, but the entry space is still not optimal. Its really the slope of the land that makes the position awkward. And we really won’t know how to best resolve this until we know for sure how far up the slope we can position the house and where the driveway will finally sit.

So back to surveying…

New house design, no kidding

Well we were all excited to head up to Massachusetts today for our Nigerian Dwarf Goat Kidding Class (baby goats are called kids), but due to bad weather in MA the class was postponed. We will try again next weekend, but most likely without the actual kidding experience.

So instead we worked out a new house design this weekend. Actually there have been multiple versions since the last house design posting, but very few have legs. The version shown above was inspired by an article in this month’s Fine Homebuilding. It’s a very early version of this layout, but I like how several things are working. It descends down the hill, working with the terrain. It also has a sheltered deck with plenty of open views and a small basement despite the one story spread. Other than the stepping, the geometry is quite simple (ignore the plethora of windows and textures for now).

The cons are that it’s one level (meaning more roof and more foundation work) and it’s more spread out (meaning more surface area to bleed heat to the winter winds.) It’s not the final design, but it’s the second design that seems worthy of posting. We still have a year or more, so nothing final yet (sorry Jill).


In the last five months since we bought the property, we’ve been busy bees. Cleaning, battling mice and powder post beetles, building the outhouse, planting the garden, buying a shed, visiting farms in the local area, cohabiting in Queens, getting married, and now helping Jill’s dad through his heart transplant. But wait there’s more! In the back of our heads we’ve been planning and designing and fantasizing about the house we want to build upstate. We’ve been through quite a few iterations already and finally have something we feel is in the right direction.

The program is for a very small house (and barn, more on that in a future post), one bedroom, one bath, kitchen, living, dining and unfinished basement. We’re trying to keep it around 1000 sq. feet, and as green as makes sense. No surprise, budget is the main driver. We want to do this without taking out a mortgage and by doing as much of the work as we can ourselves. Not just to save money, but because its just plain fun for us.

One of the first considerations was finding the right site on the property. We wanted to orient the house to the south mainly for the sun and view of the valley and hills. But I also wanted to nestle the house into the hillside, for protection from the northern winds and to give more space to the future small pasture and meadow.

The next consideration was, for lack of a better word, style. I have a very expensive architecture degree, which means I’m predisposed to modern architecture. I barely passed my architecture history classes. I love the old modern masters, Corbusier, Aalto, Wright and Gaudi. But now that it was time to design our own house, I paused. There are plenty of examples of great modern architecture in secluded forests in cold rugged climates. But standing at the house site for many hours looking at the landscape and seeing all the other structures in our area, I felt like we needed something that spoke the local vocabulary.

After much research and many attempts ranging from modern to country farm house, we’ve settled into a familiar barn configuration, a monitor barn to be precise. The house measures roughly 32 by 24 feet with the long side facing south. The ground floor houses everything except the bedroom. The kitchen is open to the living/dining space. The centerpiece is a masonry stove. More efficient than a fireplace or wood stove, it uses its own mass to absorb the heat from the wood fire and heat the house evenly throughout the day. It also comes with an optional bread oven. The bedroom upstairs takes advantage of the open space, clerestory windows and wonderful view of the neighboring Barber Hills.

We’ll be very lucky if we can dig deep enough to support a full basement. I’d like to have the future expansion for a workshop and office (and small brewery). So there you have it. We still have a lot of time to contemplate and change the design. We’ll use this blog as a place to record the evolution of the design. Hope you enjoy watching it evolve half as much as we do designing it.

The Site

As some of you may know, I studied architecture in my early days. In fact I wanted to be an architect from an early age when I started copying plans out of ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ magazine. So after ten long years out of architecture grad school, I’m finally getting to design our own home. (If you recall from the very first post on this blog ‘Decision‘, one of the reasons we decided to buy property was because we couldn’t imagine paying a huge mortgage to live in something that was never going to be what we really wanted.)

Well obviously I’ve been imagining all sorts of things in my head, but as the winter approaches and we take fewer trips upstate, I finally have some time on the weekends to start the formal design process. The first step in any architectural process is to study and model the site. After 3 months of exploration on the property, we believe we have two choices. That is to say the place we really want to the house to go, and the backup. We need a backup because the drive up to the ideal site will be expensive, both to put in and to maintain.

So first, the primary site. There are several practical considerations that must be satisfied, among them, 1) access to sunlight (e.g. south-facing). 2) Soil conditions that permit the digging of a foundation and installation of a septic system (affectionately referred to an an absorption field). As you recall, we have a lot of rock and ledge. 3) A location for the well up and away from the adsorption field. 4) Proximity to the future barn and finally 5) sufficient distance and passage for the drive so as to not exceed a slope accessible to non-4-wheel drive vehicles. Did I leave anything out? I’m sure I have forgotten something, but we have at least three years to plan the house, so hopefully we’ll figure it out before we try to get a building permit.

In order to site the house we’ll need a good survey of the proposed drive up to the house and the area around the proposed house site. For a build permit we’ll need a professional (certified) survey, but in the meantime I just need a rough survey that is more accurate than the site map we currently have. I’m watching eBay and Craigslist for a used transit level, tripod and measuring rod. I think I should be able to find something reasonably cheaper than paying for a professional survey. I did a bit of surveying in college, and I’ve been researching the topic, so I think I can get reasonably close. I just want to get a better idea of the slope of the driveway and the proposed site, as well as the location of rock outcrops and trees we would like to save. I’m hoping to do the surveying in the early spring before the trees get leafy again and make it more difficult to see distances.

I built the 3D model (at the top of this post) of the site using SketchUp and the property survey that we currently have. Its very rough, but it gives you a good idea what the site looks like without the trees. Each contour is 20 feet. Its roughly 600 vertical feet from the bottom to the top of the hill. I’ve placed a couple of markers so you can see the location of the current cabin and the proposed site, as well as the current and proposed driveway and other points of interest.

I’ve also been doing some rough sketches of the house, but I’ll save that for a future post.

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