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Construction Diary

← May - August 2007 | Diary Homepage →

September 2007

Lawns-R-Us builds window wells that allow lots of space for egress and daylight. They use a locally quarried limestone that adds drama, and is familiar as the same stone found on many homes and buildings in our neighborhood and throughout the Twin Cities. The same limestone can be found in abundance in the area’s landscape, along the bluffs and hills.

Prior to setting the stones, drain caps and a clear gravel base are added for drainage. Then the crew preassembles the wells for review, and once approved, moves the sets to the wells. The stones can be used as steps for easy egress in the event of a fire.

Once the window wells are complete, Lawns-R-Us goes to work on the rain gardens, adding stone that reflects house details and helps the gardens function.

We auger a "drain" in the rain gardens, a hole that goes through the layers of dirt and clay straight into the ancient sandbar that the house rests on. This allows water to flow more easily into the ground, and eventually into the aquifer. We then install a layer of sand, and finally the "topsoil" which is actually peat moss.

The last of the soffits go up. We paint them on the interior side and caulk the seams. Each soffit has an air vent, and each will be primed and painted to match the trim.

The crew from Damschen Wood, Inc. details the doors, trim and cabinets. Our trim is all locally sourced, and we make sure no wood is wasted.

Jack applies a sealer coat to the lower level floors. We use a low-VOC soy-based sealer to keep moisture from migrating up into our carpets and walls.

The house is like an anthill, with workers all over the place. Keith does an incredible job keeping things organized. Besides making sure each subcontractor's project meets green standards and understands and adheres to our recycling and conservation regimen is complicated, and sometimes frustrating.

The crew from Kerber Tile & Marble has been hard at work all week finishing the tile in the mudroom, laundry room, and bathrooms.

California Closets starts installing today. The product we selected from California Closets is made of green materials and meets our LEED standards. In a modestly-sized house organization is paramount. Having a good designer is essential to good organization. Our designer, Heidi DeCoux (based in Edina, Minnesota), promises to complete the installation by day's end.

Cabinets and trim are installed in the bathrooms.

With the Grain installs the reused flooring. We use several different woods in the house's flooring: the original maple, reused oak, and reused ash. Once all the wood is put down it will be sanded and sealed with low-VOC products.

Fluegel’s Farm, Garden and Pet of Rosemount, Minnesota delivered fresh peat moss for the gardens and straw that will be used as a sheet mulch to kill unwanted grass and provide nutrients for fall and spring plantings.

The straw layer will be covered by wood mulch. We recycled chemical-free scrap wood into mulch and combine it with mulch made from other local trees, provided by Top Notch Tree Care. If you use wood chips from a local tree-trimming company, be sure that there is not a lot of old leaf material in the mix - or you may have a problem with mold. Also be sure that diseased trees were not used in the product.

Over the course of the project we collected the pallets that came with material deliveries. We send these pallets off to a company that either fixes them up for reuse, or recycles them.

Remember those pavers we removed from the original home and put into storage? We are reusing them for our walks and patio. The original supply of bricks wasn’t enough, but with the help of Borgert Products we received enough extra stones to finish the project. Each paver is laid on a compacted clean sand surface in a herringbone pattern.

With the weekend upon us the painting team from CertaPro is back, taping floors and trim and finishing the primer coat.

The driveway is regraded in preparation for the new surface of permeable pavers. The pavers are AquaBric from Borgert Products; the drive is designed and installed by Meadowood.

The driveway takes shape. First fine, clean gravel is laid in place and leveled by hand. Then clean sand is laid over the gravel. Finally, permeable AquaBric pavers are put in place. These pavers are specifically designed with spaces (filled with gravel) that allow water to pass through back into the soil. Great care is being taken to direct any excess water flow toward our rain gardens rather than into the streets and storm sewers.

The front and side walks are completed with a mix of new and reused pavers from the old patio. Layers of gravel and sand are leveled and compacted. The pavers are placed on the sand surface and then a plastic retaining strip is nailed to the ground with landscaping spikes.

Roger Aaberg of Granite-Tops in Plymouth, MN takes measurements for the laundry room cabinet tops. Roger will be helping us recut and reuse the granite countertops we salvaged from a local home back in January.

One way to cut down on the use of toxic cleaning chemicals is to replace toxic ones with earth-friendly ones. Or, you can eliminate the need for them completely by getting rid of the places where dirt, mold, and bacteria like to hide – the microscopic nooks, crannies, and pores of household surfaces. Easy Clean of California makes a neat product that fills in these microscopic holes where grime collects. No grime, no toxic chemicals! The product is non-toxic, has a long life and means we are not going to be requiring heavy cleaning and chemicals to keep toilets, windows and showers free of stains and bacteria.

Inside, painters finish applying a Sherwin Williams Harmony no-VOC trim coat. To give the coating a smooth finish they are spraying the surface of the trim. Everyone has been impressed with the quality and ease of application of this eco-friendly material.

The plants from Bachman’s have arrived and the crew - with the help of volunteers and Ecological Gardens gardeners - digs holes, mixes mulch, and plants the rain gardens and ledge rock microclimate gardens. We are careful not to plant any closer than 24” from the house (at maturity) to reduce moisture and insect damage. This also slows pollen from entering windows during the spring. In some communities this also is a great way to reduce crime.

In the attic, the radon mitigation system is completed. A low-velocity fan, vented to the outside, is connected to a pipe that goes into the soil below our basement. Radon is a non-odorous gas that has the potential to cause cancer when it occurs in high levels. It exists in many homes in the US (especially those close to granite bedrock, like in Minnesota) and is generally found in basement levels. Radon is easy to manage by sealing cracks and venting the sub floor surface. Because radon can occur at any time, a simple, low cost radon mitigation systems can save lives. An added benefit to the system is that it reduces moisture in your basement by removing up to three or four gallons of water every day from the surrounding soil, at a fraction of the price and energy usage of a dehumidifier.

Guyer’s Builders Supply puts the finishing touches on the gas fireplace and makes a final inspection of the gas connection.

Steve Bradow seems to have taken up residence at the house. He is installing a shower and tub system by Grohe that is beautiful, functional and, most importantly, will save us water. Many people love the feel of good water pressure in the shower, and they are unwilling to give this up and get a low-flow showerhead. Grohe’s solution is to aerate the water as it comes out of the showerhead, increasing the pressure but using less water. It took us some time to find a product this impressive, but we are glad we did. Our many thanks to Rakieten Sales for helping us find this product.

Keith Poets comes across a great piece of history as he sorts through old wood and recycling piles: a sign that was used to advertise the original home. It reads: “Large Three Bedroom Rambler.” In the spirit of the project, the sign was itself reused back in the day: we found it while deconstructing the roof. This reminds us of the long history behind the house we’re working on.

In the “technology room” Phil from ClimateEnergy performs final tests of our electric co-generation system. UMR completes the hook-up of the geothermal WaterFurnace to the vent system.

Outside the crew has completed the flower garden inside the loop of the driveway. They have also completed flower beds for annuals, perennials, herbs, and berry bushes. They used new and reused stone from Borgert and Buechel. Our gardens are as important to us as our house; they help us capture water and carbon, feed our family, provide habitat for wildlife, and provide us with a beautiful and comforting environment.

InterSource of Minneapolis installs floor padding and carpet (from Shaw), both of which are made of recycled fibers. We have reduced the VOC issues related to carpet by using this combination of products, and we feel great using materials that are recycled. Looking at the carpet you would never realize this is from recycled content. It is both durable and beautiful.

William installs patio steps.

October 2007

With the Grain sands down the recycled floors and gets them ready for staining. We’re very close to the move-in date.

The hard working, dedicated landscaping crew has finished the fall planting.

The carbon capture rain gardens help both water and excess airborne carbon dioxide make their way quickly back into the soil – where they belong. A layer of locally produced compost, which holds the plants, rests on top of a layer of peat moss and a layer of sand.

We sheet-mulch the entire yard. In areas where we need to kill grass, we first lay down a layer of cardboard or newspaper, followed by straw, and then wood mulch. The remainder of the yard received only layers of straw and wood mulch. Much of the mulch came from the house itself when we chipped our recycling pile. Supplemental wood came from local, disease-free trees. These layers protect our young plants from the winter, while providing nutrients for growth.

Before laying down the mulch, a drip-tube irrigation system is laid into the soil. This saves water by watering each plant directly. There are some small sprinkler heads for the garden beds and the small patches of grass.

Compost tea – essentially a living fertilizer made of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi – is sprayed on each plant and onto major tree roots. This aids spring plant growth. Compost tea is preferable over standard fertilizer because fertilizer acts as a sort of plant steroid – quick-acting, but not long-lasting. Compost tea, on the other hand, puts into the soil the organisms that make fertilizer (nitrogen) and other plant nutrients creating a soil that is rich in microbial life and self-sustaining.

Although there are cisterns for plant irrigation, we want to test a rain barrel as well. In the summer we will bring our indoor plants outside and use the rain barrel as the water source.

Greg Benson and Nate Heydt of Loll Designs, Inc., out of Duluth, MN, visit the house and deliver our outdoor furniture. Loll’s furniture is made of 100% post-consumer recycled plastic. Furniture, whether it’s reused (as most of the Sustainable House’s furniture will be), made with recycled content, or made of eco-friendly materials, is an important but often overlooked consideration in a green, healthy home. This novel, well-designed, and rugged furniture from Loll will last for years and years, further reducing the House’s impact on the environment.

Reused granite counter tops, salvaged from a teardown home, are installed in the laundry room. We choose beautiful recycled glass tiles for our kitchen back splash.

Cambria countertops are used in the bathrooms and kitchen. We toured the Cambria plant to learn how these quartz countertops are produced. A large portion of the quartz is locally quarried, and end product is twice as strong as granite. Cambria recycles 98% of the water used in the polishing process and is Greenguard certified under the standard for Low Emitting Products. Cambria is colorfast and it doesn’t stain.

For our studio, workshop, and office spaces we’re using Richlite’s brand-new FSC line of products. The Sustainable House is the first-ever application of Richlite FSC. This material – made from mixed-FSC paper and wood pulp – is rugged, environmentally friendly, indoor air friendly (it is inert – won’t gas-off into the home) and looks and feels like stone.

The Richlite tops rest on cabinets salvaged from an out-of-business retail store before they went to the landfill. If you plan to use recycled furniture, we suggest you find materials that are build well enough to last, have gassed-off completely, and can be upgraded or repaired. By using the Richlite FSC countertops we have given new life to these workspaces.

Damschen Wood, Inc. installs more built-ins storage spaces and detailing. The detail is wonderful and environmentally friendly, and we know the product is going to be sustainable for generations. Built-ins reduce the need for constant furniture replacement, giving the occupant a long-lasting solution and lowering overall resource needs for the life of the house.

All of the Damschen products in the House feature an FSC maple veneer, eco-friendly adhesives, and formaldehyde-free fiberboard.

South Side Electric has been in the house for months putting together an amazing array of systems for us to manage and measure the performance of the house. The house is managed and measured by a system from HAI out of New Orleans. The system manages our home environment completely: heating/cooling, security systems, energy management of lights, humidity control, carbon monoxide/dioxide detection, fire monitoring (and sprinkler use, if necessary), sound, and an array of other needs.

We can turn lights and the heat on or off from anywhere in the world, or set them to work on timers. If there is a sick child (or disabled person) at home while we’re at work, we can monitor that child, even talk to him or her, all over the internet.

Part of designing a home for universal living is making it more usable for disabled individuals and those that care for them. As the population ages, we need to begin designing homes that are accessible. Most of today’s homes are made for healthy young people, but in the very near future there will not be sufficient housing in care facilities to handle a larger influx of elderly and disabled.

It is important to include accessibility in the home design process. Simple things like larger doors, higher toilets, wheel chair accessible sinks and showers, and energy and communications management technologies can make the difference with little effort.

The designers have spent just as much time on the little details as on the big ones. We selected a wide variety of doorknobs, cabinet knobs and hardware and door handles from a wide pool of vendors. The door handles came from Habitat for Humanity’s reuse store; some of the cabinet knobs are from a recycling center; and the stone ones are from Linda Petruska and Nob Hill out of Minneapolis. Linda found cabinet knobs made of recycled materials, and even some made out of palm nuts.

Ceiling fans are an energy efficient way to keep a home cool. Lights are also very important in a green house. The lights themselves can make the difference between a big electric bill and a small one. The fixtures, if not installed properly, can become significant heat leaks. Our lighting consultants helped us find the most efficient lighting system. We are EnergyStar compliant with our fixtures where possible. In the House you’ll find mostly CFLs (compact florescent lights) in use, a few LED lights, and a small handful of low voltage incandescents. We chose to use a few small “normal” lightbulbs to reduce color and wavelength vibration issues, which some people find distracting or even discomforting. South Side Electric found some dimmable CFLs. Some of our fixtures came from a house that was being taken down, and the rest came from Susan Livingston and Cartier Lighting of Plymouth, MN.

If you want an energy efficient lighting system, a good lighting consultant will help you find the perfect solution. There are many lighting systems available, but they do not all work together. Many do not accommodate CFLs yet, and most are incompatible with LEDs, which are still very new on the market (we only use them for emergency lighting).

The greywater recycling system by Brac is tested and in use. It collects water from the sinks and showers and recycles it back into the toilets.

A well-managed garage can improve a home’s health and indoor air quality. The garage should be a negative pressure environment, and should not allow fumes from an auto to travel into your house. One easy way to do this is to build a detached garage. Because of our focus on Universal Design, we decided to leave the garage attached, which allows for easy access to the home for a disabled person. To keep a negative pressure and to keep fumes from the home, we installed a Garage Butler from Midwest Garage Butler out of Hastings, MN. This neat little device manages the air quality by shutting our garage door automatically after we have been in the house for several minutes, allowing the garage to vent, without the worry of leaving the garage door open. An exhaust fan in the garage ceiling removes fumes, and a make-up air intake puts in fresh, clean air.

The central vacuum system vents into the garage, which keeps the air quality in our house fresh. Stand-up vacuums just don’t work as well, and they often leak, leaving your home polluted with the dust, mites and hair that you thought was just removed.

Another fun and functional feature of our home is the Phantom Screen. Tim Chamberlain of Minnesota Screens out of Plymouth, MN, installed ours. These retractable screens are designed to be self-repairing (a great feature if you have dogs or children), durable and invisible. It is important to keep fresh air moving through the house whenever possible. Using doors and windows that have both high and low opening points can effectively reduce your summer energy consumption by up to 60%. Screen doors can be a constant pain, as many Minnesotans know. We wanted to solve the issue of broken screens once and for all.

A flexible night light pathway edging called "Lunabrite" glows in the dark to help define edges. It works at the molecular level without electricity, wires or bulbs - Lunabrite gets its energy from sunlight. It only needs 20-30 minutes of daylight to be fully charged. It lasts 15 years and subtly glows at night for about 8 hours (when seen in a very dark setting).

Aero Drapery & Blinds out of Little Canada, MN installs the blinds. Our request was straightforward: privacy when needed, keep the sun out in the summer, keep the bedrooms dark for better sleeping, make sure they last for years, and while you are at it increase our R-values by several % and do it economically. These Hunter Douglas blinds do all of that. They can be closed/opened from the top or the bottom, and they have a coating on the inside that insulates and keeps them extra dark at night.

The Venmar air exchange is installed and running. This system will give us fresh, clean air and help prevent the loss of hot and cold air during the seasons. When a house is this tight you need an air exchanger to have a healthy house.

The STEP Warmfloors are making the floors in the bathrooms, mudroom and laundry wonderfully warm, a nice touch to keep down mold and keep the house at a lower temperature. The can be run from a simple control panel (above) or tied into the thermostat.

The radon system is active and being monitored in the technology room. This will also save us money on dehumidification.

The washer and dryer are hooked up. This is a high efficiency top-loading Fisher & Paykel washer and dryer set, provided by HomeClick. We were concerned about the high number of service reports for front loaders so we played it safe and went with a top of the line system that was built to last a very long time. The dryer is gas and the washer uses only small amounts of water. These are EnergyStar rated. When we hooked up the washer we were careful to use a stainless steel hose, attach our drain tube to the drain properly, and put a drain pan under the washer directed to a floor drain.

The dryer is vented directly outside. Make-up air is taken in to replace the exhaust air, essential is such a tight house.

Steve, our master plumber finishes the remaining plumbing hookups – sinks, showers, and toilets. These elegantly designed faucets also save water and energy by being battery-operated automatics.

The appliances arrive. The EnergyStar appliances for the kitchen are a Sub Zero refrigerator/freezer, a Wolf induction cooktop and oven, and an Asko dishwasher. The vent above the center island has a draw of 600 CFM (cubic feet/minute) which is sufficient properly ventilate the cooking area without taking up too much make-up air.

We have no garbage disposal in our sink. Instead we are composting our food waste and reducing our impact on the local wastewater plants.

Jimmy Sparks from the NEC (our LEED energy auditor) performs the energy audits we have been waiting for. Our numbers are excellent. The vents have 0% loss of air, which would seem impossible, but there it is. The blower door test result was little over 350 CFM – for comparison, the result pre-rehab was closer to 1,400! Jimmy found a few leaks that need to be sealed. He also tested each vent, fan, and air intake. He’ll finish calculating our results and give us our scores in a few days. We'd tested the house at the start of this process and we are excited to find out how far we have come.

November 2007

Moving day has finally arrived! Unfortunately this experience consumes a lot of energy. There is paper and cardboard that needs to be recycled. Unwanted items need to be hauled to Goodwill. And some things can only go to the landfill – broken dishes, ruined pillows, a broken tote, items that are rejected even by a charity, un-sellable on Craigslist, or unwanted by a son or daughter. We are a society of collectors, and not very good recyclers.

Best Buy helps us select an EnergyStar rated TV and computer to give presentations as a part of our home tours and they have provided us with some energy saving tips for electronics.

The house is being unpacked; here are a few photos before the final view. 

January 2008

When a house is completed by the contractor and turned over to the new owners it is not really finished – there is always what’s called a “punch list,” a list of little things here and there left to do. A flickering light here, a missed coat of paint there, a missing piece of trim board, a backordered switch or PV panel array. These are the little things – all quite common – that fill the punch list as a house goes through its shakedown period. The more complex the project, the longer your punch list will be.

The period of time you establish for a shakedown on a house will vary. On the Live Green, Live Smart Sustainable House we expect this period to last through the spring of 2008. This time frame allows us the opportunity to also learn about our mechanical systems, landscaping, gardens and spring rainwater management. We have created an extensive owners manual to help us understand our systems. The manual also has a list of contacts for when we are really stuck.

We have learned that we need to rethink our management of materials and products that come into the house. By habit we tend to go about buying the same brands of soap, cleaners and toilet paper. Our kids sometimes forget that there is a not a garbage disposal but instead a pair of composting containers, one under the sink and one by the gardens. We don’t always remember to scrutinize the ingredient list on a box of laundry detergent or the materials listing on the new pillows. Part of living in a green house is changing some long-ingrained habits, and these changes are just as important to living green as any of the features built into the home itself.

When you live in a home that is green, it is by nature very tight and the management of the air in the house is important. We spent a great deal of time during construction making sure our paint, carpeting, wood floors, surfaces and insulation were free of VOC’s (volatile organic compounds), so now we want to be sure we are not going to reintroduce them into the house via common materials like dry-cleaned clothing, fragrances, cleaning products, new furniture, and pest control chemicals (it is not uncommon to find mice, ants, etc. in a home that has just been constructed). For example, each roll of toilet paper is now free of bleach and made of recycled content, any foam filled piece of furniture is evaluated for PVCs, fabrics are free of stain repellants, fire retardants are free of formaldehydes and brominates, and cleaning products are free of POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants). (If you want to find out more about POPs read the book: Naturally Clean by Jeffrey Hollender.)

When guests stay overnight they are given a brief overview on how the house works, where the recycling is, how the toilets, sinks and showers work, how they can save water, how the lights turn on and off, and how can they control the temperature of their bedroom.

Living in the house has been fairly easy so far. We are experimenting with the heating lighting and water management systems. With all the tours (over 1,400 people from around the country to date) and guests the utility bills will likely be higher than expected. We have not yet started testing the PV system or geothermal system those tests will begin later in February.

We are still playing with the LED lights, which are used for mood lighting and spot lighting. They are not yet working up to our expectations, but we hope to come up with a solution soon. The CFLs, especially the dimmable ones, are working great. We haven’t had any complaints about the color or light diffusion. The HAI home automation and security system are running smoothly. The dual flush toilets work great. We are so accustomed to the automated sinks now that we find ourselves waiting at traditional faucets for the water to come on. The water recycling system is taking a little bit of a learning curve but we are getting there. We have discovered that a little bit of soap buildup in the system leaves a residue in the toilet holding tanks and a bit of white vinegar in the tank is required to keep it flushing freely.

The solar water heater panels on the roof have required us to remove some very heavy snowfalls for best operations. Using a broom on a pole they have been swept clean without a lot of difficulty, but we only have a one-story home. We are now done adjusting the vents in the house, keeping our bedrooms cooler and the primary living area warmer. The house is very cozy and warm and our furnace is set between 65 and 67F. Placing the technology (utility) room under the front entry way has worked out well because it sheds extra radiant heat into the entrance area and throughout the house. The louvered window treatments make a difference in keeping the bedrooms warmer. We have not experience moisture build up on any windows and have a constant humidity of around 37%. The radon system does a great job removing moisture from the home. The Venmar air exchange system is definitely making a difference in keep us supplied with fresh air.

Our outside laundry drying rack from Home Depot™ lasted about one day before breaking so we are looking for another more substantial one. We have discovered the permeable surface pavers work even in the winter. With lots of snow on the roof we have not experienced ice dams or any leaks as many have (the extended overhang and extra ice shield is working). Some of our outside solar lights are no longer working due to the cold. The reflection of light on the snow has offset that light source however.

We flushed the air in the house for several weeks prior to move in and did a very complete cleaning before the furniture arrived. We are currently running room air cleaners in each bedroom for three to four months, to take out any construction dust still in the air. Even though our vents were taped shut and cleaned there is still residue from drywall and floor sanding in a house. Keeping the bedrooms free of construction dust is an important aspect of a healthy house. Dust is common for months after construction is completed. Our furnace filters have been replaced and we do a good cleaning each week. The dust is now under control and we have not experienced any chemical smells from the time we moved in so the flushing and control of VOC’s has worked.

The neighbors are great, supportive, helpful and kind; some have even donated recycled building materials to our project. It is a great walking and biking neighborhood, and all around a wonderful place to live. The Minnetonka city managers and city staff have shown a lot of interest and toured the house many times and also contributed to our project with suggestions and some innovative ideas.

Thank you so much for reading and being a part of our project. 

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