Fabulous Finnish Footing forms…

wall-footing-cross-sectionBecause we’re insane (or too dumb to know better  – take your pick…) we decided to take on the job of “manufacturing” the Finnish foam forms for our foundation.

Pay attention to the alliteration – it will come into play later…

Here’s the deal – we have worked so hard to thermally isolate the walls, and build our giant cooler, there was no way we’d just slap them onto a normal concrete footing and let the inner wall be in normal direct contact with both the ground, AND the outer concrete wall.  So – we went about thermally isolating the “inner footing” from the “outer footing”.  Finnfoam was a huge part of that – but so was figuring out how to tie the 2 halves together without traditional metal rebar (a HUGE thermal conductor)

Working with our engineering firm – to make sure all these crazy ideas will actually work… we established the following design:


Then – we needed to find the non-conductive rebar – which wasn’t all that difficult (seems to be popular in Canada – gee wonder why…) so we ordered hooks and straights and picked up a pallet.


Next, I had to get my head around the fact that footings don’t really attach themselves to the ground and that when you translate the PSI rating of the foam to the PSF spec we had to meet for the compacted earth – and get comfortable with the fact that my ENTIRE FREAKING HOUSE will be sitting on 4″ or FOAM….  Ok – done with that.

We then set out to manufacture the forms.  our design is pretty simple – and we figured that the foam would be standard 8′ (nope – metric) and instead it came in at 8′ 3.5″ or so….  and then the rebar hooks had to be spaced at 12″ increments – we just added a ton on complexity.  Sure we could have cut them all off at 8′, but that actually would have been pretty wasteful.

So – that meant each form was fairly different in where the first hook was placed, that we had upwards of 7 different forms, and that’s before we start talking about how to deal with the corners.

“How hard can it be….?”  Famous. Last. Words.

Finnish footing foam…

One of the ideas behind ShopHouse is “healthy”.  Things like indoor air quality are important to us.  We’re spending a lot of time on HVAC, but even the materials in the overall construction are important decisions and opportunities to make sure our indoor environment is the best if can be, as well as making sure that we at least try to choose environmentally decent materials.

Additionally, we’re incorporating a split footing design, where 2 halves of the footing are thermally isolated from on another, and also insulated from the ground (more on THAT project shortly).  So – we needed a source for 4″ xps foam to get the R values we needed AND it needed to have sufficient compressive strength to hold up the house (minor detail).  The search started with the usual suspects – Dow, and other companies that seem to be more chemical that insulation…

And… then we find out that all the foam insulation that appears to be available in the US contains HBCD (Hexabromocyclododecane – there will be a spelling quiz later – so pay attention) – a bio accumulating chemical that is banned in Europe and in the process of being phased out globally.  It’s a flame retardant and blowing agent.  Read the link for a more detailed discussion on why this is bad stuff.

Why would we want THAT all in the ground around our house and under the slab?  It doesn’t need to be flame retardant, and we’re anti – nasty chemical. So intrepid husband starts the search for happy foam to make our footings.

The US companies’ answer for removing HBCD is just to find a better chemical and make everything flame retardant.  Sigh.


In northern Europe, apparently what we’re doing isn’t all that odd, and Finnfoam complies with the stricter chemical regulations of the EU.

So we’re now experts in importing Finnish Foam by the container.  Interestingly enough the cost was equal to the “blue foam” even including ocean freight.  We paid for the foam to be delivered and then unloaded it all into our trailer and basement.

not quite...

not quite…

Another round of my personal slave labor.  That was an entire 40 foot – high cube container…..

Now – on to the form making!

Site ready…

Summer is long over.  And the site is finally READY!!!

I am pretty sure I would have never anticipated this project taking this long.  My latest joke is that the pyramids were built faster.  But hey – they had slave labor and the only slave labor around here is MINE.  We’re tackling a lot of things ourselves, and perhaps that’s the right thing, but perhaps not.  I do know that we will have a one of a kind project when complete, but that completion is likely being driven to a later date because of some of our decisions.  In the overall scheme of things, that’s not a big deal  –  I mean after all, this is our “forever house”  but I am still ready to “get going”.

The site looks outstanding – it seems so long ago that the northwest corner was down about 10 feet.  Standing in the corner that will be our bedroom / master bath area you do feel like you are in the trees – but still on ground level.

Never thought I would be this excited about dirt...

Never thought I would be this excited about dirt…

We had an issue with the cistern floating because we had not completed our backfill, so that was a repair issue.  But – we then decided to add some drainage into the cistern excavation.  Good thing, because that hole DOES.  NOT.  DRAIN.  We’ve installed a 4″ corrugated drain pipe, completed the 2″ first flush drain, installed most of a 12″ drain for the cistern bypass during really heavy rains, and still have a 6″ cistern overflow and a 15″  stormwater drain to install.

Believe me - it's a lot more painful than it looks.

Believe me – it’s a lot more painful than it looks.

We’ve basically done this all by hand.  On a good note, I don’t need to go to the gym. (today…)


The Big Dig

Great googely moogely we’re moving dirt.

Ground rising!

Ground rising!

Despite what appeared to be the wettest winter (and spring) since weather was invented, it FINALLY dried out enough to start the cut and fill work required to level the site inside the retaining walls.  And in my lack of knowledge, or extreme positivity, I hoped this would only take a few days! Ha!  Between building up a site 8-9 feet in places, crappy non-draining clay soil, glorious trees that block the drying sun – EVERYTHING takes longer than you expect.

Luckily, our GC decided that he’d bring his tractor and disc up the soil allowing things to dry faster, and then moving the dried soil for the next lift.  And then, the soil testing.  Who the heck knew the soil testing involved a radioactive testing device that uses 2 nuclear isotopes and has to be calibrated using their respective half lifes (lives?). Proctor testing involves taking soil samples and drying them in the lab, and determining dry density and then the level of moisture allowed and compaction required (both measured by the nuclear machine).  Passing grades mean the next lift can commence, failing grades mean more compaction.

Crazy radioactive machine measures density and moisture content.

Crazy radioactive machine measures density and moisture content.

The “good news” is that since we are compacting to the retaining walls, there won’t be an “spread” and loss of compaction and we can march on to footings.  Assuming the heat wave continues, and the pop up thunderstorms miss 15 acres in northern Wake County – we’ll be done with set prep this week.  Onward!  (finally)…

Sheep's foot compacts the lift

Sheep’s foot compacts the lift

Cistern Installation

This post is:

A) Delinquent

B) Out of order

C) Heavy on pictures

D) All of the above.

Answer:  D

But – having just resized and naming several pictures of the cistern install, felt that there was no time like the present.  After looking at several options, we have partnered with Rain Pro NC and Mike Stroud for our rainwater collection project.  Mike’s choice of Infiltrator Systems potable water storage tanks seemed like a perfect solution, and because we want the option of using rainwater for potable water, being able to treat any rainwater, using a potable water tank and then NSF approved filtration and UV sanitation seemed like the best way to give us the most options.

Because our overall site plan uses a lot of retaining walls and we’re working hard to minimize the disturbed area outside the walls, we needed to do the cistern installation early on.  We also had to plan for any retaining wall penetrations prior to the site pouring of the walls – which meant all the water flow / elevations also needed to be determined.  Hope our math was all correct…

The location of the cisterns is outside the west wall.  Luckily, the southern end of the west wall is “short” meaning that the existing grade is relatively the same on both sides of the wall before and after our cut and fill work.  We dug a LARGE hole, and had to ensure the hole was 1) deep enough and 2) level for the installation of the 4 cross connected tanks.  The big excavator was actually “driven” over the retaining wall but using a build up of dirt, and putting the excavator on the trailer and dropping it on the other side.  (Hat tip to engineer hubby for figuring that one out – and also to GC Richard for putting plastic over the wall to make sure we didn’t have a permanent red clay stain…)

low and level!

low and level!

The Infiltrator Tanks have a great sealing system and come in 2 halves, making them reasonable to ship.  Other tank solutions are one piece – REALLY heavy, and the cost to ship them (because of course there are no local-ish manufacturers) is prohibitive.  The 2 piece design also makes them reasonable to move around the site.

tank arrival

tank and gasket

Carrying 3

Install 1

We looked at our water usage using our water bills over the past year or two to size the amount of storage we might need, and then calculated the amount of roof we have (tons- like 11,000 square feet because of the ranch design of the buildings) and then the average monthly rainfall, what happens in a drought, and how much water we could capture in a heavy rain.  Lots of math later… we decided on 4 cross connected tanks for about 7000 gallons of water.

Install 2

finishing touches

plumbing the tanks

The tanks are cross connected at both the top and the bottom to be able to equalize the pressure and the accessibility. The top connection also managed the overflow when the tanks are full.  We also incorporated a “first flush” feature. The first flush is used to capture the first bit of rainwater collected in an “event”.  This first water is the most contaminated because it’s hitting the dry roof and rinsing any contaminants with it.  So – the first flush is a big pipe that takes the first water, fills up, and when it’s full, the water is diverted to the tank.  It does this by just having the large pipe capped off with a slow leak.  Genius!

starting first flush

After the tanks were set, cross connected, and all the fittings for the first flush and overflow completed, we had to partially fill them to get some weight in them, and then partially backfill them so they would be protected and not shift.  While the tanks can support the weight of a vehicle – because they are outside the wall, we really don’t want anything back there shortly.  We will be backfilling up to the level of the black risers shown.  The risers provide access to the tank for any pump issues or maintenance.

risers and first flush

First phase complete.  We’ll be back when we get the rainwater management plan working after the cut / fill / compaction and probably footings.

Merry Christmas!

Green rating hell.

I spoke about this in a previous post regarding the high performance home.  I am becoming increasingly disillusioned with the possible rating systems.  And I am beginning to wonder if it is worth spending my heard earned money to meet what appear to be rather arbitrary standards.  And the overall process seems to be painstaking in its detail and appears to be straightforward, but inflexible in the execution.

what rating system is right for me?

what rating system is right for me?

Here’s some observations of a few of the green ratings:

LEED – probably the most comprehensive scoring system for both energy efficiency, quality of life issues and social responsibility.  Between the HERS index and other points for things like solar panels, they have this area pretty well covered.  Testing is required, too, so that’s good.  Guidance for issues like water conservation, VOCs, avoiding indoor air contaminants gives this a good “healthy home” foundation.  And lastly – points for things like using infill lots and access to public transportation, and even points for an electric car charger add the social responsibility aspect into the mix.  Of course with us building a pretty large house on 15 acres, in the country and driving a variety of non-earth friendly vehicles – we’re not racking up the points in those areas.. That being said – while you have to meet prerequisites, you can get your LEED certification by focusing on the areas that are the most meaningful to you.  I wish it was as generally recognized as some other programs.  It also seems to be the popular “architect’s choice” and is much more popular in commercial building.

National Green Building Standard (ICC 700) touted by the home building professional association as the only standard certified by ANSI (the American National Standards Institute) seems to be a way for the building industry to capitalize on the green bandwagon.  My scientific observation that any home that can be certified to a “bronze” level isn’t that green.  But – I downloaded the spring template and it’s A LOT like LEED.  Everything from site location, solar preparedness, formaldehyde free cabinets and no VOC finishes matches nicely.   So while Bronze appears to be an easy deal (you can get Bronze by being Energy Star in their HVAC section) if you did get to Emerald – there’s at least a bunch of paperwork that needs to be submitted.  My guess is that this is the preferred certification of the more production builder.

Passive House, or – for the more Euro flair – PassivHaus….  Besides trying unsuccesfully to navigate and understand the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS)  and the Passive House Alliance US (PHAUS) differences, so far it’s been painful.  Requiring a consultant to pre-approve or at least “pre-score” your project, then to put this project / register it with the proper organization, and also to hire a rater (usually the LEED raters are cross certified – and the stuff they are checking is about 80% overlapped, so it’s not that big of a deal) it’s costly.  We started considering Passive House late – mostly because it looked like we were headed towards building something that would meet it – so perhaps the next comment isn’t fair – but we’d hoped that we’d have enough feedback from the initial certification assessment that we could make building decisions (cost benefit, etc) based on the calculations.  We’d also hoped that we’d be able to take that info and perhaps help our HVAC contractor best design a system that will perform and keep us comfortable.  So far – that’s not happening.  And with the cost, if we can’t offset some of that by either savings from not having to hire engineers or other experts in the HVAC field, or perhaps being able to reduce some insulation or switch from using geothermal to going solar and   generating more electricity – then it’s going to be hard to justify continuing.  It also seems that many just say “built to the Passive House” standard – and don’t go for the full certification – and I wonder if the cumbersome nature of the process isn’t driving that…

Maybe it’s just a brag anyway, since there’s no marketing “value” for us – but I am still searching for the perfect “green” rating…


people banner

A house is made up of glass and concrete and steel and wood (well, not ours) and a host of other materials.  You assemble the pieces and you “build”.  But it’s the people involved in the project, that can set it apart.  The people either rise to meet the challenges or they produce the minimum they can to get by and don’t inspire others, and likely don’t garner a lot of personal satisfaction from their “job”.

Think Big!

Think Big!

We’ve been very fortunate on this project to have met some incredible people.  People who’s skill and caring have helped us realize this crazy dream.  People who took at little extra time to understand what we’ve been trying to do, and figured out creative ways to help meet the goal.  They’ve stepped outside their personal or professional, comfort zones and took us seriously when we asked ‘why not?’.

We hope that we can partner with some of these folks as we move through the process and at project completion when we do “the fun stuff” – like the open house tours with NC Modernist Houses, or open house required by LEED, or maybe the Green Home Tour (although no sure I’ll be spending the money to put our house on the tour…)

The house is “stuff”, but the process is people.  And continue to be pleased and comforted by the folks who are passionate about what they do – and strive to differentiate themselves against “the rest”.

LEED for Homes 4, Passive House, Energy Star, DOE Challenge Home, and and and…

There seems to be a decent amount of alphabet soup or certification “choice” when it comes to energy efficiency and measuring your “green-ness” – but realistically, what does it mean and what is it worth?  We’ve already established that the mortgage industry and the appraisal system doesn’t give it a hoot, and since we’re not a builder – what the heck does any of this stuff MEAN to us?  Overall, nothing.  Well, that’s not entirely true – it should result in lower operating costs and a “better” home.  But at what cost?  What’s the payback calculation?  There’s no way in Hades that we’ll ever pay for our uber windows in energy savings with anything close to the current rates for power in the US. So why do it?

Maybe we’re looking at this wrong.  It’s not about the certifications, (although we believe they DO have value for both builders and suppliers of the materials for the project) it’s about building the High Performance Home.  THAT’S my new personal certification – HPH.  Everyone else seems to have a certification program – why not me?  HPH fits a theme here – we have high performance “stuff”.  My daily driver car is a 469 HP station wagon.  It’s not the highest HP car out there – but in it’s class, it’s top of the heap.   Henry drives a Dodge Cummins diesel dually pickup.  All the wheels and all the torque – a high performance towing machine.  We have a little vice in that we drive Dodge / SRT Vipers.  Very high performance American muscle.  This level of high performance may not be necessary, but it’s pretty cool when you can achieve it.  And ultimately, that’s what we want for our house: quite simply, a house that performs to the level of the rest of our lives.

But- since HPH is not a globally recognized certification (yet), what are our options?

LEED can be regarded as being a little prescriptive  and judgmental (after all – what the hell would we do with an electric car charging station? Unless I get a Tesla) and there’s a lot of focus on stuff we can’t control – we’re not an infill lot and our “walkability” score is pretty low.  But then DOES cover things like Indoor Air Quality which we believe to be a real benefit to living better.  LEED incorporates this measure, and also Energy Star into its rating system, so you are getting a little more bang for your buck here.  And maybe feeling that you are looking at your home’ performance from a multifaceted approach, and building a High Performance Home.

But then you look at Passive House – I call this the Engineer’s certification.  It’s VERY much performance based and focused on energy usage, and not wasting energy.  This certification becomes very much a numbers game.   Without being all that smart on Passive House – it’s close to saying that your energy usage is about 10% of something “normal” for your home’s size and location.  It also says that you take advantage of passive means to heat (and cool or avoid heat) the home – so using solar warming of a slab concrete floor, for example.  In this regard, Passive House is right up our alley.  They are VERY interested in building envelope performance- with requirements for multipoint blower door tests and other more stringent qualifications.  The other good news is that Passive House seems to be “flexible” in how you meet the requirements – and for an out of the box project like this – that’s GOOD news.  So – this very much works with the High Performance Home theme.  Passive House also incorporates the Department of Energy’s Challenge Home criteria – so again – more recognized certs as part of a higher level program.

With this in mind, we’re going to see if we can meet Passive House without any major design or building plan changes, as it’s highly regarded as a standard for PERFORMANCE.  Once we know if we can pre-certify – we’ll show you the numbers and talk about it more and see if it really makes sense to got for the full certification process or just “built to the Passive House standard” that often gets used instead.  In the meantime – let’s hope we can nail a high performance BUDGET…

If all goes well, we’ll be able to move to submit for our building permit this week – another milestone we need to make.  Onward!

P.S.  What do you think of the new rendering???

It’s alive!

On January 31st, at 3 PM, we finally closed on a construction loan.


3 different banks.  3 appraisals.  Hundreds of hours of documentation submissions, faxing, follow ups, conditional approvals, changing conditions, new players and levels of frustration that have increased my already enormous library of swear words.

I know our project is “different”.  It’s large and we’re asking for a pretty good chunk of change – money-wise.  However, 2 counterpoints to this concern:  we have VERY good credit and have never not fulfilled a financial obligation.  Ever.  Also, data published not too long ago says that jumbo loans and mortgages are MORE reliable than conforming loans.  It’s never been a discussion about “ability to pay” but more trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

And yes – we’re “green”.  Big deal.  Despite claims from the appraiser to be able to attribute value to green features, she did not. The process to refute an appraisal is amazingly flawed.  And because the appraisers are so sheltered from interaction with banks (trust us, it’s for your protection – says the government) there’s no accountability.

Energy costs in the US are really low.  And ultimately, rising energy costs are the only things that will drive REAL value into the appraisal process.  As long as we have artificially low energy costs, there’s little incentive to build greener and even less incentive for banks to value green.

One thing that seems to be rather positive, is that more folks in the Western United States are building new buildings with their latest tech earnings.  However instead of creating an ostentatious palace on the side of a mountain in San Francisco, they are pouring money into DETAILS – and one big detail is tech / energy efficiency.  A LEED Platinum or a Passive House certification is a geek badge of honor and an outlet for a couple hundred dollars per square foot.

So- we are BACK.  tonic construction will be getting the permit.  We’re back working with International Precast.  I might get to go see my windows.  I bought yet ANOTHER Grohe F1 faucet on eBay.  I need to procure the remaining appliances and hoping I can finally find a deal on my Gaggenau induction cooktop.

Logically, this should be a “simple” house to build. (Note I did not say easy…)  We’ve tried to minimize the subcontractors, we’re not talking about a bunch of “fussy” finishes, and greeting dried in should be reasonably quick.  As always, the devil will be in the details, but we’ve assembled a damn good team – and we’re in it together.

Alexhouse – Personal

Alex - The little dude...

Alex – The little dude…

We’ve joked that we’re simply building a very expensive dog house.  And maybe we’re not joking.   After spending many years doing animal rescue work (specifically Cocker Spaniels- but we’ve had a Chow here and a pitbull there….) you realize that how a dog ages provides a micro level view on how WE age.  The only thing that is different, is that dog’s just “get on with it” and don’t go through the whiny stage.

We’ve had dogs with all sorts of infirmities – deaf dogs, blind dogs, dogs with heart problems, joint problems, skin issues, etc.  They all adapted.  They just go about their day to day routines and adapt.  No complaining, no feeling sorry for themselves – just “being”.  And one particular little dog was extra special.

Alex came into our lives when a client of our veterinarian could no longer care for him.  He was VERY thin, and blind from cataracts.  At only 6 years old – he was far too young to be in such rough shape.  Her office called and said “Dr Grant has a dog for you”…  And so it was.  Alex joined the family.

Turns out he was thin only because the other dog in the house was bullying him for food.  And – one cataract was operable.  The other was not – his retina was shot and it was starting to cause him pain as it developed glaucoma.  So – we did surgery in 2005, restored his sight in one eye, and installed a prosthesis in the other eye.  Alex was visual again.  Sadly, it didn’t last.  After developing glaucoma (more surgery, more meds), detaching a retina (laser retinal reattachment surgery, more meds) we finally lost the battle and he was blind. Permanently.

Honestly- he didn’t care.  He used his other senses to get around, and when he bumped into things, he just readjusted and moved on. We called him our little Roomba. Everywhere around the house, we had / have nose prints about a foot off the floor.  Stainless steel and scrubbable flat latex paint are our friends.

Alex died 2 weeks ago.  Suddenly, and really without warning.  He looked “off” Friday night, I took him to NCSU’s Vet School ER, and he was dead within an hour and a half.

We never anticipated it – he was “only” 13.  We designed the house for our older dogs with various infirmities.  What we found out, is that in doing that – we were using many of the principles of universal design.  THEY taught US.  One level, low maintenance, self cleaning roof, wide hallways, no curb on the shower, zero thresholds at the doorways – all things that would help our little blind dog.  We knew he’d love wandering around in the safe, level, fenced back yard.  And now he won’t.

We’re still shophouse, but we’re just as much Alexhouse.  Rest in Peace little buddy…