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!

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…

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???

Deep dive – everything you possibly want to know about concrete sandwich panels

So at a more detailed level – what are concrete sandwich panels??  Basically they are panels consisting of concrete as the “bread” of the sandwich with insulation as the “meat” of the sandwich.  In the case of the panels offered by International Precast they consist of 3” thick high psi reinforced concrete wythes of concrete with either 2” or 4” of Polyisocyanurate insulation as the interior.


A surprising and very important differentiator of the International Precast concrete sandwich panels is that International Precast claimed that they could deliver panels where the interior and exterior wythes are not connected by any thermal bridging material – they would be completely isolated by the interior insulation.  We quizzed them at length on this claim but they were able to demonstrate to our satisfaction that they could indeed deliver on this claim.  This opened up the possibility of completely isolating the interior and exterior of the house from one another with insulating material and eliminating all thermal bridges.  There would be no through concrete in the panels!!  This started the thought of the house as a cooler – more on this later.

The concrete wythes would be connected via non-conductive cast-in wythe to wythe fasteners.  These are described by their suppliers as being made from “high performance heat and alkaline resistant engineered polymers” or “high-strength, low-conductivity, not-corrosive and chemically resistant” polymers.   These are spaced at defined intervals in the panels per well tested engineering specifications.  They are poked through the insulation at the center of the sandwich panels and have heads that end up being embedded in the concrete with a very small diameter high strength fibrous material connecting the heads together.  These connectors work in tension to prevent any wythe movement under load – basically keeping the exterior concrete surfaces from moving relative to one another under loads and enabling bending loads to be shared between the 2 wythes.  To be 100% technically correct these panels are referred to as “structurally composite concrete sandwich panels” because both the interior and exterior wythes act compositely to carry the external gravity and lateral loads.


The concrete itself is high psi concrete with reinforcing wire and rebar embedded in each of the wythes to enable the concrete wythes to carry structural loads.  Both the interior and exterior wythes are reinforced so both can carry structural loads – this would turn out to be a key factor in enabling thermal isolation for other parts of the house such as the roof.

Financing the Energy Efficient Home – Saga Part 3

How can you get your Green Home the credit it deserves?

The Appraisal Balancing Act

I had sooooo hoped this would be the final Part to this saga.  But that would appear not to be the case.  Let’s recap…

The Appraisal process, at best loose science and conjecture, at worst complete black arts, has always been cloaked in secrecy and rather subjective.  Toss in a Modernist home (more valuable per square foot – as buyers will pay more), and a LEED Platinum home that is almost Net Zero, NOT in a neighborhood and on acreage – oh and with nonstandard construction techniques and you have a “complex appraisal”.  Which I now understand this to mean that it 1) takes longer and 2) costs more.

Add the layer of the appraisal “clearinghouse” to improve the ethical dealings of banks, appraisers, mortgage brokers, builders and real estate agents and it seems to be very well designed to not hold anyone accountable for the accuracy of validity of the data in the appraisal.  (Can you tell I am less than thrilled here?)

While you can’t select a specific appraiser (again – that ethics thing), you can have certain requirements for an appraiser.  In our case, we felt it was imperative that the appraiser had SOME training and familiarity with “green” or sustainably built homes.  Once again – there’s no one certification or accreditation available from the professional association – but there is the 5 page Energy Efficient Addendum that can be used to augment the appraisal and help apply value to each energy efficiency feature.

We got our appraisal back after providing the appraiser a copy of our preliminary Energy Star report / HERS Index (33 without photovoltaic, and -7 with PV) and also our detailed preliminary LEED classification with all the detail from our LEED AP consultant.  All this information would allow the appraiser – remember the “green appraiser” – to fill out the 5 page addendum and accurately attribute value to the energy efficiency.

One page - valuation of your entire project.

One page – Should this be a valuation of your entire project?

If you are not familiar with the manner in which the appraiser goes about valuing a property – I’ll net it out.  The appraiser takes comparable properties (comps), and through a series of comparisons to your project / home / plan, normalizes the other homes to have them more closely match your home through a series of additions or subtractions.  For example – our house has a pool in the plan.  One of the comps did not.  So, the appraiser “added” $25k to the sales price of the comp to try to account for the missing pool – i.e. since a pool would raise the price and since we have one – this is the normalization.  Since it’s rare to have a 100% equivalent property sell within a year  – it’s important to pick the right comps.  And yes – some of the attributes that drive additions or subtractions are subjective, you hope that the overall process is sound.

Or not.

There is one line entitled “Energy Efficiency” in the one page that is really the meat of the final assessment (as far as we were concerned).   This is where we were expecting to have the appraiser utilize the 5 page addendum so that the amount they could attribute to our project (assuming they could not find a comp that was also Energy Star / Green / highly energy efficient, etc) would be reasonable.  We didn’t expect it would really cover the costs of the investment we are truly making.  After all – this investment will pay us back over the entire life of the home with, potentially, having zero or VERY LOW energy bills, and very little maintenance.  So – yes- we’re going to pay more because ultimately, we’re going to get more.  I am okay with that.  What I am NOT okay with is how the appraiser populated the energy efficiency line item.

  1. Comp 1 – new construction.  Labeled as “Good” in Energy Efficiency.  $0 added to the comp sales price.  Upon further investigation from the home’s MLS listing, there is no mention of ANY green or energy efficient feature.  There is nothing to indicate this home was built to any standard higher than the local / state building code.
  2. Comp 2 – 12 year old Modernist home.  Labeled “Average” in Energy Efficiency.  $75k added to comp sales price.  No updating was done to this home and I happen to know this home had monthly utility bills of well over $1000.
  3. Comp 3 – 5 year old single story Modernist home.  Labeled “Average” in Energy Efficiency.  $75K added to comp sales price.  This home also averaged utility bills in the $1000 per month range.

Flipping through the appraisal – the Energy Efficiency Addendum WAS included.  5 Pages. The appraiser filled out one question checked one box for LEED certification.  That’s it. Nothing on R values.  Nothing on my window u values, r values, triple paned, krypton filled lusciousness (grin).  Nothing on solar photovoltaic and the potential to EARN MONEY or have $0 energy bills.  Nothing in the State and Federal rebates for which the house will be eligible. Zip.  Zero. Zilch.  Again – even though this was provided in the LEED checklist and the LEED AP contact was made available.

So – what do you do?  I realize that appraisals are somewhat subjective – after all – you have to take “similar” comps and make educated guesses on how to adjust these disparities.  But – essentially what was done here is that the appraiser gave us no credit for anything – ANYTHING – that we have done that is over the crappy state building code.  Yes- the home is more energy efficient than one built 10 years ago – but it’s also a TON more efficient that a ‘base’ home built today.

Because of all the regulation – the bank cannot “contest” this.  I guess I have to.  And I also realize that this is going to be coming dangerously close to me telling someone that is a professional how to do his / her job.  But seriously – this is a person who has touted their education and familiarity with green homes, building techniques and valuating these features!  I am also sure that any changes to this appraisal will have to be accompanied by an explanation – and then ‘certified’ by the third party that acts as a clearinghouse AND quality control point to reduce industry corruption – so it may raise scrutiny.  (and it’s extra work – but – when you charge extra for a ‘complex appraisal’ – I expect you to actually DO SOMETHING)  However, I am going to present this as an ‘error’ and not something that I am essentially arguing a subjective “I don’t think you valued my project high enough” – but instead – focusing on specific things that simply don’t add up.

I’ll let you know how that works out.

We’re close – we’re really close – and I think we can make it work at the present value if we HAD TO – but it sure would be nice to be given SOME credit.  Perhaps rating out home “Excellent” compared to the new code built home that was rated “Good” in that same category, and then, filling out the addendum to justify both the “Excellent” rating and the increase valuation. Novel idea.  The appraiser did include a bunch of copy / paste words about increased market value of green homes, and green homes spending less days on the market (DOM) that standard homes, and then, of course, didn’t pay any attention to them.

And then – if we can get the appraisal saga done – according to the bank – we can close a loan in 2 weeks.  WHOO – freaking – HOO!


Financing the Energy Efficient Home – Saga Part 2


How can you get your Green Home the credit it deserves?

How can you get Green Home credit?

So – what’s next?

After doing a bunch of internet research, and trying to learn as much as I can about the appraisal process by pouring over old appraisals, we’re trying again.

One site, Green Building Advisor, had a wealth of knowledge about this process with one blog, especially helpful – not only in the content, but also in the comments.  This guy seemed to be having the same issues I had.  More research, more info, more education.  Appraisers are generally reeling from the mortgage / banking mess as well, as banks try to look for a convenient scapegoat for “over valuing” homes.  Granted, there were some appraisers that may have been unethical, but the vast majority of them are only comparing homes to other sales – so once the avalanche over snowballing prices starts, they just need to keep up with the numbers.

Appraisers are all about “comps“.  Comparable properties that are close enough to your property that they can, through a series of additions and deductions for features and specifications, determine a “value“.  Realize that in new construction this is a complete crapshoot.  Add in a “green” home and you have entered into the world of a complex appraisal, and this requires someone with some specialized training.

The governing professional organization of appraisers is the Appraisal Institute.  And, because of the growing issue with “green” valuations, they have developed an addendum to the standard form that is amazingly thorough in outlining the features of a green home.  Everything from your thermal envelope, to blower door tests, to indoor air quality.  In order for an appraiser to fully utilize this form, they NEED to have specialized training.  Too many appraisers just crunch the numbers with little understanding of the real differences in systems and other features, instead putting “typical” in the area on the main 2 page comp sheet.  To be blunt, they need to be able to understand that HERS is not the opposite of his…


Another vestige of the housing mess, is that banks can no longer have a direct relationship with the appraisals.  In order to remove cronyism and the ability to target a “certain” appraiser, banks now need to use clearinghouses that assign appraisers from a pool so that you never know who you will get and, supposedly, this adds integrity into the process. Couple this with the fact that the homeowner is likely kept as far away from this process as possible, when you are doing a house this cutting edge, you are relying on the mortgage person to convey this to the appraiser.

The good news is that you CAN require some training when you submit the request to the clearinghouse, you CAN insist that the 820.04 addendum be used, and you CAN approve the appraiser that the pool assigns.  I guess since you are writing the check, they give you SOME input.

SO – because of the help and the research on the Green Building Advisor site, we’re trying this again.  We’re providing our preliminary HERS rating, and our expected LEED Platinum status, as well as a ton of other documentation.  I am meeting with the appraiser at the property Tuesday (due to the fact you cannot just drive by and access the property).  Hopefully, having an educated appraiser will help us get to where we need to be and we can start this project in July still.

Stay tuned for Part 3 – I hope it’s labeled SUCCESS!

The Thermal Envelope

If you can’t tell – I’m the ‘She’ in the About Us page.  I am not the technical engineer.  I have a good solid understanding of mechanics and more technical things based on my career, experience and the fact that I can be a little bit of a gearhead with the cars.  However, I am also a sales / marketing person at heart and I am a firm believer in “Do not let Perfect be the enemy of Good”.  I am an 85% is FINE – get it done person.  So – I blog.  I write.  I am the extrovert.  I am the one usually spinning out of control and scurrying around.

I share this because you will see some posts from the ‘He’ here shortly and just in case you couldn’t tell – I wanted to let you know you’d see several authors.  Also – if you want more of the nitty gritty technical stuff – it’s coming.  Trust me.

At a higher level – I may be focused more on aesthetics than performance, but I do appreciate a high performance ANYTHING.  I also appreciate that our current house was overbuilt and outperforms all the other houses in the neighborhood.  We’ve already been familiar with geothermal heat pumps, alternative types of insulation, better sealed envelopes and windows with argon filled sealed spaces and low e coatings.

After we selected the wall system – it became apparent that we were onto something – one product – several functions.  It begged some thought and discussion about how to carry this “theme” to other areas.  Hubby had said early on as an “architect test” that he wanted a house with no 2×4’s and no sheetrock, and it appeared we could get that for the walls by using concrete sandwich panels.  Also, with steel, concrete and glass being our mantra, we had a lot of flexibility on materials.

Roofing traditionally is metal or membrane or shingles.  Since we had rejected the flat roof purely out of functional paranoia, a single sloped roof was in order.  However, I was 100% in love with the flat roof “look” and it fit so nicely into my mind’s eye of the mid century look I was trying to get.  Enter the insulated roof panel.  Initially developed for refrigerated buildings, we could easily now get R-50 in a LONG panel that was totally thermally isolated and that gave us the inner and outer surfaces, as well as some great insulation.  Several companies provide this type of panel, but we found a local installer and a fairly local manufacturer.  Metl-Span had just what we needed and Metal Roofing Corporation is an amazing partner and dove in helping us fully utilize the benefits of the product for both our roof, as well as the extensive shading structures we have to manage the summer sun.

red roof

The roof helps with LEED (insulation factor, airtight, no thermal paths, and solar reflectivity – not to mentions “local” material within a few hundred miles.) and provided the look and feel we were going for.  The inside of the roof will sit on our open bar joists (for a loft like look) and provide the finished ceiling.

Next – we’ll see how International Precast was able to help us connect the roof to the wall insulation as the cooler building (ha! pun!) continues.