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.

Money and Windows and Doors…. Oh my…


This gallery contains 10 photos.

Our windows and doors are moving down the manufacturing line and are getting ready to be put in a container to make their way across the pond.  Did you miss the post about closing our construction loan, you ask?  Nope.  … Continue reading

Is there a for Architects / Clients?

words about projects

words about projects

Who is going to design this new house?  Then, who’s going to build it?  How will they view our project?  How involved can we be?  Can this person take our list of must haves and translate that into something REALLY COOL?

In the last post, I noted that we’d done several TMH tours and had started to get a good “feel” for the local architecture scene.  TMH is an amazing resource for all things Modern.  Between the tours, the website that has amazingly comprehensive listings for homes for sale and the local architects’ resumes (both past and present) – we started here.

Hubby and I sat in the couch and had our notepads and dueling laptops, and we went through the listing of Triangle architects one by one, writing our lists with ‘definites’, and ‘maybes’.  After we completed that exercise – we compared notes.  Anyone that made both our ‘definites’ made the short list.  Where we both had ‘maybes’, we discussed, and same thing when we had an architect that made only one ‘definite’ list.

Because this is a personal matchmaking decision, I won’t name names – but I do think its important to share what we did and why we ended up where we did.  We had 4 architects / firms that we wanted to engage and speak with in greater depth.  We had talked to several of them on site during a tour, but that’s not the time to discuss anything in any detail.

We spoke to 2 single architects that were not a design – build firm.  One fit with our energy efficiency objective, having worked on some very efficient homes with probably the most extreme area builder of ‘green’ (man, I hate that word) homes, and another fit our need for aging in place and truly understood our goal to make the house ‘dog friendly’.  Ultimately, we decided that it was imperative to us to have a design – build firm.  We’ve both refereed finger pointing sessions at work as to which team was at fault for some failure and we didn’t want to do that in our house.

That left us with two good design – build firms.  There was some initial concern that, while there was not a single tonic design home that we didn’t like, were they “too far out there” and too much an artist and not enough scientist (or engineer, or builder) to execute what we knew would be a very technical project.  We appreciated their design process that allowed a feasibility study to be done at a VERY reasonable cost and would likely help us understand if we could make this all work.  But, with the other firm, after viewing a more modern home of theirs, we thought perhaps they were “just right” – so we started there.

We went through an extensive schematic design process with Firm #1.  It was very enjoyable as we went through 4 different designs and spoke to each one of them about what appealed to us, and what did not.   One of the more bizarre items that we threw out there was that we wanted a house with “no sheetrock and no 2×4’s”.  While it sounds odd, it was really meant more to challenge the teams to think differently and not necessarily an edict.  Ultimately, we learned a LOT through the initial design process with the first team.  We learned that I wasn’t going to win the battle and get a flat roof, and that we really did want single floor living, and that we were going to be pushing the envelope on both design and energy efficiency.

Technically, we could have gone forward with the design we had – it worked, it was certainly aesthetically pleasing, and I am sure would have been a great, custom, liveable house.  But – it wasn’t as “boundary pushing” as we were looking for.  It was conventionally constructed and contained many of the dreaded sheets of sheetrock and tons of 2×4’s…  Because tonic design had the Feasibility Study option – we felt we owed it to ourselves to see if there was a better fit out there before making such a major commitment.

After a meeting or 2 with Vinny, Katherine and Maggie, it was apparent that this team not only would rise to the occasion – they would thoroughly enjoy the challenge and loved the idea of no sheetrock and no 2×4’s.  The design process was so tactile and creative (think building blocks, clear lucite chunks, clay, paper, scissors and tape) it allowed a level of engagement and involvement by us, the client, that it truly felt like “our” house already.  There was a sense of adventure when we started on the LEED Platinum route, and when we started asking about concrete sandwich panels, and all sorts of other nontraditional materials – it was met with a true sense of engagement and the collaborative effort we were looking for.  We knew this was the place and that the house would be exceptional.

Next up – performance, cost and form following function.  (or, as it’s sometimes known – the engineer vs the marketing chick….)