Sunday, March 30, 2014

Week 12 - Second floor framing and a look at the beaver activity

Don, the carpenter, made tremendous progress again this week, especially considering the rainy and windy conditions. It’s such an exciting time. The house looks totally different every day. At this point, most of the second floor framing is in place.

I got to climb up on the second floor and have a look around. It was thrilling to finally be able to see the surrounding landscape from the second floor. I’ve been so curious to check out the window placement on the second floor, to see for myself what scenic landscapes are perfectly framed by the windows, and, sadly, what landscapes are obscured by the walls.

View from the second floor master bedroom

In the shot above, you are looking through the three master bedroom windows. The scene is framed wonderfully, I think. I love the straight driveway, lined with a row of trees, heading diagonally across the frame, drawing the eye toward the mountain. It’s more of an Amherst suburban feel, with roads, houses, fields and a mountain in the background. It’s a little weird that bedroom is exposed to the road, however. Maybe this room will have to be an office. I’m jealous of my neighbors who live on the south side of the road.

I can see Russia from my HOUSE!

Looking north, out over the top of the stairs beyond the window in the stairwell, I was slack-jawed — the view of the natural landscape is absolutely spectacular and the wildlife viewing opportunities are going to be amazing. You can’t quite get a sense for the detail and the intricacy of the landscape without a better zoomed-in image, but it feels like you are a hundred feet up in the air and you can see forever. Beyond the excavator, one can see (not in this image) the northern most beaver dam. Off to the left are apple trees, wetland, a beaver lodge, beavers swimming in the water and a beaver dam.

I shouldn’t have built a passive house

If you read my last post, you know that I’ve struggled with the limitations imposed by Passivhaus on north windows. Climbing up onto the second floor, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I have made a huge mistake. I should have gone with 100% glass walls. The best views are going to be completely blocked once the SIPs are in place. This spot calls for a viewing tower, not a demonstration to the world of an affordable and charming zero energy house. I suddenly dreaded the day when the SIPs are put up and the expansive 360 degree views will be gone. If only Amherst was located in the southern hemisphere.

I’ve got a plan

While I was up there, I hatched a plan — a sort of compromise that will allow me to salvage my energy efficiency fanaticism while still being able to enjoy the vistas that I feel like I suddenly can’t live without: I’ll put up a second story deck. All I need is a window door, right at the top of the stairs, to the left. The deck will run along the left wall toward the back and wrap around the back side of the house. The super-insulated enclosure is preserved, and if you need to see two raptors fighting (this happened), you can go out on the deck. I can’t afford to modify the project right now, so it will have to be an add on at a later time. Hopefully, GO Logic will think it’s possible.

The magical wetlands in the winter

Now that the snow has melted, I tried to capture the wetlands in their lovely wintery state of dormancy. I wanted you to see up close what I’m talking about. It’s also neat to see the remarkable transformation the beavers have wrought over the past year and a half — an engineering marvel and an expansion of habitat for aquatic wildlife — but at the cost of what once was a wonderful portion of the town trail, a treasure to the community.

Definitely a beaver lodge

Check out this great peek at the beaver lodge! It’s the huge pile of sticks in the center of the shot. When I walked up to the lodge, the beaver popped right out and swam around for a bit. I can’t believe it took us so long to find the lodge — it’s in plain sight and you can literally walk right up to it. I bet the brush must have been pretty thick before it died down in the winter.

Beavers build their lodges with underwater openings as the only entry and exist points. You can see one of the entryways at the base of the tree. Another entrance is located on the other side of the lodge, upstream (the width of the lodge spans a narrow peninsula). The underwater entrance protects the beavers from intruders like bears and bobcats who apparently can’t figure out how to get in from underneath. Also, the underwater opening gives beavers access to the water when everything is frozen over and covered in snow.

Flooded wetland

Click on the panorama to see the large version. You are looking east toward the house (it’s up on the hill next to the excavator — you’ll have to zoom in). The beaver lodge is on the right, out of view. The old footbridge is on the left — again, zooming needed. The massive beaver dam is also on the left, although it is hard to distinguish from this angle. Notice how the brook snakes through the area, but don’t be fooled: the whole plain is flooded. You are seeing the top of the marsh grasses that have died and fallen over.

For comparison, the above image was taken a year and a half ago. Now, the water level comes right up to the bridge, at times nearly submerging it.

Another dam downstream

Beavers raise the water level in steps, by constructing multiple dams. Here’s another flooded area and dam, downstream from the previous image. Notice the huge pile of sticks and the dramatic decrease in the water level. The image is facing south — you can see Mount Norwottuck and the house in the distance. Neighbor Jesse tells me that this dam has been here for a long time. The dead trees are a sign of this, as well. The water level is still pretty high in front of the dam, so I think there is another active dam further downstream. The area is difficult to navigate so I haven’t been able to get in there and look around. I need a some sort of a miniature boat, like an Inuit kayak.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Floor Plans 2


In a previous post, we talked about how the design of the first floor layout helps make the home feel bigger than it really is. The upstairs is a different story — we need to fit three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a washer/dryer into a small space. There’s no way to open everything up: it’s going to feel tight no matter what. The question is whether we can arrange everything to use space efficiently while keeping the floor plan as open as possible.

Much like the first floor layout, GO Logic provided fantastic off-the-shelf floor plans, and I couldn’t help but to shift a couple of things around.

Double doors at the top of the stairs and a window


I love the feeling of walking into a well-designed home for the first time. Your viewpoint is obstructed by something — maybe stairs or walls — then, bam!, you see straight ahead onto an interesting space, wide open and well-lit. It’s a great feeling: emerging from a tight space to observe a striking view.


I wanted to go for a similar feeling with the stairway, in a much more modest way. The image above gives the perspective as you walk up the staircase and look straight ahead toward the study. We added double doors to the study entrance so that the top of the staircase would feel expansive, and so that you get an unobstructed view out the window in the background. The small landing at the top of the stairs gets to function as an extension of the study rather than a closed off space.

A lovely view north, but no north-facing windows?



The view north overlooks an apple orchard, marshland, great blue herons, egrets, hawks, beavers and more — it’s awesome. The property is a rare treasure for its proximity to wetland, conservation land and hiking trails. But north-facing windows are heat losers, with no solar gain, and should be minimized in passive houses. Should I sacrifice the passive house design principles in order take full advantage of the surrounding views of wildlife and conservation land?

Looking out over the property, the architect, Matt O’Malia, turned to me and said: “You know, we don’t have to build a passive house. We can face north. It will be a house that performs well, but doesn’t meet passive house standards.” I thought about it for a bit. In the end, I couldn’t give up two things: the bragging rights of a passive house and the wonderful feeling of having abundant sunlight streaming into a room.

Some north-facing windows are OK



As a compromise, we increased the size of the north facing window over the stairs and added a west-facing window at the landing, but kept our adherence to the passive house standard. Our Kneer-S├╝dfenster windows are so good that these changes didn’t incurring much of a heat demand penalty anyway.

The image above shows the stairway landing, as seen from the study. The west-facing window (on the left) will be a great spot for wildlife viewing and watching the sunset while also serving to illuminate the hallway. The north-facing window over the stairs is sufficiently large to provide a nice view from the landing.

More storage or more views?


The built-in shelving is one aspect that I’m still on the fence about. On the one hand, storage space is limited and I’d like to use the space at the top of the stairs effectively. On the other hand, the shelving is blocking the view to the north window from the landing and the study, and might be closing off the top of the stairs awkwardly. The compromise that the builder and I came up with is to wait until the second floor and the walls are up, then have a look around and see if we can come to a decision.


Here’s a look at the same perspective as above, but with the shelving removed, leaving a direct line of sight to the rear window. What do you think? Why sacrifice the heat loss through a large northern window and yet not take full advantage of the view out that window?

Small washer/dryers save a lot of space


Go to Best Buy or Home Depot and look at the washer-dryers; they’re enormous! How am I going to find a place for these behemoths? Luckily, the Europeans came to the rescue, once again.


These are the Miele washer/dryers. They’re compact, efficient, yet accommodate a surprising volume of laundry, and they look neat. They can fit right into a hallway without taking up too much space. The downside is that they are unbelievably expensive. I ultimately decided it was worth it.


The image above is looking down the hallway back toward the landing and the west-facing window. Notice how the washer/dryer stack is flush with the wall — no doors or a separate laundry room to needlessly take up space. The bathroom is off to the right. Both the washer and the shower are fed hot water from a single on-demand water heat located in the utility closet on the first floor, right beneath the hallway. The close proximity of the water heater, the washer and the shower helps reduce the length of the hot water pipes, giving instant hot water and reducing wasted heat.

I also love the fact that the west facing window at the end of the hallway will let afternoon light percolate deep into the hallway. It’ll be a great spot to watch the sunset. In the summer, however, there will be a cooling load penalty: the afternoon sunlight will warm up the home somewhat. I think the window adds so much to the hallway, however, that I’m willing to use a little more energy in the summer to cool the home.

Extra windows for the master bedroom versus overheating?



The architect had originally planned for two windows in the master bedroom, having determined the right amount of south facing window area needed to heat the upstairs while avoiding overheating. But I argued that overheating in the bedroom was less of a concern for me than to have a wide open view, a more open bedroom and more of a connection to the outdoors. A midday nap in a warm bedroom on a sunny day doesn’t sound that bad to me, anyway. I don’t tend to use the bedroom during the day, though, so I think we’ll be OK even if overheating is an issue.

An open feeling in a small bedroom



A couple of neat tricks help make the bedrooms more feel spacious even through they are tiny (the master bedroom is only 136 sq ft while the typical American master bedroom is 256 sq ft). First, vaulted ceilings provide extra space overhead and also look cool. Second, the closet doors were removed in favor of an open closet with a closet system. Third, the position of the door to the third bedroom across the hall allows you to peer across the full width of the home when sitting in the reading chair, the viewpoint from which the above image was drawn.

The walls on the second floor are going up this week, so it won’t be long until we get to see how it all comes together!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Week 11 - First floor framing completed

Don, the carpenter, got a lot of work done this week. He said he had help for one day, but I’m impressed. The second floor subflooring is in place and you can see the boards for the second floor walls up on the roof. I forgot to ask how they got up there, but I’m guessing they used the excavator. I took some pictures earlier in the week as everything came together — it’s neat to see how the frame is setup.

Beams and joists

Starting with the ceiling over the kitchen, a laminated veneer lumber (LVL) beam provides support for the horizontal 2 x 8 boards, called joists, onto which the second floor flooring will be placed.

Looking from the front door, you can see how the LVL beam spans the width of the kitchen. Off in the distance, by the way, is Mount Norwottuck, directly accessible from the trail across the street. The diagonal posts are there for stability — they’re temporary.

Subfloor is done

By Tuesday, most of the joists were in place and Don was getting started on the subflooring, which consists of OSB panels. By Friday, he was all done.

Beams over windows

Another LVL beam is placed over the large windows in the dining room, to keep pressure off the windows — you don’t want them to buckle over time and loose their seal.

Joist brackets

Another way to support the joists is to use metal joist brackets, shown above. This is right over the stairs. They don’t look that sturdy, but I guess they do the trick.

Double joists for the bathroom

The image above shows the double joists underneath the bathroom. See how the joists look thicker: there are two of them. If the bathtub is full of water, you’ve installed tile everywhere, and ten people are crowded inside to see how nice it looks, you want extra support under the bathroom. Also, bathrooms tend to have pipes under the floor, requiring holes through the joists, which can compromise the strength of a single joist.

Floor joist blocking

The little 2 x 8 boards running perpendicular to the joists are called blocking. They serve to even out the floor load and to provide something solid to nail the upstair wall into. Staggering the blocking allows you to nail straight through the joist into the blocking.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Week 10 - First floor framing

Don, the carpenter, was able to get a bunch of work done early in the week before the weather turned cold and stormy. He’s basically got most of the first floor framing done.

Interior framing first, then exterior walls will go up

Last time I talked about how the walls for the home are SIPs walls — prefabricated walls panels. So now why is the carpenter putting up walls the old fashioned way? Let me explain.

The architect has designed the walls to consist of two components: the exterior walls, which are the SIPs walls, and the interior walls, which are constructed onsite with 2 x 6 lumber. The interior walls will contain extra insulation and provide a frame onto which the SIPs can be attached. Also, the first floor walls will hold up the second floor. Once the first and second floor framing is complete — probably in 2–3 weeks — the SIPs will be installed with a crane and attached to the interior walls.

Why two walls?

I’m not exactly sure why the architect decided to go this route, but the hybrid interior-exterior wall design seems to have a number of advantages. First, the interior wall increases the total wall thickness, boosting the R Value significantly. I’m assuming that it would be tremendously difficult and expensive to fabricate and install a wall panel that was 14 inches thick — the total thickness of both walls. Second, the interior wall will accommodate plumbing, wires, outlets and light switches, so that the integrity of the outside wall can remain intact without needing to drill channels in multiple locations. Third, the interior wall assembly is vastly simpler than a conventionally framed wall because it only contains studs and plates — it doesn’t need nogging for extra support.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Week 9 - SIPs wall panels are here!

I got a text on Friday from my trusted neighbor-spy Jesse saying “SIPs just rolled in!” I was out of town, but on Sunday I got to check them out — notice the stacked, thick white panels sitting on the ground. Also, the tent for the concrete came down, so I got to check out the concrete in the full sunlight. It looks good — a huge relief!

SIPs are awesome!

The image above shows a stack of five Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), soon to be lifted by a crane and installed as the walls of the building. I mentioned SIPs in my overview post a while back, but let me tell you a little bit more about why these types of walls are such an important part of energy efficient design.

Why make walls in a factory?

You’ve probably seen a traditionally framed wall at a construction site, a web of 2 x 4 or 2 x 6 lumber going in every direction. Long horizontal boards, called plates, are placed along the top and bottom of the wall, vertical boards, called studs, run the height of the wall and little horizontal pieces, called nogging, are placed in between the studs. You have to be careful to lay out everything so that the window and door openings are taken into account and adequately reinforced. Plywood goes on the outside once the lumber is in place.

On the other hand, our SIPs walls are fabricated in a factory in Vermont. The panels are huge, consisting of a single 8 inch thick slab of EPS foam sandwiched between two long pieces of oriented strand boards (OSB), and measuring 4 feet wide and two stories tall. The foam and OSB are held together with urethane glue.

Fabricating the panels in an indoor setting adds a number of advantages: automated machinery cuts and laminates the panels quickly and precisely without generating much waste; the shape and layout of the panels are digitally uploaded to the manufacturing equipment without the need to interpret drawings onsite; the quality of the panels can be tightly controlled and verified before shipping; and construction times are shorter because the panels can be made while the foundation is being constructed.

The end result is a monolithic panel that is airtight and super-insulated. The panels interlock, but you still have to seal the edges with tape. Although some builders use only the panels themselves as the walls, we will be adding 2 x 6 interior wall studs and blown-in fiberglass insulation to increase the R value of the walls and to provide space for electrical wiring.

In the video above, Matt O’Malia describes the process of installing the SIPs at the GO Home.

Concrete floor looks great!

After a worrying about the concrete floor last week, I was excited to see how the surface of the concrete turned out. I think it looks great – it has a nice matt finish to it, some interesting texture and the color is pleasing. I guess it will add more of an industrial feel to the home rather than a fancy shiny granite look, which is cool — maybe even better than a polish.

This is better than polished concrete

There appear to be multiple definitions of “polished” concrete. The architect and builder told me that the actual grinding part of the polish – the part that gives it its mirror like shine – wasn’t planned for, or included in the price. That step can be done later, if desired, but it would add a substantial amount to the cost of the floor. In the end, I think the builder went with the best of all possible options. It’s the economical option because the expensive grinding process was omitted. It’s the healthy option because we didn’t use a chemical sealer. Plus, it’s the durable option because we used a densifier to harden the concrete.

The image above is a closeup of the concrete control joint, a cut in the concrete that promotes cracking underneath the joint, instead of along the surface. You can also get a better sense for the texture of the surface — it’s pretty smooth to the touch. I’m not sure what part of the texture will wipe off when it’s cleaned, but I’m feeling good about it, regardless.

Backfilled around the perimeter

Here’s an image of the EPS foam, having been lined with a black covering — the ice and water shield — and backfilled with dirt. Buried under the dirt is another EPS panel, a “wing” that serves to insulate the ground under the wing from frost. The gray plastic is the poly vapor barrier that forms a continuous seal underneath the concrete.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Week 8 - Concrete poured, beaver lodge located

Suddenly, we’ve made major progress this week, despite the continued frigid temperatures! On Monday, the rebar was set into place and on Tuesday the concrete was poured. Everything seems to be going well, but not without some misunderstanding. Also, I think I’ve finally located the beaver lodge.

Pouring the concrete


When I showed up, the first concrete truck had just finished pouring its portion of the concrete and the guys were spreading out the concrete and leveling it. The second truck was on it’s way, but I had to take off.

Power troweling the concrete all night

Later that night, I dropped in to find the concrete guy floating the concrete, using the power troweler on the right. After waiting for the concrete to cure until it was hard enough to walk on, he repeatedly ran the power troweler over the concrete until he was satisfied with the sheen. The process apparently took all night — it had to be done before the concrete hardened any further. Hopefully, the neighbors weren’t bothered by the sound of the generator.

Here’s the floor in the morning. It looks smoother, but what’s all that white stuff?

Is this polished concrete?

The concrete process seems to be deviating from what I expected, and I’m not exactly sure what is going on. We had decided on polished concrete floors — an agonizing decision because of a the $5/sq ft premium over traditional concrete, with a total cost of $15.6/sq ft. For comparison, $14/sq ft is the cost of a high-end wood floor. The concrete doubles as the foundation, so it’s not a fair comparison, but still — it’s not cheap.

Polished concrete has the advantage that it does not require chemical sealers or annual waxing, and apparently the look is better. As I understood it, the process for polished concrete follows these steps:

  1. Once the concrete hardens, it is ground down to a smooth finish, exposing the aggregates in the concrete.
  2. A densifier is applied to the concrete to harden it, providing a hard surface that does not need maintenance. The densifier is a non-toxic mixture of silicic acid, potassium salt and water that reacts with the concrete to produce calcium silicate hydrate, a super-strong material.
  3. The hardened concrete is ground down to a progressively finer finish until the desired polish is achieved.

It looks like the concrete guy is actually going down a much different route, which might end up fine, but I’m worried about getting a floor that looks like a basement rather than something that suits a living room. One aspect that concerns me is the troweling process, described above. Apparently this process buries the aggregates under the surface of the concrete, giving a more homogenous appearance that is typical of a concrete floor. But the texture that the aggregates provide seems to be partly what makes polished concrete look so good. I’m crossing my fingers that it will turn out OK. I’m also wondering where the $5/sq ft premium went.

On Friday, after a couple of days of curing, the densifier was applied. I’m hoping that those scuff marks are not permanently engrained in the concrete. I guess there’s no turning back now.

Here’s one of the two massive propane burners, running 24/7 for a week now to keep the concrete warm.

Did I find the beaver lodge?

To relieve my worry about the concrete floor, I decided to go check on the beavers. I think I found their lodge, but I’m bothered by the fact that it is so close to the trail — it seems like I would have seen it earlier. Notice the pile of sticks covered in snow, right at the center of the photo. It could be a random pile of sticks, but the location makes me think it is a lodge. Look at how the lodge is situated right at the crux of the stream’s oxbow — this is exactly the same positioning as an abandoned beaver lodge further down stream. My guess is that they’ve installed two entryways, one downstream and one upstream.

The beaver dam is still holding up well. This most extensive dam in the area. Starting from the lower right side of the image, the dam runs diagonally and then continues to zig zig into the distance, making it’s way to the hillside that you can see in the background — a massive work of engineering.