Saturday, December 29, 2007

Some REALLY Cool Glass

One product that we are really excited about using is the Pilkington Profilit Glass Channels. As architects, we often flip through the glossy architecture magazines and are seduced by some new product or material. We file it under “To Use on Next Project” in our minds and then when an appropriate application comes along, we try to incorporate it. The Profilit Glass Channel is just one of those alluring, sexy materials that we’ve tried many times, in vain, to use on projects. Finally, we will have an opportunity to use it and we have the control to make sure it stays in the project, in lieu of being “value-engineered” out.

The Profilit Glass Channel is a self-supporting cast glass channel 10” wide. They can be double glazed, with channels placed leg to leg and interlocking. The glass has a light-transmitting obscuring effect that glows at night. It can be used either horizontally or vertically, but is more commonly seen vertically.

We are working with locally with WL Hall Company to use the glass both at our front entry and at an upper level walkway. The entry location is a perfect application for the glass channels. If this were clear glass, you would be able to see through the entire house, which might be kind of cool, but also a little too revealing at times. I like the idea of being able to go to answer the front door without feeling like I'm on display. This glazing will allow light to shine during the day and will glow at night. It will become a main feature of the entry, which will allow us to downplay the front door with something very simple and basic.

The other location we are using this is at the master bedroom “bridge” to the master bathroom. We’ve debated how much privacy we need in this location. It might appear to be private in the plan, but it is open to the kitchen area and to the upper hallway. It might be quite thrilling to make a naked mad dash here, but the rest of the household might not always agree. Although privacy is needed, this is also a source of light for the upper level hallway and “away space”, so a translucent solution is needed. We were originally planning on using 3Form, another very cool product that is a translucent resin panel available in a plethora of great colors and patterns. We’ll have to save that cool product in the mental file cabinet for now.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Everything but the Kitchen Sink

As we were hosting the family for Christmas this year, I tried to pay extra attention to how we were using our kitchen sink and how a different sink might work better and improve our lives. Really. I’m quite obsessed with finding the perfect new sink for our kitchen. I’ve spent countless hours researching this topic and it’s about time I make a decision and move on.

A decade ago, one would just go to Home Depot or another such store and pick from their 10-20 selections. These days, there are thousands of choices at your fingertips. There are forums to ask questions to other homeowners and numerous resources for researching. There is almost too much information out there, especially given the fact that the kitchen sink is only one of many choices we will have to make.

In our current house, we have the old standby equal double compartment stainless steel sink. I’ve never really had any issues with how this type of sink functions, so our initial (and quick) choice was this Kohler Toccata model. But as I’ve had more time to contemplate the choice, I’m still curious to see if we can do better.

I love the look of the square edge stainless steel sinks like this Blanco sink- but I’m nervous about giving up the second sink and know that the first scratch in the stainless will be painful. An alternative material was suggested by Rakieten Sales- a composite material made by Astracast. As I researched this material, it became apparent that this product is more common in the UK than the US. So I contacted my good friend, Fiona who is an interior designer in Scotland and asked her if she had experience with it. She had just spec’ed a similar material for a house- the Carron Phoenix ZX pictured below.

As I washed all the pots and pans from the Christmas dinner, it occurred to me that an ideal solution might be 3 sinks- one for rinsing dirty dishes, one for dishwater/washing and the other for draining. Unfortunately, I would blow the entire plumbing fixture budget if we were to go to this solution, so I’ll have to compromise and find the most flexible solution.

This Astracast model has some great accessories that make it more functional and I love the dark gray color with small metallic flecks and square drain detail. We have a sample of the material that we are putting through the ringer and its holding up to our abuses. From a sustainable point of view, this sink will fulfill our requirement of durability. For flexibility, the accessories, such as a small bowl that fits into a cutting board will expand the possibilities and quell my nervousness over the single compartment sink. Now it’s on to the perfect faucet………….

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Big Present

We got an early Christmas present this year. We were finally able to close on our house last week! A special thanks goes out to Rita Brooks with Prime Mortgage and Brian Johnson with Edina Realty for their perseverance on this one. We are NOT easy clients for them and by buying the house with a construction loan, it made for a tricky loan process. Our closing took nearly 3 hours and at times, we weren’t even sure it was all going to get done. During the time we were held captive in the closers office, we were able to get to know the current owners and learn a little about the history of the house. Turns out it was one of the first houses on the block and that explains why this property is so much larger than other lots on the block. Apparently there are old aerial photos that show this. It is better known as the “Brown” house, as the first owners, the Browns, lived there for quite some time.

The current owners handed us over a large file for the house, with warranties and instruction manuals for appliances. The file also included a detailed map of the trees for the property, which shows types and when they were planted. The owners had a background in forestry, so they planted quite a few different species of trees. I was really excited about this information, as it allows us to know how old the trees and what smaller trees can be relocated if necessary. For the most part, our construction will not be affecting the major trees.

We officially own two houses now, which means that we have two sets of sidewalks to shovel.

Since the permit is all set and ready to go, we can begin construction anytime. Only thing is, we are now in the midst of the holidays and vacations and time off. So it looks like we might be able to start excavation about Jan 7. Maybe we can get some of the demolition of the interiors started prior to that.

Our kids haven’t even seen the interior of the house yet. I think we’ll go over there tomorrow, let the kids check out the project in it’s “before state” and shovel the sidewalks.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Here Comes the Sun

Solar Power is a must for this project - we'd rather be energy producers than energy buyers, and producing our own power (or at least a good portion of it) removes us from the volatility of the energy market and reduces our dependence on coal produced electricity and natural gas. A solar heating system is a great investment because your property value increases when you become your own power producer.

First - let's dispel the notion that solar power doesn't make sense in Minnesota. We see as many solar days as much of the south - Texas, Florida, California. One of the advantages of living in a cold climate is that we often have very clear skies during the winter months.

We're working with Mario of Best Power International to design our systems - we selected Mario over other renewable energy specialists for a few reasons - 1. He returned our phone calls, 2. He's a neighbor and 3. He's very knowledgeable and professional. We like him.

We've decided to use a hybrid system - both solar hot water and solar electric (PV). Our water heating needs for our home will be taken care of by 2 flat plate collectors angled at about 45 degrees facing true south. These will be mounted on our roof top along with a 2 rows of solar PV modules which will produce upwards of 50% of our electrical needs (more if we can get our kids to turn the lights off) annually, on average. The system is designed to be expandable, and hopefully we'll be able to add more modules as our finances allow in the future. The PV modules will be tied back to the utility grid, so that on very sunny days and times when our system is producing more power than we are using - we will be selling that power back to the utility provider. At night, or at high energy demands - we'll be taking power back off the grid. We opted not to do battery storage in favor of the grid tied system for a few reasons - of which I'll tell when I'm good and ready. We do have a small inverter and battery sub-panel for those times when the power goes out and we want our sump pump and refrigerator to stay running.

We plan to do energy monitoring to track the systems performances over time.

The solar hot water and PV systems are eligible for State rebates and Federal Tax credits - which helps bring our costs down by about 25% and helps decrease the payback period on the systems.

We are also looking at connecting a small, vertical axis wind turbine to this system ( These turbines are very efficient at low wind speeds and will produce power any time the wind is blowing - at night and on cloudy days! We expect that the turbine could produce the balance of our electrical needs. Net zero energy here we come! We're still working out the design integration of the system, so we'll report back with news when we have it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Drawing Windows

One of Kevin's favorite books is the "children's" book "Harold and the Purple Crayon". Harold was able to draw his world, including his house, bed and windows. If a monster started to chase him - all he had to do was draw his way out of it. If he wanted some pie, a few marks with the crayon and voila, he was hungry no more. Sometimes being an architect is just like that- you just draw the picture and it will eventually become real. But most of the time it takes a whole lot of drawing, erasing, drawing and erasing.

One of the things we've been drawing and erasing are the windows for our new house. In our perspective, windows are a crucial element that we won’t cut corners on. They must meet both our esthetic and performance goals. They must be energy star rated. We’ve looked at Marvin Integrity, Accurate Dorwin and Fibertec and InLine Windows. These are all pultruded fiberglass windows, which we are selecting for their strength, durability and great performance from an environmental and energy point of view.

The Marvin windows were in the original bid, but we realized that they do not have the awning and casement windows we need. We are going with a white frame to match the existing windows and to create a modern, clean interior look. If we went with wood clad, they do have the types of windows in that line, but we don’t want wood - wood warps our current wood clad windows don't perform as well as we'd like them to.

The Accurate Dorwin windows are out of Canada they are a great window- but the lead times are crazy right now. It would be 12-14 weeks out and we just can’t afford that kind of time.

Inline and Fibertec windows are also out of Canada and have great performance. It will come down to a question of pricing and schedule. (Don’t be scared off by the castle-like monster home on their web home page!) We’ve gone back and forth with them to establish the size and functioning of the windows and have learned a few lessons:
1. Customize glazing and Low E coatings depending on the orientation of the window: We are likely going to go with triple glazed units with 2 low e coatings and argon filled cavities. On the north facing units (very few of those) we may use 3 low e coatings on different surfaces of the glass. The low e coatings will be slightly different, depending on the direction they face. The goal is to optimize the window's performance depending on the orientation and what we hope to accomplish - passive solar gain in the winter from the south is critical - so we're fine tuning the glazing to make sure that happens. The cost increase appears to be minimal to move from double glased to triple glazed units and as we will own this house for a long time, we want the extra performance - even if the payback in energy savings is 10 years out. Our triple glazed units will feature u values in the .15 to .20 range which gives us and Rvalue of R6 in most cases.
We shouldn't feel a draft off these windows at all - even on the coldest Minnesota winter days.

2. Think carefully where you need operable windows. We were originally showing nearly all windows being operable. For example on a typical casement window of 48” wide x 36” high, we were showing 2 operable sides. By having only 1 operable side, it saves over $500 per window.
2. Consolidate. Less is more (and it will cost you less). We had 4 small operable windows. Each of them was over $800 each. We combined them into 2 larger windows and will save significantly. We don’t want all the design decisions to be driven by cost, but “simple” usually means less cost and “simple” is often the better design decision.
3. The weak dollar sucks. The price for products from outside the US have increased significantly due to the weak dollar.

Look for some revised elevations soon!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Not-so Patiently Waiting

The real estate, mortgage lending and construction loan business are such a mystery to me. Every time we have gone to buy a house, it has seemed we are the first people ever to be buying a house with a mortgage- like we are inventing and testing the process which is changing as we go along and is excruciatingly painful.

We were supposed to close on our house today and it didn’t happen. It’s frustrating having absolutely no control. I believe our mortgage broker and realtor are doing everything they can to make it happen, but the forces are against them.

Lesson #1: We originally wrote our purchase agreement to close 4 weeks from the date of the offer. We wanted to start construction before the ground froze and the sellers agreed. In the process of finding the best loan for our situation, we quickly realized that we needed about 8 weeks. We had to agree to pay the sellers a per diem amount for every day beyond the original close day we suggested. Next time (although there won’t be a next time), we would just use the standard 8 weeks and then work to move it up if possible.

Lesson #2: The closing cost will always go up.

On a good note, the drawings were submitted to the city for permit review. There were a few calls and comments, but nothing too major yet. They were curious why the roof was structured for such a heavy load. I think they thought we were going to be hosting parties up there. It’s actually structured for an addition 29 lbs per square foot for the green roof.

Friday, December 7, 2007

California Dreamin' on such a Winters Day

I have spent a lot of time in Los Angeles the last several years. At my previous job, I was working with our LA office on a building for a community college. Our office was in Century City, so I typically stayed in Beverly Hills. I was able to walk a lot of neighborhoods and found myself drawn to the modern homes (definitely more prevalent in LA than they are in the Twin Cities). When Kevin and I began talking about a new home I started dreaming of a 1950’s LA home….. Neutra, Shindler are inspirations.

Many of the images in my head include a swimming pool and floor to ceiling windows cantilevered from one of the Hollywood Hills. Not exactly practical or possible for a home in MN. So, if we can’t have the swimming pool, the floor to ceiling glass, the cantilever or view over LA, what can we take away from the 50’s modernists and their work in LA?

Simplicity- Rectilinear forms and planes
Neutral Color- the forms speak for themselves, against a blue sky it's beautiful
Connection to Outdoors- balconies and windows connect to exterior space.

It might be a stretch, but having a bit of California in St. Paul in the winter might not be such a bad thing. We might be able to stay warm.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Appliance Shopping

We’ve been microwaving it for over a week now. We only needed our range to last 6 more months (until we sell our house), but it just couldn’t make it. The Sears Kenmore range was only 13 years old, but has required multiple repairs throughout those years and finally became unrepairable. So on Sunday, we made our way to Warners Stellian in St. Paul to buy a new range. While we were at it, we also started looking at some new appliances for our new home.

This might seem a bit out of order (we haven’t even started foundations yet)- but one thing we discovered was that stainless steel appliances typically have a significant price increase at the beginning of the new year. If we were able to start our appliance order prior to Dec. 31, we can avoid the increase.

For our appliances, we will be looking for the Energy Star labels. Only cooktops and
ovens do not have Energy Star labels. To earn the ENERGY STAR, they must meet strict energy efficiency criteria set by the US Environmental Protection Agency or the US Department of Energy. Many of these products will qualify for rebates or tax credits.

For refrigerators, we were initially looking for counter depth. The reduced depth allows for everything to be within reach and sight. But the reduced capacity and increased cost (in some cases) made this option less attractive. I also learned that the door water and ice dispenser is by far, the part most likely to fail on a refrigerator. Because of this, we are going to forego the door dispenser (even though we have all dreamed about this feature since childhood). This 25 cubic foot LG model is looking good for now.

Cooktops and ovens are even more complicated and varied. GE seems to be the manufacturer with the most advanced cooking technologies. But we are not sure if we want to be able to bake things in ¼ the time (Kevin won’t even allow a bread maker in our house!) For energy use, convection ovens use less energy because they cook in less time and self-cleaning ovens actually use less energy because of their construction. There is a relatively new technology called induction that allows for a flat, easy to clean cooktop and it’s only hot when a metal pan is in contact with it (great for homes with kids). But for now, we are going to go with a 5-burner gas cooktop. We are planning on a wall oven (better ergonomics) and potentially a upper microwave/convection oven.

Bosch makes a great dishwasher. It saves water, energy and is quiet. You can pick the level of acoustical rating you desire.

Some folks like to select all their appliances from the same line so that they look consistent and handles all match. This might be important if you select a line that has a very different esthetic, such as GE's Profile line with curves. But we're in favor of clean, simple lines and getting the best appliance for each category rather than staying within one manufacturer's line.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Blowin' in the Wind

With the last week’s temperature and this weekend’s snowfall, we are definitely feeling like winter is here. We were hoping to beat the cold and get into the ground prior to this, but no such luck. This fall, when we were contemplating purchasing the house, I thought a winter start would be too difficult, if not impossible. We quickly found out that we had options.

We still have not closed on the house, but have an agreement with the owners to put insulating blankets on the ground to prevent it from freezing. These are specially designed blankets for this use. You can even get blankets that plug in and warm the ground to allow for a winter construction start. Straw or hay is also an option, but it has to be secured so that it doesn’t all end up in the neighbor’s yards. (Great way to start off in a neighborhood!)

The blankets were put in place last weekend, but when Kevin was at the house the other day, the blankets were all out of place, blown by the wind. He was able to put them back in place and our contractor came out to secure them down- but we’re not sure if the ground was exposed for too long and how deep the ground may have frozen. We’ll find out when they’re ready to excavate if the electric thawing blankets will be needed.

Every project has things that don’t go ideally and for us, the schedule definitely fits into that category. We put in an offer on the house after we were confident that we could come up with a workable solution (although we didn’t know exactly what that solution would be). Because we wanted to do a construction loan for the purchasing of the property and the construction, we had about 1 month to develop a design and do the construction documents. Although we would have liked to spend months debating design decisions, we just can’t afford that luxury on our schedule. It’s a good thing we’ve been able to agree on decisions (most of them anyway)- which is a rarity for 2 architects!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Birthdays and Builders

Our youngest son, Cormac, turns one on Saturday. The first birthday is a biggie and the start of many other firsts. It will be Cormac’s first sugar rush as he dives into his cake, his first taste of whole milk and his first steps won’t be far away. On our daughter’s first birthday, we had a big birthday party. Our recollection of that party is a bit fuzzy, as we had just found out that we were pregnant again.

We don’t often have big birthday parties at our house, but we did when our house turned 100 in 2004. We thought it was important to celebrate the beginning of a new century for our house. It’s treated us well and we will miss it when we move. Our house has many stories of new beginnings. Many of its stories we don’t even know, but neighbors have told us of the “colorful” individuals that have occupied our house when it was owned by absentee landlords and in a state of disrepair.

We bought our current house from the City of St. Paul and NEDA (the local neighborhood development agency). NEDA purchases properties that are in bad shape, then rehabs them in hopes of revitalizing neighborhoods. Our house is a side-by-side duplex and in order to purchase the property, you have to agree to live in it for ten years. In return, you get a great house that has been updated and has had more money invested into it than you will pay for. The only problem is that some of the updates aren’t exactly what you’d pick yourself. For example, we immediately replaced the brand new pink laminate countertops in the kitchen.

We’ve also done quite a few projects in this house, from building an addition to the attic remodel that only took us 9 years to finish. In fact, it is probably the 9 year attic project that made us realize that we should just hire a contractor from here on out. Thus, we have decided to hire a General Contractor for our project, rather than doing it ourselves. We decided to go with Michlitsch Builders. They were recommended by architect friends, RoehrSchmitt Architects They have done a few modern houses, including this one by RoehrSchmitt in St. Paul,
and this one by redlured.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Balconies, automatic doors and space age toilets.

Tonight I was showing our 2 oldest kids (Mazzy 9 and Declan 8) the plans for the house. They, of course, were concerned about their bedrooms. They wanted to know if they would get the coveted balcony (no way) and how close they are to the bathroom (very close). Declan was especially impressed with the fact that he will be able to use the toilet in privacy while someone else might be brushing their teeth. He then asked if the doors would close automatically and if we there were any secret slides or hidden passageways. The conversations with Mazzy and Declan are a refreshing change of pace from the harsh reality of budget limitations and hard choices.
Speaking of toilets and automation....last week at the MN AIA convention, I did check out some cool toilets by TOTO. They were demonstrating the "washlet" feature, which is basically like a car wash for your bottom. Very cool and interesting. When I mentioned this to the family, Mazzy mentioned that one of her friends that had just returned from a trip to Japan said that one of his favorite parts of the trip was the butt wash. Apparently these babies are all the rage in Japan. While we may not decide to include some of the potential features of these space age toilets, we will be incorporating low flow and dual-flush options on our toilets and low flow aerators on the sinks and showers in order to reduce our water use by 50% or more. This isn't just about saving money. There's only so much potable, fresh water available in the world and we see no reason to flush much of it down the toilet - especially when so many people on our planet cannot access clean, safe drinking water to meet even their most basic needs. We've considered installing a greywater recycling system in the house, but making this work in a remodeling project proved problematic. More about this later.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Embodied Energy

As we have been designing this house addition and remodeling, it has been tempting to say "let's just demolish the whole thing and start over". We may even find that in the end, certain items are easier to just tear out and rebuild, rather than fixing and patching what is already there. As we are working with existing conditions, there are definitely some compromises that we are having to make.

So why does it make sense to remodel and salvage as much as possible? The simple answer is money. We have a modest project budget. The more complex answer has to do with embodied energy. Embodied energy refers to the total quantity of energy required to construct a building or create a product. It goes way back to the extraction of materials from the earth, the energy required to create the product from the materials, the transportation of the materials/product, the installation of the product, etc. The more durable a product and/or material is and the longer it remains in service, the lower it's embodied energy quotient will be. This is a good thing.
The more we reuse of the existing house, the more money we will likely save and the lower our embodied energy and carbon footprint (more about this in a later post) will be.

Although there are some fun and funky equations that can be used to measure embodied energy, the analysis we are doing is much more subjective. For example, as we are planning on removing all the existing siding, adding insulation and residing with new materials, we were also planning on new windows to replace the existing. As designers, we want the entire house to have a consistent look and with new windows, we can better predict the energy performance. But after the initial estimates came in, we were forced to look harder at the decision to replace all the existing windows. The existing windows had been recently (within past 5 years or so) replaced throughout the entire house. There is no indication of the manufacturer on the window, so we are not entirely sure of the quality or the performance- but the installation appears to done well.

The main questions we had to ask ourselves are:
1. Will replacing the existing windows significantly increase the performance?
2. Are we willing to live with a potentially inconsistent window profiles?

The existing windows are double paned, insulated units. The new windows we are proposing are fiberglass, double glazed units (triple glazed offered slightly better performance potential but not enough to offset the additional first cost). They would definitely outperform the existing units, but if we to calculate the payback, it would be beyond our lifetime.
The existing windows are white, so the new windows proposed will be white to match. Even though the profiles may not match, at least the color will be the same. This choice to leave the existing windows has also forced us to rethink the colors for the exterior and have more white than originally planned. In the end, I think we will be happy that we are reusing and maintaining this upgrade that the previous owner had invested in and taking advantage of the embodied energy in the existing windows.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Modern Transformation

The project drawings are nearly complete at this point. The little Cape Cod is set to be transformed into a Modern home. As a homage to the existing house, the base of the new house will be cement lap board painted white. The upper level will be a corrugated metal siding. Adjacent to some of the windows will be brightly colored panels.
Some of the sustainable strategies to be used are:
  • Photovoltaic Panels (roof mounted)
  • Solar Hot Water System
  • Vertical Axis Wind Turbine (pending City approval)
  • Green Roof
  • Energy efficient envelope
  • Recycling and reuse of materials
  • Energy Star appliances and water saving fixtures
  • Healthy materials and indoor air quality
  • Will meet Minnesota GreenStar Guidelines

Schedule: We are on track to begin construction mid-December.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Classic Cape Cod

During the 1930s and 1940s loads of Cape Cods were being built all across America. These small economical, and practical houses were originally developed in New England in the 17th century. They typically have a steep roof with side gables, are 1-1/2 stories in height, are symmetrical, have shutters and a central fireplace. Yep, after doing a little research on the classic cape cod, this house is definitely a classic example of a cape cod.

This house was built in 1940 and had an bedroom addition added to the east and a mudroom added to the back.

The upper floor has 2 bedrooms and a central bathroom.

The back of the house has a large shed dormer.

Found: A site for EcoDEEP Haus!

After a year of looking for a house or site for our project, we have finally found success and are getting set to start construction before the end of the year.

The goal of this project is to create a sustainably design and built house for our family that can also act as a demonstration project. Kevin's business, EcoDEEP will be located within the house. The house will be a great showcase for sustainable products and strategies.

As we set out looking for a project house, we were focusing on:

  1. A site in St. Paul close to public transportation and amenities. We want to limit the need for use of our car.

  2. An existing house in need of updating (no brand new kitchens) and one that can be transformed into a modern house (no tudors or other strong historic styles).

  3. A site that will allow solar access for both passive and active solar systems.

We were able to find a 1940's house in St. Paul's Highland Park. Great location and close to shopping, library, parks and river.