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.