Friday, June 27, 2008

A Roof Full of Energy

We've spent the last few weeks waiting for Xcel energy to come and trench in new electrical service to the house from the alley. We wanted to replace the old overhead wires (they tend to get burned when your neighbors garages start on fire or come down in storms) with buried cable. Even though we've been on the schedule - they never seemed to make it to our house to do the work. This has cause multiple delays and rescheduling of things and has generally been pretty irksome.

The crew of 6 showed up today - 5 guys to watch 1 work - and started in on the task, their brand new trucks at the ready. I tell you all of this just because in my heart, though I have been completely aggravated about their adherence to schedule - I am secretly amused because I know that in a few days we will be selling them energy that we've created on our rooftop through our solar pv array.

A view of the solar thermal panels behind the solar pv panels. The white roof membrane helps keep our house cooler in the summer by reflecting unwanted solar radiation away from the house. This will get covered up by our green roof system this fall.

With the help of Mario Monesterio form Best Power International, we've created a little energy garden on the rooftop. We have both a solar thermal system for making hot water for the domestic water needs of the house (washing dishes, clothes and bodies), and a solar photovoltaic (pv) system to make electricity. Whenever the sun is shining , we'll make electricity for our own use. And, because we decided to tie it into the utility grid, whatever we're not using we'll be selling back to the utility company and watch our meter spin backwards.

We have the pv system also connected to a battery back-up system so that we can continue to have power even if the power lines go down in a big storm (not ours of course, because they're buried). This is a sweet little system that even Mario is jealous of. He must be at least a little proud of it because he brought a few folks by the house yesterday to look at it. Both the solar thermal and solar pv systems have a lot of nice gizmos and features that allow us to do different things including data tracking and energy production, use and efficiency monitoring.

Okay - so how much did we pay for these systems?

The solar thermal system (2 panel) was just over $6,000.00 (not accounting for federal tax credits) and features a payback period of about 12-14 years.

Leon the builder and Mario the solar guy discussing where to buy white socks.

The solar pv system (1.5 KW) cost just over $16,000 (not accounting for State tax rebate of $3,000 and the additional federal tax credits - roughly another $2,000). In the end, the pv system should pay for itself in about 16 years -perhaps sooner if energy prices continue to climb. Solar energy is still more expensive per kwh than buying regular old electricity from the coal burning plant down the road - but with better social and environmental karma.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Getting Ready for the Move

Okay. We are about 8 days and counting until move-in. The contractors are going thru room by room finishing everything and doing their thorough cleaning. . The house is cleaning up very nicely!

This is the shared bath. The casework by Eastvold Custom turned out great. We used a douglas fir veneer and the hardware is by Mockett. The Toto sink and faucet is from Rakieten Sales. The recycled glass terrazzo countertop is from Natural Built Home Toilet and tub are also from Toto. I can't wait to soak in this one! The tile is from Kate-Lo Tile.

Here's a few shots of the Master Bath: Some more doug fir cabinets by Eastvold Custom with square recessed hardware by Mockett again. We used the Toto Aquia dual flush, along with Toto sink and Grohe faucets from Rakieten Sales.

The countertops are made of Skatelite. Skatelite is a recycled paper product like Richlite, but it is thinner (and less expensive). It's actually used for skate board parks- thus the name Skatelite. Matt Eastvold suggested the idea to use it with a substrate and some doug fir edge banding. We love how it turned out!

In preparation for the move, we’ve been trying to finish all the closets and storage units so that we have places to put our stuff. It’s a good thing IKEA is so close to our new house, because we’ve been going there A LOT. We’ve become regulars there and Kevin even has developed his own “system” of IKEA shopping which involves shortcuts through the store and ignores the 1-way traffic. What a rebel he is! Even though IKEA products are relatively inexpensive, we’ve managed to spend a pretty penny there this month. I’ve been just waiting to get a call from our credit card company asking what the heck is going on. This is the Ikea Pax closet system we used for our master bedroom closet.

The exterior paint is done. We’re not thrilled about the blue we’d chosen (okay, okay, I chose). I changed the color at the last minute and I probably should have stayed with the original choice. The first blue paint being painted was definitely the wrong color. We gave the painter the right name, but we were one digit off on the number. (I guess that is the kind of thing that may happen when you get only 4 hours of sleep). Then the next blue being painted was still not the what we wanted and we think it’s because it was painted “satin” and not flat –which surprised us. At this point, we’re just too embarrassed to have him repaint it again. I think we’ll live with it for awhile and then see how important it is to us. It’s only paint and we can repaint if necessary.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Outfitting the Dining Room

In our new house, we have made a commitment to actually sitting at the dining room table to eat our dinner. Imagine that! In our current house, our kitchen is large and has a work island with a couple of stools. The dining room is a few steps away through a past the basement stairs and thru a doorway. Lately, we've fallen into the routine of standing around the kitchen island to eat. It's a bad habit and one that we want to change.

We hope that the openness in our new house between the kitchen and dining space will encourage sitting down to eat meals. This is a good goal. As a part of this new plan, we've decided on a new dining room table. We saw this great table (Cross Extension Table by Matthew Hilton) at Design Within Reach a few weeks back and were impressed with it's proportions (it's narrow at 35.5", which I like) and extends to 116". The extension leaves store right under the table.

It's available in a wenge finish or oak. Although the dark wenge would go with the wood in our kitchen, we decided on ordering the oak finish, partially based on recommendations from our good friend Fiona and hoping that the light wood finish will make the space appear larger than the dark finish. Now, we just have to wait the 12-16 weeks for it to arrive!

For chairs, we decided on this Room and Board version of the Arne Jacobsen classic Series 7 chair. For $79, it's a good deal and it's such a classic, that we can always order more later. It's a stackable chair and easy to clean (great for kids). We're going with the white finish.

So, that's it for our new furniture budget.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Light at the End of the Tunnel

The stress of building a house is incredible and as we are coming down to the wire, we are feeling the full brunt of it. Somehow, you have to put it all in perspective and know that someday, somehow, our lives will be back to normal again. It helps to have a 18 month old, whose life is so simple and innocent. When things are getting us down, he usually does something like a little dance, or gorilla-chest thumping that can bring us back to a happier place. Tonight, he was walking around the backyard and stopping to sniff every blooming flower, including the blooming weeds. It made me think about how life is too short to not stop to smell the flowers. Call it life lessons from a toddler.

Today, we shifted our move day one week and will now be making the big move on July 2. Although we were pushing for next week, we don’t want to move into a construction zone. No doubt there will still be incomplete work, but the extra week gives everyone a bit more time- including giving us more time to pack all those boxes. I’m longing for the day where everything I owned and needed could fit into the back of a Ford Escort (that was my freshman year in college). Now, apparently we have enough stuff that the 2 Men and a Truck that we hired to move us will actually need to be 6 Men and 2 Trucks. How did this happen to us?

Quite a bit of work happening this week……The exterior and interior railings at the balconies were installed yesterday, making our house instantly a whole lot safer. I was always in constant fear of having a kid fall off one of the openings. We used a cable rail system for its simplicity and minimal esthetic.

The exterior painting is adding a bit of color……

Kevin has become a regular at IKEA with about 5 trips so far. He has put together a number of shelves and closet systems and has a number of war stories....

Monday, June 16, 2008

How Walkable is your Neighborhood?

This week I discovered a cool website that rates your neighborhood for how “walkable” it is. Living in a walkable neighborhood has been our goal since we started to look for our project house over a year ago. Why? Because we love the idea of walking to get groceries or a book or a beer. We want to be an area that allows us to live without total dependence on a car- not only for ourselves, but also our parents should they come live with us someday.

The Highland Village area of St. Paul has a great collection of shopping and resources- from Punch Pizza (best pizza in MN, besides Kevin’s),Lunds grocery store, Brueggers, Half Price Books, Patina, library, parks and the Mississippi River and more. We are lucky to be only 1 block from some of these shops and walking distance to most of these places is only ¼ mile. Very walkable indeed.

So I when I came across the website Walk Score, I was interested in how our neighborhood stacked up. The system is based on Google information for the following resources and the distance from your address:
Coffee shops
Movie theaters
Drug stores
Hardware stores
Clothing & music

Apparently, they don’t know about our neighborhood bars, because WalkScore lists the closest bar at about 1.4 miles, instead of the ¼ mile it really is to Chatterbox and Tiffany’s from our house. This, it seems is the only reason our neighborhood scores 75 out of 100. (rated “very walkable”) Apparently bars are weighted quite heavily in the equation.

One other problem with the rating is that it lists a home office for a brick sales person as a hardware store. I wish we had a hardware store within walking distance- but that is the one thing that is really not close. Maybe when the Ford plant is redeveloped we can push for a hardware store as one of the retail components. Until then, we’ll be driving the Prius to Ace.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Some Real Wood and Some Faux Wood

As our project progresses, there have been some moments where we go “Umm. This is not exactly what we planned on….” and then we proceed to lose sleep over it, worry and eventually make peace with ourselves. And some other moments where we say “this looks great!” and we're excited about the project again. It’s all part of the highs and lows of a home project, where we are so emotionally invested. One of those “great” items was the Ipe wood sunshades. We love how the Ipe wood added richness to the fa├žade and was a counterpoint to the gray metal siding.

We liked the look of the Ipe so much that we changed the design to add more wood to the front entry. We originally planned on finishing off the soffit of the balcony and the entry overhang in a metal or hardi-board flat panel. As we looked at the details, we decided it would add more warm and simplify the material language by finishing off both the soffit and entry canopy in Ipe.
The canopy soffit has yet to be finished. The upper soffit (thru the tree leaves) is complete with ipe.

Ipe (pronounced E-pay) is a durable teaklike tropical hardwood sold as Ironwood or Pau Lope (pow LOW-pay). Known for its hardness , ipe is more durable than redwood and cedar. It has a life expectancy of 40 years or more, and is resistant to insects and decay. Ipe is sustainably harvested in Brazil and it has a gorgeous reddish-brown color. To maintain the rich walnut color, it will have to be resealed every 1-2 years. If not sealed it will become silver-gray, which still looks good, but just doesn’t have the richness of the sealed wood.

Ipe is not cheap. It can be even higher or similar in cost to redwood- but it is durable, so if you consider the life-cycle costs, that makes it easier to swallow.

For the front entry stair, back stair and balcony flooring, we chose a composite material called Trex. Trex is made of approximately 50% reclaimed wood and 50% reclaimed and recycled plastic. You know those pesky plastic shopping bags you get from the grocery store? Many of them end up in Trex, along with sawdust, wood chips and shavings. The end product has some great advantages over wood:
- never needs sanding, painting or staining
- doesn’t splinter
- the plastic shields it from moisture and insect damage
- the wood protects it from UV damage
- Trex offers a 25 year warranty
- doesn’t use those nasty chemicals that go into pressure treated wood. (note: before getting seduced by the inexpensive pressure-treated pine lumber option, make sure you thoroughly research the chemicals used. There is a lot of literature out there that may cause you to reconsider this as a viable option).
We choose a reddish color for the Trex that would be compatible with the Ipe. There is will be a bench under the Profilit glass window in the future.

Again, the composite product is not the cheapest solution- but for maintenance, durability and sustainability, it’s a great choice. Although, we could have used the Ipe for the decking as well, we wanted to demonstrate different materials and test how they will be to maintain over the years. Check back with us in couple of years!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Steady Progress

We are about 3 weeks and counting until we move into the new house. Here's a few things that happened this week...

This might just be my favorite room in the house.... Our master bath Richlite countertops were installed, along with the lav and toilet. The base cabinet is a natural finish douglas fir veneer. Left to finish in this room- lav faucet, shower faucet, cabinet pulls and mirrors.

The above picture is the shower at the shared bathroom. The far wall is an orange glass tile wall, but it looks a bit redder than we anticipated.

The recycled glass terrazzo countertop was installed, along with the Nexus vessel sink and faucet set.

Here is a close-up of the glass terrazzo from Natural Built Home. There is a combination of grey, clear, orange and amber recycled glass.

Here's the first of 5 sliding doors to be installed. We used Leatherneck Flat Track hardware.

The master bedroom floors are finished. We used 4x4 sheets of birch plywood, alternating the grain direction. We debated for quite awhile about which way to install this. The sheets can be biscuited together and act as a floating floor or secured down with screws or nails. We opted for nailing it down and filling in the nail holes with putty. The sheets were then finished with a sealer.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Lights, Camera, Action!

This week, the lights went in at the house. Although we've been very impressed with how daylit the house is, the lights really make it feel like home. Now, we are actually able to work there at night (both a good and bad thing)! Kevin took advantage of this on Saturday and spent the afternoon into the evening working on laying the FLOR carpet tiles in the kids' bedrooms.

Mazzy designed the floor pattern for her bedroom and also helped lay the tile. We used 4 colors of FLOR Toy Poodle.
View looking towards her closet.

There is one wall with an accent color. Mazzy is finally out of the pink, purple and frilly stage. Her favorite color is blue.

Declan help with his bedroom installation also. In the boys bedroom, we used the Straight & Narrow line from FLOR. It's not nearly as soft as the Toy Poodle, but this is a case where they had the right colors.

There is an orange accent wall in the boys bedroom.

Cormac checks out the drawers in the newly lit kitchen. The glass shades at the island are on backorder, so we'll be looking at bare bulbs for awhile.