Thursday, February 28, 2008

Down the Drain

In Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, we don’t often talk about limited water supply, but other regions aren’t so lucky. When I was in Atlanta in November, everyone was talking about the drought and there was an actual count down in number of days until the water supply ran out. Other desert cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix are facing a major water crisis as their population grows and they scramble to find water. It can't all come from the Colorado River forever. The fight over water rights is predicted to be as big or bigger than current fights over oil in the future, as we continue to build cities in deserts. The problem is that the people with most oil and economic power will likely win the war over water. Stay Tuned.

Even though water is relatively inexpensive and plentiful now, it is still our goal to reduce our water use in our new home. There are several resources we are using that provide water reduction strategies. The MN GreenStar program lists a number of water reduction strategies that we are following and the EPA’s WaterSense program has created a label for water efficient fixtures.

In my experience researching plumbing fixtures the last couple of months, it seems to be relatively easy to find water efficient toilets these days, but much more difficult to find faucets that are low-flow - at least for residential applications. There are plenty commercial fixtrues available that meet the requirements. I spent hours researching and trying to find low flow fixtures that would meet our esthetic goals with little or no luck. Although there are products available, I was trying to select compatible or matching faucets, shower heads and control valves for two different bathrooms. I had almost given up on the low-flow aspect until Kevin drew his line in the sand and demanded that we do better. I decided to stay with the fixtures we had selected for esthetic reasons and research switching the aerators. I finally e-mailed the technical support for both Grohe and Toto to request low-flow aerators. In both the case of Toto and Grohe, they were able to supply a 1.5 GPM low flow aerator for the faucet, no problem. (Most standard fixtures meet a 2.2 GPM flow rate). Neither Toto or Grohe advertised or had information on their websites about their low flow aerator options, which surprised me. My guess is that there is currently not the demand for this option, but this will be changing in the future. We will likely purchase and use the 1.5 gpm aerators for the kitchen sink, but will inevitably change out the aerators to a .5 gpm aerator in the bathroom lavatories. We'll leave the tub alone, as lwering th flow rate simply increases the length of time it will take to fill the tub for a bath.

Grohe Concetto faucet and Toto Nexus faucet

The biggest water hog and last fixture to get a water efficiency makeover is the showerhead. In fact, the current trend is new-fangled features that actually increase water use. Performance showering” is a tempting trend, which includes multiple shower heads, rain-shower heads, pulsating and variable sprays- but the downside is the isignificantly increased water use (including longer time spent in the shower, I’m sure!) Since Kevin believes in the 2 minute shower, this is not the direction we will pursue.
Finding low-flow shower heads is even more difficult than the faucets. The WaterSense program does not have shower heads labeled yet, but is intending to develop a specification for one. So expect some changes in this are in the next couple of years. Until then, we are going to add the low-flow aerator by Delta to our new showerheads. We're able to purchase these low flow aerators at Natural Built Home in Minneapolis for the price of a couple of pizzas.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Phoenix Rising!

Exterior walls going up on Friday morning.
Okay, maybe our project isn’t as dramatic as a supernatural creature arising from the ashes, but we’ve finally gotten to the point of making positive progress on the project, rather than demolition and we’re kinda excited about it!

The framing on the upper floor began this week, so the exterior walls on the upper floor are nearly complete. The temperature finally rose above freezing toward the end of the week. We hope, for our contractor’s sake, that the next week will bring warmer weather as well.

Picture from Saturday morning. Nearly all the exterior walls are up.

View from the back yard.

As I was at the house this weekend, I was asked by a neighbor if we were going to triple the size of the house. I wonder if they are looking out their windows wondering if they will be getting a McMansion on the block? The term “McMansion” is commonly used in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, where gynormous houses are sprouting up on small lots, overshadowing their neighbors and leaving little open yard space.

It’s important for us to be a good neighbor, so to ease the neighbor’s fears, we tried to meet many of them and let them know about the project before we began. We also have taken a lot of care to minimize the footprint and volume of the house. For starters, the width of the lot is 100’ wide, so even with the addition, there is still plenty of breathing room in the yard and between neighbors.

Here’s the numbers:
- The existing house was 1676 SF plus 635 SF in the basement.
- After project completion, it will be 3006 SF (plus an additional 625 SF in basement)
- 835 SF of the original house is not being altered.

The 3006 SF will have 4 bedrooms, 2.75 bathrooms and a studio/office, which could be a 5th bedroom.

Inside the addition, this is the view from the kitchen- dining is on the left and large corner windows in the living room.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Measuring the Forest and the Trees. Or, How Green is Our Valley?

As you no doubt know by now, it's important to us that this project have as little impact on the environment as it can and yet still be within the realm of achievement for the average family - who may not be as eco-geeky as we are but are interested in doing as much as they can. It's pretty easy to make claims about environmental stewardship and responsibility and quite another to carry them out. How do we measure our success? How do we quantify our energy efficiency and environmental performance?

First, this is important to us so we spend a great deal of time researching materials and systems and choosing the ones that are both environmentally preferable and economically viable. We don't do the things we can't afford - but this doesn't mean taking the least expensive option on the table. Rather, we look at the environmental and economic balanced value of our choices. We're willing to pay more for high performance windows, insulation and equipment because we know that it will reduce our long term maintenance and energy costs. The savings we garner from lower utility bills will pay for those very slight upfront costs many times over during the life of the home. In order to determine this we need to look at the lifecycle of the material or system, its performance and cost. We've hired the Neighborhood Energy Connection ( to do an energy model. This helps determine what our expected energy load and performance will be - based on our design and materials and systems selection. We can play around with variables during the design and determine the approach with the best return for our investment, and the least environmental impact. At the end of construction - we'll test and commission the systems to make sure they perform up to expectations. It's a balancing act. Because we plan on owning this home for a long time, we have no problem accepting paybacks as long as 20 -30 years on some items. But most of the things we're doing offer paybacks of 6 years or less. We'll monitor our performance and energy bills on an ongoing basis to ensure top notch performance as well.

Our decisions are not driven by paybacks alone. Sometimes you just have to do what's right. For instance, there is no significant economic payback for using less water or for using no VOC paints, etc. But it's the right thing to do. Also, looking at the results of our energy model alone, tells us that we really only needed to use triple glazed windows on the north side of the house. But, the energy model software doesn't really account for all conditions equally, and experience tells us that triple glazed windows make sense and will provide better comfort - so, that's what we're doing.

We are also getting an objective 3rd party to validate our claims. We're in the pilot phase of a design guideline and rating system called the Minnesota Greenstar Program ( There are a number of great guidelines out there - Green Home Guide (, ReGreen, Built Green, LEED for Homes (developed by the U.S. Green Building Council) and many more. We selected the Minnesota Greenstar Program for many reasons. First, it's a guideline that is designed to be applicable to the microclimate in our cold climate as it features regional strategies that make sense here in Minnesota - rather than Florida. Different climate, different needs. Unlike LEED and other guidleines, the Greenstar program is specific to remodeling projects and contains different Tiers and requirements based on the actual scope of the remodeling project. It's a point based system with specific prescriptive requirements and options within each of the tiers. You collect points based on the strategies implemented (proof of achievement required) and at the end of the day your project gets a rating of Bronze, Silver or Gold in ascending order. We're expecting to achieve a very high Gold rating. Even though some of the documentation is cumbersome (it has a 47 page checklist!) we like the fact that it requires a holistic approach to design and implementation. It addresses everything from plant species used on site, water and energy efficiency, waste reduction, material use, indoor air quality, lighting, and equipment selections.

The LEED guideline (and others) are organized in a similar fashion, but are geared more toward new construction (ReGreen being the exception). LEED can be used on remodels but effectively requires that you strip everything down to the studs and start over in order to achieve the energy ratings required. That's simply not feasible on most remodeling projects - and Greenstar accounts for the variety of remodeling projects one might undertake and partners that with strategies appropriate for our region and microclimate. Yippee!

In the end, we'll have a measurement of our "green" achievements that can withstand scrutiny and the burden of proof. We'll know if we diverted 71% of of construction and demolition debris from the landfill or 77%. We'll know how much energy we're supposed to use and how much we actually use. Our claims will have weight and merit and will be a good baseline against which other projects might measure themselves and hopefully surpass our achievements!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

No Going Back Now

We are definitely at the point of no return on this project. I guess we’ve been there awhile, but when I stopped by the house this morning and saw this- it really became absolutely clear to me! It also became clear just how crazy we are to be doing this project….. Craziness has always been seen as a virtue in our household -not in a Running-with-Scissors-kind-of-way, but more of a My-Name-is-Earl kind of crazy. (This could be debatable, but we do love that tv show...)
Yesterday, it seemed like a great idea to remove the upper floor of the house this week. Now, with 3-4 inches of snow on the way tonight, we’re not so sure. But we’ve learned a long time ago to not worry too much about things we have no control over and this might be one of those times. And better snow than rain, right?

The Atomic Waste folks were busy today hauling away multiple dumpsters. Not only do they have a super cool logo, but they also recycle.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Kitchen or Cucina?

The centerpiece of our house is going to be the kitchen. Its footprint straddles between the old and new space and even though the existing house wall hasn’t been removed yet, you can start to get a sense of the new kitchen space- open to living and dining rooms with large windows facing south and west.

Anyone who knows our family, knows that Kevin is a fantastic cook. He is not afraid of trying new recipes (even on guests) and is bold enough to change recipes the first time he tries them. I, however, tend to trust the recipe and am therefore am more of a baker than a cook. When we entertain, we hang out in the kitchen because Kevin is the center of the performance- he is in his element. An island cooktop which would allow Kevin to be on stage while visiting with guests, was a major factor in the design of the kitchen.
We love the clean lines of this Valcucine kitchen.

We spent months determining who we would use for kitchen cabinetry. Because of our love for finely designed Italian objects, we seriously considered Valcucine, along with other Italian kitchens such as Berloni and Scavolini.The Valcucine showroom at International Market Square in Minneapolis has kitchens to lust over. They are meticulously detailed with clean, simple lines and tactile surfaces. Their Riciclantica line is based on dematerialization and recyclability. The doors are made with minimal materials and are built with non-toxic materials & finishes and are built for durability. All good things, but in the end, the strong euro/weak dollar made us look for a kitchen rather than a cucina.

Henrybuilt kitchen

Being a late evening internet researcher/shopper lead me to discover Henrybuilt cabinets. They have a clean, modern esthetic and I found their designers to be very helpful. I sent them my very rough first draft kitchen elevations and they responded with sketches and very thoughtful suggestions. At one point, I felt like they had spent more time thinking about our kitchen than I had. The only downside is that they are located in Seattle and New York- but not in the Midwest. Natural Built Home Eco-Cabinetry

We also seriously considered the cabinets from Natural Built Home They carry both Neil Kelly cabinetry and a locally produced line of environmentally-friendly cabinetry.

Eastvold Kitchen

Eastvold Custom Cabinetry
was on our list because Kevin had met Matt Eastvold at the Living Green Expo last year. His cabinet shop is in Dennison MN and has an emphasis on custom, sustainable solutions. We like the idea of being able to create a custom design and work closely with the cabinet makers and designers. They understand modern kitchen design and are able to tailor the design to meet our needs and suggest alternative solutions to help us meet our budget. Our contractor, Michlitsch Brothers, has worked with Eastvold before, with glowing reviews. So, we have decided to go with the proven quantity and work with Eastvold. No worries, Italian will still be spoken in our kitchen in the form of Kevin’s homemade pasta.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Some Progress and Some Decisions

This week seemed like a bit of a slow week at the job site. There were some winter flu bugs and the contractor was waiting for floor joists and for a stretch of days before taking apart too much of the existing house. There is a lot of demolition that will happen at the existing house- removing the roof, removing the upper floor walls and removing the corner at the addition. Once this happens, the new second floor framing will need to happen very quickly, so the existing house isn't left exposed to the elements for too long. This phase of the construction will start at the beginning of a week so that it can be mostly enclosed before the weekend. The demolition will be exciting, as the house will really start the transformation- but it will also be very scary to see the existing structure dismantled.

The spaces in the addition are now a little better defined as the sheathing is going up. There is no second floor yet, but with the joists now delivered, the 2nd floor framing should start next week. The steel column and beams are in to support the load of the existing house as the corner is removed.

Progress on the house means that Kevin and I have to get serious about finalizing decisions. Without deadlines, we tend to put off making decisions. We once debated the carpet selection for our attic project for about 2 years. It wasn't until we had a guest coming for the summer and absolutely needed the attic space, that we made the decision. Yes, we need deadlines. One of the decisions we had to make this week was exterior siding and colors. We had done studies on this before with the help of a Google Sketchup model. Sketchup is a great tool for quick studies on colors and materials.

We had started looking at muted colors with a few bold color accents.
Although we liked the understated quality of muted grays, we were concerned it would look a bit too industrial for our neighborhood. We thought about how this would look on a snowy day, and it just seemed to heavy.
The top is a corrugated metal siding from Metal Sales. The bottom is HardiBoard cement board siding. We wanted to make the house as low maintenance as possible, so we are going with a prefinished cement board. This prefinished board can be painted another color in the future- because of this we started looking at using white.This was our preferred option from a couple of months ago. When we started looking at the exact metal color samples, there was 2 greys to choose from. One was a dark cooler grey and the other was a warm lighter gray. We were hoping for something in the middle- but no such luck. We were concerned about the lighter gray becoming taupe in the bright sun. Unfortunately, we have not seen any direct sun this week to test the samples out!

After much debate, we are going with the darker gray metal panel. This is a bolder move that we're excited about. The metal roof on the office (to the right) will be Galvalume (aluminum color). We still have decisions to make on the colored panels- but these will just be painted, not prefinished, so the deadline for that decision is not imminent. We'll see how long we can put that one off!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Amore quelli italiani!

We love those Italians.
There are so many places in the world to see, but Italy is one of those places we could never get tired of. They have wonderful food, architecture (both historic and modern), art and product design. Some Italian things we love are:

Leather shoes


Renaissance Art

Modern kitchens

Pizza (the real, wood-burning oven variety

and Ceramic Tile

Yes, the Italians are always on the cutting edge when it comes to ceramic tile. When confronted with a plethora of tile, we are always drawn to those from Italy. Some of the current trends for tile are: porcelain tile that looks like metal or wood, glass tiles and tiles with images imprinted or embossed. There are so many great tiles out there, it can be mind-boggling to make a choice.

A few weeks ago, we spent a couple of hours at the Kate-Lo showroom in Plymouth. When we walked into the showroom, my immediate thought was that Kevin and I would NEVER be able to make a decision because there are so many choices and that any decisions could likely take all day. (Although it’s easy for Architects to make decisions for other people, it’s really hard to make decisions for ourselves…..) We were fortunate enough to get help from Diane with Kate-Lo. She listened carefully and was able to focus us in on some beautiful options. Within two hours, we left with nearly all our decisions made. ( a miracle of sorts!)

We first started with looking at Crossville’s Eco series. This tile contains 40% recycled content, but the rustic,earthy look is not what we were looking for in a tile. All ceramic tiles have sustainable qualities, in that they have a long life cycle, are inert and odorless.. They are made from natural clay baked at very high temperatures. Some of the issues are in the manufacturer of tiles, but most manufacturers are addressing the environmental issues and trying to lessen the impact on the environment.

We had seen a beautiful tile on display at the Kate-Lo booth at the AIA convention this year and wanted to see if we could use it for our project. The tile is 12”x24” in size and is called Glow by Atlas Concorde (Italian company) It has a linear, rough texture and metallic sheen that makes it look like silk fabric. We're going to use the dark grey color.The great thing about this tile is that it has a coordinating small mosaic tile that can be used in the shower, so that the floor tile will all look consistent. (shower tile must be smaller in size so that they can be installed to slope to the drain).
For the master bath shower wall, we are going to use a white tile that looks like metal. Our original choice is to use the 1.5” x 4” tile laid in a vertical stacked bond. The larger 13” x 13” tile in this same color is quite a bit less expensive, so depending on where our budget lands, we might use the large tile.

The tile at the other shared bathroom will be similar neutral colors with a grey ColorBlox 6"x12" tile on the floor and a coordinating 3”x3” grey tile for the shower. The walls will be the 13” x13” white metal-look tile, like the master bath. There will be one bold color wall with orange glass tile.

Crossville ColorBlox & GlassBlox

We are really excited about these tiles and can’t wait to get the project to the point when they can be installed. Pazienza รจ necessaria.