Monday, December 6, 2010

Why is this stuff still new?

I was reading an article recently on something called The Advanced House. It's a pilot project by the Natural Resources Canada to build a home that uses all kinds of energy efficient systems, such as passive solar sunrooms, double wall framing, and Integrated Mechanical Systems (essentially a large hot water tank connected to heat exchangers. Any air or water leaving the house has all its heat extracted. The hot water tank then supplies not only the water but also heat via either forced air or radiant hydronics.)

It's pretty cool stuff, and not terribly complex. But here's the thing: this house was built as a demonstration project... in 1991. From all that I've read, many of these systems work well and have payback times of less than a decade. They should be standard procedure in 2010. So why aren't they?

One of the great parts of my job is that I get to interview all kinds of interesting people and pursue stories just because I find them intriguing. A couple of months ago we decided to do a story on passive solar design. We had lined up the experts, got the information on the theory, and all we needed to complete the piece was a local home that incorporated passive solar. We found a few, but they were all straw bale places. For our purposes we really wanted one that wasn't freaky; we wanted to see what passive solar looked like in a normal, ordinary home or cottage.

We finally found one... in Burk's Falls, an hour's drive north of here. I spoke to architects and builders around Muskoka and got the same answer every time: nobody does that here. If you want lots of windows, they said, you put them on the lake side regardless of what direction you're facing. Who cares about getting free heat from the sun?

When we toured the home in Burk's Falls, though, we found that they had a wall of passive solar windows on the south. They also had lots of windows on the north, where the lake is. It's not the ideal as far as passive solar goes, but as the owner said, what are you going to do? Block off the view?

They had all kinds of really cool technology, including an integrated mechanical system that took hot air from the third floor sunroom and ran it through a heat exchanger to heat the water. They had woodstoves, just like any other cottage, but they had water jackets in the chimneys to reduce the amount of heat going up the stack. The walls were double thick construction with blown cellulose insulation, and they had a double layer of drywall on all walls and ceiling which acts as a very effective form of thermal mass. (The designer told me that doubling the drywall had the same effect as they would have got by putting a three inch thick concrete slab on all floors, except that with a concrete slab they would have had to reinforce all the floors.)

The overall effect was to make a 3500 square foot cottage that will stay above freezing all winter with no outside heat at all. Pretty cutting edge, right? Uh-uh: this was built in 1998. Which brings me back to my earlier question: why is this stuff not standard?

I think part of the answer comes from my friend Joe. He's recently finished building his own house and used non-standard framing (double 2 x 4 walls, 24" on centre). He said the 16-inch standard for framing originated with builders using lath and plaster for the walls -- the wood they used for laths in England wouldn't hold the plaster if the studs were spaced more than 16 inches apart. In other words, we're still building walls in 2010 to accommodate technology that was outmoded in 1950.

There's good reason to be conservative when building, to not leap into every new idea that comes along. After all, mistakes have to be lived with for a long time, or can be expensive to fix. (Urea formaldehyde, anyone?) But some technologies are ideas whose time has come.

I'll post a link to the passive home article when we run it, likely in the spring.

(Update: here's the article: It starts on page 24.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What if we turned it 90 degrees....

It's funny how one simple starting fact can affect the entire plan. You start with one step that seems obvious, and before you know it you've got a plan that makes sense. But what if your initial step is wrong?

For the past few months, every house plan we've drawn up has had a couple of common features. Among them is the orientation. This is step one.

Our lot has a substantial slope in the area we want to build -- roughly 4 in 1, dropping from the road side (east) to the river (west). That's not a problem, because we want to build a place with a walkout basement. In fact, it's just about perfect: if the house is 40 feet long, and each floor is roughly ten feet high, then a 4:1 slope means that there's very little earth moving required to have a front door at ground level on one side of the house, and a basement door at ground level on the opposite side.

Step two: Because we have a sort-of view through the trees toward the river (that is, we think we might be able to see the river with some selective pruning, and even if we can't we've got a nice view down the wooded hillside), we've naturally been thinking of putting most of our windows on the west side.

Step three: We want a simple roofline (to save money) and we like the "wall of windows" look, particularly if we have a cathedral ceiling in the living room. Therefore, the roof ridge should run east-west, with most of the windows on the western end.

Step four: We'd like to have a deep porch on the entry side. Kind of like this home from Beaver Homes. Now we're getting somewhere. Picture this place sitting on a sloped lot. The porch would be on the south side, and the land slopes down from the east (right side of the picture) to the west. The wall of windows you can see in this picture would be moved so it's on the opposite end of the house -- that is, on the west side. Looking good?

Not so fast, there, homebuilder. Now we come to step five: the problems.

As I've mentioned before, it makes sense to incorporate a lot of passive solar elements in the house, which means windows on the south side. We need an overhang to block the summer sun, but a six- or eight-foot overhang that you get from a deep porch is too much: we'd still get sun in December, when it's really low, but we'd lose it by February.

There's also the question of what this house would look like on a slope. You don't see too many homes that sit across the slope: usually the're oriented so that the land falls away to the back or the front. Is there a reason for this? Quite likely, and I don't want to discover that reason by building the house wrong.

A third problem is what we do about a screen porch. We eat outside a lot, and when you're building on a wooded lot in Muskoka a screen porch is pretty much a necessity. They don't call 'em Muskoka rooms for nothing. On this plan the natural way to build one is to screen in one end of that nice deep porch, but that blocks off even more of the southern light. Or we could put it on the west end, but then it's right in front of that lovely wall of windows, and raises some serious roofline questions.

We've been wrestling with this for weeks now and getting nowhere. And then we visited friends and had a look at their house. And suddenly thought: "what if we took this design and turned it 90 degrees?" What if we, in effect, went back to step one and changed our assumptions?

Now we've got a gable end wall of windows facing the south, allowing plenty of solar gain. The land slopes away from the front of the house, in a more conventional arrangement. And the screen porch can go on the west side.

There are still some issues. We've got a lot of windows facing south, where the view isn't as grand. But perhaps we don't put quite as many windows there as we had initially planned, and add more windows on the west, balancing that out. We'll need to calculate the overhang on the south side carefully to ensure we're not bringing in too much sunshine in the warm season.

We'll also need to do a bit more land-shaping to make the walkout basement work. But since the footprint we're looking at is 32 by 40, it's not that big a difference.

Is this the solution? Perhaps. We've got to live with the idea for a little longer and see if we can spot the flaws. But I know one thing for sure: it was a lot easier to turn the house 90 degrees now than it will be in a year or so.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Back to round one.... again

After our meeting with the technologist, we were talking about the options we had open. And Sharon said "Does this mean we're definitely not going with log?" Since we had spent a fair bit of time looking at a local builder of log homes, we decided we needed to see for sure whether that was an option before we went any further.

And while we were being definitive, we decided we'd better make sure we had ruled out some of the other options we were considering, such as hiring French's (a large builder in our area), building a Viceroy, or buying a kit from Beaver Homes and hiring a contractor to erect it.

So we've had a couple of meetings this week, one with French's and another with True North. We still don't have a decision, but the numbers are becoming more clear.

True North can give us a clear price on their home package. It includes exterior walls, roofing, windows, etc -- the complete shell. They can also tell us how much it would cost to have them build the shell, or give us a completed, turnkey home... if we want to just pick one out of the plan package and say 'we'll take that one.' If we want to make modifications to an existing plan -- which almost everyone does and we certainly would -- we'd need to plunk down a deposit before they'll start redesigning and repricing. Fair enough: that's quite a bit of design time. But it makes it a bit tricky to price. And, if we go with log, price is a consideration because it's a given that log is more expensive than stick frame.

A bigger problem with log is the insulative value. I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the future marketability of a home will have a lot to do with its energy-efficiency. When oil is $200 a barrel, and when every new home coming on the market has an official energy-efficiency number attached to it (which they will), greener homes will be worth more. Even setting aside future sales, one of the things we both really want is a home that is warm in winter and costs little to keep that way. Log homes are great... when they're well built, well-chinked, large round log homes. Engineered log homes, on the other hand, are a little less so. The r-value of softwood is about 1.5 per inch, so an eight inch log (one firm's most popular) has just R12 in the walls. The house we're in now, with its 1970s 2x4 walls, has around R16. Modern homes with 2x6 walls are about R20, I think. If you go with a more creative framing (offset studs, or blockers to end thermal bridging) you can get R30 without too much difficulty. That's a heck of a difference.

Still, the appeal of log is strong, so we're not ruling it out yet. We need to get some solid numbers on foundation costs to pin it down.

We also met with French's. More on that later.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Meeting with a designer

Had a very good meeting with a designer on the weekend. She is an architectural technologist, and she came to the house on Saturday to show us her portfolio and discuss how she works. She was recommended to us by a friend in the building trade, and she seems to know her stuff. Next step is to get some references from her and check on them.

So will the references and her portfolio tell us what we need to know? Probably not. Choosing a professional is, I'm starting to realize, as much art as science: you do the basic homework, and then you go with what your gut tells you. We both had a good feeling about her, and in our two hour meeting she offered up several tips that sounded like they would save us money (including advising us which surveyors have a reputation for being more expensive -- I would have thought that was one area in which prices didn't vary by too much. Apparently not.)

If we hire her, the next step is to tour the property with her and show her our list of wishes, wants, needs and don't wants. Then she puts together a concept drawing, we comment, it gets amended, and we keep going back and forth until we're ready for... construction drawings! Woo Hoo! Which we can then show to builders and find out that we can't afford to build what we just spend weeks designing. Or so the pessimist in me says. But one step at a time.

On the hands-on side of things, Charlotte and I drove out to the lot on Sunday afternoon, parked in the beautifully hand-crafted parking area, and walked down to the water in our wetsuits. She stayed on shore while I waded in and lost all sensation in my feet. Still, after half an hour we had the dock out, and there she stays until spring.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Decisions, decisions.

One of the first decisions we've had to make is a fairly basic one: who should design our new house?
The options are many, and each has its champion. We could hire a builder and work with them on a design. We could pick something out of a plan book and make any changes we wish, or work from a building supply yard's plans, hire an architectural technologist, design something ourselves and take it to an engineer to get approved plans, or hire an architect.
Each has its merits, and it seems that we've met someone who is willing to champion each approach. Hiring a builder is simple, but it has a big disadvantage: you have no chance to comparison shop, getting bids from different builders. When money's a factor, this is a pretty big disadvantage, so we ruled that out fairly quickly.
Plan books are pretty and fun to look at, but almost all are based on the premise that you're building on a flat suburban lot, which we're not. There are also some incredibly stupid designs -- plans with foundations or roof lines that are absurdly complex, and therefore expensive; or plans that have silly layouts. Plan books are fun, but in terms of finding the design we want to build, they're out.
Hiring an architect seems like a pretty easy one to dismiss. After all, architects are expensive (ten per cent of the total building cost isn't unusual). It's with good reason that only a small percentage of new homes are designed by an architect -- I think it's around 8 per cent, if I recall correctly.
But, I've had several conversations over the years with people who make an interesting point: a good architect can come up with creative solutions that work in your budget. As one draftsman said, "anyone can make granite countertops and clear wood look good. It takes more skill to make plywood and particle board look good." So, I thought, what do we have to lose? I looked at a few architects' websites and asked around, then contacted a few prospects to see what they thought. I wrote a long letter, outlining who we were and what we were hoping to achieve -- including our budget -- and sent it to three architects. One didn't reply at all. Another replied and said it sounded interesting but he had doubts about our budget, but would be willing to meet with us to discuss it. And a third called me and said there's no way we can build for $150 a square foot in Muskoka -- $250 is a basic starting point, he said, but $300 is more realistic.
"But what about sweat equity?" I asked. "What about our plans to just have a shell built which I will finish?" Doesn't matter, he said: builders get things cheaper than homeowners can, and that balances out the cost of the labour. Revisit your budget, and call me.
It was a very discouraging conversation.
Fortunately, since then we've had a few much more encouraging conversations. Friends who are builders have said $150 is achievable if you plan carefully. (Others have said you can go even cheaper if you're willing to buy some goods to the south. Even Orillia, a mere 35 minutes away, is cheaper than Muskoka. Call it the Muskoka Tax -- the premium we all pay because there are too many rich citiots willing to drive up prices.)
I've also talked to a few people who have said architectural design is a luxury, not a necessity. Another friend in the building trades has said many architects he works with are great visionaries and come up with fantastic looks, but it's the architectural technologist on their staff who actually understands building function and structure. If you want to have a building that works well -- in terms of traffic flow, lighting, energy efficiency, etc. -- he said an architectural technologist is the person to talk to.
Building a house, I've come to realize, isn't just about choosing what to do; it's partly about choosing what not to do. There are so many decisions to make, so many options, that you need to start by shedding a few just to get down to a manageable number of possibilities.
So, for good or bad, we'll move "architect" over to the same side of the sheet as "builder-designer" and "plan book."
That leaves us with a few choices: hire an architecture technologist and work with her on the design, or work with the architectural technologists at a building supply yard. That would mean committing to buy all our materials from one supply yard (Home Building Centre, most likely), but that's not unreasonable. We'll have to do some pricing, but in the meantime we're going to meet with a technologist next week.
Of course, all of this is subject to the next convincing conversation we have! Good thing we've got plenty of time before we build.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A new adventure, a new blog

All summer I said I wasn't going to blog about our house planning.

But that was summer, and I was working a bazillion hours a week. This is fall, and I've got time. So here goes.

We've bought a piece of property on Cedar Lane - hence the oh-so-clever title of this blog. It's 4 acres, it's on the river, and it's only six minutes from downtown. It's also way more money than we should have spent, so now the challenge is to build a house there without going too far into debt. No: to be more accurate, the challenge is to build the house we want, the dream house, the house we've always thought we would build, the house we dreamed of while living in our other homes with gold shag carpeting and mud floor basements and squirrels in the attic. To build THAT house, without going too far into debt.

I think it's going to be a challenge.

But first, we need to cut down some trees. I've already started. Photos of the lot so far are here: