Archive for: November, 2006

All homebuilders should have a private blog

November 29th, 2006

Even if you don’t want to go to the trouble of having to write up your building experiences in syntactically correct detail, you might want to setup a blog for your own private use.

While building your own home, you will only have about 15,000 decisions to make before it’s done. Organizing this much information can be quite daunting. But blogging software such as WordPress and others have the ability to classify your posts into different topics, as you see in the sidebar. This can be a great way to save the myriad little ideas and discoveries you make while working on your project.

I’ve created a second WordPress installation elsewhere just to track all our bits of information in a self-structuring, searchable format. And since it isn’t for anyone’s consumption but our own, it doesn’t take as long to keep up to date as a public blog, like this one.

So when it finally comes time to, say, buy a refrigerator, I’ll be able to quickly search through and find everything I’ve found out thus far about fridges before making a final decision. Handy!

Posted by Colin

Better building materials, from the nails, up

November 27th, 2006

In considering new materials with which to build our home, I’ve got to admit I didn’t expect to be rethinking: the nail.

Dr. Ed Sutt conducted an analysis of the devastation left by hurricanes and concluded the flaw that brought the homes down was not with the wood, or the design of the building, but most often with the nails used. Working with Bostitch, he developed a new kind of nail.
According to initial research: Using the Bostitch HurriQuake 2 nail adds about $15 to the cost of a 2000 sq.ft. home, but doubles a home’s resistance to high speed winds (holds against gusts up to 170mph) and adds 50% more resistance to earthquake forces.

Bostitch is doubling production every month to keep up with demand, but the nail is so far only available in the Gulf region. Toronto’s climate isn’t currently known for high speed winds or earthquakes, but a nail that holds better in extreme conditions almost certainly holds better over time as well.

If further research proves these to be worthwhile, I will likely try to get them up here for our build. I had already been wondering about putting the house together with screws instead of nails (though I’m guessing our builder might not be too keen on that). Another thought I had was to shore up their joins myself by adding an extra screw between their nails. (But more research is needed to find out just how much benefit this would provide.)

Posted by Colin

Third Design Meeting with Architect

November 24th, 2006

Our third design meeting continued to raise my excitement about actually getting to the ‘building’ portion of the project.

We’re now at the stage where we are playing around with finer detail of the rooms, though we did have a major change in the basement. The basement has its own entrance and we want to make sure (as is popular practice in Toronto) that we have the option of renting out the basement as a self-contained apartment. At the moment we don’t expect to do this and would just like to have a guest-suite in the basement for visiting family. But in thinking about possible uses of the space we found our current design had a serious limitation: with the bathroom in one location, the basement would have to either be entirely rented, or not rented. But when we moved it 5 feet, we suddenly had the option of renting out half the basement and keeping the other half for our own use.

Trying to envision all possible (not just intended) uses of each space can lead to some very interesting discoveries.

We also realized that with the elevated ceiling we had intended for the Master Bedroom, we could create a storage loft above the master bathroom (which would have 8′ ceiling). Since we like to travel/hike we thought we’d set up a wall of shelving nooks in the main hallway to store our ‘found objects.’ At the moment I’m thinking this will be a tall curved shelving system so we can have larger, deeper nooks in the middle, and smaller, shallower nooks at the ends.

And we’re trying to figure out if we need to add some more interest to the ‘face’ of our house. While the interior appearance of our house will change significantly over the years, it is far more complicated to change the appearance of the exterior of one’s home. As such, we really want to get this part of it right, from the start. Changes we are pursuing are a change in the peak of the house (to make it off-centre and provide more solar-panel space on the south edge), and bringing half the house forward a couple of feet, to add some varying depth.

So far, this is all great fun!

Posted by Colin

Follow-up: Properly sizing mechanical systems

November 22nd, 2006

Follow-up to: Book: The Natural House

Alex was just showing me an article called Smart and Cool ($) that appeared in a 2005 issue of Home Energy magazine.

In summary: Over-sized air conditioners aren’t just inefficient, they can make your house uncomfortable to live in. As I hypothesized about furnaces in the previous post: AC units cool and dehumidify more efficiently, the longer they run.

A heavy-duty AC unit will run in short bursts; not long enough to dehumidify at all because the water won’t have time to run off the cooling unit in the ventilation system. When the AC turns off, but the blower keeps going, the air picks up the small amount of water that had started to collect, and sends it back into the house making it uncomfortably humid.

In contrast, an AC unit that runs all the time eventually adds so much condensation to the cooling coils, that the water drips off and is drained away out of the ventilation system and therefore, out of the air.

When planning your mechanical systems it seems to me that it is actually worse to wind up with a heating or cooling system that is too strong than one that isn’t strong enough.

We aren’t planning to install AC at this point. We think we can keep the house cool by opening windows in the evening to collect cool air, and relying on good insulation and air circulation to keep the house cool through the day. In Toronto’s climate, we find there is only about 1 week every year where our current home (even as badly insulated as it is) is uncomfortably warm. In our new house, we’re hoping we find that to never be the case.

I think people would be amazed at how comfortable they could make their homes if they stopped relying on AC and simply opened their windows in the cool evenings, and sealed their house during the day. In our climate, residential AC really seems like an enormous waste for its limited benefit.

Posted by Colin

Book: The Natural House, Daniel D. Chiras

November 21st, 2006

The Natural House, Daniel D. Chiras
ISBN: 1-890132-57-8

The first half of this book, while interesting, was dedicated to alternate forms of home construction (cob, rammed earth, straw bale, etc.) that aren’t of much use for our particular project; The city isn’t quite ready to have folks try out these methods in locales where their house can actually fall on another house.

But the second half is chock full of very practical suggestions to keep in mind when designing a house. One suggestion in particular came to mind yesterday, after our furnace received its winter maintenance visit.

“Don’t pay extra to give your heating contractor peace of mind.”

The technician indicated that our 26 year old furnace was putting out 90,000 BTU, whereas our small house probably needed 45,000 BTU “at the very most.”

According to the book (and as was apparently the case when our furnace was bought) most heating contractors will over estimate the amount of heating you need for your home. This happens, if not for the unscrupulous reason that they get to sell you a bigger furnace, because they don’t want your furnace to be unable to adequately heat your house.

But consider this: when have you ever encountered a house who’s furnace couldn’t heat the house? Indeed, it probably stayed off most of the time and came on from time to time to blast the temperature up a couple of degrees and then shut down again.

This can’t be more efficient than a system that runs steadily. To my thinking, a furnace which is the ‘right size’ for your house is one that has to run constantly on the coldest day of the year to keep your house at a comfortable temperature.

And what happens if you have an unusually cold run of weather for your region? It’s not as if the furnace, unable to maintain 22°C will drop to 0°C. If it can’t keep up, it might become 19°C and you’ll have to put on a sweater, or run an electric space heater when and where you need it.

Obviously electric heat is expensive, but just think how much is wasted by running an over-sized furnace every winter, compared with running an electric heater for a few hours on a couple record-breaking cold days in a rare extra-cold year?

But I think I’ve digressed…

The Natural House also covers topics on insulation, window technologies, flooring, non-toxic paints, solar electricity, solar water heating, and much more. It’s a great read for anyone trying to get to the crux of what they need to know about the materials that go into their home.

Follow-up: Properly sizing mechanical systems

Posted by Colin

Enviroshake roofing shingles

November 20th, 2006

These roofing shingles from EnviroShake, with an incredible 50-year non-depreciating warranty, will certainly be looked at when it comes time to complete our roof.

The tiles look like cedar shake, but are actually composed of old car tires, pop bottles, hemp and flax! They were even invented and are manufactured right here in Ontario.

Great stuff! (Hopefully they’ll be easy on the budget — we haven’t seen any pricing yet.)

Posted by Colin

New site design

November 18th, 2006

We’ve finally broken away from the default wordpress template to give the site a little more style.

There are more changes to come (e.g., different images to top the pages, different colour scheme, etc.) but I think the basic structure is here to stay.

Posted by Colin

So Many Doors: We visit the ReStore

November 17th, 2006

We visited our local Habitat for Humanity ‘ReStore‘ today to try to get some first hand knowledge of the types and quality of materials would could acquire there.

For those not familiar with them: the ReStore stocks all sorts of items that you might need if you were thinking about building or renovating a house. The items they sell are donated by people who are, for whatever reason, getting rid of what they have now and don’t want to see it go to a landfill.

The stores not only divert a huge amount of materials away from landfills, but the proceeds from the sale of these items go towards their other projects, building homes for those who are without.

We found ceramic tiles, paint, windows, full sets of kitchen cupboards, lighting and lots and lots of doors. It’s a bit of a wonder that anyone buys hollow plastic doors for their home at $50 each, when they could buy an 80 year old solid-wood door with lots of character and fully functioning 80 year old door handle for about $90. Sure it’s more a little more, but for the amount of character and warmth it would add to a home, it really seems like a bargain.

We both found doors we fell in love with, but resisted the urge to buy right then. (We figured we should probably nail down at least an approximate final budget and be 100% sure we can afford this house, before starting to acquire its finishing touches.)

Posted by Colin

Second ‘Design’ meeting with architect

November 12th, 2006

We had our second meeting with Joanne & Alex today to go over the general design of the house.

Alex has managed to get the square footage of the house down a little (which will help reduce our budget) while retaining the feel of a very comfortable space.

We wound up shifting spaces around to fit with our idea of having a ‘farmhouse kitchen.’ It seems to us that we just don’t have guests over from whom we need to hide the kitchen so our great room, dining room have been positioned to be one share their space with the kitchen.

By the time we meet next Thursday, the floor plan for the house will likely be in its very late, if not final stage.

Posted by Colin

Solar Panel Concentrators

November 12th, 2006

While solar panels are not something we’re considering in the immediate future, we’re still keeping an eye on it as an emerging technology.

An article in the July, 2007 edition of Wired magazine had me performing the obligatory ‘of course’ slap to my forehead as I read about The Sunflower: an array of mirrors that collect light over a few dozen square feet, and concentrate it up to a single, highly efficient solar panel. (So, instead of having to invest in many solar panels to collect light over that much area, you only have to buy mirrors and motors to control them.)

This setup is actually being designed for residences and apparently cuts the cost of going solar by 30%. That’s still outside our budget at the outset of this project, but great to see innovations driving their price further down.

Technology Review also published this article a few months later, along the same lines.

Posted by Colin