Kitchen and Mudroom

December 14, 2012

We kept the same total footprint of the house — interior usable space of 1,569 square feet.  The room layout stayed the same, with the exception of the kitchen where we knocked down the wall between the kitchen and the mudroom and took the space from the bedroom closet.

Old layout

The original house had an exterior door into the mudroom that held the washer and dryer.  The kitchen had 3 openings.  One opening between the kitchen and the mudroom, a door leading to the hallway and another door into the dining room.  The sink faced the west windows and at the left end of the countertop was the ventilated vegetable storage (aka California Cooler) where the exterior wall had vents.  The gas-fired water heater was in the south-east corner next to the gas stove and range.   A ceiling fan vented to the outside could be operated by pulling the chain.  The north wall had a cute built-in cabinet.

The new layout

The new layout still has a mudroom, but there is no longer a wall separating the mudroom from the kitchen.  The door into the mudroom extends out to a small deck where we’ll have a outdoor gas barbecue.  A bench and cabinet is placed on the south wall and this is where we’ll hang out coats and take our shoes off.  Looking straight in from the mudroom door you’ll see a little desk area where we intend to do paper mail sorting, recipe lookup and such.  Pantry is next to the desk.  The breakfast bar wraps around the outside of the sink, countertop and cooktop.  There is no longer a door to the hallway and the cabinets cover the east wall.  We have 2 sinks in the hopes of having 2 cooks in the kitchen working side by side in peace.  The door to the dining room changed from the swinging type to a larger pocket door.

Here are some “before photos” of the original kitchen.

Mudroom:  As viewed from the kitchen.  Washer and dryer took up most of the space in the mudroom.  Note the bead board wall behind the washer and dryer.  Speaking of wall, the kitchen had the lovely funky plastic fake brick thing above the wainscoting.

Kitchen sink:  The kitchen sink and the countertop was a little taller than the standard countertop height I’m familiar with.  The windows above the sink and countertop provided pretty afternoon light.  On the right side of the sink is a vegetable storage space known as “California Cooler.”

California Cooler:  The upper and lower vents next to the lattice fence provided the cool breeze to flow through the wire mesh shelves to keep the fruits and vegetables fresh.  If you’re curious about the California Cooler, read what another blogger wrote about them.

Fridge, Stove, Water Heater:  The gas water heater in the kitchen was literally placed in the center of the house.  The seismic strapping prevented the use of the cool “ironing board feature,” (we think).  The gas stove/oven was a O’Keefe & Merritt from the 1950’s.  It was very cute but we didn’t want to have any gas combustion appliances in the house so it was sold on Craigslist.  The refrigerator was only about 5 years old and it too got sold on Craigslist.

Hidden Chimney:  When our designer took measurements of the house there was a small amount of unaccounted space between the closet and the kitchen.  This mystery was solved during the deconstruction where a chimney was revealed in the wall cavity behind the water heater.

Upper Cabinets:  A cute glass door showed what was stored in the cabinets.

Lower Drawers and Bins:  Below the upper cabinet was a countertop covered in blue linoleum.  These bins in the kitchen must have been used to store flour or some grains back in 1920’s.  As charming as these were we chose not to keep them.

Here are the “work-in-progress photos” of the new kitchen:

Mudroom Bench and Cabinets:  The door to the mudroom is to the right of the bench and we’ll probably use this door 90% of the time.  So, we’ll come in through the door and kick off our shoes then place them under the bench.  Next hang the jacket on the hook.  If we were riding our bikes and we had helmets and gloves they may go in the upper cabinet.

Desk and Communication Center:  The little desk in the corner of the mudroom will be used for day-to-day household paper and communication.  The slots above the desk will be used to sort mail.  Under the desk will have network devices and the desk will have a small computer that will display the house monitoring data (energy consumption, temperature and humidity).  To the left of the desk is the pantry.

Pantry:  Next to the desk is the pantry with pull-out drawers.

Upper Cabinets:  The kitchen cabinets are made of cherry wood in Shaker style with soft-close mechanism for doors and drawers.  Crown moulding a the top that bridge gaps between the cabinet and the soffit adds just the right touch to make the kitchen have the arts and crafts feel without being too fussy.  Loughridge Cabinets of Scotts Valley made these and we’re really happy with their workmanship.

 Countertop:  In these two photos you’ll see Taylor applying adhesive to the top of the cabinet then fitting the carefully cut PaperStone countertop with Jacob’s help. We looked at various materials for the countertop and the breakfast bar.  Going to a retail shop where you can see green product samples as well as get information from knowledgeable staff made a big difference.  We shopped for the countertops and breakfast bar in the spring of 2011 by going to Ecohaus in San Francisco (now closed) and GreenSpace in Santa Cruz (still open!!) and looked at many different green countertop products.

There are many different types of materials and color choices within each product line.  If you’re considering the pros and cons of different materials I invite you to take a look at the Countertop page of Green Remodel Forum where there is a detailed description of various materials by attributes.  Our selection criteria came down to 2 key points:  sustainability of the material and aesthetic fit with the California Bungalow style.  We chose a product called PaperStone in mocha color for the countertop.  It’s a sensible product that is made with FSC certified post consumer paper product held together with petroleum-free resin.  Details of the PaperStone material can be found here.

Tile:  For the kitchen backsplash we used the Debris series from Fireclay Tile which is made with 60% recycled material in the Bay Area.  While many distributors carry Fireclay tile we liked visiting the showroom in San Jose.  Picking out a dozen different sample tiles and taking it back to our kitchen to see which best matched the color scheme was very helpful.

Re-using the bead boards:  Remember the bead boards on the wall of the original mudroom?  They were re-used to surface the breakfast bar.


October 2, 2012

We want to be comfortable in the house.  There is a narrow band of temperature and humidity range we human beings are comfortable at.  The temperature-humidity chart below show the comfort zone to be in the low 70’s to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about the ambient temperature in Hawaii.  Since less than 1% of the population of the U.S.A. live in the 50th State most of us encounter climates where the outdoor temperature is either too warm or too cold.

So to keep the inside of the house comfortable the shell of the house would need to slow down the transfer of heat between inside of the house and outside of the house.  This (either keeping the interior cool when it’s blazing hot outside or keeping the interior warm when it’s frigid outside) is what insulation does.  What type of material to use for insulation and how much to use depends on where you live and the goal you’re trying to achieve (performance and cost).

US EPA’s Energy Star site has this insulation map and accompanying table that shows different climate zones and the recommended level of insulation.  You’ll notice numbers preceded by “R” on the table such as R30, R25, R60, etc.  The R-value is the unit of measure for resistance to heat flow.  The higher the R-value the less heat flows between the inside and outside of the house. Different materials performance as insulators and you can find a table of R-value for different materials in this Wikipedia article.

Rather than use a generic table of recommended R-values we had our Passive House consultant and designer, Graham Irwin, perform the analysis and calculation using the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) from Passive House Institute.  When all the details of the house (climate data for our zip code, house orientation, materials used etc.) are entered into the PHPP software it will calculate the amount of energy needed to heat and cool the house.  We have specific energy target we want to achieve for heating the house to meet passive house standard: 15 kWh/square-meter/year or 4.75 kBTU/square-foot/year. The same target exists for cooling demand for the year but since we live in a temperate climate that doesn’t require air conditioning it’s not a big concern for us.

Using the insulation specifications below our heating demand for the year to keep the house at comfortable temperature of 68-degrees Fahrenheit (20-degrees Celsius) is 8.75 kWh/square-meter/year.

Attic – 12-inches of blown-in cellulose; foam was applied to the tight corners along the wall-roof line (~R35)

Floor – 5.5-inches of fiberglass batts in the floor joist cavities and 2-inches of expanded polystyrene (EPS) board under that. (~R26)

Walls – 3.5-inches of dense pack cellulose (wet spray) in stud bays and 3.25-inches of rigid mineral wool (Roxul TopRock DD) on the exterior wall (~R28)

We had many discussions with the insulation experts, contractors, energy efficiency specialists and architects before deciding on the materials we chose.  One key learning for us was when we heard Alex Wilson speak at PG&E’s Pacific Energy Center in San Francisco.  He shared a story of a well-intentioned homeowner wanting to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emission was horrified to learn that the spray foam product he used to insulate his house would take 60-years to payback — this is not financial payback but the time it would take his energy savings to offset the amount of greenhouse gas released into the air from the blowing agent used for his spray foam product.  So we decided to stay away from spray foam products.  You can find one of Alex Wilson’s article on insulation at Green Building Advisor.  The chart below is from that article.


Here are some before and after picture of our attic.

Before:  Very little insulation in the attic

You can see from this “before photo” that we did have some attic insulation, if only to barely cover the ceiling joist.

After:  over 12 inches of blown in cellulose

In this “after photo” you can see the measuring tag sticking up from the sea of cellulose to indicate that between 12 and 14 inches of cellulose filled  the space.

The insulation sub-contractor, Ponzini Insulation, did the cellulose insulation in the attic and in the wall cavity.  Applying blown in cellulose in the attic.  They had a big truck with special attachments to pump the cellulose through the long hose to apply the insulation.

Insulation Truck

Installer applying blown in cellulose into the attic


Crew from Santa Cruz Green Builders did the insulation and air sealing below the floor in this cozy crawlspace.  Fiberglass batts filled the 5.5-inch deep cavity between the floor joists.  Then sheets of 2-inch thick EPS board was applied under that.  The seams of the EPS boards were meticulously taped using Siga tapes.  Because the EPS board serves dual purpose of insulation and air barrier the edges of the board coming in contact with other material (wood, concrete) were foamed to prevent air leakage.

Crawl space view of the floor after completion of insulation 


Our 90-year old house did not have any wall insulation!

Before:  No insulation between stud bays

As you can see from this deconstruction photo, the space between the exterior skip sheathing (horizontal board) and the interior wall made of lath (small strips of wood) and plaster was empty.

After:  wet spray cellulose filled the wall stud bays

Wet spray insulation was applied to the open stud bays in the interior wall cavity.  This took almost one week to dry fully but it allows for visual inspection of cellulose application.  Speaking of inspection, we had Quality Insulation Inspection (QII) performed by Bright Green Strategies for the California Advanced Homes rebate program.

Mineral wool material applied to exterior sheathing

Sheets of rigid mineral wool were applied to the exterior wall.

We used TopRock DD from Roxul

Mid-Construction Tour

Join us for a mid-construction tour of Midorihaus this Saturday!

Mid-Construction tour of Midorihaus presented by Santa Cruz Green Builders
Date: April 14, 2012 (Sat)
Time: 10:00AM 

See how an old California Craftsman can be turned into a showcase green home! As the first house in Santa Cruz County to be certified as a Passive House, Midorihaus will be one of the most energy efficient houses in California. It is under construction now, so the tour will highlight the features and systems that you don’t usually get to see in a finished home. 

What is a “Passive House”? A passive house is a building in which a comfortable interior climate can be maintained with a hair dryer. This is achieved by a very well-insulated, virtually air-tight building that is primarily heated by passive solar gain and by internal gains from people, electrical equipment, etc. Energy losses are minimized. Any remaining heat demand is provided by an extremely small source. Avoidance of heat gain through shading and window orientation also helps to limit any cooling load, which is similarly minimized. A Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) provides a constant, balanced fresh air supply. The result is an impressive system that not only saves up to 80% of space heating costs, but also provides excellent comfort and indoor air quality. 

This tour will allow you to see examples of air sealing the entire building envelope and individual components:

• Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) provides constant fresh air efficiently
• Triple glazed, super sealed windows
• Structured plumbing system
• Material reuse and recycling

For more on Passive House, visit OR
For more on Santa Cruz Green Builders, visit

Beginning of Air Sealing

Why Air Sealing?

We want our house to be comfortable, durable and energy efficient.  So air sealing is an important element in meeting those criteria.  You know that air can pass through small cracks, spaces and even pin holes, right?  For example, if you see daylight in the door frame when it’s closed you’ll feel a draft standing next to it when it’s cold outside and warm inside.  Then if you put weather stripping around it to prevent air flow the house feels more comfortable, right?  So, stopping air leakage leads to comfort.

Air sealing also leads to durability of the building because air can transport moisture.  You might ask, what’s the connection to durability?  Well, remember the pictures of rotted skip sheathing due to rain water intrusion?  Prolonged water exposure can cause wood to weaken and also invite mold to grow.  Not good for durability of the structure nor the health of occupants.  Let’s imagine a hypothetical example for illustrating why moist air passing through cracks in the walls is bad for durability.   Say there’s a lot of cooking going on in the kitchen and the indoor temperature is 80 degrees with 50% humidity and the outside temperature is 40 degrees.  The dew point (the temperature that vapor in the air changes to liquid) is 59 degrees.  Warm air can hold more moisture than cold air.  So for a given relative humidity, the the surrounding air temperature will determine if it will stay in the air as moisture or condense to liquid and become water.  For an explanation of using simplified psychrometric chart have a look at this guide on air properties from NebGuide.  In this hypothetical example the warm air leaking through the kitchen wall will to the outside will encounter drop in temperature along its path and when the temperature drops below dew point the moisture vapor will change to liquid water.  If the cold surface happens to be the insulation layer it will get soggy and dampen the wood around it and if it doesn’t dry out over a period of time there will be rot and maybe mold.  So, stopping air leakage leads to durability.

Air sealing is good for energy efficiency.  Imagine driving in your car with the windows open in the winter.  The heater is on in the car but the hot air is escaping through the window.  When you close the window it’s warmer because the heat is no longer escaping through the window and you can use a lower temperature setting to stay comfortable.  Same thing with the house.  If you have the windows open you use more energy to heat the house than if you had the windows closed.  The opening and closing of the windows are something we can do voluntarily to control and minimize the use of energy to heat the house.  The air sealing of small cracks and spaces are like having lots of tiny miniscule windows that we can’t close.  Some of these cracks are buried under layers of building material and homeowners can’t get to them easily.  So we rely on the builders to ensure that these miniscule uncontrollable windows in the house at different stages of construction.

Air Sealing Examples

When we’re talking about air sealing for passive house standard the builder is taking steps to mitigate air leaks from tiny spaces like gaps between two pieces of wood on a top plate, mudsill, etc.  To refresh your memory, we are striving towards Passivhaus certification and the airtightness goal is 0.6 air changes per hour (ACH) at 50 pascals.  If you recall our baseline blower door test came in at 22 ACH.  This means we are targeting the house to be 3600% more airtight than the original house!

By the way, you may want to take a look at this page for a brief overview of Passivhaus.

Air sealing work on the wall framing was done prior to sheathing.  These guys examined the places were unintended airflow could occur, like the junction of mudsill and studs, corners, etc.  Below are some pictures of air sealing examples.

To prevent air leakage in the small pinhole openings the crew shot foam
into the openings, sometimes drilling through the stud to access a spot where
the foam could expand and fill all the crevices, then sealing the outside with
a tape.  The crew tended to this
tedious work diligently towards the goal of 0.6 air change per hour at 50
Here are some examples of air-sealed spots where foam was blown in and covered up with tape.
Sealant from Perma Chink was applied with a bulk loading gun to ensure sealing of the sheathing to the wall studs.

Laundry to Landscape – Graywater

October 29, 2011

Starting January 2010 the changes to the California Building Code made it easier for homeowners to install a laundry to landscape graywater system — no permit required for this simple system.  Using the laundry water from the washing machine to irrigate your landscape cuts down on your water demand during the summer.  Makes sense, right?  I won’t go into the details of graywater requirements, benefits in this post.  If you’re interested you can read about in these links:
    What is Graywater
    City of Santa Cruz Requirements for Installation of Graywater Irrigation Systems
    Guide to Conserving Water Through Rainwater Harvesting and Graywater Reuse for Outdoor Use

What I do want to share is my experience of learning about a simple graywater system installation in a Do It Yourself workshop.  Last Saturday I attended a day-long graywater workshop in Santa Cruz led by LeAnne Ravinale of Laundry to Landscape and Ken Foster of Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping.  About 10 people participated in this hands-on workshop where we learned the basic concepts in an hour-long classroom presentation then went outside to do the installation.  I liked this approach because it builds the knowledge in the community and it’s cost-effective for the homeowner.


The homeowner wanted to re-use the laundry water to irrigate the rose plants.  Here is a rough sketch and an overview of what we did.

1. At the washing machine, we connected a 3-way valve to enable the homeowner to direct the laundry water to either to the landscape or to the sewer.

2. Outside the house the we fastened the PE tubing to the wall and ran the trunk line to the yard.

3.  T-connectors were installed to connect the branch lines leading to the rose plants from the main trunk line.

4. We dug around the plants to make a “C” shaped moat around the plants.

5. Plastic potting containers were cut and placed in the ground.

6.  We tested the system using water from the hose bib and adjusted the volume valves at the end of the branch line.  Then we mulched the area nicely.

1.  At the Washing Machine

A hole was cut into the wall of the laundry room ahead of time.

A piece of plywood with cutout for the 3-way valve was fastened to the wall at the stud.

The workshop participants were 60% women and we all took turns to use power tools and such to install the 3-way valve and plumbing at the washing machine.  So it’s light construction work that most people can do.

The bottom connection is to the washing machine

When the yellow handle points down the laundry discharge goes to the sewer on the right side.

When the yellow handle is horizontal (pointing right) the laundry discharge goes to the landscape.

Why should the owners care?  During the winter rain the landscape does not need water so laundry water can go to the sewer.  Also if you’re washing materials containing bacteria like diapers you need to send the laundry water to the sewer.

2.  Outside the House

The 1-inch polyethylene (PE) tube was fastened against the exterior wall.

The 1″ PE tube ran down the wall, across the walkway then ran along the fence perimeter.

We used about 80 feet of this 1″ PE tube as the trunk line.  This was fastened to the fence and also staked down into the ground with a staple.

The walkway was covered later to protect the PE tube and prevent it from becoming a tripping hazard.

3.  T-Connectors

At specified placed the 1″ trunk line was cut and the T-connector was attached.

Note that the bottom of the T is a smaller diameter where 1/2″ PE tube (branch line) can be attached.

See the completed connection of the branch line near the rose.

One of the requirements of graywater irrigation is that the discharge water needs to be at least 18″ away from the fence.

4.  Digging Around Plants

Note that the hole we dug is not directly at the root of the rose plant.  It’s deep enough to bury a quart sized plastic potting container.

It’s a bit hard to see in this photo, but we dug a “C” shaped moat around the rose plant.  The moat and the larger hole will be filled with mulch.  When water is discharged at the end of the branch line the mulch will absorb and convey the water .

5.  Cutting Up Potting Containers

Here you can see the a circle cut in the middle of quart-sized plastic potting container so the branch line can be inserted.

The “bottom” of the container will be the top cover that can flap open so that the owners can check the end points for maintenance.

The plastic potting container is placed in the hole we dug.

6.  Testing and Mulching

When all branch lines were installed in their respective places the system was tested.

We attached the garden hose to the connector on the trunk line and ran water through the system to see how much water was coming out at each branch.

Flow restrictor valves were used at the end of branch lines to control the volume of the water discharged at each end point.  Without this all the water would pool at the first few branches and nothing would get to the end of the line.

Here you can barely see the trickle of water coming out of the valve.

Note that the branch line is “hanging” from the side of the potting container and the valve doesn’t touch the bottom.

See how the “flap” is pulled back so that you can see the valve at the end of the branch.

Mulch is spread around the area outside of the potting container.

Ornamental stepping stone will be placed on top of the “flap” so that the homeowner will know where the end points are.

That’s it!  It’s a simple system that takes a little bit of labor.

The instructor, LeAnne, visited the homeowner the day after the installation to do a test with the washing machine.  She mentioned they found some leaks and things had to be tightened but otherwise the system worked and the homeowner was happy.


I heard that the local ProBuild Store on River Street has the graywater stuff organized neatly in one area so I checked it out.  Sure enough all the materials we used were displayed at the end of the aisle.  You can see from these photos that the materials are not expensive to do a simple installation.

Plans Submitted

This morning we submitted our plans at the City of Santa Cruz Building Department.  5 sets of plans along with energy calculations and archaeological reports were submitted.  The archaeological report was needed because the house sits in a zone that is archaeologically sensitive.  Fortunately the archaeology found nothing interesting.  The city’s green building program require plans to have the green building checklist as part of the plan.  The checklist is used to tally the green points.  There is a minimum number of points required for the permit to be issued — 20 points for new construction and 15 points for remodel.  If the total number of points on the plan is above 45 for new construction or 35 for remodel the plan is eligible for accelerated building permit processing.  If you rack up more than 75 for new construction or 45 for remodel then you receive the green building award and move up to the front of the queue.  Our plan easily exceeded the number of points for green building award so we expect the processing to move along quickly.  By the way, when we spoke with the city’s green building specialist a year ago, he mentioned that about 30% of the permits received green building award.

So, what’s in the plan?  Well, the size of the living space remains at 1569 sq.ft. and the roof has about 10-15 years of life so we are not changing that.  Just about everything else will be touched. These include –

  • Replace all windows (single pane to triple pane)
  • Replace all existing exterior doors and add french door to the master bedroom
  • Expand the kitchen area and lay it out to accommodate 2 cooks in the kitchen
  • New kitchen cabinets
  • All new energy efficient appliances
  • Replace all plumbing fixtures
  • Replace all lighting fixtures
  • Rewire the entire house
  • Re-plumb the entire house
  • Refinish the hardwood floor where possible
  • Remove all existing floor covering and either refinish hardwood floor or put new covering
  • Insulate walls, ceiling and floor
  • Remove siding and replace with Hardie planks
  • Remove floor furnace
  • Install Heat Recovery Ventilator
  • Plumbing to make it gray water ready  
  • Most challenging part will be to make it air tight to meet Passiv Haus standard

It’s taken us a while to get to this stage because we did a lot of research and education in this past year to get educated on various things and shopped for appliances, fixtures, insulation, door, windows, sidings, etc.  So we pretty much know what we want and what we don’t want.  We’ve kept a list of materials we’ve selected on a spreadsheet in Google Docs so that we can share it with the other people we’re working with.

Now we will turn our attention towards getting bids from general contractors.

About a year ago is when we first saw the house for sale.  We thought we’d move along quickly through the design process but it took much longer than we originally anticipated.  Now, if we can just begin construction by the anniversary of our escrow close on September 17th, we’ll be pleased.

Indoor Air Quality – Testing For Radon

Radon was one of the topics covered in the Indoor Air Quality class we took recently.  We understand that the concentration of radon gasses that naturally come out from the soil various from region to region and in some cases from house to house.  Our instructor, Rich Prill, Washington State University’s Extension Energy Program, mentioned that one of his clients found higher level of radon compared to the neighbor’s houses because there is a subterranean stream running under the client’s house some 10-20 feet below surface that affects the gas composition of the soil under the house.  So, even if the radon zone map of California show that we are in a moderate area (predicted average indoor radon screening level between 2 and 4 pCi/L), we should test for it.

What is radon?  
Radon is a noble gas that doesn’t react with anything else.  It’s present in our soils, rocks and sometimes water.  The problem with radon is that it has a 3.8 day half life during which it goes through radio active decay, releasing alpha particles that can cause lung damage.  So, if you breathe in radon, which is a colorless and odorless gas, these large alpha particles can damage and mutate cells in lining of your lungs.  Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.

So where does it come from?  You’ve heard of uranium, right?  Uranium 238 is the most prevalent naturally occurring radioactive material in the ground.  It has a half life of 4,500,000,000 years.  Uranium 238 eventually turns into radium 226, which has a half life of 1590 years.  Then radium 226 turns into radon, which has a half life of 3.8 days. At this  point you may ask, “What is half life?”  Half life means the period of time after which only half the mass of the original radioactive element remains.  So, suppose a radioactive material starts with 100% of a radioactive material, after a single span of its half-life only 50% of that radioactive material would remain. The other 50% of the material would have converted either into energy or another element which may or may not be radioactive.

Why do you want to test for it?
Radon is a colorless, odorless gas and it occurs naturally and it’s in our soil at different concentration.  The gas comes out of the ground and it can get into your house if the floor is not airtight.  Most houses with crawl space like ours is not airtight.  We know it’s not airtight because we can smell the dampness and mold from the crawl space when it rains.  So, if there is any radon in the ground, it would certainly get into the house.  In fact, when it rains the water in the ground acts like a air and vapor barrier so any radon gasses in the ground would look for path of least resistance, or dry soil to release.  The dry area happens to be under the house so when it rains the crawl space may have extra concentration of radon.

The testing result could be different from day to day, depending on the season, rain and stack effect.

EPA gathers data from the various testing conducted by labs and publishes results (aggregated by zip codes) on a map.  California Department of Health publishes a report that lists the number of tests conducted in a given zipcode as well as the number of tests that resulted in level above the EPA threshold of 4pCi/L.  You can find the PDF here.

A reader of this blog suggested this resource for radon detection and safety.

Next Steps
So, I just bought some short term radon test kits at the neighborhood hardware store and will test the house.  If the results show a level higher than 4pCi/L then we would take measures to mitigate it by putting in a pipe under the plastic sheet used for sealing off the crawl space and venting it to the outside.  You can find a PDF of radon resistant construction here.

UPDATE:  Our result for the short term (96-hour) Radon test was .2pCi/L, which is quite low!

What’s Important

Color Coded Diagram

A while ago we clarified our priorities by writing down what’s important to us for this Midori Haus project.  It was a good exercise for us even when we knew that our values are closely aligned.  This is what we did –

  • On a blank sheet of paper we wrote down words and phrases that answered the question, “What is important to you?”  This was done in a brainstorm fashion where we each grabbed a pen and wrote down thoughts as they came.
  • Next we reviewed the items and agreed that all of the items could fit into 5 categories.  The categories are, “Happiness,” “Our Values,” “Passive House,” “Initial Cost,” and”On-Going Cost.”  I’m sure if a dozen different couples did the same exercise there will be a dozen different ways of slicing and dicing their list.  These 5 categories just happened to be the ones that came together for us.   
  • Then we took different colored pens and circled the items on the list  Some of the items fell into more than one category.  It was interesting to note that some items had double or triple circles.  Here’s what that looked like:

  • We took one more step after the color coding step to prioritize the items in each category individually and compare them.  For the most part our priorities matched!

We did this exercise partly to have an agreed upon basis for making trade-off decisions as we move along in the project.  Most recent usage was to review and compare the cost estimate line items with our color coded priority to see where we could reduce cost.

Who’s Rules?

Back in January, we had an opportunity to visit with Larry Weingarten at the House on Hummingbird Hill.  He generously spent time with us and shared a lot of information about his home, his approach to building and the amazing hot water heater museum he has in his basement.  His house was very comfortable and I was amazed at how he could heat the house to a comfortable 70 degrees (F) using solar heated water at only 80 degrees (F).  There are many interesting features to his home and I invite you to explore them at the Water Heater Rescue site.

When we showed our exuberance on passive house, he asked a very sage question, “Who’s rules are you following?”  Then kindly suggested that we spend money on “What we want,” and “Not necessarily to a standard.”  He made us think whether we fell into the lure of “Getting a certificate or plaque on the wall for bragging rights,” like some do with LEED, Greenpoint rated, Passiv Haus, Net Zero Energy, etc.  He was trying to make sure that we’ll be happy at the end of our project.  One of the design rule Larry used was, “What will last 200 years?” He was also very focused on “quiet” in his home.  His refrigerator was so silent that I didn’t know it existed.  Well, I think he planted a seed during that conversation because it led us to doing the color-coded diagram above.

Invest in Items With Long Life

Sometime last year I spoke with a local builder who was born in Germany in a house that is more than 600 years old.  Wow, talk about a building with long life!  I wondered if our building stock in our neighborhood, city, country would last that long.  Probably not.  If you’re interested in ideas on making buildings more sustainable and increase longevity, have a look at Tedd Benson’s lecture at the College of the Atlantic.  I like the idea of applying the concept of Product Lifecycle Management and building as a noble trade.  You’ll need 34 minutes to watch this video…

Midori Haus

By the way if you were wondering what Midori Haus is it literally means green house. “Midori” is the Japanese word for green and “Haus” is the German word for house.  For us it has meaning beyond the literal green house.  All the values we mentioned above are embodied in it.

Design Process

We’ve been quite fortunate to work with two capable guys during the design process.  Last fall we chose to work with Graham Irwin of Essential Habitat to do both the home design work as well as the Passive House consulting.  He’s been gently guiding us and patiently educating us through the design process.  We appreciate his thoughtful style.  We first started with the layout of the master bedroom and bathroom.  Kitchen area took a while because we were trying to fit in a whole lot of stuff in a modest sized area.  There will be a deck on the south side of the house as well as a smaller one on the west side to give a feeling of indoor and outdoor connection.  The hallway closet will become the laundry room and there will be a small mechanical room on the south deck to hold the hot water heater.  Soon Graham will be shifting gears from architectural design to Passive House Planning Package (PHPP), where he will calculate the building energy consumption through a software model.

Another capable and patient guy we’ve been working with is Taylor Darling of Santa Cruz Green Builders.  As we iterated through the design Taylor provided the builder’s perspective to the team as well as coming up with the construction estimate.  Our goal is to come up with a realistic, solid design that could be built within a reasonable budget — basically, avoiding surprises.  We’ve heard stories where a homeowner took the approved/permitted plan out to bid and found out that it was way over the budget.  By taking out a small consulting contract with Taylor and having him involved in the design process we are mitigating the sticker shock.

While we iterated through the design we’ve been learning and shopping.  The free classes from PG&E are terrific value and we found the the monthly Passive House meetings to be a good place to learn and network.  As for shopping, Kurt has been diligently keeping up with various window manufacturers to get quotes.  Since this is the single most expensive category with the longest lead time it’s important that we play close attention to it.  Kurt’s been doing a great job on this.  We also drove around the Bay Area to look at doors, cabinets, tiles, fixtures, appliances and lighting.  After a while the collecting and compiling shopping data got to be a bit cumbersome so we’ve been keeping the master material selection list on a Google Doc shared by the design team.

Since we tend to be very detail-oriented and ask a lot of questions, both Graham and Taylor must have been taxed on their patience every now and then. Thanks guys, we appreciate your work and patience!

Solar Access and Shading

December 14, 2010

Another good resource we learned about is the Tools Lending Library at Pacific Energy Center.  This is another free program provided by our local utility, PG&E.  Just as you would borrow books from the public library, we filled out the online request form to borrow tools from PG&E’s tools library.  Nice, isn’t?

Since we needed to get “shading analysis” for the 4 sides of the house to be used for the passive house calculation we looked for “Shading/Solar Access” types of tools in the lending library.  The search returned 7 results and we selected to borrow the SunEye by Solmetric. 

The SunEye comes with the hand-held electronic device, power cable, USB cable, PC (not Mac) software and a manual in the case. We also borrowed a Windows PC from Kurt’s brother because the companion software only runs on Windows machine and not on Macintosh — we only have Macs at home.  It took us a few tries to get the picture and the data in the form that was useful for our passive house consultant, Graham.  We found the user interface of the tool to be good once you get the hang of it by taking a few pictures.  I think the hardest part of the data transfer to the PC was getting the cable to plugged in correctly to the hand held device.  The hand-held side of the USB cable did not have an obvious “this way up” marker so you could easily plug it in the wrong way.  Once the data was transferred from the hand held to the PC a report can be generated and extracted for emailing.

Since the data from this tool is most often used for determining the optimal placement for solar panels the instructions in the manual directs the user to be facing south when taking pictures.  We actually had to stand with our backs to the wall to get the pictures we wanted.  Here’s what we did to take the pictures at each of the sides of the house:
1.  After powering on the device, press the sun icon on the lower left hand corner
2.  Press Session button and choose New in the selection window
3.  Enter data such as the session name, notes and location information
4.  Press sun icon
5.  Press Skyline then choose New in the selection window
6.  Enter panel tilt (we entered 25 degrees) and press OK
7.  Then, standing with our back to the wall, we looked in the camera image on the screen to make sure that the sun path clears the roof overhang and stood very still to make sure that the camera was level (using the built in level) and pressed snap to take the picture.

Starting at the south (back) side of the house we took the snaps.  Each time I ducked away from the fish-eye lense to make sure I was not in the picture.  We repeated steps 4 – 7 for each side of the house.  This is what the pictures looked like:

East side of the house shows lots of shading (in green) from trees.  Yellow color represents sun.

South side of the house receives lots of sun.

After Kurt took the pictures he stood still while I measured the distance from the wall to the fish-eye lens.  We took 2 pictures on the west and north sides of the house because they have protrusions. (e.g. the porch sticks out from the front of the house)  Here are the measurements:
South:  49 inches
West 1:  42 inches
West 2:  60 inches
North 1: 52 inches
North 2: 50 inches (from the bottom step of the porch)
East: 52 inches

We used the post-processing software to correct the tilt angle to 90 degrees to reflect the shading to the vertical walls.