This week the big excitement was finally pouring the concrete for the downstairs floor!

The guys from Atlantic concrete with the truck and the pump

The concrete being pumped into the living room area

The guys hard at work

Floating the final finish

The final product setting up

After much back and forth, we decided we’d use wet “stamped” grooves for our crack control joints rather than having them cut with a saw afterwards.  The saw cuts would be a little less conspicuous, but they wouldn’t go all the way to the wall (the problem with round saw blades…).  The choice of wet grooves means the control joints are rather large, but we’ve seen places that have grouted the joints, and gotten beautiful contrasting lines.  In about 2-3 weeks after the concrete has had a chance to fully set up, it will be acid stained and sealed, and should be mirror finish.

If you’re going to be on a concrete slab anyway, concrete flooring is about the lowest energy flooring you could use, as you aren’t adding anything but sealer.  It is still pretty good if you already have a plywood sub- floor (like on a second story) as, per square meter, it has about the same embodied energy as hardwood… but there may be other considerations I haven’t thought of for second story concrete floors.

If you want to put something else on top of your concrete or plywood sub-floor, the energy adds up:

stone tile 3 kWh/m^2 (+4 kWh/m^s mortar bed)

3/4″ thick solid hardwood flooring 8 kWh/m^2

3/4″ thick concrete floor 9 kWh/m^2

engineered wood flooring  28 kWh/m^2

plywood underlayment 28 kWh/m^2

ceramic tile  30 kWh/m^2 (+4 kWh/m^2 mortar bed)

carpet (synthetic, including pad) 181 kWh/m^2

Wow! carpet…

The PEX tubing for the hydronic heat being installed. Next week, the concrete floor will be poured, and this tubing will be embedded inside

In our current two-story townhouse, we always struggled with balancing the internal temperature throughout the house.  During the winter we were always trying to close off the forced air vents in the upstairs bedrooms (as we all like to sleep in cool bedrooms without super heated desert dry air blowing down on us).  Short of taping the ducts closed, however, we were never very successful at keeping the hot air from blowing into the bedrooms, so we hired some HVAC contractors and had them split the heating and cooling into two separate upstairs and a downstairs zones with separate thermostats and separate ducting.  What a wonderful difference this made!  After a few years of living with the two zones, we have discovered that not only do we never turn the heat on upstairs during any season, but that even if we only heat the downstairs, we often *still* have the bedroom windows open to keep them cool enough to sleep at night.  Yes, warm air rises.

I suppose if we were smart, we’d put the bedrooms all downstairs, and the living spaces upstairs, but maybe in the next house we build (ha ha).

“Warmly Yours” electric heating mat being embedded in Natalie’s bathroom floor

For this house, we decided that given the large central stairwell, and the extremely open upstairs floorplan, we would only put hydronic heat in the downstairs concrete floors, and count on the HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilation) system to keep the air circulated during the winter when it is cold enough to shut the house up tight.

The only heating upstairs we are putting in are electric warming mats embedded underneath the stone bathroom floors. Because the bathrooms are the farthest from the stairwell, and also we tend to like the bathroom a bit warmer than the bedrooms, we decided we should heat these.  (Not to mention that cold stone floors are quite unpleasant under bare feet! )

The energy we will use for two heated floor bathrooms if we heat the floors for two hours in the morning, and two hours at night is about 1 kWh per day.  We have the same type of floor warmer in our current bathroom on a similar schedule with a programmable thermostat and we have found that we use it from October through May (8 months of the year – interestingly more of the year than we use the central heat).  Assuming we do the same thing with our two upstairs bathrooms in the new house, this puts the bathroom floor heating in the 250 kWh per year range which is about 1/100th of my estimate of the space heating requirements of the old house, and about 1/15th of my (hopefully) generous estimate of what the space heating requirements will be for the new house.

The view above the stairwell where you can see five paint colors!

As we embarked on painting, I was rapidly running out of time to research what we needed to do with the paint, so this is a bit quick and dirty.  I know that low or no VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) paint gets you LEED points and “Green Points” and your Boy Scout merit badge for saving the earth, but NOWHERE in all of the info about low and no VOC paints is there any kind of *quantitative* data about how much you don’t emit if you “go low VOC”.   There are many of the same kind of wishy washy relative “this is better than that” statements to be found on the web and in those lazy journalism eco-articles, that made me go beserk about countertops.  Of course the marketing materials of these paint companies assure me that I am saving the world by buying their product, but, can you blame me for being suspicious?  I couldn’t find anything that would let me calculate how much I would save by using low VOC, in numbers that meant anything to me and could give me an idea of relative values.

So I did a back of the envelope calc, and decided to buy zero VOC paints, but this is not as rigorous as I would like it to be, and if there is anyone out there who has done a real analysis of this, I’d love it if you could drop me a note.

First some definitions:

“No VOC” = 5 grams VOC/Liter of paint

“Low VOC” = 20-200 grams VOC/Liter (most eggshell and flat paints that claim “Low VOC” on the label are in the 25 g/L range, but glossy paints tend to be up towards 150 g/L)

“Regular”  (i.e. “interior latex paint”) = 200 grams+/L

NOTE: this is for the base only, and some companies play fast and loose with their claims as the colorants can add significantly to the VOCs in the paint, but these are reasonably good ranges.

Some of the 27 odd gallons of paint we used

Many of the benefits that people ascribe to the low and no VOC paints have to do with indoor air quality, but since 99.9% of the VOCs are gone after the first two weeks of drying – it seems to me that this aspect of the low/no VOC debate only really matters if you are painting a house you are going to be living in at the time of painting, since after the paints are fully dry, a properly vented house would have no discernible difference in air quality.  Given that we aren’t living in the house yet, I discounted the indoor air quality aspect (since painting with the stuff, however, next time I am painting a house that I am living in at the time, I am DEFINITELY using “no VOC” paints, as anecdotally, it made a huge difference in the livability of the space during the two week drying time)

But if I am simply interested in figuring out my effect on the environment, if I use about 100 liters of paint (~27 gallons) of paint inside the house (including primer and extra coats), then using zero VOC paint in the house vs. “regular” saves at least 200g/L*100L = 20 kg of VOCs

From the EPA “Automobile Emissions: An Overview.” Fact Sheet OMS-5. August 1994, my typical commute of two “cold start” car trips a day and my car sitting around evaporating fuel, I produce about 24g of VOC per day from my car (4 g/day from evaporation only if I just let it sit and don’t use it).   So painting the house with “zero VOC” paint is the equivalent of over 800 days of a 1997 automobile’s VOC emissions. (OK, I have a newer car that that, and my running and evaporative emissions are probably much lower, but even if it is half that, I am saving over a year of car emissions)

That was enough for me to make the decision.  Without looking into it further, we went zero VOC, and bought the Benjamin Moore “Natura” paints.  And they were remarkably un-stinky as we painted.

Should a “green” house be painted green?

Seeing four spaces at once at the top of the stairs

In our current townhouse, we don’t have much white, and no two rooms are the same color.  Our living room is orange, bedroom green, the office a steely blue, Nat’s room is bright purple and “rocket red”, her bathroom an undersea mural…

looking out from the office

The new house has a very open floor plan, which is wonderful for airflow and light, but it means that the colors we choose for each room will often be visible from other rooms, and the combinations you see will be different depending on where you are.  This called for some careful planning!

Natalie tries out "tangerine" on her North wall

We knew we wanted bold colors, but at this stage in building, we are definitely suffering from “decision fatigue”, and we wanted to find someone who could help us with the process.  At the excellent recommendation of a friend, we found Jana Geller (listed in the contacts link) to help us with both color and stone choices, and have been playing with bold colors that mix and complement from the many different angles that you can see in the house.

Painting this week, then on to flooring and finish work – exciting!

The outside of the library after the color coat - it just blends in with the rest of the house

The straw bale library is now pretty much indistinguishable from the rest of the house, except for its very very thick walls. The exterior was finished much as the rest of the house was finished.  First there was a scratch coat (although this one was thicker than elsewhere in the house to account for the (surprisingly small) unevenness in the straw.  Then the brown coat and the color coat were applied exactly the same as it was elsewhere on the house.

The scratch coat inside the straw bale library

The scratch coat inside the straw bale library

Inside, the straw got a structolite “scratch coat” which is a light weight, but very hard plaster.  That coat was then followed by a smooth plaster coat.  The final coat will unify the plastered straw bale walls with the drywall in the upper soffit and ceiling.

the library window seat after the smooth plaster coat

Spanish Moss stucco with steel trowel finish

The color coat on the stucco is finally done, and we love how the “Spanish moss” color came out.

The staircase stringers in with temporary steps. The wine "cellar" is also framed in underneath

We wandered through the house today making the final tiny framing details list (only three things on the list!), and marking a few places where the sheet rock needs to be fixed (or put in, as the case may be), but this week SHOULD be finally taping the drywall.   Also, with the stucco now done, the roof can go on, and we can clean up the absolute disaster area the yard has become, and start doing some grading in a couple of weeks.

Some of the biggest excitement comes from finally having the staircase stringers in (something we had started to despair of – there will be a whole separate blog entry on the staircase when I have some final pictures, and my PTSD has settled down)

Those warm shimmering hues… Oh! how I love the beauty of wood!  As I feed this addiction – am I contributing to deforestation, environmental degradation and global warming?  Am I evil because I love wood so much?   Should you be asking “So, Catherine, when are you going to stop demolishing the tropical rainforests of the world because you like how they look cut and sanded with a nice clear coat over the top?”

Wood can be sustainable, and it has a very low embodied energy, but buying wood indiscriminately can do a lot of damage to the environment.  More than anything else in this house, wood was destined to be my worst temptation towards ethical downfall (and it isn’t too fun to admit a lapse).  We wanted a lot of beautiful wood, and weren’t sure this could be done without serious compromise of principals.  So did we manage to put so much wood in the house in an environmentally sustainable manner?

Well… yes, and no. We tried, but maybe not hard enough.

FSC Certified Lumber

First the good news.  FSC certified wood is available, and that is the majority of wood that we used in building the house.  The FSC, aka The Forest Stewardship Council is an independent non-governmental certifying body that evaluates and certifies the sustainability of wood products.  Wood grown sustainably is just that – a sustainable resource that is being farmed rather than “mined”, does not include irreplaceable old growth trees, and it works with local growers all around the world to create not only a sound environmental practice, but strong economic base in wood growing areas.

The FSC certified white cedar in the soffit

What’s not to love?   The FSC is the most credible certification system (alternatives like the timber industry-backed Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) are around, but they lack a certain independence that seems necessary).  FSC wood usually costs more because it has “Chain of Custody” certification in which the wood is in the custody, from harvest through the saw mill, of certified FSC companies who agree to certain standards, and are regularly audited for compliance.  There are some critics of the FSC system saying that it is too lax in its oversight of some logging operations, and that there is corruption in some areas where loggers can bribe the certifiers, but overall, despite the lapses, it seems to me that when problems are discovered and pointed out to them, they de-certify violators, and the pressure that FSC certification is bringing to bear on the timber industry around the world is a strong positive force.  We specified that all of our framing lumber, soffit wood, plywood and engineered lumber in the house be FSC certified.  Likewise, Kolbe, our window and sliding door manufacturer could provide FSC certified wood for the frames.

But not all woods are available with FSC certification, so we deviated from purity.

Reclaimed Walnut flooring

Our best deviation is using wood which is “salvaged” from old timbers from deconstructed barns, or “reclaimed” from agricultural fruit and nut trees when they are cut down for replanting orchards.  Using wood from these sources is an excellent way to get beautiful wood without contributing to deforestation.  Reclaimed wood is not eligible for FSC certification as there is no logging portion, but as it is not contributing to environmental degradation, it seems just as good and just as “green”.  We decided to put in reclaimed walnut flooring in the upstairs rooms and walnut stair treads from Restoration timber which is an excellent resource for reclaimed wood.

Someone else's cabinets made out of lyptus

The front door in Honduran mahogany

A little bit more of a grey area is the kitchen cabinets which are “lyptus” – a brand-name for a particular type of eucalyptus wood grown and supplied by a company called Fibria.  Lyptus is a fast growing, plantation grown tree which has PEFC certification of sustainability (which seems great until you realize that PEFC is that industry certification system, so maybe not the best choice, but after some belated research, it really does seem like a relatively sustainable wood).

The choice I made that I am the most conflicted about is the Honduran Mahogany doors we had made.  That’s right: Honduran Mahogany.  When I first started looking into wooden doors for the house, I looked at many different species of wood, and stumbled upon a great company on line with beautiful door designs: Mahogany Doors Honduras.

The wine cellar door

I entered into a lengthy email exchange with Gary, the owner in Honduras, about the sustainability of the wood, the process by which they obtained their logs, kiln dried them themselves, fabricated the doors, and then exported them (I’m sure he thinks I’m crazy).  He assured me they exported with CITES certification because they handled everything from the logs to export of the doors.  Great! everything was grand, I ordered the doors, excellent price, great communication, (a bit of delay) , but they finally came and they are BEAUTIFUL – really really beautiful.

But I had probably stopped my research a bit early (once I had the answer I wanted, I will admit, I didn’t look any further).  In my research for the blog entry, I dug a little deeper, and I probably would have been happier not knowing.   CITES is an extremely shortened acronym for “Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora”.  Yeah, endangered species.  My doors may be certified, but the wood is still an endangered species.  Best spin:  the CITES certification process provides a sustainable local industry to an area that wouldn’t otherwise have a legitimate local economy and might need to resort to poaching and destroy the trees anyway.  More realistic: those trees probably shouldn’t have been cut down, no matter what the certificate says…

It is very exciting that Catherine’s TED talk is now on the TED website.  If you are visiting the blog because you saw the talk, and are interested in the embodied energy calculations, we would suggest looking under the “how to use this site” link over in the side bar to guide you to posts of interest.

The back side of the house

Now that the main sheets of drywall are up, it it possible to start stuccoing the outside of the house without worrying that the pounding of drywall nails will crack and knock off the stucco. About half of the first layer of stucco (called the “scratch” coat) is now on the house.  The strawbale library is also getting its scratch coat.  Soon it will blend in and be indistinguishable from the rest of the house from the outside (the removal of the big blue tarps will help with that!

The front side

scratch coat on one wall of strawbale

The other exciting thing is that you can see from the front picture that the garage door has been installed.  It, like most of the exterior doors, came unfinished because no one will put a clear coat finish on an exterior wood door because they don’t want to warranty the finish – even if the door is installed under a large overhang and is protected from direct sunlight, or is North facing… so we have been finishing all the exterior wood doors ourselves as they come in.

The garage door in place

Natalie helping us finish the garage door

Natalie among the redwood logs prior to installation. Quite the pieces of "trim".

This is the seemingly slow period in which the framing punch list gets finished up, and all the electrical wiring, plumbing and HVAC ducting gets installed.  The fast and furious pace of framing has given way to lots of individual contractor work, but often not a lot of very visible progress.  Still, the back sliding doors are going in, and a staggering amount of ducting and wiring and lighting and piping is going everywhere in the house now as you can see from this picture of one corner of the kitchen.

Electrical and Plumbing getting done

We’ve now installed “smurf tube” into every room to allow us to pull low voltage wiring and easily upgrade our computer wiring at some future point, and that is now all converging on a central panel for structured wiring.  Once this is all complete, there will be electrical/plumbing/HVAC inspection, the insulation and drywall and exterior stuccoing can start.  The strawbale library is now completely lathed and ready for stucco on the outside (and needs to be protected from the rain until it is!), but the final lath wiring is still to be done on the inside.  A project for over the Christmas break!!!

Catherine putting protective finish on the logs

The dizzying activity for today was sealing the log ends after they had been installed up at the roof line.  Thankfully the stucco guys have already installed their scaffolding!  That certainly made both the installation of the logs by the framing crew last week, and the sealing of them by us this weekend much more tractable.   When it is all complete, these logs will look like they are supporting the roof, but they certainly aren’t doing that!  Rather, these log stubs are hung from cantilevered beams that are hidden under the white cedar soffit and extend back into the house.

We have gone back and forth on the logs wondering if it was going to look cool, or weird and tacky.  It is certainly a risk doing something this unconventional.  We had convinced ourselves that cool would predominate, and once they went in, we were relieved to see that they do add a visual interest.   Hopefully they won’t end up being a maintenance nightmare dropping bark on our heads or wicking water back towards the house!