We’ve been in the house for just more than a year now. I missed the exact one-year anniversary because a) I couldn’t remember the Great Moving Day of 2014; and b) I didn’t bother to look in old blog entries from last July before hitting “new post” a minute ago. It was either July 25 or 26, definitely a Saturday.
At any rate, I thought I would highlight a few of the things we’ve learned about the house in the past year.
Passive solar: It short, it really, really works.
Heating: See passive solar. More seriously, passive solar is our bread and butter heating source through winter. It makes a huge difference. The combination of passive solar and the masonry stove is really impressive. Who knew that you could heat an entire 2,400 ft2 house with sunshine and one big fire a day in the dead of winter. And heat the entire house comfortably. None of this 58 degrees upstairs business. In the low 70s on both the main and second floor. Only the basement needs a bit of a boost. In fact, if the outside temp is a bit warmer than expected and the sun comes out, the masonry stove may do too much.
Cooling: Regarding the opposite of heating, we went back to some old-fashioned design methods: namely, putting windows and doors on opposite sides of the house and opening them when it’s still relatively cool outside. This week has been a good test. It’s been warm (mid-80s) and somewhat humid the past few days. We shut up the entire house mid-morning and, I admit, turn on one window AC unit in Ron’s office. We keep that running all day. Around 7pm, we turn off that AC unit and then open the windows until the following mid-morning. We just got our electricity bill for the last month: $55. Granted, we were out of town for part of the month and it was cool and rainy while we were gone, but using a very modest amount of AC isn’t taking a ton of energy or money. It also helps that we’re at a higher elevation than the center of town and are surrounded by 5 acres of green stuff. We have no heat island effect, which exacerbates summer heat in the downtown area. The oldest part of town has a lot of mature trees and landscaping, but it’s still noticeably warmer down there.
Size: The size of the house works. We’ve been to a number of green building(ish) houses and some of them are green(er) because they are really small. I appreciate, respect, and admire the idea of living with less. However, there is a point where small can get really bizarre and/or annoying. That said, at one point in the design process the house was actually a little bigger–I think it was 2 feet wider and 4 feet longer. When we started talking to general contractors and they gave us off-the-top-of-their-heads’ estimates–and we completely freaked out–we shrunk everything in the house a bit to get the size–and cost–down. We definitely don’t regret that. The house feels like a very normal house, even though it has some unusual features like passive solar and the huge masonry stove in the living room.
Mudroom: As part of the get-the-house-smaller-and-simpler-and-therefore-cheaper response, we lopped off the mudroom on the north side of the house at one point. We reinstated it very late–once we were talking with the architect who reviewed our plans, made some suggestions, and signed off on them. She recommended putting the mudroom back and we, especially I, are so grateful that we did. In fact, I can’t imagine not having a mudroom, particularly on a small farm. We store a lot of stuff in there–recycling bin, wood bin that doubles as a bench, shoes, coats, endless random stuff that is going in/out of the house. And it catches most of the dirt, snow, tracked chicken poop, and other muck from outside.
If I were to redo the house, I might even make the mudroom slightly larger. And to emphasize that not everything in the house construction project went smoothly or easily, one of the big “errors” that we would change, if we could do so, is putting a concrete foundation under the mudroom floor. We decided to go with a post construction because it would be cheaper. But it’s easier for mice to get up into the mudroom walls and from there sneak into some of the house walls. From the very first winter, we’ve heard mice in the walls of the mudroom and part of the living room wall that is shared with the mudroom. It drives the cats crazy hearing them!? Again, we dropped the concrete foundation because it was going to add some design complication and it would involve more concrete (= $$). Skipping it saved us a bit of money. But in retrospect, it saved us very little (maybe $1K?), which just isn’t worth it in the grand scheme of things–and particularly now that we know that we came in on budget (slightly under if you don’t include the solar hot water heater, slightly over if you do). Ron has said that we could retroactively install a concrete foundation by cutting off the posts, raising the mudroom, and putting it in. But not surprisingly, it’s much more difficult–and expensive–to do so after the fact. So, we–and the cats–will probably be living with mice and the “oh, well, now we know better.”
Things still to do: Yes, there are still things to do. The tiles around the masonry stove are sitting there in dirt and cat hair. They need to be grouted and installed. More significantly, the stairs are still not finished. Most trim is missing and everything needs sanded and stained. Some trim is missing in the upstairs hallway and bathroom. We figured out the half-bath needs a bit of subway tile behind the sink to reduce splashing. And I’m sure I’ve forgotten other things. Like the things that still haven’t been unpacked. Or the loft of the garage that is total chaos. Or… never mind.
In addition to this to-do list, what are our next steps?
In other news that has not been shared because I had a big deadline two days ago, we committed to solar panels last week–yes, amid the chaos of down-to-the-wire deadline work. We have been thinking about it for months and hoped to do it in 2015. We got an estimate almost two years ago, at the same time as the estimate for the hot water heater. In fact, we asked for an estimate for solar panels only–and the company highly recommended the hot water heater because our house is so perfect for any solar anything. He added that solar hot water systems pay for themselves more quickly than solar panels, too. We opted for the solar hot water right away, but deferred the solar panels until the house was finished and we knew what our budget was like .
All this to say, we got an updated estimate for solar panels to see if we could pull it off in 2015. The good news: the cost of the systems is dropping thanks to growing demand. The bad news: state and federal subsidies are dropping because part of the point was to jump start demand. We will now get a slightly smaller subsidy than 18-24 months ago–about $1,500 less. It’s somewhat compensated by the fact that the price of all the materials has dropped–slightly. But the system is a little more expensive than the quote from two years ago. Oh well.
Nonetheless, thanks to a generous financing option from the company, we jumped and have committed to solar panels. They have a 90-day guarantee so the system should be in place by mid-October. They have designed it so it produces 97% of the electricity we used in the past 12 months. It would be nice to have more data in order to better match the system with our actual use, but that was impossible given that it’s a new house and our energy demands have really shifted given the passive solar, masonry stove, natural AC, and so forth.
The solar panels are the next big project on the near horizon. More immediately is the other new project: sheep!
More on that another time.