Saturday, May 21, 2011

My Next House Will be Superinsulated...

I should be painting and wallpapering, but daylight is already gone, so I better not. Instead, I'm jotting down my thoughts on insulation vs energy efficient heating techniques.

Since we moved into this house, I've spent a lot of time to figure out how to make it as energy efficient as possible. Plenty of insulation must be by far the easiest way. However, no matter how much we add to the walls and roof, the basement floor will always be a heat sink. And how do you insulate an existing basement floor (concrete slab without any insulation under) when the ceiling hight is barely enough as it is. That's where I get stuck.

Lowering the utility bills is a very strong driver. Those bills will only be more expensive with time and probably increase a lot more than inflation. However, "alternative" energy for heating the house is also costly.
- Geothermal heating/cooling - extracting heat from the ground means drilling or digging up the entire yard and buy a new furnace.
- If we installed more floor heating, it would be efficient to use solar heating since the water temperature is quite moderate. After all, we have a large south facing roof, ideal to harvest the sun's energy. But what is the price tag? However, I believe manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, repair, raw material etc. consumes quite a bit of energy for an advanced high tech system. How long do I need to use it before it has created as much energy as was put into it? The recovery of that energy need to go into the total environmental balance sheet as well.

So, I've started to dream about my next house. After all, in only 10 years, all three kids will most likely be off to college and it might be time for another project...

An article in the Chicago Tribune this winter really pinpointed the idea of superinsulated, passive or zero net energy house: Insulate like crazy and then a bit more, and you won't need a lot of expensive technology to heat or cool the house. The energy bill for a passive house is negligible. You only need a ventilation system that recovers the heat of the outgoing air. Sounds simple and with simple, there are fewer things that can go wrong. Almost the entire industry for alternative energy sources will be bypassed (for the purpose of heating/cooling houses and buildings).
Two studs would have been
plenty for this little window.
Earlier today, I tripped over the term "Larsen Truss" and had to look it up. It's a way to build a superinsulated house with no more lumber than you would use in a standard 2x6 framed house (!). With two layers of 2x4 studs, interconnected every so often, thermal bridging is also minimized. The other trick is that the sheeting is omitted. It is a clever mix of balloon and platform framing.  Here are description, pictures and comments. I understand that it is very unusual not to have sheeting in the US, but that is the standard way of building in Sweden, so I would think only tornado and earthquake prone areas would need it here. Is it a coincidence that a Scandinavian name is associated with this framing technique...

The triple studs under all our new windows is one of the few things I would have liked to do differently. Unfortunately, I wasn't fast enough to react when the builders framed the new outside walls. Apparently two studs are a must according to the building code. Especially, a small window like this does not need that much lumber. It just increases thermal bridging and makes less space for insulation.

I would LOVE to have deep window niches like we had in Sweden! Including everything from siding to drywall, those walls were about 12" thick.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mlle L's Room

2011-05-18, Wednesday

New windows, bathroom to the left and bedroom to the right
One of the bedrooms was heavily affected by the remodeling this winter. Except for the windows in the brick wall and extra insulation, not much has been said about it. The window that faced the old porch has been removed. That meant a gaping hole in the fake wood panelling.  So, while the dry wall guy was here anyway, I asked him to cover the entire wall of ugly paneling, window hole (framed in) and all, with a new layer of drywall. In that bedroom, the two "new" walls now have smooth drywall and the old walls still rough plaster. With many layers of paint, the plaster walls are not really that rough, but not smooth enough for wallpaper.

Below is a pic of the bedroom from shortly after we moved in a couple of years back. The dark fake wood paneling from the 70's and the window towards the old porch show in the mirror. The built-in closet and dresser took up the entire wall, but didn't offer much storage space in return. Soon, it was replaced by IKEA PAX wardrobes. All the walls, including the dark panelling, were then painted light cream.

This is the only available photo from the original bedroom.
The thick veneer closet sliding doors were hard to move, so they were removed right away.
After the dry wall guys left, I painted the entire plaster ceiling pure white. The walls got a coat of sky blue paint. (I had hoped for purple or pink, but oh well.) The new trim and windowsill (another one, yay!) have been painted with white linseed oil paint. 

An IKEA loft bed got its legs shortened and is now only 3 ft above the floor. Madmoiselle L moved into her "new" bed for 3 nights, but since yesterday, she is back on the mattress in her brother's room so I can finish the floor.

Shortened loft bed. The space below will become
a cosy hideaway
I've scrubbed and sanded the old hardwood floor. The old varnish was still good, but worn out in spots, so it got two coats of polyurethane. Tonight, after 72 hours of drying the bed can go back into its corner and then the corner where the bed now, can be varnished. Cleaning, sanding, wiping dust and patching a few spots took significantly more time than the actual varnishing - as always.
This is what I used:
Ceiling: Behr Premium Plus, Interior Flat Ceiling Paint, Ultra Pure White, No55B
Walls: Behr Premium Plus Ultra, Interior Eggshell Enamel, light blue, "Millstream", UL230-12
Floor: MINWAX Super Fast-Drying Polyurethane for Floors, Clear Satin
Woodwork: Allb├Ącks white (#50003) linseed oil paint, available at

New windows with window sills for lights, flower pots etc.
Shelf and curtains are in progress.
The two windows facing west make the room nice and bright. The neighbor's white wall reflects a lot of morning light. There is still some work to do on the curtais and shelf above the windows. I "just" need to get out the circular saw and the sewing machine - and find a couple of uninterrupted hours...

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Back Yard Cherry Tree

The rain has calmed down and the sun is shining, so gardening is much more appealing than painting trim and doors inside the house. On Mother's day (a week ago,) I got to spend some time at Gethsemane Garden in Andersonville while the kids were in Swedish School.
High up on my wish list are some fruit trees. There were a couple of apple trees left, but none of them with "crisp and tart" apples. However, I found one (!) self pollinating sweet cherry tree, yay! I payed right away and picked it up later in the week when I had a bigger car - and no kids with me. 

Finally, today, a pit had been dug deep enough. Big lumps of light brown clay needed to be broken up.  That part has been lawn since the house was build 60 years ago and before that it was prairie and forest. Mind boggling to think that I might be the first human ever to dig that deep in that spot...

The tree has two tiny green cherries. Wonder if we'll get them before the birds...

The edge around it is a fiber-plastic material made from cardboard juice boxes and milk jugs. It was wound up in a box and I didn't have the patience to let it relax for a couple of hours as the instructions said, but managed to straighten it out enough to match the circle. It's pretty neat to see my old milk jugs come back recycled and know that they are not in land fills!

Timberwolf Recycled Composite Edging System

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Builders have Finished Their Work...

The builders finished most of their work over a month ago. Final inspection was passed without hickups.  The only remaining work was a few hours of siding work, a small slab for the top of the toilet tank and a stopper for the sliding doors. The house got very quiet and the paint (walls and trim) job I did myself was slow and lonely. I ran out of gas for remodeling work and my business and my family needed some attention. Earlier this week their work was completed, everyone was paid and hands were shaken.

The top for the toilet tank was a long story. We wanted the white and gray Carrera marble, but it was too costly, so while not coming up with anything better, the primed but dusty and unfinished surface was just sitting there. While talking once again with the builders about it, they realized they would get marble scraps from their new project and a week later the tile guy came by and mounted a piece and we are SO happy that we didn't give up! It's nice and bright and as fresh looking as the subway tile with its light gray grout.

Look, a wall hung toilet and built in tank - a breeze to keep clean! I will come back to that in a later post.