Thursday, December 20, 2012

It's Official!

Today we received official word that we have achieved Passive House standard which makes us a Certified Passive House. This has been the keystone of our goals as we set out on this adventure to build our dream home. Our Certification is from the Passive House Academy which is accredited by the Passivhaus Institut in Germany. To learn more about the Passive House standard you can explore the above link or rewind to Paul's blog entry from April 28, 2012. I would like to thank Jamie Wolf, designer, and Janet Downey, builder, and all of the cast and crew who have made this moment possible. I apologize for divulging into my Oscar fantasy but honestly, we are really grateful for your creativity and expertise.

What else is new? Paul has been busy completing his solar thermal hot water system. It is currently up and running. All of the plumbing is connected and the domestic hot water is running through the system. After about two weeks of partial system testing, final waterproofing of the home made 220 gallon tank, and modifying plumbing fittings to control water flow and air bubbles in the pipes, the system is online and contributing to the heating of the domestic hot water. With the cold temps outside and the days being the shortest of the year at the winter solstice, the thermal gains we are achieving with the system are significant. In the warmer weather and longer days we might produce close to 100% solar thermal hot water. Yes, I just made that prediction publicly. (knock on wood) Paul will write a post soon to describe in detail the system he built and post some stats on the DHW production.

Painting with special solar absorbent paint

Installing the glazing
The exchange coil in the tank
The system is running

What have I been up to? Well, I have been decorating and hanging art and family photos which, in a different way, is also contributing to the warmth of of the house . I have also completed my part of the wonderful custom staircase, the centerpiece of our home. I had the pleasure of designing the pattern for and hand lacing the rail guard with 700 feet of galvanized stainless steel cable. The skin on my hands in growing back and the railing looks great.

Another favorite design feature is the George Nelson mid-century modern bubble lamps that float in our dining room's vaulted ceiling. I love their timeless style and the soft light they cast.

Other favorite nooks include my kitchen cook book shelf.
Artwork by Andrea Cutler
We are blessed with many friends and family members who are artists including Paul's mom Gloria Honig whose work is displayed throughout the house.
Artwork by Gloria Honig

As we get into the colder weather we will truly experience the function of OCPH.  Meanwhile, we plan to enjoy the holiday season and warm our home with friends and family, literally.

Happy Holidays Everyone!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Life in OCPH, so far...

First impressions

It has been about 2 weeks since move in day. A whirlwind of activity has my head still spinning but the initial verdict is in. I LOVE MY NEW HOUSE! It is super quiet. I've been sleeping like a rock. The walls are so thick, you hear no outside noise. Good riddance to my old weekly 5 am garbage truck wake up call. We have been experimenting with the temperature in the house. We had our first snow storm two days ago. Our supplemental heat system is a heat pump that supplies both heating and cooling seasonally. Even with sub freezing temps outside, if I don't turn on the heat, the indoor temperature settles at about 66 degrees by morning. On a sunny day the house heats up by solar gains alone to about 71 degrees. Yesterday was cloudy so last night I set the thermostat at 68 degrees and the house is really comfortable this morning. I'm going to turn off the heat pump now. As the sun rises on this sunny day, the house should stay warm through tonight. Now you may think 68 degrees is a little lower than you set your thermostat but let me say something else about Passive House. The house feels warmer because there are no drafts or cold spots and the wood floor feels the same temperature as the air. The ERV (energy recovery ventilation) circulates the heat evenly in the house so it's a warm 68 degrees. It's kind of like Arizona being a cool 100 degrees because it's a "dry heat".

What have we been up to

Paul has been working hard to finish up his DIY solar hot water system. With all the other tasks required to ready the house for move in, closets (woodwork, flooring, not to mention packing and moving) the solar water system was temporarily sidelined. Back on track, Paul has completed soldering the copper piping that sits in the collector panel and we moved it into the frame on the back of the garage. The collector (solar panel) will sit in a sunny spot against the back of the garage where the pipes have a short run down into the basement to the tank containing the heat exchanger coil.

We mounted the copper piping to the insulated frame and wrapped aluminum fins over the top of each pipe creating a conductive contact to collect and transfer solar heat into the water filled pipes. Paul used special clamps to crimp a good contact while he secured the fins with screws. The next step has been slightly foiled by the weather. Next he has to paint the fins with a special solar absorbent black paint that requires a minimum warm temperature for application. Although there is still snow on the ground, It is supposed to warm up to the 60s in the next few days so we will strike while the aluminum is hot.

Wednesday afternoon
Thursday sunset

My goal is still to have most of the detailed finishing work in the interior finished in time for Thanksgiving. It still seems like we are on track and will be ready for turkey day. I have so much to be thankful for this year. Most of all my family.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

We Are In

We did it. Our move went well and we have been residents of OCPH for 4 days now. We are still unpacking and finishing constriction details but we are so glad to be here. And just in time for hurricane Sandy to blow through. School has already been canceled for tomorrow and they are predicting downed trees and power outages. Unfortunately one of the details left to be finished is the installation of our back up generator. Ironic. I'm still happy to be here. I'll post more later about Passive House life. For now, here are some photos of the new digs.

Good luck to everyone during the storm. Stay safe.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Move In Date Is Set

There has been a flurry of activity at OCPH to get us ready for our move in next week (knock on wood. I don't want to jinx it.) The ERV and heat pump are ready to be tested. The kitchen and bathrooms are functional minus hot water. The on-demand hot water system will be installed tomorrow. Eventually the DIY solar hot water system will  be the precursory system, then if necessary, the on-demand system will kick in to heat the water the rest of the way. The DIY hot water system is half finished and temporarily back burnered to more immediate projects. Paul has been busy building closet interiors, finishing wood trim and installing the cork flooring in the basement.  The next step to completing the system is to solder the copper piping to create the collection coil to place in the panel. This requires space in the garage which is currently the staging area for many other projects like cutting wood trim and refinishing furniture, my project for the past two days.

The beautiful staircase has been hoisted into place. It weighs about a thousand pounds even without the steel hand rail. It is an example of true craftsmanship.

It has been chilly the past few days. When we arrive at 7:30 the house is toasty warm because we have closed the windows at night. We are installing a beautiful stone veneer wall opposite the southern windows. It's intention was decorative but it may have the added benefit of acting as a thermal mass.  In the winter months the sun hits the stone which absorbs the sun's heat during the day, releasing it into the house at night.  I touched the wall where it was in the sun for an hour today and it was toasty warm. Beautiful and functional.

About a week ago, Paul flipped the big red switch that put our solar panels online. We are generating electricity and sending it to the grid since all that's currently pulling power in the house is the empty fridge and a couple of lights, power tools and a radio so we have tunes while we work. When we move in with our computers and TVs, run the ERV and start using the appliances we will see how well we do in our energy balance.

There are tons of finishing details like light fixtures, towel bars, touch up paint, door knobs, etc.  A final list was made during a walk through today with Janet, our builder/project manager. We are cutting it pretty close but I have faith that we will be moving into our fabulous new Passive House next week as scheduled. (knock wood, you know Murphy's law)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Counters and Tiles and Stairs, Oh My!

It has been a busy couple of weeks at our Connecticut Passive House. The folks from Ageis Solar finished up the installation of the PV solar system and in what felt like a ceremonial gesture, we were presented with a binder containing the manual. As soon as the town building inspector comes and the CL&P meter is swapped out with a two way meter, we can flip the big red toggle switch and will be in the solar electricity generating business. The system was tested for few minutes a couple of weeks ago and according to the meter we generated one kW hr of power (it read 000001).

The tile installer has finished the bathroom tile and it turned out beautifully. The vanities will go in tomorrow.

The kitchen counter tops were installed today. I love them. They are a wonderful swirly granite that really compliment the organic feel of the decor.

Our custom staircase is being assembled tomorrow. It was designed by Jamie Wolf of Wolfworks. It is a great centerpiece to the house. It has a real industrial feel with ash wood stringers and 4" thick open treads contrasting the metal railings and hardware.

Thick stair treads

Paul and I have been busy at the house every day. We designed and built custom closet interior for the boy's closets. We spent lots of time clear coating all of the wood trim. I wood filled every nail hole in every baseboard in the house. Tomorrow we cut and hang the pantry closet shelves.

The weather is starting to get a little chilly in Southern New England. We have been keeping the windows of the house open during the day while we work. The ERV is not turned on yet. Still too much construction dust. All of these photos were taken with natural light. The light fixtures go in next week. This is a bright sunny house and I anticipate that we will be toasty warm this winter. That statement is a demonstration of my faith in Passive House design. I guess we'll know soon enough.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

More Progress....

Summer vacation is over and the kids are attending their new school.  Since we haven't moved yet, our morning routine consists of getting up early and driving the boys to the new house where they are picked up by the school bus to ride with our new neighborhood's children. That gives Paul and I, well mostly Paul, an early start on the day's projects like painting or working on his solar hot water system.
Painting the staircase stringers


Since the envelope of a Passive house is tightly sealed, creating a healthy indoor air environment is very important.  We have focused on no or low VOC paints, stains, and clear coatings for the walls and wood work.  Paul found an interesting product from Vermont Natural Coatings for the wood doors and trim. This low VOC product uses whey protein, a natural byproduct of cheese making and renewable resource, in place of chemicals commonly used in other finishes like benzene and formaldehyde. As Paul and I primed and painted the stringers and risers for the staircase with low VOC paints, we commented on how the paint smelled like Wrigley's spearmint gum. A far cry from the last time I painted an apartment in NYC in the 1990's and was practically asphyxiated by the fumes. I'm so glad that environmental health awareness is improving.


Another milestone was reached two days ago when CL&P came to connect the power to the house.  We have been running power from a temporary box at the street but now we can plug a drill or a saw, even a light into an outlet in the house. Shortly the solar array will be completed and connected. A special 2 way meter will then be installed to  monitor our production and usage of electricity.

Kitchens and Bathrooms

The kitchen cabinets have been installed and the templating date for the stone counter tops is scheduled for next week. The bathroom tile is being installed and it looks beautiful.

I took another bold step today and scheduled an appointment for an estimate by a moving company and a potential moving date.  I'm not telling what the date is yet, Murphy's law.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Solar Panels Here and There

Most of the PV panels are up
A large part of our energy efficient home design is related to solar energy.  Passive, photovoltaic, and solar thermal.  Our high efficiency European windows located on the south side of the house help with the passive part.  We are in the process installing the other two.  We have contracted with Aegis Solar to purchase and install a 10.8kW array of photovoltaic panels on the south side of the roof which will generate about 12,500 kWh of electricity per year.  Folks often ask if we will be "off the grid".  The answer is no. The simpler and less expensive way to set up a solar PV system is with a grid-tied system.  We are connected to the electric grid, selling CL&P the power we generate and buying from them what we need to use. We estimate our annual electricity consumption to be around 8,000 kWh per year (which at this time is a very rough guess).  We should generate more electricity than we use for the house each year and have enough leftover power an electric car.

The other solar component is a DIY solar thermal hot water system. Paul researched online others who have made similar systems and shared their designs and ideas at Paul's system is taken from the design at It's a drainback system with a 16' x 8' collector mounted on the ground behind the garage and a 230 gallon home-made tank in the basement.

Paul surveying his work on the frame of the collector
Tank in the basement

We hope that this system will provide most of our hot water during the year.  It remains to be seen exactly how much it will produce.

We spent several hours wrestling PEX tubing into a three layered coil
for the heat exchange element which will be submerged in the tank.

The competed coil

Other areas of progress; The interior walls are up, closed and primed. Wood flooring that acclimated in the space over the holiday weekend has been installed. Kitchen cabinetry will be delivered this week and the bathroom tile has arrived. 

All of the ventilation hoses haves been attached to the ERV.

The exterior siding is mostly finished with a beautiful cedar ceiling on the front and screened porches.  The septic system has been installed.

The garage door is installed and preliminary grading and landscaping is underway.

I mentioned in a prior post about the illusion of time during construction.  We've hit a period of fast forward where the interior is quickly changing the look from a construction zone to a home.  A warm beautiful home.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Lots Of Progress

The south side off the house. Notice the perfectly shaded windows.
 Our friends often ask us "How's the house coming?"  I'm thrilled to report that the answer to that question is "It's coming right along." During the building process there are times when things appear to be moving faster and slower.  For example, when walls go up it appears to be faster progress than when, say the electrical wiring is being done. Some changes are just more visually obvious so they give an impression of speedier progression. All part of the illusion of construction.

The siding is up on the west side of the house and garage.

When I arrived at the site this past Friday after a few days vacation there was noticeable progress. There were 5 crews at the house all working on different things.

1) Putting up the siding, 2) Drywalling the interior, 3) Ventilation system work, 4) Concrete being poured for the porch, and 5) The excavator preparing the site for the septic system.
The place was abuzz with activity. So much has happened recently that it has been hard to keep up in our blog. Not being a daily blogger, items have been stacking up.  Here is a brief  list to bring you up to date:

  • The interior wall insulation (see "walls like a sandwich" post) is completed on the first and second floors. The downstairs will be finished pending the completion of the placement of the ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilation) tubing and heat pump vents.
Ventilation tubes for the ERV

  • All ERV vents and air flow vents are placed on the first and second floors. (more about our ERV in another post.)
  • The drywall is mostly up on the first and second floors, 25 buckets of joint compound wait patiently stacked in the living room.

  • All the electrical wiring, outlets, lighting locations, switch boxes,and random other electrical equipment is installed including the big gray breaker box on the wall downstairs.

    Electrical panel and the ERV, the lungs and power of the house.
  • All the plumbing pipes are installed in the proper location in the laundry, kitchen, and bathrooms, including the late addition of a wet bar in the game room downstairs.
  • A drain water heat recovery system has been installed. (More about that in another post.)
  • Paul has run all the speaker wire for the various sound systems including the screen porch.
  • Paul has been constructing the DIY Solar Thermal water heater. (That certainly deserves it's own post)
In addition to all of that, we have been busy selecting fixtures, counter tops, cabinetry, tile, flooring, lighting, and all of the other things that go into the house. There is still lots to be done to finish the interior as well as the exterior like the solar panel array on the roof and landscaping. Certainly it feels more tangable now than when it was our patch of dirt. Seeing the daily progress is really exciting and I joyfully anticipate living in our wonderful new home.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A bit about our windows

Turn function of the window
In a Passive House the windows are like an appliance that performs a specific task efficiently. They are an integral part the passive solar function of the house. The windows capture solar energy into the house and then must help the house retain that energy,  i.e. not let all that good heat go right out the window, a one way valve.  We decided on Intus Eforte windows manufactured in Lithuania,

While the windows are not officially certified by the Passive House organization, their performance metrics are comparable to windows that are.

There are 3 main metrics for analyzing window performance.  U-value is a measure of a window's ability to keep heat from escaping the house, lower is better.  It is the inverse of R-value, a metric commonly used with insulation.  SHGC is Solar Heat Gain Coefficient, a measure of the fraction of heat from the sun that makes it into the house.  VT is visual transmittance, a measure of the amount of light from the sun that makes it into the house. 

The eastern and western windows have U-values of 0.088, an SHGC of 0.4 and a VT of 0.58.  The northern and southern facing windows have U-values of 0.105, an SHGC of 0.5 and a VT of 0.74.  Originally, the SHGC of the southern facing windows was going to be higher, but there was concern about too much solar gain in the spring and fall when the sun is lower in the sky. 

Why did we choose Intus?  There are no American-made windows that meet the performance requirements of our Passive House, so we had to look at European manufacturers.  Wood framed windows were too expensive.  That left us with UPVC.  We looked at Intus, Shuco and Unilux.  Since we have no idea which if any of these companies will still be in business in the US 10 years from now, it ultimately came down to cost.  Intus was 25% less expensive than the second place finisher, Shuco.  We ended up paying about $50/SF of glass, but that includes a large slider and two doors.  I was surprised at how affordable these windows were. 

You can see the "tilt" function in the top left window. The windows are nicely shaded in June.
 We're very happy with the windows.  They seem to be really well made.  The windows are a little different that what we are used to in the US.  They are in-swing windows which are popular in Europe.  They have a really cool tilt-turn function that enables you to tilt the window in just a little for ventilation (see top left window in the picture above) or swing the window all the way open like a door.  They seal up very tightly when closed.  We were able to get some really large panes of glass for an uninterrupted visual frame of the trees and beautiful garden I'm still dreaming about.

Our architect Jamie also designed a beautiful curved overhang like the brim of a hat on the south side of the house to provide just the right shading for the first floor windows for the time of year and position of the sun.  We have been at the house during these hot summer days and have seen the upstairs windows perfectly shaded by the roof overhang and the large slider in the dining room perfectly shaded by the hat brim as well.  I  look forward to feeling the sun shining in brightly in the colder months to warm our New England winter bones.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Finishing the wall insulation

The insulators were back last week putting in the final layer of dense pack cellulose between the studs of the inner stud wall.  This completes the EPS/Polyioso sandwich with dense pack cellulose bread.

The video below shows the cellulose being blown between the studs and the cloth batting.  Behind the studs, you can see the aluminum foil cover on the sheets of Polyiso from the middle layer of insulation.

This brings the total wall insulation of our 1' thick double stud walls to R 48.  Is this a lot of insulation?  The framer has commented that we could have insulated standard 4 houses with the amount of insulation in our Passive House and that was before this last layer of dense pack went in.  The CT Energy Efficiency Fund gives rebates for "High Performance Insulation".  Their minimum requirement is R 21.  We have more than double the insulation of what is considered a very well insulated home.  One of the fundamental principles of Passive House is super insulation.  We're definitely meeting that requirement.

The basement walls (where we'll lose less heat) are insulated with 2 inches of Polyiso up against the foundation walls and dense pack cellulose in between 2x6 studs.  These walls have a combined R-value of R 32.  Underneath the basement slab is 5 inches of EPS at R 28.  The slab doesn't meet the foundation walls creating a thermal break that prevents heat from being conducted from the slab to the foundation.

The attic is going to be insulated with loose pack cellulose to R 83.  This should do wonders for keeping the heat from escaping to the roof during the cold months and infiltrating from the roof during hot months.  Again, the CT Energy Efficiency Fund requirement for ceilings is R 40, so again, we have more than twice this amount of insulation.

According to our builder all this extra insulation costs about $10K more than insulation would on a standard house.  We think that the upfront cost will more than pay for itself over the house's life.  In addition the extra insulation will provide a more comfortable place to live.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Walls like a sandwich, Insulation Information

The wall construction of a passive house is one thing that makes it very distinct from a standard building.  Our architect Jamie Wolf told us when Passive House "geeks" get together, their line is "What are your walls?" meaning what are the materials and construction you use in the Passive Houses you build. In my last blog entry, I described the first blower door smoke test to check for air leakage in the outer wall structure. We have come to the next step in wall construction, the insulation.  Jamie describes his walls as a "Sandwich Wall".  Basically, it is a double stud wall with several layers of insulation. Outside to in, an outer stud wall with dense pack cellulose blown in between the wall studs retained by a mesh batting (the bread). 

Dense pack cellulose being blown in between the wall studs
Next is a 4" thick layer of EPS, then a 1" layer of Polyisocyanurate (Meat and cheese).

Three layers out of the four done

Finished off with an interior stud wall with dense pack cellulose blown in between the studs and the interior wall board (bread again).  Insulating and appetizing. Great care is taken to eliminate air leakage and thermal bridging which is heat loss through conduction.

I have been a little remiss about blogging in real time. A lot of progress has been made at the Green Box.  I'll catch up in the next couple of entries.

Currently, the interior stud wall is partially constructed but will not be closed in with wall board until all the electrical, plumbing, ventilation, and heating/cooling lines are finished being installed in all of the interior walls so they can all be closed up together.  In addition, the windows are in, the roof shingles are on, and the screen porch and front porch are in the works.  More details and photos soon to come.

I love our windows
In other news, our green box is an official participant in the CT Zero Energy Challenge for 2012. Check out our entry and the competition at are entered as WolfWorks - Harwinton,CT.