Farewell

Posted on March 24th, 2009 – 8:11 PM
By Jason Hammond

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Even though our house was completed over a year ago I have enjoyed continuing to write about construction, design and trying to live a greener life. The experience started as a way for us to track our journey while sharing with others. However, in the process it has become so much more than that.

The exchange of ideas and knowledge I have enjoyed over the past two years has been wonderful. During this time I have made so many contacts and friends. Some have given me their insights while others have asked me to share mine. Many have challenged my thinking or asked me for greater explanation. Out of this has come many long lasting friendships, from my architect Michael Huber who I love sharing my coolest new “modest modern” design ideas and finds with. Modern homeowners Matt and Laura Tills who we would commiserate with as our home projects and lives seemed to mirror each others  as we both struggled through the building process. My buddy Jeff Gallo (from the 5ive house, Minnesota’s first LEED Platinum house) for not only inspiring me “to do more ” green friendly than even I had planned, but for reassuring me that this obsession was a healthy one. And of course  there is a vast array of people from our general contractor (Benedict  and Associates) to the local watershed district, all of whom helped us to make our project a better one.

I have had so many informative and insightful conversations with such a wide range of people from as close as down the street, to as far away as Spain, Germany and South Africa. And so the process, even more than the project has been an incredibly dynamic, rewarding and enlightening experience, far beyond what I ever could have imagined. However, like everything else, it is time that it comes to and end.  My energy and efforts have shifted in the last few months as I work to help grow my company’s business and continue to pursue additional avenues for my passion for green living and modern design.

For now I intend to spend the coming summer working on a few little landscaping projects, adding a rainwater capture container, doing some paintings to fill our walls and taking in the fruits of the past two years of work. I will continue to write my bi-weekly blog for blog.exclusivelyhome.com as well as pursue opportunities around sharing my “modest modern” philosophy via modestmodern.com, which I plan to launch later this year. Some day down the road I plan to build a retirement cabin on our land in Northern Wisconsin, and this time I’d like to try and do something off the grid, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll write a blog about it.

Thanks again to everyone one who has come to these pages and participated in my journey.
Jason Hammond

Green design needs green behavior to work.

Posted on March 1st, 2009 – 8:35 PM
By Jason Hammond

We’ve spent a great deal of energy and money over the past few years trying to reduce our over-all carbon footprint. Much of this has come in the form of thoughtful planning and design, environmentally conscious purchases and energy saving design features from SIPs walls to in floor radiant heat. After just over a year of living in our new “green friendly” home we have some hard data to determine how we’ve been doing.

When our initial Home Energy Audit was completed in February of 2008 it was estimated that we would spend an average of $120 a month on our electric, heating and cooling needs based on the makeup of our homes.  The actual results from one year of use showed that we were above this estimated mark, and spent on average $180 a month. Our natural Gas consumption was really good (right around the estimated amount) even with the slightly elevated costs of fuel this winter. Much of this could be attributed to the passive solar design of our house, and our active role as home owners to make sure our shades were open and closed at the appropriate times so that we could harness this free energy source. On several sunny (but very cold days) last winter when the temp was around -12º our home stayed a toasty 72º without the furnace running during the daylight hours. Although, our natural gas consumption was within the estimated range or electric was not.

Having had our solar audit done just this past fall we knew that our home electricity consumption was high. Some of this was as a result of phantom loads from appliances, several work computers being used regularly during the day and of course some careless personal habits, like leaving lights on in rooms that weren’t being used or not unplugging unused electronics. What is most disturbing about the number being high for our electric is that we’ve done a lot of simple things like replacing most of our lights with florescent bulbs to mitigate some of this consumption. Yet we were still on average using more energy than I think a household of 4 should be. Since our fall solar audit we have seen a reduction in some energy use by introducing power strips in certain areas to help stop unwanted energy consumption from phantom appliances, as well as the introduction of some new dimming florescent light bulbs into areas where they previously weren’t available. But the truth is we still could be doing a lot better. The biggest thing that needs to change for this to happen is to improve our energy use habits by being more aware of our consumption practices. So how can we do this? I know there have been many times where I have walked up stairs after dinner, only to find that the boys had left every light, tv radio and computer on. Then this weekend while watching a show called Wa$ted on Planet Green I learned of a great way to monitor your homes energy use at all times, with a product called the Cent-0-meter. I wasn’t able to find much on this specific product but I found another similar product called the PowerCost  Monitor ™   which basically does the same thing. For around $120 to $150 you can get a single device which tells you at all times what your home is using for energy and what it’s costing. This small investment seems well worth it, if it can help keep me aware of unwanted waste and improve our families energy habits.

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The PowerCost Monitor and Cent-a-Meter (shown above) offer a wireless up to the minute tracking of your homes energy usage. 

Although our electricity consumption was a bit high there was one area where I felt we did outstanding in my opinion—water consumption. According to various studies the average consumption of water per person in the U.S. is 30,000-40,000 gallons and for a family of four, like us, between 120,000 to 160,000 gallons a year. With that said, as a family last year we used almost exactly 60,000 gallons of water. Although, still not a number to scoff at by any means, it is significant. Considering that this usage included the watering of a newly laid sod lawn and plants this summer, which marked our highest period of consumption in mid-summer.

So why were we able to keep this so low? On top of the dual-flush TOTO toilets and low flow faucets, we selected to help us reduce our water consumption, we also were very mindful of our usage. We used rain capture barrels in various locations around the house and then used that water for plants. Our sump pump which is very active all year around was used as a watering aid for our lawn throughout the summer and we practiced good water management, by limiting the length of our showers and turning the faucets off when brushing our teeth or other simple daily activities.

I think doing an audit of your family’s energy and consumption practices is really enlightening. For me it was a  reminder that all the green products, good planning and intentions are only maximized when you take the time to practice responsible behavior.  My hope/plan is that by next year we are able to reduce both our consumption of electricity and and water significantly. By doing so we’ll not only lighten our impact on the environment but reduce the cost on our wallet.

Wireless world.

Posted on February 22nd, 2009 – 7:27 PM
By Jason Hammond

I am by no means a tech person. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate it, but I just don’t get into the nuances of it. With that said, what I love about technology is how in can simplify something that before was so much more complicated. This is particularly true for me when it comes to the area of  home entertainment.

About seven years ago we purchased a new TV and surround sound system. It was my first really nice television, and the addition of the surround sound system made us wonder why we had been watching our TV shows and movies in the relatively archaic way we had previously done. However, because we were retro-fitting the system to our old home, with lath walls, we had a mess of cords running around the perimeter of our room. We did the best to conceal the components and the cords from view but we quickly excepted the fact that the mess of cords were a necessary evil. With this in mind you would imagine that two years ago when we decided to embark on the process of building a new home you  we would ensure that our new home was wired to account for a such features, but this wasn’t the case. Stacy was convinced that for our needs the investment in wiring our rooms for surround sound was something that offered little to no return on our investment. On-top of that she was convinced that by the time our current system was ready to be changed the technology market would be offering a wide range of wireless surround sound systems.

Fast-forward to 2009 and the recent Consumer Electronics Show or CES 2009. The idea of wireless speakers is no doubt one that has been around for sometime although, as CNET stated in their prediction for this years show.

‘‘Perhaps the biggest vaporware offering in the home audio realm is wireless speakers. Several vendors have promised wireless surround systems in years past, but to date, mass-market-friendly solutions remain few and far between. We’ll no doubt see several companies touting wireless loudspeaker solutions at this year’s show, but just remember that true wireless speakers are pretty much a pipe dream–without some sort of battery power, the speakers themselves are still going to need at least one cable–the power cord.’’

So given the fact that you’ll need at least a power cable tethering your surround sound system to reality, I decided to see if what was now on the market would interest me, and meet my rather simple needs.

  1. I want it to sound good. (I’m not a audiophile so this is a rather loose constraint)
  2. Maybe more importantly I want it to be attractive or at least unobtrusive to the design of my homes interior.
  3. I want it to be affordable—an entire system that’s under $500 and preferably more in the $200-$300 rang.

Lots of companies are offering wireless surround sound systems with multiple components but here are a few that caught my attention from the CES reviews:

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Panasonic’s SC-ZT1 definitely has a super cool look to go along with its wireless feature.

Panasonic’s SC-ZT1 offers a wireless option to 4 tall “stick’’ style speakers, all wireless with the exception of the power cord. The SC-ZT1 is set for release in the spring of 2009 and will probably be a hit with medium level techies who like a minimalist decor. The suggested retail price of this system is yet to be released.

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Polk Audio SurroundBar SDA Instant Home Theater now offers a wireless subwoofer for an improved listening experience.
A popular new design trend is single source surround sound experiences usually called sound bars. These systems promise to offer the same quality of sound that you get from a normal surround sound system but as CNET’s reviewers noted, they never quite deliver on the promise in exactly the same way. However, Polk Audio’s new SurroundBar system got good reviews from CNET’s writers. The main speaker is much smaller than in other models and offers the addition of a wireless subwoofer. The one big criticism that they had was its limited single analog audio input, meaning to you’ll have to add other components to the system to get the most out of it, defeating the simplicity that a system like this offers. Polk Audio SurroundBar SDA Instant Home Theater has a suggest retail price of $499.95 and is available now.

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Philips Cineos SoundBar systems, have a great sleek design.

Another entry in the Single Source surround sound system is Philips Cineos Soundbar DVD Home Theater. Like the Polk system the Philips offers a wireless subwoofer and single sound bar speaker with a super streamlined design. Additionally, the Philips line comes in four variations of the product designer for slightly different user segments, from home theater enthusiasts to gamers. The Philips system has a lot more connection options and is designed so that in can be wall mounted below a flat panel TV. The Philips collection have a suggested retail price ranging from $299 to $399 with release dates ranging form early March to April of 2009.

I don’t know that I’m quite ready to make a purchase yet but the prospects of where the industry is headed regarding wireless home theater has me really excited that  when I am ready to make a purchase of this nature, I’ll be able to find something that not only offers me and my family a level of home entertainment up to our expectations. At the same time the new streamlined wireless designs may actually help to improve the aesthetics of the our our interior space by doing away with the unsightly cords that so many of  us despise.

Wall Mounted

Posted on February 9th, 2009 – 11:08 PM
By Jason Hammond

I think I’ve said it before, but I really like TV. I know that’s not the politically correct thing to say, especially for a design driven person, but it’s the honest truth. Many of my younger, creative co-workers, and several of my close friends, are shocked when I tell them how much I like TV. I’ve even received the occasional sneer when I mention my affinity for the joy I receive from  watching TV. I wished I could reassure them that I only watch the smartest shows, or those that offer some redeeming value of education—which I do truly appreciate—but I’m also guilty of taking in my fair share of low brow TV as well.  However, the biggest problem my love for television has presented is that TVs are not particularly the most attractive feature of a homes interior. Certainly the introduction of the flat screen has alleviated this some but now there is an added level of complexity. Where do I put this thing on the wall and how do I hide all the nasty cords?

For us this situation has manifested itself in our upstairs family room. When we originally planned for the placement of the TV in that room we alotted to have coaxial cable run to one wall at the same height as the outlets. This seemed logical at the time but now it seems that our TV viewing needs would be better serviced if the TV was wall mounted. This presents us with the challenge of hiding a series of cords, and most likely moving both the coxial lines and the electrical outlets up on the wall.  This isn’t really that big of an obstacle, but it did get me to thinking about if there were better options. I was mulling over some potential ways to minimize the visual noise that a TV and the various elements that come along with it present. Could I create a floating wall out of a simple materials like walnut plywood that would hide all the distracting cords. Or what if I created a series simple floating boxes on the wall and utilized some of them to hide my components while others served as design elements to hold various pieces of art and sculture. Then somewhat ironically one of the readers of my blog (Paris Renfroe) wrote me a question regarding my mailbox design that lead to the exchange of a few email,  and some samples of his custom furniture work. In his collection of photos I found some interesting treatments for dealing with flat screen TVs and home entertainment settings. Although I can’t say the perfect solution for what we need was in the mix it certainly was enlightening to see how another design person had solved the same problem in similar ways, offering me some more food for thought.

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Retro Fit

Posted on January 25th, 2009 – 10:51 AM
By Jason Hammond

In our old house we had a fairly nice sized master bedroom, especially when considering the period and style of our home. However, it was oddly shaped making the location and positioning of our King-sized bed very limited, and as a result we had no side tables in our bedroom. Not having side tables meant that the placement of things link lamps and alarms clocks were nowhere within reach.  This inconvenient lead us to make sure that although, we were not doing a bedroom that was significantly larger than our old one we were going to ensure that it was designed to accommodate our bed.With one solution there always seems to come another challenge. In our case the added space around our bed provided us with ample room on both sides for side tables. However, we didn’t own any side tables, nor were we in the mood to spend $300 to get some of the ones we had seen  and liked. We considered building our own side tables but then Stacy found some affordable (around $120) hi-gloss white cabinets via CB2, a division of Crate & Barrel that offers modern furnishings at lower price point.

When the tables arrived they were easy to assemble, going together much of the furniture from IKEA (except a little more square based, on our previous experiences with this type of assembly).  PLacing thetables up to the sides of our bed we came to the conclusion that they were a bit low in relationship to the height of our bed. Not to be frustrated or discouraged by this we decided to remove the legs on the tables and mount them to the wall using some 3 1/2 framing screws, being careful to place to the screws behind the divider shelf so they would be obscured from view. The final result is well positioned floating cabinets at each side of our bed, and the next challenge, find side table lamps that better fit the space.

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The master bedroom at our old house was a nice size, but the strange shape and positioning of doors meant the location of the bed was very limited.

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The tables were too low for us to be able to access the shelves or see an alarm clock clearly.

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By mounting the tables to the wall we were able to raise them to a height that better fit with the bed.

Picking paint might be harder than painting

Posted on January 19th, 2009 – 10:37 PM
By Jason Hammond

Although, Stacy and I have decided to largely leave our walls white and use artwork to add the color and texture to the rooms, our two young boys were clambering for some color on the walls in their rooms. So after several trips to the home improvement store, dozens of paint swatches taped to the wall and some negotiating we settled on some colors.  You would think that all that was left would be to run to the store, pick-up some paint and put it on the wall. However, picking the paint color was just the start.

One of the often times overlooked elements of building a home that is friendly on the environment, is making sure that the environment of the home is friendly on you. For us this has meant trying to make conscious decisions to select low or No VOC  (Volatile Organic Compound) products. It started with our builder Benedict and Associates and their use of construction adhesives and carried on through to the materials our cabinetmaker Eastvold Custom used to build our cabinet boxes all having this feature. With all this in mind we weren’t about to throw away  all that planning thoughtfulness by using just any paint, especially in our kid’s rooms.

I remember a few years ago when we first began our house project I started seeing ads for a paint called Mythic that featured ZERO VOC. To be honest, at the time I had no idea what VOC’s were, why not having them was good and why I should care. But the paint had a cool looking retro label that caught my attention, and I was compelled enough to visit their website. As it turns out that new home smell that so many people talk about, is actually the off-gassing of VOC’s and cancer-causing toxins that are emitted for years.  So recalling this information, along with the added knowledge we gained while doing the research for our house, we decided that we should make sure we had a paint that was Low or NO VOC. However, when I went to find a retailer of Mythic I was surprised that I could find only two in the Twin Cites, and both were well outside of my reasonable driving range for a gallon or two of paint.  Not to be discouraged, and knowing that some of the other paint manufacturers were aware of the “greening” of America we decided to look around. To our surprise we found a several options from Sherwin William’s, HarmonyBenjamin Moore’s, Natura  and even a very affordable new line from Dutch Boy called Refresh.  Or final decision was to go with the Dutch Boy because it was readily available at our local Menards store just down the road, and on top of that it comes in those great easy to pour, non-rusting containers that Dutch Boy is famous for.

So after all the research and analysis, I have to say that it I was very pleased with our decision to use the NO VOC paint. Because we had several days of painting over the weekend, I would normally  have expect our house to have the strong smell of latex paint in the air, this however, was not the case. We were actually able to quickly pull the boys rooms together once the painted had tried so they could once again sleep in their own rooms without the worry of them waking up feeling sick from the fumes — a not so little thing when you think about.

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Mythic was the first paint I had heard of that featured NO VOC.

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In recently major paint manufacturers like Benjamin Moore have added products like their Natura line  that offer low or NO VOC.

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The Dutch Boy Refresh line of paints is a co-branded product with Arm & Hammer that eliminates paint odors and has No VOC.

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taping off stripes.

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the first stripes are painted.

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After giving the first color the appropriate amount of time to dry we were able to tape over the first color to give us a crisp transition between colors.

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The final finished wall.