Tuesday, March 24th, 2009


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 as well as pursue opportunities around sharing my “modest modern” philosophy via, 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.

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

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.

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.

Picking paint might be harder than painting

Monday, January 19th, 2009

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.

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.

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

taping off stripes.

the first stripes are painted.

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.

The final finished wall. 

Waste not, want not

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

About ten years ago I was working as a designer/art director for a small company that published interior design trade magazines. Among our various publications We had a small industry magazine dedicated to wall finishes, namely wallpaper. It was, at the time, a dying industry where only the highest-end products in both commercial and residential applications were making any headway or profit for that matter, and it looked as though paint and faux finishes had finally done in the art of applying materials to walls . Fast-forward roughly ten years and both the supply and demand for wall decor has seemingly skyrocketed. However, unlike their existence a decade ago they are now being used more to create accent walls and interest rather than to cover entire rooms.The growing popularity of these wall applications seem to range from the extremely dynamic composite wall panels like those by modulararts, to the paper squares like those made by inhabit and finally the more traditional, but equally as cool strong graphical patterned wallpapers like the work of Nama Rococo.

The Clif™ wall panels from

The SHAN Sangri La wall panels from Inhabit.
The Sixty-Eight, one of the beautiful patterns from Nama Rococo.

After spending more than a year looking and considering a variety of materials and applications available to us, Stacy suggest that we might be able to create our own wall application with the idea of using some scrap material we had left over from other projects. After talking about what pattern we liked the best and what would be most easy to execute with both the tools and materials we had. We settled on a linear sliding plane pattern that mimicked the design of our house and was relatively easy to execute. Using scrap pieces of MDF in both 1/2″ and 3/4″ thickness we cut them down in to a series of long linear strips and then cut them down to varying lengths. To give it an added layer of dimension we spaced the pieces in a staggered manner and used the wall to create a third plane. Once the wall was covered we filled the cracks and nail holes with paintable caulk and then painted the entire wall bright white.

The results of our little scrap project is a very inexpensive but fairly cool feature wall, that gives our first floor bathroom a sophisticated, mid-century modern meets modern contemporary feel. Because we used scrap material and the paint that we already had for the house our only out of pocket expense was roughly $6 for some decent 1″ paint brushes to get into the little spaces between pieces—a well worth it investment.

The MDF as we applied it to the wall in various sizes.
The finished wall.
A close-up of the wall dimension.

fuel for thought

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

The furnace system uses a large hopper which can hold several bushels of corn of pellets lasting for sevaral days of heating.

A close up of the furnace.

The A-MAIZ-ING-Heat furnace system can be tied directly into your current duct work.

With the rising costs of fuel and the extremely prolonged stretches of cold weather many of us have been experiencing here in the north people all over are looking for alternative energy sources to help supplement or replace there current heating needs. One of the most popular means of doing this is corn fed or pellet fed stoves and furnaces.

Recently some family-friends of my, Frank and Lois Cernohous, installed a new corn burning furnace in their 100 year old farm house in Western Wisconsin. For a farm family who has a ready abundance of fuel (corn) at their disposal this type of residential system is a perfect solution. But it got me wondering if corn burning furnaces are a viable, logical solution for those of us without the advantage of having a fuel resource right in our backyard.

The furnace system that the Cernohous’ used is from a Minnesota Company, KC-Cornburners, and the furnace system is called The A-MAIZ-ING-Heat® Furnace. Doing my research I discovered that there are several sellers of the The A-MAIZ-ING-Heat® Furnace, all of whom have purchased the rights to manufacture and sell the bottom-fed biomass system under this name. This localized manufacturing and sales model means that the cost of shipping these systems and the environmental impact associated with it are greatly reduced making a much green option. Additionally, because it is designed to burn both corn and wood pellets, this system has some distinct advantages over stoves that burn only corn. Many of us who live in areas in the Upper-Midwest where access to corn is easy and affordable could probably easily find a resource for meeting our fuel needs. However, crops can be a somewhat unpredictable resources (just ask any farmer) with various fasctors playing into the season yield. While at the same time, the growing popularity of E-85 and other ethanol based auto fuels have driven up demand, and thus the cost of corn to new highs in the past few years. However, the use of biomass wood pellet which can also be burnt in the A-Maiz-ing Heat furnace come from various manufacturing sectors as a waste product. The demand for these biomass pellets have resulted in pellet plants being opened up around the country making this additional fuel resource viable alternative for many more people.

So just how does a biomass furnace work?  A corn or biomass furnace like the The A-MAIZ-ING-Heat furnace can be tied into a your conventional duct work. The systems are thermostatically controlled and have a hopper that holds and feeds the fuel into the furnace to regulate the temperature and fuel consumption. These hoppers generally hold about 5-7 days worth of fuel so the system does require some regular maintenance, but certainly less than say a wood burning fireplace. The waste material from burning also will require some regular maintenance but again this will depend of the amount of fuel that is used and the actual fuel selected (corn burns a little cleaner than wood or other biomass materials).

After reading up on it I can’t say that these systems are for everyone or that you’ll see them replacing more traditional Natural Gas systems anytime soon, but if you don’t mind doing a little maintenance work and feel you can find a dependable resource for your fuel than it’s certainly worth taking a look at. Or if your feeling a bit more entrepreneurial, maybe it’s time to open a up a pellet supply company and start in an home delivery maintenace service—just a thought.

Modern in a lost city

Monday, December 15th, 2008

I have had the pleasure while doing this blog of sharing ideas and solutions with many people who have either done their own similar project or are interested in doing something like it in the future. Of the many people I have met during these various exchanges, one of the most interesting to me was Matt and Laura Tills. The Tills, like us, had recently added to their young family and outgrown their home at the time. Since Matt is an architect they began making plans to design and build their very own modern, green friendly home. Like us the tills were in search of resources to help aid them in the design and selection of the many materials they would ultimately use, and in the process we connected. Over the next, almost two years, we have corresponded back and forth, sometimes with questions for one another and occasionally just to commiserate with someone else who could truly understand the impact of taking on such a project and the impact that it can have on your life. Our connections have become much more random over the last 6 months or so as our projects have come to relative completion and both our families have adjusted to getting settled in. I sent an email to Matt and Laura recently asking to see some current images of their project in it’s completed form and if I could share their project with the readers of my blog, they graciously agreed to do so.

Matt and Laura didn’t do anything of the ordinary kind when it came to building their new home, not even the selection of their land. Although they are located within the city limits of Wisconsin’s Capital of Madison, their property is in what is referred to as the “lost city”, a part of the University of Wisconsin’s Arboretum. The section of land was not fitted with city sewer and they had to work to get the property rezoned to reduce the rear lot line in order to position the house in a place where they could avoid losing some large evergreens in the front yard.  Additionally, their property had the remnants of an old tennis court on it which would eventually serve as the site of their new home.

Matt designed the house with great care to consider the surroundings while introducing forward thinking modern and green friendly design and building practices. The exterior of the house which was constructed of SIPs and clad in steel, Prodema siding and stone seems to sit perfectly among the surrounding trees almost as if it had been their forever. The interior of the home with its carefully placed clearstory and large sections of windows invite sunlight into the space, creating a beautiful glow and blur the lines between interior and exterior spaces. The rich colors of the stained concrete floors are complimented by the beauty of the blonde woodwork and exposed beams of the roof and ceiling. The simple, elegant, modern fixtures that appear in the bathrooms and almost every lighting opportunity, seem to perfectly compliment the lines and form of the homes design. This home is truly an inviting and modern jewel to be discovered, in what was once known as Madison’s lost city.