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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.

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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.

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

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.

fuel for thought

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

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

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A close up of the furnace.

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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.

Light it up

Monday, November 10th, 2008

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Drilling some holes in the MDF.

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Once we created our pattern we painted the panels white.
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With the panels set in place we were pleased felt that it needed another length of rope light to complete the effect before we tack it in place for good.
The area under our bar has sat relatively untouched since we have moved in a little less than a year ago. This was more a result of having too many ideas to choose from and not being able to commit t one in particular. We looked at some relatively expensive but very cool solutions but in the end we decided that it was probably something we would rather invest a little ingenuity and hard work into rather than cash in order to get the affect we wanted. As a result we decided to go another one of our “modest modern” design solutions.

When our electrician was wiring the wall located underneath our bar, I had a thought that it would be good idea to put an outlet up high with a switch to turn it off, so that we could potentially add some under bar LED lighting later on. As we weighed our various options, the ability to add this  light to the surface area really played heavily into our final decision of what material to use and how to apply it. Using a couple of sheets of MDF we cut them down to divide the space under the bar in half. We then drilled a series of varying sized holes into the substrate in a random pattern. After painting the panels a hi-gloss white, we mounted a length of LED rope light to the back of the panels, before mounting them to the wall using 3/4″ spacers. The panels were cut a bit short of the overall height so that they could float about 3/4 of an inch off the floor, creating a reverse toe-kick. The effect was a  random pattern of light coming through the holes, and a line of light running along the floor the length of the bar. The subtle nature of the pattern allows it to feel elegant in the space, while at the same time giving the room an added sense of dimension. We’ve decided thayt to optimize the effect we need to add one additional section of LED rope light, but outside of that it turner out great and has already garnered the attention of the neighbor kids and a few visiting friends.

Long Distance Relationship

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

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photos courtesy of Michael Huber Architects

Just a short distance off Interstate I-94 in the Western Wisconsin town of Baldwin lives the product of a long distance relationship.Several years back John and Debra Beard purchased an ideal piece of property on Pine Lake with the hopes of turning it into a family retreat and ultimately a retirement home for the couple. The small town setting a rural landscape appealed to the Beards who both live and work on the East Coast, presenting a variety of challenges to the design and building process.

The Beards hired Architect Michael Huber to design and manager their rural lake retreat for them, from his office in Hudson, Wisconsin. Although the Beards made several trips back to Western Wisconsin to meet with Huber for key meetings, the distance separating the two parties meant that many of the meetings and client presentations would have to be done via email and over the phone.

The goal of the project was to create a central gathering place for the family while at the same time connecting each area of the home to the exterior surroundings. This meant that spaces such as family, living, dining loft, deck and patio would all be central and dominate in proportion. This allowed the structure to capture natural light and capitalize and control ideal views for all to enjoy. At the same time private spaces such as bedrooms were placed on the peripheral areas yet positioned to maintain a connection to the lake and surround environment in a more intimate manner.

The structure became a merger of modern refined lines and forms complemented by natural materials and textures. A sleek metal box frames the home’s main envelope while a barrel roof softens the industrial nature of the material and ties the structure to the rolling hills of the surround farmland—best seen from the roof-top deck. The building is broken into two main bodies connected together via a glass walkway entry “link”, that again connects the interior spaces to the exterior almost seamlessly. Complementing the strength of the structure and playing to its setting a large wall of stone encapsulates views of the interior stairwell, which is visible through a wall of windows nested in the stone.

It was important for the Beards, Huber and builder (Symmetry Homes) that sustainable and efficient design and building practices were used. This included on-site rainwater management and ponding, eco-friendly finishes, dual flush toilets, high efficiency windows, radiant heating systems and a variety of other features. The final result, is a stunning, environmentally responsible retreat, located on an ideal setting in rural Western Wisconsin.

Title Correction

Monday, August 11th, 2008

In my previous posts I noted that Dustin Halverson was our Landscape Architect. This was incorrect. Although Halverson holds a degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Wisconsin —Madison, he is not a licensed Landscape Architect, and therefore I should have referred to him as a Landscape Designer. In order to gain license in the State of Minnesota, one would have to work under a licensed landscape architect for a period of time and then take the LARE (landscape architecture registration exam). This was pointed out to me by a Licensed Landscape Architect form the State of Minnesota (there are only 390) and confirmed by Dustin.
NOTE: A Landscape Architecture License is not required for residential design, build, Landscape work and therefore not widely held for professionals in those positions. However, the title is exclusively reserved for those who hold a licensed title with the state and have a specified license number.