Not for the Faint of Heart

Getting the brickwork exactly right

Getting the brickwork exactly right

We’re in the thick of the hard part.

The pace of decision-making has ramped up ferociously. Finish material choices now need to be set in stone . . . or wood, metal or glass.

We’ve spent hours and hours and hours studying the plans and then walking the halls (and rooms and stairway and closets and . . .) to get our electrical outlets and switches and light fixtures just where they ought to be.

Tom has worked more than a few hours this past week with the bricklayer, figuring out how to achieve the aged, weathered, “rubble-y” look we want.

We’ve paid close attention this week to placement of plumbing and cooling pipes and fixtures.

In each of these cases, we’ve found things to adjust and change.

Many people would not spend such great amounts of time and attention, assuming that the tradesmen and the pros and know precisely what to do in every situation. Our experience through the years, though, has shown that we’re all human, prone to error and to our own best guesses as to what’s right or wrong, good or bad. In addition, Tom and I find ourselves looking closely at every detail, knowing from experience that it can be the details that make the difference between “nice” and enduringly delightful. We’ve learned tremendous amounts from workmen on our building projects – and we assume they also learn from us. Or at least they’re gracious, kind and accommodating when we ask for a change or for something specific and out of the ordinary.

It would be oh-so-easy for worker-customer relationships be strained over building mistakes or over the endless requests from picky clients. It takes big hearts, full of trust in the other’s good integrity and good intentions, to keep smoothing out rough edges in relationships. Tom and I feel more than fortunate to be surrounded by a team of people who all have the biggest of hearts, and who value, as we do, the friendships forged in this undertaking. That alone makes this Living Building project worth it.

And from Tom’s “big brother” Bob the builder:

To all members of the Local 951 Mason’s Union: Keep an eye out for this intruder. This so-called wanna-be mason dude has been working all over with no Union Card. Paid no union dues, etc.

No steel-toed shoes, clearly inappropriate work clothes . . . shameful.

 If you see him put some mortar in his oatmeal.

 In brotherhood, Big Bro Bob

Thank You, Team, for Hard Work and Dedication

Tom recently sent an email to Bob, our builder, and his crew, thanking them for their careful work on our new home. It’s well worth publishing this short message, since every single person who’s had a hand in this project has gone above and beyond to make this a successful endeavor.

steph and hannahWhy just last week, in fact, our interior design team at Organizational Design showed their mettle, with Jane Hughes’ wonderful assistant Stephanie spending a day on our drawings with 3-week-old Hannah in tow. Awesome!

Hi Bob,

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I want to say it clearly in an email all its own . . . Marti and I really appreciate the way you, Roy, Brent and the whole framing crew have stepped up 100% to the challenge of building an industry-leading home. You guys are actually crafting a “Living Building,” with all its associated complications and technical demands . . .

  • complications caused by the many strict rules of the Living Building Challenge (like working only with materials and misc. supplies that are approved and tightly controlled at the site), and
  • technical demands for getting the level of performance from the building necessary to meet the many lofty goals of the Living Building Challenge, like net-zero energy, net-zero water, net-zero waste, etc.

Marti and I are very impressed with the quality of your work, the speed and efficiency of the teamwork, and the harmony that pervades the job site. Please pass along our hearty thanks to the team. Good job everyone!

Tom and Marti

Achieving Net Zero Energy

Since my last blog post, the house has taken on recognizable form, and is in fact nearly closed in. The exterior walls are framed and the roof SIPs are on. In another week or two, the roof will be sealed, and the walls will be enclosed with windows installed, giving the building crew a warm, dry environment in which to work. The home is designed for minimal input to keep it warm; long before we’re living there, the crew will benefit.

The Living Building Challenge requires that we achieve net zero energy: Over the course of a year, we need to produce on site all the energy needed for comfortable living. Our house design tackles this directive in several ways.

First, the thermal envelope is radically airtight and thickly insulated. Walls, down to the footings, and roof are heavily insulated. Every single joint is caulked and taped against air leakage, and thermal bridging between interior and exterior has been studiously avoided.

Second, the building design incorporates passive heating and cooling elements. The long south-facing wall of windows plus concrete floors will absorb heat from the sun. That long south wall of glass is interrupted in three places with Trombe walls, thick concrete floor-to-ceiling slabs, designed with a special surface film to absorb the heat of the sun through the day, and release that heat to the interior late in the day and overnight. We thereby avoid overheating during the day, and prolong the usefulness of that passively-gained heat.

The 10′ x 10′ x 31′ tall entry tower provides passive ventilation, especially in spring and fall. Our expert wind dynamics consultant Devki Desai modeled for us the optimum positioning, footprint and height of the tower, and positioning and size of the windows. The stack effect and Venturi effect will draw air through the house, up through the tower and out the tower windows.

A ground source heat pump uses the earth as a heat source in winter and heat sink in summer to deliver active heating and cooling, via an hydronic radiant floor heating system and forced air cooling.

Last but not least, 60 photovoltaic panels on the south-facing roof of the barn will generate 16 kilowatts of electricity. The solar array will be tied to the public utility grid. On gray days and at night, we’ll likely draw electricity from the grid, while on sunny days, our solar panels will produce more electricity than we need, sending the excess to the grid. Over the course of a year, we’ll be well set to produce more electricity than we use, or at a minimum, break even on the electric bill.

HERS rating

HERS rating

In fact, the current measure of energy efficiency of our house, based on the construction drawings, yields a HERS score of –11, boding well for our aim for net zero energy.

Be sure to check our photo gallery, as we’ve posted some new new photos.

Can We Please Be Done . . .

. . . with materials vetting, that is?

The process of researching each and every component of our home is onerous and long. And I say this from the sidelines, while Amanda and her team at Catalyst Partners, plus Jane Hughes and Bob Burnside, do the heavy lifting.

Wall detail: Every component here needed vetting!

Wall detail: Every component here needed vetting!

The Living Building Challenge handbook describes the Materials petal of the certification requirements as follows:

The intent of the Materials Petal is to induce a successful materials economy that is non-toxic, transparent and socially equitable. Throughout their lifecycle, materials are responsible for many adverse environmental issues including illness, squandered embodied energy, pollution, and resource depletion. The Imperatives in this section aim to remove the worst known offending materials and practices. When impacts can be reduced but not eliminated, there is an obligation not only to offset the damaging consequences associated with the construction process, but also to strive for corrections in the industry. At the present time it is impossible to gauge the true environmental impact and toxicity of the built environment due to a lack of product-level information.

The materials petal includes five imperatives:

  • Red List: The following chemicals cannot be present: asbestos; cadmium; chlorinated polyethylene and chlorosulfonated polyethylene; chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs); chloroprene (neoprene); formaldehyde (added); halogenated flame retardants; hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs); lead (added); mercury; petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides; phthalates; polyvinyl; chloride (PVC); wood treatments containing creosote, arsenic or pentachlorophenol.
  • Embodied Carbon Footprint: Account for embodied carbon footprint in construction through a one-time carbon offset.
  • Responsible Industry: Wood must be certified to Forest Stewardship Council standards, or salvaged or harvested onsite for clearing of the building area or for restoring or maintaining onsite ecological function. The project must advocate for creation and adoption of third-party standards for sustainable resource extraction and fair labor practices.
  • Appropriate Sourcing: Incorporate place-based solutions and contribute to the expansion of a regional economy rooted in sustainable practices, products and services. Source locations for materials and services are restricted according to type and especially to weight.
  • Conservation and Re-Use: Strive to reduce or eliminate waste during design, construction, operation and end of life phases, in order to conserve natural resources.

So now back to the specifics of our process: I’m copied on most of the emails among our team members regarding materials vetting, and the communication seems endless. Wood, concrete, metal, adhesives, fasteners, finishes . . . The process provides repeated opportunities for overlooking items, for misunderstandings and for other bumps in the road. What a testament to the integrity and good will of our team members, as they work through hard moments and continue as happy partners in this joint venture.

How much easier it would be to buy whatever off the shelf at the local lumberyard, hardware store or DIY center. And how much that reveals why the building and manufacturing industries feel little impetus to change. No wonder this is the Living Building Challenge.

The great news is that we’re closing in on the end of the nearly 800 items to be checked, seeing some light at the end of the long tunnel. We’re grateful to the following manufacturers and suppliers for working with us to achieve the safe materials goal. This is not an exhaustive list – just what we have so far. Our apologies to anyone we’ve overlooked; we’ll publish the complete list before we’re all done.

Alro Steel, Amana Corporation, Benjamin Moore Paints, Big George’s Home Appliance Mart, Bosch Appliances, Clopay Building Products, Cresline Plastic Pipe Company, Crossville Tile, DAP, Dow, Dupont, Emerson Industrial, General Finishes, General Hardwoods Company, Gentex, Hacker Industries, Hi-Lite Mfg, Hubbardton Forge Lighting, Industrial Chimney Co / Rumford Fireplaces, Ludowici Roof Tile, Lukjan Metal Products, Marvin Windows and Doors, Motawi Tile, Roseburg Forest Products, Santa Clara Copper, Sioux Chief Manufacturing, SolarWorld, Standard Lumber, The Stone Mill, Toto, Tried and True Finishes, United States Gypsum, Uponor Corporation.

Thanks to the Team

Visible Green Home Tour 1

Visible Green Home Tour 1

Thank you to our team – especially Michael, Bob, Shannan and Wayne – for putting on a great show last weekend! The first weekend of construction tours left Tom and me feeling impressed, encouraged and inspired.

We were impressed, not for the first time of course, by the knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment of those helping us with this project. Even without much in the way of built structure to look at, our tour guides found plenty to talk about. They gave the rationale and tenets of the Living Building Challenge, explaining how our home will be like a flower, using only the resources immediately at hand and regenerating its surroundings throughout it life. The tour continued with explanations of site planning, water harvesting, plumbing, insulation, Trombe walls and more, while still leaving plenty for future tours. It’s exciting to see the fruits of our three years of planning!

House lower level insulation below floor

House lower level insulation below floor

House lower level radiant floor installation

House lower level radiant floor installation

We were deeply encouraged by the number of people interested in and resonant with our LBC endeavor. We enjoyed wonderful and fascinating conversations with many – and Tom and I were only there for the first few hours on Saturday and the final hour or so on Sunday. Thank you to all who came to see what we’re up to; we hope to see you next time as well; and if you missed this round, we invite you to the next (Visible Green Home Tour, October 24–25).

Finally, we were ourselves re-inspired by the vision of the Living Building Challenge. To help spark change in the conventional building industry, to design and build a home intended to be beautiful and regenerate the environment for a hundred years and more, to bring our land into bountiful productivity – what a goal we’ve set for ourselves – and what a wonderful team has been formed around helping us achieve our goal. We are honored that we’re able to undertake this project, and we do indeed hope we inspire many to follow in our footsteps.

Drywall in barn workshop

Drywall in barn workshop

Cresting the First Hill

This weekend is the first round of construction tours of Burh Becc at Beacon Springs, a unique opportunity to see deep green building from the ground up.

Barn progress

Barn progress

Tours start on the hour, through the day on Saturday and Sunday. You’ll learn some history and descriptions of green building certifications, including LEED and the Living Building Challenge. You’ll hear about Tom’s and my hope for restoring the land using principles of permaculture. And you’ll understand why it is that Tom and I, with crucial assistance from so many, are going to such lengths to build this home in the manner we are.

Crucial assistance from so many . . . When we broke ground in the spring, we gathered the team and video taped our individual answers to questions about the project: why we’re doing it, what we’re learning, and so on. I’ve intended to edit the sound on these, since it was a very windy day and we only had the camera mic. That’s not happened, so here they are, just as they happened:

Amanda | Bob | Shannan | Jane | Susan | Michael | Tom | Marti

I love roller coasters. Cedar Point has just announced its latest and greatest, to be ready for next summer: higher and steeper and faster than any yet built. I can’t wait! But there’s still that moment as one crests the first hill: the rush of excitement, anticipation, fear. I feel a bit of that now as we put our project “out there” for everyone to see. Thank you for your interest and encouragement on this ride of a lifetime.

Sign up here for a tour; I’ve just now seen the agenda and am sure you won’t regret it!

“The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.” ― Terry Tempest Williams, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert

Appearing in the Playbill

Seth Godin[1] writes regular blog posts, which I regularly find to be insightful and inspiring. This week he wrote:

Will this be on the test?

The test, of course, offers nothing but downside. No extra credit, just points marked off. The test is the moment where you must conform to standards, to say what is expected of you.

Perhaps a better question is, “Will this be in the Playbill?”

The Playbill is the little program they hand out before the Broadway musical. The Playbill is all about extra credit, about putting on a show, surprising, elevating, doing something more than people hoped for.

A different part of our brain is activated when we think about what’s possible as opposed to what’s required.

The Living Building Challenge is in the Playbill. It’s set apart from other green building standards by its requirement for proven performance rather than anticipated outcomes. Its seven “petals” – site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty – embrace 20 imperatives to be followed in creating a Living Building. A building can achieve “petal recognition” for satisfying the corresponding requirements, without addressing all seven petals.

The first petal is "site," and it stipulates that buildings may only be built on previously developed land, including farmland. Here's proof that our land was previously used for farming: velvelweed. It grows in corn and soy fields, reseeds itself enthusiastically – and buried seeds can lie dormant for up to 60 years, germinating once the ground is disturbed, bringing in light and water. This patch has taken off on a pile of dirt moved for construction.

The first petal is “site,” and it stipulates that buildings may only be built on previously developed land, including farmland. Here’s proof that our land was previously used for farming: velvelweed. It grows in corn and soy fields, reseeds itself enthusiastically – and buried seeds can lie dormant for up to 60 years, germinating once the ground is disturbed, bringing in light and water. This patch has taken off on a pile of dirt moved for construction.

Tom and I, from the beginning, knew we would not be satisfied if we aimed for anything short of full Living Building status. We do indeed want to be in the Playbill, and not simply pass the test. As Jason McClennan, ILFI founder, said in a recent TED Talk, “We aim to not just do less harm to the environment, but rather to regenerate the environment in our construction.” (paraphrased)

So what are the seven petals and associated imperatives all about? I’ll embark on a series of posts discussing each, and our plans for achieving success in each area, beginning next week and continuing over the following weeks.

And don’t forget you can see our progress in person by registering for and coming to the first Visible Green Home tour, September 26–27.


[1] Seth Godin is the author of 18 books that have been bestsellers around the world and have been translated into more than 35 languages. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything. (taken from Seth’s website)

Couldn’t Do This Without Them

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the challenges of researching construction materials, and the yeoman’s work being done by Bob Burnside, Amanda Webb, Ben VanGessel (and now Eric Harrington; thanks, Eric, for joining us!).

I sadly overlooked one of our greatest champions in this process: Jane Hughes, our interior designer (Organizational Designs). We enlisted Jane’s help after we’d been at this project for quite some time, but she dove right in and has more than caught up with the rest of the team. Her knowledge and experience have been invaluable in helping us refine and finish the design process, and she has completely grasped the need to source products close to home and to avoid those 600 red-list chemicals. I’ve said several times over the past few months, “I don’t know what we’d do without Jane.”

Of course, the deeper truth is that we don’t know what we’d do without any of the members of our Living Building Challenge team. So many wonderful folks have shared their wisdom and expertise over the past 3 ½ years . . . “Thank you” is hardly enough.

One week ago, no blog post appeared here, since Tom and I spent the weekend at a permaculture workshop at a farm near Manchester, led by Mark Shepard of New Forest Farm. Combining classroom learning with in-the-field work, Mark taught the workshop participants about water management for perennial agriculture systems. We spent lots of time with laser level and flags, marking swales which were then bulldozed and shaped.

Weekend workshop in Manchester, MI, with Mark Shepard

Weekend workshop in Manchester, MI, with Mark Shepard

Tom and I have talked for some time about connecting with someone such as Mark Shepard, to help us start on the permaculture farming part of our Beacon Springs undertaking. Over the course of last weekend, we talked with Mark about our project, and were then able to meet him at our property on Monday morning, before he began his drive home to Wisconsin. Shannan Gibb-Randall, our landscape architect (Insite Design), was able to join us, grading plan in hand. Mark asked questions and gave us initial thoughts on overall water management and swale design to coordinate the house construction area with the rest of the 15 acres. He took the drawings with him and will work first with Shannan on design drawings, and in the spring, in person, on our land, guiding us in executing his recommendations.

Meeting with Mark Shepard, late August

Meeting with Mark Shepard, late August

So yet another amazing and expert member has now been added to the team – what good fortune for us! With Mark’s help, our dream of helping feed some hungry folks will move more quickly to reality.

A Trip Around the World

Some friends of ours saw a unique moment of opportunity some years ago, when their four children were young, to take a full year and travel around the world. What an adventure! Tom and I, having each lived abroad and traveled quite a bit, were green with envy when we learned about this.

We don’t foresee such an opportunity for ourselves. But early on in our house project we came to the conclusion that aiming for Living Building certification would be tantamount to a trip around the world, filled with challenges, obstacles, new friendships and unexpected joys.

And what a trip this is! As when traveling, we’ve encountered unanticipated experiences, making us scramble and learn and stretch and change.

Language is, of course, often the first hurdle when traveling abroad. For us, we’ve learned a whole new vocabulary and a new way of thinking about energy, water, waste and growing food. Who would have dreamed we would discover Trombe walls and incorporate them into our design? Who would have thought we’d actually find ways to use harvested rainwater and to return waste to the environment in a healthful, productive way? (Yep, our local health officials have yet to give the green light; but we’re patient and we’re confident things will eventually change.) Who could have predicted we’d be planning to restore our 15 acres of land to health and productivity using principles of permaculture – not even knowing a few short years ago that such methods existed? That’s just a sample of the new vocabulary and concepts we’ve encountered and learned about.

Stone for north wall of house from Michigan quarries; roof tile from Ohio

Stone for north wall of house from Michigan quarries; roof tile from Ohio

Transportation can be a trial in a foreign country: How to find one’s way to a desired destination? The Living Building Challenge requires that building materials be sourced close to home, thus reducing the energy cost of shipping. But did you know that most light fixtures are made in China? Did you know that even seemingly trivial items such as foundation anchor bolts are shipped from China? Again, this is the tip of the iceberg – and we’re only partway into construction. Bob Burnside, our builder, and Amanda and Ben from Catalyst Partners, are staying plenty busy researching and finding locally sourced products.

And of course, there’s the biggest challenge of all with foreign travel: understanding unfamiliar customs and traditions. The Living Building Challenge includes an education component: As we learn about and implement regenerative and healthy construction methods, we’re charged to pass on our knowledge so others might follow in our footsteps. A main component of our education work begins in a month, with the first in a series of construction tours, showcasing each component of the home: site considerations; energy, water and waste systems; thermal envelope; materials vetting; indoor environment; and more. Dates for these tours are September 26–27, October 24–25, and November 21–22. Watch this web site for information on tour registration.

Finally, a trip might be a long undertaking: a year abroad; or a Living Building project. We most definitely took our time designing this home – not surprising, since we love thinking through the details. We were surprised at the work required not just for beautiful building design but also for planning into the building all the strategies for making it live in harmony with the environment.

Surprisingly again, that phase of the project now seems like a piece of cake compared to the effort now of making sure every material used in construction meets LBC requirements for nontoxic components and local sourcing. What a trip this is!

And what fun it is! Hard – very hard – at times – yes. But there’s great joy in knowing we’re causing ripples in the conventional building industry that will affect the average homebuilder; joy in new friendships with team members and with others we’ve connected to because of this project; and deep satisfaction in acting on our convictions that our well-being is bound to the well-being of the natural environment, trusting that we can and should build this home to be a living building, to regenerate its surroundings and to nurture the lives and health of those who live and visit there.

Challenging Industry

Barn cupola under construction

Barn cupola under construction

Green building is sometimes associated with back-to-the-land, off-the-grid approaches. Homes might be built with straw bales or other natural or “found” materials. Energy production might be completely off the grid. The goal might be to be completely self-sustaining in all aspects of life.

These are proven methods, and I’m filled with admiration for those with the energy and ingenuity to build a home in this way.

The Living Building Challenge has a similar goal: to live lightly on the land. It’s designed, though, to challenge and move forward the conventional commercial building industry, creating opportunity for many people to “build green,” bringing regenerative building methods into the mainstream.

Manufacturers are responding to this challenge, being transparent about product ingredients and finding ways to avoid toxic chemicals. Not all manufacturers are doing so – but enough to provide hope for the future, and the numbers are growing.

We’ve been hard at work in recent weeks nailing down roofing materials. We’re looking at shingle-style clay tiles for the house, and standing seam metal for the barn and the house tower. That combination seems to us to combine the timeless beauty of clay tiles with the Michigan farm vernacular.

But we’ve not settled on the tile, since we’ve discovered that the glaze colors we like contain arsenic and cadmium, both big bad toxic chemicals. We may be in luck, though, as the manufacturer is responding quickly with alternatives, even proposing a color mix created just for us and for LBC compliance. Already on the road to green, this manufacturer may be nudged by our project to take yet another step down that road, helping to protect us all from dangerous chemicals in everyday life and in manufacturing processes – because we’ve been able to leverage the structure of the Living Building Challenge toward the good of all.

And as for roofing material – we’re keeping our fingers crossed . . .