The Technical Stuff

How much longer?


This photo was a test shot with my new iPhone right after Thanksgiving to send my sister-n-law.  My brother had just taken out the wall between their kitchen and dinning room and they were adjusting to noise bouncing around the newly open space.  I sent this to her so she could get a sense of our open space. With our kids home for the holiday we had a lot of noise bouncing around and up and down!

With the holiday behind us we are back into renovation mode. It’s hard to fathom that we are not actually done yet. We came upon a huge obstacle this past fall that forced us to come to a screeching halt. We were caught in a bureaucratic snare that was by far the most frustrating part of this journey.  The situation was very emotionally charged for me and I could not write about our plight with objectivity until now. It is a very long story.  I will hit the highlights.

In late April, 2014 we approached the city about the utility pole in the alley blocking the entrance to the old garage.  We wanted to remove the dilapidated, cinderblock garage and replace it with an open carport but the pole obstructed the entrance. The simplest solution for city officials at the time was to grant us entrance to the carport from the side street instead of the alley. New curb cuts on city streets are very limited and a cherished commodity, though granted by code to corner homes that border an alley; a fact that I was unaware of until John and I met with the city to ask about moving the utility pole that apparently belongs to Verizon, not the city.  We were surprised but thrilled and set about removing the old garage and making the changes to install a driveway and a parking pad with underground piers for the carport.  That work took place during an oppressive heat wave in June.

July and August were slow months as we needed to catch our financial breath and John took a much needed hiatus from daily work at Honor’s Corner.  Our adult kids were in and out and we used the time to get acquainted with the house and settle into the neighborhood.  When September rolled around we focused our attention to the final stage: the carport and the backyard landscaping. We hired a draftsman to produce the professional renderings for the carport and took them to the city to obtain the building permit.  Back in April we had discussed the plans with the permit office representative but only had hand-sketched ideas so we were not able to file for the carport building permit at that time.  In October I took the plans to the city.

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A week or so later I received a call requesting that I meet with the zoning office about the plans.  John went with me.

We were informed that the driveway width and carport placement were out of compliance for the Museum District.  This is where the snare begins.  Because we are a corner lot and abut an alley we are allowed a 9-foot (one-car) driveway.  We were permitted and had installed a twenty-two foot (two-car) driveway.  Additionally, because our side street has homes that face that street, our carport could not stand in the plane of those front yards. Meaning, our carport could not be relocated to the side of the yard where the driveway and concrete pad, with several under ground concrete piers, had been installed. Because there was already a two-car driveway and garage directly across the side street from us, the city had allowed us to mirror the design; to keep with the neighborhood aesthetic.  These details were discussed back in April during our application for the original permit.  Apparently there had been some changes to design ordinances for Museum District several years ago that were not verified before our permit was issued.

John and I sat across the table from a very sweet, frustrated, helpless zoning representative that could only tell us that we were out of compliance and could go no further into our project. She didn’t know if we would be forced to tear it all out, use it as it was or wait for the city to come remove the permitted structures.  I fought back tears and John fought back screams and fist slamming.  It wasn’t her fault.  It was someone’s fault that we had been given the permit and spent several thousand dollars in preparations to get to this point.  Assigning blame was irrelevant. We just needed a solution.

The solution came from weeks of meetings with every level of the Zoning and Planning Commission and our city councilman.  In the end, the only entity that could rectify our predicament was city council.  We had to be granted a special use permit to place the carport on the east side of the yard and to have a two-car driveway.  Neither of these are uncommon in our neighborhood, just out of compliance with the most recent ordinances. Obtaining a special use permit requires that the home owner complete extensive paperwork and post a large sign on their property notifying neighbors of the request. The paperwork is sent to city council for review at their monthly meeting.  Along the way the paperwork and plans are reviewed by design committees and neighborhood associations for required endorsements. Once reviewed by city council, Z&P sends a letter to neighbors within 150 feet of the property line on all sides and a public hearing is held. The results of the public hearing are then presented to city council again for a final vote of approval.  It took just over two months for the process to play out.  From what we have learned, two months is lightening speed! We are so very grateful to the Z&P official assigned to our case and our city councilman for helping us navigate the process and expediting the paperwork.

Because we face two streets, we technically have two front yards and thus were required to post two signs.  A neighbor, who was granted a special use permit by city council the month prior, gave us his sign and we made the additional one ourselves.


There are positives to be found through most unpleasant situations and ours is no exception. We talked to dozens of neighbors and made some new friends!  We became acquainted with our city councilman, Jon Balilies, son of Virginia Governor Gerald Balilies who served the state from 1986-1990. He actually lives on our street but I had never met him and hesitated to reach out to him. That was silly, I found him to be a down-to-earth, no nonsense, genuine person who works tirelessly for our district. It was fun and interesting to see some of the intricacies of city government.  We attended our first city council meeting, figured out the best places to park around City Hall and gained a appreciation for governmental procedures.  I was forced to develop some more patience, which is always a good thing! On December 8th our special use permit was approved by city council!

We are now waiting for the brick mason to build the columns and then John and Patrick will build the carport.  Once it is in place, the landscape work con be done and the fence can be installed.  We have been asked to participate in the Museum District Mother’s Day House tour so we are aiming for 100% completion by May, exactly two years from the first hammer of demolition!

Mallory was instrumental in developing a landscape plan for the backyard and putting it on paper.  The white ring is for flowers and there will be grasses dispersed among the rocks and a planting area under the tree.  We are pretty excited about having a low maintenance entertaining area that provides drainage for rain water to stay on our property.  The yard looks a lot bigger in this diagram than it actually is.  It will be fun to post the pictures after installation!

backyard plans


We passed the energy tests!

Earlier this week Honor’s Corner passed the final energy audit.  The audit measures the “tightness” of the home by evaluating two features: the exterior seal and the internal ductwork.  Basically, the tests let you know if you have any leaks or holes in your home.  Anyone can have the tests conducted in their home for about $300. The measurements obtained during our tests are part of the total energy model used to calculate our EarthCraft and LEED ratings.

We have actually had the outer envelop tested three times.  Back in March, as a proactive measure, we hired an independent company to come to the house and conduct a blower door test.  At that time we were mostly looking for gaps in our insulation so that we could fix anything before the siding went on and we had the final certifying test.  At that time, the auditor said that our house was one of the “tightest” he had measured.  There is a fine line between having it tight enough for efficiency and too tight for healthy air exchange.  You need to have some fresh air entering your home.  If the outer envelop gets too tight then a whole house fan could be necessary.  At that time, without siding, caulk or paint on the house we were right where we wanted to be.  We didn’t have the ducts tested because Delta Temp, the company that installed the geothermal heating and cooling system, had already tested it as part of their routine service.

The second test took place in July when EarthCraft came for official testing.  The outer envelop test went as expected but there were some issues with the ductwork testing so they had to reschedule.  The third time was a charm.  Brad and Paige came back this week and repeated the blower door test for the outer envelop and were able to successfully complete the duct test.  Both tests indicated that we are in the high efficiency and healthy zones!

A blower door is a big fan that mounts into the frame of an exterior door. The fan pulls air out of the house, lowering the air pressure inside. The higher air pressure outside then flows in through any unsealed cracks or openings. The test simulates 20 MPH winds blowing on the house from all 6 sides at the same time and determines air infiltration into the house.

There is a frame and flexible panel that fits into the doorway, a variable-speed fan, a pressure gauge that measures the pressure difference inside and outside, and an airflow gauge with hoses.

Setting up the blower door test back in March.


An infrared camera is used to identify “hot spots” where there is a leak or gap in insulation.  This tool is so sensitive that it detected a hole in the foam insulation about the size of dime in a narrow corner in the peak of the attic.  Here the tool is showing where the glass of the window and the frame meet.  It detects a sliver of heat exchange.  The guy chuckled when I seemed concerned about this and he dismissed it as “nothing.” IMG_6897

Paige from EarthCraft is using the same tool to follow ducts behind the wall to see if there are any leaks in the system.DSC_0024

Brad is covering the air intake with tape.  All the vents in the house are sealed during the testing.DSC_0015

Black plastic covers are placed over some of the high vents.DSC_0010

An air pressure gauge is inserted into a vent during the duct test. DSC_0006

This contraption sucks all the air out of the ducts.DSC_0022

The doors have to be kept closed during the testing.  Once the fan was removed the dogs made a quick escape through the hole.  You can see just the bottom of Shelly’s legs as she darted away.  Luci exited right behind her! DSC_0013

John completed his paperwork with Richard (LEED Consultant) documenting his construction methods and materials.


We have submitted all of our receipts (proof of purchases) and paperwork to Richard who will finalize documentation with EarthCraft.  Together they will calculate our points and file for our certifications.  We are really looking forward to wrapping up that part of the project!

We have light and lots of it!

One of our main concerns for the redesign of our house was light, natural and artificial.  City lots are typically long and narrow and the houses are very close together or attached to one other, reducing the amount of natural light that gets into your home.  When we bought the house it was dark.  The paint was dark, the carpeting was dark and windows were limited because every room had a fireplace on the outside wall.  With the fireplaces removed we were able to incorporate more windows and since we have a corner lot we get lots of additional natural light.  We are situated on the northwest corner, which means morning light in the living areas of the house. We are thrilled to have a detached home on a corner lot!  Michael’s design placed French doors where there were once walls and doubled the number of windows in all of the common areas.

We have also been very intentional about the artificial lighting.  We have used the maximum number of can lights on the ceiling without being obnoxious and are using LED bulbs in each fixture.  LED stands for Light Emitting Diode.  They are fascinating little chips that put off light and are covered by a glass bulb or mounted on a strip for cabinet lighting.  We are using LED strips in the kitchen under the cabinets and in our media room behind a cove on the ceiling to cast light upward.  There are two huge positives to using LED lights in your home.  First, they don’t produce heat which is healthy for our environment and for your home during the summer months.  Secondly, they greatly reduce the energy consumption for lighting, reducing stress on the environment and your electrical bill.  I found a series of short You Tube videos that discuss LED lighting and compare it to incandescent and compact fluorescent.  If you are interested in some brief, succinct explanations take a look, especially if you like listening to snappy accents!

LED strip with the tiny chips that create the light.


The US Green Building Council’s LEED certification program has a prescription that dictates the wattage of lights that can be used in the home.  There is a formula for determining the points awarded for energy conservation. We are using LED bulbs in every light fixture except for the pendants over our kitchen island.  These pendants need a bulb that reflects light in all directions.  The LED technology aims in mostly one direction.  Designs will catch up but for now we will be using compact fluorescent bulbs in those two lamps.

Here is a look at some of the lights.  We are obviously going for a contemporary look.

Our island pendants are made from repurposed cardboard.  The cardboard is salvaged from Walmart and Target stores, sterilized, laser cut into circles, pieced together with Elmer’s glue and treated with a flame retardant.  At night when the bulb is on, the light sneaks out through the corrugated openings but this is what it looks like during the day. You can see a night picture by moving down to the last post about our Green Drinks open house.  These lights are fabricated in the USA by Graypants.


The dining room chandelier uses candelabra LED bulbs.  One downside of LED bulbs is that they are typically pretty ugly.  I found this chandelier almost a year ago at a greatly reduced price and bought it not knowing if we would ever find a LED bulb that wasn’t really weird looking.  Fortunately, after hours of searching Patrick found these bulbs. They have a little glass tent inside over the chip to imitate a filament.  These were the only ones that looked decent enough for a chandelier.  Another drawback to LED is that they are very expensive, but they should last 20-23 years!  These were less than half of the cost of some of the uglier ones!


We also have a chandelier in the stairwell.  We are using the same LED bulbs as in the dining area.


I knew I wanted to use a George Nelson Saucer Lamp in the house.  My idea to place a large one over the dining room table was vetoed so I ordered a small one for the powder room.  Everyone loves it there!


Everyday someone asks when we will be moving?  Pretty soon!  The major items on the “To Do List” include plumbing fixtures (about half done now), counter tops and finishing of the floor. Then we have to perform a blow test for LEED to evaluate the effectiveness of the insulation “envelope” and ductwork seals.  We are hoping for late March-early April!  We like to say we are in “single digit weeks.”

The well has been dug!

Geothermal heating and cooling systems commonly consist of tubes running horizontally around the property several feet below the surface.  Because we don’t have the horizontal square footage, Delta Temp chose a vertical looping system contained inside a well for our needs. Monday the neighbors had an early morning alarm in the form of a huge well driller.  The rig and backhoe were set in place over the weekend so the drilling could start at 7AM sharp.  Curtis Drilling also dug an 8-foot pit near the well site into which they would deposit the dirt, mud, rock shavings and water that came out of the ground during the process. DSC_0007


The big drill bit!

IMG_5359Long extension poles stacked on the side of the truck.Image

Extension poles are hoisted into a loader that spins to drop poles into place.  A huge wrench screws the poles together tightly.DSC_0010

DSC_0015 I arrived early to get photos and videos from a second floor window.  The drill ran nonstop from 7AM to 4PM in order to reach a depth of 400 feet.   Early on in the drilling, while standing in the window I got pelted in the face with a mud clump!  Mud went splattering everywhere!  Here is a video that shows some of the drilling and splattering. Initially the debris coming up out of the ground was red Virginia clay. It changed over to orange mud, followed by gray granite shavings. The mud was largely caused by the water pumped into the hole as the drilling took place. The big hole is filled with mud and rock shavings.  It will take days for the water to evaporate and be absorbed into the yard.DSC_0023


DSC_0052 Here’s another short video clip of the rig in operation. On Tuesday, the tubing used for air circulation was inserted down the deep well and concrete was pumped into the shaft.  All that is visible is this little stump.

Image 1The city will send an inspector to have a look and then a trench will be made from the well to the underside of the house to connect the well to the system.  For a better understanding of the geothermal system, please refer to Patrick’s earlier post.

Our Smart House

Did you ever watch the Disney movie Smart House? Our kids did, about a thousand times. It was the late 1990’s and we didn’t even have a cell phone yet. In the movie the house could do everything from cooking and cleaning to turning on the television when you sat on the sofa, dimming the lights and lower the shades. Fast forward to today and thanks to current home automation you can actually have a Smart House!

A few weeks ago we began examining the options available to make our home energy efficient through the use of technology. We were in search of instruments for automatic and remote control of temperature and lighting. We were also interested in central vacuum and security systems. If any of you know my husband, you know that he doesn’t get hyped about shopping or decorating but put a bunch of automatic gadgetry in front of him and he gets excited. The only limit to what you can automate in your home is your wallet.

We have in our great city one of the most up-and-coming home automation companies in the country! In all of our internet searches we were lead, time and time again, to locally owned and operated Livewire. livewire2

With just a few questions our salesperson, Brad the great and powerful techy-guru wizard, was able to get a read on us fairly quickly and determine what our needs were and how far we were willing to go with the automation.  Their showroom is actually a house all decked out in automated gadgets.  It’s a fun place to visit!  Automation is not an inexpensive endeavor and we could spend half the house budget on the pseudo necessary and extra fun stuff.  None of it is necessary but we had in mind basic items to make the house efficient and we pulled in some extras for entertainment.

The big picture of all this is Home Networking. First you identify the devices that you want to be able to control without physically moving a switch. Then those devices are equipped with an automatic switch or lever. Those special switches are linked to one central brain that you control. The “brain” is, naturally, an iPad, an iPhone or other smart tablet device that utilizes apps to control the various systems. Simplistically, a home automation system integrates electrical devices in the home and makes their operation programmable and adjustable to your lifestyle. The system can automate heating and cooling, lighting, security, music, television, and multiple appliances.

The process of deciding how much home automation we want to include in the new home has been a tug-of-war between our wants and needs. Sound familiar? Brad told us over and over “you can automate as much as you want as long as you have the money to pay for it.” Even if we could allocate money to increased automation, we have had to continually remind ourselves that we are striving for a non-superfluous lifestyle. Does it make sense to install a gadget because its fun? In some instances, absolutely! Who really needs a BIG TV for watching movies and football? So after some soul searching and checkbook inquiry we went back to Brad with our list and he developed a plan for us to include:

Security. We will have a camera in the front and back of the house , door and window security and inside detection. This will be set up so we can turn it on and off both while at home and through our mobile devices while away.

Lighting. We will have some lights set up so that we can control them while both home and away. It’s costly to control them all through the network so we will select the key ones. That would be easier done once we actually live in the house so we have to really think this one through! Years ago I had a friend who could flip one switch and all her window candles came on at once at Christmas. John and Brad figured out a cost effective way to make that happen!

HVAC. Managing the house temperature is imperative. Automation will enable us to turn up the heat on our way home so we come home to a warm house during the winter and vice versa during the summer. We also have elected to have an “away” setting so that when we leave the house the temperature converts to an energy saving setting and remains there until we tell it to respond differently. Anyone can do this in their home now by simply adding a programmable thermostat that networks through wifi. Adding a programmable thermostat, one that doesn’t even network, is cheap and can save lots of money and help protect the environment from wasted energy.

Central Vacuum. We started down this road when MA couldn’t visualize a place to easily stash a vacuum and recalled something in the LEED document about central vac systems. We can gain a point from having a central vacuum! Central vacs contribute to cleaner air in the living space since the exhausted air isn’t circulated back into the room. But what about storing that long hose? Now there is a “Hide A Hose” that contracts into the wall! Brad was right…he can automate anything!

Theater. We are adding a big TV and built-in surround sound. Because we are in the building phase it’s easy to run all the cables behind the walls and hide the devices in a closet. We won’t have to physically touch the devices since they will all be programmed to the brain. We just operate the brain.

Music. We will have it set up so that anyone can receive wifi music in any room and different people can listen to different music in different rooms at the same time. The kids love that feature!

Since everyone in the family already has a smart device it would seem that anyone could change anything at any moment. I can just imagine the mischief that will take place with our three techno-savvy kids! They are going to run circles around their mom with this stuff!

Graphics rights Livewire

Windows (Geek Alert!)

As noted in a previous post, MA and I recently did a lot of window research and placed the order for new windows for the house. Windows have a huge influence in energy use within the home and therefore they carry LEED points for certification.

Energy efficient windows provide numerous benefits.  They: 1) reduce heating and cooling costs, 2) improve comfort within the home and 3) block light radiation thus reduce fading of materials within the home.

There are a number of window specifications that go into making an energy efficient window: U-factor, Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC), Condensation Resistance (CR), Visual Transmittance (VT) and Air Infiltration (AI).

The U-factor is a measure of the rate of heat transfer through the window (both outside-to-inside during the summer and inside-to-out during the winter). The lower the U-factor the less energy transfers between indoors and outdoors. Therefore, with all other factors being the same, a lower U-factor is better.

As we discussed in the previous geek post on roofs, heat can be transferred by conduction (heat transfer through two bodies of different temperature), convection (heat transfer when a fluid or air removes heat such as wind over a hot roof), and radiation (heat transfer from both visible and non visible light such as infrared energy). All of these types of heat transfer occur around the window frames and between the panes themselves and so must be considered when determining the energy efficiency of a window.

The U-factor changes depending on the number of panes in a window, the type of glass, the material of the frame, and any gas filling the space between window panes. Vinyl frames can have chambers to decrease heat transfer (good) while metal (used on windows for security and strength) tends to increase heat transfer (bad).
Single pane clear
The simplest definition of the Solar Heat Gain Coefficient is the amount of sunlight that strikes the window and ends up heating the home. In most cases a lower SHGC is better at blocking unwanted sunlight and thus heat. A downside is that it will also block wanted sunlight during the winter as well. Most homes in the U.S. would do better with a lower SHGC rated window. The exception would be homes in the Northern states which benefit from the added heat during the cold months.

Visual Transmittance is the amount of visible light that comes through the glass. The greater the VT the more light enters the room. Most people like a high VT as it makes a room feel light and airy. It is important to note that a decrease in SHGC comes with a decrease in VT.

Condensation resistance is a rating to give the consumer an idea as to how likely the window will resist condensation. The ratings are from 0 to 100 with 50 being good and above 60 being superb. The glazing of the window has the largest impact on the CR.

The last measure of a window is how much air leakage occurs through the window (called Air Infiltration). This value is determined by placing a window in a vacuum and blowing a 25 mph wind at the window while airflow meters record the leakage. The best possible rating is 0.1. A homeowner sitting next to a window with an AI value of 0.3 may feel drafts. Window with wool pile sliding seals have more AI than compression seals. Double hung windows as well as horizontal sliders don’t rate as well because there are surfaces where compression seals will not fit.

Triple pane tinted
LEED Points

For our project, window selection will give us either 3 points (the best), 1.5 points, or no points at all. In other words you could choose to put in a style of window that is not energy efficient (but matches the style of the house) and consciously forfeit the points.

In Virginia, under LEED version 4, to get three points we needed to have a window with a U-factor of equal to or less than 0.22 with a SHGC of equal to or less than 0.40. A window with a U-factor of <0.26 and a SHGC of <0.40 would earn 1.5 points. Interestingly, after doing much researching we could not find a window that would earn us three points in version 4.  Because we are a version 4 beta test family (we’re guinea pigs for the latest version) we are using the stricter requirements and the window manufacturers have just begun working to meet the the new LEED version 4 requirements. We therefore chose windows with a U-factor of 0.25 and SHGC of 0.15. Cha-ching! Add another 1.5 points to the LEED total.

So, the take home message for us was that there are multiple decisions you can make concerning windows for your home.  Many choices, while being positive in one sense, can require a tradeoff in another.  So we came to the conclusion that once you’ve done your research make your choice and don’t look back!

Photos obtained from Heritage Stewardship

Cool Roof (Geek Alert!)

One of the important considerations in a LEED home is the roof.   Beside keeping the rain off our head, a roof can have a huge influence on energy use within the home.

Traditional roofs are typically covered in dark shingles which absorb heat and raise the cooling costs of the home.  “Cool” roofs generally reduce air conditioning energy usage and usually last longer due to lower thermal stress.  Until recently this was accomplished by using white (or light) roofing materials.  Fortunately for us there are now pigments that allow use of colors without the energy drawback of the traditional pigments.  This will allow us a chance to choose a roof color that will match the color palette of the house without increasing the heat load!  How cool!

Here’s how they work:  Light energy striking the earth is comprised of ultraviolet (3%), visible (40%), and infrared (57%).  When infrared (IR) light strikes the earth we feel it as heat.  Total Solar Reflectance (TSR) is the percentage of the solar radiation that is reflected back into space.  Any that is not reflected is absorbed and much of that is converted to heat.  Convection (in the case of a roof it is usually wind blowing over the roof’s surface) will remove some of that heat.  Some will be conducted through the surface of the roof to the building and some will be radiated back into the sky as IR energy.  The amount radiated back is called Thermal Emittance (TE).  The combination of TSR and TE of a certain material therefore determines the surface temperature of a roof and the ability to act cool.  The best type of roof, then, is one with a high TSR and a high TE.

White roofs reflect sunlight well (high TSR) and thus prevents gain of heat into the building.  This is a good option for flat or unseen roofs but many homeowners prefer nonwhite roofs.Diagram_1_-_SR_and_TE

The older, standard color pigments have strong IR absorption and thus retain heat (hot pigment) while the new pigments are weak IR absorbers (cool pigment) and are now being used in both residential and commercial projects to allow colored roofing yet reduce energy costs.  A win-win for everyone!

With the above in mind we have selected a dark grey roof which will fit with the other colors of the house yet uses a cool pigment.  Although there is cool roof technology for asphalt, metal, tile, and clay, MA and I have chosen a metal roof as it fits the history of the house, uses less energy for its production and has a 100 year lifespan.