One day, I’ll write one of these posts and not mention Tesla or Elon Musk. Today is not that day. Next one isn’t looking great either. Who knows, maybe 2018. Probably not.
For those looking at building green, become acquainted with Elon Musk and his company Tesla. They are doing for green technology what Google is doing for the internet, which isn’t to say they’re the only or best source, but that they’re the big kid on the block. They have the money and ability to make large steps forward, or test multiple new technologies that benefit several different fields.
Now, this Solar Roof isn’t the only solar option out there, but it might be the prettiest or at least the least obvious. Panasonic also offers panels that also output 325 watts, with an efficiency just over 20%. There’s also a crazy looking contraption that incorporates solar, wind, water and basically any other means to gather energy into a single roof, but that’s the subject of another entry.
Until then, you can go to tesla.com/energy to check out these Solar Roofs (roof has stopped looking like a real word now) and other energy goodies. I’d go over to the column here and subscribe to this blog so you can see the other fun toys I’ll be talking about later.
There’s a lot of go-to phrases attached to the word green. And as a writer, more specifically a writer who’s work is meant to grab a reader and link him or her to a topic they are interested in but may know little about, go-to phrases are the bread and butter, the workhorse, if you will, dragging the reader through the transition from enthusiast to know-it-all.
But back to my original point: the word green’s got a lot going for it. Color of money. The shade of envy and, by extension, the variance with which you judge the grass “on the other side.” The color you get “around the gills” when you’re not feeling well. Green thumbs. Greener pastures. Green light. Now, if I wanted to be cute, I could keep going, or I could promise how I could link all these into some article that essentially had nothing to do with any of the phrases themselves. But I’m just making a point. For such a small word, there’s quite a depth of content.
The concept of building green is just like that. People have been talking about green living or building green in some form or combination of the two since as long as I was old enough to care about the scientific mechanics of the world, the stuff that makes the wind blow, the complexity of purifying water and how all the junk we leave behind somehow makes its way into those same mechanics and gum up the works. The subject has only grown since then. Layers and layers of details, techniques, understanding and then research that clarifies or outright reverses that previous understanding. And it’s only getting crazier.
Stuff is getting sleek. Gone are the days of bulky solar panels thick as slabs of sidewalk cement. Living green now isn’t equal to being in a shack in the woods. Current homes are all but indistinguishable from their non-green counterparts, and when you can tell a difference, the look is classy, modern, at home in a swiftly changing, technology based society. And it’s only going to get better.Modular solar panels that basically install themselves and can be taken with you if you leave the house. Batteries to store all that solar power, not filled with lithium or lead, but salt water. Thin, light-weight insulation that offers better protection from the elements than stacks of the traditional variety. A power hub that helps regulate the transition from AC to DC current with the intent of being cheap, efficient and easy to use. Weird, bendy pipes that are super easy to install and don’t make your water taste like plastic. A self-cleaning roof that combines all sorts of different energy systems into one, providing enough power for six people, increasing ventilation and lighting, along with a number of other neat tricks. Hubs that control lighting, heat and cooling that can be controlled from your phone and monitor your habits to save you every penny possible. Even a solar powered riding lawnmower.
This is not the typical blog-in-three-parts. Going Green will offer snapshots into the constantly shifting world of energy efficient technology. When we find cool new ways to make your house do what it does, but better and safer, you’ll find them under this heading. When we hear of something that takes your house a step closer to being the starship Enterprise, you’ll get to read about me geeking out over it here.
Take a chance to hit the subscribe button over there in the column so you don’t miss when something new drops. As fast as this market is, if you don’t catch it right away, you’re likely to miss it.
Rockefeller. Vanderbilt. Rothschild. Basically all of Eastern Europe, minus the icy wasteland bits. What do they all have in common, other than dreams of world domination? Palaces. Castles. Summer homes. Estates. Power, creativity and the kind of wealth to construct giant monuments to symbolize them.
So we covered the tiny home aspect of living. The sort of artistic, condensed living that allows those with paychecks that don’t quite match their ambitions to make a space they can be happy to show off. And now we’re going to move to the other side of the street, or, well, to another planet, basically. Neither planets are bad, or even a little better than the other. But they are attractors to entirely different circles of people, or… space explorers, in this metaphor.
That’s what we’re going to focus on: creative ways to show off wealth. Castles, while up there, historically, with the concept of a leader’s palace, are more linked to defensive buildings. They took advantage of natural defenses (water, mountains, hills, cliffs), but then there were towers, curtain walls, arrow slits, moats, killing fields, etc. All of these things being less important, presumably, to what you need. If having a building designed that can withstand a medieval army is what you’re looking for, this is not really the type of blog for you, although I’m sure Home Designing Service can draw up plans for you, nonetheless. I suppose when you’re talking 30 ft. high walls and killing fields, zoning and building permits sort of go out the window.
So palaces, mansions, estates, villas, maybe the parts of a castle meant for entertainment and luxury and specifically not the parts designed to hold off and/or kill an invading army. Now, the Rothschilds alone provide enough material for me to write blog posts from now until whatever replaces the Internet is invented. They have had created enough of the buildings we’re going to be talking about to house the royalty and higher government officials of all but your largest countries. They have GIVEN AWAY no fewer than four of these buildings, structures that would look at home next to Buckingham Palace, or in a live action Disney movie. More than maybe any other family in history, they know what it is to be wealthy and powerful, and if you go by their property alone, they can prove it.
Despite the depth of material there, we’re gonna spread out to as many other families and cultures as we can. Like the Tiny House series, we’re going to review building materials, both old and new, style choices and the hurdles you might encounter, except monetary ones… I assume you to be more of an expert than I am for that (and, for a modest fee, I’ll be happy to write a blog post about you, your family, your pets, your celebrity toenail collection, whatever.)
Until then, your homework is to amass a million or so dollars. You’re going to need it.
No, no, come back! It’s ok, I promise. And, yeah, I know I promised the second part would be good times and it wasn’t, not entirely, but this one is totally a barefoot walk through soft grass and sweet-smelling wildflowers. Or whatever personal equivalent makes your day. When you get through all the flaming circus hoops (these aren’t in a field of flowers, that would be a fire hazard), the rest is a blast. It’s picking out just that right shade of [insert specific thing you want here] and being really, really picky about the kind of message your home says about you.
So you’re back. You traversed the abyss of “Deciding Whether or Not You Really Want a Tiny House” and came out the other side, scarred but stronger. I salute you, weary traveler. Now pull up a chair, make yourself a cup of coffee and get comfortable. We’re going to tackle the Sisyphean challenge of zoning, permits and loans.
No, honestly, it’s not nearly that impossible. It’s more like… what was that Greek myth where the bird came around and pecked out the guy’s liver, which regenerated so the bird could do it again the next day? The labyrinth of legal craziness is more like that. Annoying, painful maybe, but ultimately not deadly.
The problem almost entirely lies in the fact that the whole tiny house “thing” is relatively new and exploded with such speed that the legal and banking systems hasn’t been able to keep up. So while some people try to tell you that you can slap wheels on your tiny home and call it an RV and others will say it works just like a regular home, the truth is that neither is true. It’s something in-between both.
Given the quickly shifting nature of all the rules, regulations, procedures, guidelines, ordinances, (just going down this list of words in the Thesaurus), edicts, laws, etc, the suggestions in this post are going to be more starting points than a bullet-list of steps to follow.
First off, there’s a reason I used that whole “if it has wheels, it’s an RV” thing above. It’s the biggest misconception and quite a few of the shadier builders will try to quash your worries by telling you you’re fine if you have wheels. To even be classified as an RV, you need it constructed by a certified RV manufacturer. And for those who think they’re gonna build it themselves, that certification costs thousands of dollars, requires business licenses and then the structures has to pass a 500+ point test. All very doable, but not quickly or easily.
Then there’s the “I’ll just say I’m camping” or “It’s small enough to not need a permit.” And, yeah, both of those will work. Good job. But neither will hold for very long. The camping one is a solid excuse, and provided you’re on land that’s already ok to have campers, you’ll be fine. But most states only allow that kind of thing for a certain amount of time, sometimes 30 days, sometimes only a few. You’d have to pick up and move regularly. And that “small enough” one is only true of sheds. Once you switch the lawnmower out for a couch, or start sleeping in it, it’s a house.
There’s also a lot of laws in place to protect people from slum lords. Unfortunately, a lot of those codes also work against tiny homes, which gives them the right to deny you utilities, condemn the house and arrest you when you enter, or just fine the pants off you until you go away.
Loans are also an issue. Because banks don’t see tiny houses as having much in the way of resale value, they often don’t see them as worth the collateral of the loan. If you have an extra child or kidney, depending on the bank, sometimes you can trade it for the loan, but it doesn’t always work and you didn’t hear it from me.
But fret not, my concerned readers. Day by day, with the realization that tiny homes are not just a quick fad, everything’s getting easier. Many states have designated areas where a tiny home can be built, outright zoning clauses for them, or make it very easy to get a variance on an existing zone. Sometimes it boils down to them letting you do whatever you want, as long as you’re not a bother to anyone else, but that’s not exactly a guarantee for anything. And if American television has taught me anything, it’s that if government officials get something over you, they’ll make you sell State secrets to Russia. So better to go the legal route.
Again, this seems like a lot of scare tactics on my part, but it isn’t. These are all problems, but they’re problems with solutions. Chances are, provided you’re not paying your uncle’s best-friend’s son’s old juvie buddy to build your tiny home, they’re going to have a lot of this stuff either taken care of or will at least know where you can go or call for specific help. If that’s not the case, then call your local planning and zoning office for yourself. It’s literally their job to help you.
Banks, too, are starting to catch on. A few have specialized loans just for tiny houses. Call them. Ask. Don’t assume. Honestly, decent life advice, not limited to tiny houses.
Next time, we get to talk about all the fun stuff. Building materials, fancy power options, weird toilets. You know, the classics. Till then…
They say good things come in small packages. And, barring vulgar humor, that tends to be the way of things. Everything seems to be getting smaller and smaller as we advance technologically. The computer I’m writing this on is an entire warehouse smaller than the first one designed. Next to me, there’s a phone the size of my hand and about as thick as a travel brochure. There isn’t much I can’t do on that phone. In fact, if it wasn’t for these occasional blogs and my need for a keyboard, I could probably get rid of the laptop and be just fine. Perhaps not as convenient, but cheaper. Simpler.
Did you see my clever segue? Did you?
I suppose, in a way, tiny houses have been around since the beginning. Except, in the beginning, before greed, pride, wealth or whatever engendered the desire or ability to create mansions and palaces, tiny houses were just called houses. That’s all there was. But then the people who could make money did and those capable of building such structures started using words like “convenience” and “quality of life” and “property value” and, well… I’m sure you’ve been to Greenwich.
And that really is the crux of the whole tiny house thing, or movement, as they’re calling it. Of all the hoops someone who intends to own/live in/what have you in a tiny house, and thereare hoops, whether you can or can’t live without a certain level of convenience is what everything boils down to. Which isn’t to say tiny houses aren’t comfortable, or modern, or even downright fancy, because not only can they be, they usually are.
We’ll get to the more technical hoops (read: permits) later. This first entry covers the issue I talked about in the paragraph above. And to do that, we’re gonna play a little game of “C.I.B.H.W.M.T.S.I.M.H.” Or, Could I Be Happy Without Most of the Stuff In My House. The title’s a work in progress.
Look around the room you’re in. Now add a mini-fridge, a small dresser, a sink and a toilet. Remove the rest of your house. Imagine living in what amounts to a single room. You can hear when your spouse or kids go to the bathroom because it’s close enough to hit with a couch pillow, not that you’ll have a couch, in the traditional sense. Imagine heading to the grocery maybe a few times a week because there’s no room for a full size refrigerator or a freezer chest. Imagine never going to an antique store, because there’s literally no room in your house for a knick-knack, let alone a Victorian armoire. Can you be happy without a collection of items to call your own? Do you require a library of every book you’ve owned or hope to read? Do you quantify success by the accumulation of things, like the rings of a tree or the strata of a mountain? You have to go through all these questions and before you look at a single legal document or talk to a loved one, or try to pawn off your rather extensive collection of porcelain cats, they need answers.
And they seem harsh, I imagine. It might seem like I’m trying to talk you out of even thinking about the notion of a tiny house. But on the flip side of all those rough questions, you can ask yourself the following as well. Do you like to be creative with the design of your home? Does the thought of paying little to nothing on electricity excite you? Do artisanal things make you happy? Does the thought of having more time for other things in your life make you happy?
Tiny homes tend to focus your life down to what’s important. Not just the possessions or the space, but what you do, how you do it. Nearly every religion talks at least one time or another about the simplification of life. Living only within your means. Not collecting debt or treasures or whatever. For those who already have all that, they usually suggest to give it away and follow on the path of whichever religion’s doing the talking. And that’s not to say you have to be religious to have a tiny house, only that without the distractions of debt and treasures, you’ll have more time to pursue whatever path your feet are on.
The next parts of this are way more technical. Design options, permits, regulations, etc. I promise the existentialism stays here in part one. So take a breather, answer these questions and think about your life. I’ll see you next time.
So it’s that time again. IRC revision time. Woooo! Break out the booze and the confetti, it’s gonna be a party. And, by “booze,” I mean air seals and, by “confetti,” I mean wind bracing. Of course. What else would I have meant?
You probably know what the IRC is, but maybe you don’t. It stands for International Residential Code, and it governs how one- and two-family houses should be put together. It basically makes sure designers and contractors are keeping up with current practices and the people who employ them are getting the best for their buck. Every few years, things get changed, everyone has a couple years to freak out and pretend there’s absolutely no way they can build a house under the tyrannical new guidelines. Then the changes go into effect, everyone settles down and it’s repeated a few years down the road. We builders are an exciting lot.
But honestly, as crazy as it can get when stuff gets technically more difficult, by the time a change is made, it’s often after that change has become common practice anyway and the technology is already there to facilitate an easy transition. It also shakes off those amateur crazies who are more interested in swindling customers than making a functional house. We here at Home Designing Service are not too keen on swindling, so we’re going to go ahead and talk about some of these IRC changes.
One of the biggies, and the subject of today’s post revolves around air sealing. Arguably more important than insulation, air sealing is a huge hurdle to jump when finishing off a house. Making sure there aren’t huge gaping holes in the walls is one thing, but keeping the air out from tiny cracks around windows and doors, or from pouring into the attic and then into the house, those are entirely different matters. For the IRC 2009, the magic number you’re looking for is 7.
End of blog. Everyone go home.
So, this blower door. It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a door. With a blower in it. It depressurizes your house and then, using the kind of math where there are almost no numbers and it’s all funny symbols and letters, they determine how many times the fan and suction of the vacuum was able to replace the atmosphere within the house in an hour. Seven ACH, or air changes per hour, is the max. It’s also kind of a big number. Quality builders who trip and accidentally make a house are going to hit a 5, a 3 if they actually try a little. California’s code requires a 3. Energy Star Canada wants a 2-2.5. And then there’s PassivHaus. PassivHaus is, if the name didn’t tip you off, primarily a Swedish and German company, although they’ve been seeing a recent popularity surge internationally. PassivHaus requires a 0.6. Which basically means when you turn the blower door on, your house crushes like a tin can because there are no leaks. I’m pretty sure they use ancient technology dredged up from lost Atlantis to make this possible.
Perhaps you’ve been living under a rock for the past month or so, which, if you’re reading this, means the home you’ve made for yourself under this rock has internet, which is almost never a bad thing. But if you haven’t been living under a rock, you may or may not have noticed it’s winter.
Now, as a home design business, you might expect us to offer advice on how to winterize your home before it actually gets cold, but you can get that sort of information anywhere. Instead, we decided it would be funnier better to remind you of things after the fact. I won’t be going over the big stuff. Obviously, if you were so inclined, you’d get new windows, or insulate your house or set fire to your furniture to stay warm through the winter months. Instead, we’re going to look at some easy stuff you may have simply forgotten.
Right off the bat, I’m going to deviate from my expressed purpose. This tip isn’t going to make you warmer so much as it’ll save some money. Maybe my focus group had the wrong people in it, but it’s my understanding that people don’t get excited about their thermostat. I have never personally heard two guys discussing the latest model over cold beers, but there’s so much more to them than leaving it somewhere between 68 and 72. New thermostats can be programmed to lower the heat during certain parts of the day, say, when you’re at work or in bed, and raise it so it’s warm when you’re up and about. Most studies have savings between 6 and 12%, which can end up being several hundred dollars. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how many trips to Starbucks that is.
This next one’s even easier. Do you have a ceiling fan? If you answered no, skip this paragraph. If you said yes, go find it and bring a step stool or something with you. Somewhere around the base, there’ll be a switch. Flip it. During the summer, you have your fan set to pull up hot air, which cools the room. In the winter, though, by flipping this switch, you’ll push the hot air back down into the room. It’s like having another heater in the house. You’re welcome.
Here’s one I’m personally guilty of forgetting. Throughout the year, the filter on your furnace… uh… filters out icky stuff from the air so you don’t breathe it in. But that gunk slowly reduces the air transfer rate. And like a vacuum doesn’t suck stuff up when the filter is covered in dust and hair (I’m looking at you, ladies), a furnace doesn’t do a great job circulating warm air when the filter is covered in a nice, thick layer of… whatever it is it traps. I tried to make a habit of changing the filter on the first day I needed to turn the furnace on. Sometimes I even remembered. It was great. But the difference is pretty incredible.
Another way to keep your rooms warm is to close off the ones you don’t use and make sure your ducts are nice and sealed. Spare bedrooms, random extra bathrooms, libraries, that exercise room that’s already doing nothing more than collecting dust? Shut the vent and close the door. By reducing the amount of space your furnace has to heat, it makes it easier to warm the ones you want, and cheaper too. Just make sure there are no leaks in your ducts. Warm air shooting into your basement is not a good way to heat your living room.
This last tip won’t be for everyone. But the ones who respond well to it, I feel like it will change their lives forever. It’s the thing that, up till now, they’ve been seeking without success. To those people, you owe me nothing. I’m just here to help.
Build a greenhouse around your existing house.
That’s a geodesic dome. They’re super cheap and easy to build. And they can turn any area into an immediate greenhouse. Just like that. Don’t like the winter? Reject the season and make your property live in perpetual summer. All year round! And with my very inconclusive search on the internet, I can tell you with a minimal amount of certainty that you can cover your house in one of these babies for as little as a thousand dollars. Then you’d never have to turn your furnace on again. Windows open in the middle of January. Flowers blooming all the time.
For those who’d like help building their geodesic dome, or for those who’d like to build a house from the ground up that’s built to be very efficient with its heating and cooling, give us a ring. We’d be more than happy to help.
Good things come in small packages. You hear this randomly throughout life, mostly from guys, short people and cheapskates. But in some cases, it really is true, especially when it concerns houses. And today we’re going to go over some of the best examples.
Now, this is not meant to be an exhaustive or comprehensive list. It’s not even meant to be all that detailed. It’s simply meant to show that dream homes don’t have to be castles or gigantic, sprawling mansions and some of the coolest, most famous people in history agree with this philosophy. Architects, queens, samurai, presidents, etc. Not a single cheapskate in that list, is there?
Take Frank Lloyd Wright’s home of Taliesin. Nevermind the fact that it’s situated at the peak of a hill, in a beautiful valley and the property also includes his large architecture studio and a school. The part of the house that was actually the living quarters was just a simple, if beautiful, home, built in Wright’s unique Prairie Style. It burned down twice, though and had to be rebuilt. Frank lived a pretty crazy life.
Or perhaps the home of Isamu Noguchi, the famous Japanese American sculptor, who had a 200-year old samurai home moved to the village of Mure and restored. And while the property later turned into a well-appointed compound with all manner of areas for art and reflection, the house itself was a clean, simple, traditional Japanese home. If Apple started designing houses, I feel like they’d look like these historical Japanese houses. They have such a simple, modern feel, despite being so old.
Thomas Jefferson’s famous home, Monticello, might be pushing the upper limits of “small home,” but when put up against what is typically considered a mansion, I think it fits, if just barely. Jefferson, who was an avid architect, made sure his home was in a constant state of redesign, but mostly kept it within Neoclassical boundaries. But when he saw an element he liked, or had an idea, it didn’t stop him from experimenting. What resulted is one of the most famous houses in America.
A house in California, owned by Gisela Bennati and built by Rudolf Schindler, started off as a rustic, mountainside home, but because of local regulations had to, for whatever reason, be changed to a more formal Normandy style home. Zagging when most might zig, Schindler preempted a lot of design elements that would later become extremely popular: expansive windows, locally obtained materials, exposed rafters and large, open living areas. It was also one of the first a-frame houses. It’s also incredibly beautiful.
But, really, why stop at a single building when you could just as easily (not really as easily) build an entire little town for yourself. Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine (Queen’s Hamlet, for our non French reading audience), was just such a place. Ms. Antoinette, unhappy with her posh lifestyle, decided to build a hamlet so she could pretend every once in awhile that she was actually just an average citizen. There was a dairy, a farmhouse, a mill, a barn, some other buildings, then about five or so buildings designed for the Queen’s comfort. All constructed in such a way as to make them look rundown and rustic, to the point that she requested the builders put in imitation cracks and fissures, rotting timbers and moss. If you want to pretend you’re a peasant, I guess the best way to do so is to construct an entire little city built around your comfort and delusions. Rich people confuse me.
We’ve looked at just a handful of houses, all of them famous in one way or another, but the point is… there are countless small, amazing homes owned by less-than-famous people all over the world. And you can be one of them. Call us, we’ll hook you up.