Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last week of 2009

Cold weather and rain again this week. We even saw snowflakes in our back yard! More forms have been constructed, but I didn't get any new pictures.

We're thinking about colors and finishes. I had my eye on a simple Delta faucet for the master bath, but the lowest price I could find was near $200. So, when I came across these sink and faucet sets on Amazon, I thought I would give them a try. For $145 a set, they include the faucet, sink, and all of the hardware. I wasn't expecting a lot because of the price. But, when they arrived, they are much bigger than I expected and they are beautiful!

We got 2 of these for the Master Bath:

And, one of these for the powder room:

The bowls and faucets appear to be of excellent quality, so I ordered another for the downstairs bath:

I'm thinking of buying a sewing machine for draperies and pillows. I haven't sewn in years, but drapes are super expensive and it is hard to get them in fabrics that are natural and won't give off VOCs. I found a website that describes how to remove VOCs by soaking fabrics in baking soda and/or Borax and rinsing them in vinegar:

Guess that's all for today.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rain Slowdowns

We have had a couple of rains and it takes a long time for the soil to dry out. So, this week, progress was slow. The concrete will be poured in three stages, with the lower one first. The plumbing has been roughed in for the lower slab.

The driveway also got a load of fill so we can walk down in from the road now.

We were fortunate while walking around to hear and see this little guy (photo from

We don't expect that a lot will happen until the holidays are over, but now that we can more easily walk onto the site, we will probably be spending some time there. With the area cleared, we can plan for the landscaping and future pool. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

First Two Weeks

A lot has happened and it is exciting to see the lot take shape!

First, the trees and shrubs that would be in the way were removed. The picture makes it look much flatter than it really is. You can see three lines and changes in color, they indicate sharp drop-offs in elevation. This shot is looking west from the street.

Next, the equipment came in, sorry we don't have any pictures of that. Don's plan made the best use of the land with the least amount of excavation. This picture shows the driveway looking south, toward the area where the garage will be.

 And this one is looking north, up toward the road.

Now, a step further down the hill, an area has been leveled for the slab that supports the entry and part of the living room. Then a drop and the area for the billiard room and lower deck.

And, finally, we believe these are the forms for the piers that will support the west end.

You can get a better idea of the size from this one. He is standing somewhere near the east wall of the billiard room.

And, with some of the trees gone, we can get a better idea of the view. The other basin of the lake, to the south west, is quite visible now, even from the lower level.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Walking the Lot

On Tuesday, we met Pedro and Alex, the foundation contractor and his assistant. With Don they started marking important spots on the lot, in spite of the threat of rain. At about 11:30, when we arrived, it was already drizzling, so we didn't get any pictures. They showed us where the front porch, deck, and garage will be. They were troopers because it was pouring by the time we left!

They had already marked trees that would have to come down. The front porch will be very near one of the trees we want to save. It has three trunks, one of which leans toward the house and would be too close to the roof, so we decided to remove it.

Trees on our second lot will probably have to be removed to clear the view, but Don suggested waiting until the framing goes up so that we can stand at floor level and see what will really be in the way.

We're out of town for a few days, and can't wait to the see the progress when we return. Some are predicting a really wet winter and we're hoping it doesn't slow the project down.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Starting Soon!

We signed all of the papers earlier this week and will meet Don and the foundation contractor on Monday the 30th. They will be marking off the areas for the driveway, retaining walls, and slabs. A number of trees will be removed, but we are trying to save the hardwoods. So, we drove up today to take some pictures before the clearing gets started. These two were enjoying wildflower nectar. Do you see the well-camouflaged one?

The property is overgrown with Ashe Juniper trees, which are commonly called Cedar. Cedars are considered a nuisance in this area. They take the available water away from other trees and many people are allergic to their pollen. So, we will be removing many cedars and either chipping them up for mulch or saving the trunks for fence posts.

To get an idea of how thick they are, this photo shows the area of the street where the driveway will start. The cedars are the ones with deep green foliage.

It was a grey day. The next two pictures were taken close to the area where the house will sit. The first is the view toward the southwest, the second toward the southeast. Even at this distance, you can see how low Lake Travis is. Even after several recent rains, it is still 16.6 feet below its average November Level.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Framing, Insulation, and Solar

As mentioned in an earlier post, we had looked at many new alternative materials for framing. ICFs, SIPs, and pre-fab were really interesting and had many advantages. We really wanted steel framing and had looked at companies that provide steel frame kits. A company nearby in Georgetown, Transcon Steel, fabricates steel panel systems. These would have been great to use and we got a bid from them that was very reasonable.

Since we're building on a steep lot, the retaining walls and site prep add significantly to the cost of the home. The local Jonestown ordinance requires a two car garage. As you can imagine, it requires a lot of concrete to support a structure on a 38% grade. And, the driveway can only be 12-15%, so quite a bit of the budget goes toward that as well. We tried to get a variance to avoid having to build the garage, but were turned down. So, with the added cost of the garage itself and the concrete to retain it, it looks like we'll have to go with conventional stick-built construction.

Even stick-built can be "greened." Our builder, Don, has specified finger jointed studs, which are made from shorter pieces of wood glued together. They make use of lumber that might otherwise be wasted and they tend to not warp like conventional studs. The Austin Green Building website has more information. Don also orders carefully to avoid as much waste as possible.

For a tight envelope, the walls will have 3.5" of sprayed foam insulation. The floor will be partly slab and partly on pier and beam, which will also be insulated. The Attic will be completely insulated with 5.5" of foam. This insulation allows the air conditioning to be more efficient with ducts running in air conditioned space instead of in a 140 degree solar oven. The metal roof will reflect heat and provide a good surface for rainwater collection.

We plan for a small solar photo-voltaic installation, a little over 3Kw. And, if the budget allows, we'd like to have a wind turbine as well. More details on these systems later.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Lower Level Floorplan and Rainwater Collection

This is the lower level. Since you probably can't read the annotations, the largest room is a media room with space for a 7' pool table. The two guest bedrooms are at the top. The outdoor living space is covered by the deck above it, which will also help shade the windows.

The two round circles to the left are for rain water collection. Water is short here in Texas and last year was extremely dry. However, when it rains--it pours. We're estimating that we will be able to collect from approximately 1000 square feet of the roof. That should produce 550 gallons of water for every inch of rain. The average rainfall in our area is about 32 inches, which would yield 17,600 gallons.

The average family of two uses 20,000 gallons a year. However, our fixtures will all be water savers and we are installing a Brac greywater system that reuses the water from the shower and laundry to flush toilets. We could always have water trucked in if necessary, and it is possible to add gutters to the garage in the future.

Street Level Floorplan

This is the street level floorplan. We only have a scanned image, so it may be difficult to see the details, but hopefully you can make out the main layout. As you can see from the elevations we posted previously, the house steps down with the hillside. The main living area is over the smaller bottom level. We tried to incorporate all of our needs in a "not-so-big" house, using some of the principles outlined by Susanne Susanka. The total conditioned/heated square footage is about 1380 for the top floor and 863 downstairs. We probably wouldn't have needed the space downstairs, but most of our family and many friends live elsewhere and we hope they will visit often. The downstairs will function as a private suite when we do have guests--sound inviting?

We went with a custom design for our home because we weren't able to find all of the following characteristics in existing houses or in one stock plan:
  • One entry for us and our guests.
  • An ample closet in the entry for coats with shelves for shoes, purses, a charging station for electronics, and all of the things that usually end up on the top of a table near the entry. Significant environmental pollutants can enter the home on the bottom of shoes. We plan to have separate footwear for inside and outside.
  • An open floorplan with lots of windows facing the view.
  • A small office. After years of working in cubicles, this space is more than ample. It will have double doors with glass to close for privacy, while enabling us to still see the view through the living space.
  • A powder room that does not open off the main living area. You enter it through the office.
  • A large pantry.
  • A kitchen with separate areas (and sinks) for cooking and cleanup. No longer should we be bumping into each other.
  • A Japanese soaking tub. I've never been able to get comfortable in a normal tub. This one has a seat and requires less water to cover you up to the neck. It's more like a personal jacuzzi than a tub, but without jets. See a description on the Americh site.
  • A large walk-in shower.
  • Laundry in the walk-in closet. Why transport dirty and clean clothes back and forth when you can simply throw them in the washer and hang them up when clean?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Side Elevations and Passive Solar

You might wonder exactly what makes our home green. Just like the color, eco-design has varying shades. We've tried to incorporate all of the green elements that we could afford. One green principle that costs little to nothing is Passive Solar, which includes correct orientation of the home to the sun and the placement of windows.

If the long sides of a home face north and south and the windows are placed correctly, you can significantly reduce cooling bills in the summer and heating bills in the winter. Here in Texas, cooling is much more expensive than heating, but we do get a few months that require heat. While windows gain and lose heat much quicker than an insulated wall or roof, they also provide light to cheer the soul and reduce the need for electricity during the day.

The first elevation of our home shown above faces north. It has only a few windows, which provide daylighting but minimize heat gain and loss. The second elevation is to the south. This side offers a view of Lake Travis and contains the most glazing. To reduce heat gain in the summer, the largest windows are covered by the roof over the deck and patio. The other windows are either covered by a roof overhang or by individual roof awnings. The overhangs and awnings are calculated to provide the most shade in the summer when the sun is high in the sky.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lake view

This photo was taken from above our property before we purchased the lot. Due to the thick brush we weren't able to walk to the area where the house will be built. It will face south and have another view of the lake where it winds around.


This blog is dedicated to all who long for a green, healthy environment. We are building a green home on a budget and hope our experiences will be encouraging and inspiring to others. Here is how the story began...

Although it is sometimes more green to remodel an existing home, we had decided to build because we've accumulated a list of design requirements over the years that are not easily factored into existing floorplans. And, we were moving to the Austin, Texas area from California. Our main living area in California overlooked the San Francisco Bay, and we knew we would miss that terribly. So, we purchased two lots in Jonestown, Texas with great views of Lake Travis and the dream of building a custom home.

Fortunately, the culture of Austin fosters green thinking and we were able to find a number of architects that designed green homes. Unfortunately, when we interviewed several, we were told that we would need to increase our budget substantially to get the home and green features we wanted.

We moved from California to Texas in 2006 and continued to research our options. Since we are nearing retirement age, we really want to limit the cost of the home because it will be the basis for property tax assessment. We researched owner building, modular homes, earth-sheltered homes, kit homes, and more. All had advantages and disadvantages. The biggest challenge we faced was the steep slope of the lots and our desire for a custom floor plan.

Early in 2009 we saw a newly built green home for sale on Craigslist. It was unusually affordable. We inquired but it was under contract already. The agent suggested that we call the builder, Don Groody. What a surprise to find out that he lived only a short distance from our lots and on the same street!

Don does both design and build and has a wealth of experience building on the difficult lots around north side of the lake. What impressed us most was the fact that he didn't flinch when we mentioned our budget. When we enumerated our long wish list of green features, he stated that he'd been using some of these techniques for years because they just made sense. And, when I explained that we wanted to save money by really shopping around and getting bargains if we could beat the prices he could find, he was willing to work with it.

The happy ending to this opening chapter is that we've been working with Don on the design and it's almost final. In my next post, I will include the floorplan and elevations.