Category Archives: House

Calculating my home’s energy inputs and outputs.

I’ve been wondering what the inputs and outputs are of my home energy usage. For some months now, I’ve used a CurrentCost Envi to track my house’s energy usage, so I know the numbers in kilowatt hours: 8,166 kWh in the past 12 months, an average of 680 kWh/month, with a low of 454 kWh (September 2010) and a high of 1,180 kWh (January 2010). But what does that mean?

My power comes from approximately an equal mix of coal and nuclear, according to Dominion, my power company. Let’s start with coal.

Although not all coal is created equal, it basically takes one kilogram of coal to generate two kilowatt hours of electricity. Coal itself contains rather more power, but a lot is wasted as heat in the generation process, and still more is lost in the distribution process. Of my 8,166 kWh, about 4,093 kWh came from coal. That means that 4,511 pounds of coal were burned to power my home in the past year. The pollution side of coal is rather worse. Each unit of coal results in the emission of 2.93 times as much CO2 by weight (assuming 80% carbon coal), a result of carbon emissions bonding with oxygen. The coal burned to power my home, therefore, resulted in 13,217 pounds—six and a half tons—of CO2 to be emitted.

Nuclear is rather different, at least by weight. Uranium produces 360,000 kWh per kilogram, meaning that the 4,093 kWh of nuclear power for my home required 1.2 grams of uranium, which is approximately half of the weight of a penny, and slightly more than a paperclip. The amount of waste is similarly minute, in quantity. Uranium generates 3 milligrams of waste per kilowatt hour, or the size of a standard-issue snowflake. For my home’s usage in a year, that’s 12 grams of nuclear waste, the weight of two quarters. Of course, a straight comparison of uranium to coal by weight isn’t particularly meaningful.

None of this considers the mining or transport of that coal or uranium, the storage of the waste, etc. But I find it useful to know that powering my house for the last year required a over two tons of coal, a single gram of uranium, and produced north of six tons of CO2 and twelve grams of nuclear waste.

For the record, I participate in Dominion’s Green Power program, meaning that I pay 1.5¢ extra per kWh to offset 100% of my power use via renewable sources. But those very electrons don’t travel to my home—they just get mixed into the regional grid. So while I can feel good that I have prevented all of the enumerated energy sources and pollution from being used and emitted on my behalf, I’m not kidding myself—it’s 98% coal and nuclear power that’s coming into my home.

(Previously: “Rethinking Virginia’s energy infrastructure” and “Degree days and energy usage.”)

How we got our mortgage. Or: Why so many people bought houses they couldn’t afford.

Our loan officer was insistent: we’d be nuts not to get an adjustable rate mortgage.

It was October of 2007. We’d met with this SunTrust loan officer—I’ll call him “Jim”—a couple of times so far, and we were moving ahead with a construction loan to be rolled into a permanent loan when our new house was built. I told him that, no, we wanted a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. We are fiscally conservative, risk-averse, and intend to die in this house—it’s not like we’ll sell it a few years after we move in. Jim looked at his over the top of his reading glasses, adopted a paternal tone, and informed us that an ARM was the only sensible mortgage for us to get. We could just refinance in a few years, when rates would probably be lower. Plus, by the time the rate reset, we’d be making more money anyhow, so we could just deal with the problem then. Plus, based on our income and credit scores, he could give us a mortgage of substantially over half a million dollars, so we could have a house twice as big as the one we’d just paid Artisan Construction to design for us.

I felt a bit stupid. Here was this loan officer, who clearly knew a lot more about this than I did, insisting that we should take more money, that we should get a cheaper mortgage. The Dow Jones had broken 14,000 that very day, an all-time high—the economy was roaring along. At that time, I wasn’t equipped to refute his logic, but I didn’t want to look stupid by backing down, so I cast my gaze down, and quietly repeated that we would feel more comfortable with a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. Shaking his head, he agreed to proceed accordingly.

Fast forward to our next meeting, in mid-March of 2008, when we were proceeding with construction. The stock market dropped below 12,000 that day, one fifth of the value of the economy having vanished in the past six months. The phrase “real estate bubble” was on everybody’s lips, and “subprime mortgages” was a phrase that most of us had learned by then. The bottom had fallen out of the housing market, a result of lending too much money to people who could barely afford their pre-reset ARM payments. When we walked in, I laughed a little at the recollection of Jim’s insistence on an ARM six months prior, and said, chuckling to indicate that I meant no harm, “good thing we didn’t take that half-million dollar ARM, huh?”

Jim looked at me, puzzled. What, he asked, would be the problem with that? I pointed out the collapse of the housing market as a result of ARMs. He didn’t comprehend. Was he not aware that the economy was crumbling? Did he not know it was because of the very lending practices that he was practicing just a few months prior? All of the above? I don’t know, but it was clear to me that he had no idea of what I was talking about. That got us back on the topic of an ARM, and we actually repeated the conversation that we’d had the prior year. He still thought we should get an ARM. He adopted the same paternal tone. He shook his head, disappointed in our short-sightedness. But this time—having had the same crash course in mortgages and the economy as the rest of the country, one that Jim had somehow missed—I had the confidence to know that an ARM would be a very, very bad idea.

It was at this juncture that we realized that Jim knew absolutely nothing about mortgages, finance, or economics. He just knew about getting people to sign pieces of paper. He had some paper that needed signing, and there we were. It was that simple.

Things went to hell pretty quickly from there. Jim ordered an appraisal of our property, and the appraiser returned a report that he generated without ever stepping foot or even seeing our land. The included photos of our property were actually of our neighbor’s property. The shockingly low appraisal compared our house to houses nothing like ours, claimed that our (unbuilt) house was built 1,008 years ago, and reported that our remote, mountaintop building site was subject to busy traffic, erosion, drainage problems, wetlands, was on a fault line, prone to fires, had a cave, a sink hole, a foul odor, dioxins, a pit mine, an infestation, endangered species, and a ravine. When I confronted Jim about this, he told me, “this guy’s been in the business for thirty years, so I think he knows what he’s doing by now.” The appraisal was right, I was wrong. In the meantime, mortgage rates had climbed, we had locked into SunTrust months prior, and so we were stuck with Jim. We repeatedly scheduled closings: April, May, June, July, and August. Jim repeatedly failed to make them happen, for reasons that he couldn’t quite explain. We started to wonder if he’d embezzled our deposit (he hadn’t), and tried to get his supervisor to intervene. It was almost too late in the year to start building, after several months of Jim dragging his feet. We hired a lawyer. Just in case, we hired another one. One of them uncovered that Jim had botched the interest rate lock-in paperwork, which both left us without enough money to build the house and gave us an out from our relationship with SunTrust.

It took a couple more months, but SunTrust agreed to give us our money back and let us out of our contract. Matt Hodges at Compass Home Loans was really helpful to us. (Though we’d hoped to get a mortgage with him, the collapse of the banking and housing industries left him without a market for us.) We had to start the process all over again, delaying construction by a year. In the meantime, we needed to start the month-long process of building the driveway—late summer being the perfect weather to do so—and, lacking a mortgage, we had to pay for that out of pocket, an expense that ate up our savings and left us in debt.

We wound up getting a construction loan / mortgage with First Citizens Bank. Why them? Because our loan officer, Susan McGuinnis, knew what she was talking about. She was cognizant of the world around her. She had a blog. And First Citizens is headquartered nearby, in North Carolina. Best of all, First Citizens hadn’t pressured dopes like us into getting loans that we couldn’t afford, so they hadn’t taken bailout money. The good news about the amount of time that elapsed between working with SunTrust and locking in a rate with First Citizens is that mortgage rates dropped enormously, with the prime rate going down by 20% in that period.

First Citizens has been great to work with, and we’ll close on a mortgage with them shortly. SunTrust? Wouldn’t touch ’em with a ten-foot pole.

How to have a house built with your sanity intact.

Here are a few hard-learned tips about how to deal with the procedural aspects of working with your general contractor when building a house.

  • Let your builder pick his own subs. You might think that it’s a good idea to have that good friend of your good friend pave the driveway, or your aunt’s neighbor build the cabinets, or whatever. This is a bad idea. If you’ve never had any professional interaction with these people, you have no idea if they’re any good. And if the builder agrees to work with them, despite having no experience with them, then neither of you know who you’re getting into business with. We specified that a family friend do our septic work, and he turned out to be wildly unreliable, in ways that were really problematic. You’re working with a builder in part because you’d be in way over your head if you tried to do your own subcontracting. Stick with that instinct.
  • There’s no hurry. If you’re doing it right, it doesn’t matter if it takes five months, six months, or seven months to build your house. Otherwise you’ll worry yourself sick about something over which you basically have no control. That might mean negotiating a higher month-to-month rent at your current place or other similar inconveniences, but it’s a worthy tradeoff. Plus, hurrying to finish a house isn’t cheap—it may well cost you more than just being patient.
  • Go limp. Learned helplessness is the only way to get through the process with your sanity intact. Find a few aspects of the house that you’re not willing to compromise on—there have to be wood floors downstairs, no hollow doors, whatever—and stick to your guns on those. But try and be all Buddhist about everything else: practice non-attachment. Stuff is going to change for reasons that are nobody’s fault (or everybody’s), and you can’t go getting upset every time that happens.
  • Working with good people is important, but working with good businesses is more important. So you found an architect / a carpenter / a foreman who you really like, so you want to contract or subcontract with their employer. But people leave jobs. Life happens. You can’t expect your friend to put his life on hold for months because he was supposed to lay some tile for you next June. If you pick a vendor because there’s somebody there who you really like, you’d best make sure that you still want to work with that vendor in the absence of that guy. Our architect of choice left the design/build firm we were working with, to go back to school. So we went with another firm to build the house—for that reason among others—because I had an old friend working there who would be our job supervisor. We signed the contract, got started, and two months later he left to strike out on his own.

The house is nearly complete.

House and Sky

We’re this close to finishing building our house. It’s occupied an enormous amount of time for years now (for example, I spent six hours milling lumber from felled trees today), and while I know we’ll have a lot of work even once we move in a couple-few weeks from now, I’m looking forward to getting a big chunk of each day back. Building the house has been interesting, educational, and often fun, but I’m ready to be done.

Our house is insulated with newspapers.

This is what the insulation in the walls of our new house looks like:

Insulation Detail

It’s euphemistically referred to as “blown cellulose,” but it’s really just shredded newspaper. If we look closely, we can read some words on it. The amount of newspaper used to insulate our house is as much as we’d go through in twenty years. (If, y’know, we read printed newspapers.) It’s a great insulator, but it uses a stunningly small amount of energy to create, when compared to fiberglass and other forms of insulation commonly used in contemporary houses. It’s sprayed with borate, so insects don’t want it, it’s fireproof, and it won’t mold. (Because it’s packed more tightly, preventing the flow of air within walls, it’s actually more fire resistant than fiberglass.) For you energy geeks out there, it’s an R value of 4.0, compared to fiberglass batts’ 3.2.

It’s a small thing, but it’s one of dozens of such touches that I really like about our new house. The drywall went up this week so, with any luck, we’ll never see our newspaper insulation again.

The status of our house.

As of Today

For all the complaining I do about how building a house keeps me too busy to do all of the other stuff I used to have time for (and I’m not even swinging a hammer!), here’s a photo of where it’s at. The roof is on, the (unpainted) siding is on, all of the windows and doors are in, the porch is on, the plumbing and wiring is in, and the insulation is in. This week, drywall. Then we need Dominion to run power to the house (we’ve been waiting for months), the wood floors installed, a septic system, and fixtures, and we’ve basically got us a house. Move-in is in two months.

Siting our house.

The great majority of my time in the past couple of years—and certainly the past six months—has been spent on the design and construction of our new house, which is slated for completion by the end of winter. The process has been enormously educational, and I’ve been intending to share some of what I’ve learned in this process.

Chief among the lessons from this process is the importance of properly siting a structure. Our house, as designed, would be an engineering failure if it were built 50 feet in any direction of where we’ve placed it, and an engineering disaster if built 500 feet away. That’s because it was designed for the very spot that we selected.

The bulk of our land is the side of a mountain. The logical place to have built our house would be towards the base. It’s flat, it’s relatively close to the main road, and there are neighboring houses (indicating that others believe it’s a good spot). But, being familiar with the area, we knew that it would be a poor location, for reasons that have apparently evaded some of our neighbors. Every decade or two, heavy rains wash down gullies along the mountainside, flooding the road and the land around it. That’s not just trouble for a house, but a minor ecological disaster for a septic system. There’s also the problem of sun. Being at the base of a narrow valley means limited access to the sun, what with the mountains. That means dark, depressing winters, significantly more need for auxiliary heat, and limited gardening possibilities.

Instead, we tromped around our land over the course of months, trying to find the best spot. There were a few criteria that we were using, which we ended up selecting a site on the basis of. We wanted a relatively flat spot. That would be easier to build on and it would give us the best access to the sun. We wanted to have deciduous trees on the south side of the house. That would provide us with shade in the summer, but open up to admit sun in the winter, saving us untold thousands in heating and air conditioning bills. We wanted to have trees between us and the road, because we figure that people shouldn’t have to look up and see our house. We needed a viable route to run a driveway. And we wanted to have enough relatively flat land nearby that we’d have space for pasture and gardens.

We eventually found the appropriate site, selecting a spot beneath the spreading bows of an enormous deciduous tree.

The next step was designing the house for that site. Working with an architect at Artisan Construction, we started by considering the natural grade of the land and the direction of the sun, and we aligned the house so that one of the long sides faced south. We covered the south-facing wall with windows, and clad the roof with unpainted aluminum, to reflect the sun’s rays. The overhangs were designed to be deep enough to shade much of the south face of the house from the high summer sun, but to also be shallow enough to allow the face to be bathed in the winter sun. Finally, we considered outdoor living space, making the south face of the house—the warmest, sunniest side—open up to a deck and patio, allowing us to expand significantly the functional size of our house for six months out of the year.

The resulting house is perfectly suited to its environs. If we moved it forward fifty feet, it would be exposed to full sun in the winter. If we moved it to one side fifty feet, it would be down in a gully, in the shade. And so on.

The three simplest steps that we took—steps that anybody ought to take when building a structure—were sizing our overhangs properly, maximizing window coverage on the south face, and having deciduous trees on the south face. Two of these things are free—there’s no reason not to do them. We’ll save a fortune in energy costs, and have a generally nicer home as a result.