Building Green Construction Materials

Stair Treads Complete

Since we got screwed by our stairs contractor, we had to come up with our own stair treads. I ordered material from a mill in the mountains, but I chose to finish the material myself. It ended up taking three full days. I had to cut the material to length, plane it smooth and to thickness, sand it smooth, and then mount it. Fortunately the 12″ ( 30cm) treads fit in my planer so I was able to make at least two sides smooth. Then I sanded the other two sides which wasn’t hard until my belt sander started smoking and almost started on fire. I ended up using my random orbital sander to finish up the surfaces and the my router to round over the edges. In the end I think we got a great staircase at fraction of the cost of retail staircase with similar features. Take a look…

Building Green Construction Construction Materials

Open Stringer Stairs

We’re getting close to having our stairs complete.

After all this is more sanding. Fun.

Building Green Construction

Evaporative (Swamp) Cooler

We got our evaporative cooler (also known as a swamp cooler) installed over the weekend and it passed inspection today. This is great to get our cooling completed. We knew we didn’t want central air conditioning mainly because we have in-floor radiant heat and no ducts in the house. In addition, central air wouldn’t really work with our house. Central air takes hours to drop the house temperature a single degree. And then when you get the house cooled down, you have to leave it closed up. Well, with our 15-foot wide door open in the kitchen, we figured A/C wouldn’t work very well. So we opted for a swamp cooler. But it’s hard to get people to install a swamp cooler because they don’t make much money on it. All the HVAC contractors we talked to wanted to install A/C and didn’t seem interested in bothering with a swamp cooler. But, in the end we found a company that agreed to do it for us. And an added bonus is Xcel Energy has a rebate on a whole house evaporative cooler, so we should make out ok.

In the Upper Midwest of the USA, where Amy and I are from, no ones uses an evaporative cooler for the simple reason they don’t work up there. An evaporative cooler works by blowing air through a wet filter making the air moist. The moisture in the air then evaporates which uses energy (also known as heat) which actually cools the air. The moist air is also why this is called a swamp cooler by some.  The Upper Midwest is too humid for this to work, but in Colorado where the humidity is regularly below 10% in the summer, this works perfectly. To top it off, it is a very energy efficient way to cool because all one is using is a little water for moisture and a little electricity to run a blower. The way the system generally works is the moist air blown into a central room and then an open window allows the air to flow where you want it. In other words, you are SUPPOSED to open the doors and windows with a swamp cooler. We look forward to having you all over for a refreshing summer day in the near future.

Building Green Construction

Structural Fill

We’re a movin’ on up… to the top… If you now have the Jefferson’s theme stuck in your head, don’t blame me.

Finally, we are actually building up. For the past 2 months we’ve been digging down as much as 15 feet, which included 3 feet of over-excavation. Next we had to drill down 25 feet for our caissons. But this week, we finally started building up. Today they just completed adding 3-4 feet of structural fill to the entire area of our excavation.

In case you are not familiar with why we needed so much structural fill, it’s because our land is mostly expansive soil (a.k.a. Bentonite clay soil, for more details on why we had to over-excavate and use caissons, read our post on our soils report). This meant we needed to make special considerations for our basement floors.  Without accommodations for the expansive soil, if the soil got wet, it could expand and push the basement floors of our house (and garage) up. We really had two options to counter this possibility. The first option was to build structural floors in the basements. This essentially means there’s a crawl space below your basement floor. This is accomplished by over-excavating and then hanging the floor on the walls. Then if the soil beneath the floor moves, it won’t push up the floor. As you can imagine, this requires lots of engineering, steel, labor and is a rather expensive option. Our second option was to over-excavate and then fill in that area with structural fill. You then pour the floor directly on the structural fill (3-feet in our case). The structural fill should in theory “absorb” any movement of the soil beneath. This was the option we chose because our soils engineer said it should be sufficient and because it was less expensive.

Long story short, they started trucking in recycled concrete for our structural fill on Tuesday, brought lots more Wednesday, and even more today. I’m guessing they needed to bring in somewhere in excess of 300 cubic feet (230 cubic meters) of fill. Probably more to be honest. There had to be at least 30 dump-trucks full of the stuff. So when we started Tuesday, the caissons were at my waist or chest and now I’m standing on them. I feel pretty confident we’ve done the right thing, but only time will tell. Next step, forming the walls for the house and garage. I can’t imagine what could go wrong there.  🙂

Below are a few pictures and videos of the fill going in. By the way, notice how smokey the view of the mountains is at the end of the first video. That’s from a huge forest fire northeast of Colorado Springs about 60 miles away.

Building Green Construction General

Kitchen Design

So we’ve been thinking about our kitchen design. I designed the kitchen in my first house and I even built my own kitchen cabinets and poured my own concrete counters. I enjoyed the process so much I’m going to do the same thing on this project.  My friend Mark, who is currently planning a kitchen remodel of his own, told me about an online program he used to help conceptualize his project. He suggested a website called that lets you build a floorplan of your kitchen, add cabinets, counters, walls, windows, etc. and then generate a 3D snapshot or panoramic. So I set out to design our new kitchen.

After many hours of dragging and dropping, I’m at a point where I think I can share. The program isn’t perfect. For instance there isn’t a good way to draw a kitchen island. But the end result has been pretty helpful to get an idea of what it will look like. You can view the floor-plan and all the pictures by going here. And below is a 3D snapshot the program creates for you. It’s pretty cool. This is looking southeast.


Our architect Kevin helped us out by suggesting where things could go. This was a big help because we had some general ideas, but hadn’t gone much further than that. And we needed to know where things were going in order to design the rest of the house. We started with a few general ideas. The kitchen and dining room should flow together to an outside space: kitchen, dining room, outside patio. I’ve always loved the open house designs in Western and South-western homes. When we first started on the plans, we didn’t even have land, but we were so anxious that we started designing anyway. We were looking at living in Denver where most of the lots are typically narrow and long east/west rectangles. I wanted the kitchen and living space on the south side of the house to take advantage of passive solar (the sun in the winter). This is difficult with a long narrow lot. There isn’t really a lot of room on the sides of the house with a long narrow lot. Then along came the land we ended up buying. It was much larger so didn’t have the limitations we had been planning for. And to top it off, we had mountain views to start thinking about. That helped point us in the right direction … literally. So with that start, we’ve been working on getting the specifics down.

kitchen_SEThe kitchen is about 16 feet by 11 feet. The dining room is about the same. There is a largish island in between with the sink. On the north wall will be the wall ovens. On the east wall of the kitchen is the refrigerator, cook-top, exhaust hood, and some wall cabinets. The drywall will come down one foot from the ceiling above the wall cabinets. We plan on glass/decorative tile on the wall above the counters and around the hood on this east wall. On the south wall there is a 2 foot wide by 5 1/2 foot tall window that will open. There will be wall cabinets with doors that flip up and a 5 foot wide by 1 foot tall window above them. There will be base cabinets along this south wall (in the kitchen only) as well. The south wall of the dining room has no cabinets, but does have an 8 foot wide by 5 foot tall window with part of it that will open. One of the big features of the house is the west wall of the dining room/kitchen. We decided to go big here. We are planning on having 15 foot wide by 8 foot tall folding door that will allow us to open this entire wall. The doors will fold back against the south edge of this wall. This opening will lead to a 17 foot by 26 foot patio. Another big feature here is the overhangs will be cantilevered 7 feet over the patio. That means we’ll have a great covered area with no posts or supports. The main reason for this large overhang was to help shade us from the summer sun in the evenings. Ideally we would not have oriented the house that way, but we just had to take advantage of the views.

Below is the panoramic image we also made at All these pictures just help to get an idea of what the kitchen will look like. The cabinets will be slightly different, the walls will be complete, etc. For instance, the blank wall that you see to the north is the entrance to the living room. I don’t think I’ll take the time to create that space on this program. The program didn’t have a way to add a 15 foot by 8 foot door so I added three 5 foot sliding doors. Just imagine them as one big door.

Things are starting to come together. Now I need to figure out all the dimensions for the cabinets so I can get a materials list started. Building them is going to be fun.

Building Green Construction

New Construction Windows

One of the many thing we didn’t really think about when planning our new house was what kind of windows we would use. When our architect Kevin asked what we wanted, we really didn’t know.  So we let him put in the windows he suggested and waited to see what we thought. So far we like what he suggested. There is a combination of fixed windows and windows that open for air flow and circulation. We wanted the windows to follow the mid-century modern style. I’ve always liked the high horizontal windows for several reasons. First of all they provide privacy while still letting in light and secondly with our prairie style roof and big overhangs, there is great protection from direct light in the hotter months. That said, we’re only using those windows on the front/northwest and sides of the house where sun exposure is minimal. On the back we’ve decided to open it up to the southern exposure and mountain views. But still we had to decide on what kind of window to use. We’ve compensated on the south with 4 foot overhangs and on the west/southwest with 7 foot! overhangs. Should make quite a statement, if the engineering comes in within our budget or course.

As far as the windows that open, there are several types we can choose from including single-hung where one window pane (usually the bottom) moves vertically, double-hung where both the top and bottom panes move vertically, sliders where the window slides horizontally, and casement windows where the window cranks out. My initial instinct was to use double hung windows, but that was probably because my first house had them and I liked their ease of use and having the option to open the top or bottom window pane. The problem is, that type of window works well with a Denver Bungalow made in 1920, but not so much with a more modern house that we are planning on building. The other issue is energy efficiency. When you use either single/double-hung or a slider, the windows have to slide, which opens a place for air to get in (or out). That left casement windows.

Now I’ve never been a big fan of casement windows. My parents built an addition on the house I grew up in and they put some casement windows in it. I never liked the big cranks and I still don’t like them. But the the way they work makes a lot of sense. Instead of a sliding interface with the pane and frame, when the window closes there is a large surface the comes in contact with another large surface which allows a very efficient seal. And the window cranks have gotten a little smaller, fold up, and will only be on the windows that open (obviously). So for now, that’s the way we’re going. Now that will all depend on the bid we get for windows once the plans are complete. This may all change. We’ll keep you posted.

Building Green Construction General

Site Plan Considerations

We have just about got our site plan done now. As you can see we have a detached garage and the main house that are 12 feet apart on this plan. We’re thinking of moving the house up 2 feet which will give distance of 10 feet between. This will give us a shorter walk from the garage to the front-door and move us a total of 14 feet off the south property line. The neighboring house on that side has the house all the way east on about an acre lot, so our house will be adjacent to open space in their back yard. Still, it will be nice to be a little further back.

The city planners said we had to have a set-back of 25 feet on the north or east side of our lot. We had the option because we’re kind of in a unique location behind two houses and 100 feet off the main road. We chose to set back from the east property line because it allowed us to put the garage as close to the easement to our property as possible. Also, our lot is about 140 feet wide, and we wanted the house more in the center of the property any way so giving up 25 feet on either the east side was not a problem.

You’ll also notice these plans have a roof plan included. I’ve always loved the look of a hip roof (similar to Prairie Style architecture), mainly because you have overhangs on all sides of the house. That’a a big part of our design for look and energy efficiency. We’ve also used a somewhat mid-century modern design for the walls/windows that allow for wide shorter windows up high on the walls of the front and sides of the house. This allows natural light to come in, but lets the overhangs block the sun in the warmer months. We have typical 2 foot overhangs around the garage and on the front and sides of the house. But on the south side (kitchen and dining room) we put a 4 foot overhang to help block the sun from getting into the house in the warmer months. Yet in cooler month, we let the sun in. On the back of the house which faces west and southwest, we’ve elected for 7 foot overhangs. This will allow us to have some of the back patio covered, and help block some of the late afternoon sun during the hot months. Ideally we would not have had any windows on the west side, but since we have some pretty nice mountain views, we decided we better take advantage of it.

Lastly, you’ll notice a somewhat large patio off the west side of the house. Our lot slopes down from east to west which allows us to have a walk-out basement. Most people would put a sliding glass door in the basement, with a patio outside and a big deck over the top, but not us. Sure a deck might be cheaper, but here are a couple of my reasons:

  1. They require maintenance, even if you use plastic decking.
  2. They are ugly.
  3. I’ve never liked the space under a deck. If I wanted to live in a cave, I would.
  4. How many outside areas do we need? I think our patio will be more than enough space.
  5. Decks require a railing by code. What’s the point of having a beautiful view if you have to look through a railing while you’re sitting down? No way!

If it still doesn’t make sense to you, come over and have a glass of wine on our patio and I’ll put a couple of 2x4s in front of your face.  🙂

Building Green Construction General

It’s going to cost HOW MUCH?!!!

We’re moving along nicely on the house project. We’re set to close on the land next week. We’ve talked to the bank and they are anxious to get our application going. We are almost complete with the plans. So we figured it was time to go over the project with our builder and get an estimate for the project. We were in for a surprise.

We met with Bob a week ago and were very excited to go over every detail of the project and get some numbers down on paper. Up until now, when potential issues have come up, my question was always, “How much will that cost?”  The answers were somewhat vague, simply because the situation was vague.  “Well, that should be no more than $8,000.” “That should be about $10,000. ” “That could be as much as $12,000.” I’ll be honest, those were adding up in my head and I was getting a little nervous. So with these thoughts swirling, we got started.

Bob looked over the plans and asked us questions for clarification on certain areas. “Do you want a walk-out here?”  “How tall do you want the ceilings?” “Are you planning on solid gold bathroom fixtures?” All these questions were meant to get a somewhat accurate estimate. And as Bob said, “You can pay $100 for a faucet, or $1,000.” so the questions were important. To most of those questions, I told Bob we would like to go with the middle to upper end of the range. Not because we were ever considering solid gold bathroom fixtures, but because I would rather the estimate come in high so I would know the worst case scenario. Well, after a couple hours and lots of back-and-forth we got to the end. And I think I got the worst case estimate.

There are lots of words I could use  to describe my reaction such as shock, surprise, or anger. But I like how Amy described my reaction. She said my face was blank. Absolutely blank. No expression at all. I wish I had a picture of myself at that moment. I can look back and laugh now, but at the time I think I was either having a stroke, or about to have one. Poor Bob saw it too and started apologizing almost immediately. I assured him that is was ok. We just had to find a way to cut 40% off the estimate.

So over the weekend I set to cutting expenses. I took out the landscaping budget right away. That could wait until the house was done. And besides, I have put in several irrigation systems, and I know how to dig a hole. Then went the kitchen cabinets. I plan on building my own, which I did in my first house and I loved them. Next the granite counters in the kitchen. I plan on pouring my own concrete counters, which I also did in my first house. Next, I decided to do all my own wiring. I was encouraged by my electrician friend Scott to do this. He said, “It isn’t brain surgery Mike. Drill some holes, pull the wires through, hook up the wires. That’s it. And the city has to inspect it so they’ll see any mistakes and let you know.” I’ve done a  lot of electrical as well so that is a great place to cut some cost. Everything I decided to take on was something I am very comfortable doing. I’m a pretty handy guy and look forward to being a part of the building process. We were getting closer, but not there yet.

One last place we decided to make a change was to reduce the size of our floor-plan to under 1,500 square feet. This was our original size estimate. We want a small house and the many benefits that come with it such as less heating, cooling, cleaning, and building costs. We’d crept closer to 1,600 and it had been gnawing at me. Now I had a good reason to get the size down again. This will affect everything from building materials such as foundations, concrete for the basement, framing , and hardwood flooring to heating systems, permits and many other charges based on square footage. So after moving a wall here in a foot, and moving a wall there in a foot, and moving this wall six inches, we were at 1,494 square feet. Perfect!

So with all these cost reductions, we’re getting really close. I’m starting to feel pretty confident that we’ll make it happen.  And I guess we better be, we close on the land in 4 days. Wish us luck. Now we just need to get the bank to sign off on the construction loan, get some soils tests, get the land surveyed…

Building Green Construction

Building Green

One of the biggest reasons I’ve always wanted to build a house is to be more energy efficient. I’ll be honest, I hate waste (and I know hate is a strong word). I’ve remodeled a 1920 Denver Bungalow that had ZERO insulation in the walls and attic and I’ve lived in an already remodeled 1950s brink house that had ZERO insulation in the walls and attic. Of course in both cases I filled the attic with insulation, but filling the walls was not an option. I cringed every time the heat came on knowing that it was leaking straight out the walls.

But there are a lot more factors to consider than just insulation. In both cases above, the houses were not oriented to take advantage of the great Denver Colorado sunshine that we get here throughout the winters. By just positioning the house on the land properly, and putting your living space on the south side of the home, you can increase comfort while significantly reducing heating costs in the winter. By making larger overhangs to shade windows in the summer, you can reduce cooling. These two design practices are referred to as Passive Solar. By adding insulation to walls and having proper insulation and ventilation in the attic, you can further reduce heating and cooling costs. Then there are systems like Geo-Thermal, Solar Water Heating, Photo Voltaic Electricity (PV), spray foam insulation, radiant floor heating… the list goes on and on. And that doesn’t even include green building materials that reduce burdens on the environment, as well as materials that can out-gas and affect indoor air quality.

Our challenge will be to decide what is important, what we can afford, which systems will pay for themselves, and which are not for us. Look for more posts here as we learn more about many of these technologies.