Lessons Learned (part 2)

Last post was about what I’d do differently after building my soon to be net zero house in Asheville; faithful readers will recall a fairly long list.

Fortunately, the things that went well is pretty long too.

Here goes:


Finding a property close to town was certainly a good thing. It occurs to me that next to size, location is the biggest green building issue. Closer to town means less travel and it’s related carbon and financial expenses. Being able to walk to the store is great too. I don’t do it often enough but sometimes it makes sense to keep the car in the drive and walk to the grocery store or downtown.

Of course there are also the less detrimental effects of servicing a close-in building. Utilities are in place, roads are built (usually), and service peeps have less distance to cover. Of course the greenest residential building type is a tall apartment building in town (New York City is arguably the greenest city in North America) but I’m not looking for single family homes to disappear anytime soon.

Having a site that faces east was pretty fortunate too. This allowed the building to be opened to the soft morning light and to create a south facing roof slope for photo-voltaics. This particular lot is shaded from the hot afternoon sun by the hulking presence of Beaucatcher Mountain to the west so that worked out too. It’s uncanny how often building lots in Western North Carolina face west (to the irresitable view of course). You’d think we find a balance of north, south, and east facing lots but that has not been my experience.


Planning a spot for a home studio turned out to have been a good idea. While there are some serious challenges to working from home you can’t argue with the commute. Not having another expense and the resources required to maintain a separate studio helps financially and with the resultant carbon emissions.

Having plenty of covered outdoor space works out too. Having a place to sit either out of the hot summer sun or in the welcome winter sun is not an extravagance, imho. Sitting outside under cover during a rain storm is one of life’s simple pleasures. I also find that guests gravitate to the view of my small east facing covered porch.

I spent so many pesos on my building envelope I didn’t have the funds (or the energy, truth be told) to build the kitchen. This turned out to be a good thing. For the past three years we’ve managed with a cooktop and a sink let into plywood bases on modified bakers racks. Not ideal but you’d be surprised what you can make do with. It also leads credence to that old saw of the cobblers children being barefoot.

Anywho, by living with the space for a while my thoughts on how to install a kitchen have evolved. It’s a fairly small space so thinking through the details has been helpful. Oftentimes it’s hard to focus on detail issues when the fur is flying during a construction project (especially if you have a day job).

During the wait time I learned about a fantastic cabinet designer who lives two doors down. He introduced me to all sorts of clever space saving devices such as Reva-Shelf corners and wall cabinet pull downs. I’m pretty sure I would have missed these things without his advice and the passage of time. He also got me FSC material for the price of conventional.


Ah, windows. So much information, so little time. Long story short, I’m glad I went with triple glazed operable windows. While the thermal performance is marginally better than directionally tuned double glazing the Condensation Resistance (CR) is much better than double pane. It has been a major concern of mine to design tight green homes only to have mold grow on the bottoms of the sashes where the condensation collects on really cold mornings. If anyone has a remedy for that I’d very much like to hear it. The triple glazing certainly takes care of the problem.

Water heater:

Again, a biggie but suffice it to say that it my case an Air Source Heat Pump Water Heater was the way to go. It’s not for everybody (kinda noisy and a slow recovery time) but if you have a semi-conditioned space that could benefit from some de-humidification then an ASHP WH is worth considering. We went with the GE HeatSpring but I’ve since learned that the Smith model is 10 gallons bigger and 10% more efficient with a similar recovery time. I also understand it’s a bit quieter than the GE although I’m not sure about this.


What can you say other than “Build Tight, Ventilate Right”. There are other less expensive ways to accomplish this but I’m glad I managed to get the ERV over the budget hurdle.


Using otherwise wasted Hemlock as some of the siding looks like it’s gonna work out. It cost about the same as retail wood but by working with a local sawyer, saw mill, shaper, and finisher kept the money local. Always a good idea. Putting the siding on a rain-screen also looks like it was worth the effort as the finish is holding up very well.

Using local maple for the flooring also looks like a good choice. It’s nice to look at and the money stays in the local economy.

Isn’t it ironic that corporations keep finding ways to un-employ low skilled and skilled labor? There’s a time and place for manufactured stone but it does eliminate a traditional income for masons. Ditto with cement siding and the like. If it’s ever a toss up between low maintenance manufactured materials and acceptable maintenance levels of local materials it may be worth throwing you energy into the local economy……..local food, local building materials.

I could prattle on but this is feeling borderline immodest, something I strenuously try to avoid. In fact, I think my modesty is my most extraordinary characteristic (insert joke attempt).

Steve Farrell

Stephens Smith Farrell Architecture

Asheville, NC