Lessons Learned

Time to fess up. I’ve been in my NC GreenBuilt home for a few years now and I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work (or what doesn’t make economic sense). Hopefully someone can benefit from my experiences.

Geothermal Heating and Air.  OK, these are great systems. They are extremely energy efficient, quiet, and well built. The problem is the first cost; they are very expensive. Even with the tax credits if I had it to do over again I would try to figure out a mini-split design.

The operational efficiency of a mini-split system is very similar to a geothermal ducted ssytem The main advantages are first costs and the absence of ductwork. I didn’t have a dog when I built this house but should have considered the “dog hair in the return ducts issue”.

It can be tricky to get the air distributed with mini-splits by there are some simple tricks to get this done.

I should have figured I’d get another dog; I’ve always had dogs and love having a few around. What I didn’t count on was getting adopted by Tate the Wonder Dog (in Council Bluffs, Iowa, no less……….looooong story!). Tate is a good boy (disregarding the groundhog incident) but his shedding is like nothing I’ve ever seen; he literally leaves a little pile wherever he lays down. Its a wonder the poor guy isn’t bald.

All that dog hair has to go somewhere. That somewhere is the registers and, it seems safe to assume, the return ductwork. I asked the HVAC contractor to put filters on the return grilles but that’s not gonna happen for several reasons. Greenbuilt requires a return in every room so that’s a lot of filters that would then induce drag on the system essentially negating some of the efficiency savings of the system.

A better way would be to avoid ductwork altogether, hence the mini-split option. Of course some mini-splits have  supply ductwork (up to 20′, I think) but the returns are on the bottom of the unit so the dog hair issue is addressed.

I could also not have a dog, bath him daily, and/or invent a dog hair removal robot but those weren’t really viable options.

Size. I thought I was going small by building 1500 square feet plus a 250 square foot studio. Since I designed this house I’ve been captivated by a website called Tiny House Swoon. While I probably couldn’t get down to the 250 square feet I certainly could have squeezed things to less than 1000 square feet.

Of all the tools in the green building toolbox, size and location are the most powerful. A smaller house would payoff fourfold; first cost, operational cost, maintenance cost, and taxes. Where else do you get a “four-fer”?

I’ve been studying the architectural remedies for small size for several decades now and can share a few. Pay attention to where you place doors (pull them off inside corners 24″ and you can put a piece of furniture behind the door) and windows (light on adjacent walls works wonders), think real long and hard about circulation spaces (where folks walk – corridors are fine for hospitals but are “no go’s” in green residential design with a few exceptions), and try to get some ceiling height working for you. Oh, and try to avoid dining rooms that aren’t going to get used but once a year.

In retrospect I was overly influenced by the spectre of re-sale. While one cannot ignore this piece of the design puzzle it should not have an overly prominent position in the matrix. In fact a smaller house would open up a larger portion of the market.

You live and learn.

Landscape. Looking back, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble, time, and money by planting grass when the finish grading was done. The city required me (as well as good erosion control practice) to cover all the barren ground so I put down mulch. When I turned my back the exotic invasive plant community made itself at home and I recently had to rip it all out and seed and straw.

There are certainly better things to do with one’s free time than pull out privet bushes! Banging your head against a wall comes to mind as pulling privet is even less enjoyable.

I know grass is not ideal but it does buy one some time to install a native, edible, and bird friendly landscape. If you mow with a battery powered weed eater as I do and if your house is powered by a pv array (as mine will be come July!) some of the energy and pollution concerns are addressed.

By the way, Black and Deckers 40 volt battery powered weed eater is pretty cool. With the two batteries one can weed whack for over an hour at full power. I don’t know about you but 60 minutes of steep slope weed whacking is quite enough, thank you.

I’m off topic here but I have pledged to purchase no more internal combustion engines, especially the dreaded two stroke variety. They pollute, smell terrible, are hard to start, and generally involve spilling gas/oil mix on your pants when you fill it. Let’s pray Elon Musk changes the battery market as he has pledged  and a lot of better options are going to pop up. If we power our devices, cars, and tools with a pv array things will start looking up, carbon-wise.

Nosiryee, the next vehicle I will buy will a plug-in; I love the Volt but don’t presently have the requisite pesos.

I did, however, install an 220 volt charger for this inevitability. I even got a GreenBuilt point for this.

Mistakes and missed opportunities are life’s evolutionary learning impetus. If you’re not learning, you’re not living so the adage of “Fail Faster” is certainly appropriate for green builders and designers.

If the culture and the species never made mistakes we’d still be banging rocks together hoping someone would invent dentistry and discover alcohol.

Next post I’d like to talk about the things that did and do work and make financial sense.

Steve Farrell

Stephens Smith Farrell Architecture