EHH week 08: HVAC precon

This house will be heated (and sometimes cooled) by air running through ducts out to each of the rooms and back from some of the rooms.  There are actually quite a lot of ducts in this house, and the trick is routing them through the structure so they stay hidden above the ceiling or inside the walls.  Easier said than done.

Anticipating this common design problem, VELOCIPEDE made a 3D model of all the ducts to assure there was a viable route from central mechanical room to perimeter windows.  Then once the main floor was framed, the architect, mechanical engineer, general contractor, and HVAC contractor spent a couple hours at the site spotting the route of each and every duct.

This on-site planning effort is called a “precon” for preconstruction meeting.  We considered not just the ducts, but also the plumbing pipe routes, structural obstacles, and architectural niceties like centering grilles below windows.  There were (as there always are) a few problems that we had to work out in the precon.  For example, we had to change four 8” ducts serving the great room to three 9” ducts to better fit in the available joist bays.

Then we marked the chosen routes and grille locations right on the structure for the subcontractor to follow at install.  A couple hours of planning effort should avoid problems and make things go smoothly later on.  Remarkably, duct layout is usually left to the installers to figure out the day they arrive on site with a truckload of ducts and fittings.


EHH week 07: rain battles

Rain in July?  Is there no way to avoid rain in the greater Seattle area?

The project schedule was carefully planned to have wood framing occur in the driest months of the year, July and August.  But “summer” 2011 has been surprisingly rainy, including a whopper of a thunderstorm on 18 July 2011.

Fortunately, Model Remodel is on top of things.  Lumber waiting to be installed is wrapped with tarps and up off the ground.  Lumber that has been installed is protected with tarps.  And if rain does get on the floor deck or concrete slab, then the contractors use squeegees to push the puddles away and fans to blow dry things out.  Fortunately, most morning drizzles are followed by sunny afternoons, so drying usually occurs the same day.  Still, nail heads show telltale rust indicating they have gotten wet.

We really wanted to keep the lumber dry to avoid any mold problems later.  Under a microscope, wood is like a bundle of straws and they wick water and tenaciously hold onto it.  I like to think of framing in the rain as wearing a cotton T-shirt in the rain.  Both get wet and must be actively dried out or they will mold.

It will be a relief to get the roof on this building to help keep the weather out.


EHH week 06: sustainably harvested wood

The carpenters have begun!  We are rising out of the dirt and starting wood framing.  So let’s talk about wood.  Thinking of trees as just a source of wood is not seeing the forest for the trees.  

Trees are a key element of a forest ecosystem, and standard logging practice is brutal to that ecosystem.  Forests provide animal habitat, stabilize soil slopes, buffer rain runoff, transpire water back to the atmosphere, shade the surface of the earth, convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, and reduce the heat island effect.  Clearcut stump fields do none of those.

Back in 1993 an organization called the Forest Stewardship Council was formed to change forest management.  Somewhat akin to organic certification for vegetables, FSC certification assures that the wood used in a building project came from a forest that is both a healthy ecosystem and can continue to produce timber indefinitely.  FSC means no clearcuts, no old growth, is third party certified, and has a chain of custody to track the lumber from forest to construction site.

All the wood material in Northwest Harvest House, all 100%, is FSC certified as well as formaldehyde free.   We got the dimensional lumber (2x6s) from Gray Lumber and the engineered lumber (I-joists) from RedBuilt.  The homeowners paid a small premium for FSC certified material.  The upcharge was worth it to them because they wish to support healthy forests.  Think of it like a donation to the Sierra Club.


EHH week 05: avoiding pressure treated lumber

Part 2 of the quest to avoid toxic chemicals in this project (see week 4 for part 1).  Get ready for some acronyms.

Chemicals to keep wood from rotting, called PT for “pressure treated,” are by their very nature not “natural.”  I mean, wood in nature is supposed to rot.  But nobody wants rotting wood in a house.  So the wood treatment industry injects toxic chemicals into the cells of PT wood to prevent rot.

For decades, CCA (chromium copper arsenic) was used for PT.  But under pressure from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), CCA was phased out as of 2004.  Alas, there are still thousands of playgrounds with arsenic wood in this country.

Replacing CCA are ACQ (ammonium copper quaternary) and CA (copper azole). While the chromium and arsenic are gone, the copper remains.  And unfortunately it leaches out of the wood over time.  Copper is toxic to aquatic life if, or should I say when, it gets into the water.  So it is best to avoid PT lumber altogether.

The two most common places for PT lumber in a house are the mudsills and exterior decks.  The best way to deter rot is to keep wood dry.  Not an easy task in the rainy Pacific Northwest.  But we figured out how to do it.

Mudsills are the pieces of wood immediately on top of the concrete foundation wall.  Concrete in contact with the earth is always damp, and the moisture rots this critical piece of wood.  For this house, we isolated the mudsills from the concrete with an adhesive rubber membrane so no PT chemicals are needed.  

The exterior decks of the Northwest Harvest House are made of naturally rot resistant wood decking (ipe).  Supporting the decking is framing made of steel, so no PT lumber was necessary.

We did have to compromise when the electrical utility insisted on pressure treated lumber for the temporary power post, the only stick of PT lumber in the project.


EHH week 04: avoiding PVC

To reduce the toxicity of our work, we are systematically avoiding materials that are considered to be harmful to humans and the environment.  We even oiled the concrete forms with olive oil instead of the typical diesel oil.  It is surprising, and sad, how common these toxic chemicals are in buildings and it takes a lot of diligence to avoid them.  This post is a story of mostly victories but also a defeat.

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is a plastic used to make many, many products because it is cheap and durable.  But its manufacture generates chemicals such as dioxins, pthalates, lead, mercury, and vinyl chloride monomer that cause cancer, harm the nervous system, and damage reproduction.  Worse, most of these chemicals are PBTs (persistent bioaccumulative toxins).  PBTs never seem to go away, and are now found in the breast milk of humans worldwide, and even in the tissues of polar bears and penguins.

We have worked hard to find PVC-free alternatives, starting with the site utilities.  The underslab plumbing pipe is ABS, the footing drain pipe is CPEP (polyethylene), and the sanitary sewer pipe is cast iron.  In all cases, the subcontractors arrived at the job site with PVC in their trucks, and Model Remodel had to send them back for an alternative.

We did end up using PVC for buried conduit, however.  The only legal alternatives are galvanized steel, which the electric utility rejected, or HDPE, which would have delayed the project for 6 weeks.


EHH week 03: foundation

The lower floor of the new house will be a concrete box, with full height foundation walls on all four sides.  These walls will be exposed, so the concrete subcontractor had to take extra care to layout the form boards and the snap tie spacing.  They did a beautiful job!  Amazingly, the long diagonals are only 1/16” different, meaning it is perfectly square.  The tall downhill wall is flat and plumb, a real work of art.

We are building this house from recycled materials.  The steel rebar is 100% recycled steel.  Under the slab on grade, instead of gravel we are using 100% recycled glass, called “cullet.”  It comes from the local curbside recycling bins that collect glass bottles.  The concrete wall has a brown dimpled drainage mat on the inside, made from 60% recycled HDPE.

The concrete mix contains blast furnace slag, a waste product from smelting iron into steel.  The slag has the added benefit of reducing the Portland cement from a typical 5-1/2 sacks per cubic yard (517 pounds) to only 2-1/2 sacks (235 pounds) without a loss in strength or durability.  Manufacturing 1 ton of Portland cement requires 6 million BTU of energy, so we are reducing our energy consumption before the house is even operational.  


EHH week 02: demolition and mobilization

Before we could start construction, we needed to demolish the existing old house that was in complete disrepair.  We used the commingled recycling method, where everything from the demolition gets put in one dumpster and then sorted at the recycling facility.  CDL Recycle did a fantastic job, achieving a remarkable 99% recycling rate.  That’s 162 tons saved from the landfill!

Mobilization was next, with a focus on minimizing the impacts of construction on the site.  Six trees--including two large Douglas firs--were fenced to protect them so they can continue to thrive as part of the new landscaping.  The old asphalt driveway will serve as the access for construction trucks, all but eliminating tires from tracking mud off the site.  The downhill edge of the work area was staked with a silt fence to stop runoff into neighbor properties.  And dirt excavated for the foundation was tarped to prevent erosion by wind and rain while it waits to be reused later as backfill.  Model Remodel maintains a really ship shape job site.

Because the site slopes at about 9% down to the west, the house basement is partly buried into the hill.  The maximum excavation depth is about 6 feet, tapering down to zero at the downhill side.  First, the existing topsoil was stripped and separately stored to be reused on site.  Then the excavated dirt was stockpiled to be reused as well.  We are hoping to not export any dirt for this project, just rearrange it on our building site instead.


EHH week 01: about Eastside Harvest House

Welcome to Eastside Harvest House, a new home designed to harvest food, sun, and rain on site.

A Kirkland couple seeking to build their new home had three main criteria for their site: ample space for an edible garden, room for elderly parents to live comfortably and share their home, and enjoying a sweeping view of Lake Washington and the Olympic Mountains.  They found a 1 acre dream site in the heart of Kirkland, largely undeveloped, with sweeping views of lake and mountains to the west.  The house is a 5 minute walk to grocery stores, coffee shops, retail, and restaurants.  There is a bus stop right at the street with service every 15 minutes to Kirkland, Bellevue, or Seattle, enabling car-free living.

The site will boast an abundant 6500 square foot garden for the owners to grow their own fruits and vegetables.  Irrigation will be provided by a subsurface drip system to irrigate two dozen raised beds, a dozen fruit trees, and numerous edible berry bushes.  A basement root cellar will store the garden bounty and ample kitchen counter space will enable home canning in season for personal use or to give as homemade gifts.

This 3500 square foot single-family residence will be divided into two suites, each with its own kitchen.  The master suite will group the living, dining, and kitchen in one great room with a master bedroom and bath, a guest bedroom and bath, his and hers offices, and an exercise room.  The private in-law suite will have a smaller great room, with two bedrooms and one bath.

The floor plan allows for long term flexibility depending on the occupants.  The wall dividing the great rooms is structurally designed to allow connection as one single dwelling, perfect for a large family with the in law suite becoming the children’s wing.  But the wall can subsequently be divided again in the future to suit two smaller families.

The house will be one story over a full daylight basement to fit it into the gently sloping site.  An elegant stair will connect the two levels.  However, all the principal rooms in both suites are located on the main floor flush with driveway grade to allow for accessibility for elderly parents now, and the middle aged owners in the future.  Bathrooms are designed with aging in place in mind, with curb-less showers, comfort height toilets, and grab bars.

This house has ambitious ecological goals, targeting LEED for Homes Platinum and Built Green 5 Star certifications.  100% of stormwater will be captured and infiltrated on site in a 2200 cubic foot rain garden.  Rainwater from the metal roof will be collected in four cisterns in the basement totaling 12,000 gallons.  Filtration and UV sterilization will allow the homeowners to use the rainwater for potable purposes in addition to toilet flushing, laundry, and irrigation.  This is the first residence in King County to be permitted to drink its rainwater.  The project anticipates net zero energy, supplying 100% of its own power with a 17kW photovoltaic array and 30 evacuated solar hot water tubes.

The Eastside Harvest House is a truly functional, beautiful, and sustainable addition to the vibrant community of Kirkland.

Project statistics
Location: Kirkland, Washington
Lot size:  41019 square feet (almost 1 acre)
Number of units: 1 dwelling unit with attached mother in law suite
Total gross square footage: 4400 gross square feet (3570 conditioned)

Project Team
Client: (confidential)
Architect: VELOCIPEDE architects inc
Contractor: Model Remodel LLC
Civil engineer: springline design, LLC
Landscape architect: Outdoor Studio
Structural engineer: Harriott Smith Valentine Engineers, Inc.
Mechanical engineer: Ecotope, Inc.
Solar designer: Solterra Systems, Inc.
Surveyor: Pacific Geomatic Services, Inc.
Geotechnical engineer: Geotech Consultants, Inc.
Arborist: Urban Forestry Services, Inc.