House Design Tips

Yesterday I had the privilege of participating in a critique for fourth year architecture students at our local university – Kent State. Seeing the student’s project work, talking with them, faculty and with fellow reviewers was inspiring to me as a designer and a homeowner. The university houses their architecture program in a brand new building that recently opened with the start of the school year. I had seen photos of it in the newspaper, and had driven by it during construction. It was impressive and rewarding to see the building completed and in person. The scale of the building is a bit juxtapose in my mind. The exterior looks grand in its simplicity – conceptually it reads larger but physically my first impression was that it was smaller than I anticipated. Like 7/8th scale. Inside its wide open, which makes it almost seem smaller and large at the same time. Ultimately there is a lot of “unexpected” since the design transcends decades of traditional big university building design thinking – or at least the buildings I’ve had experience with.

So let’s talk about today’s topic. At the end of the crit the evaluators had an opportunity to mention their take aways and advice. This got me thinking on the drive home, what advice would I give as a homeowner who lives in a house that follows many of the tenants the students are learning about – space planning, energy efficiency, environmental sustainability…and also as a homeowner (I was drafted to bring that perspective to the afternoon’s festivities).

ksu-arch-building-2016

The new Kent State Architecture building as you approach from the northwest.

ksu-arch-building-interior

Open studios foster collaboration across experiences and disciplines.

Without further ado here are seven of my off the cuff tips for anyone building, buying, remodeling or designing a home, based on our experience living in our current home for four and one half years.

  1. Rainwater collection is by far the smartest thing we did. This includes the gorgeous steel roof on the house. While pricey (~$20K+ for the roof and $13K+ for the rainwater collection system including cistern) it’s without a doubt the way to go in my opinion for your entire water household water supply. It provides independence from questionable city water supplies. The only maintenance cost is changing filters ($30-$50 each) every few months, and keeping the chlorine tank filled (a gallon of bleach a few times a year). Combined with an on site wastewater treatment solution ($300/year maintenance), it’s off the grid living that allows you to be a responsible steward for how water comes and goes from your property.

    wsfts-schematic

    Rainwater harvesting schematic shows how we collect rainwater for ALL of our water needs.

  2. Central living space – kitchen, dining and family rooms – is the way to go for today’s modern family. These three “rooms” are clustered together in our house and we spend 75% of our family time there I suspect. Preparing meals, eating dinner, watching television – our family of four is always in this space. The only downside is it looks like a tornado hit it with all the dishes, toys, papers, etc. but hopefully as the kids get older we’ll be able to reign in the clutter. And they are not huge spaces individually but as a whole we get a high performance livable space without the complexity of the typical new home floor plan. I only wish the family room space was about 2′ longer, maybe a square bay window. Arranging furniture in that space is a minor challenge. As for quiet time, there are other rooms to get away, so there is balance – opportunities to be in the middle of the action in this central space or not elsewhere.

    central-space

    This is where we spend all of our time essentially – kitchen, family room and dining room. Design these three spaces small and combine them for an effective everyday living space. Bonus points for the adjacent screen porch.

  3. Office space doesn’t have to be a dedicated room or even much more than a strategically placed built in. My office, I work from home 24/7, is literally a 5′ x 9′ space that is technically a hallway between the front hall and my art studio. We recently built a 15’x15′ space in the basement for my new office but laziness has kept me from moving down there just yet. I don’t mind my small office that I have now. I have a handy pocket door that I can close if I’m on a call. The rest of the house is “far away” so the kids are usually making noise somewhere else and early do I have to yell “shut up” during the course of any given day. There is built in storage and aplenty and even a place for our fish tank. When designing a house you can carve an office into virtually any space. And more and more people are working from home either part of the week or all the time. Get creative with office space.

    office

    Office space can be carved out of a hallway; they don’t require a lot of space.

  4. Pocket doors are a fantastic way to partition spaces. When we had our house designed there were several small spaces along the main north-south corridor. All the spaces (laundry, bathrooms, office) have their doors open 95% of the time.If we would have put traditional doors we be walking around open doors all the time and losing wall space. Pocket doors afford us a lot more flexibility in staging the house for when guests come over, need privacy , sequester cats or just don’t want to look at clutter. My tip though is get hollow pocket doors. The solid ones we have are just too damn heavy and difficult to use. Also note that the door needs space inside the adjacent wall to live when they’re open. You won’t be able to hang towel bars in those spaces as well because of the reduced depth behind the drywall.

    hallway-pocket-doord

    Pocket doors save space and provide more options for partitioning spaces than a traditional door.

  5. Kitchens can be small and don’t have to be traditional. We stole our kitchen design from a picture I saw in a magazine. It basically looks like three pieces of furniture instead of a traditional stock cabinet design you see in every house ever. And because the kitchen is part of that shared space with the dining room and living room, our kitchen is small (8’x13′) but doesn’t act small. Two chefs can work the room without bumping into each other. There’s a deep integrated pantry space (with pocket door) keeping supplies at hand without taking up much space. The island is big enough to serve off of and stand around, and that’s about it. Exposed overhead beams and a painted ceiling define the space and add interest without a lot of cost. Lastly there’s an alignment with the dining room table that really amps up the repetition and flexibility of horizontal surfaces.

    clean-kitchen-for-once

    Three piece kitchen looks more like an assemblage of furniture than a kitchen.

  6. Open kitchen cabinets add an eclectic touch while making life easier. A minute a day spent opening and closing kitchen cabinets? Six hours a year? Four years of living here and I’ve saved a day of my life not spent opening cabinets, right? We never got door installed on our cabinets due to circumstances, and frankly I’m kinda sold on not having them. It doesn’t look too cluttered. If you’re Martha Stewart you can go crazy with really nice dishes and keep everything organized. If you’re us you have a collection of random cups and glasses and it all seems to work anyway. Go for it, live a little and simplify your life while standing apart from every other cookie cutter home experience out there.

    open-kitchen-cabinets

    Open cabinets make getting, and putting away dishes a breeze and add an eclectic feel to the kitchen.

  7. USB wall chargers are a fun little add on. Replace an outlet in the office or kitchen with one of these USB outlets and you no longer have to hunt for adaptors to charge your electronic devices. Eventually everything will probably wireless charging or whatnot but in the meantime you can go old school by installing a couple of these in your house.

    usb-charging-outlet

    A USB charging station allows you to plug devices directly into the wall socket without hunting around for adaptors.

 

Some other personal thoughts that I won’t go into detail this time around but keep them in mind – low maintenance is great, low cost / simplicity to keep construction costs down, character in finishes and details, a screen porch / outdoor spaces, circular staircases are your friend, and 4″ diameter ceiling lights as opposed to old school 6″ ones.

There you have it, some quick tips for your home or your client’s home to make it more useable, flexible and enjoyable.

What are your home design tips? Share in the comments below, I really want to hear them.

 

-Chris

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New Roof Washer Filters

After four years of living here, our roof washer filters really needed changing. The roof washers wash all of the water that comes off of the roof when it rains. There are two fiberglass chambers in our front yard that the water flows into. As the chambers fill up with water, debris like leaf parts, bugs, and dirt stay on one side of the filters and the water flows through to the center of the filter, into a pipe and down into the cistern for storage.

I had previously taken the filters out twice, they’re like a cotton material, and washed them. I tried getting new ones last year, and through circumstances didn’t successfully get new ones until this year.

I’m very glad the new filters came with new mesh screens inside and out. The screens give the filters their circular shape. The old screens were rusting out. To install, I simply took off the top caps and threw out the old filters, and inserted the new fluffy white ones.

I’m still waiting to get an invoice for the filters, but I don’t imagine they cost too much.

Elsewhere not much is going on. In the 90 degree heat this past weekend I cut the grass and finally spread a few bags of mulch I had purchased in June; spreading them around some of our smaller younger plants we planted in the meadows. The mulch will help them get some breathing room from encroaching meadow grasses and golden rod.

 

 

For a link to one time when I cleaned the roof washers click here.

Labor Day 2014

I have some form of undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder that requires me to get monkeys off my back. So I’ll throw out my “Happy Labor Day” post before I get back to working on a Sunday. (You’ll be reading on Monday (Labor Day in the U.S.) and suffice to say I’ll be working on Labor Day as well.)

My Exterior Doors Hate Me

Speaking of obsessive compulsive, I interrupted my work Friday with an hour fit of wanting to get my Therma-Tru doors fixed again. This saga has been ongoing since January and every time I see the air gap in my doors, and missing hinge screws it fills me with rage.

I bet most people who go postal had someone mis-install three grand worth of exterior doors in their house; only to find there is absolutely zero customer service after your doors are installed. I can’t go after the installer because we’re related, and it would make holiday parties difficult. I call the place every four weeks where we bought the doors from but they never call back. I send emails and check out the manufacturer website out – hoping I can order replacement parts but they say I have to contact the distributor.

See the problem is Therma-Tru makes the door slabs and then a distributor puts on the frames. You need to contact a distributor, but it has to be the one you got the doors from. I don’t know what you do if you buy the house new.

It’s a good example of how pathetic customer service is in this country. Specifically customer service in the building industry. It is horrific. From manufacturers, to sellers, to installers; my impression is they just want to take your money and never deal with you again. In this day and age I should be able to have an expert look at my door, order the parts, install them / fix the problem, and then give me a bill to pay.

I did have a distributor rep come out in January but he never followed through and I don’t have his contact info. The whole process defies logic and common sense.

I did purchase some long #12 screws for the hinges, where they neglected to install screws. They’re zinc plated which I don’t know if I like that from a corrosion perspective – I may still go out and find stainless screws just to suit my anal retentive nature.

The lack of air tightness isn’t the only door problem I’m having, the front door lock won’t accept the key all the way. So I called up Emtek and they’re going to send me a “tool” I can use to try to fix it. I suspect it’ll either do the trick or turn into another complete cluster. We shall see.

Air Show

We went to the air show this weekend. I had been wanting to go for the last 15 years but never found the time. It comes to Cleveland every Labor Day weekend, except last which was cancelled due to the government shutdown.

The best part of the show for us as a Harrier flying right over top of us as we got out of the car. It scared the entire family because we didn’t see it coming.

It was awesome!

The day was hot but the we had a really nice time. The kids got toy airplanes, and got to stand next to the actual planes to get their photos taken. We had some lemonade and settled down on our blanket to watch the Blue Angels. They were really awesome!

I know a lot of people who live in the USA hate the country, military and whatnot but I love going to the air show and seeing the jets. I’m no war monger by any means, unless maybe it has to do with my ill-fitting doors, but I’m really glad I live in the United States of America. We enjoy more freedom and opportunity than any other nation in my opinion and we have really awesome people protecting us. And those people get to use the best equipment available. Watching those planes and how powerful they are makes me glad I will never have to be on the business end of one of them.

Go off on your political rants all you want; but I really love this country and don’t mind one bit that we’ve got good people wielding capable weapons in defense of freedom across the globe. It’s a shame that the advent of drones and a changing world likely mean the need for jets will wane soon. I’m glad I grew up in an age where we could see them.

One environmental note, to me an air show is a great use of fossil fuels – it was great entertainment and made treasured memories for our family. And I don’t mind buying the foreign made plastic toy planes as  a token of the day – though it’d be nice if they were more eco-friendly and made here, it’s not a big deal.

Abstinence isn’t a viable option for this tree-hugger when it comes to the air show.

Apologies to my green loving, dove friends.

This B-25 is the last one that still flys and saw actual combat. It flew sorties into Italy during WW2. It's a beautiful machine. Hopefully it will be flying for generations to come.

This B-25 is the last one that still flys and saw actual combat. It flew sorties into Italy during WW2. It’s a beautiful machine. Hopefully it will be flying for generations to come.

Watching the Blue Angels is a Cleveland tradition. It makes me really happy to share the experience with my kids.

Watching the Blue Angels is a Cleveland tradition. It makes me really happy to share the experience with my kids.

F/A-18's from the Blue Angels naval air team.

F/A-18’s from the Blue Angels naval air team. I think flying a jet would be awesome.  These guys are lucky to get to do it as their job.

Grey Day Photos

I’ll leave you this Labor Day (and get back to work before I get in trouble) with some photos from our wild yard.

Peace everyone. Stay safe, love each other and find time to laugh today.

Rain barrel with black eyed susans

Rain barrel with black eyed susans

Front planting bed with wildflowers. A nice view of our rain water collection network and natural flowers managing rain water.

Front planting bed with wildflowers. A nice view of our rain water collection network and natural flowers managing rain water.

The bees working on Labor Day weekend too.

The bees working on Labor Day weekend too.

 

Water Supply From The Sky

[Writer’s note: this is an article I wrote last year but was never published. I wanted to share it with my loyal readers. I hope you enjoy. Rainwater harvesting is fascinating and can be utilized anywhere there is precipitation i.e. everywhere on the planet.]

Living with the convenience of “city” water for over thirty years I was a bit apprehensive when my wife and I bought a little piece of rural paradise upon which to build our new family home. As far as I knew there was only one option for our water supply: a well, drilled deep into the ground pulling up water from the earth. As far as I knew a well meant smelly, slimy, water and iron stained plumbing fixtures. I was not looking forward to a lifetime of well water, but the land was so nice I was willing to sacrifice.

We soon discovered that the area of our new land was not a great place to get a reliable water supply from the earth.  So we had to find another source. The only other real option was to get a cistern, which is a large waterproof vault that holds water. Cisterns have been providing safe drinking water to humans for thousands of years. I immediately liked the idea because it meant no sulfur smelling water or toilet rings.

There are three ways to fill a cistern. We could pay a water hauling company to truck in water. Another option is to use the cistern in tandem with a well, the idea being that the cistern would keep ample water available from even a slow producing replenishment well. Lastly the cistern can be filled with free harvested rainwater from the sky. We wanted our new home to be as environmentally sustainable as possible so we decided to go with harvesting.

With the collection decision made, I needed to do some research.  Foremost I needed to know how much water we’d use and therefore need to collect. The U.S. EPA website estimates about 300 gallons per day per family[1] (109,500 gallons per year). Our goal was to solely rely on rainwater as our supply. If we hit a drought (in the heat of summer or the freeze of winter) we could have water trucked in. We selected a 10,000-gallon underground cistern, which meant we could go a month without refilling it. A low level light comes on at 2,500.

I found the Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting[2] online and it is filled with a wealth of information. The manual estimates that one can expect to collect 0.62 gallons per square foot of collection surface, per inch of rainfall. The efficiency of the system is about 75% because some water will be lost in the collection process.[3] So for our example, we have about 4,000 sq. feet of roof to collect water from. Our average precipitation (in nearby Akron, Ohio) is around 40 inches per year[4]…. (4,000 x 40 x 0.62) x 0.75 = 74,400 gallons per year we’ll collect. That’s far from the amount we need but that didn’t deter us from our goal of water independence. Our system cost $14,000 installed.

When collecting rainwater for home use, one has to consider the entire system from raindrop to faucet.  The biggest question mark during the design phase was the roof material. Aesthetically we wanted a metal roof, but weren’t sure if we could afford one. Would asphalt shingles be safe for our water supply? The Texas manual recommends metal roofs, sold under the Galvalume trade name for example, are the best for collecting rainwater for potable use. Potable water should not be collected from wood or asphalt roofs as chemicals can leach from them material into the water. Clay and concrete tiles are okay, but there rough porous surface means a less efficient system.[5] Ultimately we stretched the budget and went with the metal roof.

The collection process is fairly straightforward. As rain hits the roof it flows to the gutters, which have a screen on them to keep large debris out. Water is then directed by downspouts and pipes to roof washers located atop the underground cistern. The washers contain mesh and fabric filters to screen out any large contaminants before the water is deposited into the cistern.  As needed the water is pumped from the cistern into the house where it passes through chlorine and pressure tanks. Lastly the water flows through a 1-micron cartridge filter system to take the chlorine out as well as a final step in the purification process.  The filter’s cost about $30 and we change them six times per year.

WSFTS-Schematic

To minimize water usage we installed plumbing fixtures that use less water. Outside we irrigate the gardens using water collected from a rain barrel. Landscaping with native plants that don’t require supplemental watering helps also. Last year our area saw 33 inches of precipitation through November[6], which is well below average. That being said, our low water light never came on once since we’ve been here. Smaller (and larger) cisterns are available, but we’ve been very happy with the size of our tank.

It was amazing to take my first shower in the new house and realize that the water that was raining around me had fallen from the sky earlier that day. We’ve been very pleased with the system overall and recommend anyone interested in a self-sustaining alternative, look into rainwater harvesting. It’s a viable water source wherever you live.

-Chris

Rainwater harvesting mechanics inside the home include chlorine and pressure tanks, a changeable cartridge filter and low level indicator light.

Rainwater harvesting mechanics inside the home include chlorine and pressure tanks, a changeable cartridge filter and low level indicator light.

On the outside, a rainwater-harvesting house looks like any other except for the exposed cistern lid and roof washers. In this example they are hidden amongst the landscaping in the foreground.

On the outside, a rainwater-harvesting house looks like any other except for the exposed cistern lid and roof washers. In this example they are hidden amongst the landscaping in the foreground.


[2] Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting, Texas Water Development Board, Third Edition 2005, http://www.twdb.state.tx.us/publications/reports/rainwaterharvestingmanual_3rdedition.pdf

[3] Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting, pp29-30

[4] The Weather Channel website www.weather.com

[5] Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting, p6

[6] National Weather Service Forecast Office, Cleveland, OH, http://www.nws.noaa.gov/climate/xmacis.php?wfo=cle

Bird Killer

It’s Sunday night after a long weekend of work.  I got a fair amount accomplished this weekend and have the sore muscles and drooping eyelids to prove it.  Saturday our little guy wasn’t feeling well so instead of visiting relatives down south we stayed at home.  I was happy to have a bonus free and open weekend so I spent Saturday morning finishing up the cabinets in the upstairs art studio.  Photos for all the weekends activities are below, I’ll give you the rundown up here first.  Always seems tough to integrate photos into these WordPress posts and I don’t feel like battling the computer tonight.  So words first then pics.

Friday we fired up the pellet fireplace for the first time.  We watched the Quadrafire DVD that came with our EDGE60 unit and learned how to use the fireplace and thermostat.  Everything worked well enough so we should be all set for when the cold weather hits.  This time of year is great as we haven’t had the heating or cooling on in about three weeks.  The house just hums along at 70 degrees consistently with little or no change.

I started by carving out a rectangular piece of drywall and screwing it over the hole the plumber created to access the pipes we needed to relocate.  I then made a feeble attempt to put drywall “paste” spackle over the seams.  I really hate dry walling…I mean screwing the drywall up is easy enough, though I even screw that up.  Spackling is just plain a pain in the ass and I have no patience for it.  Clearly it’s a task meant to be delegated to others in exchange for currency.  After the hole was patched up I placed the last cabinet and screwed it into place.

Next was installing the long counter top.  I put my Stanley “L” brackets into place, five on each long leg and a couple on the short legs.  Over the open bay where the mini fridge is going I screwed a strip of wood on the wall.  This is to support the counter top over this open area.  Once all the bracket were in place I installed the counter top and using my 3/4″ blocks as spacers, and my family as a weight, I screwed the brackets to the counter tops. Topside I installed two trim pieces on either side of the drop down section.  There was a 1/4″ gap where the counter met the cabinets on either side.  I used the simple 1/4″ half round trim that came the cabinets.  I put adhesive caulk on the back side and pinned it in place with my air nail gun.  The nails shot through into the cabinet walls but they are in a place where they shouldn’t hurt anyone.

Finally I installed the cabinet pulls.  I created a few templates on paper so that I’d consistently drill the mounting holes.  The pulls came with a variety of screw lengths; I measured the thickness of the door and test fit a screw to select the right screw.  The leftover screws are great to have around for future projects or to give to my kid.  It’s really important to get the hole locations right as I struggled a bit and had to over bore some holes to get things to line up.  Lastly I’ll run some clear caulk on the counter edges to close off some of the gaps where the wall waves in and out.  We chose not to install any back splashes on these counters.

Saturday afternoon I attempted to commit suicide by excavating the cistern access and digging a drainage trench.  After thirty minutes I was heaving up specks of lunch and seeing yellow spots.  I muscled through it and was rewarded with just a little bit of chest pain and random anxiety fits.

I went up to Lowes and picked up 50′ of solid plastic pipe material, 4″ in diameter, a couple plastic caps and metal rings which, when all strung together, created a way for water to exit from around the excavated cistern lid area.  I had to dig down far enough to expose two electrical boxes and then trench down enough so the laid pipe would allow the water to travel down hill so to speak.  See, the electrical boxes were allowing water to build up and ultimately travel into our basement.  This little heart and back breaking maneuver I pulled off this weekend should eliminate the water in our basement.  After laying the pipe I covered the one end with stone and the rest of the pipe with the excavated dirt, clay and grass.  I used about ten bags of river pebbles around the lid to make it easy for water to find the drainage pipe.  I’ll pick up some more stone for around the roof washers as well.

I used some of the hand excavated soil in the bed area nearby, as well as wheel barrowing in some from my top soil pile.  Yes the wheel barrow tire is fixed and holding air.  We then spent today planting the rest of the boxwood bushes and relocating some other little plants whose names escapes me at the moment.  I topped everything off with a wee bit of mulch to secure the soil for the winter.

Out back I spread some more mulch around the hydrangea bed.  We picked up two variety of black berry bushes on sale at Lowes for five dollars apiece.  These I planted in our berry bush area, the future pathway that will lead to the veggie garden.  While fixing up the bird netting around the berry bushes I sadly discovered why they call it bird netting, seems I caught and killed a song bird in our netting.  So that puts me at net zero in terms of helping / hurting birds.  In an attempt to improve the situation for our aviary friends I started cutting the netting in half length wise, as I had the excess netting layered over itself which I think made it a trap to animals.  Well laziness is the mother of invention, or at least it is with this Industrial Designer so I just ripped out all the bird netting.  In its place I tied three horizontal strands of yellow twine, about 16″ apart.  I’m pretty sure I saw a TV show where these guys at Penn State said this would stop deer.  Actually they said three strands about 16″ off the ground (spaced apart by 16″ or so with the middle strand a bit higher) would keep dear out.  Something about deer don’t like to step over stuff.  Anyway I did the typical fence thing so we’ll see how that goes.  I did the same around my Arctic Kiwi trees too, which have grown to the exact height they started at six months ago.

Ok, that’s more than enough for one weekend.  Here are the pics in no relative order.  Cheers.

 

Biomimicry

On the day before my birthday I had the pleasure of taking a nature walk with the wife and our boys. The nicest thing about our house is the land itself.  As nature takes back over its nice to see all the little plants turning tan dirt into a green carpet. It is so special to just walk around and visually explore.  Our land is basically about a half-dozen meadows visually separated by trees that perfectly frame views.  We’re starting to enter the cool rainy season of Fall here in Ohio.  Summer is finally losing its grip and the plants have run their course. Leaves ease from greens into yellows and browns.  Some are even turning red on certain bushes.  The wild flowers hold on adding spicy blues, pinks and purples to the mix.  It is a most wonderful time of year.  And the cool seventy degree evenings are perfect for taking a walk.

We should get our cedar clear coated yet this Fall and as I said the porches are painted.  I’m going to forego the screens for now and save some money; we’re basically broke for now.  Next week the plumber comes in to straighten the upstairs studio pipes which will allow me to get the task of finishing Christine’s cabinets installed complete.  The garage doors still need their weather-stripping trim caulked and nailed into place.  Plants have been planted, though some boxwoods up front need their bed expanded with top soil before I can plant them…need to remember to do this as they’ve sat patiently for weeks now.  I also need to dig around the cistern and lay some drainage pipe.

With Fall in the air my hibernation instincts are kicking in.  Wrapping up everything outside for the next few months will be good.  Hopefully I can force my ass back into the studio and get painting.  I have dozens of canvases waiting for paint.   I really need to get some paintings done and start whoring my wares to make a few bucks.  We need to refill our coffers before winter….unplanned expenses such as snow removal and putting cleats on the metal roof are looming, not to mention the clear coating of the cedar this year still.  We’ve nixed getting any trees this year including the nine apple trees.

One good thing is that we actually refinanced our mortgage; with rates so low we’re saving  around $150 plus, per month (I have to look).  I highly recommend you look into it yourself. The process was long and drawn out but worth it in the end.  Only down side is the appraisal.  Our banking models are really outdated…their only means of accessing a value on a home is via comparable sales.  Based on their assessment we’ve already lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of value on our property, but I’d contend that the house and property is incomparable to other properties.  The system is set up to evaluate homes in bubble markets in cookie cutter neighborhoods.  It’s really a shame but not surprising when one considers most of our modern business and social models are out of date.  Hopefully our kids will have a better time of it, but I’m not sure how successful our generation will be at changing things.

I went to hear Janine Benyus speak in Akron the other night.  I’ve heard her a few times previously and even met her / sat in on a round table discussion with her before.  Janine literally wrote the book on Biomimicry.  If you don’t know what that is, in a nut shell it’s the science of asking nature how to solve problems.  As we bring biologists to the design table we gain access to a tool box of materials and tactics that can solve the most challenging of problems in an effective and environmentally sustainable manner.  If you want true innovation for business look no further than the 3.8 billion years of R&D that mother nature has performed.  Man has only been around for 200,000 years; to think that we can’t learn something from nature is being just plain stupid.  I was inspired by her talk as I always am.  Ohio is doing a lot of great research in this field and turning out great solutions such as colors that don’t require chemical pigments, super materials made from the same stuff spiders make their webs from and adhesive free tape that is inspired by geckos.

As we live in a world where it is requisite to “heat, beat and treat” everything and dump chemicals all over ourselves until we inexplicably get cancer or our sperm no longer work, it’s refreshing and hope filling to realized there are better ways, that can also benefit our bottom line and leave the world a better place.  For 150 years we’ve been convincing ourselves it’s in our best interest to see how quickly we can kill ourselves and our children by destroying the natural world.  In the end it is so much less expensive to go with the flow of nature than to fight it.  Nature does so many wonderful things with just a small set of tools and operating rules.  I implore you to learn more for your own sanity and to restore some sense of “humanity” back into your soul.  I know it inspires me.  Just two examples of how kickass cool nature is: Nature uses water as a solvent, people have to rely on nasty chemicals.  And nature only uses a handful of the elements on the periodic table to make everything we see around us, man feels the need to use them all (we’re like small children in that regard). One more major fact, in nature there is no concept of waste.

As I think about Biomimicry, I naturally think about our house and land.  Our house in some regards is virtually invisible to nature.  For example, as I listen to the rain outside…we collect nearly all the water that hits impervious surfaces on our property.  What we “keep” or “use” goes into the cistern or rain barrel.  What we don’t harvest goes through pipes and they empty out into a series of pools where nature naturally filters the water through native grasses and plants.  The water we harvest is filtered, albeit with help of chlorine and a filter to make it potable, and then we use it.  We drink some and use some for washing.  We’re working towards using natural soaps and detergents, but regardless because of the septic we’re not using anything too too bad.  The water goes through our washers and showers and us and it all goes into the septic system.  The septic is a man-made way to treat the water, with forced micro organisms, so it’s not really too natural but it is treatment no less.  The treated stuff is then pumped up to the leech field where it bubbles up and returns to nature as water and treated by products that in turn nourish the north meadow.  So it’s pretty neat that our water “cycle” literally can be seen completely if you stand in the yard of our house.  All of the water that hits our property nourishes us but more importantly is dealt with on site.  This is the polar opposite to how it is typically handled in this region, state and country.  It amazes me and I find it to be one of the neatest aspects of the house.  Water is handled in a very natural way, and in the end it really doesn’t cost any more than the typical way, or at least all the costs are accounted for on site, not hidden somewhere in the form of environmental degradation or social inequality.

If you want to know more, read the book or stop on out here and let talk and go for a walk, I’ve got a dozen other examples for you on site I bet.

Here are today’s pics, enjoy and do something remarkable this week.

Water, Water, Every Where

Nor any drop to drink.

One of the challenges of our lot, and we knew this going in, was that we’d have to rely on something other than city water or a well to provide all of our potable and non-potable water needs.  The irony is that you only need to walk our land after a rain storm to see how much surface water runs across our property (which we knew all about prior to buying as well).  We’re a fairly hardy lot so neither fact bothered us in the least.  We actually embrace both as they make our land and situation unique.  And frankly necessity is the mother of invention.

For our situation we’ll have a 10,000 gallon cistern and rain water collection system installed.  If our family of four is average we’ll use up to 70 gallons a day per person, or 280 per day for the household.  This works out to around 102,200 gallons a year.  Less if we conserve, more if I decide hanging out in the warm shower is more enjoyable than stepping out on the cold tile in the morning. 

We’ll have about 5,000 square feet of rain water collection area, give or take a couple hundred feet.  Every 1,000 sq. ft. of roof collects about 600 gallons for every inch of rainfall.  So our roof collects around 3,000 gallons every time it rains an inch.

Let’s see, not a math teacher but 102 divided by 3….carry the one…….we need 34″ of rain and melted snow equivalent to provide our family with water for a year.  I suppose more if we’re watering stuff, washing cars or running nude through sprinklers.  Akron, Ohio, the nearest large city near us gets about  38″ of annual rainfall / precipitation.  This year we’ve gotten 48″ of rain. 

So generally speaking we should have no problem with our water supply.  We predict the only times we’ll have to truck in water will be in the dead of Summer when it doesn’t rain and the dead of Winter when everything’s frozen.  Otherwise we should be right as rain. (pun intended).

I actually am looking forward to rain water as opposed to well water.  I don’t like the feel, smell, taste and stains that sometimes accompany well water.  Worst case scenario, we could drill for a well and have it slow feed the cistern.  We’re just not likely to get a well that will work for daily use.

Obviously city water would be nice. But the advantage of my system is that I’ll never get a water bill.  Yes there will be maintenance and I need chemicals to treat the water just like well water (or city water for that matter).  We’ll just be running our own water company on site.  Freedom and democracy at its best.  Air pollution is a concern but frankly I don’t think it’ll lead to any long-term ills.  Although you never know.  In that regard I’m at the mercy of which way the wind blows and what America is willing to put into its air.

We resolved the Western Red Cedar issue as best we could at this point.  As I noted previously, Cedar is a huge no no when it comes to rain water collection for potable purposes.  The natural oils and chemicals could pose a problem. On top of that if you’re using cedar shakes for your roof they’re treated with man-made chemicals which make them very toxic.  The State of Ohio Health Dept. won’t allow water collection on shake roofs.  What they don’t have on the books, yet, is cedar siding, namely on a dormer and how it affects water supply.  It’s something they’ll look into, quite possibly based on our inquiry.

Our house has cedar siding so we were concerned with run off getting onto the roof and into the water supply.  I checked with the lumber yard and verified the WRC is totally natural so we’re at least free of man-made toxins.  Alas though, Mother Nature does hate me because she makes sure cedar repels bugs through the use of her own toxins.

Long story short we’ve taken several prescriptive steps in short order.  The siding is going on as we speak.  1) We’re going to omit two gable end sections from our collection area, one isn’t critical and the other is a large dormer with lots of cedar on it.  The idea is that rain would beat onto the cedar and run down the laps onto the roof below. 2) We may make the cedar inert by painting or sealing it.  Down side here is we would compromise the look we’re going for; weathered grey.  3) Long term I can rip the cedar off and side the dormers and gables in galvalume metal.

Regardless, we’ll be fine.  If we all develop cancer or asthma then I’ll know why at least.

The cistern, downspouts and gutters should all be going in later this month.

Other than that, insulation is slowly going in.  Exterior insulation installation has slowed down, just as the finish line is in sight.  Not sure what’s going on there.  Also, this Friday we’ll have our second big tour, this time a local University will be sending a class out to take a look.  Last week we got a great welcome from our future neighbors.  I always enjoy showing off the house and sharing what we’re doing and what we’ve learned.

ProjectCam has a new memory card.  Tragedy of tragedies, the last card started lapping itself so I think I lost 200-400 frames.  Hopefully not much was going on at that time.  We’ll see.  This time of year, it’s dark by time I get out there.

Until next time, talk to you later.

-Chris