25 June 2012

Happy Birthday, Green House

The Green House is two years old today.  We celebrated over the weekend by building it a new downspout for the rainwater collection system.

(Before we permanently attach the downspout, we will spray paint it with Rustoleum Hammered Silver to approximate the look of the gutters and roof.)

We are tying five gutters into the system (the four on the back of the house, plus the closest one on the front side), so we need to replace five of the original downspouts/rain chains with watertight PVC downspouts. So far we've only built this one, which is made of 4" SDR-35 PVC (instead of the much thicker, heavier, and more expensive Schedule 40 PVC that you usually see). I think there are 15 pieces in that one downspout, including five pieces to navigate the stone cap at the bottom of the siding.  We were hoping to find 3" SDR-35 for the more conspicuous downspouts, but we haven't been successful, so the rest of the downspouts are on hold while we decide between 4" SDR-35 and 3" Schedule 40.

Well that was fun. Now back to more trenching.

19 June 2012

The Sedum Garden

The sedum garden should be our last priority since its borders won't be established until the patio is in, and the patio can't be installed until the rainwater collection system's underground lines are in. But over the last several months, we've found various succulents that we like (often on sale, or even free), and we've amassed about a dozen sedum and other succulents in that little strip between the screened porch and the patio, including these fun specimens:

Autumn Joy sedum:

That's one of the smaller Autumn Joys, and the only one that has been confused into blooming (which usually takes place in the fall). The one below has grown a lot more -- so much that I had already cut off a big shoot to give to a friend.)

Blue Spruce sedum:


Tricolor sedum:

Hens and Chicks (grown from a cutting a neighbor gave me):

Bunny Ears Cactus (grown from a small piece that fell off of the cactus I planted in the agave corner in front of the house -- the two "ears" have grown since I stuck it in the ground):

There were also two little cabbage-shaped succulents (sedum pachyclados), but they didn't make it. I'm not sure why (although too much sun and too little water are pretty safe bets around here).

When we had our irrigation system installed last spring, they put in a main drip line along the length of the sedum garden, with 1/4" drip lines to each of the three bulbines we had at the time, but I was worried that an individual dripper would be too much water for each succulent, so they left us some of this 1/4" line that's perforated every foot for even watering.

Over the winter, it rained consistently enough that I didn't need to water even once from November until about April, so the sedum garden was okay even though the irrigation system was only set up to water three of the plants. But now that we're watering weekly again, it was high time to swap out the drip lines.

And here's where things get a little bit technical. Hopefully this picture will help me explain:

The white pipe (PVC) coming up from the ground ties into the irrigation system's underground lines and attaches to the main line of the drip system (the thicker black tubing), then the individual drip lines (the thin black tubes) tie into that, one per plant, with the other end at the base of the plant. The round discs between the thick black tubing and the drip line are the "emitters," which regulate the amount of water that serves each plant (emitters come in .5 gallons per hour (GPH), 1 gph, and 2 gph). But in the case of the succulent garden, it seemed like a better idea to run a perforated line that would water close to the plants' roots instead of right at the roots (since succulents don't need as much water and can rot if they get too much water).

I started by removing the stakes that held the main drip line (the thicker black tubing) in place, then I pulled the main line out of the way of the sedum strip. I have plans to reuse it later, but for now I just plugged the three holes where the thinner lines had been tied in.

Then I punched a new hole in the main line where it first reaches the sedum garden. The main drip line is thick (although not rigid) plastic, which makes it difficult to puncture, but this hole punch tool makes it pretty easy:

I used one of these barbed connectors to attach the 1/4" perforated line to the main line (instead of an emitter, which would restrict the amount of water coming through; the perforated line regulates its own water flow):

Then I plugged the other end of the connector into the new hole in the main line and ran the perforated line to the far end of the sedum strip, placing it between/next to the plants as I went.

I toyed with the idea of making a loop that would connect back to the main line, so the succulents would get twice as much water, but ultimately I decided to run just one line. If more water is needed, I have enough of the perforated tubing to replace the current line with a loop. But for now I would need to plug the end of the line, which I did with one of the same plugs that I used on the three holes in the 1/2" line.

I really should add mulch to help keep the moisture in (which would also hide the drip line), but my ultimate goal is to cover this area with decomposed granite or gravel. And since "ground level" might change when we put the patio is in (probably not until next year), for now I'm just keeping an eye on things to be sure the succulents are getting enough water. So here's the finished (for now) sedum garden:

The succulents have already grown a ton since I planted them, and I have a vision of them filling the whole area, with bits of moss rock peeking out among them in interesting, natural ways. But maybe even more exciting is the prospect of cutting off snippets of the sedum and separating the bulbines to share with fellow gardeners.

18 June 2012

Green News: Green Building Edition

It's that time again, and this time we're focusing on one of my favorite subjects (and my "gateway drug" to other green topics): green building.

Seattle remodel yields 75% reduction in energy costs.
This house, built in 1924, recently underwent a major remodel. With improvements like new insulation and windows, a ductless heat pump, heat pump water heater, and home electricity monitoring, the 3,100 square foot home's energy use was reduced from 43,000 kWh per year (over 3,500 kWh/month) to 11,000 (about 900/month).

California mandates solar-ready roofs. The California Energy Commission has adopted new building energy-efficiency standards that take effect in 2014 and will require, among other things, roofs suitable for solar panels (i.e., without penetrations and not shaded by other parts of the structure).

How (and why) to properly size HVAC systems. This article explores why oversizing of HVAC systems is so common, why it's bad (primarily energy-efficiency and moisture control), and how today's building standards are helping to combat oversizing.

R-38 windows. Double- and triple-paned windows, with their insulation values in the low single digits, may someday be a thing of the past, as Superwindows is developing a window with 12 panes and the uber-insulating silica-based aerogel to minimize thermal bridging (heat traveling through the window frame).

Saving lumber by framing at 24" instead of 16" on center. It's well-known that this works for 2x6 framing, but this BuilderOnline article shows how they can be used with 2x4 framing as well.

Purdue University's award-winning green home. As I wrote about in this post last summer, the U.S. Department of Energy hosts a biennial contest that challenges 20 collegiate teams to design and build green houses. Purdue University's entry, called INhome, was just named Project of the Year by the National Association of Home Builders in the Single Family-Concept/Research-Academic category.

14 June 2012

The Case of the Hairy Watermelon

Last week, as part of a landscape update, I wrote about the mystery squash-like vine growing out of my compost heap.

The fruit sure looked like hairy watermelons.

But they weren't, as I discovered when I explored further.  Here are those same two...whatevers...a few days later.

And another that's a little further along than the first two.

And two more that are still further along.

But the one that cracked the case was this guy.

A canteloupe! Of course the hairy watermelon-looking fruits would turn into canteloupes! (Nature continues to mystify me.)

Unfortunately, a friendly neighborhood scavenger cracked the case around the same time I did but had a greater sense of the urgency of the situation, so now it's looking more like this:

But I'll get the next one.

11 June 2012

IKEA, I Had No Idea

Recently I decided to buy a couple of new bookshelves for the office. That process prompted me to contemplate the concept of "embodied energy" -- the energy required to harvest materials, manufacture the item, package it, and bring it to the location where it is going to be used. Bookshelves don't use energy on an ongoing basis, of course, but that doesn't mean they never used any. (The same was true of the stone on the house; our choice of Leuders limestone from Leuders, Texas, saved energy over stone trucked in from out-of-state.)

Between the aesthetic I was going for and the amount I was looking to spend, Ikea's Expedit shelves were the logical choice. Ikea is known for its affordable, some-assembly-required furniture, and the low cost is due in part to the relatively little embodied energy required to ship items disassembled in flat packs. Of course, locally made items made of locally harvested materials have the least embodied energy, but within my budget for this project, Ikea fit the bill. Fortunately, most of Ikea's wares are no longer made in Sweden (now they come from all corners of the world); my Expedits were made in the USA. Since each box was about a quarter the size of the completed unit, four times as many fit into each shipment from the factory to the store as if they were pre-assembled.

Another way Ikea's furniture is kind to the environment is that laminated products like my Expedit shelves are made with the leftover bits of wood products (the shelves are laminated on all sides so they can be used both horizontally or vertically and as room dividers, so I'm not exactly sure if it's particleboard or something else in there). That allows maximum use to be made of trees that are cut down for regular wood products, saving trees overall. So, although this transaction hardly exemplified "buy local," I was feeling pretty good about my purchase of two Expedit units:

Here's a "before" shot, if you're into that kind of thing:

As soon as the new units were set up, I read this article accusing Ikea of pillaging old-growth forests in Russia, despite their stated commitment to sustainability.

I hope there's more to this story, that it isn't what it seems, but so far it isn't looking good for Ikea and its lumber subsidiary, Swedwood. But I'm reserving judgment and, either way, I'm hopeful that the light that has been shed on the issue will lead to positive changes in the way wood is harvested, not only within Ikea but also more widely. (Check out the Forest Stewardship Council website for more information about responsible forest management and lumber practices and this update regarding the allegations against Swedwood.)

08 June 2012

Landscape Update

Austin's flora got an early start this spring, and while some of our plants seem to be at the tail end of their bloom cycle (like the verbena), others are just getting going. Here are some of my recent discoveries:

The Basham Party Pink crape myrtle in the backyard has been covered with buds for the last week or two but is still trailing behind all of the specimens around town that are in full bloom.

It finally has its first two flowers.

The others can't be too far behind.

Then there's Steve's skyflower:

It has finally gotten its first two tiny blooms, too:

I had to replace a plumbago that didn't survive the winter (mild though it was), and the new one is getting its first flowers after being planted:

That's lamb's ear behind it, with their totally unexpected purple bloom spikes. (Who knew?!)

And then there's the vine that took root in our compost pile (almost certainly from something we threw back there).

I thought it was some kind of squash, but now that something is finally sprouting...could they be watermelons?

Really hairy watermelons?

06 June 2012

Green News: Water Edition

It's time for another roundup of articles, this time focused on water. The bad news? We're running out. The good news? Researchers and policymakers are on the case, with five of the six links below relating to positive developments in this area.

Low-flow toilets. New technologies and new challenges as manufacturers design increasingly efficient toilets. A Fort Worth company makes one that uses just 0.8 gallon per flush -- half the standard (since 1996) of 1.6 gallons!

Graywater systems legalized in Oklahoma. "Graywater" refers to water from sinks (other than the kitchen sink) and from the washing machine that is reused for irrigation and/or toilet flushing (as opposed to "black" water from toilets). Graywater systems are slowly gaining acceptance across the country. (We had looked into installing one when we built but were scared off by its unclear legal status.) Oklahoma's new law legalizing graywater seems to be for irrigation only, not for toilets.

"Cap and trade" for water? This article refers to such a proposal by researchers who are seeking to apply the concept, original designed with carbon dioxide emissions in mind, to interstate transfers of water in the Colorado River.

Smart water metering gaining momentum. As water becomes increasingly scarce, municipalities are turning to smart meters to better measure water use and to help residents conserve. Like smart meters for electricity, it's going to boil down to how well cities use the information -- and share it with residents -- but it's a step in the right direction.

Austin residents drill wells in response to drought. Folks in my neighborhood are replacing lawn with xeriscaping, but folks in fancier parts of town are turning to well drillers to get around watering restrictions and save money on their water bills (but at what cost to the rest of us?).

Recycled wastewater. As water shortages become more prevalent, the possibility of purifying effluent (wastewater) becomes increasingly appealing (not that it will ever really be appealing). One town in Texas is already out of water and on the verge of taking this step. But public opposition remains strong, since "drinking sewage" sounds gross. (Never mind that virtually all of our drinking water is ultimately just purified wastewater already -- we just cycle it through one or two more "natural" steps (lakes, etc.) before sending it back to our faucets.) This New York Times article and accompanying video explore the "ick" factor and how we can get over it to free up 27% more water for our cities.

05 June 2012

Austin Energy's 10,000th Green-Rated Home

A few weeks ago Austin Energy Green Building (AEGB) celebrated their 10,000th green-rated home. Begun in 1991, the AEGB program now rates more than 500 green homes each year, with 77 homes earning the maximum five-star rating in 2011. The 10,000th home, a 1,300 square foot house with a detached 800 square foot studio, was among the 15% or so of rated homes that earn five stars.

What I love about this house -- and about it being celebrated as AEGB's 10,000th green home -- is that, while the studio is new construction, the main house isn't.  It was built in the 1920s and its renovation shows that even a nearly hundred-year-old house can be made energy-efficient, water wise, and sustainable -- and that this can be done without sacrificing any of its vintage charm.

The owners' green journey began when they decided to invest in solar panels, prompting them to explore ways to make the home more efficient and then to bring the entire home up to modern efficiency standards. With a variable-speed and ductless mini-split air conditioning system, spray foam insulation, fiber cement siding, ceiling fans, and seven kilowatts of solar power plus a solar hot water system, its owners expect that it will be net zero this summer.

Some highlights of the ceremony:
  • An AEGB representative noted that the 10,000th house was easy...it was the first 9,999 that were hard.

  • One of the homeowners noted that installing solar panels gave him a form of financial security (and therefore peace of mind) because his electricity is now paid for forever, so he is protected against increases in electric costs. (I had never thought of it that way...but yes.)

  • The contractor responsible for the renovations, Kristof Irwin of Blue Heron Builders, used this Ralph Washington Sockman quote to describe advances in building science: "The larger the continent of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder."

Kristof is a true building scientist worthy of an entire post of his own.  (To come.)

But back to the house. The studio was designed as a guest house with office space above.

And there's a huge vegetable garden out back...

(that's about half of it)

...with an industrial-strength compost system....

All in all, it was a great house to celebrate as Austin's 10,000th green-rated home. But ultimately, the event was really a celebration of everything that Austin's green building community has done over the last 20+ years -- which far exceeds the 10,000 homes that have been formally rated.

01 June 2012

A Very Green Weekend

Sunday is going to be a big day for the Austin green building community, and enthusiasts are going to have to choose between two exciting events.

First is the 16th annual Cool House Tour. Sponsored by the Texas Solar Energy Society and Austin Energy Green Building, this year's tour features ten extremely green homes ranging from a volume builder model home that happens to be net-zero (due to the addition of solar panels) to extremely high-end custom homes with every energy-efficiency/water conservation/waste reduction feature you can imagine. Every year the caliber of the homes, and the breadth of the selections, seems to rise, and this year is no exception. Check out the tour on Sunday from 10 until 6; tickets are available for $20 at Treehouse, Zinger Hardware, and at the homes.

But if totally awesome green houses aren't your thing, the Austin Solar Day is taking place at the Convention Center (in conjunction with the IEEE's photovoltaics conference). In addition to a high school photovoltaics competition, Solar Day offers a full schedule of presentations by solar manufacturers, researchers, representatives of various non-profits, and others. Looks like a good time to me. (And speaking of time, the festivities start at 10 and end at 3.) Solar Day is free.