Thursday, December 30, 2010


After meeting with Adam and reviewing our options over the past couple of months, Steph and I have a set floor plans for our passive house.  At about 1800 sq. ft. we feel like these plans will offer the most efficient layout for our budget; colors, exterior and interior details will come later.

Our next step is a pre-pricing meeting with Rob Leonard, project manager at Structures Design Build.

[A conceptual drawing as viewed from the southeast.]

[The first floor.]

[The second floor.]

[South and north exterior elevations.]

[East and west exterior elevations.]

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


After spending a weekend reviewing the third and fourth set of drawings that Adam gave us last week, we've come to the conclusion that we like all of the bedrooms on the second floor.  I'm glad we gave the bedrooms upstairs a chance, we really liked the plan Adam presented us.

Right now, the first and second floor total just a hair over 1800 sq. ft.  The first floor features a great living/dining area, a kitchen with an island, two closets, a half bath, and a mud/laundry room that accesses the two car garage.  On the second floor, two bedrooms share a full bath, and the master suite includes a walk-in closet and private bath.  I think these plans nailed down what we're looking for.

The plans are almost there, I can feel it.  I think we'll move the master suite around a little and add some more closet space on the first floor, but other than that, I think we'll have the floor plan.

Steph and I are already thinking about our options for the exterior of the house.  We like board and batten siding, but too much of that can look like a cabin.  We like regular horizontal siding, but again, too much of that can look too traditional.  And we like stone, but too much of that can be expensive.  We've got some ideas, but we'll have to see how it turns out.

We may have to revisit our "hopes and dreams" folder and pick out the things we like best.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


A passive house needs to constantly circulate air in order to maintain its internal air temperature and quality.  A passive house pulls air from outside and passing it through pipes, buried below ground, with the use of a mechanical ventilation system, such as a heat recovery (HRV) or energy recovery ventilator (ERV); in the winter, air is preheated and in the summer, air is precooled. 

Air inside a passive house also passes through the recovery ventilator.  This air exchange process, which is minimal, maintains a comfortable air temperature all year long.  Because a passive house is essentially a sealed, air tight building; heat from people, pets, appliances and sunlight can impact its internal temperature during the winter months; in most cases, eliminating the need of an additional electrical heating source.

So, what happens when you lose electricity?

In the summer, open your windows; what do you do in your house?

In the winter, light a candle!  That's right, its been proven that the heat output from up to 20 candles, in an average size passive house, can provide enough warmth to stay toasty during the winter.

The video clip below offers an animated explanation of a passive house's mechanical ventilation system.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


We met with Adam and Rob on Monday to review the second set of plans.  The plans featured a second story master bedroom, a separate full bath and open loft space.  On the first floor, the plans included two bedrooms, a full bath, kitchen, laundry room and great living/dining area.  These plans also included a two car garage attached to the west side of the house.

We're making progress, but we still have ideas.  For round three, we'd like to have two floor plans prepared.  For the first, eliminate one bedroom downstairs thus further opening up the first floor and create more of a master "suite" upstairs by adding a walk-in closet and private bath.  We'd like to preserve the loft with the option to create a room out of it later.  For the second plan, we want to move the two bedrooms upstairs with the master suite and eliminate the loft.  Effectively we would be separating the bedrooms completely from the living spaces.  (Anne, if you're reading this, we'll let you know what it looks like when Adam is done.)

Of course there are other minor details we've shared with Adam and Rob, but at this point, it'll just be boring to read about.  If you haven't noticed, I haven't shared any of our drawings.  I'd like to wait until we've wrapped up the design process.  At that point, I'll share each of the preliminary drawings in one post.  I think that will make it easier to see how we reached the final design.

an example

Wendy Rieger, a reporter for an NBC affiliate in Washington DC, featured this passive house currently under construction in Bathesda, MD.

Friday, December 3, 2010


Just got back from the 2010 Green Living and Energy Expo being held at the Roanoke Civic Center; I went over during lunch.  I sat in on Adam's "Cutting Edge Low Energy Construction: Introduction to Passivhaus Design Principles" presentation for the hour I had.

As I listened to Adam talk, I looked around the room for reactions when words like, "air tight, 2-10% more expensive, ~75% more efficient" or "heat it with a candle" were mentioned.  To be honest, the general crowd reaction was "shock."  Some of the faces in the audience said, "wow, really," while only two I noticed translated to, "ha, yeah right."

As the presentation came to a close, Adam opened the floor to questions.  "How much insulation do the walls require," came from one listener and "what does it cost to build a 4400 sq. ft. home," from another.  Adam did a great job delivering the message and addressing the questions for the amount of time he had.  One can only hope others will take the message home and accurately relay it to their friends.  After all, passive house is a complicated concept for most of us American's to understand.

As I complimented Adam, "well done," on my exit, a nice retired couple from Martinsville, VA confronted me after they overheard Adam talk about Steph and I being his client.

They said that they were really interested in building a small, energy efficient home because there son convinced them that electricity rates aren't going down.  I described our current progress and they seemed really excited and interested.  By the end of our conversation, they had the URL for this blog and said they wanted to talk to Adam.

As for the Expo, even though I had to get back to work, I made a quick pass through after the presentation; lots of cool stuff - photovoltaic panels, electric cars, wind turbines, LED lighting, and much more.

Tomorrow's the last day, and don't forget, its FREE!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

local news

Just got a press release from Google Alerts; Adam Cohen, our architect, and Steve Strauss, developer and builder with Strauss Construction Co. will be presenting, "Cutting Edge Low Energy Construction: Introduction to Passivhaus Design Principles" at the 2010 Green Living and Energy Expo this Friday, 12:30PM at the Roanoke Civic Center.  Duncan Adams, reporter for The Roanoke Times, details on Structures Design Build's efforts to spread the word about Passivhaus in this article, "Developer to Discuss Efficiency Concept at Green Living and Energy Expo."

By the way, admission to this event is free.

Monday, November 29, 2010


After discussing our options for building on a basement or a slab, Steph and I met with Adam the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to review the initial plans.  Prior to our meeting Steph and I decided we'd revisit the drawing board and build on a slab with an attached two car garage.  I spend a lot of time working on our vehicles and the absence of a garage would be a huge thorn in our side.

As for changes to the initial floor plan, we opted to locate the master suite and a separate loft area on the second floor.  On the first floor, we're going with two bedrooms, a mud/laundry room that accesses the garage, a full bath, and an open kitchen, living, and dining room.  Ultimately the utilities will be located on the first and/or second floors.

We know that traditional floor plans locate the master floor plan on the first floor, but we opted for a second floor suite for few reasons.  Better views, separation from the rest of the house, and a private bath.

Think about it...  Where do you spend most of your time while at home?  In bed, in the kitchen, and in the living room, right?  How big do the extra rooms really need to be to live comfortably?

One thing has become obvious to me as we've discussed our options.  No matter how much space you have, you'll use it.  If we added more rooms, more closets and space for storage, we'd fill it up.  Why not design and build your house to live a comfortable life and restrict yourself from filling up "extra space?"

Often I wonder what we'll end up with, but I know we don't want to dump a fortune in a huge house.  Living simply is something Steph has preached from the beginning and I'll have to say I'm finally on board.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

an example

Penney Poyzer, TV environmentalist reporting for BBC2's "No Waste like Home," makes the case for the Passivhaus low energy building standards in this short documentary. To learn more about the Denby Dale Passivhaus, visit the Green Building Store.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Basement or slab?

We met with Adam on Monday and got to see the first sketches of our house.  Our initial plans, per our request, featured a north facing walk out basement which housed the utilities.  The plans also featured the master suite, laundry, kitchen and great room living spaces on the first floor.  On the second story, two bedrooms share a single bath.

A north facing walkout basement is not ideal for a passive house.  Exposing more surface area that faces the north will require a higher heating demand during the winter months.  Would it be better to build on a concrete slab?  Ideally, yes.  Minimizing our energy demands is our ultimate goal.  Building a slab is in line with the passive house standards, due to our building site, and ultimately minimizes our heating demands.

On a slab with extra square footage or a garage?

If we build on a slab, our budget would allow for adjustments to the square footage on the first and second floor or allow for building a garage.  Eliminating the basement would mean we'd have to relocate the water tank, heat recovery ventilator (HRV) and some of the other utility components as well.

If we build on a slab and add square footage to the floor plan, we could place the utilities on first or second floor.  I feel like the initial floor plan needs some adjustments, but I don't think we need more living space.  I'm confident we can accommodate two bedrooms, one master, laundry etc. within ~1500 sq. ft. provided the layout is efficient. 

If we build on a slab and add a garage, we might be able to put the utilities in the garage.  An attached garage would have to allow for shelving, two vehicles and a motorcycle as well.  I can hang our bikes and canoes; no problem, and my tool chest can stand just about anywhere in a garage.

The absence of a garage would mean all of this stuff would have to live outside, one or two years, until we could save enough money for building a garage later.  The more I think about it, I'm not sure I want anything that we'd store in a garage sitting outside for one night, much less, one year or two.

Tentatively, a passive house on a slab with an attached garage sounds like our best option.  Once Steph and I have had a chance to talk it through, we'll revisit the drawing board.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

the first school

Yesterday I visited the Center for Energy Efficient Design (CEED) in Rocky Mount.  I met Adam Cohen, our architect/builder, for a personal tour of the first passive house certified school in the United States.

[A view of the CEED from the south.]

The CEED is a perfectly wrapped passive house package composed of various eco-friendly and energy conservation pieces that will be readily monitored beginning Wednesday, November 17, 2010.  This highly efficient school features everything from a photovoltaic solar tracking system to counter tops composed of crushed stone from the New River. 

[A view above the CEED from the southeast.]

Vegetation on the roof and porous concrete in the walkways collect rain water that will provide H20 for the its greywater demands.  Solar thermal water tubes will assist in preheating the hot water tanks while sub-thermal water lines will aid with the heating and cooling demands of the ventilation system.

[A view of the CEED from the southwest.]

Although I didn't capture any pictures of the interior, sun light entering through the wide array of windows on the roof and south face of this school provide for a well lit workspace.  This place is awesome!

[Another view of the CEED from the southeast.]

For more information on the CEED, visit The CEED - The Center for Energy Efficient Design.

Monday, November 8, 2010


Each weekend I make a little more progress on the mountain.  Currently, we've got about 3-4 acres of forest thinned for a yard and 1/2 acre completely cleared for the house.

It took a shot of ether to get the loader to fire yesterday morning.  As I let the loader warm up, I worked on the burn pile.  The remainder of the day was spent digging stumps, moving piles of rock, and watching Barley enjoy the views.  Things are really shaping up!  I'll be sure to take some pictures on my next "land" update.

By the way, stumps are really a "thorn in the side" when you're clearing land.  Figure on at least an hour digging up each one!  If you're ever looking to purchase raw land to build on, pay close attention to the amount of stumps that are located within your building site.  Stump removal will adversely affect your lot clearing budget unless you have your own machine.

For the first two hours yesterday, Barley trailed me as I pushed dirt and rock.  Then he fell asleep, woke up an hour later and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on a hill side.  As I'd look around to be certain he was clear of my path, I'd find him either watching me or staring across the valley at the Peaks.

Steph and Telli came up around noon to spend lunch with Barley and I.  I decided to leave Telli at home yesterday; she's not a big fan of the track loader or chainsaw.  As Steph says, "poor little Telli."

Thursday, November 4, 2010


The Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany, founded in 1996 by Dr. Wolfgang Feist, is an independent research institution that employs physicists, mathematicians and civil, mechanical and environmental engineers, to perform research and development on highly efficient energy use in homes.

In the United States, the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) represents a non-profit a consulting and research firm working to further the implementation of Passive House standards and techniques.  The PHIUS is also authorized by the Passivhaus Institut to certify passive houses built in the US.

As published in, "New Passive House Alliance Launches," on EcoHome Magazine's website, "the PHIUS will launch the Passive House Alliance at the North American Passive House Conference between Nov. 4-7, 2010.  The Passive House Alliance will relieve the PHIUS from marketing, public outreach, and political lobbying work, allowing it to focus on its core mission of training architects and builders in the use of the passive house standard, consulting on projects, and certifying buildings.

Taking on public outreach, advocacy, education, and professional support, the Passive House Alliance will expand the base of knowledge about the principles of Passive House design in the United States and push it toward the mainstream."

From my experience, its been extremely difficult to explain Passive House standards to friends and family.  The concept is easy to explain, but its getting people to really understand that's the trick.  I feel like I run into a wall halfway through my explanation because most of us [American's] can't see outside of the box, i.e. standard construction.

I think the Passive House Alliance is a great move for the PHIUS and I feel confident they'll be better at spreading the word than the few passive house blogs that are floating around on the internet.  I look forward to their success spreading the word about passive houses' proven energy conservation building techniques.

Monday, November 1, 2010

carbon neutral

Take a passive house, produce at least as much energy as it uses and you get net-zero.  Take a net-zero passive house, produce enough energy during its service life to offset the carbon emitted during its construction and you get carbon neutral.

A group of designers, engineers, and consultants, based out of Asheville, NC are doing exactly this.  The Nauhaus Institute is incorporating Passivhaus building techniques along with various other concepts to achieve carbon neutral building and living solutions.

Their first building, the Nauhaus Prototype, is a 1700 sq. ft., 3 bedroom, 2 bath, Craftsman style home currently under construction in Asheville, NC.  To view the features and plans for the Nauhaus Prototype, see below or visit the Nauhaus Institute - Nauhaus Prototype Project.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


As written by Tessa Smith, in the Green and Save article "Passive House vs. Passive Solar House," a Passivhaus is often misrepresented by the term used to describe passive solar houses that "rely on optimal orientation, large thermal masses for the collection of solar energy, and climates with dramatic diurnal swings.

There is a component of optimizing solar gains to a Passivhaus; it shares this in common with the solar movement, but its primary focus is conservation and minimizing of energy demands. The Passivhaus approach yields, in any climate, 75%-90% more efficient structures.  Combine this with the other elements necessary to a Passivhaus, like ample fresh air delivery and high-performing windows, and you end up with a substantially more comfortable, affordable and healthy house."

For more information on this article, visit Green and Save.

Monday, October 25, 2010


Its been a challenge to find time to clear land over the last 8 months, but we're still making progress.

We're gonna have a huge yard by the time we're done; probably 5 of the 20 acres.  We plan to remove a lot of the trees that are smaller than 6-8" in diameter in the yard. The canopies of the larger trees will provide natural shading for the yard during the summer months.

To the north of the house, we'll leave as much growth as possible and only drop select timber to preserve the views of the Peaks of Otter.

This weekend, Steph, her parents (Bob and Frances), the pups and myself went up to the mountain to enjoy the weather and wrap up some maintenance needs on the loader.

[Barley posing beside the loader.]

[Telli, aka. Tellico, gives the tongue for the camera.]

[Steph and her parents enjoying the weather.]

[A view of the current progress.]

[A view from the home site.]

Friday, October 22, 2010


As we all know, climates vary significantly throughout the US.  Regardless of climate differences, several Passivhaus projects have either been completed or are underway nationwide. These projects span a wide range of climate zones: from Minnesota and Vermont on the cold side to Louisiana, North Carolina, and Berkeley, California in warmer climates.

While most of these projects are single-family houses, several other projects include, multifamily housing, schools, a university building, a senior housing facility and building retrofits to Passivehaus standards.

Information and the picture for the post were resourced from TreeHugger.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

net zero

Although achieving "net zero" may not be practical for our budget during construction, simple photovoltaic electric systems can satisfy the everyday electrical demands of a Passivhaus.  Can you imagine producing your own energy thus seperating yourself from the power grid?!

I may stand corrected; however, I believe GO Logic Homes, out of Belfast, Maine, was recently featured on DIY Network's "This New House - Why Passive Houses Rock."  The show featured a recently built 1500 square foot net-zero certified Passivhaus.  The video below showcases the efficient layout of this home.


As mentioned in an earlier post, Steph works for southwest Virginia's NBC affiliate, WSLS Channel 10, as the producer for "Our Blue Ridge."  In an effort to educate southwest Virginia on energy efficient building alternatives for new home construction, Rob, project manager at Structures, explained the Passivhaus building concept on Steph's show today.  It's a breath of fresh air to see our local builder focus their efforts on educating the public rather than building by the masses.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


It takes time to figure out what you want your house to look like. It may be easy for one person to make a decision, but two people may offer challenges

We didn't know much about architectural styles in the beginning. Our initial efforts led us to web sites such as The House Designers and ePlans.  These websites made it a very easy for the both of us to find features we liked in houses; we looked at thousands of pictures.  Fortunately, Steph and I had a lot of the same interests; lots of windows, decorative overhangs, wide exterior trim, open floor plans, built-in shelving, mixed types of exterior materials, stone porch supports, columns, etc.

After further research, we determined that most of the features we liked were offered within Craftsman architecture.  As quoted from, "the Arts and Crafts movement, introduced in 1880, initially celebrated handicrafts and encouraged the use of simple forms and natural building materials.  In the United States, architects began to design houses that combined Arts and Crafts ideas with a fascination for the simple wooden architecture of China and Japan. 

The name 'Craftsman' comes from the title of a popular magazine published by the famous furniture designer, Gustav Stickley, between 1901 and 1916. A true Craftsman house is one that is built according to plans published in Stickley's magazine. But other magazines, pattern books, and mail order house catalogs began to publish plans for houses with Craftsman-like details. Soon the word 'Craftsman' came to mean any house that expressed Arts and Crafts ideals, most especially the simple, economical, and extremely popular Bungalow."

We knew Craftsman architecture was something that we were interested in.  We liked the looks, it fit our needs, and the style continues to appeal to the market nearly a century later.

Monday, October 18, 2010


"What if you could heat a small house with about as much energy as it takes to run a hair dryer-even during a cold winter," reports Vermont Public Radio's Charlotte Albright, in the audio below.

For more information on this article, visit "New Home Uses 'Passive House' Technology."

what it is

As reported and explained by CNN's Jim Boulden, "What is a passive home?," Passivhaus's "can be built anywhere."

an example

As recently posted in the The New York Times, Beyond Fossil Fuels - Can We Build in a Brighter Shade of Green, Passivhaus construction results in "a house that typically uses 90 percent less energy for heating than a conventional house."

Friday, October 15, 2010


How hard is it to build a home?  From a sketch to a front door, is it that simple?

Who considers their surroundings, the mountains they love, and the air that they breathe when they plan to build a home?

We wanted to, but at first we thought that goal was unreachable and a financial challenge.

Growing up, I was always told, "you've got to live within your means," and, "spend your money wisely."  Although its taken years of lessons learned, it finally made sense.  [I can't forget to mention, my wife has made for an excellent financial adviser as well.]

Why waste money on a home you'll spend a fortune to heat, cool, or power 10 years from now?  Energy prices aren't getting cheaper, and energy production, for the most part, is destroying the world we live in.  Maybe its better to invest in a home that will pay us back and ultimately protect the environment we live in.

It's hard to find a builder in a town that your new to.  Although I grew up an hour away from Roanoke, I anticipated difficulties finding a builder that we could trust to build our home.  We set our building budget at $175K-200K and knew we didn't need a huge house.  A simple floor plan and minimal square footage is all we needed; we didn't want wasted space for "stuff."  An efficient layout can make 1250-1500 sq. ft. seem huge, right?

Countless hours behind a computer screen and hundreds of floor plans later we knew we'd have to speak with someone that could design a home for us.  We knew what we wanted and unfortunately my sketches never provided resolution.

We had already purchased the perfect lot; 20 secluded acres, a top an undeveloped mountain, protected by hundreds of acres of uninhabited forest, and accessible via gravel road 2 miles in either direction.  Its perfect and the price made it very affordable.

I jumped the gun initially scheduling multiple site visits with prospective builders before deciding to give it a rest and start over.

Conservation plays a very important role in our lives.  We try our best to educate our loved ones and do what we can to preserve our environment but we never considered any of this as we pursued the home planning process in the beginning.

Stephanie, works for southwest Virginia's local NBC affiliate as the producer for a live afternoon lifestyle TV show,  "Our Blue Ridge."  Rob Leonard, project manager with Structures Design Build, frequents her show providing useful tips on home improvement.  After speaking with Rob and learning more about Structures's design and building process, Steph suggested that we schedule a meeting and see what Structures Design Build could do for us.

Several weeks later, our scheduled meeting with Adam Cohen, co-owner of Structures Design Build, and Rob Leonard introduced us to something new.  An opportunity to design a home that we wanted and home that could offer an opportunity to conserve energy.

Although energy efficiency was at the top of our list, uncertainty got the better part of us.  Adam sent us home, following our meeting, with a recently published book detailing the specifics of the Passivhaus concept.  New to us and new to 99% of the American population, the Passivhaus concept of building an efficient home was a foreign language; literally.  Until recently, less than 20 of approximately 25,000 Passivhaus's built in the world have been built in the United States.  We had some learning to do...

After spending hours researching the worldwide web, reading articles, blogs and books, we meet Adam and Rob on our lot.  I had already translated much of the complicated building specifics and Steph was on board, but we just had to be sure our lot would entertain a home that was dependent on natural heating elements such as sunlight.

Our biggest problem was the directional position of our lot.  Our views of the Peaks of Otter, in Bedford County, lay north.  I knew this presented a problem because a Passivhaus is most efficient with the majority of windows facing south.  Could a Passivhaus work?

Adam and Rob were quick to answer our questions as the sun set to the west.  Steph and I made a decision later that evening; designing and building a Passivhaus made sense - energy efficient, minimalistic, conservation minded...