Holliston LEED House

This is the story of a family who built the first LEED "green" house in Holliston, Massachusetts. We were trying to spend no more than it would take to build an ordinary house,and maybe even succeeded. The dust is still settling.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Sealed With A... Can?

In this picture, Tom is sealing the cracks between the panels with foam insulation. He drills an access hole, fills it, drills another, fills it, all the way along each seam. Anyone who has insulated knows that if you miss a spot, you've missed it all. So foot by foot, space by space, wall by wall and roof panels too, all the seams are sealed up tight.

XPS has a high R-value (5 R-value per inch of panel). This means a very well-insulated envelope that should heat and cool with minimum effort.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Last panel is up.

Granted, the guys have much to do, not the least of which is screwing everything down, but the last roof panel went up this afternoon. Now, it's framing out openings with "nailers" (boards to frame around openings so there is something the carpenters can nail into—rather than just insulation), foam sealing all the cracks and crevasses, cleaning up the small stuff and then, they'll be done. Probably Monday will see the last of SCPB.

With weather on the horizon, Lloyd and I were cutting pieces of scrap plastic to put over the openings when SCPB is done finishing them, hoping to keep the rain, snow, sleet and whatever else looms from getting inside. We're hoping to tarp the roof tomorrow before the clouds burst.

Size matters

One of the things that impacts your points to achieve for a LEED rating is the size of your house. If you build a larger house, you have a higher number of points to achieve to meet the rating. With a smaller house, your point threshold is smaller. We were penalized 3 points for building a house of some 2900 square feet as a 4 bedroom; the neutral level being 2600 per LEED. If you build smaller than that, you are credited points.

Anyone who has built can tell you that the size of your new home fluctuates in perception throughout the process. When we just had a foundation, it looked tiny. Right now, from the exterior, it looks frankly enormous. Part of this is the fact that it's still standing high on the foundation; the ground level will come up after we put in the septic field. Go inside, and it shrinks again (the blue board darkens things and makes it seem smaller). Put in a wall, though, and suddenly it grows again. And when the plaster whitens the walls, once again it grows. It's one of the tricky things about designing a house, to know how big of a house you actually have.

Our house is a 30x40 foot two story section, with an 18x24 foot one story ell. True, we won't have a 30' living room with separate den, or a bedroom suite that measures 18' or larger, but in our view it is 'way more than enough for our family and guests, Erin's office, a laundry room and mudroom, which were on our "must have" list.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Gilding the lily

Thanks, Lloyd, for this great shot of the cupola going on top of the barn (finally). And thanks to the SCPB team for their cooperation and assistance. It looks terrific!

"Lift and separate"

This shot was taken last night. Note the west section of the house, which has only SIPs and no timber frame. Although the SIPs will hold the walls without additional support, the laminate ridge beam (which goes at the peak) needs the support of an interior wall. The second picture shows the wall. When the crane comes, the ridge beam will be lifted onto this wall and tied to the building. Then, the roof panels complete the wing.

The fact that we will have this one-story section with a standard 8' ceiling allows us to hide ductwork, plumbing vents and waste pipes, wiring and other system parts in the crawl space above the wing. The rest of the house, being cathedral ceilings, does not allow us to hide anything.

This offers us the ability to separate the utility ducting and unbeautiful junk from the main portion of the house to some extent.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tuesday morning

This morning, the guys are perfecting the cuts on the roof panels and the crane is lifting them into place. Here, Todd and Tom are making final adustments, and Mark is on the roof manipulating the panels as they drop in.

We are watching it all come together now, and it looks like we'll be struggling with tarping the roof before much longer.

Monday, February 23, 2009

End day six

So, after a grueling day of cold and wind, the SCPB team have the north and south faces on the west wing and have staged the panels for tomorrow's crane work. Sunday's rain did us no favors; we could have brought our ice skates and had quite a time on the floor of the house this morning.

Last Friday, the Boston Globe came to take pictures of the project, which they anticipate using on an article on Building Green on a Budget; our hope is we can put the big ole ky-bosh on the rumors that you have to be rich to go green.

Richardson Wells came up today to schedule the rest of the drilling of our well for the geothermal; Todd from SCPB asked us to delay him until next week—the crane makes enough noise to drown his commands, and he doesn't need us making more. Understood, and obeyed; we have to bend with the winds. This week, they sure do seem strong. And cold.

West wing

In the west wing of the house, there are no timbers—it will be the laundry, pantry and guest room area, and is only one story. The structural insulated panels will stand alone (with one support wall and a ridge beam), living up to their name. In this shot, SCPB is just getting started with the mudroom side entrance.

This morning, we took delivery of our salvage kitchen cabinets, which came with a very nice set of granite countertop pieces. Not sure if they'll fit the new design, but we'll try. Right now, everything is living in the barn. Kudos to the South County team, who stepped into the breach when our boys pulled a "no show" for the unloading.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Morning day five

The house is going up in sections. This snip shows half of the upstairs west gable getting aligned by the crane operator this morning. Each panel has blue wallboard preinstalled onto it before being lifted into place. You can see that the panels overlap each other for a flush corner. The corners will then be sealed with sprayed foam insulation to eliminate leakage. Having the blueboard on the panels before installation eliminates a lot of cutting around beams, and thus, waste.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Panel discussion

Building with panels, for the neophyte, can be daunting. First, when you do research you hear many different phrases: "stress skin panels," "structural panels," "EPS panels," XPS panels, etc. You will see many builders' discussions on why panelized building is good or bad, with compelling arguments both ways.

We are building with XPS structural insulated panels. The pink stuff you see inside the oriented strand board (OSB) panels is similar to the texture of the plastic under raw meat when it comes from the supermarket. It is a dense, flexible foam.

My sister's house was built with EPS structural insulated panels. EPS is white, and looks very much like a styrofoam cooler--it also breaks apart like one when cut with a saw. It has a slightly lower R value than XPS.

When building to Northeast weather standards, XPS works well for us. It allows us to have a higher R-factor of insulation without having fatter walls, and it seals nicely. The roof panels are 8.25", for an even higher level.

Europe has used panel building for years; American builders are more reluctant to "go there" as there are a few issues with it--primarly, in electrical wiring. You need a special hot drill to melt your channels for wiring on exterior walls (more fishing involved). You need to plan for your exterior wall electrical more carefully in advance. And you cannot run plumbing on exterior walls at all (not that any good builder would really want to).

All in all, though, the trade off is worthwhile in a tighter envelope, cheaper heating costs, and a more environmentally sound finished product.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Courtesy of Claudia

Here's a shot of all of us watching the frame go up (you can see we're working hard).

Solar gain and today’s windows

My friend Janice and I were talking a couple of days ago about how materials have affected solar gain. She carefully positioned her house as a passive solar vehicle, yet she does not get solar heat from the position due to the advancement of windows, which seem to insulate from both directions. Although the house is tight, it does not warm up in the sun. What’s up with that?
When buying windows, you quickly realize that the best parts of any glass product are presented by the manufacturer. Low-E! Low-E+! Sun-Gard! Protects from UV rays! In a nutshell, they aren’t telling you what you want to know—that perhaps you won’t warm up as much as you thought you would, or that the bottom of the line is sub par thermally, or that your carpets will/won’t fade.

I don’t know what will happen with our house; the windows are not yet in. We ordered middle-range Andersen 400 Windows with Low-E4 glass (standard). I would love your comments about your experience with combining new window technology and passive solar gain, so let me know.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Joist system

This is the access system I referred to. Note the 9.25" space that will now exist between the ceiling of the first floor and the floor of the second.


Moving on up

The crane has gone home until Thursday, when it will come back to finish the frame and start to float the SIPs onto it.

Todd's crew is today installing the second story joist system; on top of the horizontal beams you see here, there is a space where pipes, wires and ducts can be hidden between the first floor ceiling and the second story subfloor.

Post & beam fans know that one of their chief drawbacks is What To Do with Systems. Today should see the completion of this joist system, which I will then post for your information.


Monday, February 16, 2009


The crane went up at 8. By 10, we were at the first picture. By 11, at the second. Now, it's noon; Eva is home with a fever so we had to tuck her up in front of one of her volcano documentaries. We'll go up again soon, and again, and each time there is a new array of viewers lining the hillside and the drive, standing by the barn, or squatting on the timbers.

The foundation looked small. Now, the frame looks gigantic. Hopefully, it will end up somewhere in the middle.


Friday, February 13, 2009

One story

Here sits the second story of the house; the walls are lying down on the subfloor already assembled.

On Monday, each wall will be picked up and slotted into holes into the cellar that were precut. Then, this giant unit will be lifted at once and inserted into the space where the second floor goes. I'm not sure of the order of events, but SCPB sure is. They have it all staged so the sections won't get tangled up.

Anyone coming to watch, please park at the high school and hike up... parking is at a premium this week!


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Gentlemen, start your engines

The South County guys are putting the puzzle pieces together in advance of the crane. The lull brings the pieces over, the men fit them together, and they are placed in order so when the crane comes, they will go up in the right spot, at the right time, and without being in the way of another piece.

Part art, part science, lots of experience. We're just watching. In the mud.

Home, coming...

Signed, sealed, delivered. The SCPB team is on board and the offload nearly done; stacks of panels and timber staged in two locations.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Measure twice

Timber frame raising is like building a 3D puzzle, and that means everything has to fit. Matt and Mark were here today from SCPB checking measurements, making sure things were square and level. I do think they measured more than twice, but at 58 degrees, who can blame them?

Truck comes around noon tomorrow with the timbers.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Cherry on top

Doug Paddock and Red put the base of the cupola up today; it will be covered with ply to wait for the rest of it, which will go up with the crane.

Exterior discussions

Okay, so the house is going up, what will we put on the exterior? Our preference has always been shingle, but we are on a tight budget and heard great things about fiber cement board (Hardie Plank and Certainteed, among others). We want nothing we have to maintain on a regular basis. We want nothing to paint.

Siding: Cement board is fairly inexpensive, and some of it (Hardie) looks good. We objected to the Certainteed product because of the way it reflects light (too glossy). In the end, though, we decided to go with white cedar shingle, largely because we prefer a natural look to the exterior. When shopping for shingle, you will find many kinds—western red ($$$$), pre-treated white ($$$), FSC white ($$) and white ($). Get a sample of whatever shingle you choose. Also, use a reputable shingle dealer as quality varies enormously.

Trim: If you buy Azek (PVC) trim, it is extremely durable and looks good, but it is very expensive. Clear (solid) wood is very pricey these days as big trees are hard to come by (and you pay more for FSC label). If you buy finger jointed trim, it comes pre-primed and thus must be painted and can be a bit cheesy. Where we are now for trim is PVC trim around the roofline where we can’t reach it, and a good quality pre-primed finger joint for the remaining trim.


Friday, February 6, 2009

Not for long

This picture of solitude is about to change. Big time. Men, women, cranes, timbers, earth moving equipment, generators, wall and roof panels, deliveries, noise, electricians, duct men, carpentry teams, roofers.

Starting Thursday next (12 Feb), the neighbor (there really is only one) will have no peace. But until then our hearts will be light, and our views serene.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Moving up to the starting line

South County comes next Wednesday to review, Thursday the tractor trailer delivers, prebuild on Thursday and Friday, cranes come on the following Monday (2/16). Lloyd and I are finalizing the team members, now we have only one subcontractor hole we're looking to fill, which we likely can't until we have the shell up. It's all good, and about to get all fast too. More later.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Weather, again

We had another round of snow here, and since we have a crane coming in at the end of next week, we are battling the weather to keep the driveway navigable. We don't want to pour salt on the ground, ruining the soil for planting, and we don't want to use chemical treatments either. That means whenever we get a warm spell, we have careful plowing by Sam to smooth out frozen tire tracks, and careful bashing by Flip to break up the ice. Then, we get another day like yesterday to start it over again. However, weather's looking warm again this weekend so looks like we'll get another chance. So far, so good.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Things barns are good for

It's 40 degrees and thus, time to paint... we have the crane coming in a couple of weeks and wanted to lift the cupola onto the barn while it was here. If I didn't paint it now, do you think I would later?

You would be right, I wouldn't. And yes, it is barn red.