The temperatures in Maine have been below zero for more than a week. This is some of the strangest weather we've had since the blizzard of 98, 20 years ago tomorrow. And days like today remind me why we build the way we do. As you watch the news you see people running out of heating fuels and the threat of freezing is a real concern. But people like the Miller's at Live Solar Maine are watching the snow swirl around their house in today's blizzard while 1 or 2 sticks of wood in the wood stove will keep the house above 80 degrees even if they lose power. The solar panels on the roof will keep them from losing power for long periods, and the threat of freezing isn't a concern. They can sit and watch the snow swirl around the house as if they are inside of a snow globe.It takes a little bit longer to build super insulated structure. It takes a little bit more thought to put it all together. But winter days spent inside a home with no drafts, temperatures above 80, and the security of keeping your family warm on these cold cold days makes it well worth it. Not everything in a zero energy house costs money. The simple act of facing the house south can have a huge impact on the way it performs. Spending the time to seal all gaps, cracks, seams, and holes in the envelop is very cheap with an extremely quick return. And air sealing is something pretty much any homeowner can do. The best thing you can do when installing windows is seal around them after they are installed. Instead of stuffing fiberglass next to the windows, use a low expanding spray foam and make sure they are sealed in well. This is where most people see the savings on windows. Put in the best windows you can afford while building, and then seal them. The performance of a window will never equal the performance of an insulated wall. The Live Solar Maine homes have double pane, double hung windows. Although the comfort level of a triple pane window can be really wonderful, if it doesn't fit in your budget it doesn't keep you from building a zero energy ready home.So as you consider building a new home, think about the benefits of building a better home. Take into consideration the costs of building better and the costs of choosing not to on these winter days. It isn't just about the money, it's comfort, durability, and the safety of your family.Wishing you all happiness in 2018 and we hope you are enjoying your coffee inside your warm snow globe as the blizzard snow and wind whips around outside.
Click the link (solar1 maine mag) to see a copy of the write up in Maine Home + Design MagazineWe couldn't be more thrilled with seeing the first house represented in the Architecture Issue!What a great way to end 2017! Wishing you all the very merriest of holidays!Peace and love to you and yours from all of us here at Mottram Architecture!
I belong to a group forum filled with other architects. We bounce ideas, products, and share knowledge. One of the questions posted this week had to do with vapor barriers and insulation systems. Then, a few days later, I met up with another energy professional and we had a discussion about vapor barriers and wall systems. It made me think: Do owners, architects and builders know about moisture in their homes?It is important to understand moisture because trapped moisture can lead to mold, rot, and structural issues. All parts of your home "house as a system" must work together to keep moisture from causing damage and health hazards to the occupants, not to mention the fact that wet insulation just does not work. So let's talk about science.
In conclusion, moisture is a major factor in building. We need to know where it's coming from and how it's moving through the spaces. It's not as simple as it seems. As new products come on to the market and the ways we build change, it's very critical that we understand how to prevent health, safety, and durability issues.
"If you haven’t lived in an energy-efficient home, you don’t know what you’re missing."This is the opening line in an article written on October 1st for the Portland Press Herald by Marina Schauffler.I thought this article hit on a few high points and I thought that it should be shared. First, we love "The Pretty Good House". We are, of course, happy to help you achieve your dreams to make Net-Zero or Passiv Haus a reality, but what if you just want a house that performs better and doesn't come with a label.I loved how Marina put it in her article "Yankee thrift" it kind of makes you pause, but what everyone should know is that there are simple "hacks" that don't cost more money, but make a world of difference between building a standard code house, and building a pretty good house.
"These houses have sensible design features, orienting primary living areas on the home’s south side and placing spaces like pantries, mudrooms and mechanical areas to the north. Rather than having trendy, pricey building components, they rely on proven elements – like Energy Star kitchen appliances, a tankless water heater or an air-source heat pump."
Here at Mottram Architecture we put a lot of focus on orientation and "daylight planning" which takes into account how you use your house throughout the day and where those rooms land in the layout. We also try "hacks" like putting vintage windows between rooms to allow natural light into smaller rooms without adding windows the the building envelop. It adds character and reduces consumption and doesn't cost much.And I really loved the way she closed the article
"The year-in and year-out savings are welcome, but it’s not just the economics that make energy-efficient homes so appealing. A green-designated broker, Marc Chadbourne, recently asked a builder of highly efficient homes who buys them and what reasons they offer. The answer he received is one I would echo: “It’s a combination of everything.” Whether you value a healthier living space or reduced energy costs, a smaller environmental footprint or a higher resale value, the promise of greener houses is clear. We all desire and deserve a “pretty good” place to call home."
The savings, they are welcome. Who doesn't love to save the money. But aside from saving money, what I hear from my clients and the people who visit their homes is how awesome the space feels. "I could have sold this house 15 times in the first year. People would just stop in and say: That's so cool" said Patrice Miller of Live Solar Maine. So as we pursue our goal of bringing energy efficient homes to the market in a soulful and creative way we love hearing that others are doing the same and people are starting to ask for it, if not demand, pretty good homes.We hope you'll check out this article by Marina and read more about the Pretty Good Home
It's been a very busy year for us here at Mottram Architecture, but today I want to take a moment and highlight a project that we are really proud of.If you follow us, you may have already seen some posts we have shared about this project which kicked off in December of 2016. With the help of more than 15 organizations, 30 people and 22 students, this home became a reality for two very deserving people on July 1st 2017. With a lot of love and a few back breaking hours (mostly shoveling) what was a prototype we developed for home replacement with Western Maine Community Action became the first in what we hope is a series of home replacements that might happen across the state of Maine.We firmly believe that everyone should have access to a great place to live. And in Maine, that means having a warm, dry, and healthy home for what we consider "9 months of winter". Okay, I exaggerate, but with a lot of thought we were able to accomplish "less square footage with way more room" The students at Foster Tech were out building this home in the 20 degree weather all through the winter. They shoveled more snow here at the job site then they probably did at their own homes! Shovel the ground, shovel the roof!When I was in high school, my grandfather was a contractor, and together we participated in a number of community projects through our church where we helped to rehab homes. So when Bill, at Western Maine Community Action, asked if I would help them develop a prototype for a home replacement program, I jumped at the opportunity. It meant a lot to me that they wanted to provide the most efficient housing that they could and when I found out that they were partnering with the local trade high school I was even more excited to participate. The ways we build are constantly changing and it's so rewarding to see these students graduate with construction skills and additional knowledge on how to build better in cold climates.If you'd like to read more about this project and the people who were involved, check out the following articles that have been written (and maybe a few I missed) since we started construction in January.Sun Journal August 2017In July this project was shared nationally through the Community Action eNews:It all started two years ago when Pam and Joe, weary of putting out pans to catch the drips from the leaky roof and patching in new flooring where the soggy, particle-board underlayment had finally given way, showed up at Western Maine Community Action to ask about a low-interest loan to replace the roof.Read about how something wonderful happened, all because a community - in the broadest sense of the word - saw fit to help an aging couple stay put. It's a model Bill Crandall, who manages the Housing and Energy Program for Western Maine Community Action hopes to replicate all over Maine.Along with this article written by the Press Herald July 23rd 2017In March, the Maine Community Foundation shared the following article:A HousewarmingAnd below are the three articles written after the ground breaking in DecemberThe Daily BulldogThe Sun JournalThe Franklin JournalAnd if that isn't enough information, feel free to join us at the Maine Affordable Housing Conference on September 22nd, where WMCA, Foster Tech, and Mottram Architecture will be presenting more on this project.Maine Affordable Housing Conference September 22, 2017
We are thrilled to announce that the Modern Solar Farmhouse is featured this spring in the Green and Healthy Homes Maine magazine! If you're local and would like a free copy, let me know. Supplies are limited. Or you can pick up a copy on local news stands now!Excerpt from the article: "Why we like it: With this project, Mottram and Live Solar Maine had a strong focus on delivering a highly energy-efficient house, in a simple approachable aesthetic, for a highly marketable price. It's not easy to find a net zero ready home for $205/sq ft. much less one with such comfortable New England charm. The home's simple structure are time tested vernacular forms and expertly combined with higher levels of insulation and tight construction."
So often we share photos of a home after it is built, but the building process is fascinating! So I thought I'd take a little time and share the starting process for one of our homes in New York. February is all about Net Zero Homes, so enjoy these images and stay tuned for more on building Net Zero Homes! Keuka Lake, Jerusalem, New York, Net Zero Home with Newcastle Home Construction Corp.Demolition day! There was an existing structure on the property that had to come down before construction could start.But look at that view! Beautiful Keuka Lake, Jerusalem NYThen the digging can begin. This home sits up on the hillside above the lake. So it will have a walk out basement and the first floor will be just below street level.Foundation going inICF's going up. In energy efficient building, we often talk about how critical it is to get the foundation right! So we have ICF block foundation on the two below grade sections with framed walls on the interior of the basement and 11 1/4" thick double framed walls on the two walk out sides of this house for an R-40 insulation value.Pouring concrete in the ICF'sCouldn't help but share, sometimes its silly things like this on the job site that keep you motivated to build in the middle of February! There goes the derelict boat, into the dumpster.Block frost wallsA little framing going up on the lake side.Driveway and rough grading coming down to the garage level and walk out side of the lake. It's so important to create the right type of drainage when changing levels, but especially when building on the lake. It's critical to know where your drainage is going.And speaking of drainage, waterproofing is absolutely critical in a Net Zero Homes. We aim for this house to be below 1-2 air changes an hour, so trapped moisture from a bulk moisture source like the ground would be a disaster. It's so important to have a water management strategy and good indoor air quality in a Net Zero Home. More on the ERV in the future!Steel going in. Sometimes with long spans, you have to move to steel.Stay tuned for more updates on the Keuka Lake Net Zero Home! And check out our friends over at Newcastle HCC!Photos courtesy of Mike DeNero, Owner of Newcastle HCC
We were recently featured in the Insulation Institute's Quarterly Newsletter. Below is the story by Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd. For more information on the Insulation Institute, click HEREAre builders missing the mark by not offering upgrade options for HERS-Scored homes?Homebuyers like choices. Builders, ever eager to meet the desires of their buyers, typically offer a dizzying array of choices in products, finishes and designs to suit a wide variety of styles. Yet seemingly few builders offer consumers a choice in homes at varying energy efficiency targets. Is this a missed opportunity for builders in meeting the growing energy efficiency desires of buyers -- an increasing number of whom self-identify as sustainable consumers? Perhaps. Research from McGraw Hill Construction shows that 73 percent of home buyers are willing to pay more upfront for green home features, like energy efficiency. How much more? According to the Green Building Advisor, the most common estimates are 1 to 3 percent. In that HERS scores are the equivalent of a miles-per-gallon ranking for home performance – the lower the score the better -- a lower HERS score means reduced home energy costs for homeowners. Homebuyers might be willing to pay more if they thought they’d get more, in terms of energy savings. Take this as an example:
- HERS score of 65. This is often about level offered by builders as energy efficient. This could be the baseline or “good” efficiency package.
- HERS score of 40. A home at this level would likely be net zero energy ready, meaning it is super-efficient and can become net zero by integrating solar or other onsite renewables. This would be the “better” efficiency package.
- HERS score of 0. This is a net zero home. This would clearly be the “best” package a homebuyer could opt for.
Homebuyers are familiar with the package approach, though it remains to be seen how much they’d be willing to pay for HERS scores at different levels. What is indisputable is that the integration of good design and construction plays a major role in determining energy performance, something architects are increasingly advocating.Evaluating the Good, Better, Best ApproachEmily Mottram is the owner of Mottram Architecture, a full service architecture firm specializing in energy efficient design and Net Zero construction in New York, Pennsylvania and Maine. Her seven-year-old company also offers energy consulting, energy audits, HERS ratings and consultation on building envelope design. Mottram’s clients are typically driven by the dual desire for sustainability and energy efficiency but the option of offering a “good, better or best” performing home – reaching a specific performance target or HERS score at an incremental price increase that the buyer would be willing to bear, is in her opinion, a largely untested concept.“I’ve recently been discussing the idea of a ‘pretty good home’ with some building industry colleagues and there’s a definite awareness that a HERS 60 home, for example, could be an acceptable target for one buyer, while only a Net Zero home would work for another,” Mottram said. Offering homes in specific HERS target ranges could hold appeal for a certain segment of homebuyers willing to pay more upfront for more comfortable homes with lower utility costs. This could be a win-win for customers and builders who can offer more targeted options to meet customer needs. Regardless of the target, Mottram says that architects and builders can do a number of things that will increase home efficiency and help lower overall HERS scores and many are inexpensive or have relatively low incremental costs.Integrating Good Design, Construction Practices“One trick that literally costs nothing is the orientation of the house,” she said. “Using the sun for its heating potential and reducing North windows will ultimately save consumers money on energy costs.” Mottram notes that increasing the focus on the thermal envelope – particularly installing good air barriers, taping and sealing in the right locations, can dramatically improve the energy performance of a home. In addition, increased insulation -- R21-40 walls -- offers significantly higher energy performance. “Also, reducing the framing and having a tightly sealed envelope allows for more insulation and pays for itself in no time. “Simply maximizing the placement of windows -- these are all things that can boost energy efficiency,” she added.“By focusing on good design and construction practices, you can get a better performing home for reasonable incremental cost, but the design has to focus on proper construction and air sealing, which is why building science education, is so important,” she said, adding that regardless of the energy performance target, builders must increase their knowledge of building science and its impact on energy performance. “It does require a little more though from the builder to use less framing and increase insulation values. It takes more skill to follow through with contractors on the air sealing, air barriers and doing it all in the right locations, but this is ultimately how you maximize home energy performance, regardless of what the HERS score target might be.”Where Best Practices and Energy Upgrades IntersectBuilders will need to determine consumer willingness to pay for energy efficiency at various cost levels to determine if an “energy upgrade” approach makes sense. However, from a practical standpoint, builders would need some commonality, across upgrade options, to make the building process for homes of different efficiency levels feasible. The best way to do that is to have some energy efficient best practices that are undertaken on all builds, for example advanced framing, raised heel trusses, approaches to air barriers and sealing, things that impact the overall design and build process. Other items, like water heating and lighting efficiency, are more easily adjusted with less impact on the build process or other building systems. This would also help drive down the incremental costs for efficient building, improving the consumer return on investment. It is hard to say if energy upgrade packages are part of the future of housing, but if they are, they will be enabled by a broader, baseline level of energy efficient building practices.
Sorry for the lack of updated content over the last couple of weeks! I decided that it was finally time to take the Passive House Course. I've been teaching sustainable design for several years on top of practicing it here at Mottram Architecture. Although I knew the principles of passive house, and I have done blower door tests on a few local passive house homes, I had yet to take the certification course myself. Like all great programs, I needed continuing education credits for my HERS certification, so I decided to take the plunge, hence my long absence. The Certified Passive House Designer course "the German version" was only offered through New York Passive House Academy in NYC! It's a two week course that ends with a 3 hour exam. So I spent a considerable amount of time traveling back and forth between NYC and my office over the course of May. So thank you for your patience and here's some of what I learned.What passive house means to me is a lot of calculations, scientific data, cool but complicated construction details, and lots of integration to make sure all the parts work together. But what should passive house mean to you? Comfortable, durable, and healthy homes. Passive House, in an ideal scenario, would be able to heat a home with a small amount of electric heat added to the ventilation system. This may be possible in Germany, but unfortunately it's not quite possible here in New England. So some adjustments are made for longer, harsher winters, and higher humidity summers. I could list all the program requirements, but I think instead I'll give you the reasons why this is the direction we feel the building community should move.Targeting 70-80% reduction in energy demand in homes is great. It means building them tighter, smarter, with better insulation and fewer moving parts. We are trying to simplify the usability of the systems. I don't mean building smaller, in fact, in the passive house program, it's actually harder to achieve the standards with smaller homes. What I mean by simplify is the elimination of large and complicated heating systems. A better air quality system that doesn't account for fresh air being drawn in from any crack or crevice in the building envelop. And most importantly, understanding human comfort and keeping the system balanced to those comfort levels.Everyone can understand the value of a dollar + inflation, but the added benefit to reaching passive house targets is comfort. I recently sat down with someone who mentioned that a few years ago they built a new home. After moving in they discovered, that although it was beautiful, it had all the right finishes, it was terrible to live in. They felt somewhat jaded that they spent all this money to build a wonderful home and had to deal with drafty construction and discomfort in their home. Building a home will likely be the most expensive personal purchase you make in your lifetime. Getting it right the first time can be hard.
- Thick Insulation
- Prevention of moisture migration
- Optimize the window areas and sizes
- A reliable, steady supply of fresh air
Thick Insulation: I can't stress enough that when you build a home you should not skimp on the insulation. This is the most difficult thing to change after a home is finished. It also seems to be the first thing on the chopping block when budgets get tight. Resist the urge to change your insulation package. Not all insulation is created equal and changing the insulation package could be the difference between you loving your home and not being able to stand it. We have a range of temperature in which we are comfortable. When insulation is poorly installed, is used in the wrong application, or gets cut, the ability to keep the wall temperature warm in the winter and cool in the summer suffers. You can understand that radiators radiate heat into the space. Well the same is true in the opposite. If the wall is cold, you will radiate heat to the wall. Losing body heat makes you feel cooler and can often be confused with drafts. Our thermal comfort is directly affected by the surface temperatures around us. So poor insulation, or not enough insulation, causes us to feel uncomfortable in our homes. And on the plus side, the more insulation you have to reduce heat transfer, the less money you'll spend to keep your home warm.Air tightness: Houses do not need to breath. I repeat, houses do not need to breath. It is incredibly important to make sure that air moves through your home where you want and when you want. It's critically important to control moisture inside the house, along with other toxins that are often found in our building materials, the products we use, and the smells from what we cook. Outdoor air is necessary for healthy living, but people need to breath, not buildings. Drawing air though the building construction can lead to other more serious problems like the collection of moisture within walls. Air infiltration is also an extreme source of heat loss. Every time air leave your home, it's replaced by air from somewhere else (outside, the attic, walls, basement etc). In the wintertime, you have to re-heat every cubic volume of air that escapes. We seem to forget that the draft isn't just letting cold air in, it's letting warm air out, and that's costing you money.Prevention of moisture migration: As you can see, air tightness and moisture migration are tied very closely together. We will always have moisture within our homes. When we breath we respire moisture. When we cook we put moisture in the air. When we supply fresh air it comes with humidity from outside. Controlling the flow of that moisture, and exhausting it to the exterior, is important. When we have cold surfaces, the moisture in the air will deposit on the surface and can grow mold. When we have leaky buildings, the moisture in the air can be pushed into the wall cavities and create condensation and rot. When hot air rises and is able to escape into our attics it can condense on the inside and make us think we have roof leaks. When a hole is drilled for a chimney and not air sealed it can "rain" indoors. Controlling the moisture is so critically important.Optimum Windows: We no longer want to live like cavemen. We want bright airy beautiful windows that take advantage of the view, let in the sunlight for light and warmth, and allow us to feel like we are outdoors without the harsh conditions. But when it comes to windows, the public is sadly mis-informed and the US is lagging behind it's German friends. It's actually cheaper to buy a triple pane window in Germany than it is to buy a double pane window. They have understood that an additional layer of glass keeps the surface temperature high enough to reduce thermal discomfort and condensation. When achieving the passive house certification, it's still necessary to buy windows from Europe to meet the requirements. Tested for air infiltration (drafts), thermal bridging (component parts), and overall U-value, we are still waiting for US Manufacturers to meet all these standards. I'm not saying it's not possible, I'm simply stating that no US manufacturers are currently approved by the standard to meet all the requirements. However, when I say the public is misinformed I mean that doing a window replacement will not save you money in your home. It's not as simple as new windows, the true value and savings is in how they are installed. Passive house takes great care to monitor both the window itself and how it is installed. Most replacement window projects that see vast savings come from air sealing during the installation, not the window itself. The major difference in triple pane windows is the thermal comfort and reduction of condensation which cannot be attributed to performance, but can be counted in comfort.Fresh Air: I mentioned previously that houses do not need to breath, but people do, and this is critically important. When we first started tightening our homes to improve efficiency, we didn't know that fresh air was necessary. We created what many call "sick building syndrome". We had mold and contamination issues that gave building science a bad name. We have since discovered that there is a ratio of fresh air needed, per person, to have healthy indoor air. If you took note above, air isn't exactly "fresh" if you don't control where it comes from. Having leaky drafty buildings means high heat loss, but it also means the "fresh air" for the home may come from your wet basement, your dusty attic (and let's all admit we've seen a critter or two up there), or through dried out dirty cracks in our building envelope. With passive house, not only are you supplying fresh air from an intake that isn't positioned in the attic or next to the dumpster, but you're supplying it where you need it most. Most people work outside of the home, so when we are home we spend a majority of that time sleeping in our bedrooms. By providing fresh air to the bedrooms we can improve the quality of the space we live. We are also pre-heating the air so it is not introduced to the space at outdoor temperature. (Negative 15 in Maine in February) and capturing energy by not having to heat the incoming air. The ventilation system also extracts air from places that are high in moisture (kitchens & baths). In an ideal scenario, this will be the one piece of equipment you need in your home, and it should be simple to use and operate.If you're interested in the more detailed scientific data behind passive house, don't hesitate to reach out. If you're a passive house consultant, we'd love to connect with you! Here at MArch, we think the constant pursuit and sharing of knowledge is beneficial to everyone! We'd love to hear from you!
Cost-effective zero energy homes start with the design. Don't skimp on design if you want the performance without excessive cost. Nobody, I mean really, nobody, wants to live in a house that they spent hard-earned money building (or buying) and then shell out more money every year just to sit around in three sweatshirts because you refuse to turn the heat up. We want to sit in the warm sunshine, maybe drinking our coffee, reading the newspaper, and not worry about the dollars that are flying out the door. Did your mom ever yell "Do you live in a barn, close the door". Well we don't live in barns, and we don't want to live in drafty uncomfortable spaces either. We want to live in warm, cozy, happy, healthy homes. So how do we get there?One of the ways we do that is through energy modeling. During the design phase we always run our projects, especially net-zero bound projects, through our energy modeling software. I won't get into the weeds on all the data that goes into an energy model, but I will tell you what we use it for. Doing the energy modeling during the design phase allows us to evaluate different building techniques, heating systems, and performance data to come up with the best solution for your individual needs. The industry calls this technique, cost offsetting. If we can add more insulation to your walls, we can reduce the need for a central heating system. If we can reduce or eliminate the central heating system, the costs of construction go down. We like to use the term "house as a system" which means your house is a series of inter-related parts. When you change one part, if affects others. By using energy modeling software we can compare different construction techniques to come up with the best combination of different parts.Another cost offsetting technique that we love to use is orientation! So simple, and absolutely free. If we look at history, the ancient Romans knew which direction to face their buildings and how to use mass to absorb heat. Use the sun for passive solar gain, brilliant! Modern day building practices have almost completely ignored this one simple solution. In addition to orienting the house the right direction (south) we also take time to place windows to take advantage of the view while at the same time, eliminating windows where we don't need them. If we can cut down windows on the north side of the house, the performance of the home skyrocket. That doesn't mean we live with dark spaces. One of my favorite solutions to fewer windows is interior windows. A great way to add character and style to a house is to pick an old window and install it in an interior wall between a room with lots of natural light and one with low or no daylight. This is especially effective for lighting interior stairways without adding skylights to the roof. If you've been following my blog or know me in person, you've probably heard me say "windows never pay for themselves". So why pay a lot of money for a poor performing building material instead of spending time during the design process to pick and place the right window in the right location. Should you order triple pane windows from Poland? Maybe? Should you take the time to maximize windows in the best locations and eliminate them where not needed? Absolutely! Can you hit Net-Zero with builder grade double pane windows from a major window manufacturer? Yup! Are you starting to see the forest through the trees? Getting to 0 from 100 is all about design.To get all the way down to 0 though, you have to produce as much energy on your site as you use. We can super insulate the building, eliminate thermal bridging, reduce air infiltration, orient the house the correct way, but what we can't do is completely eliminate energy use. So we need to produce energy on site to offset the usage. If we oriented the house the correct direction, adding solar panels is usually the quickest and easiest on site power generator available. Some people, depending on location, may be able to harness wind power or hydro, but the average homeowner should be able to take advantage of PV. With the government subsidizing solar installations it's getting more cost-effective to add your own power generation to your home. Between off the grid battery banks and grid-tied net metering, there is a way to harness the power of the sun to produce electricity.If you're reading this article and thinking "but all these super efficient houses are ugly" you should go back and read one of my previous blog posts on selecting the right architect. We all have different taste, and if you select the right architect for your project it can be cost-effective, efficient, and beautiful. And here you thought building a house was simple, little did you know it's one of those giant jigsaw puzzles, that until you get all the parts lined up just right, you just have a pile of building materials that may or may not turn into a happy healthy home.There are lots of different ways to get to zero energy. So like I said at the very beginning, spend time during the design to get all the details right. You can simply monitor your actual energy usage for a year and prove that you made more energy then you used. Or you can take advantage of one of the certification programs out there for meeting the zero energy threshold. Here are a few:ProgramsLiving Future Institute: Zero Energy Building CertificationDepartment of Energy: Zero Energy Ready HomeNYSERDA Net Zero Energy Homes Low Rise New Construction ProgramLEED Zero Net Energy HomesIf you read this article and you're disappointed I didn't tell you exactly how to get to net-zero with all the tech trade industry specifics, feel free to reach out to me via email. I'm always happy to get into the weeds on how the technologies work and how they can be combined. All you need to do is run into one of my past students to know, I love to talk about this stuff! So reach out, leave me a comment, send me an email, start a discussion with me on Facebook. I promise, I'll respond!~ Emily Mottram, Mottram Architecture
Thanks for checking back in over the last couple of weeks to see the sneak peaks of this recently completed remodel! I told you last week that I would let you in on my favorite part of this whole renovation this last Friday in March! Well here it is: Insulation!!! I know, you were expecting something beautiful, fun, classy and wonderful. Don't be disappointed, this is absolutely our favorite part of this whole project. Of course we get excited about the beautiful things that we created here, but what we are most proud of, is that quiet comfort that is now found within this home. One of the reasons this homeowner reached out to us, was because of our specialty in energy efficient design. They loved their timber frame home, which already faces south, but there were challenges that just didn't work for their family. Functionality of space, the need to put wood in the wood stove, the questionable railing on the second floor and a particularly energetic 7 year old...the list goes on. But what they really wanted to know was, where are we losing energy? If we're going to do this renovation project, can we do some of these things to help improve the efficiency at the same time? And the answer of course is "We'd love for you to do that, let us show you how" Because this house is a timber frame, it had board ceilings. Although they are beautiful, the let the air leak right through the boards. And I'd love to say, that due to the age of the home, they had fiberglass insulation behind the boards, but the sad fact is, we still build this way today, and that's just not okay. So here, we took down the boards and salvaged them for the homeowner. Then we dense packed the rafter cavities with cellulose to improve the insulation and greatly cut down on air infiltration. We went back and forth but finally decided that sheet rocking the ceiling in the main space would brighten up the living area, so the boards were salvaged for a later project. (Replacing all the trim with flat stock casing, maybe a new bar in the sunroom, or if the 7 year old wins, a new ninja warrior course, oh the possibilities!!!). Now when you step into this home it is quiet. If they want to run the wood stove, they do, but they don't have to. The sun pours in the south windows and keeps the interior of the house warm all day long. Sometimes it's the simple things that you can't see that make a space truly wonderful.
What does it mean to build a super insulated home? I often get asked what my recommendation for insulation is. Both the type of insulation to use, and how much. But let me ask you a different question. What are you really looking for in your home? Comfort? Savings? Seriously I've never asked a group full of people if they'd like to spend less on utilities and had them say no! Maybe you're ready for retirement and you want to be able to shut it down for the winter and go south. Wouldn't it be great not to worry about frozen pipes or high heating costs when you're not there? But maybe you're the person who has to have beautiful granite countertops? Let me ask you, do you want to build a brand new dream home with all the interior bells and whistles and then sit around with three sweatshirts because it’s drafty or cold? If you answered, "Yes. I don't care how much it costs i'll just turn the heat up" then you should probably stop reading now. For us, we'd rather do the "hard to change" things right the first time, and come back and add the bells and whistles when we aren't using as much to operate our homes.There are so many components that go into a super insulated home. Simple things that have no cost like orienting your house the right direction. Or taking the time to think about where windows are positioned and how they are positioned. Our favorite thing to do isn't to spend thousands of dollars on windows, but to pick the right ones in the right locations, and minimize them everywhere else. These two things make a huge impact on the quality of the space within the home. If you've met me, you know I always say "Every house has an ugly side, let's make it the North side". Building a super insulated home may not be about the flashy and attractive things that people see when they walk into your house. Instead, it's about comfort. Super insulated homes are designed for the people inside. There are three things that affect our comfort levels: Temperature, Air Movement, and Humidity. Super insulated homes reduce air infiltration, heat loss, and control the interior moisture. They are specifically designed more maximum comfort. Reducing the unhappiness of the occupant significantly reduces the use of energy in the home. So let us tell you a little bit more about the “less beautiful” parts of your home that actually make your space so much more attractive.Tip number 1: Improving the insulation in your home is the hardest thing to do after it's built, and let's be honest, you'll never do it. So don't skimp on this part. Don't let this be the first thing you ask your builder to compromise on. If your budget is tight, let us tell you what things to do later that are super easy to replace or add. So let me give you my thoughts on insulation:
- All of my builders know not to utter the word “fiberglass insulation” in my presence unless we are talking about how to insulate a bedroom or bathroom for sound transmission. Fiberglass is cheap and cheerful and always installed by the guy who gets paid the least on the crew. It’s rarely installed correctly and it’s even more rarely installed in a vacuum (ie completely air tight cavity). Fiberglass insulation works by trapping air pockets in between all the fibers, however, building is rarely 100% air tight, so when air moves though the fiberglass fibers it eliminates the pockets of air and makes the fiberglass insulation more of a filter and less of an insulator. We’ve all seen dirty fiberglass, and that’s why.
- Cellulose, we love cellulose and use it almost exclusively in our projects. A properly dense packed wall will move and shift with the building as it drys out after construction. Dense packed cellulose insulation retards air infiltration making the house tighter and the insulation more effective. And it’s fire resistant. Yes, it can hold 130% of it’s weight in water if it gets wet. Although it’s not possible to make a completely air-tight structure, we are in the practice of making water tight structures, so we worry very little about moisture getting into our wall cavities. Does it mean it never happens, no, but we’ve had so few problems with it we would not hesitate to recommend it.
- Spray foam is probably the 3rd most popular insulation choice. Like all of the insulations it has good and bad properties. It air seals very well and can make extremely tight buildings. But it’s also a solid insulation, so when the building settles and dries out over the first couple of years, it can crack and pull away from the structure. It’s also pretty nasty, most foams are made of plastic and the agent that is used to make it liquid to install, cure, and dry is often toxic requiring specific equipment to install it and mandatory building evacuation for 24 hours or more. It’s not flame resistant and has to be covered by a 15 minute thermal barrier or sheetrock which can add expense and only gives you time to get out of the building. Once it starts burning it gives off toxic fumes that are extremely dangerous.
Here's the nitty gritty. When someone asks me for my recommendation on insulation I recommend the following: R-40 in the walls and R-60 in the ceiling. In cold climate building we also add 2”-6” of rigid foam below the slab. To get a little more complicated, I also try to minimize something we call thermal bridging. Essentially, thermal bridging is a path from the interior to the exterior of the home with little to no insulation. If you think of a standard wall construction, you have studs with insulation in between the studs. The thermal bridge happens at the studs. Wood has an R-value of 1 per inch. Everywhere you have a stud in a typical wall it has an R-value of 5.5 in a 2x6 construction. In between each stud you have insulation with an R-value of 19. So the stud at 5.5 is the poorest performing section of your wall and a direct path for cold to transfer from outside to inside.And lastly, but most importantly, super insulated homes aim to be as air tight as possible. Every seam, crack, gap, or location where two materials meet is sealed with foam or caulking. It’s a common misconception that buildings need to breath. People need to breath, buildings don’t. Does that mean you don’t need fresh air? Absolutely not!!! What it means is that we control how much and where that air comes from. Instead of travelling through your dusty insulation and your dirty basement, we introduce that fresh air directly from outside. In addition to being able to control where the air comes from, it's equally as important to control how much air comes in. Most people probably remember from high school science that hot air rises. Well when that air rises and exits through your attic you have to heat the air that comes in to replace it. So the draftier your house is, the more it costs to keep it warm. And if you remember from a couple paragraphs ago, our comfort levels are directly affected by air movement.Yes, I'm asking you to spend more during construction to put in better insulation and air seal everything you possibly can. But if I could prove it would pay for itself in a very short amount of time, would you be interested in knowing how long?We hope you’ll visit again to learn more about insulation, windows, geo thermal and air source heat pumps, zero energy, and lots of other cool building related topics over the next couple of months. Reach out to us and let us know your questions, we are always happy to answer any questions you might have, and several other people reading this blog may have the same exact question, so you’re doing them a favor by reaching out!Until next time, have a warm and comfortable life!
Happy Saturday! We just can't help ourselves from throwing out info on the Modern Solar Farmhouse! If you've been following the blog you know this is a partnership that we created with Live Solar Maine to bring zero-energy homes to the market in a really soulful and creative way! It occurred to me that you might be interested in knowing about the solar this winter! You guys, even in the winter we make power! This little gem produced 374kwh in November, 285kwh in December, and 375kwh in January! We started with 2 rows of panels, we have room for 3 rows and ran a line for a car charger in the garage. If you haven't been following the news, Tesla is going to introduce the Model 3, aiming for a car in the $35,000 range and making an all electric car more accessible for everyone! But I digress, this prototype home isn't just being run through a simulator (which we did during design to estimate our usage) it's being lived in! Three bedrooms, two and a half baths, we are tracking everything. So if you're new to zero energy and you want to see what it means for an average person, keep in touch! Join our mailing list, send us your comments and feedback, or ask questions! We are happy to answer anything you want to know!
Bids are never apples to apples
When you put a project out to bid, the architect has to provide a lot more information to ensure that all the contractors are bidding the same thing, which they never are. We know from experience, if you ask 6 contractors how to build something, all 6 will have a different way of doing it. Taking the lowest bid can sometimes mean that your going to get an inferior product or maybe a subcontractor whose attention to detail isn't quite where you'd expect it to be for the money you are spending. When the contractor isn't intimately involved in the project they don't know what your expectations are. I once asked a client's rep if the client was a Volvo or a Ferrari, because it makes a difference in the level of detail and the quality of what you provide. You may also be ruling out the best contractor for your project based on price alone. In the long run, the more expensive contractor may have been better able to meet your needs and may have lost of job because they were not willing to compromise the integrity of what they do to win a job.
You spend more money with your architect on things that could potentially be spared
As I mentioned above, the amount of information that needs to be provided during the bid process can sometimes be significantly more than what would be needed if you were working with a contractor that the architect has already worked with. Having a contractor who has been involved in the process from the beginning and knows that you want a specific type of wide plank hardwood flooring will help get accurate pricing. Often times a contractor will leave an allowance for things like light fixtures, flooring, plumbing fixtures etc. These allowances are based on either their experience, or whatever is the easiest and cheapest thing available to keep their bids low and be awarded a project. That doesn't mean that you will select these products, and in the end, you may be over the budget you had agreed to because this contractor didn't know you wanted all LED fixtures, or that special faucet from Waterworks. As the architect, we will try to pack as much as possible into the design drawings and specifications to catch all of these variables, but it's simply not the same as the builder getting to know you during the process so they know what to bring to the table to meet your specific budget and requirements. Of course we want to be involved in your project from beginning to end, and we will help you with all of your choices and selections, but adding unnecessary time to a drawing set to get accurate bids is sometimes a waste of our time and your money.
The lowest bid rarely nets you the best project
We've worked on several projects where contracts have to be awarded to the lowest bidder, and it's always a challenge. When the client doesn't know, like, or trust the contractor, there is always second guessing through the entire project and it can become a very adversarial relationship. You will be spending several days a week, for several months of the year, with this contractor who is building on renovating your dream home. Knowing that your personalities will click can be worth a few extra dollars! Having the peace of mind that the contractor will pay his subs on time and won't take your deposit and skip town is huge. Knowing that the contractor understands your objectives and can easily bring cost effective value engineering to the project without losing sight of your final vision is crucial. But the reality is, building a home is a very complicated process and you want a contractor by your side who is going to listen to you, handle the details, and be kind and respectful through out the project.
Building a team gets you a better end result
We know we aren't perfect, and training to be an architect often requires you to work as part of a team. We love the integrated design process, both between ourselves in the open design studio, and with the contractor, client, and specialty trades. Building net-zero homes is a team effort and we think you get a much better project when the entire team pulls together the project from the beginning. As I mentioned above, no two builders are going to build something the same way so why put a wrench in the system. Sit down with the contractor and go through how they would build it, what ways they can bring cost savings to the project, and how to meet your objectives in the best possible way. Planning for things like, where the solar lines are going to run from the roof to the utility room, can make or break a project. Making those decisions made during the design phase helps create a truly cohesive project. Having a different set of eyes on the plans as they come together, in our opinion, always creates a better solution. Architects are trained to get the most out of your space and your budget. We think in three dimension as the plans are going together. But we also love to work closely with our builders because they know how they are going to put together what we are asking for, and they are always up on current market fluctuations in pricing and schedule, so they have a thumb on the pricing throughout the project and can make cost effective recommendations that help keep the project on time and on budget.
Putting a project out to bid could blow your schedule out the window
Although the last of our 5 recommendations, it is in no means the least important. The last couple projects I have put out to bid have all had the same problem. The client has finished with design and they are excited about the project only to find out that all the contractors that we have approached to bid on their project are out 3, 6, or 12 months. Securing a contractor so you can start your project when you're ready to get started can be critical. When you put a project out to bid you are at the mercy of the contractors schedule. When you bring a contractor in, early in the design process, they will add you to their schedule and be prepared to start your project at the agreed upon time. Getting everything together in time for construction then becomes something the team works very hard to make happen. If you put a project out to bid, even if you land the contractor you know you want to work with, you may need to wait several months to get started. So when you start a project, be clear about your timeframe. If you're building on the lake or ocean, sometimes the towns have rules about when you can do construction, and it may not be during the time of year that is best to build. If you're not already on your contractors schedule, that could mean you have to wait a whole year to build. In Maine, depending on the time of year, roads get posted which do not allow construction vehicles to travel to a site for many weeks. Timing is crucial and holding a contractor to a bid for more than 90 days is unlikely. The fluctuation in the product market can be huge. Between the end of December 2015 and the end of January 2016 one of our window manufacturers increased their pricing twice.So our recommendation is to stop putting your project out to bid! Select a contractor that you know you can work with. Tell them your budget, bring them in on the team, and let them plan for working with you and provide value engineering to your project to keep it on time and on budget!
I could not be more excited to share this project!In 2014 we started a partnership with Live Solar Maine to bring Net-Zero to the market in a really clever and creative way. Here's a little bit more about this project.Context: Live Solar Maine wants to bring Net-Zero to the everyday homeowner. This home was built on a piece of property that was inhumanely harvested. In order to give back to the land and provide something really meaningful, we created Net-Zero 1. Net-Zero 1 is a classic farmhouse with a modern twist. Maine has some really classic design styles and we wanted to stay true to some classic features while keeping it simple, modern, up to date, and cost effective!Conclusion: This project is small at just under 1800SF, but it feels big and spacious! The south sun pours in the windows in the winter and is shaded by your classic front porch in the summer. The walls are 9.25" thick giving that old deep farmhouse window sill feeling and they are low the the ground so you feel like you are a part of the outdoors from the inside.Energy Efficiency: Net-Zero means that at the end of the year you produced more energy then you used. In this house it works in a number of different ways. First, the building envelop is tight and super insulated and the house is oriented for optimal solar exposure. This is the hardest thing to go back and fix after the fact, so we feel that this should be done right from the beginning. It's not passive house, and has a blower door number around 1.5 ACH. We think that between 1-2 ACH is a really comfortable number where passive mechanical ventilation really provides more then enough fresh air to get rid of excess moisture and contaminants. So air tightness is number one, followed by super insulated walls, foundations, and ceilings. And then passive ventilation. It's so incredibly important to ventilate these super tight houses, but it's also important that the mechanicals are simple and easy to use. We love a passive air intake coupled with Panasonic Whisper Green fans in each bathroom. Simple, easy, and effective. Then we have heat-pumps that run the space, absolutely not fossil fuels, and PV to cover the electrical usage. This model house is even equipped to install a car charger when or if the homeowner is ready to take advantage of the electric car revolution.Now, I say we call this house Net-Zero 1 because it truly has the potential to be net positive. However, every house is completely dependent on the occupants. We can control the performance of the structure, but it comes down to how every individual lives as to whether or not net-zero is achievable!Until next time - stay tuned for more on Live Solar Maine breaking ground in 2017!
What do I get for my money? Are you worried about working with an architect but have no idea what to expect? Well here is a detailed layout of how a typical project can be structured when working with Mottram Architecture. What do you get for your money? Value! Sure, I’m trying to sell you something that doesn’t exist and below is a list of the meetings and items I will provide to you during the course of a project. But what am I really providing?You might ask yourself:Do I need to hire an architect?Nope! Homes are built every day without an architect. Building a home is a complex problem and we (as architects) thrive on those challenges. Isn’t your dream home a space that suits you exactly? Do you live in a home that you have been trying to reconfigure for your family's specific wants and desires? These are custom solutions that we can help you solve. Hiring an architect is about managing your risk through a complex construction project, and increasing the quality of your experience during the process and for years after as you live in your home.A project typically takes a natural progression that almost all architects follow. We work in a similar manor and this is the breakdown of how we work. Every client is different, however, and we give you the opportunity to take advantage of as many phases as you’d like. We also realize that this process is based on the average client and we may spend more time with you in different phases. Every client is unique and we adapt our proposals to meet your needs.Phase I is an existing conditions survey, or it's schematic design if you are building new. What happens in the schematic design phase?We meet to discuss your goals and establish the project requirements including the Project Scope, budget, space requirements and aesthetic preferences.Based on the requirements established at the first meeting, we sketch out a design comprised of up to three proposed solutions for the project. Solutions usually include floor plans and exterior building elevations to illustrate the home.After discussion of the first three design concepts, we have an additional meeting to present and discuss the combinations of all of the design solutions into one solution moving forward. Usually we provide two revisions to the selected schematic design solution. More than two revisions during the schematic design phase could be considered additional services and can change the overall cost of the design proposal. Again, this process is based on your average customer.At this phase we provide a “design” budget using square footage cost estimation and the schematic design solution will be signed off on prior to moving to the next phase of design.Phase II, What happens during the design development phase?With your approval of the schematic design we get a lot more detailed! We will develop the floor plans, exterior elevations and prepare additional details to fix and describe the character of the project.You will now need to start thinking about and seleting hardware, finish plumbing fixtures, appliances, kitchen cabinets, tile, stone and decorative lighting fixtures. Depending on the project we typically prepare interior elevations as necessary to describe the locations and arrangements of fixtures and finishes that you have selected.As a rule of thumb, we usually meet once at the beginning of design development and once during the process. This translates to 2 design revisions prior to heading into construction documents where we tell the builder how it all goes together.Phase III: What happens during the construction document phase?Based on the approved design development drawings, we prepare construction documents consisting of drawings and specifications that will describe the scope of work and be suitable for filing with the building department and for construction by a qualified contractor.This is the part where we, as architects, spend a lot of time at the drawing board putting together all the details. We meet less frequently, and what is provided is a substantial set of construction documents that can include, but not be limited to:
- Architectural Floor Plans delineating the existing construction, demolition, new construction, and the cross referencing of details and sections on subsequent drawings.
- Power and Data Plans showing electrical receptacles, telephone, cable and internet locations.
- Finish plumbing fixture locations.
- Reflected Ceiling Plans indicating placement of ceiling-mounted, wall-mounted and recessed lighting fixtures, with associated switching arrangements, and locations for required smoke and carbon dioxide detectors.
- Building Elevations at each exterior facade showing the existing residence with the proposed new construction including notes indicating finishes, materials and any special conditions.
- Details, Sections, Schedules and Notes communicating, in detail, different aspects of the design relating to construction and/or code requirements. These details are essential in conveying the design concept to the General Contractor, the subcontractors and to the Building Department.
Engineering Note: Basic Architectural Services do not include mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire suppression, structural or civil engineering. Phase IV: What happens in the pricing and permitting phase:We should qualify that we will help with putting a project out to bid as noted below, however, we find that our clients are more satisfied with the overall construction project when they select a contractor during the design phase and bring them into the process creating a truly integrated design. This almost always saves time and money for the homeowner.Contractor SelectionWe will assist you in interviewing (3) contractors of your choosing or if you need some contractor referrals we know several people in different geographical locations that would be happy to talk with you about your project.We coordinate with the contractor during the design development and construction document phase to reduce design fees and meet the clients scope and budget. We work closely with the Contractor to value engineer a project to meet within the constraints of your scope and budget and revise the design accordingly.Bid CoordinationIf you choose to put the project out to bid we will assist you with assembling, distributing and evaluating the bid package, which includes things like preparing and distributing the Construction Documents to each contractor. Addressing contractors questions and issuing clarifications and/or addenda (as required). Assisting you with the evaluation of the bids, as it needs to be reviewed to be sure each contractor is bidding apples to apples.Building Permit AssistanceWe will assist you in preparing the application for the Building Permit as required by the local zoning code. We will make sure the drawings include all the necessary elements for permit along with any other paperwork you might be required to submit. Fees associated with the Application for Building Permit are the responsibility of the Client.Phase V: What happens during construction administration?Based on the signed contract between you and the contractor of your choice, we can provide a number of services during construction!We prefer to start construction off with a project coordination meetings just to be sure the client and the contractor are on the same page! This helps to provide clarification of construction documents.If you need us to, we will visit the project site at regular intervals to observe the progress of the work and answer any questions the contractor might have. When you are dealing with renovation projects you should know that something always comes up during construction.On larger projects we review subcontractors’ submittals such as shop drawings, product data and/or samples. Sometimes that means we might prepare supplemental and clarification drawings during construction to meet the requirements of your project.At substantial completion, the Architect shall prepare a “punch list” of work to be corrected and review the corrective work to completion. It's always that last 5%.We give our clients a proposal after our first meeting that details these steps with our understanding of their scope of work. At any time a client can choose to move forward to the next phase, or only complete the current phase. We like to think we make architectural services available to everyone. We think we add value to every project, so we'd like you to give us the opportunity to prove our worth!~ Emily Mottram, Mottram Architecture