We’re building a (green?) house, ed. 5: Demolish or deconstruct?

July 21, 2009

NOTE: Updates of this post can be found at EcoMajority, my web-based forum focused on sustainable home building.

This decision, it seems to me, is increasingly coming down to three things, in descending order. 1. Philosophy. 2. Timing. 3. Cost.

Essentially, if you’re going to take a house down, you need to decide how important it is to you that as much of those materials are reused and diverted from landfills.  That’s a value question, no doubt, but probably an easy one for most people dependent upon the next two issues, timing and cost.  Timing is a big factor because there’s no doubt that deconstructing will take more time if the deconstruction contractor really takes the time to preserve as much material as possible.

By way of example, here’s what happened on our project.  Ironically (and unfortunately for our neighbors), our house began deconstruction the same day that the house across the street began demolition. By the time I got home from work, the house across the street was gone. Nothing. On our house they were still busy removing windows and case work.While our neighbors were done in a day, our project was in the deconstruction phase for between two and three weeks. (In all fairness, though, there was no pressure on them to move faster because we were going to be delayed with the other sitework and foundation work that needed to happen — so deconstruction was slower than it probably needed to be.)

Time is money — that’s certainly true in construction. But in this particular phase, there are more things to consider than just straight estimates between the two options. In demolition, the cost of labor is low because the track hoe is doing all the heavy lifting, literally. You probably have one, maybe two days of equipment rental — so that’s cheaper. But you have the considerable expense of disposal fees.

On the deconstruction side, the house is literally taken apart piece by piece and either sold, or donated for reuse. If something is sold, you get the funds (or at least that’s how it worked with our contractor). And for everything that is donated, you get a tax write-off. (This can be tricky, make sure to check with your accountant or tax adviser — and make sure your donation is to through a charitable organization.)

BenninkFor us, the costs weren’t exactly a wash between the two choices — but it was pretty close. And at that stage we weren’t in a big hurry to move things along. So for us it was a clear choice that we should reuse and recycle as much as possible. For the most part, all that went into the landfill was old drywall, insulation, and old bug-infested logs that were used as part of the foundation.

Side note: I was talking to Dave Bennink of Re-Use Consulting when they were a couple of days into taking down our house. He mentioned that he needed to get to the store the current issue of Forbes Magazine had an article on him and his deconstruction practice in it.  Here’s the article.


We’re building a (green?) house, ed.4: To LEED or not?

July 14, 2009

NOTE: Updates of this post can be found at EcoMajority, my web-based forum focused on sustainable home building.

If you are going to build a green house, seems like you’d want some sort of gold star for the effort, right? That’s where I was coming from when we started our project. Of course — why not?

LEED, developed by the US Green Building Council, is the gold standard. What started out as a means of encouraging, measuring and verifying commercial building projects, it has since moved into residential construction projects as well. I won’t go into all of the details about LEED, but it’s a checklist-based system that offers guidance, consulting, and how to lessen you building’s impact on the environment and create a healthier home in the long term. You, your architect, your contractor and a LEED consultant work from checklists that guide you to better choices. And then an independent verification and your home becomes certified at whatever level it meets — I believe the levels are silver, gold and platinum.

Bottom line is I wasn’t big on going after gold stars in school, and evidently I haven’t changed much. We didn’t go down this road. Looking at it, LEED accreditation seemed expensive and cumbersome.  There was fees to pay, consultants to hire, and considerable extra time in project management that would be needed by our contractor in order to be in compliance. In the end, it seemed to me and my wife that what was important was our intention. We figured that with every decision along the way, we could look at our options, always ask the sustainability questions about the proposed materials, look at alternatives, and make the best decision we could, all things considered.

At the end of the project, I’m not sure we’ll be able to look back and defintitvely answer the question, “how green is your home?” But who cares? Building a green home is a thousand shades of gray. We’ve learned that, if nothing else. Some people could look at our project and be impressed with the decisions we made and the lengths we’ve gone to. Others could look at it and decide that we didn’t go far enough. (I suppose that’s why there’s a question mark after the “green” in the headline — ultimately this is subjective.)

If we were planning to turn around and sell the house, we might have made a different call so that we could have the LEED tools and certification to help us sell the house. But for us, all that really matters is that we’re satisfied with the decisions we made along the way. And we are.


We’re building a (green?) house, ed. 2

July 8, 2009

NOTE: Updates of this post can be found at EcoMajority, my web-based forum focused on sustainable home building.

The house project is going well. We’re just less than a month from move-in.  As things wind down, and most (if not all) of our material choices have been made, I’m having a chance to reflect a little bit on our goals from the very beginning of the project and where we find ourselves now.

There were a number of things that caused us to up-root from Queen Anne and move to Bainbridge Island, but I’ll save most of those reasons for another post. One of our main goals was to build as sustainable a house as we could manage. To do that, we knew we would need to balance aesthetics, costs and practicality.

What I hope to do over the next several weeks/months, is to review how we did. But the bottom line is it was a ridiculously hard process. I kept thinking to myself how hard it is to be green. There are few, if any, decisions that are clear and simple.  And finding products and information — even with the amazing power of the Web — often fell between futile and simply a waste of time. Admittedly, I am not a green-building expert. I’m just someone who has built or remodeled a few homes. My wife was an architectural designer for more than a decade. We like this stuff, but that didn’t make it any easier.  (By the way, I have some ideas for how making green choices could be made easier in the future but I’ll save that, too, for a future post.)

Purists may say we copped out on some of our choices. Pragmatists may say that we were highly idealistic, and overspent in some areas and in some ways.  Both are probably true.  I’m hoping that others might learn something based on our decisions — not because they were the “right” decisions from a green perspective (because certainly many weren’t), but because of how and why we arrived where we did.

Stay tuned. I’ll probably tackle decisions in roughly the order they came up in the design and development process.


We’re building a (green?) house, ed. 1

February 16, 2009

NOTE: Updates of this post can be found at EcoMajority, my web-based forum focused on sustainable home building.

wing-point-animation

Almost exactly two years ago, my wife and I got a wild hair.

For years, we thought about moving to Bainbridge Island. But then we stopped thinking about it and actually closed on a piece of property on Wing Point. That single decision was catalyst for many decisions that would change our lives and those of our children. And save the economic crisis our country in stumbling through, we haven’t spent a lot of time looking back.

To move forward, we needed to sell our house in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood — our community throughout our entire marriage — as well as sell our vacation house which we had literally built from the ground up.  We had a few goals:

  1. We wanted to build a house that was all that we loved about our vacation home, but one we could live in every day. That meant an environment where our kids could run (more or less) free. It meant  having a studio space for both Ann and her metalwork, and for me and my painting and other shenanigans. And it meant having room for our friends and family to come and hang out with us — whether for dinner or a week.
  2. We like to build things, and this time we wanted to build a modern-ish house.
  3. We wanted to build a house that was as environmentally responsible and sustainable as we felt we could reasonably do. (I could, and probably will, write many more posts about this aspect of the project.  Suffice it to say, this is not as clear-cut or as easy as one would think.)
  4. We wanted to simplify our lives, even if that meant just going from two residences to one. Naturally, there would be less to think about, and certainly fewer costs in maintaining two homes.

To make a two-year-old story considerably shorter, within just a few months of purchasing the property, we began the design process, choosing Lane William’s Coop15. There were very specific design constraints given that it was a remodel (albeit one that went down to the foundation). We eventually came up with the design you see at the top of this post.

In Fall 2007/Winter 2008 (can’t remember which), we chose our contractor, Smallwood Construction. And in June of 2008 we began deconstruction (not demolition) a process I wrote about in my work blog — which predated “stuffandjunk” and you can read here.

For reasons — actually reason, singular — that isn’t worth going into, we didn’t get going in earnest until August/September. And we hope to move in at the end of July 2009.

Over the course of the coming weeks and months, I’ll write some other posts and share some pictures.  I’ll try to explain the joy with which we look forward to our new home and the discoveries we’ve made along the way.  I’ll also try to honestly share some of the compromises we’ve had to make, the shortcomings in the process and our goals, and even the anguish of building while the economy is cratering. But who are we to complain?

Here are a couple of pictures taken recently.

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beach-shot-cropped