Materials Matter: Use the Right Stuff in your High Performance Home

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Good design and construction will help you improve efficiency by limiting the amount of heat that can transfer through the exterior, but a good green home also takes usage into consideration. Your home has a long life span. Start it off right with sustainable systems and materials that enable you to keep your environmental footprint small while still living comfortably in the modern world.

MATERIALS

Building elements are made up of all sorts of materials, and some are more eco-friendly than others. In addition to having a negative environmental impact, poor quality building materials can also affect your indoor air quality and the healthiness of your home. Make sure your builder uses materials that are labeled no- or low-VOC and do not have added formaldehyde. Some of the materials that might have unwanted toxins include:

  • Adhesives
  • Insulation
  • Sealants
  • Caulk
  • Flooring
  • Tile
  • Carpet
  • Countertops
  • Plywood
  • Sheathing
  • Paint and polyurethane

Eco-friendly options are almost always available and have become equal or nearly equal in cost, but if your builder doesn’t know that it is important to you, they might use whatever they have on hand or the cheapest option.

The Breakdown on Thermal Breaks

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A thermal break is a building element that limits the flow of heat between materials. Think about your morning cup of coffee. If the paper cup is too hot, you put a sleeve on it so you don’t burn your hand. That sleeve is a thermal break. However, the base of the cup and the open top are still allowing heat to escape. 

Of course, if you’re being sustainable, you use an insulated travel mug that has a thermal break all around it. When the lid is off, heat flows out, but when you put the lid on, you have just maximized the thermal breaks on your coffee cup. 

You have to do the same thing when building a green home – maximize the thermal breaks. This means ensuring that there are thermal breaks around the entire exterior, including under the slab so heat can’t escape into the ground.

There are many types of thermal breaks employed throughout a green home. Every single wood stud or rafter that makes contact with the inside drywall and the outside sheathing of the home is a potential location for transfer of cold air and needs an additional continuous blanket of insulation outside of it (or in between members) to ensure substantial heat loss doesn’t occur. Triple-pane windows use the inert gas between the panes as a thermal break. Energy efficient windows and doors are constructed from less conductive materials on the inside and outside to ensure that heat does not flow through the frames. Areas without thermal breaks are weak spots that counteract all of the other measures you have taken to minimize heat transfer. 

It might not be the most glamorous part of the project, but it is critical to consider this important concept when building a new green home.

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Crushing on the Cushing: Week One of this Month's Featured Design

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The Cushing is our nod to the classic New England Farmhouse.  With a generous open-concept first floor layout, a ground floor master suite, banks of sun-soaking windows, and room upstairs for 2 bedrooms, laundry, 1-2 baths, and a bonus room (which also could become another bedroom), this design packs a lot into its compact, classic form.  

The Cushing shown above perches on a hillside with optimal southerly exposure - allowing the home to be passively heated well into the colder months of the year.  The living space provides a light-filled, tree-bounded respite for the home's family, and the 2-floor distribution of sleeping spaces allows for all to have a solid sense of personal space. 

In his own words, the home's co-owner (and carpentry detailer and systems explainer extraordinaire) remarks on his experience of living in this variation of BrightBuilt's Cushing design: 

"We are loving the last couple of weeks. Sunny days are keeping the house at 65-70, and the temp only dropped 4 degrees last night when it was 24 degrees out side. Wondering how long we can hold off on using the heat."
 


If you're keen to learn more about ways to tailor this design to your family and your aesthetic preferences, please let us know.  Opportunities abound for turning this design into a warm, inviting, personalized, and relaxing respite for all to enjoy.

Insulation: The Puffy Coat of the Built Environment

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Increasingly, wall and roof thickness to accommodate additional insulation plays a major role in limiting heat transfer. A green home with a roof and walls that are thicker than a conventional home has better thermal comfort because less heat is allowed to escape in winter. You also get the bonus of having a much quieter home since thick, insulation-filled walls and roof filter out more sound from the outside.

Insulation also helps reduce unwanted heat loss and heat gain in a home. The more insulation there is, the less heat can transfer through the walls and roof. A green home has more insulation than a conventional home, sometimes up to twice as much, which makes it warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

Environmentally friendly insulation materials like natural cellulose are proven to safely insulate homes without risk of fire or unwanted toxins. Spray foam is also an effective insulating material, but because it has potential toxins, particularly during and immediately after the application process, it is less desirable. Many homeowners who want a sustainable, healthy home choose to limit its use to only the areas that are the most difficult to access. Although sometimes effective, some batt (or blanket) insulations like fiberglass have greater potential health impacts and can leave gaps within the wall cavity even in the best installations.

Regardless of the type of insulation you choose, it is important to properly insulate the entire exterior shell, roof, and slab to limit thermal transfer, ultimately limiting the potential for condensation and mold growth inside the walls. Ice dams, a common roof problem for New Englanders in wintertime, can be prevented by specifying sufficient insulation and applying it properly.

Creating a Draft-Free Home

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You already know that one of the major challenges when building a green home in New England is heat loss in winter, but there is less concern about heat gain in summer. One of the reasons for this is the difference between standard comfort levels and the outside air temperature. When you consider that 65° to 72° is comfortable for most people, a hot summer day is only a 20° to 25° difference. On the other hand, a cold winter day might range from a 35° to 80°+ difference in temperature. That’s quite a leap to get from the outside air temperature to your indoor comfort level, and any lost heat will require more energy to maintain the desired temperature.

One of the primary ways to combat heat loss in a home is with good air sealing, particularly at the corners and transitions, such as where the walls meet the roof, windows, doors, and foundation. During construction, you can test for air leakage with a blower door test to ensure all the gaps are sealed before the home is finished. A blower door test works by creating a pressure differential between the inside and outside of the building. This difference in pressure forces air through of all the holes in the structure, and a tighter building requires less air to achieve the desired pressure differential. A blower door test also allows you to find out where the holes are so they can be sealed properly, for both air and water.

There are several ways to calculate how well a home is sealed, but the two most common are ACH50 and effective leakage area. ACH50 stands for air changes per hour at 50 Pascals. For comparison, common ACH50 numbers include:

  • An older inefficient home might have 8-15 ACH50
  • The current building code requires 7 ACH50
  • A green home might have 3 ACH50 (likely the threshold of the forthcoming new code)
  • Net-zero and Passive House homes have less than 1 to 1.5 ACH50
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Another way to evaluate the air leakage in a home is with the effective leakage area (ELA) metric. This number tells you the area of a hole that the building would leak if all of the small holes and gaps were combined. For example, a higher ELA might be like having a hole the size of a manhole cover constantly open in your home. On the other hand, a lower ELA might be like having a hole the size of a small jar lid. Obviously it is more desirable to have a smaller hole constantly allowing air to pass in and out of your home, which is why it is so important to ensure that proper air sealing is done while the house is being constructed. A tighter home with good air sealing means you will have lower energy bills, better comfort levels throughout the year, and a draft-free home.

 

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog about fresh air and ventilation, a key component in the conversation about air-leakage and air-tightness in your home!

Opening the Door (or Window) to Performance Possibilities

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While paying close attention to the shape and volume of your new high-performance home, it's also important to pay attention to the holes you punch through its shell.  The openings in a home are yet another chance for air to escape or enter. On a clear spring day you want your open windows to bring in fresh air, but on a cold winter day you want as little heat as possible to escape your cozy home. Even the best window is not as energy efficient as the minimum standard wall. Windows and doors are the primary source of both heat loss and gain in a home.

Consider these three factors when making design decisions about windows and doors for your new green home:

1. QUANTITY

You want to strike the right balance of natural light and ventilation without risking the chance of too much air leakage. Too many windows might allow too much solar gain, and too few will not allow enough natural light and ventilation.

2. PLACEMENT

To maximize solar gain in winter, more windows should be placed on the south side of the home, with fewer on the other sides. Consider where shade will fall on the south face during summer. Windows on the east and west offer less opportunity for shade control as the sun angle is so low in morning and late afternoon. Grouping windows together also helps reduce the opportunity for heat loss because it reduces the number of transitions between walls and windows.

3. SIZE

It may seem counterintuitive because the glass in a window
is thinner than the surrounding frame, but in most windows
the glass is actually thermally better than the frame, as the air between panes has an insulating effect. Also, the edge of the frame is a transition spot where air leakage and heat loss can occur. This means that having a few larger windows is better than having a lot of small windows if reducing heat loss is one of your goals.

A lot of factors come into play when deciding how many windows your new home should have, where they should be placed, and how large or small they should be. This is yet another case when an experienced architect can provide guidance for optimizing natural light and ventilation while balancing with energy efficiency.

What's Your Ratio? Your home's surface to volume ratio counts for more than just math!

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Last week we took a look at the how the number of surfaces (different planes, an abundance of corners, etc.) can impact a home's performance. In addition to the number of surfaces, the surface area-to-volume ratio is also an important consideration when building a green home. The more surface area a home has (the total area of the exterior walls, roof, and floors), the more opportunity there is for heat to escape or enter. Likewise, the higher the ratio, the greater the risk of loss.

The geometric shape that has the minimum surface area to volume is a sphere, but that’s hardly practical for a house. A cube is the most reasonable, compact shape for a home to minimize heat transfer. Of course, other factors come into play, such as optimizing glass area on the south-facing wall and ensuring that sufficient light can penetrate to the interior spaces, often making a rectangular shape more desirable than a cube. Plus, sloped roofs make more sense in regions that receive a lot of snow, such as New England.

The key is to strike the right balance between all of these factors to produce a green home that’s right for you and your building site. An architect with a background in green building can use sophisticated modeling tools to calculate how adjusting various factors, including surface area and volume, will impact the performance of the building.

To illustrate why this metric is so important, consider two shapes that have the same volume but a very dfferent surface area:

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Both a 10’x10’x10’ cube and a 10’x50’x2’ rectangle have a volume of 1,000 cubic feet, but the surface area is quite different. The cube’s surface area is 600 square feet and the rectangle’s is 1,240 square feet. That’s more than twice the opportunity for heat loss on the rectangular building. The rectangle in this example also requires more building materials for the walls, roof, slab, and flooring, which means a higher cost for the building.

Designing an Energy Efficient Home: Simple is Good

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If you are building a custom home, you have the freedom to implement the design features that suit your aesthetic and optimize the natural characteristics of the site in order to develop a structure that meets your needs while respecting the environment at the same time. 

A structure that is simpler will have fewer opportunities for failure than one that is more complex. In the context of a green home, failure primarily means air and/or water leaks. The more transitions a home has, such as corners and connections between the walls and roof, the more likely it is that unwanted water and air will be able to enter your home. Air leakage is a concern when building green homes because when warm air escapes to the colder outside air, mechanical systems have to work harder to maintain the desired temperature. The same is true when warm air comes into the house in summer and cooling systems have to run more frequently. This leads to more energy consumption, higher utility bills, and a bigger environmental footprint.

To reduce the chance for air leakage, the exterior of a green home should have no more than three to four roof planes and six to eight corners. To put it in visual terms, a cube or rectangle has four corners, an L-shaped building has six, and a U-shaped building has eight. Additional features like dormers and bay windows add more corners and roof planes, adding complexity and increasing the chance that warm air will leak out of your home.

It’s worth noting that simpler structures also cost less to build because fewer materials are required. So, you not only get the bene ts of long- term savings from less energy consumption, but you also save on construction costs.

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Site, Undisturbed: How to lessen your impact on a building site.

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Building a green home requires considering more than just the structure itself. Even the greenest home couldn’t be reasonably considered sustainable if you had to cut down an entire forest to build it and then covered half the site in an impervious parking area. This is an extreme example, but how much you need to disturb the site is a factor that must be weighed if your goal is to minimize your environmental impact. 7 

The greenest solution is to build on an area that has already been developed so that you don’t have to remove any additional plant life. However, this isn’t always possible. If your property has a lot of trees, think about ways you can position the house so that you have to cut down as few as possible. Can you use that wood in the construction of the home or for some other beneficial purpose? 

Think about all of the possible options for the placement of your new home and choose the one that requires the least amount of tree removal and blasting, while still allowing you to optimize the orientation and shading. 

Another factor to consider with respect to site disturbance is the amount of impervious surface you will create. Features like driveways and walkways are practically necessary, but you have the option to limit the space you will cover. You can also choose materials that allow water to penetrate into the ground, limiting runoff from your property.

Your home’s distance from the road will also impact site disturbance, especially if you will require a long driveway or significant digging to install utilities and other services.

Making the Grade: A couple quick considerations around site drainage & durability.

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Ensuring proper rainwater drainage on the site is critical for the longterm durability of your home. If water is allowed to flow into the house, you might face problems like damage to surfaces, hidden moisture in your walls, and eventually, mold growth. Of course, quality construction also plays a role in durability, but good drainage is the first step in avoiding these problems. Some of the factors that will play a role in drainage on a building site include:

• Soil type

• The presence of ledge

• The level of the water table

• Surface and subsurface water

• Slope shape and direction

In most cases you can overcome any drainage challenges the site presents with some combination of grading, sophisticated drainage techniques, and internal pumps. However, some of these solutions also come with a higher price tag for site work and require additional site disturbance.

Throwing Some Shade - Strategies for Striking a Healthy Balance of Sun and Shade

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Most homes do not sit on top of a barren hill without any surrounding landscape features. In reality, most sites are surrounded by buildings, mountains, trees, or other features that create shade. Where your home is positioned on the site and how it is oriented will impact how much sun reaches the house at different times throughout the year.

If you are trying to maximize solar gain in winter, you will want minimal shade on the south side so as much sunlight as possible can enter the space. This means avoiding situating the home where buildings or evergreen trees will block the light on the south side of the home. If you do want to take advantage of shade in summer, try to position the home so that mature, deciduous trees are on the south side to block the intense summer sun. When it comes time for their leaves to fall in the cooler months, they will not block sunlight when needed.

You can also build strategically sized roof overhangs to minimize solar heat gain in summer as the angle of the sun is much higher during these hotter months. A designer can determine the ideal length of your overhangs — or trellises — to block out just enough unwanted summer sun. Additionally, if too many windows are placed on the western face of the home, overheating in summer months will most certainly occur, even in New England, since the sun will be too low at that point to be blocked by a reasonably sized overhang.

If you plan to install rooftop solar panels, you also want to be sure that a sufficient roof area is not shaded so it can receive adequate sunlight all year long.

A BrightBuilt Home for (Almost) Every Apocalypse

Though we live in an increasingly polarized society, one of the few things that
we can all agree on is that the world is becoming more and more perilous, our
prospects are unsteady, and the future is impossible to predict. Between the real or imagined threats of climate change, nuclear war, and zombies, it’s sometimes difficult to see past the parade of horrifying news stories, devastating storms, and overzealous Second Coming preachers that batter us with their end-of- days prophecies. We don’t have to agree on how or when the world will end, but let’s be honest – we’re all wondering how we’ll get through it.

If you are hoping to build a new home, but are concerned that there may be no point in trying to survive the coming horrors, I have good news. BrightBuilt Home understands these concerns, and will work to create a home for you that can keep you and your family safe through (almost) any apocalypse.

 

Environmental Disaster

BrightBuilt Home was started as a way of mitigating the environmental destruction that is wrought everyday by the building industry. The intention is that every home is capable of supplying its own power, and as such, the homes are well insulated, air sealed, and equipped  with energy efficient systems designed to smooth out the whims of the weather and harness the ever more sinister power of the sun to ride out progressively more erratic winters. It’s like environmental Tai-Chi, with triple pane windows.

While you can’t predict typhoons in November, you can be sure that you will be cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and that the storms raging outside your window will seem quaint from inside your cozy BrightBuilt Home. Passive solar design will ensure that you collect as much heat as possible from the winter sun, while the summer sun is blocked from cooking you on your living room couch. Deep insulated walls have the dual effect of holding the temperature steady, and silencing the crack of thunder outdoors. Grow happy houseplants on your generous windowsills to distract from the tendrils of man-made desert drifting across your yard, and water them with our standard low-flow water fixtures.

Model to Choose: The Foxbird. Let’s face it, you’re probably going to die in
this house, so take life easy with single level living, firmly rooted to the good
earth.

Recommended Modification: Upgrade to a recycled fly ash siding. It’s
impervious to water, will hold its paint longer than wood siding, and won’t
rot.

 

Economic Collapse

With all the uncertainty in the world, it’s good to know that you will
never be surprised by your utility bill. When stocks are going crazy and a
gallon of milk costs $16, you don’t want to have to sell your youngest child to
keep the lights on. It might cost money to build your home, but remember
that when it really counts, it will be worth a herd of cattle, 5 dairy goats, 27
rolls of barbed wire, 3 boxes of shotgun shells, and a machete. That’s a
capital gain by any definition, right?

If everything else goes wrong, at least you and your family will be safe
and warm between scavenging trips. Remember that the ROI on smug
superiority is immediate.

Model to Choose: Vinalhaven. With plenty of square footage and 4-5
bedrooms, you will have lots of room to house your destitute children and
their offspring until they are 47, which is the average age that the next
generation is expected to move out of the basement.

Recommended Modification: Hold the utility at arms length with an ample
battery supply and break up with the grid when Wall Street gets too hairy.

 

Super Virus Rampage

Population keeps rising, and it’s only a matter of time before a super
virus sweeps through the unwashed masses, leaving a crippled economy and
decimated infrastructure in its wake. It’s a good thing that your impeccably
detailed home keeps you off the grid, and your filtered HRV keeps your air
clean. Leave crowded, contagious society behind, and when the virus has
passed, you’ll be the one left standing, albeit surrounded by the emaciated
corpses of former neighbors with less foresight.

Model to Choose: BrightBuilt Barn. You only need a small home to live that
isolationist lifestyle you’ve been dreaming of.

Recommended Modification: Upgrade to a medical grade filtration system. If there’s anyone  you want to take with you (provided they haven’t been infected yet) spring for the two bedroom model.

 

Zombies

Just because the world has been overrun with the shambling undead,
doesn’t mean you have to crouch in the dark behind boarded up windows,
whispering to your one companion about the next place to scavenge for
twinkies. In a BrightBuilt Home, you can talk with your outside voice. The
zombies can’t hear you, thanks to 10 inches of cellulose insulation, and that’s
good, because it means that you don’t have to listen to their pathetic
moaning. Relax in the ample natural day-lighting that is typical for passive
solar homes and pretend, while you enjoy the squirrel you caught for dinner,
that the world has not become a horror movie hell landscape.

Model to Choose: Great Diamond. With an optional finished attic space, you’ll
have a great vantage point for target practice.

Recommended Modification: Have your builder relocate your fresh air intake
near the roof so you don’t have to smell the rotting corpses of the walkers
you shot. Swapping the living space of the first floor with the bedrooms on
the 2nd floor will place your big windows high above the ground, which will
come in handy if you find yourself dealing with fast and mean 28 Days Later
zombies rather than the clumsy and slow Walking Dead variety.

 

Nuclear War

If you were under the impression that a nuclear apocalypse means certain
death, we have good news! When it comes to surviving nuclear attack,
location is everything, and with the right modifications, you can have the
dubious responsibility of repopulating the planet. BrightBuilt Homes are well
suited for modification into a bomb shelter. Sturdily built with hefty high
performance windows, they will withstand more heat and blast pressure
than most of the buildings around them, and the strength of the blast
decreases quickly the further you are from ground zero. Once the more
insidious radioactive fallout takes over as your primary risk, you can rely on
airtight construction and 24/7 air filtration to ensure you breathe easy. Build
at least 5 miles from any likely strike targets and plan to stay indoors for at
least 2 weeks.

Model to Choose: Bungalow. A low profile means the surrounding landscape
can offer you some protection from the initial blast, and a full basement
provides a great opportunity for that inner refuge where you can hide out for
those first few critical days.

Recommended Modification: The sun won’t shine much during nuclear
winter, so your solar panels won’t be much help until the dust settles. Opt for
a well-sealed high performance woodstove with its own intake air to keep
you cozy until the heat pumps come back on.

 

Remember, when discussing your construction budget with your BrightBuilt Project Manager, that garages, cinder block walls with broken glass toppers, razor wire fences, pointy stick barriers, decks, and porches are not included in the base pricing, and will require additional estimating by your builder.

With a BrightBuilt Home as your base of operations, your chances of outlasting whatever is coming are greatly increased, and nothing beats the peace of mind of knowing that you will probably survive an imaginary future catastrophe. Give us a call to get started, and whisper “the sky is falling” repeatedly into the receiver until you are transferred to the individual who wrote this post.

Setting Your Sights on the Right Site: The Importance of House Orientation

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You’re building a new home. You don’t want to just plop it down anywhere on your property. You want to put it in the place that provides the best scenic view, looks the most appealing as you approach, and hopefully has the smallest environmental impact. Deciding on the orientation of the building requires taking all of these factors, and more, into consideration.

The sun is a free source of heat and energy; the more you can do to harness its natural power, the greener your home will be. Allowing sunlight to enter the building and naturally warm up the space allows you to use less energy for heating during the colder months. Research has shown that orienting a home to maximize solar gain can save 10-40% on heating costs. This not only means that you are spending less money and living more comfortably, it also means you are consuming less energy, reducing your environmental footprint, and benefiting from natural light throughout the day. That’s a pretty good return for a decision that typically costs zero dollars to implement.

The best way to orient a house in New England is with one of the longer sides facing primarily south to allow the maximum amount of low winter sun to shine in. If you plan to install rooftop solar panels, either now or in the future, it is also important to make sure that one of the roof planes faces south. In a home that is basically rectangular, the combination of these two factors makes an orientation with the ridgeline going from east to west the most sensible solution. 

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Use the Right Stuff: Material and Mechanical Considerations for an Eco-friendly Home

Good design and construction will help you improve efficiency by limiting the amount of heat that can transfer through the exterior, but a good green home also takes usage into consideration. Your home has a long life span. Start it off right with sustainable systems and materials that enable you to keep your environmental footprint small while still living comfortably in the modern world.

  Eco-friendly options are almost always available and have become equal or nearly equal in cost...

Eco-friendly options are almost always available and have become equal or nearly equal in cost...

MATERIALS

Building elements are made up of all sorts of materials, and some are more eco-friendly than others. In addition to having a negative environmental impact, poor quality building materials can also affect your indoor air quality and the healthiness of your home. 

Make sure your builder uses materials that are labeled no- or low-VOC and do not have added formaldehyde. Some of the materials that might have unwanted toxins include:

  • Insulation
  • Adhesives
  • Sealants
  • Caulk
  • Flooring
  • Carpet
  • Countertops
  • Plywood
  • Sheathing
  • Paint and polyurethane 

Eco-friendly options are almost always available and have become equal or nearly equal in cost, but if your builder doesn’t know that it is important to you, they might use whatever they have on hand or the cheapest option.

PLUMBING

Water consumption is an important part of living a sustainable lifestyle. Low-flow fixtures and toilets help reduce water use during daily activities like washing dishes and showering. Virtually all major manufacturers offer low-flow solutions so you can choose from a broad range of fixtures to match your style. The technology has improved over the years so most of the time you aren’t even aware that you are conserving water. 

Water reclamation systems that reclaim greywater from sinks, dishwashers, tubs, and showers are a great way to conserve water, especially in areas that are subject to drought. However, these systems tend not to be cost-effective in New England because water shortages are rarely a problem. Of course, water conservation is always a good practice, so if you want to invest in these systems it is always an option. 

APPLIANCES

Energy Star is the benchmark for energy efficient appliances in the United States and it is not difficult to find a broad range of options from almost every manufacturer. Although Energy Star appliances sometimes cost more to purchase, they will save you money on utility costs over the life of the equipment, and you can sometimes immediately save with local and national rebate programs. 

Energy Star certifies almost every type of appliance, some types of building products, and various electronics. Many people choose Energy Star for major kitchen appliances like refrigerators and dishwashers, but do not necessarily think about other certified products, such as: 

  • Air purifiers
  • Televisions
  • Telephones
  • Heat pumps
  • Ventilation fans
  • Ceiling fans
  • Light fixtures and bulbs
  • Computers and peripherals
  • Water heaters
  • Washing machines 

A notable exception is that Energy Star does not currently certify residential ovens, ranges, and microwaves. 

LIGHTING

The humble light bulb has come a long way since its invention. Modern bulbs are designed to consume considerably less energy while producing the same amount of light and lasting substantially longer. Recent improvements in light quality and the ability to dim have made non-incandescent bulbs a viable option in virtually any setting. Energy efficient alternatives to traditional incandescent bulbs include compact fluorescent (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED) light bulbs. They might come with a slightly higher price tag in the immediate future, but they can last for years and will help you save significantly on utility costs. 

MECHANICAL SYSTEMS

After you have created a super tight home with air sealing, thick walls, and added insulation, it’s important to ventilate it properly. Natural ventilation, which is achieved by simply opening the windows, is best because it allows stale air to flow out and fresh air to regularly flow in without requiring any energy. However, if you live in New England you know that natural ventilation is not possible in the wintertime and can bring in unwanted humidity in the summer months. The solution is mechanical ventilation. Traditionally, home ventilation has been managed with familiar systems like exhaust fans in the kitchens and baths. Today, improved ventilation technology is also available, such as heat recovery ventilators (HRV) or energy recovery ventilators (ERV). 

Exhaust fans remove stale, moist air from the bathroom after showering and from the kitchen while cooking, but as you do this, air is pulled in from the outside through all the remaining holes in your house, wherever they may be. HRVs and ERVs bring in fresh air from the outside in a very controlled way and pass it through a heat exchanger that transfers heat from the conditioned indoor air that is being expelled. This allows you to get fresh air in your home from a safe source without using a lot of energy to bring it to the desired temperature. 

Heating and cooling mechanical systems are also important for any home. In a green home, you want these systems to consume as little energy as possible without sacrificing comfort. A tightly sealed home that is properly insulated requires much less heat input to keep it comfortable because all of the warm air stays in the home and does not escape through cracks and gaps. A lower heat load means that you can use smaller, more efficient systems (such as a triple-efficient electric heat pump) instead of an oversized fossil fuel burning furnace. 

Heat pumps work in the winter by transferring heat from the outside air to the air inside your home. In summer the process reverses and heat is transferred out of your home to the air outside. You get the benefits of heating and cooling with one system, which means you don’t have to purchase an air conditioner to feel comfortable on the occasional hot summer day in New England. Heat pumps also cost less to run than standard electric heating systems or furnaces.

5 Reasons to Consider An In-Law Flat on Your Property

A lot has been written lately about the rise of intergenerational households. In this country it is commonly presented as a growing problem, as it is caused at least in part by reduced retirement security and adult children who wait longer to leave the nest than in the past. As much of the rest of the world has demonstrated, however, there are plenty of reasons why it makes good sense to combine households. If you are in a position to join households with your in-laws, you will likely find that everyone benefits from the arrangement. 

If you know it would be a good thing to cohabitate with the wiser generation, but want to hold on to the bliss of your own personal space, Accessory Dwelling Units are the way to go, and if you really want to do it right, make it a super-insulated airtight In-Law Flat. There are a number of reasons you’ll be glad you did.

1. It’s Nice To Get A Little Help

It’s not uncommon for grandparents to provide quite a bit of assistance when it comes to raising children, and studies have shown that being involved with children and grandchildren during their twilight years can go a long way towards improving their quality of life and preventing dementia. It’s great for children to have grandparents around to play with and learn from, and how wonderful would it be to have an extra pair of hands around when the proverbial diaper hits the fan? It’s a win-win-win situation for everyone involved, really. It will be much easier, in the event of a medical emergency, to help and care for parents if they already share your home. It could also be nice to have an extra set of hands for household projects, and there is a good chance that your in-laws possess expertise you do not that they’d be willing to pass down. 

2. But We All Need Space

This is America, after all. We love our wide open spaces. If there are a lot of reasons why it makes sense to bring the ‘rents on board, there are just as many reasons that you need your home to yourself.

For example, everyone operates on a different morning schedule. What are you supposed to do when you wake up for your morning coffee only to be forcibly engaged in conversation about the weather? You can’t discuss anything until you’re at least one cup in, but explaining this will get you nowhere.

While we’re at it, let’s not forget about the kitchen. The forever embattled kitchen. Whose turn is it to do the dishes? Not yours, you’re sure of it. Somehow, everyone will think that they ALWAYS do the dishes, and we are not here to argue. The fact is that however much you want someone else to do the dishes, you will be very annoyed by however they choose to go about it. Your parents spent years doing your dishes – let them off the hook, and give them their own kitchen.

3.  Save The Trip To Florida

Your mother-in-law is always cold. What gives it away? She’s wearing three sweaters and a hat, huddled under a blanket in your living room pretending she’s fine but managing to evoke without words a terrible guilt in your heart for freezing the poor lady to death. The truth is that her house is cold too, because your Father-in-law is constantly turning down the thermostat.

Imagine that they live just a few yards away in a compact dwelling that is so well tuned to the demands of winter that it always feels warm. She can take a few short steps to her own home, shed the layers, and sit down to her knitting or her crossword puzzle next to a bright and sunny window where no draft penetrates, with a wide sill large enough for her ancient Christmas cactus to live comfortably, you know, the one she inherited from her grandmother. You might, in time, find it difficult to lure her out into to the biting cold to make the journey to your corner of the property. Indeed, she may start inviting you over to her house – it’s warmer than yours, and she’ll bake you cookies.  It’ll be like coming home from college.

“Ah,” You say, “but what will stop dad from turning the thermostat down in the new home? “

Nothing. He can turn it down as far as he wants, but he can’t force hot air to leave that house any faster.  It’ll be days before she notices what he’s done, especially if the sun comes out to shine some free heat through the triple glazed windows. In the interim, there will be no arguments about the thermostat.

4. Thick Walls Bring Sweet, Sweet Silence

You may have noticed over the years that you have found yourself repeating phrases to your father more and more often, a gradual increase that seemed innocent enough until you found yourself yelling at the top of your lungs, “YOUR APPOINTMENT IS ON THURSDAY. APP-OINT-MENT. THURRRSDAAAAAAY.” This is a small price to pay for the joy of human connection and familial bonds, but the sound of M.A.S.H. playing at a volume that vibrates framed photos of grandkids off the mantelpiece will get old, eventually.

On the flip side, let’s not pretend that after all they have accomplished in their lives, your in-laws are eager to settle down to a relaxing retirement of shrieking toddlers, punk rock music, and the constant growl of a blender churning out organic green smoothies. 

Fortunately, the quaint cottage they inhabit is way better than cramming themselves into the spare corners of your home. As previously discussed, they will be more comfortable, have more freedom to decorate according to their own stylistic whims, and they won’t be picking up after you, which will do wonders for the ol’ hip. Best of all, the thick and densely insulated walls of the accessory unit will do a great job of ensuring that the only racket anyone has to listen to is their own.

5. Fiscal Responsibility Makes Dad (and Mom) Proud

Setting up an accessory dwelling unit for your in-laws is a great fiscal choice in terms of household management, but as with all things, you will need to convince your father-in-law of this, and as it is sometimes difficult to place a monetary value on creature comforts like warmth, fresh air, and sanity, it may be that your argument doesn’t quite conform to his spreadsheet of expenditures and compounding interest. That’s okay, because next to his sleek white Tesla Powerwall is a power monitoring readout.  If you can’t assign a dollar value to the psychological benefit of ample daylight, you certainly can price out a Kilowatt. Even better, he can watch those dollars as they are sucked from thin air into the battery, and then log in online and see a bar graph of how the home is performing. He can view the information by day, month or year. He can probably export a spreadsheet and bring it to dinner on Sunday night, and explain to you how it all works.

As you can see, there’s no downside. BrightBuilt Home’s In-Law-Flat is efficiently designed and obsessively detailed for maximum performance.  Give us a call, and let’s make this happen!

Foundation to Finish — in Just a Few Minutes!

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Watch everything come together in this Exciting Time-Lapse Video

Ever wonder how exactly our homes get built? Been curious to understand the crane-lift-set process?  With the help of this home's technically savvy homeowner, we bring you a time-lapse perspective of the on-site assembly of our off-site built modules.

You'll have a chance to watch the entire home come together -  from the pre-poured foundation, to the final roof shingles, and the final product after siding was installed and decks were built.  Every time we see one of these sets, we are in awe of the condensed time and the impressive skill of the crane drivers and assembly team! 

How to Know if your In-Law Flat is a Go: Deciphering your town’s zoning laws for accessory dwelling units

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Ever since we came out with the In-Law Flat and Guesthouse, a number of our respective Mother-In-Laws have been dropping hints that they’d love to set one up in our (respective) backyards. It’s a compelling idea for a lot of reasons, and some of us do have some space on our lots for potential expansion, but questions abound. Do the lots suffice for an accessory structure? Does the town permit ADUs, and under what conditions?  Are cookies and free childcare implied in the arrangement?

If you’ve ever investigated your city or town’s rules about what you may or may not build, how you should build it, and whether you need a permit, you know that government websites can sometimes be difficult to navigate, and that code language is, at best, opaque. This is further complicated by the fact that every town organizes their website and the information found therein somewhat… shall we say… uniquely? Yes, let’s say that.

Fortunately, we’ve spent many a day with our noses buried in some town’s zoning ordinance, have developed something of a workflow to find what we need quickly, and are happy to do our part to demystify the process for you.  Here, we walk you through navigating your town’s website to find answers, and present 5 case study examples to further paint the picture.  If you live in Yarmouth, ME, Brunswick, ME, Worcester, MA, Portsmouth, NH, or New Haven, CT, it’s your lucky day!  We’ve helped you get a head start.

 

Step One: Find your town’s website

This is, arguably the easiest step. If you are an avid googler, this next statement will come across as elementary, but for the folks who are still trying to figure out how the cats get through the Internet tubes, here is our foolproof search term algorithm.  Google [town or city] of [name of town], [state], website. For example, “City of Portland, ME, website.” The first result will almost always be the one you want.

 

Step Two: Find the Planning and Development Department section of the website. 

Typically there will be a link or drop-down menu called “Departments.” You will be looking for a department called Planning and Development, Code Enforcement, or Building and Zoning. There is no standardized term that every town will use, but the department you want has some combination of these words. 

 

Step Three: Identify the appropriate files

Once you have found the appropriate department, you will be looking for these key words: CEO or Code Enforcement Officer, Zoning Map, Codes, Ordinances, Design Standards, Charter. You may need to click on a few of these to find what you need, but you are trying to find contact information for the Code Enforcement Officer, a map that indicates what building or planning zone in which your home is located, and the comprehensive development plan that will describe what types of buildings are permitted in each zone, as well as the rules that govern how they are built. 

If you want, you can stop here. You have the CEO’s contact information, and you can write or call them with your questions. Some will be more open than others, and some will simply link you directly to the files you need. Our preference is to come into that conversation with at least the illusion that we have made an attempt to find the answers we are seeking, and we find that this also helps start things off on the right foot.  If you’re of a similar disposition, read on!

 

Step Four: Find your property on the zoning map.

This can be very easy or very hard, depending on your town’s participation in 21st century.  You may find that your zoning map is a PDF file, or a number of PDF files, with bright blocks of color and no street names.  If this is the case, Google Maps is your friend, and rivers, railway tracks, and major transportation routes will provide the patterns you need to locate your plot. Alternatively, you may find that your town has provided you with an interactive online map that you can search by address and select the layers of information you want to see. If this is you, do a fist pump, whisper “yesssssss” and select “zones” for the map overlay.  Take note of your zone and its abbreviation.

 

Step Five: Track down that elusive ordinance file

Locating the correct zoning ordinance file is arguably the most difficult, but you can do it. It will be called “Zoning” or “Ordinance” or “Charter,” and unless you live in a very small town, it will be at least a hundred pages long (Portland’s is 944 pages long). If you’ve opened a file and you’re not sure if it’s the right one, check out the table of contents. There should be references to different zones or districts both residential and commercial, wetland or open space preservation, building permits, and definitions. At the top should be the date the ordinance was adopted or amended– make sure it’s within the last few years. If you value your sanity, don’t try to read it. 

 

Step Six: Find the Definitions. 

Usually they’re at the beginning, but sometimes at the end, and they are arguably the easiest part of the document to comprehend.  In this case, your goal is to find out whether your town has made provisions for accessory dwelling units in the code, and if so, what term the town is using to discuss them.  Alternative terms are “accessory apartment” or “efficiency unit”, and it’s very possible that your town has found some other word to describe it.  Your task is to learn what terminology will help you find the rules that govern building an ADU.

 

Step Seven: Locate your search term in the document

If you are using a Mac, hit Command + F.  On a Windows machine, Ctrl + F. A little search window will pop up at the top of your screen.  Type in the term your town uses for Accessory Dwelling Units. That little window is your gateway. As you click the little down arrow, it will bring you to each mention of your search term, highlighted, so you can read what it has to say about your term. You will find that unrelated instances of the word pop up, or that there are several sections that seem to contradict each other regarding your search term.  Simply scroll far enough through to get some context – you will probably find that it describes your term for each zoning district. Ignore the ones that aren’t your zone. They have nothing to say to you and their opinions don’t matter. Takes notes on your understanding of the rules as they pertain to ADU’s in your zone, then move on to the next step.

 

Step Eight: Verify your findings with your local expert

Go back to the department landing page and find the CEO’s contact information.  Write a polite email describing what zone you’re in, what you want to build, and your understanding of what you have found in the building code. Ask them to confirm your interpretation, and guide you to any documents, amendments, or specific portions of the code that might provide further clarity.

 

Congratulations! You made it!

 

To help give you some context for how your own research might go, we used this method to research ADU requirements in 5 communities. What we found is listed below.

 

Yarmouth, ME

·      “Accessory Dwelling Units” (ADUs) are allowed in Village Center, Village Residential, and Farm and Forest districts, but not in Resource Protection or Shoreland Zoning.  They must comply with all of the existing lot size and setback requirements as defined for each of those respective zones.

·      An ADU may be no more than 1 bedroom and 40% of the living area of the primary dwelling on the property.  There may only be one ADU.

·      The CEO will require certification that the ADU will not overtax the existing wastewater disposal system

·      The owner of the property must live on the property, either in the primary dwelling or in the ADU.

 

Brunswick, ME

·      “Accessory Apartments” are permitted in all residential districts

·      May be no larger than 750 square feet or 35% of the primary dwelling’s living area, whichever is largest.  The limit is one per lot.

·      No front façade of an existing residential structure may be altered for the construction of the ADU

 

Worcester, MA

·      Accessory Dwelling Units are not defined in the code in any way, and there is no section that deals specifically with building a stand-alone second dwelling on a property.

·      We emailed the CEO, who directed us to a section about Residential Conversions, which allows a maximum of two dwellings per lot, requires the usual setback and yard requirements be respected, and forbids alteration of the external appearance of the primary dwelling.  This seems to translate to building an independent living space into an existing home, such as a basement suite, though it is not well described.

·      A second section concerning “Cluster Groups of Single Family Dwellings” appears to be geared toward small development, and may or may not apply to ADU’s.

 

Portsmouth, NH

·      Attached and detached accessory dwelling units (AADU and DADU, respectively), require a conditional use permit, and have a max of one per lot.

·      The owner must live on the property, and may operate a business out of the dwelling they occupy – You can’t build an ADU for the purposes of running a business.

·      No more than 2 bedrooms and 750 square feet are allowed

·      If attached, it must appear to be part of the primary dwelling, and if it has a separate entry, it must be clearly secondary.

·      If detached, it must be separated by at least 20 feet from the primary dwelling.

·      If detached and the lot is more than 2 acres, the ADU may be up to 1000 square feet.

·      All setback and yard requirements for the lot must be met.

 

New Haven, CT

·      “Efficiency Units” require a minimum lot area which varies according to zone

·      There must be one parking space per dwelling unit.

·      The primary dwelling unit and accessory dwelling unit may not occupy more than 30% of the lot

·      There are provisions for “Elderly Units” but it is unclear from the code whether this is intended for larger communities of elderly housing or owners of single family dwellings wishing to house a loved one.

 

Overall, there are a couple of themes that run throughout our research. For the most part, it is important that the ADU is only constructed on a lot where the owner resides, and that the ADU is not of overwhelming size or contrary to the appearance of the primary home. Generally speaking, when planning an ADU it is a good idea to make sure that it complies with the existing requirements for setbacks in the appropriate zoning district. You can learn about the setbacks on your property using the search strategy I outlined above, paying special attention to the particular zone in which your property is located.

 

Crowdsourcing Fun!

If you decide to take a crack at learning about your town, we would love to hear how you made out. Was the information above helpful? Did you get in touch with your CEO? Did you learn anything surprising about your town?  For example, we happened across a rule in Worcester stipulating that the only birds you are allowed to keep on your property (excepting household pets) are Carrier Pigeons. If you let us know what you find, we’ll share the most intriguing, most useful, and most confounding!

 

This blog post has been brought to you by Kai Fast, one of BrightBuilt’s crackerjack project coordinators, and blog-writer extraordinaire.

Six tips when considering a HELOC for Home Renovations [or an In-Law Flat!]

The following blog post first appeared in The Richter Group at Keller Williams' February Newsletter.  Our heartfelt thanks to them for letting us share it with you! 

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Homeowners looking to undertake home renovations [or built a new In-Law Flat and Guesthouse] can often use a home equity line of credit or HELOC to finance their projects. Here are six quick tips on how to shop for and manage a HELOC:

Shop around. Comparison shop to get the best rate.

Ask about the margin. If you're offered a rate that's lower than the competition, it's probably just an introductory rate, so ask about the lender's margin. For example, if the introductory rate is 3.5 percent and your lender's margin is 2 percent, your final interest rate will be 5.5 percent.

Consider a conversion clause. Some HELOCs allow you to convert a variable interest rate to a fixed rate, usually during the draw period (5-10 years).

Watch out for balloon payments. Balloon payments mean that you must pay the balance in full when the draw period is up. Do not choose this option unless you have the financial means to handle it.

Create a family plan. Decide what the money will be used for and who will handle the funds. Keep in mind, you can lose your home if the HELOC is not handled properly. Create a payback plan. Come up with a reasonable plan for how the loan will be paid back.

BrightBuilt Home Press Release

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Have you been watching the latest developments on accessory dwelling units? You might be interested in an exciting new offering that we’re rolling out here at BrightBuilt Home. We are officially announcing our new In-Law Flat and Guesthouse, as a featured addition to our current zero energy homes portfolio. With this home, we aim to meet new demands for accessory housing, and help current homeowners expand their options for housing family members, creating rental income, and creating opportunities for aging in place. 

As you may know, this has become a popular topic nationwide.  The National Building Museum in Washington, DC, for example, is currently featuring an exhibit around the shifting demographics of America - and the corresponding housing needs that are evolving around these shifts.  Other stories around accessory housing have also been emerging of late, including City Lab’s look into trends that address a dearth in rental options, the City of Boston’s newly launched pilot program around Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), Curbed’s look at the urban housing crisis, and NPR’s coverage of how ADU’s are helping keep Portland, Oregon’s housing affordable.  

Given this level of attention toward finding solutions for multi-generational living, short term rentals, and long term rental demands, we believe your audience may be very interested in this announcement. 

The attached Press Release (click here to download PDF) tells the story of this exciting new addition to our work (body of the press release also copied below).

Please do not hesitate to follow up with any questions or for further clarification. Thank you. 


Open House in Cumberland, ME

Open house in Cumberland, Maine!
Sunday, February 11th, 10:00a - 1:00p

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rsvp: https://goo.gl/forms/ryJXqnYi0tOtPDuV2

If you missed the chance to see this BrightBuilt Home under construction in December, or if you want a chance to see it again now that it's done, please mark your calendar!

This home is a custom variation on our Cushing design, and is perfectly suited to the active family who will soon be calling it home.

This particular Cushing comprises of 4 bedrooms, 3 baths, an open concept living-dining-kitchen area bathed in sunlight all day long, a walk-in pantry, and a generous mudroom for a total of 2300 square feet of finished living area, plus a full basement, a spacious heated workshop, and generous 2 car garage!

rsvp: https://goo.gl/forms/ryJXqnYi0tOtPDuV2