our house 2

Phase Two again began with demolition. The proposed changes to the existing ranch portion of the house were so extensive that a full gut down to the studs made sense. For the insulation, I obtained a large quantity of salvaged rigid foam sheets that I installed between the studs and rafters, followed by cellulose, and again I strapped the interior walls to reduce thermal bridging. Cutting and foaming the sheets in place was a labor intensive process, fitting for a D-I-Y project. The previous owner had built a 2nd roof over the original, extending the eaves almost 4ft beyond the walls. This had created a dark interior, so we cut back the eaves for more daylight, and installed gutters with the intention of rain collection— one of the details that never got built.

In the renovation phase we sought to match the level of insulation and air-tightness that we established for the addition. That meant new triple-glazed windows and meticulous air sealing. This was before I became familiar with rigorous Passive House standard, but we did achieve ~1.0 ACH at 50cfm, very tight for renovation work. As I mentioned in Part 1, we re-used the hot water radiant distribution system, although ended up re-doing much of it. Due to the layout, ducted air distribution would have been complicated and was not so appealing to us. Heat pump technology at the time was not as well known or as efficient in cold climates as it is today. So the house is a somewhat of a hybrid— much better than typical construction, but missing the advantage of heat pump technology. Compared to fossil fuels with an efficiency of 0.8-0.95, heat pump efficiency can range between 2-3. That’s energy output 2-3 times the input, the miracle of the heat pump cycle. At a certain moment in the D-I-Y process one surrenders, with the intention of completing the finish work while living there. And so, after 4-5 years of construction, we finally moved in.

At first we all shared the kitchen duties, but with four adults, three kids, and all our different schedules, the logistics of meal prep and dining were challenging. In the meantime our older daughter had become a dedicated food writer, which meant she needed her own kitchen. Open living spaces were also challenging, with late night sound carrying through to early sleepers. We installed a massive sound curtain to divide the space and provide some relief, but it was not an ideal solution. Inherent in the plan was the potential for a permanent spatial divide, so after 2 years living as an extended family, we put up a wall, built a 2nd kitchen and created a two-family home. This arrangement has proved to be a good solution for us, with each family able to live its own life yet benefit from our proximity. In hindsight it seems obvious that we’d need that independence, but our original concept was rooted in the communal experiences of my wife and older daughter. Nor did we have a full time matriarch to provide all the meals, which seems to be the way for extended families in traditional cultures.

For those considering building or renovating a home, I’d summarize some of the lessons learned as follows: Be realistic regarding your D-I-Y ability and commitment. The potential for saving money might not be as great as you imagine. Do you really want to spend all your free time working on the house? Living in an unfinished project has its charm, but it can also drag on. For energy efficiency consider a cost/benefit analysis including insulation, air-tightness, heat pump and ventilation technology, and energy use over the long haul. Decide on the complete strategy/package up front, even if the work will be phased. Fully estimate all the work in advance, with input from contractors and the trades. Consider the adaptability of the plan to various future scenarios including expansion and contraction of spatial needs, , such as a granny flat, rental apartment or AirBnB suite.

Ours is a particular circumstance, yet one day, as is true of all homes, the project will change hands. Character and uniqueness are great attributes, yet so is a general adaptability to changing needs and living arrangements. Much of these lessons learned are easier said than followed, and had they been quoted to me before I started I’d probably have shrugged them off. Not that it has dampened my love for design and making things, but it did illustrate how building one’s own home can eat up more attention and resources than one might want to feed it. I chalk that up as good experience for someone in the business of helping others through that process.

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