Green Building: Tom’s Story

Can we build a green and healthy home addition (and remodel some of our existing house) in Madison for no more than it would cost to do a traditional addition and remodel? That is the challenge that the Eggert family tackled.

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1. The Challenge

With four children and two dogs in a 1960 ranch house on the southwest side of Madison, it had become evident that it was time to add more space.  Our paramount need was an additional bathroom.  Continuing to survive with one bathroom was becoming more and more difficult.  In addition, the boys (ages 10 and 12) continue to share a bedroom that was too small to have both beds on the floor.  They each needed their own bedroom and space to spread out in.  In addition, Tom and Joan needed an additional closet for Tom’s clothes, so he didn’t need to go into the boys’ room every morning to get clothes out of their closet.

2. The Design

The solution was to add a family room and a master bedroom/bath suite.  Many configurations for this addition were developed by the award winning design firm Crescendo Design.  Crescendo Design, with offices near Manitowoc, and in Madison, specializes in energy efficient, green residential design.  They established their green credentials by entering William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle home design competition and having their design chosen as one of those that would be built.

Crescendo Design developed several ideas for us.  The design that we liked the most, and which ultimately met all of the design criteria that we set, was a two story addition, with the family room on the first floor and the master bedroom suite on the second floor.  This addition will extend a 200 ft2 addition that was put on 20 years ago and additional 22 feet out into our back yard.  The addition will essentially make the ranch house into a “T”.  From the cul de sac that we live on, you will see the front of the ranch, then rising up over the ridge of the roof will be the second story of the addition.

The addition will add 484 square feet on each floor (the addition will be 22 x 22), for a total addition of 968 ft2.  The total size of the house at completion will be a bit over 2400 ft2.

A two story addition with standard 8 foot ceilings requires less energy to heat and cool than a one story addition that is spread over a larger area.  A two story addition is also cheaper to build.  By building an absolutely square addition, we have minimized the ratio of wall area to floor area, which should result in the lowest amount of energy needed to adequately heat and cool the structure.

The addition will be oriented so that the end of the addition faces due west and the majority of the windows will face due south.  The stairs will be located on the north wall, and only one small non-operable window is planned on the north wall.  All south and west facing windows will be operable, so as to take advantage of the prevailing south-westerly breezes in Madison.  This is designed to reduce cooling costs.

By building a two story box (22 feet by 22 feet) we simplified the construction and minimized the construction costs.  The result is open, bright rooms in the house.  In addition to adding space, we also remodeled a good share of our existing space.  The kitchen now looks out into the family room, and part of the kitchen was converted to a pantry.  The existing living room was converted into an office/library, creating a quiet space for family members to go to study, work on the computer, read, etc.  The entrance hallway was converted into a foyer, and one existing closet was expanded and a new closet was added.  In essence, we changed the look of the house from the moment someone walks in.

3. Green Building Guidelines

When we decided to build a green addition, we looked at what was available to help us in making appropriate decisions.  There is a new LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-H standard (H standing for Home), but it was developed for new construction, and was still just being piloted.  In addition, there just wasn’t as much detail in the LEED-H standard as we were looking for.  We also considered the American Lung Association’s Health House guidelines, but again, the guidelines were more appropriate for a new construction.  Energy Star also offers an Energy Star Home designation (the home needs to be 30% more energy efficient than a 1993 home), but without major changes to the existing furnace, air conditioner and kitchen appliances, it did not look like we would qualify.

We settled on the Green Built Home program, a program of the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative (and implemented in partnership with the Madison Area Builders Association).  The comprehensive checklists for an addition/remodel were exactly what we were looking for!  Out of a total of roughly 300 points, an addition needed at least 60 points to be certified as a Green Built Home.  We found out from Nathan Engstrom, Green Built Home’s Program Director, that the highest scoring house had scored 174 points, and the highest scoring addition had scored 97 points.   Our initial goal was to get at least 50% more than the minimum that we needed.

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4. Financing

We sought financing in the traditional way – by calling banks, credit unions, savings and loans, etc.  We found that lenders interested in keeping our loan in-house were more flexible and offered us better rates.  We were set to take out a loan with Johnson Bank, when Tom heard about Home Savings Bank’s support for green building.  He worked with Jim Bradley, president of the bank, who created a new class of loans that would be held at the bank.  Jim also shaved a quarter point off the interest rate of the loan, virtually eliminated the closing costs, and provided the home registration fee for the Green Built Home program.  In addition, Jim was interested in the progress of the house.

5. Builders

The Green Built Home checklists were also extremely valuable because of the relative absence of experience among the contractors that did home additions and remodels.  Once we had our design in hand, we used the Green Built Home list of builders (http://www.greenbuilthome.org/owner/findabuilder.php) to narrow down our options.  We contacted Carl’s Carpentry, Associated Housewrights and Holley Schink Design Builders.   A representative of each came to our house to meet with us.  We provided the design that we had, and specified our budget.  Each promised to come back with a bid.  We never received a bid from Carl’s Carpentry, and Associated Housewrights told us that they could not do the construction that we envisioned on the budget that we established.  We had not heard back from Holley Schink, so I contacted Roger Schink again to ask him for a bid, and also contacted Degnan Design Builders to see about getting a bid.  Abe Degnan was interested in the work, but was booked for at least 6 months.

Roger Schink was the only builder to send a team of people over to gather the information needed to prepare an adequate bid.  I met with Roger and Karl, a young protégé of Roger’s, at the house in late March.  In addition to the two of them, they brought along Jory (their main carpenter- and the person that we saw and got to know the best during the project), Mark Geller from Flooring Design, their electrician, the heating and air conditioning sub-contractor, the excavation sub-contractor, and probably some others.  Jory even went up into the attic to determine how they would connect the addition to the existing house.

Not surprisingly, Roger Schink came back with a very comprehensive bid.  We were over budget by less than 20%, and we were optimistic that we could find a way to narrow that difference.  More importantly, we felt very, very comfortable with Roger.  We felt that we could trust him to do high quality work and that he shared our vision for what we wanted to do with the house.  This was an important point to us.  We liked Roger; we felt his commitment to building a home that we would like was important.  We had heard many stories about people fighting with their builders over little details, and we did not want to do that.  We wanted someone that we could work with, that we could trust.  Roger was not only open to that, he welcomed the help on questions around what are the green options we should be considering.

6. The Contract

He presented us with a very detailed and comprehensive contract for the addition.  We worked on the language of this contract for less than two weeks, and settled on a document that was comprehensive, yet also flexible and based on trust.  Roger assured us that he would build us a house that we would love, and that we could trust him to work through issues that would arise.  We started out the contract with the joint commitment to score as many points as possible on the Green Built Home checklist.  (I had originally asked them to commit to scoring at least 90 points – which would have been 50% more than the minimum needed to qualify as a Green Built Addition – but Roger preferred to leave this open, and because we were convinced that they shared our commitment to building green and healthy, we did not include a specific score in the contract.)

We did include some other things in the contract that we felt were important.  I tried to address how we would handle rain (the language that was included was inadequate and not helpful.  Rather, when we did encounter rain, Roger asked us when we were comfortable proceeding again) (More on this later).  We did lay out things like the radiant heating system that we wanted, the type of air conditioner, the type of fireplace, etc.  We also recognized that there were some potential expenses that were outside the parameters of the contract.  This included such things as replacing the existing patio door, adding French doors in the old living room, and turning the old living room into a library.  We also agreed to put all change orders down in writing, so that we all knew where we were as we moved forward.

As part of Roger’s bid, he agreed to take the design drawings prepared by Crescendo Design and produce detailed drawings that would be needed to get a building permit.  These drawings also showed how the house would be framed and provided more precise measurements as would be needed for construction.

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7. Beginning Construction

We were to break ground on April 10th.  In order to prepare for ground-breaking, Diggers Hotline was called to map out where existing electrical lines were run and gas piping was done.  They provided some very bad news the week before we were to break ground.  Running directly across the area where the foundation for the addition was to go were our electrical lines.  For just over $1500 they were willing to move the lines, but it would be a month before they would be able to free up a crew to do this.

We looked for options, and discovered that if the electrician installed a 200 amp panel (we were planning on upgrading our 100 amp panel in the garage) in the basement on the side of the house closest to the electrical feed, we would be able to abandon the line across the back yard.  The electrician was available the day we were to have broken ground to do the necessary internal rewiring and to install a temporary power pole on the outside of the house.  However, this was an unanticipated expense and added an additional $1200 on to our contract.

Since we did not have any other option, unless we wanted to wait a month, we jumped at this chance.  MG&E would still come in a month (it was closer to two months before they finally showed up) to convert the temporary above ground wiring to underground wiring, but we could proceed with groundbreaking.  (They charged us plenty for burying the six feet of line that was left, but we could not get around that.)

Thus, April 17th marked the official start of work on the house.  The electrician showed up unexpectedly at 7:30am.  He installed the new panel, put in a temporary power pole and prepared the new panel for the additional demands of the addition.

One other, unexpected, complication arose before groundbreaking.  A Ponderosa Pine that was growing on the side of the house needed to be removed.  The excavator felt that he would not be able to get his equipment into the backyard if the tree stayed.  So, we had the tree cut down, but replaced the tree with a beautiful Korean Maple Tree which we planted in the backyard.

8. The Project Team

Official groundbreaking was now scheduled for Monday, April 24th.   Prior to that time, we met with, and engaged the services of Robin Pharro of Healthy Homes Reports.  I had been given Robin’s card by one of the builders we talked to.  He had run in to Robin at a training he had attended.  Finding Robin was a real coop for us.  Here, in one person, was someone who either knew the answers to our questions about indoor air quality or had the necessary background and connections to find out.

We met with Robin, and agreed to engage her services.  She would review information about anything that could off-gas in the house and provide recommendations to us on how to proceed.  She was very knowledgeable and a delight to work with.  Our team was now set.

At about this same time, Roger and Karl met with Tom and advised him that Karl Fels would be overseeing our project.  We were a bit concerned – but only because we felt so comfortable with Roger.  Roger did commit to staying involved, and if we ever needed his advise or involvement, he would be available.  This in fact worked quite well.  Our main contact with Holley Schink was Karl, but Roger was still involved in most meetings, and we drew extensively on his experience in the industry as we made many day-to-day decisions.  In fact, Joan’s most common question when a decision was expected from us was “what would Roger recommend?”.

We broke ground during a very dry time in the late spring.  We had anticipated clay below about a foot, and clay would make an excellent substrate for the foundation.  When the excavator was there, he found clay as far down as he dug.  In one day, we went from a normal backyard, to one with a very square large hole and two big piles of dirt.

Within that first week, the foundation was laid, foundation walls were erected and the foundation was damp-proofed and insulated.

We specified that we wanted a minimum of 15% flyash mixed with the concrete, both because it slows curing, (thereby making the concrete stronger) and because using flyash in concrete keeps a waste product from the production of electricity out of the landfill. In addition, water pressure on the foundation walls was controlled by installing tubes under the walls so that water would be brought into the crawl space, and managed through a sump.

We were very pleasantly surprised when one of Holley Schink’s crew came over the evening that they broke ground.  Joe brought a hose and before we knew what he was doing, he was washing off the sidewalk and washing off the driveway.  He came back several times to continue trying to keep the site picked up and neat.  This was a very nice touch that pleasantly surprised us.

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9. Materials Selection

As this was going on, we needed to make a decision about using FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified lumber.  The advantage to using FSC lumber was that we would be making a very visible statement about the importance of not only green building, but supporting others that are committed to the broader principles of sustainability.  The disadvantage was that Home Depot, Menards and Brunsell did not handle FSC certified dimensional lumber or plywood.

We met with Roger Schink and Karls Fels from Holley Schink.  They too were interested in making a statement with our house, and agreed to split the additional cost of using FSC certified lumber (which would have to be brought in from the twin cities).  The cost was a bit higher than they estimated, just over $2200 for all of the wood needed for the addition.  We decided to proceed with FSC certified lumber, both as a statement about what is important, and also to start to create demand in Madison for FSC lumber.

We also wanted to use recycled denim insulation in the walls.  As was true with the lumber, it is not locally available, but is easy to ship in.  Unfortunately, for our addition, it would have added an additional $1000 to the cost.  Though it would have been perfect from an indoor air quality perspective, we could, for much less money, use formaldehyde free fiberglass insulation – which was locally available.

We went round and round on this but ultimately decided to use the formaldehyde free fiberglass insulation.  We insulated the walls to R-19 and the crawlspace, 1st floor ceiling and 2nd floor ceiling to R38.  In our conversations with Roger, we felt that additional insulation in the first floor would be desirable, since we were using a radiant heating system.  We wanted to make sure that the heat moved up, and not down into the crawl space.

In the original plans, Crescendo Design had envisioned windows on the south, west and north sides of the addition.  We wanted to maximize not only the light, but the heat gain during the cooler months from the south and west windows.  While doing a bit of research, I discovered that north facing windows are of little use for solar heat gain during the winter, and serve to lose more energy than they bring in.  We thus modified the design to eliminate two windows on the north side, replace one of the windows with a door, and make the one window that did remain on the north side a decorative, non-functioning, octagon shaped window at the top of the stairs.

A second story window in the bathroom was eliminated and two new clerestory windows were added on the east wall.  This window looks out over the top of the existing roof line, but is operable so as to encourage air movement through the second floor.

We worked with Kelly at the Window Design Center, and she was wonderful to work with.  We wanted windows that had no vinyl in them, were Energy Star certified, were at least double paned with low E coatings, argon gas filled in between the panes, and did not allow “bridging” of cold across the frame.  She recommended Integrity casement windows by Marvin, which are fiberglass on the outside and wood on the inside.  They are affordable, functional and met all of the above criteria.  As an after-thought, we decided to replace our existing patio door with the Marvin Integrity patio door, both because we really liked the windows and wanted the door to match, but also because we knew we lose a lot of heat in the winter through our existing patio door.

We chose casement windows instead of double hung windows because they are much more energy efficient.  They seal tighter than double hung windows and have fewer seams or separations that would allow heat to escape.

After the windows were installed, we decided to add one more window to the upstairs bedroom.  Again, Kelly was very easy to work with and very helpful in asking the questions that we needed to think about (such as which way would the window open).  We did need to talk with Kelly one more time on the project when we discovered that the hinges on the patio door were not the same color as the handle that we had picked out.  Kelly admitted that we could have ordered hinges that would match the handle, and because she did not offer us this option, she would, at her cost, provide the matching hinges.  This was an example of the great customer service that we received throughout the project.

A week after ground was broken, the excavator was back to backfill around the foundation.  In a week, we went from having an unblemished backyard, to having one with a big hole and piles of dirt, to one where the hole was gone, as were the piles of dirt, and all we had left was the foundation for a new space.

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10. Erecting the Shell

Just after the backfilling had taken place, it started to rain.  It rained on and off for the next ten days.  This was the rain that was missing earlier in the spring.  I was concerned about doing too much building in the rain.  Our youngest son started kindergarten the first year that Madison’s Chavez School was opened.  Less than two months after they opened the school, they closed the school because of mold found in the walls, ceiling and floor.  The school was on a tight schedule, and the builders of the school did not let rain slow them down.  Not only did they pay for this oversight, but hundreds of children were exposed to mold and other allergens that made them sick.  I did not want to worry about this in our addition.

They did lay the floor for the addition in the rain.  I was concerned about mold growth in the crawl space, since the floor now did not allow for air to circulate and dry out everything that had been rained on.  Roger and Karl agreed that they would provide an industrial strength dehumidifier to dry this area once the roof was on.

The next week, (the first week in May), construction started on the new space.  It had rained over the weekend, so the subfloor that had been put in on Friday was not only wet, but was soon very muddy.  None-the-less, in one day we had a first story all framed in.

Then the next day, we added a second story, and the roof on our existing home was being rebuilt to better tie into the addition (we had a day in between rain showers).

Karl asked us to provide a sun tube if we were committed to having one in the kitchen.  I ran out to Menards one evening, brought back a sun tube which was installed in the roof the next day.  We were making tremendous progress.  Changes were taking place before our eyes.  The next day – in the rain – the trusses were brought up over the front of the house and put on top of the second story.  We now had the structure pretty much defined!  What once had only existed on paper, and in our minds, was now standing before us!  It was huge!  It was beautiful.  It was everything we had hoped for and so much more.

Before the week ended, we had a roof and tar paper on the new roof, and the roof of our existing house was rebuilt and re-shingled.  At this point, we raised some uncomfortable issues with our builder.  I had met with an old friend who was a commercial roof inspector.  He asked if the roof was being covered each night and I told him that the roof had only been up a day.  However, he pointed out that it was to rain again that Friday, and all weekend, and prudent practice would have the roof covered.  So, I called Karl and asked that the roof be covered.  This led to a quick meeting at the house with Karl, Roger and I.  Apparently, Roger did not have any tarps that could be used to cover the house, and buying enough plastic to do it would cost upwards of $100.  In addition, he did not think there was anything to be gained by covering the roof.

He thought that the tar paper would keep the wood dry and offered to tear the tar paper off and replace it with new tar paper if it did get rained on.  In this way, the tar paper would act as the tarp or plastic.  We agreed that this would be a good way to proceed and no irreparable damage was done to the relationship we were developing with Roger and Karl.

Following the completion of the roof, Roger and Karl were as good as their word.  They brought a big dehumidifier and put it in the crawlspace along with a fan.  It ran for 5 days and dried the space out quite nicely.

Similarly, when it stopped raining, the tar paper (which was slightly curled from being rained on and drying out a couple of times) was removed and new tar paper was put on. The wood was dry and we had good air circulation still within the structure.  Any remaining water issues would be worked out as time when on, and I stopped worrying about mold.

We chose shingles for the addition and the rebuilt roof that would match the existing shingles that we had.  Included in the contract were 30 year architectural shingles.  We were free to choose the color.  Seven years ago, we had replaced the roof on the existing house.  At that time, we had chosen white shingles to reflect more of the summer heat.  The new shingles matched so well, that you could not tell that they were from different companies.

11. Roughing In

Soon after the roof was done, the heating and air conditioning guy (from ASAP Heating and Air Conditioning) came to rough in the ductless split air conditioner for the second floor.  What is a ductless split air conditioner?  Ductless means just that.  We have no ducts in the addition because we opted to use radiant heat.  Radiant heat involves running plastic tubes just below the floor on first and second floor, and heating the house with hot water that runs through these tubes.  (More on this later).  Since we have no ducts, we have no way to air condition the new space.  A ductless air conditioning system addresses this problem.

It is a split air conditioner, because the main air conditioning unit is split from where the air conditioning is delivered to the house.  The opposite is a window air conditioner which cools the air and delivers the air all at the same location.  In our case, the main unit is located outside on the ground, next to the chimney.  However the unit that actually delivers the air conditioned air is high on the wall on second floor.  The two are connected through a series of pipes, which moves cooled refrigerant from the main unit to the second floor unit and back.

We decided not to air condition the first floor for two reasons.  The first is that we have central air conditioning for the existing house, and that by installing a ceiling fan on first floor that can run backwards, we hope to pull cool air up off the floor and push it up against the ceiling to “fall” again around the room.  The second reason was cost.  We could have installed a second ductless split air conditioner on first floor, but this would have cost almost an additional thousand dollars, and we were worried about our budget.

Holley Schink had a history of working with ASAP, out of Winchester, WI.  They ran all of the piping that would be needed through the chimney cavity, which seemed logical, since the odds were good that we would never be starting a fire in the fireplace at the same time as we were running the air conditioner.  We decided to upgrade (for an additional $400) to a higher efficiency Energy Star Mitsubishi unit that hopefully will pay for itself through lower energy bills through time.

The electrician was next.  We had met Jason from Oimoen Electric in Blue Mound originally when he installed the new panel in the basement.  Prior to his arrival, we revisited the lighting plan that Karl had drawn up for us.  On this plan, we had identified where all the outlets would go, where the switches would be, where the lights would be, what lights would be run through which switches, etc.  As we walked through the plan with Jason, he wrote on the studs what would be connected where.  In a couple of days, he had the wiring run for everything we were hoping to do.  It was amazing!

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12. Radiant Flooring

The next group to come in were the radiant flooring guys.  This was the first set of contractors that we were a bit uncomfortable with.  Our builder originally chose this plumber because they had done a number of projects together.  We also were told that they had experience putting in radiant systems.  Though I had done a lot of work in identifying what kind of system that I wanted, Roger had confidence in the plumber’s ability to accommodate my requests.

We knew we wanted a radiant system in the house for comfort and energy efficiency reasons.  I had done quite a lot of research on radiant systems and had decided upon a Baxi Luna combined boiler to heat the water for the system.  The Baxi system was made in Canada and had only recently been introduced to the upper Midwest.  However, the reviews of early adaptors were very encouraging.  The system was one of the few systems available that was very energy efficient (98% energy efficient) and able to provide both domestic hot water for the upstairs bathroom and hot water for the radiant system.

The plumber originally quoted the Quietside boiler, but it was much less energy efficient and one that I could not find much written about.  So, we agreed at the time of the original signing of the contract to pay the extra $1500 for the Baxi system.  I believed that the greater cost up front would result in saving money in the future as energy prices continued to go up.

I also wanted to install a Warmboard system.  With a Warmboard system, the subfloor has tracks for the radiant tubes to be laid in, and before the tubes are laid, the entire subfloor is covered in aluminum (including the tracks).  Thus, there is a continuous layer of aluminum below the tubes to reflect the heat up.  In addition, since the tracks are cut in the subfloor (allowing the radiant tubes to be laid in the tracks), the flooring can be installed directly above the piping.  With this arrangement, the heat merely needs to move through whatever flooring is chosen and then into the living space.  However, the plumber originally quoted us a price that would have cost an additional $1000 for using this system, since it would have to be brought in from the Pacific northwest.  We opted not to spend the additional money.

However, as I came to understand the design plans for the house, the plumber proposed installing the radiant tubes under the subfloor, and then putting aluminum under the tubing (again, to reflect the heat up).

With this design, heat would have to move through the subfloor, and then our choice of flooring before entering the living space.  This seemed very inefficient to me, and also posed the dilemma of the heat moving through the glues and binders used in the oriented strand board (OSB ) subfloor.

One of the challenges that we were seeking to address was to eliminate the movement of any volatile organic compounds into the living space.  We were seeking to make the house as “healthy” as possible.  One reason was that Joan frequently got migraines when exposed to new furniture and other sources of benzene and formaldehyde.  Another reason was that we wanted to create a very healthy living environment for our kids.  Thus, designing a heating system that moved heat through the glues and binders used in the subfloor seemed counter intuitive.

I thus went back to Roger with a request to put Warmboard in the house.  However, when he talked to the plumber, they came back with a budget of almost $3000 to switch to warmboard.  As much as we would have loved to use this system, it just was out of the question.

Our next interaction with the plumber was when they submitted a price increase to Karl for an additional $4000 for the Baxi system.  According to the plumber, the system that they designed now needed a buffer tank and an expansion tank.  As they described their need, our system was over-designed, and had far more capacity than we would be using.  Thus, in order to avoid the continuous cycling of the boiler (on and off), we should essentially install a storage tank that would keep hot water in it.

Even separating out the increased cost, I was totally against creating a system with a hot water tank.  I had deliberately chosen a tankless system, both for energy efficiency reasons and for ease of use.  We currently have a tankless hot water heater for our hot water needs, and it has been dependable, efficient and maintenance free.  Thus, we wanted to maintain our commitment to tankless technologies.

I called the Midwest regional installation trainer for the Baxi system.  I talked to him about the need for a buffer tank and an expansion tank.  He told me, and ultimately told the plumber, that the system comes with an internal expansion tank and for a system of our size, no buffer tank is needed because the system will not continuously cycle on and off.

We told Karl that we wanted to stay with the Baxi system, but without all the additions that were being proposed.  I have since heard from others that our plumber probably underbid the system and was trying to recover some of the money that they underbid.  I don’t know that this is true, but it certainly seems to be.  At the very least, they did not have the necessary information before they submitted a price increase to us, since this price increase was ultimately withdrawn.

Also, during the installation of the radiant system tubing, I was not impressed with the quality of work that was done.  I pointed out to Karl that there was no consistency in how the tubing was terminated between each rafter, and also that the aluminum plates (used to reflect heat up) were in some places 1 inch apart, and in other places, 4 or 5 inches apart.

Karl checked with the plumber and got a commitment from them that all future aluminum plates would be put no more than 1 inch a part.  However, nothing was done to correct the larger spaces that existed in the already installed areas.

We were assured that the heat would be fine – which I believe – and that was the bottom line.  However, the bottom line for me was a contractor that took pride in what they were doing, and did a quality job.  I still am not convinced that our plumber embraced the idea of quality as we had come to expect with the other subcontractors that Holly Schink used.  They did enough to perform, but seemed in “over their head” with the system that we had requested.

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13. Balancing Perfect and Good Enough

We frequently have faced this issue of how far should we go with the addition.  We are, after all, adding on to a leaky, energy-inefficient, old ranch house.  As much as we would like to make the addition perfect, it would be easy to go too far.  For instance, it simply wasn’t worth it to get triple-paned Thermotech windows out of Canada which can be “tuned” to the side of the house that they were on.  We also decided not to insulate to an R-50 level in the second floor ceiling, because as energy smart as that might be, we will continue to lose a lot of heat out of the rest of the house.

14. Flooring

We tried to take an intelligent, yet practical, approach to the entire flooring selection process.  One of the nicest people that we met during the construction process was Mark Geller of Flooring Designs.  We met Mark early on when Roger brought him along to bid the house.  At that time, we were thinking that we would include cork flooring throughout.  Mark included an initial estimate of a bit more than $10,000 for flooring.  Roger described this as a fair offer that we should be able to work within.  On a square foot basis, we were working with a budget of $10/square foot, which was generous.

Two things though confounded this estimate.  One was a very generous offer on Roger’s part to make the house two feet bigger than we originally envisioned.  Instead of a house which was 20 feet x 22 feet, Roger suggested making it square.  He offered to add on this additional 88 square feet (44 feet on each floor) for only an extra $1000.  He asked for this additional space to allow the stairs to fit and fit in a door on the north wall.

We gladly accepted this offer, but did not figure in how this additional 88 square feet would complicate the flooring budget.  The second confounding issue was our desire to redo the flooring from the front door to the kitchen area.  This area was not included in the original budget, although it became clear from the extensiveness of the work done in this area that a new floor would be very desirable.  (A third challenge, that I added very late in the process, was our addition of a new floor in the existing bathroom.  We felt that as long as we were redoing all of the other floors that needed redoing, we should replace this old vinyl floor also.)

As we considered flooring options, it became obvious that cork was the best choice.  It would absorb sound, it was more comfortable to stand on, it was thin, allowing heat to pass through easily, and environmentally, it was the best choice.  Unfortunately, I was the only one in the family that liked the way cork looked.  I heard from many family members that it looked like a bulletin board laid on the floor.  Thus, as good a choice as cork was, I could not sell it with my family.

We opted for a hardwood floor.  I was concerned with how it would stand up to a radiant system, but Mark informed us that he had put hardwood floors over radiant systems many times.  He did alert us to the fact that the seams between the boards may expand and contract a bit during the first few years, but this was to be expected, and we shouldn’t worry about it.

We chose a dark maple (called Century Maple) by Kersten Lumber for the first floor  and Red Birch from Green River Lumber for the second floor.  In addition, we put tile in the front hallway, and tiled the second floor bath because it was no more expensive than a linoleum type product.  By essentially creating a foyer inside the front door, we addressed a problem of how to work with the existing hardwood floor, which we found underneath the existing carpeting.

Kersten Lumber is a locally owned lumber mill near Shawno, Wi.  All of their wood comes from an area that is no more than 150 miles from our house. Green River Lumber is further away, but is a company that specializes in FSC wood floors.  Both companies embrace the sustainability tenants that were so much apart of what we were trying to demonstrate with the house.

Our other flooring choices included a wool carpet for the stairs and the upstairs walk-in closet upstairs and marmoleum (a naturally created linoleum type floor) for the downstairs bathroom.  Finally, I did get the rest of the family to agree that cork would be okay to put in the library (our old front room).

After we had identified all of the areas that we needed new flooring for, Mark gave us a budget proposal that was 60% above what was included in the contract.  We were terribly disappointed, and I started calling other wood flooring places to see what options we might have.  I then met with Mark, and told him that we simply could not exceed our budget by such a large amount, and that we were looking at other companies to do the installation.  At that time, Mark assured me that he wanted our business, and that he would find a way to bring the costs down.  Mark was as good as his word, and our final budget proposal for flooring still exceeded the original budget, but he had significantly decreased the additional amount that we would have to pay.  We were very satisfied that Mark was really working with us, both because he wanted our business, but also because he wanted to support what we were trying to do with the house.

At the same time as the plumbers were putting in the radiant floor, Jory was putting up the siding.  We choose Hardi-plank for the siding, which is a cement and fiber board.  It is very sustainable in that it re-uses wood scraps in its construction, and also adds R value to our insulation.  It also looked like the siding we had on the rest of the house.  We could order it pre-painted, but they could not match the paint that we had earlier used on the rest of the house.  So, we ordered something close, and the kids will paint the rest of the house to match.

Jory also built overhangs over the south and west first floor windows which do a wonderful job of keeping sunlight out of the windows during the summer.  We actually asked our architects to model the angle of the sun during the summer so that our overhangs would be wide enough to provide mid-day protection for the entire height of the window.  We found that 30 inch overhangs will shield the entire windows at noon during the summer, thereby decreasing solar heating of the house.

While all of this was going on, I started looking at what rebates we would qualify for, and found that in addition to federal rebates, we would qualify for state Focus on Energy rebates, if we first had a home energy audit done.  I contacted John Viner of Building Services and Consultant (out of Mount Horeb) to come inspect the existing home, do a blower door test, and provide recommendations for what changes needed to be made to address the worst of our energy problems in the old house.  John came and took thermal images of the house (using an infra-red camera), walked us (Karl and Robin came for this also) through the house and did a blower door test.  In order to do the blower door test, we put up a curtain of plastic that separated out the entire addition.  This plastic did hold very well, and could be played like a drum during the test.

During the blower door test, we discovered that air rushed down around an old chimney that we had abandoned (it previously was used for the furnace and hot water heater).  The air rushed so quickly down this area that it blew insulation from the attic down into the basement.  This was the major air leakage area, and Karl agreed that Jory would air seal this when he was up in the attic addressing the problem with venting the fan from the old bathroom.

Following the test, we were sent a report that contained a number of recommendations.  Getting the bathroom fan appropriately vented was a major recommendation in the report.  Addressing the leak around the fireplace was another major recommendation.  Karl agreed to address these two major areas.  By undertaking these changes, we qualified for a number of rebates from the Focus on Energy program.

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15. Building Relationships

One of the nice things to come out of this project is that we are sensitizing many new people to the benefits of building green and healthy.  Roger incorporated many of the ideas from Robin into his parade home (and gave her space to set up her display in the garage of his parade home), and has committed to incorporate even more in the future.  Robin is working with Mark Geller at Flooring Design to green his options also.

Mark now stocks a bamboo floor as one of his flooring options that he never stocked before, and is committed to finding out more background information about the companies that he works with.  Crescendo Design also is continuing to work with Holley Schink on additional projects, and green building is an important component to this additional work.

Jory was the rough carpenter that was the lead on our house.  We saw Jory nearly every day for the better part of two months.

In addition to framing, roofing and siding, he worked on developing two arches in the kitchen that dramatically framed the pantry entrance and a nook for shelves.  He also built a small porch outside the new backdoor and he moved a duct that terminated on what used to be the outside wall of our house.  When we changed our mind on the tub and shower that we had picked out for the upstairs bathroom (we had not originally chosen a whirlpool tub), Jory was the one that rebuilt a half wall so that we could move a new whirlpool tub into place.  When we decided to add an additional window on the south wall of the upstairs bedroom, Jory was the one that framed the new window and then installed it.  In short, Jory was the heart and hands of most of the construction.

One Friday, he and two guys that he was working with had just started to put up the siding on the south side of the first floor.  After they had left, we were out admiring their work.  Unfortunately, the lines on the siding weren’t straight.  I called Karl and left a message that got Jory in a bit of hot water.  Jory was so apologetic when we saw him again on Monday.  He told us that he knew it wasn’t right, but just thought he would fix it on Monday.  This made us feel bad because we were just concerned that it appeared that they were going to leave it as it was.  From that point on, as we saw things that we had questions about, we talked to Jory and he was always willing to help.

The final time that we saw Jory was when he built a new front step for us.  Roger had offered to have Jory build up this step since the landing had settled and it was really a big step to get in the front door.  This was not part of the contract, but rather a thoughtful and welcome addition that Roger and Karl included.  This was in addition to other small, but significant additions that Roger and Karl had included.  The most significant one from our perspective was to have Jory go up in the attic to appropriately vent the bath fan and to flash and insulate around an old chimney.  These small touches were such an important part of the overall relationship that we remain deeply grateful to both Jory and Roger.

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16. The Final Stretch

July arrived, and the final electrical walk through took place before the drywall went up. We made sure that we had sufficient outlets (can you ever have too many?), that the switches for the lights were in places that we would expect them and that we had integrated the new outlets and switches with the existing ones in the kitchen.  Prior to installing the insulation, we had asked Karl and Jory to make sure all cracks, openings, etc were caulked and sealed.  By minimizing opportunities for air to move in from the outside or out from the inside, we hoped to address temperature, moisture and energy efficiency issues.  Though it was tedious work, we trust that it was time well spent.

Insulation was next and we installed formaldehyde free fiberglass.

We had hoped to blow insulation into the ceiling cavity on 2nd floor, but it just wasn’t possible with a tray ceiling. We did insulate up to R38 in the ceiling with bats of fiberglass.

A vapor barrier went over the insulation and we were ready to put up the walls.  We learned that in a Wisconsin climate, the vapor barrier goes on the warm side of the insulation, so for a day we could see the insulation through a sheet of plastic.

The drywall went up quickly and we reached the crisis point with living in the house.

The dust associated with cutting the drywall and sanding the drywall mud was overwhelming.  We had dust in every corner, in every cabinet, in every draw and in every closet.  We couldn’t eat or get a drink without first washing the dishes.  We couldn’t stay in the kitchen because of the dust.  We thus lived in the bedrooms for the next couple of days.

Immediately after finishing the drywall, painting started.  We had asked that the swirl pattern on our existing ceiling be matched on the new ceiling downstairs. In order to match the swirl, sand was added to the paint and a large brush was used to create the swirls.  However, there was a marked difference between the existing ceiling and the pattern on the new one.  We asked Karl to have the painters do it again, and I suspect that they complained about this.

One of the amazing things about building a house is that decisions that would take days or weeks normally are made within hours or days.  For instance, once the priming was done, we needed to choose colors for the various rooms.  We had picked up paint chips but really hadn’t made much progress on figuring out which colors we wanted where.  We knew we wanted light colors throughout, but whether we would use a light brown, a light gray, or other light earth colors, we hadn’t figured out.  We certainly had not given any thought about where transitions in colors would occur.

Karl was over one afternoon and told us we needed to have our colors decided upon by the next day.  We tried our best to imagine which color would work where, but ultimately went with our best guesses.  If we would have been repainting a room in the house, we would have agonized over this choice of colors for days or perhaps even weeks.

Another example of this distorted kind of decision-making arose with our choice of lights.  We knew where we needed lights, but we needed to pick out which light fixtures we wanted where.  We bought lights at Menards, Home Depot, Lowes and Madison Lighting.  We tried to keep with a theme of using brushed nickel for all of the metal that is in the house, but other than that, we picked out lights without really knowing how they were going to look with each other.  What made it worse is that we had no lights up in the house to compare the new lights too.  So we were forced to imagine how the lights would look when they were up, and how new lights would work with the ones that we had already picked out.

We also agonized over the choice for a counter-top.  Actually, the whole counter-top issue was another source of small disagreement with our builder.  We knew we were adding a breakfast bar at the end of the kitchen, so we would need a new counter-top for that.  We thought that in our original contract Roger had included replacing the existing countertops, because we would not be able to match what we had.  We even asked Roger and Karl for countertop samples so that we could start thinking about what would work, given that we were not replacing our cabinets, but would be replacing the floor.  As the time grew close for ordering the countertops, Karl presented us with a change order for additional costs for the materials, and for additional costs for labor for replacing our existing countertop.  We had no objection for the additional cost of the materials, since the contract contained an allowance for $700 for countertop material, and we exceeded that amount.  But, we were also being asked to pay more than $400 for labor for installation of the countertop.  We objected to this, since we felt that it was covered in the original contract.  This issue went unresolved for a long period of time, but ultimately Roger and Karl agreed to cover the cost of the installation.  In the end, after working with samples for weeks, we were down to 4 choices, and finally just had to make a choice.

The choice of a vanity for the upstairs bathroom was also a problem for us.  Included in the contract was a standard vanity from a standard supply store.  However, in talking with Robin from Healthy Homes reports, the greatest threat to indoor air quality inevitably was the finishes used on cabinets, vanities and other finished wood products.  Joan had experienced the off-gassing of new finishes many times, and almost always developed migraines in response to the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) associated with common finishes.

We thus needed to be very conscious of what was put into our house.  We talked about the possibility of sealing a vanity before it was installed with AFM Safecoat Safe Seal, which we used for all the plywood and OSB, but Robin felt that sealing an already finished vanity would not work.   We considered looking for an old vanity, in the hopes that it would be done off-gassing, but we didn’t really want an old vanity in our new house.  We looked at Neil Kelly cabinets, which are made from sustainably harvested woods, formaldehyde-free wheatboard, and are finished in low VOC finishes, but we couldn’t justify the cost.  Then, we stumbled upon Marshalltown Millwork, a cabinet maker in Marshall, Wisconsin that was experimenting with using wheatboard, and assembling cabinets without glues, using only screws.  Tom visited with Kyle Hans and described what they were looking for.  Within a day, he had a proposal from Marshalltown for an unfinished vanity.  Unfortunately, the proposal would cost almost $1000 for a 48 inch vanity.  After further conversations, Marshalltown reduced the cost by half because of the opportunity to include one of their new vanities in what they hoped would be one of the greenest additions being built in the Dane County area.  The vanity arrived on-time and was finished on-site with the AFM Safecoat stain that was used for all of the woodwork, shelves, doors and windows.  The counter that was put on top was from Home Depot with a Kohler brushed nickel faucet.

The entire family would be gone during the end of July and beginning of August, so all decisions needed to be made before the family left.  The biggest issue that remained was converting the front living room to a library/office.  Tom had wanted floor to ceiling bookshelves in this room from the time that he started thinking about the addition, and our hope was that Adam, the finish carpenter that worked for Roger and Karl would take this on as an additional project.  Unfortunately, he was tied up with another project, so we were forced to scramble at seemingly the last minute.  Karl made some inquiries and found a cabinet maker out of Martinsdale that could build the library.  However, when we raised the issue of material selection – seeking wheatboard and a construction technique that avoided glues and used No-VOC finishes, we were looking at almost $7000 for the work.  At this point, Tom talked to Jon Brouchard of Crescendo Design.  We wrote earlier about the importance of the relationships that had been established over the course of this project.  This was another instance where those relationships saved the day.  Jon recommended a cabinet maker from Suring, WI that used all green building approaches and was comfortable with building from a healthy homes perspective.  Tom called Paul Yaeger and explained that we were under the gun but we didn’t want to cut any corners from an indoor air quality perspective.  Paul agreed to come down to take a look at the room, and prepare a bid.

We talked with Paul about our vision for the library.  We showed him the rest of the house and talked about the green building approaches that we were using.  He was excited about our committed to Green Building and loved the idea of a library.  We immediately liked Paul and told him that so much of our project was based on finding the right people for the project.  We felt he was the right person.

We told him our budget was roughly $5000, and he promised to get back to us with a bid.  He was back within the week with some rough drawings and a budget estimate of $5700.  We exchanged ideas on the drawings and approved them.  The final piece was now in place.

At this point, Tom and Brittany left town and were gone for the next three weeks.  Joan and the rest of the kids stuck around an additional 5 days, then she too left for two weeks.  During this final two weeks, a lot of work was to be done.  A week after Tom and Joan returned home, Tom’s parents were going to be visiting from Arkansas and Joan’s parents would be in town to see the house.  So, there was a sense of urgency to complete the house.

During those two weeks, the painting was to be finished, the floors would be put in, the fireplace was to be finished, the lights would be put up, counters and shelves would be installed and the final touches would be done.  Both Tom and Joan were largely out of contact for the time that they were gone.

Upon returning, it was clear that a lot had been done, but a lot still needed to be done.  A cleaning crew was originally scheduled to clean on the Monday that we returned.  They failed to show up, so cleaning was largely left to us, until a cleaning service could be lined up for Friday.  Paul showed up on Tuesday with the library in pieces and needed only two days to get the entire library installed.  The sink, which was not installed when we returned, was installed on Tuesday, but the plumber discovered that a piece had been broken when it was placed in the garage, so we were without a kitchen sink for an additional two days.  Given all that was going on, being without a sink during this time was almost the last straw.  Also during this week, the plumber worked through the final issues with the radiant heating system and shelves were installed in the closets.

We discovered that several of the flooring tiles in the front foyer were loose, and called Mark Geller of Flooring Design about these.  He talked to his installation guy who insisted that while we were gone, someone must have moved the refrigerator over the tiles and broken the seal on these tiles.  When the tile installer came out to fix them, he didn’t have enough tiles to replace all of the loose ones, and could not adequately fix the ones that he could replace.  These flooring issues were the main recurring issues that stretched out the end of the construction project.

In retrospect, we were incredibly lucky to have found such great people as Jon and Kandy Brouchard, Roger Schink and Karl Fels, Jim Bradley, Jory Jasper, Mark Geller, Paul Yeager, Robin Pharo, the Marshalltown Millwork folks  and Nathan Engstrom.  We set out on a journey to build a house that we would love, out of materials that would leave a small footprint on the earth.  At the same time, we wanted a house that would not give Joan headaches and that could be built for no more than a home built using traditional construction approaches.  We think we succeeded.

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17. Managing a Budget

We worked hard to manage the budget for this project.  We shopped at home improvement stores for most of the things we needed, but we still found ourselves participating in increasing the budget.  We started out with a budget increase of $1200 because of the location of the underground wiring and the need to move it.  We increased the flooring budget by almost $3000 when we decided to redo more of the flooring on the first floor. Another big change that we made was in adding a whirlpool tub instead of a regular bathtub.  This added approximately $1500 to the budget.  We also added an extra window on second floor for an additional $400 once we saw how the room was laid out.  We increased the efficiency of the ductless air conditioner for $400.  There were many other changes, some anticipated and others that we didn’t anticipate.  However, overall, we ended up ten percent over budget – which is where we had heard from a number of people we would end up.  However, without an exception, the changes that we made ensured the quality, and were consistent with the vision that we started with. So, take heed.  Develop your budget.  Fight like crazy to stay within that budget.  But, acknowledge that despite your best efforts, you will spend roughly ten percent more than what you had anticipated. This arises because you just can’t think of everything when you are negotiating the initial contract.  It’s not your fault, and it’s not the fault of your contractor.  They can’t see into the future any better than what you can.  Acknowledge that you can’t be perfect, and if you want your project done right, you’ll need ten percent more than was originally budgeted.

Starting into this project, the common estimate for an addition was to multiply $150 times the number of square feet that were being added.  We added 968 square feet.  Thus, our budget should have been $145,000.  However, in addition to the square footage that we added, we also extensively remodeled an additional 800 square feet.  When figuring that the total house area impacted by the construction was between 1700 and 1800 square feet, we found our total budget ended up around $75/square foot, proving that you can build green and healthy and spend no more than if you would have hired a quality contractor using traditional approaches.

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18. Staying on Schedule

Karl was a wonderful liaison to work through on this project.  However, there were times when we were a bit frustrated with the progress and we inserted ourselves into the mix to move things along.  In retrospect, I now realize that Karl was doing a ton of work behind the scenes, but often, we found ourselves scheduling meetings with Karl, or identifying work that should be done, or identifying contractors that should be here.  In short, we kept pushing our project to stay close to being on schedule.

Through Karl’s hard work, we did stay close to on schedule.  As described above, we lost almost two weeks when we discovered that the buried electrical line ran right through the area we were set to excavate.  We lost at least another week when the rains came, and we requested that the framing be allowed to dry out before closing everything in.  We lost bits of time here and there when contractors that were next in line failed to show up.  But, all in all, probably between 80 and 90% of the days when there was work to do, someone was there doing it.  This is the fabulous behind-the-scenes work that Karl (and Roger) did.

A week after we returned from vacation, Tom’s parents were due to visit to see the house.  This became the driving drop dead date for getting everything done.  We did in fact make this date (with some very minor work that was put off for after they left).  The key to staying as close to the initial schedule as we did was in continuing to work together, staying in touch virtually every day and asking about what happens when.  Staying on schedule, can be done!

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19. Green-Built Home Checklists / Points

When the original contract was drawn up, Tom had asked for Holley Schink to commit to building a house that would score at least 90 points on the Green Built Home checklist for additions and remodeling.  This represented 50% more than the minimum needed to qualify as a Green Built Home addition.

Roger avoided committing to a particular number, but did agree to work toward maximizing our final score.  Tom was a bit concerned by this, but we had confidence in Roger and believed that they really would work with us to maximize our score.

Throughout the process, we talked about “points” at many different turns, and it became kind of a joke with our children that dad was only doing something because he could get points for it.  About halfway through the project, Karl did a preliminary calculation, and it looked like we would be just over the 90 points that we established as our initial goal.

Once we were close to 90, we thought, why not try for 100 points.  100 sounded like a nice number, and we found that the highest scoring addition at that point had scored 97 points.  We could have the “greenest” addition ever scored under the Green Built Home criteria!

Given all that was happening with the house during the last month, we didn’t return to the scoring, and we were hoping that we could find a way to get over 100 points.  It wasn’t until after we were all done, and Tom’s parents had left, that Karl and Tom sat down again to total the points.

On a Friday afternoon in early September, Tom and Karl sat down and worked through the scoresheets.  They found points that they had missed initially, and it felt like we would exceed the old record.  When we finally finished and went back to add the totals from each of the sections, it was time to start getting excited.  We had not only scored more than the greenest addition that had previously existed, we had scored more than 100 points.  More than 110 points.  More even than 120 points.  And we kept adding.  We passed 130 points, and then – amazingly 140 points.  When we parted that afternoon, we were at 142 points, with several areas where more points were possible, once Karl checked on such things as the recycled content of our drywall.  A couple of days later, Karl came back with an additional 7 points, for a total of 149 points.  The one area that was left to get some additional points was to have a post-construction evaluation of the amount of air that leaked into the whole house.  If we would have improved by 20% we would receive an additional 2 points.  Unfortunately, our air leakage rate stayed pretty much the same, and we did not get the additional 2 points.  However, we had shattered the record of the previous greenest addition, and we were close to the record for the greenest house that had ever been built under the green built home scoring system.  We fell only 25 points below this.

We would heartily recommend using the checklists as they really kept us focused on energy efficiency, building a healthy home and sourcing building material from responsible companies committed to sustainability.  Hopefully, others in the future will be building greener additions and taking what we have done and extending it ever further.

Good luck to all of you who tackle the project of building a green house or addition in the future.  It was an amazing experience, filled with highs and lows, tough decisions, and awe at what is being created before your eyes.  It was a privilege to work with an amazing team of people, and we hope to stay in contact with many of these folks.

We wish you luck and patience and a sense of wonder for what you are creating.

Sustainably yours,

Tom and Joan Eggert

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*  Tom Eggert teaches classes on sustainable development, corporate social responsibility and the changing relationship between businesses and society through the Business School at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He also works with the Department of Natural Resource’s Bureau of Cooperative Environmental Assistance as the Eastern Wisconsin Environmental Assistance Coordinator.  In this position, he meets with businesses, trade associations, local governments and other institutions, promoting the Green Tier program and other environmental innovation type approaches.  Tom has written and spoken on issues related to Green Building, and this addition was the opportunity that he was looking for to learn first hand about what is possible and what it costs.  He can be contacted at tleggert@wisc.edu.