Larry and Jill Burks are self-described city folks building a house in upstate New York. It’s not any old house, but a 1,200-sq.-ft., superinsulated home that they hope will generate more power than it consumes in a year — a “net-positive” house.
Their blog, Up Hill House, is the step-by-step story of how the house gets built, beginning in June 2008 when they bought 50 acres of land and a cabin near the town of Cambridge, N.Y.
The couple had been looking for a place in New York City, but the best they could do was a 400-sq.-ft. apartment in Brooklyn that was on the market for $400,000. “Maybe it was my years of studying architecture, but I could not see spending the next 30 years paying a mortgage on a small soulless apartment with no redeemable architectural character,” Larry writes. “Not to mention no outdoor space. That’s when it hit me. This is crazy! There has to be another choice.”
This change of direction helped launch their project, described in dozens of entries over the last 33 months. Larry offers an extremely detailed look at how the house was planned and how it’s being built, writing about everything from window selection to sitework and heating options. The tone is expert. It turns out that while Larry has an architecture degree, he designs “easy to use Web applications,” not houses. The couple has already moved out of New York to be closer to the project, and will live in the house fulltime once it’s completed.
The two-bedroom, one-bath house should be finished in May, if all goes according to plan, and come in at about $142 a square foot. The house comes with R-44 walls and a R-75 roof, along with a 6.9-kW photovoltaic array.
The blog can be read in two ways, either chronologically or by topic. So, if you want to follow the project as it unfolds, just start with Larry’s June 2008 post and work your way forward as the couple develops plans for the house, clears the site, and sees the house take shape. If you’re more interested in specific topics, such as windows and doors (11 posts), energy calculations (eight posts), or the foundation (eight posts), Larry has made that possible, too.
It’s an engaging mix of technical and non-technical information, both personable and informative. And it gets to the inherent complexities of building a high-performance house.
“The program is for a very small house (and barn, more on that in a future post), one bedroom, one bath, kitchen, living, dining and unfinished basement. We’re trying to keep it around 1,000 sq. feet, and as green as makes sense. No surprise, budget is the main driver. We want to do this without taking out a mortgage and by doing as much of the work as we can ourselves. Not just to save money, but because its just plain fun for us.”
“I’ve been doing lot of reading lately about superinsulated net-zero houses and passive solar houses… As the articles say, why spend tens of thousands of dollars on a heating system when you only need to spend a few hundred a year? If you superinsulate, it makes sense to incorporate a right-sized heating system. So out with the masonry stove (sadly, I really like them) and the radiant floor (again, sadly). In with the small wood stove and some other small backup space heating system, yet to be determined.”
“It was a very hard decision (over 2 years in the making) but we’ve come to the realization that a wood stove is not in the cards for this house. We will however, have a patio fire pit, and reserve the right to maybe add an interior fireplace at a later date.”
“We are the proud owners of a brand spank’n new hole in the ground. Foundation dig is complete. In other news, I was able to position the house precisely on the site this weekend, thanks to the new pin the surveyors placed on our boundary line last week. Which means I can now finish the site plan.
“We also heard back from the engineer this weekend. Ugh, lots of work to interpret his calculations into the plans. But it’s good that we hired someone. It really was more complicated than I could do myself.”
“We have chosen our windows. If you remember earlier posts about our criteria for windows (April Update and Window Shopping), you’ll know that we were looking for low U-values (more insulation), high SHGC values (more heat from the sun), and low dollar values (more money in our wallets). We found 2 out of 3. Accurate Dorwin (based in Winnipeg, Canada) is going to make us windows with two different types of glazing. Our south-facing casement windows will have a 0.24 U-value and 0.47 SHGC. All other windows will have a 0.20 U-value and a 0.44 SHGC. The fixed window units are the most efficient with a 0.18 U-value. All values are whole window values. Serious came in second.”
“As the snow piles up outside, I have turned my thoughts to Spring. Not only because it’s warmer and nature is waking from its long slumber, but also because I hope we will be conducting our first blower door test by then. Specifically I’ve been considering what type of results I should be expecting from the blower door tests, and how to interpret them.
“We made the decision early on to build an air-tight house. This guided our choice of building materials, Zip system and tape for the exterior sheathing, gaskets and acoustical sealant to seal all other connections, and foam to seal gaps at the rims, windows and doors. The blower door test will help us seal any gaps we missed. But what target should we aim for? How do we know when the house it tight enough?”