Monday, December 27, 2010

The problems with basements

In an urban setting where maximizing space is a major concern, including a basement in the building of a house is almost mandatory. Basements, though, can present a lot of problems if not built properly and looking at some of the on-line literature on basement construction techniques, it seems that until recently, the majority of basements were less than stellar.

Basements are most importantly the structural foundation of a house so they have to be built sturdy enough to solidly hold up everything above it and they have to be able to do it for the life of the house which is certainly expected to be at least several decades long. It's for this reason that most basement foundation walls are made out of cement as cement remains pretty stable even when buried in earth after long periods of time.

The basement should also ideally keep water out and keep heat in and maybe these are a new expectations because it seems that in so many older homes (like mine for example), the basement does neither very well. The inability for basements to do these two jobs properly is not too surprising given that these tasks, especially when required to be done together at the same time, can actually be quite difficult to achieve.

The main problem is that cement is both a water porous material and also a terrible insulator and yet it sits in ground which can be both wet and cold.

Once upon a time, when energy was free, I guess the thinking was that since basements were underground, the earth would act like a good enough insulator and so no additional insulation was necessary. Unfortunately, as it turns out, uninsulated basements can lose a substantial amount of heat, accounting for on average, one third of a home's heating cost.

And also, once upon a time, when we were all made of hardier stuff and a puddle or lake of water leaking into the basement meant free baths, people weren't that bothered with infiltration but nowadays we prefer drier, if possible, and so that means putting up some sort of water barrier.

We've got three components then, a concrete structure, insulation and a water barrier, which we need to put together somehow to hold up the house, keep the heat in and keep the water out. You wouldn't think it would be so difficult to slap these things together and be done with it but it turns out it's not so simple.

Let's take for example what was and for some, still is, a common building method and yet is also what many builders now believe to be a common mistake: We're inside the basement and there's the bare concrete wall and it needs some insulation. Easy enough. Put up a 2 x 4 frame and stuff in some bats of fiberglass. If we just left it at that, the problem is that the insulation is going to get damp and damp insulation is a poor insulator.

The insulation gets damp because of water condensation. It's like in the winter when you see water condense on a cold window except in this case it's not a cold window but a cold concrete wall of the basement. The moisture in the air condenses against the concrete wall which the insulation is pushed right up against so the insulation gets wet and stays wet because water keeps condensing.

In order to prevent this, a vapour barrier can be put up. This can be big sturdy sheets of plastic attached to the 2 x 4 frame which is holding up the insulation. It's quite difficult to put up these big sheets of plastic so that they create a continuously sealed vapour barrier but let's say the installer is successful. The problem now is that the insulation is still going to get wet because the bare concrete wall, as mentioned earlier, is not waterproof, and water from the outside will get in.

There are several ways water can get in past the wall. It may just leak in through cracks and pre-existing seams. It may get sucked up from the ground, called capillary action, similar to the way a sponge absorbs water. It may come from the concrete itself if the concrete hasn't yet cured and dried completely.

So all this moisture gets dumped into the insulation from the concrete side and now that there is a vapour barrier on the other side of the insulation, this moisture is trapped. The insulation is not only degraded but the trapped moisture can also lead to odors, mold and decay.

A water barrier, then, can be applied to the exterior surface of the wall to try to keep any water from penetrating through the wall. This sounds good, but in practice it's really hard to do and if there is any break in this exterior membrane and water gets into the wall, that water will really be trapped for a long time because it is now between two vapour proof membranes.

For a more detailed discussion about these problems and more, you can refer to the excellent Building Science website and this report in particular: Basement Insulation Systems.

You can see how this circuitous process can lead to some major headaches. An alternative strategy, foregoing the interior insulation and putting foam board insulation on the exterior side of the wall, while it may make more sense in theory, can also be tricky to do and has its own set of problems as well.

In recent years, though, builders have come up with some really innovative solutions to address these issues and in the next post we'll take a look at how a lot of these basement problems can be solved using something called insulated concrete forms.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

How to get your building permit in 387 easy steps

Adrian asks me if there is somewhere where you can buy a piece of land and just build on it without having to go through the bureaucracy of building permits. I don't know but I'm guessing maybe somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Or possibly the moon if it doesn't get privatized anytime soon.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for building permits, especially in an urban environment. We need some sort of mechanism to protect people from having their houses, or their neighbour's houses, falling down around them because of shoddy workmanship but, still, the permit application process is most definitely a daunting endeavour. It's not for the faint of heart and I'm guessing that's intentional.

It starts with a Pre-Application Applicable Law (PAL) Review. Just look at the title of this thing and you know you're going to be in for a head spin. From the City of Toronto building website:

The PAL Review is a detailed review of a building proposal to determine compliance with various applicable law requirements.

It is an open, flexible program with fewer limits on the number of reviews. Examiners will work with you throughout the process to achieve your goal of obtaining a Notice of Applicable Law Compliance.

I'm not sure what that means but in practice it seems to involve handing in floor plans and building elevations so that someone can tell you if the size and location of your proposed structure is okay. This is where someone will tell you that building a mini-skyscraper in a residential lot isn't going to get approval or that you probably won't get the okay to build a sports arena in your backyard.

There are loads of rules you must follow to get a 100% pass for the PAL Review and I don't know half of them so if you're looking for guidance on that here in this post, you're out of luck. Best to find an experienced designer to help ride out those murky waters if you're building something yourself.

Of course, a lot of builders don't get a 100% pass. The PAL review might tell you, for example, that your building is 6 inches too high. Now you can either go back and change your plans or you can try to apply for a variance from the Committee of Adjustment.

So, I guess the PAL review is basically a foreshadowing of things to come. If you end up with a whole list of stuff that the PAL Review says is going to snag your building permit application, then at least you can do something about it up front.

The PAL Review will also tell you how many thousands of dollars the building permit is going to cost you. It doesn't necessarily tell you how much all the other supporting paperwork on the way to getting the final building permit is going to cost but, hey, I guess they want to break it to you gently.

Adrian's submission went fairly smoothly. The main suggestion after the initial review by the PAL people, was for a survey of the building lot. This is supposedly something new in the process. Previously, surveys didn't have to be done until later but they've been bumped up.

Once you get all the information you can from the PAL Review, you generally start applying for your variances, if you have any, but in Adrian's case, because his lot is on conservation land (ie. there's a big ravine nearby), there's an added step of getting the plans passed by Site Plan Control.

Here's what the official document says about Site Plan Control:

Site Plan Control is an important planning tool for implementing the policies of the Official Plan. A Site Plan Control by-law enables the City to approve the design and technical aspects of a proposed development to ensure it is attractive, functional and compatible with the surrounding area or planned context.

Site Plan Control can also come into the picture if the property has historical value or if there was a toxic waste dump next door or anything else where there is some sort of environmental concern.

Because the build site is on conservation land, Site Plan Control will, at a minimum, ask for an arborist's report so Adrian is now in the process of looking for an arborist. Hopefully, that's all Site Plan Control will ask for but you never really know for sure until they ask for it.

With all this stuff still to do and get approved, it's going to be weeks if not months away from the Committee of Adjustments to apply for variances and then the final building permit application. I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Considerations in building a net zero house

In theory, a net zero house is any house which produces as much or more power than it uses. If a household uses 1000 kWh/month (average household electrical usage in Ontario) yet also manages to produce 1000 kWh/month then it is a net zero house. In theory, you don't necessarily need a highly energy efficient house to be a net zero house. In practice, it's a different story. Unless you've got a whole whack of land to mount a large array of solar panels or put up a windmill or dam a stream, it's unlikely producing that much power is a feasible prospect. In an urban environment, it would be especially difficult given the space constraints.

The alternative then, is to decrease household energy usage. The most efficient ways to do this are to:

1. Seal up a house as air tight as possible. This doesn't mean the house gets no air penetration. It means that, ideally, the air flow is completely mechanically controlled so that you get enough air changes per hour to maintain comfort and health while not leaking too much warm air, in the winter, or cool air, in the summer, to the outside. The value passive house builders aim for is .6 air changes per hour or less. In other words, the building must not leak more air than 0.6 times the house volume per hour under a test pressure of 50 pascals when being tested by one of those blower doors.

2. Insulate the house. Taking into account the law of diminishing returns, you don't want to over insulate your house but one standard I'm hearing more about these days is the R-5:10:20:40:60 approach. This suggests that as a minimum there should be an insulation value of R-5 for windows, R-10 for the basement slab, R-20 for the basement walls, R-40 for aboveground walls and R-60 for the roof. If you don't know what all this means, it means a lot of insulation, way more than in the typical house.

3. Use passive solar gain for heating in the cold months as much as possible. This basically means you want your south facing windows to be a big as possible. In the summer, though, you'll need some kind of shading apparatus (like an awning) to keep the sun's heat from streaming in those windows. Flip side of the coin is to minimize north facing windows because they don't really get much solar heat gain in the winter (like none if you're in Toronto) and instead will just allow inside heat to escape because they are, by their nature, poor insulators.

4. Even with an air tight envelope, air (in controlled ventilation) and water will still have to cross the barrier and when this happens, a lot of heat can be carried out. This heat can be recovered using heat recovery devices. For air, a heat recovery ventilation unit, extracts the heat from outflowing air and transfers it to inflowing air. For water, a drain water heat recovery unit, extracts the heat from drain water and transfers it to the water flowing through the hot water line before it gets heated.

5. A heat pump, a device which acts as both an air cooler (air conditioner) and air heater, is an efficient way of meeting any heating demands not achieved by the other systems. Heat pumps are much more efficient at generating heat than furnaces or baseboard heaters and while their output may not be as high, in a well-insulated, air tight house, they should be sufficient to meet the demands.

6. Buy efficient appliances and lights.

There's more, but these are the main points. In designing a net zero house then, great consideration must be given to the envelope of the house, its orientation with respect to the sun, and the selection of highly efficient and complimentary mechanical systems. If money is no concern, a super energy efficient house really isn't that hard to achieve but the goal of this project is to also be cost effective and that presents challenges and some maybe not so obvious choices.

I'll detail some of those choices in future posts.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A modern house

When I was a kid, this was my idea of a house:

I knew that some people built houses that looked like this:but I just didn't get it. Why would you want a flat roof that made your house look like a box when you could have a peaked roof that made you house look like a house?

Well, many years later, while some tastes have stayed the same (milk chocolate over dark, French fries over mash) my preference in houses has slowly moved from traditional to modern.

I still appreciate a well designed, well built traditional home but it's the look and the feel found in modern styles that really pique my interest these days. As defined by Wikipedia: "Modern architecture is characterized by simplification of form and creation of ornament from the structure and theme of the building." Or, in other words, you won't likely see gargoyles ornamenting the roof of a modern house unless the gargoyles are helping to hold up the roof. Every part that goes into the build of a modern house has a purpose - in theory anyway. In practice, well, there's no point in being obsessive-compulsive about it.

Here are some renders of the house to be (click on image to enlarge):

Here are the floor plans:

1st Floor

2nd Floor

It's a two story building with a half basement (other half being the garage) and a walkout to the roof. The total livable space is about 1700 square feet.

The front of the house, which is south-facing, has large window areas to take advantage of solar gain in the winter. Some sort of shading device (possibly incorporating photovoltaic solar panels) will be added to block out the sun in the summer.

Some variances will be required from the city but those will be addressed in a later post.

In laying out the interior, the idea is to create an open public area on the first floor with a more traditional three bedroom layout on the 2nd floor. The neighbourhood the house is situated in is more geared towards families so the third bedroom, as opposed to, say, an interior balcony overlooking the first floor or a spa sized bathroom, is thought to be a more suitable choice.

Monday, November 29, 2010

What is net zero and is it something only Germans do?

Day by day now, before I go outside, warmer layers of clothing are added to keep out the chill. It would be nice if that's all we needed to do to keep our homes comfortable, just add on layers when it's cold, take them off when it's warm, but until someone quite smart invents easily removable woolly sweaters and Gortex jackets for houses, other methods will have to be employed.

Most people are familiar with insulation, air/moisture barriers, furnaces, hot water tanks. Even if someone's never stuffed spun glass batting in between two wall studs or taped up the seam between sheets of polyethylene house wrap, one's probably got a good idea of what this stuff does and how it helps keep the warm air inside from escaping outside too quickly. We all know that a well insulated, relatively air tight house is a more comfortable house and a cheaper house to run. What we hadn't realized, until recently, is that using a lot of these same old, easily understood technologies along with some newer building methods, we would be able to achieve some rather amazing results with respect to costs and efficiencies when it comes to maintaining a comfortable living environment inside our homes.

The passive house concept, first introduced in Germany (Passivhaus) in 1990, is a design philosophy and practice which is used to build highly energy efficient homes which require little to no energy for space heating or cooling. Combine the passive house concept with some energy generating equipment, like photovoltaic solar panels, for example, and suddenly not only do you have a super efficient house but one that actually produces as much or more energy than it consumes. Now you've got a net-zero house, referring to the net amount of energy the house uses which is not self-generated. For example, if a house uses 1000 kilowatt-hours every month from the local hydro grid (and uses no other external source of energy) but produces 1200 kilowatt-hours every month from its PV solar panels and feeds that generated energy back into the grid, then that house is considered to be a net zero house.

Not every house can be a net zero house - maybe the regional climate is just too severe, maybe there is no space for solar panels - but it's an ideal worth aiming for especially with new builds. According to Wikipedia, there are about 25000 certified passive houses in Europe, the majority of which are in Germany. On the other hand, there are only a few dozen in the United States. I'm sure those skewed numbers have got something to do with the Euro-centric certification process but still, it's indicative of who's ahead in this field and who's lagging.

In Canada, I don't think the situation is much better. This lacklustre performance is partly due to our historically cheap energy prices which created few incentives for people to be overly concerned about super efficient houses. It's also due to inertia in the building industry. Why change what is hugely profitable and ain't broke? And another part of the reason for the drought of net zero houses is the perceived costs involved with getting there.

Admittedly, if not planned properly, the pursuit of the net zero ideal can get pricey. It's easy enough to go overboard on the expenses by overloading on all the new technology that's out there now. There have been huge advances in the components that go into building more energy efficient houses, like super insulated wall systems, thermal solar panels for heating water or indoor air, quadruple paned windows, geothermal heating/cooling systems - all just the tip of a very large iceberg of technology - and all this tech usually comes with a hefty price tag. It can add up quickly. Sure, it may be relatively easy to build a net zero house if one has an unlimited budget but what's the use of that?

The point is to do net zero housing on the cheap, at least cheap enough that most people won't balk at the additional costs, cheap enough that the higher overhead pays for itself in a matter of years and not decades. Is this possible? We're here to find out.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Solar freebies

When I was a kid, I lived in a neighbourhood where a lot of the residents had swimming pools in their backyards. Not my family, though. We had a rusty swing set with plastic seats and a wobbly, too short slide attached on one side. And for some reason, none of my friends in the neighbourhood were the children of the type of parents who installed swimming pools. Which sucked. On the really hot summer days - and when I was a kid it seemed every day of summer was hot - our gang of 6 to 10 year olds would be draped over my swing set dreaming of ice cream trucks, air conditioning and wouldn't it be the best thing in the world to jump into the neighbour's pool.

The neighbour didn't like us, though. Maybe we were too loud and obnoxious. Maybe the neighbour was just a jerk. Hard to tell now, fading memory and all. Either way, we decided we had to go further afield. We identified a friendly, childless couple who lived half a block away and one afternoon when it seemed like the heat would fry us up like ants beneath a magnifying glass, we walked over into the empty field which bordered their backyard and stared longingly, and obviously, through their mesh wire fence at their swimming pool.

The couple was outside, doing some yard work. They saw us and took pity and amazingly, fifteen minutes later, they had half a dozen kids splashing in their swimming pool. In our jaded age of ever looming liabilities and paranoia of suspicious creepsters lurking around every corner, some might be thinking this story is going to end badly. Nope. None of us went missing. We all made it out and were back on the swing set before afternoon's end to review our adventure. It was unspoken but I think we all knew that this wasn't something that was going to be repeated. The couple invited us in once but to try again would be to overextend our welcome.

Aside from the fun we had, I also learned something that day. It was a bit of an a-ha moment actually.

I noticed when I was in the pool that the water was particularly warm (and no it wasn't because we had all peed in it - at least I didn't). I'd never been in a pool or lake that warm before so I said something about it to the owner and he told me the water was heated which I thought was silly. I imagined some sort of huge electric grill beneath the pool because, other than having a big campfire underneath the pool - which would've been even sillier, that was my only experience with how things got heated.

The man pointed up to his rooftop where there was long length of what looked like black garden hose coiled up into a large circle. He then showed me where the hose was attached to a pump and how the pump pumped water from the swimming pool to the rooftop where the sun would heat up the water in the black hose before draining back into the pool. I was quite impressed. Heating water by using the sun. In other words, it was a freebie. I'd heard my father complain about how much oil our house furnace burned up in the winter and how expensive it all was and yet here was this person, who surely must've been some kind of mad scientist, not six houses away, getting free heating from the sun!

Looking back on this guy, I realize how ahead of his time he was, how ahead of our time he was. So much free solar and still so few people taking advantage of it. I say better start using it before the government finds some way of taxing it or some corporation starts bottling it and selling it back to us.

Two of the more common ways to convert solar energy into something more useful is by installing solar panels which provide either heat (solar thermal) or electricity (solar PV short for solar photovoltaic). I'll get into the solar PV stuff in another post, but for now, check out this amazing solar thermal system created by Gary Reysa who lives in Montana. He built it with easy to find materials and it has pretty much replaced his hot water tank. Really impressive is that it only cost him a thousand dollars and he claims it does as good a job as many of the commercially available solar thermal hot water systems out there which will put you back several thousands of dollars. Of course, the downside is that you'll have to build it yourself but his instructions are very clear and imagine what a great boy scout moment you'll have when you tell your friends about your new hot water heating system that you made with your own two hands.

For those who just want the precis of how Gary's solar hot water heater works, and how, in theory, many solar hot water heaters work, it's like this:

You've got this big tub of water in the basement, say, and you pump this water outside through a bunch of black painted copper piping which sits inside an insulated box which faces the sun. As the water courses through the piping in the box, it gets heated by the sun to a fairly high temperature and it drains back into the big tub in the basement. So far, it sounds a lot like the swimming pool guy's set up, no? Except that if you build the insulated box properly and attach black aluminum fins onto the copper piping, you get way more efficient solar heat transfer and the water gets hotter, faster and if you've got it all sealed up and insulated really well and placed in the right location, at an angle facing the southerly sun, you could be getting hot water from the panels well into the fall season and maybe even beyond.

Now the tub of hot water in the basement isn't the hot water you actually run through your taps because that probably wouldn't be very healthy. This tub holds the hot water you use to heat the hot water that runs through your taps. It's a heat exchanger, in other words. You take the cold tap water that is going to your gas or electric hot water tank and you pipe it through coils sitting in the solar hot tub so that the cold water gets pre-heated. If the solar heated water in the tub is hot enough, it may even heat up the tap water to a high enough degree that the hot water tank doesn't have to do further heating and suddenly you've got no hot water heating bill. Freebie!

There are some electronics which should probably be installed to safeguard against freezing when the temperatures outside get too cold and the sun's behind clouds and also to make sure the water in the tub doesn't get too hot (yes, that can happen) but besides that, the system is pretty simple to understand, build and maintain.

So, have I built one of these things yet? Not yet, but it's a test project Adrian and I hope to do sooner than later. It's certainly something Adrian plans on setting up on his roof once his house is built. We'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The old place

This house still stands on the site of the new build. It once was a small store which serviced the rural community which used to be here. Someone built a small addition in the back for a kitchen and a washroom and the store became a home. Other houses were built in the area and soon a neighbourhood had sprung up. In the decades since, some of those neighbouring houses were torn down and newer, bigger houses were built. The old house, though, was left more or less alone and it aged.

Its walls started to bow out from the weight of decades of successive snow loads on its flat roof.

The brick facade peeled away from the wood frame beneath. In the image above, you can see the large gap between the west facing window, which still sits firm in the house frame, and the bricks around it buckling out under compression.

There are other gaps and cracks throughout the exterior walls of the house, some of which run almost the full height or width of the house.

Some of the wood from the walls taken out of the second floor lie in the backyard. There is almost nothing salvageable.

In the backyard, there is a metal shed made from two sheds pushed together with a hole cut into the common wall. This double shed was used to store car parts and repair tools but most of that has been cleaned out.

Beside the front door: a phone book, thrown through the front window. When I walk inside, I smell the odor of old age. The house is tired.

It sags in the middle. Adrian tells me that some lumber posts were shoved under the floor joists by the previous owners to keep them from sagging any further.

Broken mechanics remain in place, thick with dust, and power cords, yellowed and cracked.

Something greasy, sticky covers all the cabinetry - testimony to the thousands of meals that were prepared here.

Who sat around this table? Where are they now? Was this kitchen filled with laughter or daily drudgery?

Aside from the wallpaper, the curved railings at the top of the stairs on the second floor seem to be the only other design flourish in the whole house. Maybe they can be salvaged.

Knob and tube wiring hidden in the walls.

The washroom is cramped, barely enough floor space for the sink, toilet and tub. And that rattling, single pane window - it must have been cold stepping out of the bath in the winter.

The house is old. It is out of breath; its joints are brittle; its skin is cracked. It's done its job, kept its occupants sheltered and warm all those decades, but it can no longer fulfill that purpose. Sometime in the spring, it will be torn down.

A little history

One day, a long time ago in the south of France, Andre, a club carrying Cro-Magnon man with an unusually large head, dragged his wimpy hairless butt into a cave to warm it up from the wind and rain and a little spark in his little brain decided it might be a good idea to claim the place for himself. He set up a couple of comfy armchairs and a table in the middle of the cave and then threw down a futon in the corner. He got himself a kitchen unit (unassembled but cheap from some nomadic Neanderthal who had arrived from Sweden) and looked forward to preparing his signature mastadon steaks au poivre and curly frites. He decorated the cave walls with charcoal cartoon drawings of his somewhat exaggerated exploits and then he got himself a mate, or two, and made little versions of himself, some of whom died - but that was to be expected given the lack of decent socialized health-care back then - and the surviving little versions of himself grew up and eventually moved out and got their own caves to live in.

All the other Cro-Mags in the clan, who at first just laughed at Andre and his brood for living "indoors", calling cave dwelling a fad, weren't laughing when suddenly real estate prices started to rise and mortgages were invented.

Those early "found" homes were quickly all claimed and the rest of the proto-human grunts had to make their own shelters. Fast forward from leaf and twig huts to stone cottages to hand carved palaces to cookie cutter suburban sprawl and now here we are, millenia later, and we all still yearn for our own castles and people being people, we all want our castles to be uniquely special, an expression of our personal values, tastes and, more often than not, our wealth. We want to create a bold statement for our friends, if not the world, to see and experience.

Ever since I was a little kid, I've thought about building my own home, after all, what bolder statement can be made than by saying, "Oh, this place here, yeah, I built it. Used a hammer, a saw, a pile of timber and a bag of nails. No biggie," but that thought was like other thoughts along the lines of "gee, one day I'd like to write a book or learn to play the piano really well or climb one of those mountains where Sherpas do most of the heavy lifting" in that it never materialized. Plus, living vicariously through the never ending reno nightmares of so many friends and acquaintances, the thought of building a whole house by someone who's never built a whole house before, just seemed like a crazy idea.

The closest to building my own home was a one room bungalow in red and white LEGO blocks which I crafted when I was eight and which was promptly destroyed when I did some "structural testing" on it by throwing it out of my second floor bedroom window onto the driveway below. Unfortunately, my father's car was in between my window and the driveway at the time so the hood of the Thunderbird got structurally tested as well.

A few years ago, I met Adrian through work (I hired him). During one of our lunch time conversations, Adrian mentioned that he wanted to build his own house. Everyone at the table nodded knowingly. There I was with my engineering degree, another person had an architecture degree, another person had been reno'ing his house for ten years or more and none of us had ever built our own homes. Here comes Adrian, a recent immigrant to Canada, and he wanted to build his own home. He wanted to design and build a house that would only use a minimal amount of energy to run. He was talking about a net zero house, though I didn't know the term at the time - and he wanted to build it in Toronto. That was just crazy talk.

One person's crazy is another person's reality. Apparently, for Adrian, crazy is just a challenge that has not yet been overcome. He's gone and bought the property he will build on. He's come up with an initial design which has been submitted for the first round of city approvals. The old house still sitting on the lot will be demolished in the spring and construction will follow immediately after. I'm going to record the whole process and help out with the build whenever I can. It's still a crazy idea but every day it seems less so.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Home is where the hearth is

Never mind what the official first day of fall is. For me, the start of the cool season is the day I turn on the furnace. I hear the whumf as it chugs to life after a months long sleep. It's like I've revived the patient. His heart beats once again. I feel the subtle shift in pressure as the fan starts pushing the air around. A gas fired warmth flows out from the floor vents.

I live in an old house. I've seen it identified on a city planner's map from the 1880s. When I had the roof shingles replaced a few years ago, the workers dug up four layers of various roofing materials including the original, and mostly rotted, cedar shakes and hand made nails. There are tree trunks in the basement holding up the joists. There is a certain allure to living in a house with history but it's predicted we will have a colder winter this year and when faced with another season of drafts and cold floors and plastic film on windows, there are days when I would gladly trade yesterday's charm for tomorrow's technology.

To live in comfort. To see the end of utility bills. To decrease the damage upon the Earth's ecology. To be free from the seemingly intransigent structures modern living and modern comfort are so dependent upon. This is what is embodied in the pursuit of a net zero house, a passive house, a green house - call it what you will.