Wednesday, December 23, 2009

7 Reasons to Choose a Blue Roof

The blue steel roof is one of the visually distinctive features of our home. Although beautiful, it was initially chosen for function. Here are seven reasons to invest in a steel roof.

Steel panels are...

1. Long Lasting
Galvalume* panels boast a 25-year warranty, with a 30-year warranty against chalk and fade of the color of your choice. Panels are available in 18 different colors.

2. Fireproof
Steel panels are noncombustible.

3. Waterproof
Steel is impervious to water. Snow and ice are shed in the winter.

4. Recyclable
The panels are made of 25% recycled steel and are recyclable.

5. Quiet
Contrary to popular belief, steel panels provide a quiet roof. The mental image of rain drumming on a metal roof comes from barn roofing, where the noise originates from open framing and no insulation.

6. Affordable
Although a steel roof may initially cost more, costs are lower over the life cycle of the roof.

7. Ideal for Rainwater Collection
Haven was designed around a system of cistern tanks that serve as our sole water supply. According to Suzy Banks and Richard Heinichen, the best roofs for rainwater collection are metal (16).

We chose to purchase the Galvalume* steel panels and construction supplies from American Building Components. (*Galvalume is the trademark name of the coating applied to their bare sheet steel products.)

Readers who have been with me from day one know why our roof is blue. Fred and I traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii in July, 2005. Many of the homes there have metal roofing in a variety of colors. The color that I identify most with Hawaii is a tranquil blue. While I knew it would be an impossibility to transplant my life to Hawaii, choosing a blue metal roof for my new home was my way of acknowledging my inner wish to live the rest of my life out at South Point on the Big Island.

Are you curious as to what the runner-up color choices were? I thought so!
Life Under an Ivy Green Roof
Life Under a Burnished Slate Roof
Life Under a Burgundy Roof
Life Under a Koko Brown Roof

Koko Brown? Yeah... I've put up with too much brown in my life. For me, I'm happy to write from under my blue roof.


American Building Components

Banks, Susan and Richard Heinichen. Rainwater Collection For the Mechanically Challenged. Texas: Tank Town, 2004.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Seriously, Why Straw Bale?

When I began working on my radiant floor post the other day, I realized that there are so many other posts I need to write for the sustainable part of this blog---top of the list being reasons why a person would try to build a house out of straw. Living in our particular part of the northeastern United States, straw bale construction isn't something you see often. The only exposure most people in this region have to green building is what they may have caught on HGTV. That makes teaching with homes like Terra Dei and Haven Homestead a special joy. To take a visitor from the mindset of "Why on earth would you want to build with straw?" to "Boy, that's pretty cool," is a gift we're blessed to give. Our aim is to share open-mindedness, possibility and vision, not to convince visitors that they could or should build a straw bale house.

Here's the thing, the answer to "Why build with bales?" has already been published many times by experts in the field. Not being one to reinvent the wheel, what I'd like to do is give you a rundown of a list compiled by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron, from their book, Serious Straw Bale. In their first chapter they list eight excellent reasons why building with bales is a viable alternative to conventional construction, as listed here.

1. Beauty
I love that this is the first benefit they give for building with straw, because beauty itself attracts me most to straw bale construction. The combination of straw walls and earth plaster could perhaps be considered the antithesis of conventional home construction---both in types of material and in aesthetics. There is a subtle beauty to a bale wall, seen in the gentle curves and in the way the light falls on the plaster throughout the day.

The above photo is from one of my favorite spots in Haven. Note the rounded windowsills, the deep ledge where one can curl up with a blanket and a book. Above the chair, a truth window bears witness to the origin of the wall.

2. Insulation Value
According to Lacinski and Bergeron, "Plastered bales provide a highly insulative wall at a price that is competitive with quality conventional construction" (p. 5). In layman's terms, bale walls can provide more insulation than conventional walls for around the same cost.

3. Nontoxic
In a world that we have increasingly filled with pollutants, this is a fundamental reason to choose straw bale construction. Straw is a natural material. "Unlike many manufactured building products, they [straw walls] contain no toxic ingredients and are chemically stable. They will release no unhealthy chemicals into your home, and will not emit poisonous fumes in case of a fire" (p. 9). At Haven, we did our best to choose nontoxic building/furnishing materials within our budget at every step. Straw and plastered walls were an early part of this continual process.

4. Use of Resources
When you choose to build a home, you are choosing to use resources. Your choice is to reuse material from previous construction or to use new material. We did some of each. Straw is a new material, but it is one that is readily available in our area. It can be grown in one season. In some locations straw is actually burned in the field as a waste product of agriculture. By using straw, "we might also reduce the pressure on forests (the most important carbon sinks and oxygen producers on the planet) and the demand for relatively energy- and pollution-intensive industrial insulation materials" (p. 10).

5. Economical
In these tight economic times, cost is a factor in everything we do. (Had we known what the last four years would bring financially, I don't know that we would have chosen to build when we did, if at all.) Our family was rapidly outgrowing our two bedroom Cape Cod house at the time. We were faced with buying a larger existing home, building a conventional home or building a straw bale home. We chose to build a straw bale home because we have experience in this area. We knew that if we did most of the construction ourselves we would save money in the process. Building our own straw bale home would allow us to obtain "much more home for our money", as the popular saying goes. According to Lacinski and Bergeron, "Bale construction is getting to be cost-competitive with good-quality stick-framed construction, assuming a tight design that doesn't drive labor costs through the roof" (p. 10).

6. Owner-Builder Friendly
Aptly written, these authors describe straw bale as "well suited to a 'gang of friends' method of construction" (p. 12). Especially for raising the walls, many hands make light work. We were able to place the bales for the first floor using two work weekends. Along the entire journey we have been fortunate to have good friends and family members who took our venture as their own and have been intricately involved in the construction and finishing details of our home. Working with friends saves time and money. More than that, it allows you to build more satisfying relationships with people you thought you knew well prior to building.

7. Fun
Different people have varying ideas as to what constitutes "fun". I wouldn't say that I particularly enjoy many of the jobs in construction, until you get to mudding and plastering the walls. For me, those jobs contain a great deal of creative fun! That is one of the fabulous parts of building your own home: people are free to try out a vast number of different jobs and see what they enjoy the most. There's also something to be said for the "synergy of group effort" (p. 12), stepping back and saying, "Can you believe we accomplished all this together?"

The above photo is an example of my idea of fun. This is the inside of my front door, which leads into a mudroom. Note the rounded walls next to the door, the curve of the interior corner! We were near the end of the interior plastering, and the bare wall was begging for some variation. My inspiration for cutting a niche into the bale wall was taken from Athena and Bill Steen's book, The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes. Todd used a chainsaw to carve into the bale. I used earth plaster to shape a triangular shelf, and the Trinity niche was born. The small mudroom was also the perfect place to apply a darker color of plaster---just for fun.

8. Durable
Bale buildings have been created for almost as long as the baling machine has been in existence. Much of the durability of bale walls comes from proper finishing with some type of plaster. When detailed correctly they are actually fire resistant; "plastered bale-wall systems have outperformed wood-framed walls in fire tests" (p. 13). Rodents and insects have a hard time finding a home in a wall that has been plastered and sealed off. Though we don't worry about it in our area, bale walls have even been tested and considered a viable option for earthquake-prone areas (p. 15).

Many thanks to Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron for sharing their collective experience with us in Serious Straw Bale. It is well known in straw bale circles and a book we trusted throughout the building process.

I will say this: the experiences I have had building two different straw bale structures has changed my life for the better. Not only have we created beautiful, safe, warm homes, I have personally learned many different construction skills along the way. An exerpt from the Christmas letter I typed last night: "Words cannot express how we’ve grown closer as a family simply because we endured the building process. The house becomes an excellent metaphor for building our life together, of taking separate agendas and meshing them into one structure that can hold us all."

That's not to say that everything along the building journey has been easy. On another day, I'll be sure to compile a post of "Boy, I wish we had known xyz about building," or "Yeah, that wasn't our best idea." But for today, from the office where I sit, I have a pretty optimistic view of our Life Under a Blue Roof. Thanks for sharing our journey!

Have you ever visited or built a structure of straw bales? Post a comment and let us know!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Living the Radiant Life

Living in a straw bale house, we get a lot of questions. These range from the comical "Three Pigs" type allusions, to the more serious, "Isn't it a fire hazard to have straw in your walls?" Once people realize that the straw serves as insulation, they want to know how warm the house is. As in all the homes we've lived we keep the temperature around 68 degrees Fahrenheit. We could certainly keep it warmer, but we try to treat heat as the valuable resource it is. Hence my ever-growing collection of wool cardigans.

When people ask how warm our house is, I think what they really want to know is how much energy we are saving. Until we've lived here a year we won't have a definitive answer to that. According to Chris Magwood in his book Straw Bale Building, "Insulation values (commonly referred to as R-values) for conventional residential wall systems typically range between R-12 and R-20, depending on climactic conditions. Straw bale walls have R-values between R-35-R-50, depending on their width." In that way, using straw bales for insulation has allowed us to significantly reduce the amount of energy required to heat and cool a house this size.

Haven Homestead is designed to operate on two heating sources. The first is a radiant floor system, fueled by propane. The second is a woodburning Finnish masonry heater. These two heat sources will work together in the future; the masonry heater is not yet online. We look forward to firing it up next winter, fueling it with wood split from our homestead. This will allow us to dramatically reduce our reliance on propane.

There are many positive aspects of living with a radiant floor. Extremely quiet systems, we don't hear the rush of the furnace turning on, the drone of air whooshing through a register. Gone are the days of itchy skin and nosebleeds from air that is overdried from a forced air system. Radiant systems are also hidden from sight in the subfloor; not only visually pleasing, this also makes them extremely childproof. They aren't prone to large fluctuations in temperature and distribute heat evenly.

For those of you who may have never experienced a radiant floor, ours is an open direct system designed with components from the Radiantec company based in Vermont. "The system uses one very efficient water heater to make domestic hot water for the home and warm water for radiant heating. Radiant heating systems warm the building by locating heating tubes within a large surface area of the building and then circulating warm water through the tubes." (Radiantec Open Direct System Installation, pg. 1) When the construction of the masonry heater is complete the two systems will work in concert, with heating coils for the floor running through the fireplace. This will preheat the water before it arrives at the hot water tank, reducing the amount of heat needed (and the amount of propane used) to bring the water in the hot water tank up to the desired temperature.

Two of the largest advantages for us in choosing a radiant floor heating system were ease of installation and system cost. According to the brochure we obtained from Radiantec, "Installation of radiant heat does not have to be hard, and it does not have to be expensive." They go on to say, "Radiantec Company thinks that the task of installing underfloor radiant heat is the task of a reasonably competent handyman...and that the work can be done with common, readily available tools." I would consider their opinion correct on both counts. Though we did have a licensed plumber help install the hot water manifold, Todd and my father were able to complete the actual installation of the floor elements. Radiantec designed the layout; we placed strapping across the entire subfloor and laid the Pex tubing between the strapping members. We filled the cavities next to the Pex tubing with sand. (Sand was chosen for its excellent heat retention and relatively low cost, as well as the fact that it requires no additional manufacturing, as is the case with cement.) We covered the entire first floor with cement backer board and laid ceramic tile wall-to-wall.

Regarding system cost, our expense for purchasing the components of the system (Pex tubing, manifold, reflective barrier, couplings, pump, all valves, digital temperature display, pressure gauges, etc.) ran around $2,400. An additional $1,696 was needed to purchase the hot water tank, bringing the total component cost to $4,096. (Note, in an effort to save in construction costs, we opted for a less expensive water heater than the extremely efficient Polaris recommended by Radiantec, with the intent to replace it with a Polaris in the future.) At the time we purchased the materials for our system a comparable conventional baseboard hot water system would have cost us approximately $6,500 (Radiantec Heating Systems, pg. 3).

Although it was not my intent to turn this post into an advertisement for Radiantec, we've been very pleased with our team effort to design and install Haven's radiant floor. Radiantec is a member of the International Code Council. They offer assistance designing systems, help with materials specification, and provide detailed installation manuals. They also provide unlimited toll-free technical support for as long as you own your system. Our house is warm and draft-free. As our son is often wont to do, you can walk across the ceramic tile in your bare feet in winter with a level of comfort.

Taken just this morning, featuring Batman pajamas and bare feet.


Magwood, Chris and Peter Mack. Straw Bale Building: How to Plan, Design and Build With Straw. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2002.

Radiantec Incorporated
Box 1111, Lyndonville, Vt 05851
(800) 451-7593
FAX (802) 626-8045