construction browsing by tag


It isn’t easy being green

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

A friend of mind recently asked what green features we’d incorporated into the house, and I thought that would make a good post here.

While we elected early on not to pursue LEED certification for our house (which I’m very glad of…it would have taken a lot longer and been more of a hassle than it was worth), we did try to do things in a way that is sustainable.

One of the first things had to do with the slab that was already on the property when we bought it. It was not the size or layout that fit the kind of house we wanted to build, but we hated the thought of jackhammering it up and hauling all the concrete to the landfill. Our solution, ultimately, was to use the existing slab and to build two separate structures. In the long run, I’m glad we did this as we now have a lovely separate office and guest house.

Of course, the most obvious is that we are living off the grid. All of our power comes from solar with the exception of propane which is used to run the stove, hot water heater, the dryer, and the fireplace. Our hot water heater is one of the instant kinds which only heats water when you need it, rather than keeping water hot all the time. I mostly dry clothes on a line outside, so the dryer isn’t used much. We use the fireplace occasionally, but more for ambiance than for heat. (Also, it is code that you have to have a heat source.)

A consequence of running on solar is that we are careful about the power consumption of our appliances and lights. We always check this when we buy new like fans or other electronics. We have mostly CFL and LED light bulbs. (No halogens!) I am looking forward to having a bigger kitchen that will let me cook more on electric (e.g. a crock pot, microwave, toaster oven) and less on propane. On the rare occasion when we multiple days with no sun, we watch our electric consumption more carefully. (We do have a propane generator, but we don’t need to use it much, because our solar setup is quite robust.)

The biggest “green” feature of our house by far is the insulation. In both houses, we have thick super-insulated walls. (In Virga, we insulated with Icynene, a spray-in insulation made from caster beans.) This keeps the house relatively warm during winter and relatively cool in the summer, even when temperatures reach extremes of below zero or over 110, as they sometimes do. Before we lived here, I really had no idea how much difference insulation could make. Now, I think it may be more of a solution to our fossil fuel dependence than even renewable energy.

We have a bright white roof, which deflects a fair amount of sunlight, keeping the house cooler. (Strangely, we actually got a small energy tax credit for this on the first house.) We also have good double-paned windows that I love.

We do some other things to moderate the temperature. (We have no air conditioning despite living in the desert.) In the summer, we pull down shades on the western-facing windows. During the heat of the days, we keep the windows closed, and in the evenings, when it cools down, which it almost always does, we open then. We also have several ceiling fans.

In the new house, we have a couple big adobe walls, which were designed to provide passive solar and keep the house warm at night. It’s hard to judge yet how effective that will be.

One thing I’d hoped to be “green” about was our choice of building materials. We were able to use some materials that are more sustainable and less toxic. Our floors are stained and sealed with soy based products that we really love. We also used environmentally friendly paints from Yolo. These were more expensive, but worth it, we think. When feasible, we used some locally sourced wood for some of the decorative pieces like our doors.

Other materials, like OSB, dry wall, and stucco, were too difficult and/or expensive to find green alternatives for.

Beyond building, I’ve found that now that we live so much closer to the land, we think a lot more about living in a more sustainable way. In this way, it is much like living in Africa. When you have to dispose of your own trash, rather than having it picked up and hauled off for you, you think more about what you put in the trash. When you get your water from your own pump, you think more about what you put in the water supply. Now, we throw out a lot less and recycle a lot more. We are also vigilant about composting, which not only reduces trash, but gives us safe, organic fertilizer.

We grow a lot of our own food, which means not only better food, but also less trips to town. It’s not uncommon for us not to go anywhere in the car for days on end. (On the other hand, having a truck, which obviously consumes more gas than a small car, is a virtual necessity here.)

Once we get the house more complete, we’re going to put in a rainwater harvesting system.

All in all, I’m happy about what we’ve done. We’re lucky to live in a time when all this is pretty feasible, and I think that things will only get better over time.

The post post

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

It is almost five years to the day since we moved here.

And we now have finished (“finished” being a relative term) the main house and moved in. Hurray!

Of course, there are still things to do, but we are through all the big stuff, and the house is quite liveable.

Here’s Brad enjoying our first evening after moving in.


And here’s how the kitchen counters and bar turned out.

It has been a long haul getting to this point. It took almost exactly a year longer than I’d hoped (yes, I know; everyone told me it would), but I’m glad we took the extra time to do all the little things we really wanted to do with the house. After all, we’ll likely be here a long time.

I am amazed that we actually built this house. Then, on the other hand, when someone says, “How amazing!,” I think, “Not really. Anyone could do it. You just put one foot in front of the other.” True that.

I am always gratified by how well Brad and I work together, and building this house together was just another example.

Happy holidays everyone! We’ll be enjoying ours with a little relaxation and solitude.

Working away

Monday, November 11th, 2013

We haven’t been writing much, but we’ve been busy at work. Here are some things we’ve done lately.

  • Painting (now done)
  • Patched adobe
  • Sealed all the adobe (big job)
  • Working on closets
  • Bought kitchen cabinet boxes; currently finishing and building doors
  • Finishing lots and lots of wood (baseboard, windowsills, window trim)
  • Bought a stove (will be installed after cabinets are done)
  • Distressing some metal for ornament
  • Built a new cold frame out of leftover adobe and glass; planted some winter crops


  • Harvested a little under 40 pounds of sweet potatoes


Red, red

Sunday, November 10th, 2013

Here’s what we’ve been up to in the house:



Sunday, October 6th, 2013


Why this is taking so long

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

So this week were were planning to finish the bathroom. One day for the glass block wall. One day for the cabinets under the sink.


The glass block went great. Then we started to assemble the cabinets, and I had an idea. They don’t show much so we were going to make them quickly and easily out of mostly plywood with some nice finished facing. Then I thought about how nice they’d look if they were made out of a higher quality finished wood (our ceiling boards/baseboard wood) that was tongue and grooved together. Also, I thought this would be a nice way to learn some cabinetmaking skills that we might use later in the kitchen. (We still haven’t decided if we are buying cabinets, which would be faster, but more expensive and less nice, or making them, which would be time consuming.)

Four days later, we have a little less than half of the cabinet done.


BUT it’s beautiful. And we’ve learned some things. And they’re really more just what I wanted.

Many decisions like this have led to a house that has a lot more custom work and is much much nicer and has more long-lasting craftsmanship than we’d originally planned. And has taken a year or so longer. I think it’s worth it in the long run. But that’s why it’s taking so long.

Kind of like camping

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

We pretty much finished the bathroom this week (except for the glass block shower wall and a few cabinets, which will be going in next week), and so with a visitor here, we spent the first night in our new house! (To be clear, we are still a long way from moving in….the kitchen remains to be done.)

Here are some pictures of the bathroom. I think the design turned out nice. (I really had a lot of uncertainty about this stone tile, but in the end, I love it.)



sink (I mail ordered this and was really happy with it.)

sink (I mail ordered this and was really happy with it.)

Yes, more purple walls! (Oddly, this is a google search term that often comes to our site.)

Brad hard at work (I cut most of the tile.)

Brad hard at work (I cut most of the tile.)


My idea for a diamond pattern floor - more work, but doesn't it look nice?

My idea for a diamond pattern floor – more work, but doesn’t it look nice?

Sleeping in the new house was nice. It’s quieter than the other house, which I didn’t expect. The views from the bedroom are different of course, but nice. It will be even nicer with a kitchen and a few other things. :)

Last of the ceiling

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

The last of the ceiling went up yesterday. Yay!


We also said goodbye for now to a special helper friend this week.

We’ve really made great progress on the house in the last 6 weeks. You might think that’s strange since I was gone most of July. (Or maybe I’m not as “helpful” as I think I am. :) But actually, knowing that I’d be gone and really, really wanting to get this finished, we’ve tried getting a helper this summer. It started with looking for someone to help dig some trenching, but then we had hopes of someone doing more.

Mostly, they weren’t that great. Some didn’t show up for days with no word. Some stopped coming altogether. (One actually moved across country…we heard…not from him.)

Then we found Eddie. Eddie has been a dream. He showed up every day. On time. He had a pleasant personality. He was skilled (especially with taping drywall, which is not my favorite job.) He worked hard all the time he was there. When there was a break in whatever we were doing, he’d always find something helpful to do. Sweeping the floor. Cleaning up. Gathering trash. Whatever.

While I was gone in July, he worked with Brad. And then when I was back, the three of us worked together. Until today, when Eddie headed back to college.

We’ll miss Eddie, but I think we’ll stay in touch. And of course, we’ll think of him often because his mark is on this house. Oh and he does artwork too.

Closets…the progression

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013


…and the drywall transition to the vigas and glulam is really looking amazing.



Friday, August 9th, 2013

I’m finally back home…for good now. And I jumped back into construction full steam this week. (I have the sore shoulders and bruised shins to prove it.)

Today we designed and began to build my closet. That was exciting. Closets are one of the things that I’ve missed most in the past couple years.


Other than that, we’re mostly working on drywall now. Lots and lots of sanding, hence the sore shoulders.

In other news, the hedgerow and outdoor tomatoes have both outgrown their mini-hoop covering and have been set free. With all the rain we’ve gotten, everything is green and thriving, and the wildlife should have plenty to eat without getting into my garden. Still, we’re keeping an eye on everything!