Friday, December 21, 2007

And if you're looking for the TODAY show blog link ...

All ya gotta do is CLICK HERE!

A donation has been made in your honor ....

At Humphrey House, we're not so much on the Festivus bandwagon. We do the whole Christmas thing. With lots of people, and lots of presents, and eggnog, and food, and Uncle Elvis hosting karaoke in the living room. And since we do it up so big each year, I doubt we'll have much time over the next week or so to do any updates - (although the drywall has begun!). But we do have a hiatus gift for you, our loyal readers, friends, and viewers - a little something to tide you over until our next post and make you feel all tingly inside.

Enjoy, and happy holidays to all ...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Soy-Based Foam Insulation

Our kitchen will be the warmest and quietest place in our house, thanks to the new soy foam insulation now expanding in our walls. The stuff is really neat to see go in and even better once installed.
Soy-based foam is made by BioBased, and expands about 100 times its original size to fill every nook and cranny in the walls, better than any kind of rolled insulation. Unlike traditional fiberglass insulation, which even though it holds thermal energy in, teh foam also stops air leakage. This will be especially welcome in the cold and drafty kitchen nook addition (located over a crawlspace).

And no, just because it's made from soybeans doesn't mean it's edible to people (or critters for that matter). We chose a soy product because, while there are other spray foam insulation available, this is the only one that is not oil-based (urethane), and it is a water-based spray, so it truly is sustainable and green. It doesn't even smell bad when they're spraying it. Loking

For our project, we needed to get a minimum R-19 in the walls to meet code requirements, so we went with a "closed-cell" version, which provides an effective R-value of 5.5 per inch! What does all this mean? Well for our kitchen, we won't need to have as many heat leads cutting into the floor, and we should see a big impact in terms of lower utility bills. We may not drop 50% like a whole-house (new construction) would get, but it will still be significant for this old house.

And as we've also discovered, it's an awesome noise barrier. When we checked it out last night, the room was almost dead silent. It will be nice to not hear the ambulances running down our neighboring street on the way to the hospital anymore!

There is video on BioBased's website that shows much better than I can explain how this all works. But if you're in the Chicago area and interested in checking out soy foam insulation for your home project, I recommend contacting Renewable Resource Insulation to see how they might be able to help. One note: this does need to be applied to open-cavity walls (studs). They don't yet have a product that can be injected inside existing walls, but I'm told it's in the works.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Insulation Made of (Human?) Hair

Our kitchen's breakfast nook is a bump-out over a crawlspace next to our kitchen. We originally thought this was added on, but after peeling back layers of the house, we now realize this was part of the original home. This latest discovery helped confirm that. We had to remove an odd covering that was above the ceiling joists in the nook, and it turned out to be hair! Yes, indeed Hair! After removing this, our floor looked like Cousin It got a trim.

But what exactly is it? We had briefly seen hints of the mysterious building material, but nothing quite prepared me for seeing the whole thing on our floor. It was quite a hairy mess! (sorry, I couldn't resist a pun). For those curious about this material, it was basically a 1/2" of hair sandwiched between 2 layers of building paper. It was clearly very old and practically disintegrated on touch. Unfortunately I don't have any "before" photos of this, but it was placed (not fastened) above 1x6 boards running perpendicular the ceiling joists. Above the paper/hair sandwich, another run of 1x1's were nailed to other framing to hold the thing in place. Here's a photo:

I simply can't believe this was used. Especially since elsewhere in the home (e.g. the walls, floors) there is no insulation! Maybe this was an attempt to keep the naturally cooler addition warmer? It probably only had an R-value of like 1. Also, exactly what kind of hair is it? Part of me wants to take it and get it tested. Is it horse hair, or some other animal? Perhaps human? Maybe a long lost relative? Will I find the body belonging to this hair buried in the crawlspace? All very engaging questions, you be the judge.

Jen and I will be making a tight building envelope and having soy-based foam insulation installed in our walls (more on that later), but while we were getting estimates, one contractor said he had seen this only a few times and it was clearly a sign of a pre-1920 building technique (our house was built in 1912). Hair. I never would have believed it. I'm left in wonder.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Beginning to look a lot like

2007 will be the Year Without A Christmas Tree here at Humphrey House due to our current lack of space and general state of chaos, so I decided to try my hand at doing some decorating outside.

We also are lacking power on the porch area due to the bathroom light fiasco, so my plan was to use straight up decoration and no lights. Thanks to Boy Scout Troop #49 for providing me with the lovely pine garland and "36 double d" wreath (that was a little disturbing to hear over and over) at a discount (sometimes it pays to show up late) and to dadoo for helping me to hang it up before the sleet and snow arrived and would have made standing on a ladder on our sloping stairs especially dangerous! I bought some "unbreakable" ornaments at Ace yesterday and when Jay came home we attached them to the wreath and the garland as high up as we could go (Scott, we needed you! :) Anyways, it all came out pretty, if a bit old-fashioned. Getting me in the mood if nothing else!

KItchen Cabinets pt 2

Jason never remembers to post a picture along with his essays, er, blog posts. This is from the American Woodmark website, and shows the cabinets we chose ... Townsend style, cherry wood, spice finish.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Our Cabinet Decision

Trying to be green isn't always as easy as it sounds, especially for remodeling homes. Although there is research that shows that green building adds only a marginal cost to a new building (commercial construction), it's not necessarily the case for home remodelers. We've discovered this the hard way, especially when selecting cabinets for our kitchen.

See, for our cabinets we did the traditional 3-estimates approach, but one of the estimates we did was from a local Chicago manufacturer, Urban Prairie, getting their feet off the ground at GreenMaker, Chicagoland's green building supplier. They offer cabinets made from sustainably harvested wood (not a clear-cut forest), minimizing wood waste, assembled with formaldehyde-free glue and non-toxic finishing, resulting in low-VOCs. The owner was really hip to our green remodeling efforts and tried to work with us as much as possible, but ultimately, the expense was still almost one and half times the cost of other estimates we received.

The second estimate was close to the "green" cabinets, but still a bit much for our budget. But before we went with the third estimate, cabinets from a big-box home store, I did want to know the manufacturer's sustainability practices. Specifically, where they get their wood from and how is it harvested, and whether their adhesives used formaldehyde. When I called American Woodmark, I got a first flustered rep who clearly had never been asked about this before. She took my information down, and I was called back a few days later by Bryan Earl, the vice president of marketing and communications.

Although American Woodmark doesn't score very high on the eco-friendly scale, Mr. Earl was fairly forthright and not ignorant on the topics. He explained that while the wood was not FSC-certified, trees were not illegally logged in some foreign country, but came from Appalachian mountains. One negative was the statement that they don't really replant, they just "let the trees take care of themselves" in terms of repopulating.

As for the adhesives used in the particle board, American Woodmark uses glue that does contain formaldahyde, but their products exceed HUD's air quality standards of .4 parts per million (ppm). Mr. Earl then proceeded to tell me that wood gives off formaldehyde naturally. While I don't doubt the veracity of the statement, I do think it might not be at as high a rate as formaldehyde-based glue.

Anyway, despite these issues, we are limited to a shoestring budget and unfortunately were not able to go with green cabinets, electing for other green features in our kitchen remodel. So a few weeks ago we placed an order for mission-style cherry cabinets from American Woodmark. The cherry is at least a quick growing tree, and more importantly, we have the satisfaction of letting manufacturers know that consumers are starting to pay attention to these issues.

Much to our surprise, our new cabinets arrived earlier than advertised last week. Ah! They're piled up in our living room now, and it have lit a fire under us to get the kitchen ready for them. It's amazing how room utility comes and goes as building supplies find a space in unexpected areas of the home!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Humphrey House Wish List

Everyone keeps asking Jen and I what they should get us for Christmas this year. After another year of work on Humphrey House, and so much of it accomplished with the help of our friends and family, we've been telling people, "Nothing! You've given us your sweat and blood helping on our house at various times throughout the year - that's the best present ever!"

But some people persist and won't be dissuaded. They implore us, "Don't you want something to open up when we get together for Christmas?" Well, if we must create a material list for people, why not make it a list of materials! So, here are our some wish list items for Humphrey House (green-ish things first):

So there it is. A Material List of Materials. Ta-Da!

But we're serious when we say that the best gift we've ever received is all the amazing people in our lives who've been so helpful and supportive (even through all the "I told you so's"). FEEL THE LOVE, FOLKS!

Electrifying our Kitchen

Thanksgiving weekend was so busy at Humphrey House that we're still recovering from the work. It began innocently enough by continuing some framing-related activities, and a touch of demolition as the remaining plaster and lathe in our hallway was removed so we could have a clean surface to frame from and also replace the old wiring. Then we started electrical work.

Our electrician friend Fred came by Saturday morning bright and early at 6 am and we began routing the conduit piping for our kitchen. After living in a kitchen for 2+ years with inferior lighting, I now realize how important this is. We used to have one center-mounted ceiling fan light, and a fluorescent light over our sink. The problem with a center ceiling light is that, while functional, there is no place you can go in the kitchen without having your shadow follow you and get in your work space. It's extremely frustrating!

Our new lighting plan will be much more robust with multiple schemes. We're installing a center fixture again, but this will be supplemented by pendant lights over the sink and the peninsula counter. We'll have four 4" recessed can lights (all that would fit in our 2x6 ceiling) focused on work areas like the stove and counters on either side of the sink. And most helpful, we'll have undercabinet lighting for a bright work area!

In order to avoid watching our electrical usage increase exponentially with the new lights, I'd like to get some LED strips for undercabinet lighting and dimmable compact fluorescent light bulbs, also knowns as cold-cathode bulbs (CCFLs not to be confused with standard CFLs). These now have a good color temperature (2800 Kelvin) so it won't give off a harsh white/blue light normally associated with fluorescents, and can screw into any existing light fixture and last even longer than standard CFLs (which of course have a longer life and lower consumption than standard incandescent bulbs).

Anyway, in the course of working this weekend, we discovered that the original wiring feeding much of the first floor ceiling fixtures was in very bad shape. Not originally a huge concern since we were redoing it all in the kitchen anyway, right?

Well, the problem is the wires in our first floor bathroom ceiling light, which serves as kind of a wiring hub, were overheating a bit and the old cloth insulation was all brittle and decayed at the touch. Ouch! So now we have to pull down part of the bath ceiling and try to find a part of the original BX that is in serviceable condition and try to reestablish the line for now. In the meantime, we've cut power to this dangerous line, which means no light for that bathroom, our temporary kitchen, foyer, or front porch until next weekend.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

We are Thankful

This comes a bit late for Thanksgiving but, there is a short list I'd like to make...

We are thankful for:

  • sunlight, which now floods our home and even makes the dark brown wood in our kitchen-in-progress look bright. Can't imagine how bright painted walls will make it.

  • original hardwood maple floors in the entire back portion of our house. They can be mended and will make a seamless space after we combine two old rooms (the original kitchen and an old small bedroom).

  • mild weather, which has cooperated and been relatively warm (and snowless!) so far this year.

  • previous owners leaving odd items inside the walls, like shoes, old newspapers, and more. We will be sure to return the favor for future generations.

  • finally finding a home for the "momma" cat we had been fostering for six months.

  • very, very good friends and family who have labored beside us and helped pull our house together. As Jen said on Today, ones that we owe many, many favors to.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

♫ Wide Open Spaces ♪

♪ Room to make our big mistakes ♫

Yes, I'm a Dixie Chicks fan. And we've now got all the wide open space this house can handle. Check it out below!

The plastic sheet is covering the stairwell. I had so much trouble visualizing how this was going to work, so I'm so excited that I can understand the space better! Check out the dual header action!

Also, they removed the arch from the breakfast nook and installed a header so we're gonna give Jenna a call to come back and do some more with the sledgehammer. Just kidding!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Dad was Right

All of our dads were right, actually, as we discovered last weekend.


Kenny had come up with the new kitchen layout right away, even though Jen and I (mostly me) tossed, turned, twisted and tried to come up with a different idea for 2 1/2 years. When we had a professional designer lend his opinion, guess what? It was almost identical to Kenny's plan!

Then last weekend, John came and routed our plumbing for our kitchen sink. When the Today Show filmed us removing cabinets, we learned two interesting things.

  1. The kit sink was originally in the corner of our kitchen (on the bathroom wall, which meant only one plumbing wall).
  2. When some PO last remodeled the kitchen (circa 1952 from newspapers we found in the wall), they moved the sink. And ran the water supply lines on TOP of our floors in that little space under the cabinets.
As John likes to say (with a touch of sarcasm), "They don't make 'em like they used to!"

We ended up gutting out the last of the old galvanized steel pipes in the house so now there is nothing but copper (and water pressure everywhere!) By the the time John left it was very late, but we managed to squeeze in hooking up the gas line for our new dryer in our second floor laundry area as a final project. Which was useful, because the next day, we went to Jay's dad's house for an early Thanksgiving. Not only did we leave with full stomachs, but also a bed full of new laundry appliances.

The new house Bob & Kathee moved into had a nice Fisher & Paykel washer and dryer in it. However, it was all EcoSmart and computerized, made weird noises, blinked a lot and paused in the middle of washing a load. It was too frustrating for them, so they bought new appliances and offered us these temperamental appliances if we wanted them.

Since we both earn a living via a computer, a computer-controlled laundry machine didn't really seem to daunting to either of us. At least, until we hooked them up and washed a load.

Actually the first load went flawlessly. I was busy running up and down the stairs trying to make sure that all the insulation I packed into the floor last year was doing a good job of muffling the sounds of suds from the dining room below. It was amazing! I couldn't hear a thing! Then came the bedroom test (a regular 2x4 wall with insulation is between the laundry and our bedroom). Almost nothing! Fantastic! I was very excited and pleased. And the washer and dryer were Energy Star rated too!

But when Jen did the next load, when the machine gave up halfway through the wash and started a monotonous beeping noise and flashed all kinds of lights. "Aha," I thought. "This is what Dad was talking about. I'm sure it's something simple. Let's consult the manual" (which I had printed earlier).

Things quickly devolved. Hot and cold supply lines not supplying water? clearly not the case as one wash went through without any problems. Could the angle of the drain hose really prevent the machine from properly executing a rinse cycle? Seems outlandish, but who knows.

At this point, we have done approximately 7 loads of laundry, and sadly, I think we have only had just the first instance that went off without any interruptions. So it seems like it's time to consult the Search Engines to see who else is running into these problems.

Nevertheless, I think it's definitely safe to say our Dads were all right. It's been a humbling month so far.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

GreenBuild Update

For anyone interested in Green Building, the GreenBuild Conference and Expo is a fantastic experience... And I'm only in the expo part of it! There are probably 12,000 people at this expo, from all sorts of backgrounds - architects, interior designers, builders, contractors, developers, brokers, appraisers, students, and even a few homeowners too!
Heads up Bostonians - GreenBuild is coming to Boston in 2008.

The exhibitors reflect this dizzying array, and if it wasn't for the common thread of sustainability, it would be hard to see why so many disparate organizations are under one roof. However, the combined effect is impressive and a great source of information. So far, I've only explored a portion of the expo booth, but was able to visit manufacturers of home products such as Velux, Andersen, Pella, IceStone, Takagi, and others. Some other products were neat too - Uni-solar is giving away free samples of thin-film product used in their solar panels - no silicon though - just the encasing. Anyway, the amount of information at the expo is overwhelming right now, and I don't know if I'll be sure to sort through it all.

As for the conference educational sessions, the USGBC is doing a great thing this year and making all of the presentations available via webcasting live, as well as posting the archives of it. It's like a $700 Conference Pass for free! You can check out more at the "Live" web site they've setup:


I didn't get home from work last night till nearly 2:30am, which was a blessing in disguise, as I got me some quality time alone with the boob tube as I laid in bed coming down from my eight cups of coffee. Flipping through channels, I landed on "Robot Chicken." I've always been meaning to check it out, especially since it's Seth Green - and this ep featured Sarah Michelle Gellar somewhere - sadly I missed that part. But I did get to see their take on CAPTAIN PLANET - Ted Turner's pet cartoon from the 90's that featured a scantily clad blue-green hero with powers from Earth/Wind/Water/Fire, saving the world from eco-terrorists (read: corporate america and beyond). In the Robot Chicken take, CAPTAIN PLANET was really Mr. Turner, running around screaming CAPTAIN PLANET and dangling evil sludge-dumpers from rooftops (and then dropping them). I haven't laughed that hard in weeks. Or minutes. Or whatever. I dug it.


Monday, November 05, 2007

GreenBuild Anticipation

This week, Chicago is treated with the largest conference on green building in the US, if not internationally. The USGBC's international expo, GreenBuild, comes to McCormick Place in Chicago for most of the week. The official dates are Wednesday 11/7 - Friday 11/9, but as with any large conference there are pre- and post-conference workshops and other events that extend the experience to basically all week.

The event has many educational sessions as well as several keynote speakers including former president Bill Clinton. It also has what looks to be an impressively large expo hall which is one of the things I'm personally excited to see. There are going to be all kinds of neat building technologies on display. And although the mass focus for the audience is commercial construction, I'm sure that with the growth of LEED for Homes rating system, there will be some neat residential exhibitors as well.

I'll be helping one of the exhibitors at the expo, and looking forward to posting my reactions to the event. And although it's kind of last minute, I may be able to get some free expo passes. So if anyone in the Chicago area is interested in a free Expo pass for Wednesday or Thursday (9am - 6 pm), leave a comment and I'll see if I can help you out.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Wrecking Crew's 15 Minutes Are HERE!

Yup, this is it. Our fifteen minutes have come. And we're pretty damn happy about how it all worked out. This morning a segment aired on NBC's TODAY Show that featured Humphrey House and the regulars of the Wrecking Crew doing what we do best: some serious demolition.

A few weeks ago (just after part one of the kitchen demo) we were contacted by producers at NBC's TODAY show, who were looking to film a segment on renovation parties. We were wary after the 'Three Martini Renovation" article, but several emails and phone conversations later, we started to get excited.

The day the crew arrived to shoot we had planned for about 10 people to come over. Sara got the flu, Brian got a job, and so it ended up being Jason and I, plus Kenny (daddoo), Scott, Julie, Mark and Amy. We ended up doing about 90% of the demo work for the kitchen, including removing the cabinets, the wall, the appliances and most of the interior walls. Jenna Wolfe, the correspondent for the piece, was lethal with the sledgehammer - she had some serious power going on. [I have to wonder, Jenna, could you lift your arms the next day?] I worried a bit about the two-person video crew as we were taking out the wall with them on the other side, but they never complained. And then once it was dinner time - we really did work all day - we used the last remaining light to chill in the back with Jay and Scott on guitar (sara, we missed you!) and Mark on the grill. All in all, a pretty good demo day.

Both Jenna and her producer Meredith were very cool to work with for the day, and we couldn't be more pleased with the piece that they put together. They kept the focus where it really belongs: on the fact we couldn't do this without the support and hard work from our friends and family.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Humphrey House on the TODAY Show - 11/2

Our inadvertent media blitz regarding our home remodel continues this Friday, Nov. 2 when NBC's TODAY Show will be airing a segment they filmed a few weeks ago at our house as we demo'd the kitchen with the help of family and friends (and correspondent Jenna Wolfe).

There's some confusion as to the timeframe, but it looks like we will air during the "third hour of TODAY," which is the 9:00 hour all around, not the 8:00 hour as previously reported (did you know the TODAY show isn't live in any time zone but Eastern? I've been living a lie)

So check it out. If it's great, yeah, we rock. And if we look like amateurs - it's just the editing. :)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Over 1,000 pieces of candy ....

and we only hand out one piece to each trick or treater. Yeah, a lot of kids from Chicago come to Oak Park. But one thousand?


But I gotta say, it's our own fault. Coz we got the best house in the neighborhood! Our neighbors got the brilliant idea to have our second block party on October 31st, so the kids could go up and down and across the street without any worries.

And we had the best cast of characters. This year's list included:
(Clockwise from bottom left)
Combo priest/Jason.........................................Scott
Trina the Child-Eating Witch..........................Jen
Malcolm, pet zombie at large..........................Mark
The Grim Reaper..............................................Jay
Corpse Bride......................................................Julie
Classy Corpse Man...........................................Fake Dummy

The best quote I heard I think was "You all should be TV actors! You're damn scary!"
What was your favorite? Speak up ....

Bells, Books, and Candles ....

Get out your Graeme Revell and your old Ministry tapes, folks, the witching hour is upon us. We here at Humphrey House had the somewhat annual Halloween Soiree and Séance this past Saturday ... and it turned out to be a wicked good (work-free) party. On a sidebar, Jay and I are now forced to do research on a little boy who lived here and an Alamar who, well, didn't. Have a Happy Halloween!

By the way, do you have plans for Friday morning? More to come ...

Monday, October 29, 2007

Daily Herald Reprints WSJ Article with Editorial comments

We at Humphrey House were recently contacted by Chicagoland's surburban newspaper, The Daily Herald, as they wanted to photograph us for a reprint of the WSJ article "The Three Martini Revolution." Due to the negative slant this article took, we at first declined the request, but subsequently decided that it would be acceptable as long as they wouldn't mind clearing up some of the misconceptions.

So they did, and we are very grateful to the staff for allowing us to correct the misconceptions. The article came out yesterday (Sunday 10/29) in the Daily Herald's Home section. The online article has some of the editorial additions but doesn't have the photo they took of us.

Perhaps most exciting from this secondary episode was that the experience gave us a chance to feel better about the media and journalists. The reporter we worked with, Deborah Donovan, was very sympathetic and helpful. Thanks Debbie!

Sidenote: There has been quite a lively discussion (with some great Halloween costumes) over on about the whole Drink and Demolish debacle.
PS. More recently, the Today Show also allowed us to set the record straight!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Product Review: EZ Clean Paint Brush

A few weeks ago, approached us to see if we would be interested in evaluating a product from an environmental perspective. There are so many companies out there "greenwashing" their products and services (such as GE's Ecoimagination) that it is sometimes hard to cut through some of the fluff to find a quality product.

While we at Humphrey House aren't professional experts by any means, we are probably a bit more knowledgeable of some green building practices than the typical DIY homeowner. Jay's involvement with the USGBC helps out a bit in that regard. So even though we aren't yet ready to paint our kitchen, we offered to give our two cents on the "green" concepts for this product.

The product is the "EZ Clean Paint Brush", which essentially is a quality polyester bristle paintbrush. But this is not just any paintbrush, mind you. The brush's body has been ingeniously designed to allow water to flow through the handle, and out where the bristles are attached. The other end of the brush is threaded to attach to a utility sink or garden hose. The net result is that cleanup should only take "less than a minute" after a paint job.

Upon first seeing the name "EZ Clean", my initial impression was "great, here's another product hopping on the green bandwagon". But after reading the overview fact sheet claiming a clean brush in less than a minute (possibly 30 seconds!) I like the product in theory.

Depending on the size of the brush (and how much paint as loaded up on it) I've found it usually takes me 5-10 minutes to clean out a standard brush after using it. The EZ Clean Paintbrush's claim to green-ness is based on its water conservation features.

So let's try some guess-timations to quantify this. Typically, an older utility sink faucet or hose bibb will deliver 2 to 4 gallons per minute (gpm) of water – new faucets are around 2 gpm or less. So if we find a happy medium and state that a typical utility sink has an average rate of 2.2 gpm, here are our calculations for total water used in cleanup:

EZ Clean Paint Brush: 2.2 gpm X 1 minute = 2.2 total gallons of water
Standard brush: 2.2 gpm x 7 minutes = 15.4 total gallons of water

Based on the many assumptions above, the EZ Clean uses 14.3% of the water during a typical paintbrush cleanup. So from a water conservation perspective, the EZ Clean wins all sustainability arguments.

Manufacturing and Waste
In a thorough sustainability mindset such as cradle-to-cradle, there are other "green" aspects to consider besides the obvious water conservation features. The manufacturer has designed this product to last a long time, and in doing so has chosen many synthetic materials. The energy used in the production of oil-based plastics and synthetic polymers is far greater than a traditional wood handled paint brush.

The manufacturing process for plastics and synthetic polymers is generally fraught with wasteful business practices, and the EZ Clean Paint Brush gives me no reason to think otherwise. While the "Made in China" label does not necessarily guarantee non-sustainable manufacturing practices (reference), it is not outside the realm of possibility.

The manufacturer does say the plastic body for the brush is recyclable. However, the user must clip off the bristles before recycling it with other plastics. On the other hand, since there are likely to be far more uses out of this paint brush than the standard paint brush, there is less waste generated over the lifetime of the building (or brush's owner).

Ultimately, I look forward to actually trying out the EZ Clean Paint Brush at Humphrey House. Water conservation is a growing concern (just ask anyone in Atlanta or California right now), and the potential reduction of water waste from this product is another drop in the bucket (sorry, couldnt' resist the pun). In spite of some of the manufacturing processes that were likely chosen to keep the final cost of this product low and affordable, I do look forward to spending less time at my sink massaging the bristles of the paint brush to get it as clean as possible. All in all this gives us yet another reason to getting our kitchen on track and ready for painting!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Selling Old Kitchen Appliances

Last weekend, we continued the demolition of our old kitchen - more details to come in a later blog post. But in the meantime, our old appliances need a new home.

We've found Craigslist to be an invaluable tool for recycling our building materials, so there's no reason to think people won't be interested in our old Kenmore Ultra Wash II dishwasher, 36" Tappan 5-burner stove, or the original cast iron farm sink from Humphrey House. Of course, this caters to Chicago-area residents.

I really like the idea of finding people that can find a way to reuse parts of Humphrey House as we work on it. Not only does this help keep our remodeling "green" by reducing our contributions to the waste stream, it also gives pieces of our house a second life. For example, there was a lady who took a bunch of the old bead-board that made up our original attic walls and told me she was going to make furniture out of it. Or artists that take old windows and turn them into canvases (you'd be surprised how many people use old windows for this purpose). And as a bonus, you can hopefully avoid having to rent a dumpster!

So if you have some old house parts laying around, give it a shot. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Kitchen Demolition Party, part 1

Jay, Julie and Scott - The Wrecking Crew
Last weekend we sent out the call for a demolition party and started to tear into our kitchen renovation by beginning to combine the space with the small bedroom that was next to it. Because we first went to Jim Gill's house for the Illinois Solar Tour, and we then had to set up a temporary kitchen/pantry in another room of the house, we actually didn't start tearing into the lathe and plaster until late afternoon.

Our Wrecking Crew was rounded out when Scott and Julie showed up armed with humidity controlling masks and OSHA-approved Chicago Bears hard hats. And much to the WSJ's chagrin, we followed our usual procedures of holding off on alcohol until after the work was done. Unfortunately, later in the night neither of these prevented Jen from accidentally getting knocked in the head with the handle of a sledgehammer - she didn't have her hard hat on! Luckily she was ok, but next time she'll definitely be wearing the hats!

Julie and Jen tear into the wall
Julie and Jen tear into the dividing wall.

We ended up doing a lot of work - tearing down all the walls in the "other kitchen" room. And there were a few interesting surprises, too. On the exterior walls, we discovered that Mark and I did a good job blowing cellulose insulation down our walls because there were no gaps or spaces in the loose stuff. Best of all, we weren't itchy! But Scott won the prize for best discovery this time, as he uncovered an old leather shoe in the wall, which looked to be a vintage woman's dress shoe!

Next up is to finish moving out the old kitchen itself, so we can tear down the other half of the wall.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Cabinetry Decisions

We're beginning to seriously (re)plan a complete remodel of our kitchen, after tossing out many ideas over the past three years. While we have a designer helping us with the layout and specifications, there are some considerations we'd like to make that are more consistent with green building standards:

  • Patching and refinishing the existing hardwood floors under nasty old vinyl.
  • Instead of the standard granite countertops, using a polished concrete and recycled glass product called Ice Stone. That way when I break a beer bottle on it, it will blend right in.
  • More daylighting! We liked our suntunnels so much, we'll add one to our kitchen nook. More sunlight = less need for electricity. And a more pleasing open spaciousness.
  • On that note, upgrading the windows to highly energy-efficient ones.
  • Cabinets. This is where it gets more difficult.
On a routine trip to Menards shortly after moving into our house, Jen saw some cabinets that would match the arts and craft style of our home. The manufacturer, Medallion Cabinetry, got the product name right by naming this style of cabinets, the "Oak Park." They even have window panes mirroring the windows in the front of our house. Great!

Except now, in our quest for green building, we reach a dilemma. These cabinets are made of quarter-sawn oak, which, while beautiful, is extremely wasteful and not sustainable since oak is a very slow growing tree. So it takes longer to replenish this material than other woods such as Maple, Alder or Lyptus.

There are other options that would match the style of our home, such as Mission-style maple cabinets that would work - but not as well as the "Oak Park" line. The higher cost of these oak cabinets may ultimately prevent us from purchasing them anyway, but its very difficult to balance being environmentally-conscious renovators while matching the character of the home.

Friday, September 28, 2007

W're rock stars ... WSJ Article Came Out Today!

Something we at Humphrey House have been keeping as a secret can now be told. We were one of several people interviewed by the Wall Street Journal for a story about people that host Renovation Parties, titled "The Three Martini Renovation" which mentions us and even our frequent reveler Scott.

We couldn't be where we are today with all the help our friends and family have given us. Whether it was from our New Years Party after first moving into our home, the many demolition derbies we've had, helping with out with all sorts of miscellaneous jobs, or just coming out to scare people, we owe them our sincere thanks and gratitude. Thanks everyone!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Open Houses for Solar Homes on October 6

Solar Panels on a Chicago BungalowFor those interested, Saturday Oct. 6 is the National Solar Tour, a day where homeowners and businesses with installed renewable energy systems open their doors to the public - not just solar, but wind too. Through a series of open-houses and informative tours participants learn about renewable energy options, energy efficient design, real-world costs, current rebates available, and other valuable insights.

Here in Illinois, the event is being organized and coordinated by the Illinois Solar Energy Association (ISEA), who have worked with homeowners across the state to showcase their solar and wind powered homes. View the list of solar sites on the IL Solar Tour. The coverage in Chicagoland is great, but even better, there is a thorough list of homes throughout the state. Odds are good that there is one close to you!

Simply show up at one of the tour locations during the hours of 10am and 4pm, and be sure to bring your curiosity and questions! We'll probably be visiting some of the many locations in Oak Park, River Forest, and Berwyn.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Installing a Loopy Rain Barrel

The city of Chicago offered a rain barrel initiative this year so people could purchase these at a discount. The city benefits because, during a period of heavy rains like we had in August, less water goes into the storm sewers, reducing the chance of basements flooding. Personally, I just like the idea of using natural water for our garden plants rather than treated chlorinated water.

Jen is cool with almost any idea that helps keep her plants green. Normally, a rain barrel is installed directly beneath a downspout. The problem is, none of our downspouts are near our backyard plants. When I mentioned this idea to my friend Mark, he said he had just watched a TOH episode where they not only installed a rain barrel, but did so with a neat backflow diverter kit. Once the barrel is full of water, this sends the excess water back down to the gutter. That sounded perfect for our situation, so I picked one up when Jen and I checked out a green building supply house in Chicago.

So last weekend, with the supplies in hand, Mark and I set to modifying our gutter system to install this two-part system. Our setup was a bit more challenging as the gutters were much larger than what the diverter was designed for, but we finally decided to create a loop branch off one of the main downspouts.

As shown here, most water continues uninterrupted through the downspout, but some water is caught by a flap and brought IN to the rain barrel loop. Once the barrel is full, the water level will feedback and rise to the diverter, and excess water will flow through the OUT branch of the loop.

Since this downspout was about 12 feet from the rain barrel's desired location in our backyard, we couldn't install the supplied hose that came with the kit, and had to adapt a longer garden hose shown in the photos above. I think I may need a can of spray paint to make the white diverter brown, but other than that, the system is complete.

After a quick hose test, the barrel started to collect some water, so all we need is a nice downpour to see how quickly the barrel fills up!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Back on the chain gang ...

After several months of (well-deserved) hiatus, we're starting to get ready to focus once again on Humphrey House. We had a gathering over Labor Day weekend, and it turns out some of our friends are itching to get back in the rehabbing action as well. After some lobbying by Mark, he and Jason are set to tackle the failed gutter system this weekend (I'm lobbying for bungee cords attached to their waists) as well as properly installing the rain barrel. My friend Michelle, who recently relocated to Chicago from downstate, volunteered to do some trim painting so we can cross it off our punch list, and her new boyfriend Kevin is a CARPENTER ... he offered up his skills for future projects as well. And since the next main project we're tackling is the kitchen, we're going to be scheduling another Wallbangers Ball probably close to the end of the month or the start of October to remove the wall separating the kitchen and bedroom and join the two spaces into one. We'll have to do some investigating as to how that should happen since it's a supporting wall and will have to be replaced by a header, but at least we know we've got volunteers! As Sara said, "Who the eff doesn't like to smash things once in a while?" :)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Humphrey House Punch Out

Yup, we're in training, just like the little guy in pink. Our goal? Tackle the ever-expanding punch list on the projects we consider thisclose to being done on Humphrey House. It's a larger task than one might think. Since we always get impatient towards the end of a project, we seem to consistently decide that we can live with the "little things." However, looking around the place the other day, I noticed just how many little things there are. So we decided a punch list was in order.

From wikipedia (not always reliable, but in the case, it'll do ...) Punch list is generally a list of tasks, or a "to-do" items. In U.S. construction industry, a "punchlist" is the name of a contract document used in architecture and the building trades in the United States to organize the completion of a construction project. The phrase takes its name from the historical process of punching a hole in the margin of the document, next to one of the items on the list. This indicated that the work was completed for that particular construction task. Two copies of the list were punched at the same time to provide an identical record for the architect and contractor.

Here's what we've got on our punch list so far:

Frame and hang door to laundry/work area (with access for kitties to litter box)
Doorknob on studio
repaint studio door
finish trim around concrete bases
Cut & frame trim around LVL beams in ceiling
Consider dropped wall w/door in hall towards laundry area?
Paint ceiling in "jay's office" including exposed ductwork

2nd Floor
Finish trim painting around doors
Second coat of paint in bathroom
Seal tiles in bathroom shower and tub surround (!)
Seal floor tiles in bath
Add caulking in corners in bath
Attach green accent tiles to counter in bath
Replace white cabinet in bath (WAY down the line, but we'll add it anyway)
Second coat of paint on shelving in bath
Add toe kick to vanity
Seal vanity
Install sconces in bath
Cut and paint wood for 3 ledges in bath
Replace windows and new frames in guest bedroom
Stain oak cab doors in guest bedroom
Strip and refinish bathdoor, guest bedroom doors
Secret passage bookcase (Rob, where you at?) in guest bedroom
Refinish dresser in guest bedroom (not really punch list, but oh well)
Curtains/drapes in windows throughout level
Add shelving/door to nook in hallway
Finish laundry room
- Flooring
- Add washer/dryer
- Shelving
- ventilation????
Frame closet door in master bedroom
Stain shelves in new built-ins in master bedroom
Stain and hang doors for built-ins in master bedroom
Stain/Paint bannister in hallway stair
Cut and stain wood tops for hallway ledges/shelves

I'm not creating a punch list for the back porch (although, wow, we made a mess!) until the kitchen is completed. And the 1st floor doesn't get one yet as NOTHING is done there thus far.

So there we have it. And it's probably missing a lot of stuff Jason can come back and add. But see why we're in training? These are tough guys to beat!!!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Great Kitchen Debate ...

We've been struggling to come up with a decent kitchen design lately. This past weekend my parents came up from p-town with my grandma and my aunt and uncle who live in naperville came out and we all sat down and played with some kitchen schemes for fun. It got a bit out of hand, as committees often do (smirk) and of course, no solid design came out of it but it was fun. What we do know is we're going to combine the current kitchen and the bedroom backing up to it into one large approximately 17 x 11 room, but beyond that, we seem to be lost. As you'll see when you click on the link above, we have come up with an idea or two. But none that really seem to combine the space well. I want it to flow together, feel natural. But with no less than three doors and two windows in the space, it's hard not see it all choppy. much as I want to be, I'm SO not a whiz at this design thing. You need an ad? I'm your woman. Looking for a logo? Call me. But designing living spaces? Not so much my game.

Above is a sketch of the generic layout of the room - or at least how it will be once the wall down the middle is gone. We can't afford to build out or up - neither would work in terms of money or dealing with the EV. Maybe someone out there in blogland will have a suggestion that will amaze and astonish and save us the continued agony! I'd even be willing to trade some graphic or web design services for kitchen design services. We just need help!

In the meantime, I found a cooktop secondhand, so I know the ktichen will require a 30" cooktop and separate oven.

Can't wait to hear from the blogosphere ...

Monday, July 09, 2007

Paying less $ for electricity

In late spring, we signed up for real-time electricity pricing through our electrical utility, ComEd. This is a program where we pay an hourly electrical rate instead of a flat fee. The theory is, electricity prices are high in the middle of the day and low at night and in the evening. From the utility:

Electricity prices rise when demands on the electrical production and distribution system are high. By managing their energy use during peak hours, real-time electricity pricing participants not only save money, they also help relieve pressure on the system at times when demand is the greatest.
ComEd and Ameren customers can visit the Community Energy Collaborative to learn more and enroll.

So we signed up and changed our habits a little, like setting the dishwasher to run on a delay so it runs at 3 am. But for the most part our lives didn't change much since we naturally use more energy at night when we're at home. During this time, I kept an eye on prices thanks to For ComEd, instead of the average $0.07/kwh flat fee, we pay $0.02/kwh at night and (depending on how hot it is) $0.08/kwh - $0.12/kwh during the day.

Well, we recently received our first bill under the new program for May 30 - June 26. Since about half of this time our air conditioner was running, I was expecting a fairly hefty bill. But it was about 15% less than what it would have been under the standard pricing program (ComEd provides a comparative analysis for you). Woo hoo!

Next month, we'll expect even more savings as we enrolled in "Nature First", which is ComEd's air conditioning cycling program that allows them to cycle our AC compressor on and off, so it uses less power safely on the hottest days of the summer. They say this will only happen during weekdays, and likely only a few times each summer. For this, we get a $10 monthly credit to our account.

It feels good to pay less and help the environment at the same time. Good things our cats like it warm during the day.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Keep on the Sunny Side

Illinois Solar Energy AssociationLast weekend I finally carved out the time to attend a seminar I've been meaning to for awhile sponsored by the Illinois Solar Energy Association that covered the technologies and applications of solar energy and wind energy, with information specific to Illinois. Since it was down in Pekin, I was able to get my brother to come over from Chambana and attend too. As an electrical engineer working on commercial projects and an interest in sustainable building, it was a natural fit. This was also curious timing as this was 2 days after the Summer Solstice.

The seminar was packed full of information and it was interesting to see how people from central illinois planned to try and go "off the grid" with their homes. Living in a rural area, they have a greater luxury of being able to harness wind energy by installing tall towers with hopefully little or no complaints from their neighbors. At least in theory anyway.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the seminar was the discussion of the economics involved, both from a cost-savings perspective (fixed rate for utilities) as well as from a valuation perspective. There was even a study from The Appraisal Journal cited! Anyway, the bottom line is that solar is both feasible and comparatively affordable to other home improvements, and can postively impact property values. We'll have to investigate this for Humphrey House.

Those in Chicago can learn more this weekend (June 23) for free at Taste of Chicago - Going Green Tent - Solar & Wind Energy Talk 2pm & 4pm. There is also a Chicago-based version of the Solar 101 and Wind 101 workshops offered in July.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Nothing says Summer like Rest(oration)

Things have been quiet lately as we settle into our completed renovations upstairs. It's so nice to rediscover little things. For example, our queen-sized bed seems infinitely more spacious in our new master bedroom than it did when we had it in a tiny room in the basement (with ductwork over our heads).

And it's nice to feel some of the design decisions we made pay off so well. With summer in Chicago, we've mostly just been using our second HVAC system to keep the second floor from becoming too hot, and just Powerzoning our basement's cold air to cool the main floor. This has held up pretty well so far, unless it gets really humid out, which saves us from using both AC systems.

Also our decision to incorporate Velux daylighting suntunnels in the converted attic makes it seem brighter and more open. These amazing 10" light sources keep us from using any lights almost all day long. All that electrical work for nothing! :-)

Jen and I have discussed delving into the next major project (kitchen remodel!), and decided to postpone this until fall. We'd like to spend 1 summer NOT in the middle of a major project, and actually get to enjoy it some.

But remembering that there is no "rest" in "restoration", we will still tackle some loose ends here and there. For example, the front porch is no longer a storage area, and I was finally able to hang the 2-seater swing we purchased 2 years ago.

Other projects on the horizon include wrapping up some loose ends upstairs (trim) and installing a floor for the tiny laundry room so we can move our washer and dryer up. And I'm also planning to disconnect some downspouts and install a rain barrel to conserve water, and slow-water our garden.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Invasion of the Spheres

When designing all the things we wanted in our upstairs remodel, we thought of all kinds of neat inclusions such as:

  • Centrally wired in-ceiling speakers: two in our bedroom, one in the bath, one in the spare BR.
  • Flush globe fixture in our Bedroom, when we're not using our romantic sconces.
  • Suntunnels, which let in so much daylight we don't turn on lights during the day
  • Recessed lights in areas with low (7 foot) ceilings (hallway, spare BR)
  • Required safety - hardwired, interconnected smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
All different systems that sound cool and function pretty well, and keep it from feeling less like a dark, cramped converted attic and more like bright, airy living space.

You awaken from a wild dream, and, upon opening your eyes, are briefly are tortured by an onslaught of UFO's flying down to you. It's an invasion!

Had I known that these spheres would provide a celestial effect and remind me of Spheres, we might have totally exploited it and intentionally lined things up mimicking planets with moons and planetary rings, an entire solar system, or even an alien invasion! Since it may be difficult to imagine, I have a color-coded key for you:
Green = ceiling speaker
Yellow = suntunnel
Blue = recessed can light
Red = smoke detector
Purple = smoke / monoxide

Scary, isn't it? And that's without adding in the Spheres in our master BR!

At any rate, this certainly is yet another interesting byproduct of HumphreyHouse's evolution.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Finally out of the dungeon

While we've enjoyed the fruits of our labor from two years ago, it is nice to depart the dwelling space of our basement and finally be able to ascend to the second floor. Yes, that's right, our 2nd floor remodel and dormer bath is complete.

We managed to finally pass all our inspections (after multiple attempts), including the Final Building inspection today, and we can now inhabit the area as living space! I really don't know if the emotions can properly be put down into words, so here are some photos of the finished space.

The master bedroom...

Looking down the hallway to the 2nd Bedroom (love the salvaged oak doors we found for our laundry area!)...

And the cool serenity of our completed bathroom...

I'm sure Jen will find more photos to post, but I couldn't wait to get something up. Now we have a nice peaceful area to live in while we dream, plan, and work on creating a kitchen for the first floor.