Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Holidays at Humphrey House

Having passed significant remodeling milestones this year (i.e. having a working kitchen), we've found Humphrey House has become a wonderful home to host our families over the holidays. It started on Thanksgiving with Jen's parents and Jay's mom's family all coming over for dinner. The event went so well (and comfortably fit twelve adults and five children) that we invited everyone back for an early Christmas last weekend (actually, on the solstice last Sunday).

It's funny how well some of the decorations we purchased several years (and apartments) ago work so well in our home, especially around the fireplace in the living room and bay window in our dining room. They look like they were meant to be, resulting in displays that Martha Stewart would even be proud of!

The best part of the photo above is our fireplace. Shortly after purchasing the house, we learned that the chimney lining was missing several flue tiles. Unless we wanted creosote build-up to catch fire and burn down the house (which was tempting at various times in the past four years), using the fireplace is just too dangerous until the chimney is either relined or upgraded with a pellet fireplace insert.

Anyway, as we took our Christmas decorations out of storage and tested light strands, we found one balled up strand that was flickering white lights. Sudden inspiration struck Jen, and she put the ball of lights behind the fireplace screen, which instantly transformed the hearth from a black hole into a darn-near-perfect representation of fire. I still occasionally find myself caught off-guard the flickering out of the corner of my eye and wondering why the room isn't warmer!

After a few years putting decorating on hold, Humphrey House is very thankful for finally being done up for Christmas. It's been so good in fact, that Santa came by a bit early to wish us and our blog readers a Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Solving the Stairway Dilemma

One of the problems with living in a home during substantial remodeling is the sometimes piecemeal approach you must take to projects out of shear necessity and sanity. Case in point: our stairs from the second floor into the family room / kitchen.

This space was unfinished and open for a long time and was often a ground zero dividing line between living areas and work areas for different phases of our remodeling. And not being very experienced in trim carpentry, we never were quite sure exactly how to complete the transition. But after finally consulting with several people (who insisted it was much easier than we were making it out to be), we developed a sort of hybrid solution of various ideas.

First of all, instead of having the handrail terminate directly into the wood jamb and center column, Jay decided to use some extra plinth blocks he had to make a decorative terminal for the handrail, shown in the image here.

We still have plans to do a craftsman-ish trim design on the center column, which will focus on three raised pieces of oak trim, and to echo that triple motif, we decided to arrange the stair banisters in groups of three. Instead of the typical turned oak spindles, we wanted to keep the straight lines of the era and went with 1" rectangular spindles, shown here as we waited for the two coats of "Rosewood" stain to dry. Speaking of this stain color, it took a lot of experimenting to find a stain that best matched the vintage 1912 trim in the house, and we even mixed different stains together. But ultimately, the rosewood came to be the closest match and after a couple of coats, gave the depth and color that we wanted. Best of all, this is a water-based stain (not oil-based) so cleanup and any mistakes were a breeze to handle, and there weren't any noxious fumes.

Anyway, back to our stairs dilemma. While it was obvious that the stairway spindles would attach to the bottom of the handrail, we struggled with how to finish the bottoms. Should we create a bottom rail parallel to the top handrail that would be slightly above the stairs themselves, or should we carry the spindles all the way to the treads of the stairs? We decided to go with the latter.

Of course, none of this could have been done without Kenny's woodworking expertise, and Jay's meticulous attention to the painstaking detailed work of staining trim. Folks, if you're considering installing trim before staining it, please - learn from us and reconsider! It is very difficult and time consuming to go back after having painted to stain (you'll end up having to do a lot of touch up paint anyway!)

Anyway, although it was incredibly labor and time intensive for just a few square feet, we're very pleased with how the stairwell turned out. When its warm again, we plan to create some detail work on the center column that will echo the triple-pattern of the stair banisters. The plan is to have three 1-inch vertical oak trim pieces hanging from a horizontal band that wraps around the column, to lend the room more of a craftsman feel.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Stairway Plant Shelves with an Arts-and-Crafts Touch

Ever since we "finished" our second floor in 2007, there have been a few punchlist items we've been meaning to take care of. One of these was to trim off the sides of our U-shaped stairwell with some finished shelving.

When we expanded the stairs from the original bungalow winder stairs into a standard-width staircase and landing, we had to demolish the old "cat walk" balcony that wrapped around the stairs. However, this left some large, 18" deep shelves flanking both sides of the landing in the middle of the stairwell. These would make great plant shelves as the windows in the stairwell are the only ones that truly face south and receive sun all year round.

While wandering through the trim aisle on a recent trip to the hardware store, we stumbled across this nice 2" oak trim with a very arts-and-crafts floral design cut into the oak. It seemed like the perfect trim piece for our plant shelves!

It may be hard to tell from the photo above, but the trim piece has a nice floral vine pattern that weaves along the whole length of the long shelf. Of course, we stained these shelves to match the rest of the new trimwork in our stairs and kitchen area, using a couple coats of a nice low-VOC water-based stain "Rosewood Red", which matches the original trim in Humprey House quite well.

Here's the finsihed plant shelf, already home to our collection of plants and Jen's herbs just in time for winter!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lost Post: The Magic of Wallpaper

A while ago, I was talking with a colleague who informed me that she had hired someone to hang her wallpaper. I have to admit, I snickered. After all we've been through at Humphrey House, what with the smashing and sistering and building and installing, the idea of paying someone to do something as simple as decorating my walls with some pretty paper seemed a waste of money to me. When the time came that I decided to try my hand at wallpapering, I was pretty confident it would be no big deal.

The space I wanted to wallpaper was fairly small – just one wall in a hallway, an accent wall if you will. About 18 square feet total. A simple project, one that no doubt I, with my super-amazing-ninja-like home improvement skills, could handle by myself in a Saturday afternoon. Plus, I had a vague memory of assisting my mother when she hung the strawberry vined wallpaper in our dining room when I was six. I was sure to be a natural.

I’m a humbler girl now.

My dad Kenny, my brother Brian and his girlfriend Megan were all visiting for a few days. And anyone who’s spent more than five minutes with Kenny knows that about 5 minutes of inactivity is about all he can handle. So whenever he comes for a visit, we better have a project ready. I figured Dad could give me a few pointers for the wallpaper hanging, and then he and Brian and Jay could work on the porch outside. Meanwhile Megan and I would, naturally, be finished with the wallpaper in record time and spend the rest of the afternoon lounging and eating cookies and watching movies.

Is everyone out there in blogland snickering to themselves yet? You should be.

Over the course of four hours we worked on that wall. And I discovered that, in addition to not being a natural at wallpapering, Megan and I should never be left alone in charge of a project together. While I really like her, probably the most of all the ladies he’s brought to meet me, Megan and I are NOT meant to work together. Unless it’s on a sitcom or horror movie, with a fully staffed cleanup crew to look after us. Within minutes of Kenny leaving us, we had spilled the water from the tray, debated vociferously about the importance of the butterknife’s presence in said tray, gotten paste all over the trimwork and spilled paint on the floor. And that was just the first 10 minutes!

It was, in short, a nightmare. One that Kenny had to rescue us from. He took over the project after coming inside to find us cleaning paint from our feet and the wallpaper literally pasted to the floorboards.

Did I mention the humbler part?

The next time I decide to wallpaper any part of my home, I am hiring a pro. Or changing my mind immediately and heading to the store to buy some nice faux paint. Because while the finished product is lovely and adds a nice accent, I prefer the illusion that my home improvement skills are top-notch, not bottom-rack.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Where the heck is Humphrey House?

We've been noticeably absent for a month or two from updating our blog. I'm starting to feel quite guilty about it, but the fact is there hasn't been a whole lot of time to write.

We've been busy with a wedding of our close friends Scott and Julie, hosting family, coordinating a 10k race, studying for the LEED AP, teaching classes, and occasionally, Jen and I have actually been able to have a date nite with one another!

Sadly, there are many stories about some of our recent house work that is just waiting to be told - and we have the photos to prove it! We'll have to get back on our blogging horse soon. In the meantime, be comforted to know that we haven't forgotten about humphrey-house.com; life has just gotten in the way a bit lately.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Humphrey House Musings ...

"His house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking, best, or a pleasant mixture of them all."- Tolkien

This past weekend, Humphrey House was host to eight members of my family who had come to town for a wedding, almost all of whom have at one point or another worked on the house. Then on Sunday, we had about 25 people over for a "morning after" brunch. And it was just lovely to have everyone there. Of course, the kids were disappointed you couldn't write on the walls anymore ... but it was great to know that the chances of them running headlong into an errant dremmel tool or accidentally knocking over a can of paint were slim to none. And everyone seemed to love the house too. They were all very interested to see the exact spot where Scott had fallen through the ceiling - but they had to use their imagination, since we finally (two years later) have patched up that hole. All in all, it was pretty cool to sit and enjoy the house with our family and friends. I am starting to look forward to Thanksgiving, which will be our first time hosting it with our family. Bring on the Turkey!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Green Home Tour Redux

Despite Chicago receiving a record-breaking rainfall last Saturday, we finally had our Green Home Tour. After weeks of preparation, it was great to finally take a step back and take in what we accomplished, and show off our home to the 60+ people that came through to learn a bit about green building.

Looking back at where we were a month ago, I'm amazed at how much work we were able to get done in preparation for the tour. We'll detail most of these projects in upcoming blog entries, but here's the quick hitlist: Exterior painting, stucco painting, replacing broken glass and re-puttying our porch windows, interior staining and sealing of our kitchen trimwork, wallpapering, major ceiling and wall repairs to the dining room (and adding a tubular skylight), installing an arts & crafts stair banister, and putting together a rough landscape in front of our home. Wow.

In particular, the exterior painting turned out to come down to the wire. We had finished painting on Thursday, but it started raining that night and didn't quit until the day after the tour. This made it quite difficult for the paint to dry. In fact, two hours before people were scheduled to show up, Kenny was helping us dry the paint of our front steps using Jen's hair dryer. We had tented off the steps to prevent them from getting wet for two days, but there was just too much humidity in the air. It's amazing what a hair dryer and a little patience can accomplish! As always, Kenny deserves a big shout out for all the help he gave us to prepare for the home tour.

And for all of you wondering how our colors on the house turned out, we managed to snap a photo during a brief break in the rain on Saturday. Here's before, and now our house looks like this:

I also wanted to summarize some of the things we pointed out about our green home. Thanks to Michelle at Seven Generations Ahead for organizing this list and producing a nice tour program for our home and the others on the tour. I'm sure it will be a great resource for the visitors and their future green remodeling. Here is Humphrey House's "green" resume:

Energy Efficiency

Water Conservation
Healthy Air Quality
Resource Efficiency
Rapidly Renewable Resource
Locally Sourced Items
So, that's the virtual Green Home Tour of Humphrey House in a nutshell. We don't have some of the fancy "green bling" such as solar panels (yet), but we like to point out things that show that living or remodeling green doesn't necessarily have to cost a lot of green.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Green Home Tour Coming Up Soon

We've been working oh so hard over the past few weeks to whip Humphrey House into shape in preparation for the Green Home Tour this weekend.

It's been a nearly murderous pace as we tackle all of the exterior painting, finally fixing Scott's hole and other repairs to the dining room, and finishing the woodwork and stairway trim in the kitchen/family room. I'm sure I'm missing a few things here, but we have been documenting the work and will post individual stories in the weeks to come once the dust settles (literally).

In the meantime, if you are in the area and want a tour where the money goes to a good cause, be sure to check out our home (and six other green homes) on the Seven Generations Ahead green homes tour.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

My Favorite Stripper is Now Soy

In our continuing quest to spruce up Humphrey House in advance of the Green Home Tour, we're finally getting around to attaching the trim in the first-floor bathroom. While we had removed a lot of adhesive off the original porcelain tiles last spring, there was a slight haze in spaces (noticeably, in the grout). So we took one last stab at it with a new product, and I can happily say, I'll never use another stripper again.

Last month at the Illinois Renewable Energy Fair, we ran into a vendor selling Soy-based industrial cleaning products. One in particular that caught my eye was a Soy-based stripper called Soy-Gel, manufactured in Bloomington, IL. Knowing we had a front door we may want to strip the paint off of, we purchased a liter for $20. Not only is it environmentally safe, but it has very low VOC's when compared to other stripping products, meaning it won't burn a hole in your nose when working with it.

After we purchased it, we decided to paint and not strip the front door. So when i was staring at the bathroom floor one day, I realized that may be a perfect place to try out the soy stripper. I brushed a layer of the gel stuff on the entire floor and let it sit for a few hours (Label said: The longer it remains on surface, the better). After a few hours, I couldn't hold it anymore (and neither could the in-laws who were staying with us), and I went to wipe up the jelly stripper.

As soon as I started rubbing a paper towel across the floor, the gel turned yellow, indicating the gel had lifted up residual adhesive glue. And let me tell you, there was a lot of it. Apparently much more than I had thought. It must have been hiding in the grout! In any case, the floor cleaned up very nicely and the old tiles don't look nearly as aged as they did before. Best of all, there was no lingering smell. Once I washed the floor, any traces were eliminated.

I think this is one of my new favorite products, and I still have half a liter left to use! Hmm.. what to strip, what to strip...

(finished floor)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Chicago chemicals and computer recycling event

Household Chemicals and Computer Recycling Facility Open
- Saturday, September 6 from 8:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
- 1150 N. North Branch St.

Rid your home of unwanted paints, chemicals, and computers at our
Household Chemicals and Computer Recycling Facility, 1150 N. North
Branch (two blocks east of the Kennedy at Division St.) For more
information and a complete list of accepted materials, visit
www.cityofchicago.org/environment and click on “Household Chemicals
and Computer Recycling Facility” on the right-hand side.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

true colors

A few posts back, we asked all of you out there on the super-inter-web-highway to give us your feedback on some color ideas we had for Humphrey House. The response, both on the blog and via email, was amazing! We were happy to have so many people sharing their thoughts with us - very cool.

Jason and I were both really struck and somewhat amused about the general consensus that a red door was a big bad no-no. It was funny, because both of us had always, always intended to have a red door on this house. But you'll all be glad to hear that, after mucho consideration, we've axed that idea (along with several others).

But another point that really hit home was about the siding. As Bret, our friend and fellow house-rehabber (although on a different scale than us, for sure!) put it, "I just can't get past the siding." He was right. Neither could we. And so, last week when we were supposed to be spending seven days fishing on Lake Bellevue and frolicking in the Chequamegon Forest, we decided to stay home and take the siding out of the equation. Well, at least in front. We looked at other houses on our block and were surprised to notice that several had a different facade on the front than on the rest of the house. Confident we could pull it off at least half as assuredly as these other houses could, thus began our outer remodeling.

Fearing what lie beneath, we decided to take the vinyl off the front only instead of the whole house. As you can see, my father Kenny came up to assist us in our endeavors, and ended up leading the charge (as always). The best thing about Dad is that he's not afraid to be ambitious about projects. Must be an engineer thing. He certainly put his skills to the test helping us solve the riddle of how to transition from the siding we would leave on the sides and rear of the house to the original wood siding on the front. The solution? Copper-topped cedar corners with edging and trim, that I have to say look pretty amazing. Pix to come ...

But we still had the pesky problem of choosing a color scheme. Jason went to the Sherwin-Williams store and got samples and I did some test painting, and I think we have one we finally both agree on.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Tour Humphrey House on a Green Home Walk

On September 13, we'll be opening our doors to some of our Green-ovations and remodeling as part of a local non-profit group's Green Home Tour for houses in the Oak Park and River Forest area. Seven Generations Ahead is sponsoring the event. Here are the details:

September 13, 2008
Green Home Tour

The Seven Generations Ahead Green Home Tour, sponsored by Community Bank of Oak Park River Forest, will feature the most effective products, materials, technologies, and strategies for making your home green. Get an exclusive look inside high end and everyday Oak Park and River Forest homes that look great, save money, and are easier on the environment. Discover how to green your home-regardless of your budget or taste. Learn from homeowners and building professionals who have built and remodeled green.

A wine and cheese reception will be held immediately following the tour at the new green Marion Street Cheese Market from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m., where drawings will be held for a variety of green gifts. Tour guidebooks will be available at each home on the day of the tour, and all attendees will receive a free copy of Seven Generations Ahead's Remodel GREEN CD, an interactive green home product resource guide valued at $15.

Green Home Tour tickets are available for $40 in advance of the event from Green Home Experts or online at www.sevengenerationsahead.org. Tickets will be available for purchase at each home for $45 on the day of the event. For ticket information or further event details contact michelle@sevengenerationsahead.org.

I think the key phrase for us being included was "how to green your home-regardless of your budget" When Michelle approached about this, we were a bit hesitant until she insisted the goal is showing how you can be Green with attainable, little changes that make a difference, without spending a lot of money on the "green bling" of a wind turbine and solar panels or super-fancy (and expensive) IceStone countertops. As much as we'd love to have that "bling", we have to make choices that realistically fit our budget.

This tracks very well with our own philosophy on green building. Our addition to the Green Home tour is as much about making those choices as any of the actual technology we used. In fact, it also tracks well with a popular phrase in USGBC circles.. "If it's costing you more to build green, you're doing something wrong."

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Rocking the Block

In our third summer at Humphrey House, we finally made it to our first neighborhood block party a few weeks ago. In the past, we've either been out of town or had other plans, so it was nice to finally attend and get to meet so many of our neighbors and foster a greater sense of community. I grew up in suburbs that never had a regular block party, and after this I can see what I missed out on.

Although thunderstorms showed up around noon, it was a fantastic day. There were games for kids and adults. As our block party organizer put it: "Baggo, biking, beads, basketball, balloons, bouncing, bubbles, balls, and brownies. Mix in lots of rain, some ice cream, music and face painting, and you've got the makings of a great block party!"

Jen and I collected unwanted e-waste and ran it to a local recycling event that happened to be going on that day. And to help with the block party, we setup a beanbag toss tournament, where people paired up with their neighbors and chose a team name with the goal of advancing to a championship where the grand prize was a $25 Fuego Loco gift card. Armed with good bracketology principles, the games went off quite quickly. We even had a separate area for kids to play alongside the adults.

I was fortunate enough to be paired with our neighbor Phil, who was a self-proclaimed rookie. Others began to question that though as he started sinking hole after hole. Since Phil is a trombone player, and I sometimes play fretless bass, we naturally named our team "Unequal Tempered," giving a nod to the infinite number of notes available on these instruments. While our team did advance to the final round, we ended up losing to other musicians, Phil's wife Melanie and our neighbor, Jay.

With all these musicians on the block, it was happily inevitable we would jam. Our neighbor Jay (henceforth called "The Other Jay" to avoid confusion) is a great guitarist, and he led the charge in getting together an impromptu band for the evening. So before dinner, a few of us joined Jen and I in our basement to see what songs we all knew and had in common.

Surprisingly, after there was a lot of songs we all knew and we were able to hash together a pretty good set list. And even better, we found we could all easily play together. With just a couple hours jam time, "Jackson Humphrey and the Twilights" was born.

After a tasty potluck and grill-fest dinner, our block band played (sans Jackson Humphrey, who we all decided was in rehab) in front of Humphrey House, complete with amps, mics, a drum kit, and some candles to set the "stage." At one point, we even had a fantastic line of backup dancers, shaking what their mama gave them. Our set ranged all over the place and included covers of songs by John Prine, Stevie Ray Vauhgn, the Pretenders, Prince, and Jane's Addiction. I was playing bass, "The Other Jay" played guitar and sang, Jen sang and played the only instrument she's comfortable with in public (a tambourine), our new neighbor Mike played guitar, Deonte was rocking the drums, and Phil even brought out his trombone. Later in the night, Melanie even showed off her drumming skills. It was pretty awesome.

The whole experience was a great way to bond as a block, hang out with the neighbors, and find out who these people all are. Best of all, we set the date for closing the street again for another neighborhood block party: October 31.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Solar at the Beach

Last weekend, we gathered some friends together and took a day off for a sort of mini-vacation and traveled to the beaches of Indiana for a taste of summer. It was perfect warm, sunny day although a bit windy. There were a few changes in the area that I hadn't noticed last year. First of all, there are wind turbines popping up on properties in Beverly Shores, IN that took advantage of gusty day.

It also seems that more people hit the beach this year, as parking was very difficult. I ended up parking about 2 miles from the beach and had long walk to catch up with everyone. However, it was through the Dunes state park, which had a nice forest and wetlands area which made the walk interesting. I also got to see a nice use of solar energy. Since the area around the dunes is a semi-rural environment, it was neat to see that rather than the unsightly and costly expense of running utility lines all over the place, IN decided to invest in solar photovoltaic panels for standalone streetlight needs. Neat to see that public agencies are implementing long-term solutions to energy issues. Now all we need is more incentive for private citizens to do so.

The beach was great, but I neglected to properly protect myself. Sure, I lathered on the sunscreen all over, but I had forgotten to put some on my feet, which are now sorely burned. Two days later, I am still unable to walk normally without wincing. Damned solar energy! :-)
Oh well, it was all worth it to relax with friends and family at a nice day on the beach.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

This Old Soy House

Several people have contacted us inquiring about the article from the July/August issue of This Old House with our story on soy foam insulation.

Well, the good folks from TOH have now put the Soybean: Innovative Insulation article up on their web site for your viewing pleasure.


Thanks for Tank and Tankless Heaters

Last weekend, Jim and I finished making the final connections for our tankless water heater. I was admittedly nervous since this is a used Takagi TK2 tankless water heater we had gotten off of Craigslist. So rather than just cutting out the old tank model, we installed a shut-off isolation valve on our old water heater and left it in place for now. That way, just in case we run into problems with the tankless and need to revert back, it's a simple switch.

Jim GillSo, once the new equipment was in place and water lines were soldered together and leak free, we flipped the switch on the tankless water heater. Water flowed in and no leaks! I turned on a hot water tap, and water began to flow through the tankless. Once the flow was high enough (more than 0.5 gallons per minute), the electronic igniter lit the flames, which we could see through a tiny window (Jim is pointing to it the photo). Then the exhaust fan kicked on to push the fumes out the special stainless steel venting. Shortly, there was hot water flowing through the tap! Yay!

In a tankless water heater system, the hot water takes a bit longer to reach the taps than a regular water heater would. This happens because there is no constant heat source heating water all the time, and no standby heat is transferred to the water pipes. This is a trade-off with a tankless water heater. Less fuel is needed to heat, but more water is used and wasted down the drain as you wait for the hot water. Fortunately almost all of our plumbing runs are relatively short, so we haven't noticed this isn't a big deal. It takes maybe an extra 20 seconds at our furthest plumbing fixture.

Anyway, we've now been living with the new tankless for a week. Sunday night, Jen was very happy to finally be able fill the bath tub with hot water instead of running out halfway through! But we noticed when taking a shower that the hot water fluctuated off for about two minutes (completely, so it was cold!) and then came back on.

Takagi TK2 Flame Sensor, Igniter, and BurnerI read the TK2 manual, did a bit of research, and found a great discussion on problems with Takagi TK2 water heaters. This gave me some good ideas such as cleaning water inlet filter, cleaning the igniter and flame sensor (next to the tiny burner window) as well as checking the temperature sensors in the water intake and outtake lines for any clogs. So I did all this. At first, looking at this thing with the cover off is quite intimidating, but if you try to look past all the electronic wires, it's relatively straightforward.

However, after all these maintenance tweaks, it seems we still have occasional problems with the shower. We still get hot water there (and everywhere else for that matter), and there is no problem if the shower is set to full-hot (not mixing with cold water). I wonder if this is mixing valve issue so we'll have to do a bit more investigation on the temperature fluctuations (and maybe even call Takagi) to get this figured out.

Anyhow, despite these initial problems, I'm quite pleased with the fact that the system works, and I'm really looking forward to cutting out the old tank-style water heater and getting some extra space in the small utility room / shop area in our basement. But we'll hold off on that until these issues are resolved, knowing that if needed, we can fire up the old beastly water heater at any time.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Get Your Paint On

As Jason mentioned a few posts ago, our time has come to attack the exterior of our home. We've done quite a bit of landscaping planting lots of pretty things, but we've done nada to the actual exterior of the house (aside from maiming it with new openings and a particularly nasty repair job to one window that was removed). So with the Village lighting a fire under our feet, we've gotten bids from four companies to do the painting. Now we just have to choose colors.

Ah, color choices. Always so intimidating. But our scope got limited b/c, according tot the quotes we rec'd, looks like we can't afford to get the vinyl siding painted. Which really is too bad - the best color schemes we've been playing with involved a new color on the siding. So the white will have to stay. So we ordered the Bungalow Exterior book, and using a very very old exterior shot (and hence none of our pretty flowers to get in the way!) have been playing around using Sherwin Williams Historic Arts & Crafts Collection - they have a really nifty paint tool that even gives the RGB values to duplicate the colors (great for Photoshop-ing your house).

Anyways, at midnight last night we decided to stop playing and just do. Not so sure what these are looking like in the light of day, but with the help of Bungalow Colors: Exteriors, we've come up with the following color schemes:

(click any photo to view a larger image)

Of course, there's also the option of keeping the stucco white, with a fresh coat on everything ... maybe adding green to the trim on the windows instead of just the brown ...

Inquiring minds want to know - which one do you like? Or do you abhor them all? We need second, third, twenty-seventh opinions. :)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Update on Real-Time Electricity Pricing

Although I just blogged on this topic last month, ComEd and Ameren's residential real-time pricing (RRTP) initiative just got a whole lot easier for consumers to use. One of Ameren's customers is also a web developer/electrical utility veteren, and created a handy-dandy web widget application that uses the information the utilities publish.

For those less technical, this means you can embed it in any "customizable" web portal, such as the iGoogle gadget. The widget updates with real time electricity prices from ComEd every 5 minutes or so, and as prices rise, the stoplight changes from green, to yellow, and of course red. I've quickly fallen in love with this.

But wait, there's more... For those Firefox lovers out there, he also create a custom toolbar, as well as a Vista gadget (currently available only for Ameren power info). This guy knows his stuff, and has in-depth knowledge of variable-rate pricing and tools and ideas to maximize it.

Anyway, this is exciting stuff for those of us in the RRTP program as the peak of the summer cooling season hits us. And if you're looking to save a few more bucks, I'd recommend using your cold basement air to cool your home and save your AC from coming on as frequently. This has been working well for us as long as it doesn't get too muggy out.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Humphrey House in TOH

After adding soy-foam insulation to our kitchen remodel, we were contacted by This Old House magazine to ask us about the experience. Well, they wrote up our interview in a Q&A format in their "Green House" column in the July/August magazine issue. We just found out that the issue is entering newstands and mailboxes. Hooray!

And although this photo might imply otherwise, you can not eat the foam! :-)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Going Tankless: Part II (for Real)

Remember when our water heater went out and we thought about getting a tankless water heater? Ah, the memories. It was in May 2006, but it seems like only yesterday that I was replacing that thermocouple. Wait, that's because it was yesterday! What do I mean? Well, the thermocouple went out again already.

Yes, I fear the 23-year-old water heater has reached the end of its useful life. I've replaced the thermocouple again, but how much longer can it go on? It's time to replace the entire water heater. Since the old beast is so layered with sediment that it won't even fill up our bathtub, this replacement isn't exactly a shock to us.

In fact, after it went out in 2006, I actually found someone on our beloved Craigslist selling a tankless water heater that had been installed in a mulit-family home for a few months. While the owner was glad at the energy savings, the residents weren't too happy when four people tried to shower at once.

If you aren't aware of the main performance difference between tankless and regular water heaters, the tankless design can't accommodate the same flow rate (gallons per minute) as a traditional heater. But as long as you get the right size, it isn't a problem. For exmaple, the unit I purchased is a Takagi TK2 which supports two major appliances. So although we never do laundry at the same time as showering, in theory, with this tankless heater, we could.

So while we limp along on our old standard heater, I contacted my good friend Jim, to help with the tankless installation since he has the exact same model. Also, there are some unique install considerations for these. Since tankless water heaters burn so efficiently, you can't use a standard exhaust duct... it has to be double-walled stainless steel. Jim also installs solar thermal water heaters, so he could help me install this so that if I ever wanted to go solar later on and use the tankless as a supplemental backup (a common configuration) there would be room to cut in the solar piping. Anyway, here's another photo of it during the installation process.

As you can see, the space-saving design is already a bonus as it tucks away into a 2'-wide space between the furnace and a foundation wall. I've already got plans for the area where our old water heater currently rots rests. Anyway, we're not quite done with the installation just yet, but we'll be wrapping things up very soon.

Our Painting's Time has Come

Last week we received a letter we'd been dreading for awhile. Our village has a Property Standards department, and every few years they take a "neighborhood walk" and cite homes that are in violation of miscellaneous dangers such as missing downspouts, rotted wood, missing handrails, garages in need of repair, missing address numbers, and improper parking surfaces (e.g. your lawn).

Well, what did they find when they came around to Humphrey House? A Violation waiting to happen! Yes, our poor, hapless paint has seen much better days. While I don't have any closeup photos of our currently dire straits, there are many posts from the past with photos that give you an idea. We've known all along that painting was going to be inevitable - Jen even created some super neat color scheme ideas when we first moved in. But now its official:

"Scrape/paint the wood members on the home, fascia, soffit, trim, and front entrance. Reinspection: August"
Gulp. So now its back to the color drawing board. In fact we ordered a book specifically focused on bungalow exterior colors. This looks like an involved project with a quick timeline, and we may have to call in some professionals. Maybe we can even find some stucco-friendly and eco-friendly exterior paints for Humphrey House's facelift.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Real-time Electricity Pricing - 1 Year Later

So last May, we signed up with ComEd's Residential Real Time Pricing (RRTP). This is a relatively new program that allows consumers to pay variable rates for their killowatt-hour usage instead of the standard fixed rate that most residences are on. This is in addition to ComEd's Nature First program that ANYONE can sign up for now and get $10 per month back from ComEd.

To briefly recap the RRTP program, the idea is basically that during times of the day where there is high demand on the electrical grid (such as during the day), rates are higher than the fixed rate, and during times of low demand (at night) rates are much cheaper. The idea is to get people to shift behavior to times when electricity is cheaper, thereby reducing demand on the electrical grid at the macro level, and saving individual consumers money on their utility bills.

In practice, I've found this mostly to be the case, but the window for cheaper electricity is smaller than I would like. Like most families, we use most of our electricity in the early evening hours, and frequently into the late evening hours too. Generally, rates aren't dirt cheap until after midnight, but since appliances like dishwashers, washing machines have delay-start timers on them, we can delay running them until 3 am when we pay 2 cents per kilowatt hour, as opposed to running the dishwasher right after dinner which would cost on average around 8 cents / khw.

Anyway, ComEd has a third party group manage the program, and they have a nice website that allows enrollees to check what the predicted prices are for the day so we can plan activity accordingly. But sometimes actual prices (in red below) are much different than the expected prices. Here is today's graph:

Now, the actual price (in red) doesn't normally have the large trough - this is quite unusual, but reflects the lack of grid demand we had after a thunderstorm and cold front moved through Chicagoland around noon today. Temperatures aren't the only indicator of cost.. there are all kinds of factors, and sometimes the rates get very screwy. At one point last week, the hourly rate was up to 23 cents / kwh! There is an online group of ComEd RRTP customers that have all kinds of thoughts, opinions, and tips on the program, and the price spikes and service fees are a favorite topic of discussion.. Some have even been driven out of the program by them.

But what about Humphrey House? Well, compared to the average family, we're relatively high consumers of electricity (an ongoing battle), but one of the other neat things on the website is a monthly comparison that shows your bill on RRTP vs the standard rate and shows. So now that we have been on the here's how we have done for the entire year we've been on the program:

Some months we saved more than others, and some months we actually spent more by being on the program, but overall, we've saved a total of $167 over the entire year with the real-time pricing program. In thinking about the way energy is shaping up in the future (costs keep rising), I'm tempted to think the RRTP program will be sensitive to fluctuations and it may make sense to cancel out of the program, but I think for the time being we'll keep on it and keep trying to curtail our use during the peak hours.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

International Water Heaters and Electric Showers?

In mid-April, we took a brief break from Humphrey House to take a well-earned vacation to Ireland with our friend Jerry and visit some of his family. Of course we took lots of photos of the many interesting sites. There were even some neat things related to construction such as building with local materials (amazing number of slate roofs and stone facades), and a proliferation of renewable energy (lots of solar water heaters, geothermal heat pumps, and large-scale renewables such as wave power and wind turbines result from favorable sustainability incentives).

John's home in county CorkWe got hands-on with some interesting construction when we stayed with Jerry's and his cousin John's home outside of Cork. Besides being an excellent cook, and great guide as we traveled through Ireland, John lives in a fairly recent home (constructed within the last 10 years). At John's house, I of course was interested in the building techniques (such as no basement since Ireland is actually considered in the tropics and has palm trees) while Jen was fascinated by the gardens and chickens.

While the 3-bathroom home has a small oil-heated tank water heater, the upstairs shower actually had a unique feature - an electronically controlled shower valve that incorporates an on-demand water heater (similar to tankless water heater technology, only smaller). We came across this shower control in a couple locations during our travels.

At first, it was a bit confusing as Jen and I were both unsure how to turn it on. Once we figured it out though, we felt dumb because it was pretty obvious. These electric showers are really unique because they are connected to the cold water supply lines, and you just dial in the temperature you want and turn another dial "on" to activate it. This makes them more energy efficient, use less water, and surprisingly, there weren't any performance issues. John told me the two big manufacturers of these are Triton are Mira (owned by Kohler).

It was interesting to see how Europe (Ireland in this case) is more advanced and hold concepts like sustainability as integrated into their core. In many ways, the Irish haven't had a choice - they've had to be self-sustaining and conserving of their resources since they live on a rocky island with limited resources. So besides having a great vacation, we got a bit of education in how other parts of the world approach green building.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Green Goodness

We have a lawn in back again. YAY!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Patching in a lawn with drought tolerant grass

My feeble attempts at getting some kind of lawn in our backyard seem to be continually thwarted each year. Upon moving in, our original backyard had a massive pit full of sand in it from the Previous Owner's sandbox. Since we started working on the house, the backyard has been a massive traffic area and a natural construction staging area full of all kinds of debris and materials for our second floor remodel and kitchen renovation, ruining any attempts we make at reviving it.

Add in the fact that our backyard is small to begin with, has several tall trees and buildings surrounding it, and receives probably only 5 hours of sunlight, it seems like a continually futile battle. So futile in fact, that Jen has repeatedly said she is ready to throw in the towel and just make our backyard grass-free and turn it into a big landscaped area with pea gravel or pavers etc.

Since we still haven't decided what we're going to do with this space (we need a plan!), I am making a last ditch effort this year to once again plant grass seed. Since I want to avoid watering the lawn, I found a hardy variety of grass called tall fescue that is promised to be drought tolerant once it's established and good for cool areas and even shady spaces. After some research, this showed up as one of the "greener" species of lawn grass that would be appropriate. I especially liked this description of tall fescue:

Low maintenance. Tall fescue has excellent tolerance for heat stress and drought. It will tolerate moderate traffic and infrequent mowing. This species is not well adapted to high altitudes.

So I've sowed some seed in one last desperate attempt to salvage a grassy spot in our yard. I figure we'll eventually carve out some kind of plan out of the grass anyway, but it would be nice to have a "green" canvas to begin with. It will be interesting to see how this blends in with the existing (spotty) lawn grass, which I believe is typical Kentucky bluegrass. I'll have to get some photos up of our yard soon to show its progress.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Green Expo in Chicago this weekend

Spring is a busy time of year as nature returns, gardens start growing, and people come out of their winter cocoons. To celebrate this spirit, Chicago is hosting their Green Festival this weekend Saturday and Sunday downtown at Navy Pier. I'll likely be hanging around the Illinois Solar booth for a bit, but I'm looking forward to checking out all of the vendors and see how they might fit into Humphrey House.

May 17 & 18, 2008

Chicago Green Festival
Saturday 10AM- 8PM
Sunday 11AM- 6PM

Navy Pier
600 E Grand Avenue, Chicago

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day 2008

I liked this year's Google doodle of their logo in celebration of Earth Day. Turtles always remind me of Jen's nose.

In celebration of Earth Day, I'm pleased to announce that an initiative I've been working on for quite some time is now officially live. As I result of becoming more educated on sustainable building, I've partnered with some experts to create Eco Achievers, an online education company that will provide online courses on sustainability for homeowners and green building professionals.

Eco AchieversOur first courses deal with home energy fundamentals (like understanding that utility bill you receive every month) and figuring out ways to improve your energy efficiency. We also have a solar energy course, which is an in-depth examination of solar energy and it's applications to buildings like homes and small businesses.

While still a little rough, we feel our courses are ready for prime-time although we will continually work to improve them and add more courses to our catalog. If you're interested in green building topics, let us know and we may build a course just for you! And perhaps we can all carry a little bit of Earth Day into every day.