Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Farewell 2009 and Happy New Year

We setup a small tree this year for the holidays in our family room, and it turned out to be a cheerful addition for the holidays. Those with astute eyes may recognize the "major award" in the box under the tree. :-)

Here's to a wonderful and sustainable New Year in 2010!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Placing Pavers

Well it took a bit of time to install (and even more time to post), but we got our bluestone pavers all in place. It wasn't easy as the shapes were mostly rectilinear, so we had to conjure up some old Tetris skills (see Dad, I told you Nintendo was good for us!). We were able to lay out a design that would blend the large stones with the small, yet have the durability to last.

We started by "cascading" the largest pavers in the high-traffic area of the back yard, near the rear stairs. These large stones are roughly 3 x 4, and quite hefty! But by offsetting each by about 6" or so, the pattern creates an optical curve from the gate towards the back yard.

We then had to reserve some large 2' x 4' stones for the walkway that connects our garage to the patio.

The pavers are not grouted or set in concrete, but instead the joints are filled with sand and stone dust. This permeable paving allows for stormwater to drain through the paved area more naturally, instead of diverting all the water to the edges of the patio. It also will be more tolerant of any movement due to freeze/thaw cycles during winter.

The colors of the bluestone pavers are a muted in these photographs of the completed job area due to the final layer of stone dust. After winter, we'll likely do a light powerwash to remain any residual surface grime. In any case, here is the completed work:

Everything wrapped up pretty nicely, and we even have a pile of remnants we may do something artistic with next year. For the time being though, we had about one nice day that we got to enjoy our patio before the weather started to really cool down. After the winter snows freeze and thaw, hopefully there will be little movement between the pavers.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Happy Halloween From Humphrey House

It has been such a lovely warm autumn, and the leaves falling from our maple tree have done a great job adding color to our little spookhouse. Due to digging out the back yard for a patio, we've got quite the graveyard out front. And the pirate flag we bought a few years ago and recently re-discovered in the basement looks pretty wicked cool waving in the wind.

On Halloween night we ended up running out of candy twice, saved once by a friend's arrival and the second time by me running to CVS. We only give out once piece of candy to each child (or adult, yeah, we get a LOT of adults, kind of strange) and so we ended up handing out over 1,000 pieces of candy. I wish I were kidding. However, we do start at 3:30 and go straight till 7pm, so that's 1,000+ trick or treaters over the course of 3 and half hours. Yeah, it's still a lot!

This year was also the last party we're throwing for a while - I've sworn to take a one-year hiatus in 2010 from hosting anything, so we did have a lot of help to handle the trick or treaters. L to R: Jerry reprised his role as the Grim Reaper statue for the third year in a row; Sara and Orrin came dressed as ... Sara and Orrin; Frank dressed up as the Friendly Neighborhood Werewolf (his wife Wendy was Lil Red Riding Hood), Jason took over Mark's previous role as The Demented Zombie Pet Malcom, and Scott was Skeleton Man. Not pictured: JC as the Red Fairy Princess, Julie as Renaissance Faire Maiden, and myself as the Wicked Witch.

All in all, lots of fun. Next year Halloween falls on a Sunday, and I'm expecting that will mean leaner crowds - which will go well with my intention to scale back the madness. Then again, I may be so ready to go all out after ten months of downtime! We'll just have to see ...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Finding Place for Extra Dirt

Humphrey-house has been a bit of a mud pit for the last... oh five weeks or so, as we tore out the old concrete in the backyard and are putting in reclaimed bluestone pavers. It seems like years already. There has been a lot of digging, excavating, pain killers - and then - more digging. It's all a necessary evil as we prepare for a 4-inch base of gravel and 1-2 inch of sand under the pavers.

Given the small urban lot, we quickly ran into a problem though. What do we we do with all of that dirt? We had to creative. Fortunately, some landscape design wishes and our favorite holiday came in to save the day.

Ideas for Extra Dirt:

1) Create a landscape planter!
We always thought a nice raised planter bed with wide rails in front of our rear porch would be a great landscape feature. It would make gardening a bit easier, and also provide extra sitting room outside. If only we had enough dirt to fill it though... a-ha! Problem solved! Sadly, while this turned out great (and I will post about the construction later), this ended up taking only a few loads of dirt in the wheelbarrow, so other dirt solutions were needed.

2) Raise those flower beds!
We have a "peripheral" planting area that surrounds the yard. In the past, it's been unofficially defined as the line where we can't get the few blades of grass in the yard to grow further. Now, with several wheelbarrows (20+) of roto-tilled soil, we have sleek looking berms surronding the yard. The berms give a lot of depth and texture to the small space! Bonus: concrete chunks can be reused as a nice little "rock garden".

3) Make graves!
This was honestly the most fun way to place the extra dirt. We normally have a cemetery in the front yard at Halloween. but this year it got more interesting and authentic as we created fresh graves for the tombstones. Mwah -ha -ha!

Even after these efforts, we still have a fairly hefty mound we will need to deal with. Some will be used to back-fill in dirt around the edges of the patio, but we may have to craigslist it, or build a semi-raised planter for next year's veggie garden. In the meantime, we're ready to climb out of the mud and onto a patio!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Digging Trenches

This summer we had some drainage problems with the old concrete slab we had that was pitched towards the house. Large rainfall = water cascading down the basement walk-out stairs and seeping into the house.

We knew it had to be fixed, and preferably before winter. So after a bit of scouring, I came across a Craigslist posting for some large bluestone pavers. A great look at reasonable cost. Plus, we could finally put our patio furniture on an actual patio! A week later, I heard jackhammers across the alley and found a crew tearing up a concrete sidewalk. After short conversation and some cash, they came and removed our old sidewalk.

Now we had a nice big trench going through the yard. Could be a fun slip-n-slide if only we lived on a hill. And if it was summer. But instead, i will slowly continue to dig this out for the patio.

I'm finding its quite hard to do a siginficant landscape job like this on a small urban lot. There are piles of bluestone all over the rear, and patio furniture, grill, firepit, landscaping stuff, piles of dirt, rain barrels, potting materials and other errata that all needs to be shuffled from one area to another as work progresses. It's also really hard to dig out compacted dirt! My back is getting a good workout from this, and I can only take a little at a time.

But things will need to pick up. Chicago just got our first below freezing temps (although one year ago we set records in the 80's), so there is little time left before winter to wrap this project up. Otherwise we'll be stuck shoveling snow off the "temporary" stepping stones all winter long!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Blending In the Trap Door

Last week, I posted about building a trap door. The construction part was fun, but the real magic took place after we prepped, primed, and painted the area.

The old siding we restored was a bit more damaged on the south side of the building as opposed to the north. Judging by our 100-year old siding, those UV rays are equally harmful to the "skin" of the house as they can be to people! The siding had actually weathered the most near the edges. In some places, the many layers of paint had worn away, and we discovered that the original siding of our home was not painted at all - but rather stained! And stained a nice dark shade of green. Very similar to the dark green we chose to put back on the front of the house. I wish i had a photo to post here, but they just didn't turn out very well.

Anyway, we had to prep these areas by filling the holes left behind by the 10-penny nails attaching the crappy vinyl siding to the house. There were a few other choice areas for wood filler as well, as you can see from the photos here.

After that, we used a nice primer from the Sherwin William store called Peel Bond, which is meant to help cover imperfections in exterior paint. it's actually meant to cover alligatoring paint, but I think you'd need several coats to get that done effectively. It does help encapsulate and smooth over rough patches though, giving the siding a somewhat glossy and resilient base for the final paint.

The final paint went on in a jiffy, and quickly blended in the newly exposed sides on the porch, with the rest of the front of the house (painted last year). And the trap door we installed just seemed to "melt away" into the wall.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Restoring Siding and Building a Trap Door

The front of our house looked so good after removing the crappy white vinyl siding last September, that Jen and I have been talking ever since about restoring the original siding back a little bit further. We considered going "all the way" down the sides, but that idea was quickly eliminated, as it would require (a) lots of work to repair the original wood siding, and (b) lots of paint (and $).

So, a happy compromise was to take the siding off just along the front porch part of the home and restoring that original wood siding. This allows us to stay within a reasonable budget (1 gal of paint) and we also don't lose the (marginal) value of the foam board insulation under the vinyl that covers the heated living area. Best of all, the house looks good from the street instead of having the wood siding in front oddly transition to white vinyl at the corner, as shown below.

The timing to do this project is now, after the blower door test revealed that our access door connecting the basement to the front porch crawlspace was a major source of air leakage. Really not too surprising, considering how cold that part of the basement can get in winter. We decided to seal off this door permanently, and realized we could still access this storage space from the outside if we built a new door into the siding. This would actually make the front porch crawl space more usable and be a great space to store gardening pots, landscape supplies, etc.

As with many of the finer carpentry projects at Humphrey House, Kenny came up for a weekend to help with this project. Removing the siding went quite quickly, and we even found someone on Craigslist to take it away for free. During siding removal, we found the wood underneath was in really good shape,especially on the North wall. The south wall was a bit worse, but was still quite salvageable.

We then cut an access hole for a new door to the crawl space on the south wall. The bottom piece of lumber (touching the ground) was quite dry rotted, which is really no suprise given that it was original pine, untreated and left in contact with the soil. We had to replace this board, and also "sister" brace the studs as some of them had rotted at the bottom few inches. To avoid future damage, I also dug out a trench and filled it with two layers of old 16 x 8 concrete pavers and sand before we replaced the bottom board with a pressure-treated 2x8.

It was interesting to see the porch framing was really a "skirt" in which the studs came down from above, but were tied with a cross-beam to the main part of the house, and a support column at the corner. Of course, we had to reinforce this when we cut out the crossbeam for an access door. We put in a LVL header (leftover from the LVLs we sistered to the second floor floor joists), and beefed up the framing with supporting studs underneath this header.

Anyway, we debated how this new door should open, to the left or the right? To avoid future landscaping damage and any threshold issues, we decided that it would be best to try and get this new access door to swing UP, and we could attach it with a chain / hook to an eyelet in the wall.

We also wanted to make this look unobtrusive, so we used low profile 1x4's as the trim edges, and reused the siding cut out as the finish of the door, working to line up the lines so they would match the existing siding. This was more difficult than it sounds because there were some really bad pieces of wood in this particular part of the wall. With a few pieces of old kitchen wall lathe (we don't toss anything!) as a bit of a standoff, we ended up mounting the siding on a piece of plywood and the lines matched up pretty well. A few hinges completed the job, and we now have a nice little trap door to the front porch!

Once the wood siding is repaired with some wood filler and then primed, we will paint the door the same Roycraft Bronze Green as the surrounding wall so it all blends together. Then it will be a like a secret trap door to a hidden passageway! Where one can behold bags of potting soil! Exciting, right? Well, we'll see once it's all painted.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Interested in Solar Energy? Mark 10/3 on your Calendar

The national American Solar Energy Society (ASES) is holding their annual solar tour on the first Saturday in October. On this day, homeowners and businesses with solar energy systems will open their doors allowing the general public to come in and take an up-close look at how these systems power their home, heat their water, and climate-control their buildings. It's a great chance to ask questions and hear first-hand from a homeowner how their systems have worked for them. If you already have plans that day, you can always learn about solar online.

The solar tours are often coordinated by local chapters of ASES, such as the IL Solar Energy Association. Here in Oak Park, there are several homes participating on the tour. I'll actually be volunteering for the day at my friend Jim's house, who has helped us out a lot here at HH. His home is a "super site" on the tour where you also can learn about worm composting, and his Jetta converted to run on waste veggie oil (a grease car), among other things. Jim is also an energy auditor and instructor for the ISEA and Wilbur Wright College, so you're bound to learn something if you show up! There's no cost, and the tour will be going on from 10 am - 3 pm.

I was proud to see the OP well-represented with four houses on the solar tour. While you're out, visitors to the area interested in historic preservation as well as green energy can also check out the Pleasant Home bungalow tour, where you can view the variety, craftsmanship and interior design of the best examples of bungalow architectural style, also on Oct 3. It should be a fun day!

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Great Paint Exchange

Twice a year, our city's public works department holds an event called the Great Paint Exchange. This basically is an event for people to dispose of unused paint, as well as for others to go and obtain free paint. It takes place in the first public works building in the country to earn a LEED Gold rating.

It's really a simple idea. In the morning, people are invited to come turn in all those partially-filled paint cans sitting in their garage or basement. Since latex paint in liquid form can pose environmental contamination issues if thrown into a landfill, this gives people a way to responsibly get rid of their old paint. It's also an excuse for people like me who have far too much paint "collected" from too many projects.

After the 2-hour drop-off window closes, the Public Works people go through all the cans and decide which paint is salvageable. They then reopen the doors in the afternoon allowing anyone to come by and pick up cans of paint - for free!

This is a great example of something that has triple bottom line benefits - helping people, the planet (by diverting waste), and profit (free paint). I wish every city was this proactive and offered these kind of services. Maybe you can talk your city into hosting one! As for me personally, I was happy to be donating 9 cans of paint to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it. And it was a great excuse to carve out some shelf space in the basement.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Discovering Where our Energy Dollars Go

We've taken the summer off of blogging, but things are starting to pick up again here at Humphrey House. Sorry for the delay, but life happens sometimes. Anyway, I recently borrowed my friend Jim's blower door as a sort of DIY energy audit, looking at the overall "tightness" of our home.

Blower Door Test www.humphrey-house.comFor those unfamiliar, a blower door is basically a high-powered fan that sits in a tarped-ff doorway. You close all the windows in the building and turn this sucker on High. This will suck the air out of the house, and then start pulling air in from outside the home through any cracks and crevices. The fan is attached to an air pressure gauge monitoring both indoor and outdoor pressure, to ensure the home is depressurized to around 50 Pascals (Pa). At this level, noticeable drafts occur. [More info]

Once I had this setup and running in our kitchen doorway, I went around the home looking for obvious air drafts. Our house is now littered with pieces of blue masking tap indicating all the leaks and drafty spots in the house that should be sealed up before winter comes along. Most interesting finding: the older windows did not leak around the window sashes so much as they leaked around the frame. For example, more air moved from a gap underneath the window stool (interior window sill) between that and the piece of trim below the window (the window apron).

The really cool techie thing about the blower door test is the fact that with the gauge, you can tell just how leaky a building is. Despite consciously remodeling with energy efficiency in mind, I knew that I'd be in for some surprises. After all, we're living in a home built 100-years ago, when there was likely no insulation, and air barriers were really more like "hair barriers".

So, the air pressure gauge measures the volume of air moved out of the home. As you may recall from high school, volume is usually measured in cubic terms. In this case, we're looking at cubic feet of air, but we want to know that over time. So the gauge tells at a certain air pressure (50 pascals) how much air is moved in a minute (CFM)? Well, in our 1.5-story home, it's around 4400 CFM.

What does this number mean in real terms of how leaky the house is? Well there's a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation that can make this more meaningful. (Math Warning!)

We need the volume of air in the house. Given the average 8-foot ceiling height and 3500 sq ft of living area (2135 above ground + 1365 finished basement), we have about 28,000 cubic feet of air in the home. (Humphrey House air volume = 3500sf x 8ft = 28,000 cubic feet).

We can find out how many times the air in the house turns over per hour by taking the air pressure gauge measurement, 4400 CFM, multiply by 60 minutes to convert to hours, and then divide by the air volume in the home: (4400 CFM x 60 M) / 28,000 cubic feet = 9.4 air changes each hour (ACH).

You might be tempted to say, "That's one leaky house!" but remember, this is at a high pressure of 50 pascals. We can "normalize" that number by using a factor for a well-shielded home in an urban area to find the natural air changes (ACHn). For simplification purposes, we'll use a factor of 16.7 (this is derived from LBL empirical data). So we divide our 9.4 ACH by 16.7 to arrive at a normalized air exchange of 0.56 ACHn.

This means roughly 1/2 of the air in the house is changed over every hour. For comparison, the 1989 standard for air exchanges recommends 0.35 ACHn. So, in other words, despite soy foam in part of the house and other energy efficiency efforts, we're still pretty leaky.

We have a lot to do to air seal the home, but thankfully the blower door helped us find all the little holes where our energy dollars were flying out the house. Next step is to work on fixing them. If you're interested in getting a detailed analysis like this of your home, follow the directions on, or find a professional energy auditor at or If you're in Chicago, look at any of these.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Building a Prairie-styled porch screen / trellis

Mention you have a home in Oak Park, and inevitably you are asked if it is near or similar to the many Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the area. The fact is, he had nothing to do with our home, or most of those in our neighborhood. Nevertheless, Humphrey House took one step closer to emulating the famous prairie-style architect this weekend.

Ever since our kitchen remodel, we noticed that one of our windows that brings in tons of daylight also allows unwanted views from our alley. While we do have blinds, I wanted to create a visual screen using one of the existing support posts on our rear porch, and thought a trellis to grow vines up during summer would be a fantastic solution. A homegrown green screen, of sorts.

After purchasing and temporarily hanging some typical diagonal criss-cross lattice, Jen and I both were underwhelmed. It seemed to clash too much with the rest of the porch and there was no clear place to transition it. Enter our friends from Tiny Bungalow, who stopped by to visit one Saturday, and mentioned that a screen could be made out out of spare wood, emphasizing horizontal and vertical lines, which would better compliment the home. Duh! This should have been plainly obvious, but just one of those mental block things we had.

Fortunately, under the porch, I still had a stash of old wood lathe and even some old growth pine 2x4s from the kitchen wall we wrecked on the Today Show, and I realized that creating a screen trellis would be the perfect homage! The space was 4' x 4', and could even be framed with studs 16-inches on center, just like the wall we had torn down.

Onto the design. I knew horizontal lines would be important, and Jen (a designer) always emphasizes the "rule of three". So I figured 3 groups of 3 pieces of lathe would be the foundation of the design. Once this was in place, the top and bottom were too open, so I played with a few layouts and settled on a 1-2-1 piecing. After painting and hanging all the wood, it looked great, but still a bit too sparse.

It was time to figure out some vertical arrangements. I originally planned to bisect the groups of three with short vertical pieces. But this ended up looking too.. eh, formulaic? I played with other designs, doing them in X shape, a diamond shape, but it just didn't look right. I went inside to see the view from the kitchen area, and examined how the rear door's stained glass was done. Then I realized that by partially spanning the groups of three on the trellis to connect one group with the other, I could create a much more organic-looking design. I also remembered that Frank Lloyd Wright's stained glass work often mirrored the prairie grasses and plants, so I tried to figure out how to achieve that. After all, we planned to grow plants up it half the year anyway. I started with a tight group of vertical pieces, representing "leaves" of a plant, which then open to the wider "flowers" of a plant, shown in the image below.

Ultimately, things came together quite stunningly. This is now a very striking addition to our backyard, and I daresay even a focal point of the home when viewed from the rear. Complimented by some nifty little lanterns and soft colorful lighting put up by Jen, our rear porch finally has a welcoming feel to it that draws the eye and body outside. A truly remarkable transformation. Thanks for the inspiration, TinyBungalow! And to Jen, Scott, and Julie, who all were on hand to help me shape and give feedback during the process! And thanks Mr. Wright for your timeless influence!

I added one final artisanal touch that may be hard to notice from the photos here. The very top piece in the middle section has a complete circle from a knot in the wood, perfectly centered in the lathe, and the very bottom piece of lathe has a half-circle in it. From sun to moon, we now have a beautiful arts and crafts influenced screen trellis built into our porch.

Now, I just need to resist the temptation to create other designs with all the other pieces of lathe we have stored under the porch...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Finally Fixing the Back Porch

Last weekend we started doing some outdoor upkeep around the yard, including the first mow of the season. Each year, I think we get more and more determined to have less and less grass. This year, we're starting a vegetable garden in the already-small backyard. And I love the idea of a "no-mow" lawn mix of groundcover wildflowers and clover for the front yard. Maybe next year?

In any case, this weekend we picked up a new "Earth Machine" composter and yet another rain barrel. Jen wonders if we have enough rain barrels, and I say, No way, there's always room for more! More on the rain barrels in another post.

It was such a nice day that our friends from Tiny Oak Park Bungalow even dropped by while I was working the yard and delivered a much welcome gift of native plants - some purple coneflowers for our front yard! We were pleasantly surprised and very grateful. They'll make a nice replacement for the dead mums that have lived in front of our house for the last six months.

Also, we've been struggling with a way to have a functional and aesthetically pleasing screen visual for the window off our back porch that overlooks the alley (a lovely view in winter). I had some lattice work temporarily attached for about a month, which worked great as screening, but seemed a little too "off" in terms of the design. I just couldn't figure out how to transition that lattice with the stairs leading up the back porch of our arts and crafts home. Here is the power of a fresh set of eyes. A friend commented that a design with more horizontal and vertical lines would complement the home a lot better and look less tacky. Duh! I felt like a ton of craftsman bricks hit me in the forehead.

So with that in mind I sketched an idea for the nearly 4-foot by 4-foot area we would like to screen. In an homage to the old kitchen wall we dismantled, we may even be able to construct this with some of the wood (yes I still have it). The design consists of adding two 2x4 vertical studs (guess what... on 16-inch centers). Then, approximately every foot, have a group of three narrow pieces of wood running horizontally. Throw in a few short vertical pieces to "tie" the groups of three together, and voila! A craftsman-zen type of porch screening that will also allow us to (hopefully) grow a climber like clematis up during the summer months. Here is a pretty lame, but effective mockup I did in Photoshop of how this might look.

Next step: doing the work, as well as finishing the painting job that got cut short last fall. And yes, we'll be fixing the lattice inconsistency under the porch as well, so things aren't quite as ghetto here at Humphrey House.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Reusing an Old Concrete Sidewalk

I recently re-acquainted myself with a local architect who happened to come through our home during the green home tour last fall. He's doing a renovation of a green detached garage, and told me about a neat idea he's doing that could have a place in our backyard plans.

Instead of completely demolishing an existing sidewalk to better fit our backyard design plan, we could take a saw and cut up the existing 24" wide sidewalk at intervals around every 18" or so. We could then reuse these "blocks" as really big concrete pavers set in a gravel base, as shown below (thanks to Tom for the photos).

We were warned that 18" x 24" sections 4 inches deep turned out to be really heavy, so we'd probably do a thinner section, maybe 10 or 12 high. For our yard, I think it would be neat to kind of stagger sections of concrete, similar to the recycled concrete paver design shown here.

Reuse the existing materials on-site
Little to no need for new concrete
Better drainage for stormwater

Labor intensive - cutting and making heavy
Winter questions - how will it hold up during snow shoveling?

As other ideas may be less feasible given our modest budget, reusing our old concrete may be a better alternative than leaving things for "next year" as we've been punting on solving the backyard dilemma for four years now. Some of the concrete we have is in really poor shape, especially the stairs leading down to the basement, and need to be fixed this summer. We'll have to seriously consider how well reused pavers would work.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Firmer, but not final, Backyard Plan

I've been meaning to post this for awhile, but here is a more refined version of our backyard plan that we're going with. Now we're starting to get a feel for the costs for redoing portions of the concrete (which need redone badly, especially near house / rear stairs).

The "Dharma patio" may or may not be feasible this year... we'll have to see. Click the image above to view a larger version of this - and kudos to Jen for the excellent digital mock-up using our original plat of survey!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

DIY Self-Watering Planters

For Easter, we made a trip out to my mother's house and were treated with a lovely surprise fresh from my stepfather's greenhouse: Nearly mature tomato plants! John provided us with two plants each of the following varieties:

  • Heirloom tomatoes
  • Cherokee tomatoes (which will be purple)
What a great addition to our garden! When we got home though, I realized that with my somewhat forgetful nature, these mature plants and their containers would need some kind of self-watering system to avoid drying out. So I took some terracotta pots from last season and made some deceptively simple outer containers - all I had to do was plug the drainholes.

I came up with a crafty solution of slicing up an old cork (our running cork collection came in quite handy) into "slices" about 4 mm thick. I then planned to insert that in the bottom of the pot, and seal it like a wine bottle.

Unfortunately, the corks were just bigger than the holes, so I had to make the diameter smaller. Doing this left a bit of a gap between the nice round curve of the pot and the chopped edge of my cork though, so I needed to water proof the cork somehow. I took an old candle that had burned almost all the way down, and dripped wax on top of and around the cork to seal the opening.

After letting the wax cool down for awhile, I tested the seal under the sink and it worked great. Voila! Self-watering containers! Now, the tomato plants, comfy in the plastic containers they came in, each have their own self-watering container that will allow them to "drink" from the bottom if they're thirsty. These should serve the plants well until it is warm enough to move them outside permanently.

In the meantime, I can hardly believe it but they are already beginning to flower. We may have fresh tomatoes from our little urban garden at the start of the season this year!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Developing a Garden Plan: part 1

After the hit-and-miss plantings of the last few years, Jen and I decided that this was the year to actually develop a plan for our backyard that would incorporate many of the the things both of us desire.

  • space for a table / chairs
  • vegetable garden
  • herb garden
  • raised planters
  • gravel / porous paving areas
  • solid paving from house to garage
  • shade-friendly plants
  • perennial plants
  • firepit area
  • compost area
  • water efficiency (more rain barrels)
  • And perhaps a bit of an oxymoron - low maintenance
Of course, there needs to be a lot of compromising because we're working with an area that is effectively 22 x 30, surrounded by a fence, and most of which is shaded by a large maple tree on the north east corner of the area, as well as some very mature lilac bushes. Here is a preliminary drawing we came up with that incorporates the existing site elements with much of our "wish list" items.

After this initial step, we are now working through designing the hardscaping that needs to be done to accommodate all of these features. In addition to the soft lines of the gravel-based plan above, we came up with many other ideas for the space - rectangles, a diagonal patio, a circular theme. With the goal of trying to find a plan that best fit the small space, we have pretty much settled on the octagonal patio idea shown below.

This would ideally be pavers, but may be stamped / stained concrete too. We already need to have some concrete re-done in the left-side area of these plans. The steps leading down to the basement are crumbling, and the slab there is pitched towards the house. When coupled with a large downspout that sometimes overflows, that is a bad combination.

Also, Jennifer is a little concerned about the patio area being limiting - we like to have gatherings with friends when weather allows, and the backyard fills up fast - she's worried it will fill up even faster with a small defined patio space! So this may evolve ... we shall see.

But with a firm(ish) plan in place, we can start to look at how to go about implementing it - and what will fit within our budget.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Our Garden's Solar Window

One of the neat things about instructing for the Illinois Solar Energy Association is that I have access to some pretty neat tools. My friend Jim loaned me a site assessment tool that has turned out to be a pretty neat device for determining the best location for our garden.

The Acme Solar Site Assessment Tool (manufactured appropriately enough by Wiley Electronics), is a tool that basically is a camera mount that is aligned with true South, and then takes seven photos from different positions from east to west. The neat part is the software, that then brings in all of these images and plots the path of the sun across them at different times of the year. It also determines the shading, and calculates the hours of sunlight available throughout the year.

While our backyard is clearly not a useful site for solar panels, I was more concerned with ensuring that we can get at least 5 - 6 hours of sun for our vegetable garden. So I took photos from two locations in our yard - one near the garage (shown above), and one spot near the back porch of our house (shown below).

Based on these sun paths, it looks like the first location, close to our garage, will be the best location for our vegetable garden. That will receive a bit of morning light, and a healthy amount of afternoon sun. Although, in this location, we may still have to sneak a bit of tree trimming on our neighbor's tree. We may also try to put some container-based plants near the porch and see how they do. That way, we can always move them if needed.

In any case, this was a fun way to see how the sun hits our home all year round, and we also now know where the best location for solar panels would be (our roof), should we ever decide to.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Growing a Garden

With 20-degree weather in northern Illinois, it's difficult to think about the growing season and summer coming. But, before we know it, warmer weather will be upon us. Especially now that our USDA growing zone has been bumped up to a warmer level (Zone 6), in what I love to hear described as not global warming, but global wierding.

Since most of the major renovation projects are out of the way at Humphrey House, and we don't have much money to spend right now anyway, I'm trying something new this summer: planting a vegetable garden. Jen has grown several herbs and peppers each year in our backyard. And we're slowly getting pretty decent at this. Last year our plants were quite successful.

So for 2009, I figured it was time to leap into a full-fledged grow-your-own-food garden this year. Sort of a victory garden for self-sufficiency. After all, you can't get more local then your backyard! We're beginning by starting to grow plants from seeds ourselves. To make things easy, I picked up a seed starting kit made by a company with the deceptive and tempting name, "Jiffy". I'm hopeful that it really is *that* easy to start seeds, and the hardest part is thinking far enough in advance. We will see.

So with the help of a Mother Earth guide to growing your own food, I've started some seeds for a garden that hopefully isn't too ambitious for us:

Current seeds:

To be joined later by:
And maybe even some sweetcorn growing along the garage!

Coming next: Time to find and start planning space in the backyard to grow this garden!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Soy foam in a can!

In a fit of early spring cleaning, I recently decided to clear out the basement utility room, and rearranging our old kitchen cabinets and fridge. These had really just been haphazardly thrown in place when we gutted the old Humphrey House kitchen last fall. Maybe it was a winter fit, but the fact that the fridge blocked a window and most of the natural light in the room had become too much for me.

One item on the cleaning list was to visit various hardware stores and take back the assorted excess building materials we had accumulated during our fall frenzy of remodeling. I realized it was quite pathetic and time to take action when my "to be returned" pile started needing overflow storage bins.

One of the return visits involved a trip to Home Depot. I've dreaded the return process here after learning they restrict the number of times you can return items without a receipt in a given year. I found out the hard way after returning a plumbing coupling for a measly $1.31 a few years ago, and being told I couldn't return anything for a year. Fortunately, this time I actually had more receipts than I expected, and the returns went painlessly. But, since some items were purchased so long ago, they gave me in-store credit instead of a refund.

I somehow fought off a strangely magnetic pull to wander the store and spend my newly found "in store credit" and headed for the exits. I know that once the thaws come, we will be making plenty of trips as the growing season begins.

On my way past the checkout aisles, I glanced at one of the end-aisle displays for Great Stuff. Ever since I've become more energy-conscious (and air-draft dodging), I've found that it's always good to have a can of this around (bonus: it's an adhesive better than duct tape!) As I glanced at the sale prices, my eye was suddenly drawn to a new item in the display next to my trusty red and yellow cans: Soy seal. I had to do a double-take from my surprise.

Apparently, the manufacturers of the same soy foam we have in our walls, now make it available in canned spray form for do-it-yourself use in sealing cracks and holes. I think the Soy Seal was like $1.50 more expensive per can than Great Stuff was (both were on "sale" on the end aisle display). And, they carried both "Gaps and Cracks" as well as "Windows and Doors" versions of the foam. I was surprised to see the low-expanding Windows and Doors can was actually closed-cell foam, and not open-celled foam (yes, I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to this stuff).

Since I already have a few cans of Great Stuff waiting to be used, I did not any, but it was certainly shocking to see Soy seal foam in my local big-box retailer.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Slow heating ovens have ignition problems

As Jen mentioned last year, we at Humphrey House enjoy the art of salvaging relics from other homes. Sometimes you find neat vintage doors with excellent hardware - other times something like a nearly new kitchen appliance can be found at bargain prices. Take for instance, our Dacor PGR30 oven.

The homeowner we purchased this from had recently moved into a nice River Forest home and had issues with the oven not fitting her countertops perfectly (it is a slide-in oven, not freestanding). The oven also tended to take a bit too long to heat up, so she said, "Enough! I'll try out this new-fangled thing I hear about called Craigslist!" Upon seeing the oven listed, Jen expertly maneuvered her way into purchasing this high-end appliance at a bargain rate.

After hooking it up, we did indeed see that the oven took a bit long to heat up. 20 minutes to get to 375 degrees. Hmm. Well, we let this slide as we didn't use it too often, and we had more urgent projects to attend to. Like finishing the rest of the kitchen.

As the kitchen punchlist dwindled (Yes folks, it CAN happen!), we returned our attention to the Dacor. We learned the problem of taking too long to heat could be the result of a faulty ignitor, as the glow bar lost its luster. I ordered a spare ignitor online to be prepared for the eventual outage.

Fast forward several months. After all the holidays hosting we had done, one day right after Christmas, the oven finally quit. Turning on the oven resulted in a token temperature rise. And, more alarmingly, we noticed the distinct smell of natural gas.

So the next weekend, I took apart the oven, removing the back panel of the Dacor PGR30 to access the ignitor. Only to find out the hard way that this particular model actually has two ignitors! One on top (for the broil setting) accessed from the back, and another one underneath the bottom of the oven (for regular baking). Needless to say, I became quite adept at appliance dis-assembly and re-assembly. I also like to think my creativity with profanity increased during this 6-hour ordeal as well.

Several hours later, the ignitor was successfully replaced, and believe it or not, the oven actually heats up in mere minutes! Much better than the pedestrian pace it used to take. So yes, if your oven takes to long to heat, it could be the ignitor. I guess all that wasted fuel we spent waiting for the oven to heat up offsets the savings from our tankless hot water heater. Yet another lesson learned at the school of Humphrey House. So, now that the oven is fully functioning, anyone care for a brownie?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Poor Man's route to Solar Energy

You can tell it is the dead of winter and not much is happening at Humphrey House. However, this gives us a chance to give an update on some of the projects we never got around to mentioning last fall when we were too busy working. One of these is the addition of a tubular skylight into our dining room.

This is a bit of unique installation because we really have taken advantage of every nook and cranny on the second floor, which may make you wonder how we managed to squeeze what effectively is a 10-inch HVAC duct through the space to connect the dining room ceiling and the roof. Well, we really got to take advantage of some of the existing architecture, which makes the suntunnel appear as if it goes right through the second floor living space, when it fact, it does not.

I cut in the suntunnel from the attic chase area behind the knee-wall in our laundry room upstairs, as close to the knee wall as possible. This was about 4 feet from where the exterior wall would normally be. But, as you can see in the photo, the suntunnell spills into the room a good six feet from the outside wall. How? By taking advantage of the bay window that juts out of the dining room. This makes the suntunnel appear close to the chandelier light fixture towards the center of the room, and yet the tube does not pass through any living space in our converted attic.

You would think with the windows in the bay that the dining room would receive plenty of light and not need additional daylight. However, if you look through the window in the photo above, you can see the house next door is quite close to us. And worse, it's a full two-story house with a steep roof, which ends up blocking out all direct sunlight to our first floor for 7 months out of the year. With the winter months being dark to begin with, I wanted to brighten up the space naturally as much as possible. And a $150 suntunnel was an ideal solution.

When we were on the green home tour in September, I described this as the poor-man's solar energy. I got quite a few puzzled looks, and Jen pointed out that is a bit misleading as it isn't really power. However, the tubular skylight does replace the need for us to turn the lights on during daylight hours. Just look at how bright it is After, compared to Before (and note the chandelier is not turned on).

During the day, the tubular skylight channels the sun into the dining room, located at the center of our home, making it brighter and feel warmer. So the suntunnel is our small leap into what is a form of solar power - passive solar (no moving parts). Speaking of which, our friend Jim is teaching a free seminar on passive solar and architecture at the Chicago Center for Green Technology in a few weeks on March 12. If you live in the area, want to learn more, and get some great ideas, it will be well worth your time.

As for now, I think I'll take advantage of this sunny day and go read by the daylight flooding into our dining room.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Extra Insulation the Natural Way

I read in today in the Chicago Tribune that the area has had snow cover since January 5 - nearly a month now! It reminded me of something I did a few weeks ago when the temperatures dropped below freezing and stayed that way for several days.

We had recently rearranged our basement, and as a result, I finally have a room of my own to call an office. But it has been a cold office. Very cold. So I wondered how I could help retain some of the heat in there. I recalled stories of eskimos using the natural insulation of snow in their igloos, and wondered how that would work to help keep in the heat for above-ground concrete foundation walls.
A bit of googling turned up confirmations that yes, you can indeed pack snow up against a foundation wall. However, there is a very important consideration: When temps get above freezing, you must shovel it away or deal with potential water in the basement!

Fair enough. I figured it was worth a shot, so before the deep freeze in January, I packed in snow from a recent storm up against the concrete foundation. I think it has helped somewhat. Especially from the howling winds and air infiltration that can come rushing in from the north and west. In comparing the basement's comfort during the recent deep freeze to the artic blast right we had right before Christmas (on the solstice in fact), I think our basement was equally as comfortable. In other words, it was not any colder with much colder outside temps.

Three weeks later, I'm happy to report that the snow is still packed in up against the wall. Although with a warm-up coming soon, it looks like I'll have to have the snow shovel at the ready.