The New Home Economics


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New windows

This was supposed to be a triumphant post about how we saved money for three years to install new windows in our house…but… we didn’t quite save enough and we now have a small loan as a result. But oh well, a small loan is better than a huge one! Here’s how we did it.

When our twin kids started all-day Kindergarten (free at our school, thank goodness) in the fall of 2012, we immediately started putting every cent that we used to spend on daycare into savings. We were accustomed to living frugally, so it didn’t really feel like much of a sacrifice. Every time our savings account reached $2,000, we paid $1,000 of it towards one of our various debts. In this way, we paid off all our debt in one year. Yes, we were lucky to not have an *extreme* amount of debt.

Next, we saved for a little over a year, trying to get at least $15,000 saved up for new windows, which we’ve needed since we bought this house in 2007. Check out how awesome Rowan’s old window looked every winter, all winter:

Old double hung window covered with frostIn addition to being completely covered with frost all winter, our windows were also extremely drafty. During the coldest parts of the winter, it sometimes felt like there was a slight breeze inside the house. Most of the storm windows were barely functional, and were difficult to open more than 4-5 inches in the summer, making it hard for us to get good ventilation when we wanted it.

So, while we waited to have enough money to actually do this, we started doing some research. We read about energy ratings, learned what fenestration is, and made some decisions about materials.  Our goal was to get the most energy-efficient and durable window possible for the price. This three-part series in the Star Tribune was particularly helpful for getting started (part 1, part 2, part 3). I also spent some time on the Green Building Advisor website, which is where I first heard about triple-glazing, and about the brand we ended up going with, Fibertec windows.

I had fiberglass in mind from the very beginning, but we thought we should still get a few different types of bids. Our first bid was from a local builder/remodeler who installed Marvin Infinity windows (double-glazed fiberglass). The sticker shock was a little intense on this bid, which helped us realize that we couldn’t afford to redesign our picture window opening, as we had originally hoped. They seemed like nice windows, though.

Our second bid was from a friend of a co-worker, who installs very basic double hung vinyl windows, and the price was half of the bid on the Infinity windows. HALF!  But the windows didn’t seem nearly as nice. We decided to get a third and final quote from Above and Beyond Construction, who install Fibertec windows.

The bid came in between the first and the second, we both agreed that we liked these windows the best of the three, AND the company had hundreds of positive reviews on Angie’s List. They were also the only company that offered a lifetime warranty on the windows, which says a lot about their durability. Here’s how the windows’ ratings stand up:

Fibertec energy ratingsFor what it’s worth, that’s the lowest U-Factor you can get. Now, these are not spectacular as far as solar heat gain goes, and if our house was better-positioned we could factor in solar heat gain. If I was building a new house I would DEFINITELY think about solar heat gain and how we could maximize it both with positioning and glazing of windows. But our house is not positioned to gain any benefit from the sun, here in the inner city, butted up right next to our southerly neighbors’ house. The visible transmittance is also just above the minimum that Green Builders recommended of .40.

So anyway, we did it, and guess what? We love our windows. Some before and after photos:

Living room, beforeThe living room, at night, December 31, 2014. The old double-hung windows letting in their final drafts. Above & Beyond started on New Year’s Day because they needed to time their work with the temperature being above 32 degrees (F).

Kitchen, duringThe kitchen, during installation. To shave a little bit of money off the total cost, Adam did all the interior trim work. These are the new windows.

Kitchen, afterAnd the breakfast nook with new windows and trim, complete. Nice!

We had a very cold snap right away after installation was complete, and we noticed the difference right away. When the temp got down around 0 degrees F and colder, our furnace used to run nearly constantly. Now it was shutting off and staying off for many minutes before cycling back on again. Our three doors are still very old and drafty, so if we can save up and replace those, we will really start hitting new highs with efficiency.

Living room, afterAn after view of the living room.

Triple-glazed windows are supposed to be harder to see out of than double-glazed. I’ve not noticed a difference except occasionally at night, when trying to look at the moon at an angle, there is a definite triple reflection. They are also harder to see into, and we have already had several birds fly into them–so far all of them survived the collision though, thank goodness.

Here’s a view of one of the windows when open:

window openWhat, you don’t open your windows when there’s still snow on the ground? As you can see this is a casement-style window, which means you crank it open. We chose these over double-hung (where you lift the sash to open the window) for the simple reason that casements are more energy-efficient–you get a better seal when you don’t have all those moving parts.

These also have a much bigger glass surface area than our old windows, and certainly bigger than the vinyl windows that we got a bid for. We decided to go with the square pattern on top to complement the cape cod style of our house.

exterior of house with new windowsCute, yes? For the middle of winter, anyway. We were a little nervous about tampering with the period style of our house–houses from the 1950s really ought to have double hung windows, but we hoped the square pattern would alleviate that a bit.

So there you have it: the new windows process, which seemed VERY LONG at times (especially during the three years of financial preparation). So far, though, no regrets. We’ll have them paid for by mid-summer as long as everything goes according to plan. A 6-month loan is better than a 3-year loan.

At this point, I would have to say that I recommend both Fibertec and Above and Beyond Construction. Questions? I’ll probably forget everything about this process within a few months, so best ask me now. I had already forgotten the names of the two other companies we got bids from! Thanks for reading, as always.

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Book Review: Build Your Own Earth Oven

So it’s been over six months since my last book review (and my last few reviews were pretty lame).  I went on a total fiction binge this year.  I can now say I’ve completely exhausted any need to read about vampires for a very, very long time (at least until the sequel to The Passage comes out).

Anyway, so here’s a little non-fiction book that I picked up on impulse from the library a few weeks ago:

Build Your Own Earth Oven
A low-cost, wood-fired, mud oven simple sourdough bread, perfect loaves
by Kiko Denzer with Hannah Field

Ever since I tasted pizza from my friend Robin’s wood-fired pizza oven, this idea has really intrigued me.  But why build it out of mud?  Well, firebrick is pretty expensive — $2-$3 a piece.  Denzer’s ovens use a handful of firebricks for the oven floor, but they are mostly built out of mud.  He gives seven basic reasons to use mud: it’s fun, fast, artistic, cheap, builds community, is adaptable, and finally — the most compelling reason of all — it turns to brick through the heating process.

Not just any old mud will do, however.  You need mud that has high clay content.  This generally involves digging down a couple of feet past the topsoil.  The easiest way to tell if your soil has enough clay is to pick up a handful, roll it around in your hand into a ball, then squeeze it into a snake shape.  The longer and smoother “snake” you can make (with no cracks), the higher your clay content.

Most people (theoretically) should be able to find soil with high enough clay content for cheap or free, even if they don’t have it in their own yard.

So you build a foundation (Denzer gives multiple options here), lay a couple firebricks, and build a mud-based (also called “cob”) dome top.  While that dries you make a nice neat little oven door.  And… you’re done.  Denzer claims the whole thing can be done in a 1/2 day.  I am skeptical.  Up here in the north country you also definitely need some sort of shelter to put this in: nothing fancy, just a simple structure to keep the rain and snow off.

The chapter on sourdough baking (with recipe) was interesting, but I’m not ready to pick that thread up again for a while.  There are multiple right ways do bake sourdough bread — I just have to [someday] figure out the one that works for me.  Maybe someday if I am lucky enough to retire from full-time work…

If we ever get around to building a wood-fired oven, I will check this book out again.  These things are way cool, and they churn out some really delicious pizzas and breads.  They can also be a neat work of art — here’s some inspirational imagery for you.

My ultimate fantasy: to have a building that somehow incorporates a root cellar, a chicken coop, a garden toolshed + potting bench, and a sheltered but open area with an earth oven.  And then to be able to play there all day every day!  (In my fantasy world, obviously, winter doesn’t exist…)


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Going small and low-tech

I was recently introduced to the joy and wonder of french press coffee, and as a result we got rid of our old coffeemaker and replaced it with two secondhand french presses that Adam found on eBay (we got two for when we have company).  This corner of the countertop used to be completely dominated by the coffeemaker, but now it’s a nice workspace.  Love it.  Also pictured is our wee stovetop espresso maker.  (It’s the Bialetti Moka Express, if you’re wondering.)

So yeah, I like fancy coffee and I like espresso, but I also like to not have my kitchen countertop be totally dominated by expensive single-use appliances.  I have a giant stove.  Why not use it to heat water for my coffee?  I’ve got 5 burners, for pete’s sake.  I never need more than two for the kids’ daily oatmeal and scrambled eggs.  Plus, now we can make fancy coffee even when we’re camping.

Clearly, the explosion of single-use kitchen products (like this or this or especially this) are what led to people feeling like they needed a huge kitchen.  If a gadget only performs one function (and this applies to choosing plants for  landscapes as well), you have to ask yourself, REALLY ask yourself, is it worth it?  And not just the money it will cost, but also the space it will occupy and the maintenance required.

My kitchen is 82 square feet; the attached breakfast nook is 42 square feet.  It feels huge and spacious to me; it has a great layout.  We do A LOT of from-scratch cooking and we never feel like we are cramped in any way. According to this 2005 article from ABC/Good Morning America (the most recent I could find), the average kitchen size in new home construction is around 300 square feet (or was, as of 2005).  Wow.

Reading this article is fascinating, by the way, because it so clearly captures the mood of the country in 2005.  Check out this quote:

“There’s more money around,” said Barbara Corcoran, a New York-based real estate agent and “Good Morning America’s” real estate correspondent. “People are more vested in where they live. The houses that are driving the housing prices and sizes way up are the ego homes, though. The really rich people.”

Bigger and better seem to be the way to go in housing these days.

These days, indeed.  Too bad they didn’t find room in the story to point out some of the crazy/shady lending practices that were making all that expansion possible.

Full disclosure: we do have some kitchen gadgets.  I love our heavy-duty stand mixer — but it has many different uses beyond simply making cookies.  We make flour with it!  And butter!  And ice cream!  We also have a waffle maker, a food processor, and an immersion blender.  Actually, I guess we do have, uh, quite a few gadgets.  What was the point of this post again?  Oh yeah, that we eliminated ONE gadget from our kitchen…  It’s a start, right?

If you’re feeling like your kitchen is simply not big enough, look around and see how many single-use gadgets you have.  Eliminating even just one or two can really make your kitchen feel more spacious and useful — and save you money in the long run.  Another digression: I recently taught Anneke the phrase “in the long run” and she says it all the time.  It sounds hilarious coming from a three-year-old.

OK, that’s enough of this random post.  Good night.


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Those green Europeans

Europeans are doing some neat-o, green redevelopment — from the no-car Vauban district in Frieburg, Germany (which I’ve mentioned here before) to well-planned urban public spaces in Copenhagen — there is some cool stuff going on there.  Read all about it here.  And then see what you can do in your own community.

the essential first step, maybe the only critical one, in reassembling these shards and building the urban foundation of the Green Enlightenment is to put people ahead of their cars and public spaces ahead of private ones in the planning priorities of the city — of any city.

Yes.  (via Scrawled in Wax)


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Going without the AC

I just saw this article in the NY Times: “The Unchilled Life: Breezing through the recession without air-conditioning.”  It made me laugh because we unwittingly joined these people this summer.  Our central AC died right in the middle of a heat wave in mid-June, and we couldn’t afford  to fix/replace it.

We have been very fortunate in that we are experiencing a very cool (albeit dry) summer here in MN and I don’t know that we would have used it anyway after that initial 4-day heat wave.  Daytime temps have only been in the 80s at most.

So now the debate is, do we try to get that AC unit fixed/replaced or not?  There is a tax incentive to replace it in 2009 or 2010.  Yet, I’d like to put it off as long as possible.  I’m flirting with the idea of never replacing it.  I’d much rather spend my money on something that would help naturally cool our home, like a porch, or deeper eaves, or better-insulated windows.  I could go on and on.

I am really excited that I have until the end of 2010 to decide.  The only thing that bothers me is lying awake at night, with all our windows open, listening to the drone of the air conditioners going full blast outside every single house around us and wondering, just how great IS the quality of that spewed-out air coming in through my window?  Maybe this no-AC plan works better in the country?


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Book review: Building Green

Building Green: A complete how-to guide to alternative building methods
Authors: Clarke Snell and Tim Callahan

building_green_cover_largeI checked this beautiful book out of the library because Adam and I are talking about building a shed/playhouse next spring and I wanted to do a little green building research.

The whole book is basically a complete and well-photographed documentation of a little cottage that the authors built using several different alternative building methods: cob, cordwood, straw bale, and earth plaster with a living plant roof.  The entire process is covered in exhaustive detail, from initial dreams to site plans, laying a foundation, building each wall, the roof, etc.

As interesting as it was, and as beautiful as the photography was, this book really does not apply to my situation at all.  I’m not bloody likely to be building a house anytime soon, as much as I like to fantasize about it.  I need to get a “how to green up your 50-year-old, completely improperly situated (from a passive solar perspective), and possibly poorly-sited house (our house sits on a former wetland, which we didn’t know until after we bought it) without breaking the bank” book.  Does this book exist?

One of the cooler things about Building Green is that there is a ton of related content on the authors’ website.  Since the book came out, Snell and Callahan have started a business, The Nau Haus: they’ve created their own natural building system.  There are some very cool home plan ideas on their website.

If you are building a house or cabin anytime soon, I would definitely give this a read and see whether you want to incorporate some of the ideas found here.  Even if the idea of using cob or straw bales sounds horrifying to you, there are other things you can consider, such as siting your house to maximize its passive solar potential and thereby reducing your long-term heating and cooling costs.

As for our little playhouse/shed, well, we’ll see what we can come up with.