AirBnB Hosting Anew

When we built our new home on 6th Street SW, the topography naturally asked for a ground floor level that is not visible from the street, but which opens fully in the backyard. We decided to go ahead and not only finish most of the space, but invest in a full kitchen and nice bathroom to make a complete apartment. After hosting a friend who moved back to town for a few months and needed a home, we went ahead and furnished the space and recently listed it on the quickly expanding AirBnB site. Although there are a number of sites where individuals can list rooms or whole properties for short term rental, we liked this one for its great booking interface, as well as its eclectic community of users and hosts.

Although some people find the idea of having strangers stay in your home to be very strange, it is something that I find not only perfectly normal, but exciting. Starting from when I was very young, my parents were members of Servas International, which is a non-profit organization founded in 1949 by Bob Luitweiler to build understanding, tolerance and world peace through travel and hosting. An early day “Facebook,” individuals made bio pages compiled in an annual book. When a member wanted to travel somewhere, they contacted others to be volunteer hosts. An amazing organization, I grew up with visitors from such far flung places as Poland, Japan, Germany, and Argentina, usually for just two days at a time.

Once we had a place of our own, Jeff and I joined another interesting host organization, Warm Showers, which links up road bicyclists with other bikers willing to voluntarily host them on their journeys. Because Charlottesville is listed on the Transamerica Route, we tend to get riders in the spring or fall, at the start or end of a long cross country ride. Have you ever noticed those 76 signs around town. Well, that is the route!

Now we have moved into the for-profit realm of hosting, as we need to help make up our construction costs/mortgage. But AirBnB still appears to have more of the communal hospitality vibe. Based on trust and verification through social networking sites, you are able to see who is staying in your home. After their visit, the visitor and the host are able to publicly rate and comment on their stay, which lends people to treat each other with respect and kindness, if they weren’t so inclined anyway. I supposed it is just a micro-bed and breakfast, but it is fun to feel part of a community. If you are traveling anytime soon, you should check it out! (Or send your friends our way when they come to the old C-ville…)

Project: 6th Street SW · Comments Off on AirBnB Hosting Anew

Net Zero?

We’ve only been in our new house 6 months, and it might be a little premature, but it certainly seems like we might be living in a net zero house. Honestly, we thought this goal was a little out of reach, but I think this is proving that the energy usage assumptions for Passive House standards are still a little conservative.

We just got our most recent electric bill from Dominion. This is our first 6 months:

Jan: 631 KWH

Feb: 536 KWH

Mar: 80 KWH

Apr: 0 KWH

May: 16 KWH

Jun: 0 KWH

The zero KWH hours for April and June doesn’t mean we netted exactly zero for the month.  For some reason, Dominion Electric can’t show on this bill how much we are positive, so if you are positive, it just shows a zero.  My understanding is Dominion settles up at the end of the year.

Also, I could be wrong, but if I remember correctly, our p.v. system was shut off for much of January and February unbeknown to us, which explains the big drop from February to March.

Just to put things in perspective, I would think a newly standard code built house would probably be using 1500 KWH a month.  Anyway, we’re pretty stoked thus far.

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Sometimes sh*t doesn’t go downhill

There is an old plumbing maxim: Hot on the left, cold on the right, and sh*t runs down hill. Well, I gloriously proved that wrong…

Our toilet was leaking water the other night and was doing it in a way that made absolutely no sense.  After troubleshooting everything two times and not being able to come up with an answer a light bulb suddenly went off: what if the sewer is backing up in to the house.  I went outside in my slippers and popped off the lid of the drain clean out to be met with a geyser to rival Old Faithful.

Digging up our front yard the next morning, I thought I would trace the drainline to the sidewalk.  There was an old house on the property that was torn down before we bought the lot, so I just tied our pvc drain line into an old 4″ cast iron pipe that headed out into the street.  Last summer we inspected what I could see of the cast iron and it looked in great shape, so I decided to forgo the expense of running a new line into the street.

What I didn’t realize until I was sitting in a canal of my family’s waste was that after three feet, the cast iron switched over to terra cotta pipe, which was crushed.  (I think I have myself to blame on that one as we happen to run a vibrating plate tamper over that ground a few weeks back when compacting a little path a few weeks back.)

Anyway, never a dull moment at Latitude 38.  Next Friday, I hope to get up some photos of the new Riverbluff house as the exterior is really looking sharp.

Project: 6th Street SW · Comments Off on Sometimes sh*t doesn’t go downhill

off the beaten path plumbing selections

We thought we’d spotlight a lit of our dare I say “oddball” plumbing fixtures in our new house.

The first photo shows a simple water fountain we put in our kitchen. We drink a lot of water and we’ve noticed over the years that our dishwasher has too many water glasses from people constantly starting new ones. We wanted to get an old fashioned porcelain school water fountain, but the the used ones we found were in too bad of shape and the new ones were too expensive. The water fountain fixture piece was five bucks and we just used a metal mixing bowl for the bowl, which we drilled a hole in the bottom for the drain.

The second photo is of an old fashion water spigot that we plumbed down low to supply Felipe, our 100 pound lab, with water. He drinks so much water that it gets old lifting up the big bowl and having to fill it up. This actually has a little lever on it that we can tap with our feet and not even bend over. Ahh, laziness!

The third photo is from the same 1st floor 1/2 bath. The whole room is clad in this whimsical and wild spanish cedar curved strips that Devin designed. We wanted the fixtures to lend that same flavor, so Joey picked out simple old fashioned brass water spigots that come out of the wall. The bowl sink sits on an old letter press cabinet we picked up secondhand.

– Jeff

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Green Appraisal?

We are about to get an appraisal done on our newest home, which was built to Passive House, EarthCraft and Energy Star standards. Since the mortgage crisis, lenders no longer can select their appraisers. Our bank has a list from which they get quotes and they make their selection on price, availability, experience and perhaps other features of which I am not aware. Regardless, if you have green features in your home that you would like to be valued in the appraisal, you have no control over getting someone with experience in that area.

Not that there is currently a good system for comparing houses with green features to really determine how they affect value. Nationally, the USGBC LEED and EnergyStar green certification programs are sometimes used by lenders/insurance providers to give a discount or additional coverage. For appraisers, the market is extremely local. First off, the MLS system is regional and the database is created for/by locals. We are starting to get to a point where CAAR is looking at introducing more environmetal features to their listing database, which would allow an appraiser/realtor to look up comps. The regional EarthCraft program is a an easy check-off feature to compare home sales. However, this is not yet clearly available to consumers looking for environmentally-conscious or energy efficient homes. Thus, even if “green” features, eg reduced energy bills, legitimately affect the value of a home, it is not always calculated into the valuation.

Now, I am sort of confusing two issues. One is value for appraisals that leads to financing. The second is value that consumers place on a property. However, in both cases, I would like users to be able to make better comparisons to other properties.

One new step in this direction is an addendum (Residential Green and Energy Efficieny Addendum) released this year by the national Appraisal Institute to help appraisers better value green features. I am glad they have initiated this, and that they are now offering classes for appraisers looking to learn more about these valuations. I have MANY edits that I would like to see incorporated into this document (honestly, I’m not sure how it got made), but it is a start! I am now going to fill out this form for our house, pass it on to the appraiser (luckily someone local), and see how she uses it in her valuation.


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Taking the Jefferson Bed for a test drive

Being in the land of Jefferson, we felt a certain obligation to at least give a nod to the old man when building our new house.  My favorite element of Monticello has always been his bed, which is built into a wall that divides his office from a sitting room.

We are big believers in great expansive common spaces for our homes, where the kitchen, dining and living areas all bleed together.  However, we thought a built-in day bed would be a great way to still separate the spaces while still maintaining interesting sight lines between the rooms.  

Of course, just a plain old day bed doesn’t really satisfy the inner kid in me.  So, we dropped the ceiling on the day bed and built a secret play loft above it for Eleanor, who checked it out for the first time this weekend.  There is also a trap door into the 2nd floor linen closet for quick getaways…

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Abode: Pushing the Envelope

Abode just ran a nice article on the Passive House standard of design/construction. We are one of the builders featured in the piece. Read here or follow the link below. Note that there are no photos of our houses in the online article.

September 2011: Pushing the Envelope
Charlottesville builders make a tighter house
Issue #23.36 :: 09/06/2011 – 09/12/2011


“This is a statement about the future,” says builder Bill Jobes, sitting in the dining area of the house on Lankford Avenue that his company just finished. Behind him, large windows wrap around the house’s southeast corner. A close look reveals that their sills are unusually deep, due to extra-thick walls. That thickness—plus a pervasive quiet inside the house—are some of the only clues that this modern dwelling is built exceptionally tight.

Shade on the southeast-facing windows of a new house on Lankford Avenue, built with narrow gaps along the walls, help regulate the passive solar effect.
It’s been more than a year since ABODE first reported on Passive House, a new standard for energy-efficient building that comes to Charlottesville by way of Europe. Jobes expects his Lankford project, which he built on spec, to earn certification from the Passive House Institute of the U.S. this fall. That should make it Virginia’s first certified Passive House. (As we wrote last June, John Semmelhack—owner of energy consulting company Think-Little—lives in another Charlottesville house built very close to the Passive House standard, and worked with Jobes on the Lankford project.)

Unlike LEED, a much more widely-used green building standard, the Passive House concept is entirely focused on energy use; it’s the world’s most stringent standard in that respect. A building could earn LEED points for rainwater collection and minimal construction waste, but there’s only one way to be Passive: Build a super-tight house whose energy use is drastically lower—70 to 80 percent less—than a standard dwelling. The keys to this feat? Extremely high-quality triple-glazed windows, very generous insulation, and obsessive attention to airtightness.

With Lankford receiving its finishing touches and up for sale, what’s next for Passive House in Charlottesville? Jobes, for one, has applied some of what he learned at the Lankford house to a subsequent project, a “deep energy remodel” in Woolen Mills that will see a 60 to 70 percent improvement in its energy use. Meanwhile, another local building company, Latitude 38, expects to finish its first Passive House this fall.

With just 22 houses currently certified nationwide, Passive House is still relatively unknown in the U.S. But Charlottesville, often ahead of the curve on green building, is shaping up to be a small Passive House hotbed.

And good-looking, too

For Jobes, the Lankford project represents a marriage of high design and high performance. The house, designed by Giovanna Galfione, blends modern and traditional elements and boasts quality materials: red oak flooring, slate windowsills, stucco and cedar siding. It’s blessed with abundant outdoor living space (two porches, a balcony, and a patio) to take advantage of its lofty site and long views.

The kitchen anchors an open floor plan on the first floor. Custom shelving coexists with modified ikea cabinetry.
“There are a lot of very expensive houses that look beautiful and perform terribly,” says Jobes. “We wanted a beautiful, comfortable house that worked really well.”

Local expert Mark Schuyler consulted on lighting; an open stairwell built from oak and particleboard is backlit for a special nighttime effect. Two bedrooms share a porch on the second floor, while the third floor has its own balcony and a bathroom counter made from cherry wood, harvested on-site. Custom details like geometric plywood ceilings, Italian Omnia door hardware and ipe-wood deck railings dress the house up.

But the comfort of its occupants will come, ultimately, from its performance. It’s designed to stay between 67 and 75 degrees year-round, and that’s before heat or A/C are even turned on. The triple-pane windows (brand name Serious) work with highly insulated double-stud walls to ensure that very little air, or heat or cold, can pass through the building envelope. (Fresh air is brought in with a device called an Energy Recovery Ventilator.)

Jobes and Semmelhack say it’s working. “We’re certainly feeling good about the utility bills we’ve had,” says Jobes—just $42 for electricity in July. “Everything is pointing toward pretty good performance,” Semmelhack agrees. “I’ve been over there on a couple of hundred-degree days, and the temperature from room to room, on all three floors, was within a degree-and-a-half Fahrenheit.”

Though the house does have the infrastructure to support solar panels, as a Passive House its heating and cooling loads should already be 90 percent less than is typical. “That is the profound thing about Passive House,” says Jobes. “You’re building a super efficient envelope, so you don’t need a lot of eco-bling.”

Jobes surveys the expansive view from the second-floor porch which features opaque railings for added privacy.
Number two

Nearby, in Fifeville, a steel-clad house is rising on Sixth Street: the future Passive House of Latitude 38 owners Jeff Erkelens and Joey Conover. Part of Charlottesville’s younger generation of builders—who, as a group, tend toward eco-consciousness and an integrated design-build approach —the folks at Latitude 38 have built four houses certified by EarthCraft (a different sustainability program). Ratcheting up to Passive House makes sense, they say.

“We just like to push ourselves to do new things and build better homes,” says Conover, adding that along with energy-efficiency, indoor air quality often improves and maintenance needs lessen. Says her husband, “We love to use ourselves as a guinea pig…I think [Passive House] is going to take off.”

Their new home will have double-stud walls similar to those in Jobes’ Lankford project, along with a slightly less expensive line of Serious windows. Semmelhack helped the pair model projected energy use for various design options. “The site has a good southern orientation,” he says, “[with] fairly good shading from the trees…It was an ideal project from a Passive House standpoint.”

Custom elements combine in unusual ways: plywood ceilings, oak stair treads with stock white banisters, and lighting between the wall and staircase.
Conover and Erkelens say the project is teaching them how to build smarter. For example, Erkelens says, “[It’s] pushing us away from spray-foam insulation. We needed super insulation and it’s cost-prohibitive to use spray-foam. [Also,] John’s anti-spray-foam because the manufacturing process is really bad environmentally.” Instead, their new home will use cellulose insulation, with an extra six to eight inches installed in the attic. That’s very cost-effective, says Semmelhack: “It’s hardly any additional labor to do it.”

Forward motion

Think-Little is consulting on another Passive House in Raphine, even as Latitude 38 is planning a new project in the RiverBluff development that they hope will also meet Passive House standards. Semmelhack sees an industry growing in the right direction. “Over a five-year period it could move pretty rapidly.”

“With builders like Jeff and Joey, [who were] already producing a really nice house in terms of energy-efficiency, it’s not a huge leap for them to get to Passive House,” Semmelhack says. Meanwhile, the energy requirements for certification programs like EarthCraft and Energy Star are set to become stricter, as are standard building codes. “The low end of the tide is rising up.”

Jobes says his experience at Lankford has made a reality out of something that seemed incredible when he first learned about it. “It’s not just a theory,” he says. “It’s totally doable.”

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Hard Hat Open House Tour

Hard Hat Open House Tour
310 6th Street SW (Directions)  (Project Page)
Saturday, Oct. 1 and 8, 11-2

Passive House designed home with triple pane windows, double stud walls, advanced framing, ERV, mini-splits, manifold plumbing, PV, solar thermal, WaterSense, LED & unique finishes.

The site should be pretty clean, but please wear boots or sneakers and clothes that you don’t mind getting a smudge dirty.

Note: Parking is limited. Please consider car pooling or walking! You can also park in the former IGA lot on Cherry Avenue and walk up 6th Street.

Feel free to email us with questions!

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Made in the USA

I just ran across an article that talks about a builder who is trying to make his homes be made with as many products manufactured in the USA as possible (sorry I cannot seem to find the article Green Building Advisor). I am ashamed to say that this idea had not crossed my mind. However, now that it has, I am very curious to start researching all of the (many many) myriad parts that comprise the large “product” of a Latitude 38 home.

We are in some ways a manufacturing company. We just happen to not make too many products, and they are very large. The best comparison I can think of is a company that makes boats or airplanes. (Note to self: Look up Boeing case studies.) Because our product is so large, and we do not have a warehouse for production (which cuts down on our operating footprint), we need products “just in time.” This requires an exceptional amount of planning on Jeff’s part. In fact, it is what he spends the majority of his mental capacity on. And I must say that he is pretty good at it. It also means that if a part (ie a finish selection) is not decided on in time, it can act as a bottleneck and back up production. Jeff tries to keep multiple lines of production going on the product (house) at any one time in case this happens, but sometimes the options are narrowed. Apart from material delivery, we are dependent on subcontractors. Because of the difficulty of planning for potentially unreliable planning on the part of our subcontractors (in essence partners), we have tried to bring as much labor in house as we are allowed. The so-called trades, HVAC, plumbing and electrical, must be outsourced, as we do not have the licences to complete this work in the City of Charlottesville (and they are fairly difficult to obtain).

But I am straying from the original topic at hand. Made in America. I happen to be ordering plumbing fixtures right now. I have decided to go with American Standard for toilets and shower/tub/bathroom sink faucets. I first went to them because I understand they are quite well made, they have a few simple modern designs, and they are not outrageously expensive. When I just looked up their manufacturing process, I was directed to this page:

American Standard

They say they are trying to produce their goods here at home (I would hope so given their name). The one toilet they say they are producing in the USA under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the Buy American Act happens to be the one I selected. Yeah!

Now to start looking into the hundreds of other parts we use to manufacture a Latitude 38 home…

Project: 6th Street SW · Comments Off on Made in the USA

Insulation begins…

Our insulation arrived this morning from Natural Fiber in Belchertown, Massachussets. Eight hundred bales of atomized newsprint and old paperbacks-twenty thousand pounds in total; an entire semi load. Realizing that an eighteen wheeler had no chance of making it down Sixth

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together a fleet of jalopies for the express purpose of ferrying bales back to the jobsite, and intercepted the hapless freight driver in front of the corner IGA like Somali pirates. This being Cherry Avenue, we found a pair of Tonsler Park squeegee men already inside the trailer whipping bales to the pavement like strike-breaking stevedores. With their help we managed to move all ten tons back to the jobsite in under two hours. Pretty good.

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