re-nest interview

Apartment Therapy‘s sister site, re-nest, has just included our most recent Riverbluff home in their Green Building and Renovation Month 2011. It is basically a little interview with moi (Joey). There are more new photos on our website. If you like looking into other people’s homes, I highly suggest Apartment Therapy. You can get some great ideas and inspiration there!

Professional Project: Riverbluff Circle House by Latitude 38

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Punching Away

We’ve got a hopefully excited new homeowner that wants to move in to our Riverbluff home in less than a week, so we found ourselves back at Riverbluff wrapping up the punch-list these past few days.  While it is mostly just small odds and ends and not terribly exciting work, there is something deeply satisfying about crossing things off a list.  Eleanor, as always, is keeping a watchful eye on quality control.

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C-Ring Tight

John Semmelhack of Think Little ran his final blower door and duct blast tests at Riverbluff today as part of our Earthcraft certification. When he was setting up the blower door fan to stabilize the house pressure for leakage testing, he found the house so tight that he had to add a “C-Ring” to the fan to get enough resistance. The result: 0.06 ACH = 357 CFM50/5898 SFBE (Air Changes per Hour = Cubic Feet per Minute of air leakage / Square Feet of Building Envelope at 50 Pascals of air pressure). Let’s just say that the house is very tight. Tighter than the almost 100 Earthcraft houses that John has tested to date. Good thing we have an Energy Recovery Ventilator to bring in fresh air to the home.

The duct blast test then showed 0 leakage, which was to be expected, as we have all the HVAC duct work in the enclosed conditioned space of the house. We were also a little proud that John had no comments to make about the HVAC equipment, as we had already made a few key adjustments back before the drywall was installed. Now we will wait for John to finish his modeling and submit his paperwork to Earthcraft to get our HERS (Home Energy Rating Score) and Earthcraft rating.

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No Bluffing: Going Green Down Riverside

The Hook’s On the Block recently reviewed our Riverbluff House.

The Hook: June 9, 2011

“Kermit the frog may not find it easy being green, but the folks at Lattitude38 [sic] don’t seem to share his problem. With native, drought-resistant plantings in the front yard, Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs) in the crawl space, and annual estimated energy costs of just $1,544, the design firm’s most recent entry to the local housing market is a monument to sustainable design and energy efficiency.”

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Under Contract!

Two weeks ago we had an Open House at Riverbluff. It was a beautiful May day in Charlottesville by the Rivanna River. It was a great chance to catch up with other Latitude 38 homeowner’s and get feedback from potential homeowners. I think the best part of the event was when three middle school girls who live in the neighborhood came over for the snacks. They explored the house and then hung out in the kitchen, chatting and laughing. Seeing them enjoy the house made it feel like a home. Over the six months or so that we have been building in Riverbluff, we have seen what a great community this is. Everyone knows each other and seems to trust each other with their children, who run in and out of various houses during the day. In addition to the families, there are also retirees and others who just want to be close to the Rivanna trails.

After the Open House, we were excited to receive an offer on the house. We are excited that another family will soon be making their home in this oh-so-Charlottesville community. We will be closing in July. If you would like to see the home before then, please let us know!

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Riverbluff Kitchen

I thought I’d take a second to spotlight the kitchen at Riverbluff, as the kitchen is a space where we love to play with different textures and finishes. It’s usually the kitchen that is the time capsule and tip off for when the house is built, whether it’s avocado appliances and orange Formica counter-tops from the 70’s or cherry cabinets and granite cabinets in the 90’s.

I’d like to think we are building something that is timeless, but who knows. I mean we are using stainless steel appliances, which I have to think at some point will fall out of vogue. My tastes skew to both the comfort of the country farmhouse and to the crispness of modern design.  Maybe it’s too much of a mish mash, but I like this eclecticism and believe country and modern play well off each other.

Excuse the photos as I quickly took them myself.  It’s also a little difficult to capture as it’s a pretty narrow, galley kitchen.  This kitchen is another take on what we were playing around with on the Rockland house.  I love using two different sets of cabinet faces and counter-tops in a kitchen and how they play off each other.  On one side we have the sleek stainless cabinets with the soft butcher block top.  On the other side, we have the more coarser appearing concrete counter-top with the crisp white, foil finish cabinets.

The devil is in the details, and here are a few in this kitchen: I hate how hulking fridges are and how they protrude past the cabinets. So we made sure to place the fridge at the entry way to the kitchen, where a wall hides this fact. The cabinets are from IKEA, but they unfortunately don’t make a stainless steel toe kicks, so we are having custom made brushed stainless toe kicks made up (one of many punch list items). The IKEA farm sink, also from IKEA, which we love, is not meant to have the backside exposed, so Tommy made a custom wood trim piece that wraps the sink and masks the unfinished areas. Thinking about lighting, we made sure to put in a bulkhead between the kitchen and dining area as it both defines the kitchen and keeps the overhead lighting from spilling out into the dining room.  I also acknowledge that there is not a lot of upper cabinet space, as I love open kitchens with windows. Obviously, got to keep all the food somewhere, so we have a dedicated pantry closet with ample shelving right off the kitchen.

As far as appliances, we are sticking with a Bosch brand dishwasher, as it has proven to us over numerous houses to be extremely reliable and quiet. This is also the third house where we have installed an induction range by Samsung. Induction uses magnetism to heat cookware directly, so the actual cooktop stays pretty cool to the touch and is a great safety feature for kids. Plus, induction boils water faster than gas or electric and has the same precision of temperature ranges that great a gas range would have. My dad always had great industrial restaurant style gas ranges and I have a great nostalgia for that, but there is something to be said for the the ease of cleaning a glass top and not sacrificing performance.

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Rheem Heat Pump Hot Water Heater

Riverbluff is the third house where we have used the Rheem Heat Pump Hot Water Heater, as we have been really happy with the results.  Rheem air-source heat pump water heaters work much like a refrigerator in reverse. The heat pump extracts the heat from warm air, intensifies the heat with a compressor, delivers the heat to the water, and exhausts the cooler air. Because it uses the warm ambient air temperature to do most of the work, it is a very efficient way to heat water.

Our greatest attraction to this type of hot water heater is the energy savings.  The estimated annual electric cost for this unit is $234.  The operating cost for most 50 gallon electric water heaters is around $500 or so.  The Rheem Heat Pump Hot Water Heater is costing us about $1600 versus $400-500 for a standard electric.  So, it’s a pretty quick payback of about 4 years.

Realistically, energy efficiency features are still not the major selling point of our spec houses, so I don’t think I’m realizing this extra cost. Or, sadly, I think I could just put a normal hot water heater in and the house would still sell for the same price.  (As an aside, Joey has started to do some research into mortgages that take into account energy upgrades that will lead to a higher monthly payment, but will be made up by lower utilities bills.  Unfortunately, I don’t think the mortgage industry has gotten completely onboard with that.)  Anyway, there is a little bit of a silver lining for us.  This hot water heater, along with a few other features we put into our house, get us to a low enough HERS rating to qualify for a $2000 federal tax credit. The tax credit is for contractors who build new homes that are at least 50% more efficient than a 2004 code built house. This tax credit honestly has helped us adopt certain features as the norm, like an ERV system and the water heater.

Why not gas? Part of it is the extra installation cost of running the gas lines and hooking up a gas unit.  We’re building an all electric house, as we have been really happy with the efficiencies of our ducted heat pump systems and have also switched over to an induction cooktop for the kitchen.  So, it’s hard to justify running gas for just one appliance. Plus, by going all electric, it opens up the possibility of the house being completely supplied by renewable resources in the future when P.V.s become more affordable.

I do acknowledge that the gas tankless has certain advantages, namely the lifespan of a tankless is quite a bit longer than a tank heater.  Plus, as far as energy usage, if you’re a purist, a lot of energy is lost traveling down the electric lines from the power plant to the house. So, if you were to factor in line loss, a gas tankless should be more efficient. At this point, for the small residential scale that we are building at, I don’t think solar hot water makes sense simply because it’s such a long payback time versus the heat pump hot water heater because of the much higher installation cost.

One thing to be aware of is that they are noisy, which we learned the hard way.  We put our first one in on the second floor of the Mulberry house thinking it would be most efficient to be as close to the bathrooms as possible.  Because they are a heat pump, there is fairly audible constant hum to it, which is a little obnoxious. By building high enough crawlspaces, we’ve taken care of the sound issue. Plus, we get the added bonus of the hot water dehumidifying the basement by drawing in warm, ambient air and spitting out cool, dry air.

Special thanks to Eleanor for hopping down to the crawl space to model the Rheem unit.  I mean, wouldn’t you rather look at a cute baby than a boring hot water heater?

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Keep that man behind bars

Before Tom left us choking on his dust and exhaust, he gave us this parting gift: a new take on the upstairs hallway railing.  I was a little burnt out on our standard horizontal cable railing as we’ve done the same detail in four of the last five houses.  The cable rail is a great look, but we just wanted to try something new.

Joey keeps saying on our house she wants really skinny pickets spaced close together.  I mentioned to Tom the idea of playing around with the standard picket railing and this is what he came up with.  A little bit of a pain in the ass: all that ripping, sanding smooth and polying,  but it’s definitely one of my favorite things in the house.

Now, if only Tom were around to give us a carcastic yet whimsical explanation of what it all means.



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Airing out the soil

Traditionally, we have always done an extremely lackluster job of landscaping our houses.  The reality is that we operate on a tight budget and we would rather put our money towards features and elements on the house as we don’t believe the landscaping is going to make or break the sale of our houses.  We also try and rationalize this to ourselves by the fact that all of our homeowners universally love to garden and get out in the soil.  So, overtime it’s been great to see all of our houses slowly be beautified.

Building in a development for the first time and building in a development that values landscape and ecology, we were actually required to submit a native plant landscape plan and to plant a certain amount of trees and shrubs.  Seeing that the site has nothing but highly compacted virginia clay, with absolutely no topsoil, we thought a remedy was in order.

We rented a tiller and slowly worked our way through that hard pan of clay until it was workable.  We picked up a couple loads of awesome compost from Panorama Paydirt, spread it a couple inches deep and slowly tilled it into the soil.  Panorama prides itself on its nutrient rich organic compost, but after talking to a bunch of folks recently, it seems like the best thing we can do is just get some air into that soil, which the combination of the tilling and the compost does a great job on this.

Having that tiller on site, we went a little crazy and regraded the entire back yard.  Before, the grade kept precipitously falling away from the deck to the rear of the lot, which makes the backyard not all that useful.  We’ve also got this grand 50′ long deck and I can see folks hanging out on it and wanting to be able to look down on their kids playing.  So, we spent a large part of the day cutting a relatively flat section across the entire backyard.

The tiller is obviously not the most efficient way to push dirt around, but I can’t really justify having the excavator come back for such a small thing.  Plus, even the smallest excavator couldn’t get around to the backyard now that the HVAC equipment is in place. We weren’t able to do this grading when DIGS did the final grade as we still had our large shed on site in the backyard along tons of extra building materials.

Joey and Eleanor stopped by in the afternoon to check things out and confer on the final selection of plants.  She ran into Grace, our neighbor and green thumb at Riverbluff, and got some helpful advice on what to pick out.  Looking forward to planting later in the week.

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More IKEA modifications

We have been sourcing most of our bathroom vanities from IKEA.  Again, affordable with a little bit of a sense of design.  But, I see these vanities going in lots of renovations and new bathrooms and I worry that it will be a dated look.  In particular, they sell some with doors that have an aluminum frame with frosted doors that I almost think will become the equivalent to affordable modern what cherry cabinets and granite cabinets are to McMansions.

In the case of the upstairs bathroom at Riverbluff, Tommy took Ikea’s basic white vanity and corralled a bunch of extra scraps on the job site to create something one of a kind.  He took leftover cypress 1 x 4 siding and wrapped 3 sides of the sink. He used leftover galvalume roofing to treat the underside of the exposed cypress and leftover aluminum angle to wrap around the sink.

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