Monthly Archives: July 2012

Design Phase II

Posted on July 19, 2012 by

So, now we had bought the land, but it was somewhat backwards from what we had been looking for, at least in terms of driveway direction and the direction towards the best view.  We needed to roughly site the home on the property and make any internal layout adjustment that arose from that.

Rough site plan

One rough site plan showing access from the road. We tried several versions of this, including one that separated the garage into two parts, but they all had some key flaws.  The yellow box is roughly the flat area at the top of the hill.

Our property did have a road to the north, actually the road wraps around the north and west of our lot.  I called the county about getting a driveway permit and was able to get agreement that there is a point on the north side with enough sight line distance (for safety, they want 300 feet of view up and down the road from the driveway exit, which is tricky on a curvy road like that) to qualify for a driveway permit.  I also checked with the neighborhood association and they didn’t mind if my driveway came off the road instead of the circle.

However, the best spot to site the home is the flat spot on the top of the hill on the south side of the lot.  A driveway stretching from the acceptable driveway location on the north side would be longer, steeper and curvier, and would therefore need a driveway circle so guests could easily leave (an important design consideration ;))    It would also cost much more to put in and maintain the longer driveway.  Also, thinking passive solar, a driveway on the north side of a house does not have the benefit of winter sunshine to help melt away the snow.  Our particular lot has prevailing winds from the south west; the house would shield the driveway from these winds, and possibly even sweep snow off the roof and onto the driveway.  I really do not like shoveling snow ;).   But the biggest kicker is that our back yard would be on the south side of the house, which, on this lot, is too sunny with no shade and is overlooked by our nearest neighbor.   We enjoy our backyard BBQs all summer and this wouldn’t work for us.

Rough site plan showing driveway from the south

Rough site plan showing driveway from the south, and associated benefits.  The yellow box is roughly the flat “build-able” area at the top of the hill.

On the other hand, if we accepted the fact that things were different than we planned, and swapped the driveway around to the south side of the house, we had a lot of advantages.  The shorter, straighter, flatter, simpler drive way would be easier and cheaper to build and maintain.  The winter sun and wind would help clear the snow.  The back yard would be more private and reserved for plants and play.  Our summer BBQs would be sheltered from the wind and sun.

One problem with this design is that we would need to face the garage somewhat towards the road which may cause friction with the neighborhood association; I was at least able to angle it a little so it wouldn’t face the actual circle (not shown in this rough site plan, but corrected later).  Maybe we could also use trees along the leeward side (East side) of the driveway to hide the garage?

The big problem with switching to the southern driveway was that it required so much change in the house layout.  The front door would need to move from the north side to the south-west corner and this changed a lot of what happened in between.  It shifted the guest suite, my office, the kitchen and dining room, which changed the actual structure of the house.  The main non-structural purpose of the “rotunda” room at the center of the house was a traffic spine from the entry…  That doesn’t work if there is no entry connected to it.  We kicked around a few ideas to try and wrap the driveway from the south side around to the entry cottage on the north side, but none of that worked.   After spending so long to get to that point in the layout, changing it seemed overwhelming and I just didn’t do anything for 4 months (except focus on my MBA, which is a lot of work and not recommended to be done in conjunction with home design or construction).

Anyway, fast forward to this past January 2012.  I took a semester off my MBA and focused on resolving the layout issues and other engineering difficulties…

The start of the room shift...

The start of the room shift… I like how I dumped the chairs on the lawn and the kitchen appliances are in the garage…

The first thing we did was move the entry into the south west pod where the dining room had been.  This meant we had to shift the dining room clockwise into where the kitchen had been and shift the kitchen around to where the mud room, pantry and office had been…  We also took the guest room (previously on the north side of the house as part of the entry cottage) and shoehorned it into the remaining part of the circle, just past the kitchen…  The guest bath ended up on the north side of the rotunda…   Sounds easy… but none of it fit well…  And now I had no office or pantry.

We messed around trying different things for weeks until I ended up increasing the radius of the dining room and kitchen.  This gave us room around the dining room table and let the table be enough out of the way to get from the kitchen to the other rooms.  It also solved the problem of access to the back yard from the kitchen.  Technically, the guest room was in the way, but the relatively larger radius for the kitchen meant we could pass thru the mud room to the north side of the house.   However, this radius increase started the cycle of increasing the square footage again…  We would need to keep an eye on that this time.

We also discovered that the building code used in Michigan would not allow the tight spiral stair I planned to put in the rotunda.  I had got the narrower dimensions from “The Iron Shop” which has advertised in every Popular Science magazine I got for years…  I guess they also provide smaller spirals for people who are not so concerned about building codes.   The larger “min” size specified by the code would not allow much traffic flow in the rotunda, so I decided to move that off to the west (outside the rotunda, behind the wall behind piano), and use up the tight end of the kitchen (where I had briefly placed the pantry, so that was bumped again).  It still didn’t fit well because the storm room only had a 10ft radius, so I am hoping we figure something out there later.

I really needed an office.   I considered putting it in the guest room and just moving out when we had guests, which is what I do now.  We might end up doing that as a cost cutting measure later on, but for now, I decided to plan for a dedicated office.   Unlike most people who want their home office in a remote corner of the house, I like keeping in touch with what is going on;  as long as I can close the door when I need to.   I also like having a window that lets me see who is coming and going from the house.  This lead me to place an apse outside the dining room wall.  Structurally, this would make it easier (and perhaps cheaper) to fill the area outside the dining room wall.  My earlier dining room design had a lot more windows, but that evening light and heat can be annoying, and it was making it a lot harder to earth cover that side of the house.  The new design just has a high chord window tucked into the end of the vault.  For a door, I decided I wanted to use a sliding bookshelf, like a “well-known-secret” door.  My earth sheltered office would have a little window overlooking the driveway and the path to the front door.

Next issue… the guest quarters… interestingly and coincidentally, this took up about a “quarter” of the circle.  We sometimes have multiple guests at a time, or at least parents and their children, so we decided to have two rooms.  They needed to be near and attached to the guest bath that would also serve the main “entertaining” area of the house.  initially, we also wanted the guests to be able to come and go without going thru the main areas of the house and thought it would be good to have a hall from the mud-room to the rotunda.  Now, how to shuffle it to fit nicely?  Try as I might, I just couldn’t make it all fit.  In some cases, I also tried to fit a curved stair around the outside of the rotunda.    We tried a bunch of different combinations, each time we would try fitting a queen size bed in the room and fixtures in the bath room and then imagine using the space (never mind figuring out the roof structure).

We tried a variety of guest quarter layouts. Early versions included a hall from the mud room the the rotunda that was later dropped from the requirements. We couldn’t make it work until we added 2 feet to the radius… Is that the easy way out?

At about this point, I was also researching soil properties and discovered that my particular sandy loam soil had a lateral loading of less than half of clay…  In practical terms, this meant that I could have a basement (and not worry that it needed to be super strong to support the earth forces)… I thought that might be handy under the northern 2/3rds of the circle, but this added a stair requirement, and the stairs should probably connect to the mud room attached to the garage…   This put an additional squeeze on the guest room and killed the hallway idea.

As with many great ideas, the winning idea came to me in the shower one morning…  The radius was just too tight, if I could increase the radius by two feet, I could get a good solution.   This would have a bathroom with a door to one of the rooms.  The other room would act as the guest living room, but could also include sleeping sofas if necessary.  I even thought I could put a large format picture on the wall that could fold out into a bunk…  Lets see if that ever materializes.

Quonset Huts are strong, easy to assemble and very affordable, steel buildings.

The next step was figuring out the roof structure, including the eyebrows, reinforcement, etc., which I will eventually discuss in a TECH Notes post.  I also had basement egress to worry about (extra tricky in an earth sheltered home).  I got some good ideas for that from a Malcolm Wells book (an underground Frank Llyod Wright).  At some point, I don’t remember when, I changed the garage structure to a cement and earth covered Quonset hut…  These steel forms are cheap (30’x40′ garage for $7K) and strong and take all the risk out of shotcrete.  We briefly considered scrapping the previous design and going with a series of these Quonset huts, but we decided we were not that “modern”.   Now we may end up changing from a Q-type Quonset hut to an S-type which has more head room for the garage doors.

By April 2012, I had pushed the limit of what I could get out of Revit…  Making the complex roof structure might have been possible, but not without committing more time to develop skills, and then a lot of evenings to get the work done.  We also knew that we faced an upcoming approval gauntlet with both our lender and our neighborhood association.  We decided to hire a proper architect to help us finish the work…  We also needed an engineer to approve the structural plans.  Going with these professionals would cost us some money, but would smooth the whole process from there…  Heck, they may even be able to improve the layout or other ideas of the house.  More on that stage later.  In the mean time, here is a gallery of my sketches and 3D models…


Wood Stove…

Posted on July 18, 2012 by

A wood stove for our earth sheltered home?

The building inspector, mortgage company and common sense will probably dictate that I  should have a “proper” automated heating system in the home.  I would call that my “backup” since I am hoping that I have designed the system well enough to call passive solar my primary heating system.  However, I also assumed I would have a back up to the back up in the form of an efficient wood burning stove.  We have a lot of “free” wood on the property (4 acres of Oak and Cherry) and you never know when power will go out rendering the other “backup” useless.  There is also this idea that it may take some time to “charge” the thermal storage soil around my home (some earth sheltered homes report a 3 year period before the home stabilized), and a wood stove would be a “free” way to do that.   Of course, there is also just something nice about sitting around a wood fire…

Modern Woodstove

So here is my first choice, picked out several years ago… I liked that it was a full 360 degree stove.  I had mentally situated it between the entry, dining and living rooms so that we could sit around it like at a camp fire.  It looks simple, but has many of the advanced features you would expect from a more traditional stove (blower, outside air intake, re-burner, etc.)  Its manufacturer, Focus Creation, has a lot of cool wood stove designs.  I expected they would cost more than a more traditional wood stove, but this one turned out to be nearly $15k and the one on the next page of the catalog (similar, but telescoping) was $44k…  It is an advanced stove, but you could get a 2012 Mercedes Benz SLK for a lower list price than that.  “Ooo, but it telescopes!!!”  Anyway, maybe if I already had that car, I wouldn’t mind shelling out for the unique stove…

We continued to shop around for more standard domestic wood stoves and found that they are generally inexplicably expensive…  They are about the same weight as a motorcycle, but much much simpler mechanically and yet, more expensive.  They are nothing compared to the technology or entertainment potential of a high end 3D TV, and yet cost much more…  I wonder why that is?

Jotul F100 wood stove.

Anyway, market mysteries of supply and demand aside; I eventually ended up going with something smaller and relatively simple… The Jotul F100.  I liked the arches on the door which would be similar to the vaults of the room.  It is only supposed to keep 1200 feet warm, but that should be good enough for us.   It does have decent efficiency, but not some of the advanced features that more pricey wood stoves had.

The main problem was the back of it…  Actually, the back of pretty much all the domestic wood stoves I looked at…  They all looked like junky old CRT televisions, many even had the big energy efficiency sticker like you would find on your clothes dryer.  An that was before you added the even uglier blower assembly…  The only solution is to put it up against a wall.

I spoke to the sales guy who was quick to correct my pronunciation…  “oh, do you mean the ‘yot’l’ wood stove?”  “Yes, sorry, I am not up on all the in-crowd Northern European wood stove name pronunciation”…  Anyway, it “starts” at $1,168.  But, at that price, you just get a paperweight.  If you want the fan, that is 250$.  If you want the “outside air kit” (to prevent it from sucking all the warm air out of your home), that is another $100.  I don’t think the legs were even included in that base price.  Then I asked about stove pipe…  They sales guy said, “$800 to $2,600”.  I asked him to break it down for me and he said that he could get me a deal on the first 8ft out of the stove for only $899.  Well we were already past the low end of his estimate and I hadn’t even reached my ceiling yet.  He said it was about 100$ a foot after that…   I have since found double wall stainless steel pipe online for about 50$ a foot, so I will keep shopping around.

I also looked into the cost of a professional install…  I love how they like to ask all sorts of questions and keep asking to come out and measure, but then really don’t have a very complicated formula for the price…  “Well, I have never done anything like that [earth sheltered roof], but its usually either $500 or $1000.”   Assuming that I look after getting the pipe thru the cement ceiling and out the outside of the dirt roof, he figured the rest of the work was on the low end, ~$500.

I don’t know if you have been adding that up, but I have to figure that my little Jotul wood stove will come in at close to $4,000 and that is before I put any gas in my chain saw…  Hmpf, free wood heat indeed!

But Mr. Pronunciation did fill me in on some other rules that I was not very familiar with.  The pipe must extend at least 3 feet out of the roof, but must be at least 2 ft taller than anything within 10 feet.   Hmm…  I have a 22ft radius house with a 10 ft radius “storm room” on the second floor.  Since much of the other layout is already in place, this means I have three options for where to place the stove…

1) I keep it where it was, about 2/3rds of the way out in the living room…  But then I have an ugly backed wood stove with a very tall (18 ft?) shiny metal pipe sticking out of my earth covered roof, probably with guy wires to keep it steady…

2) Move it to where the piano is currently and let the chimney climb right up the side of the storm room…  I kind of liked this idea and imagined a traditional stone chimney as well as tapping into the pipe with a second stove in the storm room (some day when I find a cheaper one on craigs list).  But the cost would definitely be higher and the stove would then be in a major transit path next to the kitchen.  My wife was concerned about the logistics of sitting around a hot stove in the middle of a traffic pattern.

3) We move it out and put it agains the outside wall, pretty much 11ft from the tower and hope that any rising smoke doesn’t just impinge on the storm room…  This is a serious problem because the prevailing winds will most likely drive it that way.  On the bright side, the little pipe could appear to be coming out of the entry cottage (if we do it right).  This also knocks out a window on that internal wall, or maybe reduces it to a high transom.

We didn’t really have much option for where to place the wood stove…


Anyway, this third option is what I sent the architect…

At this point, it is in the budget, and I am expecting to put in the pipe to make a hole when we shotcrete the ceiling, but I also plan to save purchasing the stove for last… If we have any budget left.

Costing this out has really undone my theory of using the fire place for “free” supplemental heating while we charge the earth that first year.  I could buy a lot of convenient conventional heat with my geothermal furnace for the cost of a wood stove.  However, I would still like to get one eventually for its ambiance and grid independence.

We will see how it goes.


Earth Sheltered Restaurant

Posted on July 15, 2012 by

The other day I was headed down I75 thru Ohio on some business trip and off to the west I saw an abandoned building that looked totally covered in very thick trees.  I wish I had stopped to take a photo.  It turned out to be an abandoned Carrabba’s restaurant.   I had seen this chain of restaurants before, but this one was so overgrown it really looked like a fully earth sheltered building.

Article explaining how it was done, click to read

I just did a little research and discovered that this was first done in Orlando Florida back in 1998…  You really need to be interesting to stand out in Orlando, so the owners wanted the restaurant to remind patrons of the hills of Tuscany…  They hired Architect James Wines, famous for incorporating landscaping into architecture, to figure it out for them.  He created a large 1700 sqft “L” shaped planter design capable of supporting all the weight required, including 180,000 lbs of light weight soil, 12ft above the patio.  It has ingenious design features such as drainage down thru the columns, a drip watering system and even boulders made of cellular concrete (aircrete).  Since then, every Carrabba’s restaurant has followed this design, and 70 older restaurants were “greened”.  There are now well over 100 green roofed Carribba’s restaurants in the USA and Canada, and I found that some even hold special “roof park picnics” on the roof from time to time.  The large planter added about $50,000 to the cost of each restaurant.  Due to the cost, Carrabba’s has stopped requiring the roof top gardens on its restaurants since 2006.

Gardeners are needed on the roof about 4 times a year

While they are going for a Tuscan look, and all the restaurants include Italian cypress trees, they are also planted with low-maintenance indigenous plants (such as palm trees Texas or Florida, or pines in Boston or Salt Lake).   Lessons learned include cutting out aggressive plants such as bougainvillea that required more maintenance to keep them from overpowering the other plants.  Carribba’s is looking for a natural look, so gardeners only go up on the roof 4 times a year.  The gardens must be very robust because even the abandoned restaurant I saw was doing very well all on its own.

Small birds, butterflies and even geese are a common sight on many of Carrabba’s rooftops.  It is as if they found a small oasis in the desert of parking lots.