Friday, August 22, 2008

The new (old) facade...

The mason FINALLY finished the new brick face. We used reclaimed brick from a salvage brick & stone place in Norristown. They are 100 yr old original Philly face brick from a few different jobs. The interesting thing about using reclaimed brick is...well, you never really know what your going to get (unless you lay the whole thing out beforehand, and...uhh, good luck with that.) We are generally very happy with the result. It has lot of character and tells a great story, in addition to being a very sustainable solution.

I suppose the only part that we weren't too happy about was the conglomeration of bright red bricks around the middle of the facade. We feel these were not mixed in to the rest as evenly as the blues, yellows, and blacks toward the bottom (which we love.) We took a chance by using old brick and we feel it was well worth it. Even the mason (who hated the idea all along) had to confess (begrudgingly) that he was very impressed with the final product and never imagined it could look this good. We even had a nice older woman by and say that she has lived in this neighborhood for over 50 years and has never seen anything quite like it. She loved it.

The only work left to do out front now is put in the reclaimed marble steps and then eventually redo the sidewalk.

Now the question is: what to do, if anything, about all the bright red bricks? It's purely a question of aesthetics. And please...if anyone out there has an opinion on this, please let us know by leaving a comment. We are open for suggestions. Below is a concept we came up with (using Photoshop) where we could "tone down" the red brick and maybe bring a little bit of the blue, yellow, and black up to the top area. This could be achieved by stripping the paint off a few of the red bricks (using a great product from Dumond called Smart Strip by Peel Away) and then painting a few of the bricks up higher with matching blue, yellow, and black from the lower part. The purist side of me says "leave it alone, that's the way the cards fell and it's beautiful." But the developer side of me keeps reminding me that this is a spec house and has to have some degree of 'curb appeal" (as much as I hate that term.) Aesthetically speaking, we like the "after" version better but are torn by concept of messing with the quasi-chaotic purity of the whole process.

ADDENDUM (8/27/08):
See image below. A good friend, "Dubin" (who has commented a few times on the blog) has helped out by taking a stab at another version...this one, going in the opposite direction by accentuating the color variations. Looks great! Maybe a bit crazy for our taste but we like what your thinking. Thanks for participating!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Non-PVC drain pipe solution

So after many futile efforts of trying to find a non-PVC pipe that can be used for the drain lines in the house, I think I might have found a solution. I had been calling around to various plumbers, engineers and colleagues to try and find an alternative when, on a chance phone call to Superior Plumbing in South Philly, I was turned on to a product I hadn't heard of before. Now...the most ridiculous part: the product has actually been around for almost 50 years! It's a testimony to the fact when this industry finds something they like to work with (i.e cheap and easy like PVC) they seems to close off all other avenues and then become very resistant to change.

Here's what happened on the phone. I called the plumbing supplier (which I have used before and are great!) to ask if they know of any other pipe material besides PVC and cast iron that can be used for drain lines. He responded with an adamant, "No....that's it. Those are the only two." As I fained disbelief and pursued the question further, he held his ground. But just as I was thanking him for his assistance and was about to hang up the phone, he burst in with a "Hang on a second", and proceeded to ask another guy in the store to remind him what the name of that "black plastic pipe they use for drains" is. He came back with, "ABS". ABS?? What is that? He then informed me that ABS is an acceptable alternative but he didn't think of it right away because he doesn't stock it. "It's the stuff they make TVs and VCRs out of", he said. I asked if it was approved by the City of Philadelphia. He said, "Only for residential." I said, "Perfect." I then thanked the man again and began my usual background check.

An important aspect I found out was that ABS is actually a "thermoplastic", which means it is able to be safely recycled. This is not the case for PVC, which cannot effectively be recycled, as it is a difficult process, releases dangerous chemical when melted down, and needs more chemicals added in order to reform it.
ABS is derived from acrylonitrile, butadiene, and styrene. The advantage of ABS is that this material combines the strength and rigidity of the acrylonitrile and styrene polymers with the toughness of the polybutadiene rubber. The most important mechanical properties of ABS are resistance and toughness.

From the PPFA's (Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association) website: "ABS pipe and fittings are made from a thermoplastic resin called Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene (ABS for short). ABS PIPING SYSTEMS are easier and less expensive to install than metal piping; Feature superior flow due to smooth interiorfinish; Do not rot, rust, corrode or collect waste; Withstand earth loads and shipping (with properhandling); Resist mechanical damage, even at low temperatures; Perform at an operational temperature range of -40°F to 180°F; Are lightweight (one person can load and unload); Take less time to rough in than metal DWV materials."

ABS pipe and fittings were originally developed in the early 1950s for use in oil fields and the chemical industry. In 1959, John F. Long, a prominent Arizona builder, used ABS pipe in an experimental residence. Twenty-five years later, an independent research firm dug up and analyzed a section of the drain pipe. The result: no evidence of rot, rust or corrosion.

To see the PPFA's ABS Publications, click here You can also check out the FAQ's here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Energy Recovery Ventilation

Another mechanical item we are looking into that I forgot to mention yesterday is the integration of a ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) unit into our HVAC system. It's a great strategy and I am excited about the possibility of doing it. I am not sure about the total cost of this addition and we'll have to see if it makes sense with our budget (in addition to whether or not we have the room for it). Although the HVAC unit that we have selected is a high efficiency unit (over 92%) and pulls in 100% fresh air for combustion, the ERV adds the heat exchange and the dehumidification element. Here is a link to an article (from back in 2000) that explains in detail how the whole heat exchange system works.

Make up air: Most of the time, houses (especially older ones) get fresh air from incidental air infiltration - leaks in the home's envelope (much like the 120 yr old old house we live in now!). Since many new homes are constructed so 'tight'
(extremely well insulated), the only way to get fresh air into the house is opening the windows - which is not very energy efficient in the hot and cold months. So, installing a 'make-up air' vent brings in small amounts of outside fresh (albeit Philly) air. This vent will have an adjustable damper that will only allow air to enter the system when the unit is running. The main problem with this is that in the dead of winter and height of summer, the fresh air going into the unit can be anywhere from 10 degrees to 100 degrees and takes a lot on energy to bring it up or down to 70 degrees. But this is where a heat exchanger comes into play. The heat exchanger involves exhausting some of the stale air out of the house. The incoming air passes over outgoing air (exhaust) because one pipe is located within the other. When the two airs pass each other, there is a heat exchanger that takes the heat from the exhausting stale air and gives it to the incoming fresh air, without mixing the air. This is a way to preheat or precool the incoming fresh air and have your heating system work less. The biggest issue with this method comes during the summer: humidity. But there the ERV (Energy Recovery Unit) comes into play as it gets rid of the humidity.

The whole system makes a lot of sense and it's becoming more commonplace these days and getting more cost effective.

So, the way we see it is between the use of the "whole house fan" (discussed in a previous post) during the temperate months and our high-efficiency unit and possible ERV during the cold and hot months, we should be able to have some fresh air continually circulating through the home throughout the year using a lot less energy.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The 'trades' move in

Well, it's been a while since the last official post and a lot has happened. I'll try to run though some of the important issues and get everyone up to speed.

The 'trades' (the plumbing, electrical, and mechanical contractors) will begin work this week...with plumbing going first, then electrical, then mechanical. Not necessarily the 'normal' order but our GC had some good reasons for doing it this way. This part of the project was a bit delayed from the original schedule due to a number of issues that are related to the masonry work (more on that later) as well as a few modifications to the plumbing and mechanical systems...a few of which are a result of our last LEED meeting and our desire to obtain a few extra points.


This area has had the least amount of changes. The most important issue here is that we finalized most of the light selections. We needed to order all the lights that are recessed in the ceiling before the electrician gets started for, unlike lights like pendants and sconces that can be installed later, the 'cans' all need to be in place before the drywall is hung (which is still several weeks away).

One interesting item we discovered related to LEED points and lighting is that although we are already doing a lot in this house in the realm of energy efficiency, the lighting requirements (in order to get the max points, which is 3), are not as strict as we thought they would be. The prereq for this section requires installation of at least 4 Energy Star labeled fixtures OR install E.S. labeled CFL bulbs in the high use areas in the house. Since we have around 15 E.S. labeled fixtures and CFLs basically everywhere in the house, this was not an issue. Then there are two credit options - 1.5 points for installing 3 additional E.S. labeled fixtures AND using motion detect or p.v. for outside lights OR 3 points for installing E.S. labeled light bulbs in 80% of the home and using E.S. labeled ceiling fans. We are doing all this and a bit more so we see no problem in getting the max points here. This was reassuring but at the same time thought they would have been a little more strict (not that we're complaining...we'll take what we can get!)

Lastly, we are looking into installing an "Energy Miser" in the house. Typically, a house is using only 70% to 95% of the electricity that is coming through the electric meter and ultimately showing up on the electric bill. An energy miser reduces the electricity used by increasing the building’s “Power Factor”– which improves its electrical energy efficiency. It is essentially a panel that is attached to the main electrical panel. It captures and stores energy that would otherwise be lost, and routes it back into your building's system. It also reduces 6,000 pounds of carbon from your building’s carbon footprint. They cost about $500 but you can get various energy rebates that can be up to $100 and it can ultimately save you up to 20% on your electric bill.


The biggest change we made with the plumbing is related to the supply lines but we have also been discussing fixture and appliance selections too (which we'll get to in a different post). Originally, the plumber spec'd out PVC (polyvinyl chloride) for the supply and drain lines in the entire house. We immediately raised a red flag and stated that we do not want (if possible) any PVC in the house. In case you didn't know...PVC is a toxic carcinogen and releases dioxins (an extremely dangerous compound) when produced and when burned. So a few weeks ago we had the plumber price out the alternatives for us - which are copper or PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) tubing for the supply lines and cast iron or (possibly) polyethylene pipes for the drain lines.


Although copper is the most trusted material for water supply lines (and plumbers swear by it), there are a few major drawbacks to using it these days: First, even though some percentage of the copper you buy off the shelf has recycled content, some of it will inevitably come from the mining process, which is environmentally devastating. Second, copper pipes need to be insulated (usually just the hot lines but LEED requires both hot AND cold pipes be insulated...this obviously involves an additional amount of material. Third, there is a lot of soldering involved as it comes in stock lengths and even a straight run often needs multiple connections, and additionally, every turn needs to be welded, which means there is a lot more labor involved. Which ties into the last drawback, it's just very expensive these days due to the high demand and short supply in the construction industry. As much as I respect the devotion of 'old school' plumbers, this material simply does not make much sense to use anymore.

Cast iron:

Cast iron is regarded in the plumbing industry similar to the way copper is. It really is one of the best solutions for drain pipes. BUT it has many of the same drawbacks that copper does...the most important one being cost. Let's just say we'd be paying almost three to four times as much to have cast iron pipes.


[From the Plastic Pipe and Fitting Assoc. website] "Developed in the 1960's
, PEX tubing has been in use in many European countries for plumbing and was introduced in the US in the 1980s. PEX 's flexibility and strength at temperatures ranging from below freezing up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit makes it an ideal piping material for hot and cold water plumbing systems. It is flexible, making it easy to install and service. PEX is able to withstand the high and low temperatures found in plumbing and heating applications, and is highly resistant to chemicals found in the plumbing environment. Flexible systems are quieter than rigid piping. The smooth interior will not corrode which can affect other materials long term pipe flow characteristics. PEX systems have fewer joints and are easier to install providing a lower cost installation over traditional plumbing materials. " So as you can see, there are many advantages to using Pex including the fact that it is so easy to install many homeowners who are building simply run the supply lines themselves. Also, there is no need for all that pipe insulation since the tubing is already insulated. It is also by far the most cost effective solution.

As far as the manufacturing process of I understand it, there are basically three ways:

The Engel process, where the cross linking happens "hot" (in its amorphic state above the crystalline melting point) since the polyethylene, anti-oxidants, and the cross linking initiator (peroxide) are extruded under pressure while in a molten state.
The Silane method, where a vinyl silane agent is added to the resin/polymer base prior to the extrusion process, thus forming a grafted copolymer.
The Radiation method, which involves bombarding previously extruded PE tubing with Gamma/Beta electrons while sealed in a vacuum chamber

Not sure yet which is the 'greenest' process (my instinct would go with either the Engel or Radiation method) nor do I know if we will even have a choice in the matter. I just figured it was good information to know.

Basically, the system works as follows: In the basement, there is a "manifold" that ties into the water heater and main water supply. This has a bunch of pairs of connections (red for hot and blue for cold). The amount of connections pairs depends on the amount of fixtures you have. Separate flexible red and blue pipes run from the manifold all the way to the fixture (uninterrupted). The pipe makes "bends" instead of turns which is actually more efficient than 90 degree turns (like copper) in relation to pressure drop. There is an open/close valve at the manifold too that let's you easily control the supply.

PEX piping and manifold

Up to now I have been told that there really isn't any other alternative (other than cast iron) to PVC as far as drain lines are concerned. BUT, through some research I found that they do make a rigid polyethylene pipe that can be used for drain lines. I need to find out a bit more about this and then get a price difference from the PVC drain lines before we make a final decision. Obviously this would be a great solution for it would eliminate virtually all of the PVC plumbing in the house.

So as you might suspect, we have decided to move forward with the PEX system (for at least the supply lines at this point). But as with any product that is new to me, I start my web search with "Problems with ____", and see what comes up. The only real negative story I found was someone reported that they thought rodents seeking water had gotten into their floors and ceilings and chewed through the pipes and thus caused some leaks. This was never really substantiated, but the way I see it is that if you have rodents running through your floors and have bigger problems to deal with.


The unit we chose is the Goodman 14 SEER 92% Efficient furnace and a 3-ton rooftop A/C unit.

The main change regarding the HVAC system is related to LEED points and the SEER
(Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) rating and HSPF (Heating Seasonal Performance Factor) of our unit. SEER rating is the Btu of cooling output during a typical cooling-season divided by the total electric energy input in watt-hours during the same period. HSPF is a ratio of BTU heat output over the heating season to watt- hours of electricity used. The higher the SEER and HSPF, the more energy efficient the system. Originally, the mechanical contractor had spec'd a 13 SEER / 8.2 HSPF unit. This is a good unit but only satisfies the pre-req for LEED. We needed to upgrade to a 14 SEER / 8.6 HSPF unit to get 2 points for using a "High-Efficiency" system. I have not gotten verification but I would speculate at this point that the cost difference is somewhere around $500...giver or take a few hundred. It's a good thing to do regardless, as jumping up even 1 SEER saves a pretty decent amount of energy when it comes to heating and cooling.

Another thing we are verifying (and what will be tested) are the "distribution losses" that are caused by leaks in the ducts and poorly insulated systems. Our mechanical contractor is now aware of the values (measured in cfm) that we need to achieve and assured us that it would not be a problem. The less cfm lost, the more efficient the system, and the more LEED points we'll achieve (up to 3 if we do well.)

What's next? The next task at hand is for us to complete our "Durability Risk Evaluation Form" (which we began a while back but never finished) for LEED which is part of the "Durability Management Process". But more on that later.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A few comments on

Got some good comments about the house and the blog on the "Forum" at You can check them out at this link: Thanks!

New posts coming soon...I promise! A lot has been happening regarding HVAC, electrical modifications, and plumbing concerns along with final fixture and appliance selections, the new brick facade, wrapping up the framing, and pricing out the kitchen and the steel stair. Exciting stuff!