Friday, March 20, 2009

Green Real Estate

The past month has been very hectic as we try to wrap up the major work on the house so that we can begin to install the final finishes & fixtures. Our goal is to have the house 'substantially complete' by the end of March! We are rapidly approaching our one-year anniversary of construction and are approximately 6 months behind schedule. As architects, we should follow our own rule of doubling whatever time you think a project is going to take, then add 3 more months to be on the safe side. Ha. While it turned out to be fairly accurate for this project, the next one should go so much faster now that we've identified a team of subcontractors and suppliers that we've had a good experience working with and who are truly on board with our green initiatives. We've learned a few valuable lessons along the way as well...but more on that later.

We've been meeting with a number of realtors recently that have various levels of expertise in marketing green real estate and in green buildings in general. A new green certification has recently emerged in the real estate industry. After completing three sessions of specialized training, either online or in the classroom, a broker can become a certified EcoBroker. By gaining an introduction to eco-friendly principles and products, these real estate professionals work to help "you save money and live comfortably through energy-efficiency and environmentally sensitive choices." The EcoBroker designation was founded in 2002, but has rapidly taken off in the last several years. Search for an EcoBroker in your area here. Of course, just because a person becomes a certified EcoBroker does not mean they are green building experts. In the end, it is best to meet with the individual in person and talk through, in detail, all the sustainable strategies you are either looking for or looking to sell and how they compare to 'conventional' building techniques.

While it's definitely a different real estate world out there in comparison to when we started this project (or even in comparison to last summer), we are confident that this house has a number of unique features to offer that will help it stand apart from the crowd. If you have been following our blog, I am sure you are aware of this. Now as with many other things in the world of sustainability, the real estate market is being inundated with anything and everything 'green'. As we are strong supporters of "every little bit helps", there needs to be a distinction (and your realtor should recognize this) between a truly sustainably designed and built home and one that simply has bamboo floors (not that there's anything wrong with that!)

To date, nearly all of the new green homes for sale in Philadelphia have been located in the Northern Liberties/Fishtown area or the suburbs. The Montrose house is walking distance to Rittenhouse Square, the Avenue of the Arts, City Hall, and plenty of shopping and dining...not to mention the stunning view of all of it from our roof deck. We plan to officially list the house with a realtor at the end of the month, just in time for the April house-hunting season. For now, you can read our 'by owner' Philly Craigslist ad here. Please spread the word if you know anyone in the market for a unique, eco-friendly home. We'd be happy to give a tour.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Final drainline work

Joel Cohen and his crew recently completed the replacement of the sanitary line that runs from the basement of our house to the city sewer line in the street. The previous pipe had been improperly connected at the basement. In lieu of using a coupling to attach the drain line to the pipe on the exterior, a previous owner had just poured concrete into the larger pipe to attach the two. thinking, guys. This made it a little bit more difficult for us to replace the lines, but Joel and his crew (basically, his son) got the job done. The photo below shows the existing cast iron pipe under the sidewalk which was completely rotted out.

It's unclear how long this pipe has been in this condition. We had shut the water off at the property in anticipation of not needing it for a year or so while we were going through the design & permitting stages of the project. Apparently the condition of drain pipes rapidly deteriorates when water is completely shut off, as occasional flushing of the pipes ensures that minerals do not build-up enough to cause damage. The next set of photos shows the new ABS connection line and the vertical ventilation shaft that rises up to the level of the sidewalk.

Since looking at photos of sanitary lines isn't necessarily everyone's idea of a good time, we'll end on a few fun pictures. Along with tearing up the sidewalks comes the inevitable large machinery. Our son, Nicholas, is almost 2 yrs old and like many boys his age- or any age for that matter- he has a new-found obsession with anything with wheels, wings, propellers, or tracks. David (Joel's son) noticed how enamored Nicholas was with the backhoe and offered to lift him up for a ride. Nicholas helped him with the controls for a few minutes and was wide-eyed the entire time. Lucky kid!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Roof deck modifications + cornice work

With the help of our friends, we recently completed an extension for the roof deck that will allow a small landing opposite the roof hatch & ladder. The plants in this area were not thriving due to increased foot traffic whenever anyone accessed the roof. The elongated platform should give a little more breathing room by the roof hatch. We also had to modify the steel railings and posts which will wrap around to enclose the new landing area. Once those are in place, we'll tackle the installation of the cables. We have purchased a few off-the-shelf components to allow us to test-run a small portion. If all goes well, the end result will be an open, clean, & economical railing solution. The main goal is to preserve that beautiful Philly skyline view while providing a safe place for socializing.

Painting the cornice is another small task that we tackled ourselves. Everyone took a turn here- testing our balance on a somewhat wobbly set of pump jacks on a very cold day. In the photos below you'll see our friend Justin, me (Emily), & Christopher each taking a turn. Turns out that Christopher had the strongest nerves, as Justin and I conveniently let him to paint the edges farthest away from the scaffolding. We're no dummies.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Go Green Expo- this weekend!

Friday- Sunday, March 13-15

PA Convention Center, 1101 Arch Street, Hall B

Join us this weekend at the Go Green Expo!
The SOLIBS crew will be sharing a booth with K Group, a green construction firm. Weekend passes are just $10 (online ticketing has already closed, so buy them at the door). Kids under 12/Seniors/Students receive Free admission.

Called the nation's premier eco-friendly tradeshow, Go Green Expo is coming to the PA Convention Center this weekend. Sponsored in part by NBC, The Philadelphia Inquirer and, Go Green Expo will showcase the latest and greatest in all things green, from fuel-efficient cars and natural personal care products to greener gadgets that help us live more sustainably. In addition to over 200 different exhibits, Go Green Expo will also host a variety of panels and keynote speakers. Mayor Nutter will be doing a ribbon cutting on Friday at 10am to kick off the show and Philadelphia Office of Sustainability head, Mark Alan Hughes is giving a keynote address on Friday at 1pm.

To view event details, visit
To see the complete panel discussion & speaker schedule, click here.

Our very own Christopher Stromberg will be participating in a panel discussion called "Building Green Does Not Need to Cost More" on Friday, March 13 at 11am. He will be joined by Bill DeFalco of E3 Bank, Andrew Kleeman of EOS Energy Solutions, and Johnny McDonald of Onion Flats.

And the final flooring selection is...

American Black Cherry!

After considering the several FSC Certified hardwood flooring options from The Collins Companies, we decided that Black Cherry will best suit our needs for this project. We received the samples a few days ago and the Cherry was absolutely beautiful. And seeing that the Collins Pennsylvania Forest is home to the "finest Black Cherry hardwood forests in the world", how could we pass up this opportunity to source our lumber locally from PA?

Upon deciding on the Cherry, there were only two decisions left to make: whether to go with prefinished vs. unfinished floors and what size planks to use.

After weighing the pros and cons of the different finishing options, we decided to go with the prefinished boards. There were four main reasons for this: 1) it is much more cost effective to prefinish--about 1/3 of the cost of finishing on-site, 2) prefinished floors tend to be more durable because the coats are applied in a very controlled environment and in thin, multiple layers (rather than mopping on thick layers) which results in a very clean, smooth look, 3) we simply could not come to terms with going through all the effort we've exerted to keep the house clean and chemical free, and then introduce drum sanders and finishing chemicals. Right now the house is nearly done and painted with non-toxic paint- the two just didn't seem to fit. 4) Time- unfinished boards would require losing about a week's worth of work time in the house due to the drying times when no one can else be in the house. We are already behind schedule so this was important to us.

Of course, there are a couple of advantages to getting unfinished wood planks and finishing them on-site. 1) You can get a more cohesive visual surface when you spread the finish over the planks after they are laid. The seams between the boards become a little less pronounced. This of course comes down to the "look" you are going for. 2) The floors tend to be more "waterproof" when finished on-site. The reason for this is that if water is spilled on the floor (and sits for some time) it can make it's way through the seams between the boards. With prefinished boards, you don't have any barrier to stop the water from migrating through. When you cover the entire floor with a continuous layer of polyurethane, you create a protective seal against moisture. However, if you get quality made floors that have a very tight tongue & groove seam that lock into place, you should have adequate protection against migrating moisture.

We requested a sample of the clear coat finished cherry as well as a 'cherry stained' cherry. Since our original plan was to compliment the wood window color (deep Chestnut) with the wood floor color, the 'cherry stained' cherry worked out perfectly. Cherry will also naturally darken over time which will only enhance its appeal. We went with a medium luster (28) and also requested the info regarding what products they use for finishing- all are VOC compliant. The process is actually a five coat finish that results in a beautiful and very durable surface.

It is true that American Black Cherry is not one of the hardest woods. Having a Janka wood hardness scale rating of 950, it ranks just below Black Walnut and above Longleaf Pine. The difference with this particular wood is that it is the highest quality American Black Cherry you can find. The samples we received were some of the densest cherry I have ever seen. The floors will inevitably show wear and tear over the years (which is one of the great features of Cherry in that it only gets better with age) but its good to know that we are installing such a high quality wood.

The other choice we needed to make was the plank size. We had a choice between 2-3/4" and 5-1/2" wide planks. After seeing the samples we decided to go with the 5-3/4" wide planks. The cost was really not that much more in the end and who wouldn't want wider planks?

The flooring should be arriving in about two weeks. We are planning on installing the floors ourselves. The good thing is that with wider planks it should take us less least, we hope.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rear facade & yard update

The sunshades (sometimes referred to as brie soleil - a French word meaning "sun breaker") were finally completed on the south facade and all of the fiber-cement panels have now been installed. Our metal roofer, Jason, was also at the house a few weeks ago installing the metal coping around the perimeter of the roof. He fabricated the coping from Zalmag, which is the same material that we used for the folded metal panels at the front mansard. By thinking ahead and ordering extra, we were able to have enough material for both. Check out our previous blog entries on Zalmag here and here. The whole profile of the house looks much cleaner now.

The only thing left to do on the rear facade is to install the final galvanized metal downspout that will attach directly to a rain barrel, with an overflow to the rain garden. We also intend to paint the exterior housing of the whole house fan the same color as the fiber-cement panels which will make it blend in a bit more. One other aesthetic decision that remains is whether to leave the sunshades as-is or to paint them. They're made from exterior grade FSC-certified spruce lumber so they can be left unfinished if desired. If we paint the sunshades, it would allow us to caulk a few of the connections that weren't at tight as we'd like. Of course we're contemplating all this after all the scaffolding has already come down, making it a little more tricky to access the sunshades themselves...but it is possible.

As of this week, we are finally getting the new layer of stucco on the side of the house (the outline of the original house) now that the temperature has warmed up a little. That will wrap up the major exterior work on the building, with the exception of the front steps, refinishing the front sidewalk, and installing the stormwater planter.

The photo below shows the formwork for the concrete curb around the rear patio. The curb will provide support for the sand-set paver area as well as help control any excess runoff and prevent unnecessary erosion. 4x4 wooden fence posts will be embedded into the concrete to ensure that they're strongly anchored. We're planning to build a 6' high vertical tongue & groove fence, with a gate that opens onto the utility easement. This will make it easy to bring trash & recycling from the backyard to the front curb without having to haul it through the house.

More updates soon- we have simply been too busy these past few weeks to keep up!