Monday, September 20, 2010

DC Solar Home Tour - Visit Falls Church Erdhaus on October 2

The annual Washington, DC Solar Home Tour will be held October 2-3, 2010, and our home will be on the tour on Saturday. The tour runs from 11am-5pm and it is sponsored by:

  • Virginia Solar Council
  • Potomac Regional Solar Energy Association
  • American Solar Energy Society

Pick up your tour guide at Washington, DC area REI stores, or one of several other locations listed at the link below. The guide costs only $5 and is your family's "ticket" to all of the homes on the tour. You also can download the guide from the Solar Tour's website:

Our home is #4 in the tour guide. We hope to see you on October 2nd!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Let Them Eat Grass

A couple of months ago, I was introduced to Broadview Ranch, a multi-generational family owned and operated business that is dedicated to sustainable farming, ethical animal husbandry and fine eating. Since we're living in a green house, I thought this might be a good option to "green" my diet habits a bit. Broadview's tagline is "let them eat grass," referring to their grass-fed beef Their current offerings include beef, pork and eggs.

I was impressed with the quality of the meats and eggs that I bought earlier this summer, and plan to place another order for pick up in September. I thought that some of you might want to try out Broadview Ranch's sustainable food products as well. You can place your order and pick up your products at their ranch. Or, once per month they deliver to specific locations in the Washington, DC area. Order by September 23rd for this month's delivery in DC.

Before you place your order, complete a short referral form and note that you were referred by Mike Nichols to get a first-time customer gift including:
  • 1 package ground beef
  • 1 package pork sausage
  • 1 dozen eggs
I hope you enjoy their products as much as we have.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Cantaloupe (also cantaloup, muskmelon, rockmelon or spanspek) refers to two varieties of Cucumis melo, which is a species in the family Cucurbitaceae, which includes nearly all melons and squashes. Cantaloupes range in size from 0.5 kg to 5.0 kg. Originally, cantaloupe referred only to the non-netted orange-fleshed melons of Europe; however, in more recent usage it has come to mean any orange-fleshed melon (C. melo). (From Wikipedia)

At the Falls Church City Farmer's Market a couple of months ago, we picked up a few vines on sale for $1 each. We didn't know how well, if at all, they'd do in the back of the house, but we thought we'd give it a try. A few weeks ago, I noticed a little green ball forming where one of the vine's flowers used to be. It grew, and grew, and grew into a nice cantaloupe. Each day it's been getting more yellow and closer towards ripeness. Today when I went back to water the plants in the back yard, I saw the cantaloupe was detached from the vine and a beautiful ripe color that one never sees on cantaloupe in the grocery store. I brought it inside and began to devour it. YUMMY!

Monday, August 9, 2010

You Say Tomato

We planted some herbs, peppers and tomatoes in front of our house. Yesterday we picked the first ripe tomato, which was lusciously delicious. Unfortunately, the rest of the tomatoes are very green, so it will be a while before we're in tomato bliss again. Here are some photos:

Over the weekend, Andreas went to Merrifield Garden Center to buy some salad and other greens, which he planted this weekend. The real purpose of his trip there, though, was to get some "green manure." While it sounds terrible, actually, it's not gross at all - it's simply a plant that binds nitrogen in a natural way and after it grows it gets folded under the dirt and will make for some great soil. This is a biodynamic garden technique. More on that later, as the seed were just planted this weekend.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Men in Tights

Today Chris Conway, our EarthCraft technical advisor, did our final blower door test, to determine the air tightness of our house.

"Tightness" is measured in air changes per hour at 50 Pascals of air pressure difference (ACH50); the idea is to measure how often the air inside the house is exchanged with the outside if the pressure outside the house is 50 Pascals higher than inside the house. In other words, it's a measure of how quickly a house "leaks" air. (That's what a blower door simulates: it sucks air out of the house at a given rate to create pressure differential, and then measures the difference in pressure between inside and outside.)

A "1" means that the entire air inside the house is exchanged with the outside once every hour. A "0.5" means that the entire air inside the house is exchanged with the outside one-half times every hour (or once every two hours). A "0" means that the entire air inside the house is exchanged with the outside zero times every hour (never). So the closer to zero, the tighter the house.

Our house is a 0.09.

To put this in perspective, EarthCraft guidelines require any EarthCraft certified house to have a 0.5 or lower. If, like us, you are aiming for the top tier of EarthCraft certification, your house has to be a 0.4 or lower. If your house is a 0.25 or better, EarthCraft requires a method of fresh air ventilation (an Energy Recovery Ventilator, for instance). So, 0.09 is pretty darn tight: in other words, the inside air is completely exchanged with the outside about every 11 hours. Chris thinks it's certainly the tightest house in Virginia.

Now, a few pictures. The blower door ...

... and the tester that shows you the pressure difference (at left, in Pascals) and the leakage rate (at right, in cubic feet per minute - which is then converted, using the house's interior air volume, into ACH50):

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Heat Wave

For those who are curious, our house is cooler inside than outside. And we're still glad we did not install air conditioning. I will admit, though, that some days in the house are a bit uncomfortable

You'd think the record heat in June would have pressured us to buy the awnings and insulated draperies to block the sun, but we haven't decided on style, color, etc. yet. So when it was 98 degrees in Falls Church yesterday, our house made it up to 87 degrees. That was a bit warm for me. But it cooled down to 78 in the house overnight and with the ceiling fan, it was quite comfortable for sleeping.

Today's Washington Business Journal news summary headline states, "
Cooling costs in Northern Virginia up 55%." (See the story at: Not our house! Our electricity utilization has gone up slightly since I put a dehumidifier in the basement, but much, much less energy is required than the typical house since we have no air conditioning!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Tree City USA

According to the Falls Church Times, the City of Falls Church "has maintained a Tree City USA designation for at least 31 years, longer than any other municipal entity in Virginia. The Tree City USA program is sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation in cooperation with the USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters. The City qualifies because it has an urban forestry program overseen by a professional arborist, has an annual forestry work plan implemented by a tree care ordinance, funds the program through the annual budget, and organizes an Arbor Day observance."

That is part of why we had to have a tree preservation plan, and a replacement plan that provides a specific 10-year canopy coverage. The folks from Terra Landscape and Design were back at work on our property today, planting several trees for us, including:

- River Birch
- Yellow Wood
- Red Maple
- Canadian Serviceberry (2)
- Fringe Tree

Here are some photos of the installation from two weeks ago as Terra Landscape was planting them, and below that are five pictures showing how the new trees look today.

Add Image
And today (May 1):

River Birch

Yellow Wood

Two Canadian Serviceberry Trees

Red Maple

Fringe Tree

Friday, April 16, 2010

News Channel 8 Story on Erdhaus

On the web now at:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

News Channel 8 Reports on Our House

News Channel 8 reporter Mike Conneen spent almost two hours at our house today. He interviewed me (Mike), Steve Keiley with TerraBuilt (remember The Green Machine that made the Compressed Earth Blocks) and John Spears (the house designer).

The video of the news report will be posted on-line soon and available for a couple of weeks. I'll let you know when it's available to view on their website.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Flight of the bumble-B

Since we built on a lot that had always been owned together with an adjoining lot, but was never before built on, we have a little address problem. The house to our right is number 306. The house to our left is 308 (that's the house that sits on the lot that was always together with ours). What is left over for us?

In the very early days (the first iteration of our plans), the City referred to us as 308-B. Makes sense, we thought: it was as if we were carved out from the old "double-lot" 308. But then somebody noticed that the street numbering system now went like this (on our side of the street): 304, 306, 308-B, 308, 310, and so on. And that seemed like it was a little out of order, so the City re-assigned us as 306-B. Now everything's in order. (We were lobbying for making us 308-A and changing the old house number 308 to 308-B, but nobody at the City wanted to re-number an existing - if uninhabited - house.)

Well, this decision to make us 306-B was consequential.

First, most utility companies can't deal with it in their computer systems. The gas company has us listed as 306, Apt. B. The electric company sends our bills to 306 (our street) B. When I called Verizon to have FiOS installed, they claimed we didn't exist and therefore couldn't connect us. Now they need to check the 911 numbering system to figure out whether we're really here. Well, apparently you only get onto the 911 numbering system if you have a phone line in the first place ...

Even the City has now managed to confuse itself. The proper "spelling" of our street number apparently is 306-B (three zero six hyphen uppercase-B). When I called the Treasurer to make sure they would mail our real estate tax bills to this address, they couldn't find our property in their computer system. Turns out somebody had entered it into the real estate database as 306 B (no hyphen, but a space). Which is, of course also different from 306B (no hyphen, no space). That also explains why I've had problems paying our City water and sewer bill (same mis-spelling).

Finally, the post office. Despite the fact that both Mike and I completed identical change-of-address forms, my old mail gets forwarded to 306-B, and his to 306B. Of course, about half the time our mail still winds up in the mailbox for 306 (Eric, we feel your pain!) or, more recently, at 306-B of the next street over (thanks to the unnamed lady who brought a whole bag of our mail over!). So far, UPS has found us on the second try, and when I just ordered a bean sprouter online (oh yes, sigh, we're THAT green now), I asked the retailer to write a message to the delivery driver on the packet: "it's the new house that's set back from the street" - I hope that'll make it clearer.

Mike promises he'll make a nice, contemporary, sign from some leftover wood we have, and we already have the font picked out for the "306-B" - but until then ... if you receive our mail, or the FiOS installer shows up at your house, or the electric company cuts the seal on your electric meter box instead of ours - please be patient! Eventually that bumble-B will settle down.

The first month

We've moved in almost exactly one month ago now, and are starting to get a feel for the house. First off, it is a wonderful space: it works almost exactly the way that we want to use the house. Every time I step in the front door, I am amazed out how our not-so-big house opens up into a big, bright, sunny and airy space. It's an idea Frank Lloyd Wright called, I think, compression and release - the entrance is low (just as in our case, on the side of the house with the low roofline), but then opens up into a high-ceilinged space. Well, it gets me every time.

One of the great things about living in the house is the radiant heat. There's nothing like getting up out of bed and stepping on a warm floor barefooted. When, during construction, people looked at us askew when we told them that the concrete was going to be the finished floor, we sometimes second-guessed the wisdom of this choice. Well, no second-guessing should have been required - it's just a wonderful way to heat the house, and a beautiful floor to live on.

The radiant heat system has five zones: the basement, the master bedroom, the master bathroom, the guest bed- and bathroom, and the great room. For now, we have our thermostats set like this (temperatures in Fahrenheit): basement - 60; master bedroom - 65; master bathroom - 70; guest bed- and bathroom (while nobody's staying) - 62; great room - 68. We found we could set the temperatures lower than you'd typically expect and it still feels comfortable - presumably because the heat radiates exactly from where you do most of the living - within the first 6 feet of the floor! (5 feet 11 inches in my case.) We keep all three ceiling fans on low pretty much all the time - mostly just because I like the feeling of air moving a bit - I don't know if there's a real energy advantage during the heating season. They probably make a big difference in a home heated by forced air (they distribute the warm forced air downward to where you experience it), but since we create our heat in the floor, they probably have less of a role to play. We've decided to leave the TRV (Total Recovery Ventilator) running on the lowest setting 100% of the time. It uses almost no energy to run, you lose almost none of the heat from the house because of its efficiency, and it gives us nice indoor air quality. Oh yes, did I mention that, in comparison to the old condo that was heated by forced air, we have almost no dust here?

The passive-solar heating aspect of the house works very well too: as soon as the sun comes out, the house heats up to - on a really sunny day - 78 degrees, even with outside temperatures in the 40s and 50s. It still looses a bit too much heat during the night - presumably through the large expanse of (U 0.31) windows - but that's going to be fixed as soon as we have curtains up (not that we have a big problem with that, but it will give us some privacy as well). After that, what we need to worry about for the summer is to create some shade so it doesn't get too hot!

Now that we've lived here for a while, I have a better grasp on energy use as well. It looks like we used 355 kWh of electricity during February. That's apparently about one-third of what an average home uses during an average (not winter) month. Not as low as we'd hoped, but (a) it's the middle of winter and (b) we have some fine-tuning still to do. I'll post our natural gas use once we get a reliable bill from Washington Gas as well.

Speaking of electricity, just like in our condo, we've also signed up for Dominion Virginia Power's green power program (see Mike's earlier post on that topic). Unfortunately, in Virginia, you can't buy green power yet. But what you can do is to buy RECs - renewable energy credits - basically a voucher that funnels extra money to certified green power generation plants - currently a mix of about 3/4 wind and 1/4 biomass. The hope is that the extra money provides the economic incentive for more green power generation. It's a good program, it costs only a cent-and-a-half per kWh, and everybody should do it. (Well, short of being able to get the choice over which power generator you want to buy your electricity from! When I lived in England in the 1990s, they gave you the choice of which generator to buy from - the local utility would then just distribute the power and pass on the price you paid for the power to the generator that put that amount into the national grid. It was, for the '90s, quite an advanced idea. Now that it's almost 20 years later all I can say is: America, get with the program!)

So much for a brief status report. After all the heartache during building, it is amazing to finally live here - and what a wonderful space it has turned out to be. There's work still to be done (I suspect like with any house that will always be true) but it's nice to be able to just attack little projects one-by-one, and under less time pressure.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Six More Weeks of THIS????

Why did that silly, little groundhog have to see his shadow? I can't take six more weeks of Winter!

I enjoy living in a place that has all four seasons. I just wish Winter were shorter...preferably one week duration, with one snowfall guaranteed. Yeah, that would be nice.

My little Ford Ranger's been plowed-in in my condo parking lot, and the snow shovels are at the house. I needed to check on things at the house and shovel the snow there, so I walked the 6.1 miles to make sure everything was okay, shovel the sidewalk, clear a path to the house, and clean off the decks. When I got to the house, I was thrilled to see that one of our neighbors used his snowblower to clear the entire front sidewalk of the houses on Grove Avenue. Thanks Jamie!!

For the next four hours, I did the other shoveling duties. The snow was light and fluffy on top but had an icy, slushy base. My estimate (based on the width of the snow shovel placed on end as a measuring stick) is that we had 26" of snow at our house. That's a lot of snow for DC! Then I walked the 6.1 miles home, with a snow shovel, so I can dig out my Ford Ranger tomorrow. I'm too tired to do that tonight.

Did I mention that Andreas is in Key West, FL for work this weekend? Poor guy missing out on all the fun here. Here are some pictures of the snow.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Certifiably Occupiable

The wait is over. Our house is now officially occupiable. I can't say enough good things about the wonderful, dedicated, people at the City, who worked incredibly hard to pull our certificate of occupancy together - and stayed in the office to get this done even when everybody else was already leaving because of this weekend's snow storm. "Thank you" doesn't begin to describe our gratitude, and our exhilaration that we are now officially part of this wonderful community - our "Little City."

Here is what the Certificate looks like (apologies for redacting in a few appropriate places):

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Holding Pattern

No, we haven't dropped off the edge of the earth - right now we're just waiting, for the Certificate of Occupancy. In addition to the building official (passing the final inspection, see Mike's earlier post), a few other departments at the City have to sign off on the "C of O" application: Zoning (is the house where it is supposed to be), Engineering (is the grading appropriate, is exposed soil stabilized, are erosion and sediment control measures - rainwater cisterns, etc. - in place), and the Arborist (did we kill any trees).

Speaking of arborist: the City has a fantastic program where they deliver wood chips to your driveway for free. They're a great way to stabilize soil; they look good; they're an environmental choice (they come from the City's tree operations); and ... they're free. We've already spread two truckloads full, and we're getting two more. Thank you, Falls Church!

While we're waiting, Stella came to clean the house and it sparkles! Now that the construction dust is over, we've been able to turn on the TRV (Total Recovery Ventilator) - it works (!) and it does what Earthcraft guidelines ask us to do: flush the house with fresh air for a week continuously before moving in.

Something else that I got excited about is the rainwater system: that, too, works: with the flip of a few valves, we can switch the water supply that runs to our outside hosebibs and to the toilets, from City water to the water from our rainwater cisterns. Our plumber had plumbed toilet tanks and outside hosebibs on a separate water line; and through the position of two valves we can choose which water (City or rainwater) gets fed to that line. Rainwater gets pumped into the house by a small (Grundfos) suction pump. And a one-way valve prevents backflow of the rainwater into the line that carries City water. It's a simple system, but it works - and it makes me feel good to flush rainwater down the toilet, instead of precious drinking water.

In other news: the port-a-potty that has for so long been a landmark on our construction site ("you'll find it by the green port-a-potty") is now gone; and so is much of the silt, super-silt, and tree-protection fencing (some of that still has to stay up through the spring). Inside the house, we're saving the leftover wood from the interior carpentry for Mike's future woodworking projects; for firewood; and the sawdust as an environmental alternative to sand for icy sidewalks.

OK, too many words already without pictures! The next post, hopefully, will have a picture of our Certificate of Occupancy.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Thankful for Fantastic Friends

This post is overdue, but very important. Several friends helped out at critical points along the way. I mentioned several projects where friends helped immensely, but I didn't highlight two key projects within the past few weeks that some friends helped with.

First, shortly after Christmas, I called our friend Chris Zebrowski asking if he wouldn't mind helping me lift a few sheets of the wheatboard so I could make the cuts for the countertop. Chris knew we didn't have heat yet, so when he came over, he brought a couple of kerosene heaters with him. He not only helped to cut the wheatboard, but ensured the cuts were smooth and square, and stayed to help with the joining of the two boards. He also lent his expertise and we worked together to build out the finish boards surrounding the back of the kitchen island. What was to be a couple hours of work turned into several hours on New Years Eve and a marathon session the day after New Years. We arrived around 8am that day, and stopped around 11:30pm. Chris was an incredible help, and I am very grateful for that! Here's a picture of the finished kitchen.

Another friend who was immensely helpful was Jeff Hopp, who volunteered to help install the railing into the basement. As it turns out, he did the whole project for us while we were at work. Didn't he do an amazing job with it!?!?!? Many, many thanks, Jeff!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Crossing the Finish Line

We passed our final inspection on Friday!!!!! The City now has our application for the Certificate of Occupancy. In a week or two, we should be able to move in to our new house! 11 months, two and one half weeks to build this house - I'm glad this is almost over.

After we move in, there still will be projects on the house, but they'll be easier to manage while living there.


Great Job Terra Landscape!

Our neighbor Mandy suggested we hire Maryann Ogle/Terra Landscape to do some landscaping work for us. We already were working with someone for the landscape design, but we needed someone to do hardscape work for us. So we met with Maryann, admired her ideas and energy, and got a quote that seemed fair for the huge amount of work required to install permeable pavers and a gravel driveway. We shared some pictures earlier of the walkway being installed, and now that the work is done on that, as well as on the driveway, here's a complete look at the process and finished product. We're thrilled with the results, and it's a joy to walk to the house without having to step through a mile of mud!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Getting Close...Inside and Outside

Jeff Gunther with Grove Construction did an outstanding job installing the cedar on the west side of the house.

The crew from Terra Landscape & Design, laying the permeable pavers.

Upstairs guest bathroom tub/shower. The fixtures are from Ferguson; the tile from Amicus.

Master bathroom's Duravit sink.

Master bathroom's Duravit wall-mounted toilet, with dual flush.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More Good News

Each day seems to bring some more good news. Bernie from Clarke County Plumbing and Tom from Creager Electrical both were on-site this week and have worked on the final details. For Bernie's part, he's been attaching the bathroom fixtures (hanging the toilets on the wall, attaching the bath and shower faucets, etc.). Tom's been completing the circuits for a host of indoor and outdoor lighting and electrical connections. If all goes well, Bernie will finish the plumbing on Thursday, and have a final inspection on Friday. Tom will finish early next week and have a final inspection then. Jeff Gunther from Grove Construction was back on-site today to finish installing the beautiful cedar siding on the West side of the house, and the final trim piece on the East side of the house. Andreas snapped this picture of Jeff before the sun went down, just before Jeff installed the last few pieces.

Jeff installing cedar on the West side of the house.

Meanwhile, Andreas and I have been busy with some tasks of our own. I joined the two pieces of the kitchen counter by the range, using a new Dewalt plate joiner toy (er, I mean tool), and Andreas sanded it and put two coats of Safecoat sealant on it, which we purchased from Amicus Green Building Center. Faceplates have been installed on most of the remaining outlets. The pipes around the hot water heater and the radiant floor system have been insulated. I still have to grout the master shower floor, and seal all of the grout in each of the bathrooms.

North side LED step lights and front door light.

South side LED step lights.

LED step lights into the basement.

Fuzzy picture (low light) of insulated water heater pipes.

Fuzzy picture (low light) of insulated radiant system pipes.

More ELFA in the master closet.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

It's Starting to Feel Like a Real House

I've had this warm feeling while working on the house the last few days/evenings. Oh, that would be the radiant floor heating that's fully functional, at last! Tom, the electrician, slipped on some ice and wasn't able to come to work this past week. Given the DC area weather forecast, and temperatures projected in the teens, we felt it was mandatory that we hire another electrician to connect power to the hot water heater and connect the radiant system. Our contractor friend, Jeff Hopp, suggested we call a sub he has used with great success. Andreas called him (I'll get his name from Andreas and update this posting with that info) and he came the next day. Not only is he a licensed electrician, but he's a plumber and an HVAC guy too. So he was the right man for the radiant floor job. After the electrical connections were complete, and it was confirmed that the water heater was properly functioning, Andreas filled the radiant tubes with water and the system went live. Within a few hours, the temps went from the 40s into the 50s. By the next morning, it was very warm inside, in the low 60s. By Friday night, each room was at least 65 degrees. We thought it would take two full days to heat up all of the concrete thermal mass, but it took about a day. Working at the house today, with the sun out, I observed air temperatures in the 70s in all rooms that have southern exposure, and the living room thermostat showed a temperature of 78.3 degrees. What amazingly warm feeling to have radiant heat - at long last! Combined with the passive solar attributes, our house was toasty today.

The heat's not the only thing that's been accomplished in the last 10 days. Craig Smith has been working diligently and skillfully on the finish carpentry. The current project is to install Ipe thresholds. If you're not familiar with Ipe, it's an extremely hard wood that's exceptionally durable, suitable for wet and hot and dry locations, and is often used for decks. It was on sale at TW Perry, and we thought it would be ideal for the door thresholds, since that can be a harsh environment for wood.

TW Perry delivered the interior doors on Friday, so we'll work on sealing those with the Safecoat product we bought at Amicus Green Building Center. Andreas and I will install those ourselves, which should be a fun project. Craig Smith will install the three "normal" (hinged) doors early next week. Two of those go in the basement and the third is for the entry to the stairs into the basement. We're using pocket doors in as many places as possible, to save space and ensure a clean/modern look.

The Container Store is holding their annual ELFA shelving system sale this month, so we had an ELFA design for our master closet prepared, and I picked up the ELFA system for that closet last week. Today, I spent a couple of hours in the closet installing the system. I think it looks great, and it's a wonderfully functional closet organizing system. We have it in the condo, and really like it. Act soon to get 30% off ELFA at the Container Store.

Also today, I unpacked the Bosch dryer and the Samsung refrigerator from their crates. The Bosch dryer goes with the Bosch washing machine. Since it's a stackable system, I had to install an attachment to the washer, that the dryer is then affixed to. The end result looks really good.

The final work item today was to use my new, I mean join the two sections of the wheatboard countertop behind the range. I used my shiny new Dewalt plate joiner (sometimes called a biscuit joiner), inserted the biscuit and glue, then clamped the two pieces together. Tomorrow I'll take the clamp off, sand the seam, lightly sand the rest of the wheatboard, clean it with a barely damp cloth to get the dust off, and then apply the first coat of Safecoat no VOC sealant to it. I will do a light sanding and second coat tomorrow night, after we meet with our landscape architect, Erika, who will be reviewing our final draft landscape plan with us.

Countertop seam

It's always fun when friends stop by to visit while we're there working. Today, our friends Mike, Helen, Jeff, John, Helen, and Jeff stopped by. The first Helen brought delicious sandwiches from the Italian Store in Arlington. Yummy! It was great to have a lunch break and good conversation. But then it was back to work!