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.