Friday, June 27, 2008

Kid-Friendly House

Something about Steve Thomas' visit to BHB has been nagging me. During those hot, sweaty 5-6 hours of taping the segment, Steve kept remarking how "kid-friendly" the house was. Each time we'd show him a new aspect of the house he'd say something like The kids must love this! or You've created such a kid-friendly house! In fact, that phrase "kid-friendly" was uttered so often I began to fear that the overall impression Steve had gotten of the house was that of one, giant play structure.

Why does this bug me? I mean, the house IS *ahem*, kid-friendly. I think it bugs me because I don't feel he quite "got" BHB. I mean, I think he appreciated the barn frame and the craftsmanship of the original frame-wrights, and I think he liked aspects of the space we have created, but the "kid-friendly" moniker strikes me as being the best he could come up with as far as a compliment. Maybe that's unfair (if you're reading this Steve, apologies!)

You see, we didn't design the house for the kids. Yes, they were taken into consideration (of course). But the overarching inspiration for this home was a vision, a vision founded on and driven by a number of deeply held principles and philosophies about homes, design, space, materials, etc. This house came into being primarily because I had to bring to fruition my own yearning to create a space to inhabit that reflected who I am, what I believe, and how I want to live. I'll be the first to admit that the house is flawed in the realization of these yearnings - what house isn't? - but I am proud of what it is and what it speaks to everyone who passes by on the street and slows down to look and everyone who comes through the front door. I guess I hope that people will take it seriously - not in a joyless or purely academic way - but recognizing the intent (or trying to) and making an effort to listen to what it "says". To reduce it to "kid-friendly" just seems to miss the boat. I can hear skeptics saying, "You're asking too much of people". Maybe I am. Maybe I am. Maybe I shouldn't care whether people get it or not. In the words of Mr. Plumbean ,

“My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.”

Monday, June 16, 2008

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Summer's Comin'

Keeping Cool & Green (at the same time)

Keeping cool this past weekend was a challenge. It was miserably hot: 80 degrees at 7:00 am and near 100 by the late afternoon. We had been anxiously awaiting the hot weather to see how BHB would fare in terms of comfort and natural cooling/insulating. Well, so much for keeping cool. We suffered like anyone else. Upstairs was very hot, downstairs less so, but still uncomfortable.

My theory runs like this: the first really hot day (Saturday last) we made the mistake of throwing open all the windows (and doors) in the house, which had the effect of HEATING the inside, not cooling it. I know, I know. You're supposed to close down the house to trap the cool of the night. But it was summer, and we were excited to OPEN the windows not close them! So much for THAT idea.

Anyway, my theory is that once we had permitted the house to heat up like an oven, the fact that it is so well insulated (SIPs work!) meant that BHB stayed hot long after other homes would have cooled down. Basically, the temperature remained a constant, which in theory is GOOD, except for the fact that it remained a constant 80-90 degrees, day and night.

Next time, we close the windows and keep them closed all day.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and I may have stumbled on a cheap, environmentally-friendly way to manage the heat in BHB. During the heat wave I kept thinking of reasons to go down into the basement because it was so cool down there (downright chilly, as a matter of fact!) Naturally, I began thinking of ways to get that cool air upstairs into our bedrooms. So I bought a powerful fan and set it up at the bottom of the basement stairs, aimed it up the stairs, fired it up and left the basement door slightly ajar at just the right angle to deflect the current into the long hallway that bisects the ground floor of the house. I closed all the windows, dropped the blinds, and waited.

I kid you not, within the hours, the temperature downstairs had dropped into the comfortable 70s, and by bedtime, the entire downstairs was quite livable. Now, this sounds like a "no duh" moment. But then I got thinking, Why don't people harness the natural cooling of their basement this way more often? Of course AC is easier (and more effective). But it costs a ton (I should know, we had central air at our last place) and is lousy for the environment. We are pretty determined to avoid installing AC, so here's my tentative plan:

Free Air Conditioning the Green Way
I think we might call this Base-C (basement AC). In theory, I should be able to open a small vent hole in the floors of each bedroom (one per room), perhaps 4" in diameter, and insert a length of pipe that drops down 6"-12" into the basement. Then, at the bottom of each pipe I would attach a small fan. Each fan could be wired together to a switch, perhaps even to a thermostat upstairs. Then, when the switch was thrown, the fans would blow cool air from the basement up into each bedroom. Provided the windows and blinds were closed, I imagine this method would cool the bedrooms quite efficiently. The key would be to find fans that were quiet and energy-efficient (and affordable!) When Steve Thomas was here filming on Tuesday, we discussed this and he suggested that we might even be able to duct it all the way to the second floor as well. So, with his stamp of approval, I am even more determined to explore this further. Keep you posted.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Steve Thomas Visits BHB

So, we've been having this horrible stretch of 95-100 degree days here in the greater Boston area. It's been just miserable. In the midst of this we hosted two open houses (one for neighbors long wondering what on EARTH was going on at #11, and the other for folks from work) as well as the film crew from the Discovery Channel's new show "Renovation Nation", hosted by Steve Thomas.

The day began at 6:00am (yes, it was already hot - 80 degrees) since we had to have the kids up, dressed, and fed by the time the crew was scheduled to arrive at 7:30. As it turned out, we all had to change our clothes once they got there due to the fact that two of the kids had brand logos on their t-shirts, I had a t-shirt that had what LOOKED like a brand logo, and Susi's tank top wouldn't easily conceal the body mic she needed to wear. (Actually, she was allowed to keep the tank top in the end , but I think the guy who rigged the mic had fun getting it situated JUST right. Hmmm....) Anyway, we got all set and were told that Steve would be arriving at the front door in a minute. We waited. Presently there came the sound of heavy footsteps up the front stairs, and then Steve appeared at the door, knocked, I opened, shook his hand, said hi, and invited him into BHB. Then we did it again at least three times. (I think one of the re-takes was due to Caleb making fake belching noises and jumping up and waving into the camera lens. Hmmm....) Eventually Steve had all the kids imitating their favorite barn animals; for the denuoement he had them all hopping around on the floor like frogs. This is going to be quality TV action. Be sure not to miss the episode.

Oh, and I forgot the guns. In classic Asher and Caleb fashion, while my back was turned and as Steve was walking up the stairs, these two had grabbed their cap guns and rushed out caps blazing to hold off the assault of the evil camera crew villains. The cap smoke was thick in the air when I rushed in to avert disaster. Steve was pretty amused. Probably will make the out-takes. As I was disarming my eldest son, in frustration he lamented to me: "Dad, I thought this was going to be a COOL tv show!" Hmmm...

As we made our way through the house over the course of the next five (yes FIVE) sweaty hours, there were a number of great moments. Steve Thomas was charming - funny, good with the kids, open-minded about our project, encouraging. He seemed to genuinely like what we had done and had much to offer by way of advice. Anyway, some of the other highlights included:
- Susi, Steve and I crawling into the girl's bedroom loft (which is only about three or four feet tall), cameraman outside the tiny "hatch door" that connects the girls' loft with the boys', and laughing about how much the plasterers must have hated doing that this space.
- Steve, after asking whether the netting in the boys' loft would hold their weight, FULLY leaning back into the netting and putting three times as much stress on all the little screws I had fixed it to the studs; I held my breath the whole time and tried not to imagine the host of the show plummeting to the floor below.
- The basement detour. Oh my GOSH he HAD to go down there! I had promised to Susi that there was NO WAY they would go into the basement. Who wants to see the basement? Steve says, "What's behind this door?" I say, nervously, "Oh, that's just the basement..." Needless to say that what followed was a full-on tour of the basement with the camera man, sound man, producer, Susi and me. Oh well. It's all part of the story, right?
- Over the course of the filming Steve also managed to find the other two major caches of JUNK - both in shower stalls with curtains artfully drawn closed. We made sure these were featured prominently in close-up shots.
- Steve throwing his hat into MY corner TWICE by saying that he liked the unfinished OSB walls downstairs and the bare plaster walls. Go Steve!

All in all, even though it was a hot, sweaty morning, we all had a ball. I have no idea when the episode will air, but I will keep you posted. Check in at the "Renovation Nation" website from time to time. One of the producers took a lot of shots of the filming which he said were for the site. Stay tuned.

The Greening of Bare Hill

Seems relatively straight forward: topsoil+seed+sunlight+water=lawn. But anyone who's tried to grow grass knows it's not so easy. So imagine our surprise to see this wavy green carpet of new grass just a couple of weeks after getting the topsoil down. Everyone has commented on how lucky we are to have had such success. I think they've got it right: luck was key. We usually kill anything green we try to grow...

Now, mind you I never WANTED a lawn in the first place! I have always hated mowing, watering, fighting weeds, fertilizing, etc. HATED IT! Prior to making the decision to go with the lawn I had been feverishly researching alternatives to the traditional green lawn, and found many I liked. So, why the back-sliding? No, it's just another case of money/time trumping IDEALS, PRINCIPLES, etc. Getting the loam down and growing the grass is not the ultimate plan for the exterior of BHB, it's just a temporary measure designed to improve the overall appearance of the site and give the kids a nice place to run around. Plan on seeing small changes being implemented as the months progress...