The Straw House Blog

Spring Redesign

Yup, I’m redesigning the site again.

Things will likely be a bit iffy over the next day or so, please bear with me.

Update: Well I think I’ve got most of the kinks worked out of the site. If you find anything please drop me an email. Otherwise… welcome spring!


The Danes prepare to eat our lunch

WorldChanging has an excellent article on Denmark and its move into renewable energy on a grand scale.

In 1973, during the Yom Kippur war, Denmark was 98% dependent on foreign oil for its power. Today, thirty-two years later, the country derives 21% of its energy from wind and is a net exporter of energy.

They’re investing 10 billion dollars of R&D money into renewables over the next 10 years. And this, my frineds is where the rest of the world will be eating North America’s lunch in the decades to come, as oil gets more and more expensive more and more of our money will be going overseas not just to pay for oil, but to pay for any kind of alternative energy infrastructure as well. Meanwhile we drop another 100 million dollars trying to get another reactor working a the Pickering nuclear plant.

But the best part of the article, for me, was this quote from Svend Auken, a member of the Danish Parliament and former Minister for Energy & Environment:

Finally, he envisions the pathway to a bright green future, saying that �it need not be dull, it need not be boring, we don�t have to give up our lifestyle, we just have to be a little bit more smart about how we live.�

Amen brother.



Now in More Colours

I managed to get my hands on some more coloured acrylic tube and so I have a veritable bouquet of colours available for my lights. I managed to find some burgundy, blue and purple tubing. The stuff is hard to find in Canada because the demand is so low, these tubes were imported from the US, which is usually too expensive for me, but I piggy-backed on somebody else’s order.

In the works right now is a table lamp with multiple 1W LED’s. I’m trying to work out something where more lights can be easily added depending on lighting requirements. Of course lights could just as easily be removed, even moved between bases if you had multiple fixtures.



Winter 2005 - Part Two: Hot Burrito #1

When it is sunny (in the winter) the house gets very warm. It has been sunny all day today and the inside temperature is 27C. It’ll probably get up to 28C before the sun goes down. Now as uncomfortable as 28C is (to us) one big benefit is that most nights we can carry that heat through to the enxt morning. In other words the floor system (which consumes a lot of electricity) does not have to come on. That said, a shading strategy is under development and will hopefully be put in place by next winter.

Opening windows isn’t really an option since that just brings cold air in along the floor. So your head stays hot and your feet get cold. Not to mention that we really don’t want to bleed off too much of the heat, since it will last over night and even into the next day.

This certainly isn’t the fault of the architect (though I don’t think he realized how hot it might get in here), since we wanted the wall of windows, and the high ceilings, but if we were doing it again I’m not sure that we would do things any different, we like the windows that much.

Here’s some pictures that show why.


Winter 2005 - Part One: She’s So Cold

It has been, so far, an odd winter. We spent most of December with the temperature hovering down around -20C to -30C at night. Daytime highs could get up to -15C or -10C if we were lucky. The second half of January was warmer, and February, so far (again with the so far!) has been positively balmy with temperatures hanging around the 0C mark. When it gets down to -30C the windows get frost on the inside, the dogs don’t like to go out, the vehicles don’t like to start and you can get frostbite on exposed skin in minutes.

October, November and December were also dark, so dark in fact that we went nearly 100 days without a full day of sun. Fortunately they were pretty windy months since the generator broke (the pull-cord snapped) on December 24th and I couldn’t get it fixed until January 5th. We went more than 11 days with no generator in December that’s a very very long time.

Once the temperature gets below -10C you can actually feel a very light cool breeze coming off the windows as the cool air falls down the inside of the front windows. And here we enter into one the problems with our house. We wanted the windows, we love the windows, we bought the best windows we could find. But in the winter we have a love/hate relationship with our windows. The problem, in a nutshell, is that we have too damn many of them. When it gets really cold the windows allow the house to cool too quickly - windows after all, even really good ones, have a pretty low R value.  As a result our floor system (which consumes a great deal of electricty, and propane) runs all the time on very cold cloudy days. The floor is unable to radiate heat as fast as we lose heat through the windows. This problem, we think, is a function of volume. The square footage of our house isn’t all that large (about 2000sq.ft. in the main house) but it is very tall, 17’ at the front down to 10’ at the back. We have a lot of volume.  We use fans to push the hot air down, but the fans use electricity. What we need is a method of quickly adding some heat, without worrying about it radiating throughout the day. What we need is a wood stove.

When we designed the house we added a re-enforced pad in the centre of the living/dining room for a masonry stove. We have since learned that a masonry stove would likely have been a grave mistake. If you don’t know a masonry stove burns a certain quantity of wood very fast and very very hot. It has a great deal of mass (they’re made of stone or brick) that captures that heat, holds it, and radiates it throughout the day. In most cases this would be a splendid idea, however imagine in our house if you woke up in the morning and it was cold and cloudy, so you lit a fire and burned 50 pounds of wood in 30 minutes, the stove starts a radiating a lovely warm heat. And then the sun comes out. Initiate evacuation procedure!

So a wood stove. But now we get into some serious issues. Firstly we only like modern stoves. Modern stoves are almost all quite expensive. And European. Now expensive is unfortunate but we’re willing to save for the right stove, because we are going to be looking at this thing for years. But European, now that’s a problem. Canada is a pretty small market, and most European manufacturers don’t have Canadian distributers let alone local dealers. So now we’re looking at importing a stove, and moreover buying and importing a stove that we have never seen. All the stoves look real pretty in the pictures, but it’s kind of hard to get a sense of scale from a brochure. I think I’m going to end up making cardboard mock-ups.

The stoves we’ve been looking at are:

In all cases these stoves are meant to heat a space of aproximately 1000sq.ft. and burn very efficiently. That’s should be enough to heat the main common part of the house. We don’t care so much about spot heating the bedrooms since Joanne and I both prefer sleeping in a room that is on the cooler side.



The Bench

In the course of cutting and milling wood we have gathered a fair amount of very nice decorative slab. To us slab is wood that’s at least two inches thick and, for whatever reason, not worth milling into boards. Generally we leave the edges rough and I’ve been working on various methods of building legs to turn the slab into benches. Because the wood generally isn’t great quality, and most of it is cedar I’ve been thinking of building outdoor benches to scatter around the land anywhere I think a person might want to rest or where there is a particularly nice view.

When I had the metal legs made for the coffee table I also has some legs made up for a bench for my front hall. Like the coffee table the orginal front hall bench was made by me in a style I call modern plywood. But it was too small for the front hall. It had storage inside that was sufficient for dogs leashes and gloves when we lived in the city, but not the outdoor gear required for the country. It certainly couldn’t accomodate the vast vast plethora of footwear, gloves and hats that we have accumulated. So I moved it to the back door and built this bench.

The legs are stainless steel, welded, with a horizontal brace at the top. The slab is two inch thick cedar finished with multiple coats of spar varnish, to protect it from the sun. It has plenty of space underneath for boots and I’ll either buy or build a couple of nice open baskets for gloves, hats, etc. These legs are too expensive for me to use more than one set, though I could drive the costs way down by bending the steel rather than welding it, and moving to mild steel rather than stainless (though then I would have to worry about rust).

We have recently cut some ash, maple and black cherry hardwood. From that I have some very nice ash slab, and a maple beam with both spalting and quilting in the grain. I intend on doing some sort of George Nakashima/Brent Comber style piece with it, the form is nearly complete in my head, soon I’ll get it down on paper. No work will be done on this piece until the summer though, since the maple is still wet and heavy enough that two of us could barely move it.

Drying wood is starting to become a big concern for us, as hardwoods can require several years to dry outside on their own. There are numerous lumber yards and kilns around us but none of them will rent space, so it looks like one of the first summer projects (money permitting) will be a solar kiln and drying racks. Details, you can be assured, will follow.

Just in case that you’ve been worried that father’s been bored, what with not being here and working on my house all the time. Well you need not worry. He’s built himself an iceboat. The iceboat uses a windsurfer sail for propulsion, but that’s way too pedestrian for my Dad, he’s building a wing.



The Coffee Table

I built our old coffee table one apartment and one house ago. As a first effort it wasn’t bad; wood legs on castors with a glass top and metal lower shelf. It was very early 90’s. But like many projects I never quite finished it, the glass was never firmly attached to the legs and could slide if bumped by a leg, a dog, or more recently (and dangerously) by an energetic and highly mobile toddler. Joanne decreed the old table dangerous and it was dismantled.

So I designed a new one. I’ve been toying with the concept of lighted furniture for a while now. I like the idea of creating small discreet sources of low light scattered around a room and using point sources where more illumination is needed (i.e. for reading). One method of doing that is embedding lights within furniture. In the case of this table the light is provided by two 1W LED’s. It shines both up and down. The light up is very pretty, but not particularly useful (you can’t read by it). The light down illuminates the bottom shelf, in our case the home of our stack of current magazines.

I’m fairly pleased with how it has turned out and for a prototype it’s pretty good. Right now it’s sitting in Eurolite’s showroom, so if you’re in Toronto you can go and check it out.

Right now I’m building new slabs for the table top, the current ones are cedar (not a great material for table tops - too soft), the new ones will be butternut. They will have an improved method of holding the light in place. I’m also ordering some flat low voltage wiring to use for the lights, which will allow me to run the wireing to the table, up the leg, and to the lights and have it almost invisible.

Update: Not to sound all, “You like me, you really like me!” but Land+Living (a design blog I enjoy) has some very kind words to say about the coffee table.


I’m Back!

Life, I’m afraid, has interupted the blog. Hopefully I’ll be getting back onto a regular posting schedule, but here’s a quick list of what been going on:

1. Mojo Productions Inc., (i.e. my company) has been pretty busy lately with several clients on the go. Mostly web page development but also some thin-client user interface design (which I really enjoy).

2. I’ve designed and built a bench and coffee table, plus new versions of the rod lights and some new lighting prototypes.

3. Gil is now 16 months old and he’s walking and (sorta) talking. Since I work from home I take care of morning and early evening daycare.

4. It has been a very cold winter here so far and I’ve had my trusty caulking gun out extensively sealing cracks - when it’s -35C it’s pretty easy to find the tiny gaps where the cold air is getting in! We’ve decided that a small wood stove is imperative for our house, but due to both financial and timing constraints that won’t be happening until the spring/summer.

5. While we have stopped giving tours of the house (for now) we have appeared in Private Power magazine and have been interviewed a couple of times for other publications.

6. Dad and I have been logging cedar out of the bush to use for decking as well as a some ash, maple and black cherry for future use. A bunch of the maple and ash is spalted and/or quilted which is both rare and quite lovely. Some the ash slab is destined for benches as is a fantastic 10” square maple beam that we cut.



Northern Lights

Last night as I let the dogs out I noticed lovely shimmering curtains of colour in the sky. The Northern Lights were out. It’s only the second time on my life that I have seen them, and I got out my camera and tripod to take some pictures. These were mostly greens, with a touch of orange. Last year we got to see reds, which only occur at very high altitude and are rare.

Another benefit to living in the country, the light pollution is so bad in cities that few people ever get a chance to see the Northern Lights.


October Update

It’s been a pretty busy fall around here, we had the OSBBC house tour right at the beginning of the month, I’ve been very busy with various work projects and Joanne’s maternity leave has come to an end and she has returned to work.

Aside from my regular work (which has been going very well, thanks for asking) I just recently built a custom 6’ long version of my dining room light for Eurolite. I was somewhat apprehensive at first, I didn’t think it was going to come out very well, I was worried that the proportions would all be off, plus it would have to be hung from four wires rather than two. In the end though I was very pleased with the results, if I had enough plastic I would probably build another one for myself. There are some images of the custom fixture on the lights page.

The Tour

Given the weather (it poured rain most of the day) the tour went quite well. We had fewer people than we expected but still had around 75 people over the course of the day. Mom was on the door, Dad helped with tours, Simon and J.P. from Generation Solar, Peter Mack from Camel’s Back Construction, and Paul Dowsett from Scott Morris Architects were all answering questions, showing people around and handing out business cards by the fist-full. Surprising (to me anyway) was that the majority of people who came through the house had read the blog, many of them from the very beginning.

Afterwards we had a nice BBQ, Tina, Steven & Laurie & Malaika, and Regis (from the Paudash Lake house I worked on) all came by, a pleasant visit was had by all.

Final Grading

We have finally completed the final grading around the house, Eric was here last week and the week before dumping topsoil around the house and leveling it back out. The ICF"s are covered and the west and north sides are backfilled with topsoil. The east side of the house has been built up with gravel/sand from our pit - since we are building a deck on that side we didn’t see any point in buying topsoil.

The Floor

Dan Peel was here again working on the radiant floor system and it looks like we have finally got all of the kinks out of the system. We had been having a series of problems where the various aquastats on the hot water tank couldn’t read the temperature of the water inside the tank accurately and as a result the floor would rob all of the heat from the tank. This always seemed to happen right as we were about to shower and you wouldn’t find out there was no hot water until 5 minutes into the shower - and only then would the boiler come on. Over the course of last winter we also had two broken pumps and a malfunction in the boiler that kept it running for one month non-stop (before we clued in), these problems masked the underlying aquastat issues until spring of last year. But by then the sun was out more frequently so we decided to spend the summer thinking about the problem and Dan suggested drilling a hole through the side of the tank cover, through the insulation and placing a temperature prob right up against the stainless tank insert. That seems to have done the trick. We’ve had almost no solar gain for over a week now and the house has been quite comfortable. Thanks Dan!

Site Update

I recently purchased a Kill-A-Watt, which is a meter that shows how much power in Watts and Amps a device uses over time. It can also display Volt Amps (VA), Power Factor (PF), Kilowatt/Hours (KWH) and time (how long it has been plugged in). It has no data logging built in, while it is plugged it works, unplug it and it loses all data.

So I’ve been wandering around the house plugging all of my various tools and gadgets into the Kill-A-Watt and compiling a list. The list is ongoing but I have added in the values of the various lights around the house and posted it in the house section: Load Chart. As I measure more devices I will add them to the chart, right now it’s mostly just the power tools, and computers.