The Straw House Blog

Passive Solar Archives


Interior Work - Part Two - The Stone Wall

One of the tenets of passive solar design is thermal mass, and from a passive solar standpoint there are two problems with our house: too much glass and too little thermal mass. But we’ve been over this before. This weekend we added about 3500 pounds of thermal mass to the north wall of the bedroom. Due to an odd coincidence I met again one of the stonemasons who helped build the arch mentioned here. I got to talking with him about my ideas for the north wall of the living room and ended up hiring him and his partner to help me build the wall using stone from my land. This is a dry laid (no mortar is used) stone wall measuring 12’ long by 3’ high and 20” deep. 20” is pretty narrow for a drystone wall but we’re not anticipating getting any frost heave in the living room. To figure out the weight of stone you usually use the weight of water which is 62 pounds per cubic foot.

Bright and early Saturday morning Matt and Mike arrived and we spent the morning drivinga round the land investigating and excavating the various stone piles around the land. Eight trips later we had a good bunch of stones to work from and we started work on the wall. I’ve rebuilt some of my grandfather’s mortared walls, but I don’t have very much experience with dry stacked stone. One of the secrets of a dry stacked stone wall is that it is actually two walls, that lean into each other. This lean is called the batter. We could cheat a fair bit because we were building on a solid surface that wouldn’t (hopefully) be moving. So we have only 1” of batter in 3’ of height; it’s barely noticable.

On Sunday Matt and Mike returned and brought John the fellow who was running the arch seminar that I crashed. With three of them working (and me helping) things moved much faster. We made four more trips for stone - if you’re building a wall budget on needing about two to three times as much stone as you need for the wall. Things wrapped up around noon, with the wall capped and level and looking pretty spectacular. It’ll take a bit of time to see if the wall is enough thermal mass, I suspect that we’ll need a bit more mass. But it looks spectacular, and when the wall is finished with our cedar I think the whole living room area is really going to come together.

Now if you know Gator, you know that he loves stones. Loves them in a way that is nothing short of disturbing. So imagine if you will attempting to build a stone wall witrh a dog who is obsessed with rocks. Imagine that dog spending two days with several men who are equally obsessed with rocks, though not perhaps in quite the same way as Gator (I never saw Matt lick a stone). It was an interesting weekend.



Interior Work - Part One

Sometimes life interupts the blog and this has been one of those times. But there has been some great progress in the last few weeks, despite more than a few setbacks. I’ve picked up a contract in the city and so with Joanne home on leave now I’m cimmuting into Toronto on a daily basis. Needless to say this has cut into my available time for working on the house. Recognizing this we hired a friend of my father’s, Russ, to help us with the framing if the interior walls. Gil has walls and a room, but no doors. We have an entry to our bedroom room and a linen closet but no door either. Our weekend alarm clock is Gil jumping onto our bed.

Gil’s room is drywall on the inside, we figure that kids are so hard on walls, why bother with wood. In the long east wall of his room we’ve actually roughed in a doorwayd. We figure that he and Declan can share the room until they’re about 10 (or so) and when the time come to separate them, we cut open the wall, throw up a door, and build a wall between them. Hey presto! Two bedrooms. So we have ten years to forget where the door is.

Dad has been busy dressing the cedar that we cut back in the summer. We tried to do it here using my generator (the tools are 240V and the house doesn’t do 240V). Unfortunately the generator doesn’t supply the quantities of current that the tools need and we blow motors on both the planer and jointer. The planer was fixed with a capacitor change, but the jointer needed a whole new motor, which we just got on Thursday. Next it’s routing and finishing and those walls can go up. The doors are on order and will hopefully arrive soon. We didn’t build the alls up to the ceiling yet for two reasons, we don’t really have a ceiling to build to, and we’re hoping to do something with sandblasted glass and awning windows for both light transmission and ventilation.



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.


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.


Extreme Cold

With temperatures dipping down to -30C (-22F) at night (colder with the windchill), we’ve had a pretty frigid couple of weeks. It’s cold enough that the dog’s paws hurt when we go for walks, cold enough that the oil froze in the pipe between my neighbour’s oil tank and his furnace, and cold enough that one of the hoses in our generator froze solid; one of eight the shop had seen that week with the same problem.

So how does the house behave when it’s his cold? Pretty well I’m pleased to report. If the sun is out the front part of the house will get up to 25C (77F) during the day and will hold most of that heat until we go to bed. Of course with the quantity of glass we have across the front of the house we do bleed heat, and the colder it is the faster that heat goes.

If there is no sun though the floor works pretty well. It can hold the house comfortably around 20C-21C (68F-70F), trying to go any higher seems a waste of propane, we just wear sweaters. Because the way radiant floor systems work it’s a ‘slow heat’. The slab is heated to a certain temperature and from there it just radiates (obviously). But we have a huge interior volume of air, much greater than most houses of the same size because we have such high ceilings. At its lowest point our ceiling is over ten feet high, at it’s highest it’s around seventeen. The floor just cannot react fast enough to compensate when the sun goes down. As a result we’ve moved a fireplace up to near top spot on the wish-list. We built a re-enforced pad into the floor to carry the weight of a masonry fireplace but have decided that what we need is actually just an airtight insert or a good woodstove. We need something that can heat the air quickly, but can also stop relatively quickly. The last thing we want is to light a fire on a cloudy morning in a masonry heater, than have the sun come out and have the stove radiating heat all day long. We’d cook ourselves out of the house!

I’ve been running around with the caulking gun sealing cracks and hunting for drafts, and there have been lots. At this point I have gone through more than three dozen tubes of caulking and I have one piece of advice for those building a house: the expensive caulk is worth it! Buy the best stuff you can find, we’ve used various grades around the house and we’ve had all sorts of failures wherever we used cheaper caulk. It might cost more up front but it’s worth it to save the aggravation and cost of having to do the same job twice.




I’m sick. I blame Joanne, whatever this is, she brought it home.

Some neat pictures today that show the effects of the sun shading provided by the cupola.  On December 21st the sun was nearly to the back of the main house, today, it was only in about 10 feet. If Paul is right, and so far (on this) he’s batting .1000, on June 21st the sun will not enter the house at all.

I’m going back to the couch.



Starting to feel like home

Simon from Generation Solar came by Monday morning to give us an overview of the system and all the various intricacies of the inverter and charger. Being the way we are Dad and I had been messing around with all of the various settings and variables but it was nice to have a pro go over the whole thing with us. One of the most frustrating aspects of the whole solar/wind inverter/charger setup is that there are no good monitoring tools available. Neither the inverter nor the charger save any kind of logs and only the inverter has a serial out for computer logging. The controller for the wind generator doesn’t even have an analog meter to let you know who much power the wind generator is producing RIGHT NOW. Dad and I are bit heads - we want sophisticated logging tools! Simon knows of two tools for monitoring one is a $500 box and the other is a $1200 box. Yeah right. Or we could use the Trace stuff and leave a computer ON next to the inverter, wasting power just to track our usage. Ah… no.

Monday was -25C when we woke up and really it didn’t warm up much past -18C. But the sun was out and it was gorgeous in the gallery.

We had lunch with Pete and Tina (thanks guys!), and Pete showed us some samples of his plaster with marble dust added. We took two of the samples to the house and we’re gonna go with the white (vs. buff). It’s gonna look stunning. 

Now I know I’ve asked a lot of all of you, but we’re aiming for an Easter move in, so if you could all just quietly, once or twice before you go to sleep, give us a little “In for Easter, in for Easter.” Well that’d be really appreciated.



The Restorative Powers of Soup

The insulation is pretty much done so the house is no longer hemorrhaging hot air. Dad guessed within 6 bags how much insulation we needed, a pretty impressive feat. He’s buying the rest on Monday. He’ll also be trying to coordinate the propane guys and Dan Peel to get the gas hooked up to the boiler so that we can start heating the place. (You’ve all been chanting right? ‘Cause it does seem to be working….)

The sun made an appearance just after lunch and a whole bunch of cool things happened. First the temperature inside the house rose to nearly zero. All the insulation seems to be working. I went up on the roof and brushed last nights snow off of the panels and the batteries are (we think) fully charged.

There’s about 12” of snow in some places on the roof but near the back windows (north side of the cupola) there’s nothing. I don’t think that it’s just because of the overhang. Paul said that he thought that the wind would cause a sort of vortex as it blew under the overhang and above the roof. It would appear that Paul was right. Hey, don’t look at me, I’m as surprised as anyone. (Hi Paul!) 

I’ll explain about the soup later, but today, it was chicken noodle. Yesterday it was potato bacon, my personal favorite.



No Heat, plenty of Cold

I’m pleased to report that the passive solar design and the windows seem to be working. It was bitterly cold out today: -18C in the sun, -30C with the wind chill. You couldn’t take your gloves off outside for more than a few seconds. But inside the house the temperature climbed up to -3C, and that was without a good deal of the ceiling insulation. If we cold hold that heat in we’d be doing great. I took a picture of the thermometer after lunch. The windows certainly generate heat, they’re very warm when you stand near them, but until we get the house sealed up we won’t know how well they hold it in.

As for getting the heat turned on, too many things went wrong today. The propane guys came this morning and hooked up the vent, and they were supposed to come back this afternoon to hook the propane up to the boiler, but they didn’t. They did deliver and install the propane tank, and it is big! 1000 gallons. Given what it costs to fill I sure hope that lasts us a while. Hopefully they’ll be back tomorrow.

Dan Peel was there with a helper and they hooked up the manifolds and piping and connected all of that to the hot water exchanger and propane water boiler. Dan’s a great guy, and really knows his stuff. Unfortunately the boiler had a loose part inside and when they pressurized the system it leaked Glycol/Water all over the place. Dan had also slightly misjudged the amount of Glycol he’d need so they could only fill one of the two manifolds. They weren’t done until 3:30, and the propane guys weren’t back so they left. They’ll be back tomorrow.

Dad came around 1pm and we took off to Monaghan’s to collect our three interior doors. They’re made by Madawaska Doors and they’re Western Red Cedar. Dad and I did a bit of work on the electrical and insulation in the back room. Dad and Rene will be back tomorrow.

Simon got most of the electrical system hooked up yesterday but there were some problems with the charger that prevented us from using the generator to get the batteries charged up - they’re a little low from sitting in storage. Plus the panels still have to be put on the roof and there’s some plumbing and stuff for the hot water system. When I talked to Simon he said he’d be back tomorrow.

It’s going to be busy around there tomorrow. So one last time everyone, “Heat on Thursday, heat on Thursday.”