Cleave & Nina's Green Dream Home

Our Net-Positive Home in Long Beach, California

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    It is Easy Being Green

    [The original version of this blog post appeared in Cleave's Blant in 2009. I updated it for today's environment.]

    My wife and I are fans of the television show, Living with Ed. Ed Begley, Jr. is kind of a nut on the show, but if you think about all of the things that he does to minimize his family's impact on the environment, you'll find that you can do many of them with relative ease. Some are easy, and inexpensive. Others require an investment which often have a relatively quick payback. Most of all, these are just the right things to do and we do all of them.

    Here is a list of things that my wife and I do to try to be better citizens on this little blue ball:

    • Solar panels for generating electricity: During the day we make electricity for the neighborhood using the sun and we save a lot of money on our electric bill. There are a lot of cash rebates and tax credits associated with the purchase and installation of photo-voltaic solar panels.
    • Computers and computer accessories plugged into electrical surge suppressors with on/off switches: A lot of your computer peripherals with AC adapters and computer monitors, continue to draw power even when they are "off." Flip the switch on the surge suppressor to off after you've turned off your computer. Sure your ink jet printers and internet connection are on a separate electrical surge supressor that is always turned on.
    • AC power adapters for cell phones, hand-held games, MP3 players, etc plugged into a simple power strip: Similar to the computer, power adapters for these devices draw power even when they aren't connected to anything. Turn them off completely by switching off the power strip. Remember, if you see a glowing LED, the adapter is drawing power.
    • Recycle everything that your city will take or that you can bring to your local recycling center: Don't throw anything into the trash that you can recycle. Our goal is to always have at least twice as much recycling (by weight) as we do trash each week. Just be careful not to put non-recyclables in with the recyclables. Certain items can ruin a batch of recycling if they get into the recycling mix.
    • Use LED bulbs instead of incandescent or flourescent bulbs: When your standard light bulb burns out replace it with a LED bulb. You can buy LED bulb that replicate the color temperature of incandescent bulbs if that's important to you.
    • Don't buy or use bottled water: I don't know how many studies we have to conduct to see that our municipal water supplies provide water that is of similar or better quality than bottled water -- unless you happen to live in Flint, MI. Purchase a reusable water bottle (and clean it regularly) so that you can bring water with you when you need it.
    • Use recycled paper in your computer printer: For almost all uses these days (business or personal) recycled paper works just fine.
    • Better yet, don't print: There are already too many jokes about people who print their emails -- just don't do it.
    • Turn off lights: Your parents were right -- sort of -- it's a good idea for saving money, but it's also a good idea that reduces our need to produce electricity from coal-burning electric plants.
    • Water your lawn less: Lawns are some of the biggest uses of water for most homeowners. You can actually get away with less watering and still have a green lawn.
    • Better yet, remove your lawn: If you live in California, many municpal water districts have rebates for removing your lawn and installing drought tolerant landscaping.
    • Reuse plastic sandwich and freezer bags: We try to use as few plastic bags as possible, but when we use them, we try to reuse them as much as possible.
    • Neither paper or plastic: Bring a cloth bag or a bag made from recycled materials with you when you go shopping. Or you can be like Ed and just carry your purchases out of the store in your hands.
    • Drive a hybrid or electric car: If you need a new car and can afford a hybrid, then buy one. I predict that all cars will eventually be hybrid or all electric within 20 years. It's not just about saving gas. Think about all of the tailpipe emissions when you're sitting stuck in traffic. A gas-electric hybrid turns of the gas engine when the car is stopped. When the engine isn't running there are no hydrocarbons coming out of the exhaust pipe.
    • Walk or ride a bike for trips less than one mile: Especially where we live in Southern California, mass transit is not always convenient. However, you'd be surprised how often you drive less than a mile. Walking distances less than a mile doesn't take a lot of extra time and it's good for you.

    I'll be adding to this list over time as there are a lot more simple things each of us can do to make the planet last a little longer for the generations after us.

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    Big Announcement Coming!

    We know this is kind of cheesy, but we've been working on something for a long time and we are very excited about it. However, the deal is not quite sealed and no one has sung yet so we're hesitant to announce it right now.

    We're confident that things will come together within the next week so please stay tuned.

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    How is Construction Going?

    The question our friends ask most frequently is, "How is construction going?"

    Our answer is, "We haven't started yet."

    We've owned the property for 1-1/2 years and we have not started construction yet. There are a lot of reasons for that, but at the same time, we are still well within our self-defined deadline of November 1, 2016, for finishing our home. At this point, with El Niño approaching, we will wait for the predicted torrential rains to subside before we start construction.

    Also, we still have quite a way to go with getting construction documents prepared and approved by the city. Our architect is waiting for our decision on our construction method. (More on that in a later blog post.)

    Our General Contractor suggests that we start preparing the lot by rebuilding delapidated retaining walls as weather permits. We will follow his advice.

    We'll let you know when we started laying the slab foundation. Hopefully in March 2016.

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    Design Is a Process

    I am going to fast foward this blog to today. About a year ago, after interviewing three architects, we selected Jeannette Architects to design our home. There were a number of reasons why we selected Jeannette Architects. The key reasons were:

    • Their experience and commitment to building enviromentally friendly homes, including their recent design of two LEED certified homes;
    • Their portfolio of homes with modern architecture;
    • As a Long Beach firm, their familiarity with local building codes and regulations;
    • Their attention to detail in the design process.

     

    Another factor was that the firm's Principal, Jeff Jeannette, is also a cyclist.

    At the same time we selected our General Contractor, Terra Firma, Inc. We interviewed Scott Yanofsky, the owner/operator, and we were impressed with his portfolio of work. Additionally, I've known Scott since Junior High School as we both grew up in Jericho, NY. We appreciate Scott's attention to detail and his pragmatic view of home construction.

    Those of you who know me, know that I am very concerned about the details of any design; automobiles, bicycles, computers, cameras, and now, our green dream home. Consistent with this, I prepared a very detailed mind map of our requirements for our future home. The mind map provided Jeff, his Project Manager, Alison Young, and Scott a common view of what we want to achieve.

    In the late spring, Jeff and Alison produced several sketches of floor plans and elevations for our consideration. By early summer, we approved final sketches and we moved into Preliminary Design. Then came the real fun, could we build this house within our budget?

    As part of cost estimating process, we selected an interior design firm, Allison Smith Design, out of Portland, Oregon. Allison has provided design services to residential and commercial clients across the United States and internationally. We have admired her sense of style for years as she also happens to be Nina's cousin.

    Estimating is taking some time but working with Scott as our estimating focal and with the rest of our team's guidance, we believe we have a design that is affordable. We have a few details to change in the Preliminary Design, but as a preview, here is the proposed front elevation of our house:

     

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    Goodbye Old House

    Before we removed contigencies, during escrow, for purchasing the Cristensen house, we contacted several demolition and deconstruction companies to get rough estimates for removing the existing house, pool, and trees. We wanted to understand if we were going to eat up too much of our budget just removing the house. The rough estimates, while generally higher than we expected, were tolerable from a financial perspective.

    Unfortunately, the condition of the house was very bad and it had significant amounts of hazardous waste (lead and asbestos). Very little material was available for reuse which meant the deconstruction cost estimate was much higher than demolition cost estimates. We wanted to deconstruct the house to really minimize the amount of material that went to landfill, but given cost premium to deconstruct, we decided to demolish. Also, the City of Long Beach has some pretty strict requirements for routing demolition waste to appropriate recycling and landfill areas. We rationalized that demolition was not a significantly worse environmental option in this situation.

    After a somewhat lengthy process getting all of the appropriate permits, posting a sizeable bond (to ensure that we transported the waste to the appropriate recycling facility and landfill area), and removing the hazardous waste, we demolished the house about a year after buying it. We were able to divert a very small number of items to reuse.

    Looking from our current home's kitchen window, we now have a relatively clean slate for building our green, dream home.

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    Who Knew?

    We bought the house next door to where we live. The original owners of that house Ed and Virginia Christensen, were both alive, active, and retired when we bought our current house at the end of 1993. As related to us by Virginia, she and Ed built the house before World War II and raised their family of three children there. They expanded the house to its last configuration with the help of a local oil company. Their house was also one of the first houses in our heighborhood.

    Ed preceded Virginia in death. After Virginia passed away we did not have any contact with the people that moved into the house. We found out after we purchased the house, that the parents of a single mother bought the house for their daughter and granddaughter and they were the last residents of the house that the Christensen's built. What we didn't know was the true condition of the house.

    The listing for the house read:

    LOCATION! FIXER Worth looking at! Nestled between Marine Stadium and the Colorado Lagoon in Prime Alamitos Heights! Lovely, quiet, tree-lined street. Surrounded by million dollar properties! Construction Loan Easy & Available! Sold "As Is". Private Showing with easy Appointment! Come Dream the Possibilities! California Distinguished Schools & all freeway access.

    The key phrase was, "Construction Loan Easy & Available!"

    We somewhat unwhittingly bought a complete tear-down. The roughly 75 year-old house was literally falling down. This met our needs very well but we were surprised that the house was in such poor condition.

    Also, the lot has a radically different grade than our current lot despite being next door to us. Retaining walls on the north and east boundaries of the property are in poor condition and concerned some of the deconstruction and demolition contractors who we contacted for bids to remove the existing house. Adding to the complexity of the project was the 10-foot deep in-ground swimming pool that we needed to remove.

    So began our year-long journey of removing the house.

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    Buying the House Next Door

    I came home from work in late May 2014 and Nina greeted me by saying the house next door to us was for sale. Over the previous six months, we were working with our realtor, Lorri Quiett, to find an empty lot or a tear-down house in our current neighborhood for the purpose of building our retirement house -- our green, dream home. We didn't have much luck. During those six months, we put an offer on a house that was probably better for a big remodel, rather than a tear-down, and we tried to find the owner or owners of a couple of empty lots without any success.

    Our neighbor's house wasn't officially on the market when Nina spotted the seller's agent erecting a for sale sign on the property. Nina spoke with her about the upcoming listing and got her business card. On that cool May evening, we called Lorri, who was leaving for a long girls' weekend back east, and asked her to contact the sellers' agent and place an offer.

    The sellers rejected our initial offer which was slightly under the their list price. Apparently, other potential buyers placed pre-listing offers that were higher than our offer. After some back and forth over the next few days, the sellers accepted our offer (which was a fair amount over the list price). Amazingly, all of this happened while our real estate agent was back east.

    After a fairly smooth escrow process, we took ownership in late June 2014, beginning our green, dream home journey.


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