Our Net-Zero Home in Long Beach, California

Living the Change We Want to See in the World

  • Stress Testing the Electrical System

    Here's what's happening right now as part of our #GreenDreamHome experiment. (As a reminder, a large amount of what we've done with this house is experimental as there were so few examples of similar houses that we could use as a model.) A couple of weeks ago, #SouthernCaliforniaEdison notified our neighborhood that today, March 14th, they were going to have a planned power outage for system maintenance from 9:00AM to 4:00PM. In preparation, I made sure that our #Tesla batteries were fully charged yesterday using electricity from our solar panels.

    I was standing in our kitchen at 9:00AM waiting for the power to go out. I could hear our refrigerator running and expected it to stop momentarily when the power went out and the house switched to backup batteries. I never heard the refrigerator pause, but I received a notice on my phone from our Tesla system that the grid had failed. Initially, since the grid failed and the batteries were full, the system disconnected our solar panels, the same as with any house that has solar panels and no batteries. Once the batteries had drained a small amount, the system reconnected the solar panels so that they could recharge the batteries/power the house.

    Based on what the system is showing, we have plenty of stored electricity to get through this outage. If it wasn't a rainy day we'd probably use very little battery power. As designed, everything is pretty normal, except that we can't use the oven or stove. However the microwave works. Also, in a wider power outage, we probably wouldn't have internet through our cable provider, but for now, we are still connected.


  • Big Houses

    Yes, Nina and I are living the "American Dream." We worked hard for many years, had a family, saved our money, built our dream house, and retired comfortably. What is the problem? The problem is what  Americans have been conditioned to desire versus what we should do to help ensure the longevity of our civilization and planet.

    Ideally we wanted our Green Dream Home to be a smaller than its final configuration. We hoped for 1,800 to 2,000 square feet of living space and ended up with 2,225 square feet. While we didn't want a tiny house, we also didn't want a McMansion. From Wikipedia:

    McMansion may either refer to oversized and cheaply built houses developed at once in a subdivision, or refer to a dwelling that replaces a smaller house, in a neighborhood of smaller houses, which seems far too large for its lot...

    I don't believe our Green Dream Home fits either aspect of a McMansion but, unfortunately, I regularly see people building McMansions all over Sothern California and around the world. Besides the detriments described in the Wikipedia article, from an environmental perspective, McMansions use too many resources in construction and in living.

    Yes, large families might need large homes to live comfortably, but from Statista, the U.S. Census Bureau determined the average family size is 3.14 people. Since it's hard to find 0.14 people, most families in the U.S. comprise of 3 people. How much living space do 3 people need?

    There is no exact answer that is universally accepted. A scan of the internet shows a range of recommendations that seem to range mostly between 600 to 800 square feet per person or 1,800 to 2,400 square feet of living space. For 25 years, our family of four lived in a 2,400 square foot, 4 bedroom, 2-1/2 bath house and we we had rooms, such as our formal living room, that went mostly unused.

    Which leads me back to what we, as Americans, have been conditioned to desire. Why is bigger thought to be better and how can we move towards the idea that less is more? Big houses and real mansions will always exist but how can we move the trend towards wanting smaller, energy efficient, easy-to-maintain houses? How do we reverse the ideal of a large house in a sprawling suburbia -- an ideal that is unsustainable.

  • Mapping Our Minds

    I learned the technique for creating mind maps at work in the mid-1990s from a work colleague. Shortly after, I was able to take a one-day workshop that Tony Buzan (the person who coined the term mind map) taught in Los Angeles. Since then, I've created hundreds of mind maps for work and for my personal life.

    I couldn't embark on this project without creating a mind map. The project mind map is huge and we used it to communicate our requirements for our home to our architect and interior designer. Subsequently, I expanded the map to track our costs. It is a huge map and beyond anyone's interest except our own.

    We wanted to communicate our thinking behind the Green Dream Home so I created an abriged version of our project mind map and tailored it for communication (versus requirements and cost tracking). You can see and manipulate the map here:


    The default view shows the core idea and 1st level branches of the map and allows you to open branches by clicking on the end of a branch. If you want to see all of the contents of the map at one time:

    1. Click on Menu on the lower left corner of the screen.
    2. Under View Mode, on the left side of the screen, click on Standard.


    To read the map, start at Inspirations on the upper right corner.

    The map focuses on what we did throughout the design and build process to-date to make our home as sustainable as possible. While we did focus on function over form, we wanted the house to look good as well. We believe that with the guidance of our architect and interior designer, we will achieve that goal.

    We hope this gives you further insight to what we are doing to achieve our vision.

  • Seeing the End of the Tunnel

    Having managed multi-million dollar projects during my aerospace career, I was not naive about schedule delays and cost over-runs. Nina and I knew that we were at the bleeding edge of home construction methods and we were willing to take the necessary risks to build our Green Dream Home. Our efforts to anticipate big risks went reasonably well but we didn't aniticipate how many small risks would come to fruition and interconnect to delay the project and drive up costs -- sort of like death by a thousand cuts. Fortunately, we aren't dead and we don't anticpate dying because the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train.

    Today, we are entering the last big phase of construction as we are ready for exterior stucco and siding and finishing the interior drywall with metal corners, tape and mud. Plan to make a lot of progress this week.

  • And Now for Something Completely Different

    This has been a lot more than a journey. We expected that with our major decision to use a new wall system and construction method would include moderate learning curve for our sub contractors. Turns out it has been a significant learning curve for most of our sub contractors.

    Pre-emptively, let me say that while we've have a number of problems, none of the problems have been major. The greatest impact of the problems is time and money.

    The majority of the framing went well, but the things that didn't go well caused significant delays while we figured out how to solve the problems. Same for the installation of utilities -- small problems, significant delays -- mostly because the sub contractors had never worked on a steel-framed house. Stick-built houses currently dominate residential construction the way that gasoline-engined cars dominate auto sales.

    As of today, we are almost ready to start wrapping the house so that we can apply smooth stucco and siding. We still have to install windows and doors which should be done by the end of next week.

    Hope springs eternal.

  • Stop

    Our last post showed the footings with the wood forms recently removed. Before we could pour the slab within the footings we (the figurative, not literal, 'we') had a number of tasks to complete -- compact soil (within the footings), install underground drain pipes, install under-slab electrical conduit, install downdraft ventilation vent, install structural steel, install under-slab vapor barrier, and install slab rebar. While there were a few problems to solve -- we don't have problems boss, we only have solutions -- our biggest problem was...


    After finishing the footings at the beginning of December 2016, we lost almost 6 weeks due to weather through the first week of February 2017. Back in October 2016, I semi-jokingly told our General Contractor that since we were supposed to get a lot of rain last year during an El Niño condition and didn't, that we would get a lot of rain this year.

    We defnitely need the rain in semi-arid Los Angeles which has be suffering from extreme drought conditions over the past few years, but our house construction schedule would look a lot better with less rain during this phase of the build.

  • Starting & Stopping & Starting

    Unfortunately, our blog entries kind of mimic the pace of progress on our green, dream home. After getting City of Long Beach approval of our Construction Documents as scheduled, we had a bit of a delay in getting started on lot preparation (mid August).

    For us, lot preparation was a fascinating and unknowingly, complex process. Our concrete subcontractor had to dig 4 feet under the footprint of our slab foundation. Our soils engineering company provided an engineer who watched the dig and monitored and measured the refilling and compaction of the dirt that will be under the foundation. At one point it looked like we were building an Olympic swimming pool and size-wise, it wasn't too far off from being one.

    By the end of August we had a level and compacted lot.

    And then we waited.

    We waited for our subcontractors and services providers to come to a consensus on how to deal with the retaining walls on the east and north sides of our lot.

    As you can see from the photo above, our lot sits below the lot to the east (right side of photo) and the lot to the north (top-left of photo). Note that the lot to the east is our current house. The design of the retaining walls was more complicated than anyone expected because of the lot situation and the location of the house on the lot.

    Eight weeks later, we were ready to dig the footings for the retaining walls and the footings for the slab foundation.

    Looking more like a subterrainean maze, the trenches for the footings gave us a better view of how the house will sit on the lot and the relative sizes of the 1st floor rooms. The forms for the footings and rebar were next.

    In our estimation, there was enough rebar in the forms to build a small bridge or to keep the foundation intact after a 6.5 magnitude earthquake. The next problem lurked in the above photo. The wooden "plate" with the two bolts sticking out vertically are where we attached structural steel, box-section columns. Unfortunately, when the subcontractor responsible for erecting the mnmMOD walls inspected the forms, he determined that the configuration of the plates where the steel columns attach would interfere with installation of the walls.

    Back to the drawing board and 2 weeks later we reworked the forms. Here is the before and after:

    And we were able to pour concrete into the foundation footing forms and strip the forms.

    Next stop: Stop.

  • We have a lot of photos ...

    ... and we will post a lot more!

    One advantage of living next door to where we're building our new house is that it's easy to take photos when there's some visible progress (more on that in a future blog post) and we've been collecting these photos in a Google Photos photo album. We've linked that album to this website. You can access it by clicking on 'Photos' on the menu bar (top-right of any page) and you can see our mostly unedited stream of photos and a couple of videos.

    No captions on the photos as of now so you'll have to use your imagination on what they show. Some of you will know what the photo depicts because you are involved in our project and some of you know because you're in the industry.

    For now, please enjoy them and let us know if you have any questions.

    P.S.: Thanks to Joshua at mnmMOD for suggesting that we do this.

  • 22 Years of Stuff

    As we prepare to move into our smaller green, dream home, we need to divest ourselves of 22 years of stuff that we accumulated as a family of four. Craigslist has been a great resource for getting things that we no longer need into the hands of those who can use them. We have been surprised how quickly people responded to our ads.

    There are definitely some emotions -- happy and sad -- sorting through items. We also reflect on why we needed so many things for us and our children. At the time, everything seemed like a good idea. In retrospect, some items seem overly frivolous. Our goal for the rest of our lives is to be more conscientious about things we acquire.

    We still have a plenty of things to sell or give away but we made a solid start and reuse is a good thing.

  • Approved!

    A bit of a late announcement, but as of June 28, 2016, the City of Long Beach approved our construction documents. Jeannette Architects did a great job of working with the city and mnmMOD to get all of the details complete so that we could attain the approvals.

    Unfortunately, things have been a bit slow in getting started but we expect work to start within two weeks. Our General Contractor, Scott Yanofsky, has all of the permits so we are ready to roll once we get some details worked out on retaining walls for the new lot.

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