Our Net-Zero Home in Long Beach, California

Living the Change We Want to See in the World

  • Construction Documents Are Done!

    We achieved a major milestone in our home construction process -- Jeannette Architects submitted Construction Documents to the City of Long Beach this past Friday. Generally the process of getting city approval of the Construction Documents and permits takes about two months. We hope we get approvals sooner.

    Either way, we plan to be able to start pouring the foundation during the first week of July which should allow us to move in before Christmas.

    Time will fly!

  • Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

    What a year! The first quarter of 2016 was full of excitement for us, some of which we would have been happy to avoid. Fortunately there were no tragedies. Intermixed with all of the excitement was the need for us to make decisions -- a lot of decisions.

    Countertop materials and colors, tiles, fixtures, appliances, paint, lighting, windows, and doors were just some of the decisions that we made. We had to balance performance, aesthetics, and price. Since we don't have unlimited funds to build our new home, price is often the deciding factor.

    Because we are using mnmMOD for the structure, we had to make certain decisions in advance compared to a standard stick build house. We didn't mind because once we start construction we don't want progress to stall awaiting a decision from us. Also, Jeannette Architects prefer that we define as much as possible up front so that we don't encounter design "surprises" after we start construction.

    Finally, a key aspect of our decision process is to involve our General Contractor, Scott Yanofsky, and our Interior Designer, Allison Smith, in as many of our decisions as is appropriate. This involvement slowed the decision process a bit but we hope it will make the construction process proceed smoother and more quickly than if we hadn't.

    We will see.

  • Would You Believe July?

    "The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men
    Gang aft agley,
    An'lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
    For promis'd joy!"

    Robert Burns, To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough

    At work, one of the principals that we try to espouse is planning before doing -- to a point. Unfortunately, we spent a lot of time understanding the relationship between our requirements, the proposed design, and cost. Since we are not independently wealthy, cost is an issue but cost is not the primary factor driving our requirements and cost is not driving all of our design choices. We spent a long time balancing cost against design and how to implement the design. (More on cost and some of our choices later.)

    We spent about 5 months doing that and we are now looking at a 3-4 month slip in starting construction. Since we chose mnmMod as our material and method for building the house structure, we will save significant time putting up the walls compared to standard wood framing. It is still possible that we can finish before the end of 2016. We will have to plan carefully to do complete by that date.

  • Our Current Home

    Some of you have asked, "Are you going to keep your current house when you are done with your new house?"

    The basic answer is no.

    We need the proceeds from the sale of our current home to pay for our new home. If everything goes well, we will be in the same financial position as we were about six years ago before we started buying additional properties -- owners of a single residence with no mortgage. We are confident that we don't want to be landlords.

    To achieve our goal, we need our current home to be in the best possible condition when we sell it. Similar to what you see on home improvement shows, our 43 year-old home has some issues that we need to repair and owning the adjoining property makes some of those issues easier to repair.

    Specifically, the low retaining wall between the properties, part of the patio slab and the concrete path behind our current house are "falling" into our new property. Right now, access to the retaining wall, patio, and path is not an issue since our dream home lot is empty. So, first things first means we will be replacing and repairing the various concrete structures as appropriate. More expenditures without actually starting to build our green dream home. <Sigh>

    The bad thing is it's only money. The good thing is it would have been more money if there were houses on both lots.

  • Big Announcement: mnmMOD

    This part of our journey and decision process started in 2014 with a phone call from my sister when she said something like, "I saw this house that someone is building near where I live [in Santa Monica] that had these cool steel and styrofoam walls. The sign at the construction site read mnmMOD."

    We are very please to announce that we will be using mnmMOD Building Solutions that are "Sustainable, Affordable Pre-Fab that Delivers Custom Design." The wall system uses recycled steel and polystyrene to provide a mold-free, VOC-free, termite-free home that is thermally efficient and minimizes waste during the construction process.

    We are very excited about this building system and the benefits it provides.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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:


  • 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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