Monday, August 31, 2009

Feast of Saint Aidan


Yes, it's true. Our four oldest children all celebrate the feast days of their patron saints in August! Today we celebrated the Feast of Saint Aidan, the patron of our oldest son. While the name Aidan, and variations. are very popular these days, Aidan actually is a very old name! The name Aidan means "Little Fiery One." I have never known a child whose name suited him more!

Saint Aidan, an Irishman, was a monk on the island of Iona in Scotland. He was the founder of the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in England and is credited with restoring Christianity in the communities in Northumbria. He is known for his ability to relate to people on their own level. He spent much of his time walking from village to village conversing with the pagan people; slowly the people changed their hearts to follow Christ.

Saint Aidan once prayed for a city which had been set ablaze by a pagan army. The winds changed and blew the smoke back towards the enemy who then relented. Saint Aidan is, therefore, the patron saint of firefighters.

Saint Aidan eventually became the bishop of Lindisfarne. He died on August 31, 651.

On your Feast Day, Saint Aidan, pray for us.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Geothermal = Geofrustrated


By now we had hoped to be doing a post announcing that we added a geothermal heating and cooling system to our project, which we were really excited about. In case you haven't heard of geothermal heat pumps, they've been around for a while but have always been prohibitively expensive and so haven't been widely used in residential construction projects. The advantage of geothermal systems is that they can cut your heating and cooling expenses by around 70% since the Earth itself is used as the means of providing energy. Even that energy cost savings hasn't made geothermal systems economical, as it can take as long as 15 years to recoup the up-front installation cost.

Curious how it works? This 2-minute clip gives a good, very high-level explanation (pardon the Canadian accent :-)

So if geothermal systems are so expensive, why were we considering adding it to our project? The first economic stimulus package (November 2008) included a provision providing a tax credit of 30% of the cost of installation of a geothermal heating/cooling system with no cap on the credit amount. Quite simply, taken at face value this is a huge tax credit that, in one fell swoop, seemed to make geothermal systems affordable. Our general contractor's calculations showed that when the tax credit was taken into account the payback period for installing a geothermal system could be as little as 3 years, and as much as $40,000 in total energy cost savings would be gained over the first 20 years of living in the home. This was too good to pass up, and despite the difficulty of adding the installation cost to our construction loan, we decided to do everything we could to get geothermal into our project.

Funny thing is, though, I asked our tax advisor to take a look at the tax credit and, at the last minute, he actually caught the fact that the credit is of the "non-refundable" variety. What this means is that the credit can reduce your federal taxes paid to zero, but not below zero. In other words, we would have to pay well into the 5 figures in federal taxes to actually recoup the full amount of the projected tax credit. Our tax advisor informed us that since we have four kids in the home and get the "per child" tax credit for all of them, plus taking into account all of our itemized deductions, we only paid $856 in federal taxes last year. Bottom line, there was no way we could get the full tax credit next year, and even though it could be carried forward to future years it might be 10 years (at our pace) before we finally get the full amount. Goodbye geothermal (thank God he caught this now!).

It's a big oversight on the part of the government (who knew?), as the first-time home buyer tax credit ($8,000) was structured as a "refundable" credit where one could get the full amount regardless of the amount of taxes paid, and yet the geothermal credit (which will always work out to be far higher than $8,000) was not structured in this same way. This means that the only people who could really take advantage of the geothermal credit would be very wealthy people (likely with no kids) who pay A LOT in federal taxes.

Though this was disappointing, deleting geothermal from our project definitely helped our loan situation (which we are still slogging through). And I always wondered in the back of my mind if we really were going to see the projected cost savings since our home will already be so energy efficient (SIP wall construction, radiant heating, highly energy-efficient windows, etc.). Lastly, I cringed to think of what geothermal installation might have done to our nicely wooded lot. Here's a pic of a system being installed (below), I am reminded of the grand canyon.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stairway design


Molly and I decided on how we wanted the stairway to the second level to look quite a while ago after seeing a few images in some books that piqued our interest. We thought a nice clean look would be to have the "treads" (the steps) be the same dark wood finish and color as the wood floor on the first level, and have the risers (the vertical boards between the steps) be painted white. It seemed to fit with the design of the rest of the home and would create some unexpected visual interest for the stairs.

After reading "the farmhouse book" (which I refer to in this previous post), it turns out that the stairway design was another of our decisions that fits perfectly with the "modern farmhouse" aesthetic. Here's some images from the book:

So our stairway will be another little farmhouse design cue :-) By the way, that last image gave me some further inspiration when reading the book. I'd like to do the same thing with the bottom two stairs as is shown in that last image, i.e. have the stairs cascade outward (width-wise) along the wall. I don't know yet if we can incorporate that in our own stairway design (it depends where those last couple stairs land in relation to the wall) but if we can do it, I think it would be an nice touch that would be inexpensive to do. It's little details such as those that can make all the difference in a home feeling distinctive.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Feast of Saint Helena


Today we celebrated the Feast Day of our daughter, Eleanor, whose patron saint is Saint Helena. Helena (sometimes called simply, Helen) was the mother of the Emperor Constantine. Helena was sent by her son on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was on this journey that through a miracle, Helena discovered the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. It is on this site that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands today.

Saint Helena is known for her piety and her fervent love of Christ during the days of the very early Church.

Orthodox Bulgarian Icon of Emperor Constantine and Saint Helena

On your Feast Day, Saint Helena, pray for us.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Feast of Saint Maximilian Kolbe


Today is the Feast of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, patron of our youngest living son, also known as "Maxy Moo-Moo." Maximilian Kolbe is one of the most well-known saints of modern times. The Polish saint lived only a few decades ago.

When Maximilian was ten years old he had a profound spiritual experience after his loving mother, in exasperation, said something to him that started his looking toward the future. "Whatever will become of you?" she said to her spirited boy.

"That night, I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both." -Saint Maximilian Kolbe

Maximilian joined the Franciscans at a very young age and later went as a missionary to Japan where he founded a monastery. His friars utilized the most modern printing techniques and published a daily newspaper with a circulation of 230,000 and a monthly magazine with a circulation of over one million.

During World War II, Father Maximilian provided shelter for refugees from greater Poland including over 2,000 Jews. In 1941, he was arrested by the German Gestapo, imprisoned and later transfered to Auschwicz. Later that year, a man from Kolbe's barracks disappeared. The camp commander chose ten men from the same barracks to be starved to death to discourage further escape attempts. (The man who had vanished was later found drowned in the camp latrine.) One of the selected men Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, lamenting his family, and Father Maximilian volunteered to take his place in the starvation chamber.

During the time in the cell, he led the men in songs and prayer. He taught them to pray the Rosary. After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe and three others were still alive. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in prayer. He was murdered with an injection of carbolic acid. The man whose life was spared was later reunited with his family and was present at the canonization of Saint Maximilian Kolbe.

It is our prayer that our own son, named after a man with a deep devotion to our Lord, would learn to love with the same sacrificial love as modeled by Saint Maximilian.

On your Feast Day, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Feast of Saint Clare


Today we celebrate the Feast of Saint Clare. Each year, we recognize the patron saints of our children on their particular Feast Days. Today, on the Feast of Saint Clare, our eldest daughter Clara chose the family dessert (Strawberry Shortcake!). We also took some time during family prayer to remember the virtuous Saint Clare of Assisi and ask for her prayers, particularly for Clara in this coming year.

I would encourage you to visit this site which tells a brief summary of the life of Saint Clare. After knowing this holy and selfless woman, it is easy to see why we would choose her as the patron saint of our daughter.

As a side note, in the last year Clara has had the opportunity to learn more about the Poor Clare sisters and has spent time collecting money for their local community by doing extra work around the home. The Poor Clare's have learned of Clara's diligence and have sent word (through a letter to Clara's teacher at our homeschool co-op) that they will pray for her to one day join them. Now wouldn't that be appropriate?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A nod to the farmhouse...


While we get the loan stuff figured out, here's another change we've made since the contractor bidding process way back in December of last year. As you have seen repeatedly in the renderings my brother has done of our home design, the exterior siding material was originally planned to be cedar (either left natural or stained). We knew from our contractor interviews prior to the bidding that the cedar was likely going to be a "no go" due to a steep rise in cedar prices over the last few years. More than one contractor mentioned this in our interviews, and sure enough, the cost of the cedar siding in the bids we received was, in a word, huge.

So, we quickly decided that we would change to a fiber-cement siding product, such as Hardie siding, which is a quality siding that is almost maintenance-free (aside from needing to be painted every 15-20 years or so), is nearly fireproof since it does not contain wood, and is still aesthetically pleasing as it doesn't have the fake look of a vinyl or metal siding. Though we made this decision a long time ago, we did not decide on the color of the home until just recently. After looking at the renderings for all these past months, it was hard to envision our house being a solid color of some sort.

If we've ever been pressed to define a "style" of our house design (we always say, as my brother does, "It isn't designed with any particular 'style' in mind") we've always come up with "we think of it as kind of a contemporary farmhouse." This answer is really meant less as a definition of a style and more as a reinforcement that, in addition to the purpose of our home design being the embodiment of the family as the "domestic Church," we also purposefully sought an unabashedly Minnesotan design that echoes local vernacular architecture (for instance, see here).

That's where this wonderful book comes in. It's titled, "The Farmhouse: New Inspiration for the Classic American Home," by Jean Rehkamp Larson, and I found it while browsing at Barnes & Noble and had to buy it on the spot; it was so relevant to our home project. It's essentially a book entirely about modern farmhouses!

The book has me convinced that some day people will look back and end up labeling "modern farmhouse style" as an official term, and our house will hopefully be thought of as a fine example. I didn't think of it at the time, but this previous post has a bunch of other fine examples. I am especially gratified that my brother arrived at our design completely independent of any knowledge of any of the other projects exemplified in this book, giving the principles included in our home design even more credibility. For instance, one of the factors identified in the book as exemplary of modern farmhouse design is that the home looks like a collection or "settlement" of smaller buildings (which couldn't describe our home design any better, that's actually exactly what my brother was trying to accomplish). There are lots of other factors identified in the book that are perfectly echoed in our home design, too many to go into here.

Now, back to the decision about siding color. It was the "Farmhouse" book that crystallized for us a decision about color that we had discussed off and on, but never seriously. Here's a bunch of images from the book that will make the color choice quite clear:
White. Anyone can attest that the classic American farmhouse is most frequently white (paint was a luxury for farmhouses of the early 20th century and, if it could be afforded, white was almost always the only color available -- the term "whitewashing" was coined during this time). There are certainly a few non-white homes profiled in the "Farmhouse" book, but I would say about 80% of them are white; a nod to the classic American farmhouse. We like the cleanness of the look and we think it will really make the house stand out nicely.

There are a few other little decisions we've made (some before reading the "Farmhouse" book, some after) that will also help reinforce the modern farmhouse design. I'll save those for a future post.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sorry for the delay in posting...

We're just working (daily) through the details with our lender to finalize the construction loan. It will be a relief when this process is over!