Permit me to Explain--by Chris Stratton and Wen Lee

Chris Stratton and Wen Lee are a husband-and-wife team living in the Los Angeles area who are DIY converting their suburban house into an all-electric zero net energy home via superinsulation, efficient appliances, onsite solar, and conservation strategies. They chronicle their attempts at a low-carbon, low-cost, and joyful lifestyle on their blog Frugal Happy, which the following post is adapted from.


I once heard a veteran architect named Sam give a talk about his experience getting started in the field. He described four developmental stages in the process of learning his trade, roughly titled:

  • unconscious incompetence
  • conscious incompetence
  • conscious competence, and finally
  • unconscious competence

I think these categories make some sense. And I think that in the process of getting the permit, I moved from being unconsciously incompetent to being consciously incompetent. This transition was hard on the ego, but was a necessary step toward eventual competency. Or maybe the fact that I finally got the permit does suggest some degree of competence, however basic.

Getting the permit took a long time -- from March 2016 until September. The process involved creating plans of the existing house, learning new software, researching what's expected for construction drawings, developing a design with the help of consultants, drafting the drawings, and submitting the drawings to the city planning department for feedback and revision. I tried to balance out all this technical, tedious desk work by regularly interspersing physical tasks like killing the lawn and building raised beds, removing the insulation from the attic, and installing a shade sail over the back patio. In this post I'll talk about the technical aspects of developing the design and getting the permit as well as what it was like removing decades-old insulation from an attic.

Getting the Permit

There were no existing floor plans of the house, so I began an “as built” model of the house in a program called SketchUp.

I had used SketchUp for design before, but I’d never attempted to use a model as the basis for generating a set of construction drawings. Frankly, I didn’t even know exactly what the construction drawings needed to include or what they looked like. I wasn’t even sure if SketchUp could be used for this kind of thing, since it’s historically been considered an entry-level design program, but not very powerful. It’s generally looked down upon by professional architects and engineers, who prefer more sophisticated -- and expensive -- programs like AutoCAD and Revit. Looking into it, I learned that SketchUp now has a companion program called Layout that can use the model to generate drawings -- exactly what I needed! I found a book by Michael Brightman called The SketchUp Workflow for Architecture that walks you step-by-step through a process they’ve developed for turning a model into drawings.

Architectural drawings generated in Layout from the SketchUp building model using the process described in The SketchUp Workflow for Architecture

Admittedly these drawings don't contain nearly enough detail to be used for construction, but I think the plan reviewer cut me some slack, since it's a small, simple project and I'm the owner, builder, and designer.

It was a tedious process learning this new application, even though I was familiar with SketchUp. To use Brightman's system, I had to re-organize all of my model’s components in order to give me the rendering options needed for the drawings in terms of layering, line weight, and hatching. The meticulous organizing, couching group within group within group, was the most time consuming part of the process and required a lot of concentration.

The SketchUp Workflow for Architecture requires the creation of more than 30 layers, 23 custom scenes, and 11 custom styles. The good news is that once you've put in the considerable effort to create all this, you can use the template for every subsequent project.

Once you have everything set up, you can do fancy things like choose a style that colors all objects by layer, like in this image. There's clearly something not quite right about the groupings shown here, but you get the gist.

In the end the program worked just like the book said it would, allowing me to make changes in the model that would be re-rendered real time in the drawings via the links between the two files. The next project (whenever that is) will certainly go much faster than this one.

The entire process of making the existing model, learning Layout and the rendering process, generating a design with help from structural, HVAC, and green rating consultants, making the proposed model, generating the existing and proposed drawings, submitting the drawings to the city for feedback, revising and resubmitting the drawings a couple of times, then finally getting the permit...took about 6 months.

Removing Attic Insulation

For about a month of that time I was spending half my days sitting or standing at a desk staring at a computer making a model of the house, and the other half laboring in the attic removing insulation. I know it seems counter-intuitive to remove insulation from the attic, especially since this is supposed to be a green remodel, or a “deep energy retrofit” in the jargon, and considering that the attic is the only part of the house that is currently insulated.

Attic existing condition: ceiling joist bays filled with 33-year-old cellulose insulation, as well as lots of other stuff.

I found this tattered certificate hanging from one of the rafters. It says in 1983 the attic was insulated to R-19, but the walls and floors are uninsulated.

I removed the insulation in the attic because I want access to the “floor” of the attic in order to do things like install HVAC equipment, remove recessed lighting, seal holes and gaps, etc. I wasn't sure how to go about removing lots of lots of dirty old loose-fill attic insulation. I looked into it and found a video of someone sucking it up with a dust collector, which is basically just a giant, ugly, industrial vacuum cleaner.

Our Noodle Noser in action.

I purchased a used dust collector from someone on craigslist and began using it to suck the 33-year-old loose cellulose insulation into 50-gallon garbage bags made of heavy duty transparent plastic -- a recommendation from the person who sold it to me. Heavy duty because there was a lot of stuff up there that was not fluffy cellulose, like nails and pieces of wood; and transparent because it lets you know when a bag is full. Wen dubbed our dust collector the Noodle Noser.

I think that popping sound you hear in the video is static electricity discharging (either that or a nail bouncing around in the centrifugal impeller fan). It constantly shocked the hell out of me, even through my gloves. It was hot and dry up there and somehow the insulation plus the suction hose generated lots and lots of really strong static electricity.

At first I had the Noodle Noser in one of the bedrooms. But when one of the bags exploded, I decided that wasn’t a good idea and moved it to the attic.

We filled about forty 50-gallon bags in all.
After we took the bags of insulation out, we were having trouble finding a place to keep them, but out of the way. (I’m thinking of reusing the insulation again later.) So, guess where we decided to store them. The attic of course!

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Tags: DIY, Frugal, Happy, architecture, energy, permitting, retrofit

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Comment by George Kopf on March 8, 2018 at 12:05pm

Chris,

You never cease to amaze me. From researcher to DIY, is there anything energy related you haven't done?

Comment by William H Nickerson on March 8, 2018 at 10:24am

Great write up. Congratulation's you just officially connected and crossed over from the world of talking heads to working hands. Yes Sketchup has the stigma of the new black SUVs in mall parking lot. Is that a Hyundai or a Mercedes ?.Your work will be model for many in this industry. Please continue to write and upload your progress.

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