Niall’s virtual diary archives – Monday 02 August 2021

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Monday 2 August 2021: 00:50. The last few months have felt like an awful blur. Some of it is the birth of my third child, Julia, with all the impacts to one’s routines a newborn brings with them. Some of it was gearing up to bring everyone to England in the middle of a pandemic for my brother in law’s wedding without either catching covid, despite that England was riddled with it, or getting trapped by borders closing – in the end, we rented a campervan so we’d never need enter indoors anywhere, and took ferries which brought us back to Ireland via Northern Ireland, all of which was most stressful and very draining, but we got it done at the start of July, and it all worked out well in the end (equally, I would not wish to repeat it ever again). However no doubt the rest of it is that now Julia is born and both her and mother are healthy, I’ve started the ball rolling on buying a site, and building a house on it!

The Site

So far, buying our site has not gone well! Just the buying of the site alone has been a plague of issues and stress. The site is a serviced site within a partially built housing estate deep in rural Cork which is the result of the global financial collapse in 2008. The story begins with a Joseph O’Callaghan who received planning permission to build forty-three houses as an estate in year 2000. As far as I can tell, he was not a professional developer, but rather a local businessman and farmer, and I’m guessing he did not intend to build all the houses himself. They appear to have built the roads, installed services and street lights etc, or possibly contracted in builders to do it, and the estate got itself named by start of 2006. In any case, starting from June 2005 onwards you start seeing individual site planning permissions land at a fairly rapid clip: in order, numbers 1, 7, 12, 11, 13, 20 & 21, 3, 2, 15, 6, 5, 31 & 32, 19, 35-36-37-38, 24, 28 & 29, 30, 16. And then bang!, no more planning applications for new houses on the estate between July 2007 and February 2015!

What happened was that building of the later granted sites never began before the global financial collapse of 2008. Looking through the planning applications and comparing it to the property sales register (both are public access on the web), a minority were individuals who later occupied the house they built, and a majority were from somebody involved in construction who were looking for somewhere to invest their spare cash, with the idea of building a few houses on the side of their main business and flipping them for a profit. As much as many private individuals got badly caught out in the housing price collapse of 2008, those in construction who were dipping their toe into becoming small scale builders of a few houses on the side got a lot more badly burned – a feature of this housing estate is if you don’t start building within thirty months of getting planning permission, you have to pay a fine per site of €1,000 per month! So after 2008, not only were they in deep negative equity, they were also in a cash flow crunch. Hence no planning applications for new houses for eight years!

This of course happened to lots and lots of people who either bought housing or sites just before the housing market collapsed in Ireland. And it took a good decade to sort out, what with everybody owing everybody else vast sums of money, and nobody wanting to act on any of it because that would realise their losses. At the time, I remember feeling I was losing out badly due to my then poverty, as I was still a poor student. I look back now and feel so very sorry for all those unfortunate people, it literally ruined a whole generation.

In any case, the people who own our site appear to have decided to offload their sites some time in late 2019. They went up on the market mid 2020 at an asking price of €85k each, which I reckon was about a 50% haircut over what had been paid for them. Given how far away this village is from anywhere at all with jobs, and that even a site within the Cork city boundary could be found for that kind of money, the sites did not attract much interest.

Earlier this year, I had been bidding on two sites in the North Cork village where I currently live, Dromahane, but I had bailed out when the price went to €85k as I just didn’t think either site worth that (one was very small, the other had no access to the public sewer and was too small to easily fit a septic tank). So I knew where my price limit was roughly at, and where the market was roughly at, for sites near places with jobs. Also, Megan had begun to see that getting a site near Mallow was going to be expensive, and there would likely have to be considerable compromises in terms of shape, size, or budget. So she became a bit more open to moving further away than before. In March I took her to look at sites for sale in this partially built housing estate in this rural village far away, and she agreed that the sites were much better quality, the amenities were great, there is a train station next door, indeed everything bar macro location was great (though location within the village itself couldn’t be better). Because of that poor location, I put in an offer for two of the sites purchase subject to planning, and my offer was accepted in principle end of March.

Cue then three sets of solicitors (mine, the sellers’, the estate’s) taking – to date, it’s still ongoing – four months to come up with a contract! Obviously the sellers and the estate developers wanted to push through the conditions as was in 2007 to me, with the rather important bit being the €1,000 per site per month fine if I don’t complete a house within thirty months. That was a showstopper for me, and eventually after much haggling the other sides relented. Also, since 2019 the EU has imposed much tighter regulations for building new houses, specifically you now need an energy consultant in addition to an architect and typically a structural engineer, and lead times to reach planning permission submission are now far longer than they were before 2019. So all the conditions originating from year 2007 involving what must be accomplished within X months from whatever needed to be doubled or trebled because they were no longer realistic. Hence more shuttling backwards and forwards between the three sets of solicitors.

Supposedly, the final contract will be ready for signing by me in ten days or so i.e. mid August. It’ll then need signing by the other sides, and we shall finally be off to the races after a mere five months. Yay.

The House

In terms of what to build and how to build it, our current intent is an unusually tall bungalow measuring approximately 18 metres long x 10 metres wide x 9 metres high with a 40 degree (i.e. steeply) sloped roof. If that sounds like a two storey height, you would be right – the idea is a bungalow but with Victorian height internal walls plus a loft conversion with added height in the loft, so basically the ceiling of the ground floor and floor of the loft part is a bit lower than half up the total height of the house (3.6m internal walls downstairs, 4.5m floor to peak of internal roof upstairs) i.e. instead of dividing a two storey height house into two floors and an attic, we’ll be dividing it into one floor and an attic. The hope is that it will be passive house certified, meaning that total energy consumption must be measured as below 60 kWh per metre squared per year which essentially means the house heats and cools itself using ambient heat i.e. no heating system needed (though we shall be fitting a single radiator in order to meet Irish building regulations which require there to be a heating system in the house, but also in case there is only one occupant, as the heat emitted by the human occupants makes up a substantial portion of the total heating of the house). Total internal living space is estimated to be around 260 m2, with the six metre wide ten metre long main living room running floor to roof in height i.e. the full eight metres high, which ought to be quite impressive to walk into and be in as it’s effectively like being inside a church, which is the effect we are intending.

We have commissioned as our architect Rebel Design Studio who specialise in building photorealistic virtual reality models of the proposed design, which until very recently was the preserve of high end architecture for really big developments such as shopping centres or large office complexes. We’ll be at the state of the art here, combining Unreal Engine with Twinmotion to produce a three dimensional render of the proposed design. Given my past UE4 experience during the DTS contract, I’ll then take that model and convert it for the Oculus Quest 2 VR headset, and then we’ll be able to walk around our future house to see how it feels. The Oculus Quest tracks you physically walking around exactly evenly, so if you walk one metre with the headset on, you’ll walk one metre inside the VR model. Obviously I’ll post a video flythrough here when we have them, but I suspect it’ll not be a patch on wearing a proper VR headset. The only issue will be finding a flat safe 18 x 10 metre space to walk around in with the headset on, and that assumes we don’t try walking outside the VR house!

Other unusual features of the house

Earth tube

Apart from it basically being a church which is unusual, there are a few other novel features intended which may get deleted or refined as expert advice comes in. The first is that my highly inexpert calculations currently reckon an earth tube worth the cost benefit, which would be highly unusual for a climate as mild as Ireland’s. Earth tubes are basically a 0.2m diameter pipe under the ground for 40 or 60 metres, and the ground is typically 10 - 12 C throughout the year. The ventilation unit sucks incoming air through the earth tube, so in winter this would warm the air, and in summer it would cool the air, before it enters the house. Passive houses are extremely well insulated and so airtight that without a ventilation unit you will suffocate (indeed because the concept comes from Germany, it was designed around the Central European climate and the insulation is actually overkill for the mild Irish climate, however because Passive House is a standard, it’s cheaper to meet the PH standard than do something specific for Ireland). Because the PH standard requires a highly efficient heat exchanging ventilation unit which transfers the heat from expelled air into incoming fresh air, earth tubes don’t benefit a passive house much in winter. However, in summer they provide substantial cooling, and the hotter it is outside, the better the cost benefit. Generally earth tubes only make cost benefit between Southern Central Europe and North Africa, and not in Ireland where the average summer temperature is about 17C (across day and night) which has insufficient differential to the ground temperature to provide worthwhile cooling. However in our case, I reckon an earth tube would give about negative 1kW for the house by my calculations even with all the heat pouring in all the windows. That means we can increase the amount of glazing quite a bit i.e. we spend extra money on an earth tube so we can spend more money again on more glazing and it shouldn’t overheat. This clearly doesn’t meet cost benefit by definition, but let me explain my thinking on this some more.

Almost all houses built in Ireland since the 2019 EU NZEB regulations came in have a heat pump to meet the 20% renewable energy requirement, so not having a heat pump I can already see will be controversial. If a heat pump costs €8k, because a Passive House uses so little energy, a heat pump at 400% efficiency in winter has a payback time of nineteen years. Alas a heat pump likely needs replacing every fifteen years, and has expensive maintenance (e.g. recharging every few years its heat exchange gas, which is patented and hideously expensive), so for very low energy consumption it just doesn’t have cost benefit like it would if we used more energy. To give an idea of how close this cost benefit is, if my planned house simply dumped shower waste water as-is into drainage, the energy consumption would become high enough that a heat pump becomes worth the cost benefit. But because I’ll be fitting a heat exchanger to all the shower and bath wastewater to reclaim the heat before the water is dumped to drainage, that sufficiently reduces total house energy consumption that a heat pump is no longer worth it. That waste water heat exchanger costs about €1,200, and the maths say it has one of the best cost benefits of anything else I’ve chosen – much better than solar panels, which was a surprise.

An earth tube is pretty similarly priced, at about €6k, it just needs cleaning with a brush every few years, and a new filter every year, and otherwise ought to last the building’s lifetime whilst consuming almost no electricity at all. It does almost nothing for reducing your heating costs, because the heat exchanger in the ventilation is already so efficient. But it should completely eliminate overheating in summer, and indeed make possible more glazing than would otherwise be possible. So it is more an insurance, or a fixed asset part of the glazing expenditure, than having anything to do with running costs, and therefore should not be treated as cost-benefit, but rather as ‘will spending this money get me features that I want?’ i.e. more windows.

Thermal store

Most higher end houses have a dedicated hot water tank which is heated by a heat exchanger from the home central heating i.e. the boiler pumps hot water through the radiators, and effectively there is another radiator inside your hot water tank which then heats your hot water. Obviously there is usually a valve bypass so your boiler can heat the single radiator inside your hot water tank, and not pump through the radiators in your house.

A surprising outcome from the maths I ran is that for this specific house, it makes a lot of sense to invert that design. Instead of a tank with domestic hot water heated by your radiator circuit, you make your tank contents the same as your radiator circuit, and place your domestic hot water tank inside your ‘radiator tank’. This is called a ‘thermal store’ and it basically inverts the traditional relationship between domestic hot water and your radiator circuit. Thermal stores are typical in larger buildings like office blocks. They don’t usually have cost benefit for a building as small as a house.

The reason that cost benefit works for our house is that thermal stores have weird maths. Because heat loss is a proportion of surface area, but heat capacity is a function of volume, the bigger you make your thermal store tank, the more efficient it gets. It actually has cost benefit to fit a 5,000 litre thermal store tank to this house, at least according to my crude calculations. 5,000 litres is an enormous store of heat, about 230 kWh of space heating if heated to 60C. Given that our passive house might require at worst 1.6 kWh of heating in winter, that is a potential six days of worst case space heating in a single tank, so in normal times you might have two weeks of heating in there. The reason why this matters is because the Irish weather in Spring and Autumn swings between quite sunny and overcast, typically with up to a week of overcast between the sunny days. The idea is that on that sunny day, the solar panels heat the thermal store, and then that thermal store delivers any space heating and domestic hot water needed during the overcast days, and if it is unusually overcast for a long period of time, we can use cheap night time electricity at €0.10/kWh to keep the top of the thermal store hot. If you run out the numbers, this has the second highest cost benefit after the waste water heat recovery because for eight months of the year, you shouldn’t need any electricity for space heating nor domestic hot water at all, on average. This was also quite surprising when the numbers fell out this way – passive houses generate weird numbers, because they are so insulated.

Thermal stores have other advantages too. Have you noticed how your hot water tap has low flow and your cold tap has high flow? This is due to pressure, a hot water tank doesn’t deliver much pressure compared to mains water (at least 1.0 bar in Ireland). However a thermal store feeds mains cold water directly into the inner tank within the thermal store tank. Therefore, hot water has identical pressure to cold water. This might seem unimportant, but consider every time you’ve waited for your shower to warm up, or the sink to get warm when washing your hands – at 1.0 bar, that hot water tap gets hot very quickly. That, in turn, means your shower gets instantly hot, no need to wait, and that in turn reduces waste but also improves quality of life, a few minutes saved every day adds up.

Also, your typical hot water tank fed shower might deliver five litres/minute, due to the low pressure. With a thermal store, thanks to the 1.0 bar pressure, my maths says that same shower would deliver eighteen litres/minute, which is far nicer. And thanks to the waste water heat exchanger, most of that shower water will end up heating shower water, so no need to feel guilty about dowsing oneself in eighteen litres of shower per minute. Obviously I’ve thus specified large rainfall type showers for all three showers, because with eighteen litres/minute you really will get a very good shower indeed.

Home automation

‘Smart’ homes are all the rage for high end housing right now. But I’ll be skipping multiple generations ahead by making the entire house Home Assistant based from the very beginning. Home Assistant is an open source enthusiast home automation system, so you can program things like ‘if the weather forecast says there will be no sunny days for the next week, and the thermal store has 10% hot water remaining, turn on the immersion from 12am onwards using cheap night time electricity until the thermal store has 15% hot water remaining’. Or ‘illuminate the lights around Clara to no more than 75%, but illuminate the lights around Niall to 100%’ and that light illumination would follow you around the house, including adjusting itself appropriately for when you’re stumbling towards the toilet half asleep in the middle of the night. If none of that sounds fancy enough to be worth the trouble, you can also program it things like ‘if a cat enters my property, send the robot lawnmower out to follow it to scare it away’ and ‘if a human enters my property and that human is a family member, don’t send an intrusion alert to Niall’s phone’.

This all might sound impossible to some reading, but it’s all completely possible today right now with Home Assistant. It just requires a reasonably powerful always on computer, which I already have in my current rented house. Because it’s enthusiast, it’s multiple generations beyond all but the very most expensive of commercial smart home solutions. Yes I’ll have to rig it all together myself. Yes it’ll take me years to get it all done. But I’ll have a smart home system worth €40k or so for pocket money, albeit plus quite a lot of my precious free time. And because it’ll all be hand written and hand wired, it won’t be needing a constant internet connection to work, unlike all of the commercial smart home systems as far as I can tell.

To power all this home automation, I have been careful to only choose components (e.g. the home ventilation unit) with great compatibility with Home Assistant, and I’ll be running a 48v DC circuit around the house, plus feeding the 48v into the ethernet all over the house. I expect there shall be a lot of Power over Ethernet devices, as I am not at all keen on Wifi, Zigbee nor Z-Wave IoT devices where a hard wired alternative is feasible (which is almost always). I expect the 48v DC circuit to be capable of 50 A, which is 2.4 kW of power which might seem extreme. However, not only will all the IoT will run off that line, but so will most of the lighting which I expect to be LED strips of various kinds also intelligently controlled by Home Assistant. I’m actually currently typing this underneath some hand made experimental cove lighting, and I’m rather liking it for what it cost me (mostly my precious free time, the parts were well under €100).

Projected cost

This is of course that elephant in the corner. Passive house does not come cheap. Victorian high ceilings do not come cheap. Lots of glazing does not come cheap. Yes, all this is going to cost me.

I’m no quantity surveyor, but I have compiled a list of all the components and materials I think we shall need and put my best guess as to prices on all of them (this has consumed a very great deal of my precious free time in the past few months). I currently estimate that this house plus a separate outhouse will cost €452,000 excluding professional service fees and contractor profit margin. Assuming those at 10%, this house is expected to cost around €500,000.

Now that is an awful lot of money. I am fortunate enough that right now I am earning quite well, but still, that is an awful lot of money. To put it into perspective, in the estate where we shall be building this, no house there has ever sold for more than €290,000. So if I spend €500,000, I am straight away €200,000 in negative equity. That’s just nuts if you think about it.

Still though, all this isn’t really about resale value. It’s about ‘getting what you want and how much it’ll cost you’ value. Forever homes have atypical cost benefit dynamics, because you’ll be borrowing money from the bank to build something you’ll enjoy over hopefully decades so you’re not judging expenditure against present day valuations, but against probable valuations in twenty years or so. Given the long term and ongoing decline in the interest rate as ever more people retire and ever fewer productive workers support the retired, the volatility of fixed asset pricing can only increase – and probably very considerably so. So I expect still further huge increases in valuation of real estate, but I also expect much more frequent boom-bust cycles in real estate. Because as the interest rate gets ever closer to zero, the system will only increase to destabilise unless politicians actually do something about it. Assuming near zero likelihood of politicians actually doing anything substantial to keep house prices reasonable, I think the chances are very good that in twenty years my property will be worth a million or so. And my kids shall remain living with me forever because it’ll be a much better place to live than elsewhere, but also because there is near zero chance they’ll ever be able to afford to own their own house. So my generation shall return to the historical norm outside this past half century, which is that your kids have their families right next to where you raised them, and you’ll likely get roped into grandchild care.

I’ve accounted for this in the design – it is not adverse to multiple families being reared in the property, which seems a quite likely future I reckon, especially as comparing recent empirical measurements to the 1972 predictions from The Limits to Growth appear to be close to bang on track for a predicted civilisation peak around 2040, and thereafter a steep decline in almost all metrics, including food production. As food for thought, in 2040 Clara shall be 26, Henry shall be 23, and Julia shall be 19. I will be 62, and Megan will be 56. There is even a non-zero chance that my father may just about be still alive, aged 94! I hope to be 80% food self sufficient by then, though without industrial goods that isn’t sustainable for more than a decade or two e.g. solar panels may last thirty years, but solar inverters need replacing every fifteen years. In any case, I am fairly confident that we shall have done all that is possible to give the best possible platform for our children to do as best as will be possible in a declining civilisation, and that me and Megan shall have as pleasant as possible a dotage.

Given the recent massive flooding in Europe and China, I’ve also made sure that the house is raised 0.5 metres above all surrounding land as climate change will almost certainly cause a major flood event where my house shall be during the next few decades, and a bit like with when bears are chasing you, you don’t need to be the highest just slightly higher than everything else when it comes to water.

However in the end all you can do is design around known knows and known unknowns. It’s the unknown unknowns which will catch you out.


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