The “Whys” Behind Cold Brook Farm — FAQ

1What is a “Zero Net Energy Home?”
Cold Brook Farm was designed from the outset to generate as much energy as our family needs from solar power including everything that a typical family of four does within their house, as well as 30,000 miles per year of driving in electric vehicles. During some times of year, like the dark winter heating season, the house draws more from the grid that the solar panels make and at other times of year, like long summer days, the solar array generates more power than we use and this gets sent back to the grid. Over the course of a full year the “Net Energy” used from the power grid should be zero.
2Is Cold Brook Farm “Off the Grid?”
No, but in theory it could be. Because CBF has its own well, septic system, solar power, battery storage / back-up power, geothermal heating and cooling and all electric appliances, none of the “typical” outside municipal systems and services most homeowners rely on (water, sewage treatment, electricity or natural gas) are necessary. CBF is “connected to the grid” for electricity as an extra redundancy in case its solar power and battery system were to ever fail, require service and/or generate an insufficient amount of power during certain times of year and weather.
3Why is CBF sited so close to the Road? Most new homes on large properties these days are located at the end of long driveways so that they are more private.
CBF was always intended to be both a residence and a working farm. For this reason, the siting of the home and barn were intended to balance the way that our family would live on the property with our desire to maintain the maximum amount of usable agricultural land. Once our Permaculture Agricultural Plan is fully implemented around the homestead, just 0.5 acres of prime farmland will have been removed from agriculture. Additionally, farmhouses from the 1700’s and 1800’s (including those of our two nearest neighbors) were almost universally located close to the road.
4Why the Metal Roof?
We chose Galvalume for our roofs because they last a very long time, are architecturally correct for a barn and farmhouse, are recyclable and have a much lower environmental impact than more “conventional” asphalt shingles which are made primarily from oil, are not usually recycled and represent one of the largest sources of construction-based waste going into landfills.
5With all of the “advanced materials” available for siding, why did you choose finger-jointed Redwood?
Admittedly, wood of any kind is a higher maintenance choice than manmade materials like Hardee Board or any of the other “engineered” sidings. However, many of these require a great deal of energy to make, create hazardous silica dust when cut during installation and some are even made out of PVC – an absolute environmental disaster that is both impossible to recycle and harmful to the environment. The redwood siding used at Cold Brook Farm was glued together from thousands of small scraps and cutoffs that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill or burned. Redwood’s natural oils create resistance to insects and decay; if properly cared for this siding will last a very long time, too.
6 What are you growing on the crop field and why?
We grow heirloom grains using regenerative agriculture. This area of New Jersey was the “breadbasket” of the original colonies and when combined with our love of baking, growing high-quality grains was a “no-brainer.” Although we have not yet been certified, we have used “organic / regenerative” methods since shortly after purchasing the property. Our “organically managed birthday” was January 16, 2020
7What is Permaculture and how is it used at Cold Brook Farm?
Permaculture is a form of holistic agriculture that draws inspiration from nature to develop synergistic farming systems allowing for biological diversity, resilience, natural productivity and sustainability. Simply put, everything that has been planted within the two-acres immediately surrounding the farmhouse serves as a food source either for us or the creatures with which we share this land. Not one “ornamental” plant has been employed in our landscaping – everything in our “garden” exists to support biodiversity and insect and animal life around us.
8Where did you source that gorgeous Weathervane?
Our “Trotting Fox” Weathervane was handcrafted for us by West Coast Weather Vanes of Santa Cruz, California. “Carol-Louise” (the name we have given our fox) is almost 42” long and made from hand-hammered copper, brass and gold leaf based on LizAnne Jensen’s proprietary design. As is traditional with hand crafted weathervanes, a penny from each Deborah, Steven, Julia and Jason’s birth years has been placed inside. Craftsmanship of this level (especially for weathervanes) is exceptionally rare in this day and age and it is our pleasure to support the work of such incredible artisans.
9CBF fell short of achieving Passive House Certification, why?
While we are completely supportive of the goals of Passive House Certification and were originally planning on getting certified, some recent research has shown that even the “greenest” available closed-cell foam insulation keeps outgassing harmful VOC’s for years even when optimally installed. This scared us and we decided to switch to cellulose insulation midway through framing resulting in our wall assembly “only” achieving R-27 rather than the R-35 value we would have achieved with Closed Cell Foam. All other aspects of the house were modeled and built using Passive House principles and we even put the house through the same third-party verification and construction checklist that would have been used had we applied for Certification. We actually were able to increase the R-value in the ceilings (R-70 vs. R-60) using cellulose and our foundation walls and slab were identical to what were planned prior to switching to cellulose (R-34 and R-24). As is the case with all construction, there are a series of trade-offs between cost, performance and health. We made the decision to never have to worry about outgassing from Closed Cell Foam and ensure that the air that we breath inside CBF everyday was as healthy as we could make it.
10Why did you choose Cellulose Insulation?
Natural Resources Defense Council has called cellulose insulation made from recycled paper “the least polluting and most energy-efficient” insulation in use today. We used Damp Spray Cellulose in the walls and Loose Fill Cellulose in the attic spaces because cellulose has the lowest environmental impact of any insulation material available. The Damp Spray method of installation provided us with R-3.8 per inch in our exterior wall assemblies and enabled us to insulate between the semi-hollow insides of the T-Studs used in our exterior walls even further reducing thermal bridging. We used 20” of Loose Fill Cellulose in the attic spaces at R-3.5 per inch yielding R-70. All of this without any worry of the harmful effects on the environment of the spray foam manufacturing process or future indoor air quality issues resulting from potential outgassing from the spray foam. There is also the added benefit that cellulose insulation is made from recycled newspaper and cardboard that would have otherwise ended up in landfills while closed cell foam require a tremendous amount of energy and petrochemicals to manufacture.
11What is the “moat” around the back of the house?
The 320’ long crescent-shaped depression that wraps around the back of the farmhouse is actually a very environmentally positive way of dealing with groundwater recharge and rainwater detention, while also creating an ideal environment for water-loving plants and wildlife. The gutters on the farmhouse are tied into an underground 2,500-gallon cistern that is fitted with a pump that feeds six hydrants that can be used to irrigate our permaculture plantings and fruit and vegetable gardens. Once the cistern is full (during heavy rain events), it will overflow into the rainwater detention basin along with runoff from other swales around the property that have been designed to flow to this basin. From here, the water will slowly seep back into the ground. We have planted this landscape feature with water loving plants like Elderberry, High Bush Cranberry, Paw-Paw, native rushes and sedges and other perennials to take advantage of this unique micro-environment on the property. We fully expect that it will become a haven for amphibians.
12How do you have so many windows in an “environmentally responsible” house?
By using triple-pane, argon-filled windows with “low-e” coatings we are able to have an incredible amount of natural light inside of the farmhouse without the house being “drafty” or energy-inefficient. Our windows were made in Canada by a wonderful company named Loewen.
13Isn’t a gravel driveway a maintenance headache?
Well, frankly, yes it does require some more work on our parts to care for than if we paved the whole things with asphalt or concrete, but in addition to costing much less than either of those options, it also allows water to soak back down into the ground rather than creating runoff. A gravel driveway also looks far more appropriate for our little corner of the world!
14Did you need to do anything special to install solar panels?
Since Cold Brook Farm was conceived from “a clean sheet of paper,” our Architects (Bill Kaufman and Tom Vierschilling of WESKetch Architecture) purposely oriented the long portions of the house and barn (along with the associated roofs) facing due South. In the Northern Hemisphere, a due-south orientation is ideal for solar power generation. We have seventy-two (72) 380-watt LG solar panels on our four separate South-facing roofs. Incidentally, the deep eaves created by a pronounced overhang of the roofs on the farmhouse also serves the purpose of letting sunlight into the house during the winter when the sun is low in the sky, but blocking the sun from overheating the house’s interior when the sun is much higher in the sky during the Summer.
15I’ve heard that “Locally Sourced Materials” played a big role in building Cold Brook Farm, is that correct?
Yes. We drove our Architects and Designers crazy with this one. Whenever we could we wanted to purchase materials as close to home as possible. Of course, depending on the material in question, “local” had slightly different meanings! • All bluestone that went under the foundations for both house and barn, the driveway stone, all drainage piping, etc. came from a Quarry right here in Oldwick, less than two miles from the Farm. • The stone exterior and wall are all from locally sourced and found stone. • The Walnut Mantle and wrapped Walnut Beams inside of the house actually came from a tree that needed to be cut down in the woods behind the house. We had it milled and kiln-dried locally as well. • The fence posts for the deer fence surrounding the house all came from Eastern Red Cedar and Black Locust that we harvested in accordance with a Forestry Management Plan from the woods behind our house. • The Live-sawn, White Oak floors throughout the farmhouse came from a family-owned, sustainably managed forest in Connecticut (Hull Forest Products). • The soapstone counters throughout the house and old-fashioned soapstone laundry sink in the basement were all from the last operational soapstone quarry in the United States in Albermarle, Virginia. Other soapstone presently being marketed in the U.S. comes from either India or Brazil – both of which involve an incredible carbon footprint to get them here. • The Danby Marble used on the bathroom vanities throughout the house comes from Vermont. • Although LG Chem is a Korean company, the high-performance solar panels that we chose were manufactured in Huntsville, Alabama. The other contender for making high-performance solar panels, SunPower, although an American company, their panels are all manufactured overseas. • The lumberyard from which the majority of the building materials used (dimensional lumber, plywood, exterior sheathing, nails, screws, etc.) came from Huston Supply in Oldwick – less than two miles from our home.