Hummingbird House: Design for Everyone

January 07, 2010
January/February 2010
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2010 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Renewable Energy

The Hummingbird House has north-facing glass, saving it from “solar cooking”; while the roof faces south, promoting solar gain.Leslie Jackson: What I like about Suzanne’s and your home is that it looks like a normal house that real people would live in.

Larry Weingarten: I really was designing all the time for something that would not scare real people off… I get to be a water heater nerd, an energy nerd, or whatever they call them, but I wanted to design something in which there would be nothing that a real person could look at that would be an excuse to turn it down.

LJ: Including “I can’t afford this.”

LW: Including that. I wound up building it for about $100 a square foot, instead of $250.

LJ: Most people in California pay $250 per square foot and much more, whether it’s conventional or not. Did you know coming into the design process that this is what you wanted to do, or did it work out that you wanted an everyman’s house?

LW: I’m not sure if this is the right answer. I knew what I wanted to do; I knew I had a lot of ideas. I could only experiment on myself. If they worked, I hoped that the house would turn into a good teaching tool. I wanted there to be a lot of ideas that were easily transferrable. I wanted to use a lot of off-the-shelf parts, not strange, esoteric stuff, you know. But using a greenhouse window operator as a thermostat—well, I modified it some, but it’s still an off-the-shelf part, just used wrong. It’s a wax-filled goodie; it’s under spring tension, so as the wax warms, it expands, pushes the piston out, pulling against the spring. As the wax cools, the spring pulls it back. Or it will shrink back on its own. You know, the best design guidance I’ve ever been given is from Steve Baer: elegant simplicity. If you can do it. It’s really hard to do, but once you’ve done it, if you’ve done it well, you’ll never need to mess with it again. It’s so easy to add a Band-Aid—an engineering Band-Aid—to something. People do it all the time.

LJ: Instead of spending a little bit more time on design and thought.

LW: You might wind up with something that costs a lot less to do. I view man-made stuff as sort of like a wonderful materials resource. I look at everything in terms of what else their function might be, aside from what they are meant to do. What are the principles? What governs what everything does? For instance, what can you do with this notebook? What’s the strength of it? What happens when it gets wet? How does it burn? How do all the different things work? What is the range of the physical constraints on everything? What’s concrete good for? Or not good for? Well? It’s heavy, it stores heat sort of well, nothing near as well as water. Look at all these things. What can you do with them? A pump flange… You can hook it up to a pump, or you can bolt it to a wall and put a toilet paper roll on it.

LJ: [laughing]: Yes, I noticed! Larry Weingarten giving a tour of the Water Heater Museum, which is in his basement.

LW: And that works because my wife had a stroke, her hands are not very good, and we have cats. It’s vertical and the cats can’t unroll it, which they used to like to do.

LJ: Ah ha!

LW: So we have frustrated cats.

LJ: But a happier wife.

LW: Yeah, that’s easy; and another way you can see an obvious use of a material for something other than its obvious purpose is the pipe rails on the decks. The handrails. It deals with the cats, too. I knew there were hummingbirds. I didn’t want the cats up on the rails, hunting. And very long-lived.

LJ: Probably ends up being less expensive in the end than what you might have chosen.

LW: I actually did the math. It costs as much as a wooden rail. As your first wooden rail. But in 15 years…

LJ: You’d have to be maintaining that rail.

LW: Because I built a number of decks, and I know about how long wooden rails last around here.

LJ: Sea air, sun…

LW: A lot of sun. Heats the wood up and sea air, of course, messes with stuff and there’s shrinkage. Really, the sun does it more than anything else.

LJ: What about general home maintenance, especially of wood framing?

A repurposed greenhouse window operator solves the problem of the refrigerator overheating the house.LW: To me it’s very simple: Keep the water where it should be. If you control water in a structure, that’s it. You’ve solved it. And so exterior surfaces: Make things that don’t absorb or hold water. I guess Trex works here. In other areas, like Hawai’i, it doesn’t. It gets eaten up by bugs. And there’s some fungi that get to it, too, I understand. It depends on where you are. But I looked for things that would take the sun, and you know roofing material on the side should hold up. There was a question that Hardishake wouldn’t hold up too well on roofs… but siding, no one is walking on it. It dries fast.

LJ: So that’s your siding material. I wondered, because the shingles there are larger than the typical shingle.

LW: They’re variable widths. They’re 18 x 12 inches, 8 inches, or 6 inches. So you can play with sizes to get wherever you want it to be. And so that takes care of liquid water on the outside. It’s 30-lb felt, 18 inches wide, it’s all lapped, it all sheds water out. What do you do if you have vapor-driven stuff? Joe Lstibureck has done a lot with this. But hopefully I have designed my sort-of, kind-of, stick-framed house in such a way so that water isn’t going to be so much of a concern. It’s dry on the inside, maybe even too dry, but copper flashing, 50-year warranted siding over heavy felt… There’s no vapor barrier. It can breathe either way, 18-inch felt. There’s a vapor barrier in a way: It’s got OSB. Even that breathes, just not very fast. But inside of that, solid foam. And OSB is not very good at getting wet, so don’t let it get wet if you can… So the only problems I’ve had with the house are the thresholds on the factory-made prehung doors that have failed, so I’ve made one copper pan and I’ll make a second one to take care of these things. So there’s stuff, but not horrid. Stay tuned for a continuation of this conversation, in which Larry explains to me how the solar water-heating system works, and tells about other complex technology made simple.

Leslie Jackson is associate editor for Home Energy.

>> For more information:
To learn more about the Water Heater Museum, as well as a slide show of Suzanne and Larry’s house as it was being built, go to

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