Lessons from our house


My wife and I tried out a lot of innovative systems and materials in the renovation/rebuild of our Dummerston home -- some of which added considerably to the project cost. Alas! The induction cooktop that I wrote about last week is just one such example.

For me, the house has been a one-time opportunity to gain experience with state-of-the-art products and technologies, some of which are very new to the building industry (like cork insulation, which was expensive both to buy and to install). All this has raised the very reasonable question about whether all this green-building stuff is only feasible for high-budget projects.

So I’ve been thinking about what lessons from our project would be applicable to more budget-conscious retrofits. Here are some thoughts.

Keep it compact

In renovating the old farmhouse we shrank the footprint, eliminating a kitchen addition that had been added perhaps in the 1920s. Fitting the kitchen into the main house meant some tricky design work, but it helped us contain costs. This cost-saving strategy applies whether with new construction or renovating an existing house. The cost per square foot will likely go up with a smaller house, but the total cost should drop -- and there will be less volume to heat and cool.

Deep-energy retrofit
with mineral wool

The cork insulation we used as an insulation wrap on the walls was really amazing, and I’m glad we used it, but if we were doing the project over with a more constrained budget, I think I would have gone with rigid mineral wool. Carrying out a deep-energy retrofit by wrapping a house in rigid insulation is never inexpensive and it depends on having deep enough roof overhangs, but with rigid mineral wool (such as Roxul ComfortBoard or the highest-density Thermafiber product) it can be a much more reasonable retrofit.

storm windows

While our low-emissivity (low-e) storm windows aren’t installed yet, they can provide a reasonably priced alternative to window replacement with top-performing, triple-glazed windows. The idea is to keep the existing (prime) windows when installing exterior rigid insulation on a house and add window surrounds to extend the window openings to the new outer face of the walls -- and then install the storm windows near the outer face of the window surrounds.

Air-source heat pump

The heating system we went with on our house is a great option today for compact, very-well-insulated homes, and larger, ducted versions of these systems will increasingly make sense for replacing conventional gas or oil heating systems. On a cost per million BTUs of delivered heat basis, air-source heat pumps are significantly less expensive that propane and heating oil, and they can be pretty competitive with natural gas -- especially if natural gas prices keep climbing. An air-source heat pump means electric heat, but that opens the door to generating the electricity you need -- now or down-the-road -- with solar.

Water-efficient products

We went with state-of-the-art water-conserving plumbing fixtures and appliances. Our 1.75 gallon-per-minute Kohler WaterSense showerheads significantly reduce hot water use, compared with standard 2.5 gpm models, saving energy as well as water. And they don’t cost any more than standard models.

Rain-screen detail on
exterior walls

We spent a little more installing strapping over the exterior sheathing so that the siding will have an air space behind it, but the cost is low enough and the durability benefits great enough that this should be standard practice today. We will save thousands of dollars over the years by having to paint the siding only every 15 to 20 years, instead of as often as every five years, and a big part of the difference is the rainscreen detail.

Salvaged materials

We were able to save some money -- and with more concerted effort could have saved a lot more -- by making use of salvaged materials. We bought a salvaged newel post and balustrades for the stairs, for example, purchased salvaged timbers for post replacements in the barn, and picked up superb two garage doors from the now (sadly) closed ReNew Salvage in Brattleboro. Using salvaged materials not only saves money, but it can also help the environment by allowing us to save in raw materials extraction and by reducing pressure on landfills.

These are just a few examples of how a green, energy-efficiency agenda can be achieved with an eye towards economy. I don’t want to convey the idea that building or renovating with a goal of energy savings and environmental stewardship always has a large cost impact.

Fundamentally, it’s all about savings -- savings of energy resources and savings of environmental impact. If we put an economic value on protecting the environment, those savings with our house might have compensated for the increased cost of building.

Alex Wilson is the founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and the Resilient Design Institute (www.resilientdesign.org), both based in Brattleboro. Send comments or suggestions for future columns to alex@buildinggreen.com.


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