Case study: This old greener house

Patience, research and balance: Those are some of the ingredients for successfully renovating an older house within a “green” philosophy. Matt Siegel has followed these notions in the ongoing green renovation of his family’s West Asheville cottage. Director of the WNC Green Building Council, he remarks, “You could spend thousands and thousands of dollars, [or] you can balance affordability with sustainable choices.”

In the kitchen, for example, he considered replacing the old countertops with new, recycled-content products that cost upward of $50 a square foot—ones made of recycled paper and recycled glass. “It would have cost a $1,000 for our countertop,” says Siegel. In 2006, he had written that one of the best ways to follow the tenets of green building is “simply to reuse the materials that are already here.” Sometimes, that means looking for options close to home instead of going out and buying something new. So Siegel did a little extra legwork and learned that a local business had donated some laminate countertops to the Habitat for Humanity Home Store near downtown. He bought one of those countertops for about $30—a fraction of what he would have spent on the latest recycled-product ones.

For a more decorative effect on another countertop area, Siegel also snagged a salvaged section of a bowling-alley lane. For a mere $10 a linear foot, he procured a 2-inch thick, solid maple countertop for a side area of the kitchen. The piece is complete with bowling-lane arrows and dots; it tops off an old chimney that Siegel had partially dismantled in order to open up what had been a narrow entryway between the kitchen and the dining room.

A few years ago, he detailed these and other renovations in the home, which was built in the 1920s and inhabited by one family since its construction. The West Asheville house totals about 1,100 square feet, has a partially finished basement and a small yard.

Some of his first green projects were inexpensive: He spent $4 for a new showerhead, $1 on a faucet aerator and $20 on a rain barrel. Siegel later checked to see how his water usage had changed since making these inexpensive changes: His water bill was reduced by about $6 per month. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it translates into a reduction of 600 gallons a month, Siegel points out.

In another round of inexpensive improvements, he installed a $30 programmable thermostat for the heating system, switched the lights to compact fluorescent bulbs at $2 each, and spent $25 and a few hours’ effort on weatherization (caulking and weather stripping, for example). With heating costs adding upward of 80 percent of his total energy use for the house, these and other simple steps are well worth the few hours’ work they take, Siegel emphasizes. He also ran a blower-door test to identify where heat and air leak out. Siegel learned that the cottage was almost 60 percent leakier than the maximum allowed for a HealthyBuilt house. “Air sealing is one of the most important, quick-payback things you can do to increase your energy efficiency,” Siegel explains. The inexpensive weather stripping and caulking improved the air/heat loss by 20 percent, he reports.

A little luck helped, too. Early in the renovation, for example, he discovered that the walls had been insulated when vinyl siding was installed on the home exterior. So Siegel borrowed a blower machine from Lowe’s and blew 25 bags of cellulose insulation—purchased for the walls—into the attic ($7 per bag).

Most recently, Siegel tackled a tougher insulation project: the floor. Typical for a period house, the oak flooring was installed over slats; cold air and mold from the unheated basement were persistent problems. He needed to insulate and to air seal. But the typical fiberglass insulation is problematic for placing under floors; it tends to fall down, and it doesn’t seal all the air gaps. “If it’s not effective, it doesn’t matter how cheap it is,” Siegel says.

For about $1.70 per square foot, he had spray foam insulation installed under the floor. The results were another 7 percent improvement in the blower-test results. According to a study of 100 homes in North Carolina—done by Advanced Energy—air leakage (infiltration and exfiltration) accounts for up to 40 percent of the heating and cooling bills of most homes.

In addition to interior work, Siegel has taken sustainable approaches outside, too.

In looking to create better access from the house to the backyard, Siegel installed an exterior door at the kitchen and built a deck and stairway. “The greenest deck is no deck at all,” he says. But to create access, Siegel had to be pragmatic, because it’s about a 10-foot drop from the rear main level of the house to the yard below. As he did for the kitchen countertops, Siegel did extra research and legwork. He had to use pressure-treated wood for the main structure of the deck.

But for the deck itself, Siegel first reviewed a chart detailing the recycled content of various decking materials. Then he sent letters out to local building-material suppliers, asking who could supply the materials with the highest level of recycled content. The result? The deck flooring is a product called RhinoDek, which contains 50 percent post-consumer recycled plastic. Siegel also tracked down a third supplier, WNC Surplus, which provided reclaimed pickets.

“It took more time and effort, but [overall], it wound up being cheaper than if I’d gone to [a home-improvement] store and ordered my deck,” says Siegel.

He took a similar keep-it-local approach for other outdoor projects. Most of the fence materials came from a local sawmill and feature locust posts and hemlock pickets. A tile mosaic on the wall of the garage came from reclaimed broken tile from a local store. (As for the roof of an old garage, Siegel hasn’t gotten around to that project yet; the old roof is green, however, because it’s covered with moss.) In other outdoor efforts, he used the bricks from the dismantled chimney for landscaping projects around the yard.

Siegel also recently planted trees that will grow into a good windbreak for one side of the house. “I wish I had planted them sooner,” he admits. Such a simple windbreak can reduce energy use in the home, which is high on the priority list for sustainability.

Another opportunity for reducing energy use comes in choosing appliances, Siegel continues. He points out that his new refrigerator is not an Energy Star model designed to use less electricity. He offers this rationale: Instead of paying more for an Energy Star model, he decided to buy a smaller less expensive refrigerator that met his family needs. Because it is small, it actually uses less energy than a larger, certified model.

Making such decisions has a lot to do with thinking your way through the issues of affordability and sustainability, Siegel argues. When choosing a washer and dryer, for instance, he took into accounthow the family washes clothes. Most energy-efficiency ratings for such appliances are based on hot-water use, he mentions. “We use mainly cold-water washing cycles,” says Siegel. When that’s taken into account, it made little sense to buy an expensive front-loader model when a more old-fashioned top-loader would cost less in the long run. To be sure, Siegel is more careful than many folks when it comes to such choices: He measured the kilowatts used in the family’s typical five-large-loads-per-week practice. The tally came to 40 kilowatt hours per year. “The savings would have been ridiculously small, if I [bought] a front-loading Energy Star washing machine,” says Siegel.

He observes that we often look at getting the latest gadget for saving energy, when the answer has to do more with behavior. “My absolute favorite green building technique is this,” he says, pointing to a cord strung across the basement. Clothespins are clipped up and down the cord. “We only use our dryer five to seven times a year,” says Siegel.

Considering that appliances are one of the top energy hogs in the typical American home, it’s not surprising that Siegel’s electric bill for one month in the fall of 2008 was a mere $20. Drying his clothes on the line (outdoors, come warmer weather) saves him more money than many of the more expensive green-building methods, such as installing new windows.

But there is one green effort that was not inexpensive, yet well worth it, Siegel continues. In Sept. 2008, he installed a solar hot-water system. By doing much of the labor himself, he cut the installation costs down to about $6,000 (with contract labor, $7,500 to $8,000 is typical, Siegel estimates). He also received a total of $3,200 in state and federal tax credits.

Solar systems remain one of the most expensive green-building projects homeowners can undertake, Siegel admits. But it adds value to the home and enables homeowners to become more energy self-sufficient.

He emphasizes that individual choices matter, particularly as the trend spreads. “Consumers have the opportunity each time they buy something to make a statement to retailers, manufacturers, builders and others about their priorities,” Siegel wrote in the 2006-2007 WNC Green Building Directory. “Green-built homes and materials will become more available if each of us decides to build or renovate in a green way. You can make your home a place you’re proud of that reflects your values and even educates people who enter it.”

Margaret Williams is contributing editor at Mountain Xpress, and writes a weekly environmental news column for the newspaper called “Green Scene.” She can be reached at mvwilliams@mountainx.comor at (828) 251-1333, ext. 152.