Amherst, Mass. — Buying our house was quite a challenge in 1999, when my wife Kristin and I were relocating from Boston to Amherst, Mass. There was very little that we could afford, and very few houses were available. But we were young and particular about where and how we wanted to live. We were moving because I had the opportunity to build a partnership in an architectural firm in Amherst — which eventually became Coldham & Hartman Architects. This story is about the house we found and bought, what we did to it over the past seventeen years, and how it has transformed along with our lives.
What started as an elegant 100-year-old house, which was in poor condition, uncomfortable, and used 800+ gallons of oil per year, has become a comfortable and efficient home. We did the work in stages, with limited means, but always have a clear goal in mind- to maintain the character of the architecture and make it a green building. The house is a Sears kit that was built in 1913. When we bought it, there were four bedrooms upstairs with a full bath, and the ground floor was a “four square” arrangement with a half bath in the kitchen. A large covered front porch was used all year round.
Its most famous resident has been Robert Frost, who lived there in 1917 along with his young family for a few years while he taught at Amherst College. In the dining room there are India ink stains which local folklore claim were from his writing desk. Whether true or not, they were carefully retained when the floors were refinished. When Frost lived here, he could take an electric trolley into town, there were gas street lights, and this house was indeed modern with a coal boiler, concrete foundation, and bungalow aesthetic.
When we purchased the house, it had been a rental property for UMass students for many years, and while it was rather “ripe and tired,” it had not seen any major alterations that needed to be undone. The house was more or less as it had been for the past 90 years. During the energy crisis of the 1970’s, an exterior chimney had been added for a wood stove, fiberglass insulation had been blown into the walls from the outside, and storm windows were added to the original single-glazed windows. Sometime in the 1950’s, the original coal boiler had been converted to oil and was still happily jugging along wrapped in its asbestos blanket.
The first two improvements we made when we purchased the house were to demolish the kitchen and throw it out in the yard (which was great fun) and to replace the boiler. The asbestos had to go as a condition of the mortgage and I negotiated that I would put in a new boiler of my choice and cost rather than depending on the seller to install the least-cost option. There was also an electric hot water heater which was replaced to run off the boiler with an indirect hot water tank.
With these two renovations done, we went on building our family. We had a home, got a dog, and our first baby was on the way. Oil was cheap and we were relatively warm and cozy. The kitchen renovation led to a full renovation of the upstairs bathroom where we tiled the shower enclosure ourselves, between our daughter’s naps.
In 2003 we replaced the roof and did insulation work at the band joists in the basement along with basic air sealing to close off holes that you could stick your arms through. Our second child was born in 2005 and we were starting to think more about how much oil we were using. In 2002 we peaked at about 850 gallons a year and in 2006 saw another spike (we learned that babies don’t sleep when they’re cold!). In the graph below you’ll notice a significant trend of reducing our oil consumption over time. The remainder of this story will explain how and what system improvements were made not only to reduce our energy, but also to produce it while making ourselves much more comfortable.
In 2007, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was offering grants for the installation of photovoltaic panels and our house had a south-facing roof, which was ideal for a small installation. We made the financial arrangements with the support of a gift from my 98-year-old grandmother and had a 2.2kw pv system installed. Our electric bills were drastically reduced. This was the first significant step in bringing this house into a renewable energy economy.
Our attic insulation had nearly 100 years of attempts to do a good job, but, frankly, it was terrible. The foundation walls were bare concrete and needed to be addressed. So, in 2008, I reluctantly climbed into the attic through the 20”x 20” scuttle in my tiny closet and stuffed about 100 kitchen garbage bags full of fiberglass, cellulose, mineral wool insulation and mouse habitat. These bags went down the scuttle and out the bedroom window — a nasty job. Then all the holes in the plaster ceiling from light fixtures and smoke detectors were sealed up and I blocked out the top plates of the interior and exterior walls. Loose-fill cellulose insulation was added to make an R40 attic. The next step was to insulate the basement walls. With the unexpected tax rebate from President Bush, I purchased a cube of 1 1 /2” Thermax polyisocyanurate insulation, which has an approved foil thermal barrier layer for the building code, and installed two layers of this on the inside face of the foundation to get to R12. Essentially, adding “hats and boots” to the house. It was noticeably warmer on the ground level and the upper story didn’t overheat as it had done before as the house leaked energy through the attic.
Another opportunity came along in 2011 to add more photovoltaic panels with the emergence of SRECS, or Sustainable Renewable Energy Credits. I had imagined that the west side of the roof would someday host solar hot water to replace the oil boiler making our hot water, but hot water heat pumps had hit the market and technology was changing many of my long held assumptions. So, another 2.7kw of pv’s were added and a Steibel Eltron heat pump was installed to make our hot water.
Everything was good. The house was comfortable, the bills were manageable and the only thing on the horizon was the need to replace the siding someday. It was approaching a hundred years old, and had lasted so long because it is old growth red cedar that had been dipped in creosote. The west side was pretty beat up from the sun. The shingles were splitting, and you could see the building paper behind the shingles. Nothing too urgent, but perhaps the last push that we needed to make. Maybe after the kids go to college…we could wait.
Then in 2011 or so, the house started getting attacked by squirrels. Really! Grey squirrels were going up the side of the house and ripping off the shingles where it had been insulated in the 70’s. One by one they were throwing out the insulation and sometimes taking it to their nests, and sometimes nesting in the hole. I had to routinely go up a ladder (always when freezing cold) and block the gaping hole with sheet flashing. One time a squirrel even surprised me by ejecting itself out of the hole. Then we discovered we had flying squirrels in the attic too! Something had to be done.
The house was about to turn 100 years old. We had to decide to make a significant investment, or not. At work, our firm was routinely designing what are called Deep Energy Retrofits, or DER’s. To do this, the common strategies are to add exterior insulation to the walls, replace windows with triple glazed units, heat with air source heat pumps and make the energy renewably with photovoltaics. Many of these projects were Net Zero Energy — meaning that they produced as much total energy as they used. We were within reach of this transformation at home. This house was originally powered by coal. Now we relied on a combination of oil and renewable electricity, but could possibly get rid of oil altogether.
We looked at the financial implications of not only replacing the siding, but adding three inches of rigid polyisocyanurate insulation to the walls and replacing the windows. I couldn’t get myself to just re-side the house without adding insulation, given my professional commitments and experience. It was going to be an expensive project, around $100,000.
Kristin was resisting the “energy” project and we were wringing our hands. So we did what anyone would do – we added landscaping and a master bathroom to the project by converting an old underused sleeping porch off our bedroom. In hindsight, this part of the project has made our daily lives significantly better than I had ever imagined. Our daughter is now 13 and our son is 10, and we have two bathrooms upstairs.
To fund the project we refinanced our mortgage and took some of the equity out of the house we had built up over the past twelve years. An interest rate reduction of 3 percent from 6.8 percent meant that the monthly payments were reduced and I projected that our energy savings would also help our monthly cash flow. We were still using a fair bit of oil- about 300 gallons, but it was at a peak of $3.99 per gallon. We decided to go for it.
We put the same color shingles on the walls, rebuilt the entry porch roof, added new Marvin triple glazed wood clad windows to keep the interior trim in place along with integral exterior aluminum trim casings to match the original profiles. It’s hard to tell that there was a significant renovation unless you look very closely.
The following series shows the steps in adding the exterior insulation.
The renovation was finished in December of 2012 and we’ve been dramatically more comfortable. The air-tightness improvements I had hoped for were not completely achieved, but that is because we chose not to do some portions of the work. For example, the front porch shingles were in very good shape, having never seen weather, and I looked at the cost of replacing the shingles and adding the rigid insulation. I determined it didn’t make sense, given all the complexity and cost with the front porch floor and roof framing that would have to be modified for continuous insulation. The cost compared to the energy savings just wasn’t worth it, and there was nothing wrong with the shingles here.
Since the major exterior work, we’ve added two “mini-split” air source heat pumps for heating and cooling — one in the dining room and one upstairs. We used to put “window shaker” air conditioners in for the humid summer months, but now have effective and quiet cooling when needed. Now the boiler is off almost all of the time. When the outside temperature is below zero degrees for a long period, we will turn it on for a few days as needed. In 2015, during the coldest February on record, we had it on for about a week.
There is additional work still to be done. Adding an Energy Recovery Ventilator and one more heat pump should enable us to completely stop using oil. That work will happen soon, I hope.
Over the past fifteen years, I’ve kept track and measured various energy and water inputs. On a monthly basis, I record the following:
Heat pump water heater electric use
Hot water use
Total water use
Heat Pump 1 electric use
Heat Pump 2 electric use
These measurements are done with simple utility glass front meters and water flow meters, and I enter them into a spreadsheet. Some of this data is reported to SREC aggregators that result in a $300-400 check being mailed to us every quarter for the energy produced by our photovoltaics. The following graphs show the reduction in overall energy use, increase in use of electricity in lieu of oil, and the proportion of electricity that we make on site — which is about 50 percent of the total. EUI is the Energy Use Intensity or the “miles per gallon” for buildings. You can see the trend of improvement and the shift in use of fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Our house is definitely “Net Better”, and we’re ready for the next hundred years.