TRANSFORMATIONS: An energy-smart retrofit
Amherst — The project on Cottage Street didn’t start out as a Net Zero Deep Energy Retrofit. Owners Sara and Gareth Ross were moving back to the East after working all across the country. The time had come to settle down close to relatives, in a place where they could raise their two young children. They wanted to live in a careful way, true to their green ideals, but didn’t know what their next step might bring. Rather than rush and risk making hasty choices, they moved to a rental house in Amherst, Mass., to assess their situation.
They’d contacted C&H Architects in 2008, while still in San Francisco, having found our website, and got in touch again once they’d settled. We encouraged them to consider renovation rather than new construction in the Valley, where open lots in town are rare. Luck favors the prepared, and when the house next door became available, Sara and Gareth jumped at the opportunity. The house had been owned by a single family for the last few decades, and had significant deferred maintenance, but the location was perfect – walking distance to shops and restaurants, around the corner from the local schools, on a quiet walking street.
Our first task was to reconfigure the 1880’s home into a more open plan. The family wanted three bedrooms – a master and one for each child — a guest space, and an area for a home office. We talked together over a period of months, hatching plans and scrapping them – this was a family home in which they planned to stay, and to host their grown children and their visiting families, for decades to come.
At C&H Architects, high performance new construction was our bread and butter, but a high performance gut renovation was new to us. It gave us an opportunity to demonstrate the latest strategies in retrofit. For the first time at our office, we decided to insulate the building to the outside of the existing sheathing and structure. This would keep the building’s “bones” warm and dry by adding a jacket to the outside instead of just stuffing the walls with more insulation. We detailed it to be airtight, with ventilation and heat recovery built in, and we proposed an all-electric heating, cooling, and hot water strategy, using the latest in cold climate heat pump technology (now nearly ubiquitous – and definitely not the 80’s technology which quits working when the outdoors drops below 20F).
The Rosses had always considered solar power as an option, and the prices were just beginning to fall. With the Federal Tax Credits, in-state rebates, and the Commonwealth’s newly minted Renewable Energy Credit market, the owners ran the numbers. With a low interest loan, they might be cash flow positive on the first day of operation of their solar system. They opted to maximize the installation and use all the available south-facing roof we’d provided them, including the space opened by the removal of a two-story south-side bump out. Combined with the super-efficient heating and cooling, aggressive insulation and airtight construction, this house went from leaky old house to high performance renovation with energy to spare. The first year, they made nearly double the energy they consumed in the home. Their financial instincts were correct: at their home, Sara and Gareth consider the solar array an investment for the long term. After completing the house renovation, they created a business to provide residential financing for other owners interested in investing in solar power.
Inside, we created a wide-open kitchen / dining / living area, with generous windows and good daylighting. Large structural beams – left exposed for their character – replace the load-bearing walls. A small away room on the first floor serves as entertainment space for quiet family nights or for kids during a grownup party.
Upstairs, the children’s bedrooms (and their own small bathroom with a tub) cluster around the stair, while a quiet master suite on the back of the house provides a nighttime sanctuary from otherwise busy lives. On the third floor, a guest bedroom looks out on the street, while the home office offers a removed space for those working late, or early, at home – with a surveying view of the leafy backyard.
Since move-in, the yard’s fruit trees and native plantings are filling in, providing habitat for birds and pollinators. And the family has completed an outdoor screen room, attached to the back entry by a stone patio built by the owners, to provide hosting for easy summer parties New England’s bug season.
As a firm, we have stayed in continued touch with the owners as they work to expand their residential solar financing firm; one of their first clients was an Amherst neighbor also working with C&H Architects.