Green Theory, Green Practice.

by Heather Rae

The bank and I closed on the 1880 Federal-style house two weeks ago. The renovation possibilities that earlier filled me with giddy excitement are now all around me: the old wood floors, the near floor-to-ceiling windows, the high ceilings and the old summer kitchen that juts out behind the boxy structure of the main house. Today, I’m a little less giddy.

During the bidding process, I asked two home performance contractors to walk through the house with me. For this, I donned new Carhartt bibs and jacket – both a bit big for my frame and building ambitions. On a cold winter day, the roof covered in snow, the first home performance (HP) contractor, a former homebuilder, checked the integrity of the fieldstone and brick foundation, the horizontal ThermaPride furnace, the electrical system, and the wood framing and clapboard. He observed things like the plastic sheets on the dirt floor of the half-height basement, serving to block moisture gain in the living areas of the house. He said the electrical could not handle electric heat. At $.15 a kWh, it and the electrical space heaters promoted by the local utility, for me anyway, are non-starters. The big stuff looked OK, so I made a bid…a really, really low one, a bid so low that it insulted the seller’s agent. Nice foot to start on in a very small community. The seller came down slightly and the bargaining game and inspections began.

During the inspection process, I did not hire a home inspector. I hired a plumber, a chimney inspector and the second HP contractor whom I met at a HP training session last August. For $100, the plumber told me the plumbing was old and no plumber was going to fix anything without replacing it. (Perhaps it was a wasted $100, but there it was, spoken.) For $300, the chimney guys cleaned out the old chimnney and performed a Type II inspection. The vent connector had been blocked 90% by the debris falling down the interior of the un-lined and ill-maintained chimney. Which had to go. At least the top half. Maybe a $2000 job for new chimney and flue liner. It is not the price of the chimney that set me off: It was the poor maintenance that could be a health hazard, potentially poisoning people (like me and the previous renters) with carbon monoxide.

The HP contractor arrived with an infrared camera. We had agreed to skip the “blower door” test at this stage. The “blower door” measures the leakage of the house. We would do the test later, both before and after improvements had been made to the shell of the house. The infrared screen showed black where there was no insulation in the walls of the house’s thermal boundary. There were few missed spots. I was quietly hoping there would be NO insulation and then the house would be prime for well-installed dense-pack insulation, performed by someone I knew was trained and certified in “whole-house” HP. And I could be there monitoring the insulation job with an infrared – a contractor’s worst nightmare of a client.

The HP contractor checked for moisture in the attic. With a smoke stick, he tested holes in the plaster walls and around the attic access. I pointed out the bathroom exhaust vent that features a view between the blades to the outdoors. From the walkthrough, I know warm air is rising into spaces it shouldn’t, like the attic — a huge, glorious, uninhabited space smelling of old-world carpentry. I also know the roof is getting on and should be replaced. I’ve often said that I love standing seam metal roofs for their ‘green-ness’ and their aesthetic. Yet, for this house, it will be architectural asphalt with a projected 30-year lifespan.

On an entirely other level of dreams, perhaps the roof would be standing seam metal. And, I would replace the forced air furnace with a super-efficient EnergyKinetics System 2000 radiant system bringing elegant warmth to flat, wall-mounted radiators in every room, even upstairs where the ducts do not venture. The old summer kitchen would run off of solar thermal and PV. And, the attic, growing dormers with views of the Kennebec River, would be a hide-away for (someone else’s) grandchildren or for writers to write. In practice, these dreams, like my dreams of a green renovation are tempered by lathe and plaster, old pipes and a limited budget.

Next: Demolition!

* Check out the photo of wind turbines on the front page of the Carhartt website.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

4 replies
  1. TC Hazzard
    TC Hazzard says:

    Ah gads…my last house…not the one I live in now, was a lot like what you describe. Ten years of hard work and the ole gal looked and performed almost like a sustainability dream. Alas, some nice out of town folks just had to have it. This was music to my ears. I shall never go back there. Old houses are like boats, your happiest days are the day you buy it and the day you sell it.

  2. Paul
    Paul says:

    Great article Heather, I live in an old house too that I work on continuously. Right now half the roof has new shingles and the other half is waiting till spring. But I will stay busy on indoor projects until then. Thanks for the great read.

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