Renovation: Do No Harm

The physician’s credo “first, do no harm” could be the first rule of home renovation.

I took a crowbar to the 1/8″ plywood that a previous owner had nailed over the original floor-to-ceiling bead board in the summer kitchen of this 1880 house. Yanking and cracking, wearing a face mask, and blaspheming, it darts through my head that the second and third rules of renovation are: undo all previous harm — like this blasted plywood — and don’t harm yourself in the process.

Going ‘back to the bones’ is a challenge compounded when thoughts turn to stewardship and waste streams. I removed a wall — a random new wall in the ell — and saved the 2x4s and screws. I carefully broke down the sheetrock though a sledge hammer tempted. I debated taking down the lead-caked, rodent infested cupboards, wondering if their wood and square nails could be saved. They couldn’t. That wood now lies in a neat pile waiting to be hauled to a transfer station down the road. Most else goes in the dumpster in the driveway. The old furnace in the basement is to be reclaimed by a metal scrapper and the small torpedo propane tank that services nothing goes back to the fuel company.

There is heavy, dense-packed insulation, soft like lamb’s wool, in the exterior walls. Somebody got it right, once, though what is in that insulation is anybody’s guess. Somebody else chose to line the walls of the workshop extending off the ell with plastic bread bags from the A&P (39 cents a loaf). Flattened cardboard boxes were nailed over the bread bags which now crumble to the touch. One of the cardboard boxes was labelled Asbestocell, a Johns Manville pipe wrap. Googling Asbestocell produces nothing more than an asbestos abatement manual.

The ducts in this house are not wrapped in asbestos as were those in my house in Denver, however the old horse hair plaster in this house may contain arsenic and asbestos, and there is that lead paint on the cupboards that will wind up in a landfill. The local utility reports on levels of lead and other contaminants in the municipal water supply. The levels are below EPA regulatory levels, but Federal regulatory levels don’t console me. Another report crosses my
desk stating that the land at the origins of the Androscoggin and the Kennebec have high levels of lead. (My father tells me that when his grandfather lived in Livermore Falls, the Androscoggin ran yellow from the waste of the paper mills. That river and those people have had it bad.)

It’s moments like these, when deconstructing to the bone that I wonder what harm has been done in the past in the name of progress and I worry about harm I may do going forward — in the name of progress. For example, I’m installing CFLs in the house, fully aware that there is no process in place to reclaim these bulbs and the mercury inside of them. Word is that the amount of mercury in the bulbs is less than that which would be emitted by a coal-fired plant for the equivalent kWh of electricity.

When it comes to “do no harm,” I can’t help but wonder, what is the next asbestos? Does a lesser bad mean a greater good?

Other Goings on This Week
In the same week that I’m replacing my light bulbs, Matthew Wald writes in the New York Times about an effort to ban incandescent bulbs. (Sorry, Times Select access only.) In the article General Electric is quoted: ”It’s shortsighted to freeze technology in favor of today’s high-efficiency compact fluorescent lamps…We’d rather keep innovating and offering traditional, commercial and industrial consumers more energy-efficient choices — not fewer choices.”

That same week, my brother in New York City calls. He circulates in a world far from mine: squash games on Fifth Avenue, deals over lunch and office retreats in Palm Beach. In the past, he’s introduced me to a thermal energy storage start-up. More recently, he’s hung out with an importer of ethanol from Brazil. This week, he’s connected me with a friend of his who’s connected with a manufacturer of LED products. There’s hope when Wall Street/Fifth Avenue players finger the corporate giants working against new entrants into the cleantech sector. In other words, someone else is also laughing at GE’s claims to innovation.

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.

2 replies
  1. allen claxton
    allen claxton says:

    Word is that the amount of mercury in the bulbs is less than that which would be emitted by a coal-fired plant for the equivalent kWh of electricity.They use less than coal-fired plants emit for the equivalent amount of light produced by incandescants. Equivalent kWh would mean equivalent mercury emissions. Unless my brain hates me.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I sent an email to the editor about the Lifecycle Building Challenge: a national competition focused on design for deconstruction and facilitating building material reuse. From this post, it sounds like you definitely have a lot of great ideas, and I would encourage you to enter your strategies or designs into the free competition. The entries only require a few images or pages of text.

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