Ups & Downs

by Heather Rae,

On about the eighth hour of scraping the lead paint off of the exterior of the old summer kitchen this weekend, the word, ‘torch’ comes to my mind. My mind wanders in the tedium; my moods mercurial. Take a torch to it, I think. The thought wings away; I envision a wall of smooth, ivory-painted cedar clapboard and keep scraping.
I’m vulnerable to passing comments these days. At the ‘transfer station’ (aka, the dump), I collar a stranger in an antique Ford pickup. He agrees to haul a vintage electric stove and hunk of cabinetry from my house to the dump. He claims a discarded oak chair from the wood pile. I later learn from his neighbors that he is a former commissioner of a large government agency in Maine. He says, ‘I did what you’re trying to do, and I’ll never do it again.’ I fight feeling disheartened and foolish. On Sunday night, a former publisher of newspapers whom I had met at a sustainable energy expo drops by the house, leaving his convertible red Mercedes sportcar running. I am in my PJs at 7:30pm, sick with a cold and happy for the company. He’s come to this town to take pictures of the straw bale house that is going up a block away. (I can see the vehicles of the construction crews from my kitchen window. We will have two straw bale houses in this town upon its completion; the first is four houses down my street and is finished in stucco.) The publisher walks through this old house and exclaims, ‘oh, this is great. What a great house!’ My mood lifts. Later in the week, an antiques dealer stops by to inquire about a Russian pot that he had seen in the dirt-floor basement of this house (‘It’s worth $750’.) He is upset that I have removed the original, lead-laden cabinet in the old summer kitchen. I feel guilty. I give him an art deco lighting fixture. All the other fixtures have gone to a ‘stuff’ dealer on Route 1. On Monday, the mailman hops out of his buzzy little white truck, hands me the mail and says, ‘the house is looking better every day.’ I need to hear these encouraging words.
There’s a hole in the wall in the upstairs bedroom where the Jotul stove vent has been removed. I’ve torn down a plaster and lathe wall between a bedroom and an abutting space to create a master bedroom. Now there’s a seam exposed to the balloon framing and cellulose insulation. I’ve torn out the code-violating kitchenette in the closet off of this bedroom. It needs sheetrock…or something. I’ve gone through two young men who excessively assure me that they can sheetrock and do good work. Neither do. I talk with them about insulation and the embedded energy of sheetrock and consideration of alternatives. The words have no meaning. In scraping the old summer kitchen, I confirm that the sill is rotting. I remove the clapboard and board around the sill. I tear out the old windows on the north side — with views of the neighbor’s garage and clothes line. The northern exposure will be double-walled and double-insulated with one small window.
Moving forward, after lots of deliberation and conversations with my home performance contractor, I have decided on a Baxi on-demand boiler for heat and hot water. With the Baxi, the old oil-fired (79% AFUE) forced air furnace and ductwork in the basement will go away. I can then remediate the moisture in the basement, air seal it and apply a vapor barrier without the obstruction of the furnace. With the Baxi, the electric water heater tank that takes up a corner of the make-shift kitchen will also go away. And, the Baxi will obviate the need to line the chimney to the tune of $1800: the Baxi vents through the wall. It can be solar thermal-ready, for future installation of a solar thermal panel on the roof of the summer kitchen. At 94%-96% AFUE, the Baxi qualifies for a Federal tax credit. It’s a plan that sounds like progress.

Other Goings On This Week
I hear from exhibitors at LightFair 2007 this week in New York City that the CFL controversy is heating up. The article in the Portland Press Herald about the woman who broke a CFL in her home and was instructed to cordon off the room has been making the rounds. Two people sent it to me over the last few weeks asking what’s going on up here in Maine. The response, I think, is to look what’s going on at LightFair, and to ask why other energy-efficient lighting technologies don’t have the consumer facetime of CFLs. More on that later.

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.

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