Not What You Want to Hear

by Heather Rae

James Prentice and John Whitworth showed up a few weeks ago upon a recommendation from a trusted source. They are the Balsam Group: Integrated Alternative Building Solutions for the Environmentally Aware Homeowner. They call their design process, Function Form, and it starts with an examination of a clients’ needs. I have called them in to replace the rotten sill under the ‘ell’ and when they arrive, I first take them to the second floor to give them a feel of the house, along with a lighthearted narrative of my plans.

Later, James asks me to tell them what I want — all of it. I tell him it makes me sad to acknowledge what I can’t afford. I tell him I want ‘simple,’ but mean ‘minimalist.’ What I mean, really, is, this is shoestring. I am a pain in the ass. They hang with me.

We look at the bedroom wall I’d taken down (wrong wall). John says, *this* is the wall that should go away, putting a hand on the wall cutting across the upstairs landing at the foot of the stairs to the attic. We climb the steep stairs to the attic and ooh and awe at possibilities not likely to come to fruition in my lifetime. This is my favorite space in the house, because it smells of old wood and it’s peaceful and warm and nobody has buggered it but for a sprinkling of cellulose insulation under the floorboards. We look at the sad chimney and talk about the new roof and the tiny leak it still has around the chimney flashing and their method for fixing it. We talk insulation materials and drywall and painted floors. John and I joust in our frankness, and I sense that these two people are here for a reason, however painful their assessment of my reality. We look at the old wood windows and their drafty hollows that contain the window weights. Then I show them the ‘ell’ and merrily wax on: this is going to be the new kitchen!

John and James ask, what would make you most happy? Happy? I have had several energy-oriented contractors come through this house, a by-product of what I do for a living. None has asked what would make me happy; they are looking at the structure through building science and diagnostic measurements, not emotion. One even questions why, after living in the place a month, I am working on a bedroom when, from an energy perspective, it needs so much else.

Back to happy. I’m a Yankee WASP willing to forgo comfort for a buck and manage to come up with: a comfortable bedroom that doesn’t have loose plaster walls or ugly wallpaper…a kitchen that doesn’t reek of mouse piss and a faucet that doesn’t leak and actually extends over the divide in the kitchen sink…a warm place so I don’t huddle around a wood stove this winter to thaw my toes…biofuel in the oil-fired forced air furnace, now that the new energy-efficient hydronic heating system is out of the question and this 78% AFUE furnace is sticking around…an on-demand water heater to replace the water tank in the kitchen and its funky electrical components. And more.

Through my engagement with James and John, certainty erodes; my overly-turned plans take a spin into an abyss of confusion. I seek clarity and consistency in building science and do not find it; everybody has their own take. All that I have plotted in my head, all the neato energy-efficient cleantech retrofitting and remodelling I have schemed — and the information I have gathered on building science and green building — they want to see on paper. They sense, and comment on, my palpable stress. I assure them it’s not about their work. They want priorities. I contemplate this stress en route to Home Depot. I eventually type up a table of everything, including a one-car garage, putting bold Ps next to the few priorities.

Weeks later, I have taken down the wall that John has tagged. John and James have rebuilt a new wall and doorways. The new wall replaces the old plaster/lathe wall with its air leaks that flowed up through the top plates to the attic. The new drywall ceiling also stops the flow of air that was going up to the attic. Now there is an upstairs landing with ‘seasonal views’ to the Kennebec River, more light and far better feng shui than the old. The early morning fears of hemorrhaging dough, the source of my stress, give way to acceptance. I look forward to the daily arrivals of the Balsam Group.

The plans for a kitchen in the ‘ell’ have bitten the dust. James had suggested removing all the clapboard that I had scraped bare. I am crestallen. The dirt ‘slab’ under the ‘ell’ is too wet for proper insulation, for now, without signicant landscaping to control drainage. The sills will be expensive to replace. (A respected home performance contractor, looking sadly at the rotten sills, had suggested that tearing down the structure and starting over would be a less expensive alternative.) I hear from John, too, what I don’t want to hear. He says that old homes, to be properly remodelled, should be stripped and rebuilt — the clapboard should come off and be replaced with structurally insulated panels (SIPS) and an air passage, for example. In other words, a true remodel would look something like this zero energy home remodel that I found on the web: It’s an expensive proposition, to rebuild an old house, and as John says, the real estate values in these parts don’t warrant these kinds of makeovers.

While James and John work on the second floor, I scrape the grey oil paint off the floors of the bedrooms with a heat gun and sand them down with 36 grit to the original wood. Back to their bare selves, they are beautiful. This second floor project is costing far more than I had ever imagined, and if I had been presented with an estimate, after I had changed course and taken down the second wall, I would likely not have pursued it. Yet, this new space is clean, the craftsmanship beautiful — and it does have some energy upsides. It makes me happy, and like a credit card ad, that’s priceless.

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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