by Heather Rae
for cleantechblog.com

I stopped telling people that I spent my July 4th holiday removing the ducts from the basement. The statement evoked a quizzical look. They pictured me shooing a quacking flock from the house. I did not want to agree with a colleague who replied, ‘Ah, you’re committed!’ because it feels like only the insane would remove a heating system from a house in Maine, even in summer.

My brother and his wife flew up from New York for a visit last weekend in a tiny plane that used only as much fuel as my Subaru. It was a short, cold and wet vacation for them. I said, earnestly, ‘you should come back in the summer; it’ll be warmer.’ James Prentice, one of the contractors working on this house added, ‘for both weeks or just one?’ I lit a fire in the wood stove on Saturday night to take off the edge.

James and John, “the guys,” will move the big cast-iron wood stove into the ‘ell’ so that I can finish sanding the flaking polyeurethane from the living room floor. Without the wood stove, I will be entirely committed. Nuts.

While I’ve been finishing floors and yanking old floor boards from the attic of the ‘ell’ and repairing the hole I cut in the hot water pipe to the kitchen sink, they have been rebuilding the porch roof and installing air sealant. The air sealant went in fine but for an expansion that pushed out a section of lathe and plaster above one of the bay windows, an easy repair. Already, the house feels calmer and quieter without the air tunnel that was rushing between the two floors.

What’s curious and unsurprising to me lately is how few encounters I have with green products, except when I specifically seek them out. There is no signage at the lumber yard in Brunswick or the one in Damariscotta about the FSC-certified wood that they stock in a separate barn, away from the meanderings of non-contractors like me. There is no signage at the hardware stores (big box or otherwise) about non-toxic alternatives to floor finishes…because they don’t stock them. (I have been looking for beeswax to go over the linseed oil that is now on these old pine floors. If I go to FW Horch in Brunswick, I know I will find non-toxic alternatives but for a pretty penny. Unwilling to forgo green floor finishes altogether, I did use a non-toxic German finish in one of the closets and a low-VOC finish in the front hallway. The hallway is the only space that will see a polyeurethane top coat, so I guess one could say I de-greened it.) I encounter no displays of air exchangers or solar panels. No fuel companies advertising biofuels, though the local fuel service companies all stock on-demand hot water heaters and energy-efficient heating appliances. There’s a sign for BioHeat on a lawn about 10 miles down the road. There’s a retail store in Topsham selling corn pellet stoves.

John, James and I rehash heating options, with these constraints: the chimneys cannot be used, the new oil tank in the basement should be used, the heating appliance will be in the conditioned space of the house. One of the solutions is a through-the-wall vented, standalone appliance running on biofuels. This is important stuff and it takes some research and hunting to put it together.

Steven Shapin reviewed David Edgerton’s “The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900” in The New Yorker, and wrote, “technological significance and technological novelty are rarely the same–indeed, a given technology’s grip on our awareness is often in inverse relationship to its significance in our lives…we are wrong to associate technology solely with invention, and that we should think of it, rather, as evolving through use.”

The general public, despite the “boom or bubble” of all things green, is likely far more aware of the Apple iPhone than biofuels. If only biofuels and non-toxic products were sexy, fun and insignificant. Then I might find them everywhere.

Heather Rae, a contributor to cleantechblog.com, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine and serves on the board of Maine Interfaith Power & Light. 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.

1 reply
  1. Peterbart
    Peterbart says:

    Heather – I have been reading your posts on your struggles with an environmentally sound renovation with interest – we are trying to do the same with our home on Galiano Island, BC, and finding the task challenging. There are really two issues: one is sourcing materials, which I will have more to say about below, and the other is recycling. Despite best intentions, recycling the material that continues to come out of the house is challenging. If I ask the contractor to do it, the costs are quite exorbitant. I do my best to pick through the garbage pile and save things that I think will come in handy later, but the truth is that I am often overwhelmed by the task. Eventually, the garbage guy has to come and pick it up to haul off to the landfill. One of the hidden and important-to-note environmental costs of renovating.As for sourcing materials, we were in a similar quandary as you until we found out about a Vancouver-based business called Greenworks. We had a pretty good list of things we were looking for, including non-VOC paints from YOLO, American Clay wall coverings, and sustainable wood for flooring. We were pleased to find that they had taken the trouble to source all of these products and more, and not only provide the products but quite a bit of insight about using them as well. It will be interesting to see if their business thrives: it is one thing to talk about environmentally sound building practices but quite another to take on the challenge of acting upon those same instincts when one is confronted with the often-intimidating task of managing a full house renovation.

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