by Heather Rae

Not so very many moons ago, I was job hunting in the Washington, DC area. Inherently shy, job hunting has always filled me with dread. On this occasion, a divorce from a Hong Kong dynasty had added a deep layer of self-doubt. My mate at the time circled ads in the help-wanteds (perplexed that this action fanned my fears). I recall his humor, a humor that I did not share, when he drew a line around a posting for a receptionist-phlebotomist and acted out a mock dialogue in the imagined reception area: Fill out these papers and then I’ll prick your pinky. Hahaha…Hahaha!

More than a decade down the road, I reflect on this strange job combination and requests I have made of “the guys” working on this old house and their flexibility in finding solutions — despite some less-than-perfect circumstances. They are working on the roof over the front porch, creating a pitch to shed water and snow. They are reinforcing the frame, and they are adding to the cavity 2″ extruded foam and closed-cell spray foam to block air flow into the space between the first and second floors — all before before adding new underlayment, membrane and asphalt. (I did not choose the greener building materials of metal roofing, soy-based foam or FSC wood — additional costs that will need to go to the essentials of plumbing and heating.) A roofer had proposed replacing the existing old metal roofing with a membrane. The roofer would not replace or shore-up existing wood, some of which is rotten. The roofer would not have suggested creating a pitch. The roofer would not recommend or do air sealant.

As this project unfolds, it seems to me that successful adoption of new residential energy-efficient and green technologies will require contractors who are comfortable with complexity. A homeowner casting about for help in renovating a home (an old one in particular) does far better with a whole-house contractor — one who understands the interactions of the home’s systems.

And if the homeowner is a destructo-Shiva who might accidentally sever a copper pipe under the kitchen sink with a reciprocating saw the day before a holiday — necessitating the shut off of all the hot water to the house — a multi-tasking contractor is even more helpful.

When James and John are done with the roof, we will be moving ahead with replacing the copper mangle of plumbing with PEX (including the piping to the kitchen sink!). This new water supply system will, unlike the existing one, include many, functioning, shut off valves. Until then, it may be cold showers for me.

On this July 4th holiday, I’m grateful that I still have water.

Heather Rae, a contributor to, 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.

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