22 Aug 2014
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On Green Renovation of Old Jamaica Plain Houses

"Greening existing buildings is by far the most important thing we can do for climate change," says one local expert.

On Green Renovation of Old Jamaica Plain Houses On Green Renovation of Old Jamaica Plain Houses On Green Renovation of Old Jamaica Plain Houses On Green Renovation of Old Jamaica Plain Houses On Green Renovation of Old Jamaica Plain Houses On Green Renovation of Old Jamaica Plain Houses

The problem was that the kitchen cabinets fell apart a year early.  We had outlined our budget plans, and it was going to be dental repairs this year, kitchen update next year.  But two of the cabinet doors fell off and then the drawer holding the silverware came apart and had to be knocked back into shape every time you opened the drawer for a teaspoon. And when we looked around critically we saw that the front strip was beginning to peel off the countertop and the old wallpaper was dingy even after scrubbing. So it really was time for a kitchen redo.

That’s when the questions began: What do we want to do? How much will it cost? Is there a green way to do this? How much will that cost? Is there formaldehyde in the cabinet’s finish? What are the energy costs of transporting this stuff? Where can I get the information I need? And how much is the whole thing going to cost?

If you are even faintly considering any kind of green building, remodeling or renovation, let me introduce you to a great web resource, greenhomeguide.com. Experienced and environmentally savvy professionals answer all kinds of questions, from the simple: “What should I look for in a kitchen cabinet?” or “What is the best material for green countertops that are not too expensive?” to way more upscale: “Is there a type of glass I can use in my shower where I can see out but no one can see in? I want a window wall or doors that open out.” (This was from a woman who wants her shower to open up onto her deck – in California, of course.) 

Our modest kitchen redo is done, kinda green, with countertops and cabinets that did not have to travel far (so no big carbon footprint), with the help of Boston Building Resources (they sell gently used cabinet sets and new products that are manufactured within 500 miles and that have virtually no polluting volatile organic compounds). We love our new kitchen. We looked longingly at those handsome new Energy Star kitchen appliances, but then deferred their purchase until another year and instead splurged on a beautiful custom backsplash made by an artist friend from recycled materials (glass and ceramic shards from the beach near her home, and some unique ceramic shards from our own family history). 

But it started me thinking about the whole question of green redos. Green renovation is different, and in many ways much more difficult, than green construction

For example, the was retrofitted to be a net-zero carbon home as a demonstration of urban sustainable living.  The major goal was to insulate and seal the entire structure so that it could be warmed by passive solar heat without burning fossil fuel. The goal was reached, and the house runs on 20 percent of the energy of a normal Boston residence and has been certified as a Tier-3 Energy Star House.  However, the design costs and economic costs were great.

Design costs: the bay windows were sheared off (too many corners that could compromise the tight envelope of super insulation) and replaced with flat, triple glazed windows that aid in the passive solar design. Economic costs: according to JP Green House founder , more money ended up being spent on the renovation than the actual value of the building.

The building redesign is now earning back the money spent on the renovation by saving the funds usually spent on heating fuel in the winter, but Zaleska points out that the retrofit was not undertaken to save money but was based on the moral imperative of climate change activism. (She also adds that she would rather build a warm straw bale kind of Hobbit House, but urban homesteading means dealing with urban circumstances, and in JP that almost always means starting with housing from another century!)

One way to sort out the green retrofitting issues is the website regreenprogram.org.  It’s a user friendly site that allows users to drill down into specific topics and consider real issues. When browsing/searching the site, you can choose to focus on energy and atmosphere, or materials and resources, or indoor environmental quality, or another specific issue. And you can manipulate the web site’s widget to show which aspects of each issue show up at different stages of a particular retrofitting project. For example, if you are thinking about indoor environmental quality, the widget will remind you to clean up and dispose of pressure-treated sawdust during construction, and to choose hard-surface flooring when it comes to planning the bathroom. The same website offers Residential Remodeling Guidelines and a Green Product Checklist.

As JP architect Ann Finnerty points out, the welter of green issues surrounding any kind of residential renovation can be daunting even to the professionals. But somehow, sitting in conversation at her kitchen table, a sense of the logical steps to sustainable renovation began to emerge.

From her modest home office in one of JP’s early twentieth century American Foursquare houses, Finnerty has been guiding clients toward green renovation since before it became a catchphrase. There is more than a hint of Yankee thrift and common sense in the way she outlines the steps.

First of all, the purpose of the renovation must be clear. A conversation with an architect can help define the purpose: what really needs to change? Finnerty advises changing only what is necessary, making use of what is already on hand, sending as little as possible to the landfill, and choosing to use resources that can be replenished.

She speaks from experience.  When she renovated her own dark, cramped kitchen space some 12 years ago, her priorities were natural light, a kitchen work area, accessible storage, a play/homework space for small children, and convenient access to the backyard. All the goals were acheived: the kitchen was expanded and opened to the back garden. At the same time that a new space was created, many elements of the old were reused, including cabinet doors with lovely old ripply glass, the sturdy cabinet base for the sink (though the nasty sink was replaced), and the maple flooring discovered under layers of linoleum.

Finnerty recycled the old entry way to the back yard and converted it to a pantry, which is visible from the kitchen because the walls have been replaced with windows rescued from a friend’s renovation project. Now it all seems natural and almost inevitable, the recycled resources fit seamlessly into the renovation and preserve some of the Arts and Crafts feel of the old house. 

But every renovation project is unique, so how do you get your mind around the design and economic and environmental issues?

There are myriad websites advising us on everything from incentives for renewable and efficient energy use (including replacing inefficient old refrigerators) to foregoing the icemaker and going for the bottom freezer if you do decide on a new fridge.

You can learn more than you may want to know about wall coverings and the sustainable ways they have been produced -- from their initial creation to the paste that holds them on the wall. (Some wallpapers that are designed to reduce moisture buildup and be easy to clean  contain harmful PVCs, and some wallpaper paste contains harmful polymers and fungicides – who knew?) 

When all the details of green home renovation seem overwhelming, it may be useful to step back for a more holistic view of a healthy sustainable home.  Local green retrofit guru William Boehm uses what he calls the home/body analogy. In the same way good medical practice considers the whole body in treating a patient, Boehm takes into consideration all the different aspects of a house, from the envelope (or skin of the house) to the ventilation (or respiratory system), from the structure and framing (which he likens to the skeleton of the house) to the mechanical systems – heating and cooling, hot water and alternative energy (or circulatory organs).  Boehm starts by pointing out that durability, what we might term long-term health, is an essential element of sustainability.

Boehm makes a distinction between simple remodeling projects of kitchens or bathrooms and renovations,  "more comprehensive projects that often include kitchens and/or bathrooms, but also adjust/expand/improve other parts of the house.  These are where serious greening make more sense, because you are addressing a bigger percentage of the home."

JP folks will have a chance to discuss projects with Boehm at the Boston Building Resources workshop,  Reno-fitting the green home on June 23. Because “greening” a home is usually an incremental process, this session will help homeowners determine where to start, what to look for, how to find resources they will need, and how to take advantage of financial incentives and tax credits currently available. 

As Boehm told me, "Most of the 40 percent of U.S. carbon output generated by buildings comes from residences -- not the new ones, but the ones we already live in. Greening existing buildings is by far the most important thing we can do for climate change." The challenge is ours. 

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