Can This Home be Greened? A Ranch-Style Colorado Home Plagued by Inefficiency and Health Issues

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Margueritte Meier of Fort Collins, Colorado, needed to make her home more energy efficient and less ridden with allergens.
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Margueritte could make her yard more appealing with an orchard and planting bed.
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Margueritte Meier of Fort Collins, Colorado, needed to make her home more energy efficient and less ridden with allergens.

When Margueritte Meier, an energy healer, artist, and mother of twelve-year-old Taylor, moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, from the high desert of New Mexico, she found it…well…humid. She also found it quite expensive, and she felt as though she had scored when she happened upon a 1950s ranch-style four-bedroom home on a quiet street that she could afford. She loved the size of her yard, but all that grass seemed daunting to maintain and environmentally unfriendly to boot. “I feel guilty putting out as much water as it takes to keep it alive, when it’s not even for food,” she says.

Sided with aluminum and barely (if at all) insulated, the home itself was also far from sustainable. Margueritte describes the metal single-pane windows as “antique without being valuable.” They let in summer heat and winter winds, and the largest of them face west, making it impossibly hot to sit in the living room on summer afternoons. “This is the first home I’ve ever lived in as an adult that has a furnace,” she says. “All the others have been passive solar or wood stove heated.”

Margueritte had some grand visions for her home–convert the garage into a studio, build an outdoor kitchen in the backyard, replace the dining room window with doors out to the backyard–but first she had to deal with the basic health and inefficiency issues that plagued it. So she called me, and I brought over a team of Colorado State University colleagues–landscape design associate professor Liz Mogen and recent graduates Billy and Mariah Hutto, owners of Hutto Design, a residential building, design, and drafting business–to talk about what could be done.

Big fixes

Margueritte’s major priority, the team agreed, should be to improve thermal comfort by replacing all the inefficient single-pane, metal-frame windows with new double-pane windows. The Huttos advised her to seek out Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood frame windows–the greenest choice. (Aluminum and vinyl require less maintenance and may last longer, but they take a lot of energy and chemical waste to produce.)

Replacing the window in the dining room with a well-insulated French patio door would help connect the indoor and outdoor space and make the backyard much more useful. Adding a covered terrace outside the new patio door would help cool the dining room and act as a curtain or blind for the patio door.

Another major fix would involve temporarily removing the siding to investigate the insulation situation. Our team recommended that the house should have a new installation of sprayed cellulose between the wall studs; many homes built before 1970 are in need of this fix.

Quick fixes

For a quick fix in the energy efficiency department, Mariah advised Margueritte to replace her incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, which have an 8,000-hour life and are guaranteed to last seven years. Compact fluorescent bulbs use up to 80 percent less electricity than incandescents. They also suggested that she search salvage yards for lighting fixtures and fans.

The addition of ceiling fans to Margueritte’s home would improve indoor air quality by mixing outdoor with indoor air. Compared with other cooling methods, they use little energy. The Huttos sent Margueritte to the local Habitat Home Supplies store, which carries many deconstruction items including ceiling fans, window blinds, light fixtures, doors, and windows.

To mitigate the intense heat gain in Margueritte’s living room, we suggested installing exterior shutters, which offer seven times as much protection as interior shutters. For the interior, Hunter Douglas Honeycomb blinds, which can be purchased with one to three layers of honeycomb air space, offer the best insulation on the market and are also aesthetically pleasing.

Basement mold and mildew

When we entered Margueritte’s basement, where limited windows allow little opportunity for ventilation, we encountered a strong smell of mold and mildew, which could lead to health issues. This is especially problematic because the family spends a good deal of time in the downstairs carpeted sitting room.

Carpet is considered a “sink” material–it can readily absorb, harbor, and release foreign substances. Mold and mildew problems typically result from water leakage coupled with non-breathable construction and finishes. I suggested the following to mitigate the mold and improve the indoor air quality in the living space:

• Remove the wall-to-wall carpeting. If it can be sufficiently cleaned, turn it into an area rug (reduce size, add backing, and bind the edges). An area rug can be cleaned more easily (both top and bottom) and can be rolled up so the concrete floor below can be scrubbed.

• Investigate walls and floor for cracks and potential water leaks.

• Analyze exterior drainage to assure that water migrates properly away from building.

• Inspect plumbing fixtures for slow leaks.

Planting an orchard

Margueritte’s home is basically a rectangle with the long sides facing northeast (front) and southwest (back). The west side is an eight-foot swath of unused yard. Margueritte wants to integrate fruit trees into her landscape, and this forgotten space is a great place to begin an orchard, which would extend around the front of the house and wrap around the side property line and along the city sidewalk. Mogen encouraged Margueritte to leave a four- to six-foot pathway between the trees to allow for any unforeseen access issues between the street and the backyard.

This orchard and planting bed fulfills several environmental and aesthetic design considerations. It protects the house from the intense western Colorado summer sun, eliminates a large area of ragged turf and weeds, and provides foundation planting to anchor Margueritte’s home to the ground. In addition, it creates another layer of plants to screen the front door from the street.

Beneath the trees Margueritte can keep down weeds with a simple cardboard weed barrier and wood mulch, which is biodegradable, adds nutrients to the soil, and is relatively inexpensive. Mogen suggested that Margueritte consider pruning the large trees in the backyard and using the mulch created in the process. Most arborists are happy to leave chips in the owner’s yard.

Mogen also advised Margueritte to overlap the cardboard pieces generously so that even stalwart plants, such as bindweed, won’t find a crack to grow through. She also recommended leaving bare spaces around the tree trunks for bulbs as well as a few experimental areas for green ground covers that will require regular weeding for one to three years.

In Colorado, the primary fruit trees used in residential settings are apple, cherry, and plum. Some fruit trees can pollinate themselves, but many need a pollinator. Mogen recommends getting two of every type of fruit tree.

Creating outdoor spaces

Margueritte also wants a walkway and a patio area between the driveway and the front door, bordered by a short wall to create a sense of separation from the street. She’s experienced at laying flagstone, which would be a perfect fit.

Along the south-facing back wall of her house, Margueritte plans to remove a window in the dining room to make way for an atrium door. This would be much more convenient than the current backdoor, which is in an enclosed breezeway tucked into a U-shaped space between the garage and the main house. An 8- by 10-foot storage shed also cramps this space, so we recommended it be moved toward the southeast property line, where it can double as a privacy screen.

In this new space, Margueritte plans to have an outdoor kitchen. She can use her stone-laying skills to create a curvilinear patio that will unify the two backdoors. The patio will be approximately 250 square feet–a focal point that can be seen from inside the house. A simple birdbath, a chimenea (adobe fireplace), or a sculpture could easily add year-round interest. We recommended a trellis and shade structure to block the new door from the summer sun. I recommended searching for reclaimed posts or purchasing FSC-certified and arsenic- and chromium-free pressure-treated wood with a built-in water repellant such as Preserve Plus ACQ. Margueritte can choose between at least three different types of vines to grow on the trellis. Silver lace is an aggressive vine that can provide shade in one season, but it can be considered a maintenance problem. Trumpet vine needs “training” but will provide shade at a more moderate pace. And finally, a Concord grapevine would add another fruit to Margueritte’s edible landscape. Although grapes typically require attention, once established they will vigorously cover the trellis structure.

Margueritte has set aside an area just west of the patio for a vegetable garden. Plenty of sun reaches this area, and it’s conveniently located near the house and the hose bib. Mogen suggested a keyhole-style garden, which is a path lined with plant groupings. A sunflower area between the vegetable garden and the house would provide light shade for the living room picture window during July and August.

Brian Dunbar, a U.S. Green Building Council LEED Accredited Professional, is director of the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University and professor in the Construction Management Program which offers a graduate emphasis and coursework in sustainable building.