Can This Home Be Greened? Getting Older, Getting Better: Remodeling a 19th-century Pennsylvania Home

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Gordon R. Wenzel
The Lawrences are renovating their 140-year-old house

A year and a half ago, Matthew and Lida Lawrence were searching for a home where their two sons–Josiah, 6, and Isaac, 2–could have roots in a community with strong friendships and extended family. Matthew, a Spanish teacher, and Lida, a massage therapist, found what they were looking for in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a small college town on the Susquehanna River where Matthew grew up. Its thriving farmer’s market, public spaces and trend toward historic preservation enticed the couple back to the area.

The Lawrences bought a three-bedroom, one-bathroom home for a low price, and they’re using the savings for extensive renovation on the 1860s-era house with a 1905 addition. “We’re growing to love this old house, even though we were attracted mainly by its large, in-town yard and location on a quiet street next to the woods,” Lida says. But the house needs work; the previous owner lived there for 80 years and made few improvements.

Motivated to reduce their sons’ chemical exposure and to be kind to the environment, the couple has chosen green renovation. “There are so many chemicals around us, but there are still some realms we can control–our home being one of them,” Matthew says. The couple recently joined other families in a petition to ban chemical pesticides in Lewisburg playgrounds.

“By making healthier choices at home and locally, we’re optimistic that the environmental trend will continue on a broader scale,” Lida says. They’ve begun an environmentally friendly yard by planting trees, getting the whole family involved in organic gardening and coaxing vines to cover an unsightly chain-link fence.

To gear up for the renovations, the Lawrences finished their garage so they would have a place to live without subjecting themselves and the youngsters to lead-containing paint, plaster dust and mold (a risk because the house has flooded twice in the last century). »

1. Eliminating the threat of asbestos and lead

Problem: With two young children at home, lead and asbestos in the aging house are the Lawrences’ greatest concerns.

Solutions: The couple did sampling of some old, resilient bedroom flooring that their home inspector said might contain asbestos. Fortunately, it tested negative. However, paint on the home’s trim and doors tested positive for lead. Because the trim work throughout the house consists of low-quality, paint-grade wood, it would be best to completely remove and replace it, using lead-safe demolition. (See “Rx At Your House,” page 27.)

The Lawrences were considering stripping their interior doors of lead-based paint and rehanging them. However, the doors also are paint-grade wood, so I recommend they get new ones–ideally made from FSC-certified, sustainably harvested hardwoods.

Cost: Laboratory asbestos and lead testing: $10 to $25 per sample. New hardwood doors: $150 to $300 per door.

2. Adding insulation

Problem: Like many unchanged 140-year-old houses, this one is drafty, cold and poorly insulated.

Solutions: The Lawrences have several  good insulation options. Blown-in cellulose insulation and expanding-foam insulation both give good R-value (the measure of an insulation’s ability to impede heat flow) and fill in cracks and gaps. However, because the home is located in a floodplain, they should avoid cellulose insulation; although it’s treated with  mold-inhibiting borates, the dampness  still could encourage mold growth. Icynene spray-in foam insulation is an excellent choice, but finding an Icynene installer in the Lewisberg area might be difficult. There’s also Owens Corning’s Greenguard-certified, low-VOC, Pink fiberglass batts and rolls and blown-in fiberglass insulation.

Cost: Reinsulation: $2,750 for the attic; $3,200 for blown-in fiberglass into exterior walls; $3,200 for blown-in foam insulation on the interior (10 to 20 percent more for Icynene).

3. Saving energy

Problem: Matthew and Lida want to utilize the sun’s energy, but solar electric systems have a fairly long 15- to 20-year payback in Pennsylvania, where there are few government financial incentives.

Solution: The couple chose a solar hot-water system instead of solar electric. The environmental benefits are much the same whether you convert solar energy into heat or electricity. A solar hot-water system can be linked with radiant floors for a super energy-efficient space-heating system.

Solar hot-water systems are particularly cost effective for new construction projects because the interior copper tubing is easily installed through vertical chase openings. In the Lawrences’ house, the copper tubing must be run inside the home, so installation will be more expensive.

Cost: Solar hot-water system: $7,800.

4. Finding green suppliers and contractors

Problem: Lida found it difficult to navigate the supply chain for green-building materials. When she visited the local Home Depot and Lowe’s and asked store managers about green-building supplies, she just got blank stares. Moreover, most general contractors and trade subcontractors have minimal experience in environmentally preferable building.

Solution: Lida asked Lewisburg Builders’ Supply Company to work with green-building suppliers who will ship materials (see “Resources,” page 27).

For general and trade contractors, regional green-building associations, such as the Green Building Association of Central Pennsylvania (, are good sources for referrals. For California and New York residents, the Green Home Guide ( provides additional referrals.

The best way to keep down contractor costs is to manage the fear factor by finding a builder who’s experienced in green-building methods and materials. Or find someone who wants to enter this growing field and educate him or her on the project’s green details.

Cost: Expect to pay 10 to 30 percent more for green products than conventional. But within the total project, product costs typically are much less than labor, so this price increase shouldn’t represent more than a 5 percent increase in total project cost.

Rx At Your Home

Eliminating Lead-Paint Hazards  Lead-based paint is likely to lurk in any home built before 1978. Removing lead hazards and stripping lead-based paint safely is tedious work. You can hire specialists or save money by doing the worksite preparation and final cleanup yourself. Here’s how.

Step 1: Before disturbing suspected lead-based paint, protect floors, furniture and objects in work areas from lead-containing dust with two layers of heavy, 4-millimeter plastic sheeting. 

Step 2: Spray-mist all materials with water before demolition to hold down dust. Buy plastic spray bottles, and instruct the work crew to use them.

Step 3: When removing lead paint, use a product such as Peel Away paint stripper, which doesn’t contain methylene chloride, a known carcinogen.

Step 4: Place all dust and debris in heavy contractor bags, twist the top and seal with duct tape. Place bags in a secure location until they can be removed and taken to a household hazardous-waste collection site.

Step 5: Clean afterwards with a HEPA vacuum and a lead-specific cleaner such as Ledizolv.

Step 6: Make a thorough, post-construction, lead-dust cleaning at the project’s end. Follow with dust-wipe sampling to confirm proper cleanup.


(800) 758-7325
foam insulation

Owens Corning
(800) 438-7465
Greenguard certified blown-in fiberglass insulation

Environmental Construction Outfitters of New York
(800) 238-5008

Environmental Home Center
(800) 281-9785

Green Building Supply
(800) 405-0222