Can This Home Be Greened? This Massachusetts Home Needs a Makeover

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Photo By Paul Marquis
Exterior doors are prime for air sealing.

Nada and Paul Heredia and their infant son, Peter, live in a modest, 1,750-square-foot home in Canton, Massachusetts. Both commuters, they chose their home for its convenient location, walk-out basement and for the stream that runs along the backyard.

But it needs renovations. Nada and Paul’s top concern is providing a safe haven for their family–especially young Peter, whose recent kidney transplant and subsequent need for immunosuppressant medications make indoor air quality a top priority. The home also needs efficiency upgrades; their winter fuel oil bill is around $400 and the average monthly electric bill is around $100. The couple wants to replace their wall-to-wall carpeting, the rear deck, driveway and windows.

With some careful budgeting and a few trade-offs, the $50,000 or so that the Heredias have set aside should cover the necessary improvements.

Efficiency and health concerns

Better insulation and windows will make the Heredia home more efficient. They must remove their moldy carpet.

1. Augment attic insulation.

I visited the home last winter on a 12-degree day when snow covered the neighboring roofs. The Heredias’ snow-free roof showed the attic is gaining heat from the home below. The attic insulation is 6 inches of fiberglass batts (R-19), installed irregularly, leaving gaps. An infrared scan of the roof rafters read about 46 degrees. The attic temperature would be closer to the outside temperature if it were properly insulated and vented.

Heat leakage into the attic also can lead to “ice dams,” which cause water to back up under roof shingles and potentially cause roof leaks. The icicles hanging from the Heredias’ roof were evidence of conditions leading to ice dams.

Solutions: Install at least 9 additional inches of insulation, preferably denim or formaldehyde-free fiberglass batts, or blown-in, loose-fill cellulose or fiberglass. Though they cost more than fiberglass, denim batts would be better for a do-it-yourself (DIY) project; the fibers are less hazardous and easier to work with than standard fiberglass. Seal the attic opening around the laundry room dryer duct, and insulate and weatherstrip the attic hatch.

Cost: $2,000; less than $500 as a DIY job; local utility may pay a substantial part of the insulation cost; contact utility or check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE). 

2. Insulate basement and remove carpet.

In the basement, carpet installed directly over a concrete floor has gotten moldy. Concrete basement floors and walls are colder than the enclosed air most of the year, resulting in condensation and ideal mold conditions–particularly in homes without central air conditioning (like this one).

Solutions: The Heredias should immediately remove the carpet and set up a dehumidifier. Next, they should insulate the walls and isolate the floor, using a floor-insulating system such as DRIcore (a dimpled plastic mat bonded to tongue-and-groove OSB “tiles”). The dimples in the plastic raise the subfloor, isolating it from the concrete.

Before they drywall, Paul and Nada should check the product’s source. Drywall has made news because of offgasing sulfur compounds. Magnesium oxide substitutes are durable and water-resistant but high in embodied energy. California’s CleanBoard makes 100 percent recycled gypsum drywall in a solar factory. Many domestic drywall producers also use recycled gypsum. Choose area manufacturers to reduce embodied energy.

They should enhance insulation in the finished basement areas with “pour fill” Icynene, expanding foam insulation, which allows damp foundation walls to dry.

Cost: $10,000 to $15,000, depending on method and installer

3. Install energy-efficient windows.

The 1970s double-hung, insulating sash windows are drafty, and one of the sashes has a broken pane. Some windowsills and exterior trim show signs of decay.

Solutions: Total window replacement might be unnecessary. The exterior window trim is salvageable with proper care. The existing, insulating windows are in reasonably good condition, so adding high-quality storm windows is a cost-effective alternative. However, completely replacing the windows with newer units has aesthetic and maintenance advantages. If the Heredias replace entire windows, they should choose Energy Star, low-E, inert gas-filled, double-glazed units with thermally nonconductive frames.

Cost: Storm windows: $200 to $300 per window, installed; new windows: $400 to $600 per window, installed

Reduce air infiltration and update exteriors

Keeping air out of the house and renovating outdoor features make for a green home and yard.

4. Tighten up.

One of the cheapest ways to improve energy efficiency is to reduce air infiltration. Typically, the older the home, the more significant the savings will be. The Heredia home is old enough that effective air sealing could net big gains. The home’s door sweeps and weatherstripping are worn, and there are gaps and leaks in the insulation.

Solutions: The average DIYer can easily address all these issues using products like expanding foam insulation in dispensing cans, caulk, insulated electrical cover plates and off-the-shelf weatherstripping products. For best results, Paul and Nada should hire a company to conduct a blower-door test. For about $650, local energy audit companies like Boston’s Next Step Living will do a blower-door test and take measures to reduce infiltration, often plugging holes in the building envelope that would otherwise be overlooked. Local utilities often offer rebates for the cost–Paul and Nada’s will cover 75 percent.

Cost: DIY remedies: less than $100; blower door testing with immediate remediation: $500 (additional materials fee usually applies), though local utility may cover some  of the cost

5. Build an eco-friendly deck.

The Heredias want to spend more time on their rear deck, but need to replace the old pressure-treated decking, now banned because of concerns about arsenic.

Solutions: The biggest challenge is choosing the best materials. Today’s pressure-treated lumber using ‘ACQ’ wood preservatives is generally considered safe enough as a deck, but more sustainable, attractive options exist such as FSC-certified lumber or recycled-plastic lumber. Another option is torrefied lumber, which is heat-treated to improve durability. Efficient producers use lumber byproducts to fire furnaces; local producers may be available. Paul and Nada could also build the deck with treated lumber but use more sustainable materials for finished decking and railings.

Cost: Fir or other softwood: $1.50 to $3 per lineal foot (high end for FSC-certified); torrefied lumber: $2.70 per foot

6. Landscape wisely.

The driveway should be replaced as part of a broader low-impact landscaping plan that also protects their stream. The plan should consider erosion and
control, stormwater management and organic landscape maintenance.

Solutions: Replace the driveway with permeable pavers, reduce lawn area, employ organic maintenance routines and incorporate a rain garden (essentially a large depression that captures, filters and slows the release of stormwater). Permeable paving allows proper groundwater drainage and helps manage stormwater. Installing brick or other pavers over compacted stone dust is simple, easy to maintain and adds curb appeal. A rain garden would help reduce erosion and control pollution. Most effective when planted with water-loving, native species, rain gardens also invite wildlife. Choose edible plants such as red chokeberry, watercress and wintergreen to also provide food.

Cost: $8,000 to $10,000 for driveway; $200 for rain garden; no cost for organic turf management (possible savings)

At your house: DIY projects

Seal it yourself. A basic weatherizing kit should include replacement door sweeps, expanding foam in a dispensing can, disposable rubber or latex gloves, low-VOC caulking and receptacle gaskets or insulated cover plates. (All available at hardware stores for less than $50. For more information, go to the Energy Federation Incorporated.)

Manage moisture and mold. Don’t “ventilate” basements in summer. This introduces moisture-laden air, causing additional condensation on floors and walls. Ventilate to eliminate staleness only in fall and spring, and always run a dehumidifier if your basement is damp.

Guard your turf. In any yard, minimizing resource-intensive lawn areas and employing good turf management and organic maintenance are key. These simple steps lessen a lawn’s impact.

• Use a turf suited to your climate.
• Water deeply once a week.
• Leave grass clippings on the lawn to return nutrients.
• Use natural fertilizers such as compost.
• Use natural herbicides such as corn gluten meal (contact your local garden center).
• Choose native plants with low water requirements (Check out these xeriscaping tips).
• Create a rain garden.

Can your home be greened?

Send us information on your home and what you’d like to accomplish in it. You could be the recipient of a visit from one of our eco-experts. To get more information, e-mail or write Can This Home Be Greened?, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609.

Paul Marquis of Green Home Solutions, former education coordinator for The Green Roundtable’s NEXUS Green Building Resource Center, is a LEED Accredited Professional voted “Best Green Consultant” in Boston magazine’s 2007 reader poll. Marquis currently works as an independent energy-efficiency and green building consultant.