green is a process too.

09Aug08

I got a little tiny baby note about my blog on the houseblogs.net site. The link is here, though I’m not sure that it will send much traffic my way, especially since it is buried amongst a lot of other stuff. However, the Houseblogs post says that my little blog is about our “green” renovation. So I thought maybe I should use this opportunity to explain exactly how our little disaster of a house is “green.” I know that I haven’t (yet) done the greatest job of giving background on exactly what it is that we’re planning to do this place (beyond our attempts to make it less depressing & more habitable.) So consider this my first attempt to rectify that situation.

Why is our gut renovation project green?

1) Re-use. First and foremost, this house is hurtling us toward planetary destruction at a slower pace than the average house because we’re re-using a 100 year old house that would otherwise have had a date with a bulldozer. Instead, we’re going to give it another 100 years or so. (If we can make that structure last another hundred years, then we’ve done our job with the place– after that, I take no responsibility– I expect at that point it will be some other sucker’s problem anyway.) So we’re turning an unlivable, unheatable nightmare into a house. Maybe someday it will even be our home. And we’re doing it without tearing up any virgin farmland (or forest land, as is more common in this area.) We’re not spurring the construction of new roads, adding new EMT or fire services, not spurring the need for new schools, not adding to the sense of abandonment in a neighborhood that really could use some re-investment. The latent city planner in me says that this is a really good thing, and perhaps the biggest contribution to our “green” bragging rights.

Much of the house wasn’t particularly salvageable– miles of faux-wood paneling (think: 1970s), knob & tube wiring that our insurance company required us to remove IMMEDIATELY, and more rotten wood than I care to remember. But we didn’t mindlessly haul it all to the dump. We’ve taken a lot of stuff to the dump, because it is just unavoidable. (What else am I supposed to do with a trailer load of plaster dust?) But all the wood that is not re-usable has been burned in our wood stove to keep us warm while working on the house last winter. It’s a good thing that we did tons of demolition during the winter, so we were able to use the “burn as you go” method of demolition. (Perhaps we would have been wiser to use the “gasoline + match” method of demolition in the first place, but unfortunately insurance companies and police departments really tend to frown on that sort of thing.) If we hadn’t utilized the “burn as you go” method, we’d have the most un-holy piles of wood in our yard, waiting for winter. Let me rephrase that. We’ve got the most un-holy of wood piles in our yard anyway— but it would be a lot worse if we hadn’t been able to burn a lot of it while we were demolishing our house in 30° (below zero) weather. Instead of hauling it all to the dump, we found that faux-wood paneling has many uses in a renovation project: we’ve used it as a “drop cloth” for painting, as a “base” to shovel dirt on to, as a temporary dividers in rooms, as a cover for mouse-entrances to our basement. Trust me, the stuff is useful. Even Luke finally agrees with me.

And, when it comes to getting rid of crap instead of sending it to the dump, you wouldn’t believe the power of a “free” sign taped to an item placed on the curb. (The only problem is keeping my husband from indulging in the practice of picking up such items. Ahem. When exactly are you going to learn to ride a unicycle?)

We’ve also carefully removed & de-nailed miles of good oak hardwood flooring from the house, which will be re-used in the upstairs. It is great stuff, and worth a nice chunk of change if we had to buy in new. Of course, it probably wouldn’t be economically viable (for us) to pry it up & re-use it if we had to pay someone for the labor, but since we’re doing it ourselves, it makes economic sense for us. I guess that is true of this whole silly project.

2) Reasonable size. The house is about 1700 square feet. We didn’t add any square footage to it with this renovation project. It isn’t tiny, but it isn’t huge either. It might be tight some day if we ever get around to raising a few teenagers in there (that stage would most likely come after we raise a few babies), but I doubt it will turn these future teenagers into mass-murderers or anything. The shed & garage out back will help make the whole place very livable.

3) Energy-efficiency. We’re doing a tremendous amount of work to make this a super-efficient house. When we bought the house, it was the model of inefficiency. Silly gas heaters that left frightening black marks on the walls, no insulation worth mentioning, single-pane windows that feature millions of small gaps to welcome in the wintry breezes, etc. We’re going to put in new energy-star windows, foam insulation in walls furred out to 6 inches, an efficient heating system (more on that below), and do all that other good stuff that everybody should be doing anyway (and should have been doing 30 years ago).

4) Solar. Solar. Solar. Last, but not least, there WILL be solar. We live in the land of 300+ days per year of sunshine. The sun is our friend, and massive holes in the ground from coal extraction are not.

Passive. The old portion of the house currently has one measly little window on the South side (plus 3 glass blocks that were installed in place of a large south-facing window.) Once we actually bite the bullet and order our new windows, we’re going to cut in 4 nice big windows downstairs on the south side of the house. (In addition to the generous southerly windows in the kitchen addition.) This will make all the difference for the light & winter heating in this house. Trust me, it will be huge, both with the psychological impact of having more natural light, and with the solar gain to help with heating in the winter. Fortunately, there is some really nice foliage on the south side of the house that will help shade the windows in the summer. (And, overheating is almost never a problem in the San Luis Valley– except in the most poorly-designed structures.)

Solar Thermal. That overly-tall roof on our kitchen is specially designed to hold a bunch of solar thermal collectors— which will make hot water for us, and pump it through the radiant floor that we’re going to install throughout the house. The concrete floor will act as a thermal storage, though we’ll also need some kind of water storage in the basement. And we’ll use a Rinnai tankless water heater for gas-fired back-up heat. Lots of other details that we’ve thought about but haven’t implemented yet, so you’ll have to wait to hear about them. Unless you come and visit (I’d suggest you come in the winter so that you can tell your children all about your hair freezing inside Luke & Laura’s house.)

Solar Electric – photovoltaics. Our utility company is Xcel. This is a good thing for us, because, thanks to their Solar Rewards program, we’re going to be able to afford a large grid-tied solar system to offset all our electricity usage. To hear Luke talk about it, we may be installing this system before we get some of the more basic parts of the house finished (like a bathroom). He keeps telling me that you can’t pass up free money, and if it sounds too good to be true, you ought to jump on it before it stops being true. So we’ll keep you posted.

Of course, we can do all this expensive solar stuff because we can do all this expensive solar stuff ourselves. This is good. But it makes me tired to think about sometimes.

5) Other stuff. We use local hardware stores for the most part (plus a lot of EBay). We’ve got no Home Despot or Lowes, so we’re forced to be good. But that’s fine.

We’ll do some other stuff too, but due to Colorado’s draconian water laws, I won’t mention things like rainwater collection. But I will provide you with a link to this lovely article about draconian water laws.

That’s all the green stuff I can think of at the moment. Like everything with this project, it will be a lot of work to implement all these grand schemes. Sometimes I find myself wishing for that childhood fairy godmother who will come along and “poof!” –make things magically happen. (Now that I’m an adult, I fear that if I had a fairy godmother, I’d wish for plumbing or an IRA– instead of something more romantic like a pony.) Anyway, I’m trying to work on enjoying the journey instead of the destination. Thus the name of the blog.

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