CAAR Real Estate Weekly
By Celeste M. Smucker, Ph.D.
Is it possible to make an older home energy efficient? The City of Charlottesville says the answer is yes and their proof is the project at 608 Ridge Street, which aims to significantly reduce the home’s energy usage and still maintain its historic character. This special initiative involves several entities committed to greening our city who are working together on a redo that will eventually be home to a lucky family. Meanwhile, it will be an interactive model home used to educate the general public.
Participants in the 608 Ridge Street project include the City, which owns the home and is coordinating and overseeing the work. Also involved is our Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP), a non-profit organization with a mission to significantly increase energy efficiency in 50 percent of area homes and businesses over the next five years. Building design and renovation ideas will come from ecoMOD, a UVa project dedicated to the design of environmentally conscious, and affordable housing. Previous ecoMOD projects have all been new construction, however as a rehab project, 608 Ridge is officially called ecoREMOD. For the actual construction, the City chose Alloy Workshop, a Charlottesville area lt;span>architecture, construction, and graphic design studio.
To complete the project, the City relied in part on donations of cash, skills and products such as building supplies provided by a long list of local companies. Not only does 608 Ridge Street offer an opportunity for participating companies to be part of a worthwhile endeavor, it is also a way for them to showcase their products.
History and Potential of 608 Ridge Street
The house at 608 Ridge Street is a good example of an older home, which has seen better days. Built in the 1920s, it sits on a highly visible corner at the intersection of Elliott Avenue. In recent years it had become well known to the police who frequently answered calls about suspected drug related activities there.
Kathy McHugh, Housing Development Specialist for the City of Charlottesville explained that while they could have had the home condemned and demolished, they decided instead to purchase it and use it as a model to educate community members about the importance and practicality of energy efficiency. One of McHugh’s jobs is to coordinate donations for this project. She was assisted in this by Chris Weatherford, with the commercial construction firm Barton Malow, who helped coordinate donations and develop the request for proposal process that resulted in the selection of Alloy Workshop as the general contractor.
McHugh said that when they interviewed contractors they looked for one that was adventurous and flexible enough to plan its construction activities around the City’s need for donations to complete the project. For example, they had to accommodate the several weeks it took to negotiate a donation for the metal required for the roof. McHugh said that eventually when 608 Ridge Street is sold, the City will get back its investment and the money will be recycled into the affordable housing fund.
Meanwhile, for the next two years, 608 Ridge Street will be home to LEAP which will use it both as office space and as a way to showcase energy efficiency ideas to our community. LEAP will pay monthly rent partially offset by the cost of Energy Star appliances that it will purchase for use in the home. The house also has a basement apartment, which will be leased to a visiting professor from Hunan University in China who has an interest in green design and will be affiliated with UVa’ s Architecture School.
A Showcase for Money Saving Renovations
The deteriorated condition of this home meant considerable remodeling was required to make it livable. However, this is ideal from an energy savings and model home standpoint. Paxton Marshall, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Engineering Director of the ecoMOD project, described some of the work required to complete the project such as tearing off wallboard and replacing windows. He explained that this kind of extensive remodel made it feasible for the designers to implement many more innovations than would be possible or practical in homes in better condition. As a result, participants could set an impressive goal of 70 percent reduction in energy usage, and visitors will have the opportunity to observe many different kinds of conservation options all in one place.
Does this mean that these innovations are beyond the reach of most homeowners? Marshall said the answer is no. He suggested that it might not be practical for the average homeowner to do such an extensive remodeling job. However individual components such as insulation, installing a more efficient HVAC system or replacing windows, are all typical energy saving strategies that any homeowner may realistically opt to use.
All ecoMOD projects have three phases: design, construction and evaluation. The design work for ecoREMOD was done by UVa students under the direction of Associate Professor John Quale of UVa’s Architecture School and Director of the ecoMOD project. Although students participate in the building phase when it involves new construction, the difficulties inherent in remodeling a historic structure are beyond their level of expertise. For this reason the work is being done by Alloy Workshop. The students will, however, be actively involved in evaluation and in setting up interactive displays to showcase the renovations.
Whether a new home or a remodel, the goals of an ecoMOD project are to create affordable housing that is environmentally responsible and maximizes the use of the site. This means the final home is affordable to purchase as well as to operate while still being a pleasant and healthy place to live. It also means the home doesn’t stop at the walls but includes the landscaping and outdoor structures, such as balconies and decks. Quale explained that to achieve their goals, every project involves decisions that take into consideration five criteria: environmental, social, technical, financial and aesthetic. As they develop their design, participants start with research into the relative advantages and disadvantages of any proposal and chart their findings to arrive at the best solution.
The decision about which insulation to use at 608 Ridge Street is a good example. Quale explained they wanted to preserve as much as possible of the original plaster and trim and exterior stucco. However it was challenging to insulate the wall cavities without disturbing these materials.
The resulting two part plan called for the use of a product called Air Krete in areas where the inside of the wall was not easily accessible. Its advantage is that it can be inserted into wall spaces through small holes that can then be patched preserving the original plaster or stucco. Its disadvantage is that while it is a good insulator, there are other products that do a better job.
In places where the wall cavity was accessible because the interior or exterior surfaces could not be salvaged, the design called for a more energy-efficient foam insulation. In a few cases both solutions were used in the same wall; foam insulation at the bottom where missing trim left a large enough space for its insertion, and Air Krete above that where the plaster was intact. The result balances the value of highly efficient insulation and the importance of maintaining the integrity of the original materials.
Windows were another challenge as any changes had to be approved by the City’s Board of Architectural Review. The design called for saving as many windows as possible and retrofitting them to be airtight. In order to save even more windows, glass and rotten wood were replaced where it was feasible. Any windows that were not salvageable were replaced with energy-efficient new ones that blend in with the historic look of the house. Again, the importance of maintaining the home’s original materials was balanced against the need to seal up leaks and keep out drafts.
Another interesting feature of ecoREMOD is the use of rainwater collection. Past projects have used special equipment with filters that made it possible to actually drink captured rainwater, resorting to city water only during a drought. However, Quale explained, this is not a cost effective solution. Consequently, for this project, there is a collection system, but the water is not potable and will be used only for landscaping or toilet flushing.
ecoREMOD, an Educational Resource
Over the next two years, LEAP will use ecoREMOD as an office space as well as a resource center to showcase energy saving ideas, educate the public and demonstrate why it makes economic sense for them to undertake their own renovations. Annie Suttle, LEAP’s Marketing and Outreach Director indicated they also will host school field trips and offer training for contractors seeking to become knowledgeable about green renovations and building. She described the many innovations in the home including an energy monitoring system, solar panels, solar thermal water heating, LED lighting and, of course, environmentally-friendly insulation. For LEAP’s purposes they have renamed their new office “The Energy House.”
Many of the home’s innovations are inaccessible and difficult to view. To solve this problem, the contractors installed truth windows, which allow visitors to view insulation and other hidden areas. The space around the heat pump system in the basement will also be left open to view for the same reason. The solar panels were a challenge since they can’t be seen from the ground. However, there is another ecoMOD project on an adjacent lot and visitors can view that home’s solar panels from a back window of The Energy House.
The Energy House also will feature energy efficiency exhibits assembled by UVa students. These will include posters and interactive displays with information about such things as the home’s envelope, insulation, HVAC system, windows and doors. The house also has an energy monitoring system that collects data on power usage, temperature and humidity. Results will be communicated wirelessly to a base station for later analysis but also displayed in real time on a big screen at The Energy House.
Over the next several months, LEAP plans to offer a variety of educational workshops to further their goals. These will cover a number of relevant topics starting with a workshop entitled Home Energy 101. Other workshops will offer information about water saving strategies, ideas for energy conservation in historic homes and tips for home buyers and sellers. Visit their website at www.leap-va.org for updated information and to reserve a spot in an upcoming event.
Celeste Smucker is a writer, editor and author of Sold on Me, Daily Inspiration for Real Estate Agents. She lives near Charlottesville.