Monday, November 16, 2009

Exterior painting

We Are Painted!

And quite relieved. It briefly looked like we were going to run out of weather...

The Yard

Since finishing the wallpaper removal, we've been in the yard almost every weekend raking. We have very generous trees, and are doing all we can to use all of them.

We bought a sweet composter that is recycled, looks like the Death Star, and is dark enough to work over the Winter if we keep it in the sun:

Here I am starting to put it together, 16 panels, 192 rivets and 192 pins...

Halfway... The menacing bits are the aeration tubes.

And finally, In Use:

You just roll it around to where you need to fill it, roll it around to turn it, then roll it over to your graden to unload the finished compost. Sweet.

The rest of the leaves we've raked into a big pile where we want our vegetable garden to be. They should break down over the winter, kill all the grass and weeds, and enrich the soil for us.

What we're not fitting on the garden bed we'll put in an old-fashioned compost pile in back, or give to our neighbor who uses leaves as litter for his chickens. No landfills.

Once we're moved in, we'll be stitting down and working out a landscape plan that (per LEED and our own sensibilities) will be largely native and food species, deal with at least some of our rainwater, and not need irrigation.

Insulation begins

As we've blogged in the past, we are installing cellulose insulation in all exterior walls and in the attic ceiling. This has been quite a saga. Back in the early summer, we discussed with our Energy Rater that we needed an infrared scan done to assess the condition of the insulation. This was required by Energy Star, which says we need "Class 1 grade" insulation to get our HERS rating. We don't know exactly what Class 1 is, but anyway. So in May, we paid an infrared camera operator to image our walls ($250). The results showed that the walls were effectively devoid of insulation, which ran counter to evidence that some type of insulation had been blown into the walls previously as part of a subsidized weatherization program. This surprised us, but we took the infrared results at face value and budgeted for removal of any existing faulty insulation and installation of entirely new cellulose.

Flash forward to this fall, when electrical began and walls were being opened. Each wall we saw appeared to be stuffed to the gills with old newspaper. It was like being in a ticker tape parade every time they opened a wall. So what gave?? Clearly the infrared scan had been bogus. Meanwhile, the insulator had reported for duty and begun working. He, too, noticed the copious amounts of apparently well installed insulation in the walls. He decided to install around this to fill any gaps. Angrily, we confronted our Energy Rater with the facts. He agreed to give us a free scan to check the new insulator's progress. Ugh.

Good news is almost all of the insulation is now installed and appears to be working well. The house is cozy as can be. This is also largely due to the sealing and insulation of the windows, which has made a huge difference. The insulator pulled out all of our lovely trim, then installed foam board around the cavities where the sash weights run and sealed the gaps with expanding spray foam. This added up to about an R-5 rating but more importantly it gave us a great air seal. We could literally the sky between the exterior siding before this work was done, so the difference has been huge.

Also contributing to the house's newfound coziness is the fact that the boiler has been fired up and all the radiators are working! This was a huge relief, as replacement of the boiler or radiators would have eaten significantly into our contingency. We're keeping the thermostat at 62 but it feels much warmer because of all the insulation. A great investment.

Kitchen update!

We have a new window in the kitchen. It is higher off the ground to accommodate our casework. Here's a photo of the new window and some wonderful drawings by Dan of what our finished kitchen will look like! (note from Dan- drawings to follow in later post)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Energy Recovery Ventilator and Ductwork

A lot has happened in the last month or so, although the progress seems glacial to us since at this point we are itching to move in. We have a lot to catch up on blog-wise. So watch out for a spate of new posts.


We're putting in an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV). Since we have steam heat, this is the only ductwork being installed in the house. The ERV will be installed in a small room off the attic. The supply is located at the bottom of the attic stairs on the 2nd floor. The returns are located in the bathroom, kitchen and media room. We struggled a lot with whether to buy an ERV or an HRV. We got advice from our Energy Rater, an independent rater in southern Ohio and our HVAC subcontractor that the ERV was the better option because it deals with humidity, while HRV's deal only with heat recovery, so it's more efficient. This will allow the house to be more humid in the winter, when the air is dry; and less humid in the summer. This works well for the Cleveland climate. The ERV itself hasn't shown up yet, but here are some exciting photos of the ductwork to tide you over


Monday, September 28, 2009

Off the Walls!

The past few weekends we've been all about stripping wallpaper in the upstairs bedrooms. Yes, we are doing it "green" -- using only a steamer with water, no chemicals. The steamer actually works like a charm. There are about 5-6 layers in each room, but they're all paper, so the steam is able to get through it very effectively once we score the paper. We'd be in much worse shape dealing with vinyl. It's satisfying seeing the stuff fall off the wall in soggy sheets.

This work has really tapped into my life-long penchant for archaeology. It's fun, and a bit eerie, to see the different layers reveal themselves. It's a window into the house's past. In the photo below, you can see how one of the old layers in the smallest bedroom featured boys floating around in boats. The little boy's room, circa 1950! It looks like the walls of both the bedrooms we've done so far were originally painted gold-yellow, then mossy green. Then decades of wallpapering began.

We should be done with this work in the next three weeks or so. Heretofore unbeknownst to me, wallpaper stripping holds a mysterious appeal to others of our generation. So a couple of friends have been/will be helping us get this work done. Special shout-out to Fran and Jeff.

The plaster is in pretty bad shape, cracked in many places and with patches missing, but I'm hopeful that our contractors can patch it effectively.

Dan's parents came over this weekend too and helped out a TON with the backyard. The most exciting part of this work was the rediscovery of a completely intact stone patio just off the back porch. Again, urban archaeology, cool. The stones are all in perfect condition - they just need a little washing down. (Photos forthcoming!) They also tore out some old weeds and tree saplings from a small planting bed near the porch. They were able to save about a half dozen rose bushes, ferns and a hosta.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

August and September Updates

So, the big update is that we own the house.

After months of wrangling with our lender, loan broker, appraisers, and insurance company, and after nearly dumping all of them and starting over with a different financing model, we got it.

We closed in late August, and work started the first week in September.
We've spent the last few weeks rushing to finalize plans, make last minute changes, and make sure everything fits with LEED. Here's what happened so far:

New Roof - Unthrilling asphalt shingle. The foot or so of insulation beneath is the real action.

Demolition - The most dramatic changes are the complete removal of the attic and bathroom. down to the studs. No big $urpri$
e$, thankfully. (A co-worker redoing his bathroom found studs that still had bark on them. They had to re-frame the whole room to be able to put up drywall.)

Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing - The boiler works, which is great. We're going to powervent it, per LEED, which voids the warranty, which is long expired anyway. Otherwsie, bits of demo and ongoing rough ins.
We're terrifically excited about all of this, but its probably a bit dull if its not your house, and not much of it has to do with LEED. So, Photos:

New Roof...

Dining Room Ceiling Demo...
Bathroom Demo. Notice the joist that was cut nearly through and apparently set on fire to accommodate the toilet. Our toilet will sit a few extra inches out from the wall.

The attic with all the masonite down. We're finishing it so we can put our television, exercise stuff, the Wiii, whatever, politely out of sight. The joists are being extended down to make room for insulation - all the way to the rim joist, rather than insulating the knee walls. That gives us conditioned space to run ERV ductwork across and down to the second floor, a LEED (and common sense) requirement.

In the next few weeks, we should see:
MEP rough-ins done, which lets the drywall/plaster folks come fix our walls and ceilings.
Insulation removal and installation once the interior walls are closed.
Exterior Painting after that.
We are ordering (!) kitchen cabinets tomorrow, for delivery and installation in November-ish. I'll do a big kitchen post this weekend, now that I can stop redesigning.

On our end, we're shopping for small things we said we'd supply to keep the loan amount down, and removing wallpaper as fast as we can. I highly recommend (insist) borrowing or buying (only 60.00) a steamer. No chemicals, no waiting (once it's heated, at least) and the stuff nearly falls off the wall. I'm also struggling to develop a coherent color story that brings our Victorian home and Mid- to Late-Century furniture and art into harmony.

Wish us luck!


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

June Updates

Hi all, this is the other (prospective) homeowner, the Intern Architect. I have been quite lax in contributing, and now I feel like I have a lot to say...

Lets start off with a few photos of the house...

Front view (dig the porch!) Dining room, Fireplace, Master Bedroom, Wonderful odd lavatory, and lovely, ferny backyard.

We think it's a beautiful old thing, and can't wait to see our own furniture and clutter in it.

Updates on Justin's previous posts:

We're probably going to use dense-pack cellulose for our insulation. There's some in the wall already from a free city program, and going in with new cellulose will get us within our HERS target range, and avoid the expense of cleaning it out to blow in foam. It's disappointing, however, that we're going to max out at r-13 or so.

We though we were going to have to take down the interior walls to let George inspect our insulation installation. There was no way for us to get full credit for the insulation we'd blow in otherwise, which would keep us from getting our HERS score, and our LEED rating, by extension. We are able to avoid this by paying someone to thermally image the walls with an infrared camera to inspect the heat transfer through the walls, which would let George see where the insulation was lacking, and have the installer correct it.

The program demands that no more than 10% of any cavity be void, meaning our insulation installer really has to know what he's doing. This is important – the insulation already in the walls was so poorly installed that the walls are essentially uninsulated. The studs and lath were even visible in the infrared photos...

We may still switch to foam. Tripolymer is very affordable, and having walls come in at r-13, r-15 max is not sitting well with us. Even though most heat loss/gain is through our roof (which we can get up to r-44, nice...) it just doesn't feel right.

So, our HERS score: we're coming it at 82, and the max we can get is 85. Which is adequate. We're disappointed that our house won't be more high performing, but we're out of reasonable options.

More to come soon!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Energy Audit

Remember all that hand-wringing I was doing in the last post about insulation? That was mostly based on what we'd have to do if we followed LEED for Homes "prescriptive path" for energy efficiency. That path spells out certain requirements you have to meet for your windows, insulation, etc. If you don't meet the criteria for any one of these areas, you can't get LEED.

After further research and discussions with friends, we realized that we could instead follow the more flexible Energy Star Homes path. Under this option, you must become an Energy Star certified home. The way you do this is to achieve or surpass a certain score on the HERS (Home Energy Rating System) Index. An Energy Star Home has a HERS rating that's 15-20% better than a typical home built to the 2004 International Energy Conservation Code. Houses in Northern climates need to get a slightly better HERS rating than those in Southern climates -- I'm guessing because Northern houses require more energy for heating, etc.

For us, being in a Northern climate, it looks like we need to achieve a HERS rating of at least 80 to get Energy Star certified.

The first step in this whole process of getting a score was to have a Home Energy Rater come to the house and test how efficient it is now. With this information, the rater can construct an energy model of the house. We can then instruct him to make changes to the model to determine what our HERS rating will be after rehab. For example, we can see the impact of using certain types of insulation, or of installing a new, more efficient boiler.

We hired George Trappe from Residential Energy Services Co. Ltd. in Westlake. George came recommended by both Kevin and Lillian, our two friends who built new construction LEED homes in Cleveland. He came to the house last weekend and conducted a blower-door test. This was pretty cool. They set up a big fan in our front door and turned it on. The fan exhausts outside, pulling air through the house. Then George and his colleagues ran around the whole house, testing for air leakage on each floor with a battery of tests and instruments that I can't explain. Usually, a HERS rating involves testing the ducts, too -- but we don't have ducts because we have radiator heat.

Once we get our current score and the model is set up, we can start playing around with different solutions to get to the magic HERS number.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Insulation - An Intro

One of the cornerstone requirements in the LEED for Homes system is quality insulation. Of all the credits and prerequisites, this one and the Good Windows credit are the ones that Dan and I have wrestled with most.

In our region ("Northern"), LEED requires a minimum R-value of 19 for exterior walls. R-value is basically a way to rate how well a wall is insulated. The higher the number the better. The more space you have in your exterior walls, the more insulation you can fit inside. My friend Kevin recently constructed a new LEED house in Shaker Heights where he was able to achive R-40 walls because he built them to be 8 inches thick.

The challenge in existing homes is that you're working, of course, with existing walls. So you're limited in the amount of insulation you can install. In our case, our exterior walls are constructed either of 2x6 studs or true 2x4 studs (we're still trying to confirm which). So at a maximum we have 6 inches of spaces to work with; at a minimum we have 4 inches.

It would be possible to make our walls thicker in one of two ways -- either on the inside or outside of the exterior walls. Today I talked to Brian Schultz of Grand Rapids Community College. Brian has worked on several LEED Homes renovations in Grand Rapids for the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. On their projects, they work with houses where the existing siding is in very bad shape. So they simply rip it off and install rigid polystyrene panels on the outside of the studs, as is done in conventional new-construction house projects. This gives them a slightly larger exterior area (or building envelope) than they had before, but it's not a problem because they end up having to install new vinyl siding anyway. On the inside of the house, they blow fiberglass insulation into the wall cavities. These two measures combined get them to R-19.

Another approach is to expand the walls from the inside. This allows you to install a greater thickness of insulation. But, of course, you're sacrificing some area from the interior of your house.

Dan and I don't want to take either of these approaches. We have original wood siding in great condition that we want to keep. It looks better than vinyl, and it's much more environmentally friendly (both because we're reusing what's already there and because it's not vinyl, which is pretty much the most evil building product around). We also don't want to give up any interior floor space, because we're already working with small, Victorian-sized rooms.

So we've got to work with what we've already got. Can we get to R-19 in our existing walls?

We think so. After much research, we know we want to use a spray foam insulation. Spray foams are malleable and can get into all the little nooks and crannies in a wall. So they generally provide better R-value than batts or blow-in insulation because they can get into more spaces. They're generally also more air-tight, which is another requirement of LEED.

Different types of spray-in insulation have different R-values. The ones we've been looking at are BioBased; Icynene; polyurethane; and tripolymer. Of these, polyurethane provides the highest R-value per inch (around R-7). But it's also very environmentally unfriendly and off-gasses all kinds of harmful chemicals. BioBased is made out of soy, which sounds appealing, but it's got a lower R-value and I've heard it's appealing to insects, who like to munch on the soy. Also, the closest installer is in Columbus, two hours away. Icynene is quite widely used and is also green -- it's made out of castor oil instead of petroleum.

But Tripolymer may be our best choice. It seems to be relatively green; it's made out of phenolic resin and doesn't off-gas. It also doesn't expand when it's installed, like the other spray foams do. This is good for us because we've got relatively fragile plaster walls that could crack under the pressure of expanding foam. It's also got a higher R-value per inch (5.1) than soy (3.7) or icynene (3.6). We're having an installer come by to give us an estimate next week.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What is an FHA 203k loan?

So now you know about the house and about LEED for Homes. How are we paying for it all?

The answer is through an FHA-insured 203k purchase-rehab loan. I won't go into all the specifics of the loan here. But essentially, it's designed to help people buy and renovate houses that they plan to live in. It's not designed for investors. The advantage is that rather than getting one loan for the purchase and another for the renovation, you roll all the costs into one loan. And you pay a small down payment -- currently 3.5% of the acquisition price.

Without the 203k loan, we wouldn't be able to do this project. That's because typical renovation loans are made based on either the amount of equity (real money) you've paid toward your house, or on the value of the house compared with what you owe. In our case, we're paying a pittance for the house because, in its current condition, it's not worth much. So no loans available there. We're also paying a relatively tiny amount in down payment, so our equity is miniscule. So we strike out there too.

A 203k loan does require you to do more work up front than a typical purchase loan. For example, we have to get contractor estimates on all the work we want done before we close the loan. This has led to some late nights of planning, which I'll detail later! Also, you have to have an appraisal done on what your house will be worth post-renovation. This is to prevent you from spending more on renovations than the house will be ulimately be worth. There are other random bits of bureaucracy to navigate, but I'll talk more about those as they come up.

The 203k program seems like such a useful tool for implementing LEED for Homes renovations. More people should consider it!

What is LEED for Homes?

LEED for Homes is the U.S. Green Building Council's rating system for building or renovating houses. (Actually, it's quite skewed to new construction, but more on that later.) It was introduced in 2008 and functions much like other LEED rating systems. You get points for site selection, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, water efficiency and using responsible materials. Like a recording artist, you're awarded a variety of metal depending on your level of achievement. The lowest is Certified; the highest is Platinum.

There are other rating systems for houses, but Dan and I chose LEED because it's the most stringent and the most recognized. We're going for certification primarily because we believe in environmental stewardship. But we're spending a lot of money on this project, some of it specifically to register our project with USGBC and to perform the type of renovations required. So we also want the certification to have value when we go to sell the house. We feel a LEED award will be the best way to ensure this.

The problem is that LEED for Homes is heavily biased toward new construction. You can tell this just from what's included in the credits. For example, there's a credit for advanced framing (using less wood than normal in framing the structure of a house). There are credits for managing erosion on construction sites. But there are no credits at all for reusing an existing structure -- one of the greenest things you can do. We may get an innovation point for this, but it's not built into the rating structure.

To use LEED for a house renovation project, the USGBC requires that you do a "gut rehab," where the exterior walls are exposed to install new insulation. Obviously, this is a big undertaking and not something that most people can or want to perform on their homes. It's only really possible for people like us, doing a rehab before they move in.


The list kept growing: We wanted a house. We wanted an old house. We wanted an old house with lots of original detail remaining. We wanted old house with lots of original detail that was cheap enough that we could afford to do a gut rehab to make it green. And we really wanted it to be on a particular block on a particular street. It was beginning to seem bleak, even in Cleveland, where depopulation often makes it possible to achieve one's wildest housing dreams.

But then, one Friday, we got a call. Copper thieves had broken into a vacant, circa-1900 house on West Clinton Ave. in Cleveland's Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. The house had been occupied for 70 years by a Romanian woman who'd recently died. It had rapidly fallen into disrepair following her death. Her son was eager to sell.

A friend on the street gave the son our names. The next afternoon, we walked through the house. By the end of the day we made him an offer. Several days later, the offer was accepted and a purchase agreement signed.

There were many things about the house that made it right for us:

- It still had its original wood siding and wood windows.
- It looked structurally sound.
- The interior had all of its original, unpainted woodwork, including beautiful oak columns, an oak fireplace, heavy oak doors and a linen closet whose 100-year-old latch still latched with a satisfying "click."
- You could see a tiny bit of Lake Erie from the attic window.
- It was on the exact block we wanted.
- It was big (4 bedrooms) without feeling cavernous.
- It was cheap enough to allow us to spend $$ on a major renovation.

The purpose of this blog is to share our efforts to certify this house under the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Homes program using an FHA-insured 203k purchase-rehab loan. Though we're only a week into the purchase, the nights have already been long and the headaches splitting. But we hope the payoff -- in terms of lessons learned and end product -- will be huge.

Why should we want to "learn lessons"? Well one of us -- Justin -- is a planner and developer who specializes in building green neighborhoods. The other -- Dan -- is an architect whose clients are increasingly demanding green. And because we're, well, nerds.