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.