Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Heat Pumps for the Earflap Crowd

In my research for the new TV series This New House (premiering at 8pm, July 29, on the DIY Network), I came across a heat source you might want to check out.

Heat pumps are tried-and-true machines that cool and heat buildings across the southern tier of the U.S. They use refrigerant to move heat from inside to outside, or vice versa. Like an air-conditioner, they take heat out of houses and dump it outside in the summer; in the winter, the process gets reversed, capturing latent heat in air down to about 37 F, concentrating it by compressing the refrigerant, and sending the heat inside. But below 37 F, they rapidly lose effectiveness, working constantly to try to keep up with heat demand. This is why they’re less common or economical up north, where they require back up systems that heat (expensively) with electricity.

There’s a company in the heart of the frost belt—Bangor, Maine—that’s cracked the code for heat pumps for cold country. By adding a secondary booster compressor, which basically turbo-charges the process, the Hallowell Acadia heat pump (http://www.gotohallowell.com/Acadia™-Products/) is able to draw heat from air as cold as -30 F. As company founder Duane Hallowell puts it, “It’s a heat pump on steroids.”

The heat-pump process is based on the simple fact that heat goes to cold: whenever something is colder than the surrounding air, the heat in that air transfers to it, as the system tries to equalize. By making the outside coil of the heat pump even colder than the air, the Acadia is able to capture latent heat in frigid conditions. Concentrate that heat and transfer it inside and, voila, you’re heating a northern house using the outside air. And it’s all done with electricity, freeing the user from the vicissitudes of the oil and gas markets.

About 4,000 Acadia heat pumps have been sold since the company opened in October of 2006. They cost about $10,000 installed—that’s compared to $30,000 for a geothermal system, which uses the ground as a heat source. The machines are eligible for tax and utility rebates up to $4000 and provide between 25 and 55% cost savings over natural gas and oil, depending on electricity costs in your area.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Summer 2010

June's house of the month is a glimpse of the future It's a demonstration house that contains just about every high-tech bell and whistle currently on the market. Which of them will make it in the long run? Only time will tell, but it's more than academic to check them out in a real-life situation, which is the idea behind the Cleantech house in Beverly, Mass., open for tours now and for sale later. Check it out at http://www.bruceirving.biz/houseofthemonth.html

For house geeks, check out the National Trust for Historic Preservation's "@home" website: http://athomenation.org/. Lots of good tips and links for everything from historic homes for sale to insurance programs to folks' house baby pictures, including those of yours truly: http://athomenation.org/pg/photos/album/1669/northern-maine-boathouse.

If you're thinking of replacing your windows (and you know I have strong opinions about that*), putting new windows into an addition, or upping the energy-efficiency of your original windows, make sure your contractor knows about the Department of Energy's volume-discount program for highly efficient triple-pane windows and start-of-the-art Low-E storm windows: http://www.windowsvolumepurchase.org/

And on the self-promotion front, I've been getting a lot of calls lately from from people considering the purchase of a house and looking for a second opinion. They're falling in love with the place, but want a blunt assessment from someone with no agenda.

Most of the houses I've visited for assessment are being bid on by multiple parties. When we put dollars and time to the tasks needed to make the house work for my clients, more than half of my clients swallow hard, realize that they really want the house, and go into their bid determined to get it. A few, however, see that the project is way bigger than they thought and walk away, a bit disappointed but breathing easier.

If you know someone looking for a second opinion on a house purchase, please consider passing my name along.

And finally--having nothing to do with home renovation--is my strong recommendation that you check out my sister's killer goats' milk caramel, made painstakingly by hand on her small farm in Vermont. It's award-winning, its organic, and it's unbelievable on ice cream:http://www.fattoadfarm.com/.

* But don't take my word for it. Here's a link to some 15 scientific analyses that say that replacement windows are a bad idea in most cases: http://historichomeworks.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1600

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dreams and Triangles

I’ve been involved in house transformations for over two decades. Of the 33 renovations we featured during my time as producer of This Old House, each and every one was somebody’s dream house; the same goes for the projects I work on now in my career as a renovation consultant. No matter what the job is and regardless of its size and budget, whenever a house is improved, its owners’ strongest hopes and imaginings of better living come to the fore. We love our homes--and whenever love is involved, things can get complicated.

Standing in the middle of the constellation of the people involved—owners, architect, builder, subcontractors, town officials, materials suppliers—I have seen time and again that the human element plays a huge role in what everyone wishes were a completely rational and rationalized undertaking. Agendas both conscious and unconscious come into play, and although I believe that everyone truly wants the project to succeed, each participant’s precise definition of success is, human-nature-ly, different. These can grow under the inevitable stress of the job, and a single degree of difference can become a wide gap by the end of the road.

Everyone’s heard the old saws--the owners want everything done on time and on budget and still reserve the right to change their minds at any point; the architect wants a beautiful image for his or her portfolio; the builder wants to build as he sees fit, with minimal meddling—but most intelligent players know, at least intellectually, that such fantasies must be modulated by compromise and teamwork. Subtler things come into play, however, and they can hurt progress. Some of what I’ve seen over the years: owners afraid of insulting their architect by expressing dissatisfaction with a design; architects reluctant to allow builders to suggest solutions; builders tempted to make up for rising, uncompensated costs by cutting corners rather than making a case for more payment. Behind most of these problems are the myriad insecurities, fears, assumptions, and misunderstandings that follow us humans wherever we go and whatever we do. They’re just more intense when money is flowing and people are thrust together, usually for the first time.

I was never trained as a psychologist, but nonetheless have played some version of shrink on each job. Architects and builders report similar experiences; in my opinion, that’s a poor use of their skills. Not only is their time best spent doing what they do best—architects satisfying owners’ needs, builders bringing designs into three-dimensionality—but they themselves are within the triangle at the core of the project, the one that they form with the client. “Love triangle” may be putting it in melodramatic terms, but a triangle it is, with loyalties, alliances, and even trust issues that shift over the life of the project.

In addition to helping put owners, architects, and builders together as teams, my role as consultant is to break that triangle, providing a neutral Switzerland for each member to turn to. When a team member needs an objective view on an issue, a place to get heard, a confessor, or a prod towards better communication, I’m there. Occasionally hard-nosed, occasionally touchy-feely, sometimes acting as devil’s advocate or bringing an alternative product or method to the table, I try to keep the project’s best interests in focus and the issues out in the sunshine.

For homeowners who don’t hire me or someone like me, remember that despite being the non-professional in the mix, you are the leader. That’s because it’s your house and you are paying the bills. You set the tone, and if things like openness, honesty, and fairness are put in place at the start, you will have a much better chance of getting the best out of your teammates. Aside from researching their past work, when looking for design and construction partners, don’t be afraid to listen to your gut. Transformations take time, and you’re going to be in the trenches with these folks for longer than you might think. You need tolike them.

Oh, and plan for 20% cost and time overruns—it’s better to go into a dream with your eyes wide open.


Bruce Irving is a renovation consultant based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He also serves as vice-chairman of the Cambridge Historical Commission, as a member of the editorial board of Architecture Boston magazine and contributing editor at Design New England magazine, and as series producer of This New House, a new television show debuting on the DIY Network this summer.




Monday, June 8, 2009

Getting with the Program(s)


To paraphrase the great Leonard Cohen, “Everybody knows…that their house is leaking.”  Everybody also knows that, really, they ought to do something about it.  Excuse time should be now be officially over for us all--never before has there been such a mighty array of forces to help us stop heating and cooling the great outdoors, wasting fossil fuel, and spending dough we don’t have to.  The utility companies have been joined by the Federal government in offering up money for energy-efficiency upgrades—and so much is sloshing around that the worry on the street is that there aren’t enough skilled energy-efficiency retrofitters to handle the demand.


But where there are economic incentives, you can be sure there are entrepreneurial Americans trying to help spread the wealth.  Two such groups in eastern Massachusetts are Next Step Living (www.nextsteplivinginc.com) and the Green Guild of Massachusetts (www.GreenGuildofMass.com).   Both provide blower-door tests (in which a powerful fan is mounted in a building’s front door, blowing air out and lowering air pressure inside, revealing how leaky the structure is and where those leaks are) and infra-red camera analysis (in which a heat-sensitive camera shows what parts of the building envelope are contributing to energy loss).  They also perform on-the-spot weatherization (quick fixes involving air sealing, pipe insulation, and the like).  Such a visit, plus a report outlining further strategies for efficiency improvement, costs about $500.


I recently arranged for a “blower-door party” in my neighborhood, conducted by Green Guild on an older home whose energy efficiency its owner had already worked long and hard to improve. Nonetheless, the building was shown to still have leaks and cold spots, and my neighbor was sent a report on various levels of retrofitting he could do, with estimated costs and projected payback periods for each undertaking.  The neighbors who attended all left impressed and eager to have their own places tested.


Our local utilities, NSTAR and National Grid, offer up to 75% cash rebates for such tests and accompanying weatherization, up to a total rebate of $2,000.  That points to a sweet spot of, to be precise, $2666.67 of improvements for a maximum immediate return on investment.  ($2,666.67 x .75 = $2,000 rebate)


On the Federal front, tax credits are available at 30% of the cost, up to $1,500, in 2009 and 2010 (for existing homes only) for things like windows and doors, insulation, HVAC systems, water heaters, and even asphalt roofs (some are now Energy Star rated for their reflectivity).  Similar credits, but with NO upper limit are available through 2016 (for new and existing homes) for geothermal heat pumps, solar panels, solar water heaters, and small wind-energy systems.  Check http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=products.pr_tax_credits for details.


Finally (do you need any more prodding?), local utilities also give cash rebates on energy-efficient equipment like thermostats, boilers and furnaces.  I recently had an indirect hot water heater installed (replacing my old gas-fired one).  It cost $2800, will save me lots of fuel over time, and, with a form I easily downloaded from NSTAR’s website, I got $300 back.



(Yet Another) Note on Windows


Readers of this newsletter know that I do go on about the inadvisability of replacing original wood windows with modern thermal-pane units.  An old window, properly weatherstripped and in combination with a good storm window, comes very close to equaling a modern window’s energy efficiency, so why pay to tear one out and replace it with something that looks wrong on the building and will probably fail long before it pays itself back?  


I was recently contacted by a contractor in Texas who read my comments on Consumer Reports’ website (http://blogs.consumerreports.org/home/2008/06/this-old-house.html).  Although he undercut some of his points by calling me an idiot and letting on that I made him vomit, he did point me towards a gentleman at the U.S. Department of Energy who he said would set me straight.  So I called Marc LaFrance, the manager for Building Envelope and Windows R&D Programs at the DOE’s Office of Building Technology.  We had a great chat wherein he agreed with me on some points and argued for modern windows on others.  (He is especially excited about triple-pane windows, specifically those developed by a company called SeriousWindows [http://www.seriouswindows.com/].  They have an R-11 rating, about four times better than a typical Energy Star-approved unit.) 


In agreeing with me that old windows often deserve preservation, he did recommend that the storm windows that make them an efficient system be as airtight as possible and have a low-E coating.  Low-emissivity glass essentially bounces heat back into the building. 

  Harvey Industries makes a great storm, the Tru-Channel, at about $120 for an average 3’ x 5’ window—and for an extra $20, you get low-E glass.   You’ll have to get them through a contractor, as Harvey doesn’t sell direct to consumers. 

  For a lower-profile look (and at least twice the cost), check out units that mount inside the window’s exterior frame—the best-known maker is Allied Window (www.alliedwindow.com). 


If your storms are old, or you don’t have them at all, this spring would be a great time to get some good new ones up.



A Piece of History


As millions of viewers have seen on the New Yankee Workshop, Norm Abram builds very nice furniture.  However, it’s been nearly impossible to get ahold of anything he’s made—the pieces have all gone to…well, I’m not at liberty to say.  There have been a few lucky This Old House homeowners who’ve received a Norm-crafted item, as we always tried to work a signature piece into each project, but for the public at large, forget it.  Until now.


Working with the good folks at the Trustees of Reservations, Norm is building a press cupboard (http://www.newyankee.com/getproduct.php?9911) from pine boards extracted from the Old House at Appleton Farms.  Located in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Appleton Farms is a remarkable spot:  a land grant dating from 1636, it’s the oldest continuously operating farm in America, with a thriving community-supported agriculture program and 1,000 acres of rolling land open to all (http://www.thetrustees.org/pages/249_appleton_farms.cfm).   


Norm’s piece will be auctioned at the Farmhouse Formal, a dinner-dance fundraiser on June 13, 2009, at the farm.  Proceeds from the event will go to the establishment of the Appleton Farms Center for Agriculture and the Environment, which will be based in the renovated Old House.  For more information, visit www.appletonfarms.org.



For Anyone Who Has Ever Loved a Kitchen


I gave a talk at the Residential Design and Construction trade show in early April with cabinetmaker Paul Reidt and architect Tim Techler, two guys who knew a lot more about our topic, “The Modernist Kitchen,” than I did.  Paul’s firm, Kochman, Reidt, and Haigh (http://www.cabinetmakers.com/), makes some of the finest custom kitchens in the country, and Tim designs beautiful contemporary homes (http://www.techlerdesign.com/).  Both have reported an upsurge in client interest in new kitchens in the modernist style.


They recently worked together on an original modernist kitchen on Six Moon Hill in Lexington, in the former home of one of this trailbreaking community’s founders, Norman Fletcher.  I once wrote a magazine article about Six Moon Hill (http://bruceirving.biz/news.html --click on “Bauhaus in the ‘Burbs”), but I was not deep on the kitchens of the period--that is, until I got my hands on a new book, America’s Kitchens, published by Historic New England.  It’s a great and accessible historical overview of the most important room in the house.  A showcase of technology, a reflection of social conditions, and a repository of some of our fondest childhood memories, the American kitchen has followed a fascinating road on its way to becoming the most expensive room in the house.  I learned a lot from the book.   Highly recommended: http://www.historicnewengland.org/resources/Americas_Kitchens.asp?Sect=6.



Self-Promotional Bits


A recently completed project of mine was shown on NECN’s New England Dream House.  I helped two young homeowners put together a winning team of architect and builder to transform an old Tudor Revival outside of Boston into a crisp, clean new home with a modern feel inside its traditional exterior. http://www.necn.com/New-England-Dream-House/Saving-Money-on-Large-Projects/1238294995.html


I’m quoted in the May issue of Consumer Reports, which has an interesting survey of 17,000 readers, asking about 18 common home improvement projects, from painting a room to putting on an addition.  One of the findings:  More than 25 percent of respondents said they paid for poor planning—a median of $625. Even seemingly simple projects such as interior painting cost CR readers a median of $280 extra because of various issues they hadn’t thought through.  Since I help my clients think renovations through, please keep me in mind for when you or someone you know starts contemplating a project of any size.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


...is on everyone's mind right now, and I'll mention two areas where it intersects strongly with matters of home.

First, the urge to conserve fuel will lead many homeowners to look into insulation upgrades, air sealing, and replacement of aged (20 years old and up) heating plants-all of which will pay themselves back in dollars and comfort. I was happy to see experts recently cited by the Boston Globe strongly advise against window replacement (a pet peeve of mine, as readers of previous newsletters may recall). Payback for such a move occurs about 30+ years out, after the new windows may very well have failed. (Did you know that 30% of the windows being replaced these days are less than 10 years old?) Boston.com offers an interactive site as well as the full article, worth reading.

Second, for those fortunate enough to have money available for renovation work, now is an exceptionally good time to be in the market. Architects and builders are available, attentive, and many are cutting their fees. The only risk is that in their eagerness, certain ones can overpromise and may be tempted to recoup some on the margins later in the project. That's where knowing people's reputations comes into play and why having, say, a renovation consultant on board would be a good idea.

Green Day

October 4 was a glorious and appropriately sunny day for the Green Buildings Open House, a national event whose Massachusetts segment was hosted by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA). I visited several houses outfitted with sustainable energy sources, two of which deserve special mention.

The first was owned by a delightful guy named Bob Gagnon, who is a plumber by day and a do-it-yourself engineer by nights and weekends. He has outfitted his little Colonial with an immense amount of radiant tubing-in floors, walls, and ceilings--through which he pumps water warmed by two different types of solar collectors, the old-school homemade box kind, really just a bunch of black-painted copper tubes in a black-painted box, and an array of up-to-the-minute vacuum tubes. With huge water tanks in his basement to serve as banks for the heat he harvests, he now heats his home and gets his domestic hot water completely free of his boiler. The lesson he's learned is that solar-derived hot water matches perfectly with the lower water temperatures required by radiant heat. He explains his commonsensical approach at: www.bobgagnon.com/SolarRadiationPage.htm

While I was there, another visitor told his own sustainable energy story. He'd just installed a photovoltaic array on his roof that takes care of all his electrical needs and then some, which he sells back to the electrical utility. It cost about $30,000 to install, but he got $15,000 worth of rebates and tax credits (Massachusetts has a clean-energy fund homeowners can draw on and, as you may know, the federal solar tax credit was given an 8-year extension in the recent $700 billion Emergency Economic Stabilization Act.) He estimated he'd be making money off his roof in about 7 years.

The other house caught my attention for a couple of reasons. Not only was it a killer brick-end Federal from the 1800s, it was heated and cooled by a ground-source heat pump, aka a geothermal system, powered by solar electricity. While deeply cutting a home's use of fossil fuels, one flaw in geothermal systems (aside from the costs of drilling deep holes in the ground) is that their pumps use quite a bit of electricity, which partly negates the greenness of the application. Solar electricity closes that loop, and it was wonderful to see an antique building with a state-of-the-art heart ticking away inside.

An aside: this particular house was perched on a hill in the countryside, with its solar array laid out in the back yard. I'm a member of the Cambridge (Mass.) Historical Commission, and we're seeing more and more cases of people seeking permission to mount solar power equipment on their (often historic) roofs; most if not all get approved. I think there's a strong sense that a certain energy future has arrived and accommodations should be made for it.

Final note: NESEA puts out a very good magazine called Northeast Sun; the fall 2008 issue features a fairly exhaustive "sustainable green pages" of 35 green building specialties-from Alternative Technologies to Windows. Click here for more information.

Three Good Things on the Market

1. It's not often you buy a floor, but the best engineered floor on the market, in my opinion, is made by Listone Giordano, out of Perugia, Italy. Engineered floors are essentially high-end plywood, which makes them very stable and thus a great choice over radiant heat and/or concrete (as well as bathrooms and kitchens). The top layer is the wood you see, and since it goes down to the tongue just like any solid tongue-and-groove flooring, it will stand many sandings. Fact is, however, that such sandings will be few and far between: the factory-applied finishes offered with these floors are longer-lasting than those done in the field. Listone Giordano, for example, uses an 8-coat UV-cured finish that comes with a 25-year wear-through warrantee.

One rap against prefinished flooring is the annoying "microbevel," or eased edge, that sits between the planks. Micro or not, they make the floor look, well, manufactured. Listone Giordano does away with that by cutting the plank edges square after the finish is applied; installed, the square edges butt up against each other dead smooth, like a traditional sanded-in-place floor. The wood species and the finishes, including a very sexy one of natural oil, are gorgeous.

I recently visited the Boston-area showroom (there are about a dozen around the country) and was impressed by the floors and the know-how of the Moss brothers, who run the place. Tucked away in a mini mall in Danvers (not a bad destination, actually, for those on the house furnishings hunt, as InnuWindow, California Closets, Heartwood Kitchens, Eastern Butcher Block, and Circle Furniture also have stores there), the showroom features floors you don't usually see. Planks 5 1/2" wide, tropical woods like afzelia, morado, and sirari, straight-grained French maple, reclaimed heart-pine. The stuff ain't cheap, nor should it be-prices range from about $6/square foot for single-length French white oak to $18 for some of the wider and more exotic products. No wonder a couple of our beloved Red Sox have these floors in their homes. www.europeanwoodfloors.com

2. One of the best field trips we ever took on This Old House was to the Bradbury & Bradbury wallpaper factory out in Benicia, California. Sensuous, silk-screened, and handmade on 90-foot tables, Bradbury papers are considered the gold standard for period appropriate walls, from Arts and Crafts to their new "Mod Generation" line from the 1960s (take a detour on the website to check these latter babies out).

The latest thing to come out of the studio is fabric, in three William Morris-inspired motifs of sunflowers, willow fronds, and acanthus leaves. Having never done much on the fabric front, I don't know how often one might change drapes, pillows and table runners, but these may spur you to do so sooner rather than later.

3. You'll recall the hoopla around compact fluorescent lights-major savings, if everyone used them greenhouse gases would drop significantly, etc. Then we found out that the light quality wasn't so great and there was this nasty problem about throwing them away, what with the mercury they contain. The light quality and dimmability have greatly improved, but the mercury remains.

Now comes what a Department of Energy official predicts will save Americans $280 billion in energy costs over the next 20 years and will, by the end of that period, account for 70% of the lighting market. Enter LEDs, light-emitting diodes. They use 85% less electricity and last 30 times as long as incandescent bulbs...but they cost about 5 times more. That's to be expected for something at the beginning of its manufacturing history, but with prices falling about 25% every year, lumen output (brightness) per watt rising, and increasing product quality and diversity, it's pretty clear LEDs will be in your home soon.

To learn more, I went Wolfers Lighting in Allston, Massachusetts, to see their new "Green Zone," which shows various lighting sources, their relative merits, and gives tips about energy savings. Lighting designer Susan Arnold admits she's still learning the LED ropes. "Keeping heat away from the diode is key to longevity," she says, "so all the products have large heat sinks, usually metal fins, incorporated into them." That makes them bulky; though some can be screwed into standard sockets like a regular lamp, many are full-on lighting systems with an AC/DC power converter and heat sink separated from the light source. But since they won't be burning out for at least 8 to 10 years, replacing them won't a big part of living with them.

My experience with LEDs is that while some are simply not ready for prime time-weak light for a silly price-others are legit. The color is good and the lumens are there. Give the market another year or so, and I'll bet compact fluorescents will no longer be the future.

In the meantime, here's something I learned at the Green Zone and am imposing on my family: dimming a light, any light, by 25% saves 20% on the electric bill and quadruples the lamp's life. Which, by translating into money saved, brings this newsletter to its full-circle close. Almost.