At first glance, the large, two-story, wood-frame farmhouses that dot the American landscape hardly seem candidates for greening. Yet these houses were designed, constructed, furnished, heated, cooled, and maintained in a way that makes conversion easy. Their eco-friendly features include local lumber, many windows for natural ventilation and lighting, and steep roofs with wide overhangs that carry water away from the house and harvest snowmelt and rain. Porches protect the houses from all kinds of weather, and transom windows above doors let breezes blow through the house.
Kim and David Payne and their four kids (Davey, eight; Morgan, six; Mady, four; and Ryan, one) live in one of these farmhouses on eleven acres near Utica, Nebraska. When they moved into David’s grandparents’ farmhouse in 1996, the Paynes immediately began to think about updating the ninety-year-old structure. Kim, who suffers from seasonal allergies, sought healthy building products for the renovation, but she couldn’t find local sources and has been somewhat put off by the cost. David worries alternative building materials won’t last as long as traditional materials. Frustrated, Kim contacted Natural Home and the Lincoln Green Building Group (of which I’m a member) for help.
David’s approach to making the farmhouse more livable is to blow in more insulation, replace the carpeting only where needed, tear off the back porch and add a deck, and build a metal garage. Kim’s more health-conscious ideas focus on replacing the carpet with natural flooring and redoing wall paneling and window treatments. They agreed that replacing the old propane furnace and hot water heater with energy-efficient appliances and fixing or replacing the windows was necessary. The couple wanted a plan that would allow them to return the house to its original style while implementing more environmentally friendly appliances, systems, products, materials, and methods.
Tackling the dust problem
The Paynes have already done several things right. They’ve inserted filtering screens in several windows that allow ventilation while reducing pollutants, and they’ve dealt with the high nitrate level in the well water by installing a reverse-osmosis filter system. They’ve replaced several roof shingles to prevent leaks, and they added a return-air vent in the upstairs hall when they installed an air conditioning unit for the upper level. However, they still had several problems to consider.
Because of a four-year drought, the gravel road that leads to their home is clouded with dust as trucks pass to and from the grain elevator nearby. This dust aggravates Kim’s allergies, which her oldest son, Davey, has inherited. I suggested that they plant two or three rows of shrubs or noninvasive, winter-hardy, clumping bamboo (assuming this isn’t an allergen for Kim) along the north side of the feed yard and the east side of the property to reduce the dust and pollutants reaching the house. In addition, adding gravel to the entry drive will help minimize blowing dirt.
Inside the house, I suggested the Paynes continue installing air filters in all windows and organize clutter to reduce dust and pollutants. Dust and allergens also get trapped in carpet, and the farmhouse is fully carpeted. The living and dining rooms are covered in high-pile carpet, and used carpet has been installed in the bedrooms. I advised them to remove all carpet and, if needed, replace it with natural flooring products such as bamboo, cork, or certified wood. They could add room-size area rugs, small rugs, and runners of natural wool or recycled content throughout the house, as their budget permits. I also suggested the family replace existing upholstered furniture with styles and materials less apt to gather dust, such as leather or wood-framed and lightly upholstered chairs and sofas.
Another option to explore is a whole-house air-filtration system that could help remove dust, mold spores, and pollen, and reduce bacteria, germs, and noxious gases. These systems are easy to include in a retrofit; they’re small enough to fit into a closet, and models are available for both modest and larger homes.
Windows and doors
The Paynes hope to lower their heating and cooling costs, which would allow them to save money so they can replace the single-pane windows, the furnace, and the hot water heater. The first step they took in this process was to put plastic sheeting over the inside frames of windows to reduce air leaks. I also advised installing insulating curtains, first on the north and west windows, then in remaining rooms.
As they can afford it, I suggested that Kim and David add combination storm/screen windows to all existing windows or replace them with double-pane windows, starting with north-side and second-floor windows. In the future, they may replace the full-length windows on the stairway landing with small, high windows that are safer for children. On the east side of the house, an upper porch had been removed, but the exterior door and storm door remain. They could close up that doorway to eliminate air leaks or replace it with a double-pane window.
Heating, cooling, and ventilation
The heating and cooling systems in the house are cause for concern. The old furnace runs on propane, and the ductwork retains dust and other pollutants. I suggested they seek professional advice about replacing the furnace and the ductwork (checking for asbestos) with an under-floor radiant heating system on the first floor. If the basement is converted to a family room or playroom, this system may also facilitate some or all of its heating needs. A baseboard heating system should be sufficient for the rest of the house.
Eventually, the Paynes could also replace the old propane hot water heater with an on-demand hot water heater. If the under-floor radiant heating system is installed between the first-level floor joists, an additional on-demand water heater and manifold can be added.
When the Paynes’s old air-conditioning unit is turned on, there is an odor of mildew. I advised them to replace the unit’s filter frequently, and, if the problem persists, to seek professional advice and testing.
I also suggested they take steps toward making the house more energy efficient and weatherproof, including:
• Insulate around all air ducts, piping, and electrical outlets. ‰ Wrap the hot water heater with insulation.
• Install a dehumidifier in the basement.
• Close off rooms not used during the day.
• Set water heater temperature to 120°F.
• Use water-flow restrictors on showerheads and faucets.
A few years ago, water leaked into the home’s basement; two daylight basement windows were blocked as a result. The basement’s east wall was tuck-pointed and needs to be checked; the basement walls occasionally leak at the corners and should also be checked. To combat the water problems, I suggested adding dirt fill along the foundation walls around the house’s entire perimeter, tapering at a forty-five-degree angle from four inches below the siding to the ground. The dirt should be compacted, and gravel or small rock should be added to hold it in place. A professional company should inspect the basement for mold, mildew, and water leakage and determine how to resolve those problems.
Recently, water leaked into the basement from the home’s gutters. Cleaning the gutters each fall and spring and making sure the downspouts are attached will help alleviate this problem. In addition, I suggested the Paynes raise the pad on which their air conditioning units sit so water doesn’t collect and leak into the basement.
Reviving the porches
Farmhouses originally included porches to keep residents cool and circulate air. On the Paynes’ home, though, I suggested an old, uninsulated porch on the west side of the house be replaced with a straw bale garage and enclosed walkway to the house. Straw is readily available and highly insulating. Placing the garage at the northwest corner of the house will provide additional protection from winds and storms.
The porch on the east side of the house, off the dining room, is not used as an entry or as outdoor living space. Replacing the door to this porch with a French door and upgrading the porch with screening (to keep out insects) and canvas curtains (that can be closed to reduce dust and protect the porch from weather) would allow it to become an outdoor playroom for the kids as well as a family living and entertaining space.
Aluminum siding was added to the house years ago. In 1993, after a straight-line windstorm damaged the siding on the south side, it was replaced. The paint on this siding is now peeling away. The Paynes aren’t sure what type of insulation is behind the siding but know the existing wood siding was not removed. Has moisture built up behind either siding? Is there sufficient insulation in or on the exterior walls? I suggested they have the siding inspected and determine solutions if insufficient insulation and/or moisture build-up exists. The peeling paint should be scraped off and replaced with heat-resistant, low-VOC paint.
Joyce Coppinger brings architects, engineers, contractors, and product suppliers together with potential clients through her consulting business, ReBuild Associates in Lincoln, Nebraska. She and other members of the Lincoln Green Building Group teach natural building through workshops and hands-on training. As executive director of the Green Prairie Foundation for Sustainability, Coppinger creates programs to help agriculture, manufacturing, and construction industries find new markets. She founded the Straw Bale Association of Nebraska and is developing a regional network, the Mid-America Straw Bale Association. Coppinger is the managing editor and publisher of The Last Straw , an international quarterly journal of straw bale and natural building.