Can This Home Be Greened? This Massachusetts Home Needs a Makeover

Two young parents want to improve the health and efficiency of their 1970s home.

| September/October 2009

  • Exterior doors are prime for air sealing.
    Photo By Paul Marquis
  • The old deck is unsafe and should be replaced.
    Photo By Paul Marquis
  • The moldy basement carpet is a health issue.
    Photo By Paul Marquis
  • Nada, Paul and Peter enjoy their home.
    Photo By Paul Marquis
  • Careful landscaping will protect the stream.
    Photo By Paul Marquis
  • The draft windows need an update.
    Photo By Paul Marquis
  • Bonded Logic recycled denim insulation is nontoxic.
    Photo Courtesy Bonded Logic
  • Efficiency is important in New England's cold winters and hot summers.
    Photo By Paul Marquis

Nada and Paul Heredia and their infant son, Peter, live in a modest, 1,750-square-foot home in Canton, Massachusetts. Both commuters, they chose their home for its convenient location, walk-out basement and for the stream that runs along the backyard.

But it needs renovations. Nada and Paul’s top concern is providing a safe haven for their family—especially young Peter, whose recent kidney transplant and subsequent need for immunosuppressant medications make indoor air quality a top priority. The home also needs efficiency upgrades; their winter fuel oil bill is around $400 and the average monthly electric bill is around $100. The couple wants to replace their wall-to-wall carpeting, the rear deck, driveway and windows.

With some careful budgeting and a few trade-offs, the $50,000 or so that the Heredias have set aside should cover the necessary improvements.

Efficiency and health concerns

Better insulation and windows will make the Heredia home more efficient. They must remove their moldy carpet.

1. Augment attic insulation.

I visited the home last winter on a 12-degree day when snow covered the neighboring roofs. The Heredias’ snow-free roof showed the attic is gaining heat from the home below. The attic insulation is 6 inches of fiberglass batts (R-19), installed irregularly, leaving gaps. An infrared scan of the roof rafters read about 46 degrees. The attic temperature would be closer to the outside temperature if it were properly insulated and vented.
Heat leakage into the attic also can lead to “ice dams,” which cause water to back up under roof shingles and potentially cause roof leaks. The icicles hanging from the Heredias’ roof were evidence of conditions leading to ice dams.

Solutions: Install at least 9 additional inches of insulation, preferably denim or formaldehyde-free fiberglass batts, or blown-in, loose-fill cellulose or fiberglass. Though they cost more than fiberglass, denim batts would be better for a do-it-yourself (DIY) project; the fibers are less hazardous and easier to work with than standard fiberglass. Seal the attic opening around the laundry room dryer duct, and insulate and weatherstrip the attic hatch.

Cost: $2,000; less than $500 as a DIY job; local utility may pay a substantial part of the insulation cost; contact utility or check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE). 

2. Insulate basement and remove carpet.

In the basement, carpet installed directly over a concrete floor has gotten moldy. Concrete basement floors and walls are colder than the enclosed air most of the year, resulting in condensation and ideal mold conditions—particularly in homes without central air conditioning (like this one).

Solutions: The Heredias should immediately remove the carpet and set up a dehumidifier. Next, they should insulate the walls and isolate the floor, using a floor-insulating system such as DRIcore (a dimpled plastic mat bonded to tongue-and-groove OSB “tiles”). The dimples in the plastic raise the subfloor, isolating it from the concrete.

Before they drywall, Paul and Nada should check the product’s source. Drywall has made news because of offgasing sulfur compounds. Magnesium oxide substitutes are durable and water-resistant but high in embodied energy. California’s CleanBoard makes 100 percent recycled gypsum drywall in a solar factory. Many domestic drywall producers also use recycled gypsum. Choose area manufacturers to reduce embodied energy.

They should enhance insulation in the finished basement areas with “pour fill” Icynene, expanding foam insulation, which allows damp foundation walls to dry.

Cost: $10,000 to $15,000, depending on method and installer

3. Install energy-efficient windows.

The 1970s double-hung, insulating sash windows are drafty, and one of the sashes has a broken pane. Some windowsills and exterior trim show signs of decay.

Solutions: Total window replacement might be unnecessary. The exterior window trim is salvageable with proper care. The existing, insulating windows are in reasonably good condition, so adding high-quality storm windows is a cost-effective alternative. However, completely replacing the windows with newer units has aesthetic and maintenance advantages. If the Heredias replace entire windows, they should choose Energy Star, low-E, inert gas-filled, double-glazed units with thermally nonconductive frames.

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