Surprise: My Orange House is Pretty Green!

A confession here: I had been feeling a wee bit disappointed lately, thinking that I had lost the only opportunity I would ever have to build my dream house. I have been visualizing green houses – straw bale houses, earthships, container houses, houses with grey water systems and green roofs – for a long time.

The author's house in Carbondale, Colorado

My house does have a green roof, but it’s not the kind on which sheep can safely graze.

But for reasons of purse and practicality, my main squeeze and I bought a modest, three-bedroom, ranch style house, circa 1983, in a quiet neighborhood here in Carbondale, Colorado, down the road from Aspen. Not a “green house” to my way of thinking.

But we’re working on greening this little pumpkin-colored house, working to save water, natural resources and energy.

The first thing we did before moving in was to have an energy assessment and thermal imaging done to show us where it was leaking. Those photos, as you will see here, have tales to tell.

Truth be told, I have written about this topic long enough that I already knew what the photos would show. Heat leaks out of an uninsulated roof, old-style single-paned windows, an uninsulated floor, and any holes in the walls. (Such as the dog door that we immediately asked our contractor to close.)

A thermal image of the living room ceiling. It's easy to see where the heat is going. We sent the contractor into the attic - which is and was insulated - but sure enough, there was a big gap in the insulation right where the photo showed it would be.

We immediately added spray-foam insulation and a moisture barrier to the crawl space under the floor, and we added insulation and weather-stripped in all the places where the images showed heat escaping.

The change was dramatic. The house felt drafty before, and the day after the insulation went in, it felt cozy and snug. (At least until you approach one of those leaky windows.)

I also closed and insulated those ubiquitous five-inch-in-diameter-holes-in-wall that you will find under sink vanities. Those monster holes that allow small water pipes to enter the house? Why, oh why do contractors cut holes three times as big as the pipe and then fail to fill them? This is third house where I have conducted this particular operation after feeling a very noticeable draft on my feet while brushing my teeth!

We’re planning to replace all the leaky windows with efficient ones, and to also improve the daylighting by adding a skylight, but we need to wait until finances improve for that. Our contractor, Tim Rafaelson, recommended that we replace all of the coving along the floors, and all the trim around the windows for thermal reasons. I was dubious. But Tim had me put my hand next to the old trim, fancy routed strips with a tongue and groove pattern that was very good at catching dust, and the draft was easily felt. You can also see the cold in the thermal image of the window. Replacing that trim, foam-sealing the gap between the wall board and the door or window frames, and then tightly attaching the new trim, made a heck of a difference.

This photo doesn't have much to do with insulation; I just couldn't post a whole blog without showing you how inviting the place has become. That sun is streaming in from the south exposure. In this photo, you can also see the Waterford gas stove in the living room. It's quite an efficient little stove - if a bit homely, in my view. We call her "Mabel." Since all the rooms radiate off this central living room, Mabel does a pretty good job of warming most of the house. We rarely use the electric baseboard heaters.

I have been redecorating rooms as well – and writing about that – and it’s getting to be a lovely, inviting and comfortable house. I’m having a housewarming this weekend, and my lovely friend the Reverend Barbara Palmer is going to perform a house blessing ritual for us.

But even though it will be blessed, it will never going be a straw bale house or a Passive House.

Face it. My house is orange, not green.

I was feeling a little disappointed about that until yesterday, when I was looking through old blog posts and repairing broken photo links. In the process, I stumbled across the post I had written about the house that US Green Building Council David Gottfried had built in Oakland. Among the major reasons that Gottfried’s house was green – it was not a new house!

Gottfried retrofitted an existing house. One that is very similar in size to my pumpkin-colored house. His has 1,440 square feet; mine is about 1,500. His house, like mine, is well-sited with a significant southern exposure that is perfect for solar panels. (I don’t have any panels yet, but I bought the house with an eye to that possibility. We get on the order of 290 days of sunshine a year here.) My house, like Gottfried’s, is within walking distance of shopping and public transit. (If you’re going for a LEED rating, you get points for that.)

Thermal imaging showing cold seeping in around the window frame.

There’s ever so much still to be done to green-up my orange house, but I was gratified to rediscover that there are huge energy savings to be tallied when people retrofit existing houses, rather than build new ones. And I’m not just talking about the energy used to heat the house and its occupants.

New York architect Richard Stein, working with researchers at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana, found that constructing a 4,600 square meter building uses about as much energy as it takes to drive a car over 22 million kilometers – or more than 600 times around the earth!

My house from the back. The long axis of the house, and the peak line of its roof, is oriented east/west so that the roof you see here is perfectly situated for solar panels.

The “embodied energy” in a house – that is, the amount of energy it takes to manufacture the materials, ship them, cut them and build the house – can range from 30 to 50% of the total energy used by the house over its lifespan. This is what’s known as the home’s lifetime “carbon budget.”

Taken together, the running and construction of homes and buildings in America use a whopping 45% of our total energy budget. That’s a very big deal, with big implications for climate change.

Now I’m not making any claims for this house being highly energy efficient or environmentally responsible, or any such thing. I was just surprised – and happy – to rediscover the lesson that what’s old is new, when it comes to homes.

And how could I not be concerned about my home’s carbon budget?

After all, I live in Carbondale!

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