Not everything about green or sustainable homes is sexy. The majority of what makes a structure green or sustainable you don’t even see. That is the case for the first big project we tackled after we purchased the home in 2005. We decided to first air seal and insulate our attic because the existing levels when we bought the home were anywhere from 0”-4” of blown fiberglass which is an insulating value of R0-10. Now back in the 60’s when the house was build and energy was cheap this was an acceptable level, however not by today’s standards. Now after working in the field performing home comprehensive home energy audits for a little over two years I understand the majority of homeowners do not know this or fully understand what it’s purpose is and how it works. They just know their bills are high and they are not comfortable. And as a young door to door sales girl asked me one time, “How many inches of insulation do you have in the attic”. Which to my surprise, many people do not know the answer to that question, and of course for the professionals reading, the answer in part is it depends on the type of insulation that is up there that determines the overall thickness that should be in the attic. So the general rule of thumb in the attic is if you can see the ceiling framing, then you don’t have enough insulation. Now since my wife and I are in the design and construction industry we knew at the time we started the projects, buildings we were designing required and R-30 for attic insulation. So we did not have to have a home energy audit performed on the home to know by adding insulation to the attic we would save money on our heating and cooling bills. So our decision was to install an additional R49 to bring the overall insulation levels up to an R55.
By the numbers:
Adding R-19 expected to save – $346 yr
Additional R-30 expected to save – $93 yr
Total estimated yearly savings of – $439yr
Savings estimated utilizing REM/Design
Now insulating the attic was a two year process, as the decision was to split it up into 2 phases by air sealing and installing a layer of 6” R19 fiberglass blanket insulation in-between the ceiling framing in phase 1. Then with the energy savings from that project, it helped offset the cost to purchase and install an additional insulation layer of R30 running perpendicular to the first layer.
Therefore, a couple of years ago now I wrote an article stating my interest in participating in the 1000 Home Challenge to use my home as a case study to find strategies to reduce an existing homes energy usage by 70-90%. In August of 2012 my home was accepted into the program. Why the 1000 Home Challenge instead of a program like LEED for Homes? At the time that my wife and I began the journey of “greening” our 1965 ranch home the LEED program did not make it easy to certify an existing home without completely gutting the home and that was never our intention. Sym-Homes’ mission was to show homeowners affordable strategies to make their home more energy efficient. As not everyone can afford, or is up to the work that is involved with taking the exterior walls down to the bare studs. Also the LEED for Homes and other energy efficiency programs are a onetime test and certification that is based off of energy modeling and tests/inspections of installed measures. With the Thousand Home Challenge there will be a one year monitoring period of the utility bills to verify that improvements are performing as expected and that the homes overall energy usage is meeting the set targets.
The first of our home improvements projects to cut the energy usage in the home was air sealing in the attic. Now I have to admit that when I started doing the work in 2005, I did not fully understand the importance. Now that I inspect homes or follow up on insulation contractors’ work, I see firsthand how important air sealing work really is.
A simple explanation of what air sealing is, it is the work performed on the home to reduce the amount of air infiltration into the home by sealing small and sometimes large gaps and crevices. I utilized the DO–IT–YOURSELF Guide to Sealing & Insulating with ENERGY STAR to perform the air sealing in the attic before installing insulation. These holes in the home can waste approximately 25% of the typical homes heating and cooling cost and is almost always the most cost effective improvement that can be done to most homes to reduce the utility bills and increase the indoor air quality (IAQ).
Air sealing not only helps reduce your heating and cooling costs, but sometimes more importantly, air sealing helps to improve the indoor air quality and durability of the home. Tighter homes typically have less dust because not as much gets pulled in through these cracks; they are typically more durable because excessive air and moisture does not enter the walls or attic that could cause mold and rot.
The goal of air sealing your attic is to make the ceiling as air tight as possible to stop any air movement. Now most home owners don’t think of their attic being full of holes. However it is full of them, plumbing stack penetrations, wires, can lights and other ceiling fixtures. If you hold your hand over these holes, you can feel the hot or cold air from inside your home making its way into the attic, costing you money. Because as this conditioned air leaves your home, unconditioned air is being pulled into your home through other gaps or crevices in your home, typically in the basement (more on sealing the basement in a future post). When your home has low levels of insulation, it is easy to find these holes. However if you have good levels of insulation, you can find these holes by looking for discolored insulation, as most insulation types are air filters and the discoloration is a sign of air movement. So review the air sealing guide, buy a few tubes of caulk and cans of Great Stuff and seal up those holes and start saving.
Here is a video series on the Fine Homebuilding magazine website on air sealing your attic that is worth watching, or check out other attic air sealing videos on YouTube.
Some of the very first projects that we did to the home even before we moved in had a great impact on our home, transforming it into a “green” machine. Now they had no impact on the energy efficiency of the home, however they have made a great impact on the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), which is a very important issue as you tighten up the home and improve its overall performance.
Loading carpet to be recylced.
The first project we tackled was removing about 75% of the wall to wall carpeting in the home. This ended up being the main living areas, hallways, as well as our expected child’s room. We did feel somewhat guilty for removing the brand new carpet that the previous home owner installed to sell the house. Especially since we removed it in July, and according to the label, it was manufactured in May of the same year. So as you can imagine, it was in excellent shape. So the larger pieces went to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore to be reused in someone else home. The remainder of the carpeting found its way into a trailer on its way to get recycled thanks to a local carpet installer.
Dirt found under some of the carpet that was removed.
Our primary reason removing the carpet was to expose the hard wood flooring that runs throughout the majority of the house and was hidden by the carpet. We had the floor refinished using Bona waterborne finish that has very low levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), and is very durable. Another reason for removing the carpet was we did not want our newborn child crawling on the carpet. So the carpet was replaced with an all natural handmade wool area rug in our living room. The reason being is an area rug can be thoroughly cleaned where wall to wall carpet will hold onto dirt, dander, dust mites and pollutants that people track in from the outdoors, such as oil and pesticides and can never be fully removed. A question posted after we removed our carpet here on the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) Green Home Guide website stated that the average carpet removed from a home is seven times heavier than when it was installed. This being contributed to the fact that carpets cannot be cleaned thoroughly like an area rug can.
Back in 2005 my wife and I purchased this ranch with a walk out basement. It is/was your typical 1960′s stick built home. Very low levels of insulation, single pane aluminum windows, with an unfinished basement and a huge backyard for the area, with lots of old growth trees. The view out of the dinning room window was the selling point. Some other nice amenities is that it is in a developed neighborhood with schools that are within walking distance, grocery within a mile. The town also has a very active year round farmers market. Plus the home was the mid point between both of our jobs at that time and is relatively close to a bus route.
The back of our home as it was purchased in 2005
However during the home inspection we found some troubling things. There was little to no insulation in the attic, the basement walls were uninsulated. And what makes that even worse is the fact that half of the house foundation is above ground. Not to mention the aging heating and cooling equipment. So we looked at this house as a blank slate, giving us the opportunity to not only renovate the home to fit our needs, but to do everything in an environmentally friendly way and to do it within our limited budget.
So this is where “Symbiotic Home” originally began. A website to help educate others on what can be done to green their existing home. Now with a good portion of the projects done, I will be developing this new series of posts that will backtrack and document each of the projects that we have tackled, and will even discuss future projects that we would like to accomplish. Giving you a glimpse of what we have been doing, how we have been doing it, and why as we green this energy pig.
So follow my home renovations as I walk the walk and show that green/sustainable construction can happen on the typical working families budget and I look forward to the discussions that this may create.