Jeff Wilson and his wife, Sherri, fell in love with the very first house they toured on their hunt for real estate in the rural college town of Athens, Ohio. There, a rich culture of local food and progressive thinking are as much a part of the landscape as Appalachia's rolling foothills.
"We realized [Athens] would fit our low-impact lifestyle -- you can walk anywhere," Wilson says, noting that his children's school is three blocks away -- and the library, post office and pharmacy are just a short walk away.
With their 3-year-old and newborn in tow, the Wilsons bought the 1940s Cape Cod-style kit house, knowing that the home needed a lot of love inside and out, and a great deal of infrastructural attention to bring it up to 21st century standards.
And Wilson, an energy efficiency zealot, isn't satisfied with "standard."
Setting a New Standard
As Wilson started renovating the two-bedroom, 1.5-bathrooom house, he looked into improving the building envelope. That includes everything that stands between indoor and outdoor air, from interior wall paint to plaster, insulation, siding, windows, doors and the roof.
But rather than doing basic weatherization, replacing a few windows or adding insulation, Wilson wanted a more drastic energy efficient overhaul. He set a goal – to lower his energy costs from an average of $150/month to practically nothing. In order to reduce his energy needs by 50 to 60 percent, Wilson had to do a Deep Energy Retrofit (DER), which involves looking at everything energy in a home, from insulation to appliances and windows.
"Comfort was also a big part -- and indoor air quality," Wilson adds, noting a desire to control temperature and humidity, especially with problems like excessive mold in the basement's particle-board paneling.
The Challenge of an Old House
The challenge with a home of this era is that back then, homebuilders didn't focus on envelope efficiency, and the efficient building materials we have today just didn't exist. Wilson needed to remove the siding and build the envelope from scratch -- and the same went for the roof, a major energy leakage point. "You almost have to build a new house around the old house," Wilson says. "You have to remove the siding, add the sealed house wrap and put the siding back on."
Insulation standards were much different in the 1940s. Wilson estimates his home's R-value (a measure of insulation, with higher ratings being better) as R-15 before the DER because of leaky, low-insulated 2x4 walls. "An ideal wall in a passive-solar house shoots for R-30 walls and an R-60 roof," he says. A passive-solar home is one that is designed to use the sun's energy for heating and cooling through simple solutions like orientation toward the sun.
Wilson's house is one of millions with this problem. He cites these statistics: Out of the country's 126 million dwellings, 96 million are more than 20 years old, and 82 million are more than 30 years old. "Those are a lot like my house: leaky, inefficient and in need of repair," he says. "I realized this was a huge issue and wanted to find ways to [improve our home] that could be adapted for anyone."
A Long To-Do List Ahead
Wilson's house had been through a lot, and it showed. It contained only a spare amount of insulation in the attic, nothing more. Windows were cracked, wood was rotted. Aesthetically speaking, walls and ceilings were painted a depressing light gray with blue trim. At one time, the home was inhabited by renters, and being in a college town, the revolving door of owners who probably lived there never dedicated the time or money into rehabbing the place.
But Wilson and his wife saw past the Cape Cod's troubles. "We are small home people," Wilson says of the footprint, with two bedrooms upstairs: one for the kids, one for the parents. "We believe that the less space you have, the less there is to take care of and clean, and it's cheaper to run."
Besides the location, they loved the home's white-washed brick facade, bay windows and big backyard. The rest, Wilson says, could be renovated and retrofitted.
And so the checklist began to grow as Wilson plotted how to convert his 1940s abode into a lean, energy efficient machine by using off-the-shelf technology that would last for the next 100 years. "We could see the potential," Wilson says.
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