By Lorna Larsen
I was privileged to tour Martha Rose’s latest development, Fish Singer Place, just a block or so from the community college. These four houses are basically new construction, even the one that I’m going to focus on in this essay, which, although considered a “remodel” was stripped to the studs. This is more than most home owners would ever do, but in looking over this extreme remodel, I saw some solutions that might work for a more moderate approach to energy savings.
One thing that particularly struck me, which we seldom emphasize in the Zero Energy program, is Martha’s consistent focus on minimizing embodied energy and supporting the community by buying locally as much as possible.
The Fish-Singer house, Lot 3, is a three storey house with about eight hundred square feet each floor. The stairwell runs basically up the middle of the house. As I said before, the house was essentially gutted, which is more than most people will do for a simple weatherization. Also, Martha added the third storey in order to keep the footprint of the original, historic structure. One of the features of this house is a thermostatically controlled system that ducts warm air from the top floor back down to the basement. This intrigued me, because of the stack effect that we discussed in class – I would expect that in addition to moving heat, the fan would also redistribute the pressure in the house.
There’s also a ventilation system with a heat exchanger – it vents air from the bathrooms, kitchen and laundry rooms, which are the most heat-producing rooms in the house. The air coming into the house is pulled from the north side of the house, in part because there are several appliance vents on the east side of the house. Martha claims that other, similarly vented, houses are almost entirely free of mildew problems in the “wet” areas, like bathrooms.
The windows in the Fish-Singer house are made by Serious Windows. They are dual pane windows, but they have two suspended films, with low-E coatings, so there are three air spaces in them. The suspended films are all but invisible. That is, they were completely invisible to my forty three year old eyes, but these days I assume that people younger than I am would be able to see more. The company claims R 9.1 for these windows, which including the trick IGU also have durable, paintable fiberglass frames with foam insulation. They’re also expensive. On the home remodeling boards I looked at, most people agreed they weren’t willing to pay the extra price.
During the tour, Ms Rose told us there are two kinds of windows – the kind that leaks, and the kind that’s going to leak. Her company installs a custom-fabricated stainless steel pan under every window, sloped to drain outside, and with a drip edge to protect the siding. The rough openings for the windows are wrapped with extruded polystyrene insulating foam boards before the windows are put in place. Since there’s also this same insulation installed on the outside of the wall between the sheathing and the siding, it helps keep the thermal bridging to a minimum, even with the stainless steel pan. Although the pans are expensive – about one hundred dollars apiece, this system with the pan and the insulation seemed to me another thing that might be possible on a more modest project, if new windows were involved anyway. Keeping the inside of the wall dry seems worth the hundred dollar investment.
The Fish-Singer house is being built along the lines of the Passive House system, although Martha Rose doesn’t expect or intend it to reach quite that level of efficiency. With that in mind, however, there are some adjustments made with the help of complete home remodeling contractors in Orange County. Almost entirely, the plumbing and electrical systems are routed through the interior walls, so as not to interfere with wall cavity insulation. Also, the plumbing vent pipes will be insulated. This seems like it could potentially be a simple thing for someone to do in the course of plumbing repairs or any other remodel that opened a wall. Most likely there are other vents that could be easily insulated, also. Martha uses blown-in fiberglass insulation for its resistance to water and to compaction.
The tour was quite enjoyable and inspiring. It was fun to imagine what features of the house would easily transfer to other projects. I think that the little extra insulation opportunities could be golden. Specifically I saw the insulation around the plumbing vent pipes and the rough openings of the windows, as well as the drip pans under the windows as being easy additions to a remodeling job that opened the walls. I also think the fan bringing warm air down from the top floor to the basement is a good idea in a multi-storey home. And finally, the very simple idea of buying locally when possible is a good thing to keep in mind on any project of any size. I have added these concepts to my mental “tool box” for projects I may do down the road.