Net Zero Colonial (January 13, 2015)

A year ago today, Kevin began corresponding with MIT Professor John Fernández, director of the architecture department's Building Technology Program, about the prospect of organizing a small independent study to make our cold old house energy efficient. On December 13, 2014, he visited us with his wife, Malvina Lampietti (together, left), a net zero energy architect and director of Lampietti Fernández Architects in Arlington, MA. (The two are also launching a new company, Metabolic Design Office, to combine their design and technology work.) After touring the premises, interviewing us for hours, and assessing our woefully inadequate thermal resistance with an infrared camera, John decided to assign our house to a graduate student this spring as a demonstration project, to explore “high-tech energy solutions for historic homes.”

At MIT, John aims to forge partnerships between the academy and industry in order to advance green building design and construction ecology, with a focus on emerging and nontraditional materials. He says that our building “begs for high-performance insulation” such as aerogel, which is slowly entering the residential market after decades of nearly exclusive use by NASA and specialized industries because of its astronomical cost. John and Malvina think that with the right products, bolstered by an efficient wood-burning insert and some onsite solar power production, we could reach net zero energy usage—generating as much power as we consume over the course of a year—given that our consumption is frugal, and our house is only about 1,600 square feet.

It will take the likes of MIT to make this strong-boned but thin-skinned survivor energy-efficient, as illustrated by John’s scary thermogram (left), shot the weekend before the winter solstice, when the temperature hovered in the mid-30s. Yellow areas are emitting the most radiant energy, followed by orange, red, violet, and blue zones. (“What blue?,” you may ask, given its near-absence in our house.) Heat will remain a fugitive until we thermocap the building and replace the roof, reinforce all 26 single-glaze windows, and insulate our clapboards and the floor of our early 20th-century kitchen addition.

John was especially intrigued by the most extensive and technically difficult thermal challenge: insulating the clapboards in the original, front portion of our house (c. 1790–1830). Completely uninsulated and backed by skimpy plaster, the wood siding stands a mere 2 inches from the interior walls (3½–5½ inches is the norm), leaving a cavity too shallow to allow a blown-in cellulose insulation to work. Timber frame construction with diagonal braces makes these narrow voids highly irregular as well, depending on the size and spacing of the wood. Closed-cell foam insulation in such a tight, variable cavity could literally blow out our interior plaster, Kevin says. “We don’t really know what’s in the old walls.”

John recommends aerogel pellets, which would work like magic bullets and look the part. Nicknamed “frozen smoke,” aerogel in cubic form (left; photo by Adam Foster/flickr) has the illusory look of a hologram, but its insulating power is very real and measurable—four or five times that of conventional insulation, according to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. “Ordinarily, aerogel is not a good substitute for standard insulation,” John says. “It's used in small-volume applications that require high thermal resistance." But that makes it “ideal” for a building like ours with a severely limited wall cavity, he says.

Aerogel is a “lightweight silica solid derived from gel in which the liquid has been replaced by gas,” according to the website of Aspen Aerogels, in Northborough, MA. Since Dr. Samuel Kistler invented the substance in 1931, it has been considered the world’s best insulator, but the painstaking, time-intensive manufacturing process kept the price prohibitively high for residential use. In just the last few years, some manufacturers have scaled up production and lowered costs enough to promote aerogel as home insulation. But it’s still unaffordable for us as resident curators, restoring a house we’ll never own in exchange for a 25-year lease from the MA Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR); Kevin estimates that it would cost at least $15,000 for materials alone to insulate the original four front rooms. With luck and help from John, we hope to find a local manufacturer, such as Aspen or Boston-based Cabot Corporation, willing to donate product in exchange for inclusion in the MIT Building Technology Program's research portfolio, and for publicity from the DCR, this blog, our open houses, and other potential partnerships. We’re required to welcome the public into our home every year, so we’re well-poised to make it an antique showcase for 21st-century energy efficiency. And in Essex County, MA, amid its dense concentration of colonial and early American houses, we have a captive audience of historic homeowners and aficionados.

John also expressed interest in designing a new roof for us. The one we have is starting to leak, and the old asphalt is molting like snakeskin onto the lawn. As some of you know, I’ve been dreaming of photovoltaic shingles that would look period-appropriate enough to pass muster with the Massachusetts Historical Commission. But John and Malvina convinced me that we’d save time and money—while generating just as much or more power—with a backyard array, possibly mounted on a greenhouse. Before the weather warms and we begin renovating the roof and installing wood shingles, Kevin will take up the antique floor in the attic; insert phase-change insulation, which absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night; and carefully replace the boards. Those planks are the most interesting in the house; some are more than a foot wide, and they were never painted like the floors downstairs. But, knowing Kevin’s meticulous work, the DCR approves of this intrusive strategy.

In the kitchen, we could see our breath when I took this photo of Kevin and Malvina, posing and then overruling one solution after another for insulating the floor. Built in 1910, the room sits about 10 inches above the cold ground, with no basement or crawl space below it. To employ any kind of conventional insulation or radiant heating, we’d have to dig out an access route to install it and risk damaging or weakening the foundation, Malvina says. Kevin considered pumping the void with closed-cell foam, but Malvina and he agreed that vermin would quickly make a home there. We’re about to insulate the ceiling with conventional fiberglass, and the walls will be relatively simply to seal too. Unlike the original post-and-beam part of the house, the kitchen was built with modern milled studs, positioned every 16 inches, leaving a predictable, box-like rectangular cube into which we’ll blow cellulose. These simple measures and the wood-burning fireplace insert we’re about to purchase will make the room habitable in winter.

Throughout the house, the windows are the most egregious egresses for heat, but Kevin can protect them simply enough with custom storm windows. They’ll be expensive, but we don’t need the best and brightest minds to forge a solution to that dilemma.

Our project appeals to Professor Fernández because the problem is focused: “thermal resistance of historic walls.” It would be fairly fast and easy to conduct a test that yielded dramatic, measurable results, he says. And the winning solutions could be scaled for wider use.

“This project plugs into an intransigent problem, which is that it’s much easier to make new construction energy efficient,” John says. Buildings consume 40 percent of the energy used nationwide, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA); while houses built after 1999 are 30 percent larger, they consume the same amount of energy as older homes," according to a 2009 EIA survey.  

“Historic homes are the hardest nuts to crack. But sustainability includes the love of antique houses and the preservation of our historic and cultural legacy,” John says.

It will take a tremendous amount of work to make our place sustainable, but this fuel for thought from MIT will warm us through another winter. And I’ve already reserved a second website domain:


Sun-Cured Kitchen (May 29, 2014)

Kevin finished our kitchen cabinets Sunday morning, just in time for the open house we hosted from noon til 2pm, to fulfill our commitment as resident curators for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. Here's the same room in 2011, before we broke ground on the project.

Before we started renovating, this room was dismal—mostly north-facing, with dingy beige walls, trimmed in a putty color, and a checkerboard floor that left behind a tenacious residue of tar paper and mastic, which Kevin pried up with a heat gun. After Farrow & Ball donated the paint for the project, we settled on Blazer for the trim and Tallow for the walls and ceiling because they lit up best when we wandered the room at various times of day with the color charts. Now it’s warm even at midday, when the sun forsakes it for the south-facing front rooms; and in the morning and afternoon, illuminated by the east- and west-facing windows, it glows. 

In order to meet state code on a state-owned building, we had to forfeit our vision of a period setting with an antique gas stove and the original porcelain sink. Modern fixtures were mandatory, so we honored the utilitarian aspect of old farmhouse kitchens by opting for stainless steel countertops and appliances, while evoking the past with beadboard, schoolhouse lighting, and our one splurge in the room—the cream-colored hand-made tiles and porcelain cast-iron double sink by Kohler. 

Kevin built the island and all the cabinetry himself for less than $1,000, including the cast-iron hardware. The main countertop is scaled for him, at 40 inches high; the lower prep surface on the island is for me. He ran the appliances galley-style off the wet wall he constructed to house the plumbing. Eventually we’ll find black stools to line the bar, and pots will hang from a cast-iron rod below that shelf above the sink and countertop.

At the western end of the room, Kevin slapped together 10-foot planks as a placeholder until we can afford a trestle table with an antique top. Another modern bridge to the past, the Andover chairs (by Davis Allen of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) are a mid-century nod to the Windsor chair that's so prevalent in these parts. I nabbed ten for a decent price last year on 1stdibs.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we had to resign ourselves to an electric oven, because our neighborhood doesn’t have a gas hookup. Kevin is still doggedly plotting other ways to cook with fire, but on most days he’s contented with the precision of the induction stove and convection oven.

I’m still scheming to power the room with sunlight, though conventional solar panels aren’t an option for our antique building.



Lately I’ve been wondering whether a metal roof could accommodate inconspicuous solar panels between the standing seams. While I was chagrined to learn today that I didn’t invent the idea, I was moreso thrilled to discover that several companies are selling solar laminate designed to sit between the ridges on a standing seam roof. 

The owner of this old house says strangers ask about his roof because they like how it looks and leave delighted to learn that it’s photovoltaic.  

Even on this chilly day in late May, my outlook is finally brightening after the hard, cold winter of 2014. 


The Four Seasons (December 30, 2012)

Last night's snowstorm brought the first fluffy white dump that stuck since my husband, Kevin, and I became resident curators in late 2011. A mere three inches accumulated, but it was proof enough that we'd made our first sweep through all four seasons as Bay Staters. I'm commemorating with this reverse chronological slideshow that demonstrates, in broad strokes, our progress on the house in the last year. The winter shot shows off Kevin's clapboard restoration (we can't believe how creamy the color, Farrow & Ball Tallow, looks against the snow—compared to the shot that follows, from mid-October, in which the same color looks pearly white). In that fall photo, we had just sown tall fescue grass and covered the seeds with weed-free salt marsh hay for protection above that pink diagonal line (below it, the embankment gets steep, so we'll plant a low-maintenance groundcover there in spring). The summer shot illustrates our meadow experiment, when we let the grass grow higher than a foot tall just to see how it would look (Kevin hadn't yet painted the doors or started work on the siding at that point). The spring photo is a repeat, from the Reuters shoot last spring, but it's the only one from the season that shows the front facade. 

But a bit more on the winter wonderland we awoke to this morning, inspiring this post: Cross-country ski trails lace the state park we live in, and when I trekked through it this morning I saw only one other pedestrian on foot like me; everyone else was gliding through the pristine powder on skis. This clever couple had harnessed themselves to their gorgeous huskies—strengthening my rationale for buying skis by winter 2013, once we've finished the major work on the house, and for possibly choosing this hardy breed when we get a dog in the spring. 


Hurricane Sandy's Wake-up Call (November 4, 2012)

Behold how narrowly we avoided a TKO from Hurricane Sandy Monday afternoon. Hours before the storm made landfall, winds ripped down this huge branch from a locust tree on the east side of our house. A foot-wide bludgeon, it tore down our power line, leaving our lights undimmed but pinning the live wire to the ground and sparing Kevin—who was working by the second-story windows nearest the tree (above center)—by a matter of feet. He heard it crack, recognized the sound, and fled to the other side of the house without looking back. Now he's gloating the branches didn't so much as scratch his new paint job on the front facade, but Monday he felt like he'd dodged a bullet.

We sustained no other damage and retained power til Wednesday, when National Grid flipped the switch and dispatched these tree removal experts from Indiana (above) to saw out a path to the live wire. 

National Grid took it from there that afternoon. These line men wore special gloves and used insulated tools to sever the line, hitching it high in the trees (above right) so no one got hurt until our electrician installed new service. 

And here he is—Justin Heath, our state-licensed Master Power Ranger (left, above left), accompanied by his sidekick Mo. They showed up Saturday morning at 9am to remount our service. From there, we thought we'd wait for days on National Grid, but by late afternoon we had juice. While we were out clearing our heads on Halibut Point, the line men drove by, saw the new conduit, and fired us up. We'd been holing up in our old Ipswich apartment and thought we'd be there until Tuesday—thanks to the generosity of our friend and former landlady, Sydney Phillips—but by 11am this morning, we'd packed up, cleaned up, and settled back into our dear old house.

Snug and warm at home, we're pondering: Who'd have guessed that Hurricane Sandy's meanest henchmen would prove to be trees? They accounted for at least 17 of 113 deaths (as of this writing) plus innumerable near misses like this one that struck too close to home for us to ignore. We're viewing it as a wake-up call from Mother Nature—carrying a big stick and speaking at the top of her green lungs.

Tons and tons of dead trees surround our property—most menacingly on this eastern side of our house (above), where they're only about 15 feet from our roof and clapboards. Once we take down the offending locust and a dozen other zombies of the forest, the benefits will resonate. 

Chiefly, we'll diminish this major traffic hazard. See this horse truck below on the right? Its driver can't see our house as he rounds a wide bend in the road.

Until the cab clears the treeline, here's the view from the passenger window. 

Even with most leaves off the trees, the house comes as a surprise—especially to drivers, presumably looking straight ahead at the blacktop. What's worse, once you pass the trees, it's only 70 feet to our driveway—which jerks back at a 110-degree angle from this direction (the north), shown below. Try to make that sharp turn right with yet another horse truck like this one behind you and you're clipped.

Ultimately we'll reroute the driveway at a right angle to the road. Meanwhile, we'll remove those trees, to help announce the blind curve. 

With the trees down, we'll also gain our first load of free firewood and start the process of drying it, so it's ready to burn for fuel by the time we purchase a fireplace insert next winter. And we'll shed even more light on the office and guest room. We've also assumed a longer view and started researching plug-in electric cars—but that's definitely the stuff of another post. Stay tuned for more on that topic and our clapboard restoration (late summer), our guardian horticulturalist and the rehabilitation of our front lawn (mid-October), our office renovation (late October), and the completion of our kitchen (in the works). I'm woefully behind on my blogging since I started a new job in September, but Sandy has spurred me back into action.


Timber! Hurricane Sandy Strikes Home (October 29, 2012)

Sandy just ripped down one of our huge old locust trees, missing the house—and the second-story room where Kevin was working in front of the window—by inches. I heard a crack like thunder and what sounded like someone falling down the stairs. When I stood to run up there, hollering to see if Kevin was OK, I saw the treetop in the first floor windows. All day I'd been reassuring friends and family that we'd probably be fine—though we're only seven miles from the coast and surrounded by a forest with lots of standing deadwood—but clearly I spoke too soon. 

The trunk took down the power line and smashed the meter, so National Grid will have to turn off our brand new service before they head over here—ASAP they say—to clip the line. Lucky for us, our former landlady in Ipswich, who is now our friend, said we could stay in our old apartment (aka the rabbit hutch) if we lose power tonight. The wind and trees surrounding our property have been doing a rough tango all afternoon, and we'd been looking forward to more spectacular drama, but I think we've had enough for the day.