Tuesday, October 1, 2013

making the Green Triple Decker real

once we were awarded one of the five pilots to take our 1905 triple decker from HERS 135 (or worse - the lower floors had even worse HERS ratings than we did on the 3rd floor) to HERS 65 or better, we needed a plan.  we sat down and developed some ideas about how to cut energy consumption while at the same time improve the living conditions of the building and make it a more comfortable home.

in a case like this we were trying to balance wants versus needs and think about the project as individual components and as a whole.  wants versus needs is a tough one for anyone doing design and construction work.  we needed to make a proposal and define a scope of work that would hit HERS 65 and there were some general guidelines set forth by the City which included specific targeted items such as insulation and systems as well as some bare minimums we needed to attain, but the specifics were up to us.  we could, if it made sense financially and otherwise, choose a completely unique route to get from 135 to 65.  that route could be replacing some or all of the systems, replacing some or all of the exterior of the house, insulating some or all of the house, etc.

not only were we choosing our own route, we were also working as three individual condo owners deciding what to do to our entire house.  it might be that what makes sense for one floor makes less sense (or even no sense) for another.  for example, the third floor had recently been renovated to add new electrical and all of the interior walls and ceilings were intact.  the first floor was part way through a gut renovation that included removing all interior plaster.  this meant that blowing insulation from the inside could be "easy" for the first floor, but would create havoc on the 3rd.  similarly, we needed to insulate the roof.  blown insulation was chosen as the best solution, but we (the 3rd floor) did not want to poke a hole in every single joist bay in every ceiling of our condo.  so we had to develop a strategy to achieve the insulation value we needed/ wanted without unnecessarily inconveniencing any one specific unit owner and making unnecessary work (patching holes in poorly done popcorn ceiling is pretty much impossible and expensive).

the project strategy was simple: aim for the most valuable (energy wise) items first.  scope items with big impact on energy reduction are more valuable than lesser (or more expensive) ones.  for example, super insulating the house (built in 1905 with almost no insulation) is a huge improvement in energy need in both summer and winter.  it's not glamorous, but it gets the job done.  after tackling the biggest items (basically the exterior/ shell of the building), we aimed inward at the major systems (heating, cooling, hot water, etc).  the third and final category of our project would be the interior and the users (this includes everything from ceiling fans to dual flush toilets and low flow fixtures to CFL or better bulbs).  approaching the project in this manner (from big to little and from outside to inside) helped us make important decisions about where to invest our resources.

now that we've painted a bigger, overall picture, I will start to talk about specific strategies and scope of work, focusing first on the shell and exterior of the building.  stay tuned!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Green Triple Decker Pilot Program - the catalyst

we needed a catalyst, something to get us moving in the right direction or maybe something to get us to pull the trigger, to spend money, and to do the most sustainable project we could afford.  most great projects and ideas need a catalyst.  as you may recall, the Bo01 project in Malmo, Sweden used the European Housing Exposition as it's catalyst for masterplanning the Vastra Hamnen neighborhood and specifically constructing the European Village (note: if you are bored reading my description which was a combination of amazement, awe, and excitement, read this more down to earth, fact filled description).  our Jamaica Plain condo upgrade catalyst started out casual and became very real very fast.

a casual meetup on the front porch over a beer got the deeper conversation started about sustainable living and fixing up our house(s).  every one of the owners (one condo owner per floor) wanted to do something significant to improve each unit as well as the property overall.  this meant coming up with individual strategies as well as thinking about overlap and shared strategies.  in the end we wanted our individual condos to be more comfortable, efficient, and livable and we wanted the whole building to be a great place to call home.  we immediately started talking about the building envelope, about super insulation, and about reduction of energy needs and energy use.  everyone agreed that energy efficiency and sustainability were important, but we didn't know exactly how we would take it to the next level.

one of our crew stumbled upon an announcement from the City of Boston about a "Green Triple Decker" Pilot Program, orchestrated by the BRA.  this program was exactly the catalyst we were looking for to get us going forward.  the City of Boston (along with the energy utilities - NSTAR and NGRID) was offering up to $30,000 to deep energy retrofit approximately 5 triple deckers in Boston.  according to the rules, there would be a preliminary application to narrow down the candidates.  once selected, representatives from the City would work with the homeowners to develop a scope of work that attempted to achieve a HERS rating of 65 or better.

HERS is a system that started in California in 2006 and is now respected across the globe as a method to attach home value (price) to energy use and consumption.  HERS (home energy rating system) basically takes a baseline (bare minimum) typical, wood stud, pink insulation home from 2006 and calls that 100 (as in 100%).  that typical house uses 100% energy.  a worse house (energy wise) uses more than 100 and a better house uses less.  according to this scale, a zero energy house scores a ZERO on HERS and a typical 2006 house scores 100.  an energy star house is 85 (15% better than a typical 2006 home).  the program we were applying for through the City of Boston aimed at 65 (35% better than a typical 2006 home).  our house existing 1000 sf condo, built in 1905 without insulation, would eventually be measured by an official HERS rater.  our unit topped out at 135 (35% worse than a typical home).  going from 35% worse than a new home to 35% better must be a piece of cake, right?
HERS rating, started in California in 2006, aims to tie home energy use to home value.
HERS, a scoring system developing and implemented in California in 2006, is the first successful system to tie home energy use to home value.  the system scores 0 as a zero energy home and 100 as a new "typical" home in 2006.  according to the Green Triple Decker Pilot Program sponsored by the City of Boston, we needed to achieve a HERS rating of 65 or better to receive the grant (35% better than a new home built in 2006). 
as soon as we discovered this potential cash inflow to jump start our sustainable makeover and aim us toward specific energy goals, we flew into production mode.  we drafted an essay for the submission including resumes and appendices.  several members of our condo association had previous experience in sustainable design and construction both in practice and in theory.  in fact, half of us had worked on the 2009 Solar Decathlon project for the BAC/ Tufts zero energy 800 square foot solar home, called curio.  that project could be a blog all to itself, but if you are interested in learning more, check out the department of energy's description of curio.

we applied for the program, ended up on the short list, and eventually were awarded one of five grants to deep energy retrofit our 1905 Jamaica Plain condo.  the next part was the hardest part.  we knew the windows and doors were terrible, that there was virtually no insulation, and that the systems were old and wasteful.  we just needed to figure out what to do, how to do it, where to invest, and how to stretch as far as we could...

to be continued...

Friday, September 6, 2013

our third floor condo in Jamaica Plain... some "before pics"

when we bought the condo about three and a half years ago (january 2010), I promised that I would upgrade the place by making a prioritized list of things that needed to be fixed immediately, short term and long term projects, and wish list items.  as soon as we moved in and started living in the house, we realized that the list was longer than we originally anticipated.  things that you don't know are wrong with the house are suddenly horribly wrong and things you thought were kinda bad turn out to be terrible.
the entire cabinet interior was moldly, punky, soft, and completely rotten
I guess there was a leak under the sink... for a couple years!
the electricity was pretty good.  every outlet worked except one (and there certainly was not enough electricity in key locations such as the bathroom and the kitchen).  the hot and cold water worked.  some of the burners on the stove worked and the fridge worked (although every single plastic shelf in the door and in the main part of the fridge was broken completely, cracked beyond repair, or missing... oh, yeah, and there was a string on one of the door shelves serving to hold things from falling off).
looking at possible kitchen cabinet and wall opening design
envisioning a new kitchen: we put up blue tape on the existing cabinets and wall so we could see what would be left if we created an opening between the kitchen and dining room and adjusted cabinet locations.

the gas boiler in the basement worked, but the radiators were finicky and kicked off very uneven heat, leaving the living room frigid and the bedroom burning up.  the cabinets were totally melting off the wall, half of the doors were falling off the hinges and most of the interior shelving was sagging so bad you couldn't even put anything on them.
hideous lower kitchen cabinets in our condo awaiting demolition
rotten, scratched, stained, and broken cabinets, doors, and hinges were literally falling off the walls when we moved in.  we agreed to live with them until we had an overall plan of how to tackle the place.  it turned out that we needed more than three years to renovate the kitchen and dispose of this eyesore!
those are the basics.
window seals failed leaving condensation on all of the glass
every single window in the entire condo was foggy as all of the seals had failed.  translucent windows anyone?
most of the other issues we knew about in advance.  every single window in the entire condo was foggy (the seals had failed, most likely due to improper installation).  the basement often flooded a little and sometimes flooded a lot.  there was no washer/ dryer, no garbage disposal, and certainly no dishwasher.  the tub looked like it had a rare skin condition and my wife forbid forbade me to take an actual bath in it.  and it turned out that all of the holes in the floor were designed to let mice in.  quite a good first couple of months discovering traits of the place.
peeling paint and a rusty interior in the bathtub
the tub needed a little work, to say the least
when the warm weather hit we were ready for some action.  we knocked down a wall right away between the living room and the dining room.  this was quite an easy project and we felt great.  but... now what?  we had no specific plan other than we wanted a public side of the house (living room, dining room, and kitchen) and a private side of the house (2 bedrooms and the bathroom).  we knew we had to open up this wall, but had no idea what to put back.  a french door?  a completely opening?  a framed opening?  lots of questions and no answers.  so we lived with a stud wall for what ended up being almost two years.
creating an open flow between entry, living room, and dining room changed the house for the better
tearing down the wall between the dining room and living room was a good first step to open up the public side of the house
we were ready to make some more significant improvements.  we started planning more serious lists and trying to decide what to tackle next.  do we redo the kitchen then the bathroom or try to tackle both at once.  do we replace one busted item at a time or maybe remove everything that was unusable and start from that point.  maybe we repair the wall we demolished and then decide on the next steps.  it was quite a challenging time for us with so many daunting tasks.  we needed an idea, something to help us prioritize and focus and get us to move forward, spend the money, and start the renovation. we needed...

to be continued...

Saturday, August 31, 2013

I'm back!

Hello folks!  I'm baaaack!

after an entire year without posting on this site, I am officially back.  much has happened over the last year in my personal and professional life so there's quite a bit to share with you.  thanks for sticking with me while I worked through some of the most exciting and joyous challenges in my life so far.  I look forward to reconnecting with you and telling you all about my adventures both in Scandinavia and back home in Boston.

speaking of Boston, I'm back living in a triple decker in jamaica plain.  triple deckers are the most common type of housing in Boston.  in fact, tens of thousands of these homes were built in the first twenty five years of the twentieth century in and around Boston and New England.  simply designed, well built, and economically viable, this style of house flourished during that time period and continues to be an important part of residential living today in the Hub.  in neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain, often called "streetcar suburbs", these houses account for the vast majority of the housing stock.  they have held up well over the years and are often converted into condos.
our three decker in jp right as we started the deep energy retrofit
our (soon to be) green triple decker in Jamaica Plain at the beginning of the deep energy retrofit

our condo is a 1,000 square foot space comprising the entire top floor of a three decker built in 1905.  before it was converted into a condo in the 1990's, the owner turned it into a three bedroom apartment, maximizing the rent potential.  rent prices, neighborhood demographics, and questionable decisions by the building owner led to the decline of the building.  at one point it had a leaky roof, mold growing in the walls, and a tenant suing the owner.  it seemed on the brink of collapse.  after a series of events including foreclosures and lawsuits, a thoughtful, forward thinking real estate lawyer came along and revitalized the ailing condo association and purchased the second floor unit.

the first floor, easily in the worst condition of the three, was purchased soon after, opening the door for a sale of the top floor.  suddenly we found ourselves handing over a check with our entire life savings to buy a beaten up condo.  since buying the condo more than three years ago, we've re-spent that initial "life savings" several times and completely renovated the inside and outside of the house.  one of the most exciting parts of this work is the overall building project that the three condo units tackled together.  this project, called a "deep energy retrofit" involved drastically improving the energy efficiency of the entire property.  it took more than a year of planning and preparation, quite a bit of teamwork and know how, and a grant from the City of Boston and the local energy companies to make it all happen.

rather than hit you over the head with all of this in one post, I will put together a series of posts, each explaining one aspect or theme of the project, hopefully making the subject interesting and digestible.  so... please let me know if you want to hear more about any specific aspects of the planning, design, construction, sustainable initiatives and strategies, or even just how the heck we survived renovating our entire home, inside and out, while living in in.  I will do my best to paint a relatively accurate picture of both what we did and how we did it.

as always, thanks for reading.  enjoy!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

weather comparison - Boston, MA to Stockholm, Sweden

regardless of what international weather data says, in my mind I felt like Stockholm would be similar to Boston in terms of weather.  both cities are harbor cities located on the east coast, both have prevailing winds from the west (ish).  both get cold in the winter and warm in the summer and have high humidity.  the latitude difference did not seem that much too me on the globe that I once spun around (which was the extent of my geographical research before coming over to Sweden).

it turns out that I was wrong and my impeccable and detailed research was unfounded.  in actuality it is often more than slightly colder here in Sweden, even in "the middle" of the country.  I put it in quotes because if you look on the map how far north sweden stretches, you'd be amazed.  Stockholm is not close to the midpoint, even though everyone says it's in the middle.  up north?  yeah, I hear it gets real cold up there...

it turns out it gets cold in Stockholm too, just in case you were wondering.  besides the cold, word on the streets is that the sun doesn't shine so much.  everyone knows that it rises late and sets early up here, but the according to my sources it is a little extreme.  Stockholm gets an average of two hours of sunshine (yes, I said two hours) in january to go along with that balmy average high temp of -1º C (30º F).  good times.  good times indeed.

so, the main point of this post is not to complain about the weather, but to share what I have seen and felt first hand while here and to help people draw some comparisons.

the weather in Boston this week is projected to be this:
Jamaica Plain weather, according to weather bug, for the week of October 15th, 2012
Jamaica Plain weather, according to weather bug, for the week of October 15th, 2012

and the weather in Stockholm projected to be this:
Stockholm weather, according to weather bug, for the week of October 15th, 2012
Stockholm weather, according to weather bug, for the week of October 15th, 2012

on average based on this week, according to weather bug, sponsored by the always super sustainable McDonalds, Stockholm appears to be about 12-15 degrees cooler per day and has about 50% less sunshine.  that's a scientific fact.  if that is confusing, let me say this: judging by this week alone, Boston appears to be about 12-15 degrees warmer on average and have double the sunshine overall. 

for more information about weather in Stockholm, spin a globe around a couple times and then google "Stockholm weather".  trust me, it'll work.