My 1973 Vintage Home – A “fixer upper” with a view
You can read more about David’s remodel experience and learn valuable knowledge about green building standards, materials and best practices in his book Green Remodeling.
When I moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1993, I bought a “fixer upper” with a view. The house was built in 1973 and was rented for eight years before I bought it. Like any rental property, it showed the results of hard use and little maintenance. It needed everything. But all I could think about was getting rid of the avocado refrigerator and the lemon yellow countertops. I wanted to transform the kitchen from the ’70s look-of-the-day to something modern and functional. But then the wind blew.
Several months later we were having our first dinner party. The house looked great, the table was set, and there were candles everywhere sparkling in the windows that overlooked the lights of Boulder. I didn’t think the house could look any better, except with a new coat of paint. Just as friends started to arrive, our first November winter windstorm blew in. The windows were closed – yet all the candles blew out in the living room! The windows leaked air so badly that we had to wear jackets while we entertained. I realized that the kitchen renovation would have to wait; first, the single pane windows had to go.
Super Windows to the Rescue
Educated about window technology from my remodeling days, I called a local manufacturer that made Heat Mirror™ windows. These are often called “super windows” because they have a film of plastic suspended between two panes of glass that make them super energy-efficient – they’re almost twice as effective as conventional windows. I started in the living room where most of the room was glass, by spring I had replaced all the fixed glass in the house. On the south side I wanted to enhance the passive solar gain, to heat my home naturally with the sun, so I installed high solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) glass that lets lots of sunlight through the glass. On the east side I put in low SHGC windows that minimize sunlight through the windows, reducing overheating on hot summer mornings. The windows worked like a charm, making the house more comfortable and reducing our heating bill significantly.
Now, Can I Get Rid of the Avocado Kitchen?
Now I was ready to take on the avocado kitchen. Well — not quite. I came home one night to find water all over the basement floor. The water heater had rusted and leaked. I talked to plumbers who suggested low-end models that would “serve the purpose” but I wanted better. I finally found a water heater that had twice the insulation around the tank. It included a valve that prevented hot water from rising up into colder pipes and returning to the tank as cold water, a phenomenon known as “thermosyphoning”. Luckily, the model was also the “California code builder model”, so the company manufactured a great many of them for builders to implement easily and inexpensively into their projects. My energy-efficient water heater ended up costing only slightly more than the low-end model the plumber, suggested, due to transportation expenses from California. But more importantly, my monthly energy bills have been noticeably lower.
The upgraded windows and water heater were just the beginning of the improvements I’ve made to my home. I rebuilt the boiler and made it more efficient. I insulated all the host water pipes and the crawlspace. I replaced the ’70s washing machine when it died with a front-loading unit that used half as much water per load. I replaced burned-out light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs that are still burning ten years later. I repainted with low volatile organic compound (low-VOC) paint that contains fewer toxins than conventional paint. And I replaced the avocado refrigerator that finally died with the most energy efficient model on the market that uses 50% less electricity and comes in a lovely off-white color.
Out with the Old and In with the New
Even if it wasn’t broken, I tried to replace old technology with new technology. Now. with the push of a button, my Metlund “on-demand hot water pump” circulates water in the pipes until it reaches a predetermined hot temperature at my bathroom faucet. I no longer waste water waiting for the shower to heat up; rather, the pump shuts off and the water is instantly hot.
Photovoltaic (PV) panels that generate electricity from the sun have been my best and biggest upgrade. Living in the mountains, we are at the end of the pipeline for everything, including electricity, water, gas, and cable. If anything went wrong somewhere below us we lost our service. At least once a month, especially in big snowstorms or thunderstorms, our power would go down, stopping my home-based business in its tracks. So in 1999, when the State of Colorado and the US Department of Energy had a rebate program for PV systems, I jumped on the opportunity. Interest rates had come down and I was able to refinance the house, allowing me to take enough money out of equity to pay for the PV system and simultaneously save money on my monthly payment.
The 1.2-kilowatt system is enough to power my office. In an emergency, the system also powers the hot water baseboard heating, lights, and the refrigerator. I don’t believe in payback periods for energy equipment, but I do believe in never being powerless again.