Growing Old And Going Green: A Lakewood Odyssey
There is a long-standing axiom that in real estate everything boils down to three things – "location, location, location."
When seeking to “green” a 100-year-old Lakewood home, everything boils down to the green building mantra of “seal it tight and ventilate it right.”
In the broadest sense, the greenest home is the one that has already been built. Lakewood is green by default due to the advanced age of our housing stock and the fact that the resources used to build our homes were largely extracted a century ago – reused over time by multiple generations. For many Lakewoodites, the thought of living in a home not constructed prior to FDR’s first inauguration would be unimaginable. Older is better. Lakewood is a treasure trove of irreplaceable and tangible reminders of our roots – not an architectural wasteland. But that should not excuse us from taking a closer look at what our present carbon footprint is today in regard to home energy consumption and efficiency.
Over two years have passed since my wife and I took the plunge towards “greening” our home. I was inspired by attending an Old House Energy Audit Demonstration held in Cleveland during the winter of 2009. This was the tipping point for me. I realized that perhaps my green utopian dreams might somehow reconcile with the limitations set forth within my monthly bank statement. Our initial goals included doing something positive for the environment, making our house more comfortable, and ultimately recouping our investment via substantial savings on energy costs. No Rockefellers or Carnegies reside here – our hopes were high, but the budget limited.
By now, most of us have heard the reasons for insulating our homes – buildings are the main culprit (40%) in our consumptive energy use. Insulation is a place where we can intervene; like recycling, it is one of the most ecological empowering “act locally” steps one can take. But, in looking for what insulation works best with an existing home, in particular an older Lakewood home, there are some trade-offs. There is no one-size-fits-all.
Like many of life’s journeys, the most important step is the first one, and the first step in any weatherization journey is to have an energy audit of your home. At the time our audit was done in January 2010, by way of Federal Stimulus funds, Cuyahoga County was offering free home energy audits (a $400 value that also included a free energy-saving programmable thermostat) to encourage employment in the private sector through home weatherization projects. That we could help put people to work in the midst of dire economic times and go green added another incentive for us to take action now. We knew that our wood frame house built in 1910 was bound to have a few issues with drafts and gaps, but to witness firsthand the energy audit equipment measuring the amount of heat that was escaping through our walls and attic made my teeth chatter just to think about it.
The biggest shocker was the attic. It was as if we had a permeable roof. I promise not to dive too deep into the mundane science of it all, but the audit showed that our wall cavity was acting like a chimney, pulling air up from the basement and out through the attic. We tested at 1.10 roomfuls of air changed per hour. In other words, our whole house was being refreshed (good) but also losing all of the heat that quickly (very bad), much of it out through the attic. The inspector explained to us that the ideal is .35 roomfuls of air changed per hour, but a vintage 1910 home will never achieve that number. However, we could take some steps to cut our heat loss in half. I was more determined than ever to make it happen.
The energy audit allowed us to better prioritize which energy efficiency measures to pursue to make sure we received the most bang for our buck. We crunched a lot of numbers and came to the conclusion that spending money to insulate the whole house and air seal our attic and basement was far and away the best option for a full and quick return on weatherization dollars. On paper it all looked good – no fuzzy math here. I can now state unequivocally that my paper projections materialized into real-world savings – our $3,400 investment for whole house insulation and air leak sealing will soon have paid for itself within three years because of reduced energy bills. We were able to cut our energy use nearly in half, without spending a small fortune.
The main component of the energy audit entailed walking through our house with an infrared camera as a giant fan that was fitted around our front door sucked air out of our 1910 American Foursquare home – built in an era when energy efficiency meant how many calories you burned on your daily walk to catch the streetcar, insulation was the thickness of your wool sweater, and high fuel prices were unheard of. In a nutshell, the “blower door” test produces negative pressure which, in tandem with a handheld infrared camera, shows where the warm and cold spots are located throughout the house. The blower door test basically accelerates where cold air is seeping in and warm air is leaking out.
When the infrared camera was swept along our baseboards, it showed a trail of blue light signaling infiltration of cold air from a lack of air sealing. Our house was a sieve. We needed caulk and lots of it. Soon I was strapping an arsenal of caulking guns to my body to seal up the gaps found throughout the house. It was explained to us that our attic was losing heat at such a high rate that it was like having a two-foot-wide hole punched through our roof. It was like having a skylight, but never being able to see the stars. This whole audit process presented several options to consider. Much of it was low-hanging fruit such as plugging the leaks with caulk and slowing the transfer of air with insulation.
Most importantly, we got a lesson on where the real money should go – and it is not new windows. I’m not going to make any friends in the window industry with this statement, but unless cost is not a concern, you will be throwing your hard earned cash right out that new double-paned low-e window. As part of our energy audit, the inspector showed us with the infrared camera how both old and new windows are equally leaky. This confirmed my long-held suspicion of the window industry becoming more of a racket than a benefit – like buying that luxury mid-life crisis two-seat convertible rather than a more practical fuel efficient or older model vehicle. Yes, in most cases, your pre-existing 100-year old windows, combined with a functional storm window system, will serve you just as well as that new high-end replacement window. I developed a new sense of appreciation for the squeaks and creaks of my old wood windows. Our inspector shared with us stories of people who spent very large sums of money replacing all of the windows in their home, and didn’t see their heating bills go down at all.
Insulation comes in several forms and the costs can vary widely. This is when you have to balance health (does it release noxious fumes indoors), performance, life cycle (from its production to end use) and cost effectiveness (payback timeframe). The biggest decision we had to make was the choice between foam or cellulose insulation. We went with cellulose – it’s the cheapest (roughly 1/3 of the cost of foam), and undeniably has a lower carbon footprint in its life cycle compared to foam. It seems to be the popular choice, but questions are out there about how much it may settle over time – potentially leaving some gaps in your sidewalls. The Department of Energy (DOE) has been monitoring thousands of cellulose insulated homes across the country for almost ten years now, and only a few isolated homes encountered any cellulose material settlement issues. In those that did, it was found to be minuscule amounts.
At the time, the DOE payback calculator gave us a payback period for our cellulose blow-in insulation to be within three years. For foam it would have been at least seven years. Even though we plan to stay in our home the rest of our lives, we just didn’t have the extra dough available for foam insulation. Foam does have a higher R-value than cellulose (the higher the R-value, the greater the insulating effectiveness), but has its downside as well. Most brands of foam promise 50% more R-value than cellulose – but none come with a very green lifecycle. Also, with younger children at home, there are too many questions still floating around about its health and safety. Synthetic foams still contain formaldehyde, a well-chronicled carcinogen. Most insulation companies now claim to use Tripolymer foam, which does contain significantly less formaldehyde than prior applications – but it will still off gas its chemical compounds at a much higher level than the more natural fiber-based cellulose.
When all was said and done, we sealed all the air gaps in our home and pumped in a total of 2,600-pounds of cellulose insulation. We were fortunate to have a tall 3rd floor attic ceiling which had a pre-existing large void between the roof frame and finished ceiling that allowed us to create an 18-inch thick layer of insulation on top of our house. Not only does our attic retain much more heat, it is five degrees cooler in the summer than before – allowing our 3rd floor A/C window unit to be set at a higher default temperature because it does not have to work so hard to keep the room cool.
During our re-inspection process it was thumbs-up throughout the house. All the measurements pointed towards a much more energy efficient house. We originally tested at 1.10 roomfuls of air changed per hour. After our whole house insulation was complete we measured at 0.54 roomfuls of air changed per hour. The inspector explained to us that just in the attic alone we would save in the neighborhood of $500 a year and reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by a several thousand pounds annually. Since the completion of our weatherization project in February 2010, we have saved just over $1,200 per year on energy costs – we are just a few months away from our investment paying for itself. The benefits we have reaped are far-reaching. Our home is warmer and cooler at the appropriate time of year, and as an unexpected perk, all that insulation made our home much quieter. Unless the windows are open, we no longer hear the traffic, the neighbors’ dogs or that pesky pigeon.
I still derive much satisfaction each time I open my utility bills and see how low the bar graphs depicting our energy usage remain. The first 12-month billing cycle, post-insulation, was the most gratifying as the bar graphs showed how much lower my monthly usage was compared to the same period the previous year. I continue to have these delightful images in my head of a collection of face-contorted Energy Company executives hunkered down in some dark, cigar-smoke-infused hazy boardroom cursing my low carbon usage and profit-depleting energy efficient home. Devious diversions aside, green homes do not have to be built from scratch. It is possible, here in the “city of homes,” to balance green principles with the aesthetic and historic integrity of the original structures. It seems that the term “energy efficiency" suffers from a lack of sexiness. I don’t know many people that get excited over words like "insulation" and "air sealing." Perhaps a going-green terminology makeover is in order because this critically important concept deserves a hot, new name. I propose we brand the green home movement in Lakewood as: “Old is the new Green.”
My Family and I relocated to the City of Lakewood in 2008 to be near my Wife’s extended Family. We have two young children that attend Lincoln Elementary School.
I have over 25 years experience as a community organizer, political campaign manager, director of a non-profit, environmental and social/economic justice writer, lobbyist, demonstrator, non-profit board member and lifelong community activist and volunteer. I am passionate about economic and social justice, environmental causes and identifying and addressing the root cause of social, economic and ecological ailments that undermine our long-term prosperity and sustainability.
In my spare time I enjoy time with my wife and kids hiking, kayaking, gardening, traveling, enjoying all four seasons and exploring all that Lakewood and Northeast Ohio have to offer. I’m also an avid runner and have a passion/addiction for running marathons and 100-mile ultra-marathons.