In mid-2007, my husband Gil and I decided to try our hand at “house flipping.” We purchased a run-down, 108-year-old home desperately in need of renovation in Woodsville, New Hampshire—about 20 minutes from our off-grid, solar-powered home in the White Mountains. Unlike that of traditional flippers, our motivation was not windfall profits but rather a different kind of green: to demonstrate the value in making older homes more sustainable and energy efficient—while inspiring others to do the same.
Flipping is not for the faint-hearted. It takes a lot of effort—and capital investment risk—so doing some of the work yourself is the best way to save a few bucks and stay within budget. However, the flipping model we developed was not just about making some pretty upgrades and getting out fast. Gil and I wanted to do this project right, making it an energy-efficient, environmental showcase.
While this was our first renovation, we had some construction experience from building our small log cabin in 1997 (now our office). Plus, we designed and oversaw the construction of our superinsulated, off-grid home in 2001. But neither of us had all the skills to tackle this project single-handedly, so we recruited our friend Jean-Paul Downes, an experienced carpenter, to help with hands-on work. What Gil and I had to offer was our knowledge about energy efficiency, green building, and whole-systems thinking. Being dedicated energy misers, we had heard criticism that “normal” people couldn’t live happily, comfortably, and inexpensively while using a lot less energy (and money). This project was in direct answer to that complaint.
Woodsville epitomizes New Hampshire’s image: an unpretentious, walkable, small town, with turn-of-the-century architecture. The state’s “Live Free or Die” motto is evident here—no zoning ordinances, minimal building inspection, and a population (about 1,100) that prefers to mind its own business. All of this made it easier to execute our plan without too much paperwork or fuss.
Though Woodsville is far from progressive and hardly flourishing economically, we hoped to jump-start a green economy. More importantly, we hoped to demonstrate the benefits and feasibility of energy efficiency to the town’s many working-class families that pay a lot to heat and power their older, inefficient homes.
Walkability is an important, and often overlooked, aspect of a sustainable lifestyle. The corner–lot New Englander that we found is only one block from the grocery store, elementary school, hardware store, and pharmacy, and an easy stroll to restaurants and other shops. Plus, a big-box department store is only three blocks away.
Though turning a profit was not a top priority, we certainly didn’t set out to lose a lot of money in the process. As newcomers, we expected to exceed our budget, but we hoped to learn from this project so that future projects would turn a profit. Given the state of the house and the family-oriented neighborhood, the house was priced appropriately for its condition and fit into our price range.
As for the condition of the house, let’s not sugarcoat it—the place was a wreck. Though the foundation and bones were solid, 108 years of hard living and homeowner renovations had taken its toll. Most people winced as they drove by the house and its unkempt yard—but not us. Seduced by the south-facing roof, the big sun porch for passive solar heating, the tin ceiling in the dining room, and other interesting architectural details, we convinced ourselves that the project was manageable.
We paid a lot of attention to the building envelope, working hard to ventilate where appropriate and seal up everything else. From day one, we made sure that our subcontractors knew to seal any holes they made. We liked to tell them, “You own the hole.”
We started working on the project in earnest in October 2007 by having the exterior asbestos siding professionally removed, thus exposing the lead paint-encrusted original clapboard. All the windows were extricated and replaced. Then we screwed on furring strips (2 by 4s ripped in half) 16 inches on-center, and offset from the original wall studs to avoid thermal bridging. We had closed-cell spray foam applied into those bays. In addition to encapsulating the lead paint, the foam created an air barrier and an insulation of R-10 for the house’s exterior walls. For several months, until we finished the siding, we “showed off” the insulation to the community. As autumn faded, we started installing a durable fiber-cement clapboard siding.
The next step was to reveal the interior wall structure to see what we were dealing with. Armed with respirator masks and eye protection, we gutted the half of the house that was in need of structural repairs—everything from the walls and ceilings to the bathroom fixtures and kitchen cabinets.
Layer upon layer of scabbed-on wall/ceiling/floor materials masked problems from earlier “renovations” and a plethora of treasures—including bees in the basement and ossified evidence of former canine residents. In the wall cavities, we discovered empty bottles originally holding cider and hard liquor, but barely any insulation—just a hodgepodge of rock wool, fiberglass, blown-in cellulose, and even crumpled newspaper in some sections.
After gutting half the house, we realized that there were two unique sections—one poorly insulated with fiberglass and other miscellany, the other completely without insulation. The somewhat-insulated section we gutted to the studs and reinsulated with closed-cell spray foam.
Not surprisingly, the oldest section of the house—the dining room, living room, formal entry, study, and the upstairs bedrooms—had no insulation behind the plaster-lath walls. Holes were drilled into the walls and open-cell spray foam was injected into the voids, creating an R-14 wall cavity. While the R-value of open-cell foam is less than closed-cell foam, we applauded ourselves for avoiding gutting that oldest section of the house, thus saving the existing plaster-lath walls. However, that plan proved somewhat counterproductive—pressure from the open-cell foam blew out a few of the weak spots and contorted a wall in places, which meant more work later to make those areas presentable. But the end result of this effort and the furred-out exterior was insulation values between R-21 and R-32 in the exterior walls throughout the house.
In the attic crawl spaces, Gil sealed all penetrations around the electrical boxes, plumbing, ductwork, light fixtures, and smoke detectors with polyurethane foam sealant. He ran a thick string from those buried items under the cellulose to the roof rafters and labeled them, making them easier to locate in the future. He also quadrupled the gable ventilation. We then blew in cellulose insulation, which boosted the R-value to more than 50.
In the usable basement area, we coated the brick foundation walls with waterproofing paint, and built a stud wall an inch out from them. We didn’t want the studs to touch the brick foundation and act as a thermal bridge or absorb any moisture through capillary action. We sprayed closed-cell foam between and behind the studs, from 18 inches below grade (approximately the depth of the frost in our area) up to the top of the rim joists. All this effectively converted the once cold, creepy dungeon into a warmer and drier space. In the unusable basement crawl space area, Gil laid a 6-mil, poly vapor barrier over the dirt floor. This area also got a coating of spray foam on the walls, from the poly-covered floor to the top of the rim joists, creating a complete moisture barrier. This prevents moisture from entering the building and immediately reduced the musty smell.
New double-pane windows—fiberglass-clad to avoid expansion and contraction—finished off the envelope. The new windows are argon-filled with a low-emissivity (low-e) coating and a U-factor of 0.32, making the home more comfortable by reflecting the sun’s heat in the summer while keeping more warmth inside the house in winter.
While the walls were open for insulating, we addressed heating, electrical, plumbing, and air-quality issues. The heating system was on its last leg, and the electrical wiring—with exposed, live wires in some places—was downright dangerous. The plumbing was corroded and failing, and we needed to mechanically exchange the air since the building was now quite airtight.
The heating system, a 40-plus-year-old oil-fired boiler that served the hydronic baseboard heaters throughout the house, was replaced with a Buderus GB142 propane-fired condensing boiler—a small unit that operates at 95% efficiency, according to its Energy Star tag. The boiler is equipped with an outdoor temperature setback sensor that determines how hot to make the water and six zones to optimize the baseboard heating. Our plumber replaced all of the old, battered baseboard radiators.
Next, our electricians brought everything up to code, pulling out knob-and-tube wiring and wooden conduit and upgrading the whole system, including hard-wired smoke detectors. Fragile and inefficient lighting was replaced with attractive, low-energy compact-fluorescent fixtures throughout.
Then came the plumbing. An old two-holer buried under the kitchen floor was a good indicator of what we were dealing with. A sign in the driveway reading “free” offered passers-by a lot of the still-functional but old and out-of-date accoutrements from the house. The battered kitchen sink was gone within an hour. Our plumber pulled out and sold the corroded copper piping and replumbed with PEX tubing.
Prior to insulating, this house had plenty of fresh air exchange, with expensively heated air escaping to the outside. The foam insulation helped stop air leakage, but also made the building tight. So while the wall cavities were still accessible, we installed a RenewAire energy recovery ventilator (ERV) to mechanically exchange the air in the house, transferring the heat from the outgoing air to the incoming air. Following the sizing guide from the manufacturer, Gil set the number of air exchanges per hour by the volume (cubic feet) of the home and the number of expected occupants.
We also sealed the ERV’s rigid metal ductwork with a mastic sealant—a requirement of New Hampshire’s energy code for new construction.
Once we realized that there were four layers of asphalt shingles on the roof—two layers being the maximum allowed by the building code—we knew we had to remove all of the shingles before doing anything else. The nails used on the most recent layer didn’t even penetrate the sheathing, creating some safety and weight issues. One dumpster was called in, then a second. The shingles were replaced with a new standing-seam roof by McElroy Metals made of 97% recycled steel and guaranteed for 50 years. Its pale green paint has a heat-reflective pigment to keep the roof (and attic) cooler.
From the start, we wanted to add both a solar-electric and a solar hot water system. But as each project took longer and costs mounted, we realized that we’d need to make some concessions. Instead of adding a solar hot water system, we compromised and set up the plumbing for the system by running copper pipes, electrical conduit, and electrical wire through interior walls from the appropriate roof section to the basement. It probably cost us less than $250 to do all that and will save a future homeowner thousands of dollars—and a lot of frustration.
When it came to solar-electric ambitions, we managed to make a big statement with a relatively small system. A grid-tied, batteryless 950-watt photovoltaic system—14 Uni-Solar PVL68 modules paired with a Sunny Boy inverter—made this home the first net-metered one in town. The “peel-and-stick” laminates allowed our PV installer—KW Management Inc.—to “roll out” and glue down the PV array without having to penetrate the roof.
Besides the minimal visual impact of this array compared to the rigid PV modules that must be attached to a racking system, another benefit of using the thin-film technology is that it performs better in diffused sunlight. Woodsville sits at the junction of three rivers, and the mornings are typically foggy, but even on cloudy days, the system makes some energy. The primary drawback to this amorphous silicon thin-film technology is that it takes about twice the surface area to produce the same amount of power as a standard crystalline PV array, so available roof space limits the PV array size.
Woodsville, serviced by its own municipal utility, Woodsville Water & Light, is not required to participate in the 1:1 net metering and other efficiency programs run by the larger utilities and overseen by the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission. Having worked with the New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association to improve legislative policy, I was well-versed in net metering and seized the opportunity to meet with town utility commissioners at one of their monthly public meetings. During a 15-minute casual presentation, I explained how net metering works and how it would be good for Woodsville—feeding electricity into the grid during peak-load periods when energy is typically more expensive, reducing wear-and-tear on their fragile transformers and feeding “free” energy into neighboring homes.
Once we got the town’s utility on board, the installation was fairly straightforward. The system fit nicely on a south-facing section of the new roof. It took only one day for our installer and roofer to adhere the PV laminates and install the roof pans, run the wiring and conduit, and install the inverter and disconnect. With little fanfare, the lineman from WW&L hooked up the new digital meter. By mid-afternoon, the system was producing pollution-free electricity.
Even though, at 950 W, the PV system is more a symbol than an big energy contributor, it produces 3 to 5 kWh a day, and helps make a connection between household energy consumed and energy generated.
From start to finish, the renovations took about nine months of focused effort falling only a few weeks behind schedule—but substantially over budget. All in all, the result was pretty much what we expected. Not bad for first-time flippers.
The finished product: A like-new house with all the old-time charm but none of the dirt, drafts, or danger. Though we decided not to formally pursue Energy Star or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification because of the expense, the time involved, and the logistical problems of certification in a remote town, we maintained high standards—meeting the requirements of both programs and surpassing New Hampshire energy code for insulation and air quality.
Thanks to the local buzz and advertising, more than 100 people turned out for the open house. They came to look at the systems and the renovation. They came to get ideas for their own projects, or simply to dream about living in a healthy and low-energy home. Unfortunately, none came prepared to write us a check for the down payment.
In fact, the timing for our first “flip” couldn’t have been worse. The house went on the market at the onset of the housing-and-lending fiasco that’s taken such a toll on the national economy. Under better circumstances, the renovated house would move fast. Instead of reducing the price, we’ve decided to rent the house until the economic situation turns.
But we have no regrets. We learned a lot from the experience, and more importantly, we educated others in the process. Not only did people in town marvel at the metamorphosis, our crew walked away with an appreciation for green building. Our carpenter, who came to the project with no green-building experience, is currently building a straw-bale house, and the local hardware stores, who were originally baffled by our numerous “special” requests, are now stocking some of the products we sought.
Laura S. Richardson is the project director for StayWarmNH (www.staywarmnh.org). She and her husband Gil own Empowered Homes LLC and Empowered Answers LLC (www.empoweredanswers.com), and cofounded the New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association (www.nhsea.org). She, Gil, and their two kittens live off-grid in a PV-powered, wood-heated home in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
KW Management Inc. • www.kwmanagement.com • PV system installer