Tag Archives: existing housing stock

About gorillas and homeowners

The beauty of a project like ours is that you get to think a lot. There is a steady stream of problem solving, cascades of questions, a constant flow of ideas, and the occasional trickle of epiphanies.

One of those epiphanies emerged even before we conceived this pilot project: We can’t build our way out of a looming energy and carbon crisis with new, green and energy efficient buildings alone. They help, but the 900 pound gorilla in the room that throws a temper tantrum is our existing building stock.

According to the US Department of Energy, residential buildings consume an estimated 22% of the US energy (another 19% is consumed by commercial buildings).

We hope that this pilot project demonstrates how building owners can make a dent in that 22%. We showcase a rational process, from the big picture to the nitty gritty bits, and energy conservation strategies that should yield a good return on investment.

But I have a lingering doubt that this will be enough – because so many homeowners lack the most basic knowledge of what it takes to operate, run and maintain their buildings.

Here is what I mean: When do things get fixed? After a problem manifests through a catastrophic failure, i.e. wet drywall and mold because the parapet has been crumbling for years with rainwater infiltrating freely; or a fried furnace blower because the air filter has never been changed and is clogged solid; etc…

These things could have been prevented proactively and fixed at a fraction of the cost, if only the homeowner would have known what to look for. And it’s not only the mostly innocent ignorance of the homeowner. The various building trades are not doing that much better, but are called in to fix the problem. That’s what I call the compounding of a catastrophe.

Bottom line: We don’t invest much time into our homes any more, which is confirmed by data from the 2012 American Time Use Survey.

To effectively run and operate an energy efficient building – or any building for that matter – the owner or occupant must possess some basic knowledge about the building and its operation. Even better would be some knowledge level of building science. It could make a big difference and save big money, because it opens the door to proactivity.

It is once again nice to notice that I am not alone out there with these thoughts. Martin Holladay at GreenBuildingAdvisor.com picked up on the same subject and it is worthwhile reading his take in his blog “Do Homeowners Need to Understand Home Performance?

By the way, do you know what kind of heating system your home has? Forced air? Hydronic?

Project featured in Medill Reports Chicago

During our recent open house, two students from the Medill School of Journalism shadowed us and our visitors for several hours. Alan and Drew came equipped with the typical notepad and pen, but also some digital recording equipment.

We were interviewed about our deep energy retrofit and our visitors were asked for their impressions and opinions. I was curious to see what the end product would be like.

Alan sent me an e-mail about two and a half weeks ago to let me know that their article was published in the Medill Reports Chicago.

I like how the Alan and Drew put our project into the bigger green building context. The article also includes a video that is fun to watch.

Discovering the other side of green

When we went into this project we had a certain perception of green. Our goal is to eventually turn the house into a zero-energy building. We subsequently focused a lot on insulation and energy issues and associated gadgets such as solar hot water and photo voltaic.

An invaluable amount of research, a healthy learning curve and a lot of hands-on time began to morph that initial perception into something new – well, sort of new.

I had many conversations in the past with colleagues in the architectural field, colleagues that have an interest in historic preservation. When talking about green building technologies they made the case that they already were working green way before it became fashionable.

I heard what they were saying. I knew what they were saying. But I only recently got to appreciate the real depth of this statement.

Think about all the resources that went into the construction of our home in 1902, and think about the carbon foot print associated with it. The good news is that the building has lasted over 100 years already. And there is no reason why it could not last another 100, 200 or even 300 years.

This is where green begins: Spreading the energy input and carbon footprint of the initial construction thinner and thinner across the years with the increased age of the building. You can feel good about your energy efficient light bulb after you started with the preservation of and tender loving care for an old building.

The challenge

The problem is that there are a thousand very easy ways to screw up an old building, which would put a sudden stop to spreading out the initial impact.

It could be as simple as the lack of or wrong type of building maintenance. Ignoring the subtleties of moisture management and movement or the appropriate type of mortar for masonry repair work can inflict lasting and sometimes irreversible damage.

Unfortunately, the expertise on how these old buildings were put together and how they work is spread thin too. But this base knowledge is critical when it comes to retrofitting the old building stock with green building technologies.

Most of the excitement, talk and focus is on new green buildings, which does not help us with the existing building stock. I hope that the focus will shift to this sleeping giant soon, bringing back the expertise and knowledge and making it easier to access information on how to retrofit existing buildings with green technologies while preserving their integrity and longevity.


Reuse is an important piece in our sustainable rehab puzzle. It starts with the reuse of an existing building structure, i.e. the two flat we bought. Although we have a lot of work turning it into an energy efficient building, we value the embedded energy and resources in the structure. But we need to protect it if we want to reap the benefits of that energy and resources for years to come.

While researching insulation option, I came across some very interesting moisture management facts that apply to our common brick masonry shell.  A sense of urgency began to grow – rapidly! We realized that we need to fix all obvious points of water entry in the brick walls prior to winter – and winter has begun knocking at the door.

In general, our brick walls are in good shape. The problem areas are limited to the parapet and chimney. Let’s start with the chimney:


As you can see, points of entry for water are abundant. At the bottom, towards the waterproofing, these points could be described as wide open gateways:


Water has been getting into the masonry structure for a number of years – a number of winters. The freeze-thaw damage and subsequent disintegration of the masonry has not only amplified the water entry problem but made the whole chimney rather unsafe.


Don’t lean against it, or I will need to pick you and the chimney up in the yard. (You know what? You may not even need to lean against it…)

The thing has to come down, very quickly, but on my terms and in a controlled way – and not by me or somebody else sneezing while standing next to it.

Do we need to rebuild the chimney? Any furnaces or boilers we consider are high efficiency, direct vent models. So the answer is no. No rebuilding, just have to take it down.

Deconstruction (or rückbau)

Deconstruction? I bet you are familiar with demolition: A house, a big old backhoe, a few hours later a big pile of debris and rubble and a line of trucks hauling everything to the landfill. At that point all the waste may be out of sight, but it should not be out of mind.

So, what is deconstruction? The key principle is to salvage and save the embodied energy present in existing buildings. The Deconstruction Institute offers the following, more detailed, definition:

“…a process of building disassembly in order to recover the maximum amount of materials for their highest and best re-use.  Re-use is the preferred outcome because it requires less energy, raw materials, and pollution than recycling does in order to continue the life of the material. As a consequence of deconstruction, there are also many opportunities for recycling other materials along the way.”

Source: Deconstruction institute

Cathy and I are already knee-deep in deconstruction, working with our waste hauler to sort and recycle as much of the materials as possible.  Looking to the future, we’ve started to think about building our new home with future deconstruction in mind – nipping the Construction and Demolition (C&D) waste issue in the bud, right at the inception of the project.

Why is this important to us? Because the C&D waste has a significant impact on our waste stream, the environment and our carbon footprint.  The Economist published an interesting special report on waste that showed C&D debris as the single largest waste source. We do (or should) know that we (in the U.S.A.) have a particularly acute waste problem. Figures vary with different sources, but it appears fair to say that C&D waste comprises about 30% of our total solid or landfill waste.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) estimated the amount at 136 million tons for 1996 in its report ‘Characterization of Building-related construction and demolition debris in the United States’. That was over ten years ago. To my surprise it appears that no recent USEPA publications or statistics are available on this subject. Have things improved since? Maybe, or maybe not with the recent housing and construction boom.

What does 136 million tons mean? The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center has a fact sheet that helps visualizing the amount of C&D waste:

“We generate enough construction and demolition debris in the United States each year to fill a typical city street four feet tall with trash and run that wall from New York, NY to Los Angeles, CA six times – an estimated 136 million tons annually”

Source: Illinois Sustainable Technology Center

The same fact sheet provides a breakdown of C&D waste for commercial and residential projects. For residential demolition, which is somewhat applicable to our project, the largest source is wood at 34%, closely followed by asphalt shingles (29%) and the dubious category called ‘other’ at 19%.

Another interesting local fact is listed in the Illinois construction and demolition site recycling guidebook from 1997:

“Construction waste and demolition debris (C&D debris) comprise 20 to 35 percent of all the solid waste generated in the five-county Chicagoland area.”

Source: Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs

Back to deconstruction: I had the privilege to attend a Chicago Chapter U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) event on April 2nd with a presentation by Ken Ortiz from The ReUse People. He went through a range of fascinating numbers, explained what deconstruction is all about and walked us through the process.

Based on Ken’s experience, the average residential home weights about 80 tons, of which 40 tons are above ground. Those 40 tons break down into about 20 tons of structural materials and 20 tons of fixtures. 70 to 80% of that and the 40 tons that are below ground would go into a landfill in a conventional demolition case.

Ken pointed out that 72 to 75 tons of materials (or 90 to 94%) can be salvaged, recycled and diverted from the waste stream. Only an average of 5 to 8 tons out of the 80 tons (or 6 to 10%) would need to go into a landfill. An average of 245,000 residential homes are slated for demolition each year, which could translate into a significant reduction in C&D waste if they were deconstructed instead. The reuse of the embodied energy would contribute to the carbon footprint reduction as well as responsible resource management.

Does it make economic sense? According to Ken Ortiz, it does. Although deconstruction typically costs twice as much as conventional demolition, the value of used building material donations can often be substantial and provide tax savings that pay for the deconstruction process. (For more information go to: http://thereusepeople.org/Deconstruction)

Ken Ortiz’s presentation at the USGBC event was a real inspiration and led us to think even harder about reducing waste, reusing materials, and recycling. To our delight, we learned about local salvaged material suppliers that offer a wide range of building material supplies from deconstruction projects and could supply the majority of materials for our green rehab project.