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Rebuilding a Mid-Century Dinosaur

An architect and Passive House consultant dive into a whole-house renovation

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Meet the CarMic house: Carri Beer and Michael Hindle are renovating this 1954 house in Catonsville, Maryland. They've named it the CarMic house.
Image Credit: Michael Hindle and Carri Beer
Meet the CarMic house: Carri Beer and Michael Hindle are renovating this 1954 house in Catonsville, Maryland. They've named it the CarMic house.
Image Credit: Michael Hindle and Carri Beer
Previous owners had enlarged what was a modestly sized house into one of more than 4,500 square feet. Alterations included closing in a room over the garage. Among problems the new owners will have to solve are mold problems of unknown extent in the finished basement, failing mechanical systems, and uninsulated walls.

Editor’s note: Carri Beer and Michael Hindle are renovating this 1954 house in Catonsville, Maryland. Hindle is a Certified Passive House Consultant and owner of Passive to Positive. Beer is a registered architect who has been practicing sustainable architecture for 18 years. She is an associate principal with Brennan+Company Architects. This is the couple’s first in a series of blogs about the project.

We’ve admired this house for years and are excited that this unique piece of residential architecture is now ours. As we would have it, the home is in need of some love, maintenance, and restoration. It has good bones and great space and light. We are looking forward to making it as energy efficient as possible, using healthy and natural materials while restoring its 1954 character.

This classic is an architect’s dream and Passive House consultant’s worst nightmare — an uninsulated house built with locally quarried stone with limited-depth framing cavities for insulation, and a huge, open, stone chimney that penetrates a large, west-facing glass wall. In other words, a beautiful, but enormous, unbroken heat loss fin in an R-2 wall. It will be a true test for our balancing skills.

Despite the major energy challenges posed by the existing conditions, we do not feel this was a bad move for us. However dedicated to low-energy design we are, we think a huge part of our work must be in acknowledging and dealing with the massive quantity of existing structures that have horrible energy performance and doing what we can with them.

The targets set for avoiding catastrophic climate change articulate goals of 80% carbon emissions reductions below 1990 levels by 2050. Estimates suggest that 70% of all structures standing in 2050 will be structures that are already standing today. That means that the current building stock must be aggressively retrofitted. This home will allow us to do our part in that heavy lift. It has wonderful southern exposure and lots of room for improvement and is a great home for our family.

The house stats

The house clocks in at an embarrassingly large 4,519 square feet. At 1,524 square feet, the original footprint is quite modest, with three bedrooms and two baths on the main level. But prior owners finished a covered porch, enclosed a three-seasons room over the entire two-car garage and, you guessed it, finished the full basement into a carpeted mold farm — we mean family/recreation room — a freezing cold and moldy bathroom and laundry, and two large but subterranean bedrooms.

As one might expect, while one of the prior owners did install an interior perimeter drain to deal with bulk water intrusion, there was no effort to control moisture diffusion behind the furred-out drywall and below the carpet pad. The real estate agent seemed to think that this finished basement was a real selling point. We just groaned.

A mid-century classic: The couple long admired the house before buying it. Carri and Michael now face the challenge of retaining its 1950s character while making it more comfortable and more energy-efficient.

The house was a short sale — sold “as is” — or, in other words, a never-ending nightmare of things failing and breaking. The systems were a rusty mess: there was a natural gas leak, gutters falling off, copper piping with pinhole leaks about to explode, two macerating ejector pumps leaking sewer gas, and a few overloaded circuits here and there.

In addition to these system failures, the classic 1954 aesthetic had been covered by 6-panel faux colonial doors, bronze light fixtures, dark paint, and 1990s-dated bathroom and kitchen updates. The remnants of a once well-tended landscape was overgrown with English ivy. And, for better or worse, it has a swimming pool with a majorly leaking pump and broken valves, guzzling tons of chemicals.

So why did we buy such a money pit? The house was once a lovely example of mid-century modern residential architecture. The furniture we have collected over the years is all vintage 1950-60s Danish modern; we lean toward Japanese detailing, simplicity, and textures. And we love drinking bourbon out of roly-poly glasses. Carri drove by this house every day for three years, and at least once a week for 12 years prior. We’ve always loved its uniqueness and lines. When you go inside and see the stone fireplace slicing through a wall of glass with a cathedral ceiling, you’re kinda like in genuine modern design heaven.

Oversized HVAC systems

When we first visited the house it was clear that the furnace and AC were in tough shape, and the previous owner did disclose that the mechanicals were only 50% operational. We knew these systems would need to be replaced soon but did not understand the full extent of the problems, nor the urgency with which we would be forced to deal with them.

The original house had two furnaces, each rated at 80,000 Btu/h, and about five tons of AC. These systems served a single-zone duct system. Two furnaces and a one-zone duct system? Yup. It was one strange setup.

The addition over the garage is graced with another 50,000 Btu/h furnace and 2½ tons of cooling. With a total of 210,000 Btu/h of heat and 7½ tons of cooling, you might think that we’d have no problem staying comfortable … but you would be wrong! We will be sharing our experiences, both good and bad, with sizing, selecting, and installing the perfect heating, cooling, and ventilation system.

Windows from the 1990s

Most of the windows are okay enough not to force a replacement, but all are old enough to make us wish we could. They are Andersen double-pane windows with fiberglass frames from the early 1990s, and they are definitely starting to show their age. A few window seals are broken, and several have non-functioning latches and will not properly close.

There is also a very strange phenomenon that we have never seen before. On a handful of windows, condensation forms in a tidy oval in the middle of the window on the interior surface. Between this very common (in our house) but unusual occurrence, some wavy vinyl siding, and a trash can lid that literally melted on a spring day, we deduced that the window panes are bowing in towards one another, creating concave mirrors for melting our siding (going to remove that nasty stuff anyway) and trash-can lids, and resulting in colder temperatures at the center of glass, rather than at the perimeter!

Some windows will have to be replaced, and this will be a very sensitive balancing act of performance, aesthetics, and budget. We will be exploring the performance, cost, and aesthetics of several windows as we move through the process.

Air leakage

Also as one would expect, the house is the furthest thing from airtight. We logged 5,250 cubic feet per minute at 50 pascals of pressure during our blower-door test. In a fascinating twist, the utility incentive program will reward us for improvements, but the auditors and home energy improvement contractors are instructed to recommend cut-and-paste improvements that leave tons of energy and money on the table.

The audit suggested, for example, that our house is 1.27 times leakier than it should be to allow “for proper ventilation!” Air-sealing as per the audit recommendation would only reduce our air infiltration to 4,200 cfm. Wow! We have designed and delivered houses almost this large that tested out at 200–300 cfm, around 0.3 ach50. Needless to say, we will go above and beyond these air sealing recommendations, but the incentives will not be commensurate with our increased ambitions.

We will discuss the challenging effort to find foam-free, locally available solutions to air sealing an existing house.

A big mold problem in the basement

We don’t know the extent of the mold problem in the basement yet, although we know there is some. But that is not the only air quality challenge. High levels of air infiltration and exfiltration combined with frame assemblies built on top of concrete slabs exposed to the exterior (sunroom and garage addition) have resulted in focused areas of condensation-related moisture and its biological consequences.

Poorly installed (and maintained) gutters and downspouts and typically poor window installation details have led to some problems with bulk water entry. We will be sharing several different construction details that combine insulation and moisture control in a below-grade space on both the slab and the walls.

The previous owners had two large dogs and a cat and the pet stains, odors, and allergens were intolerable. Carri could hardly breathe due to allergies, so action was needed, fast. We will discuss healthy choices used in finishes such as flooring, paint, and salvaged materials.

Finally, the water heater is a standard-issue gas water heater, but with a hopelessly rusted flue that is sagging and is spilling combustion fumes. Or goal is to install a new heat-pump water heater and share our thoughts and experiences with this piece of equipment, as well as our new heat-pump clothes dryer.

What we’d like to accomplish

We are a family of five taking on a pretty big project, so cost is definitely a huge issue for us. For better or worse, we tend to make decisions based on quality, performance, and experimentation rather than budget practicality.

Our goal and challenge is to find ways to dramatically improve all of the above and to do it in a holistic, sustainable manner within a constrained budget. Spray foams and other foam products are used almost universally in utility-backed home energy improvement programs and, for that matter, in existing building retrofit solutions. We are committed to reducing the embodied energy, global warming potential, and embodied toxicity (not to mention acute toxicity to the installers) of our projects, so this project, as with many of our other collaborative efforts, will be completely foam-free.

We will be using our house projects to test new products (or new applications of old products) and strategies and will monitor and test our results.

Holistic sustainability is the guiding philosophy of our renovation. We are looking at every aspect of our built, economic, agricultural, and ecological environment and how the decisions we make affect it. We are taking into consideration our impact on the site, efficient use of water resources, healthy indoor air quality, efficient material and resource use, and aggressive energy use reductions.

Through our blogs, we hope to share our research, lessons learned, adventures, and a few personal rants. We welcome discussion and feel certain we have as much to learn by sharing these experiences as we have knowledge to offer. We look forward to participating in the advancement of the knowledge of homeowners and the design and construction community.

Here is a link to the next article in this series: CarMic House: No, We Are Not Crazy.

24 Comments

  1. John Clark | | #1

    Wishing you the best of luck.
    A lot of challenges no doubt. I just hope the additions were built to code.

    Popcorn at the ready.

  2. Joshua Van Tol | | #2

    The problem with the glass bowing in
    The problem you're observing with the glass bowing in was apparently common with a lot of mid 90's double panes. Apparently the fill gas migrates out, but no air replaces it, leaving the window negatively pressurized and bowed. Eventually they break. You can either replace the panes with new ones, or apparently, you can drill a hole either through the inside pane or through the spacer and allow the pressure to equalize. Some enterprising soul even built a tool that had a sharp needle on one end, a connection for a balloon that would be filled with argon to the side, and a drift to hammer on on the other end. The effect was to re-fill the window with argon. After filling the window, the tool is removed, and the hole plugged. I believe this was posted to GBA, so you could probably find a picture of the hand made tool.

  3. User avater
    Armando Cobo | | #3

    Psychotherapist anyone?
    I just wonder if consulting with a Psychotherapist would have been beneficial, soothing, helpful and fulfilling before tackling this project? ;-))

  4. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Armando Cobo
    Armando,
    I must say that I did mutter "masochists" when I first read this blog.

    Let's see: one of the homeowners suffers from allergies. They bought a mold-infested heap of junk with water-entry issues, almost no insulation, and apparently insoluble thermal bridges. And in their professional lives, these people are Passive House consultants.

    Hmmmm. Please get comfortable. That's it -- relax. Do you remember any dreams from last night? Tell me when you first developed your taste for 1950s architecture...

  5. User avater
    Stephen Sheehy | | #5

    Ambitious undertaking-I admire your courage
    I understand the desire to renovate this once nice example of 50's architecture. Whether it makes sense depends on the surrounding neighborhood. It makes little sense to spend $500,000 renovating a house in a neighborhood of $200,000 houses.

    Are you considering tearing down any portion of the addition? They detract from the appearance of the house and make any renovation more difficult and expensive if you try to make them match the existing stone.

    I know people hate to tear down perfectly good houses. But this one is a mostly crummy house, except for the original exterior appearance, that could be turned into a decent house with the infusion of more money than it might cost to tear it down and build a better one. The house has functioned for 60 years. Maybe it's time to euthanize it. My former house was 200 years old when we bought it in the early 90's. It was in awful shape, but over the years we fixed it, new windows, new heating systems, new wiring, new roofs, new septic system, etc. It is now a nice house, but for what we spent, we should have demolished it and built a new one. It isn't like George Washington ever lived in it.

    Is a complete gut and rehab a possibility?

    With that being said, good luck and I look forward to reading about your progress.

  6. User avater
    Armando Cobo | | #6

    Love, Bro, love...
    I get it.... more love for "this old house", and my comment was not serious. Having said that, in the last 6+ years since I moved to North TX, I've done a dozen economic analysis for clients doing the same type of projects, and only one follow through, because of a historical property, the rest of the projects were torn down and build new homes.
    To get a house with this level of inefficiency and inadequate design for modern systems is extremely expensive to get it to a high-performing and passive house level, specially when they said the have limited budget. I do respect these folks with such dedication, even though I'm sure they know, it possibly makes no economic sense.

  7. Wes Stewart | | #7

    I would use a word different from "masochist."
    "The targets set for avoiding catastrophic climate change articulate goals of 80% carbon emissions reductions below 1990 levels by 2050."

    I'm old enough to remember "The Population Bomb" by Paul Ehrlich which stated at the outset, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate...." And so on and so forth.

  8. User avater
    Stephen Sheehy | | #8

    Ehrlich was wrong about our ability to feed ourselves
    And therefore we should assume climate change is a hoax?

  9. Alec Shalinsky | | #9

    Seemingly impossible energy retrofit
    Hi Folks. I can say with some experience "Good Luck!" And I don't mean this sarcastically. We just embarked on a deep energy retrofit in Ontario Canada, that has many (and I mean MANY) similarities to your project. Ours is a 1901 Victorian red brick that has never had insulation, and the boiler for the rads was an old Viessmann that pumped out 178,000 Btus. We expect to finish with around 35,000 Btus (80% reduction), with ACH50 around 1.5, and r-value in the walls around R-36. Hopefully you have a plan.....;)

  10. Thomas Hirsch | | #10

    Noble effort; pushing the conversation
    As a greener builder of over 35years, I have been hands-on involved in a wide variety of renovations & new builds; residential & commercial. I too, suffer from the idealistic curse of re-imagining older buildings. So, having said that I really applaud, as silly as some might think, the efforts, wishes & agonies of those involved with the CarMic house. Here are a few big reasons why:
    1) Yes, I understand those who think a total tear down & rebuild is the wisest. However, the wholesale destruction/landfilling + sourcing all-new materials to build again, has a carbon footprint far bigger than we think. Looking at the triple bottom line, leaning toward renovation seems a big picture more sustainable approach to managing our resources.
    2) I also agree to the no-foam approach. This sounds heretical to many of you I know. I also assert that we cannot blow our horns about how green we are if we are causing wholesale ruin of our ecosystems (which includes our human health) by the production/use/landfilling/incineration of incredibly toxic substances like rigid foam building materials. Shame on us! This is a tough one for sure & am hoping the newer generation of green chemists/engineers will help on this front. Meanwhile, we have had success using Roxul (mineral wool) products, cellulose, straw, cotton & wool batting in their appropriate places, honoring vapor pressures, diffusion, etc..
    3) Even if this project bankrupts CarMic (I sincerely hope not!), the conversation, energy & action generated out of it can help us all on our liferaft journey hurtling through the cosmos.
    PS: Best wishes to the CarMic team, protect yourself during the renovation. Dose up on the right herbs/immune system builders,eat good local food & get good sleep!:)

  11. Wes Stewart | | #11

    Probably
    stephen sheehy asks: "And therefore we should assume climate change is a hoax?"

    Well the similarity between to the two dire predictions cannot be overlooked. Both are breathlessly promoted by "experts" with impressive credentials. The first was a hoax and the latter had to be renamed from "Global Warming" to "Climate Change", when the warming part didn't work out.

    So although the words may be different, the melody lingers on.

  12. Andrew Bater | | #12

    Good for you Carri and Michael!
    Deciding what structures should be saved is an imperfect science. A building that some may see as obsolete today will be missed tomorrow, witness the destruction of Penn Station in NY.

    Love the stone and glass; the house has great bones.

    I look forward to following your journey!

  13. User avater
    Stephen Sheehy | | #13

    There was only one Penn Station
    But there are plenty of houses like the one we're discussing. It isn't exactly Falling Water. Although whether that beautiful to look at money pit is deserving of millions in repair cost is also worth discussing.

    I like the house too. I hope they successfully rehab it if that's what they want. I just think it is reasonable to consider whether, over the long term, the funds used to make it not as inefficient as it is now might be better spent tearing it down and building a new, right-sized, efficient house. It is at least arguable that over the next 50 years the new house will have a lesser impact on the planet than just keeping the existing house and restoring it.

  14. Gred Gross | | #14

    Reminds me of a similar project
    A friend of mine in New Hampshire took on a similar project as this (as the contractor for a wealthy client). It was a unique architect designed modernist 50s statement in glass and stone. Decrepit infrastructure, roof leaks and rot from previous rehab/remodel work, pool. Years later (and I don't know how much money infused) it is a beautiful energy suck. Nice to look at. You didn't say where in the country this CarMic house is located. I'm inclined to warn against the project, for psychological as well as financial reasons, but I admire you goals,and hope it works out.

  15. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #15

    Response to Gred Gross
    Gred,
    Your reference to a job in New Hampshire reminds me of a story I wrote a few years ago. A New Hampshire woman named Jane Bindley did a deep-energy retrofit of an old ranch house -- nothing special -- and ended up spending at least $1,190,000 on the retrofit work.

    Here is a link to my article: A Leaky Old House Becomes a Net-Zero Showcase.

  16. Carri Beer | | #16

    response and repose
    Thanks to everyone for the well wishes of success. Thanks to others for the warnings of financial and psychological distress. Being in the industry, we are aware of the financial, marital, and mental pitfalls of renovating a home and do sometimes wonder what the hell we’ve gotten ourselves into. But sometimes we do the insane because it brings us closer to a knowledge we wouldn’t otherwise have, it gives us incredible experiences to share, it's just what we want to do as our part. When I wake up in a cold sweat from another ejector pump nightmare or feel like pushing my husband off the ladder, I will recall these warnings and may, momentarily, wish we had heeded them.

  17. Curt Lyons | | #17

    appreciate your experiment
    I think your taking on of this project is great, and you have the chance to educate a lot of people in the process. I applaud your Foam free zone, as a stance; the engineers won't approve but environmentalists will. This house being almost 5000 s/f gives two of you over 2000 s/f apiece If there is any way to create an second living unit in the house, I hope that you would consider it, pretty hard to make that size to resident ratio "Green." I know you two have a Passivhaus background, but you will have choice after choice of diminishing returns, especially when a budget is considered and there is a lot to be said for the concept of "a pretty good house."

  18. Andrew Bond | | #18

    Why is age an issue?
    As a Brit in Canada, I am always shocked by peoples attitudes to the age of homes: my wife and I retrofitted several homes in Scotland over 200 years old (homes, not wife) with 600mm sandstone walls, lime mortar and zero insulation.

    I will always remember viewing a property in Ayrshire, rented by a young single mother. The house was beyond damp, leaking and freezing cold. She simply could not afford the heat required to keep it warm, and thus the moisture continued to be driven in. Attention to details, efficient condensing combination boilers and plenty of insulation later we left a legacy of a quality home at far lower financial and environmental cost than building anew.

    Our current home/project, a 1984 'mid century style' bungalow in Northern Alberta is a challenge that has proven the benefits of pragmatic thinking and a balanced approach. So far our utility bills are halved with considerable emphasis on the envelope. Our greatest concern is moisture, and have almost completely stripped the basement to rectify all the leaks before decorating (a rare choice in Alberta). As to foam: I believe it has its place in air sealing difficult areas such as rim joists and around windows, but I share Michale and Carri's preference for Roxul.

    For those looking to demolish; this is so wasteful of energy, resources and our precious land. Whilst we have stripped out all of the mold and damp ridden materials, anything sound has been re-used, often in the landscaping. Even our paints are recycled. This house isn't a masterpiece, but it is worth maintaining. The question we need to start asking is what value do we put on a better building?

    To finish, best of luck to Michael and carrie, your wallets and sanity. I've a feeling that for you the journey is as important as the destination and a living laboratory like this is catnip to any committed designer. More pictures please!

  19. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #19

    Response to Andrew Bond
    Andrew,
    Faced with a 1950s home like the one described here, many contractors will advise clients to compare the cost of (a) demolition and new home construction with (b) a gut-rehab job. In some cases, it costs significantly less to demolish and build a new home.

    If the client chooses (b), they end up with a home that includes a few features (and a few materials) from the 1950s home. They also preserve an architectural style which they may value. If the client is willing to pay for these features, that's fine.

    If the client chooses (a), they may end up with a home that performs better and serves the needs of a modern family better.

    I don't think that anyone thinks that a 1950s home is "too old to be worth saving." Of course it's wonderful to save 70-year-old houses or 200-year-old houses. But not everyone has the budget to be able to afford to do so.

  20. Edward Shannon | | #20

    remod vs teardown - financing
    In addition to the many environmental reasons noted above for remodeling verses tearing down, one other aspect drives the remodel option - financing! Unless one is able to buy the property free and clear, most lenders will not extend a mortgage and allow the house (the main value of the property) to be torn down.

  21. Andrew Bater | | #21

    Grandfathered Zoning & Environmental Regs
    One other reason people sometimes rebuild versus tear down, grandfathered zoning regs and grandfathered environmental regs. Setbacks, proximity to shorelines etc.

  22. Robert Henderson | | #22

    Tear it down, recycle various components
    Assuming one purchased it cheaply enough, a tear down and rebuild might be the best option. Recycle the stone and various components that give it that "50 Modern" appeal and rebuild it right. Except for the pool, maybe a tear out and fill for that.

    Otherwise I see the potential for overspending the net value of the house/neighborhood/area very quickly.

    *They call me "KillJoy".

  23. John Clark | | #23

    @Edward
    Very true and it's why we eighty-sixed our own plan. The author stated that the subject was purchased as a short sale. For those who do not know a short sale simple states the bank agreed to allow the homeowner to sell the property for an amount that is less than the outstanding mortgage balance. In these instances the bank knows that values are increasing so the property will sell for a higher price (incur a smaller loss) than what could be obtained via foreclosure and then selling.

    What does this mean for our authors? It means they have a poorly performing but habitable home which places a higher percentage of appraised value in the structure itself instead of the site (i.e. land). Unfortunately this type of home is a poor candidate for demolition unless the owners are willing to significantly expand the size of the new structure and/or convert it into multi-family. The financing just doesn't work out favorably unless the authors want the plow a lot of money into the new house with the idea that they may/may not recoup it upon the time of sale sometime in to the future.

    This is a challenge for markets comprised of 'in fill' lots. Generally only the tract builders have the economies of scale that allow them to acquire multiple contiguous lots on which they'll build a small number of large luxury homes or more numerous but smaller townhomes. If the builder stands up a fence and a gate then county will consider the street private property and the builder can then build $1MM luxury homes with only 8-10 ft of space between them. *shrug*

  24. User avater
    Paul Kuenn | | #24

    Great challenge and I see two homes - one rentable
    Hopefully they have lots of willing and hardworking friends. I'd say separate the new from the old - completely! Tear out the insides. Perfect place for double walls with cellulose as we know the outer rock walls will allow breathing. That should leave at least 1,200 sq. Ft for a family of 5 (we were fine with 6 living in 1,000 sq. ft). The rest of the behemoth can be taken care of at a later date, torn down or rented. Also a great workshop for the needs of the crew working on the original house. Have at it and good luck! My popcorn is ready:-)

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