In this blog, Paul Eldrenkamp and Ken Neuhauser look at a range of houses and ask these questions: “If this house is to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem in the year 2050, what will it probably look like? What sort of master plan will get it there?” Paul and Ken will be presenting a workshop on this topic (“What should be done with this house?”) at the upcoming BuildingEnergy 16 conference in Boston.
Designers, remodelers, and homeowners rarely think long-term. There are too many incentives not to. In this article, we hope to show ways to think about houses over extended time periods so that we can come up with short-term measures and solutions that fit into a longer-term context. This, we think, will help us become better stewards of the homes we are asked to work on.
We’ll use a dialog format to discuss eight mini-case studies.
House #1: A simple ranch in an expensive neighborhood
Lot size: 8,000 sf
House size: 1,100 sf
Year built: 1948
Type: Slab-on-grade ranch with detached garage
Location: Newton, Massachusetts
Distance to major services/transportation hub: 2-3 miles
Current value: $450,000
Paul: By 2050, I think this house [see Image #1, above] will long ago have been torn down and replaced. A McMansion on that lot could sell for $1.2 million. I think the opportunity costs of saving this house are way too high, no matter how sentimental you are about small-house living. If it is indeed replaced with a McMansion, we’ll be replacing one kind of problem not with a solution but with a new kind of problem. Instead, I’d like to see this replaced with a moderate-income 4-unit multi-family. Maybe four 1-bedroom or studio apartments at 600-700 square feet each for a total of 2500-2800 square feet – the size of a McMansion. But zoning laws would have to change dramatically, and the neighborhood would fight that, and it almost certainly won’t happen soon — although it might by 2050.
So if the owner of this house were my client, I’d tell them to sell. If they instead wanted to live there for another 20 years or so, I’d tell them to put a 6 kW solar array on the roof and convert to minisplits. The minisplits are a 20-year technology (if we’re lucky) and the PV will pay for itself in 7 years or so. Otherwise, I think they should do next to nothing in terms of improvements to this house.
Ken: It’s a shame that market pressures don’t tolerate small houses and diversity of housing opportunities for very long. The building looks as if it could provide an option for people who want to be in the community and either do not want a big house or do not have the resources to acquire and hold a big house. The cost/value of this property is in the address and not the building. Clearly, the market pressures demand higher value building on the surface area of the neighborhood. It may, in fact, be in the interest of the people in the neighborhood and the larger community to have a range of housing options and the range of residents this allows. Would it be possible to have higher value of buildings on the lot and also provide diversity of housing opportunities? Yes. It would be possible with higher density. But, as you point out, this would take a different zoning.
If the owner of this house wanted to stay in the community and in this home, the switch to an all-electric platform with on-site generation makes sense. I would advise them to make modifications to the home that make the home more enjoyable to them in the present — as long as they understand that there will not be a return on investment in the home beyond their own enjoyment.
I might also advise them to start a farm or a cemetery on the lot to limit property taxes.
House #2: A gambrel with two additions
Lot size: 60,000 square feet
House size: 3,100 square feet
Year built: ca. 1910
Location: Metropolitan Boston
Distance to major services/transportation hub: 2 miles
Paul: This was a nice gambrel on a large lot that borders wetlands, limiting the opportunity for much more development. It was a nice gambrel, at least, until someone chose to put on the two additions — the one-story space on the right and the 2-story addition with 1-story mudroom on the left. Whenever I look at a prospective client’s house, I often see past errors that need to be stripped away before we should do anything else. These two additions look, to me, like carbuncles that need to be surgically removed. The most elegant way to expand a Gambrel form is to extend the main roofline. The least elegant way to is to add a couple of boxes. I would advise this homeowner to remove the boxes and figure out a better way to add that square footage. If this house ends up being torn down by the year 2050 — which is very possible — it will be because of those two additions and not because of the original house. This should stand as a warning to remodeling contractors everywhere.
Ken: With any luck, the growth on the left will fall off on its own (there are already signs of water damage visible below one of the windows). If insurance companies were smart enough to fix causes rather than symptoms of building problems, the next ice dam claim might prompt the insurer to insist that the piece on the front be removed.
But while we disparage what we see as “errors,” it is worth considering that these things happened because somebody loved the building. And surely, the people who did this did not set out to make the building ugly and create a future burden. We should all keep this in mind the next time we set out to “improve” a building.
So, if the building did not have these detracting appendages or if it had some complimentary appendages in their place, how long would we expect this building to be in service?
Paul: I think this building would be in service indefinitely if the errors could be reversed. I think in 2050, without the carbuncles, it would be well insulated and air-sealed (possibly with exterior insulation, possibly not); it would have some sort of heat pump technology for space conditioning and domestic hot water; and it would have solar panels somewhere on the site. It would possibly be a bit bigger, but in a way that respects its architectural heritage rather than merely accommodates it. But for the most part it would not look all that different from when it was built in 1910 — nor does it need to.
Ken: I would think that exterior insulation should (not that it would) be added in the next re-cladding cycle. I think the expectations of comfort combined with constraints of the existing space demand it. For the building to be served by a discrete system that can be accommodated within the existing space, the building will need to have a very low-load enclosure.
Recladding will need to happen within the next 35 years if the building is to be in service indefinitely (at least as far as the horizon we can envision). The roof in particular would need some subtle reconfiguring if it is to be an enduring building (I am surprised that it made it this far without roof overhangs on the gable end – again, somebody must have loved this building).
Given the size of the lot (almost an acre and a half) and the location so close to Boston (inside Route 128?), market forces will push for the absolute maximum value/building area that the (then current) zoning regulations would allow. I would not be surprised if the original gambrel building ends up as some kind of frontispiece for a larger addition (in tasteful compatibility with the original, of course). Being a mere shell or a face mask for a larger building might remove the constraints on heating and cooling distribution. But even so, the difference in comfort between the new and the old would be noticeable without a significantly improved thermal enclosure on the existing building.
Also, if the building is to go the distance, its 100 year-old basement will need significant treatment.
House #3: A Victorian with a third-floor addition
Lot size: 8,700 square feet
House size: 4,300 square feet
Year built: unknown
Type: Modified Victorian
Location: West of Boston
Distance to major services/transportation hub: 1-2 miles
Paul: When I look at this house, I always imagine that the third-floor addition was brought in from Kansas on a cyclone. I think this is another good example of the need to “strip away the errors” before making significant improvements to a house. Ken thinks it should be preserved, as is, to stand as a warning to anyone who chooses to add on to a house without hiring a good architect. But I’ll let him speak for himself.
The problem for me is that “stripping away the errors” drastically adds to the cost of any improvements. I would tell the current owners not to do anything except the most basic health and efficiency measures until they — or a subsequent owner — can afford to take away that third-floor accretion.
Ken: I think this would be a fantastic house to decorate for Halloween! Victorian houses always make a good backdrop for a creepy scene. In this case we have a house that is a Frankenstein monster — a mismatched mélange of parts. (But we should pity the creature rather than shun it, no?) I’m not sure that having an architect involved would have necessarily prevented this sort of thing. What’s needed is a respect and appreciation for what we have. If we are going to do something to contrast with the existing condition, we should do so in a respectful way, not in a mocking way as appears here.
This might be another case where we have an interesting building on a site where the market conditions demand a higher value/higher density use. What we had in the original was a story-and-a-half where the “half” (in the mansard portion of the attic) would have been relatively unusable for modern tastes without a lot of air conditioning. I wonder if moving the thermal boundaries of this house might have allowed some clever reclaiming of space in the attic and basement.
How we treat the basement to bring that into the thermal enclosure is relatively well understood and established. How we would treat the attic/roof is much trickier given the slate roof and the complexity of the roof line. But I have some ideas…
House #4: An old house with vinyl siding
Lot size: 13,500 square feet
House size: 3,000 square feet
Year built: 1865
Type: Mansard, with rear additions
Location: North of Boston
Distance to major services/transportation hub: 5 miles
Value: $1.2 million
Paul: This house reminds me that we have three clients for each renovation project: the owner who’s hiring us; the house itself; and the community (and it’s up to each of us to decide where the boundaries of “the community” should be).
The best investment for the homeowners depends on their timeframe in the house: If it’s 10 years at most, they should possibly leave it as is. If it’s longer, they should plan to pull off the vinyl siding and restore the exterior to its Second Empire glory. That’s what I would advise them. At one point, I would have advised them to add 4 inches of insulation to the exterior before re-siding. I’m not such a crusader for that level of exterior insulation now. I just think the cost per ton of carbon reduced is too high.
It’s too expensive to try to fix all of our climate and energy issues just by retrofitting existing buildings. After getting an existing house to a certain level of carbon reduction, there are more cost-effective things the community can be doing with its collective resources, such as investing more in de-carbonizing the grid. If we had zero-carbon energy and transportation grids (indulge me for the moment), it wouldn’t matter what we did with this house.
But it would be really great for the building to wrap it in 4 inches of foam — the architecture could be preserved, and the building would be all set for maybe a millennium or more. But it would be a big investment to save just one building.
Ken: I agree that if the horizon is 10 years or less, it would be best if the owners did not make major changes to the enclosure (e.g. windows) or systems, as the changes made would likely not be aimed and the long view (would not support high performance) and these changes would then be baked in. As Brian Butler has pointed out to me, any change to a component (windows, siding, roofing, boiler replacement etc.) essentially inoculates that component against further improvement for many years to come.
But it would be very important to keep up with preventive maintenance.
Bad maintenance could significantly degrade the building during the current (presumed short) period of ownership and would certainly jeopardize the future of this building: In the photo I can see that the rain leaders need to be piped to drain away from the brick foundation — it is showing signs of damage. The basement window should be repaired to prevent water and pest entry and to control the infiltration of humid summertime air that would elevate moisture risks in the basement. The vinyl siding typically has features that act like gutters to concentrate water precisely at vulnerable parts of the wall. I would advise using an undersized air conditioner or dehumidifier in the summer to help the walls dry to the inside and to keep the heat up in the winter to promote drying to the outside. If there is a wet basement, that might be an area worth improving even in the short-term.
Regarding the longer-term path, there seems to be some inconsistency in your suggestion to restore the exterior to its Second Empire glory but forego the exterior insulation because the cost for reduction of carbon this way is just too high. Really? How much carbon will paint and restored woodwork save? I’m glad you acknowledge that wrapping the building in sufficient insulation is one of the least energy-intensive things we could do to preserve the architecture. And putting more PV panels on the roof or on a landfill cannot do that. Another thing that PV can’t do is to make the interior of the home more comfortable. How about improving the sound control of the enclosure (an aging population will appreciate this)?
It may be that gobs of insulation are not the cheapest way to reduce carbon footprint. But if we acknowledge, value, and count the investment we are willing to make for all these other benefits (comfort, sound control, preservation of the building, etc.), then the residual that we pay for the energy performance may not be that large.
Perhaps there are more cost-effective things we can be doing as a society to reduce climate impacts. But I think achieving the most benefit for the money that we, in aggregate, are willing to spend requires that we capture every opportunity to leverage investments made for non-climate-impact reasons to also benefit climate impact.
Yes, it is too expensive to try to fix all of our climate and energy issues by retrofitting existing buildings. But the need is too great and the resources are too scarce for us to ignore the opportunities presented by the remodeling and beautification that is done for non-energy reasons.
Example #5: A neighborhood of triple-deckers
Lot size: About 5,000 square feet per lot
House size: Three units in each building, at 1,000 to 1,200 square feet per unit
Year built: ca. 1910
Location: Dorchester, Massachusetts
Distance to major services/transportation hub: 500 feet
Current value: $150,000 to $200,000 per unit
Paul: Although I’m less and less convinced that wrapping a lot of homes with 4 inches of foam is a great idea, I think this block of three-deckers could be a place to do it. The geometry of these buildings is simple, and a good crew could really build up some momentum. Figure out some easy ways to detach and then re-attached the porches, strip the siding and roofing, wrap the houses, replace the windows, install one minisplit in each house and a simple HRV, and cover the flat roofs with PV — and you have a net-zero neighborhood, possibly within a 30-year payback. And it’s a neighborhood that could really use housing that’s well built, comfortable, conveniently located, and nearly free to operate. The trick is getting all those different landlords and homeowners to agree to such a plan.
Ken: Paul, we don’t need to use 4 inches of foam. We could use rocks (fuzzy rocks)! In fact, in a location where wood-framed buildings are built this close and with so many peoples’ wellbeing depending upon buildings not burning down, adding stone wool to the outside of these buildings may not be a bad idea. (There I go with another non-energy reason to do something that addresses climate and energy).
As with the gambrel we discussed earlier, a low-load enclosure will be essential to providing air-based heating and cooling without causing major disruption to these homes and without further detracting from the already-limited living area. (Caveat: If we are able to use a hydronic heating and cooling system — something definitely taking shape on the horizon — then it might be easier to fit heating and cooling distribution into the space. Still, it could be tricky in an existing home.)
We may eventually have much less internal combustion engine noise in urban areas. For the foreseeable future we can expect vehicular traffic (and emergency vehicles, air brakes, and over-powered sound systems) to create urban environments prone to high noise levels. We could do a lot to reduce the amount of outside noise that gets to the interior of these homes with robust insulation and an airtight enclosure.
And we could do all of this stuff with a material that has a low GWP (global warming potential) and with a process that is more labor-intensive than capital-intensive (read: more likely to also benefit the local economy — sorry, shareholders).
We could also get some significant energy savings out of it. Getting really significant energy savings will mean getting control of plug loads. (No chance at zero net energy unless we can do really well at this). It will also require HVAC systems that are effective enough that people do not feel they need to open windows to be comfortable (or, if people do want to open windows, maybe we don’t have HVAC operating simultaneously!).
Paul: A Swedish building engineer once told me, “In a well-designed building, you only open the windows for fun.” I thought that was a good summary of the goals of high-performance construction. Of course, the next Swedish engineer I talked to said, “In Sweden, we don’t do anything for fun.”
Ken: Maybe it’s just that the Swedes take fun so seriously that they don’t call it “fun.”
I also need to point out a very important consideration for multifamily housing. Operating from the outside allows us to make significant changes to the building performance with a minimum of disruption to people living in the building. Significant enclosure work from the inside would likely require that people be temporarily relocated. The cost of temporarily relocating residents can be an insurmountable financial hurdle for a renovation project. (The cost of temporarily relocating residents would make the cost of that additional 2 inches of exterior insulation seem trivial, eh?)
Paul: I visited an apartment block retrofit in Stockholm where the owners calculated it would be cheaper to send all the occupants on a 5-week vacation to Turkey than to find them temporary housing in Stockholm while they did the interior portion of the retrofits. That’s a creative way to get tenant buy-in to a project like this.
If a neighborhood-scale retrofit like this ever came close to reality (we can dream!), I would be willing to be a project manager on a pro-bono basis. This would potentially be the sort of retrofit project that could be a very satisfactory culmination to a career in retrofits.
House #6: A handsome Gothic Revival
Lot size: 5,500 square feet
House size: 3,500 square feet
Year built: ca. 1870
Type: Gothic Revival
Distance to major services/transportation hub: ½ mile
Current value: $750,000 (?)
Paul: In 2050, hopefully this house will look just the same. It will probably have better insulation in the framing cavities. Maybe the basement will have been fully insulated and that space made inhabitable to increase the occupancy. Designer minisplits will have become available that look like vintage cast iron radiators, and this house will have one in each room. It’s possible to decrease the carbon footprint per capita that this house represents by putting more occupants in it. If we can find safe and neighborly ways to increase density by allowing more unrelated people to live in single-family homes, houses like this will have a solid future.
Ken: I agree. People of the year 2050 should be grateful if preceding generations presented them a building that looks just like this.
As you suggest, the way that this building contributes to the solution is through reducing per-capita carbon by increasing occupant density. Dividing into condos would be a knee-jerk market approach. I like the idea you hinted at of some kind of cooperative shared living environment. This may be slightly off-topic, but at some point we should see a reversal of the current trend to concentrate dependencies “elsewhere”, e.g., assisted living, group homes for developmentally disabled or physically challenged. By 2050 I hope we see a trend toward places that acknowledge and foster interdependencies among persons of varying abilities.
The location is one that provides opportunities for low-carbon transportation. Increasing the occupant density of this house would have a double whammy of 1) reducing per-capita housing energy and 2) increasing the number of people with access to low-carbon transportation.
Paul: So I would tell the owner of this house to do as little as possible until market forces have loosened zoning laws, Henri Fennell has taught more foam contractors how to do slow-rise cavity fill insulation, and minisplits are available in a faux Victorian option.
Ken: I think one should also go over this building very thoroughly to make sure that the basic water management is in place to safeguard this building. Clearly somebody put a lot of attention into the aesthetics of this building. But did anybody make sure that the flashing sheds water away from rather than into the building? As with singers and news/weather reporters, I’m very skeptical when something looks this pretty.
House #7: A six-year-old McMansion
Lot size: 11,413 square feet
House size: 4,051 square feet
Year built: 2010
Location: Suburb of Boston
Distance to major services/transportation hub: 2-3 miles
Current value: $1.3 million
Paul: In 2050, this house will still be what it is. It was designed and built in a way that will make it hard to ever be anything but a large single-family home.
Developers in this area don’t think farther ahead than the day the house is sold: the less they know about durability and long-term water management, the better, it seems. I see a lot of basic mistakes, like reverse lap flashing and no knowledge whatsoever of rainscreens. So the exterior cladding will have been replaced at least once by 2050, I predict. And maybe some of the Zipwall will need to be replaced, too — we’ll soon find out how well that material holds up to repeated wettings and limited drying. More aggressive energy codes in some Massachusetts communities have not considered that better-insulated wall and roof assemblies might need better drying mechanisms.
The roof will have been replaced at least once by 2050, and maybe in the meantime we can come up with something that’s nicer than asphalt that doesn’t break the bank. (And maybe that produces electricity at a cost of less than $2 per watt, installed?)
I predict that the heating and cooling system will have been replaced with something a lot more sophisticated than the brute-force-and-ignorance system of ductwork and air handlers that was installed when the house was built.
Finally, it’s possible that by 2050 someone will have removed the two south-facing dormers that are preventing an 8 kW or so PV array to be installed on the roof (if cheap building-integrated PV roofs don’t materialize).
This house replaced a slab-on-grade ranch that had lasted 60 years. Having observed how this house was built, I predict that it will be replaced in 50 years.
Ken: Paul, you are awfully hard on builders. And unjustly so, I think. It’s the buyers or consumers of houses that are the problem. If this builder did proper flashing, installed the cladding over a rain screen, back-primed everything (etc.), would he or she get a penny more from the buyer? In our current environment, the spec builder who invests in quality is a fool.
Things are different in the custom builder and remodeling contractor world. There we have known clients and the opportunity to establish the level of investment that the client is willing to make toward quality. A custom builder or contractor can establish her or his product/service offering around an idea of quality and performance. Doing so allows clients to self-select and self-screen based upon an appreciation of what it is the builder or contractor offers.
If we want buildings to be better, the real challenge is getting people who buy and own buildings to both appreciate and recognize quality. Creating examples of good building to demonstrate good performance is a start. But I fear it is only a very small step in a long journey. Educating home consumers (and their agents!) to the fact that buildings can perform well might seed the demand for higher-performing buildings. For that demand to grow, buyers and agents will also need to be able to recognize quality.
Paul: I think you’re blaming the victim by putting the onus on the consumer to learn basic building science before buying a house. There’s a fine line between “the spec builder who invests in quality is a fool” and “the spec builder who doesn’t invest in quality is a scam artist.” For a brief shining moment around about 2010, I thought we had learned a lasting lesson about the perils of basing our national economic prosperity on a steady supply of cheap, disposal housing. Although very expensive, this house is to me a good example of cheap and disposable. Sigh.
Ken: I don’t see the homebuyer as the victim. If the homebuyer hired a disinterested third party (we do pay real estate professionals and home inspectors, no?) to assess the quality and performance relative to water control, durability, energy performance, comfort, etc. and if this homebuyer was misinformed about the quality, then, yes, the homebuyer is the victim. I think this kind of housing is a natural outgrowth of our consumer culture generally. It’s price, not quality that matters. Consumers want more for less, not better. That’s why most people would rather drive around in a big-assed GMC than well-built [fill in the blank]. (Everybody has her or his own taste).
But there are plenty of people who are willing to pay more for less if that “less” is more better.
House #8: A thermal disaster
Lot size: approx. 5,000 acres
House size: 2,885 square feet finished area in the main house; 1,700 square feet in guest house
Year built: 1936-39
Type: Mid-century modern
Location: Mill Run, Pennsylvania
Distance to major services/transportation hub: 10-20 miles
Current value: Mostly sentimental value; the lot would be unbuildable under today’s regulations
Paul: I don’t see a lot of future for this house. It’s nothing but thermal bridges — single-strength glass and concrete cantilevers. A case could be made for wrapping it in rigid foam and Dryvit, but it would be hard to justify such a labor-intensive project.
It’s in a very wet environment without a lot of drying potential. It’s not clear that the original architect, whoever that was, knew or cared much about structural engineering or durability.
It’s a long ways from any transportation hub or services. I would tell the current owners to enjoy it while they can, and then let the house gradually crumble into the Bear Run Creek.
Ken: Ah, Falling into Water! Or is it Water Falling through?
Much as we might deride the hubris of this building and its complete disregard for hygrothermal management, it has attained a rarefied place in our culture/civilization such that it is no longer a home but a monument. (The Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty also have horrible thermal bridging, but I don’t think that negates their value).
Paul interrupts: People were never expected to live in the Washington Monument or the Statue of Liberty. I think the Washington Monument would make for lousy living spaces, but I think the Statue of Liberty could be retrofitted with 2-3 luxury units pretty nicely. What a view! Get rid of that cheap copper and put some gold leaf on that sucker. Naming rights: The Statue of Trumperty.
Ken aside: Great, it will be bankrupt in a month!
Ken continuing: The bad hygrothermal performance (other modern architects created exquisite examples of atrocious performance) is a very important part of the architectural history. We need history (and architectural history) for the lessons as much as the inspiration it offers. If we don’t heed the lessons of these buildings, we are condemned to emulate them!
It would be more useful to abstract this particular specimen to a more general type or situation. One possible type generalization would be a building that boldly eschews the forms and conventions that evolutionary process has determined are viable in this climate and for human needs. Sometimes, such a mutation can produce something really helpful that leapfrogs the painstakingly long evolutionary process. More often, the mutation doesn’t work out.
So what do we do when the experiment produces something that comes to be a problem? Of course, where there is a will and infinite resources, the problems could be fixed. But, would it be better to receive gratefully the lessons learned and try again (i.e., start over)?
Another way to generalize this building is as one that is all horizontal surfaces and mostly shaded glass. In the mid-century execution with concrete and plate glass, it is easy to conclude that this arrangement doesn’t work in a location where it rains or snows or where it gets cold. In other words, it seems that this type form is better suited to be inside a building than as a building. But, on the other hand, horizontal surfaces and lots of glass sounds a lot like what many of our high end and low-end commercial buildings look like (think office buildings and retail buildings).
Managing water and providing really good insulation on a low-sloped roof is something we can do quite well with current materials and methods. The vertical glazing is something that could be remedied with really high-performance glazing systems. (We’re getting closer on that front.) We may need to consider external shading for glazing that is exposed to the east through south to west. The exposed elements between the glazing and the roof can usually be provided with an insulating and water protecting wrap of some kind (EIFS, insulation plus cladding) or re-built. The typical slab on grade will present a challenge. If we are willing to have a little bit of exterior excavation we could do a reasonable job of remediating the slab edge losses. Then we take advantage of the flat roof-to-floor area ratio for PV and vegetable gardening.
Paul: I will admit that I slid this example in solely to bait any irony-impaired purists. But Ken turned it into a thoughtful discourse that offers hope that exquisite beauty does not need to butt heads with outstanding performance over time. So why do I still see so few examples of a satisfying balance between high design and high performance from our starchitects? What are the forces that allow them to claim to be green while anyone who uses actual performance data to question those claims is a philistine? Does this go back to CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” problem?
Paul Eldrenkamp is the founder of Byggmeister (Scandinavian for “Master Builder”), a remodeling company in Newton, Massachusetts. Ken Neuhauser is is a senior field project manager with the Building Performance Consulting group at CLEAResult Consulting, Inc. Ken provides building performance consulting to building owners, designers, developers, and builders.