Saturday, March 22, 2014

Zero carbon dreams dashed

My dream house has no carbon footprint.  Unfortunately the schoolhouse is not it. 

At first, since it was on a south facing slope I thought photovoltaics might be possible for electricity generation.  But the dormers (which make the second floor habitable) make it impossible for solar panels to work on the roof.  Then I looked into the possibility of solar panels at the back of the lot.  Unfortunately the lot is long and narrow, and the trees on either side cast too much shadow for panels to work on the ground there.  So I’ll be buying my electricity from Western Mass Electric for now.  The LED lighting should help with conserving electricity, and my refrigerators won’t have icemakers, which are real power drains.  I don’t have a television, which is another power hog, but I realize I’ll have to have one in the rental unit or I’m not likely to get any customers.

As for heat, I considered geothermal but came to the conclusion that the initial installation costs were prohibitive. Then I looked at wood pellet boilers and was quite intrigued by them.  But the nearest distributor of bulk pellets is pretty far away, meaning lots of fossil fuels would be burned in the delivery and I was a little nervous about the reliability of the supply. 

Dave the builder recommended a hydronic forced air system fueled by propane. I’ve had experience with hydronic systems where hot water circulates through baseboard radiators, and I’ve had experience with forced hot air systems, where air is heated by a flame and circulates through ducts, but this is kind of a hybrid, and is new to me. There is one boiler (actually a tankless hot water heater) which heats the water for three uses: the radiant tubes in the basement floor, domestic hot water, and hot water that flows through tubes that heat the air that flows through ducts. There will be a small storage tank for domestic hot water but the hot water supply will be “limitless”.  It is supposed to be very fuel efficient, and the heat is supposed to be more even and the air less dry than in regular forced air systems.

Heating system going in

By the way, the propane tanks were installed, buried and filled in mid-December before the ground froze.

The one thing that will make the most difference in fuel efficiency is the amount of insulation that is going in the walls.  Once all the rough plumbing and wiring were done, it was time to start that process.  

The target R factors are 40 in the exterior walls and 60 in the roof, which qualifies as “super insulated.” Most of the insulation is “bio-based” in particular the soy-based foam that was sprayed 12 inches thick in most of the exterior walls. But some of the exterior walls were not that thick, so a petroleum based spray foam with a higher R factor per inch had to be used in those. Zero carbon dreams dashed again. Cotton batting is going in the interior walls. And of course the windows, which were there when I bought the place, are new energy efficient ones (double pane, though, not triple).  I don’t know what the U factor is on my windows, because the labels are gone, but Pella says their windows exceed the EnergyStar requirements in all 50 states. So for Massachusetts, that means it should be under .35.

 Dining room, east

North bedroom, east side

The insulation should be finished by now; I'm now completely up to date and will post more progress reports after my next visit.

I've just come across this 2008 photo of the house on another blog, New England Photos.  Thanks, Bill! (The internet is AMAZING!)

Yes, it's big!

It’s going to be two units, and I’ll live in the east side while renting out the west side to vacationers who come to the Berkshires for the hiking, the music, the dance, the theater, the skiing, and the sightseeing. Each side is about 3000 square feet and has four bedrooms (3 upstairs and one down) and three full baths. I’ll probably rent out one of the bedrooms on my side as well, though I do have a way of expanding into all available space myself with my various hobbies.

When I bought the schoolhouse, a set of plans came with it, showing all the building’s structural elements in great detail.  According to Dave, the builder from whom I bought the property, and who specializes in post and beam construction, by 1892 when the school was built (more about that in another post to come), the art of post and beam construction was dying out. In many parts of New England, tremendous growth had taken place between about 1875 and 1900 and stick built, or balloon framing, was now the preferred method of construction.

Evidence of this building boom can be seen in the area of Boston where I now live, Jamaica Plain.  Here you will see street after street of Victorian style houses and triple deckers, all of which were built within a relatively small window of time.  There must have been the sound of constant hammering in my neighborhood at that time. But I digress.
How the inside looked when I bought it

Dave, being a post and beam man, preserved the exterior sheathing of the schoolhouse but replaced the skeleton with beams and posts reclaimed mostly from old barns in the area.  He also added dormers on the second floor, which had been more of an attic when the building was used as a school. This is an aerial photo of the building pre-dormers that I found on the website “Old House Dreams”.

Also you will notice there is no chimney: Dave added the fireplaces as well. 

The two pages of the plans that interested me the most were the first floor plan and the second floor plan. These plans showed how the rooms would (or could) be laid out. Given the placement of the structural elements and the windows, there wasn’t a whole lot of reconfiguring I could do, but I did spend several months blissfully fiddling with those floor plans. On the second floor I made the bathrooms smaller and the bedrooms larger so that each bedroom would have a closet (omitted on the original plans…only a male would design a bedroom without a closet!)

There had been provision for a laundry room on the second floor and although it is true that that is where most of the laundry is generated, I didn’t think that was the best use of that space. I needed closets! Ultimately I decided to put the laundry in the basement but make a small space for a stacked washer/dryer on the second floor with hook-ups in case some future owner wants a laundry on the second floor.  I’ll use it as a storage closet. I figure if I get so I can’t maneuver down the stairs to the basement to do laundry, I won’t be able to get upstairs to the second floor, either, and it’ll be time for assisted living!
Ideally the best place for the laundry would have been on the first floor but given the constraints of the existing structural elements, that was just impossible.

It seems nowadays every new house has to have a whirlpool tub and sure enough, they envisioned one in this house too. Now I have lived in three different condos that had a tub like that and never, ever used it! (I also lived in a house that had an indoor hot tub, and took that out to make another bedroom.) So naturally I have eliminated the whirlpool tub.  I suppose it’s possible I’ve impaired the resale value of the house in doing so, but so be it.  I’d rather have that extra storage space under the eaves! Though I only take showers and I don’t know anybody except families with small children who use tubs, I will have a tub in one of the two bathrooms on the second floor. I changed the downstairs bath from a tub/shower to just a shower as well.

On the first floor, given the existing structure there was really nothing I could do to the basic lay out.  The dining and living rooms are in the front of the house (south-facing), the kitchen and a seating area by the fireplace are in the middle, and a bedroom/study and back entrance are on the north side.  (The two units are mirror images of each other.) The front door opens directly into the living room from the front porch, but because of the topography of the lot, the driveway comes up around the house to the back, so the back door will be the one used as the main entrance.

Two things I really wanted were a mud room and a walk-in pantry but I just couldn’t squeeze them in anywhere.  The living and dining rooms, fireplace area and kitchen are all open to each other with a couple of posts hanging out in the middle.  I’m kind of a contrarian about kitchens: I think they shouldn’t be too big.  I know it’s not the fashion any more but I am a big fan of the classic work triangle.  I like to be able to stand at the sink, pivot to the stove, pivot to the oven, pivot to the fridge, all without taking too many steps. (I actually made a kitchen smaller in one house I’ve lived in and partially renovated.) So of course my final kitchen plan made the kitchen smaller than the one proposed by the builder. It will be an L-shaped kitchen with a triangular island (triangular because of where one of the posts is). The sink will be under a large window, which I think is essential in any kitchen.  I’ve lived in places where the sink faces a wall and I just don’t like it! 

Though I won’t have a walk-in pantry I will have a large pantry cupboard, so that’ll just have to do. I also wanted a wall oven up at eye level but given the size of the window and the fact that the kitchen only has two walls, I couldn’t fit that in anywhere (pantry cupboard took precedence).  The oven will be under the counter and a gas (propane, really) cooktop will be in the island.

Once I was done fiddling with the plans, the carpenters put up the studs for the partitions and I could walk around and imagine what the spaces would be like.  Then it was time for the rough plumbing and wiring.  I spent several hours with Dave the builder and Mike the electrician walking through the house flipping imaginary light switches to make sure we got all the lights switched correctly.  Because I am so particular I wanted to avoid having to choose too many light fixtures, which would drive me crazy, so most of the lighting will be recessed LED ceiling lights.

Some of the studs for partitions have gone in

So far what I have described takes us up through December of 2013.  In the new year, the first thing that happened was the basement floor.  A couple of inches of insulation, radiant heating pipes and a smooth cement floor went in, hampered of course by the extremely cold weather we had that month.

The other thing that happened in January was the arrival of my new granddaughter, which has engendered many mixed feelings about moving away.  But it’s only a two hour drive, and I do intend to return to Boston frequently for concerts and for an amateur string quartet I play in, so I’ll still see lots of her and her brother. And I’m still here in Boston now while she’s a newborn and I can help my daughter by going over and making goo goo eyes at the baby while she takes a much needed nap.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The digging begins

Here is a view of the schoolhouse from the back of the lot in January of 2013.

Beartown State Forest and the Housatonic River are downhill to the south, just across the street.  At the back of the lot is an old logging road that connects to some private trails in the woods.  

Dave the builder and I decided that we'd use the summer to improve the drainage around the house and build a garage.  (I kept calling it a garage and he kept calling it a carriage barn.)

The lot slopes down towards the river, so we planned to level an area right behind the house to accommodate the driveway/turnaround and garage, but we didn't know exactly what was under ground.  It turned out there was a ledge of marble (the whole town is on top of marble: beautiful blocks of white Lee marble were used in the Capitol Building in Washington DC, but the quarry now just produces marble chips), so we quarried the rocks that will eventually be the retaining wall. Here's how it looked as we began to dig in August:

This is what's now underground: lots of perforated pipe and several catchbasins.
Once all that was installed, it was time for the garage foundation.
The garage is a post and beam structure to match the house; its construction took from September to November.
A crane was needed to put the big beams in place.

The garage is done but the weather turned cold and snowy before the retaining wall could be built. That will happen this spring.  In November we turned our attention to the interior of the house. 

What I saw in January 2013

It was over a year ago that I fell in love with the old South Lee Schoolhouse and made the somewhat rash decision to make it, and the Berkshires, my home. Years ago, when I lived near the gateway to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, I thought it was a great place to be for hiking but the cultural amenities were somewhat lacking.  The Berkshires would have both, I thought, but gave no serious thought to relocating.

When my grandson was born with a heart defect in Boston, I  decided to buy a condo there so I could be helpful but intended to remain living mostly in New Hampshire.  But I ended up enjoying city life so much (meaning going to lots of concerts!) that I didn't actually spend much time in NH and after a few years in Boston decided to part with my NH real estate.

I'm not sure what prompted me to start looking "casually" online at Berkshires real estate, but probably something was telling me it was time to make another change in my life.  My grandson had weathered two open heart surgeries, was doing exceptionally well, and was about to start school at his dad's school.  My daughter had formed some wonderful friendships with other moms and had a fabulous support group and really didn't need help from me at all.  Sure, I picked my grandson up at school one day a week, but that was mostly for my benefit, not hers!

So, I saw this old building that had been gutted and partially rebuilt by a local builder and decided to buy it and complete the renovation using the same builder.

Here is what I saw that January day when I first went to look at it:

The first order of business was to build a garage and install a drainage system, for it was located on a hillside underlain with a ledge of marble! That will be my next post.