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A green home that saves the green

A century-old farmhouse gets a green home renovation – on a budget.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 2009

Sheep Dog Hollow, shown in this real estate photo, is a 1902 farmhouse located in south-central Connecticut. It had been vacant since 1975 when Alexandra Marks bought it.

Courtesy of Mick Marsden

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EAST HADDAM, Conn.

A picture can sometimes stir your imagination. One of a house caught mine on a Sunday morning this summer. And within a day, it had transformed my life.

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The house is called Sheep Dog Hollow, and the picture was in the window of a real estate office in an elegantly restored Colonial home in Essex, Conn.

Let me be clear here. I was not in the market for a house. I had recently built an addition onto my current home and a greenhouse to keep the deer from munching on my summer tomatoes. But I enjoy window-shopping for real estate, if only to indulge my fantasies.

I have since learned that this can be extremely dangerous. Sheep Dog Hollow is a century-old farmhouse that has been abandoned since 1975, leaving it a musty shell bereft of electricity, plumbing, and heat, but full of bats, barn swallows, and dusty old junk.

It’s located in a bucolic setting, surrounded by rolling fields accented with grand spreading maples, a pond, a babbling brook, and an elegant post-and-beam barn.

It was exactly the kind of place I had always imagined I’d one day end up in – at least in my dreams.

By the end of the day, Martin and I had made an offer on the house, which was accepted that night.

Within a month, we had closed on the property and I had mortgaged my current home and quit my job in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Martin and I are now beginning to renovate Sheep Dog Hollow in as green and economically viable a manner as possible – goals that I’ve been told are no longer mutually exclusive because of advances in green technology and generous tax incentives that encourage homeowners to become energy efficient.

Our renovation will be a test of that assertion.

This article will also be the first of several that will appear once a month in the weekly Monitor. Blog postings twice a week at will document not only the physical transformation of Sheep Dog Hollow, but also the practical and moral challenges involved.

You see, we’d like to restore this abandoned old home into a model of sustainability while maintaining its essential historic character and, most important, not go bankrupt in the process.

I’ll be talking with energy experts about the merits of different technologies for heating, insulating, and lighting the house, comparing their costs and looking at how each fits into our defined budget.

Our goal is to renovate as greenly as possible within that budget, so we know from the start that trade-offs will have to be made. As much as we’d like to have a house that’s 100 percent green, economic practicality dictates otherwise.

In our attempt to retain Sheep Dog’s historic nature, we’ve hired a builder who has a passion for old houses and shares our goal of preserving as much of the original structure as possible.

I’ll also document and share the story of Sheep Dog Hollow. It was built in 1902 and was the center of a family farm for most of the 20th century. The property was later turned into a summer camp. I’m already collecting family memories of the place as well as reaching out to people who spent their summers there.

This is an ongoing story.

The moral component of this venture can best be summed up by recounting a story I once heard about the prophet Muhammad and an intellectual.

“So, Prophet,” this intellectual reportedly said, “when I leave my camel outside an inn while I’m doing business, should I tie it up or just trust God that it will be there when I get back?”

Muhammad reportedly replied, “I’d highly recommend you do both.”

So I’m beginning this process attempting to trust God that I am not out of my mind (as more than one friend has recently suggested) and at the same time trying to do as much practical research as possible to understand the pros and cons of a variety of green technologies, from geothermal to solar to wind power.

Oddly, I found that my first challenge was to understand exactly what people mean when they refer to “green” technology. I’ve been aware of the concept since before college, back in the heyday of the 1970s energy crisis when Jimmy Carter put solarpanels on the White House roof.

But, like most Americans I know, I haven’t had the time, money, or energy (pardon the pun) to really explore what it means.

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