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Sheep Dog Hollow: an eco-friendly renovation

Photo Gallery: Sheep Dog Hollow - framing a green dream home

By / October 15, 2009

This real estate photo of a former farmhouse and campsite caught the eye of reporter Alexandra Marks, who then purchased the property and renamed it Sheep Dog Hollow. She and Martin have set out to remake their dream home, renovating it using the latest in 'green' technology to make it energy efficient.

Courtesy Mick Marsden

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Deciding to renovate a home in as green and environmentally responsible manner as possible is something that requires much advance thought and research. Although, to be honest, I didn’t know that at the time I made the decision about Sheep Dog Hollow.

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Alexandra writes about the "green" and budget-friendly renovation of a 100-year-old farmhouse in south-central Connecticut.

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No, like my decision to buy the lovely, broken-down old farmhouse (described in the Oct. 25 issue of the Monitor's weekly print edition) and quit my job in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, it was one of those intuitive things. It just felt very strongly like the right thing to do.

And so, after Martin and I signed the contract to buy the old house and figured out how we would pay to renovate it – which entails dipping into our sacrosanct retirement accounts and taking out a new mortgage on our current home – I announced to Martin that I also wanted to renovate Sheep Dog Hollow as greenly as possible.

“Absolutely not!” he bellowed at first. “That will add at least $200,000 to the cost.”

Fortunately, I knew that wasn’t necessarily the case anymore from reading many of my colleagues’ articles and a book about the business benefits of going green (which I confess I read only because it was written by a friend), along with my general interest in alternative energy.

That was prompted in no small part by the great 2008 leap in home heating oil prices. While they’ve come down since then, they are now ticking up again, a trend that I expect will continue.

So, my challenge was to convince Martin that the combination of federal and state tax credits, improvements in green technology, and long-term energy savings would in the end make renovating in a green manner one that was also economically feasible.

I will tell you it took some convincing. He is correct that many of the initial upfront costs are indeed significantly higher than traditional construction. The initial bid we got for a geothermal heating and air conditioning system for the 4,000-square-foot antique was about $63,000. (Hold onto your hat, Martin certainly didn’t!)

That’s a good $20,000 more than a top-of-the-line oil or gas-fired system for a house of a comparable size. It is also about what I paid for my first house, however many years ago it may have been.

But after a social Saturday afternoon spent with a new neighbor who is a green-certified builder, as well as a two-hour session with heating and air conditioning contractor who has been building geothermal systems for the past 20 years, Martin was at least willing to explore further the idea of going as green as possible.

I had to undertake my own education to finally convince him, which, thanks to the Internet, was much easier than it would have been, say, even 10 years ago.

First, I found several sites dedicated to green renovation. Not surprisingly, one of the most helpful and in-depth was Planet Green, which is produced by the Discovery Channel. It is packed with straightforward, clearly written articles about almost every aspect of green renovation – from the initial planning process (this is one of the many places that alerted me that I was supposed to do research first…) to what type of paint is best to ensure indoor air quality.

It also has an archive rich with excellent how-to-advice on an array of topics from composting toilets (which I think we’ll forgo) to spray foam insulation.

Planet Green’s sister site, Tree Hugger, is equally helpful. But one of the most crucial resources is the US Green Building Council. It’s the go-to site for the most professional guidance available as well as the group that has created the gold standard for green building and renovation certification.

This standard is called LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and will be the subject of my next post.

Editor's note: Join us twice a week as Alexandra Marks blogs about the environmental -- and budget-minded -- renovation of the 100-year-old Connecticut farmhouse known as Sheep Dog Hollow. Click here to read the next installment.

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