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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

I have always assumed it referred to sustainability, using only the necessary resources to live in an environmentally sound manner with as few fossil fuels as feasible. The goal is to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the same fruits of this world, to badly paraphrase a definition from the United Nations Environmental Program.

But search online for “What is green technology?” and you will see that definition is simply scratching the surface.

“Green” can mean everything from using local labor and materials in order to support your local community to building with an eye toward your great-great-great-grandchildren enjoying the same home to advancing nanotechnology to create whole new industries and fields of endeavor.

You see, serious green advocates are talking revolution – not just transforming the way we produce and use energy, but changing the way we think about ourselves and how we interact with the world.

“The present expectation is that this field will bring innovation and changes in daily life of similar magnitude to the ‘information technology’ explosion over the last two decades,” explains the website of the nonprofit consortium called Green Technology in Pasadena, Calif., which advises local and state governments on the latest in green building advances. “In these early stages, it is impossible to predict what ‘green technology’ may eventually encompass.”

That sounds a bit daunting. But I find that just beginning this process has already begun to transform the way I operate – granted, probably 30 years after it should have, given our current energy situation.

But in a nod to the moral aspects of this process, I don’t want to harbor any guilt for my thoughtless, spendthrift energy ways of the past. My goal is now to turn my energy liabilities into green assets.

Take the hot water system in our current home. I now see it as a serious liability. Like many in the Northeast, we have a hot water tank that is hooked up to an oil-fueled boiler.

In addition to keeping the house warm in winter, the boiler also keeps that water tank hot in summer. I’ve started to notice when the boiler kicks in, especially on a 90 degree F. summer day, just so it can keep that 60-gallon tank of water hot in case someone wants to take a shower.

According to the US Department of Energy, keeping that water hot consumes 15 to 25 percent of the energy that an average household uses. Talk about waste! It now genuinely annoys me.
I’ve already decided that at Sheep Dog Hollow, we should go for either a solar hot water heater or an “on demand” gas system.

Solar panels can still be very expensive despite their recent price drops, and so they may not fit in our limited budget. As a result, I’m now seriously contemplating the on-demand system.
Europeans have been using on-demand hot water heaters for generations, and the concept is stunningly simple. Instead of keeping a whole tank of water hot, on-demand systems simply heat the water that’s going to be used as it passes through a pipe.

Simple, efficient, cost-effective, and, yes, very green indeed compared with the traditional boiler and hot water tank.

Over the next year, I hope to turn many more of my energy liabilities into assets and share the practicalities, discoveries, frustrations, and pitfalls of this process that was put into motion one sunny summer morning when I fell in love with that picture of Sheep Dog Hollow.

Editor's note: Alexandra Marks will be blogging twice a week about her green and budget-friendly restoration of a 1902 farmhouse in Connecticut. See a photo gallery of the early days of the project by clicking here.

You'll find numerous articles about the environment at the Monitor’s main environment page. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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