Project Spotlight: Green Remodel Makes a Healthy Home

Green remodel delivers space and safety for growing family

March 09, 2011
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For three years, ever since they moved into their suburban Boston bungalow, Helen and Kyle Nelson had talked about making the house bigger and greener. By the time they signed the contract for Boston Green Building (BGB) to remodel the house in late August 2010 they had upped the ante.
Make it fast and make it completely healthy, they said. Why? Helen was pregnant and the Nelsons were going to occupy the house during construction. They wanted no fumes, toxic materials or other contaminants to compromise the health of mother and child; they needed a safe, private living environment during production; and they required the new space to be ready for occupancy when the baby arrived in November. BGB delivered on all this — and more.

Green Approach
The 1928 house in Arlington, Mass., had character but little space. Two bedrooms and a bathroom plus living room, dining room and kitchen squeezed into a 930-sq.-ft. first floor.
The Nelsons looked to the attic to gain more room. Kyle’s brother, Vermont-based architect Keith Nelson, LEED AP, worked with the homeowners to develop a remodeling plan that added more living area without looking too massive from the outside. It included building two bedrooms, a bathroom, a playroom, and storage facilities in the attic; expanding the first floor with kitchen and dining room additions; constructing a rear deck; and replacing the siding.
“We wanted to be as eco-conscious as we could afford” when remodeling the house, says Helen Nelson.
Keith recommended a few contractors with a green bent. Their estimates were comparable, says Helen, but BGB stood out. The young company — owner Brian Butler, LEED AP, established BGB in 2007 — “seemed to know how to point us in the right direction for everything” green, she says.
Like an emerald, BGB is green through and through. On the cutting edge of researching and applying green products and techniques to home remodeling and construction, the company also runs green. BGB uses renewable energy products to provide heat and electricity to the office and millwork shop.
In warm months, biodiesel fuels power company vehicles. The BGB shop routinely chooses local, domestic hardwood species for casework, and formaldehyde-free, solvent-free, water-base wood finishes. Where possible, demo and construction waste is reused on the project site; the rest goes to a local company that sorts and recycles 85 percent of the dumpster contents.
To meet the Nelsons’ $125,000 budget target, BGB recommended scaling back the project to focus mainly on the attic update. For cost and stylistic reasons, the company also suggested a few product
choices that were not at the top of the green scale.
“We went with red oak flooring,” Butler says, because it matches the first floor and because bamboo or composite flooring would have looked more contemporary and cost more.
“We would have preferred triple pane windows,” he adds. Instead, they specified units that were a bit less energy efficient than triple pane but matched the first floor windows.

A Better Building
Construction began in early September, giving BGB about two months before the baby was due. To protect the Nelsons’ living area from disturbance, workers entered the attic construction area via scaffolding and a temporary door in a gable end during the first six weeks of production. After mechanical rough-in was complete, “we hermetically sealed the second floor” and first-floor construction space with plastic walls and zip doors, says project manager Rob Isbell. Via weekly meetings, weekly progress reports, and frequent emails, Isbell kept the Nelsons apprised of what to expect and when not to be home — such as during the noisy process of removing the old siding.
The existing attic staircase was steep, narrow and dark. Enclosed behind a 2-ft .door, the 32-in. staircase rose so precipitously “it was almost a ladder,” says Isbell, and it terminated inches from the chimney.
By installing a direct vent system for the boiler, BGB was able to remove the chimney. Capturing the attic chimney space and extending the base of the stairs into the kitchen area lent “a much more comfortable angle for the staircase,” says Isbell. Now 42 in. wide, the staircase is elegant, open, and lighted by windows above.
Remodeling plans called for construction of shed dormers on the sides to expand the attic square footage. BGB realized that raising the roof ridge just 4 inches and extending the gable end would yield considerably more usable living space, with closets and storage under the eaves. BGB removed the old roof and tarped the opening, but heavy rain forced water in anyway.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” says Isbell. Moisture penetrated the old horsehair plaster in the kitchen ceiling. On examination, he found that the plaster was uneven and in poor condition. BGB covered it with drywall and replastered.
During construction BGB also discovered that the first floor wall insulation was like Swiss cheese, riddled with un-insulated voids.
“We drilled holes into wall cavities and blew in R-14 dense-packed cellulose,” says Isbell. “In order to achieve the highest R-value possible we sprayed open cell foam insulation onto the new construction walls and roof line.”
Saving Resources
In a welcome surprise for the Nelsons, BGB determined that the existing boiler and steam heat system would be able to supply the remodeled house, even though the living space doubled in size. The company added baseboard heaters on a separate zone, says Isbell. The house not only stays warm, says Helen Nelson, but “we haven’t had to turn the heat on upstairs that often.”
With a tight, well-insulated building envelope, Isbell says total demand on the heating system has decreased. The second floor walls contain R-21 insulation and the roof, formerly uninsulated, has R-38 insulation and 40-year roofing shingles with reflective content that prevents solar heat gain. ZipWall sheathing established an air barrier with very little penetration. The vinyl windows are R-3.33. The Nelsons can reap further energy savings with their new programmable thermostat, which can be controlled by phone or computer remotely.
Other green products used in the Nelson project employ recycled or scrap materials that reduce the house’s environmental impact. The bathroom counter is a quartz composite formed from pre-consumer scrap. The bathroom tile is made from recycled glass. The cellulose wall insulation is a recycled newspaper product. The open cell Icynene insulation features an environmentally friendly blowing agent.
Products that are highly durable reduce environmental impact by sheer longevity. The wood-look James Hardie fiber cement siding on the Nelson house is long-lasting and features a 20-year prefinished coating. The exterior soffit sheets, trim and decorative brackets are hardy, PVC products that require no maintenance or painting.
To support a healthy environment, BGB used water-based polyurethane finishes for flooring and woodwork; interior paint containing no VOCs; and state-of-the-art light bulbs for recessed can lighting that last a decade and are mercury-free for safe use and disposal.
Then there are the materials reused in the house itself. Stop by the Nelson house this spring and you are likely to see the old chimney bricks paving a new backyard patio. And that dimensional art displayed on the wall? Kyle Nelson made it from wood scrapped during the transition from scruffy attic to spiffy addition.

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