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October 12, 2021 - January 15, 2022
Our home is a 120-year-old farmhouse in downtown Amherst, MA. At the time of purchase, it had no insulation in the walls or attic, was heated by an oil furnace from the early 20th century, and was clad in mint-green asbestos shingles. Although walking distance to downtown, all of the public schools, and in a wonderful neighborhood, it gave us pause. On the plus side, the foundation was a quarter inch off of square, the framing was sound and the orientation produced a long south face. We seriously considered knocking it down but philosophically decided that we had stumbled on a perfect candidate for a deep energy retrofit. In short, we decided to keep as much of the structure of possible while attempting to address our needs now and into the future.
At no point was our goal to create a net zero house; Rather, we sought to make the best once-in-a-lifetime decisions. This approach led us to focus on creating a highly efficient building envelope. Our guiding principles for the functional design were few: (1) insist that every square foot be usable space (2) accommodate our young family with two children and a cat (3) establish spaces to accommodate the reality of our lives (mud room for kids boots, guest room for family and friends, and office for parents who work late), (4) allocate capital to core projects and leave long-term desires for a later date (garage and screened-in porch).
The result of our efforts is a highly efficient home with uncompromising aesthetics and comfort. The original footprint of the house is unchanged and yet we were able to massively upgrade the functional and energy efficiency of the site through smart design. For example, by removing and redesigning the roof, we were able to achieve three things: increase headroom in order to create a third-floor guest suite and office, remove a gable interrupting the south roof face to maximize space for PV, and create deep rafter bays for increased insulation. By clustering the auxiliary spaces in our home (office and guest suite) on the third floor and through our multi-zone heat pump system, we are able to “power down” those areas when not in use.
We have been in the house for a year and a half. It is a joy to live in. First, we relish living in a house designed to our needs and aesthetics. Our floor plan places living spaces on the south side and puts transition spaces on the north side so our primary living spaces and every bedroom is sun-splashed. Second, we are extremely proud to be a net clean energy producer. Despite running only electric appliances (including a lawn mower) we generate 30% more energy than we consume. We achieved these great heights by using a limited set of well-proven and accessible technologies and design elements. Our house is living proof that the existing housing stock of this country can be transformed to provide beauty, comfort, and sustainability.