How to Improve Your Home’s Efficiency

Energy performance should be a discussion in any home renovation where there is an opportunity to make improvements in energy consumption and improved comfort. While it should be part of the conversation, the outcome may be that additional insulation in a small sub-component of the home could actually be a bad thing to do.

Good building science works well when different components are assembled with synergy. In the 70’s during an energy crisis, insulation factors were significantly increased without simultaneously modifying the components it worked with. This resulted in premature exterior paint failure from vapor trapped in the structure, and required ventilation retrofits to make the system work “better”. 

I have also seen the “green movement” in building science morph into a few camps based on ideology instead of a simpler health, and energy science. If you want to improve the energy performance of your home, start with increased insulation value while accounting for the rest of the building system. Second, change all the lighting in the home to LED.  This will reduce excess heat in the summer and will reduce your electric bill right away with a short term payback. The third place to look is the heat plant. If you have older low efficient heating and cooling equipment, the change in efficiency from 80% to 94% will show up right away. Last but not least… if you are doing an entire exterior make-over… replace the windows. One at a time this doesn’t really change things. If you want to know what to do next… INSULATE MOREJ!

Here is a project we just completed in Wellesley. As part of a kitchen expansion, we did a complete exterior (and interior) make over. With blown in insulation in the budget along with all new windows, we discovered that a less effective insulation (about R9) had been installed by the last owner when they installed aluminum siding. We couldn’t get more insulation in the cavity so for the price of the blown in budget (about $5k) we suggested a one inch foam board to provide a thermal break. This pretty metallic red board does more than add 25-40% more to the insulation factor, but delivers a contiguous external thermal blanket that reduced hot and cold spots. This project with attic insulation and a new high efficient gas boiler shows the proof is in the pudding. Check out the comparison of last year’s energy report that came with the EverSource bill and the recent report!

The pictures of the home show the 3 phases of the exterior renovation (paint starts in a month or so).

Step one, strip to bare sheathing boards.

Step two, install a vapor barrier with 1” of foam board (they did finish the whole house… I showed up during that for the photo).

Step three, we sided with Hari Plank siding and Azek trim for a long lasting and beautiful low maintenance exterior that can be painted every 10-15 years.

How To Properly Install Shutters

Exterior makeovers are nothing new to our company.  One item that always adds a quality and charming feel to a home are authentic window shutters.  I am not talking about the screwed to the house variety-I mean the shutters that sit on offset hinges and come with an assortment of hold backs, properly known as “shutter dogs”.  The difference in the aesthetic is easy to see when you drive by a home that has authentic hardware.  The shutter stands off the home enough to see the relief in the siding which will produce a shadow line that adds extra elegance.

Something I am often asked about when we are ordering or installing shutters is the durability. My preference in New England is the historically common louvered shutter.  They’re constructed with cedar and pre-painted by the shutter maker.  Cedar will make the shutter last much longer than pine. Unfortunately pine is often used, in case you are wondering why you have to paint your shutters every five years, that’s probably why.  Another reason I prefer cedar shutters has to do with the more authentic appearance they have close up compared to composites and their ability to accept the hardware installation.

We are also often asked if the shutters are backwards when we install them.  You may notice that most homes have the bottom of each louver sloping away from the home which is usually a selection the painter makes when screwing shutters back on the house; and commonly found in the vinyl variety.  However, shutters were once a necessity and had to work properly.  Back when glass was so fragile and windows not so watertight, the shutters needed to be closed in advance of the storm and the louvers needed to shed water away from the window.  So when opened, shutters should display with the louvers in the opposite direction draining toward the siding if you want an authentic installation.

There are some composite shutters that look nice and claim to be lower maintenance. The ones I have seen are best used for a paneled shutter- not as common in our area because the wood ones take on water at the joints easier.  If you’re looking for that style, which is more appropriate on an English or French Country style home, I would suggest using composite.

If you are looking to buy shutters and are not renovating, we recommend contacting a company that specializes in this, and locally that is New England Shutter.  When we are installing ourselves, we like to buy from Exterior Solutions where we can order them easily with the finish, size and hardware all in one spot. If you’re wondering what they cost, each pair will set you back about $600-$800 installed, pre-painted and with cedar.

Happy shopping! 

What’s Under That Old Siding?

In the picture below, this is a typical 1940’s home in a Wellesley neighborhood we have done a few projects in. As part of a whole home renovation, we are going to put on a new roof, new siding and replace all of the exterior trim and windows. When we are done, it will be better than new!

Our firm has removed and renovated siding from homes that are CIRCA 1760, and unfortunately; also homes that are only a few years old because of faulty product or installation. I often get asked about what to expect once the siding comes off, or hear that someone told them they won’t know until after the siding comes off. 

The reality is that it is very predictable with an eye on a few items. A good exterior inspection will shed light on repairs that were made or if there was a lot of deferred maintenance. If the home is on the historic end of the spectrum, it will look close to the photo of the 1940s home except the boards will be less uniform and there will be larger gaps. On a home like that, as long as the wear and tear are typical we expect to replace about 10% of those boards before re-siding and if the home is in rough shape, we will be re-nailing the sheathing and probably some of the framing. The renovations of the homes that fall in the 1940 category are about the same. These homes were built post war with pride and are not really that old in the renovation business. If a previous owner neglected the home, we would probably find some insect or water damage (about 2-3 days of labor from a carpenter to repair).

It’s the 1975 to present day houses that are the more troubling ones to work on, mostly because the issues are born more from a dollar driven new home construction and use of poor materials. It will likely be plywood below with rot from leaking assemblies and rotted trim. The sheathing will need to be re-nailed because there were not enough nails to begin with and larger sections will need to be uncovered.

One of the questions most asked is whether the siding under vinyl or aluminum siding will be salvageable. Although I am an optimist, the reality is that these homes were usually over-sided because of an issue with the original siding. Additionally, there will be nail holes all over the original siding. If you are planning for a full exterior renovation, my advice is to budget for the original siding to come off so you don’t end up in worse shape when the vinyl comes off. Happy renovating! Feel free to contact us if you are in need of exterior remodel to see how we can help!

Fireplace Makeovers for a Transitional Generation

You may have a natural brick fireplace like the ones pictured below, or at least may have seen one or two. We are seeing more of them as the 1970’s and 80’s homes they are in become due for improvements. We are often asked what we can do with them, and the answer is that there are endless amounts of ways to re-adorn this gathering spot. I thought I would show you 2 ideas that demonstrate what a little paint can do as well as a more tailored way to dress a raised brick hearth.

The first before and after is a recently completed makeover in Dover, MA. The client had a couple of inspiration photos, and she really liked one that had a more up to date honed stone surround with simple lines. Because her fireplace had a raised hearth, we had the stone fabricator make the base as monolithic as possible instead of a more traditional layering with the hearth top hanging over. Because they also wanted a TV above, we had to frame out the wall above to allow space for wiring.

                                   

The second idea was part of a major kitchen renovation in Sherborn, MA that we completed a few years back. We removed the wall between the kitchen and family room and installed a kitchen that leaned more contemporary than the brick fireplace in the existing family room. We suggested a deeper tone paint to allow the fireplace to remain a focal point and also offer a nice textural, sophisticated and simple accent against the wall.

                                                                                                         

Remodeling Without Surprises

Newly remodeled spaces can be beautiful, and make an improvement in your lifestyle as well. Here are a few things you should get more information on in advance of starting your project to avoid cost overruns and other surprises.

The first thing that will help you steer the ship is to find out what similar projects cost (or at least a range of pricing). Ask a close friend if they don’t mind sharing what they spent if they have done something similar. Renovating, building a new home or adding on isn’t like car shopping because most folks do not have the same house and desire an identical kitchen.  The budget for any project can swing greatly depending on size and quality.  One of the most common pitfalls is spending money on design without understanding cost.  Having some general information on the budget you want to use will make the initial design work be more focused.

What changes do you really want to make that will pay dividends in your life for the next 5-10 years? What I mean is; installing a new toilet because the existing one is leaking wouldn’t stop you from a full renovation when the time is right. So if your home is “vintage” there may be some things behind the walls that should be addressed before you try to remove the tile for a cosmetic fix.  Also try to consider what your family will need in the future (Another good thing to consult a friend or professional designer on).  Try not to focus on the now-if the toddlers need a better Cheerio snacking space, think about how a renovation may help for future needs like when their team comes over for a Pizza Party post game.

What other items will be impacted by the renovation? One of my priorities when budgeting for our clients is to make real discovery of the project to prevent cost overruns.  It is so easy to omit things from the scope which will avoid having to understand the cost now.  One very common consideration when we prepare budgets for home additions is how much of the roof is affected.  It may be close in price to do the entire roof and save a lot of time and money in the near future.  If you have some projects that can be bundled and the budget allows, take advantage of those economies while you can.

Don’t breeze over the boring mechanical issues- they are the engine of your home. I have seen many additions where the old heat system was over taxed and failed because the Owner wasn’t consulted on this important part of their home.  Your heat and AC work should be looked at for anything larger than a kitchen or bath remodel.  We have our mechanical contractors look at every project during the budget phase so they can let us know critical information regarding the budget and if there are items that need to be taken care of.  Our mechanics will know if your electric service needs an upgrade before the inspector forces you to buy one.  They know if your boiler can handle the additional load, or if you should consider a few options for heat or air conditioning before it is too late to incorporate that.

In the military we had a cliché that went something like “Poor planning creates poor performance”. I am sure it had a few expletives in there somewhere, but investing in your home should be done with a complete understanding and plan to keep you from becoming the next construction horror story.

Our guys working on a window replacement in Sherborn.  We knew in advance of the window rot, so no surprises here :)