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! 

Ice Melt Alternatives

It’s that time of year again! For some of us, there are special challenges around keeping our entry safe for family, the delivery folks and guests.

If you have a nice flat walking path to a covered entry- all you need is a shovel and some ice melt. But wait! Before sprinkling anything down there are a few things you should look for.

Some ice melt products can be very harmful to certain surfaces or your pets. Concrete is especially susceptible to calcium damage if the concrete is new or the product is overused. Read the labels carefully and if you must put down salt, do it sparingly.

Last winter, I went to see a previous client in Weston about another renovation in the middle of February. They have a long sloped walk that leads to an entry that ends up collecting a lot of snow and drips. The sloped walk keeps water flowing when it melts and freezing on the path in the cold which makes this an ongoing maintenance issue, even with a mild winter.

If you have wood steps like mine, you know that a mild day of drizzle with below freezing temperatures overnight leaves a very slick surface. If you have a slope with an area of runoff that makes the ice difficult to keep up with, constant snow melt can damage the steps and be very time consuming to keep up with.

That Weston client had these rubber mats leading down the walk that were heated and were also very skid resistant. I decided to try them on for size in a very unusual lay-out as shown. Last year I had temporary pressure treated wood on there and didn’t mind throwing salt and sand on them. I couldn’t imagine salting the new Ipe walk, and I had to promise my wife that I would buy these mats if we went with wood over masonry so the morning walk to the bus wasn’t a daring act of balance.

A couple of quick notes:

1) What you see cost about $1k (my in-laws are worth it).

2) Most exterior outlets are 15 amps. Each 5’ section is 2.4 amps and each step is .7 amps.

I didn’t need a new circuit like my friend Bob in Weston but I did buy a remote so I wouldn’t have to go outside to turn them on. You could add an outlet with a timer switch if that works for you and only run them when you need them. In my test today, they warmed up in about 10 minutes while 25 degrees outside and the manufacturer says it melts 2” per hour.

Happy Winter! – Ray

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!

Outdoor Spaces That Enhance Winter Views

Here in our New England area we can experience 20 degrees in December, or close to 70 as the forecast states for tomorrow- Christmas Eve! What doesn’t change is the connection a deck can make (referred to as transitioning in Architecture) between the outside and the inside. Designing a deck is an important part of how it works with the home year round.  For this deck on a hillside home overlooking the Charles River in Dover, MA…. why would we want to spoil the view in December when the beauty of the river changes with every season?

The effect the glass rails have in this case is 3 pronged:

First, I like glass rails for the simplest reason. When sitting outside, that 36″ required rail height is the perfect spot to block the view (since in the sitting position your eyes are about 36″ off the ground)- and as long as there is no top rail, there is not any visual interruption.

Next, from inside this house, the glass rail allows the eye to descend all the way to the river, creating a bigger more impactful view that is like a living view, more than just seeing the river in the distance.

Last, because hillside homes should embrace the drama of the perch, these rails allow the residents to feel that perch- almost tree house like- without any worries about the safety.