This Old House Goes Green

An 88-year-old home receives an environmentally friendly makeover. Peek inside at how it was done and discover ideas, tips and products that you can use on your own projects.

The house for sale at 5909 Wakefield Ave., off West 58th Street in Cleveland, was an ordinary, two-story home that had seen better days.

Built in 1916, the small, three-bedroom, vinyl-sided bungalow had little to lure prospective buyers. Although structurally solid, it was drafty, dark and cramped. The 50-year-old kitchen was short on cabinets, countertops and floor space. Cracks scarred the plaster walls in many rooms. The wood floors were in desperate need of refinishing. The electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling systems were outdated and the garage was on its last legs.

But a host of local nonprofit organizations, area businesses and inspired individuals saw more in the little house than just your ordinary fixer-upper. They envisioned the city's first environmentally friendly, "green" residential rehab.

In a unique partnership, the Cleveland Housing Network, Detroit-Shoreway Community Development Organization, Cleveland Green Building Coalition, the HBA of Greater Cleveland Remodelers Council and Cleveland Magazine cooperated with a host of sponsors who contributed products and services (see page 53) to get the job done.

The four-month transformation, which began in October 2003, will be unveiled this month as a "green-built" showpiece, spotlighting ideas, techniques and materials that make it a "healthy house": one that's good for the people who live in it and for the planet.

We're in the business of saving neighborhoods and houses," says Damita Curry, community-development coordinator of the Cleveland Housing Network, which purchased the house and works to create homeownership opportunities in Cleveland for low- and moderate-income families. "And with this project, we're taking it a step farther by supporting an initiative to do that in an environmentally responsible way. "

It's an especially important step in the progress of the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood. Bounded by Lake Erie to the north and I-90 to the south between West 45th and West 85th streets, some people believe the area is poised to become the next "in" spot.

The 1,172-square-foot home is within shouting distance of 20 new green-built townhouses in the EcoVillage, a smart-growth initiative in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood. A few blocks away, the West 65th Street rapid station has just undergone a $3.35 million overhaul.

"The EcoVillage is a special place, where urban redevelopment is being integrated with the best environmental thinking," says David Beach, executive director of EcoCity Cleveland. "We're attracting people that are thinking about their personal impact on the planet, people who realize that city living is a good choice."

Such ideas mesh with the aim of the Detroit-Shoreway Community Development Organization. The reuse of existing housing "contributes to the stability of a street, maintains its special, traditional character, and is generally less costly than new constSuction, so homes remain affordable," explains Detroit-Shoreway director Mike Bier.

The EcoVation Home, as it's come to be called, demonstrates how to integrate green practices into an older structure in cost-effective ways. But it takes effort.

"What made this job different was the need to think 'green,' " says project manager George Dzuro of Tesco Builders, a Cleveland construction and renovation company. "The biggest challenge was to figure out how to do things in new ways and integrate new products, deciding which ones would work best in this particular situation."

The first step is to make the building more energy efficient. The windows are so drafty the previous owner covered them with plastic to fight back the cold. But that's not a long-term solution.

Jeff Stuart, vice president of 4 Seasons Insulation in Medina, uses an infrared camera to identify cold spots in the walls. After pinpointing the trouble areas, cellulose insulation, a green material made from recycled newspaper, is added. Then, Boston-based Building Science Corp. tests for other structural air leaks and seals them with a foam that does not contain ozone-damaging chloroflurocarbons

To compute the overall heat loss, consultant Nathan Yost, an associate with Building Science Corp., measures air leakage, insulation levels and the square footage and performance of window glass. The results determine the appropriate size for the furnace, air conditioner and supply ducts to each room.

Ductwork in the exterior walls is moved to the house's interior walls to minimize loss of heated and cooled air. The change, along with the new insulation, will significantly lower the heating and cooling costs.

The home also gets a new Bryant 90 Plus efficiency furnace, which loses only 10 percent of the heat it produces — up to four times better than a standard 20-year-old furnace. Its sealed-combustion design brings in fresh air from outside and ensures that no unhealthy flue gases backdraft into the living space. The water heater, with an induced-draft fan, provides a similar benefit.

"What we've done with insulation, ductwork, heating, windows and many of the materials and finishes we've worked with won't make it prettier," says Jim LaRue, a consultant with the Green Building Coalition, who served as "green" adviser to the EcoVation Home team, "but they will make it a better place to live. What we're doing is optimizing the potential of this house and getting it back in circulation by creating a new kind of healthy home out of an old one."

Demolition begins in November. The big issues are determining what to save, what to replace and what products to use.

On his Web site,, LaRue explains that the goal of green building is to "locate, create and use building materials and systems that produce the least side effects for the environment from the time they are mined, cut or manufactured to the time they are dismantled and discarded."

That sometimes means choosing the lesser of two evils. For example, although the home's vinyl siding is most definitely not green, keeping it out of the landfill is an environmental plus. Therefore, it stays. But rather than use new vinyl tile for the bathroom floor, a textured off-white ceramic tile from Dal Tile, composed of more than 50 percent recycled material, will be laid.

Similarly, much of the house's original woodwork is reused. Wood from one bedroom, for example, patches holes in the living- and dining-room floor made when heating registers were relocated. Nubby, linen-colored "squares" from Interfaceflor, one of only two companies in the country that take back their own product and reuse all of it, carpets the bedroom.

Some things can't be saved, however. While the home's roof is in good shape, the garage is not. So Dzuro and his crew tear down the existing structure. In its place, they put up a new one that features a reverse gable to maximize southern exposure and acˆommodate the future installation, should the homeowner wish, of solar panels. A side benefit is more area for planting in the small back yard. It also has maintenance-free hooded gutters from locally owned Villa Gutters.

Dzuro and his crew also remove the entire chimney. Changes to the home's heating and ventilation system — which is now safer, cleaner and easier to maintain — make the chimney obsolete. With it gone, the kitchen is reconfigured to increase usable space.

By mid-January, the kitchen is completely gutted. Walls are stripped to the laths and acoustical ceiling tiles are removed to make way for new plumbing and heating runs. The old sink is gone and so are the base cabinets.

The two original wall cupboards remain, but get a makeover with new leaded-glass doors that match the built-in china cabinets framing the opening between the dining room and the living room. The upper portion of an existing wall is knocked out, creating a more open plan for the first floor and allowing natural light to filter throughout.

Upstairs, new drywall — composed of paper that is 98 percent recycled and gypsum that is 100 percent recaptured (available from Home Depot) — goes up in the bathroom and adjacent bedroom.

The cast-iron, claw-foot bathtub, temporarily removed for its own protection, is put back in place with a shower setup that includes a water-saving, low-flow head that still delivers plenty of pressure. A water-saving, Toto-brand "Drake" toilet uses only 1.4 gallons of water per flush, 2/10 of a gallon less than other standard new toilets. Both products were supplied by Active Plumbing.

Energy-saving Pella windows, featuring a layer of argon gas between double-pane glazing, are installed in early January. Astonishingly, on an 8-degree day, the glass inside does not feel cold to the touch. With an interior wood frame (a better choice th.n vinyl) and a low-maintenance, long-lasting aluminum exterior, the design eliminates the need for counterweights. The old cavities are now filled with insulation to eliminate drafts.

Custom-made Green Leaf kitchen cabinets, designed and produced in Cleveland by Cabinet King, are in place by mid-February. Crafted from primeboard, a combination of wheat straw and sunflower-seed husks, the cabinets are "almost edible," says Cabinet King'founder and owner David Rupp. Unlike particleboard cabinets, which contain formaldehyde, "there's nothing in them that could harm you," he adds.

These will be covered in maple veneer derived from hardwood certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council, which guarantees that it comes from a well-managed forest, with Formica laminate countertops.

The kitchen sink is made from dust left over from the production of other granite products. Distributed by Moen, "it has a stylish, sophisticated look, comes in five different colors, seven styles and is very durable," according to Active Plumbing's Peet McCain.

One of the most striking alterations is the tubular skylight in the center of the second-floor hallway. Invented in Australia in the 1980s, the Solatube actually brings light from a dome on the roof through diffusing lenses and into the core of the house via flexible, highly reflective tubing. Natural light floods both levels, pouring down the stairwell and into the dining room. The unit also blocks harmful ultraviolet rays and does not produce heat.

"Filling a house with natural light lifts spirits and moods," observes Mary Meadows, a partner in All Natural Lighting Solutions, which sells and installs Solatubes. "People find they don't need to turn on lamps as early or as often. One thing everyone loves is that the lenses, like the kind used in lighthouses, make rainbows. Who wouldn't want a rainbow in their home?"

The last stage of the renovation, called the closeout, is primarily cosmetic. It's detail and decorating time. But don't dismiss all that as mere eye-candy. There's a green side to decorating, too.

"I see the environmental aspects of this project like a pyramid," explains Bier. "At the base is the reuse of the house itself, the land and the infrastructure of the city. That saves the most resources. In the middle are all the steps taken for energy conservation, reducing the amountΩof gas and electricity needed to run the house by maximizing the performance of the building and its mechanical systems. At the peak is the use of environmentally friendly products and recycled and renewable materials. It has the smallest overall impact but is really important because this can easily be incorporated into any home, old or new. It represents something everybody can do."

The front porch and trim is freshly painted, interior lighting fixtures are installed and sandstone walkways reset. Indigenous shrubs and flowering plants will go in as soon as the ground thaws. The wood floors, stripped and sanded, shine with a honeyed gleam. Custom art-glass panels, crafted by Designer Glass in its 105th Street studio, are set in front- and back-door windows, as well as in the china cabinets and kitchen cupboards.

Sherwin-Williams Harmony-brand paint in lemony yellow, amber, moss, cream and rainy-day gray creates a contemporary look. Additionally, the water-based latex has no unpleasant paint fumes and does not pollute interior air. All adhesives and finishes are also clean, water-based and emit low levels of volatile organic compounds. By the end of February, it's hard to believe this is the same house.

Exhaust fans for the kitchen and bathroom improve indoor air quality by venting to the outside. "Proper venting is especially important now that the house has been made 'tight,' " LaRue says.

Attractive wall and ceiling light fixtures made of frosted glass and wrought iron with a leaf motif accept compact fluorescent bulbs. "The new [fluorescent light] technology has eliminated the flickering, buzzing and turn-on delay that used to be associated with them," says All-Lite Electric partner Bruce Altchouler. Easily recognized by their squiggly shape, compact fluorescent bulbs are initially more expensive, but are more efficient and economical in the long run. A 60-watt compact fluorescent bulb uses only 14 watts of electricity, lasts 10 times longer than a regular incandescent bulb, produces little or no heat and can save up to $46 per year, per bulb, according to Altchouler. "It's an easy change to make and it offers big benefits," he says.

As work nears completion, Yost and LaRue repeat the blower-door test and discover a significant decrease in heat loss. "That's tough to do in an older house," says LaRue. "The new owner can expect to spend less to have a warm and cozy home in the winter."

The 88-year-old home has been transformed to meet the needs of 21st-century living — and beyond. It addresses concerns about the future of the Earth and its resources. Some of what's been done at 5909 Wakefield requires a significant investment and commitment. Other things are simple, cost-effective strategies that can be easily duplicated.

In 1969, when the Cuyahoga River caught fire, Cleveland became synonymous with the looming ecological crisis. It's often cited as the event that launched the environmental movement in this country. We're now poised to redefine that movement.

"Cleveland's taking a lead role in showing how to address some of the most pressing issues of our times," says Wendell Robinson, interim director of the Cleveland Green Building Coalition. "Many individuals and groups are coming together here to look at the future from a sustainable perspective."

The sale price of the house is $135,000, an after-renovation value determined by an independent appraisal. Assistance is available through the Cleveland Housing Network's Homeward program in the form of tax abatement, second mortgage and reduced interest rates. CHN lenders call for only a 3 percent down payment, but don't require buyers to carry private mortgage insurance, as most other lenders do when the down payment is less than 20 percent. So no monthly premiums are added to mortgage payments.

"This project benefits all Northeast Ohio residents," says Bier. "It's providing an opportunity for people to learn about green rehab and get ideas for things they can do in their own homes. Investments like this improve property values in the neighborhood. And that represents our best hope for the future, for this community, for Cleveland and for cities everywhere."

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