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Energy-saving retrofit of a 1920s house makes it so 2010

The 4,300-square-foot residence was loaded with character. And energy leaks. Updates easily reduced that.

January 02, 2010|By Paul Young

State and federal financial incentives may be encouraging homeowners to go green in 2010, but Don Foster and Erin Quigley decided not to wait.

The couple live in a circa-1920 L.A. home designed by Theodore Eisen, one of the architects behind the Doheny Mansion downtown and the Lummis Home in Highland Park. This Eisen house is actually twin residences that Foster and Quigley merged into one large, cozy place where they can entertain friends and family and still have their respective work spaces. But with 4,300 square feet of living space, their energy bills soared.

"I used to have a very small footprint," says Foster, a writer for "Two and a Half Men." "I didn't have a car, and I lived in a very small apartment. But then I moved into this place, and suddenly my footprint was huge."

The couple bought the house in 1994 and took the first step toward a green renovation in 1996, when they put in solar panels. "It's a kick to see your meter slow down to a crawl," Foster says. "But what we really wanted to do was to see it run backward."

They mapped out a long-term plan and started saving for other significant changes -- more than simply updating appliances and changing out light bulbs. Then in October 2009, they embarked on what Quigley calls "the biggest retrofit that we could do without doing a remodel." Their goal: to give their home an energy-efficiency tune-up, which would eliminate waste in power, water and gas. An associate recommended a home performance contractor, which led them to John Shipman of the Fullerton-based Energy Efficiency Management Inc.

Shipman was trained by the California Building Performance Contractors Assn., which is supported by California utility companies and devoted to green retrofits. According to Harry Ford, programs administrator for the association, most existing homes can be made green -- even greener than newly constructed homes.

For Foster and Quigley, Shipman looked at a year's worth of utility bills to find patterns. His team then performed an audit using diagnostic tools that pinpointed water and heat leakages throughout the property.

"The idea was to create an airtight shell, which would stabilize temperatures," Shipman says.

That required drilling more than 100 holes in the home's facade and blowing cellulose, a treated newspaper material, into walls, ceilings and floors. They also replaced some windows with dual-pane glass, added window tint to reduce indoor temperatures in hot weather, and resealed doors, duct work and recessed lighting, which is notorious for allowing heat to escape in winter, Shipman says. They also added a "cool roof," a reflective coating that deflects the sun's heat, and they created zones inside the house that can be heated and cooled individually.

"We can already tell the difference," Foster says. "It's much, much quieter than it was before, and you don't hear appliances or cooling systems kicking in all the time either. It's just more comfortable overall."

To diminish the use of water, Shipman replaced toilets with dual-flush models and added two recirculation pumps, which replace cold water with hot in seconds. "We used to have to wait several minutes before we could get in the shower, which was a tremendous waste," Foster says.

Die-hard green homeowners might take issue with Foster and Quigley's greatest luxury: a swimming pool. The couple installed it 10 years ago, and it's still something they enjoy immensely -- especially Quigley, a diver and an underwater photographer. To mitigate its effects, Shipman's team resealed the pool lining, which had a leak, and installed an energy efficient pump. "It's also a black-bottom, saltwater pool," Quigley says, noting that they don't use chemicals and that the color helps to harness the sun's heat.

"This is what this all about," says Don, taking a seat in "the monkey bucket," their poolside lounge filled with tiki figures and toy monkeys. "We can still have all this, with the pool, the backyard and garden and still know that we've diminished our footprint significantly. In fact, at certain times during the day, we can now see our meter run backward."

For that, Quigley and Foster will get modest rebates from the state and federal governments. They received nearly $5,000 for their solar panels and will get a tax credit for adding insulation and energy-efficient windows.

The state offers a financing program that allows Californians to pay off certain green retrofits over 20 years at a fixed rate. If a homeowner moves, the remaining debt transfers to the buyer. The federal government is pushing energy efficient mortgages and energy improvement mortgages, in which lenders consider a new home's energy efficiency or an old home's potential for a green retrofit in determining borrowing limits. Borrowers can get larger mortgages because even though monthly payments might be slightly higher, a green house can have lower utility bills.

"This is important because it removes the biggest obstacle to realizing this kind of work, which is coming up with the money," says Brian Gitt, principal at the Oakland energy firm BKi.

Last month, President Obama pressed Congress to pass a "cash for caulkers" program patterned after the popular "cash for clunkers" car rebates. Under one proposal, incentives of $1,000 to more than $3,000 would be offered for people to invest in energy-efficient home improvements.

"We would love to see more rebates and credits offered," Foster says. "But this kind of work is relatively affordable, and best of all, it was probably the least invasive construction job you could ever imagine."

The benefits, he says, far outweigh the drawbacks. "You end up saving money, you do something positive for the environment, and you end up with an even more comfortable house. What's not to like?"

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