The Greened House Effect

Categories: Housing
The Greened House Effect \ Jeff Wilson The Greened House Effect: Renovating Your Home with a Deep Energy Retrofit \ Jeff Wilson

If you’ve ever dreamt of tearing down your old, energy-inefficient home and building a new, eco-friendly one, you may want to think again. After all, knocking down an existing building wastes materials and energy, and requires even more materials and energy to rebuild. In The Greened House Effect, construction expert Jeff Wilson offers a solution: keep your original home, but give it a deep energy retrofit to make it more efficient, increase the comfort and wellbeing of your family, and contribute to a better, greener planet.

Wilson describes a deep energy retrofit as “weatherization on steroids” that “takes your home into the 21st century … using superinsulation, air sealing, and energy-miser appliances to knock your energy use to the ground.” A deep energy retrofit may require drastic changes, like putting on a new roof or replacing all the doors and windows. It may also require a serious cash investment and committing to several years’ hard work. But Wilson explains how to tackle a deep energy retrofit without breaking the bank or losing your sanity, and after reading The Greened House Effect, you may feel confident enough to give it a go.

This interesting and readable book draws on Wilson’s experience retrofitting his family’s 1940s Cape Cod-style cottage in Ohio. That home had an overwhelming number of problems, from leaky walls and windows to a dilapidated garage to a mouldy, radon-filled basement. Imagining that his family would move in a few years, Wilson initially concentrated on fixing the cottage’s aesthetic issues. But the family’s decision to stay gave way to a four-year retrofitting journey.

The Greened House Effect is divided into 11 chapters, each detailing a different stage in the retrofit process, complete with photographs, illustrations and sidebars. Chapter four, for instance, discusses how to finance a deep energy retrofit, providing helpful information about costs, budgeting and available tax credits, grants and rebates. Canadian readers may find the American content slightly off-putting, but Wilson’s text provides a good overview of the financial incentives that could be available. The book also includes information about how to design a deep energy retrofit that’s right for your home; retrofit roofs, walls, basements and home systems; build a high-efficiency addition; and integrate solar panels and other renewable energy systems into the existing design.

Some how-to books can feel a bit dry, but The Greened House Effect balances utility and entertainment.

Some how-to books can feel a bit dry, but The Greened House Effect balances utility and entertainment with anecdotes about Wilson’s family members, friends and colleagues. One particularly enjoyable story is about Wilson’s great-grandfather, Murray, who lived in Clearwater, Florida. Using hundreds of discarded plastic milk jugs and a fan, Murray managed to make a thermal heater that blew warm air into his home at night. Most days the homemade contraption worked well. But when a rare freeze whipped through Clearwater, Murray spent the night shivering outside, emptying the jugs onto the frozen ground so that they wouldn’t burst. Wilson uses this anecdote to discuss technological advances in renewable energy and current consumer options.

While the book lays out a convincing argument for the benefits of retrofitting, Wilson’s recommendation to use spray polyurethane foam insulation (SPF) is questionable. He argues that SPF is a “superior replacement for fiberglass and cellulose” because these latter forms of insulation “don’t offer air sealing themselves, so they must be painstakingly air sealed using other methods so that they perform up to their rated R-values.” While Wilson might be right, SPF is plastic and consists of a toxic cocktail of dangerous chemicals. Some experts believe that SPF poses long-term health risks, such as asthma and chemical sensitization, so using this insulation in your home could be potentially dangerous.

Despite this oversight, The Greened House Effect is an excellent resource for anyone considering a substantial retrofit, whether a professional builder or a homeowner with the drive and passion to make it happen.  

The Greened House Effect: Renovating Your Home with a Deep Energy Retrofit, Jeff Wilson, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, May 2013, 280 pages.

This review appeared in the October 2014 Education issue.

Reviewer Information

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a freelance journalist based in Sydney, Australia. She recently completed her PhD in creative writing at Macquarie University, and is the creator of EarthVoice Podcast

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