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This Groundbreaking, Eco-Friendly Retrofit Will Inspire Your Own Energy-Saving Home Projects

Energy saving and sustainability have begun to take a central role in home design projects. In a costly city like Boston, we’re constantly trying to save money on our energy bill, and with threats to our environment being one of the most high-stakes issues of our time, we often find ourselves wanting to be more responsible stewards of our planet. 

As worthy as these goals are—to save money and save the planet—the effort that goes into consciously trying to leave the lights off, actively cutting back on heating and AC during cold and hot months, and trying to take five-minute showers, isn’t as easy or immediately rewarding as we probably want it to be. And despite our best efforts, older, less efficient homes can leak resources throughout the year, so we actually expend additional energy without even knowing it.

According to New England Design and Construction’s (NEDC) design director Grady Ragsdale, it’s becoming less common to see homes—new homes, anyway—with low efficiency ratings. But, for those older houses with less efficient systems, he presents a solution that NEDC can provide: the passive-home retrofit, a gut renovation that outfits the house so that it preserves energy, using one-tenth of the energy required by a normal house.

With NEDC having just wrapped up a project in Somerville where they turned a two-family home into a single-family home with a newly sustainable energy system, we sat down with Ragsdale to learn all about this exciting trend in sustainable home design. Here’s what you need to know.

The Passive Home 

The concept of passive homes was developed in Germany (there, it’s called Passivhaus), and is overseen by Phius, the nonprofit leader of passive housing in the U.S. It’s the only internationally recognized, performance-based energy standard in the construction industry. 

Ragsdale says that, although the idea of passive housing was developed around  30 to 40 years ago, it’s just now becoming more of a norm—especially for new builds. “As energy codes get more and more stringent, and insulation and air tightness factors are going up, all that is being written into [building] code,” he says. That means we’re reaching sustainability goals from the early 2000s.

Passive homes are becoming particularly desirable in New England because of the unpredictable weather. Here, there are four distinct seasons, with the most extreme being summer and winter, and we can all probably relate to feeling frustrated at higher energy bills as we try to keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. 

But, the more efficient your home is, the less you’ll wrestle with your home’s air temperature throughout the year. Ragsdale says that you may not even need to turn your temperature systems on at all in a passive home: “If the house is tight enough and insulated well enough, you’re barely running your heating systems in the wintertime because there’s just no heat loss,” he says. 

Of course, not everybody wants to or is able to build a new home entirely, even if they have interest in the sustainability and net-zero concept for long-term savings and eco-friendliness. That’s where the passive-home retrofit comes in.

The Passive Home Retrofit 

For retrofits, NEDC is able to find ways to use elements of passive housing on homes, turning strictly aesthetic transformations into complete sustainability makeovers.That’s what they did with their Somerville project, on which Ragsdale was the lead architect. 

“There’s always some element of [passive homes] that you can apply as you’re working on existing housing,” says Ragdale. 

If you’re thinking about converting to a passive house, a more intensive renovation may make it more possible to outfit the inner and outer workings of the house to make it certifiably passive. That’s because all the old parts of the home will need replacement. 

“We basically got rid of everything: floors, ceilings, roofs, all the way down to the exterior wall, and then started over,” says Ragsdale. 

The first thing that Ragsdale mentions when it comes to the new materials: insulation. That’s because insulation is critical for the efficiency of a home. Insulation is a factor that inspectors measure by R-value, a passive housing standard that tells you how well the insulation can prevent the flow of heat into and out of the home. 

To make sure the house meets Phius criteria for R-value, the house undergoes a series of inspections. There’s the blower door test, which tells you how tight the house is; a visual inspection of the insulation to make sure it’s installed as planned; and finally a balancing process where the air recovery system (which lets in fresh air to the otherwise airtight home) must be optimized to make sure that heat isn’t lost when that necessary fresh air is coming in. 

In Somerville, NEDC knew they had a lot of potential for improvement in regard to the insulation. “The house is over 100 years old, so it had some blown-in insulation that was done over the years—pretty minimal,” Ragsdale says. 

The team was able to open the exterior walls and add more layers of insulation to meet the passive house requirements. “We put rigid insulation on the outside of the existing framing, then we put a whole new layer of framing inside the existing framing so we could get that thickness of closed-cell, blown-in foam insulation, and then on top of that we packed fiber insulation,” says Ragsdale. That’s three layers of insulation instead of just one.

In terms of saving on your electric bill and doing your part to use renewable energy, Ragsdale also recommends solar panels. “It’s a nice additional source of energy that relieves any kind of strain on the grid,” he says. When you have solar panels, he explains, you’re able to ‘donate’ power to the electrical grid, which delivers electricity to all the buildings in your area. The NEDC team updated and re-installed solar panels on the Somerville house to get closer to a net-zero system. 

“So the idea is that if you have a net-zero house, you are actually supplying as much energy into the grid as you are asking from it,” Ragsdale says. This way, you save money on your bill in the long run because the power you’re donating comes from a free and natural energy source: the sun. 

Plus, with a retrofit like NEDC’s Somerville project, you can also end up with a space that’s more free-flowing, more beautiful, and overall more “you.” The clients on this project are both artists, so Ragsdale says the finished result compliments their individual style. The old house, although not lacking character, was lacking color and individuality before the project, he says. “It’s definitely a much bolder statement on the exterior and interior now.” 

New England Design and Construction is one of Greater Boston’s leaders in architectural design and building. They operate under a core belief that elevating the home, or even a small space inside the home, can lift the human spirit. To find out more about the team and begin planning your own spirit-lifting remodel today, visit nedesignbuild.com and check out the remodeling cost guide. | NEDC InstagramCEO David Supple