Energy-Efficient Homes: Shelters From the Storm
After years of wind, Arctic drafts and sky-high oil and electricity bills, a Darien couple embarked on a “green” project to make their uninsulated old house as energy-efficient and environmentally friendly as possible.
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When Hurricane Sandy slammed into Connecticut late last October, 94 percent of Connecticut Light & Power’s 8,000 customers in the town of Darien lost power. Fifty streets in the coastal community were inaccessible to restoration crews; 20 homes were eventually declared uninhabitable. The power—and with it heat, lights and appliances—stayed off for as long as two weeks. As temperatures dropped, one of the worst storms in the state’s history cast the affluent Fairfield County community into a cold, dark gloom.
Darien residents were not alone, however. According to the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Safety, more than 650,000 homeowners across the state were out of power at the peak of the superstorm, many for 10 days or longer. Just a year earlier, some 880,000 were rendered powerless by the snowstorm of Oct. 31, 2011, and over a million by Hurricane Irene just two months before that.
Meanwhile, as neighbors huddled against the cold or jumped ship, vacating their homes, Anthia and Sam Nickerson remained well insulated from the hurricane-force winds and below-freezing temperatures in their 1920s Colonial in Darien’s central historic district. Although they were without electricity for three days, the house stayed a comfortable 66 degrees through the long nights, with enough hot water for showers, a gas stove for cooking meals, and even efficient methods for burning wood in the fireplace.
After years of wind, Arctic drafts and sky-high oil and electricity bills, the Nickersons embarked on a quest in October 2010 to make their uninsulated old house as energy-efficient and environmentally friendly as possible. They didn’t know it, but they were among the advance guard of homeowners opting for sustainable, energy-efficient design, products and technologies ahead of the extreme weather that darkened much of the Northeast in 2011 and 2012.
Now, in response to increasingly prolonged and widespread outages, more Connecticut homeowners are in the process of reclaiming power—with assistance from the state, the federal government, even local utility companies—before the next monster storm strikes.
If the destructive weather patterns of recent years have changed the way people think about power and the environment, they’ve also changed Connecticut homeowners’ perception of green design and living.
“Over the years, we’ve seen interest in green building grow from almost nonexistent in this part of the country to very popular,” says Elizabeth DiSalvo, a partner at Trillium Architects in Ridgefield, the “environmentally inspired” firm hired to oversee the Nickerson project. “In 1994, approximately 10 percent of our clients asked for a ‘green home.’ By 2007, 98 percent came to us requesting that their project be at least some ‘shade of green’”—a term she uses to describe levels of energy-efficiency and environmental friendliness.
“Green” at various times has meant natural, ecological, organic and energy-conservationist and energy-efficient, but in the wake of last year’s storms it has come to mean something else: survival. “People now want to be able to easily go from being on the grid to off the grid with solar panels, generators and alternative heating sources like gas stoves and wood-burning stoves,” DiSalvo says.
In Darien, Measure for Measure, a construction company associated with the Center for Green Building in Bridgeport, took the Nickersons’ original house down to two walls, recycling all of the wood, nails and asphalt shingles, then resheathed the house with energy-efficient SIS foam-insulated panels. They also took down a dangerously swaying spruce tree in the back yard and milled the wood into trim for the new triple-pane, Energy Star-rated windows.
Beyond wanting to lower their energy costs and raise their comfort level, however, the Nickersons wanted to be sure the house was a safe, healthy place to raise their young children. The walls of the house were filled with Bonded Logic Ultratouch (recycled cotton insulation made from used blue jeans)and all joints and surfaces treated with nontoxic compound and paint. Finally, Aegis Solar Energy of Branford installed 12 200-watt panels on the southern side of the roof and a solar hot-water system.
A year earlier in Killingworth, George Keithan Jr., CEO of an alternative-energy and sustainable-design firm, built a 3,600-square-foot, energy-efficient farmhouse for himself, his wife, Mary, and their three children on 14 acres bordered by native fieldstone walls.
“Too often people think of energy-efficient houses as contemporary, but they don’t have to be,” Keithan says. “The goal from the start was to be zero-energy efficient in a New England-style house and prove that if we could do it, anyone could.”
The first net zero-energy residence in Connecticut and one of only a few in New England, the house uses no fossil fuels and produces no carbon emissions. Instead, it relies on 10 AET solar hot-water panels on the roof of the main house for heating radiant floors and water—10 drain-back collectors feed hot-water tanks in the attic—and 65 Schüco solar photovoltaic panels in the barn behind the house for all of the property’s electrical power, including the Energy Star-rated appliances and LED lighting. The Connecticut Green Building Council, which has documented the energy efficiency of the house, estimates that together the panels generate 20,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year.