Rehabs: Opportunities or Avoidable Disasters?

Posted Monday, June 2, 2014 in Sustainable Maine

Rehabs: Opportunities  or Avoidable Disasters?

by Paul Kando

How can I convince you? Please think of your house as a system before you do anything to it! In just one week I heard from half a dozen home owners who did something perfectly reasonable to their house  only to regret it because what they did is now in the way of doing something more fundamentally important. One caller, for instance, had the home’s aging roof redone. A fine job, but now that they are renewing the siding as well, it would be nice to have had the roof  overhang extended to accommodate 4" of foam insulation under the new siding, thereby creating a super-insulated, airtight wall at relatively little extra cost.  Another client installed a suspended ceiling, which is now in the way of adding a vapor barrier and insulation. A third added a new, much oversized heating system, which cost far more than weatherizing the home would have, and increased, rather than reduced the annual fuel demand. And so it goes...

It pains me to listen to such stories, especially when the people involved have been talked into buying something someone had to sell them – contractors included.  As the old saying goes, “when the only tool is a hammer, every  job  looks like a nail”. People often have something to sell you could actually use, and they aren’t out to cheat you. Fair enough: but is that what you  need now? Is this the time to get it, ahead of something else? And does the job have to be done the way your contractor wants to do it?  If so why? If not so, why not? Only you, Mr/Ms homeowner, can answer such questions, and the best way to answer them without having regrets later is based on a master plan that considers your house as a system.. 

It’s the season. A time to fix whatever ails the old homestead. The roof shingles may be curling. The paint on the cedar shingles or clapboards out front may be peeling, yet again. There is a moldy smell here and there within. And last winter’s heating bill was nothing short of outrageous. Act we must.  But, no matter the urgency, let’s think this through first.

Way too often houses are repaired and renovated in a haphazard fashion, based on near-panic decisions. The siding needs to be redone because the paint is pealing. But have you considered why that paint is peeling? What might you also do about energy efficiency while remodeling?  Is it really cost effective to follow poor quality, conventional ways, because that’s the way your contractor has always done it?  The roof badly needs fixing – let’s start with that! No, we can’t go through another $4,500 winter: lets replace all the windows; some of them are rotting anyway! Let’s install a new front door! Add more fiberglass to the attic! Spray-foam the basement! Maybe we can qualify for a grant, so let’s get a heatpump!

Whoa! What are you trying to accomplish? Are you about to improve your house – or only some of  its random parts, perhaps creating new problems elsewhere? Willy-nilly, when we remodel, or even just repair a building, we don’t just improve the looks of the place or even reduce its energy losses. Whatever we do will also directly impact its moisture balance, air-circulation, indoor and surface temperatures, general comfort level, and more. A building is a system.  Optimally it is designed to perform in a certain way – or, failing that, performs as it does by default.

Having a systemic plan – with every step supported by valid reasoning is the best investment you can make. It starts with an energy audit – you must know what and where your problems are – and it continues with a coherent, stepwise plan. Remember: Something just crying out for help is not necessarily the first thing to be addressed (unless, like a burst water line, it is an emergency). Only a plan can tell you in what order to proceed. The sequence of tasks is as important as the tasks themselves. It really does no harm if the obvious need must wait for the less obvious being completed ahead of it. What you don’t get to this summer, you can get to next summer.  Above all: you are in charge, not your vendors or contractors. It is your house and you will live with all the consequences. If you need help planning, reasoning and sequencing, get professional help – from someone who does not have anything else to sell you.  It may be the best investment you have ever made, even if you only get to accomplish a portion of the plan. Because you will waste no money and will avoid unanticipated collateral damage – like that siding out there peeling its paint again next year and the wall behind it quietly rotting away. 

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