Follow Our LEED - Part 2 / by Mary Beth Grealey

Follow Our LEED

LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – is the US Green Building Council standard that allows buildings to be rated for “green-ness.” We want to use this project to help educate Chapel Hill about green building.  Follow this site to watch this old house jump 100 years into the state-of-the-art present.

Moving right along

When last you were here, we left off at enclosing the house and the exterior materials. Now, we move inside...

One challenge of a historic house is what to do with the historic electrical wiring and plumbing.   The previous owner’s gutting of the house removed those particular decisions from our purview.   However, between those historic studs we installed state-of-the-art, safe and efficient wiring and plumbing that will hopefully last another hundred years.  A major aspect of Green Building is that you build to LAST!  Sending more materials to the landfill in 20 years is not cost-effective, and wastes the embodied energy contained in the materials, as well as the materials themselves.   (Embodied energy is the energy required to make and transport the materials to you in the first place.)  So, part of building green is to NOT be “penny-wise and pound-foolish” -- do it right and it will save you money in the long run.

As you remember from our previous issue, inside the exterior skin, we used spray insulation to add R-value and seal cracks which would steal heat and cooled air.   We used an air-sealing package with which we sealed around all the plates and gaps to stop air infiltration.  A new insulation made from recycled soda bottles was used between floors for sound insulation. After the pre-insulation and insulation inspections, we hung sheetrock.


Sadly, one aesthetic loss with this step was that we had to insulate and sheetrock around the gorgeous old brick chimney.  This is because the brick was serving as a thermal bridge -- that is, it could carry the outside temperature in.   We needed to create a thermal break for that bridge, and so furred out and insulated the chimney on both floors.  This did create an opportunity, however.  We wanted a fireplace to provide comfort in the event of one of our unfortunate ice storms, but there were some difficulty factors to design around:

  • Using the original fireplace for real fires was out of the question, as the chimney was crumbly and not high enough
  • The old fireplace would be hard to retrofit effectively for a sealed gas insert
  • Melissa wanted the fireplace in the living room, and, because of the last owner’s addition, the best layout was to use the original living area as the dining room, and move the LR across the space

So, we decided to keep, but close off, the original fireplace and put a new state-of-the-art gas fireplace across from the old.  (These can vent directly, and so don’t need a chimney.)  Then we created two “matching” hearths.  A “chimney” structure around the new fireplace to match the old, a door on the old fireplace to match the new, with matching mantles and surrounds, and the charade is complete.  

Since a major project goal was for the house to look (if not feel) as old as it is, the team saved what original materials could be saved and diligently searched for re-useable materials and objects add to that old ambiance.  This also fulfilled another aspect of green (and source of LEED points) -- using reused or recycled materials to give new life to old things and save that embodied energy.  The whole team contributed to the reuse goal.    

The original 5-panel doors, porch columns and staircase newel post, while covered with lead-paint, were too beautiful to discard.  Safe lead-paint stripping was not cheap, but definitely worth it.  Because Trip Renn, the builder, is EPA-certified to remove lead paint under the new regulations, we didn’t have to worry about it.  (Lead paint is quite toxic, especially as a neurotoxin for developing children’s brains.) The half-glass back door is also original, but the glass was not safe or energy efficient.  A double-insulated panel was installed to make the door more energy efficient.


Elbow grease and a coat of paint for the underside were enough for the original claw foot tub.  The owner found some wonderful old sinks to lend authenticity to the kitchen and baths.

The kitchen cabinets are different pieces used from another of Sophie’s renovation projects and artfully put together and augmented by the Actual Size Builders carpenters; Joe Bell, Gordon Gress and Josh Moore. The pantry units are made up of upper cabinets, old single paned glass windows and a lot of attention to detail.


Sophie’s own home addition provided surplus bamboo for the guest room/study, as well as the french door which leads from the living room to the porch.   Trip is a self-confessed “wood nerd,” and saves not only wood left over from other jobs, but also tiles and assorted other treasures.  His wood filled in missing gaps in the existing heart pine flooring (along with some additional reused heart pine from Pittsboro).  The built-ins and mantles were built with some beautiful red oak from Trip’s “stock.” The gorgeous kitchen island and several vanities were hand built using oak cleared fromMelissa’s previous lot (and dried in her previous carport) and crafted with care by a great group of skilled carpenters: Mike Lanier, Ed Ralston, John Kingsley, Joe Bell, Gordon Gress and Josh Moore with the help of Brendan Galvin.

Trip also had an assortment of stone tiles (with which he had redone his own shower in a wonderful patchwork of complementary granites).   This treasure trove provided stone for a limestone/granite floor and accents for the guest bath, as well as the kitchen backsplash.   The remnants rack at a local granite store provided a beautiful counter for the master bath vanity area.   Finally, some old decorative tiles from Greensboro Architectural Salvage will hold soap and towels in the guest bath.

Where possible, new materials purchased were selected for recycled content.  The kitchen countertops are Richlite, a solid surface made with recycled paper and created by Dave Banko of Counterpart LLC in Raleigh, and new tiles throughout the house have recycled content.  These recycled content tiles are from Common Ground Green Building Supply in Durham, which also supplied paint and floor finishing.  Common Ground sources many other green building materials, like flooring, countertops and cabinetry. 

Finishes are a major source of toxic emissions in homes.   Paint, varnishes, polyurethane, vinyl flooring - these are the things that create that “new house smell.”  Unfortunately, that new house smell isn’t good for you, especially when sealed into an energy-efficient house.  So this project used non-toxic materials.   For starters, we used Mythic® paint, which is a non-toxic, ultra-low odor paint.  For another application, Melissa had heard of a natural ebonizing method for wood.  Put steel wool in white vinegar for a week and it will create a lovely translucent black finish on wood.  Using some of that previous-lot white oak, the builders made two beautiful ebony-looking vanities.   And finally, rather than finishing the floor with polyurethane, even a water-based polyurethane, we used a new non-toxic finish which will look like an old floor.  AFM Naturals Oil Wax Finishapplies more easily, like an oil, and uses pine resins to create a durable finish.  A major advantage of this finish is that, when the inevitable accident happens in one spot, you don’t need to refinish the whole floor, just retouch that one spot.  

Bringing the function of the house into the 21st century meant energy and water efficiency.  Appliances are all Energy Star, as are fans and most light fixtures.  Period-looking lights are from Schoolhouse Electric, crafted affordably here in the USA.  Light cans are equipped with LED bulbs that screw in a regular socket.  (LEDs or Light-emitting Diodes, and depending on the use are approx. 80% more efficient than incandescent and about 50% more efficient than fluorescent).  These were made by Cree, a Durham company, and picked up at Costco for $30.  They should save about $150 over the life of the bulb).  Non-LED bulbs will be fluorescent.  More efficient bulbs not only save electricity, they emit less heat so your air conditioner doesn’t have to work as hard, saving even more energy.

Toilets meet the relatively new EPA Water Sense standards, the water equivalent of Energy Star.   What you may not know is how much water and energy use are related.  It takes 3 times the water to provide electricity to a house than that house uses for household washing and flushing.   Conversely, it takes a great deal of electricity to pump and treat water.   As such, saving water saves energy and vice versa.  So we wanted to minimize use of both for multiplier benefits.   (Add that to the fact that most coal plants are only 30% efficient (only 30% of the coal burned becomes electricity), so saving 30 units of electricity actually saves 100 units of coal!)  

Materials, finishes, appliances, energy and water efficiency -- that catches us up to the present, Green reader.  Tune in next time for the finishing touches and commissioning of the house.