To date this column has introduced the concept of eco-thrifty renovation and explained the first three of seven design principles that guided us through this process: solar gain, thermal mass and insulation. I’ve emphasized the concepts of payback period and “low-hanging fruit.” Before I move on to our fourth design principle – draft proofing – I’d like to take a moment to review some of the overarching ideas surrounding eco-thrifty renovation that do not necessarily qualify as design principles. Many of these ideas run contrary to contemporary perspectives on home ownership.
For example, instead of buying the biggest and best house with the biggest and best mortgage, we found one that was within our means with money leftover for the energy improvements I’ve described. In other words, we opted for a $100,000 (purchase plus renovation) insulated, passive solar home than a $250,000 house that might look nicer but have no insulation or substantial solar gain.
People say that buying a home is an emotional decision. That appears to be true, but it also appears to get some people into big financial trouble. At worst, the failure to meet mortgage payments results in the loss of the property. At best, meeting mortgage payments over 30 years means they end up paying roughly twice the purchase price. In other words, a $250,000 home ends up costing $500,000.
The focus on payback period means that eco-thrifty renovation is more like operating a business than managing a home. In other words, the process is often more rational than emotional. But this is not to say that it cannot also be beautiful. Beauty the eco-thrifty way comes slowly, often through our last three principles – reduce, reuse, recycle – and through words of wisdom like those from my friend the solar engineer in the Himalayas, “Warm is always beautiful.” Beauty also comes through the freedom offered by not living under a mountain of debt. British economist E.F. Schumacher insisted that “Small is beautiful.”
Small can mean the size of a cozy, little home, or it can represent the baby steps toward making any home more energy efficient. Those baby steps are what we call “low-hanging fruit.” The low-hanging fruit that I’ve described so far include window battens (insulation), plastic window film (insulation), compact fluorescent light bulbs (electricity savings), and an extra layer of plasterboard (thermal mass). Nearly anyone in Wanganui could put the first three of these to use right away and start reaping savings that represent a greater than 100% return. In other words, the payback period for each of these is less than one year. Please note, however, that an extra layer of plasterboard is appropriate for those homes that overheat in direct sunlight during the months of May – August.
The next idea behind eco-thrifty renovation is having the fiscal discipline to reinvest the savings from low-hanging fruit in medium-hanging fruit, which have payback periods between four and twelve years. Examples of these include solar hot water (electricity savings), pelmets and thermal curtains (insulation), adding north-facing glazing (solar gain), removing south-facing glazing (reducing heat loss), and our Schacklock 501 multi-fuel range (heat source on cloudy days and electricity savings when used for cooking).
We believe that every little bit helps and that the cumulative effects of all these small efforts make for a warm, dry, efficient home that is gentler on the planet and the wallet. This approach to renovation is more about designing for living with a home than designing for living in a home. We interact with the functioning of our home on a daily basis, and as our eco-thrifty renovation winds to an end we are set up for an eco-thrifty lifestyle where we pay about $20 per year in rubbish fees and eat fresh fruits and vegetables we’ve grown ourselves. That is the beauty of freedom.