Next Up

A Top-to-Bottom Green House

A Deep Energy Retrofit addressed the efficiency of every system and surface in one carpenter's home.
1 / 11
Jeff Wilson has always wanted to build a green dream home. "It was going to be this super-high efficient, solar-powered, off-the-grid house — those were my goals," says Wilson, 42, of days when he would study plans for building an earth-sheltered concrete home.

Instead, he took quite a different path when his family moved into a 70-year-old Cape Cod home in the rural college town of Athens, Ohio. "We found a dream house in the rough," he says, describing its proximity to the elementary school, farmers' market and local shops. "Then, we decided to rebuild it."

Specifically, Jeff embarked on a journey to give his home the ultimate energy efficient treatment: a Deep Energy Retrofit (DER) that involved everything from beefing up insulation to installing solar panels. He converted a leaky, uncomfortable home that needed some TLC into a functional, healthy environment for his family — one that eventually will not cost him a dime to heat and cool.

"Getting a handle on old homes and retrofitting them is something that someone needed to tackle, and I felt it was a place where I could lend my voice," Jeff says of the yearlong project.

More photos after this Ad

2 / 11

The Decision to Retrofit

New homes are already more energy efficient than their ancestors, and increasingly stringent energy and building codes are pushing construction in a better direction. Retrofitting an old home is more of a challenge, which Jeff proves in his DER effort.

"The hardest part is seeing the project as one big picture in the beginning and working to get through the everyday," he says, describing the stresses his family endured while living under work-in-progress conditions. The worst nights were when harsh storms hit while the roof was in progress, covered only by a tarp. Water rushed into the home, leaving Jeff with damage to patch and sleepless nights wondering what would come next.

His wife, Sherri, was an equal partner in the DER project. And his children absorbed their changing environment, watching solar panels go up on the roof and standing by while Mom and Dad used spray foam to insulate the house.

"I hope they get out of this the same thing I got out of my experiences growing up — I really got a life's purpose out of what my father and grandfather were interested in," he says. Jeff's maternal great-grandfather was an architect/civil engineer and solar power enthusiast. His father was a businessman/engineer who was deeply interested in passive energy: how to "fix" a home to use less power. Together, they designed Jeff's childhood home, and the process made such an impact on Jeff that decades later he decided to pursue this DER project.

Of course, all those dreamy ideas were interrupted by a rude awakening once Jeff began stripping the first pieces of aluminum siding off his home. The project had officially started and there was no going back. "It's like a Band-Aid," Jeff says of taking on a large-scale project all at once. "You have to pull it off fast and get it over with."

More photos after this Ad

3 / 11

Jeff's DER Checklist

Initial improvements to the home before the DER began included an upgrade of the HVAC system, some new windows and a door, and blown-in insulation. Jeff had a long way to go to achieve his goals, so he began by getting a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) test conducted by a certified rater.

HERS Test: A daylong visit from the HERS rater covered every mechanical aspect of the home (HVAC, appliances, lighting) and its envelope (windows, doors, insulation, roof). The rater conducted a blower door test to test the leakiness of the house, and a duct test to find additional leaks. He checked electrical outlets for leaks and compiled all this information into a handy report with charts.

The Wilsons scored an 87 HERS rating, with 100 being the HERS baseline. Higher than 100 means a home is relatively inefficient; a score of zero means the home uses only the energy it creates, such as through solar or wind power. That net-zero score is exactly what Wilson is after in his DER plan. Wilson used the energy audit report as a blueprint to improve every aspect of his home to complete a full DER.

More photos after this Ad

4 / 11


A "curtain wall" was built around the original home to improve efficiency. It consisted of several inches of spray-foam insulation, studs, sheathing and house wrap. The new garage/addition received the same treatment, except additional R-13 fiberglass batting was added to the interior walls.

More photos after this Ad