Builder updates 1955 home with modern upgrades to heating, design
MIDDLEBURY — Beginning with its avant-garde, Frank Lloyd Wrightian architectural design in 1955 and following through to a recent extensive energy retrofit, one home in Middlebury — at 17 Chipman Heights — continues to lead the way for new developments in residential construction and design.
The house sits atop Chipman Hill facing west overlooking the Exchange Street area and Wright Park, with stunning sunset views of the Adirondacks.
The house was originally commissioned by William Rogers, an area fuel oil distributor. The architect was Benjamin Stein, whose goal was to pioneer untraditional, modern design trends to create a low-profile structure that cascaded down the slope of the hill, but was unassuming from the uphill side.
The original building used concrete block and brick cavity wall construction, with twist-turn slider windows on the south and west facing walls and large fixed corner windows that were intended to offset the boxy exterior design, according to a Burlington Free Press article written in October 1955.
A flat roof inspired by modernist design trends was incorporated into the design, originally made of tar and gravel.
Insulation and energy usage were hardly a focus in the design at this time, which led to a home without any insulation in the walls, floors, or roof.
The original roof was replaced around 2004 with a rubber membrane roof, which quickly showed signs of cracking and rotting, with soft spots and signs of damage to the framing.
The only insulation in the roof was the thin Homasote board used to secure the rubber membrane, which meant significant energy consumption due to heat being lost through the ceiling.
The home changed hands in 2012 for only the second time since it was built. The new owners hired Chris Stackhouse of Cambium Construction in Middlebury and together they worked on a plan to perform a major energy retrofit on the home.
“While it may not have been a terrible issue for someone who was in the oil business, it was hard to escape the fact that the home was an energy pig beyond comprehension,” said Stackhouse, whose small design and build firm specializes in energy efficient construction.
The design process was complicated and Stackhouse considered several options for increasing the efficiency of the home without abandoning the original character and architecture.
The flat roof presented one of the most significant challenges. Because the original roof was so poorly insulated, snow loads were relatively minor, Stackhouse said.
“The snow melted quickly and easily because the heat from inside the house was escaping right through the ceiling,” a common problem with poorly insulated homes, he said.
Adding more insulation to the roof therefore meant that snow loads would increase significantly, which created a problem that would need to be addressed with additional structural support to the frame.
Interior space was already at a premium. With only 7-foot, 6-3/4- inch ceilings there wasn’t an opportunity to reinforce the structure from the inside, so improvements had to be made from the outside.
Not only would that have been expensive, but two-foot thick metal fascia, which stuck three feet out from the walls on the original design, would have made the new roof appear disproportionately thick if the design required adding significant depth to the roof for insulation.
Therefore, Cambium’s team proposed an alternative option for the roof, which included a multi-layered pitched roof — a solution that added adequate structure and insulation without compromising interior space.
Cambium’s team added rigid foam insulation and 2-by-4 walls to the original structure, insulating them with dense packed cellulose.
After removing moldy and damaged material from the roof, they sealed the old rubber membrane with spray foam insulation and added 18 inches of loose packed cellulose to the new roof.
New trusses were incorporated with new bearing points to lower maintenance costs and should last two to three times longer than another rubber membrane roof would have, Stackhouse said.
The pitch of the roof is the lowest that standing seam panels can accommodate and was built to be able to support solar panels if that decision were to be made in the future.
Water runoff from the roof was also carefully considered and “splash zones” were created, using gravel drains to avoid erosion of the downhill slope as well as splatter on the building’s walls.
“We could have done the flat roof option,” Stackhouse says, “but we wanted to make sure it was done correctly and the pitched roof seemed like more of a guaranteed option. In the end, it worked out very well and we’re happy with that decision.”
In renovations, one thing always leads to another, which is why it’s also smart to consider a wide scope of options when launching into any specific project.
In this case, Stackhouse also leveled and insulated the basement floor, which he said is another way to reduce excessive energy usage. “If the basement floor stays at 45 degrees, but your house stays at 72, you’re going to spend a fair amount of money offsetting that difference.”
A heat recovery ventilator was installed in the basement as well, which exchanges stale used air for fresh air and in the process pre-warms that new air.
“This is a highly efficient system that’s almost critical in an airtight house,” Stackhouse says.
The home is heated using an energy efficient System 2000 oil boiler. A combination of hot water baseboard heaters and radiant heating is used.
A small “mini-split” wall unit was also installed as a highly efficient way to heat as well as cool the space, using far less electricity to operate than standard units.
According to the new homeowners, their oil consumption is on track to be less than a third of what it had been before the retrofit.
“What this means to me is the ‘above minimum code’ costs will be paid back, at current oil prices, in seven years,” says Stackhouse.
In general, Stackhouse says it is getting easier and easier to convince homeowners that the value of building to higher energy standards reaps long-term benefits.
With energy prices relatively high and people’s attention to greenhouse gases and environmental awareness increasing, it’s generally pretty easy to make the case, he said.
“I’d say I’m blessed with about 50 percent of people who are already on board with higher than code energy standards,” he says. “For the other 50 percent, it starts with education and some simple math. In the end, most people are willing to trade oil and electricity costs for better insulation and thoughtful plans, giving their money to local tradespeople instead of big industries hurting the planet.”
NEW ERA FOR HOUSE
As for the “Rogers House” at 17 Chipman Heights, it has entered a new era of “modern design,” perhaps reflecting less unique architectural details than it was once known for, but helping to define a new set of standards for progressive building science.
“While I understand the importance of protecting the architecture and artistic quality of buildings, I also value the importance of the environment in my design and that happens to be a priority for me,” Stackhouse says.
Those two things certainly are not always in opposition, he continues.
“Many current trends in modern architectural design are by their nature very energy efficient — from building smaller homes to more open spaces, using natural light and intelligent site planning — so it’s an exciting time to be in the industry and I’m trying to stay open minded and recognize those possibilities.”
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