BY VERONIQUE LEBLANC
In 2006, when we bought our house in Mamaroneck, New York, it was all about location: views on Mamaroneck Harbor, a south-facing orientation, proximity to the train station and the village’s main shopping street, and the ability to have a decent sailboat moored in deep water across the street and winterized at the shipyard next door.
The house was a rundown wreck from the 1960s. It was extended in the 70s and poorly maintained. It seems that the former owners used it for a summer cottage. In addition, we had a terrible inspector who failed to see many flaws: a leaking flat roof, blocked and leaking gutters, no gutter leaders to carry storm water away from the foundation, mold, high humidity in the basement, bad ventilation, a leaking dishwasher, termites that had destroyed a major supporting beam in the crawl space, and squirrels in the master bedroom attic. For starters.
Lesson No. 1: Make sure your inspector gets dirty by crawling through the attic and crawl spaces before you sign a contract
For three months, I became a firefighter, trying to patch up every problem emerging each day. We knew we wanted to renovate and expand the house, but first we wanted first to live in it for a while in order to understand how it could be better used in summer and winter.
We lived in the house for five years before we found the right team to renovate it. The annual energy cost of the gas-fired furnace and the electric load for 2 to 3 people (our daughter was in college in Maine, visiting occasionally) in the 3,000-square-foot house (including a finished basement) was about $10,000 a year. Meanwhile, the house was not comfortable at all: the great room — the room with the best living space and views — was terribly cold in winter and like a furnace in summer.
There was no insulation in the former sitting room. There was no insulation whatsoever anywhere: none in the roof — the exposed beams in the sitting room that looked like a design feature were the actual roof rafters — none in the attic or crawl spaces. The windows were Andersen double-pane units from the 1970s.
The exterior doors were naturally ventilated by the dominating west wind, to the point that the blinds were flying even when all the windows and doors were closed.
Our initial take on renovation was not that green, to be honest: we wanted to expand, and to take advantage of solar gains from the south, with big overhangs à la Frank Lloyd Wright, and some solar panels to produce electricity to run our appliances and lighting. We struggled a bit with the roof orientation. There was some tension between the architect and the solar energy engineer about the design and its sustainability.
Lesson No. 2: Hire experts. Don’t expect people to get the training you’d like them to have.
Lesson No. 3: Hire a team, not individuals. You don’t want to become the ham in their sandwich.
A year later, I switched to another architect who was highly recommended by a good friend. That architect did create a design that ended up costing twice the budget. The design didn’t respect any of the cost limitations and requirements, and didn’t include any decent green features to reduce energy consumption, while tripling the footprint (and property taxes). Meanwhile, I keep reading and learning about green building.
Lesson No. 4: Include your budget in any contract with an architect.
Lesson No. 5: Amend AIA contracts to rebalance them, as they are designed by architects for architects.
The time you spend on negotiating a contract is more valuable than the contract itself as you’ll both get to assess crisis situations and their resolution before they happen. It works like a “prenup” in a way: What if…?
Designer No. 3 was recommended by the same German energy engineer I had from the start. He had agreed and signed a letter of intent with defined fees, construction costs, and deliverables. But the whole team could never meet the construction budget. So green… However, thanks to that German engineer, the concept of a Passivhaus started revolving in my head as the way to go, rather than Energy Star or LEED.
Lesson No. 6: Beware of the “yes we can” people. A team is not enough! You need an “A” team — one that has already done it before and wants to do it again.
Architect No. 4 came highly recommended by an interior designer friend of mine. That architect had just completed a brand-new Energy Star house measuring 4,500 square feet across the Hudson River. He was interested in upgrading from Energy Star to Passivhaus for the next project. Logical, you would think — no? No!
Lesson No. 7: Do not forget lesson No. 6.
Lesson No. 8: Never deal with friends’ friends: you may lose your friends on the way.
Our relationship with Architect No. 4 ended up nine months later in a total fiasco. The architect cashes the latest check and disappears, and does not answer any e-mails or phone calls.
Lesson No. 9: Be fair but not stupidly nice.
It’s Spring 2011. Four years have gone by and a lot of time and money has been wasted. And I have given up. I am no quitter but after all this mess, it is understandable to think there is a bad karma on this project, and that it is not meant to happen. So I plan for my traditional spring holiday in my favorite part of the world: Mallorca, Spain.
Only, before I leave, I attend a Meet Up of the New York Passive House (NYPH) group in Soho, New York. In my mind, this is my goodbye (but not farewell) meeting with the group. I need a break.
All these great men and women from NYPH are real pioneers: they are creating the new frontier of energy-efficient building in a totally disbelieving society. How many times have I heard people around me, including close friends, consider it is too early, too expensive (since energy is cheap), and too risky to cut energy consumption at the expense of economic growth? Blah blah blah.
With that group at NYPH, I found my parish: they believe and they make their belief happen! Everyone with their own twist: multifamily social housing, no-waste homes, town buildings, residential houses, you name it.
They look at their own creations and make constructive criticisms, with pros and cons, in front of their colleagues.
When I registered in November 2010, we were 30 members. Now we are 150.
During that Meet up, Andreas Benzing, the architect who finally make the project a reality, came to say hi, and asked how my project is going. I just state that I have given up and am going away for a break. He suggested I let him have a look at it when I come back. During my retreat in Spain, I sent him the basic info, so that he could see if there is a solution to my equation or not.
And here we are. A year later, we broke ground to build the first Mamaroneck Passive House.
In the meantime, I have moved to Hong Kong for my husband’s business. A problem? No, not with a great A team! Andreas brought Dom and Dave, the builders, on board. They are from Huntington, Long Island, just across the Sound from us in Oyster Bay. They want to specialize in Passivhaus projects. Plus, we have Skype to the rescue!
Who knew that one day I would be more excited about getting a building permit and triple-pane windows than Prada shoes?
Lesson 10: Things happen when you don’t expect them to happen!
Conclusion to my Building 101 crash course: You only learn well from your mistakes because you remember the pain!