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CES lieutenant, wife convert old home to ’green house’

By C. Todd Lopez

LAUREL, Md. (April 12, 2007) -- With the price of energy rising, the cost of heating or cooling a home -- of keeping the lights on even -- goes up as well. One Bolling Air Force Base lieutenant and his wife have a strategy to combat those rising costs. They're making their new house "green."

Bolling's 2nd Lt. Collin Polt, a project engineer with the 11th Civil Engineer Squadron, and his wife Julie, a graphic artist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bought a house in Laurel, Md., in September of last year. Their new home, an early 20th century Eastlake⁄Stick-style house, needed a lot of work.

Julie Polt and husband, 2nd Lt. Collin Polt, 11th Civil Engineer Squadron, are remodeling their Laurel, Md. home, using "green" construction techniques as their guide. The couple hopes the build energy-saving features they put into the 100-year-old home will cut their energy bill in half.

"Yes, it certainly is a fixer-upper," Julie said of the new place.

Former owners of the house had done some "work" there -- and hadn't really done their best at it either, Lieutenant Polt said.

"It had kind of a Hollywood makeover," he said. "They put up new sheet rock and that kind of stuff to make it look more pretty on the inside. But they kind of covered up a lot of the problems with the house. After we moved in we started taking stuff out that we weren't too crazy about. And as we pulled more and more away, we discovered more and more issues."

Before buying the new home, Lieutenant Polt had taken a class at Dover Air Force Base on "deconstruction." Part of that is learning how to reduce construction waste. From that course, he said, he developed a more personal interest in the subject of both waste reduction and energy efficiency. That, in part, is what prompted him and Julie to redesign their new home with some of those techniques in mind.

"The class struck me as incredibly interesting," he said. "The Army has been really good at this. They are slowly reducing waste on several of their bases so they can achieve zero waste output. So that was amazing to me that you can even do that. Also, to see the variety of products coming on the market for energy savings and energy reduction, especially now with the presidential order out for energy reduction. It was me being really interested in that and in wanting to apply these techniques and really kind of test them out and see how they work that got us started."

Now, Lieutenant Polt and wife Julie Polt are working to build energy savings and construction waste reduction measures into as many aspects of their remodeling project as possible.

"The energy efficiency is a big part of it, if for nothing else to be responsible with the energy we are using, but also to kind of cut back on the rising cost of gas and electricity," he said. "Any savings is beneficial."

One of the biggest energy improving savings that has gone in to their new home is new insulation.

"As we dismantled the older section of the house, we found there wasn't any insulation at all," Julie said. "So, just coming across things like that, that we take for granted now, and being able to add that in to this home, is a big goal."

In the parts of the home where no insulation currently existed, Lieutenant Polt decided to try "closed cell foam" insulation. That's the kind of insulation spray that expands to fill the gaps. That kind of insulation is especially suited for such an old home, he said.

"It ends up sealing quite a bit," he said. "Back then, they didn't have a lot of the same construction techniques and materials they have now. So it is very open construction, a lot of leaks and holes and stuff. That closed cell foam ended up sealing it up. That is something we took a heavy look in to. It is considerably more expensive than the fiberglass insulation, but it does provide a huge energy savings in that we are not heating the outside."

Also on the energy saving list is reduction in electrical costs though natural light use and dimmer switches. A new type of skylight they are looking at is better at "directing" light than traditional skylights. They are considering such a product for the smaller, enclosed areas of the home.

"Because it directs light more than just a regular skylight, you can kind of not have the lights on all the time," he said. "Especially in small rooms like a bathroom or a closet where you would normally turn on the light to use. You can eliminate the need for a light in that room in the daytime. That's one less light to turn on."

Julie says electricity is not the only thing that can be conserved. More efficient fixtures in the bathrooms and kitchen also mean a reduction in water waste.

"We'll reduce the flow of the water that comes through shower heads and faucets with the types of fixtures we install," she said. "So you can also save by making simple choices with the type of hardware you install."

Lieutenant Polt said other considerations for the house include special shades in rooms that face the sun, so as to block out the sun entirely when nobody is using a room. Also, they are considering more energy efficient windows, more strategic placement of ventilation ducts, conversion of some appliances from electric to gas, and dimmer switches on the lighting.

How much savings can be realized from all those changes? The lieutenant says they could nearly cut their energy bill in half.

"As far as actual cost savings, we are shooting for anywhere from 40 percent on," he said. "It is a little bit high of a goal. But with the condition of the house when we moved in, it is not unreasonable. We were at one month where it was a $400 dollar heating and electric bill. But between gas and electric, I think the biggest savings will come for us in the electricity."

Because Lieutenant Polt and Julie moved into their home in October, they have a good set of winter energy bills to serve as a baseline for making before and after comparisons. By October 2007, they will be able to compare their new energy bills to the old ones and see if their changes paid off.

"Beyond measuring the actual amount of gas you use, the easy way to monitor it is to look at your bill," Lieutenant Polt said. "If it shows less consumption, it will be reflected in the cost savings. So we will be able to compare last October's bill to next October's bill and see a noticeable difference. At least that's the goal."

While Lieutenant Polt and Julie are working to build energy savings in to their home, they are also working to reduce the amount of construction waste they generate from the tear down.

"Even more than energy savings, for this project, is the materials we are putting into the house, as far as salvage and reuse goes," Lieutenant Polt said. "It is sometimes a little more complicated than you'd really like to make it, but what we are trying to do is use a lot of salvage materials."

To that end, the couple reuses as much wood from the deconstruction as they can in the new construction. They also reuse whatever hardware they find in older parts of the house that is still salvageable.

"There is a lot of literal recycling going on," he said.

He also said that when they have to buy new construction materials, floor tile for instance, they try to buy surplus or overage from other construction projects. A local Baltimore-based retailer buys overage materials from construction companies and then resells them.

"Rather than that stuff landing up in a landfill, or being dumped on the side of the road, they will resell it," he said. "So we are trying to use as much material from there as we can and we are trying to reuse stuff we have taken off of the house. When we tore out and gutted the house we saved as much lumber and leftover pieces and hardware that we could salvage."

He also said that when they do new construction, they try to build minimal, so that in the future, if something needs to be taken out, there is not as much waste.

"You make sure everything meets codes and is up to standards -- and in most places, what we have done actually exceeds code," he said. "But at the same time, we are not overusing wood -- where we can, use one stud, not use two kind of idea. So should something in the future need to be taken apart, there is not a lot of waste involved."

In addition to the energy savings they are introducing and the waste reduction measures they are taking when remodeling their home, the couple must also ensure the house maintains its historic charm. It is in a historic district in Laurel, and there are rules there about ensuring changes to the exterior of a home are historically accurate and within the context of the neighborhood. So paint colors and exterior woodwork on the home must all be submitted for approval.

"I absolutely love the style of that time period and I love the bright colors," Julie said. "I have been working on the renderings to present to the historic society, with all of the changes that we are going to make to the exterior of the house. So, just kind of having the goal in mind is exciting, and seeing where we will be able to take this is exciting. I'm eager to see all the finishes, but that is quite a while off."

The couple believes they can have the rough construction on the house complete by summertime. But the total project, with all the finishes and flooring included, should take about 18 months. For now, they are living in a single room of the home left untouched by all the construction.

"We are sleeping and living in that room while the rest of the house is slowly being torn apart," Lieutenant Polt said. "When you go downstairs to use the bathroom you have to walk across tools and wood and sawdust and all that. We tried to keep one of the rooms available. We are eventually going to redo it, but for now, we left it untouched."

Lieutenant Polt said he has history in his family of remodeling, construction and architecture. And the schoolwork that prepared him to be a civil engineer comes in handy, as well. For Julie, however, the experience of tearing down the home you live in and rebuilding it, even for the better, is not so familiar.

"This is all new to me," she said. "I like to help out when I can, I like learning about it as we go along. But I say the best part is when you are out there working all day and you can see the progress in front of you, that is very rewarding."