Shaker Life’s sustainable building expert conducts a roundtable discussion with home improvement professionals.
By Michael Peters
In the spring, the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes hosted the quarterly meeting of the Sustainable Homes Network. This group, open to all, is composed of local and regional professionals who are passionate about improving the comfort, health, and energy-efficiency of our homes. I sat down with several members, including founder Hallie Bowie, to discuss steps you can take to prepare your house and yard for winter.
All based in or near Akron, the group I interviewed included Nate Adams of Energy Smart Home Performance, Hallie Bowie of New Leaf Home Design and the founder of Sustainable Homes Network, and Sabrena Schweyer of Salsbury-Schweyer, a landscape design firm.
Nate, Shaker Heights has many homes built before we understood the importance of air sealing, insulation, and proper roof ventilation. As a result, many of our homes suffer from ice damming – freezing gutters, icicles, and water leaks on exterior walls. What causes ice damming?
NA: The root cause is the same thing that melts ice everywhere – heat. It’s tempting to try band-aids like increased attic ventilation, gutters, or heat cables, but none of those addresses the root cause. In beautiful (but drafty) older Shaker homes, by far the most important thing to tackle is reducing air leakage.
What are some steps we can take to address these issues? Just add insulation in the attic?
NA: In making homes comfortable and efficient, which almost always substantially reduces ice damming, I say there are five priorities: air seal, air seal, air seal, insulate, and the right HVAC. Air sealing is king, and the critical factor in 99 percent of Shaker homes. Air leakage is measured with a blower door. I strongly recommend testing before, during, and after a project. Energy auditors help with this. We see 20-55 percent air leakage reductions from attic work alone. After air sealing, insulate. This will reduce the heat flow melting the snow and hence ice dams.
That sounds like a big job. We’re often told that the simple solution is to install “heat tape” or a heated cable along the roof edges. Isn’t this an easier fix?
NA: Yes. But so is grabbing a donut instead of making a healthy meal. The engineer in me finds that particularly inelegant. That said, in some instances where there is far too little gutter to drain a large section of roof, heat cables are sometimes the best insurance.
Hallie, many Shaker Heights homes have older single pane or leaded glass windows and in the winter we see condensation on the interior. What causes this moisture to form on the interior of windows and should I be concerned?
HB: Those are really good questions. Moisture forms on the inside of the windows when the humidity inside the house meets the cold surface of the window. It is a cause for concern, because it can cause the window sashes to become moldy and is also a signal that you may have mold elsewhere in the house. Don’t blame the old windows, though. If you have made the house more energy efficient with air sealing, you are trapping more moisture in the house along with the heat. Ventilation is important. Be sure to run your bath and kitchen fans, and be cautious about using humidifiers. Try to keep the humidity in the house below 40 percent when it’s 20 to 40 degrees outside, and lower as it gets colder.
Once you have done that, you might look at the windows themselves.
Are new double or triple pane windows always the answer or are there other options for homeowners?
HB: New windows are rarely the best answer for older homes, especially like the ones in Shaker Heights. It is true that having double or triple panes will make the surface of the window warmer, which will reduce condensation. But interior or exterior storm windows perform nearly as well as new double pane windows, cost a lot less, and preserve the historic character of the house.
You want to get the most energy saving you can for every dollar you spend. Usually investing in air sealing, insulation, and efficient equipment are more effective ways to reduce your energy use.
Any window replacement in Shaker Heights has to be approved by the Architectural Board of Review. Are there manufacturers that make modern windows that emulate historic styles but are high performance?
HB: The most important thing in maintaining the historic look of a window is having mullions that project to the outside of the glass. In old single-pane windows, these mullions actually held separate small pieces of glass. In order to get the energy efficiency and comfort of double pane glass, many manufacturers offer so-called “simulated divided lights.” These have mullions on both the interior and exterior with dimensions similar to the mullions in older windows. Most Architectural Review Boards [including the Shaker Heights ARB] accept these as in keeping with the historic character of older neighborhoods.
Sabrena, as winter sets in many homeowners don’t realize that their yard needs to be winterized, too. What are some common steps homeowners should take to protect their plantings?
SS: First, proper garden clean-up. Remove weeds and the leaves of those plants that are diseased, but leave most perennials standing for the winter. This helps protect more tender plants and provides food and habitat for birds. Other than a few evergreen branches for holiday decoration, don’t prune shrubs or trees until late winter.
Second, unless we have ample rain, water evergreens or newly planted trees around Thanksgiving.
Third, add one or two inches of mulch between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the ideal time to do so. This will moderate temperatures. Early spring mulching is not ideal, despite what most landscape crews do.
Fourth, winterize your fountains, rain barrels, and outdoor spigots. Remove leaves from ponds, lawns, and rain gardens.
We hear about the importance of native plantings, reduced irrigation, and storm water management. Why are these important considerations in a landscape plan?
SS: Let’s consider this from the larger perspective. We are all part of an amazing living organism, the Earth. It has an amazing power to heal itself if it’s not abused. We have a great opportunity to be of benefit by using nature’s gifts – plants, birds, bees, rain – in our landscapes. Native plants help pollinators and birds; these will then benefit those up the food chain, ourselves included. Water should be thought of as the precious resource it is, rather than as something to waste, or to eliminate from your property as a “problem.” By choosing the right plants and/or by watering your plants minimally, roots grow deeper, the soil becomes more absorbent, and water can better soak in where it falls. Better still, catch and hold storm water for short periods of time in rain barrels or attractive rain gardens. By reducing runoff into storm sewers, we can reduce harm to our rivers and lakes – and to all the creatures supported by these bodies of water.
While spring seems far off, what can we do to prepare for its arrival?
SS: Winter is the time for planning. This is also when my company spends the most time educating others and ourselves. Gather photos of landscape ideas that you find inspiring. Learn about nature and ecology. Contemplate and observe. Dream your personal, nature-based garden landscape.
Michael Peters, LEED AP, is a green building expert who lives and works in Shaker Heights. Follow him on Twitter at @CoventryLand.