While our office has been primarily focused on affordable and cost effective construction solutions, we realize the importance of understanding building in a variety of markets. Our firm had the opportunity to buy a Victorian house in Shadyside in a desirable location that had been totally re-muddled inside and out. We decided to do a Passive House retrofit on the house and we learned a valuable lesson along the way.
I am a conservationist by nature and I have been concerned with embodied energy in past projects, so there was no doubt in my mind that we were saving the shell. The house had no original trim, no original staircase, and no original design features. On the outside all of the trim had been stripped away and the window sizes had been made smaller when the house was re-clad in aluminum siding. We wanted to restore the character of house on the exterior to maintain the rhythm of the neighborhood fabric.
The basement had a low ceiling height, and needed excavation in order to accomplish the requirements for the PH retrofit. A laborer broke up the existing slab, removed it, and hand dug the basement floor level another two feet in order to be able to insulate, pour a new slab and still maintain a reasonable ceiling height. The foundation was shored up with another small stem wall and a foundation drain was put in place. In addition the whole house leaned to the left and the frame needed to be straightened. The contractor used a come-along to straighten the frame. We wrapped the whole house in insulation. At the end of the project we felt a bit like we had jacked up the radiator cap and put a new car underneath. The only part of the original house we had saved was the frame and the foundation...but had it been wise to save that. We could have easily replicated the original size and shape of the house in new framing and a new foundation would have been easier to work with. In addition we were always confronted by the irregularities of older work and that costs time.
We learned that what we saved had actually cost us time and money but did not really add any architectural value beyond what we could have built new. When you look at embodied energy the savings were nothing compared to the old masonry buildings I am used to renovating. After this experience I will always look at buildings with this new lens and ask myself the following question...is what I am saving contributing to the project in a significant way and am I receiving a benefit for what it is costing me? What is the true measure of embodied energy? In the end this lesson was not catastrophic or particularly painful but it was a reminder, there is always more to learn.