by Amy Wolterstorff
If you’re like me, you have noticed with growing interest the transformation of the 100-year-old house at 348 Atlas Avenue just behind Pizza Hut. You may have noticed that the house has been given a facelift with a new porch, siding and standing-seam metal roof, but you may not realize that it has been renovated using the latest green-building practices and materials and has been updated with state-of-the-art solar heating, solar-assisted air conditioning and a triple layer of insulation.
The house was originally built somewhere on Wealthy Street and moved to its present location in 1928. Jeff Morton, a musician, bought the house two years ago after a previous owner had begun renovations. Morton took over, seeking to put into practice the lessons he learned as a student of renewable energy at Jordan College Energy Institute in the late 1980s.
I was lucky enough to tour the home and grounds recently. Morton’s passion for renewable energy is evident, and he has found an equally passionate contractor, Ron Stenson of Stenson Builders, who together with his crew has done all the work on the house. We began the tour outside where Morton and Stenson pointed out the 800-gallon cistern that collects rainwater from the house’s gutters and downspouts for use in the organic garden that fills the backyard. All the old, contaminated soil was dug out in the process of the home’s renovation, and 35 cubic yards of compost topsoil was brought in to form the basis of the garden.
What grabs my attention immediately are the multicolored “new” clapboards that I learn are actually repurposed wood rescued from trees felled by the city, brought in as rough-sawn lumber and milled on site. Six types of wood were used—poplar, walnut, Chinese elm, ash, cherry, and pine—and given a natural tung oil finish. Another notable feature of the house is the array of solar photovoltaic panels resting on the roof, 20 on the east side and 10 on the west. These panels capture the energy of the sun for direct current (DC) power. In order to tie into the Consumers Energy grid, inverters convert the variable DC electric current to 240 volt AC electric current. Although the house has an electrical backup, enough power is generated by the solar panels to provide electricity for the home’s electrical needs, including hot water, lights and appliances—and to supplement the heating system.
We entered the basement where the solar-powered water heater, connected to the solar panels, is located. It gurgles continuously as it heats water for bathing and laundry and also, via a myriad of plastic tubes that carry hot water, provides radiant heat to all the floors of the house, with 600 feet of tubing in the new concrete basement floor alone. The basement, says Stenson, “is the main heat sink; it’s like one big rock.” The unit displays a readout of the water temperature on the outside solar panels that Morton can access via the internet if he’s away from home. During our tour, it was a cool, sunny day, and with the washing machine and dryer running, the readout was 87 degrees, a figure that would be much higher—as high as 170 degrees—on a hot summer day or a day with lower energy usage.
This impressive solar-powered system came at a steep price—approximately $25,000—but it should pay for itself over time. While yet untried through a harsh Michigan winter, Morton anticipates a surplus supply of energy that he can sell one day to Consumers Energy through its Experimental Advanced Renewable Program (EARP). This program allows customers connected to the electrical grid who generate electricity using solar photovoltaic systems to sell it back to Consumer’s Energy for a set price. This locally produced electricity helps Consumers Energy meet peak demand, which often occurs in the middle of the day when the largest amount of solar power is produced. It is also a more efficient way to provide energy since a great deal of energy is lost in transit from power station to consumers. As Morton and Stenson point out, their solar energy will benefit all Eastown residents since some of the electricity they purchase will be produced right here in Eastown!
Upstairs, the house maintains its period charm, with original doors, wood columns and floors, and layout. Large windows, a feature that even a century ago provided light and heat from the sun, are now energy efficient. The house has been gutted from the inside with new plumbing and wiring, foam insulation and a full thermal break with reflection technology to keep heat loss to a minimum in the winter or to maintain cool temperatures in the summer. “It’s like a thermos,” says Stenson. Some modest, practical changes aid in modern living. A windowed kitchen door provides easy access to the backyard, and the front entry now sports cabinets that provide seating as well as storage. New kitchen and dining room cabinets were fabricated by a local cabinetmaker.
One of Morton’s missions is to protect the environment, and all paint, wood finishes and adhesives used in the house are eco-friendly and contain no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The beautiful sheen on the stripped and refinished wood doors and floors and new cabinets comes from tung oil and Monocoat, a natural plant product. Old-fashioned milk paint is used for all painted surfaces. Plaster, rather than drywall, was chosen for the walls, primarily for its soundproofing capabilities. New flooring in the attic, currently being converted to living space, is bamboo, a renewable wood source. Only LED light bulbs are used. The appliances are very energy efficient. Case in point: the induction range in the kitchen cooks with electromagnetic energy, using only 25% of the energy used by traditional ranges.
Stenson and Morton are currently collaborating on another exciting project. Morton owns the brick building at 1444 Lake Drive where he plans to open a restaurant at the front and a music museum at the back. This building is also being extensively renovated according to green-building practices using eco-friendly materials. Plans include removing the old concrete floor and replacing it with solar-powered radiant heating tubes in a brand-new concrete floor, and a rooftop garden and solar lighting tubes.
As politicians debate the uses of renewable energy, we salute these Eastown folks who are pointing the way to the future by retrofitting old Eastown buildings with 21st century technology.