The Black and White of Going Green in Vermont

By Susan Beal

One morning last fall, after the first killing frost, I went outside to remove the tarps I had thrown over the garden the night before, in a defiant effort to stave off the end of the tomatoes and squashes. When I was done I sat down on the sill of the horse barn door. The morning was still crisp around the edges, yet the radiance of the sun had heated the door, and I leaned back against the warmth. I closed my eyes and basked in the brilliance of the head-on morning sunlight. I opened one eye and caught a movement in my peripheral vision, and turned, squinting, to see what it was.

It was heat waves rolling off the barn siding, which I could only see with my eyes nearly flush with the waves themselves. I gazed, fascinated—wave after wave undulated upwards, abundant sheets and ribbons of warmth rippling off the east side of the barn. How long had that warmth been rising like a benediction into the clear, cold air? I was struck by the mechanics of the morning, by the fact that sunlight and dew and the mass of the barns all worked together so effortlessly every day, as surely as the sun came up. The walls and roofs of the cow barn, the house, the wood shed, the corn crib, too, would all be rippling with subtle waves of heat. I could see, not just feel sunlight being transformed by the mass of the barn into heat. It was so direct, so simple and utterly silent. I was warm and comfortable in the 30 degree air.

Meanwhile, inside the house, the furnace was roaring in the basement, burning oil to heat water that, with the help of electric pumps, would circulate through copper pipes and iron radiators, which would in turn heat up and warm the rooms, which felt cold at 55 degrees. If only we could warm our homes with the same elegant efficiency with which heat waves rise off winter rooftops every morning!

In our climate, the single biggest energy demand is for heating our homes during the winter. Going “green” in Vermont basically means finding a way to stay warm without using so much fossil fuel. Most old houses are fairly natural in their construction, made of wood, lath and plaster on stone foundations. My house, like many old farmhouses, has a gravity-fed spring water system, and with an attic, porches, and a basement, the temperature inside the house stays quite pleasant, even on hot days. The real question is how do we stay warm and well-lit during the long, dark part of the year, without bankrupting the Earth? It is a hard question to answer. Given our cold winters and the lack of lots of sunny days, our options are limited.

For Christmas a couple of years ago, my brother gave me a subscription to a magazine about natural homes and lifestyles. It is a beautiful magazine, featuring houses made of natural materials, in harmony with their environment. These are houses to die for, full of the latest innovations in green technology, ecologically friendly building materials, site sensitive architecture and feng shui-inspired interior decorating. I was excited. The magazine promised to offer lots of ideas for “going green” at home. But as I read through each issue, I noticed that these low-impact, sustainable homes with solar heat and incredibly low electrical bills were not only new houses, built with the best materials, but were also usually in places that do not have six months of winter. It is one thing to have a solar home in Colorado or Texas, and quite another in Vermont.

Along with the features on undeniably gorgeous homes were articles about the health and environmental dangers of the average home. Slowly, I felt more irked than inspired. As my brother-in-law George (who also got a gift subscription) said, “I love the magazine, but every time I pick it up to read I think “Oh no, what have I done wrong now?” I can take just so much information about the hazards of fiberglass insulation, bad feng shui, unsustainably harvested wood kitchen cabinets, molds and fungi lurking in my bathroom, or toxic fumes from wallpaper, grout, gas stoves, woodsmoke, upholstered furniture, paraffin candles, radon and burnt toast before I feel resentful. I wanted information about how to make my home more environmentally harmonious, and instead it seemed I was learning how dangerous my home was to my health.

The thing is, these eco-dream homes, like Cosmo girls on the one hand and Martha Stewart on the other, represent an idealized perfection that is unattainable to all but a very few. The good thing is that these natural homes are showcases of what is possible. They broaden our perceptions, challenge our sensibilities, and offer inspiration toward bringing our homes into better alignment with our ecological values. The bad thing is that many of the materials and technologies incorporated into “sustainable” houses are hard to find, very expensive, and have to be designed into the house—i.e. you have to buy it new—the old ones aren’t “Fixable.” How sustainable is it to build a new house and sell the old one to someone else who will continue to live as fossil-fuel dependant a life as you did? It seems it boiled down to two choices for those of us living in old homes: build a “better” new house designed with “green” in mind, or forget it.

I came to this admittedly black and white viewpoint after trying to attain a greater degree of “greenness” and sustainability for my family’s big, old farmhouse. For, sour grapes aside, I had been inspired and provoked by those natural dream home articles. Why couldn’t we do something to make our house more “sustainable,” as these homes were? Why couldn’t we have solar panels and biomass furnaces and wind mills?

It not being an option to move or to build a new, super-insulated, small-is-beautiful house, we try our best to conserve energy: we keep the thermostat low (63 degrees, 55 at night) , we install weatherstripping, and we don’t heat rarely-used rooms. We turn the lights off after we leave a room (I am generally the “we” in this case). We recycle, carpool, buy in bulk, avoid toxic household chemicals and are vegetarians. But surely, I thought, there is more we can do. Surely there must be some way to approximate the eco-perfection of the magazine dream homes, to retrofit an old house so that it does not rely so heavily on fossil fuel.

I started by writing to Peter Yost, of Green Builders magazine in Brattleboro, VT, explaining that I was looking for information on how to make our house less dependent on fossil fuel. Peter pointed out that simply by restoring an old home and protecting the land around it against development, as we had done, we were already well on our way to green. “Depending on the structure and its useful life,” he told me, “ somewhere between 10% and 40% of a building’s total environmental footprint is in the materials of the structure, with the remainder being in the operation of that structure over time. So, what you do to keep its operation green is really important, even as the environmental impact embodied in the building is not to be minimized!”

This was cheering news, and something the natural home magazine had not pointed out. Next, we consulted with Richard Gottlieb of Sunnyside Solar in Guilford, VT, who came to our house to determine the feasibility of solar hot water or photovoltaic, wind, or hydroelectric systems. We enjoyed our time with Richard, and learned a lot from his wisdom and experience. Unfortunately, we learned that the economics of generating our own electricity using solar, wind or water did not make sense. We would end up paying four times the cost for electricity from a PV system, for example, than we pay Central Vermont Public Service. Much as we philosophically support the idea of clean, renewable energy, we could not justify the cost.

My fantasies of cancelling our service contracts with Suburban Propane and CVPS started to fade. But, so did some of the guilt I felt at being so dependent on fossil fuel. There simply are not a lot of options for heating old homes. We do supplement our heat with wood, but that has its own drawbacks, particularly for a large, rambling house, as anyone who heats with wood knows.

While the natural homes magazine celebrates sustainable architecture and renewable energy systems, it is a largely unattainable sustainability, at least at this point in time. My house is an example of attainable unsustainability. It is an SUV of a house—it has more room that we need, and guzzles fuel oil, despite our efforts at conservation. After my initial burst of enthusiasm over the possibility of changing this, and my subsequent disappointment over the unlikelihood of finding affordable alternatives to oil-fired heating, I realized that while we may not be able to install rooftop photovoltiac panels or geothermal heat pumps, we already use a number of successful, eco-friendly, low tech strategies that I have not seen mentioned in any articles, but that merit more attention, mostly because they are very cheap. That is what I call attainable semi-sustainability. Most of us must make the best of what we have—old houses with oil burners and leaky windows on one end, high-tech, low impact dream homes on the other. At some point, hopefully, we can meet in the middle, with homes that may not be winners in the eco-home of the year contest, but that at least incorporate effective, affordable technologies to reduce our reliance on unsustainable energy and materials. A million homes that prewarm their hot water with the sun will have a larger impact than a hundred homes that are off the grid.

In the meantime, it is high time to celebrate lowly but no less effective approaches to staying warm in an old house in a cold climate. In particular, three simple technologies (or coping strategies) stand out: long underwear, the hot water bottle and the lap blanket. Hot tea or coffee are good warmth technologies, too, as are cats in the lap and even hats indoors. None of these simple approaches have the elegance and cachet of a passive solar design or photovoltaic panels, but they are low-impact, renewable, and cheap. In terms of architecture, most old Vermont houses already have effective designs: the mudroom, the front porch and the attic, which act as buffers and insulators to moderate the indoor temperature against outdoor extremes.

The philosophy underlying these low-tech approaches to staying warm is that the changing seasons bring with them changing temperature, i.e. one should not expect to feel as warm during the cold months as one does on a summer day. That strikes me as very natural. While I might envy the occupants of solar homes their year-round 70 degree temperatures, I comfort myself by realizing that adapting our lives to the climate is just as laudable as engineering our homes to keep it out.

Susan Beal is the editor of Planet Vermont Quarterly, which is published out of her old Vermont farmhouse. Many a layout has been completed with the help of a hot water bottle and a lap blanket.

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